Some have argued that any form of theism is incompatible with science. Which is odd when so many scientists are theistic in some form or other.
Wiccans can be polytheist, animist, pantheist, monist, duotheist, atheist/archetypalist, or “all of the above depending on the day”. Most Pagans believe that the divine is, or deities are, immanent in the world; and that includes most Wiccans.
This theological diversity works in ritual settings as long as everyone can “translate in their head” and have a certain amount of flexibility as to practice and the wording of rituals.Continue reading
Thista Minai (2017), Casting a Queer Circle: Non-Binary Witchcraft. Hubbardston, MA: Asphodel Press.
Aimed at everyone who finds that binary and heterocentric approaches to witchcraft do not fit actual lived reality, this book is an outstanding guide to crafting an inclusive, non-binary approach to ritual. It contains a complete system of magic, ritual, symbolism, festivals, and ritual roles, all designed to be inclusive, safe, creative, and genuinely transformative.
Syren Nagakyrie asked…
How do the gods move with and through you? How do you live your life as a polytheist? Where do you walk the knife’s edge and where do the labels blur so much as to be unrecognizable? That is where our power is found.
Gods move in mysterious ways
Some days I am flat and empty and feel disconnected from the gods. These are the days when I most need the solace of their touch. The days when I despair at social injustice, at the slaughter of Black, LGBT, and indigenous people, at the destruction of the environment, the loss of solidarity, and all the ills with which humanity plagues itself.
When I stop and remember to breathe, to be in the presence of the gods, to reach out for them, then they come to me. Some days I sit in the presence of a specific deity; other days, I wait to see who shows up. The other night, when I was wrestling with something particularly difficult, an unexpected deity showed up. I have felt that he wanted to contact me for a while but nothing definite has happened until now. I installed a small statue of him on my shrine and waited.
In Wicca, we invoke deities, and this can be a really powerful experience, as they inhabit your body and speak through you. It’s the most amazing feeling in the world.
Life as a polytheist
One of the things I really like about polytheism is its inherent plurality. Gods and spirits are not one single entity, but a multiplicity of identities, local and finite and specific and particular. They can be the consciousness of rocks and trees and water; or deified humans; or forces of Nature, spirits of place, emerging from the complexity of the universe (or multiverse).
I am a mystical polytheist, and as such, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about defining or describing the gods or indeed polytheism. The gods have managed to look after themselves all this time, so I am pretty sure I don’t need to defend them from people who think they are all one, or don’t believe in them at all. They speak to those who are listening, and sometimes to people who weren’t listening.
Walking the knife’s edge
It is in liminal spaces and places that we can find power. The interstices between day and night, between civilisation and wildness.
There are people who say you can’t be a Wiccan and a polytheist, because Wicca is supposedly duotheist. I am a Wiccan and a polytheist, so they are wrong.
There are people who say you can’t be committed to social justice and be a polytheist – but for me, gods and politics are the warp and the weft of my polytheism.
Things are frequently not either/or, not simple binaries – often they are both/and, or a multiplicity of choices: a spectrum, or a scatter-plot.
The knife of the witch cuts away illusion, enabling us to see into the heart of things. If we do not walk the knife’s edge, we will never enter the castle of the mysteries.
Find out more
See more posts exploring the glorious diversity of polytheism at MyPolytheism.com
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.
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.)
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:
- Should you have a specific patron deity?
- Can you choose your patron deity, or should they choose you?
- Can you say no if you are chosen by a deity you don’t want? (Yes)
- Do we serve the gods, or are they allies?
- Can we ever know the true nature of the gods?
- What does “real” mean?
- Who has the authority to answer these questions for others?
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.
It is well known from the lore that the gods actually have a brewery, not a bakery.
There is no shortage of alcohol in mythology:
Norse mythology tells of Aegir, the ale brewer of the gods, who held a big party for honored guests every winter. The party was held inside a great hall whose floor was littered with glittering gold, providing enough light that no fires were necessary for illumination. The special beer for the event was brewed in a giant cauldron given to him by Thor and served in magical cups that refilled as soon as they were empty. He even had a couple of loyal servants who distributed food and otherwise cared for the guests’ needs. The shindig was the highlight of the social season and all the gods attended. However, like so many off-campus college parties, alcohol and animosity could sometimes spoil a perfectly good evening.
There was also the time when Oðinn stole the mead brewed from the blood of Kvasir from under the mountain where it had been hidden by Suttung.
