Friday, September 30, 2011

Necessary Masks for the Larger Mysteries

This is part three of an ongoing series of posts on the nature of gods and spirits. Part one described the necessity of personifying experience in the medium of oral story and song. Part two concerned the different modes and purposes of empirical vs. religious modes of conceptualizing experience. In this part the two ideas are unified to discuss the reason that ancient cultures related to gods and spirits as if they were people.

Who are these creatures called the gods? They are dismissed as idle fictions by atheists and monotheists, capitalists and clergymen alike. But gods, in the plural, are found wherever human beings are found -- unless human beings claim exclusive rights, power and privilege, dispossessing the gods of their homes. Those who ask what a god is, like those have to ask what a mountain or an eagle or a forest is, will not learn the answer from a book. --Robert Bringhurst, The Tree of Meaning

Humans in every time and in every place in the world (besides, very arguably, the modern West) lived alongside a range of gods and spirits. The universality of this phenomena points to it as a basic human trait. Theories abound as to why humans should treat with these entities, and whether such beliefs constitute an adaptive trait or a mere “spandrel” or by-product of other adaptive mechanisms. One such theory posits that personification came about through the usefulness of a human template for understanding the complexity of non-human phenomena.
The most order is supplied by the highest organization, and the highest organization we know is that of human beings. Interpretations of the world based on experience of ourselves and other humans offer not only the significance of a powerful agent but also that of an organizing agent. Models based on humans account for a uniquely wide range of phenomena because humans, whom the models reflect, generate a uniquely wide range of phenomena. Anthropomorphizing the world at large therefore produces a world that is significant both practically and intellectually. (Guthrie, 89)
However, I believe that this is only half the story, told from a modern perspective which has limited an originally broad palate of personal relationships to only one kind: that with other humans. I believe our ancestors personified their experiences into "gods" and “spirits” not only because human beings evolved to have complex relationships with other humans, but that these relationships were simultaneously developed in response to interactions with the non-human world as well, making personification an overall adaptive strategy to both the human and nonhuman environment. Thus, seeing gods and spirits as “people” was as complex a relationship as humans could have with both other humans and non-humans, and was not originally a strategy reserved for only interacting with other humans beings.

Though we have obtained many very impressive understandings and abilities through the discipline of (imagined) objectivity, these scientific understandings do not provide us with an adequate model for actually embracing the full range of human experience and relationship with the nonhuman world because of the divisiveness and distancing of empiricism. A scientific worldview can create better theoretical understandings than a theistic one, and is thus extremely useful, but at the price of becoming distant from the experiences and phenomena under study, and thus removing a dimension of relatedness. This artificial disconnection from the world has been extremely damaging to our minds, bodies, societies, and planet through its insistence in seeing things as objects of study and exploitation instead of people worthy of respect. A dissected frog does indeed reveal the inner workings of the frog, but it is not the experience of the living, breathing frog, and, furthermore, it kills the frog.
Whatever a culture's vision of a world, the world at large remains our home, and that home embraces both the vision and it shadows. The world as our home is always multi-leveled. Like a house, it has many stories. We need to attend to this more holistic view of the world, to a view which embraces surface and depth, to a view which allows us to experience the world not just in terms of facts to be discovered and known, but also in terms of stories to be imagined and heard. Indeed, we need to do so not only because we live our lives through stories, but also because we need stories to make the living of life a human reality. (Romanyshyn, 183-184, italics in original.)
I believe that we have yet to discover a functional metaphor that accomplishes these things as well as personification.
Indeed anthropomorphism offers the greatest intellectual coherence possible. As humans are coherent yet uniquely diverse, so models based on them bring coherence to unique diversity. The point needs underscoring because the standard views of anthropomorphism...claim just the opposite: that anthropomorphism is oddly irrational and is based in confusion, in wishful thinking, or both. Once we see that anthropomorphism results from our most powerful model, we can see that we are bound to engage in it everywhere, not only inevitably but also reasonably. (Guthrie, 89-90)
The forces which animate the world are greater than us and the totality of their interactions is beyond our comprehension; the idea of phenomena as "people" is a strategy to create an understanding of experiences by embracing them in most complex sort of connection of which we are capable: a personal relationship. Despite critics of religion, this relationship does not preclude a simultaneous empirical understanding, any more than sympathizing with a friend’s troubles prevents us from also having a psychoanalytic understanding of the source of the troubles. In fact, I would argue that having the intimacy of a personal relationship with phenomena creates the kind of insight that is commonly used to improve empirical understandings and allow breakthroughs to new ones.

