Dropping Expectations: What Polytheists & Pagans Need To Relearn About Religion

Dropping Expectations: What Polytheists & Pagans Need To Relearn About Religion June 8, 2018
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I’m one of the luckier ones; I not only have been a polytheist for most of my life, but I was neither raised in a Christian household nor with any particular religion whatsoever. It’s not that I feel that Christianity is bad–I certainly harbor no ill feelings towards it. It’s more that I was able to become a part of a faith without any sort of expectations or ideas on what constitutes as a religion and what should be a part of it in order to be in one.

It’s not a problem unique to Christianity. Our culture as a whole here in the Western world has very exacting ideas on what religions should be like. They should have a text, have universal rules and structure, and agreed upon notions of what unites them as a faith. In addition, there should be standardized clergy who are looked upon as the authorities of that faith, often to the point of being seen as infallible. Which of course brings about the notion of hierarchy and what is agreed upon as acceptability. Having not been raised in anything as I mentioned, I didn’t have any of these notions built into me, taught to me, or had them as a part of my experience. I may as well have been living under a rock as far as most people in American culture would think.

Naturally it was extremely odd for me to enter into pagan and polytheist spaces, and run into people who had negative connotations with words like “prayer” and “worship”, as they thought of it as groveling as well as unnecessary bowing and scraping. I was weirded out by people who were threatened by the notion of personal gnosis and mystical experiences; after all, if it weren’t for mine I wouldn’t even have been there in the first place. And I was puzzled at those who were desperate for holy texts to the point where they considered the Greek myths to be the equivalent of such.

And those myths, quite frankly, have no real bearing on the faith and aren’t indicative of the practice let alone ideas on the gods. In addition, they are told differently depending on locale, are almost entirely translated by men and Christian men at that–which have alienated a number of women in their interpretation of things–and have a very different slant to them than they certainly were understood to be in ancient times. In fact, it’s taken us not until this year to finally get a woman to translate the Odyssey and uncover all sorts of ways those translations have been slanted until now just for that one story. But people thirst for a holy book because of this notion of acceptability, not just for themselves but for the outsiders. Some quite honestly want us to be mainstream, to be verified by the masses.

The fact is, we will absolutely never be mainstream–nor do we need to be. What we need to do is accept the fact that polytheistic and pagan religions are vastly different from the Western notion of what constitutes as a religion, and people coming in from Christian and other structured backgrounds have a number of things that they need to relearn in order to truly think like a polytheist or pagan.

And here is that list:

  1. We have no holy texts. We have no need for them, and will do perfectly fine without them. Religion doesn’t require them in order to exist and be practiced. What we DO need is to read as much as we can directly from the ancients versus what was translated by mostly Christian men.
  2. Structure as most conceptualize of it in regards to religion does not exist. There are no institutions, no hierarchy, no agreed upon authority telling us how our religion should be. And quite honestly this is a feature, not a bug.
  3. Leaders, when we do have them, should not be expected to be infallible and beyond reproach. It’s extremely sad that so much pressure is put upon people to lead others that those for whom people look to in order to do so, wind up burning out from the pedestal syndrome and near mythological status that they are given by people desperate for someone to follow and/or look up to. It’s also reprehensible and beyond unconscionable that we have let the missing stairs among us go unchallenged for as long as we have ranging from sexual misconduct among fellow members to outright child abuse and molestation.
  4. We do not have the type of clergy that exists in the Catholic Church and in churches and synagogues in general, nor should we. In Hellenism alone we have vastly different types and notions of what amounts to priesthood, much of it completely incompatible with and alien to western notions of religious priesthoods. Religion being associated with wedding ceremonies wasn’t universally a thing, for instance. And often enough some priesthoods were temporary appointments, and still others weren’t necessarily community service ones but a very intense devotional obligation between that priest and their god.
  5. Universality never has existed, nor will it ever. Many of our religions contain within them a number of traditions, all of them equally valid. Back in the day, ancient Hellenists had different calendars, traditions, rituals, and beliefs that varied from city-state to city-state with people worshipping the Greek gods from all over. When we founded Hellenion, we named it after a foreign temple for many excellent reasons.
  6. We have no authority, no hierarchy, nor should we. While it’s natural that people who have been in the traditions longer than others and have done more research and practice into it will be looked to for information, this doesn’t make them the keepers of the tradition. Nor does it mean that anyone should be the gatekeepers for any of our traditions.
  7. Cosmology in our respective faiths is vast, and goes beyond just “mortals” and “gods”. In Hellenism alone there is ancestral reverence/worship, hero cults, nature spirits, and the word “daimon” means “divine spirit”. We have many different types of daimons. So when I see pagans get bothered by the notion of angels–especially given that it comes from the word “angelos” which is Greek for “messenger” and is a concept that is so broad it’s practically a universal, I have to wonder why they are creating invisible lines in the sand on what sorts of beings we can and cannot involve in our regular practice. We’re polytheists, after all.
  8. Using Christian and other monotheistic terms to try and describe or define our practices doesn’t work. Frequently these comparison are inaccurate and confusing to everyone. Use words, describe what you’re referring to in detail vs trying to come up with labels for everything. It’ll help communication in the long run, especially to people who are new joining us and trying to figure out what’s going on. We aren’t Christian, and we should stop comparing ourselves to anything in Christianity and actually figure out our own respective faiths independently as their own entity.
  9. Interpreting polytheistic concepts with Christian or otherwise monotheistic glosses leads to misunderstandings and inaccuracies.Miasma” does not mean sin. Priesthood is not priesthood in the sense of Christian clergy; there’s a whole different something or other going on there. The term “clergy” isn’t even a universal one, has Christian connotations to those of us not raised directly in such a faith, and needs to be rethought altogether. Not all forms of purification are about “cleanliness”; they’re about getting rid of your baggage and emptying the space–and I’ve blogged about purification and miasma in the past. Get to know terms on their own terms.
  10. Get to know deities not through other deities but for themselves. Regardless of what you decide to believe, think, or feel about a particular deity later, do them both honor and justice and get to know them on their own terms. Research the customs and beliefs surrounding them in their own traditions and cultures. Early comparisons and mixing them together with others can lead to laziness and lack of clear understanding.
  11. Gnosis, UPGs, and personal experiences are neither revelations nor oracles. Our experiences are meaningful for us, yes. But just because we’ve had them doesn’t make them universal for others, a new revealed “doctrine”, an oracle or anything like that. We need to stay balanced in our personal awareness between what is appropriate for us versus what is appropriate for other people. This also goes for your traditions and customs, and believe me when I say that locales will be different, different groups will even have their own “flavors” within their tradition, and part of being a polytheistic or pagan adult is learning how to still be able to communicate and come together with those who have differing ideas.
  12. What Christian and other monotheistic faiths will think of us isn’t important, and reinterpreting polytheism and paganism to be palatable with those faiths isn’t doing our own justice. Again, we will never be mainstream. Like “fetch” from Mean Girls, it is never going to happen. We have many aspects to our faiths that are innately a part of our experience which mainstream faiths are not going to feel comfortable with, and it’s not our business to make them feel comfortable. Any decent person will be far more concerned with the fruits of our labors rather than getting lost in the weeds, and anyone else is just going to get worked up that you’re not a carbon copy of them and their beliefs and will be upset with you no matter what. Trust me, it’s not worth it. If your situation is about surviving however, then focus on you and getting yourself to a safer place–and if that means hiding what you’re about, that’s a whole other can of worms.
