H is for Henotheism

At the time that I am writing and publishing this, it should be Good Friday by the Western Catholic liturgical calendar. It’s also one of the very few years in which it aligns with Great Friday for Greek Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches.

In the past, this was legitimately a holiday capable of bringing me to tears. I honestly cannot even say for sure if it was the conflation of my god’s son and his death with the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, but it is not, in my experience, a common time for Catholics to respond with actual grief. Even for clergy and monastics, it is a time of contemplation of sin, the mystery of his sacrifice, and so on. From what (admittedly little) I have gathered of the practice of Charismatics, even the great swells of overwhelming emotion that define such practice are stemmed in the inherent sinfulness of humanity requiring the sacrifice of a god’s son.

It is, in other words, very humanocentic. The event of the holiday is a death, but the remembrance of the death is not to grieve, but to solemnly give thanks for the benefit that death is said to have provided to humanity. Solemnly, because it was made inevitable by human sinfulness.

Analyzing it that way, it becomes very clear that my grief was, indeed, projection. The ritual celebration of a god’s death and rebirth resulting in a greater gain was hardly invented by Christianity—Odin hung from Yggdrasil, Osiris drowned in the Nile, countless fertility gods die in cycles of winter-death and spring-rebirth. But the notion of the benefit derived by the death of Jesus is traditionally that of regarding him as a literal scapegoat—placing the sins of a people upon an innocent which is then driven out or murdered, as planned from the beginning.

In the light of the death and rebirth mysteries of my own religion, it’s no wonder I would weep with grief. The benefit of humanity has nothing to do with it—in an infinite multiverse, any desired result could have been accomplished without bloodshed. My god’s sons deaths were not planned from before they were born, in order for them to be reborn, in order for the world of the dead to be created, because no justification or excuse was ever necessary for these things. In an infinite multiverse, it is inevitable that in at least one, they would be murdered, and no god short of the Chaos that the multiverse is continually born from could even remotely have the power necessary to prevent it completely in all timelines. It is a more a tragedy than a mystery—the benefits did not “make it all worth it”, they merely sutured a grievous wound shut, and though it has healed, the scars will always remain. Sorrow over this trauma and its unpreventability on a multiversal scale is a vital and irreplaceable part of remembrance.

Ironically, or maybe not so ironically, this empathy for the suffering of a god and his sons works both ways. I grieve for their suffering, their trauma, and I know simultaneously that my own recovery from unnecessary suffering and harm is not alien to the divine. There is a core of connection. I am changed by the experience of such pain, and they have been, as well.1

I often say, when necessary, that my beliefs are hard polytheist and I practice henotheism. The difference between henotheism and monolatry varies from scholar to scholar, but for simplicity’s sake I try to consistently use “monolatry” to mean worship of a god that implies no other gods are worth worshipping, and “henotheism” to mean worship of a god without any slight to other gods involved. It’s derived in part from the definition given by H.S. Versnel:

The term ‘henotheism’ is a modern formation construed on the acclamation εἷς ὁ θεός, “one is (the) god”. This cheer can be found endlessly repeated in inscriptions, papyri, engraved in rings and amulets—pre-eminently, though by no means exclusively in the context of Sarapis—and in literary texts. Nor is it absent from Christian literature. As we shall have ample occasion to observe, the acclamation does not (necessarily) entail monotheistic notions (“there is no other god except this god”), although this connotation may creep in from time to time. It denotes a personal devotion to one god (“there is no other god like this god”) without involving rejection or neglect of other gods.

—Henrik S. Versnel, Ter Unus: Isis, Dionysos, Hermes, Three Studies in Henotheism

In other words, I am using the term henotheism to refer to devotion to a god, where other pagans would likely call themselves polytheists with a patron. But I feel as though adopting the term of patron would not adequately capture the spirit of my practice. A bibliographical footnote to the previous passage from Versnel notes:

According to F. Stolz, Grundzüge der Religionwissenschaft (Göttingen 1988) 83, the term ‘henotheismus’ or ‘kathenotheismus’ was invented by Max Müller in order to indicate the momentaneous and selective adoration of one god as a result of a mystic experience.

There is, then, a historic relation to intensity of emotion and a feeling of a unique relationship between devotee and god, compared to any relation an individual might have with any other god.

This still does not exclude patronage, nor is it intended to. But it is, I feel, the term that best clothes such vulnerable intensity of emotion, empathy, and impact.


1. I should note that, in this, I have common ground with some Lokean heathens; for them, the suffering of the children of Loki and Angrboda also fits the pattern of tragedy to be grieved, rather than mystery to be celebrated.

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