The Simplicity of Polytheism

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Polytheism is very, very simple. It really is. One is a polytheist if one believes in many Gods as individual, distinct Holy Powers – i.e. Gods – with agency and Being external to humanity. In other words, if you have One real God, and you add Another, and then Another the answer to how many Gods you have is a pretty simple equation: if you answer less than three you’re not a polytheist. There is a corollary to this: it is our place to venerate the Holy Powers. That’s it, that’s what makes a polytheist but it’s apparently a very difficult equation for some people to master. That’s ok. I always had trouble with math too. Not everyone is equally gifted.

Humanist-friendly writers today, many of them on Patheos are attempting to sub-divide polytheism into categories: devotional, relational, etc. The reason behind this is partly to force a fracturing of polytheistic traditions and partly to allow those who have zero belief and/or zero veneration of the Gods entry into a body of traditions. That is the sticking point, you see: those who understand that in restoring polytheism we are restoring a body of traditions and those who have utterly no comprehension or respect for that fact and want to force the dissolution of traditions in favor of a pseudo-spiritual mish-mash. It’s not enough for those who aren’t polytheist to practice and build their own traditions well, they must force ours open to their “ministrations.”

There is only one polytheism: that which acknowledges the Gods and venerates Them. All polytheistic traditions are at heart both relational and devotional. To imply that they aren’t is not only incorrect but remarkably uneducated in what polytheism actually is. Of course to educate oneself, one would have to talk to those working within polytheism, listen to them, and stop attempts to define our religious identity out of existence.

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Posted on March 22, 2016, in community, Polytheism, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. It truly amazes me how so many people in or on the fringes of “Pagan” communities seek to recharacterize and redefine what polytheism is. It is one of the most consistently-defined, least controversial terms in the history of theological terminology. One would be hard-pressed to find a term of its like, whose meaning is so thoroughly and firmly agreed upon by scholars. Confusion over terms like “monolatry” and “henotheism” are understandable, both on account of their relative obscurity and the difficulty of the content involved, but “polytheism”? It’s absurd.

    I’ve found that the people who most often seek to recharacterize and redefine are not unread people who simply don’t know better and/or weren’t ever given the means to know better. Rather, they are frequently anti-intellectuals who have very little to contribute and are not particularly original, but nevertheless want to have their own “ideological brand” by which to make a name for themselves.

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  2. I think a lot of the present terminological confusion rises from the assumption that universal statements — such as ‘Polytheism is x’ — are really just universal generalizations. In a universal generalization, something is said to be true of every member of a domain. On this reading, if devotion or relation is said to be part of Polytheism, then there can be no ‘non-devotional’ or ‘non-relational’ polytheists, since devotion or relation has been truly predicated of every polytheist. Seeing the empirical fact that some polytheists are more devoted or relational than others, these folks are forced to sub-categorize Polytheism, so that every member in each domain bears the same property.

    But, the assumption is a mistake: universal statements can also be analyzed as categorical propositions. A categorical proposition does not universally distribute an attribution across a domain, but rather states that there is some standard that the members of a domain exemplify to different degrees.

    Thus, the statement that all cats have four legs is false as a universal generalization, but true as a categorical.

    Similarly, Polytheism can be read as expressing a standard, and so that tendency is superfluous which sub-categorizes every time polytheists are found not to be in perfect harmony.

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    • I think what it comes down to is that polytheism is a theological position rather than a religion itself, and the problem is that a lot of folks commenting on polytheism are speaking about it from the outside as though polytheism is, itself, a religion. Kemetic polytheism is not Heathen polytheism is not Wiccan polytheism. The way these polytheisms manifest themselves and what are accepted practice within them, standards of conduct in ritual, generally accepted as offerings, and so on, differs from polytheism to polytheism.

      Saying all cats have four legs as a universal generalization is wrong, but to say “Generally, (or normally) all cats have four legs” as a universal statement is both true generally and true categorically. Being a polytheist will, generally, mean one is both devotional and relational in their makeup. Not every polytheist will be, but this is less about definition of words themselves, since we agree on the definition of the term here, and more towards the establishment of norms within and between diverse communities. An established norm is that a cat has four legs, and it is remarked upon when a cat does not. It doesn’t make this given cat less of a cat; it means they’re simply not physiologically similar to the norm of cats. If we accept all cats normally have four legs, whether a Maine Coon has two or a Siamese has three does not disrupt that there is normality, but that there are exceptions to it.

      If a person believes in many Gods but does not have an active devotional relationship with a God, despite this they fit the technical terms for being a polytheist (“The belief in or worship of more than one God)”). They will still be polytheist. The understanding of devotional and relationship understandings of our Gods are normalities within polytheism even if not all polytheists actively engage in them. There are some polytheists who may believe in many Gods but have little to no contact with Them for whatever reason, whether not being drawn to Them, or being called to give honor to the Ancestors, Dead, heroes, and/or vaettir rather than engaging in devotional relationships with the Gods.

