Pagan Paths

The morning sun rising in the east calls to the Bright Youth in me, and the Bright Youth responds. The full moon calls to the Muse, and the waning and dark moon to the Dark Maiden who is a part of me. The earth I touch with my fingers calls to the Mother, in both her guises, Nurturing and Devouring. The bright green shoots rising from the earth and the green leaves on the trees on my street in the spring, these call to the Stag King, while the red leaves fallen to the earth in the autumn call to the Dying God. The spring storm that rises up suddenly in the west calls to the Storm King. The night sky, the dark space between the stars, calls to Mother Night, my death come to make peace. The gods-without call and the gods-within respond.

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The Disenchantment of Hard Polytheism


This is the third in a series of posts in which I discuss four terms that polytheists use to distinguish gods from archetypes: "real", "literal", "separate", and "agents". In this post, I want to address the position the the polytheistic gods are separate from us in a way that archetypes are not.

Pagans often talk about the re-enchantment of the world as a return of belief in polytheistic gods and spirits.  Over Patheos, John Beckett has recently gone so far as to argue that it is not possible "to re-enchant the world while remaining staunchly non-theistic."  I would agree that it is not possible to reenchant the world while being "staunchly" atheistic -- by which I means an atheism which insists that the category of divinity has no human value.  But I would also argue that it's not possible to reenchant the world while being "staunchly" polytheistic either -- by which I mean a polytheism which insists that the gods must be "separate, distinct, individuals".

In my opinion, atomistic theology which insists that the gods must be "separate, distinct, individuals" too closely resembles the alienating discourse of objectifying science that led to the disenchantment of the world in the first place. Morris Berman explains, "The scientific mode of thinking can best be described as disenchantment, nonparticipation, for it insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed. Scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness; … The logical endpoint of this worldview is a feeling of total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me." Hard polytheists make the same mistake when they insist on a rigid distinction between the gods and us.

Pagan theology, as I understand it, takes the interconnectedness of all life as axiomatic. It recognizes that we are a part of something much vaster and more inscrutable than ourselves, that our own lives are continuous with the life of the rivers and forests, that our intelligence is entangled with the wild intelligence of wolves and wetlands, and that our breathing bodies are a part of the exuberant flesh of the Earth (paraphrasing David Abram, "Depth Ecology"). Carl Jung wrote about feeling at times that he was "spread out over the landscape and inside things" and "living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons."  From this perspective, the lines that we draw between ourselves and nature are artificial and unreal.

And if the gods are part of nature, as many polytheists claim, then the same must be true of our relationship to them as well.  As "natural polytheist" Alison Leigh Lilly has written in her essay "Naming the Water: Human and Deity Identity from an Earth-Centered Perspective":

"If human identity is complex, both personal and social, physical and psychological, spiritual and ecological — why should we expect deity identity to be any simpler? If our sense of self-identity is fluid and changeable, interconnected, responsive to the teeming, dancing life that permeates and surrounds us — why should we expect the gods to be objective, discrete and separate beings? The experience of spiritual practice and the biology of physical life teach us otherwise — showing us both the astounding unity and the sacred, interconnected multiplicity of being." (emphasis added)

I sympathize with those polytheists who are eager to prove that their gods are "real". But by emphasizing the "separateness" of the gods, they are playing by the rules of a positivistic paradigm and, so, they have already lost the game. Rather than insisting that the gods are real because they are separate from us, we should instead argue that what is real is not the radically separate, but the radically interconnected -- and that applies to us, the earth, and the gods.

I was recently challenged on this point by Jes Minah.  She argued that I was ignoring the fact that the vast majority of polytheist writing, thought, and practice is about relationship -- love, honor, obligation, reciprocity, generosity, devotion -- which it might be argued is the opposite of objectification. You cannot objectify a being that you are in respectful relationship with, said Jes:

"When the world is peopled with gods, and spirits of all kinds, a river is not a river. It is the home of a river spirit, a being you are in relationship with. That means it has desires and needs and wants that are ultimately separate from your desire or need to have a place to put toxic chemicals. When we are in relationship, we must consider the other."

