Is “gods” part of the problem?

No, I haven’t lost my grammar marbles. I’m wondering whether the using the term “gods” contributes to some of the problems people have with the idea of deities, powers, or what-have-you.

When I was responding to M. J. Hall’s post, I tried to use the term “gods” where she did, but when I talk about my own ideas, I use terms like deities. The word “gods” presents male or masculine type deities as the norm, and female or feminine as the “other.” This is just as wrong as saying “men” when you mean “people.” It explicitly excludes half of all humans. And while the theaological questions of sex, gender, and deity are not simple, this gendered language is still exclusionary.

And while some people like Starhawk use “Goddess” to refer to an all-encompassing idea of the divine (and the divine within nature), I think that’s equally exclusionary and wrong. My partner has difficulty identifying with “Goddess.” I’m not going to cut him out, either.

More than the problems of exclusion, though, I think this gendered language persists because of patriarchy, and I wonder if the history of patriarchal monotheisms continues to shape our ideas of what “gods” might be in ways that are affecting the conversations we have.

In addition to saying deities, I also use the terms “powers” and “spirits.” I’m still sorting out what I think those things mean, and whether they’re different, but I have noticed that when I use these kinds of more open language, it expands the possibilities I can envision for what deities might be like. I don’t automatically assume that deities, spirits, or powers have to be omniscient. Or omnipresent. Or even eternal.

In some ways, I think a lot of polytheistic deities might be similar to what most Pagans would describe as nature spirits. Instead of being the spirit that epitomizes a place, though, they are anchored in a culture, or an idea, or an archetype, or a myth.

These kinds of conceptions of deity lead to entirely different possibilities for understanding power dynamics between people and “powers.” Even when we’re not explicitly discussing gendered power, I think the problems of a monotheistic masculine God as the apotheosis of patriarchal power-over continue to dog our possible conceptions of deity, especially when we continue to use limiting gendered language.

How do issues of gender and power play out in your ideas about spirits? Does it make a difference what words you use?

About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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7 Responses to Is “gods” part of the problem?

  1. thalassa says:

    “In addition to saying deities, I also use the terms “powers” and “spirits.” I’m still sorting out what I think those things mean, and whether they’re different, but I have noticed that when I use these kinds of more open language, it expands the possibilities I can envision for what deities might be like. I don’t automatically assume that deities, spirits, or powers have to be omniscient. Or omnipresent. Or even eternal.”

    This!

  2. As a communicator, whatever that means, I think language shapes not only our thoughts but also our perception of those thoughts. If I use the term “guys” to refer to a group of mixed gender people, how does that reflect on me as the speaker? Does it indicate some perception of mine with respect to the people to whom I’m speaking? How do they see me as a result of my word choices?

    Recently, I’ve been trying to avoid using the term “wife” when referring to the person that I married. In stead, I’m trying to get into the habit of reaching for “partner” instead. Not only does it more accurately represent our relationship, but I think it leaves behind some of the historical baggage that terms like “husband” and “wife” have accumulated throughout the centuries of their use. This process has made it clear to me how hard it is to change our language patterns. When given the chance to organize my thoughts (like this), it’s fairly easy not to slip up, but when speaking conversationally with others, it’s much more difficult to focus on choosing the words that I intend to say rather than just let my mind run away with my mouth.

    To tie this back into your question re: deities, the answer is yes, but to a lesser degree. I think the average deity understands our limitations probably better than we do ourselves. Through that understanding, I think they respond more clearly to our honest attempts to change and grow through our practice — in this case our language practice. Thus, I think our word choices can have a much more immediate, lasting, and deeper impact on the people around us and it is for them that I try to temper my words (as necessary).

    • Literata says:

      I’ve been using “partner” more and more, too. Not only does it de-gender the issue, you’re absolutely right about what it says about the nature of our relationship.

      It’s interesting how much modifying language requires a particular kind of self-awareness and self-monitoring, especially in conversation. I think there’s something about that kind of multiple levels of self-awareness that’s deeply magical – a shift of consciousness for sure.

  3. I’ve experienced a different, but related problem. When I speak to Pagans, I can capitalize “Goddess” and leave of the article “the” — but I can’t do the same thing for “God” without creating confusion. So, I end up writing “Goddess and the God” or “Goddess and her Consort”. I don’t know how to speak of archetypal masculine sacrality without raising the specter of monotheism.
    I don’t think abandoning “god” language is the answer for everyone though. Speaking as a non-polytheist, Goddess is not a deity to me. Goddess is not a person, although I may sometimes personify it. Goddess has nothing to do with patriarchal notions of power-over. It is an archetypal experience of connectedness associated with a variety of symbols which have been devalued in our culture, including “woman”, “mother”, and “earth”.
    What’s more, the word “god” has power in our culture that the word “deity” does not. I would reclaim it from the momotheists, in the same way the Pagans have reclaimed other words like “witch” and “magic” … and “pagan”. When I am talking about the multiplicity of the divine, I do use “powers”, “daimones” (Jane Ellen Harrison, Jung), “potencies”, “Immensities” (Brendan Myers), “fates”, “providencies”, but mostly “gods”.

    • Literata says:

      I don’t think it’s the answer for everyone, and I’m certainly not advocating a Dianic approach. I do think there’s benefit in reclaiming the idea of the divine masculine archetype, and I do so in my own practice. I like some of the other options you use; if those open up opportunities for wider thinking in the way I’m suggesting here, then great.

      I have yet to read Brendan Myers; I’m looking forward to that because I find the language of “immensities” intriguing. Ivo Dominguez uses “Great Ones” in what might be a similar sense, and I like that language too.

  4. Pingback: Thursday Musings « musings of a kitchen witch

  5. I feel like the word “gods” also implies that those being are cis-gendered and human in appearance, which they frequently are not. When referring to my patrons, I definitely prefer “deities” and so do they. For non-human beings like my totem, I tend to use “powers” and “spirits.”

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