Tag Archives: Gods

Interanimism: A Brief Commentary

Hello again folks,

As a brief note, WordPress is telling me that today is my sixth year anniversary here at The Thought Forge. Hurray! It has been a pleasure writing for you all these years, and I hope to continue to do so into the future. We have nearly 930 email followers on this blog, and I thank each and every one of you for this journey so far! Now, onto the meat!

There have been a lot of great articles out recently concerning animism and relationships. Today I would like to take a more in depth look at one of the them Interanimism By Mathieu Thiem. It has given me quite a lot to think about, and I want to dig a little deeper into the article itself.

Now, I will not be examining the whole of the article, as certain aspects I still want to sit with for a while. Naturally, if you want to read the whole of the article in context, links are provided. I invite you to take a read before reading my own exploration.

Let’s start with a quote from the article, to really set the stage for what I am going to be talking about here;

“By intra-action I mean that each act upon an object is effectively co-creating both the actor and the object because it introduces a new parameter of relationships. The relationship of interbeing between the two are co-constitutional, they act as feedback loops that mutually affect one another.”

To put this into my own words, intraction is the mutual relationship between two actors/agents. Take for example to people in a close, intimate partnership. Say two lovers for example. The relationship is the whole construct for both the individuals themselves, as well as the greater connections between them. It is not a neither/or kind of thing, but a “and” kind of relationship. The two lovers are co-creating their reality, through cooperation, and conflict as well. The constant push and pull, the constant integrated creation of of thing greater than just two individuals.

This extend well beyond our persons as well, to include all of our relations to other humans as well as our environment. I will be detailing this more in a future post, with graphics and everything; mostly because this kind of thing is better illustrated with visuals.

The primary topic of this blog has been animism for a long time; using Harvey’s definition that the world is full of persons and that life is lived in relationships with others. The principle of intraction is that those persons are involved in a delicate relational dance that co-creates their reality. As Clifford Geertz put it so perfectly;

that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (Clifford Geertz, from The Intrepretation of Cultures)

That is really what my animism is all about, a search for meaning. That meaning, following the spirit of the article, is something we co-create with others in relationship. Returning to the article;

This brings us to Interanimism, the notion that existence is mutually inspiring and co-creating itself, animating its interbeing through intra-active relationships. Rather than seeing the world filled with particulated essences or souls, what would reality be like if we saw all matter as an emergent function of relationships and agency as the phenomenology of entanglement?

This really gets to the heart of animism as I understand it. I have said it dozens of times here, but I understand it in the way Graham Harvey articulates animsim; “that the world is filled with persons and that life is lived in relation with others.” Actors and agents (persons) are more than simply individuals in isolation, but a web of beings in a network. More than just defined by their individuality, they are defined by their connections to everything else. It also implies that by focusing on simply “atomist” perspectives, we miss a lot of the picture. As Thiem points out;

Rather than committing reductionist fallacies, we must come to observe matter as it really is, an emergent phenomenon of relationships. An atom is a construct of its relational existence…”

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a reductionist fallacies to look an individual entity is terms of itself, but it would definitely be missing the bigger picture of networked connections. As humans are relatively complex beings, it would be the equivalent of trying understand the whole of my being from just a single cell. While it is true in a large degree that you could extrapolate my DNA and get a decent view of my person, you would miss all the memories, all the experiences, the scars, and the resulting personality that has emerged from all those interactions; with others as well as with my environment.

You could get a decent portrait, but the image and person are not the same.

By just looking at a single cell of my being, you would miss the bigger picture; and that is an important point in and of itself. In addition, if you just look at me as an individual, you would also miss the fact that I am defined in relationship with others. You really see me as a whole when I am with my partner, my friends, or in any kind of network with other beings. You are seeing me in the totality as a whole, instead of an isolated partial. I wouldn’t be who I am today without all those intra/inter-actions.

Thiem continues with;

Every time an intra-action occurs, there is a resulting degree of agency emerging. As more intra-action and entanglement occurs, the emergent agency becomes more attentive, more aware, more enlivened. This is applicable to all interbeing within our existence. Agency is not a special or rare occurrence, but it is rather the basic emergent function of ALL EXISTENCE. That is right, awareness seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Agency is just as much a physical phenomenon as it is a mental one. The two are the same thing.”

