Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists?

I was very pleased to read P.S.V. Lupus’ article today emphasizing the importance of polytheism for Paganism (“Bringing Back the Gods”). I agree that polytheism as a theological viewpoint and as an underlying theory for Pagan religious practice is one of the unique contributions the Pagan movement has to make to contemporary religion.

In the circuitous route I took to my current religious practice, I’ve assumed a more and more polytheistic worldview — not for ideological reasons or out of an active rejection of my birth religion, but because in my spiritual explorations, polytheistic practices produced deeper, more transformative, and more ecstatic experiences. I came to Paganism because I was looking earnestly for intimacy with the divine, not so much because of an innate attraction to pre-Christian mythologies or to any particular named deity. Finding myself cultivating a polytheist practice was, therefore, not what I’d expected to be doing — but it’s what I find most meaningful.

Let’s back up a minute and define some terms. When I say “polytheist,” what I primarily mean is the position that the gods are individuals, volitional and unique beings much like individual humans, and should be treated as such. This position is often called hard polytheism. Soft polytheism is the idea that there are many gods, but they are aspects of one God/dess, or sometimes a Goddess and a God.

This is one area where my theology and practice don’t perfectly match. My personal practice is structured on hard polytheist principles — the gods have names and personalities, and human beings can have relationships with them. My theology, however, is a messy mix of monism (all things are made of one essence and so have an underlying unity) and both kinds of polytheism. That messiness is based on experience, because the gods are not content to reveal themselves in only one way: for me, they are sometimes distinct, and they sometimes blur into each other unpredictably. At other times, I have experiences of a unified divine force that transcends even the permeable boundaries that soft polytheism imagines.

This inconsistency, as far as I’m concerned, is normal. The point of articulating a theology isn’t to pin down an unchanging theological perspective. It’s to give us a vocabulary to describe our experiences and allow us to discuss our beliefs and practices — and hopefully, therefore, to find both common ground and respectful understandings of difference.

In any case, to come back to PSVL’s article: I agree, bringing back the gods is one of the points of contemporary Paganism. Pagans should not be ashamed to be polytheists, and they should engage sophisticated theological resources (such as the polytheistic theologies of the ancient Greeks or contemporary process theology) to explore what that stance means intellectually, spiritually, and practically.

All that being said: I don’t think you have to be a polytheist to be Pagan.

Today, in 2013, I think the three legs of the contemporary Pagan cauldron are these: polytheism, Goddess worship,* and earth-based spirituality. These three focuses for belief and practice have all contributed to what we think of as Paganism. Within the movement, a great many practitioners embrace all three perspectives, and many also engage two of the three.

Three sources for contemporary Paganism. Image by Christine Kraemer.

Three sources for contemporary Paganism. Practitioners in the dark green area usually struggle the least with Pagan identity, and those in the white areas struggle the most.

Because this makes for a diverse set of attitudes, beliefs, and concerns, though, the outliers in this Venn diagram tend to struggle with the idea of “Pagan” identity. Pagan identity is most stable where the three categories overlap. Polytheists who aren’t particularly earth-based or interested in gender politics may feel marginalized, as may indoor worshippers of “the Goddess.” Those practicing “deep ecology” — a nature-based spirituality that has little to do with deities at all — may also feel out of place in the Pagan midst.

It helps to talk about this situation openly, and about the fact that in its modern context, Paganism is an umbrella movement of associated religious traditions, not a fully-formed religious tradition in and of itself. Different Pagan communities tend to lean toward one or two of the above categories without being explicit about their orientation, which can lead to a mysterious sense of alienation among those individuals who came expecting the third. Unspoken and unmet expectations are one of the most common sources of conflict in communities, and yet we Pagans are inconsistent about accurately setting each others’.

So when PSVL says that Pagans describe themselves as nature worshippers because they’re attempting to make people of other religions more comfortable, he may be right for some Pagans at some times. But as many polytheists are disappointed to realize, for some Pagans, polytheism is not a main focus for practice or belief.

I’m speaking as someone who doesn’t really have a horse in the “defining Paganism” race. I’m a nature-based polytheist who came to Paganism first through feminist spirituality, which means I sit squarely in the middle of the cauldron and find myself comfortable in most Pagan groups. But my Paganism has been informed by practitioners who fall all over that Venn diagram. Some of the most potent practitioners I’ve known have been non-theist animists, urban polytheists, and Jungian spiritual feminists — and I was lucky enough to meet them because we gathered under a “Pagan” umbrella.

