Category Archives: Polytheism
“Tradition” is not a dirty word either.
Nor are our traditions “open.” A tradition by its very nature cannot be. It is for “use” (if one can employ so crass a term) by those who actually follow the Gods. We do not and should not allow outsiders to run rough shod over that which we hold most sacred.* The integrity of our traditions is more important than anyone’s feelings or misguided notions of tolerance (i.e. appropriation). An “open” tradition is no tradition at all.
Honor your ancestors.
Honor your Gods.
Respect the land.
The way in which we do these things, the rites and rituals that form our various traditions are sacred expressions of these covenants. Only an impious fool would shit on them.
Those who decide to pervert our sacred symbols for racist reasons are disgusting. So are those who do the same for their “progressive” ideals.
We need to be very aware of people who are trying to turn these religious concepts into political dog whistles. Maybe they’re the ones with no place in our traditions.
*no, i don’t think one needs to be of scandinavian or german ancestry to be heathen. I think one needs to be pious and committed. period.
(This rambles…a lot lol. You have been warned).
So, I’ve been in New York City the last couple of days attending a theology conference. The title of the conference is “Faith, Reason, Theosis” and so far, it’s been pretty amazing. The scholastic currents being discussed (at least in day one) are well outside of my wheelhouse so I won’t discuss them here save to say that the entire idea of theosis makes me deeply uncomfortable. I did have an interesting talk with a Jesuit professor of philosophy (I took his course on Augustine a few years ago and it blew my mind) who agreed that, at least in part, ideas of theosis for Christians were influenced by pre-Christian concepts of deification. Still, it makes me deeply uncomfortable when it’s applied as a goal of faith, especially when post-modernists remove the sacramental scaffolding and even at times “God” from the equation. Thank you, no. If I want that, I can listen to a ceremonialist drone on and on. Lol. (Granted, this isn’t my area, so I may be grossly minimalizing the issues here and I’m drawing the questions and comments below largely from only a single day of speakers – there’s still two more to go. At any rate, the focus of the conference is discussion of Orthodox and Catholic responses to the idea of theosis). I was tired when I arrived at the conference, and at first, despite excellent presentations, I was a little bored (Thomas Aquinas—not my thing) but then the Q&A started and that was absolutely fascinating. It was almost enough, almost, to make me want to hold another polytheist conference. Hah. Don’t hold your breath.
Anyway, during the opening talks, I was scribbling notes and several questions arose from the speakers. Ignoring the pages of my journal where I kept noting that “Modernity=Nihilism”, (I also made crazy little sketches of presenters – idle hands after all and all that) the relevant things I want to discuss here are as follows (I will reframe from the singularity of the Divine articulated by the speakers to a more natural and appropriate plurality in my responses):
• How can a conscious spirit be anything other than a desire for God?
• God owes His creatures grace within the terms of creation (the grace to achieve theosis) but it’s a debt owed only to His own goodness.
• How can there be “excess” in loving one’s God? Many modern philosophers/theologians seem to speak of the “excessive qualities of the cross” in ways that seem to imply that they want to erase their God from the process and goal of theosis and replace the sacramental scaffolding with the human ego.
The first question, I believe, comes from Neo-Platonic influences on religious (in the case of the conference, Christian) thought. I don’t argue that our souls and the fullness of our being should be comprised, materia prima, of longing and love for the Gods. I think it is the only part of us that truly matters. When we peel away the dross and pollution of modern living (hell, just of living because let’s face it, the ancients wrestled with these issues too), at our core I firmly believe that (when we are rightly ordered), our spirits are expressed longing for the Gods. I also think that every single thing in our current world teaches us to obscure, deny, and annihilate that longing.
I will admit, listening to this particular speaker, I did think “well, aren’t you a bit of an optimist about the human condition” lol but it’s important to remind ourselves not to mistake external ephemera for the true, essential nature of our beings. I also suspect that this statement: that at the core of a soul is longing for the Gods may make some readers angry. If so, consider why. Why would you not long for the Gods with every fibre of your being? I think the real challenge of our various spiritualities is not only the discovery of that longing, recognizing it as our essential state of being, but also cultivating it, tending that fire, stripping away the dross, feeding it, and allowing it to burn away everything else.
