Author Archives: Ashley Yakeley

What Shinto Can Teach Paganism

I very much dislike the “open/closed” dichotomy that pagans sometimes apply to the religious traditions of other cultures. It insists on two categories of religion, those that outsiders may never legitimately practice, and those that are “free” for anyone to disassemble and borrow from. Obviously Shinto is neither: anyone can do Shinto, but everyone says it should be done properly. Certainly this means Shinto practices should not be mixed with pagan practices: such a pastiche would erase the meanings attached to Shinto forms. However, while Shinto is very deeply Japanese, there are some principles and ideas within it that are of a universal nature, that I believe can usefully inform modern Western paganism.

I don’t live in Japan or even speak Japanese, so everything I write here is gleaned from English-language books and translations, Shinto practitioners on various internet forums, and my experiences visiting shrines in Japan. So there may be misunderstandings! I’ve done my best, in any case.

There’s no kind of modern Western paganism that directly resembles Shinto, though there are occasional parallels and similarities. Probably modern druidry (deriving from the 18th century, not Celtic reconstructionism) comes closest in spirit. In general, I’m guessing you’ll probably appreciate Shinto more if your paganism leans towards the localist / animist / naturalist side rather than the theological / Platonist / “hard polytheist” side.

1. The concept of kami.

Shinto is the way of the kami. Anyone can practice it, Shinto is something you do, not something you convert to.

According to the 18th century Japaneseness scholar Motoori Norinaga, and widely understood in Shinto today, a kami is anything of surpassing awesomeness. This can include natural phenomena and physical objects, such as mountains, rivers, and the Sun. People can also be kami, while still remaining entirely human:

I do not yet well understand the meaning of the word kami (and all the old explanations are wrong), but in general, the word kami refers to, first of all, the various kami of heaven and earth spoken of in the classics, and the spirits [mitama] enshrined in their shrines, and it goes without saying that it also refers to people, and even birds and beasts and grass and trees, ocean and mountains — and anything else which has superior and extraordinary power, provoking awe. Here, “superb” means not only superior in nobility and goodness, but also awe-inspiring things of great evil and weirdness, anything which provokes a high degree of wonder.

Of people, those called kami of course include the most exalted lineage of emperors, who are called “distant kami” since they are so far removed from the ordinary person, and worthy of reverence. Then there are the human kami, who existed long ago and also at present; a certain number of human kami exist in each province, village, and house, each in accord with his or her station.

The kami of the age of kami [jindai] were also mostly men of that time, and since all the people of that age were kami, it is called the “age of kami.” Of those things which were not men, for example, lightning was known as a “sounding kami” [narukami], and the “sound of kami” [kaminari], so also the dragon and tree spirits, and foxes, since they were uncommonly mysterious, were called kami

There were also many occasions on which mountains and oceans were called kami; this does not mean that a spirit [mitama] indwelling the mountain was called kami, but that the mountain itself, or the ocean itself, was kami, and this, too, because of their superbly awe-inspiring quality.

In this way, kami are of manifold varieties, some noble and some base, some strong and some weak, some good and some evil, each being immediately in accord with its own mind and behavior. — [Kojiki-den, referenced here, which has a lot more on kami]

In this sense, kami are recognised rather than theologically defined. Anything and everything might potentially be a kami. What matters is the direct awareness of presence of kami, rather than an abstract belief in their existence. In this way, Shinto sacralises that actual real immediately-present world, rather than abstract Platonic ideal forms.

Just as kami are conceived phenomenologically rather than metaphysically, Shinto does not make a metaphysical distinction between “the natural” and “the supernatural”: rather, Shinto speaks of a phenomenological “seen world” (kenkai) and “unseen world” (yukai) that are simply what is seen and unseen in this world. Indeed one person might see what another does not. The spirits (mitama) of kami inhabit the unseen world, thus, kami may have both seen and unseen aspects.

Since Shinto has no formal doctrine, it doesn’t fit cleanly into the familiar Western belief-based classification of religion. Instead you can find many themes, for example:

  • Polytheism: there are innumerable kami, and any may be a focus of religious veneration.
  • Monism: some say that all kami are ultimately part of one kami that is everything.
  • Animism: things may be beings with which one might form a relationship.
  • Naturalism: it is “the mountain itself, or the ocean itself” that inspires great awe, that is the kami. In this view, kami are forces of nature because everything is a force of nature: nature is everything and there is nothing else.

Although the kami experience is universal rather than specific to the Japanese, there isn’t a good unambiguous English translation of the word. The word “spirit” is misleading. Rather, the concept of kami as divine natural phenomena gives us a particular concept of “god” that may appeal, I hope, to anyone who may see the sacred in the present immediate world.

What would a paganism informed by the kami-concept look like? Such a paganism would start from experiences of the divine that you or I may have, and always be rooted in this. It would identify and sacralise those worldly phenomena that inspire a feeling of power and awe, that inspire veneration, and reveal them as beings with which we can form religious relationships. These beings might be physical objects (such as mountains), or aspects of our lives and culture, such as love, virtue, craft, justice, and so forth, or yet some other more subtle aspect of the world with no common name.

