Straight from the Source: Personal Gnosis in Paganism

David Gandy

David GandyI grew up with the Greek deities. Not literally, of course. I’m not sure I would have survived Apollo’s wedgies, or Zeus’ discipline, or even sharing a bathroom with Aphrodite (imagine waiting to use the potty while She fixed her hair). No, when I say I grew up with them, I mean their stories. I can tell you who gave birth to who, who dallied with who, their favorite animals, and their most prominent myths. When I first began working with male gods as a Pagan, it may surprise you to learn that I reached out to an Egyptian god. Or maybe He reached out to me.


Thoth was very different than my Greek friends. He was calm, cool, collected, and reserved. He showed more interest in balance than vengeance, and valued knowledge above beauty and self-gratification. He seemed to me to be a very wise, worldly professor-type, and I was very drawn to Him. To my frustration, though, I couldn’t find religious information on Him at the time. Oh, I found the Emerald Tablets, the stories concerning the Book of Thoth, and more than a few references to Atlantis…but where were the accounts of His favorite stones? His preferred sacrifices? His favorite drink, His favorite color, even lists of prayers to Him? I found some information, but nowhere near enough to satisfy my desire to know Him, and most of it presented with a very Egypt-central slant. How was I supposed to bathe His statue in water from the Nile, or fan His incense with ibis feathers?


I’m not the only person who has encountered this problem. Paganism, being a collection of reconstruction efforts, often falls short of completing the whole picture of a deity and their worship. How do we fill in the blanks? For some, they rely on UPG, which stands for Unverified Personal Gnosis, a term that I am told originated in the Asatru community. When a person says they feel that their deity enjoys certain things, or that they had a vision or heard their deity’s voice, this is UPG. Some purists look down on this as being a “fake” version of worship, wishful thinking attempting to shore up the cracks in carefully reconstructed religions, but I ask: from where did our original information come, if not personal gnosis? How many people, and for how long, must accept a person’s gnosis before it becomes “fact” in the Pagan community?


Historically, information about deities has been revealed through a human intermediary; whether they be an oracle, a priest or just an everyday person. For example, the Oracle at Delphi (also called the Pythia) spoke for Apollo and the populace accepted their account of things as coming from the divine. The first oracle there was just a normal shepherd who tarried close to the chasm where the temple would eventually stand and was struck with visions of the future. We accept these as truths when reconstructing worship to Apollo, but do we believe that He suddenly stopped revealing things to humans then? That Apollo said everything He wanted to say and then relied on that account to carry forward through time on parchment that can disintegrate or stone that can crumble to dust. It seems more likely that He, and other deities, are still communing with humanity through what we now call UPG. This can hold just as much sacred value as the tomes and tablets from the past unless we choose to believe that our gods and goddess choose not to speak to us any longer; that they just ran out of things to talk about so they stopped the conversation.


The problem, I believe, comes when personal gnosis is presented as having originated from an ancient source rather than the individual. This can take away all credibility from a revelation and make it appear to be little more than a well-crafted lie. It is wreathed in self-doubt because the originator of this piece of gnosis doesn’t have faith enough to speak from their own personal experience; a place of honesty and confidence. If they dress it in the trappings of “ancient” how can we be confident in their conviction that it came from a deity if they themselves cannot embrace it. From that point on, any other attempt to discuss that particular bit of gnosis is immediately tinged with the falseness of its original presentation. This is a great disservice to our deities, many of which are still speaking and interacting with us, and who may have wished a particular revelation to be made public.


What do we do, then, when two pieces of UPG conflict with one another? Say two well-respected priestesses each say they have learned, through intense discussions with the god Nuada and spiritual meditations, His favorite modern offering. One priestess claims that it is cinnamon-spiced oatmeal, the other says that it is sterling silver rings. Who is correct, and who is wrong? Ultimately, what you choose to accept and integrate into your personal spirituality is up to you.


In ancient myths there may have been two or even three wildly different explanations of a particular event or action of a deity. For example, some myths say that Sekhmet was Hathor in Her furious, war-loving form, and that Hathor was eventually calmed and went on to marry Horus. Other myths say that Sekhmet married Ptah, and seem to present the two goddesses as separate individuals with separate functions. Which myth is correct?


In speaking with Thoth and listening and watching for His responses, I discovered, in my own personal gnosis, that He enjoyed tea (as it did not cloud the mind like liquor or make the body sluggish like cola), hummingbirds were an excellent American representation of Him (since their long, curving beaks can sometimes resemble the moon or an ink pen), and that He appreciates the mathematical precision of classical music (such as Bach).


I don’t know if other followers of Thoth or the Egyptian path would agree with me, or if they’ve experienced a personal gnosis that says much the same thing. I do know, however, that when I commune with Thoth these things feel right to me, and so I make use of them in my practice. Who knows, maybe one day my gnosis will become another Pagan’s fact?