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The Other Gods

“Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.” Xenophanes

At the time of deep winter, the solstice, the day of the longest dark, as the Wild Hunt courses the night, my mind turns to thoughts of the Other Gods who are not like us

The Panther

Everglades_National_Park_Florida_Panther

Like most of us, I like to get in touch with the spirits and gods of the land where I live or lands that I visit. I lived for a time in Florida and there I found this task to be exceptionally difficult. I would walk the boardwalks raised above the swamp, watching alligators hunt the deep and snakes slide along the water’s surface, and I would reach and call. Often enough my calls were answered but not by any voice or energy I could understand. Eventually I made a few spirit allies and came to know, if distantly and with difficulty, a few of the ancient gods and goddesses who walked that land. 

The one I felt most often, as if she called to me more than I to her, was a goddess who took the form of a Panther. I knew that she was a “she”, and I felt her frequently in the wild and in the night. I knew she was dangerous but not unfriendly or malevolent. I knew she was as old as the oldest people who ever lived in Florida and likely much older. But for all that, I didn’t know much because what I knew most of all was that she was foreign to the world of humans with thoughts, desires, goals, and concerns that I couldn’t begin to understand. She knew me, I could feel her glance in the swamp, but I could not manage to know her.  

The Image of the Other

Chaos_Monster_and_Sun_God.png

There are gods that comfort and then there are – others. For many people, perhaps even most, the comfort derived from the divine is the reassurance provided by the thought or feeling that a humanlike entity orders and structures reality. It can be very comforting to know that a god that loves like a person is watching out for you, and indeed there are many gods who (at least on the surface) love and care like us. But there are – others.

Divinities can be conceptualized along a spectrum with four main zones, stretching from what is often called the “God of the Philosophers” on one extreme to entities that resemble the Panther Goddess on the other. In the center lies the region of the most humanlike, the anthropomorphic, divinities.

The God of the Philosophers is the ultimate God of a conceptually consistent monotheism. It is an utterly abstract and unknowable entity – the Perfect, the Good, the All-Powerful. As recognized since the time of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes and repeated by Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and many others, a perfect entity can’t resemble humanity. It can’t change, for the only change from perfection would be to imperfection. It can’t feel, for a feeling such as love or anger would have to be triggered by something external to itself which means other things have power over it and can cause it to change. This leaves us with an utterly abstract entity that couldn’t be further from the life of people. 

Closer to the center of the spectrum we find the most common and well known gods and goddesses, from the god of most Christianity to many of the gods of the various pagan religions. These are thoroughly human gods, at least on the surface. They are thought of as appearing human, they love and hate, they speak and listen. They are caring or stern fathers and mothers, ardent protectors, wise teachers, and so on. They are the gods Zenophanes has in mind when he criticizes humanity for thinking of gods like themselves. But many of us have met these gods, the ones who relate to us as if they were like us.

Further along the spectrum, but still firmly in the central realm of the anthropomorphic, we find a variety of animal divinities such as the Coyote or Crow of many Native American cultures. These are not generally divinities cast in the form of humans but they do talk, think, and act much like us. This is often the only type of divinity recognized under the guise of divinities in the form of animals. See, for example, Hallowell’s claim in his essay “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View” that:

“Speaking as an Ojibwa, one might say: all other ‘persons’ – human or other than human – are structured the same as I am. There is a vital part which is enduring and an outward appearance that may be transformed under certain conditions.”

This, however, is not sufficient to capture either the full variety of Native American animal-like divinities nor non-anthropomorphic gods in general. This leaves the furthest extreme of the spectrum, as foreign and mysterious as the utterly abstract God of the Philosophers, but far from abstract. Here we find, I feel, the Panther goddess I met in Florida and many others besides.

It is my suspicion that this spectrum rests on the level of appearance more than reality. Or perhaps on the level of mode of communication. Nature, when it wishes, can speak to us in a language we can understand, but that does not deprive it of its hidden depths and foreign regions in which we would be lost. Gods can put on human shape, and some indeed may come from human lives, but this hardly captures their fullness.

“O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your great form, with its many faces, eyes, arms, thighs, legs, and bellies and Your many terrible teeth; and as they are disturbed, so am I.” Bhagavad-Gita 11.23

Even as Krishna appears to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita in human form only to unmask his foreign, utterly overpowering form upon request, even as Semele daughter of Cadmus requests to see Zeus’ true form and then is utterly destroyed by it, so the gods can put on forms fit for human minds without being truly captured in these. Perfection deprived of specificity is just another word for mystery, and the most familiar and comforting god still wears a mask. 

