Why Polytheist Spaces Are Important

Why Polytheist Spaces Are Important February 23, 2015

I love the religions of the world. If you read this blog, you know that I write a lot about Christianity. I’ve got a big ol’ soft spot in my heart for wisdom where ever I find it. The optimist in me wants a world where our differences give us accent, but don’t overwhelm us to the point where we can’t talk together. I like the Big Umbrella aspect of Pantheacon, where various Pagan communities come together and mingle, work, explore, and share.

But spaces for each type of group are equally important. Attending Pantheacon this year made that clear to me. At a private gathering late on Saturday night an academic friend of mine was trying to talk about polytheism to myself and a certain Druid punk anarchist poet. I know the academic personally and knew what she was trying to work out. Her words weren’t graceful and the Druid got angry. What had she said, my friend asked. Well, you invalidated the entirety of his experience, with one sentence.

The scholar and the Druid managed to work out their misunderstandings. Oh, what listening and speaking calmly can do! But I was reminded that this is exactly why people need spaces where we don’t have to parse definitions, where we don’t have to explain or defend our experiences. It’s important to be able to talk about polytheisms with out the language of they/them, but rather as we/us.

Polytheism may be a Western monotheist construct, but for those of us in the West it’s a generally useful terminology. What I hope for us is that polytheists can remember that many people, particularly cultures and traditions outside the white Western world, might fit the Western definition of polytheist but might not view themselves as such. We need to let others define themselves as they will, but for those that want to talk about gods plural and gods as real, polytheism -broadly defined- creates that space.

The Welsh land near Skanda Vale, a Hindu mandir.
The Welsh land near Skanda Vale, a Hindu mandir.

I know the vocal polytheisms visible online can appear alienating to some. Some of the voices are strident. This is why I wish River Devora and Anomalous Thracian’s discussion on polytheism at last weekend’s Pantheacon hadn’t been held in the last possible slot on Monday afternoon. Their many points and tone highlighted the best of the Polytheist movement. Below are the points I took away from their discussion.

Gods and people exist in a context of time, place, people groups, and relationships. Polytheisms are living traditions. Where are we as individuals situated in our traditions? What are our connections to our traditions and lineages? To the lands we live on? To the larger context of our historical time and place?

The core of polytheism – of all religious and spiritual practices – is relationship. Gods have relationships, with people as individuals, with people groups, with land, AND ALSO with each other. And all of these things are in relationship with each other as well! We exist in interconnected webs of relationships that move “horizontally” and “vertically,” as well as temporally. Because we as humans and peoples are not static and our lands are not static, these are relationships that change. The gods too are not static and exist in relationship with one another and the embodied world. The whole conversation smacks of Process theology!

Because we are in relationship we can learn from others, in this time and in other times. We can pool our resources and our voices to press the gods for change. We can learn from one another. What do other devotees experience? How do others relate to these gods and spirits? These questions are particularly important if we do not live in the lands that are originally connected with our gods or among their peoples.

Kali Calcutta Art Studio 1885Taking my own practice as an example, as a white Westerner with a Hindu practice I need to ask myself: How does Kali relate to her temples, priests, devotees, and the lands in India? How were those people before me in in time in relationship with Kali and how are people now in relationship with her? How are people here in the US in relationship with her? While I may have a personal practice and be a lone devotee in my town, I am not outside of the webs of relationship that Kali creates and in which she exists. I am one of millions who are in relationship with her RIGHT NOW; my voice is one of many. Just because my voice is the only one I hear in my ears does not mean it is the loudest, most correct or authentic, or most special.

Everything comes back to relationship.

Ideally our various communities in the wider Pagan umbrella can create webs of relationship too, webs that strengthen our practices, care for one another, teach and support in various ways. But sometimes its nice to be among people that share similar definitions, certain aspects of practice, and won’t call you crazy when you say that the gods are speaking.

This is why I am proud to be co-chairing Many Gods West this summer. Come and join us in rituals, dialog and discussions, relationship and community building.

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  • River Devora

    I’m glad you enjoyed the workshop, Niki! Our goal was to foster dialogue, get folks talking in productive and helpful ways about this religion stuff that we love so much. I’m glad it sounds like it worked :).