A day or so before I came into the city for the conference, I was watching a movie with my husband and a friend and the lead female reminded me strongly in appearance of a student – call her H.– I had over twenty years ago. This student was three or four days away from her initiation and bailed. She became pissy about it too, justifying her decision by trashing the idea of the experiential devotion inherent in the initiatory process (as being only relevant to specialists. “Not everyone needs to be a mystic” blah blah blah. No, not everyone does, but baseline devotion does not a mystic make). A friend of mine who was hanging out with us asked me why this woman would do such a thing. I said “at the eleventh hour she realized initiation would change everything.” My friend agreed but didn’t see the problem (unlike H. my friend is not a spiritual coward). I explained that “H. didn’t want to make the Gods a priority in her life. She was afraid it might interfere with her secular, job-related priorities of climbing the corporate ladder and making money. She didn’t want to become the kind of person she thought could live a devoted life and she didn’t want to have to reprioritize her life.” My friend asked the most salient question of the night, “Didn’t she realize that putting the Gods first makes everything better? On the basest most crass level, They help us in our work in the world. They fill our lives with bounty and blessings.” And that is the question. My only response was a poem by the Islamic poet Rabi’a:
O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.
(Rabi’a, “[O my Lord]” translated by Jane Hirshfield, from Women in Praise of the Sacred (New York: Harper Collins, 1994).)
I will let this stand for now and move on to the second question or comment really, since I wrote it down because I have very strong feelings that the Gods owe us nothing. They may give us everything but They don’t owe us. We ought not give sacrifices and offerings just to get things, but because it is the right thing to do, because it honors Them, because those relationships are the most essential we will ever have and it is right and proper to make windows into the world through which the Gods may walk. It isn’t and shouldn’t be about us. Yes, at times offerings and devotion may follow a do ut des model – if I need something from a Deity, I won’t approach with empty hands. It’s rude. But that is not the only nor the most essential model of veneration. To imply that it is cheapens our traditions and frankly spits in the faces of our ancestors. It shouldn’t be “I give in order to receive” but “I give because I have received” or maybe better still, “I give because I love.”
Returning to the bullet points I noted, I was struck by the idea articulated in bullet point #2 that God owes humanity His grace by virtue of the contract of creation but the debt is NOT one owed to humanity itself but rather to His own goodness. In other words, God owes Himself. It’s a nice reframing and re-articulation of an issue that plagues the Heathen community: the entitlement we all too often feel before our Gods. We are not owed a god damned thing for the paltry devotion we deign to show. We have been given everything and it is a debt we cannot hope to replay. The devotional relationships that we ought to cultivate with our Gods aren’t for the purpose of getting things, or even with any hope of repayment of a contract. It is our natural, good, and rightly ordered state of being. It is our purpose, the highest and most natural expression of our souls.
Finally, one of the issues that kept coming up in post-modernist pushback against scholastic and pre-scholastic ideas of theosis was this language of “excess” in devotion. One source talked about the “excess of the crucifixion” rather the excess of devotional response to it. I see this in some modern Catholics. Case in point: I recently gave a Catholic relative L. Montfort’s classic devotional text on Mary and while she is very devout she really struggled with it, because it wasn’t Jesus focused in the way that many Protestant “devotionals” might be. The idea of giving reverence and specifically heart-felt devotion to the Mother of God—in the way that was traditional, licit, and universal within her tradition for generations– was uncomfortable (and I blame Vatican II and its bullshit for a lot of this but, not my circus, not my monkeys. I do find it complicated though. Gods know that the weakening of the organizational Catholic Church is not a bad thing for growing polytheisms, but then on the other side of that, I think that any weakening of devotional fervor is a win for evil and doesn’t serve us in our devotions either so …my response to that all is rather complicated). It seemed “excessive” to her. Post-moderns would, I believe, cast any devotion as excessive. This is problematic.
