The Nature of the Gods (VII): Providence and Powers

One can do henology without Gods, that is, purely as an inquiry into the nature of units as units and into the unit-nature of beings, without acknowledging that there are perfect henads prior to being, about whom it makes no sense to ask if they are, or are not. In such a henology, this status would exist only as an as-if quality of things. Such a henology recognizes the Pythagorean axiom that ‘All things are in all things, in each appropriately’; but it finds no way for all things to be in anything in a way which does not thereby render that thing’s own unity dependent upon everything else. Henology without Gods thus resembles the Buddhist doctrine of ‘dependent origination’, which affirms the reciprocal dependency, and hence ontological emptiness, of all units because all are in each.1

The presence of the divine henads or Gods in henology does not merely add another class of entities to any ontology generated within it, however: it transforms any such ontology, rendering it positive in its entirety rather than negative. The difference between negative and positive individuation is essentially that between what and who.2 Any unit may be specified down to any degree of precision by describing its characteristics in finer and finer detail, and in this way it may be distinguished, in principle, from every other unit. The negative or dependent individuation, however, can only yield a ‘what’, a substance answering to its specifications, its essence;3 and any ‘what’ can in principle be repeated, duplicated, iterated, simply because we can provide specifications, conditions for it to be what it is. In order to maintain the units’ distinction, new distinguishing characteristics will need to be supplied, and we cannot be certain they are forthcoming. Two units thought to be distinct may thus turn out to be the same. Positive individuation, by contrast, yields a ‘who’, which does not depend upon differentiating itself from the rest in order to be what it, uniquely, is. Even were we to imagine another like it in every specifiable attribute, we could conceive such a unit conserving its difference prior to specification of a distinguishing attribute for it.

Positive individuation can be understood in one way as the maximum of negative individuation, that is, as infinite difference, so that if we require another attribute to distinguish two units converging toward indiscernibility, we know a priori that another shall always be available, and another. This is a kind of infinite power. But we can, in turn, also understand positive individuation as qualitatively different from negative individuation, and in opposition to it. In this respect, then, every unit would be in one sense a ‘who’, in another sense a ‘what’. Seen in this light, the process of understanding things causes their ‘who-ness’ to recede in a certain way and their ‘what-ness’ to expand, because we learn what makes a thing what it is, a process that could be compared to creating its portrait, a duplicate increasingly faithful as we discern more and more details.4 We could never reach bottom, so to speak, in this process with any unit; which brings us back to the notion of positive individuation as negative individuation raised to an infinite power.

This power of maximal peculiarity is the very quality of divinity in Platonic thought. Furthermore, divinity conceived in this fashion is not a trait that remains with the Gods Themselves, but is necessarily distributed throughout all beings insofar as they, too, are whos and not merely whats. For beings, however, we may think of this inexhaustibility of the unit’s distinctiveness as experienced as the uncertainty or undecidability of having reached the point of identity in a converging series of apparent doubles. The incompleteness, for any being, of grasping its what-ness (its ‘essence’, to ti ên einai, ‘what it was for a thing to be’), not just for minds such as ours, but in principle and hence for any mind, is the sign, as well, of its divinity. This divinity distributed to all things is what has been termed providence or by equivalent terms in diverse traditions. It has the effect of a providence of the Gods toward individual beings because it is at once the essential divine nature and also provides the ontological ground for a peculiar destiny of each being, a destiny distinct both intelligibly, and with respect to its goodness, from that of units more comprehensive, such as the species to which an individual animal belongs.

If we take up again, however, the viewpoint for which positive individuation is the maximum of negative individuation, then we can see another way in which divine providence operates, this time without a direct connection to the divine nature, which is peculiarity, but instead through universality. For all of the elements of a thing’s essence other than the essence of peculiarity, which is the divine nature, partake of the nature of the Gods for their own part. That is, the species of things and the virtues and qualities individuals instantiate have their own being and their own good, and are divine as the peculiar things they are. When things embody these other beings, living in and through them, they participate in the divine through them in addition to what I have termed their peculiar destiny. One result of this is that persons and things are not dependent upon immediate sanctification in order to manifest goodness and virtue, possessing their ‘secular’ good, so to speak, through the forms in which they participate.

But the incompleteness or undecidability of something with respect to its essence, in addition to being its providence or peculiar destiny, is also its matter, as that which simply expresses the point at which formal specification exhausts itself. A faulty understanding of Platonic thought, which arose from the necessity of denying individuation to incorporeals other than as essences, lest the divinity be multiplied, resulted in an excessive dependence upon the notion of matter, and of hylomorphism, or the dualism of form and matter, in order to fix an end to the process of specification for individuals without invoking the notion of positive individuation. In this fashion, we might say that the matter of things was conceptually substituted for their providence, and materialism designated as the successor to monotheism, should monotheism’s grasp slip. And this is indeed what has occurred, as essence has been taken up exclusively by the natural sciences, on the one hand, while a henology without Gods has found a home chiefly in the school of thought known as Existentialism, the name of which preserves the opposition between ‘existence’ (hyparxis) and essence that was key to Platonic theology and its polytheism.

Feeling like a Dornishman

Let me start by clarifying that this is not a piece on Game of Thrones or Song of Ice and Fire, though George Martin’s work provides a metaphor whose sense will become clear at one point. So if you don’t like the show or books and were feeling disappointed that this website can host a text on Westeros, relax and take a deep breath. This is also not a piece written by several people, but one individual speaking for himself and from his own viewpoint, which is naturally shaped by where he’s from. This should be obvious, but given how things currently are in the wider polytheistic community and the level of discourse we’ve reached, it’s probably a good idea to point that out. What this text is about is how I’m drifting away from a (significant?) part of said community, because I no longer identify myself with it. It’s something that’s been taking shape for some time, became obvious in January and has been stressed ever since. This doesn’t mean that I’m leaving polytheism: to again clarify, I am willingly and firmly a Roman polytheist and have no intention whatsoever of changing that. But the way I live my religion, see myself and interact with the world is obviously different from how others do it (or at least claim to do). And not necessarily in a good way! To some extent, it’s not the kind of difference you should acknowledge, respect and embrace, but rather question and distance yourself from, for the sake of sanity if nothing else.

Sometimes, the past is just the past

As an historian, I’m obviously interested in the past and study it in an effort to track and comprehend its dynamics, patterns and echoes. As a Roman polytheist, that general interest is taken to another level, since more than reading about it, I strive to revive some of the past. Not in the manner of a Renaissance fair or an attempt at changing the past, but as an effort to make it a living part of the modern world. I’ll say that again to make sure everyone gets it: a living part of the modern world. This is a point I’ll get back to several times throughout this piece and it is, I reckon, at the root of my growing distance from an increasing number of polytheists and in more ways than one.

For starters, it’s what separates me from those who want to go beyond a revival of ancient Roman religion and aim instead at a wider recreation of ancient Rome’s social and civic life, complete with clothing, cooking, language, moral attitudes and political institutions of the time. Which is not reviving a religion to make it a part of the modern world, but setting it apart from it, closing Roman polytheism in a fossilized shell where it remains largely indifferent to the passage of time. A lot of this stems from the fact that people genuinely like a particular culture or civilization, so much so that they try to bring it back somehow. I get that. As an historian, I have something of a monarchist vein, because I spend so much time reading about kings, queens and princes, their lives and courts, that a small part of me secretly wishes that those times were still present, so I could witness as opposed to merely read about them through the accounts of centuries-old documents. But then reality kicks in and you quickly remind yourself that there’s a difference between fantasising about the past and the actual needs and challenges of government. And when it comes to reviving an ancient religion, you need to realize that it’s one thing to bring back a form of polytheism and quite another to fetishize the culture or time-period that produced it.

