|Lesson 1: The Nature of the Gods
SCHOLA AETII·SATURDAY, 19 MAY 2018
Trying to discern the Nature of the Gods is a difficult topic. But I assume any Cosmology that contains a religious perspective, has to face the question, how do we view the nature and the role of the Gods? Now one of the hallmarks of Polytheism is, there is no final and definitive answer. We can only circle around the subject from various perspectives, and try to create a mosaic of elements that hopefully enlightens such a complex subject, for what mortal man can say anything with finality about the Divine? And I would not like to give any finite answers either, since that is on the contrary the hallmark of the Monotheist Revelation religions, not of Polytheism. However I have singled out four of the most important sources which in Paganism aspire to define the nature of the Gods: traditional lore, scholarly research, spiritual principles and what I would call “shamanic” experience, in lack of a better term. Now the difficult question is how we weight these spheres against each other? Let me first say something about each of them separately, to enlighten the topic.
The Tradition is the lore of customs, both about the rituals – the Cultus – as well as the Myths. These are the two pillars of tradition, cult and mythology. Now in Europe this puts us in a bit a predicament, since we know about 99 of the texts of the Classic World have been lost. Practically the entire meaning of the Mystery Schools is unknown to us, and we have only a certain number of cultic practices which we know of, even in the Greco-Roman world, which was the apex of literacy in its time. With the Celtic and Slavic Religions it looks even worse. But, staying inside the Roman world, one of the issues of a partial lore is, that as in the case of a half truth, knowing something partial invites the danger to have a distorted image on the whole. We have hints that we know a whole lot of things NOT about the Roman Religion. For instance Plutarch mentions a religious circulation, something some Roman traditionalists have before renounced as “modern Neo-Pagan”, until the Plutarch text revealed otherwise. Or the interpretation of the design of the temple of Vesta with the flame in the middle of a round structure, which due to Plutarch indicates some Pythagorean mysteries, however since he doesn't go into detail, we are left to guess. From hints such as these we can assume the Roman Cultus was much more complex and filled with spiritual meaning, parable and metaphysical concepts, and not the pure “hollow Orthopractice” that some traditionalists have concluded from the distorted image created through this loss of information.
My personal view is, that the Polytheist Cultus was only orthopractic relative to the Christian religion and its theology, but calling it orthopractic seems now at least exaggerated. We must assume on the contrary, that the Cultus was highly symbolical, full of meaning and transporting spiritual ideas. How far the general masses knew these meanings is a completely different thing, and without a “Church” having centralized control, of course the Roman Cultus Deorum has a fluidity and diversity within it, which is one of the hallmarks and strengths of Polytheism. But that doesn't mean the Cultus and its formalities were devoid of meaning. Pagan Tradition is a bit like a ruin, which we rebuilt, like the remains of the ancient temples, where some columns still stand, and we are now in the process of restoring the temples, both literally and figuratively. Of course we will do it faithfully and authentic. But there is a certain loss of information and we have to fill these gaps somehow, but also religion is a living thing, and the conditions of life in our time differs from those of the Classic Era, and that begs the question, where and to what degree tradition must evolve? It is said tradition is not the adoration of the ashes, but the kindling of the fire, and that seems to me the healthiest approach to the question.
In terms of Mythology the situation is, strangely, even more complicated. For the longest time the Roman Religion was and still is, overshadowed by the flashy and wondrous tales of the Greeks, mostly the views on the Gods coming from Homer and Hesiod. The Romans on the other hand were quite unmythological or even anti-mythological pragmatists. Already Socrates in Plato's “The Republic”, criticized the depiction of the Gods in Homer and Hesiod, overly humanizing them. The contrast is the original Roman Cultus, from the times of King Numa, were, as Plutarch notes, the Romans did not have any images of the Gods, saying the Gods are so large and complex, depicting them as humans would limit and lower them. I agree here at least in general with the Platonic and Neoplatonist view, that the Gods must be personified ideals, and that is why I like many Romans, reject the wild tales of the Greeks as “nice entertainment”, maybe as parable, but surely not as religious source. It is a problem in our time, where, through the lens of Christian thinking, many Pagans treat the stories and myths of the Gods in the same status like a “Holy Book” or a “Revelation”, and nothing could be further from the truth. The myths and legends of the Gods of the Polytheist Era were nothing like a “Bible” at all. They were first and foremost entertainment, maybe some elements of these stories contained parables, which could be interpreted, if one takes them not face value. But here too, half knowledge can be more dangerous than knowing nothing of a matter at all.
