John Beckett, November 2014
Preparing the Way of the Gods
Polytheists are a minority within a minority. Within the Big Tent of Paganism, our numbers are small compared to those for whom many Gods are an afterthought and Gods with agency aren’t even that. But even if you lump us together with occultists, kitchen witches, and tree huggers, we’re still extremely small compared to the dominant monotheists and the rapidly-growing atheists.
From our tiny vantage point in the present, we look back to a time before Christianity and Islam conquered Europe and the Middle East and then subjugated the Americas, back to a past where the presence of many Gods was a foundational assumption everyone would grow up understanding.
We look back, but not from some anachronistic nostalgia. We see the spiritual depth polytheism has brought us, we see the philosophical and practical benefits it offers, and we feel the call of our Gods. We look forward to a Polytheist Restoration, to a time when the worship of many Gods in many ways is no longer an an oddity but a commonplace practice.
We have a role to play in this great restoration.
The Gods call who They call. They called us and They can call others. But They may not be heard. People will only hear what their belief system tells them is possible – everything else will be rationalized away so it fits neatly into their preconceived notions of reality. The loudest voice in our culture says there’s only one God. Another loud voice screams there are no Gods. Is it any wonder even our friends inside the Big Tent of Paganism often insist the Gods must be understood as metaphors or archetypes?
If people aren’t ready to hear the Gods, even a bodily appearance by Zeus Himself will be rationalized away.
It’s our job to make them ready. It’s our job to prepare the Way of the Gods.
Proselytization – the aggressive and often coercive attempt to convert others to your religion – is incompatible with polytheism. Polytheists recognize that different Gods call different people to honor Them in different ways. The idea of telling someone Who or how they must worship borders on nonsensical. Additionally, most of us have experienced the proselytizing efforts of other religions at one time or another and we have no desire to inflict that on our friends and neighbors.
This very strong and very ethical distaste for proselytization makes many polytheists uneasy about doing anything that looks or sounds like recruiting. So it’s important to remember that it is not our job to “win” converts. It is not our job to make a sales pitch for polytheism, and it is absolutely not our job to close the deal.
Our job is to prepare the Way of the Gods. Our job is to make people ready to hear the Gods when They call. What anyone does after that is a private matter between them and the deities who call.
Polytheism Starts at Home
The single most effective thing any of us can do to make people ready to hear the Gods is to be a polytheist ourselves. Even if we can’t be “out” in all areas of ours lives, simply being a polytheist presence in a monotheist culture makes a difference. Our effect on the mainstream society may be very small, but our effect on the small-but-growing polytheist culture will be substantially more. One more person worshipping the Gods makes the polytheist community that much stronger, and a strong polytheist community can prepare the Way of the Gods far better than even the most charismatic individual.
Worship the Gods. Hopefully I don’t need to say this to readers of Polytheist.com, but it never hurts to emphasize the essentials. Worship – veneration, sacrifice, praise – has been a key part of human interaction with the Gods for thousands of years. Does our worship “feed” the Gods? Some say yes, some say no, some say the very idea is ridiculous. I don’t know. What worship clearly does is strengthen our relationships with Them and make it easier for us to hear Them.
Read Their stories. Some traditions have extensive written lore, while others have little or none. Let’s make good use of what we have. These stories aren’t scripture and they certainly aren’t inerrant (in content or in transmission), but they are a great source of wisdom and inspiration. When we read Their stories, we prepare ourselves to tell Their stories.
Read Their history. What did our ancestors think of the Gods? How did they worship Them? How were their ideas about the Gods reflected in their daily lives? Mainstream history, archeology, and anthropology can help fill in some of the gaps created when our ancestors’ religions were displaced.
Academic work – even good academic work – isn’t inerrant either. A good friend likes to say “history tells us as much about the people who wrote it as it does the people they wrote about.” Read any history with the proverbial grain of salt. Frequently the evidence mainstream scholarship discovers is more helpful to Pagans and polytheists than the scholars’ non-theistic interpretation of that evidence.
Talk to Their priests and devotees. Ancient polytheism was very concerned with the family, the community, the tribe, and the nation. Though we see some of that group emphasis in some modern restorations (Heathenry and Hellenism come to mind) contemporary religion is very much an individual thing. Many of us live in places where there may be no other polytheists within driving distance, much less members of our tradition. The reinforcement of polytheistic concepts and practices and the mutual support of other members of the community simply isn’t there (yet).
Sites like this and the many excellent polytheist blogs help to a certain extent. But there’s still no substitute for talking live with someone who shares your beliefs and practices and has had similar experiences. If you can make it to conferences and retreats, go. Use e-mail, social media, and Skype to talk remotely. And for the love of all the Gods, if there are other polytheists near you, reach out to them. Even if they don’t follow your tradition, if they succeed they’ll make it easier for those who come after them to succeed as well.
A Polytheist Presence
Just being a polytheist helps. Being a polytheist presence in the mainstream world helps more.
The Gods never really left Western culture. They’re enshrined in our planets, days, and months. They’re in our place names. And perhaps most importantly, They’re in our stories. Tell Their stories. Storytelling is a wonderful art form practiced by virtually every culture in the world. It’s also a non-threatening art form.
The goal of storytelling is not to persuade people to become polytheists. The goal of storytelling is to make people ready to hear the call of the Gods.
Support Your Local Groups
If you’re fortunate enough to have a local group, support them. If they aren’t your preferred tradition, participate with them to the extent you can and maintain your private practice on your own.
Don’t ignore generic Pagan groups. Denton CUUPS (my local group and spiritual home) has always had a bit of polytheism in it. One of the founders had a life-long relationship with Isis; when I came in I was already moving in this direction. We’re still a CUUPS group and we have our share of folks who prefer Wiccan and other Mystery Tradition rites. But at least half of our open celebrations are explicitly polytheistic – this year it’s six out of eight.
That means that people who come to a Pagan event who don’t really know what to expect are going to see Gods worshipped, ancestors honored, and land spirits invoked. They’re going to see statues of various deities and offerings made to Them. They’re going to walk away with some different ideas than when they walked in.
Will those folks begin their own practice of honoring the Gods, ancestors, and land spirits? Many won’t, but some will.
Not everyone can be “out” on an individual basis, but groups can have a public presence. They can have websites, Facebook pages, and e-mail lists. They can have contact info, if necessary, guarded by pseudonyms. Make it easy for people to find you.
And when new people come in, practice good hospitality and welcome them! Nothing will send people running back to the “spiritual but not religious” camp faster than religious folks (polytheists or anyone else) who ignore them.
A Long Term View
Some day there will be Hellenic temples and Druid groves in every city. But it’s important to keep our priorities in order. We aren’t trying to grow our religions so we can afford infrastructure, we’re going to need the infrastructure to serve the communities that grow up around the worship of many Gods. That’s going to take time – I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime.
And that’s OK. Polytheism is a multi-generation thing. We’re participating in a process that will take many generations. We don’t have to have temples tomorrow – we just have to honor the Gods today.
It’s not our job to recruit or “win” converts. That’s the job of the Gods. They call who They call.
It’s our job to make people ready to hear Their call.
It’s our job to prepare the way of the Gods.
About the Author:
John Beckett grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside his back door. Wandering through them gave him a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God.
John is a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. His blog “Under the Ancient Oaks” is part of the Pagan Channel of the multifaith website Patheos. John has been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years.
John lives in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and earns his keep as an engineer.