Monthly Archives: February 2011

At Last! — Paper’s “The Deities are Many”

For some time I’ve been on the lookout for a book that could succinctly get close to the heart of ‘polytheism-in-general’, something I could point an interested party towards which would undo a little of the ludicrous bias and preconception, and get to the reality as it is lived by human beings on this planet. Well, Jordan Paper’s The Deities are Many will do the job nicely. Jordan Paper’s attitude is, quite correctly, that polytheism, being the natural outgrowth of the human system, never needed a ‘theology’ as such — but could do with one because it has to converse with monotheism all the time, and monotheism constantly uses ‘theology’ to beat it down into a position of inferiority at best.

What Paper has chosen to write is, he says inevitably, also an apologia therefore. He seems quite well-qualified to write it, as an academic who also has had strong personal experience with both Native American and Traditional Chinese religions; more importantly, as someone who is prepared actually to *write* about those experiences publicly, as, for example, John Michael Greer in his over-intellectual A World Full of Gods was not. Polytheism does not rest on an intellectual but on an experiential foundation, and ‘faith’ has more or less nothing to do with it, compared with the systemic tie to presences and experiences that are lived. So any theology has to weave experience in, and Paper does so, giving examples of the different ways in which spirits and gods have interacted with his own life. As a religious studies professor, he puts aside the need to ‘skirt advocacy’ for the space of this text.

Since there is actually no such thing as ‘polytheism-in-general’, Paper restricts himself mostly to the Native American and Chinese systems he knows, but he does mean to provide a general theology, and succeeds well. He begins with the cosmic spiritual presences, earth and sky, sun and moon, directions, and so forth, and then works his way through the concepts of beast spirits, ancestors and human deities. His concept being that polytheism grows naturally out of human culture, ethos, and worldview, he has to make the attempt to show how. As a generalized explanation it is fine, and never overrules the specific cultural forms. He is also moving at times on the nature of the living world of ‘animism’, a term he nonetheless dislikes as vague.

Because this is also a work of advocacy, he uses the structures he has erected to right the wrongs done to polytheism, in particular by ‘religions of the book’. Having just finished Emma Wilby’s excellent Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits, I was happy to see this done, and it left me feeling that monotheism is often an attempt to claim the world as human rather than as itself, to see all things as somehow the work of human hands. Paper is very good on the processual nature of polytheism — “in a polytheistic tradition, the tendency is to understand the world around us not as created but creating.” Note the use of the word ‘tendency’, since arbitrary musts about spiritual truth aren’t a part of the polytheistic understanding. He’s very good, too, on the Chinese idea of Tao as a process that itself is self-created and ongoing.

This results in his having to continually put right monotheists who insist on seeing their ideas where they are not really to be found. In both America and China, missionaries needed to see in the indigenous traditions a ‘proto-monotheism’ that wasn’t there, and Paper patiently demonstrates how little understanding there was, how much snobbery, how much propaganda, seeing polytheism as inseparable from primitivism and evil. There is really nothing in his exposition I could imagine anyone arguing with. In being translated, for example, as ‘Mandate of Heaven’, a Chinese traditional concept like Tienming suddenly acquires the aura of a Jehovistic command. Whereas the literal meaning is simply ‘pattern of the sky’; again, a system-process which one could fall in with or else go against, as in Tao Te Ching, not a judgment from Sinai. There are many such corrections given.

The impression, I have to say, is not only of colonial one-upmanship but frankly of outright stupidity in the blockheadedness of our culture’s misinterpretation at times. As Paper himself says: “The concept of a single truth tends towards intolerance, for why, logically, would a culture not feel endangered by falsehood, especially one that is counter to the single self-defining characteristic of the culture?” One need look no further for the source of the hair-trigger condemnation reflex our religion has left us with, I am certain. The ramifications of this ‘one truth and everything else leads you to hell’ idea have been huge — we see exactly the same attitude in modern scientism very often, for example, as we saw it in communism. In addition, Paper is at pains to show how mystical experiences of Unity in no way necessarily detract from the reality of a polytheistic culture, a position I would agree with strongly, as would many shamans, some of whom he cites.

