Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What’s a God?

I keep finding myself talking with folks who are making deals with powerful spirits, entering long-term relationships with them, etc, but who assert that they do not “worship gods”. It’s a thorny conceptual maze, those terms, but one that is central to how we understand what it is we are doing, and what the ancients and modern tribal peoples do. So I’ll take a whack at trying to find the out-door.

I do think we must discard the entire corpus of post-pagan theology and religious philosophy if we are to understand tribal and polytheist thought. I begin by asserting that in a Euro-Pagan context, at least, there is no such thing as a Creator and Lord of the Universe. No god is that. I don't believe that absolute omnipotence or omniscience are available to any specific being, and so I do not attribute those to gods. Relative omnipotence is another matter.

I don't think that the All-Being of the cosmos is a person, or accepts worship, or gives a crap about what happens to existence - it just *is*. Mystics may have a use for it, but it's pretty pointless for common magic and religion. In the same way I do not believe there is any plan in or for the cosmos, unless several powerful beings get together and make one for a while. The All does not exercise Providential Will. Individual gods exercise individual will.
A Roman Fire-Sacrifice

The Germanic root of the term 'god' means "that to which we sacrifice". Out of the great cosmos of spirits, many are indifferent to mortals, but some choose to respond to our invocations. Out of those, some are especially effective in granting us their blessings. These beings become the gods of various peoples. Poets write pretty stories about them, turn them into a big Royal Family, etc, but they are still a subset of spirits.

So when I use the term god, generally, I mean 'a spirit who answers offering with blessing'. Incidentally, I find that the term god is entirely inappropriate to refer to the Ultimate Reality, or to the Ground of Being. Once again, those are impersonal realities that do not love or hate, have will or intention. I sometimes use the general term ‘the divine’, but I mean it in the way one uses ‘nature’ to refer to general trends in the material world.

So, let’s forget about all that, and try to begin from first principles.
1: There are spirits. Leaving aside just what spirits “really” are, it is obvious that humans in every age and culture have experienced contacts with spirits. The development of relationships with those spirits is what amounts to “religion”.
2: The development of relationships with the spirits brings blessing. The reason our species bothered is that we perceived positive results from our efforts with the spirits.
3: Over the eons we developed relationships with specific spirits, often seeking great powers that transcended immediate locale (Sun, moon, wind, etc) but also meeting local spirits of stone and stream. Renowned ancestors may also become regular parts of a local religion. “Religion” then, means re-linking. It is the regular maintenance of the links between mortals and the spirits.
4: In a broad sense, in English, any of the spirits who are offered to and respond to offerings are ‘gods’. They are also ‘spirits’. Cultures differ about whether there’s a big distinction between those categories.

For this to make sense we must entirely abandon the notion that ‘god’ refers to some unique category, different in kind from the rest of existence. Gods are not apart from nature, or from spirit, or from biological life including humankind. Gods are specific beings within the broader category of spirits. They may be big, cosmic-y gods, or immediate local gods. Ancient Pagans had no problem referring to the gods of the hearth or the well, referring to spirits much lesser in cosmic-story significance than the Olympians. Any spirit with whom one enters a relationship of offering-and-response can reasonably be referred to as a god, though it is often useful to define additional subcategories. In Greek the word theos is applied both to spirits who receive worship and to human kings and rulers. In that usage a ‘god’ is not limited even to spirit beings, but is any being that has the power to give blessing in return for honor.

To be complete it is worthwhile to examine the mythic model that also answers my original question. In this I must limit myself to Indo-European examples, both for brevity and because that’s as far as my slim expertise extends.

In Euro-Pagan story, an original chaos comes to be divided (mysteriously) into polar
opposites. These usually impersonal opposites then generate the basis of existence-in-form. From that basis, by various premises, the first personal beings arise, occupying the closest we see to a ‘prime mover’ in old models. These primal beings are ‘gods’ mainly in the sense that they are ancient and renowned – they seldom receive worship in the actual cult of the people. Perhaps one or more of these primal beings finds a place in the final pantheon. Often a later god-name becomes associated with a primal figure of tribal stories.

From these usually dim and symbolic origins arise tales of a first family of deities. Usually confused, miraculous and incestuous, the great ones play and war among themselves. Usually a primal war occurs, between the gods who later become the
gods of mortals, and other powers less friendly to human comfort. The gods who like mortals defeat the gods who don’t care, and the bits or order that allow life are carved out. Our world is one such orderly enclosure, held fast by our gods and spirits.

My above abstract model might seem to lack in reverence. The mythic model includes it fully. The gods, in this case, are the eldest and mightiest, wise and caring, who maintain the turning of seasons and support the continuation and prosperity of the tribe. They are worthy of worship by their very natures, the way an accomplished hero is worthy.

In practice the mythic model is still fairly permeable. That First Family adopt others, have new children, marry and make alliances. Local spirits and ancestors may be promoted, variant pantheons are normative. Most of the basic formula proposed above still applies in fact, whatever the poets say.

So, if I were to answer my own question, in light of all this, I might say:
A god is a being, especially a spirit, who has power and will answer honorable worship with good blessing. While the term can be applied even to small local spirits, it is most often reserved for the oldest, greatest or most central of the spirits honored by a tribe.


Cannaid said...

Love this.
I find that not only are the gods not apart from human kind but there story is reflected in our development as individuals, families and communities.

Great read.

faoladh said...

Excellent work, Ian.

Matt Van de Ven said...

Like, great work