Overview, by Osred
“God” is a word that is almost impossible to define. After nearly two thousand years the finest minds among Christian theologians have failed to agree on what they mean when they write about their own god. We are unlikely to do better, but a little background may help.
The modern English word god was spelled the same way in Old English. It was guþ in Gothic, guð in Old Norse, is gud in modern Scandinavian, god in Dutch, and gott in modern German. It derives from a Proto-Germanic word which may have been *guđán. No-one today knows precisely what the term meant to our Indo-European forebears. Several linguists have linked this word with the names of three tribes of our Germanic ancestors: the Geats (mainly known from the Old English epic Beowulf), the Goths, and the Gutar (a descendant of people born on the island of Gotland). These tribal names are thought to derive from “Gautr”, which is one of Odin’s many names in the surviving literature. If so, the word “Goth” and its equivalents would be an ethnonym (the name of an ethnic group) – and it would essentially mean “the Nation of Odin”.
We can seek to clarify the concept further by following Ninian Smart’s lead and looking at some of the meanings that various people, believers and otherwise, have attributed to the word “god”.
Euhemerus was a 4th century BCE Greek philosopher who believed that the Greek gods had originally been great human leaders, who were falsely regarded as gods after their deaths by their grateful followers. Snorri Sturluson, the Christian Icelandic scholar, made the same claim about the Norse gods. When this argument is used about Christianity, it is referred to as “adoptionism”, which has repeatedly been condemned as a heresy. It should go without saying that no serious modern Odinists believe, with Snorri, that Odin was once a king in what is now Turkey.
Apotheosis refers to people known to be human beings but worshipped as divinities in their own lifetime or shortly afterwards. For instance, Julius Caesar was formally recognized as a god in Rome, as were some of his successors. Some Shintoists believe the Japanese emperor is divine. Some Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama to be a god. Many Rastafarians see Haile Selassie (1892-1975) as having been divine.
Avatars. Adherents of many religions believe that gods and goddesses exist in another realm but can take human form, even animal form, at will. This belief was common in the pagan Greek religion, and may explain why early Christians, who lived in a Greek cultural region, claimed that Jesus was their god in human form. In Hinduism the term for a human incarnation of a god is “avatar”: Buddha is often seen as an avatar of the god Vishnu.
Archetypes, according to followers of Carl Jung, are something like epitomes – for instance, the archetype of “the Great Mother” is an epitome of motherhood, although also considerably more than that. Archetypes can be seen as moral examples, or as ways of expressing in universal terms the internal psychological world that is the product of our human evolution. It is impossible to do justice to Jung’s concept in the space available here, but it may be said that most religions could be reduced to their component archetypes by a determined Jungian.
James Frazer (1854-1941), author of the extremely influential book The Golden Bough, believed that all mythologies, including the Christian one, are ways of telling the universal story of the cycle of life, death and rebirth. Frazer would have us believe that the “death and resurrection” of a god like Balder somehow represents the changing seasons. Frazer’s work is much criticized today as not being confirmed by field studies. Yet in very general terms it can hardly be denied that most religions are largely concerned with life, death and rebirth.
All the above interpretations of the word “god” have been applied, at one stage or other, to the gods and goddesses of our own ancestors. Other interpretations, such as pantheism, appear to be irrelevant to a religion with many deities unless we distort both the faith and the word beyond recognition.
Another possibility, however, is that our deities really do exist, in a physical sense, “out there”. The great evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, has argued repeatedly that the existence of “God” is an empirical question, since a universe with a god would be a completely different kind of universe to one without a god. The rest of this essay suggests one way in which the gods and goddesses of our people may be as physically “real” as the author and readers of this essay.
Clifford Pickover’s Surfing Through Hyperspace [i] was a scientific work concerning realms of existence beyond our direct comprehension. Its ideas may eventually change the way we conceive of our religion and the universe.
Pickover, a molecular biophysicist, was interested in the notion of higher dimensions. We are all familiar with the first three dimensions: the sideways and forwards movements traceable on a map, plus up and down. Even babies have some idea of these three directions long before they can walk. But are there, perhaps, other dimensions? More than just the three we can all sense? Modern physicists think so. According to one well-known theory there are perhaps eleven dimensions – ten (give or take) of space and one of time. Although the extra spatial dimensions are invisible to us, scientists believe they can measure them as forces. Furthermore, certain phenomena only make sense to modern physics if these extra dimensions really exist.
Pickover’s originality lay in asking what implications these modern scientific theories have for our everyday human lives. For instance, chess is almost a two dimensional game. Almost but not quite, because the knight can “jump”. Pickover asks whether chess would be simpler or harder if it were really two-dimensional. But the big question he raised is this: what if living beings actually exist in the higher dimensions?
