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The Shieldmaiden Blog

Jan - 14

Polytheism: How hard do you like it?

I suppose it’s time I got around to a proper theology post. I’ve been talking with lots of folks about belief and practice, about polytheist ritual that assumes the Gods are real, and on like that. Polytheism, hard or soft… a subject of much debate in the Pagan world right now. (For anyone reading this who hasn’t yet been introduced to the question: Here’s a book excerpt with an overview of the terms.) And because I insist that to me, the Gods are undeniably real, living beings with personhood and agency, it’s been assumed that I’m making claims about other aspects of Their natures (e.g. that they are local, discrete, individual, anthropomorphic, etc). I’m not sure I’ve ever said, in this blog, where I stand on this theological question.

So. Polytheism: how hard do you take it? Well, it depends on my mood, see.

OK, not quite. But I think there’s something missing from a lot of the dialogue about polytheism, and that thing profoundly influences my perspective on the Gods. That thing is ecology.

A lot of my college study was in ecology and life science. The ecological paradigm informs pretty much all of my thinking about spiritual realities and theology. And coming from that perspective, the whole question of hard versus soft polytheism keeps looking to me like a false dichotomy. Because ecological thinking is all about relationships, and which relationships you see or don’t see depends on what scale you’re looking at. And if the Gods are in any way real, then They are necessarily part of nature (just as we are), and we can use the same lens to look at them.

So the natural world is this matrix of beings and forces interacting at different scales. You can look at one scale and see individual creatures which appear to be separate and discrete, interacting with one another. Look at another scale and you see populations, separable from one another and interacting with other populations. Look at another scale and you see huge, global forces that subsume the individual into great ecologies of energy and life force. Which scale is the correct lens? Which perception is true?

At one scale, we might see a tree. It’s easily identifiable as an individual of its species – we can measure its DBH, canopy, height, age. We can take the same measurements of the tree next to it and get a different set of data. They’re clearly individual beings with separate identities. If we looked at their DNA that would be identifiable too. And no question, it’s a different species from the mushrooms growing over its roots. The soil isn’t even an organism, it’s just a matrix to hold the tree’s roots.

So now we go underground, and it turns out that the forest is made up of all these trees, but their roots form a network that isn’t just intertwined, but in fact the roots merge underground. And it also turns out that the mushrooms don’t just feed the trees by feeding the soil, but in fact make up a mycelial web that is integrated into the soil AND the root network of the trees, and they are all bonded into each other at the cellular level. And suddenly at this scale, what’s real and identifiable as a functioning organism, a being, is the forest. At this scale, the tree is just an organ of the forest. Which scale is correct?

The forest interacts with other ecologies. It creeps forward, shrinking the grassland. Or desert pushes it back. They dance, wrestle, collide. At the continental scale, we just see vast interactions measured in energy, oxygen, carbon, water vapor. The biosphere breathes its oxygen from the great forested lungs. They pour down carbon from the air to the surface. Day heats the oceans and moisture shifts on oceanic currents. The being breathes in, out, in, out. We’ve seen it from space. It’s clearly a distinct, identifiable individual with obvious boundaries, glowing blue and green against the black. Surely this being is the real one. Surely its identity is the clearest we could look for.

At another scale, we can watch the sweep of planets clinging round the gravitational core of a sun, like organelles of a cell membrane-held to its nucleus, swimming in the solar wind that carves their magnetospheres. Is this an organism, an individual? At another scale, we can watch interactions between galaxies, each with their own shape, composition, gravitational force, rotation speed and trajectory. This one has a black hole in its core, that one has a concentration of dark matter. They’re unique, beautiful, evocative, nameable. Is this an individual being? Is this the correct scale?

This is our universe as we are able to know it. Where in these scales do the Gods live and operate? I cannot see why we would assume that They exist at only one of these scales. The universe is full of structures that live, act, and function on every level, from the atomic to the multiversal. Why, my friends, would we think the same is not true of the Gods?

