This concluding segment of my report-back from the Many Gods West conference in Olympia, Washington, will try to delve into some of the big-picture issues raised by Morpheus Ravenna in her excellent keynote speech (full text here!), as well as by Theanos Thrax in his presentation on regional polytheism. I found these speeches complementary in interesting ways. Both also prompted me to keep silently saying, “Aha! There! See!” until I realized nobody could hear.
These reflections have gotten a little long (oxymoron!), so I’ll divide them into several sections, viz. ‘Art glass and smithies’, ‘Spanking the Captain of Industry’, ‘Feeling up a herd of elephants’, and ‘Sharing a canteen with a comrade’, followed by some concluding thoughts. It’s a bit of a mental ramble over what Morpheus calls deep polytheism, but not, I hope, an entirely aimless one.
Art glass and smithies
From Morpheus’ speech, I take away two main points: (a) deities have identity and personhood and agency in their own right, apart from whatever functions they might fulfil; (b) our engagement with them is inevitably filtered through our own consciousness. I’ll just give a brief summary of each of these points of hers, since they’re so instructive and well-chosen.
It’s easy to typecast a deity in the same way we typecast a person we deal with in various roles: the delivery person, the barista, the school nurse. Most of the people who have dealings with people in those categories know them only professionally, and don’t actually experience the real person as such. Now, if it’s worthwhile to get to know the real person when you’re only talking about delivery people or whatever, how much more so will this be the case concerning deities whose depth of experience cannot be reckoned in centuries? And yet deities too often get reductively typecast as smith-gods (Morpheus’ example) or sun-goddesses or earth-mothers or whatever. Morpheus starts to describe Goibniu as being far more than just a smith once you really get to know him—not only does he have quirks and oddities of character, but there is a narrative there that touches on his cult history, his mythology, and his imprint on the landscape (cue Theanos’ speech later on!).
Point (b) that I take away from the keynote speech was that while the gods are real, our interactions with them must take place through the filter of our own consciousness—including our individual identities, the conceptual idiom and associations gleaned from the cultures around us, our own psychological needs, and the limitations on our own perceptions. And Morpheus likened this to our experience of sunlight filtered through stained glass. We observers can make sense of the stained-glass forms, but those shapes and colours belong to our perception and the window-maker’s craft as much as they belong to the sun itself. Yet without sunlight, those shapes and colours are nothing. And the shapes and colours we do perceive are potent hints of the immense power and energy of the sun beyond. The gods are as real as the sun, and no less powerful, dynamic, and life-giving. But it’s wrong to mistake them for the perceptions we have of them—the stained-glass impressions—however powerful and beautiful those might be. The gods lie beyond the human psyche and cannot be compassed by it. But they do interact with it—including with the archetypes that exist in humans’ minds—when they need to have dealings with humankind. (And for every deity that does have dealings with humankind, I’ll wager there are many more who couldn’t be bothered with Homo sapiens, and that is absolutely their prerogative.)
From point (b), I’d also like to tie in some of Theanos’ themes. Any experience of divinity must take place in a cultural and geographic context. Theanos gave as an example the cults of Hecate in Chicago and in Bulgaria. In the former city (my own at present), people are still very much exorcising the demons of Anglo-American Puritan culture: the relentless work ethic, the warped sexual attitudes. Hecate—dark and subversive and dynamic—presents herself here as a voluptuous half-naked deity who owns her sensuality. People in Bulgaria, from what I have seen, seem to have fewer hang-ups about sexuality (or at least different hang-ups…?), and also a healthier appreciation of leisure time. It may be more subversive in their context for worshippers to encounter a self-possessed, virginal Hecate undistracted by sex and intent upon her magical workings. Perspectives and cultural understandings differ from place to place. This inevitably must influence the colours and forms through which we see the light of one and the same divinity in different settings. Other factors may have a determining role in shaping the context in which worshippers encounter their deities: the local flora and fauna, the topography and watersheds, the climate and seasonal cycle. A deity may quite relish a sacrifice of motorcycles (as Theanos jokingly—at first—suggested!). But this will not be the sacrifice of choice among uncontacted hunter-gatherers of the Amazon.
