“Synir Bors drápu Ymi jötun, en er hann féll, þá hljóp svá mikit blóð ór sárum hans, at með því drekkðu þeir allri ætt hrímþursa…” (Gylfaginning, 7) (1)
Yesterday in the Hudson valley we had such a great storm that it seemed as though the end of the world were here. Trees came crashing down, property was destroyed, live electrical wires lay crackling in the streets. There are tremendous power outages and coming home, it took me five hours to go less than eight miles. One news report said it was a tornado, but I’m not sure I believe that (I think the damage would be worse). That leaves us today being the only house in the neighborhood with power (thanks to my mother and her foresight in gifting me with a generator as a housewarming present) and since it really isn’t all that safe to go out and about, it also gives me plenty of time to catch up on some of my writing. Thanks to something my husband was watching when I came downstairs this morning, I was inspired, with almost a creative frenzy, to write about our creation story. I’ve written about this before, so now I’m just going to dive in.
Oðinn with his two brothers Vili and Vé slew the first being, the proto-giant Ymir and from his corpse fashioned not only the world of man, Midgard, but the scaffolding of the cosmos. From the very beginning, the Aesir defined the boundaries of their worlds by violence. It’s a compelling moment in our mythology. These three Gods (Oðinn, Vili (Hoenir), and Vé (Loður/Loki) (2) slaughtered, violently hacking to bits, their eldest ancestor. The narrative in the Gylfaginning tells us this in only one or two lines and then moves on to the structure of the cosmos, why we have seasons, the movements of the Sun and Moon, and other cosmological structures. I think, however, that this one moment defines our cosmology and repeats itself again and again throughout the corpus of our cosmological stories. It is the defining moment, the defining act within our cosmology, itself re-enacting the dynamic of Muspelheim and Niflheim coming together in the moment of creation. It’s a synergy that is repeated again and again and again throughout our mythology, one in which we too participate as we work to restore our traditions. Likewise, given that the entire scaffolding of our world and in fact all the worlds was created from Ymir, their very being-ness partakes of the primordial potentiality.
A bit of comparison might be useful here. In Genesis, Yahweh moves over the waters, creates and sees that it is ‘good.’ Our Gods, however, look out across the primordial landscape of meta-creation and see potentiality and then They bring that potentiality into concrete being by violently smashing the old paradigm. (3) It is Ragnarok in microcosm: destruction of old structures in order to bring about renewal and restoration, to restart, reorient, re-create. (4) In Genesis, creation stops once Yahweh pronounces everything to be ‘good.’ In our creation story, it is forever ongoing and we are constantly participating in it.
At that moment when the three Brothers destroy Ymir, we have a moment of chaotic potential (a world filled with Ymir and hrímþursar and not much else) reshaped, brought into order by means of tri-partite divine will, that will made manifest through violent action. Oðinn with His brothers becomes an ‘agent of choice confronting an infinite landscape of potential’ and by this act of conscious will, They elevate Themselves, separate Themselves from the other þursar and become Aesir.(5) They become divinity, lifting Themselves out of the primordial chaos of undifferentiated being. They make Themselves something more through the conscious enacting of their will yoked to mindful forethought, yoked to an awareness of the inherent potential in chaos (and a ruthlessness to bring it into being).(6) This means, by extension, that chaos is important. Order cannot exist save in relationship with something. It must, by its very nature, be defined by its purpose: transforming chaos into something else. Quite often in contemporary Heathenry, we find chaos being viewed as something inherently negative, and moreover, ranked in opposition to divine order. In reality, divine order is formed from chaos and cannot exist without it. That chaos is a necessary building block for all the work that the Gods then do. It is Their primary tool that allows itself to be transformed into anything that can be imagined and willed. It is the chaos that gives order meaning.(7)
Likewise, we see frenzy, will, and holiness (the etymological meanings of Oðinn, Vili, and Vé respectively) working together. The capacity to transform chaos into meaning is a sacred act, but will or frenzy unyoked to holiness (which for humans includes devotion, humility before the Gods, piety) is dangerous and damaging. The three must work together for something ‘Good’ to result. It’s a type of divine homeostasis and where that balance is lacking, ultimately destructive chaos ensues.(8)
Oðinn is the driving force behind this creation through destruction. Immediately before the slaughter of Ymir is discussed, the Gylfaginning notes that “ok þat er mín trúa, at sá Óðinn ok hans bræðr munu vera stýrandi himins ok jarðar.”(9) [And this is my belief, that he Oðinn and his brothers must be ruler/controller of heaven and earth]. Oðinn mentioned first and specifically is given sovereignty over everything that is created. His will to order holds the parsed bits of chaos together in a complex, functioning whole. This is why He cannot afford entropy and is constantly, throughout the mythic cycle, pursuing greater knowledge, greater power, greater ability to transform and transmute reality.
