Anomalous Thracian, The Irresolute Desk, September 30, 2014
This morning while waking up into my pot of coffee, I watched a video piece showcasing the impact that one species in an ecosystem could have upon the entire system. While the video itself was slightly sensationalist and, indeed, possibly taking a liberal approach to some of the facts it was levying about, it served as a useful starting point for discussions around the importance of understanding the world around us through the relationships that define it. Nothing exists independent of anything else, not because of some philosophical monistic sense of collective one-ness, but specifically because of the diverse many-ness of all… intersecting and networking through complex systems of relation.
Death, for example, is not just an important factor in those relationships, but indeed a partnering figure, a character unto itself.
In polytheist and animist understandings of the world, all things exist in these complex relationships, which are visibly reflected and found in congruent form in physical nature, sciences, and social theory.
A lot of people who are coming into polytheist religions from a dominant parent-culture paradigm of staunch monotheism or secular atheisms struggle at understanding the complex relationship factors. Understanding polytheism as systems of relationship, first and foremost, is an important thing; and, indeed, relationships wherein humans are not at the center (although for obvious reasons, we take a central role in the active execution of our own practices, being the ones developing those practices).
Dualist, monist1, or atheist paradigms carry over into many newcomers to polytheism, who struggle with the number of gods, spirits, or relationships, as if they need to “know” them all, in order to “get it” or “do it”.
Relationships do not need to be “known” or “understood”, but merely acknowledged. It is not about “mapping and cataloging” all of the complexities, but instead having space for those complexities, and working to develop a lived awareness around our own part within them. There is a tactile responsiveness that comes from the re-development of this polytheist and animist paradigm, like learning to drive a car or ride a bike: reading and hearing about it is useful up to a point, but in getting on the road, you suddenly realize that you can feel the road beneath your feet, and that split-second learned responses to things like moisture on the asphalt, fog in the air or gusts of wind strong enough to put a little bit of tail-spin into your trajectory are all examples of “things you need to learn on the ground, not in a book”.
These “tactile responses” are not often discussed or understood from a place of intellectual knowing or understanding, and yet we who drive or ride bicycles or unicycles or go-karts or ride atop horses or camels or polar bears, use them every day. To operate any of these without a physical responsiveness to the relationships we hold to the world around us would mean, at the very least, a staggeringly impacted decline in operational efficiency and safety.
The West has done remarkable things with learning, education and cultivating the intellect in the last five hundred years or so, and yet has also done some insidiously terrible things with the same. One such byproduct that does not serve us is “intellectual entitlement”: the idea that we have the right to know or understand a thing, in order for that thing to matter or value on its own. This topic is seen across a wide range of diversity issues2. For example, many cis-gendered3 individuals who struggle with not understanding the complexities of gender-variance4 are made uncomfortable by the request to use certain pronouns to refer to individuals, whose identities and pronoun preferences they do not understand. In the face of lack of understanding (generally considered “ignorance”) many people feel that it is their right to “resolve” their ignorance by questioning (interrogating and scrutinizing) the people who represent to them a disturbance to their own comfort (e.g. state of understanding). They fail to recognize that their own understandings, or ignorances, are completely irrelevant to the context of another person’s right to be respected, and do not in any way entitle them to an explanation (e.g. socially coerced justification of autonomous value) in order to be expected to render due respect to the persons in question. This intellectual entitlement carries over into -theistic avenues as often as it does issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, and for individuals venturing into polytheism from a cultural background of atheism or monotheism — or in general 21st century Western secularism — these patterns can indeed become quite pervasive and disruptive, and even self-applied.
In short, the West has taught that a thing only has value if we can feel adequately justified of its value based upon the field of our own onboard value systems or rigid critical faculties, regardless of how (un)developed, (un)skillful or (ir)relevantly informed these things may indeed be. This rigidity, rather than an elastic sense of responsive awareness, gets us in trouble; it gets us in trouble interpersonally and culturally when interfacing with elements from outside of what we feel has justified value, it gets us in trouble when dealing with intellectual concepts that bring discomfort due to a perception that they may threaten our own stances or values (a byproduct of industrial capitalism’s “scarcity model” of human process!), and it gets us in trouble indeed when considering or engaging with religious and spiritual relationships or considerations from outside of a reductionist rigidity.
Polytheism is about relationships. Relationships must be understood in an adaptive fashion, with space left in our own “equations of understanding” for variables that we may never be able to “solve” or “know”. Our inability to “solve X” does not mean that “X” has no value; quite the opposite, in fact, as any middle school algebra student should attest.
Not all relationships in polytheistic religious devotions or practice will be direct and transcendent or descendant or two-way-communicative. Not everyone has to be able to talk to the spirits and have them talk back, or use their well-polished “god-phone”5 to dial up every pantheon in the phonebook. Not every lay person needs to be a mystic, and not every priest needs to be a god-spouse6, and so on and so forth. It needs to be clear that just as there is an enormous amount of diversity in the gods themselves — because poly- means many! — there is a huge and myriad selection of ways to be in aware relationship with them… and with ourselves, and our spirits, and the land around us. Sometimes this relationship is literally only one factored into practice at the awareness level, rather than direct interaction. For example, there are neighbors living behind my house whom I have no direct interactions with (by choice, let me tell you!), and yet our yards share a common border and fence between them, with tree-branches connecting them quite literally. If I installed a pit on my property for offerings of the biological and decomposing variety, it would be best to consider my relationship with those neighbors — “indirect” as it is — when finding the correct placement for such, because the overwhelming acrid scent of rotting flesh is amongst the fastest ways to bring yourself into direct relationship with everyone around you. Relationship awareness gives us the elasticity of understanding and factoring variables polynomially7 into the expressions of our dance through the curtained and dramatic stages of this grand theater of a world that we share with a literal countless sum of other actors, agents and elements.
