The brainstorm of divine origins

For those of you who are unaware of it, I’m not a fan of immediate equations of gods. That is to say, that I’m not into the simplistic argument that similar iconography or overlap in functions is enough to conclude that two or more deities are the same. I know it was a common thing in the ancient world and a lot of modern polytheists do it, but I tend to dig deeper and look into various specifics – etymology, cult history, nature or functions – instead of jumping to the conclusions based on a very broad and – dare I say? – shallow stroke. Why? Mostly because I like to know the gods I worship as best as I can and preferably based on more than just a “feels right” kind of argument. And also because, whenever History is concerned, I prefer to put things under a critical eye as opposed to merely accepting what is given to me by ancient sources or appearances. In this case, whether a god is originally native or imported and hence distinct or identical to another. It may not provide for a decisive conclusion – and the further back you go in History, the less certainties you have – but it does award a more solid basis on which to build my beliefs.

Case by case
In the past, this has led me to conclude that Hephaestus is different from Volcanus, for while they are both fire gods, the former is that of the forge – and hence civilized fire – whereas the latter is that of the wild and inner earth, which translates into a much more primal and violent force. Just because several deities are tied to the flames, it doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Otherwise, you might have to conclude that Hephaestus and Hestia are identical, despite the gender difference, because they both deal with fire. It’s the nature of the flame that matters. On the opposite end of the topic, I’ve come to conclude that Hermes and Mercury are the same, since the latter was not a part of the earliest Roman pantheon – as suggested by the lack of a flamen – and the location of His temple outside the pomerium, while not an infallible proof, nonetheless also hints at an originally foreign cult. The Greek colonies of southern Italy may well be the point from where Hermes entered Roman religion. And between equation and distinction, I’m unsure about Jupiter, for while His name is an etymological match to that of Zeus, both Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages, so if you’re going to name a sky god, chances are that you’ll use something that’s linguistically identical to what’s being employed in another tongue of the same group. Simply put, it could be a mere case of different gods being identified by means of common words.

General notions
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with believing differently, because 1) these are not orthodox or exclusivist religions and 2) it ends up being a bit indifferent. After all, if they’re the same, that just means you’ve been worshipping the same deity all along, whereas if they’re not, then you’ve been honouring the ones you name according to a chosen ritual praxis. And again, yes, simplistic and sometimes even contradictory equation was a very common thing in the ancient world. But when I look at pre-Christian authors claiming that the Egyptians worshipped Aphrodite (meaning Hathor) or that the Germans honoured Mercury (i.e. Wodan), I remind myself of what happened when Vasco da Gama reached India, in 1498, and the Portuguese mistook Hindu deities for Catholic saints. True, they found it odd that they had multiple arms, big teeth and weird heads, but that wasn’t an immediate disqualifier, in as much as Vasco da Gama is said to have prayed to a Hindu goddess thinking it was the Virgin Mary. Or at least that’s the account of Lopes de Castanheda, published in 1551, in his History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese (Book I, chapter 16). And the reason for the confusion is that, in the minds of Gama and his men, there were only three religions at the time: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They were not particularly aware of any other. They may have heard about tribal African religions, though it’s unclear how they saw them exactly, but in any case, when confronted with the large stone buildings of Hinduism, with its many colours and statues, the only point of reference they had in living memory was Catholicism, since neither Jews nor Muslims worship images. And thus, the obvious conclusion was that the Indians were Christians.

This is how I often – though not always – look at classical equations: a simplistic reasoning born out of the fact that people had a limited knowledge of other religions and naturally assumed a sameness that filled in the blanks; or alternatively, an implicit statement of self-importance, in that you see yourself as superior or at the centre of things and so of course other people do the same as you. Much like modern, often ill-informed individuals may assume that what’s true for their country is true elsewhere in the world, because all they know is basically what they deal with daily or they see themselves as important enough for their specifics to be universal. And in the particular case of the ancient Romans, it was also an issue of the grass being more educated on the Greek side of the fence, so they claimed that it too was Roman.

