Can Polytheists Pray for People in Other Religions (Especially Monotheists)?

In many respects, the above question may be one of the easiest I’ve ever tackled here–and the simplest and most brief answer would be “Yes!”–but since this is me, we’ll have to say more about it.

And before doing that, I’d like to spend a few moments mentioning why I’m talking about this now.

I just found out that someone that was important in my childhood religious upbringing, and that was very important to my family, died.  “What’s so weird about that?” people might ask, “People die all the time that aren’t from our religions!”  True enough.  What makes this situation different is that the individual who died was the parish priest.  Even though the “officially” Catholic parts of my family (i.e. all the people who went through the sacrament of confirmation–which is everyone except for me!) have not gone to church of any kind for more than a decade now outside of an occasional one-off event, accompanying their friends on some special instance, or what-have-you, the priest in question remained a very important part of some of their lives.  It’s a long and complex and rather fraught matter in many respects, the details of which I won’t get into, but suffice it to say, this brings up some childhood issues…

And, honestly, I still have dreams on a semi-regular basis (at least a few times a year, sometimes more) involving being back at that parish, but as an adult, or at least as an older teenager (some of the last times I was there…I was there once in my 20s, but I think that was the last time), but things have not been “quite right” or the same, and I know I’m “not supposed to be there” and so forth…and not so much in my own mind, but instead in the minds of others who might object to having an “apostate” in their midst and so forth. These religious things have a deep impact on us, whether we like it or not, and it is very hard indeed to completely “escape” aspects of one’s religious upbringing.  Even consciously trying to do things to counteract negative monotheistic viewpoint-shaping isn’t always successful, and the role these have had in shaping our experiences of the world and our vocabularies and such is not something that can be done away with easily or with just a bit of consciousness brought to the matter.  We see this at all times with how a lot of modern polytheists deal with particular issues, and even think about them and talk about them, all the while being unaware that their dealings and thoughts might not be appropriate nor applicable to what is going on in their polytheistic lives.

I do believe one can leave one’s bitterness over these matters behind, and not be too resentful of all the damage and negativity that such experiences might have had for one’s own development, and I’d say I’m fairly well “advanced” in that regard in terms of some issues…in others, not so much, but luckily they may not come up as often.  But I’ve encountered this frequently when, for example, I discuss the fact that some Christian sources may have valuable insights for particular polytheist matters, and some people are resistant to this and say “I’d rather just see what our Polytheist Ancestors would have said on these matters than to read what a Christian thought of them.”  Well, we don’t always have the luxury of such sources directly from polytheists surviving, and if the matter-in-question is something found nowhere else, it might not be a bad idea to take a look at it and hold one’s nose to the unsavory bits of the source under consideration, yes?  I certainly think so…but unfortunately, not everyone agrees on that.

While this is not the place to go into this matter fully, the simple answer I gave above is something we can talk about on a scientific level, and I mean that quite literally and entirely deliberately.  The fact of the matter is, the science is in (!?!), and not only does religious practice and participation in a religious community (of ANY organized sort!) have benefits for people’s physical as well as mental health, but prayer, blessings, healing intentions, and many other such things (again, from ANY religion or tradition!) does have beneficial effects as well for people, even if all they do is make someone “feel better” or “feel happier” in some matters.  That is not nothing, and reliable science has demonstrated this over and over again.  “Prayer” may not actually change things or make particular matters happen (and I’m not saying that is the case, so don’t get me wrong here!), and it won’t stop a tsunami from sweeping your house away or turn aside a tornado in most cases, but it can have potential useful impacts on mood, outlook, affect, and so on that can, in turn, be useful overall for particular being that benefit from such actions.

So, whether the atheists and nay-sayers want to disregard that actual scientific finding or not is up to them…but that’s not the main reason I wanted to write about this, and it is not the reason why this is an important question to consider.

As this blog is about “Theological Questions,” there is a theological question lurking behind this matter that I think a lot of people have not properly considered.  In fact, this is something that I think a metric fuck-ton of pagans are entirely obstinate about, and while there are a decent number of polytheists who have a better and more accepting approach to these particular matters, there are still many that engage in what I’m about to mention.

As polytheists, we acknowledge the existence of many Deities, and that is pretty simple and not much under question (some would prefer to say, or even insist on phrasing it as, “believe in,” but I don’t like that phrasing for a variety of reasons I have discussed previously, if I am remembering correctly).  Transcendence is not so much a matter of these Deities being entirely beyond human comprehension, as is the case for monotheists by default, but in the fact that there are always more Deities than one can personally account for, and as Thales of Miletus said, “The world is full of Gods” to a much greater extent than anyone can account for.

Understanding that, it is entirely dumbfounding to me that a huge number of pagans, and no small number of polytheists, seem to do one or more of the following things:

  1.  They assert that all of their own Deities are real, but that the Deities of monotheism are not real and do not exist.
  2. If they allow that the Deities of monotheism exist, they then also think that those Deities are exactly what monotheists believe about Them rather than considering that if those religions have various other things wrong with them in ethics and other matters (and, let’s face it, they do!), then they may also be wrong about how they’ve portrayed their Deities.
  3. Part of #2 can also involve assenting to the belief of some monotheists–generally those who are involved in interfaith work, or Muslims (for whom this is a matter of required belief)–that the monotheistic Deities are singular, and represents a synonymous, unitary “Abrahamic God” rather than the very different theological formulations and histories of the Hebrew God (a.k.a. Iao Sabaoth), the Christian Deities (Jesus and the Holy Spirit at very least, if not others), and the Muslim God Allah, amongst other Abrahamic religions and their own formulations, which instead suggests that there are multiple Deities behind these apparent attempts to claim that all of these are “one,” and thus by doing so some pagans and polytheists are assenting to monism rather than being thorough-going in their polytheism.
  4. And sometimes in collaboration with #2 and #3 above, using a quasi-Gnostic idea, they may assert that such a unitary Deity who is ostensibly a “Creator God” is just as those various religions describe such a being, but the only part they got wrong is “It’s evil,” and is directly behind all of the evils throughout the history of said religions perpetrated by the followers of those Deities.

On the first point, I think it’s pretty simple that such an idea is an obvious hypocritical double-standard, and one that is inherited on the monotheistic religion’s frequently preferred model, i.e. “My God exists, yours doesn’t,” just with the numbers jigged differently.  If it is stupid and wrong when the monotheists do it, then it has to be stupid and wrong when we do it, lest we look like gigantic assholes, after all.

On the second point, not only is that inconsistent with polytheist theological formulations about Deities in most cases, the larger question in my mind is:  why grant these religions that sort of legitimacy to make authoritative theological formulations when so much that flows from these is responsible for what is wrong with the world today, and are among the reasons why polytheism exists in the ways it does now (i.e. hardly at all), is disrespected without a second thought by “most intelligent people,” and so forth.  As one example amongst many, Christian theology’s influence on a variety of fields in premodern periods, including what we might generously have to call “natural science” and so forth has demonstrated repeatedly that just because church authorities have stated something as dogmatic, doesn’t mean they may not be objectively wrong about it…and thus, if that is the case with talking about how the physical world works, why might they not be flawed in discussing how the invisible and non-corporeal worlds work, either?  More could be said about this, but I think you all get the point!

On the third point, again, why would one take one of the foundational theological assertions of particular monotheist viewpoints as “true” and “unquestionable” when they are so clearly wrong about so many other things?  It isn’t a matter of “being disrespectful” to them to say that there are other ways of thinking about these matters which are relevant and meaningful and useful from our own religious viewpoints; one can acknowledge that there are differences and speak from one’s own viewpoint authentically without disrespecting someone else.  The idea that one has to take all that others think, feel, or believe hook, line, and sinker without any question or critical thought is an idea that is far-too-prevalent in overly-wooly supposedly “liberal” thought these days which can do a lot of very illiberal things like excuse a lot of very bad behaviors in the name of religion.  “Oh, if [XYZ monotheists] want to believe that, that’s fine–let’s all be cultural relativists because that’s the way to peace in the world!”  Okay, fine, but then don’t complain when those people come to your house, tell you they’re the majority population, and demand that you perform female genital mutilation on your daughters and sisters and mothers.

That may seem like an extreme example, but think about how entirely de rigeur it is to have all AMAB children circumcised at birth in the United States, and that such a view comes not from concerns on hygiene and so forth, but instead from religious assumptions that are so ingrained into the culture of the U.S. that the marked linguistic term for this particular characteristic is actually the unnatural state (i.e. someone is “uncircumcised” or “uncut”–in other words, NORMAL!), we assume it is the default and is better and healthier, and then we wonder why some of our notions of sexuality are as fucked up as they are, for starters…And if we are pagans and polytheists, and are supposed to be in favor of “nature” and so forth, then why is this unnatural and brutal practice something that we have just accepted quite often with little to no question when it only comes from a limited number of cultural-religious contexts that may not be in-line with what we’re doing now, nor what our Ancestors did in the past?  That’s one example among many of how these things can have very real impacts in the world…but I digress (as I usually do!)…

That we would assume that the very different character of these divergent monotheistic Deities as conveyed in the words of these varying traditions’ prophets really just hides an underlying unity is, to put it mildly, something that flies in the face of all the actual evidence when seen from outside of a monotheistic viewpoint.  The only reason these contradictions and vast contrasts between the different Deities have to be entertained is because monotheistic assumptions dictate that it must be so, and not because of anything in the evidence itself which demands such an interpretation.  So, being that we are polytheists, why should we thoughtlessly follow in those patterns when they are not only against our own theological integrity and best social interests, but also simply because they are the unquestioned norms and preferences of the people who are often using (weak!) theological arguments to oppress, marginalize, and persecute against us?

On the fourth point, let me just put it in this manner.  I think we’ve all dealt with people who, say, identify as Loki-worshippers who excuse some very bad behaviors and personal preferences of theirs by saying “Well, I have to, I worship Loki!”  In these instances, we have no difficulty saying “That’s that person, not Loki.”  (Unless one is invested in the movements in which Loki is considered an “evil” Deity and is not honored in their official rituals…but that’s a whole other topic that stems from some pretty poor monotheistic-influenced dualist assumptions that are never questioned!). If someone you met was a devotee of Hermes, and after interacting with them you caught them trying to pick your pockets, you would rightfully be angry, but if they tried to justify their behavior by saying “Hermes is the God of thieves, so I’m just following what He teaches!” you’d call the police, sock them in the face, and get your iPhone and wallet back, right?  (Well, maybe not exactly like that, but you know what I mean!)  Or, what about the people who think that the sexual ethics of the Deities as exhibited in Greek myths are models for how humans should interact?  We all know what we think about those sorts of people, and we think such things about them quite correctly.

So, could it be possible that the “all-powerful, all-knowing” but also “entirely transcendent” and “utterly unknowable” monotheistic Deities that some people profess their faiths in, and Which thus cannot communicate directly with the majority of human devotees (lest at least one of the only four theological superlative attributes mentioned in that earlier part of this sentence is wrong!) has a lot of followers who come up with entirely idiotic and foolish viewpoints based not on what their Deities are instructing is best, but instead are doing so based on often selfish and power-hungry motives of their human leaders?  And that, thus, in such cases, the Gods “behind” such behavior are in fact not behind that kind of behavior at all?  (And let’s not get into the idea of “Well, then those Deities should have stopped them!”  Only if They really are all-powerful as well as all-benevolent [at least according to preferred human standards of “benevolence”!] could they do that, and as They haven’t, that kind of puts those theological assumptions into question, doesn’t it?)

So, working from those established critiques of these viewpoints, there is absolutely no problem with a polytheist praying for a monotheist, hoping the best for them, and even asking one’s own Deities to intercede with the Deities of the monotheist-in-question.  “I will ask my Deities to protect you and likewise myself; I ask you to do the same for your own Deities” may not be what some monotheists might like to hear, but it would be a good and useful way to phrase the matter when it comes to issues of this nature.

I still have a backlog of a few other questions I have yet to address, but if you think of others, please feel free to send them, either in the comments here, via the Contact form on this website, or via e-mail otherwise!  I hope all of you are doing as well as possible in these difficult times, and as stated above, I will pray that my Deities protect and bless each of you, and I hope you will ask your own Deities to do the same for me!

What Are Magic and Occultism’s Relationships to the Deities in Polytheism?

[We are again at the end of the questions that I’ve had submitted to me, so if any of you have inquiries you’d like me to tackle in this public forum, please feel free to submit them!]

This is a topic that is of great interest to me, because it is something that has been of tremendous appeal to me for the majority of my life.  I was never especially enthusiastic about “stage magic” and card tricks, and though I dabbled in some of that when I was very young, it never quite interested me in the same fashion that MAGIC in the wider and more mysterious sense did:  the way it is spoken of in, for example, the myths of King Arthur, or in various television and film series.