Personally, I do not believe it is possible to be too excessive in one’s fervor and love for one’s Gods. That is exactly what ought to fuel our soul’s longing, feed it, nourish it, encourage it. Whenever I hear Pagans or Polytheists (and especially Heathens) talk about how one is too excessive in one’s devotions (and it happens, less now than a decade ago but it still happens) I really just want to laugh in their faces and tell them they are theologically unschooled. Not today, Heathen child, not today. This is a bullshit free zone. Still, I think it’s important to think about what it is in our culture (that has seeped into our traditions) that would teach us that devotion, any devotion particularly the messy, emotional, embodied kind is ‘excessive.’ What does that mean? When loving the Gods is our souls’ reason for being, how can there be any excess?
This last question I’m going to explore more fully and hopefully will have time to do so over the next couple of days. Right now, I’m going to bring this to a close since it’s running rather long and I actually need to get my butt up and get out the door for day two of this amazing conference. Enjoy your day, folks.
So…Sweden is considering a ban on the runes and other Heathen symbols. Wildhunt to date doesn’t seem to have covered this– no surprise there. What Heathen groups I have seen touching on it have been excusing it. I haven’t seen medievalists up in arms about it either. Are you people out of your fucking minds?
What is next? Banning Heathenry? That is the logical conclusion to a globalist program that considers any expression of indigenous religious culture a hate crime.
The reasons this is being considered are, of course, supposedly to prevent white supremacist groups from using these symbols. I don’t, however, see any proposed ban of the cross or the crescent. In the end, it doesn’t matter WHY this is being considered. If you give an inch to a tyrant, they will take a mile. We should be up in arms about this. In fact, every devout community, Pagan, Polytheist, Heathen, or otherwise should be up in arms over this religious discrimination. Where will it be focused next?
Let’s look at exactly what Sweden is proposing to ban. It’s quite interesting.
Tyr rune- warriorship, justice, truth, honor
Othala rune: ancestral consciousness, inheritance, protection, homeland, wealth
Valknot – a symbol of Odin/Woden.
Vegisvir: a rune sigil for safe travel, finding one’s way
And….the Thor’s hammer, a symbol of protection, sanctity, and Heathen identity.
Their choices do not seem accidental.
I never thought much about this until recently – the Gods are Gods and I never found it necessary to interrogate the forms They seek to take much beyond that. Today, however, I was reading an article about how many able-bodied people don’t seethose with disabilities (or how they sometimes act in paternalistic ways toward them) and I had an epiphany: what a blessing that we have Gods Who chose to manifest in scarred or disabled bodies. What a powerful way of saying “you are seen, acknowledged, recognized, and valued” by our Holy Powers. What a powerful way of the Gods aligning Themselves with our experience.
I have actually written about this before. A couple of years ago there was a bit of a brouhaha over the fact that one of Hephaestus’ epithets is “the Lame God.” Far from being a slur, this is noted as a point of power for Him. It is part of His identity, integral to His timai as a God of crafting and blacksmithing, transformation, and fire. It is where His ability to bring beauty into being comes from. (Y’all can read that piece here.)
As a Heathen, I venerate the Norse Gods, belonging specifically to Odin. Odin’s story, His mysteries are intensely embodied. He is a God of ordeal, subjecting Himself to physical pain for power. He is also missing an eye (having sacrificed it willingly for a draught from the Well of Mimir). One of His sons Hodr is blind. By some accounts, Heimdall sacrificed an ear for the same reasons Odin gave an eye. Tyr is missing His sword-hand. Weyland the Smith is physically lame. I’ll take this one step further: one of Odin’s heiti is Geldnir, or eunuch. For a God almost defined by His sexual exploits, Who is called All-Father, I find it fascinating that one of the ways in which He may also present Himself is as a eunuch. What is going on here?
To quote my former article (sorry, folks. I have a blistering headache today so best I can do):
“The qualities teased out in the ritual naming of Gods, in Their by-names, epithets, and cultic titles provide crucial information on the nature of a Deity’s mysteries. For us to disregard a title because it offends our sensitivities or makes us uncomfortable, or even because we haven’t taken the time to search its meaning in our own practices is not only short-sided but potentially hubristic as well. Many cultic titles were in use for generations. When Homer, for instance, refers to Hephaistos as lame, which he does multiple times, he’s employing a set formula to tell us something very important about this God. I’m not sure why people would want to discard these epithets so unthinkingly. They are worth both examination and meditation.”
