Discussing Pagan Theology
Discussing Pagan Theology
[Note: This article is a transcript of a discussion that occurred at the Muin Mound Madness festival in 2004.]
I enjoy theology and thinking about theology even though I consider it pretty secondary in Neopaganism. It doesn't seem as though the ancients spent a lot of time intellectualizing and explaining to themselves what their religion was about, and pagan religion isn't really based on believing a set of ideas. It's pretty obvious that no priest in a pagan temple in, say, 20 B.C. Greece, would have asked someone coming to the door what they believed before they were allowed to enter and worship. It just wasn't on the list. Paganism isn't credal, it doesn't require you to state a set of beliefs before you're allowed in the door.
If you've been around ADF for any length of time you may have heard us talk about orthopraxy versus orthodoxy. Orthodox literally in Greek means "correct opinion"; heterodoxy, or being heretical, means having a different opinion. The pagan religion was about orthopraxy, doing the customs correctly. Your "believerhood" at a temple had more to do with entering the temple and walking three times about the idol and making your image and reciting the inscription on the wall, which was how they did it in the Roman temples. No one was going to ask you what you believed about the god, or about its nature, or whether you treated it as objectively real or not.
Nevertheless, in modern times, for those of us especially who find ourselves interacting with the broader public as representatives of paganism, I think there's some value in being able to intellectualize what we believe. We know that when we start talking about religion with moderns they will automatically arrive with a set of questions derived essentially from Christian theology, questions like how did the universe originate, what does your creation story mean to you in your religion, what is the nature of good and evil, how do you explain why there is evil in the world, etc. That brings us to a whole round of questions about divinity which we'll get to directly now.
Pagan Concepts of the Divine
I think it's important, and it's fairly inevitable, for us to spend time comparing a pagan nature of the Divine to the more common Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept of the nature of the Divine. A question I asked at Starwood, which is a pretty good provocative question: "Is material nature an accurate reflection of spiritual nature?" It seems to me that if I was to start with a basic pagan "How do we know anything at all about the Divine?" question, or "How is the Divine revealed to us?", in Abrahamic religion the Divine is revealed largely through a set of prophetic scriptures. But seeing as most paganisms don't have, and never had, much of that, they might have a set of traditional tales, those tales might have been reinterpreted by a set of poets from tribe to tribe, portion of the world to portion of the world. They certainly didn't have a book that traveled across tribes and influenced tribes to conform to that book's ideas.
Barring that kind of revelation, how do we think that we know anything about what the Divine is? I've always heard and thought in my head that the primary revelation of the Divine to humanity is Nature, as a basic pagan answer to that question. If that is so, what does that tell us about the nature of the Divine? I guess the question is, "Is Nature as we have it, an accurate reflection of the Divine as it is?" Is Nature "fallen"? If we assume that nature is an accurate reflection of the Divine, then one of the first things we see is that Divinity is varied.
I find myself composing answers to Christians and atheists. Skeptics sometimes say that if there was a God it would look the same to everyone. The problem with that, of course, that they are only disbelieving in a monotheistic God. If there were only one god, it might look the same to everyone, but since the Divine doesn't look the same to everyone, it makes sense to assume that there is not just one god. That's the first lesson I draw from Nature as model of the Divine. In nature there is no unique or single thing. Nowhere in nature is there a category of things of which there is only one. Snowflakes are individually unique, but there is never only one snowflake. Things have variations that make each thing individual, but each thing is always part of a category.
The monotheists posit that the Divine is entirely different from Nature, that Nature is a clockwork that the Divine has made like a watchmaker, that the Divine is totally different from Nature, that it is "supernatural". The God of the monotheists is an "owner-operator" of the cosmos ("Independently owned and operated since Zero"), but I say instead that there cannot be a supernatural, that there can't be more than one order in the world.