There’s more to it, of course: some people are unsure about how to revive a religion that was last practiced openly more than a millennium ago, when the world was very different from today’s, and that insecurity can lead them to seek shelter in historical certainty. For them, the past is the way to go – in virtually everything! – for fear of failing to truthfully bring back an ancient religion. It’s essentially the mirror image of those who choose the opposite path, where anything that feels right is correct because we’re living in today and not yesterday – a stance also rooted in insecurity, though in some cases there’s an element of non-conformism as well. In reality, if your goal is to breathe new life into the old, as opposed to merely re-enact it or build something entirely new, both courses of action are wrong. And yes, there is such a thing as being wrong. The correct way is somewhere in the middle, in a balance of tradition and modernity that allows you to retain a fundamental link to the past while still entwining with the present, thereby reviving an ancient religion as a living part of the modern world.

This is one dividing line. It separates me from those who want to be in the present with little or no regard for the past beyond their selfish, feel-good reasons and those who do the exact opposite, who want to be in the past with little interest in the present. And then there’s another group, darker and with the potential to be dangerous, which are those who not only have little interest in the present, but actually despise it! It’s the folks for whom the world is corrupt, gone terribly wrong or is out to get you and thus needs to be saved, fought against or brought back from its current rotten state. And the way they propose to do it is by taking us back to a romanticized past, to a time when women weren’t sluts, men weren’t pussies, cultures weren’t mixed, Christianity and Islam did not exist, everyone was a polytheist and tribes, not modern States or governments, was how people organized themselves. It’s basically the same throwback from those who want a wider recreation of the ancient world, only in this case it’s (also) motivated by a deep distrust or disgust for the modern world. If only we could turn back the clock, things would be better – they’d argue.

We’ll get to the ugly face of that, but for now, suffice to say that I do not share that vision of a decadent present or a romanticized past. It’s true that the modern world has many problems – as any other age – yet it also has the tools to solve them and is a lot better in several ways. Of course, I’m writing as a western European, but as I said at the start of this piece, I’m speaking for myself and from my own standpoint, which is naturally shaped by where I’m from. And over here, I can look back in time and honestly say that things are better: slavery has been outlawed, the death penalty abolished, illiteracy is down to historical levels, women have a much bigger role in society than they did in the past, there’s a greater freedom of religion, expression, movement and political participation than in previous centuries (including Classical Antiquity), life expectancy is longer, you’re free to love another man or woman and marry accordingly, environmental sustainability is a growing policy vector and, despite the strains being placed on it, there’s still a welfare State that provides for a basic safety net. It’s not perfect – far from it! – but it is better and has the tools for improvement.

So unlike other polytheists, I’m not motivated by a need to turn back the clock. I don’t feel out of place in the modern western world, even if it does have problems accepting the notion of someone being a polytheist. It is only natural that it does after centuries of monotheistic dominance, which made the worship of many gods a de facto novelty in the west, even if historically it isn’t. But whereas some would solve that by somehow taking us back to a pre-modern society where there’s no monotheism, I choose to do it by embracing and using the freedoms of religion, expression and association awarded by modernity. To freely speak and practice in order to change perceptions and find a new place for polytheism in the western world as a citizen of a modern country, not by rejecting it, isolating myself from my social surroundings or recreating a pre-Christian tribe. Because I don’t see my Portuguese nationality as being at odds with Roman polytheism, quite the opposite: the territory of my country was once ruled by Rome, its gods worshipped here, and I’m native to a modern Latin language and culture. And since, as said, my goal is to revive an ancient religion to be a living part of today’s world, I have no interest in pretending to be a citizen of an anachronically recreated State or community. Instead, I entwine my religion with my modern nationality and see no contradiction in that.

Going native

A consequence of that intersection is that I don’t look at Christianity or Islam as foreign entities. I truly don’t. Maybe it’s because my standpoint is that of an historian and I probably know these things a lot better than some – including several of my own countrymen – but I cannot honestly say that those two religions are outsiders. They’re not new here and weren’t introduced into a pre-existing Portuguese identity, but first stepped into this part of Europe well over a millennium ago: the first organized Christian communities in what is now Portuguese territory date back to c. 180, long before the founding of my nation, which happened only in 1143 or no earlier than c. 1096, when a unified land of Portugal was created, fusing what used to be the older counties of Porto (or Portucale) and Coimbra. And by the time that happened, Islam was already in the Iberian Peninsula for roughly four centuries, since 711, and was making a mark in the languages, land and customs of the region.

I guess you can say that this is a curious part of the world. Not unique, but curious, in that we’re the product of a mixture of ethnicities and cultures. Long before there was such a thing as a Portuguese person, this part of Europe was settled by pre-Celtic Indo-Europeans, Celts, Phoenicians, maybe some Greeks, a lot of Romans, Germanic tribes, Arabs and north-African Berbers. They all came, made themselves at home – some violently, others less so – and eventually went native. Which means their languages, customs and traditions went native, too. Of course, not all of them survived into the present day and didn’t leave traces in equal measure, because too much time has passed for some and a few caused a bigger impact or had a firmer grip on the territory. But every one of them came to call this place “home”, so for that reason, the religions they practiced can claim to be in some way connected to this land. And that includes Christianity and Islam, which went native just like Celtic or Roman polytheisms before them. All of them came from someplace else before settling and adding to the fabric of this place.

As such and unlike Ireland, Norway or Iceland, my country didn’t have a well or even basically defined pagan identity. Unlike those nations, Portugal is a political and cultural construct that postdates the arrival of Christianity and Islam by several centuries, making it a partial product of those two religions and thus not entirely detachable from them. Should I therefore reject or dismantle my Portuguese identity and replace it with a pre-Christian one – Lusitanian, Turduli, Roman or Suebian – so as to be a more genuine polytheist? The answer has already been given: no, because I’m interested in reviving an ancient religion to be a living part of the modern world, not a recreation or romanticization of a bygone age. As I said in another piece, you cannot change the past, only built on it. And also, accepting Christianity and Islam as elements of my country’s heritage doesn’t mean they should have privileges or rule public life, that I adhere to their doctrines, that I don’t strive to personally change monotheistic mental habits (like equating religion with a standardized faith) or that public discourse doesn’t need to be more religiously diverse. It just means that I acknowledge them as part of my nation’s ancestry, regardless of whether or not I agree with their beliefs, and don’t see them as foreign invaders or enemies. Just as I accept that many of my forefathers were Christians, some Muslims, without shunning them or feeling any obligation to share their beliefs. And I’m honestly comfortable with that and the fact that I’m from a country that has a rich tapestry of multiple layers, all bound together by a common History, language, set of symbols and practices. It wasn’t built peacefully – I know it wasn’t! – but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be presently lived peacefully. Reviving an ancient religion isn’t the same as reviving old hates, mistakes and attitudes. Sometimes, the past should really be just that: past!

