What feels like an eternity ago on Twitter — in fact sometime last year — I highlighted a passage from Greek Gods Abroad, which came at the conclusion of the chapter on interpretatio.
(The post uses the term syncretism because I was reading a section that was really talking about it in conjunction with interpretatio.)
At about the same time on Twitter, there were a few conversations related to interpretatio and how people overuse it, plus a good conversation in the comments section of my review of Greek Gods Abroad.
This post is an outgrowth of several bits of conversation at the time, along with my notes about that book, although it extends beyond it.
Scope and Rationale
My goal is to have a well-grounded perspective piece about gods, their number, and their cultural contexts. It is a balancing act among conflicting forces. This piece is not philosophical. It comes out of a reaction to Parker saying that the gods are the same everywhere with different names, which is not true, but its opposite is also not true. An equal portion comes out of modern Western Neopaganisms’ ideas about gods.
So, here’s the plan: I want to define what I mean by interpretatio for people who are less familiar with the term, talk about people talking about gods, and lay out what that middle ground actually is.
I will not get into syncretism, about which many people in the polytheist blogosphere have written. Syncretism and interpretatio have overlap, and I don’t think I can contribute much to the conversation about the former that has not already been said.
The reason discussing interpretatio and divine number is important is that it gets into some of the messiness that exists in Neopagan New Religious Movements, specifically the tension between those of us who are hard polytheists and those others who believe that gods can ultimately be reduced to one Spirit/All. I am a hard polytheist, so I reject the latter, and I want to start out with some context explaining why.
When I was growing up, the Neopagan rituals at the circle my family went to typically invoked the God, Goddess, and Spirit — more often than not in the abstract, but often with names of gods. The sense I had as a child within a Wicca-like framework was that there was an ur-Goddess and ur-God, and these could be subsumed into an ur-Spirit. Conversely, all of the gods and goddesses were forms of these beings regardless of how different each goddess’s personality was.
The sparse theological texts — and some sections of major books on Wicca that I consumed as a child — described this. They never explained how beyond calling Spirit a faceted diamond. It didn’t match my actual experience of gods, who were individuals.
It was easy to (eventually) leave Wicca due to how my practice already took the individuality of the gods for granted — I do not think that reducing gods and goddesses into bins like that is theologically sound. Way before “I must leave Wiccan practices behind” was even a thought in my mind, I was never into witchcraft and tended to find the long sections at the end of Neopagan books directed at teens a waste of my time. However, I did page through them, even major Wiccan authors would tell people to name specific goddesses in spellcraft.
The way I reconciled this as a teenager came after I set up a shrine in my bedroom. My first shrine was the bench I made in my middle school shop class. Ritual slots for God and Goddess were placeholders for beings. I worshipped Apollon, so I worshipped a goddess alongside him.
In my mid- to late teens, a lot of the Internet discourse centered on worshipping gods from different pantheons who might not get along mythologically in the same ritual. Eclecticism meant plug-and-play divine names with little regard or respect for a god. You could see this commentary in Oh My Gods! (a webcomic), on Livejournal, and when browsing Geocities. While I worshipped Bast and Brigid in my preteens and early teens, they gave way to Mnemosyne.
The generic goddess and god figurines in Wicca seemed like hotels, foci for gods in a specific ritual, but the god was never intended to remain within the image as a numinous presence through a kind of dedication. There was consecration and re-consecration, foundation and repurposing.
One of the biggest differences between my religious practice as a modern polytheist and my teenage years in Wicca-based Neopaganism is that today, the statues I use are dedicated to specific gods. I desire to reconstruct specific ritual or cultic practices — or build new ones that are historically mindful — for specific deities because those rituals for those gods matter.
Even as a hard polytheist, though, I have some concerns. Some gods across cultures are legit likely the same; emphasizing discreteness despite evidence to the contrary because we want to remain firm in the face of people attempting to monotheize us, or monize us, or whatever-ize us, is an overcorrection. It holds the line without minding the shape of the valley, and both are important.
Conceding that religious evolution exists, and defining how that might occur over a span of history that still preserves the core of polytheism is a much more daunting and rewarding task. It is the tree that bends and does not break under pressure.
As another example, the United Nations should not include proselytism in its religious freedom protections because proselytism violates the religious freedom of its victims. Focusing on holding the line and supporting everything people in our crowd are doing with no regard for its efficacy is chaos that does not lead to success.
