Do the Gods really call us? My thoughts on a recent controversy

This question was recently raised in a post by John Beckett (and elsewhere), wherein he argues that the Gods call and choose whomever they will, regardless of ancestry or cultural affiliation. Although (as always) his post is well expressed and well-meaning, the notion that Gods generally call or choose individual people for worship is a mistaken one. The general argumentation, from my observation, is usually reduced to these three points: 1) The Gods are individual powers able to do whatever they will, and thus some people can’t prevent them from choosing others 2) The Gods are interested in and care for people and therefore they will reveal their will and inspire people to their service directly by approaching them 3) Excluding certain Gods from certain people is unreasonable because their worship spread historically and dangerous because we don’t “own” the Gods.

Before comments to each of the foregoing, the context must first be understood. It is not difficult to see through the premise upon which these points are founded. The prevailing modern worldview is a globalized middle-class one, shaped heavily by capitalism and colonialism, and overwhelmingly Western (most especially Protestant and Anglo-American) in character, in which individualism and all manner of choice is glorified, if not sanctified. We are all affected by it in various degrees, even in polytheism. These matters can be examined at great length, but for the present purpose, it is enough to bear them in mind. Some polytheists embrace this situation of the modern worldview and others oppose it. It is best, however, to find a middle way whenever possible, selecting the good from each side while avoiding the bad. If the aim is to develop a more harmonious world, it’s high time we find methods to connect various peoples and cultures, yet without force or intimidation, because there will always be relativism, at least in a free world not dominated by an imperial and global power.

The first point above seems to carry anthropomorphism too far, in such a way that the argument defeats itself. The Gods can do anything, is it not so, and who can say otherwise? Well, if they can do anything, they can also choose to do the opposite- how would it be ascertained either way? The problem here is that this logic mischaracterizes the question entirely: we are not dealing with a matter of ability but suitability. The question of “Can a God eat ice-cream?” is rather foolish for this reason as is any other that addresses divine choice and individuality- this is not our concern at all. Insofar as it concerns the relations between Gods and mortals, our knowledge is limited (and rightfully so) to what is suitable from tradition. Religion in the traditional sense of “religio” is about correct practice and clear thinking (as passed down), as opposed to the “superstitio” of malpractice and fear. By rephrasing the question then into one of “Would a God …?”, it becomes proper and reasonable. So if it were asked “Would a God choose an individual to worship them?”, the answer would be no, because the Gods need not do so while they (still) watch over their respective peoples and cultures where they at first arose as well as their own divine families and tribes. The Gods would not choose individuals except for very, very few people who have extraordinary gifts such as those we see in myths and such as whom we find absolutely nobody today.

The thinking associated with the second point is unfortunately derived either from helplessness or hubris, sometimes both. There can be a great deal of loneliness, unfulfillment and misery in the world and some rely on the Gods to help them be better. While this is not at all to be scorned as something silly, it is not a suitable relationship. A God does and should not substitute for a family, a friend, a companion or even (I must add reluctantly) a therapist, nor should (directly or indirectly) be expected or believed to act in such an intimate capacity. Zeus is called father and Demeter is called mother only metaphorically for the Greeks, and literally only in the sense of mythical ancestry. Then comes hubris, disguised as piety, sometimes knowingly and other times unknowingly. Let’s ask the question “Would a God really stoop to approach and call someone in particular, merely to be offered worship?”. This is a rhetorical question that I’m afraid does not deserve answering. And it is a notion that originated with malpractice and monotheism. It is we who must be approach the Gods and call offerings for their service! Even the most senior priests and priest-kings, if really pious, would not dare to state that they were specifically approached by a major God (it is different for ancestors) and called to action. It is not only grossly unsuitable, but also unfair in the sense that it can attribute to the Gods something they never intended or never sanctioned as right. This is why human sacrifice and imperial conquests, as two important examples, were carried out, undoubtedly coming from ambitious individuals who thought too highly of themselves and at the same time wished to disguise their hubris as piety. There were others like Akhenaten, Buddha, Socrates, the constructed Biblical figures and Mohammed who had a very grand image of themselves that led them to hunger after followers, and their individual innovations are directly responsible for monotheism and imperialism, i.e. the decline of polytheism.

