Narrowing Brings Discernment

In reading this post by Helio, I found myself nodding at other times, having to reread sections to parse my feelings in others.  Overall I do not disagree with the idea of the Gods existing in a kind of Venn diagram where there is intersection between the Gods, Ancestors, landvaettir, and vaettir otherwise.  I think where I disagreed most profoundly is in the differentiation of Gods.

But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.

My understanding is that a God is a kind of spirit, but not all vaettir (spirits) are Gods.  This is because vaettir lack the spheres of influence, recognition, and/or Being that a God does.  I do not use God and vaettir interchangeably for ease of language, as I do recognize that some vaettir may well be Gods in Their own right, i.e. a local God of a river, lake, stream, tree, grove, etc. and in such a case, I use the word local God to denote this.  Venn diagrams are useful because they contain a discrete category, a pole, around which the circles are drawn.  These can then overlap, and this is the bleedover we can see between ideas of Gods, Ancestors, and landvaettir where these centers intersect and cross one another. While the notion of Gods, Ancestors, landvaettir, vaettir, etc. can overlap, in order to be useful as terms, they must be discrete categories in some fashion or else we are effectively describing nothing with any usefulness.  In other words, discrete categories, circles, are needed or else we are not describing a Venn diagram, but a single circle.

If godhood is to mean anything with any substance, then godhood should, as a term, be restricted to certain more-than-mere-human-beings.  In example, not all of those who live in Asgard are Gods.  The Gods have servants who may be offered to, but are not, so far as I know, recognized as Gods.  The Einherjar, honored Dead hand-picked by Odin, reside in Valhalla in Asgard.  Hunin and Munin are not Gods, yet They serve Odin, live in Asgard, and fulfill very important functions mythologically, and in terms of human-divine communication.  It would be remiss of me to recognize Them as Gods or to ascribe godhood to these holy Ravens.  This not a monotheist idea; rather, it is a polytheist means of discerning between Gods and not-Gods.  It is not a matter of value, but of substance, inquiring into the thingness of a Being, and recognizing It for what It is or may be.

Parsing what is and is not a God is a pretty important theological question, and I expect that each tradition, group, and indeed each person, may wrestle with this idea several times over their life.  I find this to be a good thing.  I find that marking out boundaries is equally a good thing because it aids in discernment and in understanding by having clear ideas of what constitutes this idea of a Being.  In developing the idea of discrete categories we can come to understand where the Venn diagram has Beings who overlap into different categories of Being, and where and how these categories can bleed into one another, and where a discrete understanding of what those boundaries are, and where in the Venn overlaps a Being is may be found.  If a person believes in the concept of a single circle and that labeling that as ‘g/Gods’ is sufficient, so be it, but I do not agree with it.

Helio uses the example of Disir, stating:

Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.

Here again, I disagree with him.  The Disir, such as I understand Them, are not Goddesses Themselves, but powerful female Ancestors.  They may be divine women, but They are not Goddesses, per se.  Semantics, especially when we are talking about how we parse Who is what, is important.  While the word dis may be related to the word goddess, I do not see the Disir as Goddesses in the same arena as, say Freya.  It is more than Freya being more recognized; the Disir’s spheres of influence are less than Freya’s, and Their importance to the Heathen cosmology is less in impact than Freya.  While the Disir are very important in my spheres and perhaps regionally emenating out from Their relationship with me and I with Them, in the larger spheres of the religion the Disir do not carry as much weight.  Freya is more than what She is within the myths and stories, of course, but those myths and stories point to Her importance cosmologically, to the spheres of influence She has, and the relationships and relationality between Her and other Beings.  There is also the understanding that She simply wields a good deal more power than other Beings, going along with the notion that Her spheres of influence are larger.  At the very least She wields a good deal of power in areas other Beings do not.  So, because of Their roles within the religion, and Their relative effect on the religion and the power They each wield, I look at the Disir as powerful female Ancestors.

I also believe that were I to relate to Freya to as an Ancestor, I would understand this as an intersection between Goddess and Disir.  These distinctions between how I understand Goddesses and Disir would not disappear, however.  There would be a difference in calling to Freya as a Disir comparative to, say, the Vanadis.  That understanding is why I count Odin among my powerful male Ancestors, the Väter, and yet also relate to Him as a God.  His God-ness is not set aside, but my understanding of Odin also carries the nuance of relating to and understanding Him as one of my Väter.

