All Our Relations: Pagans and the more-than-human world.

For aware Pagans the Sacred encompasses us all, rivers and mountains, oceans and deserts, grasses and trees, fish and fungi, birds and animals. Understanding the implications of what this means, and how to experience it first hand, involves our growing individually and as a community well beyond the limits of this world-pathic civilization. All Our Relations exists to help fertilize this transition.

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Is there a genuine problem in calling Pagan religions polytheistic?

 

Polytheism, the belief in many Gods, has long been associated with Pagan religion. Some deities speak to us, some speak through us.  Some take our bodies over for a while and some bring us to our knees in awe.  Deities manifest differently in some traditions than others, but all appear part of an animate inspirited world bigger than we are, and Pagans find it appropriate to honor, invoke, learn from, and even love these entities.Often personal altars can be syncretistic, as is this one focused on healing entities and energies.

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This long taken-for-granted connection has recently been challenged by people arguing enough Pagans are “not polytheists” to make it important to separate the two. For example, in the Wild Hunt a “Polytheist Primer appeared by Anomalous Thracian.   

Thracian writes:

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.

I am a Gardnerian Wiccan who has taught and initiated other Gardnerians. I am also a philosophical monist and panentheist, based again on powerful personal experiences. For nearly three decades I have made daily prayers and offerings to a variety of deities and spirits, only two of which are Wiccan.  In every case I have had personal encounters with those to whom I make offerings. In some cases almost daily. I would imagine I am a polytheist and I consider polytheism a defining characteristic of my religion..

Thracian give two major reasons why some polytheists seek to appropriate the term for themselves: 

1. Many Wiccans are “duotheists” who worship two, not many, deities. 

2. Some Pagans are philosophical monists, believing that everything is ultimately an expression of the One, and so cannot be polytheists. Apparently the same problem applies to pantheists and panentheists.

 “Genuine’ polytheists are supposedly “non-reductive” polytheists.

 These claims are false. In showing how they are false I am not attacking “non-reductive” polytheists except in their claim to be the only ‘true’ polytheists.  Of course they are also polytheists.

“Duotheism”

Practicing Gardnerian Wiccans have described our religion as “duotheistic,” meaning we generally deal with two deities in our workings, a Goddess and a God.  But to say this approach denies polytheism betrays a refusal to listen closely to what we mean.

Wiccans focus on the Gods of the Witches.  We have never claimed other deities do not exist. Gerald Gardner wrote members of the coven that initiated him believed in a variety of deities, and accepted the account the Roman Sallustius gave of them. Sallustius was a polytheist defending polytheism during a time of growing Christian persecution.

I imagine Norse practitioners do not invoke Demeter or Oshun into their rituals. Their not doing so is hardly a claim Demeter and Oshun do not exist. As Witches use the term, “duotheist” is not analogous to monotheist - it is simply shorthand for those deities we normally invoke.

In a Gardnerian coven where I am a frequent guest, for many years at every Samhain a traditional offering is made to Hecate. Nor is Hecate the only such deity sometimes honored and acknowledged. Gardnerians usually focus on two deities, but have no problems honoring others when deemed appropriate.

Does this practice apply to every Gardnerian?  How could I possibly know?  Becoming a Gardnerian does not require a statement as to who we think the Gods are. There is no theological unity among us.  The "duotheism" description is a common one that is frequently mentioned and misunderstood by those seeking to end equating polytheism with Paganism.

Which brings us to the charge that such Wiccans actually see Hecate as simply an aspect of the Goddess, and so ‘reduce’ Her ultimately to being a part of who we really honor: the Big Two.

Out of One, many?

A passage in the Charge of the Goddess suggests all Goddesses are aspects of the Wiccan Goddess: “Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who was of old also called Artemis; Astarte; Diana; Melusine; Aphrodite; Cerridwen; Dana; Arianrhod; Isis; Bride; and by many other names.”

If the Charge is interpreted to mean we claim only one Goddess exists, a problem arises. In the Charge She  also says She is “beloved of gods and mortals.”   We agree there are many mortals, so there also must be many Gods.  Do they all love a single Goddess? Or maybe are overly analytical minds getting in the way of a deeper understanding?  After all, the Charge of the Goddess is not the Treatise by the Goddess.

Let’s look at an even more inclusive statement from a Classical Pagan source. 