It is far beyond the scope of the present context to actually come to any strict or precise definition of “magic” even for operational purposes in the present context, and while I hate to leave things at that, we’d end up having an entire post on that which would be lengthy and require tons of footnotes, and that’s not exactly what this particular series is for, nor am I prepared to do such a thing at the moment.  (Lazy?  Perhaps.)  I hate to make the assumption that “everyone knows what I’m talking about” when it comes to magic and occultism, but I’m going to do exactly that in order to move forward quickly with all of this.  Suffice it to say, perhaps, that what I mean by “magic” is any deliberate means of attaining supernatural power to create change in the world, influence events, or in other ways have some advantage in dealing with the difficulties of daily life; and “occultism” would be any means of such things that is not commonly available, that requires special training, initiation, or knowledge not made accessible to everyone easily or without expense.  While not “perfect” definitions by any means, these will have to do for our purposes here.

And, to put it bluntly:  I don’t really see much of a difference, divide, or difficulty in reconciling the active pursuit of these things with devotion to Deities in a polytheistic context.  But that may take a bit more explanation, by way of distinguishing it in further ways which–like it or not!–may involve further nuancing of the definitions I’ve given above.  So, here we go down that rabbit hole…

There is something that is occasionally said in the context of certain sections of modern paganism that I think might be useful to briefly treat here:  namely, that “all Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccan.”  What this highlights is that Wicca is a specific tradition of initiatory religious witchcraft, and what I’m focusing upon this for in the context of our discussion is because “witchcraft” is generally understood to be the active pursuit of various magical techniques to influence the outcomes of events in the world, whether for malign or benign purposes (or both).  I’ve also heard something said back in the days when I was first getting into polytheist practice–which I did in order to have relationships with the Deities, not to influence events or learn magic, incidentally–which is “Christians have prayer; we [pagans] have magic.”  In other words, in these contexts “magic” was understood to be a more active manner of influencing divine will and the outcome of things in the universe, whereas “prayer” is more passive–it may articulate one’s needs or desires, but it leaves it in the hands of a Deity, whereas magic articulates those needs but also uses other means (whether the powers inherent in particular stones, herbs, or other substances, or the power of magical words, symbols, or the invocation of the names of Deities, etc.) to bring such outcomes about.  Fair enough.

What this highlights is that there are people in the pagan and/or occult communities who are not particularly interested in Deities or in anything we’d classify as “religion,” but who are interested in magic.  There are no end of ceremonial magicians in various traditions or practices who are essentially atheists or agnostics who still practice magic and who freely use the names, symbols, images, and other such things connected to Deities in order to work their own wills, but have no reverence for or devotion to those Deities.

Personally–and this is a side issue, but one I think might be a useful one to debate more widely, but I leave that to people who are interested in doing so and who have a forum in which it would be appropriate to do such–I think the various atheist pagans, “archetypal polytheists,” humanist pagans, and so forth out there should probably just re-classify themselves as ceremonial magicians, where they’ll have no difficulty mixing with the folks who do those things without any interest in the religious aspects of it, rather than trying to insert themselves into religious contexts when their atheism is essentially not only anti-theistic but also anti-religious as a basic characteristic, and which they refuse to classify as being a religion unto itself (even though it has characteristics of such, arguably)…but, as I said, that’s another debate to be had elsewhere and another time!

So, within the study of magic, both in the ancient world as well as more recently and in academic circles, there is often a distinction between “high magic” and “low magic,” which is along the lines of “learned and elite” and “folk-based and superstitious” respectively, and though both can be illicit and can use certain things common to folk as well as learned practices of the religions in which they are culturally embedded, they tend to be somewhat frowned upon by the mainstream of whatever religions in which they may find themselves.  This, indeed, may be the crux of the question as it was posed to me, and why the brief detour into mainstream paganism and Wicca above was necessary as a pretext to this discussion.

While not entirely equivalent to “high” and “low” forms of magic, there are also two terms that sometimes get used in relation to particular magical traditions in the ancient (and often Graeco-Roman-Egyptian) worlds and cultures, which are theourgia and thaumaturgia, or “theurgy” and “thaumaturgy.”  In simplest terms, these can be translated as “Deity-working” and “wonder-working.”  The latter is doing things like a folk spell for healing or suddenly getting some money; the former includes things like divination.  Theurgy and magika hiera (or “holy magic”) were both terms that got applied by the Greeks to Egyptian religious ceremonies in a number of contexts, thus indicating that their views of magic were oftentimes ambivalent:  it might have been recognized as a respectable religious institution when done by other cultures, but within Greek culture it was sometimes viewed as base and improper.  Whatever the views on magic happened to be in a given culture at a given time, and whatever they might have viewed other cultures as doing in their own religions (and whether or not those things were thought “good”) is not so much the concern at the moment…what we want to get to is what do all of these things mean for modern polytheists.

And, this is a rather easy answer, at least for me.  There isn’t really any problem between these things, in my view, as long as we understand how things are being used and what their intent is.  When prayers of intercession are done, the tendency of language in almost all cases is to use the imperative mood of the verbs involved:  “Hear out prayer!”  “Give us peace!”  “Have mercy. on us!”  “Save us from this plight!”  While all of those may seem relatively small and harmless and possibly even somewhat passive in English, they are in the imperative mood, which is essentially “giving orders to the Deities,” which is something that an awful lot of polytheists these days don’t seem to be comfortable with doing…and yet, the language says it all.  It isn’t as if the Deities have to do what we ask, and in fact a great deal of the time They don’t seem to do so; and yet, again, the language and its form makes clear what we hope happens.  So, in a certain sense, any prayers for the well-being of ourselves, our friends and families and communities, our health and possessions and wealth and livelihoods, and so forth are all therefore attempts to sway the Deities into one or another outcome, and thus could be understood as magical operations of a sort.

Divination is a regular part of my own practice, and I’m sure it is likewise for a great many polytheists, whether they do it personally or enlist the resources of a trained or recognized diviner or other such practitioner.  Seeking knowledge of things–whether of what the direct will of the Deities happens to be, or insight into potential future outcomes or past events, or whatever else may be hidden or unknown to the humans involved at the time of inquiry–from a divine source would also fall within the most common understandings of theurgy and most definitions of “high magic.”

Historically speaking, the tradition of Antinous emerges from a matrix that also includes spells invoking His name and a fertile syncretistic environment in which a variety of cultures and their practices mixed together.  Pancrates or Pachrates of Heliopolis was an Egyptian priest, magician, and poet who gave a spell to the Emperor Hadrian that still exists in the Greek Magical Papyri (in PGM IV, the so-called “Great Magical Papyrus of Paris”), and was likely the origin of a number of Antinoan theological staples like the lion hunt and the red lotus, and probably the earliest syncretisms of Antinous to Osiris and Hermes…and, possibly, he may have even been involved in the actual apotheosis rituals for Antinous and His initial heroization after His death.  So, on the basis of precedent, I cannot deny that magical traditions in the Graeco-Roman-Egyptian world are intimately tied to the heritage of the cultus of Antinous…nor would I wish otherwise.

In the modern practice of Antinoan devotion, a variety of things have emerged which also fall within the overall realm of occultism and magic, in my view, and likely in the view of others.  The Serpent Path and its various symbols and practices, and the use of hymns within it for theurgic purposes, as well as the Antinoan Mysteries (when they were running) and their attendant rituals, plus such practices as the “Spell Against Homophobia” and such are all inherently magical and occult in their operations and origins, and thus also come under these distinctions.

The thing that I would make clear in all of this, though, and in and of which I would subsume both “high” and “low” magic and make even thaumaturgy into theurgy under the rubric, is the proviso that all such things be done as an outgrowth of one’s devotion to any particular Deities in Whose service one happens to be.  If it is merely for one’s own gain and has no connection to one’s devotion to a Deity, then I don’t think one is doing magika hiera, but as long as one realizes that, it’s not really a problem.  (And if it is, then it is best to sort that out with the Deities to Whom you happen to be devoted!)  Just because one may be devoted to a Deity Who is involved in magic in some way–say, Hermes or Thoth/Djehuty, for example–that does not automatically give one license, in my view, to do any and all magic one might wish and just chalk it up to “Hermes is a God of magic, therefore I can do whatever magic I want to.”  Hermes is also a God of thieves, and that doesn’t meant that it is a religious duty to pilfer whatever one can from whomever one comes into contact with on a daily basis, does it?

If one does magic in the hopes that it will further the purposes of one’s Deities, then that is a different matter altogether.  If one utilizes something that is considered magical in order to facilitate one’s better devotion to a Deity, including divination, that is likewise an entirely good and positive thing.  If one’s pursuit of magic is done in ways that are intended for self-improvement and greater knowledge so that one can be a better devotee, then that is also entirely beneficial and useful.  As with so many things, the “how” and the “why” of doing a particular thing is far more important than the “what” in terms of determining whether it is a good and useful thing to do or not.  (And while that cannot be taken as a blanket statement–killing “for a good cause” is not necessarily a good thing simply because one thinks one’s cause is good, for example–it tends to be a good metric in most cases, in my view.)

With all of that established, however, there is also never any compulsion to do or practice magic, either.  Worshippers of Hermes, Thoth, and Odin might have some potential gains or insights to attain in doing so as far as how these things may help them to understand the nature of their Deities, but I also don’t think it is an utter requirement. While I can’t myself imagine that someone could go through their entire devotional life without ever resorting to divination at some point, if it is possible for someone in their own particular practice to do so, then that is also fine.  Magic and occultism–and a great many other things within a polytheist framework–are electives and not requirements.

I could probably say much more on this, but I think that will suffice for the moment.  What do you think?

From Whence Does Morality in Polytheism Derive?

After this, I have one more question on-deck, as it were, and then I’m out once again…so, for those of you who are wondering about anything, or who would like to ask some more common question that you’d be interested in hearing my views on, or that I haven’t yet tackled, please feel free to do so via e-mail or the contact form on this website, or via comments on any of the posts here.

This particular question got asked a little while back, and in the rush of the late December holidays, I never circled back to it.  It’s a question that far too many people outside of polytheism wonder about, and that tells us more about their own religious orientations than it points toward any deficiencies in polytheist thought or culture.  I had an Episcopalian woman priest friend twenty-odd years ago, who said of my polytheism at the time, “Of course that appeals to you:  it has no ethics or moral requirements.”  I think that is a pretty unfair statement to make, especially when she simply said that without knowing what my own views were or inquiring further about them, but that’s neither here nor there.

Thus, perhaps I should begin to form an answer to this question by pointing out something in relation to it and other more “common” notions of religion.

I’ve dealt before in passing with matters of viewing “religion” as merely “misinformed science,” and all of the perils in thinking that its only purpose is to explain things that are mysterious, and thus now that we have science religion (ALL religions) are therefore outdated and as a result useless, pointless, and should be abandoned.  That is a pernicious and poorly-wrought set of arguments, and yet it is the dominant paradigm of many modern atheists, who are the same people that rail against the fact that some people within some religions (who I would argue are as equally misguided in their notions of what religion is and does) insist on ignoring science and instead insist that their own myths and religious narratives must be “the truth” on a variety of subjects due to notions of, for example, “biblical inerrancy/infallibility.”  Whenever anyone tries to mix religion and its aims and claims with science and its aims and claims, there is going to be a problem, and thus whenever anyone suggests that “quantum physics agrees with my religion in…” or anything of the sort, they’re falling into error.  This is the same sort of error as anyone who says that one medium of art is “wrong” in comparison to another, especially when the two media deal with the same story–saying that “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” portion of Disney’s Fantasia invalidates Lukian of Samosata’s literary version because it builds on the musical version of Dukas, which itself was based on Goethe’s version of the story in his poetry, because Goethe is a better and more modern poet than Lukian was, is just as stupid and baseless as trying to argue that any religion’s myths are better than science, or that science is better than any religion’s myths.  They’re doing different things and are intended for different purposes.

The idea that the only other valid purpose of “religion” is to be a “school of ethics” is likewise entirely flawed, and is essentially a Protestant Christian notion.  Once all of the ritual, the mystery, and the elements that are in some sense continuations of Mystery Initiations and such of earlier polytheist religions in Catholicism were stripped away by Protestant reformers, what was left?  They didn’t want to take on board many of the traditions of Catholicism that were non-biblical in basis, nor did they accept many of the theological ideas of Catholicism, and so the only things left were really the ideas that:  1) the biblical narratives were history and science; and 2) they were valuable for the moral teachings they enshrine.  The moral teachings of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, when not stated outright as “commandments” and such, are highly questionable, as the vast cast of characters (including many we’d consider to be “good guys”!) get up to all sorts of things that mainstream Christian morality today would find reprehensible.  In the Catholic Church, readings of the Hebrew Bible and the non-Gospel parts of the New Testament are followed by the phrase “This is the Word of the Lord,” to which everyone responds “Thanks be to God.”  In a Presbyterian church service I once attended, instead of this call-and-response ending, the reading was concluded with the phrase “Here endeth the lesson.”  Uhh…!?!  The feeling one gets in such things is that the sole purpose of attending a church service is essentially supplementary education of a primarily moral sort.

