Articles by Edward P. Butler

Edward P. Butler

A practicing polytheist for over 25 years, Edward Butler received his doctorate from the New School for Social Research in 2004 for his dissertation "The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus". Since then, he has published numerous articles in academic journals and edited volumes, primarily on Platonism and Neoplatonism and on polytheistic philosophy of religion, as well as contributing essays to several devotional volumes. He also has a strong interest in Egyptian theology, and has written entries on over 150 Egyptian deities for his "Theological Encyclopedia of the Goddesses and Gods of the Ancient Egyptians", which he hosts on his site, Henadology: Philosophy and Theology, where more information about his work can be found.

The Nature of the Gods (I): The Problem and Purpose of Reduction

When polytheists use terms translatable as ‘God’, in whatever language they are speaking—speaking at the moment not with regard to the substance of such terms, but to their common designation of an object of the highest religious regard—and are not referring to some particular deity elsewhere identified by a proper name, they are not speaking of a singular ‘super-God’, but of the characteristics constitutive of ‘godhood’, of the nature of ‘the divine’ or ‘divinity’, if you will. We see this usage of the unmarked singular term for deity in a wide array of historical polytheisms, and there is no reason to think that it is not universal, inasmuch as it is basic to thought itself to discern classes of entity and denote them with a collective term, a practice which does not by any means render such class terms unproblematic in their singularity and in their value. But problems are not necessarily things we seek to eliminate, and the problematic status of universals has proven productive in all the crafts and sciences since the method of generating them “was cast down from somewhere among the Gods by a certain Prometheus together with a certain most brilliant fire,” (Plato, Philebus 16c).

Precisely because polytheists do not cut off the question concerning the nature of the Gods by vesting godhood in the proper or superlative sense in a single God, the nature of divinity has stimulated higher thought in every polytheist civilization. This is why philosophy and the other sciences were born in polytheist civilizations and were nourished by them. Thought feeds on difference and thrives when confronted with diversity. With respect to the nature of the Gods themselves, there is a special problem, due to the ultimacy of the Gods as a class of entities, which seems to be something basic in their nature. As Proclus puts it, “All those who have at any time been occupied with theology have termed ‘Gods’ those things which are first by nature,” (Theol. Plat. I 3, p. 12 Westerink). That is, people spontaneously think of the Gods as being first, not (or not only) chronologically but in terms of power or perfection or whatever other factor allows us to establish a hierarchy kata physin, ‘according to nature’. So there is not only the problem of what is the nature of the Gods, but also that this nature, when found, will also be somehow primary among the other natures, among the natures of other classes of things. And so theology is always already going to be cosmology, because an account of everything is somehow going to be implied in the account of the nature of the Gods. Perhaps it is true that in order to know anything, one must know everything; but in the case of the Gods this is apparently more immediately and concretely the case than with respect to any other class of objects.

So the problem of the nature of the Gods is going to be the problem of first principles as well. Proclus goes on, in the chapter quoted above, to mention a number of schools of thought concerning the Gods and the first principles implied by them. There are those who think that only bodies of different kinds exist, and for these, the Gods must be made of some special kind of material. Others recognize the existence of soul, and its essential dignity, and conceive the Gods accordingly as a special variety of souls or as certain powers of the soul. Others discern in intellect the first principle of things, and so the Gods for them are intelligences or powers of intellect or what we might call forms. To all these, Proclus posits the Platonists as superior, because they recognize a principle beyond these in its breadth and simplicity, namely the principle of individuation. For prior to any other fact about a thing, even whether it exists or not, is the fact that it is one, or else we couldn’t speak of it at all. Even something impossible, like a square circle, is one thing, to the degree that it is anything at all.

The Platonic solution thus at once allows everything, wherever it may be in any sort of hierarchy, to really exist just as whatever it happens to be, and also allows the problem of the nature of the Gods, if what is truly fundamental about Them is their individuality, that is, the uniqueness of each one of them, to lie at the absolute outer limit of the whole system of cosmology, of natural types, however that should be formulated.

Therefore, different principles may operate, in a cosmological sense, as ultimate or first principles, without implicating the Gods or requiring them to underwrite or guarantee the validity or exclusivity of that cosmological hierarchy. The Gods are, in this sense, beyond hierarchy, and we see this in the fact, recognized by all polytheisms in one way or another, that, as Thales put it, “All things are full of Gods,” or, as Heraclitus said, that “The Gods are present even here,” that is, that the Gods are active everywhere and among every class of beings. This is something that the Platonic approach can more directly accommodate than other approaches, it seems, insofar as the latter preserve some binary distinction as ultimate: the different kinds of matter, of which some kind is divine and the others are not; the distinction between the living and the nonliving, or between different powers of soul or ranks of souls; the distinction between form and content or between a form and its instances or between subject and predicate. Everything, irrespective of anything else about it, is something, that is, is one. This is the power of the concept of unity, which centuries of misconception have led us to treat in primitive fashion either as the power of some One, or as the power of fusing everything into one single thing, Scylla and Charybdis of transcendent and immanent monotheism.

