If you narrow it, you miss it

There’s been some online discussion on multiple aspects of reconstructed or revived forms of ancient polytheism. It started with Galina Krasskova’s piece on modern Heathenry, which generated a debate in the comments section. Edward Butler added more thoughts on the matter on Twitter, followed by Galina’s own further considerations and Sarenth’s take on what it means to place the Gods first.

Many excellent points have already been made in this discussion, some of which I can relate to personally. Among modern Roman polytheists, there are some who harbour a deep suspicion, if not outright disgust, for anything that goes too much into personal religion and instead expect individuals to deal with the Gods in the same emotionally sanitized way as a public cult. They’d argue there can be no personal devotion or patronage, because that’s either monotheistic baggage or a form of superstition, i.e. the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession. Or so those modern cultores claim, but their reasoning is flawed, because it is based on the assumption that we have all the information on ancient Roman experiences of religion. We don’t! We have a sample of what some in the elites thought, but not a full range of views and even less so when we consider the lower classes. And most of the information refers to public religion, which is naturally formal and emotionally neutral, because that’s how things are when one deals with an institution. What those modern cultores do is to assume that what was valid for the State should be equally valid for the individual. In other words, they take data on part of the ancient Roman religion and assume it for the whole, so if public cults were emotionally sanitized, that should also be the case with individuals in their daily dealings with the Gods. It’s what happens when you try to revive an ancient religion on which you have only partial and poorly diverse information and fail to consider the full range of human experiences: you mistake the part for the whole. And you screw it big time as a result. Especially when the sources still give you glimpses of personal religion and individual devotion towards specific gods: Augustus took Apollo as his patron, Domitian was a devotee of Minerva, Apuleius went everywhere with a figurine of Mercury.

Now, I’ve addressed this topic more extensively in another post, so I’m not going to expand on it today. Instead, I’d like to briefly address something else brought up recently when Galina shared this post in which Nicholas Haney claims that he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead. And that, I’d argue, is misreading the notion of god in polytheism.

What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Check what ancient polytheists left us: Romans called the deceased Di Manes or Divine Dead; the god Silvanus is in one occasion called Lar Agrestis (CIL VI 646), even though the word Lar was also used for one’s ancestors (the Family Lares) and spirits of the roads (the Lares Viales); in England, one inscription addresses a Dea Nympha Brigantia or the Goddess Nymph Brigantia (CIL VII 875), while another mentions a Deus Genius Choguncis or God Genius Choguncio (RIB 119). Which shows that the divine status was not restricted to a specific group of higher beings. Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.

So when a polytheist says he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead of gods, he’s basically superimposing a monotheistic scheme on a polytheistic worldview. So just as in the former you have god at the top followed by strata of non-gods (angels, saints, prophets, etc.), in the latter you end up with multiple gods on the top followed by non-gods (landwights, nymphs, elves, dísir, ancestors, etc.). In other words, it amounts to organizing a polytheistic pantheon according to monotheistic standards. Yet polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. It has its own set of theological rules and dynamics, because divine diversity and multiplicity have theological consequences. Focusing on landwights and ancestors is being god-centric too, because landwights and ancestors are gods as well. Minor, local, family or tribal ones, but gods nonetheless. And I’m not the first person to say this: back in 2010, Cara Schulz addressed the same issue in a post called Regulating the Gods: A Hellenist on Hubris. Go and read it, people. Seriously! We live in a society where religious discourse is dominated by monotheistic assumptions, but if we want to understand and revive ancient religions in today’s world, we need to understand them on their own terms and, through that process, deeply review today’s conventional wisdom on religious issues. And that means confronting and ultimately dropping ideas like landwights not being gods or, for that matter, Heathenry or Roman polytheism being defined as a “faith”. I know it’s not always easy to do this sort of mental work. I’ve been through the experience multiple times and question my own assumptions often. But it needs to be done if we’re serious about reviving ancient religions in the modern world. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods.

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45 thoughts on “If you narrow it, you miss it

  1. Reblogged this on Gangleri's Grove and commented:
    I tend to agree to a certain point, that if you’re putting ancestors or land spirits first, you’re in a way, keeping the Gods central. I don’t think those spirits ARE Gods, but it’s still putting the Holy central to one’s experience and life. Doing that, if one might conceptualize Gods, ancestors, and land spirits as venn diagrams, it’s rather like living in the place where all three meet.

