Polytheism and Interpretatio

Something that comes up frequently in polytheist circles is how to tackle the issue of the nature of the gods when there is such a diversity of gods out there and yet upon examination many seem similar. Part of the discussion invariably turns to what is polytheism. Monism, otherwise sometimes called “soft” polytheism, is the belief that all the gods are just parts of or reflections of or faces of a supreme well of godly power that is united in some way. Monism is not polytheism at all. Duotheism, the belief in two deities such as the case of many varieties of Wicca that if they acknowledge ancient gods they then proceed to boil down all gods into the god and all goddesses into the goddess, this is also not polytheism. Polytheism is the belief in individual gods with individual wills and that there is a plurality of these gods. However within that, there is some wiggle room and some variance. In a sense, there are mainly two types of polytheists, those who accept at least some level of interpretatio and those that are strict individualists. In this post I will seek to inform more about some of the nuances of Polytheism by describing interpretatio, its strengths and limits, as well as those of strict individualism.

Classical Interpretatio.

Historically pagans, for example the Greek pagans and Roman pagans and Germanic pagans, had the idea that when they encountered a god in a different culture that overwhelmingly resembled their own god that that god probably was their god simply going by a different name for the other culture. This explains why the Romans looked at Zeus and saw their Jupiter. In essence, there are numerous examples of this occurring throughout history. There were limitations to this though, because in some cases there was either no god that carried similarities or there were significant enough differences that differentiated them. An example of this would be Epona, when the Romans encountered this gaulish goddess they had no goddess that truly resembled her and so rather than force a fit with a different god they adopted her as Epona.

There are two main ways that this works in the modern world: either the god is related etymologically or through their attributes or ideally both. In the classical world there was no real understanding that there were linguistic links between the etymology of certain gods’ names so it was pretty well done through attributes. An example would be Venus and Aphrodite. Venus and Aphrodite were seen as the similar in the classical interpretatio, but they do not in the slightest connect etymologically. This is in essence the classical interpretatio, the gods seem eerily similar so it’s assumed they’re the same to a certain extent. In the ancient world they tended to only make connections through function and symbols and similarities. Sometimes however they struck upon linguistic similarities too which would be later discovered. Zeus is, for instance, related to Jupiter etymologically and was the classical interpretatio before that etymological link was discovered. Zeus Pater (Greek) is related to Diespiter and Iovispater (archaic Latin forms), Jove is therefore analogous to Zeus etymologically. At some point those two words meet back up with one another all the way back to Proto-Indo-European with *dyēus. Obviously Proto-Indo-European is a reconstructed language, and we indicate that with the little asterisk “*” by the word. However, while it is a reconstructed language it does represent a very real connection and relationship between these languages.

Intro to Etymological Interpretatio.

In a sense, language shifts and morphs over time and lots of little localized changes add up. At first it might start out as an accent but over time the accent become unintelligible to people not savvy to your way of speaking. This process has ground practically to a halt in recent years because we have TV and movies that essentially keep our accents and languages fairly steady. Even books helped to standardize language and keep the changes slower. But in a culture before sound media and before writing ad before formalized pedagogical education changes progressed quite quickly.

If we were to examine the Proto-Germanic word *þunraz for instance. Proto-Germaic would have been spoken sometime after about 500 BCE and would not have been differentiated between the various groups to the point of being unintelligible until at least 200 CE. So within this 700 year window we have a language that was more or less mutually intelligible but throughout this time developing what would amount to accents and dialects internally. The word *þunraz means thunder, it is also the word that would be used for the god associated with thunder *Þunraz. You have a split in the language develop in which Proto-Norse became unintelligible after 200 CE and the rest of the Germanic languages had also already begun differentiation but not so much that they had become unintelligible. These are usually grouped into Western Germanic as a group, but there wasn’t likely a Western Germanic proto-language but instead a group of semi-differentiated but still intelligible dialects.

Eventually These would split into what would become Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Dutch, and Old High German to name but a few. Even Old English itself was originally dialectical which can be seen in the variety of regional spellings and pronunciations. But something began to change, the shift from what was mobile, illiterate, tribal groups in which language could shift readily to groups with written language and a literate class began to change the nature of language.

To return to *þunraz, this word in Proto-Germanic would become a large variety of different terms. And *Þunraz followed suit. Here is a chart detailing the terms for thunder and for the Thunderer.

