“What is a God?” This is a question that is important to ask in any deific religion. “What is a Spirit?” In any animistic tradition, it is good to define this as early as possible. “What is an Ancestor?” In any religion that recognizes and honors those who have passed, this is a worthwhile question to ask in the earliest stages of discovery.
“What is a God?” We have been hinting at the Gods’ existence since part 1. We have sheaves and sheaves of notes and chronicles of the Gods that populated Europe before Christianity. Of course, most of those were chronicled by Christians after the fact, but we’ll get into that later when we talk more about lore. We have some idea of what the Gods were viewed as, especially considering most of them are portrayed as often in, er, compromising situations as in virtuous ones. We have some idea as to the power some gods were viewed to have, such as the lightning of Zeus and Thor’s Mjöllnir hammer, or the shape-shifting powers of Gwydion, Loki, and Artemis. But what is a God?
We can speculate until the end of time at what our ancestors conceived a God or Goddess to be; the fact is, we will never know, because we have no unbroken line of practice and worship back to that time. Let me say that again:
We have no unbroken line of practice and/or worship back to Pre-Christian times.
We have traditions, sure. We have old poems and half-remembered charms, certainly. We even have full sets of spells and incantations that come to us from that ancient world. However, we do not have anything that is untainted by the religion that conquered and superseded it. Christianity warped and changed much of the ancient views of religion, and even those that practiced both Christian and Pagan ways could not stem that tide completely. In the same manner, Pagan ways did influence and change Catholic religion, though that influence was much more subtle. As an aside, anyone claiming an unbroken line back to Pre-Christian times is likely lying, misinformed, or misrepresenting their tradition. So we have no certain way of knowing what exactly the ancients thought the Gods and Goddesses were.
This isn’t really a bad thing, as so many seem to claim. We are left with what we conceive the Gods and Goddesses to be today. We must evolve our view, or remain stagnant in a past that may never actually have been. The best way to view the Gods, in my opinion, is through the lens of our experience of the Gods.
First, since we have already posited that all Gods are spirits, we must definitively decide what a spirit is or isn’t. For the purpose of Neopagan Animism, we shall define a spirit thus:
1) A conscious and incorporeal entity which has an energetic presence, whether or not such presence can be detected by current scientific means.
2) A reference to the electro-magnetic and energetic being that is a part of a person, place, or thing; i.e., the spark of life, the breath, the core essence.
While we are going to keep in mind the second definition for later posts, we are going to throw it out for the discussion of Gods, and assume that in their pure and standard form, they are also conscious, incorporeal beings. Therefore, we relegate any spirit which is embodied (definition #2) to the generic label of spirit. This includes the spirit of a human being.
Now we have narrowed down a subset from a broad range in which the Gods and Goddesses exist. This subset also includes the spirits of the roaming dead and other disembodied beings, such as the fey. This of course would not include spirits of the wind, which could be considered to be embodied in the air, nor in any rock, tree, building, or living creature. So, how do we narrow the term God down further?
Let us assume for the sake of argument that a God or Goddess has power. How much? Let us refer to the myths: the Gods and Goddesses can do extraordinary things in most cases, so let us assign them greater than “average” power. Let us also assume for the sake of argument that many of the Gods are much wiser – or at least more cunning – than their human counterparts. We now ascribe to the Gods “wisdom”. Finally, very few of the Gods die in the myths, and usually Gods that die are reborn as Gods of the dead or of rebirth. Many pantheons have some sort of food or catalyst that gives them eternal youth, such as Idunn’s apples or the Greek ambrosia. Let us give Gods “immortality” as a result, at least of a limited sort.
Now we have a strong base from which to work. A God is a male or neuter immortal spirit which is more powerful and wise than humans. A Goddess, by the same token, is a female immortal spirit which is more powerful and wise than humans. There, we’re done.
Now, let’s throw it all out the window.
First of all, what an individual animist considers a spirit or a God to be may be very different than the next animist. This does not make one animist right and the other wrong. What is important in Neopagan Animism is that a spirit is treated like a real being. While I tend to discourage thinking of the Gods as archetypes, this is an acceptable way to view them, so long as they are still treated as individual entities.
Let’s also talk about other things a God is not in Neopagan Animism. A God (or Goddess) is not omnipotent (all-powerful), though the God may seem to be to the person observing. A God is not omniscient (all-knowing), so what you tell one God or Goddess may or may not be known by another. Sure, they have ways of finding out, but how many of them actually know the winning lottery numbers without having to think twice? Very few, I’d bet. Also, a God is not omnipresent – a God or Goddess may be in many places at once, but is not everywhere at once. A God or Goddess may even be spread over a large area, such that they seem omnipresent, but observing a large enough picture, they are still not everywhere. We can consider one spirit to be omnipresent, that of the Universe, but I don’t really count the Universe to be a God, but something bigger and more distant, and entirely different. This view may be hard for some, as society tends to view what entails a God through a very monotheistic lens. However, I posit the following conundrum: which is more believable to you, an omniscient and omnipotent God who is considered to be “good” and to combat evil, yet allows bad things to happen rampantly throughout the world, or a God which is not omniscient or omnipotent, who is considered to be “good” and who combats evil where he/she can in a world which bad things happen?
As we consider the Gods to be real entities and treat them as such, this leads to the fact that each God and Goddess came from a cultural context, and each one is best approached from that context. A Greek God should be approached with consideration of Greek mannerisms, customs, and a Greek world view. An Anglo-Saxon God should likewise be approached by someone who has learned and understood (to the best of his or her ability) the world view of the Anglo-Saxons, or at least a generic Germanic view of the cosmos. Celts should be approached from a Celtic stance, and the Norse from what is written and known of Icelandic or other Nordic manners and customs. The simple fact remains that many of these contexts have had to be recreated from the snippets we find in the lore, and we have to piece together the rest based on experiences. Once again: *points up* there is no unbroken line. There is a certain degree to which we can no longer follow cultural contexts (we have few if any records of religious rites performed to these Gods, and we don’t really take kindly to human sacrifices or raiding our neighboring cities anymore), and probably another degree to which we shouldn’t. After all, if the Norse religion had survived in an unbroken way to modern times, it would scarce resemble the religion practiced a thousand-plus years ago. So today, we have little to go on but our gnosis, the lore that has been passed down, and the hope that we can discern the will of the Gods in this day and age. More will be discussed in the section on the Lore about the role lore plays in our current practices.