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.

~ by Dver on November 8, 2016.

7 Responses to “Gods Beyond Functions”

  1. I am sadly unable to listen to the program until my data renews next week….that said I think that this is one of the most vexing issues when talking to monotheistic or even some co religionists who refer to that sort of god of x model. It seriously drives me nuts as any research into the cult of a god reveals a plethora of functions that don’t fit neatly in a one liner statement about the deity in question. This has caused some heated discussion when someone suggests that their deity is *the* deity of x
    Now gods do have specialized domains of influence I believe…but this is like taking someone whose career is specialized as a doctor…that doesn’t mean that is the sum and total of all that he is or his abilities and talents. Now I may choose to go to him for his aid only because of his specialization because my needs are covered elsewhere by others. This sums up for me how it is like. I may approach a god for a narrow speciality of the deity but I acknowledge their greater affluence…most needs are covered by those gods I am devoted to. I can see well why it can be harder with outside pantheon of gods that one is introducing themselves too…but always good to keep in mind!

  2. The Gods can take particular role which the deity has a special interest in e.g. love or war, this is because they are real beings with agency.

  3. […] Full piece here: Gods Beyond Functions […]

  4. Yes, I thought that part of the discussion was very useful, and this does remain one of the things that most frustrates me about the “D&D” way of looking at Deities (as I’ve come to think of it)…

    Because of two major areas of my own religious activity, I’ve seen how utterly useless thinking like this is. One is with the Irish Deities. No, none of Them (not even the individual Brigits!) have a singular thing They’re associated with, They tend to be multi-talented and very multifaceted…almost all are warriors in addition to whatever else They may be, for starters. The second is with Antinous. Too often, people have tried to ask “So what’s He a God of?” with an expectation of something like love, war, poetry, or whatever…and He isn’t any of those things, though He has connections with all of them. I suspect–though it in no way excuses–why some people have tried to suggest He’s the “Gay God” (i.e. the exclusive God of male homosexuality), because that’s an area that no other singular male Deity in any culture, and especially in Greece, Rome, or Egypt, was a “God of” singularly (though many, of course, had attested homoerotic relationships).

    Putting it in human terms as well is useful: I may have three, four, or even eight friends who are all college graduates, interested in poetry, Star Trek, and are queer polytheists who worship some Celtic Deities…but that doesn’t mean these people are interchangeable, or that I don’t need (nor want!) more-than-one even though I already had one at any given point, etc.

    But then again, seeing Deities and other divine beings as persons with individual agency, personality, and personhood is what makes this kind of thinking different for those of us who are actual practicing polytheists and/or animists rather than theoretical practitioners of such.

  5. I read an article about this before, I don’t remember where, and the author compared the different specialties of the gods to departments in an office building. Freya, Venus and Hathor might all work in the love department, while Zeus, Perun and Shango might work in the lightening department, but that doesn’t make them the same person, and it doesn’t mean that’s the be all and end all of who they are, they just share some of the same expertise or duties. And of course they have a life outside of work🙂

  6. edward said something years ago which has resonated and expanded in my cultus ever since. obviously i can’t word it like he did, but it was along the lines of each god being utterly complete, and all the other gods vibrating in their sphere to activate certain modes of being. in other words, within a Demeter-ruled sphere, Aphrodite’s actions create a certain mode of being that reflects Aphrodite in Demeter. that will differ from the activity that results from Demeter acting within an Aphrodite sphere. and that’s the most simplistic way to view it.
    with this being the starting point, the interactions between the gods are so varied and infinite and intricate and gorgeous, it boggles the mind.
    and keeping this in the forefront of my practice prevents me from ever falling into the trap of trying to limit the infinite functions of the theoi.

  7. “if the gods overlap in Their abilities and areas so much, what is the point in having more than one god at all?”

    I would ask: if friends overlap in Their abilities and areas so much, what is the point in having more than one friend at all? Why because even if they have similar abilities, interests etc. they are different in other ways. And having more than one friend is useful in so many ways!!!

    Odin and Hermes might be different Enteties, but i believe some Gods have more than one name. ex: Lugh, Lugus, Llew; Morrigan, Morgan ect. might be the same God. not because the names differ automatically, it means it is not the same God. My Mother calls me Son, my Boss Mister …, my wife “Honey”, my Best friend “bud” etc.. yet I am one person, different names for different relasionships.

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