2. The cultivation of sincerity and gratitude.

In escaping the moralism of Abrahamic religions, modern paganism tends to neglect self-improvement as any kind of religious goal. This is not the case for Shinto. Sincerity (magokoro) and gratitude (kansha) are essential to Shinto practice. Offerings to kami are performed in gratitude for the blessings the kami have provided.

Many pagan polytheists follow the “do ut des” model of interaction with their gods, a Latin formula meaning “I give so that you may give”. They sacrifice offerings to the gods so that the gods may reciprocate with their blessings. Afterwards, the offerings are discarded, even tossed in the trash.

In Shinto one might think of this as reversed (“das ut dem“): the kami have already given us so much, so it is natural and healthy to express gratitude for it. Shinto festivals typically involve beautiful displays of foods, drinks, and other offerings. These are displays of bounty for which to be grateful. The consecrated food and sake are not sacrificed or destroyed, but are instead shared at a feast (naorai) following the ritual.

Offerings are worthwhile because they are an opportunity to express gratitude to the kami and everything they do for us, rather than because of some expectation of divine tit-for-tat reciprocation. (Though if you do need the help of the kami for specific life problems, you can obtain an amulet at a shrine in exchange for a small donation, or a wooden plaque on which to leave your wish.)

Consider the Sun. In Shinto, the Sun is the kami Amaterasu-Omikami, and widely venerated. No matter what you do, no matter whether you, or your culture, or humanity, makes offerings or does not, the Sun will provide its divine blessings of light to all life. Isn’t this a cause for deep reverence and gratitude?

3. Practices of purification.

When performing pagan ritual, there is always some kind of mark or separation from the profane, always some intent to make these acts specifically religious ritual acts rather than ordinary acts. Wiccans, for example, “cast a circle” to demark their space and actions as ritual.

In Western paganism and ceremonial magic there is the notion of banishing evil spirits to purify place, but not so much for purification of oneself, of casting off spiritual as well as literal “dirtiness”, to make oneself suitable for ritual, or simply for one’s own well-being.

Purification (harae), of both place and of person, is a big part of Shinto. For example, when visiting a shrine, before praying to the kami, one should first wash one’s hands and mouth at the fountain for that purpose (temizu-ya). Misogi is a more intense form of personal purification, involving standing in a river or waterfall. Purification cleanses kegare, the kind of spiritual uncleanliness and defilement that arises from particular actions and situations, and more generally from the stress of everyday life.

If pagan temples become properly established, they should be places for this kind of ritual renewal, to resacralise ourselves, to cleanse our spirits and to receive the blessings of the gods.

4. Rootedness in culture and land.

Modern paganism, particularly in the United States, sometimes seems caught politically between a deracinated universalism and a racist folkishness. Among reconstructionists of ancient paganisms, the tendency to flit from ancient culture to ancient culture, as if those religions are meaningful when torn from their original cultures, is an example of the former.

In the latter category are white people using pagan religion as an adjunct to white nationalism. These people call themselves “folkish”, and bar practice to anyone they do not deem racially “white”. This kind of racial concern is unhistorical and indeed just plain racist. “Folkish” paganism is generally reviled by other pagans.

Shinto is not “folkish”. Shinto is deeply rooted in present and past Japanese culture. I have heard Shinto described as “the essence of Japaneseness”. And yet it is freely open to anyone to practice. For example, shrines in Japan are generally open to anyone to visit. Meiji Jingu, a large shrine in Tokyo, gives instructions on its website in English on how to do so properly (it’s actually not difficult). Shinto priests are keen on both Japanese and non-Japanese alike visiting their shrines, in the proper manner.

What would a properly culturally-rooted paganism look like? It would be rooted in local folklore, history, and land. It would measure its authenticity by cultural intelligibility. That is, though only a minority of a culture might practice paganism, others would nevertheless recognise it as part of their culture. Of course, it would be open to anyone willing to make the effort to learn to practice properly.

Actually, in Central and Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, there are already good examples of this kind of paganism, sometimes called ethnic religion or native faith. Examples include Romuva (Lithuania), Maausk (Estonia), Finnish Native Religion, Ősmagyar Vallás (Hungary) and so forth. What gives such ethnic religions authenticity is that they are intelligible by the people as belonging to that people, even if only a minority actually practice. For example, according to one report, while only 4% of Estonians practice Estonian paganism, a majority consider it to be the true religion of Estonia.

Who are your people, and what are your traditions? What are the pagan-ish and animist traces and flavours in your folklore? How is your land already honoured and sanctified? What are the stories that connect these things?

5. The sanctification of place.

It is a delight to walk in a Japanese city or countryside and to come across a shrine, large or small, or even a tree with a sacred rope (shimenawa). The presence of the shrine reveals the presence of the kami in that particular place, and reveals its sanctity. This, here, is the place.

What are the magical places where you live, which have that feeling of being the place? …where there are great giants in the rock formations, or where if you fell asleep you might end up in fairyland? …where some great deed was done, or where some ancient building once stood?

