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 religion” — 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

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