Pagan Studies

Steel is tested and shaped on the anvil. Here, we try every Pagan idea on the anvil of history, hammered by insight and intellect, to forge a Pagan Future.

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The Gods Themselves

What of the Many Gods? Are they really all One? Are they distinct individuals? Is it the same deity in many cultures? We continue our development of a Pagan Systematic Theology by addressing the Gods Themselves and some thoughts on how to think about our work with Them.


One of the really great questions humans have been working on for literally ages is “Is the World One or Many? You can find a long tour of this process in McEvilley’s “The Shape of Ancient Thought” [The kindle edition is cheap!]. We can see even in stone age mythologies efforts to express the general intuition humans have of the unity of the world. 


Philosophically this is called ‘monism’ and all the great religions that develop deep self-critical literature have some form of this stance. The One of the Neoplatonists, the Tao, Shunyata for the Buddhists, are all very different ways of apprehending that unity. It is possible to confuse monism with monotheism as some scholars are doing today. (See Athanassiadi’s "Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity".) But as soon as you have other Deities in the system, as did the ancient Neoplatonists, it can’t be monotheism, which is specifically the rejection of all deities, except one. Indeed, in the ancient world Christians were considered and referred to as ‘atheists’ because they denied the Gods.


We discussed the world from the viewpoint of its simplicity and unity in my last blog-post, now we need to turn to its divine multiplicity. Gnosis published an early effort of mine on this subject in 1993 (What is Polytheism and how I became Polytheistic). Those were not bad ideas, but I would like to take a different tack today. . .



From my last post, it should be clear that I am a realist. I feel the facts support the idea that there is a consistent reality in which I am embedded. Therefore many elements of that reality, often referred to as the ‘objective’ ones, are available to others as they are to myself. Humans being what they are will apprehend those realities and express their understanding of them in a manner appropriate to their culture and history. We should note that this is changing with the rise of modern science which has developed mathematics as a universal, or at least pan-human, mode of expression permitting clear communication about the subject across cultural boundaries. However the closest we have to such a language when discussing the Gods is Jungian Archetypal psychology, which tells us that the Deities are manifestations of archetypes all humans share. This is unfortunately not much of an advancement on what I just stated.


What we can take away is that there are two layers that must be disentangled, the reality and the human interpretation and expression of the experience of that reality. Given the multitude of human cultures, even where the reality is single, simple and being adequately expressed, each culture will produce its own expression of that reality. When we add such complexity that one culture will “slice the pie” one way and another quite differently, we suddenly have a much greater multiplicity to account for. One culture’s Gods may be a complete and adequate expression of Reality, suitable for engagement and worship, while another culture’s, equally adequate, may appear entirely different.


Obviously, this is an argument for cultural relativity and supports respect for another’s expression of the Divine. It can create a mood of interest and inquiry when confronted with another’s presentation, a “so that’s how you do it,” attitude. It also accounts for the phenomenon of seeing similarities between the Gods of various Pantheons. Tahuti is like unto Hermes, is like unto Manjushri, is like unto Hanuman. . . well, sort of. But it also lets us acknowledge the differences and seek to appreciate them. We can contemplate the similarities and contrasts in the Ape of Thoth and the King of the Monkeys, Hanuman. 


Some folks respond to this situation by finding a culture they ‘like’ and working their pantheon. This has the virtue of some kind of coherence and self-organization, but it does get awkward as we learn more about the ancient world and realize that so much of the data we have had about their Deities has been drastically filtered if not bowdlerized by the mostly Protestant scholars we read. The ancient world and its understanding of its Gods was various, complex, and often self-contradictory, in many ways not very orderly at all. The ancients, like contemporary polytheists such as the Hindu, lived with the contradictions as simply ‘what is’.


Personally, I tend to look for structure and then attempt to populate the structure with “those I know,” the Deities I have met. Some of that comes from working the Qabalah in a Golden Dawn context. So many different Deities from a wide range of cultures meet side by side there that picking and choosing amongst them is quite natural. But while the Tree of Life structure is a brilliant fusion of cosmology, divine anthropology, genesis or the path of creation, and anagogy or the path of ascent, its limitations drove me to understand the Neoplatonic cosmology and understanding of the Divine from which the Qabalah is derived. (See Gershom Scholem’s “Kabbalah”, and Mosha Idel’s “Kabbalah, New Perspectives”, for the scholarship on this bit of history.)


The great Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus gives us a fairly detailed cosmology, which was later elaborated on, especially by Proclus. Since his work, called “De Mysteriis”, was an exhortation to the advanced spirituality of his day, theurgy, it provides that cosmology in a context of practice. Iamblichus not only tells us about the cosmos, but he also tells us what to do with it. In short, what he says is Neglect No-one, and Collect the Whole Set.


