Neither Omnipotent, nor Omniscient, nor Omnipresent, nor Omnibenevolent

There is an interesting story in the Gylfaginning (LXII) in the Prose Edda, you may know the one about how the walls of Asgard were built. Yet this story shows something else of interest – the gods are not omnipotent, nor omniscient, nor omnipresent, nor omnibenevolent. If the gods were omnipotent then they could have built their own wall instantly if they had so chosen to. If they were omnipotent then they would not even require walls. If the gods were omniscient then they could have foreseen the issues in the plan. One of the most telling aspects of the story though is that Thor was away doing Thor things during this time, otherwise he would have apparently put a stop to it quite early, and he is called back to fight the giant. The text reads: “Now that the Æsir saw surely that the hill-giant was come thither, they did not regard their oaths reverently, but called on Thor, who came as quickly.” Thor was away, but the gods called to him and he came seemingly immediately. This is not an omnipresent or omniscient deity or he would have no need of being called on nor could he be away. Finally this story shows that the gods are not omnibenevolent; omnibenevolent gods would not bargain away the sun, moon, and Freyja, even at the prospect of having a free wall built, no matter how certain they were of coming out ahead. There is one more thing to be gleaned from this, the importance of speaking prayer aloud and of titling it correctly. Thor can seemingly travel instantly, but he is shown numerous times in other stories having to travel longer ways than instantaneously. Perhaps this is showing the importance of calling the gods to us, speaking their names aloud and inviting them into our sacred spaces. What if their travel and vision is limited to when and where they are called? That seems preposterous to people accustomed to an omni-deity, but our deities are not omniscient and not omnipresent so perhaps we truly have to call to them if we want their attention. Now this is only one story, but these kinds of examples exist across the myths of our religion. These myths tell the story of mighty and powerful deities who are often benevolent and certainly are incredibly wise, but they are not omni-deities.

The gods are not omnipotent. The gods are not omnipresent. The gods are not omnibenevolent. The gods are not omniscient. Everything we have says the gods may have been incredibly powerful but they were not omni-anything. Here are some more examples that by no means exhaust the extensive amount of ways these things can be shown.

The gods are not omnipresent – Beyond the above examples, how many stories do the gods travel in? All of them that I can think of. An omnipresent deity would have no need to travel because they would exist simultaneously in all places so no movement would be necessary. When Thor travels to Utgard, he hoofs it most of the way because his goat gets broken – that’s not an omnipresent deity. When the gods borrow those hawk-cloaks or when they turn into eagles to get somewhere – that’s not omnipresent.

The gods are not omnipotent – The gods fought each other in many conflicts and come up against giant kind too. In all of these rumpuses, the gods are not able to achieve total victory. The gods also can and do die in several stories and in at least one they age rapidly without the input of some magic fruit. They are often incapable of doing things and certain gods are better at certain things than other gods. None of that screams omnipotence. Lest we also forget the Utgard business again – Thor is strong, very very very strong, but he is not omnipotent. He is way potent, but not omnipotent, otherwise why would he struggle and fail? Omnipotent deities do not ever fail at anything ever, they do not struggle at anything ever.

The gods are not omnibenevolent – The gods are often quite benevolent, but they are not universally so. Ample examples exist of both their benevolence and instances where they withhold their benevolence. Utgard provides an example here too; Thor totally swans off with those human children because of some goat breaking that occurs. That’s not omnibenevolent. He didn’t strike them all dead, but he didn’t just let it go either. Omnibenevolent, no; often benevolent especially to those he likes or who honor him, yes.

The gods are not omniscient – Contrary to popular belief the gods do not see all or know all and there is ample proof. Frigg is noted in the Lokasenna as being able to know the fate of all but the fates in this case was “örölg” and not “urðr”. One reference (poorly translated due to deficiencies in modern language) to knowing the “fates” of all and folks kick the omni-deity mode into overdrive. Does it not matter that on many other occasions the gods have expressed not being able to know anything much about the future? For goodness sake they didn’t know Baldr was going to die until he started having bad dreams about it himself. They couldn’t tell their own future so they contracted out to get it seen by a dead witch. They contracted out for the Voluspa as well. They go out and get intel where they can and have some pre-cognitive abilities and certainly they can predict some things, but are they all knowing or all seeing? That can be a definitive no. As for Frigg, it being orlog (OE orlæg) and not urðr (OE wyrd) is noteworthy because it means that she knows the past that brought us to the present, she knows the original foundations of all, the root of actions, but not where all things end up.

In the end it is simple – the gods are very incredibly powerful, but they are not omnipotent; the gods are far seeing and know way more than us and more than we will ever know, but they are not omniscient; the gods can potentially be anywhere or anyone or invisible and go really really fast so they potentially could be anywhere, but they are not omnipresent; the gods are usually very good to people, but they are not omnibenevolent. We worship great gods, not omni-gods, and that is the way it is and was and all is right in that. They probably don’t know the number of hairs on your head; they likely do not much care to know. Our personal, ingrained, cultural definition of gods may need to be mentally adjusted then to accommodate this shift.

