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The Shieldmaiden Blog

Jun - 13

Polytheism: The Light in the Window

First, I wish all a blessed Solstice, and may your fires burn brightly and true.

Over the last few weeks, several friends have nudged me to comment on the recent shitstorm debate in the Pagan blogosphere regarding polytheism, archetypalism and humanism in Pagan theology. Up to now, I have not. Not because I don’t have strong opinions, but because frankly I am too busy doing the work of Pagan polytheist priesthood to have time to argue with people about it on the internet – an activity that should always come second in priority to actual religious practice, in my opinion. Honestly, I don’t have enough time to read even a fraction of the heated volumes that have been written about it in just the last month. But I’ll try to add something of value to the conversation.

To start with, I feel there’s a distinction that needs to be made: polytheism is a religious framework, whereas Paganism (as the term is used in modernity to refer to the Pagan movement) is better understood as an ethos or worldview. One of the best definitions of Paganism I’ve heard comes from my friend Jonathan Korman, who wrote in his blog:

The pagan sensibility sees the divine in the material world … and so regards the human as sacred. The pagan sensibility apprehends the Cosmos as composed of a multiplicity of different interconnected forces … and honors all of those forces.

Thus, one can be Pagan and polytheist; Pagan and humanist; or even Pagan and atheist. Because Paganism is not a theism – it is not a statement of religious doctrine on the existence of Gods per se. It is a broadly spiritual worldview in which the cosmos is alive with powers with which we can interact. Theisms involve the recognition of those forces specifically in the form of Gods. Incidentally, operating from this understanding of Paganism, I tend to see reconstructionists and polytheists of most sorts as inherently Pagan, even if they prefer to distance themselves from the Pagan movement for social reasons.

So that being said, here is my statement of position: I am a Pagan polytheist Witch, a dedicant and priestess of the Morrígan, and a worshipper of other Gods as well. Priesthood is, above all other things, service to the Gods, and you cannot serve something which is an abstract idea or archetype, because abstracts do not have needs. Thus, priesthood inherently contains a recognition of the reality of the Gods as living beings. This is true for me: in my experience, the Gods are real, living beings, every bit as real as I am, though primarily discarnate in their form of existence (which, incidentally, makes them more powerful, not less so).

And I’ll ask you to notice what I’m not saying here – I’m not saying “I believe in the Gods.” For me, it is not a matter of belief. It is a matter of lived experience. I did not treat the Gods as real until I had experienced them. Nor do I expect anyone else to treat them as real, if they have not had experience of them. I recognize that to know the reality of the Gods requires that we trust our sense experiences, including those of our subtle senses – something that many people in modernity find very challenging to do. I suspect this is a big factor in the recent shift toward treating the Gods as useful figments of the collective unconscious. We have a culture that teaches us to mistrust the evidence of our own senses unless it is corroborated overwhelmingly by the observations of other people or of instruments. We also have a culture filled with media images in which the presence of the Gods, or the action of magic, are announced by spectacular displays of supernatural phenomena, which have trained our perception toward the coarse and obvious, and to miss the subtle.  The most powerful and helpful aspect of my training in Witchcraft may be this – it helped me to unlearn this cultural programming, to deeply observe and honor the evidence of all my senses.

This training also taught me that all people can only act from the experiences that they have. We polytheists cannot expect anyone who has not experienced the reality of the Gods to act from true knowledge of their presence. We can, of course, expect our practices and our theology to be treated with respect.

There’s something more I want to say about the Gods, and about polytheism. That is, while it is important for us to trust the evidence of our senses, it is also important to recognize the limits of our sensory frame of reference. This is a matter of fine discernment: the key is to recognize that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because they are inherently greater than our capacity to experience them. Thus, the Gods as we know them are in fact processes of encounter, more than fixed shapes. To quote my friend Jonathan again, “The gods are what happen when the forces of the cosmos interact with human consciousness.” That is to say, what we experience is always a mask or form of the God shaped in such a way as to translate into our consciousness and frame of reference.

This is, I think, where the confusion sometimes arises between Gods as living beings and Gods as examples of archetypes. Those masks or forms can be archetypes, and they do exist as images within the collective consciousness of our species. The difference between the archetypalist perspective and the polytheist one, is that that from a polytheist perspective, those forces taking form as Gods are real, exist independently of us, and can act upon us up to and including physical effects, whether or not we believe that they are real. We don’t, and can’t, create them. In conversation about this recently, I used the metaphor of a stained glass church window, containing an image which is lit and brought to life by sunlight pouring through it from outside. The image in glass is the archetype – it is an image, a symbol, but not in itself alive or exerting force in the world. The Gods are the sun. The church is the human mind. Thus, the experience we have as a consciousness trapped inside the walls of the body is that of an image which comes to life within our experience. It takes the form and shape given it by this inert picture in glass made by the human hand, but its life is real and comes from beyond us; we can feel its warmth on our skin if we stand in the beam. That sun was not made by our hands or minds, nor is its existence dependent on our awareness of it. But without leaving the church (or at least opening a window), what we can know from this about the true nature of the sun is limited.

