chapter  11
11 Pages

A few aspects of gods

In this chapter I raise some questions about gods that we encounter as we look at pagan cult. This is not, however, a book about specific gods or a book about mythology and there are significant difficulties in writing about pagan gods. It is no use just listing names and supposed functions ('the Romans believed in Neptune; he was the god of the sea . . . '). It is tedious and uninformative for paganism because paganism is not primar­ ily credal and there is accordingly even less justification for starting from official beliefs about the divinity than there is for Christianity, Islam and Judaism; to tell the god is not to tell the religion. Pagan polytheism is in fact a very complicated ideology and we need a lot of evidence to under­ stand why their systems of gods were configured as they were. It is maybe only in the case of Greece and possibly Rome that we have sufficient evidence. At the other extreme, with respect to the Slavs we only know about gods among those along the Baltic coast and among the Russians. We have little information, often eked out by imagination, about Czechs, Poles or south Slavs. 1


Pagan plurality

Early Christians needed to distinguish themselves from pagans, which is what they otherwise would have been. So the creeds of the early Church to an extent define paganism: 'I believe in one God, the Father Almighty . . .' (Nicene creed). Pagans, by failing to be Christian, fail also to 'believe in one God' . Characteristically, pagan systems embrace a great variety of gods and pagans are 'polytheists'. Because they do not believe in one god, there is no need for that god to be 'omnipotent' ('all-powerful, almighty'):

competence. Their functions and geographical areas may be, and usually are, circumscribed.