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We Don't Need No Stinkin' Theories

(or The Fundamentals of Polytheism: Principle #1)

Today i was reading a good article by John Halstead summing up various perspectives in the recent heroes vs. superheroes community wide debate. Now I don't agree with much of Halstead's theories mind you, and completely disagree in every possible way with the very idea of "Jungian Neo-Paganism",  but he's a thoughtful and engaged writer and I respect his willingness and ability to delve *critically* into an idea or controversy, which he did in this article. I was particularly taken with his idea that behind much of the polytheistic response here  is resistance to the de-sacralizing of our traditions and that is absolutely correct. We are fighting to keep the Gods and the numinous, the Powers, and mystery in contemporary traditions of the sacred and it's an uphill battle. 

As I was discussing this on Facebook,  noting that as a result of this debate, I intended to write a series of articles on what I think are the fundamentals of polytheism, Teo Bishop asked me if I would be expanding on the 'nature of real-ness' of the Gods in my upcoming articles, if I would be positing a theory, what he (and I believe Halstead also) termed a theory of the ontological nature of the Gods.'. 

The question really left me flabbergasted and I'm glad he asked it. I think it highlights a crucial, very crucial difference between polytheists and Neo-pagans. My theological approach is not based on theory. As a polytheist practicing my ancestral traditions, rooted in deeply engaged experience with the Gods and ancestors, I don't need theories. They're rendered irrelevant. Theorizing all too often precludes engagement. Let me step back a moment and explain what I mean. 

I decided to write this series on the fundamentals of polytheism because I very much believe that there's a certain foundation lacking in our communities across the board (unless one is moving into the African Traditional Religions, where that foundation is alive, sound, and strong), one that were we living in indigenous polytheistic societies, societies that were never sundered by monotheism, societies rooted in an unbroken lineage grounded in veneration and respect for the Holy Powers and Their mysteries, we would have learned by absorption. We would have learned by growing up in a community where our parents did X, and our grandparents, and all our neighbors and our friends too. Right interaction with the Powers would have been modeled by virtue of its being worked into the very social fabric of our community. This would have been how the whole community viewed the world and the Gods and it would all have gotten reinforced every day. The reality of the Gods would have been taken as a given. 

 We lack that lens. We lack that structure. We lack even the capacity in many cases to conceive of what that would have been like and what it would have meant for us as people trying to engage spiritually. So since we live in a culture used to learning via the written word, and since that is part of my Work, I decided to write about all those fundamentals that once upon a time, would have been instilled in us from birth. Anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote that "culture goes without saying because it comes without saying." Well, today unfortunately in the process of restoring and revitalizing our traditions, we have to parse and describe and teach that 'culture' and that is both a very complex and a very dangerous place in which to be. I think many of our controversies and problems come when post-modern attitudes come up against indigenous sensibilities with respect to the Holy. 

So, when I"m asked about my ontological theory of the Gods, it gives me pause. Why, after all, would I need a theory? This is not an intellectual game. This of course brings me to the most foundational, fundamental, absolute baseline axiom of polytheism: the Gods are real. Moreover, the Gods are real and they exist outside of the limitations of the human mind. They have done so long before humanity was created and will likely continue long after we are gone. The Gods exist as real, independent, sentient beings. We did not create Them.

The corollary to that, of course is that it is right and proper to praise Them, but we'll get to that one perhaps in the next article. For now, I want to stick with foundational principle number one: the Gods are real. I'm not going to try to define 'real-ness.' I'm not going to create a dozen different theories to explain how They could be real or what that might mean or how that happened. All of that is irrelevant. I am going to begin with the accepted understanding that this is how things work, that this is an essential component of the fabric of existence. I am going to start from the very beginning with absolute acceptance of this principle: "The Gods are real" with all that entails. 

Essentially,  I think that as a polytheist, one should accept that the Gods exist and act accordingly. If one can do that, he or she is already a "leg up" in the game so to speak. This is, by the way, where honoring the ancestors is so helpful. Our dead have a vested interest in helping to sort our sorry asses out. They can help us get right with the Gods. That's a huge benefit in that it simplifies the process of engagement by helping us not get tangled up in our own post-modern arguments and hypotheses which in the end are just distractions and distortions of what engagement can be. 