While I hate to quote one authority from another religion that is not polytheism to support my position, nonetheless I’ll do so here.  Catholic political theologian Johann-Baptist Metz said, in his foundational works on political theology, that the Church is not simply “an ethical school,” but instead is a place “for the fostering of eschatological hope.”  While I would not quite say the same for polytheism, I’d agree that its primary aim is not to teach ethics, to instill morals, or to dictate what values one should have.

I do, however, think that if one contemplates these things, one gets a sense of morals, ethics, and values (and I think all of these are different from one another in particular ways!) from what one does learn, and more importantly, what one does, within a polytheistic context.

As a praxis-based religious system, polytheistic religions are inherently–one might say–religions concerned with conduct:  ritual and devotional conduct first and foremost (e.g. there are some ways that are acceptable to, for example, pray in certain contexts, but others that are not, depending on the Deities involves, the occasions, the formality or informality of the observances, the relationships the human devotees have with these Deities, and so forth), and then there is a knock-on effect to how one interacts with other humans and with the wider world as well which flows from these.  Hospitality tends to be important for Deities:  if a Deity shows up, it is good to investigate why They might have come, how long They plan to stay, and so forth, and to do so in a good and courteous fashion rather than with hostility or a sense of being inconvenienced by Their presence.  This then is also reflected in how we deal with most humans–co-religionists especially, but also the wider world, I think.  Reciprocity is also important in human-Deity relationships, with kharis/do ut des and so forth being in operation.  Likewise, when we deal with other people, we have these reciprocities in mind–it isn’t as if we are mentally totting up each time we do a favor for a friend, but we do things for one another and in the relationships we want to nurture and which we would like to endure that are consonant with how much we value them.  A friend who only takes and never gives in any way is often not looked well upon, but likewise if someone else is a constant provider of help and support and one does not feel able to reciprocate, perhaps it indicates that the nature of the relationship is something other than friendship strictly speaking…and that is no bad thing!

The fact that one must be able to make these sorts of distinctions, that one must sharpen one’s skills in discernment, and that one must be very aware of context in all things as a polytheist translates into these same things being valued in our everyday relationships with other people and with the environment in which we exist.  That we as polytheists also tend to highly value diversity and are inherently pluralistic also means that we tend to value these qualities in other people, not only in our circle of friends but also in the wider world generally, up to and including having ideological adversaries with whom we may disagree but whom we do not seek to change in any way other than developing an understanding and respect for one another despite disagreements.

And that, I think, is the most basic and important of polytheist values, ethics, and morals upon which the majority of our practices are built:  respect.  The verb itself comes from Latin, and in a sense one can easily etymologize it in English as “to look again,” namely, to not simply take what things are on the surface, to delve deeper, and to try and understand why other things, people, and relationships are what they are, and then develop ways to not just see them, but to interact in and with them in ways that do justice and cultivate good relationships with all involved.  Sometimes respect means simply leaving something to itself:  I respect a tornado, a poisonous snake, and a raging rhinoceros best by not getting in its way, lest I put myself in a position that the thing involved then might have to disrespect me by hurting me.  Likewise with some humans:  from my perspective, they are best left to themselves, and I am best served by not becoming involved with them, for whatever reason might be in operation in a given situation.  That respect is also part of what I have for myself, in the sense that if I do truly respect myself, I will not put myself in situations in which I am going to be hurt, taken advantage of, or in other ways offended or troubled willingly if I have other options, up to and including leaving the situation or person, changing what is going on by my own actions, or choosing to suffer through whatever mishaps may occur in order to achieve something that might be worth such a sacrifice of my self-respect.

Granted, very little to none of this gets spelled out explicitly in most cases where polytheism is concerned; experience causes one to realize these things, and to infer them from the expected and effective conduct in which one participates or which one observes in others who are one’s teachers, mentors, esteemed colleagues, and elders.  Ours are not religions where all of these things are laid out for everyone in writing to be accessed at all times and that are valid for all eternity, unlike what such ethical maxims and so forth are in other religious contexts.  (It’s not that these sorts of things don’t exist in polytheistic religions–they can and they do!–but rarely are these expected to be binding for all people and at all times.)  Like so much in polytheism, the homework is work that one must do oneself in the privacy and safety of one’s own home, so to speak, meaning in one’s direct relationships with the Deities with and to Whom one is closest.  It is not something that is ready-made when one comes into it in most cases (outside of certain established practices–and if and when these are in operation, they should be followed and respected, especially if one wishes to think of oneself as being within said tradition!), and takes work, even when one does come into a situation in which such things are fairly well delineated.

Contrary, then, to what my Episcopal woman priest friend said:  no, it isn’t that our polytheistic traditions lack ethics, it’s that they are not in textual form that is expected to be forever enduring and entirely binding on all humans.  The lack of universalizing in polytheism, I think, is a feature and not a bug, so to speak. and it only might appear so from the viewpoint of other religions where such textual edifices exist and are thought to be binding on everyone.  As those sorts of religions are creedal in their basis, and thus one must also “believe in” their ethical messages and the texts which support them, so too does the experiential and practical nature of polytheism likewise suggest that ethics will arise from practice and experience–both the experience of one’s practice and the practices which lead one to have further experiences–and thus will be based on these factors primarily, rather than on some external authority placed in text, tradition, or some figure whose teachings are considered infallible in this regard.

How Does Modern Polytheism Reconcile with Things in Ancient Polytheistic Cultures that are Now Different?

Another question has come from my most frequent question-provider, again from that individual’s recent conversation with an atheist and would-be scoffer who tried to poke holes in the legitimacy of polytheism (and all other religions) in a way that said atheist probably thought was clever, but in reality it points to something with which many atheists might actually agree, at least in the answer that I would give.

The specific question, as phrased by the atheist, was this:

How do you reconcile contemporary views like feminism or being pro-LGBT with the belief in religions that came from cultures that did not necessarily share these views?

Now, as I mentioned, my answer here might not be one that many people share, and that in fact many people from a variety of religions–including polytheist ones–may not like.  I’m not here to please anyone else, or to cater to anyone’s particular preferences, I’m here to answer the questions I am posed as honestly and completely as possible in the time and space allotted for such.  Thus, I proceed, knowing that many may not agree, and if the latter is the case, that is fine, but don’t try and convince me that I’m “wrong” just because my viewpoint is different.  I’m a radical pluralist, which means that I need and want you to be you as much as I need and want me to be me, even when that means we’re at odds with one another…it cannot be otherwise, at least in my understanding of both pluralism and the polytheistic mindset which demands a pluralistic approach.

There are (at least) two different dimensions that are involved in what constitutes a religion, and for lack of a better set of terms, let’s simplify it into the following:  the two things which mix in any religious matrix are the human and the divine.  Too many people from the religious perspective–it doesn’t matter which religion we’re talking about here, and some polytheists are as bad about this as some monotheists are–think that it is all about the divine elements, and that there is nothing human about these elements.  The majority of atheists, and most secularists and non-religious people, as well as a great deal of academics, take it entirely from the perspective of it being entirely human; the reasons for this are many, but in general it arises from the fact that these positions depend upon either ignoring, downplaying, or simply being unable to address anything that might actually be divine in the mixture–and that applies to the academic pursuits of religious studies as much as these other viewpoints.  (And, being someone with a religious studies degree, as well as being a polytheist, I understand the tensions on both sides quite well!)  A bit more needs to be said about these, however, and that is what I intend to do next.

Many religions begin with, or continue to have, what we call “religious experiences,” or what some people describe as “mystical experiences” (generally within the framework of religions that expect people not to have these and think that actual encounters with Deities are the exception, and sometimes the freak exceptions, to what is not only expectable but is to various degrees enforced), in which some divine being or divine reality comes into contact with a human or a group of humans–whether by that human’s or those humans’ deliberate  cultivation of such an encounter, or simply randomly and without their foreknowledge.  This is what I’d distinguish as the “divine element” in the matrix of a religion.  That divine element can usually be described in some fashion (though some insist that it cannot be, that it is entirely ineffable, and that any matters of description which can be applied to it are merely “cultural accretions” or “overlays,” etc., on which more later), and it is often described in a way that is consonant with one culture’s vocabulary, life ways, and other factors.  Whatever the existential reality is behind these divine encounters, that is what is usually at the heart of all religious activity.

However, it is those cultural overlays, the languages used to describe these events or beings or revelations, and so forth that constitutes much of the “human element” of these religious matrices.  That is fine as far as it goes; and yet, it tends to go much further than that.  So, it may be fine that one describes an experience with a divine being in this, that, or the other fashion; but, what does that mean about politics?  What does that mean about how one should act toward others?  What does this divine being feel about eating meat or eating particular plants?  Would XYZ Deity vote for ABC candidate, or feel for or against use of nuclear weapons?  And this is where things start to get murky a lot of the time.  This is where a certain something is generally entirely missing from most “traditional” religions that have existed for more than the past three centuries, no matter what their theological orientations happen to be.  It is akin to a math teacher saying to their students “show your work,” and the “work” involved in these cases is generally not present in most religions.  That “work” can take the form of the active process of using human reason (which is a divine gift, in my opinion!) to think through the implications of a particular set of religious experiences, and then see how these apply to a variety of issues in daily life.  If some Deity appears in a vision holding a sword, then tosses it down and stomps on it until it is entirely bent and broken, one might then reason that this particular Deity does not approve of violence, which may be a valid interpretation; someone else may take that to mean that this Deity simply doesn’t like swords, or perhaps bladed weapons, and if there were further evidence to corroborate that this Deity doesn’t disfavor violence, and in fact carries a blunt club or some other such non-bladed weapon, then perhaps it is all right to use those other weapons, but not swords.  But in reality, what generally happens is that because we don’t get that kind of “shown work” where religious reasoning occurs, we just get a divine commandment, “Thou shalt not use bladed weapons,” or what-have-you.  Sometimes, these commandments are put directly into the mouths of the Deities Who are felt responsible and as the sources of such teachings and requirements; sometimes, they’re simply stated more generally as “These are the rules of our religious community.”  But the fact is, even if human reason is a divine gift, and even if the source of this doctrine is in a divine visionary experience, it is human agency, human language, and human interpretive choices that then finally arrives at the religious prohibition that then emerges at the end of that process.

So, that interface and that matrix of religiosity is one in which the human elements and the divine elements come together; but because the final “for wider consumption” products of this interface are in human language, in a human cultural context, it is ultimately the human elements which come to the fore more greatly, unless it is one’s own direct divine experience that is in question.  One can thus describe religions and their customs as the interface and the negotiation between real divine beings and humans’ experiences with them and the needs and aims of the wider cultural communities in which those divine negotiations are located and have their context.  That I am acknowledging the role divine beings play in this may upset atheists; that I am giving greater credence to the human role in this process may anger people who are coming from religious viewpoints.

Sadly, the latter is the case because too often, religions and the ones who promulgate them do so with divine authority as their assumption, to which they then apply any and all matters having to do with their religion as if the Deities involved have signed off on every single decision that has been made in those religious practices.  I know for my own polytheistic practices that this is not the case–and I do divination very frequently, not only about religious matters in which the input of the Deities is directly needed, but also for a great many everyday matters which I feel need divine guidance.  In one of the books I’m currently working on, as much as possible–down to what is and is not included, whether particular pieces are complete or need more, or even down to specific word-choices–have been done under direct divine guidance through divination, which means that the resulting product is far closer to what this particular Deity wants than anything I have produced previously…and yet, that also involves having expanded the collection far beyond my original plans, and having to include certain things (including repeated subjects and such) far more than I would have if I were going simply by normal rules of human logic and content preferences.  This is not to say that I’m not still responsible for the book as it emerges, it’s just to say that a lot of what may seem odd about the book is due to my attempt to follow as closely as possible what the Deity-in-question indicated was to be preferred when asked, and said Deity was asked on these matters frequently!  And yet, at the end of all of it, I am not claiming that what has emerged is somehow revealed divine scripture (though much of it was quite inspired), or is infallible in its presentation and content (though particularities in some parts were insisted upon by the Deity-in-question), or that it is binding for anyone and everyone who may wish to revere that Deity, or anything of the sort.

Unfortunately, not a lot of religions have done that historically, and have instead taken their own interpretations using their own human reason, and usually not from direct divine experiences they or people in their direct communities have had recently, but instead they have exercised their interpretations of texts that relate such divine encounters…and even then, when putting something into textual form, there are so many choices to be made along the way that it cannot be said to truly reflect whatever divine encounter is concerned, and it cannot do so very accurately.  Thus, what many Christians claim as things “required by God” are clearly not, and are instead the results of their own selective readings, interpretations, and reasonings around what the texts happen to say.

