Wednesday, July 21 – What are the Valar?

6:00 AM The Valaquenta: Why a Pantheon?

The Valar as a Pantheon – The Text

 “These are the names of the Valar and the Valier, and here is told in brief their likenesses, such as the Eldar beheld them in Aman. But fair and noble as were the forms in which they were manifest to the Children of Ilúvatar, they were but a veil upon their beauty and their power. And if little is here said of all that the Eldar once knew, that is as nothing compared with their true being, which goes back into regions and ages far beyond our thought. Among them Nine were of chief power and reverence; but one is removed from their number, and Eight remain, the Aratar, the High Ones of Arda: Manwë and Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna and Aulë, Mandos, Nienna, and Oromë. Though Manwë is their King and holds their allegiance under Eru, in majesty they are peers, surpassing beyond compare all others, whether of the Valar and the Maiar, or of any other order that Ilúvatar has sent into Eä.”

Professor T. explains it all for you

“The cycles begin with a cosmogonical myth: the Music of the Ainur. God and the Valar (or powers: Englished as gods) are revealed. These latter are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making or re-making). They are 'divine', that is, were originally 'outside' and existed 'before' the making of the world. Their power and wisdom is derived from their Knowledge of the cosmogonical drama, which they perceived first as a drama (that is as in a fashion we perceive a story composed by some-one else), and later as a 'reality'. On the side of mere narrative device, this is, of course, meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the 'gods' of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted – well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity.” (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 284)

Why a Pantheon? Eru, the Valar, and Middle-earth

Tolkien seems to want both: a monotheistic world as in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, and a polytheistic pantheon of Gods as in the earlier pagan or mythic tradition.

A. Can he have it? Is there a conflict here?

Drogo drogo: Early a.m. ramblings about religion It's answering questions like these so early that make me regret having switched to decaf! :)

Tolkien's letter makes it clear that he is trying to have his cake and eat it to--that he is trying to create a mythology with a varied pantheon on par with that of Nordic or other ancient religions, but yet keep a Christian superstructure over the entire legendarium.  We should remember that Tolkien was immersed in Anglo-Saxon literature such as Beowulf, in which pagan elements were still present, but subsumed into Christian thought.  For its first millennium or more, Christianity often sought to absorb aspects of pagan thought in order to bring a population used to many gods into the fold of the monotheists.  Even in the much earlier days of Constantine there was a tremendous intermingling of the ancient gods and the new Trinity (early representations of Christ were derived from the traditional depictions of Jupiter, and the cult of the Virgin grew out of the fertility goddess rituals).  Thus having a Christian universe with a pantheon of pagan-looking demigods is not such a radical stretch of mind for a man who immersed himself in historical religious thought of ancient cultures.

Eowynthegreat: Wow! uh, what they said!

Pukel-Man: Within the Tolkien legendarium I'd say there is a tension between the poly- and mono-theistic ideas.  The Valar are, as somebody has already said, a committee rather than a true pantheon because none of the gods, not even Manwe, has authority to make full use of their powers.  They're neutered by their service and their ignorance of Eru's will.  As characters I find them interesting and colourful but as gods they disappoint me; they're rather dull compared to the wilful, independent pantheons of Greek or Norse mythology.

Drogo drogo: They are middle management The Valar are indeed very limited when compared to the gods of Nordic and Classical civilization, and they have very specific spheres of powers.  They really are mid level managers who know as much as they need to do their jobs, but don't have much authority to take initiative.  Manwe has what he knows of Eru's mind to guide him, but in many ways that doesn't protect him from Morgoth's deceits.  Eru, after all, has to change the world for the Valar when Ar-Pharazon lands with his marauders; they need to refer this issue to the top when the going gets rough.

