Posted by: aediculaantinoi | May 4, 2014

Neurophysiology, Memory, and Polytheism

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.


  1. Historians are another bunch of nit pickers similar to the monotheists you mention and let’s not forget literary academics as well. The word of caution I would suggest you remember is that categorization has links to essentialism and from a enlightenment and political standpoint, that sets up a conflict of world views. At the end of the day, it can be a philosophical and scientific issue and not a religious one and even that fall back position has weaknesses.

    • I’m not talking about monotheists, I’m talking about monists…

      And, I am both a historian and an academic.

  2. Hey – don’t post this comment but keep in mind, that gender essentialism will bite homosexuals if you aren’t careful and sets up for accusations of not only culture war but even on the fringes of medicine, so many pathologies that will if treated with any degree of study, be laid at the doors of queer theory. Before you spiritualize your gender identity, remember TO BE AFRAID of the charge of essentialism. Jews know from experience to play the system. Do pagans and how well do they know it? To be honest, I don’t know why I still even ask the question. Old habit I guess.

    • Further: you clearly have no idea to whom you’re speaking.

      I’m not an essentialist by any stretch of the imagination, and in fact am quite against the essentialist position when it has been used in queer studies and queer theology/spirituality in particular. That also applies to my own approach to my gender identity and my sexual orientation.

      There is no “slippery slope” between categorization and essentialism. It is useful to know that certain things can be understood under a number of broad categorizations; but, that doesn’t mean that likewise individual characteristics will not often make certain things exceptional, and that everything can potentially be exceptional within a certain category.

      • Well good for you. The comment was just my own expression of wary-ness about how that accusation is used, as it can and is used by a number of disciplines for a variety of reasons. In my personal experience, I didn’t know how to defend against the charge when it was leveled at me over ten years ago when I was not a student but a private pagan massage therapist at the time. I was attacked from both a monist as you noted and religious perspective by both pagans and Christians who were academics and on a witch hunt. Be hateful. I have gay family and don’t need your validation of my point of view.

      • Don’t let me stand in your way of defending all forms of neo paganism, including vampirism and Satanism since for you its an “academic” study of postmodernism and hence, as an academic topic, devoid of political ramification.

      • Let me apologize for a moment. I have 17 years in Massage Therapy, I have taught for a few months in a community college, I have my BS in Interdisciplinary Studies and I am working on my Masters in HCA. The topic of anti essentialism hit me all at once years ago and at the time I was focused on women’s issues and religion. In looking at the way I phrased my comments here, I see my own insecurities staring me in the face and I do appreciate you pointing out that it’s not a slippery slope categorization and essentialism. I like this article and your blog. Being a troll was not my intention but obviously my own wary-ness of ontological idealism at this point is thoughtlessly leading me into isolation which doesn’t always solve problems or provide new questions thru which answers are obtainable. Please excuse me. I do like the post . I did not intend to be a fussy troll and even in grad school I am just a student like everyone else. Sorry.

      • Thanks for giving more context!

      • I am so sorry if I came across as rude! That was not my intent at all! I did enjoy the article and it’s in line with my own subjective self understanding. I grew up Baptist, but my parents were Jehovah’s Witnesses for the first five years of my life. Even now, my father is a believer in Christian Identity about Anglo Saxons! So no matter what angle I come at questions of ontology and identity from, if I use my own parents experience as a filter and my own investigations, it reminds me to be wary of creating artificial divisions in being. Bless you and take care.

      • No worries! 😉

  3. I used to think I might be a monist. (“You might be a monist if….”) I’ve decided I’m actually not.

    There are some ideas that I have to take away into a corner for a while, like Pooh with a pot of honey. My mind works very fast in some ways and very slowly in others.

    Pardon the self-promotion, but I just started a blog over on Tumblr devoted to Antinous and my exploration of polytheistic practice:

    • I will check that out! Thanks!

    • I’ve had a look–very nice! I eagerly await seeing what else you end up posting there!

    • decentering the subject does not excuse ethical violations yet again….

  4. Lupus, thanks for this. A lot of my thinking on my relationship with the gods is more about my experience of them than about imagining what they might be when I’m not looking. Understanding the ways in which we process those experiences and integrate them into the meaning of our lives is a big part of that.

    Of course, I took the time to get a Master’s Degree in Psychology, so maybe I’m predisposed to think such things.

    You’re doubtless right when you say that some modern Pagans may be insulted by your comment. People do tend to take it badly when one suggests that they don’t agree with one because they’re mentally deficient.

    • Considering how often we get told we’re crazy for experiencing what we do, it might be tat for tit, to an extent…!?!

