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Polytheism: The Solitary Vice?

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

It's a Golden Age of polytheist publishing.

To incisive works such as John Michael Greer's World Full of Gods and Steven Dillon's A Case for Polytheism, we can now add W. D. Wilkerson's Walking with the Gods, in which 24 (counting Wilkerson herself, 25) contemporary polytheists tell their own stories. It's a pioneering, and invaluable, study of Polytheism-as-Lived in the modern world.

Sigh. If only the news were better.

One can only describe Wilkerson's academic career as “courageous.” Her doctoral dissertation treated identity formation among drag queens and kings. Now this “formerly-reluctant polytheist” turns to the state of polytheism in the modern Western world. Academia being what it is, her current status as independent scholar confirms Ron Hutton's warning to would-be pagan scholars: If you want a career in academia, don't study paganism.

 

The very best part of Walking is the stories that people tell: funny, moving, sad. Most books about contemporary paganism are (frankly) not very interesting because they talk about what to do and how to do it, but they don't tell any stories. The irony here, of course, is that the single best way to learn what to do and how to do it is by hearing about it in a story. Wilkerson's study is at its strongest when it does precisely this; Ceisiwr Serith's story about a failed offering to Cernunnos and what came of it is both evocative and unforgettable, and proves yet again that the universal is best articulated through the specific. Gods know, we've all been there.

If only there were more stories. All too often the interviews become mere boring lists of which deities the interviewee worships. Something for us all to bear in mind when talking about our religion is that there's nothing less engaging than a list. Interesting sentences, for the most part, require verbs.

Unfortunately, one story that we see again and again, both in Wilkerson's otherwise thoughtful introduction to the historiography of polytheism and in a dismaying number of interviews, is a pronouncedly non-pagan story: Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. The Good Guys here are (of course) the polytheisms; the Bad, what Wilkerson rather irritatingly calls “the near-Eastern monotheist religions,” here meaning mostly a monolithically-conceived “Christianity” (as if there actually were such a thing).

Understandable though this may be, it seems to me that any polytheism that has to begin with a deconstruction of the monotheisms is ipso facto a failed polytheism. There's no need to prove that monotheism doesn't work in order to prove that polytheism does; in fact, we got along just fine without monotheism for, oh, say 150,000 years or so, give or take a few millennia. Frankly, I'm not interested in hearing about the monotheisms; believe me, I've already heard far too much about them as it is. I'm drawn to polytheism not for what it's not, but for what it is. So tell me, already. The need to define ourselves against what we're not anymore is ultimately an act of adolescent rebellion and maybe even a therapeutic necessity, but at ninth and last we've got to grow up and move beyond it. Menos monoteísmo, más politeísmo, por favór.

I was intrigued to see that in the vast majority of cases, even among those who identified largely or exclusively with one particular polytheist tradition—Hellenismos, Religio Romana, Ásatrú—most of Wilkerson's respondents also honor gods from other cultures as well. Here is one major way in which modern polytheisms differ from the ancient ones. In ancestral thought, while many gods may exist, they're not all my gods; I'm [tribe] and my gods are the gods of the [tribe]. In the spiritual supermarket that is modern religion, though, I have an automatic right to any god that I like. Personally, I'm not convinced that we, as moderns, are any the stronger for this. Tribal religions have boundaries. The sense of boundary-less entitlement is a modern phenomenon and (frankly) an admission of spiritual poverty. My old high priestess back east always used to say, “A man with his own loaf doesn't need to steal bread from someone else.”

If the sample of the demographic that Wilkerson draws from here is anything to judge by, modern polytheism would seem to be largely a solitary matter. In a number of cases, defining oneself by one's idiolectic "personal pantheon" actually becomes an act of narcissism. To the ancestors, this would have been incomprehensible. A polytheism without a people is of necessity an incomplete polytheism.

There's some discussion of whether polytheists are pagans or not. While non-pagan polytheism certainly exists (check out Hinduism if you don't believe me), historically speaking, the paganisms have tended to be characterized by their polytheism. The modern paganisms have all too often forgotten this.

