The Greek Pantheon Test

I’ve been very busy teaching, and so this blog has suffered. So I thought I’d do a short screed of an idea that I have had for some time.roman-gods-4.jpg I have discussed what a religion is for a while now. Instead I want to ask today, What is a god?

Philosophers have always treated the deity as a high concept entity, something that has the attributes of perfection: all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent, omnibenevolent and so on. This is a view of God that is presumed in most discussions of atheism, the existence of God, the problem of evil and the like. But it is a very rare view of God in actual, you know, religions. The religions of the Folk have divine deities of all kinds, ranging from the all-too-human and fallible variety of Norse and Irish mythology, through to the distant and unknowable gods of Epicurus. So what sort of a test should we apply to divinities?

I propose a rough and ready kind of test I call the Greek Pantheon Test: If it would be a god in the Greek Pantheon, then it’s a god. Of course, a number of divinities not included by the Greeks, the Titans, would also be divinities in my book, but that is a matter of restricting divine beings to Olympus, which is a cultic matter. If Chronos were unknown to the Greeks, he’d definitely be included as a god when they were given a description.

This has some benefits, but also some rather counter-intuitive results. The benefits first: it means that we can deal with the sorts of deities that are almost universal, without artificially including or excluding deities as they match some prior philosophical canon, which is in any a case itself the end result of a long history of theological correctness in a particular tradition. Why aren’t the Lares and Penates of Roman domestic religion gods? Why aren’t the spirits of rivers and trees and other spirits of place gods? They act like gods in the ordinary senses, so, they are gods.

Now the counterintuitive outcomes of this test: angels are gods. St Michael is indiscernibly different from Thor or Mars or Huitzilopochtli as a god of war. Saints are gods. Mary and the Evangelists play a role as intermediaries between the High God and worshippers, just as the Vyantaras in Jainism, or the Demiurge in Platonism and the daimones in Greek mysticism. Jinn are gods. They have, as the Disney film put it, “super-phenomenal cosmic powers”. Prophets can also be gods. Ancestors, especially in the Confucian tradition, are gods. Devas in Tibetan Buddhism are gods. Any religion which has superhuman agents in it, has gods, no matter what the philosophically pure elite theology may say.

The Justin Barrett view of gods as “Minimal Counterintuitive Agents” – effectively humans with superhuman powers – ties in with this. A god is a superhero or supervillain. They are like us in all respects except their abilities or some other superstimulus feature. This is the folk view of gods, and it is something that philosophy of religion had better come to terms with sometime.

57 thoughts on “The Greek Pantheon Test

  1. John

    Tomas O Cathasaigh, The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt

    Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1977

    Very nice introduction that touches on some of the issues surrounding this approach if you have not already read it.

    What you are suggesting poses problems for clasification and morphology. But thats not a subject you are unfamiliar with.

    Interesting to see how this plays out.


  2. It also contains a very nice cite from one of Kai Lung’s tales which suggests to me why the study of belief must be based on evolutionary understanding and hard and detailed research rather than fiery ideologicaly driven rhetoric.

    “It is in reality, very easy to kill a dragon, but it is impossible to keep him dead.”


  3. There were also godlings, demigods, children of gods, and others with powers but who were not gods. I think your scheme might need demigods.

    When I think of god-formation I sometimes consider that in an earlier age, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill would become gods through oral tradition. And there are people in South America who pray to Che Guevara as a saint and (of course) think he answers them. Yet somehow the current pope hasn’t gotten around to beatifying him.


    1. I don’t expect the Greeks to be consistent here. Many of their heroes and Titans and what have you aren’t included. But if you changed the names and sold them back to the Greeks, they’d end up in the pantheon.


  4. “When I think of god-formation I sometimes consider that in an earlier age, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill would become gods through oral tradition. ”

    Oral culture certainly from when society become ranked is the subject of close surveillance by all competing social groups using such material. So their are a range of checks and balances dictating outcome.

    “We do not by any means think this was unnecessary to be introduced here, because the foolish and unwise people living in the diocese of Saint Kentigern still do not fear to say that he himself was conceived and born of a virgin. But why do we linger over these things? Truly we think the matter absurd to inquire further as to who the sower was and in what manner he ploughed or even planted the earth…………”

    Jocylen of Furness on the importance of fear and uniformity.


  5. I think the greatest problem here is that there needs to be at least two particular aspects to a ‘god’ for it to even be considered a deity in the first place. They would be Omnipotence and Omniscience, albeit I would probably settle for omnipotence. If your deity does not include those two aspects I could easily call humanity a god, our abilities at transforming individual lives and our planet are unparalleled by other recognizable consciences.

    The problem I have though, is that allowing a ‘god’ to actually be omnipotent, to change the fabric of reality by whim, would automatically put such a being at odds with Science. Science is based around the discovery of certain fundamental processes in our universe through the observation of patterns. Introducing an omnipotent being to the universe would destroy any value to the process outright, it would be like someone asking you to guess a number between one and ten and they change the number when you guess it. A god that could change the processes of our universe would make the point of discovering those processes useless.

    Unless of course it is a god which doesn’t interact with our universe in any way, in which case we can know nothing of him. The whole idea of religious scientists is paradoxical to me.


  6. Tendancy to class narrative wholesale as supernatural in origin has been the actual working problem with this form of analysis.

    i.e. all tales that form the standard pattern of the villian are assumed to be related to the otherworld god and therefore religious in origin and motivated by such concerns.

    A taxonomy issue.

    Of course if you are not defining religion as an exchange or relationship with supernatural powers it makes things a bit more interesting.


  7. I guess at this point the debate has been over for a while, but I still wanted to publicly muse about this: Would God Father himself pass the pantheon test?

    Personally I feel he would have been excluded for lack of existence. Now that really is a counterintuitive outcome, and I’m nowhere near enough of an expert to give any real defense of that feeling, but still it makes me wonder whether the goal of the undertaking is not slightly overambitious.

    I like the idea of the pantheon test a lot, but ultimately I believe it is predicated on the assumption that words must mean something similar just because we use them as translations for each other. They don’t. And that’s doubly true for highly abstract words such as ‘god’.


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