A polytheanimist Thracian perspective on creating, rebuilding, and embodying ancestral religions as living traditions in the 21st century. Religion as life, life as spirit, spirit as being.
Gods of Consequence
Gods of Consequence
In the various debates that have been coming up of late, about the further differentiation of polytheism from other paganisms (especially humanist paganism, “self-centered” paganism, super-hero-worshiping-archetypalism, and so forth), I have noticed something. Obviously both sides of the various “lines” being “drawn” are having trouble coming together in agreement around a great many things, and both sides feel very misunderstood by the other. (That's what disagreement frequently leads to...) However, in all of my talks with polytheist colleagues, theologians, and co-religionists, none of “us” seem to be confused by *what* the archetypal-and-superhero-folks are saying about their beliefs or practices. We may be dumbstruck by some of their statements – generally when they are comparing their thought-forms to our gods in direct and offensive to us ways – but overall I don't sense a disconnect of understanding in that particular direction. (Agreement is another matter entirely...)
However, I have sensed a tremendous disconnect in understanding, and a great and wild mischaracterization, in the other direction. Polytheists are being called fundamentalists, are being called ontologically cowardly, are being called extreme to the point of instability, are being called delusional, and so on. All because we engage with our gods as beings great and powerful and worthy of holy veneration *outside of our own unconscious*; beings that are wholly and fully separate from us, who were no more born “inside” us (or “for” us) than that tree over there, or the air that I am breathing. They are not manufactured to suit our needs (like the apple-juice I am about to add whiskey to) nor are They engineered or tailored to “fit” us. There is no monism, and certainly no atheism, in polytheism.
The disconnect seems to be that the humanist side of the issue doesn't seem to realize the excessive “boxing” and “labeling” and ultimately conformist-based actions that it appears to be taking with regard to (or even against) some polytheist practices. That they are generally doing this with less openly aggressive (and occasionally blatantly passive aggressive) and far more gentle language does not change the fact that it is still being done. Whereas many polytheists, who are admittedly quite ready to be honest with their frustrations and emotions (read: more obviously aggressive in tone), are actually writing from a place that has no demand of conformity on humanists, because the polytheist paradigms ultimately have room for things like archetypes. It just also differentiates archetypes from actual gods. What I mean by this is that polytheist theology does not necessitate the exclusion of humanist or archetypal engagement, whereas humanist and archetypal engagement *do* exclude polytheistic process.
Example: If one airplane seats 100 humans and 50 tigers, and another airplane seats 100 humans and zero tigers but provides a tiger video accompaniment as a complimentary in-flight package, these airplanes are not the same. The first airplane ("Air Tiger") is inherently "more", in that it includes space for 50 tigers. 50 actual tigers. It may also include in-flight video accompaniments; nothing about the space for 50 tigers interferes with the ability to also have a video of tigers, or of giraffes, or of dirty NYC detectives, or of child models. The second airplane ("Air Human") is inherently "limiting" (not less, however, in terms of value), in that it by its own definitions and mechanical specifications does not include space for actual tigers. The presence of actual tigers would upset the seating arrangements of a full flight on “Air Human”. The video of tigers does little to change this phenomena.
So the problem is that the executives of Air Human are saying "But we DO have tigers! We just installed all of these video displays! We have a THOUSAND CHANNELS of TIGERS! On Satellite! And and and! You can even buy TIGERBALM for your sore neck from your in-flight console! And TIGER BARS for your snacks! And our pillows are made of dead tiger kittens! Our blankets are Tiger Skin! We even hand out Tiger Kidneys! WE HAVE TIGERS! Rawr!"
Meanwhile the executives of Air Tiger are sort of sitting back and saying, "But, um… those aren't tigers. Those are images of tigers, moving pictures of tigers, products unrelated to tigers but named for them, and then also the desiccated remains of murdered tigers. That is not the same as tigers. That is actually quite the opposite. You are defining your airline by the absence of tigers and then compensating with simulation and bad marketing techniques to try and imply or suggest tigers. We actually just made room on the upper deck for.. tigers."
And then all of the tiger-enthusiast passengers trying to book flights are confused as the two companies go back and forth. However, one of those companies is sort of lying (sorry, guys) and limiting the accessibility of resources (tigers) to its passengers, while the other is being honest and totally not limiting anything, as it actually has space for tigers, and in addition can absolutely provide all of the other stuff too (with the exception of the inhumane murder products) for anyone who wants them.
