Paganism with a side of Polytheism

When people ask me to describe Paganism I often use the term “polytheism.” Even while saying it I know that what’s coming out of my mouth is a half-truth. Not all Pagans are polytheists; I know a good many atheist Pagans, and there are a lot of Pagans who believe that all the gods throughout history are manifestations of an Ultimate Power, or one god. In some ways, that might make those folks monotheists. There are also hard-core duo-theists, worshipping all the gods of history as “The God” and all the goddesses as “The Goddess.” So yes, Pagan and polytheist is a gross over-simplification.

What makes polytheism such an effective term when describing Modern Paganism is that we use the language of polytheism in ritual. Most of us call to goddesses and gods, and those deities often change from ritual to ritual. Even at our simplest we call to “the Lord and Lady” or perhaps the “Triple Goddess.” So while we all might have conflicting perceptions of deity; within ritual most of us use a language steeped in polytheism.

For the record, I am a polytheist. I believe that the gods I worship are real and that they interact with me. My wife and I both whisper prayers to Dionysus and believe that he hears them. When I’m standing in circle and the High Priestess Draws Down the Moon I think that she’s literally drawing down a goddess who interacts with us humans. I’ve drawn down deity on a number of occasions, and I think that the experience was far more than a trick of the mind.

I don’t pretend to understand deity or its nature, but I think it exists. I don’t care if you believe in that reality or not, but what is important to me is that you accept my reality (and experiences) as valid. For the last decade I have assumed that all of us who gather under the umbrella of the term “Pagan” agree on that point. We may argue about the nature of deity, or whether or not it even exists, but I thought there was unwritten rule stating that we wouldn’t try to invalidate the beliefs of others in our tribe. Unfortunately, I think I was wrong.

This past Sunday an article* by M.J. Lee entitled “Why do people want supernatural gods?” from the website Humanistic Paganism showed up on my Twitter feed. For the record, I’m sure that Ms. Lee did not mean to offend me or anyone else**, but she did. The whole article gets off to a rough start when Ms. Lee writes “I hate to admit it but I do feel some animosity toward hard polytheists. I feel as if they have stolen the gods (which of course belong neither to me nor to them, but to their own time and place).” Animosity? Really? That just seems like such an overreaction. When I talk to my Humanist friends about matters like this (generally over a few pints of good cider) we generally agree to disagree. No one gets a bustle in their hedgerow about it.

What I dislike most (but don’t hate, or feel animosity towards) about that sentence is that I think it’s dishonest. The gods originally appeared during a time when the majority of humans (it not all) had a polytheistic worldview. That worldview changed over time, but Pan was not originally worshipped as a manifestation of nature, he was Pan; a part of nature, and most certainly a supernatural god. It’s impossible for me to steal a god when it’s my worship that most closely mimics the original homage paid to him. I believe that the gods evolve over time, and I have no problem with people worshipping Pan as a symbol, I just don’t want to be belittled for honoring him in a more literal way.

Even in a more modern sense I believe that our founding texts espouse a polytheistic worldview, or at least one where supernatural entities exist. Sitting next to my keyboard are copies of Leyland’s Aradia, and Gerald Gardner’s The Meaning of Witchcraft. Both of these books describe a world with gods in them being treated as gods. Polytheism and the belief in supernatural beings is a part of Paganism’s very roots. Again, I don’t think anyone who calls themselves Pagan needs to be a practicing polytheist, but to be bothered by the presence of polytheism within Paganism does not compute. That’s like being angry that you were served cow when you ordered a cheeseburger. Sure, a vegan bean patty could be considered a type of cheeseburger, but the original version was made out of cow. The original versions of Paganism contain supernatural deities.

The majority of Ms. Lee’s article doesn’t really pertain to me (though I’m always interested in alternative thinking), and is aimed at her Humanistic Pagan audience, but there’s another bit in there worth commenting on. She writes: “I think there is good evidence that the rise of supernatural literalism in paganism and Christianity is not a return to traditional religion but is a reaction to our societal problems . .” What confuses me about that statement is that I’ve always believed that the majority of Pagans possessed a worldview that could be considered “supernatural literalism.”

When I first started on the Pagan*** Path all of my experiences were with people who talked about the gods as gods. “The Lady put Her hand on my shoulder.” “The Morrigan is my matron.” “Cernunnos was there with me.” The literal belief in deity is not a return to anything, it’s something that’s always been there. In my first ten years of Paganism I had just one Pagan friend with an atheist (or even theistic) world view, and now years later, even he’s a polytheist. I just don’t see how a worldview that contains cognitive deities is a return to anything. If anything it’s simply “same old same old.”