Of course, this puts me at odds with polytheists who seem to think otherwise. They constantly speak of Christianity and Islam as foreign faiths, invasive and oppressive, insistently reminding everyone of what happened a thousand years ago or more, even suggesting – if not outright defending – that those two religions should be wiped out or their houses of worship destroyed to be replaced with original, older temples. To some extent, those positions are understandable: in several places, Christianization is a more recent process, whereas here it took place over 1500 years ago, which can make the difference between old and thus healed wounds and fresh ones yet to be closed; in countries like Greece, the Orthodox Church still has a medieval mentality and acts accordingly, which doesn’t normally happen in this end of Europe; and as mentioned, places like Norway or Iceland have a basically defined pre-Christian identity, which is not the case here. Furthermore, while I get the link with the notions of invasion, oppressiveness and forced assimilation – because those things have all been done in the name of Christianity and Islam – it’s not something that I see as an exclusive trait of theirs, but one that’s common to civilizations or cultures that invade others, regardless of religion. And I’m not saying this as a hypothetical, but as a matter of fact of my native land: pre-Christian Romans had a similar impact on ancient Iberia, eliminating native communities, forcing others out of their traditional homes and into new cities, replacing their languages with Latin and assimilating their religion, in some cases displacing pre-existing cults – or appropriating them! There’s a reason why only limited traces of Celtic culture remain in western Iberia and mostly in the mountainous north: it’s what survived the actions of pre-Christian Romans.

Is it tragic? Definitely! But what are going to do about it? Seriously, what are you going to do about it? It didn’t happen in the last decade or century, but between 218 BCE and 19 CE, more than two thousand years ago. Are you going to compensate the descendants of those pre-Roman communities? Then you might as well compensate the entire country, since anyone whose family has been in Portugal for at least a few generations is highly likely to have some Celtic ancestors. And Roman, Germanic, Arab and north African, too. After so long, things have become so mixed that while people anachronically see as a national hero a native chief who fought against Rome in the second century BCE, they also celebrate their Roman (and Arab) heritage. Because time has fused old enemies and different layers into a national whole and since my goal is to revive an ancient religion to be a living part of the modern world, I do so on the basis of my Portuguese nationality, not a re-enactment of a Roman province.

Some polytheists disagree and instead suggest that one should dismantle existing identities and States and return to an original, tribal state of things. Which is an idea that requires the assumption that the older is somehow more legitimate than what came after, even if by now the latter is on course to be one thousand years old. Actually, perhaps more incisively, there are those who wish they could stop time or reverse it and seem to believe that things are meant to be in a fixed form that must be retrieved when its purity is sullied by change. But again I say: you cannot alter the past, only built on it. And when you do, what you get will always be in some way different from what existed before. You can either accept that and get on with your life or you can dwell in the past, constantly scratching its wounds, vomiting an ill-digested memory and drown yourself in a warring siege mentality where the world is your enemy because you cannot see, let alone live beyond past events. Which, by the way, is a very similar mindset to that of the ideologues from Daesh. Trying to turn back the clock and wipe out centuries of change in the name of some original or purer state of things has never worked out well.

European what?

And thus we finally dive into a toxic blend of resentment towards monotheism and present anxieties, vis-à-vis, terrorism and migration, which reinforces or disseminates paranoia, prejudice and hate. To the extent that I sometimes wonder when will people start writing on how they want to make polytheism great again. A clear example are the (growing?) calls for refugees to be barred or Europe’s indigenous population and culture to be protected from Muslim migrants. Because they have different habits, a different or evil religion or simply because they look different. There was a time, not that long ago, when this sort of rhetoric was a hallmark of white supremacists, but now, it seems, it’s becoming a more common feature among polytheists, with little Trumps popping up here and there. And as a result, I have to ask myself where do I want to be.

For starters, because I’m pretty sure that those who talk about indigenous European population when speaking against migration from the Middle East are, simply put, manifesting their ignorance, either blissful or intentional. Otherwise, they would know that there have been movements of people from the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean and into Europe for at least three thousand years. Think of the Phoenicians, who from their cities in modern-day Lebanon and Syria travelled to and settled in southern Europe around 1100 BCE. Or the Carthaginians, who ruled over southern Iberia for about three centuries. Or the already mentioned invasion of Arabs and north African Berbers into the region, where they settled and mixed with the pre-existing population. And last I checked, Iberia is still a part of Europe. Now, some will no doubt claim that they’re not racists, that this is about culture, not race, and I’ll take their word for it. But even then, it’s still ignorance.

I’m saying this as someone who was born, raised and lives in a European nation that’s roughly nine centuries old, has the continent’s oldest land borders – going back to 1297, about the same time its vernacular tongue was made official – and whose family has been in western Iberia for at least four hundred years. As far as I can tell, I’m a native inhabitant from an old European nation, yet my equally native culture owes a lot to the Islamic civilization that ruled this region for centuries. Its impact can be found in Portuguese language and art, cooking and agriculture, settlements and placenames. For instance, the historic neighbourhood of Alfama, which has some of the oldest buildings in Lisbon, owes its name to the Arab al-hamma (the hot spring, fountain), just as the Algarve, where northern Europeans like to spend their vacations, derives its from al-Gharb or “the west”, because it was part of the westernmost province of the Umayyad Caliphate. Even the name of the country’s capital has Arabic influence, coming from al-Ushbuna, which later became Lyxbona. Rice and almonds are just two of the products whose cultivation in the Iberian Peninsula became common – indeed traditional – thanks to the Islamic civilization. The art of making and painting tiles, which decorate so many of Portugal’s historical buildings and modern houses, owes its popularity to Muslims who disseminated the practice, in as much as the word “azulejo” (tile) comes from the Arab azuleij. So does the name “açorda”, from ath-thorda, which is essentially a traditional bread soup whose existence is at least partially rooted in the Islamic period. In fact, there are over one thousand words of Arab origin in the Portuguese language: “javali” (jabali, boar), “alface” (al-khas, lettuce), “almofada” (al-mukhadda, pillow), “azeite” (az-zait, olive oil), to name just a few examples. Though the most emblematic of all is perhaps “oxalá” (hopefully, I hope), which comes from the Arab insha’Allah or “God willing”. Which is why a friend of mine once told me that the Portuguese, to an extent, are Arabized Latinos – in looks, customs and language. And yet, I’m to believe that we need to “save” Europe’s indigenous culture and population from Muslim migrants coming in from the Arab world?

Seriously, what do people actually mean by that? Are they talking about a native European culture and population they imagine exists or a real one they have actual knowledge of? If it’s the latter, do they mean northern or southern, Scandinavian or Iberian? Why do I get the feeling that some of those who talk the most about defending “indigenous Europe” – some of which are not even Europeans – are also the ones who know the least about the subject?

Mind you, this is not to say that such a large movement of people is unproblematic, because it isn’t. Many of the newcomers hold very conservative views on women, sexuality and religion, they don’t know the languages of their host nations and, in those conditions, no country on its own can take in hundreds of thousands of individuals in one go. It will take time, it will take resources, a balanced distribution of migrants and it will take a lot of learning. And really, if you’re not a racist and your objections are solely about culture, then you should remind yourself that culture isn’t genetic, but taught, acquired, so if western Europeans were able to learn and evolve towards the tolerant state of things that people claim to want to defend, then there’s no reason why migrants can’t do the same. We weren’t always what we are now. What doesn’t help is being a bigot or going paranoid because you watched a video, read something online or judge an entire group of people based on the violent actions of a few. That’s a bit like claiming that heathens should be arrested or expelled after a news report showed white supremacists worshipping Odin or committing racial violence in His name. Not such a good idea to be judged by what others do, is it?

