The above title is an attempt–however imperfect–to boil down several different paragraph-length inquiries I’ve recently received both here and elsewhere. It’s a meaty question, and one that has never been answered (to my knowledge) from a theological viewpoint, though it has been answered in scholarship of comparative religion and in depth psychology with answers that most polytheists aren’t comfortable with, and for good reason.
I cannot promise that the answers I arrive at here will please anyone, nor is it the only possibility, but it is my own attempt to answer these matters for my own satisfaction, knowing both the comparative scholarship as well as the attempts at psychological explanations, and yet likewise seeking to balance the insights of these with the empirical devotional encounters of the differing beings involved. We’ll see where we get when we get there…
But first, let’s look at how the question has been phrased, or rather how the issue has been raised, over the last few weeks.
It was Faoladh (who has asked several excellent questions, one more of which remains after this!) who first asked the question/raised the issue thus:
What is the theological meaning of various gods sharing similar attributes and even similar incidents? That is, what does it mean that the Daghda and Thor both carry a blunt weapon that kills with one side and brings life with the other, and that both are credited with driving a sea monster back into the deeps by striking it on the head, and so on through the other elements they share? How is this related to the historical—or in most cases prehistorical—process that seems to generate such similarities?
Faoladh then asked a similar thing in response to this earlier post:
The “vegetative” answer brings up another question, too, which is what these elements of “portfolio” mean. That is, why is one deity associated with “vegetation” and not another, and what is the connection between the physical world and any particular God? Does the physical arise from the deity or does the deity arise from the physical—and either or any other way what does it mean that more than one God is associated with a particular item of “portfolio”?
Then, elsewhere, honorthegods had an interesting response in the post on Cerberus when I commented on the possible etymology of Cerberus’ name being something along the lines of “Spot,” which is similar to several other infernal hounds across the Indo-European world, as follows:
So, on a metaphysical level:
– Do Yama and Hades know each other?
-Did they both like the name Spot so much that each of them named the guardian of their respective kingdoms Spot?
-Is there only one Spot, and Yama and Hades somehow have charge of the same Underworld, or parts thereof?
-Or are Hades and Yama different avatars of the same god?
Each of these sets of questions and discussions points toward a similar underlying issue, which I attempted to phrase in my title above…and it is sort of funny how this has become a bit of a metatextual issue…two different people talking about three different things have come to the same underlying question, which I’m now attempting to answer in a manner that addresses the issue theologically but does justice to the very real differences between the individuals involved…!?!
Well, it’s a tall order, but here we go…!
First, perhaps it would be useful to give a very potted and limited explanation of the non-theological options on this matter which have been entertained, and which polytheists have found wanting because both tend toward the viewpoint of monism (about which I’ll say more in a moment, too!).
First we have, on the one hand, the viewpoint of the comparative religionists, especially from the Proto-Indo-Europeanist school of thought, which recognized that there are common linguistic roots amongst a wide variety of languages, and then began to likewise discern cultural structures that were similar across this broad range, and also Deity-names and often characteristics of cultus and mythological narrative that were also shared between such figures. One of the most important names in this scholarly edifice is Georges Dumézil, who came up with the “trifunctionalism” hypothesis to explain the meta-level of some of these religio-cultural formations as they aligned to and represented, often in paradigmatic form, the different strata or classes in society (First Function being Sovereignty [of both Legal and Magico-Religious types], Second Function being Physical Force/Warriors, and Third Function being Fertility, Pleasure, and Production). Various scholars and publications have followed this view, and extended or revised it, while others have raised a variety of objections to it (including its political implications and even origins in the negative ideas around “racial science” and the “Aryan” hypothesis). As it is assumed that there is a genetic relationship between the various languages in this group, and that they are all common descendants of a singular proto-language and proto-culture, one can therefore argue that the similarity of diverse figures like Dyaus Pitr, Zeus, Sabazios, and Jupiter is due to the fact that They are all ultimately from the same proto-figure, and therefore are all “ultimately one.”
Experientially, I have some major difficulty with this, though the hypothesis in the form it is given regarding the individual origins of these figures in a common ancestor need not be entirely thrown out for it to be compatible with polytheism without arguing for monism. While many of the Greek and Roman Deities have been syncretized for so long that many modern people do not see a difference between them, and very likely many ancient people did not either. With some, this is undoubtedly the case–Greek Apollon and Roman Apollo are not significantly different because the latter comes directly from the former as an import into the pantheon, with only a slightly different ending to His name; the same can be said for the Dioskouroi as-a-whole since They were also imported directly from Greece, though the Roman Castor has some differences from the Greek Kastor which emerge over time, though Polydeukes and Pollux are essentially identical. Yet, in my own experience, Diana is a bit different than Artemis, and Artemis of Ephesus (or, perhaps more correctly, Upis) is different again from both of Them. Jupiter and Zeus are also a bit different from one another, but both of them are undoubtedly different again from Thor, even though They are all Thunder Deities Who share an attribution (at least in the Roman and Germanic contexts) with the day of the week we know as Thursday.