Our creation story contains within itself the underlying telos of our entire mythology. It is a complex and coherent system, re-enacted again and again by our Gods and heroes. I’ll be revisiting this again over the next few months, because not only does this provide insight into our creation story, but also into Oðinn’s nature as well. We can learn a lot about our Gods, Their natures, and the cohesive nature of our cosmology through ongoing examination of these stories.
1. “The sons of Bor slew Ymir the jotun; and where he fell there spurted forth so much blood from out of his wounds, that by means of it they drowned all the tribe of the Rim-thurs…”(translations mine unless otherwise noted).
2. While the identification of Loki as Loður is not universally accepted, there is skaldic evidence for this attribution both in Völuspá 18 and Þrymlur I-III 21. See this site and his article on “Loki’s Roads” for more information.
3. I’m quoting a phrase from Jordan Peterson’s interview (my husband was watching this interview when I came downstairs this morning and agree or disagree with him, Peterson is brilliant and I rather admire the way he can think through an idea or argument, even when I seriously disagree with some of his conclusions).
4. Perhaps this is one of the real cosmological meanings behind Ragnarok before Christians got their hands on it. This conception of Ragnarok also allows for the Gods to recreate and restore Themselves.
5. Again, I am taking a phrase from Peterson here, for my own purposes. His video actually annoyed me a bit. In it, Peterson talks about working toward the Good, and ascribes this to Christianity when in reality what he was saying was very basic Platonism. Let’s give credit where credit is due. This idea of the Gods as Good and reaching/returning to the Good was not something invented by Christians. Polytheistic philosophers developed it long before Jesus was a blip on the historical map.
6. Of course, the question of the difference between a Jotun and a God is a curious one. The Jötnar were the primal divine race. Until the moment Odin and His brothers decided to create the worlds, the beings that sprang from Ymir’s body were Jötnar. At no point in the surviving creation story is there a single moment where suddenly some of them are transformed from Jotun to Ás,’ unless it be the moment that Odin and His brothers decided to slaughter Their ancient kinsman Ymir to create the worlds. That is the only defining period in the creation epic where differentiation occurs. Suddenly these three Gods Odin (frenzy), Vili (conscious will or desire) and Vé (the numinous, the holy) decide to act in a way that transforms everything that comes after. If ‘Aesir’ refers specifically to a clan of Powers focused in some way on creating and maintaining cosmic order, and there is enough in the surviving myths that scholars like Dumézil certainly thought so, then membership into this clan might be somewhat mutable, all Aesir having begun as Jötnar perhaps? We likewise know that there are other clans of Gods like the Vanir, whose cosmological focus is different. Perhaps it is such cosmological foci, however enduring or transitory, that ultimately determine membership in these divine clans.(quoted from my forthcoming paper “The Demonization of Loki in Modern Norse Paganism” which will be appearing in the Summer 2018 issue of Walking the Worlds).
