Deities with a disability
On 25th May, I gave a workshop on accessibility and the pagan community, together with a friend. This workshop was about the many deities with a disability, about what pagans with a disability can teach the community, and about practical tips for a more accessible community. My research into deities with a disability yielded a surprising result!
We gave this workshop "Dis_spelling disability: inclusiveness as a matter of fact" during the Spring Gathering of the Pagan Federation International Netherlands. Because the pagan community isn't always accessible for pagans with a disability yet. And because PFI Netherlands likes to see this changed.
Often accessibility mainly is a matter of doing a few things a bit differently. No hassle, no costs: just doing the same things you have always done, with slightly different accents. You will find some concrete tips for better accessibility in this flyer.
Deities with a disability
Many pantheons know one or more gods who would have a "disability" according to our modern Western standards. In the traditions themselves, this is not always seen that way. And sometimes so, because to gods nothing human is alien...
A disability, or not
A disability is a restriction that can be of a cognitive, developmental, intellectual, mental, physical and/or sensory nature. The disability may be congenital or acquired during life. In principle, a disability is only seen as a disability if it has a substantial impact on that person's life.
The latter condition is interesting when we look at disabilities in gods. The Hindu god Shiva usually is depicted with 4 arms, and in their capacity as a physician they often also have 5 heads. This would be a serious disbaility for people, but not for Shiva. Therefore Shiva is not disabled.
The Norse god Hodr, son of Odin, was born blind. This had a major impact on their life, because they needed a lot of help from the other gods. Therefore Hodr is disabled.
Congenital vs acquired
For people, it is a big difference whether a disability is congenital or acquired during life. This has two reasons: their own development and the reactions from their surrounding.
People with a congenital disability grow up with this disability. In their youth they learn to do things in such a way that they are hindered as little as possible by their disability. Often their environment tends to underestimate the child or to over-question it.
People who become disabled at some point in their lives often need time to adapt to this new reality. After a period of mourning usually a new balance is found. Their environment usually follows the person themselves.
People with disabilities also have a major impact on society as a whole, because disabilities confront people with their own imperfections and mortality.
This overview describes more than 40 gods with a disability from around 20 pantheons. The number of gods with a congenital disability is about the same as the number of gods with an acquired disability.
However, it is obvious that there are hardly any goddesses with a disability. This may be a reflection of societies: perhaps there were (far) fewer women than men with a disability at the time. For women did not go to war and did not go hunting, so women suffered fewer injuries with permanent disabilities than men.
Striking is the number of divine blacksmiths that are crippled or paralysed. The stories often disagree about whether this was born or acquired at a very young age. A possible explanation is the fact that blacksmith is a relatively seated craft, certainly in the case of goldsmiths.
Mythology is full of people, heroes, gods and other beings who are not perfect. Who miss limbs, are deformed, are emotionally unstable and/or have a mental illness. The disability of some gods brings good luck, such as with the Egyptian god Bes. The disability of other gods is a punishment, such as with the Javanese god Semar. And for other gods, the disability has, besides obvious inconveniences, also unexpected benefits, such as with the Japanese god Ebisu.
All these gods with a disability emphasise diversity in general. Most pantheons are much more flexible than our current society in terms of physical, psychological and/or gender differences. (For example, many gods have a masculine and feminine form, have a gender which is not as fixed as ours, or are downright non-binary.)