Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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O God

For all its recent history, the English word “god” is a fine old pagan word with a long, long pedigree.

Cognates occur in all Germanic languages (German Gott, Icelandic guð, etc.), and in all Germanic languages, interestingly, it was this word that was chosen by early missionaries to denote the Christian god. How and why this came to be is in itself an interesting question which would well merit further study, but that's not my intent here.

For historical reasons—largely because of its Christian associations—we've come to think of “god” as (connotatively, if not grammatically) masculine. I suspect that among English-speaking pagans this masculinization has been emphasized by the word's implied pairing with “goddess.” English lost its grammatical genders after the Norman invasion, but the other Germanic languages have kept all three of them (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and in all of them (again, for Christian reasons) the word god has become a grammatically masculine noun.

But that's not how the ancestors saw it.

Before the missionaries came, the word god was grammatically neuter, and could refer to a deity of either sex. All the Germanic languages also have a word specifically denoting “goddess”—god + feminine ending—so all goddesses were gods, but not all gods were goddesses. Because this is true in all the daughter languages, it must also have been the case in Proto-Germanic (circa 500 BCE) as well.


Linguist Wilhelm Schultz suggests that originally the word may have been a collective plural denoting both gods and goddesses: the Germanic languages generally speak of mixed groups of males and females in neuter gender (West 121). Apparently the “generic masculine” did not arise in English until after our nouns had lost their grammatical gender. You pays your money, you takes your choice.

Certainly the word has belonged to the gods for a long time. It originated some 6000 years ago with the proto-Indo-European root *gheud-, which means “pour, libate.” This tells us something important both about how the ancestors thought about the gods and how they worshiped them. The pagan gods have long been the recipients of libations. A god is a “poured-to” being: a recipient of libations.

Although the root survived in many of PIE's daughter languages (Vedic hótar, “libation-priest,” Gaulish gutuator, “libater”), it has become the main word for “god” only in the Germanic and Iranic languages. Khuda ( or some variant thereof) means “god” in virtually all Persian languages, including Kurdish, Pashto, and modern Farsi. In Kalasha, the Dardic language spoken by the last remaining pagans of the Hindu Kush, Khodai is a common term for Dezau, the high god/sky god (his name is equivalent to Greek Zeus, Latvian Dievs, Sanskrit Dyaus, Latin Jove, etc.)

Khuda is also the Urdu word for “god,” probably as a borrowing from some Iranic language. In Pakistan and virtually every Iranic-speaking country, hardliners are now fighting to substitute Arabic “Allah” for the native Khuda in everyday speech on the grounds that the latter is un-Islamic. So indeed it may be (if non-Islamic = un-Islamic), but in the end, of course, purism is always its own punishment.

In some necks of the pagan woods there's been a certain amount of reaction against the word “god.” For some, the word seems too Christian. For others, it seems exclusionary. (I hope to have shown above that—historically speaking, at any rate—it's actually neither.) There's been a certain push towards excising it in favor of “deity.” Me, I have nothing against “deity,” but to this poet's ear it will never sound anything but clinical and juice-less. No one ever shouted out “O Deity!” while having an orgasm.

Me, I prefer the terse, strong Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, especially when it comes to the old and good things.

Bread. Home. Light.



M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (2007). Oxford.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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