When I started to write the Kindreds essay, I was shocked to realize that I didn’t have things all worked out in my head already. Even with my commitment to Paganism being more about practice than theology, I live in my head so much that I figured I must have been through this. Turns out I hadn’t. So now I had to. Oy.
I really like the fact that ADF recognizes all three Kindreds. Most modern Pagans worship deities, and probably all acknowledge Nature Spirits, but the Ancestors get short shrift. They’re acknowledged at Samhain, of course, but not much at other times.
This lack is a real pity for a bunch of reasons, the most important of which is that the three Kindreds together form a system. Parts of the system are the degree, and type, of immortality and otherness, and the place of each Kindred in the IE cosmology. I’ll explain where in the system I’d put each of the Kindreds as I go along.
Some modern Pagans see the deities as archetypes or allegories, as representing impersonal forces, or even aspects of each person’s psychology. That doesn’t make any sense to me – why bother with deities that don’t exist in a way even close to the one if which we experience them?
The fact that we experience them in this way is an important clue to their nature. Xenophanes meant to criticize belief in the gods when he wrote if lions and horses had hands they would draw the gods as lions and horses, but without knowing it he was making a profound theological statement: the gods we know are the ones that are like us in some way. And this has a corollary: the gods that we don’t experience are ones that aren’t like us in any way.
This assumes that there are gods other than the ones humans experience. I believe this to be a legitimate assumption for several reasons. First, if there aren’t gods we haven’t experienced, then new experiences can only be associated with already-known gods. We could associate electronic communications with Hermes, herald of the gods, or Vulcan, craftsmen and god of the fire which provides them, or Jupiter, god of the lightning which (in the form of electricity) powers them, or any of a number of gods. But wouldn’t it be better for there to be a deity particularly appropriate to the situation?
Second, no gods we haven’t yet known means a finite number of gods. Maybe one God makes sense, or two (opposites), or three (opposites plus a reconciler). Or maybe there are other numbers, based on other principles – one for each day, or month, or some other category. But why that category, and not others?
I believe that this leads to a necessary conclusion: there are an infinite number of deities, of which we experience a finite number. I’m talking pretty serious infinity here, too. Let’s consider the number of events possible in the universe throughout all time. By “event” I mean not only all occurrences, but all thing on which occurrences might be based, and all their results. By “possible” I mean not just those that are, have been, and will be, but those that could have happened, might be happening, and will be happening. One possibility of quantum theory is that each time a quantum even occurs, in which there can be more than one outcome, but with which one unknown until observed, all outcomes in fact occur, causing a splitting off of universes in the same number as possible outcomes. In other words, there is a universe in which Schrödinger’s cat is alive, and one in which it is dead, and our opening the box identifies us as living in one of those. If so, then the events include all of the possible universes, and the events in them, and the universes which they spawn, and the events in them, and so on.
“Events” also include the relationships between events. This number gets out of hand pretty quickly, because it includes all possible relationships between all events. For instance, if we have two events, 1 and 2, we in fact have three events – 1, 2, and the relationship between them. If we have three first level events, 1, 2, and 3, we have the relationship 1 to 2, 1 to 3, 2 to 3, and that between 1, 2, and 3, plus the first level events, giving us seven actual events. But it gets worse, because the order might matter, so with 1 and 2, we have 1 to 2, but also 2 to 1, with a result of four events. I won’t give the math, but by my calculations with three first level events, we can end up with 15. But it isn’t just the relationships themselves that count as events, but the entities that result when the elements are combined, as well as those when they are held separate but in relationship, as well as those in which two are combined and then held in relationship with the third. Now add in the possibility that different observers might give different weights to any of the elements, so that one person’s 1 and 2 might be different from another’s 1 and 2, just as mixing different proportions of red and blue gives different shades of purple.
So when I talk about infinity here, I’m not kidding.
How this relates to the nature of the deities is this: each of these events is associated in some sense with a deity. I’m not completely sure in what sense that is, although I think I see it as being that a deity watches over that event in some way while still remaining separate from it. The point is, we end up with a space with an infinite number of dimensions, along which movement can take place between one deity as we experience them and the next. When we experience a deity, we are experiencing the one associated with the event which is defined by our concept of that deity.
