The Polytheist community is vast. Cultures around the world celebrate versions of polytheistic worship and commune with the Gods as a way of life. Modern polytheistic practices are just as wide of a range as in any other time in history. There are many contextual differences, nuances, cultures, beliefs, stories, and practices that fall under a very large umbrella of Polytheism.The strength of any community is enhanced and yet challenged by the variety of diversity it faces. How we see worship, who we worship, how we engage in community worship, how we are inspired to worship; all things that can encapsulate the myriad differences that play a role within any snapshot of the Polytheistic community.
The complexity and variety of practice is what brought the My Polytheism project to creation. Writer and polytheist Jolene Dawe started working on this project in August of this year, which has unfolded to include many different writings and reflections from people within the Polytheist community that are speaking about their personal version of Polytheism.
I was quite drawn in by the creativity and variety of the posts on the site because they showed so many different interpretations and practices within this community. The myriad nuances that can be rooted within any practice create a vital context to the very connection one has with the Gods, their practice, community, and their place within it. I can relate to this concept because of the many different aspects in my own practice that are outside of the “norm” within greater community expectations. My personal culture plays a big role in my own brand of Polytheism.
There have always been many attempts, whether over the internet or in person at festivals, to clarify what acceptable Polytheism is. The ongoing desire to define modern Paganism and Polytheism is nothing new, and sometimes that is accompanied by judgement and the creation of normative values focusing on who fits inside of the circle and who does not. Communities often focus on differences as a way to identify parameters and cultivate shared social standards. These very differences and nuances also push people into the margins of a community and can lead to ridicule, feelings of isolation, and additional challenges that come with being right outside of the lines of acceptable culture.
And for all of these reasons, I decided to turn to Jolene Dawe and speak with her about the motivation and drive to create what has become #MyPolytheism.
Crystal Blanton: In creating the My Polytheism site and concept, did you think that it would call to so many people?
Jolene Dawe: I cannot emphasis ‘no’ enough, here. The site started as a place for me to gather links that I didn’t want to lose, when people started writing their own #mypolytheism posts in response/inspired by mine. One day, someone was wrong on the internet, and I got annoyed. Those responses were heartening.
I’ve been blogging about my path for awhile, and I do get people reaching out to me regularly, who are put off by the debate style that passes for community building in the louder section of the Pagan blogosphere, who don’t want their paths or experiences picked apart, who are tired of hearing that they’re wrong somehow. As there’s been more and more talk about this so-called Polytheist Movement, I realized that, you know, phrasing it like that, as if there’s some collective movement around whose tenets people agree, is misleading.
Because My Polytheism has zero interest in deciding if others are ‘doing polytheism right.’ The idea of there being some homogeneous polytheism tradition, where one must approach the gods through appropriate people, really turns me off. The looking back to how ancient polytheism was, with some rose colored glasses, as if that’s something to bring forward . . . no, thank you, but no. I don’t want a state-sanctioned polytheist approach. I’m female; would I have been allowed to devote myself to Poseidon for life, if we existed under a polytheist world since antiquity? Because, I doubt it.
So, My Polytheism came about in part because of that — can we maybe stop arguing about who’s ‘doing it wrong’ and instead maybe share what it is that we’re doing? Can we move away from wanting contemporary polytheism to be rooted in sameness — in where we hold the gods in the ordering of society, in how we think of them, in how we worship — and instead maybe root it in hospitality? I’m weary of it being acceptable to tear into people online, because “they’re nice in person” — which is a refrain I heard all the time during my years interacting with heathens on the east coast, in person. Can we be kind to one another? Can we stop pretending that personal attacks because you don’t agree with someone is acceptable? Can we admit that the perennial debates are going to keep happening, and not everyone needs to be a theologian, or a scholar, or even just want to debate. Can we please, please, move beyond this stage?
I did not know My Polytheism was going to become a project, when it went live. It was really supposed to be this depository of links, for my own ease of reference. Clearly, I was wrong.
CB: What do you feel that My Polytheism adds to the idea of community and the culture of modern Polytheism?JD: Off the top of my head? A safe space to share, where the authors of the various essays/blog posts get to determine how they engage with others. It’s been criticized that because My Polytheism does not allow debate on the site, that it’s anti-debate. It’s not. I’m not. What I am, though, is against the idea that people are obligated to participate in debates, that they somehow owe anyone else an explanation as to why their experiences are as they are. I’m not going to provide one more space for people to attack someone. If you want to talk to one of the contributors about what they have to say, you need to go to their blogs and comment to them directly. They then get to decide if they want to engage with you or not. It’s completely up to them.
