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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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My Morning Began with this Question…

My morning began with the following question, which got me out of bed faster than any alarm could have. After responding and going back and forth with my correspondent a bit, I asked permission to share the question and my response here.

My correspondent begins:

Hi I’m sorry to bother you. I’m just struggling to figure out what this movie character Loki marrying all these really lonely, isolated women is.

I could see taking advantage of the films to get followers but I’m not sure if what clients are dealing with is a deity.”

My correspondent then goes on to describe behavior of this wight that her friend is describing as Loki in ways that are bizarre, violating, and manipulative.

…(I’ve made some edits for privacy, even with permission to share.)

He wanders around my room looking at my stuff and doing dramatic David Bowie poses.

The “wife” never promised to be his wife forever, just until she finds a human. “Loki” doesn’t like it and says, “We’ll see.” She can’t worship Set because Loki is scared she’ll fall in love with Set. There’s a spirit “Green” who comes (and was coming before the movies got her into the Northern Tradition) and makes love with her, especially if she feels neglected by Loki. 

Loki dresses up in clothing from her favorite TV show and they act it out.

She’s never had friends because illness hit young so she’s been living with her parents her entire life without any relationships like friends, boyfriends, work, and she’s socially delayed, like a child I think from it. She’s completely alone aside from her mother and “Loki.”

At this point I was seriously alarmed. This is not Loki. This is not Loki. I’ll say it again for those who may find this difficult: This is not Loki. If this is what is happening to you in your relationship with what you think is a Holy Power, you may want to consult an elder or specialist. This is not the way a God behaves. Godspousery is a thing, a binding, lifelong commitment (that may or may not rule out human relationships) but it does not function in any way, shape, or form like what this person is describing, nor do healthy devotional relationships.

Part of the problem is pop culture specifically how it teaches us to view and approach the Divine and what it teaches us to expect from such exchanges. It opens a door toward incorrect behavior with the Gods and spirits, in ways that seriously and negatively impact discernment. There is an undertone in so many movies, television series, comics, books, etc. of the Gods being childish, vain, immature or otherwise behaving in ways that allow for the human characters to gain the upper hand in relationships, to put Them in their place, most of all to dismiss Them as Powers in favor of human supremacy in the grand cosmic hierarchy. The cultivation of this attitude is bad enough but what is worse is that it entrains us to think that Gods will behave this way, and the way described above – They don’t—which in turn opens the door for any bottom feeding, parasitic hanger-on spirit to masquerade and someone raised on a steady diet of pop culture pabulum all too often lacks the discernment to tell the difference.

At any rate, my morning’s email continued:

I wonder if she made it up, but I’ve experienced him, this spirit she calls Loki, as how she described. My health gets much worse after reading for her every time.

I’ve never done spirit work where they’ve ever behaved like this, especially deities. Usually they are more … dignified and have meaningful messages that the client needs. “Loki” just tells her what he wants her to do and offer to him. It’s a very sulky bitchy vibe.”

Folks, read that last paragraph again please. It’s right on the money. This is simply not how Deities generally behave and that includes Loki. This is one of the key things to watch for in certain interactions: are you being told only what you want to hear? It’s a huge red flag.

My client continued:

So something IS there, but I think it’s something else (abandoned thought form by some coven, incubus, I have no clue). When I said I couldn’t work with them anymore, “Loki” immediately jumped on me, trying to stimulate every “You’re my true love, 100% perfect” sexual thing. I ended that in a second. But if this thing is giving “You’re perfect, dedicate your life to me” romance novel intensity to lonely, kinda imbalanced women – it feels dangerous. It’s taking advantage of the movie Loki form.

Maybe. I don’t know. Freya and divination say I’m right, it’s a low level predator spirit preying on vulnerable Pagan women.

But you know the real Loki and I think I recall you had opinions about this. I rarely know what pop culture or Paganism (another pop culture too much of the time to get anything of value from it) is doing, so I didn’t pay attention. I had no idea Loki was in movies and people were worshipping movie characters and saying it’s the deities.

Since I had someone else contact me who also became a Loki wife where he always treats her like a queen and it sounds like escapism – the opposite of every deity or ancestor or land spirit I’ve met and all their messages and none wander my space, terrible with boundaries and then wanting me in the exact same time of relationship – all consuming love/lust – I just want to know if there’s something like this people are experiencing. It’s like a … virus. A needy virus who takes over people’s lives.

Sorry to bother you again about this. But in a world of Loki wives this is obviously going to be happening more.”

My response was rather terse:

I think that what you’re describing is, on the part of your friend, delusional. In many of the cases where one sees this, it’s fanfiction gone awry. I think it’s a case of people who want the Gods to be their best friends instead of the Powers that They are. Can Loki choose to take the image of Marvel Loki? Yes, absolutely. He is a God and this can be a doorway for Him. However, the behavior that you’re describing is simply not how Loki is, not how any Deity is. It is, however, precisely how certain bottom feeding spirits behave however.

