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Author Topic: Hard polytheism, soft polytheism, and the transmission of deities across cultures  (Read 4489 times)

Redfaery

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Hey all. Decided to throw out a topic with a bit of meat in it for once.;)

My question is: how does the transmission of religious ideas and deities across cultures, and the resultant transformation or adaptation of those deities by their adoptive cultures, affect how you view the nature of polytheism? Does it make it harder? Softer? Are you a "squishy" polytheist? (Hi Jack!)

For example, the Romans treated Juno and Jove as cognate with Hera and Zeus, but their versions weren't quite the same. Certainly, Diana was quite different from the prepubescent Artemis, and Mars was not the same unlovable character as Ares. How do these cultural differences affect your beliefs regarding polytheism? Or...for that matter, do they make you not a polytheist? :D:
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Faemon

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Quote from: Redfaery;155535
how does the transmission of religious ideas and deities across cultures, and the resultant transformation or adaptation of those deities by their adoptive cultures, affect how you view the nature of polytheism? Does it make it harder? Softer? Are you a "squishy" polytheist?

 
Right now I'm very much a hard polytheist, not only after observing the changes cross-culturally, but individually. The best example I can think of is a sermon that I heard at the church of a sibling of mine. It's the kind of Christianity where everybody is thwapped. The pastor spoke about witnessing to an atheist friend of his, who basically said that there's no way to tell if it's really God or the angels speaking to your mind or feelings...or if it is your own mind or feelings.

The pastor concluded that it was up to the community, then, to check in with each other about what their god was really saying about a situation, and not just one person using the voice of god to encourage their own biases.

And I thought, well, that's no solution at all because every single one of those people could be using the voice of god to encourage their own biases, and at that point it's up to the cultural current, really, to determine which biases get more validation...if there were no capital-g God. If there were, then why is it so difficult for this real thing to be real for us to get real about it? Why does god, or the gods, remain so conceptual still?

So, for another (more pagan) example...I get thwapped by Odin. Some other Heathen goes, "Odin don't go around thwapping people of color! I know this because I'm godbothered!" Is it the same Odin?

It's a bit like Wittgenstein's beetle-in-a-box. So, at that point, I just have to say, "If you're just bothering me and not bothering anybody else in the same way, then you might as well just be a projection of my animus." But that doesn't matter if the experience of it is out of my conscious control; better deal with this appearance of an autonomous entity on the terms that it's playing out--which is intertwined with the mythology. The more I learn about the mythology, the more expansive vocabulary (or language, or toolbox) I have to make some sort of sense of what's happening.

Also, it's awfully cool if other sensitives or pagans go, "Who's that dude?" And I'm like, "You can see him too?" But then I'd get frustrated about whether metaphysics are an empirical reality or not, or if it remains a personal significance and never goes beyond that, like, "Make sense, World!" But the world never does.

So, right now I vacillate between squishy polytheist and pinpoint-singularity-diamond-hardness psychological polytheist.
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Quote from: Redfaery;155535
How do these cultural differences affect your beliefs regarding polytheism?

Generally, I'm a hard polytheist. In most cases, I view all the gods as separate, individual beings. When, for instance, the Romans conflated Zeus and Jupiter, I think that they were mistaken. When the Greeks assimilated many deities into Artemis, I think that they were mistaken. But in certain instances, I feel that linguistic similarities are too strong to deny a connection between some gods. Lugh, Llew, and Lugus are likely the same god, transmitted through cultural contact and/or conquest as the Celts spread across Gaul, Britain, and Ireland. Same with Brighid/Brigantia, or Odin/Woden. But, YMMV; I'm basing that on linguistic ties. I have not had much, if any, UPG regarding Celtic and Germanic gods. Most of my UPG is of Hellenic deities.
Which leads to my other bit; while I am generally a hard polytheist, to some degree I feel that the gods' personalities are partly formed from us tapping into greater energies than individuality can convey. And this conclusion was gained in part from UPG I experienced, in conversation with certain gods. Until that point, I was very much a hard polytheist.

