I Call It “Musashi Contemplates Caravaggio”
“A man cannot understand the art he is studying if he only looks for the end result without taking the time to delve deeply into the reasoning of the study.”
– Attributed to Miyamoto Musashi
Wodgar Inguing messaged me with that quote earlier today, saying that they are “words to live by” in studying the myriad polytheisms, with the implication that many practitioners approach devotional worship with a need for practice, an instantaneous gratification without fundamentally grasping the worldview which enables polytheism to exist and proliferate. I agree with this. But I think I would like to take it a different way, in a different direction, and in light of my most recent post where I had a New Age “Medium” tell me that I was wrong as well as intimating to my readers that a god was not “as described” with fundamental surety.
Westerners tend to approach the concept of divinity as a fixed end point. One interpretation. One unity and one Truth. Only one potential outcome. There is very little appreciation for variance. I have seen many people approach polytheism similarly, some less new than others. They approach the Gods with very little allowance for the conception of the multiplicity of the divine. It is a leading cause of fights between Pagans and polytheists online, because their individual views clash with each other, as they’ve all been raised in a paradigm where One Truth is supposed to be paramount over all others.
This was the fundamental cause of the “Savage Gods” controversy from 2013, when some bloggers overwhelmingly reacted against the Hallmark-esque commodification of the divine – the watering down of the dangers in dealing with Divinity and the misinterpretations which have proliferated because of it. This is a fundamental cause of the distinct polytheist reaction against Pan-Paganism and the idea of a single Pagan unity culture, because Paganism had largely replicated various social mores that invariably positions a dominant Truth above all others. And this is a fundamental reason why New Agers like Miss Medium feel entitled to come into a blog to tell their authors that they are wrong about their own interpretations of divinity.
The quote is attributed to Musashi and claims that a person cannot understand the art they are studying if they do not understand the reasons behind it. This is true. Whether it is swordsmanship or more formalized “fine art”, understanding the steps and theory behind it is paramount to coalescing and presenting the whole.
But “Art” does not have an “end result”. Art is subjective interpretation in the creation of a piece, the formation of a school, and the dissemination of a practice. Art has a beginning, but will never have an ending, save for the inevitability of entropic end. Subjective interpretation of one’s art which might differ from another collection does not inherently make either inferior or superior.
A technique is something which can be objectively measured – the stroke of a brush and a blade both. The drafting of a map. The lighting of a photographic project. If a technique is altered too much it is no longer the original technique, and has become something else, a new expression of skill.
But the beauty of the whole – of the art itself – will always be in the eye of the beholder. It will always be subjective. And while we can argue our reasons for it, explore our perspectives, and compare what moves with with a particular piece, it is still ultimately something which affects us individually and in ways which can not at all be reproduced in someone else in any verifiable, quantitative way.
In a sense, polytheism is like art. It is interpretation and expression, and absolutely does not and cannot place emphasis on any single Unity. There is no end point for polytheism, or for the multiplicity of the divine. It branches and twists, turns and splinters into a hundred iterations, a thousand views and infinitely more interpretations, all underneath the conception of what it means to be a “God”, many of which exist alongside each other under a wider religious umbrella. That which is conceptualized as a single divinity is ultimately – sometimes intimately – multifarious, producing a range of attributes, qualities, and experiences which can felt differently between people of the same household, let alone what would have constituted the differences between two regional traditions.
Just as the same figure could be painted in two different schools, two different palettes of color, utilizing two different styles of art, but ultimately be the same thing, so too can the same God be approached in a hundred, hundred, different ways. The ancient polytheists knew this. Contemporary non-Western polytheists know this. Western polytheists have to relearn this, or else they’ll never fully understand that their Truth isn’t One, but Many.
Woden is Oðinn is Wodan but they are not. Imagine Woden was a Caravaggio painting, because I like Caravaggio. Numerous people approach the painting, with different backgrounds, in order to base a project off the piece. A fine arts major who actively practiced in the style, an art historian who has researched the history of the piece, an artist who works in mixed media, a graphic designer, what have you. Each individual will have a different presentation of the piece, may from a different school of thought and theory. But their interpretations and representations of the piece will all express the same overall concept of that work – the divinity of the god.
They are essentially the same, and they are fundamentally not.
To claim that they are “the same on all other accounts except for mythology”, or some such, absolutely misinterprets the vagaries which polytheist understanding of divinity can manifest. A divine being might consist of several identified, overarching features which form a core conceptualization of the extent which we are capable of fathoming. These qualities and attributes, which are essential to our understanding of the deities may remain static, but ultimately they all allow a great variance in expression.
Conversely, religious ritual is technique. It is an end point, a framework. It guides the practice, and consists of prescribed and proscribed actions which lays the groundwork for divine interaction. Religion is a series of steps which provides the individual, or group, the tools to properly and efficiently engage with divinity. It is a thing that, if one changes too much, one is no longer practicing the same religious ritual and expression, but is practicing something different, and something else. In this way religious ritual consists of an objective quality to its fundamental nature, which can be viewed externally as either “correct” or “incorrect”.
Religious ritual is the education or experience which we can draw upon to interpret the subjectivity of the artwork. Swinging back to Caravaggio: a child may like and be familiar with the colors which constitute the Caravaggio painting. A high school student enrolled in an Art 101 course might be able to identify that same work. But it takes someone with the background in the technique, with the familiarity of the history and the nature of the presentation to fully articulate and discern that work. And even with that discernment, no two people trained the same way will feel the same about that painting, despite its quintessential features remaining static.
Polytheism would take both those experiences and give them a weight of Truth in its system, where monotheism would put them at odds until one or the other is triumphant and the inevitable universal perspective. Those Truths may not be equal, but they may not necessarily be unequal, either. They simply are.
A singular, universal, truth is not the end result of polytheism, nor should it be the goal by any stretch of the imagination. It is the multiplicity of those truths, the interpretation which hives off and is realized through schism, through syncretization, through revelation and experience. And the fights and assumptions over the nature of divinity, by in large, are the results of Western polytheists remaining shackled to a system of theological thought which is antithetical to the nature of their own professed theism.