Spanking the Captain of Industry (consensually)
Another idea follows on from point (b) in my mind, and that is that we—as mortals who worship the gods—should be wary of pronouncing limits on deity. Now that we’ve renounced the habit of assuming that everything is mushy all the time, and that discernment and discrimination are required in order to engage with deities in a respectful way—having given up on the vague assertions that Dionysus is really Pan, and Pan is really Mercury, and they’re all part of the sun-god who is also the vegetation-god and it doesn’t even matter because it’s all in your head—anyway, having renounced that kind of sloppy discourse, we need to be frank about admitting that deities are not likely to be limited to the contexts in which we’ve experienced them. To return to the analogy of the sun, I see sunlight most days. I’ve often experienced sunburn. I eat plants (unlike our Thracian friend?!) and even grow plants that were nourished by the sun. I can enjoy the light and warmth, the effect of shadows, the whole shemozzle, and yet I wouldn’t say that I know the True Sun, deep down, in all its complexity, or that I could tell you where it is and how far its influence extends and in what ways. (Actually, even astronomers can’t do that, because they deal professionally only with the Sun’s body and not his spirit—but that’s another question outside the scope of this analogy!)
To this extent, I really like one of Jason Mankey’s remarks in his reaction to Many Gods West: “I like mystery,” he says, continuing,
“Shadows are a friend of mine. Certainly I have thoughts on big-picture ideas like the nature of deity, but I’m not convinced as to their correctness. They make sense to me, but I don’t expect them to make sense to everyone else.”
This is absolutely as it should be. Hubris is an all-too-easy trap to fall into. So is intellectual arrogance. Heaven knows I’m guilty of the latter often enough. And in this spirit, I’d like to revisit one of Theanos’ more memorable analogies: If the mailman comes to drop the mail off at my house, and he finds me sitting on the lawn with my shirt off drinking some whiskey, I’ll give him a wave. He’ll say hi. But if I’m sitting on the lawn with my shirt off drinking whiskey, and it’s his lawn, his reaction will be entirely different, which is as it should be. And so on with our interactions with divinity: the meaning of interactions occurring in one place will not be the same as in another.
So I cannot but reflect that if this is true of us, as mortals, as worshippers, how much more must it be true of deities who by their nature are not confined in time and space? Morpheus anticipates this point with reference to Badb Catha whom we know from Irish mythology—not identical with, but not wholly separate from, Cathubodua in Gaul—who in turn is not identical with, but not wholly separate from, a proto-Celtic *Bodwâ whose historicity can be inferred rather than averred. Each separately is approachable to the worshipper. Each exists eternally, yet their interactions with history and geography, with time and place, imparts to them a particular individuality (or does it merely seem so to us?), and their mutual connection goes beyond function and analogy (or, again, does it merely seem so to us?). So far I’m mostly paraphrasing Morpheus, and hopefully I haven’t stepped too far beyond the sense of her address. But I think it’s worthwhile to pursue this idea a little bit farther.
Let us imagine a Captain of Industry—impeccably suited, well-spoken, and incisive. Watching such a person in action in the boardroom, or delivering a commencement address, we would form a certain conception of them. A select few of us might even get to know them rather well, swapping stories about our past high school sweethearts and local politics and our kids’ Little League teams. Now this same person, without the slightest guile or inconsistency, presents a totally different persona when they are encountered in a swingers’ club. Those encountering this person in that setting might know them as the one with a huge spanking fetish, the one who always remembers to bring extra condoms, the one who seems pretty much bisexual but won’t quite bring themselves to do the deed with a person of the same sex. And it’s one and the same person, and in different contexts they fulfil completely different functions, and no matter how well you might know that person in the one context, you’ll simply never understand them altogether unless you’ve encountered them in the other.