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Quote from: Redfaery;155535
Hey all. Decided to throw out a topic with a bit of meat in it for once.;)

My question is: how does the transmission of religious ideas and deities across cultures, and the resultant transformation or adaptation of those deities by their adoptive cultures, affect how you view the nature of polytheism? Does it make it harder? Softer? Are you a "squishy" polytheist? (Hi Jack!)

For example, the Romans treated Juno and Jove as cognate with Hera and Zeus, but their versions weren't quite the same. Certainly, Diana was quite different from the prepubescent Artemis, and Mars was not the same unlovable character as Ares. How do these cultural differences affect your beliefs regarding polytheism? Or...for that matter, do they make you not a polytheist? :D:


I think I've mentioned on here before that I've realized I've always been a polytheist, because I've always just instinctively either praised or cursed the collective Universe whenever things go right or wrong. There are Things out there, no matter how flippantly or seriously I take them at times.  

I've also talked a bit lately about henotheism and the 'Source', from which gods emerge from to become our point of contact, and I'm still kind of hanging on to that one. I'd say that very likely the gods agree to become conflated, or work under the umbrella of God, because it just makes things easier in a global community.  

So, I'm a hard polytheist that believes soft polytheism can be a workable and more pragmatic option?
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Quote from: Redfaery;155535

How do these cultural differences affect your beliefs regarding polytheism? Or...for that matter, do they make you not a polytheist? :D:


I'm a Carvel polytheist (like the ice cream: soft, with a twist), and what you described is one of the reasons. Similar to Juniperberry, I think there are forces that flow through us and around us, that are simply too vast for us to completely grasp. Through myth, we can get a handle on them, however imperfectly, and begin to understand them. These same forces are going to be interpreted differently by different cultures as different gods, different myths...even though we're all exploring the same forces. And since cultures cross-pollinate all the time, we're bound to see gods merge and blend, change and separate, and borrow from each other all the time.

"The twist" is that I think that by what we believe, to a certain extent we may make it real. So in interpreting a force as Odin, it may manifest as Odin...which, depending on how pronounced the cultural differences are, may be a different god than the Wotan worshipped by someone else.
The first song sets the wheel in motion / The second is a song of love / The third song tells of Her devotion / The fourth cries joy from the sky above
The fifth song binds our fate to silence / and bids us live each moment well / The sixth unleashes rage and violence / The seventh song has truth to tell
The last song echoes through the ages / to ask its question all night long / And close the circle on these pages / These, the metamythos songs

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Quote from: Redfaery;155535
For example, the Romans treated Juno and Jove as cognate with Hera and Zeus, but their versions weren't quite the same. Certainly, Diana was quite different from the prepubescent Artemis, and Mars was not the same unlovable character as Ares. How do these cultural differences affect your beliefs regarding polytheism? Or...for that matter, do they make you not a polytheist? :D:

 
I consider myself a polytheist, but I personally feel that hard polytheism is impossible to reconcile with the evidence of ancient religious practice. (Unless you take the position that the ancients were mistaken, of course.)

Having said that, I also don't believe that conflated or syncretized deities are simply identical. I describe my view as "divine fluidity". Deities can combine, divide and do other things mortals cannot.

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Quote from: Gilbride;155565
I consider myself a polytheist, but I personally feel that hard polytheism is impossible to reconcile with the evidence of ancient religious practice. (Unless you take the position that the ancients were mistaken, of course.)

Having said that, I also don't believe that conflated or syncretized deities are simply identical. I describe my view as "divine fluidity". Deities can combine, divide and do other things mortals cannot.


You beat me to it! That's the gist of my position as well :D:

Quote from: Redfaery;155535
My question is: how does the transmission of religious ideas and deities across cultures, and the resultant transformation or adaptation of those deities by their adoptive cultures, affect how you view the nature of polytheism? Does it make it harder? Softer? Are you a "squishy" polytheist? (Hi Jack!)

 
I think pagans set up this dichotomy when it comes to polytheism, with the Dion Fortune-esque "All Gods Are One God, All Goddesses Are One Goddess" and the "hard" polytheism in which all gods are completely separate individuals and are always distinct from each other. I don't think either side really accurately represents how the gods were viewed in ancient cultures.

