Sunday, August 12, 2012

Gods and Mysterious Ones: A Poet’s-Eye View

A guest post by Steven Posch.

* * * * *

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.


Jason said...

Folks can certainly differ on what is aesthetically pleasing. That said, Mysterious Ones is not a gender neutral substitute for god or goddess. It is a "big tent" term, meant to capture all manner of spirit beings, such as ancestors, spirits of the land, "energies," divinities and etc.

To me, the term is a way of speaking inclusively of the various ways that the numinous reveals itself to witches and mystics. It is not a replacement for any term. It's elegance lies in avoiding that laundry list approach of naming off the various kinds of beings that witches and mystics may encounter (as I had to do briefly and incompletely above).

It may not be the best term in all contexts, but I don't think anyone is making the argument that Mysterious Ones is the best term in all contexts.

I was personally happy to see that term added to the PoU. There are folks in Reclaiming who are hard polytheists, soft polytheists, monists, and those who work with archetypes or energies only. The term Mysterious Ones, with its broad scope, seems to acknowledge that reality.

meh culpa: pretentious, but not all that sorry said...

Speaking of redefining words in our own thought and experience, I have personal reasons for using the words I do. It depends on what or whom I'm describing as well my feelings about an entity or the people who subscribe to that entity. For instance, my primary deity--you say "to-ma-to," I say "tom-ah-toh"--is a goddess. She will always be a goddess because that's what I need. Other pagans' deities are generally "gods," while the deities of Christians, Muslims and Jews, to name a few sects, are "deities." For me, the word "deity" puts a distance between me and what I'm naming. It is easier and more pithy to say "gods" instead of "gods and goddesses," but I'm uncommonly fond of the feminine grammatical form and I rather wish it was still with us. I like the subjunctive, too. But then, I grew up with the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible and I studied Latin for five years, so there you go.

I do agree that "mysterious ones" is clunky. I makes me wonder if people who use the term would invoke everyone they want to invite into a circle that way, their gods included, or if it's just a convenient catch-all item in their everyday language. If you're right about abbreviated terms in this case, they could become The Myst. (Coining that item makes me feel happy and a tad mischievous.)

I understand your reasons for wanting a word full of impact, but I would suggest that the way you use language is masculine and Hemingwayesque, either because that's the way you were trained or because the dominant literary culture admires that manner of using language. Women tend to write differently, as I'm sure you know. We might use the active voice to gain a reader's interest, but we also may write novels that circle or spiral; that is, they aren't always linear. Louise Erdrich doesn't write in an expressly linear fashion, for example. Her novels are composed of something like connected tableaus. In essence, I suppose I have a problem with making the kinds of demands on language that you're suggesting, not because I'm thrilled about The Myst by any means, but for the sake of having a more fluid language, one that can allow for more diversity. If that means putting up with The Myst for a while, I guess I can live with that. But then, I like polysemy, too.

PrairieWitch13 said...

Thank you, what a thought provoking and erudite article. While reading your article, my read on mysterious ones, was much like the first posters. Goddesses, gods, land spirits, elementals, ancestors et al. For me also, however, it lacks punch when read. In ritual with the right presentation it could very moving. But I love the word Goddess, just now, just writing the word moves me. When I orgasm, Goddess is the word I shout out in thanks. I still remember the first time I used goddess in a public conversation, the shocked moment of silence, the side long looks. God is common usage is a male word. And having spent the last 30 years of my life reclaiming the word witch and the word goddess, I don't know if I am up for rehabilitating the word god.

Unknown said...

The word "God" is not reclaimable IMO. In this time and place it carries too much baggage.

Your criticisms about the Mysterious Ones - being empty of content etc are exactly why, in the context of the PoU especially, it is so brilliant. It is inclusive and it reminds us that words are inadequate.


Gwion Raven said...

‘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.

And yes! This is exactly the point of including it, along with other terms in the POU. Although not my favourite term, it does allow for the speaker to define, or not, their experience of that being, those beings that are beyond form or gender or any other duality you wish to throw in there. Is that my cup of tea? No, it isn't. I'm quite happily henotheistic, or something close to that anyway. However, the addition of the term "Mysterious Ones" opens up the tent just a little wider. And that is a good thing indeed.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

It may open the tent wider, Gwion, but it also shoves some people out the back flap. I don't necessarily see vast inclusiveness as a 'good thing.' I think boundaries are also useful in many circumstances.

