Gods & Introduction

Firstly, this series is not going to be about gods as psychological constructs and/or archetypal human symbology other than how those concepts inflect and mediate individual experience of gods.

Otherwise, it is hard to talk about gods. The problem comes in part from how nebulous the concept is for some people while it is quite concretized (as well as you can concretize such concepts) for others. We have the demiurgic conceptions of god and deity as something like Star Trek’s Q but without Q needing (or wanting) to show up as John de Lancie to snap his fingers. Indeed, this conception typically imagines a god or gods who can reorder reality on cosmic scales with omnipotent power and with omniscient awareness. Do you need to bring people back to life? Poof. Do you need to make the sun mauve? Zappo. Do you need to have this universe be antimatter dominant? Bam. Do you need to make rent this month? Socko.

And so on.

In the middle range, you have ideas of gods as having overt power and influence, but constrained. I sometimes think of this view as the D&D god model. For example, Thor is the god of thunder[0], so he must have most of his power focused around weather, thunder, storms, lightning, and so on. You would go to Thor for weather-related prayers and maybe to Loki for cunning, fire, etc. Within their respective spheres (domains, portfolios, specialties?), the gods wield great power, but they are constrained.

Somewhere on the other end of the scale, you have the local spirits of place, gods of rivers and trees, heros cults, things like that. One might imagine the god of the Mississippi River or the Danube, and you would go to said god for prayers relating to those rivers, the waters, the land through which they move, maybe even the communities through which they run, but you might not bother to call on them while you are lost in the Gobi. You might make offerings or requests for help to Odysseus if you live near Ithaca, but Odysseus is probably not interested as much in what is happening to communities in South America because, well, that is the domain of other beings.

Of course, those who buy into the omnipotent demiurge model of deity do not typically think of intelligences existing on other levels as gods but as demons, devils, angels, spirits, ancestors, or something similar. As others have noted, monotheistic traditions have levelled the vast range of intelligences that folks might call gods under a selection of (mostly) synonymous terms: e.g., god, deity, and divine.[1]

I do note how the above range seems to emphasize the power and scope of deity rather than what deity is let alone who deity (deities) may be. Often, cultures assign gods and deities the higher places in cosmological hierarchies with a host of “lesser” or “adversarial” supernatural beings.[2] Of course, humans tend to be rather prone to categorization, and cultures have named beings angels, demons, trolls, faeries, spirits, idises, heros, ancestors, nymphs, and more.

Beyond such categorizations, which are typically human and mortal distinctions based on observation or (instrumental?) reason or imagination, people also have different ideas about what the gods want, what the gods want with humans, and so forth. I also consider the question of what do humans want with the gods let alone how humans use and imagine the gods.

Polytheists and occultists have often commented on how the gods need humans just as humans need the gods. Spirits of place-as-gods arguably do have stakes in human politics as environmental and other concerns lead to wholesale disruptions to environments and locales. Ancestors who once received generational veneration and remembrance can lie forgotten for centuries. Gods who are perhaps egregoric representations of political/cultural groups—the Brigantes tribe, for example, comes to my mind immediately—may indeed “go to sleep” without attention and worship. But I also wonder about other gods. For example, if we believe in a Thor who is not merely a tribal ancestral heros[3] or an egregoric intelligence or the creation of human belief & worship—if we accept that Thor is a god with his own agency and independence and so forth—then I find it hard to imagine that Thor needs us, that he depends on us for existence or power or anything like that. Thor might desire a relationship with one or more people; people might desire a relationship with him. The desire and intention on both sides of such a relationship might help bridge this world and wherever Thor exists. However, I find it hard to accept that Thor’s existence depends on us providing offerings.

In this series, I want to offer some of my thoughts on these ideas and others. In particular, I will offer my own experiences of several deities and similar intelligences. And I want to emphasize that I offer these reflections and experiences not to argue that your experience, if it is different, is wrong or bad or that mine is necessarily Fact and Truth and Sooth. Think of my purpose as offering possibilities and ways of thinking about these topics. One person’s experiences to consider as you perhaps ponder your own.

[0] From a very reductionist and rather reified perspective, of course.

[1] Others have commented on the etymological distinctions between god and deity, from their respective roots.

[2] Interestingly, some traditions point to adversaries as occupying what is essentially equal cosmological footing, even if cultures may prioritize their chosen divinities. The Aesir, Vanir, and Jotun come to mind, and the canny have correctly questioned where the precise distinction between the giants and gods is. Similarly, the Olympian tradition categorizes primordials, titans (and giants?), and gods by generation more than other distinctions.

[3] Yes, I am applying what was traditionally a classical cultus concept to a non-classical deity here.

Image: Sky (by me)

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