On Being a “Bad” Polytheist

On Being a “Bad” Polytheist March 7, 2016

“Pan is not Cernunnos” is a phrase I repeat with so much frequency that it might as well be a mantra. One god has antlers and has never been depicted with a raging hard-on. The other has goat horns and is nearly always depicted as aroused and ready to go in ancient art. Though we sometimes think of them both as aspects of “The Horned God” the two deities are very different. 

I have been a practicing Witch for a little over twenty years now, and during that time period I’ve always thought of myself as a polytheist. Most dictionaries define polytheism as “the belief in or worship of more than one god.” Note that there are no qualifiers in that definition; and nothing that says there is only one way or one correct way to be a polytheist. (It’s also worth noting that dictionaries aren’t the be all/end all when it comes to how words are used.)

"The Golden Apple of Discord"  by Jacob Jordaens.  From WikiMedia.
“The Golden Apple of Discord” by Jacob Jordaens. From WikiMedia.

Why does this matter? Over the last couple of years I’ve heard several times from various sources that Wiccans aren’t polytheists. (And I was never asked myself, nor was anyone that I know.) Those who insist that we aren’t polytheists often call us duotheists, a word I’ve never heard anyone self-identify as.

I understand the confusion (especially with all the “Lord and Lady” things one hears at an open ritual), and I’ll admit that many Wicca 101 books certainly make us sound like duotheists*, but that’s never been my experience. The differences between various gods and goddesses have always been expressed by my teachers and fellow practitioners. Most often with very specific language. 

Generally anytime I’ve experienced a drawing down of deity there has been a specific name attached to it. For instance it’s always been “My High Priest drew down Herne” not “My High Priest drew down the Horned God.” And when specific deities aren’t named there’s generally a specific figure hidden just beyond the veil.


Just so there is no confusion, I primarily I identify as a Witch, if you wanted me to break that down a little further I’d say a Wiccan Witch. My own personal cosmology has room for many goddesses and gods with distinct personalities and ways of being. As such, my belief system is polytheistic, I’m a polytheist in the same way a Muslim is a monotheist. I recognize many deities, just as they recognize one. Like a follower of Islam I do not primarily identify as my cosmology.

There are many folks out there today who are Devotional Polytheists (notice the capital letters!). That’s how they recognize and characterize their practice and I think they are doing great things. I agree with them on a whole host of issues.

As a Witch I’m not a Devotional Polytheist, but as a Witch I am a polytheist. Does that make sense? I’m not trying to steal anyone’s identity or take away their space. But I can’t help being a polytheist! It’s what I am! Like there are many uses of the word “witch” there are many ways to use the term “polytheist” in today’s world.

A few years ago I was leading a Samhain ritual for a local group that didn’t allow the use of specific deity names. In public utterance I was drawing down “the God of Death” but in my mind and my heart I knew that god was Cernunnos. Since I was the one walking closest to the deity in question, I feel pretty sure about which god we invoked that night. One doesn’t have to say the name of a specific deity to invoke a specific deity

I will admit that while I think of myself as a polytheist there is a hint of Neo-Platonism to my Paganism. For those unfamiliar with Neo-Platonism it’s generally described as: “a philosophical system, originated in the 3rd century a.d. by Plotinus, founded chiefly on Platonic doctrine and Oriental mysticism, with later influences from Christianity. It holds that all existence consists of emanations from the One with whom the soul may be reunited.” I know that doesn’t sound like it completely jells with polytheism, but give me a second. 

Dice playing in Pompeii (fresco) from WikiMedia.
Dice playing in Pompeii (fresco) from WikiMedia.

I see the various deities in this world as being somehow interrelated, and that shouldn’t be thought of as a bad thing. The world is full of interrelated systems, an ecosystem for instance is one thing made up of many pieces, but we’d never think for a second that an octopus and a coral reef are the same thing. I think we as people are all connected together on account of being human, and certainly you and I are separate creatures with our own minds and souls. 

I tend to think of the same thing when it comes to deity. It’s all related somehow, and yet all unique. History tells us that many deities over the centuries have had common origins and are related in various ways. Often we can even say with some degree of certainty that Goddess X was worshiped in such and such a place at such and such a time and that her worship then moved to a different place where her name was slightly changed. These types of instances could all represent separate goddesses, but the archeological and linguistic records suggest a common point of origin, that they are related or the same thing.

Many of the most popular pantheons in Modern Paganism evolved from Indo-European traditions. (Note that Indo-European is more of a language group than an ethnic group.) Deities that evolved from the Indo-European often share word roots. In Greek today the word pan translates as “everything” or “all,” but the god of the same name derives his moniker from the Indo-European word root pa which translates as “to watch over” or “guard.” Since watching and guarding are the actions of shepherds pa is sometimes linked to shepherds as well. 

Through the word-root pa Pan can be linked to the Vedic god Pusan, who contains many similarities to Pan. Both gods are pastoral and have an affinity for goats. Pan has the legs of a goat and has been known to have sex with them, Pusan has a chariot pulled by goats, and goats were sacrificed to both gods in antiquity. 

Because of all this I think it’s logical to assume that both of them share a common ancestor. The philosopher in me then wonders if both gods are part of something bigger than themselves? Do they remain connected to that “bigger” while also existing as separate beings? Certainly I see them as distinct and individual deities, but there’s clearly a point of commonality there. That’s the way it is with most other goddesses and gods too. (I used Pan here because he’s the one I know the most about.) 

