What is a deity?

So, recently a friend of mine who’s getting his legs in working with the occult and spiritual worlds was talking with me and my boyfriend, and it caused a bit of a debate amongst ourselves, mostly due to semantics and differences in worldview that can complicate things when describing How Things (Can/Should) Work.  Part of that was that my friend had said that me and my boyfriend “traffick in gods”, and that he himself doesn’t like working with gods but does like working with forces of nature.  This caused a bit of confusion between all of us until we pegged down exactly what he meant by that generally, and also what he meant by gods.  This is where my boyfriend and I disagree a bit, but then, we can attribute that to different worldviews and paths in spirituality.

As for myself, the question of what the nature of a god is can be complicated, especially when describing specific instances of spirits and how they might be or might not be gods.  For instance, we can easily point to Zeus and say that he’s a god, and we can point to my little Air elemental ally and easily say that he’s nowhere near as godlike as Zeus may be, and you’d generally be right in saying that my elemental ally isn’t a god.  But what about river spirits, like that of the Mississippi or Ganges?  Or spirits of a forest or a mountain?  Or spirits ruling over an entire element?  This is where the ontology of godhood and spirithood can get tricky.  I present below my understanding and use of the words “god” and “spirit”.

First, to talk about gods, let’s back up a bit and talk about a broader class of entities, that of spirits.  To me, a spirit is any nonphysical entity that can be meaningfully interacted with.  Let’s unpack that phrase bit by bit.  A “nonphysical entity” (NPE) is a being with a more-or-less independent consciousness and nature, which exists without corporeal form or body, and which communicates or interacts with the world through nonphysical or noncorporeal means.  Thus, humans and animals are not NPEs, but ghosts, souls, and angels are.  Elemental and animal spirits, though they may be present within actual objects or animals, are still NPEs.  (Sometimes an NPE can be incarnated or take corporeal form; this is an exception and handled elsewhere.)  To “meaningfully interact with” means that we, as human beings, can witness and observe an NPE and its effects on the world, can communicate or work with the NPE, can receive communication from the NPE, and can potentially work together or through the NPE to achieve some desired end.  So, working with Zeus or God or an angel or an animal totem would all constitute meaningful interaction; working with gravity or lightning or time would not, since these can be manipulated in certain ways but not communicated with.

I claim that all gods are spirits: they are both nonphysical entities (though are sometimes known for taking corporeal form in some circumstances) and can be meaningfully interacted with (though sacrifice, prayer, scrying, visions, and the like).  Thus, gods constitute a subset of spirits; are there spirits that are not gods?  This is where things get interesting, and I have a hard time trying to figure out where any meaningful distinction might lie between godly spirits and non-godly spirits.  If it’s a matter of scale or grandeur, then we end up with a kind of divine sorites paradox, where distinctions may be arbitrary and meaningless.  For instance, if we define a god as a spirit that has at least 10,000 worshippers, then what about spirits that have 9,999 worshippers?  Does that make the spirit any less godly, especially as seen and experienced by their worshippers?  Same thing goes with age; if we consider a god to be a spirit worshipped for at least 1000 years by some group of people, what about Christ in the first millennium AD, when he was recognized as divine even before his birth?

In many animistic traditions, there simply is no distinction between a god and a spirit, and all gods are spirits and vice versa.  Consider the Shinto term kami (神), where all of the phenomena, spirits, souls, and manifestations of cosmic order are considered a type of god, though the term “god” itself does little justice to encompass the meanings of the term kami.  Similarly, looking at Hindu and Greek polytheistic traditions that likely evolved out of animistic ones, we find both a kind of ruling group of gods with connections and children to other gods, which although lesser are still considered gods, even down to the level of individual rivers, mountains, forests, and trees.  Even the Greeks considered individual people to have their own agathodaimon, or personal spirits, which were so strong or powerful that they would be on the level of the gods themselves (implying greatness or grandeur, but no otherwise fundamental difference).  Sacrifices and prayers were carried out to the big Olympians as they were heroes and nature spirits, indicating that ritualistically the spirits were treated the same as the gods, or nearly so to the point where it’s just about meaningless to consider gods fundamentally different from spirits.