It doesn't seem as though Europagans made a big deal of focusing on a specific creation tale as core to their orthodoxy. Egyptians had five or six different creation myths, you can easily identify three or four different creation myths for the Greeks, poetic tellings of Greek lore. In every one of those cases of pagan creation myths, there is no one creator god. I don't think that traditional pagandom has a notion of an individual being that created the world. It does seem as though pagan religions had no creator god, even if they did have a "first god".
Everybody understands the idea of a first cause. Monotheism assumes that the first cause goes on to becomes the all creator owner-operator, omnipotent. For pagans, the logical first causes are usually long gone. This makes the current gods of mortals well removed from the first cause, even though the stories are full of individual gods creating individual parts of the world, right down to stories described as happening to humans just like us. For example, there is Athena creating spiders by shriveling Arachne into the first spider. So the creation story in pagan lore is, in a sense, always ongoing.
One of the common first cause stories is the sacrifice of the first being. That's well reviewed in Norse lore, where the first being, the giant Ymir is formed from frost. The first cause in Norse lore appears to be a cow (Audhumla); fire and ice come together and create rime, and then a cow (also uncreated) comes along and licks the salty rime and so the first being emerges. In time, Odin and his two brothers come along, slay Ymir, and make the world out of his body. The ancient Indo-Europeans generally thought of the sky as a hard bowl of stone which was pierced to allow the light of the upper heavens through it. This is directly reflected in Vedic lore. In one of the Hindu creation stories—and again there are several, in any pagan system you'll find a number of creation stories—has an overt sacrifice, where the first being is sacrificed, and from his parts are made the world.
So the first cause is always long gone, long buried, way in the distant past. The first cause in pagan lore is almost never part of the current management of the cosmos. And I think that leads to the whole notion in paganism of a kind of devolvement of power. Since power isn't centralized in any one being in pagan lore, there's not a kind of dependence that monotheism teaches. We don't find ourselves forced to submit our will to the All-Will in order to be doing what the Divine wants us to be doing. The gods are the biggest, brightest, smartest, oldest beings that are willing to talk to us, and most of the lore makes it clear that there are plenty of other big beings that don't really talk to us or want anything to do with us, maybe don't even like us. And then you've got the long list of beings that descend from the gods.
Spiritual Power, Enlightenment, and Salvation
The word angels has a bunch of unfortunate connotations for us, but most pagan lore had a category of beings who were pretty close to gods, who served the gods, who were their messengers, who did their dirty and human work for them, and in some version of Indo-European paganism, like Iranian lore, the whole Iraq-Iran (Persia) area, halfway between Greece and India, angel worship became the order of the day for them. This is especially the case under Zoroastrianism; as monotheism didn't work particularly well in practice, they ended up being angel worshippers.
And I think all of this devolves clearly down to humans. It's fairly obvious that in Indo-European paganism that humans are credited with some of the same divine power of creation and destruction as the gods. We actually contain in us the same spark and spring of Divine power that the gods do, maybe not as much of it, that's the difference primarily. Because of this, we are free to act in the world, and in the spritual world, of our own accord. We don't require the authority of a god in order to act. We have personal spiritual authority that is ours by birth, and then we are free to just use that power.
That last bit about our personal spiritual authority is certainly an interpretation on my part, and I'd love to find some kind of chapter and verse for it, if there were chapters and verses to find. Although it's pretty clearly available in the Hindu traditions. When you look at Hindu lore it's pretty obvious that ordinary humans can, by dint of hard work at yoga and sacrifice and ceremony, come to act under their own power. There's no indication that these wonder-workers, seers, etc., these people, in Indo-European peoples, that they are acting as the servants of any particular god running the world. They are acting on their own accord. To me, that's optimistic. It is a positive and freeing thing to be told that we do not have to conform our will to some pre-existing Divine will in order to be living correctly.