It’s important not to condemn or avoid exploration of those epithets that challenge us, or make us question, or even more, make us uncomfortable. The last thing we want to do is delete those epithets from our devotional consciousness. They provide insights into our Gods, insights that may help us too.
As a disabled woman, I need never, ever feel that my disability in some way separates me from my Gods (and while I’ve never felt this way that I’m aware of, I know that this has been a very painful issue for some of my clients). By presenting Themselves in forms that are in some way differently abled, I believe our Gods are consciously including those of us whose bodies are different. Years and years ago, in 2000 if I recall correctly, I gave the required lecture on modern Paganisms and Polytheisms at the interfaith seminary where I taught. We were asked to include an experiential portion and so I included a powerful invocation and then call and response chant to the Goddess Sekhmet. Almost every woman in the audience was moved to tears and several told me later that they’d never even conceived of a Holy Power that was both powerful and female. Perhaps representation does matter: when we can see ourselves in our Gods, it is easier for us to build devotional relationships with Them, to feel as though They are accessible to us and our experiences. We need not twist the images of our Gods out of true in order to accommodate this and we shouldn’t do this anyway. Everything we need is already there in the way the Gods choose to engage with us.
A theology colleague (Greek Orthodox) asked me recently if as a polytheist, I believed in some ultimate single force behind all the Gods and creation. My answer surprised him and I’ve been thinking about it and parsing it out ever since. No. I don’t. I think at best, any idea of “the One” is a philosophical concept, perhaps a place holder for the activities of the individual Gods in individual instances governing creation and being. (1)
The Gods maybe yoked together in purpose: collaborating in the act of creation (all creation stories being true μύθους) but that is a different thing from there being a single unity overseeing it all (2). I think that once the collective act of creation was set into being, once materiality and temporality were created and thus wyrd activated, the process itself took on an unfolding life of its own.
In talking about this with my housemates, one of them brought up Wyrd as perhaps that force beyond the Gods but I had to disagree. Wyrd is inherently yoked to temporality and materiality. It is inter-generational by its very construction (we can inherit wyrd –ancestral debt –from our ancestors and even in the best of situations are not separate from the wyrd of our family lines). I posited that the Gods are yoked to wyrd only insofar as they choose to remain yoked to temporality, to our world, to the world that They Themselves created. Do They need to be bound in this manner? No, I don’t think so. Yet we have in Greek, the story of Zeus sacrificing His son Sarpedon, Whom He loved on the field of battle because if He did not, it would be a breach of the very divine order He created. We have Baldr being forced to Helheim, so that part of the generative order of Asgard would remain protected and safe in the haven of the dead should Ragnarok occur, in other words, should any external breach of that order spiral out of control. I don’t think They need to remain connected to our material and temporal world. I think They choose to do so. (3)
All creation stories are true if we accept that in collaborating to create, the Gods tied Themselves to specific languages, peoples, lands through which They could express Themselves most clearly. No, I am not saying that Mercury is Odin or Thor Herakles or any such thing. (4) I’m saying that specific Gods chose to order a specific piece of the cosmic tapestry They All collectively chose to create. (5) A more intriguing question than that of an a priori “One” is how the Holy chasm, Holy nothingness that is full of all potentiality, Ginnungagap is related to the Gods prior to creation. That, however is beyond the scope of this particular piece. The collaboration of creation is itself a powerful Mystery, to know that the tapestry of the order of the worlds is sustained and support by so many individual Gods working together, each in Their own sphere of Power. Perhaps if we must speak of a “one” it is the result of that collaboration: the process being born of that collective will, a thing that comes from our Gods rather that precedes Them and which has no independent being or consciousness or capacity to act without Them. (6)
- There are instances that point to the Gods praying, or at least making offerings. Freya for instance, is called the Blótere– sacrificial priest – of the Gods. To Whom are They offering? I think that perhaps They are sustaining individually and collectively each other in maintaining right and holy order, sustaining the process itself and directing Their collective maegen toward its continued unfolding.
- I use the Greek word μύθους because it is far richer and more inclusively complex than its English equivalent. It may refer to something worth retelling or recalling. It implies sacred stories that are true in the way that sacred things can be, outside of temporal reality or rationality.