That is why I, despite holding tradition in the highest esteem, argue for an open minded skepticism, that we cannot take tradition as the ONLY source on how to view the Gods. So then, what other sources do we have?
This is were modern science enters, were we began to research and compare to see, what was behind the surface of tradition? What can we assume might have been between the gaps of what we yet know? Of course this is a less certain pathway, and that is why some prefer the simple and clear answers of traditional lore alone. But to me it seems like one would forever prefer the ruins of the temple over the restored temple. Of course such research leads to several different views, and here too lies one difficulty in the fact that 1500 years of Christianity may have distorted the lens through which we look. I have read a good number of books about the Roman Religion written by Historians whose views were more or less biased, coming from a Christian background. Even Pagan authors often unconsciously seem to be under the influence of the Galilean thinking, while others try to emancipate themselves by purposefully going to the opposite of everything Christianity stands for. All these are reasons to be skeptical and to keep an open mind, not to fall too quickly to one or another view. I am glad that the famous book “On being a Pagan” by Alain de Benoist has recently been re-published, because it is one of the most lauded writings on the topic from a general perspective.
One of the most important approaches of scholarly research is, filling the gaps by comparison. We know the Indo-European religions all share similar structures, have similar Deities and cultic habits. We also know especially the Greek religion, the cult and the metaphysics has had parts in common with the polytheist oriental religions, like the concepts of numerology and sacred geometry, which Pythagoras had written about, but which was entirely lost. When I assume that the Classic World was in constant communication and some patterns of the Greek religion can also be found in the Babylonian or Chaldean religions, it might be assumed that there also was a shared ground on the concepts of numerology and sacred geometry. Take for example how Zeus, Poseidon and Hades are similar to the Sumerian Anu, Enki and Enlil, how the stories of Zeus vs Kronos and Apollo vs the Python are similar to Marduk vs Tiamat asf. So we can see patterns, and where there are blank areas, trying to fill those gaps with pieces from neighboring cultures seems like a valid approach.
The only complete system of numerology we know is the Hebrew Kabbalah, and we know it was largely influenced by Egyptian and Babylonian mysteries. We can be quite certain all surrounding cultures had similar systems of cosmology, so when I present my Cosmic Tree later on, everyone educated in the Kabbalah will immediately see similarities, and I base my doing so largely on this theory. Which leads me to point three.
Here we gradually move from the more clearly tangible to the challenging waters of speculation. It is my presumption that all Pagan cultures of the past had a spirituality and a metaphysical view on the world. Maybe not for everyone, as there surely was the regular Cultor, who just participated in the Public Cult, and then went back to his business, and that is entirely okay. However, I assume that such a religiosity was alive, because underneath it was a spiritual meaning, one that was open to those who wanted to go deeper. Comparing the various polytheistic religions of Europe and the regions surrounding the Greco-Roman world, is an important pillar if we want to restore and in part create a spirituality fitting to our religion, and I would find a religion that stays entirely on the surface, reducing itself to mere orthopraxis, lacking the spiritual power that it needs. Now of course such a thing must be done very carefully, for some views of other polytheistic religions are clearly incompatible with the Roman Religion, like for example the strong “superstitio”, the zeal for purity, atonement and salvation, that already was a hallmark of both the Egyptian as well as the Babylonian religion. European Paganism has no such elements, and this is were the native oriental and the occidental religions profoundly differ. What we have in common is looking at the harmony and order of the cosmos around us, and take it as image, as parable taken from the natural cosmic order itself to learn something.
All Pagan systems knew a variant of Astrology, had a system of sacred numbers and sacred geometric shapes and patterns, looking at nature and its cycles, especially the ever revolving cycle of the seasons, the dual nature of the male and the female principle, and many other spiritual ideas which are in common among all Pagan religions. From there a prudent and careful path to restore and create anew is, as I think, feasible. Since we lost the meaning of the Mystery Schools, for instance, we can just create new Mystery Schools and new initiatory systems, based on what we generally know to have existed among all European Pagan traditions, and some beyond Europe. Mysteries like the God who dies and is reborn, the solar and lunar mysteries, mysteries of the concept of the Circle of numbers like the Duality, the Trinity, the sacred Four and Seven and so forth. Of these basic and widespread ideas we know at least so much, that it is possible to create interpretations and systems of metaphysical views, which bring us back on track. How far these are similar to the original views is something we may never be able to tell.