  • Excellent article! I continue to regret that I bailed on attending the Polytheist Leadership Conference when it occurred out here on the East coast. Perhaps after Many Gods West, it’ll be time to try and put together a Many Gods East?

    Also, FYI, your link to Many Gods West is broken — looks like the site is trying to prefix the blog’s address in front of the MGW domain.

  • Henry Buchy

    “…this is exactly why people need spaces where we don’t have to parse definitions, where we don’t have to explain or defend our experiences….”
    ” But sometimes its nice to be among people that share similar definitions, certain aspects of practice,….”
    except when the special interests lie outside of Modern Pagan political correctness, then ones desire of exclusive space where they wouldn’t have to ‘parse definitions’ or ‘explain and defend’ experiences… ‘to be among people that share similar definitions’ and ‘certain aspects of practice’ becomes racist, bigoted, exclusionary, and all manner of despicable.
    what’s the word I am looking for…. duplicity, perhaps? yeah, in general, the fickleties of a mob…

    • Henry, I’m not sure what you’re getting at. I think what you’re saying is that by not wanting to parse definitions that we run the risk of being exclusionary and can tip over into racist and other -ist spaces. Am I reading that right?

      I can see how this post reads that I want to have it both ways. I don’t think that people wanting space where they can be us/we is inherently problematic. And if racists do want to have their own space – fine! Go be by yourselves! I won’t join in.

      However, MGW has made it explicit that we are NOT welcome to those who are racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. If this sounds too much like political correctness to you, then I respectfully suggest you not attend. Anytime people delineate boundaries some one gets left out, it’s true. Yes, MGW will be for people who identify as polytheists or are interested in or are sympathetic to polytheism. There will not be a theological credential check. And we are open to people of all races, sexes, genders, abilities, sizes, nationalities, etc.

      • Henry Buchy

        no what I am getting at is folks have the right to limit entrance based on their own shared definitions and practices without interferences, even by those who are excluded, whether or not those practices align with the politics of folks outside those definitions or practices. yes, I would say the boundaries you’ve delineated are ‘politically correct’, but what happens if a group delineates boundaries that aren’t viewed as such?
        what happens if folks decide to limit attendance to ‘folks of European descent’ or “folks born with a uterus” or “heterosexual folks”, then it becomes a different story. That’s the duplicity. it’s okay for exclusions along some lines but not others. If someone held a gathering for straight men only, first thing would happen is they’d be charged with being homophobic, and there’d be a hue and cry of foul. if someone held a gay men only gathering then that’s perfectly fine, even if both were advertised as a ” space for shared experiences without having to defend”etc.

        • Yes! I see now. Personally, I think people are welcome to delineate space – privately – for those spaces, as they will! People can protest all white space, but I think they should be able to gather – just not at a public pan-gathering, for example, like PCon.

          But given that our history is made up of all white, all male, etc space, I think people need to look long and hard at the context of our culture and ask themselves if that space is really needed.

          • Henry Buchy

            well, that’s interesting. Where did I say anything about “White space”??? lol. heh, and there, so it goes…

          • Oh, stop. I was using it as an example.

        • Oh, sweet Eris….

          The problem with the spaces you describe held on Conference schedule (llike Budapest’s everyone and their sister likes to reference when this comes up) is that the overwhelming majority of spaces before and after the Conference tend to default to cisgender spaces, or heterosexual spaces, or white spaces, and so on. It’s so normal that even when, say, a sports bar changes ownership and becomes the local Bear hangout (big and hairy gay men, for the unaware), nobody notices that the place and every bar around it has been unwelcome to gays for years before the venue in question changed ownership and culture, even if only in the culture of the venue. (After all, it’s illegal to explicitly exclude people from a venue open to the public, so exclusion has to happen by culture To circumvent the laws.)

          If a pagan group wants to rent a suite and hold an off – schedule space, no-one is going to stop them, but a conference’s governing body has the right to define the standards of culture for the conference schedule. you are certainly welcome to disagree with that, If you see fit, of course.