The same goes for the polytheistic cultures of the past.  Undoubtedly, some of the things that become customary in those cultures were due to divine experiences that were interpreted as (or, perhaps in some cases, actually were) divine pronouncements on particular subjects in terms of what is and is not acceptable behavior.  And, for the cultures involved–as is the case for most animist and polytheist cultures worldwide, in the past and now–is that they are indigenous cultures, one characteristic of which is that they do not have a clear distinction between what is “strictly cultural” (in the modern secular sense) and what is “religious,” and often do not have a way to distinguish “religion” and “religious activity” from any other matter in their culture, or even an actual word for “religion.”  This is the case with Shinto to the present day in Japan and its place in Japanese culture, much to the chagrin of people from other, more restrictive religions who do not appreciate their “members” taking part in “other religions” which are not understood as such within that culture!  So, it can be difficult to determine whether a particular cultural artifact like a law, a custom, or a prohibition originates in direct divine experience, in an interpretation of such an experience (i.e. theology!), or simply as a cultural preference with some other origin that may then get equated to a divine commandment when it didn’t actually have that valence from the beginning.

This is why the ancient Greeks being very patriarchal and not-at-all feminist, or their preference for male homoeroticism of the pederastic variety but their prohibition of lesbianism and age-and-social-class equitable homoerotic relationships occurred in their cultures, but we can easily separate those things from polytheism itself.  I cannot recall any known sacred scripture of a polytheistic culture in the past that had misogyny, or homophobia, as a requirement or as a commandment of any Deity; there may have been secular laws, court cases, and other things which upheld such viewpoints, or required such civil penalties for those things, but as much as a community’s rulers and jurists may have claimed to act in the name of various Deities in their communities, I don’t know that Zeus or Apollon or Aphrodite or any other Deity put Their direct stamps of approval on these matters.

That some modern Christians make homophobia a requirement of their religious viewpoint is their choice; they could have easily interpreted other parts of their text as requiring polyester-blend-phobia, or frankfurter-phobia, but they did not decide to see those as equally worthy of the death penalty as they have in their focus upon homophobia, no doubt due to the rise of the LGBTQ+ rights movements over the last 50+ years, and like so many others, deciding to use religion as their bludgeon against what they don’t like by invoking divine authority and making it a divine requirement.  The same goes for feminism, and likewise for slavery.  I can’t think of any examples of slaves being portrayed as amongst the divine hierarchies, and there are no Deities that are slaves in relation to other Deities, to my knowledge (though some are devotees of others, particularly in Hinduism but also elsewhere on occasion), and yet slavery was widely practiced in many polytheistic cultures, and was not often questioned, even though nothing in the myths or cultic practices of the polytheistic cultures involved put a divine commandment of the institution of slavery into the mouth of any Deity, to my knowledge.  (If I am mistaken, let me know…I know that the caste system in India did get a mythic precedent in the division of Purusha, but that’s a little bit different…!?!)

It is thus clear that these things’ strong presence in a given culture is not the result of polytheism itself, but instead of human choices, whether those were made in relation to polytheistic religious experiences or not, in the same way that those same biases now exist amongst some modern Christian religious communities in ways that suggest they are divinely ordained and required, when it is clear to all that they are not.

To just put the finest point on this possible in conclusion:  the majority religion in the United States is some form of Christianity.  Many Christian denominations support the current President of the United States.  That President has done any number of things that are against the U.S. Constitution as well as various other federal laws relating to criminal statutes.  He has discriminated against various populations, he has admitted to sexual assault in certain recordings and stands accused of it on many occasions, and has likewise committed adultery and tried to hide the evidence of having done so.  Would it be right to therefore say that Christianity approves of adultery, advocates for sexual assault, and condones criminal behavior, harassment, and discrimination?  And while some might say “yes,” and perhaps especially so in the case of some denominations rather than others, I think it would be quite incorrect to paint the entire Christian religious edifice with approving of these things generally, much less requiring them, and if one were to write off the entire religion because of the actions of some people within it, even if some of those actions are occurring on a denomination-wide or culture-wide basis, one would probably be over-reading the situation.  The same is true of any polytheistic culture of the past with all of its injustices and things which we would now consider to be objectionable.

Why Do You Think the Original Worship of the Gods Died Out?

One of my most frequent question-providers has once again come through with several questions, which arose from a conversation said individual had with an atheist recently.  Not in the words of the question-provider, but instead in the words of that person’s atheist interlocutor, comes the following:

Why do you think the original worship of the Gods died out?

There is a flaw in this question, which I’m sure many polytheists can already easily spot…but before we address that, I might tell a story that just happened Wednesday that illustrates some of the ambiguity around these matters for many modern folks.

I can preface this story by saying that our culture is especially bad at talking about “death” in any and all forms, both literally and metaphorically.  Many cultures, granted, have some cultural or linguistic taboos around speaking about death–for example, there are a variety of ways to express “death” in modern Ireland (in Irish), with none of them meaning that someone “died,” and include such ideas as someone being “lost” (implying “lost in the mists,” i.e. “has crossed over into the Otherworld”), and so forth.  These are interesting to look at.  In our own culture, this includes things like saying that people “passed away” or “are no longer with us,” etc.  While that may be cute, quaint, and even sensitive to some extent as common usages, it astonishes me how the words “dead,” “died” and “death” are absolutely avoided by some people, and when they are said, it is only metaphorically–e.g. “I’m sorry I couldn’t attend class yesterday, I was on my death-bed with illness,” or when people say this awful phrase “It was so funny [or whatever] I literally died”…except you didn’t, and in the former case, you weren’t, because then we wouldn’t be having this conversation without either divination and/or an altered state of consciousness being involved on my part!  I get students in my history classes every year, even after I tell them that it is all right to speak about “death” when we talk about people who lived long ago, still saying things like “When Alexander the Great passed away,” etc.

What this adds up to, I think, is that when it then comes to speaking about actual “death” and the ways it is expressed as a verb, they don’t know how to do it as well as they should.  I remember being horrified in the fifth grade when one of the other “gifted” kids in my class gave a report on some historical person, and instead of saying “he died” she said “he was killed,” and I thought immediately:  no, he wasn’t!  He was old and he died; maybe if he had some illness or other, one could say “he was killed by cancer,” but nothing seemed to be in operation of that nature on this occasion.  One might be able to justify a fifth-grader–gifted or not–nowadays perhaps not knowing the difference between “died” and “killed,” but adults should certainly know better now…or so one would think.

Wednesday was Trans Day of Remembrance, and we had an observance of this at my main college which was quite well organized (except for the timing of it, unfortunately).  In preparation for it, people said they wanted the memorials for the 22 trans and gender-diverse folks known in the U.S. who were killed over this last year to be focused on what is positive, and to have photos of the individuals involved, nice things said about them by their family and friends, and so forth, and not focusing on “how they died.”  There were immediate corrections needed on the fact that “No, these people didn’t die, they were killed.”  That was understood and everyone present adjusted very quickly.  But then, after our observance and standing with a display in one of the common areas of the college and speaking with a few passers-by, some of the students involved with this then went to class and one of the other students that passed by was giving a speech that day on lifelong learning, and talked about how it is important to learn something new every day, and so this student commented on how they had not previously known of Trans Day of Remembrance, and that twenty-two people had committed suicide this last year.  One of the students in our group then gave an impromptu follow-up speech after this to clarify that no, in fact, those twenty-two people were killed, and that the number of trans and gender-diverse people who committed suicide is much higher and not known in terms of overall U.S. numbers, nor is the number of trans and gender-diverse people who died from things like neglect, refusal of medical care, and so forth.  The only numbers accounted for in Trans Day of Remembrance are those who were murdered, that are known to have been trans or gender-diverse at the time of their deaths by the majority of their family and friends, and that were reported in the media.  Who knows how many others might have been murdered who were not out to the wider community or to their families and friends, or who were out but were de-transitioned post mortem by their non-accepting families, or that their deaths simply weren’t mentioned as news stories?

All of this to say:  death and the various circumstances that can surround it–whether of “natural causes,” by homicide, or by suicide, or by accident–makes a great deal of difference when talking about things.

The “death” of the worship of the Deities in the ancient world was not “of natural causes,” though this is often stated in the (pseudo-) histories of religion that focus upon the “evolutionary view” of religion.  They make it sound as if it was an unsustainable practice, that it got somehow “out of hand,” and that forces from within it (including atheism, the “philosophical revolution” and so forth) caused more people to question it and become disinterred in it, and so forth.  The actual evidence on the ground does not support this view, and anyone espousing it is doing so from a sectarian bias.

The “death” of the worship of the Deities in the ancient world was not “an accident,” though some people might want to suggest it is.  They’ll often say that it’s simply because one particular Emperor came into power that Christianity, rather than Mithraism, became the dominant Western religion.  It’s not likely that Mithraism would have had such a wide appeal and could have become a widespread practice, because based on the number of mithraea that we currently know of (somewhere in the neighborhood of 200+), that perhaps as many as 50 people could have been comfortably accommodated in the largest of these, and that the cultus entirely excluded women, these matters do not add up to the possibility that it would have been a widespread or sustainable religion unless major things about it had changed.  This isn’t to say that the cultus of Mithras is not worthwhile, nor important, nor significant in other ways; but realistically, it was neither the “chief rival” of Christianity, nor a contender for “second-place” to Christianity had things gone differently in the time of Constantine.  This idea is one favored by some of the “ritualists” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and some people like Joseph Campbell, based on the supposedly “close” similarities between it and Christianity symbolically and mythologically, which are likewise not sustainable on closer inspection.  No, it wasn’t an “accidental” death, either.

Sometimes, either or both of these previous arguments then are taken one step further, and it is suggested that the “death” of the worship of the Deities in the ancient world was, therefore, a kind of suicide, and that because there was such diversity, the “system” of ancient polytheism was at war with itself, ate itself from the inside out, and thus was the cause of its own downfall in that respect.  Again, this is an argument that is being made from multiple flawed assumptions that are mutually exclusive.  Ancient polytheism was not a singular cultural system or religious network, had no centralized institutional administration or massive infrastructure (outside of some of the major state-sponsored cults), nor was it a unified “system of belief” in the way that the later creedal religions were–thus, suggesting that it was some kind of singular entity outside of the shared characteristic of polytheism (and its implied pluralism) is problematic at best.  Thus, if it was “eating itself from the inside” in terms of competing cults, that is likewise not true because each of these cults would have viewed itself independently from all the others (though, of course, some Deities or cult practices, or even some specific communities and associations, did have connections with others), and likewise being pluralistic were also generally non-exclusive.  While some people may have been particular partisans for one or another particular cultus to a particular Deity or set of Deities, the number of times in which a given cultus suggested it was “better” than all of the others were very few and far between, and (perhaps coincidentally?) often involved solar monotheism–Akhenaten in Egypt, Elagabulus in Syria and Rome, and a small number of others.  Likewise, very few religious practices were entirely shunned or outlawed during the Roman Empire:  the Bacchic cultus was for a while, as were the druids and their practices during the periods of conflict between Rome and Gaul (and particularly after its conquest), but neither of these prohibitions and suppressions were permanent or absolute:  the practices of each of these cults were still allowed, but under more limited circumstances and with some degree of superstition, mainly to make sure that nothing politically challenging arose out of them rather than having anything against their Deities or Their worship as such.  The same actually goes for Judaism and Christianity during the Roman Empire:  they were persecuted and suppressed only in the event that they challenged the political authority of the Emperor, and not because of their particular beliefs or the Deities they worshipped.  So, on this suggested reason for the “death” of ancient polytheism, again, one cannot have it both ways:  it can’t be a unified system with the current evidence, and therefore any potential conflict between cults cannot thus be interpreted as a gnawing cancer within, nor a thing set against itself.

This leaves one and only one possibility, which is why the way the question is phrased in the first place is flawed:  the worship of the Deities in the ancient world didn’t “die,” it was killed.  It couldn’t be said more purely or simply than that.  The “competing” system didn’t compete based on good theological argumentation, or even on “wonder-working” of its various evangelists, it gained supremacy because one particular ruler chose to go with it, and the rulers that followed then decided to suppress all other religions by force. The later monotheistic religions followed suit in their own times and places, thus giving the great lie to the idea that “Islam never spread by the sword”:  on the contrary, in the earliest centuries of its existence, it spread almost exclusively by the sword, and those who were not intimidated into converting to it were then given so many social disadvantages under the new political dispensations that followed with it that they felt tremendous pressure to convert.

That polytheism, the polytheistic impulse, and the Deities did not ever “die out” or “die off” is in evidence everywhere in late antiquity, in the medieval period, throughout the renaissance, and in later periods as well.  No century has passed when the Deities were not being read about and written about; no century has passed in which the cult images and former treasures of temples were not bought and sold and kept by at least some collectors who found something about them pleasing enough to go against the religious prohibitions against having such things.  Antinous was excoriated by many church fathers from the second century and through to the eleventh century in various documents, and yet that did not prevent a medieval Christian bishop from using a version of Antinous’ image in his own episcopal seal and coat-of-arms!  These images  and myths from the “polytheistic past” were re-interpreted, appropriated, and refashioned over and over again, not only in classical Mediterranean cultures, but in the cultures of Northern Europe and elsewhere as time went on…and could thus be said to be an ever-evolving “polytheistic present” in many cases, including in devotional terms!  Sometimes, syncretism saved magical traditions and turned the names of Deities into alternate names of God, the Holy Spirit, or various angels, or made the sites and deeds of a Deity or Hero/ine into a saint and adopted Their shrines, iconography, and cultic practices as their own.  The supposed “monotheism” of almost every monotheistic religion worldwide soon gets supplemented by any number of saints, prophets, sages, gurus, and intermediary spirits that are in various ways honored, revered, remembered, or in other ways interacted with by modern believers.  Polytheism always finds a way to work its way in, and I think this is simply (and I know I’m biased in saying this!) because anyone who has any experience of life whatsoever knows that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” answer for anything in life, and the divine realities and the numinous worlds are not any exception by far.

