Normally this is a topic I avoid, but I had a request for it, and it’s a good challenge, so I’m going to try and tackle it as diplomatically as possible. I don’t usually do trigger warnings, but I know a lot of people who have been abused irl, and I take abuse very seriously, so consider this your trigger warning. If you aren’t in a good place on this or the related subject of abuse, you may want to come back later. Anywho, let’s go behind a cut.
Divine abuse is a topic that pops up in pagan circles from time to time, and I don’t think it’s one that anyone enjoys talking about. No one like the idea of their gods being abusive, and for victims, well, very few victims enjoy seeing people worship their abusers, whether divine or human. I will be addressing this subject from a kemetic standpoint–I’m not overly familiar with most other pantheons, and cannot speak to experiences with gods other than my own. This is a big subject, so I’m going to try and break it down into manageable pieces.
What is divine abuse?
I actually did do a little bit of research on the subject, and to be honest, I had trouble finding anything about pagan divine abuse. My search brought up a lot of Christian resources, which spun it variously as God abusing humans, humans abusing humans in a religious setting, and, my personal favorite, humans abusing God. I haven’t seen anything about divine abuse in kemeticism, and what I’ve seen in other paganism is mostly just one or two people. So, it looks like it’s pretty uncommon. When we do see divine abuse in paganism, it’s almost always the deity abusing the human, so that’s the definition we’re going to use. So, divine abuse is when a god abuses a human.
In that case, what counts as abuse?
Now we’re starting to get into some really hairy territory. In order to claim divine abuse, we must first establish what constitutes abuse in the first place, and abuse can be really tricky to nail down. There are many different kinds of abuse, but the most common types are physical, emotional, and psychological. As to specific actions that are abusive, well, every site has a different list, and many of the things on those lists are not necessarily abuse as an isolated incident. After some research and much debate, here’s the definition for abuse that I’ve been able to come up with:
Abuse is a pattern of behaviors committed in order to exert control and gain power over another person without that person’s consent. These behaviors demean, devalue, dehumanize, and harm the victim, causing them to fear for their physical and psychological well being. Abusive behaviors do not have to be performed consciously, nor does the victim have to be consciously aware of their effect in order to be considered abused.
Your keywords there are pattern, control, consent, and harm. So, for example, if you punch your spouse once, that’s not abuse (it’s definitely assault and battery, and not something you should do). But once you start punching them regularly, then it becomes abuse. In the case of control, victims of abuse will work hard to figure out what triggers it and avoid those behaviors, which ultimately leaves the abuser in control of their decisions–this can also be seen more directly in cases of abuse where the abuser issues demands like, if you don’t do this, I’ll leave you (or kill you). Ultimately, whether the abuser knows it or not, they are doing it to exert control over another’s life in an unhealthy manner. Consent I’m including because there are relationships that may seem abusive, but aren’t. BDSM community, I’m looking at you–everyone has consented and enjoys what’s going on there, so you’re fine. As for harm, well, that’s pretty obvious, and I don’t think we need to go over that, other than to say that harm isn’t always physical.
What’s the difference between abuse and punishment?
There’s a fine line here, a very fine line. Punishment is generally a negative correction to prevent unwanted/inappropriate behavior. For example, if a child is acting out, they may be sent to their room or have privileges taken away until they realize what they did was wrong. The time, culture, and circumstances determine what the appropriate punishment is. For example, when my parents were kids, it was not unusual for a child to be hit with a belt or stick if they misbehaved. Now, of course, that’s considered child abuse. Basically, punishment is a learning opportunity and deserved, whereas abuse is completely unwarranted with no rhyme or reason to it.
So, what’s this nature of the gods stuff, then?
This is where we start looking at how to determine if something is divine abuse or not. It’s important to keep in mind how we relate to the gods, because our relationships can determine whether something is abusive or not as well. For example, if you don’t let your five year old buy a candy bar with their allowance, that’s teaching them fiscal responsibility and good parenting (also, encouraging good eating habits). If you don’t let your spouse buy a candy bar with their own money…uh, yeah, you get my point. Abusive behaviors can vary based on the existing power structure in the relationship. If one party is significantly wiser and more experienced, then you could almost make the argument that they actually have a responsibility to teach and take care of the other party. This is the case of the gods–they are vastly more powerful than we are. When you relate to the gods, they are not your equal, they are your superior, which means they already have a certain amount of control over you, just like your parents did when you were a kid. This is the nature of gods–they are powerful beings larger and wiser than us. They have a bigger frame of reference and operate on a different scale. We cannot hold them to human standards because they are not human. That said, it’s not unreasonable to expect a certain level of kindness and decency from them–we are larger and wiser than children, but it’s still wrong to be cruel to them.
How do I know if what I’m experiencing is divine abuse?
