Association of Polytheist Traditions
Humans are to Gods as Cats are to Humans
What do the gods get from their relationships with humans? Why are humans interesting to them? What motivates them to help humans to learn and grow? If they are fond of humans, why do they act like such bloody bastards at times? And if they care about us, why aren't they always there when we need them? There are many ways one could begin to approach such questions, but the best way I can put these issues into perspective for myself is by appealing to the concept that 'humans are to gods as cats are to humans'.
I'm not saying that this analogy is perfect. Like all analogies it highlights similarities and ignores differences. And some aspects of the relationship between humans and gods are not apparent when we focus on the relationship between humans and cats. For instance, many polytheists volunteer to help their patron god(s) advance particular agendas. I don't see my cats volunteering to help me with my goals (unless those goals involve disposing of leftovers). Still, because our understanding of humans and cats, their motives and behaviour, is much more clear than our understanding of gods, focusing on some of the possible parallels might be illuminating.
I don't recall where I first heard of the god/cat-owner analogy. I can't take credit for the original idea, but, having given it some thought, I will attempt to summarise some of the salient points as I understand them.
Cats perceive their surroundings in a very different way than humans. Their sensory organs have evolved to perform different functions in different environments. Cats ears are far more sensitive than ours, especially to high-pitched sounds. They hear noises we can't hear. Cats lack colour vision, but they have much better night vision than humans. They can see ultra-violet rays and other kinds of light invisible to us. Cat's whiskers provide them with a 'feeler' that we lack, allowing them to sense objects (such as human legs) before they come into direct contact with them.
Cats are also much, much lower to the ground than we are. They tend to be aware of things at the level of our ankles which we wouldn't normally notice unless our attention were called to them. We, on the other hand, tend to be aware of things at eye-level, somewhere around five or six feet off the ground, which would escape a cat's notice unless its attention were directed upward. Outdoors, a human will usually have a further field of vision, free of obstacles such as grass and shrubs which obscure sight lower down. All this means that cats and humans inhabit very different worlds. A cat and a human in the same space will not experience it in the same way.
It is commonly understood that gods have greater means of perception than humans; that they are aware of things we are not. They have the equivalent of a further field of vision, seeing more of the 'big picture' and the network of connections between people and events. What is less frequently considered is that humans may be able to perceive some things that are beyond the gods' ken. I've often heard polytheists complain that their gods seem to have no concept of time or of timing. Perhaps they literally do not. Another complaint is that they have no idea of the stress they put humans under. Perhaps they are simply incapable of feeling stress themselves.
Communication between humans and cats is far from straightforward and rarely specific. A cat may run around in circles meowing plaintively for no apparent reason. A human may tell a cat to stay off the computer keyboard in several different ways, all to no avail. Some kinds of communications do get through, however. If I catch my cat Store Bjorn's attention and make a certain clicking sound with my tongue behind my teeth, he will run over and leap on me. He seems to know that sound is inviting him for a stroking session. When I commence to pet him, he purrs his furry head off. I understand that purring to mean he is enjoying the stroking. Store Bjorn also has a habit of butting his forehead against mine which I interpret as meaning 'Hello, I want some affection.' Of course all cats have the ability to indicate basic needs in fairly crude and obvious ways. They will scratch at the door if they want in or out. They will sit next to an empty food dish and meow to ask that it be refilled. Humans have also developed crude ways of communicating with cats, such as lifting a cat off the table and dropping it on the floor to say, 'Do not sit on my newspaper'. Humans can feel a great deal of frustration when faced with a pet that doesn't seem to understand a simple message. I'm sure the feeling is mutual and cats are quite frustrated when all their attempts at getting a message across to a human are ignored or misunderstood.
People with second sight or mediumship talents can sometimes manage fairly direct two-way communication with their gods, just as there seem to be some 'psychically attuned' cats and owners who can read each other's thoughts. For most people, most of the time, however, communication with gods is vague or crude. We can pray and, in return, receive an ambiguous sign as a response. Or perhaps we just feel a sense of serenity after seeking help from a god, which tells us that we are cared for. We might continue in a course of action after having been given indications that a god disapproves of it and then undergo divine retribution equivalent to being thrown off the table. With patience, we may be able to understand certain signs from certain gods as consistently corresponding to a particular message, but many attempts at communication continue to be frustrating for god and human alike. I know several polytheists who have had the experience of finally, after days or weeks, interpreting a cryptic message from a god and realising in retrospect that it was in fact simple and straightforward. Some gods, at least, seem to have the kind of patience possessed by good cat owners and will keep repeating the message in different ways until it finally gets through. But we shouldn't assume that gods always understand what we want when we attempt to communicate our needs to them, anymore that we always understand what our cats are meowing about.
