I’ve been investigating and studying Druidry for some time now and one of the ideas within this philosophy (as well as other pagan religions) is the idea of the Three Kindreds. Essentially this is another way to talk about the idea that there are three supernatural groups – the gods, the spirits of nature, and the ancestors.
Obviously, being a Naturalistic Pantheist, I do not believe in anything supernatural. However, does taking this stand mean I must reject all ideas of gods, spirits and ancestors or does the concept of the three kindreds offer something to a Naturalistic Pantheist?
Lets start by discussing the idea of “Gods”. Most Pagan religions are Polytheistic, which means they believe in many gods. In fact, throughout much of human history, most people have believed in a multitude of gods (Monotheism is a fairly recent and limited phenomenon that grew out of ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and its influence on Jewish and later Christian and Muslim faiths.) Undoubtedly, the ancient believers in Polytheism believed that they were supernatural gods and any reinterpretation we might do must acknowledge this.
So what does a Pantheist believe? Well the key idea of Naturalistic Pantheism is that the Universe is divine. Divine here doesn’t mean supernatural, but it does mean that it is worthy of the same awe and reverence a believe would give to their own god or gods. The universe shares many of the same attributes we might normally ascribe to them – mighty and powerful, omnipresent, eternal (its been there since the beginning of time and will be there until the end), majestic, awe-inspiring, creative, destructive, beautiful e.t.c. It can also be seen as the web of life, as in the modern scientific idea of Gaia. Personally I refer to the universe and the amalgamation of all its forces i.e. ultimate reality, as Mother Nature and for me she is the basis/ supreme “goddess” concept. Although this looks like having one god, and therefore Monotheistic, it is not. This is because Monotheism believes in a single Transcendent god (outside of or more than the universe) while Pantheism does not believe there is any transcendent aspect of Mother Nature. Similarly, Monotheism tends to see the god is personal, anthropomorphic terms, while Pantheism sees Mother Nature as impersonal, more akin to a force.
Is there still a place for Polytheism in Naturalistic Pantheism? Well it depends on your definition of Polytheism. There are two types – the first is hard Polytheism, which sees each of the deities as literal, supernatural, distinct beings with their own personalities. This type of Polytheism is not really compatible with Pantheism. However, there is something called Soft Polytheism, which is the idea that either all gods and goddesses are really just parts of one god/ goddess, or that they are archetypes (elements inherent in the human psyche) or they are personifications of the forces of nature. All three views of Soft Polytheism offer something to Naturalistic Pantheists. If I said to you “Thor” or “Zeus” the image that would probably come to your mind immediately is Thunder and Lightening. If I said “Aphrodite” you would probably think Love, and if I said “Ra” you would probably think Sun. The point is that these are all forces of nature, either physical nature, or human nature. Through science we may have a much greater understanding of them than the ancients did, but they are still forces that control and have an impact on our lives, and they are uncontrollable. Most of the ancient “gods” were simply natural forces personified. If we removed the names of these gods from the equation, we would simply end up with Sun, Moon, Rain, Storm, Thunder, Friendship, Courage, Love, Justice, Wisdom, Fear e.t.c. These are not supernatural things, they are natural, they are not personal, they are impersonal. They don’t exist separately from these forces or control these forces, they are the forces themselves. They are the powers that touch our lives and affect our survival, they are able to destroy or create. They are neither good nor evil, they just are. However, by personifying them and giving them names as the ancients did, it may help us to connect with different aspects of nature on a more personal level – to interact with them and show them (and therefore nature as a whole) gratitude and respect. Using the mythology and stories behind these gods can help us to feel a deeper relationship with the forces of nature and tap into our mind, emotions and spirit in ways science normally does not. It does not mean believing in supernatural entities, but it does mean using the names, symbols and mythology to enhance our relationships with and connection to, the great whole, the universe, Mother Nature. And just as Soft Polytheists see all “gods” as aspects of one god/ goddess, so we see each “god” i.e. force of nature and human nature, as an aspect of the one god/goddess – Mother Nature.
There is an idea within Paganism and Psychology called “the archetype.” I am not an expert on this so I shall share my own understanding of it, but everyone should investigate for themselves. The idea comes from Carl Jung, a psychologist. He put forward a theory suggesting that there is something called the “collective unconscious,” which is something deep and innate in every person and culture. It is made up of common images, metaphors and symbols which we then see arising somehow spontaneously in distant cultures around the world. I do not know the evidence for this but it is an intriguing idea and many people within modern paganism believe, as did Carl Jung, that this is the basis for the idea of some of the gods of the Ancient world.