Again, overlap in a Venn diagram does not and cannot erase the circles or it will cease to be a Venn diagram.

I do not disagree that humans have the potential to become Gods nor do I believe the categories should be so discrete that the circles never cross.  As I have thought on this, one issue that keeps coming up is that the idea that the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir share similarities to kami.  While Helio does not go into this in the main article, he does in the comments.  I recoil at the notion that we should view our Gods this way, as there are categories of Beings.  The Aesir are not the Dvergar, the Dvergar are not the Vanir, the Vanir are not the Jotun.  While I may worship, for instance, Andvari, He does not become a God by dint of my worship, or the landvaettir would all enter into godhood as well.  While that notion would be what I assume, from his writing, Helio advocates, I find distinct categories as a useful thing.

Lumping everything into one category, i.e. ‘god’ does not strike me as respectful of the differences between different kinds of spirits, nor of the Gods.  It is one thing to worship a river God, and another to assume that all the Beings in that river, or that all big rivers, would associate themselves with such a notion.  From an animist point of view, Gods are big or more influential spirits compared to those spirits which are smaller, more localized, and/or have less spheres of influence.  So while I am not actively denying God-as-spirit, I believe that referring to all spirits as Gods misses the point of the word ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’.  Just because the Germanic and Scandinavian people saw some Gods and vaettir as being one in the same, that does not set aside that they had different divine categories.  Bleedover between categories in how they saw the Gods and vaettir does not mean they saw Them as one in the same.  Even if there were related concepts, the sources I have seen and how I understand the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir deny homogenization of identity.

Narrowing, in my view, is not missing.  Not narrowing is erasing by homogenization, in this case.  It would be a disservice to our religions if we were to strip the meaning of ‘God’ and ‘Goddess’.  If words such as ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ are to retain any meaning in dialogue or theology, the circles need to be defined even if they sometimes bleed over into one another.  Divinity may be everywhere, and there may be a potentially unlimited number of Gods, Goddesses, but we would be unable to recognize Them as such without some clear ideas on what a God is, what makes a God a God, and what differentiates it from other spirits.  Categorizing all beings as such erases the meaning of the words.

8 thoughts on “Narrowing Brings Discernment

  1. Yes, very much agreed…

    One of the categories that has helped me to understand this is heroes/heroines. They are, technically, “special ancestors,” and yet they often gain a degree of land-enspiritedness as well as a result of consistent interaction with a locality, often either their birth-place or their death-place or tomb. They’re not-quite-gods, though…

    Then there’s also daimones; some Greeks regarded the gods as a special category of daimones

    Then there’s the Roman concept of the numen, which is actually damn close to the Shinto concept of kami

    And, the deity/hero/daimon who necessitated this exploration of such distinctions for me was, of course, Antinous. Say what one may about his relative level of divinity, but one thing is for sure: he can’t just be an ancestor (though I have been derided by people who don’t know me, nor him, nor my practices, for mistaking him for a god when–in their opinion–he is just an ancestor…but their opinion means squat, when it is clear that he’s more than that from every bit if evidence extant from the ancient world).

    Anyway…may categories of this nature proliferate! 😉


    • Considering that I know relatively little about Shinto and the particulars (or lack thereof; I remember your quoting that unknown Shinto priest who said their religion is about dancing!) the moniker of spirits seems closest to kami. To my mind the idea of ‘God’ or ‘Goddess’ is too specialized to be so generic a term to throw around. That may well just be because I associate God/dess with the idea of something big, and that bigness may be relative to the place I am in or the forces involved. A God/dess of a river is considerably ‘bigger’ than, say, a landvaettr of an individual blade of grass.

      The hero/heroine category makes sense in regards to Greek and Roman religion. The Disir and Väter hit close here, though, they’re not directly equivalent. Just…close in the regard we hold Them, rather than the particulars of Their respective roles in our religions.