Correctly understood, however, the priority of the concept of unity makes of the Gods the guarantors of the ultimate existence of each thing and each kind of thing. In the subsequent parts of this essay, I wish to treat of what can be said more specifically about the nature of the Gods from positing their unity or individuality as primary. For now, however, I would like to conclude by considering the other candidates mentioned by Proclus, and the way in which these conceptualizations of the Gods are still with us today, each of which is not only a means of conceiving of the Gods, but also of the ultimate nature of all things—each one, therefore, is not just a theology, but a cosmology as well. Each one, as such, is also fundamentally useful for something, answers to some purpose or need, and therefore is not to be rejected, but incorporated into a comprehensive understanding of the nature of things.

The materialistic conception of the Gods corresponds to the materialistic conception of everything. This conception has been very fruitful indeed in the progress of the natural sciences and in the achievements of technology. The conception of the Gods corresponding to the materialistic worldview may be as crude as that they are an advanced race of alien beings, or as sophisticated as that they are essentially nothing other than the social practices and expressions of devotion and belief directed toward them. On the other hand, there are conceptions of matter applied by the ancients to the Gods which are not reducible to ‘matter’ as conformable to the methods and goals of modern natural science or amenable to technological exploitation, such as aithêr, ambrosia or ichor, or the theophanic minerals Egyptian texts incorporate into descriptions of the flesh of the Gods. A sufficiently anomalous conception of matter can accommodate almost any phenomenon, but materialism, however exotic, has the universal restriction of only being able to deal with phenomena as such—that is, just that which appears insofar as it appears.

The psychologistic conception of the Gods corresponds to the view of reality as essentially constituted in psychical experience, so that the elements of being are nothing other than elements of psyche. And after all, nothing is separable, for us, from a psyche experiencing it. The notion of the Gods as aspects of psychical substance, or as psyches of a given kind, has many manifestations. Plato himself treats the Gods as the best of souls, at least in his written works. We are familiar, of course, with those today who regard the Gods as psychical ‘archetypes’, that is, as nothing other than the causes of certain psychical dispositions in humans. But much mundane polytheist practice also treats the Gods as, in effect, souls, and it is particularly in such contexts that practitioners find it unnecessary to draw any sharp distinction between ‘Gods’ and ‘spirits’ or ‘powers’. In practical contexts like these, the Gods may simply be regarded as the most powerful in a continuum of power among different incorporeal agencies that includes ‘spirits’ of diverse kinds as well as the souls of living and deceased mortal animals. Psychologism is almost inseparable from a higher materialism.

The intellectual conception of the Gods corresponds to the view of reality as constituted by formal patterns, in which the distinction between form and matter, or ‘hylomorphism’, appears in its sharpest form. It is a very powerful mode of thought, but its restriction lies in the requirement that individuation be negative, as we see in Spinoza’s axiom “All determination is negation,” or Leibniz’s axiom of the identity of indiscernibles. Thus the intellectual conception of the Gods leads to the reduction of the Gods’ persons to their functions or activity. Where unity is a principle in itself, by contrast, individuation is by definition positive, rather than differential.

Because the Platonic positing of ‘unity’ or individuality/uniqueness as the principle of divinity as such undermines the hierarchical organizations characteristic of cosmology, it resists identification with any cosmology. In this way it is most importantly distinct from the intellective conception of the nature of the Gods, which can, by contrast, be identified with each theophanic cosmology sequentially, but cannot stand apart from them or thus generate an effective space of mediation between them. We see this on a mundane level in the intellectual identification of Gods with one another based upon their functions or activities, which is instrumentally valuable but existentially precarious.

The root of this limitation, however, lies in the very power of intellective reduction, because intellective analysis recognizes in the elements of a theophanic cosmology (any ‘creation myth’) the very elements of the conceptual set adequate to that theophany’s (self-)understanding. The intellectual tools for grasping any theology are given by its Gods, their environment, activities, equipment, etc. Each such theology thus offers in itself a complete grasp of the cosmos; and since Platonic henology supplies no cosmology of its own, it does not compete with any of these. In turn, it is only the grasp of Gods as unique individuals that can provide the basis for a universal account of the nature of ‘Gods’ as such.

Any reductionism is instrumental, serving some purpose, and establishes a hierarchy of ‘natures’ relative to that nature which is its goal—in the examples given by Proclus, mastery of materials, development of psychical potencies, and discrimination of forms, respectively. In this sense, it is not clear that the ‘reduction’ to unities is really a reduction at all; certainly it is not a reduction in the numerical sense. In seeking to grasp how a thing is one, in what its unity consists, we must take into account everything about it, and therefore unity is prior to any distinction between essential and inessential characteristics. At the same time, the discernment of essences depends upon the ability to designate these very essences as units of some kind, as well as to recognize in the unity of other things their positing themselves in relation to such an essence, as when activities tend toward an ideal, or when organisms orient themselves toward a form of their species, however processual these ideal units may in fact be. All of the terms involved in such a relation have and are defined by their different unit-characters, that is, they are each unique and also units of different kinds, and this tension between uniqueness and the emergence of kinds is basic to existence itself.

Mythological Hermeneutics: Pandora

The myth of Pandora is a good one on which to demonstrate aspects of theological exegesis, being relatively self-contained, but also internally complex. The goal of theological exegesis, as explained previously, is to arrive at that reading of the myth which frees divine agency to operate in the widest scope. It does not supplant other modes of interpretation, such as those which focus on the myth’s historical and social conditions of emergence. In the case of Pandora’s myth, it is clear that in Hesiod’s account, at any rate, there is a motive and an action of misogyny; however, the theological approach reads through this misogyny, not in order to reconstruct an hypothetical pre-Hesiodic myth, which would be itself simply another, distinct myth from the perspective of a theological exegesis, but rather to discern that which, in Hesiod’s own account, transcends his all-too-mortal authorial intentions.

