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.
- The Wild Hunt’s “A Polytheist Primer”, http://wildhunt.org/2015/05/guest-post-a-polytheist-primer.html ↩
- “Polytheist” as an identifier, (e.g. “I am a Polytheist”) is an opt-in religious identifying term which communicates affirmation of many gods held in religious regard, at a level which is understood to intersect in a defining way with that person’s identity. Rather than merely being an affiliation with a community or practice that they are involved with, it is something that they are. This term does not refer to a single religion or a finite number of religions; it refers instead to the identity of a person with regard to their religious realities and experiences. ↩
- “Polytheistic religious traditions” and groups are specific religious traditions which are assumed to hold polytheistic frameworks of engagement, practice and belief. However, just as many religions in the world have their fair share of secular or atheist or non-theist persons in their internal communities, affiliation with a polytheistic tradition or group does not necessarily mean that a person is a Polytheist identified religionist. Traditions are containers that provide structures for directing community and worship to the gods, as well as that which may be received from the gods, based on unique agreements with those gods. Some groups may be tradition-specific while others may be regional and follow a form of Foundational Polytheism for guidance without a specific tradition or “technology” to inform their structuring and protocols. Religions have protocols; in absence of a tradition which informs those of a group, that group would be well-served by following some basic foundations, rather than eclectic whim. ↩
- The Polytheist Movement is a loosely organized human rights and religious rights movement made up of affiliated Polytheist-identified religionists and their allies, who are seeking to: expand the popular understandings of what Polytheist religion and identity is all about; increase the protections and dignities that they are promised by universal declarations; create outreach, education, and networking platforms for engagement. It is not a religion, or even a group of religions. It is a rights-based movement with the mission to protect those Polytheist-identified individuals from harm, erasure, and oppressive hostility. Its interests and aims are primarily in education, visibility, outreach and alliance, serving the needs of both Polytheist-identified persons and polytheistic religious groups, traditions and lineages. It serves to represent and provide resources of support for identified needs unique to polytheism. ↩
- Thiasos of the Starry Bull is an emergent Magna Graecian Bacchic Orphic religious mystery tradition, with growing international membership, regional ritual gatherings, and initiatory rites, whose followers devoted to the worship of Dionysos. ↩
- “NorTrad, VT” is a made-up hypothetical Norse-focused devotional cult that I sometimes use as an example in discussions, and one of its fictional members – Johnny Maple – is an atheist who is really interested in Norse culture and fellowship, does leather-working and metal-smithing, shows up on time to rituals (which he loves attending) and is respectful of frith and kin. That he is an atheist means that he is not a Polytheist; but his local cult accepts him as a member as kin, making him a member and practitioner of a polytheistic religion, just like an atheist Catholic who practices and attends mass is still a Catholic without being a Monotheist. “NorTrad, VT” is an example I use of a theistically inclusive polytheistic organization, in that its leadership structure does not deny access to those of unconfirmed or unexamined theistic identity; they enforce decorum on merit of behavior, conduct, and fellowship, and guide their rituals according to polytheistic precepts, without requiring every single participant member to be a student of religious studies, self-examination, or theology, merely to have a place to enjoy the benefits of the tradition and its worship. That said, the focus is on worship, not leather-making or metal-smithing; that some of the others may also benefit from Maple’s skills in these areas is an aside, and not central to the religion at large. ↩
- Foundational Polytheism – “a collective starting point for religious engagement and “entrance” into polytheism, in practice or identity, addressing particular distinct needs of polytheistic religions not adequately provided for elsewhere, which does not replace, supplant, or override the internal structures of individual polytheistic religions, but rather, 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”. Other terms that were lobbed around at various times for this include: core polytheism (rejected because of unacceptable association with Michael Harner’s “Core Shamanism” and its horrible culture-erasure), pan-polytheism (never caught on or outright rejected; perhaps confusing however because it suggests a merging of all polytheisms in literal etymological meaning), and so forth. “Foundational Polytheism” was arrived at while ruling out the defining terms “fundamental” (because of association with politically radicalized ideologies in our present and past world history and conflicts) and “elementary” (because I can’t hear this word and not imagine Sherlock Holmes saying it). “Foundations” are what are being talked about, taught, offered up, explored, examined; they are the building-blocks and bedrock of tradition, theology, and living authentic religion in practice and paradigm. ↩