      That having been said: some things are just beyond certain people to understand, including myself. I have very little ability to understand, for example, higher level math, or some of the really high-falutin’ philosophical and postmodern theory–oh well, since I’m not incredibly interested in those things, and I’m fine with my talents lying in other directions.

      Some people just don’t have the intellectual capacities to understand any number of things which others of us take entirely for granted, and it has nothing to do with anyone being “more smart” or “less smart” than anyone else, since there are extremely smart folks who don’t get how to talk on the phone, and relatively dim and uninformed people who nonetheless can get a car’s engine to purr, and all of these things are good and necessary.

      Thus, perhaps monists who don’t understand polytheism or the need for specificity and vivid descriptive memory and so forth aren’t “bad people” or to be looked down upon, they’re just at a different level with these things, and are thus better suited to what it is they’re doing than what we are (and, thus, shouldn’t really presume to tell us how to do what we do, or to judge it, in the same way that the smarties who don’t know how to talk on the phone shouldn’t give advice to the call center operators, nor should the good car mechanics who don’t know much about history be advisors to the makers of college textbooks).

  5. Interesting theories. Like a lot of your posts, I’ll probably have to re-read it in order for it to really “sink in”. I think a lot of monists and some pagans and other “spiritual” folk have a discomfort with becoming grounded and going into depth in a particular cultural tradition. Part of that is due to an attachment to some form of Western consumer culture (even if it’s “progressive”or “geek” or “queer” flavored) and also a fear that becoming too identified with a particular cultural group leads to ethnocentrism, insularity etc. Gus DiZerega said something about that in one of his essays and I felt he is too stuck on the idea of folkish heathens and has not tried to get to know other sorts of polytheists. Funny it’s the opposite for me- the more I learn about Gaelic cultures, the more I appreciate and understand other cultures. It also seems like a lot of people think dabbling in different forms of spirituality shows how enlightened and cosmopolitan they are.

    • Yes, I think you’re quite correct. Steeping oneself in one culture deeply often has the unexpected effect of not only making one appreciate other cultures a great deal more, but of demonstrating how connected different cultures have been. That’s one of the things that confounds me about so many of the supposed “cultural purists,” anti-syncretists, and so forth: the cultures in which they are practicing such “purity” are often as syncretistic as any, and the sources they hold up as near-infallible lore often demonstrate those syncretistic tendencies beautifully. (E.g. the Eddas, including Snorri’s, having things from, for example, classical literature in them, such that the Phrygio-Ethiopian hero Memnon is the father of Thor!)

  6. Very fascinating article and speculations on how this might relate to a polytheist “psychology”. I think there might also be something in there for us pleromists as well.

    • Thanks! 🙂

      Well, at the end of the day, you pleromists aren’t really that different from us polytheists…but then again, I’m a polytheist monist who thinks that anything and everything plural is the same, so. 😉 (That was a joke, incidentally…!?!)

  7. I have a different pet theory about the kind of monism that you’re describing, Lupus — namely that the one ultimate god many such people are envisioning is in fact their own genius (or juno).

    You engage with the divine in a way that’s somehow “yours”, right? And you can’t imagine deity to transcend space or time or being; it’s all grounded in a this-worldly experience (astral travel, etc., not excepted, because that’s all inside your head too, because that’s where the archetypes live). And when you fuck and otherwise have a grand old time, that makes the one true ultimate god happy. All of which would be true, more or less, if we were talking only about one’s genius or juno rather than about the One.

    And of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with engaging deeply with the divine through one’s own genius. But there is more than that out there.

    • Yes, I think that’s definitely a possibility, especially for the more (as John Halstead himself put it) “Self-centered” pagans.

      I’ve also written a piece here at the blog which has another theory that I find plausible: that it might be the “human totem,” i.e. our original collective ancestor, which is why so many people who experience it seem to think it is “Everything and All,” when in reality it only appears that way because it is everything that has ever happened to or been thought about humans–which isn’t “Everything” by any means, but seems like “a lot” to the average person.

      • Aha! Now this is a very interesting idea. And I suppose that, since each worshipper has somewhat different conceptions in mind, the deity that they’re addressing may be different even if the same terms are used. You might have a coven of ten people who all addressing the same prayers in unison to “Dark Goddess”, “Subtle Power”, “Vivifying Spirit”, and those prayers may go out to thirty different deities. Or whatever.

        But it’s the very vagueness of such language that makes such ambiguities particularly likely. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing insofar as it can encourage coming together … but it’s entirely possible you might have a whole room full of people, none of whom have a clear idea of what deity they’re addressing. Let alone how best to engage with them or what might be most pleasing to them…

      • Yes…that’s one of many major issues that could impact a situation of this nature, I think.

  8. Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s