A Polytheist Amongst Monotheists Doing Theology Together

As I’ve mentioned before in my newsletter and on my blog, I’ve just started PhD work in theology. I attend a Jesuit university (it was my first choice and I really love the program) and to my knowledge, I’m the first polytheist to be admitted to their theology program. I work with lovely people, most of whom are either clergy or in some way very active in their own religious communities, and my classes are really thought-provoking and actually quite relevant to the work I do within my own tradition. One of the things I intend to do as I move through the program is share my experiences and thoughts, those relevant to my position as a polytheist in a traditionally monotheistic discipline, here on my blog. So, this is really the first of what I suspect will become an ongoing if occasional thing.

I’ve been in coursework now since the end of August and I’ve begun to notice a few things about myself.

Having taken theology classes in the department even while doing my MA, I knew that it was surprising to some people to meet a polytheist who was also a theologian. I also knew that for every person who took it in stride, I’d meet those who dismissed my religion or were condescending or mocking (the latter two are definitely in the minority at my school). I was ready for that and for the most part, I get asked really good questions and then we have equally good theological discussions. It’s great. I really like the people with whom I work. What I wasn’t prepared for and what isn’t so great – and I want to make it clear that this does NOT in any way come from anyone in the department nor the department itself, it’s completely my own psyche—is that I’m starting to feel a certain insecurity and defensiveness about my legitimacy being a Heathen priest, compared to and when surrounded by Orthodox and Catholic priests and other devout but monotheistic clergy. I have also been feeling not only on edge (some of which may just be normal as a first-year PhD student), but somewhat ashamed, as though I’ve in some way failed my Gods –though there was no reason to feel so: I’ve never once hidden or denied my faith. It was really weird and it took me awhile to realize what was happening.

I started getting a push from Odin to be more visible as a polytheist. I thought, I don’t hide it at all, how much more visible should I be? Am I being given a new clothing taboo or something (I have certain religious taboos by virtue of my work as a vitki or shaman, mostly around the colors that I’m permitted to wear)? That didn’t feel right and I took it to divination last weekend. That’s when all of this got sorted and I realized how I was allowing myself to be affected. I was pushed, not just by Odin but by other Gods too (including Athena, Whom I’d consulted for a client) to remember who I was and that as a priest, my position is every bit as licit as those other clergy members with whom I work. Moreover, our traditions have ancient roots. I was urged to remember that we are rebuilding now specifically because our traditions were decimated by the spread of Christianity (and later Islam). I was urged to fight off this mental miasma, which is precisely what I was told it was, and keep in the forefront of my mind that they have very little they didn’t steal from us. Their religions are built on the remnants of temples they destroyed, on the graves of our polytheistic ancestors, from fragments of our mysteries. I am there representing not just myself and my own tradition but our collective polytheisms. I’m the kick in the teeth, by presence alone, that says you did not succeed and your way is not the only way. I carry the rubble of every sacred space destroyed by the spread of monotheism in my soul. I walk with a thousand upon thousand ancestors who remember their sacred ways. I am there to remind you that you did not win, you will never win, and one day we will outnumber you all. On that day, things will change. Polytheists invented theology and I am the first of what will become a steady flood ready to take it back. We are here and it’s our time to have a seat at this table.

I am very fortunate however, that this is a department in which being devout is not an issue. That is not generally the case in academia in general. In theology, we are not generally your “secular moderns.” Pretty much every single person that I’ve encountered is in some way connected to a particular religious tradition and/or active in their devotion and praxis. It’s always interesting to see what I’ve always assumed to be true being played out: two or three of us who are very devout, even if we come from dramatically different religious traditions, have more in common overall than a devout polytheist would with someone who was atheist or agnostic (though there are always individual exceptions). That opens up the ground for conversation and I think we learn from each other and that is good.

I thought long and hard about writing this and even longer about posting it. What decided me was that I know of several polytheists either in theology or religious studies programs or contemplating the same (and that we so often get pushed into the latter field rather than theology proper is a conversation in and of itself). I know several polytheists in other graduate programs, including at my university, and have encountered a few undergrads as well. The mental pressure of opening up previously monotheistic spaces is real and on the off chance that I can help prepare others and spare them some of the cognitive disconnect I experienced the last month, then I felt it important that I post. I am in a very, very supportive department. I’m completely open and out as a polytheist. If I reached out to my advisor or any of the professors about this, they’d be the first to offer support and the same with my student cohort. That is not going to be the case in every grad student’s life. It’s important to be prepared for these things. Pressure often comes from unexpected places and I would never, ever have considered this to be one of them.

