Category Archives: Polytheism
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.
Someone yesterday sent me an old link whining about my writing on miasma. (I get more push back on the idea that purification is important than on pretty much anything else). The final line of that rather convoluted post was a declaration that our Gods (I believe it specifically mentioned Odin, Thor, and Hela but implied all the Norse Gods) are not holy. I was so absolutely flabbergasted by this assertion that I had to address it.
If our Gods are not holy then why do we venerate Them? If our Gods are not holy then exactly what are They? What is holiness? Why would someone ever think that They were not, in fact, holy? If one doesn’t consider one’s Gods holy, how is one going to behave with respect to Them? This is not some obscure theological point, like how many angels might dance on the head of a pin, this is something that has real world implications and consequences to our devotion and praxis. It has significant implications in how this issue entangles everything else and ultimately the question remains: why would you seek to strip the holy from the Powers?(1)
We know our northern ancestors had a clear concept of the holy. A brief look here gives us the Old English halig (holy, consecrated, sacred, godly…), Proto-Germanic *hailaga-, Old Norse heilagr, Danish hellig, Old Frisian helich, Old Saxon helag, Middle Dutch helich, and I could go on. The word derives from PIE word meaning ‘whole,’ or ‘uninjured.’ That which was holy was that which was in some way connected to the Gods, with the implication that holiness flows from the Gods (which would be impossible if They Themselves were not holy). A further meaning of ‘whole,’ or ‘uninjured’ can easily lead to the conclusion that not only are the Gods the embodiment of holiness, but that They are eternal, restorative Powers, untouched by the decay and temporality of the human world.
Amongst the Norse Gods, we immediately must turn to the three creator Gods, the Architects of the nine worlds: Odin, Hoenir, and Lo∂ur. The latter two Gods here had other names: Vili and Vé. Vé actually means sacred enclosure, holy place, shrine.(2) The embodiment of holiness was then essential to the creation of the worlds and it was localized within our Gods, in this case specifically Vé. So the worlds were created by a unified confluence of frenzy (Desire), will, and holiness. Those are the attributes Odin and His brothers brought to that act and wrought from the destruction of Ymir and what was infused in that primal act of genesis continues to infuse both our Gods and the spaces in which They move, the deeds which They enact.
Now of course, the holiness of Odin is going to differ from the holiness of Freya which will likewise differ from any other Deity and if you raise holiness above the Gods then you’re essentially saying that concept is more important than They are. Holiness can only be an extension of the Gods. It is that which defines Their nature and Presence. To say that They lack holiness is to say that They are not, in fact, Gods and that nothing generative, integral, and whole may possibly flow from Them. Holiness is that inviolable quality that marks Their Presence, and perhaps Their very essence.
There is the question as well of what is sacred versus what is holy: something is rendered sacred but innately holy. Holy things are holy in and of themselves, whereas that which is sacred is made so by contagion with the holy. We can infer this etymologically, by the very definition of the word ‘holy.’ It’s supposed to be untouched, inviolable…we’re not supposed to become in contact with it. The sacred (ritual, clergy, temples etc.) become intermediaries that allow contact to happen safely. It’s a scaffolding.
In many respects, the divisions here are murky in English. We can, after all, speak of something being sacred to us outside of any religious context and as my friend and colleague KSV pointed out, it’s then a matter of exploring the tether between the person, concept, and the definition of the thing. I think in some respects this speaks to our own modern discomfort with elements of piety and devotion from which the concept originally came. What was sacred in the ancient world was inviolate, specifically because it had come into contact in some way with holiness, with the Presence of the Gods. Having then been rendered sacred, that which has so been marked belongs to the Gods. It is no longer fully a thing at home in the human world.(3)
There is also often an implicit connection assumed (wrongly) that the idea of ‘holiness’ is specifically monotheistic and something belonging solely to their God. Theologically and historically, that is not the case. It is clear from the briefest overview of religious history that our polytheistic ancestors had a rich and complex sense of the holy and its significance and likewise recognized our Gods as such, to the point that one might say as I have here, that holiness is a byproduct of Divine presence.
