Pantheons of gods map to the shapes of complex systems

16.06, Wednesday 1 Sep 2021

It would be interesting to do an analysis of the personalities of ancient gods, correlating that with a folk understand of the dynamical systems that they each represent.

Magic was functional (that is always my starting point). That is to say: spells, predicting the future, witches, etc, had some kind of useful function in society. The practise of magic was efficacious. Likewise: pantheons of ancient gods.

Looking at the gods, they represent powerful forces that shape the world that we live in – war, love, the sea, harvest, parties, hunting, and so on.

These aren’t distant and asymmetric systems of force that affect us but we can’t affect them, like the weather, at least pre Industrial Revolution. (BUT! We can control the impact of weather fluctuations on us, to a degree, even if we can’t control the weather itself – being cautious with food stores means rain variation matter less, for example. And large forests seem to promote rainfall; the climate has always been interactive, and you bet humans learnt those geoengineering feedback loops over tens of thousands of years.)

War, love, the sea. These are systems that, in the ancient world, there was limited capability to gather information about, beyond immediate sight, but they none-the-less responded in typical if not predictable ways.

Say: war. The complex system of “war” is capricious and hot-headed. Long-term thinking and a combination of continuous diplomacy and strength (even when there is no obvious purpose) pays dividends, or at least maintains the peace. It always serves to be slightly more paranoid than necessary, because in the low likelihood that war does blow up, the consequences are so terrible. So it’s better to appease faint signals now rather than thoughtfully respond to hard data later.

Now, from what little I remember about the ancient gods, does that sound like the character of Mars, god of war? Dunno, vaguely… more reading required.

Here’s my hunch:

Model the complex system, and pick out a bunch of metrics. SUCH AS… volatility, steepness of the reward/risk severity curve, response predictability, and so on.

Then map these onto the psychology of individuals, using say the Big Five personality traits (agreeableness, neuroticism, and the others) since those seem pretty universally cover the phase space of human character.

If I’m right, then treating the abstract complex system as an individual person is a effective heuristic for successful interaction with the system itself.

To test this with another force:

  • compare the system dynamics of love to the documented character of the Roman god Venus; or,
  • compare the system dynamics of blacksmithery to the documented character of Vulcan.

Venus may have a character that rewards risk! To appease Vulcan, it may be especially important to build a reputation for reliability and consider your hammer-blows with care! (Success in blacksmithery is as much about building a business from the opaque complex system of reputation, as the complex system of shaping iron.)

Success in these realms is often called “luck” and that’s a good way to encapsulate the highly varied system response. But it’s the luck of the gods. If you acted in such a way as to please Mars (or rather, the priests of Mars), would you be lucky in matters of war? I suspect you would.

This throws light on the role of the institutions and people around the ancient gods – it doesn’t make sense to consider “gods” separately from their interfaces. As previously discussed, ancient magicians were management consultants (October 2020). So how do we interpret priests?

Jump forward 2,000 years to the present day; think of the ways we understand complex systems today. The functional mechanism to model, say, the economy is not the equations. Sure there are equations and frameworks, but these are accessed always via economists – actual human people who have knowledge of the available frameworks, who know which to choose, who choose how to evolve them, and who have built expertise (or rather, an intuition) in how the economy behaves.

Economists are the priesthood of the economy.

Just as meteorologists are a priesthood of the weather, and Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger were Mars’ high priests of war – sorry, geopolitics.

So in a way we’re no different from the ancient Romans. We no longer refer to our gods as gods, but we still have our mix of formal and intuitive understandings of complex forces in the world, and we still have our priesthoods.

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