The inherent message to humans is, in many of the tales, that wisdom, love, and power, properly applied, will make you wise, loving, and powerful in your own right. It doesn't rely on grace. There's that, in my opinion, relatively awful idea of grace. Grace basically means "undeserved favor". A king shows his grace when he chooses not to execute someone because he was a good guy before commiting a crime; he doesn't have them executed, he just banishes them. And of course, that's core to Christianity. Christianity says we can only achieve the Divine through the unmerited favor of the Divine. And it seems to me that some kinds of Buddhism say it as well, that enlightenment only happens when it happens, that you can never work your way to enlightenment. It's not really the same as Christian grace theology, since the concept of enlightenment doesn't exist in Christianity, but it's similar in that enlightenment is something that is bestowed upon you, not something you can earn.
In Christianity, you cannot earn salvation at all. The Catholics make it possible to gain salvation through the Sacrament, which the Protestants criticize as works-based salvation. They're wrong, the Catholics never taught works-based salvation really, you can't earn your way into heaven, you must have the grace of the Sacrament, they just focalize grace in their rituals because they were close to a pagan origin where it has to happen through action and not just belief. Buddhism and Christianity are similar in that in both, efforts to attain worldly power are viewed as pointless or, worse, harmful.
For Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies, the "wheeling and dealing" to gain more power, which is found in the pagan tales, should not be pursued. If you're going to make any effort at all, the only effort that is worthy is the effort to remove your own self, consciousness, ego and achieve enlightenment in that manner. The pagan attempts to gain power as a method of influencing the world for one's own uses, would be wholly incongruent with many sects of Hinduism and Buddhism, though it should be noted that in other sects of Hinduism and Buddhism, practitioners go right along with the pursuit of personal spiritual power, especially in the practice of sacrifices, and that stuff is all about gaining personal spiritual juice. This brings us right to the question of the difference between magic and religion.
Magic and Religion
The only useful definition of magic as separate from religion that I've been able to come up with lately is the application of spiritual power for personal world goals. Basically, there's almost no difference in form between magic and religion. If you're a Catholic you're using bread for the host, reciting Hail Marys and making prayers to the Trinity in order to do your spells, and if you're a Hindu you're making sacrifices and doing austerities and drawing yantras, etc. In Hinduism, occultism is entirely integrated, it's present throughout. The real practice of ritual at big temples required all sorts of occult doo-dah on the part of their priesthood, it's very integrated. Then you get to something like Zen Buddhism and it's all about sitting quietly and waiting to be enlightened. In Japan it's all mixed up with Shinto sorcery, and all that stuff left over from Taoism.
So, I think there's a spectrum of how much religion is integrated with magic. For instance in Europe the Greeks and Romans really objected to the idea of the use of spiritual power for personal, not community, goals. They feared it, that's why the magician was on the outside of society. They thought it was hubris, because I think they thought it's already moving toward that idea, it's one of the reasons that monotheism was able to take hold in that part of the world. Though, it's hard to tell, because the Jews were actively proselytizing in the Hellenic part of the world during the time of Alexander, 250 B.C., and philosophy barely comes into our view until after that.
So the idea of an all-powerful one god had been being proselytized among the Greeks for 250 years by the time we get to the time of Christ, and the creating of things like Neo-Platonism. The Greek compromise was to imagine some all-god at the top of the pyramid, the eye at the top of the pyramid, and then a pyramid of gods and spirits working its way down from there. Even that notion, though, was a deliberate compromise with monotheism, I think, that didn't reflect what a Greek at the time of Homer would have believed.
Polytheism, Monotheism, and Monism
By this I mean an "over god", and a monistic god, not a polythestic god, like the Hindu notion of Brahman, the all-mind that everything is a manifestation of. A lot of folks, and even Hindus, most Hindus will tell you they are monotheists, and it's for entirely the same reason that Europeans started telling themselves that they were Christians, because you're not going to be allowed to hang out with the rich monotheists if you're not a monotheist. You're not going to get in the door to the right club if you don't tell the bigoted monotheist that you're a monotheist.