This belief solves the question of where gods come from, especially how they change. Jupiter, Tyr, and Dyaus Pitar all descend from *Dyé:us Pté:r, but they aren’t the same god. How could that have happened? In the infinitely dimensional web of “deity-space,” there are continuums stretching in the three directions from *Dyé:us Pté:r to the descendant gods. As cultures separated from the PIE one, it isn’t that the deities changed (*Dyé:us Pté:r didn’t split himself into three), but that new deities were discovered along the divine parallel event path corresponding to the event path of the cultures.
This in turn settles an argument between strict Reconstructionists and the more Inspirationalists: is a deity with the same name as an ancient one a different deity or the same one? How do we settle the argument between “Lugh isn’t like that in any of the tales” and “But he is to me?” Quite simply – there is one more deity named “Lugh,” all of whom overlap in functions and personality, who exist at different event-points, but who are connected in an event-continuum both with each of the others and with that of the ancient Lugh. When people who have different views of Lugh get together to worship him (which is to say, any two or more people, since no two people are ever going to have exactly the same view of anything), there is an event-point in the infinite space that corresponds to the different Lughs of each of them. I.e., even though they each have different Lughs, when they worship together they are worshiping the same Lugh.
Even more interesting, this means that deities can be made up who really exist. Or not really made up; they’ve always existed, since if it’s possible to make them up, there will already have been an event-point corresponding to them. I myself have had the disconcerting experience of worshiping a deity I made up for a fantasy world (Tuadem; see my website, www.ceisiwrserith.com), and getting results.
Empedocles was right. If animals did worship deities, they would be worshiping deities with animal shapes, because those would be the ones which would intersect their lives enough for them to be discovered.
Even knowing that there are an infinite number of deities, with an infinite variety of types, can we know anything about the nature of the gods we worship? OK, so we know that they intersect with our lives in some way, but what is the nature of these intersecting deities?
Although the gods are individuals (or we wouldn’t be experiencing them) and therefore have personalities (ditto), the are necessarily Other. If not, they’d be us. No matter what the deity, no matter how much like us, there will be differences. (This appears to contradict the infinite event-space idea, since there would seem to be a necessity of our being event-points of our own, and therefore of a deity which corresponds to each of us. But the thing is, if each deity is in relationship with but not identical to an event-point, then the event-point which is each of us has a deity associated with us – the ultimate Patron Deity, a Holy Guardian Angel, if you will – but which is not identical to us, and is therefore still wholly Other.)
The most defining of these differences is that they are *nmrtos “undying.” There are hints that this isn’t by nature – in some mythologies they seem to be capable of being killed, although they seem to have been transformed rather than destroyed (I would say that if they are “killed” it’s just that our link to their event-point has been severed), or they might need a sacred drink or food to keep their immortality. But the mere fact that they are able to continue, barring “killing,” and that they are able to consume the sacred food or drink at all, defines them as possessing immortality in a way that humans can not.
I think that they aren’t literally immortal, however. This is because they are so intimately connected with the event-points that make up our Cosmos. In a cosmology in which the Cosmos is represented by the World Tree, each even-point could be identified with a branch, or a leaf, or a fruit, or a point of intersection between the infinitely intertwining branches, and thus each deity would have a place on the Tree.
But what if the Tree falls? What if the Cosmos dissolves? Then the gods fall too. They are therefore only as undying as the universe. I suppose that’s good enough, though.
The gods are *dotores weswa:m “givers of goods.” Well, of course. If relationships are formed and maintained by exchange, and if our awareness of deities comes from having a relationship with them (i.e., through being connected in some way with the event-point with which they are concerned), then they have to be. And since they are more powerful than us, they will be bound by that aspect of the law of reciprocity which says that “of those to whom much has been given, much will be required.” They are the divine model for the “lord with open hands,” the practitioner of noblesse oblige.
Some gods care more about people than other gods do, of course. What with there being an infinite number, this is inevitable. Some gods care more for particular people than others – they have personalities themselves, after all, so they get along with some people better than others.