In general, I like to be part of a group that is welcoming to others who are interested in what we're about. But that's not the same as opening the doors to all comers. For many, if not most, of the American population, Craft and/or Paganism is not where they'd feel at home. That's neither bad nor good; it just is.

If a single speaker defines a term, then where is the consensus reality of its meaning? It can mean anything, one thing to one person and another to someone else, which means, ultimately, linguistically it is useless.

And just to be clear, the changed PoU is not the reason I finally realized I had to leave. It's only one of many, many, many things have occurred over many years. I had made the decision prior to the approval of the new PoU.

That said, I really like Steven's analysis.

Unknown said...

What a great article! Thanks for posting that, the historical information regarding origins of language was specially interesting. Words are defined and redefined to suit specific tastes and opinions. I find it an interesting discourse in the Pagan community as a whole. The diversity and the somewhat chaotic timber it can have. With that said, some of the negative energy seems to be targeted and directed in hurtful ways to make some uncomfortable. Those within the Reclaiming community who have petitioned for these gender related modifications knew what the core PoU said, how it was phrased, what it's context represented. If they didn't agree with it, why join? Create your own tradition with your own specific language. To join a community, agree to adhere to it's core values, then want to change it for ego's sake is a bit lame to me. It's like impositioning everyone else who agrees to the PoU as it stands to be forced to agree to the modifications for a minority within the tradition. If you can just change your core values at every whim, then what makes them values anymore? I've never been a part of Reclaiming, nor do I plan to, but what it boils down to is just plain drama. My issue with larger pagan groups in general. Too many pallets to please and egos to stroke. :) Love you Macha, I get it, and I would if I was in the same boat (and kinda did on a different level) make the same decision. BTW, I appologize if I am not making sense. It's hard to type in the little box, and I am not nearly as smart and articulate as some reading I'm sure! )O( Blessings!

Drew Jacob said...

I was following you until you got to this:

"‘Female witch,’ on the other hand, just sounds redundant."

This seems to go against the whole point you're making about words like god. If "god" is originally a neuter word, you're saying we shouldn't think of it as male just because of some usages today. But if "witch" is also neuter, shouldn't it be the same way? Why is "female witch" any more redundant than "male god"?

I use the term deity (almost exclusively) because I'm a Gaelic polytheist and it is closest to the Irish word dia (pl. déithe). I use "god" only on occasion, for effect or to get something across to a monotheist.

But I also find "god" to be a notoriously sloppy word. Like you, I prefer words that have a clear, set meaning - which makes "god" a terrible choice. Wiccan gender tags aside, you have all these connotations on that word that come from big-G-God (transcendental, etc.) and make it almost impossible to communicate what you mean about older pantheons.

"Deities" may not have a perfectly clear meaning either, but it's unique enough that it doesn't come pre-loaded with wrong assumptions. A lot of the time people will actually ask me to tell them what I mean by that word, so by the end of the conversation they understand. With "gods" they just nod their head and get the wrong idea.

It was daunting to make the switch from gods to deities. Like you I loved the punch of the word god and thought the long Latin word would be too, well, meh. But it has turned out to be a big improvement in clarity and communication (and it now feels natural).

Medusa said...