Our cats like to leave us offerings of dead mice, birds, or frogs. Often these are ceremoniously left on the mat in front of the door. Whilst we appreciate the gesture and the effort that went into it, we are none too pleased with the actual blood sacrifice, and don't enjoy cleaning it up. The cats, however, may have reason to believe that their well-intended offerings are gratefully accepted by their humans, as we always take them away. Just as cats assume that humans will enjoy a tasty rodent as a snack, humans often make assumptions about what sort of offerings will please their gods. I've heard stories of polytheists who have gone to the trouble of recreating ancient recipes for ritual offerings only to learn later that the god would have preferred something much simpler. It's not always easy to communicate with gods and find out what they want, but it's probably worth a try. Otherwise they may be as pleased with our offerings as we are with finding a headless baby rabbit in the middle of the living room carpet. We can only hope that they are patient with us and tolerant of our well-meaning but sometimes misguided efforts to please them.
Humans don't need cats. (Not today's urban mouse-free humans anyway.) Nevertheless, it's not uncommon for a human to purposefully take on the responsibility of caring for one or more cats with no expectation that those cats will provide any practical advantage in return. Some humans will take on any stray that crosses their path. Others will carefully select their pets on the basis of breed, sex, colour or personality. My husband and I bought pedigreed Norwegian Forest Cat kittens from a breeder because we like the characteristics of that breed. When we were in a temporary house-sharing situation, one of the resident cats, a very affectionate moggy called Clarey, moved into our room and insisted on sleeping on our bed. But we didn't ever see him as our responsibility and we didn't take him with us when we left.
Most polytheists I know feel that they didn't choose their patron god(s), but rather were chosen by them. Often a newcomer to one of the pagan religions will decide that they want to form a close relationship with a particular god whose characteristics they admire or identify with, only to be swept up by a god they had no personal interest in. Not every god we make offerings to will respond enthusiastically. Why particular gods chose to befriend particular people remains a mystery - especially when those people strike us as unworthy of the attention of that god. But then, there are humans who choose to take on 'disturbed' or 'problem' pets that have been abandoned by their previous owners, often because they feel these are the animals that need them most.
Human life spans are much longer than cat life spans. A cat-loving human will probably 'own' many cats in succession (as well as taking on more than one at a time). Even if not all gods are immortal in fact, for all intents and purposes they are immortal from a human perspective. Just as a cat breeder can own cats from many generations of the same bloodline, a god can be patron to many different generations of the same family. People born into that family have a patron god from birth.
A cat may be with the same human(s) from kittenhood through old age or it may change owners for a number of reasons. Sometimes a cat has input into choice of owner, but the human always has the power to accept or reject it. A homeless stray can follow other cats through the cat-flap of their home and eat from their food dish, but the humans who reside there will decide to what degree it is welcome. A cat can run away from an owner it doesn't like living with, but if the owner likes or values the cat, it may soon find itself back in the same situation. Our cats have chips implanted under their skin that allow them to be tracked down if they are lost or stolen. They are our cats for life. I hope they are happy with that arrangement.
I know of several people who have tried to abandon their patron god in favour of a kinder, gentler, less demanding one. None of them have succeeded. Gods have their own ways of influencing our lives so that we have no choice but to cooperate.
Patronage does not imply exclusive interaction, though it often implies exclusive responsibility. Cats can meet humans who are not their owners (such as their owner's friends, relative, and neighbours) and develop relationships with them just as humans can meet other gods (usually in the same pantheon) and develop relationships with them. But where there is a conflict of interest, it's the cats owner or the human's patron who makes the final decision. Patron gods can decide pass their human adherents on to another god for various reasons, in the same way that cat owners can give away their cats to another human.