By now, there’s a good chance that some of my readers are already thinking that Islam, unlike Heathenry, has sacred scriptures and that they drive Muslims into committing violent acts. Which is not without truth, but only up to a point. Yes, the Quran has violent passages and you can find several that are used by Daesh to justify its actions, but it also has others of a different nature, like verse 2:256, which says that there can be no compulsion in religion. I know, it sounds like a contradiction given the reality on the ground, from terrorism to the penalties for apostasy in the Muslim world, but that’s the thing with scriptures: they’re complex, contradictory and its interpretation or implementation is, by and large, a matter of cherry picking motivated by multiple factors. Just look at how Leviticus is largely ignored by most Christians, precisely because some of its content has become socially unacceptable. Or how some focus on the “Thou shall not kill” commandment to justify their opposition to the death penalty, while others ignore it. Or even how some Christians reject Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which are about gay sex, and have chosen instead to focus entirely on the more compassionate portions of the Bible.

This is something that’s yet to be done in much of the Islamic world. It’s yet to cherry pick in a positive fashion, upholding verses like 2:256, reinterpreting some and declaring others as null and void in the modern world. Some Muslims already do it – and there’s a long tradition of that, even if a minority one – but for more to follow suit, several things need to happen and one of them is not throwing away the baby with the bathwater. Which is to say that if we denigrate a religion as a whole, without looking at its nuances and complexities, we’ll be eliminating what room it has to reform and evolve, because we’ll be turning things into a zero-sum game where it’s either a violent Islam or no Islam at all. Then again, that might be the exact goal of some people, including a number of polytheists, because that way they’ll have an excuse to openly hate something they wish they could simply get rid of. Turning back the clock is sort of their wet dream.

The stone raft

Where does all of this leave me? Well, to use George Martin’s work, it makes me feel like someone from Dorne, the southernmost of the seven kingdoms of Westeros. It’s a different place from the rest of the realm, not just due to the climate, but also because of the culture, in that Dornishmen are the partial product of a mass migration that did not affect the rest of Westeros. That makes them a mixed people and hence peculiar, if not shocking in the eyes of the rest of the seven kingdoms. And this is not an accidental metaphor, because Dorne is to the world of the Song of Ice and Fire what Muslim Iberia was to medieval Europe.

The idea that you need to stop Arab refugees from entering the continent so as to preserve European indigenous culture and population is something that can only come from an ignorant bigot or someone who’s simply not aware of the history of other countries. For instance, if you’re from outside Europe and look at it from a Scandinavian perspective – and that’s not unheard of among heathens from across the Atlantic – then it’s no surprise that you’ll assume that what’s true for the Nordic nations is equally true for the rest of the continent. In reality, in the Iberian Peninsula, indigenous and native are partly synonymous with Arabic and Moorish. Not that all of my countrymen acknowledge that – we have our bigots, too – but as an historian, it’s something that I’m well aware of. And anyone who claims to have a serious opinion should at the very least do some basic research, though not just on Europe: I‘m not entirely sure if every polytheist who derides Islam is aware of the fact that we have Muslim scholars to thank for the survival of classical works, like Aristotle’s, which were copied and preserved in Arab under the patronage of the Abbasid Caliphate. And at the very least, that should make them question the notion that Islam is an inherently evil religion with which there can be no compromise or culture.

But besides ignorance, a part of which is unintentional and therefore understandable, because no one is born educated, there’s also the vitriol, the paranoia, the deep-rooted resentment towards the modern world or monotheism. And that’s a more complex thing that’s hardly harmless when we’re placed under pressure by the events of our time. Because when we define ourselves by what we’re against, at war with or resentful about, we will not have the necessary clarity of mind to discern the best way forward when confronted with violent challenges. Instead, we’ll lash out, call for a holy war, declare ourselves under siege by virtually everyone we disagree with and judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a few, thus self-justifying our pre-existing prejudices, inability to fit in, unwillingness to learn or grudges against the past or the modern world.

A good example of that is how some polytheists call for the active discrimination of monotheists. Or worst, how some suggest – sometimes openly say – that Islam and Christianity should be erased, because of what they did, are doing or because they’re evil religions. Which is essentially painting a complex reality with one broad, hateful brush – much in the fashion of a Trump view of the world – and amounts to the very sort of cultural decimation those same people often claim to be against. Just like Daesh is wiping out communities, buildings and historical monuments that do not conform to its narrow view of things, some polytheists appear to want a cleansing of their own, eliminating groups they hate or are afraid of and replacing old churches and mosques with new temples – in India, Greece or Rome – not because the former were freely abandoned, exchanged or sold, but because they should rightfully be temples. Now, those same polytheists will claim that they do not advocate physical violence and I believe in them. I truly do. But in the end, there’s no practical difference between erasing something by force and doing it slowly through a devised plan. At the end of the day, you decimated because you wanted to. And you’re not better, more civilized or morally superior just because you’re a polytheist. If you believe you are, then you’re no different from a monotheist who condemns atrocities or complains about discrimination, but then does or proposes to do those very same things with the excuse that it’s in the name of a good religion, just cause or true ideology. And when that happens, you become the thing you claimed to be fighting against, because you somehow assumed that you were inherently good, above blame or immune to error simply because you have different beliefs.

Of course, I’m writing as someone who’s native to a western European country whose history and identity cannot be detached from Christianity and Islam and hence do not see them as enemies. Nor do I harbour a strong resentment towards those two religions or believe that they have to be eliminated for polytheism to prosper. But that’s also because we have very little in the way of Christian fundamentalism over here and the Catholic Church in Portugal is increasingly modern, less attached to medieval mindsets. Even the imam of Lisbon’s mosque has publicly said that Muslims who do not feel comfortable living in a liberal society should leave. So my views are naturally shaped by that, though I recognize that things may be otherwise elsewhere. That other people’s views may be different, because they’re moulded by different histories, daily lives and issues that are not present in this corner of the world. I acknowledge that. But I cannot live someone else’s life, no more than I can ask others to live mine. I cannot go about my everyday existence behaving or looking at things in a way that’s largely, if not entirely unrelated and out of place with my social surroundings. That would be no different from living like a schizophrenic or in a dream world. So because of that, for the sake of sanity, or because I do not wish to be associated with paranoid bigots who seem to be popping up in the polytheistic movement, I cannot remain indifferent nor be someone other than myself.

In a book called A Jangada de Pedra, translated into English as The Stone Raft, José Saramago tells the story of how the Iberian Peninsula slowly and physically separates itself from the rest of the European continent. It’s a fictional novel, of course, and the metaphor is largely political and economic. But there’s also a cultural aspect and I’m finding a religious side to it, too. Because the more I disagree with the anti-modern, anti-monotheism, xenophobic and Trump-like rhetoric of some, the more I realize my Iberian heritage. In other words, I’m going increasingly native, rediscovering and gladly embracing my country’s standpoint as opposed to taking in that of others via the internet and then acting in a way that’s disconnected from my surroundings. And in doing so, in going native, I identify myself even less with the opinions of other polytheists from elsewhere in Europe or the world. To some extent, it has become a sort of exponential process and so I drift away, distancing myself from parts of the wider polytheistic community, rooted in an Iberian stone raft.