We're children of our age so to some degree, especially at first, it's inevitable that we will find our minds going off on these tangents. That's ok. Buddhist meditation practices call this the 'chattering monkey of the mind." just let it be. Let it chatter but give little import to its meanderings. Instead, accept foundational principle #1 and (this is important now): act as if. In other words, fake it till you make it. Consciously make the choice to act in accordance with this principle until you have enough experience that it is no longer in doubt. Choose to behave as though the Gods are real even if you're not sure, and allow that choice to guide your behavior. 

We put far too much stock, in my opinion, in our theories and ideas and philosophies and while these things certainly have their place, it should not be at the exclusion of actual spirituality. I've seen all of these tactics being used to avoid engagement. It's a safe way, after all,  to get the feeling of engagement without actually having to engage with any actual Powers. Theorizing doesn't mandate a change of behavior and praxis; accepting that the Gods are real does--which may be yet another reason why so many people avoid doing so. So as far as "realness" goes. My rule of thumb is this:  if you're not capable of experiencing the Gods directly --and some aren't, for some, it is not their wiring or their wyrd---then do what most people will have to do: accept it as a given and get on with right action.

I actually think we have a lot of people quite willing to engage with ideas and theories but it's that active engagement with the Gods that's lacking. If you're not dealing with a real Presence, you're not actively engaging with the Gods. If you're dealing with ideas and theories and metaphors, you're not engaging with the Gods. There is nothing metaphorical about engagement.  

More and more, i'm coming to view this as one of the essential defining lines: a polytheist in active engagement with his or her Gods doesn't need a theory. That engagement rests in the polytheist's rootedness in devotion and engagement with his or her ancestors. It's a thing of flesh and blood and experience. It's a very modern thing to need a theory for everything, more fetishizing, I think, of scientific empiricism. I do not need a "Theory" about my Gods. I need to get on with the process of offerings and veneration.

Teo also asked me (and I want to thank him for his willingness to discuss these ideas) if i'd consider this 'acceptance,' part of 'faith' or an 'act of faith.' This is also a very good question but for a number of reasons I have to respond in the negative. No. I wouldn't. To compartmentalize it in such a way is again to give heed to theorizing and that is such a terrible modern fixation.  It's one of the games our egos and minds play to keep us from actually engaging with the Powers. It's just not all that relevant to the nuts and bolts of praxis. We don't need to know in order to do what's correct in the face of the Powers. It's not about faith, it's about choice.  I'm not a woman of faith. I know the Gods exist just as I know I'm sitting on the sofa in my living room typing this, and it's a cool 68 degrees in here. I resist the need to qualify this because that qualification leads  to theorization and really, that gets us farther and farther away from active engagement. It really is that simple: you want to engage, get yourself out of the way and *do* so. Don't think about doing it, or speculate on all the ways you could be doing it, or to whom the energy of the offerings might be going. Get down and bring it into the realm of the sensorium, of active, physical engagement.

As to the nature of the Gods, Their actual origins: do you think we'll ever know? of course not and therefore speculating is a waste of time better spent in devotion. Nor do i think we're necessarily entitled to know; nor is having that knowledge --which is a mystery and by its very nature unknowable--a necessary component for practice. To me, it's a distraction. My 'narrative' is based around the practices of my ancestors as I understand them through direct engagement with those ancestors and with the Gods too, but the ancestors are the ones who have helped root my praxis in human experience. They tied up loose ends inherent in embodiment and once you have deeper mystical awareness as I"ve often heard it called, you know. Narrative becomes irrelevant. You have the direct experience with the Gods and the ancestors and the quest for theories and narratives falls away into knowledge. After awhile you see too much of Their work in your life and you just know.  I'd go so far as to say that if you have to ask "are the Gods real?" then you're not having that mystical engagement. You've not yet entered into mystery. All the theories in the world won't help you do so, in fact, they may well form a greater blockage. There's a point where it moves beyond theory into knowledge and from there hopefully into a deeper more centered, more holistically devotional praxis. 

We are taught in our culture to parse everything into theories and it's just distraction from the work that needs to be done. Any level of deeper engagement isn't going to come through theorizing. it's going to come by laying ourselves down before our ancestors and Gods and opening ourselves up, in utter vulnerability, to the Powers. It's going to come when the narratives we hold so dearly to are blown apart by those Powers. Because you know what? The Gods are real and that comes with some obligations on our part, which hopefully will be the subject of my next post.





(Photo by Mary Ann Glass).