Of course the line between inventing a fictitious religion and reanimating Paganism is often thin and tricky, but I argue that it is not only possible, but necessary. The main reason being is, that people today are much more spiritually oriented than in the past, generally speaking, and moreso those who today seek a Pagan religion, will likely be drawn to spiritual development of a sorts.
Experience is the fourth pillar on how to view the Gods, the direct approach. I use the term Shamanic here loosely, as a sort of placeholder for all kinds of religious experience, where one experiences a direct connection to the Divine, be it through trance, spontaneous experience or trained mental exercises. The spontaneous, rare enough, is self explanatory, but it mostly happens to people who dedicate their life to strong religious rigor or follow a spiritual pathway, dedicating their life or a span of their life to one or several Gods. If that is practiced with dedication, Gods sometimes speak to people, or other times give a certain “feeling”, like giving directions or sending signs or omens.
Training mental exercise can be anything, from meditating regularly, to devoted regular prayer and any assortment of spiritual training, and it can lead to single events or a general presence of a God or the Gods, guiding that person. The most striking is the experience in some sort of trance.
Going into a trance like state has been part of Paganism since the oldest days, and ideally it is accompanied by a regular training and personal dedication to a God or a few personal Gods, to which one might feel a connection to. Sometimes it is also the other way around, that a God seeks out an individual and the person then takes it on himself to pursue a closer familiarity to a Deity. Trances are induced in many different ways, and I shall not go into the technical detail here. Of course, as with any other way, we need to be alert and careful, not to be dragged away by our wishful thinking. Ideally one follows an orderly spiritual training. Trances or “shamanistic” altered states of mind open the mind to be in contact with a God. It can be that you feel the presence of a God, see him vaguely, have any sort of visual or audio experiences and sometimes to spoken words. My research of many decades has revealed, that all serious practitioners have remarkable similar experiences with the same God, so that any God has apparently a distinct character, and while each human being will experience a God through his personal lens, there are enough similarities that you can develop a feeling who really is on a right track.
Now I have summed up the four sources whereupon to inquire the nature of the Gods, speaking about the strengths and limitations of each. I personally prefer a balanced approach of all four, since I am fortunate to have access to each of them. Any personal experience with the Gods, both from myself as well as from studying those sources I found reliable and trustworthy, show that Gods are indeed individuals with each having his or her own character. Some Gods are chatty, others are more “men of few words”, some are more benevolent and caring, while others are harsh; some are easy to fetch, while others are lofty and distant. Of course this hinges partially also due to your own nature. A nocturnal person for example may have difficulties to reach for Apollo or Sol, or may have a bit a different experience, than a very solar character seeking out these same Gods. However, there is enough material to show that Gods are indeed people, and not merely abstract principles. They have preferences and whims, but one should not be misled to see them as “humans with powers”.
Gods are also Principles manifested as a super large person, so to speak. Sol is the principle of the sun, the light and some other ideas, but he is also a person. Gods are not above us because they are powerful, but they are powerful because they are above us. That is a common misconception, that their power gives them their status. It is a misconception that the Greek Myths have no small part of setting into the world, and why I as a Roman Cultor am skeptical with mythological stories, which I regard more as fancy entertainment for the masses. Gods are entirely benevolent, they are sources only of what is Good, as Socrates, Plato, Plutarch and Cicero all agreed. They are the Supreme Good, the personifications of the Perfect and the Good. But that does not mean the work of the Gods in our lives must always be fun and party. Like a Mentor, a God can do what on the surface appears unpleasant to you in the moment, like what a parent or a teacher does to a child, but serves the good in the long run, even though we are not able to see. Here too I am of the view that we live more than one life, and both Plutarch and Cicero indicate this was regarded in the Classic Era, and it was a view which became more widespread in the late classic era. It is the perspective that to me makes the most sense, that the soul is learning under the guidance of the Gods, through a long series of lives, not one life alone, for as our souls are immortal but moving from form to form, until eventually we have learned all we have to and we move to one world to which we belong.