Proto-Germanic: *þunraz

  • West Germanic: *þunr
    • Old English: þunor, þunar, þunur, þuner
      • Middle English: thonder, thoner, thunder
        • English: thunder
  • Old Frisian: thuner
    • West Frisian: tonger
  • Old Saxon: thunar, thuner
    • Middle Low German: dunner, donner, donder, dōner
  • Old Dutch: *thonar
    • Middle Dutch: _____
      • Dutch: donder
  • Old High German: donar, thonar
    • Middle High German: toner, doner
      • German: Donner
  • Old Norse: þórr, þonarar
    • Icelandic: þórduna
    • Faroese: tora
    • Norwegian: torden
    • Swedish: tor
    • Danish: torden

Proto-Germanic: *Þunraz

  • West Germanic: *Þunr
    • Old English: Þunor
      • Middle English: Thunor
        • English:  Thunor
  • Old Frisian: Thuner
    • West Frisian: Tonger
  • Old Saxon: Thunar
    • Middle Low German: _____
  • Old Dutch: *Thonar
    • Middle Dutch: _____
      • Dutch: Donar
  • Old High German: Donar, Thonar
    • Middle High German: Donar
      • German: Donar
  • Old Norse: Þórr
    • Icelandic: Þór
    • Faroese: Tórur
    • Norwegian: Tor
    • Swedish: Tor
    • Danish: Thor

But you’ll notice from this that *Þunraz at some point crystallizes and no longer continues to shift with the language. This crystallization of the term occurred at Christianization. We can also presume it would have occurred also with literacy and the writing down of the myths as happened with the crystallization of the names of the Vedic gods with their transcription in Sanskrit. No longer would the god names shift equally with their meanings but would instead become organized religion with a set of written rather than oral myths. So at some point this likely would have occurred naturally to the gods in Germanic languages. However, that was not to be, instead of being crystallized by being recorded it became crystallized by being left behind.

And yet while *Þunraz is an excellent example to show how the word shifts culturally, it is also an example of a lapse in continuity. By this I mean that a god that was likely connected could swap names along the name for one of their epithets or for some other reason which is lost to us. An prime example is Thor, Thunor, Donner which is pretty assuredly is connected to a Proto-Indo-European concept of the Thunderer but for which there was a name-hop along the way because *Þunraz while it is Proto-Germanic does not stretch beyond the Germanic language tree as a god-name and instead Proto-Indo-European had an entirely different term. It is speculated that the original name of this god in Proto-Indo_European was *perkwunos which references oaks rather than thunder itself. More direct descendants of this name would be the Lithuanian Perkūnas and the Slavic Perūn. For the Germanic there seems to have been a swap towards an epithet, Thunder. But even here, the connection to the oak stuck and the connection to the quintessential story of the Thunderer fighting a giant snake-deity is a connecting theme throughout many cultures regardless of naming convention. So what occurred? The story linkage and symbological linkage are too close to ignore cross-culturally among Indo-European descendant religions, so while some people have theorized that the difference is due to it being a less old story and therefore migrations occurred before the name solidified, it is far more likely in my opinion that there was merely a shift towards epithet.

The flaw in interpretatio

While the idea that the gods of here are the gods of there is a fairly logical position to take; to believe that your gods are gods and as gods are not limited in their area of effect, that they are not tied to a specific place or time or race of people, then we could conceivably see them appear in other cultures. This is especially logical if the gods act similarly and function similarly, that they are incredibly similar. Yet despite being a logical enough thought, it is not without its problems and not without its slippery slope. You could take this relativism we are allowed due to our perspective of having all of time to look back onto and take it way too far. If we boil all the vaguely similar gods down into one god you lose all the interesting nuances that made them special to begin with. If the only thing they have in common is an atmospheric phenomena then you need to back away and leave it be.

