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As an avid Tolkien fan and an increasingly active member of this site, I cannot count the number of times I've seen people refer to the Valar or Maiar as gods, only to be corrected by other members (often of high reputation) that they are more like angels, etc.

Why?

Even if the Maiar are more like angels (a Gabriel/Gandalf comparison has a lot of merit), the Valar are almost exactly gods, taken from Greek or Norse mythology with barely even any alteration. They have specialties and spheres of influence, they are supernatural beings of incredible power, they are immortal (at least to the extent that Greek deities are), they live in a magical land just like Asgard or Mt Olympus, they were involved with the creation and shaping of the world before retreating back after the coming of men, etc. Aule in Valinor is practically interchangeable with Hephaestus on Mt Olympus, Yavanna with Demeter, Ulmo with Poseidon, and on and on and on.

Obviously Eru Ilúvatar rules over them as the utmost power in Arda, but hierarchical relationships are well-known in polytheistic traditions. Tolkien himself was a Christian, and he famously kept Middle-earth from having too much religious flavor in-universe, but he must have known that a lot of his creations would have been heretical if they'd been presented as more than fiction (e.g. "God gave dominion over the Earth to men, not men and elves!" or "God required no input from his angels to create the world!"), so why would this particular distinction be so important?

Where does this tradition of the Valar being absolutely, positively not considered gods come from? Did Tolkien himself insist on it? If so, did he ever comment on why he patterned them so clearly off of a polytheistic tradition (i.e. specialized nature-deities with their own kingdom, desires, and familial relationships), rather than a more monotheistic structure (i.e. angelic spirits of goodness without independent lives, serving as messengers of a single authority)?

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    I can't find any quotes, but apparently the Valar are frequently referred to as gods in "The Book of Lost Tales," but later versions of the story refers to them as "Powers". It seems as though Tolkein started out with a polytheistic theology, but changed his mind later – Jason Baker Nov 7 '14 at 0:43
  • Fascinating. If anyone could find those quotes, that sounds like exactly the answer to this question! – Nerrolken Nov 7 '14 at 0:50
  • I found a crap quality ebook. Give me a second to type up an answer – Jason Baker Nov 7 '14 at 1:07
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    Tolkien regularly referred to the valar as 'gods' in his letters, but with the intended meaning of governing powers, rather than self-defining deities. They're analogous to angels in the sense that they owe their existence to the supreme Being. – user33616 Nov 7 '14 at 2:02
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    To add to the complexity of the question ... even in the Christian tradition that Tolkien inhabited, angels (and even men) are sometimes referred to as gods (biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%2082&version=ESV). – LarsH Nov 7 '14 at 11:10
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They are.

That's a bit of a simplistic and sweeping statement, so I obviously need to expand some more.

First and foremost, in all of the early Silmarillion work, up to and including the 1937 Silmarillion (which Tolkien had sent for publication before writing LotR) the word "gods" is used for the Valar very liberally. I'll add some quotes to illustrate (the capitalization of "Gods" here is editorial and should not be seen as significant):

  • Of all things which the Gods made they have most renown, and about their fate all the tales of the Eldar are woven.
  • she set the crown of seven mighty stars to swing, the emblem of the Gods, and the sign of doom.
  • Thus it came to pass that after long council the Gods resolved to make an assault upon the fortress of Morgoth in the North.
  • In the North these shores, in the ancient days after the Battle of the Gods, sloped ever westward...
  • Yet Morgoth whispered that the Gods kept the Eldar captive, so that Men coming should defraud them of the kingdoms of Middle-earth...

In the 1950/1951 revisions of the Silmarillion, carried out before publication of LotR, Tolkien began the process of removing references to the "gods" from certain works, but in a rather piecemeal fashion, and they still remain in the final versions of many of the stories; for example, the following quote from the last chapter:

...the host of the Gods were arrayed in forms of Valinor...

Compare with the published version:

...the host of the Valar were arrayed in forms young and fair and terrible...

So the conclusion is that the removal of references to "the Gods" was not an authorial one (i.e one made by JRRT) but rather an editorial one (i.e one made by CT).