So, if an atheist wants to discuss these matters rationally, with evidence, and outside of the “taint” of religious thinking whatsoever, that is fine–but saying that polytheism “died out” rather than that it was killed is automatic evidence that one has bought too much into the monotheist supremacist paradigm, and thus one should probably re-examine one’s assumptions.  (Alas, if so much modern atheism didn’t do this, and didn’t assume “religion” absolutely and only means what it does in monotheist contexts, which generally presuppose that anything which doesn’t fit their own definitions that exclusively justify their own positions and invalidate all others, and must therefore not be “real religions,” a more productive and respectful conversation around these matters might be possible!  But, that is a matter for another occasion!)

What Happens When It All Comes To Nothing? (And Where Are The Deities In That, If Anywhere At All?)

I had hoped that it would not have been more than a month since I’ve been able to write more in this series…but, mid-September through now has been a nonstop cavalcade of classes, meetings, meetings about classes, classes about meetings, a few conferences (and one to go this weekend!), presentations, and nowhere near enough time to do all of the things I’d truly prefer…so, my apologies for that.  I hope to get a few more of these done before, or during, the Sacred Nights of Antinous that will be beginning on October 24th (in just over a week!), and will persist through to Foundation Day on October 30th and then into early November with the festival of Antinous the Liberator on November 1st.

But, what you might assume from the above subject line sounds pretty desolate…right?  And while this particular discussion could veer into that category, certainly, it may not…

Let’s first get an idea of what we’re actually talking about here.

I received this question in September, and here’s what it said (the original person asking can feel free to identify themself if they so choose in the comments below!):

I just watched this video about the remaining history of the universe and I thought it would be great to talk about from a Polytheistic perspective. 
Based on current science, it looks like life will only exist in a pretty short window of time compared to the rest of the universe and the vast majority of the cosmos’ history will essentially just be nothingness.  This raises a few questions:
1.  How do our Gods fit into this scheme of things?
2.  What will become of us if the universe itself will eventually decay into nothingness?

So, first, I’d suggest everyone who wants to read further go and look at that video.  The production values and quality of it are quite high, and it is worth watching in full, in my opinion!

And let me state here, for the record (in case I have not made this clear elsewhere):  I am not someone who thinks even remotely that “science” and “religion” are opposed forces, or that the existence of one threatens the other, or that they must needs be in any sort of enmity.  (Leave that to literalist fundamentalist monotheists–I’m happy for them to have the corner on the market on this matter!)  When things that had been unknown or even “mysterious” are discovered through the methods of science, this does not push Deities further and further out of the picture, or make me feel as if the mythic narratives about the Deities that I love and from which I draw great inspiration are therefore “invalid” or are “disproved” by what has been discovered.  I am of the (if I’m not mistaken) Stephen Jay Gould school of thought on this particular matter, i.e. that science and religion have “non-overlapping magisteria,” and that such is perfectly fine.  I would phrase my framing of each field of inquiry’s strengths differently–Gould uses “facts vs. values” to characterize science and religion’s pursuits respectively, but instead I would say “physical description and meaning,” to indicate that there is no opposition between these two fields of inquiry, and that the conclusions arrived at in each case have relevance to entirely different things.  Science is the very best way to attempt to describe and quantify how the physical processes of the universe and both its observable and unobservable phenomena (but the latter of which can still be detected in various ways!) work and what their effects are.

What it cannot and does not do is what religion is the very best at:  not values (which then shades into morals and ethics, and religion and the entire realm of divine beings does not have to be the basis for that sort of reasoning!), nor “naïve explanations” or “magical thinking” and other such dismissive formulations, but instead the entire realm of meaning, which is not only involved in some of those matters previously mentioned and encompassing them without being limited to them, but also the entire realm of the subjective, the interpretive, the emotional, the non-rational (which is the majority of our biological processes, and the affective impetus behind most animal behavior across all species on the earth, including humans!), the interpretive, the qualitative, and that which comes to the edges of human knowledge and perception and which is often not “the unknown” in terms of scientific processes not-yet-understood, but instead that which can be experienced but not always put into language.  That latter category can be the biggest and most important things of existence, like death or Deities or love or consciousness, or it can be things as simple and everyday and common as the feeling of comfort and security one gets when one slips into one’s favorite pair of slippers that are exactly where one’s feet are positioned when one gets up out of bed.  (I don’t know anything about that sort of experience, because getting slippers has not been easy for me…but I digress!)

So, while there is much more that could be said about all of that, let us simply take that for what it is at present, and move on with the essence of this inquiry.

The question of consciousness is one that science has been not only reluctant to deal with (even recently), but entirely unprepared to deal with, despite it being a major part of the ideas of people like Einstein, Max Planck, Bohr, and many other of the early 20th century’s greatest names in physics.  There is a long and complex history of why this is the case, and so suffice it to say that these questions are at the heart of so many matters that have been put in the category of “religion” and in which we often attempt to form metaphysical propositions, ideas about the afterlife and the survival of consciousness after death, the make-up and dynamics of “the soul” (which might be another term for “consciousness” in certain respects, sounding more directly psychological in the 19th-21st century sense of the term as opposed to the religious understanding of it as “ways of understanding the soul”), and so much else.  Because there is no scientific manner by which to measure or quantify consciousness, to detect its presence or absence, and much else, the fact that the scientific models of the universe that lead to the conclusions reached in the video above does not take account of this is also understandable, but not necessarily a way to evade the question.

Now:  don’t think that this therefore means that I think that religion then fills that vacuum where science has left off!  If so, I’d be giving credence to that nonsensical idea of the “God of the Gaps” (not to be confused with Ginnungagap, mind you!) which atheists and pro-science folks (and often those who are advocates of scientism rather than science, properly speaking!) so often critique.  No, I’m not going to take it in that direction.  I think it can be approached in other ways.

Rupert Sheldrake asks, in a (very highly recommended!) banned TED talk, whether consciousness can be something that exists in stars, for example.  While this is something that is a very old idea, and one that comes up in a great deal of ancient and indigenous cultures–including ideas of katasterism, astral apotheosis, and so forth, which also occur in the cultus of Antinous!–it’s something that I wonder about, personally.  If there is a definite consciousness, whether singular or collective, that applies to larger organizations of matter, including planets, stars, or even entire galaxies, then who is to say that Deities cannot be a part of that?  If nothing else, I think that from a purely descriptive perspective, most polytheists can agree that the various different Deities, as well as Hero/ines, Ancestors, and other such beings are discarnate consciousnesses…or, to be a bit more whimsical about it, what Robert Anton Wilson called “gaseous vertebrates” since we do tend to think of these divine beings as having certain functions of thought, personality, and volition similar to our own human faculties.  If these consciousnesses can exist independent of bodies–which is what a great deal of the current research into these matters seem to indicate (research and conclusions of which are mostly done in the field of parapsychology today, which are more scientifically rigorous than the dismissals of them by “real scientists” most of the time!)–then why wouldn’t it be possible for them to exist on varying scales, from the most basic and temporary things like the rush of a crowd at a sporting event all the way up to the most far-reaching Cosmic Powers?

If what I’ve just spoken of may be the case, then who is to say that some consciousness cannot also exist in, on, or around those black holes?  These are (according to the formulations of which I’m currently aware) highly concentrated, and thus highly organized, arrangements of matter whose exact nature, properties, and so much else are quite beyond our current abilities to comprehend through science, and which have never been directly observed.  So, as one theory amongst billions, what if the consciousness of such objects is a collective, and one so all-encompassing and powerful that its ultimate effects on the rest of the universe are still not perceptible, and which may be deliberate and even purposeful?  What if, on the physical and “scientific” level, the event horizon of a black hole is actually that liminal zone between the palpable and the ineffable that so many of us have experienced as the presence and being of one or another Deity?  What if the astrologers are wrong, and it isn’t the stars that have an impact on us as humans (though they might, too!), but instead the apparent darknesses in between the stars, some of which are undoubtedly black holes, that exert their pull on us both gravitationally and in terms of consciousness?  This would certainly explain why some Deities seem to keep getting “larger” and more syncretistic as time goes on, perhaps as those cosmic singularities become more and more massive in taking in their neighboring celestial colleagues…?!?  Perhaps the super-massive black hole or holes that are theorized to be at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is, for example, Isis, and that another black hole in our galaxy is Lug, another is Milda, and so forth?  And since these might have some impact far outside of their own galaxies, perhaps more abstruse but powerful Deities are the black holes in other galaxies?  One could imagine such, perhaps…

…And one could have all sorts of fun with that kind of thinking.  As Antinous’ “star” does not seem to be in definite existence any longer, major nova and supernova activity in that region has been detected in recent decades, and much else besides, and we have sometimes described His star as a “black star,” who’s to say it might not be a black hole itself, and that the grand collective consciousness within it and arising from it is not Antinous, or some other Deity or Deities (or perhaps even entire pantheons of Deities, or classes/types of Deities…!?!) and He just happened to be so lucky as to make a grand leap in consciousness development that not many are able to in their post-death states?  It’s an intriguing possibility!

That many scientists and some philosophers, including Sheldrake, are now speaking of “panpsychism” (not to be confused with Panpsyche of the Tetrad++…though perhaps not entirely unconnected, either!), which is really just a restatement of the principles of animism in a secular, post-religious framework (and one that does not demean indigenous cultures in the way that some feel the term “animism” does, especially when placed in an inferior “evolutionary” category in comparison to theisms, and especially monotheism) makes it all the more possible that non-human consciousnesses, and post-human consciousnesses, may eventually stumble upon what many of us have been experiencing for millennia in the form of these various divine beings that are the subject of so much of my work.

But, there’s another elephant in the room that is also raised by some of Sheldrake’s ideas.  The models of the universe and its development/unfolding presented by the video above is one that is entirely based in the physicalist models that are now the dominant ones in science, that ignore consciousness entirely, and that ask, as Sheldrake comments, for “one free miracle” in terms of the Big Bang, and then have the math for (most of) the rest.  We have to presume that a lot that is currently not known or understood must be immutably so for the model to play out as it does.  This projection entirely relies upon cosmological models that may as well be considered just as mythic as any of the cosmologies of any religious culture that has ever existed, since we still don’t know about some of the processes that are said to have formed our universe, or why the universe seems to be larger than the current laws of physics as currently observed seemed to allow for in their current quantified processes.  What if, as Sheldrake asks, the speed of light has varied at different periods?  What if the “many worlds” theories of quantum mechanics, which are taken as “true” at this point by many people, mean that all of the possible ways particles can react with one another have already taken place and are taking place currently, such that the particles that make “me” up are just as much where I am perceiving myself to be in the room as I type this as they are across the room, and probably also across town, across the country, and maybe even across the whole universe?  What if in the various other dimensions of reality that are thought to exist in some theories (anywhere from four to eleven to who-knows-how-many!) would present us with pictures of the unfolding universe that are much different to those we see in this particular model?

Or, to take this same question from a different angle, and in the language of the “other magisterium”:  what if what the Jains and Buddhists and others say is actually true, that the universe was never created and has always existed, and always will?  What if the ideas of the birth, development, and death of the cosmos as narrated in many different cultures are simply the human observations of these phenomena read into and writ large over the entire cosmic panorama, and are therefore assumed to be the “norms” of such when something else is actually going on?  And what if scientists like Sir Roger Penrose, when talking about the death of one universe and the beginnings of another, is the reality on some level, and that this “dead universe” theorized at the end of the first video given above is really not the end, but instead just the apparent status of things outside of consciousness in the current universe, and that something very different is going on elsewhere?  Not to draw too many connections to the first Men In Black film, but what if that yawning chasm of nothingness after the last black holes dissipate in the current universe is actually just, for example, the birth of a single electron in another larger universe?  Verily, the mind reels…!?!  😉

All of this to say:  in any question or series of questions of this kind, the matter of consciousness has to be taken into account.  What the parapsychologists have not yet done in their own reasoning is to extend the possibilities of non-human and non-embodied consciousness in the panpsychist model out to things that would qualify as “Deities” and other types of divine being for polytheists, and which would explain some of the informational matters that we have access to and which form parts of our experiences as a result of our divine encounters.  Some parapsychologists I know entirely dismiss “religion” and do not make any distinctions amongst religions, assuming that the only “true” possibility of “religion” would have to be a singular all-powerful (and forth!) Creator Deity that is in control and foreknowledge of all that exists, rather than the more likely (and more provable!) possibility that there are various levels of consciousness outside of and above the human, and that these don’t necessarily have to jump all the way to a monistic notion of “the oneness of all consciousness” (which is just the “Creator Deity” of the “religion” that they have categorically rejected!) and can instead proceed through various smaller, more limited, but still significant, individual consciousnesses that may be affiliated with or attached to particular other natural complex phenomena, or that may be singular or collective post-incarnate consciousnesses of various species of organisms (including humans and therefore Ancestors and Hero/ines!), some of which can make a further leap into the realm of divinity as recognized as such by some religious cultures, including many ancient and modern polytheisms.