Aragonvaar: A world run by committee... What he describes in the Music of the Ainur is not strictly compatible w/ a literal or near-literal reading Genesis.  But there are interpretations that could reconcile  the two creation stories-I hesitate to try to spell them out right now-it would take a while.  I don't believe that the reconciliation of polytheism and monotheism is that important to Tolkien, except at a literary or aesthetic level.  What is important to him, and what the Christian mainstream of his time usually overlooked, was the idea that subcreation-the creative impulse of created beings-is a valid and important phenomenon, endorsed by the Creator and pleasing to Him when well-used.  For further reading in this school of "theology of creativity" and how it might relate to the professional artist, I recommend D. L. Sayers' "Mind of the Maker", a book Tolkien and Lewis both found fascinating and close to their own theories on the subject.

In the Victorian period, there was a certain amount of fantasizing by poets and so on about how much more "fun" a pantheon would be than just one plain old God: some of the Valar's more "bureaucratic" moments almost look like Tolkien is satirizing the idea.

Erather: Eru's management style, cont'd The God of Judeo-Christian theology has a highly centralized management style: He is omnipotent and omniscient.  Many human cultures, perceiving the extreme complexity of life, the universe, and everything, are a little leery of thinking that a single Power, however mighty, can really manage it all, and attempt to derive some means of delegating responsibility.  Tolkien succeeds brilliantly, constructing a pantheon that features the same centralized overarching God, but then adds several tiers of management (Valar, maiar, etc.) to help with the details.  These management tiers are represented as having more power, authority, and responsibility than biblical angels and archangels, who seem to function mainly as messengers and agents, with little independent initiative.

The Valar are, in many respects, far more attractive than the gods in older pantheons.  They are reasonable, mostly cooperative, responsible, and often loving toward the Children.  Having just been reading the Iliad for the first time, I'm appalled by its quarrelsome, egotistical, and irresponsible gods whose jealousies and rivalries lead to widespread death and destruction among mortals.  What a contrast to Tolkien's model!

Lottelita: I don't see any conflict in Tolkien's attempt to have a polytheistic council of quasi-deities and an overdeity/creator (Eru) who can be viewed as another presentation of the Judeo-Christian God, because early Jews didn't, either.  Whether Satan started out as an angel or one of a council of deities, depends on whom you ask and which version of the Bible you're reading.

Annael: general musings on gods . . . In Taoism "God" is replaced with the concept of the Tao, which is never clearly defined because the basic premise of Taoism is that we are incapable of understanding the totality of the Tao. It's like trying to understand infinity. Many people find this too dry, too distant; what comfort or help is there, really, in shrugging your shoulders and going "who knows?" when what one really wants are some answers, something to believe in, something to live by?

Having several gods, or several aspects of God, brings God closer to human understanding. We cannot really comprehend God, but we can comprehend Jesus. We can comprehend Mary. We can comprehend saints. A pantheon of gods serves the purpose of making Deity something we can relate to personally. Perhaps it was comforting to primitive peoples, when thunder rolls across the sky, to think of Thor or the Thunderbird or Zeus up there hurling lightning bolts at some avatar of evil. It's still comforting, when bad things happen, to believe that Mary or Jesus is personally listening to one's prayers. We want to imagine a face when we think of the divine.

Beren IV: Paradoxes of Tolkien's religios beliefs Yes and no. From an intrinsic standpoint, the answer is yes, he can have his pantheon and his monotheistic God too. However, he has his pantheon take a very "hands-off" approach (much as Illùvitar himself does), and I think that the degree of non-interference by the Valar strains some credibility, especially in the area of why the Valar are there in the first place.


In the Christian tradition, Satan the fallen angel is the lord of a fiery hell, the underworld for dead sinners. But in most pagan myths, the Lord of the Underworld for dead mortals is not evil, he just has a rather grim job. There is no Enemy in polytheistic religions, because there is no One God to be an Enemy to.