So when someone asks if the Gods are cosmic and universal or if They are local and individual, I want to say YES OF COURSE. Or, “Which ones do you mean?” I want to say, “I don’t know, and you don’t either! Who can have lived long enough to have met Them all?” I think that if we have any awareness of the multi-scaled infinitude of the universe we live in, if nothing else we have to maintain some humility about the scope of what we know, and ever can know. And I think it strongly suggests that the Gods include ALL OF THE ABOVE. Local spirits-of-place Gods, like the tiny endemic population of this-kind-of-poppy-with-the-spot-on-its-petals which has only ever been found on one mountain in one county in one land. Gods of landscapes: this river, this mountain, this desert. Gods of natural forces and structures. Thunder Gods, snow-and-winter Gods, wildfire Gods, moon Gods. Cultural Gods: the Gods of the Celts, the Saxons, the Nubians, the Saami, the Maya. Gods of cycles and systems: of spring, the tides, the night. Gods of human patterns and motive forces: civilizing Gods, Gods of love and war, of justice and sovereignty and truth. Gods of cosmic forces: decay, death, rebirth, time, eternity, space.  Gods who are mysterious intersections of multiple forms of power. Gods who are simply Themselves and show up in whatever milieux and culture They feel like tomorrow. Gods with no face. Gods who are nothing but the endless omnipotent life force endlessly taking shape in all things.

I ask you, who are we, any of us, to say that we know which of these many kinds of Gods are real and which of them can’t possibly exist?

Here’s the thing – and this is where it comes back home. There is so much we can never know. What we can know is the evidence of our senses. That is all we have, folks. Everything else, and I mean everything, is a story we spin, individually or collectively, to weave together the evidence of our senses into a picture that makes sense to us. That means ALL of our interactions with the Gods are embedded in the context of being human. But it doesn’t mean we should be confused into thinking we’re all there is, or that our perceptions are absolute. Our perceptions are and will always be anthropocentric. Our values, and the stories we weave to interpret those perceptions, shouldn’t be.

I call myself a polytheist Pagan, and not a monist or archetypalist or anything else, not because I am sure that I know the nature of the Gods, and certainly not because I want to get stuck looking at Them at only one scale. I call myself a polytheist because what matters in religious practice is not the ultimate-cosmic-objective-truth which I have no way of ever verifiably knowing. What matters in religious practice is the level on which we as beings inhabiting bodies are able to sense and interact with all the worlds. Thus, while I acknowledge that it is possible that the Gods I know are merely reflections of some great unified cosmic God-force that is beyond identities, it is kind of irrelevant to me. Because when I do my ritual practice, They show up with faces (sometimes) and identities (usually) and They engage with me as persons. Multiple identifiable God-like persons. Thus, poly-theist.

In other words, I speak to Them in the language of human ritual, human hospitality, and I-thou relationship in recognition of Their agency as beings. Whether Their agency is more like the agency of a free-willed thinking human-like entity, the agency of a cat, or the agency of a supermassive black hole (which also, I’m thinking, doesn’t answer to orders very well) ends up being a bit of an angels-on-a-pin question for me. Because the part of Them that I can interact with is the part that translates into human-Other relations, and is therefore detectable and relatable to my senses. In practice, this means for me a religious and ritual practice that is human-shaped and leans toward historical traditions for my particular Gods, and those traditions model ways of relating to Them that are human-shaped. This approach yields fruit for me.

So there you go: I like my polytheist ritual good and hard because it gets me there. But I like my ontology nimble and pliable.

30 comments on Polytheism: How hard do you like it?

  1. Ken says:

    I love your theology, it resonates well with my own.

  2. Daydreamer says:

    Your words have left me elated. I could go on and on as I tend, but I’d just end up rambling with glee. Instead, I shall say thank you.

  3. Corvus Black says:

    My reply would be longer than I anticipated, so I’ve entered it as a post on my blog.

    Feel free to read it at your leisure.

