Earlier this evening, I was asked to contribute my thoughts on a frequently occurrent question – “What makes a God a God?”
Now in this day and age of ever-shifting meanings and the relativism that enables the worship of literal out-and-out demons or flawed mortal would-be ‘messiahs’ in personality-cults across the land, it is a vital thing to have some regard of. Yet it is also quite a difficult topic to get a handle upon.
To my mind, the way to answer the question is to look at what we mean by ‘God’ in the various Indo-European scriptural canons and the additional insights that can be drawn from them utilizing our mytholinguistic approach.
Words are pathways to meanings, although unless carefully considered, can easily become their obstacle (or their substitution) instead.
‘God’, itself, has two possible chains of etymological origination. It’s either from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰew- [‘To Pour’], or PIE *ǵʰewH- [‘To Invoke’, ‘To Call Upon’]. I suspect it’s non-mutually exclusive in that regard.
If the former, then it is ‘That Which Libations Are Poured Unto’, that which sacrifices are rendered to; and if the latter, then That Which Is Invoked – that to which liturgy is recited for, that which is called upon in the course of rites or prayer.
Now, this is not a bad place to start. Except it leads us into some … difficulties, because we also carry out sacrifices (or, at least, offer portions of sacrifices) ‘apotropaically’ – that is to say, to ward away attentions, from demons etc.
We also, likewise, carry out offerings of sustenance (especially in libation form) to our own departed Ancestors, and we may certainly call upon these and other beings that aren’t (necessarily) Gods in the course of our devotional activities.
(Theos, meanwhile, in the Ancient Greek – ‘That Which Is Placed’ – is similarly a ‘functional’ perspective oriented around our worship which is likewise lacking in essential qualitative characteristic for the ‘object’ of such praise)
In other words – it is not enough to say ‘That Which Is Worshiped’ is what makes a God a God. We worship any array of beings that aren’t Gods. Or, at least, we carry out the external activities which ought correlate with ‘Worship’ in that archaic context, for beings that aren’t Gods. Indeed, often we find that the ‘templating’ for our Worship of Gods is directly and expressly resonant with our respectful engagement with, say, mortal rulers or human guests.
I do think that there’s an element of ‘engagement’ to the ‘God Question’ – how it is that we ‘engage’ with Gods, that is; although that opens up questions of ‘subjectivity’. I believe that piety and that sense of reverence is a necessary component to the ‘Divine Engagement’ – yet somebody who is an out-and-out unironic demon-worshiper presumably thinks much the same thing for their preferred orientation.
We could certainly go through and approach the entire matter through ‘negative theology’ – seeking to define what Gods are via first taking the ontological set of what we ‘worshipfully’ engage with and eliminating the bewildering array of sub-clades within that which aren’t Gods, based around particular characteristics which disqualify them.
However not only is that unsatisfying – but it also leaves essentially unremarked upon the actual characteristic which enables us to meaningfully state: “yes, this isn’t a God, this entire set is not Gods”, etc.
And that just simply won’t do.
An interesting approach for our purposes is to go back to the more archaic stratum of common Indo-European theological heritage: Vedic Sanskrit, and Proto-Indo-European terms ancestral to same that are reasonably pervasive in their occurrence in other IE canons.
The most obvious of which is, of course, Deva. What does this mean? ‘Shining One’. What’s it from? PIE *deywós. Where else do we see it? ‘Deus’ in Latin, and ‘-Tyr’ (or, in plural, Tivar) in Old Norse. ‘Dia’ in Irish is another exemplar – as seen in the ‘De’ of ‘Tuatha De Danann’, for example. And, as everybody knows, ‘Daeva’ in Avestan and ‘Div’ in Old Persian – which in both cases refer to ‘Demons’ … because the Zoroastrians heretically sought to cast the Gods down and stop Their proper worship.
Why is this a useful and important term for us to focus in upon? Because of that ‘Shining’ nature.
Now it is not (necessarily) something meant literally. Otherwise we would surely encounter some ‘interesting’ questions when the Deva in question is depicted as being Black or Dark in colouration.
Rather, the question to be asked is what exactly this ‘radiance’ may be intending to communicate to us. Other than, one assumes, something on the order of YES be afraid – at least, where overtly necessary.