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.”

Rilke Duino Elegies

What Rilke says of angels can be said just as easily of gods, especially those who kindly come to us in beautiful forms. 

Terror and Truth

IMAG1078

Sekhmet from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

When I first met Sekhmet it was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she terrified me. The museum has several extraordinary statues of the Egyptian Goddess of destruction and the first time I set eyes upon one I felt Her, like a blow, set eyes upon me. She gazed down upon me, with a silent growl, and it was the most powerful experience of sudden awe and fear I have ever felt. I was trapped in the sight of “She who Mauls”.

This was the goddess who the Egyptians desperately tried to placate every single day of the year, by sacrificing at a different statue each time – and this practice largely accounts for the many statues of her that survive. I fled the room, but have gone back many times since that first experience years ago.

I have come to know Sekhmet, the champion of Ma’at or Justice, at least as much as she can be known by me. Like the Furies and Nemesis of the Ancient Greeks, she is the fierce defender of law and punisher of crime, a force of chaos in service to an ancient order. She is not tame, but she can serve more humanlike divinities when she wishes. Like the Panther goddess, Sekhmet is very different from myself, and though she recognizes me when she sees me–and I recognize her–she remains beyond my ken and, I suspect, beyond the ken of any human. In facing her we face a truth and a reality that is all around us and yet which shares no measure with us. It is incommensurable with us, as the world is always in some part incommensurable with us. 

There are other such gods and goddess. There are the forces of the incommensurable unrestrained, like the Sumerian serpent of chaos Tiamat, the Norse wolf Fenrir, the Greek Typhon – and there are equally incommensurable forces more willing to tolerate our differences, such as the Panther goddess or Sekhmet. There is terror in the face of their truths, but these are truths shared in part with other gods who deign to terrify us less.

We can learn much from the inhuman gods, not least of all to avoid becoming too comfortable or perhaps complacent with their more friendly distant kin. They also teach us that our arrogance, our perception of the world on a human scale, our assumption that we are at home and that the world is for us, is a dangerous and disrespectful illusion – and most of all these gods demand respect. The anthropomorphism of so many of our monotheist and polytheist gods, if unquestioned, mirrors and contributes to the anthropocentrism of the practices with which we dominate and destroy each other and much of the world around us. 

Not Symbol but Source

La tombe de Horemheb (KV.57) (VallŽe des Rois / Thbes ouest)

Hegel, perhaps more than any other philosopher, attempted to come to grips with the differences between the gods of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, those of the Greeks and Romans, and the theology of monotheistic Europe. His analysis is brilliant, and I would have the arrogance to say almost entirely wrong. But this only means that it provides valuable insight if reversed.

Hegel approaches the ancient gods by means of art. He claims that the nature of art is to express truth, and that art can be analyzed in terms of how well, or poorly, it expresses the ultimate truth.

The history of art, which mirrors the history of culture and religion, passes through three main eras. There is the Symbolic art of the ancient cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Classical art of Greece and Rome, and finally the Romantic art of Christian Europe.

For Hegel, art reached its pinnacle in the Classical Era when the depiction and the truth depicted were perfectly matched. In other words, the anthropomorphic forms of Ancient Greece allow for the realization that divinity and reality is ultimately human. However, eventually the truth (which has a history of development of its own) was no longer able to adequately be captured in the human form. The ultimate truth is, then, human consciousness as expressed in culture which can no longer be perfectly captured in art.

Thus Romantic art directs our attention to the impossibility of capturing human thought and consciousness in finite forms as found in Hamlet’s struggle and failure to grasp his own place in the world. It maybe just be, however, that we were nearer to the truth at least in part in the beginning than at the end – a fact affirmed by the sad state that the historical march of Spirit has brought us to. 

For this reason the first stage of art and culture is the one I would like to focus on in line with my earlier discussion. The Symbolic stage is, for Hegel, one in which truth or reality is inadequately captured through a mix of animal and human forms. Hegel sees in this a struggle to capture truth that approximates it in the symbolic understanding of animals but fails to realize that only the human form is the perfect symbol of reality. This understanding, if deprived of its larger metaphysical grandiosity, largely matches the most common understanding of the many animal forms that gods take throughout the world. The animal forms are symbolic of various comprehensible, indeed even childlike, characteristics.