7. This of course makes the Jötnar in general and Loki (whom scholar Dumézil, in his work Loki, describes as the ‘unquiet thought,’) in particular absolutely essential to the proper functioning of divine order. And if we accept, as the skalds did, that Loki and Loður are the same being, then it is Loki who forms the bridge between these two states of being: undifferentiated potentiality/chaos and divinely crafted order. Perhaps this is why it is Loður who gives good hue…which implies a healthy circulatory system, the pumping of the heart, the flow of blood, warmth, and what the Greeks would call βίος. It is from the God who is able to move between both states that we are invested with potentiality (i.e. chaos), carefully contained in ordered flesh. Unordered bodily chaos for us, brings death. Like Ymir, we bleed out, but contained within the order the Gods have decreed, it brings health and ongoing life and the potential to affect our world and to remake it at times according to our will.
8. Just as excluding Loki may lead to entropy and rigidity.
9. Gylfaginning, 6.
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.
I’ve been seeing a lot of push back lately on the nine noble virtues including dismissals that they are Nazi-ish, racist, homophobic, etc. etc (insert buzzword of the year). I remain confused by the pushback. (There are blogs both pro and con here). It’s as though having any ethical guidelines at all offends some people. Note, they’re not trying to replace them with a different set of values, but rather to negate any values that might in any way constrain or shape their character.(1)
For my readers who aren’t familiar with them, here is the list of the commonly accepted NNV:
Shocking, aren’t they?
These are very Protestant virtues, but examples of them can easily be found in the Havamal and Sagas too. I think they are fitting exemplars for a society in which existence was a constant struggle. If you think that isn’t applicable today, try living below the poverty line. These guidelines are meant to develop a strong character. None of these virtues are objectionable to a reasonable person. Do you really want to be the kind of person without honor? Without courage? Who is incapable of hospitality or personal discipline? The kind of person who lacks fidelity in relationships, or who is incapable of telling the truth or holding to his or her word? The NNV may be simplistic, but they are meant as touchstones to aid in the development of character. Note that they do not tell you how to be courageous, or how to be truthful but one is encouraged to be introspective in discovering this for oneself. I rather like that. It’s not the end of the conversation, but the very beginning. What is truth? What does it mean to me as a devotee of Deity X? How can I cultivate that in my life? Yet, those throwing out these virtues without consideration or without providing an alternative don’t want to have that conversation. To hell with the Socratic method. We don’t need no stinkin’ philosophy here. (Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Everybody needs philosophy).
Of course, given how pervasive the NNV are within Heathen traditions, it is inevitable that someone holding alt right views will subscribe to them. So do many people holding the opposite. To say that they are racist, is to say that there is something inherently racist about the concept, the abstract ideal of truth or fidelity or hospitality, etc. It also implies that people who are not white, are incapable of upholding these ideals, which is utter nonsense.
Yes, they were created by (depending on your source) the AFA or Odinic Rite. So what? We have space travel because of the work of Nazi scientists. I remember when I found out as a seventh grader, that the US imported Nazi scientists to work on its Manhattan project and later the space program and I was ashamed, horrified, and appalled. I still wrestle with the ethics involved in such a thing. Can good come from evil? Is necessity motivation and justification enough? And that opens up a whole other ethical can of worms. We still use Volkswagens though, and they were made by Nazis too. Same with Hugo Boss and Ford, who was a rampant anti-Semite. By the standards of some of these people, we should be eschewing birth control too because Margaret Sanger was pro eugenics. Strange how the same logic that allows for the dismissal of fairly common virtues doesn’t apply to our technologies. Yet I’ll bet more blood was spilled with the latter.(2) Hell, the internet was made by the US military. Are you cool with the hundreds of thousands of people who have died because of the military industrial complex? If this is a problem, why are you online? Oh wait, I guess one only objects when such things are inconvenient. Convenience allows for a great deal of overlooking I suppose.
