A primary focus in the material that I teach is on considerations of establishing a firm foundation for polytheistic frameworks of discussion, practice, cult-building, worship, spirit-work, and inter-faith engagements. This is the guiding philosophy behind writings on discernment, distinctions, differentiations, definitions – “The Ds” – and on hashing out elementary ideas for “101” primers, and on building living tradition beyond the blog. It is why so much of my writing and talking circles back to the ground-level discussions, on returning to the central concepts and requisite paradigms, as well as comparative discourse on what falls outside of the realms of polytheistic consideration (or theisms of any kind, such as atheist secular thought or other-than-theistic philosophies or reductive non-theisms). All of this is around the common goal (shared amongst many of my colleagues and co-religionists) of establishing a usable and solid ground for engaging collectively in the pursuits of polytheistic religious discourse, theology, practice, and development into a 21st century that would otherwise see these ways and traditions further erased, subjugated, or subordinated beneath other (more popular and immediate) concepts. To survive in any real way, our polytheisms (and the ways in which we talk about them, identify ourselves within them, or approach them as newcomers) need certain elementary – remedial – steps.
In my 2015 article “A Polytheist Primer1”, published by The Wild Hunt, I set out to write a basic introduction to some of the major developments in the increasingly visible discussions coming out of many circles of polytheism, for the purposes of presenting the topic to those who were unfamiliar with the discussions taking place, or else were unaware that polytheisms could (and do) exist independent of other major movements (such as Neo-Paganism). This was written primarily for those new to “the conversation” so that it could be referenced back to, rather than rehashing the same (exhausted, exhausting) answers with each new voice of challenge and/or “inquisitive erasure.” (There are many such voices. Remember, kids: don’t read the comments. Anywhere. Ever.) To this end, while met with high praise and warm welcome for the most part, my primer fell short in one area, by way of omission. In my efforts to properly define and distinguish between identity level Polytheists2, polytheistic religious traditions3, and the Polytheist Movement4, I neglected to address a fourth (and in some respects “larger”, if also more general) topic that is getting regularly talked around, yelled about, or spoken down at: the foundations of polytheism.
Recent years have seen some very important developments in tradition-specific discussions, and the developments of newly received or emerging regional cults, priesthoods, and mystery lineages. These represent one important sector of polytheistic focus. However, in a very large chunk of the discussions in online sectors of the English-language Polytheist discourse, which includes many of the efforts of the Polytheist Movement, dialog is not focused on tradition-specific details and platforms (such as the Thiasos of the Starry Bull5, or a particular hypothetical Northern Tradition devotional cult in Vermont6) but rather about the intrinsic and basic characteristics of polytheism itself, which is to say, Foundational Polytheism7.
This is a concept that I have been using (primarily out-loud in lectures and private teaching or consults with colleagues) for years to describe some of the necessary elemental and requisite considerations within the sphere of religious study, practice, and identity categorized as “polytheistic”. It is not a religion unto itself.
Foundational Polytheism is a collective starting point, a methodology of approach and procedure, for religious engagement and “entrance” into polytheism, in practice or identity, addressing particular distinct needs of polytheistic religions not adequately provided for elsewhere. It does not replace, or supplant, or override the internal structures of individual polytheistic religions, but rather, it provides a practical bedrock of foundation for those who might not yet have access to, or involvement with, or knowledge of, a given specific religious tradition.
Many people’s “in-road” toward polytheistic religion comes from contact or experience with certain deities – perhaps unsolicited and unsought, or perhaps merely unexpected even after years of engagement in a non-religious context such as magic – who they might not even know clearly the names of, or the cultures-and-traditions of origin. What is a person to do when they have heightened and profound religious and worshipful experiences with a god, but cannot even find their name, or perhaps have mis-identified them (it happens often) with similar but unrelated deities from another pantheon or tradition? How can one show up to right relationship with a god when they cannot even figure out who the god is, let alone what they want? Waiting until they’ve become an expert in a tradition that they cannot yet identify is unhelpful if that god is “at the door” already. What they need, right there and then — some guidance and tips or protocols or starter-practices — which can be used immediately, adapted right out of the gate; a methodology for the beginnings of laying a polytheistic foundation.
