Musings on Tradition
This has been a topic of discussion this morning on several forums. I think for those of us initiated into multi-generational lineaged traditions, those of us engaged in protecting our own nascent traditions, those of us working within this construct for years the concept is self-explanatory but there are those without this background, or those coming from more liberal Pagan traditions for whom this may be a new or confusing concept.
Let’s start with polytheism. What is it? At its core, it’s the belief in many Gods as independent (especially with respect to humans) entities. It is also the umbrella container for a multiplicity of specific traditions (like Heathenry, Hellenismos, cultus Deorum, etc.). For instance, I am a polytheist and also a Heathen and practitioner of cultus deorum. I’m a polytheist working within those two specific traditions. One might view it as a wheel made up of many, many different spokes. (1)
What differentiates the open polytheism of the past with what we have today? In the past (and by this I mean before monotheism gained dominance) there was a cross-cultural agreement that A). Gods existed and B). were worthy of veneration. Today, we don’t have that. Today, even within Paganism we have anything but. The container of our society and culture is likewise deeply hostile to the idea of polytheistic religion and Gods, unless it’s the Christian God and even then your mileage may vary. Our world is vastly different and eminently more hostile. The religious understanding that underpinned the ancient world (despite its conflicts in many other areas) is completely and utterly lacking today. There’s no attendant baseline by which we can find workable agreement. There’s almost nothing upon which to build.
Likewise, on top of that deficit, we have people with a vested interest in forcing polytheism and its attendant traditions open to non-theists, atheists, monists (a step away from monotheism, thank you very much and yes, it existed in the ancient world, I’ve discussed that here.), pantheists, secularists and those with a vested interest in forcing polytheism to accept their ideas of the unreality of the Gods. One of the volleys fired in this campaign was the attempt, begun roughly last year, maybe a bit longer, to force polytheists to qualify their polytheism: i.e. devotional, relational, etc. I’ve even heard stirrings recently to bring such terms as poly-atheist or poly-agnostic into play (why? You need a special term for all the Gods you don’t believe in? no. no. and no. Let these people call themselves poly+any religious term and it’ll be carte blanche for them to insert themselves into our traditions). All of this of course, is just a veiled attempt to pry open the doors of our traditions, to force us to water them down until sooner or later, people who have zero interest in the traditions themselves (but likely just don’t want anyone else to have anything pure and unsullied that they themselves cannot devalue) will be able to creep in and seize control of the discourse. That is what is being attempted and the major weapon is rhetoric and sometimes an appeal to “tolerance” (a tolerance that never extends to leaving our traditions in peace).
I think it is particularly significant with these qualifiers that they are not terms that polytheists by and large themselves found necessary. We did not choose them for ourselves. These were and are terms of engagement foisted off on us by outsiders in a further attempt to edge themselves into our traditions. Do I mind the term “devotional” polytheism? Not so much. I’ve even written a book with that title, but largely because I wanted to answer the question of “I’m polytheist but I’m new. Now what?” Well, the next step is learning devotion. Using a term by choice within a tradition and with the framework of understanding granted by the scaffolding of the tradition is a far different thing from having a term forced on one by someone hostile to the very idea of tradition.
The thing about traditions (and I emphasize that there are many individual ones within polytheism but they all have that pesky Gods are real thing) is that they are not inclusive. There is absolutely no expectation that they should be. Or rather, they are happily inclusive of people willing to adapt themselves to the baseline standards of the tradition, which most of the humanist pagans most assuredly aren’t. Of course this always makes me wonder why “pagan” isn’t a good enough label for them. They certainly fought long and hard two plus years ago to fully co-opt the term (and by co-opt I mean claim so fully and in such a way that it is now rendered into meaninglessness. Pagan can mean anything you want it to and that’s the complete antithesis to a tradition).