My boyfriend suggests a difference in function and level: gods are NPEs that are worked towards but not worked with, while spirits are NPEs that are worked with.  So, for instance, I might call on the aid of a saint to achieve an end (thaumaturgy) but I might work myself up to rise to the level of the Almighty (theurgy).  Thus, Olodumare/Olorun in Santeria or Yoruban religion might be considered a god, since he’s not directly worked with, but the other orishas like Chango or Babalu Aye would be considered spirits since they’re directly present and able to work directly with someone.  In Abrahamic terms, we might consider God the Father the “god” and his angels the spirits, but then this gets into more complicated issues when you consider that God the Son is directly worked with as is God the Holy Spirit, who are not God the Father but are also not apart from God in a weird non-panentheistic way.  Because of these problems, I disagree with my boyfriend, but then, it’s a minor, minor thing.

Based on all this, I contend that there is no fundamental difference between a god and a spirit: gods are spirits, and spirits are gods.  Thus, the term “god” is merely a label we use to separate out a particular set of spirits we (either as individuals or as traditions) find especially worthy of reverence, devotion, and sacrifice.  For instance, I consider myself dedicated and a priest to Hermes, but not to the local land spirits around my house.  I make them both offerings, but not in the same way, and I hold Hermes as greater and grander than the local land spirits.  Then again, I also consider the local land spirits as genii loci and thus children of Gaia, sharing in her presence and power and thus representative of her; in this sense, the genii loci can also be considered gods by other people.  And even I might consider some genii loci especially worthy of reverence, and thus would be elevated (in my mind) to the status of gods.  Likewise for Shinto, the big kami like Amaterasu or the Emperor get bigger rituals than the kami of smaller things like boulders or waterfalls, but both are considered kami.

In other words, the term “god” is merely a functional term, much how we consider the terms “stationery” and “paper” different: they’re both ultimately the same, but one has a little more decoration than the other, and that decoration is all in the eye of the beholder.  It’s a lot like how the gods of one tradition might be considered devils or illusions by those of another, so it’s tradition- and worldview-specific, but these help define one’s practice and methodology in working with the spirits.  So, for my friend who got me thinking about this to begin with, we might say that going with the animistic idea that there is no fundamental difference is probably best, especially in getting over any hang-ups on the terms used by others.

Personal Piety

What is piety?

  • According to etymology, piety comes from Latin pietas, the noun from of pius, meaning “good” or “devout”.
  • According to the dictionary, piety means “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations”.

Simple enough.  Time to end this post, let’s all get drunk.  Not.

Back in ancient Greece, Plato once wrote a dialogue wherein his then-dead teacher, Socrates, was talking to someone outside the courts.  Socrates was on his fated and fatal trial charging him with impiety and the introduction of new gods to Athens, and he encounters Euthyphro, a prosecutor for another case (against his father for murder) which also involves piety and doing what is just in the eyes of the gods.  Chatting idly before the courts, they engage in a bit of discussion about their upcoming trials, which eventually settles on the nature of piety.  After all, if piety weren’t an issue, Socrates couldn’t be charged with corrupting the youth of Athens because of his impiety, and if piety weren’t demanded of Euthyphro, he wouldn’t be testifying and placing a charge against his own father.

The problem is that neither of them can give an explanation for what piety actually is.  Through their dialogue, Socrates gets the following answers out of Euthyrphro for what piety is, but notices a problem with each of them.

