Pagan Polytheism

So earlier today I posted a post about Wicca and polytheism. I personally maintain that Wicca, at least as first designed and implemented by Gerald Gardener, is only giving lip-service to polytheism — even so called “soft” polytheism — and is essentially monotheistic, with any gods and goddesses given lip service to seen as archetypal aspects of the Divine Creative Source, whatever That may be. That is not to say that all people who identify as Wiccan hold this view, but that the original format of Wicca and the ritual structure that supports it has this assumption built into it. And I believe that this is one of the factors that is causing what I perceive as a rift between Wicca and other forms of Paganism.

But I may have spouted off rashly, and some of my own biases have shown through.

It seems to make sense to assume that, since one of the traditional definitions of the term “pagan” is centers on polytheism. And really, I don’t know that I have met a Pagan who did not at least believe in other gods, even if they didn’t worship them.

You see, I am conflating polytheism with Paganism, and that may not be valid.

What it comes down to is the fact that there is still a debate in the Pagan community about what it means to be Pagan. And I’ve kind of been sitting it out.

In my own case, I have pretty much regarded three groups as comprising paganism. The first would be the Reconstructionists, or the hard polytheists, who seek to worship the old gods in ways that are as similar to the ancient ways as practical or possible. (“Gods” in this case does not have to mean gods in a pantheon, but can also refer to any other type of divine critter running around.) The second would be what I call Neo-Wiccans, the eclectic types that build off a basic Wiccan framework but aren’t really Wiccan in any sense that Gardener or Alexander would recognize. This encompasses a lot of the soft polytheism out there, the belief some gods/goddesses are aspects of others, or manifestations of natural forces. Then there are those that I consider the Outlyers, the magic-users or mystics that are ignored or rejected by other religious groups, but that Pagans don’t have a problem including. Satanists, Chaos Magicians, Ceremonial Magicians, and whatever else fits.

This has worked for me, but looking about at some other models, it seems a bit inadequate. So I must engage the debate.

Let’s start with this article by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, on hard polytheism in Paganism.

What I am noticing more and more recently, however, is that modern Paganism is being purposefully defined so as to not include the gods. In recent weeks alone: Jonathan Korman has defined “the pagan sensibility” as not necessarily needing to include the gods; John Halstead has discussed the four centers of modern Paganism, but has portrayed the deity-centric forms of Paganism as inherently creedal; and here at Patheos’ Pagan Portal, Yvonne Aburrow has defined “theology” as “reasoning about the Divine” rather than “reasoning about the gods,” which is not remotely the same thing (on which more will be said in a moment).

I have studies religion and history for some time. One thing that I have noticed is that in almost all cultures, a sophisticated and intellectual elite emerges in any religious tradition and abstracts that religion away from worship of deities. In some cases, they deny it happens at all, although the practices of the “common folk” usually belie this. History records this phenomenon in ancient Greece, ancient Rome, in China, in India, and even in Judaism and Christianity. The underlying assumption is that believe in specific gods with personalities is primitive superstition, and that abstract forms of interacting with the divine are more evolved and enlightened. (And we know how much I love evolving to more enlightened forms.)

Contemporary Paganism has a curious history, since it actually began among the enlightened elites as a more abstract form, and “devolved” into a more concrete and hard polytheistic practice. Such a development easily accounts for the reason that the gods are absent from many discussions about paganism. And it must also be said that much contemporary Pagan thought is often influenced by or a response to Christian thought. (The very act of referring to a religion as a “faith” or “creed” is a very Christian thing. Orthodoxy is extremely difficult to find among pagan religions — practice usually trumps belief.)

For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.

This touches on what I said earlier, as well as hitting the “nature religion” point. The concept of Paganism as a “nature religion” is a very modern understanding, and assumes a very romantic worldview relating to worshiping nature. I have found little to suggest that ancient pagans were “nature worshipers” as we conceive the term — most of them sought to placate the gods and spirits of nature to preserve order from chaos. It is far more accurate to say our pagan forebears were “order worshipers.” My own Roman ancestors did not worship nature in any meaningful sense, and in fact celebrated their grand civilization and the order it brought to people’s lives as having divine origins.

The idea of Pagans as “nature worshippers” fits in perfectly with the Christian conception (and, as in my case, misconception) of ancient polytheists as unsophisticated bumpkins with no place in civilized society, and therefore no business doing their rituals indoors.

In additions, it also fits perfectly with the romanticism of the politics embraced by the counter-culture that embraced early neopaganism. The emphasis on environmentalism contrasted with the exploitative stewardship model of Christianity, and the notion of free-flowing outdoor worship contrasted with the Christians hiding from the “real world” in their little boxes. Or something like that.

