Exploring spirituality somewhere between the Emerald Isle and the Black Land....

Monday, July 8, 2013

Polytheists vs. Pagans

For over a decade and a half I have identified as pagan, yet in the last couple of years of that time, I have identified specifically as a polytheist. The reason is not because I have divorced myself from the pagan label or that community, nor do I have any desire to do so. I identify as a polytheist simply because that term is more specific to my beliefs. While "Earth-centered" still applies to the things I believe and the way I live my life, over the years the gods have become just as important in my beliefs, and primary in my practice. I like to think that my blog reflects this dual approach, and is as appealing to polytheists as it is to pagans.

When I first came to paganism all those years ago, I embraced archetypal interpretations of deities. In hindsight, I realize that I thought that believing in ideas of gods somehow gave my religion more credibility. While monotheists sometimes get flack for believing in just one deity, polytheists can be thought of as being even more "backwards," because it is assumed that people don't believe those things anymore. If someone raised a skeptical eyebrow when I told them that I believed in a bunch of gods, it was a comfort to be able to tell them, "it's not like that! The gods are really just manifestations of the human psyche!" or any number of definitions that pagans use.

More than that, I found the non-literal interpretation of the divine to be very liberating. To say that I was raised Catholic is an understatement. It was pushed upon me, and the harder I resisted it, the more it was thrust upon me. I think that my time as a monist/agnostic pagan was necessary to cultivate my own spirituality, as it deconstructed (what were to me) damaging ideas of what divinity is. Only after that was I able to approach religion and spirituality with an open mind and heart. There are a number of pagans who have experienced similar things, and to these people, freedom of their individual religious expressions are of utmost importance. I cannot resent this. Having been there myself, I have a deep understanding and sympathy for this need.

Yet as my time as a pagan wore on, and I continued to call upon and interact with the various names of the deities, more and more I became unable to think of them as mere archetypes and so on. To me, the gods became more real, distinct, and individual.

Our relationships with the gods can be compared to our relationships with other human beings. When you first meet someone, you may simply know them as "that guy who fixes computers." If there's something wrong with your computer, he's clearly the person to call. But unless you spend the time to get to know him as a person, he'll never become more than another tech geek. You may never learn that he loves spelunking and has a phobia of bubble gum. You may never fully appreciate him for the unique individual that he is. Likewise, I see my transformation from an agnostic pagan to full-fledged polytheist as the result of spending time with the gods and getting to know them.

I don't say this to imply that I'm doing religion more correctly, or better than anyone else. I simply mean to say that these are the things that I believe, why I believe them, and how I came to believe them. My becoming a polytheist was a natural evolution of my spirituality, and necessary to fulfill that spirituality. You are probably going to believe something completely different. And you know what? That's ok.

The awesome thing about paganism is that it is open and accepting of all kinds of beliefs. The frustrating thing about paganism is that it is open and accepting of all kinds of beliefs. In my years interacting with other pagans, there have been times when they've been so focused on what makes everyone's belief systems similar, they neglect what makes them different. And when we neglect those differences, misunderstandings happen. Our differences should be as recognized as our similarities because they can give us understanding, context, and a new appreciation for the things we do and believe as individuals, as well as a diversity and vitality that makes our communities richer.

At least, that's the ideal.

In the quest for finding sameness, pagans can be very insistent about Jungian archetypes or monism. There are times when I've found it frustrating, offensive even. But guess what? For all the times I've been annoyed by the insistence that "all gods are one," or some other idea, there are pagans out there that have been annoyed by a polytheist's insistence that all gods are separate.

Which brings us to the major point of contention: Crack open any dictionary, and it will tell you that polytheism is the worship of multiple gods. And according to polytheists, gods are gods. Archetypes are not gods. Natural forces are not gods. However, gods are big, and can do amazing things. From a polytheist's point of view, gods can represent archetypes and manifest as forces of nature as well as being separate, distinct entities. However, the opposite is not necessarily true. The way they see a humanist pagan's view is that a deity is reduced to only an archetype or only a force of nature. And polytheists find this insulting, to their gods.

I once heard someone say that when you define what your beliefs are, you are in a way denying someone else's. At first I balked at this idea. "No way! My beliefs are, like, Über tolerant and junk!" But as I thought about it, I realized that it was true. When I say that I believe in many gods, this statement is the antithesis of what a monotheist believes. My statement, in an indirect way, denies what they believe. There is nothing malicious about this; it is simply a matter of people having differing points of view.

And this is the key to the problem that pagans and polytheists are having.

In the "pro-polytheism" posts that I've been reading, the authors take a very firm stance on their beliefs. They draw a line, and they defend it. And then some of the pagans get offended, interpreting these declarations of belief as attacks, as one person telling another what to believe and how to worship. I know there are those who would disagree with me, but I do not believe that this is the case. And even if it was... so what? No one has to do or think what Random Internet People say. Your beliefs are your own, and no one can change that. If that is not the case, your beliefs must not have been held very close anyway.

At the beginning of this debate (or more accurately, before I realized that it was a debate) I was very pleased to see my fellow polytheists standing out and declaring what they, and by extension I, believe in. But the deeper I read into the debate, the deeper I saw the contention and nastiness run, until this whole kerfuffle has left me feeling very disheartened. Instead of grown people discussing what they believe and why, egos get in the way and people bicker about who's "righter," slinging personal insults along the way and arguing about who fights dirtier. But all of this is useless. The important thing is not to fight over who is correct. It is to understand each other, and find harmony with each other.