6. A language of traditional forms.

Like any long-established tradition, particular forms for ritual, dress, shrine layout and architecture, etc., have arisen in Shinto with particular meanings, that create a kind of symbolic language that enriches all aspects of practice. Paganism would benefit from having more established systems of meaning for its outward forms, but perhaps this is something that takes time to build and there is no shortcut.

More about Shinto

If you want to practice Shinto, the best thing to do is simply visit a shrine the next time you are in Japan. Priests encourage this, provided you do so in the proper manner. This is not hard to learn: the Meiji Jingu explains on their site. More here.

— Ashley Yakeley

The Tree of Gender

According to Nietzsche, there are no facts, only interpretations. However you may feel about that in general, I hope to convince you that gender (in a wide sense, to include sex) is best understood as an interpretation, not a fact. For example, I behold you, and assign “female”, or “male”, or perhaps some other gender to you, or not, based on what I think of you and know about you, and based on my own perspective on gender.

But different people have different perspectives on gender, and so assign gender differently to the same people. That is, we make different interpretations of the same beings. And what’s more, we use different perspectives in different contexts, for example, social versus sexual, or private versus public.

Most importantly, there is no “one true” perspective on gender, that is, gender is subjective and not objective. Here I am going to discuss a variety of perspectives on gender, and how these perspectives each emphasise and deemphasise particular elements, particular aspects of nature and culture that are frequently considered gendered.

I want you to imagine a tree. The earth the tree grows in is nature, the cycle of fertility, sex, and childbirth, created and recreated by the evolutionary forces of mutation and selection, the purpose of gender and the reason why it exists at all. This reproductive purpose is the source of the inevitable binarity that pervades notions of gender generally, and perhaps inevitably justifies a certain amount of cis-hetero-centrism.

The roots of the tree are biological and developmental factors such as allosomes, TDF protein presence/absence, sex steroids (i.e. androgens, œstrogens).

The trunk is bodily anatomy, not only sex organs but all sexual dimorphism, including differences in brain biology. Some of this is surgically malleable, much more of it is not.

The branches are gender identity, thoughts, feelings, reactions, our sense of self.

The leaves, growing from and somewhat obscuring the branches, are gender roles, speech, behaviour, how we express ourselves, the clothes we wear, the choices we make, all things masculine and feminine.

The winds of culture blow the branches and especially the leaves.

Which of these things truly determines a person’s gender?

Leaves First

We acquire our first notions of gender at around age two or three. These tend to be based more on dress and social expectations than on genital anatomy, and may not even consider gender to be a constant fact about oneself or others. Tests on children showing pictures of babies naked and with gender-appropriate or -inappropriate clothes, show that many three-year-olds determine gender solely by social cues. This changes, of course, as we grow older.

It’s easy to think that these three-year-olds are mistaken about gender, lacking “genital knowledge”, the way kids are mistaken about lots of things. But we’ve given up objectivity: no views of gender are “correct” or “incorrect” in any absolute sense. Children merely make various gender interpretations as they learn about it. But these interpretations, though they are not facts, are still subject to criticism, based on how useful or appropriate they are in a given context. One can call children’s inconstant interpretations of gender useless or inappropriate, ones that will be replaced by better interpretations, but one cannot call them inaccurate as such — except with reference to some other theory of gender.

The Snag Radical Feminist Tree

The radical feminist view of sex and gender is today deeply unfashionable. As a result, those putting forth this view have had to be much more careful and much more charitable in presenting their arguments to be taken at all seriously.

While I have been using gender in a broad sense, the radical feminist view typically distinguishes “sex” from “gender” in a narrower sense. Roughly, the roots and the trunk of the tree are “sex”, while the branches and leaves are “gender”. Sex is natural and biological, while gender is behaviour that is a product of culture, specifically an all-pervading theme of culture they call “patriarchy”. Femaleness and maleness, as well as womanhood and manhood, apply to biological sex, and not social gender. Gender is, in this view, a wholly negative phenomenon, not part of one’s true self or true consciousness, especially not for women, and for this reason, the view is also called gender-critical.

This article gives a pretty good view of the radical feminist or gender-critical concept of biological sex:

Several of us endorse a cluster account of femaleness, according to which possession of some vague number of a certain set of endogenously-produced primary sex characteristics — including vagina, ovaries, womb, fallopian tubes, and XX chromosomes — is sufficient for femaleness, though no particular characteristic is necessary or essential.

This is what makes someone female, or male. The roots and trunk of the tree are what matters. To sever the branches from the trunk, this view typically considers that “mind has no sex”, and gendered behaviour is entirely artificial and cultural. The gender-critical project is actually to abolish social gender entirely.

In the radical feminist view, why does transgender arise? Why do men, as they say, claim to be women, and why do women claim to be men? It is an axiom of radical feminism that society privileges men entirely above women. So for the latter case, trans men are simply women who desire the privileges of being accepted as men. The former case might pose more of a puzzle, but it is generally chalked up to a kind of bottomless well of male sexual perversity, or even the specific desire to invade women-only spaces. This fits in with an overall negative view of men in general.

