Do deities have gender? What about sexual characteristics? As non-physical (and some might say, metaphorical) beings, they can manifest in whatever form they want.
A totalising system is one that seeks to subsume all other paradigms within its paradigm, rather than accepting that other paradigms exist alongside it. It regards itself as a complete and universal system which can explain all experience and needs no supplemental systems.
A non-totalising or pluralist system recognises its particularity to its local culture and sees that different philosophies emerge out of different cultural contexts and local histories. A totalising system ignores local contexts or seeks to explain them through its paradigm.
John Beckett has a witty and amusing post up about apple pie, vanilla pudding, and other kinds of dessert. He’s got practically the entire readership of Patheos Pagan going “I want apple pie”.
But he missed out all the people who are saying that only their apple pie is the real apple pie. (John himself acknowledges that there are many kinds of apple pie.)
Your apple pie is not my apple pie
I am horrified that John puts cinnamon in his apple pie, and nothing would persuade me to eat it. That’s just wrong. Also, I am willing to bet there is too much sugar in his apple pie (I like mine really tart). And I bet he doesn’t put cheese with it either, because he’s not from Yorkshire.
And if you are a British reader, you will not be tasting the same apple pie on your mind’s tongue as an American reader. The poor benighted Americans don’t even have Bramley apples, apparently. This recipe article outlines the difference between a British apple pie and an American apple pie.
But it’s still apple pie
However, I would have to grudgingly acknowledge that his apple pie is a kind of apple pie (despite the presence of cinnamon and too much sugar) because his pie has apples and pastry in it, and therefore it meets the minimum criteria for being described as apple pie. I hope he would acknowledge that my apple pie is also apple pie, even if he doesn’t like it.
And my Bramley apple pie is definitely better than apple pie made with the wrong kind of apples and with cinnamon and extra sugar…. for me.
The same applies to polytheism. You might not like relational polytheism, or mystical polytheism, or devotional polytheism, or polytheistic monism, or anything else that can be described as polytheism because it involves many gods… but it’s still polytheism.
Some people have suggested that polytheism is endangered by archetypalist, non-theist, monist, and/or non-theist world views (especially those who would claim that somehow it’s all the same really, or that they are actually polytheists). The word polytheist means believing in many gods. If you want to add any more definition to it, I think you need a qualifying adjective.
Monotheism and Pantheism
I stopped being a monotheist in 1985, when I was 17. The reason for this was that I couldn’t see how an all powerful God could allow suffering and horror on the scale of the Holocaust and other horrors. I reasoned that if God was all-powerful, then “he” would prevent such horrors (free will notwithstanding) and therefore there must be many deities, none of whom were all-powerful.
Later, I discovered pantheism and monism, the idea of an all-pervading immanent deity. For me, this doesn’t stack up alongside the fact of the infinite universe. If the pantheist’s deity is the mind of the universe, it must be either so huge that it can’t be aware of our tiny consciousness, or it can’t be conscious in the same way that we are. So it would be difficult (as far as I can see) to have a personal relationship with it.
An excellent novel by Rebecca Goldstein, 36 arguments for the existence of God, disproves every single one of them except Spinoza’s view that the universe itself is God, which is completely different to the conventional monotheist view. Nothing is said about the existence of many gods, however, and in my view, the idea of many gods is in a completely different category to the idea of a single all-powerful deity.
Interestingly, some Christians I’ve talked to seemed to assume that I’m a pantheist, as they seemed to assume that the advantage of Christianity was having a personal relationship with Jesus. But I don’t actually like Jesus (and don’t believe the gospel accounts are reliable). So for me, the advantage of polytheism is that you can have a personal relationship with a huge number of different deities, with different perspectives on life. There’s Mercury and Athena for intellectuals, Cernunnos and Artemis for those who like forests, Odin and Bragi and Brighid for poets and bards, and so on. I think this is why the Catholics found they needed to have the idea of patron saints – but I find most saints pretty uninspiring and insipid. Pretty much everyone has difficulty relating to the idea of the ultimate divine source, or to an infinite being – so people need to relate to something smaller. To paraphrase some famous French bloke: if the gods didn’t exist, it would be necessary to invent them.
What is a deity?
