Polytheist vs. [Neo]Pagan

Last week an academic friend and colleague, who is soon to be teaching a class on Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, asked me a rather complicated question. My friend L. plans to include a brief survey of contemporary Pagan and Polytheistic religions as part of the course, to show that these traditions did not completely disappear but continue to have import and impact in the modern day. As prep for the course, L. asked me, “What is the difference between Pagan (or Neo-pagan) and Polytheist?” I had previously mentioned that use of these terms is somewhat political and charged in our communities.(1) Here is what I told my colleague.

“Oh, it’s such a mess. 

The two words, in my opinion, should be synonymous but in today’s communities, they’re not. Polytheist means someone who believes in and venerates the Gods as individual, Holy beings. The logical and necessary corollary then, is the rightness of regular devotion and cultus. One would think this is self-explanatory. The meaning, after all, is embedded in the etymology of the word itself: πολύ (many) θέοι (Gods). We have, however, had atheists who call themselves “Pagan” try to claim the identity “Polytheist” on occasion, but for now, every time they crop up, we manage to beat them back (rather like a demented game of whack-a-mole). It’s almost as though the moment the devout make space for themselves, it comes under attack, and this isn’t just an issue in polytheism (2). 

While the definition of ‘Polytheist’ is self-explanatory, ‘Pagan’ is more complicated. Some polytheists will use the term. But maybe four years ago there was a huge inter community explosion over it.(3) There were growing attempts A) to allow for “Pagan” to include non-theist, anti-theist, atheists, etc. as well as pop culture ‘pagans’ who can’t tell the difference between fiction and devotion and other questionable um…characters (Mind you, L., I’m hardly unbiased in this and I was right in the middle of these arguments.) and B) to force polytheistic traditions under the “Neo-pagan” umbrella, which at its core was an attempt to erase our traditions, esp. the piety of our traditions, and to force them to open their boundaries to anyone and anything.(4) The “battle” raged over blogs and newsgroups and finally many leading polytheists (against my better judgment) decided to yield the term ‘Pagan’. So now anyone who has any connection to any god or goddess (regardless of whether or not they believe in Them to be archetypes as opposed to reality, or this nonsense about all deities being one, or whether they are only interested in nature or whether they’re Marxists interfering in our communities for their own political agenda, or whatever kind of trash you may have) can claim the word without having a core of any type of tradition or devotion. So, ‘Pagan’ has become a catch all term. 

Most devout polytheists I know, especially those who fought through this, won’t use the term “Pagan” now. The Gods and Their devotion are at the heart of our practices. ‘Pagan’ has become a term where that is no longer necessarily the case. Of course, the moment we ceded the term, the non and anti-theists started trying to claim “Polytheist” too, but so far we’ve successfully beaten them back. It’s never ending but there are those of us who will hold that line until we are all of us dust. Our Gods and traditions deserve that at least, from us.

I’d also add that part of the problem is that Polytheism involves traditions, which are closed containers. Neo-pagans scream that this is elitist and amounts to policing devotion (unless we’re talking about one of the African Traditional Religions when they are less likely to complain, because that might be construed as appropriative and racist.). Polytheists respond: that’s the way traditions work, either adapt yourself to them or fuck off. And so it goes. It’s a nasty, ongoing feud with those who care about what their Gods might require and those who barely register that Gods exist. 
So, unlike in the ancient world where ‘Pagan’ referred to someone practicing their ancestral tradition and/or initiated into various mystery cultus, today it refers to someone practicing any of the many …religions…which may or may not include devotion to the Gods…that grew out of Gerald Gardner’s explorations into Wicca and occultism in the fifties and later out of the counter-culture movement in the 60s and 70s in the United States. It may also refer to those practicing and restoring various Polytheistic traditions like Heathenry, Asatru, Kemetic orthodoxy, Hellenismos, Romuva, etc. but in majority quarters, it is no longer the term of choice, particularly in the US community for such. 

Heathenry, (Norse polytheism), always eschewed the term because it was always an umbrella term for a mishmash of traditions and practices, many excessively liberal, or diametrically opposed to devotion, or containing ethical standards (or lack thereof) that Heathens and other polytheists found problematic. The problem is more complicated in Europe where the various romance languages have ONLY the term ‘Pagan’ to cover a broad spectrum of traditions. 