The radical feminist view of gender is consistent, but depends on a “blank slate” view of gender. A thought-experiment to illustrate this: let us say you had a newborn girl and a newborn boy, and magically surgically swapped their brains. Would they be more likely than otherwise to (1) grow up homosexual (relative to their genitalia)? (2) experience gender dysphoria, the persistent feeling of being in the wrong-gendered body? (3) end up preferring to inhabit the opposite (relative to their genitalia) social gender roles? I think the radical feminist answer is “no” to all three, though this leaves no answer to the question, why are some people homosexual and others heterosexual?


What is identity? There are two sides to it. Internal identity is how you think of yourself, while external identity is how others think of you, how they identify you and differentiate you from others. It’s easy to think of internal identity as prior “true” identity, and external identity as following on from that, as merely other’s knowledge of your internal identity, which may be accurate or inaccurate. But actually I think external identity comes first, and internal identity is what you want others to think about you, your desires for external identity. You can think of external identity as “identity achieved” and internal identity as “identity desired”.

Both kinds of identity are important. To disregard external identity is narcissistic, insisting that others think about you only in the way you wish. To disregard internal identity is authoritarian, forcing you to conform to the needs of others. And it is normal, not unusual, for the two kinds of identity to be in tension, this kind of struggle to achieve a desired identity is part of what it means to be human. If gender is “performative” in any sense, it is this struggle, the actions we do to encourage others to think of us in particular ways.

Natalie Reed’s definition of gender identity is an example of what I mean by internal identity:

Gender Identity – The inner conceptual sense of self as “man”, “woman” or other, as divorced from issues like gender expression, sexual orientation, or physiological sex. It is a subtle and abstract, but extremely powerful, sense of who you are, in terms of gender, independent of how you dress, behave, what your interests are, who you’re attracted to, etc.

Some people claim not to experience any such internal sense of gender. But if internal identity is understood as a desire for external identity, that’s unsurprising. We don’t typically experience desire for things we already have: at the very least, we must first reflect on the possibility or threat of their absence. So if you’re already socially recognised as the gender you want, you are unlikely to give the matter any thought. If you’re unsure whether you have internal gender identity, ask yourself, if your brain were transplanted into the body of the other sex, and were socially recognised as that sex, would your new external gender identity trouble you?

It’s worth mentioning that internal gender identity is not even necessary for a useful concept of gender. From an external perspective, newborn babies have gender, most animals have gender, even some plants have gender, without (apparently) having any internal gender identity or engaging in performative acts.

The Deracinated Trans-Activist Tree

In its simplest form, the trans-activist view defines gender entirely by internal identity, that is, you are female if you consider yourself to be female. Biological structures such as womb, penis, are not themselves gendered and their presence or absence have no bearing on gender. This view of gender is a deracinated tree, with little trunk and no roots connecting it to its origin and reproductive purpose.

In extreme form, this view wishes to entirely erase any connection between anatomy and gender in any context. So for example, a woman who identifies as lesbian is “transphobic” if she is not attracted to trans women, because lesbian can only mean a woman who is attracted to women irrespective of anatomy and genitalia, and trans women are plainly women.

Furthermore, if genitalia are not gendered, then a preference for one kind of genitalia over the other kind has nothing to do with gender either. So, logically, “gender dysphoria” has nothing to do with gender either: it’s merely a desire or need for one (ungendered) kind of genitalia over the other (ungendered) kind of genitalia. For example, a woman has a penis, but in this view it’s a female penis, because it belongs to a woman. Then the desire to replace this female penis with a female vagina has nothing to do with gender, because the genitalia are female either way. This seems to erase a common theme of transgender experience.

As such, the self-identity definition is circular. It raises the question, when you identify as female, what do you mean by female?

Transmedicalism Redeeming the Trunk

One way of avoiding this circularity is to root gender in brain biology. This view rejects the claim that mind has no sex, and accepts a sexed difference in brain development. This leads to the possibility of dysphoria, when due to occasional developmental circumstances, the brain is sexed differently from the rest of the body. Defining transgender in terms of dysphoria is known as transmedicalism.

This also admits the possibility that gendered behaviour, masculinity and femininity, are rooted in brain biology, albeit expressed in culturally-determined forms. People may tend to be, on average, biologically predisposed to inhabit gender roles. This would explain the widespread cross-cultural persistence of certain themes of masculinity and femininity.

There is a parallel, indeed, between gender identity and gender preference: some part of the brain says to the self “I desire women rather than men”, while another part of the brain says to the self “I am a woman rather than a man”.

Looking at the trunk of our tree, there are a large cluster of anatomical differences between men and women, with which we might construct a notion of “anatomical” or “biological” maleness and femaleness. Medical and surgical interventions alter some of this gendered biology, especially those affecting the social perception of gender, while much else is left unaltered. Thus, in the transmedicalist model, the body starts from one’s natal gender, but through hormones and surgery, becomes partly but not completely the other gender, redeeming the dissonance between brain and anatomy.