    • Well, if I wanted to explain it differently, I’d say western polytheists need to understand the word “god” in the same way as the Japanese understand the word “kami”: it includes the greater Powers of sky, earth and bellow, but also smaller ones linked to specific trees, rocks, rivers, mountains, natural forces and events, enlightened beings, as well as spirits of the deceased. In fact, the reason why Japanese sometimes hesitate to translate “kami” as “god” is precisely because, in the west, the latter term has acquired a heavy monotheistic baggage, the very same on which we’re building the notion of god as being different from landwights and ancestors. Yet when you look at the traces of how ancient Europeans saw the divine, you find the same open notion of godhood. Our pre-Christian forefathers would probably understand the sense of the word “kami” a lot quicker than most modern westerners. And I reckon no Shintoist would argue that he/she’s not kami-centric because he/she focuses on ancestors or spirits of the place.

  2. Clara Schultz says that daimons are not inferior to Zeus, but they are. This is not, though, the same as “demonizing” daimons, nor being influenced by a monotheistic upbringing. It is simply understanding the role and position of daimons according to neoplatonism. There are seirai, orders, which are discussed by neoplatonists, and they were not monotheistic. Please drop that monotheistic argument once and for all. True, not everyone needs to go into theology to have a conncetion with the Divine. Even Socrates claimed to be connected to a daimon. If not else, daimons in fact might help us connect more efficiently with the gods. The same can be said about our ancestors too, and angels.

    • Inferior doesn’t mean they’re not gods too. And that’s the point here! To assume that a spiritual or otherwordly entity needs to be in the topmost stratum in order to be a god is monotheistic baggage.

  3. It doesn´t need to if it already is. What is needed, or not, if one is not interested in theology, is to understand how this works. Angels are messengers from the gods, and so are daimons.
    This is not monotheistic baggage, it´s called metaphysical polytheism. If you don´t know, fine, just don´t throw neoplatonists into the garbage, because they´re the reason why Hellenistic religion, for example, is being revived right now. They gave us the theology that neo-polytheism needs, and by theology I mean logos, reason.

    • Hermes is also a messenger. He is not a god? What about Iris?

      It’s one thing to say certain beings are bellow Zeus or the greater Olympians in the divine hierarchy and quite another to say they’re not gods because of that. It’s taking the monotheistic scheme of things and simply putting more gods in the top stratum.

      • The monotheistic scheme was borrowed from Neoplatonism, in case you don´t know.
        Daimon means spirit, and like the word pneuma, can be used alongside with Theos.
        Heraclitus’ fragment DK 22B119, Ethos anthropoi daimon, was, for example, tranlasted by as “a man’s character is his divinity”.

        “While the translation with “fate” is generally accepted as in Kahn’s “a man’s character is his divinity”, in some cases, it may also stand for the soul of the departed.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heraclitus#Ethos_anthropoi_daimon.2C_.22character_is_fate.22

      • And here I was thinking that the reason why Gabriel or Michael aren’t taken as gods in Judaism or Islam is because those religious are monotheistic and they can therefore have no other god other than god. If it wasn’t for that dogma, angels would be easily seen as gods, just as Hermes and Iris are. And since there’s no such one-god-only dogma in polytheism, why the heck can’t lower deities be deities?

        And translating daimon as spirit doesn’t it exclude it from being a god. No more than genius and nymph, which were seen and worshipped as gods. It’s not a case of mutually exclusive categories.

  4. I understand and agree with many of your points, but from an Egyptian perspective at least, I would caution against the idea that there is absolutely no line between Divinity and anything else. There are spiritual entities the Egyptians acknowledged that are not and never will be Gods in any sense of the term, like Apophis. Such entities are also found in many other Middle and Near Eastern polytheistic traditions – completely evil entities that oppose both humanity and the Gods (and which we might call “devils” for lack of a better term). So while many of today’s Pagans like to dismiss the distinction between Gods and devils as being just “an Abrahamic thing,” it actually began in polytheism – though I will concede that it only seems to have been a thing in North African and Middle and Near Eastern polytheism, as far as I can tell.

    For me, a person can worship their toaster oven and call it a “God” if they want to. The term is subjective and can therefore be applied to anyone or anything someone worships. This doesn’t bother me personally, except when it’s applied to entities like Apophis. If someone were to tell me that they worship Apophis (trust me, it’s happened before), that it is their “God” and that I have too much “monotheistic baggage” if I refuse to accept it as a valid “God” to worship, I think I would be entirely justified in telling them that they’re making a serious mistake (and that’s from having been there). So while I agree with you insofar as cosmic forces, regional nature spirits and ghosts are generally concerned, I draw the line when it comes to certain entities that even the ancients rejected.

    • That’s a good point! And exactly what I meant when I said that what constitutes a god, nymph or elf is less about clear-cut categories and more about scope and function with no divine cap or monopoly. If for some reason a specific entity should not be worshipped, in practical terms it does not classify as a god. This again takes us to the issue of monotheism: because only one god is acknowledged – divine monopoly – only he is worshipped, while all others are merely honoured (at least in theory).

      • I don’t feel that your section on what is a god really says what you just commented,
        “What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.”