  • Spiritscraft

    I agree its great to have both. It is kinda hard that often these kinds of things end up on Monday or Thursday at Pantheacon, but folks do tend to work their way up over several years into better slots. And to Henry, the dream and goal of MGW is to be the opposite of what you are stating. Our common ground is Many Gods not whiteness–at least that is the hope. Lets be as creative as possible about making this an inclusive event for any folks who work with some form of Many Gods in their traditions and practices.

    • Henry Buchy

      I know what the dream and goal is, it’s the tendency towards being perceived as I mentioned. all it takes is for a few to be offended…

      • We can do our good work and work to address issues and concerns, but honestly? No matter what we do – you, I, any of us – some one is bound to be unhappy, and I have no control over that.

  • You’re preaching to the choir! I agree.

    • Bruno brings up a good point. One worth amplifying.

      It is inaccurate to judge a culture only by its religion. Religion (as defined in English) is just one part of culture. If religion were more than aspirational, Christians would all be loving, Wiccans would alll be fecund, Muslims would all be obedient to the same Lord, and Asatru would all be brave and bighearted. We know this isn’t always true.

      A religion by itself does not (and cannot) make up all a culture. And if it does, it’s not a “religion” in the Western sense, it’s something else (like an ethnicity with an ethnic religion). To believe otherwise is a ‘category’ mistake.

      Wicca and other (neo)paganisms, in many ways, are as much a subculture (with a bunch of sub-sub-cultures) as a religion.

      • How many ancestral religions *were* ever “religions in the western sense” as opposed to “an ethnicity with an ethnic religion”? The Roman Empire comes to mind, because it purposefully god-collected, but that became a civic religion, which incorporated many ethnic religions in a sense. And out of Rome came the Roman Catholic (“universal”) Church, which continued being an empire, but dedicated to just one god.

        In this sense, modern paganisms, unless deliberately working towards being otherwise, are also religions in this western sense, because they have inherited this western worldview of religion independent from culture. Those of us who strive to ground within a different cultural mindset and worldview, along with a religion, are specifically seeking to step outside of this western box, which goes back to your other comment about challenging the entire Western Cultural Framework, and includes personal decolonization, and hopefully communal decolonization as well, since this challenge to western ways includes challenging the ideal of the rugged individual.

        And in the case of reconnecting (“reconnectivism”) with ancestral mind and tradition, we find communal lifeways and ceremonies based on both (oral or written) lore *and* mystical experiences, which continue to feed the tradition generation by generation, because it is expected that traditions will last for many generations, ought to be preserved for them, and so are directly maintained for them, that they too might have the containers (shaped by lore) in which to potentially experience the mystical (personal gnosis).

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    “Polytheism may be a Western monotheist construct, but for those of us in the West it’s a generally useful terminology.”

    Good link. Thank you.

  • I find the ‘battle’ between the hard polytheists and soft polytheists to be odd…until the moment I realize that it’s a battle between Iamblichus’s Neoplatonism and a different approach.

    The idea of ‘the One’ permeates the Western Occult Tradition. (Thanks, Masons.) It comingles with major Eastern patterns of thought. (Thanks, Blavatsky.)

    Stepping away from that requires taking on pretty much the whole of Western thought–most of our assumptions about the relationship of the subtle and solid.

    So, if you’re a soft polytheist, and hard polytheists seem defensive, it’s worth understanding that they are challenging pretty much the whole of Western common wisdom.

    Laud the brave in their convictions, and try to understand why they might seem a little ‘spiky.’

    • Exactly! I wouldn’t have been able to tease out those threads, but I have written before about how looking at the world from a polytheist view point has up-ended much of my thinking and the way I perceive the world.

    • Pretty much this.

      And this is where I can agree that “hard polytheism” would be “radical” –it explicitly challenges, in no uncertain terms, the very monism That, as you describe, permeates Western Occult Tradition as a whole, which would include a majority of the dominant Pagan community voices.

      • I’m not sure any religion outside of the modern era has ever been specifically soft or hard in its polytheism. It’s the kind of problem one might find only in a highly educated culture. We have a whole population that not only has religion, but owns the tools to analyze it and the social space to do so. It’s a wonder of the modern world.