Not every person in this circumstance has access to credibly trained and professional diviners, spirit-workers, or clergy, (caution is advised that not all divination is created equal), and so can find themselves all-too-easily making wrong assumptions (informed perhaps by experiences with traditions or backgrounds outside or even contrary to the scope of polytheistic religion) leading to offense, transgression, or worse. It is important when seeking guidance to find somebody informed about the context and framework of the thing engaged; a monogamy-focused marriage counselor is probably not the proper fit for a polyamorous triad, because they’re not likely to be versed in the distinct needs, agreements, and configuration dynamics of a relationship structured in this way. Seeking religious counsel from a magician is unlikely to yield context-specific guidance, because the needs of a magician are different and distinct from that of a devotional religionist. (Most magical traditions the world over developed in conjunction with a religious structure: modern approaches to magic and witchcraft often avoid the importance of these, favoring “rugged individualism” and secular humanist disdain popularized by installments of Hell Blazer or Supernatural, where a protagonist will give the finger to the forces of the cosmos and slay gods, reducing, via fictional mediums, world-religion and spirit-tradition down to inconveniences that humankind must battle against for their independence.)
The purpose of Foundational Polytheism is to provide an accessible and basic (adaptive, elastic) polycentric matrix of concepts, approaches, paradigms, philosophies, and in general, advice for figuring it out without needing to reinvent the wheel. (For example: a devotionally offered votive candle is fundamentally different from a setting of lights candle-magic working practiced in Conjure. They are approached differently – for distinct reasons – and to synonymize them is to fail to recognize what either of them is. The ways and reasons that devotional offerings are approached as a topic of practices is rarely addressed in magically-derived traditions, and so this area represents a very real need that is distinct to religion, which many struggle with understanding.) Some folks might only need the support of some of these foundational structures in the beginning, before finding themselves in a tradition or course of study and practice which supplies the finer details and nuances needed; others may find themselves already in a tradition or practice which still doesn’t supply these nuances or answer their needs.
The most prolific voices on these topics are, largely, aware of the distinction between Foundational Polytheism and a specific polytheistic tradition (such as Gaulish Polytheism); but it is clear (and has been for a while) that the general readership might not always be able to recognize this.
One of the best examples I can think of is the reaction from certain sectors of Kemetic polytheism responding to Canaanite polytheist priest and author Tess Dawson’s article in 2013 8 about devotional offerings and some basic, general, “dos/donts” when approaching polytheistic devotions and rituals as a newcomer without the benefit of a structured specific tradition to provide clear instruction.9 In this article the author provided a thorough Q&A response to the sort of questions that a number of us in the leadership sectors of various polytheistic traditions – Natib Qadish, in this author’s case – field every day,10 through email or social media or private phone calls. In the article, the priest advised a beginner-to-polytheism that in most cases, eating something given to the gods as a food-offering was an offense, whereas in at least some Kemetic contexts, eating the offerings is exactly what is expected and is part of the ritual technologies of the religion, as it is through this exchange that the worshippers receive blessings from their gods.
The answer was around how a newcomer to polytheism could begin to engage with deities, perhaps when they did not have an overarching tradition to provide such answers, when these deities were already showing up. The author’s answer was on-point and wonderful and thoughtful and courteous; to the seeker, to the gods, and to the traditions who might supply different answers. This was a foundational response, with the caveat that individual traditions (and specific deities) might have specific structures, agreements, or protocols; foundational answers don’t replace or overwrite or challenge those. The response from some corners of polytheism were volatile and aggressive toward the author, who was accused of all sorts of things which were not said in the article, which was not an article about Kemetic religion anyway. It became a bit of a controversy overnight. (Thanks, Tumblr.) The thing is: this didn’t need to be a controversy, because the author hadn’t said anything controversial, nor challenged any other cult teaching. There are some good solid foundational basics for how to handle and approach the idea of physical offerings to gods, and these are to be treated as “elementary” rather than “universal”; a “best guess starting point” until you learn otherwise (from the deities in question, from the tradition or lineage teachings, or so forth).