The Gods are beings of tremendous proportions. They chose to appear as human beings deliberately, and all my experience showed me they are much, much larger than just this. The Gods maintain the Cosmos with all the number of Galaxies and Universes, with their endless numbers of stars and planets. But they have their face for us, their form for us, through which they revealed themselves. Like the Romans of the time of King Numa, I believe the Gods are endlessly large, but I do accept they are humanized for the sake of the religious cultus, as they themselves chose to use these forms to communicate with us. But in itself, a God is a tremendously large being, and in the end nothing we can truly comprehend. It is not that a God is entirely a mystery, for that would be Agnostic. They have an element which they reveal, and from that we can assume they have something very basic in common with us, having a will and preferences. But there is also an “alien” element of them, which we cannot fathom, and that in turn in some ways also limits their understanding of us. There are things about us humans, which baffles the Gods. They are in a way like parents or teachers or mentors, and like the Parent understands the child in theory, time and again a child may act in way that surprises and baffles the parent.
Gods are also cosmological principles, and as a whole they are the matrix of existence itself, so the collective of the Gods forms the matrix of the collective of all things that exist. Insofar I regard them also inspired by Neoplatonism, as ideas and ideals. A God is both: a person and a principle at the same time. There is the element of the unchanging core, like the Platonic idea is unchanging, but there is also a surface element, which changes through time and culture. The big question: is there but one pantheon or are all pantheons of Gods independent, is however something I do not have a final answer yet. Like all Polytheists, I assume the reality of all Gods. I am however of the view, that we have the “Principle Gods”, which are essentially the 12 Dei Consentes or “Olympian Gods”, which are the True Original Gods, the Dodekatheon, and then we have “Other Gods”, which are the manifestations of lower principles, or more general principles, like Tiber the God of the River is a lower regional manifestation, or Father Janus, who is a more general principle. Other Gods of other pantheons may be originally mighty Ancestors who rose to local divinity and who were destined to rise to the status of an Immortal Local God.
However I assume that there is a definitive, primordial set of Gods, who stand for the original cosmic principles, which are the Dodekatheon, the Twelve Dei Consentes, and a few other major Deities. Their principle nature can be easily demonstrated, as they appear in one or another variant all over the globe in other Pantheons.
Another important concept is the Roman “Do Ut Des”, I give so that you give, meaning the connection between Men and Gods is reciprocal. The Gods do not force us to develop and to seek them out. They offer guidance, as they are the masters of the cosmos, but they do not force us to acknowledge their status, for they are far beyond the need of our acknowledgment or consent. Gods usually work in very long cycles, but we know also they find time and again pleasure in working with individuals, sometimes pushing them on a path to function as seer or priest, sometimes apparently because they find a liking in an individual, other times because they use an individual to set something in motion. If we, as collective or individual, retreat from the Gods, they usually just ignore us. The Gods have no desire for punishment, revenge or such human emotions; that is beneath them. The Gods have all they want, they have no want and no needs. As such Sacrifices and Offerings are not truly a “giving”, for the Gods are the source of all abundance, of endless creation and limitless good. It is a sign, a gesture from us, like a lover may bring flowers, which do not fulfill any purpose other than “regulated demonstrating affection”.
The Gods want to be Guides and Mentors to us, if we let them and if we seek them out and form a Covenant with them. Such was, for a long time, the Pax Romana, the pact the Gods made with Aeneas and Romulus and which lasted for centuries, and when the Romans turned their back on the Gods, their Empire, which existed through the mercy and by the guidance of the Gods, fell, because the spiritual guidance of the true Gods was no longer present. We as civilizations flourish under the guidance of the Gods and wither, once we turn our backs on them. It is not that there is one teaching or one true and mandatory set of rules, just like a Parent or a Mentor is not a slave driver. But the Gods ask for piety, duty, humility, the value of the gifts given by the Gods, beauty, vigor, reason, harmony, justice and all the values and goods the Gods stand for. A society that derives from this will in turn lose the “Mandate of the Heaven” and falls into calamity. Not because the Gods are vengeful, but because we lose the path if we distance ourselves from the Divine. The Gods are always welcoming those, who sincerely seek them out. But they may not approach everyone in the same way, and about that my next chapter will be “Why do the Gods only speak to some?”