        That being said, the WOT’s main thrust has always been a little hazy on the role and nature of deities. There’s never been doctrinal purity in the WOT. The gods have always been more likely to end up on a table of correspondence than a shrine.

        • You are correct. It is a collection of practices as diverse and divergent as the West itself. It does not agree with itself. But, its what we have.

          What does that tell us about the nature of the world, the gods, and ourselves?

          • Brighde Indigo

            I am strongly committed to the profession that there is no absolute truth/way. I’m not just being tongue-in-cheek smart-alecky when I say that.

          • Brighde Indigo

            In practical terms, I start from the premise that religions of any flavour are always syncretic….we (as a species) are bound to be influenced by anything we rub up against over time, whether we consciously deny or fight against it or not. Christianity and Judaism both have their “genesis” in polytheistic cultures and still carry those influences whether they are embraced as literal “truths” or symbolic ones. (You can tell I’m sort of a soft polytheist, I expect.) Shekinah, the Adversary, the Trinity and the saints exist in the stories which carry the energy of religion and from which derive the values and mystery of it. I also hold as a personal “truth” the notion that if a religion does not embody some kind of paradox in its doctrine and/or practice it is suspect as a useful religion. From that standpoint, I don’t much care whether a religion can be logically parsed or retain any fixed explainable form; religions are always in flux and the best we can manage by way of explaining and using structures is what is displayed over time, always with the caveat that the explanation has limitations at any given moment and with any given practitioner. I feel like I’m not being very clear with my language….am I anywhere close to addressing your question about the WOT in practical terms? I guess for me, it doesn’t matter whether the WOT borrows magpie-fashion from other traditions…I think we make it all up according to our needs both personally and culturally. :-

          • Brighde Indigo

            It’s not so much that I can practice something like Catholicism; I can attend a Mass and perceive an extant rite of a dying and rising god, but it’s all an intellectual appreciation of it…no wonder or ecstatic union with the practice or the deity. I sometimes wish I could just escape from the intellectual analysis of religion altogether, even though I wouldn’t want to be completely credulous about anything so important as relationship with what I think of as the Mystery. I feel I’ve lost any ability to “believe” in any system with the visceral “hook” that accompanied former liminal experiences. I grieve for lost “faith” as I can’t un-rational my thoughts about it. And I find the same critical distance from any religious practice. I don’t ask for an ecstatic rush all the time, but I wish my head would get out of the way. Feels like being evicted from the Garden—which is what that story means! Knowledge exacts a price and sometimes that price is exile from the gods and the burden of our own divine mystery. It’s late and I’m beginning to ramble. Thank you for the conversation, Bruno. 🙂

          • Not to be a pedant, again least not annoyingly so, but just because there is no one/absolute true way does not imply that all ways are true. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of ways to make tea, but you won’t get a pot of tea by banging together coconut shells.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      One of the linked articles confirms my suspicion that almost all of that debate was profoundly eurocentric, and some of those “Eastern patterns of thought” don’t have a problem with devotion to both the universal and the individual in good measure. Similarly, I suspect that debates about archetypalism are based on the misapprehension (on both sides) that dharmic deities of liberation have the same ontology as Harry Potter.

      Which was something I was scratching my head over with mentions of Kali puja at Pantheacon. I don’t know that anyone is obligated to be Shaivite or Shakta to do homage to Her, but they are part of Her larger traditions and communities. So I admit a fair bit of dissonance between the prior year of polemic and a willingness to share that kind of ritual communion.

      • “So I admit a fair bit of dissonance between the prior year of polemic and a willingness to share that kind of ritual communion.” Can you expand on that, please?

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          Well, it might be the case that I’m misunderstanding the arguments made, but it seemed to me that a hard boundary was wanted between “hard” polytheism roughly characterized around theological pluralism, and “soft” polytheism which considers some flavor of theological monism possible. Theological monism is “beyond toleration” or a philosophy in fundamental contradiction to polytheism. The conflict between the two theologies was framed as so complete that we need separatism.

