In the development of Neopagan religious practice and discourse several disputes have arisen concerning the true nature of the gods and spirits. In my opinion these disputes arise mainly due to the remains of Judeo-Christian theological thinking, combined with the influence of modern skepticism and rationalism. As one who finds consideration of theology and metaphysics useful, I will attempt to venture perhaps further into such speculations than is common in our modern Pagan discussion.
The Reality of the Spirits
Let me begin by saying that for this discussion we will treat the world of spirits as ‘real’. In this we need not adopt any firm description of the final nature of that reality. Whether it is a subcategory of ‘material’ manifestation within the quantum foam, or a psycho-linguistic field, or an epiphenomenon of human telepathy, or any other thing, the whole world – every culture in every age – has experienced the presence of the spirits. Communication; direct material action, possession and para-personal expression are just some of the spirit-phenomena common to many or most human cultural experiences. Materialist science has devised a number of clever efforts that attempt to ‘explain away’ such phenomena. In the mythic reality of our Paganism, let us begin by taking spirits as given, and making it our business to know how to deal with them well.
While we may not be able to box up the ‘True nature’ of spirits, we can approach them as phenomena, and discuss the traits that humans have seen. To avoid a long summary of world-wide evidence, I will presume to propose a list of general behaviors and characteristics of spirits, in no particular order:
• Spirits are not primarily material, though many traditions describe them as able to manifest bodies of air and smoke, or even of more dense elements.
• Spirits act both psychospiritually and on occasion materially. Like much of magic, spirits seem to operate by affecting How Things Go – which crossroads are taken, which way the coin falls, etc. It is rare to the degree of ‘miracle’ for spirits to act directly on matter, but it is not unknown.
• Spirits resonate with and respond to the material world. When described as ‘animism’ we think of spirits as being ‘in’ or ‘of’ specific material objects – the spirit in a tree or of a waterfall.
• Spirits act through living people, not only by direct possession or guidance, but by influence based on their nature. A merry spirit makes mortals near it inclined to merriment.
• Spirits are widely various in their influence on mortals, some being potentially or overtly dangerous or destructive and others providing blessings worthy of the divine.
Non-Locality of the Spirits
Spirits who become the ‘Gods’ of humankind seem to be those who are particularly powerful or able. In essence they are those who respond to human worship, and give good blessings. While some spirits seem rather localized – attached directly to a specific material basis - the spirits who are called ‘gods’ by the poets often have presence in a wider range of culture and geography; they transcend the local. Sometimes this has a natural material basis – the Sun is visible in all places, even if its effects vary. Sometimes it has a widespread cultural basis – customs surrounding hearth-fire can be relevant to most human habitation.
As a Pagan I take nature and its dance to be a map of the real nature of spiritual reality. As above, so below, the old wisdom says – nature is the materialization of spirit, and we can learn much about one from the actions of the other. When we apply this principle to the nature and presence of the gods we arrive at what I see as the center of polytheism.
Just as with any real thing in our natural world, the divine exists in and as multiple (infinite… uncountable…) entities. The gods as they appear in ‘mythology’ – in the bodies of tales preserved and retold by poets – bear only a generic resemblance to those gods as they are present in local temples and regions. If one considers “Diana” of the Anatolian city of Ephesus, in comparison to the Artemis/Diana of Greco-Roman story my principle is clearly indicated. This phenomenon happens across the polytheist world. In both India and in W African religions it is often formally acknowledged. The Goddess or honored spirit ‘of’ a local village may have the same name and stories as that of three villages away, yet have local presence, history and nature that clearly distinguishes her from another presence in another temple. This doesn’t prevent scholars and theologians inside the tradition from identifying them all as one entity, or villages from competing over whose Goddess is the coolest.
To me this entirely blurs the argument between so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ polytheisms, in which ‘hard’ insists that every iteration of a deity is a distinct entity and not an ‘aspect’ of some other, while the ‘soft’ holds that deities are trans-individual, existing in many aspects. It is clear to me that traditional polytheisms today, and almost certainly those of European ancestors, are and were both. I sometimes propose an axiom that gods and other mighty spirits simply have the power to exist as multiple persons.