  4. Bari says:

    Chewing on your beautiful words. You very eloquently put to writing what I feel in my bones about this polytheist stuff. For me, I run most things through a somatics/biology filter (somatics – what does it *feel* like? and biology contains many of my most favorite parables, metaphors and lessons. We find our mythology all over the place these days, don’t we… :) ). I would actually argue that we ourselves, our consciousness anyhow, also exist on these multiple scales. How do we tap into our own sense of “self”? How would the Gods? Each tree its own unique individual, each individual woven into the greater whole that is the grove in which a single tree stands, woven into the broader ecosystem of soil, mycelium, animals and other plants, each small bit of my surviving local wild places woven together with my local human neighborhoods, outward, inward, we all breathe the same air.

    I am too tired to be making much sense other than to say yes yes and yes to your words, apologies if mine are clumsy.

    So where do the Gods exist in these macrocosmic/microcosmic places? Do we eventually expand ever outward into the universality of some great Oneness? Yeah probably. But meanwhile when my Gods come calling, I will not wave my hand and say, “sorry I can’t serve You, I can’t talk to You, I’m busy being awed by the universality of the Great Oneness”. I don’t see that going over so well with the Gods whom I serve, anyhow. But where does my own sense of self exist in all this as well? Am I the totality of my cells, organs and organ systems? The combination of my soul parts? Am I my nuclear family? My extended family of origin? My chosen community? The latest face in the strands of ancestral lineage that trace backwards in time? Our own sense of self expands outward as well, why wouldn’t the face of the Gods do the same? Perhaps I am a single cell that makes up the great conglomerate body of Odin, I dunno. We’ll all know for sure someday, I figure, and none of us will be around to say to those still living, “see, I was right!” or “boy howdy was I wrong!” And in the meantime, we each do our best, based on what we’ve come up with for how to make sense of all of this, yes?

  5. Hth says:

    Thank you so much for writing this clarification. I was one of the people who was really uncomfortable with/defensive about your original ritual post, because framing your theology of ritual as how to do things “as if the gods were real” struck me as equating “the gods are real” with a very specific model of “the gods are somewhere else and have to be called from there to here, however long that may take.” And I’m someone who fiercely believes that the gods are real, but tends to operate on what I think you’re calling here a different scale, so I’m often not recognized as part of the tribe by either humanist or polytheist pagans. *g* I think these images of scale and ecology as they apply to the divine powers are beautiful and full of the potentially transformative truth that religion has to contain in order to be vital.

  6. Jay says:

    Thank you for this. I don’t have the language for ecology that you possess, but you beautifull express how I tend to understand and interact with the gods. Thank you.

  7. Barsha says:

    This is beautiful :)

    It perfectly encapsulates how I view the universe and, more specifically illustrates, for me, the crossover between my religious practice, and my work as a holistic therapist and as a permaculturalist.

  8. Lee says:

    Yes! Love this post. The ecology metaphor works perfectly and it marries everything I’ve felt about the Gods so well. I’ve taken to describing myself as a ‘rubbery polytheist’ and the pliability you mention resembles that perfectly. Thank you so much for writing this post, I am sure to refer to it often!

    1. Jay says:

      Heh. A group that I was once a part of, in a discussion of our theological beliefs, came to the consensus that we were neither hard nor soft, but rather “squishy polytheists”.

  9. Dane Mutters says:

    Good post; thanks. Not many people see past this false dichotomy.

  10. Pingback: Polytheism Redux
  11. Traci says:

    Hi Morpheus

    Great post. All those reasons are why I identify as an animist! I love that: one stream, many boats.

    You said, “Our perceptions are and will always be anthropocentric. Our values, and the stories we weave to interpret those perceptions, shouldn’t be.” I agree with this. I currently find myself wondering whether anthropocentrism–in this case, meaning those stories we weave to interpret perception–as a lingering part of the western centric world view, is visible within paganism, and in what ways. I see anthropocentrism as dangerous to the environment, even pathological when manifested by the human species. Even more specifically, I wonder whether the tendency to hear messages and see signs, interpret expressions by other-than-human persons as omens, is another subtle example of anthropocentrism, or can it be? Is anthropocentrism a dis-ease in our culture?