I am beginning to understand, more and more, the reason why many modern polytheists have chosen to distance themselves from the term “Pagan,” since polytheism most certainly involves gods (and lots of them!), whereas many modern forms of Paganism seem bound and determined to define their religiosity in every way apart from honoring, reverencing, or (horror of horrors!) worshipping a number of gods.

I think that this touches on some of my frustration with Wicca. (And indeed, in my last post I was implying that Wicca may not be properly “Pagan” because of its insistence on cramming all of the gods into two molds.) What it really comes down to for me is that I don’t like being told that the gods and goddesses I revere and interact with on a daily basis are just archetypes, or figments of the imagination of some Great God who Himself is an impersonal abstract expression of somethingorother. I see little difference between this and Christian telling me all of my gods are deceptions from Satan, or Hindus telling me that Jove is really an incarnation of Vishnu. Yes, I will desire to distance myself from anyone who condescends me like that.

Pagan or polytheist practice that emphasizes cultus presupposes a definite being with volition and consciousness on the other end of the interaction. (Cultus, for the present purpose, is active and deliberate interaction with divine beings.) Thus, when I hear Pagans being described or self-defining as “nature worshippers,” I wonder how interaction can take place at all. “Nature” doesn’t care if you make offerings, hold festivals, or sing its praises and dance and feast with your friends. Dancing at Lughnasadh will not avert global warming; singing a hymn won’t stop an earthquake; pouring a libation won’t prevent it from raining. The best way to “honor” nature is to do things like recycle, not drive, reduce one’s carbon footprint, and so forth.

But, if one (for good or ill, depending on who one asks) personifies nature to some extent as genii loci, land wights, and other spirits of nature and place, then one can usefully interact with these things even if it still might rain, have earthquakes, or get warmer. The more ecologically-conscious one’s religiosity is, the more scientifically-informed it tends to be; and if that’s the case, then the utter irrelevance of “nature worship” in any cultic fashion should become all the more obvious. Nature—and the wider cosmos more generally, with its colliding asteroids and exploding stars—is utterly indifferent to human existence at this stage, and likely will be so forever.

And this is another thing that bothers me about Wicca. If your gods are so abstract, then what are they? I interact with the gods because I can, because while they may embody cosmic forces, they do so in a way that my puny human brain can comprehend and handle dealing with. And when it comes down to it, they have their own moods and tendencies, their own preferences. Nature has no such compunctions. Which leads me to respect the gods much more than nature. The gods can be angered and placated — nature is just an environmental setting and can be manipulated as such. Regarding nature as an abstract offers no reason for not developing a forest other than aesthetics — regarding that forest as a home to spirits that will fuck you up if you mess with it will.

Christine Kraemer responded to Lupus’ article with one of her own, offering a template for Paganism that helps explain why some Pagans may feel a bit left out from the mix.

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

A Venn Diagram is included.

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

There is a lot to his, and I think it helps out. My biggest problem with this model, however, is that fact that two of the three categories are not religious elements, but political ones. “Earth-Based Spirituality” is romantic environmentalism under a spiritual sheen; “Goddess worship” in many cases is radical feminist similarly wrapped in a spiritual coating. (I would suggest something more like “Holism” for the environmental category and something more like “Monism” in the place of goddess worship, as the former includes the inter-connectivity of all things in a system, and the latter considers that the divine essentially underlies all things, in my mind embracing the divine feminine as well as the masculine. But I’m not too good at philosophy, so I may have that off …)

Some of the most potent practitioners I’ve known have been non-theist animists, urban polytheists, and Jungian spiritual feminists — and I was lucky enough to meet them because we gathered under a “Pagan” umbrella.

Agreed. And this is where I was previously unfair. In my grudge against Wicca, I was excluding a good number of pagans that are not polytheists but are still very pagan.

I’m not sure how we’ll solve this dilemma of who is Pagan and who isn’t. And maybe we shouldn’t. I think that Kraemer is on to something, but it still needs some work, especially since it reeks of the conflation of political and religious ideals that permeates so much of contemporary Paganism. It’s a good start, though, in that it allows some consideration of what does constitute Paganism, yet still allows room for those on the edges.

This need to define Paganism doesn’t seem to be waning, although the underlying issue in the above debate doesn’t seem to be so much as defining Paganism, but as defining one’s own type of Paganism as distinct from others. Paganism is such a broad term that until definitive categories are established within it, people will worry about being confused with other types that are far different from their own. (Lupus described this in an interaction with a Church and the assumption that all Pagans worship outside, which isn’t very Hellenistic. My gods had Really Big Temples back in the day.) I don’t want to be mistaken for a Wiccan, or an Asatru or a Druid, or even a Hellenic. I want to be recognized as legitimate in the bounds of Religio Romana, which is Pagan, yes, but is also its own very unique thing. And I think that is the conversation that is really going on here.