It is important to remember that personification was not a process in steps where first humans encountered phenomena, then anthropomorphized them into persons, and then established relationships with them. Rather the phenomena was approached using the familiar schema of personal relationship in order to create the initial understanding of phenomena.
We do not first personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when, and because we socialize with them. Recognizing a 'conversation' with a counter-being--which amounts to accepting it into fellowship rather than recognizing a common essence--makes that being a self in relation with ourselves. (Bird-David, 78, italics in original)
This sort of human-to-nonhuman relationship may at first seem radically different from a human-to-human one, however, we must remember that "it is as entire persons, not as disembodied minds, that human beings engage with one another, and, moreover, with non-human beings as well." (Ingold, 47) Furthermore, it is not the case, as Guthrie seems to assert, that human beings first learned to have relationships with one another in some sort of vacuum, and then used this as a template to form relationships with non-human phenomena. Rather, these relationships evolved simultaneously and influenced one another.
In this process, the relations that human beings have with one another form just one part of the total field of relations embracing all living things. ... There can, then, be no radical break between social and ecological relations; rather the former constitute a subset of the latter." (Ingold, 59-60, italics in original)
Humans learned to have cultural relationships with one another at the same time they were learning to have adaptive relationships with their environment, and these were both based on a general model of relationship, not one modeled purely upon the other. A prime example of the reciprocal nature of the evolution of this understanding is the use of natural phenomena to classify tribal clans in terms of animal, plant, or meteorological totems. In totemism humans classify the nonhuman world in terms of themselves, and themselves in terms of the nonhuman world. For this reason spirits and gods are often spoken of in familial terms: father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, sister, brother, etc. This is not a metaphor comparing human familial relationships to relationships with non-humans, but rather the use of terminology to identify the same sorts of relationship,
since the spirit inhabitants of the land contribute to human well-being equally, and on the same footing, as do human forebears, providing both food, guidance and security, they to can be ‘big’ fathers and mothers. As such, they are ancestors of a sort, albeit ones that are alive and active in the present. (Ingold, 141)
At the same time as they personified them, however, ancient peoples also realized that gods were not the same as human beings, as shown by the strong contrast that was made between gods and mortals across cultures. This contrast is apparent in roots of the words for "gods" and "men" in various Indo-European languages. "As the gods were *deiwos, the heavenly ones, man was 'the earthly', designated by a derivative of the old word for earth, *dheghom-/dhghm-." (West, 124) Though gods were imagined as being like humans, they were not seen as humans. The gods had greater scope and power, they could change their shapes, appear in different guises, manifest as natural forces or a human emotion; their boundaries and limits were less distinct, their motivations often unfathomable. Keeping the gods distinct is necessary to avoid the extremes of antrhopocentrism, where the projection of human relations onto the nonhuman is accompanied by the assumption that the non-human shares our perspective and concerns.
Without some kind of desire or attraction we would not be roused to the labor of knowledge in the first place; but to know truly, we must also seek to surmount the snares and ruses of desire as best we can. We must try not to disfigure what we strive to know through fantasy, or reduce the object of knowledge to a narcissistic image of ourselves." (Eagleton, 122)
If antrhopomorphism becomes antrhopocentrism, relatedness begins to break down because the human end of the relationship begins to overwhelm the phenomenology of the non-human. The objective of modern polytheistic personification should be neither to replace the empirical point-of-view when that view proves useful, nor for man to recast the world in his own image, but rather to maintain a human relatedness with the nonhuman world.
If others become too transcendent, they disappear off our radar screen and we lose all contact. We then not only stop seeing them directly but even stop seeing them indirectly as this or that other. The possibility of imagining, narrating, or interpreting alterity becomes impossible....
On the other hand, if others become too immanent, they become equally exempt from ethical relation. In this instance, they become indistinguishable from our own totalizing selves (conscious and unconscious). The trick is therefore, I suggest, not to let the foreign become too foreign or the familiar too familiar. (Kearny, 11, italics in orginal)
Keeping gods and spirits somewhat alien encourages us to try to understand them as phenomena that are ultimately unlike humans. Personification is still the best tool we have for maintaining the complexity of our relationship to the non-human world, and remains the most instinctual (as anyone who has yelled at a computer can testify,) but we must remember that it, like empiricism, also ultimately falls short of revealing the true nature of phenomena. I think the best we can do is to keep both personified, spiritual understandings and scientific, empirical understandings in the toolbox of human comprehension, each employed as needed, sometimes in concert (with empiricism as an anchoring screwdriver providing the unmoving pivot for the turning and tightening embrace of a spiritual wrench,) to make meaning of human existence in relation to both human and non-human existence in the fullest way possible.

