In Pagan traditions, idols are common. We use symbols, statues, candles, and a multitude of other items as stand-ins for the Gods. There is a difference, however, between using an idol to forge a connection with a deity and viewing that idol as the actual God being represented. Properly used, idols are tools that help strengthen the connection between the human realm and the divine realm. Improperly used, idols become the focus of worship.
Every religion uses idols, even those faiths that forbid idolatry. For Christians, the most common idol used is the figure of Jesus on the cross. Even without Jesus on it, however, the cross is still an idol. Christians may argue this and say that the cross is symbolic, but a symbol is an idol. A symbol is used to forge a connection between the symbol and the meaning it projects.
In Wicca, it is common to use God and Goddess figurines during rituals, or, barring that, candles to represent the God and Goddess. And rituals generally take place within a circle, tools being placed at the correct corner directions – if done correctly, and viewed from the outside, the ritual itself takes on the shape of the pentacle (a pentagram enclosed within a circle). The ritual serves as a conduit from the human realm to the divine realm.
In Heathenry, there are similar practices. Blots are generally opened with the hammer rite,hallowing the ground. The connection between the human realm and the divine realm occurs at the moment a libation is poured onto the ground. First, the ground is hallowed, and then an offering is made, rendering the offering sacred and forging a divine connection.
There are other types of rituals within Pagan practices, each imbued with unique purpose. The end goal, however, is a sacred connection. And that is how idols are meant to be used. To help forge those connections.
For some, visualization techniques don’t work. Some people need the visual aid an idol offers in a ritual in order to create the connection. Once the connection is made, however, the work of the idol is finished. I suppose a good way to look at an idol would be to view it as a bridge constructed over a creek. You can walk over such a bridge and avoid getting your feet wet, or you can slosh through it. Either way, you will reach the other side.
Idols aren’t necessary to form a sacred connection, but they do make the task easier. There is a danger in using idols, however, and that danger is, perhaps, the reason certain faiths condemn the practice (even whilst unknowingly engaging in it).
The danger of using an idol is the danger of coming to see that idol as a sacred being in and of itself. Instead of using the idol as a bridge, there are some who will come to worship the bridge itself. As an example, say you are standing on side of the creek and one of the Gods is standing on the other side. To get to that God, you can use the idol – you can take the bridge. But as you cross over that bridge, you become so fascinated with the architecture that you forget all about the God waiting for you on the other side of it.
That is the danger inherent in using idols. Idols are symbols, and there are some out there who would turn symbols into deities. An example of this would be viewing the archetypes developed by Carl Jung for use in analytical psychology as gods. The archetypes are psychological constructs, fluid and fleeting. There are Gods out there who operate the way that certain archetypes do within the psyche, but, unlike the archetypes, which are fluid and can blend with each other, the Gods don’t blend. Each God is always uniquely Himself or Herself, not a mix between two or more Gods.
That is the problem I have with the concept of Jungian polytheism. The archetypes were never intended to replace the idea of divinity – Jung himself stated that they were to be used solely as a method in analytical psychology. Jung was not a theologian, and he never set out to replace religion. In fact, he said that it would be absurd for someone to only view the divine spark within and deny the divinity without.
I think that the archetypes themselves are fascinating concepts, fascinating constructs that occur within the psyche of every human being. That doesn’t mean the archetypes are gods or should be treated as such. Choosing to worship an archetype is choosing to worship the idol, and doing so will rob a person of their ability to forge a strong connection with the divine realms.
For this reason, I cannot support the idea of a polytheism that centers around Jungian archetypes as Gods. A polytheist who views the archetypes as ways of accessing the Gods of their tradition – that, I can support. That is using idols the way they are meant to be used, as tools to forge a connection. But to worship an idol is to worship a tool, and tools are meant to be used, not prayed to.