I think My Polytheism also increases visibility of the diversity with contemporary polytheism. I want it to. I hope it does. I do know that already people have found others whose work they may not have found otherwise — I’ve ‘met’ a ton of new people I didn’t know of before, that’s for sure. There are so many people who have felt alone, or in the minority, and I think My Polytheism is helping to challenge that. Certainly, having examples of the different ways a polytheist life might look is a positive thing.
Another thing about My Polytheism is that — yeah, I’m the curator of sorts, in that I’m maintaining the space — but it is nothing without the contributions of other polytheists. In that way. it’s a collective effort. My Polytheism is ours. It wouldn’t work any other way, because I really do not care about telling people how to be. I want to share what I do, and I want to know what you do, because I’m nosey, and because I’m curious, and because I find this all fascinating, and because I find it inspiring. I like stories. I want to hear yours. You know?
CB: Sometimes bridge work can be difficult in any community. What would you want to emphasize about My Polytheism to those may not understand the need for safe space within the modern Polytheism community?
JD: I’d like them to pause and consider that, if they don’t feel a need for a safe space within the modern Polytheism community, it might be because they have the privilege of not needing it, and that this does not mean others do not. I know ‘privilege’ is something of a buzzword these days, but it’s necessary to confront this: people want safe spaces. I’d argue that they need them. Not everyone can tackle issues in the same manner, whatever those issues are, and they shouldn’t be expected to.
I want community, I even want in-person community, but I don’t want just anyone. I want the people that are going to nourish me, who are going to encourage me. Beyond that, I don’t want people to feel they cannot approach their gods because of whatever reason. Because they can’t leave their houses, because they don’t *want* to leave their houses, because they’re not able-bodied, because they’re not comfortable in their skin, because their would-be communities are intent on telling them why they can’t be involved with the powers they’re involved with, because of their skin color or their gender orientation or their sexual preference, or a host of other reasons. We need safe space within the modern Polytheism community because modern polytheists are asking for it, are responding to it. You don’t have to understand. You don’t have to want to contribute to it — but you don’t get to decide what other people want or need .You do not get to decide how other people want to build community.
My Polytheism is not a place for everyone, and it’s not trying to be. There is the whole of the Internet to debate and attack and criticize. If that’s all you’re after, in community building, you’re going to have to go elsewhere. And, because I know there are those out there who love to send hateful and abusive private messages and emails, I’ve also made it clear that any sent my way about this topic are to be considered submissions for publication, because they will go live. So far, I haven’t gotten any. Which maybe isn’t the best way to build bridges, but I’m not interested in building bridges with people who only want to tear others down.
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When reaching out to Jolene about this project and its subsequent impact, I also decided to reach out to several of the people whose pieces were published on the website. What motivated them to write about their brand of Polytheism? What inspires their reflection of Polytheism? What hope did they have in sharing this with others?
Their answers are just as diverse and layered as the makeup of our community.
I was motivated to write an entry for #mypolytheism because I know I’m deviating from the “mainstream” ideas of Paganism and Polytheism with my practice. There’s a lot of gatekeeping in the wider online community, ideas of how things should be done in order to be correct, which can be demoralizing for those of us who can’t seem to find a home in the established Pagan and Polytheist religions. Personally, I take the stance of a Chaos Magician, in that what is correct… is what works. And that may not be the same for everyone; each person needs to experiment and see what works for them. And it’s likely to be a continuing work in progress.
I wanted to be part of something that strives to show everyone who is doing things a little different that we’re not alone. And I wanted to be part of showing the gatekeepers that we are just as valid and active as they are, no lectures required. We’re all doing our own thing, and it’s beautiful, and awesome, and amazing. By being able to share what we’re doing with each other, we’re sharing ideas, and helping each other.
Maybe someone in Russia is doing something really interesting someone in California might like to try out. Maybe new and more dynamic and inclusive religions and traditions can grow out of solitaries sharing information, and maybe not. I know there’s already a new community of support that’s grown out of the movement, for Pagan and Polytheist monastics, and it’s so exciting to see everyone talking, and so many people saying “I’ve been interested in this for *years* and never knew anyone else was interested!” It’s wonderful to see so many people connecting and sharing ideas. I don’t know if that would have happened without #mypolytheism. – Celestine
I was motivated on two levels. One was the increasingly rigid definitions that were being put out there by self-styled “leaders” about what polytheism is and isn’t supposed to be. I felt that those ideas were very limiting and excluding of many people and practices, and that they failed to accurately capture the diversity of ideas and ways within polytheism.