The problem here is that polytheism is not, in and of itself, a sufficient identity. The pagan religions have never been a mere numbers game; that's a monotheist fetish. (It was a monotheist who coined both terms, as a matter of fact: the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo.) Pagans can be, and historically have been, polytheist, monotheist, monist, or atheist. So that, ironically, to define ourselves by the number of gods that we worship is ultimately to continue to think Abrahamically.

Neither the paganisms nor the polytheisms (insofar as there's a distinction) have ever been religions of belief. It's not what you believe, or don't believe, that makes you either. It's what you do that's important, but doing doesn't happen in a vacuum.

Because what it's really about is who your people are.

This explains why it's the ethnic polytheisms of the modern world that have been modernity's most successful polytheisms: heathenry and the various nationalist revitalization movements of Europe and Central Asia. These situate the individual in the context of a people and its ways.

When I read things written by those attempting to revive the religion of some ancient people to whom they themselves have no ethnic link, I'm often struck by how little sense of connection they seem to feel with the contemporary descendants of that particular ancient people. Surely to adopt the religion of a people entails a certain spiritual connection with that people, whether they still practice it or not. Polytheist or not, modern Egyptians are still the children of ancient Egypt in a very direct way. I never understood why the sistrum was an important symbol of ancient Kemetic religion until I attended a liturgy at a Coptic Orthodox Church. During the first and second Intifadas, Canaanite was busy killing Canaanite in the land of Canaan; meanwhile, on the Canaanite Reconstructionism line, nobody even seemed to notice. We were too busy talking about the gods.

One of the great triumphs of modern paganism has been that, by embracing this identity, we thereby become a member of a people that recognizes itself across boundaries of tradition. Ironically, we have all too often failed to recognize that the Many are a necessary part of who we are as a people.

So Walking With the Gods is a significant book with much to teach.

I can only hope that we're wise enough to listen.

 

W. D. Wilkerson, Walking with the Gods: Modern People Talk about Deities, Faith, and Recreating Ancient Traditions (2014). Connaissance Sankofa Media.

 

 

 

 

 

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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.

Comments

  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Thursday, 24 September 2015

    Thank you. Insightful and helpful to me as someone working in a multi-faith/interfaith institution. Both as a writer and theologian I also love the sentiment "Interesting sentences, for the most part, require verbs."

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Sunday, 27 September 2015

    We have several ethnic churches in my area. Lebanese, Greek, and Armenian; all of them hold annual food festivals that are well attended. One of the catholic churches holds a Filipino Food Festival. I don't believe half of the people there are Filipino, but enough of them are to give the church a lively ethnic identity at least once a year. I stopped going to the festival of India after down town parking got too expensive but it was always well attended and raised enough money to build the Hindu community center.
    It's no particular surprise that pagans who identify with a particular pantheon seem to have the most vibrant communities.

    From what I know of archaeology borrowing stories and deities from the neighbors is the norm not the exception, at least along the tribal/national boundaries. Presumably the borrowed god fits a need that the traditional gods do not. I remember reading in Christian Century about one of the Siberian tribes; despite several centuries of Russian Orthodox proselytizing they found only one Russian Orthodox Saint useful to their needs otherwise they kept their old faith and hid their drums from the communists.

    I agree with you about the stories. Charles Leland's "Aradia Gospel of the witches" came out in the 19th century. About four generations have passed since it was published. There must be all kinds of family stories about relatives who took it up and made it their own, and stories of how the family has changed the way they put it into practice over the generations. Those are the stories I would like to read. On the old WWW.White-Wolf.com forum there was a story by someone who started worshipping the Roman Gods after a vision of Jupiter and Minerva, I think he said he was stationed in Afghanistan at the time. That to me is a cool story.

    From what I've read on these forums our relationships with the gods seems to follow the same way we relate to physical people: Familial, Working and Nodding Acquaintance.

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