Since I have become interested in modern Paganism and Heathenry, I have been fascinated by the issue of the relationship between deities of different pantheons. Generally, when this topic comes up, I find most people I have spoken to online adhere to a view that all deities from all cultures are distinct individuals. My purpose in writing this post is NOT to dispute that such an idea is a reasonable or practical way to be a modern Western polytheist. However, I would like to offer a brief argument asserting that the conflation of deities from different cultures is not an inherently philosophically or morally problematic approach.
I believe the rather poor reputation of cross-cultural deity conflation derives from the way in which it has often been done rather than the idea being problematic in and of itself. I view this issues as similar to some of the criticisms of “eclectic” polytheism – it can be hard to do well, it can be easy to do poorly, but is not an inherently inappropriate approach.
Two very valid criticisms of deity conflation are related to imperialism and what I will term simplistic conflation. Imperialism, in the way I am using it here, refers to the tendency to see one culture’s deities as subservient to another culture’s. As an example, some Greek and Roman polytheists would identify deities from outside of their cultural regions as “really” being Zeus, Mars etc. with of course the Greek or Roman understanding of the deity being the more accurate and true version. I think the problems with this approach are fairly clear – it is inherently dismissive of other cultures and speaks more to feelings of superiority and group identification than it does to any real attempt at a theological reconciliation between pantheons.
Secondly, there are numerous examples of simplistic conflation. Often this takes the form of “Deity X is associated with Y, so deity Z, who is also associated with Y is clearly the same being.” The problem with this is that it simplifies deities to a single or small number of characteristics and presumes such characteristics define the deity. For example, while I don’t it is inherently ridiculous to think that, for example, Zeus and Thor are the same deity, I think it would be a form of hubris to assert that this is an obviously true fact and/or that those who do not agree with such a conflation are clearly misguided.
I am writing this post because the idea that there are deities who are known in different ways in many cultures is intuitively satisfying to me. However, I believe that in order to do so in a way that is not disrespectful one must abandon the idea that the “true” nature of the deities can be known. I am not going to be able to sit down with a list of pantheons and discern what the “real” 12 or 36 or whatever number of Gods there “really” are. Since this idea presumes that deities can have vastly different roles and relationships in different cultures, it makes it practically impossible for humans to use those roles to determine if two or more deities are, in fact, a singular being. Accepting that deity’s identities are inherently unknowable also, I think, guards to some extent against the Imperialism and simplistic conflation I mentioned earlier.
If one accepts that some deities may be known in a variety of forms in different cultures and also that the nature of such relationships are ultimately unknowable, the practical effects in one’s personal practice may be quite small. Whether I think Odin is distinct from every other mentioned deity or if he has counterparts in other cultures, my relational activities will focus on his stories, iconography, etc. rather than those of any deities I suspect may be related to him. However, for me, I find it satisfying to think that the deities I worship may also have engaged in relationships with people of other cultures, and what is personally more important for me, is that this view feels right in an intuitive way.
I would like to restate that the idea all named deities are separate beings is not something I am opposed to or wish to criticize. I have just found that with time and experience, my intuition about the nature of Deities has been moving in another direction, and I wished to articulate a defense of this idea – to assert that it is not an inherently idiotic or morally problematic viewpoint.