      We could give all kinds of reasons for why all cats do not have 4 legs, but the understanding remains that cats with four legs are the norm, just as polytheism is relational and devotional by norm. Even in those cases where a polytheist does not actively worship a God or Goddess, there is still relationship with the Gods because the Gods are interwoven into fabric of the religion itself, requiring relationship with the Gods in order for the worldview within that polytheism to make sense at all. I may not know my great-great-grandfather by anything other than name, but my relationship with him still remains because of the lines he helped to pass down to me, and is part of the reason I am here to begin with. It may not be personal, and it may be filtered through a few generations, but I have a relationship with the man, even if it is solely through my family tree.

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      • Exactly, and without a standard form of Polytheism, there’d be no non-arbitrary way to say this is polytheistic but that is not. So the discission should be about what this standard involves. But, then the controversy would evaporate because it could not seriously be maintained that standard Polytheism is non-devotional/relational. But, I guess some would rather say that 1, 2 or 3 legged cats belong to their own species than just acknowledge that they’re all cats.

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      • That it is a theological position is why I prefer not to capitalize it.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. From my understanding, several of the Humanist types seek entry into Paganism, feeling that they are being turned away. They see that you and others are telling them they are not Pagan – note the term – Pagan since they are not polytheists.

    Then their view of polytheism is “human-like” Gods. Period. Sort of the monotheistic filter.

    What cracks me up is how they see the world as Roman polytheists – the world is full of numina – it is a numinous world, holy powers everywhere. And they still say they are atheists or humanists! Ha, basic polytheism is seeping into their subconscious.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      yes, they are being turned away and will ALWAYS be turned away. this isn’t Paganism where anything goes. Polytheistic traditions have standards, standards that they doggedly refuse to meet.

      Liked by 4 people

  4. ganglerisgrove

    TP it’s a religious identity which is why I do.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. KhonsuMes Matt

    Having seen only small bits of this ongoing dialog, is the ‘they’ being turned away here a small, particular group? Or individual? Or some generalized group? The one thread I did participate I tangentially involved Mr. Halstead. (Happy to read through any links that would save you all efforts at educating me). I will honestly say here that I am trying to form an opinion as to how genuine these attempts are, and how much is some kind of privilege grandstand for self-aggrandizement’s sake.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      For the better part of four years now Halstead has been trying to undermine polytheism. In the past he’s flat out said he thinks the Gods are make believe, psychological projections, etc. He identifies as a humanist pagan, but espouses views that are at best atheistic and at worst monotheistic (there’s not a lot of consistency). He’s not a polytheist. Despite them, perhaps because it’s the cool new term (but more likely because many of our traditions were finally starting to work together to support each other in restoration) he and Rhyd (who identifies as a polytheist but has little interest in building tradition), and many others have been trying to decide and define what polytheism is (despite Halstead NOT in any way being a polytheist). They’ve been trying to force our traditions open to their particularly polluted brand of non-theism, or in Rhyd’s case politics in lieu of religion. It doesn’t matter what any polytheist says or does, people like Halstead (and Halstead in particular) are adamant that polytheism is what they define it and it doesn’t have to include Gods and our traditions should be open to their cannibalism and appropriation, etc. etc. He doesn’t have Gods and apparently can’t stand the rest of us to have them either.

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      • KhonsuMes Matt

        Thank you for the insight. Neither the ‘no-god-or-one-or-so-so-called-gods’ nor ‘politics-is-all’ views are commensurate with my own experience of Maat or the path I follow. (wink* – I really mean that to be as tortuous a sentence as possible)! I had not known Rhyd was involved. John just strikes me as becoming more and more of an X-splainer (insert appropriate X or set of X’s as desired), with the not-quite-expressed intention of being an ‘Important Voice’ of/for the pagan and polytheist communities. That sort of political ladder climbing is really distasteful to me. Anyway, since the two positions you enumerated are simply not emergent or evident in the Egyptian texts and art, nor in the daily practice of the rituals, I’m having nothing of them. Thank you for putting the matter in clear simple terms.

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  6. It really is that simple. I don’t understand how people can’t grasp that. This has been what the term has meant since it first came into being from the combination of the Greek words ‘polu’ (many) and ‘theos’ (god). Literally MANY GODS.

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  7. “Paganism” is not a religion, either. Every society had their own pantheon filled with Gods and their own rituals and rotas. This is a false modernism. There were no public agnostics or atheists —
    everyone participated. It was communal because to do otherwise would bring miasma.

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  8. I believe another part of the need so many have to redefine Polytheism is due to our culture’s obsession with micro-categorizing everything. Some people can’t simply have one name for something with several different varieties. They much first have a broad umbrella term and then divide the subject into tiny, easily manageable groups to which they can give absurdly specific labels that rarely make any sense. A lot of people seem to want to do this with Polytheism, and it would be funny if it weren’t so infuriating. “Well, I’m not firmly convinced Zeus and Jupiter are two different beings, I really enjoy the community aspects of religion that go along with group worship, and I think gladiators were awesome, so I practice Communal-Gladiator-Inspired-Soft-Greco-Roman-Polytheism. Now if only I could find a way to include my love of pomegranate flavored beverages in there somewhere . . .”

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