I'm most familiar with Greece and Egypt, so those are the cultures I can speak about. In ancient Greece, some deities had titles that connected them with other deities (such as Hera Aphrodite or Aphrodite Persephaessa) and the Orphic Hymns often poetically refer to gods with the names of other gods. The Orphic Hymn to Nyx refers to her as "Aphrodite", as both goddesses of the heavens who are in some traditions said to be the mother of the primordial Eros/Phanes. Apollon is called "Pan in royal guise" in his hymn, and Helios is called by the name of Zeus. In Egypt, the gods could function individually or meld with one or more deities. Egyptian polytheism reminds me a lot of Hinduism, which (generally) is polytheistic monism, where the gods are different manifestations of a greater unity.

I like the word "fluid" in reference to my own concept of polytheism. I like the Hindu concept of Brahman, which is the undefinable divine power that inhabits the universe, and of which the gods are personalized manifestations. Brahman isn't a god itself, but a power beyond our comprehension that we understand through divine personalities/gods. I don't have a problem viewing deities like Hathor, Isis and Aphrodite as the same on a philosophical level, though they do come from specific cultural contexts, so on the level of practice it could get confusing to mix them up too much because they have established traditions behind them. I see cultures as being different lenses through which people view the same divinity, so even if, for example, the Romans projected their own cultural ideology onto their perceptions of their deities at first, as they conquered Greece, they then mixed in some Greek influence into how they saw the gods, it doesn't really matter because it's the same divinity on a deeper level, even if the lens changes.

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Quote from: Gilbride;155565
I consider myself a polytheist, but I personally feel that hard polytheism is impossible to reconcile with the evidence of ancient religious practice. (Unless you take the position that the ancients were mistaken, of course.)

Having said that, I also don't believe that conflated or syncretized deities are simply identical. I describe my view as "divine fluidity". Deities can combine, divide and do other things mortals cannot.

 
This is close to what I think (very close). From where I sit, gods with similar domains (like ocean gods) overlap but each has a distinct zone that's theirs. Njord is/is not Manannán is/is not Poseidon. Like Venn diagrams of the gods, only without the hard edges. Or so I can best put it at this time of the morning. *laughs*

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Quote from: Nyktelios;155569

In ancient Greece, some deities had titles that connected them with other deities (such as Hera Aphrodite or Aphrodite Persephaessa) and the Orphic Hymns often poetically refer to gods with the names of other gods. The Orphic Hymn to Nyx refers to her as "Aphrodite", as both goddesses of the heavens who are in some traditions said to be the mother of the primordial Eros/Phanes. Apollon is called "Pan in royal guise" in his hymn, and Helios is called by the name of Zeus.


This fluidity suggests to me that many in ancient cultures may have viewed the gods the same way many of us do: as metaphors.
The first song sets the wheel in motion / The second is a song of love / The third song tells of Her devotion / The fourth cries joy from the sky above
The fifth song binds our fate to silence / and bids us live each moment well / The sixth unleashes rage and violence / The seventh song has truth to tell
The last song echoes through the ages / to ask its question all night long / And close the circle on these pages / These, the metamythos songs

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Quote from: Gilbride;155565
I consider myself a polytheist, but I personally feel that hard polytheism is impossible to reconcile with the evidence of ancient religious practice. (Unless you take the position that the ancients were mistaken, of course.)

Having said that, I also don't believe that conflated or syncretized deities are simply identical. I describe my view as "divine fluidity". Deities can combine, divide and do other things mortals cannot.

 
This is where I'm sitting at the moment as well.  Much like the philosophical question of whether you are the same person now as you were at 5 years old (because of the life-span of cells it's unlikely any of the same ones are still around), I don't find that this question impacts my practical experience all that much.  I treat the deities as separate in ritual and prayer, and they seem to appreciate it from me, so that's what I'm sticking with :P
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Redfaery

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Quote from: Aiwelin;155576
Much like the philosophical question of whether you are the same person now as you were at 5 years old (because of the life-span of cells it's unlikely any of the same ones are still around)

 
Mind *BLOWN*
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Redfaery

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Quote from: Gilbride;155565
I consider myself a polytheist, but I personally feel that hard polytheism is impossible to reconcile with the evidence of ancient religious practice. (Unless you take the position that the ancients were mistaken, of course.)