In activism, it is important to have concrete, not vague, goals; we do so much in our communities that takes our attention from the prize. The prize is to be allowed to live without religious discrimination, with no harassment, harm, murder, or cultural heritage destruction from missionaries.
When I say we danced in apple orchards in my teenage years for Pomona, part of why I use that name is that it’s the one I know. The goddess was Pomona-like and Northern European, probably Nordic, maybe Finnish.
This was over a decade ago, and like a tourist in the ancient world, the name I know is relationally good enough to tell a story and convey enough information to a reader or listener that le will have the mental placeholders le needs to make sense. That is interpretatio.
Interpretatio, for anyone who does not understand the term, is a system through which deities from one culture are equated with deities from another one — or, the process that makes many non-polytheists think that Mercury and Hermes are identical, or Brigid and Minerva and Athena.
A good contemporary example of this is from the Sights and Sounds of Ancient Ritual exhibit that just concluded at Yale University.
While not explicitly stated, the box containing iconography related to Dionysos juxtaposed against the Mesoamerican god who performs a similar role. As it was Anthesteria, the connection to the dead, wine, and madness was not lost on me — in an interpretatio situation, were I to meet someone who practiced that religion, I’d probably refer to Dionysos using that name as a shortcut.
It would have zero to minimal impact on any of our respective religious rituals or our theological thinking, at least until we learned enough about one another to start philosophical and theological exchange. Interpretatio, unlike syncretism, is a comparative religious practice that is focused on understanding others’ gods through those that are more familiar to oneself.
In Greek Gods Abroad, Parker splits interpretatio into three categories, which I have renamed (see p. 42 – 44 for how he actually describes them). I’m going to use the Dionysos example above to illustrate.
- Category 1: Find & Replace. Wherever I see Dionysos, I replace it with the name of the Mayan deity (Acan) while I am writing in a Mayan language.
- Category 2: Use the other culture’s divine name as an epithet, as in cultic double names. When I refer to the Mayan deity Acan in my Ancient Greek traveler’s notebook, I use the name Dionysos Acan. Maybe I go to Acan’s local temple and dedicate a drinking vessel that uses that name.
- Parker has an offhand comment that a new entity may have been formed. His word choice indicates that he is not a fan of that. As I mentioned at the beginning, syncretism is a related practice, but not an identical one. In my experience, creating a compound word name or hyphenating is generally what people do when they’re practicing syncretism. That’s probably an artifact of English. Maybe Parker is annoyed at syncretism because it’s messy?
- Cat 2 is more explicit when the person dedicating something or making an inscription uses an or word, as in Dionysos or Acan.
- Category 3: Combine our god’s name with something about the geography of the target god’s region. In this case, Acan would become Mayan Dionysos.
Reading a short and sweet bulleted list like that, one might think, Coolbeans, makes sense, we are done. Why did you say all of that other stuff? Was that a giant tangent.
Let’s have PIE.
The first and finest line of investigation, which as intelligent people we must acknowledge, is this, that we admit that we know nothing about the gods themselves or about the names they call themselves — although it is clear that they call themselves by true ones.
– Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus, 400d, trans. CDC Reeve
Many overuse interpretatio to say that all gods are truly the same exact set of gods, which reduces gods to correspondences and eliminates them as beings. This concern is legitimate, and I touched on it in Background.
Basically, if one starts collapsing the black hole, le is honestly left with nothing but shallow cultural shells for some New Age To Whom It May Concern, the rest crushed and compressed in the all-consuming, hungry unraveler.
However — and this is where PIE comes in (BTW, yes, I forward-scheduled this for π Day just because I am indeed just laying on the puns and actually wrote my first draft at the beginning of Elaphebolion)— this must coexist with the reality that those of us who speak Indo-European languages are the product of whoever those people were and the various peoples they conquered across a large extent of Eurasia several thousand years ago. It would be extremely illogical if some of our gods were not the same at their core.
My exposure to PIE is mostly through constructed languages and the fiction I write. In that context, I take interest in PIE because I want to ensure that my constructed languages and cultures evolve and diverge from their starting points at Year 0. People have been on their current planet for about 33,000 years, with another planet inhabited for 17,000 years before that. In that fictional setting, I know absolutely that Likhera and Sålikė are the same deity because I wrote the human migration patterns. I also know that a mountain goddess in one of my novellas is literally Magna Mater because I wrote her into the work.
