Posted by: aediculaantinoi | November 9, 2013

Types of Divine Being…

On Thursday, I was at college for longer than I usually am, because that evening, an hour and some after my usual class ended for the week, I was invited to speak in an Anthropology of Religion course, not only in my capacity as a religious studies scholar, an instructor on World Religions, and someone who knows about ancient and modern polytheisms, but as a practicing polytheist. It went extremely well, I think, and there were some wonderful things that few non-polytheists or animists would understand which occurred at the end of it which made it all the more important and meaningful for both myself and the anthropology instructor (who is himself an animist). Perhaps more on all of that another time…

But, in preparing my presentation, I made a PowerPoint, and had some basic definitions of polytheism, animism, and so forth in the early part, and in the “animism” sub-category, I noted both ancestors and land spirits as being particularly important within that specific religious/theological category. When I then made a big list of deities that I personally worship at the end, I noticed I had to also include some heroes, and some land spirits, some of which seem more like deities than land spirits strictly speaking (and especially so in my own life, due to the fact that they reached out to me when I was very far away from the specific land forms with which they are associated). The big one in this regard, of course, is Kwekwálelwet, the Maiden of Deception Pass, who visited me in dreams in 1995/1996 while I was in New York.

That got me thinking: there’s a variety of further types of divine being, beyond ancestors, land spirits, and deities, that we often deal with, and while they may all get treated cultically in a similar fashion (pretty much most of them can and do receive offerings), nonetheless they’re not quite all “the same” when it comes to how they’re understood, what they’re like, what they can do, and so forth.

The following is by no means comprehensive, but I think it’s a start in terms of trying to understand some of the distinctions between different types of divine being, or as some folks might prefer, holy powers, which we in modern polytheism might engage with in different fashions.

Deities: Possibly the most commonly understood, and yet least specific. What actually makes a deity/god/goddess? Some recent definitions I’ve heard from people that might be more useful to consider are that gods have job descriptions and titles associated with them, whereas many of the other varieties of divine being don’t. There may be something to that…

Ancestors: Humans who are no longer living pretty much sums this one up. Some ancestors can become deity-like in themselves (as some people say about Antinous–but, since he was called hero, god, and daimon in the ancient world, I think one can’t quite say that’s true), or can become elevated in various ways…and some of the distinctions that I give further in this list might pertain to these sorts of ancestors. But, anyway…

Land Spirits: While many spirits that are tied to particular features of a given geographical landscape can become deities that end up being worshipped elsewhere (e.g. Hapi or Alpheios) or who end up becoming redefined and expanded when their land feature disappears (like Saraswati, who was a river goddess originally), the majority tend to have a profoundly local cultus, mostly done by those who live on or near the geographic features in question. Some of the other categories given below might be particular types of land spirit…

Heroes: The most obvious category of potential “elevated ancestors.” Heroes tend to have been human, and they usually have a death that is in some ways unusual; they can have admirable lives or important accomplishments, but it’s usually their death and what happens after it that gets them considered in the category of divinity. The fact is, many heroes that were worshipped in the ancient world probably never existed–Achilleus, Protesilaos, Eunostos, Antinoë, and Cú Chulainn probably did not exist at all historically; but, Polydeukion, Memnon, and Achilles did. Whether a distinction should be made, thus, between these is a further question…

Divi/ae: The whole category of “deified rulers” could be expanded far beyond the Roman Emperors, to the Egyptian Pharaohs, and to the Japanese Emperors (who are all the descendants of Amaterasu-Omikami, in any case). In Roman reckoning, they were not considered to be quite-as-high as heroes were, but they were different than mere important ancestors for not only possessing the numen/genius augusti, but also because they had temples, whether individually (as Hadrian did) or more collectively.

Demi-Gods: This is a distinction that some ancient authorities make, but which actually doesn’t often amount to much–namely, that some divine beings are the offspring of deities and mortals. But, that he is a demi-god rather than a full deity does not do much to harm Dionysos, for example; and likewise, both Herakles and Polydeukes of the Dioskouroi are both called heroes and gods in various places, or simultaneously. But, it’s a distinction that some people like to make, and since this particular post is in the business of doing so, we’d better at least note it…

Sancta/e/i: In the Catholic church, saints are pretty much divine ancestors, just as the Sancta/e/i are in the Ekklesía Antínoou. They do have some divine powers in Catholicism, but they’re not to receive direct “worship,” only veneration; in the Ekklesía Antínoou, there’s no reason not to both venerate and worship them, but doing so doesn’t necessarily have to be as regular as some other forms of worship–twice a year may be sufficient, unless one is an especially dedicated devotee of one, which is also allowed.

