Gods Not Our Own
In a recent post, I touched briefly on my strong disagreement with the idea that the gods only exist to help us. As if humans were the only things that mattered. One of the comments I received, remarking on what I had quoted, read “Human-centric thought from Earth-centered paths confuses me.” Indeed.
I am probably one of the least human-centric pagans I know. This is due partly to my own misanthropic personality, and partly to something that has grown naturally as a result of serving certain spirits. The concerns of the spirits, gods, plants, animals and overall bioregions tend to pull at me much more strongly than those of my “fellow” people. But, I still catch myself in some anthropocentric thinking sometimes, and breaking out of that can be revelatory.
Last weekend, while we were doing a bit of psychonautical exploration, a realization occurred to me. We tend to speak and think of plant/animal/etc. deities as singular, rather archetypal concepts, and primarily in relation to their significance to humans. In other words, we might conceive of a deer god (separate from any deer aspects of other deities), a god that appears as a deer, watches over deer, and has what we think of as deer-like qualities. But humans do not just have one deity who appears in our form, one deity for every location in which we live, or even one deity who governs over a particular human concern (such as agriculture, communication, etc.). Since other entities in this world are just as real and just as capable of a spiritual existence (in fact, they likely do not even have such a self-imposed dichotomy between material and spiritual realities as we do), why should we not then assume that their gods are myriad? Is it not likely that there are, in fact, quite a few deer gods who are tied to different regions, different species, different cervid qualities and concerns? (Perhaps we have even glimpsed these different gods and mistaken a multitude for a single entity due to the same kind of cross-racial recognition difficulties we have within just the human race.)
Extending this further, there are also probably many oak gods, many granite gods, many lichen gods, although perhaps some of those forms of life are so different from us that their deities would not be recognizable as such to us, nor would they necessarily perform the same functions or interact the same way as ours do. There’s no reason, either, to assume that every god of significance to oak trees is, itself, an oak tree – just like not all of our own gods appear as human. An oak tree would have reason to be intimately connected to gods of rain, soil, insects, fire, fertility, drought.
But of course, other entities in the same ecosystem would also share those same concerns. The god that rains on the oak would not be different, most likely, from the god that rains on the fieldmouse, or in fact, the god that rains on the person taking shelter beneath the oak’s branches.
And though I hadn’t quite thought of it like this before, or articulated it as such, THIS is why local focus polytheism is such a powerful thing. Because by honoring the gods and spirits of place, you are by definition honoring the same gods as are the other members of your physical environment, in whatever way they do (and, most likely, some of the “lesser” spirits, who aren’t devoid of a religious life simply because they exist primarily on a spiritual plane).
Look at the world through this perspective. It may just change you.
And, while I’m taking this rare stab at theology, let me also direct you to some musings on syncretism by Phillupus over at Aedicula Antinoi, in which he says:
if we think of various animal totems as “deities” in their own right, then when a particular deity has a strong association with an animal, or even sometimes takes the form of that animal, it is a form of syncretism between the animal spirit/totem and the deity. I like that, and think it makes perfect sense of why, for example, why certain deities have a particular animal form or association but may not have the same character or demeanor as the animal spirit/totem itself.
I think this is quite a significant insight, one that perhaps could be even deepened or expanded by consideration of the more multiple conception of animal deities that I am proposing. While I acknowledge there may be more totem-like, umbrella-gods of animals, what if the gods we know (“our” gods, the ones that are involved in human affairs, although they may not be exclusive to us) are sometimes syncretized with the gods we don’t know as well, the specific gods of local animals and plants – which may partially account for the variations between, say, a god with a reindeer face on the tundra of Lapland, and a god who wears caribou antlers in the boreal forests of Canada (even though they are the same animal).