The other motivation was those who had already put their reflections out under the #mypolytheism hashtag. It was quickly obvious to me that so many of us had been feeling the same thing and they idea of putting out our own thoughts became quite contagious.I hope that from this sharing that others who are either on the edge looking in or have felt excluded by the rigid definitions of the past realize that there is a place for their practices and style of worship within polytheism, and that there is no “one true way” of being a polytheist.
I envision a community where folks are free to share their ideas and experiences without being told that they are “doing it wrong”, and that they can take inspiration from others who are putting their experiences out there. – Alley Valkyrie
As I understand it, My Polytheism was started in order to highlight the many diverse ways of being a polytheist. It has already shown that people are building community in ways that are unique and valuable, such as polytheist monasticism (the kind of monasticism that serves a wider community). It has created a safe space where people can share their feelings about their relationship with the gods.
Some people have complained about it not being a space for debate. As I see it, there are two ways to arrive at knowledge – (1) by debating and trying to eliminate the “incorrect” point of view; (2) by sharing experience & feelings and building up a richly textured view of reality. Since religion is largely about feelings and experiences, the debating approach won’t help much. My Polytheism is clearly about sharing feelings and experiences. And frankly I don’t want my heartfelt experiences to be a matter for debate. You can debate theology all you want, but ultimately the nature of the gods is a mystery and one that we all perceive in different ways.
There is so much debate everywhere else on the Internet – it’s lovely to have a space that is more like a sharing space where people can post their thoughts & feelings and not get shot down in flames for it. – Yvonne Aburrow
This project, while drawing some criticism, has come at a time when many people are looking for a place to celebrate their differences and similarities with others in spiritual community. It is also very relevant that many are actively in search of a safe place within the world; our spiritual communities are not void of this need.
It was the tag line on the Facebook page that first caught my interest: “Visible. Vocal. Diverse.” That’s well aligned with my values. I want folks to hear from polytheists who celebrate diversity in polytheism. There are plenty of people who will tell you you’re doing it wrong, or assert that you’re not really a polytheist. There are plenty of places that attract attention by courting controversy and heated debate. But there are precious few places where I can set aside that sort of discourse entirely, and simply be heard on my own terms in a space of sacred hospitality. Magic happens in those places, and I want to contribute to that magic!
As a member of a minority religion, it takes courage for me to share details of my devotional and contemplative practice publicly. There are risks involved in doing so, especially given that sincere religious devotion in a polytheist context is often dismissed as “crazy” or “backward” in the dominant cultural milieu. If I fear my personal religious experience might be debated or insensitively picked apart by bullies – people who don’t know me or the challenges I deal with, and aren’t even peripherally involved in my relationships with the deities I venerate – I’m far less likely to share these things.
By providing a welcoming space for marginalized voices, and relief from the constant worry about being dragged into the kind of debate-driven discourse that is so prevalent elsewhere, My Polytheism emboldened me to speak up and contribute.
I hope it will amplify the voices of polytheists who are marginalized – voices that might not have been on our radar otherwise, yet have much to contribute to modern polytheism. I hope the project reaches people who feel underrepresented or unwelcome in polytheism, and brings them comfort, camaraderie, and the reassurance that they’re not alone. And finally, I hope it drives home the importance of creating spaces with clear and well-defined boundaries, in which voices that often go unheard are given a platform to address their communities on their own terms. I’m a co-administrator of a new discussion group on Pagan and Polytheist Monasticism, and our guidelines were inspired by those of My Polytheism, so the project’s influence is already expanding! – Danica Swanson
As our communities grow and expand, we see more glimpses of what gaps exist and what needs go unfilled within the larger communal sphere. Acknowledging the needs of those within the margins can be a vital and healthy piece of the much larger picture of any group of people. How do we embrace the sharing of those same perspectives as the gifts that come from the diversity of different practices, experiences and stories?
It brings back into focus many of the questions that communities ask when they are in a process of growth and formation. How can we embrace differences? What is the value of holding space for those who outside of the norm of overculture? How do we welcome diversity? What is the benefit of stretching our own understanding about the practices and needs of others? How is safe space for the nuances of culture intersect with our ability to create healthy community? How does the desire to formulate a common framework for Polytheism limit our ability to learn and grow through the myriad of practices and beliefs we encounter?
While some of the concepts that communities explore in the development of culture are large and require much contemplation, others are rather simple. Our collective community is just as varied as the Gods who are worshiped around the world. We often forget inside of modern depictions of polytheistic practices, that we are but one segment of a much larger system of worship that spans time and physical spaces And what we have to gain from exploring the many different interpretations of personal practice is much greater than what we could ever lose.
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This column was made possible by the generous support of the members of Come As You Are (CAYA) Coven, an eclectic, open, drop-in Pagan community in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.