I’ve also often seen the NNV condemned as ablest. As someone with physical disability, let me tell you, you need a metric fuck-ton of courage to get through life. Those disabled in some way can fulfill every one of these virtues, otherwise what the detractors of the NNV are actually saying is that disabled people are disabled not only in body but in mind, heart, and character. That’s pretty foul. It’s infantilizing and really quite disrespectful to the struggle of differently abled people in our communities.
We should be encouraged to define the NNV for ourselves in our own lives, with respect to our own relationships with the powers. Or we should be encouraged to come up with our own system and values sustainably within and coherent with our traditions. Either way, character matters and it’s often difficult for people coming from monotheisms where they’re told what to believe and how to act, to encounter a system of ethics that encourages self-reflection and independence. I’d love to see discussions of other philosophies and ethical guidelines but it’s a whole lot easier to criticize and condemn than to create something positive. The NNV are situational guidelines and principles. I would love to see discussions on what it means to have courage in the modern world, what it means with respect to each person’s individual circumstances, what it means to have hospitality, to show hospitality, especially when one is impoverished or in the midst of scarcity. How does the hospitality shown to one’s Gods differ from what one shows to one’s friends or to strangers? Where are those philosophical conversations? Maybe we should all go back to Plato.(3)
- What amuses me the most is the people protesting the NNV often do so on the grounds (in part) that’s not ancient and yet, these are often pop culture pagans. So either antiquity is a valid criterion across the board, or this particular objection is bullshit.
- Not that I expect logical coherence from the pop culture crowd.
- Ironically, I’ve never been a fan of the NNV, because they are simplistic. One has to start somewhere though and it was only after reading The Six Questions of Socrates, that I began to look at them as more than formulaic.
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and colleague Dr. Edward Butler. Edward has been doing crucial work in reclaiming our philosophical traditions as specifically polytheistic traditions. He’s a specialist in the Neo-Platonic philosopher Proclus and also one of the editors of Walking the Worlds Journal. Thank you, Edward, for taking the time to answer these questions.
GK: Please introduce yourself, Edward. I’ve known you for years and I’m familiar with your work, but I”ll bet a lot of my readers aren’t. What is it you do as a philosopher?
Edward Butler: When I first began to study philosophy in graduate school, I’d already been a practicing polytheist for a number of years. I had a notion of the need for defending and articulating polytheism, but I was by no means certain whether my work in philosophy would serve this function directly or only in a more oblique fashion. And I was comfortable with that, because I felt a vocation toward philosophy in any case.
But I found rather quickly when I started on my own initiative studying the ancient Platonic tradition, that if I ignored what all the secondary literature was telling me, and just read the philosophers themselves, that this was a philosophy that didn’t merely accommodate polytheism, but was radically polytheistic to its core. This was a very original reading in the context of modern scholarship. As originality is one of the principal requirements for a doctoral dissertation, I felt that if I could just follow through on what would be considered by modern scholars as a daring argument I would be successful.
The idea for what would become my dissertation, “The Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus”, came to me as early as the first semester of my graduate coursework in philosophy, but everything I studied subsequently in the history of philosophy helped me to understand the significance of the argument, a significance beyond narrow religious interests, having to do with the most basic issues in metaphysics.
Metaphysics is a very intricate structure built up over millennia by many individual hands, and even a relatively small change in the understanding of a key concept can change the way this entire structure fits together; undoing a historic misappropriation of arguably the most important concept in metaphysics, namely the nature of unity and multiplicity, has the potential to change how a great many other pieces in this machine fit together.
GK: How did you come to polytheism?
Edward Butler: I was raised in an agnostic/atheist home, but I seem to have been on the path to polytheism already when I was very small. Two of the earliest books I remember reading, and I read them again and again, were the D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths and Book of Greek Myths. When we had an Icelandic exchange student staying with us one year, I pestered her about whether people in Iceland still worshiped the old Gods (she said that some did). I also remember a book on ancient Egyptian art with images I stared at. I was fascinated with archaeology. All of these interests stayed with me, but I think that at a certain point they went into a kind of dormancy again until I was sixteen or so, when I began having numinous dreams. I was engaging in a bit of psychic adventuring, I suppose you could say, and it eventually resulted in a theophany from the deity I have regarded ever since as my patron. I’ve built up a diverse personal pantheon since then.