Finally, just as there are humans who dislike or fear cats, humans who have an allergic reaction to cat hair, and humans who have no desire to take on the responsibilities of pet ownership, it's entirely possible that there exist deity-like entities that have no interest in humans at all. These are entities whom humans might have fleeting contact with, but can not form relationships with.Providence
Cats grow to count on certain things from the humans they associate with. They expect their food bowl and water dish to be filled and their litter tray to be cleaned. They expect that there will be somewhere warm and cosy to sleep. Many cats expect stroking and affection on demand. When they don't get these things they make their displeasure known to their humans. Most of the time, most humans respond by tending to the cat's needs. Of course there are times when humans do not. For example, if a cat is dangerously overweight, its owner may purposely cut back its supply of food. The cat will not understand why its owner, once such a good provider, has stoped filling the dish on demand. It will tend to respond by demanding that the human acquiesce to its desires, repeatedly meowing and scratching at the door to the food cupboard.
Humans seem to have similar expectations. They want a home, an adequate income, good health, companionship, etc. When these things are not provided they tend to turn to their gods in plaintive prayer. Most spiritually astute people allow for the fact that the gods are withholding the thing they need for some inscrutable, though valid reason. But in times of need we can never be sure. Perhaps the gods simply don't understand how important it is that we get what we lack. So, as the situation becomes more desperate, the prayers and offerings increase in volume. Sometimes the reason we were deprived becomes clear in hindsight. Sometimes we are left as confused as a cat on a diet.
There are times when cats need help that humans simply don't have it within their power to give. Whilst veterinary medicine can cure many ills, it cannot cure old age. All cats eventually die and in the process they may develop uncomfortable symptoms. However vocally they express their pain, there is nothing their owners can do. As the pagan gods make no claims of omnipotence, we can't assume that they have the power to help us in every situation, however much they might like to.
In caring for their cats, humans often have to do things for the good of the cat that must seem cruel from the cat's perspective. Store Bjorn doesn't like it when we comb mats out of his fur because it pulls his hair, but leaving the mats in would cause him even more discomfort later. Shoving a pill down a cat's throat is an unpleasant experience for human and cat alike, and owners only do it when necessary. Our cat Hnoss hates riding in the car and cries all the way to the vet, but we take her there to prevent or relieve illness that would cause her even more stress.
Gods may behave towards us in ways that we perceive as cruel for entirely benevolent motives. They may well know more than we do and cause short term discomfort for long term benefit. Unfortunately, from our perspective there is usually no way to know what the alternative would have been had things carried on without the gods' intervention.
Humans who love their cats can not always be there for them. They may be at work during the day or go off to spend a weekend with distant friends. During these times they may provide the cats with sufficient food and water and leave them to look after themselves. Sometimes the humans may go on holiday for a fortnight, in which case they may hire a cat sitter or board their pets at a cattery. From the cats' perspective their humans have abandoned them. They don't know that their humans have every intention of returning and think about them daily whilst they are gone. Perhaps some cats have faith that their humans will return and others have doubts.
Many religious humans have undergone a 'dark night of the soul' during which they felt abandoned by their gods. They ask their god for help and get no indication that their god is listening or responding. This causes them to question whether their god cares for them, or even whether their god exists. Perhaps gods simply 'go away' for periods of time to realms where they are inaccessible by humans, ensuring beforehand that their humans have everything they require to keep them going until the god's return.
Despite their very different ways of perceiving the world and their many communication difficulties, humans and cats manage to form mutually beneficial and even loving relationships. Cats get their basic requirements for food and shelter taken care of by humans. Humans also provide them with affection and, often, are a source of interest and excitement. In return, humans get satisfaction from seeing their own positive influence on their pet's growth and development and are emotionally touched when they perceive that a cat has shown affection toward them.
Humans turn to gods for help with their daily needs, for guidance and growth, and, on occasion, for relief of boredom -as a catalyst for change. Maybe gods like to watch us grow and develop under their influence. Maybe they are touched when we honour and praise them. One theory popular in polytheist circles is that gods thrive on religious rituals-- that human rites somehow provide them with 'energy' they don't normally have access to. One reason humans are drawn to cats is that a purring cat is a source of relaxation and stress relief. Perhaps human ritual is for gods what cats' purring is for humans.
Or, maybe viewed from a god-perspective we're just plain cute!