In this regard, it is crucial to recognize that inasmuch as Pandora is the first human in the proper sense, and the sole human ancestor of all who follow, that anything the myth attributes to Her cannot be regarded as true only or peculiarly of females, but of males as well, indeed, as being true of mortal humans in general and in principle. Pandora is in this respect prior to gender, insofar as gender as a property of mortal humans is not thinkable before there are multiple mortal humans.

We can begin to discern Pandora’s unique position, and also start to delineate the ontological stratifications in the myth, through the parallel established in it between Prometheus’ action of stealing divine fire concealed within a fennel stalk — the first thyrsos — and the gift of a bride to his brother Epimetheus. Here theft, distribution without consent, on the ‘higher’ plane corresponds to gift, reception without solicitation, on the ‘lower’ plane, a fairly classic inversion of the kind much exploited by structuralist readings of myth, held together by the sibling bond between Prometheus and Epimetheus, which as their names suggest, involves the reckoning (mêtis) of ontological procession (proödos) from the principles, and reversion (epistrophê) upon the principles. It is not a question here of simply finding these Platonic technical terms in these names, but of the myth’s providing the ground, the existential conditions of possibility, for the Platonic epistemology. For we are dealing here, after all, with the real divine actions which make philosophical cognition possible as a kind of craft or technê.

If the creation of Pandora is in fact the creation of the mortal soul qua mortal, then Zeus’ description of Her as a ‘plague’ and an ‘evil’ for humans in Hesiod’s account becomes a rather straightforward description of the mortal condition as perceived in its very mortality, which makes the creation of mortals a ‘wrathful’ production, that is, the constitution of something which is simultaneously and by definition its destruction. This is a mythological formula that can be discerned in many theologies, wherever some class or condition of beings is affirmed to be the product of divine wrath, or as the general mode of causality operated by Gods who are characterized as ‘wrathful’, namely, the production of temporal beings and structures specifically in their temporal aspect. I have discussed this function elsewhere with respect to Egyptian and Hellenic theology.1

It should not be surprising, in this light, that the scene of the Olympians bestowing their gifts upon Pandora should resemble the scene in the Devī-Māhātmya from the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa in which the Gods each endow Durgā with a portion of their powers that She may perform her wrathful deeds on their behalf (Devī-Māhātmya 2.1-2.33).2 Note as well the fiery nature of Durgā’s emergence (2.9-11), which invites comparison both with the fiery wrath belonging to Egyptian Goddesses who are the ‘Eye [Agency] of Re’, as well as with Pandora, whose own emergence parallels the theft of the divine fire by Prometheus, and whose own daughter is Pyrrha, ‘Fire’. Pandora is hence both the ‘all-giver’ that her name denotes, and also a discrete gift, that is, the giver of all things within a delimited domain, that of mortal humanity. Note as well, in this respect, that the episode from the Devī-Māhātmya occurs in the context of the Gods, having been “expelled from heaven by the wicked Mahiṣa,” being forced to “wander on earth like mortals,” (2.6).

It is therefore, properly speaking, their mortal souls “in which all take pleasure in their spirit [kata thymon], embracing their own evil” (Hesiod, Works and Days 57-8), and not females. We should read in this light even the basic statement that Hephaistos is to give her “the form of a maiden [parthenikês]” (63), for it is the Korê who in the first place descends from the immortal realm to that of the shades,3 and that Athena teaches her “to weave the cunningly wrought [polydaidalon] web” (64). Porphyry, in his exegesis of the Cave of the Nymphs from book 13 of the Odyssey, comments upon the Naiads’ weaving (13.107-8) that “the body is a garment with which the soul is clothed … whether we consider its composition, or the bond by which it is knit to the soul. Thus according to Orpheus, Kore, who presides over everything generated from seed, is represented weaving a web.”4 English cannot possibly do justice to the connotations of polydaidalon, that which is ‘very or manifoldly of Daidalos’. Evidently symbolic as well are the gifts to Pandora from Hermes of a “canine mind” and “thievish character” (67), where the latter evokes the theft of the divine fire5 and the former the dogs of torch-bearing Hekate, witness of Persephone’s abduction—note as well the “spring flowers” with which the Horai crown Pandora (75).

A kosmos is “fitted to her flesh” (76), but it is a cosmos in which Peitho, ‘persuasion’, is master (potnia) (73-4), that is, in which souls will judge the truth based upon its evidence to and for themselves. Truth for us is inescapably a question of appearance, both in the sense that we are liable to be deceived by mere appearances, but also in the sense that we must grasp even eternal truths for ourselves in discrete acts of judgment distributed in time and which implicate ourselves as judges. Moreover, whatever is in its essence true at a particular time (as distinct from eternal truths, which are accidentally or non-essentially true at every particular time) is at every other time false, and hence Pandora is gifted by Hermes with ‘lies’ (78).