That last point is important. And it is not the same as skepticism. It is not necessary to question the reality of our sense experiences – we feel what we feel, we see what we see, and those experiences have primacy. But it’s important to practice discernment about how we shape those experiences into a story about the nature of the Gods. It is important to remember that what we have is always and only the nature of our own encounter, filtered through the membrane that separates the full reality of these powers from our embodied experience. It is in this way that we can be both rational and authentic in our relationship with the Gods.

I would like to see the polytheist camp practice this kind of discernment more fully, and I think it would help us in being better understood by the more rationalist/archetypalist folk in the community. Why do I care? Because infighting between Pagans is not only an embarrassing waste of our time, it’s also self-destructive to all of us. While the polytheists and archetypalists are each accusing the other camp of dominionist thinking, there are real Dominionists out there actively working to delegitimize and limit our freedom of religion, and they do not care which camp you’re in. So yes, let us have this conversation about the differences in our theology, and let us bring both our passion and discernment to the table, but let us keep our kinship in mind.

22 comments on Polytheism: The Light in the Window

  1. Treesong says:

    Thank you for this exploration of Paganism, polytheism, achetypalism, and beyond.

    My study of integral philosophy have helped me to understand that differing worldviews and theologies aren’t necessarily contradictory and don’t necessarily lead to bitter arguments (or worse). This is especially true in the polytheist vs archetypalist debate.

    Yes, it’s important to make clear distinctions. Your commentary has done a great job of that. It’s also done a great job of avoiding the usual bickering. Why get so offended at each other’s perspectives? The two perspectives are very compatible in practice. My perspective would most accurately be described as polytheist, but I believe (know) that one of the primary ways that the Gods/Deities are involved in our lives is through their archetypal effect on our consciousness. There’s no need to bicker with people who think that this effect is “all there is”. We can co-exist peacefully, both gain meaningful inspiration from the presence of the Gods/Deities in our lives, and work together to ensure that both of our beliefs (and communities of believers/practitioners) are safe in the face the aforementioned Dominionists.

  2. Jessica Orsini says:

    Well-considered and well-written post. That said, I’m familiar with the folks who inadvertently spawned the current brouhaha, and would like to offer a clarification that has largely been lost in the ruckus of the polytheistic blogosphere.

    The idea that was put forth at the start wasn’t to use contemporary fictional/historical personages as stand-ins for the gods. It was not to worship Lincoln or Malcolm X or Wonder Woman. Rather, the idea was to consider the stories presented – historical or fictional – as heroic metaphor. Somewhere along the way, certain reconstructionists (and mind you, I’m a reconstructionist) conflated this with worshiping these contemporary figures as gods, which was never the intent. Despite a number of efforts at clarification by Sunweaver and others originally involved in this matter, it’s largely turned into a sort of “defamatory circle jerk”. And like you, I’d like to see it come to an end.

    1. Morpheus says:

      As far as I can tell, there are actually a whole range of viewpoints involved. I have read material written during this debate that does seem to ignore the distinction between human-created thought forms, fictional characters, archetypes and the like, and Gods. So perhaps some of it is a simple misunderstanding, but I don’t think the entire disagreement can be dismissed as such. I think there are real and substantive issues and differences of viewpoint being talked about, and that is actually a good thing as long as it’s continuing to be an actual communication.

  3. happydog1960 says:

    I really have nothing to add, but I just wanted to say “Thank You!” and tell you that I think you spoke for me and a lot of other people as well. It is gratefully appreciated.

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thank you Happydog – it is great to hear that.

  4. Lee says:

    This is such a beautifully written post. The stained glass analogy is a good one and I think would be received with clarity by polythesists and humanists alike. Thank you :)

  5. Morpheus,

    this is so elegantly said. Thank you. It feels like a perfect companion to my recent HuffPo post in which I talk about the importance of experience in my religious practice. I’ve been thinking of writing a follow up or two to that, explaining my view of the Gods, and my theology (for those who aren’t going to get around to reading my entire corpus) but I may just point people here!

    This is perfect: “That is, while it is important for us to trust the evidence of our senses, it is also important to recognize the limits of our sensory frame of reference. This is a matter of fine discernment: the key is to recognize that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves, because they are inherently greater than our capacity to experience them.”

    For me, the Gods and Goddesses are Forces in the cosmos that my human brain, body, emotions, and sense are trying to comprehend and build relationship with. Stories help. Rituals help. Thinking helps. Feeling helps. But I often have the sense that we apprehend the surface of the ice berg, and never quite touch the mysterious depths.

    [In case anyone is interested in my take, here’s the HuffPo piece: ]

    1. Morpheus says:

      Thanks for your comments, Thorn. I’m always interested in more of your thoughts on this, and if you do the follow up piece on experiential practice I’ll be eager to read it.

  6. Helix says:

    Well said. Thank you.

  7. all people can only act from the experiences that they have. We polytheists cannot expect anyone who has not experienced the reality of the Gods to act from true knowledge of their presence.