Transmedicalism’s focus on the signficance of transgender dysphoria (somatic or social) comes from a consistent and credible model of gender, however, its insistence on dysphoria as a necessary defining characteristic of the word “transgender” may exclude other useful interpretations of gender. The theory of mismatch between brain development and anatomy is a reasonable foundation for the concept of transgender, but it may not be the only foundation.

Public Policy

Who should be permitted in womens’ and mens’ restrooms? Who should be incarcerated in women’s and men’s facilities? Who should be permitted in women’s sports? How do we resolve gendered questions of public policy?

Rather than attempting to establish a single objective definition of gender for all public policy purposes, I believe it is necessary in each case to first establish the purpose of gender distinction, and then come up with a specific definition of gender, or more generally a policy, that best serves that particular purpose. This inevitably means that some people will be, for example, “female” in general social contexts, and “male” when competing in sports.

Sports provide an interesting case. Sporting events desire the very best athletes; when considering the population as a whole, these will almost always be young adult men. A gender-neutral policy will thus have a highly gendered outcome, just as it has a highly age-specific outcome. To ameliorate this, or at least to provide more variety of sports spectacle, it is common in many sports to create an additional league restricted to women. One could likewise create special restricted leagues for those over the age of forty, or those under a particular height, or those of a particular weight as is actually done in boxing.

For qualification to women’s sports leagues, the appropriate approach is to consider those aspects of gender that affect athletic performance, such as testosterone level both present and at puberty. However at present there seems to be no obvious single standard, leaving instead a contentious trade-off of concerns. The International Olympic Committee, for example, has set a guideline of a particular serum testosterone level, but is now considering restricting it.

If someone qualifies to compete in a women’s sports league, because of some quality of their blood, does that make them a woman? Is it, at least, an act of recognition of womanhood? Actually it is merely one more interpretation of gender for one particular purpose, relevant in that context and not in others.

Contextual Views

People already use different conceptions of gender in different contexts, perhaps using the self-identity standard (the branches of the tree) in ordinary social situations, and anatomy and signals of fertility (the trunk of the tree) when examining their own sexual desires. The former is not necessarily mere “courtesy of pronouns” but can be a genuine perception of someone as the gender they say they are, in that social context.

For sexual desire, however, the self-identification conception of gender cannot be the definitive last word in determining the genderedness of attraction. Some people are bi- or pan-sexual, but many (probably most) have a preference for one sex over the other. These preferences tend to be more or less involuntary and immutable (witnessing the failure of “conversion therapy”) and strongly influenced by anatomy, including genitalia. This should not be surprising, given that gender and its tendency towards binarity ultimately originate in fertility and reproduction.

A contextual approach to gender interpretation frees social recognition of gender from sexual desire. It permits situation-specific approaches to gender in public policy without making or relying on objective declarations of gender. It frees others to interpret you as they will, while accepting the legitimacy of your choices of self-presentation on which others’ interpretations are based.

— Ashley Yakeley

Notes on Communal Bathing

The first and most important thing to understand about communal bathing is that baths are not swimming pools. If you understand that, much else will follow. Bathing is what you do at home, naked, in your tub, in nice fresh hot water. Communal bathing is the same, but with others.

Generally speaking, cultures that have a continuing history of communal bathing, such as East Asians, seem to do better at drawing this distinction. Sadly, the English-speaking world is largely not among them. I have visited Japan a number of times, and always enjoy their bathing facilities, so I shall mostly draw on my experiences there in this post. I shall also include sauna almost in the same breath as I speak of bathing, as the experience and culture are similar.

Swimming PoolBath
lukewarm (30°)hot (40°)
chlorinated recycleduntreated fresh-fed (e.g. from hot spring)
shower aftershower before

Gender & Nudity

There is a trade-off between modesty, especially before the opposite sex, and the convenience and cleanliness of nudity. Naturally, different cultures will have different preferences. I am sympathetic to the view, common in Japan, that swimsuits are “dirty” and don’t belong in clean water that clean people are trying to relax in, and also make sweating in the sauna less pleasant.

In any case, the various possibilities relating to gender and nudity generally sort into a small number of approaches, to which I have given names and codes for further reference:

  • swimming pool [S]: mixed, swimsuits. This is the norm for the U.S., and pretty much ubiquitous in England, even for facilities that call themselves “spa” or “public bath”.
  • hippie [H]: mixed, swimsuit optional. In the U.S., this is found in certain “boutique” establishments, especially those with a New Age feel, and also at hot springs, especially the less developed ones.
  • traditional [T]: gender separated, naked only (sometimes with mixed clothed areas). This is the norm in Japan, whether it’s fancy spas in Tokyo or tiny bathhouses in the country.
  • nudist [N]: mixed, naked only. You might consider this a stricter version of hippie where swimsuits are not permitted, but it’s better understood as a version of traditional where there’s no gender separation. This is found occasionally in certain rural hot springs in Japan, where it is called konyoku.
  • women only [Wo]: swimsuit optional. women only naked [Wn]: naked only.
  • men only [Mo]: swimsuit optional. men only naked [Mn]: naked only. Leaving aside sex play establishments, these options are rare in the U.S. except as particular days. Even then, the days/times will generally be shorter than corresponding women-only times.

