Multiple Divinities

As most of you are aware, I’m a ceremonial magician.  (If you weren’t aware, I question your powers of observation.)  I was raised very loosely Jewish (more Jew-ish, really), and though I flirted with neopaganism in middle school and Buddhism in high school, I don’t particularly consider myself a follower of any one religion.  If I had to pick a label, I’d probably go with panentheistic, which essentially means that the Divine is immanent in the world (within and a part of all things) as well as transcendent of the world (beyond and greater than all things).  While pantheism is God-in-all, panentheism is both God-in-all and all-in-God; here, God is not equated with the cosmos, but is both part of and contains the cosmos.

That said, this kind of capital-G God is a big entity to handle.  It’s Kether, it’s the Endless Light, it’s the Sphere of the Prime Mover, it’s the complete infinite sum of all things manifest and unmanifest and otherwise.  It’s mindblowing, and threatens to be literally so if one tries to leap ahead of themselves to comprehend this.  In this sense, God cannot be described except in terms of negatives, and the best term that comes to mind is infinite, “no end”. 

For a little guy like me to try to work with divinity, going straight to the Source is like plugging my phone charger directly into the uranium core of a nuclear power plant.  It doesn’t work that way; the power has to be transformed from raw heat and radiation into electricity, then into alternating electrical current, then throttled down into an appropriate voltage, then channeled through an appropriate socket, plug, and wire into my phone.  There are a lot of steps inbetween, a lot of transformation from something raw and pure into something discrete and refined.  In some ways, this describes how an Idea comes from the sphere of the Prime Mover, picks up weight and form and style on its descent through the planetary spheres, and ends up materialized on Earth.  In other ways, though, it offers me a good reason to work with other gods and divinities besides the One.  They do say that variety is the spice of life, after all.

Every Wednesday, I make offerings to the god Hermes and the planet Mercury.  Being a Hermetic magician, geomancer, software engineer, calligrapher, linguist, and all-around awesome young guy, I rely on Mercury like whoa.  He’s presided over a lot of the things I’ve done in my life wittingly or no, and I figure it’s nothing bad to get in the guy’s good graces by making prayers, offerings, and vows to the god.  I’ve got plans to set up my own Hermaion, a dedicated altar space for Hermes himself and his emanations and forms, once I get the room for it, and I’ve even entertained ideas of becoming a priest of the dude in addition to my role as magician (he seemed to enjoy the idea, as well, for the record).

Do I see a contradiction between this and my ceremonial magic stuff?  By no means!  Of course a lot of the Solomonic literature relies on the One God of Judaic or Christian origin, and though he (and a good number of his followers) claims to be the only guy up there, the Bible and tradition give very strong hints that it’s just not so.  Do I still keep him at the top of my list?  Yes and no; the One, the Source, the First Father is bigger than any one god or divinity, stronger than any one religion or spirituality, longer and more manifold than any one path.  I believe in God as One; I believe that the God of Israel is but one, just as Mercury is.  God as One is too big for me to handle or interact with; depending on the need, I have to throttle the guy down into something I can actually work with without getting obliterated by his infinite grace.

A recent post at Thicket of a Witch gave me a new term to my lexicon: oligotheism.  It’s a subset of polytheism (many gods), and refers to the primary worship of several gods while admitting the existence of many more.  It’s different from henotheism in that henotheism refers to the exclusive worship of one god among others (extreme Vaishnavites or Shaivaites in Hinduism, Jews in some readings of the Bible, etc.).  Oligotheism, while a new term to me, gives me a new term for a very old phenomenon that I’ve known about and has made sense to me ever since the idea of polytheism did.  After all, once you have more than one god, you end up with an endless number of them; there’s no way to worship all of them, so you’re almost of necessity forced to pick and choose.

Consider an average citizen in Athens back in the day.  They had a job, a family and clan, a local neighborhood, and the like.   They knew all the myths, stories, and fables of the Olympians, the Trojans, the Ithacans, the Cretans, and the like.  They would be involved in the worship of several gods, heroes, and the like that they deal with.  They wouldn’t really care about Poseidon of the Horses if they had nothing to do with raising, using, or racing horses; they’d pay him respect if they passed by his temple, sure, but wouldn’t go out of their way to make offerings to him for nothing at all.  They likewise wouldn’t get involved with Hephaistos of pottery if they weren’t a potter.  If their profession involved cows and crops, though, they’d make the trips to the local fertility festivals, the shrines of the deities related to those, and the like.

In other words, they didn’t deal with infinite divinity.  They didn’t deal with infinite divinities, either.  They interacted with divinity according to what they needed, and this is alright.  Is this complicated?  Not really.  Catholics often do something similar with their calendar of saints: they might call on the patron saint of their profession but not their cousin’s, only because they have nothing to do with their cousin’s profession.  Ancient healers would rely on the deities of plants, healing, and spirit while probably keeping the divinities of war, plague, and poison at arm’s length.