Again, this doesn’t mean that there’s no merit in equation. It’s a valid theological perspective, one that I share in some instances, and, as said, this is not a matter of orthodoxy. But I cannot take it at face value, accept it simply because that’s what ancient authors did, no more than I can conclude that two or more gods are the same just because they share functions or looks. If human life is similar, of course you’re going to find different deities attached to similar spheres of influence. And iconography, like names and legendary elements, can move around and get tied to multiple things and entities that are nonetheless separate. Look at how the Japanese wind god Fujin is depicted with a bag or cloak similar to that of the Greek Boreas, not because they’re necessarily the same, but because the artistic convention was slowly carried over from Greece to Japan by way of conquest and trade. Consider also how the depiction of the Virgin Mary partially derives from that of pre-Christian goddesses like Isis, not because they’re the same entity, but because the iconography of the latter was used to depict the former. Or in a weirder, yet enlightening example, how peasants from 13th-century France transferred the name and martyr status of a human saint – Guinefort – to a greyhound they worshipped. They’re not the same character – one is a man, the other a dog – but the former’s name and title was used for a canine cult (Schmitt 2009: 91-105). And in a clearer case of imported elements being attached to a native figure, the words in hoc signo vinces, which were said to have appeared to Constantine before the battle of the Milvian bridge, in 312, are also part of a much later legend pertaining to the first Portuguese king and his victory at Ourique in 1139 (Pereira 1993: 436). Check Camões’ The Lusíadas III: 45 for an allusion to it. In short, parts of things can move and get attached to other, independent things. It’s a bit like clothing fashion, in that it too gets passed around between people, communities and cultures. But just because two or more individuals wear the same outfit, that doesn’t mean they’re the same person or of the same country.

A complex case
My most recent dive into the brainstorm that are such matters concerns Minerva. I’ve been going back and forth with it, sometimes leaning towards distinction, others towards equation with Athena, and a few days ago I revisited the matter and went a bit deeper, down a rabbit hole of sorts, you might say, and came out with a more solid conviction on the identity of a goddess to whom I perform a monthly sacrifice on the 19th day.

I started with the simplest and most common belief, that They are the same deity given the similarity of roles and an identical iconography. She was known among the Etruscans as Menrva and what little is known of their religion suggests a strong Hellenic influence that could have included the plain appropriation (*gasp*) of Athena, whose name would have been replaced with a native one. After all, as in Greek myth, Menrva is the daughter of the sky god, from whose head She was born, pairs up with the hero Hercles (i.e. Herakles) and is depicted in much the same way as Athena, with an aegis, spear, helmet and shield. This would seem to suggest that They’re the same, but take a closer look and you’ll start spotting differences. Namely, that Menrva was seen as a wielder of lightening, appears to have had a connection with divination and perhaps also with children, though it is unclear to what extent. Maybe just as an educator, but it could also be something else, enough for some to question whether She was seen as virginal as Athena (Grummond 2006: 72-5). So They’re not exactly the same goddess. The crucial question is whether the differences came before or after the Hellenization of Etruscan religion.

If one opts for the latter, then the distinctions are simply a form of regionalization, i.e. the product of Athena’s integration into the Etruscan context. Old gods in new places are often reinterpreted, with roles being dropped, stressed or added according to the needs, customs or experiences of the host culture, which may not be common to those of others, and so the differences may be no more than Athena’s Etruscan flavour. Yet they could also be traces of an older Menrva, one that pre-dates much of the Hellenic influence and is therefore a separate deity, but on which layers of imported Greek elements were superimposed, attached to Her like a new outfit, leaving only a few distinctive features as remnants of a previous self.

