Michael York: Not All Gods Are Deities

Reprinted with permission from a Facebook group. Micheal York is a Pagan theologian and teaches at Cherry Hill Seminary.

I want to talk about the gods. We probably all think of the gods differently, and some of us do not think of them at all and/or discount any existential propensity to them. For some of us they are symbols; for others they are real beings. I have currently some provocative students through my CHS module on the World’s Religions. Several have expressed themselves as panentheists, and this introduces a further understanding of godhead than what I consider and prefer as ‘deep paganism’. I think it is important from the perspective of this last to understand the terms ‘pagan’, ‘human’ and ‘natural’ as essentially synonymous. And with gods themselves, there are deities, non-deities and super-gods. Let me attempt to explain.

Ancient Roman fresco of Pan and Hermaphroditus from the House of Dioscuri in Pompeii, Naples, Italy.

First, I think it is helpful to recognise the double-nature of the gods. For instance, we have the earth-goddess and the goddess of the earth, the sun-god/dess and the god/dess of the sun, the lightning-god and the god of lightning. Henceforth, I will employ the term ‘god’ as gender inclusive to comprehend both goddesses and male gods. The duality of the gods, however, indicates that the individual god is both the thing itself (e.g., earth, sun, lightning) and the metaphorical spirit, patron, ‘ruler’ and/or dynamic that is resident or associated with the base object or thing. The first might be understood as the natura naturata and the second as the natura naturans – the latter being the potential and the latent; the former the actual and embodied. As Robert Corrington has explained, ‘nature naturing’ seeks resonance with ‘nature natured’, and where this affinity is to be found and is the strongest, we have an instance of sacred place – e.g., Delphi, Stonehenge, etc.

The pagan is a ‘person of the pagus’ – the pagus being the ‘place’ or ‘locality’. And what distinguishes a pagan from a person of another or different spirituality is on how value and meaning are determined and held. The geocentric bias of the pagan is metaphorically Ptolemaic rather than Copernican – not because the earth is the centre of the cosmos but because for us it appears to be. And the earth vis-à-vis the cosmos is our pagus, and it is foremost within the pagus and its various extensions (pagi) that we find what is valuable and meaningful to us. The earth is where the natura naturans coincides with the natura naturata to constitute a numinous matrix prima inter pares or what Corrington refers to as ‘semiotic plenitude’. Likewise the sun, as a primary symbol and embodiment of the divine, is a key *locus* in which significance and worth coincide with the actual. It becomes another pagus and location of ‘semiotic plenitude’. It is this manner in which we can understand our gods whether earth, sun, lightning and so forth. They are loci and vehicles of meaning and value – both metaphorical projections and physical realities that perform important things.

I have contended that not all gods are deities. The deities themselves are those gods who are born (metaphorically at least) from the earth, the terra mater. The name ‘deity’ designates ‘brightness’, and the deities are the children of Deus (Zeus, Jupiter, Dyaus, etc.) who is himself ultimately and originally according to our earliest linguistic ancestors the primordial child and lover of the earth. It is light – both symbolic and actual – that the deities have in common and what distinguishes them from the non-deific gods – including those that may be considered anti-divine. And the deities are in some sense corporeal in that they all descend from the terra mater (Gaia, Prithivi, Nerthus, etc.)

The non-deity gods are a complicated bunch that, in their anti-divine understandings, or what I have elsewhere designated as the ‘asurian’ in contrast to the ‘divine’, and despite their ‘masks’, constitute and represent the ‘forces’ that oppose the divine-natural-human enterprise. 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. In this ritual process, they were often given benign names. It is the legacy of this largely forgotten practice that has resulted in the theological confusion under which we still labour today. One way to distinguish the deities from the ‘asuras’, however, is to locate the natural base of the former – one which the latter often do not have.

