Monday, September 27, 2010

Playing with God-Doh

A young boy sits down at his craft table. He has an assortment of coloring implements, pages to draw on, pictures to paint, and toys that let him build miniature versions of the world’s great wonders. Instead of these, he picks up the yellow tube with the blue lid. Today, he wants the blue Play-Doh. He uses this malleable dough to create a parrot, a toy gun, and a plate for his mother. Each item now individual, but each item still part of the same original stuff. Likewise, if you were to take the parrot, the toy gun, and the plate, pile them onto one another, and squish…you get another ball of blue Play-Doh.

There are many cultures around the world that have believed, at different points in time, that the nature of the divine is a lot like a young boy playing with dough. You have an original source that, through the actions and perceptions of man, is turned into an individualized, anthropomorphized, unique entity. This new entity is then treated with a set of individualized, unique adorations, sacrifices, lore, etc. Everything a God or Goddess needs to be a God or Goddess.

This is also what gives the various deities their hierarchal structure. The older and closer to the source the deity is, the higher up on the food chain that deity tends to be. Now, I did just say closer to the source, which means there are deities that are farther away from the source. This implies exactly what that logic might lead one to believe: newer gods can and are formed from the dough that was used to make the older gods. Bits and pieces of deities from cultures eons gone by are gathered, pressed, and formed into new deities that are treated as both something old and new.

I’ve done it before, and not to beat a dead horse or anything, but let’s play follow the divine trail with everyone’s favorite Greek Goddess of Wisdom…Athena! I mean Neith, the Egyptian Goddess of war, women, marriage, weaving, death, and wisdom. Why do I mean Neith? Well, if you’ve done enough homework you should know by now that there’s hardly a deity out there that was an original idea all to themselves.

The ancient Egyptian civilization heavily influenced the spiritual beliefs and practices of the Mediterranean, leading to direct and indirect rip-offs of their deities. As villages, territories, and countries were conquered, these beliefs became mixed up with those of the natives. When people liked - or were forced to like - a new idea or deity, they incorporated it into their practice. One could easily say that ancient Greek and Roman cultures were perfect models for modern-day eclectic spirituality.

And Neith? She’s not an entity unto herself, either. Ta-nit, a Phoenician lunar goddess, is thought to be her predecessor. She was a sky-dwelling lunar goddess who was in charge of war, mothers, nurses, and fertility. And Ta-nit evolved from the even more ancient Semitic goddess Anat - which sort of looks like Athena…at least if you take Anat and her later face Neith and squish them together.

The more we know about religious and spiritual history, the more we find out that since there were people, there were names for the divine. People have always been playing with God-Dough. So an ancient Semitic mother/war goddess eventually got smashed and thought about differently and turned into Athena (whose Greek history even had to be changed as her myth was so ancient the characters in her story had to be updated to stay with the times).

It happens just like you’d think it would. One war goddess gets taken to different parts of the world, changing to match the culture. It wasn’t until the idea of the war goddess had reached Egypt that she was given a face. And it wasn’t until she came to Greece that she was given the intellectual or philosophical aspects, making her as much a psychological component of humanity as she was an aspect of the divine.

It is here in this space, this mixture of the divine as an aspect of the universal divine and as individual personalities, that I vacillate. And, using this idea, I can find value in the ideas of polytheism and pantheism. The idea that there are multiple gods versus the idea that all gods are the same just with different names and faces. I think neither is correct, because these boxes are too strict, and they don’t take into account the historical veracity of deity.

This is truly the puzzle of an academic seeker of the divine. Or, at least, it has been my puzzle. I’m sure that this is not a monotheistic perspective, as it takes into account the notion that there is more than one deity. However, it is definitely not the fancier version of monotheism called henotheism, in which the mere idea of other gods is not out of the question while one supreme deity is what is worshipped.

Another ‘theism’ term is Kathenotheism, which was coined by philologist Max Muller. This is the idea that allows for more than one deity, however, only one deity is worshipped at a time. Think of Kathenotheism like this: first there was Anat, but then Ta-nit was worshipped, and then Neith, and then Athena. It doesn’t mean that Anat, Ta-nit, or Neith are not goddesses, it just means that Athena is the one who is worshipped now. Kathenotheism says that each deity has a time in which they reign, and then the reins are handed over to the next evolution.

This definition might work, except it is too closely related to the idea that there is only one deity, or one chain of deities. We could do the same ‘follow the evolution’ game with nearly any deity out there, not just Athena. So…that’s bunk.

Thus, I propose Doughtheism. It says that humans take ideas, concepts, perceptions, and lore from older cultures and modernize them. Sure, maybe we still call Athena the Goddess of Wisdom, and her name and myth haven’t completely changed due to her worldwide fame, but who is she now? Is she the same complex Goddess that can both kick butt and walk you to the underworld? Is she both dabbling in witchcraft and reading philosophy? Or, is she just the Goddess of Good Decisions that we call upon when we have a tough choice before us?

