R.E.S.P.E.C.T. …for the Gods, imagine that.

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I was recently cued in to a pretty unfortunate post by author John Halstead and I have decided to weigh in. While it’s no secret that I dislike Halstead’s position on almost everything, this is not a personal attack against him. I want to make that clear from the beginning. It’s far too easy to turn our disagreements into a battle of personalities and doing so ignores and dismisses the real issues at hand: respect for the Gods and appropriation of polytheistic iconography by outsiders. In fact, I think Mr. Halstead is very, very good at using well-crafted rhetoric to shift the focus away from these issues. It’s so much easier, after all, for the average reader (don’t be average, folks!) to argue personalities (polytheists are so mean!) than to engage seriously with the issue of disrespect. I think we all critique ourselves a little bit, uncomfortably so, when such issues arise and who likes to do that? Instead, I’m interested in the actual theological issue here, and that is why I am writing this article.

Polytheisms are under attack worldwide. Daesh, for instance, has been quoted as saying that “Whenever we take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism in it.” – an ISIL terrorist (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” Symbols are obviously important and Daesh has made good on their word too, looting and destroying (as in reducing to rubble and dust) polytheist sacred sites. Within our own communities, a large majority of Pagans are not only diametrically opposed to polytheism, but I believe dedicated to its eradication (how else is one to interpret the constant breech of our traditions, the ongoing attempts to co-opt our religious terminology and to water down our traditions until they are meaningless, and the insistence from so many quarters that atheism – a religious position in and of itself—is part of Paganism?). Respect for our religious symbols is important. Is it so much to ask that we stop treating our religions as social outlets and start instead treating them as actual religions? Looking at our communities, it’s easy to assume, that yes, it may be.

Some Polytheisms don’t really care so much. I was talking to a Hindu friend last weekend about just this issue and we touched on the question of Western appropriation and he said he was fine with it. He said any little bit of Hinduism people are able to take into their religious world, will ultimately benefit them and he’s ok with that. I pointed out, that while I got that, and found it laudable, he has the advantage of having an unbroken tradition, the security of thousands of years of lineage and inter-generational transmission of tradition. Those polytheists whose traditions were devastated by the spread of Christianity don’t have that luxury. We are in the ideological position of having to fight and defend every inch of ground gained. We do not have the ingrained theological mindset, nor the numbers, whereby we can sit back, relax, and say: “it’s ok. Go ahead, use that image of Ba’al in your atheist ritual.” We are still in the process of preparing the ground and sowing seeds that we are hoping to nourish into a sustainable tradition. We’re still in the process of sifting out the threads some of our ancestors broke, and doing the hard, emotionally grueling, painful work of reweaving them back into being. We don’t have the luxury of allowing our traditions to be appropriated by the thoughtless because there’s so little reservoir of the tradition as a living one upon which to draw. We are, instead, tasked with guarding carefully every metaphorical stone that we have again unearthed and set in place as we restore these sacred containers of our mysteries and mystery as any good polytheist knows, is not open to entitlement. So we get a bit testy when we see evidence of such disrespect from those in the community who would set themselves up as our peers.

A couple of weeks ago, Tess Dawson wrote this piece. It’s a measured, restrained response to a provocative act of appropriation and disrespect. I leave you to read that piece for yourself. She doesn’t mention Halstead because this isn’t about Halstead specifically. He is simply the latest incarnation of a culture of disrespect: for our Gods, our traditions, the process of restoration itself. This piece wasn’t about him. It was about something that he did, thoughtlessly, feeling – as he himself says here – entitled.

I was told yesterday – I’ve not been following it myself – that the issue of appropriation has become a hot-button one on Patheos Pagan Channel recently. When you take an image, sacred to a particular tradition, and twist it –however well meaning you may be—into something that is perceived as intensely disrespectful by practitioners of that tradition, well, that is an unfortunate act of appropriation. It’s the religious equivalent of prancing around in black-face and perhaps we should ask ourselves why that’s not ok, but co-opting the sacred is. Social justice warriors get all up in arms about perceived attacks and micro-aggressions on people but rarely raise their voices (at least insofar as I have seen) against perceived attacks and micro-aggressions against their Gods and traditions. It would be nice to see the same level of concern over our traditions. After all, while I may be suspicious of Halstead’s motives (after all, anyone promulgating something like non-theistic or atheist Paganism is clearly attempting to water down the word Pagan until it means nothing at all), in general, people who appropriate our sacred images aren’t intentionally doing something bad or hurtful to us and the traditions within which we’re working. They are very likely attracted to the beauty of the holy and nine times out of ten, most of us have no problem with that. Like my Hindu friend, we’re of the attitude that it’ll be beneficial. There’s always that exception though and when one takes a holy image and turns it into a disrespectful joke, that’s a pretty glaring exception even if it’s being done with protestations of respect.