Having said that, I also don't believe that conflated or syncretized deities are simply identical. I describe my view as "divine fluidity". Deities can combine, divide and do other things mortals cannot.


I also tend to view deities as having more fluid identities than mortals, but I'd come down on the side of a harder polytheism. I generally treat gods as separate individuals unless I'm told by them they're not. ;) (Ah....the pleasures of an open head)

I think a good example of how this works for me is my journey with Benzaiten-sama and what I've learned about her through my journey. She's made it clear that she's closely related to Buddhist Sarasvati, but is not the Hindu version. She's distinct from the Sarasvati worshipped in Tibet and Nepal, and other Buddhist countries. She's the Japanese Buddhist Sarasvati.

Historically, this actually is kind of the case. Benzaiten was imported from China with Buddhism, from where she had been imported from India....where she was Sarasvati. So yes. She is indeed the Japanese version of Sarasvati.

Interestingly, the version imported from China was a golden-hued, weapon wielding warrior-guardian of Buddhism. Not much like the musical artiste everyone is so familiar with when you say Sarasvati. After she arrived in Japan, a funny thing happened. She began to be associated with water deities.

Once she was reassociated with water, like the Indian Sarasvati, it seems like something very important was returned to her, and her imagery changed rapidly. In fact, after she came to Japan, she looked much more like the "original" Sarasvati than she did when was imported from China!

So I feel like, even though in this case there was some change across cultures, a core essence remained, and was even rediscovered and reconnected with.
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Quote from: Altair;155573
This fluidity suggests to me that many in ancient cultures may have viewed the gods the same way many of us do: as metaphors.

I tend to agree with this, although I think there was probably as much variation in the beliefs of ancient people as there is now.

And I don't think there's any clear and precise answer to the question of how deities are related/connected/intertwined/etc.

I think there are certain deities that actually ARE known to different groups of people by different names -- the same way many people are called different names by different people (f'ex, I'm Aster here, Mom to my kids, Susan at work, Suzi to my friends, etc.).  I think Brighid and Sulis are an example of this.  And I think there are other deities that have been lumped together erroneously -- that is, they have some similarities but aren't the SAME being.  And I think there are others that are connected in some way we maybe can't really understand -- the fuzzy Venn diagram analogy.

I also think some of how we currently interpret deities' identities and relationships is strongly influenced by how their names have evolved over time. I posted this several years ago, but it still describes how I think of it, so I'm posting it again:

*********
Say, for example, that the pre-Celtic people who lived in Ireland worshipped a sun goddess.  There's some support for this idea, based on the limited archeological remains that date back that far -- like Newgrange.  We don't have a clue what this goddess's name was -- let's call her Jane.  Maybe that's her True Name, or maybe it's a title itself.

So, the pre-Celts worship Jane the Exalted Sun Goddess.  And as other peoples start to move into Ireland, Jane's people are either conquerred or assimilate or meld with the newbies.  The Janefolk explain Jane to the newbies, using terminology like "exalted" and "supreme" and "holy", etc.  The newbies get the concept of exalted, but their word for exalted is "Brig".  So, maybe for a while, Jane is known to the mishmash of people as Jane Brig (or Jane, the Exalted).  Eventually, as the original Janeites die out, the "Jane" part of the name gets dropped, and the goddess is known only as Brig, or Brighid.  Same goddess, evolved name.

Something similar could have happened with Sulis.  Maybe the Janeites originally emigrated from Britain into Ireland.  So, if Jane was worshipped in Britain, the same process could have occurred with newbies there.  The Janeites introduce Jane as Jane, the Exalted Sun Goddess.  The newbies key in on the "sun" part, but in their language, that's Sul.  So, it's Sul Jane for a while.  Then just Sul.  Same goddess, *different* evolved name.

Over time, the goddess's True Name, Jane, is lost.  All we've got are evolved names and clues about how she was worshipped.