While I myself tend to communicate more plainly, I have expressed this thought in a dozen different ways. “The world is filled with persons” can be simply restated matter itself is agential. The Cosmos as a whole, from the smallest scales to the largest, can be said to have some measure of agency. While I do think there are limits to nature and scope of that agency, it would still seem to be a basic characteristic of existence.

Consider for a moment the nature of the atom itself, as one of the many parts of the cosmic whole. Even taken alone, there is a basic agency to the atom. It seeks out a “balance”, combining itself in numerous forms in order to achieve that. That basic drive to balance out internal charges (positive protons and negative electrons) denotes a basic form of agency. No, it is not the kind of agency found in larger and more complex forms, but an arguable simple agency all the same.

Throughout the history of the known universe, we see this basic agency. Smaller forms coalesce into more complex and diverse forms, and from that eventually comes the basics of life as we know it. We as humans are the result of countless generations of constructive agencies.

This is not to say that this is a linear progression of simpler to more complex, but like biological evolution itself, it is a process of starts and stops. Entropy resists the larger and more complex forms, which then breakdown and rearrange before becoming something new.

As such, as Thiem points out, our reality is a process in motion. Not a linear track, but a complex of becoming…

Now, I want to move this discussion from the most broad to talk about a few specific points for a moment. I have said many times that I am an animist first, but also consider myself to be a polytheist by proxy. This means simply that there is plenty of room in my cosmology for those elusive beings we tend to refer to as gods.

I have struggled for a long time to clearly articulate how I view the gods. I have tried to describe them in the past as collective beings, as cumulative ancestors, and as the “spirit of a group”. Thiem has done a service by putting into words what I could not;

Gods are not separate disembodied ideals, but are instead the emergent agencies from the vast networks of ancient entanglements within which we are embedded. Gods arise not as archetypes, but as the long lived intellects of ecosystems and bioregions. As a bioregion, or any massive networked system for that matter, begins to experience multi emergent synergistic qualities that are unique to its paradigm, the agency of that system becomes more capable of awareness and attention. It develops its own paradigmatic memory and it seeks its own teleodynamic harmony.”

Gods can be all the things I just mentioned, and have tried to articulate in the the past. As emergent agencies, they can be the collective agency of a tribe, or a city. They can be collective agency of an entire region or ecosystems, a co-creation of human as well as natural persons. We as humans can well be part of those emergences, as we tell our stories of the gods, and so add to the network that is the agency of the very same beings.

In the nature of synergy, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. We may see the spirits in individual trees, but the god is in the forest.

Puts a whole new spin on the old cliché of “seeing the forest through the trees.”

(One of my photos.)

As I have already said, my animism sees the world as full of persons, of agents. But most common discussions of animism revolve around the idea of spirits, or not necessarily corporeal persons. As such, any animism must make space for these kind of beings, and Thiem here also articulates this idea well;

Spirits are the liminal agencies of the rocks, the trees, the rivers and all the other functionaries of the more than human world. They are not themselves astral or ethereal, but are physically present in the waking dream of the land. They are nature’s diffractive agencies, emerging out of the entangled relationships of various enlivened constructs.”

There is really not a lot I can add to this. This means that every rock, every tree, and every rivers may well be agencies in their own right. Through the networked intra/interactions of all of the parts, a new whole emerges. This is especially true of natural ecosystems, which often work in cooperation, as well as sometimes in competition. In addition, Thiem’s article also touches on the ancestors as well;

The ancestors are the culminating influences of the past embedded onto the present, all their gravitational waves pushing us forward into the expanse of the universe. The ancestors are not ghosts that pop up like some spooky ethereal being, but are the past actions of our ancestors imprinted upon the informational matrix of our reality which produces an emergent agency capable of communicating with the living, forever affecting and inspiring our future.”

This gets at the heart of how I have tried to articulate how I understand the ancestors. They are no longer embodied, but they are still around, embedded as they are in the intangible. They are, as Thiem put it, “imprinted upon the informational matrix of our reality.” This is a good way to conceive of the disembodied generally. Thiem goes on to add;

…Because of this, the ancestors were not an aspect of dead beings that somehow haunted us in the present, but rather to be an ancestor was to be alive as a different state of being. And this state of being was a kind of imprinting or embedding into the eco-sociological matrix of their places. So when you died you literally became the land, the flora and fauna etc. Your stories inhabited the land and were still very much a part of what made it what it was.”