This is a long post I’m afraid, but before I finish this section on Polytheism, I want to highlight a few ideas from two bloggers I follow who recently shared some fascinating insights. The first, from Alison Leigh Lilly, is the idea of “natural polytheism” which, if i’m understanding it right, is the idea that deities are more than simply forces, they are expressions of the relationships between ourselves and those forces. Talking of gods is a way of expressing poetically [our] relationship with nature and our human experiences of the “ineffable forces that shape our lives,” both internally and externally. The second is from The Allergic Pagan, who writes that “we need gods to encapsulate our values, emotions and experiences of the ‘mysterium tremendum’ that is nature.” There are forces beyond our control which exert an influence over our lives – nature, fate, genes, luck e.t.c and “call us to humility and an acknowledgement of otherness – to the recognition that the world is not an expression of [our] ego.”
The Spirits of Nature…
Ancient pagan cultures were Animists. They saw everything in nature as being “alive”, having its own soul or spirit. I have already written a post on Animism in which I wrote about the new ideas of “neo animism” – rather than believing that everything has a supernatural spirit behind it, it is about seeing each thing in nature as a “person” worthy of respect. In this way, we can re-interpret “Spirits of Nature” to mean all the living creatures of the earth, sea and sky – plants, trees, birds, animals, insects, fish, micro-organisms e.t.c. These are the “spirits of nature” that live with us and around us (and even within us as some bacteria does), both great and small, seen and unseen. It doesn’t mean that all these “spirits” are friendly towards us, but it does mean that we should see them as having “personhood” in a more-than-human way and should therefore we should be aware of them and treat them with respect.
We can also use the word poetically to describe “Spirits of a place.” In Japanese Shintoism, there is a concept called Kami, which literally means “outstanding.” Viewed from a Naturalistic perspective, anything in Nature, whether it be a waterfall, a great mountain, a rainbow or anything else that evokes within us feelings of great awe and wonder, we can call a “spirit” or “kami.” We are not saying that there is some sort of supernatural ethereal being controlling the place, but we are saying that there is something very special, something awe inspiring about the place and that it has an effect on us. Like the story of Moses and the burning bush in the Old Testament, we realise that we are standing on sacred, holy ground and must show this place ultimate respect. When we go into these places, we must remember that this is home for those “spirits” of nature and place, and we should act like guests, showing respect and kindness as we enter and perhaps even leaving offerings.
The Ancestors play a big part in my own faith and practice and, in the lead up to Samhain, I have been researching my family tree to get a better idea of where I have come from. Throughout human history, most human cultures have (and still do) venerated their ancestors. Showing respect and reverence for Ancestors, even though as Naturalistic Pantheists we don’t believe they live on as beings, is an important spiritual practice as I have outlined here.
There are various groups of Ancestors. The first are Ancestors of blood – every person in your family tree and bloodline right down throughout the ages. But it goes further – what about the fact that evolution teaches us that we have many other descendents – animals, plants, dinosaurs, fish even single celled bacteria. These are all our Ancestors. And if we consider the reincarnation of atoms. If everything we eat and drink becomes a part of our bodies – then the plants and animals we consume must become part of us and surely that too makes them Ancestors?
Secondly, there are the people who have influenced our lives, friends and people we know who have inspired or had an effect on our lives making us the people we are today – surely these too are our ancestors, especially if they are people we have loved and lost.
Finally, what about people we don’t know – those who have influenced and affected our culture, our local area, the places we go and see and experience. All of these things become a part of our lives so perhaps they too are our Ancestors?
In conclusion, I think that as Naturalistic Pantheists, the idea of the Three Kindreds has a lot to offer us. By using the poetic and symbolic language of Deity to describe both Mother Nature and the forces of physical nature and human nature that control our lives, we can connect more deeply with the natural world. By acknowledging the “spirits of nature”, the other creatures, plants and animals, as well as places in nature that evoke awe and wonder in us, we can learn awareness of and respect for those that live around us. By venerating Ancestors, whether of blood, culture or influence, we can connect with the past, heal emotional wounds caused by someone’s passing, and give thanks that they have made us the people we are today.