Alcohol was clearly important and sacred to our ancestors. It’s a shame that we merely abuse it, instead of using it in a sacred manner (like other drugs that ought to be used as a sacrament).
The brewing of alcohol seems rather magical – taking some ingredients that are not intoxicating, mixing them together, leaving them to ferment, and thereby producing a drink that can transform your perceptions – if used carefully and sparingly.
It’s quite exciting to put fruit, sugar, water, and yeast in a demijohn and watch it blooping and bubbling away as it ferments. There’s nothing quite like the taste of home-made wine, especially if you gathered the ingredients yourself from the hedgerows. It’s like alchemy!
And interestingly, both alcohol and alchemy are derived from Arabic words…
Alcohol in ritual
Many people maintain that alcohol is sacred because it has yeast in it and has been fermented, which makes it alive somehow.
If you have some form of alcoholic sacrament at the end of your ritual (cakes and wine if you’re Wiccan, or a sharing of mead if you’re a Heathen), there may be some people who are recovering alcoholics who cannot partake. Maybe you could share some other fermented drink, like drinkable yoghurt? (Personally I don’t think this is cultural appropriation unless you steal the ritual that goes with it. YMMV.) Other solutions to this that have been suggested are having a non-alcoholic alternative (but some people prefer the symbolism of everyone drinking from the same cup / horn / chalice).
Alcohol as metaphor
(everything up to this point has been blessedly free of any metaphorical subtext – but if you’re fed up with metaphors, you can skip this section)
Alcohol is sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of alcohol available. Some people prefer mead; others prefer wine, or cider, or beer, or lager. Some people say “I don’t like beer”, but do not realise the huge variety of beers that are available. Some people call alcoholic drinks by different names – cider in the UK, hard cider in the US; ale, beer, lager, porter, stout… If you ask me what my favourite drink is, I’d have to say, all of the above, depending on the day and my mood.
Religion is also sacred and powerful, and there are many different types and flavours of religion available. Some people prefer Heathenry; others prefer Wicca, or Druidry, or eclectic Paganism, or Asatru. Some people say “I don’t like religion” but don’t realise the huge variety of religious experiences that are available. And some people call religious experiences by different names – polytheism, hard polytheism, relational polytheism, devotional polytheism, pantheism, mysticism, and so on. Some people, when presented with a list of theological perspectives, will say, “all of the above, depending on the context, the day, and my mood”.
Always read the ingredients list
As this excellent post by Bekah Evie Bel, Polytheism Isn’t Yours, points out, you could just ask people what they mean by the label they are using, instead of assuming that they mean the same by it as you do, and then being disappointed when it turns out that they don’t.
So if someone shares their surface with you and they say, “I am a polytheist” try not to make any assumptions. Ask for clarification if you are interested by this surface, move on if you aren’t interested. Clarification (usually expanded labels) will tell you how much deeper you want to go. But if you don’t ask for clarification, if you don’t seek to go even a bit below the surface then it’s not that persons fault if you make a stupid assumption.
Just like you read the list of ingredients on food and drink to make sure there’s nothing that you’re allergic to.
Thing is, it’s in the nature of language that people will use words to mean something slightly different, or even wildly different – so labels should be used as a way to start a conversation, not as a substitute for a conversation.
This post was inspired by a comment by Bekah Evie Bel on my previous post which mentioned (hard) cider. The metaphorical aspect of it is entirely my fault.
The way things have been going lately, anyone would think that Eris had lobbed an apple pie into the middle of the Patheos Pagan channel. There are so many apple and apple pie related posts, it’s hard to keep track of them all. But let’s keep the discussion civil.
What Eris teaches us is that sometimes throwing all the pieces up in the air to see where they land is a good thing. It’s very uncomfortable while it’s happening, but it is necessary. At the moment, polytheists are going through a phase of throwing everything up in the air to see where it lands (or perhaps it’s an awkward adolescence). Let’s just take care that it doesn’t land on someone and squash them when the dust settles.
Metaphor and Analogy
Metaphors are sometimes useful. But there’s a difference between a metaphor and an analogy.
- A metaphor is applicable to a situation but can be interpreted in a number of different ways. A classic metaphor is “My love is like a red red rose” (Robert Burns). If you try to turn this into an analogy, it doesn’t work. Robert Burns is not saying that his love has thorns and a stem and the petals fall off. He is saying that his love evokes the same feelings as a red rose (beautiful, sensuous, smells nice). So those qualities of the rose are transferable to the experience of his love; the rest of the rose’s attributes are ignored.