And my point with this analogy, as you might expect, is that if people can have one impression of the Captain of Industry and a totally different impression of the Responsible Bi-curious Spanking Swinger, so too can mortals have totally different impressions of a deity whom they encounter in completely separate contexts. And given that deities are not subject to human boundaries, but transcend them, it is practically certain that at least some deities are known in different contexts as though they were altogether distinct personas. It’s not outside the realm of imagination that the very same deity might be known in one set of circumstances as Veles and in another as, say, Iemanjá. And why not? Human conventions dictate that Veles can not and must not be Iemanjá—not divine ones. I mention this not because I’m arguing that Veles is Iemanjá—or that it would make any difference to us as worshippers if he were. If we know Veles as Veles and then start talking to him as though he were Iemanjá, it would just be bizarre—just as if we came up to our friend the Spanking Swinger and started talking about quarterly reports. Context matters, especially for us humans who are chiefly constricted by it. My point, rather, is twofold. First, some deities actually do make themselves known (to their worshippers) in a multiplicity of forms, and this shouldn’t surprise us. And second—as a necessary corollary to Morpheus’ insistence on the agency and personhood of deities—deities can surprise us. That means that we need to make space in our conceptual universe for the possibility of such surprises—as unsettling as this often is (particularly for somebody like me, who generally likes his categories clear-cut and his scenes finely scripted).
Talking about breaking across boundaries, one of Theanos’ important points was that deities (and everybody actually) come with Terms of Service—those annoying, interminable (and invariably badly formatted…) blocks of text that normal people just click through without a glance. But the TOS has some important information. It tells you how to interact with a deity, and your TOS tells the deity how to interact with you. So if my entire mental conception of deities is Norse, for example, and Jupiter Tonans has something he really wants to tell me, he may go up to Þórr and go, “So, mind if I borrow your hammer and stuff for the afternoon? I need to appear to somebody who only speaks Norse god.” And conversely, if theoretically Veles really is Iemanjá (just an example! I swear!), but I’ve only signed up to the TOS with Iemanjá, then it’s as Iemanjá that I need to address her, and to do so in a way appropriate to dealing with orixás in general and Iemanjá in particular.
Where Theanos was going with this, however, was not entirely that people need to follow the rules all the time. The point is that by knowing the Terms of Service—yours and theirs—you’ll know when a line’s being crossed. You’ll know not to cross the line into transgressive behaviour when you don’t want to, and when to cross it when you do want to. Which will not be most of the time, of course—but still. Transgressive is kinky. It can be fun. But it shouldn’t be entered into unwittingly.
Feeling up a herd of elephants
The reality that some deities cross cultural and temporal and spatial boundaries has immediate implications at least for me. Now, I’m a devotee of Mercury, protector of travellers: and that includes travel over space, over time, over boundaries, into and out of all sorts of liminal situations (death, among many others). I won’t even say necessarily that my god is the one, the true, the Ur-Mercury, the primitive distilled essence of Mercury who has and can be called by no other name, because I’d call that a bogus 19th-century Romantic will-o’-the-wisp anyway—in any case, for me the concept of such an Ur-Mercury would have no meaning. My god is specifically the Mercury who is known in many lands in many guises. In Gaul he is Cissonius, the charioteer, and Visucius, the knowledgeable, and also Arvernorix and Dumias, lord of the Arverni on the Puy de Dôme. He is known as Óðinn and Wôden and Grímnir and Fjölnir, one-eyed king and warrior, seeker of wisdom, revealer of the runes. He is Lug Lamfata, son of Ethliu and Cían, foster-child of Tailtiu, the Ildánach, master of all the crafts that will gain one admittance into Tara. He is Hermes, son of Maia, Atlantiades, slayer of Argus, Cyllenius, thief of the cattle of Apollo, emissary and right-hand man of Zeus, guide of souls, bringer of dreams. He is Thoth and Djehuty, inventor of writing, teacher of magic, subtle judge and intercessor between the gods of Egypt. Now, I do not say that there is no Wôden who is not also distinct from my god. I do not say that Thoth must always be Mercury. I certainly do not say that Hermes, as such, is identical to Lug Lamfata, as such. But the Mercury I know crosses all these boundaries, and more besides, and is a stranger nowhere. He is the point of convergence of all these different deities. I recognize him almost instantly in a new pantheon or body of mythology I start studying—this has happened again recently as I’ve been learning more of Hittite and Mitannian religious traditions, and recognized my god again in Ea and Enki: wise and lordly and learnèd, god of the waters beneath the world. Always he is in a different form and context—everywhere a traveller, nowhere a stranger.
