Who are the gods anyway?

While a student a Pacifica Graduate Institute, earning my doctorate in Mythological Studies, I naturally learned a variety of ways of defining the gods. Such definitions primarily stemmed from the tradition of depth psychology–namely Jungian schools of thought and discussions of archetypes. Containing specified psychological jargon, I found those definitions of gods in relation to archetypes and archetypal images, as virtually useless outside such circles.

Recently I published a post entitled “Homo Mythicus” where I discussed the idea of myth as story and how our lives are mythical.

Such was a preamble of sorts, to this post. For when we are talking about myths as stories, and stories contain characters, we find the gods as the central characters of those stories.  As such, the current piece is a sequel to the former and will, in the future, be followed by posts dedicated to specific gods.

So who are the gods anyway?

Of the myriad ways in which the gods have been defined, I find two most helpful.

The first comes from a lecture and forgive me, for I know not the source, but the idea behind it is simple:

“Gods are value centers.”

The second defines the gods as such: They “typify qualities associated with highly marked experience that indicate something transcendent”  (Doty, Mythography, sorry no page).

So in reference to upcoming posts dedicated to specific gods, I would like to explore how I understand such definitions, as they will play a fundamental role in said future posts.

“Gods are value centers.”

A culture’s pantheon tells us what that culture values. The relationships established between members of the pantheon tells us how that culture viewed the relationships between said values and, depending on the “hierarchal structure” within a pantheon, which values are placed higher than others. Of course, mythology is organic, and as society changes, so too do these relationships and values.  A pretty simple definition in my opinion and while I admit I am the one simplifying it, it also provides a point of reflection on the difference between monotheism and polytheism.

If the gods are understood as value centers, then what happens with monotheism?

“God is Love” says the Christian tradition. Where did all the other values go? Are they subsumed within this one? Are they relegated to being secondary? It is hard to say and of course the question could generate myriad answers. At the same time, to say “God is Love” does not really tell me much about God and does not really tell me much about love.

If we take a polytheistic perspective, however, we get something altogether different. Using a Greek example, we find many gods and goddesses associated with love. We have Eros, which, while our word “erotic” may limit our understanding of Eros, is not simply associated with sexual, erotic appetite. Eros is what excites my passions, my love. I have an erotic love for gardening–it doesn’t mean I want to have sex with my garden! We have from the Greek the goddess Aphrodite–goddess of love and sexuality (among many other things) as well as Demeter, who embodies the principle motherly love. One could go on.

What is the difference? Love is an abstract concept. We cannot point to something and say that is love. A monotheistic perspectives leaves love vague; a polytheistic perspective deepens insight into different experiences of love.

This then, provides a nice transition to the second definition, which may require a little unpacking:

“Typify qualities associated with highly marked experience that indicate something transcendent”

1) “Associated with highly marked experience.”

So the gods are associated with experience–highly marked experience to be exact. Experience, in other words, that have a profound impact on us. What can these be? Love, for example. Compassion. Bravery. Depression even.

Such experiences, in having such impact on us, are sometimes difficult to understand, difficult to even conceptualize. Of this James Hillman writes: “one thing is absolutely essential to the notion of the archetypes (gods): their emotional possessive effect, their bedazzlement of consciousness so that it becomes blind to its own stance” (qtd. in Moore, Blue Fire, 24).

So how does one make sense of such bedazzlements to consciousness? That brings me to the first element of Doty’s definition…

2) “Typify qualities.”

Myths and the art associated with the gods puts the abstract into the “concrete”–not to say images of the gods always remains the same, but we are given an image by which we can begin to understand, make sense of, and integrate said experiences. Zeus bears a lightning bolt for a reason. Apollo bears a bow and arrow for a reason. Such elements, or “qualities” of the gods offers insights into those highly marked experiences.

3) Lastly, these highly marked experiences “indicate something transcendent.”

Transcendence, of course is a quality natural assumed regarding gods. What does that mean? It means said highly marked experience is greater than us, exists “outside” of us, as it were and being transcendent, more powerful than me. Sure, I might feel love well up inside me, but I cannot necessarily control that welling up. And to just think of the universality of love, or any other such highly marked experience, speaks to the fact that it does not “belong” to me and my limitedness in time and space, to any of us–being universal speaks to its transcendence.

So who are the gods? Gods are these experiences that impact our lives in a profound way. They are more powerful than us, they have the ability to bring us to our knees or lift us to the loftiest of heights or take us to our deepest depths.

The “gods are like persons” writes Christine Downing (Gods in our Midst 22) and “at the heart of polytheism lies the conviction that only the totality of the gods and the goddesses constitutes the divine world” (20). The Greek word for god, theos, is instructive: “immortal, permanent, ineluctable aspects of the world” (ibid.) Furthermore, “to disregard even one of the gods or goddesses is to curtail the richness of the world and the fullness of the human” (21).

So are the gods real?

Of course they are.


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