GK: I absolutely adore D’aulaire’s books. I think they were my introduction to both the Greek Gods and the Norse as well. I still treasure my copies! Seriously awesome children’s books aside, what are your thoughts on piety and polytheism? How does your awareness and education as a philosopher impact your devotion as a polytheist?
Edward Butler: I’ve never found piety and philosophy to be in conflict for me. On the contrary, it was engagement with the Gods that steered me in the direction of philosophy as opposed to the predominantly artistic orientation that I’d had before. And yet, at the same time, I saw philosophy as a fundamentally creative endeavor, and thus as an extension of the artistic search for expression. From this perspective, philosophy is just a unique and particularly demanding medium. One cannot simply make any moves that one likes. There is more constraint than freedom, and yet its very nature is liberating. My role as a philosopher is to seek truth; but I’ve never had the slightest notion that this would lead me away from the Gods, rather than toward Them—how could it? The notion that philosophy and piety should be in some natural tension is a product of the profoundly dysfunctional relationship established between philosophy and religion by Christianity, nothing more and nothing less.
GK: Seeing you approach philosophy as your vocation has certainly impacted my own respect for the field and my growing awareness of just how important it was to our ancestors. I know not everyone has had the benefit of engaging discussions with you so I’m going to ask: Why is philosophy so important to polytheists?
Edward Butler: Philosophy is more important for modern polytheists than it was for ancient polytheists, because there is no surviving polytheistic tradition which is not critically endangered by monotheism’s weaponization of philosophy. For those reviving sundered traditions, the need to be able to critique the intellectual legacy of hegemonic monotheism is even more urgent. People will come up against limitations in their ability to conceptualize their experience of the Gods and the nature of their relationship to Them, and that makes them vulnerable to the omnipresent dismissal of that experience in the contemporary world, the treatment of a relationship to real Gods as naïve or incoherent. Polytheists need philosophy in order to get past those bottlenecks in understanding that hinder their devotion, or threaten to undermine their worship altogether.
Philosophers were already doing this, so to speak, therapeutic work in antiquity, but it is more urgent today, where theism as such, which simply is polytheism, has been under sustained assault from what I increasingly see as a kind of atheism. That is, I increasingly see monotheism per se as atheism, because its founding moment is not any positive religious experience, but rather the moment in which that experience is understood to negate any other experience to the degree that it does not fall within certain intellectually defined parameters. This appropriation of primary religious experience makes monotheism as such distinct in a certain sense even from the actual religious experience of people in the monotheistic faiths, because insofar as they follow the logic of monotheism through to its ultimate conclusion, it will negate even their own religious experience. The proper understanding of philosophy’s purpose and implications is necessary to arrest this process.
Beyond this, however, there is the simple fact that polytheists invented philosophy, not only in Greece, but in India and in China and everywhere that we have a tradition sufficiently intact to see it. In all of these places there is a wisdom tradition that is at least nascently philosophical. These traditions were not separate from theology, but they expanded upon the basis provided by theophany, by the experience of living immortals, to perfect the arts of reasoned inquiry and to found the sciences. Polytheists must not let these traditions be alienated from them through the great historic lie that philosophy, reason, leads ultimately to monotheism. To believe this lie would in itself impair the flourishing of our traditions, and could even doom them, because it would cut us off from our own histories as well as from the innate faculties that have made humans such extraordinarily successful creatures. Polytheists have a duty, I would argue, to develop their wisdom traditions to the fullest extent possible. It’s not sufficient to worship with your heart, you have to worship with your head as well.
