Being an engineer is more than how I make my living – it’s part of who I am. I’m never satisfied with simply knowing that something does work, I want to know how it works. I read owners manuals and technical specifications. I take things apart and put them back together. For me the greatest question isn’t “why?” it’s “how?”
So it should come as no surprise that I find theology fascinating. Who are these gods and goddesses I’ve experienced? Where do they come from, what is their nature, why are they here, what do they want and what can I learn from them?
Modern Paganism hasn’t done much to answer these questions. Michael York is an exception to that rule. He is a religious scholar who is also a Pagan. Yesterday he posted an essay on Patheos titled “Not All Gods Are Deities.” It is a short but deep look into the origins and nature of gods and goddesses. Like most theological works, this essay is filled with jargon and attempts to parse big ideas into tiny, finite classifications. It’s a challenge to read, but the challenge is worth it.
York divides gods and goddesses into three categories: deities, non-deities and super-gods. He says deities are “those gods who are born … from the earth, the terra mater. The name ‘deity’ designates ‘brightness’ … it is light – both symbolic and actual – that the deities have in common and what distinguishes them from the non-deific gods.” This includes most of the goddesses and gods of our ancestors and of our contemporary Pagan pantheons.
Non-deity gods are what York calls “asurian” – a Hindu term designating beings who are in opposition to deities and humanity. York says “they are the fearsome. Because of their terrifying and annihilating functions, our forebears frequently approached them apotropaically in the attempt to ward off and deflect their negative influences.” ADF Druids acknowledge these beings when they make appeasement offerings to the “Outdwellers” as part of their rituals.
While the tradition York draws from here is authentic, the differences between deities and non-deities seem to be more relative than absolute: those on our side are deities, the others are Asura. Or to draw on ADF’s explanation, the Asura are those who were here before us, were conquered, but are still hanging around and may cause trouble from time to time. Examples are the Greek Titans, the Norse Jotuns, and the Celtic Formorians. Where do you put the Egyptian Set or the Norse Loki?
York’s super-gods “are more abstract and often intellectual developments.” His examples include Logos, Yahweh, Brahma, and Sophia. They function at such a high level they aren’t far from being the God of monotheism. I have to wonder if these “super-gods” aren’t ordinary deities with good PR agents. It can be helpful to contemplate them or to meditate on them as abstracts or ideals, but we are unlikely to form a reciprocal relationship beneficial to ourselves or to them.
York completely ignores another type of god: deified ancestors. Many tribal religions place ancestors on the same plane as gods. There is some indication that Isis was once a mortal queen. As a Unitarian I reject the idea that Jesus was God, but if he wasn’t born divine he’s certainly been made a god over the past 2000 years. And you can make a strong case that Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and other American heroes either are or in the process of becoming gods.
I think York’s three-fold classification may be helpful at a practical level: why would we honor a goddess or god whose aims are antithetical to our own? Why would we make offerings to a god or goddess who is so far removed from life in this realm he or she is unlikely to notice us? Better to put our efforts toward the deities who share our connection to Nature and who can be known through lore and through direct experience.
Theologian or not, York seems to understand this. After precisely defining deities, non-deities, and super-gods, he says “for myself, I am content with and prefer the elemental gods of nature.” For us, he recommends “find your grove, your sacred stone, your source, spring, well or fountain, your quiet reflective spot in your pagus and listen. If you want, the gods will speak to you.”
And in that, Michael York and I are in complete agreement.