Saturday, March 12, 2011

Polytheism and Catastrophe

There is a popular bit of Japanese history, pertaining to the 13th century CE, involving the attempt of the Mongol army to invade the country. On both occasions the fleets were repelled and then subsequently destroyed by Typhoons. The term which was developed for this phenomenon would later be used by the Japanese during the Second World War, Kamikaze (wind of the gods). Ignoring the more recent appropriation of the term, the basis of the concept is essentially that the Kami (in this case, most often identified as Fūjin and Raijin) protected the Japanese islands (and subsequently the Japanese themselves) from invasion; in other words divine intervention. In this particular instance, divine intervention through a type of storm most commonly associated with "natural disasters". I have read, though for the moment have forgotten the source, that this resulted in a resurgence in the (then) waning belief in the tenants of Shinto, few could doubt the existence or influence of the Kami after such an obvious display of their power, and the benefit of cultivating the proper relationship with them.

This got me to thinking, well this and what occurred in Japan this week, about a polytheistic view of natural disasters, and what role (if any) deities play in them. I could go on and on about the sort of Christian triumphalist commentary I have seen regarding this (and past) disasters, and how the disaster correlated with some slight against the god of the Christians, but this has always been one of the issues under the wider scope of theodicy, so I'll leave the monotheists to worry about it. No, my thoughts fall on the relationship between deities who have overt or tacit associations with natural phenomena or features, and so called disasters.

In Irish sources, we can observe some examples, albeit it on a much smaller scale. In one tale, we learn that the arrival of the Tuatha De Dannan caused a three day solar eclipse. In another An Dagda is able to keep the sun in the sky for a full year, making it appear that only a single day has elapsed. During the mustering of the forces of the Tuatha De Dannan, we are told that the Cup Bearers will bring a great thirst upon the host of the Formoii, the Druids will rain down fire, and two "witches" will cause the trees, stones and sods to fight on the side of the TDD. In later tales, we learn that the mortal men of Ireland must cultivate a proper relationship with the gods in order to ensure good crops and herds. In other tales, we see that a weds a tutelary goddess of sovereignty in order to foster plenty in his kingdom, and that want and even famine is a reflection of the state of the king and their fitness to rule. In the mythic, and some historic texts, we see then that there is a strong correlation between the gods and the natural environment. When we get to relationships between humans and deities, that link seems to be even stronger.

So then, what of natural disasters? Do we (as polytheists) simply accept that tectonic and seismic events resulted in a shift, leading to a massive earth quake and subsequent tsunami, or is there more to it? Is this an issue best explored through a combination of scientific knowledge and mythic thinking? Could a natural disaster ever be the result of pissing off a deity? Alternatively, could some environmental event which is beneficial be divine in origin? Is either of these perspectives too literal minded? I have a number of opinions myself, but I am curious what others think. If animistic and polytheistic deities are connected to (or have influence over) natural features and phenomena (which they often do), what role to they play in events which negatively or positively impact on the welfare of human societies?


  1. Personally I think that sometimes these types of things could be the workings of deities or really powerful spirits of a place. I would suspect that limitations would be there too {especially one of geography}.

  2. I don't dwell on this sort of subject often so I just have this fuzzy notion that it's both science and deity just doing their thing without any regard for us. I know in the pantheon I worship there are certain gods that seem older and more primordial than others and they seem to have less of a care for humanity than some of the more contemporary gods who have closer ties to civilization.

  3. There's an interesting article here about the Shinto religion's take on this which is relevant to your questions. I agree with what it says.

  4. Thanks a lot for the link, it was very insightful.