Do The Gods Change?

Do The Gods Change? March 10, 2013

In response to the last post on the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, Soliwo asked “why could the gods not change?” while Conor O’Bryan Warren said “A lot of Neo-Platonic thought and ideas are contingent upon the Gods being perfect and unchanging. I am not a fan of it.”

I share their concerns. I will restate that I am no expert on Neoplatonism and I welcome those that are to comment and expand on any key points I miss. But it is pretty clear to me that they thought the gods (or at least, the immaterial gods) were perfect and unchanging. Their philosophy demanded perfect gods, and perfection meant they could not change – if the perfect changes it becomes imperfect.

There was much cross-pollination in the ancient Mediterranean religious world and we see this attitude in Jewish and Christian thought as well. The Book of Malachi (written between 450-350 BCE) says “I the Lord do not change.” The Book of James (traditionally thought to have been written in the 1st century CE) says “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

The idea of perfection is appealing. If we have perfection, not only do we have the best there can ever be, we’re also done. Finished. Completed. If we have perfection, we can stop working and practicing and just hang out. Even if we know we can’t be perfect we’d like our gods to be perfect. Yet even a casual reading of the stories of our ancestors shows that our gods and goddesses are anything but perfect. I wrote about “Imperfect Gods” last year and I won’t repeat myself here, in part because “imperfect” doesn’t mean “changing.” I’m sure you know someone (or several someones) who is imperfect in tragic or harmful ways but is unable or unwilling to change.

The old goddesses and gods change in the literal sense: Cerridwen’s shape shifting, Zeus changing his form on his many seductions, Osiris being dismembered by Set and then reassembled by Isis. Their circumstances change: the Tuatha de Danann were oppressed by the Fomorians, who they defeated. But they were later driven underhill by the Milesians. They change their minds: Ra was angry with the behavior of humanity, but changed his mind when he saw how many of them Sekhmet killed.

Even Yahweh changes. Genesis says “the Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” and Exodus says “then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” These books pre-date Greek thought on unchanging deities even if they aren’t as old as the fundamentalists say they are. Conservative Christians perform logical gymnastics to show how their god didn’t really change, but that violates the plain reading of the text they claim to support.

Clearly the gods change. The question is “in what ways do they change?” Many deities who in ancient times demanded blood sacrifice seem perfectly happy with ordinary food and drink. Some warlike deities lend their support to less drastic means of protecting the tribe. And speaking of tribes, there are many examples of gods and goddesses calling or claiming people across traditional bloodlines.

Here is where those of us who are hard polytheists must walk a very fine line. If we are not both mindful and reverent, we can re-create our goddesses and gods in our own image and end up with a watered-down god of 21st century Western liberalism (or conservatism, depending on your political views). When dealing with gods and goddesses we should give great deference to the established lore about them, particularly in matters of their essential character.

But if we treat “the lore” the way Christian fundamentalists treat the Bible, we freeze our gods in a time and place that no longer exists (at least not in this world). They are alive and we should pay attention to our experiences of them – to our own unverified personal gnosis (UPG). But take care to evaluate your UPG against that of others and weigh it against your values and ethics.

Also remember that the lore is only a small part of the lives of the deities. We only see how they interacted with the people of ancient times and those stories are filtered through their lives and their values. Here’s an excellent essay by Morpheus Ravenna examining why the very warlike Morrigan is working today through non-violent means. Pay particular attention to the exchange between Morpheus and the commenter Helix, where Morpheus says “Her participation in war is always derivative from Her primary function, which is as a tribal sovereignty Goddess.” Morrigan’s essential function and “personality” may not have changed, but her approach clearly has.

All living things change. We learn, we grow, we adapt. Our goddesses and gods are more like us than not – it is reasonable to believe they change too. I’m thankful for that – I can’t relate to a perfect, unchanging god.

I’ll end with a beautiful ballad that illustrates how one particular goddesses changed. This is “Valkyrie Daughter” by S.J. Tucker. You might want to grab a handkerchief before you press “play.”

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  • I think a lot of the change may be the consideration of our culture and the formation of our ethics. I think the Gods are entirely aware that we have a certain culture, system of ethics, unspoken rules and lines, and they realize that our expression of devotion will be different from the ancients. The Gods are realistic beings, even when they push us to our limits in some areas.

    • I think you’re right. And it very well may – may – be that our changes in ethics over the centuries have been due in part to the guidance of the gods. If they truly are more than us, I have to think they’re happy with less mindless bloodshed.

      • Exactly, the Gods appreciate mindful bloodshed much more!
        I joke, but I think the idea that the Gods won’t understand some of the ways we HAVE to do things is kind of ridiculous, and I’m saying this as a reconstructionist. I’ve run into (albeit only once or twice) folks who insist the Gods are so unchanging that they won’t understand why we do things, or who might be angered by libations of *gasp* soda, because it wasn’t around when they were being worshiped (though, admittedly, soda is horrid for soil and vegetation). As for the Gods influencing us, I wouldn’t be surprised, but then again I haven’t had any UPG or anything that would lend me towards adopting it as a stance.

        • In my experience, the things the Gods don’t comprehend about human life don’t have to do with modernity, they have to do with the inherent limitations of being corporeal. I’ve had interactions with Gods via technological systems, using forms of worship and offerings never conceived of in their source cultures, etc. But the things that cause an interruption in my work with the Gods are usually something like me saying “I need to remind you that I can’t do X thing you just asked me to, because I live in a body with these limitations, see?” I imagine that particular problem was always there.

