A guest post by Steven Posch.
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As a poet, I’ve got strong feelings about language. In my experience, good language is specific, denotative, and impacting. Bad language, by contrast, is vague, connotative, and ‘squishy.’
What, Then, Should We Call the Gods?
Some contemporary pagans are loath to call the gods ‘gods,’ primarily because they see the term as too gender-specific and hence exclusionary. ‘Deities’ and ‘divinities’ are, of course, non-gender-specific alternatives in English, but these are ‘upscale’ words that lack the intimacy and forcefulness of the good old Anglo-Saxon monosyllable. Their connotations are all wrong: they sound academic, if not downright pretentious (especially, in my opinion, when ‘deities’ become ‘day-ities’). Outside of a comedy sketch, no one would talk about a ‘Deity of Deities’ or ‘Divinity of Divinities.’ ‘Penis’ is a fine old English word of Latin origin, but it’s not the word I’m going to use when I'm in bed with my boyfriend.
Is ‘God’ Sexist?
Contemporary speakers of English generally think of the word ‘god’ as masculine; this is especially true of English-speaking pagans, who tend to have an implicit contrast with ‘goddess’ in their heads. Historically speaking, though, this is incorrect. 1000 years ago, ‘god’ was a gender-neutral word.
Unlike Modern English, Old English was a gendered language: every noun and adjective had its own inherent gender. (The loss of grammatical gender, incidentally, is one of the characteristics that marks the shift from Old into Middle English.)
Like Modern German, Old English god (‘god’) was, in fact, grammatically neuter, not masculine: it could denote a deity of either sex. A word for ‘goddess,’ gyden, existed, if one wished to specify a female deity: so all gydene are gods, but not all gods are gydene. In the same way, ‘witch’ is a gender-neutral term, but one may, if one wishes, specify ‘male witch.’ (‘Female witch,’ on the other hand, just sounds redundant.)
If the word gyden had survived into modern times, we would today call the Goddess ‘Gidden.’ (Some of us still do.) But in fact the word died out after the Christianization of England, and the word ‘goddess’—an Anglo-Saxon root with a Norman French suffix—had to be coined in the 14th century. This, of course, is pretty clear proof that there has been no ongoing tradition of goddess-worship among English-speakers, for those who might still care to make such a claim.
Gods, Elves, Ents, and Oses
The religious vocabulary of the ancestors included a number of very specific terms for very specific beings. To say that a particular being was a ‘god’ (or a 'gidden') tells you a great deal about that being’s power, status, and nature, among other things. To denominate something an ‘elf’ likewise tells you some very specific things about who and what that being is; likewise an etin (giant; the source of Tolkien’s ‘ent’) or an ōs, the Old English equivalent of the Old Norse word áss (singular of æsir). Like gyden, ōs—perhaps because it specified a particular kind of pagan god—also did not survive into Modern English, except as a compound in names. Osbert, Oswald, and Oscar are all named for æsir (their -brightness, -power, and -spear respectively)
Those Mysterious ‘Mysterious Ones
One term that has gained a certain currency in some circles as a non-gendered alternative to ‘gods’ is ‘mysterious ones.’ Alternative, yes, but is this a worthy alternative?
Let us look more closely at the ‘mysterious ones.’
First off, we should note that this is not a word, but a phrase. This is a strike against it from the very start. English-speakers—and especially American English-speakers—like terse. Polysyllables have a tendency to become abbreviated in everyday use: ‘television’ becomes TV (or ‘telly’), ‘United States of America’ becomes ‘US.’ If the term ‘mysterious ones’ persists, my linguist's crystal ball foretells that it will devolve into something like ‘MOs’ toute suite. Be warned.
To say that a being is a ‘god’ tells you specifics about that being in and of him (or her) self. It is a denotative term. ‘Mysterious one,’ on the other hand, denotes nothing; it is entirely connotative. It tells you nothing whatsoever about the being itself, only what he, she, or it feels like to me. In fact, the phrase tells you more about me than it does about the being I’m attempting to describe. This may be all very well for egocentric neo-pagans, but in the long term it must be clear that the phrase is theologically, as well as poetically, empty.
‘Mysterious one’ is not only clunky, it is so vague as to be in effect meaningless. It is useless as a synonym for ‘god,’ because it could denote virtually anything, so long as that something is unknown —and hence ‘mysterious’—to the speaker.
In the footrace of god-language, ‘mysterious ones’ comes in dead last.
What To Do?
The word ‘god’ has a lot going for it. It’s short, sweet, and denotative; it’s got both the cachet of high antiquity and a continuous tradition of use. Any speaker of English automatically understands its meaning. It’s got grandeur, but there’s also an intimacy to it. (It’s hard to imagine anyone shouting “Oh Mysterious Ones!” at the moment of orgasm.) Yes, it’s come to have Christian and male connotations over the years, but by origin it’s as good a pagan word as any, and it’s gender-neutral to boot.
I propose that we set about reclaiming ‘god.’ Let’s redefine it in, and on, our own terms. We moderns are still learning to ‘speak’ Pagan, and one of the ways in which we do this is by seizing our traditional vocabulary and redefining it in accordance with our own thought and experience.
Hey, it worked with ‘witch.’
Steven Posch is a poet and scholar. Fluent in numerous dialects of Pagan, he is widely acknowledged to be one of the foremost authorities on the history, vocabulary, and grammar of the language. He lives and speaks in Minneapolis.