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Deities, Metadeities and Polytheology

Ray White writes:

The idea that all gods boil down to one god, and all goddesses boil down to one goddess, is cute -- but I can't really find much support for it in world philosophies (especially in Celtic) and I think it must be a modern invention. It's kinda sexist also when you think about it.

I think that depends on your definition of sexism, and also on how you view the deities concerned. Having two genders doesn't necessarily mean valuing one above the other, or ascribing arbitrary culturally constructed virtues to them on the basis of gender. But of course, in practice, many people do exactly that. So while I don't think the concept is in itself sexist, I do think it's quite open to sexist interpretations, which is of course a problem.

The idea that all individual deities are in some manner part of a greater whole, which you referred to earlier, does have precedents in other belief systems, notably Hinduism. And I think someone or other -- though I can't remember who -- made an argument in the Journal of Keltria for the Celts having held similar beliefs. I don't know what that author's basis for saying that was, though, as I only heard about the article second hand and never saw it myself. The point where things get complicated is with the introduction of an intermediate step where divinity bifurcates into two gendered entities before subdividing into the many individual deities we know.

I think the key to sorting this out is to ask what these two entities are, and what their purpose is. Does their existence mean that gender is somehow a more fundamental form of difference than any of the other differences that exist among deities? Although some might think so, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. For one thing, gender is hardly a universal trait. Many of the "lower" forms of life on which all ecosystems depend do not have gender. Are humans, or other gendered creatures, somehow closer to the divine than, say mycorhizal bacteria, without which all plant life, and subsequently all animal life, would die? It hardly seems likely.

Another possibility is that there are many other kinds of "meta-deities", perhaps based on differences of species, culture, association with natural forms, or other such qualities. A meta-deity, in this sense, can be seen as that portion of the ultimate divinity which happens to share in a certain set of qualities. This seems more sensible to me. It's possible to experience a strong sense of divine presence in rituals dedicated simply to "the earth mother" or "the sun god", which implies to me that a meta-deity of some sort might be involved.

it's also interesting to wonder whether perhaps the deities of monotheistic religions might have started out as a form of cultural meta-deity, composites, in a sense, of many individual tribal gods, and that due to the specifics of those societies' cultural evolution, the meta-deity eventually became the exclusive focus of worship. This might explain why in the early parts of th Old Testament, God sometimes seems to be referred to in the plural ("elohim", etc.).

But if this is the case, we then have to ask ourselves why, if so many meta-deities potentially exist, do Wiccans choose to emphasize the two based on gender? The key here, I think, is the value of that particular image as a metaphor for holistic dualism. Given that the majority of people tend to be wholly or partially heterosexual, and that even those who aren't encounter heterosexuality in their environment via family and friends and can relate to it on that level, the idea of a god and goddess joined in love provides a powerful image of exactly what we were discussing with references to dualism and triadism: two opposites conjoining to create a third thing.

Now, this is, as I said, a powerful metaphor, and one that resonates strongly for many people and allows them to see aspects of their own sexual and romantic lives as reflective of the key teaching of their religion. But it's also problematic in that not all people are heterosexual, and some may find the god-and-goddess-as-lovers imagery alienating. Conversely, some intolerant heterosexuals may interpret that image as a sign that they are somehow closer to divinity than others.

Both these reactions are, in my opinion, instances of what Alfred North Whitehead referred to as the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness" -- the misinterpretation of metaphors as realities. Myth and metaphor cease to be useful, and indeed can become destructive, when we forget that that is what they are. Even if we accept meta-deities as having a reality of their own as subdivisions of the primal divinity, the choice of a particular set of meta-deities is metaphoric in nature. We choose to divide divinity in a particular way because that way, in some sense, works for us. But in order for it to work as intended, we have to remain conscious of the fact that it was a choice, that there were reasons for that choice, and that other choices might have been made instead.

We also have to remain conscious of the fact that our metaphors are metaphors, even if they are also real. A sword can be a metaphor for the bolt of lightning that fertilized the sea and created the first organic life, but that in no way means that a sword isn't also a real thing (swing one at your head if you have any doubts). The imagery of a god and goddess as lovers is an equally potent symbol, but we have to realize that its meaning can also be seen in many other symbols -- otherwise, we risk losing sight of the the essential truth that it conveys.

Déithe duit,

Liath Cadhóit
(a.k.a Lynna Landstreet)


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