Plain Speaking on Polytheism

That’s enough apple pie metaphors… let’s get down to brass tacks.

It’s good to have descriptions of what a word means, so that labels are mutually comprehensible. It’s also quite nice when the meaning of a word bears some vague resemblance to its etymology. But there’s a conflict between creating a meaning that is inclusive enough to include the majority of people who want to identify as that label, and making a word completely meaningless.

A definition is a fairly precise meaning or set of meanings that are generally agreed usage(s) of a word and what it denotes.

However, language usage is fluid and changeable, and different groups of people use words differently in different contexts. That’s why it is a good idea to examine the connotations of a word, so that we can describe how it is used in different contexts.

Examples of words that have highly fluid — and thus highly disputed — meanings: Pagan, polytheist, and Wiccan.

Part of the reason that these words are disputed is because the dictionary definitions are largely unhelpful and out of date.

Why are the meanings disputed?

If a group of people wants to describe its practice, beliefs, and values as distinct from those of another group, it becomes helpful to have a name that describes only that group, and is not in use by another group. This is why the various denominations of Christianity have created labels to distinguish themselves from each other. It’s why there are umpteen different varieties of witchcraft, Druidry, and Heathenry. You can recognise some common factor that makes them fit in their respective categories; but there’s enough difference between them that it is worth adding a qualifier to the label.

Wicca

The word “Wiccan” has a fairly chequered history. Gerald Gardner referred to all witches as “the Wica“. Charles Cardell described his group as “Wiccens“. Gradually, in the USA, Wicca came to refer to any Wiccan or “Wiccanish” tradition. In the UK, it tends to refer to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans — but many people identify as Wiccan who have never been initiated into those traditions. (Part of the reason for this is that it became very difficult to identify as a witch during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Wiccan became a handy euphemism for witch.) The word “Wicca” has become so broad and confusing that it may be impossible to restrict its meaning to Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans.

There are also other witchcraft traditions (in the UK, Canada, Australia, and the USA) such as the 1734 tradition, the Clan of Tubal Cain, Feri, Reclaiming, and so on. Most of them are initiatory. Fortunately, hardly anyone disputes that the word “witch” applies to all these different traditions.

It is also worth noting that uniformity of belief is not the prime focus of witchcraft traditions. You can be a polytheist witch, a duotheist witch, a pantheist witch, an atheist witch, an animist witch, or some combination of these. (Some readers of All Acts of Love and Pleasure: inclusive Wicca were surprised that I said that you can be an atheist witch. It’s more difficult to be a materialist witch, not believing in or experiencing energies; but not believing in gods is not a barrier.)

Polytheism

To my mind, polytheism just means “many gods” or “belief in many gods”. It doesn’t say anything about how you worship them, or what type of rituals you perform to get in touch with them. Some people want to define polytheism as “religious regard for many gods” (in order to exclude those who acknowledge that gods exist but don’t have any truck with them – but I think that is redundant, as even if a Christian acknowledges that our gods exist in some way, they don’t acknowledge them as gods, so their view is irrelevant to the definition of the term).

If you want to describe a particular way that people interact with the gods, or a particular concept of what they are, then I would argue that you need a qualifying adjective. Various qualifying adjectives have been suggested (hard polytheism, soft polytheism, devotional polytheism, relational polytheism, Jungian or archetypalist polytheism, monistic polytheism, henotheistic polytheism, mystical polytheism), not in order to split polytheism as a whole, but to provide more accurate descriptions of how people relate to the gods.

Various people have different understandings of what polytheism means in their religious context. If someone else’s meaning of polytheism conflicts with your meaning, then you have two possible options:

  • claim that their meaning / usage / understanding is wrong;
  • add a qualifying adjective to distinguish your usage of the term from theirs.

Over recent years, there have been various online arguments about how to do polytheism “properly”, such as:

What’s really going on?

It is probably not possible to “win” one of these arguments, or answer the question to everyone’s satisfaction. But there is always someone who wants their definition of a concept to be the only valid definition, and to be a gatekeeper of who gets to identify as a particular label. Being a gatekeeper or the person who gets to define a term is a position of power and control, potentially with authority attached to it.

Whoever gets to define or describe what polytheism is will have a huge influence on its future development. If it is a broad-brush movement with many different ways to be polytheist, it will become large, nebulous, and hard to control. If it is narrowly defined, it will be much smaller, but possibly easier to control. And it will end up excluding people whose insights, ideas, and practices might have been valuable to it.