What you’re describing is concerning, and I would be more inclined to say this is someone who A) needs to get off tumblr or other social media and B) needs good firm spiritual direction and possibly C) Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy.

I would agree with you actually: it’s very likely a low level predator spirit but I also don’t think your friend is going to hear you. She’s most likely too invested in it being Loki. You describe it like a ‘virus’ and I think that is an apt metaphor and the virus is going to defend itself. I don’t think your friend is going to be willing to have her delusion challenged because it makes her feel good (despite what you’ve told me – which for privacy reasons I did not quote the specifics here—about it damaging her health).

I detest the Marvel movies. I find them deeply impious (which doesn’t mean that the real Loki can’t use that image– i do not want to sound as though I am limiting the power of a God!). 99% of the people that I see claiming their Loki looks/acts like Marvel Loki have one of the following happening: 1. low level predator spirit fucking with them, 2, they’re delusional and incapable of telling fiction from reality – or unwilling to do so– (and often live more of their lives online than in actual in-person social interactions 3. they’re deeply confused. In all cases they lack spiritual discernment. The desire for it to BE Loki and for themselves to be special is the only thing driving the interaction.

I have seen devout Lokeans put an image of that character on their shrines for Loki because it is a pop culture representation of Him but in those cases, there’s a clear understanding that “this is something that reminds me of Loki as trickster” not “this is Loki and he’s dancing around my bedroom.” I am always deeply suspicious when Gods no longer behave as gods but are reduced to being someone’s playmate or best friend — unless that someone is a child in which case I’ll make allowances though even then I would do serious divination and investigation.

I know very devout Loki’s wives. I don’t know a single one of them who can’t tell the difference between the fictional marvel Loki character and Their divine husband. 

I’m sorry but your friend is either being harassed by a low grade spirit or delusional. The behavior you describe from the thing when it jumped out at you is NOT Loki, and yes, I think your comparison of it to a virus is very apt. 

To get rid of a bottom feeding spirit, you’d have to cut the cord it has with your friend — it’s probably feeding on her– cleanse her, shield her, and banish it, warding her home. Then she has to not invite it back. She’s not going to cooperate with that. I would instead make offerings to the real Loki and your own patron Goddess Freya and maintain continued prayers for your friend’s well-being and protection. I think, however, that she is far too deeply invested in the emotional umph she gets from these encounters to listen to you. 

I do rather consider it a collective insanity.

I would, by the way, given the interactions you describe with your friend and this wight, suggest major cleansings for yourself. If you don’t know how to ground, center, and shield, I recommend learning. The book I usually recommend for my students is Sophie Reicher’s “Spiritual Protection.” Understand that when you are in your friend’s presence as she is now, and when this wight is present, you are engaging someone and something deeply polluted spiritually. You will need to cleanse yourself so that you do not become impacted by it or open to its influence.

All of this, my readers, highlights the importance of proper spiritual discernment. There is a difference between engagement and wish-fulfillment and it’s important to know the damned difference.

***************

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Musings on Heathenry

temple

I’ve been musing a lot about Heathenry the past day, what it was, what it is now, what it could be. I think we’re very lucky. For one thing, I think there is something profoundly powerful in throwing off the yoke of Christianity and/or secularism and seizing the threads of our ancestral traditions. It’s a beginning, a renewal, and a restoration and I think that is a good and holy thing. It’s the first step, a necessary step toward restoring our Gods to sovereignty in the world.

Yes. I said that. For all that I am severely critical of Heathens who use the lore to block and control their experience of the Gods, I do think we should allow ourselves to be inspired by our ancestors, by the stories in the Sagas and other lore. We should be ravening berserkers in driving back the filth of monotheism, in honoring our Gods, in offering to Them, and most of all in rebuilding our traditions. The lands of the north once belonged to Odin and His kin and they should again. I’d like to see sacrifices every holy tide in every major city in Northern Europe, and in Heathen communities in North America. That’s my dream anyway. It would be a start, a resanctification of the land and our relationship with both it and our Gods.

I remember a conversation my mother and I once had on esoterically warding our homes. She didn’t. She was ferocious in tending her space because she looked at her house as likewise the home of her gods. She said that nothing malignant could exist in her home because she made the environment one (by prayer, devotion, and quite practically and literally cleaning every day—she was what in German is called a ‘Putzteufal’ or cleaning devil) that was so hostile to filth (of every kind) that nothing spiritually impure could exist there. I wish we could make ourselves and our traditions the same, not through thought-policing, but through carefully tending to our devotions, encouraging the inter-generational process of offering and veneration, and protecting the Mysteries of our Gods’ cultus—all those things that comprise our “traditions.”

There are many Heathens that I disagree ferociously with about how Heathenry should be practiced. That’s ok. We have different traditions within Heathenry and I would stand shoulder to shoulder even with someone I utterly detested to defend our Gods and our right to practice unmolested. The traditions are more important. Seeing them thrive is more important. Re-mapping our world with a renewed awareness of our Gods is most important of all.

