Eliding our Spiritual Commitments – Words Matter

“Our way of life, our holy places, our festivals and religious practices, our ancestors and Gods – these are everything.”

 – OGSaffron

On twitter, I’m having a rather interesting discussion about this article. It details how the archeologist currently in charge of Çatalhöyük is going out of his way to push an anti-theist agenda, using linguistic gymnastics to avoid acknowledging the site as one that was once  polytheistic, and specifically denying that any Goddesses were venerated there. As Dr. Edward Butler noted in this twitter conversation,

“General avoidance of the term Gods is common in Western writers. …Interpreting religion as religion, and Gods as Gods, gets in the way of interpreting religion instead as a proxy for social and economic organization, an imperative since Durkheim and Weber. Hence, for instance, part of the reason why Hodder (the archaeologist in charge fo the site. –gk) wants to suppress the idea of any kind of theistic devotion having been practiced at Çatalhöyük is because of that site’s egalitarian social organization, whereas he wants to associate religion with the emergence of “domination”.”

I cannot tell you how many classes I’ve endured where the professors – who should have known better – pushed the idea that the ancients believed all Gods were the same, or that they didn’t understand their own religion. They jumped through hoops – in complete opposition to the surviving evidence, I might add — to deny the polytheism of our ancestors, to paint is as primitive, a minority position, to insist that anyone intelligent or educated was monist, monotheist, or atheist (this is especially so in the wake of Christian scholasticism when it comes to ancient philosophers, most of whom were in fact deeply pious men and women).  

This is important. This should be noted and called out. It is, in some cases blatant, an attempt to rewrite history, to strip polytheism and by extension the Gods from the historical narrative. If we are left with the falsehood that our ancestors had no piety and no religion than there is nothing to restore. If we buy into that falsehood, then the coming of Christianity and other monotheisms can indeed be painted as “progress,” instead of the religious and culture destruction that it actually was. It reduces the complex body of religious practices that our ancestors held dear to superstition and misguided error. It obliterates the reality of our Gods in favor of either monotheism or secular anti-theism (and sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference).

This is why I think it’s so important for us to not elide the term ‘Gods’ in our own discourse with non-polytheists. I think too many of us do that to make them comfortable, to find common ground, but we really, really shouldn’t.  Even I’ve been guilty of this more times than I can count, especially in academic discourse. We’re trained to find common ground for discourse, and all of us know how charged a term ‘polytheist’ or even ‘pagan’ can be. It’s sometimes very difficult to resist the unconscious push to use words like “the divine” or “deity” or (worst of the lot) “spirit”(1). I think it’s very, very important that we not do this, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. To elide the plurality of our Gods is to allow our listeners to assume (which they will because it is their place of comfort) singularity, unity, that no matter how many Divine Names we use, how many Gods we call, we really are referring to one being. It further erases the polytheistic voice from whatever narrative in which we’re engaged. It removes our Gods’ presence, denies it, all to placate monotheists or anti-theists, and largely because we are not strong enough to endure their discomfort.

To actively be a polytheist in the world is to be a living, breathing challenge to the comfortable paradigms by which others define their lives. We challenge the narrative that we’ve all been raised with, one that privileges monotheism or better yet atheism while positioning polytheisms as primitive superstition. When we verbally elide Their presence, we are contributing to that, even if we don’t realize it, even if that is not our intention. It is a small thing we can do to further our traditions, to give our Gods a place in this world: refuse to conform to the expected. When we yield to the pressure to conform to monotheism, anti-theism, secularism, we are allowing those traditions a position of superiority to our own. We are confirming in the minds of those with whom we debate, reinforcing their own inherent and often unacknowledged assumptions of that presumed superiority.