As for the third point, I have already briefly made two sub-points concerning the relation between Gods and their respective peoples. I have said, boldly and consciously, that Gods “first arose” in certain areas, and that Gods share mythic ancestry with their respective peoples. The latter is known and accepted, but the former has rarely been addressed, to the detriment of this argument. How did the Gods first arise is a question that may well be raised by an outsider or indeed an insider, and for which we ought to be prepared. The answer is usually a mythological one, with genealogies, but we can’t overlook these were compiled later and don’t account for the changes in religious thinking and socio-cultural practices that have always been part and parcel of “religion”. A previous post of mine proposed four classifications that account for the historical developments in polytheism, after its own rise from animism. I did then justify my logic to avoid misunderstanding.* In the monotheistic and globalized (both terms are necessary) world we have been living in, the diversity and distinctions in polytheism can become difficult to understand. There’s a tendency either to simplify this multiplicity like some neopagans do, or to throw it all open for everyone to partake of. Both are imperfect and lead to mistakes- the first recasts the Gods in a new shape as if they were clay, and the second commodifies them (as globalization always does) as if they were dishes offered on a menu. This is preceded by the problematic notion of divine universality, where it is believed that the Gods can exist anywhere, but it overlooks that people choose to do so (i.e. take cultic images & practices along with them), rather than the Gods themselves, and this “spreading” is mostly happens under some form of colonization and imperialism**. The Gods, since we all know they originated in particular areas, are inseparable from the peoples and cultures that they influenced and who placed “mantles” upon them***. Simplifying the Gods undermines them and opening them to all peoples cheapens them. There is a reason why certain Gods share mythic ancestry with some people and not with others. Why can’t this diversity, that already exists, be embraced? Why do we need to get into disagreements about exclusion at all, when every single people and culture has its own Gods? I blame this confused and toxic discourse on the inequality created by European empires, which is causing European polytheism to be over-represented (thus attractive) and causing “Whites” to feel guilty about their recent ancestors at the expense of their ancient ones. I respect John Beckett greatly for explaining the importance of closed traditions and how membership differs from worship, but why not address the heart of the matter also even if it is uncomfortable? A better world is one in which peoples exist free with self-determination and live harmoniously and equally among themselves, not one in which the powerful invite the weak to partake of their empire and constantly apologize while hypocritically maintaining their power. Let me adjust a well-known saying for this purpose: Teach people how to fish in their own lakes and stop giving them fish from your own or (worse) giving them fish from their own.

In conclusion, I hope in all sincerity the world can become better, stronger, more harmonious and happier with the blessings that polytheism has to offer, and which differ from the wrong path the world is in now. We will disagree how this is done, but,  since it is such a momentous topic, let us be conscious not only of what we say but why we are saying it as well as the consequences it will have for all peoples present and future, not merely for our immediate audience. I am beginning to fear that this age we live in is ironically the best for the rediscovery of polytheism (what with all the archaeology and scholarship that is being produced) but perhaps the worst for the proper revival of it.
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* This is what I say: “I hope it will be understood that this is not an attempt to account for the development of Gods in material terms. Gods are real, but the earliest conceptions of them (before a tradition is made) depended on the nature of the experiences and lifestyle of those who first established the connection, as dictated by the natural environment and culture. The Gods, theoretically speaking, are not fully known to us. Animism is probably the closest we can reach because the natural and supernatural are equivalent, leaving little room for uncertainty as far as divine presence and experience is concerned. But polytheism later added new ideas and practices (mirroring changes in society) that can be compared to a mantle or cloak which covers the God, giving that God a more particular appearance or function for the convenience of distinct cultic practices and purposes, but simultaneously (because the God is covered) making that God somewhat less accessible to our conceptual understanding (hence the development of monotheism and later atheism).”