As much as I’m dedicated to the development of Pagan theology, I’d like us to avoid labeling ourselves too much as “-ists” of any type. Those words are better suited to describing our beliefs than our selves. Rather, I’d like to focus more on the threads we have in common and the activities we want to do together, employing our theological vocabulary to communicate with each other more clearly. (For example: if I’m going to attend a ritual given by a local group of Pagans who are nontheists, it helps set my expectations to know that going in — I’ll understand their ritual choices better and enjoy myself much more.)

Pagan polytheists should focus on bringing back the gods, and no doubt some of the more nature-based or feminist-focused Pagans will come along for the ride. But I don’t think we all need to be working on the same project to cheer each other on, or to form a meaningful community.


*In another post, perhaps, I’ll talk more about Paganism, Goddess worship, and gender. I think it’s not just feminist spirituality that is a persistent thread in Paganism, but rather an entire project involving the sacred exploration and redefinition of traditional gender roles. Historically speaking, the Goddess spirituality of the 1970s and 1980s did much to define Paganism as we understand it today, but queer and transgender approaches to Paganism may be feminist spirituality’s contemporary heirs.

33 thoughts on “Three Legs on the Pagan Cauldron, or Must Pagans Be Polytheists?

  1. I don’t think all Pagans are polytheists but polytheists are often told they are all Pagans. Which plainly isn’t true.

    I also think that, along with eco feminism, the circle in your venn includes left leaning politics.

    Good open for a discussion.


      • In the same circle as Goddess worshiping. If you are going to already group ecofeminism in with Goddess Worship, there a slew of left-leaning politics that comes with that or is generally found with it.


    • There’s nothing inherent to pagan theology which mandates leftist politics nor any other political orientation. The concentrations of political affiliations within certain corners of the pagan movement arose from factors in our country’s political and social culture. Conservatism in this country has mostly been dominated by a very hard and surly form of patriarchy and sectarian Judeo-Christian belief, neither of which leave a light in the window for feminists or those concerned with the environment. There are some folk on the libertarian or secular end of conservatism that have staked out some space for pagans and women and various other free thinkers. That said, the conservative movement in this country is going to have to fundamentally reinvent itself if we want to see more political diversity within the pagan community. That will have to happen anyway if they ever hope to see the inside of the Oval Office again. It will be interesting to see how they evolve if the reactionaries don’t destroy it first.


  2. When we start arguing the definitions of words like Pagan, polytheist, or religion, I think we need to take a step back first and be clear *why* the definition is important and in what context. For example: religious freedom has a meaning under the Constitution, but spiritual freedom isn’t mentioned — which, I think, drives the emotions behind a “spiritual but not religious” dispute. We want Pagan to be a religion to protect our rights. Why is it important, say, to P.S.V. Lupus, to be a polytheist (by his explicit definition)? Is it important to him that he is/is not Pagan?

    Personally, I am a panentheist mystic, I think, and a Witch. But I speak other languages as well.


  3. I’d add one more possibility, which I know you’ve addressed in your writing elsewhere: Western operative or ceremonial magical traditions may not have any of these things, but share with many Pagans a focus on the principles of magic and therefore sometimes find a home in Paganism.

    I also would say that the Pagan movement in general is focused on traditions derived from the West, primarily Western Europe. This presents challenges, of course, because some of the characteristics you point out also occur in other parts of the world, and those traditions often appeal to modern Pagans, raising questions about cultural appropriation that are complicated by the legacy of colonialism and the ongoing challenge of racism. I was going to say that the best approach I know of, as non-expert on these cultures and traditions, is to steadfastly respect the self-identification of their practitioners and to seek opportunities to learn those traditions on their own terms if one so desires, but on second thought, I’m going to say that’s a good approach to all traditions!


    • I think I wouldn’t add the magicians to the diagram because magickal practice can be paired with a variety of religious traditions. It’s the magicians who aren’t clearly Christian or Jewish who end up with the Pagans by default.

      One of the criticisms I’ve been hearing about the term “Pagan” is that it implies “outsider,” which considering the above (among other factors), might be fair.