Even so, references to "the Gods" do remain in the published Silmarillion, and I'll quote all of them that apply to the Valar:

  • The Great among these spirits the Elves name the Valar, the Powers of Arda, and Men have often called them gods.
  • ...westward shimmered the fields and pastures of Yavanna, gold beneath the tall wheat of the gods.
  • Thither we cannot come where the Gods dwell in bliss.
  • Which of you has seen the least of the Gods? Who has beheld the Dark King in the North?

So in summary, there is no "tradition of the Valar being absolutely, positively not considered gods". While the use of the word "Gods" to refer to them did drop out in stages, it was never fully abandoned, and even despite CT removing most of the references from the published work, he still retained a few.

Tolkien's actual intentions in this are given in various places throughout his Letters, so I'll quote from Letter 200 to provide one example:

...when the Creator made it real ... they desired to enter into it, from the beginning of its 'realization'.

They were allowed to do so, and the great among them became the equivalent of the 'gods' of traditional mythologies; but a condition was that they would remain 'in it' until the Story was finished.

So your observation that "the Valar are almost exactly gods, taken from Greek or Norse mythology with barely even any alteration" is in fact correct: that was Tolkien's intention, but with a modification to the theological framework that - while they were certainly involved in the creative work - they were agents of it rather than creators themselves. Any tradition of the Valar not being "Gods" comes from later interpretations by third parties, but has neither authorial nor editorial basis.

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    This is obviously speculation, but it seems that this impulse may have come from a desire to reconcile a mythological theology with Tolkien's own beliefs. – user8719 Nov 7 '14 at 12:21
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    Perhaps CT didn't feel comfortable with the polytheistic pantheon of gods in the early drafts of The Silmarillion. I suspect that he, like his father is a devout Roman Catholic. According to the Catholics, there can only be one true god, so perhaps he changed it to avoid being excommunicated. I am only speculating on this. – Jason Hutchinson Nov 7 '14 at 14:52
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    Huh. Well whadya know, the premise of the question itself was flawed. Great answer! – Nerrolken Nov 7 '14 at 17:10
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    @JasonHutchinson - in the Old Testament, IIRC, there are plenty of mentions of other Gods, so I assume that if the Catholic Church accepts the OT then it must also accept that. I don't claim to be an expert, so I freely admit that my reasoning may be flawed. – user8719 Nov 7 '14 at 17:39
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    @DarthSatan Correct. My point was that many of the references to them are also written from an "inside the universe" perspective, making it quite reasonable that they not always be described with precisely the same terms. Ilúvatar can do anything while the Valar are bound by the rules of the universe, but a mortal trying to understand who can do what would have to do a lot of studying to be able to tell the difference. – Perkins Nov 11 '14 at 18:40
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Because the Valar resemble angels (servitors of a higher power) more than they do independent gods with unique desires (and the power to create what they like) as most pantheistic religions do. This does not mean they did not have independent thought or will, but their will was always second to Ilúvatar's.

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.

But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of me mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly. Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent.

Then Ilúvatar said to them: 'Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I win sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.'

REF: From the AINULINDALË, first chapter to The Silmarillion

  • The simplest answer might be best: Because the Ainur lacked the capacity most gods have in almost any other pantheon. They could not bring things to life without Ilúvatar's blessing of Life.

The Dwarves were created in ancient times by Aulë, one of the Valar. Aulë was a smith and a craftsman and he wanted to teach his skills to the Dwarves. He made Durin first and then six others. But Eru had intended the Elves to be the Firstborn race so he commanded Aulë to put the Dwarves to sleep until after the Elves awoke. Eru gave each of the Dwarves their own souls so they could exist as independent beings. At first, when Eru had scolded Aulë for his creating the Dwarf Fathers, Aulë was going to destroy them, but Eru stopped him, noting that they now had their own souls. The Dwarves are thereby the "adopted Children" of Eru.

  • This lack, more than anything else, caused the rift between Melkor and the rest of the Ainur. He wanted to create Life on his own without needing sanction from Ilúvatar.