This is where linguistics becomes of particular importance, because Menrva is a name of Indo-European stock. It comes from the Italic meneswo (intelligent, understanding), which is rooted in men- or “thought” (Cor de Vaan 2008: 380-1). This is unlike what happens in the case of Tinia, whose name may come from the Etruscan tin (day), or Turms, whose etymology is unknown (Grummond 2006: 53 and 122). But here’s the thing: the Etruscan language was not Indo-European and thus the name of the goddess, which is attested as early as the 6th century BCE, was imported from elsewhere. Where exactly is unclear, but the Latin, Faliscan and Umbrian areas of central Italy have been put forward as possibilities (Cor de Vaan 2008: 381). Which is curious, because the traditional or standard interpretation is that the Romans acquired Minerva from the Etruscans. But if etymology is anything to go by, the truth is perhaps the other way around. And there may be a circumstantial indication of that in the fact that Menrva seems to be absent from the Piacenza liver, which was found in what used to be northern Etruria, but there was a temple to Her at Veii, which was closer to Rome (Simmon 2006: 59.1). So we have a goddess whose name is an import and whose cult may not have been present in a uniform fashion. Thus, if the theonym has a southern origin and, perhaps, She was more popular in the Etruscan south, then maybe that’s where one needs to look in order to find Her origins: south! And in ancient Italy, the further you went in that direction, the closer you were from the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia, some of which were founded in the 8th century BCE.

So what to make of it?
Now, as said, the further back you go in History, the less certainties you get and that’s exactly the case here: I’m trying to make sense of fragments of information on the origins of a particular goddess, knowing that in the end I’ll only have a theory and not a certainty. But having said that, where do I stand?

I’m leaning strongly towards believing that Menrva/Minerva is the same as Athena, though not as a direct Etruscan appropriation of a Greek goddess – or at least not at first – but an indirect one via non-Greek communities in central Italy. That is to say, people like the Latins, Falisci or Umbri picked up the cult of Athena from their contacts with Magna Graecia, changed Her name along the way and then the Etruscans, thanks to their proximity to central Italians, themselves took Her in already renamed as Menerwa. Hence Her Indo-European name in a non-Indo-European culture and the apparent possibility that She was more popular in southern as opposed to northern Etruria. And this could also explain the differences between Minerva and Athena, in that the former would be a bit like a translation of a translation – twice interpreted and hence somewhat distinct from the original.

Since the transmission would have taken place sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, it is fair to ask why then was Minerva absent from the traces of the older pantheon of ancient Rome? Specifically, why is there no flamen Minervalis? Perhaps because in the early period She was not popular enough for it. After all, just because the knowledge or even worship of a goddess gets passed around between people and communities, it doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes a State cult. That may have come later and in a reverse movement to how it started, i.e. from north to south, from Etruria to Latium and Rome.

Again, not a certainty, but it is a more solid basis than just feeling right that Minerva and Athena are the same. Because when things involve historical processes of some sort – like the origins and expansion of a cult – this is how I tend look at it. Through enquiry and critical thinking, not a mere acceptance of accounts or looks. Which come to think of it, is a very minerval thing to do, to make use of your ability to reason and construct ideas.

Works cited
COR DE VAAN, Michiel Arnoud. 2008. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages. Leiden, Boston: Brill.

GRUMMOND, Nancy Thompson de. 2006. Etruscan myth, sacred History, and legend. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

SIMON, Erika. 2006. “Gods in Harmony: the Etruscan pantheon”, in The religion of the Etruscans, eds. Nancy Thompson de Grummon and Erika Simon. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 45-65.

PEREIRA, Paulo. 1993. “A conjuntura artística e as mudanças de gosto”, in História de Portugal, volume III, dir. José Mattoso. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 423-467.

SCHMITT, Jean-Claude. 2009. The holy greyhound, trans. Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Many dead, many gods

Parentalia has come and gone, March is here and the Ludi Mercuriales are just one month away. The latter may be the topic of my next piece on Polytheist.com – or at least something related to Mercury in honour of His birthday – but for now, I’ll just post a link to the most recent one:

Some of what is said in it isn’t new. I have addressed the issue of what is a god in previous occasions and also pointed out how History works in a manner that is not akin to Athena’s birth, which rose fully-formed from Her father’s head. But I combine both on the topic of the imperial cult and the divine status of the dead, with a bit of Shinto and a critique of religious re-enactment for good measure. Whether you agree with it or not, enjoy!

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.

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.

