More on narrowing

Almost a month ago, I wrote this post on why polytheists should think twice when narrowing what qualifies as a god. It generated a debate in the comments section, a conversation on Twitter and Sarenth has recently stepped into the debate with this post. So as a result, I’m returning to the subject in order to clarify my own position and, hopefully, where the crux of the matter is.

Categorization is useful and there’s no doubt about that. It allows us to work in a precise fashion, avoid the dangers of generalization and specify the goals, limits and means of our actions. So, for instance, when communicating with the Gods, one should always keep in mind the exact type of deity being addressed so as to avoid breaking taboos, mismanaging offerings or use the wrong set of tools. I don’t refute any of this and indeed embrace it! Roman polytheism has a rich tradition of making a ritual distinction between celestial, terrestrial, infernal and domestic deities (even aspects of the same deity) and how that determines the type of altar being used, the way offerings are disposed of, the time of day when ceremonies are performed, etc. But here’s another thing ancient Roman polytheism had: an open or wide use of the terms deus/dea (god/goddess) and di (gods). They weren’t applied to just a limited group of beings on the topmost places of the hierarchy, but to pretty much any entity that was numinous, otherworldly or more-than-mere-human. Much like the kami of Shinto. I listed it before, but for the sake of clarity, here goes again: Romans referred to the dead as Di Manes, their deceased relatives as Di Parentes, their household gods as Di Penates, the underworld powers as Di Inferi, smaller ones like Cardea, goddess of door hinges, as Di Indigetes, and the big twelve or Olympians as Di Consentes. See the pattern? They’re all called di or gods. The same goes for nymphs and Lares, two other types of entities that are also referred to in the same manner.

How can a tradition that is meticulous to the point of distinguishing between different types of altars, gestures and procedures for different types of entities be so lax in the way it uses the word “god”? Or to employ Sarenth’s terms, how could ancient Romans not narrow the use of the word and allowed it to homogenise as gods so many different types of entities? Isn’t that a contradiction? No, it isn’t!

When I said narrowing it was missing it, I wasn’t stating that narrowing is useless. I was pointing out that having a minimalistic view of what is a god amounts to missing the full range of what it can mean in a polytheist context. To put it differently, I was saying that “god” is a wide category and not a narrow one. It can include greater, smaller, local, supralocal, regional, universal, celestial, terrestrial, infernal, family and non-family gods. And if you narrow it, you’re missing the full potential of the word. You’re organizing the pantheon according to the tenants of monotheism, which calls god to only one being at the topmost seat and everything else below him are non-gods, no matter how much they look and act like one. But polytheism recognizes multiple entities with different natures or degrees of power and, more often than not, it doesn’t shy away from calling them gods despite those differences. Precisely because polytheism is normally without a dogma that puts a cap on divinity. This doesn’t mean that categories are useless: it just means that we recognize them as subgroups within the wider notion of god. Hence, while there’s a difference between the Inferi and Consentes that is indeed of substance and important as a working tool, it does not contradict the fact that both are groups of gods. To use a political analogy, the distinction between people from the states of New York and Georgia is useful when making considerations on public opinion, voters’ preferences, social fabric and so forth and indeed there is a difference of substance between the two groups. But they’re both Americans and can be referred to as such, just as people from different European countries, each with their specific national or regional identities, are all European. And my point a month ago was that the word “god” should be understood in an manner as wide as American and European, in that it can include different subcategories that are both overlapping and with substantial differences. The Di Manes are not the Di Consentes, but they’re still di or gods.

Now, this isn’t something that’s necessarily known from literary sources. Most of it comes from short inscriptions, which tend to be a more direct window into people’s beliefs than the often embellished, systematized or even biased pieces of literature or philosophy. And here lies the problem when it comes to ancient Scandinavia: unlike the case in the Roman world, there’s very little information from a purely pre-Christian perspective. What we have are generally late sources and even those dated from the pagan period are not from a time when Christianity was unknown or non-existent. Plus, they’re mostly literary sources, which is already a biased form of transmission: consider, for instance, how Thor’s role as a bringer of rain and granter of bountiful crops is virtually absent from Old Norse prose and poetry, despite the fact that that side of Him may have been highly relevant in the everyday life of ancient Scandinavians. Simply put, battles, duels and adventures into distant lands make a much more exciting story – either in poetry or prose – than everyday’s weather, fishing and farming. And whereas daily religion can be more practical, literature is often ideologically or artistically driven. So when all we have for pre-Christian Scandinavia are generally literary sources and, what’s more, late and/or biased towards Odin and his kin, it’s hard to have an idea of how ordinary people of different strata conceptualized a god before Christianity made an impact and with regard to the entire pantheon. This falls within what Edward Butler said on Twitter about the problems of attempting to understand the full extent of people’s religious experience based on a limited amount of sources.