I have also mentioned the super-gods. These contrast with the seminal deities who each have a natural base and affinity. The super-gods are more abstract and often intellectual developments. These include Demiourgos, Logos, Yahweh-Elohim, Ptah, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Fortuna, Tyche, Necessitas, Kwan Yen, Sophia and even the medieval Christian goddess of Natura. Some of these have divine origins (Fortuna, Natura, Vishnu, Shiva), but they come to operate, as do all super-gods, as something ‘greater’ and ‘over’ the more original and elemental gods of nature. Included here would be the a priori ‘God’ of the panentheists. Typical of ‘creation’ from a super-god understanding is the magical act of creating through the word. ‘God said let there be light’. From a more purely divine sense of origins, light evolves from the mother; it is ‘born’ (natus > ‘nature’) from the mater. And in this sense, it is – like we – ‘human’, that is, an ‘earthling’, a child or product of the earth. The Gaia-Deus sequence and primordial coupling comprehends the matter-energy continuum as the comprehensive divine substratum, origin and sacred being of the entire cosmos, that fully all of the all.

The super-gods are interesting but more difficult to navigate. For myself, I am content with and prefer the elemental gods of nature. But in all, there are many gods, many different gods, and, likewise, many different ways to approach them. Pagan gods for the most part, like those of the ancient Vedic peoples, are essentially benign personifications of nature. One may ignore them, and they simply in turn ignore you – unlike the more vindictive entity of the Abrahamic tradition who demands to be worshipped. I know many of a pagan orientation who have no interest in the gods – either deny their existence, consider them primitive or immature fabrications, or, like Epicurus, simply choose to ignore them. But in the very least they are revered aspects of nature that also act as portal keepers to the numinous otherworld. From a pagan orientation, the ‘trick’ is to catch that dynamic between the object or idea and effervescent other of which it is simultaneously a metaphor – through ritual contemplation, ecstatic dance, entheogenic insight or even the chance encounter of what Hindus call darshan. But what happens in these moments is that a whole world that is resident although largely and usually invisibly to us opens up, becomes manifest and becomes a source of additional pagan joy and discovery. None of this needs to be complicated. 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.

  • http://profiles.google.com/alison.shaffer Alison Leigh Lilly (née Shaffe

    Fascinating! A lot to unpack here…. I’m not sure I have anything substantive to add at the moment, but I really appreciate the complexity and subtlety of York’s approach. It jives very well with my own understanding of an “ecology/ecosystem of Spirit” in which there are many different entities and beings, not all of which are deity-gods. I like the linguistic insight York brings to this, too (though he gets a bit bogged down by Latin at times ;).

  • http://profiles.google.com/alison.shaffer Alison Leigh Lilly (née Shaffe

    Fascinating! A lot to unpack here…. I’m not sure I have anything substantive to add at the moment, but I really appreciate the complexity and subtlety of York’s approach. It jives very well with my own understanding of an “ecology/ecosystem of Spirit” in which there are many different entities and beings, not all of which are deity-gods. I like the linguistic insight York brings to this, too (though he gets a bit bogged down by Latin at times ;).

  • Hbuchy

    “The non-deity gods are a complicated bunch that, in their anti-divine understandings, or what I have elsewhere designated as the ‘asurian’ in contrast to the ‘divine’, and despite their ‘masks’, constitute and represent the ‘forces’ that oppose the divine-natural-human enterprise.”
    Not so.

  • Hbuchy

    “The non-deity gods are a complicated bunch that, in their anti-divine understandings, or what I have elsewhere designated as the ‘asurian’ in contrast to the ‘divine’, and despite their ‘masks’, constitute and represent the ‘forces’ that oppose the divine-natural-human enterprise.”
    Not so.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PMTLR3IIGKPHZ2YNU3PDXWK4WA Kenneth

    Interesting in an academic sense, but I have to say the fine points of the phylogenetics of the gods is near the bottom of my lists of practical concerns as a pagan. I will consider myself very lucky if I come to understand most of who I am by the end of this life, let alone the details of what they are.

    • Hbuchy

      ah, knowing who ‘I am’ is also knowing the details of what ‘they’ are, at least that’s how I see it. But yeah, I can know about them academically, it’s not the same as knowing them. Like one knows a relative, or any other person.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PMTLR3IIGKPHZ2YNU3PDXWK4WA Kenneth

    Interesting in an academic sense, but I have to say the fine points of the phylogenetics of the gods is near the bottom of my lists of practical concerns as a pagan. I will consider myself very lucky if I come to understand most of who I am by the end of this life, let alone the details of what they are.