In America as in Scandinavia

Long story short, when the Europeans navigated along and settled in the African continent, they came across native religions, which were then taken to America via the slave trade. Ògún, Osun or Yémojá, these are African gods worshipped throughout today’s American continent under variations of their names. Another one of those deities is Eshu, whom the Europeans saw as the devil. Well, they considered any non-Christian god the devil, but Eshu was so in a particular fashion. Why? Because He’s a trickster, a prankster, indecent, playful, astute, sly, provocative and sensual. He basically ticks almost all of the satanic boxes. Yet Eshu is an African god of crossroads, movement and communication, which is why He’s often given the first offerings in African-Brazilian ceremonies, so that all other offerings flow and reach the other Gods. And this is no surprise if you think that He’s… well, a trickster.

See, tricksters are usually subversive figures. They’re transgressors who have the ability to move freely through geographical, social, moral and even sexual boundaries. That’s why sometimes they’re also deities of creativity, because they excel at thinking outside the box and breaking with the routine. It’s creative chaos, baby. They make things move, make things flow. Idleness is not their thing, movement is! Fluidity, an offshoot of which is slyness, is the cornerstone of the trickster. Because what is fluid is not fixed and can therefore assume whatever shape is necessary to get things done, to get things going. And that’s what Eshu is: movement, fluidity, creative chaos. That’s also the case with Hermes, the divine messenger, god of trade and thievery, inventor, prankster, father of Hermaphroditus, the one who can enter and leave the Underworld freely. And that’s also the case with Loki, the trickster who often travels from one world to another, the bringer of gifts via chaotic pranks, father and also mother.

Why am I writing this? Because too many modern heathens do to Loki what Europeans did to Eshu: they equate Him with the devil! Which is ironic, since one would expect polytheists to be a lot more open-minded and avoid the simplistic view of good against evil that is so common in monotheism. But though ironic, this is not unexpected. For one, because many modern heathens had a Christian upbringing or live in a society where Christian philosophy is pervasive. And secondly, because too many Norse polytheists take the Eddas at face value; even worst, some will read them like a Bible. And that’s just wrong! Plain and simply wrong! As wrong as saying Loki is evil and should not be worshiped.

Loki by Hellanim

Loki by Hellanim

The thing about knowing how Europeans saw Eshu is that it gives you a clue as to how Norse Christians saw Loki. How could a sly prankster who does not conform to social norms on morality and sexuality be anything but a Satan-like figure? How could He not be confused, identified or influenced by tales about the Christian devil? And as such, how could He be anything but the devilish enemy of the Gods in the eddic poems or Snorri’s work? Ever wondered why his binding until the end of the world resembles that of Satan?

If by now you’re thinking that the Eddas contain genuine pagan myths and therefore what they say are pagan views on Loki, think again! What we know as the Poetic Edda and Snorra Edda were written roughly two hundred years after Scandinavia became officially Christian. The tales they contain are certainly rooted in pagan traditions, but the form those narratives have today were fixed no earlier than the 1200s. This means that what we have are stories that were transmitted during two hundred years of Christian dominance. They were told at a time when monotheistic theology was preached at every mass, people prayed to the Christian god on a daily basis and organized their lives around Christian thinking and practice. By the time the Eddas we have today were written down, this would have been going on for two hundred years or more. And every time a story is told, it is adapted by its narrator. Not sure about that? Then go ahead and open your copy of the Poetic Edda: the two poems on Helgi Hundingsbani are essentially two versions of the same tale; the lays on Sigurd’s adventures do not match entirely with the narrative of the slightly later Völsunga saga (and Carolyne Larrigton’s notes make that abundantly clear); Grimnismál speaks simultaneously of one hart eating from Yggdrasill’s branches (stanza 35) and four such animals (stanza 33), suggesting that either there were different traditions or that someone added an innovating stanza without eliminating the older version. These things happen because tales are fluid. They’re fluid when committed to writing and even more so when committed to memory by word of mouth. Every time they’re told, two things happen: one is conservation, in that the narrator is not creating a brand new story, but passing down an old one; but the other is innovation, in that by telling the story, one opens it to influences and changes by the narrator or his audience. And after two hundred years of that process in a Christian context, don’t expect the myths to be accurate renderings of pre-Christian tales. The Eddas are not an Old Norse Bible! They are fragments of pagan traditions that were last transmitted and adapted by Christian authors roughly two centuries after Scandinavia’s official conversion. They contain multiple pagan elements, yes, because conservation is one of the dynamics in the passing down of traditional stories. But there’s also innovation in them, a lot of it derived from Christian thinking and classical traditions. They’re not accurate accounts of the Gods’ deeds and most certainly not Their word!