Basically, the conflict is about modernity, religious identity, and a push back against devotion and piety. 

As a caveat, you will still find people who aren’t very much online using ‘Pagan’ when they are very devout…it depends on how aware they were of the online arguments. Our hashing out of orthodoxy, because of how spread out our communities are, tends to happen online but one should not think that the online world encompasses the whole of any tradition or practice. There are many devout Polytheists (and probably Pagans too) whose practice centers around hearth and home, land, community, and their Gods and whose window into the greater world of practice doesn’t necessarily come through the internet. 

It should also be noted that there are Polytheists who obstinately refuse to cede the term Pagan and still use it, solely to spit in the eye of the impious. I like these folks. 🙂 And newbies coming into the communities also tend not to be aware of the political fault lines either. 

It’s always worth querying when someone says “I’m Pagan,” what they mean by that. The answers might surprise you.”

Notes:

  1. Especially now since Isaac Bonewits is the one who originally pioneered usage of the terminology “Neo-Pagan.”
  2. The problem isn’t atheists per se. If someone wants to attend a ritual and behaves respectfully that’s fine. The problem is ad nauseum, atheists who come into our communities, demand leadership positions, but refuse to accommodate the traditions or bow themselves to the beauty of devotion. Instead, they endlessly attempt to twist the religion to their own lowest common denominator. This isn’t a problem only in Polytheistic traditions. It’s happening in various Monotheisms as well. For a case in point see here. (I particular love how the minister in question complains her church puts theology over ethics. Um, yes. It’s a religion. Theology matters and moreover, you’ve already proven you have no ethics by impersonating a Christian and minister).
  3. I would estimate between 2011-2014.
  4. Polytheisms tend to have far more traditional values, sexual ethics, and much more of a focus on devotional piety than any generic Paganism. They also tend to encompass mystery cultus, which are exclusionary by their very nature, solid lineages, and strict ways of doing things. They are not generally religions in which “anything goes” spiritually or morally, all too often unlike their Pagan counterparts.
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Posted on January 11, 2018, in community, Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I think this post is great! As an added complication, though, the word “pagan” is used as a pejorative and religious slur by those outside of our communities. I am very suspicious of outsiders using the term in a non-academic context. “X political/celebrity figure is pagan because this person has no values or understanding of ethics or mental/cultural depth” is a headline I’ve seen as recently as 2017.

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  2. As much a firm polytheist as I am in title and tradition, I’ll agree that “pagans” are always better than monotheists, since they are serving our greater cause. But what exactly is our cause? If it’s recovery and continuity, I dare say we need to swell our renown and numbers by pursuing not only great & pious deeds, but also by getting large families within strong communities on the ground. Then the pagans will dwindle by comparison (or join us by shame), and best of all, the monotheists will fear us in earnest, rather than mock us comfortably as they now do!

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    • I totally agree. The question is how do we do that? I know a large family who claim to be heathen. Well, they have heathen images, runes and artwork all over their house, and I was told as much, but only after asking. But other than that, they give no indication that they have any religion at all, which is unfortunate, since here I am with my heathen family, and another couple in a nearby village is also a practicing heathen. We could be strengthening our devotion and practice together, and maybe then others would crawl out of the woodworks. But you can’t make people open up about their religion or be a part of a community. And we are all so few and far between as it is.

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      • If there is a strong will, there is always a way. We need to re-examine our priorities and look forward. One simple question that should always be considered is, do we care more about our income or our homes, our comfort or our continuity, our conformity or our tradition? How can we secure our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond for polytheism? The transition from individual and scattered to communal and orderly must take place. The first step in my view is to form institutions and organizations that prepare and guide such projects. To avoid centralization (which monotheists have), why not a kind of confederation of communities? We’ll need to overcome our tendency to dislike leadership though. Priests, leaders and elders are at the center of any successful community of faith. My friends and I have been discussing these points more or less on our new FB group (interethnic think-tank for polytheism).

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      • That doesn’t sound like a bad approach to me, especially if it can serve to help bring people together on the ground and not just in a virtual online interaction. I don’t have a problem with leadership in a grassroots sense.