I don’t think Paganism is fracturing or imploding or fundamentalizing. I think that we’re just a bunch of people who have moved into a really big house and are making sure everyone knows where their rooms are.

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16 responses to “Pagan Polytheism

  1. Hiya, @quantumpainter on twitter here! I am enjoying all of the dialogue that’s going on to do with this topic at the moment. I think this entry proves that you’re not a ‘fundamentalist’, as it shows a willingness to re-evaluate and reassess new information as it comes along in a dynamic journal format.

    A couple more things I wish to add; I’m not sure nature worship needs to be categorized as romantic as such, yes there is your definition of environmentalism rebranded into a spirituality… another variation of the idea of earth based spirituality is the notion of immanent deity in all aspects of the material(earth) realm, including the false (I think) dichotomy of what is ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’- all of it is ‘earth based’ and many practitioners, especially modernish ones, incorporate all of it.

    I have a Wiccan influence and interact with a lot of initiated Wiccans and I’m not sure if your assertions of their concepts of the Goddess and God are accurate all of the time. I do know many Wiccans who are hard polytheists and chose two deities as their patrons to worship within their framework. It does vary though and there are some who subscribe to a more soft polytheist (like Penczak’s ‘diamond’) approach.

    I think part of the beauty of the pagan community is dialogue like this, love your work 🙂

    • The concept of “Earth-Based Spirituality” emerged from the counter-culture of the 50’s and 60’s which held an essentially romantic view of nature. The “natural-artificial” dichotomy we have is firmly rooted in this, as are notions of the “noble savage” living in “harmony” with nature (and part of why there was so much appropriation of Native American religion in the emerging New Age movement. There may be some movement away from that — Lupa, for example, is certainly not romantic in how she interacts with nature — nut much of what I have seen among Paganism as a movement reflects those origins.

      And I mentioned that most Wiccans have moved away from Gardener’s model of the God and the Goddess. I know quite a few hard polytheists who self-define as Wiccan. My point is that very few of them, if any, follow Wicca as Gardener designed it, and that most of them follow a brand of eclectic whatever loosely attached to a Wiccan ritual framework. I’m honestly not sure at what point they can be considered “Wiccan,” which is why I’ll throw around the phrase “neo-Wiccan” from time to time.

      Maybe I am too hard on Wicca, but it confuses me a little bit. It presents as polytheistic, in practice is duotheistic, and in theory is monotheistic. And it equates itself with witchcraft in all forms, and has been co-opted by political movements for their own end. It certainly gives its practitioners what they need from it, but frankly I’m finding myself more and more resentful of living under its shadow, as if it represents all of Paganism and therefore I must adhere to its dictates. (I’m really sick of hearing about how I need to follow the Rede or “Karma” will get me.)

      And I think that resistance to the cultural dominance of Wicca is a large part of why this debate over “what is paganism” is going on right now. As I said above, what I think we’re seeing is not a split of people saying “I don’t want to be pagan anymore,” but of pagans saying “No, I’m this kind of pagan, so don’t confuse me with that type of pagan.

      • Fair enough! I think the kick back against Wicca has been around for a while. I think it’s a natural evolution of what is a very new religion, teething problems. Why feel resentful of living under it’s shadow though? Does it really loom over you so much?

        As for the monotheism in theory part, I’m not sure I understand that. Pantheism, maybe, but not so much monotheism but maybe there is something in the theory of Wicca that I am missing?

      • I feel resentful of living under Wicca’s shadow because to many people, Pagan=Wicca. So when I identify as Pagan, it is assumed that I am Wiccan, and I’m not. And Wiccans do this to me most. (Merry meet? What does that mean? A happy steak?) And there are times where the assumption that I follow Wiccan precepts can complicate or impede communication, such as Lupus’ example dealing with the Church. “You people worship outside, so you can’t use our church.” No, my people built huge temples that are still standing thousands of years later. Respect that.

        So I get annoyed when I’m told to live by the Rede. I don’t follow it. I don’t believe in Karma, either (which isn’t Wiccan anyway). I don’t do esbats and sabbats. And I get looked at strangely when I try to explain those things to other pagans, because they assume those are things that all pagans do, because Wicca.

        And that annoyance was part of why I jumped to correct myself given when essentially questioning whether Wicca is Pagan or not, because I don’t see it as polytheistic. That was a bullshit call on my part — those Pagans who aren’t polytheists would probably resent the assumption that they should be to be counted as “real” Pagans.

