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Polytheist vs. [Neo]Pagan

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

“Oh, it’s such a mess. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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