That probably doesn’t answer the questions as given above, but oh well…!

Why Worship Humans?

Today is marked in my calendar as the day that Lucius Marius Vitalis died.  While we do not actually know the historical date of this particular event, which probably happened in the year 128 CE, this date has long been established as the one we use for marking it all the way back to my days in the earlier, “original” Antinous group that I was a co-founder of back in 2002.  As there was no compelling reason to change it, and divination has not revealed that it needs changing, we stuck with it.

We only know of VItalis’ existence at all because of a single inscription, which happens to be his funeral inscription.  We know that he was a young student of the arts–perhaps of the clerical arts in particular–that was part of Hadrian’s entourage, which likely traveled with the Emperor to the Eastern Empire starting in 128 CE, and he very likely died toward the beginning of this journey, perhaps even in Athens.  We are told what his age was at his death, which then allowed me many years later to determine that if his death-date was today, his birthdate would have been a day in early July–the 14th, to be exact–and the year of his birth would have thus been about 112 CE if 128 was the correct year of his death.

But this brings up the larger question that gives this particular post its title:  why worship humans, which is to say, beings that were formerly humans who have now died, become heroized, or who have undergone apotheosis?  It’s a question I’ve dealt with before, actually…but, from time to time, it’s good to be reminded of these things, and this is a day appropriate to think about such.

I’ve heard some polytheists outright say that to worship any former humans–including Hero/ines–is hubris.  (So, what about Ancestors?)  We’ll return to the issue of hubris below.  At various times in the different Antinous groups, some people had a very vocal disgust (and that’s putting it mildly in some cases) for the idea of Sancta/e/i, even when these were understood and defined in non-Christian-derived terms (and on this, more in a moment).  One individual, in the early days of the first Antinous group, stormed out of it because we were debating on what days to honor particular Sancta/e/I, and whether we should go by their birthdates (which would be more Roman) or their death-dates (which would be more Christian), and as this person flounced off, they chided those of us in the group by saying that all of us were more divine than any of these people, and we should be focused on that rather than on all of these “dead people.”  That I found very confusing, because if we who are alive now are (already!) divine, then does that just “go away” after we die?  Hmm…

Both Hero/ines and the Sancta/e/I, in my view, can be understood as particularly special and/or powerful Ancestors; and the Sancta/e/i in particular (as I’ve written in a published essay) can be thought of as “Group Ancestors,” lineage Ancestors, or any number of other distinctions which tie their honoring and veneration to the history and success of our modern traditions.  I still pray to the Sancta/e/I as a standard part of my prayers every time I do a prayer to the main group of Deities and Hero/ines of the Antinoan Pantheon, and even though they get named last in the standard formula, that doesn’t mean a great deal in terms of their relative esteem or hierarchical divine status.

One of the reasons I have felt comfortable using the term Sancta/e/I for this group of revered dead is because it gets used on Lucius Marius Vitalis’ funerary marker–in fact, he’s not just called Sanctus in it, he is called Sanctissimus, “The Holiest.”  There was a trend in the later Roman Empire to speak of almost all the dead in those increasingly superlative terms (and though Sanctus became relatively common, Sanctissimus is still relatively rare!), and to practically treat all of them as Hero/ines.  This may explain some of what is seen as the excessiveness of Herodes Attikos’ honoring of Polydeukion, Memnon, and Achilles:  it wasn’t just a rich guy trying to excessively mourn his foster-children, he was doing something that was not entirely uncommon, and that simply had a larger footprint because of his ability to commemorate them in grander fashion.

Something that I’ve heard some pagans and polytheists do as well in relation to questions of this sort is bring up “the whole Jesus issue,” and the idea that Jesus was (to use the phrase from Jesus Christ Superstar!) “just a man” and that the worship of Jesus as a God was an excess.  Sadly, even those who arrive at this notion and then often become atheists (despite the historical evidence for Jesus ever being human at all being quite slight, but of course it is resorted to because anything suggesting divinity at all cannot be “true” from an atheist perspective…but let’s not get further into all of that just now!) are not aware of the tendency of many cultures in late antiquity to heroize and even deify their dead, which had been going on for centuries and even millennia at that stage.  The idea that one hears in some religion classes, which I heard in one of my classes while studying at a Jesuit university, and said non-ironically as an observation with no self-reflexiveness in the process, that “all religions tend to deify their founders” may also be true…but, so what?  In indigenous cultures, the dividing lines between living humans, effective spirits of the dead, Ancestors, Deities, and other such categories are very thin if not non-existent.

Strangely, what comes through in these kinds of dismissals is not so much that one distances oneself from the excesses of Christianity and its brand of piety, but instead that one proves how much one is in the grip of exactly that kind of thinking.  It isn’t merely that, just as atheism is often the “photo-negative” version of whatever religion it is reacting against (an atheist from India is very different than an atheist from America!), it’s that some of the same underlying ideas about things like the questions of “what constitutes religion,” and–in this case more importantly–“what are humans” are still there, operative, and are determining one’s views on things despite one’s outward rejection of these in claiming to be atheist, or no-longer-Christian.  Because humanity is viewed as fallen, imperfect-as-an-understatement, and in almost all ways very little above the mud and dust from which we were ostensibly created, therefore worshipping anything that isn’t at the other possible superlative degree–namely, a Deity that has never been tainted by anything human, material, and that is entirely beyond the reaches of the physical universe and all its vicissitudes–is viewed as the only viable and proper option.  This is a post-Christian, anti-human bias that can even remain in some people who consider themselves “humanists.”

Fuck that noise.

Venerating, honoring, commemorating, and even outright worshipping former humans as Ancestors or any other category (and I’ve heard some people in polytheism distinguish these things, just as Catholics have to distinguish between dulia and latria, despite these being terminological distinctions without a difference when it comes down to actual phenomenological matters…sociologists and anthropologists will tell you that Catholic saints cultus is no different phenomenologically from the cultus to any number of Deities in other cultures!) does not diminish the divinity of Deities, and does not make the overall devotional time one gives to them as opposed to Deities a waste of time.  Many polytheists consider the Deities’ works in the natural world as beautiful, awe-inspiring, and even worthy of worship or veneration in and of themselves, and I see no problems with that…but, what if humans are also divine works?  What then?  It is fine to worship and honor a tree, lightning, a mountain, a river, various animals…but not humans?  Do you see how very inconsistent this seems, that humans are “always the exception” and in a negatively-valenced fashion?  (Just as scientists and Christians often think of humans as different than and to some extent “above” the “mere” other types of animals, which has allowed so much destruction and exploitation to occur–except, of course, when it benefits them to think of humans as animals, as they do when questions of gender and sexuality are concerned, whereupon they’re one-hundred percent in the category of “science proves!”–why is it that we are then exempted from the goodness and potential divinely revelatory possibilities that all of the rest of nature has?  You can’t be a pantheist without EVERYTHING being IN THE PAN!)  One cannot–or, rather, in my view, should not-ignore a whole category of “nature” in the form of “human nature” and exclude it from reverence and respect when such is given to all else in the cosmos.-

As to the matter of hubris:  yes, there are some instances from Ancient Greek myth that are worth noting in this matter.  Ixion challenging the Deities of Olympos and trying to usurp Them as a mortal (though his father was Ares, so he was technically capable of being a Hero or demigod and thus having legitimate cultus rather than eternal punishment) and attempting to rape Hera was a case of hubris, unquestionably; but, his crimes of violations of xenia, kin-slaying, anger, and lustfulness were just as much responsible for his fate as hubris.  But, in cases like Arakhne or Odysseus, the hubris involved wasn’t so much wanting to usurp the positions of the Deities as a mortal, but instead of comparing oneself in one’s pride and arrogance to a Deity (in Arakhne’s case, she did so justifiably, it could be argued!) or to be excessive in one’s cruelty and shaming of another person in defeat, which is what Odysseus did to Polyphemos and thus incurred the wrath of Poseidon.  In fact, for the Greeks, hubris was not just excessive pride or arrogance, but often was what is reflected in Odysseus’ actions of humiliating someone in defeat, and there was often a sexual element to the whole thing as well, which then brings in the Ixion example once more.

If the people who complained about Hero cultus or any reverence for humans as being hubris were really to be “proper” in their Hellenic understanding of such things (which is why some modern Hellenic polytheists seem to think that later strata of Greek and Graeco-Roman culture are so “degenerate” because of the prominence of Hero/ines, deified emperors, and so forth!), then it surprises me that they don’t rail more against people who are in divine marriage or divine lover relationships with Deities…and I’m not throwing the latter to such people as apt targets, but instead am pointing out that if one really wants to be “original” and “strictly reconstructionist” in such things, then even the aspiration of having such a relationship might shade toward the Ixionic or Aktaionic extremes.  (Of course, that is also nonsense, because in almost all the cases I know of personally, the Deities have the initiative, and when that occurs in Greek myth, it’s perfectly fine…but that gets into a whole other domain of discussion which we’ll leave aside for the moment!)

In the radical re-evaluation of one’s life, thoughts, and assumptions that should occur when one shifts to a polytheistic worldview, I think it would be useful to also shift one’s views of humans and of human nature and human potential as well.  Yes, this does occur, and in some contexts more than others (Orphic strains of tradition come to mind, as do many Mystery Religions), but it should probably take place on a wider basis.  Apotheosis, whether to fully deified forms, or simply to the status of honored Ancestors, Hero/ines, or something else is something that we should not only accept as polytheists, we should probably expect it, including amongst our own ranks.  Apotheosis is not an anomaly; it should be our aim, in whatever form that might take.  Indeed, in the Egyptian afterlife texts, that is the expectable outcome of having done all of the rituals and passed all of the trials ahead of one, which is available to absolutely anyone.

That is one of many reasons why, I would argue, worship of former mortals is a good thing:  it is a reminder of what is possible for any one of us.  Cicero himself said as much in a quote that I often use at the end of larger public rituals:

Now the law which prescribes the worship of those of the human race who have been deified, such as Hercules and the rest, makes it clear that while the souls of all men are immortal, those of good and brave men are divine. It is a good thing also that Intellect, Loyalty, Virtue and Good Faith should be deified by the stroke of a pen, and in Rome temples have been dedicated by the State to all of these qualities, the purpose being that those who possess them (and all good men do) should believe that the Gods Themselves are established in their own souls.

One cannot do much better than Cicero, so I shall end there!

[*Snorting/Scoffing Sound*] You’re a “Polytheist”? But isn’t it obvious that there’s only one God?

If you think there is only one Deity–and it happens to be the Deity that your particular religion believes is the only one (which is a circular argument, incidentally)–then that means one of three things about you:

  1.  You’re not well-informed enough to realize that there are many other Deities, there always have been, and no matter how loudly your religion argues otherwise, there always will be;
  2. You lack the creativity to possibly imagine that the world could be in any way larger than, different to, or beyond your own capacity to currently think, which is extremely limited and limiting;
  3. You utterly lack any respect for your fellow humans and their own abilities to have their own ideas, beliefs, and practices, and they are furthermore free to live by them in good faith, which is not a very effective way to go through the world or to understand and have compassion for your fellow persons.

So, that being the case, between ignorance, lack of creativity, or being disrespectful:  which one are you?

 

[This is a much shorter blog post than I’m accustomed to, and this one in particular is designed to provide folks with some snappy comebacks if anyone pulls that bullshit of thinking that if one is a polythesi, one is therefore “stupid” because, whether one is a bigoted monotheist or an atheist/secularist/materialist, the assumption is always that such viewpoints–with the latter differing from the former only in very small ways–must be the only possible “right” answer regarding the number of Deities in the universe.  Alas, this bias is so thoroughly baked into people these days that even thinking outside of these possibilities for some polytheists can be difficult, and our polytheistic usage of language, including common expressions like “Oh God” and so forth reflects this…which is truly lamentable.  But anyway, that’s a larger set of issues, and I just wanted to get this down relatively briefly while the iron was hot.]

If Your Religion Is So Great, Why Don’t You Proselytize?

It’s somewhat interesting to me that Sannion posted a piece with lots of excerpts on the very forceful ways in which the early followers of the messianic Jesus-based cultus forced late antique polytheists out of their ancestral practices.

Just about the time I finished reading that this morning, I had my doorbell ring.  I thought it was a bit early for the mail or UPS or anyone like that, but stopped what I was doing and got up to answer the door.  Standing there were two besuited bible-thumpers, complete with bibles to thump when necessary.