  1. Piety is what Euthyphro is doing right then, viz. prosecuting someone of a crime, just as Zeus restrained and punished his father, who restrained and punished his father before him, which were acts of justice.  Socrates points out that, while this act may be pious indeed, there are other acts which are considered pious; this is an example of piety, not an explanation or definition of it.  Rejected.
  2. Piety is what is dear to the gods, and impiety is what is not dear to the gods.  Socrates points out that the gods disgree amongst themselves, and that some disagreements may be on points where there is no factual or objective measure to agree by, such as what is just and what is unjust.  So, though the gods may hold what is dear to them to be what is pious, what is dear to one god may be repulsive to another, so the same action may be both pious and impious at once, which is a contradiction.  Rejected.
  3. Piety is what is dear to all the gods, and impiety is what is all the gods hold not dear.  This is something they both agree on, but then Socrates asks a crucial question: is what is pious pious because the gods love it, or do the gods love it because it’s pious?  In other words, is it pious because the gods say so, or is it pious because of something intrinsic to itself?  It can’t be both, because then that would lead to a vicious circle, and further, just the fact that the gods love something doesn’t mean that it is intrinsically pious because of that fact.  Their loving it is a recognition of it being pious is thus an attribute of piety, but is not a definition for piety.  Rejected.
  4. Piety is a type of justice.  In other words, Socrates supposes that, since all things that are pious are just, piety is based on what is just.  However, because there are things that are just that are not necessarily pious, we can’t just assign the qualities of justice to piety and be finished there.  It’s a superclass/subclass or genus/species issue of definition; we may have some qualities of piety, but not all of them, without which we can’t yet have a definition of piety.  If piety is only a part of justice, which part is it?  Neither Socrates nor Euthyphro can answer.  Rejected.
  5. Piety is an action that is just that attends to the gods.  In this instance, attendance to something is done to improve, benefit, and guide them.  However, Socrates then states that pious acts are done to improve the gods, which they both quickly agree is a dangerous statement of hubris.  Instead, Euthyphro restates the definition of attendance to be something more like ministration or service to a god to deliver things that please them.  This then defines piety as giving the gods what pleases them, which then devolves into the definition of what is dear to the gods.  Rejected.
  6. Piety is the art of sacrifice and prayerto the gods, learning how to please the gods in word and deed.  Sacrifice is defined as the act of giving to the gods, and prayer as asking or receiving from the gods; piety, then, is an art and science of giving and asking, which is a kind of business or transaction.  However, the gods want from us things that please them, which is essentially gives piety the same definition as above.  Rejected.

After this point, Euthyphro has to leave to get to his trial on time, leaving Socrates just as confused as ever as he prepares to combat a charge about a quality he hasn’t found any explanation or definition for.  Kinda sucks, really, but we end up with the notion that piety is intricately bound up with what divinity approves of.  So we have a bit of a dilemma on our hands: is something pious because it has an innate nature called “piety” that is only recognized and approved of by an outside source, or is it pious because it is explicitly liked by divinity for no other reason than it pleases them?

  • If what is pious is instrinsically pious, then that implies that there is a rule or order of things outside of divine order.  If so, then divinity has no power over it to change it, divinity is itself holy based on things that are pious and so aren’t worthy of worship in and of themselves but only to the degree that they support piety, and piety would still exist even if there were no gods to approve of them.
  • If what is pious is just what is pious to the gods because they like it, then that implies that pious things amount to no more than “because I said so”.  If so, then anything could be possible, allowed, legal, or demanded just because divinity wants it: if he said it pleased him to kill unborn babies, or for triangles to have more than three angles.  Morality could not exist without divinity already existing, morality could not be eternal laws due to the potential for divinity to change its mind about a command, and removes any reason to praise God.

In Hebrew thought, the similar quality of tzedeq (same triliteral root that gives Jupiter and its angel their names) doesn’t have the same dilemma, since it’s considered an action or event that can be seen and recognized.  The only way to describe the totality of things that are tzedeq is a list of all things that fall under that category.  In other words, it can only be enumerated specifically, not formulated generally.

From the point of view of a Hermetic philosopher, this is where a slightly different notion of divinity come into play.  In my case, good is not separate from divinity; divinity is not separate from what is good, or anything else for that matter.  Being good is being godly, and the only thing that is purely and only good is God (or, rather, the Divine Source).  Being good in a godly way (not in the common, mundane, or humane way) is, then, what piety could very well be.  This permits bad things to happen, in the sense that bad is what is not good, but only from a humane or mundane perspective.  This agrees with the earlier definition Euthyphro kept getting stuck on, because God likes and constantly contemplates Itself Mindfully, at one point speaking the Word to act and interact with itself; thus, being Good (capital-g “good in a godly way”) is being what God likes, i.e. pious and piety.

How do we know what being Good is?  By being Godly.  In being Godly, we learn the mind of the Nous, the word of the Logos, and the wisdom of Sophia, which help us collectively in knowing ourselves.  By knowing ourselves, we learn what we really want to do and what we really need to do; from a teleological or Godly point of view, the two are ultimately the same.  This is knowing our True Will, knowing the true course of our lives and how to act in accordance with our nature and Nature/God itself.  “Do what thou wilt” isn’t just a license to fuck around and fuck up as fancy would drive one to do, but is really an injunction to do what you need, are suited, and are destined to do.  In doing this, we do what is Good, and in doing what is Good we become pious.

However, this type of Good defies definition beyond “what is Godly”.  It’s entirely above and beyond mechanical, natural, logical, or spiritual revelation, coming from the superclass and source of all these things.  The only way to learn what one should do is to…well, you tell me.