Category Archives: religion

For Assmann, Against Butler

This follows on from my previous post, Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion. To recap, here’s Jan Assmann on the pagan translatability of gods:

The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. [Moses the Egyptian, p3]

Assmann refers to this common ancient pagan view as cosmotheism. Edward Butler objects:

The status accorded to “function” in the theological mode of interpretation offers a contrast between it and hermeneutic of “translation” discussed by Jan Assmann. Within the “translation” paradigm, functional equivalences between deities of different national pantheons, or even within the same pantheon, are treated as indicating that different names signify the same small set of deities, or the differentiated potencies of a single divine substance. For the “theological” mode of interpretation, by contrast, function derives from identity, and not identity from function. In this fashion the theological mode of interpretation seeks to avoid yet another form of reductionism, which we might label the “cosmotheistic” reduction, after the “cosmotheism” Assmann sees as the historical outcome of the translational hermeneutic of myth. In the “cosmotheistic” reduction, a unitary cosmotheistic philosophy effectively displaces the theologies of diverse cultures, whose particularity is treated as mere materiality. Such an approach, because it dualistically posits a substance or substances prior to or underlying the Gods themselves and external to the myths themselves, could never be regarded as the primary mode of mythological hermeneutics, if indeed it is even to be regarded as a way of interpreting myths, and not rather as a method of demythologization.

Actually, Assmann is describing ancient pagan polyaletheia. It’s straightforward: the Greeks had a perspective on the divine, and the Romans had a perspective on the divine, and one can translate between the two perspectives on the basis of the functions of the gods, in a way that rather implies that the identity of the gods derives from their function, and indeed this is exactly what the Romans and Greeks did, as well as many other pagan cultures.

Butler reveals his monoaletheia here, asking the monoalethic question, roughly, regardless of any “perspectives” or points of view or whatever, what’s the actual objective truth? Surely this translation approach implies that the underlying objective truth is atheistic and demythologising, positing some substance that is separate from and, worse, prior to the Gods?

But in the polyalethic mode, there is no one “underlying objective” truth; there are only more perspectives. It’s perspectives all the way down. This point can be difficult to get across to people who are used to thinking monoalethically, so let me make a comparison. Assmann’s perspective on religion is an anthopological one, and in that perspective one can ask, how and why do people believe in gods? Likewise, a developmental psychologist might ask, how and why do people believe in other people? In both cases, there is no proof, and Occam’s razor suggests atheism in the one case, and solipsism in the other. In these perspectives, the answers lie in the psychology of belief: we’re simply predisposed to believe in the real existence of other people, and (albeit much more weakly and variously) predisposed to believe in the real existence of gods.

In both cases what actually matters is presence: people are present in our lives as beings like ourselves, so we enter a perspective in which people in general exist. Likewise, for those of us for whom gods are present in our lives, we enter a perspective in which gods exist.

If we come across an atheist, or if we come across a solipsist, there is no argument we can make with them to change their minds. There is simply a difference of perspective and that is all. In this way, the presence of gods can be as well-founded as the presence of other people: there is no implied “underlying atheism” anymore than an “underlying solipsism”. Our ideas, our truths, are always within a perspective. The monoalethic mistake is to look for the one singular objective underlying truth against which perspectives can be measured, but such a thing is not meaningful, rather it becomes… one more perspective.

In Assmann’s case, his anthropological perspective does not deny or displace the religious perspectives of the cultures he examines, and does not therefore demythologise. Likewise, the Sun is both the god Helios and a hot mass of “metal” larger than the Peloponnese1, the one perspective does not deny the other.

It’s worth noting here that Assmann is pretty much just doing anthropology, reporting on interpretatio as a phenomenon apparently common to many different European and Near-East pagan cultures. It’s this observed commonality, only, that is the basis for the wide applicability of his cosmotheism.

Butler is defending an intricate philosophical/theological system, albeit one rooted in the ideas of philosophers of late antiquity. As a perspective, Butler’s Neoplatonism would need no justification: it can be one more way of thinking of the gods, and indeed the world, among many others. But as a claim to objective truth, statements about “units” and “dyads” seem arbitrary and unfounded as a starting point and difficult to justify against opposing statements.

