Single Polytheism

Satsekhem wrote something the other day that caught my eye. It concerns ‘deity collecting’ and where hostility to such may stem from, and this quote struck me as very relevant: “It seems like an awful lot of monogamy in a realm that really doesn’t deserve it.”

I’ve noticed, in my wanderings and peeking in to random Pagan places on and offline, that there is a tendency to stick with one or two deities when it comes to worship and celebration. I can’t exactly say this is de facto a bad thing, as it works for many people and is just how they do things, but it has struck me as odd. Especially in polytheist circles. I think there are a variety of reasons why this tendency to prefer one deity to the exclusion of others is prevalent in modern Pagandom, and I also think our attitudes about that tendency differ based on our theologies and paths.

If I can tie something back to Pokemon, I will, and this ties in nicely.

For me, worshiping one deity at the expense or exclusion of others or plucking a deity out of its pantheon or deity family doesn’t work. I tried to do that when I was first starting, and it just didn’t ring very well with my soul. Even when I began developing more devotional relationships with specific deities, I was aware they were part of a bigger picture, a bigger family, a bigger landscape. Not that I was always perfect at remembering that, but it was something I wanted to be conscientious of. That really hit home for me when I began worshiping Antinous – I wasn’t worshiping just Antinous; I was worshiping and giving honor and reverence to his friends and the gods connected to him. Antinous is the focus of that part of my devotional practice, admittedly, but my practice would not be whole if I were attempting to worship him above the other gods. And through him I developed a deep love of Hadrian, Sabina, and many other deities I would never have expected.

With my practice around the Four Gods (which is, at this time, rather separate from my Antinoan devotional practices, though they influence and shape each other all the same), I originally came at worship with the thought that there would be one god among them that was ‘true’ or a ‘perfect fit’ for me. That notion was smacked down quite quickly, thankfully. I do have a more intimate relationship with one of the Four, but not at the expense of my relationships with the others. And there are the many spirits connected with these gods and with my home and mysticism that I cannot ignore either, each which require thought and attention and consideration. Not because they demand it (well, some of them do) but because that is how this devotional practice works – it is a whole, with many moving parts, and if I were to become consumed by just one of them the whole might break down or stop functioning.

I may be a deity collector, since I am unafraid to branch out to new gods and learn and perhaps experience them. I don’t call myself eclectic, though, largely because I don’t mix and match. Attempting to worship Antinous and friends the way I do the Four Gods or vice versa does not compute, and I’d rather come to the gods on their terms. After all, my practice is worship, not self-gratification (but when the two coincide you won’t hear me complaining). That also means I don’t pursue a new relationship with a god or god-family unless I think I can actually uphold it as well; a lot of my path is critically examining myself and realizing when I’m putting too much on my plate.

So, in that way, I understand why people would stick to just one god. That doesn’t change that my back tingles uncomfortably when I hear people say that once you have established a devotional relationship with a god that god is first and foremost above all others. Our gods are usually part of families or larger structures and aren’t stand alone beings; having an intense devotional relationship isn’t bad, but do we really need to shun the other gods to get that? Is it bad if we have more than one intense devotional relationship?

As polytheists, it seems the answer to that would be no, it’s not bad; in fact, it is encouraged.

(As to the picture – ‘deity collecting’ has been compared to Pokemon in that some people seem eager to ‘catch all the gods’. I actually think this is a good metaphor. Some Pokemon trainers favor one Pokemon to the exclusion of others, while other trainers have a larger team, sometimes favoring six. Neither approach is bad, and the Pokemon you like is still part of a larger group.)

Basics: Prayer (I)
Some Thoughts on Polytheism
Basics: the Clarene (Places)
Apotheosis [Action]
About Aine

Aine Llewellyn is a 20 year old girl creature currently mucking about in southern Arizona. She enjoys the winters and rain but can’t stand the heat. She is a difficult polytheist that natters on and on about her faith.

  • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12stepwitch

    This practice is called Henotheism and I think is the settling space in between the monist pagans and the real polytheists. These people have their cake and eat it too =)

  • http://daoineile.com Aine

    -slinks away from monism- Yeah, I can see why, from certain theological standpoints, that practice would make sense. I just can’t make sense of it for myself personally. (And it bugs me to see people that rant about polytheism this and that as though they were the best polytheists ever suddenly…shift to henotheism. o.o )

  • http://satsekhem.wordpress.com Aubs Tea

    I’m super excited to see my name on Patheos. I’m even more excited to see other people sharing my view on this. It just seemed that, for so long, everyone was all, “rah, don’t collect gods,” and it’s just not feasible from a polytheistic religion.

