The Metaphysics of Polytheology

In his important 1922 study on Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt, Egyptologist Patrick Boylan states that

Egyptian theology does not show, in general, any clear tendency towards system. The great mass of religious texts in Egypt is marked by vagueness and even inconsistency. Individual gods are very rarely clear and well-defined personalities. Indeed, it is a feature of Egyptian theology that nearly every one of its gods is capable, in one way or another, of being fused with others. (Oxford University Press, pg 107)

This could just as easily have been said about the theology of any number of so-called “polytheistic” religions, from Hinduism to Shinto Japan to regional Amerind cultures. Gods and spirits merge into one another, separate as “emanations” or “aspects”, serve as the organs of more primitive deities, and so forth, in a constant process of reevaluation. Throughout his book Boylan complains of the muddling of Egyptian theology and insists — against all evidence — that it is not a sign of metaphysical speculation as much as it is a consequence of cultic politics and sloppy thinking. In point of fact, though, there is as much sophistication to Egyptian theology as there is to Indian or Tibetan Buddhist theologies (or “boddhisatvologies”, if one likes), and it happens to manifest as this very sort of unsystematic and flexible approach to divinity.

Authentic or traditional polytheism — over against what modern Neopagans and Neoheathens call “hard polytheism” — resists all attempts at rigid systematization by virtue of its inherent understanding that the Divine is itself beyond the defining concepts of number and name. This transnumerality manifests in some revelations as monotheism, in others as transpersonal nontheism, and in others as henopolytheism. (See Various “Theisms” in the Perennial Wisdom for more on this.) It is only the monotheistic traditions, however, in which strict systems are required. Judaism and Islam have the Names of God, while Christianity has its hypostases. Hierarchies of angels and saints serve a similar, though subordinate, purpose in these theologies. These lists and hierarchies serve to preserve the monotheism and emphasize the Supreme Godhead, all the while acknowledging the metaphysically necessary powers, influences, and theophanies. It is thus that each form of the Revelation places emphasis on one or more faces of Truth, while still acknowledging other necessary fundamentals.

The so-called polytheisms have symbolic names and forms for the various divine functionary powers, acknowledging them as individual entities with at least as much reality as those who worship them. It has been said of the Hindu murtis (statues and other images of gods found in temples and shrines) that they do not constitute idolatry because, while they may be literally constructed by human craftsmen, they are based in divine prototypes; Ganeśa has the head of an elephant, for instance, to indicate His connection to intelligence, memory, and compassion, while His belly is large to point to His being the field in which the created universe has its existence. One could go on with each feature, from the number of His arms, to what He holds in His hands, and so on, down to small details. Similarly, the Egyptian Thoth is usually depicted with the head of an ibis to demonstrate dignity, concentration, and a calm soaring over the “ocean of heaven”, while the beak of the ibis is reminiscent of the scribe’s stylus (much as the broken tusk Ganeśa often holds). Again, one could expand endlessly upon such an analysis. These images, then, constitute a form of divine writing, just like the hieroglyphs and other writing systems themselves gifted by Thoth-Ganeśa.

Though symbolic, these entities are not “merely” symbolic; speaking in terms of the Perennial Philosophy, symbols are living things and, being closer to the Center of the Mind of God, these Great Symbols whom we call Gods and devas, Archangels and angels are more real and more sentient than we are ourselves — at least from the perspective of contingency, where this sort of differentiation of degree is meaningful and necessary. Thus, in Saivism, we pray to Ganeśa and to Karttikeya, and make offerings to the host of devas and ganas, without in any way conflicting with our understanding of Śiva as Godhead. Ganeśa, Karttikeya, et al, are simultaneously emanations from, aspects of, and children to God. More familiar to most Westerners, this is a very similar scheme to that of the Christian Savior, Who is the man Jesus, the cosmic Messiah, and the primitive-creative Logos at one and the same time, without any conflict or contradiction. The “unsophisticated” Egyptian theologies are largely the same.

Western and Western-influenced academics and scholars have tried to systematize polytheologies for centuries. Whether the purely hypothetical categories of comparative religion courses, or the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s take on the kabbalistic Tree of Life as “filing cabinet of symbolism” (a dubious interpretation, to be sure), all of these attempts end up cutting out the sophistication which does exist in these philosophies by shoehorning vast metaphysics into conceptual cubicles having little or no relation to the original ideas involved. In books on archaeology, religious history, or Western occultism, we often read references to “solar” and “lunar” deities, as if this were an absolute trait recognized universally by worshipers across the globe. This does little justice to those deities, however. Apollo is not god of the sun; instead, he is a god of poetry, music, scientific inquiry, beauty, and athletics — he is “solar” in the sense of being a “luminary” and patron to human luminaries. He is not, then, identical with Rê, even if they share some traits and symbolic associations. Apollo was sometimes equated by Greeks with their “other” sun god, Helios, and this is accurate insofar as Apollo is the “subtle sun”, while Helios is the body of the sun. Helios is the luminous body which we see each day, while Apollo is the reality behind it. Similarly, Rê, Ptah, and Horus are all Egyptian “sun gods”, but with different significance. Rê is the materially creative power of the sun, the sun as life-giver, but his “mind” is Thoth — a “lunar” god. Ptah is also a creator god, but more in the vein of an artist; the ancient Egyptian word for “sculpture” is, in fact, equal to the phrase “Ptah-formed”. So, Ptah has more in common with Apollo than with Helios or even Rê. Horus is a warrior, the transcendent Light who defeats darkness; he has more in common with the Saivite Karttikeya, even with the warrior aspect of Hermes and the Archangel Michael, than with any of his fellow Egyptian sun-gods. The most ancient descriptions of Horus have the sun and moon as his eyes rather than identifying him exclusively with either body. To the Western academic, this all looks rather sloppy, but that is only because it is at least as meaningless to try to categorize deities as strictly “solar” or “jovial” — or even the popular “mother goddess” — in nature (maintaining the possibility of meaningful associations) as it is to categorize individual men and women as rigidly “hungry” or “asleep”. (Please note, here, that it is a different thing to call a deity “hermetic”, as this term — far from pointing only to a planetary association — points more to that entity’s status as representative and communicator of the Perennial Wisdom and is, thus, a much broader and deeper label.)

Metaphysics is very flexible as to its expression, as long as it is truly expressed rather than glossed. The “hard polytheism” of popular approaches to, say, Germanic and Celtic reconstructionism misses the esoteric significance of the death of Baldur or the sacrificial runic mission of Odin just as much as Protestantism fails to read the inner process signified by the Book of Revelation; they drop metaphysics in exchange for artificial “system”. A fear of Chaos — misinterpreted as “disorder” — leads not to Cosmos, but to mere legalism. The authentic theologies of Revelation, whether monotheisms with their heirarchies of angels or heno- and polytheisms of Luminous Beings flowing from the Ontological Core, have nothing to fear from Chaos and cannot conceive of a Law separate from its Spirit. The very purpose of the true polytheism is to grant access to Infinity.

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