Butler calls his main theology polycentric polytheism:

We see this inclusiveness of each God in the practice of many polytheists. A polytheist does not call upon a God merely for concerns relating to a narrow function. Aphrodite’s most intense devotees do not call on her merely as “Goddess of love,” for example, but as Goddess of everything, at least potentially. At the cult centers of ancient deities, we often find the Gods and Goddesses worshiped in this expansive manner. We also see this pattern in modern day Hinduism, although it is often misinterpreted by Westerners under the influence of hegemonic monotheism as “monism” and denying the reality of the many Gods.

We can rescue Butler’s “polycentricity” from its absolutism by treating it as polyaletheia instead. In this view, a god may be associated with a particular perspective, within which one may view all other gods. It is precisely as the Goddess of Love that the intense devotee of Aphrodite can see the whole world, and all the other gods, in terms of erotic love. It is the function itself that has expanded, and the intensity of devotion brings one closer to, not further away from, Love as a human and natural phenomenon.

— Ashley Yakeley

  1. Anaxagoras’ description. The great god Helios is actually composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium (his namesake element), not metals even in the astronomical sense, but not a bad guess.

Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion

Many things are said about the gods–

  • that there are the many gods described by the ancient Greeks,
  • that there are the many gods described by the ancient Romans,
  • that there are the many kami described by the Japanese,
  • that there is one God that is everything,
  • that there is a God and a Goddess, as described by Wiccans,
  • that there are no gods,

…and so forth. There are two approaches to reconciling this multiplicity of accounts.

The theological approach seeks the correct account. If there are many gods, there cannot be only one God. If there is only one God, there cannot be many gods. For example, Christianity insists there is one God, though not specifically the pantheism described above. Truth excludes falsity, so all other theologies are in error. Atheism insists there are no gods, and all talk of gods is worthless “woo”. And so on.

The mythological approach considers all such accounts to be stories, any of which may be valuable (or not) in particular contexts. These stories might contradict each other in small or large part, but do not thereby exclude each other, they are all merely “different ways of looking”, each of which may be useful or not to different people, or in different situations.

The heart of this difference is two different approachs to truth, which I call polyaletheia (“many truths”) and monoaletheia (“one truth”). “Theologists” are monoalethic: they consider truth to be one, absolute, objective, albeit not necessarily known or even knowable. “Mythologists” are, by contrast, polyalethic: they consider truth, at least religious truth, to be plural, contextual, subjective, just as a myth can have many variations yet still be true. This is a kind of perspectivism, which I discussed earlier: since truth is a product of thinking, and people think slightly differently, even the same person in different contexts, then there are many truths.

Belief

The theological approach typically defines religion in terms of belief. Thus, theologists fault mythologists either for believing the wrong thing, or for lacking belief altogether. Theology eventually excludes mythology, since it wants to know which religious account is really true and which is false. Eventually the theological approach makes what Jan Assmann refers to (in his book Moses the Egyptian) as the Mosaic Distinction, that is, the distinction between “true” religion and “false” religion. And error, logically, has no rights.

In the mythological approach, belief is more of a side-effect of ritual, story, and experience, so beliefs tend to be loose and contextual. What would otherwise be theology takes on a mythological flavour. Ideas about the nature of the gods are stories rather than doctrine: fluid, contextual, admitting variation and contradiction, responding to particular religious needs and situations, more concerned with what’s situationally appropriate than with what’s definitively true. No one story requires creedal commitment from the believer. Denis Feeney (following Paul Veyne) refers to this self-contradictory/compartmentalised/contextual structure of belief as “brain-balkanisation”:

[Veyne’s] marvellous phrase ‘balkanisation des cerveaux’ (‘brain-balkanisation’) captures the capacity of educated Greeks and Romans of the post-classical era to entertain different kinds of assent and criteria of judgement in different contexts, in ways that strike the modern observer as mutually contradictory. These people are involved in very different activities when they sacrifice outside a temple, talk to the custodian of a temple, read the aretalogy inscribed outside the temple, read the scholar Apollodorus’ book On the Gods, listen to hymns, read Homer allegorised or Homer rationalised, read an epic on Heracles, or read about Heracles the supreme commander in a history. Expressions of scepticism are always potentially part of the procedure, for the participants’ assent may be provisional, self-consciously in tension with dissent. [Literature and Religion at Rome, pp14-15]

Alain de Benoist remarks that paganism is not about believing in the existence of gods, but awakening to their presence, illustrating the difference between theological and mythological understandings. The gods exist in the exact same way that their mythology is true — via immediate experience of them. That is, one experiences the presence of gods, and one experiences the truth of myth.

Natural Religion

Polytheism that grows out of culture, what we might call organic polytheism, tends to be polyalethic. People have a natural tendency to create stories and rituals, that become folklore, that eventually becomes what we might recognise as “pagan religon” — if it is not restrained by official monoaletheia, as much folklore in Christian countries has been. Here’s an example:

Let’s say Alice is an ordinary woman, perhaps American, of no strong religious belief or disbelief. Her husband Bob dies, and after the funeral, Alice starts visiting his grave. Typically, she talks to him about what’s going on her life and tells him that she misses him. Sometimes she brings some of his favourite Scotch and shares a little with him, pouring his share on the ground beneath which he’s buried. After awhile she does this less often, but still occasionally visits especially on his birthday or their anniversary. This sort of thing is very common.

Alice knows very well that Bob is dead, that Bob is no longer a person. And if you asked her whether she believed in the real existence of Bob’s spirit, she’d probably say no. Nevertheless, when she’s talking to him, she remembers him, she feels his presence.

Alice is doing the beginnings of ancestor worship, or rather veneration of the dead. She has a special place, special times, makes offerings of special drink and prays, more or less, to a particular spirit — a spirit she does not “officially” believe in. But maybe she kind of does believe in his existence, in the context of talking to him. Maybe she just doesn’t worry too much about whether his spirit “really” exists — it’s just not a big deal. It helps her grieve.

In this way, belief follows ritual and experience, and is tentative and contextual. Alice perceives the presence of Bob’s spirit, rather than abstractly formally believing in his continued existence.

In Japan, Shinto is an example of folklore that has become religion — though as it happens, the Japanese do not consider Shinto to be shukyo, but more like folklore. Shukyo is the usual translation of “religion” but is actually closer to “religious doctrine”, and applies to Buddhism, Christianity, and even certain Shinto-ish sects. Shinto has stories and mythology about the many kami, and shrines to them, where people make offerings to them. But Shinto itself has no teachings or creed or belief system of any kind. Most Japanese people who visit shrines seem to treat the kami very much like Alice treats Bob: they don’t necessarily “officially” believe in them, but they still pray to them, or buy amulets from the shrines. “‘Although the typical Japanese boasts of not being religious and even of being atheist, as I do myself, Shinto is ever present in the Japanese mind,’ says Kubo Kenichi, head priest of Mizuya Shrine.” Just as Bob may be ever-present in Alice’s mind.

Even in Christian countries… Christianity is a theological rather than mythological religion. Most forms of it, at least, are firmly, even violently, monoalethic, and heresy is a constant concern in its history. But it’s not so simple: there are many people who identify as Christian who nevertheless take a more or less polyalethic fast-and-loose approach to Christian belief, believing in God or in angels in response to particular situations, and leaning towards more polyaletheia-friendly notions such as universal salvation.

