“Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.” Xenophanes
At the time of deep winter, the solstice, the day of the longest dark, as the Wild Hunt courses the night, my mind turns to thoughts of the Other Gods who are not like us.
Like most of us, I like to get in touch with the spirits and gods of the land where I live or lands that I visit. I lived for a time in Florida and there I found this task to be exceptionally difficult. I would walk the boardwalks raised above the swamp, watching alligators hunt the deep and snakes slide along the water’s surface, and I would reach and call. Often enough my calls were answered but not by any voice or energy I could understand. Eventually I made a few spirit allies and came to know, if distantly and with difficulty, a few of the ancient gods and goddesses who walked that land.
The one I felt most often, as if she called to me more than I to her, was a goddess who took the form of a Panther. I knew that she was a “she”, and I felt her frequently in the wild and in the night. I knew she was dangerous but not unfriendly or malevolent. I knew she was as old as the oldest people who ever lived in Florida and likely much older. But for all that, I didn’t know much because what I knew most of all was that she was foreign to the world of humans with thoughts, desires, goals, and concerns that I couldn’t begin to understand. She knew me, I could feel her glance in the swamp, but I could not manage to know her.
The Image of the Other
There are gods that comfort and then there are – others. For many people, perhaps even most, the comfort derived from the divine is the reassurance provided by the thought or feeling that a humanlike entity orders and structures reality. It can be very comforting to know that a god that loves like a person is watching out for you, and indeed there are many gods who (at least on the surface) love and care like us. But there are – others.
Divinities can be conceptualized along a spectrum with four main zones, stretching from what is often called the “God of the Philosophers” on one extreme to entities that resemble the Panther Goddess on the other. In the center lies the region of the most humanlike, the anthropomorphic, divinities.
The God of the Philosophers is the ultimate God of a conceptually consistent monotheism. It is an utterly abstract and unknowable entity – the Perfect, the Good, the All-Powerful. As recognized since the time of the Pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes and repeated by Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and many others, a perfect entity can’t resemble humanity. It can’t change, for the only change from perfection would be to imperfection. It can’t feel, for a feeling such as love or anger would have to be triggered by something external to itself which means other things have power over it and can cause it to change. This leaves us with an utterly abstract entity that couldn’t be further from the life of people.
Closer to the center of the spectrum we find the most common and well known gods and goddesses, from the god of most Christianity to many of the gods of the various pagan religions. These are thoroughly human gods, at least on the surface. They are thought of as appearing human, they love and hate, they speak and listen. They are caring or stern fathers and mothers, ardent protectors, wise teachers, and so on. They are the gods Zenophanes has in mind when he criticizes humanity for thinking of gods like themselves. But many of us have met these gods, the ones who relate to us as if they were like us.
Further along the spectrum, but still firmly in the central realm of the anthropomorphic, we find a variety of animal divinities such as the Coyote or Crow of many Native American cultures. These are not generally divinities cast in the form of humans but they do talk, think, and act much like us. This is often the only type of divinity recognized under the guise of divinities in the form of animals. See, for example, Hallowell’s claim in his essay “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View” that:
“Speaking as an Ojibwa, one might say: all other ‘persons’ – human or other than human – are structured the same as I am. There is a vital part which is enduring and an outward appearance that may be transformed under certain conditions.”
This, however, is not sufficient to capture either the full variety of Native American animal-like divinities nor non-anthropomorphic gods in general. This leaves the furthest extreme of the spectrum, as foreign and mysterious as the utterly abstract God of the Philosophers, but far from abstract. Here we find, I feel, the Panther goddess I met in Florida and many others besides.
It is my suspicion that this spectrum rests on the level of appearance more than reality. Or perhaps on the level of mode of communication. Nature, when it wishes, can speak to us in a language we can understand, but that does not deprive it of its hidden depths and foreign regions in which we would be lost. Gods can put on human shape, and some indeed may come from human lives, but this hardly captures their fullness.
“O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your great form, with its many faces, eyes, arms, thighs, legs, and bellies and Your many terrible teeth; and as they are disturbed, so am I.” Bhagavad-Gita 11.23
Even as Krishna appears to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita in human form only to unmask his foreign, utterly overpowering form upon request, even as Semele daughter of Cadmus requests to see Zeus’ true form and then is utterly destroyed by it, so the gods can put on forms fit for human minds without being truly captured in these. Perfection deprived of specificity is just another word for mystery, and the most familiar and comforting god still wears a mask.
“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so,
because it serenely disdains to destroy us.
Every angel is terrible.”
Rilke Duino Elegies
What Rilke says of angels can be said just as easily of gods, especially those who kindly come to us in beautiful forms….