Thanks for the etymological info on god and goddess, tracing back to Old English (aka Anglo-Saxon, from either c. either 450 or 600 [depending on who you ask] to c. 1150 CE). Your description sent me on a-googling. Among what I found:
On , OE “god” is listed as being gendered masc. And gyden, fem., with the (also f.) variants of gydenan and gydenu). gives 11 words in OE for the ME word “god” but doesn’t give any gender of nouns :-( tells us that gender (masculine, neuter, or feminine) “is an attribute of every Old English Noun” but the grammatical gender is not necessarily the same as what it refers to. (This is also true of other languages today. A particularly strange example is the French for the English “feminine” being masculine-gendered, as it is “le feminin.”(forgive my lack of accents.) possibly resolves the difference in your finding “god” gendered as neuter and the site I first cited listing it as m. The hord site has “god” lower case initial g as n., but “God” initial cap G (as in the Christian God) as m. (Oddly, this site does not list either OE “gyden” or ME “goddess.”)
In puzzling through this it would be useful to have a source for your statement that OE “god,” because it is gendered n., could “denote a deity of either sex.” The reason I ask is that it's my understanding that in some languages, neuter doesn’t include the denotation of feminine (or female), for that you need a feminine-gendered noun.
While tracing back to the Old English is interesting, for me it’s those years from 1150 to the present that more strongly influence what I call deity. I'm unable to disregard not only the lack of, but also the suppression of, inclusion of the female/feminine in sacred language, observance, and text during that time and continuing to the present day. Especially, now, with Dominionist Christians demonizing what they refer to as “the Queen of Heaven” (which includes not only goddesses mentioned in the Bible, but all portrayals of the divine as female, including “Virgin Mary,”), and with what I feel are related political attempts to threaten women’s health and financial well-being, calling goddesses “gods” makes no sense to me, and is no different than the claim of Abrahamic religions that “God,” whom they call “He” and “Lord,” is without gender.

Steven Posch said...

Studied ambiguity I certainly understand: it's a tool of the poet's trade. A term that refers not to the gods only but to all the Powers is a useful one indeed, and such terms turn up in many cultures.

Old Norse *regin* (as in *Ragna-rok*, the "doom of powers"), Japanese *kami*, and Latin *numen* (plural *numina*) all refer to categories of beings that include, but are not limited to, the gods. All these words encompass the Powers generally, both lesser and greater.

Note that each of these words tells the hearer something specific about the beings *in se*. They are denotative words and, insofar as any speaker of the language will understand specifically what catergory of being is denoted without further definition, they are *inclusive*. They signify independent of context.

"Mysterious ones," however, tells the hearer nothing about said beings in and of themselves; wholly connotative and wholly contextual both, it cannot be understood without further definition. I have been present when this term was introduced (undefined) into conversation among listeners unfamiliar with it. Unsurprisingly, no one knew what the speaker was talking about. "Mysterious ones" may (or may not) be an adequate descriptor for the Powers involved, but as an expression this is *exclusive* language. This is *language used for power over*, since you cannot know what is mysterious to me until I tell you. This is language that creates a hierarchical gap between speaker and listener--"I know something you don't know"-- as the denotative terms listed above do not. The difference between denotation and connotation is qualitative and, in this case, political.

Then there is the question of applicability. I in my own practice am Old Craft, and the Powers that I honor are those tangible beings that the ancestors also honored: Earth, Sun Moon, Thunder, this river, that mountain, the glacial erractic boulder in the back yard, the ancestors in their mounds. These are real beings, *numina* in their own right; they are, to use Ceisiwr Serith's resonant phrase, "powerful, holy, and good." What they are not by nature (to me, at any rate) is particularly (or at least primarily) mysterious.

happydog said...

I don't think we need to reclaim the word "god" from anyone. It's the word in common use, and it will continue to be the word in common use. I think the proper response is to ignore "mysterious ones," and simply don't use it. Not responding to foolishness is the best way to combat it.

steward said...

"In general, I like to be part of a group that is welcoming to others who are interested in what we're about. But that's not the same as opening the doors to all comers."

But I think that that is basically what happened in regard to the United States of America and Reclaiming. Although Reclaiming Witchcamps can now be found on three continents, it seems to me to be a form of Witchcraft that reflects the particular political and social concerns of the United States. As a result, and given the liberal - some might say radical - bias in how the PoU are often interpreted, Reclaiming really does open the door to all comers (except, of course, when someone is too far out there to make sense to the politically powerful in a specific Reclaiming community.) Unlike most Witchcraft traditions that I am aware of, there is no required externally-mediated initiation in Reclaiming; as one person put it to me, "you can get one if you think you need one."

As for the gendered God: I seem to recall reading the phrase "God Herself" in writings by the late Victor Anderson, although I can't recall exactly where at the moment. Unfortunately, that's one thing that Reclaiming does not seem to want to file the serial number off of when borrowing things from the Feri Tradition.

Unknown said...

Gwion Raven said...
‘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.

And yes! This is exactly the point of including it, along with other terms in the POU

Hooray! Now we can include "Mysterious Ones" with
other terms that can mean anything/nothing within Reclaiming and most other NeoPagan groups, like:


What's not to celebrate?