What's a Deity?

What's a Deity? November 3, 2015
Temple in Paris, France (public domain photo)
Temple in Paris, France (public domain photo)

The past weeks I’ve been posting images of deities. But what is a deity, anyway?

Here in the United States, popular culture has been heavily influenced by Protestant Christian culture, and so when we are asked to define a deity, we default to the concept of a monotheistic transcendent deity. If we have to draw a picture of this deity, we might either draw a picture of a man with a white beard sitting on a cloud, or say that this deity is transcendent and can’t be pictured.

However, most of the human race, for most of human history, has had a far more complex and nuanced understanding of deities. In our own Western cultural tradition, which extends back to the civilizations of Rome, Greece, and the ancient Near East more generally, we can find a great diversity of deities. Here’s a list of some of the categories of deity we can identify in the Western religious traditions:

• a single transcendent deity, e.g., the transcendent god of Xenophanes and other early Greek philosophers; God for some Jews; God the Father for some Christian sects
• a most powerful deity among other deities, e.g., Zeus in ancient Greece
• greater deities, e.g., the more powerful ancient Egyptian deities such as Horus, Osiris, and Ra
• lesser deities, e.g., the Titans in ancient Greece
• local deities, e.g., river gods, deities of a grove or forest, etc.

• household deities, e.g., the household gods of ancient Rome, etc.
• deified humans, e.g., the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Roman emperors deified after death, etc. (some might argue that the Virgin Mary of some Christian sects fits into this category)
• humans that are more than mortal but slightly less than gods, e.g., Herakles for the ancient Greeks, Jesus for the Christian followers of Arius, etc.
• humans with special powers who are worthy of veneration, e.g., canonized saints, sports figures and celebrities, etc.
• abstract concepts as deities, e.g., god as the unmoved mover in Aristotle, scientific method, financial success, etc.

These are just the first examples from the Western religious traditions that come to my mind. Then we can add in all the deities which are current in our increasingly multicultural world, such as the vast hierarchy of Hindu deities, the several Buddhas (who may appear as humans with special powers, but who may also appear as transcendent deities), ancestors who are venerated (as in some African traditions), deities as part of nature or tied to natural places (as with some Navajo deities), etc., etc.

I don’t believe we should accept without question the U.S. Protestant Christian definition of deity as a single transcendent god in whom one either believes or doesn’t believe. Humans in the U.S. today venerate a variety of deities, many of which look nothing like the U.S. Protestant transcendent God. And that veneration can take a variety of forms, from overt public worship to more covert forms of veneration. Given that, don’t you think that there is a lot more religion in the U.S. today than is captured by polls which ask whether people believe in “God” and attend “church”?

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  • Cyn Qoaad

    I find it interesting that from every example you give, with the notable “exception” of the Virgin Mary, who isn’t accepted in doctrine as a deity at all, and you even qualify yourself with “some might argue” which is a mediocre endorsement at best, including pronouns, is male. Gods are deities of whatever sort, but Godesses don’t even rate a mention. Was the mysoginy intentional or only unexamined cultural baggage?

  • lizzysimplymagic

    Mary isn’t disqualified from divinity just because she “isn’t accepted in doctrine as a deity”. Jesus sure wasn’t accepted as such in the early days! Regardless of what authorities pronounce, the masses worship who they will. Quite a lot of folks, not all of them Catholic or even former Catholics, do more than venerate her. Some see her as a sort of avatar, some as a prophet who became divine, and some as a full blown Goddess. Just because one powerful sect declares such beliefs heretical doesn’t automatically invalidate them.

    That said, I agree that the author spent precious little time discussing woman-shaped deities.

  • yewtree

    I generally argue for the use of the gender-neutral term deity, or for saying “gods and goddesses” too.

    However, when I checked on Etymology Online, it turns out that the word “god” was originally gender-neutral (but i agree it isn’t so in current usage).

    So yeah, we need more goddesses. And I think the idea of an overarching (or underlying) Goddess is different from the idea of a transcendent (male) God, too.

    But other than that, the post is a good list of different ways to be divine.

  • Cyn Qoaad

    Oh I totally agree with how Mary is worshiped in practice by a large variety of Christians. She’s often venerated, from my experience with Christian family members, many Catholic, more than say the Holy Spirit, which is doctrinally a form of deity. I just find it telling that the author even qualified the inclusion of her in the list and that she is the only female-shaped deity given.

  • Cyn Qoaad

    It is a very good post on different ways to be divinely male, I’ll give you that. 😉 I just wanted to point out to the author that all examples, even historically, need not be male to be divine. Would it really have been so hard to say list Isis along with Osiris? Considering She was worshiped far more extensively? Overall, I liked the article, and the discussion of differing types of deity, just wanted to point out that if we are seeking to unpack our overculture’s definition of what is divine, it’s a good idea to include the concept that god(s) are male in the conversation.

  • Folcwald

    I think this is a nice start to thinking about a kind of pagan or polytheist theology. It is notable that one of the strategies used by early Christian apologists was to adopt the view of Euhemerus that the various gods had all been humans who had either tricked people into believing they were gods or who had been so well liked that they were assumed to be gods by the foolish pagans who set about worshiping them. Many of the surviving mythological accounts in Germanic and Celtic religion, perhaps most famously Snorri’s Edda, are framed this way. At best, this reduces deities previously thought to be responsible for cosmic order to the status of divinized humans, who obviously can’t have been responsible for creating the cosmic order since that cosmic order preceded their existence. I’ve found that many heathens today, not perhaps having a very sophisticated understanding of the intellectual currents in Europe at the time these accounts were written, accept euhemerization at face value, leading to a very strange view of the role and importance of their gods in their own belief systems.

