APT logo

Association of Polytheist Traditions

Deity and Humanity: Implications

Copyright © by Arlie Stephens 2003

Our deities are comparatively limited, and our humans reasonably capable. The relationship isn't one of parity, but it's a lot closer than is normal among monotheists. This means we can reasonably attempt to pull our weight in our relationships with deities. There are real effects of human efforts, even effects on deities. We can be true contributors. Moreover, we can refuse a relationship offered by a deity, or negotiate better terms. But this also forces more responsibility upon us. We don't get to bewail our total helplessness and expect our deities to put everything right.

We have no fall, no total depravity. We also have no perfection, either for humans or deities. Both deities and humans participate in a constant cycle of striving for improvement, and need help and companions in this endeavour. Both humans and deities do better if those companions include both humans and deities, because each has skills and viewpoints the other lacks. Besides, we're both by nature interested in relationships, each with the other.

Our multiplicity of deities gives us relationality for free, without the somewhat confusing mystery of the Trinity. It also gives us alternatives. Some people get along better than others; humans and deities can find relationships particularly to their liking, rather than trying to make one size fit all. At the same time, though, it gives conflict, or potential conflict. Deities don't always agree with each other. They can disagree on means, or even on ends, just as humans can, even while all are well meaning and reasonably well informed.

The principle of Wyrd is a kind of natural law, applying to both humans and deities. It cannot be violated. This provides a partial answer to the problem of evil. Much evil isn't willed, but a result of mistakes and trade offs. It is not possible for anyone to start over with a completely clean slate; much as we would sometimes like to do so. We (humans and deities both) have to play the hand we have, with the results of past decisions and past happenstance. We are also all interconnected, so each of us is affected by far more than our own choices.

Heathenism is inherently pluralist. We expect there to be more deities than just the ones with whom we have formed relationships, and for those deities to share the same general traits of all deities. In particular, we expect them to be basically well meaning, seeking good things for everyone, but particularly those humans with whom they have formed relationships. We also expect them to disagree to some extent with our deities about how to go about creating and enhancing these good things, and to preferentially form relationships with human beings compatible with their ideas. We do not expect our deities and our religious customs to be the best for everyone, and would much rather see those who do not suit our deities stay with those deities and religions they do suit.

Deities and human beings have a lot of common traits. In some ways, deities are very much like humans with more information, longer lifetimes, and without some of the limitations inherent in corporeal existence. We cannot explain this by resorting to ideas of humans being somehow created in the divine image, unless we want to import ideas direct from Christianity. What we can support from our lore, and other historical and archaeological material, is the idea of human beings as being literally kin to the gods. Kings routinely claimed descent from Woden (Odin) even well into the Christian period (e.g. Bede, p.63). Odin is also said to have been the father of Sigi, the ancestor of the Volsungs (Byock 1990, p. 35). Rig's manipulation of human conception in Rigsthula (Poetic Edda p. 201-216) can easily be understood as Rig simply impregnating three human women. (In each case, he is said to get into the same bed with the woman and her husband, and lie between them.) Yet modern people find the idea of a deity siring human children rather hard to accept, given that deities do not seem to manifest with physical bodies. (We have modern heathen claims of many things that modern paradigms would consider either miraculous or delusional, even to the point of subjective experiences of deities as present in ordinary reality. I cannot however, recall any claims of them being as physical as this would require.) Some heathens therefore conclude that we really are partly descended from our deities; others disagree, asking questions about such things as the compatibility of divine and human DNA, and generally ridiculing the suggestion of our kinship with our deities being more than metaphor or adoption.

Heathens cannot plausibly base moral/ethical behaviour on divine commandments. [24] Instead, we behave well because both humans and deities desire general well being, both for individuals and in terms of well functioning societies. An unethical or evil human being is an ill- functioning human, as well as a creator of ill-functioning in his or her community.

This makes our idea of ethics at least somewhat relative, rather than absolute. Some things are simply a matter of what does or does not work to promote wholeness, prosperity, happiness, etc. in a particular situation. One could, I suppose, theorize that there was some particular set of ethical rules which would always work better than any other set, but observation suggests otherwise. And actual effects are what matters here, not theory, because it's the goal that's wanted, not the means of getting there. (This is not to say that any means will do, because everything is interconnected. If I create my prosperity at the expense of all my neighbours, the net result is not a gain.)

Any equivalent to liberation theology falls in the same general category as ethics. We can derive it, but not as a direct commandment or a primary attribute of the nature of deities. It's easy to imagine our deities, seeking general good functioning, being unhappy with societies where a few prosper at the expense of the many, and highly motivated to help the many redress imbalances. They could easily focus most of their efforts wherever they found the greatest need. They could certainly encourage their friends to refrain from treating others unjustly. But I can't see it becoming their one and only focus, unless for some reason an individual deity had a particular relationship to a particular oppressed group. They aren't Jesus, and don't have his specific association with the poor and marginalized. Some individual deities do have associations with particular occupations and social classes, such as Thor's affinity for ordinary folks, and Odin's affinity for poets. I could imagine a liberation Thor, if he had a strong connection with the people of some place where ordinary folks (farmers, labourers, etc) were as badly treated as they seem to be in much of Latin America. But as far as I know the issue has never come up. Things were very different, in the old days, before Christianity. Now the majority of those consciously involved with these deities are in North America, Europe, and perhaps Australia. None of these are known for being particularly oppressive, except to some extent the United States, where the heathen revival has so far been of no interest to most of the usual targets of oppression, except to some extent to relatively privileged women. [25]

[previous section] [concluding section]