“If you narrow it, you miss it.” A response.

This post is in response to a post by Helio, which can be found here.

I want to clarify some things from my point of view, because I feel some things have been lost in translation.

“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”

First off, I stated very clearly that I am only a polytheist by proxy. I am first and foremost an animist, though my worldview and practice acknowledges and allows room for beings I would call gods. The “monotheism critique” will be dealt with later.

Helio has this to say;

“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.”

My criticism of Helio’s piece is such; that conflating all spiritual beings as “gods” misses the fundamental diversity of such beings.

Spirits are diverse beings, and some come in kinds we can recognize, and some are so alien, so beyond our experience it is difficult to even think about them, to give words to the experience of them.

Helio and I would be on the same general page, if “gods” were substituted for “spirits” in his post. So on this level, the difference is merely semantic. However, some more depth is required.

“What is a god?” I think this is a great question, and one that is not easily answered. As I conceive it, a god is any being that makes me feel insignificant. Any being, that is so beyond me in age, experience, power, influence, or what have you, that I utterly feel small. Also, I generally consider gods to have an interest in human affairs, for various reasons.

I agree with the author when he says that this is not a clear black/white issue. It is not so simple as “x is a god” and “y is not a god”. There is a wide amount of overlap between categories of spiritual beings, and because many of these categories are humans creations, we can argue that each is arbitrary as well, because it is true. We put beings into categories to help make sense of them, but often these categories do little justice to the diversity of such beings. Categories are generalities, and the specifics often go beyond or overlap with other categories.

I think Helio gave some good examples of this; “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.”

However, I think it is dangerous to go from “there is some overlap between x and y” to “there is always overlap between x and y.” This logical extension just does not hold water when considered against the diversity of spiritual beings, and the relations between beings as well. Some are gods, to be sure, some are not, and some are inbetween, or neither. There is some overlap in some cases to be sure, but this is not always true.

While I cannot speak to the Roman sources, I am fairly familiar with the Nordic sources, so here I offer a couple of counter examples. Yes, I agree that there is a great deal of overlap, especially between the Aesir, Vanir and the elves, and other classes as well. Sometimes these are treated as separate classes, and sometimes spoken of as if the same thing. Also, there is no small amount of overlap between the dead and these classes. Warrior dead go to Valhalla, Freyja picks up some, and Hel picks up others, and so on. Hel is notably thought to be in the underworld. So no, there is no set “higher” strata which is exclusive for the gods. Beings of all types move around, and can be found on many levels. However, even if Christian-glossed, the old Norse sources do generally put their god-beings, in Asgard, in the branches of the world tree. Such an arrangement is not strictly a monotheistic idea, and I will say more about that in a moment.

At the same time, the Norse sources also make a clear cut distinction between gods and other beings in some cases. The Alvíssmál is notable in this case because it details several diverse class of beings, Aesir, Vanir, Jotunns, elves and dwarves. The Jotunns are the most notable example of beings that are not considered to be gods. Jotunns, speaking generally, are similar to the Aesir gods in many ways, going so far as to share a common descent in ancestry. However, they are not (again generally) considered to be gods, and in many cases enemies of the gods and what they stand for.

At the same time, there are notable exceptions to all this. Skadi is a case in point. A giant that was considered as an  Aesir and a Vanir. As I said, there are cases when spirits go to join the gods, but the reverse is also true. Perhaps not in the Norse sources, but there are sure to be forgotten gods and spirits. Beings which no longer had the status and worship they once did, whose memories and names are lost to time. Other beings can be ascended to godhood, and there are some cases as well where beings are “cast-out” and stripped of divine status. And this is not exclusive to modern monotheisms, either.

As for the “monotheism” of my thoughts, it is a fair point. It is something I will have to think about in more detail. However, at the same time, I feel such a critique does more to shut down the conversation then it does to enhance it. The reason for this is that many other systems of belief conceive of their world in similar methods, and some of which are far older than modern monotheisms. As examples, I have written about shamanic/animistic worldviews herehere and certainly in other places as well. It is important to remember that ancient as well as modern beliefs systems are not entirely divorced from the socialcultural realities that create them. It is no coincidence that the Norse cosmology resembles the society and culture it came out of. Also, even the Norse system drew from other inspirations, and people they encountered. They were also interpreted through a Christian lens when written down. The same is true of modern monotheisms. They drew inspirations from the people they conquered and converted. Christianity especially assimilated pagan ideas and holidays, and certainly some of the ideas as well. Can we say honestly where some of these ideas originated?

The point I am trying to make, and that was central to my original post on this topic, is that there is a fundamental diversity to the world of spirits and belief that we can barely grasp. We are forced, through our limited abilities, to create categories that makes sense of a whole other set of realities that do no always make sense to us humans. The complexity is too great, and eventually, our thoughts and languages categories fail.

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About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

2 responses to ““If you narrow it, you miss it.” A response.

  • Helio

    Here’s where you and I differ: for me the word god does mean spirit. It simply implies a numinous being that can be celestial, terrestrial, chthonic, local, universal, tribal and/or family in nature. It’s akin to the Japanese kami. And a Shintoist don’t say he’s not kami-centric because he focuses on ancestors or landwights. They’re all kami. That’s the Dead, a nymph or a simple genius can be called divine. Specific terms for groups of gods is, as I said, less about clear-cut categories and more about scope and function. Which is why, for instance, an ancestor can be a landwight of the place where he was buried – like an elf – and a landwight of a river can be a local river god. It’s not that it’s all the same or that categories don’t serve a useful purpose. It’s just that they’re not clear-cut.

    And polytheism is not monotheism: there’s no dogma saying that there’s only one god or twelve gods. The only reason why angels aren’t considered deities in Ahramic religions is because they’re monotheistic; if it wasn’t for that, a being that acts like a god and has the numinous qualities of a god would worshipped as such. We don’t have that kind of dogma. We have fluid and overlapping terminology.

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