Here is an excellent piece by P.S.V.L. who really points out how the current “your religious space must be political” is inherently ill thought out and obsessively anti-theistic (among other things). This is a long, thoughtful piece. Stick with it folks. It’s gold.
So, John Halstead has posted a response to my article here. As expected, instead of sticking to the issue at hand, which at least on the polytheistic end of the spectrum is one of respect for the Gods, he’s turned it into rather personal attacks against me and Tess Dawson. Classy. Still, I’ve been guilty of this myself at times, and it’s an easy thing to overlook. What I would like to discuss instead, are some of the other points that he attempts to make in his article because he’s attempting to manipulate his readers down what I consider to be a rather dangerous rabbit hole. I’m going to be fairly selective in what I discuss here, largely because most of it is irrelevant to my work as a whole. So bear with me.
Halstead writes: “Does it matter that culturally all of us are much closer to the perpetrators than to the victims of the cultural crimes that we are claiming to be vicarious victims of?”
Yes. It matters immensely and for this reason, as much as any other it is crucial that we reorient ourselves. This is precisely what I mean when I have written in previous articles that we must reclaim our indigenous mindset. We are closer, both chronologically and more importantly in our social conditioning, to those who destroyed our traditions. This means that we have an even greater obligation to address that, to look it right in the face, to deprogram ourselves, and to root out that mental poison.
This isn’t something new. I remember reading quite a long time ago, when I was pouring through the works of Julian the martyr (whom Christians call the apostate), that he was aware of this too. He wrote once that having been raised Christian, he knew that he carried a mental corruption; that he would never be as clean in his faith as someone raised in polytheism in a polytheistic culture. He did his best and I think we are called to do so too. That we are close to the perpetrators is no reason to give up and say that this thing cannot be done. What it means, is that we carry an ancestral debt and part of restoring our traditions is addressing that debt, individually and collectively. To say that we should throw up our hands and step back from protecting our traditions specifically because we are on the other side of that genocidal abyss is to say that there is never any cause to make repair and reparation when damage has been done, because after all, we’re closer to the conquerors than the conquered because the conquered are the ones that prevailed and survived. It is to put into their hands the palm of victory once again and to spit into the face of our ancestors.
In fact, I would say that one of the biggest problems facing Polytheism is the necessity to address our own mental conditioning and the difficulties in doing so with few external aids. Halstead is wrong though in another way: it’s not cultural crimes that we’re attempting to right; it’s religious.
Right from the get go, Halstead is positioning this as part of what he calls the “cultural appropriation controversy.” It isn’t. That obfuscates. This is instead a religious question. It’s about piety and respect, which should cross cultural boundaries. After all, I’d certainly call out someone who was showing disrespect to a Christian icon, or a Muslim holy book as readily as I would someone who was showing disrespect for one of our holy images. Why? Because there are some things that are more important than our petty fights; because the Gods are bigger than all of us and that which is sacred is deserving of respect – even if the Gods in question are not my Gods; and because the Gods and doing right by Them, is far, far more important for the integrity of our traditions – newly reborn as they may be—and there are times when trying to shift the discourse onto mundane, profane ground is merely a tool for further erasure of reverence. But of course, in positioning it as part of that controversy, Halstead is attempting (in a beautiful piece of rhetorical manipulation, I might add. Well done, John) to back me and other polytheists into a corner where if we argue with him, we risk being labeled as pro-appropriation, when nothing could be further from the truth. We are very much against appropriation, hence why some of us called John out on his abuse of our religious iconography in the first place. This kind of behavior is inappropriate when done to the Gods just as it’s inappropriate when done to people.