This may seem like a small thing and maybe in the end it is, but it does us no good at all when we lack the confidence and courage to use our words wisely in ways that acknowledge our Gods and give Them and our traditions a place in discourse, discourse with those whose traditions once attempted the eradication of ours, discourse with those who have in their hearts – for all they may claim otherwise – contempt for all that we represent. By refusing to elide the polytheism from our language, especially in interfaith settings (2), we force our interlocutors to acknowledge that polytheism exists and that there are those who have fervent devotion to the Gods with everything that entails. This challenges, quite directly, their hegemonic biases (and is one the main reasons that interfaith settings, with their default monotheistic-light positions, are so unwelcoming to actual polytheists who will not play their game).

To again quote Dr. Butler,  

“I think it’s significant in this that even where there isn’t monotheism, there is the notion of a mono-causality, that social facts can only have one true cause, whether that’s economic, or has to do with dispositions of power, or whatever else somebody is pushing. This is a subtler intellectual legacy of monotheism, the refusal to recognize that the same social fact can be analyzed according to multiple causes at once, and hence that religious phenomena can have specifically religious causality. Instead we have reductionism, and what Ricoeur calls the hermeneutics of suspicion, where whatever our privileged explanation is, is seen as unmasking and undermining the other modes of explanation as “mere ideology”.”




  1. Of all the insipid language used in interfaith dialogue, I particularly detest the use of “Spirit.” I recall when I was teaching at a local interfaith seminary, and refused to allow my students the use of this term (I don’t care which Deity or Deities the students honored, but if they couldn’t be specific about who was on the other end of the metaphorical phone when they got the call to ministry, they had no business in a seminary.), the uproar it caused. “Spirit” is a tremendously polyvalent term. Many, many things qualify as “spirits” and not al of them good. If you cannot be specific, go home. There’s a wonderful quote, that ironically comes from Revelation (3.16 if I recall correctly): be hot or cold but don’t be lukewarm water in the mouth of God.
  2. Keep in mind that as much as we may bend over backwards to accommodate monotheism, they would not do the same for us in any way, shape, or form. We are, in interfaith settings, expected to conform in ways large and small and our voices are given very little weight (one of the reasons I am seriously on the fence about whether or not engaging in interfaith dialogue is useful – after all if mutual respect and good faith isn’t there, what’s the point?). We too often grovel out of sheer gratitude to have been included and it needs to stop. Our traditions existed for thousands of years before monotheism was even a blip on the religious radar. We created civilizations and gave the world philosophy, art, culture on a grand scale. The last thing we should do is feel grateful to have a voice in these settings. The next thing we’ll be expected to do is thank them for their traditions having engaged in religious genocide of ours. Where we go, our Gods and ancestors go as well. We represent and it’s incumbent on us to do that courageously and well.

About ganglerisgrove

Galina Krasskova has been a Heathen priest since 1995. She holds a Masters in Religious Studies (2009), a Masters in Medieval Studies (2019), has done extensive graduate work in Classics including teaching Latin, Roman History, and Greek and Roman Literature for the better part of a decade, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Theology. She is the managing editor of Walking the Worlds journal and has written over thirty books on Heathenry and Polytheism including "A Modern Guide to Heathenry" and "He is Frenzy: Collected Writings about Odin." In addition to her religious work, she is an accomplished artist who has shown all over the world and she currently runs a prayer card project available at wyrdcuriosities.etsy.com.

Posted on March 27, 2018, in Interfaith, Polytheism, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. The term “Spirit” and very certainly and deliberately “The Divine,” as outlined above, has had no place in my own usage for 12+ years now. (“Spirit,” when used in these contexts, is pretty much shorthand–in my view–for “The Holy Spirit,” whether those who are using it acknowledge that or not, given that Catholics, for one, see what is going on in other religions, insofar as it is in any way useful or moral in a manner larger than within that specific religion, is merely the actions of The Holy Spirit within other cultures that are otherwise ignorant of the truth of their Trinitarian divine being…monism again, therefore, but with a different person of the Trinity!)

