And back to our regularly scheduled beatings. Because if if you believe in the Gods as discrete, individual beings, you’re a shithead who needs to top focusing on such stupid ideas. That’s right, it’s Halstead time again! This time we’ll be looking at his article: The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism
This is the third in a series of posts in which I discuss four terms that polytheists use to distinguish gods from archetypes: “real”, “literal”, “separate”, and “agents”. In this post, I want to address the position the the polytheistic gods are separate from us in a way that archetypes are not.
I’m going to start here for the people who might be new to this both in terms of Paganims, and to the whole Polytheist thing. In Paganism, pretty much since the start of “Neo-Paganism” there have been two camps.
One camp views the Gods and Goddesses as “archetypes,” things that represent an Ideal. The Hero, the Wizard, the Wise Man, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Crone, etc. Archetypes are universal around the world, and while the ideals of a Warrior are different between the Spartans and the Samurai, they both have a Warrior, for example.
The other camp viewed the Gods as discrete individual beings. Ares and Tyr might both be Gods of War, but each has his own unique personality, desires, form, etc. Ares was not interchangeable with Tyr, anymore so than you or I would be interchangeable.
A simplified way of looking at it is that one side holds “All firefighters are brave” while the other side holds “Bob, James, and Larry are brave men who are firefighters.” On the surface, perhaps not a big deal in terms of differences.
Pagans often talk about the re-enchantment of the world as a return of belief in polytheistic gods and spirits. Over Patheos, John Beckett has recently gone so far as to argue that it is not possible “to re-enchant the world while remaining staunchly non-theistic.” I would agree that it is not possible to reenchant the world while being “staunchly” atheistic — by which I means an atheism which insists that the category of divinity has no human value. But I would also argue that it’s not possible to reenchant the world while being “staunchly” polytheistic either — by which I mean a polytheism which insists that the gods must be “separate, distinct, individuals”.
This is really not the easiest to read paragraph, for me at least. But the best I can break it down is “beckett says we can’t make the world magical without believing in the gods,” followed by “Halstead says we can’t do it by being atheists, but we also cannot make the world magical by believing the Gods are individual beings either.”
I find it interesting that despite the fact that the ancient Pagans fell into the “staunchly polytheistic” category, following their footsteps would not allow us to obtain the enchanted world that they lived in. That’s like saying “astronauts got into space with rockets, but we cannot expect rockets to work in getting us to space.”
But here again, we see Halstead insisting that we not see the Gods as “sperate, distinct, individuals.” Which troubles me, not just as a polytheist, or even an individualist, but as someone who has studied the social sciences.
When you insist on seeing people as a group rather than as individuals, things start happening. Sometimes these things are called stereotypes. All firefighters are brave. All Asians are good at math. All women are victims.
All cops are racist.
The actions of one or a few become the baseline nature of all. People stop having individual worth and are judged by the utility of their people as a whole. This is what Halstead is functionally doing to the Gods. “The gods aren’t individuals, they’re just a group with no individual natures, merits, or identity.” So not only are say Hel and Pluto interchangeable because they are the “same” by being Gods of Death, Hel and Zeus are interchangeable because they’re both Gods. And in fact, they don’t even need names they’re just “Gods.” Under archetypal theory, Hel the Goddess of Death and Eir the Goddess of Healing are just “faces of the archetypal Goddess.” Despite the fact that one Kills people and one Heals people.
In my opinion, atomistic theology which insists that the gods must be “separate, distinct, individuals” too closely resembles the alienating discourse of objectifying science that led to the disenchantment of the world in the first place. Morris Berman explains, “The scientific mode of thinking can best be described as disenchantment, nonparticipation, for it insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed. Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness; … The logical endpoint of this worldview is a feeling of total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me.” Hard polytheists make the same mistake when they insist on a rigid distinction between the gods and us.
Basically “insisting on beings being individuals makes them the Other.”
Halstead points to a “scientific” understanding of the world being the reason the world was “disenchanted” in the first place. Now, I don’t know what his background in science is, but my own never disenchanted the world for me. It wasn’t science that stripped the world of Gods and Spirits, it was Christianity. All Science did later was look around and ask “Where’s God?” Admittedly, that was a bit of a nail in the coffin, but it was hardly the coffin itself.
Also, I’m not sure I get this whole idea Halstead has that “individualism of the Gods comes from Science and so Science is bad because it separates everything into its own little group rather than leaving it one congealed mess.” It seems that Halstead no only has a problem with “gods first” he has a problem with, well, science as well. Which is odd coming from a man who is functionally an atheist.
But is it really a mistake to say that Hel and I are separate beings? Sure, I suppose it is a bit of reification, Hel is certainly a “not-me.” but that doesn’t make her any less of a being. Would her nature be greater if she and I were one and the same?* Is she any less powerful a Goddess, or any less important to the functioning of the Universe, because she is her own, separate, individual, person?
And is the world, Helheim, death, or anything else made less enchanting for her being her own person rather than just part of a larger….being/archetype/somethingorother? Or is it made more enchanting? When we read a story, for example, is the story made better when the characters are individuals, or when they are baseline tropes/archetypes?
Pagan theology, as I understand it, takes the interconnectedness of all life as axiomatic. It recognizes that we are a part of something much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves, that our own lives are continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, and that our breathing bodies are a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth (paraphrasing David Abram, “Depth Ecology”). Carl Jung wrote about feeling at times that he was “spread out over the landscape and inside things” and “living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.” From this perspective, the lines that we draw between ourselves and nature are artificial and unreal.
“The lines between ourselves and nature are artificial and unreal.”
That is an…interesting way of putting it. When he speaks of Pagan Theology, Halstead is correct even among Polytheists. All of life, death, existence, is interconnected. We are, humans, spirits, Gods, part of a continuous stream of existence whose vastness dwarfs us all.
But is that made false simply because the Gods are individuals? After all, if the lines between us and nature are false, then why is it that when I put my hand in water, I still have a hand?** If I lean against a tree, I do not become a tree, or part of the tree. There is still the physical boundary of my matter against the matter of the object I am interacting with. If I shake hands with another person, we do not fuse to become a different being. We remain ourselves. We are still connected, by touch, by air, by living on this planet, but being connected doesn’t mean there aren’t separations, one is not mutually exclusive to the other.
By the logic Halstead has presented here as claim or proof against viewing the Gods as individuals (which at this point in his article he’s not really doing so well), Halstead and I might as well be the same person too. We’re both “human,” we’re interconnected by the world in such a way that the ideas of self or discrete identity would harm such an connectedness, etc. Yet somehow I suspect that if I took Halstead’s credit card and spent a bunch of money, we would suddenly be two separate individuals and he would not at all believe that we were one and the same existence with no separation of self or identity.
And if he would believe or agree to such a thing, I ask him to kindly hand over those credit cards, because there’s some stuff I’d…we’d like to buy.
Continued in Part 2
* Don’t get me wrong though, when we “become one” it is pretty damn awesome. 😉
**This is of course assuming that something in the water does not eat my hand.