        What I get from this is that all entities should be considered to be gods, while your point in the comment part “If for some reason a specific entity should not be worshipped, in practical terms it does not classify as a god.” is nowhere to be found in your actual post of your blog and it feels like you contradicted yourself.

        Also I’m not sure why all entities have/should be considered gods, while there are the normal entities that are considered gods and some entities that are elevated (like some belief systems elevate some/all ancestors) into the godhood status it doesn’t mean all entities ‘need’ to be labeled or considered gods. It’s more of a personal bias and belief on what is or should be a ‘god’. Also classifying the entities that are considered gods, ancestors, spirits, etc. into different categories help people differentiate in where their strength lie with what entities they are closest too.

      • Because the fact that divinity is everywhere doesn’t mean that everything is divine. A regular human is not a god, though it certainly has the potential to be one – if nothing else, when it dies and becomes an ancestor. The notion of god was very much attached to that of otherworldliness and worship. Which explains why the deceased, a genius and a nymph are called gods in ancient inscriptions: much like the Japanese “kami”, if it has a numinous nature, it’s a god. Even a natural event like a storm can be a deity, e.g. Kamikaze in Japan (the medieval one and not the WWII pilots) or the goddess Tempestates in ancient Rome. This was true even when storm gods were already acknowledged. Function, much like religious terminology, doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. The fact that people already worship a thunder god doesn’t mean a storm can’t be considered a deity in its own right. In the same manner, while distinction between god, landwight, and ancestor can be useful in practical terms, they’re not mutually exclusive words. For instance, an ancestor can be a landwight of the place where he was buried (e.g. an elf) or a household god.

        Like I said in the post, what’s a god, a nymph or an elf is less about clear-categories and more about scope and function. There’s a reason why the terms overlap, like in “Dea Nympha Brigantia”, “Di Manes” or “Vanadís”.

  5. @Helio “Because the fact that divinity is everywhere doesn’t mean that everything is divine.”
    You´re contradicting yourself again Hello. No one said that daimons can´t be divine, it´s just like what Richard says, distinctions are made according to their power..
    And G.B. Marian is right too, we´re often accused of having “monotheistic baggage” when in fact the theologies we follow are polytheistic. Judaism and Christianity borrowed from previous polytheistic theologies.

    • Judaism and Christianity narrowed older theologies, namely by cutting off all but one from godhood. Which is exactly what you’ re doing when you place a minor entity outside the divine strata simply because it is minor. A local or family god are still gods, even if more limited in function, scope and power than Zeus or Athena.

      And there’s no contradiction in saying that the fact that divinity is everywhere doesn’t mean everything is divine. A god may be found in every tree, river and mountain, but that doesn’t mean that every piece of wood, pebble or drop of water is a god.

      • “A local or family god are still gods” Are called gods, but you can´t equate them with the theoi themselves.

        “A god may be found in every tree” Their physical expression is found in Nature, not the God itself. It´s a way to the gods, but the gods are much more than just Nature and its parts. They are immanent in parts, just like the objects participate of the Platonic Ideas, but transcendent as wholes prior to parts. It´s this that confuses you, isn´t it? 🙂

      • And yet I do equate them with the theoi. They may not be on the same level as Zeus or Hermes, but they’re gods nonetheless. Just as Amaterasu and the spirit of a tree are both kami and just as the local goddess of the Palatine in ancient Rome is a goddess nonetheless. A god is a numinous being – whether local, universal, family or tribal is irrelevant to its godhood.

        You’re assuming I adhere to the same philosophical school as you. I don’t. Platonic ideas is not something I believe in, so for me a tree is an essential part of the god.

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  7. “a tree is an essential part of the god.” Correct, essential, like everything else, so a tree is not a god, but an essentlial part of them, through which they manifest. Now you´re agreeing with Plato, see? 🙂

      • Too much suppositions… whereas what we know from late antiquity is what was “orthodox” in those days, and before.

      • Wrong! The mere existence of multiple schools of thought, from Stoics to Epicureans, Skeptics and Platonists, speaks exactly of a religious environment where the emphasis was on ritual practice and not regulated belief. You could follow whatever philosophical path you wished and hold whatever beliefs you wanted, so as long as you didn’t break social peace and religious praxis.

  8. Schools were not the same as priesthood, nor did those schools view living beings as gods. Hadrian and his Antinous is NOT a good example to drag into polytheism.

      • And finally, where is it stated that living beings were worshiped as gods? But don´t get wrong, you can do that. Just call it Heliosism, not Hellenismos or Religio Romana.

      • Worshipping living trees is worshipping a living being. Though I never said anything about human beings.

        Whether you choose to believe the tree itself is divine or that it merely manifests a deity is irrelevant: the emphasis is on practice and not on belief.

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  10. Pingback: Narrowing Brings Discernment | Sarenth Odinsson's Blog

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