There is a bit of a thing being discussed in the Polytheist blogosphere at the moment, regarding how we speak of the Gods. The issue at hand is fairly simple, on the surface. Wayne Martin Mellinger wrote a post over at Gods and Radicals, in that post he spoke of his personal system that he calls Dionysian Naturalism. And he spoke of Dionysos in the past tense, ie. “Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of…” and “Dionysus was the God of…”
This has, obviously, made some in the polytheist community quite angry. Why? Because He isn’t, “was a God” He is a God. He is now, not just then. He is alive now, so referencing Him in the past tense is a bit, well, disrespectful to say the least.
But then I read the offending words again.
“Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine and ecstasy whose followers were well known for sacred rituals which were wildly festive and transgressive to such an extent that they approached drunken orgies. We now know that the Mystery Religions of ancient Greece often consumed powerful hallucinogenic plants, such as ergot and Belladonna, with sacred intent–perhaps a legacy of earlier shamanic traditions. Dionysus was the “Giver of Ecstasy” who transported his followers through an altered state of consciousness to a mystical rapture, which included wild dancing and other trance-induced activities.”
And I realised, I too speak of the Gods in a similar way. Referring to someone in the past doesn’t necessarily remove them from the present. “I was alive ten years ago” doesn’t automatically mean I am not alive today, it just means I was alive then.
And so, “Dionysus was the ancient Greek God of…” doesn’t have to mean He is not still the God of whatever, it doesn’t mean He is not here and real and now. It may reference the fact that ancient Greece is no more. He was an ancient Greek God, but is He still? Can we say, He is an ancient Greek God, when ancient Greece is gone?
We can certainly say He is a Hellenic God. We can maybe say He is a Greek God, because there are modern Hellenes in modern Greece. But can we say He is an ancient Greek God, when in truth He isn’t any more?It is a matter of semantics, that’s true. For me personally, when I say such things, I mean in it in exactly that way – He was the ancient Greek God, because there is no ancient Greece any more. So the past tense usage is in reference to ancient Greece not to the Gods themselves.
The second past tense usage in the quoted passage has no such semantic luxury to fall back on, however. “Dionysus was the “Giver of Ecstasy…” and while it does follow on to speak of past events, those events are not of a single specific moment, they are still present in the modern world and as such, the usage is a bit on the nose.
Dionysos was the ancient Greek God of… yes. But He is the Giver of Ecstasy. I know this and have experienced it and it is why I tend to avoid Him. Sorry.
Still, I cannot speak of the meaning behind someone elses words. Admittedly, that the author is a non-theist does suggest they meant their words as written – past tense because past only. But I can’t say for sure, so I won’t assume that is the case. And I do understand that sometimes it is all too easy to say things you don’t mean to say.
I have, on multiple occasions, called my son by our (now gone) dogs name – and vice versa. I once said something along the lines of, “Yes but when kids grow up and become human…” Yeh, I have said some things that I certainly didn’t mean, that I didn’t believe, that I didn’t think. And when I say said, I also mean wrote, because the “kids become human” was written on Facebook. Probably still there on my timeline somewhere, proof of my idiocy. My brain and my mind are fallible, squishy and utterly stupid sometimes.
And when you spend a lot of time looking into the past, learning about it and attempting to bring the past into the present, it is indeed easy to accidentally make past tense references when you really should be making present tense ones. I make specific past tense references to the Gods – usually in reference to the actual past, not generalising Their existence as past. But the fact remains, it is possible that I have made more general past tense references that I really shouldn’t have.
I am both sorry and not sorry for that sort of mistake. I am genuinely sorry if I have made that mistake (or if I make it in the future). But at the same time, sometimes you have to recognise that shit happens.
Still, it is a good reminder to be more careful of how I word things, to remember that when I am reading through my drafts I check for this sort of squishy-brain wording. And it is good to remind everyone else to do the same. Shit happens, sure. But it’s always good to try to prevent shit from happening.
And even if you do not believe in the Gods as immanent, real, self-aware, tangible beings – if you are going to use Their names in your religion, you might consider being a bit more respectful towards at least the possibility of Their real existence, and towards those of us who do believe and know They are real.
Respect goes a long way in this shared but diverse community of ours.