- “I think a god called. Now what?” is an article by Tess Dawson from 2013, wherein she responds informally to a basic “newbie” question, with compassion and foundational insight. The closing section, on offerings, was targeted by some corners as being an attempt to “tell others how to do things” in an authoritative way, which any reasonable reading of the article will clearly demonstrate is not. This volatile response suggests several important things: 1) many readers on the internet are not reading critically or “in good faith”, and are instead actively seeking to find things to be conflictual around. 2) many readers on the internet are not critically informed or educated in the subjects that they are engaging in conflicts around. 3) many readers prefer constant conflict over critical and educational “good faith” discourse because it distracts and deflects from the deficits in their own understandings, thereby dodging any uncomfortable or chafing revelations that might be discovered in accidental self-examination. Many decentralized voices in the polytheistic discourse online seek to keep the whole conversation decentralized – that is, without balance, foundation, stability – because they themselves did not have this, and seem to be worried that it might mean they (lacking those things in some way or another) may not find themselves “welcome”. Except that these foundations and stabilizing critical discussions and discernments are for everybody who wants them or could make use of them: that’s the point. Certainly, though, nobody needs to engage the material at all. In any event, the active “conflict warring” between corners of the internet communities is constant and an ongoing problem, which can and must be resolved to some degree by further developments of stabilizing starting points, boundaries, and bar-raising expectations, otherwise the discussions are little more than dog-chasing-tail exercises in futility. ↩
- Polytheism is a category of religions, which can be most accurately understood as religions of relation, wherein a given distinct religion provides for its adherent a set of relationship guidelines, boundaries, expectations, protocols, resources, structures, and in short, agreements, between those specific worshippers (and/or clergy) and their specific gods. Figuratively speaking, polytheistic religions are like vessels, ships at sea, which contain the expectations and articles of practice and theologies that define the dynamics of relationship between genuine members of a given religion and their of gods. Each religion could be visualized as a distinct ship, or in the case of broader religions – such as “Hellenic polytheism” – as whole fleets of ships, with individual regional cults making up individual charter vessels with their own internal contents (which may or may not be autonomous from the fleet it “sails with”). As with all relationships, religious relationships have rules, boundaries, and expectations. ↩
- While many people engage in these issues primarily through social media or the blogsphere, some of us – clergy, mostly, but not exclusively – take our leadership and religious responsibilities a step forward and provide counsel, consultation, mentorship, and one-to-one education opportunities for a whole host of seekers from all sectors, generally without any compensation for our time or efforts, despite our professional training and qualifications in what we do. That most of us are unpaid in this pursuit, despite our dedication and availability and often professional-grade training, is a key thing that should be considered by anyone not engaging at this level of professionalism who would otherwise seek to attack with hostility those of us who are. We work tirelessly in this area on behalf of others, for the love of our religions, our cultures, our identities, our gods, and our communities. Getting attacked for that by yahoos on the internet is uncool. Sure, it comes with the territory, but maybe it could come a little bit less, or at least have the decency to aim elsewhere. ↩
- It should (hopefully) come as no surprise to you, gentle readers, to hear that the Western world has a fairly bloody history with regard to indigenous populations, cultures, and religious traditions. Those peoples who survived colonization (in North America, in Europe, in Africa, in Polynesia, in the Caribbean, in India, and elsewhere) and physical genocide are still not safe, for the major (Monotheistic) religions of the world (backed institutionally by major national governments, militaries, economic super-systems) are interested in eradicating their ways of life, worship, and religious connection at large, through any means possible. Missionary work is murder, period. Indigenous societies, traditions, and religious structures are at constant risk of eradication, when even the so-called “progressive” Leftists advocate for a supremacist uniformity or secularism, seeking to “cure” indigenous cultures of their “backward superstitions” by “sending them” some – to quote a prominent member of ADF speaking on the subject of Christian-influenced homophobia in Africa – “Western secular missionaries” (because colonial ideas don’t fall far from the tree, I guess). The radical Left seems to feel that any person or culture which holds to indigenous tradition and cultural expressions is courting fascist ideology and needs to be “reckoned”. The privilege-fattened Western post-industrial luxury world also seeks to criminalize and moralize traditions which practice traditional (ethical, specialist-trained) rites of animal slaughter, which in addition to their religious and cultural import, are often the primary source of food for the people in question. Pervasively invasive Western Leftist value systems – ironically often couched in the language of anti-colonization or anti-capitalism, while still drawing its actions and maneuverings almost exclusively from the playbook of both – and conservative Monotheistic