    I wonder if–once again–the presentations I have already proposed (and one remaining) for the World Parliament of Religions will not be accepted that are specifically on polytheism, or doing a polytheist devotional ritual, but the one on gender/sexuality will be accepted, and my own polytheism and that being the basis for my viewpoints and my discussion being once again elided in the descriptions and supporting material…we shall see. (I just had a conversation earlier this evening about what went on there and how fucked up it was…but let’s not relive all of that, eh? It was clear that at least one of my interlocutors this evening was uncomfortable with me speaking at all about Deities with any reality, or–horror of horrors!–humans having any responsibility toward Them at all, but this individual did eventually come around to understanding it intellectually, even while lacking any interest in or sympathy with such a viewpoint. Progress, I guess…?!?)

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  2. Oh, and a further adjunct of discussion of ancient civilizations, and especially “pre-city” civilizations in regards to religious behavior/etc. being reduced to use of psychedelic mushrooms, and therefore taking all of those religious phenomena as nothing other than brain chemical interactions which are then “interpreted” through a given culture’s (primitive, it is implied) science and language in religious terms, is also something that gets tiresome. We don’t assume that the lights in our brain that go off when we hear certain sounds or smell certain smells are “merely” or “only” interpretations of things that are inherently meaningless (and yet, they are!), so why might it not be possible that the altered states allowed by entheogenic substances make us aware of a whole new world of not-merely-sensory perception of divine beings that aren’t easy to access otherwise? Or, to put it in terms that parapsychology and certain other fields would be more comfortable with: that forms of consciousness other than those residing in human shapes at present might be accessed through these means, up to and including non-corporeal conscious volitional beings like Deities? Anyway…

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  3. I read Christian fiction. The latest was the Hebrews conquering the Canaanites. What it revealed to me was the point of view of Canaan was a cesspool of depravity (human sacrifice and temple prostitution), and the Hebrews *HAD THE COMMAND* to destroy them from the Hebrew God. In other words, setting up the idea that Monotheism will cleanse Polytheism from the land. It was their duty to do so. I think a part of that still plays out in the Middle East.

    The presentation of the Gods of Canaan of course were to show that they didn’t exist or if they did, they were bastards. Now, with that casually imprinted into people’s minds, it is no wonder that Monotheists have great problems with multiple Gods.

    Another insight – the God of the Hebrews is presented as a Mafia Don. You pay protection, do what He tells you, and you won’t get killed. Several “disasters” are alluded to as disobeying this God, so He “purified” the Hebrews.

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  4. It is relatively amusing in fact that it actually took almost 500 or so years to “cleanse” Judaism of any taint of polytheism. The Torah and Tanach were started during the Babylonian Captivity, which lasted around fifty years by Ezra the Editor. He really did not do a good job — so many continuity errors, oi vey! The BS of Christianity being a so-called “daughter” religion” of Judaism is just that — BS. Christianity was extremely antisemitic by the first century CE. They wanted absolutely NO relationship. Even though Augustine forced doctrinal relationship through the Genesis story two centuries later, there is really no meaningful religious connection (Original Sin, Vicarious Atonement, etc). between the two. It is his idea. You can read into any document whatever you want. It is not logical. It is sacred Literature, doomed to interpretation forever. As a religion matures I would think people would become aghast at the immoral and unethical acts which they did. This is a particular problem of monotheisms. If you cannot recognize your own greed hiding as self-righteousness, then you are NOT a pious individual and are but a hypocrite. At this point it does not matter what you believe.

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    • ganglerisgrove

      opinions in the early church varied on how much weight to give what Christians call the Old Testament. At one end of the spectrum there was Marcion, who read it and thought it horrifying and thought it should have no bearing on Christianity, but this was condemned pretty early on as heresy. It wasn’t so much that early christianity wanted no relationship with Jewish scripture, but more a question of what that relationship should be.