- An analogy is an exact mapping of one thing to another thing. For example, the solar system is often used as an analogy for atoms (it’s not exactly how atoms work, but it’s a good way to teach kids about atoms). The electrons orbit around the nucleus. The planets orbit around the sun. There’s a direct mapping of all the features of the two systems being compared.
What’s wrong with chocolate cake?
I am assuming that in John Beckett’s Bakery of the Gods metaphor, the people selling chocolate cake were Wiccans and Wiccanish Pagans. I like chocolate cake and Wicca. I am not so keen on chocolate cake with not enough chocolate in it, but each to their own. This metaphor, however, implies that you can’t mix Wicca and polytheism (or maybe I am reading too much into it). That’s the problem with vague metaphors, they can mean all sorts of things that may not have been intended. I wouldn’t mix chocolate cake with apples – but you most definitely can mix polytheism and Wicca.
Many flavours are available
If my view of polytheism is different from yours, that’s a good thing – it means that more flavours of polytheism are available; and that’s helpful. Some people like apple pie with cinnamon; others like it with shortcrust pastry, or puff pastry, or less sugary; others still don’t even like apple pie; some people maintain that desserts are bad for you. There are many desserts available, and many flavours of polytheism (none of which are the One True Flavour).
None of us know objectively what the nature of the gods is; we only perceive them with our limited, local, and finite perspective. It is interesting to discuss their nature and how we interact with them, so that we can learn from each other’s perspectives. But we can’t be certain what the nature of the gods is.
We don’t all like the same flavours
The only way to discover whether one perspective is better than another is by observing its results in the world. If your perspective makes you feel closer to the gods, happy, fulfilled, and able to function effectively as a human being without harming others, then it is probably worth sharing. If your perspective makes you angry, bitter, jealous, and vengeful, then it probably isn’t doing you or anyone else any good.
And, here’s the rub: apple pie with cinnamon makes me say “Yuk!” but for someone else, it may be the only way to make apple pie. That’s just fine, as long as I don’t make them eat my recipe, and they don’t make me eat their recipe.
Apples and Apple Pie – the story so far
- John Beckett – The gods are like apples.
There are many different varieties of apple (Granny Smith, Bramley, Russet, etc) but they are all apples. They are also distinguishable from oranges.
- John Halstead – How do you like them apples? On gods and metaphors
However, deciding where the tree ends and the apple begins – or whether it’s still an apple when you’ve eaten it – is difficult.
- Tom Swiss – The gods are like golden apples
Eris’s golden apple was inscribed “To the fairest” – and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, everyone’s experience of the gods is unique.
- Pat Mosley – Up in the mountains, there’s a tree that bears many apples
Everyone has a different experience of trees and apples, but what matters is that there are many stories and many perspectives.
- John Beckett – The Bakery of the Gods
If a person who has eaten vanilla pudding all their life comes looking for apple pie, but is confronted with people selling chocolate cake, changing all the labels in the bakery, and claiming that all desserts are the same, they might get confused about what’s apple pie and what isn’t
- Yvonne Aburrow – Polytheism and Apple Pie
But then there are people claiming that they have the One True Recipe for apple pie, and everyone else is Doing It Wrong
- John Halstead – The gods are “like warm apple pie”: The hidden meanings behind our metaphors
Careful with that metaphor, it’s not neutral
Various commenters have also pointed out that they are allergic to apple pie, or prefer rhubarb pie, or pear pie, or apple crumble.
Did I omit your apple / apple-pie post? Let me know in the comments.
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.
Paganisms are counter-cultural, like most religions. They present a critique of the status quo, and some alternative visions of how the world might be if it was re-enchanted; and they offer a variety of methods for bringing about the desired change. There are several overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, visions available from the Pagan dream factory. Some are benign, involving ways to cope with climate change, and promotion of social and environmental justice. Others are retrogressive, wanting to take us back to a (somewhat mythical) earlier era.
Religious and spiritual ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are intimately connected with politics. What you believe about how your religious group should be organised, and how ideas and information are verified and validated, and who gets to have authority and why, inevitably spill over into your ideas about how society as a whole should be organised. Ideas about culture and society are what is known as metapolitics:
A way of expressing and enacting political goals through cultural, spiritual, and societal change, rather than overt politics.
If you think about it, most religions are a form of metapolitics: their goal is exactly to transform society and individuals (which is the purpose of politics) through cultural and spiritual means. (Christianity’s goal is and has always been to transform society, for example.) Pagan religions are no different: we also desire the transformation of society, but our visions of a transformed society are rather different from theirs.