  • They were partners in the Music, but their contribution was directed and supported by Ilúvatar's will.

  • "They could not bring things to life..." I don't know... Aulë did a pretty good job. Unless you're a Dwarf bigot ;) – user23715 Nov 7 '14 at 1:05
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    The Valar do have unique desires (Aule and Yavanna came into conflict over the Dwarves), and plenty of polytheistic gods give birth or creation to other gods. But your point about no Valar being able to create life is probably the best distinguishing characteristic there is. (@user23715, Aule made the Dwarves, but couldn't give them life without Eru stepping in.) – Nerrolken Nov 7 '14 at 1:06
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    Aule needed to pray to Eru to bring the dwarves to actual life. – Oldcat Nov 7 '14 at 1:06
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    And Aulë's prayer was effective! Seems pretty powerful to me. I can't even get an "A" on a final exam using prayer :( – user23715 Nov 7 '14 at 1:16
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    Aule didn't pray to Iluvatar for life. He made the dwarves attempting to create life, then was humbled when he could not create it and chastised by Iluvatar for presuming, and then was granted life, not by asking for it, but by admitting his sin of hubris. That doesn't sound like a god to me. – Avner Shahar-Kashtan Nov 7 '14 at 9:54
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I like Thaddeus' answer as an in-universe answer, but I found some evidence to support an out-of-universe answer.

It seems as though Tolkien himself never conceived of the Valar as gods, but some Elves did hold that belief in early stages of the story. The Book of Lost Tales, volume on of HoME, has a short text between two Elves called "Link between Cottage of Lost Play and Music of Ainur". It starts like this:

'But', said Eriol, 'still are there many things that remain dark to me. Indeed I would fain know who be these Valar; be they Gods?'

'So be they,' said Lindo, 'though concerning them Men tell many strange and garbled tales that are far from the truth, and many strange names they call them that you will not hear here.'

However, later on in the same text:

'Yet,' said Eriol, 'tell me, Rumil1, I beg, some of what you know even of the first beginnings, that I may begin to understand those things that are told me in this isle2.'

But Rumil said: Iluvatar was the first beginning, and beyond that no wisdom of the Valar or of Eldar or Men can go.'

'Who was Iluvatar?' said Eriol. 'Was he of the Gods?'

'Nay,' said Rumil, 'that he was not, for he made them. Iluvatar is the Lord for Always who dwells beyond the world; who made it and is not of it or in it, but loves it.'

The published editions of other works, including The Silmarillion, refer to the Valar as "the Powers". I'm not going to dig up a quote for that because there are loads, but it's clear that Tokien decided to change his terminology, even if he never thought of the Valar as "gods" in the same way Iluvatar was a god.


1 Rumil is presented as a very ancient Noldoli, at this early stage translated as "Gnome". Christopher Tolkien's notes indicate that the Noldoli eventually became the Noldor. It's likely that Rumil learned what he knows from the Valar directly

2 I believe the isle in question is Tol Eressea, but I'm not certain. I'm sourcing a crap ebook, and it's not easy to read.

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In Classical Mythologies (Greek/Roman/Norse) the beings called Gods are the most powerful ones around. Their creators, if any, have been removed from the scene leaving them supreme.

In Tolkien's world, Eru is the most powerful being and is still there - and still acting such as when Gandalf is sent back from the dead. The Valar and even Morgoth all other creatures have limits imposed by Eru that cannot be evaded. Thus it makes the most sense to assign Eru the title of "God" which makes this world monotheistic, and assign titles like Angels or Demigods to the Valar, Maia, and other such beings.

