Pagan religion is visual. We don't just hear our gods, we see them! The practice of theurgy teaches us how to see the gods in three forms: their representation in art, in the faces of other people, and in the temple of our own bodies. I've engaged in each of these practices and they all are flourishing today.
Bodies of Stone
I get excited in museums, running from room to room paying my respects to old friends and seeking new ones. In the Egyptian wing I bow to Sekhmet, put my finger on my lips to greet Horus, smile at Hathor. Among the Greek statues I look for Dionysos, Aphrodite, Hermes. Many of their forms are familiar: the regal lion Sekhmet; infant Horus on the lap of his mother Isis; Hermes with cap and wings; Dionysos draped with ivy and grapes. Others are less familiar. In one museum I noticed a striking half-Shiva half-Parvati statue, then looked it up at home, which is how I met Ardhanarishvara. Sometimes the statue shows me something completely new. I once saw Greek goddess with multiple heads tucked away in a case with conventional Aphrodites and have yet to learn who exactly she was.
Some of these statues seem more than just representations. They seem alive. Their eyes follow me, their presence radiates into the room. Ancient theurgists noticed this, too. In the fifth century the Platonic philosopher Heraiskos loved to visit Greek and Egyptian shrines. His biographer Damascius reports that he could feel the difference between a statue that just looked like a god, and one that embodied the power of the god—a statue that was animated with presence. Whenever he looked at such a statue his heart pounded and he was possessed with rapture, flooded with the power of the divine.
Damascius thought that the inspiration of the sculptor was what brought the deity to inhabit the statue, and in late antiquity many Greek temples boasted statues that seemed to be alive with the deity they represented. In Egypt, however, the process was more formal. The temple staff brought the statue to the status of living deity by an elaborate ritual called the "Opening of the Mouth," in which the mouth and eyes of the statue were opened so that the deity could see and take in nourishment.
The idea of animating statues of deity was brought to Alexandria by temple priests. From there it entered into the repertoire of the itinerant magicians who conducted practical rites for healing, success in the court and the marketplace, and attracting lovers. They engaged in spiritual rites, too. The Greek Magical Papyri contain many examples of spells to make a small image of a deity and bring the deity to life, an operation called "animating statues." Many of the rituals in the papyri passed into medieval grimoires and form the basis of what we now call ceremonial magic. Interestingly, animating statues is one operation that did not make the transition, although contemporary theurgists are reviving the practice today.
One reason that rituals to animate statues fell out of favor was the suppression of public Pagan practice. This often took the form of destroying the statues that were held to contain the presence of deity. In Hellenic Religion and Christianization C. 370-529, Frank Trombley describes the fate of many of these statues. Sometimes they were simply buried by Roman soldiers, others were smashed, or crosses were inscribed on them to drive the deity out of the statue.
Occasionally those buried statues are rediscovered. In 1989, a cache of statues was found buried in the temple in Luxor and was installed in the Luxor Museum. The goddess Hathor was among them. In the museum I had the chance to view her beautiful face completely unbroken and bask in the presence of the smiling goddess of joy.
I've been Inanna, dancing under the stars in the center of a chanting group of worshippers. I've been Persephone, holding a torch to call the initiates to the realm of darkness. I've been Qadesh, teaching with words and with love.
In the last few decades Pagan festivals have exuberantly recreated the festival celebrations of the past. The rites of Eleusis are especially popular to perform, and I've participated in quite a few of them. In these festivals priests and priestesses enact the parts of the gods: Hermes who guides initiates on the path; Demeter who seeks for her daughter; Persephone who sits on the throne of the underworld.
Each priestess and priest brings the deity into ourselves in our own way. In the Golden Dawn the operation of embodying a deity is called, "Invocation to God Form." Aleister Crowley describes this operation in "Liber O Vel Manus Et Sagittae Sub Figura VI:" first, study the Egyptian deities, looking at their representations in museums. Next, sit in a chair and take the posture of the deity, calling the deity to settle on you.
Witches do the operation, too, but a little differently. The priest invokes the goddess into the priestess, the priestess invokes the god into the priest. Ancient theurgists used both methods, calling deities onto each other or onto themselves. With two people, an operator and a channel, the operator can ask questions of the channel embodying the deity. This was a popular form of practice among theurgists.
It is important to note that the ancients did not pay attention to gender in calling and receiving. Both women and men could call and receive, and both women and men could receive goddesses and gods. In fact, it was one of the arguments that Platonic philosophers made in favor of women. The philosophers weren't egalitarian by any means—women were still second class citizens to them—but they did admit women into their circles, women practiced ritual, and they thought the fact that women could embody the gods demonstrated that women, too, had souls.
When I see the gods in statues I get a sense of how they were viewed by the ancients. When I see the gods in the bodies of my friends I can talk to them, ask questions, enter into a relationship. It's intense, sometimes overwhelming. In the big Pagan rituals that re-enact an ancient mystery the form of the ritual contains the experience. It's majestic and a little impersonal to encounter Persephone on an elevated throne addressing a crowd by torchlight. In a Wiccan circle with just a few close friends the experience can be more personal, asking questions and answering them. Alone with just a working partner the encounter with the gods can be very intimate indeed.
In the last decade or so new Thelemic rituals have emerged celebrating Babalon, sometimes paired with Chaos/the Beast, and sometimes relating to the participants themselves. At the Babalon Rising festival participants have had the chance to meet with Babalon alone at night in a tent. What passes between them is for them alone to know.
Eyes of the Soul
The most personal way I see the gods is to invoke them into myself. Ancient theurgists called this operation "conjunction," the joining of the human with the divine. For the last year I have been invoking the twelve Olympian deities, the Dodekatheon, one a month. Using the techniques of the ancient theurgists, I hold substances that are associated with the deity and burn the appropriate incense. Using the techniques developed by the Golden Dawn, I assume the posture of the deity and imagine the deity enveloping me.
The deities step into the temple of my own body. I close my physical eyes to open my soul's eyes to see them clearly. I hear their voices in my head.
How do I know I'm not just making it up? How do I know that the presence I feel is actually a god and not a malicious spirit? The ancients asked this question, too. Both the ancient and modern teachers say that it is important to learn how to distinguish a genuine deity presence from a phantom. First, of course, I can protect myself by drawing a circle around myself and by wearing protective amulets. Next, Crowley recommends learning the correspondences he detailed in his book 777 to determine whether the presence is genuine. For example, the moon is associated with white or silver, crystal, the number 9. A moon goddess generally shouldn't be wearing a green dress and a carnelian necklace!
The sense of presence is unmistakable. Each relationship is very personal. One god approaches me as a brother, another as a friend, or a father. Many goddesses register as mothers, some as older sisters or guides. All of them offer love, and I love them all.
The physicality of our gods brings them into our lives in a tangible way. On our altars, in our festivals, and with our soul's eyes, we experience the embodied living presence of our deities. They are not outside the world, distant and unreachable, aspects of divine thought. Instead they are in the world, in stone and wood, in our own bodies. This does not make them less impressively divine, it makes them part of our lives. For theurgists the gods are not abstractions. They are real.