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  3. I really enjoy reading your blog! You are so bold and outspoken, saying what you mean rather than caving to the pressures of political correctness. I admire that in you. 😊

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  4. I am late in commenting. I have always identified myself as a Polytheist. The local Pagan community always identified me as a Polytheist. They understood that we were so different in outlook that there seemed to be no overlap. Roman Polytheists seemed to separate themselves from the greater Pagan community.

    “I’d also add that part of the problem is that Polytheism involves traditions, which are closed containers. ” — I think that does say what part of the internet battles are about. The entry into Polytheism is restricted and can only be had by belief in many Gods and acceptance of the overarching traditions. Paganism on the other had has ease of entry to the point where it becomes meaningless – Christian and Pagan, Atheist and Pagan, Marxist and Pagan…..

    I also see the ease that people have with starting their own religions and followings. There is a lot of evangelizing that goes on with the Atheist and Marxist folks to have everyone believe what they believe. It is Monotheism at work in the underground way it does. Polytheism as a closed container resists this impetus of Monotheism into Paganism.

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  5. I agree. I was just talking to a friend who’s frustrated that the Kemetic articles she’s written for several ‘pagan’ publications in her country don’t spark comments or interest. I think the polytheist and pagan audiences are very different from each other and self-selecting. The very things that attract us as polytheists (structure? ethics? things that are focused on the Gods rather than yourself?) are the very things that turn off most modern pagans, and the things that attract them are the things that don’t interest us. The only people we’re likely to interest in a pagan venue are the newbies and seekers who would tend to be interested in those polytheist features. And they may move on quickly when they don’t find ‘paganism’ to their taste.

    Another thing to mention is that, attending any sort of pagan event, there is usually nothing for a polytheist to do, nothing much to buy, and not much to talk to with the other attendees.

    It’s not evangelism, but we need to find better troughs to put our pearls in.

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  6. I’ve also seen people who have been pagan longer move into a polytheist direction- I’d include myself in this, but those of us who do are typically not in rebellion/reaction mode. Being involved in cultural events/orgs related to your tradition can help, though I suppose that’s more challenging for Kemetics, or for any ethnic group that is so identified with a given church that being openly polytheist is quashed. But my druid grove did manage to get approval to have a ritual at the Minnesota Irish Fair following in the footsteps of another grove in Ohio. I definitely proselytize for the Irish language, but for the religion, I just kind leave some breadcrumbs for interested folks to follow.

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  7. The majority of people who call themselves Christian are really polytheists, worshipping three gods who have less in common with each other than certain polytheist subgods with their main god. Strangely enough those trinitarian Christians are considered by many monotheists just because they say their god is one. The Real and only True God, the God of Israel Who is also the God of Abraham, Jesus and his disciples is Only One God not existing out of three gods.

    Lots of christians also have their idols, gods and saints, and worship in front of graven images, an abomination in the eyes of the True God.

    As you rigthly say we in Europe are a little bit limited by the choice of words. “The problem is more complicated in Europe where the various romance languages have ONLY the term ‘Pagan’ to cover a broad spectrum of traditions.” And that is what we should look at in heathenry or heathenism, (which we would not consider only Norse polytheism) and paganism as well as gentile beliefs.

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  8. An other problem is that some polytheists mistakenly assume that an absence of gods must mean an absence of sacrality.

    Many seem to forget that persons can be a pagan and a polytheist, or a duotheist, or a goddess-worshipping monotheist, or a pantheist, or an animist, or a non-theist, or an atheist, or a druid. Though I wonder if they come to see that several of them would like to find the holy or the sacred in the earth or their bodies or in their relationships.

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  9. Reblogged this on Temple of Athena the Savior and commented:
    I think of myself as both Polytheist and Pagan. Polytheist is a FAR better and more descriptive term, but sadly, I’ve found many people in real life who don’t know what it means. Which says something about the state of our educational system in general (a whole ‘nother discussion). The worst thing is when atheists try to take over and mock devotion within Paganism, to the point where I, like many others, am almost at the point of giving up the word. Which really pisses me off that I’m put in that position in the first place. But it’s mostly because I don’t want there to be any confusion; I’m a Polytheist because I believe that the Gods exist, physically, really, outside-of-me, and They are more than archetypes. I’m tired of people assuming that I’m Pagan because I saw The Craft (did I just date myself? lol) and I just want cool awesome magik power.

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