My solution to Odin’s request that I be more visible as a polytheist is to simply speak more openly about it. Yesterday, a fellow student asked me what I did this past weekend for instance, and I told him I’d done a good deal of ritual work, that we have a moon God (Mani), venerated extensively in our house and with the beautiful harvest moon it was the perfect time for rituals to Him. Last week when I was questioned about a brooch I was wearing, I said honestly, “It’s a shrine piece. I wanted to feel closer to our moon God today so I decided to wear it to keep me in devotional headspace.” I’m owning my space without being obnoxious and creating space for important conversations to occur. I’m doing that by not eliding my own experience and devotional world when it comes up in conversation. Monotheistic students, as far as I know don’t have to think about this in a theology department. As a polytheist, I do. It’s no one’s fault but simply the status quo as it stands. I am grateful that my Gods trust me to do this and I am grateful that I recognized what was happening (it’s good to have a tradition that has the sacred art of divination!) before it had eaten too deeply into my confidence. For those of you in grad school, develop a good support network. You never know how the stress of the work you’re doing will affect you. Sic itur ad astra.

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 October 16, 2019, in academic work, theology, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. thetinfoilhatsociety

    Galina this is beautiful. Are you also going to post it on FB? If not I am going to post it to my personal page. It needs to be read.

    I am going to do some divination regarding jewelry I’ve made for the Gods and only for ritual use to see if they might allow me to wear it as a way of keeping in my own devotional headspace.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for discussing this!

    There’s so much I could say in response to what you’ve written here in terms of my own experiences, but I’ll try to keep it somewhat brief. (Practically impossible for me, but oh well!)

    Back in the late ’90s, when I was at another Jesuit university (and a good and liberal one at that, for the most part…the Religious Studies department was amazingly liberal, including all of its Jesuits and the other priests and ministers in it…but some of the Jesuits in other departments, or in admin, were another story!), I was doing an M.A. in Religious Studies. The only people who could do an M.A. or a D.Min. in Theology were candidates for the priesthood. I was not fully “out” as a polytheist at the time, only to certain people, including a few priests. They honestly had no idea what to do with me, since I was not only one of the only non-Catholics, but also THE only non-Christian. Despite various folks knowing this, there was absolutely no understanding for or respect of my religious practices or viewpoints from anyone in the program with me, with perhaps one or two exceptions–mystically-inclined individuals who were themselves asked to leave the program because the spiritually-challenged amongst the program’s leadership found these folks too intimidating and challenging…

    And in regard to one such individual: I was asked to not associate with some of the students or attend certain events by the (lay) director of the ministry institute, and only returned to one of their events when two African Catholic priests asked me to come and drum for their African Mass (which was nice of them, but overall it was a bit of a failure because it was a room full of middle-aged white quasi-rural Catholics who didn’t understand the whole thing was supposed to be joyous, that you could move and dance and so forth).

    There’s many more anecdotes I could share, more things I observed on a spiritual level, about how they were conducting things that even within their own theological frameworks and practices were being neglected, and to the detriment of their own efforts. I don’t know if it was post-Vatican II laxity, inexperience and ignorance on the part of some people given leadership positions, or what, but the fact that dealing with de-consecrated ground and what can happen in such a situation as that was not even a concern or question on their radar was problematic, to say the least…it was with one of the other mystically-inclined folks that I had a long conversation about this, and within two weeks of that, he was kicked out. I wonder if he had brought it up…?!?

    Because I was mainly there to get the degree I was pursuing in order to have a basis for some of the other academic work I was going to do in the future, I could argue that the actual devotional or practical side of things as far as Catholicism was not my focus, and so that was all right; however, as a result they really didn’t know what to do with me in certain respects, outside of certain sympathetic individuals (like my thesis advisor and a few others). But the idea that “theology” is entirely closed off to anyone not pursuing clerical ordination is pretty regressive…and that despite the fact that in all of my courses, which were taken alongside some of the same folks doing those degrees, as well as Jesuit scholastics and others, we were repeatedly told that theology is something that everyone can do and does do, and yet we were still prevented from having our work identified as such in terms of our degree program names…it’s crazy to think that now, and how very discriminatory that really is, and how dubious such ideas would be considered today, more than twenty years on from when I did my degree.

    I think there’s such a resistance to “theology” in paganism (despite the fact that ancient polytheists invented it, not the Christians!), and that what “pagan seminaries” and such that there are instead focus on ministry, and grant degrees that are generally not accredited in any national accrediting bodies of note (as is the case with almost all M. Div. and D. Min. degrees, incidentally!), that the fact that you are doing this in one of “their” institutions is a very big deal. Even though you’re not by far the only one doing polytheist theology, you’re the first (that I’m aware of, anyway!) who is doing it at the doctoral level at a non-pagan or -polytheist degree-granting institution (and I honestly hope that it won’t be another twenty years before any of the latter exist!) is really something to celebrate and to not remotely minimize. I think it was both Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil who were given the first Ph.D.s in theology as women at the Sorbonne in the early 20th century, if I am not mistaken–how appropriate, then, that you are now a trailblazer in both that particular tradition of educational inclusion, but also in polytheist-specific categories as well!