- I reject categorically any notion that the Gods are dependent in some way on us. That is a violation of natural order. The Gods as living immortals may choose – and what a grace that They do – to have contact with us, relationships, etc., but that is different from being dependent. It is our privilege to honor Them and participate in cultusand we are bettered by it. They too may receive something from it, but I don’t think it is something without which They are unable to function. To say that They require us is the same as saying that we are equal to Them, or that They are dependent on us and such a thing with Gods cannot be. It elevates us far beyond our natural and wholesome station.
- I would also argue that this isn’t want interpretatio romanaor graeca was doing either.
- As an artist, I know that there is a satisfaction, a deep joy in creating, in architecture, Art, bringing Beauty to life. I often wonder if that sense of wonder and delight was experienced by the Gods at the moment They not only created materiality and temporality, but also crafted humanity, the Idea taking shape in Their collective minds before being shaped into reality and seeing that reality coming to life — and what grief there must be when we betray Them and our divine patrimony through the destruction of Beauty and our world. I’m not talking about war, which I think is also an expression of parts of Their power, but conscious, degenerate destruction of that which ennobles and elevates, conscious turning away from the creation of the Beautiful. I sometimes wonder if the Gods regret Their choice to breathe life into two chunks of driftwood…
- I do think there is an inherent reciprocity between us and the Gods. They have given this to us and it is for us to maintain. That is what I often refer to as one of the most ancient of covenants, using that word to imply the sacred nature of this compact. Again, however, it does not imply in any way that They are dependent upon us. Quite the opposite, actually.
“Our way of life, our holy places, our festivals and religious practices, our ancestors and Gods – these are everything.”
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”.”
- 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.
- 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.
When I started my MA in Religious Studies years ago, I remember sitting in the very first class (Theory and Methods) and being faced with this question. We were asked to define religion in a way that encompassed all of them and the final consensus was that such a task is functionally impossible. (1). While that class did not really parse out the essential, ontological differences between polytheistic religions and monotheistic religions, I often find myself pondering just this question. It leads of course to – and in fact is predicated on—the question ‘what is the purpose of this thing we call religion?’ It’s here that I think the greatest and most fundamental differences between polytheism and monotheism lie.
Monotheism provides a sacred text, believed to be revealed, that provides rules and precepts whereby a believer can ensure salvation of his or her soul. The ultimate goal, as I understand it (being an outsider to that worldview) is salvation of individual souls and restoration of those souls to the presence of God. The purpose of those monotheistic religions is, at least in part, to provide a pious scaffolding whereby believers can be led down the proper paths to reach that goal. It’s rather like an equation: do x+y and you will be assured of eternal life. This is, of course, something of a generalization, but at their core, especially within Christianity, this is what you have.(2)
I’m not here to argue that. It is what it is, however; the ontological purpose of polytheisms is different. It may be that this is a significant difference between what we might call “religions of the book,” i.e. religions that have a revealed (and closed) scriptural canon, and those that are not religions of the book (animist, often polytheistic traditions). Nor am I ruling out exceptions – exceptions to any standard always exist.(3) As a general rule, however, our polytheistic traditions are not focused on salvation. Individual mystery cultus may be, but in general writ large, we do not draw a moral compass from our traditions (4).
Within polytheisms, the purpose of ‘religion’ is to learn how to be in right relationship with our Gods. It is about tending to the Gods in the way They wish, and by doing so, ensuring the overall health of our households and communities. The rites and rituals whereby we do this exist within our traditions and if we maintain right relationship, our world will be better, it will benefit from what the Romans called pax deorum. (5) Over a thousand years ago, Roman author Aulus Gellius wrote: Dii immortales virtutem adprobare, non adhibere debent.(6) We are not, therefore passive recipients of salvation. We have powerful agency in developing and determining the nature of our devotional relationships. It’s up to us to choose rightly and while we may (and probably should) ask our Gods for help, ultimately, we must consciously choose devotion over and over again. There is a potentially productive tension here that I think Christian theologians miss when they write about free will, predetermination, and grace (I’m looking at you, Augustine). Yes, we have wyrd or fate, a scaffolding partly created by our choices, partly inherited from our ancestors, and partly determined the moment we’re born by a number of other factors and we are defined by how we meet it, bear it, and in some cases, rise above it. We are honed by the fate we carry. Yet the Gods are there waiting for us to reach out. They absolutely offer grace and blessing but we ourselves must reach for it too. We are charged with not being passive recipients of Their gifts. Our traditions are less about salvation and more about fruitful working relationships that bleed out into our world at large. If we are doing that, everything we can to maintain that right relationship, as our Gods wish, as our traditions teach, then worry about salvation is pointless (I suspect it probably is anyway – salvation from what? Rebirth? Union with our ancestors? Joyous entry into the hall of our Gods? From what exactly would we seek to be saved? Are we seeking salvation from the flow and twisting turns of our wyrd? Was that perhaps a draw of religions like Christianity? Is it really more comforting to think oneself potentially “elect” than to deal like an adult with one’s wyrd?).