Ms. Lee writes “When the gods are conceived as supernatural people this meaning is lost.” The reverse is also just as true, when the gods are conceived as mere symbols meaning is also lost. Gods can certainly be symbols, but that’s not how they were originally conceived. You don’t make sacrifices to a symbol or leave offerings to an idea. In my mind, the gods have meaning because they can be like people. My gods understand the emotions that serve to make us human.

I’ve read Ms. Lee’s article several times now, and while it doesn’t come across as an attack on polytheism, I do think the tone is dismissive. Anyone who is actively involved in a Pagan Community knows hard-core polytheists. If you want to know why people believe in supernatural gods why not just ask? I have no beef with atheist, humanist, or theistic Pagans. We all perceive the world in different ways, and your personal truth in no way diminishes my own. However, I’m not sure animosity is the emotion that one should be feeling when they are the newest arrival at the sandbox.

*Setting up a blog here on Patheos can take awhile, so technically the article I’m addressing is now two sundays old. Sorry about that, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

**That would be Star Foster’s response, just in case you couldn’t tell by running your mouse or finger over the hyperlink.

***And I’m a huge believer in capitalizing Pagan and Paganism when using them to talk about the modern version. I just thought I should point that out.

How the Claim of Being Old Saved Modern Paganism
Paganism: A Tribe or Tribes?
Imbolc Ritual 2015
Pagan Festivals and the .25%
About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • B. T. Newberg

    A fairly balanced and well-written article. Thanks.

    I agree that in ancient times, a majority probably believed in a way more closely resembling modern hard polytheism than modern naturalism. That just seems evident to me from the extravagantly expensive sacrifices, especially ones where none of the meat was later consumed by people, and most especially by the rarer but probably true cases where humans were sacrificed.

    >The gods originally appeared during a time when the majority of humans (it not all) had a polytheistic worldview.

    There’s the catch – “if not all.” Majority opinion is not decisive. There were also those who believed in ways more closely resembling modern naturalism (by the way, I’m reading your “polytheism” as hard polytheism, so let me know if I’m mistaken). Starting with the philosophical period, more naturalistic-leaning beliefs becomes explicit (in the Stoics, Epicureans, and others, to speak only of Greece). Before the philosophical period, it is much harder to tell exactly what people believed because it is only starting with philosophy that theological opinions begin to be formulated explicitly in the abstract. It may even be the case that people themselves were not entirely clear on what they believed. Nevertheless, there is evidence that even common people had at least some naturalistic leanings. To give only two examples: the phrase Zeus uei, “Zeus is raining” suggests not a personality causing the rain but a one-to-one identification with the rain, or perhaps with the sky from which it is raining. The second example is the phenomenon of personified abstractions as gods, such as Truth (Aletheia), Metis (Wisdom), and Eris (Discord). There are even things which were apparently never even personified yet referred to as a god. When Thales, who observed magnetism and posited one substance to the natural universe under the label “water”, said “All things are full of gods”, he would seem to be indicating that what we might now call an abstract force of nature or law of nature could in his day be called a god. These readings are by no means unproblematic, but it does demonstrate the ambiguity and inappropriateness involved in casting labels of either (modern) hard polytheism or (modern) naturalism back onto ancient peoples (I’m sorry my examples only come from Greece, but that’s what I know best so I’ll stick to them).

    That’s what I think M. J. meant by “stealing the gods” – it is tempting to read hard polytheism as reflecting the “original” polytheism, but in fact this is an anachronistic projection back onto history. I admit, however, that the phrase “stealing the gods” has an antagonistic quality to it, and “animosity” is not probably not the most appropriate reaction. M. J. was not addressing hard polytheists, but regardless I can see how it might spark some anger.

    As for hard polytheism in the modern Pagan revival, again I agree that it or something like it was probably present in strength from the start, but not at all exclusively. I’m getting out of my area of expertise here, so I will only note that John H. Halstead, author of the Allergic Pagan blog, has tracked down many of the more naturalistic tendencies in early modern Paganism. If I recall right, traces might be found in such early and contemporary figures as Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, Vivianne Crowley, Margot Adler, and Starhawk. But John could tell you much better about than I can.