  13. We need to examine and question how much of our standards and practices are contradictory out of learned prejudices from monotheistic faiths. It makes no sense to simultaneously be okay with forms of divination such as tarot while believing magic is a form of superstition. Divination is actually a form of magic and is no more or less superstitious than magic itself. Why the artificial separation between the two practices? In addition, one cannot claim to not do or believe anything that is not of the ancients while living in the modern world, as odds are extremely likely that all of us have already interpreted our faith differently from that of the ancients and are already living in a vastly different culture. Our religions evolve, and that is okay. It means that they have a chance to survive for future generations, and yes we do want that!
  14. Reconstructionism isn’t a replacement for a holy text, structure, hierarchy, and religious dogma. The notion of reconstructionism and reconstructionist religions was that the act of reconstructing an ancient religion was meant as a foundation upon which to build, not a religion in and of itself. If you find yourself overly relying on it and being entirely too concerned with the validity and age of your practice, it’s time to take a step back and ask yourself, “Which is more important: honoring the gods, or adhering to a false sense of structure for the sake of my own insecurities about my faith?” Balance is good in all things, and there’s a point where we have to ask ourselves whether or not our concerns are both good and healthy for us in the long run.
  15. There is no need to be overly concerned with what we’re not versus what we are. People are too afraid of acceptability, get overly involved in religious politics, and are way too concerned with validation from others. Sometimes people realize this off the bat, even if subconsciously, and go into something of a “rebellion” phase where everything is about sounding off on other religions versus focusing on the one you’re in. No one needs to constantly be shouting at their birth religions and other faiths, “You’re not the boss of me!” and “I’m not you!” Move on and focus on where you’re at, not where you’re not.
  16. Take your time to heal from previous places and spaces if need be. Not all of us were as fortunate as I was in my beginnings of having come into pagan and polytheistic traditions from utterly nothing, and some may be coming in having been burned from bad experiences in prior religions. Take your time to process that and deal with it before bringing that baggage into another faith. Think of it like relationships: yes, you had that super bad breakup with your ex, you are valid, your feelings are valid, your issues are valid, yes, no doubt, all of that–but do you really want to treat your new lover like a rebound versus what could be your potential soulmate? Is it really necessary to be ranting to them about your ex all of the time? To other people? You’ve got a great new thing going on, at the very least potentially. Why dwell on the past?
  17. At the end of the day, the gods will call their own, and that makes it none of our business what other people do. It’s okay to call people on inaccuracy and outright lies, but what’s not okay is judging people for not having the same practice, ideas, and beliefs as you do. The gods aren’t about to strike anyone down with lightning bolts anytime soon for using buckwheat instead of barley in our rites, and at the end of the day we need to pick and choose our battles and what hills we want to die on. Make it a good death, not something trivial and utterly irrelevant in the big picture.
  18. All in all, we still have to be academically and historically honest, honest with other people, honest with our gods, and honest with ourselves. We don’t need to claim lineage, longevity, and overall tradition where there is none for the sake of some sense of legitimacy. What makes our practice legitimate is our honesty and sincerity about who we are and what we do. None of us have unbroken lineages or time machines into the past, but what we do have is the opportunity to take what we know and do something with it, not just in order to honor the gods, but at the end of the day be something that they might actually be proud of. And that often means examining some very hard truths about ourselves and some much needed growing pains as a result.

 

 

I’ve often said that personal growth and development is the key to magic, but it’s the key to spirituality in general and ultimately being a good human. It helps to think, question, and reexamine things we often take for granted along the way.

 

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  • Hi Scarlet, I enjoyed your article. Being both a Unitarian Universalist and a practitioner of Wicca, I’ve seen much of what you’re talking about in both arenas. “Come-outers” from other religious traditions unconsciously bring baggage with them.
    My only disagreement would be with your definition of divination, and it’s really a minor tweak. Fair Winds Press just published my book _The World is Your Oracle: Divinatory Practices for Tapping Your Inner Wisdom and Getting the Answers You Need_. In it you will find a chapter on “The Science of Divination.” What brain imaging (fMRI and EEGs) has shown us in the last 10-15 years is that divination facilitates “aha moments.” So divination is no longer a solely magical practice, as it was in the past. Now we know scientifically how it works. As a result, we don’t have to fight the “superstition” battle at all. It’s over.

  • Maree Pennells

    Well said and thorough. Thank you for this.