missionariesextermination goon squads, and “progressive” secular New Atheists (fraudulently claiming to represent science and reason) are, ultimately, all very real and active threats against indigenous rights, religious and otherwise. Tack onto this radical political-military regimes in the world at large, regularly bombing sacred sites or seeking to physically and murderously wipe out whole ethnic groups (such as the Yazidis), and major Western governments outlawing or systemically “blocking” essential religious actions (such as the United States Federal Government’s long-standing history of illegal raids on Native American religious practitioners to seize federally protected religious articles). The issues are too complicated to address in anything resembling comprehensive form here, but know that it is an act of erasure to assume that “polytheism” references “white Americans dressing up in historic European garb and praying in a city park” exclusively. It does not. The religious rights and expansive protections – and advances in visibility – earned by polytheistic religions as a whole can and will have ramifications for religious and cultural liberties at large, beyond those specific groups doing the activism… especially if those of more privileged/protected demographics make-and-keep themselves aware of the at-risk groups found throughout the world (without trying to appropriate/steal their religious identities or practices at the same time). White Western culture does not own polytheism. Fighting for religious rights is a part of fighting for human rights, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. Indigenous rights include the enforcement and expansion of protections of religious freedoms. Discussions of polytheism by the privileged might not speak to the experience or specific traditions of indigenous populations, but they certainly can be involved in contributing to the expansion and defense of religious rights. ↩
- Polytheism is defined as the affirmation, with religious regard, of many gods who are held to be genuine and differentiated both from one another (hence the “many”) and from human consciousness. This definition is further added to by Edward Butler, in the Doctrine Universal to Polytheism. ↩
- ..not clear on why this matters? Many practicing Catholics are actually atheists or agnostics, but still practice and are very much Catholic, without being very much (or at all) Monotheistic, or remotely theistic for that matter. Secular Catholics are a thing. It is inaccurate to call these Monotheists; rather, they are adherents to a Monotheistic religion, while themselves being more accurately descried as atheists, secularists, non-theists, etc. ↩
- The majority of non-indigenous polytheistic religious practitioners in the Western world are converts to these traditions, generally from either a secular culture of origin or the overculture of Monotheism. Many also further converted “through” various magical, esoteric, or witchcraft oriented practices, which may or may not have included the affirmation of many distinct gods held in religious regard, but may also have dealt with dualist (god + goddess), or other-than-theistic (e.g. Gnostic, pleromist), or atheist underpinnings. Conversion into polytheism from any combination of these will result in distinct needs and experiences with regard to unpacking prior paradigms and “relearning” certain necessities in order to really “get” polytheism. Conversion experiences take time, and are best approached patiently, with an understanding that it is a process, not an automatic opt-in event. ↩
- Polytheists of either indigenous or non-indigenous culture-and-religion backgrounds may have been “born into” or otherwise “raised into” polytheistic religion, absent conversion process from another religious or spiritual background. Examples of such can be found in ancient indigenous religions (Hinduism, Shinto, Hawaiian religion), family traditions, and received new or reconstituted traditions. ↩
- Different people, different needs, different reasons… discerning between these is a discipline which requires some deep D’s: distinctions, differentiations, definitions. Discernment “is not a catch-phrase platitude to be whispered intently in New Age drum circles, glossy-eyed and meaningless. Discernment is a discipline,” and it takes some level work to get it right. The building blocks of discernment are found in the “the ability to recognize distinctions, which call for the active differentiation between some things from other things, which in turn relies on the knowledge or ability to seek the knowledge of the specific definitions related to those and other things”. Without these, there is no critical thinking, and everything is meaningless, and your words are without value, no matter how charmingly you bat your eyes when you say them. ↩
Your “the affirmation, with religious regard, of many gods who are held to be genuine and differentiated both from one another (hence the “many”) and from human consciousness.” and even Butler’s “the genuine existence of many Gods” are probably unhelpful for Shinto, which is widely considered to be polytheism, but isn’t belief-based. What’s the difference between a god and a “genuine” god? Are the gods “real”, or are they part of human consciousness, or are they something else entirely? Shinto doesn’t say, and Shinto priests are not taught this or indeed any other doctrine.
TBH I don’t think belief-based definitions even work for ancient Greek and Roman religion.
Thanks for responding. Unfortunately I’m not sure you really took away from my article what is actually presented (and repeated several times) within it, and the associated reference (cited) links.
“Affirmation” is not necessarily belief, nor is it limited to practice. You seem to be making some assumptions about this term that seem problematic, or at least not detailed in what you’ve written.