I’m objecting to the commodification of our Gods. I have another friend, who is fighting just this. My Australian friend Markos discovered recently that apparently third party sites like ebay won’t allow the use of the certain God-names. Why? Because apparently they are shared by companies like Hermes Paris. You can read about his fight here too (and I’m told Wild Hunt is currently looking into this as well, so stay tuned). Where is the public outcry about this erasure and disrespect of our Gods? In fact, Markos is getting harassed by other Pagans about his attempt to fight this, harassed by our own fucking people. We’ll come together over [insert social controversy of the day] and raise a fuss but won’t say word one about the co-opting and commercialization of our Gods, even when it harms our own people: our artists and craftsmen. So yes, the appropriation of an image sacred to Canaanite polytheism is a big deal.

(image courtesy of Wayne and Markos)

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Posted on October 8, 2015, in Polytheism, theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 34 Comments.

  1. Reading the comments at his blog was interesting. People focused on “self-determination” as the final authority. i.e. I determine whether the image is appropriate or not, not you or anyone else. The comments also got to be ad hominen, which is always depressing.

    I wish for a minute that his group of fans would step back and see the community aspect of polytheism. They seem to be mired in the self and how the self sees things.

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    • Vision_From_Afar

      But that’s the entire point of “atheistic paganism.” It’s chained nice and tight to the ‘Self’ pole in the Pagan Big Tent (TM), so those of us from the ‘Community’ pole just sound like outsiders, even though we’re (as they claim) in the same space.
      It’s depressing, but it’s a very selfish worldview IMO, and one that doesn’t lend itself well to Paganism in general.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      Virginia, I think this “self determination” focus is one of THE biggest obstacles to building our traditions. There’s no conception of how to function with external truths, authority (i.e. Gods), or even what it means to rebuild a lineage. and part of that, sadly is a consistent lack of good models of authority, and our general social and cultural climate which almost fetishizes ego driven engagement. Where do we learn better? It’s difficult…essential to work on this, but difficult. I agree with you wholesale though. Also, i’ve noticed that because emotions and ego are raised to the highest authority for people, there’s a marked and growing inability to sustain clear, objective discourse with *ideas*. It always descends to “oh he’s being mean to me,” or “she’s attacking me” when NO, what we’re attacking are ideas.

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      • honestly, i find myself wondering if the ‘you’re attacking me’ arguments that pop up when the idea is being attacked is a reflection of poor education as to how to present an idea, argue it, and defend your position. there seems to be a great deal of people who genuinely don’t understand the difference between ad hominem attacks and a vigorously worded counter argument. that’s the question that always goes through my mind when the discussion descends to that level.

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      • This focus on the self seems strange to come from someone who supposedly sees Nature as sacred. I know how nature works, and in nature, everything is interconnected. You can’t just focus on yourself and do whatever you want. People love to pretend that they don’t have any limits or boundaries, but they do, and the sooner we remember this, the better.

        It’s kind of funny that he was puzzled that Tess has spoken respectfully of neo-Paganism in other articles (the one comparing them to the Tigris and Euphrates, specifically), but “attacked” him nonetheless. Does he really think he’s representative of all neo-Paganism so that a criticism of him is an attack on all neo-Paganism?

        I’ve found that it’s really hard to have clear, objective discourse with an atheist who thinks they’re automatically smarter and more reasonable than you just because they’re an atheist and you’re a theist. They think they can say the most outrageous and contradictory things they want.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. FWIW, I did read a lot of the recent “cultural appropriation” stuff on Patheos. It’s mostly politics (not devotion or spirituality), and has a very bad signal to noise ratio.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think we need to become more firm about who “our people” are. Pagan has a definition, and it is not what people like Halstead try to make it. When people who don’t share our same values and reverence for the gods harass people and make claims and do so as “Pagan”, they do tremendous damage to our cause.

    I would suggest a boycott of Halstead. If you don’t give credit to atheists as Pagans and include them in Pagan matters and discussions, then they’ll have to build a new base of readership for themselves (among other atheists…what a novel, non-lazy idea). Patheos won’t continue to include Halstead under a “Pagan” header if he doesn’t attract readers.