Working with multiple powers is not just a good idea, but also a good practice.  Even staunchly monotheistic Solomonic magicians call on various aspects of God through the use of his names, teasing out specific attributes on their own from a greater Whole.  It’s seen all across the place, from syncretic pan-Hellenic worship, to eclectic neopaganism incorporating Sumerian, Egyptian, and Celtic divinities on the same altar, to Vaishnavites recalling the different powers and tales of different incarnations of Vishnu.  Myself?  I like working with angels, planets, the occaisonal saint, ancient Mediterranean Greco-Roman gods, and of course the One.

12 responses

  1. As an addendum, this works well if you have a patron deity, too. I know some friends whose patrons will bluntly tell them to talk to some other god or spirit if they’re better suited to some task than the patrons are themselves. Focus your divinity requests based on your needs; if you’re unsure and need a start, check out the gods associated with different planetary spheres (Odin, Hermes, Mercury, Tehuti for Mercury; Osiris, Baldur, Bacchus, Jesus for the Sun; etc.). Also, keep in mind that these gods and goddesses and spirits are not omniscient or ubiquitous. They are not infinite like the One; they have limits, boundaries, territories, weaknesses, strengths, and characteristics that define (literally “set a boundary to”) them. If something isn’t in your favorite deity du jour’s portfolio, look elsewhere! They’ll probably tell you to do the same.

  2. First, let me say that I appreciate the link out.

    Secondly, I whole heartily agree with this:

    “Oligotheism, while a new term to me, gives me a new term for a very old phenomenon that I’ve known about and has made sense to me ever since the idea of polytheism did. After all, once you have more than one god, you end up with an endless number of them; there’s no way to worship all of them, so you’re almost of necessity forced to pick and choose.”

    I have long known of the concept, but without the word. I think most of those who work with multiple Deities eventually come to the idea, but for whatever reason have not felt the need to express it beforehand. The closest I have seen is someone mentioning that British Traditional Wicca is Duo-Henotheistic.
    Boidh se!
    -Spanish Moss
    “Lost in a thicket bare-footed upon a thorned path.”

  3. thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.

    I know have a word for myself. A label that actually…*works* *massive sigh of relief*

    It follows something I’ve been pondering for some time now…and vented it off on a couple of people already. I’ve noticed some pagany-folk tend to think of their patron/s as “omniscient,” smacking of good-old fashioned Abrahamic faith. In the myths and histories however, it is much as you said…if your patron didn’t cover that topic, either you or that deity had to go wonder on over to whomever *did*…and sometimes negotiating and bargaining was necessary to get what was needed.

    I work with enough Spirits that, well, frankly I think I have everything covered…altho my actual “Deity” Patrons are only known for a handful of topics. I think, had I not so many Spirits, I would certainly have to call up another Deity on the godphone and start negotiations…and I’ve wondered why others haven’t said as much.

    To sum up…I’m not crazy, and I’m not alone. THANK YOU again.

    • Gotta love getting involved in our own mythic quests. It certainly makes for a more enriched life, if not a more hilarious/screwed up/story-filled one. Good job, too, on building up a posse that works for you so well! I need to get on that; I’ve got the elements and my personal emissary across the realms, so I need the planets and more nature spirits contacted next. And heaven knows what else I’ll be getting into.

      And really, you’re not insane. Crazy really just means weird; if you’ve got method to your madness, you’re still decent. Just don’t go fluffy-BS-last-of-the-lunar-elven-fire-princesses batshit on us, dear. <3

  4. Yeah, I resonate with that… I kinda have a pantheon of fourteen, now: The One, God and Goddess, the seven (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon), and the four (earth, air, fire, water). The trouble is… it keeps expanding… I mean, is a saint part of a pantheon? What about an ancestor, or a group of ancestors? Where do the archetypes of the paths on the tree of life fit into that cosmology? It’s an awkward fit, I grant you. On the other hand, as you say, now I have a word for it.

    • I use the term deity and pantheon very loosely. Saints are more like heroes in the Hellenic tradition, humans who did awesome things in life and continue to do awesome things in death; heroes had their own altars and shrines back in the day, and saints often have comparable things of their own, so the distinction between saint/hero and deity is fairly minor in usual practice. Ditto for ancestors, the ghede, and the like.

      As for incorporating these sorts of things onto the Qabbala, unclear. Yesod generally rules over spirits of the dead and shades (where else do you meet the dead, save in dreams?), but beyond that, it’s like mixing apples and water bottles: they both have the same substance in them, sure, but few apparent connections otherwise. I think you’re trying to blend cosmology from one culture with practice from another culture; that’s difficult to do even in the best of circumstances.

      • Well, as we both know, it’s largely based on the functionality of “what works”, rather than hard-and-fast lines. I know that the prayer on Saturday —

        Mother of darkness who dwells in the night, in whom are mystery and depth unthinkable, and awful silence: let a ray of thy understanding descend, to awaken in me the power of Saturn

        has done a lot more to raise my awareness of the Divine Feminine than a lot of other work I’ve done. And the Kavad, to be fair, is one of the things that keeps opening me up to other levels of grace and beauty that have nothing to do with the Tree of Life, or have tenuous connections, at best.

  5. I am a fan of the Mercury archetype. In my opinion all archetypes are aspects of the same universal source, and it is useful to work with those different aspects on an individual basis.

  6. Pingback: Multiple Divinities: Thinking about Thinking « CGA in a VGA World.

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