The Nature of the Gods

There’s a big kerfuffle going around the pagan Internet: a lot of people seem to be distancing themselves from the “pagan” label, in the midst of discussions of revival versus reconstruction, proper capitalization of words, and the role of the gods in pagan (or Pagan) religion.

It’s an interesting process to watch, and I’m curious to see where it will end up.

One of the questions I’ve been asking myself for quite some time is: what is the point of religion, anyway? Or the gods?

Note that this question automatically makes my self-proclaimed paganism suspect in the eyes of many.

Here’s my problem.

There is clearly no historical advantage given to worshippers of any particular god or gods. Athens fell, despite its devotion to Athena. Ilium fell, despite its devotion to Poseidon. Every Christian empire fell, despite their devotion to every aspect of the Holy Trinity. Every Muslim empire fell, despite their devotion to Allah. Egyptian, Jew, Inca, Aztec, Toltec, Taoist, Confucian, Hindu, Shinto, Buddhist — every tribe and nation has claimed the protection and favor of their gods. Every tribe and nation has watched their gods fail them.

The standard religious explanation of this curious aspect of divinity is that, no, the gods did not fail the people, the people failed the gods. They did not do the sacrifices properly. They failed to keep the commandments. They were immoral. They were ungrateful.

This is a common human response to tragedy and hardship. I went through it myself when my infant daughter died of SIDS. I asked myself, over and over, how I had killed my baby girl. What had I done wrong? Had I not cuddled her enough? Was it radon fumes from the basement that I should have tested for and mitigated? Was it the influence of evil spirits that I should have done something about? Was God angry with me for some slight I’d offered Him?

I knew better, of course. Her heartbeat had been wrong in utero — they’d said she would outgrow it. She didn’t.

Knowing didn’t help much with the psychological process.

As with individuals, so with a tribe or a nation that faces hardship. We try to figure out why our gods abandoned us — we ask what we might have done differently to keep their blessing. It was obviously our fault. Somehow.

One problem with this answer — there are many — is that it doesn’t scale well. It works well enough when yours is the only tribe or nation you know about, and your history consists only of stories of the earlier times when your gods were with you. But when you have five thousand years of ever-more-detailed history available at the touch of a button, and when you start to realize just how many tribes and nations and gods there have been in just those five thousand years — to say nothing of the ninety-five thousand years before that for which we have no histories — and when it penetrates that not even one of those tribes or nations or empires ever got their worship quite right….

Well, you start to wonder if there’s any point to trying yet again. Assuming the gods would protect and bless us if we could just get it right, it’s pretty clear that “getting it right” is beyond our abilities as a species.

Or perhaps — horrors — there’s some other explanation for what’s happening. Like maybe the gods don’t really provide any protection or favor for nations and tribes at all: that’s just something we humans made up. It’s no more than an unrealistic expectation. Just like people expect the US President to lower gasoline prices. Or the Tooth Fairy to deliver hard cash for old teeth.

This seems like the simplest answer. The gods are either powerless to protect tribes and nations, or they aren’t now and have never been interested in doing so.

Devotion to the gods doesn’t seem to bring down any personal protection or favor, either. It isn’t like you can walk down the street and pick out the atheists by the electrified hair and scorch marks on their clothing. Nor can you pick out the Chosen of God by the resale value of their jewelry. The devout die of cancer, alone and in poverty. The irreligious die wealthy at a ripe age, surrounded by loving family. The rain falls upon the just and the unjust alike.

Even those who adhere to the practice of High Magick and Deep Thaumaturgy seem unable to conjure next month’s rent with any reliability.

Worship of the gods apparently makes not one whit of difference in the material world.

So we’re driven back into the immaterial world of the mind and soul: does worshipping the gods make people happier? Or more psychologically balanced, or resilient, or smarter, or more moral? Does worshipping the gods feed the soul?

It would be presumptuous to try to answer that for anyone but myself, but I would ask a different question: if worship of the gods brings only immaterial benefits, then how do the gods differ from, say, meditation? Or music? Or dinner in the company of good friends? Or years of psychotherapy? Or mushrooms laced with streaks of blue?

The Dalai Lama, who speaks volumes about happiness, never mentions gods in his discussions. Alcoholics and drug addicts in twelve-step programs invoke their “higher power,” but remain alcoholics and addicts for life. The most seriously mentally unbalanced people I’ve known were — in all cases — profoundly religious. And when it comes to promoting moral behavior…. Well, to put it mildly, evidence seems lacking.

So what is the point of the gods? At last we come to the only area in which I think the gods play any real role at all.

The gods are stories.

It would be a mistake to call them merely stories. We humans are likewise merely stories.