Because of this, the real flaw in interpretatio is taking it too far. You know that old saying, when you assume you make an ass out of u and me? Well, there’s a leap that becomes a bridge too far. While the ancient Romans were pretty sure that their native Jupiter and the Greek Zeus were the same god, they did not abandon their cult of Jupiter nor did they demand the Greeks abandon their native cult of Zeus. The Greeks had their Greek way of worshiping and the Romans had their Roman way of worshiping and they respected each other mutually fairly well but maintained their differences despite coming into contact with one another. The Romans respected antiquity, they respected basically any and all traditions from various religions even when they were vastly different from their Roman way as long as they were ancient. The Jews, their ancient Jewish religion, the Romans didn’t like it but they tolerated it because of its antiquity. The cult of Cybele, despite being completely against Roman law and values the cult of Cybele was allowed to maintain its ancient tradition of cross-dressing, castrated priests. They tolerated this because it was ancient and they respected its antiquity. This also explains some how Christianity had a rough go of it in the beginning because their cult was decidedly new and the Romans felt no need to respect it because of its newness once they discerned that it was different from Judaism. So while the Romans were religiously tolerant, they were only religiously tolerant to a point.

I went on this rabbit trail to try and show one thing however, that the ancient world despite having a general understanding of interpretatio, it didn’t try and enforce hegemony of belief. I’m worshiping god A, you’re worshiping god B, I’m pretty sure god A is the same as god B, but I’m Roman and not going to be an ass and assume my way is the only right way. If god B is indeed also god A and wanted to be worshiped by those people in the manner of god A then they would abandon those people until they made the necessary adjustments in their practice.

The flaw in strict individualism

The flaw of strict individualism is mainly that it is incongruent with the evidence garnered through even the slightest look through time. I’ve encountered some folks who maintained that Thor and Thunor were entirely different gods, no overlap. Even the slightest look at the linguistic shift shows that isn’t the case. It’s a form of teleological religiosity favoring the last iteration of the religion while simultaneously denying the validity of the route taken to get to that point. By this I mean that if Thunor and Thor are entirely different gods then why do they linguistically reconnect at *Þunraz? Are we to deny the validity of *Þunraz as a unifying point along the line of history? Is only the end the correct point? No, strict individualism is incongruent with the mountain of evidence we have showing connected linguistics not to mention incongruent with most historical pagan practices that tended to see similarities between similar gods.

The benefits of some measure of individualism

While strict individualism as a belief is incongruent with linguistic evidence, it is beneficial to practice some measure of individualism in your religious practice. In essence, if I worship Jupiter I should worship Jupiter in the way that Jupiter is worshiped. If I worship Zeus, I should worship Zeus in the way Zeus is worshiped. If I worship Thunor I should worship Thunor in the way that Thunor is worshiped. In much the same way that the Romans worshiped Roman gods in the Roman way and the Greeks worshiped the Greek gods in the Greek way and the Norse worshiped the Norse gods in the Norse way. It might be offensive to worship Jupiter by the name Zeus in the Norse way for instance. These religions are not merely gods in a vacuum; the religion is culturally linked to religious rites that developed alongside those god names. So while strict individualism in belief is incongruent with the evidence, as far as practice is concerned it is best practice to treat every god as an individual even if you’re pretty sure they’re the same god.

It is also for this reason that I typically create new names and epithets for gods without Anglo-Saxon names rather than porting them over whole-cloth. This is the case when I worship Sibb and can also be seen in practice in another’s practice with Wodgar’s Sibb reconstruction. If I am trying to worship a particular god from an Anglo-Saxon, Fyrnsidu perspective I would prefer to not evoke for that god from an alternative perspective and not follow through with the rites and rituals from that perspective. If I am going to worship Jupiter (and I have) then I will don my fully accurate toga (thanks to my grandmother for making it for me), pull it over my head, and worship Jupiter in the manner he is accustomed to as a Roman would. I won’t call on him in the way I am accustomed to worshiping in Fyrnsidu because for me it seems less likely to achieve success. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Another reason I prefer to create an epithet or a name for a god for Anglo-Saxon worship is that I do not merely want to have the remnants of a religion; I want to build from what we have and go beyond the fragments. But even this is its own iterpretatio, a new sort of interpretatio that allows me to find the gods to fill my needs and use my historical understanding from time, from related religions, from related gods (in etymology and in practice) to pattern how I will create a practice around them.

In the end, some measure of individualism is beneficial because there should always be doubt. Imagine if for instance you’re wrong and they’re not the same. How invalidating could that feel for the gods involved? How successful will your rites be then? No, even if we believe them to be the same outside of worship it is often best to err on the side of caution during actual worship by not overtly conflating cross-culturally so as to cause no offense.

This post has already gone on too long so I will call it there.  

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