Space and the Gods

So i was grading student papers this week and one of them made the comment tangentially that we always seem to think of god or the gods as looking down on us from above. This stopped me in my tracks and I thought “yeah, we do.” I’ve been wondering why ever since. I mean, it’s certainly a spatial representation of the implied hierarchy that exists between Gods and people. But there’s got to be more to it than that. There’s no theological reason for us to automatically position the Gods physically above us in space. This is particularly true of those traditions that hold that God or the Gods is/are everywhere. I find it funny and intriguing and very, very interesting that this seems to cross religious boundaries. Is it just the localization of religious iconography in temples and churches and other religious spaces that tend to place the images of the Gods above us or at least taller/higher than we? Does it just come down to the influence of art and architecture? Or is there something inherent in the religious experience that translates into this spatial presentation? Or is it something else all together or a combination of factors? What do you all think, folks?

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Posted on November 12, 2015, in theology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I think of the Gods coming from the energy they are. For example, Chango comes from fire, a lightning bolt, or the drum beat. Never from heaven.

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  2. I know there are many Pagan (and other) religions who see their Divinities as being up on mountaintops. Even in the Judaeo Christian religions, where God is frequently seen as being everywhere, Moses does have to ascend a mountain to receive the 10 Commandments. It may root from the semantics of “above” and “over” — consider the lines of emperors where no one could be standing if the Emperor was not — anyhow, that’s a rough initial thought about this, thanks for the earworm… (Overall, I think it’s a multiplicity of factors…)

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  3. It may have something to do with the ancient division of the universe into underworld/this world/upperworld (Sea/Land/Sky to use Celtic terminology), with the upperworld Powers being more approachable… then we have the whole semantic loading that goatsandgreens mentioned… I have to wonder how much of it is due to the Gnostic idea of the material world being bad and the need to escape from it… much of that philosophy is couched in ascent terminology. You’d know better than I on this, Galina: do the ancient philosophers speak of the good or the ideal as being above this world, or apart from it?

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  4. The ancients did see powers everywhere, but they looked to the pageant of the sky as inspiration for a large part of mythology and spiritual inspiration. Not to mention as the core of an esoteric spiritual way (eg., Mithraic and Neoplatonic Mysteries).

    This is not to adumbrate or ignore the valuable lessons from chthonic and aquatic powers, but even many of the ancient peoples seemed to treat those with a bit more fear.

    How any of us relate to the different realms and their powers is part temperament and part fate, though.

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  5. Afterthought: it may be even more atavistic than that. If you assume a meditative position and pay attention to how your receptors are activated, then observe the changes from looking up vs. looking down… this may be idiosyncratic, but I feel more of an exaltation from looking up.

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  6. I agree that it’s interesting, but the only thing that keeps coming into my head is the Ancient Alien guy from the History channel. I could hear him saying “obviously, it’s Aliens…” Haha!

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  7. In most Grecian theology the gods are above and below. Of two realms. As goatsandgreens mentioned of the holy mountain idea. Even the deities we associate with the heavens (Olympians) are still terrestrial. Also they often have a counterpart or equivalent epithet for what role they take in their various spatial environments.

    In more esoteric Hellenic traditions Zeus actually consumes the universe and orders it to his own. Meaning we live in the belly of Zeus. In these stories Zeus is akin to the All deity found in other and later esoteric text. His presence is everywhere but his domain is external of the universe.

    As a matter of thinking in terms of anthropology, the sky was a mystery and an important part of life, especially time keeping – when to plant crops. For example: with the ‘Minoan’ culture on Crete there are examples of “Sun Caves” used for tracking the year. This includes both the sun (sky) and the cave (chthonic): one unable to work without the other. No doubt the poetry of this interaction was not lost on the ancient peoples. (Of note: most often sun caves are found on holy mountains).

    Lastly, as a personal note. I used to have my altars at around waist level (on a table) but since I moved into my current place, I’ve put most of them up high. I much prefer this because it feels like my gods are watching me, I feel comforted and their presence.

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  8. I think it is very much a separation thing. With Olympos for instance, the great height could have been considered foreboding and insurmountable. There is a certain unattainability of those who are not directly received by the gods being able to join the company of the gods by their own will. Yet the gods aren’t there *all the time*. It is primary but not exclusive. The gods have favored dwellings very much alongside mortals. Temples themselves were considered localized regional houses for the gods. Therefore the gods are unattainable and separate from us and yet and do choose to be among us in the very nature of the world around us. I dn’t think that the gods are always aloof and above exclusively but that it is a yes and no mix. They are both here and there. Present and afar.

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  9. In some of my prayers, and at times where I used t say thing like “Gods above!” in exasperation, I actually make sure to include “Gods above, below, and between!” After all, Jörð is right beneath my feet, as is Hela and many of my Ancestors.

    I think that spatial presentation does factor into some, if not a lot of our spiritual experiences. When I work with the landvaettir, I often will kneel, genuflect, or prostrate myself on the ground, and directly address the ground, tree, or what I happen to be working with, praying, or offering to.

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  10. I suspect that because there are notions of “heavenly” Deities, and “the heavens” are seen to be above us, and eventually were understood to extend out far beyond the atmosphere of the Earth, it has simply extended in that fashion.

    If one looks at Hindu ideas, they seem to have come on board (at least in popular religion) with the idea that the upper, heavenly realm of the Gods is out in space as well. In the Jai Hanuman series, whenever they went to see some of the higher Deities like Vishnu and Brahma and such, space, planets, and stars were shown as the background. Since they even have ideas of flying chariots and such, these have very simply been understood as highly advanced flying vehicles…not quite “Ancient Aliens” level, but similar. 😉

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  11. I think it has a lot to do with architecture as well as the creation/concept of sacred space. I think it also has to do with our concepts of hierarchy as well as protocols of deference/respect and a theology of the relationship between human and Deity/Sacred Being.

    Funny; I remember writing a paper that partly dealt with the spacial issues when it came to Christian worship in English culture between the 1600s and 1700s depicted in poetry. God was interpreted as Overseer and Overlord, watching *over* the masses. Interestingly enough, Erich Przywara, in his ‘Analogia Entis,’ talks about God being paradoxically in-and-beyond us. God is with us intimately, knowing the deepest core of ourselves, knowing us better than we do; and yet God is outside of space, time, and demarcated cosmology. (There are a lot of problems with this, especially with stuff like the Christological controversies).

    It’s definitely something to thinking about. I’m always thinking about this; where the gods are walking and how people interpret (and react to) this.

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