The ‘taxis’ or Order of the Gods was a vital notion for Iamblichus. What could be described in abstract philosophical terms could also be worshiped and invoked in the form of the Gods. Each of the several strata of the cosmos, and for him what lay beyond the cosmos, was populated by a distinct but interconnected set of Deities. Iamblichus does not list Them by name (Proclus will later), but gives Their grades and characteristics especially in Book 3 where he gives typologies for how to distinguish the rank of a Being from the phenomena of Their epiphany. In the famed Book 5, which discusses the nature and practice of sacrifice, Iamblichus explains that if we leave anybody out of the offerings the ritual and its effects will be marred. With effort we can reconstruct his list of all the beings who need attention during sacrifice, but for his audience this would simply be cultural knowledge.


He starts with offerings to the Local Spirits, then to the Archons, the rulers of the material world like the 4 (or 5) Elemental Kings, then All of the Gods as a class (this part can be much subdivided), then the Retinue of the God/dess being invoked, like the Muses for Apollo, then the Main Deity Itself. There is a possibility that one might also continue up the chain to the Deities that rank above the primary object of worship to the Demiurge and on to the One, but the data is unclear.


We do know that for Iamblichus the same Deity manifests on each plane of existence, Terrestrial, Celestial, Cosmic (the physical world as a whole), Psychic (Soul, in which the physical world is embedded), Nous, the proper realm of the Gods, and the One, the ‘Henadic’ realm of the Demiurge (Creator) and the inner structures of the One above the Creator. Other cultures will give different names to the ‘same’ Deity at each level (e.g., the Hindu) but the Greeks talk of the Terrestrial, Celestial, and Demiurgic Zeus. This can be confusing so one has to pay attention to the epithets and accompanying phenomena to know the level of the Deity being invoked. But it also points to a continuity that the philosophers called the ‘series’ of the Deity, that chain that connects all the different forms of the same Goddess together at each level of Being. This also links together the Beings of the Retinue of the God, so they are considered, ‘of the same series’ as the Deity with Whom they are associated. Ultimately this series runs from the One all the way ‘down’ to matter, which itself is given characteristics by the same ‘form’ or divine essence that derives from the Primordial One and characterizes each Deity. Everything possessing or being informed by a given ‘form’ is of the same series.


We use this today when assembling materials for ritual. We gather things that all correspond to the Deity we will invoke. What makes them correspond is that they all bear the ‘essence’ of the Deity in material form. Or symbolic form, if the item is a song, or a text, or a graphic, or some such.


By making sure we give offerings to beings at every level of Being, we then connect up the whole world and neglect no-one. Collecting the Whole Set has a different purpose: ascension. The goal of the theurgist is to ascend to the One, thereby know her place in the scheme of things, and return to fulfill it, creating her portion of the Cosmos, without which the Cosmos would be incomplete and imperfect. A laudable goal, but the ascension requires long labors. Iamblichus bids us to make sacrifice, to invoke all of the Gods. This sounds impractical, but Iamblichus is a Pythagorean and knows the secret of whole sets. We are to invoke all the Deities at one level of reality and once that is complete, the next layer of reality will open to us. The trick is with how to get to ‘all’. The Pythagoreans (apparently) discovered the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. (Actually the Egyptians may have understood this as evinced in how the fractions are shown in the Eye of Horus.) Where this is useful is in looking for the parts that contribute to a whole. To use familiar terms, what Iamblichus is saying is invoke the 4 (or 5) Elements and this opens the Celestial realm. Invoke all of the Planets (and maybe the Zodiac) and this opens the Hyper-Cosmic realm which for Qabalists is the Sepherot of the Tree of Life, for others it may be their Pantheon. Invoke all the Sepherot, or all the main Deities of the Pantheon, and the Noetic root-forms of the Deities become accessible. (For a Qabalist this is crossing the Abyss.) Unite all the root-forms (I’m not sure invoking really makes sense at this non-dual level) and achieve union with the One. This is called ‘henosis’.


One last thing is worth mentioning in this context: Angels and Demons. In the ancient world ‘demons’ were not the class of evil spirits. They are the beings in this animistic view of the world that do the functions of what we call ‘nature’. There is a demon who moves the bolt to the floor when it rolls off the shelf. There is another demon who assures that the bolt rolls directly under the center of the car you are repairing. We call that one “Murphy”. These spirits are also responsible for binding us into our bodies and making sure we get the lessons, and if necessary, punishments, that we are due in life. As such we may not be happy with our Demon. What is valuable here is that the same Being who is a Demon on the way downward into incarnation and matter, changes as we begin the long ascent back to the One. The Being who bound us now unbinds us and guides us on our way. The Demon becomes the Angel. Our personal Demon becomes what we call today our ‘Holy Guardian Angel’. And we can find the practice of invoking this One as far back as Sumer.


