A couple days ago a friend of mine on Facebook posted something to the effect of disliking the “dark gods” designation, finding it a category with all kinds of problems and shortcomings. I agreed, expressing my similar dislike. There are lots of reasons I don’t care for the “light/dark” dichotomy, not the least of which is that these are categories that tend to be leveraged in the service of the people using the category. I’m not just saying that categories are only meaningful to the people doing the sorting (although there is that); rather, there’s additional meaning and value-weight given to these categories once the Powers have been sorted into these two crude piles. We would be hard-pressed to talk about “light gods” just in terms of their, um, glowing. There’s immediately a heap of other associations that follow, and these associations end up being what we focus on.
(Of course, this rather leaves out traditions like The Unnamed Path which have very specific light/dark divisions regarding the face(s) of their Power(s). I’m talking really about this dichotomy as an artificial division, not one built into the fundamentals of a tradition.)
Whatever practical purpose the division of light/dark Powers might be, I feel like that end can be reached through other means. What those are I’m actually not sure. So I got to thinking – what other sorting could be done? Lasara Firefox Allen detailed a very nice five-fold model in her book Jailbreaking the Goddess – which I have not personally read but a number of my friends rave about it and I listened to some interviews she did on podcasts about the book and it sounds pretty great. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to borrow her model and apply it wholesale to a polytheist paradigm in which we are already a little wary of any modality that robs our Powers of their individuality (except when it comes to “light gods/dark gods”, yes?).
Even after a good bit of thinking I couldn’t decide on a really tidy model that would lead to any helpful conclusions about the nature of the Powers based on their similarities and differences among Themselves. So I left the matter alone and wrote about it here instead.
As someone who has almost exclusively spent time with “dark gods” I really chafe at that categorical designation. It does really nothing to describe any of these Powers in a way that’s helpful to me, to a hypotheical newcomer, or (I wonder) to anyone else. What does “dark” even mean in this sense? That they’re cold or mean or hard to deal with? Although They certainly have facets that are hard to deal with, I see this as something *I* have to work on rather than something that is fundamental to Them. That is, those facets are hard to deal with simply because I have much to learn, not because there is something about my Powers that is inherently difficult. (Although I remain open to the possibility that they are, in fact, inherently difficult.)
Loki might be a good example of this. Loki is possibly the brightest guy I know. He’s clever and warm and caring and all the rest. His anger is also incandescent, His lust radiant, and His compassion soothing. I can’t think of Loki without thinking of this brightness but there’s also a lot of darkness. I know Her as an underworld deity, an exiled and lonely mother, a queen whose treasures are formed in the dark hard places under the earth. I’ve known Loki for nearly two decades and can’t put Hir in either category – in this regard and in many others, heh.
The problem gets even thornier when mapped onto other beloved Powers.
If categories and designations break down as we spend time with the Powers, why do we persist in applying categories in the first place? OK, I guess it could be argued that it’s a teaching tool, a framework valuable to learners – but is it? Could we perhaps soften the disasters that come from a later failure of category by simply doing away with the application of categories early on? We don’t need to think hard to come up with multiple examples of the heartache that occurs when our hard polytheism stops giving us the strength we hope it will. The categories get soft, and yes, those categories include names.
On the other hand, starting with soft categories tends to lead to harder distinctions and there is plenty of heartache to be had on this path, too.
Perhaps the problem isn’t that the Powers are inherently hard or inherently fuzzy; perhaps the problem is that our perception is not comfortable holding both sides of a dichotomy at the same time. Maybe learning to hold both/and instead of either/or is what we will be forced to learn regardless of which directly we approach from.
8 thoughts on “Sorting gods”
I totally agree with the both/and. My patron, Gwyn ap Nudd, who is a ruler of Annwfn, the Brythonic underworld and a gatherer of souls is often seen as a ‘dark god’ but his name means… ‘White son of Mist’. He was earlier known as Vindos, ‘White, Blessed, Holy’ and Vindonnus, ‘White/Clear Light’. He can be both beautiful and terrifying, fierce and compassionate. His nature is essentially paradoxical.
Perhaps groupings according to a deity’s domain or role might be more fruitful – underworld deities, sea deities, fertility deities, yet such labels can never fully contain who a deity is as a whole.
“Perhaps groupings according to a deity’s domain or role might be more fruitful – underworld deities, sea deities, fertility deities, yet such labels can never fully contain who a deity is as a whole.”
Yes, I agree. Even though it seems like we humans naturally want to organize Powers in some way, we should keep in mind that the categories don’t define or contain them.
I have done a lot of posts and had many discussions on labels themselves, and I have come to the realization that they are there to serve a purpose; and then once that purpose has been served, they need to go away.
With that in mind, I think the terms ‘light’ and ‘dark’ are necessary to a point and in certain situations. However, I also have seen that taken to extreme; having been in public ritual when a ‘dark’ God was called in and watched a meltdown of one of the women in circle because of it.
Perhaps it’s always going to be different for everyone. I myself, might suggest to a newbie/baby polytheist to look at it from that perspective until you get to know the Gods themselves, and then decide when the labels don’t fit anymore. After all; we are all growing in this religion in our personal way.
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“”I have done a lot of posts and had many discussions on labels themselves, and I have come to the realization that they are there to serve a purpose; and then once that purpose has been served, they need to go away.”
Good point – this does seem to be what happens. If nothing else, experience eventually pushes us to embrace parts of Them that extend beyond the original categories.
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I know they call “dark” deities tough but like. I find any Power is willing and able to come up to me and say, “hey shadow work! Go do it!” or kick me in the rear, as necessary.
Yes! No matter whether we think They’re “light” or “dark”, the ones closest to us are going to be pretty interested in our growth one way or another.
The Dreamer once asked me “what is the glamour of darkness?”
He was wondering why “dark” gods are so fascinating to mortals, and why “light” gods often seem to get brushed aside. That question ended up leading to a discussion about how my Beloved sees the “dark/light” god dichotomy (he’s not a fan of it.)
It’s a conversation I still think about a lot, and this post reminded me of it.
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I think our choice of “light” or “dark” gods has as much to do with how we think about ourselves as anything else. These categories get so many extra values heaped in them, so maybe that’s just to be expected. I know I related a lot more strongly to concepts that got tossed in the “dark” category so I tended to imagine myself related to those deities primarily. These days I know that it’s not so simple – I’ve become not-a-fan of this dichotomy too.