Galina Krasskova has a new post addressing the problem of disrespecting the gods with our choices of how to describe Them.
I agree with Galina that calling the gods – or anyone – “petty” and “whiny” is diminishing, and that’s disrespectful. There are much more appropriate ways to describe whatever behavior was being observed that don’t include those kinds of inappropriate judgements. As do many polytheists, I’m sure, I often find myself offended when academic and religious writers write about our gods as if They are merely human characters in old novels, and not even terribly mature characters for that matter.
I understand that many ancient writers effectively used their pantheons of gods as a set of stock characters for storytelling about human issues, and that’s fine as far as it goes, but when modern writers derive their understanding of the historical gods only from those dramas without any consideration for context, and totally ignoring any potential for modern worshippers, I start gritting my teeth. At the absolute least, it’s terrible scholarship to simultaneously generalize the gods outside of those stories while ignoring the rest of the context defining Them. At worst it’s erasive and invalidating of modern polytheists everywhere.
Still, I have several problems with Galina’s overall assertions. I brought up one of them in response to her post, but I wanted to explore my thoughts more thoroughly here.
First of all, I think there’s actually a difference between irreverence and disrespect, especially for people who work regularly with Tricksters. Granted, mirth is not actually in opposition to reverence, but in modern usage “irreverence” frequently refers to facetious humor. I think it’s actually a highly functional aspect of our relationships with the gods that companionable teasing enters into our relationships. Honestly, I think one of the easiest ways to detect whether someone takes the gods seriously as real, independent entities with whom they have deep personal relationships is by listening to their sense of humor on the topic.
After all, who cracks a joke about “that Old Bastard always wanting more” if they don’t actually attribute power, agency, personality, and significance to the “Old Bastard” in question?
Second of all, I just can’t get behind saying that “Emotional” is a bad trait in general, but especially where gods of love and passion are concerned. Damned right Freyja is emotional! It’s Her JOB. The gods don’t just encompass what a sub-set of the human community happens to admire, They encompass all of reality. Emotions are absolutely part of our reality. But even more, I think it’s one of the most deeply unhealthy aspects of our culture that we think being an emotional person is a flaw. Amongst other things, it creates a false dichotomy that says intense emotions preclude making rational choices, and vice versa. We write off people who are experiencing or expressing strong emotions on the assumption that their emotions invalidate whatever they’re talking about, and teach people that if they feel strong emotions, they necessarily lack self-control. That’s bullshit, and dangerous bullshit to boot.
Third, I think it’s also a bit of an issue to say that the stories historical Pagans told about our Gods are the same as the gods Themselves, such that noticing and describing the often-fictionalized behaviors of those gods within the stories must never be observed as petty, selfish, immature, or otherwise less-than-admirable. The stories recorded by pre-Christian Pagans about Pagan gods are absolutely full of petty human behaviors. This makes sense both because the Gods are Themselves not entirely above such conflicts, but even more so because these stories were written by ordinary human beings. Are we to turn a blind eye to what is written in all our Lore if what the Lore says about our gods doesn’t describe Them idealistically enough?
Last, and perhaps most importantly, I find it very problematic to say that it’s disrespectful to point out that our gods have faults and flaws. The fact that our gods are limited and imperfect is part of how Polytheism functions. I think, in this case, it’s partially a function of the difference between how Galina views authority and how I view authority. Galina and I already know we don’t work the same way in this regard, and that’s fine. But this is another place where it comes up: I believe it’s part of my job to speak Truth to and about Power, and one of those truths is that flaws are real, important, and need to be called out and addressed. If we label it disrespectful and impious to point out that our gods aren’t always admirable and perfect just because They’re older, usually wiser, and more powerful than we are, we’re abdicating our responsibility for critical thinking.
It’s also getting cause and effect swapped where instructions from the gods are concerned. Advice isn’t guaranteed to be good because it comes from an admirable god. Gods are admirable because They usually give good advice.
By all means, respect the gods! Respect the gods because They have long since earned it. Admire Them because They have shown They deserve it. Don’t just hand over respect and admiration without thought and then turn a blind eye to any evidence that it wasn’t earned. All that does is render any respect you do pay meaningless, because it fails to signify any value.