In short, we are more than just our bodies. We are our stories, our relationships, our very real and formed relationships with the land, the water, and the sky. We are part of the air that we breath, and the water that we drink, so too they are part of us. The minerals from the earth compose our bones, and the fruits and flesh of plants and animals form our tissues. Even when we die, and those tangibles die away, our stories and our memories live on. This is how I understand the ancestors. But they are not just mere memories either, but agencies as well. People, in a different form.

As Thiem points out, the land too can sometimes also be counted as a ancestor. That my story is part of the land I call home. This makes me wonder a great deal. You see, I am a native of Michigan, and this is a curious land indeed. I was born here, and this land has been part of me since the very beginning.

I will have to look into this line of thought a little deeper, but I am sure the Native Americans of this region knew this well. On three sides of this state, we are bounded by the largest freshwater lakes in North America. Nearly one-fifth of the worlds freshwater resides at the edges of my state. This is something I will have to consider more, perhaps in a future post.

There is some much to Thiem’s article, and for the sake of brevity I am not going to explore anymore here. As such, I give the last words to Thiem himself.

I call on these mythic beings because I am seeking to commune with the reality of our interbeing. I call on my ancestors because I must become aware of how deeply we are affected by them, even though they have changed form. In many ways their death hasn’t stopped their meddling in our world, to the point where one must wonder if they ever really died at all. Their wisdom and stories are embedded into the fabric of our reality and this has vast implications. I call upon the Gods because I know that my human agency isn’t enough to understand the desires of the land…”

Thanks for reading!




Reflections and Meditations on 2016 Part 1

We are moving into the time of year where I tend to get really reflective and meditative. It is my big writing time for the year, where I tend to spend most of my time on longer projects. There is certainly a novel or two rolling around in my head, and at least one non-fiction work.

It has yet to be seen if I will actually have the time to work on all three projects (or any that have yet to make themselves known.) I might be able to work on one, having to have a day job and all. If anyone wants to give me a bunch of money or offer me a residency in some far off place (preferably in Scandinavia), now would be the time. Anyone?

Oh, the sounds of silence.

Anywho, enough of that. This certainty has been a hell of a year. There is just so much I could talk about here, I am going to have to be a little selective. As this is primarily a blog for spiritual things (as well as other things), I guess it makes the most sense that I should start with the changes in my spiritual path over this year.

There have been a lot of changes in that regards to be sure. I have been reading on a lot of different topics, and experimenting with new ideas to see what works, and what doesn’t. Some new thoughts have taken root, and I have moved beyond some old ones. A lot of generalities, yes I know.

Well, I guess it is fair to say I have been in “questioning” mode throughout most of this year. There was a time or two I dropped into spiritual crisis over the course of this year. Sometimes the questions without answers become far too heavy to carry after a point. There has been a fair bit of doubt and uncertainty, and through the great ups and downs of this year, more than a share of depression and anxiety.

I have felt lost at times. When I asked myself what path am I on, I don’t know really how to answer that anymore. There is nothing that really feels like it “fits”. Skins I have either outgrown, or were never mine to begin with. In the most general sense, I consider myself an animist. The world is full of people, most of which are non-human. Since I have written quite a bit about that, so I don’t want to belabor that point.

It’s true that my ancestors have always been a real core of my practice. The dead are always with us, in some way or another. On my less “spiritual” days, I know they are still in my DNA, in my blood and bone. Even when I doubt everything else, I know that; on a purely physical level they are with me. That is one corner stone of certainty I can grasp onto when I wonder if all this is just in my head.

That has been a big bit of this year. I think it is normal that we all have doubts, especially in matters such as spirituality. I mean, we can no longer touch the dead, no longer feel them physically in our lives. Sometimes I think I hear them, and other beings too. Yet, some days I have to stretch just to reach… anything. It makes me wonder if it is all in my head? I have felt that a lot this year; looking over that edge and wonder if I should fall off?

I think I am partially convinced that line of thought is wrong. How can this be all in my head if I can look out the door and see the Bird People, and the Tree People; if I can run down the forest trails with the Deer People? That is real, at least as real as these things get. I have been down the road of “what is reality”, and I don’t want to go there again. If this what is “real” is all some kind of hologram, I don’t want to know. Let me think that where I find myself is real, and let me keep my feet on the ground. If this is all some kind of “brain in a jar” Matrix shit, I don’t want to know.