    The more attention we pay to atheists masquerading as Pagans, however, the more legitimate they feel and the more they take up the space of actual Pagans.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Vision_From_Afar

      It feels like that cat’s already out of the bag. When Halstead’s writing for HuffPo ‘as a Pagan,’ it’s too late for shunning, and active counter-arguments are necessary. 😦

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      • By all means, make counter-arguments…but do not link back to Halstead or similar atheists. Do not mention them by name, or ever, even once, use the term “Pagan” to describe who they are or what they’re doing, even if you preface that with “atheist” or “humanist”. It’s just “atheist”. It’s just “humanist”. They don’t get to change the meaning of “Pagan”, and I refuse to help them any longer by giving them the validation they crave.

        If Huffington or other places quote them as “Pagan” or interview them for Pagan-related things, don’t bother reading the article. You already know it’s garbage. Instead, write a letter to the publisher explaining what Paganism ACTUALLY is and suggest other people they could have interviewed instead.

        It may also be worth ceasing to read places like Patheos that give Halstead and his crew a soapbox to stand on. I’ve noticed several other very reputable Pagan publications popping up that could do with your readership instead.

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      • ganglerisgrove

        Ashley, I agree with you readily but I think Vision_from_Afar is right: it’s too late for that and part of that is probably my fault — my own vociferous articles helped give him notoriety. I wasn’t always as good as I wanted to be about parsing the ideas out in a way that was clearly not a personal attack and sometimes i was so angry i went there. 😦

        So I think now, we all just have to be diligent at protecting the boundaries of our traditions.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Re: Ashley’s comment – Halstead isn’t being interviewed or quoted, he writes for HuffPo. Like the original comment said. I highly doubt a few people sending HuffPo letters telling them Halstead is not ‘really Pagan’ will cause them to dump him.

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  4. The destruction of historical/religious sites, living cultures/religions/languages and nature/ecosystems is all interconnected too- and rampant globalized capitalism and warfare are major reasons for this destruction- as well as the ripping apart of families due to the need to move around to find jobs- or flee violence- whether from city to city or country to country. It’s fine if one’s spirituality is focused on nature- but it’s rather distorted if it’s *only* about nature and an individual relationship with it. Henry David Thoreau wasn’t a pagan…

    Liked by 2 people

    • “In my Pantheon, Pan still reigns in his pristine glory, with his ruddy face, his flowing beard, and his shaggy body, his pipe and his crook, his nymph Echo, and his chosen daughter Iambe; for the great god Pan is not dead, as was rumored. No god ever dies. Perhaps of all the gods of New England and of ancient Greece, I am most constant at his shrine.” — Henry David Thoreau

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  5. Halstead is our permanent “usual suspect” for all things irreligious, written with a snarky I am holier than thou bent. Personally, I have never liked the word “pagan.” He is an atheist, pure and simple. He is writing under a false banner. He is a 19th century Romantic about nature; but, there can be no Gods and Goddesses, no nymphs, no satyrs, no anything inhabiting this nature of his except that it be material. Well, guess what! The Gods and everything else are also material, too! {This is part of my metaphysics.} I have no idea how he was invited to write on HuffPost; but, I would like to see him removed.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      Julia, I know exactly how you feel and I’d also like to see him removed because he’s NOT Pagan BUT, and this is a bit but, I am really *not* encouraging people to “go after” Halstead. I don’t want to give that impression in the least. We can disagree and debate and have these exchanges and in the end hopefully all of our traditions will be the better for them. This is not really about Halstead so much as a set of community attitudes that allow for this type of appropriation, and at times even applaud it. It’s that latter I really want to address.

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  6. Virginia Carper

    I think that he is , others have noted, a romantic. That being said, I don’t think he is an atheist, either. The old style atheists that I knew loved the interplay of ideas. The ones that I encounter in Facebook seem to focus on self and how delusional the rest of us are. Perhaps monotheistic filter has struck the atheist community as well.

    I think that the worship of the self as the highest authority is actually what many of these folks including neo-Pagans are about. The self is center, and everything else is window dressing. At least, the Satanists are up front about this. The rest I think haven’t delved that far into their belief systems.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Halstead is a foolish troll and I’m surprised so much attention is given to him. I give kudos to Tess for very beautifully illustrating the symbolism of that amazing image. Honestly, when I see it, I think of Halstead and his stupid tissue box. He has appropriated it. It’s like pollution.

    An extraneous example of this is going into an art gallery and having security tell you are standing too close to image. Their intrusion destroys the experience of the art. Even viewing again in the future you recall that intrusion. It’s distracting.

    The unfortunate thing with the art world is that they actually encourage this. Even my local national public gallery is known to ‘juxtapose’ ancient greek art alongside contemporary art to alter the context of the ancient art, thereby claiming it as their own. This is a long standing and often unfortunate tradition originating from the Modern Art movement with goals to *destroy* art.