Oh, yes, there’s the animal component, the collection of cells that breathes and eats and defecates and procreates. Even on such a simple material level, matters are not so clear: significant parts of the animal are breathed out of our lungs as carbon attached to the oxygen we breathed in; excreted through kidney and colon; sweated out through our pores; rubbed off as tiny flakes of dead skin and nail and hair. Within a month, our blood has been swapped out; within a handful of years, our muscles and skin have been replaced; even our bones do not last a lifetime. Yet we tell a story that says we are somehow the same animal at fifty that we were at ten when clearly, we aren’t the same animal at all.

It is story that provides continuity to the animal, as recorded in our memories. It is likewise story that provides continuity to the community, as recorded in oral tradition and written mythologies. Without those stories, these things — the person, the community — actually cease to exist. Ask anyone who has dealt with parents suffering senile dementia.

This is why I find the controversy over whether the gods “exist” to be so misguided.

When I was young — around seven, I think — I woke early in a strange house, large and sprawling, and wandered through its unfamiliar halls. I came to a place where a woman slept on a couch. She was a grown-up, very pretty, and wore a lacy nightgown. She woke and stretched, and we talked for just a bit, about what I don’t remember. Then I found my way back to my bed and went back to sleep. I never saw her again.

When I was around twelve, I met a woman in a forest at night. It was summer, and the air was warm under a pale, bright moon. She was older than me, maybe twenty, tall and slender, with long, straight, platinum blonde hair, pale eyes, and she was beautiful. Something serious weighed on her mind, and we talked for a bit. I was smitten; I wanted to see her again, and she named a place where we might meet. I went to that place, but she was not there. I never saw her again.

When I was sixteen, I fell in love with a girl just my age, with startling emerald-green eyes. We had a storybook romance, and kissed for the first time on our final evening together. When we parted, I cried for an hour. I never saw her again.

Which of these women “existed?”

The last story is as real as it gets — a six-week summer music camp in Lawrence, Kansas. We met during placement tryouts on the first day, and her green eyes captured my heart from the moment we met. We did have a storybook romance, we did kiss for the first time on our final evening, and when she left the next day, I bawled for at least an hour. It isn’t exactly true that we never met again — I embellished that part for symmetry — but in a sense it is true, because when I visited her at her home the following spring, our letter-writing romance through the fall and winter was fading: we had already become different people than the young couple that had fallen in love the previous summer. We haven’t met again since then.

The middle story is a dream. Yet this woman haunted my mind for what seemed like years, and I still remember her slender form standing on that small hummock in the wood in the moonlight. The place she named for me to meet her was a library, and while I had always been an avid reader, this dream drove me to pester my father until he started taking me to the public library on a regular basis.

The first story is a mystery. The house was real — we were visiting an uncle in Chicago during a summer family road trip. He was a successful businessman, which in those days meant he had a lot of money; the house was very large, and at that age, I was never able to master its design — I frequently got lost in it, and I remember how angry that made me. The encounter with the woman certainly seemed real enough, but when I told the adults about it, I encountered the strangest resistance. They declared it must have been a dream, and even seemed to grow angry when I insisted it was real. It occurred to me years later that she might have been a very real “overnight guest” who officially did not exist — there was, in fact, a divorce and several lawsuits involving a mistress. So perhaps she was real, and as pretty as I remembered. Or perhaps she was only a dream. I will never know.

I would argue, however, that all three women existed. They are incorporated into the story of who I am, and they are significant parts of that person. Of the three, the woman in the pale moonlight is perhaps the most significant — she did more to shape who I am than either of the others. Yet she was merely a dream. A story.

Perhaps she was a goddess.

To speak of the gods as stories clarifies some things for me.

I enjoy the old stories. Jason and his Argonauts stealing the golden fleece; Theseus and the Minotaur; Thor and Loki; Rhiannon of the Horses; even the old Biblical stories, which carry so much unpleasant baggage for me.

But the old stories do not inspire my worship. They aren’t my stories. They aren’t even the stories of my people, whoever that might be. The Athena we read about in the old stories was at the peak of her powers and fame, still capable of inspiring war and terrible sacrifice. The Athena we encounter now is twenty-four centuries older, and spent most of those years in a one-room cold-water flat in Brussels, ignored, unsung, living on canned milk and sardines. Plus, we know — we cannot un-know — a dark secret about Athena that the Athenians did not.

We know that Athena could not protect Athens. We know that she failed her people.

Because we know this, we can never hear the stories about Athena in quite the same way that the Athenians did. Which means that the goddess has changed, for us, since she is first and foremost a story.

