Sometimes, even among us polytheists, there is still a tendency to reduce to a few that which numbers the stars. This tendency is an internal artifact of ingrained patterns, an unconscious bad habit from generations of living with the insistence that there are no deities, or that that there are only one or two deities. We know that there are more than none, one, or two. We know there are several. But sometimes, because of broken ancestral relations and generations of this now-unconscious behavior, we operate from acknowledging far fewer than the vast diversity that actually exists.
Let’s set aside this matter for a moment to consider trees. Near where I live, there is a row of three Black Maples. Each is a maple tree—not an elm, an oak, or a willow—furthermore each one of those trees is of a type of maple that grows in a tight geographical region, and each one of those is specifically a Black Maple—not a Redbud Maple, an Amur Maple, or a Sugar Maple. Each one of those three Black Maples is a separate individual tree: what happens to one tree doesn’t necessarily happen to the others; they grow separately, and they have different relationships. The Black Maples that grow by my home are not the same as the Black Maples that grow down the street or the Black Maples that grow in another state. The three Black Maples here exist in particular relationships with each other, other beings, with the land, and with the contexts that they’re growing in. They also exist and are defined by not just what they are, but in reference to what they are not—they are not Sugar Maples, not elms, not squirrels, and not postal workers. Each of these three Black Maples are different not just in relationship to other things like the land, the squirrels, and postal workers, but also in relationship to other Black Maples, other maples, and trees in general.
The many different relationships all help inform and support the individuality, the uniqueness, of each tree. These different relationships are sort of like the ridges on a key—the different ridges form different configurations making it so that your car key will not work for your deadbolt. Without these ridges, the key is an undifferentiated useless blank which won’t work for any task. An individual being ceases to be any kind of differentiated, useful, unique being if it were possible to extract it from all relationships whatsoever. Without relationships, and the context provided by relationships, there is nothing for the individual to function in connection to, in accord with, or in opposition to; thus there is nothing to help an individual being hold those boundaries and functions that are important in having shape as an individual being. Like a ridge-less key, it’s an undifferentiated useless blank with no identity, no individuality, no uniqueness, and no usefulness—it still has potential, but it is unrealized potential. Without the unique relationships each tree has, that tree ceases to be what it is and co-participate, coexist, in the world around it.
Each tree separately exists in multiple unique, individual relationships, different roles, with the unique individual other maples, other trees, animals, insects, lichen, mosses, people, and more. They are not defined by their relationships, but they are defined with their relationships and through those relationships, participating with or being acted upon by other beings and having other beings participate with them. These relationships are not exhibits of codependency, but of interdependence and interconnectedness, and it is this interdependence and interconnectedness that allows for the individuals in these relationships fully to come into their own unique places and individuality in the grander scheme of life on planet Earth.
Of the three Black Maples near me, the one to the north has often been the home of corvids (probably some type of crow). The one in the center tends to drop branches because of an insect infestation, and two breeds of local squirrels make this a tree a good home because of its sheltering nooks. The nostepinne I made for winding yarn comes from a dropped branch from that center tree. The one to the south, further away, is the one I like to stand by and watch the bats come out in summer twilight.
I could call the tree in the center the Black Maple Who Drops Branches. I could also call it Black Maple Nostepinne Tree, or Center Black Maple. The squirrels might acknowledge the same tree Black Maple Good Nesting Tree. These are different names but on this occasion the different names refer to different relationships for the one same tree. Those relationships are important to know in order to understand the identity of that one tree. I can’t nest in that tree, so I don’t know that tree as Black Maple Good Nesting Tree; I don’t have the same relationship with it as the squirrels do, nor does that tree have the same relationship with me that it does with the squirrels. The squirrels have no need for a nostepinne, so they would not know that tree as a Black Maple Nostepinne Tree. However, both squirrels and myself may understand that tree as Black Maple Who Drops Branches, although the branches affect me differently from the how they affect the squirrels.
The neighborhood crows know a Black Maple Good Nesting tree too, but they know a different tree—the tree that stands to the north of Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Squirrels. The Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows is a different tree. The name describes a different relationship, where the crows, not the squirrels, prefer to nest. Sometimes there’s overlap between the two, where a couple of squirrels one year might prefer Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows from what had been Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Squirrels, and thus Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of the Crows may end up with a new added name, a new relationship, a new function, and an added identity. But, just because of the overlap it doesn’t mean that the two different trees are the same tree.