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  4. You wrote: “What it really comes down to for me is that I don’t like being told that the gods and goddesses I revere and interact with on a daily basis are just archetypes, or figments of the imagination of some Great God who Himself is an impersonal abstract expression of somethingorother. I see little difference between this and Christian telling me all of my gods are deceptions from Satan, or Hindus telling me that Jove is really an incarnation of Vishnu. Yes, I will desire to distance myself from anyone who condescends me like that.”

    I get this. I do. But if I happen to believe that the gods are archetypes, I don’t know why you have to be offended by my personal belief. I’m not offended if you think my archetypes are personal gods.

    What’s more, if you want respect, you need to show it, and in the comment below you are guilty of doing the same thing you accuse others of:

    You wrote: ““Earth-Based Spirituality” is romantic environmentalism under a spiritual sheen; “Goddess worship” in many cases is radical feminist similarly wrapped in a spiritual coating.”

    You don’t really get more disrespectful of someone’s spirituality than that.

    • “But if I happen to believe that the gods are archetypes, I don’t know why you have to be offended by my personal belief. I’m not offended if you think my archetypes are personal gods”

      I’m not “offended” by it. I’m just annoyed when your position is assumed as the default. Just as I acknowledged it was improper for me to assume my position as the default. As a hard polytheist, I’m in the minority, and I’m sensitive to it. When I’m told that Mars is just the same as Ares, or Herne, or Pan, or Dagda, it’s a bit frustrating.

      “You wrote: ““Earth-Based Spirituality” is romantic environmentalism under a spiritual sheen; “Goddess worship” in many cases is radical feminist similarly wrapped in a spiritual coating.””

      They are just that. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t deriving spiritual purpose and meaning from them, but I tend to keep my religion and politics separate. I’m looking at origins here. Reclaiming has turned a political agenda into a spiritual movement. Is it religious? Probably, but it’s origins are still very political, as are most of its activities. Is it disrespectful to be aware of a movements origins and influences?

      • I don’t know if anyone’s position can really be assumed as the default. At least not across the board. Perhaps in areas where a particular tide of thought has come in will a position be assumed, but modern Paganism is too new to have default. Yet.

        As far as acknowledging “Earth-Based Spirituality” and “Goddess worship” as legitimate facets of the Pagan movement, can we really separate activism from the movement? Since Pagans define themselves by what they do (whatever it is they might do) rather than what they believe, their actions are important including those actions that are ecologically and/or politically/socially motivated. Naturally, this doesn’t mean every Pagan has to care about these things, but if we’re concerning ourselves with right action then the above motivations can be adopted as religious deeds just as remembering to perform rites that may or may not include burning incense and chanting.

        Humanistic Paganism, for example, utilizes mythology do understand man and his history, but does not subscribe to actual deities. Yet, a Humanistic Pagan can still feel a religious sense of awe concerning the natural world around him and use that awe to motivate him to right action.

        You’re right, it’s a damn large house we’ve moved into, with plenty of skeletons in the closet in the form of ill-guided flame wars and terrible [Llewellyn] literature will eventually need to be weeded out. Perhaps, for the time being it’s best to keep the umbrella term “Pagan” more, rather than less, inclusive and give a future generation the opportunity to sort the issue out when time has given the Pagan community more perspective.

      • My problem with blending politics and activism with paganism is that it overshadows the more religious aspects of what we do. The fact that activism is more of a focus for humanistic pagans (who may lack more concrete “devotional” work) exacerbate the perceived rift between theistic and nontheistic paganism. If I consider myself pagan because I worship old gods and practice magic, and someone else considers themselves pagan because they honor the divine in everything through environmental work and advocating social justice, how do we connect? I suppose I can see such work as devotional, in a vague way, but how will an activist pagan see my lack of support for position X? As different strokes, or as blasphemy? “Right action” is tricky enough in a hard ritual setting. It’s even trickier in a more abstract context that really is more based on taking action on right belief.

        I’m also reminded of this bullshit. The pagan community was near apoplectic over Christian praying for a political goal, ostensibly because it was full of teh black majickz and stuff. So why are we so comfortable mixing politics and religion if we cry foul when they do it? And there’s the big problem of assuming all pagans support the same politics. They don’t. So do we have groups of pagans squaring off against each other, each petitioning their gods and throwing spells for opposing political goals? How much of a rift will that cause in the community?

  5. Excuse me! I just said the word theology means “reasoning about the Divine”. I should maybe have said it means that literally. If it was “reasoning about deities” it would be theoilogy. And i used the term “Divine” so as not to exclude goddesses.

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