The answer is as simple as it is difficult to succinctly explain. Cosmic Order. Radiated into the universe via (inter alia) the Sun. Hence the persistent association of the Sun and Solar elements with the Divine Order.
There’s more – much more – to all of it than just that, but it shall do as a conceptual shorthand for the moment.
We can demonstrate this when we consider the deific, iconographic, and other such associations for the Sun. Solar Aditi, for instance, as the Goddess quite commensurate with Law as the Queen of the Heavens in Vedic terms, for instance – or Scythian Tabiti [a name, itself, connected to the Solar Radiance of Heat and Light] out back upon the Steppes.
The ranks of the Devas, therefore, in the broader sense of this term – are of the group intimately connected to this Solar Order. Even if the ‘Solarness’ of their Order is not necessarily on-show for every God at every point in time.
Odin, for instance, we can argue back-and-forth about the extent to which Solar associations are to be found for Him (I maintain that a proper consideration of certain details pertaining to His Throne and Hall(s), and for that matter, Flaring Eye – should demonstrate that such Solar linkages do exist for Him), yet with all the “-tyr” theonymics for Him and His membership of the Tivar, we can still trace the linkage in other ways.
Another way we can show that we are on sure ground with this is by considering the opposing opposite – the A’Sura, the Opponents of the Sura [‘Light’ – from the same root as ‘Solar’, ‘Surya’, etc.], Demons that are inexorably opposed to the Cosmic Order’s ongoing saliency here in this universe of ours. They are defined by their opposition to The Gods – and so, as we can see, they are literally nominatively determined via their opposition to the (Solar) Order.
There are other archaic Indo-European designations for the Gods (as a general clade, or as specific Gods amidst Them) which are useful in these regards.
Asura – note, not A’Sura’ – should stand out as an example. The way I tend to translate it is as ‘Sire’. For this simultaneously connotes the ‘Power’ and ‘Regality’ of one sense of the term, as well as the ‘Progenitorial’ sense of its other ‘facing’.
The likely derivation from PIE *h₂ems-, which refers directly to the ‘creation’, ‘birthing’, ‘begetting’ of other beings. It has attained a ‘Lordship’ connotation for rather obvious reasons – yet while this is relevant for our purposes here, I suspect that it is the other sense … the ‘familial’ sense and the ‘ancestral’ sense that is rather more appropriate to immediately consider. Gods being Gods because not only do They Rule – but also because They Found, They Create, They are responsible for Us. The Sky Father is, after all, the Ultimate Father – the Mother Goddess, likewise, the Ultimate Mother. Whether, in various cases, of the Universe Entire or some more specific portion thereof, we are still dealing with something powerful and which deserves our homage. In Old Norse, we have Aesir – and there are some *possible* terms from this same PIE root with cognate general ambits of meaning occurrent in other IE languages as well.
But to speak to the ‘Rulership’ point – this is again something which fairly frequently occurs in Indo-European linguistics and theology. The Regin of Old Norse refers to the Rulers – of the universe, implicitly. The Gods. And, again, Ruling with – indeed, It (or, rather, She) Rules through Them – the aforementioned Cosmic Order (Rta, Orlog, etc.) Absolute. Hence, ‘mere’ rulership is not enough to claim such a title nor such a mantle. Should demonic forces somehow manage to impose their wicked mastery over the worlds at large, this does not make them the Regin. For they are not righteously ruling – quite the literal and direct opposite. It is ONLY that Divine status – in foundational, fundamental concord with the Divine status of the Absolute Cosmic Order – which entitles a figure to Cosmological Rule.
There are, of course, quite an array of other and more specific ‘God’ terms out there – each of which contains within it important insights for how to regard the Divine either in general terms or more specifically. ‘Bhaga’, etc. – as the ‘Bestower’, the ‘Lord(s)’ responsible for the supporting of us through provision of the necessities of life (from PIE *bʰeh₂g- – ‘To Distribute’).
And certainly, we tend to find general clades – especially in the more ornately expounding texts of the Hindu canon – wherein there are, say, Vasus, Adityas, Rudras, and quite a bewildering array besides (all of which are similarly ‘functional designations’ and often significantly overlapping for some of the entailed most august Memberships in same).
Yet for general terms to speak of Gods in general, I think that it is enough.
What makes a God a God is that essential, indeed downright essence-tial, connexion to and [existing-as-] expression of the Cosmic Order.
Long May They Reign !