There are many different types of deity: personifications of natural phenomena (winds, storms, trees and rocks and water), deified humans, patrons of arts and crafts, city goddesses, river goddesses. In my opinion, they are immanent in, or emergent from, the physical universe, in the same way that human consciousness emerges from the complexity of the human brain. Why shouldn’t other complex systems give rise to consciousness?
There is currently some discussion about what “real” means when we are talking about deities. No one has offered a definition of “real” in this context (or if they have, I missed it). My definition of a deity is a being with consciousness. A deity’s body (if they have one) is the natural phenomenon from which they emerged, if that’s how they came into existence. Or if they are a deified human, then their body is the etheric body (or whatever is divine in us that survives death). It’s also worth pointing out that love is real even though it doesn’t have either a body or consciousness – but that’s why a discussion of what “real” means is a distraction when it comes to deities: because being “real” applies to a lot of other things that aren’t deities. So it doesn’t matter so much what people think deities are, as that they think you can interact with them – that’s the point of relating to them and/or being devoted to them.
There also has to be room for honest doubt – we do live in a culture where most people deny the existence of multiple deities, so if someone has a wobble or a dry season where they have difficulty relating to deities, or if they have a different view of what deities are, then that is a natural fluctuation in belief that is difficult to avoid. Even when I had doubts that deities were conscious beings, the “many” part was never in doubt. And if you try to restrict access to polytheist ritual on the grounds of belief, then you will never give anyone the opportunity to encounter deities – though of course you might want to develop some sort of initiatory pathways to assist people to develop deeper relationships with deities. Or perhaps there might be open access rituals for everyone, and other rituals specifically for devotees.
Why duotheism is not polytheism
Some Pagans are duotheists (the idea of one Goddess and one God who may or may not be emanations from a single source). I have difficulty with this idea because I don’t see the universe in binary terms, but rather as a multiplicity. The major attraction of polytheism for a genderqueer and/or LGBTQ person is that there are multiple expressions of gender and sexuality among deities. And the idea of duotheism has the same problem for me that monotheism does: how can there be anything that big that perceives existence on the same scale we do?
As to the idea that all deities are emanations from an underlying substrate of energy or consciousness, I can’t see why this is a problem for polytheism as long as the deities are viewed as distinct beings, and humans are also viewed as emanations from that substrate. I can see it could be a problem if the emphasis was more on the divine source than the individual deity – because then we’re back to monism again.
Polytheism is the “default setting”
Interestingly, if you look at Hinduism, you can find monism, polymorphism (the idea that deities are forms of the ultimate divine), and polytheism all co-existing within the Hindu dharma. And if Buddhism is included as part of the same dharma (some Hindus view itthat way), then non-theism also exists alongside these other beliefs. Henotheism (devotion to one deity, acknowledgment that others exist) is also found within Hinduism.
I think it is worth clarifying terminology and describing clearly what we are doing, mostly in order to make the path easier for others to find. But I don’t feel that polytheism is endangered. I think it is pretty much the “default setting”, to which all religion will gravitate in the end. Christianity tried monotheism, but it gradually introduced saints and a goddess (the Virgin Mary is a goddess in all but name). Buddhism moved the focus of religion away from gods towards personal enlightenment, and ended up introducing Bodhisattvas. Even Islam has 99 names of God, and Sufis and Shi’ites have saints. In Judaism, God has aspects (especially in Kabbalah). So even in monotheist and non-theist religions, the multiplicity keeps re-asserting itself. You can’t keep a good deity down.
Even if the archetypalists succeed in convincing everyone that gods are only archetypes, people will still have real experiences of the gods.
It’s not so much that polytheism is under siege from monism or non-theism or monotheism – on the contrary: they are constantly on guard against the emergence of polytheism and animism. Everyone knows there’s a spirit that lives in the photocopier which must be propitiated. That’s why atheists are constantly on guard against “woo”. Everyone needs a personal deity to relate to, which is less than the Great All. If they happen to be a monotheist, they invent a smaller god of their own devising, whether that is saints, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or a more manageable version of Yahweh. It’s a very rare person who feels they can relate to a completely impersonal deity.
And the final reason that I don’t think polytheism is under siege is the deities themselves. They survived for centuries with hardly any worshippers, and that didn’t finish them off: so a few people claiming they are just archetypes is pretty small beer. They have the power to communicate with humans and they do use it. I think we and they will be just fine.
Pagan theology is the discussion of pagan ethics and values and a discussion on the nature of the gods, and our relationship with them and the world.