John makes a fairly big deal out of the fact that neither I nor Tess are biologically descended from Levantine culture, that we’re not Canaanite and were not raised in Canaanite culture. Clearly he doesn’t fully comprehend how ancient polytheisms worked. There was tremendous flux, movement and interaction between religions. Part of this was due to the networks of trade and transportation being partly linked through coastal temple complexes. Religion was an international phenomenon. The cultus of various Gods went everywhere. Thus we find the Canaanite Goddess Anat being adopted into the Egyptian pantheon. Why? Because traders and immigrants brought Her cultus to Egypt and She was popular, even amongst Egyptians. Thus we find Isis being venerated at Rome, or Mithras, or Cybele…by Romans with no genetic link to the peoples who first were honored with the Presence of these Deities. Likewise, we see Minerva and Mercury venerated in Germany. Religion in the ancient world was never a closed cultural book. People bring their Gods wherever they go. And to damn us for not being raised in the religions we’re working so hard to restore is a particularly insidious type of trap.
Yes, John is an outsider to polytheism. He does not believe in the Gods. He uses them. Instead of dealing with polytheisms and Paganisms on their own ground, he and many others like him are attempting to shift it to better suit their own lack of theism. Polytheism is about the veneration of many Gods. To come to that and then attempt to create an atheist paganism or atheist polytheism or merely a cultural paganism is an attack on polytheism as a whole. It’s taking traditions, fragile in their restoration still, and striking at their very core, or attempting to. This was in part what the battles last year over the words “Paganism” and “Polytheism” were about: religious identity.
Halstead writes that Tess Dawson, for instance, is attempting to revive Canaanite “culture.” He is incorrect. She is, if I may be so bold as to speak on her behalf (Tess, if I am wrong, please correct me and I will update this), restoring veneration of a particular family of Gods. We cannot restore Canaanite culture. It is gone in the flux of time. The Gods are not, however, gone; and they still call for veneration. That is something that not only can we restore, but those devoted to the Gods may even have an obligation to make the attempt. That is what Tess and I are talking about, for all that Halstead is attempting to shift the discourse onto (for him) more familiar ground.
When we draw parallels with the destruction of ancient polytheisms, contemporary accounts of discrimination, and horrors like Daesh destroying the temple at Palmyra and committing numerous atrocities on people in the areas they control we are not comparing our struggles to restore our traditions to such horrors. We are calling out a continuum of attack. All of these things, from the Hindu woman last week who was fired for being a polytheist, to the polytheist who had her office vandalized with crosses and bibles left laying all over, to the Syrian woman who was pulled out of her house raped and murdered two years ago by relatives for being polytheist, to a terrorist group blowing up a symbol of polytheism exist on a continuum. It’s the same mindset behind it all and it’s a mindset that we were raised with too and we will never untangle it within ourselves if we do not recognize it without, if we do not learn to connect the dots.
I would go so far as to say we are all (Halstead too – I’m sure he has polytheistic ancestors somewhere) victims of crimes committed “by Christians against pagans in a time and place so far removed from us.” That victory, the shift in dominant worldview from polytheism to monotheism brought with it devastation and a mechanization of outlook that we are still fighting today. Traditions are not interchangeable and being a polytheist or monotheist has consequences in far more than just to Whom one prays. It affects the way we engage with everything in our world, with how we evaluate right and wrong, with how we choose to leave our mark in our culture. The spread of monotheism changed, diametrically changed the face of our world and not, I would posit for the better and every social movement that has come after for good or for ill has been a response to that change. We are still living with the consequences of those crimes and Halstead wants us to ignore that? Or to excuse it? I don’t think so. That’s not the way to deal with ancestral debt and it’s certain not the way to rebuild a tradition. It’s not ok simply because it happened a long time ago.
John ends his article by the feel good assertion that “ Your holy may not be my holy, but what matters is that we both are trying to see the holy.”
This is not about trying to see the holy. It is a wonderful thing that you want to see that, John. In fact, I think it’s a necessary thing for all of us. One of the places I think we can agree is on the need for us to relearn how to see the sacred in our world – what sometimes we call re-enchanting the world. But this is about far, far more than that. You take the Gods out of the equation. We never can and never will and for a polytheist, that is where it begins and ends. One can do many things, excuse many things when one is exploring the holy, but when one is engaging with the Gods and restoring a tradition, sometimes those things matter, and sometimes they can’t be so readily excused.