    The article as you present it here acknowledges that not all ancient Pagan peoples were hard polytheists with the “if not all” caveat, but then that caveat gets lost. Pretty soon it’s erased entirely:
    “a vegan bean patty could be considered a type of cheeseburger, but the original version was made out of cow. The original versions of Paganism contain supernatural deities.”

    That’s the erasure of ancient beliefs resembling modern naturalism which constitutes the inappropriate projection of modern hard polytheism backward in time.

    These disagreements aside, though, you’ve written a thought-provoking article here. Thanks for sharing it.

    >Ms. Lee writes “When the gods are conceived as supernatural people this meaning is lost.” The reverse is also just as true, when the gods are conceived as mere symbols meaning is also lost.

    Very true.

    • Aine Llewellyn

      “M. J. was not addressing hard polytheists, but regardless I can see how it might spark some anger.”

      That doesn’t really matter to me, though – in fact, it makes me a bit more prickly because if Lee was only addressing humanistic Pagans (which is was, since that article was originally just published to a humanistic Pagan Yahoo group) she did a horrible job of actually presenting hard polytheistic beliefs. She was just furthering an assumption already made about us which isn’t all that beneficial to interfaith dialog.

      I personally think we can all look back at ancient texts and such and find validation for our own beliefs (whether monotheistic, polytheistic, naturalist, etc.), but if we focus a lot on the beliefs we end up missing something that brought ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome together – common practice.

  • Kaurastefen

    The inherent problem conducting discussion of divinity, the conversation is ultimately dependent on human impressions. The relationship (or lack of) relationship with divinity can only be expressed and interpreted between individuals possessing common antecedents such as language, experience and metaphoric/conceptual congruency. Without common ground, the discussion amounts to threading a rope through a sewing needle. One cannot pass the sublime from hand to hand and expect it to be recognized- no less identically if at all. 

  • Brian Rush

    Nice, well-written article. Just have to make one comment, though:

    “I’ve drawn down deity on a number of occasions, and I think that the experience was far more than a trick of the mind.”

    is a classic sole-alternative fallacy. The author here is presenting
    only two possibilities: that the deity being drawn down literally
    “exists” in some simplistic fashion, or a dismissive “it was all a trick
    of the mind.” There are more possibilities than those two.

    kind of thing is on my mind lately because I’m spending some time in
    company with devout Christians on a genuine spiritual quest in that
    framework. This is really helping me to separate intellectual ideas
    about what we do, from what we do and the Reality we do it with. I’ve
    had to dredge up all that old Christian language I used to employ years
    ago so as to communicate with these people, and to see through the
    morass of their intellectual beliefs ABOUT deity (with which I often
    don’t agree), and the truth presenting itself in their hearts and in
    their lives (which is quite clearly real).

    I don’t believe in
    their God as they conceive Him. I don’t believe in the infallibility of
    their scriptures, as they do. I don’t believe in the special divinity of
    their founding prophet (although I do recognize his deep spirituality
    and wisdom). I don’t believe that the Cosmos thirsts for retaliatory
    blood, and so I don’t believe that It was appeased by Its son being
    tortured and put to death in a gruesome fashion. And I reject most of
    Christian sexual morality into the bargain.

    Yet these (as I see
    them) totally wrong-headed and cockeyed intellectual beliefs don’t stop
    these Christian folks from experiencing genuine and powerful spiritual
    dimensions in their life, of a type that I can recognize very well.

    what should that tell us? That the same applies to OUR ideas about the
    Reality underlying such experience. The response of the gods to an
    invocation is not something to be dismissed as “a trick of the mind.” It
    is very real, powerful, positive, and life-transforming. But at the
    same time, it’s a great mistake to suppose that we know, intellectually,
    what it is, and to put it into a simplistic this-not-that framework in
    the mind.

    The Reality that gives rise to spiritual experience is
    what It is. Our ideas about it, whether monotheistic, polytheistic, or
    something else, are not that Reality. They are just our ideas about it.
    And our ideas about it can be (and probably are) wrong, without the
    Reality itself being made unreal just by that, anymore than the sun
    ceased to shine when our ancestors figured out that it wasn’t really a
    chariot being driven across the sky by Apollo.

    • JasonMankey

      Brian wrote and quoted:

      “Nice, well-written article. Just have to make one comment, though:”I’ve drawn down deity on a number of occasions, and I think that the experience was far more than a trick of the mind.”
      Thisis a classic sole-alternative fallacy. The author here is presenting only two possibilities: that the deity being drawn down literally “exists” in some simplistic fashion, or a dismissive ‘it was all a trickof the mind.’ There are more possibilities than those two.”