What we have seen in this exploration is a way of understanding, accounting for, and working with that aspect of reality we have come to call the Gods. It gives us reason to recognize the reality behind the cultural constructs that are the Pantheons we know, and to respect and honor their marvelous diversity and rich expression. It does us well to render due honors when visiting the Halls of Others’ Gods, and to make a point of visiting them that we make come to know All the Gods.

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Sam Webster is a Pagan Mage, one of the very few who is also a Master of Divinity, and is also currently a Doctoral candidate in History at the University of Bristol, UK, under Prof. Ronald Hutton. He is an initiate of Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions and an Adept of the Golden Dawn founding the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn  in 2001. His work has been published in a number of journals such as Green Egg and Gnosis, and 2010 saw his first book, Tantric Thelema, establishing the publishing house Concrescent Press. Sam lives in the San Francisco East Bay and serves the Pagan community principally as a priest of Hermes.


  • Scott
    Scott Tuesday, 08 January 2013

    A couple of thoughts on your proposed structure here:

    First, I'm not sure that your chain of progression here accurately represents Neoplatonic thought, at least the way I understand it. Edward Butler has done some interesting work on Proclus, and suggests that there is no One *above* the henads - that the One is the *principle of individuation* which all of the henads (the Gods) embody. ("The One neither *is*, nor *is one*," as Proclus says.) This presents some problems for your theurgic progression, since there is no One, strictly speaking, above any of the Gods to which one could progress by uniting all of the "Noetic root-forms" (I'm not a Qabalist, so my understanding of this particular concept may be lacking). Moreover, it may not even be correct to postulate the *existence* of these Noetic root-forms in a Neoplatonic context, as the Gods are henads by virtue of being *radically individual*; any "root" to which they belong compromises their henad-ness by definition. Nor would such a progression to the One be necessary: Butler interprets Proclus as saying that each henad contains all the others after its own fashion, so that Zeus contains all the Gods "zeusically," Athena contains them "athenically," and so forth - this suggests that one should be able to achieve theurgic ascension through *any individually named God* rather than through a whole pantheon.

    Secondly, I want to register for consideration a contrary view on the whole Neoplatonic structure. As we know, the map is not the territory, and so our intellectual models are only approximations of the actual reality of what-is. As such, maps have to be subject to revision when found to be in contradiction to the territory. Take, for example, the biological classification of species: it's a fantastically useful edifice for classification and understanding the relatedness of organisms, but as it turns out, our concept of a "species" runs into some serious problems when scientists examine organisms at certain scales (genetics of populations, in particular). Among the bacteria, the whole notion of "species" is in fact almost useless - bacteria trade genetic material across what we had previously considered to be vastly remote taxonomic units. One might read into this a cautionary tale about becoming over-invested in the system at the expense of observation and relationship with individuals.

  • Sam Webster
    Sam Webster Thursday, 10 January 2013

    Thank you for your comments.

    There are a variety of understandings about the nature of the Henads. My interpretation is fairly inline with general scholarship on Neoplatonism. But the issues are not settled, and since the piece is not about the finer points of Neoplatonism, I've not gone into the debates. But thank you for the Butler cite. He seems to have a number of interesting articles out there.

    Meanwhile, for the purposes of this essay, and in line with the standard presentation of Neoplatonism (Dodds, Wallis, Dillon, Rappe), I differentiate the One from the Noetic, which is, per the Timaeus, etc., the realm of the Gods.

    As for the method of ascension you discuss, it is much in keeping with Tantric thought. However, I am mostly presenting an approach through Iamblichus' view, as I indicated. Naturally it is not the only one, but it has certain known benefits for practitioners especially with respect to the way back down. It is not enough to achieve Henosis, union with the One. We must then return and be effective. By creating relationship with the rest of the cosmos we become effective continuing the process of creation which, per the Timaeus, is our purpose. I find that a useful framing for our existence. Also, I've seen this method in use for decades with my students. It is very effective and empowering.

    In trying to understand my writing is it important to not put too much stress on Neoplatonism as a system, very much in keeping with your last paragraph. I'm not building a structure based entirely on the thoughts of others. I'm using Neoplatonic thought, along with a number of other influences, not always cited, to create a new theology, always leavened by the results of my practice. The value of a proposition is in inspiring thought. Try contemplating the ideas I have presented rather than trying to measure them by someone else's thought. They will bear their own useful fruit in your life and practice that way. And if you do not yet practice by invoking the Gods, begin, or else nothing I say will be of any value, and these words just digital ink.
    sam webster

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