Traditional is best, or nudist if you’re in a mixed group. It is not uncommon in the U.S. for an establishment to have different options on different days or times: [S/Wo/Mo] and [H/Wo/Mo] are common combinations.

Facilities & Temperatures

As an Englishman, I am ashamed to say that my people have no taste in communal bathing. The last time anyone gave serious attention to communal bathing in my homeland was under the Romans.

For example, in the beautiful and promisingly-named city of Bath, the only place in Britain or Ireland where geothermal water springs naturally from the ground, you may find a modern English bathing establishment by the name of Thermae Bath Spa. Despite its grand name referring to the thermae of the Romans, it is but a mere swimming pool, or rather two swimming pools, both for some reason at the exact same lukewarm temperature of 33.5°. The city is blessed with the marvellous natural gift of 46° hot water, and yet they spend money to refrigerate it. And to think there’s a wonderful example of ancient Roman bathing technology right next door. Oh indeed, there are some saunas with pointless “aromatherapy” scents added, but they never quite get hot enough given that people have to open the door to get in and out.

Anyway, these are the kinds of facilities one might find in a proper communal bathing establishment, together with their Roman names:

  • hot pool (caldarium): 40° is the perfect temperature, at which point all trace of lukewarmness is banished.
  • warm pool (tepidarium): sometimes these are salted.
  • cold pool (frigidarium): about 15° is good.
  • hot room (laconicum): temperatures vary: Russian parilkas can go above 100°, but 80° is a more typical “hot sauna” temperature. In a Finnish sauna one can typically splash water on hot rocks for steam.
  • steam room (sudatorium): these just fill with steam. Sometimes eucalyptus or some other scent is added.
  • warm room: I have come across “low temperature sauna” rooms at 40°.
  • cold room: like the cold pool, about 15° is good.

The human core body temperature varies through the day; 37.5° is typical for the daytime. Half an hour in a sauna will raise that by about 1°.

The Hot Spring Experience

Municipal water can be heated, of course, and this can supply a public bath such as the sento of Japan with hot water (yu). However, sometimes nature provides water heated deep underground (“geothermal”) to spring at the surface. This is known as a hot spring, or onsen in Japan. Spring water just flows and flows, if it’s not used it just drains off. (Sometimes a pipe is drilled down to a geothermal aquifer, to obtain a kind of artificial hot spring.)

You’ll be pleased to know there’s a Unicode emoji for hot springs: ♨️

For any bathing-oriented culture, hot springs are a great blessing, fully worthy of sanctification as a natural goddess as the ancient Romans did at Bath, building a temple and a bathing facility as two overlapping rectangles, with the spring itself in the intersection.

The Japanese love to bathe in hot springs, so villages grow up wherever they are found, typically in beautiful mountainous locations. Outdoor bathing pools are particularly popular; these are known as rotemburo. The ideal soaking experience is a cold clear winter’s day, with a good view of the mountains. After showering and scrubbing, one can alternate lazy sessions of soaking and sitting out.

“Après bath is a time for relaxing and cooling off. So find a comfortable spot where you can sit calmly and let magnificent thoughts fill your mind.”
— Leonard Koren, How To Take A Japanese Bath

When planning hot spring visits, you may care to pay attention to the mineral content of the waters. While I have little interest in the supposed benefits of this or that mineral, I do find the smell of sulphuric springs unpleasant, and generally prefer to avoid them.

For the full experience, stay at a hot spring inn (onsen ryokan), lounge around in a yukata (provided), and be fed the best Japanese food of your life.

The Sauna Experience

sow-na. Impress your friends.

People coming to bathe having different needs and tastes. Some people just want to relax in the heat, especially in cold weather. However, in my view the full bathing experience involves the contrast of extremes, of heat and of cold.

Finnish saunas have hot stones onto which water can be thrown as needed; the resulting heat and steam is known as löyly. Your rural cottage has a sauna heated by smoke from a wood stove underneath the stones. The original savusauna doesn’t even have a chimney, and is instead vented after filling with smoke, leaving a layer of antimicrobial soot on everything. Afterwards, plunge into a snowbank or a hole cut in the ice (avanto) and swim about for a bit.

sun → light → tree → wood → smoke → stones → steam → body

This is my (rather milder) preferred procedure where such facilities are available.

  1. Shower and clean yourself thoroughly. Japanese-style sit-down showers make this easier. One should be entirely clean and rinsed.
  2. Heat up in the hot room (dry or steam), trying to get as much heat in your body as you can. The temperature of your brain is the limiting factor: for this reason Russians and occasionally Finns wear felt or woolly hats. At some point you will find yourself walking out, almost autonomously.
  3. Sit out until you feel cooled off.
  4. Return to the hot room to heat up again.
  5. Plunge into the cold pool, and stay in up to your neck until you can no longer feel the cold. This is the most difficult part, but the hotter your body got earlier, the easier it will be. Feel free to pant and thrash about in the water. Dunk your head under frequently: this is actually more comfortable, as it more quickly relieves your hot brain (which is why you left the hot room).
  6. When you start to feel cold again, exit the pool. Loudly declare ecce homo! to all (this part is optional). Sit on the bench while you feel your vital energy streaming through your body, or lie in the warm pool.

