Column: A Polytheist Primer

Guest Contributor —  May 29, 2015 — 20 Comments

[Today we welcome guest writer Anomalous Thracian, a Polytheist Priest and spirit worker living in the North East. He is the director at Polytheist.com and blogger at Thracian Exodus.]

POLYTHEISM (Noun, plural polytheisms): the belief in the existence of multiple gods.

Polytheists today exist around the world, as expressions of both continuous ancient cultures and traditions, and of newly restored, reconstructed, or received religious traditions. The word “polytheist” comes, by way of French, from the ancient Greek (polus + theos) meaning “many gods,” and refers to persons or groups who affirm with religious regard the distinct and differentiated reality of many gods, frequently alongside many other groups or systems of spirits and lesser divinities.

John Reinhard Weguelin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Reinhard Weguelin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although many Polytheists are also Pagans, these movements, identities and religious traditions can be differentiated from the larger Pagan or Neo-Pagan movements. Polytheists hold intrinsic affirmations of a non-reductive theological premise, which does not “collapse down” into the binary dualism (God + Goddess) popularized in some branches of Wicca; nor a theistic monism (such as is often found in Western Occultism); nor a pantheist or panentheist regard for the nature and identities of the gods. Instead, Polytheists celebrate worshipfully the myriad diversity of their pantheon(s) and hold a focus on unique relationships. Relationships, by definition, require the affirmation of differentiated beings, and thus Polytheist identity, practice, and belief can be best understood as religions of relation.

For many Polytheists these relationships are of central paradigmic importance, rather than peripheral, social, or magical in nature, and unfold as not only dynamics of deliberate devotion or dedication, but also shape one’s total world-view and experiences. The experiences that many Polytheists have may put them outside the scope of the practical framework of the majority’s popular, secular ideas or assertions, or social philosophies held by peers and neighbors. As “identity” is a defining quality not merely of what one does, but instead who and what one is, a Polytheist identity has a significant influence in how individual devotees (whether laity or clergy) interpret and respond to the various relationships that they hold within the world-at-large.

Religions, and the spiritual considerations therein, often sit as defining characteristics of this person’s life. When acknowledging the reality of the many gods and many spirits to be found in all areas of life, and indeed seeking conscious relationship with them through practices and living traditions, it is difficult to do very much of anything without recognition for the other beings, agencies, and divine powers inherent in shared (or directed) presence.

While many Polytheists are also Pagan identified or affiliated in some way, it is not fair or accurate to assume that these are the same thing. For starters, there is simply no agreed-upon way that “Pagan theology or religious identity” can be defined. Many Pagans are Humanists, Atheists, Dualists, and non-theistic monists, and many are also strictly interested in the social and interactive side of the Pagan “umbrella” while maintaining staunch anti-religious and anti-devotional stances.

[Courtesy Anomolous. Thracian]

[Courtesy Anomalous. Thracian]

Modern Paganism is a uniquely Western idea and set of movements, with its important roots and relevance deeply seated specifically in the modern Western cultures, as demonstrated in the vital focus on social, spiritual, and magical responses to dominant power structures inherent in the civic and social landscapes around them. Polytheists, on the other hand, are specifically religious and theological in their identities, and many have never had any relationship to the larger Pagan movement at all, nor do they seek any. It has been suggested by some Pagan leaders that Polytheists represent a “subordinate strata” to Paganism. However, by and large, the suggestion is often found to be offensive, supremacist and wholly inaccurate by Polytheists.

The distinction between Paganism and Polytheism is necessary; not to force any conflict or competition, but quite the opposite, to allow for each to have its own needs and considerations. The intent of this article is to help provide clarifying language and structures for discussing and navigating Polytheist religion, religious identity, personal identity, and the various advocacy/religious rights considerations necessary to ensure dignity, safety and respect moving forward.

All of this can really be presented in just three basic structures: 1) Polytheist identity, 2) polytheistic religious groups, and 3) the Polytheist Movement, which are to be defined as follows:

  • “Polytheist” as an identifier, (e.g. “I am a Polytheist”) is an opt-in religious identifying term which communicates affirmation of many gods held in religious regard, at a level which is understood to intersect in a defining way with that person’s identity. Rather than merely being an affiliation with a community or practice that they are involved with, it is something that they are. This term is self-applied, and not generally assumed by others to apply to a person because of their involvement with a certain group. (It would be summarily wrong-headed to do otherwise, just as assuming a person is not Polytheist because of their affiliation with, for example, Wicca, as there are many Wiccans who are Polytheist religionists, in addition to their initiatory relationships to one or more of the Wiccan witchcraft traditions.) This term does not refer to a single religion or a finite number of religions; it refers instead to the identity of a person with regard to their religious realities and experiences.
  • Next, “polytheistic traditions” and groups are religious traditions which are assumed to hold polytheistic frameworks of engagement, practice and belief. However, just as many religions in the world have their fair share of secular or atheist or non-theist persons in their internal communities, affiliation with a polytheistic tradition or group does not necessarily mean that a person is a Polytheist identified religionist. Affiliation with groups or traditions may or may not have their own rubrics for determining eligibility, whereas the Polytheist identifier (described above) defines clearly and simply that this person self-identifies as affirming many gods in religious regard, at a level that is part of who they are rather than merely who they relate to in community.

Traditions are containers that provide structures for directing community and worship to the gods, as well as that which may be received from the gods, based on unique agreements with those gods. Presumably, polytheistic traditions are most appealing to identified Polytheists but, as with all organizations, the human factor will invariably include some who may not be. However, such inclusions should not be considered in a manner that challenges the group’s affirmed stances of many gods, else the container becomes either broken or rendered without meaning, and the sacred agreements violated. One may not be required to be an identified Polytheist in order to participate in a polytheistic religious group, as identity is a complex and personal thing that is explored and discovered, rather than chosen (or applied).

  • The “Polytheist Movement” is a loosely organized human rights and religious rights movement made up of affiliated Polytheist-identified religionists and their allies, who are seeking to: expand the popular understandings of what Polytheist religion and identity is all about; increase the protections and dignities that they are promised by universal declarations; create outreach, education, and networking platforms for engagement. It is not a religion, or even a group of religions. It is a rights-based movement with the mission to protect those Polytheist-identified individuals from harm, erasure, and oppressive hostility. Its interests and aims are primarily in education, visibility, outreach and alliance, serving the needs of both Polytheist-identified persons and polytheistic religious groups, traditions and lineages.

The Polytheist Movement has been around for as long as Polytheists have sought to differentiate themselves and their needs from surrounding spiritual or theistic groups or dynamics. This differentiation is, again, not because of any value-assessment, judgment, or rivalry, but because the needs of many Polytheist-identified persons (due to their direct experiences and affirmed world-views), and polytheistic religious groups (and their rituals or inclusive membership considerations), are not easily met or even understood without such distinctions. Differentiation allows for specific considerations and the establishment of methodologies to serve the actual specific needs of specific religious dynamics, without upsetting or upending the structures of other groups or identities to whom those needs are not relevant.

Many voices of leadership within both individual polytheistic religions and the Polytheist Movement have used writing as a focus for the work of satisfying the unique needs of Polytheists. Some Polytheists hold doctorates and professions in academia, others have cultivated independent research and learning for the purposes of religious reconstructionism and restoration, while others practice ecstatic or newly received traditions absent of scholarship.

Despite a healthy relationship to academia and the study of past cultures and histories, polytheistic religions are very much living religions today. Polytheists are interested in facing the same challenges of modernity as everyone else, and drawing on the wisdom of ancestral or ancient cultures does not equate to believing that we are those peoples.

Polytheist writing, whether within the format of blogging, online columns, or books and journals, generally falls into three categories: 1) Experiential and spiritual; 2) Devotional; and 3) Theological, Structural, or Organizational. The first covers ecstatic and mystic topics, testimonies, challenges and cautions as written by liminally inclined mystics and spirit-workers. The second refers to collections of praise poems, hymns, songs, rituals, and general devotional collections. The third is interested in the more intellectual, philosophical or organizational approaches to the subject, such as discussions and debates around the nature of experiences with the gods. While many of these works hold relevance and interest to those in non-Polytheist circles, the works are written primarily for those who are identified as Polytheists, practicing polytheistic religions, or learning about these religions for the purposes of being an ally.

universal-declaration-of-hu
As minority religions (even within the intersecting Pagan communities), Polytheists often struggle with issues of oppressive prejudice. These prejudices are, by literal definition, acts of conscious or unconscious violation of human rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees:

Article 18
1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of [their] choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest [their] religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair [their] freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of [their] choice.

Article 27
In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

As with any case of social and cultural prejudice, Polytheists and polytheistic religions can benefit from healthy social justice considerations and, of course, from allies who are interested in supporting the rights, respects, dignities and protections inherently due to Polytheists.