**It is tiresome to hear the examples of Isis being in Italy and Apollo being in Britain over and over, with its deliberate or dismissive short-sightedness. It’s unfortunate also that the argumentation should go so far as to say “Perhaps the most majestic temple to a Greek God is in Tennessee” which is insensitive and offensive both to Greeks and Native Americans alike. Should it not occur to us that these spread with conquest, during the Roman Empire, when armies moved constantly and colonies were established? Is it any wonder Roman imperialism commodified Isis and Apollo just like it commodified people (gladiators, workers, soldiers, subjects, etc)? If cosmopolitan diversity is good in itself, it should never be the result of a bad system; the reason why I prefer regional diversity is because it results from internal freedom, not hegemony disguised as inclusion!

***Applying the notion of suitability above: “Would a God care more for his or her own people or others, especially if other peoples have their own Gods?” This is another rhetorical question that doesn’t require an explained answer.

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Lesson’s from Aesop’s fables (#7): The Farmer and his Sons

Fable:

A father, being on the point of death, wished to be sure that his sons would give the same attention to his farm as he himself had given it. He called them to his bedside and said, “My sons, there is a great treasure hid in one of my vineyards.” The sons, after his death, took their spades and mattocks and carefully dug over every portion of their land. They found no treasure, but the vines repaid their labor by an extraordinary and superabundant crop.

220px-Caxton-Fables[1]

Moral:

The crop and the efforts that made it is the treasure, in abstract terms. It may not be an equal value, but this does not necessarily matter because the value is great enough at hand. By propelling them to action, the father not only helped his sons cooperate, but also enabled them to take care of the farm and gain by it. Had there been a treasure, conflict will have certainly followed, in many ways. I see a very profound lesson here as it regards monotheism and polytheism. In the first, the hopes for eternal Heaven and the “pleasure of God” is always used as a motive for good action, but this is a continual illusion of and for the treasure. The good is now tainted because of servitude and pathology. In polytheism however, the “treasure” is momentary and metaphorical, as in the fable–whatever we do is for our own good, not so much to please the Gods per se but to secure their favor, protection & patronage. We give that they may give; this is done directly or indirectly, and when they do not give back directly, they will somehow do so indirectly.

Reclaiming Biblical figures for polytheism

In asserting our polytheism, we often resort to emphasizing the difference between our beliefs and monotheism. This is necessary to a certain degree, if we hope to preserve our movement from being assimilated, something monotheism has proven to be skilled at. Nevertheless, when too stark of a contrast is made, we run the risk of not only overlooking polytheism’s complex history, but also carelessly opposing all what monotheism had unfairly appropriated as its own. This is true of various characters in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, who are often regarded by monotheists as the heroic founders of their beliefs, blessed at the hands of and guided to their destiny by “the one true god”. Religious elders and scholars in ancient times were able to manipulate disparate stories and myths in such a way that they became serviceable to their system of theology and political ideology. What was once a particular and polytheistic event or figure was transformed into general symbols of monotheism, representing several phases and parts of what was painted as one glorious whole. It is however rather easy for a studious eye to find out many inconsistencies and serious contradictions in this fragile lump that is bound together merely by fervent faith and inane interpretations. Even the Old Testament mentions other Gods besides Yahweh and not always in negative reference. The rediscovery of Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Near Eastern mythology and historical records has, for more than 100 years, been welcomed by monotheists in order to corroborate their tales, but how mistaken are they to use such dangerous material in their own service! Below is a list of notable Biblical characters and their original function & chronological order (as shown by scholarship or inferred from educated guesswork) before monotheism was imposed on them:

Adam- means “man” literally in Phoenician. His myth may be comparable to that of Prometheus in Greece, and Eve comparable to that of Pandora.