Through the importance of time we can understand the significance of the dispersion of goods and evils from Pandora’s jar, as well. Aesop explains that “the good things” in the jar “were too weak to defend themselves from the bad things, so the bad things drove them off to heaven. The good things then asked Zeus how they could reach mankind. Zeus told them that they should not go together all at once, only one at a time. This is why people are constantly besieged by bad things, since they are nearby, while good things come more rarely, since they must descend to us from heaven one by one,” (Fables 525, trans. Gibb). Ignoring the straightforward sentiment here, we can see that goods, because they alone have an ideal or eidetic character, are necessarily for the soul that lives in time schematized, that is, discerned as virtual ideal properties in experience (“one at a time”), while evils have no such eidetic character and are experienced simply as they come. Hence, the Platonist Proclus titled his essay on evil “On the Subsistence of Evils,” where the plural indicates the nonexistence of an integral ‘Evil Itself’. The inherent bilocation, so to speak, of the virtues, the instantiations of which are here among us while their paradigms are among the Gods, is the precondition of philosophy, as we read in Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium.

What remains behind in the jar, however, is ‘hope’ (elpis), which is especially hope of the resurrection, as we see in the tendency for Elpis to be depicted accompanying Dionysos, as in the famous statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It naturally, therefore, stays with the individual soul, as represented by the jar or pithos. Not only does hope peculiarly belong to the individual, because hope is unthinkable apart from some particular perspective or position, but this perspectivalism is also the necessary corollary of the experience of truth appropriate to the embodied being.

In the version of Pandora’s myth that Hesiod tells in his Theogony, the cosmos belonging to Pandora is elaborated in the description of the crown Hephaistos fashions for her, on which are wrought, again, “many daidala” (581) or things worthy of Daidalos, namely “all the dangerous creatures nourished by land and sea … like living animals endowed with speech” (582-4). In the reference here to predators, we are reminded once again of Durgā—“The Gods, delighted, cried ‘Victory!’ to her whose mount is a lion” (Devī-Māhātmya 2.33)—and of Sekhmet. But lest we lose sight of the ontological value of this predation as production of the mortal in its very mortality, we should bear in mind that in the Egyptian scribal initiation manual modern scholars have dubbed the ‘Book of Thoth’, writing is symbolically identified with hunting through a web of associations centering on the process by which ideas become corporeal and hence mortal.6 It is this same web of associations by which Artemis is both huntress and Goddess of childbirth, for a soul is hunted into mortal life, birth into which is equivalent to death.

Moreover, the animals on Pandora’s crown speak, for her crown is also the crowning point of Hephaistos’ craftsmanship or demiurgy, the intelligent animal. Platonists regard Hephaistos as the craftsman of the physical universe itself, and in Pandora’s crown of speaking animals we see the theological integration of the naturalistic account in which intelligence arises from the pressures of survival upon beings sustaining themselves and reproducing in time.

Polytheism and Metaphysics (IV): Divine Action

Thinking about a myth, we can choose to focus either on the Gods and other beings involved in the narrative sequence, or on the sequence itself, on the actions in it, and by this choice, make either the former, or the latter, primary. Concerning ourselves with the persons in the myth, we relate it to other myths involving those same persons, whereas concerning ourselves with the actions, we relate it to myths where the same or similar actions involve different persons. Similarly, thinking about a ritual, we can choose to focus on the God(s) invoked, and the relation between Them and the ritual operator, or we can focus instead on the form of the ritual action, which might be performed similarly for diverse Gods. In treating the action as primary in such cases, we establish or recognize a singular plane transversal to the agents involved. This transversal plane, the plane of action, provides the basis for ontology, the inquiry into the nature of being.

Hence Aristotle, who in the Hellenic tradition has given the most thought to being qua being (to on hē on), orients himself according to ousia, which in the later European tradition has sometimes been translated as ‘substance’, sometimes as ‘essence’, and has acquired many associations for us in those forms, most of which have little to do with its proper nature. Ousia is, in the first place, the participle formed from the verb einai, ‘to be’. Thus ousia is truly ‘be-ing’ or ‘beingness’, so to speak, which is not static, but the primary form of action. The first and constant action of whatever is, is simply to be, that is, to be what it is. For with being, comes whatness. I have discussed elsewhere the distinction between the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ of things;1 building on those discussions, we may see whatness as expressing the actions basic to things.

In an authentic understanding of Hellenic philosophy, the inquiry into ‘being’ always sends us back to the things themselves, and the way(s) they are, rather than to something we might label ‘being itself’. Being Itself would, in any event, be a being, and we would still need to grasp its way of being. The Greek phrase which is most strictly translated as ‘essence’ in later thought (ousia is also translated as ‘essence’, a bit more loosely) is to ti ēn einai, which literally means, ‘the what it was to be <something/what it was>’. In other words, something’s ‘essence’ is its extended act of being. The past tense here has a broader sense than merely temporal. A thing extending itself, whether in time, or in relation, or in analysis or synthesis, acquires through this extension its ‘essence’, its characteristic way of being what, or who, it is. At the same time, the past tense here reminds us that nothing is wholly reducible to its actions or its relations, because these are in a sense in the past, whereas the agency of things, unpredictable in principle, is their future; and this is especially true of the Gods, who are the freest agents.