      I totally agree with you on that point.  Sometimes, especially while blogging, I have a tendency to over simplify things for the sake of brevity.  I went that way with “drawing down” knowing full well I was taking the lazy way out.  I know that there are lots of other options between all or nothing.

    • John H Halstead

      Brian:  What a great insight!  Distinguishing between our experience and our interpretation of that experience can be very hard.  I know this from my own experience. 
      I think raising the question of polytheists’ understanding of Christian religious experience really puts this debate into perspective.

  • Simonjadis

    I am so glad that you wrote this. I love it. I was going to quote here something that I especially liked that you wrote, but I kept finding more and more things that I liked enough to quote, and realized that I would essentially just be copying and pasting half of this post in a comment. So well done.

    I am also a literal, “hardcore” polytheist. I never thought of myself as “hardcore” about much of anything except for my fondness for certain foods. I am also so glad that you write Pagan and Paganism, well, correctly. I could attract so much ire by saying correctly, but it really is just more accurate. I actually found it interesting, but not “wrong,” that you write “gods” rather than “Gods.” If I am talking about one or more of the Gods, I write it differently than I would if I wrote “they’re prancing about thinking that they’re gods,” or anything like that. Merely a different stylistic choice. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Bookhousegal

    Just to underline some of what I think’s being said here:  too often we ignore the fact that maybe some of these yes/no/all/nothing categories constitute dualisms (and in fact categories)  not of our own making.    Never mind defining what we have in common of faith when it really comes down to it. 

    Who doesn’t love discussing the nature of the Gods,  but apart from really respecting each other’s practices,  I just don’t think it’s that big an issue unless it’s *made* to be one,   and when it’s made to be one,  it sounds an awful lot like arguing about some creedal authority regarding someone saying, ‘You can’t do that,’  ‘you’re not real.  Gods,  we really have to be more ‘real’  by some standards…’

    Too much arguing as if there was only one privileged/’correct’  way to view the Gods and the ‘Verse in the first place,  and one thing I’m darn sure of, myself,  is that there’s more than one level/viewpoint from which to *see* all this, never mind understand/express it. 

    I find myself saying, ‘Well,  I figure the Gods can and apparently do their being as individually or connectedly-universally as they want to,  and I tend to  figure both at the same time… all the time,  whatever time really is..  If it is… :)   And some dismiss it as ‘intellectual laziness’  to say,  ‘Yeah,  both of those.  Probably more than we can perceive right now.’   (Kind of like how most of us actually *act,*  I think.  When we’re not debating.) 

    As a  ‘soft polytheist,’  I really think of the Gods as ‘Those real beings who were really not in a hurry to get me to ‘believe’  in some ‘answer’  that’s that easy to *tell.*   And that that seems OK enough.   (They’re part of something grander, too.   Just in a lot of ways,  bigger than *us.*  I’ve gotten that impression *from*  very ‘polytheist’  experiences.  Trust me,  I might have gone right *for* simpler definitions if that was what I was told to.  In my case,  I wasn’t.    I think that’s very much part of what we as a movement are exploring in our own many ways,  and maybe that’s what we’re supposed to be doing right now.

    The Internet’s been a heck of a thing,  but the medium itself lends itself more to debate than other forms of sharing,  and too often we seem to get drawn into other people’s terms,   when we should perhaps sometimes look at how our own diversity by those terms *works,*   (And I think one way it *does* work is that a million pairs of eyes sees a lot more than one pair of eyes a million times.)

    Even if we could like make everything ‘the way it was’  with some complete ‘authority,’   (Let’s not forget what teachings/book-type   knowledge would have been most-deliberately destroyed or altered  is what we’re least-likely to *have* to refer to,)   I do think   the  Gods would be expecting us to have evolved quite a bit since then,  anyway. 

    And I think recent centuries are one place where we can see how arguing about what and how to ‘believe’  is part of how the world’s pretty messy and traumatized right now to begin with,  and we probably don’t have time to sit around waiting for some belief-authority,  like spirituality and religion have to be some zero-sum game. 

    I think it’s important to be present in the fact that for the most part, we can ‘believe’  in different ways and still celebrate together, or in whatever groups,  and still connect. 

    Maybe,  even,  we’re part of a new paradigm *about* belief itself,  and the least of our worries is choosing between someone else’s categories that way.  :)