I describe the trees in terms of what the trees are but also in terms of what the trees are not, as well as in terms of their location, their relationships. To understand that center Black Maple tree in its totality better, as well as to differentiate center Black Maple tree from the north Black Maple tree, I would be wise to keep in mind all of these relationships that I know about. This knowledge has the added benefit of my learning not just who that center tree is, but who it is not, and it helps me understand the individuality of all three trees and their unique contexts.
How in the world does this relate to deities?
I propose that when in doubt, we should consider that two deities going by the same or similar names but acting differently in different locales, different circumstances, and different relationships, might just be different deities. It’s a complete 180-degree-turn from how most of us are conditioned to think; we’re conditioned to think unconsciously of “fewer” and to assume that if there are some basic similarities, then we are looking at the same thing. This would be as if we assume that there is no differentiation between Black Maples and other kinds of maples, or the specific differentiation of my three Black Maples from other Black Maples doesn’t matter. We don’t realize that though we know there are several deities, we might be assuming there are far fewer than what there actually are. This mindset of “assuming different and separate until otherwise known,” allows the space for us to explore whether or not we’re seeing the same deity with different relationships in progress, or a different deity altogether, or some other unique situation. This mindset allows space for these matters to be considered without the danger of the crushing erasure that reductionism leads to. Figuratively speaking, without this mindset, we keep jamming a car key into a deadbolt and becoming upset when we don’t get the results we expected, and furthermore we are in danger of balding off all of the ridges on keys and turning them into undifferentiated useless blanks.
I want to make it clear here that these matters are context-specific. Just because the contexts shift and change or just because our understanding of these shifts might be unclear, it doesn’t mean that “Anything goes!” Just because our understanding of the standards is imperfect or missing, it doesn’t mean that there are no standards. This applies to our own situations as well as our own viewing of other people’s situations in relationships to deities. Standards, rules, customs, norms: all of these apply in relationships, and all of these apply differently in different relationships, in different locales, and for different Beings and beings. It is best to assume, until we assess otherwise, that there are perhaps different deities and perhaps different standards, rules, norms, and customs in play.
On occasion, we may find out that standards aren’t there, but this matter must be assessed carefully on a case-by-case basis. For instance if someone comes to me claiming they’ve seen the Anunnaki and that the Anunnaki are space aliens from the “planet Nibiru” just like how they’re portrayed in some sham of a “documentary,” I know that any standards of interacting with an actual ancient class of deities known as the Anunnaki from Mesopotamia are absent. This person might be interacting with some beings or Beings, but it is unlikely that the beings they’re interacting with are actually Anunnaki known in ancient Mesopotamia. Even if they are interacting with some Anunnaki, they’re not doing it in the clearest way possible when they force those experiences into a broken mold of expectation based on fantasy pawned off as fact-set, as seen on TV. But again, this must be assessed carefully and conscientiously.
This knowledge—knowledge of relationships with the deities, of our roles in these relationships, of these standards, rules, customs, and norms—is at least some of what we lost when those lines of transmission from the ancient ancestors to ourselves were broken and when the brokenness extended unchecked and unattended for generations. In losing our knowledge of these relationships and our roles in these relationships as set up by our ancestors, we’re also missing that knowledge of ourselves, as we are defined with these relationships and our participation in them—we, too, are missing some of our differentiated “key ridges.” (Please note: when I speak of “ancestry” I speak of something far broader than strict biological relationships, and of something which has nothing to do with nationalistic concerns.) We lost an understanding of those relationships. We lost an understanding of how different deities fulfill those roles to different people at different times in different situations and different locales. Reciprocally, we also lost our knowledge of our individual roles and how to fulfill these roles in wholly restored relations to our deities and ancestors. An understanding of these things is what we seek to heal when we engage in the labor-of-love of repairing and restoring these relationships with deities and ancestors, and to rebuild these relations and roles anew where needed , warranted, and guided.
Because of our broken traditions and lines-of-transmission for knowledge of these relationships, we’ve often relied on scholars in part to tell us who our deities are and to describe ancient peoples’ relationships to these deities. From that problematic information we often then extrapolate what these various relationships and contexts were in ancient times. Afterwards, we may try to project this human-constructed model into our locales, our era, our relationships, and our contexts. This serves a good, solid, necessary purpose in human social matters as we struggle to come together in honor of our deities because it helps us form organized structures into which we can gather and participate, so I don’t at all propose eradicating these things. But I do propose understanding these human-made structures and their clear limitations in having deeper relations and understandings of our relationships with the deities.