The theological basis of ousia can be discerned in Aristotle from the very definition of metaphysics which guides his inquiry: ‘first philosophy’, that is, metaphysics, will be either that which seeks to know the nature of the best objects, and hence the Gods and the way They are; or that which inquires into the best way of knowing any object, which would be how the Gods Themselves know things (Metaphysics 983a5-10). Similarly, the various schools of Vedānta ground themselves in the concept of brahman, which is at once action, coming from the root bṛh, ‘to grow’, but also specifically divine action, in that brahman, which in the later philosophical tradition means, loosely speaking, Being, means in the Vedas ‘prayer’, that is, it refers originally to the transversal plane of invocation itself—for just as the fire receives offerings to many Gods alike, so too the flow of devotion is the medium in which the many Gods are encountered, and this original sense is never withdrawn in the later speculative tradition, which rather founds itself upon it.2 Hence, neither in Hellenic nor Indian metaphysics is the nature of being primarily a being, but rather the way of being; and in both of these high theoretical traditions, this nature is sought through engagement with the Gods, and through intellective reflection upon this engagement.

Similarly, in the dominant traditions of Chinese metaphysics, what grounds ontology is the ‘way’ (dao) things are (for Daoism), or principle (li 理) as such (for Neo-Confucianism), that is, the order in the way things are, and hence, again, the plane of action transversal to the many things and the many Gods, rather than a totalizing entity itself. But when sensible and quite straightforward precautions are taken against treating this plane as a thing in itself and supreme being, as in verse 1 of the Daodejing of Laozi, which states that the dao which is named, i.e., treated as a discrete term, is not itself the principle, this is treated as paradox-mongering, as though there is a Dao with all the characteristics of a discrete term, save that it is mysteriously unnameable. To attribute such a feeble and unphilosophical doctrine to any great thinker ought to be recognized immediately as a breach of hermeneutical charity, but it will surprise no one familiar with the incapacity or unwillingness of modern scholars to grasp the equally straightforward denial of existence or singularity to the Platonic One, which “neither is, nor is one” (Plato, Parmenides 141e). We are told this is to be taken as that the One actually very much is, and very much is one, only in a very mysterious way, and in fact that this mystery, rather than anything intelligible, is the entire point of the doctrine. In this fashion, Western monotheist intellectual hegemony at once appropriates such doctrines by rendering them ideologically compatible with monotheism, severing their ties to the polytheistic traditions that gave them birth and never ceased nourishing them throughout their history, and at the same time strips these doctrines of their intelligibility, ensuring that the authority of reason shall remain solely within its own hands. Efforts will persist, undoubtedly, to find ever new ways in which to colonize non-Western metaphysical systems and make them safe for monotheism. The project of interpreting the prime term in Chinese metaphysical systems as a Spinozist substance or a substantified flux à la Whitehead’s ‘process metaphysics’, for example, has recently expanded, to attempt the annexation of Nahua (‘Aztec’) metaphysics and the alienation of it from Nahua polytheism.3

Aristotle never takes the Gods as his subject of inquiry, never asks, that is, ‘What was it for a God to be a God?’, but rather refers to mainstream positions in Hellenic theology as support for theses in physics and metaphysics.4 This approach, which is the common course of development, I would argue, of speculative or theoretical traditions of ontology in all of the polytheistic civilizations I have studied, is easily misinterpreted by modern readers as a turning away from the Gods. Beyond merely recognizing this methodology, however, and guided by the Platonists’ affirmation that the Gods Themselves are hyperousios, or ‘beyond ousia’, we may ask whether there is an intrinsic limitation to ‘whatness’ embodied in its very ‘was-ness’, so to speak. That is, does not the very separability in the mind of the action-character of action from the agents involved, which grants to this transversal plane its relative autonomy and is the condition of the possibility of ontology, also institute and enforce, at the same time, the limits of ontology, and especially insofar as we are concerned with the Gods, that is, with the ultimate things? A line of thought similar to this led in the late 20th century to a ‘theological’ turn in French phenomenology, which sought a breakthrough from the ‘givenness’ (Gegebenheit) of things as they are, to what (or who?) gives them,5 but its results were decisively impaired inasmuch as the researchers involved could not resist using the inquiry merely as a means to acquire the status of philosophical results for as much of Christian theology as the market, so to speak, would bear. It is no accident that a fresh attempt by monotheists to appropriate the philosophy of the supra-essential, which was historically and inherently a polytheistic project, should end once again in impasse, as it did at the end of the tortured course of medieval thought. I would not claim that polytheists alone can make progress in the phenomenology of that which lies beyond essence, but I do believe that progress in this project, when and if it arrives, will of necessity take the form of a doctrine radically more congenial to polytheism than anything undertaken so far in the modern era.

Links to the previous columns in this series:

The Passion of the Kore

Gods frequently thwart one another’s will in Hellenic theology, and in some cases even suffer violence from one another, perhaps most significantly near the very beginning of the theogony, when Ouranos is castrated. But no such incident in the Hellenic theology is perhaps of quite so much significance for the sort of beings that we are as that suffered by Persephone, except perhaps the dismemberment of Dionysos at the hands of the Titans, which is, of course, far from unrelated.

I speak in the title of a passion in the sense of an experience in which the subject is rendered passive. Passion presents a problem for us in thinking about the Gods, if we wish to free a space in our understanding for the infinite agency of each God, the position of ‘radical’ or polycentric polytheism. One may hold to a particular theology in which the Gods are absolutely limited by fixed relations that are prior to them, or by some force superior to divinity itself, but my effort is to explore the possibilities of a polytheism without such constraint.