Accepting that the Gods exist as independent Beings is not enough. There’s a logical corollary to that. Once you realize, really, really realize that there are Gods then to any deep thinking person it demands a reflected adjustment in one’s behavior. If there are Gods, then what does that mean for us in relation to those Gods? What then is our place in the world? For the devout polytheist the answer is simple: devotion/veneration. So to use the term “devotional polytheist” is rather…I will admit….redundant. When we use it within the tradition, we’re putting the emphasis on our practices. When outsiders use it, I’ve found that it’s often used to marginalize those practices. It’s an important distinction. Allow outsiders to start defining us and we’ll find them defining us out of our own traditions. Humanist Pagan: “oh them? They’re devotional polytheists. We don’t do that. We’re the polytheists who don’t really mess around with all that god stuff. They’re really the outliers of polytheism. You don’t have to worry about Gods at all.” Yeah…no.
Kenaz Filan, in a recent comment to my post here, said it best:
“My “litmus test” for Polytheism is this: do you believe the Gods are Many, the Gods are Real, the Gods are Here?
[b]The Gods are Many[/b]: if you believe in One God, you are a Monotheist. This is true even if you believe all Gods are merely masks for One God/dess and all religions are part of One Truth. Because the Gods are Many, their goals are divergent and sometimes conflicting. We can and should honor our Gods over others — but we should never forget those other Gods are also deserving of honor.
[b]The Gods are Real[/b]: if you believe the Gods are symbols, myths, archetypes, etc. you are an Atheist. Disbelieving in many Gods whilst using Their trappings for your personal gain is not Poytheism: it is psychodrama at best and blasphemy at worst.”
[b]The Gods are Here[/b]: The Gods are immanent in the world around us and are actively involved in its daily affairs, It is fitting to serve Them by prayer, by worship and by working to fulfill Their goals. Polytheism isn’t something you believe, it’s something you do.”
I would only qualify this by saying A). everything that you do should be grounded in belief, it’s not an either/or but it’s not enough to simply say “I believe in many Gods.” That belief demands action devotional and otherwise; and B). while the Gods are immanent, They are also quite often transcendent. We will never grasp the entirety of Their being and it is not dependent on this world or us and our consciousness. The oft posited split between transcendence and immanence is, at best, a false dichotomy, one that taken to its logical conclusion renders our Gods less than the monotheistic one. Our Gods are both immanent and transcendent. They are Gods.
Now, within any tradition, there will be many, many different ways in which people relate to their Gods. Each devotional relationship is going to be unique. That must always be considered by any teacher or elder or priest within the tradition. Those relationships are very precious, very sacred things and must always be nourished. Here’s the thing though, here’s what oughtn’t to be considered: those who attack the core structures of polytheism, who refuse to keep their hands off traditions they have only the desire to destroy, who don’t believe in the actual existence of Gods but want a voice in speaking for polytheists. Nor do I think we should be giving any space or tolerance at all to those who aren’t polytheist but who seem to have a vested interest in defining what polytheism is or worse what it ‘should’ be, but who likewise have no idea of what a tradition is within that structure.
No one is entitled to a place within a tradition. Traditions are sealed ecosystems, delicately balanced between structure and innovation, devotion and creativity. The only people with any right at all to speak to the nature or future of a tradition are those deeply ensconced within that tradition. No one has a right to demand entry. Traditions have baseline standards by which they are defined, structures that help protect and ensure clean transmission to the next generation and beyond.
This is about so much more than us here now. I think that part of the poison of post-modernity is that we’ve forgotten or lost the grace of looking beyond ourselves to something bigger. We’ve placed ourselves at the apex of the world and wonder why it’s crumbling. To build and protect a tradition, to fight for space in which that tradition might grow – not like bonsai, clipped and twisted by outside forces into a miniature of itself, but unfettered and free of outside influences—means looking not to what is comfortable or expedient for us now but what will serve multiple generations in the future. If I yield on this point now, what are the potential consequences to polytheism two hundred years from now? Thing it hyperbolic? There aren’t that many of us in the front lines of this fight. Each and every decision matters. Each and every choice has the potential to contribute to the growth of what will hopefully one day be a powerful and intact intergenerational tradition of substance and integrity or …not. Ground lost is very, very difficult to regain.
- Working with more than one pantheon of Gods was not uncommon in ancient polytheisms. There was no expectation of exclusivity of tradition – that is something born of polytheisms being reborn in the Diaspora. In the ancient world, one would venerate the Gods of one’s family and ancestors, one’s city, heroes, ancestors, as well as initiate into any cultus that appealed. It was very fluid within the polytheistic structure.