It is not the laying down of dogma for all Pagans to believe. It is always discursive, and always provisional. It is a conversation amongst the community, not the laying down of the law by experts.
Right-wing Christianity is deeply concerned with what its members believe, not for practical reasons about how they relate to the world, but because right belief is held to be the means to salvation. Gus di Zerega is right that we do not need that sort of theology in Paganism. We do not need systematic theology, we do not need dogma, and we do not need creeds. But we do need a discursive, organic, and relational theology.
The theology of left-wing Christians and Unitarian Universalists is much more discursive and exploratory. It is about relationships between people as much as it is about relationships with the divine. It seeks to explore a way of being in the world that encourages human flourishing. I believe that that theological conversation is worth having.
If polytheists are so keen to articulate the manifold nature of divinity, it is precisely because what we think about deities is mirrored in how we think the world works. As both P Sufenas Virius Lupus and Julian Betkowski have pointed out, if you think the Divine is a single unified entity that is immanent in the world, then you are likely to erase and dismiss distinctions between things and not value diversity as much as perhaps you might.
If you think that the nature of the divine is a transcendent being who is completely separate from the world, then you are likely to despise the world and want to go and be in the presence of your deity.
If you think that the nature of the divine is one God and one Goddess, then you are very likely to view them as a heterosexual couple, and to elevate heterosexual union above other forms of union.
If you think that there are many gods, then you probably think that there are many ways of being a god, and there are many ways of being human, and many different experiences of the world that are irreducible to each other.
If you think that the answer to the question, “why do bad things happen to good people?” is “because they did something to deserve it” (e.g. in a previous incarnation, or something) that is a theological answer, and your attitude to people to whom bad things have happened is going to be less than compassionate.
One of the reasons we need to articulate a Pagan theology is to present an alternative to bad theology like “bad things happen to good people because they did something to deserve it” and “all religions are really one so they should all merge into one big happy family” or “the Earth was given to humanity to subdue and use”. Whilst that last attitude is not a Pagan one, it is deeply entrenched in Western culture, due to the influence of right-wing Christianity, and needs to be replaced with the idea that the Earth is a being in Her own right, to be respected and cared for. If we do not articulate Pagan theologies and discussions, bad theology will rush into the vacuum and affect the way we relate to each other and the world.
If we do not talk about what the gods are and how they relate to the world, we will just end up with a very shallow view of what they are. I think it is well worth exploring apophatic theology, which emphasises the mystery of the nature of the divine. What would an explicitly Pagan apophatic theology look like?
I am fed up with Pagans saying that we do not need theology. We do need theology, we just need good theology, not bad theology. Good theology is any theology that promotes flourishing of all life; bad theology is any theology that makes people miserable.
People who say that we don’t need theology want to sweep all dissent under the carpet. They don’t want to think deeply about the nature of deities and how we relate to each other and the world. They seem afraid of other people having a better articulated position than they do. Perhaps they are afraid that their authority will be undermined by the “new kids on the block” who are not afraid to discuss theology, because they are not afraid of a difference of opinion.
On Thursday, my family gathered around a table so filled with plenties of food, of laughter, of love, that all I could do was pray that as we gather around this country, justice and compassion might arise from many such tables. That our love for each other, our willingness to share with each other, how we have learned over decades to be more honest with each other…that all of these might extend beyond the walls of our houses, the walls of our communities, and spread across the continent like butter on a Parker House roll.
It isn’t easy to write about gratitude, in the face of Ferguson, in the acknowledged history of Thanksgiving itself, our nation’s grounding in racism, exploitation, genocide.
This is my first year writing for Patheos Pagan, and my stumbling early steps have been supported by the work of so many other writers in this community that to single any out feels a little odd. The Patheos Pagan front page is a great place to poke around for a while, when you have some time.
Among all the thoughtful and passionate voices, here are ten I am especially grateful for at the moment, in no particular order. Many of these writers have more than one blog or website online, and several of them have books as well. The links I provide are specific to Patheos Pagan but I encourage you to search for their work in other places as well:
John Beckett, Under the Ancient Oaks, whose willingness to engage and inform with reasoned and reasonable discourse always teaches me something.
Niki Whiting, A Witch’s Ashram, whose sheer energy and intellectual acumen are balanced by her sense of fun and delight.