    • Hbuchy

      ah, knowing who ‘I am’ is also knowing the details of what ‘they’ are, at least that’s how I see it. But yeah, I can know about them academically, it’s not the same as knowing them. Like one knows a relative, or any other person.

  • http://en-pi.facebook.com/steward John Deltuvia

    In the United States, the storage compartment in an automobile is commonly referred to as the “trunk”.  This can be confusing because there is a portable storage unit also called a “trunk”.  Now, of course, the original derivation of “trunk” as applied to an automobile is “trunk compartment”, that is, the compartment where you put your “trunk”.  The language has changed from its original derivation.So, even accepting your derivation, the OED definition of deity is:

    “1.a. The estate or rank of a god; godhood; the personality of a god; godship; esp. with poss. pron….

    “b. The divine quality, character, or nature of God; Godhood, divinity; the divine nature and attributes, the Godhead.

    “c. The condition or state in which the Divine Being exists. Obs.

    “2. a. concr. A divinity, a divine being, a god; one of the gods worshipped by a people or tribe.”b. fig. An object of worship; a thing or person deified.”3. (with capital) A supreme being as creator of the universe; the Deity, the Supreme Being, God. (Especially as a term of Natural Theology, and without explicit predication of personality.)”So, in common usage in modern English, all gods are deities… but under definition 2b, not all deities are necessarily gods. ;)

  • http://en-pi.facebook.com/steward John Deltuvia

    In the United States, the storage compartment in an automobile is commonly referred to as the “trunk”.  This can be confusing because there is a portable storage unit also called a “trunk”.  Now, of course, the original derivation of “trunk” as applied to an automobile is “trunk compartment”, that is, the compartment where you put your “trunk”.  The language has changed from its original derivation.So, even accepting your derivation, the OED definition of deity is:

    “1.a. The estate or rank of a god; godhood; the personality of a god; godship; esp. with poss. pron….

    “b. The divine quality, character, or nature of God; Godhood, divinity; the divine nature and attributes, the Godhead.

    “c. The condition or state in which the Divine Being exists. Obs.

    “2. a. concr. A divinity, a divine being, a god; one of the gods worshipped by a people or tribe.”b. fig. An object of worship; a thing or person deified.”3. (with capital) A supreme being as creator of the universe; the Deity, the Supreme Being, God. (Especially as a term of Natural Theology, and without explicit predication of personality.)”So, in common usage in modern English, all gods are deities… but under definition 2b, not all deities are necessarily gods. ;)

  • John Beckett

    I like theology, but as with most theological works, this essay is filled with technical jargon and frustrating attempts to parse big ideas into tiny, finite classifications.  After reading it four times I’ve come to the conclusion that York’s three types of gods are a matter of degree, not of kind.
     
    The differences between deities and non-deities seem to be more relative than absolute:  those on our side are deities, the others are Asura.  And I have to think that super-gods are just ordinary gods with really good PR agents. 
     
    This classification may help us decide which goddesses or gods would be most beneficial to approach, but I don’t think it advances our understanding of their nature.

  • John Beckett

    I like theology, but as with most theological works, this essay is filled with technical jargon and frustrating attempts to parse big ideas into tiny, finite classifications.  After reading it four times I’ve come to the conclusion that York’s three types of gods are a matter of degree, not of kind.
     
    The differences between deities and non-deities seem to be more relative than absolute:  those on our side are deities, the others are Asura.  And I have to think that super-gods are just ordinary gods with really good PR agents. 
     
    This classification may help us decide which goddesses or gods would be most beneficial to approach, but I don’t think it advances our understanding of their nature.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jannekebrouwers Janneke Brouwers

    Where was this article originally published?

    • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

      A closed Facebook group. I didn’t link because it wasn’t an open group, and I’m not an admin or owner of that group.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jannekebrouwers Janneke Brouwers

    Where was this article originally published?

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      A closed Facebook group. I didn’t link because it wasn’t an open group, and I’m not an admin or owner of that group.


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