Gods Beyond Functions
I was listening to an interview about polytheism with Galina Krasskova and Edward Butler (found here, and very much worth listening/watching), when a question was posed about the idea of each god being limited to a certain function or sphere – like people tend to think of there being, in any tradition, a “god of love” and a “god of the ocean” and a “god of vegetation,” etc. Oddly, I had just been talking with my (Heathen) partner about this, and how it’s not a particularly useful or accurate concept when describing real, living polytheism, either in the past or present. Edward had this to say in response, which I transcribed because it was so great I thought it needed to be preserved:
“I would say this is a typically modern misunderstanding of polytheism. For someone who is the particular devotee of a certain deity, that deity is – at least potentially – all things to them. For someone who is only peripherally concerned with a particular deity, that deity may be concerned with some narrow function, that they only need recourse to in a particular circumstance of their life, for instance.
It’s one of the artifacts of our modern perspective these days – one of the misleading artifacts of that perspective – that we tend to look at all the deities from this peripheral perspective, and see them as having these narrowly circumscribed functions, and that again is partly because of an excessive reliance on the poets. It’s also because of other intellectual and conceptual confusions and distortions that have arisen over time.”
This is one of those things that, while I understand it and even exemplify it in my personal practice, I still find myself mistakenly slipping back into that erroneously simplistic conception especially when thinking of pantheons and gods I’m not familiar with. Which perhaps makes sense, as those would be deities who I would only be, at best, peripherally involved with, and therefore I see Them through the lens of those limited functions. But it’s good to keep in mind that every god is so much more than the “god of X” and can and will fulfill many roles in the life of Their devotee.
That’s not to say that They are all the same or interchangeable, or that They don’t each have areas of specialty. I may go to Dionysos for help with a problem totally outside His usual realms because we are close, but He’s still going to be the most helpful and most responsive with issues that are near and dear to Him. Still, He’s much more complex than just “the god of intoxication” or even “the god of liberation.” And plenty of other gods are involved in those things too, in Their own ways.
It’s true that we have been unduly influenced by the poets and storytellers, because (as Edward also pointed out) it’s not as if we can directly experience the living cultus that existed for our gods when it was thriving, and see how it might have differed from the myths that came down to us – we can reconstruct with the evidence we have, but we’re missing something crucial that I think will best be restored simply by practicing the living cultus today. It’s going to take time to recapture that mindset.
It’s important, though, to take note of these mistakes in thinking, especially because in some ways they can perpetuate harmful underlying concepts, even just subconsciously. For instance, the interviewer went on to ask, if the gods overlap in Their abilities and areas so much, what is the point in having more than one god at all? And see, that is a common response that reveals a critical assumption (again, even subconsciously): that gods are ultimately an invention of the human mind or culture, that people made up these gods of various aspects of life, and therefore one can question the point of having them overlap. Because it’s true, if it were just an invented system, it doesn’t always make sense or seem very elegant. But Galina’s wonderful response was that the point is, They exist. They exist and we are privileged to engage with Them. So you see, if you get too caught up in the mythology-book idea of the gods fitting into neat little boxes and each fulfilling a human need, you are subtly relegating Them to the position of human inventions, as sure as any anthropologist or psychologist might. The real gods are messy and complex and multi-faceted.
This more encompassing view of Them also kind of dismantles the reasoning behind thinking of gods as equivalent to other gods of similar functions. Hermes and Odin might both be gods of travellers and magic, but if you’ve gotten to know both of Them beyond Their functions, you’ll see how They are individuals with many non-intersecting areas of interest, strength, influence, etc. (This isn’t to say there can’t be useful syncretic practice, when done thoughtfully and carefully, but that doesn’t make those two gods the same, it just focuses on the places They overlap and intersect.)
Like Edward said, in antiquity people would have approached many if not most gods on a relatively simplistic level when they had occasional need of Them, seeing Them mostly through the filter of Their most well-known functions, and that’s fine – it is unnecessary and impossible to delve more deeply into all the gods, even just within one pantheon. But it’s good to remember that those depths exist, with all of Them.