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Elementals and the Ineffable: Gods Not in Our Image

Man created God in his image. Before he (and I do mean he) decided to do that, humans venerated the powers and beings of Nature just as they were. They honored life-altering forces and powers that defied explanation, from the radiant rays of the Sun to the mysterious waters of woman’s womb, and all the delights and dangers of Nature in between.

These Nature spirits were held in the highest esteem, and propitiatory offerings were made to them. Occasionally, as the result of atmospheric conditions or the peculiar sensitiveness of the devotee, they became visible. Many authors wrote concerning them in terms which signify that they had actually beheld these inhabitants of Nature’s finer realms. A number of authorities are of the opinion that many of the gods worshiped by the pagans were elementals, for some of these invisibles were believed to be of commanding stature and magnificent deportment.” - Manly P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages

Earlier humans were in awe of the thunderstorm. They saw all of creation in the glistening surface of the seemingly endless sea that supplied them with food, tools and decor. They listened to the lapping, splashing rivers and the tingling whispers and caresses of the winds. They knew that there was something moving them that moved in everything else, something they could not see, but rarely, that they could yet feel and see the result of.

There was once a greater sense of the ineffable – of that which is unknowable and unspeakable. Now humans are obsessed with themselves and with “knowing” and speaking, labeling, explaining, defining, compartmentalizing, and have been for ages.

They have also become obsessed with something that H.P. Blavatsky called blasphemous: anthropomorphism. She argued that if God is infinite and uncreated, then God is not a being but an incorporeal principle and therefore should not be anthropomorphized.

Despite the obsession with knowledge, humans don’t seem to understand how little they know, how little they are capable of knowing. Yet they have gone to war over what they think they know. Over what they believe.

Though these are impressions I’ve been having for a long time now, it was the recent encouragement I seemed to feel emanating from the fragments of a pre-Socratic philosopher named Xenophanes that got me finally writing this. He poignantly observed over 2,500 years ago that

Mortals suppose that gods are born, wear their own clothes and have a voice and body. Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that theirs are blue-eyed and red-haired. But if horses or oxen or lions had hands or could draw with their hands and accomplish such works as men, horses would draw the figures of the gods as similar to horses, and the oxen as similar to oxen, and they would make the bodies of the sort which each of them had.

Xenophanes cautioned against misconceptions of the divine based on human tendencies and flaws, and supported a view of religion based more on rationality than on traditionally held beliefs. Yet he was not an atheist or humanist by any means. His almost mystical views and references to multiple gods, as well as the One God, “neither in form like unto mortals nor in thought”, confirm this.

I assume that most reading this might understand that “the gods” are metaphors and symbolic energies and that they have been (or should only be) anthropomorphized to make them more relatable and to serve as embodiments of certain forces and ideals to which we may aspire to emulate (let me here firmly exclude the contrarily wanton and immoral ancient Greek gods with whom Xenophanes was disgusted) or at least learn from. We have created them. It has become a circle, as our creations influence us and take on energies just as thought forms.

However, clearly many Pagans still heavily and pointedly anthropomorphize, dogmatize, name and strictly define and take the existence, forms and human characteristics of their gods every bit as literally as Christians do.

So many of us have crowed over the blatantly stolen and thinly veiled paganisms displayed in Catholic and other Christian rituals and practices. Yet I see an ironic amount of Christianity play out in many modern pagan writings, practices and attitudes.

It is no secret that most Pagans today have come screaming from Christianity or some offshoot thereof. So, it should be no surprise that many still bring with them much of the same attitude, belief, modes of worship and ritual, methods of “literalizing” and general understandings of deity and apply them to a pagan pantheon established by other mortals long dead, rather than to the decidedly masculine Christian “Trinity”, also established by other mortals long dead. Old habits die hard, after all.

I don’t think we need religion. Yet we don’t need to abandon notorious organized world religions to instead simply leaf through a catalog of alternative, indigenous spiritualities, gods and witchcraft and pick the regional aesthetic and system we like most (or a hodgepodge of several) and slap on the corresponding nametag either. At least not if we’re going to take every single thing as literally as Christians take everything in that old bugaboo, the Bible.

There are so many different names for the same thing. The One Thing, in fact. But also, many other things by which we are surrounded. 

There is a difference between Elementals and the One Thing; the Source; the original incomprehensible Universal Mind that is always becoming and never is. Yet the elements and the beings that inhabit them are a part and manifestation of that One; of what we mere, precious, silly humans, with our human opinions that Heraclitus called “toys for children”, cannot and will not ever begin to know or understand.

For, as my man Xenophanes says,

There never was nor will be a man who has certain knowledge about the gods and about all the things I speak of. Even if he should chance to say the complete truth, yet he himself knows not that it is so. But all may have their fancy.”

Indeed, Xeno. Let us have our fancies and our opinions, so long as we know that that is what they are, and that Zeus, Mithras, Jesus, Morrigan, Loki, Marduk, Amaterasu, Yemaya, Quetzalcoatl and the rest are just names. They are the creations of mortals. As such, they are little more than those names. But at their cores, what they represent and teach us are much, much more. 

The elements became “gods”. The sky above you is a god. The rains and rivers and oceans are gods. The flowers and the ladybugs that adorn them are gods. The mountain peaks and echoing caverns are gods. The trees, the animals, the flash of lightning and the howling winds are gods. All these things were so ages before any human deigned to give them - even the One - his own form and start naming them and saying what is so and what is not. None can say. None can know. We are surrounded by and composed of the magic of the ineffable and what we call God is not in our image.


