I wrote last Thursday’s blog post Why Polytheism? to explore the reasons someone might choose to make the practice of a polytheist religion their primary spiritual identity, instead of witchcraft or occultism or some other magical tradition that seems more “useful.”
I don’t think anybody actually read it in that context, though. Virtually all the comments were arguing over whether or not my post implied that polytheism is one religion. It isn’t and I don’t think I said it is, but an overly literal reading of the post could lead someone to that conclusion, so I cannot dismiss the comments out of hand.
Today’s post is not intended to be a rebuttal of those comments. Many of them are issues on which the commenters and I simply do not agree and further debate is not helpful. Rather, this post is intended to discuss the state of the contemporary polytheist movement as I see it and as I participate in it.
What Is Polytheism?
I strongly prefer the Anomalous Thracian’s definition of polytheism: “the religious regard for many real Gods.” Simply saying “many Gods” is not enough – said Gods must also be real. We can leave the precise meaning of real for another day, but this clearly excludes atheists – nontheistic theism is an oxymoron. Polytheism also requires religious regard. If you acknowledge many Gods but do not worship or otherwise relate to Them in a religious way (however tenuous or infrequent), you are not a polytheist. Other than that, though, the term is broad and inclusive.
I also agree with Edward Butler’s one doctrine universal to polytheism:
The one and only thing that we can regard as a doctrine universal to polytheism as such is the genuine existence of many Gods, and whatever we may, arguably and provisionally, infer from that single affirmation. Whatever does not follow from this single affirmation, however commonly held it should prove to be in this or that polytheistic tradition, cannot be said to be a property of polytheism as such.
This gives credence to the commenters who insist I should not call what I do polytheism, but rather call it Celtic Polytheism or Druidic Polytheism or some other subdivision of polytheism. They’re not wrong, but that’s not the whole story. In order to fully address this issue, we need to look at the state of polytheism in the contemporary Western world.
The Polytheist Movement
Those who say polytheism isn’t a religion are correct. Polytheism – at least the polytheisms being practiced by most of those reading this blog and similar sources – is a movement of many religions and religionists.
A movement is not an institution – it does not have hard boundaries. A movement has a center and a direction. The polytheist movement is centered around the religious regard for many real Gods. Its direction is toward deeper relationships with those Gods and toward a deeper level of discourse and connectedness between a growing population of polytheist religionists.
Which Gods we relate to, how we relate to Them (how we communicate, worship, perform devotion, experience ecstatic communion and such), and what those relationships mean in our mundane and spiritual lives varies widely from one polytheist tradition or religion to another. There were many polytheisms in the ancient world and there are many polytheisms today.
The polytheist movement is not some academic construct or classification. The polytheist movement is a real thing that has produced tangible results. It’s produced books, conferences, and sacred spaces. It’s produced an on-going website. Of course they were created by individual people practicing individual forms of polytheism, but without the polytheist movement these things could never reach a critical mass. I do not practice exactly the same form of polytheism as most (maybe all) of the organizers and participants of Many Gods West, but we’re close enough to come together as friends and allies, to work and worship together, to learn from each other, and to build relationships among ourselves.
A movement does not need unity and orthodoxy to be successful. It simply needs collaboration and cooperation. The polytheist movement promotes collaboration and cooperation, and for good reason.
A Christian Overculture
Despite the steady decline of Christianity and the rise of atheism, the West in general and the United States in particular are still very much dominated by Christian images, ideas, and assumptions.
When I speak of revering Nature, most people agree with me. When I speak of magic, most smile politely – and a few ask if I can work a spell for them. But when I speak of many Gods, even close friends get angry and defensive. Attempts by European Pagans and polytheists to restore the worship of their native Gods – even on a tiny scale – is often met with vandalism. The Christian overculture has two important implications for polytheists.
First, we have to stick together. Not to the point where we try to blend our religious traditions to create needless and damaging conformity, but to work together where we have common interests and to publicize the simple reality that some people worship many Gods.
Second, almost every person who comes into a polytheist religion does so from a Christian background. Even if they grew up in a non-religious household, the overculture has filled them with ideas like there is only one God, that polytheism is primitive superstition, and that religion is all about holding the right beliefs.If someone comes to the conclusion that the world as we actually experience it is best explained by many Gods of limited power and scope, where do they go? If someone has an unexpected first-hand encounter with a mighty spirit that may or may not be a God, where do they go? If someone wants to explore the religion of their ancestors and they don’t even know who their ancestors are (a common situation for Americans), where do they go?