 

Certain pieces specifically referenced:

Building of the walls of Asgard and Thor

  • The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning XLII) of Snorri Sturlson (Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur)

Traveling to Utgard and all that jazz

  • The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning XLIV – XLVIII) of Snorri Sturlson

Baldr has bad dreams

  • The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning XLIX) of Snorri Sturlson
  • The Poetic Edda (Baldrs Draumar)

The gods contract out their divination

  • The Poetic Edda (Voluspa)
  • The Poetic Edda (Baldrs Draumar)

Frigg and the “örölg” bit (If you are still curious, you’ll want to get a look at the actual Old Norse and compare definitions of the different words as well as get a good handle on orlog/orlæg vs urðr/wyrd in ancient world view because a simplistic view of “fate” is unsatisfactory and anachronistic here.)

  • The Poetic Edda (Lokasenna 29)
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Heathens and our hang-ups

There is an unfortunate issue that is all too common in Heathenry – bias against Christianity and/or Christians. I see it fairly frequently; many pagans carry around a disproportionately large amount of bias against Christianity and Christians. In some cases this bias hampers our ability to act in a historically pagan way. Heathenry is not the opposite of Christianity, it is not anti-Christian, and it is not the anti-Christian religion. Heathenry is a religion, a polytheistic religion that has numerous practices held in common with Christianity. If you were looking for a religion to be the antithesis of Christianity you are barking up the wrong world-tree. That is ironically enough a very classically Christian viewpoint, the ancient heathens were not initially or overtly opposed to Christianity because they recognized similar practices when they came knocking, it was the ancient Christians who would not tolerate the pagan beliefs seeing them as wholly against their religion. No, there were actually many similarities in the religions.

Contrary to what you may have heard, ancient Heathens kneeled before their gods. There is ample evidence to support that kneeling during worship was quite standard and ordinary in ancient heathenry. It shows up in Tacitus very early on, it plays out in the sagas, and it continues to show up as late as Ibn Fadlan’s trip to Russia. Kneeling, even prostrating oneself, before the gods was a very heathen practice. So why do so many heathens not kneel? Some folks somehow got it in their heads that kneeling was a Christian activity and thereby something we don’t do or shouldn’t do – that’s the anti-Christian bias talking. Kneeling before the gods would have been a sign of respect much like kneeling before the king. Even to this day people kneel or bow before royalty to show deference, do our gods deserve less respect than men on this earth of status or less respect now than they did in ancient times? Or are many of us letting our biases come between us and our gods?

Contrary to what you may have heard, ancient Heathens prayed to their gods. Every time you give thanks and offer to the gods that’s prayer; the textbook definition of prayer is in fact “an address (or petition) to God or a god in word or thought”. If you communicate toward a deity it is prayer. We know Heathens prayed because we know they conducted the gifting cycle. They prayed because how else were they supposed to communicate with their gods, give them offerings, or ask for aid? Now many heathens I have spoken to have a really toxic idea of what prayer is. They seem to think that prayer is you just spewing yourself out as a lesser being who is not worthy of anything etc. While I am not going to lie to you, you are a lesser being seeing as how you are a person and they are a god, you’re certainly worth the time and energy and effort of the gods seeing as how you’re building a relationship with them and them with you. We pray because we are communicating with the gods and thanking them or offering to them. That’s all prayer is – communication with the gods; thanks given for receipt of blessings, offerings given to the gods, and calls for aid on your behalf or the behalf of others. The ancient heathens prayed, if we do not then we are not communicating with the gods and it makes it mighty hard to form a relationship without communication.

A certain small amount of unhappiness towards monotheistic religions is to be warranted on the grounds that monotheistic religions as a whole view our gods in a great variety of unpleasant ways: as non-existent, as demons misleading us, as bastardized faces reflected from their own god, or perhaps as impotent beings compared to their omni-everything deity. We will truly never get across-the-board recognition from monotheistic religions in an even-footed way for our deities because the beliefs monotheistic religions hold leave no room for them. We have to step beyond that though, to give up our biases if they hinder our spiritual development. We should seek to practice our own religion to the best extent that we can and not be held up by our perceptions of Christianity and Christians. They have their religion and what they do and do not do has no bearing on our religion. Instead we should leave behind as much of the biases possible that we hold and further our polytheistic practices by focusing not on being anti-anything or negatively comparing ourselves to them but simply setting out to be good heathens with solid and grounded practices.

 

Propitiation

Propitiation is a concept in paganism that does not receive the discussion it deserves. You see we do a fairly alright job of describing the gifting cycle and those concepts regarding offering. We know that as we gift a friendly god we build a relationship of reciprocal gifting with them that increases over time. But we fall short when describing offering to chaotic forces.