As such, a God wills even the abrogation of Her will. But the sense of this willing cannot be to undo the reality of the abrogation, because the very intention of the divine will in this case is to suffer breach. Every act of the Gods, who are beyond Being, opens a space of being, a way to be. What does Persephone’s passion open? If Persephone’s work, as has long been understood, is the katabasis or descent of the Soul from the realm of Zeus, the demiurge of Ideas, into that of Pluton, the demiurge of Images, bringing life and truth, what does it mean that this occurs through a will breached in its essence? For could not the same be accomplished through a normative marriage, in which Demeter would be fully involved? Why should it occur through the seeming reduction of Persephone to an object exchanged between the Kronian brothers? It is perfectly legitimate for an historicizing treatment to discuss the myth’s social determinants, or for variant theologies to substitute at this point a different account, but an inquiry such as mine rules out approaches that cannot recover the myth as itself the trace of a pure divine agency.

It must be, therefore, that the very essence of Persephone’s work is that the infinite power and agency of a God invert itself. Everything else that occurs in the myth, the chain of events leading to the establishment of the Mysteries, Eleusinian and Orphic alike, and indeed the very work of Dionysos as thwarted sovereign and savior, is contained in this moment, which is the seed of the mode of being of the mortal soul as such, its formative unknowing, unconsciousness, unwillingness. Our souls express their absolute freedom in the power of rejection only truly present in its failure to have its way, because otherwise that rejection is indistinguishable from merely choosing otherwise, that is, from the latency of what is merely not chosen, the potentiality not actualized. The latter, in the widest sense, we may see as grounded in the passion of Ouranos, in whom plays out the entire space of theogony itself. Ouranos is forced to allow what has come forth to distinguish itself, and hence can generate no more. The bond between Persephone and Ouranos in this work, moreover, is another expression of an Ouranian sovereignty which operates before, beyond, and throughout Olympian sovereignty.1

The link between the sovereignties of the Idea and of the Image, therefore, two of the divisions of the sovereignty of Kronos, does not pass through Demeter, for it is not ‘natural’. Hence Mysteries are established. Nor does it found a new sovereignty which would succeed Zeus’s as His succeeds Kronos’s: Dionysos reigns in and through his own destruction. For were a sovereignty, a regime of truth, to be founded in its own name, in the name of the Image Itself, how then could the Image not thereby simply become the Idea, and undo the work of cosmogenesis? The Hellenic theology, at least in its dominant expressions, resists the cyclical generation and regeneration of sovereignties, as we see in Indian theology, in which the cosmos is produced and destroyed and produced again in the reciprocal exchange of divine powers.

Persephone does not consent, and therefore the bond between the Idea and the Image is as much a separation, and the reality of our being is expressed as much in our works of ignorance as in the light of our understanding. The will of every God is a source of truth and true knowledge to beings; this is no less true of tricksters than of hierophants. The negative will of the Kore is thus a source of our unknowing and the truth within it. This is not something which could have been different, as though insight was arbitrarily denied us. Nor does it merely express necessity, because necessity follows upon the Gods’ actions, it does not dictate them. Removing Persephone’s agency, or denying her refusal, can only distort the significance of her act.

Principles of Mythological Hermeneutics (I)

Myths are a vital source of information for us about the attributes and activities of our Gods. We can hardly say that they are mere stories, even if we think that they have something less than the status accorded to the sacred texts of the Abrahamic traditions, for instance. But our traditions are very diverse indeed, and there are texts among some of our traditions that have a status scarcely less than this, at any rate. We, too, are ‘people of the book’—only we have many, many books, as well as oral traditions, and rituals, which are another way of encoding information. Nor do these exhaust the ways in which our traditions are embodied.

Even if we do not accord a status to myths equivalent to that of revealed texts, however, we must recognize that insofar as they are authorless, as is said of the sacred texts of the Hindu tradition (the Sanskrit term is apauruṣeya, literally, ‘impersonal’), they cannot merely be grasped in the same fashion as the work of a single discrete human author, that is, they cannot be approached as mere literature. At a minimum, they are works embodying a collective spirit of devotion to our Gods, a product of generation upon generation of experience of Them, and the infrastructure around which entire civilizations formed themselves. Just by virtue of this infrastructural status, a myth cannot be reduced to a single authoritative interpretation, because it is in the very acts of interpreting and applying myths that these civilizations formed themselves, and every formation, every institution, incorporates such interpretations. So the purpose of such interpretation could never be to reach closure, even if our approach to myth was wholly mundane, for even such a mundane approach would have to recognize the generative nature of interpretation.

A fortiori, then, if as some polytheistic thinkers have affirmed, the myths are the eternal and continuous action of the Gods Themselves forming, not merely culture, civilization, but the very cosmos itself, not once upon a time, but forever now, there could be no question of arriving at a final, authoritative interpretation of a myth because our intellectual and devotional engagement with myths is itself part of the life of the cosmos. In our effort to understand a myth, we close a circuit of divine action, a circuit in which the Gods have sown meaning into the cosmos which fructifies through us, through our recognition and understanding of it, and our application of it to our lives on every plane, devotional, intellectual, ethical, corporeal.

Insofar as myth is not only a token of the Gods’ action constitutive of the cosmos, but also an active and effective instrument in that very process, there not only can be, but must be interpretations of a myth corresponding to every plane of formation of the cosmos. And so the most important principle of mythological hermeneutics is not to use interpretation to foreclose other interpretations, but to stimulate and to foster them, as the best interpretations nourish the possibility of others.

