Why What I Am Takes So Many Words To Describe

For the final July group writing project, Jason asked Patheos Pagan bloggers to write on “Why I Am A [fill in the blank].” Once again I’ve written on this topic before.

Why I Am a Pagan, in 200 words or less.

Why I Am a Devotional Polytheist, written at the beginning of the Great Polytheist – Atheist Kerfuffle in 2014.

Why I Am (Still) a Unitarian Universalist, even though my practice and my writing are almost entirely Pagan oriented. Still as true today as it was three years ago.

Why I Am Still A Druid, and why I still strongly identify with the path that helped me fully embrace Paganism 16 years ago.

Perhaps the most relevant post is one from early last year titled Druidry Is Not My Religion. In it I said “I do what Druids do – I am a Druid. But Druidry is not my religion.” I got a strong UPG impression that my ancient Druid forebears weren’t happy about that post. The key point was and still is true, but it needed more nuance… and probably a different title.

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There is no single term that completely and accurately describes the religion I practice. It has no name, at least not yet. Since last fall, I’ve occasionally described it as “ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public polytheism.” I think that’s worth exploring in more depth.

Polytheism. The noun in that list is polytheism – all the other words are modifiers. I still lean on the Anomalous Thracian’s definition of polytheism: “the religious regard for many real Gods.” Or as I sometimes put it, the Gods are real, distinct, individuals with their own sovereignty and agency. At the least, this means the existence of the Gods is not dependent on human thought and activity.

There are many polytheisms. Celtic Reconstructionism is different from Hellenism, and both are different from the African Traditional Religions. A couple years ago I thought we were moving toward a modern Pagan polytheism. That turned out to be wrong, for a variety of reasons. But even if the polytheist movement is much quieter than it was, many polytheists are still worshipping many Gods in many different ways. This is my way.

Ancestral. All of us have a debt of honor to those who came before us. Because of them, we have knowledge, culture, and infrastructure. Because of them, we have life. At the least, we owe them our devotion.

Beyond that, our ancestors are usually our most accessible spiritual allies. A Heathen saying says “if you feel a tap on your shoulder, it’s probably your grandfather, not the Allfather.” Gods and spirits are often busy, and your goals may not line up with their goals. But our ancestors want to see their lines survive and succeed.

Building and maintaining relationships with ancestors of blood and of spirit is a key component of the religion I practice.

Devotional. It’s not enough acknowledge the existence of many Gods and spirits. I also honor them with devotion. For me, this means prayer, meditation, and offerings. I speak to them, I listen for them, and I attempt to make them welcome with offerings of food and drink, and occasionally other things.

The Gods know they’re Gods – they don’t need us to remind them of that. We, on the other hand, frequently need to be reminded that they’re Gods and we aren’t.

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Ecstatic. Although the religion I practice is a reasonable religion, it is first and foremost a religion grounded in experience – the first-hand experience of Gods and spirits. Sometimes this experience is an inaudible voice or a thought you know isn’t yours. Sometimes it’s the intimate presence of a divine being. And sometimes a God takes over your body and if you’re lucky, you get to see it even if you can’t do anything to stop it.

I used to warn people to never expect to see or hear something that violates the laws of physics. Then last summer I saw something that could not be. But there it was.

Religious ecstasy can be addictive. Remember they’re sacred experiences, not an amusement park ride. Also remember they’re UPG – unverified personal gnosis. They may be authoritative for you, but you can’t expect someone else to take your word for what a God wants them to do.

Unless they do. I have, on numerous occasions. When some people tell me a God spoke to them, I smile and nod. When others tell me the same thing, I sit up and pay attention. Figure out who you trust, and which messages strike you as authentic and which don’t.

Oracular. My tradition is an oracular tradition – the Gods speak to us. Sometimes they speak to us in ecstatic experiences, as described above. Other times they speak in omens and auguries. Remember that reading omens and auguries in the natural world requires a familiarity with nature. Sometimes a crow is a message from the Morrigan, but most times it’s just a crow doing crow things.

Got a question and you’re not hearing or seeing anything? Ask – use your favorite divination system. As the word origin implies, divination comes from the divine.

It is rare that the Gods speak to say “hi, I really am here” or “just wanted you to know you’re doing a great job.” Most times they speak to call us to action, or to warn us of something that requires our attention… though those warnings are rarely as specific as we’d like.

Sometimes people are oracles and are given message to relay to others. I’ve had that responsibility a few times – occasionally those messages were unpleasant to deliver. But I relayed them, and so far I’ve never had anyone try to shoot the messenger.

Magical. There are some polytheist traditions that teach magic is impious – it attempts to claim for ourselves what belongs to the Gods. But that rarely stopped anyone from working magic in ancient times, and it rarely stops anyone today if their need is great enough.

If I kept anything from my early explorations of Wicca, it’s the idea that magic is our legacy and our right. It may be stealing fire from the Gods, but it’s also part of learning and growing and taking responsibility for our own lives.

There is no particular form of magic tied to my religion. I tend to be rather utilitarian about magic – if a technique works, I’ll use it.

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Public. My religion is not for the few, the skilled, or the special. It’s for anyone and everyone who wants to be a part of it. I agree with ADF that high day celebrations should be public. Part of my calling is to facilitate public rituals for anyone with any degree of interest and commitment. I’m called to be a priest for the plumber and the accountant as much as for the seer and the witch.

Not everything I do is for public consumption. I’m not really concerned about scaring people and giving them a bad impression of Paganism. I’m more concerned with the sanctity of the mysteries. I don’t do ecstatic possession in public ritual (although I came really close at this year’s Beltane) – most people wouldn’t understand it and would walk away with the wrong idea about what they saw.

I want everyone to go as far and as deep as their skills, interests, and willingness to work will take them. It’s unreasonable to expect everyone to be a priest. It’s also unreasonable to hold back some because others are unable or unwilling to do what’s necessary to go deeper.

Pagan. I didn’t put this on my original list, but I should. Some polytheists make a big deal of saying “I’m a polytheist, not a Pagan.” Some like to point out their tradition did not originate in the Pagan revival that began in the late 19th century. But mine did.

My lineage (if it’s accurate to describe it as such, which it might not be) runs through Scott Cunningham and Margot Adler. It runs through Isaac Bonewits and Ross Nichols. It runs through Gerald Gardner and Aleister Crowley. I’ve moved far away from the teachings of those ancestors (except for Isaac – I’m still fairly close to his beliefs and practices, I think), but I would not be where I am today without them.

I am a polytheist above all, but the polytheist religion I practice is firmly and proudly inside the Big Tent of Paganism.

So, why am I an ancestral, devotional, ecstatic, oracular, magical, public, Pagan polytheist? Because this is where my journey led me. Because at each step, I held on to what was meaningful and helpful and I discarded what didn’t work. Because this is what the Gods continue to call me to do and be. Because all these elements are coming together to form one tradition that I practice, explore, and teach to others.

Even if it takes a lot of words to describe it.

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