Probably most of us have heard the familiar image of a group of blind men who, confronted with an elephant who’s acting particularly coy, each feel different parts of the said elephant and come up with radically different ideas of what it is. It’s a tree! It’s a garden hose! It’s a paintbrush! It’s fried dough from the county fair! and so on. Now, this image is offered up by Sri Ramakrishna (though it may be much older) to show how Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and others have all arrived at different theologies because they’re all interacting with God–Allah–Ram in different but equally valid ways, but it’s the same god and the same underlying truth and therefore kumbaya. Now, from a polytheistic perspective, I have to respectfully demur from most of this. However, with regard to deities who cross boundaries, defy conventions, and like to throw surprises in our way, I think there can be a kernel of truth there. This is particularly so when we recognize that there’s more than one elephant in the world. Despite ever-increasing poaching and habitat degradation, there are still some 32,000 Asiatic elephants and 700,000 African elephants. We could take this as a low-ball estimate for the number of deities as well. The other problem I have with the Ramakrishna image is that none of these blind men seem to be able to smell elephant in front of them. That would be what people call discernment.
American polytheists have resisted the idea of transcultural deities, and loudly tell me that Mars is not Ares and ne’er the twain shall meet. As for Mercury, not only is he not Óðinn, but Óðinn is not Wôden. I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the reason for this is that we as a nation are so bad with languages, which makes us uneasy about translating. (What on earth would an 8th-century Saxon traveller among the Norsemen call Wôden in their language, if not Óðinn? (Well, unless Alföðr or Grímnir or Báleygr, which also proves my point.)) Despite the multilingualism of tens of millions of Americans, the dominant culture here is normatively opposed to the idea of things being called different names in different contexts, perhaps with different connotations and cultural significance. If somebody’s name is written on their documents as “Anwar”, and I call him “Enver”, Americans will impatiently dismiss this as a mistake. It’s not a mistake. Anwar is Enver. They’re actually just Arabic and Turkish versions of one and the same name; if our friend Anwar can speak some Turkish, of course I’ll call him “Enver bey” if we’re using that language (or “Enver abi” or “Enver amca” depending on his age and how well we know each other). The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V famously claimed to speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to his horse. And well he might. He—one and the same person—really was Carlos, Carlo, Charles, and Karl, depending on who he was talking to.
Now, to return to Mars and Ares, here the equivalence is less obvious, and undoubtedly we can have very different responses if we use Latin to invoke Mars the defender of fields, from if we use Greek to invoke Ares the destroyer of cities. And well might it be so. There are many distinct hypostases of Mars, and no doubt many more of Ares. Still, the fact remains that at Trier, one worshipper named Tychicus writes a Latin poem thanking Lenus Mars for having cured him of an ailment (for ours is a healing Mars). Right beneath it, the same person writes a Greek poem thanking Lenus Ares in nearly identical terms. This is not rare, but routine, in situations of multilingualism in the ancient world: god-names can translate too. And it’s worth pointing out that multilingualism is not the exception, either now or in antiquity. English monoglots in the US are the exception. Personally, I don’t speak Greek, but if I did, I wouldn’t hesitate to describe myself in Greek as a devotee of Hermes, rather than switching languages (and alphabets!) to speak of Mercury. Sometimes a difference is real. Sometimes it is not. I want to be clear that I’m not claiming that all deities called either Mars or Ares are all the same. They aren’t. But the operative distinctions between them can cut across language lines: Lenus Mars is evidently Lenus Ares if you’re speaking Greek, but this same god is not identical with Mars Ultor or Mars Belatucadrus or the Ares of Apuleius’ Thessalian brigands. Names are one of those limiting factors, often human-imposed, that we can expect many deities will scorn to be contained by.
