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.