So there are some certainties to be sure, but there are days when the doubts get heavy. If the ancestors, spirits, gods (whatever) I hear some days; if that is all in my head I have some serious problems. That is the other reason I think I am scared to contemplate that possibility. If this is all in my head, I have some real serious problems… That idea terrifies me. I hate having to look at my sanity, and wonder if I am all there?

Other days, fuck it. We are all crazy here.

Perhaps that really gets at the marrow on my year. It has been a lot of that. I also have been reading a lot of my old posts on this blog. Some of them are still relevant, others feel like some long lost skin. I do not see myself in those posts anymore. I have outgrown them, and left them far behind.

That is part of why I love blogging so much. It is kind of like a journal of my path as an individual. If you are all keeping up, you might have notice things have been shifting. Old ideas have not been entertained in a while, and new ones are cropping up all the time. Some might call that growth. Me, I don’t know. Some days it just feels like I am running in place.

Which kind of circles back to the idea of the supposed “path I walk.” I don’t know what to call it anymore. It’s animistic sure, and there is some shamanism-ish in there too. Ancestor work still makes up the core, with a close periphery of work with other people, primarily of the “natural” variety. Trees, rocks, wolves; you know, things we can point to in the “real” world. I know, for a fact, that these things are beyond myself.

I also know for a fact that my ancestors are dead, as are the ancestors of those Trees and Wolves. Is it too much a stretch to thing that some part of what we are lives on after death? Maybe not our bodies, but something? That is where I get into the fuzziness that sometimes makes me question my sanity.

And then there are the gods. Oh boy, that is a big one. I have struggled with this one a lot over the last few years, because I couldn’t quite figure out how to conceive of the gods in a way I could relate to and work with. Some have claimed this is just the nature of the gods. They are unknowable and mysterious and all that.

It has been a long process (not just this year), wading through all this. My spiritual journey started with a Christian church; a Southern Baptist one. I got plenty of the “God’s will is mysterious” and that he is omnipotent, and omniscient and immortal and and and… ad nauseum.

But over the years, and especially this past year. I have stripped away much of that. To me, I think that divinity is more of a “job” or a role rather than an intrinsic state of being. The best word I have found for the gods so far is stewards, and a lot of this has come over the past year or so from my studies in Finnish folklore and belief. I have written a fair bit about that, so once again I’m not going to harp on that to much.

Still, a big part of that was the ideas of haltias in Finnish folklore. The idea of a being that was a steward over a group, a clan, a tribe, a species; what have you. A haltia can be a elder ancestor, and/or a representative; and is generally concerned with the wellbeing of “theirs”; however they may be grouped. I groked with that, I understood that.

Which lead to the other parts starting to fall away. The gods, as stewards, likely don’t know everything (some try for sure), are not all powerful, and are limited in a very real sense. They are also not likely immortal in any sense. The stories are filled with “average” people becoming gods, and gods being stripped of their power. There are also stories of dead gods, forgotten gods, and all shreds of nuance around that.

Personally, a world full of numerous “limited” gods makes more sense to me than one “Almighty” something or other.

This all leads me to think that godhood is a role, a position of responsibility. Could you imagine the responsibility on the shoulders of a being that is a steward of humanity? Such a role would almost imply you had to take the long view of things. It also implies that the life, or death, of one particular individual might not be important as the “grand scheme” of things. It would be much more about the welfare of the “whole” rather than the “parts.”

Does this all make sense? Or am I just rambling?

Still, it makes me think that maybe godhood is something that is a potential in all of us. Maybe someday, we will all be stewards of that type. Divinity might well be something that is “earned” or “granted”, and just as easily be taken away.

Or I could be way off the mark. It’s fun to think about all the same.

I want to leave this topic for a bit, and move onto another one. As I said, my “path” has been interesting so far. I have no real titles to claim, and no real “tradition” that I am an adherent to. There has really been no initiations, no big ceremonies. In many ways it has just been me stumbling my way through. Sounds a lot like life in general.