I'm NOT suggesting that Jane was a Universal Mother Goddess worshipped by all ancient people everywhere around the globe.  Yes, there are sun goddesses in other cultures.  Isn't Hathor a sun goddess?  But that doesn't mean that Jane=Hathor.  Unless there is some evidence that the Janeites also had significant contact with the Egyptians, enough that the evolution proccess could occur.  But given the vast geographical differences and the time periods involved, that seems unlikely to me.
*********

Layered on top of this idea of name/title evolution resulting in the appearance of separate deities, I think there's also a kind of deity relationship at work that is unlike any human relationship.  

The closest I can come is job sharing.  I think there are many instances of separate deities who share spheres of influence or cultural roles.  And, like with human jobs, certain personality types may be drawn to certain jobs, so you often see people with similar personalities doing similar jobs.  It's not a hard and fast rule, just a tendency -- like how kindergarten teachers tend to be warm, generous, and fond of children.  You don't *need* those traits to be a kindergarten teacher, but they certainly help. And people with those traits tend to be drawn to jobs like teaching kindergarten.

And, to take it a step further, because of the same traits that make good kindergarten teachers, there might be a tendency for people who are kindergarten teachers to also do other sorts of things that utilize those traits, like, I don't know, volunteering to deliver meals on wheels. The same things that make those people good at teaching kindergarten also make them good at working with disabled and/or elderly people AND the same things that make those people want to be teachers also make them want to volunteer.

I think there might be something like that at work with deities, and the result is groups -- or constellations -- of deities with similar personalities and talents doing the same "jobs" for different cultures.  Which can look like it's really ONE deity being called different names by different cultures. Maybe those "constellations" of deities are akin to professional associations -- like teachers being members of the National Education Association. ;-)

For example, most cultures seem to have a sun deity. In many cultures, the sun is seen as, or associated with, a goddess. And in a subset of those cultures, the sun goddess is also a fertility goddess and a hearth goddess and the patron of crafts and protector of women in childbirth and the tribal sovereignty goddess who rights wrongs and punishes wrongdoers.  That's a lot of different jobs -- but they all involve the trait of caring deeply about the people of that tribe.

If the culture next door also has a sun goddess who also does all those other things, does that mean it's the same goddess working under two different aliases (as in the Brighid/Sulis example)?  Or are they different goddesses who happen to have similar personalities, traits, and interests, and thus were drawn to (or assigned?) similar roles?

We can look at any other traits and "jobs" and see if they all line up, and we can look at linguistic and historical evidence, but -- unlike the situation with two kindergarten teachers who also volunteer for meal on wheels -- I don't think we can ever know for sure.  

In the absence of evidence to the contrary (which could be UPG messages from one or both goddesses), I think it's more polite to treat them as different goddesses, since that's how they are presenting themselves.

So, I guess that's why I'm a hard polytheist who allows for the possibility of overlap. And the possibility that humans can't grok how deities function.

Sorry. That ended up WAY longer than I intended!

YMMV, of course.
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Quote from: Aster Breo;155597
And I don't think there's any clear and precise answer to the question of how deities are related/connected/intertwined/etc.

I think there are certain deities that actually ARE known to different groups of people by different names -- the same way many people are called different names by different people (f'ex, I'm Aster here, Mom to my kids, Susan at work, Suzi to my friends, etc.).  I think Brighid and Sulis are an example of this.  And I think there are other deities that have been lumped together erroneously -- that is, they have some similarities but aren't the SAME being.  And I think there are others that are connected in some way we maybe can't really understand -- the fuzzy Venn diagram analogy.

I also think some of how we currently interpret deities' identities and relationships is strongly influenced by how their names have evolved over time. I posted this several years ago, but it still describes how I think of it, so I'm posting it again:


 
No worries. This makes a lot of sense. I've been sorting through Benzaiten-sama's various syncreticizations in Japan (she was associated with a LOT of other deities). One of them was Nyoirin Kannon, who is pretty much obsolete these days. No one I've mentioned her to seems to know what I'm talking about. They just go "Kannon Nyorai?" (Not quite the same thing) However, the association between the deities who were and are Benzaiten-sama and the Boddhisattva Kannon still clearly remains. It's just really, really confusing to sort out.