My own position is that I  don’t want to control anything. I am inherently distrustful of authority (including any authority that I myself may accidentally have acquired). Any authority should have checks and balances with it. If you are the high priestess of a coven, or the leader of a religious tradition, there should be a process for consultation and establishing consensus, and in large groups, for democracy and accountability. For example, in the Inclusive Wicca Discussion Group that I founded on Facebook, I created a set of group guidelines and invited members to vote on them and add to them; and there is more than one moderator for the group. In my coven, we take it in turns to write rituals, so everyone gets the kind of ritual they like; and whoever has written the ritual is the facilitator for that ritual. Whilst I am the most experienced witch in the coven, so the buck does tend to stop with me, I do try to empower others. The process of teaching and learning that we use is all about sharing ideas.

If you want to create a sub-tradition of polytheism that has a set of beliefs, practices, and values that meet your expectations and requirements, that’s fine. But don’t try to label it as the One True Way of polytheism. You will need to give it a more specific name. Some have argued that if polytheism is seen as a catch-all term that includes soft polytheists, archetypalists, and so on, then it becomes a less useful term. Maybe so, but that’s just how language and terminology work.

That’s why Niki Whiting proposed the term ‘relational polytheism’, and others have proposed other qualifying adjectives: to be clear about how our polytheism works out in practice and in context. Similarly, there are different flavours of Wicca and witchcraft, each with their own label, to enable people to find a flavour of Wicca that’s right for them.

People are confusing denotation with connotation, as often happens when the meaning of a term is contested. The term polytheism denotes ‘many gods’. To a devotional polytheist, that has connotations of devotion, religious regard, and so on. To a relational polytheist, the connotations are forming relationships with the gods. In order for different groups of people to find the polytheists they want to hang out with, we need those qualifying adjectives so that everyone who honours many gods can call themselves polytheists, without insisting on a particular definition of a god, but if you want to be more precise about how you want to honour the gods, or what you think gods are, then use a qualifying adjective.

The alternative is that a tiny group of people get to define what polytheism is and who gets to call themselves polytheist, till the whole thing turns into a clique and everyone else loses interest.

Polytheism isn’t yours

As Bekah Evie Bel points out, polytheism isn’t yours. And it’s not mine either. It belongs to everyone.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.

Lubnaclach in splendid isolation.  © Copyright Pip Rolls and
licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Authority in Religious Traditions

There are different kinds of power, as famously identified by Starhawk (and probably others before her): power-over, power-from-within, and power-with-others. Authority comes in at least two flavours: being an authority on a topic (that’s why writers of books are called authors) and having authority over others. All of these are conferred by others to a greater or lesser extent (even power-from-within occurs when the pressure from inside is greater than or equal to the pressure from outside).

John Beckett writes that some people have a problem with authority. This is true, but sometimes it’s for very good reasons. We all mistake authority-on-a-topic for authority-over-others. Many bloggers have the experience of getting the comment “You can’t tell me what to do” when the authorial tone of their post was intended to be authority-on-a-topic and not telling others what to do. This is frustrating (but sometimes people get the authorial tone of their posts wrong, including me). But there are those who quite blatantly want to have power and authority over others, and use their powers of manipulation and persuasion and their apparent deep knowledge of a topic to gain power over others. They use the confusion over what is legitimate power and authority to create a mini-kingdom for themselves. These are the people and power-structures we should be resisting.

As Rhyd Wildermuth writes in a recent post, Gods & Authority:

Enclosure can happen for meaning, too.  In fact, that’s always been the trick of Authority; convince people they have no other access to meaning except through their prescribed doctrines, just as Capital convinces us we have no access to exchange except through property and the market or the State convinces us we’ll die without it.

This is a situation that we want to avoid at all costs in the Pagan, polytheist, Heathen, Druid, and Wiccan communities. As soon as one person or group claims sole access to meaning, then they have enclosed meaning, and are in pursuit of power and authority over others.

The Buddha made a very sensible disclaimer about his teachings – that if they make sense to you, follow them, and if they don’t make sense to you, don’t follow them. Maybe we should all add that as a disclaimer at the end of our posts.

If someone says a thing that makes sense to you, then you would be well-advised to follow it. If it  doesn’t make sense to you, don’t follow it – but do think about why it doesn’t make sense to you. Is it because you have an issue that is  getting in the way, or is it because you have genuine solid objections to it?