I am not trying to diminish the contributions of countless numbers of people though. I have had many mentors, guides, teachers, friends, collaborators; human and non-human both. Some of them I truly respect an count among my friends and allies, and they have helped me grow a lot as a person and on my spiritual path. Yet, at the end of the day, I am mostly self taught. One situation, one idea at a time, I have had to figure out (sometimes the hard way) what works and what doesn’t. In some wide sense, some of what I have learned has been hard earned. It has come with deep financial, mental, physical and emotional costs.

I have taken a great bit of inspiration and learning from my ancestors. There are reasons I study things like crafts, archaeology and anthropology. Not only do I get enjoyment out of doing so, in some ways I am bringing that past learning into myself. In no small way, I am taking old material and reforging it.

Because, at the end of the day we have to face the facts of the present. We no longer live in the times of our ancestors. Their teachings and traditions were created and shaped to deal with the challenge of THEIR times, not ours. The world has moved on. Yet, I find some of those old tools still work, even if a little bit differently than originally meant to.

The fact is, the past is history. Without some cataclysmic event, we have to deal with the realities of the here and now, and also for the future. That is what I feel I am doing. I am taking the threads left by my ancestors; the fragments of long decayed tapestries. I am taking those threads, and rebuilding something for the present. I am re-weaving, rebuilding, and reshaping all these ideas into tool for our own time.

As well as onward into the future.

My Polytheism

I read a fair bit, and when I stumbled across numerous posts concerning “My Polytheism”, I was inspired to write my own piece. In many ways, I have become a little disenchanted by “polytheism” as it is developing. I feel like there isn’t a place for people like me in it.

In addition, it feels like it getting really polarized. I am really turned off by a constant “us vs them” sort of rhetoric and mentality. Yeah, polytheism is diverse, and some disagreement is necessary and even healthy. But there is a huge difference between healthy boundaries, and wall building.

Which leaves people such as myself feeling caught in the middle and openly wondering if I have any place in polytheism, since some of what I read just sounds a lot like “no true polytheist…” Ugh.

As I have said many times before, I consider myself an animist first, and a polytheist by proxy. The reason for this is because in my world view, there is more than enough room for the gods. The logic is pretty straightforward; to me the world is full of people, most of which are non-human, and that we live our lives in relation to one another.

And it follows from this simple statement, that some of these persons might be what we call gods. It also implies, that the gods are persons, with all the free will, individual sovereignty, and agendas that may go into that. In addition, as persons, the gods have the inherent right to be treated with dignity and respect.

To put this another way, the gods are those concerned with our well being, and who are in a role with the influence to do something about that. There is so much more I could detail here, but I exempting for brevity. The implications of these few basic statements are huge, and cannot be understated.


One of the basic tenets of my worldview is that life is lived in relation with others, and this too applies to the gods. My relationship with my gods is kind of unique, and there is no reason that another’s relationship should look exactly like mine.

Many of my friends are mutual, but we don’t all share the same relationship to one another. Some are best friends, some are close friends, and some are Facebook “friends”. The demands and obligations to each are incredibly variable, just as is my relationship to the gods. As such, others experience may vary, and that is okay. The work my gods have set out for me, may not be the same as someone elses. The same with how I interact and engage with them.

Just as a general example, most of my gods don’t really call for a lot of pomp and circumstance. The don’t seem to mind a little “dirt on the boots” so to speak, and so my standards of cleansing and purity are not the same as someone elses.

Having a sleepover at a friend’s house does not have the same standards as a Fancy Dress Party. If you are expected to look the part, you might want to make the effort. But that is all in the nature of my relations.

Or for another example, my gods might not ask me to put them first, or might ask me to engage in things like conservation, or building a better society, or engage in the retrofitting our machines and industry in order to build a more sustainable future.

The point is that working with the gods can take a lot of forms, and really that is between me and the gods. No one else gets to dictate the “true way” to do that. It is a dynamic and adaptable thing, and there is a near infinite variability in the relations between persons.

This variability is a great bridge into my next point.

Plurality and Diversity

Let me spell something out for you. I generally conceive of the gods as guardians of their respective species. At last estimate, there are some trillion + different species on this planet. Assuming a purely one to one basis, that could imply that there over a trillion gods on this planet.

And I think the “one to one” assumption is a bit faulty. Each species could have its own pantheons and numinous gods, just like the various cultures of humanity. I really don’t have the information to speculate.