          Now, “your dharma is your dharma” and all that, but devotees of Kali include devotees of the all-powerful Devi apparent in all beings as Vishnumaya, and devotees of Shiva as the foundation of reality. I don’t think anyone is obligated to adopt a theology in which Kali is Durga is Lakshmi is the individual shakti of the gods is the Devi at play, all of which are equally individualized with their own weapons, mantras, and personalities. But that’s not, as I saw in one comment, an accommodation to Christian colonialism. That’s not Christianity lite, or an impious roleplay of devotion to gods we don’t really believe in. It’s one of the theologies of Kali that’s been around since at least the 6th century CE.

          So I see a conflict of interest there between politically criticizing the theology of millions of Kali worshipers using an irresponsible broad brush, and saying that you’re going to cultivate a relationship with Her at a festival.

          Which leads me to suspect that much of this conflict really wasn’t really about monism vs. polytheism. It was about particularly Euro-American flavors of perennialism and pluralism. Neither camp has been particularly shy about stealing toys from the dharmic sandbox and claiming them for themselves.

          • You know, I’ve tried to stay somewhat distanced from other polytheists cries for separatism. I do think polytheist space is important, for all the reasons in the post, but I, personally, don’t think it’s necessary to parse to finely between hard and soft polytheisms. Many others disagree with me.

            You rightfully cite Kali. It is my understanding that most of Hindusim is monist in theological nature, but often experienced in ways that I recognize as polytheist. Which is it? Well, it’s both. And I’m not going to suggest that some one who is devoted to Kali is one or the other – each person gets to decide for themselves.

            I don’t have issues with monism, unless of course a person uses unifying monism to erase, diminish, or otherwise undermine someone else’s experience.

            I somehow think we’re talking past each other. I can’t put my finger on it, but perhaps we’re on the same page? Not sure.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            I think I’m expressing a broader reaction to the either/or, binary nature of prior debates than anything you’ve said. Your link to the article about how those categories just don’t apply.

            But for a lot of personal reasons (sexuality is not a number on the Kinsey scale!), I’m very much a splitter rather than a lumper and have knee-jerk reactions to many thesis/antithesis categories or continuums.

          • I am very much a both/and and don’t do well with either/or binaries myself. I try to stay out of the shouting matches, too.

      • KoreanKat

        I remember taking a class on Indian cultures and the professor describing the influence of the Abrahamic religions on how we view Hinduism and how the traditions under the rubric of “Hinduism” view themselves.

  • As the occasionally graceless academic referenced here, I want to clarify for the public record that my intention was not to question the validity of spiritual experience (though it was obvious once it was mirrored back to me why my words were received that way & I think the Druid punk anarchist poet knows my apology was sincere). In fact, a big part of what I do in my religious studies teaching these days is to show how dismissing and marginalizing the spiritual reality of the “other” has been used as a colonial tool, and I work hard to dismantle this by illustrating the reality & complexity of spiritual encounters globally.

    What I did want to suggest is that polytheist & Pagan communities could sometimes be a bit more critically reflective about the categories with which we construct our containers. And to be more aware that even in our resistance to Christian (especially Protestant) dominated categories & constructs, we sometimes unconsciously replicate those categories & constructs.

    So all that said, I’m delighted to see you asking these hard questions here and that’s why I was happy to see you on the organizing team for MGW, because I know you won’t shy away from this kind of critical reflection even while you carve out safe spaces for theological & devotional work. And now that I have a better sense of some of the others working on this conference, it’s clear you are not alone in that. It’s also clear that it’s time for me back away from my pedantic pedestal and go into listening & observing mode. There’s interesting & potentially important work going on here, and religion nerds like me lap up challenges like this!

    • Hey, I didn’t want to mention you by name, because we’re all occasionally graceless! I didn’t mean that as a dig at you.

      I hope I can bring some nuance to polytheist space. I admit though that my own thinking has most certainly been colonized and I am attempting to decolonize my brain. It’s hard and uncomfortable work.

      • Oh I knew it wasn’t a dig, and I hope you don’t mind my outing my identity here. But I keep finding this week (wait, it’s only Monday?) that I have Things To Say and can’t quite bring myself not to say them. And just as we’re all occasionally graceless, so too have our minds been colonized.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    I’m sure you can guess my thoughts! 😉

  • Finnchuill

    Glad there are others like yourself that realize devotion and critical thinking can exist in one body/mind.