  • http://daoineile.com Aine

    It really isn’t, imo. I think the hostility to the ‘deity collecting’ is in part because of how eclecticism usually runs in Pagandom – it’s not really been awesome, and tons of specific rituals and gods were drowned in a way of ‘one god/dess’ and ‘every culture is really the same!’ mentality that was common in the past. (It is in the past, right?) But I also think it stems from this idea of ‘patronage’ and that you have one patron that is super special and comes before the other gods, which…to me, it doesn’t work like that. It’s a whole.

    (But, again, who am I to tell people to stop doing something that works?)

  • http://lykeiaofapollon.wordpress.com Lykeia

    Well keep in mind that appearances online can be deceiving whereas a relationship may be stronger with one or a small handful of gods, and the individual may talk more publically about them, doesn’t mean that they don’t honor and worship a slew of other gods. I devoted to Apollon for instance but I worship a number of gods in my household….I just don’t go on and on talking about them lol. Though occasionally there will be relevant posts regarding them. This may be the case with many other folks too.

  • http://daoineile.com Aine

    Ohh, I definitely agree and should have addressed that in my post, so thank you for pointing it out. Though I have also seen people say that if you’re not elevating a god and putting them first (before other gods and before everything else in your life, which, well, strikes me as a bit unhealthy) then you’re not ‘doing it right’, which to me is discordant with polytheism. But you’re right, and there’s also gods or spirits that don’t want to be spoken of or written about, so I should have considered that as well…

  • Kris Bradley

    For myself, I do use deities from different pantheons. My personal view of deity is that there is one god and one goddess, and the different faces of deity are all different aspects used to focus our intent. So while my main deity in my household is Hestia, I also work with Oya, Cernunnos and Ganesh at various times. I know that probably drives some folks nutty.

    I also believe that deity comes to every person in a way that is right for them at any given moment in their lives, so there’s no “right” or “wrong” (obviously rejecting anything that causes actual harm), just what’s right for a person right now.

  • http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    What you’ve pointed out in relation to Antinous and co. is one of the factors that ultimately drove me away from the earlier Antinous group–the leadership amongst that group actually stated at one point “All other gods don’t exist, except Antinous, because he was real.” (There’s a billion things wrong with that statement, among them that Antinous “wasn’t” real, but that he still is real!) Every piece of evidence we have from the ancient world on him shows him in relation to other deities; his syncretisms to them doesn’t replace or subsume them, it adds to his own connections, and connects those gods (and the gods connected to them) to him, etc. When you add in the other Divine Emperors and such, it grows even more…and when you bring in the Trophimoi, the Tetrad, and others, even more!

    I think one of the things that Antinous taught me more than any other deity is that polytheism is essential, and along with it syncretism (though not random and non-thoughtful eclecticism), process theology (which, in my view, is the same thing in many respects!), and a non-exclusive relationship being preferable whenever and whenever possible. Though most people think of me as a devotee of Antinous–which is fine, because I am!–he’s not my “patron” in any manner, and he makes no demands on me for this or that service, it’s all voluntary on my part and what I want to do for him rather than what he has demanded or required of me. Others have relationships to their deities that have such conditions attached, and that’s fine; Antinous and all the other gods that I’ve had relationships with understand that a condition for my relationship with them is non-exclusivity. Though I do much more for Antinous, at the end of the day, than most of the other deities I work with, it’s because there has been the most to do for him, in so many respects…and, I’m a thorough old bastard! ;)

  • http://daoineile.com Aine

    It definitely does drive people up the wall! But so does my practice and so does any practice – everyone gets irritated about something P:

    That’s why I tried not to say ‘henotheism is wrong’ because I don’t actually think it is. It’s certainly wrong for me, and it’s prevalence makes my eyebrows twitch, but the perception of the gods is just different than mine. That’s not bad, that’s diversity. I do think it’s helpful to have different terms for various practices so that people are clear about what they do and what to expect when listening to someone, but even that is a bit sticky.

    So I hope the post was more ‘this is something I’ve seen, it doesn’t work for me, this is why’ rather than ‘doing this is WRONG’ because I don’t actually think it is.