Cat Chapin-Bishop, Quaker Pagan Reflections, whose writing always appealed to me for its balance between ecstatic vision and calm reflection. Her recent willingness to engage racism in act and word inspire me to do better myself.
John Halstead, The Allergic Pagan, whose intellectual gifts are balanced by his willingness to talk about his own history and the path(s) that have brought him to this place.
Finally, most recently, Nornoriel Lokason, Ride the Spiral, whose work as advocate does not take away from his willingness to engage with and welcome dialogue with enthusiastic newbies like myself.
All of these writers have been lights to me this year. They help me understand how to root my spiritual quest for personal meaning, understanding, and justice-making, both in words and in the world we are part of. I have learned much, for which I am profoundly grateful.
Patheos is a multi-faith site, with channels for everyone from Evangelicals to Atheists. I encourage any reader to click around and read a bit. The diversity and liveliness of the voices is a richness for our 21st century times.
And, importantly, thanks to you, readers who have gifted my words with your attention this year. Your comments and responses, here on the blog and in person when I see you, mean a great deal, and the time you spend with my words moves me. May we continue to find our way forward, together or apart, on the paths before us.
I had a hundred and one reasons for changing my writing name but (attention, Facebook) none of them are nefarious. And the answer I give depends on the day, my mood, and the phase of the moon. They’re all true. It was a change coming for years and it was a moment’s decision.
“Why didn’t you go all the way and change your legal name, then?”
To this there is only one answer, but it stands up to all 101 on the other side and balances them: my husband asked me not to, and I adore my husband.
So I walk the world divided, and that provides the tension that sings through me, my poems, and keeps my pulse quick. I’m hardly alone. Writers and pagans are two communities who know all about pseudonyms, pen names, craft names.
Years ago I met a Sadie who has been a fundamental influence on me. Recently I’ve been thinking about her again:
Sadie and Maud
Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-tooth comb.
She didn’t leave a tangle in.
Her comb found every strand.
Sadie was one of the livingest chits
In all the land.
Sadie bore two babies
Under her maiden name.
Maud and Ma and Papa
Nearly died of shame.
When Sadie said her last so-long
Her girls struck out from home.
(Sadie had left as heritage
Her fine-tooth comb.)
Maud, who went to college,
Is a thin brown mouse.
She is living all alone
In this old house.
I discovered this poem when I myself was… in college. And that may be why I read it not so much as a diatribe against education as an argument that the quality of one’s engagement with life has more to do with attitude than privilege. Maud had the privilege and played out the script, and look where she is at poem’s end. Sadie got nothing, and yet she leaves a rich legacy behind her…and had a good time in the meantime, by the sound of it.
Reading that poem at twenty, I decided a fine-tooth comb sounded like a fine way to live. But…what comprises such a comb? Where shall we find the thing, and how shall we know it?
And what do we do if we temporarily lose it?
I found myself remembering that fine-tooth comb again this week, as I’m reading excerpts from Bill Plotkin’s book Soulcraft (New World Library, 2003). Here’s an extended passage on the figure of the Wanderer:
…This is the time in life when a person is most intensely in search of her deepest self, a self she knows she will not find reflected back to her from within the familiar arenas of her merely human culture. She searches for the seeds of her destiny in the more diverse, wild, and mysterious world of nature. She no longer conforms to nor rebels against society. She chooses a third way. She wanders, beyond the confines of her previous identity.
The Wanderer crosses and recrosses borders in order to find something whose location is unknown and unknowable. She will conclude she has found it not by its location in a certain place or by its matching a prior image, but by how it feels, how it resonates within her upon discovery. She doesn’t know where or when or how clues will appear, so she wanders incessantly, both inwardly and outwardly, always looking, imagining, feeling. In her wandering, she makes her own path.
The Wanderer discovers her unique path by perceiving the world with imagination and feeling. She senses what is possible as well as actual. She sees into people and places and possibilities, and she cultivates a relationship with the invisible realm as much as with the visible. She is in conversation with the mysteries of the world, on the lookout for signs and omens. She attend especially to the edges, those places where one thing merges with another, where consciousness shifts and opens, where the world becomes something different from what it initially appeared to be.
Plotkin’s Wanderer sounds a lot like a “livingest chit,” doncha think? And maybe, just maybe, what I’m writing my way towards in here is a Theology of the Livingest Chit.
