Defining the Divine – Gods, Spirits, Powers, etc.

[This is a re-write of an old essay I composed several years ago and posted to my old blog on LiveJournal. I have since related this analogy on several occasions, including in conversations on posting boards. If it seems familiar, that may be why.]

I am frequently asked to explain the difference is between “Powers” and “gods”, when people see me referring to the Orixa or Loa as “Powers”, and sometimes referring to the Vanir and Aesir and Jotnar, and even Alfar as “Powers”, but then also referring to the Vanir and Aesir and some of the Jotnar as “gods”, and apparently not referring to the Orixa, or Loa as gods. What is the distinction I am making? Am I saying the Orixa are not as important or as powerful as the Vanir?

NO!

In fact, I think the Orixa and the Vanir are pretty well exactly as important as each other, although I admit in my own life, I’m much closer to the Vanir, personally.

When I choose words like “Powers” over “gods” I’m actually making multiple distinctions, but the important one here is a difference of theological context. The Powers I know as the Orixa are not from the same cultural contexts as the Powers I know as Pagan gods. While my own practice and spiritual experience may see similarities between the scale, nature, and role of the beings I know as Orixa and the beings I know as Pagan gods, and thus I may regard Them as fundamentally the same kind of beings, I choose to respect the context each Power comes from in the language I use to address or describe Them.

According to Orixa tradition, the word “God” only applies to Oludumare, the Creator. Oludumare is God-with-a-capital-G, akin to God in the Abrahamic traditions today. There are other various powers in these traditions which aren’t called “gods” no matter how powerful they are, because the concept and word “God” are reserved for the one all-powerful divine source.

The important thing to recognize is that according to this perspective, the entities Pagans call “gods”, if They exist, are understood as Powers, like the Orixa. They are elevated ancestors, personified forces of nature, strong independent spirits, i.e. agents employed by the One God to interact with those of us who are too limited to connect directly with the Omnipotent and Omniscient God.

From most Pagan perspectives, the gods are lowercase-g-gods, in that none of Them are individually Omnipotent or Omniscient. They’re each limited in some manner, and there are many of Them. They’re still potentially personified forces of nature, elevated ancestors, independent divine agents who interact with us, and so forth – and depending on the mystery tradition, They may still be connecting us with a greater Divine Whole that isn’t considered “God”, so much as Reality, the Universe, or some other less-personified word. From a Pagan perspective, there’s no particular definitional reason not to call the Orixa “gods”.

If this is all confusing, it’s because there’s a linguistic bait-and-switch happening here that has a great deal to do with theology and cultural perspective, but very little to do with direct human experience of these spiritual powers. The distinction is literally being lost in translation.


Think about what the word “king” means in chess vs. in checkers.

In chess, the king is the most important piece. It doesn’t look like any of the other pieces, and it doesn’t move around much. All the other pieces move according to different rules than the king, and intervene on its behalf, because direct contact with the king either destroys the other piece, or ends the game. Most importantly, the king’s presence defines the game – without the king, the game is over. Everything in a chess game is necessarily in direct service to the king.

In checkers, all the pieces initially look and move the same, and any piece can become a king. The game can at least theoretically be played entirely without even a single king actually manifesting. When a king does appear, it moves similarly to the regular pieces, but with additional power to go against the regular flow. The regular pieces aren’t in direct service to any of the kings, and interacting with them both positively and negatively is exactly like interacting with the other pieces. The game overall is what you care about, that the set of pieces are working together, but no one piece is clearly superior to all the others, per se. The game is only over when one complete set is lost.

The word “king” clearly doesn’t mean the same thing between the two games. A checkers “king” is more akin to a chess “queen” in terms of movement, power, and significance to the game. It’s easy to see the difference here because the word “king” isn’t a loaded term that we expect to mean the same thing regardless of context. The change in significance between checkers and chess isn’t confusing, because we understand that the two perspectives don’t interact. Attending a chess game and expecting the king to act like a checkers piece would make no sense. Calling a chess queen or bishop a “king” because it moves similarly to the way a checkers king moves is clearly a mistake.


“God” and “god” are loaded words in most cultures. What’s more, the history surrounding the African-Diaspora in the first place was significantly caused by a huge superiority complex on the part of the European Christians who had already concluded that Monotheism was the “most evolved” form of religion. (Many scientists, empiricists, and rationalists concluded that in fact Atheism was the most evolved. This argument is still taking place between some Theologians and Philosophers today.) The Missionaries took one look at the various African traditions and declared them all “primitive”, “polytheistic”, “animistic”, and “idolatrous”, never differentiating between ancestor reverence, spirit reverence, or various kinds of theism, because unless it was Christianity through a European cultural filter, they didn’t care.

In order to hold their own in this context, colonized cultures were obliged to figure out the ways in which their traditions were actually Monotheistic. This isn’t to say they weren’t before – some were, some weren’t I’m sure, depending on how you interpret the term. But the vocabulary was literally a different language – hundreds of different languages, actually – especially when you include India in the Imperialistic picture. When you get down to it, English doesn’t actually have the appropriate words for the distinctions being made by these cultures. Instead of trying to understand what was in front of us when we first encountered it, we obscured the theological subtleties of colonized cultures with our own theological language, carrying along our existing baggage, whether or not it applies.

A better question than whether or not the Orixa are “gods” is to leave the word aside in the case of both the Orixa and the Pagan entities under consideration, and to look at what the respective cultures consider the abilities and characteristics of such beings to be. In that context, the Orixa and the Pagan gods are generally fairly equivalent – in as much as any equivalency can be established in the first place.

So that’s why I tend to call all of Them “Powers”.

–Ember–

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About EmberVoices

Ember Cooke has been a member of Hrafnar and Seidhjallr for more than a decade, where she trained to be a Seidhkona, Galdrakona, and Gythia. She founded the Vanic Conspiracy and made ordination vows to the Vanir and her congregation in the summer of 2013. She has contributed to several publications on Heathen and Northern Pagan subjects and regularly presents rituals and workshops at festivals. Her personal practice is more diverse, as the Vanir have lead her into cross-training and service for the wider Pagan community. This has including medium and servitor training in American Umbanda, clergy training with the Fellowship of the Spiral Path, and jail ministry for local counties. She holds a BA with honors in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University. Ember has lived all her life in the south San Francisco Bay Area, and is intimately bound to the valley of her birth.
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3 Responses to Defining the Divine – Gods, Spirits, Powers, etc.

  1. Pingback: A Theological Glossary | EmberVoices: Listening for the Vanir

  2. caelesti says:

    I wonder sometimes how much the theology of African and Native American religions changed because of contact with Christianity and if there was a Creator God before. I’m sure it depends greatly on the tribe. I notice Galina Krasskova often uses the term “Holy Powers” and she also follows both Norse & Afro-Diasporic traditions. Not sure if she does so for similar reasons or if it’s more of an idiosyncratic use- could also be just an inclusive way of referring to all spirits. In ADF we use the term Kindreds (Gods, Nature Spirits & Ancestors)

    Like

    • EmberVoices says:

      Side note: Most African peoples prefer “Clan” or “Nation” apparently, since “tribe” has been used as an epithet too much by colonizers. :/ Or so I’m told.

      Yeah, a lot of people I know who have Afro-Diasporic influences get into the habit of using Powers, but yes, it’s also handy for encompassing non-God powers in a Pagan context, like Alfar, Nissen, etc.

      So… yeah. đŸ™‚

      I’ve never asked Galina about it, though. I never actually noticed her doing it – I guess it doesn’t jump out at me anymore, I’m so used to it!

      -E-

      Like

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