Gods don’t really have faces

Was just reading this great guest post on Numen Arts discussing anthropomorphic artistic depictions of the gods vs more stylized, symbolic or even abstract representations. Quote:

Sib is not a young blonde woman. She is frith, hospitality, the joy and responsibility of welcoming guests to your table. She is the sacred duty of making peace between rivals. She is the bounty and strength and potential of the freshly-tilled soil. She is the truth that we all rely on agriculture and the harvest and the earth for our lives. She is the eternal beauty of the golden hour before sunset.

This is what I was getting at in this old post of mine. We are seriously limiting our understanding of the nature of the gods and our experience of Them if we are stuck in the habit of anthropomorphizing Them (and even more so if our depictions are limited to whatever we personally find attractive). Frankly, I think this may be behind some of the problem of pagans mistaking an attractive character from pop culture (or worse, the actor playing them) for the face of a god. It may seem harmless to think, well if Dionysos came in human form, He might look like [insert popular famous person here]. Certainly, the ancients sometimes thought of their gods as human-looking, with certain hair color or other attributes. But we live in such a spiritually-bankrupt, superficial, image-obsessed culture, one that has no interest in or understanding of the gods. How can we be surprised then that it’s a short step to always thinking of that person’s face when thinking of Dionysos, to subconsciously merging their personalities, to the insidious impiety of treating the god like just another celebrity crush.

These are the holy Powers who shaped the world and move our lives. How can we bear to reduce Them to mere pretty faces? And how limited the faces we allow Them, too – not just predominantly human, but whatever the current ideal of a human is. Do we really think that, should Dionysos choose a face from the ancient gallery, He would always choose one that delights us? That a god of excess and drunkenness would always be lean and muscular? That a god of the Other would always match our expectation of race, gender, or anything else? No, I think we get much closer to the heart of what a god is if we seek something beyond familiar illusions and fantasies, something beyond the human entirely.

As far as I can tell, divine entities taking human form is simply a convenient short-hand that conveys This Is A Person to our stupid brains. It can help us to recognize and engage with these overwhelmingly HUGE beings on a level we can manage. It gives us a focal point for our entreaties and gratitude and adoration. But we should not mistake the mask for what’s behind it.

I think it would be a good practice for all polytheists to try going for a time without any anthropomorphic images of the gods at all. They are, in many ways, a crutch. See if you can connect to the gods on a different level. You might discover entire new ways of knowing Them. Dionysos as a new spring leaf unfurling. Dionysos as the warm tingle of wine in your belly. Dionysos as the exhilarating vertigo of finally letting go of your fear.

~ by Dver on July 31, 2021.

9 Responses to “Gods don’t really have faces”

  1. I think what you’re saying, broadly speaking and in general/for the majority of polytheists, is good advice.

    However, when one is dealing with a Deity like Antinous, there’s a bit of a difference. Yes, He can appear in non-anthropomorphic forms, and has done since the beginning of His cultus. Yes, He has a range of appearances that He can take in terms of attributes and such. And, there is even some variability in the characteristics He can have as a human.

    And yet, there’s also the territory of “No, that’s not me” that can apply as well…and interestingly enough, it has similar reasons to some of what you’ve said above. One cannot simply say that Antinous is equivalent to any young attractive male one fancies at the moment, for the reasons of idolatry (in the negative sense, i.e. believing one’s Deities are as limited as one’s own thoughts of what they are) you mention above. While it is a popular (and, at this point, time-honored for around 150 years) tradition for any gay man who falls in love with a younger person to think of him as “my Antinous,” it’s a real mistake to think any human “is” Antinous, of course, in any literal or even overly-metaphorical sense…and ruin can quite easily follow if one does on multiple levels, alas! 😉

    This can also apply to ancient images that have been misidentified as Antinous. The so-called Capitoline Antinous should more properly be called the Capitoline Hermes, and yet it has been known as Antinous for several hundred years widely…but in cultic practice these days, He doesn’t like people (or, rather, the people who have been considerate enough to ask Him what He prefers!) to mistake it as Him, but instead to give credit to Hermes for it and whatever beauty one might perceive in it.