In other words, many of these foundational elements essential to polytheistic religious approach are about basic approaches to core values, like hospitality, respect, piety, and reciprocity. Values which, frankly, the dominant world cultures in the West have not really done a good job of teaching. (One does not, for example, give expired meat as an offering in general devotional religion: that is offensive.)
As Edward Butler, PhD, stated in a recent conversation about these matters, the basic cultural and consciousness point that many people today are starting at with regard to the topics of polytheistic religion and polycentric theology or world-view is needing some exposure to and familiarity with some fundamental shifts in understanding (of self, of cosmos, of creation) not supplied by the parent overculture or societal milieu, in order to more fully and comprehensively “get” and “live” polytheism. It is not enough to say “the gods are real” and pretend as though this – without unpacking or exploring it further – is sufficient to install paradigm-level nuance of sense-and-relation beyond that which is supplied by our culture’s (Monotheist, monist reductive, or secular-atheist) societal norms. In other parts of the world, and in other times of world history, this is not the case, because there are there-and-then presumed culture exposures to certain basic understandings, many of which are not necessarily religious in and of themselves but become critically essential to the theory, practice, and embodiment of polytheism today. In other words, certain essential (foundational) understandings are absent from the 21st century Western assumed culture experience, and must therefore be hashed out and engaged explicitly, or else the space that these understandings is meant to hold will become occupied by some other (unrelated, or even contrary) paradigm.
Different people come to this conversation for different reasons, from different backgrounds, and with different experiences, identities, proficiencies, and needs. The purpose of the Polytheist Movement is not to represent people (as this is not what movements generally do), but rather to represent the stated and identified needs of specific demographics of people for the purpose of need-fulfillment, advocacy, education, and resource-based support. Examples of support include (most obviously) the writings found across the polytheistic sectors of the internet – from personal blogs to professional articles and columns – and professional teaching, training, and mentorship, or outside experts consulting with or advising establish(ed/ing) polytheistic religious traditions, cults, and dedicant communities.
There are some distinct demographics to consider when reading, writing, thinking about, or talking about polytheistic religious practices, and it is important that these distinctions be kept somewhat in mind to avoid accidental erasure (as a writer or commenter) or overly personalizing one’s interpretation of a given contribution (as a reader) and responding with hostility when the item in question may not have been intended to speak to or provide for that given person’s needs. Some polytheisms are extant indigenous11 world religions which have survived colonialism, genocide, and Monotheism’s cultural murder machine (missionary work) and need to be remembered and named, else they are assumed in writing to be gone and erased. Newcomers to “affirming with religious regard many real gods”12 might hail from any number of avenues into polytheism. Some are part of a polytheistic group or tradition13 but don’t have an identity-and-paradigm level investment or experience with these religions, while others do not have a group but are defined primarily by these things at the identity and paradimic levels. Some converted14 into polytheisms, and others did not15, and so on: in all, these are all different in-roads with distinct backgrounds, baggage, or interpretative bias.
Some of these groups will have different needs from one another, for different reasons.16 Some might have needs in understanding polytheistic foundations because they are totally new, do not have a formal tradition, and need help. At this time, this is who the ongoing public polytheistic dialog is often seeking to support, not because everyone falls into this category, but because this is potentially the category with the highest need in figuring the foundations out. Some will not need these foundations to inform their practices, because their practices might come out of a structured tradition which provides them the instruction that they need; but these may still benefit from learning foundations in order to better understand other people and traditions to avoid conflicts by assuming that their way is the only/right way.
Realistically speaking some people will not want, or need, to engage this material at all. And that’s fine. And those people should find themselves somewhere else to engage, and stop interrupting the material and contributions probably intended for others. Not everything is intended for everyone; the assumption that everything should be tailored specifically to a one-size-fits-all interpretation is an assumption of gross entitlement.