In Apuleius’s Metamorphosis [The Golden Ass] Isis says:

I, mother of all Nature and mistress of the elements, first-born of the ages and greatest of powers divine, queen of the dead, and queen of the immortals, all gods and goddesses in a single form; who with a gesture commands heaven’s glittering summit, the wholesome ocean breezes, the underworld’s mournful silence; whose sole divinity is worshiped in differing forms, with varying rites, under many names, by all the world . . . . (Book XI: 5)

Isis describes Herself as “all gods and goddesses in a single form.”  We confront the problem we identified within the Charge, only more bluntly.  How can many deities also be one deity? Was the cult of Isis to which Apuleius was a priest monotheistic?  Or, as with the Charge, might we be using an analytic approach to read a text where it does not apply?

I’ll address all these issues of how the many can be in the one in the context of monism and polytheism, because as we answer our critics there I think we also answer them in these other contexts.

Monism

Traditional Gardnerian Wicca is not duotheistic in any theological sense, but it is monist.  Our Dryghtyn blessing says in part

In the name of Dryghtyn, the Ancient Providence,

Who was from the beginning and is for eternity,

Male and female, the original Source of all things…

Monism is the claim that everything emanates from a One, a single source or cause that is beyond duality. In its spiritual descriptions the One is pure consciousness/energy.  Monism was a common view in Classical philosophy and has at least close approximations in Indian and Chinese thought.  The theological problem for monists is how do we get diversity if at its root everything is One. “Non-reductiionist” polytheists deny this is possible and since many Pagans and the oldest public NeoPagan tradition uses monist terminology, Paganism is not polytheistic. 

Many Pagans have had monist experiences  every bit as powerful and convincing to us as experiencing the Gods.  We have no problem accepting the reality of both.  Even so, the One is not important in our rituals, because in them we are dealing with deities.  American Gardnerians use the Dryghtyn blessing at some point but I am told many British Gardnerians don’t use it at all.

But now that some are challenging our polytheism theologically, we need to look more deeply. Are we simply contradicting ourselves?

Every description ever made of experiencing the One emphasizes language’s inadequacy to describe it.  Verbal descriptions are like fingers pointing at the moon, but not the moon itself.  But today we can explore one relevant dimension with more understanding than in earlier times: the nature of individuality, ours or a deity’s.

The dissolution of the organism

Modern biology has abandoned the traditional notion of what counts as an individual organism.  From slime molds to aspen trees to ants to the eukaryotic cells that make up our bodies, and much more, this ‘atomistic’ view doesn’t fit. Nor does this abandonment stop when we get to human beings. 

Biologists increasingly describe human beings as “eco-systems” or “super-organisms.”  We are still individuals, but we are also the collective manifestation of other individuals.  We are not reducible to our parts, we are more than they, nor are our parts reducible to their parts. There is emergence, not reductionism, all the way down.  We are not completely discrete organisms separated from all others by some  boundary at any level. This view of human individuality is remarkably compatible with a monist understanding of polytheism. The One is the total field of awareness/consciousness and our individuality is a node in a network of relationships within that field.

From this perspective our individuality is a partly self-aware mental gestalt, emerging from the complex context of our relationships with other organisms. It is not an object, it is a process arising from its relationships.  For example, it turns out the bacteria in our gut can influence how our brain works.  And much more.

Sometimes our ‘self’ is narrowly focused, as when I stub my toe painfully.  Other times it grows far beyond my physical body, as when I empathize with the pain or joy of a loved one, or even that of a stranger. Our awareness of relationships has grown.

Our individuality isn’t completely self-aware.   Our unconscious powerfully influences our thoughts and actions,  and is only partly open to conscious awareness.  To the degree we are self-aware we play a part in choosing our present and future relationships. We have some say in how far we will seek to acknowledge and shape the relationships out of which our individuality emerges. But only some.  My favorite African proverb captures this insight: “I am because we are.” The "we" is not just other humans, it is all that is.

We make no great jump suggesting similar insights hold for Spirit.

Deities can be conceived as larger, more inclusive nodes of relationships within the divine network that constitutes the One. From this perspective we are not cut off from deities or from the sacred, but we can have closer connections with some than with others. 

When we open our boundaries to other beings we enable deeper relationships leading to a richer and more multifaceted individuality.  It is reasonable to hold the same can be true for deities. 