GK: I’ve been consistently appalled at the stripping of the Gods from the ancient philosophers, something I encounter all the time in academia. The first time I really came face to face with it in a theology class I think I walked out shell shocked. I don’t think until that moment, I truly realized what a crucial battle it was that you’re fighting. That being said, what advice would you give someone just starting out, both in exploring philosophy and in venerating the Gods?
Edward Butler: My own practice has always had an improvised quality, and so I can’t tell people that they ought to seek out a more structured tradition, but I do respect the work that people are doing to build those kinds of traditions back up, or maintain and strengthen those already in existence. Ultimately, it is one’s relationship with one’s Gods that is the beginning and the end of all practice, and so all I can really say is to pursue that with all the tools available to you and follow it wherever it leads you.
With respect to philosophy, I would say that I think it is important to be at least somewhat interested in all philosophies. You cannot say in advance what problems might end up being most important to you, and what approaches might prove fruitful. There will be plenty of time later to be dismissive of this or that approach, but it’s crucial early on to allow yourself to feel the force of arguments with which you may not intuitively agree. Have enough courage to recognize that while you may not yet have the tools to defend your intuitions to the degree you might like, you shouldn’t as a result hide from the arguments people have made. Learn to appreciate arguments for their elegance, even if you disagree. Seeing an argument in the purity of its structure, you will grasp its potential for application and transformation far beyond its nominal intent.
GK: Can you tell me a little bit about your current work? I know you have some fascinating things in the works. What projects are you currently working on and what do you have coming up?
Edward Butler: I’m currently working on a project supported by a grant from the Dharma Civilization Foundation, about ideological issues in Western Indology. It’s an adjunct to the book The Nay Science: A History of German Indology by Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee (Oxford University Press, 2014). The short book I’m writing is designed to make that text more accessible to a wider audience, and especially for Hindus who want to be engaged in the intellectual defense of their traditions. It also broadens the perspective of the argument put forth in The Nay Science in the direction of the intellectual defense of all polytheist traditions, both continuous and indigenous as well as revived and diasporic.
In connection with that project, I’d also like to continue to deepen my engagement with Indian philosophy. I made a start of this in a conference paper (“Bhakti and Henadology”, available from my site), but there is further work I need to do in that area. A great deal of mischief has been wrought by monotheizing Western interpretations of Indian philosophy, and since these misreadings bear such close resemblance to the kinds of distortions that plague modern readings of ancient Greek philosophy, I believe that I have a particular contribution to make in disrupting them and helping to open a space for a more fruitful relationship between Indian and European philosophies. This is an effort to which polytheists of every tradition cannot afford to be indifferent; none of us can ignore the historical situation in which we find ourselves, and in which the fate of all polytheisms are bound up with one another. And in this, ideas and ideologies are as important as facts on the ground.
Other projects will, I am certain, pop up on their own. So much of my work recently has been driven by what others have asked me to do, and that will likely continue.
GK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Folks, you can follow Edward on twitter @EPButler or at his website https://henadology.wordpress.com. He’s also the author of two books: “Essays on the Metaphysics of Polytheism in Proclus” and “Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion.” His academic work may be found at his academia.edu page and also in Walking the Worlds.
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A friend just asked me what I was planning on reading in between school terms and looked positively shocked when I answered. LOL. Before the term ended (and after some of the crap that I dealt with here) I reached out to my friend Edward Butler for suggestions on what I should read to give myself a crash course in Plato and Aristotle (because I’m taking a course this coming term in philosophy — Intro to Augustine–and because, as previous posts have noted, it’s becoming more and more relevant to my theological work). He recommended some texts which I’ll share in a moment. An academic colleague and I also decided we’d each read the other’s favorite Euripidean play (mine is the Bacchae, his was Medea and talk about it when term starts again) so I’ll be doing that too.