Further, in Shinto — a religion that I am far from an expert in discussing, and have never claimed to be — which is indeed “widely considered” to be an example of a polytheistic religion — if a human participant, (be they a priest or a lay devotee or a visitor from outside of the tradition in attendance at a local shrine), engages in a religious practice *without affirming* the genuine existence of [gods, spirits, kami, et al] then they are “a participant in a polytheistic religious practice” (as defined clearly both in the article, in the end-notes, and in links off-site) who may or may not be (pending that tradition’s approach to the qualifiers of membership) considered an internal member of that religious body. However, it would be inaccurate to say that they are “a Polytheist”, rather that they are a “person participating in polytheistic religious practices”, as with the example given of the hypothetical (but quite common in real-life) atheist Catholic, who attends mass and signs the cross and practices the religion; this Catholic is an atheist, not a Monotheist, although this does not necessarily negate their identity as both a Catholic in membership and identity, as well as “a practitioner of a Monotheistic religion”, despite not being a Monotheist themselves.
If I falsify Canadian citizenship papers, smuggle myself across the border, and engage in Canadian economics as a small business owner, pay Canadian taxes, and even enter into Canadian politics, it could be said that I am “a practitioner of Canadian economics, business, and taxation”, and “a participant in Canadian political process”, but it would be inaccurate (and dishonest) to describe me in good-faith as “a Canadian”, although obviously in this case (due to falsified documentation) this would be my intent. However, my “intent” to be perceived by others as a Canadian does not in fact make me a Canadian, as there are specific things which define what is or is not a qualifying condition of Canadian-ness.
Polytheists, at the identity level, are individuals who affirm with religious regard the existence of many gods, who are distinct from humans. The “religious regard” is essential (as has been written repeatedly) because otherwise Evangelical Christians and Mormons could be considered Polytheists, in that they (often) “believe” in many gods, but they do not render unto these “religious regard”, rather stripping them of godliness altogether and casting them in an entirely different light (such as when Mormonism retroactively baptized Norse gods into their tradition, to nullify Norse pre-Christian religion). Clearly neither Evangelicals or Mormons are to be considered Polytheists at either the identity level, or polytheistic at the organizational level, and so “religious regard” becomes imperative. Similarly, one’s identity as a Polytheist — or any other kind of theist — is dependent upon one’s affirmed “theism”, or “theistic paradigms”.
If you believe that paradigms and/or world-views are to be rejected in consideration of identity, then you are unfamiliar with all three of these concepts, and we are not engaged in a potentially fruitful exchange.
If, however, you acknowledge that identity is informed by (or indeed in some instances informs) paradigmic considerations, e.g. the “world-view” through which experience of reality and creation are cognitively processed, then you can freely do away with the limiting dichotomous binary of “belief vs practice” which your response seems to indicate. Paradigm is beyond belief and practice, but includes either, or both, or in fact neither. (For example, somebody who is paradigmically atheist might find themselves trying very earnestly to find a way to be Catholic, like their parents or spouse or local community, but might find themselves unable to genuinely engage in either belief *or* practice.)
The word “belief” appears only once in my article, and then only in the definition of “polytheistic religious tradition”, which are said to be “specific religious traditions which are assumed to hold polytheistic frameworks of engagement, practice and belief.” If you can come up with a more adequate and elementary definition for a “polytheistic religious tradition or group” then this, I invite you to share your thoughts or offer alternatives.
Back to your concerns about whether a god is a “genuine god” or what you seem to term just “a god” (I’m not sure what you mean here), and “real”, or “part of the human consciousness”, or “something else entirely”. Shinto may not say. I do not know this to be true, but do not contest your statement; I am, as stated, not an expert on Shinto. However: considerations of “real” or “genuine” vs “not real” when engaging through a theistic lens of consideration is actually pretty straight forward: if a person considers the things that they refer to as gods to be expressions of human consciousness, then what they are talking about are not theistic considerations at all, but psychological, archetypal, humanist, or mythographic considerations, none of which are part of any -theism (poly- or otherwise), but instead some other discipline which is not theistic religion in foundation. This is an article on certain foundational concepts in theistic religion. Concepts which are atheistic are not part of theistic religion. That’s… what “atheist” means.
Gods-as-human-consciousness-artifacts are not “theistic” gods, and therefore the word “god” in this context is merely a symbol to represent something metaphoric. Metaphor is complicated (only not really, but you’d think so, with how rabidly misused these concepts are in modern discourse) and many of these seemingly semantic disconnects are actually just failure to recognize metaphor as metaphor in the critical sense. Example of a metaphor: “I am a real warrior, a real fighter, for surviving my stroke and getting through the requisite physical therapy to regain use of the paralyzed half of my body without professional guidance or support, in isolation”. The metaphor is the use of the terms “warrior” and “fighter”, which are not terms that in any literal sense describe what I did. Nor would other metaphoric terms, such as “trooper” or “boss” or “rockstar”. All of these are descriptors commonly employed as metaphor in figurative context, to communicate a popularly recognizable idea which is, in short, *poetic and literary* rather than literal. (As an aside, I am also actually a warrior and a fighter, in the literal combat sense, but that is an aside and unrelated to my stroke recovery.)