Impurity and Sin

This is the first post I have written in response to an ongoing Polytheist controversy. Depending on how it is received, it may be the last. For several weeks, now, the Polytheist blogosphere has been roiled by the question of the question of whether early Polytheisms had concepts of impurity, spiritual contagion, and sin, and, if so, what they entailed.

The controversy was started by a warning that attendance at this year’s Many Gods West conference might carry the risk of spiritual pollution. I am going to start my writing on the topic by declaring my absolute neutrality on this part of the issue. I have friends who boycotted the conference, and other friends who attended. I myself could not afford to go, and generally can afford to attend few conferences at all, so I cannot pretend to have firsthand knowledge of that part of the issue. That being the case, it seems wise to keep my mouth shut and my ears open on that particular question.

In any case, the conversation rapidly broadened into a discussion of the Hellenic idea of miasma, and on whether the idea of sin was a part of several ancient Polytheisms. On the idea of miasma, I again declare my neutrality. My Hellenic and Thracian friends assure me it exists, and I have no reason to doubt them. But I also have no expertise on the topic and am not remotely qualified to write about it. I am satisfied to leave miasma to the experts, shall we say.

For me, the controversy has awakened an interest in the topic from a Gaulish perspective. What were the Gaulish ideas on the subject, if any? It turns out that Gaulish, and proto-Celtic more broadly, had several words that may be relevant to the issue, though they are less precise than those in other Polytheist religions, because less is known for certain about them:

Salâ: Dirt, filth, impurity. This is the mundane word for dirt, in the sense of being unclean, not of “soil”. It also appears to have referred to spiritual impurity.1 It is less value laden than most similar words in other religions, being quite uncomplicated in meaning. There is little surviving lore on what brings salâ, except that, as in other traditions, it appears to have been associated with mundane dirtiness. It is possible that war either created salâ, or else moved participants into a liminal state from which they needed to be reintegrated with society.2 In addition, it is my UPG that excrement created salâ.

Salâcos: The adjectival form of salâ, meaning dirty, filthy, impure.3 There is not a lot to say about this one that hasn’t already been said about the noun.

Troxos: Leprous.4 From the connotations of some of the descendent words, we might take this as referring also to being in a state of spiritual contagion, but it is far from clear. If so, the nominal form is troxiâ.

Glânos: Clean, clear, pure.5 The opposite of salâcos. This state is obtained by:

Glânosagon: Purification. I have already discussed one method in my ritual outlines. Other methods include: “fire, juniper, whiskey, silver, milk, prayer, water….”6

Culos: Sin, violation.7 The sense here is of a violation of the law, a crime, an unlawful act. It has none of the connotation of “disobedience to God”, “original sin”, or “being in a state of sin” conveyed by the Christian version of “sin”. The term for law in proto-Celtic and Gaulish is rextus, also meaning “right”8, and so culos can be seen as a wrong act, as well. In most Celtic traditions, it is corrected by restitution to the victims, though the Gauls did have the death penalty for murder and other especially heinous offences.

Meblâ: Shame.9 This is the term for the state into one falls after an evil, unvirtuous act. It is, essentially, a loss of eniequos or clutos as a result of one’s own actions. It can only be corrected by living such that one’s reputation is restored.

This about sums up the Gaulish vocabulary of impurity and sin. It is fairly simple, all in all. Salâ is nearly unavoidable, in the course of a day’s sweat and dirt, but of no moral consequence. If you just wash up, put on clean(ish) clothes, and perform glânosagon before ritual, you will be fine. Culos and Meblâ are far more serious matters, but, again, do not equate well to sin. They can be corrected by living according to uiriâ and uiridios, as well as making up for one’s offenses against others.

Îuos Lugous – The Feast of Lugus

I. This is a Gaulish ritual for Îuos Lugous, or Lughnasadh. It follows the pattern of other Gaulish rituals I have written, with the exception of the Natus, in this case, a praise poem directed to Lugus. Probably the best offerings to give would be hard apple cider, good wine, or hard liquor of any kind. The ritual should take place on the first of Elembiuos, or else the new moon closest to the first of August.

II. Urextus Noibodubri/Making of Holy Water: Hold cup of water or point at it. Say:

Esîtu Matir Dêwon, Woberus Albiwâs,
Esîtu berus alwissous, Alrunodelgetâ,
Esîtu Alboudidêwâ, Dêwâ Ulani,
Esîtu Dêwâ Talamonos, Berus Alulatês,
Cenâ tu, wastî emmos, canti tu emmos lânos.

You are the Mother of the Gods, the Source of All Life,
You are the Source of All Wisdom, The Keeper of All Secrets,
You are the Goddess of All Victories, The Goddess of Abundance,
You are the Goddess of the Land, The Source of All Sovereignty,
Without we are empty, with you, we are full.

III. Glanosagon/Purification: Sprinkle water onto all participants. Say:

Glanosagûmi suos, entrâsetyos in anton noibon, encesetyos are Dêwobi.

I purify you all, that you may enter the holy place, that you may come before the Gods.

IV. Kentus/The Beginning:

A. Urextus Noiboteni/Making of Sacred Fire: Light the fire candle. Say:

Esîtu medios alpetânon, aidus cintus in tanî cintî,
Esîtu louxs sonni, randityo dîyon es noxtiê,
Esîtu aidus papas aidletâs, papon aidun âwotor es te,
Esîtu duxtir Taranês, Anatiâ Albiin in Bitê,
Te âwûmi aide, in cingê Brigantiâs.

You are the center of all things, the first fire, at the beginning of time,
You are the light of the sun, which marks out day from night,
You are the flame of every hearth, all flames are lit from you,
You are the Daughter of Taranis, the Soul of Heaven in this World.
I make you, flame, in the Way of Brigantiâ

B. Urextus Cagii/Making of the Rampart: Light small candle. Take it about the holy space, saying:

Glanosagûmi soanton louki noibi Brigantiâs
Eti anegûmi soanton louki noibi Brigantiâs,
So estî nu noiboantos.

I purify these precincts by the holy light of Brigantiâ,
And I protect these precincts by the holy light of Brigantiâ,
This is now a holy place.

V. Areadbertâ/Pre-offering

A. Adbertâ Tenû/Fire Offering: Light incense with Fire Candle. Place in holder, saying:

Demmos sotun te, tene,
Demmos sotun te, Duxtir Taranês,
Demmos sotun te, Brigantiâ,
Esiyo nertos,
Eti anagesyo soanton uritt aldrukon.

We offer you this incense, o fire,
We offer you this incense, Daughter of Taranis,
We offer you this incense, Brigantiâ,
That you be strong,
And that you protect this place against all evil.

B. Adbertâ Cernunnû/Offering to Cernunnos: Pour out a small amount of wine into the offering bowl. Say:

Gediyûs gwuyûmi,
Eti woxtlus wegyûmi,
Cernounnon wediûmi,
Tegernon Caiti,
Dîclâwetos Cingi,
Dêwos Arelayetyo Marwon,
Eti Detyo Ulânon,
Yo dîclâwetis cingon Dêwobo,
Eti anson petiins Dêwobo beretyo.