As I write this, I can’t help thinking of a quote from Plato:
If a good man sacrifices to the Gods and keeps Them constant company in his prayers and offerings and every kind of worship he can give Them, this will be the best and noblest policy he can follow; it is the conduct that fits his character as nothing else can, and it is his most effective way of achieving a happy life. “…but for the wicked, the very opposite. For the wicked man is unclean of soul, whereas the good man is clean; and from him that is defiled no good man, nor god, can ever rightly receive gifts,” (Plato, Laws IV, 716e).
In parsing some of this out with Dr. Edward Butler this morning, he noted,
“There is the community of humans and the Gods, which needs not to be fouled by the selfish and perverted intentions of the bad man, on the one hand, and there is the purely human community, which needs to develop its standards and morality on a relatively autonomous basis, on the other, precisely so that humans can be made fit to participate in the community that includes the Gods. This is why morality is not simply given by commandment and why there is independent philosophical reflection upon ethics, morality, and political/economic organizations, as well as psychology. The always relative independence of these fields of thought from theology does not make them atheistic, though, and this is the difference with how these disciplines organized themselves in modernity, where they were left no choice by hegemonic monotheism.”
And with that, I’m going to return to my original point: our religions are not about us. They’re designed and transmitted to us that we may know how to engage with the Holy Powers rightly, productively, and well. This in turn does benefit us greatly, but that is not, I think, the point. If such proper engagement is anathema to a person, then that person should not seek entrance into our communities and traditions. It is important to keep our traditions clean and properly ordered and with everyone focused and desirous of that end, that goal is in itself difficult. Modernity has not been a good teacher of things sacred. There is a huge learning curve when we wade eager but untaught into devotional waters. That is where our surviving texts come in handy. We can reach across the centuries, and across the devastation of our traditions to those whose entire worldview was influenced by and inculcated with polytheism and we can learn.
1. It also highlighted how hard it is to really move away from your own religious tradition – those who grew up in monotheistic traditions for instance, had a horrible time conceiving of traditions that do not center around some type of revealed tradition as ‘religion’. This makes perfect sense: our traditions pattern how we see the world, the Gods, and what religion means to us.
2. The Hebrew bible is a narrative of liberation from slavery, tribal history, and laws by which to maintain their covenant with their God. The New Testament is the story of Jesus, letters detailing the spread of early Christianity, and precepts for right living. The Qu’ran praises God and likewise offers precepts for living according to that God’s will. In each case, rules and regulations for “right” living according to that tradition are encoded in their scriptures. There are exceptions within polytheism. As my colleague Edward Butler pointed out (with my gratitude – I’d been afraid I was doing a disservice to Kemeticism and Hinduism, for instance),
“In Egypt, for instance, I think that we see the divinity of texts and a focus on soteriology outside of a delimited “mystery cult” setting, and the same is true of India. The Vedas are every bit as divine in themselves as the Torah or Qur’an. I think that the difference lies rather in how such texts are used, and in particular the ongoing productivity of divine textuality in polytheisms. Think of the magnet analogy Plato uses in the Ion. The ongoing presence of the Gods in polytheist communities means that new texts are continually generated, but without erasing or writing over the previous ones.
