Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Deities and Pantheons

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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deity (n.) [ME deitee, fr. MF deite, fr. LL deitas, fr. L deus “god,” akin to OI TIW god of war, L divus god, dies day, Gk dios heavenly, Skt deva heavenly, god] 1a: the rank or essential nature of a god:  DIVINITY  b cap: GOD, SUPREME BEING  2: a god or goddess deities
of ancient Greece>  3: one exalted or revered as supremely good or powerful

pantheon (n.) [ME Panteon, a temple at Rome, fr. L Pantheon, fr. Gk Pantheion temple of all the gods, fr. neut. of pantheios of all gods, fr. pan- all + theos god]  1: a temple dedicated to all the gods  2: a building serving as the burial place of or containing memorials to the famous dead of a nation  3: the gods of a people, esp. the officially recognized god

Artemis of Ephesus

When we call the gods into a ritual, we often choose a specific name or aspect of deity.  We choose whether to invoke a feminine deity, a masculine deity, or both.  We choose which face of the deity to call - the lover, the hunter, the mother, the child.  And, in order to give this deity a name, we must choose which tradition we will draw from during the ritual.

There are almost as many names for deity as there are people on this Earth.  Each culture has developed its own mythology, its own names and faces for the many aspects of the divine.  Yet, when we look at religious traditions worldwide we see a pattern, a stable framework from which humanity draws its notion of deity.  For our purposes we will confine ourselves to polytheistic and pantheistic religious traditions; the monotheistic traditions which dominate the world’s politics today have sufficiently shifted the paradigm that it is far more difficult to recognize in them the “standard” aspects of deity.  In most cases, monotheist traditions simply agglomerate all the culture’s aspects of deity into one, mixing them so closely that they are difficult to recognize individually and separate.

A polytheistic tradition, in contrast, distinguishes multiple faces of deity.  Many such traditions assert that there is a greater One behind the many faces, a cosmic Unity or Creator whose immensity is beyond the comprehension of the human mind.  Hence, they reason, we break this immensity into smaller, more manageable parts to which we can relate on a daily basis.  It’s a psychological safety net, so no one goes insane contemplating the overwhelming infinity of all-that-is.

The human mind learns by association.  When presented with something new, the mind will attempt to find something familiar which is similar to the new thing.  In order for us to comprehend the faces of deity, they must be similar to something we are already familiar with.  What is more familiar than the aspects of humanity, the faces we present to each other on a daily basis?  In this sense we have made the gods in our own image.

Hindu god Sarasvati
As we look from one tradition to another we will find the same characters and the same aspects of deity cross-culturally.  Of course, once we recognize that the faces of deity mirror the faces of humanity, we should not find these similarities surprising.  What we discover is a handful of aspect types, most of which relate to either a feminine or a masculine face.  Some features can relate to either the feminine or the masculine, and some relate to neither.  Among these characteristics are:

FEMALE:  Crone/grandmother, mother, maiden, goddess of the green, Earth, Fate, traditional women’s work (spinner, weaver, cook), wife

MALE:  Father, lord of the animals, underworld king, Sky, warrior, traditional men’s work (smith, hunter), husband

EITHER/NEITHER:  Creator, trickster, lover, grain deity, sun, moon, child, death, sea, giver-of-all, fire-source, healer

Can you think of any more deity aspects?  Are you familiar with them as feminine, masculine, both or neither?  Can you think of any instances in which the gender of a deity class shifted over time?  How about sky? Late Stone Age societies often depicted the sky as feminine (Egypt = Nut) but later Bronze Age societies almost universally portrayed the sky as masculine.  Why do you think this might be?  What about classical Greek and Roman virgin goddesses or the Celtic warrior-goddesses?  They are female deities but are described as pursuing typically male activities such as hunting, fighting, and animal-tending.  How do you think these depictions came about?

Some pantheons use only a handful of aspects while others divide the different facets down further and further into more detailed, specific versions of the gods.  Can you think of some narrower, more specific versions of the aspects listed above?  What about the three aspects of Fate?

With careful thought we can divide the aspects of deity down further and further, as the Greeks did, until each deity reflects a single human emotion or ideal.  What effect would a “full” pantheon such as this have on a religious tradition?  How would it differ from the effect of a simple pantheon, one which uses only a handful of deity aspects?  If you were creating a pantheon, which aspects would you choose and why?  Would you relate them to feminine and masculine as in the list above, or would you do it differently?  Why?

Let’s consider a few traditions from different regions of the world.  Think, for instance, about the Native American Pueblo/Anasazi tradition, the western European Wiccan tradition (Celtic, English, French, pick one), the African-derived Yoruban tradition, and the Oriental Shinto tradition.  How do they compare -- which aspects of deity do they use?  Why do you think each tradition developed the aspects it did?  How about the Greek pantheon compared to its later Roman derivative? It’s easy to see how human culture and psychology influence the way we portray the divine in order to interact with it.

Maori god Tane-nui-a-Rangi

How do the various aspects of deity interact, both in mythology and in ritual?  We need only look as far as our families and friends to answer this question.  Since human relationships are the center of our world, and the deities as we view them are modeled on humanity, it only makes sense that the different faces of deity interact the way we expect people with the same traits to interact.

The mythology of a culture embodies the personality of that culture’s deities.  How the goddesses and gods react to each other and to their varying circumstances reflects two sides of  the human personality - how the people in that culture normally behave and how they would act in that culture’s ideal world.

Consider how some deity aspects interact in your favorite, or most familiar, tradition.  What kind of relationships do you see between husband and wife, between lovers, between parent and child?  What kind of attitude do the leader and authoritarian aspects take in this tradition?  Are they grim and strict or understanding and compassionate?  Are they full of humor or humorless?   What do the deities tell you about the culture they come from and the people who lived in it?

Now that you can see how a pantheon is an outgrowth of a culture and the human psyche, a way in which we relate ourselves to the greater universe, you can find pantheon-type “personality spreads” throughout human culture, not just in religion.  Or, perhaps more correctly, in the avenues which modern society follows instead of overt religion.  Television, for instance, offers a useful mirror of human personality.  Can you identify the deity aspects in the cast of Bewitched or Star Trek?  How about in cartoon characters -- Goofy the Trickster, Mickey the Father and Minnie the Mother, Chip and Dale the nature spirits, and so on.  When we lose the pantheon in one realm it reappears in another.  Why might this be?

If you had to create your own pantheon from scratch, what would it be like?  If you had to create a pantheon of inanimate objects, how would you do it?  Try fruits and vegetables -- the Grain God and flowery Spring Maiden might be obvious, but what about the trickster?  Jalapenos, perhaps?  Try it out and see where it takes you.

Vietnamese goddess Quan Thé Am

Everything by Joseph Campbell, but especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces and his Masks of God series

D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire (Do not spurn children's books of mythology; they often contain the most vivid retellings of the ancient myths. The collections by the d'Aulaires are especially noteworthy for being accurate and interesting.)

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

The Witches’ God: Lord of the Dance by Janet and Stewart Farrar

The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity by Janet and Stewart Farrar