Prayers I pour out,
And words I weave,
Cernunnos I invoke,
The Lord of the Wood,
The Opener of the Way,
The God Who Guides the Dead,
And Brings Abundance,
That he open the way to the Gods,
And bear our prayers to the Gods.

VI. Adbertâ/Offering: Pour out wine from bottle, saying:

Gediyins gwuyûmi
eti woxtlûs wegyûmi
Rosmertin wediûmi
Weletin Mârin
Wegyetin Tonketi
Tigernin Tirri
Dêwin Medi Wlati
yâ detsi boudin ame
eti wirobo anextlon bouboc.

Prayers I pour out
and words I weave
Rosmertâ I invoke
The Great Seeress
The Weaver of Fate
The Lady of the Land
The Goddess of the Mead of Sovereignty
that she give prosperity to us
and protection to men and cattle.

Gediyins gwuyûmi
Eti woxtlus wegyûmi
Lugun wediûmi
Dêwon Gaisi
Tigernon Methâs
Dêwon Alkerdânon
Tigernon Lugyâs
Yo detis boudion ame
Eti wirobo anextlon bouboc.

Prayers I pour out
And words I weave
Lugus I invoke
The God of the Spear
The Lord of the Harvest
The God of All Arts
The Lord of the Oath
In thanks that he give Prosperity to us
And protection to people and cattle.

VII. Natus/Chant: Croon:

Lugû Boudacû
Cingemos ander to sketê
Lugû Gaisi Windi,
Eti Cladebi Windi,
Gegwanasyo Durîgen,
Peteemos biesyo onco nos
Cingete Nemi,
Arye eti Rîge Dêwon
Lugû Boudacû
Anson Arelayte
Lugû Boudacû
Konetê anson sulion.

In cariyî Dêwi,
Wer lânon, wer belson,
Eti wer dumion, ogron brûcariâs
Ceti retesyomos wer worin,
Eti tras talamun caleton
Anxton negalnet in bongîmî wer nos
Ander to sketê,
Lugû Boudacû
Werte anson cridiyon
Lugû Boudacû
Anagetos Biti esîtu.

VIII. Clawiyâ/Closing

A. Braton Maponô/Thanks to Maponus:

Braton tei, Maponû
Are slanon,
Are boudion,
Are anextlon,
Molammos te!

Thanks to you, Maponus,
For health,
For prosperity,
For protection,
We praise you!

B. Braton Eponai/Thanks to Eponâ:

Braton tei, Eponâ,
Are slanon,
Are boudion,
Are anextlon,
Molammos te!

C. Braton Cernunnû/Thanks for Cernunnos:

Braton tei, Cernunne,
Are dîclawiyin cingi,
Are beriyin anson pettiins
Nu, pettiemmos te, yo claswes cingon,
Eti molammos te!

D. Clitâ Noiboteni/Covering the Sacred Fire: Say to the candle flame:

Esîtu medyos alpetânon, aidus cintus in tanî cintî,
Esîtu louxs sonni, randityo dîyon es noxtiê,
Esîtu aidus papas aidletâs, papun aidun âwotor es te,
Esîtu Duxtir Taranês, Anatiâ Albiin in Bitê,
Te celûmi, aide, in cingê Brigantiâs.

You are the center of all things, the first fire and the beginning of time,
You are the light of the sun, which marks out day from night,
You are the fire of every hearth, all fires are lit from you,
You are the Daughter of Taranis, the soul of heaven in this world,
I cover you, fire, in the way of Brigantiâ.

Now, put out the candle flame. Say:

Adbertin uregetar, uregetar Litun. Con nertê, anextlêc Dêwon, au nemeton exsagomos.

The offering is done, done is the rite. With strength and the protection of the Gods, let us go from the nemeton.

The Nature of the Gods (VI): Mundanity

Each henad, or member-unit of the set of ultimate units, must be regarded as containing infinite potency, simply because it exists, since there is an infinite potency between zero, nonexistence, and one, existence. But it does not seem to us that individual henads are omnipotent; instead they seem to form a hierarchy, in fact a multitude of hierarchies. The brief response to this discrepancy is that these hierarchical relationships, since they express the will of all the Gods involved in them, do not therefore contradict the omnipotence of each—on the contrary, they express a will to express that power in common fields of action. These common fields of action, however, raise an issue in themselves, and a different sort of hierarchy, upon which I want to focus in this essay.

The hierachy in question is a binary one arising from the primordial divine actions/relations which we know through myths. These actions/relations create a binary hierarchy inasmuch as Gods appear to have relations with some other Gods, and none with many others, although as henads, all are in each. Hence some Gods are in pantheons with one another, and there are myths expressing their relations with one another, while with a much larger number they appear to have no relations at all.

The significance of ‘appearance’ in this respect is not to be underestimated. Undoubtedly in addition to what and how things ‘appear’ to us there is much of which we are not and will never be aware. But the very purpose of myth seems to be, at least in part, a vehicle for the Gods to appear to us; and however small a portion of the totality our knowledge represents, the character of that knowledge must still be explicable. And the character of it is that surrounding each henad there is a sphere illuminated by relations with others, brighter where relations are more dense, dimmer where they are more sparse, and fading to essentially total darkness where no relations at all appear.

Let us posit that there are four kinds of relations among Gods. The first are generic, obtaining between all Gods simply qua Gods. The second are specific, obtaining between categories of Gods and expressing common dispositions; these can obtain across pantheons and are the basis of intellectual comparison between Gods. The third are peculiar, which obtain between individual named Gods and are expressed primarily in myths. The fourth are contingent, which exist purely at some time and place, such as the relationship of two Gods both worshiped by me. Between any two Gods, there either are, or are not, peculiar relations. Can we understand from the basic characteristic of the henadic manifold why this binary condition obtains, and what other consequences derive from it?

One could argue that the peculiar relations fall under the contingent relations. That is, one could argue that just as I happen, through whatever contingencies, to worship this or that God, so an entire culture, through contingent factors, comes to participate certain Gods, and certain aspects of those Gods, and it is this differential capacity for participation that results in the binary character of pantheons as discussed above. The problem with this explanation is that it seems to assign too much of the phenomenon of culture as the product primarily of contingent factors, and hence has the general result of downgrading the status of culture. This is undesirable on its own terms, but is also a symptom of the ontological problem of attributing too little of the form in which the Gods are manifest to Them, as opposed to their reception. At a certain threshold, if too little of the form of reception of the Gods is accountable to their own causality, then the reception itself becomes the primary causal agency, and religion becomes primarily a social and psychological question, as it unarguably and appropriately is for certain disciplines. Theology, however, by definition, cannot be such a discipline. Therefore, I would suggest treating the contingent relations instead as falling under the peculiar divine relations. That is, the compresence of deities in a ‘personal pantheon’ is a special case of their compresence in a cultural pantheon. This has the virtue of elevating the individual worshiper’s experience, rather than downgrading experience on the cultural level. The worshiper becomes a culture of one, so to speak, a genuine locus of divine action even if only obscurely understood, rather than culture becoming a mere assemblage of persons at a common place and time.