The corollary of course is what this might mean for us in our engagement with the Holy and that is where tradition, divination, and devotion come so powerfully to the fore. How ought we to prepare ourselves for such engagement? What are the consequences of it? Most importantly of all, how do we recognize it. I’m looking forward to hearing what you all have to say in the comments. Let’s continue this conversation.
- Or since the post specifically mentioned the Norse Gods, perhaps then the writer was saying that other Gods are holy but not the Norse…I struggle with this… um… logic.
- There is another name for the God Lo∂ur: there is Skaldic evidence that this God was, in fact, Loki. See my article here.
- We can see this in Tacitus’ Germania, where those who stumbled upon Nerthus’ image unprepared were sacralized in such a way that their deaths were then required. They were too marked to remain in the human world and must, of necessity, be given to this Goddess.
By E. Butler, PhD
(To give a bit of context for this, Edward and I were discussing a couple of our upcoming articles and he mentioned some push back he’d had recently vis a vis the word ‘polytheism.’)
Edward: I posted a link to a collection of stotras (devotional hymns) attributed to Shankara, the famous Advaita (Non-dualist) Vedanta philosopher, remarking that, though there are questions about the validity of the attribution, the sheer number and diversity of the Gods addressed in the hymns made Advaita look quite polytheistic to me. This is in accord with my conviction that the issue between Advaita and Dvaita positions in Vedanta, being a dispute about the nature of brahman, have nothing to do with the number of Gods.
So, [a certain ‘scholar’] chimes in with how it’s wrong to use a modern, Western category like polytheism with regard to Hinduism.
Galina: these modern secularist fools are trying to take away even the words by which we can define our faith. The word ‘polytheism’ occurs in ancient material; it just happened to enter ENGLISH in the 17th c.
Edward: This is yet another stupid fight we have to wage. As far as I’m concerned, any language that has a plural term for “God” has polytheism, or had it, period. It doesn’t matter to me when the term itself was first used, it’s logically entailed by the use of the plural terms.
The other nonsense issue I’ve seen come up lately is the notion that we shouldn’t translate foreign terms as “Gods” because they’re all sui generis. Only when polytheist civilizations encountered one another, there’s literally not a case I know of where they didn’t use the same term they use for divinities to refer to the foreign Gods. Angirasa Srestha found a passage, for instance, that refers to “Devas of foreign lands”, and Egyptians spoke of Netjeru in foreign lands, and of course we know that for Greeks and Romans the other people’s Theoi or Dei were Theoi and Dei, and so forth.
It’s like being swarmed by ants, though, dealing with this shit. Everyone gets zealous about protecting other cultures from contamination once those cultures start appropriating Western concepts for themselves. Don’t let them get hold of the master’s tools, force them to use their native resources exclusively, after you’ve disrupted those intellectual resources for centuries.
What we need to take away from this, though, is that we need to fight for the proper sense of universal categories like “Gods” and “polytheism”, a sense that doesn’t interfere with the uniqueness of nations and pantheons and individual Gods, but that grounds a stable theoretical discourse and for solidarity across traditions.
(and he is absolutely right. – GK).
I was reading a novel a few days ago and came across a line from Seneca “deo parere libertas est” – to serve/devote oneself to a God is freedom. I was so intensely struck by the sentiment that I’ve been mulling it over since I first read it. Certainly, it is a sentiment that I agree with wholeheartedly. I’d just never quite heard it phrased so succinctly.
Devotional living can be hard. Coming into alignment with our Gods and ancestors and nourishing those relationships (which is part and parcel of restoring the ancient covenants with Gods, ancestors, and land) carries with it the challenge of reorienting our priorities, changing the way we look at the world, at everything, and it often involves a certain degree of loss. Actually, I think sometimes it involves a huge degree of loss. It’s difficult, really, really difficult because it changes everything in our world. Doing devotional work well changes the way we are in our world, the way we position ourselves in relation to everything. Yes, I strongly believe that the Gods more than meet us half way, walk with us as we struggle, but that doesn’t make devotional work any less grueling.