This implies a huge amount of variance among the gods. The sheer plurality alone is enough to make my head spin. Trillions of gods, with trillions of unique personalities, with variable relationships between themselves and others. Each with different wants, needs and desires.

We are talking exponential plurality and diversity here. I don’t have the mental or computing capacity to give you an estimate of the kinds and numbers of gods, much less the dynamic and ever changing relationships they may create among others.

Which can be used to state bluntly and pointedly, there is no “one true way” to do this folks.

This is why I have a real problem with polarized rhetoric, and the “us vs them” mentality. It’s monochromatic, it’s binary, and it’s really quite simplistic. The world is a lot more complex than any black/white ideology can encompass. I get real tired of “hard liners” claiming we should all fit in neat little boxes. If we keep drawing lines and building walls, we may all find ourselves in solitary confinement.

I can distill it down to a few basic implications. What the gods ask of me may not be the same that they ask of you. They can change their mind and the nature of the relationship at a future time. Your relationship now may change over time. We should be mindful of changing contexts, and that the gods are both very diverse, as well as quite dynamic.

Oh, and context matters.

Modern Times, Modern Contexts

Let’s not deny the past it’s just due. It has given us so much in the form of knowledge and wisdom, and it is our task to carry this forward. But let’s not kid ourselves for a second. We live in very different times than our ancestors. We are not ancient Viking or Druids (though some of us are Druids to be sure*) , and that the context in which we have to frame those assumptions have changed quite a bit.

Let’s face facts, the world is a lot smaller than it once was. It is multicultural, and dynamic and really mindnumbingly complex. The same is true of our gods.

At no time in the past could our ancestors hop on a plane and be around the world in a few hours. They did not have trains, cars, or nuclear power, and this says nothing about the very neat things on the horizon.

Yet, this doesn’t mean our world without challenges. Our ancestors also didn’t have to worry about things like climate change (at least man made) or global pollution either. These are obstacles that none of us can tackle alone. As much as we all have our differences, we are all in this together.

With the gods at our sides; I like the odds.

Thanks for reading!

*Stated somewhat tongue in cheek.

Thinking about the Gods

One of the guiding motivations of my personality is “does it work?” I love ideas, I love debating them, discussion them, and generally playing with them over and over. It is one of the reasons I write. There is something very satisfying to me about pulling my ideas out of my mind and giving words to them, and manipulating the ideas in order to convey them to others. That is something I had trouble doing orally. I find things get a lot more muddled when I try to talk about them, and I think part of that has to do with the fact that my mind runs a lot faster than my mouth.

All that aside, as much as I like ideas, I find such idealism balance with another part of my personality, the pragmatic and practical side. After a point, “theories and politics” start to seem hollow to me if they don’t work, or have little in the way of application. Ideas are great things, but it circles back to “does it work?” Do these ideas enhance the meaning or add something to my life, or are they just “academic” questions with little in the way of usability?

Which brings me to the point of this post. I have struggled with how to even conceive of the gods in any kind of meaningful or practical way. So far in all my explorations, all my reading and writing, I have found few things that have really helped me to really understand the gods. So I wanted to explore that idea a little deeper here.

I define my animism in this way; Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.”

There is more to this as well, that plays into the notion of relationships, and relativism. The idea being, that the influence of a given persons varies in context. My influence over an ant hill might considered to be “bigger”. In addition, I acknowledge there are persons out there that might view of me in the same way as I do ants.

But some sense of “bigger” is not enough to be considered a god. Back in my reflections on the FFA, I stated the following;

“Yet, the gods as a kind of ancestral guardian invested in humans. The gods as a “guardian of humanity has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered humans back to life on earth” and “the eldest of the species or the first representative of humanity.”

I said at the time that there was something about this statement that resonated with me. As I have continued to sit with it, the more it has resonated. I want to dig into this a little deeper, and really get at the marrow of why I am attracted to this kind of conceptual thinking.

As an animist, and polytheist by proxy, the general logic looks like this;

  1. That the world is full of persons.
  2. That the relative influence of these persons varies.
  3. And that some of these persons might be gods.

The general characteristics of haltias gives me plenty of room to wiggle, and plenty of room to explore. But let’s take two avenues for the moment.