Translatability

The ancient polytheist pagan religions were generally polyalethic, and this made it easy for them to build connections with each other. When those familiar with one mythology came across another, they typically adapted the bits they liked, interpreting them in terms of their own mythology. For example, the ancient Greeks interpreted gods from other cultures in terms of their own gods (known as the interpretatio graeca), as did the ancient Romans and the ancient Germanic peoples. This is how Jan Assmann describes this:

The polytheistic religions overcame the primitive ethnocentrism of tribal religions by distinguishing several deities by name, shape, and function. The names are, of course, different in different cultures, because the languages are different. The shapes of the gods and the forms of worship may also differ significantly. But the functions are strikingly similar, especially in the case of cosmic deities; and most deities had a cosmic function. The sun god of one religion is easily equated with the sun god of another religion, and so forth. Because of their functional equivalence, deities of different religions can be equated. In Mesopotamia, the practice of translating divine names goes back to the third millennium B.C.E. … In the second millennium, this practice was extended to many different languages and civilizations of the Near East. The cultures, languages, and customs may have been as different as ever: the religions always had a common ground. Thus they functioned as a means of intercultural translatability. The gods were international because they were cosmic. The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. [Moses the Egyptian, p3]

It’s important to note that this translation is identification, not mere analogy. Herodotus refers to Mylitta (Assyrian), Hathor (Egyptian), Ashtarte (Syrian) as simply “Aphrodite”, Onuris (Egyptian) and other fighty gods as “Mars”, Thoth (Egyptian) and Zalmoxis (Thracian) as “Hermes”, and so on. Other writers made similar identifications.

This translatability of the gods can be found even within a particular culture. Many Greek and Roman gods were known under epithets, for example, Venus Genetrix and Venus Kallipygos were both worshiped in different places. Are these different goddesses, or different aspects of the same goddess? Scholars have argued which one of these two options is the correct one, but Henk Versnel is having none of it:

Contrarily, I would propose that one might, just might, consider a third option. This implies venturing for a moment into the Greek ‘interconnected cosmology’, which does not compulsively avoid ambiguities, and accepting that (the) Greeks had to live with two (or more) indeed mutually exclusive realities and yet coped with the inherent paradoxes and inconsistencies. There cannot be any doubt that mythical and (local) cultic personae of a god might diverge dramatically. While attending a tragedy, admiring a mythical scene in visual art, or listening to a mythical tale, one would (in fact one was contextually forced to) identify with a world of mythical identities that were ingrained in everybody from early childhood. This temporarily determined the focus and wiped local identities off the screen. When confronted in cult with the local and functionally specialized—and, through their nearness, more familiar—gods with their surnames, the focus shifted and temporarily pushed the imagery of the mythical god to the background. Indeed as Veyne wrote: “a mental cleft separated gods as mythical figures from the gods as objects of the piety of the believers.” Yet (the) Greeks managed to cope with these two religious realities, both stored in their mental stock, by shifting from one to another and back, whenever the context or situation required it.

The fact that e.g. Zeus Meilichios is not the same god as Zeus Olympios is inter alia corroborated by aspects of his iconography; that in other respects the gods may have been understood as having the same identity is suggested by the common name. Different and the same. We have seen it before and will see it time and again. In the domain of religion (the) Greeks had no insurmountable problems with double identities up till the moment that they were questioned on it. The questions, however, are ours. [H.S. Versnel, Coping with the Gods, pp 84-86]

One might say, ambiguity, paradox, and inconsistency are hallmarks of mythology, of polyalethic religious thought in general.

Once you start looking for this translatability between world-views, you can see it everywhere, among modern paganisms too. For example, Wiccans have picked up this ancient pagan principle, to interpret the gods of many cultures by gender, as God and Goddess. As they say, all goddesses are the Goddess, all gods are the God.

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called Artemis; Astarte; Diana; Melusine; Aphrodite; Cerridwen; Dana; Arianrhod; Isis; Bride; and by many other names. [Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess]

Going a little bit further, Jungian pagans speak of gods as “archetypes”, a purely psychological explanation of the gods, that nevertheless does not deny their power. In this way they translate between a “religious” perspective full of gods and a “psychological” perspective absent of gods, neither perspective denying the other.

Even the Christian concept of the Trinity of God is a tiny bit of polyaletheia, squished into a “divine mystery”, the precise details of which are monoalethically fixed in creed. There are three Persons of God, which are not identical. But they are all the one God, etc.

— Ashley Yakeley

The Identity of the Gods

Note: I no longer fully endorse this. I’ve updated my view in the comments; please also see Polyaletheia and Monoaletheia in Religion.