So you'll hear Hindus translate very complicated Sanskrit terms by the English term "god". My opinion is that the word "god" should be limited to the Biblical God, with a capital G, because Brahman isn't anything like the Biblical God—nobody worships Brahman. Monism is usually polytheism, monism says "all is one", monotheism says "one rules all", and they're really not the same thing even though they're easy to mistake for one another, especially when Hindus just call their all-one "god" when they're making translation of some Sanskrit words. But there are no temples to Brahman, to the Brahman, it's not a person or personality, it can't be in any way that storm god of Mount Sinai.
As a total digression from the theology, Mount Sinai is an interesting thing. The Sumerian or Akadian law-giver god was a moon god, and his name was Sin and his mountain was Mount Sinai. And you'll remember that when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law, he is described as "horned like the rays of the Moon". That's just too obvious for me not to point out and I'm surprised I haven't seen it in a half dozen mythography books.
Fate and Personal Spiritual Authority
That takes us through the idea of a personal spiritual authority in paganism, which I think is a fairly important idea, that we're essentially on our own, that there is nobody in charge of the world, that the world is not running according to a plan, that the world is not running from something toward something, any more than our lives are on a day-to-day basis. We make plans, and life is what happens to you when you're making those plans, as they say. And I think that even applies to deities. You certainly see many tales where the gods' plans don't work out as originally devised. They're not operating with puppets, they're operating with free spiritual agents.
This brings us to the concept of fate in pagan lore. Pagans all said that, "No one escapes their fate", that "fate binds us all, even the gods". And of course, fate is often personalized in the tales as three women in a cave, or whatever, but pagans clearly believed that there was an inertia in life. The Norse term is Wyrd, as in "no man may escape his Wyrd", and I call it "the sum total of the actions of all beings". Fate is the sum total of the inertia of all actions of all beings. Pagans talk about the web of Wyrd, fate is always depicted as a weaving in pagan lore, which always defines it as many strands making one thing.
With no central dogma to pagan religion, there were different ideas as to how fate affected the human condition. How many different schools of thought about the human condition were there among the Greeks who probably all went to Elyseus together, and all participated in the Mysteries, and would have called themselves more or less all part of the same "religion"? Since religion didn't rely on doctrine, they could sit around at the symposium and talk about the nature of fate and the human condition. For the Norse, luck was an active force. You had it or you didn't, and it could also be infected. If you had done bad things or pissed off the wrong spirits, your luck might be soured. The thing that gets translated as luck among the Norse is very much like your personal spiritual power. If your personal spiritual power is solid, then your coincidence control meter will be set properly—you'll have "good luck".
How much control do you have over your fate? The answer to that, I think, is the same as for the question, how much control do you have over the world. The answer is "some". We all have control over some things in our lives, and less control over others. This is why the ancients were always concerned with divination, with learning the will of the gods, because the gods are big powerful beings with long arms. If you know what they're doing, you can at least conform your plans to theirs or dump those plans, whichever you prefer. Being able to identify the flows of fate and work with them was considered one of the primary forms of wisdom to have.
I think monotheism has led us to try to see nature as always unified and working together, when in fact in general it isn't. You can say all things work together for good, whatever "good" is, but obviously in nature that's not really what happens. In nature things are often in conflict, one thing destroys another, the wolf eats the rabbit, the storm blows down the forest, things are obviously destroying other things without their permission, without a "by your leave", and I think that in polytheism we must assume that the gods don't always have the same plans together, that the gods themselves are not following some overarching blueprint, that they are acting as individuals just as we act individually. I suppose some people could find that disconcerting, as opposed to a religion that offers them a big sleigh in the sky, so all they have to do is get on the sled and hold on and everything will be all right.