I want a Heathenry that doesn’t just obsess about the folk now but on where our traditions can be in a hundred years and how to best get there. It’s important to remember, crucially important I think because this is a bleak and dirty fight at times, that things can change in the matter of a generation. Our traditions were undone in the span of one or two generations. We can reverse that process. We are reversing it. We need to keep on changing it.

Midgard is a very special place. It is not that the Gods can’t simply work Their will here, but that in creating Midgard, They have given us a world where our voices and choices matter too in the forming of things, and I think They took a chance, those three creator Gods when They (perhaps foolishly) breathed life into this thing called “humanity.” I think we have been given a say in how Midgard unfolds. It was certainly the poor choice of some of our ancestors (and of others under coercion) to abandon our traditions a thousand plus years ago. We can choose differently now. I think maybe it’s part of our wyrd and if we choose to welcome the Gods, if we choose to burn down fiercely anything that would keep Their voices from shaking every inch of this world again, then we can bring those traditions back every bit as strongly as they were before, on the broken backs of those who would destroy them again if need be.

I care about one thing and one thing only: venerating the Gods, seeing our traditions restored, returning the world to polytheism. I want to see our world infused with the Gods at every level. I don’t know how to achieve that, but I do know that devotion and a commitment to our traditions is key. Maybe the Gods will help us with the rest.

So when you read things like this, put it in context. It, and so much else of the garbage floating around, is written by someone hostile to the very idea of Gods. What have they to do with any of our traditions? 

 

(I like the mood evoked by “The Vikings.” It may not be 100% historically accurate but it inspires nonetheless.)

Demand Transparency and Accountability in our Communities

Did you guys read those posts on Gods&Radicals condemning the Florida Pagan Gathering for trying to cover up the fact that they invited pedophilia advocates the Frosts to present?

Yeah, I haven’t either – because they don’t exist, which actually says a whole lot.

Rhyd and his friends are willing to stoke fears and lead witch hunts against dangerous elements in our communities such as people who believe in tradition and hierarchy but when actual threats to our safety and well-being rear their vile heads these valiant social justice “warriors” remain silent.

Aside from telling you everything you need to know about the morality of their cause, I think it is worth probing a little deeper and asking why.

The answer is simple.

In covering this story The Wild Hunt wrote:

Sage, a former FPG staff member, told The Wild Hunt that he and several others resigned over this very issue. Until recently, Sage was the FPG workshop coordinator and he said, “I resigned largely because I was instructed that it was my job to keep secret certain workshops that the Board of Directors was aware would upset some portion of the community. This deceit came in direct conflict with my moral and ethical codes of conduct.” There are also reportedly some copyright issues involving the printing and publication of the two versions of the festival booklets, which have nothing directly to do with the workshop issue itself. Sage did add that he personally will not be attending the event.

If that sounds familiar it should because that’s the same approach that the organizers of Many Gods West favor. All decisions are made by a cabal without transparency or accountability. Once a decision has been made (such as banning someone for posting satirical critiques of Rhyd’s hysterical rhetoric) there is no process by which it may be appealed (even though numerous people tried to do so.) In fact until everything blew up we had no idea who the organizers of the conference even were beyond spokesperson Niki Whiting – and, as we subsequently discovered, there was good reason for that secrecy.

One of the organizers of the conference is Syren Nagakyrie. If that name isn’t familiar to you it should be. Not only is she a regular contributor to Gods&Radicals, she’s one of its co-founders and their current Treasurer. So while Rhyd has done his best to distance himself publicly from MGW (despite being part of a panel that will be presenting on anti-fascism) in case there’s any blowback from his “righteous” crusade it’s clear that the connections run deep. (Which explains why they were so quick to silence criticism.)

In fact far from being enemies at the gate and radical subversives the Gods&Radicals crowd are deeply enmeshed in mainstream neopaganism. When Rhyd made his backpedaling quasi-apology once we started calling him out it wasn’t at Gods&Radicals, where the original offending post had appeared, nor even at his personal blog as one might expect – but at Patheos Pagan, where he used to write and where several of his fellow G&R comrades such as John Halstead currently blog. He is also a frequent contributor to The Wild Hunt and for several years has been a fixture of the conference circuit attending and often presenting at events such as the Polytheist Leadership Conference, the Pagan Activist Conference and Pantheacon.

No wonder they don’t want to call out Florida Pagan Gathering and similar venues for inviting people like the Frosts – if you rock the boat too much it might end up costing you speaking gigs or cause Patreon donations to dry up.

Some of us are willing to speak out no matter who it offends or what the consequences are – about real issues and real threats to our communities. (I guess protecting our daughters* from rapists isn’t a political enough issue for them.)

Remember their silence the next time Rhyd and pals make their vile insinuations about Heathens, Druids, Reconstructionists, devotional Polytheists and basically anyone who isn’t part of their clique. More to the point, think long and hard about who they associate with and whether you want to associate with those people too – especially when they’re hosting a conference with such a high price tag attached.

broken-shield

*while abuse happens to children of all genders, the Frosts specifically advocated in their book the abuse of girls.