Sharing a canteen with a comrade
Deities appear in different forms in different contexts—which is a fair summation of Theanos Thrax’ speech (though certainly there was more to it than that!). And they resist being pigeon-holed. Perhaps I should say that they may probably be indifferent to whether human beings pigeon-hole them or not—but we’ll have far less productive relations with them if we refuse to deal with them outside of a single function or archetype.
All the same, pace Morpheus (hmm, should that be pace Morpheo?), I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to know and interact with a deity mainly as and through their function. I’d suggest that if you have dealings with a lot of deities, this is inevitable with some of them; just as if you have dealings with a lot of people, it’s inevitable that you won’t get to know the deepest darkest secrets of all of them. In some situations, it would be kind of intrusive and weird if you took it upon yourself to become the best friend of every barista, delivery person, and drugstore cashier who crosses your path. By all means, linger a few moments to chat about the weather and the Packers game, but universal intimacy cannot really be the goal. And so also with many deities. I don’t know this for certain, but my sense is that Caiua, for example, is a quiet goddess who likes her privacy—not that she’s against having worshippers, but she values her space. Just a feeling of mine. Then again, there are times when you’ve got a place to be, your horse needs shoeing, and look—just in the nick of time!—there’s a smith(-deity). That deity’s unexpected but timely intervention might be the beginning of a beautiful relationship, or it might just be one of those strong but fleeting incidences of divine benevolence that flow down onto mortals’ experience in a continual beam.
Personally, I have regular ritual dealings with at least a score of deities (not to mention nymphs, genii, lares, and heroes), but a meaningful, deep, devotional relationship with only a handful of them. For me, at least, I feel that’s as it should be. I feel Mercury with me in nearly everything I do; every mistake I make, he’s chuckling benevolently beside me. In addition, I’ve consciously cultivated devotional relationships, to a greater or lesser degree, with Apollo Grannus, Rosmerta, Ðirona, Lenus Mars, and Cernunnos, while Ancamna and Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus have introduced themselves to me rather than otherwise. But this by no means stops me from calling on Epona or Hercules Saxsanus when I’m in a tight spot, or many another deity besides. Having a devotional relationship with one, or a few, deities is only one of the awesome things about polytheist practice, at least in my experience. Another is forging ties of reciprocity with deities whom we might know more distantly: making vows and fulfilling them, and thereby establishing patterns of warm, cordial engagement that can again be renewed in times of need. Such ties need not be ecstatic, or even intimately devotional, but they can cement the kinds of alliance that Morpheus calls for in her question, “What can we [mortals and deities] do together?” In the military, you’ll know all the soldiers in your own company, maybe even in your regiment, but you won’t know the whole brigade—yet it’s brigades and divisions and corps that effect a campaign. Just as soldiers on campaign won’t know all of their comrades (however implicitly they may understand that they have each other’s back), even so, no one of us will know intimately all of the deities who might be working on our side. Yet having reciprocal relationships based on goodwill and understanding—even when those relationships are relatively superficial—can be tremendously beneficial when one of those parties is, y’know, immortal and immensely powerful.
Morpheus makes a very fair criticism about treating deities like vending machines where you keep putting prayers in until blessings fall out. There should be more to our interactions with deities than that. In particular, we need to be prepared to learn unexpected and sometimes unpleasant things (including about ourselves) if we take our interactions with deities seriously. We’re dealing with far greater powers than ourselves, and we can expect the unexpected from them. But I think her vending machine analogy risks being misunderstood as a blanket dismissal of the do ut des principle more broadly (though I strongly doubt that this is Morpheus’ intention). Do ut des is powerful stuff. To return to my brigade analogy, it creates a palpable bond to share your canteen with a thirsty comrade. Once you’ve broken bread with somebody, you can never regard them wholly with indifference. The connection is real, whether you end up ever having another one-on-one interaction with that person or not. One of the quickest shortcuts to building trust in a relationship is to make a promise to somebody and deliver on it.