Jason's many Pans.
Jason’s many Pans.

I don’t know how deity works, and I don’t have enough hubris to suggest that I do, or that the ruminations shared here contain all the answers. I only know that I can see connections between deity because history tells me that they are there, I don’t think that makes me a bad polytheist. 

One of the things that makes Wiccans sound like duotheists is the overuse of the terms Lady and Lord. Wicca was originally an initiation only tradition, and the names of the deities in different traditions were for initiates only. As “Outer Court” rituals evolved in the 60’s and 70’s something was needed to take the place of those sacred names. Many Witches used the terms Lord and Lady to fill those spaces, but they were originally used like titles, kind of like “Mom” and “Dad. They were words that could be said inside a circle containing non-initiates, and the people calling to the “Lord” and “Lady” were generally calling to specific deities.

Eventually worship of The Goddess and The God (Lady and Lord) evolved into its own thing and I’m certainly not denying that there could be (or is!) a Lord and Lady out there. Deity could be interconnected enough that it all goes back to a specific source and hence the Lord and Lady. Certainly something is coming through when people call to those figures. 

I write all that knowing that there’s a giant elephant in the polytheist waiting room, most notably Doreen Valiente’s Charge of the Goddess. Its first line highlights the “oneness” of deity in a way that doesn’t always make sense to me:

“Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who of old was also called among men Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arianrhod, Bride, and by many other names.”

I have never had a High Priestess tell me that Aphrodite is Cerridwen, or that Artemis is Bride. The Charge of the Goddess is a wonderful piece of liturgy, but a troublesome piece of theology. We all have a mother, but they aren’t the same mother of course, perhaps all the goddesses listed by Valiente are great mothers, and that’s what links them together.

Perhaps the biggest enforcement of Wicca as simply a “duotheistic” tradition comes from Wicca 101 books. The contents of some of those books horrified me last year after a quick re-read. Authors I loved as a young Witchling left me scratching my head as an adult. For instance in Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft I came upon this gem:

“What names you use for your deities is a matter of personal preference . . . . . Each tradition has its own name. But names are only labels, they are only a means of identifying. You should identify, then, using a name with which you can feel completely comfortable . . . Even if you join an established tradition this is still valid-find a tradition that seems right for you but . . . don’t be afraid to modify where necessary to make it totally right for you . . . A name as, as I have said, is a label. The God himself knows you are ‘talking’ to him; he’s not going to be confused!”

If you join a group and don’t like the “names” of the deities being called you should probably find a new group! Not change their theology on the fly because you don’t like Lucifer or whatever. Buckland also adds:

“There are different rituals, different festivals and even different names for the gods . . . . that I say ‘different names for the gods’ rather than simply, ‘different gods.’”

In my own practice I’ve always called specific deities for specific reasons. If I’ve got a money problem the right answer is Cernunnos because he was often depicted with gold coins. I don’t call Pan because he was never associated with money. If “the gods” are all the same, why are there long laundry lists of what deity to call depending on the situation?

Often unfairly maligned, Silver Ravenwolf has an excellent grasp on deity. In To Ride a Silver Broomstick she writes:

“The Craft gives you the freedom to pick and subsequently honor your own forms of the Divine. Just as you would not call on any doctor when you are sick, you don’t leaf through a book and call on any deity.”

Exactly! This has always been my experience, and the experience of just about every Witch I’ve ever shared a circle with! Pan is not Cernunnos! 

Silver also expertly articulates the idea that there could be connections between various deties:

“Look at the deity structure like a family tree . . . . . At the very top of the deity family tree is a glittering sphere of light and energy called the All. It is the essence of every living form from every plane of existence-a thing, yet a non-thing . . . . Down we go then, to the first two branches of the tree, right below the All. Every branch is exactly the same, one on the right side of the tree and one on the left. Totally balanced in every respect to each other. The represent the God and the Goddess, or the Lord and Lady. Separate yet equal, together they combine into the essence of the All. These two images do not carry individual names, as they are representations of the many facets of every God and Goddess ever imagined.”

I know that not every polytheist out there is going to fall in love with that statement, but I think it’s pretty reasonable. 

Richard Dadd-"Come unto These Yellow Sands" from WikiMedia.
Richard Dadd-“Come unto These Yellow Sands” from WikiMedia.

In many ways I’ve always envisioned the various “secret deities” in traditional Wicca as tribal deities. Certain gods and goddesses might be exclusively acknowledged in a tradition, but that acknowledgement doesn’t stop any other deities from existing. Long before the Hebrews became monotheists they saw their god as simply stronger than others and exclusively for them. 

Theology has never been Wicca’s strong suit, but there are perhaps millions of us out there who recognize deities as separate and unique entities. Are some Wiccans simply “duotheists?” Most certainly, but I think there are many more of us who see the various gods and goddesses that inhabit this world as separate and unique beings. They may be related in some way, but they each have their own consciousness and way of being. 

There might be some people who disagree with me, but I most definitely think of myself as a polytheist. The deities worshipped in my house and in my circle are all unique unto themselves, even if we call some of them “Lord and Lady” on occasion. 

I’m sorry this article jumps around a lot and represents some thoughts presented elsewhere on this blog, this post was recycled from a previous project.

*I can’t help but sneer a little bit when writing “duotheist,” but if you or anyone else self-identifies in that way I mean no offense. I think all of our different interpretations of deity are valid.

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