The gods are *deiwos “shining.” They are the Celestial Ones. The sky is elevated, and just as in battles, the high ground is where the power is.
There are chthonic deities, though, who maybe can’t really be called “Shining.” There’s an ambivalence about these deities, though. For instance, Hades may be one of the great gods, but we don’t want him around too much. Perhaps “Shining” can be used metaphorically to refer to his power, or perhaps it could be applied to him in the same way Eumenides “Kindly Ones” was to the Furies, as a way of making nice with him.
The deities are the “undying.” The Ancestors are the “already dead.” They used to be people like us. I guess you could say that our very acknowledgment of the Ancestors is an acknowledgment of the our mortality, and of the gods’ immortality. It’s therefore an acknowledgment of our human nature – we are those who die. Depressing, maybe, but that’s the way it is.
There are good things about this, though. The Ancestors are a source of wisdom. They are old, so they have more experience than us, and they’ve had a lot of time to think about it in a pretty detached way. Even though the gods are the “givers of gifts,” and even if those gifts can include wisdom, wisdom is the special gift of the Ancestors. It might be that the gods can give us the general ability of wisdom, but it’s the Ancestors who can help us in specific cases. They know what it’s like to have been human, so they can understand our problems better than the immortal ones. They’ve had to make human decisions, to have been limited to human knowledge, human experience, human power. The good thing here is that if the Ancestors are quintessentially wise, then humans must be wise by nature as well.
That the Ancestors are willing to help us, even after they’re dead, is admirable. It shows that they care about family. So again: if the Ancestors care about family, and the Ancestors are wise, then caring for family is wise.
The Ancestors aren’t family in just the biological sense. If the Ancestors came before us and made us who we are, then those who came before us and made us who we are are Ancestors, whether they passed on their genes or their ways. For instance, George Washington didn’t have any biological children, but as a Founding Father he’s still an Ancestor of the American people.
In fact, the second kind of Ancestor was more important in many ancient Indo-European cultures. In Greece, any social grouping, from social club to city, had a patron hero, a presiding Ancestor. The religious practice of a group centered around the Heroes more than the deities. For instance, the Hero of Athens was Theseus, and the civic cult revolved around him.
But this is a cultural situation. It makes sense for Ancestors of culture to be primary in cultural practice. In family practice, it makes more sense to focus on genetic Ancestors. In personal practice, either kind seems appropriate to me.
The Ancestral cult involves ambiguities. We love our Ancestors, and appreciate their wisdom, but hey, they’re dead, and we don’t want them hanging around.
If the deities can be said to be up in the branches of the Tree, then the Ancestors are in the roots. Just as the deities are the shining, the Ancestors are the dark. In fact, there was even a PIE word, *régwes “the dark place,” which was probably used for the land of the dead.
If the deities are Other, the Ancestors are us. This is the source of their appeal – they’ll help us because they know what it’s like to be us. It’s also the source of our unease about them – they were like us, we just don’t want to be like them. At least not yet.
The Nature Spirits
The Ancestors are like us, the deities are Other. The Nature Spirits are really Other. They’re not connected with humanness, like the Ancestors, and they’re not as intimately connected with human life as the deities are. They are connected, of course, with Nature, especially with particular places. A tree deity might be connected with treeness; a Nature Spirit would be connected with this tree.
Trees aren’t much like humans. Rocks aren’t much like humans. Animals aren’t much like humans. Even though we might relate to them as we would to humans, by giving offerings, for instance, that’s not what they are.
Sometimes they appear to us as human. Fairies come from their mounds, dryads step out of their trees, seals take their skins off and become women. But don’t forget – humans don’t take off and put on seal skins (at least not outside of ritual).
Indo-European ideology makes a big deal of the difference between Nature and Culture. Culture is good. Nature is ambivalent, and the Indo-Europeans didn’t like ambiguity. But they did respect it, they considered it extremely powerful. It could bring good, it could bring bad. The seal woman could bring you prosperity and bear you children, and then, when she finds her seal skin, take your children and abandon you to poverty. The tree spirit could lead you to safety or deep into the forest. It behooves one to be careful in dealing with Nature Spirits, then.