So to claim that Loki is a devil or evil being unworthy of worship because of what the Eddas say is as ridiculous as claiming that Eshu should not be worshipped because Christians saw Him as the devil. Both gods were reinterpreted from a Christian perspective, which naturally painted them in very dark tones. Know your sources, people! And by that I’m not saying you should memorize them so you can quote them like Evangelicals often quote the Bible (though that is a useful tool). When I say you should know your sources, I mean you should keep in mind when, where and who wrote them. Time, place and the author’s beliefs are not indifferent: they shape what is written. Imagine what two hundred years or more of that in a Christian society must have done to the Norse pagan trickster.

You say dogma, I say reason

In the recurrent debate about faith, ritual, devotional polytheism et alia, statements on the nature of the Gods, namely that They are reasonable and not dictatorial, can easily be one small step away from orthodoxy. Or at least be interpreted that way. This is especially true when words fly in a heated discussion and there’s little mental room or not enough characters for careful theological considerations. It creates a sense that some want to tell others how to believe correctly, which is problematic in orthopraxic religions like Roman polytheism and, I reckon, in other polytheistic traditions as well. We’re not supposed to have regulated beliefs or dogmas, but traditional practices and personal faith. Which frankly, in my opinion, is a huge plus in a world where religious conflicts often arise from differences on doxa. But it is also my view that freedom is the first principle of Roman polytheism and that the Gods are reasonable. I truly believe in this! And it’s not out of divine revelation, but because that’s the conclusion I reach after considering the nature of polytheism, orthopraxy and the overall modern context. Allow me to explain in what is a very, very long post from the perspective of a cultor.

I. Freedom to choose
As I’ve said here and here (and probably in some other instances I don’t remember), it’s not faith that defines me religiously, but practice. And that’s because, as I rule, I don’t deny the existence of any god. Which is another way of saying that I believe in all the deities worshiped in the past and in the present. All something million of Them. That’s what non-exclusivist polytheism is: a belief in many gods without the exclusion of any. Inari, Ganesha, Eshu, Quetzalcoatl, Melqart, Shiva, Taranis, Veles, Ra, Mithras, Jesus, Allah… I believe They are as real as Hermes, Jupiter, Apollo and Freyr. Honestly! So if you ask me what gods I believe in, expecting the answer will tell you my religion, the only thing you’ll find out is that I’m a polytheist. If you want a more specific identity, you need to ask me what gods I worship and how, in which case the answer will point towards the label “Roman polytheist”: most of the gods I honour are Roman and most of those who aren’t are nonetheless worshiped under a Latin name and in a Latin or Latin-inspired fashion, since I follow a Roman calendar and generally use a Roman ritual framework. It’s who I (mostly) worship and how that says what am I, religiously. And the how is key here, because the same god can be honoured by different traditions: Apollo has both a Roman and a Greek cult; Ganesha is worshiped by Hindus, Jains and Buddhists (including Japanese Buddhists). This is definition by practice, people. It’s not enough to say that you believe, you have to tell how that translates into practical terms. And it goes to show the importance of orthopraxy on at least a basic level.

Yet if one believes in all the gods and They can be honoured in multiple ways, how does one determine who to worship and how? There are various possible answers to this question: for instance, non-denominational polytheists may perform generic ceremonies to all the deities, collectively; monists will claim that all Gods are one or a limited group of divinities, depending on your degree of monism. But for a non-exclusivist polytheist, it comes down to the freedom to choose who and how. This may have shades of grey and limits, like when you inherit religious duties from your ancestors, but still there’s a level of free choice in your personal practices. Even if you don’t adhere to a particular orthopraxy and worship the Gods in any way you see fit, you still choose which ones to honour. In the particular case of Roman polytheism, you don’t have to worship the entire pantheon and celebrate every single known festival that was marked in Rome and its territories. You and your community choose which deities to worship, which dates to celebrate and are even free to create new festivals or worship non-Roman gods. And this is largely true for other Euro-Mediterranean religious traditions as well. Freedom is the natural consequence of open and non-exclusivist polytheism.

