I never thought much about this until recently – the Gods are Gods and I never found it necessary to interrogate the forms They seek to take much beyond that. Today, however, I was reading an article about how many able-bodied people don’t seethose with disabilities (or how they sometimes act in paternalistic ways toward them) and I had an epiphany: what a blessing that we have Gods Who chose to manifest in scarred or disabled bodies. What a powerful way of saying “you are seen, acknowledged, recognized, and valued” by our Holy Powers. What a powerful way of the Gods aligning Themselves with our experience.
I have actually written about this before. A couple of years ago there was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that one of Hephaestus’ epithets is “the Lame God.” Far from being a slur, this is noted as a point of power for Him. It is part of His identity, integral to His timai as a God of crafting and blacksmithing, transformation, and fire. It is where His ability to bring beauty into being comes from. (Y’all can read that piece here.)
As a Heathen, I venerate the Norse Gods, belonging specifically to Odin. Odin’s story, His mysteries are intensely embodied. He is a God of ordeal, subjecting Himself to physical pain for power. He is also missing an eye (having sacrificed it willingly for a draught from the Well of Mimir). One of His sons Hodr is blind. By some accounts, Heimdall sacrificed an ear for the same reasons Odin gave an eye. Tyr is missing His sword-hand. Weyland the Smith is physically lame. I’ll take this one step further: one of Odin’s heiti is Geldnir, or eunuch. For a God almost defined by His sexual exploits, Who is called All-Father, I find it fascinating that one of the ways in which He may also present Himself is as a eunuch. What is going on here?
To quote my former article (sorry, folks. I have a blistering headache today so best I can do):
“The qualities teased out in the ritual naming of Gods, in Their by-names, epithets, and cultic titles provide crucial information on the nature of a Deity’s mysteries. For us to disregard a title because it offends our sensitivities or makes us uncomfortable, or even because we haven’t taken the time to search its meaning in our own practices is not only short-sided but potentially hubristic as well. Many cultic titles were in use for generations. When Homer, for instance, refers to Hephaistos as lame, which he does multiple times, he’s employing a set formula to tell us something very important about this God. I’m not sure why people would want to discard these epithets so unthinkingly. They are worth both examination and meditation.”
It’s important not to condemn or avoid exploration of those epithets that challenge us, or make us question, or even more, make us uncomfortable. The last thing we want to do is delete those epithets from our devotional consciousness. They provide insights into our Gods, insights that may help us too.
As a disabled woman, I need never, ever feel that my disability in some way separates me from my Gods (and while I’ve never felt this way that I’m aware of, I know that this has been a very painful issue for some of my clients). By presenting Themselves in forms that are in some way differently abled, I believe our Gods are consciously including those of us whose bodies are different. Years and years ago, in 2000 if I recall correctly, I gave the required lecture on modern Paganisms and Polytheisms at the interfaith seminary where I taught. We were asked to include an experiential portion and so I included a powerful invocation and then call and response chant to the Goddess Sekhmet. Almost every woman in the audience was moved to tears and several told me later that they’d never even conceived of a Holy Power that was both powerful and female. Perhaps representation does matter: when we can see ourselves in our Gods, it is easier for us to build devotional relationships with Them, to feel as though They are accessible to us and our experiences. We need not twist the images of our Gods out of true in order to accommodate this and we shouldn’t do this anyway. Everything we need is already there in the way the Gods choose to engage with us.