Doughtheism, while not an actual word - nor one that I’d write Webster’s about - is more of a concept, an understanding. It is the knowledge that the gods of our understanding look and act the way they do, because that is how our culture (and, more specifically, we) understands them. It fits for us.

It’s the same thing as blaming Hermes for your misfired email during Mercury Retrograde. The ancient Greeks and Romans had no concept of email, nor anything close to that kind of technology, and maybe would not have thought of Hermes as having anything tangentially to do with computers. However, in the modern version of Hermes/Mercury, he is simply the God of Communication and Business. Sure, we know him as a psychopomp and the inventor of many things, but the main trigger words are communication and business. Thus, we now lump new objects of communication in with his duties.

I get the feeling modern man likes their gods neat and orderly.

So what does this mean? What would it mean if humans truly did invent the names and concepts of the gods, sculpting them out of God-Dough throughout the ages? Does that mean there really is no divine, and that they are just psychological constructs? Or does it mean the exact opposite, and there are an infinite number of deities?

What I think I’ve found - and this is only true in my worldview; your mileage may vary - is that it’s all a little bit true. The names and faces and attitudes that we’ve given the gods over the eons are equally adequate and inadequate. They work and they don’t. Surely Athena and Anat have much in common, but they have just as much - if not more - that differentiates them. One is the cause and the other is the effect. One is the evolved, or squished, version of the other.

Using the broadest ‘theism’ terms, this works on a pantheistic worldview. All gods are the same blue Play-Doh. They’ve just been slowly, over thousands of years, rubbed and sculpted and squished together and rolled up into different incarnations. Specifically, this is a very Kathenotheistic view, in that each deity has a reign before it is rolled up and turned into something else.

Except that worldview is too limiting. It doesn’t fully explain how both Zeus and Athena and Isis and Horus and Odin and Loki could all be deities, especially be deities at the same time. It doesn’t explain how both Neith and Athena can be worshipped simultaneously in two cultures. One should die for the other to live, right?

Polytheism helps us to explain these issues. Back to the blue dough analogy in the beginning. Once the dough has been formed into a parrot, the young boy deals with the dough as though it were a parrot. He might try and flap its wings or put it in a cage. He might talk to it and pretend it talks back. He might name it and rub its feathers and feed it crackers - perhaps leaving bits of salty goodness in the dough. It is simultaneously dough and a parrot. It has the potential to be changed. If the boy feels the beak no longer works, then he can take it off, mush it around, and make it straighter or more curved or turn it into lips. The parrot is as much a reflection of the boy as the boy is affected by the joy the toy parrot brings.

So, too, are the gods through the ages. They change right along with the culture in which they find themselves. Athena is not Anat, and is not treated as such. The Greeks would not have said, “Yes, we see Anat as Athena.” And I’m sure Athena was not seen the same way depending on which Greek you asked. (Actually, I’m certain of this given the many names attributed to Athena, but that’s another article.) Once the dough is changed, it is treated as this new entity, but it doesn’t erase the old one.

The boy’s friend comes over, sees how much fun the boy is having with the parrot, and decides to make a bird of his own. Except, this new bird is more of an eagle than a parrot, but the boy enjoys it just the same. It is now a hunter, a raptor, instead of an exotic, talking rainbow bird. Each boy has their own bird made of the same stuff.

I had a discussion one time with a person studying religious philosophy with me who said that there is no correct path to God. We don’t have a true, accurate, 100% correct method for knowing the exact nature of the divine. However, somewhere out there amidst the hundreds or thousands of faiths around the world lies the truth. You just have to squish it all together.

I believe that is the most correct method of understanding the divine. The Gods are not necessarily one entity that is just called things, because they are too vast and varied to be completely the same. It’s the odd conundrum of having a Goddess of War that is also a Goddess of Peace. However, the Gods are not wholly separate either. Though, they are - and should be - treated as such.

I would not dare worship Neith in the same manner as Athena, as the two are different. The cultures they come from have formed them into the Goddesses of their understanding, and they are to be treated as such. The parrot and the eagle might come from the same stuff, but you would not expect the eagle to sit on your hand and talk to you, content on eating crackers.

Each deity is just as real and individual as the toys children create from Play-Doh. They came from the same yellow tube, but that’s about where it ends. They’re slowly changed over time, being nudged, added to, taken away from, and all out mutated from culture to culture. But, once they are changed, they are - and should be - treated as individual. As the eagle who is no longer the parrot.

Doughtheism… Maybe I will write Webster’s.

Love and Lyte,

Fire Lyte

3 comments:

  1. Remarkably thoughtful and well-put. I like Doughtheism.

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  2. well written, as always...I dont know why I didnt see this last year! I always come away from something you have written with a fresh insight, thanks!

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