Elucidating the Divine: A Druid Perspective
There are so many deep, theological questions that never seem to be tackled – things that make us question our beliefs, and wonder why we took on that particular aspect of a certain faith’s philosophy – after all, I’ve always been a person who feels I shouldn’t just go with what “feels right”, but I should be secure in my convictions to defend them from attack. In a roundabout way, this is my confession to behaving as something of a Pagan apologist in my studies of Christian witnessing material and conversations regarding my community. What I say I do with regards to my beliefs correlates nicely with apologetics:
Apologetics is the field of study concerned with the systematic defense of a position. Someone who engages in apologetics is called an apologist or an “apologete”. The term comes from the Greek word apologia (áðïëïãßá), meaning defense of a position against an attack.
Anyway, this essay is in two parts. The first is a discussion of a common concept of divinity found in the Pagan community in comparison with the others – polytheism, the belief in multiple deities, and the variations in which it occurs.
The second part of this essay is a more general theorizing on what constitutes a God or Goddess (note, in my generic language, “God” means a male or female deity unless otherwise indicated – taken as an asexual term for both). This is building on a conversation I’ve been having with a Heathen online, following my inflammatory reading of some philosophy of religion and recognizing something I’d never even considered before regarding the Gods.
It should be also noted here as a general disclaimer that I am not as of yet old enough to study with a Druid order and won’t be until June, so my views are my own personal perceptions as a Druid, and I don’t claim to speak for the BDO, OBOD, AODA, ADF, or any of the others, though my views have been shaped in part by the works of older Druids representing the four orders I have mentioned (Emma Restall Orr, OBOD’s website and introductory material, John Michael Greer, and Isaac Bonewits and Rev. Robert Lee (Skip) Ellison.)
It’s always best to choose a dictionary definition to start off a warbling passage of philosophical and theological ideas, so here we are, lifted shamelessly from Wikipedia:
Polytheism is belief in or worship of multiple gods or deities. The word comes from the Greek words poly+theoi, literally “many gods.” In polytheistic belief, gods are perceived as complex personages of greater or lesser status, with individual skills, needs, desires and histories.
These gods are not always portrayed in mythology as being omnipotent or omniscient; rather, they are often portrayed as similar to humans (anthropomorphic) in their personality traits, but with additional individual powers, abilities, knowledge or perceptions
Generally speaking, then, polytheism is what the Reconstructionists and the Heathen community have – they worship multiple distinct Gods and Goddesses, typically of one culture or civilization’s pantheon, viewing the Gods as possessing a hierarchy of importance like humans have the equivalent of classes (there are chiefs of Gods, like Odin and Zeus) and each God has their own personality, likes, dislikes, powers, jurisdictions, sometimes particular area of veneration or pool of worshippers, and as many people with direct experience of the Gods will attest, they tend to have their own preferred votive offerings in ritual.
Philosophy of religion generally assumes that when we say “God”, we are referring to an entity like the Christian God – perfect (or incapable of error), with knowledge of everything past, present and future, powers without limit, and completely benevolent. However, anyone who reads mythology or knows their cultural history knows that the ancients talked of “Wars in Heaven” where the Gods didn’t get on with each other.
The Olympians often squabbled amongst one another, and the Eddas are populated with stories where Loki causes trouble and the Aesir and the Vanir fought for a time before making peace. It was once said that thunder was the Gods going to war.
So we know that, if we are a reconstruction of the “Old Religion” as Neo-Pagans and Heathens, we can’t view the Gods as perfect. They have clearly demonstrated otherwise – that they are capable of error. Likewise, we can assume that as Gods, more powerful than we humans, their mistakes are more colossal and with more consequences than our own.
Our ancestors also made images of their Gods, not as idols to worship (stone gods, the Frosts have called them) but as representations or focuses for their prayers, in the same way a Christian might light votive candles and imagine the rising smoke to be carrying their prayers to God, or the saints if they are Catholic to intercede on their behalf.
The Celts took a long time to produce statues of their Gods – perhaps they, as Muslims do, had a cultural prohibition against making images of the Gods (as Muslims do the Prophet). So we know from archaeological discoveries how people perceived the Gods to look – how they in a sense anthropomorphized the Gods or made them human enough to be understood – and what duties they ascribed to the Gods.
In mythology, gods can have complex social arrangements. For example, they have friends and foes, spouses (Zeus and Hera) and (illegitimate) lovers (Zeus and his consorts and children), they experience human emotions such as jealousy, whimsy or uncontrolled rage (The fight between Tiamat and Marduk) and they may practice infidelity or be punished. They can be born or they can die (especially in Norse mythology), only to be reborn.
Jesus may be the most famous “Son of God”, but he is not the only son of a God, even one in human form – we know Hercules was half-divine and as mortal as the people he protected. We know the Gods behaved a lot like us – they were guilty of all kinds of indiscretions, most commonly having affairs (my patron Manannan mac Lir is guilty of running off from his wife Fand, who then had an affair with the hero Cuchulainn).