When we have experiences sometimes we try to shove these experiences into those broken molds created from tenuous extrapolations based on incomplete or faulty information about other peoples, with other relationships, living in other times, and in other regions. Our relationships and our contexts are not the same things that different ancient peoples had in different places. Furthermore the relationships which scholars try to understand and describe that ancient peoples had, is going to be different from our relationships and contexts here and now. There’s also an important difference there between relationships ancient people actually had (something we may never entirely know), and what scholars best think that the ancients had, based on the evidence available and the interpretation of that evidence: the two are never going to be an exact match.
Scholars do their best and generally they do a solid job, so I’m not dismissing what they do. I just ask for an awareness of the limitations and applications of their work. Their work doesn’t function as well as one may hope it would for understanding these relationships amidst deities and humans, past or present, local and distant. There are biases and limits to what scholars know, limits to the information that they have access to, and limits to what they can describe fully, cleanly, and clearly. An arborist who has never seen a tree is not an arborist and certainly cannot describe well a maple tree, a Black Maple tree, and especially not Black Maple Nostepinne Tree, despite any protests to the contrary. A scholar who has never met a deity is in a poor situation to describe a deity, or to understand polytheism in an ancient context, let alone a deity or polytheism in any modern context. So, for instance, it’s time to question when a scholar assumes two names/titles of Zeus refer to the same Being.
It’s easy to assume that all trees are basically alike especially if you don’t know trees well, and it’s even easier to assume that if you’ve seen one maple tree the differences don’t matter much. But, instead of assuming that all trees are just trees, or that all maples are so similar as not to merit further consideration, let’s instead assume each is unique and different. Let’s further acknowledge that each Black Maple, even two growing very closely together, is different unless we discover otherwise in due course of time, effort, knowledge, restored connections, and restored relationships. For instance sometimes what appear to be two separate Black Maples might actually be one tree that happened to grow two main trunks, or a tree with an entirely different plant growing on or through it, or something has been misidentified as a Black Maple when really it’s a different tree. But, it is useful to assume at first that they are two different trees even if they are growing close together until an expert arborist is able to share with you otherwise.
Sometimes we come across a deity’s epithet…but it doesn’t occur to us that this “epithet” may not be an epithet, but a specific name of a specific deity in a specific set of relationships in a specific locale and that these layered contexts are vital to knowing, understanding, and interacting with that individual deity. The “epithet” might actually be the deity’s personal name. Even if the deity-name-in-question is just an alternate name for one particular deity, the name still reflects the deity in a very specific context and it is necessary to take note of the differences. Sometimes names with epithets reflect separate deities (Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Squirrels versus Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Crows), but sometimes they reflect a single deity expressing different relationships (Black Maple Good Nesting Tree of Squirrels, Black Maple Who Drops Its Branches, and Black Maple Nostepinne Tree). Assume different unless otherwise known.
I invite you to consider that deities with full names which include epithets may be entirely different deities, until finding out and learning otherwise. This is very different from how we’ve been conditioned to think; we’ve been conditioned at one point to think all of the gods were just one thing (or nonexistent). We are overcoming this…and we still have room to grow.
The collapsing, conflation, and reductionism runs deep and even though we realize that there are Many, we sometimes have trouble wrapping our heads around the idea of Many, Many because of our broken connections, countless generations of calcified bad patterns, and missing knowledge. As a result, we may acknowledge many deities, but we do not begin to understand the countless number of them and the vastness of diversity reflected within their sacred ranks, let alone how they relate to other beings including ourselves, and how we relate to them. I invite you that any time you see a divine name, unless it is followed by an epithet or a locale or some other identifying descriptors, that you put an indefinite article before it: a baʽal, an Astarte, a Zeus, a Freya (like a maple tree, or a Black Maple tree, until you know which specific tree like Black Maple Nostepinne Tree). Instead of assuming that all deities of a particular name or title, or connected names, are the same no matter which locale or era or relationships they have, let’s reverse it and start instead with the assumption that they’re not the same until we know otherwise. If we know of particulars, specific names (what look like mere epithets), or of a specific locales, or relationships, or eras, let’s use these particulars and let’s assume these things might be different, separate, and individual until we know, through restored relationships, otherwise. Furthermore, let’s be more consistent in acknowledging these different relationships, locales, and contexts by remembering to add them when we converse about the deities, unless it is clear in private conversation exactly Who we are speaking of, or unless we make it clear that we are speaking in broad general terms as we work towards the specific.