    Exactly. Once I realised that, I stopped engaging in any kind of dialogue where the purpose was for one “side” to change the other’s fundamental convictions about the gods. It’s almost always a fruitless endeavour. These days, I confine myself to trying to facilitate better understanding, which is usually far more productive.

    1. Morpheus says:

      I’m for solidarity between Pagan groups, but you can’t have solidarity where there are assumptions of sameness, so it’s a good dialogue to have. As long as it’s a dialogue, and not a series of self-reinforcing diatribes. I think some of both is going on.

    2. Lon Sarver says:

      When I’m talking about experiences of the gods with folks, I like to start with experience before interpretation. What was it you actually experienced, in sensory (inner or outer) terms? Interpretation and meaning can proceed from there.

      I suspect that many of our actual experiences are more alike than our interpretations of those experiences suggest.

  8. Matoula says:

    Interesting post!Yes, there is quite often to meet kind of debates between pagans and what kind of worship or statement is most true! I don’t know if that’s all coming due to the different feel of each individual pagan to Gods or energies. What i found out is that , for sure when worship a God we reflect a piece of us too. Yup, this is archetype but…if i dont try to express it after analytical thinking and try express it and speak it throughout experience , full of feeling …i’ve always wondering of some things.
    I was coming from a christian environment previous to pagan path. How to my prayers always appeared a woman with certain appearance and energy, when i knew nothing of her? Το come the time and learn and recognize that is a certain Goddess? How i saw an other Goddess in a certain way in true time awake , that i felt my heart is going to stop. Or certain God before in a time of the year, without knowing before anything of how their descriptions over the years?…I had vivid dreams too, but some appearances where the most real think would ever happen, in times that i had no faith in theses certain Gods. They just appeared, and some of them appeared from childhood, until i discovered that they existed indeed in a pantheon.
    Of course, i cant prove just by telling about my experience that they are real existences …to be honest, i don’t even think they care. And yes, they don’t reply always the same way or reply at all.

  9. Lon Sarver says:

    I keep thinking I should post something on this debate, but then I keep reading brilliant posts (like this one) where someone has said what I was thinking, but better than I’d been able to put it.

    “the key is to recognize that our sensory experiences of the Gods are not the Gods themselves”

    Yes. We have no way of knowing who or what the gods are when we aren’t looking at them, and when we are, we bring our own limitations and expectations to the encounter.

    There is one thing I’ll say about belief, even faith, as a part of Pagan spirituality. I don’t know about you, by my experiences of the gods have been inconsistent. One devotional brings on an ecstatic vision of the god, the next doesn’t do much, and the third brings just a vague warm feeling. It’s faith that keeps me believing that it’s the first that’s the truest, and not the second.

    1. Morpheus says:

      Is it, though? I’m not sure faith is a necessary response here. The weather changes from one day to the next, seemingly at random sometimes. One day the sun is visible, another day no sunshine at all, only gray. We don’t question whether the sun is still out there. The certainty that there is still a sun in the sky, even when it’s not shining on us, is based on experiential knowledge. I wouldn’t call that faith. At least, not in the sense that ‘faith’ is usually used as a religious term.

      Besides, why is it necessary to evaluate those three kinds of devotional experiences as though one were more true than the others? Cannot they all be equally true? That is to say, if sometimes the Gods don’t show up when we call, why should this cast doubt on the reality of our experiences when they do show up? I don’t always answer my phone when it rings, even when it’s someone I love calling. But you wouldn’t feel the need to wonder if I still existed, unless I *never* picked up the phone.

      1. Lon Sarver says:

        My experiences of the gods have always had the texture of vivid dreams, and never the solidity of waking experiences. It’s been a few months since we last spoke face to face, but I still recall it in some visceral detail. Not so with divine encounters; as with even the most vivid of my dreams, their sense of reality fades rather quickly. The details blur, and while I can often remember them in a “this happened, and then this” sense, I can’t recall the sense of Presence that came with them.

        Passing a vinyard or a wine shop or feeling the alcoholic buzz coming on, a ghost of that Presence passes by. It’s hard to grasp, though, and harder to hold.

        Perhaps it’s just me, but I doubt it.

        In between vivid, visionary encounters, I do doubt. Sometimes the doubt is hard and cruel, and makes me wonder if I’m not wasting my time, if not actually crazy. I find myself half-convinced that what I experienced was no more than a dream, maybe less. That’s where faith comes in for me, and that’s why the three different experiences matter.

        1. Morpheus says:

          This makes sense, Lon. What I hear is that for you, faith is a helpful mechanism to work around self-doubt. That’s a different experience than I have, but I see why that works differently for you. It goes back to what I was saying about learning to trust our own experiences and the information of our senses. I feel like that doubt that comes in and undermines your hold on experiences you’ve had, might be an example of that cultural training. I’d encourage you to lean into that faith if that is what helps for you, but also remember that those experiences were real when you had them, and to trust yourself in that way.

          1. Lon Sarver says:

            Thank you. I do try to lean into it, and it is easier than it used to be. The world occasionally breaks under the pressure, though, and sometimes it seems a long way down.

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