“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.
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
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
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
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.
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