    So, all of this to say: yes, but also no in certain circumstances. This is why any absolutism, I think, when applied to polytheism is pretty inadvisable, as there will always be exceptions in the wide world of diversity and plurality which polytheism always entails.

    • Oh yes, of course there are always exceptions and also lots of subtleties that I was glossing over to make a point. Gods and spirits that began as human, like Antinous, would be approached differently for sure. And gods may prefer certain forms, and not others, or even be trying to communicate something important to us with the details of such forms. It’s not *inherently* superficial, I just think we’re at a particular risk these days for failing to discern the finer points. But thank you for providing a good counter-example.

  2. I think though that there is equal danger in conceptualizing our Deities as abstractions: God is love. Sib is hospitality, frith, etc. It erodes Their Being-ness into something that demands very little active, personal engagement.

    I detest, absolutely detest the Marvel Loki influence on Lokean iconography, all the more because I think that most of the young Lokeans indulging in this are NOT conceptually clear about precisely Whom or what they’re venerating. I don’t think there are many times where I would accept icons of the Gods based on actual people (I’ve seen some gorgeous Orisha art the past year where men and women were dressed as the various Orisha and while I recognize the devotion behind it, and find the art itself beautiful qua art, I would never use these images devotionally. I’d consider it very impious because of the potential to direct that veneration toward the handsome man or beautiful woman in the image). It’s easy for that cognition to slip into what is more easily grasped or recognized (the benefit that aniconic worship has, I suspect is that this potential is far, far less).

    So that being said, I still come down on the use of images, but carefully. I judge traditions by their aesthetics because Beauty leads one to the Gods. It’s important. it speaks to the senses and the spiritual senses. Abstractions about the Gods have their benefit (Because really, the Holy Powers are not limited to anything we can conceive) but look at modern Protestant traditions or even modern Catholicism with their God is love BS. Where are the mystics? You lose something when you reduce the Gods to abstractions just as you lose something when you become to invested in the image.

    I learned a new term today (having just taught a Byzantine Christianity course about the iconoclasm conflict): Icono-clash. Maybe that’s what we have here and maybe it’s good. Let’s have both and argue and discuss and find more ways for the Gods to come through. But you know what we shouldn’t have: fucking images of actors with the misapprehension that this somehow represents our Gods.

    • “It erodes Their Being-ness into something that demands very little active, personal engagement.”

      That is definitely true, and possibly also a particular danger for us today, between the example we have from the Christian side (God is love), the New Age side (generic archetypes), and the reticence so many pagans have to acknowledging the independent individuality and personhood of the gods. Like most things, there needs to be a balance, and a deep, subtle, complex understanding of the gods. I just think that one step in that process can be some experimentation with different iconography or none at all.

      One way I avoid getting too focused on any one conception of the god is by a plethora of images. Especially for Dionysos – my walls of His shrine are papered with different representations, many of them anthropomorphic, but the sum effect is one of “many masks” rather than one definitive face.

      • Dver, I tend to do the same thing: multiple and differing images of whatever Deity I’m engaging with.

  3. […] has a thoughtful post about deity images versus an-iconic veneration. You can read that here (and I really suggest you do. She brings up a lot of things that we should be considering in our […]

  4. I’ve always been drawn to the simpler expressions of a deity—the wayside shrines for Shiva in India, for example, that consist of just a boulder or pillar with a splash of paint and a pair of eyes. A tall natural rock pillar for Hermes. A river pool or sea cave for Tethys. To me, these depictions are more powerful in their simplicity and have the bonus of being relatively easy to find out in the world. I can lay a wreath of flowers on any upright stone, in the city, or the country, and know that I can honor and connect to Hermes, without his “face”.

    Sometimes I do wonder if the ancients complained about depictions of the gods the way we sometimes do,,,”oh, look how terrible Apollo looks on that vase!” or, “I’ve seen that trashy tile with Aphrodite on it in every roadside stall from here to Athens!”

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