The idea that one might claim to be the biological child of a God seems curious today, even amusing. What sort of hubris does it take to claim divine descent? These trepidations are largely a relic of Christianity. The Christian faith only has room for one Son of God who died so that Sin might be forgiven: when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead he will dispense altogether with mangers and virgins. To claim Divine parenthood is to nullify the meaning of Christ’s paschal sacrifice and the raison d’etre for His Church. For centuries the Church burned those claimed divine descent as heretics and blasphemers: today we merely laugh at them and call them insane.
Yet many tribal legends spoke of divine ancestors. The Minoan civilization was founded by the son of Zeus and a beautiful Phoenician princess named Europa. Tacitus noted that the Germanic tribes claimed descent from Tuisto, a deum terrum editum (God who had issued forth from the earth). Even today many Japanese believe their Emperor is a descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu. The idea that the Gods might sire children would not have seemed odd or unusual to our ancestors. Indeed, they likely thought themselves the product of a long-ago divine union between a God and a mortal. If we are to reconstruct our ancestral faiths we might do well to explore this question: what does it mean to have a God’s blood flowing in your veins?
Above all else it implies a special familial relationship to the Deity. You weren’t just a worshipper or a believer: you were a literal child of the Gods. This was a matter of preeminent importance. In pre-Christian Europe kin and clan were the axes on which our ancestors defined their identity and constructed their moral and ethical systems. The ties of ancestry conferred tremendous rights and responsibilities. While post-Enlightenment Western society places primary importance on the individual, the people of pre-Christian Europe defined themselves by their blood ties and by their status within the clan. A person without family and without Gods was not a person at all. While we identify “outlaws” as cool and sexy, being outlawed in Viking Europe meant a slow death from exposure and starvation.
The God of Monotheism holds sway over every drop of rain, every star and every hair on every head: the Gods of pre-Christian Europe were entangled in wyrd and fata just like Their subjects. Like us the Gods were forced to carve order out of chaos; like us They were subject to the inexorable laws of time and nature; like us They came up with varying answers to the thorny questions attendant upon Being. Our ancestors did not worship their Gods because They were all-knowing, all-powerful, or all-loving. Our ancestors worshipped them because They were Gods, and because they were kin. They were partners in our struggles and we partners in theirs. In protecting their tribe our ancestors protected their Gods: the clan’s victories were divine triumphs and its defeats divine setbacks.
Many today are very uncomfortable with the idea of blood-ties and ancestral religions: they assume any expression of ancestral faith must inevitably degenerate into xenophobia and racism. While there was certainly no shortage of warfare in pre-Christian Europe, there was very little in the way of religious war. Rome fought Carthage and Egypt for control of the Mediterranean, not over theological disputes: the Roman Senate never felt it necessary to wax indignant over the horrors of baby sacrifice or to condemn the evils of Sekhmet-worship. The idea a continent might be wracked with centuries of war over the question of consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation would have seemed madness to our pre-Christian ancestors.
In positing One God, Monotheism also gives us One Truth and One Way. A singular Creator acts according to Hir singular Plan formulated in accordance with Hir singular Knowledge. Anything which fits into that Plan is Good: anything which runs counter to it must of necessity be Evil. (It is telling that even in the strictest Monotheist faiths the One God is accompanied by an Adversary who takes the rap for creation’s multitudinous shortcomings). Polytheism has far less tendency to stumble into the pitfalls of Manichean dualism. If I am descended from Gods, so too are my neighbors, acquaintances, friends and enemies. If my Gods have a master plan, so do theirs.
This approach may be discomforting at first: it lacks the warm comfort of easy answers to difficult questions. But it is ultimately a more accurate and more fruitful vision of reality. The God of Monotheism is kept safely hidden away in a “Golden Age” when He talked with prophets and took a more hands-on approach to things. The Gods of Polytheism are present in blood and bone; in fire and water; in earth and sky. They still dream and still work to make those dreams manifest: They embody this world even as They transcend it. We will understand our Gods only when we see Them in ourselves: we will understand the old myths only when we realize we are living new ones.