At the moment, my teaching quarter at college involves being the organizer and evaluator (i.e. the “main teacher”) for a learning community course in which several other professors are presenting portions. The subject of the course is “Knowing and Learning,” and it is listed in the catalogue as Philosophy/Psychology 115. It, however, slants far more into the sciences and psychology than it does toward philosophy (I covered the basics of epistemology during the first two weeks of class, but that’s about as truly philosophical we’ll be getting, alas). Nonetheless, it is proving to be interesting for most of the students, and for me as well; I did help to pilot it last year, when we put it together as a faculty, and I did present a week’s worth of material in it last year.
One of the topics we discuss at some length, though, is memory, neuroplasticity, and related topics, since there is no “learning” or “knowing” without memory. Memory has an interesting and important role to play in a variety of ancient Greek contexts. There is, first of all, the goddess Mnemosyne, or sometimes Mneme, both of whom are said to be the mother of the Muses (note, the Muses are always plural and never singular!), or sometimes Mneme/Mnemosyne is one of the Titanic Muses herself. There is also an extremely high emphasis placed on drinking from the Lake of Memory in the Orphic Mysteries, at least as understood through the Orphic Gold Lamellae and other similar sources. So, in addition to being important for human existence in general, there is a high theological value placed on memory, both as an important force in one’s life, as well as being an important Divine Power in the universe that is given personalized divine form.
While the hippocampus in the brain is very much connected to developing long-term memory, it turns out that individual memories are stored in the brain in places that are often close to the processing centers that interpret their sensory input: thus, a strong visual image in one’s memory will be stored in the visual cortex, etc. (Thus memories that are multi-sensory are more vivid, and thus if one can make one’s learning of something multi-sensory rather than just visual, auditory, etc., then it is more likely to be made into a stronger memory that can be more easily recalled.)
But, even though that’s all important, here’s the thing which I think might have some interesting relevance for polytheism in particular. When memories are made, the information seems to be stored based on similarity to previous experience, ideas, thoughts, and memories: in other words, categorization. “This is a new board game, so it will be stored in the area where other board games and their rules get stored.” Fair enough. When memories are recalled, however, the distinguishing feature that allows them to be recalled specifically is not similarity, but difference. “MouseTrap is the game that has three-dimensional parts, not just a flat surface like Clue.” This seems, perhaps, simplistic and perhaps even obvious: one doesn’t go through life, meeting someone and then meeting them again years later, and react by saying “Oh, you’re that person like all of the other blonde women I’ve met over the years,” one says “Hello, Joan!” (If, that is, you’re fortunate enough to be good with remembering names on the spot like that–which, with increasing age, I’m not!)
Notice, however, that this way in which memory works is therefore based on two things: clear categorizations under which things which are similar can be grouped, and then clear differences being understood between them via which they can be recalled more easily.
While I shouldn’t have to explicate how this applies to polytheism, I suspect I’m going to have to. So, here goes…
Something that modern polytheists (and I don’t really feel the need to use the term “hard” or “devotional” or anything else here, because I’m talking about real and actual polytheists in the literal and specific, direct, and even limited–yes, it’s all right to have things only mean what they actually say!–sense at present) tend to be pretty good at is employing definitions, words, language, terms, and (though many hate this concept) labels which allow for useful categorization of different types of experience, different types of divine being, and so forth. This becomes really important when dealing with, say, an ancestor as opposed to a land spirit, or a hero as opposed to a deity. Categorization of these various things is, indeed, extremely important.
Further, polytheism is one of the few varieties of theological position which places a great emphasis on the individuality, difference, and distinctiveness of particular deities. This is why polytheists don’t tend to be archetypalists (unless, they also think that “archetypes” are a further distinct, but very bland and rather featureless and impersonal, variety of divine being), and don’t think that even all thunder gods, ocean gods, love gods, and so forth are really “One,” but instead view each one of them, both between and even within cultures, as highly different and distinct and individual.
On a practical and lived experiential level, I’ve met far too many monistically inclined people who don’t seem to be very interested in labels, who are highly averse to getting to know and learn individual myths or names or associations, and who constantly say “Well, these things can’t be put into language.” I’m beginning to wonder, thus, if those who are monists perhaps have some deficiency in terms of memory, that their categories aren’t distinct enough to even initially understand whatever experiences they might be having, and that likewise they have no ability to recall or discuss those experiences because there isn’t enough difference and individuality in them (due to their own understanding and intake of the information) to be able to be distinguished from the great mass of “Stuff” into which their entire existence–directly spiritual or otherwise–has been subsumed.
I suspect a great many monists will not be happy with me saying this. I don’t really care. There has been enough privileged bullshit stated openly in the wider pagan community recently against polytheists, or which has ignored our existence entirely or marginalized our viewpoints, that I’m getting very weary of dealing with pagans who aren’t polytheists generally speaking.