This then moves us into the second explanation preferred by scholars that is non-theological, from the realm of depth psychology and especially figures like C. G. Jung. This is the idea that each of these Deities–as well as others from other cultures, like Indra in Hinduism/Vedic religion, as well as various other Thunder-beings in the same groups with Zeus, Jupiter, and Thor–all arise as projections from the collective unconscious, each reflecting an “archetype” through a particular limited cultural lens that is limited in time and space as well as language. This idea was used in conjunction with some larger archetypical patterns in mythology by people like Joseph Campbell to argue for a shared human experience across time and space that is ultimately “the same” and that points to a unity of all humans, with the differences between each individual Deity or myth being “mere local” accretions that are nowhere near as important as the wider similarities and in fact equivalences between these different figures and mythological constructs.
These sorts of ideas certainly arise out of positive (though not pious!) motives in eras of history that are influenced by the major dissensions and factionalism, as well as especially virulent instances of nationalism, which lead to warfare and destruction on levels never before seen. Jung served in World War I and began writing just on the eve of the war, with most of his publications following it; and Joseph Campbell’s first and most important and influential book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, was published in 1949, just after World War II. The attempt to argue from underlying unity rather than paying attention to differences, it has been assumed, would be useful in then getting different people from different cultures, social groups, or religions to band together rather than separating; and yet, ignoring the reality of difference doesn’t undermine these efforts so much as make the “successful” iterations of them so anodyne and generalized that they feel more sterile, standardized, and impersonal rather than being the life-giving and meaning-making things which they were always intended to be and as which they function optimally.
[We’ll leave aside one of the more recent ideas, propounded by Michael Witzel, of the various levels of mythology which have come about in human history and which can be traced back to prehistoric migrational patterns…which is an interesting set of ideas, but which in certain ways combines both of the approaches mentioned above, while not addressing any of their pitfalls!]
Now, in attempting to address these things theologically, I’ll take two definite steps that attempt to take seriously the possibilities in both of the above, while not then resorting to monism in order to do so, and always with the intention of preserving the very real and significant differences between various Deities and Their cultural-religious backgrounds. I’ll follow that up with an overall schema that works for me for addressing these kinds of questions, which then raises other theological issues, but which aren’t that difficult for me to reconcile.
If we take the psychological matter first, I would agree that there is a kind of two-step process and a two-party engagement involved in creating these very different understandings of Deities. We as humans have our internal realities and potentialities, one of which is language and linguistic thinking, which arises from our ability to reason symbolically, which is a faculty that most other animals have limited capacities to do as far as our current understandings extend. As all humans are ultimately related to one another going as far back as human origins begin genetically speaking, it therefore makes sense that we have some basic biological needs that are solved in similar ways across cultures by different social structures, needs for particular types of tools, and interactions with our environments. We have these various “archetypes” within us, therefore, which we then project out onto the world our particular cultures of origin exist in, such that when Thunder is encountered, or a Smith figure is needed, or a certain plant becomes the primary Food Crop concerned, the second step of the process begins with the second party in these interactions: the Deity or Spirit (or occasionally Ancestor) concerned. The types of thunderstorms that occur in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. are very different than those which occur in the Upper Midwest, and these are both different again from the ones that occur in Japan, or Iceland, or anywhere else on the planet. Where internal shared human archetype and external divine force matching that archetype meet, the process of human religious culture begins and creates a name and vocabulary for that Being as encountered in that culture and time, so that the various different Thunder Deities then emerge in their appropriate contexts.