Still, a few glimpses can perhaps be found in Old Norse poetry. One of them pertains to the use of the term týr. The word is best known as the name of the one-handed god, but in Old Norse it was also a common noun that meant “god”. Hence in Grímnismál 48, Odin is called Farmatýr or god of cargoes, in stanza 5 of the same poem it is said that the tívar or gods gave Alfheim to Freyr and in stanza 19 of the skaldic poem Þórsdrápa Thor is called karms týr or god of the chariot. Etymologically, the word is linked to the Proto-Indo-European *dyeus, which makes it a direct Germanic equivalent of the Latin deus. And in the Haustlöng, a piece of poetry that is usually dated from the 10th century, the word is used in a manner that is far from narrow. The poem survives in Snorri’s Edda, where it is quoted several times in Skáldskaparmál, and in the extant stanzas, it tells the story of how the giant Thiazi kidnapped Idun with Loki’s help, how she was rescued and Skadi’s father killed in the process. It also speaks of Thor’s duel with Hrungnir. In stanza 1, the gods Odin, Loki and Thor as referred to as tívar; in stanza 2, the kenning byrgi-týr is used for Thiazi and in stanza 6 hirði-týr refers to Loki. You can find this and more in a Master’s dissertation presented at the University of Oslo in 2013 and which can be downloaded here. And yes, it’s in English.

Of course, the example from the Haustlöng may mean nothing. Skaldic poetry is known for using normally unrelated terms to construct kennings and there are cases of warriors being poetically called Odin of something. Also, it has strict metrical rules, so the use of the term for a giant and Loki may be an isolated case of poetic license. But it can also be something else and hint at a wide use of the words týr/tivar. They may not have been employed for just the higher strata of beings living in Asgard, but for a variety of entities that were in some way otherworldly, powerful, numinous, more-than-human – giants included! And given what we know from genuinely pre-Christian sources from elsewhere in Europe, it is a real possibility.

So my point is simple: don’t be quick to narrow the notion of god into a privilege of an uppermost stratum of beings. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. We don’t have a dogma that forces us to call other entities by any other names because there can be only one deity. We have no cap on divinity and therefore a minor spirit of a particular hill or mountain can be a god, just as the higher power of thunder is one too. Different in power and scope, perhaps even belonging to different categories, but gods nonetheless. The Aesir and Vanir are both gods, despite also being different groups. Subcategorize them in any way you wish, traditional or modern, but don’t automatically assume that something isn’t a god just because it’s not a big one or has more limited abilities, even if still numinous or otherworldly. That form of regulating the divine wasn’t or at least may not have been how ancient polytheists saw it.

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5 thoughts on “More on narrowing

  1. Pingback: How fares it when men war against gods? | The House of Vines

  2. I’ve long pondered that the Egyptian word “netjer” (commonly translated “god”) strikes me as more similar to what I understand of the kami than god-as-a-category-of-being. Netjer is apparently also a property that an entity can have, and there are entities which are “more netjer” than others…

    I tend to translate it “divine power” and often say “the Powers” because I find the whole boundaries of ‘when do you call it a god’ kind of complicated in ways that aren’t conducive to useful conversations.

    • Your experience is similar to that of many Japanese: they often avoid translating Kami as god because westerners tend to understand the latter in a narrow way and have hard a time seeing a spirit of a tree, river or ancestor as a kami or god.

  3. This would certainly explain some of the confusion about how to categorize various spiritual beings.

    I once saw a bumper sticker at an pagan shop that said “God is a job description,” and that really rang true with me. Maybe a “god” is not something a being is, it’s a job a being does. So there are lots of different types of beings out there who can function as gods to humans.

    Of course, what it means to “function as a god” is a whole other debate!

    It might even be possible to have a more powerful spirit who’s not a god and a less powerful spirit who is. Monotheists insist the only being worthy of being called “God” is the most powerful being they can possibly imagine, and I wonder if equating gods with power is something they came up with in the first place.

    • It’s tied to scope and function, yes, though I’d say that not only. There’s also a matter of substance in that a god, even in the wide sense, is more than a mere human. It has an extra something, a numinous quality that sets it apart.

      This is why a dead human can be a god: because it crossed beyond death, it acquired that something that allows it to operate on a supernatural or extra-ordinary level. But an entity with those qualities may be denied worship on theological grounds and, In that sense, it may not be seen as a god, nominally or practically, even if it would normally qualify as one. Angels are a good example of that and Kemetic polytheists may point out Apophis as another.

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