Nevertheless, it is also important that we acknowledge that there may be an ever-expanding set of needs that, given the marginalized nature of our religions and religious identities, may need to be filled later (or are current needs not yet addressed or even visibly identified), so that as a movement we can continue to grow and to do better. Examples include continuing to develop international and interfaith discourse, such that the values or behavior/philosophy trends of one privileged or focal demographic do not get applied with a broad-stroke across the global discourse, such that others are by definition excluded and even alienated with hostility. We must serve to recognize intrinsic non-equational distinction and separateness between disciplines, such as “the pursuit of religious devotions” and “civic political engagement, economic theory, or social justice”, even though one may intersectionally inform or direct the other. This does not mean creating spaces which tolerate racism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia, or otherwise; rather that we must approach in good faith for the purposes of constructive building with a potentially exponential set of considerations, and an understanding that no one author, writer, reader, or teacher can account for the needs of everyone in the world who has polytheistic practices or identity.
There are no magic bullet solutions. Many gods, many people, many ways, many voices, many views, many ideas, many angles, many lenses of consideration, through which we can all together hope to find a future in this world for our traditions, for our religions, for our communities, for a thousand thousand years of Polytheists yet to come, that our gods – all of them, those named and unnamed, known and unknown, for they are countless – may be praised, remembered, honored, and hailed with voices raised together, or supported by peers and allies and collegial co-religionists the world over.
The content of Foundational Polytheism, being studies, writings, lectures, presentations, or informal pointers in a Q&A, are not “instructions” for a specific religion, cult, or tradition: they are the building blocks from which a person or group can assemble a structure of understanding the paradigms essential for elementary polytheistic theologies, ritual theory, devotional practice, spirit-work, and more.
Foundational Polytheism is elementary, education oriented, and amongst the primary contributions of the Polytheist Movement. It is not in contest with established traditions, although some established traditions may find it to be fundamentally essential, as many ritual or worship groups were founded without the benefit of such resources, having been previously formed-and-established without access to such understandings, teachings, and theological insights in the first place. There are a lot of modern and/or new polytheistic traditions which have no theological center, not because there isn’t a theology to their religions, but because there simply hasn’t been a large Western focus on polytheistic theology until relatively recently, more or less across the board (including in academia). When there is no center, or no ground underfoot, slipping and sliding and wild haymakers are what follow.
The Polytheist Movement is a way of describing a whole lot of different sorts of engagements and outreach and education, including discussions of Foundational Polytheism, and neither the Polytheist Movement nor Foundational Polytheism are “a religion”, nor seeking to decide who/what/why polytheistic religion and Polytheist identity are. They are seeking to create the spaces and contribute to the field of study of polytheistic religion, and the religious rights work necessary to see it protected, and prospering in this century of prejudice and continued erasure.
This is about listening, and about learning, and about providing freely for the purposes of polytheistic outreach, education, and support.
Foundational Polytheism is a good place to start, a methodology of approach, for those looking for a place to begin, and a good place to learn about elementary foundational understandings of theology, ritual craft and theory, practical concerns and community dynamics, interfaith discourse, for anyone who could benefit from these, as MANY existing polytheistic traditions in the US did not have the benefit of such a thing when they came about, and learning is never a thing that is “done”. Not everyone needs to engage, as not everyone has these needs: but those should kindly leave the programming respectfully in order to avoid rendering real and lasting harm to those who do, and whose stability-and-survival-of-self-and-religious-identity might very well depend on it.
Content Edits: July 20, 12:05 a.m.: “a methodology of approach and procedure,” was added to the central definition of “Foundational Polytheism”; “What they need, right there and then — some guidance and tips or protocols or starter-practices — which can be used immediately, adapted right out of the gate; a methodology for the beginnings of laying a polytheistic foundation.” was added in full as the closing sentence to paragraph 6. “a methodology of approach” was added to the first sentence of the concluding paragraph.