B. How does Melkor/Morgoth, The Enemy, fit into Tolkien’s polytheistic concept, compared to Mandos, Lord of the Dead?

Drogo drogo: Mandos is the keeper of the prophesies and laws, so he is doing what Eru appointed him to do.  Melkor sets up the closest things to hell in Arda, Utumno and Angband, but they are distinct from the "underworld" where souls go into waiting.

Eowynthegreat: For real, they said it all.

Aragonvaar: It is incorrect to state that polytheism precludes an Enemy: Tolkien's favorite of pre-Christian mythologies was the Norse, in which the flawed but likable (by Norse standards) Valhallans are at war w/ the far more vicious and unsympathetic Frost Giants.  Who will ultimately win, but, in the mind of the Norsemen, that was no reason to side against Valhalla.

Satan is not, strictly speaking, the lord of hell, except in being its first and most powerful resident.  Hell is a state of rejection of/hatred towards God, and by extension all His works, including oneself.  The inhabitants of hell torture one another because they are consumed w/ hatred and spite, not because of any supernatural mandate or regulations dictating what they are to do so.  Melkor has no connection w/ the afterlife during his sojourn in Arda, and his acitivities later, after being driven beyond the world, are unknown.  Mandos is a mere bureaucrat of the afterlife, a more theologically refined counterpart to the sinister but nondemonic "Grim Reaper" of medieval legend or the Azrael (Angel of Death) of Jewish thought.

Erather: It is necessary, of course, to account for the presence of evil in the world: bad things do happen, often to good people.  So, we have Melkor, who started out as a brilliant nonconformist with ambitions to make independent music and creations, and through frustration and shame became embittered and set on a path of destructiveness.

Tolkien's view of death is exceptionally benign.  The halls of Mandos do not seem particularly unpleasant (probably more boring than anything else), and the judgements of Manwë and the dooms of Mandos seem reasonable and just.  There is sadness and loss due to the destructiveness of Melkor, but Melkor's main connection with death appears to be just that he causes a lot of it: he becomes a major supplier to Mandos!

Beren IV: Ah, one of the great paradoxes of religions that believe in a good afterlife! As a Catholic, Tolkien believes that death is not an ending but a transition into something better, but if the form after death is good, then why is death itself evil? Theologeans have come up with any number of answers to this, but this paradox presents a serious challenge.

Melkor is not a god of Death. He is a god of Evil, as well as some other things. Mandos just governs the dead and sees that they go where they belong. Melkor is obviously the Enemy, but just what you dislike about him so much depends on your outlook. For Tolkien, it was more the corruptive aspect, probably.

C. Why are humans so attracted to a polytheistic vision of the universe? What does the development of a monotheistic religion say about a culture? Did the Elves have any problem knowing that Manwë had a boss?

Drogo drogo: Ay carramba, I'll get my friend the anthropologist to post her doctoral dissertation on that!  Ancient religions saw the various elements of nature as distinct, sometimes clashing, powers, hence polytheism is not a completely strange concept.  Monotheism was a very difficult concept for many to swallow--look at Akhenaten in Ancient Egypt and how short-lived his attempt to abolisth the Egyptian pantheon was!  As I mentioned above, one of the ways Christianity succeeded in the late Roman Empire was by absorbing some traces of the earlier religion so that the transition from many gods to one God (with three aspects, etc.) was not such a jolt to the system. 

Within the context of the legendarium, we could say that the Elves accept this as a quasi-feudal system in which the Elves are the "vassals" of the Valar (mainly in being granted land by them in Aman) and then they see that Manwe is the vassal of the highest power.

Eowynthegreat: Why are polytheistic religions appealing? I would argue (from the point of faith) that it is written on the human heart in that whether people know it or not, they have an inate longing for God's order and that unknowing they create themselves what they can find closest to what they 'see in their dreams,' as it were.

Pukel-Man: I take a mundane view of religion. I think polytheism tends to evolve in fractured cultures while monotheism occurs in centralised or unified cultures.  Certainly the introduction of Christianity into various areas of the world tended to occur under a strong leader (or at least a leader who sought strength) who saw the merits of telling people there's only ONE god, and he says you have to obey ME.