  • http://www.12stepwitch.com 12stepwitch

    LOL why the slink?

  • Pingback: PBP: “E is for Enlightenment: Coming to Terms with Polytheism” | Making Bright()

  • http://daoineile.com Aine

    Monism and I don’t get along, never really have – it’s just not something that works for me. I try to stay away from it in my own practice, and it usually causes little nose twitches when I hear about it.

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    Well, I happen to be a polytheistic monist, so I’ll have a go at this. My theology is very similar to some types of Hindu theology, particularly Shaktism and bhakti. The standard practice in bhakti is to treat one of the many Hindu gods as the supreme being. The scriptures of different bhakti sects each claim that their own chosen deity created the universe and that other gods are aspects of their god. But instead of seeing the claims of other bhakti sects as false or heretical, they usually accept them as equally valid. So Shaktas consider the Devi to be the ultimate deity, Vaishnavites give that status to Vishnu- but they also both acknowledge that the other group is also right. (Broadly speaking.) In my practice, I treat Brighid as the creator of the universe and the gateway to the Source as understood in monism, but I don’t consider that viewpoint superior to any other. Someone else could just as validly treat another deity as the creator and supreme being, or could worship a different deity or deities without considering them supreme beings. I also worship and make offerings to other Celtic deities, and have a devotional relationship with some of them, so I would consider myself to be definitely polytheist. At the same time, I do consider them all to be manifestations of one underlying reality- but only in the same sense in which I consider myself to be such a manifestation. In other words, while they are all faces of the absolute, they are also individuals in the same sense in which I am an individual.

  • Kris Bradley

    Oh, I didn’t take it as you saying it was wrong at all. I hope my comment didn’t make you think I did. I really enjoy reading your view on things, and this was no exception.

  • http://ixkul.wordpress.com L

    If I read this through the lens of the “polytheism” of Mesoamerica, it just doesn’t make any sense. For one thing, all of the gods are aspects of a singular creative divinity that is insurmountably remote, rendering all lower gods separate-but-the-same. If you tried to break it down intellectually, henotheism isn’t even compatible with the worldview because if you worship any number of the old Maya gods, you are practicing monotheism, end of. In the wibbly-wobbly world of emotion and gut instinct and spirit communication, however, it doesn’t seem to be that way, but the reality of things is that it is (if you accept this worldview).

    I am suspicious of people who claim to have a very close bond to multiple gods (to give a number, I’d say 4+) in the same way I’d be suspicious of someone who claimed to be in a deep relationship with 4 or more people at once, giving them all their due attention, etc. There are “deity collectors” who do, in fact, treat gods like pokemon and notches on belts, who count owning a statue of a deity as “having a close bond”, or praying to them a few times a year being the same. I suspect there’s a very real sort of insecurity of having a relationship with a deity that -isn’t- all-encompassingly intimate as well, as though honoring them -just- on the occasional festival or holy day isn’t enough. (Like all the crap people in friends-with-benefits relationships get.) If it’s casual, and it works, then don’t try and make it something that its not because the paganisms say you have to be BFFs with every deity you honor.

    Anyways, it’s kind of bullshit all around.

  • eric devries

    It seems good to me, there was a period for me Post-Mormon, Post-Thelema, Post-Agnostic, when I had jsut found Brigihd and I worshipped her to exclusion. I suppose I was Henotheistic in retrospect in that I was aware there were other deties, I just didn’t care because I was getting everything I needed and wanted from my relationship with Brighid. When I got married my wife had different Deities than me and it was impossible to live in our home without encountering them and from there I started branching off into different pantheons. I let Brigihd light my way and inspire me and I celebrate the things I find on my path. The last year has been heavy on Yoruban influences and Hoodoo and that makes up the largest part of my practice, it doesn’t need to stay that way though and if I feel inspired to move in a different direction I will. I love syncretism, it speaks to me, it gets me excited and engaged and it helps me feel connected. I agree with those that say on some level all these Deities may be one but I think that place is above the abyss and that’s not where I live, I live down here where they are distinct and unique and I treat them that way. I have recon friends who are absolutely driven to distraction by the fact that Jesus, Ganesha, Kwan Yin and Brighid both as a Goddess and a saint have altars in my home. My son has ten Deities from seven different pantheons as his guardians. As i continue on my path I develope relationships with those I encounter, for me that is natural and organic. If someone develops a unique relationship with a single Deity or has a Deity who expects singular devotion from them I can see beauty in that and I’m sure that singular focus allows for a deep and rewarding relationship. I get something unique from each relationship and that defines my path and informs my practice.