A few Twitter conversations have clued me in to bits of PIE that I have taken for granted.
Many individuals’ experiences of PIE are, at best, like the first pie my middle sister made for the holidays at my dad’s house one year. It was a pumpkin pie. She did not mix in the egg properly. There were small strips of unmixed egg on the top of the pie. It was edible, but not great.
For many, though, it’s worse. Much of the world has been served some pretty shitty PIE.
Outside of the linguistics stuff I read about the relationships between living and dormant PIE languages, a lot of it is entangled with white supremacy, “Aryan invasion” hypotheses, and imperialism.
It did not surprise me to learn this. I am extremely disappointed, but nope. Not surprised.
Let’s gently nudge PIE back to the realm of (admittedly) speculative reality.
Pie is a type of dessert. There is a blueprint to how to make a pie. Our traditional family recipes must have started somewhere. Hidden in our deep past is a pie, or several pies, that started the tradition of gooey deliciousness. What was the first pie? How was it structured, and from what type of dough was its crust made?
PIE can be seen as that initial starting point for a set of languages. Many gods are likely descendants of the original worship structures of PIE-speakers.
But. But. But. Just because a word, or a name, can be traced back doesn’t mean that it isn’t a coincidence. For the example below, I’m making some heavy references to this Wikipedia page’s PIE etymology because Wikipedia is widely accessible.
The PIE people could have worshipped a god *seh₂u-el.
PIE Group A could have gone to Location A, continued worshipping *seh₂u-el, and evolved the name into Hvar.
PIE Group B could have pushed far to the south, stopped worshipping *seh₂u-el over the course of several centuries, and picked up indigenous worship of a similar god. Maybe they used a word from their language etymologically related to the name of their god, and that word is Surya.
We don’t have temporal resolution or time machines, so we don’t know the answer to that identity question — we only know our experiences and our inferences and our uncertainties. What we do know is that those gods etymologically descended from the PIE reconstructed word *seh₂u-el, including Sol and Helios. They do not necessarily have cultus that looks identical, but they often have common themes.
One of my biggest takeaways from Greek Gods Abroad was just how many places became Greek over time through language extinction, such as in Lycia, where vestiges of the cultus unique to gods in Anatolia remained long after interpretatio was first applied. Who are those gods? Are they truly Artemis or Rhea or Athene? Or are these new names that describe very different gods?
Even if they were the same, the worship styles for each god evolved in a specific cultural context, with specific reasons behind it. Those social contracts are important, and they trace a relationship between a people, a pantheon, and the gods within that pantheon.
The rituals, the names, the myths, the theogonies, and the cosmogonies are important. They mean something. Saying that there is a high chance that many of our gods are the same set does not mean that they are.
When one eats pie, one does not just eat the whole pie. There is a curve of diminishing returns. First slice is great. Second slice, you notice the sugar-grit on the back of your upper front teeth. Third slice, not feeling great. We should all take the slice of PIE that is appropriate and reasonable based on our best judgment, not PIE wholesale.
And sometimes you’re just curious how other people season their pumpkin pie, or you know the type of pie you ate, but could not faithfully reproduce it in your kitchen — so you just add the cardamom-spiced apple pie to your preexisting holiday arsenal and hope you didn’t miss a crucial ingredient to make that pie shine.
With that out of the way, I want to ground the examples that I have given with Helios and Dionysos in a few texts, starting with Parker’s synthesis of his chapter on Interpretatio (pages 75 – 76), followed by Sallustius from On the Gods and the World.