Morality, Good and Evil
Now, we've come right up to the edge of the idea of sin and evil and salvation, sin and good and evil in pagan ideas. Some pagan systems, maybe most, seem to have had a set of laws that was supposed to have come from the spiritual work of the wise people of the past, at the very least. Hinduism had the Laws of Manu. Manu was a rishi, not a deva, a human seer, but he's considered to be divinely wise enough to create the laws by which humankind should live. It's less clear in Greek lore, there doesn't seem to be any codified list of ways humans should behave, among Hellenic pagans, though the gods obviously disapproved of certain kinds of behavior, such as patricide, oath-breaking. The moral message of the tales is that you can't avoid getting caught by the gods. So that kind of moral standard does exist in traditional paganism, with some variation between cultures. For example, everybody says murder is wrong, but everybody defines murder differently, everybody says incest is wrong but defines it differently, etc.
It seems to me that even this level of moral authority isn't going to make Neopagans happy. If ADF produced a modern version of the Laws of Manu, telling us how we should behave, it probably would not go very far in terms of acceptance. For example, Green Man Grove [now Grove of the Other Gods] thought that the ADF prohibition against blood sacrifice was so obvious, and so unnecessary, that they added two more prohibitions, one against cannibalism and another against juggling hedgehogs :)
Traditional pagandom did have moral standards, but usually also had a method where the wise could be exempted. In Hinduism, for instance, one of the goals of spiritual practice is "moksha", which means liberation. It's usually explained to Westerners as liberation from the Wheel of Rebirth, but in practice, among sects that seek that as their goal, it also means liberation from the moral strictures of the householder. Now, mind you, the moral strictures of the householder includes having a house, getting married, having children, and being in business, so on a lot of levels they're talking about that. In Hinduism, it means being a holy monk, owning your loin cloth, your rice bowl, and maybe a stick. And the people who are freed from moral strictures in that way are also freed from permission to own property; they are literally taken outside the social order and become kind of wandering presences of this option of something different in the society.
I think the druids probably had that, I think you probably had naked wise guys in the woods in Ireland and the Continent just as you have in India. Some of the sects in India just never put on clothes again, they didn't even get a loin cloth. Interestingly, what happened in Wicca is that they attempted to apply that kind of initiated ethic to everyone. Crowley's "Do What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law" is a pretty direct translation of a Hindu phrase "secca cara" which means "the path of your own will". Interestingly, the full phrase is "secca cara haro" which means "follow your will in secret", to keep from offending the householders and getting that angry villagers syndrome going :)
Wicca attempted to create a paganism where that initiated ethic was given to everyone, and that's why there continue to be discussions about the Rede, about "harm none and do what you will", and why groups like ours have found that to be an insufficient guide to everyday life because it's entirely negative. It says don't hurt anybody, and that's the only advice it gives; it tells you what not to do, not what to do. Wicca was simply not designed to be a mass religion, it was not designed to be a general, non-initiatory village religion. The fact that people are attempting to make it that, is, I think, a pretty thorough bastardization from what Wicca was intended to be initially. Now, we haven't gone too far with that ourselves, in ADF; we haven't gone much farther beyond the Nine Virtues in terms of advice on how to live well.
In some ways, many of the traditional pagan moral guidelines had very practical reasons for existing. In Indo-European culture, your moral authority started with obeying your parents, and that usually meant you were going to end up in the same business as your parents. At the most basic level it starts with parents telling their children not to do something which would be harmful, and it broadens to include members of the tribe needing to adhere to the social order and work together to cope with hostile natural forces. From there, we see further specialization and you have your basic farmers, warriors, and intellectuals, your basic Indo-European tripartite division. That eventually got hardened up into the ridiculously complex Hindu caste system, for instance, from starting with a simple division of labor.
It seems pretty clear, even among the Celts and Germans, that people could get promoted in social class. If you were born in a farmer family and actually had some skill with weapons, you could end up in a war band and living a warrior's life. Similarly, you might wind up with the druids if you showed some of those skills. And, in all likelihood, you could be demoted too. It was certainly hierarchical; there's no escaping the fact that Indo-European paganism was as hierarchical as could be.