In July/August this year I attended Many Gods West, a polytheist gathering in the nominatively appropriate city of Olympia. It turns out many polytheists are making an effort to distinguish themselves from (other) pagans somehow, though the distinction isn’t all that clear at the moment. Common themes seem to be reconstruction of pre-Christian polytheistic religious cultures, and a curious insistence on the “reality” of the gods as individuals — this latter is known as “hard” polytheism. Morpheus Ravenna gave the keynote speech at MGW exemplifying these themes. It seemed to be a shot in a war against the wrong kind of pagan, “humanistic” or “non-theistic” pagans who somehow snuck into the scene to claim that gods are Jungian archetypes. This polemical tone came as a bit of a surprise to me, as I had not been paying that much attention to the arguments back-and-forth in blogs and the like, and had no idea how big a deal it was for the folks involved in presenting the thing, or for efforts to distinguish polytheism from paganism generally.

As a polytheist I would describe myself as animist rather than humanist or non-theist, and I don’t know much more than the popular conception of Jung and could not precisely specify what an archetype is. Nevertheless, the hard polytheism side seems to me plainly flawed, replicating some of the problems of Christianity, as well as likely being ahistorical inasmuch as it claims to reconstruct European polytheisms.

Belief is not part of polytheism

Like Ms Ravenna, and many other polytheists, I have a vision of what polytheism ought to be. Mine is much influenced by Shinto, the native religion of Japan, as a polytheism still around in the modern world, as well as pre-Christian religions in Europe, which are like me European. I like to say that Shinto is not my religion, but it is my kind of religion.

In Nelson1 there’s an amusing exchange between two Shinto priests concerning what happens to the “impurities” collected by the purification wand during their purification ceremonies. One priest feels that impurities collect in the wand, and therefore the wand ought to be broken into a river so that they can be washed into the sea. The other reckons that they are scattered onto the rocks during each ceremony and eventually washed away by the rain.

What’s the correct view, according to official Shinto? There isn’t one. Shinto has no orthodoxy. Belief is not a requirement for Shinto. Shinto priests are not trained to believe anything. It’s not even a disagreement for the two priests, in this case. What matters is behaviour, beautiful correct behaviour and the attitudes that go with it…

I only wish our own polytheists had such wisdom. Unlike Christianity, for polytheists belief is not necessary for a relationship with the gods. As Alain de Benoist says2, it’s not about believing in the gods, but awakening to their presence. It is the presence of the gods, preceding any belief in or reflections on their “true nature”, that is all that is necessary to establish a relationship with them. Indeed the same is true of the presence of anyone or anything: babies are aware of the presence of their mothers, and establish a relationship with them, before they are even capable of belief as such.

Ms Ravenna captures some of this notion of presence by speaking of encounter:

Thus, the Gods as we know Them are something more like processes of encounter, rather than fixed forms. That is to say, the presence we experience is always a mask or manifestation of that God, shaped in such a way as to translate into our more limited consciousness and frame of reference.

But from an animist viewpoint, the god is the thing itself. For example, on the drive down to Olympia I was struck by the presence of the mountain (Mount Rainier), which impressed upon me a sense of divinity. That presence I experienced was a manifestation of the mountain, an appearance different that day than on a rainy day, or from a closer or further distance, a perception in my consciousness and frame of reference. The mountain itself is not a manifestation of some god, the mountain is itself the god.

Many gods, many truths

As I said earlier, there are no facts, only interpretations, and truth is only meaningful in the context of a particular perspective, and perspectives vary slightly (or substantially) from person to person. Thus, many different names are given to the Sun, for example, and many different stories are told about it, that reveal its nature. And yet for the most part, the stories match up in a way that we find ourselves referring to a single “thing”. Here are some stories told about the Sun, from different perspectives:

  • The Sun gives us day and night. For the daytime, the sun rises in the east, moves slowly across the sky around to the south, and sets in the west. It’s plainly visible in the sky except when hidden behind cloud (or vary rarely, the moon). Even then its light is usually enough to make daytime.
  • Sol is a yellow dwarf, that is, a G-Type star on the main sequence, around which the Earth orbits. It’s about 4.6 billion years old, is about 1.4 billion metres across, has a mass of about 2×1030 kilogrammes, and radiates about 3.8×1026 watts.
  • Helios rides his chariot, he shines upon men and deathless gods, and piercingly he gazes with his eyes from his golden helmet. Bright rays beam dazzlingly from him, and his bright locks streaming from the temples of his head gracefully enclose his far-seen face: a rich, fine-spun garment glows upon his body and flutters in the wind : and stallions carry him. Then, when he has stayed his golden-yoked chariot and horses, he rests there upon the highest point of heaven, until he marvellously drives them down again through heaven to Okeanos. [Homeric Hymn 31 to Helius]
  • Amaterasu, in her fury, hid herself in a cave, making all the land a constant night, and so all the gods assembled to lure her out. They made a huge mirror from stone and iron, and the goddess Uzume stamped on an upturned bucket and sang and strip-danced upon it, making the assembled gods laugh. When Amaterasu peeked out and asked what they were doing, Uzume said there was there a goddess superior to Amaterasu, and the gods brought out the mirror. Entranced by her reflection, Amaterasu emerged from the cave. One god pulled her out by the hand while another pulled a rope behind her, preventing her from returning. And the land became light.

All these names and stories refer to the same phenomenon: the Sun is the star Sol is Helios is Amaterasu is Saulė is Sunna is Álfröðull “glory of elves” is the Sun. The ancient Greeks, the ancient Germans, the Japanese, the astronomers, and the “ordinary person” in Seattle all tell stories about the Sun that reveal various aspects of its nature. And all of these stories are true, each in its own perspective. Each story will make sense to you to the degree that you share its perspective.

Some of these perspectives reveal the sacred, that is, what we have unconditional respect for (de Benoist again3), and that reveals the god or spirit or kami of the thing, the god that is the thing. To see the Sun as sacred, as a god, is to have unconditional respect for it, and It is that sense of unconditionality, rather than the intensity, of respect that makes something sacred. Different cultures express this respect in different ways, telling different stories.

The Sun, then, is not a job that Helios performs: rather, Helios is the Sun. Likewise, smithcraft is not a job that Goibniu performs: rather, Goibniu is smithcraft, among other things. But the gods do not correspond to single English terms in a simple way: quite often they are multiple “things” all at once, or a single “thing” is multiple gods, each standing for multiple perspectives on it. Helios, for example, is also eyesight, or some aspects of it, and a number of stories reveal the role of Helios as Panoptes, the one who, being above it all, sees all on Earth, everything under the Sun. And his mother, Theia, is also sight, while his father, Hyperion, is also the light of the sky. In this case, the parental relationship between these gods reveals their connections and associations as parts of the world.

Even mythological cosmologies are the world. For example, the Nine Worlds of the Norse are each part of the Whole World, the Infinite World, the Unknowable World, a world with gods everywhere, that is, the present world.

Theology is useless and will hurt you

Gods are not persons (except, of course, for those that are, such as certain Roman and Japanese emperors). They are the world. The proper starting point for relationships with the gods is the immediate presence of the world. For this mythology is sufficient; theology is unnecessary and unhelpful. Theology makes statements, statements that logically exclude other statements, statements that must be universally true for the theology to be valid. By contrast, mythology tells stories, stories that can accommodate variants and disagreements, stories that each listener and each storyteller may judge on their value or their appeal or their appropriateness to their needs at that time.

It is not actually a problem for us animists if we do not happen to feel the presence of every god in every moment. The texture of the experience of life should vary. But for polytheodoxists, as for Christian believers, belief must be constantly maintained to avoid cognitive dissonance. Any doubt generates a “crisis of faith” and much unnecessary anxiety, or else a state of make-believe where one pretends something one does not truly believe. This is no way to live.