  • http://daoineile.com Aine

    Hm, I wasn’t trying to say that you need to be BFFs with every deity you come into contact with. I should have been clearer in what I meant. After all, I don’t try to have the same level of connection with every spirit I meet as I do with the Dierne, and my relationship with him is dinstinctly different than mine with Antinous.

  • http://ixkul.wordpress.com L

    Oh no, I’m not saying you– I meant that it feels like it’s a common conception among eclectics.

    I’m wondering if the eclectic framework, instead of operating from within a specific religio-cultural one, might lend itself to the “must be BFFs with deities” thing. If there’s no intrinsic motivation to work with an entity to an impersonal and utilitarian end, as so often happens when you have an entire pantheon “at your disposal” (like, “I’m sick today, so even though I don’t worship Ixchel, I think I’ll ask her for health” instead of being in a position where the train of thought might be “Oh jeez I don’t have a relationship with Apollo or Eir or Brighid or any healing deities I can’t just go and ask them to make me feel better out of nowhere”), so to speak, then seeking out those relationships might always feel deliberate in a sense, and therefore must be meaningful beyond simple functionality.

  • http://daoineile.com Aine

    Oh, that’s a good point, and I’m hoping to go more into that sort of behavior and why it occurs (from my viewpoint).

    My thoughts are all spinning in complicated but good directions, now that you’ve mentioned functionality. In my own practice (I’m not sure how it would be for others), I have a lot of functionality-based relationships with spirits, a lot of give and take (offerings and prayers along with requests), and I don’t feel the need to establish deep relationships because I am giving appropriate offerings and acknowledgement and we (the spirits and I) are serving each other. (But my practice has a lot of service elements, so another person’s path will obviously look different. But, basically, I think those utilitarian ends can be good, though that opens the ‘vending machine’ can of worms…) Ah, sorry for rambling, but I’m rather excited thinking about all of this!

  • http://ixkul.wordpress.com L

    I agree, it’s super interesting stuff. :B

    I’m picturing a venn diagram of sorts, or a graph with multiple axes. “Vending machine phenom”, “pokemon trainer phenom”, “BFF-ism”… I mean, eclectics definitely face problems that cultural traditionalists just don’t, because the latter have a framework that tells us what our relationship to deity is, and eclectics just… don’t. So I think that’s why these kinds of questions and discussions crop up so often, because folks are trying to reach for a structure like that (or feel the need to justify their own way by being bossy or coercive). HMMM.

    Anyways, can’t wait to see what more you have to say on the subject.

  • http://satsekhem.wordpress.com Aubs Tea

    When I was discussing this Pokemon mentality with others, it was brought up that a lot of newbies tend to jump from pantheon to pantheon with this, “collect them all,” mentality. And I think that is also a large part to this whole “no collecting gods” thing that’s been happening. However, once you get past that starry-eyed, immature viewpoint of the gods and these religions in general, you start to realize that working outside of your comfort zone (or patron) is a really good idea. I mean, seriously, if you never eat a taco, how do you know if you really don’t like them? In same vein, if you don’t branch out to X, Y, and Z deities, then how do you know they won’t work with you?

    And then, there’s the fact that they’ll probably show up anyway…

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

    Somewhere in the Bible, a random ancient pagan is mentioned as having “household gods”, which I assumed meant deities that that person felt particularly drawn to. I rather liked this idea, and so I have an assortment of deities who speak to me. I’ve no idea if they chose me, or if I chose them, but they come from different pantheons. I do honour other deities in the same pantheon as my personal deities / household gods, but not as much as my personal patron(esse)s.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/sermonsfromthemound/ Yvonne

    I just want to draw a distinction between monism and monotheism.

    Monism is the idea that there is a single underlying divine energy from the which the plurality of deities emerge. Most Hindus, some Unitarian Universalists (Unitarians in the UK and Canada), and some Pagans have this view, which is compatible with polytheism, pantheism, and panentheism.

    Monotheism is the idea that there is only one God, and either all other Gods are false (e.g. fundamentalist Christianity thinks this); or that they are all faces of the one God (a view found in Sufism and also common in UUism).

    Monism does not ascribe a personality to the underlying energy. Monotheism does. It’s important to draw a distinction between the two.