In truth, the problem isn't so much that Air Human is trying to be dishonest to its market demographic, but rather it is more that they don't believe in real tigers, anymore. They think that they're already extinct. Or maybe they didn't really exist to begin with. (Just like jugglers. See below for the truth about jugglers.) Air Tiger, on the other hand, is trying to provide a presentation that by definition offers “more”; the plane is bigger to accommodate actual tigers, and the seating arrangements for humans doesn't run the risk of spacial overlap with giant four-legged feline apex predators, and the in-flight options can include all the tigers – or any other animal conceivable, including the honey badger! – and so forth. There is no requirement onboard Air Tiger that every passenger go up and hug a tiger, or ride a tiger, or feed a tiger, and in fact these are probably best left for those who know how to do these things. But all of them are invited to look up at the cabin ceiling above them, through the transparent viewing glass, and *see* the tigers above them. From awkward up-shot angles. (Unless the tigers are in a zero-gravity cabin, in which case, maybe they're floating upside down and the angle is less awkward.)
Ahem. And then this brings us back to the issue of “belief”, and who has it, or who doesn't, or who needs it, or whose whole identity is shaped by it, or what the word even really means, and so forth.
Polytheists do not require “belief” (although for many of us it is there as a useful tool on the side) anymore than I need to “believe” in the presence of black bears in the California mountains when deciding where to store my food on a campsite. (That I *do* believe in bears is irrelevant to their belief of entitlement to my food; you don't need to believe in a bear to find yourself uncomfortably between it and a roast pork sandwich.)
And therein lies a major difference that I have seen: the self-described “self-centered” or humanist or archetypal pagans are engaging with powers and so forth which are by their own definitions of no greater consequence than their own (collective, at times) unconsciousness, and no matter how much you glorify and believe in the great and sacred power of internal cognition and transcendent psychology, these things are not going to maul you to death in the woods.
And the thing is? Our gods will.
Guns fire bullets that can kill, ripping through flesh and bone and sinew. Power-saws can slip from timber and take off a hand. Cars, airplanes, baseball bats, whiskey bottles, and juggler's flaming bowling pins; all of these things have tangible consequence when they are not approached with the proper respect. The respect that they are due. The respect that they demand, not based on some flimsy made-for-us fabricated belief system, but because steel, brass, iron, lead, glass, hickory, and fire are elements of consequence. And humans? They are soft, meaty, fragile creatures.
Gods are greater than guns, faster than cars, bigger than airplanes, wield more concussive leverage than a bat and hold far more spirit than a tempered glass whiskey bottle. Gods are the source of fire. And bowling pins. (And jugglers.) Approaching the deities with respect and deference is not a thing of belief, but a thing of necessity.
This is an intrinsic difference between polytheists and archetypal-or-humanist “self-centered” pagans, spiritual-seekers and so forth. Unless you view the gods as having the power to rip your arms off and beat you to death with them, or take the face of your lover while turning your skin inside out and dropping you in a pit of jello and alligators, we're not talking about the same thing.
I use the above imagery to communicate dramatic (perhaps over-dramatic) points, although none of it is exaggerated. (Except the bits about jugglers. We all know that they come from unholy powers, nothing sacred about it.) This is not at all the only expression of, or way of relating to, our gods. But it is there. Always. No hunter, butcher, lumberjack, soldier, archer, wood-chipper-landscaping-specialist or nuclear physicist would ever try to suggest that there was nothing viscerally dangerous or tremendously destructively powerful about the tools of their trade, and this is not different with religion. The “tools of my trade” are dangerous. They are great. They are powerful. And They are much beloved by me, and if I am reading the signs correctly, I am of Them as well. (They are also not tools; this is a metaphor, before I get misquoted as comparing my gods literally to woodchippers or rifles, and so forth. Critical thinking, people...)
My devotions are not about self-development. I do not rely on my gods to be a good person (I take responsibility for that myself) and I do not rely on my gods to be a good brother (I take responsibility for that myself) and I do not rely on my gods to be a good son (I've never been a very good son, truth be told), and I do not rely on my gods to be a good partner (mainly because I am single), and I do not rely on my gods to be a good father (as my raven will attest, I probably suck at this as well). I turn to my gods when I struggle, yes, but not so that They can “make it better” or “make it go away”; I turn to Them for support, not for co-dependence. I find comfort in the protection that They offer me – and I am very well protected, as any of my enemies could attest – and I find inspiration at Their touch, and I find myself elevated and lifted in Their presence, even (and especially) when I fall to my knees in reverent, deferent praise.
But They are not a self-help book, or an internal model for “how to not be a dick”.
