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.

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  • I’ve often thought along similar lines: how to reconcile what we know about Indo-European connections with polytheism. I only have two possible ways of doing so. First: all such similar deities in various Indo-European cultures are the same deity, but the perception and relationship with them has changed as cultures diverged and changed. Second: As Indo-Europeans spread out they encountered new gods and gave them names and attributes based on the gods they already knew.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      I favour that second one quite strongly.

      I use the example of the Germanic gods for this. In Anglo-Saxon lore, there is the goddess Frīge, wife of Ƿōden. In Norse lore, there is Frigg, wife of Óðinn and also Freyja, wife of Óðr.

      It is pretty clear that all the names have common origins (one for the female, another for the male), but it is also obvious that Frigg of the Æsir and Freyja of the Vanir are two distinct beings (with Frīge of the Ēse being yet another).

      My belief is that, when the Germanic tribes migrated northwards, they encountered a new group of gods (the Vanir) and named them according to what they already knew. Of course, the tribes that travelled west did not encounter the same gods and so they never got the name duplication.

      • That is fascinating. I am Dutch and I some of aspects of norse myth has always seemed too … well northern for this country. Many heathens that I know stress that Thor really is the same as Donar, Odin the same as Wodan, etcetera, but I have always found there to be differences when in a land of sea, flats and rain rather than one of mountains and ice.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          I’d say that Þórr, Þunor and Donar are the same being, but viewed in differing ways.

    • Hth

      And also, both of those. To me the parallel with language is undeniable: did distinct European languages evolve out of a single language and take on differences rooted in time and distance? or did PIE-speaking tribes shift through contact with people speaking different languages? Of course. *Yes.* Both of those. Just like proto-Germanic is not English, but you can’t really know why English does what it does unless you know (among other things) how it’s tied to proto-Germanic. It would be silly to insist they are the same thing, and equally silly to insist they are “independent” in some atomized way that means you don’t increase your understanding of both when you increase your understanding of one.

      Yes! Both! All of it! *g* (What could be more polytheist than that?)

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Or, a third possibility: just as the various I-E cultures were “daughters” to the presumed original ones (e.g. Vedic, Persian, Hittite, Greek, Thracian, Italic, Germanic, Celtic, Tocharian, Slavic, etc.), and then further cultures were daughters to each of those (e.g. Gaulish [Cisalpine, Transalpine, and Galatian coming from that], Celtiberian, Lepontic, Brythonic [and then Welsh, Cornish, Cumbrian, and Breton from that], Goidelic [and then Irish, Scottish, and Manx from that], etc.), why not the original I-E father god being the father of Dyaus-Pitr, Zeus, Sabazios, Jupiter, and the others? Kind of a meta-level of the genealogies and families of each pantheon…
      And then, there’s no reason that Zeus can’t be the son of Kronos and Rhea as well as of the I-E father-god, because they’re gods and who says their genealogies and ancestries have to work like they do for humans? 😉

      • Also a good option. The reality of the situation might be some combination of all three. To muddle the situation even more, you could even go outside Indo-European peoples here to those who have been influenced by them. Ukko, in the Finnish pantheon, has a pretty clear Indo-European pedigree, along the lines of lightning-making, weapon-bearing sky god. Even his symbol, the ukon vasara Ukko’s Hammer, looks like Thor’s hammer (although rounded where Thor’s is more square). And the south Sámi people–those closest geographically to Germanic Scandinavians–called their thundering, hammer wielding sky god Horagalles, which seems to come from Old Norse Þórr Karl.

        • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

          Definitely–if Indo-European history shows anything, it’s that the Indo-Europeans did not do anything to keep it “all in the family,” so to speak…and for this, we are very grateful! 😉

  • Nathan

    For the better part of two years, I’ve been on a strict one pantheon regimen. Recently I’ve become dissatisfied with what I’m getting out of it. Some gods I just wasn’t connecting with and it was bothering me.
    Then, this last week, like a bolt out of the blue, I got a very strong message from Brighid. I timidly reached out to my current gods and asked if they would have a problem with me worshipping her as well. After meditating, pulling runes and praying on it, I kept getting the same message, it was no problem at all.
    I know that some folks would label this entire exchange as UPG but (and maybe especially because) I’m a solitary, I put more credence on the messages I receive from the divine than from skeptics.
    I’m wondering how others have handled this situation, when a new god comes thundering into your life, especially if you’ve been committed to a single tradition?

    • I thought I was going to be absolutely committed to Inanna until I started having dreams about Isis. It was my first experience of being really called by a deity, but I found that I couldn’t leave Inanna behind, nor did I want to stop investigating other deities.

      I feel like a policy of one pantheon per ritual seems to work. I think that in the US–and particularly in a multiethnic city like mine, and *particularly* when you come from a multiethnic family, like I do–everyone’s religions and practices are mixing together anyway, so it stops making sense to try to keep it all rigidly separated. After all, as Jason points out above, deities have been evolving and transforming for millennia.

      • The ancients mixed pantheons too. Rome was home to a whole host of “foreign” deities, I’m certain people were paying homage to Magna Mater, Apollo, and Isis all simultaneously.

        I tried to get by with only Greek deities for awhile, but the call of Cernunnos was too strong to ignore. He simply filled in gaps that were otherwise missing.

        • Nathan

          Wasn’t it the Romans also who honored the local deities of a place when they were visiting other cultures (that is, when they weren’t inclined to take them over)?