Well, there are several factors you have to look at before you can say, yes this abuse (which is true in real life as well, although the factors you look at are a bit different). Firstly, and most importantly, discernment is key. I have plans for a post all about discernment at a later point, but for right now, you’ve got to be certain it actually is a god you’re dealing with. There’s a lot of fuzziness when communicating with gods–a booming divine voice from nowhere is a rare thing. Mostly we communicate via thoughts in our head or through various divination tools, all of which have a pretty high margin for error. This is where discernment comes in. Discernment is what lets you tell the difference between your own thoughts, a god’s words, and the words of other spiritual entities. I’m going to be honest here, there are a lot of things out there that aren’t gods, and many of them love to mess with people. Many of them are also strong, and if you lack discernment skills, you can easily mistake these entities for a god. Additionally, a great many of us also struggle with mental illness. This can make it very difficult to hear the gods at all, and in the throes of a depressive episode, our own thoughts can be extremely harmful. So if you feel like it might be divine abuse, you have to narrow it down. I can’t tell you the best way to tell which is which–that’s going to vary from person to person. I can tell you that in my own experience, the Netjeru have a presence that’s lacking in other entities and my own thoughts. They feel bigger, and there’s a certain…aura?… I guess, to them. It’s unmistakable once you’ve felt it. I would also add that I’ve usually found the Netjeru to act and speak for my best interests, so if that’s not what I’m hearing, that throws up a red flag.
If you have determined that you are, indeed, dealing with a god, the next thing you have to do is determine that what’s going on is abuse, and not punishment. The hard part here is that fine line we talked about between abuse and punishment, and the nature of gods is key here. Like our parents when we were children, the gods will punish us if we step out of line, and sometimes their punishments may be severe. A lot of that depends on the individual god. It’s been my experience that the Netjeru are insanely patient, although some have a shorter fuse than others. Before you cry abuse, you must ask yourself if you’ve done something that would warrant punishment. Have you disrespected the gods? Have you committed acts of isfet? Have you straight up disobeyed instructions they gave you? These are all things that might warrant punishment.
If you have determined that you have not done anything that would warrant discipline, then we need to make sure it’s not an isolated incident. Remember, one time is just inappropriate behavior–we need repeated cases to call abuse. So, if it’s a one time thing, well, they were just being a jerk.
Continuing with our criteria for abuse, the gods already have a certain measure of control due to the power dynamic. Personally, I don’t see why they would feel the need to exert more, but we do see cases of abusive bosses and what not on the human scale, so we can’t rule it out. Consent is a bit trickier, as many of us have had gods just sort of come into our lives, but I’ve found that the Netjeru do insist that any serious vows are your own choice. That leaves us with harm, and there are some clarifications I want to make on that one. If you ask a god for something and they ignore you or say no, that’s not harmful, any more than your parents saying, “No, you can’t have this Power Rangers figure.” The gods can be strict, and sometimes they have other definitions of things like harm, but saying no to requests is not harmful. Additionally, the gods have the right to chose their followers, just as we chose who we follow. The Netjeru are pretty chill, but if a god decides that you would be better off worshiping someone else instead of them, that’s not harmful, either. The gods do talk to each other, and they will work out among themselves who can help and put up with you the best. This may mean you wind up with a different god than you expect or want. Trust me, I get that. When I started, Heqet was the last goddess I would’ve picked because of her fertility associations. But now, I wouldn’t leave her for anything, because I’ve realized how good a match she is for me. To a point, you have to trust that the gods know what they’re doing. They know more than we do.
I’ve looked through your criteria, I’m definitely being abused by a god. Help me!
Okay. Generally speaking, you’re going to want to approach this in much the same way that you would a human abuser. Get away, get help, keep away, and get help to recover. It is not going to be easy. You’re going to run into a lot of people who don’t believe you. I know I’m extremely skeptical of it myself, mostly because of my own experiences with the divine. I’ve seen very few cases where they did something that wasn’t deserved, and I’ve seen a lot of discernment issues in paganism. Personally, I think most of this is other entities pretending to be gods. That said, my disbelief or skepticism doesn’t make what happened to you any less real, and even if you are being abused by an imposter, a lot of what follows is still going to be your solution.
Like if you were being abused by a human, the first thing you need to do (after admitting what’s going on and deciding to do something about it) is to get away. This isn’t easy in real life, and it’s certainly not easy with a non corporeal entity that can go anywhere. That said, you need to start cutting ties. If something is abusing you, stop worshiping it. Take steps to prevent it from coming near you. Wards can be helpful (if you don’t know how to make them, there are many resources out there to teach you). You may need to ask another god you trust to intervene, just like if you were a child being abused by your parents, you might ask a teacher for help. You might find other survivors and ask them for help, or others from your community. Additionally, a certain measure of confidence is essential for dealing with spirits of various types, and can offer a small measure of protection. Once you’ve successfully cut ties, don’t go back. How many of us know someone who has broken up with an abusive partner only to go back to them over and over? Don’t be that person. Burn the bridge. Once you’ve managed all that (and it’s is much easier said than done, I know), you will need to deal with what happened to you. In the case of human on human abuse, you would go to a therapist when you were ready (it can take a lifetime to recover from abuse). A little trickier with divine abuse, because most therapists are not going to believe you. That said, you might still find it helpful, even if you have to dance around the subject. You might also talk with others who have experienced divine abuse, sort of like a support group. And, of course, you can talk with the gods, too. The Netjeru are very good about self care, and can really help you work through things.
Anyway, I hope this was helpful, and maybe clarified things a little. As always, this is mostly just my opinions and you are free to disagree.
(originally published Apr 14, 2017 on my tumblr)