The key thing about metapolitical processes and shifts is that they prepare the ground for political change. If you consider the changes wrought by feminism, LGBT liberation, and the civil rights movement, it takes about fifty years of preparation and social change before any legal rights are gained. Take feminism for example: the first attempt to bring a bill before the UK Parliament to give women the right to vote was greeted with derision and laughter. It took fifty years to win the vote for women. It has taken forty years from the decriminalisation of homosexuality to get same-sex marriage in the UK. And there has been a massive shift in attitudes towards women and LGBT people that prepared the ground for those political changes. Retrograde steps (such as placing limits on immigration, threatening to deport Muslims, etc) also require metapolitical changes, such as an increase in xenophobia, in order to create the political momentum to successfully bring in legislation.
In an article I wrote about a decade ago, News from Nowhere, I noted the links between science fiction and Pagan thought. Both offer alternative visions of society, both utopian and dystopian; and both include egalitarian and hierarchical possible futures or alternatives. In that essay, I glossed over some of the more right-wing science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein, who has also had a significant influence on the Pagan revival, and focused more on left-wing writers and their visions. But science fiction and fantasy, by presenting plausible visions of different societies, are important drivers of social change, and they present alternative societies that might appeal to all parts of the political spectrum. Fantasy in particular enables the leap of imagination required to re-enchant the world. As John Halstead writes:
A work of fiction may open a person up to having a very real experience to which they were not open before.
This painting by Thomas Cole, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, was painted as part of a series called The Course of Empire. It was part of a cultural or metapolitical conversation about how society should be organised, and how it was likely to evolve. Cole was influenced by Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The series of paintings reflected popular American views of the day, when many regarded pastoralism as the ideal phase of human civilization, as they feared that empire would inevitably lead to overconsumption and decay.
The metapolitics of Pagan traditions
Recently, an excellent analysis of the spread of the ideas of the New Right and how far they may overlap with some of the ideas of Pagan traditions appeared on Gods & Radicals. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend reading it. I agree with the analysis presented by the article: we must guard against retrogressive ideas becoming unexamined norms within Pagan traditions. It is worth mentioning (as the article itself notes) that just because someone’s ideas overlap with those of the New Right, doesn’t mean they are necessarily an adherent of the crypto-fascist ideas of that movement. But it does suggest that it would be a good idea to carefully examine where their ideas might lead if carried to their logical conclusion, precisely because these ideas prepare the ground for political and social change.
With that in mind, let’s examine some of the ideas that are popular in some corners of Pagan & polytheist communities.
Apparently some people are rather fascinated by sacral kingship and aristocracy. I think I can safely say that such notions are not very popular in England, where we still experience the inequalities of the class system, the monarchy that sits on top of the pinnacle like the visible part of a pimple, and where a study of our history reveals the disastrous instability introduced by the vagaries of succession in a hereditary monarchy (I am referring to the war of Stephen and Maud, the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War, the “Glorious Revolution”, and so on). That’s why you don’t get Wiccans in the UK adopting titles like Lord this and Lady that. And people with pretensions to be a reincarnated Dark Age king are not taken particularly seriously by most people either.
The idea of the sacral king was popularised in the early 20th century by Margaret Murray, who wrote that William Rufus (famously killed by an arrow in the New Forest) may have been England’s last sacral king, and that his death was a sacrifice. Apparently there are people who are regarded as monarchs in their particular spiritual tradition. I’m fine with that, as long as we get to revive the tradition of sacral kingship in its full form: where the sacred monarch gets sacrificed after their year in office. I somehow think the whole idea would suddenly be a lot less popular if it was revived in its full form.
But really, honestly, the whole notion of kingship just doesn’t work. This should be completely obvious to anyone who has studied the history of monarchy wherever it has been tried. The only time monarchy worked was when the king was elected (and nowadays we call that office a president). The only way that an absolute ruler can maintain their authority is through fear, as Machiavelli pointed out.
Messages from deities
So you received a message from a deity. Great. That’s nice for you. But how do I know whether it was really a message from a deity, or just another aspect of your psyche trying to shore up your fragile ego? I would evaluate a purported revelation from a deity the way I would evaluate a purported message from anyone else, by asking questions:
- is it consistent with what I know of reality?
- is it consistent with what I know of that person/deity?
- is it consistent with my ethics?