    This is a multi-level problem that I’ve been trying to point out for a long time. It’s good that folks are starting to pick up on this aspect of our jaded culture.

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  8. Hello, my name is Matty. I blog at http://www.naturalpantheist.com. I am a keen follower of your blog Galina, and have bought most of your books to learn from. However, I have to take issue with some of the points you are making in your blog post.

    Let’s start with where I am coming from. I call myself a Pagan (primarily earth centered) and a pantheist. I am not a polytheist, however having spent some time as a member of ADF, my practice and ritual is very polytheist oriented. Honouring my ancestors is very important to me. I am a “new animist” in that I believe all living things, and even non-living things, are “persons” worthy of respect. I honour the gods in ritual (mainly Anglo-Saxon) however I have trouble believing these are literal beings (but John Michael Greer does make a good case). I am not an atheist, but nor am I a hard polytheist. I am a naturalistic pagan and I am just one small part of a large pagan tent which includes many different types of people with a wide range of beliefs. In my view, anyone who incorporates elements of honouring multiple gods, honouring ancestors, honouring the earth or spirits of the earth in their religious practice is a Pagan, however they interpret those things in their head. Because Paganism is primarily about orthopraxy not orthodoxy. When one insists only those who are polytheist reconstructionists are true pagans, as your post implies, that is no different from evangelicals saying Catholics aren’t true Christians because they don’t believe in “salvation by faith alone”. We can all get along with each other and we need each other. There is so much I have learned about Paganism from hard polytheists such as yourself…and I am so grateful. And I would have no problem taking part in a ritual organised by hard polytheists such as yourself, so it does hurt to read a post where it seems I would be unwelcome and guilty of “cultural appropriation” because my interpretation of the gods is different to yours

    Now most important is your quote “Within our own communities, a large majority of Pagans are not only diametrically opposed to polytheism, but I believe dedicated to its eradication” No No No No No, please don’t feel like that. Polytheism is a vital vital part of paganism in my opinion. I have seen no evidence that Pagans are anti-polytheist. In fact, almost every one of the 200 pagan blogs I follow is written by a polytheist, so my hypothesis is probably 3/4 of pagans are polytheists, whether hard or soft.

    Next, “Polytheisms are under attack worldwide”.Again, No. Ok, Isil are destroying polytheistic places so yes that’s a big threat in one country in the middle east, but Polytheism as it’s being rebuilt in the west is definitely not under attack. I think you should be very careful about promoting the “persecution complex” as it comes across as very similar to the Christian one. I know it is an attractive proposition to believe that you are a special minority being persecuted by a powerful majority of faceless people outside your group – I know because I was once a fundamentalist Christian with a very big persecution complex. It makes one feel good, it makes one feel special, it helps one justify our beliefs and keep ourselves closed to any outside influence that might challenge us. Please, please don’t follow the Christians in this – we can see where that bad road leads.

    You said “Respect for our religious symbols is important. Is it so much to ask that we stop treating our religions as social outlets and start instead treating them as actual religions?” Yes, I agree completely. I don’t treat Paganism as a hobby. I don’t treat is as a social outlet. I treat it as a very important religion. I have no problems saying I’m religious and I believe strongly in worshipping the earth. It is actually quite insulting to claim that those in the naturalistic pagan community are somehow not as devout or serious as hard polytheists are. We are just as devoted. Many of us honour the gods in the same ways you do, even if we don’t interpret the experiences the same. For us, the gods are not just metaphors, they are more – but we have a lot of trouble accepting that they are literal supernatural beings when there is no reliable evidence to support such a proposition.

    You said “We are still in the process of preparing the ground and sowing seeds that we are hoping to nourish into a sustainable tradition. We’re still in the process of sifting out the threads some of our ancestors broke, and doing the hard, emotionally grueling, painful work of reweaving them back into being.” – Why can’t naturalistic pagans contribute to that? Some of us are involved in the ADF organisation which has a very clear devotion to historical accuracy and academics – to discovering the truth of what was done in the past. That is what attracted me to ADF and I know of a few other naturalistic pagans who have joined for that reason too. Some of us naturalistic pagans are just as concerned with trying to discover and build practices that are historically accurate as many hard polytheists are.

    I will leave you with one final thought, sometimes the practice is what leads in the end to the belief, so, what if the gods are using naturalistic versions of paganism to bring people into the religion and that practice will ultimately lead them to becoming hard polytheists in time?

