Thursday, November 13, 2008

Daimons, the an-Deithe, and the Kindreds

In ADF’s Druidism, and in some other branches of Celtic Paganism, it has become customary to divide the world of spiritual beings into Three Kindreds of beings. These are conventionally the Gods, the Dead and the Sidhe. I enjoy using the Irish word for the third category, but it is also often referred to as the ‘Nature Spirits’ or, in a Germanic idiom, as the Landwights. This Third Kindred has remained a bit of an enigma in ADF’s understanding. Lately I think I’m making a little headway into comprehending it, based on cultural models from other Indo-European systems. I’m not sure I can make this coherent yet, but I’m going have a go at it.

The Hellenic concept of the ‘daimon’ has been fascinating me lately. Daimons are immaterial or semi-material beings of great power and wisdom. In archaic, Homeric Greek religion, the term daimon seems nearly interchangeable with the term ‘theos’ – a deity. Even the Olympians are referred to as daimons, and minor spirits of the local land may be referred to as theoi. In later Hellenistic Paganism ‘daimon’ comes to refer to spirits intermediate between mortals and the Gods – vastly wiser and more powerful than most mortals, but not of the highest divine family. These beings might receive sacrifices themselves, but also ‘carried the sacrifices’ between human ritual and the Gods themselves, and conveyed the Blessings of the Gods to mortals, in turn. These beings were considered various in their morality, integrity and power, though the formal hierarchies of later ‘angelic’ choirs didn’t really appear in Pagan times. The spirits of the dead, especially of heroes, were also said to become daimons.

OK, this makes ‘daimon’ a pretty broad category. In many ways the easiest English word to use for a translation is ‘spirit’. The Gods are spirits, the Dead are spirits, the Landspirits are… spirits. (We should bear in mind, however, that the ancients were entirely willing to suggest that these beings are semi-material – that they have bodies ‘of fine matter’ or ‘of the air’ that can interact in the material world.) So, how can we relate this Mediterranean idea to more Northern myths?

One little puzzle that we have run up against is the problem of the ambivalent position of the ‘Tuatha De Danann’ in Irish myth and Paganism. By the time we see these beings in literature, they have become the Folk Under the Mound – their war with the mortal Gaels (per the Book of Invasions) was over and they had gone under the earth. However it is plain that the First Family of the Tuatha De – the immediate children of Dana and their immediate offspring – are in effect the Gods. They plainly correspond in many cases to the Gods of continental Celtic peoples. Yet into the historical period those spirits act as local spirits in the land of Ireland.

When we remember that even the Olympians could be called daimons, and that even local stream and stone spirits could also be called daimons, we see a parallel that might point at a Pagan solution. I think this may be an example of pollution from our monotheist history to try to define ‘(a) god’ as something uniquely different from ‘lesser’ spirits and beings. It doesn’t seem to me that this was the case in ancient Indo-European polytheism. The Gods are the Eldest and Wisest, Mightiest and Loveliest, but they are not, at base, different in kind from the rest of the beings we might call ‘the Spirits’.

It seems to me that in the Irish monkish chronicles we find exactly the sort of demotion of the Gods into ‘mere’ spirits’ that we see in later classical and early Christian ideas in which the daimonic becomes first semi-corrupt ‘lower’ spirits and then the ‘demons’ of Christian lore. In Pagan tradition the Gods and the Spirits were always of the same sort, but in later models the demotion of the lesser beings from divine status took the Gods with them. It seems to me that as today’s Pagans we have the job of restoring both the Gods and the rest of the spirits to their rightful places.

The Gaels had a turn of phrase by which they referred to the spirits – De ocus an-De - the Gods and the Not Gods. Plainly the Gaels themselves sought to make a distinction between the Eldest and Mightiest and the rest of the family or nation – tuatha – of the spirits. Interestingly they do not plainly divide the ‘not-Gods’ into our two categories of Dead and Spirits – we’re getting to that.

Gaelic lore poses another problem in relation to our conventional Three Kindreds model. It is extremely difficult to tell the Folk Under the Mound from the Mighty Dead. Trooping Sidhe, sluagh hosts, Kings Beneath are all plainly recalled as of the Aes Sidhe (people of the mound), yet all have features that recall the Dead. When we recall that in Hellenic culture the Dead became daimons, it suggests that perhaps human spirits simply became the Shining Folk that we hear so much about, or at least some of them.
This still leaves that third category – Everyone Else. It seems pretty clear to me that this category was far from insignificant in the Hellenic world. Daimons were drawn to every sacrifice, by the light of the Fire and the smell of the sacrifices, as it were. Powerful spirits of stream and tree, storm and wave were proper objects of sacrifice – daimon was interchangeable with theos. In parallel we might say that all the spirits of Gaelic Paganism – at least all those who aren’t the Dead – are the Tuatha De Danann – the Nation of the Goddess, but there is a distinction between the Eldest and Wisest and the innumerable crowd of spirits who make up the spiritual worlds.

I think there is much to be gained by beginning to pay more attention to this third category of being. Our modern usage of Nature Spirits or Landwights has, perhaps, directed our attention toward spirits manifesting as animals, plants and natural features. Our modern ecological awareness has tended to focus us even on living beings, and we find folks offering to the spirits of their household pets, still living on the furniture. While I have no objection to reverencing living beings, I suspect this isn’t quite what the ancients had in mind. I suspect there are more exalted spiritual powers in these categories that we could be approaching.
As to what those might be, I may speculate in another post. This is enough for now…


Melanie said...

I really liked what you had to say - very thought provoking. I'm currently developing a workshop on the Nature Spirits for my local study group and your writing has helped me to solidify some of my thoughts. Thanks!

~Melanie (aka Grey Catling)

Patchshorts said...
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