    Anyway, great post!

    1. Niki says:

      I think you’re asking great questions, Traci. I think humans should question their self-involved interpretation of things often. And yet. And yet, how can we not interpret things? I think it’s part of being human and making sense of our experience. Do I think the crows fly in a direction just for me? Likely not, but that doesn’t ALSO mean that a god or spirit isn’t using that moment to point something out for me. Because our perception is so limited we need all the nudges and openings to more communication that we can get.

  12. Lon Sarver says:

    Fantastic, thank you for this. The way you describe the different scales works very well to my mind. I’ve no idea what the gods look like to each other, I only know what they look like when they’re talking to me… And I know that isn’t all of what they are.

    I’ve been watching the larger debate for some time, and I think that one problem we’ve all had in communicating about this is that most people are coming off as more literal or more inflexible in print than they are in practice. In the cause of stating things strongly, words that imply universality or provable fact get used to describe personal experiences and individual revelations.

    Which is probably why people read you as making claims you weren’t. Coming here from the rest of the blogs involved, I had gotten used to terms and assumptions from folks who (at least present) are more positivist than you.

  13. This reminds me of my own thinking with respect to deities existing in a superposition of states just like many sub atomic particles. A less ecologically minded metaphor, but one I’ve used in the past. I wrote a bit about it back in the day but I’m not real happy with how I put it all together. Might be time for a re-write…

  14. NIcely expressed, Morpheus!

    I agree with what you’ve said here, and am likewise not interested in the labels “hard” or “soft” polytheist, because I think they are often imposed from outside, and are more than a little bit (hetero-)sexist in their implications. I’ve never seriously identified as a “hard polytheist,” other than when other people have called me that.

    Since I am a syncretist as well (though my understanding of that is pretty different from what many people would recognize), I know it’s not quite as simple as “everyone is separate and distinct at all times forever.”

    And, as someone who worships both Greek and Roman deities, for example, there’s further complications: is Zeus the same as Jupiter? As a person who uses a reconstructionist methodology, I know that the late antique Greeks and Romans thought so, even though their origins are separate and distinct and have their peculiarities which are specific to them. Likewise, Zeus isn’t even “Zeus” ultimately, because any number of individual cults existed in various places in the geographic area we now know as “Greece” that were separate and individual, and only under the united form of “Zeus” that was later interpreted over these individual epithets–and, thus, in theory individual original deities of each locality–does the concept of “Zeus” as the multi-faceted deity that we now recognize under that name come to be.

    As a result, polytheists who are called “hard polytheists” and who even self-identify as such aren’t really “as hard” as some might think simply due to historical realities; and some who are “soft polytheists” (and who often thus get lumped in with monists, syncretists, or others) may actually be following a reconstructionist methodology in doing so, despite the notions that many recons seem to assume that no such “soft” polytheism is possible, desirable, or “pure” enough for their tastes.

    And I especially love it that some interlocutors in these discussions have accused me and others of “dropping the ‘hard'” from our descriptions of ourselves as polytheists in a kind of manner that suggests we’re either dishonest, or are trying to “take over” all of polytheism. How about just calling it “polytheism” and leaving it at that, which is what I have preferred to do myself?

    I think we waste time arguing over these false dichotomies all too often, especially when they are matters that we have not set up as dichotomies ourselves in the first place. There’s nothing like going to a particular (often minority) population, saying “Hey, I think some of you are Fnerd Gnerfules, while the rest of you are Gnerd Fnerfules, and obviously only the Fnerds are the real Gnerfules,” and then stepping back to watch the arguments over this that rip apart the community concerned and put them at odds with the majority, especially for those who end up bullied into feeling that they are Gnerds rather than Fnerds, and that it is perfectly fine to be a Gnerd.