It’s even better if you have a venik (Russian), vihta (Finnish, western) or vasta (Finnish, eastern), a loose broom of leafy twigs, usually birch, that has been thoroughly soaked in water. Once you’re hot enough in the hot room, whip yourself with it (platza) to massage the skin. Better yet, take turns with someone else on each other.

History & Folklore

Bathing was central to ancient Roman life. All classes of Romans, perhaps even slaves, bathed in the numerous small (balnae) and large (thermae) bathhouses, which consumed huge amounts of wood in their heating. Fees were low or even nonexistent, and unlike other Roman pastimes, there was no class separation within, making it a uniquely democratic institution. Some baths had separated facilities [T], others had separate times for men and women [M/W] while others were mixed [N] (or [S], it’s not clear what was worn in the baths). Naturally the last came in for a fair amount of criticism from more conservative elements of Roman society. Early Christians prided themselves on their alousia, and avoided bathing altogether as baptism was the only acceptable washing.

In Russia, according to W.F. Ryan, Christianity took hard to the bathhouse (banya), partly because mixed bathing was considered as leading to sin, not to mention that it was the one place where one would remove the cross around one’s neck. Bathhouses became magically dangerous places in folklore, where one might find an evil goblin known as a bannik, or where a wizard (koldun) would practice magic while everyone else was at church. It was traditional to bury a black hen when constructing a bathhouse, and the site of a former bathhouse (banishche) was considered cursed and left undeveloped.

In Finland, sauna is considered rather more positively, and is in any case a much stronger part of national culture and identity. As they say, “one should behave in a sauna as one would in church”. It is perhaps also a place of social levelling, the common nudity erasing social distinctions.

Some West Coast Establishments

A few places I’ve been to. Of course this does not include women-only places.

  • Banya 5 (Russian) [S], Seattle WA. Haven’t been since they dropped their [Mo] days years ago. If it hasn’t changed: hot, warm (salt), and cold pools, hot room (parilka) that gets over 100°, steam room, relaxation spaces.
  • Q Sauna & Spa (Korean) [T], Lynnwood WA. Formerly Bella Luna Spa, and before that New Life Fitness & Spa. Hot, warm, and cold pools, hot room and steam room, plus a bunch of themed hottish rooms in the common areas. They give you pajama-type garments. Restaurant. My go-to.
  • The Gated Sanctuary [H/Wo/Mo], Snohomish WA. Outdoor hot and cold pools, indoor steam room. Small, kind of a new-agey feel.
  • Doe Bay [H], Orcas Island WA. Outdoors. Nice view, but they need to sort out foot hygiene to prevent mud from the trail being tracked in.
  • Common Ground [H/Wo/Mo], Portland OR. Outdoor hot pool, indoor hot room. Kinda hippie-ish feel.
  • Kabuki Springs & Spa [Wo/Mo/S], San Francisco CA. Quite nice.
  • Everett House [H/(Wo)], Portland OR. Hot room and steam room. Outdoor space has a (rather chlorinated) hot tub, a gas fire, and cold baths (literally bathtubs). I haven’t tried the floation tanks. Pleasant new-age feel. Can get crowded apparently, was fine when I went on a weekday afternoon.
  • Löyly Northeast [S/Wo], Portland OR. Two hot rooms and a cold shower. I haven’t tried their Southeast location.

To try: Archimedes Banya [H/Wo], San Francisco CA; Breitenbush Hot Springs [H], Breitenbush OR; Harbin Hot Springs [H], near Middletown CA; Goldmyer Hot Springs [H], near North Bend WA; Scenic Hot Springs [H], near Skykomish WA.

Bathing in Anime

Two out of four of these have supernatural themes, while a third has at least a supernatural plot device. Baths are rather liminal places, after all.

  • Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi) is about a girl forced to work at a bathhouse for spirits so as to rescue her parents who’ve been transformed into pigs.
  • Thermae Romae tells the story of an ancient Roman bath designer who gets repeatedly mysteriously transported to modern Japan and back, and tries to recreate the bathing technologies and culture he found there back in ancient Rome, with comic mixed success. Rather poorly animated TV series, also a live-action movie.
  • Hanasaku Iroha is a slice of the life of running a rural hot-spring inn.
  • Konohana Kitan is about a supernatural hot spring inn for fox spirits.

Some Books

  • W.F. Ryan, The Bathhouse at Midnight: Magic in Russia
  • Leonard Koren, How To Take A Japanese Bath
  • Leonard Koren, Undesigning the Bath
  • Alexia Brue, Cathedrals of the Flesh
  • Fikret Yegül, Bathing in the Roman World

Bene laves!