Given that all members of the ultimate manifold must be in each one, if it is indeed to be the ultimate manifold, how can a God be ignorant of any other? If the lack of expressed relation between all Gods is not to be understood in a manner that downgrades the diversity of cultures and excessively confines divine causality, then there must be a sense in which this unknowing is real, but also compatible with the real presence of all the Gods in each one. This unknowing need not, of course, be the same as human ignorance, but it may very well be a cause of it. And it must be an action in its own right just as much as the expressed relations between Gods are. For if there is something which belongs to a God, but to which Her relationship is purely tacit, this too must be Her choice, unless some special metaphysical faculty be posited to account for it beyond Her choice.

This unknowing seems analogous to the property of passivity implicit in the cooperative action of the Gods, and which I have previously traced back to the basic henadic property Damascius terms the ‘All-one’, which I interpret as the being-in-all of a henad taken as object, as opposed to the ‘One-all’, which is the all-being-in-each of a henad taken as subject. The ‘All-one’ character of a God accounts for Her presence at the periphery of a myth, a pantheon, or a worshiper’s experience at some moment in time. But how does peripheral being relate to apparent absence?

Leibniz, whose thought preserves many henadological insights which have been conveyed through him to modernity, speaks of the ‘confused’ perceptions which we must assume “if our body receives the impression of all other bodies … [E]ven though our senses are related to everything, it is impossible for our soul to attend to everything in particular,” and so “our confused sensations are the result of a truly infinite variety of perceptions.” Leibniz famously compares this to

the confused murmur coming from the innumerable set of breaking waves heard by those who approach the seashore. Now, if from several perceptions (which do not come together to make one), there is none which stands out before the others and if they make impressions that are almost equally strong or equally capable of gaining the attention of the soul, the soul can only perceive them confusedly. (Discourse on Metaphysics, §33, trans. Ariew & Garber).

In his Monadology (49), Leibniz connects this property of having ‘confused’ perceptions to the ‘passivity’ of monads relative to one another: “We attribute action to a monad insofar as it has distinct perceptions, and passion, insofar as it has confused perceptions.” This distinction, in turn, pertains to the difference between one monad and another “insofar as one finds in (the one) that which provides an a priori reason for what happens in the other; and this is why we say that it acts on the other,” (ibid., 50).

Much of what Leibniz says about his ‘monads’ is psychological in character, and therefore only applicable to henads insofar as its logical-metaphysical basis can be made explicit in suitably absolute terms. Perhaps the best way to use his psychologically-inflected formulations is to recognize the henadic causality implicit in the structure of the psyche. For if in Plato’s Timaeus we have a formalized account of the cooperative effort of Gods in a pantheon—any pantheon—then the result of this labor is soul, psyche, for this is what makes a cosmos, that is, a ‘beautiful organization’.

The Timaeus is already formalized—it is not itself a myth, as the figures in it have no names, only positions: paradigm, demiurge, mixing-vessel, the ‘younger Gods’. It is meant to apply to any pantheon. We can formalize it more radically than Plato has, however. I began this task in the very first column I wrote for this site. The relationship between demiurge and paradigm can be understood as standing in for any possible relationship between any two Gods, as long as we distill from this relationship its intelligible content, with its formative value for the cosmos and for the psyche. And so there is no significance to the singularity of demiurge or paradigm, and we may regard the entire divine field of a pantheon as structuring the cosmos simply by virtue of whatever divine relationships constitute that field. What is singular is the cosmic organization itself, which from within is necessarily the only one.

But not from the outside, where there are many pantheons, many cosmic organizations, and many ways by which the totality of things may be grasped as a cosmos. Are these ‘inside’ perspectives ‘merely’ human? No, because Plato does not posit that the Gods work upon an empty canvas. Rather, the field upon which cosmic formation happens is that of ‘disorderly’, ataktôs, motion (Timaeus 30a). This ‘disorder’, unless it is arbitrarily reified, resulting in a dualism that falls short in explanatory power, can only be the other order(s), or taxeis. The cosmogonic activities of the other pantheons, their kosmoi, thus, are like the waves that crash upon Leibniz’s shore, which sound to the ear of the psyche as an undifferentiated roar. Hence Proclus says of the ‘disorderly motion’ of the Timaeus that it “is illuminated by all the orders of the Gods prior to the demiurge” (In Tim. I, 387), that is, prior to the demiurge qua demiurge, though not qua God. Since this includes the primary henadic manifold, the order as members of which Gods are Gods, it is necessarily wider than any single pantheon. Hence it is the ‘confused’ totality of them all, which forms the background noise of each singular pantheon. This is the ultimate ‘stuff’ or ‘matter’ of cosmic formation, but this ‘prime matter’ is pure relativity itself.

This confused totality can also be understood as the universal passivity of the Gods, by virtue of the convertability we see in Leibniz between passivity and confused perception, the latter being simply deferred causality, the reason for what happens in one being found in another. The ‘confused’ perception is thus simply what is not thematic, what is at the periphery, what has not been assigned its agency yet, or may never. Periphery presupposes centering, and hence this totality of the Gods cannot be a first principle, but must rather be a result. Hence Damascius calls it the Unified (hênômenon), which in its passive grammatical form refers to the unifying (heniaios) activity of the henads. This is not a confused totality out of which the Gods emerge, but rather the ‘noise’ of their eternal activity. But although it is a result, it is also in itself a ground, the ground of negative or passive individuation, such that beings will exist as a blend of positive individuation, like that possessed by the henads, each of whom is primarily unique, and negative individuation, in which things must individuate themselves through distinguishing themselves from one another against fields of sameness.

Pantheons as the Battleground of Syncretism

In modern polytheist discussions, a great deal of ink has been spilled—both to define and to avoid defining—what is the most basic and essential unit of polytheist theology and devotion: namely, “Deities” (and, on other occasions, other divine beings have also been defined, e.g. Ancestors, Land Spirits, Hero/ines, etc.). While that is an important and noble pursuit, and one often fraught with pressures both from within and without—due to the immensity of the task and the boundless nature of divine beings from the viewpoint of those within polytheistic religious frameworks, and because of the doubt and utter ridicule even thinking about such things can elicit from non-polytheists—something which can be equally fraught but which is of equal importance is the constitution, definition, and limits of groupings of Deities and other divine beings: namely, “pantheons.” The “poly-“ in polytheism presupposes a plurality, and thus it is rarely if ever “only one” Deity or other divine being with which one must interact as a polytheistic religious practitioner. Even if one is primarily devoted to a single Deity, that Deity has all sorts of relationships with other Deities and divine beings: as a child of divine parents, as a parent of divine children, as siblings to other divine siblings, as lovers or friends or allies of other divine persons, and even as adversaries of other divine contenders. No individual divine being of any category exists in isolation in a polytheistic framework, and it is impossible (and, I would argue, undesirable!) to wish otherwise; to veer to the opposite extreme would be monotheism.

But, what constitutes a “pantheon”? While we tend to think of pantheons in cultural terms (and, though the notion existed independent of these contexts, I suspect a great deal of the reason many of us of a particular generation do so is because of notions we learned via Dungeons & Dragons and other such role-playing games), clearly this is not the only possibility involved with understanding pantheons. A variety of approaches can be used to the question of pantheon constitution.