Aragonvaar: I would say that the human race finds monotheism and polytheism attractive for different reasons; Tolkien and Lewis would probably say that both longings represent different truths about the state of the universe, and the angels and saints of Catholic and Anglo-Catholic theology are a more "correct" statement of the truth underlying polytheism.

Lottelita: Ask not, "Why Polytheism?" Because polytheism is, over the course of human history, the overwhelming rule.  If not for Constantine, monotheism would continue to be a tiny exception.  Better to assume that polytheism (and henotheism) is the default -- indeed, even early Judaism was more henotheistic than monotheistic. 

Polytheistic religions tend to identify nature's forces with different deities.  From

The belief in multiple gods is probably the result of an earlier belief in vaguely defined spirits, demons and other supernatural forces. These belief systems are similar to animism, ancestor worship and totemism. However, in polytheism, these supernatural forces are personified and organized into a cosmic family. This "family" becomes the nucleus of a particular culture's belief system. The family of gods was used to explain natural phenomena and to establish a culture's role in the universe. Typically, the number of gods would expand as the culture's belief system developed, eventually resulting in a hierarchical system of deities. Over time, the lesser gods would diminish in stature or vanish altogether.

I like the idea that polytheism arises out of ancestor-worship and animism.

93143: the idea of God Has anyone read Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man"?  He seems to feel that polytheism grows out of monotheism - or sometimes by pooling of monotheisms - as civilization grows. Monotheism is more natural to really primitive human thought, but the idea of the Absolute is "too large to be managed", and people let go of it.  He says, if I recall correctly, that such things as animism and totemism are probably seen in modern tribes as a degeneration of polytheism rather than a precursor (they've been around for as long as we have, after all).

The idea that monotheism comes first, and later recedes behind polytheism, is treated in Part 1 Chapter 4, with examples, of which this is one:

"There is a striking example in a tale taken down word for word from a Red Indian in California, which starts out with hearty legendary and literary relish: 'The sun is the father and ruler of the heavens. He is the big chief. The moon is his wife and the stars are their children'; and so on through a most ingenious and complicated story, in the middle of which is a sudden parenthesis saying that sun and moon have to do something because 'It is ordered that way by the Great Spirit Who lives above the place of all.'"

This actually sounds a lot like Tolkien's setup...

Another quote from the same source illustrates the difference in concept between God and the gods:

"It is in a saying I once heard from some Hindu tradition; that gods as well as men are only the dreams of Brahma; and will perish when Brahma wakes."

I am ill educated on the subject of Hinduism, but this is roughly the gap between Eru and the Valar, though the creative function is different.

To take another angle, perhaps the Valar, like angels in the posted reference, are there as sort of a buffer, not because God can't handle His creation alone but because it can't handle Him.

Lottelita: "The Everlasting Man" is an explicitly Christian work, so I'd take its value with a grain of salt -- it's apologetics, not anthropology.  (Very good apologetics, mind you, and Lewis was a fan of the book.)

Hinduism is in an interesting terrotory between polytheism and monotheism.  While its Gods and Goddesses bear strong resemblance to the Greek/Roman and Mesopotamian deities (and have a common origin, it is theorized), later theology said the multitudinous deities were all merely avatars, or manifestations, of Vishnu, the overgod.  It's no so easy to define this as monotheistic or polytheistic, and it's quite different from Tolkien, where the Valar are creatures distinct from Eru.

I love the "buffer" idea.  Eru is a very distant God, indeed, which is also a Christian sort of thing; the God of early Judaism was much closer, much more anthropomorphic, than the God of Christianity, who used Jesus as his intermediary.