Power and authority in groups

I have observed a number of different religious groups with different ways of dealing with power.

The Quakers make their structure as flat as possible, with elders and various committees. Sometimes the elders have too much power, but this is presumably balanced by the committees, and by the strong Quaker discernment processes. They also strongly recommend that people attend their classes on being a Quaker – so presumably those would also teach you about how to complain if somebody “forcefully eldered” you. I think we can learn a lot from how the Quakers do things. They also have regional Yearly Meetings in which all the Quaker meetings come together to discuss things, again using Quaker process. The disadvantage of this system is that the power is not out in the open where people can see it.

In Wicca, there is no formal power structure beyond the immediate coven. Covens have autonomy, and this is an important principle to most Wiccans. (Some groups have high priestesses who are referred to as Lord and Lady – but this is a North American innovation and is not done in Wicca in Britain, where we have quite enough aristocracy already, thank you. As far as I can tell, in most groups it is an honorary title only.) The system of coven autonomy has its pros and cons – it means that there can be very dodgy behaviour in a coven, and they can get away with it – but it does prevent hierarchy forming above and beyond that.

OBOD Druid groves generally have leaders, but different people are encouraged to lead rituals. They also have sub-groups for the different grades (bard, ovate, druid) and these could develop some odd power dynamics, but I haven’t observed any groups beyond the bardic grade, so I couldn’t say for sure. There is also the rather odd idea of the chosen chief of the order (who chose him? I didn’t vote for him…) but this seems largely ceremonial, as far as I can tell. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)

In Unitarianism, they have ministers and committees. In fact they have a lot of committees for such a small group. They also have an annual General Assembly (similar to the Quaker Yearly Meetings). The power of the minister and the committee generally balance each other. (Sometimes one has too much power, sometimes the other.) Congregations have autonomy, and there are also the important principles of the freedom of the pulpit (the freedom to state your truth in the pulpit) and the freedom of the pew (the freedom to believe your truth and disagree with what is said from the pulpit).

Authority (use of power legitimated by the structure) in the Quakers, Unitarians, and OBOD is fairly well-distributed in a system of checks and balances between the national body and the local regions and congregations. Wicca doesn’t have a national body, but we do get together to  discuss things and we have a shared body of practices, as well as freedom to be creative. None of these systems are perfect, but they’re pretty good. There’s always someone with a big ego trying to gain power, but most of the time they are balanced by the structures that exist to regulate power and authority.

Freedom of belief, freedom of conscience

All of the above groups have freedom of belief: you can be an atheist, a pantheist, a duotheist, a monotheist, a polytheist, and so on. In practice there are not that many polytheists in the Unitarians and Quakers in Britain, but there are some, and both groups include atheists. What is important in all these groups is your values, including a willingness to play nicely with others. They do share a worldview, an ethos. As Caelesti writes in this excellent blogpost, Belief vs. Worldview:

Lived Values Follow Worldview – hopefully after developing a worldview, or during the process of developing one, values and ethics come to be a lived part of one’s life. This has been primarily what I have been focusing on this past year with my Self-Care Virtues project – the virtues are based on Celtic and Norse polytheistic worldviews, and there are also influences from my UU values.

It is also worth noting that these groups are mostly stable. Of course there are arguments about what  it means to be a Unitarian or a Quaker or a Wiccan (and probably a Druid too, but I don’t know) but as every group has a variety of different preferences within it, I expect these arguments will never be definitely settled by a schism. Instead, there are affinity groups of Unitarian Pagans, Unitarian Christians, Quaker Pagans, Christian Quakers, and so on and so forth. And in terms of values, these groups generally have more agreement with each other than disagreement.

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. [CC BY SA 3.0]

The Triumph of Civilisation by Jacques Réattau. Photo by Grizzli, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2398513

The emergent polytheist movement

I am largely observing the emergent polytheist movement from the outside and over the internet, so what follows is a somewhat partial perspective – but I have observed (and others have too) that there are some rather disturbing tendencies developing, which could in a couple of generations adversely affect the setup of polytheist communities.

Personally, I feel excluded by the polytheist movement. I have had too many polytheists tell me that I can’t be a proper polytheist because I’m a Wiccan (and it seems Jason Mankey has had the same experience). I feel excluded by all the people saying that there is only one way to be a proper polytheist, and that is to be a devotional polytheist. I feel excluded by the editorial policy of Polytheist.com, which is that they choose who they want on the site, and do not accept applications from prospective bloggers (contrast this with Gods & Radicals, whose editorial policy is basically “send in an article”, or Patheos Pagan, whose policy is also that people can apply to join, though that probably needs to be formally stated somewhere). I feel excluded by the increasingly narrow definition of what a polytheist is. Polytheism means ‘many gods’. That’s it. It doesn’t matter if you also believe that they are emanations of the divine source, or the underlying energy or whatever. That’s still polytheism.