By definition, there aren’t too many maps in this work I’m embarked upon. The Northern gods I’m tangled up with don’t set down rules to obey…but they do espouse virtues. Traditionally, these are
The nine Norse virtues are all honorable ideals but honestly they never fit me very well. Trying to bend myself to that list feels, well, like a slog. That probably doesn’t say anything very good about me, but there it is. I realize this morning this could be because these virtues are community oriented and I am at heart a solitary. They seek to weave a group together into a village or town or other workable society and I live at the far edge. My true home is not…the home. (Which is, yes, another source of creative tension for someone currently in the role of at home parent.)
But I have discovered another set of virtues…
Some of you will know the Northern gods are divided up into two groups: Aesir and Vanir. The Aesir are the ones most people know (thank you Marvel): Odin, Thor, Heimdall, Baldur, Tyr, Frigga…They tend to be sky gods, gods of justice and community. The Nine Virtues are Aesir virtues, for the most part.
The Vanir, on the other hand, are closer to the land, the seasons, the magics of earth. (And yes, I am grossly generalizing here…there is much subtlety in the system that I’m choosing not to go into in this space.) The Vanir deal a little more in the wild and fey. Frey, Freya, Njord are all Vanir…and so, by most contemporary accountings, is the Smith, Wayland.
And, I just discovered, searching online, they have their own set of virtues. Originally the list was twelve, but I split up Courage and Passion, which seem to me related, but separate:
For the original list, created by Nicanthiel Hrafnhild and Svartesol, see this link. I have slightly edited their list of Virtues and reworked the descriptions of each. (Author’s note: Svartesol is Nornoriel Lokason, whose more recent writings can be found here at Patheos Pagan at Ride the Spiral. And here is his official website.)
The Thirteen Vanic Virtues
The pursuit of beauty and elegance in thought, form and speech, and the valuation of beauty as worthy in itself.
The strength of will to see a course of action through. The ability to face difficulty and danger.
Zeal, vigor; wholehearted zest for life.
Harmonious and balanced thought and action; tranquility, calm, serenity.
The quality of being receptive to the world around one, non-judgmental. To listen deeply.
Music and dance; the nurturing of inner wildness and radical innocence, being “fey”
The recognition of nature and the environment as worthy of respect, care and reverence.
The all-encompassing force which expands outward: love for family, for kin, for humanity, for all beings.
The peace and goodwill between people bound together; loyalty and the keeping of one’s word.
The binding of two parties into one common bond, generosity and hospitality.
The ability and willingness to surrender to overwhelming grace, the ability to feel happiness in the moment.
The trust that the Gods exist and are worthy of our worship, and Their ways worth following.
The recognition that we – humans, animals, plants, spirits – are all part of the grander scheme of life,
and we share a common heritage, as children of the Earth.
So there it is. I think the Vanir have provided me my fine-tooth comb. At least for a while. This list connects me to myself, my true home (which may be no home?), and this earth that continually spins out from under my feet, leaving me dizzy.
Meanwhile, over my desk I’ve taped this up:
Do no harm.
Take no shit.
Be a “livingest chit.”
As they say at the end of church service every weekend, May it be so.
In a time when hate towards women seems at a fever pitch, do we not need to answer with: that which you hate and try to destroy is sacred. That which you try to control is beyond your control. That which you try to define and shame is beyond your definition or judgement.
–Jason Pitzl-Waters, from “Goddess in Times of Horror,” The Wild Hunt
What could be less sexy than
a woman writing down plain truth
about her body and her marriage?
Putting this poem before you is more revolutionary than it should be.
This body is stretchmarked
from my shoulders to my knees,
as though a thousand pearl-eyed fish
had shivered kisses as I surfaced
through time’s suck and whinge. …
People who hate women—the culture(s) that hate women—insist that we smooth ourselves into a sort of plastic perfection, or hide our imperfect selves in shame and embarrassment, enduring ridicule, taunt, insult, oppression.
Rucks and pockets and sprouted hair,
brought on by pregnancies and arguments
and weird hormonal shifts…
But the Goddesses are not merely Arthur Rackham or Dante Gabriel Rossetti pasty-face dames trailing their robes in the water, nor are they only the scantily clad, t and a flaunting fantasies of (too many) comic books–and I’m certainly a far cry from those ladies fair. I insist upon myself: female, full, rounded and loud, complicated, desirous, furious, silly or thoughtful, confused or effusive or sexy as hell by turns. I insist on finding language to embody that woman. Me.