Faeries: Are faeries a particular variety of land spirit, or something else? Yes, many of them might be tied to particular areas quite strongly, and yet some seem to be able to range more widely than that. And, while there are also gods who are associated with or are within the general category of faeries (the Alfar and Freyr’s relation to them might be one example), they might somewhat occupy a place in a venn diagram that is between deities and land spirits, possibly…

Nymphs: Unlike faeries, nymphs tend to be quite closely and often almost exclusively linked to particular geographic features; however, in Greek tradition, nymphs are often the offspring of deities in some form or another. And some nymphs nearly attain divine status, like Hermes’ mother Maia.

Angels: While most people are used to these beings from a Christian or (*shudder-shudder*) New Age context, angels have been around for a very long time in a variety of ancient cultures. Their name as we know it now, from Greek, basically means “messenger,” and thus I kind of like to think of them as divine messengers, administrative assistants, and the like. Christians have the most detailed taxonomy of angels, with often nine different “choirs” of angels, ranging from the Seraphim and Cherubim all the way down to the lowlier angels and archangels, with five categories (like Powers, Principalities, Thrones, and such) between them. And, as some angels–like Gabriel and Michael–are also considered saints in those traditions, that kind of further confuses matters…

Daimones: In some older Hellenic understandings, even the gods are special and powerful types of daimon, without the negative meaning attached to this word that came from Christianity. With no moral attachments or evaluations involved, it might be useful to distinguish them from angeloi by saying that angels tend to have a celestial orientation or origin, whereas daimones tend to be more chthonic.

Djinn: Coming from an Islamic context, some people consider djinn to be particular types of daimon, whereas others consider them to be particular types of angel. I don’t know…but, they don’t seem to be too concerned with limiting their interactions only to Muslims, so…

Egregores: These are beings that originate in human thought and ideas, and that eventually take on characteristics that can be understood to be divine or god-like in some fashion. I suspect that most of the pop cultural entities that some modern pagans deal with and do cultus to are in this category; and, I think that marshaling enough belief in a particular matter can result in such a being (which might be what many types of fundamentalist Christians are worshipping when they think they’re worshipping Jesus); but, sometimes more subtle things that aren’t even necessarily recognized as any sort of divine being can also fall into this category, including the spirit of a city, a college, a company, and so forth–and, in fact, the whole fiction of “corporate personhood” in essence has legalized egregore cultus in a way that most modern politicians and corporate heads in the world not only don’t realize, but wouldn’t approve of on theological grounds…!?!

Deified Abstractions: Entities like the Greek Eirene (“peace”) or the Roman Discipina fall into this category. They may end up in various divine genealogies from time to time, but they generally don’t have the mythological or narrative standing that other deities do, yet the cultus to them is often just as visible and takes similar forms to any other gods. Also, upholding the usually virtuous qualities from which they derive their names is another way to do cultus to them on a daily basis. Not all are of that sort, however–the Homeric Lyssa (“wolfish rage”) being one example.

Giants: While divine, these beings are often rather chthonic in nature, and some people in modern polytheism outright fear or refuse to worship them or even regard them cultically at all. While further distinctions might be made within these ranks, some of the more obvious ones to potentially include would be the Greek Gigantes, the Germanic Jotun, and the Irish Fomoiri. I don’t personally think we must needs automatically assume “evil” when it comes to these beings, as a good many deities in Irish and Germanic cultures have origins (full or partial) within their ranks.

Titans: Similar to giants, but also of a slightly different nature, since almost all of the “gods” properly speaking from the Greek pantheon come from at least one Titanic parent–Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, and Demeter all come from the Titanic parents Kronos and Rhea; Apollon and Artemis from Zeus and the Titaness Leto; etc. Many modern people (polytheist or otherwise) consider the Titans to be “evil” to some extent even more than they may do the giants, and yet it’s undeniable that some of them were worshipped by the ancient Greeks without any trouble at all.

Protogenoi: The most ancient beings in the various cosmologies/cosmogonies of the ancient world. A few from various strands of Greek tradition might include Nyx, Gaia, Ouranos, Erebus, and even Eros. What some might argue about them is that they’re so far from humanity and so “abstract” and removed from us, they might not be susceptible (!?!) to cultus; but, as I’ve experienced quite the opposite from Nyx at least, I’d argue that’s not necessarily the case…and, Gaia is one of the most widely revered goddesses in modern neopaganism, so that’s something else to consider…

Totems: The collective ancestor of a given species–and yes, humans have them, too. As plants also have these, it might almost sometimes seem as if both plants and animals are in some senses closer to being amongst “land spirits” than some of these other categories…but, there they are, in any case…

Elementals: This makes some people think of Dungeons & Dragons, or of Wicca; and, they don’t tend to be too popular within polytheist reconstructionist circles, to say the least. However, in many ways it makes a great deal of sense to acknowledge these as a category of divine being that is worthy of cultus, because they’re not quite like any of the other things named so far, even though some land spirits likely have more than a little bit of Earth, Air, or Water involved in themselves.