This one of several reasons why I wrote my post on relational polytheism – the idea that we are in relationship with the gods, that we are co-creators with them of unfolding reality. It is possible to be a polytheist and a Wiccan – because I am one, and so are many others. My polytheism is different to Jason’s – but that is just fine.

If membership of polytheist groups and communities becomes based on a test of belief, then there will be persecutions of “bad polytheists” a few generations down the line. What matters is your values. Do you treat others with respect for their autonomy and freedom? Are you inclusive and welcoming of people with disabilities, LGBTQIA people, and people of colour? Do you care about the environment? Are you prepared to play nicely with other people who believe differently than you? Then you’re in my community. If not, take a hike.

As Rhyd Wildermuth says, how we world the gods says much more about us than it does about them. If we are authoritarian, the way we world the gods is as authoritarian figures. If we are egalitarian and peace-loving, we world them as egalitarian and peace-loving. He writes:

The gods exist as independent beings from us regardless of our belief in them. But it’s we who actually world them into the earth, and how we world them is dependent upon what we do, who we are, and the sort of world we create around us.

This is what’s going on with Heathens and Gaelic Reconstructionists who insist there must be a racial component to worship of gods. They are the sorts of people who believe in race, and therefore world their gods into the earth racially. The same can be said of people in those same traditions who insist there is no racial component; they don’t believe in race, and therefore don’t world the racism into the gods.

The true offering we give to the gods, which is precisely the same offering we give to any other living being, is this act of worlding. When I make offerings to Arianrhod, she’s not drinking that mead. Instead, by offering her mead or flowers, I am worlding her into the earth through the act of offering those things, but this is only a personal act.

So if someone claims that you don’t choose a god, a god chooses you, and that once the god has chosen you, you must do their bidding – then they are probably an authoritarian trying to world the gods as authoritarian. If they claim to be the chosen mouthpiece of the god, and try to tell you that they know better than you do who your personal deity is (or deities are), then they are trying to gain power over you. If someone claims that they are practising the One True Way for everyone, and you’re Doing It Wrong, then they are trying to gain power over you. The fact that there are many deities and many religious and spiritual paths suggests that there is no One True Way, in any case. If they tell you not to talk to certain people or types of people, that’s a power-grab. I wrote some warning signs of unethical groups for the Gardnerian Wicca website that are probably applicable more generally.

It is perhaps inevitable that some people will seek power and control. That means we have to create the structures, the checks and balances, that will prevent them from gaining too much power. As Syren Nagakyrie writes in this excellent post, A Conversation on Power and Authority in Polytheism:

At the top, that power turns it’s gaze to control. To determining religious experience, to deciding canon, and who is worthy of their religion and who is not. Again, look at the world religions. Look at the history. This is not conjecture or conspiracy. This what we see happen again and again and again.

We have an opportunity to do differently, to try. Yes it means hard conversations. It means it will take time. But if this is not the work, then what is? If this is not an act of devotion, of dedication, then what is? I am led to believe that this is why some particular powerful deities, and the Dead, are making Themselves so known right now.

Draw the circle wide

As Caelesti pointed out in her post, people’s beliefs shift and change over time. We live in a culture and a time where it’s hard to be a polytheist. Some days people are atheists with polytheist leanings, some days they are full-blown polytheists, some days they are agnostic. It’s okay to have doubts; they are a healthy part of spirituality and religion. If you didn’t have doubts, how would you test ideas to see if they really came from the gods, or were just the product of your ego? If you exclude everyone who is a bit agnostic, and don’t allow them room to practice, then you might be missing out on good people, and you won’t be giving them an opportunity to experience the presence of the gods (and how they interpret that experience should be up to them). As Elizabeth I said, “I would not make windows into men’s souls”.

Belief and faith originally meant trust, not assent to a creedal proposition – and I really hope that they will come to mean that again.  I hope that polytheist communities will not have a creedal test of membership, but develop a common set of practices and values that will attract people who want to live those values and practice those values and world the gods in a way that will make the world a better place for everyone, not just a privileged few.