At this point, they’re not looking for Hellenism or Celtic Reconstructionism or Kemeticism or any other specific tradition. All they know is that they’re looking for many Gods and for someone to teach them how to find Them. We need the polytheist movement as a gateway into our many polytheist religions.
Supporting Indigenous Traditions
The Northern and Western European polytheist traditions were largely destroyed by Christianity. We know more about the Mediterranean traditions because some of their temples, statues, and especially their writing survived to the modern era.
On the other hand, there are a few places in Eastern Europe where ancient practices survived, to one extent or another. Hinduism – itself a religion with many forms and expressions – is the contemporary expression of the ancient religions of the Indian subcontinent. And there are indigenous people all over the world still practicing the religions of their ancestors.
Some of these religions could more properly be described as animist, but in general they are polytheist. Should we include them in our classification of religions and consider them our polytheist cousins?
Answering that question requires great care and diplomacy. Many of these traditions have been colonized and oppressed by people who look a lot like us. They may not consider themselves polytheists – some Hindus say Hinduism is really monotheist, and I have neither the standing nor the desire to get in the middle of that argument. They may have no interest in being associated with us – for many people in many parts of the world, religion isn’t about what you believe or even what you do. It’s about who you are and whose you are. We aren’t members of their tribe, so we aren’t part of their religion and they don’t want to be part of our movement.
But to the extent we can do so with integrity, we can raise awareness among Westerners about these ancient religions. Not to speak for them – that’s not our place – but to make our Christian and atheist neighbors aware that polytheist and animist beliefs and practices are still very much alive in the world and that they and the people who follow them deserve our respect. And we can enthusiastically welcome those who do want to be part of our wider polytheist movement.
Can we borrow from these religions? Can we use what we know about them to fill in the missing elements of the polytheisms we’re re-creating and reimagining? Again, this requires great care and diplomacy. These religions are not ours to take, and their practitioners are under no obligation to teach and instruct us, much less to adopt us as one of their own.
Culture is generally not transferrable, but technology is – including religious tech. Where we’re missing something from our own polytheist traditions, we can see what contemporary polytheists are doing, compare that to what we know of our ancestors’ neighbors, and use that to make an educated guess as to what our own ancestors might have done. Just remember: credit your sources, and don’t pretend to be something you’re not.
Does the Polytheist Movement Need a Different Name?
Some have suggested that since polytheism is bigger than any one polytheist tradition, we should only refer to our individual traditions and never to polytheism in general. The problem is that many of us don’t have traditions, because they don’t exist – they were wiped out by Christianity over a thousand years ago. We’re rebuilding and reimagining them, and we’re in the very early stages of doing so. Further, those of us who are working in groups don’t always agree even with our closest co-religionists. Try practicing polytheism in a CUUPS group – you learn how to compromise really fast. You also learn how to figure how what can’t be compromised under any circumstances.
It’s true that the polytheist movement doesn’t represent all polytheists, even if you exclude the atheists. So in the interests of clarity, I’m open to a new name. But no one person can just pick a name and expect everyone to follow it – there really isn’t a polytheist pope, despite the fact that most polytheists who express strong opinions will be called that sooner or later.
We tried “hard polytheism” a few years ago, to differentiate us from the “soft” polytheists who say all Gods are aspects of one God. It didn’t stick. Then we tried “devotional polytheism.” I actually like that term and still use it occasionally – Galina Krasskova wrote a book by that name. But it doesn’t appear to be sticking either – I don’t see it used very often.
Much (though not all) of the insistence that we use qualifiers is coming from outside the polytheist movement. If we are devotional polytheists then they can be metaphorical polytheists or some such term that lays claim to the history and heritage of polytheism while rejecting its core principle: the religious regard for many real Gods. It’s not surprising that those nearer the center of the movement see qualifiers as less than helpful and have little urgency to adopt one.
Sooner or later, my own particular form of polytheism will have a name. But it will have to arise organically – I’m not going to force a name on it. I suspect the polytheist movement will always be the polytheist movement, and a hundred years from now some other polytheist is going to be writing something that sounds a lot like this blog post, for very similar reasons.
Or maybe not. At the end of the day I’m a lot less concerned with what we call ourselves than with what we do: honor the Gods and ancestors, and help build a world that reflects Their values and virtues.