This does not happen to me very often, and hasn’t for a few years (since about mid-2016, in fact), when I put up a sign that says “Proselytizers Shall Have Their Favor Preemptively Reciprocated.”  (I have thought about selling signs like this for a bit of extra cash…and maybe I will!)  I did this because within three days of moving in to my present apartment, I was beset by Mormon missionaries, who came about every five to six months.  I find that whole practice rather intriguing from a sociological viewpoint, and being a person who does not like to be rude or mean to people generally speaking, or to even be perceived as being such (I know some people won’t believe that’s true, but where certain things are concerned, others can think whatever they want of me and I don’t care, but in terms of everyday manners in casual interactions with strangers, I try to be as nice as possible no matter what), I did not immediately tell them to go away or anything of the sort.  The first set that came just after I moved in was unusual because it was two young women; I knew that young women also did missions in the LDS church, but had never seen nor heard of any going door-to-door before, and was somewhat intrigued over that.  I was dismayed, though, because as soon as they found out I have a Ph.D. and teach classes on religion, they began deferring to me on matters of their own religion because of their assumptions about my gender, which is extremely disturbing for all sorts of reasons.  The third set of Mormons that came I decided to ask some questions of myself, especially along the lines of what their experiences have been in terms of getting yelled at or abused by people who don’t want to talk with them, and they were very frank about it, and said they’d had guns pulled on them up in a town near the Canadian border that is extremely fundamentalist in the majority of its population within a particular Christian denomination.  I was astonished at this, because almost anyone else in a similar situation, whether going to knock on doors for religious purposes or to sell Kirby vacuum cleaners, would probably quit if someone threatened them with a gun, and perhaps have many years of therapy ahead of them as well, but these kids in their late teens or early twenties at most were literally all smiles…and not in a vapid way, just in a way that encapsulated how they have been taught to interpret these experiences.  They showed empathy for the person who did that, and didn’t think it was a sign of their sinfulness or anything like that (or at least they didn’t let on such if they did think that!), and I sent them on their way after a little while feeling affirmed in their own religious choices and commitments, as I had expressed admiration for how their religion had designed this experience so that those who come through it are strengthened in their convictions and are generally lifelong in their dedication to their church.

The second group of Mormons was particularly noteworthy, though.  I had just come home from a long day at college, had walked in the door to put my bags down and such, and was going to go out and then check my mail.  These two stealthy missionaries had come up to the door across from mine, and were knocking with no answer, and then when I emerged from my door, they took the chance to speak with me instead.  Fairly early on in the conversation, I indicated that I am a polytheist, and at that point they said something I’ve never heard any other Mormon say at any point in person:  “We’re henotheists.”  I was very impressed with that admission, and we talked a bit more, but I eventually expressed that I was not interested in worshipping only that Deity which they were trying to propagate.  Still, I found this quite honest and perceptive on their part, and appreciated the experience for that.

[Incidentally, of the various “white people” that I met at the World Parliament of Religions in 2015 in Salt Lake City who were not acquaintances or co-religionists, it was only the few Mormons I met at the events themselves who were truly respectful, loving, literally embracing, and who asked excellent questions while never once suggesting that I should get involved in their religion or come to their services, etc.  Some people from other religions there were nowhere near that respectful, unfortunately…]

In any case, I decided after the third instance of these missionary visits that it was best for everyone not to waste 20-40 minutes of my own time, heat escaping my open door (baseboard heating ain’t cheap!), and their time to try their luck with other potential victims prospects, and thus engineered the sign.  Since then, I’ve had a few occasions where people have left literature on my door, usually when I’ve not been at home. and I’ve considered sending it back to their churches C.O.D., but apparently that service is no longer available.  About a month or so ago, I was arriving home and was getting ready to meet some friends to go out to dinner (who, as it turns out, were former Mormons, or “fomo-Momos,” as I call them!), and they were possibly going to come and knock on my door when they arrived, so I was in my foyer putting on my shoes, and heard some voices from outside.  They were kind of whispering, and were remarking about the sign on my door, and I thought it could have been my friends, so I waited…and there was no knock or ring on the doorbell.  I’m glad I did, because I had thought of just opening the door as well, and had I done so, I would have encountered two more Mormon missionaries and probably have had to give them a bit of their own medicine.

So here I am, on a Saturday morning, and it is actually one of the more important festivals this month for me, and I was thinking of a variety of things (including how I might mark the occasion later in the day), when these two idiots came to the door.  I have more sympathy for Mormon missionaries, I have to say, because they’re young, they literally have nothing else in their lives at this period in them, and for the most part they’re nice and agreeable people. and sometimes they’re even kind of cute (!?!).  These people today, on the other hand, were adults, probably in their 50s or 60s (I didn’t get a look at the second person at all because of the angle I was at with my door half-open), and given that they had not paid any attention to the sign when they rang my doorbell (the sign hangs right above it!), I kind of automatically assumed they were either superlatively confident they could convert me, or (as turned out to be the case) were cretinous imbeciles of the highest caliber.

“Good morning!  Can I ask you if you feel that Scripture has an important place in your life and in society today?”

[Too many questions are raised by such a ridiculous statement–which Scripture, for starters?  But these were idiots, and so I couldn’t expect to ask that and have them even be able to understand the question.]

“Not to me, it doesn’t.”

“I see.  Well, can I read you a particular Bible passage that may be of importance to rethinking that?”

“Uhh…did you see the sign?”

“What sign?”

“That one.”  [I pointed toward it.]

At that stage, the guy literally tried to read it, didn’t understand it, said a few of the words printed there wrong (I’ll give him that, though, because it is in a kind of elaborate church-y looking font that stupid people might not recognize very well, even if they have their ridiculous biblical quotes in that same font framed over their mantelpieces at home), and then said, “Oh, okay, thank you” and left.

This has not sat well with me all day for a variety of reasons.  One of them is that because I have a Shrine in my house and attempt to maintain the sanctity of it, having people like that here who are negative toward the existence of my Deities and of “people like me” (which can mean a million things in my own particular context!) feels like a violation to me…I am going to sprinkle some salt on the door to get rid of any of their lingering pollution, so that may help.

[And, crikey, a maintenance guy just came to check my ceiling for leaks…after EIGHT MONTHS since that happened…and demanded to come in even though I said it was fine. He checked the bathroom where the leaks were that many months ago, and then wanted to go in the Shrine to check it as well, which I refused and simply said “It’s a religious Shrine,”  and luckily he took that TRUTHFUL ANSWER as his cue to get the hell out after saying “God bless you, sir.”  What the fuck, Universe?]

Anyway, all of this to say, as if I hadn’t been thinking of the evils of proselytization, and particularly of forced proselytization (which is still going on in places like India) due to covering Christianity and Islam in my religious classes recently, here we’ve got multiple examples of people trying to get up in my face in various ways that I did not want today.

I think it is a legitimate question, from a certain viewpoint:  if your religion is good for you, then why wouldn’t you want to share it with everyone?  Much of that question presumes that a soteriological and eschatological situation is in operation with all religions, which it isn’t (by necessity); in my own case, the Mystery Religion that I practice and of which I am an initiate does involve both of those things.  But, such a situation does not require a compulsion for all people to do likewise, any notion of universality, or any notion that those who are not doing as I am will come to a “bad end” in an afterlife.  It is a remarkable lack of imagination, pluralism, and faith in other human beings to create a situation that is the opposite, in my view…

…Not to mention superlatively insecure!  That’s what I find the most about any religion that feels it must share its “good news” with others as a requirement, not unlike any other pyramid scheme or sideshow scam that either needs everyone else to be in the same misery and regret as oneself, or needs to be supported in the supposed rightness of its decision by convincing others to have done the same thing.

And, to be completely honest, there are a lot of people I would actually try to convince otherwise than to become polytheists, because I don’t think everyone can handle some of what we do as polytheists.  No, I’m not talking about anything like animal sacrifice, or building shrines and “being idolatrous” and so forth; I’m talking personal responsibility, having the chutzpah to actually talk to a Deity via divination and get one’s questions answered, and negotiate if necessary where issues of working out viable reciprocity is concerned, and having the integrity and strength of character to deal with divine beings that sometimes say “We can’t help you on this one.”  People who have religions involving supposed superlative Deities that are likewise entirely transcendent and cannot be interacted with directly by most people can have all the faith and hope they like that their Deities will take care of them, and if that gives them strength through the times that clearly no one and nothing is assisting them, that’s great.  To be told directly, “Nope, it doesn’t work that way,” and then to have to work things out for oneself…that takes a strength of character that is beyond the ability of many people to face.  I say this not because I think I, nor any other polytheist, is exceptional in these regards, but because this is simply something that most of us have had to face at some stage or other.

I’ve even had some polytheists say that they want to do what I’m doing, and even if we have similar personalities or worship similar Deities, I’m entirely opposed to that.  My own devotional life and activities are things that I have worked out because of the particularities of my own time, place, person, and situation regarding the Deities I revere, and those aren’t going to be entirely appropriate for other people simply by virtue of the fact that they are “other people” that aren’t me!  It isn’t that what I’m doing can’t be done by others, or that some of the things I’ve created might not be able to help others or might be useful for them–if that were the case, I wouldn’t be writing this, or any of the other books I’ve produced over the years, or presented and taught in various contexts.  But, when people have almost literally said “I want what you have” (and sometimes have directly demanded exactly that!), or “I want to be what you are”…sorry, that is an offense against existence itself, because what anyone is at the moment is what they should be, and the only measure of how “more” or “less” they should be doing something is between them and the Deities to Whom they are dedicated (if any), the Ancestors from which they have come, and the Spirits that accompany them in their lives at present.  Though I can help assess some of those things, no one is a better assessor of such matters than the person who is being assessed!

Don’t get me wrong, I long for the days–which will not come until many generations into the future, if indeed humans are living in conditions to allow such by that time (and the jury hasn’t even been selected on those particular proceedings, folks–everyone keeps trying to get out of serving that day, unfortunately!)–when polytheists won’t have to struggle to create their own paths, when there will be temples that are open and thriving in many places once again, when families will not pressure their children into carrying on their religion but instead children are simply fostered in choosing which Deities are right for them by educated elder members of their families, and when a variety of paths will be easily available for people to consider as they negotiate their ways through all of life’s stages and re-negotiate as they grow in maturity and experience.  But that day isn’t now, and at the moment, the best ways we can not only build our own traditions and make spiritual lives worthy of envy and imitation by others is to live as well as we possibly can and to exemplify the best virtues of our Deities and our ways of honoring Them as we are able to at present.

And, what I said above about insecurities absolutely applies to polytheists as well.  Those who want to do a certain amount of “advertising” of their religion is one thing; even having any web presence like the present one at all could be interpreted as such, as is teaching, appearing at events, published books, and so forth.  But actually wanting to share one’s path with others who may not be religious at all and so forth?  There are some ostensible polytheists (often who have been or still are monotheists to some extent or another, or at least have practices within monotheistic frameworks concurrent with whatever they’re doing polytheism-wise) who have suggested doing exactly that, and all I can say about them is that they’re clearly insecure with their life choices, and they might as a result want to rethink them if standing alone before the Deities is not something that they can handle ever doing realistically and on a daily basis.

Ultimately, I think this is one of the fatal flaws of monotheism.  While I can’t entirely endorse the following individual’s work over the last few years for various reasons, he did have a very keen observation in his book from over a decade ago:

One could argue that the clash of monotheisms is the inevitable result of monotheism itself.  Whereas a religion of many gods posits many myths to describe the human condition, a religion of one god tends to be monomythic;  it not only rejects all other gods, it also rejects all other explanations for God.  If there is only one God, then there may be only one truth, and that can easily lead to bloody conflicts of irreconcilable absolutisms.

–Reza Aslan, No God but God:  The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam*, p. xxiv

While Aslan’s use of the term “monomythic” is not intentionally employed to suggest the Joseph Campbell heroic monomyth (which Michael Witzel is now calling “the Laurasian novel”!) and thus the monism which so many polytheists can’t stand, nonetheless his use of the term does kind of explain how monotheistic assumptions are behind such reasoning a lot of the time (which means it has much in common with the forms of atheism we see in the Western world, as well as ideas from psychology and archetypalism, which is obviously part of where Campbell’s ideas originate).  If the monotheisms can’t even get along–which they can’t, because they can’t decide on who is “right” between them, and each successive one has basically said the previous ones are all wrong and the “newest edition” is the best, meanwhile engaging in what people now call “cultural appropriation” of what came before in an even more egregious way than some modern pagans and polytheists have been accused of (because at least the latter don’t then try to go into the communities from which they’ve appropriated material and tell them that they’re doing things wrong and force them to change their ways or die…!)–then how in the world do we expect them to ever get along with polytheists?