To try to imagine what such beings could do in our 3D world, we only have to pretend for a moment that there is a race of beings that exist in only two dimensions. They would have length and breadth but no height or thickness. Clearly they would have no “bodies” in the sense with which we are familiar, somewhat resembling moving shadows. We could see all their world at a glance. We could make them seem to “disappear” just by lifting them up into our third dimension.
If these two dimensional beings had any inkling of our existence they would probably feel us to be all-seeing, all-knowing beings, able to perform miracles. Similarly, if other beings existed in more dimensions than we can experience, they could do all sorts of things that would seem to us like miracles.
Pickover was really asking whether humankind’s gods may be real beings living in further dimensions to which we have no sensual access.
As most readers will recall, our own Germanic ancestors said that our god Odin sits on a high throne from which he can see everything that happens in “all the worlds”. That sounds very like a 3D explanation of the (to us) “magical” powers of a being who inhabits the higher dimensions.
Our ancestors were astute observers of the natural world. For instance, as H. R. Ellis Davidson famously pointed out: “Long before astronomy revealed to men the terrifying extent of the great starry spaces, the idea of vastness and of distances to tantalize the mind was already present in heathen thought”. [ii]
Did our ancestors also have some insight into “worlds” – or in modern terms, dimensions – beyond our senses? It would seem so. The seeress in Völuspá stated quite plainly that there are precisely nine worlds. If “worlds” here refers to dimensions (and Völuspá is, after all, poetry) then our ancestors’ conceptions eerily approximate the superstring theory of modern physics.
Pickover points out that according to our current state of knowledge there are theoretical constraints on the existence of beings in higher dimensions. For instance, the inverse-square law of electromagnetism would be altered in higher dimensional worlds, threatening the stability of atoms. Our current theories, however, are largely based on our experience of our own three-dimensional world. They are also curtailed by the imaginative restrictions of modern secularized Christianity. There is no guarantee that they will hold up as our scientific knowledge advances.
On the other hand, beings who really inhabit more dimensions than we can comprehend with our limited human senses – the “gods” that Pickover is seeking – would have a much more profound scientific understanding of both their own nature and ours.
It is even possible that our own gods and goddesses bestowed some of their higher knowledge to our ancestors, who recorded it in poetic fashion. Unless this idea is countenanced, it is scarcely possible to imagine how our ancestors could have had such a clear premonition of modern evolutionary theory, or modern theoretical physics, or even how they mastered forms of technology thousands of years ago that have not been matched until the last few decades.
One way by which this process has been expressed in our inadequate words – one way among many – is this: “The second possibility is that our observable universe is a created entity within a larger one, subject to intervention by higher beings. If we can conceive of the possibility of creating artificial intelligence, then we must admit the possibility that we are so created. In that case, we could easily concede as possible that the evolution “program” was not only started off by the design of a specific replicator – DNA or its precursors – but that there has been intervention from time to time to kick the process along, much in the manner that we can tweak a stuck computer program” [iii]
It seems to me that our own ancestors believed this actually happened. Meanwhile, let’s keep an open mind about our gods and goddesses, and how they might relate to our own lives.
[i] Clifford Pickover, 1999, Surfing Through Hyperspace, Oxford University Press
[ii] H. R. Ellis Davidson, 1964, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin
[iii] Guy Rundle, “I, lungfish: Richard Dawkins explains the facts of life”, in The Australian Literary Review, October 7, 2009, pp 12-13
(This essay first appeared in chapter 8 of the book, Odinism: present, past and future, 2010)
Beyond the Gods, by Edith
I am that which began;
Out of me the years roll;
Out of me god and man;
I am equal and whole;
God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily; I am the whole.
– A.C. Swinburne, “Hertha”
It is impossible for any rational person to consider the vastness and complexity of the universe, or the beauty of a single flower, the perfection of mathematics or the magnetism of the northern European human form, and to believe that all of this was created by a barbaric Middle Eastern demon.
But we Odinists don’t believe that our own gods and goddesses created all of this, either. It came into being in some mysterious way that is symbolised as a coming together of fire and ice. Our deities then played a role in arranging the elements that were available to them — especially our own branch of humanity. That is why we say that our gods are immanent in nature. They are a part of nature, not outside or beyond it like Yahweh or Allah. And that is why our own, innate form of spirituality is compatible with the ideal (if not always with the practice) of science.
Of course, each one of has our own understanding of what we mean when we use the term “gods”. To some of us they are archetypes. To others, ideals demanding emulation. Some of us believe they are as physically real as the hand that is typing this article. Any of these views may be valid, or maybe all of them; but my point is that none of us see the deities as an alternative to the cosmologists’ concept of “the Big Bang” (or equally an endless series of “Big Bangs”).
