Polytheisms as Diasporic Religions
One topic that came up in my twitter conversation the other night was the idea (which i’ve noted extensively in my MA Thesis and also in other articles on my blog) is the idea of polytheisms and diasporic religions.
Generally a Diasporic religion is one that is being practiced far from its place of indigenous origin. The Afro-Caribbean religions like Candomble and Lukumi (and other religions in this family) may be considered Diasporic because their origins lay in Africa and they took on their current forms by virtue of necessity during the horrors of the slave trade. Likewise, one will often hear American Jews talking about the ‘Diaspora’ with respect to their religion for similar reasons: it’s being practiced not in Jerusalem, but in Chicago, New York, LA, etc. By this rubric, Americans practicing polytheistic religions of their European forebears are also practicing in the Diaspora.
Now to some degree, this is inevitable. We no longer grow up, live, marry, and die in the same village as our great grandparents. We live in a global world with far more possibilities open to us than our ancestors may have had for travel and resettlement. Still, I maintain that there are specific issues that arise when one is working in the Diaspora that simply do not exist in purely native religion. (We’ll come back to this idea of native polytheism in a moment).
I first noticed this in Heathenry, specifically with Theodism. (1) There seems to be a deep anxiety over not being positioned on European soil ideally with an unbroken line of descent from our polytheistic ancestors. Part of this, I think, is that religion is very difficult to separate from the culture that birthed it. When polytheism was the dominant worldview, in most places there was very little separation of Church and state (ironically you did not see conquest in the name of religion or one God though, and multiple cultus were allowed to flourish). You had your personal cultus and state cultus and they rather reinforced each other. You had philosophies that helped one live meaningful and just lives (because your religion was not about ethics but about doing right by the Gods and engaging well and sustainably with the holy). Significantly what you did *not* have was underlying conflict between the structure and values of your culture and those of your religion.
We’re not so lucky today. Modern American culture is deeply informed by Protestant Christianity and in many cases very evangelical versions of those Protestantisms.(2) European cultures are likewise deeply impacted by Christianity, and a deeply ingrained secularism that arose in response to it. Neither place can lay claim to any un-Diasporic polytheism. We’re either working within a geographic Diaspora in the US, or a generational one in Europe. One might argue that at least those in Europe speak languages that connect them to their polytheistic ancestors, but not really. German is as different from the early Germanic tongues as English is from Anglo-Saxon. Likewise Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, French, and Italian are radically different from the Latin that influenced their development as are their cultures. We cannot erase 2000 years of deeply embedded Christianity from the psychological and ideological narrative. When someone says to me (as was recently said), “You’re not [insert place where romance language is spoken here] so you can’t understand Roman religion.” I am quick to point out that neither can you. in no place on earth are we dealing with an unbroken, unimpeded, unaffected line of religious transmission. What we are dealing with are fragments, perhaps random survivals through Catholicism and folk practice of certain rites, but not uncontested, undiminished polytheism. We’re all working in a Diaspora.
Where European polytheists have a leg up on us is that they are still in the lands of origin for our religions. (3) They can look to and explore a landscape that was once marked as sacred by their ancestors and that’s pretty damned cool. We in the States are working on land purchased with a blood debt for which we haven’t even begun to discuss reparation. That’s not so cool but I warrant that it plays into our religious anxieties, even if only unconsciously. Modernity is no help here either: it tells us that religion is foolish superstition, or at best a private peccadillo best left undiscussed.
This is one of the reasons why it’s so very important to consider carefully how our ancestors looked at the world, their religious lens, and how their piety influenced their worldview. This is why it’s so important to try to place ourselves in that religious worldview before we surrender to the lure of the modern one. Things are very different when every tree, mountain, and stream has a soul. To restore cleanly, well, that may mean restoring values as well, things like piety, and civic awareness as part of the package. I don’t think it is healthy or sustainable to remove polytheism from the values that evolved from it.
Nor do i think this idea of working in the Diaspora was unknown to our polytheistic forebears. Look at Rome, for example. They had an empire that stretched from Britain to Iraq. They too had to find ways to practice their religion away from Rome and Italy proper.(4) They found ways to bring cohesion to their practices and we will too. We’re just going to have to work at it understanding that we have quite a few factors stacked against us.
One of the things to remember here is that monotheism was not inevitable. It was not progress. In returning to polytheism we’re not moving backward; we’re picking up where our ancestors were forced to let go and moving forward as we should have two thousand years ago. That progression, however, is going to entail serious reevaluation of what we want to take with us on the journey.
1. I discuss this in depth in my thesis, which has since been published as ‘Transgressing Faith: Race, Gender, and the Problem of “Ergi” in modern American Heathenry.”
2. See “Love the Sin” by Pellegrini and Jacobson to get started exploring this dynamic. Their bibliography is a thing of beauty. I”d also recommend “Secularisms” by the same authors. The first book is what got me really looking at this as an important piece of our cultural and religious puzzle.
3. It seems to me though that this complicates as much as it is a boon. Note the rise of Nationalist agendas within many indigenous polytheisms in Europe (Greece is a perfect example). There are political factors at work that we don’t have to consider in the states. In the States of course, we have to factor in fundamentalist Christianity within our government, and a deeply uneducated populace so perhaps those two things balance out in a way.
4. One of the ways they did this during the Empire was via emperor cultus. While Rome was very good about leaving people’s religions alone, they did bring their emperor cultus with them wherever they extended the borders of the empire and one scholar, I. Morrison-Moncure, in a currently unpublished paper has speculated that this cultus served as a means of unifying an otherwise religiously and geographically diverse empire.