With textuality, part of the difference is also between cultures that are more oral, like Greece, and those which are focused more intensely at an earlier period on the written word, like Egypt and India. One can see Plato in the Phaedrus wrestling with how to incorporate writing more into Hellenic culture and theology. A written text in one way is less flexible than an oral tradition, but it also permits for a different kind of engagement where commentary and interpretation have a status of their own, rather than being invisibly and anonymously absorbed into the tradition, which is what you tend to get in more oral cultures.”
I think he’s absolutely correct. Within polytheisms, new revelation can constantly occur. It’s not a closed system because the Gods are still engaging quite actively with us, and we with Them and that has an ongoing transformative power, not just for our traditions but for the world. We have the potential to constantly reaffirm and restore Their creation and order.
3. Nor am I saying that there are no writings relevant for polytheisms. We do not, however, have something accorded the same weight as monotheistic Scripture, as a matter of course…as much as some Heathens try to take medieval poetic and literary output, which we call ‘lore’ and frame it as such. Scripture is something considered holy in and of itself. The beautiful and insightful writings that we have may contain windows to the holy, stories about the holy but are not in and of themselves inherently holy and that’s an important difference. They lack, and rightly so, the normative authority of ‘scripture.’
4. This is not to say that polytheisms lack moral referents. That is in part, what philosophy is for – to teach us how to live virtuous lives pleasing to our Gods. That is why we are encouraged as a matter of piety in some cases, to become involved in our communities – because this is what an adult does, it – preserving our world for the future- is a logical extension of honoring our ancestors. I think in many ways, many polytheisms lacking the religious dichotomy that polarizes so much of monotheistic thought have an easier time infusing the world with a sense of the sacred. It is good (and according to some polytheistic thought, Divine in and of itself) in and of itself, not something to be endured until we die. It’s been said before that morality in polytheisms came from the respective cultures in which those polytheisms thrived and that is true, but it’s quite a different thing to draw morality from a culture inculcated on every level with polytheistic awareness and to do the same with a monotheistic culture or one dominated by modern secularism.
5. These things should themselves come via inspiration of the Gods and ancestors – we have diviners and priests, spirit workers, shamans, and oracles to help with this, as well as what we know from literary sources about practices in ages past – there are many ways in which our traditions navigate this. This is part of a healthy tradition. Cicero, drawing on somewhat dubious etymology posted that the word ‘religio’ came from ‘religere’ in other words ‘to be bound to the ways of one’s ancestors.’ That pretty much defined the Roman view of religion and I think there is much good sense in that. If our traditions are there to help us maintain right relationship with the Holy Powers, and if we accept that the structure of those traditions came in large part from the Holy Powers, then we must in good sense and good faith hesitate to change those structures for our own convenience. We must consider carefully how our tradition teaches us to adapt to modernity, rather than throw our pious practices away because they do not immediately accord with modernity.
6. The immortal Gods ought to support, not supply, virtue. – Metellus, quoted in “Noctes Atticae” 1.6.8 by Aulus Gellius.
Whenever we think about spiritual attack, I think it’s pretty common to assume that it’s something only the most devout endure, that it’s big, bombastic – demons attacking St. Anthony style madness, for instance (see picture below). Too often our minds default to assuming it’s out and out ranged battle, or that we’ll even recognize the attack, and see the enemy, and the lines of discord will be equally and clearly drawn. I wish it were that simple. I really do. I don’t think that’s the norm at all though.
I think- and this holds true for specialists and laity– that when we start committing ourselves to our spiritual work, that when we become increasingly more devout, that as we learn and grow in piety and respect there is often deep resistance, from both within and without. The internal resistance can simply be a matter of our unlearning bad habits and reconditioning ourselves to the habits of devotion, but the external resistance, that’s something quite different. I consider it the Filter or Nameless at work. It’s often subtle – the whisper in the darkness of our minds that urges us toward despair, the niggling thought that snickers impieties in our head, or maybe the push to do…nothing at all. It’s the echoing void of doubt that beckons ever so logically to us, that mocks our efforts in the unguarded corners of our hearts.