Noah- a copy of the character Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Moses- an Egyptian follower of Akhenaten who escaped to Canaan during the persecution of Horemheb. His knowledge and leadership made him an ancestral hero of the Jews. Not at all associated with Yahweh.

Samson- a hero very similar to the Sumerian Enkidu (character in the Epic of Gilgamesh) and the Greek Herakles

Yahweh- an epithet of the high Canaanite God “El” or a local weather God of nomadic herders. Later, the patron God of the city-state of Jerusalem where he was worshipped henotheistically by the early Jews.

Asherah- wife of “El” and later consort of Yahweh.

Abraham- a folk hero and progenitor of the early Jews, who may have offered him ancestral worship. May be associated with Yahweh or originally regarded as his son (compare to Greek myths about the ancestry of heroes). Perhaps the mythical founder of Jerusalem. Most probably flourished after Moses if a real character (i.e. during the earlier part of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, when control of Canaan was lost), otherwise he is a version of Gilgamesh.

Isaac and Ishmael- likewise semi-divine progenitors of various tribes. May or may not be sons of Abraham.

Jacob and Joseph- Canaanite noblemen associated with Egypt, perhaps seeking opportunity there during the latter part of the Third Intermediate Period.

David- a tribal chief/petty king who became a hero of his people through his great exploits at war. Comparable to Greek heroes of the Trojan war

Solomon- the pious successor of David. He set up a shrine (rather than a temple) to Yahweh, which may have also been used to honor his ancestor Abraham.

Lessons from Aesop’s Fables (#6): The Donkey and his Shadow

Fable:

A Traveler hired a Donkey to convey him to a distant place. The day being intensely hot, and the sun shining in its strength, the Traveler stopped to rest, and sought shelter from the heat under the Shadow of the Donkey. As this afforded only protection for one, and as the Traveler and the owner of the Donkey both claimed it, a huge dispute arose between them as to which of them had the right to the Shadow. The owner maintained that he had hired the Donkey only, and not his Shadow. The Traveler asserted that he had, by paying for the Donkey, hired his Shadow also. The quarrel proceeded from words to blows, and while the men fought, the Donkey galloped off.

 

Moral:

It’s a sad thing when polytheists bicker over words to the degree that they forget of the essence, substance and spirit of the nascent movement they are trying to revive. Just as we laugh at the two men in this is fable, such bickering among ourselves also makes for a ridiculous show in the eyes of those who don’t wish us well. Disagreements are natural and inevitable, and this is especially true for us considering the pluralistic nature of polytheism. But if we must exchange firm points according to what we believe, this must never be allowed to degenerate into personal insults and hot-headed quibbling that 126[1]serves no purpose. Several months ago, I was forced to block a polytheist on FB who was increasingly becoming very rude towards me in our discussions, after which he sent me low insults by text. This was a person whom I had been patient with, hearing him out on many occasions and even supporting him when he had doubts about polytheism. I knew furthermore from a search that he had been jailed in his youth for several years for a serious non-lethal crime. At the time of receiving the text message, I had the choice of returning the insults with double force (I have no difficulty with expressing myself) or letting it pass in order to ensure this person would remain a polytheist. It was quite difficult to overcome my anger, but after a while of cool reflection, I sent him a message wishing him well and advising him to use such language for those who bear hatred for polytheism. His next reply was still insulting (though he did acknowledge that I had “some nerve”), but I was satisfied in my conscience and made no more response. From what I have since learnt, he remains a polytheist and I hope he can contribute to the movement as well as be affected by it for the better.