They are both exotic, beautiful figures, and their worship often overlaps. The Inokashira Benzaiten shrine actually has a Kannon-do attached, and the Sensō-ji (dedicated to Kannon) has a Benten-do. The association between the two is alive and well.

But here's the thing: I am certain from my own experiences that Kannon and Benzaiten are different entities. Well...sort of. I know that Benzaiten-sama is a tennyo (celestial maiden, a goddess of Buddhism, as opposed to a native kami) not a boddhisattva like Kannon. Yet here in Japan, I've gotten strong signals from Kannon-sama, and they're very familiar to the ones Herself gives me.

To confuse the matter, on my pilgrimages to the temples and shrines, Benzaiten-sama has reacted to some images of Kannon with "Yes! That's me!" In the Zōjuji, for example, I had an overwhelming sense of her presence, and then suddenly an enormous statue of Kannon seemed to appear out of nowhere. Really. I didn't see it until it was right in front of me. "Here I am! Happy to see me?" she was saying. (I almost let out a few choice obscenities, because I swear I was actually a little spooked. The statue was HUGE.)

So, at the Zōjuji, she is Kannon-sama. Yet at Inokashira, she is not Kannon, and in fact, Kannon-sama is effectively her tenant. They are distinct entities, but I feel like at this particular shrine, you can't get in touch with Kannon without going through Benzaiten-sama first - not because of identity issues, but because Kannon is basically living in a room in Benzaiten-sama's house, and you have to ask Her if She's in, first. ;)

Finally, the experience that was most illuminating for me regarding how deities respond to their representations was a visit to a little temple called the An'yoji. (FYI: There are actually numerous temples in Japan called An'yoji. It literally means "World Peace Temple" so you can imagine what a popular name choice it is. I've come across 2 just in this one part of Tokyo alone). This temple had a Buddha hall and a Boddhisattva hall, and it also had a grotto dedicated to Kannon. However, a member here pulled it up as being on a list of Benzaiten spots. So I visited.

There was actually no Benzaiten shrine there. The Kannon grotto had likely been mistaken for a Benzaiten shrine. Why? Well, the iconography was....confusing. There was a small torii perched in the bushes, and the main feature of the grotto was a stone dragon fountain that gushed water in an abundant spout. The icon itself was a feminine image of Shō Kannon. When I saw the whole setup, I was honestly very confused. The dragon and torii told me Shinto, but the figure itself was clearly Kannon once I had a good look.

....and Benzaiten-sama herself was actually confused too. "Is that supposed to be me?" she was saying. "Have I been here before? Am I supposed to be here? Should I come here more often?" We were both really, really confused. When the parishioners told me in no uncertain terms that there was no Benzaiten shrine there, and the statue was indeed Kannon Nyorai, I felt like it only made things murkier, because it seemed like there really should be.

Some of the conflation and syncreticization to me can be explained by the fact that deities aren't omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent, and even they can get a bit lost as to who's talking to them, or what's going on. After all, we're talking about changes that occur over decades, centuries, even millennia. Can you imagine how hard it is to keep track of all the little trends in how people worship you for that span of time?
KARMA: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Tom

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Quote from: Redfaery;155604
However, the association between the deities who were and are Benzaiten-sama and the Boddhisattva Kannon still clearly remains. It's just really, really confusing to sort out.

They are both exotic, beautiful figures, and their worship often overlaps. The Inokashira Benzaiten shrine actually has a Kannon-do attached, and the Sensō-ji (dedicated to Kannon) has a Benten-do. The association between the two is alive and well.

But here's the thing: I am certain from my own experiences that Kannon and Benzaiten are different entities. Well...sort of. I know that Benzaiten-sama is a tennyo (celestial maiden, a goddess of Buddhism, as opposed to a native kami) not a boddhisattva like Kannon. Yet here in Japan, I've gotten strong signals from Kannon-sama, and they're very familiar to the ones Herself gives me.

 
Well, if Kannon is a boddhisattva, then she must've ascended to that position at one point and therefore started off as ascended. Perhaps she is in fact working with or alongside Benzaiten or started out working for to help other humans get closer to her.

Divine beings can also have working relationships with each other after all.

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