I see Jes' point.  I do think recognizing the "otherness" of the world and its inhabitants is a necessary step toward its re-enchantment.  Our primary experience of the world and of other people is often of our own projections.  You may have had the experience of talking to someone and, suddenly, for the first time you really see them, see them as a unique individual.  Or you may have noticed something about the place that you live that you never saw before, and suddenly the world seems alien. That experience can be both fascinating and disturbing.  We Pagan often do this when we project our images of gods onto nature before we truly encounter it.  We have a tendency to see the dryads and Ents and loose sight of the trees.

Drawing on the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Patheos blogger, James Faulkner explains how the encounter with the "other" opens us up to the world as it is:

“when I experience the other person as a person, she breaks through the sphere of my otherwise solitary, ego-centered, conceptual world. Most of the time I live in a world of my conceptualizations and representations. There everything is encountered as if my will and I were the center of the world: the merely ordinary world. Exposure to another person in herself disengages me from that world. As a person, the other person overflows my understanding of her as an object, as something I conceive of—and by overflowing my understanding she interrupts my consciousness. She reveals its limits. ..."

In this way, you have to get to know someone in order to experience their difference, otherwise they remain an object for you, a mere projection. 

But we shouldn't stop there.  As we continue to get to know a person better, we can begin to feel the ways in which we are connected, in spite of their "otherness".  On one level the other person always remains an "other", but on a deeper level, we recognize how we are the same, how we are connected.  I think in order to truly re-enchant the world, we can't remain stuck at the point where all we see is the "otherness" of the world and its inhabitants; we need to discover that deeper sense of interconnectedness.

Let's take Jes' example of the river which is the home of the river spirit.  Jes says that, because the river has needs and wants that are distinct from our own, we are forced to consider its well-being.  But there are limitations to this way of thinking.  What happens if the spirit leaves the river (which happens in some belief systems that include spirits)?  Is the river then no longer worthy of care?  And even if the spirit is always present, who determines whose needs take precedence when (inevitably) there is a conflict between the needs of the river spirit and the needs of human beings? 

Human beings have consistently demonstrated a collective unwillingness to place the needs of our other-than-human neighbors before our own.  The only way to truly protect the river is for humans to identify with the river and to see its needs as their own.  Rather than finding the source of the river's value in it being the home of another individual like me, I value the river because it is me ... and I am it -- or rather, we are both part of something else that transcends both of us.

I don't believe we can re-enchant the world by (re-)populating it with individual gods and spirits in nature.  I think the disenchantment of the world was caused, not when we stopped seeing gods and spirits in nature, but when we stopped seeing our essential connection to nature, when we lost what Morris Berman calls our "participating consciousness". And so I don't think extending "individual rights" to rivers and trees is going to re-enchant the world. Rather, we need to realize our essential oneness, the manifold ways in which we are connected to the rivers and the trees -- whether or not we find gods in them.

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John Halstead also writes at (Patheos),,,,, and The Huffington Post. He was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” (, and the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John is also a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community ( To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    Why can't all kinds of pagans contribute to the re-enchanting of the world? Why does that have to be the exclusive domain of a certain kind of pagan? Why do we have to invalidate others beliefs to validate ourselves?

    Also, I believe the idea that hard polytheists reject or don't believe in interconnectedness is an incorrect assumption.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    Kristin: If you take as a premise (as I do) that we need a spiritual change -- a change of consciousness -- in order to change our relationship to the world, then the question of what we are worshiping does matter. If it has little to no connection to material nature, then I think your ecology may not be deep enough to effect the kind of change that is needed. I get that it's actions that matter -- but without a profound shift in our collective paradigm, we're inevitably going to end up taking the wrong actions. I see something in Paganism that can help effect the transformation that is needed, and I will continue to call out what I think distracts us from that.

  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    If you believe that no form of hard polytheism has a connection to the natural world, then you have fundamentally misunderstood hard polytheism. I have yet to work with any hard polytheists who believe as you assume they do, and while my experience is not universal, I have to wonder how though rough your examination of polytheism is.

    Also, I still don't see why it's necessary to invalidate a type of paganism to bolster your own. That, to me, goes against the very nature of paganism as a whole.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    I never said that "no form of hard polytheism has a connection to the natural world" -- I said that a hard polytheism which emphasizes separateness over connectedness may not be sufficiently "deep" (as in "deep ecology") to effect the desired transformation of consciousness the human race needs.

  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    Then, I am not clear on what "deep ecology" means.