Well, let me be blunt.  Rather than suggesting it will never be possible, and that they should go their way and we can go ours (for many reasons, but mainly because them doing exactly that has put us in the position now of having an ecosystem that may not be able to sustain human life for much longer, which is what one gets when their worldview and cosmology eventually succumbs to greed and has nothing to rein it in), here is what I’d suggest:  if the Jesusites (to call them “Christians” would be to give credence to their theological views, which I refuse to do) and the Allahists would do what the ancient Yahwists did and simply become henotheists, there wouldn’t be a problem.  Acknowledging the existence of many Deities but only worshipping a few (in the case of the Jesusites) or one (in the case of the Allahists) would take care of the compulsion to attempt to convert everyone else and to use the worst possible means to do so.  That is easier said than done, granted, in either case, and I suspect that the Jesusites will have an easier time of it than the Allahists (especially because it would mean they’d have to change the shahadah!), but I know it is possible…it will just take effort, probably a great deal of heartache, and some difficult negotiations.  With any luck, at least some groups of them will do this, so that us Antinoans, Tetrad++ists, Dionysians, Hermetics, Apollonians, and so forth will likewise be able to carry out our own cultic activities in peace and without being disrupted at home or anywhere else by those who think their shallow understandings of their own sacred texts are binding upon all people.

 

[*:  I realize that the first instance of “God” in Aslan’s title is lowercased to illustrate the difference in Islamic thinking between Allah and any other being that is said to be divine; but, since capitalization and punctuation are both things which one reserves the right to amend in one’s capacity as editor of previously published material, which is the capacity one has when one quotes something by someone else–which is why good writers give exact references so you can check them yourselves and see if that is what they really say!–I have capitalized both here because that makes that particular statement less abhorrent to quote in a polytheist space and leave for posterity, as this blog post will in theory remain.]

Is There A Difference Between “Polytheist” and “Pagan”?

Let me begin the present installment of this blog of “Theological Questions” by saying that as of this current moment, I’m still looking for further questions to ponder upon in writing here, and while I can think of a few on my own from time to time, I’d also be very interested in responding to any questions that you might have.  I’ve used up all the ones sent in over the last few weeks, so feel free to comment on this post with more, or the original post where I asked for those, as you see fit!

And let me continue the present post by saying that I had hoped not to re-litigate the current issue, but a particular situation has arisen which has prompted it for me, and for a few other folks as well…so, here we are.  Some background on that first, followed by my response, which has been my response to this question for the past 5-ish years (possibly up to 7 years, which is when the rupture between pagans and polytheists reached a head and what I think might be called the “polytheist revolution” in the future began occurring on a much wider basis).

A few days ago, I got notification that Raven Kaldera had published a new web resource which I had answered some questions for a while back.  I didn’t know what form those questions would eventually appear in when I answered them, though I found the inquiries intriguing in their own manner.  The resulting website is as follows, “Six Ways of Being Pagan.”  The particular part of it where I am quoted at length a few times is the final of these six “ways,” which Raven termed (via Dale Cannon’s book Six Ways of Being Religious) “The Way of Reasoned Inquiry.”  I suppose it kind of fits that a person characterized in that fashion would have a blog that is based around the theme of “Theological Questions,” but I have something further to say about that for the moment as well before we get into the meat of the present datum.

In short, I am rather ambivalent about being associated with this particular “path” over and against any and all others.  I could raise some general critiques at this point about the way in which Raven’s (via Cannon’s) taxonomy, and the manner in which Raven deployed it such that those who are quoted in relation to any one path are not quoted in the course of discussing any of the other five at all, tends to suggest that one can only do one of these paths at any given time, or that one is perhaps “primarily” associated with one of them over all others.  Firstly–and this is a notable tendency of mine in almost everything that can be imagined, but still!–I reject the notion that anyone is one-and-only-one thing, and even if some people have dominant or obvious associations with particular things does not exclude their association with, mastery of, or pursuit toward any number of other things, including some that might appear to be diametrically opposed to that dominant trait or involvement.  In the taxonomy suggested there, I’d say I’m at least as involved with and to various extents known for at least three of the other paths as much as with this particular one, and I have also had various involvements with the other two as well (though often not as publicly); though Raven does indicate that is possible to do more than one of these things, nonetheless, not cross-quoting people (because he actually didn’t tailor his questions to take in more than one path, at least where I was concerned…I can’t verify if that was the case for others, too) does give the impression that people are mono-methodological in these things.

But I also have to comment that I’m a bit sick of being characterized in this way.  It happens no matter what I do, granted, and so perhaps in any way resisting or fighting it is utterly futile, and yet I do have to comment that I am annoyed that this is all people tend to think of when they think of me, including in religious contexts.  This happened from the first Antinous group I was involved with (and of which I was a co-founder), where the ostensible leader pretty much said that I was a “scholar” and nothing more when in fact I was also doing most of the visionary/mystical work in the group, was writing all of our public ritual and liturgy, was coordinating activities and moderating the online discussion resources, and so forth…so, administration, religious practice, and “spirit-work” were all deeply parts of what I was doing, and yet I was only given any recognition for my intellectual contributions.

Why do I resist this?  Because of something that becomes apparent on further reflection not only upon these sorts of roles, but also as a result of looking at Raven’s treatment of this matter (to which I contributed).  One of the first things that one hears in a lot of religious groups, spiritual activities, and other such settings is that if one is “too much in one’s head,” one is missing the real essence of the spirituality, the religion, and so forth.  When someone says this to me in such a context, my hackles immediately go up, because what it usually signifies is that I’m being admonished to suspend my critical inquiry skills because I’m not “joining in” with whatever is deemed to be the superior spiritual activity that is being promulgated at that point (and sometimes, asking for donations or long-term commitments to gurus and so forth follow soon after such admonitions!).  While I do get that when one is having a genuine religious experience, questioning it too much can be a real downer, and can undermine the experience or make it less likely that one is able to internalize it at all; and yet, the thing that people entirely miss who are of that opinion is that the exultation of this sort of inquiry can be a religious experience in and of itself, and the heights of contemplation of problems of the mind or points of theological or philosophical intrigue can lead to just as ecstatic a state as any sort of ritual or enraptured spiritual happening.  That we don’t have a lot of people writing about such things in modern polytheist contexts doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened in other religious systems, or that it can’t happen at all!

This is often the very area which atheists criticize about all religions:  namely, how they are often anti-intellectual, and that this anti-intellectualism is likewise paired with a tendency to manipulate people who are naïve or lack the critical thinking skills or informed experiences to counter or question what is being presented.  As I stated in my statements in the quoted bits of my responses on Raven’s website, intellect is just as much a gift of the Deities and evidence of Their presence and working in our lives as anything else.  That religiosity tends to denigrate the intellect and clearness of thought, and can even label it as anti-spiritual and anti-religious, is a problem in itself, and while this taxonomy does something to try and counter that, listing it as the last of the options kind of gives the impression that it is something that is open to those who are too “spiritually blind” (and even “spiritually dead”) to do any of the other more open-hearted approaches, and yet it is also highly limited because so few people are well informed enough to be able to do it effectively.  In the college courses I teach, I emphasize that it is entirely possible for anyone to be able to, for example, come to an excellent and refined intellectual understanding of the state of Buddhist enlightenment, the Taoist concept of the Tao, or any of the heights of mystical contemplation that occurs in a wide variety of religious systems, but one should not make the mistake of thinking that such an intellectual understanding is, or is a substitute for, the actual experience of these things themselves.  So, “The Way of Reasoned Inquiry” is open to absolutely everyone…and yet, again, there are so few people who actually do it, are known for doing it, do it effectively, and are recognized as legitimately religious for doing it since it has been set at odds with all of the other paths presented, and has been denigrated as it has been.  That there is a suggested reading list for each of the other paths, but absolutely none for this one, further demonstrates how this is the case…that I couldn’t think of any works to suggest on the matter (other than ones I’m not done writing yet!) points out how absolutely unappreciated and unacknowledged this entire matter is.  I probably should have mentioned a few things by Edward Butler; but even there, his works are examples of doing this path, not so much primers on how to do it.  Hmm…

But all of this is ancillary to the main point I wanted to make in raising the question with regard to this website!  (Typical intellectual, eh?)

To circle back to the main question now:  what frustrated me about Raven’s website is that he characterizes the various people who gave quotes in various unusual ways after giving their names, and his characterization of me is as “Hellenic and Celtic Pagan.”  I’d actually actively dispute all of those usages in relation to me for a variety of reasons.  Though I do venerate and am devoted to a number of Greek-in-origin Deities and Hero/ines, I’m primarily an Antinoan, which means that I am as much Egyptian and Roman in my theological orientation as I am Greek; I’ve been on the fringe of some fringe Hellenic or Hellenic-syncretic movements, but have never actually identified with being a Hellenic or Hellene in any manner on an “official” basis.  Likewise, I have railed against the use of “Celtic” when something more descriptive and specific can be used, and in my own case, though I do have devotions and practices derived from cultures and dedicated to Deities that range across a variety of Celtic contexts, my primary engagement has been through gentlidecht and filidecht (as should be obvious here!), which are specifically Irish in origin.  So, two strikes…and strike three comes with the term “pagan.”

For a number of years now–since at least 2015 very strongly, but as early as 2012–I have been moving away from the “pagan” label, and now say that I am only “pagan” adjectivally, and very purposefully with a lowercase “p” because I do not consider myself to be a part of the various religious communities that call themselves “Pagan.”  Yes, I worship a variety of Deities that are from pre-Christian/polytheist and animist cultures, but as became obvious to me from early 2012, the Deities are the least prioritized phenomena amongst many in the various Pagan movements.  Yes, I am a non-Christian and a non-monotheist, but I’m also a non-Buddhist, a non-Native American, and many other things, so defining myself in that way as a primary religious identity in that sense of “pagan” doesn’t seem very appealing to me.  I am both a rural person in origin and currently, and thus am a “country-dweller” in the original sense of what a paganus/a/um is, and likewise in the later sense of being a “non-combatant” or “civilian” in contrast to someone in the military and/or a “Christian soldier” in later senses of the term paganus/a/um.  So, any of these things adjectivally, but as my primary religious identity, and my indication that I belong to a group of loosely-defined communities that have no unitary theology and are not necessarily interested in Deities at all (as has been made clear to me over and over again since 2012 where the question of “atheist pagans” are concerned)?  Absolutely not.  There a Rubicon has emerged, and I will simply not cross it because the Deities are the only reason that I think I should be involved in this as a religious movement at all…

…Which then makes me a polytheist, and part of the Polytheist movement.

It is a kind of internal debate within these related religious communities, and which has emerged from the ways in which these terms have diverged from one another.  Sure, there are lots of polytheists who still consider themselves pagan, and if they do, that’s great; and sure, there are lots of pagans who happen to be polytheistic in their own theological orientations, and that’s also great.  But do the two go together and can we assume one with the other?  Absolutely not.  Just as not all pagans are Wiccan (and NO ONE disagrees with that!), so too are all pagans not necessarily polytheists, and yet there are far too many pagans who don’t allow polytheists the ability (which is an inherent right!) to self-identify and to self-associate as they see fit.  Particular figures in the pagan community have become somewhat famous for doing this, for saying “Well, you might think you’re apart from us, but you aren’t, and I’m going to include you as one of us whether you like it or not,” which is perhaps not as egregious as some other forms of non-consent out there, but it is a form of non-consent that should be resisted.  Even though there are a lot of women who are homoerotically inclined and are perfectly comfortable these days saying they are “gay women,” lesbians began to demand to be acknowledged as lesbians fairly early on in the queer liberation movements, which is why the phrase “gay and lesbian” had to become de rigeur as quickly as it did.  (The people who generally don’t feel the need to make a distinction tend to be the rabidly homophobic people in Christianity who are trying to destroy all queer people, and see no difference between lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, trans people, and many other different and distinct identities, and just lump them all under the categories of “gay,” “sodomites,” “sinners,” “going to hell,” “faggots,” and so forth, let us not forget!)

So, as much as some people want to have the kumbayah moment, to call for unity amongst pagans and polytheists, and to suggest that we have something to gain by banding together toward common goals, I find it very difficult and a situation of diminishing returns to do that when there are people within those movements who utterly disagree with my existence and inclusion because I am a polytheist, which some atheist pagans have certainly done, and which some more middle-of-the-road pagans have also done in questioning how “you people” (as one of them referred to polytheists) have contributed anything at all and have proven in any way that we are a useful appendage of the pagan communities.  If that is how they feel, that’s fine, and even though all of them don’t feel that way, if enough are vocal about it that we no longer have a sense of being included, of having hospitality extended to us, and (most importantly) of feeling safe in a group or set of communities which are supposed to nurture common understandings and are supposed to be based on particular agreements of religious viewpoint, then it is counter-productive to continue being in such a group.

To put it as succinctly as possible:  there may not have always been a difference between “pagan” and “polytheist,” and in the minds of some–from unity-minded pagans through to various monotheists who hate all non-monotheists (and all “not-my-monotheism!” monotheists as well!) equally and see them all as equally flawed and doomed–they are still the same; but on key theological issues, which are matters lying at the heart and the base of any religious viewpoint, and thus which must be taken very seriously (despite many anti-intellectual pagans refusing to do so, or to even acknowledge “theology” as a worthy pursuit at all, much less one that is part of polytheist/pagan heritage from its emergence) if one has any desire to genuinely operate from a basis of shared understandings within any particular religious demographic.

[“Succinct” was supposed to be three lines at most…damned intellectuals!]