Lessons from Aesop’s fables (#5): The Astronomer

Fable:

An astronomer used to go out at night to observe the stars. One evening, as he wandered through the suburbs with his whole attention fixed on the sky, he fell accidentally into a deep well. While he lamented and bewailed his sores and bruises, and cried loudly for help, a neighbor ran to the well, and learning what had happened said: “How now, old fellow, why, in striving to pry into what is in heaven, do you not manage to see what is on earth?’ Astrologue

Moral:

This fable serves to show the importance of grounding one’s religious inquiries and concerns. Too much intellectual or spiritual activity that seeks to transcend the real world or the common good of people is not only selfish, but also futile and harmful. Besides, does it really matter how the stars are situated, how the whole universe came about, or how the “divine principle” operates beyond the senses? No, these philosophical and theological things are small concerns and pedantic trifles to the ordinary person who cares far more for the fruits of real & stable community, harmony between people & nature, the knowledge of history & culture, and indeed the revival & preservation of traditions.

Polytheism is a vague term that needs classification

The etymology of the term “polytheism” is insufficiently descriptive, even as it attempts to establish a clear difference from monotheism. While it is by no means useless or misleading, especially in the classification of general religion, it can be of some disservice to serious polytheists who are interested in the extensive and complex history of polytheism, either for ritual practices or theoretical understanding. Being among that number, I have always found some sort of difficulty in expressing my socio-religious views to other polytheists or explaining historical, cultural and socio-political developments regarding various ideas in and forms of polytheism. I needed to introduce adjectives like “traditional” or “regional” or “indigenous” which did not go far enough. And it seemed wrong that there should be a term such as “animism” for a distinct yet simple worldview, but only one term to denote various and profound stages of polytheism’s worldview. Anthropologists often hold that polytheism arose after the discovery of agriculture, but this did not explain its development or forms. I noticed also that many misunderstandings and misinterpretations among practitioners and thinkers resulted from the vagueness of the term “polytheism”, perhaps giving an impression of the fragmented and weak state of the movement. Since worldview is of paramount importance in belief and reconstructionism, natural distinctions resulting from distinct historical traditions should be classified properly. To this end, I will introduce four new terms, inspired by social anthropology; in these the worldview is immediately apparent from the etymology of the term. Since religion is a socio-cultural phenomenon bounded by place, it seems reasonable to be guided by the anthropological terms that classify human societies, i.e. band, tribe, chiefdom (simple, complex), and state. For this reason, the etymology addresses the geographical scope of the society that held such a worldview, namely, village, city, confederation/union, and world/universe. Hence, kometheism, politheism, koinotheism, and cosmotheism. Below is a table in some detail. 

Table

N.B. Three points to make. First, it might seem contradictory to place both monotheism and “polytheism” within cosmotheism, but this is necessary in view of the common origin of both systems of beliefs. Monotheism appeared during the evolution of a particular set of universalized ideas and syncretic circumstances within an expanding and competitive world grasping for an explanation of reality and hoping for an end to the pains of imperialism. It shouldn’t be thought that since monotheism denies all Gods except one, it is therefore of a totally different cast. The evolution of monotheism itself and the continuing the polytheistic remnants within it are proof against this rather simplistic opinion. Secondly, the four stages of polytheism are obviously not exclusive in descending order. Every cosmotheism will contain certain elements of the three previous worldviews, although not in a consistent or even manner. Lastly, I hope it will be understood that this is not an attempt to account for the development of Gods in material terms. Gods are real, but the earliest conceptions of them (before a tradition is made) depended on the nature of the experiences and lifestyle of those who first established the connection, as dictated by the natural environment and culture. The Gods, theoretically speaking, are not fully known to us. Animism is probably the closest we can reach because the natural and supernatural are equivalent, leaving little room for uncertainty as far as divine presence and experience is concerned. But polytheism later added new ideas and practices (mirroring changes in society) that can be compared to a mantle or cloak which covers the God, giving that God a more particular appearance or function for the convenience of distinct cultic practices and purposes, but simultaneously (because the God is covered) making that God somewhat less accessible to our conceptual understanding (hence the development of monotheism and later atheism).