A minor deity

Here’s a small figure, probably a deity, from the Ifugao people of the Philippines. This figure sits on top of a small container used for holding agriculatural lime (a misture consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), one of the constituents used in preparing a mild stimulant from betel leaf (Piper betle) and the nut of the areca palm (Areca catechu).

This figure, made sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, is probably an ancestor deity, or a guardian deity — akin, perhaps, to the household gods of Rome, minor deities which have retained a place in the collective memory of the Western tradition.

In the West, we tend to assume that a deity by definition is unitary (or unitary-but-triune), and transcendent. We forget that for much of human history, there were a multiplicity of deities that lived quite close at hand; and we forget that a significant percentage of humans today still live in a world where many deities live close at hand. And perhaps these close-at-hand deities have never really left our collective consciousness; today we keep our glowing smartphones always with us, just as the ancient Romans kept the statues of their Lares or household gods close at hand so that they might consult them constantly, to ensure good fortune.

Ceremonial deity, Phillippines

Ceremonial Deity, Philippines

Above: Sketch of a “ceremonial deity,” Philippines, c. 1930. Wood and shell. Asian Museum of Art.

One of delights of going to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is seeing the diversity of depictions of deities. Today I particularly noticed the unnamed deities — like this sculpture of an unnamed ceremonial deity, made in the Philippines around 1930. Why do we not know the name of this deity? Is it because it is a minor deity, and thus not widely identifiable (though perhaps readily identifiable by a devotee)? Did it never have a name that could be spoken by humans? Or was this a deity like the Roman Lares familiares, the household gods, who don’t seem to have had names, or whose power was so geographically restricted that their names perhaps were known only to the household they protected?

I think that the end of Christendom is allowing us to see such minor deities more clearly. In the worldview of Christendom, only the major deities — the wildly transcendent deities, Jehovah’s direct competition — were worthy of serious attention. Now maybe we can pay a little more attention to the many minor deities who inhabit the metaphorical space between those distant transcendent deities and mortal creatures.