The simplest proof that this is the Odinist position is that our gods are subject to birth and death. At Ragnarok, we believe, many of our best-loved gods will die trying to avert the triumph of chaos. At the same time, many of the lesser-known gods will survive — to be led by Balder, the most beautiful of all the gods, who has previously, in some mysterious way, “died”. No doubt they will give birth to new gods and goddesses whose names we don’t even know. So the divine tribe will survive, despite the deaths of many of its individual members.
Yet is that all there is to it? Is there nothing more significant in this universe than a tribe of deities who may be as superior to us as we are to our pet animals, but who ultimately cannot give moral validity to the cosmos in which both we and they find ourselves?
Yes, there is.
To start with there is Wyrd, or Fate. Whatever happens to us as individuals, or to the gods, or to either of our groups collectively, has already been decreed by Wyrd. The gods who will perish at Ragnarok are already fated to die there, just as Leonidas’ 300 Spartans were fated to die at Thermopylae. The morally significant aspect of their deaths is that they go into battle clear-eyed, aware of their own individual doom, but willing to sacrifice themselves for the higher cause. They will die bravely, with their faces toward the hideous foe.
This will happen because Fate has decreed that it should happen. Whether we like it or not, it is necessary for a higher moral purpose that we don’t understand.
If there is such a thing as a fair-minded Christian or Muslim he might say, on reading this so far: “OK, I take you at your word that your gods are brave and decent. But all they achieve is the perpetuation of their own sense of what is good. Why should we as humans go along with them? Why shouldn’t we throw in our lot with the forces of chaos, and worship Loki and destruction? After all, each of us will die one day. What does it matter if the universe doesn’t outlast us? Why should we care if one day the universe cools down to the point that no form of life is possible? As King Louis the 15th of France is meant to have said, “Après moi, le déluge”. By that he meant: “I don’t care what happens after I am gone”.
Do we have any answer to that?
I think we do.
The chief deity of our ancestors, according to Tacitus, was the goddess he called Nerthus. Her real Germanic name was probably either Hertha or Hretha. She is the northern manifestation of the Greek goddess Gaia. She encompasses the entire biosphere, and her task is to form an ever more complex and increasingly self-regulating system that sustains the conditions for life on this planet, and in the universe as a whole.
The possibilities for life in the universe are endless, and I think that most people would love the idea of life-possibilities. After all, if the gods — or Fate, or Hertha — gave you the choice, would you opt for every possibility that life might conceivably be able to offer? Or would you prefer death and the grave?
The supporters of Chaos, the devotees of death, the followers of Loki, can put up a very poor show against those of us who opt for endless improvement of the planet, the universe, the cosmos. After all, unlike the destruction that our suicidal opponents would prefer, we want what everyone with vision would choose: endless betterment, leading to the state of ecstasy that is represented by the word “Odin”.
Progress or destruction? Divine ecstasy, or existential agony? Human beings will make up their own minds.
(This essay first appeared in Renewal, Volume 22 Number 4, March 2016.)
How can we comprehend the deities? by Ota
The surviving pre-Christian myths of our people personify and anthropomorphise our gods and goddesses. For instance, Indra and Thor are described as having red beards. Athena has grey eyes. Aphrodite and Freya and Venus all look like beautiful young women. Apollo and Baldur are beautiful young men. And so it continues …
Yet we know that the deities are not human beings, however red-bearded or grey-eyed or beautiful they might be portrayed. They are gods, and they have a higher and nobler form of existence than we do. That is why we deem them to be “worthy” of our “worship”.
But what are they? And how can we talk about them rationally?
If it is possible to answer these questions, the first step would be to overcome the anthropomorphic stereotypes that are usually presented in popular books with titles such as “The Norse Gods”. Books of that kind tend to present our gods and goddesses as characters in fanciful tales that could only appeal to children or to poets. The real myths about our deities are not just adult versions of fairy tales.
On the other hand, if we assume that the gods and goddesses named in our myths are merely impersonal forces of some kind, we are disrespecting them by treating them as little more than “kennings”, symbolic codes that need to be broken to reveal some philosophical point, much in the way that the clues in a modern cryptic crossword have to be deciphered to “fill in the blanks”.
So far, then, we are stuck between the Scylla of fairy tales and the Charybdis of cryptic symbolism. But there is a way between these crushing obstacles.
Let me tell you a story.
Demeter, the beautiful goddess who presides over both the sacred lore and the cycle of life and death, had a daughter who was abducted by the lord of the underworld. (There are obvious parallels here with Frige and Baldur.) Demeter searched all over the earth for her daughter, but in vain. (Again, there are obvious parallels with Freya and her lost husband, Othr.)
In her anger and despair the goddess caused a terrible drought in Attica. Crops failed, cattle died in the parched fields, and people starved. At length Demeter came to the city of Eleusis, disguised as an old hag — “an old sick woman, lamed and lean”, with “hollow hands’ and “loose knees”, whose “face was like a cloth wrung out with close and weeping wrinkles”. There she was pitied by the young daughters of the king, who cared for the apparent crone, putting to her parched lips water “made sweet with brown hill-berries”.