Gods are also very human in their behavior – like Dian Cecht, they are capable of doing bad things in their jealousy, like killing their sons and destroying other people’s work so it won’t surpass their own (Dian Cecht scattered Airmid’s herbs out of jealousy). Some even eat their own children to prevent themselves from being overthrown. They live and die as we do. This I’ll come back to later.
So it’s pretty clear how the ancient people thought of the Gods. But we in the Pagan community have made delineation between two types of polytheism – “soft” and “hard”. Soft polytheism is where a modern Pagan views the Gods as being aspects, faces, or manifestations of a single God or Goddess (even a duotheistic pair), or of a Supreme Being or Spirit who is greater than any of them.
We find this theory of divinity in Hinduism, which allows for countless Gods, which are all manifestations of a single, impersonal divine Creator – termed Brahman or Atman. However, this isn’t actually polytheism – it is a concept quite closely related called monism. Commonly expressed by Pagans as “All is One” or “All Gods are one God, and all Goddesses are one Goddess”, monism can be defined as the following:
Monism, the metaphysical and theological view that all is of one essence, and this essence is sometimes called the monad.
Therefore soft polytheism isn’t polytheism at all, only monism. This doesn’t invalidate it, but we’d do better to call it by its real name, rather than pretend associations with what we call “hard” polytheism – the ancient view that the Gods were personal, anthropomorphized beings.
Having spoken to a few Witches and Pagans of many more years than myself, who are monists, and having read in Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon that many of the influential people of the early Pagan movement subscribed to this belief, it’s obvious it is just as valid a theory – and just as old, because Hinduism and systems like it go a long way back. I just think we need to recognize certain facts.
Having finished with my analysis of polytheism, I want to move on to the second part of my essay and the more pertinent part – what constitutes what we conceptualize as a God? This section will discuss modern Pagan conceptions of divinity, the old perception of what constitutes a God, and the difficulties of defining such a thing.
What constitutes a God?
We don’t conceive of the Gods as the philosophers do, as omniscient and omnipotent. I think we can also throw out that the Gods are necessarily by nature benevolent, because we know from the Eddas, the Mabinogion, the Tain and other repositories of ancient lore and mythology that the Gods are a quarrelsome lot when you boil down to it. In a sense, then, we could dismiss that there is a problem of evil, which requires us to think up a theodicy. Otherwise, this would be the inconsistent triad proposed by Epicurus – firstly, evil and suffering exist in the world; secondly, God is all-powerful; thirdly, God is all-loving.
Such a God, Epicurus argues, cannot exist, because a God that is totally benevolent would want to extinguish suffering, and a God that is totally powerful would be capable of extinguishing evil, which causes suffering. Yet he/she does not. In summary, Epicurus’ teachings were:
The opinion of the crowd is, Epicurus claims, that the gods “send great evils to the wicked and great blessings to the righteous who model themselves after the gods.”, when in reality the gods do not concern themselves at all with human beings.
He also stated that there isn’t really such a thing as good or evil, only that as humans place such value in transitory things, we define what is pleasurable or enjoyable as good, and what is painful as bad. If we lose a child, we are in emotional pain, so the death of a child is bad. If we enjoy lazing around on a summery day, then doing so is good. (He did, however, warn against overindulgence, as people are of course aware that too much drinking, however nice at the time, causes hangovers later, which cause pain to your head.)
If we assume that one does not have to be all-loving and all-powerful to be a God, then we don’t need to consider the Gods should be doing anything to erase evil. In fact, it’s more likely that we create what is evil ourselves, through causing pain to others, unconscious or not.
You’ll notice that war gods tend to be in charge of the pantheon, as chief if you like – Teutates, the “God of the Tribes”, is one, and Odin as Lord of the Slain is another, gathering half the best warriors to Valhalla. There are some exceptions, and notable examples are that the jurisdiction of war is not necessarily attributed only to male deities – Sekhmet, Ishtar, Athena, and the Morrigan (in triune form as Macha, Nemain and Badb as well as by herself) are all Goddesses of war and battle.
So already we’ve thought that to be a God, you don’t need to be all-loving, or have a particular desire to end the bad things in the world, because more often than not the Gods do them themselves. Do you need to be immortal in order to be a God? Well, actually, no – take a look at Norse mythology. The Gods are quite capable of living for a long time, but they are dependent on the golden apples of Idunna – shown when Loki happened to lose them and rapidly needed to get them back to stop the Gods from dying. Further, at Ragnarok, the Gods will die, though Heathens generally think they will be reborn or renewed after Ragnarok, along with the rest of the world.
A God doesn’t need to be immortal, or benevolent. I think we could also dismiss that a God needs to be all-powerful. If every copy of the Bible and the Christian and Jewish scriptures disappeared (I am not counting Islam here, because though I don’t believe this theory many Christians reckon the Allah worshipped by Muslims is an old moon god as opposed to “The God” they worship, which is the same as the Jewish God Yahweh as Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism), then the God of the Bible would no longer have any theoretical power. Nobody would believe in him, so if he caused an earthquake, people wouldn’t attribute it to him but “just one of those things”.