This also applies to the Gods. In monotheism, the one god is naturally that of all because there is no alternative. But in polytheism, many gods means that there are different deities with different agendas, so don’t expect Them to be interested in everyone equally. People have different skills, qualities and experiences that naturally draw the attention of different divinities, so They too have a degree of freedom in choosing their followers. And the Gods can decide whether or not to accept an offering. The entire tradition of divination at the end of ceremonies is built on that premise. When there are multiple options, freedom to choose your own is the first principle.

Of course, you don’t have to be of the non-exclusive sort. Faith is personal and you’re free to adhere to a form of polytheism that claims that only a particular group of gods is real. I could, for instance, claim that only the Roman pantheon is true, but given how big it is, even then I’d still have to have the freedom to choose which gods and festivals to focus on. Otherwise, it would be an impractical religion today, just as it would be in the ancient world, if every cultor had to pay an equal amount of respect to every deity and mark every single one of their festivals. The religious focus of each person or community will be different and it results from a combination of inherited duties and freedom of choice. And even then, the point that the Gods Themselves are free to choose still stands.

Council 01

II. Co-existence
A god who claims to be the only one has it easy in that his will is law. It’s like a one-man show, a state of things where there’s no opposition and no diversity to accommodate. He dictates and others obey, because no one else is a god. It’s a matter of absolute power. Not so in polytheism, though, because there are multiple divine voices with different interests and agendas. Which means that They have to somehow co-exist and share power. Philosophers of the Enlightenment knew this principle when they considered the nature and needs of society. When you’re not alone, when you live in a community, your freedom stops being absolute because you have to make room for others, their needs and their rights. So a compromise is required, a social contract that establishes the rules of co-existence and allots rights and duties, the dos and don’ts of social life. Anyone who ever shared something with someone else knows the drill: when driving, there are rules on what you can and can’t do on the road because others are using it; if you have a shared workplace, you can’t expect to behave as if you’re the only one using it; if you share a flat, you have to make room for other people’s routines. You have to be reasonable and come to a middle ground where a compromise becomes possible. Diversity is sustained by balance. Otherwise, things will simply collapse: couples divorce, friends move into different houses, communities break apart, species extinguish others. And if that’s the case, why should it be any different among the Gods? They too are a diverse community made of different beings with power and different agendas, so it makes sense that They too need to be reasonable in order to make room for each other. It doesn’t mean that there are no disputes among Them. Conflict exists everywhere and it eventually leads to a resolution, but if there are many Gods and They need to co-exist, then a balanced resolution generally makes a lot more sense than a zero-sum result. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that They may well have rules of engagement. Willingly or not, the Gods are reasonable because that’s a necessity of co-existence.

One can argue that while that may be true for the Gods, it doesn’t mean that it’s also true for the relations between Them and human beings. There’s a difference of power and authority which, simply put, means that we are not gods and cannot expect Them to treat us as equals with whom They have to compromise. In principle, this is true, but it’s more easily applicable to monotheistic religions, because you have no divine option. It’s either that godly guy’s way or the infernal highway. But in polytheism, especially in the open and non-exclusivist kind, there are alternatives, even competition. And there’s freedom of choice. If a god doesn’t want you, you can try another one; if a deity isn’t right for you or makes you feel too uncomfortable, there are options. Options that don’t imply damnation, that is. It won’t always be as easy as just saying yes or no and sometimes there may be pressure, persistence and a punch on the table to make a point clear. But there will also be haggling, negotiation and an effort to accommodate. You may go an extra mile for a god/dess with whom you really want to connect or to keep your relationship strong; He/She might do the same to keep you as one of His/Her own, if nothing else because there are religious alternatives. Co-existence and competition calls for reasonability, which means that in open and non-exclusivist polytheism, the Gods are or at least need to be reasonable. They may give humans much less leeway than They give fellow gods, granted, but They’re not the only players in the game, it’s not a one-god show, so a degree of reasonable compromise is in order, including towards worshippers.