To find a specific solution in the myth and metaphysics of Pagan peoples I turn to the Hellenic notion of ‘daemons’. The word ‘daemon’ (from roots meaning ‘separate being’) is a general Greek term for ‘a spirit’. Homer applies it to the Gods while popular Hellenic Paganism could apply it all the way down to one’s garden-sprites as well. In Classical Greek Pagan theology the Daemons were similar to what we think of as ‘angels’ – agents and messengers of the gods. They were understood to attend the sacrifices on behalf of the gods, to carry the blessings of the gods in turn to mortal worshippers, and in essence to function *as* the god at the local level. In this way Zeus “of” a particular regional temple could be both a separate self-acting agency, and a ‘person of’ the storied deity.
I have described Sam Webster’s Fire metaphor before, but it is so very apt here. If I take a spark from a fire, and go a mile away, and use it to light another fire, it will be, in many ways, almost exactly the same as the original – same chemical processes, consuming the same kinds of fuel, etc. It is Fire, in the directly descriptive sense. Yet each such fire is distinctly individual – it is in a new place, it illuminates new things, it develops a unique history and narrative. So, we might think, it is with the Gods. A new image is made, a new ritual fire is lit, and customs are established influenced by the landscape and climate of the new temple.
We may say that in such work a different daemon of the deity is attracted to one temple than to another. In essence these spirit ambassadors or presences act and exist as the deity, as it may appear in the setting mortals have made for it. Mythic tales tell of deities making their own places of worship, reshaping the material world but, again, this level of the miraculous is not the rule. More commonly humans make a particular pattern, lay a sacred feast with a particular flavor, and it attracts the deity in and as a properly resonant daemon.
In this way it is not mistaken to think of the beings that act in each temple as separate and individual beings, who may have their own inclinations and desires. Likewise if you spoke with any one of them they would identify themselves as That God From the Stories, even as local versions of the myths diverge. This polyvalent perspective renders empty many disputes about which kind of worship, which narrative, which theology, is the “real” version from Ancient Days. The real pattern of ancient Paganisms was probably a patchwork of localisms linked by larger cultural forms.
This model has applications at both the most immediate levels, and at the transcendent. For those of us working to establish a home cultus it offers the freedom to establish the work as we will, and accept the results we get. When we establish a home shrine, develop out customs and implement them ‘religiously’ we summon a daemon of the god who is fit for the work we are fit for. If one wishes simply to establish harmony, get a good blessing, and live in peace then the simple sacrificial relationship with your own local daemon of your god may be all you need. For those of more mystical bent, the divine work of formal ritual makes a pathway of linkages – from the image of the God in your mind, through the material form of an idol and invocation, to the daemon of the God who serves at your fire to, perhaps, the cosmic principle of the God themself.
This model can lead us toward certain other speculations. Modern Pagans often ask ourselves about how such culturally similar forms as, say, Diana and Artemis, or Manannan and Manawyddan may be spiritually related. For those drawn to lumping, this daemon theory can easily be expanded from the local to the regional. I, myself, find it just too unlikely that thunder-gods from neighboring cultures with linguistically-neighboring names such as Taranis, Thunor and Thor must be utterly distinct entities. If there is some shorter list of great powers behind the many cousins of the European pantheons, the transpersonal and transcultural spiritual powers behind so many local daemons. Even so they need be no more relevant than a poet’s tales of the Earth-Mother are to bringing in a good harvest, as we approach those Powers almost exclusively through their local expressions. There is nothing in Pagan ways to insist that the ‘highest’ must be a special object of worship; practical work often is better done through more earthly spirits. Once again, we need not try to decide which is “true” – that all gods are separate individuals, or that some gods are ‘aspects’ or ‘persons’ of one another. We can comfortably and reasonably go for “both”.