Philosophies of moral theory and ethics have informed much of my exploration of “how to not be a dick”. Finding elders in my communities who are not dicks? That taught me how to not be a dick. Finding elders in my communities who *are* dicks? That taught me how to not be a dick. Being a dick? That also taught me how to not be a dick. I am not always not a dick. Sometimes I am a dick. Being a dick and being a bad person are different. Sometimes I find myself compelled to be a dick. But I am always a good dick. My gods have very little to do with whether or not I am being a dick. My religion does not exist to stop me from being a dick, or to inform me of how to be a good person; those are things that generally speaking are in my court to take responsibility for. (When I am a dick, I don't blame my gods for it. When I am a good person, I praise Them for giving me the space to find that within myself.)
They also don't care all that much, so long as I get the job done. The work that They have given me to do would be sort of impossible to do if I were a dick all the time. So I also have compassion. Not because They gave it to me, but because They demand that I do what I need to do to complete the tasks assigned. To do this, I must also have softness, tenderness, receptive qualities and embracing qualities and I have hope and I have visions of a better world. Those visions are not born of my mind, of my unconscious, of my intellectualism or blah blah blah. Those visions are the visions of my gods. Those visions are the blueprints of my job here in this world; the schematics that I am seeking to navigate.
Some people spend their lives and their religious engagements seeking the divine, seeking understanding, seeking meaning, seeking something outside (or inside) of themselves. I am not seeking those things. I already have Them. That does not mean that I have *everything*, however, for I still seek – daily – to learn the better place foot to earth with the right balance of righteousness and humility, to learn to better place bat to skull when the circumstances call for it, to learn to put the bat down when they don't. To learn to use my voice to bring not just change, but change that leads to realized vision, received from gods and blessed dead. I am seeking, always, to better calibrate my own human baggage, to embody it when needed or shift it aside when not, to better see the fulfillment of the will of my gods brought through into this world.
Because my gods have a plan. It is a good one. I've seen it. I am living inside of it.
But They can also rip my arms off and beat me to death with them, or fill me with the ability to do my work with no arms at all, across any distance, if only I have the strength to trust in Them that much more than I already do. And so I fall to my knees and I praise Them.
My religion is a religion of consequence. The day to day maintenance of human existence and so forth? That is on me. There are tools provided in the whole “polytheistic package” for assistance in those pursuits, such as divination, oracular work, healing, blessing and so forth, and my gods encourage the use of these as needed. But these are provided to compliment the human investment – the effort to be a good person, to practice and execute acts of good character inside and out, to engage with my world in a progressive and constructive and hopeful way, to encourage empowerment and compassion in those around me and lend what I have to the building (or rebuilding) of healthy and cohesive community – rather than to replace it. I am strictly forbidden from turning to my gods for aid if I have not first tried to resolve a thing myself, not because They won't help me, but because They've already given me many blessed tools. Thumbs, for example, and a brain capable of many great things, and a voice that can range in delivery between “don't you dare touch that child or I will kill you” intensity to “it is okay, dear, the scary man is gone” in gentleness.
My gods are gods of consequence, not abstractions torn from the back of my mind. Don't get me wrong. The unconscious is powerful, potent, and is the landscape of internal revelation. It provides the language through which outside influences can communicate meaningfully with us. The unconscious also provides the interface for us to communicate with ourselves, and “do our own work”. But my gods do not dwell there, are not born there, and don't generally give a flying feck what color the wallpaper is inside. They're from outside of it all, outside of me, you, and everyone else: that is what makes Them gods. (And yes, They're inside of us, too. But They're not from *from* inside.)
My job is to do my work and to live in this world, embodied and realized as a human-formed being, and to know myself inside and out well enough that I can put myself to the side and as far out of the equation as possible when the situation calls for it. My religion is here to provide me the tools and structures not for developing myself, but for using myself to see Their will realized in this world. My religion provides me the rules of engagement, the process of negotiation and the technology to do it all safely, sanely, cleanly, and efficiently. Looking back at my career as a spirit-worker, as a priest, as a teacher? I have done a good job. I have done good in this world. There are people alive today because I was there, because I submitted to the will of my gods and saw that will enacted through me. There are people who could have done harm who were rendered unable, not at my intervention but at the intervention of my gods acting through me, because I knew enough to step aside and let Them speak, and act, and be.
One of the concerns that I hear from a lot of people who are not polytheists in this sense, is that this all sounds like a scary “cop-out” of personal responsibility. That it sounds like an “abrogation of personal accountability”. To this I say, it could not be further from those things. To open myself up to the gods, those forces who I serve and praise outside of myself, who I adore with all of my being, is to likewise embrace a deeper accountability and sense of personal responsibility than I have witnessed in any other around me. We should be afraid of our gods, but we should not be afraid to lose ourselves to Them... for we are nothing without Them. My humanity exists as a tool for Them, as my religion exists as a tool to engage fruitfully with Them and see Their plans unfold through me in this world.