It is in this cultural matrix that then the related names and terms associated with them or mythemes and cultic practices linked to these emerge in particular religious cultures, such that Zeus, Sabazios, Dyaus Pitr and Jupiter are given similar names, and that myths involving Zeus and Indra can be similar, and that weekday associations of Zeus and Thor can come about, etc. But, rather than arguing for an underlying unity for each of these figures through archetypal associations or via common descent from proto-forms in various cultures, I think we should take the idea of “genetic lineage” and “common descent” much more literally than has tended to be done by scholars as well as some practitioners who ascribe to these ideas. A person and that person’s siblings all descend from their common parent, but even in cases of identical twins, the two individuals that result end up being quite different in terms of personality as well as subsequent experiences. In this analogy, the common parents might be the Proto-Indo-European forms of particular Deities, but then the various children who are siblings are then the different Deities across different Indo-European cultures, with the identical twins being the instances where the same Deity exists in two cultures because one adopted it directly into the other, but then the differing personalities of the twins are the heightened or lessened expressions of their common characteristics as each is then appropriate to their historical developments in their subsequent experiences. This is why Castor and Kastor are different, for example. To extend the metaphor even further, because in all Indo-European cultures’ cases, we are not dealing with direct descent from the Proto-Indo-European culture and each of the certain, identified, and attested religious phenomena in various daughter Indo-European cultures, another set of images derived from genetics suggests itself. Look at a domestic cat, a domestic dog, and a sea lion. All three of these share common genetic ancestors in earlier mammalian species, and yet no one would deny that all three are very different now as to have almost nothing in common when particular characteristics are considered. Each is the result of several different further mammalian species that developed along very separate lines as a result of separate mutations and choices of habitat and behavior, so that there may be twenty or more generations of entire species that developed and then disappeared between their common ancestors and the modern examples of these three species. So, too, is it the case with Indo-European cultures. The culture of Ireland with all of its religious phenomena and Deities goes back to, first, a common Gaelic or Goidelic culture, and then a common Insular Celtic stratum, and then a Common Celtic stratum, and then a group that also brings in the Italic cultures (including what gave rise to Latin!), and probably at least one further group–if not two or three–before one can get back to the parent Proto-Indo-European culture. Comparing Thor, Zeus, and The Dagda is therefore similar to the dog, cat, and sea lion analogy…only it might be more like comparing a dog, a fern, and a mushroom since all of these forms of life go back to our original unicellular parent species on the Earth!
Now, I know that many polytheists will point out a major issue in all of this, which is that the active belief in these various cultures, and which is also held in common for many modern people who practice these forms of polytheism, is that these various Deities are said to pre-exist humans, to have been eternal, and so forth, which then seems at odds with the developments I have suggested above. The fact of the matter is, all of the natural forces that various Deities have been linked to in various locales did pre-exist humans; and just as a Deity not being omniscient doesn’t mean that said Deity is not vastly superior to humans in knowledge and wisdom, so too does the fact that some of these natural forces have existed for millions if not billions of years likewise make it seem like humans, who have been around for a few hundred thousand years at most in our current form, to be vastly younger and obviously inferior in our total historical existence…by sometimes vast orders of magnitude. The superlative fashion in which some of these Deities then express themselves is comparatively accurate where human existence is concerned. Even though we have a cultural and linguistic role in helping to shape Deities–indeed, nothing in human culture is free from this process if it is something that can be thought and engaged with–the natural forces, or even the cultural forces (for Deities Who are associated with things like smithcraft, poetry, medicine, and other human occupations, as well as more abstract ideas like justice, truth, and so forth) tend to pre-exist the names given to them in a Platonic fashion.
This construction then allows very much for what is called “process theology,” the unfolding of new aspects and new ideas about Deities as those Deities exist and interact with their human attendant cultures throughout history, developing and changing just as individual humans and individual cultures also develop and change. This also allows for syncretism, as cultures can then link with one another and find similarities between their Deities to create syncretized forms, though I would argue that very often, the Deities have already created these and humans simply notice or discover them in a manner that is different to how these individual cultural Deities came into being in the first place. It’s the difference between finding a dog and saying “I’ll call you Spot!” and Spot getting together with your neighbor’s dog and having puppies, which I’ll leave each of you to parse out as you like!
Now, there are some people who will not like what I have proposed here, and as I said at the outset, I don’t expect others to, nor are they required to do so. They may think that what I have suggested here highlights too much the human element in the origins of religious phenomena, and yet I don’t think it is possible to do otherwise given that religion and spirituality of all types is a human phenomenon that is subject to the rules of thinking, language, and social organization that all things in our human existence are. Others may say that delving into the origins of Deities defies the inherent quality of “mystery” that surrounds Deities, and that such “mystery” should be preserved…but I have always found such non-answers to be a total dodge when given by monotheists, so I likewise find them lacking when given by polytheists. If our mental faculties are a gift of the Deities, then using them to try and plumb the depths of these things, taking certain demonstrable data (like linguistic and mythic parallels) as real and significant as we do so while also couching the entirety in theological or metaphysical rather than merely instrumental and mechanical/material causes.
But let us also remember: as polytheism, now as ever, is a set of religious phenomena that is defined by practice and experience rather than adherence to or espousing of particular beliefs (i.e. theologies!), what matters most is how one approaches the Deities and what experiences result from those divine interactions, and not how one attempts to account for them, and certainly not whether others accept one’s own accounting as valid for or applicable to their own practices and experiences.