In discussions, debate, and even when considering your own belief, it is very important to define terms. A term that is often tossed around with various definitions is the word god. Abrahamics use it, Atheists use it, and Polytheists use it.
There’s a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the polytheist image of the gods. Often in conversation, Christians, atheists, and others import into the conversation the idea of the Christian god, an omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent deity, and simply assign this idea in multiplicity to our position. That’s not what polytheists believe.
Throughout much of the world, there’s a Christian background in our culture, so it’s understandable that one might assume that all gods are the Christian god. However, among the totality of religions, this Christian idea of God is rare, especially when you throw in concepts like the Trinity, or the various views of Jesus.
Lets start with a huge misconception that I often hear in discussions regarding polytheism. That the gods are physical supermen zipping through the galaxy. And that polytheism is obviously wrong because there’s no gods on Mount Olympus. There’s no survey data on this, but I’ve met quite a number of polytheists in my life and not one of them has held this position of the gods being physical humanoids with superpowers. Looking back into history a couple thousand years, Cicero’s discussion of divinity, On the Nature of the Gods, written in ancient Rome, represents and even pits against each other multiple perspectives on polytheism. But this text doesn’t represent a physical superman position among any of the polytheists in the dialogue.
With that concept out of the way, we move on to another position often assigned to the polytheist, which is that the gods are simply metaphors. There’s possibility that Greek and Roman Epicureans held this position, which is similar to today’s atheopagans or like Jordan Peterson’s god. However, Cicero represents the Epicurean otherwise, having him discuss gods that are not corporeal but quasi-corporeal, going into great detail about their form and actions, suggesting that they are external, rather than as simple metaphors to strive for. Cicero criticizes the Epicurean’s position, as Cicero was a Stoic, but the criticism of the Epicurean wasn’t that the Epicurean held that the gods don’t exist. Surely if they did, Cicero, being a strong critic and a polytheist, would have attacked this.
But while the atheopagan or the atheoChristian like Jordan Peterson is an atheist, the polytheist is not. The polytheist holds to external agents of deity as experienced by people around the world. Cicero points out that humans seem to intuit the gods, and from that we can posit their existence to ask questions about them. This observation, combined with global experience of deity in human history, gives us justification for the position, and we can define them in terms of properties that we seem to experience.
Philosopher Steven Dillon, a Hellenic Polytheist, lays out a set of properties to posit to the gods. But, like with most things regarding spirituality, there are still barriers to these properties as far as developing clear understanding. And I’ll go into some of that.
This is probably the most clear of the properties and yet it’s still a complex one. Dillon points out the challenges of even describing the experience of consciousness in the first place. But essentially our consciousness interprets the world through our senses. A disembodied consciousness would not be bound by these limitations, able to interpret information in the universe without the need for physical instrumentation.
The closest that a human can experience to this would be within meditation, achieving a thoughtless awareness that disconnects yourself from the senses as much as possible. Such moments are described as a goal in many spiritualities, as it is believed these moments bring you as close to the gods as you can be.
So how do they interact with us? Clearly from spiritual experiences, it seems that at least their minds interact with our minds. But we would be unaware of the mechanisms they use to interact, as they don’t seem physically measurable, which, honestly, would be expected of an disembodied, non-physical mind.
There are some schools of polytheism that posit more imminent gods, such as the Etruscan idea of a consciousness behind each movement in the universe, that the gods bodies are parts of the universe, that the clouds are not pushed together without reason, but that the universe moves so that they might come together. Yet even in this description, the consciousness itself would be disembodied, as there isn’t a physical seat of the consciousness for the gods as there is for the human, which is the brain.
Immensely More Powerful than Evolved Minds
This property is deduced from the first property. Interacting with the world in a way not limited by senses already makes one extremely powerful. Evolved minds, arising out of the evolutionary process, have physical bodies, and are therefore limited by our physical interactions. I can will my hand to move, but I cannot will anything beyond my body. Any distance I cover has to be traversed across the physical realm. The gods would not be limited by these things.
That leads us to the third and final property which is…
This one is difficult to describe, but it might be best phrased as that which inspires the reverence that we feel. Spiritual experiences are often described as an overwhelming presence. This might be similar to the greatness felt by an incredible natural site or a monument, beholding the majesty of the grand canyon at sunset, or standing in the shadow of the great pyramid.
This property is deduced in part by the first and second property. For the presence of a mind immensely more powerful than your own would be remarkable, and at least greater than yourself. Dillon points out that it’s important to note that this property is meant to be that which deserves our awe rather than that which simply elicits it. What elicits awe is subjective, and this is meant to be understood as a universal, as it manifests as one across the world through human experiences of deity.
This would be the element that separates the gods from other entities, such as Landvettir or a house spirit, which may not have that overwhelming aspect of greatness. What defines that may be distinct. Odin’s presence is sometimes described as almost haunting, yet inspiring, while Thor’s presence is one of strength and protection. Sif as maternal and steady, Freyja as unbridled and wild.
These experiences are distinct, but each trasmit that element of remarkable greatness.
Now is this the end-all-be-all definition of deity? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s polytheists in the world that have disagreements with these properties to be sure. Heathens like myself might describe other aspects to distinguish the gods from the chaotic entities such as the Jotun, which would retain these properties as well. So, depending on tradition, the conversation may become more subtle.
It’s also important to note that there are many interpretations of the gods, and many ontologies of the gods. This one differs slightly from the Epicurean and the Stoic, which differ from each other. The goal of this understanding is to be experience-centric. To take what we experience of the gods and assign the commonalities as properties.
Cicero approaches the issue of multiple ontologies in On The Nature of the Gods, noting that multiple ontologies doesn’t mean that the gods do not exist, but it does mean that, assuming inconsistencies, only one of them is true, or none of them are true. And if none of them are true, it still doesn’t mean that the gods do not exist. It only means we do not understand them, which is entirely possible.
Written by Ocean Keltoi