Council 02

III. Social framework
Relations with the gods were conducted under the sign of reason, not that of the irrational, in the same way as they were conducted between one citizen and another, or rather between clients and their patrons, but never between slaves and their masters.

So wrote John Sheid in his Introduction to Roman Religion (2003: 28). It means that relations with the Gods were seen as an extension of social interactions, in which case the former reflected the latter. Which brings me back to a previous post of mine, when I wrote that the goal of reconstructionism is to immerse yourself in an ancient culture and bring the basics of its religion into the modern world. And here’s one: you deal with the Gods according to the principles of social life. Romans applied the essentials of their society, so much so that at one point in the imperial period it became less about freedom among citizens and more about obedience by subjects. But I’m not interested in re-enacting ancient Rome, so I must take the principle and apply it to a modern context. And in today’s free western societies, compromise and critical thinking are paramount. Our lives are ruled by the written law, negotiated contracts, the notion of basic rights. And while respect for those in charge is required, blind obedience is out of place: you have to do what your boss tells you, but not his/her every bid; you should respect a police officer, but not look acritically at his/her actions; reverence for your elders is a good thing, but you’re free to disagree and chart your own path – ’cause otherwise a lot of us polytheists would be “well behaved” baptized sons and grandsons.

Just as it is in human social life, so should it be in our dealings with the Gods. It doesn’t mean that we can see Them as elected officials whom we’re free to replace if we get enough votes – which would be hubris – or that we should use Them as our personal money lenders, employees or even equal co-workers, because They’re not your personal bitches. Gods are still Gods – especially the greater ones! What it means is that reason, freedom and critical thinking should apply to our dealings with Them just as it does to interactions in free human societies. You respect Them, co-exist with Them in your everyday life, establish contracts with the Gods and fulfil your obligations, but there is room for adjustments or even re-negotiation. In fact, you’re free to do so, just as They are free to ask for changes, hopefully resulting in a rational compromise. This is also true for inherited religious responsibilities: conditions may change and you may not be able to afford or keep up with what your ancestors did, so you renegotiate the terms of the contract with the Gods, just as you would with a rent, a debt or any other inherited responsibility. There’s even the possibility of terminating the deal if both parties agree or if the contract was valid only for a limited amount of time. Being married or having a committed relationship with someone doesn’t make you’re your partner’s slave, so the same principle applies to those devoted or “married” to a deity. And while you trust the Gods, it doesn’t have to be blind obedience, just as trusting your loved ones, your elders or a police officer doesn’t mean you should do away with critical thinking.

IV. Diversity has consequences
This is why I believe the Gods are reasonable. It’s a rational consequence of diversity, which is at the heart of polytheism. It’s implied in the very notion of many gods. And diversity has theological consequences, generating dynamics that are essentially different from those of monotheism. It’s not that every god will be equally reasonable: diversity also implies differences between different deities. But in the end, multiplicity, co-existence, freedom of choice and also the application of social basics to one’s dealings with the Gods means that They are reasonable, however varied in degree. Because it’s not a matter of slaves and masters, of one ruling absolute over the others, but of rational interaction between multiple, co-existing and free parties. Just like in a free and diverse society – which, I’d add, is one we should strive for.

Unity and diversity

It’s far easier after all to believe everyone is the same as you, but the real test of interfaith values is how you treat people with whom you have nothing in common but a supposed commitment to your faith.

The words above were written by Galina Krasskova in this post and it’s a spot-on sentence because it goes straight to the root of the problem that polytheists often face when joining interfaith groups. It’s something that I’ve come across multiple times, both actively, whenever I engaged in some form of interfaith dialogue, and passively by reading and listening to what people say about religions other than their own. And after several years of it, I’ve come to conclude that the problem boils down to a matter of comfortable unity versus uncomfortable diversity. Allow me to explain.