      • There are a number of traditions dealing with magickal practice and/or spiritual philosophy which defy easy classification but whose orbits often parallel that of the pagan community. One example is Thelema/OTO. It does not identify as an organization as pagan, and in fact is brimming with concepts and practices derived from Christianized Kabbalah/Rosicrucianism etc but also Kemetic deity figures and concepts. For all that, they say they are “not incompatible” with paganism and I would say a majority of the members I’ve ever met considered themselves pagan.


      • There are also some Western-esoteric orders that are explicitly re-Paganized, such as the Order of theTemple of Astarte. Sorting out questions like “which ceremonial orders are more Pagan” is interesting, but should not be done from a prescriptive standpoint: Paganism must remain an opt-in identity to be meaningful.


  4. I see many similarities to my own path in this post. While I believe in a multitude of gods/goddesses , I don’t see them as parts or aspects of one Goddess or a Goddess/God. My relationship is with only one of them. I also agree that we should give some attention to communication and understanding within our diverse community. Thank you for the informative and thought-provoking post!


  5. Christine, my experience is similar to yours. I didn’t set out to become a hard polytheist, but the longer and deeper I practiced, the more my experiences led me in that direction. But I want Paganism to be as big a tent and include as many people as possible. I’m working on my own response – it will be up later tonight.


  6. Polytheistic monism was the theology of many ancient pagans, including the neoplatonists, so I don’t think there’s anything messy or contradictory there at all. IMO the hard polytheism/soft polytheism distinction is a false dichotomy, and a modern one at that. I don’t know of any living polytheist religion with a theology resembling hard polytheism in the strict sense, or soft polytheism in the strict sense. Every polytheistic theology I know of outside of the pagan movement is more nuanced, complex and ambiguous than either position. I think what you’re describing in this article- treating the gods as individual beings while also acknowledging a deeper unity- is much more typical of living polytheist religions.


  7. Something about this has me profoundly uncomfortable. My first concern is the usage of “Goddess worship” without it being explicated in a way that doesn’t make it sound like Wicca. I am also quite secure in my identity as a pagan without needing to include “Goddess worship.” There are goddesses I honor, but my primary deity is male. And I wouldn’t say the others are struggling for an identity so much as the popular idea of paganism rejects and erases them due to the stereotype of Wicca being the whole of neopaganism. Frankly, the longer I look at this, the more it smells of “unless you’re doing it MY way, you’re doing it wrong, so come join the party or remain on the fringe.” Pardon me while I maintain my own path and remain secure in my pagan identity.


    • I think you’re interpolating. She doesn’t say anything about Wicca, or primarily focusing on goddesses. The fact that Pagans HAVE goddesses at all is what distinguishes them from other Western religions.


    • This post isn’t about defining Paganism, it’s about looking at the way three separate threads of belief and practice have come together into a Pagan identity (and how folks who don’t share one or more of those threads have trouble with the idea of “Pagan identity”). You may want to go back and reread.


  8. I do think polytheism or animism or some kind of pluralism is essential to being pagan. There is a historical argument for this. I don’t mind henotheistic Goddess worshippers but, to strike a slightly Freudian note, I’m a bit suspicious of a Goddess that consumes, contains, and smothers all other gods. It cries out for the existence of an Other, I don’t know what, a repressed God of unrestrained male power or something. I’m not against a single unifying “spirit”, but it shouldn’t have a single personality or teaching; rather, every goddess and god that expresses it has their own personality, teaching, values etc.

    Some valuable pagan things come from a pluralistic view of the world, for instance, the idea of balance of opposition, symbolised by light and dark, or male and female, or four elements or whatever. It allows the possibility of being open to other perspectives, other systems of values, other ways of being. A lot of pagans I know seemed to be focussed on one or maybe two particular gods reflecting their particular needs, but perhaps avail themselves of other gods on occasion.


    • I put pluralism in my longer discussion of what Paganism is (in the “What Is Contemporary Paganism” pamphlet linked in this article, and also laid out in the intro to _Seeking the Mystery_). But, like all the other characteristics I name there, it’s not essential. Groups that have 5 out of 7 characteristics, say, tend to consider themselves Pagan and be accepted by others as such.