Modern Pagans generally have a more rosy picture of the Nature Spirits. Nature is pretty and special, and the fairies all have gauzy wings. But where’s the death? Where’s the animals dying of cold and starvation? Where are the raccoons with rabies? Where’s the drought, the hurricanes, the tornadoes, the tsunamis?
The attitude has its origin is in a combination of Victorian nostalgia, the Romantic Savage myth, ecological awareness, 60s counter-culture, and the whole “Neo-Paganism is an Earth religion” thing. It could only exist through ignorance of just how bad Nature can be.
This ignorance is largely forgivable. Most modern Pagans live in cities or towns. They commune with “Nature” in well-tended parks, and feel connected to it through potted plants of species that would die if they put them outside. They grow vegetables in their backyard and feel that now they’re linked deeply with the spirits of the lands. But hey, they can afford to live in this fantasy, since their needs are taken care of by the food supply chain they are disparaging as unnatural. They camp out at parks, bringing their folding chairs, dining canopies, battery-powered water heaters, and talking about how great it is to be out in Nature.
Sorry about the rant. It’s just that we can’t relate to Nature Spirits unless we face who – or what – they are. Or rather, that relating to them won’t do any good if we don’t want to see them as they really are. There’s a lot to be gained by getting to know the Other. We just have to let it be Other.
One question that comes from this is whether it’s appropriate to use imagery from other lands when dealing with Nature Spirits. Is it appropriate to see them as elfs, or dryads, or fairies, or apsaras? I have decided to be somewhat agnostic on this. If the Nature Spirits are connected with the local, with particular trees, rocks, hills, etc., then we shouldn’t expect them to be the same in other lands. In fact, we should expect that they wouldn’t be. Different places have different species, different combinations of minerals, etc.
However, since they are so completely Other, can any way of seeing them be more accurate than another? And if not, then could there be a problem with seeing them in a way from another country?
Agnostic in belief, I’ll be agnostic in practice:
Gods who watch over this place,
whom I don’t know.
Ancestors who watch over this place,
whom I don’t know.
Land Spirits who dwell in this place,
whom I don’t know:
I’m leaving this offering to you, unknowing,
out of my ignorance, to the unknown.
These trees are the pillars,
the roof the intertwining branches,
with the scent of leaves and needles underfoot rising as incense.
To which god or gods is this temple built?
I don’t know.
I place this offering, then,
and pour this libation,
to the unknown divine present here
and to the spirits of this place.
Nature Spirits are all over the mortality scale. They’re connected with whatever they’re spirits of. A butterfly spirit will have a much shorter life than a tree spirit, which will have a considerably shorter life than a rock spirit.
In the cosmology, the Nature Spirits fall in “Middle Earth,” where the trunk of the Tree meets the roots, and the world spread out around it. The deities are above, the Ancestors below, but the Nature Spirits are around and among. Since we live in roughly the same space, we need to learn to live with each other. Since we’ve built our lives on the land they once were complete rulers over, they might well be not very fond of us. We need to get to suck up to them a bit, and then move to a respectful relationship. This starts, as all good IE relationships do, with reciprocity.
The system I’ve used to classify the Kindreds involves mortality, Otherness, and location in the Cosmology. It’s not a perfect one – Chthonic deities don’t fit in very well – but then no systems are, especially when dealing with spiritual matters.
Even the basic categories of the Kindreds aren’t perfect. At the very least, they’re permeable. An Ancestor can easily become the spirit of the place where he’s buried – why is this hill called Bob Hill? It’s because a guy named “Bob” is buried there. Land Spirits can become deities – in the end, isn’t Mother Earth a the spirit of a really big land? Deities can become land spirits – the Tuatha dé Danann go into the hills. This is just one more reason for the Kindreds to be honored as a collective, as either “the Kindreds,” or “Deities, Ancestors, Spirits of the Land.” It’s a good way of covering the bases.
Surrounded in the senses of the system by the divine, we can find ourselves in the divine center. The Kindreds form a pattern in which we can worship, in which we can live our lives.