The poorest interpretation, therefore, is not one which reads a myth within a narrow scope, for example, as being the charter for a specific, concrete ritual action, but one which shuts down other interpretations by a harmful literalism. This is particularly harmful when it directly impinges upon the agency of the Gods Themselves, either by reducing them to mere types, on the one hand, or to beings subject to weaknesses that we would regard as flaws even in our fellow mortals. Our fellow mortals suffer from every sort of burden and handicap that excuse to varying degrees their vices, and that make their virtues shine all the brighter in consideration. How strange, indeed, if the Gods, without these handicaps, could not overcome these same vices, and how much worse than ourselves it would render Them. This is why none of our ancient traditions would have accepted the characterization of their Gods as ‘imperfect’ or ‘flawed’.

Where the myths appear to depict the Gods as flawed, therefore, we must understand that there are ways of interpreting these myths that restore to the Gods Their freedom of action. And this, indeed, is how we must see it, because in making the Gods slaves to petty emotions, 1 we limit Their agency every bit as much as if we regarded Them as mere types or mechanisms. In interpreting Them thus, of course, we do not harm Them, but only ourselves, and those we might persuade to see Them likewise, introducing obstacles into the path of devotion. There is a place for anthropomorphizing the Gods, that is, for seeing Them in our own image, but only insofar as it facilitates Their action on behalf of the cosmos, because otherwise, what is the point of even engaging with Them? Similarly, there is a place for speaking about a God’s ‘role’ or ‘function’, in order to facilitate engagement with Her, especially at its inception, but we must discard these notions to the degree that they would restrict that engagement.

With this primary principle in mind, therefore, that the interpretation of myth has its excellence in facilitating the cosmogonic activity of the Gods Themselves, I would like to briefly present three concrete techniques for mythological exegesis, drawn from the works of the ancient Platonists (notably Olympiodorus) which I intend to follow up in future columns with examples of their application to actual myths. 2

  • Eternalizing process 

    The sequence of the mythic narrative is from an apparent ‘earlier’ to an apparent ‘later’ moment in time. In order to free the Gods to be the agents constituting time, rather than subordinating Them to it, we interpret the myth as a static index, not in time or horizontally, as it were, but vertically, between simultaneous states of being.

  • Equalizing relations 

    Mythic narrative involves many relations in which one God is active and another is passive. To free the Gods to be the agents constituting these relations, rather than subordinate to them as a preexisting nature, and to be equally constituting agents of those relations, rather than the ‘active’ God being more constitutive than the ‘passive’ God in the mythic conjunction, we interpret every event in the myth as the product of the will of every God.

  • Conflict as Conflicting Goods

    To free the maximum cosmogonic potential of each God, we interpret conflicts between Gods not privatively, as conflicts of good and evil, or between goodness and its lack or absence, but as conflicts between goods which are divergent within the cosmos or for us.

The purpose of these hermeneutic principles is in each case not to deny the reality of the corresponding forms of limitation—limitation by temporal sequence, limitation by relation, limitation by conflict—but precisely to secure the reality of these phenomena by granting them constitution by the Gods Themselves, whereas if we were merely to subject the Gods to these limitations, these limiting factors would themselves lack any clear existential foundation; and it would be this condition that would most likely induce us to regard these phenomena as illusory.

Ecology of Being

In Plato’s Parmenides, the young Socrates meets the venerable Parmenides and his partner Zeno at the Panathenaia. There, the two great philosophers from Elea in southern Italy proceed to school Socrates in the art of dialectic, in the requisites for a theory of forms, and in the nature of the One-that-is-not-one.

In my previous column, I spoke about the emergence of binary logic in Parmenides’ poem. In Plato’s Parmenides, we see this logic put to work in the rigorous dialectical structure Parmenides teaches: for any hypothesis, we must think through the consequences if it is, and the consequences if it is not; but in addition,

Parmenides: [W]henever you suppose that anything whatsoever exists or does not exist or has any other attribute, you ought to consider the consequences with reference to itself and to each of the other things that you may select, and several of them, and all of them together; and again you must study these others with reference both to themselves and to any one thing you may select, whether you have assumed the thing to exist or not to exist, if you are really going to win through to a sight of the truth after a complete course of discipline [gymnasamenos]. (Parm. 136b-c, trans. G. Morrow and J. Dillon)

We can see from this that anything we are going to consider is necessarily already thoroughly involved in relations to many other things. It should not seem strange, then, that in Plato’s further development of the Eleatic legacy, the intelligible, the world uncovered by thought, takes on the character of an ecology.

We next meet up with a man from Elea in Plato’s Sophist, where Socrates talks to a mysterious stranger from the home of Parmenides and Zeno. This dialogue not only comments upon the thought of Parmenides and his successors in the Eleatic school, but also refers back to Plato’s dialogue Parmenides through the symbolism of the Panathenaia. The Parmenides is rich with allusions to the festival at which it is set, and the dialectic is even described by Parmenides in the quote above as a kind of gymnastic contest, just like those held at the festival. The elaborate demonstration of the method Parmenides provides in the dialogue’s second section, from 137c to the end, is itself akin to a philosophical version of the epic poems recited by rhapsodes in the festival’s musical contest. Finally, references to horses, a subtle one near the beginning, in the frame narrative (126c-127a), and Parmenides’ overt comparison of himself to an old race-horse (137a), evoke the equestrian contest.