…now my skin
looks like the skin of a lake
when a chilly breeze ripples across…
Embodiment. Radical love for oneself as a way of loving world, loving creation. Pagan religions insist on immanence: finding god(s) in the world–in science, in nature, among people, and by embracing our own bodies. Deity as manifest, infusing our daily lives. Woman hating, body hating (and many, many women also hate the female body) goes directly against the idea of immanence. This is an old argument, an old duality, played out today through social media, movies, omnipresent advertising images and in the languages we inherit.
Some people claim that writing about oneself in a poem is narcissistic and/or tacky. Never mind that for now. If women don’t write ourselves, who will write us? How will we be portrayed? We know the answers to those questions. We know the language others will find.
I want every woman to insist on herself—and to be free and able to do so— whoever she is, intensely and immediately and forever and get to the work she must do in the world, without fear. To be in her body without having to wade a river and breathe an atmosphere of sludge and hate and violence. And we should look twice, and three times, even, at how female deities are portrayed in our own traditions.
We love and embrace sensual, sensory experiences as part of worship. What images do we find on our altars, in our gatherings, posted on our pages?
…Or skin of ocean.
(I have come to believe
life and love are questions of dilation.)
It shouldn’t be so crazy to want women to be able to laugh loud and move free. To be loved and admired and celebrated for who we are, as we are. But it still is, damn it, so here I am.
Against the shiny minor goddesses
I set moles, gray hair,
and crows feet…
Lots of people have written lots of good words about this—here, and here, and here and many places more–and how we cannot continue to live in and with such hate. How our daughters and our mothers and our sisters and our wives and we ourselves —ourselves– deserve better. I’m thankful for all the good words. I’m thankful for all the anger and the love and the people working for change.
…signs of good humor,
of pain endured and pain’s release.
Meanwhile I try to stand tall, walk straight, laugh outright when I feel joy, shout from my belly when I feel anger, and weep on the ground when I feel sorrow. To live life fully and unafraid, to live embodied, jiggly and giggly and wiping up the jam spilled in the kitchen, and to help others do the same. Because I insist on you, and your wildness, too.
This is more revolutionary than it should be.
Kindle Ebook $1 Sale
On Monday 7/1 and through the end of the business day today (7/2), Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle edition of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies for $0.99. It will be available at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. It’s now out in paperback too!
For those who have Pagan reading groups, I especially hope you’ll consider it as one of your selections. Each chapter ends with a summary, discussion questions, and activities — great for groups and individuals alike.
Seeking the Mystery Giveaway
Want an ENTIRELY FREE copy of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies? I’m doing a giveaway that you can enter through Monday 7/8/13. Continental US residents are eligible for a print copy; any winner living outside the US will receive a PDF. (Sorry, international shipping costs more than the book itself these days!)
To enter, do one or more of the following:
1. Sign up for the Patheos Pagan newsletter using the link at the top of the page, here:
2. Subscribe to any Patheos Pagan blog using the link in the blog’s sidebar, which looks like this:
3. Add an RSS feed for any Patheos Pagan blog to your blog reader (look for this symbol):
After you’ve subscribed to the newsletter or a blog, send me an e-mail telling me what you subscribed to at ckraemer at patheos dot com! I’ll assign numbers to the entries and select a winner using a random number generator, then be in touch with you via e-mail. 🙂
On Monday 7/1 and through the end of the business day on Tuesday 7/2, Amazon.com will be offering the Kindle edition of Seeking the Mystery: An Introduction to Pagan Theologies for $0.99. It will be available at a reduced price of $2.99 for about a week thereafter. It’s now out in paperback too!
For those who have Pagan reading groups, I especially hope you’ll consider it as one of your selections. Each chapter ends with a summary, discussion questions, and activities — great for groups and individuals alike.