Thus there is no general answer to the third central question about interpretatio posed above: one must proceed on a case-by-case basis. I leave it therefore and revert to the contrast drawn by Jan Assmann between the easygoing attitude of polytheisms and the difficulty experienced by revelation-based monotheisms in living with alternatives. Assmann’s thesis has been sufficiently influential to draw a response from the scholar who later became Pope Benedict. It is important to take some of the heat out of the debate by stressing that it ought not to be about a supposed moral superiority of polytheisms, grounded in liberal tolerance. Ancient polytheisms were not tolerant, except by default; those who have searched for an ideal of religious freedom or tolerance in mainstream ancient thought have failed to find it until, late in antiquity, pagans faced by triumphant Christianity took up arguments earlier developed by persecuted Christians. In particular, polytheisms are not tolerant of monotheism; Roman persecution of Christians in the second and third centuries finds its parallel in Japanese persecution of Christian missionaries from the late sixteenth century onward, and no doubt there are many other examples. But what does appear a defensible claim is that ancient polytheisms, though not committed to religious toleration, found it very easy to get on with one another. I know no instance in the ancient Near Eastern or classical worlds of intercommunal violence between polytheist groups based on religious difference. The grounds for this easy coexistence are doubtless various; the absence of doctrine based on revelation is one; the loose link in polytheisms between religion and the moral code is another; but a third is surely the shared assumption, grounded in interpretatio, that at the bottom the gods you worship are also the gods I do or might worship. Think how different, for instance, relations between Greeks and Romans would inevitably have been without the easy acceptance of the other’s gods as the same as one’s own. Perhaps it is a mistake to speak of ancient polytheisms in the plural at all. From an actor’s perspective the world was divided between different countries and tribes and political systems, but it was not divided between different gods: there was only one ancient polytheism, one set of gods ruling the entire world.
I also quoted this passage in my review, but I would like to get at a few things in synthesis with some other texts. First, “not tolerant, except by default” means that polytheisms do not feel threatened by other gods and pantheons; tolerating assumes that one is mitigating a stressor that could get in the way of treating others with civility. If there is no stressor, tolerant is a questionable term.
Second, to refer again to the comments section on the review post, this passage comes at the close of a chapter — with plentiful examples — that discusses how, when, and by whom interpretatio was done in the Greco-Roman world. Parker also attempts to get at why these names are seen and what is going on, and he himself admits to some speculation.
There is another bit of the passage, though, that I would like to stress, and it requires reaching back to another passage, this time on page 59:
[S]ome gods have not yet been discovered by some peoples; every people’s understanding of them is different and, very probably, in some measure imperfect. A supposedly foreign god may be identical with one of one’s own without that identity being obvious to mortal knowledge. The powers of a foreign god might always have been available, but unrecognized, in one’s own country; the introduction of a foreign god would represent not in fact its introduction but the introduction of its cult, the activation of a neglected potential.
I disagree with “in some measure imperfect”; an apple pie is no less perfect without cardamom than with it, and if I decided to add cardamom to a pie, it just means that I like cardamom and judge it appropriate. A pie recipe can change based on desire. I syncretize Seshat and Mnemosyne, who are probably the same goddess in different pantheon media, but I also worship them separately.
Sallustius said, in XVIII, that “the whole world cannot enjoy the providence of the Gods equally, but some parts may partake of it eternally, some at certain times, some in the primal manner, some in the secondary.” While he was talking about rejections of gods and how gods are still there even after that happens, I’ve always taken a broader approach to this statement.
In my view, some gods may be the same in many places, but not all gods are the same in all places. The “set” to which Parker is referring could easily be a generic set of gods, the many, some of whom combine into relationships in a way that is defined as a pantheon.
Interpretatio is an intermediary point between saying “all gods are the same” and “every god is different” insofar as it remains open to the possibility of sameness between Dionysos and Acan, or between Minerva and Athene, without declaring that they are or that they must be due to there being some finite set.
It is not the same as a Platonic statement like “the Dionysos in Acan” insofar as the concern here is an open-ended inquiry into who, one with an answer that is not quite so important as people agonizing over making correspondence tables of deities might like to think.
Sometimes there can just be uncertainty. That’s what relationships are like. They need to be experienced with an undercurrent of checks and balances.
In Dionysos’ case, what gives me reasonable suspicion that they could be the same was not seeing a list of divine offices; it was seeing the iconography of Acan’s vessels and reading into the visual of the depth in them, recalling Zagreus in the back of my mind, and thinking of what Dionysos did to Pentheus. The offices certainly helped, but there is a lot that cannot be said in words. I might burn a skull candle for Dionysos if I find one, but it won’t impact how I refer to lim in hymns or conceptually while tracing out ler pattern in my mind.
I am a hard polytheist, which means that I believe in the existence of many gods. However, throughout this post, I hope I’ve made my position clear on what I mean when I think many and some of my ideas about the nature of the gods. And of course there are things that are difficult to know.
But in any case, Happy π Day, and if you’re reading this on the 14th after sunset, Happy Asklepieia.