  • lizzysimplymagic

    Ah, gotcha.

  • Helmsman Of-Inepu

    The belief that polytheism of any form is “primitive” is pervasive, and seems to be accepted uncritically. I’ve seen Hindus in the US rush to say they aren’t polytheist, as if it’s an embarrassing social flaw. There also seems to be an unspoken feeling that newer religions are better than older ones, but that breaks down when you point out that Islam is newer than Christianity, and that Scientology is newer than either.

  • Helmsman Of-Inepu

    There also seems to be a general pagan trope that goddesses are for women only, and that men should only pay attention to gods. This adds to the stack of cultural baggage.
    I don’t see it in modern Kemeticism, perhaps because it can be less binary and some of the deities are more genderfluid.

  • Cyn Qoaad

    I have found less and less of that polarization the longer I’ve been Pagan. Which is a wonderful thing, in my opinion at least! I know women dedicated to gods in at least half a dozen pantheons, as well as several men dedicated to as many goddesses. And I totally agree on the Kemetic deities, Auzet’s worship was even in antiquity open to all genders, and Hapi, and Neith to just pick two certainly have a gender fluidity that is appealing.
    Unpacking thousands of years of cultural baggage is no easy task, but it’s worth the hardship, I think. Nothing worth so much effort is easy!

  • Dan Harper

    Thanks for all the great comments, people. Note that this short blog post is meant to be more descriptive than prescriptive; to quote theologian Anthony Pinn, I understand theology to be “deliberate or self-conscious human construction focused upon uncovering and exploring the meaning and structures of religious experience within a larger body of cultural production.” Pinn goes on to add that theology should be “comparative in a way that does not seek to denounce or destructively handle other traditions.” In other words, I’m not trying to tell anyone what to believe, but rather describing what I see out in the world.

    Cyn Qoaad is correct that in the examples in this blog post I ignore female deities. Another critique that could be made is that I ignore gender-queer deities. Both these critiques would be correct. Given that this blog post is discussing the major Western religious traditions, in which deities tend to be strongly gendered, it makes sense to ignore gender-queer deities. And many people in the West believe that if a deity is female, that deity is not equal (and, in the case of Mary, not even really a deity at all). The question I confronted when writing this post was whether I should provide a fairly accurate representation of the relative importance of male deities in the West, or whether I should follow my own preferences for deities beyond male — indeed, beyond the male female dichotomy. In the end, I chose to follow a fairly narrow description of Western religion.

    The question of the gender of deities becomes more complex once we get out of the major Western traditions. I’ve already done one post on the gender-queer deity Guanyin/Avalokiteshvara. I have more of a personal interest in “minor” female deities, and have already done a post on Doumu, and I’m working on posts on Brahmani, Buddhist female deities, Magu (Chinese deity of longevity), etc. A critical reader will then ask a serious question of theological method: Why take on theological description of “minor” deities? Here again, I’m following Anthony Pinn’s lead: while it is important to accurately describe the reality of the big picture, theologically speaking, it is equally important to accurately describe minority traditions, or traditions that the majority traditions tend to cover up or obscure.

    I’d like to make one important point about what I’m trying to do with this descriptive theology: it is pretty difficult to get good information about many deities I’m most interested in. Doumu, for example — I discovered her when I saw a sculpture of her in the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, but I could find almost no information about her in English language publications. Similarly, I’m trying to track down good solid information on the many deities recognized in Korean shamanism; there are one or two out-of-print books that I’m working on getting, but they’re not easy to find. Western English-language publications tend to have a blind spot when it comes to female deities, as Miranda Shaw notes in her book “Buddhist Goddesses of India”: “relatively little scholarly attention has been devoted to female deities of the [Buddhist] tradition.”

    Even when I find information about deities I’m interested in, it is often biased, e.g., most English-language information about Guanyin has “her” gender as strongly female, ignoring the evidence that Guanyin’s gender is fluid. It’s also interesting to see how English-language information sort of slides over the obvious fact that the Navajo Turquoise Boy is gender-queer. One of the big problems I’m facing is trying to see through the bias. Thus it is really helpful to have the kind of debate I’m seeing here. Thank you all.

    One last thought: when Anthony Pinn published his book “Varieites of African American Religious Experience,” firmly documenting the traditions of Vodoun, Santeria, Islam, and humanism among African Americans, and thus disproving the stereotype that all African Americans belong to the Black [Christian] Church — he faced quite a bit of resistance. As we try to do the work of documenting the wide variety of deities in the world, we should expect similar resistance from those who want to assert that there is just one God in whom you must believe or not believe. That resistance stems, not just from the hegemonic power of the monotheistic religious organizations, but also from the resistance to establishing a truly multicultural, multiracial, multireligious society.

    My two cents worth. Your mileage may vary.

  • yewtree

    I see where you are going with that, but why reinforce cultural norms?

  • “…Korean shamanism…they’re not easy to find.”

    I picked up a copy of “Korean Shamanism – Muism” in English a few years back, at Bandi and Luni’s. The analysis is part and parcel of early Shamanism studies, but the ethnographic information is really good. Would you be able to recommend any other books on the topic?