Our culture seems to have a warped view of fatherhood. Few, if any, models of fatherhood in pop culture present anything anyone would aspire to. If you were an alien looking down on our culture to study how we view fathers, you’d be presented with models that either included the alcoholic, overweight, guardian of the remote control or the cold, strict, dictator of the home. You’d be left with the conclusion that we think fathers are either despots or fools.
As we approach Fathers’ Day, this is becoming even more apparent. Judging from the commercials and other ads that deluge our world this time of year, fathers are people who work too much, love beer (usually bad beer), and really only think about golf. The alien researcher would also conclude that each father has an altar to the god of the reclining chair, on which he performs a nightly ritual of staring at a lighted box while receiving the messages displayed on the screen.
And of course, that’s only if the father is present in his children’s life. If our alien scientists decided to study some forms of our pop culture, they might conclude that fathers abandon their children shortly after birth, leaving the mother in the painful position of having to raise the child by herself. When asked to assist financially, the researchers would find, our fathers complain a lot about having to work too hard or being behind on their cell phone bill, so they couldn’t possibly afford a bit of their paycheck to help raise the child they helped create.
Sure, there are healthier examples of fatherhood out there, but sometimes I fear that these are the exceptions and not the rule. So what is fatherhood really about? I don’t know; I’m not a dad. Even if I were, I still wouldn’t like golf. But if we go back and look at sources other than modern pop culture, maybe we could find out how our ancestors have passed down their views of what it means to be a father in this world. Since religion and mythology are the longest lasting records of the values of our ancestors, they give us a powerful example of what a father can really be.
The Hebrew god is a good place to start. After all, he is commonly referred to as “Father,” and even some of his priests often claim the title. Sadly, I think that the mythology of this god is part of where our trouble with fatherhood is rooted. In the Old Testament, this is a god whose punishments are far and away too severe for the crime. Adam and Eve definitely were warned in advance not to eat the apple, but exiling them from the Garden and dooming all women to painful childbirth as punishment was a little excessive. Never mind what he did to Sodom and Gomorrah and poor Lot’s wife.
The New Testament version is more loving. Still, he demands to be the only god and is willing to send a person to eternal torment for breaking his rules. This is still a difficult depiction of fatherhood. I don’t mean to Christian bash here, but I just think there are better role models for fatherhood in other mythologies.
None of the gods of other mythologies are perfect, but that’s actually part of their value as models. If you strive for perfection, you’ll always be disappointed. Like archetypal fathers throughout mythology, fathers in our society make mistakes. They are fallible. They definitely are prone to over-punishing, as we all are. When their children are born they don’t really know what they’re doing. They have to learn, and they don’t always get it right. But they get better because they love their sons and daughters.
Zeus and Jupiter definitely made mistakes. Zeus was quite the fan of infidelity, but at least his myths explore how his misdeeds affect his wife and the consequences to his children. Looking beyond his famous appetite for sex, Zeus was also in charge of society’s laws and protecting all of his people. A good human father must sometimes set down laws, but he also must help in protecting all of his children equally. He also mediated disputes – something all fathers with more than one child have to do at some point.
These are some of the classic roles of fatherhood. They are almost stereotypical. The fact is, though, that mothers can do all of these things as well. The idea that the father is the one who sets and enforces rules while the mother is nurturing and loving isn’t always true. Sometimes a mother is a protector and enforcer. Sometimes a father is nurturing.
The Celtic god known as The Dagda carries some attributes that are often seen as female. His cauldron, typically a feminine symbol in witchcraft, provides a never-ending supply of food. Thus he nourishes himself and his children. He is a musician, and his harp brings the seasons, which – of course – bring food. He is also able to restore life to the dead. He brings life and nurtures his children. At the same time, he is a powerful warrior. The Dagda really is a “good god” who contains a well-rounded mixture and provides a good fatherly role model.
Odin has to be included here. I’m not a Norse practitioner, but anyone known as the “Allfather” must have some good fatherly traits. And he does. As a warrior, Odin fights for his people like a father must sometimes fight for his children. What’s great about Odin, though, is that he has a softer side. His love of poetry is a model for how we can teach our children to respect the arts, and as a god of wisdom, he embodies that classic fatherly role of advisor. Odin’s sacrifice to gain that wisdom teaches us that we must suffer to learn, and his willingness to do so makes him one of the wisest role models for modern fatherhood.
Many neopagans work with the Green Man, the young god who brings life to the Earth. The Green Man’s partnership with the Goddess and eventual sacrifice for the good of other living beings is a core part of many people’s practice. It’s probably a modern concept, but it’s a powerful one as a father must love and help raise his children. He often must sacrifice time, money, and effort to help his children be the best they can be. It’s a beautiful example of what it can mean to be a good father.
None of these models of fatherhood are perfect, and this is not intended to be a complete list. Yet what I love about these “father gods” is that they all carry their fatherhood well beyond simply setting rules and meting out punishments. They are wise, they provide, they heal, they love, and they sacrifice themselves for their family. These are the reasons that we celebrate something called Fathers’ Day. Hopefully you were lucky enough to have a father like them.