I remember once my adopted mom was discussing ‘love.’ She was very much against any abstract, grand, or romantic definitions. She said, “you know what love is? It’s rolling up your sleeves and getting to work.” She compared it to a parent changing a baby’s dirty diaper when completely exhausted and I rather agree with her. St. Augustine (I’m not a fan, but he was right on this particular point) said that “my love is my weight,” meaning that his love for his God motivated him to make changes to who he was and to whom he wanted to become. If we look at devotion as the cultivation of a deep hunger and longing for God, the cultivation and its fruition, then it’s the work of tending that fire of longing, while at the same time of seeking endlessly to sate that hunger. St. Benedict (I’m taking a class in early Christianity so we’re reading Benedict now) gave us the famous dictum: “Ora et Labora” (pray and work). Until recently I’ve always interpreted the ‘labora’ part of that saying to refer to manual labor (which monks would routinely engage in not only to support themselves but as a spiritual discipline) but more and more I am beginning think that it may be a bit more metaphysical, that Benedict was referring to the intense and painful spiritual labor of opening ourselves up to our Gods. Devotional work takes humility and vulnerability, a level of radical honesty not only with our Holy Powers but with ourselves too, most especially with ourselves and well, it can be pretty awful at times. There are reasons why Christian writers wrote that it was a “terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Well, it can be, because afterwards nothing is ever the same again.
Sometimes it’s the very longing for connection to the Gods that hurts the most. It’s fire in the soul, a goad to the heart. It’s a thing that gives no peace. I once quipped that I hadn’t had a single comfortable day since I became a devout woman (I’m exaggerating, because there is deep joy and satisfaction in the devotional life as well, but not by much). That longing is so crucial. We can numb ourselves to it. So much in our world encourages us to numb ourselves to it but if we do that, then getting through the really difficult times, the proverbial dark nights of the soul is that much harder. In the nadir of our spiritual world, it’s sometimes longing that carries us through. It’s certainly longing that encourages us to do the work that helps ensure good spiritual discernment. If we are longing for our Gods after all, why would we settle for anything less? Someone recently posted in a comment to one of my previous blog posts that the Latin word cultus, referring to all the rites and rituals and devotional practices of tending to a particular Deity, is directly related to the word meaning ‘to cultivate, or to tend’ and that is linguistically correct. To pay cultus to a God is to be in a state of having tended to that God and one’s relationship with Him or Her properly. The word itself calls to mind the work of tending a field, the hard, manual labor of a farmer minding his crops – work that paid off with the means to nourish a family or community. It implies a great deal of consistent labor. It’s the same with devotional work, that likewise pays off in the micro-verse of our souls, of our character, of the formation of our hearts and minds.
Getting back to Seneca though, I agree with him. There is immense freedom in consciously, passionately serving a God. It’s not just the satisfaction of being in right relationship with the Holy Powers, but also of acknowledging that when we are in that relationship, so much falls into place on every possible level. When we are given over consciously and mindfully to the Powers that shaped our world, that wove our fate, that nurtured our ancestors, that breathed life into our beings, with that comes a soul deep purpose. It elevates us as human beings. Likewise, we have tremendous free will within our devotional worlds. All things being equal we have the choice of doing this work gracefully. We can cultivate in ourselves those things that cultivate our connection to our Gods, or we can behave like petulant little bitches (and believe me, we all go down this route occasionally). The work of devotion is ultimately that which allows us to experience our Gods directly. It allows us to align our priorities and wills with Theirs. It allows us joy. It places the world in order and us in order within that world, and if we are in alignment with our Gods, then all else is commentary. If we are in alignment with our Gods then They are in alignment with us, and we have the benefit of Their blessing and protection as active, moving forces in our lives.