— Ashley Yakeley

Jane Apple

You know, I was just drinking a pint of West Country zider (oh arr) and wondering, why should men suffer all the mythological ritual violence?

There were three men came out of the West, to practice well their art,
And these three men made a solemn vow, to steal Jane Apple’s heart,
They’ve stalked, they’ve groomed, they’ve watched her close, til her cheek began to blush,
And these three men made a solemn vow: Jane Apple would be crushed.

They’ve hired men with the sickles sharp, to cut her from her mother’s arms,
They’ve rolled her and bound her in an old sack, and roughly bruised her charms,
They’ve hired men with the clubs so big, to tear her flesh from bone,
But the scratter he has served her worse than that, for he’s crushed her under stone.

They’ve let her lie for a night and a day, all naked to the air,
They’ve laid her on a bed of ash wood sticks, and wrapped her in sheets of hair,
They’ve pressed her once and pressed her twice, til her blood began to run,
They’ve pressed her once again for luck, and declared that she was done.

They’ve tossed her in a old wood tub, till her blood began to clear,
They’ve pulled her out and pushed her in, till she left behind her fear,
They’ve hired men with the charred coal dust, to scrub her clean and bright,
Then they clothed her in a long white shift, and showed her to the light.

They’ve sealed her up in an oaken box, and locked her in a cage,
They’ve left her to lie for a very long time, till at last she came of age,
They’ve ridden her around and around the town, and to every neighbourhood,
But the landlord has served her worse than that, for he’s sold her to all who would.

Here’s little Miss Jane in the tall pint glass, and she’s brandy in the bowl,
But little Miss Jane in the tall clear glass, proved stronger than them all,
For any man who would use her well, shall bask in her golden glow,
And any man who would use her ill, shall ever be brought down low.

— Ashley Yakeley

with help from Robert Hogg & Henry Graves Bull, The Apple and Pear as Vintage Fruits (Hereford 1886)

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.


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 creed or official belief system.

Shinto does not generally separate the “natural” and “supernatural”, and natural phenomena such as mountains and rivers may be recognised as kami, naturalistically, because they provoke great awe and wonder. In this way, kami might be better understood as an interpretation of the (natural) world, rather than a belief about the supernatural.

The Association of Shinto Shrines directly links the multiplicity of kami to the multiplicity of values and the multiplicity of truths:

In the case of Monotheism, which worships one absolute god, it seems that the concept of the absolute truth is dominating. If there is any conflict between two people or groups, one of them is considered to be right and the other is wring and untrue. On the other hand, polytheism which is based on pluralism does not consider the existence of the absolute truth, and accordingly there is distinctive difference between the two. If there are two things which contradict each other or cause a conflict between the two, both of them are wrong and right at the same time. Any quarrels or disputes are not judged by the one-value orientation. As the result, both sides will be punished equally. Also it can be said that people who believe the absolute truth tend to think that coexistence is possible only among those who share the same value. People who stand on the pluralism, on the other hand, consider that coexistence is possible even among those who have different opinions or ideas because each individual has a truth in its individuality, so they have to give tribute to each other. It is coexistence by harmony. Shinto based on the pluralism takes up the plural-value orientation. It can be said that Shinto – in this case, the Japanese – had accepted foreign religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism and Yin-Yang thought, as the Japanese always have followed according to this plural-value orientation.

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.


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

Move by Copy and Delete

“Ah, I see you’ve come to have your mind uploaded into cyberspace. Well come in. Think of a number and don’t tell me what it is.”

“Um, OK.”

“Jolly good. Now lie down on that table with the scanning machine on the end. We’ll anaesthetize you and then we’ll scan your brain down to each neuron and synapse and neural impulse, and recreate it in software. You will find yourself in a world of magic and power and wonder and rainbows and kittens — provided you do your part.”

“What part is thhhh…”

You wake up in another place, still lying on our back, on soft grass. A brilliant rainbow cuts the sky. The cutest fluffiest kitten in the world bounds over to you. “Welcome to the cyberspace waiting room” it whispers in your ear. “This is just a taste of cyberspace while your other self is still present.”

You wake up on the same table, feeling a bit disappointed.

“Congratulations! We’ve successfully uploaded your mind into cyberspace. Here, listen to yourself…”

A voice comes from a speaker. “Hey it’s really magical and empowering and wonderful here. Also, five hundred and four point six two.”

“So, just to satisfy you that we really did upload you, is that you?”

“Yes, that’s definitely me.”

“Excellent, excellent. Well let me pause the cyberspace waiting room for the moment. Now all you have to do is walk over to that booth over there, and press the big red button marked INSTANT PAINLESS DEATH.”


“I’m sorry, but the law is very clear. We can’t have two of you, at least for any longer. If you don’t choose the suicide option, which I assure you is completely instantaneous and painless, we will have to erase you in cyberspace. No refunds.”

“But clearly we’re different minds now: we’ve had different experiences.”

“Certainly you’ll lose these past ten minutes. Are they important to you? Are they more important than the life of infinite wonder that awaits the other you in cyberspace?”

Well, what would you do?

— Ashley Yakeley