What makes this book worthwhile is that it really does touch the spirit of polytheism, as well as showing some of its profundity and beauty, then combines that with real sense, rationality and scholarship; it must undo in anyone, I think, some of the reflexive distaste for polytheism engendered by monotheistic book-faith. I was left feeling that, here ‘on the ground’, on earth, polytheism is how religion is more or less always done in practice — although I had pretty much come to that conclusion already, I suppose. Still, I’ve attended so-called ‘interfaith’ meetings where to be against polytheism was a way for the ‘real religions’ to bond! For goodness’ sake, it’s surely time for that to change, and this book will help. I can hand it to anyone and put conversation on the right footing.

Allisa of the Mists

When the church in the 80s decided to eject some D&D players, they actually had a point. Fantasy roleplaying did turn out to be occult and pagan recruitment to some extent. I’ve found 40-year-old ‘magickians’ with groups still running. (Of course there are atheist D&D groups eager to fall in with Dawkins as well.)

When it came to art, few doubted that the 80s TSR illustrators upped the game, especially the ‘big 3’ — Clyde Caldwell, Jeff Easley, and Larry Elmore. “Larry Elmore’s covers are really astonishing, and TSR had to have known his cover art sold a lot of books!”, remembers a gamebook reviewer. With an eye for the mythic, however, most of it is not terribly sophisticated. “Strong man fight big monster,” sums up a good 70%. For the ladies, it turns out that showing thigh is somehow a major part of the adventuring skillset. But occasionally, just occasionally, something different seems to happen.

I had entirely lost interest in these games when I saw the cover of Forgotten Realms Adventures, a painting by Clyde Caldwell known as Allisa of the Mists. This is a couple of decades back now. I bought the book, thinking maybe I’d play again someday, but have never even read it. I just liked the cover. As Caldwell himself mentions, “the image became an icon for Forgotten Realms”. I hauled it out recently and, with an eye primed for the mythic, noticed some interesting stuff.

As with any interpretation of a mythic (or mythic-style) symbology, you need to look twice: once as a person, and then closely at the symbols. In Allisa of the Mists, (with apologies for the dilapidation of my copy):

… we see a foreground figure, a woman, who looks at us with a certain prideful and challenging appraisal. In contrast with many D&D ladies (especially Caldwell ones) she is fully clothed — perhaps an effect of moral majority censorship, I don’t know. She rides a horse which on closer inspection proves to be a unicorn. Behind her, in the misty moonlight, rise two large towers, portcullises open to reveal orange interiors. The effect of the whole, for me, was always something like: “Are you worthy to enter?” (Not a bad way to sell a book.)

So let’s look closer. What do we see?

The armour is gold, the alchemical symbol of achievement and victory, and the helmet is winged as is Athena’s, occasionally. Wings represent intelligence and spirit; weapons, mastery. A horse could be solar or lunar, here the golden light suggests solar. Unicorns have tended to represent sexual and moral virtue. Mastery, intelligence and victory through sexual ‘virtue’ or power represents an enlightened one, one who has been through kundalini, sitting masterfully astride her own animal nature.

But the background shows a moon that is pale, mysterious and misted. The realm in which this figure moves is not solar but watery and a little shivery. Compare the image, too, with the Rider Waite Moon:

The second chakra is associated with the element of water. It is also very much associated with the kidneys, linked to the water element in Chinese medicine. The kidneys’ colour is dark or black — observe the towers, one on each side. The water element also covers fear, and therefore courage. The kidney caps release the fire of adrenaline as these towers release their inner glow : orange, the colour of the second chakra according to Glenn Morris. This Allisa is a figure who knows the way through this watery realm, the second chakra realm in which you risk paranoia and terror (“trust is a hard-earned commodity,” says Glenn) and she challenges you to find it if you are worthy. She could indeed be considered an Athena, an encourager of wisdom, or perhaps an image of the achieved Superconscious Mind itself.

How much of this went through Caldwell’s awareness? None I’m sure. But the subconscious mind is a strange thing. I’ve long believed something was influencing Gygax — I mean the platonic solids as dice, come on! And as mentioned, many whose imagination was struck by such images went on to meditate or cast circles. Glenn himself used to say D&D was fun for learning strategy. He recommended playing mages or clerics if you planned to learn about the non-physical experientially.

Are you worthy to enter?


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