    1. Wait … which one (Gnerds or Fnerds) put the butter side down? Those people…..

      1. Ken says:

        I have to thank you for introducing me to this! I loved Seuss as a kid and never heard of this one.

  15. A very wise philosopher once said (and I paraphrase) “Any idea that is strong enough will find its way into the world through many venues”. It feels like a universal truth that some version of consciousness exists on any/all of these levels, from cell to organ to individual to community and further on in both directions. And whether or not we can specifically hold a conversation with a black hole (!) we can hold it in esteem and learn from its power and offer a respectful nod to its majesty.

    This piece feels very on point as well:

    “Whether Their agency is more like the agency of a free-willed thinking human-like entity, the agency of a cat, or the agency of a supermassive black hole (which also, I’m thinking, doesn’t answer to orders very well) ends up being a bit of an angels-on-a-pin question for me.”

    It’s so much easier to argue with other humans about the nature of things than to forget words and feel out a relationship with the world(s) around us.

  16. Fantastically put!

    I often think the distinction has to do with our individual functions within the whole…I expect that blood appears very differently to the lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, and bones. Is one view correct?

    As I view the universe as a living organism, why would I expect my view of the Gods to be the same as another cell (or organ, stone, human, cat) whose place and function may be entirely different?


  17. Yes! Thank you for this post! It’s beautifully written, and it echoes many of the very same thoughts and experiences that I’ve had. In fact, it’s startlingly similar to some of my own work (for instance, this post here from a few years back).

    It’s refreshing to see someone who is well-respected as a polytheist sharing this insight into the way their theology is grounded in an ecological paradigm! Ever since I began openly writing about theology in this way, I’ve been accused of not being a “real” polytheist, but instead being a humanist or naturalist (i.e. atheist). That was the false dichotomy that I was arguing against in my recent post (and not the soft-versus-hard debate, which I agree is also sort of beside the point).

    What was most helpful for me about this post is what you say at the end about ritual:

    “I speak to Them in the language of human ritual, human hospitality, and I-thou relationship in recognition of Their agency as beings. Whether Their agency is more like the agency of a free-willed thinking human-like entity, the agency of a cat, or the agency of a supermassive black hole (which also, I’m thinking, doesn’t answer to orders very well) ends up being a bit of an angels-on-a-pin question for me. Because the part of Them that I can interact with is the part that translates into human-Other relations, and is therefore detectable and relatable to my senses. In practice, this means for me a religious and ritual practice that is human-shaped and leans toward historical traditions for my particular Gods, and those traditions model ways of relating to Them that are human-shaped. This approach yields fruit for me.”

    Your post on “ritual for polytheists” just did not resonate for me, and one of the main reasons was because of your heavy reliance on “human-shaped” metaphors and examples. This post definitely helps me to see how you reconcile that approach to ritual with the kind of ecological approach to theology that you and I share. Thank you for sharing that insight!

  18. Yes, exactly. I wake up every day grateful that the Gods agree to respond to these practices I do in Their honor.
    They allow a small human sized part of Their immensity to interact and to communicate with me. Occasionally They remind me, energy to energy, mind to mind, that They have trickled a miniscule portion of Their being to me in order that we may communicate on an intimate level. And for that gift I dedicate every moment, every breath and every action to Their service as Priestess. This is the only way that I know to live at this point. And it started in the mid-eighties after the very first public circles I went to where the Gods became present. From those moments I was hooked and my path this lifetime set. It is my joy my work my pleasure my education and grants me that which I can share in the name of Love.

    Since I very intense period in 2012 I have realized that I had started with the myths and stories told about these Gods. Then, because They had use for me, I caught a glimpse of Their multi-faceted evolving transcendent Beings. And in the taste of That I have more to draw upon when I call to Them than the stories. Again, this has made my most often response “Thank you, I love You”.

    Thank you for your shares, they help a great deal.


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