The Identity of the Gods

Note: I am not entirely happy with this. I’ve updated my view in the comments.

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

4 thoughts on “The Identity of the Gods

  1. Ashley Yakeley Post author

    My main concern is that I’ve defined “theology” and “belief” too narrowly. The difference I’m trying to capture is between “things that are true in some perspective” (stories, mythology) vs. “things that are universally true” (beliefs, theology). For example, for today’s ritual one might say that Venus Genetrix is a goddess, and for tomorrow’s ritual one might say that Venus “as a whole” is a goddess and Venus Genetrix is merely one role or aspect of Venus. It’s two different perspectives, and for as long as one accepts that perspectives change, there’s no contradiction. The gods themselves may be independent of us, but their status as “individuals” and other such interpretational details are not: these change with perspective.

    But if one believes that Venus Genetrix is a goddess and Venus is a collection of goddesses and not one, as an idea that is Actually Really True and that people who say otherwise are wrong, that’s a problem. That’s the sense of “belief” I intend. I mean, I think it’s the fairly common sense of “belief”, but still worth clarifying.

    What if someone says that the Sun rises in the West? Is that wrong? Well, probably, because they’re probably sharing the same perspective you have about the appearance of the Sun in the sky, and in that perspective it’s wrong. But perhaps they have some weird mystical perspective in which it makes sense…

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  2. Ashley Yakeley Post author

    I’m also concerned that I’ve defined “agenda” too narrowly. The difference here is between “qualia” and “intent”. Certainly, believing that there is “something that it would be like” to be any given god leads to some silly ideas. But as part of religious perspectives, the gods can have intent, including intent for us. Indeed this is often the very force of a god, a central way of understanding them, and reflected in their mythology.

    Then again, a lot of things have intent. It’s not unreasonable to say that a virus intends to infect a cell, in order to reproduce, or that a tree intends to grow as quickly as possible in a forest clearing, in order to get as much sunlight as it can. In both cases, the intent is reflected in the structure of the organism. Not to get too biotruthy, but one could say that all intent of all living things ultimately derives from the intent to reproduce genes, that life itself is this intent… with various caveats, no doubt.

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  3. Ashley Yakeley Post author

    At risk of typical-minding, people generally occasionally entertain doubts about things they believe, doubts that will persist if they cannot be straightforwardly eliminated. Thus, I suspect “hard” polytheists, at the back of their minds is the suspicion what if I’m just making it all up?. It’s a reasonable doubt, and you’ll hear in the pagan scene lots of stories of magical coincidences and the like that seem like attempts to eliminate this doubt. Furthermore, it’s a doubt that’s reinforced by the whole over-culture where we live, and forms part of the cultural bubble that generally separates pagans from their actual quotidian culture. The result is cognitive dissonance, and perhaps a degree of defensiveness about “imaginary friends”…

    The animist approach completely avoids this problem. The experience of the god is certainly in one’s head, like all experiences, while the god is actually real and (typically) external, since they’re a part of the actual present world. It’s a bit like this: imagine finding a beautiful seashell on the beach. You are the first person ever to notice this seashell, the first person to have an experience of beauty connected to it. And “beauty”, of course, is a purely subjective human experience. But the seashell was always beautiful: you didn’t create its beauty by looking at it, you merely recognised it. So it is with the gods: the things that make the Sun a god, or war a god, or much more subtle things gods, existed beforehand: we merely recognise their sanctity, their godhood.

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