A few days ago, I finished reading this book, and wanted to do a review of it, not only because I think there’s some interesting things to discuss that came up in the book, but also because I’d like to get this book some further attention. So…
[Unfortunately, the computer I'm on at present won't let me display a photo of the book's cover...drat. You'll just have to rely on following the links at present, therefore.]
The book is Raven Kaldera’s Dealing With Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology, which was just published this year, and which you can read more about here and can purchase here. Kaldera is a very prolific author, and is considered by many to be controversial. While I didn’t find this book particularly controversial, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. On the whole, I found it to be very useful, and I’d recommend it highly; there are a few particularities that I think could have been addressed better, and I’ll outline some of those below, but I don’t think those would necessarily detract from the overall value of the book nor the general validity of its arguments.
The subtitle of the book is very telling, and it is entirely appropriate for the book, and for polytheism generally speaking. Polytheistic religions are practical, but they are also experiential. Kaldera sticks with the experiential dimension of polytheism constantly, and bases pretty much everything he says in that experiential dimension. This is something that, while it ought to go without saying, is really not taken account of nearly enough in religious discussions within modern polytheism and paganism. Because theology has been dominated by creedal religions for the past two millennia, too often pagans come to the subject thinking that they must speak in terms of “belief” in the gods and so forth before actually speaking about experiences of and practical interactions with the gods. Kaldera does not make that mistake, and in fact argues (entirely sensibly, in my view) that there is no real reason to “believe in” any of the gods, ancestors, land spirits, or anything else if one doesn’t have experience with them; if one desires to have such experiences, but has not had them yet, then that might be another reason to believe in these gods potentially. But, otherwise, if an atheist says they don’t believe in the gods and likewise has had no experience with them, then there’s no real need to argue with them, unless they insist that their own lack of experience must therefore be the “norm” and the “only logical option” for anyone and everyone else. (And, far too often, many of them do this, alas.) Kaldera certainly speaks from an extensive practical and experiential background with a number of deities, and also (as I’m seeing is a pattern generally with what I’ve read otherwise of Raven’s books) brings in the voices of other practitioners at various points, including Kenaz Filan (with whom Kaldera co-wrote a book, which I may have to try and get a hold of next…!).
Some parts of the book are extremely useful and appealing, and I think everyone should read them and be familiar with these explanations. For example, the chapter on “Being In Relationship: The Human-Divine Exchange” (pp. 55-66) was extremely good. I’m normally quite resistant to certain taxonomic systems, especially if they claim to be comprehensive in their treatment of a particular subject (which is one of the main reasons why I found Silence Maestas’ book so inadequate on this specific subject); Kaldera at no point claimed that his taxonomy was comprehensive, at least in my reading (much depends on how one reads the definite article, “the,” in a certain sentence…and yes, getting this nitpicky over a single minor grammatical point IS important!). Kaldera identifies fourteen possible types of divine-human relationship, and while they are given in an order that can be understood somewhat from “least to greatest,” at several points Kaldera emphasizes that these different types of relationship can overlap with each other, and that none are inherently “better” or “worse” than any other; some entail a great deal more work and commitment, and much more is expected of people in some types of relationship than others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better or worse. This is such an important point, and has been my primary objection to many of these discussions in the past (including here on this blog), which is something that I think is far too taken for granted by many modern pagans and polytheists. (Just because “pride” isn’t considered a sin in modern paganism doesn’t mean that “spiritual pride” amongst many self-proclaimed mystics isn’t a GIGANTIC problem…) Kaldera’s taxonomy doesn’t present these various options on a continuum, with one particular type at the pinnacle of divine-human interaction, which is how it has been presented far too often in the past. (And, based on my own experiences with some–but, note, not all–people with “god-slave” or “god-spouse” relationships, often those who seem to be the most talkative and prideful about their relationships are the ones who often do the least, have the most problems, and thus seem far less devoted to these types of relationship than many who claim to be nothing but run-of-the-mill practitioners in relation to certain deities.)
If I need to emphasize this further, then I will: take heed of Kaldera’s words on these matters, everyone who practices polytheist mysticism and particular types of deity-human relationships!
Something else that I highly credit Kaldera for in this book, which I’ve been criticized for doing at various points in the past, is treating deities in a humanistic manner–and by that, I don’t mean “humanism” as a kind of “more friendly” form of atheism or agnosticism, but instead in a manner that emphasizes that we are human and thus interact with other intelligent beings in a human fashion, and the gods and other spiritual beings likewise, as persons (though not necessarily human persons, either ever in the past or at present), have a lot of qualities that we experience as human even if they aren’t human. If the gods are so “wholly other” and are beyond our capacity to fully grasp (which, while I’d agree that they are beyond our full grasp, the same is true of almost every entirely “natural” force in this world, as well as every other human being we meet), then relationships with them are truly impossible, and my own experiences tell me that’s not the case–even the most supernal deities have a way of communicating with humans in some fashion that won’t utterly destroy their minds (though that can sometimes be a tall order), and always have. Only the religions that suggest that their deities are completely transcendent and beyond all human comprehension–which are also highly suspicious of mysticism–and yet are insistent on certain very human and human-centered interpretations of those deities theologically, should run into the problems of over-humanization of deities, or think that it is a problem. So, again, kudos for that, Raven!
