Perhaps the first archetypal gods that emerged into human consciousness were the gods of nature. This is not surprising because for the hunter-gatherer cultures, it was the natural elements which had most power over their life and death; not only were they powerful but they were in Otto’s numinous words “majestic”. Who has not looked at a coming storm and been struck by its beauty and terrible power? This primal approach to spirituality has been called animism because it views nature as being animated, the hills, trees and rivers had spirit; they were alive. It gave our ancestors of sense of being immersed in a sacred environment alive with sprites.
The initial primacy of the elemental gods is also attested clearly in early Hinduism, one of our oldest extant religions. The three major gods that dominate the most ancient Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, are the elemental gods: Agni, the god of fire, Varuna, the god of water and Indra the god of thunderstorms. Agni is worshipped as the fire of the sun or lightening and the fire which consumes the devotee’s offerings. He then becomes known as the spark of life which is in all living things. The many archetypal dimensions that fire plays in our lives is reflected in the nature of the god. The power of fire can be awful. Living in Australia I know the terrible potency of wild bushfires which can form firestorms destroying everything in their path, the god Agni can manifest as this terrifying awesome power. But just as new life springs from the aftermath of a bushfire so Agni is also known in the Hindu tradition as a source of life. Agri as wildfire is to be appeased lest he destroy us, Agri as benefactor of the fire that warms us and cooks our food is to be invoked. But it is not just the external fire that we need. People are always looking for things which light a fire with us, that move us out of our inertia and moribund routine. We need the energy of fire within; we need to burn with passion. This is where the devotee looks to the god to ignite the spark of life within them. The archetypes provide a transfer of energy. We seek to take the energy of the elements such as fire to ignite our emotions and our desires. That is the role of religious ritual – to bring the archetypal energy present within us. So Agni comes present in the Yajna – the Hindu rituals done in front of a sacred fire but is equally present in the mesmerising gatherings around every campfire or open fire at home.
When this occurs we are tapping into something which is more than metaphor here. This is not just warming ourselves by thinking nice thoughts about fire. The archetype works more deeply than words or ideas for we have evolved in an environment with fire. For a start the archetypal pattern happens within our own bodies, the very spark of our own lives comes from the burning of carbohydrates in our body through the air we breathe; the little fires within that keeps us alive. The archetypal pattern moves from outside us to inside us – a movement we continually see in spirituality. Our emotions and minds have also evolved in response to fire – depending on the circumstances it can evoke awe, fear or comfort in us. These responses are triggered by an archetypal image; we respond instinctively to the sight, sound and warmth of a fire. Being in the presence of fire activates an archetypal response in us. Spirituality is operating as an archetypal energy delivery system. We are using the fire in the ritual or the religious image to constellate a response in ourselves. So the same archetype, bringing forth a spark of life in the Hindu, is also at work in the Christian celebration of the first day of Pentecost when we are told flames rested on the heads of Christ’s first disciples. This is energy that the growing Pentecostal movement in Christianity is tapping into. Psychological studies have consistently shown that religious people are less prone to depression, and while the meaning and social connection that religion provide explain part of this, I suspect that the archetypal energy spirituality provides is also energising their soul.
When we approach these elemental, nature archetypes as gods we are, of course, personifying them and to some degree anthropomorphising them. It isn’t hard, though, to see why our ancestors walked that path for the elemental archetypal patterns have a direction and force of their own, a storm will rage where it wills and we cannot easily bend it to our own will, it will destroy whomever is in its path. And in personifying the elements we open up the possibility to have a more effective relationship with these forces, we can appease them or pray to them, we can honour them and psychically draw on their power when we need to become as a storm ourselves. We all form a relationship with the archetype of the storm from the timid, hiding child to the storm chaser and the storm gods allowed this relationship to become more conscious.
But there is a shadow side of this anthropomorphising the elemental archetypes. We have at times have in history viewed the storm as angry with us, piling even more fear upon each other. And when the gods of fire and storm needed, in our emerging theologies, to be appeased we practiced self- sacrifice or even more terrible, the sacrifice of others. This reached its dreadful apex in the violent sacrifices of the Aztecs who believed that the sun god needed the blood of their enemies to rise each morning. A balance needs to be struck here, yes, the fires, storms and oceans have their own rhyme and rhythm and are entities in themselves but they do not need to be given more autonomy then they naturally have. The gods share the same nature and independence as the archetypes that stand behind them.
The nature gods have been placed in our collective shadow within the West. First by Christianity which tended to view nature as an impersonal creation of a God who alone had consciousness until shared exclusively with humans and secondly by science which initially taught a mechanistic view of the world. But in the seventies a panentheistic (god within creation) view re-emerged with the Gaia hypothesis which saw the earth as a self-adjusting biological entity. From the philosophy of deep ecology which focused on the rights of nature to a modern nature-based paganism the elemental gods have been slowing emerging from their millennial slumbers. This shift hopefully will allow us to change our relationship to the environment.