This, I have been suggesting, is a mistake. What my experiences with the inhuman goddesses has taught me is that their inhuman forms are not symbols of commensurably human characteristics. “She who mauls” is in some sense more truly lion than human, though ultimately she is neither. A mask is not always a symbol, and for most of these gods their masks are far from symbols. Or, perhaps, a better way to put it is that those very elements that cause Hegel to see a symbol are the points at which the mask cracks and lets in a bit more of the reality beneath.

We would get closer to the truth if we were to think about the animals themselves from whom many of these gods borrow appearances, rather than these animals as conceived by us. When facing a storm on a mountain top, or a bull elk in the redwood forests, I have not had the experience of a symbol but rather a wild force against which my human expectations and understanding is utterly inadequate. Face a lion in the wild and you would, I imagine, come closest to understanding Sekhmet. 

What these gods offer us is an experience, not a symbol, and it is an experience  from which our relationship with the other gods takes its source. In each of the gods, we face a reality, one which we can touch in part, one which we share in part, but not one that we can encompass and contain within our own understandings. We can not fully comprehend, we can only experience and learn from this experience to respond. The beginning of this response may be awe, terror, respect, but most of all the humble recognition of the non-anthropomorphic nature of reality.  

Author

Kadmus is a practicing ceremonial magician with a long standing relationship to the ancient Celtic deities. His interests and practice are highly eclectic but a deep commitment to paganism is the bedrock upon which they all rest. Kadmus is also a published academic with a Ph.D. in philosophy teaching at the college level. You can find some of his reflections on the occult at http://starandsystem.blogspot.com/ or look him up on twitter at @starandsystem

Kadmus is also the author of Nature’s Rights, available in A Beautiful Resistance–Everything We Already Are

15 Comments »

  1. Thank you for this article. I’ve been questioning the anthropocentric approach of most monotheistic (and also polytheistic) religions and also philosophies since I’ve first came in contact with it in middle school. Claiming to be at the summit of creation is one of the most dangerous concepts because it leads to a thinking that categorizes living beings for their usefulness and claims to define their purpose (food, ressource, or weed). In my opinion we can only win if we eventually reach an understanding with the other beings and the Others you describe are probably a vital part of this understanding. This planet wasn’t ours for a long time and just because we managed to survive for some thousands of years it doesn’t mean we have any rights of owning it. And we probably never can own it, since even our human bodies are colonized by bacteria, mites, viruses ans other microscopic beings we can barely perceive or even reject to recognize.

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    • I very much agree Lunarpoet, especially when it comes to the reduction of things to their use for us. It also seems to me that applying ownership to something like the planet is already a fundamental mistake..

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  2. I think I would quibble with Hegel about the nature of symbols. He seems to have thought of a symbol as a clear, direct reference to a specific thing other than itself- “lion head equals courage” for instance. But it seems to me as a poet that nothing ever symbolizes anything in this literal sense. Instead, symbols act as triggers for bundles of connotations that can never be reduced to any one thing. Thus, symbols are always experiences, always mysteries, never merely allegorical.

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    • Hello Gilbride, and thanks for your comment here. It seems I can always rely upon you to offer an interesting and useful comment on my work, thank you for that. I agree with you about the potentially more complex nature of symbols. I should also confess that I had to simplify Hegel rather a lot to avoid spending too much time explaining him so it is also likely that he agrees with part of what you say as well. The one distinction, however, that is important for his understanding of symbol and my criticism of a “symbolic” understanding of various gods is the fact that symbols derive their meaning through a reference to something else. It was a rejection of this symbol-reference idea that I was attempting to express with my focus on experience. Of course a symbol offers an experience as well and that experience can be a mysterious one of complex or incomplete/uncertain references but something else is possible as well – a direct expression/embodiment (even if a partial one) that doesn’t refer to something else, that doesn’t signify or mean.

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  3. Thank you for this; lots to think about here. I do wish people would capitalize “Pagan,” especially when they capitalize “Christianity” in the very same sentence. See, e.g., “from the god of most Christianity to many of the gods of the various pagan religions.” Christianity is an umbrella term for a group of related religions. So is Paganism. If we capitalize one, we should capitalize both.