Aragonvaar: Perhaps, but what he describes is a commonsensical and intuitively plausible hypothesis...

pertaining to extremely small, primitive and primordial social units of the prehistoric era, the kind we have the least evidence on.  Most arguments for polytheism at that timeframe/social level come from (so far as I know) the polytheism of modern "primitives" which is not exactly reliable, since we are not equipped to determine whether the modern "primitives" have always been in the exact same cultural state.  It's an argument from an analogy whose validity we cannot verify.

A similar argument from a similarly flawed analogy can be made from the world of comic books: the earliest forms were solo superheroes w/ 'ordinary' sidekicks, then a variety of reasons including the "stunt value" of crossovers and various publishers getting bought out by DC and Marvel, led to the idea that they all coexisted in the same universe and were ludicrously powerful together.

I believe that any attempt to use anthropologyto prove that monotheism, polytheism, or henotheism as being the "original" state of human religious belief is doomed to failure.  For the reasons listed above.

Lottelita: Indeed. I always hated it when my professors would offer up, say, modern Inuits as a supposed example of the kind of lifestyle and belief systems we imagine were prevalent in pre-history.  It's plausible, but it seems deeply condescending -- "These people's tools are no more complex than paleolithic ones, so their minds must be static, as well."

Aragonvaar: Yeah, we can't know what social changes or experiments such cultures have made over the years.... what might have driven their tech-levels up or down so to speak.

"Such and such culture has never changed its mind about anything since the beginning of the human species" seems an unlikely proposition, given the human species in general ;)

Curious: Please try to refrain from long subject headings, especially when you get out here on the end of a thread.  I was unable to respond to the thread about Lorien at all because it got pushed off the board.

Aragonvaar: Sorry about that :/

93143: an intermediary I'm not sure what you mean here...  I disagree that the God of Christianity is distant.

I'm not sure what the common people under Moses thought, but there was a law against making images of God (probably for good reason).  He was distant, in a way - everything exists because He causes it to, but however close the relationship, it was relatively one-way until Jesus showed up.  Christians don't see Jesus as an intermediary separate from God; He is literally God and man at the same time, bridging the gap that existed in pre-Christian times.

Of course, we are still shielded from the direct perception of God as God - all we see is the man.  I heard it said once that if an ordinary man perceived even an angel directly, he would die.  Very possibly that sort of thing didn't occur to the early Jews, although (perhaps under the influence of the prohibition of idols) they seem to have progressed rather rapidly to the idea that seeing the face of God meant death...

Lottelita: Well, here we get into the difference between doctrine and text. I don't know that Jesus ever once claims to be God.  The Gospel in which he most fervently claims divinity is John, and even then he makes quite clear distinctions between himself and the Father, regardless of what John's prologue may claim about his oneness with God.  The doctrinal belief that Jesus WAS God, the idea of the unity of the trinity, wasn't there until (IIRC) Nicea, hundreds of years after Christ's death.

My point about God's increasing distance from people is this: In Genesis, God walks through the Garden of Eden.  He eats a meal with mortals.  On Sinai, Moses sees God's face.  That's an anthropomorphic God (he has a body, he has a face) who is down there on the ground right next to the mortals.  But by the time the New Testament was written, thousands of years later, it's not God who's walking around among the people, it's his son/emissary, Jesus. 

Why doesn't God just come down himself?  Why send a middle-man?  Was it Platonic influence -- Plato, who spoke of the perfection of deity and the unattainable forms?  Philosophy was putting deity farther and farther from mortals.  And so was newly-monotheistic Judaism, such as it was -- no longer did they worship Yahweh, community deity, but God, the creator of the universe.  Would the creator of the universe come down to earth?  No, he wouldn't trouble himself.  He was so powerful that he *couldn't* do it, without killing all who beheld him.

I wonder if it's a necessary condition that as deity gets more powerful and eventually reaches omnipotence, it gets farther and farther from mortals.  An omnipotent God needs intermediaries -- angels, "sons," etc. -- in order to directly influence the physical world.

Lottelita: And plenty of Christians don't believe in the trinity or their inherent unity.  Jehovah's Witnesses, for example.