I have a great deal of trouble with all the gods — not merely the old gods, but the new ones as well: the reclaimed gods, the reconstructed gods, the rehabilitated gods, the revelatory gods. People demand that God Bless America. I don’t think He will. No more than he saved the Jews from Diaspora, or the Kingdom of Jerusalem from Saladin, or citizens of Beziers from Abbot Amalric. I see five thousand years of failed gods, and I imagine ninety-five thousand years of failed gods before that, and it all seems terribly tiresome.

I don’t think we need the old gods. I don’t think we need new gods, either. I think we need a new way of telling the stories.

I’m still searching for that.

This entry was posted in General.

3 comments on “The Nature of the Gods

  1. Aine says:

     I have a radically different approach to the gods than you – this idea that the gods are so omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent as to be able to protect anyone or anything and that them not behaving in such omni-ways makes them not real is antithesis to most polytheistic thought, ime.

    I also think that downplaying the significance of mental and psychological health and happiness is a pretty serious error. Those things -are- real, unless you’re going to say that working yourself to death mentally causes no problems at all? Even if worshiping the gods ‘only’ feeds the soul, that’s a pretty big thing. Don’t downplay it.

    You’re presenting a false dichotomy of either ‘the gods are all powerful’ or ‘they aren’t powerful at all’, and that hardly works in polytheistic theology.


    • Thanks for your reply, Aine. I saw that Teo promoted your new site on Patheos, and I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts.

      A lot of people seem to have misunderstood me to have said I think the gods need to be omnipotent. That’s not the case. To the contrary, if the gods were omnipotent, then any failures could only be chalked up to malevolence or indifference. It’s a problem that Christian theology has wrestled with for centuries as the so-called Problem of Evil.

      I don’t think it’s the gods’ job to protect us (in the material world) at all. But our old stories all say that they will. All of the Greek city-states allied themselves with various gods for protection and good fortune in the material world, a straight quid-pro-quo sort of arrangement: We’ll worship you and offer up sacrifices if you protect our city. I can’t think of any historical counter-examples to this pattern, which doesn’t mean there aren’t any, I just can think of any. It’s quite normal for a people to abandon their gods when the gods fail to hold up their end of the bargain. The Black Death in the fourteenth century nearly ended the Roman Catholic Church. 

      We’re still doing this. How many times have you seen pro-military statements linked with “God Bless America?” Or we have the Religious Right frothing at the mouth over hurricanes and tornados and droughts, blaming it on the sins of America before God.

      You’d be very hard-pressed to find any place in the Bible where God promises to protect European (Gentile) immigrants if they colonize the Americas. Yet the central religious force in the US American Empire has God tightly linked to our national geopolitical pre-eminence. Should the empire fall (and it will, as do all empires: indications are that it is already underway) the religious fallout for that kind of Christianity is going to be very interesting indeed.

      The lesson, I think, is that the gods don’t prop up empires. They just don’t. If they actually make such promises, they’re blowing smoke. If they don’t make such promises — which I think is the case — then the stories we tell about them that say that they do are bad stories: false and misleading.

      Similarly, the gods don’t prop up individual finances, or health, or family dynamics. I wish they did. But they don’t. Yet the stories we tell about the gods say that they do. “I prayed for deliverance from cancer and the Lord healed me. Praise the Lord!” That’s the Christian version, but I’ve heard very similar things from Pagans. It’s called “confirmation bias.” People just ignore all the times it didn’t work.

      I don’t mean to downplay the psychological benefits of worship, and I’m sorry that I came off that way. But there are many paths to mental health, happiness, and satisfaction, and many of those work better (for some people) than worship. Worship works best for some, and they should — by all means! — worship. Those for whom it doesn’t work as well should find something else to do.

      That’s not a very satisfying concept of gods in my mind: as stress-relief. It’s great if it works, but it seems so far removed from THE GODS.

      What the gods do provide that I think is unique is the way they can interweave with the collective memory and define a culture. The gods in this form are stories. And as stories, they are very powerful indeed.

      Unfortunately, the old stories tell us that they protect tribes and cities and nations, and that just isn’t so.


  2. Stephen Nemeth says:

    Here’s a fascinating story: 

    Maybe the gods have more functional use in explaining our neighbors behavior than the world around us.  If our ancestors were taking portends from neighbors food shortages rather than from random pairings of what some random bird feasts on any given day, maybe war could have been deferred once or twice.  We’re natural pattern-seekers.  What these mechanisms do for us today is make wars protracted and sticky.  Monkeys will invade other tribes when they run out of food too.  What most primates don’t do is hold grudges.  Gorillas don’t crusade, worship trinkets, or use words to ascribe meaning to the world.  Trees are pretty self-evident to a gorilla.  They don’t yell at them asking them to justify their existence.  They’re just trees. 


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