Many Polytheists are involved in social justice and civic work in other communities independent of religion – such as economic disparity, systemic racism and racial inequality, homophobia, transphobia, and greater LGBTQ activism, women’s rights and minority cultural advocacy. They act as either allies to these vital human rights causes, or as intersectional members of these groups. As the visibility of Polytheist issues, erasure, and the hostilities often directed at us and our religious groups has grown, so too has a place for Allies to Polytheists who are not themselves religiously defined in this way, but support our needs all the same.

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10 Steps to Being a Good Ally to Polytheists

1. Be a listener to Polytheists in your life. Polytheists often report that others – often those from Pagan communities – do not listen to them, or attempt to re-frame what they self-report in a way the undermines, reduces, dismisses, pathologizes, or otherwise erases the experiences and identities of the Polytheists in question. We don’t care if you consider us “a type of Pagan” or “a subordinate strata” of Paganism. When a group is taking the time to respectfully discuss the erasure, hostility and oppression that they are experiencing, it is probably a good time to stop erasing them, their ideas and their identities. To be an ally is to listen and to learn.

2. Be open-minded. Polytheist religionists do not represent a single religion, but both a category of religion and a category of experience, which are themselves myriad and far-ranging. Not all Polytheists worship or affirm all gods from all pantheons, while others do. Not all Polytheists have direct and singly transformative, and redefining causal relationships with the gods, wherein they know-and-feel them in a tremendous and mystic fashion. They simply affirm the experiences of others who do, and recognize that their own relationships, devotions, and prayerful worship are equally valid, in a world populated by many gods, many spirits and many types of people.

Polytheists may report experiences of their gods or spiritual practices, which can confuse a 21st century secularist. To be a good ally, it is important to understand that your comfort with another person’s religion, practices, experience or identity is not relevant when approaching the subject with compassion, respect, and the universally declared statements of human rights pertaining to religious practice and identity. To many Polytheists, their religious identity is as essential to them as their gender, profession, place in society, or sexual orientation, and in many cases even defines some of these.

3. Be willing to talk to and about Polytheists in a positive way. Communicate with the group to which you’re trying to be an ally. Reach out. We love talking. That’s why so many Polytheist religionists are online attempting to engage, build bridges and, well, communicate. But on the topics of our religions and our experiences, please start with “listening” and “being open minded.” Do not attempt to tell us that we are “wrong,” “nutters,” “mentally ill,” “crazy,” “fundamentalists,” “fascists,” or that we need to be “culled from the herd.” Please do not send us death threats, threats of violent sexual assault, threats of using your academic or institutional professional power to see us locked up, detained, or dehumanized as unfit for society, because you do not believe in our experiences and affirmed identities. Please, as allies, talk to us, but do not talk at us. We will not threaten to have you killed, assaulted, institutionalized, or “culled,” either.

4. Be inclusive and invite Polytheist friends to things. Inclusivity is appreciated. Being shunned by Pagan and other religious or secular communities does happen, because sometimes Polytheists have different ways of being. Because our gods are affirmed as real and of consequence, as are spirits engaged throughout our world, some of us have lifestyle qualities – such as taboos, required actions, food or clothing restrictions, and so forth – which you may not understand. There is no “list” of what these are, because our gods have all kinds of different plans and functions for us. Just as there are many differentiated gods, there are many differentiated ways of being in relationship to those gods, and some of us may stand out in some way as a result of our religious identity. Please try to understand and respect this, and do not assume that we are judging other people who do not follow our way.

5. Do not assume that everyone is theistically (religiously) identified the way that you are. Do not assume, for example, that everyone who talks about religion is a monotheist. Please do not assume that “religion” means “monotheism.” Someone close to you could be looking for support in their process of defining their Polytheist experiences and identity. Not making assumptions will help to give them the space they both need and deserve.

Presentation1 Thracian

[Courtesy Anomalous Thracian]

Many people who self-identify as Polytheist also self-report that they felt a great deal of relief, salvation, and safety simply by realizing that there was a “Polytheist Movement.” The Polytheist religious identifier was specific enough to differentiate their experiences of the world, of the gods, and of themselves that they felt safe and protected with it, but still broad enough to non-competitively provide those identity protections to a number of Polytheist religious paths, traditions, and approaches. Let me say that again: people report that they feel that their lives have been saved, as in literally, by being able to identify in this way.