  • Thanks for this post. 🙂

  • “Polytheism may be a Western monotheist construct” — arguably incorrect.

    While the word was coined in the 17th century, Polytheism is, intellectually, more accurately a Western scientific/anthropological construct from E.B. Tylor in the mid-19th century. The Evolutionary model of religion places polytheism on an evolutionary scale between animism and monotheism. [Please note: in the original theory, science eventually replaces religion. This is not an accurate religion model, so much as a scientific version of Manifest Destiny.]

    Citing, or bitching about, Tylor’s work is like bitching about Sigmund Freud. People inside the field see Tylor as a relic of the past.

    Now, to be fair, the author of the linked article’s point — that Western culture is traditionally monotheistic, racist, and somewhat xenophobic — is completely on the mark. But in the sense that the author is using the words, “Western” (in the cultural sense) is already inherently “monotheist.”

    It’s a fact that Pagan polytheists struggle against every day.

    • Let’s see if I can follow. You agree that the word is problematic, but it’s the use that it is a monotheist construct? See, I am generally aware that it was coined (though not by whom) to describe religions against the monotheist model, even though this was taking place in an anthropological discourse.

      I’m not sure what is “arguably incorrect”? Because it sounds like you agree. Help me out?

      • It attributes something to religion which is actually a larger part of Western culture.

        it’s not just to those darned monotheists, it’s all of Western culture that we’re arguing against. The article you linked to made it very much about clashes of religion, but it’s a larger battle about culture.

        While I agree that it’s a battle worth fighting, it’s not a religious war. It’s more about freedom to shape one’s own identity and relationship with the world.

        Does that make more sense?

  • Mark Green

    I agree with the need for different distinct elements of the broader Pagan community to have their own spaces–those of us without gods at all as well as those with many. It’s good to convene under the big tent every so often, but we are highly diverse and need places that feel truly welcoming, each of us.

  • Yonatan

    After skimming these highly instructive comments, the difference between you and I,the Pagan community and myself has been clarified to a greater degree.

    Why this obsession with whiteness and with colonization? My birth religion celebrates marginality and this is my connection to my own past. The stone rejected by the builder has become my chief cornerstone.

    Thank you,

    As an outsider, I will now bow out.

    • If I can step in here, I believe that the “obsession whiteness and colonization” comes from three sources.

      1) Western Pagans, in contrast to the stereotype of polytheists as primitive, tend to both a) be educated, and b) concerned with knowledge as an end in and of itself. The “obsession” you speak of has been a framework of analysis in academia for some time; it’s a search for universal values that are not simply those passed down in Western Culture.

      2) Certain types of spiritual practice lead to liminality. Part of common Pagan spiritual practice is seeking out liminal, either-or or neither-nor spaces in ourselves and in the world, and cultivating them.

      3) Most simply, some people believe that to be wholly “white” and “colonialist” precludes being a Neopagan, or at least makes it a poor choice.

      • That’s a good summation. But also as a white person in a white culture I do not want to let my whiteness blind me to the reality. In seeking wisdom I seek to see things as they are, not just as I perceive them; my perceptions are clouded by my limitations. And also, white people have run roughshod over the vast majorities of peoples in this world and distorted other wisdoms either to fit into a monotheist, Western mindset or to set those wisdoms up as Other and dangerous or flawed or whathaveyou.

        “Obsession with whiteness” is not to be obsessed with being white, but to attempt to undo the damage that lifetimes of myopia have wrought.

        • ‘White’ is a social construct- the Scottish Gaels and the Irish were run roughshod over as well in their own lands and are still struggling to regain their full cultural autonomy and confidence as a result. The politics involved in colonial relationships are not strictly delineated along skin color lines. These peoples are living examples of this fact, and how we can look to and embrace the traditions and worldviews of our ancestors as one way out of the WASP mindset and its assumptions so prevalent today.

      • Yonatan

        Thank you,

        I would love to interject here but will keep my word.and learn by reading the various responses here.

        • While keeping your word is great, please don’t do it on our account! Learning is not a passive activity, and your questions and comments might teach not only you, but us as well.