    • Pluralism isn’t synonymous with polytheism, or animism, though. It’s a philosophical school that essentially describes the nature of the universe as at least a few separate forces; as opposed to a unified force, which would be characteristic of monism. Pluralism fits better with polytheism and animism than with monotheism, true, but a lot of polytheists are also monists.


  9. I like this. It may explain a good part of why we’re still discussing how to define Our Thing and why it still causes arguments. I used to subscribe to a Pagan clergy email group that had “defining Paganism” as one of its forbidden topics, after the 37th flamewar. Maybe we’ve advanced beyond that?

    There are other ways to analyze Paganism, of course. I gave one in my 2011 article “Defining Paganism, Last Try” that tries to blend belief and practice ( My first point was that Paganism needs to be an opt-in label. This gets rid of the uncomfortable “Are Hindus Pagan?” kind of question. But the main point of any such exercise is to make sure the reader realizes that there’s no ONE thing all Pagans believe or do: I’m pretty sure, after many years of this, that we need to get rid of the idea of formulaic definitions of Paganism (or at least the ones with a manageable number of terms). For example “Earth-based” (much as I love a good hike in the woods, I’m more cosmopolitan) and especially “European” (the Near East and North Africa are “just as Pagan,” and are precursors of much of what we got through Greece and Rome).

    I also don’t think the opt-in is there from much of the Goddess Spirituality camp, as they view themselves as “women’s religion.” A vital Pagan tradition _can_ have room for practices for only women and others for only men, just as most traditional societies did and do, if we don’t take it as an excuse to knot our collective knickers.

    So, yes: Pagans can be polytheistic or not, animistic or not, magical or not, earthy or cosmopolitan, and so on.

    We probably do all share the prospect and memory of some type of ecstatic experience, but that is part of the definition of spirituality, not just of Paganism.


  10. “Because this makes for a diverse set of attitudes, beliefs, and concerns, though, the outliers in this Venn diagram tend to struggle with the idea of “Pagan” identity.”

    I’d word it as “…are excluded by a narrow definition of “Pagan” identity.” As a Kemetic recon, I’m just fine with a wide definition of “pagan,” and I don’t “struggle” with that. It doesn’t upset me in the least if other pagans aren’t polytheists. Especially if they’re not throwing rocks at me. I see pagan as a useful term.

    However, as an example, I’m active in a local Unitarian Universalist church. There’s an organization called the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans “dedicated to networking Pagan-identified Unitarian Universalists.” Excellent, I think. I should look into this. However, reading further, “Earth-centered traditions” is the central identifier. SLAM goes the door. The same slamming door that P.S.V. Lupus talks about, denied indoor ritual space.

    I suspect there are many more than three circles, and the ‘three legs’ in the title implies that all three are needed for a stable tripod. What the people outside that overlapping center are saying is “You are denying my diversity and my practice.” The ones that get tired of arguing the point walk away from ‘pagan’ entirely.


    • > I suspect there are many more than three circles, and the ‘three legs’ in the title implies that all three are needed for a stable tripod.

      No, what it implies is what my post explicitly says: generally speaking, those who claim all three parts of the identity don’t wonder if they’re Pagan or have to defend their Pagan identification. Those who don’t tend to have to talk and think a great deal about what Pagan means and whether they belong. If you reread my post, you’ll see that I’m describing a state of affairs, not dictating how they ought to be.

      I do have to wonder, though: why do you think that any group calling itself Pagan is obligated to automatically change itself to include newcomers? To me, inclusion means welcoming others to join in whatever a group is already doing (and of course, groups change organically over time to better serve the needs of those who consistently show up). Why would you expect CUUPS to serve your needs if you aren’t already supporting them with your attendance, time, and energy?

      If you don’t want to do what the existing group does, but you want to use a UU church, all you have to do is either rent the space yourself or join the church and donate. That’s what CUUPS groups do.

      It seems to me here that you’re suggesting that earth-centered Pagans should give their time, energy, and money to every other Pagan’s practice or they are “denying their diversity and practice.” But everyone needs to give before they can expect to receive. A group exists to serve its members, not those who MIGHT join IF the group changes everything they’re already doing.

      I think it’s perfectly okay, though, for Pagans to have groups with different focuses. We don’t all have to be working on the same project. We can all do our own things for ritual and then get together for social events and fellowship. What I’d like to see is more clarity around our labeling and more acknowledgement that Paganism is diverse and successful *ritual* groups are not one size fits all — although larger community groups can and should be able to do festivals and social events for a wider crowd.


