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Association of Polytheist Traditions

Deity and Humanity: Nature of Deities

Copyright © by Arlie Stephens 2003

Heathens are polytheists. We believe that there are many deities, and these are not simply ways of looking at a single transcendent deity. They have individual traits and individual relationships. Odin is not Thor, and it's not reasonable to expect them to have exactly the same goals and ideals, the identical style of action or relationship, or the same relationships. At the same time, they are all deities, and have some common traits, just as all human beings share common traits. Moreover, the particular group of deities we honour form a kind of family or community, with shared values and corporate relationships. Within that group, we can expect general agreement on goals and ideals, though with some differences in the details.

Thus, there are things I can expect of Odin because he's a deity; other things I can expect because he's one of the Aesir; [4] and others that I can expect because he is Odin. This is much the same as with human beings; there are things you can expect of me because I'm human; things you can expect because I'm a middle aged Canadian living in the early 21st century; and things you can expect because I'm Arlie, and you know me as an individual.

We do not fully understand the nature of deities. This is partly because modern heathenism is a new or newly revived religion, still in the process of discovery. However, it seems likely that there are aspects of their nature which are either completely unknowable by humans or merely unexplainable, possible to be experienced by mystics but never explained to someone without that experience.

Deities are people, or at least individuals, not symbols or personifications of natural forces. They are not Neoplatonic ideals. They are not Jungian archetypes. As people, they are capable of thought, of feeling, of learning and changing with experience. They compromise. They change their minds, and adapt to new situations. They may be perfect, [5] in the sense of being exactly right for their current situation, though I doubt it, but they aren't static, and would probably laugh at the idea that perfection implies that any possible change must be for the worse.

They are not, however, people in quite the same sense as human people. In particular, they don't have many of the ordinary concerns of human beings, nor the limitations that give rise to those concerns. That's not all that's different about them. They appear to be incorporeal, [6] and capable of interacting with individuals in many locations at the same time.

Deities are relational [7] and consultative. They form relationships with each other. They form relationships with human beings, both individually and collectively. They interact. They also consult. In crisis, our stories show them calling councils, discussing their options. [8] They sometimes simply make unilateral decisions, but even then these decisions are subject to later revision.

Deities have a natural inclination to make things work better, in both short and long term. They enjoy seeing people learn. They like seeing societies function well, and families prosper. They enjoy every kind of creative endeavour, whether cooking or calligraphy, and whether amateur or advanced. They like art, and athletics, and simply being a good farmer. They like to see things done well, and they like to see things improving. If something is broken, they want it fixed; if something could be better, they want it improved. While individual deities may have particular areas they pay most attention to, it appears they all share this general trait. (Some seem to have it stronger than others; Odin appears to be particularly insistent on continuous improvement, and will accept rather steep risks compared to the apparent potential gains.) [9]

Deities are favourably inclined towards human beings. Deities don't just want humans to function well; they want humans to thrive and be happy. They like to help humans, to form relationships with them, to enhance human potential. They enjoy seeing human prosperity, and comfort, success, and achievement. They are also inclined to help and care for other beings, both individually and as groups. They want humans and animals, plants and spirits [10] all to thrive, and will put effort into facilitating this. This particularly applies to those with whom they have formed relationships, individually or in groups, such as heathens and their families. (With others, the interest is more casual, and perhaps mostly based on their general desire for things to function well.)

Deities are powerful, but not omnipotent. They can do things no human could possibly do. But there's plenty they can't do, and they seem, like humans, to have to choose where to allocate their efforts, rather than doing everything they'd like to do.

Deities and humans are both subject to Wyrd. [11] Wyrd is a concept both fundamental to heathenry and exceedingly hard to explain or to grasp. Many people don't get it, just as many Christians don't get the Trinity. Basically, Wyrd is the idea that actions have consequences, and that people, including deities, fall into patterns which can be quite difficult for them to get themselves out of. In every situation, your choices are limited, as a result of a combination of past events and simple chance. Thus, if I am looking for work, but have no skills, the offers I get are likely to be low paying, unpleasant, and few. If I take whichever of them seems likely to build good skills and good references, and pursue skills development in other ways, I'm likely to have better options next time. But I might get lucky this time, and unlucky next time. Or my personal efforts might be swamped by greater trends; I might get better offers in a time of prosperity than in a recession, regardless of my improving skills. This is Wyrd in action, on a small and comprehensible scale.