Of course, the limitation of my military unit analogy is that it is based on bodies of soldiery where everybody is—if not equal—then at least all human. Enlisted soldiers ordinarily need to obey their officers, but there’s nothing to say an enlisted soldier can’t become an officer some day. It’s not quite the same with humans and deities. Sure, human souls are divine, but the gulf between us and gods is qualitatively different from that between private soldiers and officers. That means that inevitably we’re going to be dealing with asymmetrical reciprocity. There’s a line from Roman literature that admirably encapsulates this: Venus, says one character, de paulo paululum hoc tibi dabo ‘Venus, a little of the little I have, I give to you’ (Plautus, Curculio, line 125). To be sure, the speaker (the madam of a brothel) goes on to talk about how much she’d rather be keeping all the wine for herself than share it with Venus—but the wider point is that the most magnificent gifts we can ever present the gods will only ever be for them a mere token, for they are quite self-sufficient. And this is okay. Deities are gracious; they make allowances. We reach out to them across the gulf of our own limitations and their transcendence. And this makes them potentially far greater allies than mere mortals can be.
Conclusion and final thoughts
In sum, the gods are real and have agency and personhood of their own. At the same time, the way we experience and interact with them is embedded in our own context: our geography, our wider culture, our individual psychology, and our personal tastes and associations and experiences. Let’s be mindful of that as we try to engage with deities and work with them, strengthened by them, to do something positive in our daily lives and in our wider world. We need to recognize that, no matter how much we’ve studied or how deep our experiences are, we cannot fully take the measure of divinities. They will burst out of our categories and expectations and labels, and that’s okay. At times we actually need for them to do that. And this also explains why one person’s experiences of a deity can be so different from another’s: there are things it’s not right for the one person to know; there are interactions that they won’t be able to process or make sense of. In that uncertainty is potential for greater understanding and coalition-building among polytheists, because it allows us to accommodate (imagine this!) diversity in our practices and conceptions. This is deep polytheism—to use Morpheus’ phrase—and there are likely to be many depths we can’t see to the bottom of. But this is no reason we can’t dive in for a long, invigorating swim. We may even bring back sunken treasures we never imagined were there.
Still, to return for a moment to Jason Mankey’s point about shadows (my apologies for suddenly switching metaphors!), one area where I part company from Wicca is that although I think it’s important to recognize shadows—to have a place in our mental framework for the unknown or the uncertain—nevertheless I don’t gravitate to the shadows. Perhaps, again, this is because I’m a creature of Mercury, and I like things to have names (multiple names, even!); I like them to come out from darkness into the world of speech and logic and comparison (although not everything can…). From what I’ve experienced of Wicca, its instincts seems to be to seek the shadows—to summon Aradia at a night-time crossroads where I’d prefer to worship Phœbe in a well-lit, beautifully proportioned Corinthian temple. Call this a question of one’s comfort level. But I’ve often seen big-P Pagan accounts of history and religion that seem even to cast shadows across what is already illuminated (“equating 20th Century Pagan Culture with ‘2000 years of resistance against Abrahamism’ or whatever”, as Theanos phrased it in a recent blog post), which, I have to admit, really irks me. If hubris is a profound spiritual danger, and intellectual arrogance too, then equally must we guard against obscurantism and anti-rationalism.
Before I leave the subject of Morpheus and Theanos’ speeches, I have to compliment them both on their presentation styles. Morpheus’ delivery was just about perfect; her speech was engaging, thoughtful, often zany, and invariably insightful. Her examples were well-chosen and evocative; I’m sure I’ll never think about the Dagda’s club in quite the same way again. For his part, Theanos managed to give a well-thought-out, cogent, and wide-ranging address while kicking back (if memory serves) a flask of mead, part of a bottle of another kind of mead, and most of a bottle of good strong ale. His style was conversational, not to say fecking hilarious, and got the audience to participate in discussion that was relevant, respectful, and on point. As a bonus, he also shared a number of his insights on natural history: puppies reproduce asexually by fragmentation, Australians ride around on kangaroos, and lettuce does not grow on trees. I’m pretty sure at least one of those statements is true.
Finally, I’d really like to thank Heathen Chinese for assembling his list of report-backs from Many Gods West. In spare moments, I’ve been browsing through the various blog posts, and coming across some really fascinating responses! It’s been especially interesting to hear from people who went to different sessions than I did.