There are a few parts of the book that I think could have used some work or further thought. The opening chapter, for example, pretty much says that not very many people are interested in pagan or polytheist theology, and that this book is therefore a stab into an “Uncharted Wilderness of Pagan Theology.” I can’t really endorse that interpretation, although I do agree that some of what Kaldera says in that introductory chapter is true and is frustrating. Theology, in its most broad definition, is “talking about the gods,” and there’s been no end of that in modern paganism and polytheism–any book (or blog or anything else) that discusses a deity is, therefore, by nature, theological. In less broad terms, there have been a number of books on pagan theology–some less successful (e.g. Michael York’s Pagan Theology), others more so (e.g. Edward Butler’s Essays Toward a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion, John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods). While Kaldera’s work has often been ground-breaking and innovative, and his approach in this book is certainly innovative, this is one area where others have already trodden the path previously, and it feels a bit disingenuous to not acknowledge that.
[I would also suggest that, though there aren't many footnotes in this book, there are some further references to particular texts in the body of the book, and thus a short bibliography of suggested readings at the end would have been useful--even if parts of it consist of books that were not necessarily referenced in the book's text itself. There is a lot out there that could be used as fodder for pagan theological discussion, and I know Kaldera is aware of a great deal of it...]
There are some other particular bits that are not quite factually correct, or that could use some nuancing or better usage of theological terminology. Page 2 suggests that pantheism, panentheism, and syncretism are the same thing or related, which they aren’t; syncretism isn’t really mentioned again, but “archetypalism” is. Of course, I’ve written a great deal about this, and how I think the easy collapsing of “soft polytheism” and “syncretism” isn’t really a good understanding of the latter, so this is an issue that I’m particularly aware of, and that some others might not have had a problem with–that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean others are necessarily correct in that assessment. On pages 17-18, what Kaldera is really discussing is known as “process theology,” and that’s another important matter to know about, and one which many modern pagans and polytheists are beginning to discuss further. Page 28 mentions the problem of “why bad things happen to good people” and so forth, which is the problem of theodicy; as it comes up again later in the book, it would be good to have used the actual term. While Helios and Apollon underwent interpantheonic syncretism at later stages of Greek and Roman antiquity, Phaëthon was originally the son of Helios, not Apollon; Kaldera says he was the son of Apollon on page 21.
On page 50, the generalization of “Celtic” and the “little people” is far too imprecise; and the understanding of kami as primarily land spirits is also problematic. (Again, I have a pretty good amount of [though lots more with the first than the second] experience with both of those religious frameworks, so I may be overly cautious on this point.) I wondered why in the discussion of animal spirits on pages 51-52 the term “totem” wasn’t ever used; it would have been appropriate, and no more exploitative or appropriative than the use of the term “shaman” for forms of spiritual practice outside of the original Siberian context where that term was used.
I was also surprised, as an animist, that Kaldera berated the production of “plastic trash” and so forth in the book. Yes, over-industrialization is a problem, both environmentally and spiritually; but as an animist, I have to opine that nothing at all is without spirit of some kind–indeed, all of the “plastic trash” that gets made is ultimately the bodies of long-dead organisms that were once living. This may be a theological difference within different viewpoints of animism, however, and I’m willing to leave it at that–my own experience of a great deal of what might be considered “plastic trash” (and aluminum and paper trash and any number of other things) does not fit with a viewpoint that sees them as not possessed of some spiritual presence or worth.
There is an intriguing and potentially useful model of understanding different aspects of deities on pp. 32-42, which emphasizes a “horizontal” view and a “vertical” view, with the “horizontal” being the many different epithets and aspects of an individual deity, and the “vertical” being understood as the very interesting simile of a stalactite, with shades on the lower end being “more personal” and ones higher up being “less personal”–the deities of myth that have feelings and do things being on the “more personal” end and their more transcendent and less personal and less human aspects being further up the stalactite. Kaldera does ask pardon for this being a kind of two-dimensional understanding, but I think making it four dimensional would be very easy to do, adding in some of the terminology that he uses in other parts of the book. Kaldera mentions “distance” at several points in this part of the discussion, but that “distance” dimension doesn’t need to be understood in the “vertical” plane; if it were substituted as the characteristic most at play in the “depth” dimension, that would make a great deal more sense. Some people experience deities as if they are at a distance, even in their most human and “personable” forms–their general outlines can be discerned, but their specific details cannot necessarily be seen nor their voices heard over the general background noise. Ironically, the more that the depth dimension separates a person from a deity, the less of a sense of these details one can get; the closer a deity is to someone, and therefore the less “depth” there is between them, is what makes a close devotional relationship different from a passing one. And, if the fourth dimension of time were brought into the picture, then the aspects of process theology and of the change of a deity over time in its own development, as well as in its co-evolution with human communities, would then come into better view and be more easily taken account of. Thus, a fuller and more multi-dimensional view of the variety, variability, and diversity of human contacts with particular deities could be attempted if these further aspects were brought into play.