When you attack or dismiss the Polytheist identity, you are directly dismissing the identity of at-risk demographics who are asking you to please see them as a valuable part of this world, or at the very least a part of this world that deserves to be respected. Please do not make blanket anti-religious statements, or anti-religion stances: sharing memes on the internet and so forth which promote an anti-religion New Atheism, whether you identify as an atheist or not, is harmful to many Polytheists. Please do not do that. If you would like to discuss specific concerns regarding religion, whether formal or informal, please do so while specifying and differentiating those things from “religion” or “devotion” or “piety” or “worship” in general. Chances are pretty good that most Polytheists feel almost the same way you do about those “big bad villains,” who have a long history of enacting tremendous global atrocities and centuries of colonial cultural erasure. Maybe we can be allies to an anti-colonial, anti-corruption movement together. But can we do so in a way that doesn’t erase our Polytheist religious rights, freedoms, and intrinsic identity.

6. Anti-religion and anti-theistic jokes, comments, and statements are harmful. Let people, including your family, friends, co-workers, and peers know that you find these to be offensive and unacceptable. This one should be self explanatory. Religion is a tremendously important part of world culture and personal identity. Making jokes about people for being religious or having religions is not different than attacking or dismissing or dehumanizing them for any other reason. Anti-theism is not funny, and humor intended to suggest that those with religious and theistic views are ignorant, mentally ill, or culturally devolved is an expression of callous supremacy. Supremacy is not funny.

7. Confront your own prejudices and privileges even when it is uncomfortable to do so. There are many helpful guides online and at your local library. Look for books and websites that explore the topics of internalized systemic prejudice and privilege. Many of the mechanics of oppression dynamics, bigotries, and socially inherited behaviors, like these, are shared in common between different forms of marginalization. You may find yourself benefiting from studying other social justice movements (such as understanding systemic racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia) in your pursuits of understanding how to not oppress, or even how to become an ally, to your Polytheist friends, peers, or neighbors.

8. Defend your Polytheist friends against prejudice, discrimination and erasure. Statements of alliance and support are welcome. Many Polytheists report feeling that when they were targeted with discrimination or violence, others – even in Paganism – would find ways to describe it as somehow justified, as if the Polytheist were “asking for it.” If you are looking to be an ally to Polytheist religionists, please show them that they are not alone, and you will defend their rights and their dignity. Show them that you see them, and value them as a part of your society.

9. Act in accordance with a belief that all people, regardless of religious identity or experience, should be treated with unconditional dignity and respect; even when that identity or experience are different from your own.  Check your own intellectual entitlement at the door, and recognize that your understanding of another group’s identity or practices is not relevant to your affirmation that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Do not try to “force” Polytheist identified people, or polytheistic religious traditions, into your definitions of Paganism: this is both disrespectful and in many cases inaccurate. The modern Pagan movement is popularly understood to be a thing defined by its inclusive and accepting approach to relating to the natural world, and it is considered dishonoring (and dishonorable) to force a system of identity in this way. Acts of respecting empowered visible individuation, agency, and identity are preferable to those that silence the will and wishes of a person or group, in favor of one’s own feelings.

10. If you see Polytheist religions, traditions, or persons identified religiously and devotionally in this way being misrepresented in the media, report it. Please contact the editors at Polytheist.com or wildhunt.org.

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Polytheists and polytheistic religious traditions are here to stay and the Polytheist Movement is here to ensure that that path is clear, safe, and respectful. With the rise in Polytheist visibility, we have the freedom to begin discussing our experiences, practices and theologies in accessible mediums, defiant of hostilities that seek to silence or institutionalize us in some manner.  We will value the supportive gestures of our allies to these important ends.

Polytheist.com banner

Polytheist.com banner

All of us in this shared world sit within an age of change, of uneasy shifting stances and shifty glances side-to-side as we cross the roads of today toward a planned-for tomorrow that will perhaps better accommodate the many needs of the many kinds of people, groups and religions to be found throughout. The world that we fight for, that we march for with booted feet to tired ground, and that we build for stone-by-stone and board-by-board, must be a world possessing the maturity and grace to see and respect the myriad expressions of life and society that will be found within it. Rights and freedoms for all peoples and groups, and critical identifications are the currency of the future.

Polytheists view the world as being made of an infinite system of relationships between distinct and distinguished agents, human and other-than-human, populated by many gods to whom we can bring our petitions and receive the guidance toward building this future. We are invested in that future; in having space, breath, voice and visibility, and in collaborating to protect and preserve these for all those who will emerge to continue and carry as illuminating torches our traditions and devotions into a thousand futures, who will, in our inevitable passing, hold the way for those who will follow.

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[Author’s Note: Special thanks to GLAAD.ORG for providing inspiration for the structure and tone of the above “10 Steps” ally guide.]

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