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.
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.
(Plato, Laws IV, 716e).
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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).