    Much more to say, but I’ll leave it there for now! 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  3. There is a rich field in Polytheistic theology. I encountered it with various writings of current Roman priests, who are struggling to deal with larger issues such as cosmology.

    What I have encountered in reading academic books about various Polytheisms is of course the inability to understand the myths and religion of the people in question. It is although the questions of religion is only reserved for Monotheisms.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly it–they have reserved the term of “religion” for themselves, and everything else is “not a religion” but instead a philosophy, a spirituality, a “way of life,” and so much else…when in fact every religion has all of those things and is all of those things, too. But then, if any other religion qualified as “religion” for them, it would be a competitor, and of course they can’t have even the idea of something like that!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Yes, and they further lay claim to the term “religion” by defining it in ways that only or more overtly apply to Christianity, or monotheism in general. For instance, I was recently in a discussion with someone online where they stated, as if it was obvious fact, that a religion is a set of moral precepts. Of course, many ancient polytheisms and current indigenous traditions include discussions of morality, but it isn’t usually the sole focus or purpose of those. And it’s certainly possible to have moral precepts without religion! But because Christianity spends so much time on morality, people have come to think that it’s what a religion is, period. And then they use that to disqualify ours.

        Liked by 4 people

      • Yes…and that’s not even a broadly Christian viewpoint to see all religion as simply moral teachings, it’s a very specifically Protestant one (and not even all Protestants!).

        I just saw the syllabus for the world religions course that is being taught online at one of my college, which some students at our campus take rather than the in-person version with me, and I’m utterly horrified. One of the problems with it is that it seeks to narrowly define “religion”–and even worse, “world religion”–to only fit six religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), which is problematic for a thousand different reasons…there are more Sikhs and Shinto practitioners, both separately and together, than there are Jewish people in the world currently. This essentially dismisses all other religions but these ones, and then even more narrowly delimits these to very surface levels of inquiry, often comparing them to monotheism. The unit titles are even sectarian biased: they are usually “The Way of Hinduism,” “The Way of Buddhism,” etc., but for Christianity, it is “The Way of Jesus Christ.” That’s a theological statement in and of itself, and they don’t even realize it.

        It’s sickening that this is occurring, but it’s even more sickening that the people doing these things can’t even see that what they’re doing is entirely biased…ugh!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I have been reading the “Treasures of Darkness” for insights in Sumerian Polytheism. What disturbed me was how the tone was more of these poor people struggling to have a belief system. And of course, the progression from spirits to Gods to personal God….. argh. It is so difficult to find much writing that doesn’t have a veiled hostility to Polytheism.

        Liked by 2 people

    • All of that to say: for many of the most insecure (and often uninformed) of the monotheists, our mere exisdstence is a challenge to theirs, which is why they tried to wipe us out in the first place.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. “I’m owning my space without being obnoxious and creating space for important conversations to occur. I’m doing that by not eliding my own experience and devotional world when it comes up in conversation.”

    This is excellent, and also something that could be applied outside of this specific situation, by many of us. It is something I try to do in my daily life, in small ways, when it comes up. For instance, I go to a bagel shop about once a week and over time I’ve gotten friendly with the people who work there. When one of them asks (as I’m sure she does with pretty much everyone, to make small talk) what my plans are for the weekend, and I happen to have a festival planned, I will say so. I don’t make a big deal of it, and I put it in terms she could understand, but I think it’s important not to hide that. I think it helps bring more awareness of our existence, and normalize it. I’ve always been very open about my religion at my workplaces too, and have asked for days off when necessary for religious holidays – I find that if I treat it matter-of-factly, and show I am serious about it, I don’t get much push-back.

    Of course, obviously some people aren’t in a position to do this safely, and that’s another matter, but those of us who can really should get out there and represent our faith publicly when we can, in these small but significant ways. I always thought of it as a matter of educating non-polytheists, but you’re right, it’s also impacts our own internal feelings about our traditions and our place in them.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You’re an inspiration to us all, Galina. Plain and simple. The kleos from this achievement will live on forever

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  6. John Lindow is a well respected scholar in the field of Norse studies. His book, “Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs” is a fairly good resource, but I hate recommending it for his rather narrow-minded views of modern day Heathenry, which he put in the introduction of this book:

    “There was a revival of ‘belief in the aesir’ some years ago in Iceland, which seemed to have to do at least in part with tax breaks for organized religion, although partying is also important. That revival had its counterpart in Norway, where a group of students announced themselves to be believers in the aesir. In celebration, they drank some beer and sacrificed a sausage. “

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