Most of what you read on Under the Ancient Oaks was written because I have something I want to say. I want to wake people up, I want to encourage people to keep going, or I’m doing something I think is important and I want to share it.
With today’s post, though, I want to present some ideas that aren’t fully developed. Today, I’m not advocating for something so much as I’m throwing things out for discussion. I don’t want to start a debate and I certainly don’t want to start an argument, but I would like to start a conversation on what I think is an important but usually overlooked question:
What is the cultural context for the polytheism I and many others like me are practicing?
Sunday morning I woke up to find a post from Seo Helrune in my Facebook feed. It’s called Shamanism Divorced From Culture. It starts with a very interesting story of Korean shamanism and goes from there to a discussion of white attempts at shamanism, in particular Michael Harner’s “core shamanism.” Here’s what I want to focus on:
I do still question the application of a so-called ‘universal shamanism’ to a culture we only meet through archaeological finds and on the page. If these ‘universal’ things aren’t really that universal among living groups (as plenty of indigenous groups have pointed out over the years), then how can we believe them to be applicable with any degree of accuracy to a historical culture? Although I may never agree with my friends on this though, I do recognize that they are coming from both a place of service and find their practices whole-making. I really don’t envy them the complexity of negotiating their chosen paths in an ethical manner, especially as people who are aware of the myriad issues.
Authentic shamanism is practiced within a culture that provides the context for what shamans do, why they do it, and what good it does. The same can be said for most any religious or magical practice. Take it out of that culture and it loses much of its meaning. This is why once we get past a certain level of scientific analysis of religion we’re just cutting open the goose that laid the golden eggs (bonus points if you see what I just did).
I took a course in core shamanism very early on my Pagan journey. It was taught by someone certified by Michael Harner’s institute and it wasn’t cheap. It wasn’t “authentic” and it didn’t pretend to be, but it was interesting and the work we did generated some real results. I remember leaving the last class thinking “that’s another tool in my spiritual toolbox.”
But in all the years since, I can’t remember ever using what I learned. I can’t remember ever saying “I need to do some shamanic work.” I have no cultural context for shamanism, and so any time I might have reached into my toolbox for core shamanism, instead I’ve pulled out OBOD Druidry, or the Western Mystery Tradition, or stuff my Tarot teacher taught me. I have a cultural context for all of those.
Without a cultural context and foundation, a religious or spiritual practice is at best weakened and (in the case of gross cultural appropriation) may cause far more harm than good.
So what is the cultural context for contemporary Western polytheism – the kind of polytheism I and many others like me are doing and writing about? Back in January I wrote a post called Building Polytheist Culture. But that was a forward-looking post that was about the values I think we should instill in our culture. We also need to take a here-and-now look at the culture where we actually live and breathe and work.
The Dominant Culture
[Apologies to my non-US readers, but I’m an American and that’s the perspective I bring to this discussion. Due to the long dominance of the Anglo-American empire, this culture has an overwhelming influence on the rest of the West and the rest of the world, for good or for ill. If your different perspective brings helpful ideas to this conversation, please share them in the comments.]
We saw part of American culture on display last week at the Republican National Convention. We’re seeing a slightly but critically different part this week with the Democratic National Convention. But when it comes to religion, Protestant Christianity dominates our culture. It dominates our ideas about work and wealth, about international relations, about gender and sexuality, and about race and ethnicity. Most of these ideas are at odds with a polytheist worldview.
Polytheism isn’t completely absent from our culture. Some of our months and days of the week are named for Roman and Germanic Gods. Many of our government buildings look like Greek temples. Our national pasttime has Pagan elements, including occasional off-hand references to “the baseball gods.” These are cultural survivals and they give us something to work with, but in total they are overwhelmed by Christianity.
This is the environment in which we work.
The Western Mystery Tradition
The Western Mystery Tradition is generally not well thought-of in polytheist circles. Its foundations are in late Mediterranean paganism and its roots go much deeper than that. But its pagan and polytheist elements have been filtered through centuries of Abrahamic monotheism. We can try to “repaganize” them and some of those efforts have been quite successful, most notably the OBOD training program. The OBOD coursework was and remains very helpful to me in my polytheist work.
I’m a Rune Soup fanboy. Gordon White is (in my estimation) reaching back to that ancient late Mediterranean paganism and trying to reimagine it for the 21st century. He’s doing a very nice job of it, and his book The Chaos Protocols is recommended reading for anyone interested in learning both effective magic and understanding the reasons why it’s necessary. Yet despite his generally good efforts to dump 1700 years or so of Christian influences, the deeper rituals of this magical tradition remain firmly embedded in Abrahamic monotheist culture.
This is not helpful for those of us whose primary identity is not sorcerer but polytheist.
Merriam-Webster defines “indigenous” as “produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment.” We generally think of indigenous religions as those of the world’s remaining tribal cultures in places like Africa and South America. But “indigenous” does not mean “stretching back to time immemorial.” Indigenous religions rise up out of the circumstances of a particular group of people living in a particular place and time. They did so in prehistoric times and they can do so again today.
At the 2009 House of Danu Gorsedd, John Michael Greer said that Paganism in general and Druidry in particular are not revived religions or even reconstructed religions. Rather, they are indigenous religions of modern Anglo-American industrial society. Ronald Hutton has called Wicca “the only full-formed religion which England can be said to have given the world.”
Modern Paganism arose in large part due to the excesses of the Industrial Revolution, the abuses and corruption of the Christian church, and the demands of women for full inclusion in religious matters. It has roots in ancient paganism – much of it preserved in the Western Mystery Tradition – but it is a new religion (or religions, if you prefer) that has grown out of the experience and needs of people here and now.
Contemporary Indigenous Polytheism
The Anomalous Thracian recently listed 12 different demographics of the polytheist movement. Some of these are people who are practicing an ancestral tribal religion that is thousands of years old. These people have a deep context for their polytheism, although it is a context that is often at risk from hegemony and “progress.”
I came out of hundreds of years of Christianity, through perhaps one hundred years of Paganism, and into polytheism. My religion is still forming, indigenously, from my circumstances here and now. Many others are doing the same thing. What is the context for our religion(s)?
My context is Anglesey and Orkney. It’s the many ways to be a Celt. It’s the hills of Tennessee and the prairies of Texas. It’s thirteen years of practice in a public Pagan group. It’s the experiences I’ve had in that group, and the experiences of others that I’ve been a part of. It’s seeing the excesses and failures of contemporary American culture.
Is that enough context? For one person, maybe. For a religious and spiritual tradition, I don’t think so. Can we trace the Western Mystery Tradition back far enough to remove the monotheism? And if we did, would there be enough left to be useful to polytheists? I don’t know. Reconstructionists have been trying to re-create cultural and religious context for some time – is that enough? If we try to start where we are today, how do we build a polytheist subculture in a monotheist overculture?
What is the cultural context for the polytheism I and many others like me are practicing?
I don’t have good solid answers to these questions. In many cases, I don’t even have provisional answers. But I think we need to engage them and wrestle with them and see what we can come up with.