Excerpt from Chapter One: Deity, Deities, and the Divine
Hard polytheism is the view that the gods are objectively existing, independent personalities with whom human beings can have relationships. This theological position is somewhat unique in contemporary Paganism because it is the only belief around which groups of Pagans have strongly rallied. Interestingly, although conversations around hard polytheism are often framed in terms of belief, hard polytheists’ objections to soft polytheism are primarily about the way belief informs practice. For hard polytheists, soft polytheist practice—especially practice that approaches the gods as interchangeable archetypes—is both less effective and potentially disrespectful. Pagans will sometimes speak of rituals where the gods do not “show up”—no energy moves, no sense of connection or presence is felt, and the participants return home in much the same mental and emotional state in which they arrived. Hard polytheists believe that this undesirable state of affairs occurs because Pagans do not recognize the nature of the gods. Hard polytheists usually experience the gods as powerful presences with distinctive desires and behaviors, as well as historical ties to particular traditions, cultures, and lands. In order to connect with a goddess or a god and form relationship with them, hard polytheists will look at rituals from the deity’s native culture for guidance. When they ask a goddess or god to be present, they see themselves as calling someone very specific. Some use the metaphor of dialing a phone number to reach a friend: the ritual objects and the proper names and prayers are ways of ensuring one has the right number. Once a deity has been contacted, an ongoing relationship can be formed through prayer and ritual. This experiential relationship allows the practitioner to move beyond attempting to reconstruct an ancient religion using historical texts, and instead to create a practice that is oriented to the present.
Hard polytheists often see soft polytheists as “dialing a wrong number.” Soft polytheists may treat named deities such as Aphrodite and Ishtar as if they were interchangeable—both forms of an archetypal “love goddess.” To hard polytheists, this is disrespectful to the deities involved, a bit like treating two cousins as if they were the same person. A practice that does not take the deities seriously as individuals is thought to produce either weak results or none at all—or, in certain unhappy cases, a true “wrong number” where a mischievous spirit pretends to be the desired deity. Hard polytheists are also critical of soft polytheist practices that they see as self-indulgent or self-serving. Although hard polytheists do not necessarily see their deities as infallible, they regard them as sources of wisdom and inspiration who deserve devotion and service. They are concerned with the possibility that eclectic Pagans will pick and choose what appeals to them from ancient traditions while thoughtlessly rejecting anything that seems uncomfortable, or that they will make up their own traditions without being well-educated in existing ones. In their view, a soft polytheist practice may be too undisciplined to result in genuine connection with divine forces.
Hard polytheist practice contrasts strongly with the monotheism that is dominant in Western culture. As a result, hard polytheists can be actively hostile to monistic language in Paganism. Part of this may be due to a misunderstanding of monism. Hard polytheists are strongly opposed to the idea that “All gods are one God,” and they tend to equate this view with monism. Yet monism does not necessarily imply a belief in a unifying personal God. Rather, it can simply indicate a belief in a unifying divine substance. Some hard polytheists do espouse ideas that are compatible with monism. Raven Kaldera is an outspoken advocate for hard polytheism in contemporary Paganism. In Dealing with Deities, he addresses the cross-cultural similarities between groups of gods and goddesses that some thinkers have identified as archetypes. Many polytheistic cultures, for example, have a “love goddess” of some kind. Kaldera speaks of these individual deities as sharing a divine energy current that unites them and gives them a family resemblance, while still remaining distinct personalities.[i] To draw an analogy on the human level, although a friend may be a member of a family or a citizen of a town, I don’t generally think of her as “one of the Joneses” or “a Bostonian”—I think of her as “Katherine” and as an individual. Ivo Dominguez, Jr. expresses a similar idea in his book Spirit Speak, where he describes different levels of deity forms. For Dominguez, the named gods are also part of larger and more diffuse deity forms that unite them. Importantly, however, neither Kaldera nor Dominguez see these uniting energies as the primary focus of Pagan practice. Both take the reality of individual Pagan deities as seriously as they take the reality of individual human beings. Deities may partake in larger energies, but these writers believe that Pagans can relate to them as distinct.
For some hard polytheists, the distinction between hard and soft polytheism is primarily a difference in emphasis. In the creation myth told by Starhawk, for example, the Star Goddess gives birth to all the beings of the universe, of whom she is also part. A soft polytheist is likely to focus on the Star Goddess in this story as the common origin of all things. She may seem to be the most important deity, the oneness (or the nothingness) of which all the others are part. Yet it is not just the gods that remain a part of her, but also human beings, plants, and animals. A hard polytheist is more likely to see such a Goddess as somewhat distant and abstract, while her children—both gods and mortals—are closer to us and available for relationship. In general, hard polytheists who admit to monist underpinnings are likely to see their monism as irrelevant to their practice. The idea that there is an underlying spiritual substance to being may be an interesting metaphysical idea, but it has little impact on the everyday. (Alternatively, hard polytheists may see “divinity” as a quality shared by all deities, but deny that there is a unifying substance to being. Just as an apple and a stop sign are both “red,” but not of the same substance, Aphrodite and Parvati might both be “love goddesses” and both “divine,” but not of the same substance. This is a non-monist position that nevertheless affirms an essential commonality among the gods.)