93143: stretching the forum subject This is getting off topic.  Would you like to continue by e-mail?

I don't know if the board will support an extended discussion on Arius vs. Athanasius and related topics...

93143: on the other hand ...there appears to be a fair bit of technical religious discussion going on in these threads.  I must catch up on it.  What do you think?

Lottelita: I think we've strayed enough for the boards.  I'd love to hear from you via email. 

You'll also find me much less argumentative when I don't have an audience.  ;-)

Curious: Tolkien read Chesterton, that I know, so without judging the anthropological validity of Chesterton's theory, it sounds very much like something Tolkien would believe.  Indeed it sounds like some of the things he said in "On Fairy-stories." 

It seems to me Tolkien was so committed to The Silmarillion because he was searching for what early religion was really like, and not just making up an elaborate fiction.  In a sense, he believed this stuff, so he wanted to get it right.

Beren IV: A polytheistic framework allows for more conflicts between the different powers, and, honestly, a monotheistic concept has some credibility problems. How, for instance, do you have an all-knowing and all-powerful and all-good God who allows Evil? Again, theologeans have proposed many answers. However, one way to get around it is to have a system with multiple powers who are not themselves all-powerful, striving against each-other, and of which Evil is one of these powers. The All-good God in the background also works if said all-good almighty has a plan for something other than just immediate joy in mind.

Images of the Valinorean Pantheon

Nope. Couldn’t find one. Feel free to look, and I’d love to see anything you find.

D. Why have the wonderful fantasy and fan artists we’ve been meeting this week chosen not to tackle the Valar as a group? Does it have anything to do with The Silmarillion itself? Are there no group scenes sufficiently described to merit an artist’s attention?

Beren IV: First reason: There are fifteen of them.

Second reason: Some of the Valar are much more easy to envision how to draw than others, and so are very difficult to put on paper on the same picture. Some of the Valar are difficult to imagine other than abstractly, and some seem so physical that to draw them abstractly doesn't seem to do justice to them.

Piled Higher and Deeper

Here are some links to further information about angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and about saints in the Catholic religion.

E. How do Tolkien’s Valar resemble, or differ from, either of these groups of holy spirit-beings that live under the God of Tolkien’s own religion?

Drogo drogo: Thanks for the angels link, I'll have to look at that later on.

Aragonvaar: For the record, a "saint", in Catholic thought, is a human who has reached God in the afterlife and whose bodily resurrection at the end of time will be beautiful and glorious, an angel is a spiritual creature w/ no body, no means of getting its own, possessing extraordinary powers and a rather peculiar mindset that makes them, good or evil, rather more alien to the human race than most scifi aliens!  A good, dead human, is NOT an angel in this theology, whatever "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Touched by an Angel" may claim.  Tolkien's Valar and C. S. Lewis's eldils are described by them as a specialized kind of angelic or quasi-angelic being that is more closely tied to the physical world and more limited in its perceptions than the classical angel.

93143: Notes on the Catholic view of angels (subtle points; correct me if you know better):

The Catholic Church doesn't actually teach the idea of guardian angels officially; it's just fairly universally held.  That nine choirs thing is likewise not official; it's just an interpretation.  In addition, angels were not created solely for our benefit; ultimately they exist for more or less the same reason we do.

Beren IV: The Valar are clearly Angels, not Saints. They're spirits and never have been people. Beren and Lùthien, by contrast, are Saints.

Extra Credit

F. How much would a collectible set of Valar action figures available with Happy Meals for Kids at McDonalds help a Silmarillion movie?

Drogo drogo: As for Happy Meals, I can see Valar action figures with kids who want Nienna to cover the baddies with her tears and Manwe to sit far away and use his super hearing... well, that's a bit blasphemous, in a manner of speaking!

Beren IV: Please don't go there. This is exactly the reason why I do not want there to be a Silmarillion movie.

Discussion Guide and Full Text of the Valaquenta


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