Last modified on

 Galina Krasskova is a Heathen priest, author, and Northern Tradition shaman. She holds a Masters degree in Religious Studies and is currently working toward a PhD in Classics. Galina is the author of several books including “Essays in Modern Heathenry” and “Skalded Apples: A Devotional Anthology to Idunna and Bragi.”
(Photo by Hudson Valley photographer Mary Ann Glass.)


  • Christine L Berger
    Christine L Berger Friday, 31 May 2013

    I never miss a post by you or by Sannion for this very reason. Last year I was changed (gratefully) because there was a need for me to put all my being where my mouth was. In service, as required by dire circumstances involving a Priestess I had an agreement to help when she hit her most difficult times.
    As I slowly recover myself and the pieces that I was blown into at the end of the time, I am so very grateful to the reality of the Gods in my life. I wrote one of my poems yesterday because I had been involved in all sorts of commute issues, gotten lost and was in a stressed out state of mind. As I opened and prayed and invoked my patron Diety, Hermes, His presence filled me. Everything became clear, all the landmarks, and in that clarity all was resolved and I found my way. Earlier in the day I felt Him keep me and another car from crashing as we both tried to occupy the same spot. Sometimes the occurences are dramatic, sometimes I am thick and do not see the underpinings of my world. But when I make my offerings and do my meditations each day, I can feel the strands of the web that is the reality between Gods and men. There is nothing in this world that is more precious nor necessary for me to be able to get up and live each day to the best of my ability. It is a catch-22 in a way. Before I had the experience that opened me to that reality, it was something I only believed in. After I had the experience it became something I lived. The gift that gave me the life I know now was pure and simply that. The experience changed my reality.

  • Makarios Ofiesh
    Makarios Ofiesh Friday, 31 May 2013

    I think that it has to do with what you sometimes call "the filter." Pagans who have grown up in the Western world often have no model for engaging the Powers, other than that which is practiced by the Christians. Have you ever seen the curriculum of a theological seminary? It's almost all about theology (which, of course, means "talking about God"). Dogmatic theology, moral theology, Biblical theology--Hel, even ritual gets covered off mainly under the rubric of liturgical theology. Ministerial students are trained to talk about their God, to analyze their God, to apply Aristotelian logic to think about their God, to categorize and analyze their God, to try to know about their God (insofar as it may be given them to do so).

    None of this, of course, has anything to do with engaging with their God. The Christian mystics are a different pair of shoes, of course, but organized Christianity (an oxymoron if ever there was one) has historically tended to be deeply suspicious of its mystics.

    We need a better model. Thank you for your ongoing work in this regard.

  • Trine
    Trine Saturday, 01 June 2013

    I never did theology, but I think much of what Makarios Ofiesh says is spot on. I'm not sure if the type of schooling I had was universal, but I was taught, in most subjects, never to accept anything as a given. Why is it this way? Who says that this is how it is? What are their motives for saying this? Why? How? Why? Why?

    It's only in the last couple of years that my conviction that the Gods are real has become stable and an integral part of me. Sure, sometimes I wonder if I'm nuts, and so far I have more a "stalker" relationship with the Gods than anything (wanting a relationship, but terrified that they'll "see" me... it's complicated), but you could not tell me that the Gods aren't real. It took (and still takes) a lot of effort on my part to leave behind the "Why? How? Why?" part of my schooling, and I'm starting to accept that I cannot, should not, and will not know everything. It's strangely liberating.

  • Laura P
    Laura P Saturday, 01 June 2013

    Wonderful! Thank you for saying this.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Saturday, 01 June 2013

    "We put far too much stock, in my opinion, in our theories and ideas and philosophies and while these things certainly have their place, it should not be at the exclusion of actual spirituality. I've seen all of these tactics being used to avoid engagement. It's a safe way, after all, to get the feeling of engagement without actually having to engage with any actual Powers."

    A 100 times *yes*! I definitely am guilty of this, and my interactions with polytheists like yourself are a welcome reminder to stop talking (/writing) and *do*.

    But I do think theory can have an important practical function -- at least for some personality types. If I may repeat what I said on Facebook, I think theory can be a means to an end -- the end in this case being not knowing, but doing. Being more left-brained, it seems that I need to "satisfy" the theory-oriented part of myself so it will shut up before I can relax enough and have the experience with my right brain -- which is where I think the encounter with Presence(s) happens.

    Your monkey brain reference is apt I think. But I've never been successful ignoring my critical faculty (suspending disbelief). I have, however, found that I can "lull it to sleep" with a lot of theory. My wife is the opposite, in this way. She is very much a "fake it till you make it" personality. This sometimes creates conflict in how we approach religion, but it has helped me put my own relationship to theory/theology in perspective.

