Posted by ganglerisgrove
In one of my classes we’ve been talking about soteriology and someone asked me what polytheists did for salvation. The question brought me up short. Leaving aside the question of what precisely was meant by ‘salvation,’ in this context, I had to step back and think about how we order our metaphysics and where precisely we place them, because the question of salvation is a metaphysical one. That being said, where we position this thing called ‘metaphysics’ (and, I suspect, ethics too for that matter) differs greatly from the monotheistic perspective. We’re just so inculcated with the latter when the subject of metaphysics arises that I don’t think many of us think about how our own traditions may differ. They do, though, and in ways that I consider significant.
In answering my fellow student, I parsed it out as follows: it falls into a three-fold equation with philosophy providing the space for the development of the human being, how to exist in society (and hopefully make that society better), and to some degree ethics, (though Neoplatonists skew the equation a bit: there are elements of mystery cultusthere at certain points, at least I think so), religion provides protocols for engaging with the Holy, and then soteriological questions and metaphysics are handled by various mystery cultus (which may or may not involve savior Deities — Dionysos for instance comes immediately to mind with Bacchic rites).
All of this means that when someone asks what polytheists do about ‘salvation,’ the only accurate answer that I can think of at the moment is, “depends on the polytheist” and “depends on what you mean by salvation.”
We have dozens, maybe thousands of myths that A) teach us something about the individual Gods and Their natures and B) teach us important lessons about how to be better humans and in some cases C) teach us how to be better humans in relation to our Gods. We also have many theories about what is going to happen to us after we die but to live solely to secure one’s place in the afterlife is, to my mind, missing the point. I know what our religions teach about the afterlife and I know what I personally believe about it (I think there are options depending on the Gods we venerate). I don’t think there is some petrified, unchanging “paradise.” To live solely for the “prize” of salvation is to ignore the lessons our very corporeality has to teach. We shouldn’t need the implicit threat of absence of salvation to make us decent human beings. I’m not saying that there aren’t polytheistic soteriologies – there absolutely are, but I can’t help but wonder if they don’t function just…differently than say Christianity.
When I venerate Odin or Mani or Apollo or Hermes, or Sigyn or any of the Deities that form part of my spiritual cadre, I do so first and foremost because I both love Them dearly and secondly because I am so grateful for all the palpable blessings They’ve poured into my hands. I also believe that as a polytheist, this is right action, it is what I should be doing as a responsible adult. I hope that after death I will be reunited with my ancestors and brought into my Gods – to Them and ever in service—but even were that not to happen, it would not change one iota of how I conduct myself here and now. Perhaps it is a stoic thing: we cannot control what happens after we die, nor truly know but we can absolutely control what we do and how we behave while alive and it is that, those choices, that I believe I shall have to answer for to my Gods and my dead when I pass on. Nor do I think that is a bad thing. It is how we grow. It is how we learn and I do not believe that our Gods are uninterested in our soul’s evolution.
So, there is some theology for y’all today. I am still feeling my way along these topical lines. I love being forced to think about these things. It’s easy for me to go throughout my day without ever having to consider the metaphysics of our polytheisms – I just want to love Them and pour out offerings. I think it’s important for our theological growth as traditions that we do consider these things, argue about them, discuss them, and keep doing that over and over again though. I would, therefore, welcome my readers’ thoughts as I now wrap up and head to class.
^a cool mural of Apollo that I saw yesterday.