Kami: The Shinto/Japanese general term for “spirit” that encompasses the meaning of “any being worthy of honor and veneration,” and thus close to the Latin concept of numen (of which the gods are one variety). In Shinto, humans can become kami rather than simply joining the collective ancestors; likewise, features of the land have spirits that are also considered kami. The only real distinction made within Shinto itself between types of kami is Amatsukami and Kunitsukami, “heavenly” and “earthly” kami. While including this category kind of problematizes some of the distinctions above, nonetheless as a kind of hybrid understanding (from a non-Japanese viewpoint, anyway…!?!), it might simply be useful to include it to illustrate how complex these matters can actually be within a given context, and more widely.

Orisha/Oricha/Orixa and Lwa/Loa: Various Afro-Diasporic religious traditions have beings that are not quite considered deities, but which are the only divine beings/holy powers which humans can interact with. Amongst practitioners of these traditions, I’ve been told that the Yoruba-descended Orishas are very different than the Haitian Lwa, and while they are ultimately fulfilling a similar function within each tradition, they’re a different class or type of being altogether, and should not quite be lumped in as “just another traditions’ way of understanding deities.”

So, that’s my list at the moment. Have I left anything major off? (I know I have…and to account for all of the different cultural varieties of divine being would take the rest of my life, probably…but, for a working modern polytheist in the most commonly encountered traditions out there, hopefully this is a start.)


  1. Regarding the section on Saints: I’ve been reading a book on folk religion in Eastern Orthodox Karelia lately, and I was fascinated that in Karelian folk religion Christian saints were called ‘jumala’- literally ‘gods’. Also interesting is that the icons of the saints common in Eastern Orthodoxy weren’t just seen in Karelia as representations of the saint- per official church teaching- but were actually perceived and worshiped as the saint/god themselves in a very animistic sense.

    • Fascinating!

      What’s the title of the book?

      • Laura Stark. Peasants, Pilgrims and Sacred Promises: Ritual and the Supernatural in Orthodox Karelian Folk Religion. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2002.

        Its basic thesis is that folk religion in Karelia revolved around reciprocal relationships between human communities and three main types of ‘supernatural’ beings: saints, the dead, and nature spirits.

  2. This is a great breakdown/analysis of terms. I hadn’t thought about the fine distinction between “worship” and “veneration” before.

    Orixás and Loas are not interchangeable Powers, though they are all African Diaspora in (human cultural) origin, nor are Candomblé, Santeria, and Voudon interchangeable religions, though they are all African Diaspora Religions. Thank you for pointing this out, as I think this really needs to be stressed to people (ie, white mainstream) who are not part of these traditions. It gives me cold shivers, and not in a good way, when people conflate Legba and Exu, for example. I saw Pombagira defined online once as “Legba’s wife”, and that is so many kinds of wrong. Not to mention that “Pombagira” as a discrete entity isn’t really a part of classical Candomblé, and in Umbanda, “She” is actually a category name for a whole host of female spirits, as “exu” is for male spirits of the same type.

    Important caveat: I’m a North American white woman and not initiated in nor affiliated with any form of ADR or any terreiro or house practicing any form of ADR. This is all my understanding from reading what I hope are trustworthy sources, primarily Brazilian Portuguese.

  3. Interesting. I dont know if faeries are divine in any way, or if they have both spiritual and material connections similar to human beings, or if they are worthy of worship or veneration, or just worthy of respect. What about elves, wights, sprites, pixies, leprechauns, dwarves, the wee folk etc? Household spirits who are not necessarily the same as the Lares?

    • That is a question as well: are household spirits a) a particular variety of land spirit that is an intermediary for human-built structures; b) a variety of faeries; or c) their own special category? Hard to say…

      I’d put most of the things you mentioned under the category of faeries; and yet, if any Heathens had a say in this, the difference between dwarves and the Alfar is rather large…And, I think based on what I’ve heard in practice, wights are understood generally to be land spirits of some variety.

      So, yeah: it’s tough.

  4. CATEGORIES! One of my favourite subjects (is that any surprise from someone with a liking for Ganapati?) I see inhabitants of the spirit world as members of an animal family, like Mammals or Reptiles. Some are very similar, others are very different. I use the word Daimons to refer to that family, stemming from that mentioned archaic usage for all spirits.

    So for me, they’re types of Spirit Being. The word Divine I apply if they possess some tutelary aspects. Spirit of X gets called a divinity. Which as far as I can figure is an arbitrary decision my brain made. The Fae I see as just kind of here/there, so aren’t tied to anything.

    Also, I’d add Ntjr to your list. The Kemetic pantheon have this weird different-but-same thing going on where Their individuality is much more fluid than we’re used to.

  5. […] Sarenth had an interesting discussion on differentiation between categories of divine beings within polytheism, which I think is quite useful, and represents part of an ongoing, multi-party debate on the matter. I’ve written on this before as well. […]

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