    I also liked this: "It's not about faith, it's about choice." Reminds me of Kierkegaard.

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Saturday, 01 June 2013

    YES. Experience first. Without that, you can't have a theory worthy of consideration anyway. With it, you'll probably agree with Galina, or at least have a sense that you can't finally know because it's beyond you.

  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Saturday, 01 June 2013

    I must disagree. Saying that theories about the nature of the Gods are not needed merely because we have personal experience of Them is just like saying that the germ theory of disease is not needed because we've seen people get sick. The one informs the other, and relying solely on one is as harmful and unbalanced as relying solely on the other. "Odin told me so" only goes so far.

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Saturday, 01 June 2013

    Your analogy between theology and scientific theory is DOA unless you can find objective proof of a theology. I don't agree that what I do is unbalanced; I know all of the main theories of the nature of the Divine, and I know I can't prove or disprove any of them. My balance is between hard polytheism and model agnosticism; someone else may find a different balance more useful.

    I'm not generally telling anyone else what my Gods tell me (if they want someone else to know, I am sure they can do that), so your final comment falls flat, too. I know there are some people who do try to "evangelize" based on their own visions, but we generally take them aside and tell them that ain't done in this town. It's a real enough issue, it just isn't what this post was about.

  • Editor B
    Editor B Sunday, 02 June 2013

    After reading this, I thought I at least appreciated where you're coming from, even if it's a very different place than me. But something nagged at me, and today when I came back and took a second look, I found it:

    "The Gods are real. Moreover, the Gods are real and they exist outside of the limitations of the human mind. They have done so long before humanity was created and will likely continue long after we are gone. The Gods exist as real, independent, sentient beings. We did not create Them."

    Are these not theories, stinkin' or otherwise? They certainly look like theories to me.

    Personally I think we all have theories and make theories as part of being alive and human. It's how we cope with reality. Some people are more interested in pursuing the ontological chain farther back than others, if that makes sense. Some people seem driven to explore where their theories came from, and you're not. That's how I'd describe it.

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Monday, 03 June 2013

    "Are these not theories, stinkin' or otherwise? They certainly look like theories to me."

    Maybe. Except Galina said she was taking the statement of the reality of the Gods as an axiom.

    I can see objecting to that, if your mindset just won't give up intellectualizing, but here's the problem: if a statement like that is a "theory," from what axioms is it derived?

    I'm going to guess you had no real answer to that question, so I will go ahead to reveal the real problem: trying to apply logic to spiritual experience is a serious misuse of both.

    We all grew up with some degree of Enlightenment positivism. We were taught, explicitly or otherwise, statements like "there's a rational explanation for everything" and "only objective physical phenomena are 'real,' everything else is 'just your imagination.'"

    I had a ton of that (to the tune of a math degree from the most prestigious Institute on the Charles River), and for the last 30 years or more, I have been busy unlearning it, or more correctly, learning to apply it properly and use other modes of cognition to deal with the vast spaces where logic and causality are out the window.

    Here's a pointer to my "critique of the Enlightenment" for starters (there are plenty of others out there):

  • Editor B
    Editor B Monday, 03 June 2013

    Thanks for your answer, Freeman. In retrospect I hope my question didn't seem too asinine.

    I'm not well-versed in formal logic, but yes, I suppose I'd say there's some sort of axiom behind the statement "the Gods are real." I presume it to be some sort of direct experience. (Can experience be an axiom? I apologize if I'm mangling the terms.) Or perhaps it's not experience; perhaps it's received wisdom.

    Galina says her assertion is a "foundational, fundamental, absolute baseline axiom of polytheism." But to me this is far from clear. Aren't there polytheists who believe that we create the Gods rather than the other way around? I'm pretty sure there are. How to account for these differences? I assume it's a matter of different theories, different interpretations of experience.

    I do love logic and reason, but I also see the value of transrational experience. I generally don't have a problem applying logic to spiritual experience, but that's just me. I think we all reach a point where logic breaks down or just doesn't work, and I'm OK with that.

    I realize I have assumed this article is intended as interfaith dialog. But reading through it again I wonder if that's the intention.

    And to make my own self clear: These questions are intended as sincere and respectful, and please forgive me if they seem otherwise.