  • Fjothr Lokakvan
    Fjothr Lokakvan Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    Where are people writing about being polytheists, in the "gods are separate beings" way, without saying that relationships matter? Themes of reciprocity and hospitality have come up so much among the polytheists I've read that I'm kind of skeptical these people you're worried about exist in large numbers. "The gods are separate beings from me" doesn't destroy connectedness any more than "my coworkers are separate beings from me" destroys my ability to work with them.

    Humans often have a hard time connecting to, and caring about, whatever they don't see as being people. If you believe the river is a "person" with an inherent right to exist, whether you believe in literal spirits, or it's more of a metaphorical animism, that, too, is a way to end up believing in the value of not throwing trash in the water. "A" way - but not the only way.

    I largely agree with what you've written here, but where I'm running into major problems is that a) it looks like you're setting up false dichotomies, and b) you seem to be claiming there is only ONE right belief/way (yours) to end up doing the right thing.

    I'm also really uncomfortable with claims like "The only way to truly protect the river is for humans to identify with the river and to see its needs as their own." If that gets you and other people to protect the river, okay, that's what works for you, that's great! But it is not "the only way."

    Further, to consider the river part of me (us), that is getting a little too anthropocentric for my preferences, and that's not just coming from me as a hard polytheist and animist, but me who thinks ecology is awesome science, and that strains of environmentalism that tend toward anthropocentrism are going to end up committing further harm, because it perpetuates human-first hierarchical narratives, rather than more ecological network-oriented perspectives. Obviously that way of seeing things works for some people, but it is not the only way.

    People get to environmental values and action through many paths.

    Spirits or no spirits, the river has value because it exists and is alive in its own way, whether it's part of me and my network of relationships or not, whether its needs are or overlap with mine directly or not.

  • Jay
    Jay Sunday, 30 August 2015

    And who are you to tell someone if their ecology is deep enough or not; or that the entire Pagan community needs to shift to your thinking? Last time I checked Environmentalists come in all religions and lack there of. Even the more atheistic types of Paganism isn't a guarantee that you will do anything more than contemplate a tree. You are coming across as very condescending and preachy.

  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Tuesday, 25 August 2015

    I would disagree that your idea of deep ecology is incompatible with hard polytheism. What you say are two different levels of connection can be present in polytheism at the same time. It just doesn't look the same as your experience, because you're looking through a different lens.

    However, what I find most discouraging about this post is echoed in what Fjothr says: what you propose is a way of connecting to these things, but what this piece seems to be saying is that all other pagan perspectives are somehow not as good as this way of thinking.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    The notion that all Pagan ideas are equal is something we need to get over. Of course we need to be humble about our ideas. I could be completely wrong -- most likely, I am right, but in a more limited way than I express here. But the Pagan community needs to be able to give and receive constructive criticism.

  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    Telling a polytheist that their paganism isn't true paganism is not constructive criticism. And if you believe your ideas are better than mine by sheer virtue of what I believe, that is the complete opposite of humility.

    I'm not really sure why you are so heavily invested in convincing people that polytheism is wrong. You sound like a conservative pastor, rather than someone interested in actual discourse on the subject of polytheism.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    All I've done is to take a premise and work through it logically. We can discuss if my premise is flawed or if my logic is flaw or if there are elements that I have left out of the discussion. But I'm not going to apologize for saying that I think one method may be more effective than another for achieving a desired goal.

    I never said that polytheism -- or even hard polytheism -- is not real Paganism.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 25 August 2015


    Thanks for writing this. I helps me clarify where the disconnect is in what I'm trying to say.

    I completely get that relationship is at the core of polytheism. I tried to acknowledge that above when I quoted Jes Minah. But there are two different levels of relationship or connection. There's the connection of coworkers -- to use your example -- and then there is the connection of realizing that on some level we are all part of this massive breathing-eating-defecating-copulating-living-dying-life and that the boundaries which we use to separate "I" from "you" are porous and permeable.

    You write: "Humans often have a hard time connecting to, and caring about, whatever they don't see as being people." But my point is that humans have a hard time connecting to and caring about people too -- anyone other than themselves. So, seeing the river as a "person" is a step in the right direction, but it's even better to see how you and the river are one. You're right, though, I have created a false dichotomy. I just want to go deeper than the extension of individual rights to rivers and trees.