The Christian monastic Fathers understood this all too well. I suppose monastic solitude is a terrible and strict teacher. The benefit of their work is that they discussed this seriously and developed various means of countering its effect. Evagrius of Pontus, (345-399 C.E.) for instance wrote about the ‘noon-day demon,’ the personification of acedia. Psalm 91.6 calls it the ‘pestilence that stalks the darkness’ though of course, modern translations tend to elide the personhood of such a thing, preferring, with all the comfort modernity offers, to think of it as a metaphor for a spiritual state, rather than a pernicious being that might cause such a state. I tend to think the Church Fathers had this one right though. And when we expect bombast, when we expect something out of a horror movie, we are left completely unprepared for the reality of what the spiritual life entails.
In the Prologue to Antirrheticus, Evagrius writes:
“I write of the reasoning nature that fights beneath heaven: first, what it battles against; second; what assists it in the battle; and finally, what the fighter keeping valiant watch must confront. Those who fight are human beings; those assisting them are the angels of God; and those opposing them are the evil demons.
Failure results not from the enemy’s formidable strength, nor because the protectors are careless: rather, it is because the fighter is unprepared that the knowledge of God vanishes and fails.”
This is as true for us as it was for these antique Christian monks. When we go toward our Gods there is resistance. To restore our traditions is to reorder our world in ways large and small and just as when we cast a stone across a pond, there are ripples and we cannot know the ultimate significance of the smallest acts of devotion which we now do. Personally, I tend to think that the more resistance one faces, the more surety one has that one is on the right track spiritually. That, however, does not make the imposition of acedia any less devastating. It’s not that our Gods and spirits don’t protect us, it’s that we often are moved into such a despairing state spiritually that we cannot sense or hear Them, or trust that They are there. We can become wrapped up in the darkness of our own despair lacking even the motivation to call out to Them for help. (I know that sometimes we must make that first call for aid. We must make that choice to range ourselves on the side of our Gods, to claim for ourselves the order and architecture of Being that They have created and sometimes that seems damned near impossible).
This is also why I struggle with the idea of being a woman of faith. How is it faith when you experience the Gods? What happens when the noonday demon, as the Christians called it, clouds that perception and there is a despair and loneliness deeper than any human being could ever inflict? That is where faith must come in and that is where we are dependent on the grace of our Gods, that we might summon the strength to trust They have our backs.
What is acedia? What is it that this noon-day demon does? It fills us with malaise, with exhaustion, and worse of all with an aversion to the holy, with an aversion toward devotional practices that in the end are the very things that will sustain us. (Later writers such as Bernard of Clairveaux wrote of a sterility of the spirit that renders every spiritual practice barren – that is a powerful description of acedia).
In his Praktikos –(and John Cassian later drew heavily upon this in his own work) Evagrius described the effects of this demon on monks trying to live the monastic life:
“The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon—is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eighth hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour, to look now this way and now that to see if perhaps [one of the brethren appears from his cell]. Then too he instills in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labor. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from among the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone at this period who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities, more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and of his former way of life. He depicts life stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one (when he is defeated) but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”
Evagrius offered techniques for combatting acedia, including reading and meditation upon specific Biblical passages. This is less useful for us, but the core of what he was advising is absolutely relevant: maintain your practices. This is also why purification is so incredibly important. Accumulated miasma makes it that much more difficult to maintain any sense of spiritual discernment or clarity and much more likely that we can be infected by this pestilence.
We have tools to fight this: prayer, purification, the rites and rituals of devotion, powerful invocations like the Oration of Aristides. We have, or should, the support of each other, all of us working together to do this thing called devotion. We have the cultivation of art and beauty and those things that ennoble the soul and draw them closer to the Gods. We have our sacred stories of those Gods to inspire us. Most of all, we have the Gods Themselves Who will absolutely guard and gird our spirits against this type of desolation if we are mindful enough and brave enough to turn toward Them when it comes calling.
Finally, I’m reminded of an anecdote I read once about Teresa of Avila, who when the noon-day demon came calling to torment her again, shrugged, laughed with the words ‘you again.’ And went back to work; because in the end, that which we do for our Gods is so much more important than anything that would pull us away.
“Saint Antony Tormented by Demons” by O. Dix
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.”
- Especially now since Isaac Bonewits is the one who originally pioneered usage of the terminology “Neo-Pagan.”
- 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).
- I would estimate between 2011-2014.
- 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.