In Heathen traditions, is there simply a “Norse pantheon,” or is it (at least) three different pantheons—Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar—or, as may be the case for some, are only one or more of those options “valid” as pantheons while the other(s) may be a further class or family of divine beings, but are not valid as a pantheon because they cannot (or, more likely, should not, in the opinion of a particular group or individual) be worshipped and receive veneration from humans? The same can apply for the Greek Olympian pantheon (which is to say, “the current Olympian” pantheon, which overthrew the one which overthrew another, etc.), in addition to the Titans, the Protogenoi, and perhaps even other classifications (e.g. Hero/ines, nymphs, etc.); the same can apply for the Irish pantheons of the Tuatha Dé, the Fomoiri, and the Fir Bolg (amongst other possibilities, e.g. the Dé and An-Dé, etc.); and the list of further examples can be extended.

There is also the possibility of sub-pantheons which may operate within a given pantheon which are often based around familial or other relationships. Leto and her two children, Apollon and Artemis, as well as some nymphs associated with them, might constitute a pantheon that has been recognized both historically and which might be considered important for some devotees today. Particular Deities might have whole retinues of lesser-known Deities attached to them, or They may organize Themselves by function or affinity, e.g. groups of healing Deities, etc.

There are also tradition-specific pantheons, which exist as a result of the relationships that human worshippers develop between groups of Deities and other divine beings. The Starry Bull pantheon focuses upon Dionysos and a group of Deities and divine beings (including Hero/ines and the dead) Who are attached to or affiliated with Him. The Antinoan pantheon can consist of Antinous and several Divae/i and Heroes immediately connected with Him, or it can extend to the vast network of Deities and Heroes to Whom He was syncretized or with Whom He came into contact in other ways.

The question of the constitution of a pantheon, therefore, goes far beyond simply “who is included” in the “Twelve Olympians,” for example. (How often do we default to Greece when discussing trends in polytheism? Given how much of our theological language derives from Greek roots—including the term “polytheism” itself—I suppose it’s no wonder!) It is a complex and varied matter, and one which has a huge number of questions and dimensions to consider, and the above examples do not exhaust the possibilities by any stretch of the imagination.

What I hope to have demonstrated with these examples, though, is to show how permeable the concept of “pantheon” is, even within singular traditions or particular cultures. The purpose of this demonstration is to draw attention to what I see as one of the greatest difficulties which modern polytheists experience with syncretism: namely, are customized pantheons “allowed” or not? Do pantheons have an intrinsic integrity and a hermetically-sealed nature which cannot be negotiated or complicated (as in “made more complex,” not in the sense of “messed up”!)? It is arguments along these lines which have often lead individuals and groups to suggest that people may not be practitioners or devotees of more-than-one particular culture (i.e. one culture’s pantheon), or that a single ritual or shrine should not honor divine beings from more-than-one culture (i.e. one culture’s pantheon, again!). It is justifications such as these which lead to notions of cultural exclusivity and anti-syncretism, built around the notion that Deities and other divine beings “keep to Their own” exclusively, and do not (and could not!) get along with other groups of divine beings from other cultures.

The Gods, in this view, are like humans in that they form in-groups and out-groups, and are utterly resistant to the possibility of working across such lines. I do think that some analogies between everyday human relationships and those of humans to Deities and Deities amongst Themselves are useful to entertain; but what amounts to theologically-sanctioned racism and ethnic exclusivism is, I would assert, not one of them. While there are not as many historically cross-cultural examples of inter-pantheonic syncretism outside of potentially problematic imperialistic cultural frameworks (e.g. the Greek conquest of Egypt, the Roman conquest of practically-everywhere, etc.), there are abundant examples of Deities working with one another across the distinctions within their own pantheons. The God Lug was born of a Fomoiri mother and a Tuatha Dé father, and had a Fir Bolg fostermother. Without Prometheus, Thetis, Hekate, and a number of other Titans, Zeus’ rebellion against Kronos would not have been successful. The Aesir and the Vanir traded hostages after their conflict ended, and do not seem to have any ongoing problems between one another. Because the primary antagonistic relationships between Deities are attested on an intra-pantheonic (and intra-sub-pantheonic!) level in most cultures, and these can be overcome—even Horus and Set can get along!—there is no reason to suggest that even cultures that have historically been opposed to one another cannot end up in situations where their Deities learn to cooperate, nor does it preclude the possibility that They may form further potential groupings together.

If most reservations and condemnations of “stupid/uninformed/irresponsible eclecticism” arise from concerns over the mixing of and potential permeable boundaries of pantheons, then the formation of pantheons—which are always arbitrary, even within single cultures or with localities within those cultures (which give rise to differing spouses and children attested in various locations for particular Deities, etc., which happens in every attested polytheistic culture of which I’m aware), and are based more on human perceptions within religious frameworks, most likely, than they are based on the “you’re in, you’re out” kickball team selections of Deities themselves—is the real battleground of syncretism. Of course, it should go without saying that the Deities Themselves have the ultimate and final say in whether or not They can and will work together with other Deities, on a temporary or a more ongoing basis, or with communities of humans in such novel groupings; but all the same, the boundaries of original cultures and groupings should not end up setting artificial limitations for modern polytheists.

Deities like Anat, Astarte, and Reshef from Canaan were adopted into the Egyptian pantheon during periods in which there was a lot of cultural contact in Egypt with Canaan; similar situations exist all over the ancient world, where the Deities of a neighboring culture become adopted into the pantheon of another culture, whether in a translated form or not. We currently live in the most multicultural cosmopolitan world that human history has ever witnessed. That the long tradition of pantheonic emigration and immigration will have ceased in order to continue an artificial “bugs-preserved-in-amber” configuration from the periods when polytheism was officially suppressed by hegemonic monotheism seems to be a notion more indebted to modern cultural prejudices than attested polytheist practices of the past. Even if a culture-wide, or even local-level, acceptance of one or more Deities from one culture into the framework of another culture’s pantheon is not a likely reality today, one should not discount the possibility of this occurring on the more limited level of either particular traditions or of individual devotional landscapes. Both the Starry Bull and the Antinoan pantheons mentioned previously are modern multi-cultural pantheons.

Individuals who have experience and involvements with several different traditions, and/or who have traveled to lots of different places and honored the divine beings found in them as appropriate and befits propriety, might likewise find themselves at the crossroads of several different pantheons. But to expect all of these divine beings to “stay in their corners” and to not even consider that They might like to know with Whom else They might be sharing devotional space, time, and persons, is nonsensical. By “devotional person” in the latter statement (“devotional time and space” should be obvious!), I mean to indicate individual human devotees—if our Gods live in our hearts and minds as a result of our devotion, then these interior devotional spaces of ours as humans are essentially divine apartment buildings, and in themselves, thus, are sort of like pantheons! To expect such boundless, energetic, creative, promiscuous (in every sense, and entirely positively!), and unpredictable beings like Deities to not interact with one another in contexts They share is as unrealistic as trying to make sure one’s own groups of friends never interact with one another via social media or any of the other more long-standing means of human interaction. If our own human perceptions place limits on what our Deities can do, then the fault lies with us, and may even blind us to the fact that our Deities might already be interacting in ways we wouldn’t have expected despite our insensibility to those mysterious and inscrutable ways.