How do you do this when people on both sides have scoffed at the idea of having to accept each other's beliefs? After all, saying that you accept those beliefs is a way of saying that you believe them. And why would anyone want to say that they believe something they don't? Luckily, the solution is simple.

We need only to accept that we are different, and that that is ok. No one has to accept your beliefs. No one has to accept my beliefs. But as decent human beings, we all have an obligation to respect that we have them.

If you want to read more about The Great Debate, I have compiled some links below (in no particular order):


  1. I think for me, the issue was and will always be the complete lack of respect shown towards /people/ during the debate, as well as the downward spiral of behavior that was witnessed. I also felt that the 'end' of the debate culminated in a lot of misinformation and obscuring of the truth/lies, which...again, the behavior was problematic, in my eyes.

    So, for me, the issue wasn't people telling me how to believe - I've had Christians doing that for years, and being trapped in a bathroom with evangelists puts internet spats in perspective - but that there was no respect for the people holding those beliefs. When you start off saying someone's religion is 'pretend time'...there's gonna be issues.

    I also didn't like how polytheism was redefined to mean belief in many gods, but only ancient ones. Lines were drawn that actively excluded polytheists. I worship many gods, I believe in many gods, as /gods/ - but I also worship deified entities, among which is Antinous, but it's only the new and modern deities that caused problems. One doesn't have to believe in the existence of my deities, but to claim I'm not a polytheist I think is...a bit false. (Not saying you are! But I saw that claimed quite often.) So, I definitely hold the belief that new deities are born in a variety of ways and that the ancients didn't know of every deity that exists, which obviously means I think that the polytheists who do claim that only the ancient deities are real are wrong, but I don't think that means either of us is not a 'real polytheist'. We each believe in many deities /as deities/, not forces or energies.

    Anyway, I've said my piece. I liked this post a lot and just wanted to give my own perspective to what happened.

    1. "I think for me, the issue was and will always be the complete lack of respect shown towards /people/ during the debate...."

      This was exactly my problem as well, and the reason I wrote this post. Maybe I am being too much of an idealist when I say it, but I think that if people on both sides were able to show more respect to each other, things wouldn't have gotten so bad.

      I'm glad that you brought up the point about "new" gods. When you look at ancient Egypt, you have deified ancestors like Imhotep, who built the first pyramid and was said to be a great healer. When he dies, he was deified, and is considered to be Ptah's son. When you consider this, then technically there is a historical precedence for "making up" new gods. Now when it comes to something like pop culture paganism, I will freely admit that I don't get the point in worshiping, say, Super Man as a god. I may engage in a discussion with someone about why they do it, but that's about as far as I'd go. What they do doesn't threaten or harm me in any way, so they can do and believe as they like!

      I'm glad you liked this post, and thank you so much for sharing your perspective. :)

    2. Well, if I say that I worship Jupiter, does that exclude me from greek religion? Perhaps, but the thing is that Jupiter is the same as Zeus. So what it comes down to is nationalism. A honest theologian cannot say "you are worshipping too many gods" because most of them are all the same under different names. Besides that, syncretism always existed, and conceptions of the gods vary, since they are not limited to a single form or attribute. Attis, for example, the thracian god is very dionysical-like. It just so happens that Attis was worshipped in one region, and Dionysus on another, with different expressions, though they´re probably the same deity.

  2. I've been down the pantheist road, and finally realized it just didn't work for me. In fact, I think my journey was very much like yours.

    Truth is, if someone believes that my gods are emanations of my psyche, it's just not my job to get offended on their behalf. Are pantheists and Jungians desecrating my altars and defiling my rituals? No? Then as a polytheist, I have faith that my gods are more than capable of speaking for themselves if they choose to. They certainly have no problems telling ME what they think!

    1. That's a very good point. The gods aren't helpless; if they want to sort someone out, they will!

  3. Hi Kaif, this is Logan Vice.

    Love this post. I'm still in "Archetypes" mode, being that I identify with Crowley's Thelema. I love hearing the other viewpoints and perspectives of fellow "non-traditional" beliefs held in the modern world.

    Most of the responses I get when I reveal that I subscribe to Aleister Crowley's work is that I have to abandon my devil-worshiping ways because Crowley is the evilest man ever. I've received this response many times, so I avoid telling people anything about Thelema.

    I wish this weren't so much of a debate and was more about sharing ideas.

    1. Hi Logan! :)

      I didn't know you identified with Thelema. I'll have to pick your brain about that sometime!

      I'm glad you liked the post. Thanks for reading!

    2. The "devilish" thing about Thelema is Indulgence, which is opposite to the sober philosophy of ancient greece, although at Delphi, e.g., one half of the year was dedicated to Apollo, and the other to Dionysus. Then there is the subject of sacred prostitution that was also a tradition of old, but of which we know very little. But in my opinion both ways are simply that - ways. We´re not all the same, or see things from the same perspective. Who´s to say that Aphrodite, e.g., is not found in pleasure for the sake of it only as well? As in sacred prostitution, celebrating the world can also be divine celebration :)