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      • They wanted the appearance of both. There is the direct statement of blood guilt to Jesus’ execution in a Gospel. If this isn’t antisemitic I don’t know what is. The eventual death of the so-called Jerusalem Church, which happened before the final war is another. There were no Christians in Palestine at that point. Christianity became another one of the many mystery cults of the Empire reaching out to gentiles. “Judaism” as such was not a religion seeking believers. Jerome learned Hebrew in order to translate the Torah/Tanach into the Vulgate (I do not use Old Testament as a matter of my own personal historical beliefs in the matter and that I think that it was deliberately translated at points). Jerome knew that the word for young woman was just that (no reference to biological status). He deliberately used the Latin word for virgin He KNEW what he was doing. Old Testament is a completely DIFFERENT book than Torah/Tanach. It is used in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Respecting the current Jews, therefore, they could be ignored. The Blood Libel lie just dotted the i and crossed the t. By the way, only the Empire could execute a man like that for fomenting rebellion. He was NOT executed for religious issues or impiety. There is also a lot of misunderstanding about the Sanhedrin and the Pharasees (SP) in the Gospels.
        Anyway, monotheism is a fatally flawed religious viewpoint. The Greek philosophers were correct when they wrote that it was the start of the slippery slope towards impiety and atheism.

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    • What came across in the series I had been reading “Out of Egypt” was that the Hebrews had to cleanse the land on orders of their God. The author is a lay person and a Baptist. She focused mainly on the idea of sexual slavery to the Gods i.e. temple prostitutes. This is fairly controversial since sources about Babylonian and other Middle Eastern Polytheisms say that idea came from the Romans, who were sexual prudes in public. (Private was a different matter.)

      The other focus was between the ‘dead’ Gods of Canaan and the ‘living’ God of the Hebrews. She kept saying that Ba’al and Others were really takers and never gave back (i.e. child sacrifice). She kept saying that They never spoke to their people and were inert statues. I took this to mean that the version of the Old Testament that she was presenting was actually Christian propaganda.

      This revealed to me the intense desire of the author in presenting her fiction of trying to hear the Baptist God and believe that He works for good. That is all things are part of an eternal plan, that believers cannot question. Personally, I believe that this presents this God again as a Mafia Don.

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      • As someone who follows a Canaanite polytheist path, I struggle with the idea of Ba’lu Haddad, ‘Anat, ‘Ilu, Athirat and the other ‘Ilahuma as inert, let alone mandating sexual slavery. They do not *force*, but will find ways to show me what They would like. In fact, one of Ba’lu Haddad’s explicit dislikes in part of His lore is the “behavior of lewdness” in His presence!

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  5. It is always the Polytheist who is expected to compromise, to meet others halfway, to “be reasonable” and I’m sick to death of it. All through history Polytheists have been willing to live along side Monotheists because we didn’t know what would happen once our single God worshiping neighbors gained an advantage. I can see what finding common ground got us in the past, and where it will get us again. Even the most well intended Monotheists and Atheists are still foot soldiers of the Filter, no matter how inclusive or tolerant they attempt (or simply claim) to be. We should not be thanking them for allowing us to be included like a tribe of meek little savages, they should be thanking us for the thousands of years of civilization, culture, science, art, philosophy, architecture, and medicine that Polytheists have given to the world. I will no longer pander to the mental illness that tried to wipe out my religion in a futile attempt to impress or domesticate what amounts to spiritual HIV. If Monotheists want discourse with us, let them be the ones to find the common ground, to compromise for us for a change. Maybe my wording sounds harsh, but strong words are nothing compared to what our polytheistic ancestors had to endure at the hands of Monotheists.

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  6. fionaLokisdottir

    As a polutheist & animist, I find that polytheism is undermined on all sides. There are the monotheists, the folks saying that religon of the past is just social order ie stripping it of its divinity then many modern day pagans who just say all gods/ goddesses are just faces of the one god/goddess, or of the land. I don’t know which is the worst of them! But I have never found myself able to water down my beliefs to suit other people. I am not a greatly academic person. My spiritual life is primarily devotional & I get so tired of folks telling me my gods dont exist

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