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    But in Greek mythology, the Titans were older and more powerful than the gods (the Olympians needed a whole host to overthrow them). Or, regarding your statement about them being "removed," Zeus was way more powerful than the others (even Poseidon or Apollo, but especially Dis or Nemesis) and he was still around, yet that didn't lead to him being God and the others being not-gods. Equal power isn't necessary for polytheism, most (all?) pantheons have an "ultimate power" or even single-creator who birthed the rest. By rights, it seems like Eru should be "the father of the gods." – Nerrolken Nov 7 '14 at 1:04
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    Sure, and the Olympians killed or imprisoned them. – Oldcat Nov 7 '14 at 1:04
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    Zeus is stronger like your older brother is stronger when you are little. He's not another order of being. – Oldcat Nov 7 '14 at 1:05
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    The Titans of Greek mythology, those who birthed and were slain by the Olympians, were born of Uranus the sky and Gaia the Earth. Uranus and Gaia are still around, another order of being, largely ineffable in the manner of yin and yang. – Timbo Nov 7 '14 at 10:15
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    In Hindu tradition, there are (very!) many gods, but all are encompassed by Atman. – Timbo Nov 7 '14 at 10:23
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In a letter to Milton Waldman Tolkien states (I have highlighted all that refers to the Valar):

The cycle begins which a cosmogonical myth: the Music of the Ainur. God and the Valar(or powers: Englished as gods) are revealed. These latter [the Valar] are as we should say angel powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres. They are "divine" that is where originally "outside" and ... "before" the making of the world ... On the side of mere narrative device,that is, of course, meant to provide beings ... as the "gods" of higher mythology, which.

By common definition they are gods, yet they are referred to as the Valar. This is probably because he did not won't "religion" in his works.

Edit: when Fingon was unable to save Maedhros from Angband, he decided to kill Maedhros to stop his torment, and he "cried to Menwë" to "speed now this feathered shaft". Menwë answered "his prayer ... swiftly" and sent an eagle to help them. This was the only instance I found where someone actually "prayed" to one of the Valar.

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The simple answer is because there were NOT gods. There was only one god and that is Eru who is alone.

From a human or Elven perspective even the maia like Gandalf or Saruman had so much power that they could be considered gods. But when compared to Eru they were as impotent as the humans and elves seemed to them. At best the Valar could carry out the wishes of Eru. They absolutely could NOT perform any action that was in opposition to what Eru wished. They could not create. Even Melkor, despite being the strongest and trying literally the majority of his existence to create something original and in contravention to Eru's will - he could not. And that is the distinction between true god and what might be called 'Angel'; the ability to 'create' and 'sub-create'. It is a philosophical point that Tolkien describes at length in his letters.

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The short answer:

Because all the principals (Elves and First Men) were well aware that Eru Ilúvatar is the only being properly called "God"/worthy of worship/ etc.

The Ainur (those who came down into creation) were only some of the singers in the Song of Ccreation that was sung before the throne of Ilúvatar. And though they were lead by the Valar in their work (to wonder and guard-over Arda), there was never any worship given them; among themselves or by the First Born nor by the Second Born.

Each Valar has a special, and larger, part in the Song of Creation. That part is the explanation of their god-like power and spheres of influence (Ulmo and water e.g.). They sang what they were gifted to sing and further were permitted to go "down" into Arda. So in that sense they were present in the creation and had god-like powers (if you're a mortal).

Certainly there was the corruption of Morgoth, and the nature of humans, that would muddy this clear distinction in later Ages but the truth was still in common currency by the end of the 3rd Age.

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    Are you sure about "never any worship given them"? How would you characterize the Hymn to Elbereth (A Elbereth Gilthoniel ...)? I'm not saying it's definitely worship, but it's hard to definitively say it's not, either. – LarsH Nov 7 '14 at 10:55
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    That question sounds similar to the question of whether Catholics "really" worship the Blessed Virgin or not. – Matt Gutting Nov 7 '14 at 15:06
  • @LarsH - In that particular case I can be certain it's not worship. Someone among the Calaquendi wrote that poem/song (Galadriel?) and, having lived in Aman for a time and personally known Elbereth, they would know better than to do something like that. It was after all a lament for what was left behind when they followed Fëanor back to Middle Earth. – user23715 Nov 7 '14 at 21:42
  • @MattGutting - And, yeah, something like that no doubt. But in the manner of a "good" Catholic, in that whatever role Varda played in the creation hers was as nothing compared to Eru Ilúvatar. She may be every elve's favorite great grandmother but that doesn't make her worshipfully divine. – user23715 Nov 7 '14 at 21:45

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