      *gasp, shock* Antinous pushed you to explore things? 😉

      Seriously though, the notion here of ‘he can’t just be an ancestor’ makes sense in regards to how I relate to Odin, though again, this is a bit different considering Odin does not have the hero status Antinous does. Still, the categories we explored individually help us explain some of what we’re talking about because ‘hero’ means something different from normal nomenclature when we use it. That’s a big plus, too, in agreed-upon categorizations from across religious boundaries, and gets to the point of why I object in lumping Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir together.

      Aye, may categories proliferate so we may better be able to explain, explore, and share our experiences of the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir!


      • For my understanding, the Latin numen comes closer to Shinto kami than “spirits,” personally, because with both kami and numen, there is an impersonal, non-anthro- (or any!) morphic quality to the category. It can be almost on the level of what some pagans would just call “energy,” and indeed numina and numinous comes from the Latin root. Kami gets translated as “anything deserving respect and possessing power,” and that can take personal forms like the major kami (and thus like the deities), or localized forms in land features or particular territories, etc. “Spirits” still feels too personal to me, meaning person-based, and generally for personhood to be a factor in something, individuality must be distinguishable. It is perhaps expectable, thus, that a communal and collectivist culture like Japan’s would have a spiritual concept which encompasses both the individual and the impersonal collective and non-particular numinous; but it is thus likewise intriguing that the Latin concept also has this dimension as a part of things just as much as the more personal and distinct panoply of deities into late antiquity.


      • Interesting. Hmm. There’s a kind of overlap here with the energies of a place and the morphizing that goes on, i.e. with trolls as being landvaettir as well as Jotun who will be said to personify this valley or that mountain. For me, energy is as close a word as I have to encompass the numinous being of a place without placing an anthropomorphic Being concept such as a vaettr, troll, Jotun, God/dess, etc. onto it.

        So rather than a morphized understanding of a place of land it is the energetic feel and actual being of a place? Like how sacred spaces have a different energetic feel, as do wild places? Is that what is meant by the numen or more impersonal kami?

        This is an interesting thing for me to explore, because as I understand it each blade of grass has a spirit just as each tree does. They fit together in communities, so that an individual blade of grass’ identity, to us looking in on the outside, may be part of an amalgamated whole (or perhaps it is in the sense that we are made of cells), and so, may be represented to us by a vaettr. So instead of differentiating between these blades of grass as individual vaettr, the understanding of numen grants that each contributes to the energy of a place which is due respect equivalent in nature to revering a vaettr or vaettir?


  2. To clarify, I did not mean to say that categorization is of little use. My point is that “god” is a wide category, not a narrow one reserved only for the few at the top. Greater, smaller, local or supralocal gods, gods from above and below, from this or that tribe or group – these are all subcategories within a wider one. They’re useful when you want to address and understand specific types of entities, no doubt about it, but that doesn’t disqualify smaller, lesser, local and more limited otherworldly or more-then-mere-humans from the god category.

    There’s good ground for this in Roman polytheism, where the Latin “deus/di” was used for all sorts of numinous beings, much like kami is: the dead, your relatives, nymphs, house wights and household gods, small powers of minor things, they’re all called by the same term as the twelve great: deus, dea, di.

    To put it in Norse terms, Aesir and Vanir are two subcategories inside the greater god category. As are the Jotuns. Terminology is trickier in the north because we have very little from a purely pre-Christian perspective and the sources are not only scarce, but also largely literary and biased towards Odin and his kin. Yet in at least one instance, the term “tyr/tivar” (god/gods) is used not just for what people would normally call gods, but also for Skadi’s father.

    My point is simple: don’t narrow the god category based on the assumption that only those at the topmost position are entitled to it. That wasn’t or at least may not have been the ancient polytheists perspective on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been looking back through the comments in old posts I have made, and found I had not responded to you.

      For that, I apologize!

      In reading your comment, I get what you mean, and hope I’ve shown that I agree in the article above. That great, small, local, and supralocal Gods all fit within the understanding of Gods. What I thought was being tossed aside was discernment in regards to the kinds of vaettir, i.e. Dvergar, Alfar, etc. in lieu of ‘they’re all Gods!’. Thank you for taking the time out to comment here. Again, I apologize for taking so long in responding!


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