Like people deities can share many of the same connections and still not be reducible to one another. Aphrodite is not Venus is not Oshun, but among other things, all are Goddesses of beauty. Among other things. Ares, Mars, and Ogum are gods of war. But in both cases those "other things" are not the same things.  From this perspective the connections common to all Goddesses could constitute who we call the Great Mother. 

This model accounts for the many experiences Pagans have of different divinities, and of other spirits that seem real but not quite Gods. It fits the observation that deities have mutable boundaries and some can even make use of our bodies. It makes sense of when we experience deities as more real than we are. They are larger “hubs” and so more connected to the One. It accounts for the experience of a One by people within different religions over thousands of years. And it suggests deities and humans may be co-creators of the human world and its connections with the Gods.

No contradiction exists between being a polytheist and being a monist. If this is true, the claims polytheism is incompatible with panentheism and pantheism fail as well.  Those wanting a more technical but somewhat earlier discussion  of this issue should read Polytheism, Emergence and the One

Practice not theology

As I wrote in the essay leading up to this one, theology is not nearly as important  for us as it is for monotheists.  Traditions and their capacity to enable us to connect with deities, whoever they might be, matter most. Theology matters for our personal spirituality: how does each of us individually make sense of what we do?  It is also important for dealing with non-Pagan religions and now some mistaken criticisms by other Pagans.  But for Pagans as a whole proof is in the experience, not what other people say about it.

Years ago when I taught at Whitman College  a Naxi {pronounced Na-shi] scholar, artist, and priest came to campus for a year. The Naxi are a tribal minority in SW China with beliefs similar to Bon, but at least for these visitors, far less influenced by Buddhism.

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While there the young priest conducted a ritual for the Shv [Shvu] spirits. One chicken died as an offering and one chicken was guaranteed a natural death.  While visually the ritual was unlike a Wiccan one, the energy was remarkably similar.

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Afterwards I invited him to a healing circle I conducted based primarily on Brazilian Umbanda traditions. He and his friends came.  It was unlike either a Wiccan circle or his own ritual.  He spoke no English and so could only watch unfamiliar workings and experience the energy.  Later the anthropologist who invited them, and spoke their language, told me he could not stop talking about how “There is shamanism in America!”

It’s the practice and energy that count most and not theology.  And that is very good.

 

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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.

Comments

  • Birch
    Birch Wednesday, 24 June 2015

    This Monist approach can be summed up here:

    the Gods are real, not as persons, but as vehicles of power. Much food for thought upon this point will be found in such books as The Mystical Qabalah, by Dion Fortune. And The Art of Creation, by Edward Carpenter, by those who care to seek.
    Briefly, it may be explained that the personification of a particular type of cosmic power in the form of a God or Goddess, carried out by believers and worshippers over many centuries, builds that God-form or Magical Image into a potent reality on the Inner Planes, and makes it a means by which that type of cosmic power may be contacted. Nor is the worshippers’ belief in vain; for though they may themselves have built the Magical Image, the Power which ensouls it is real and objective, if the building has been done in the right way. – Gardner, Gerald. The Meaning of Witchcraft. Lakemont, GA US: Copple House Books, 1959; 1988 edition. (p 260-261)

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 24 June 2015

    I think there is much truth here Birch. But it becomes paradoxical if read as if we are in some way more fundamental than the Gods because from a monist perspective persons are also not irreducible atoms. Everything is relational.

    One of the most interesting experiential dimensions of encountering at least some deities is that They appear to be more real than I am. I am encountering a reality of which the world we live in is a kind of reflection.

    There is an interesting philosophical question as to how much a deity is a thought form, how much existence it has independently of human life, and whether everything is in some sense is ultimately a 'thought form' of the One, which as such has no thoughts since to have a thought is to create duality: the thinker and the thought.

  • Birch
    Birch Wednesday, 24 June 2015

    Well, that Quote is merely Gardner's. I get torn honestly. Part of me feels as though One is a disco ball and each deity a singular piece of mirror on that ball that reflects light in a different unique place. However, I have had a direct experience with individual deities that feel (as you say) as though they are more real even than I.
    In Wicca I honour the Lord and Lady, however I have my own shrines to various deities that exist as a definite for me.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Wednesday, 24 June 2015

    We are on exactly the same page I think!

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