Thus gods and spirits are indeed real, but not in a purely objective and literal sense where a supernatural explanation is required to validate their reality. The gods are not “Big People in the Sky;” however, seeing them as "people" allows us to establish the most complex and active relationship we are capable of with those forces which are larger than us. By having a relationship with these forces, we "hear" them and are "heard," but this does not mean a big hand is going to come down from the sky to do things for us. Rather by "listening" and "speaking" with gods and spirits, we stay in touch with these forces, which allows us to react to them in interactive and beneficial ways. I would argue that a ritual such as praying for the blessing of a plow does not directly affect those aspects of agriculture which we now understand scientifically, and it is certainly clear that a successful crop can be grown without such rituals; however, I would argue that successful farmers have an intimate understanding of, and relationship to, the land and its cycles of growth. Formalizing this relationship, speaking to the gods and spirits, and doing the ritual in their honor, can enhance this understanding and put us into the most complex relationship we are capable of having with very real forces of fertility, all the ones that science has classified and those it has not, while maintaining the totality of experience, thus allowing us a heightened sensitivity of perception and interaction with those forces, which can only benefit our attempts to grow crops, especially if this attempt is being made by a group of people united by the same cultural conception of deity.

Ultimately, gods and spirits are cultural masks which we place upon nexuses of experiences whose complexity is keenly felt, but never fully comprehended. The mask cannot be torn away, for what is underneath is too complex to be completely apprehended by the human mind. Thus, the purpose of these masks is not to conceal these nexuses, but rather to reveal them thorough a personified interface so that we might enter into a relationship to them, to give them eyes, ears and mouths so that we may not only see them, but be seen by them, hear them and be heard.
Far from dressing up a plain reality with layers of metaphor, or representing it, map-like, in the imagination, songs, stories and designs serve to conduct the attention of performers into the world, deeper and deeper, as one proceeds from outward appearances to an ever more intense poetic involvement. At its most intense, the boundaries between person and place, or self and the landscape, dissolve altogether. It is at this point that, as the people say, they become their ancestors, and discover the real meaning of things (Ingold 56, italics in original).
Telling stories about gods and worshiping them is not a fantasy that diverts one's attention from an objective, empirical world that is the one and only truth of human experience, rather it focuses attention on relation and interconnection and, through a nonanthropocentric sense of personhood, immerses one in an intimate understanding of the world, rather than creating distancing models of it which, despite their undeniable usefulness, should not be mistaken for the length and breadth of human experience of the world.

Over the years I have developed varying levels of relationships to gods and spirits, as have many other modern people, and, despite the many advantages of modernity, many traditional cultures have maintained these connections. I suspect that they have found, as I have, that the experience is fulfilling, practical, and very real. However, though I may sometimes treat gods as if they were "big people," I, like our ancestors, recognize that gods are not really persons in the same sense which human beings are, but rather forces greater than I with which it is healthy, and perhaps ultimately necessary, to have personal relationships. Neither supernaturalism nor pseudoscience is required to validate the reality of this experience. It is equally true that a modern, rational explanation, like the one I have laid out here, is also not necessary to validate the meaningfulness of this experience, but it allows me to reconcile the apparent contradictions of seeing myself as both a modern person who recognizes the explanatory power of science, and a heathen who feels compelled to honor the polytheistic gods and spirits of his ancient ancestors, without violating the essential premise of either worldview. Using the language of those ancestors, however, all I need say is: "Hail the gods!"

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the adaptive role of gods and spirits in helping to maintain sustainability in the human use of natural resources.

Copyright 2011 by The Heretical Heathen


1. Note that I prefer the term “personification” as in “making into a person,” to the term “anthropomorphizing” or “shaping into a man,” as I do not think having human-like relationships with non-humans means they should be treated as men, but rather they should be dealt with as their own kind of “person”. Though Guthrie hit upon the great practical importance of what he calls "anthropomorphism", he ultimately still saw it as false empirical reasoning which should be replaced by the "better" understanding of modern science. He, like Boyer who elaborated on his theories, does not seem to perceive the importance of personified relationships as a natural method of staying connected with the larger social and natural worlds, and thus its contribution to human well being and survival, even among modern people who also possess the ability to utilize an empirical worldview. Atran and Ingold, however, who, in my opinion, approached the topic with more breadth and rigor than either Guthrie or Boyer, do see this potential.


Bird-David, Nurit, "'Animism' Revisted: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistimology" in Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, Feb. 1999

Eagleton, Terry, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, 2009

Guthrie, Stewart, Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion, 1993

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment, Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, 2000

Kearney, Richard, Strangers, Gods and Monsters, 2003

Romanyshyn, Robert D., Technology as Symptom and Dream, 1999

West. M.L., Indo-European Poetry and Myth, 2007


  1. I thought that you might find my website interesting...

    A link to a post about the origins of the Proto-Germanic people:

    A link to a post about the origins of the Langobards, Heaðobards and Danes:

  2. Thanks for sharing that, Keyo. The posts are indeed interesting. I would make one suggestion: identify your sources of information and make it clear when you are using them and when it is your own speculation or theory. Some of your assertions were clearly learned from outside sources and some were clearly your own interpretation, but in some cases it wasn't clear. Keep up the good work.