1) Gods as guardians/ancestral guardians

One of my conditions for “godliness” has been that there has to be some general regard for the welfare of humanity. A given person can be “bigger” (such as a mountain) and not have any concern for humanity at all. In Norse myth, there is a distinction made between “gods” and “giants”. A being of “bigger” status without a care for humanity would fit the bill, in my mind, for “giant” but not “god.”

The second part of this is the “safeguarding of the survival of the species”. Protection factors largely into this, and I cannot think of a better example than Thor, the “protector of mankind.” There is also the bit in there about the dead, in a more generalized form a kind of “caring” for the dead.

And this is just not limited to humanity, and is dependent on context. There can be Wolf Gods, that care nothing about humanity. They would be a god (protector, guardian, caretaker) to wolves, but might only be a “giant” (not really concerned with) towards humanity.

But a Wolf Person, might have an interest in humanity (their reasons are their own), and could be both a god of humans and wolves. See how the context changes?

I have often wondered about why many of our mythologies have the gods connected with a certain people, tribal in a way. Greek gods for Greeks, Norse gods for Norse, and so on. Each with unique origin/creation stories, and yet very grounded in the context from which they arose.

Could it be they are a kind of tribal “ancestors”? Concerned not with all of humanity, but with “their people?” I would think that the story of humanity being formed from driftwood might not have meant a “universal” humanity, but the creation of “the” gods people.

Even in the Bible the god Yahweh/Jehovah was more concerned with his own people, and leading them to safety and the “promised land”.

As a side note, I want to make clear that this is no way justifies Folkish beliefs. My view of ancestry is pretty wide, and has little to do with “blood and soil.” As an example, tribes were not always made up of bloodlines. Marriage, adoption, and many of things can lead to a group of people coming together who may not be blood related. In short, basically whoever the gods consider “their people” is really up to them.

2) Gods as the eldest of species, representatives

Which brings us to the next point. I have already commented on how things like wolves can be gods of their own kind, without being gods to humanity. Honestly, in case of “elder spirits” or representatives of a given species, where their interest lies is entirely up to them. They might have some concern for humanity (good, bad or otherwise), or they might not care at all.

What does probably concern them, is the welfare of their own clan. I am using clan here to mean “shares a common ancestor”, as such all gray wolves would have a common ancestor among Gray Wolf, and therefore would be all members of the Gray Wolf Clan. I would be counted among the Human Clan, as we all descend from a common ancestral hominid.

As such, is it impossible to conceive of the gods as some kind of representative or “elder ancestor” of our species, concerned specifically with our survival and well being? It has always struck me how very “human” we conceive of the gods. Of course, the argument could be made that we do this because of things like anthropomorphism, or that we might be limited to conceive of things in very human terms.

Still, I think it could also be said that perhaps the reason they look like us is because they are us, at least in a sense. They are often pictured as human, or every human like (the exception being shapeshifters), and with concerns that are very human-centric, things like agriculture and smith work. Things that really no other species share. The concerns of the gods are very human-centric concerns.

Of course, I am not saying they don’t have concerns outside humanity. That is their own business. But what I am saying, is that maybe they are human-like because they are some form of “elder” representative of our species. Now, less I be accused of euhemerism, I am not saying that gods were once living humans. It is possible of course, but I do not think that any one god can be traced to any one human.

As I said above, an argument could be made for gods being very “tribal” as in being connected to a certain people in a certain context. The flip side of that is that a given god might be a kind of communal/collective guardian spirit, that may or may not be ancestral. The entire tribe/clan would have been interacting with this “communal spirit”, adding stories and narratives and communal wisdom/beliefs; kind of like a spiritual mosaic. Ancestral stories/spirits might be added too, but the point being is that the given “god” would be “greater” than any of the individual parts; built up over time organically alongside the community.

So instead of a single ancestor forming a god, it could be that gods are a collective spirit composed of multiple ancestors, as well as the collective ideas and beliefs of a given tribe/clan . They could be the spiritual analog of their given community, tribe, or clan.

I think that this can get all very complicated very quickly, so I am going to leave this here for the time being. I feel like there is plenty more to explore, but that I am generally on to something that might work for me here. Feedback is welcome of course, as a way to help me develop these ideas further, or to find errors in my own thinking.

Thanks for reading!

“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.