    Liked by 3 people

    • ganglerisgrove

      I’ll respond to this tomorrow evening, when I am rested and after I get home from work. I will say this now: belief is a choice. Yes, practice may lead to belief, but only once you make the choice to allow it to do so (or in some cases stop ignoring what’s there right in front of you). However, as I said to my Hindu friend, we don’t have the luxury of waiting while people get themselves together. It’s wonderful when that happens and I commit to doing anything and everything I can with those who come to me to support them in that process,but there is a greater concern here: the integrity and sustainability of our traditions, restoration. No matter how well meaning someone may be, if that person is attempting to make Paganism into something that is bereft of the Gods, or worse, something where devotion and respect for the Gods is of secondary, tertiary, or no importance, they’re part of the problem, not the solution. This isn’t about you or me or anyone else feeling something. this is more important than our feelings. This is about doing right not only by the Gods but by the tradition itself and that’s far, far more important than what one of us might feel. there are obligations there. The tradition should ‘t have to change itself to accommodate your process (or mine). It’s up to us to work to do our absolute best by our Gods and the tradition we hope to build. More later…

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    • This is a very lengthy comment and I’d love to have time to dissect it all and discuss, but I don’t that time.
      One point that stood out to me and got my hackles raised is the “Polytheisms are under attack worldwide” criticism.
      This has been a reported on in press and has been an on going issue for Polytheists for a long time.
      I’ve been a polytheist for over fifteen years and suffer constantly from abuse from the public, authorities and even my own community. I do not actively seek this, nor do I ever play the victim card. It’s a matter of fact.

      I admit that the case I’m involved n (linked in Galina’s OP related to Hermes trademark) is not related to my personal practice or views, but the fact that I have to put up with this is a reason why we need polytheism and why we need a voice.
      Apart from my own situation, I can pull up constant attacks against polytheists in the US and in my own country over the past year. It’s a major subject on Polytheist.com . Who are you to say its not happening? Because… dude, it is! Open your eyes!

      To say otherwise is just insulting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi, ok you have provided examples of attacks on polytheists therefore I withdraw my comments about that part. I’m sorry to hear about it. Part of my frustration on this is what comes across from some polytheist blogs I read is the idea that somehow Polytheists are a small minority within Paganism itself and it being persecuted by other Pagans which I am not aware of any evidence of.

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      • Anomolous Thracian is the best source for examples. Check out his #‎ThisIsWhyWeNeedPolytheism‬ posts. https://thracianexodus.wordpress.com/tag/thisiswhyweneedpolytheism/
        One of which, features myself and the stuff I have to deal with on regular basis. Prior to that in the last year there have been people stalked, threats of death, abuse, or reported to authorities because of their beliefs. Also Galina kindly provided a very recent story about a Hindu woman in another comment.

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      • Oh, I just like to apologize, I just quickly read your comment and thought you were requesting more examples. (Anyways there are more to look at! 😛 )
        The death threats and abuse I (and Galina) mentioned from last year were from people who call themselves pagan.

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  9. ganglerisgrove

    and polytheisms are under attack every day. A couple of months ago i posted this: https://krasskova.wordpress.com/2015/08/07/why-are-polytheists-so-mean-or-the-effects-of-the-ongoing-battle-against-privilege-and-pollution/. Today i read an article about a Hindu woman, harassed and fired from her job because she was a polytheist. It happens all the time and we’ll see more of it the stronger the Christian right grows. Some may choose to ignore this and lie down like sheep. I’m not one of those few. We have to fight for every inch of space we wish to hold. There’s a wonderful quote that I”ve used frequently in the past, something that resonates very strongly here by a man I respect immensely:

    “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass

    I have a friend who says that polytheism is a human rights movement. No one hands you rights. ever. We are undoing the work of fifteen hundred + years of devastation and erasure.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. There’s another woman who writes about “New Vesta” (of the goddess as symbol of female empowerment sort) on Huffington Post. Seriously, if people want to do that sort of thing, can’t they just *make up a goddess* instead of using ours as psychological massage tools? I notice that the Jungian archetype stuff (and frankly a lot of New Age eclecticism in general) entered into Paganism a lot via the women’s spirituality movement- both she and Halstead seem to be of that mindset.

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  11. Matthew, I would agree that polytheists have been attacked by Pagans, largely when we object to having our traditions appropriated and our Gods shown disrespect. I could point to a number of online arguments last year but I”m too lazy to look up the links.

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  12. pretty good recap. One thing though: i don’t think we contemporary polytheists are guardians of these images. I think that we are guardians and cultivators of a tradition, of which these images are part.

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