Finally, I have to critique at length something that probably 99% of the potential readers of this book would not give a second glance to: the paragraph about Antinous on p. 17. This is toward the beginning of the chapter on “The Nature of Deities” and occurs as an example in talking about how some deities can start out as mortals or ancestors. I quote it in full:
One example of this would be the worship of Antinous, who is–as his modern devotees call him–the youngest member of the Roman pantheon of Gods. Antinous was a young man, said to be “wise beyond his years,” who was loved by an Emperor. When he died in his early twenties, the grief-stricken Emperor Hadrian had him deified–and entirely unprecedented move for someone who had been of non-Imperial origin–and encouraged a cult around worshipping him. The cult of Antinous flourished for some years until Christianity took it down with all the other Roman religions, but modern devotees have taken it up again…and report that Antinous is just as divine and present for them as he was to his ancient devotees.
I’m sort of wondering who Raven consulted on these matters, because that isn’t remotely correct a view, I think. Antinous was not a member of any particular pantheon of gods–or, he was the member of at least three pantheons of gods (the Roman, the Greek, and the Egyptian…but more the Greek and Egyptian than the Roman). While some books in the past, and certain rather uninformed people, have said that Antinous was the “last of the pagan gods,” that isn’t true–not long after the start of Antinous’ cultus, the cultus of Glykon began elsewhere in Asia Minor, and also flourished for at least a century and a half. (I’m sure there are also others that I’m either forgetting or don’t know about…Polydeukion, depending on whether or not one counts hero cultus as “divine” or not, would be another possibility.) I can’t recall any spot in the ancient literature on Antinous–for or against–that says he was “wise beyond his years”; this is an inference that we in the modern period have made, and that those of us with direct experience of him have felt. All signs look as though Antinous died as late as one month before his twentieth birthday (which would have been twenty-first to the Romans), so “died in his early twenties” is also not quite accurate. And, the biggest and most persistent misconception about Antinous is the one in the phrase/clause that follows: that Hadrian had him deified. No. Even if Hadrian had not been the Emperor (and thus the Pharaoh of Egypt as well), Antinous would have been deified because of his drowning in the Nile. He may not have had an international cultus, or even a very popular localized one, but drowning in the Nile was an extraordinary death, and warranted the person who drowned the direct intervention of Re in raising them up to divine life after death–that was ‘the rules,” and thus it didn’t really matter that Hadrian was his boyfriend…though that fact was the reason that Antinous’ cultus became an international and empire-wide phenomenon rather than something only acknowledged in one small corner of Egypt. This is a point that needs to be emphasized over and over again, both to modern polytheists and to many academics, far too many of whom have read the slanders on Antinous’ cultus in the patristic authors as definitive and factual rather than blatantly sectarian and erroneous. While the “end” of Antinous’ cultus with the so-called “triumph” of a certain creedal monotheistic religion is also true to some extent, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that in Egypt in particular, it had a much longer life–Dioscorus of Aphrodito made reference to him in a non-pejorative manner in his poetry from the sixth century CE, and some of the athletic games in Antinous’ honor continued until the early fifth century at least–both of these more than a century after the political ascendancy of that particular creedal monotheist religion.
Am I being too nitpicky on this latter section? You will have to decide that for yourselves. I would hope that polytheists, however, who are more likely to not only accept the validity of Antinous’ divinity and his cultus, would also be more keen to get the specific details of his life and cultus correct if and when possible. So, there we are.
But anyway…it’s good that Antinous was at least mentioned in the book, and “any press is good press,” so they say. Thus, I’d have to add Raven’s latest book to this list, if not also this list. It will probably also figure on the suggested reading lists, if not the required textbooks, in some of my upcoming Academia Antinoi courses in the future.
Whatever about some of my disagreements on details or on certain bits of terminology, I do very highly and enthusiastically recommend this book. It is relatively short and can be easily read in a few hours (depending on how fast a reader one is, and how interested in it one might be), and it is rewarding to have done so. So, go pick up a copy!