Demeter then felt merciful toward the people of Eleusis and she accordingly lifted the drought. Eleusis once again flourished.
There is far more to the story than this, but it already provides enough information to raise several issues.
First and foremost, it seems obvious that Demeter could assume any form when she chose to walk among mortal men and women. At Eleusis she chose to disguise herself as an old crone. Her reason for this choice might be beyond our human comprehension; or was perhaps simply never recorded. But there’s no reason to assume that ancient Greeks were very different to modern white people, and in the modern world old women have the advantage of not being noticed. They tend to “pass under the radar”, rather like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. If you or I were searching for a lost loved one, the disguise of an old crone would be one that might not raise many suspicions.
Second, it’s reasonable to assume that although Demeter could have assumed any form in which to manifest herself, her purpose was to relate to human beings. So she had to appear in a way that could be perceived by our limited human senses.
Our eyes are only able to perceive light in the range of about 390 to 700 Nanometers, Any colour with a wavelength shorter than that is called “ultraviolet”, and is invisible to the human eye. Energy with a longer wavelength is called “infrared”, and again, we can’t see it. So, if Demeter had manifested herself within the ultraviolet range, she would have been visible to some insects, birds and fish, but not to humans.
Something similar applies to the sound of her voice. She had to be audible to humans. We can only hear sound vibrating at between about 20 and 20,000 Hertz. There are bats that can hear sounds of up to 200 kHz, and elephants can hear sounds as low as 14Hz. But if Demeter had spoken outside the approximately ten octaves that humans can hear she would have been inaudible to the princesses at Eleusis.
So if a god chose to manifest to you he would have to do so in a way that your human senses could apprehend. More than that, the gods of some other peoples are said to manifest in bizarre forms, such as a burning bush, but according to the literary sources the gods of our people nearly always show themselves to us in a human aspect. Remember how the girls at Eleusis were completely taken in by Demeter in her guise as an old crone? If you have ever been helped or cautioned by an unknown stranger, perhaps that “person” was one of the deities. After all, how would you know, one way or the other?
Yet that’s only the beginning of it.
If the gods want us to perceive them they have to make allowances for our limited animal brains. It’s quite reasonable that Thor and Indra should have been seen with red beards, or Athena with grey eyes. But why are the stories about the gods so often rather childish?
Well, just as the deities must make allowances for our physical frailties, they must also take into account our intellectual limitations. And we are very, very limited.
To show how restricted our minds are, let’s revisit some beginners’ mathematics.
Nearly all humans, all over the world, are familiar nowadays with the simple counting numbers of “one, “two”, “three”, “four” and so on. It wasn’t always so. For instance, most of the traditional Aboriginal languages of Australia couldn’t count beyond “one”, “two” and then “many”.
I can easily understand a number like 15. I can hold 15 small objects in my hand. Take away those 15 objects and I have nothing in my hand, or “zero”. Easy enough … although it did take humanity a long time to discover zero. What happens if I have three objects in my hand but I owe you five? The sum involved is 3 minus 5, and the answer is negative two. You knew that, of course. But neither you nor I can imagine having –2 objects in our hands. We can manipulate the numbers on paper, or in our heads, but in practical, concrete terms our brains simply don’t work that way. It gets worse.
The square root of 9 is 3. The square root of 4 is 2. What is the square root of 1? Mathematicians have determined that it is both +1 and –1. Things are starting to go crazy here, but at least mathematicians can understand them in a theoretical sort of way. So, next question: what is the square root of –1? It can’t be +1, and it can’t be –1, because when squared both of these numbers result in +1. But it must be a “one” of some kind.
Mathematicians solved this problem by discovering a wholly new set of numbers. They called this new axis “imaginary numbers”, and defined the square root of –1 as imaginary 1. This was a very poor choice of words since no human mind can possibly “imagine” these numbers in the sense of visualising them. But they exist, and real-life engineering problems can be solved by applying these “imaginary numbers”.
I don’t want to imply that our gods are a bunch of mathematical geeks. But suppose that negative numbers, and even “imaginary numbers”, are as natural for them to comprehend as it is easy for me to imagine having fifteen small objects in my hand. They would find it hard to make us see things their way. They would have to simplify enough to enable us to, perhaps, get a vague idea of what they were talking about.
Hence the apparently childish stories in the mythologies. They are simplifications that our limited human minds might be able to grasp. Our own task is to try to think beyond our weaknesses, just as mathematicians do, and attempt to make sense of what is beyond our limited senses and our limited mentality.
(This essay first appeared in Renewal, Volume 23 Number 1, June 2016)