Hard polytheists tend to take the issue of belief much more seriously than other Pagans. Like other Pagans, they usually emphasize that their belief in the gods is based on their personal experiences of them. However, hard polytheists see belief as a necessary part of the passion and devotion that is part of a committed relationship with the gods. As Hellenic polytheist Sarah Kate Istra Winter writes,
I fear that paganism may not have the strength to last in the long-term if we ourselves do not firmly believe in our spiritual reality. You don’t see Christians following up a discussion of accepting Jesus into your heart with some caveat like “or if you don’t believe in Jesus, just imagine a similar loving entity or warm light.” Or “if you need the help of a saint and don’t like any of the ones you’ve read about, just invent a new saint in your mind that betters suits you, and contact them.” As if these things are all the same. Yes, I know that many Christians go in the opposite direction and become strictly orthodox, insisting on every detail of belief, and I also know that this is what many pagans are reacting to. But it’s time to stop reacting and start building a real, solid faith that will last – and for that you need, well, faith.[ii]
Although in this passage Winter emphasizes the necessity of belief for the Pagan movement as a whole, hard polytheist thinkers also acknowledge belief’s personal dimension. Even the most devoted Pagan will not always experience the gods in all their glory; not every ritual will produce awe, ecstasy, or divine terror. In those cases, belief can help to sustain a spiritually nurturing practice. As Heathen practitioner Galina Krasskova remarked to me, “Faith and practice support me when I can’t feel the gods.”
Perhaps because hard polytheists are more likely to acknowledge the necessity of believing in and understanding the nature of the gods, much of the innovative contemporary Pagan theology of the past two decades has come from a hard polytheist perspective. Druid John Michael Greer’s A World Full of Gods explores polytheism as an ethical as well as a metaphysical position. Greer spends much of his time attacking pre-twentieth century Christian theology, which may be frustrating for those who are aware that progressive Christian theology has already made these criticisms. But Greer does make a strong case for polytheism as an inherently pluralistic system in which religious tolerance and the celebration of diversity make sense. Since it is obvious from history that individuals and cultures experience the divine very differently, polytheism provides a system of thought that does not have to explain those differences away.
Other hard polytheists have focused on theoretical frameworks to support their devotional approaches, such as Northern tradition Pagan Raven Kaldera’s Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. For Kaldera, theology is not abstract or based on speculation; “faith” is a matter of trust and ongoing relationship with the gods, based on the assurance of things experienced and the conviction of things seen. He also touches on archetypal and syncretistic experiences, which have often been considered evidence for soft polytheism. Contemporary Pagans sometimes interpret similarities between deities as evidence that they have encountered a universal archetype, rather than two separate beings. These archetypal experiences seem supported by historical cases of syncretism, where deities originally from different cultures have been worshipped as the same deity. To provide a more sophisticated hard polytheist explanation for these experiences, theologian P. Sufenas Virius Lupus uses process theology and the work of polytheistic philosopher Edward P. Butler.[iii] Lupus argues that deities change and evolve along with human beings, which allows new relationships to be formed among the gods over time. In turn, changes in the gods lead to changes in their relationships with humans. Lupus aims to help polytheist Pagans form deeper relationships with the gods by coming to a more consistent understanding of them.
[i] Raven Kaldera, Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology (Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press, 2012), 43.
[ii] Sarah Kate Istra Winter, Dwelling on the Threshold (CreateSpace, 2012), 21. Also available at A Forest Door, https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/the-gods-are-real/.
[iii] See P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, “Polytheology: Syncretism, Process Theology, and ‘Polyamorotheism,’” Patheos.com 2 Aug 2010, available at http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Polytheology-Syncretism-Process-Theology-and-Polyamorotheism; and “PantheaCon 2012: Super-Syncretism! Creating Connection & Preserving Diversity,” Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous 31 Mar 2012, available at http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/pantheacon-2012-super-syncretism-creating-connection-preserving-diversity/. Expanded versions of these ideas are available in A Serpent Path Primer (Red Lotus Library, 2012).