The two biggest religions of our time are monotheistic. They overwhelmingly have the greatest number of followers and enjoyed centuries of undisputed dominion over large parts of the world. Even today, they determine a lot of the public discourse about religion, including that of those who are anti-religious: try debating with an atheist and you’ll probably hear arguments based on Christianity or Islam, from dogmatic scriptures to sexual repression and the exclusive claim to truth. And try tuning in to TV or radio shows on religion, where chances are that the entire conversation will be on God (singular), scriptures, love, sin and morality (e.g. gay marriage or abortion). For better or for worst, the common perspective on all things religious today is monotheistic. Even the very notion of faith as a synonym of religion is a product of that: if you believe that there is only one god, then faith and practice are indistinguishable; but if you believe in multiple gods – indeed, in all! – while worshiping only some – those closest or more significant to you – it is your ritual practice and not your faith that defines if you’re basically a Norse, Hellenic, Celtic, Kemetic or any other type of polytheist.

Of course, today it is also true that intolerance is bad PR, as any moderate Muslim will tell you. A world where many countries have fortunately enshrined religious freedom and diversity does not look kindly to persecutions and fundamentalisms. That’s what the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was all about: opening up the Catholic Church to a diverse and modern world that is fundamentally different from the one where it had grown and ruled. As a result, the principle of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus was softened, the Inquisition was renamed and the Good Friday prayer for the Jews was edited (among other things). And this, my friends, is where comfortable unity kicks in.

How do monotheistic and exclusivist religions fit in with the diversity and tolerance of the modern world? They can’t accept the existence of other gods and truths, as that would go against their most basic principle, so they take the only way out: monism! In other words, if you can’t eliminate other religions nor acknowledge their value (at least not entirely), you’re left with the option of arguing that all gods, all religions, are really just a manifestation of one true entity. This actually goes well with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, since they trace their origins back to Abraham, so all they have to do is to generalize the notion of a common denominator to every other religion in the world. That way, they can be at peace with diversity without having to compromise their monotheistic philosophy. This book from 2010 by a Portuguese Catholic priest named Anselmo Borges, who’s active in interfaith dialogue, actually claims, and I quote, that “it cannot be said that there are really polytheistic religions. (…) Polytheism is the assigning of the Divine Force to divinities that appear as its ‘personifications'” (pp. 49-50). In other words, we don’t exist – we polytheists are really just monists. How easy it is to eliminate the problem of diversity with one theological stroke!

This, I think, is also a problem in modern Paganism. Not that there are no people who believe that all Gods are one out of true philosophical conviction: it’s something that existed in the ancient world and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be the case today. But while some are monists by free thinking, others believe in a “One” or “Source” because it’s comfortable. It’s so much easier to fit in with the prevailing religious and interfaith discourse if you believe that all gods are really just one, that all religions are mere manifestations of a single source. No need for theological debates, no use for arguments, no point in focusing on the differences: it’s one long happy song around the campfire of the lowest common denominator. What’s worst, some actually join the monotheistic sing-along that there are no polytheists, just monists. It’s an erasure of cults and traditions by the pen after centuries of doing it by the sword. And it’s the comfort of being accepted and not having to deal with the awful topic of difference, because it’s far easier to tolerate and be tolerated on the assumption that it’s all the same.

As a polytheist, I view things differently: diversity exists, it’s natural and it’s good. The Gods are real and individual entities and while some are different forms of each other, not all of Them are one. As a rule, I do not deny the existence of any god and it does not scare or confuse me one bit that, as a result, I have to accept the existence of millions of deities. Why should that be a problem? There are seven billion people in the world, most of which I’ve never met or even seen, and yet I do not deny their existence or feel compelled to have a meaningful relationship with all seven billion of them. I’m close to my family, friends, neighbours and co-workers, just as I’m close to the Gods and spirits with whom I have a connection of some sort. I don’t need to believe that all of them are one so I can be tolerant, just as I don’t have to believe that all people are one person for me to be respectful and helpful towards a fellow human. I also don’t think my family, friends et al are the only real people in the world and neither do I believe that the deities I worship are the only true Gods.

Polytheism to me is about acknowledging diversity and differences and acting on that basis. Which gives me a hard time when I choose to take part in interfaith dialogue that is based on the notion that it’s all the same and, as a result, won’t even recognized that I exist. Because diversity is hard to deal with when you’re an exclusivist or just want to fit in nicely. And because polytheists are really just monists…