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Monday, 03 June 2013

    I sense a risk of beating this topic to death, but I did want to answer this: "I'd say there's some sort of axiom behind the statement 'the Gods are real.' I presume it to be some sort of direct experience."

    I agree one could analyze this further, perhaps by noticing that one takes "it is possible to interact with Deities" as an axiom (and that those who do not are unlikely to experience it).

    I've been agreeing with Galina on the level of "get on and do the work, your theories are at best epiphenomena and at worst useless," not necessarily on taking hard polytheism as an axiom.

  • Chas  S. Clifton
    Chas S. Clifton Monday, 03 June 2013

    I just want to say that "theory" and "scientific empiricism" are not synonyms.

    To have "no theory" is a form of theory. ::)

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Monday, 03 June 2013

    I've been making a habit of using the meaningful definition of "theory" instead of the one that's synonymous with "hypothesis" or sometimes "uneducated guess." It doesn't have to be empirical, but it has to be consistent, predictive, and falsifiable.

    And having "no theory" is a meta-theory:D

  • helmsman of inepu
    helmsman of inepu Monday, 03 June 2013

    I tend to see more "pagan religion as role playing game" than over-theorizing. No consequences for what you do, really. And 'piety' doesn't make for entertaining game play. Under that framework, there's also not a lot of reason to learn and discover beyond a certain level.

  • Matt G
    Matt G Wednesday, 05 June 2013

    I have a knee-jerk reaction to a "don't examine things too closely" mentality. It can be useful to unpack the baggage and assumptions we bring with us into our spiritual practice (which we like to label "theories"), but as you say, we (and by we, I mean *me*) often times use theorizing and analyzing to disengage.

    I feel it's important for me to acknowledge that with all the experience *and* theorizing that I can muster in this life, there are limits to my understanding of who and what spirits are, what they want, how some spirits have come to be these beings we call "Gods" and what that means. If I insist on waiting for understanding before I engage I will never engage, because full understanding will never come; there will always be mysteries to deepen into.

  • Apuleius Platonicus
    Apuleius Platonicus Wednesday, 05 June 2013

    The claim that mere mortals are incapable of understanding the nature of the Gods is intrinsically nonsensical, because it already amounts to a claim concerning the nature of the Gods (that this nature is beyond our understanding).

    Worse, however, is the fact that such a claim is blasphemous. Reason is one of the greatest gifts of the Gods. And there is no higher purpose to which we can apply this gift than the investigation of the nature of the Gods and the Cosmos.

    The problem with those who prattle on with their post-modernist mumbo-jumbo is not that they have theories, but rather that they have lousy theories. And the relative success with which these lousy theories have taken root among modern Pagans is symptomatic of two problems, not one. First there is the problem that Krasskova correctly identifies: a lack of old-fashioned Pagan piety and devotion. But there is a second problem as well: the pathetic state of modern Pagan intellectual culture.

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Wednesday, 05 June 2013

    I'm surprised at this coming from you. I know you are very well-read in the ancient philosophers. So, please tell me, on what substantial points about the nature of the Gods the ancient philosophers of blessed memory agreed?

  • Apuleius Platonicus
    Apuleius Platonicus Wednesday, 05 June 2013

    "So, please tell me, on what substantial points about the nature of the Gods the ancient philosophers of blessed memory agreed?"

    1. That the Gods exist.
    2. That they are benevolent.
    3. That they are wise.
    4. That they have endowed humanity with reason.
    5. That the Gods and the Cosmos are co-eternal.
    6. That ancient religious traditions should be upheld and preserved.

    These are all fairly "substantial" points in my opinion. Of course it is possible that some philosophers may not have agreed to each of these points exactly as I have stated them, but the major schools (Pythagoreans, Platonists, Aristotelians, Epicureans, and Stoics) certainly all did. The Pyrrhonists would of course give no opinion one way or the other, while a Cynic would likely just bite you on the leg.

  • Freeman Presson
    Freeman Presson Friday, 07 June 2013

    That's a good list, thanks (BUT ...) I think there are more exceptions than you're allowing, however, tracking them down would leave me winded, sweaty, and late for supper (besides possibly jumped by a hungry tiger in the jungle of ideas). I will point out, though, that Plato and later mystery traditions (most influenced by Plato) did not teach #4. It was more like, although we are junior to the Gods in the scheme of creation, all reasoning beings got their Reason from the Architect.

    Plato's Timaeus is rough sledding for modern readers, but worth it. We have many biases to unlearn, and books like that help.

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