All of this leads me to the question of what makes one a good person. What does it mean to be an adult and a polytheist and what are the virtues that we should be attempting to cultivate? It’s not as easy a question as one might think given that the answer will vary mightily depending on the Gods we venerate. What Odin wishes cultivated in His devotees is very different in many respects from what Dionysos or Inanna might wish. It leads me to the conflict I see playing out in our communities every day, namely whether humanity or the Gods should take priority in our consciousness. But if we are not serving the Gods well, if we are not in right relationship with Them, then how can we possibly hope to be so with the people in our lives, or with humanity in general? If we cannot order this, the most essential of relationships rightly, then how can we hope to do so with the smaller, yet also important ones?
Orthodox Ritual Praxis
This morning I read an article on Greek and Russian Orthodox Church services and it was fascinating. The services, particularly around holy week can be quite grueling. They last for hours and in the most traditional churches people are standing that entire time. Of course, they don’t just stand: they pray, they sing, they move to various icons and light candles and pray some more as the spirit moves them. It’s interactive and quite physically demanding. Here’s the article I read, which actually downplays quite a bit the physical exertion and discipline required.
So I read this and think: we can’t even get people willing to offer water without them whining about how put upon they are, and how they feel being expected to actually DO something is elitist, ablest, classist, insert ‘ism of your choice here.
If people cared about their Gods as much as they cared about the latest cause or video game or Dr. Who episode maybe we’d actually be getting somewhere but I look at articles like the above and realize exactly how far we have to go to hit even a bare baseline of active devotion.
The Vikings Didn’t Need Islam to be Religiously Fulfilled.
Then there’s this little gem. Apparently, the Arabic word for God (Allah) was found on some Viking textiles and a group of academics is using this as an opportunity to normalize Muslim invasion of Europe, and to erase our indigenous religions. The scholars involved are claiming that Vikings were influenced in their burial practices by Islam, extensively influenced, because of course Heathen religions couldn’t possibly have complex and fulfilling beliefs about the afterlife. Of course, the Vikings would have had to turn to a monotheistic religion for that. It’s utter bullshit and frankly bad scholarship along with being subtle pro- Muslim propaganda. It goes without saying a certain portion of our communities are celebrating this.
Yes, religions communicated. We know this. No religion evolved in a vacuum and there were borrowings across history. This is a normal part of the conversations that happen culturally between different groups, including religious groups. That, however, is not what the article is saying. It’s flat out giving Islam credit for Viking burial practices and doing so with zero evidence.
Why were there Islamic textiles in the Northlands? Most likely trade. And frankly, given that silk is a luxury item, it shouldn’t be too surprising that it’s found in burials. Why wouldn’t you want to bring back and give pretty, rich things to the dead that you love before sending them off? (I’ve seen this before though in academia. Secularism and/or atheism holds such sway in certain fields, along with the blanket assumption that if you’re educated you will not be religious, that I’ve actually attended lectures on religious topics like pilgrimage wherein the speaker put forth every possible explanation for why someone would undertake this difficult and expensive process…except devotion and piety. There is a swath of academics who simply cannot conceptualize devotion. It’s quite sad and leads to some seriously shady scholarship or at the very least, scholarship that misses its mark significantly).
Why is that surprising? This is right up there with archeologists finding multiple burials of women having died of war wounds, having been buried with weapons – repeatedly—and acting confused, claiming that perhaps the burials were contaminated because women can’t have been warriors to the degree they’re finding. There is a level of obtuseness and flat out stupidity in this that I find mind-blowing. The standard attitude of academia toward polytheism in the ancient world (they hardly ever acknowledge it in the modern) is to insist it didn’t exist, to insist it was solely a matter of praxis, that there was no meat or belief or devotion or passion there…despite quite a lot of evidence (linguistic, literary, archeological, etc.) to the contrary. The contemporary academic response to polytheism is, essentially, erasure.
Bringing this full circle, it’s bad enough when academics try to erase our devotional worlds. It’s bad enough when they damn our ancestors and their traditions like this. You know what’s worse? When we do it ourselves by simply not giving a damn.