Every time a deity or human being acts, they change the world a little bit. These changes feed back on themselves, and can be built into huge changes, for good or ill. Go too far down one path, and you rule out other possibilities. Deities do this on a large scale. Humans operate on a smaller scale. (I don't rule out overlap here; some human actions clearly have huge effects, and some divine actions may well be trivial.) Wyrd affects both actions and results. The job hunter above will be more or less diligent, and more or less capable of learning, based in part on habits, built from past behaviour. One can change that behaviour, but radical change is difficult, and even more difficult to sustain. Wyrd is not determinism, but neither is it classic free will. One's options are shaped and limited; some things which seem theoretically possible pretty much can't be done in practice, in spite of willpower; other things which could theoretically be avoided seem inevitable in practice. Sometimes one has what seems like a wide open field, with infinite possibilities, and no one able to predict the result. Sometimes it seems as if one is fated; only one outcome is possible. Most situations, however, fall into the middle area where there are a few plausible options, some that are unlikely, but do happen, and others that are so unlikely that we treat them as impossible.

Deities are extremely long lived, far beyond the lifespan of any human being. Our stories specifically say that they are not immortal; one poem (Baldrs Draumar) is devoted to the death of the god Baldr (Poetic Edda, p.195-200). Another story says that even their immunity to aging is artificially maintained (Sturluson p.60). It's possible that these stories are the result of excessive anthropomorphism, expressing spiritual and emotional truths in mythic form, and deities really are immortal. [12] On the other hand, it makes sense to me that beings which can change and grow can also cease to exist. In any case, whether they are immortal or merely extremely long lived, their long life span gives deities a maturity and knowledge base far beyond that of any human. Deities are not omniscient, at least as this term is normally used. There are stories suggesting that some of them (Odin, Heimdall) possess the ability to observe anything they wish, or even in one case know all things (Frigga). [13] However, this doesn't seem to mean that they are automatically aware of all things; stories show Odin fooled more than once, and one story shows even Frigga making what appears to be a bad decision that could have been prevented given knowledge of events which had already occurred. [14]

Even if they did have the ability to know everything that had already occurred, or was presently occurring, they still would not know the future. The future is never knowable with certainty; that's one important implication of the nature of Wyrd. The future is always changeable, even when things seem completely certain. Moreover, most of the time there are at least a couple of plausible options, and quite likely many more. Someone who observes the patterns of Wyrd can make very good educated guesses about likely outcome(s), often far in advance. Humans do it all the time, sometimes to the great aggravation of friends who'd been insisting that "this time will be different". Deities, being long lived, have had the opportunity to develop extensive experience of the patterns of Wyrd. They've generally seen everything before, often several times, so have a good idea of what to expect and how to deal with it. They also have information sources which mortals lack. This frequently allows them to accurately predict many things that leave humans baffled, producing effects that are easily taken for omniscience.

Deities did not create the universe. It appears most likely to have arisen on its own. What deities have done is organized and improved an already existing universe, or parts of that universe. [15] The Prose Edda gives a detailed story both of how the universe came into being, and how the earliest deities acted to organize it. The details are generally regarded as metaphorical, involving a cosmic cow named Audhumla, who arose from dripping rime and licked the ice around her, gradually revealing Buri, the ancestor of our deities (Sturluson p. 9-13). The principle, however, is clear; deities arose and became active at the same time as the rest of the universe, not before.

Deities are not human. It's very easy to conceptualize relationships with individual gods and goddesses as being like relationships with individual human beings. However, they don't react as we do, and this gets more and more obvious the deeper a relationship one develops. There are human viewpoints they just don't share. For example, a human lifespan is an eye blink of time to them. They know we'd prefer to live long lives, but nonetheless tend to see 80 and 20 years as much the same, and judge a human life based on its flavour, not its length. Deities are awe inspiring. [16] They can appear as gentle, comforting beings, as fully personal and personified people with their power and charisma masked. But this is a mask, or a temporary reduction of a large blaze to a tiny coal. Get close to them, and you will generally encounter them as awe inspiring too.

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