Presence, not agency

The gods are present, and they have their own own history, context, and ways, independent of our own, just as every part of the world does. And they influence us. But agency is a concept from the wrong perspective, which if followed, leads to some very silly ideas…

Do the gods have agency? Do they have qualia? What would it be like to be one of the gods? Can they converse with more than one mortal at a time? Do they have trouble dividing their attention when they are called on by multiple devotees at once? If they’re annoyed with one devotee, does another one have to deal with their bad mood? Can they pass on messages from altar to altar across space? (This could have been useful in ancient wars.) Do they still get up to their old mythological tricks? For example, the stories tell of many mortal women that Zeus seduced. Does Zeus still actually do that, and if so, who was the last real woman he really had sex with? And given that, for example, Danae was a mortal woman, does or did she really exist the way the gods really exist? Meanwhile, if Zeus and Thor are not the same being, but are both in charge of thunderstorms, do they have a duty roster, or do they divvy up storms by region, or what?

These questions have no serious literal answers. At most some may have mythological or ritual answers, that is, stories that reveal truths about the world. For example, Zeus’ seductions could perhaps be used in ritual. Instead, since agency is part of the world, perhaps there are gods of agency, that is, agency itself as gods: this could be an interpretation of the genius and juno that the Romans imputed to every man and woman.

The gods are not individual

“Individual” literally means “cannot be divided”. A person is individual: if you cut a person in two, you do not get two people. If you glue two people together, you do not end up with a single person. A community, on the other hand, is not individual. Communities can split into smaller communities. Communities can lump together into larger communities. Indeed, a larger community can be composed of smaller communities: the larger and smaller both existing at the same time. What of the gods, are they individual in this literal sense?

A cursory glance at any mythology reveals that they are not. The gods, it turns out, can be divided, just as the world can be. There are many examples of gods that have multiple aspects, multiple faces, that are sometimes considered part of one god and are sometimes considered separate gods. For example, the Celtic goddess Brighid has two sisters, also called Brighid. Are these three separate goddesses or all aspects of the same goddess? The former approach is known as “splitting” while the latter is known as “lumping”. Likewise, the many epithets of Venus can be seen as separate goddesses or as one goddess in many roles, depending on context and needs.

The only approach that acknowledges the whole of the mythology is to accept all of it, understanding that lumping and splitting are appropriate in different contexts. (Indeed gods seem more like clades or taxons than like individuals.) Whereas Christians have their received dogma on this matter for their “Trinity”, for polytheists no fixed answer is universally appropriate.

The response from hard polytheists, or those who insist that gods are individuals, is largely to insist on always splitting all the time. This would seem to declare consideration of the “lumped” god as heretical, as if one cannot make offerings to Venus, since that is not one individual.

And the situation only gets worse when we consider the mythologies of multiple cultures. (I suppose the “hardest” approach here would be to insist that one’s own mythology is True and those of other cultures are False, but I’ve not heard of anyone take it, perhaps because it is so obviously ahistorical.) If the gods are individuals, are Mars and Ares the same individual, or are they different individuals? They have somewhat different mythologies and other differences, yet the Romans and the Greeks both said they were the same, as they did routinely for matching gods. Each name is simply a translation of the other, “different names employed by different nations” in Pliny’s somewhat disapproving words.

The animist view is straightforward: the gods actually are the world. Mars is war (and possibly other things), and so is Ares. Those names stand for different interpretations of (roughly) the same thing, and of course there can be great variety in interpretation. There is no doubt that war really exists, so there is no doubt that Mars and Ares really exist: there is no need for belief or faith. For the ancient Roman or Greek soldier, the immediate presence of war demands respect unconditionally as a matter of victory and defeat, of life and death.

Likewise, their is no doubt that the Sun exists: Helios is a god physically located in space, a god I can literally physically point to on any sunny day. The Sun provides almost all the Earth’s energy, the energy necessary for all life, as well as establishing the day and the year, the essential cycles of nature. For me there is never a reason not to respect that.

It is for this reason the ancient polytheists sacrificed to their gods.

— Ashley Yakeley

  1. John K. Nelson, A Year in the Life of a Shinto Shrine, University of Washington. p. 117
  2. Alain de Benoist, “Thoughts on God”, TYR: Myth – Culture – Tradition 2
  3. Alain de Benoist, On Being A Pagan, ULTRA. p. 18