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    • Hello Hecate Demeter, thanks for your comment. I will certainly think about this more fully in the future and I agree with the nature of your concern. This is one reason why I do not capitalize “god” when speaking of monotheism in most cases. At first I was tempted to chock up this difference in capitalization you point out to a lack of care in capitalization to which I sometimes fall victim, however as I think more about it I think there was a difference I was assuming here. Christianity, it seems to me, is an umbrella term for a more closely related group than Paganism is. For example, I would find it odd and mistaken to find statistics of religious identification broken down according to “Christianity” “Judaism” “Islam” “Hinduism” “Paganism” etc. Each of the first four groups there internally share a god or pantheon, if they disagree with how it should be understood, worshipped, etc. Paganism doesn’t have this. In other words, it makes more sense to me to say that “Paganism” is a term for a group of related religions while “Christianity” is a term for a group of sects of a given religion (even if this doesn’t largely match our common usage). If I asked someone their religion and they said Christianity I wouldn’t be surprised, but if they said Paganism I would feel the answer was a bit incomplete. There is also a distinction in terms of the “proper” nature of the nouns in question. Christianity is the name that would be used and recognized by members of this group throughout history, Paganism is not a name that most pagans of the past would have known or recognized- in fact it isn’t until comparably recently that pagans adopted the name for themselves rather than it being a slur applied to them by others. Paganism isn’t a proper name for the group as recognized by many of its members (if we are talking historically). I am not entirely committed to these distinctions as a valid basis for a difference in capitalization, but I believe it was in the back of my mind as I wrote the above sentence. Could you maybe say a bit more about why you think this use of capitalization is importantly mistaken? I don’t think that it conveys a difference in terms of importance or respect, but I am certainly not refusing to correct this usage in the future.

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  4. I disagree a bit, largely because I think the relationship between sign and signified is a bit more complex than a rationalist game of abstractions. Many symbols are icons that, to some degree, carry with them an experience of a thing.

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    • Thanks for your comment! Check out my response to Gilbride’s comment for a bit more reflection on the concept of symbol being used here. I think that the things we call symbols can ALSO be icons in the way you describe but when we consider them as icons we don’t consider them in terms of their symbolic quality. As icon they don’t symbolize, as symbols they aren’t icons (in the sense you suggest). If you look at my comment to Gilbride you will see that I set up a distinction between reference and embodiment/expression. An icon embodies something or expresses that thing while a symbol refers to something else. This is certainly true for Hegel since it largely provides the basis for the distinction between Symbolic and Classical art. Classical art for Hegel embodies and expresses a truth, Symbolic art refers to something it can not adequately embody or express. I think I’ve managed to agree with you while maintaining the importance of the distinction, does it seem right to you?

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      • How much does Hegel assumes a rather modern (broadly speaking) conception of art as a game of rather arbitrary symbolic relations? Can we even construct a unified theory of what art is, means, and does?

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      • No, I certainly don’t think we can arrive at a unified theory of what art is, means, or does. That was a modern conceit doomed to failure, especially as part of the characteristics of art is a conscious overcoming of attempts to define it. Hegel, however, certainly thought we could have a unified theory. For Hegel very little, in any context, is arbitrary and the only art for him that strongly involves symbolic relations is the art he explicitly calls Symbolic.

        Hegel’s entire theory of art is based on the interplay between the Idea and the Form. Art is always attempting, for him, to manifest the ultimate Idea or what he sometimes calls Truth (what he thinks we were finally able to realize at his time is that the ultimate Truth is humanity collectively coming to recognize that it is free, so all art is an attempt to represent human freedom) in outward Form. So there is a dialectic of Inner (Truth i.e. collective human Freedom) and Outer (Form or artwork). In Symbolic Art the Form is inadequate for the Idea. In Classical Art the Form and Idea perfectly correspond – and this is how he defines Beauty, Beauty is the perfect harmony of Idea and Form. In later Romantic Art the Idea has become too great for sensual representation, it now requires Philosophy to grasp it (so Truth goes from manifesting primarily in Art to manifesting primarily in Philosophy). So, long story short, very little is arbitrary here. Each work is attempting to present a very specific thing, and each element is in service to this attempt.

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  5. cadmus, Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I believe as a matter of framing that it’s important for Paganism to be treated with the same dignity that we provide to other religious groups. Paganism, today, is an umbrella term for a group of religions, just as is Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. We capitalize those terms. To capitalize them while leaving Pagan uncapitalized sends a message and I believe it is the wrong message.

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    • Thanks for your response, I will certainly keep this in mind in the future. I would certainly wish to provide Paganism with the same dignity as any other collection of religions, if not in fact more (I do, after all, have my own preferences).

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