I think Gods have a certain amount of power by themselves. That’s one distinguishing feature of a God – that they possess alone earth-changing powers, wielding the natural energy we call magic in a far more skilled way than we do, and to far greater accuracy, and with less effort. But I’d also argue that a second distinguishing feature of a God is, that like the sidhe in Laurell K Hamilton’s Meredith Gentry series, they get more powerful if they are worshipped. The prayers of the faithful give them strength; the focus of people’s belief in them makes them more solid and real, and more capable of doing things on this physical plane.
A third feature of a God is that their influence spreads with their followers. Most Gods have a homeland or place of origin where their worship started, where they first started interacting with the humans – for the Aesir it’s Scandinavia, for the Celtic Gods it’s central Germany and Gaul and Britain (the druids were supposedly trained in Britain, the school posited to be at Anglesey, destroyed by Suetonius).
A Heathen in America calls on Thor and the sky rumbles with thunder – the fact that people who worship him live in the US means that he can exact changes upon natural phenomena there as if it were in his own country. Like the deities of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, we take our deities with us when we journey away from their original place of worship.
I would argue a fourth feature of what makes a God is that they exist generally in a spirit form, but wear a human form (incarnate) here for an unlimited period of time. After all, if a God is not all-powerful, benevolent, all-seeing (if they fight so much, they can’t be able to see the consequences of their actions – but they must have some foresight because the Norse Gods know about Ragnarok) and immortal, you could define an especially powerful human being that way. However, a powerful human, whilst able to journey between here and the Otherworld in spirit form (you can’t take your body there), they are only in a flesh-shape for a limited period of time. They grow old, weak, and they die. But a God’s human body need not do that – I’m sure Odin can wander around as an old grey man for centuries if he wished.
Characteristics of a God:
(1) A God is an extremely powerful entity by themselves, capable of changing futures and natural phenomena with minimal effort, equivalent to the muscle power needed to flick a fly off your knee;
(2) A God’s power increases when they are worshipped, or their ability to affect changes here in this Middle World increases when there are people whose adoration they feed off, or worshippers they can work through as appointed avatars;
(3) A God’s influence over the world travels with their followers when they uproot from their original homeland and settle elsewhere;
(4) A God is an entity that exists normally in spirit form, but is capable of wearing human flesh in whatever design they like and for as long as they like, instead of being stuck born one way and dying after eighty years.
These are my four criteria for defining what makes a God, which doesn’t have to be able to know everything, or to be all powerful – simply better at these things than humans. I would argue that the Gods are not perfect, as the Christian God and the philosophical God is purported to be – they aren’t omniscient, omnibenevolent, or omnipotent. Further, how could we conceive of perfection? I think we think of the Gods as being like us, and therefore imperfect (as we know we’re not), because then their motives and reasoning capabilities are like ours.
We can then understand why the Gods might do something, or that they are sometimes guided by whimsy or emotion as we are. But a perfect being, a perfect God (let us lay aside our earlier theodicy which prevents a perfect God from existing), would not be like us. Perfection does not equal perfection, and does not resemble it. The motives of a perfect God would be alien and terrifying, as we wouldn’t understand it. Therefore the concept of deciding whether said God’s motives were good or bad is impossible, as it is arbitrary on the part of the God without independent judgment upon it.
I can say I don’t like it that Taranis soaked me with rain, because it made me wet and miserable, and I know that it probably amused him as it would be if I could soak my priest who had too much mouth; a perfect God drenching me with rain would confuse me (I’m assuming here I asked for the rain to keep off me until I got under shelter), because I wouldn’t understand why he did it. This is probably a poor example, but I think you get the idea.
Just quickly, I want to examine why we should think a bit better about some of our other deity concepts. Not to invalidate them, but I don’t understand why anyone would conceive that a God is merely a human archetype, or a symbol, or even an advanced thoughtform through which we focus our magical energies and intentions. A Catholic evangelist asked this niggling question:
Finally, some suppose that the gods do not have independent, objective reality but are just symbols. The question is: symbols of what? On the one hand, if they are symbols of nature and natural forces, then it is difficult to see why they should be worshiped. Electricity is part of nature, but if one does not worship it when it comes from a light socket, it is difficult to see why one should worship it when one imagines and names a symbolic thunder god to represent it.
The problem with this idea of conceiving deity is that it’s pointless. Why should you say you’re evoking a God in your ritual, if all you are doing is using a name with ideas attached to focus your own powers? As said above, it’s like worshipping a light bulb as a receptacle of electricity (cognate with magic, here) that gives light (results of spells).
If the Gods are symbols of a greater force, that is monism, or monotheism in a thin veneer of polytheism. I think we should think about that.
“Anti-Neo-Pagan Apologetics” (Google it to find the Catholic site with the irritating questions that caused this essay)
Aliens The Truth (a great site, and my conversation on “are the Gods perfect or imperfect?” is on there under the “Religion and Faith section”
Also, thanks to Sigurd (Odinist) and givethedogabone (Witch)