WHAT THE HECK ARE DEVAS, ANYWAY?
iIN MY NOVELS, An assortment of non-human, essentially immortal beings inhabit the Elfin Realm of Summerland. These are organised into a kind or order, which I hesitate to call a hierarchy, because I dislike some of the word’s connotations. The foremost meaning in my Webster’s, is “a rank or order of holy beings” which is pretty close to what I portray in the books. But it has also come to more often refer to “a body of rulers” and the order in which they are subordinate to each other.
I don’t think of the Elfin Folk in my version of Summerland, as either ruling, or being subordinate. However, the tasks to which they are devoted, do involve a type of hierarchical order. First, there is the creation, the quickening of life itself, within the living, inhabitable layer of the Earth herself. That is, of course, the task of Daniù, the Elfin Queen herself. And just beyond the essential, mysterious fact of life itself existing at all, we know that every type of living thing has multiple individual members, or expressions, of that type of life: moss, mushrooms, dragonflies, turtles, tunas, voles, squirrels, dogs, cats, horses, redwood trees, daffodils, clover, dolphins, parrots, sparrows … human beings. Deliberate, scientific classification is of fairly recent invention; but the fact of there being such ordering, such distinct classes, families, species, can be traced as far as palaeontology goes.
The next “step down” from the idea of a family or species, are individuals. And in the case of plants, there is a yet more microcosmic way in which life manifests, in the form of flowering, fruiting, and seeding. The way I have, in my own imagination, ordered these functions of life, is that there are living beings on the other side of a particular Veil, whose life-work it is, to watch over living things on this side. One who looks after an entire species, guides its evolution, adaptation, spread and migration from habitat to habitat, is a Deva, or demi-deity. Next, there are nymphs, dryads, and fauns, which are the non-embedded souls of individual plants: a single redwood tree, a single rhododendron bush, a single spreading root-entangled patch of mint, a single colony of bluebells. On the smallest scale, but hardly less important, are what I call the “tending fairies”. These correspond to the small, spritely winged creatures so familiar from the works of artists such as Arthur Rackham and Cicely M. Barker. They devote themselves to looking after individual flowers and fruits, throughout the budding, opening, fertilising, fruit-setting, and ripening process.
In my concept of that other world, all these spirit beings work together in harmony, and there is no “pulling of rank” or ordering-about of one kind by another. Each type of being is perfectly adapted to the task, but the task is not laborious, because it is simply an outgrowth of their existence. The Elfin Folk and their Earthly life-forms exist in a complicated, cross-Veil symbiosis. If a Deva were to die, his or her form of Earthly living thing would become extinct; conversely, if every last one of that Earthly thing is extinguished from the living, mortal Earth, the Deva, too, expires. (As will all the nymphs and tending-fairies linked to that same species.)
The more small-scale beings (fairies, nymphs, et al) are already pretty thoroughly established in our collective consciousness, through the arts, and folklore, so I don’t plan to explain more about them. But I think that for many readers, Devas may be less familiar a concept, and harder to grasp, from the references in my novels. So, here is how I came to be aware of them, and a bit of additional research I have done.
It was my youthful, idealistic fascination with the Findhorn Community (in northern Scotland) which brought Devas to my knowledge. One of the three Findhorn founders (D. Maclean) asserted that she was able to see and communicate with these beings, particularly a number who had sway over the produce of the Findhorn vegetable garden. They were defined, in Findhorn literature, along the lines of being an archetypal, spiritual intelligence of a species, or its overall soul. One could, in theory, make contact with, for instance, the Cabbage Deva, and ask for advice about what would make cabbages happiest and most eager to grow, and the Deva would be pleased to advise the enquirer.
This is hardly a new concept in human thought. For as far back as we can trace signs of spirituality in human culture, we’ve been making an effort to propitiate and please various spiritual beings, always in the hope and expectation that they will be pleased by our efforts to communicate, and put a little extra generative energy into the crops, the rainclouds, the herds of ibex, or even the survival of our family and tribe, by blessing the fertility of human wombs.
I have since learned that the idea of Devas was apparently embraced in the Theosophy movement, long before Findhorn was founded. Theosophy, in turn, drew much of its esoteric wisdom and teachings, from India, and the Hindu religion. Thanks to Wikipedia, I also now know that Devas have frequently been asssociated with the idea of angels. So, it seems that my describing them as having wings (albeit, small, vestigial, butterfly-like ones, not big, feathery, bird-like ones), is probably not unreasonable.
Furthermore, in Hindu tradition, the Sanskrit word Deva (m.) or Devi (f.) is in fact, translatable as ‘deity’ or alternatively, “demigod.” Hindu mythology actually divides them into two categories of “half-siblings”: the Devas or Suras, who are benevolent, and represent “light”, and the Asuras, who are malevolent, and represent “darkness.” This is such a standard human dichotomy of perception, that I won’t go into that any further. However, it is notable that there seems to be a very close parallel in this idea, with the Celtic view of the two Elfin Courts: the Seelie (blessed) and Unseelie (unblessed).
Continuing with the Hindu connotations, the root-word Deva is cognate with words such as deus, dios, Zeus, Tiwaz (Germanic), dea, and thea. Some are believed to represent the forces of Nature. As portrayed in Hindu mythology, they do appear to differ little, either in appearance, behaviour, or function, from the angels, gods, or titans of various other mythologies. While they are considered to be “divine … exalted … shining”, they also have some more humanlike qualities, not only “excellence” and heroism, but also various personal weaknesses, emotions, and desires. In my novels, I have retained this aspect, with differing personality traits being due to the inner spiritual character of the species with which each Deva is linked.
Classicially, individual Devas have had several other kinds of identities, one being that they could be extraordinary human beings (wise, heroic, or compassionate), who through their virtues, attain deva-hood. Or they could be “tutelary”: guardians of a place, person, occupation, lineage, culture, or even nation. Ovid defined “demigods” as less-important deities, which in his view, included beings such as dryads. This is fairly close to my own concept, since it does recognise nature spirits as being deity-like (although as explained earlier, I’ve defined dryads, nymphs, and others of that type, as being linked to individual life-forms, whereas Devas are in charge of entire species). This is, of course, somewhat contradictory to the earliest linguistic connotation of Deva.
Finally, in northern-European tradition, we have the Elves (or Elfin beings); the word Elf seems also to be associated with words for “light” or “whiteness” (harking back to the Suras of Hindu mythology). In many cultures, Elves were commonly conflated with the local Pagan deities. Their characterisations commonly include magical powers, supernatural beauty (perhaps due to the connotation of “bright, shining ones” - which in turn could have been a way of describing the presence of a visible aura around either very spiritual humans, or the manifestation of usually-invisible spirit beings), sexual seductiveness, and a generally ambivalent attitude towards human beings (despite an apparent ongoing interest in having sexual relationships with humans).