  • I appreciate all these discussions about the Morrigan lately, because they’re actually helping me understand Odin better, who seems to have a very similar personality. I remember when I first got into heathenism around the same time the Iraq War was just starting, and being told by some online heathens that I couldn’t be a good heathen, much less a good worshiper of Odin, if I was against the Iraq War, which I was from the beginning.

    I just didn’t think that, just because one happens to worship a warrior deity, you have to be in favor of every single war, just for war’s sake, even unnecessary ones. The end of that post by Morpheus makes a good point that the military- industrial complex is very different from the kind of war our ancestors fought. The Morrigan and Odin are smart enough to understand that.

    • A warrior is a person who does what must be done, no matter what. As you say, there is a huge difference between repelling invaders who will kill you for your land and spending trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to maintain a crumbling empire.

      One need not be a pacifist to oppose a war started under false pretenses, with high costs and low benefits.

    • Agreed, and your Heathen friends who claimed you couldn’t be Heathen and oppose a specific war such as the Iraq war, were wrong. If there is any honor in warriorship, it has to involve an assessment of the value, merit, and cost of a particular engagement. War Gods understand this much better than we do, in my experience, and I think it is part of their function to remind people of this.

      Interestingly, most of the people I know who worship the Morrigan, and I imagine this goes for other war Gods too, have tended to be very critical of 20th century US war policy and use of the military. Our government and military behave much more like the Roman empire than anything resembling the relationship to warfare of the Celtic tribes.

      As an interesting aside, since you mention Odin and the Morrigan – I have had a number of experiences suggesting that the two of them talk. Not surprising, really.

  • There is a way to reconcile the Platonic and pragmatic views. This way is equally applicable to monotheistic, soft-polytheistic, hard-polytheistic, pantheistic, henotheistic, or whatever-istic approaches.

    First, recognize that WE change, and that our own understanding of divine reality is not and never will be perfect. Any image, concept, or idea of God/the gods that we have is, at best, a valid metaphor for something unknowable. (At worst, and this tends to happen when we forget the limitations of our own intellect, they become literal conceptions, believed as such, which are wrong — automatically and inevitably.) Whatever God/the gods is/are in him/her/it/themselves, we cannot know. We can only use conceptual metaphors to allow our minds to tune in to he/she/it/them, which makes for transformation and empowerment of our own spirits.

    Thus, God/the gods can be (and arguably is/are) unchanging and perfect in him/her/it/themselves, but our own metaphorical conceptions of he/she/it/them evolve as our own minds evolve.

    As for how we can avoid changing (our conceptions of) the gods to match our modern circumstances, we can’t, shouldn’t try not to, and are wrong to think of it that way.

    • Brian, you make some good points. I totally agree that our understanding of the gods will never be perfect, that we change, and thus our understanding of the gods will change. Changing our conceptions of the gods to match our modern circumstances is a good thing, as five minutes speaking with a Christian Reconstructionist will prove. Changing our conceptions of the gods to match our own prejudices and preferences to the extent they no longer urge us to change and change for the good is another matter entirely. That path lead to the watered-down god of 21st century Western liberalism.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I was just reading the “Devi Bhagavatam” the other day and it was saying that the Hindu gods are all made up of the three gunas or qualities, so just like humans they can sometimes suffer from an excess of one of the three gunas, leading to poor behavior. When this happens, they must pay the karmic debt for their misdeeds by being reincarnated within human beings. The faults that plague us are determined by which gods are reincarnated within us- so arrogant people carry some of Indra’s karma, etc.

    On the other hand, the Neoplatonist Sallust said “myth is that which never was but always is,” one of my favorite quotes about myth. From that perspective, all events in myth exist outside of time in the eternal present, and in that sense the gods do not change- the Tuatha de Danann are battling the Fomorians right now, and going down into the Sid hills right now, because myth is always now and never merely within history.

    • Interesting. One of these days I’m going to have to do some study into the Hindu concepts of karma and reincarnation. What I “know” about them is what I’ve picked up from Pagan and New Age sources, which I understand doesn’t quite match the original…

  • I have no fundamental, nor particular, disagreements with the positions you’ve laid out here…

    I do, however, have one suggestion, which is of a proofreading/edition nature. The Irish phrase “Tuatha Dé” should always have the “” capitalized. It is the word “Gods,” not a Latinate preposition or definite article or other particle. The phrase means the “People/Tribe of the Gods,” and actually the last word of it is not necessarily early in provenance, and developed over time through various intermediaries.

    I think it’s important to point this out for those who are working within druidic and Celtic-derived paradigms, because it’s best to give them the respect they’re due, and to have knowledge of the terms one is actually using when they originate in a non-English language and culture. So, given that the above applies to you, I wanted to make sure you knew for future reference!

    But, otherwise, carry on! 😉

    • I’ve heard it said that a person who speaks three languages is trilingual, a person who speaks two languages is bilingual, and a person who speaks one language is an America. I am most definitely an American. I had always assumed “De” meant “of”, which clearly is an assumption based on previous observations (of Latinate languages) made without any thought as to why a Latinate word would be in the middle of a Celtic phrase.

      So, thank you!