While I have taken issue with the concept that the gods universally represent order, they do on a whole represent order a majority of the time. That is not to say they are not on occasion fickle; they do have their destructive or chaotic moments. That said, there are forces which are much the inverse of the gods in that where the gods represent order, those other forces represent chaos. In terms of sheer power the chaotic forces are often on par with the gods. But whether you call these things Ettins or baneful wights the end result is the same, these beings are chaotic and can cause destruction and devastation and unrest and suffering. Are they gods? I would argue that the only thing truly separating them in might and being from the gods is their attitudes and bearing towards men. But hesitate to call them gods in the same respect. Yet It Is here that the difference between propitiation and the gifting cycle comes into play.

Propitiation implies appeasement. It implies that it is to lessen the negatives of something. Chaotic forces can be offered propitiation to appease them and keep them from killing you today or tomorrow or from wrecking your day. I have seen rituals where people offered propitiation beforehand so that outside forces would not impede the ritual. But that doesn’t make them benevolent, it means you can pay them off. They will drop you like a hot rock the second they see fit. It isn’t the gifting cycle. The gifting cycle builds a relationship. You cannot build a relationship with chaos.

The wild places. The rivers. The untamed places. The mountains. The Glaciers. The thorny places. The Ettins. Chaotic deities. They’re all like the gods in their might but not all deities are benevolent and not all are kind and not all have equal disposition towards humans and not all enter gifting cycles that benefit humans.

The wilds will send forth beasts. The rivers will flood or even on the best of times dash your head on the rocks. The untamed places will make you lose your way. The mountains will drop rocks onto you or make you lose your footing. The Glaciers will send forth icebergs and sink your boat. The Ettins and chaotic deities will devour you and your sacrifices with equal glee.

If we work with the forces of chaos we should understand this, it is practicing propitiation. All those sacrifices do not build a truly lasting relationship as relationships are a function of order. It’s not a gifting cycle, its paying the chaotic forces off. It’s like the Danegeld, don’t be surprised if the chaotic forces decide to turn on you eventually; they are chaotic after all. Your offerings of propitiation are great until they aren’t and then the amount you gave before or the time and energy spent on it before don’t matter.

Do the gods need us?

Do the gods need us?

I have heard many opinions on this question, most fall to either extreme. There are many people who believe that the gods require sacrifice and worship, that it sustains them in some way. There are also many people who believe the opposite, that they do not need us at all. But what I would like to argue for is something in-between – our worship enriches the gods and affords to them the ability to act as gods on our behalf and on behalf of others.

When we sacrifice, we are passing some of our mægen (ON: magn, megin, megn), essentially our strength and power. That mægen goes to the gods in the form of whatever we sacrifice, be it votive or physical. We lose some of our might and strength by giving it up, and that strength passes to the gods. The thought then being that the gods share again with us in a reciprocal relationship of gifting. This shows that sacrifice is actually important, the gods do receive something from sacrifice. Yet I would argue that the continued existence of the gods despite humanity taking a great hiatus from their worship shows that they do not strictly need to receive sacrifice and prayer like some form of sustenance. Instead, I would argue that the gods are enriched by sacrifice and prayer.

Is a god not unlike a king? We treat them, or I hope we treat them with deference and respect as one would a king. But a king does not, strictly speaking, need to have subjects. A king could survive without subjects just fine as they are not necessary for life. Having subjects who pay taxes and tithe to the king however enriches the king and makes the king’s life far easier. The king in return provides his subjects with protection. Having subjects means that the king can act as a king; because is a king truly a king without subjects? Or are they merely a man making their own way in the world at that point? Without the taxes and tithes, could the king afford to protect the people?

I believe that gods are much the same. We sacrifice to the gods and gift to them and enrich them. In return, they guide and guard us as we go about our lives and they bless us in many capacities. It is my belief that they bless us in ways we cannot always see or know because their sight and vision is more far reaching. But I also do not believe they can do everything or protect from everything. In that way they are much like a king, doing what they can when they can, given the resources on hand. Gods do not, strictly speaking, need to have worshipers, but worshipers enrich the gods. Having worshipers means the god can act as a god; because is a god truly a god without worshipers? Or are they merely one of the many great entities inhabiting the spiritual world at that point? So instead, just as the king is a king because he acts as a king on behalf of his subjects, is not a god a god because they act as a god on behalf of their worshipers?

But this means that our sacrifices have meaning and importance; not to the survival or existence of our deities as they continued to exist perfectly fine without our recognition, but instead to enrich them and allow them the strength to act as a god to us and to others. Our mægen, our strength, becomes their mægen which they can then pass to us and to others as they see the needs arise. This is of course a topic with no definite answer, but perhaps this thought will be one which could add to the discourse on the subjects of why we sacrifice and whether or not the gods need us.