Making the world conform to your will is one example of how we are like the gods, because we can shape matter and make the world look the way we want it to look. It's harder for us than we imagine it being for the gods, but we can do it in ways the animals can't. Many animals do shape the world, their environment to allow them to live, such as beavers building dams or birds building nests. The devolvement of spiritual power doesn't stop with us. But, animals don't have the power of choice in terms of affecting their environment. Beavers don't have the option to decide not to build dams, and that's a big difference between animals and humans. Humans have the power of choice. And that is probably why that type of person existed in pagan culture, that naked sadu or wise guy, in society provides the reminder to the householder that the householder's life isn't all there is.
Order and Chaos
Many of the Indo-European creation myths depict a war between the gods and demons, or a war between the gods that like us and are going to end up being our gods that we worship, and their opponents who are more or less equal to them. For example, the Aesir versus the Jotuns in Norse lore, the Olympians versus the Titans in Hellenic lore, etc. In the hands of Zoroaster this turned into a war between "good" and "evil". I call Zoroaster the first heretic in Indo-European religion. Indo-European religion, as far as I can tell, taught that the basic war between order and chaos was over, and that order had more or less won and more or less established itself, though you still have to have some chaos in the world to keep things moving.
You have to think of a band of Indo-European settlers heading out of the village and into the woods, where their job is to carve out a patch of human order in the chaos of the green wood. I think that the image of creation is the gods of humans carving out this order by battling the gods of chaos. In the Book of Invasions, this is the main thing that happens, as it tells of each different wave that came in, tells how many plains were created, how much forest was cleared. When they say creating plains, they're talking about a process they lived with every year, where the way to get land if you were an old Celt in those days was to take your bunch of guys if you could get them, and clear a plain where you could do your planting. It was absolutely all about clearing woods—Europe was forest from one end to another.
This whole image of the gods driving back the pre-existing chaos, is completely associated with this creation of human order in the chaos of nature. But the chaos is not in general destroyed in those tales, or imprisoned. In the Irish lore, the gods get the secrets of sowing and reaping from the demons, it's when Lugh makes Balor's head speak and reveal the secrets of sowing and reaping, because it's in those powers of chaos that the power of creativity arises. In Norse lore, the most powerful tools of the gods are brought to them when Loki, who is himself of Jotun descent, steals them from the forces of chaos. Also, Thor who is the biggest protector of humankind, is partly descended from the giants, that's where his superhuman strength comes from.
Zoroaster's big heresy was that he said the war between good and evil wasn't over, it was still going on and there was a good general and an evil general, equally powerful, and humans had to choose sides. He turned what was for most Indo-Europeans a kind of cosmological issue, into a moral issue. Not only were wolves and bats agents of danger and chaos, they were actively agents of moral evil for the Zoroastrians. They divided the world into morally good (pure) things, and morally evil (impure) things. Zoroastrians basically invented the concept of Satan that the Jews later adopted. For a pagan, the answer to, "why does 'evil' exist?" (meaning, things that happen to us which we don't like) is, "because nothing can stop it from existing." For pagans, there is no all-powerful being in the world which can stop such things from happening, just as there is no one all-powerful being to tell us what we can and can't do.
The problem for us is that we're all cosmopolitans. Any given pagan back in the day grew up not understanding that there could be more than one moral order in the world. They grew up in their village, that village had a single moral order, that was the moral order, period. Once people moved into cities, which only happened in a few places, people started to compare notes and conflicts started to arise over one person's idea of good over another person's. This might have happened as far back as Sumeria, though that was really more like a big stone village, probably also with a single moral order, but it definitely happened in places like Alexandria and Rome, and that's when the concept of moral relativism came about.