© 2018 Meredith Everwhite – All Rights Reserved


Featured image: “Epiphany” 1940 by Max Ernst

References:
Insights into the Invisible World of Elemental Forces by H.P. Blavatsky
www.philaletheians.co.uk

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
www.iep.utm.edu/xenoph/

Xenophanes of Colophon: Selected Fragments
people.wku.edu/jan.garrett/302/302xenof.htm

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Historical Spotlight: Vegan Paganism and the Golden Age

Better late than never, I always say. A while back, I began describing some of the major vegetarian philosophies and leaders that have potential to form a foundation for a modern Vegan Pagan practice. Since Neo-paganism often includes the practice of ancestor reverence, I think of vegetarian philosophers as ancestors in this way. Since I have already discussed the Transmigration of Souls (see the blog archives from 2015), I will cover the vegetarian philosophy of the Golden Age before delving into brief bios of some lead writers in the creation of these historical traditions. Think of these as starting points. They are very brief introductions to complex ideas and to complex work done by the honored ancestors.

Some of the resources I used to research this include:

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • susan
    susan says #
    Thank you Leslie! Such important and profound research! Imagine the dawning of a new Golden Age.......
  • Leslie J Linder
    Leslie J Linder says #
    Thanks for reading, Susan. Yes, as for the new Golden Age...so mote it be.

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Medieval Consolations

The test of any philosophy is how it helps you survive difficulty. It is simple enough to hold the line in good times, but when your misfortunes seem to know no end, your patience and perseverance were truly tested. The Anglo-Saxons had a trust in wyrd both as pagans and as Christians. The thought might best be summed up in the refrain from the poem Deor:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg. 

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I am increasingly disturbed by fellow Pagans/polytheists/occultists etc. who either so highly value gods and spirits, sanctity of sacred objects & places, or focus so much on environmental preservation and animal rights or other political ideologies that they devalue human worth and dignity. Now to be clear, I have often seen this as a critique of Pagan movement from conservative Christians and atheists alike. I am not sure if I can convince people who don't already to start truly valuing human welfare and rights and acting as if they do. It seems an ability that you to some degree either have or you don't. In my experience, a consistent commitment to human rights seems to correlate with having an experience of dehumanization oneself. This is not having your feelings hurt a little bit, being a "special snowflake" (though if that's an insult, I'll wear it with pride!)  

It's nope, you don't really count as a human being, your experience doesn't count. Even when the Powers that Be of whatever social situation, business or organization you are in repeatedly insist that they "welcome everyone" they don't really mean you. Actions always speak louder than words. Many of us who do have these experiences however still have the people will miss, the bigotries and biases we still hold. Ironically because we are human! This is a mistake I often see new Pagans make. After a happy honeymoon period of discovering Paganism and idealizing it in comparison to whatever their background is, they find out we have problems too. I too have run into this. I frequently have assumed that Pagans, or liberals/progressives/leftists, or whatever in-group I belong to will have a more enlightened and inclusive attitude towards disabled folks or other marginalized groups. And I have all too often dehumanized The Other Side in various arguments and the aftermath of elections. But this just keeps adding to the problem. Perpetuating this cycle of dehumanization just leads to more hate and violence.  Remembering the basic value of dignity & worth of human beings and human life, however interpreted, is often forgotten by both left and right, red and blue. If there's a different philosophical framework you prefer over the concept of "rights", then feel free to argue for it.  

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Tacy West
    Tacy West says #
    An all autistic household sounds so supportive. I had two autistic children in a time when diagnosis was not done, 50 some years
  • Mariah Sheehy
    Mariah Sheehy says #
    Yes, we are seeing that more now among the Millennial generation- choosing your family & banding together by necessity.
  • Tacy West
    Tacy West says #
    Yes, yes. I just listened to book on CD "Conversation" by a social scientist regarding the change in Empathy due to separation
Book Review: The Other Side of Virtue by Brendan Myers

Brendan Myers is a Canadian Pagan author who has done two very difficult things.  One is that he has broken out of the Canadian market; the other is that he has broken out of the Pagan market.  He's a professor of philosophy in Gatineau, Quebec and this, plus his background in Druidry and Humanistic Paganism have come together in his 2008 book The Other Side of Virtue: Where Our Virtues Come from, What They Really Mean, and Where They Might Be Taking Us.  I've had a signed copy of this book sitting on my "to read" shelf since I saw Brendan at the Western Gate Festival a couple of years ago, but only now finally got around to finding time to read it.  I'm sorry I waited.

This book could be a modern manifesto for humanistic Paganism; but its theories can also be applied to most modern Pagan practice.  And it could also be read and enjoyed by humanists and naturalists of any faith. It could possibly even be held up to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking as an answer on the value of philosophy.  Philosophy is not dead, Myers argues.  It has merely changed form.  A hard-core rationalist might ask "What use does philosophy have in the modern scientific and rational world?"  The answer is "to teach us how to live a good life without faith to fall back on."  But that being said, it does not challenge the existence of faith; rather, it suggests that ethics and values are essential and positive driving forces that cross the boundaries of religion or spirituality, and are equally applicable to everyone.

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Posted by on in Studies Blogs
Us vs. Them

Us: “We just want security. We want the right to believe as we see fit.”

Them: “Sorry, those things have been outlawed.”

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