  11. I am a non-realist polymorphist pantheist. That is, I think there are many deity-forms, which have personality (mainly because we interact with them – just as human personalities are shaped by social interaction, so are divine ones). They may be real, or they may not; but they are certainly fluid, and they emerge from the underlying divine essence (as do we). I also like Sam Webster’s concept of immediacy – that everything is divine (instead of the Divine being in everything, as in pantheism).

    I think your “messy mix of monism (all things are made of one essence and so have an underlying unity) and both kinds of polytheism” is actually polymorphism.

    I totally agree that we shouldn’t get hung up on -isms, as it can be very divisive. And I like your three-fold model.


  12. Thank you so much for this post. I agree with some of the commenters that other Venn diagrams could be drawn with additional circles, but for the purposes of the conversation that is currently going on, what you’ve outlined is, I think, incredibly helpful — or at least it is for me: I sit firmly in the centre of your Venn diagram, and for all my analogising and respect for others’ decisions, have been basically puzzled by why someone who I perceive as meeting all my criteria to fit under the Pagan umbrella and have their rights fought for and defended by, for example, the Pagan Federation (Scotland), would want to put themselves outside of that protection of group solidarity. (As someone who sits is in the centre and therefore comfortably, I have an invisible knapsack to unpack, I think.)


  13. I acknowledge the need for many of us born in the XX/XXI cs to bring about a merrier, more appealing religious tradition. Many of us, precisely for being more “spiritual”, have had negative experiences and “vibes” in tradtional christian masses, and in christianity in general, which only lead us further aways from religion in its ritualistic form, pursuing nonetheless, spirituality. But the problem with ecletic spirituality is that it´s precisely incomplete. I´m not saying that christianity is complete, because it´s not, but in judaism e.g., those who are inclined to the inner aspect of the Torah, can learn about it in a yeshiva, or personaly with a rabbi. In that respect, judaism has always been a step ahead. Now, the Real problem is that, although religion is for everyone, its core – esoterism and spirituality- is not. In Europe, these esoteric traditions survived being associated with seasonal festivals, marriage, and other life-cycle ceremonies, like what happened in Greece and Rome, more historically known. It´s not that seasons and festivals don´t have anything to do with spirituality – they have – but only exoterically. This to bring to mind that spirituality IS not for everyone. Most people identify with the external aspect of Life and Divinity, and for the internal aspect to survive through personal transmission, it has to be associated with what people identify the most – materiality. It seems a contradiction, but it could not have done otherwise. History shows that. If Christianity brought to Europe the sense that God is removed from the world – which is nonetheless esoterically true – it had to cope with local traditions, which is seen still nowadays, because that´s what most people identify with – spirits that can be “touched”, spoken to, bribed, etc, etc – mediocre spirituality and superstition – what the christianity precisely wanted to remove, but didn´t succeed – it will always exist. We can´t all be alike, all “spiritual” or all “material”. I don´t know what´s the answer for the western society, since I myself am too discontent with, not only chirstian spirituality, but also ritual, and the only thing I can say is that, in that respect, India has the oldest polytheistic monistic religion in the world, and, on the other hand, judaism is the oldest monotheistic religion today. Both have managed to cope the internal with the external aspect of religion, which is the most difficult in my view. Personally, I have difficulty in liking the material aspect of it. Maybe I would have liked hellenism, ritually, only because I´m also fond of its internal aspect, but that´s all. And now I have to cope my beliefs of polytheistic monism as taught by Plotinus, and also present in hinduism (Advaita Vedanta), and kabbalah, with the existing religion that is out there for me- christianism. If I can´t cope it, then I either become a forced ecletic, like many, or forget about it completely. But, like someone said, virtue is in the middle 🙂

    Edit: One cannot say that deeper spirituality and mysticism is absent in judaism – its acknowledgement of the Divine Feminine, present in the kabbalistic concept of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, reflects the dual/non-dual paradox of Divinity that mystics strived, and will always strive with. The Transcendent God vs the Immanent God, that´s what it´s all about, and what the difficulty between monotheism and polytheism is all about, because both are correct, but none is accurate on its own, separately.


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