Christian moral philosophy has always made the distinction between natural evil and moral evil. Christian moral philosophers talk about natural evil as "things that fall on you and hurt", earthquakes, tornadoes, etc., in the since of "an ill". Then there is moral evil, which means violating the laws of God. War is always a natural evil, to everybody involved. It's an accepted natural evil, such as a sword through your head, but it is accepted (especially by the winners) as a moral good. And this leads us to things like the proposition that good often results from evil deeds, and evil often results from good deeds. Things we enjoy often produce an ill outcome, and things we don't enjoy often produce a good outcome. For instance, our society is close to making devouring a whole chocolate cake a moral evil :)
The distinction between natural evil an moral evil is an important one, and the odd thing Zoroaster did was say that these forces of evil are agents of a still-existing power of evil, that the wolf was an agent of evil destroying the sheep, an agent of good. In any event, the problem of evil only arises if you posit that there is an all powerful, all-good god, which clearly was not the case for pagans. The problem of evil only exists in omnipotent monotheism. It's not a problem in paganism, it's just there. "Evil" (something we don't like) happens because 1) people are sometimes idiots, and 2) some stuff hurts, and there is no power that could make things different. Even the gods don't control the way the world is. All beings together make the world the way it is, and they each act as individual agents.
Interacting with the Divine, and other Realms
In terms of humans being able to interact with and perceive the divine, pagan religions say that we are capable of perceiving divinity because it is in us in the first place. We have within us, by our birth, the power of shaping, the power of vision, and the power of speech, which make it possible to interact with the Divine in ways we can remember. The funny thing about humans is that we can write this stuff down and tell it to ourselves, another thing most animals can't do. I think that this concept of the Divine within us is so present to traditional paganism that it couldn't help but be part of Neopaganism. Good old Starhawk Wicca completely disavows any kind of external deity. She would have an audience of women and say, "I'm going to give each of you a vision of the Goddess right now... turn to your right, and look at the woman next to you." That was very much a 70s or 80s humanist approach to Deity. And there's nothing unpagan about it, except if you try to limit deity to being present only in humans or the minds of humans. There's not much evidence of a "transcendant" pagan deity, one that exists outside of Nature, and in fact, it seems pretty well supported that for pagans, Deity arose out of Nature, and not the other way around. Divinity is a subset of nature, not vice-versa. There is no supernatural, divinity is just one of the kinds of things there are.
I do think that in some ways the spiritual world is causative to the material world. For example, it was certainly true that the pagans assumed that when the gods fought, they (the pagans) fought. The Romans had a ritual for calling a city's god out of its city and welcoming it to Rome before they attacked. They would set up an altar and say, "god of the city, you are welcome in Rome, open the gates to us and let us in." It was obviously a call to the people of the city as well, but it was really a magical practice, to say to the god, "Here we come, and here is your offering asking for your participation, so grant our request." War in heaven being reflected in war on earth is an utterly pagan concept, although there was no more "good" and "evil" associated with this than there was with war itself.
In terms of the "otherworld", or different spiritual "realms" where the gods exist, it's hard for me, with my background in traditional occultism and Neo-Platonism, to escape the notion of a hierarchy of causation. I think it is important to try to escape it because Neo-Platonism was one of those pyramidal, post-monotheistic influences, which assumes it all goes back to a first cause which begins a hierarchy of causation that cascades down into things such as what the occultists call the astral plane next door to us which in turns causes the physical world. However, don't ask me what the ancients thought about that, as it's hard to know exactly what they thought.
It seems to me that the Celts and Germans had a very basic, we live where we live, and they live where they live, and we interact, conception of the world. Many of them are more powerful than many of us, they have longer arms, more ability to work their will than we do, etc., but that doesn't mean we can't interact with them well. If you're going into a field and planning to build a house, the first thing you have to do is make sure that the spirits of that land are with you on the project. If they're not with you on the project, you won't succeed, and you'll end up having to go somewhere else. Even in modern times, Iceland still diverts roads around boulders, leaves the old troll stones alone. Why does that road curve around that boulder? Because people have seen trolls there. That doesn't necessarily imply that those spirits are vastly more powerful than us, but just like if there was anyone else living there first, you'd have to deal with them in some way. In ADF, what we're trying to do is recover and, where necessary, reinvent these methods for interacting with the gods and spirits, and do so in a balanced way that is acceptable to moderns and still maintains the core of pagan practices and is consistent with what we can determine about pagan theology.