I just want to say, before I continue, that it is crucially important for us to reclaim our philosophical traditions. Philosophy, Literature, the Sciences, Medicine, these things were born in the polytheistic world. In an effort to appropriate them, Christian scholasticism attempted to erase the Gods from the inventors and proponents of these disciplines. We see that in academia today with the dogged insistence by those who should know better that of course men like Plato and Socrates were atheists. Of course they couldn’t possibly believe in the Gods … when we have ample evidence that they did, quite piously in fact. There is an ongoing agenda of erasure and appropriation here and it’s high time we step up and stop it. Edward has been doing powerful work as a philosopher for years and years now (shout out to you, Edward, for your inspiring work). I”m sure there are others too. This year my goal is to better educate myself so that I can likewise do my part. For those of you unfamiliar with Edward’s groundbreaking work, check out his book here. He also has an academia.edu page and recently had a piece published for the general reader in “Witches and Pagans” in their issue on polytheism. go. read. This work is awesome.
Now the texts I’ll be reading over the next two weeks, for those who likewise might want to join me are (aside from Euripides’ “Medea 😉 ):
“Aristotle and the Theology of the Living Immortals” by Richard Bodeus
“Aristotle’s Metaphysics” translated and with commentaries by Hippocrates Apostle
“The Doctrine of Being in the Aristotelian Metaphysics” by Joseph Owens
“Plato’s Gods” by Gerd Van Riel (there are some translation issues with this one, just minor things that annoy me, like translating τέχνη as ‘technique;’ and at one point he insists that the Greeks didn’t have a commitment to personal belief in religion (p. 12) and then spends the next six or seven pages contradicting that rather reductionist statement, as the evidence clearly DOES contradict it. That being said, it’s still a really good book).
Aristotle’s “Poetics” and Plato’s “Timaeus” (been a good 20 years since i’ve read either) and probably ‘Ion’ and ‘Euthyphro’ in the original Greek.
If anyone wants to add any suggestions, by all means do. I’m not a philosopher and I’ll admit to being rather nervous about taking a philosophy course this term, but it’s unavoidable for anyone wanting to work in theology and if this past term taught me nothing else, it taught me that immersing myself in Plato and Aristotle and really understanding them as polytheists is essential going forward.
i’m going to end with a quote from Plato’s Laws that I just love:
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. (Laws IV, 716e).
I have the deepest respect for my colleagues like Edward Butler who are philosophers and polytheists. Until today, I had no idea of what you guys face every day, and the fight that you’re engaged in to reclaim our philosophical traditions from monotheistic depredation – and it is outright depredation.
I’m still stunned at what I experienced today. I was in a theology class and we got around to discussing Aristotle. We were each giving a brief presentation on what we’re going to write for our final papers and I was up. One of the students could not comprehend why I would not embrace Aristotle as a monotheist, paving the way for later Christianity. (Excuse me while I throw up). Another was convinced that ὁ θεòς in Aristotle was absolutely referring to a monotheistic God. Nothing I said about how the singular was common classical usage when discussing the particular manifestation of a particular God at a particular moment made a dent in their dogged insistence that the writers they admired from the ancient world must, of course, be monotheists. (No, sweetheart. Actually we have medieval scholasticism to thank for twisting and corrupting ancient philosophy in such a manner. Many of the philosophers were deeply pious). What some of these students did to henadology would make a polytheist weep.
Everyone else in the class was absolutely convinced that A) Aristotle, Plato, Cicero (and we mentioned one other philosopher but I don’t recall at the moment which one. I think it was a Roman, and yes, I know Cicero isn’t a philosopher per se but he came up in the conversation) were atheists or monotheists only paying lip service to religion which was B) only state run, no belief, no devotion, nothing of substance. And then I had to listen to them discussing the natural victory of Christianity. I had to listen to the blanket erasure of both my religious traditions and the philosophical schools that those religions birthed. It was revolting. I’ve seen complete lack of understanding of polytheisms as religions with their own theologies in Classics, but not to this degree. I don’t think I’ve ever quite experienced the incredible blindness that I saw today.