    But there is another issue, and that has to do with the worship of historical deities with only superficial connections to one's bioregion. This seems to me to be just another distraction from the right-here-right-now-hold-it-in-your-hands-real-world.

    I don't think "the river is a part of me" is anthropocentric -- because I always say it in the context of saying that I am part of the river too and, more importantly, we are both part of something bigger than both of us -- call it Gaia or whathaveyou. It's and eco-centric perspective.

    Thanks for writing me. You comment is challenging and I appreciate it. I hope I have clarified what I mean somewhat.

  • Fjothr Lokakvan
    Fjothr Lokakvan Thursday, 27 August 2015

    "there is another issue, and that has to do with the worship of historical deities with only superficial connections to one's bioregion. This seems to me to be just another distraction from the right-here-right-now-hold-it-in-your-hands-real-world."

    Just because -you- don't see historical deities, including Odin, in local physical phenomena, does not mean we do not. Odin is connected to, among other many other things, storms, especially winter storms. I gather that doesn't count from your perspective, however, because He's still not "the god of" the local weather. Odin also seems concerned with generally maintaining order and some semblance of civilization, which suggests to me a god Who probably cares a lot about how human beings are managing our stuff, which would include how we manage/mismanage interactions with our environment.

    Secondly, worshiping Other-worldly gods is a distraction in the same way that talking to a friend or mentor or therapist and receiving advice, comfort, support, etc., is a distraction.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Thursday, 27 August 2015

    Your friend and therapist are part of the Earth.

  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    To add - ultimately, I think you have misunderstood polytheism in a big way. I can only speak from my experience, but that experience -does- tell me that the earth is a living, breathing being unto itself. Now, do all polytheists agree with me? No, but the idea is definitely not uncommon at all. I'll reiterate what I said before - you are trying to understand polytheism through the lens of your own belief. Of course it's not going to make sense. But, to understand something that's different from our own beliefs, we have to be willing to set them aside temporarily to see from someone else's perspective. You have failed to do that.

    Also, you are misunderstanding what is meant by "separateness". The idea that the gods are separate from us does NOT mean that they are not connected to us or the planet in a way that can't be broken. I think maybe "distinct" is a better word - they are individuals who populate a realm connected to and that mirrors ours, but it's a spiritual reality rather than a physical reality. Separateness, to me, means that the gods are individual beings as we are all individuals, rather than simply a product of human imagination.

    To me, there is nothing -wrong- with either perspective. And frankly I don't understand why you disagree with that.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    And I think you're making the same mistake of failing to look outside of your own frame of reference.

    Again, there is a difference between "connected" like two people and connected like we are the same substance.

    And not all polytheist deities are connected to material nature in any significant way. Unlike nature spirits, gods like Odin and the Morrigan are not identified with any physical reality that we interact with on a daily basis.

  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    And, I am saying that as a polytheist I -do- believe that we are connected in the sense that we are part of the same substance. And, I don't believe that my experience is unique. You have an idea in your mind of what polytheism is, but that idea is not correct. What you say is polytheist belief has absolutely no truth when compared with my practice and experience of it. But, in all our comments back and forth, you can't seem to acknowledge that. You insist that your idea of polytheism is what it must be, and anyone who says differently is an exception to the rule.

    If you believe that The Morrigan is not connected to the "physical reality that we interact with on a daily basis," then you have misunderstood her as a Deity. As someone who works with the Morrigan, nothing could be further from the truth. If you're interested in hearing it, I can go into why that is, but I'm not convinced that you would care.

    This is why I say that you are not understanding polytheism.

    If you want to understand polytheism, you have to listen to polytheists first. And, you can't do that if you think that our perspective is invalid. And, if you want to purport that your way of thinking is better than polytheism, you have to understand polytheism first.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    Kristen, I do want to understand. Please explain how you experience the Morrigan as connected with material nature.

    I see Morrigan devotions and I don't see any connection to the local biosphere. I hear devotees of the Morrigan insisting that the gods not a part of us (i.e., archetypes) but are separate from us. What am I missing?

  • Kristin Brayman
    Kristin Brayman Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    I have a lot to say about the subject, and I really do like this concept of the re-enchantment of the world, but I also don't want to clog up your comments feed here. Would you be okay with continuing the discussion via email?

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