The Questions of Polytheism

The Questions of Polytheism January 28, 2014

For the last twenty years I’ve called myself a polytheist. I’ve always felt comfortable with the title because I worship and honor many gods in my own personal practice. Often I’m associated with the Horned God archetype, and while I sometimes refer affectionately to Old Horn Head, I’ve always felt closer to specific horned and antlered gods. Pan has long been my favorite, he’s also been the loudest and most insistent about being a part of my life, but there are others. I’d feel incomplete without Cernunnos in the background (he’s very quiet, but his presence is huge), and Dionysus has been around for many of my most spiritual moments. There are other horned and horny gods in my life too: Shiva, Kokopelli, the Green Man, and Herne (when he’s not busy chastising me). I also honor several goddesses with regularity: Aphrodite, Ariadne, Hestia, Aradia, and Brighid; and a few more on specific occasions. (There are a lot of links in this paragraph but they are all worth reading, so go ahead and do it, we’ll wait for you.)

While it’s easy and convenient to group deities according to superficial characteristics, they are generally more complicated than that. One of the mantras in my life is “Pan is not Cernunnos.” They both have “things” on top of their heads, but after that the similarities cease. Pan is a god of wild places, panic, and often the wine-skin. Cernunnos is a god of hunting and wealth. One of them sports a 24-hour erection, the other one sits quietly in the woods. Pan has a well developed mythology and a Homeric Hymn in his honor, there are no Cernunnos myths or poems. They are about as different from one another as two gods can be and yet they are still lumped together as a part “The Horned God.”

I’ve always called myself a polytheist, but over the last year the label has grown more troublesome. It’s no longer enough to call yourself a polytheist, a lot of people want that polytheism defined, and as a mere mortal that’s hard for me to do. I worship the gods as separate and distinct beings, but I also don’t seek to limit them. In ritual my wife and I are careful about who we invite to our circles, Hera doesn’t want to go bowling with Thor. We don’t invite deities willy-nilly because they are all different and bring disparate energies to our proceedings. I believe one can have conversations and interactions with deity and when it’s Aphrodite doing the talking it’s very obviously Aphrodite, and not some sort of construct created by putting Diana’s bow over Venus’s shoulder, but that doesn’t mean I discount more “archetypal” interpretations of deity like Maiden, Mother, and Crone.

I see the gods as unique, but I can also see them as a part of a larger whole. History tells us that no deity is formed in a vacuum. Look through the historical and archeological record and you’ll see gods evolving out of gods; foundations continually built upon even older foundations. I’ve been putting together a workshop about male gods in Modern Witchcraft and part of my research has included going back to the Mother and Father of many Western pantheons, the religion of the Indo-European peoples. If you aren’t familiar with the term “Indo-European” it’s mostly a reference to language, though there’s a common culture deep within the heart of it. All of the Romance Languages (French, Italian, Latin, Spanish) are Indo-European, as are the Germanic Languages (with English being one of those), there are also Indo-European languages in India, China, and the Mediterranean. The original Indo-Europeans have had a tremendous impact on the world, and they also had gods, gods that became (or are related to) many of the ones we know today.

Deities that evolved from the Indo-European all share common word roots. In Modern Greek the word pan translates as “everything or all” but the god Pan derived his name from the Indo-European root “pa” which is sometimes linked to the word shepherd but is more accurately defined as “to watch over” or “guard” (which is what shepherds do of course). Through the root of pa Pan can be linked the the Vedic Pusan, whose name also contains the pa root. The similarities don’t end there either, both are pastoral gods and have an affinity for goats. Pan has the legs of a goat, Pusan has goats who pull his chariot. Both gods have bushy beards and the sacrifice of goats appears in the cult of both deities. (1) It’s logical to assume from all of this that both of them share a common ancestor. Does that mean both gods are a part of something bigger than themselves? Are they connected to their shared root while remaining separate beings?

This is where polytheism gets muddy for me, and where I end up having trouble with people who want me to define what sort of polytheism I practice. The historical record is clear, gods change over time, and distinct forms of deity have origins in other gods, both known, unknown, and lost. In Greek Mythology Pan is generally seen as the son of Hermes, but both gods most likely have a common ancestor. Like Pusan, Hermes is a guardian of flocks and herds; also like Pusan he’s good at finding hidden things. Both are gods of gain and abundance and both conduct souls to the underworld. Pan developed in one of the more isolated parts of Greece (Arcadia) while the reach of Hermes extended throughout more easily traversed areas of the country. I’ve had experiences with both Hermes and Pan, but history tells me they had a common ancestor and became different through geography. Does this make me a bad polytheist because I can see the point of origin? (2)

In a lot of my rituals I use archetypal language, and those rituals work not just for me but for everyone else in my coven. Is my polytheism broken because I use such language? Obviously something is showing up. The archetype of The Horned God is a combination of many distinct deities, but it’s also something that’s been influenced by the writings of people like James Frazer, Margaret Murray, and Robert Graves (all great writers and thinkers, but great writers whose conclusions are no longer generally accepted within academia*). Our conception of Old Horn Head exists due to influences both ancient and modern, but when I call to Him he answers.

When I’m pressed for a definition of “my polytheism” I sometimes reply with a half-hearted answer of Neo-Platonism. I’m guessing that the various deities worshipped throughout the world are linked in some way with some sort of energy at the center of it all, but I have no way of knowing that for sure. Deity is greater than me, as a result I have to assume it can morph, change, and exist in ways different from we mere mortals. Whose to say that Pan, Cernunnos and a few other gods didn’t get together one day to help shape the Modern Horned God? If something works and is there when we interact with it who cares what its origins are? (For those of you who are wailing “but that’s personal gnosis!” maybe, but I’m not the only one who has called to “The Horned God” over the years, millions of people have, and they wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t getting anything out of the experience.)

I understand wanting to define the various interpretations of polytheism, but don’t ask me to do it for myself. Aren’t our relationships with the gods what’s most important? If I happen to think Pan is a part of something greater than himself (and the historical record suggests he is) why is that some sort of polytheistic tragedy? That’s between the two of us, and like all divine mysteries, it defies easy explanation.

*It seems dishonest to group them together, but all three were huge influences on the Modern Pagan movement because of their varying interpretations of mythology, folklore, and history. Even without the academic credentials Graves was still (and sometimes still is) seen as an “authority” on the subject of The Goddess.

1. See Indo-European Poetry and Myth by M.L. West, published by Oxford Press in 2007. The bits on Pan, Hermes, and Pusan all occur over pages 281-283.

2. See note one.

Browse Our Archives