This all started when I mentioned the “inherent plurality of polytheism” (it’s relevant to my paper topic). I think those words and concepts are pretty self-explanatory but apparently not. Not a single person in the class grasped what I meant, not even the professor. It was completely outside of their learned experience to consider ancient polytheisms as legitimate, richly textured, living faiths. They were absolutely incapable (not unwilling I think, but incapable) of seeing them as anything other than brittle state funded apparatuses and place holders for monotheism. I think I’m still in shock.
The current issue of BBI Media’s “Witches and Pagans” is all about polytheism and it is awesome. (1)
Of particular note is the article “Polycentric Polytheism” by Dr. Edward Butler. If I could hold every single Polytheist and Pagan in the world down and make them read this article, I would. Hell, I’d happily hold down every academic working in Classics or Religious Studies and make them read it if I could. It’s positively brilliant and provides a solid and thought provoking philosophy of polytheism that is both spot on and terrifyingly elegant.
I highly suggest picking up a copy of this issue just for Edward’s article. Read it, share it, discuss it, contact him and discuss it some more. It’s a very, very important piece.
1. Despite having the occasional article by authors who have no business writing anything whatsoever about polytheism, it is an outstanding issue.
I’m not sure why comments are closed on my article “Odin and His Masks.” I didn’t close them. At any rate, Edward Butler sent me this comment, not being able to post it there, so I decided with his ok to post it as a separate piece, so that people could continue the conversation here.
“This is a very fine post. To me the core of it is when you say that “in order to act upon that which They have created without transmuting it into something wholly other, there had to be a process of becoming.”
Proclus states in his Elements of Theology (prop. 131) that “Every God begins his characteristic activity with himself.” And so when, as you say, devotion gives the Gods “a point of focus upon which to solidify a Self for engagement,” we can say that in order to relate to us, They must create a vehicle for that relation which will in turn be implicated in it, a changeable vehicle in order to exert change on the plane of Becoming, because the divine power to exert change will begin from changing the God Himself. Hence there will be “masks”, because there has to be a separation of some kind between the God as unchanging and as changeable.
On account of this separation, we can see how these masks can be available for more than one God to use, as you suggest. But beyond that, we may say that we, as worshipers, are ourselves masks of the God, too. There is a notion in bhakti theory, bimbapratibimbabhāva, the relationship of a reflected image to its original, which is the idea that in devotion we become the reflection of the God, or rather discover that we always were. This sort of relationship is often used in Western religious discourses to emphasize our limited capacity to perceive the God, the attendant “distortions” in it or the “perspectival” quality of our experience of the God, but there is another side to it altogether, which has to do with what the God becomes in us. This is what, I would say, makes our peculiar experience valuable, and also enables us to talk about the Gods “changing” without getting confused about Their own status: we are the vehicle for the change. And this ties in with something you say later on, about aspects of the God that we could not possibly engage with. Some activities of a God are too universal in scope for me to be a vehicle of those processes, at least as “me”.
Profound indeed is this remark of yours, that “those Who carry the blessings of creation, Who choose for whatever reason to remain engaged with Their creations are mad, mad Gods.” For every property of the Gods there is, I would say, some effect in the cosmos, because the Gods are creative in every aspect of Themselves. I think that the madness of Gods, much like Their wrath, is immediately connected with Their creative dimension. Divine wrath would be no petty anger, but has to do with creating an order of beings, mortals, whose birth dooms them to death, and hence their very creation is an act of wrath. Something similar can be said about Their sorrow and Their laughter. Egyptian theology says that humans come into being from the Gods’ tears, while other theologians speak of the Gods’ sport or play in creating our world. In the same way, the madness of Gods is no mere breakdown, but creates something. Platonists see the dismemberment of Dionysos, for example, as that by which souls have diverse faculties within them, this differentiation being also a fragmentation and hence a kind of original madness, the dismemberment of Dionysos and the madness He causes being one and the same, the operation of His activity first upon Himself, and thence upon the rest of Being.” (E. Butler)