          • Ken

            When the Romans opposed an enemy they appealed to the opposing Gods/Goddesses so the Gods might take sides with the Romans.

  • This is me upvoting this entire post.

    • Kat Emralde


  • To my understanding being a polytheist doesn’t mean that my Gods do not change. Much the contrary. I also do not think being a polytheist means that one cannot be agnostic on what the Gods, for sure, are. What it means for me is that the Gods I worship are treated as distinct Beings unto Themselves, including syncretic Gods such as Hermanubis. I believe that Hermanubis may be approached as a combination of Hermes and Anubis. I don’t think that polytheism is, or needs to be a zero-sum game. Knowing this point of origin makes me a better polytheist; I understand my Gods a bit better, and in different circumstances.

    To answer your question, I would rather a person be polytheist in action rather than only by label. Self-definition is pretty important, or people would not have taken on the label of Pagan and held onto it with such gusto. The same with Wiccan and Witch. Self-definition is quite important. So, I find usefulness in defining polytheism because it makes it easier to communicate the meaning of what I am, what I believe, and the like.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    From what I understand of all the brouhaha, you can absolutely call yourself a polytheist. The crux, as I glean from the constant back-and-forth, is the difference between recognizing that there are multiple gods, and recognizing multiple gods as archetypal forms. It’s not that archetypes cannot exist, merely that they cannot be an overriding filter to the gods themselves.
    “Old Horn Head” isn’t Pan, but as an archetypal deity, he may have aspects and behaviors similar, and vice versa. Your willingness to recognize archetypes as distinct in their own right (if I read you correctly) might take you even a step farther than what some are arguing for now.

    TL;DR – Nah, you’re good.

  • Natalie Reed

    Yes, this. So much this.

  • Gwion

    I have a slightly different take on the whole polytheist argument. It’s another “ist” all together and I think it bears noting that what many/some in the Pagan community are trying to define can (in some cases) already be summed up by an existing word that many just haven’t heard of. The word is Henotheism and generally put, it’s the worship of one deity (insert your favorite god/ess/mysterious one here) while holding that other deities exist and that others may and do worship them. This can serve to alleviate whether we are talking about archetypal entities, common ancestries, linguistic similarities, etc. – Gwion

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      But, how?
      I certainly know a number of Pagans who are henotheists or who lean henotheistic; but, they’re still polytheist in their outlook because they do acknowledge there are other gods out there–their outlook is polytheistic but their practice is henotheistic, in other words.
      The people who are trying to re-define polytheism these days are often either: a) taking the gods out of the picture entirely and are saying they’re archetypes; or b) those who are not-exclusively polytheists and who incorporate monism and such may suggest some gods are actually the same, or that all the deities go back to an original source or have an underlying unity. So, then, how does henotheism being mentioned have any relevance to either of those viewpoints? As those are the ones that are the most hotly debated and over which the majority of controversy has raged for the last few months, I don’t see how it is that introducing henotheism (which most people on most sides of these debates are already aware of, anyway) will clear up those matters.
      If you could elaborate further, that would be interesting and helpful.

    • I agree with PSVL here; I don’t really understand what you’re suggesting or how henotheism resolves any issues.

  • Justin Akela

    I don’t think it makes you a bad polytheist at all. I was a type of recon for a while, and I stopped that for various reasons, but one of them was that I felt the view of the gods pushed by (some) members of the recon community was too unrealistically separatist. Like you, being aware of historical and cultural connections and changes among pantheons makes it difficult for me to view all gods as completely unconnected to any other god. It was a bit much for me when some would assume deities from even very closely related cultures, with nearly the same name in a slightly different dialect were completely different entities. However, I do see the gods generally as individuated beings – there has to be a good rationale for thinking one and another are the same or connected. For me, the problem isn’t in the nitty gritty of what individual polytheists believe the deep, true nature of the gods is – we can’t know that, and like you I assume that the nature of gods is much different and beyond what we understand as mortals, even if I generally see them as mostly individuated beings. When things become problematic to me is when there is a sort of whitewashing of polytheism to make it seem more like a slightly more nuanced form of monotheism. I don’t care for it when the attitude is almost like *of course* rational people don’t *really* believe in multiple gods, or that *of course* rational people only *really* relate to multiple deities as psychological archetypes. And this kind of thing doesn’t just bother me in regards to polytheism, but other hot topics of Paganism that some would choose to redefine in a much safer, tamer way than delving deep into the theological meat that pagan religions can offer on their own.

  • Alyxander M Folmer

    Love it!

  • Viki Vaughn

    exactly. your relationship with the gods are all that matters, not some forced human defination.when pressed i say soething to this effect :

    A very unique ecclectic pagan vegan pythagoric blend

  • Olivia Enodia Sparda

    I feel happy to know some people out there think the same way I do. After all, isn’t personal gnosis the one thing we can aspire to experience? And isn’t a bunch of personal gnoses what constitutes, in the end, the collective one? Too many questions…so much fun. Thanks for this lovely post.

  • Laine Glaistig

    I am part of something greater than myself and still myself; so I have no problem seeing deities that way. Neo-Platonism works well for me.

    I won’t claim to know what the Gods are. As time and experience mounts in this life I fancy that I understand them a bit better, but I am satisfied knowing that they are. I have no Godometer, Godstick, or Godrule. I don’t even think that the beings that we lump together as “Gods” are all the same order of beings. The Neter of the Egyptian pantheon often come across as diffuse and cosmic; the Aesir much more present and the Lwa practically breathe over your shoulder.