If the answer to any of these is no, then either I won’t believe that the message came from the deity, or I won’t believe that the message was intended for me.
“A deity told me to do it” is never a sufficient justification for any action. If a deity tells a group of people to slaughter another group of people, we rightly regard that deity as deeply immoral (or alternatively, we deny that the commandment came from that deity). All communications from deities have to be evaluated against common standards of ethical behaviour.
That’s not to say that no-one ever receives valid and interesting messages from deities: of course they do. It just means that we need to be aware that messages from deities might just be our own ego talking, rather than a genuine divine communication.
Another disturbing tendency that has been rearing its head of late is the view that you can only work within your own culture, worshipping the gods of your ancestors. This ‘folkish’ view is being used to exclude people of colour from traditions based on European culture. It takes a monolithic and essentialist view of culture, regarding cultural themes as being predetermined by genetics. For those of us who are of mixed descent (which is most people these days, especially in North America), this approach literally makes no sense. I’m an English person with some Cornish ancestry, and as I grew up in Hampshire, probably Saxon ancestry too – maybe even some Norman. Should my Paganism consist of Cornish practices, Saxon practices, or Norse practices according to this view?
This folkish/genetic essentialism uses the concept of cultural appropriation to justify its racist discourse, which is ironic as they are appropriating the real struggles of indigenous peoples to defend their culture and life-ways against the depredations of colonialism. But resisting cultural appropriation is about resisting power; it is not about keeping culture ‘pure’. Cultures and traditions are not monolithic and unchanging silos: they are discourses. You can’t just lift a practice from one culture to another in a superficial way without radically changing its meaning; but this does not mean that no-one can ever do anything inspired by another culture.
The problem with folkish views is that they assume that races and cultures are monolithic, unchanging, never influence each other, and that people from different ethnicities never intermarry. It constructs different cultures as different races, so it is certainly racialised, which in my book is basically racist.
What are your goals?
You may have noticed that the Harry Potter books are a political fable. (This becomes particularly apparent with the appearance of Dolores Umbridge, who is an extended satire upon the activities of OFSTED in the British education system.) As with any good fable, the ideas are generally applicable. The adherents of Voldemort (the Death Eaters and their hangers-on) are ruled by fear. No dissent is allowed, and their group is strongly hierarchical. The witches and wizards who are allied with Dumbledore, on the other hand, are much more egalitarian. Diversity of views and discussion of tactics are welcomed. Both sides live their values, because it is by embodying their values that they create the society they want to live in.
If you desire to create a society where conflict is the norm and the weakest go to the wall, then your interim goals and methods need to be consistent with that goal. And creating hierarchical structures where outsiders are scapegoated and disagreement cannot be tolerated, will take you a long way towards that goal. Fetishising power-over and symbols of power-over will also lead you towards that goal.
If your goal is to create a sustainable, egalitarian, peaceful society, then your interim goals and methods need to be consistent with that goal. As A J Muste wrote, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way”. The structures we need to create in order to realise this goal should be democratic, egalitarian, and non-hierarchical, and there should be room for differences of opinion and for diversity.
If you are creating a new religious movement that is characterised by fear of difference, distrust of outsiders, the crushing of dissent, the insistence on only one right way to do things, then you will sow the seeds of perpetual conflict and division.
That’s why I am happy that John Halstead and others are part of Paganism: because I welcome a diversity of views, and I want my ideas to be challenged and tested. The only way that theories are strengthened is if they are tested against other theories.
That’s why I am delighted by the ideas of Rhyd Wildermuth about worlding the gods, because the way we world the gods into the earth reflects the sort of society we want to create:
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.
I want the Pagan movement to be diverse and inclusive, because a diverse and inclusive movement is stronger, more interesting, and more viable. I want to create a world where it is safe to be me. A theocracy run by people who want power over others might be fine for the people at the top (as long as they succeeded in staying at the top) but it wouldn’t be very pleasant for anyone else.
That is why the only viable vision of a sustainable and just future is one where social and environmental justice prevails. One where the rapacious greed and over-consumption promoted by capitalism has been replaced by a more sustainable and equal distribution of wealth. One that values the gods as the consciousnesses of the natural world, not as beings who desire to lord it over humanity. One that doesn’t appropriate other cultures’ practices, but doesn’t treat cultures as monolithic silos either.
As the Buddha once said, with our thoughts we make the world. We are all co-creating the future of the Pagan movement now. Let us be careful to lay the foundations of a world that those who come after us can be happy and fulfilled in.