Polytheism and Devotion
(I received permission from the Editor of BBI Media to post the un-edited version of my essay in the current issue of Witches and Pagans. This is an excellent issue and I highly recommend picking up a copy. Thank you, Anne Niven, for allowing me to post this here).
Over the past couple of years, the term ‘devotional polytheism’ has become a popular one. I’m partly responsible for that, having written a book of the same name and having engaged in my share of online debates and discussions. In fact, for many of us, it’s difficult to parse the line between polytheism and devotion in part because of the nature of polytheistic practice in and of itself. In many ways, the two things are inherently connected. In this article I’m going to talk about why that is and what it means as a polytheist to term oneself ‘devotional.’
Devotion can be a highly charged term in our communities. Certainly there can be quite a bit of disagreement on what it is and how to do it well. It goes hand in hand with piety, an even more explosive term. There can be a tremendous discomfort, ambivalence, and even hostility around these words, in part because we are reclaiming our religious language even as we set about the process of restoring our traditions and all too often the language we start out with is tainted by negative experiences within our birth religion. When piety has in the past been used as a weapon of control, it can be tremendously difficult to explore it with any neutrality. We are, as ever, a work in progress. Devotion, however, is an expression of piety.
Piety itself comes from a Latin word perhaps best translated as one’s obligations or duties: to the Gods, ancestors, and within one’s community. Early Christians shifted the meaning of the word to ‘love.’ (1) Issues arise of course today over the question of who gets to define what is pious within our religious communities and in many respects it’s a very individual thing. We are re-learning what our Gods expect of us, both individually and within our traditions overall. This is not without its pitfalls, but it is devotion – our desire to do right by our Gods, to honor Them well, to grow in our relationships with Them and our ancestors – that often sees us through. As polytheists we are people deeply engaged with our religions.
There are a few things inherent in being a polytheist, before we even get to the devotional part of the equation. First of all, we believe in many Gods. The word itself means just that. It’s from the Greek πολύ (many) and θέοι (gods). Not only do we believe in many Gods, but we believe and venerate Them as active, independent entities. They do not depend upon us for Their existence. They predated us, are greater than we in the cosmic design, and our sacred duty as human beings is to give Them proper veneration.
This is where devotion comes to the fore. Polytheism changes everything about the way one walks in the world. To acknowledge that there are actual Gods and spirits (ancestors, nature spirits, etc.), that we live, as the Greek philosopher Thales once said “in a world full of Gods,” carries with it an essential shift in perception. To embrace polytheism is to intentionally and passionately re-sacralize the world. To acknowledge the Gods is to acknowledge our own place in the universal hierarchy, and to acknowledge the rightness of devotion: those acts that bring us closer to the Gods, that place us over and over again into right and active relationship with Them.
Devotion becomes then everything we do to celebrate that reality. Every polytheist today is in the position of being a co-creator with the Gods…not of the universe or our world (this is not some post modern “theology” that deifies the self after all) but of our traditions. Living as we do in a world where the very idea of active devotion is all but pathologized, living a life that prioritizes maintaining right relationship with our Gods is a radical act. Pouring out offerings and raising our voices in prayer to the Holy Powers, the Immortal Gods, the Immortal Goddesses, and our beloved dead is a radical act. In doing so we are forcing change on ourselves. We are re-patterning our minds and hearts and hopefully eventually our world too. That is part of what restoring our traditions is about. Being a polytheist has consequences.
It’s not enough to say that one IS polytheist if one’s essential mindset remains the same. In joining one of the growing number of religions that identify as polytheistic traditions, we are being asked to consciously change the way we engage with everything in our world. To acknowledge the Gods is to acknowledge our obligations to Them and that means changing how we behave in the world at large. Devotion becomes both a celebration of our Gods and an act of tremendous courage.
What one does, the specifics of devotion is a very individual thing. Our Gods are not interchangeable after all. They are individuals and so is each and every devotee. The relationship that each person forges with his or her Deities is unique. This is a given. What one Deity wants may vary considerably from person to person, even within the same tradition and with the same Deity. We have diviners and oracles to help suss this out when problems arise because that is also part of polytheism: the Gods are ready, willing, and able to communicate with us.
We in our modern world, having come of age in a time when there was the ignorance of fundamentalist religion or the dogged agnosticism (or sometimes atheism) of “progress” and modernity seem to have a particular suspicion if not outright dread of “UPG” – unverified personal gnosis (despite the fact that, as any Religious Studies scholar might laughingly tell you, * all * religion is, at its heart, personal gnosis). The idea that the Gods can communicate with us directly can be a deeply discomfiting one. Mysticism is no longer an acceptable part of daily life. Polytheism shatters the mechanization of that paradigm. We are religions of mystics, religions for whom the idea that the Gods can and will communicate with us in a plethora of ways is a normal, recognized part of our religious life. This does not, of course, mean that it won’t be terrifying if it occurs! Our ancestors understood that the sacred could never, ever be made safe.
That is the hardest thing to train ourselves out of: the expectation that our religion will be safe, that it will cosset and serve us without ever demanding that we grow and learn and expand and sometimes shatter into a thousand bits so that our Gods can dance in the light of that refraction. We are asked as polytheists to rise above spiritual mediocrity, to challenge ourselves to sit with our own discomfort until we are able to see all the cracks in our world, cracks that betray the devastation that once befell the world of our ancestors when their religious traditions were thrust into obliteration by the spread of monotheism across the world.
We are asked, through the work of our devotion, work that at times may be full of longing and beauty, ecstasy and pain, joy and celebration to help shepherd our traditions into the world anew. The Gods also lurk in those cracks, dancing, laughing, raging and sustaining the pieces of a world that we –our forebears and we ourselves—broke. It can be an awesome responsibility, to take up that burden of restoration, of returning ourselves first and foremost of all to right relationship with the Powers. The way to do that though is through devotion. Scholars of religion will tell you that polytheisms were always praxis oriented. It’s not enough to simply say that you’re a polytheist; we must be men and women of action.
I suspect that this may all sound very intimidating in writing but in reality it is a very different thing. It is a process, a partnership. The very acts and desires of devotion bring one back to the reality of the Gods and ancestors and with that reality comes the knowledge that we are not alone in this work of re-enchanting ourselves (the world after all has ever and always been sacred whether or not we have always been able to see that) and restoring our traditions. The Gods are there and as we live out our devotion in ways large and small, They bestow Their graces: of Presence, of blessing, of support. As we re-learn how to live pious, devoted lives, our ancestors are there for us too and each time we raise a voice in prayer, each time we pour libations, each time we engage in the work of living religion they do so in tandem with us. We become part of a huge community – those living with whom we share our faith, and those unseen Gods and spirits Who support us in devotion. We take our place in a glorious matrix of co-creation, of celebration, and, as we learn, devotion. When we truly realize, and oh how devotion helps this process occur, that the Gods are real, nothing in the world is ever the same again, least of all ourselves.
1. Which I personally find problematic–of course piety and devotion should be an expression of the love one has for one’s Gods but to secure one’s devotional practices in the vagaries of emotion seems dangerous to me; after all, what about the fallow times when one is struggling to feel love for one’s Gods or loved by one’s Gods? What then? Does one simply abandon one’s religious obligations? I would hope not!