Indeed, this same elasticity must be applied also to our understanding of our own Selves, whose multiplicity of layers and internal relationships must also be accounted for. Self knowledge is incredibly important and powerful, but even more potent is awareness of the spaces that we may never know, the corners we might only glimpse by firelight’s dance-cast illumination for the briefest of instances. Discernment calls for an assessment of what is known, indeed, but also to provide intuitively for the spaces that we cannot know to factor in — variables, like “X” — which nevertheless impact the relation dynamic of Self-with-Self, and Self-with-World, Self-with-Humans, and indeed, Self-with-Gods.
In short, to develop the internal, perceptual, and devotional “muscles” called for in polytheism — and indeed any approach to any relationship — one must practice a thing that many other traditions, philosophies, magical practices and indeed Western parent-cultures have taught them not to do, in word or deed: get over yourself. Do this at least enough to proverbially and spiritually and cognitively develop dancing feet and the “elasticity” that allows a drunk to stumble away unhurt from an automotive wreck on the highway, because let’s face it: our worlds, and the many, many relationships within them, often lead to collision.
And “truth is always sifted from the rubble resulting from the collision”, or however the saying goes.
And no, this isn’t a call for lived relativism — another dangerous form of reductionism, valuable when applied correctly but disastrous when misapplied, as it almost always is — but instead for a radically different and critically savvy approach that accounts both for what is known, and for the space for that which is unknown, which allows for the adaptation of that which is known from one shifting state to another as time and relations continue, or indeed the ephemeral unknown coming into sharpening clarity or momentarily fixed and known state.
In shorter? To be “good” at polytheism requires that one become “good” at relationships, as much with yourself as with the wolves and the waterfalls of the worlds, wonders and wights around you.
The Thracian is a carnivorous cave-dwelling creature, supplementing a diet of fresh meat with ample intake of whiskey and cigars. Active primarily during the nocturnal hours, this particular figure serves his community as a full-time temple priest, shaman, and spirit-worker. He lives with a young African raven and two score temple serpents. He writes at Constructing Living Tradition and Thracian Exodus.When he is not stalking dinner, wrestling dragons and oracular corvids, the Thracian is known to serve as director and founder of polytheist.com
1. Monism is not itself in contest or requisite disagreement with polytheist paradigm, however certain popularized views of substance monism found in post-monotheist theologies and magickal philosophies which affirm the “one-ness” or “same-ness” of “all” indeed find themselves at odds with polytheism. These in fact decay the very foundations upon which relationship must be understood through: the association of differentiated “things”.
2. Diversity issues and topics relevant to social justice, oppression, and erasure are often brought up in conjunction with polytheism. Part of this is because a huge number of modern polytheists come from under-represented, misunderstood, oppressed, suppressed, or prejudiced communities and demographics. Indeed, the last few years have proven for us again and again that to identify as a polytheist religionist at all is to open oneself up to direct attempts at erasure from many directions, for many reasons, and to face many forms of attack. For many polytheists, awareness and active engagement around a selection of social justice issues is as much a part of their religious identity as direct devotions and offerings, for often it is our very gods who draw us to these causes, or indeed shelter and heal and guide us through our own painful experiences of bigotry, physical violence, and unchecked vitriol from lashing trolls and hate-mongers, as well as neighbors, friends or family that we had previously placed our trust in.
3. Cis-gender is a term used to describe related types of gender identity where individuals’ experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth. This term is employed in modern discussions of gender and gender identity, where previously held terms like “normal” or “regular” are understood to be both discriminatingly offensive and expressions of normative oppression, as well as gender privilege. A lot of very good information is available on the internet to understand this term, its usefulness, and history.
4. Gender-variance is a term used here to refer to any person whose gender identity does not conform to the dominant gender expectations of their society (including trans* persons, intersexed persons, gender-queer, gender-fluid, meta-gendered, et al).
5. God-phone” is a colloquial term used in many spirit communities for discussion of various experiences or abilities pertaining to direct communication with the gods or spirits, in either voluntary or involuntary fashions, with a spectrum of clarity ranging from low (e.g. a person with an “unclear signal”) to high (which often involves years of training and practices of discipline to achieve). While many do not like the term, it is useful, and has spread so far as to become fairly universally understood in the applicable communities. Not every polytheist has direct communication in this way with their gods or spirits, and that is okay. Having a “god-phone” is not, and should not be, the expected baseline experience: it is generally considered the realm of dedicated specialists, although there are many non-specialists who enjoy regular communion with their gods and spirits in this way.
6. “God-spouse” is a term for any person who has entered into any one of many different forms of marriage union with a deity, which is a tradition found throughout the world in both ancient and modern religious and spirit traditions.
7. Polynomial, in mathematics, refers to an expression consisting of variables and coefficients, that involves only the operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and non-negative integer exponents. Polynomials appear in a wide variety of areas of mathematics and science. For example, they are used to form polynomial equations, which encode a wide range of problems, from elementary word problems to complicated problems in the sciences; they are used to define polynomial functions, which appear in settings ranging from basic chemistry and physics to economics and social science; they are used in calculus and numerical analysis to approximate other functions. In advanced mathematics, polynomials are used to construct polynomial rings and algebraic varieties, central concepts in algebra and algebraic geometry. (Wikipedia contributors, “Polynomial,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Polynomial&oldid=626779316 (accessed September 30, 2014).