(It can never be pointed out too often that horsemanship, in every culture that practices it, is a symbol for a host of analogous relationships: horse and rider are at once body and soul; the emotional and desiring powers of the soul and its reasoning faculty; and the soul itself and the spirit or God who rides it. The presence or absence of a mediating vehicle—the chariot—or technical devices—bridle, etc.—modify the symbolism accordingly. Note that Athena Herself gifts Bellerophontês with the bridle for Pegasus, for She is the patron of all the arts by which the soul disciplines and directs itself, and through which souls together constitute a social and political order through which they may mutually flourish.)

Beyond this, however, there is the purpose of the festival itself, celebrating the Gigantomachy, the war of the Giants and the Olympians, Athena’s special role in which was commemorated by the presentation of Her statue with a peplos on which scenes from this struggle were depicted. And it is this struggle in particular which is evoked by the Eleatic stranger in the Sophist, who speaks of a philosophical Gigantomachy, between those who affirm the reality only of what is tangible, and who are akin to the Giants, and those who affirm instead only what is pure form, and who are like the Olympians. The Stranger finds both sides wanting, however, and brings them to a figurative settlement: what is is neither simply material nor purely ideal—what is, ispower(s):

Stranger: I suggest that everything which possesses any power [dynamis] of any kind, either to produce a change in anything of any nature or to be affected even in the least degree by the slightest cause, though it be only on one occasion, has real being. For I set up as a definition which defines being, that it is nothing else than power. (Sophist 247d-e, trans. H. N. Fowler, modified)

To be, then, is to have the power to affect and to be affected—relation, in the most basic sense. Since this is active and passive power alike, it cannot help but bridge the opposing sides in the mythic Gigantomachy, because power is exerted irrespective of who is victor or vanquished. Moreover, to affect or be affected is so broad as to encompass every kind of mythic interaction, and not solely the agonistic kind. Even the simple contemplation of one’s beauty by another, as in the meta-myth of the Timaeus, where the demiurge contemplates the animal beauty of his fellow God as a thing in itself, is a complex of powers of affecting and being affected for both members of the encounter. And the Stranger’s solution settles the philosophical Gigantomachy as well, because the partisans of the tangible, of sensation and experience, must admit that it is the power of things to affect them and of themselves to be affected by them of which they truly speak; and the partisans of ideas must admit that to know and to be known are powers, that even simply to be known is to be affected, and that without this dynamic continuum, knowledge cannot exist.

Compare to this the climax of the first part of the Parmenides, at which point Socrates has begun to grasp the difficulties in his nascent theory of ideas. The supreme difficulty with the theory, Parmenides points out, is that the relationship between the world of ideas and the world of everyday things proves paradoxical. If the ideas “are not relative to our world, nor our world to them, but each only to themselves,” then perfect knowledge and perfect mastery will be with the Gods, but neither will reach us:

Parmenides: Then, if this most perfect mastership and this most accurate knowledge are with the God1, his mastership can never rule us, nor his knowledge know us or anything of our world; we do not <under this view> rule the Gods with our authority, nor do we know anything of the divine with our knowledge, and by the same reasoning, they likewise, being Gods, are not our masters and have no knowledge of human affairs. But surely this is a most amazing argument, if it makes us deprive the God of knowledge. (Parm. 134d-e, trans. H. N. Fowler)

Parmenides makes clear that this argument means that the theory of ideas, at least as framed in a naïve fashion, cannot stand. It is a reductio ad absurdum to assert anything that would have as its consequence that the Gods are deprived of knowledge or authority, or that we could have no appropriate knowledge of Them or experience Their authority. The theory of powers in the Sophist answers to this impasse, by conceiving the ideas, in their purely intellectual sense, as a subset of something broader and deeper, namely the network of relations, of actions and affections, in which all beings, simply as beings, interact with one another, and nothing is entirely isolated from the influence of anything else.

None of this entails that the Gods are just like us. Rather, it is a question of what must be the case in order that we are even able to speak of Their difference. And Gods as divine individuals (henads) also transcend any economy in which They are involved, including the devotional economy itself. The Gods are more than the sum of Their relations, and yet to form relations, and to be implicated to some degree in those relations, is Their way.

So the Eleatic stranger concludes that “absolute being … revered and holy [semnon kai hagion],” must possess “motion and life and soul and mind” (Sophist 248e-249a). It cannot, therefore, be an idea, a form, but must be something very closely akin to the Gods Themselves. And we see from Plato’s Phaedrus what that is: Their way of life. For the place in which the Gods gather together is where “truly existing essence, with which all true knowledge is concerned” (Phaedrus 247c) is to be found. Here the Gods have Their banquet (247a), for “divine intelligence … is nurtured on mind and pure knowledge” (247d). To be with one another, thus, is the true nourishment of the banquet. Those things that constitute real being are “the things with which the God is engaged qua divine” (249c). Does this mean that, in a sense, as Socrates asks in the famous question of the Euthyphro, that something is holy just in being loved by the Gods? Yes, in a sense, but it is also the case that the Gods love nothing that is not lovable in itself, that Their will is not arbitrary or ‘capricious’, that term monotheists love to cast with such wounding intent upon the Gods of the Pagans. A will can, and must, be both free and good, and virtue is nothing other than the way of life of noble animals, whether mortal or divine, just as Being, in the absolute sense, is nothing other than the being together of the finest beings.