A lot of words which are being used figuratively are assumed to be literal. When archetypalists reference “gods” which are not at all theistic in nature (e.g. actually religious theistic “gods”, but instead, mythographic constructs or expressions of human psychology or imagining) they are employing the fabled g-word in a figurative context, which is highly effective when discussing these matters in terms of popular recognizability, but highly ineffective at the same time (for it has failed, over time, to be continually recognized as figurative usage). This “figurative failure” or “metaphoric breakdown” is an act of popular erasure, because the things that they are utilizing figuratively — fighter, warrior, rockstars, deities theistic paradigms — are not made-up or illusory; they reference (and are directly related to) very real and living persons, whose experiences, world-views, realities, identities, lives, lifestyles, and internationally universally declared human rights are dependent upon the recognition and respect for these things.
Metaphors which are not recognized as metaphors are, in fact, just lies or (at best) “wrongs”, and in these instances they are such which actively harm (by way of erasure, and therefore diminished visibility, voice, and empowerment) other actual living humans.
Are Shinto priests atheist? Does the Shinto religion require of its members something of a theistic condition or paradigm? I do not know, although I would assume that as a polytheistic religion which engages actively with beings as an expression of its practices that the denial of these beings as real would be rather not encouraged. However, I am not writing about Shinto. I am writing about Foundational Polytheism.
And, as a reminder, in case you missed it: I am writing about Foundational Polytheism specifically to benefit those for whom it is useful and needed as an engagement, for access to conceptual building-blocks in the development of polytheistic (read: in the literal, none-metaphoric-sense of “-theistic”) practice, group, devotion, identity, or paradigm.
If you affirm that archetypes or concepts held in human consciousness are equally considered to be “gods” then we are not at all having the same conversation, and I kindly invite you to consider going to another website to talk about those other things. This is a religious website, dedicated to religious (theistic) discourse, education, and human rights work.
Thank you for reading, engaging, and considering. Many blessings.
Shinto is an ethnic religion: it’s bound up with “Japaneseness” and there isn’t really a separate “Shintoist” identity as such, or religious body similar to the Muslim ummah or Buddhist sangha. In this sense it’s quite unlike Catholicism or Canadian citizenship. What one actually believes is considered a private matter, and whether one actually “believes in the genuine existence” of the kami has no bearing on whether one is doing Shinto correctly.
Indeed many Japanese will tell you that Shinto is folklore, not religion. This is because “religion” is usually translated as shukyo, which means something like “religious doctrine”. Shinto is inseparable from Japanese culture, and shrines welcome visitors to Japan to participate in Shinto just as they might eat Japanese food or speak some of the Japanese language. If they take care to do so properly, such visitors are genuinely doing Shinto just as they are genuinely eating or genuinely speaking.
You define Foundational Polytheism as “the intrinsic and basic characteristics of polytheism”, and we agree that Shinto is a polytheistic religious tradition. But it’s not yet clear to me that these characteristics apply to Shinto. As far as I can tell, what you are establishing is a new thing, not necessarily a bad thing, but not encompassing all polytheism.
Actually, I defined Foundational Polytheism rather directly as “a collective starting point 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.”
The line you’re referencing, above, is not so much a definition as “another way of putting”; it was a lead-in. The definition follows the quoted section you supplied, which is the portion in big, italic, larger-than-life format in the middle of the screen.
You seem to be confusing terms, here, which suggests that maybe you’re new to how they’re being used. Thankfully I’ve created handy informationals to help with this, and they’re located in the works-cited section! These are all distinct terms which you are, in your replies, jumbling and merging amorphously together; this is literally the opposite of what this writing is about. (Hence my emphatic return to the importance of distinctions, and the disciplines of discernment.)
– “Polytheist Identity” is a personal thing, e.g. “I am a Polytheist”, in the sense that a person who is a seriously dedicated Catholic might “be a Monotheist”, such that it informs their whole world-view. This is not a secular identity. It is a theistic identity. That is to say, somebody who this term describes has theistic considerations *as a primary metric* for how they engage their world, themselves, and day to day life; a world populated by many gods, and probably also by many spirits, who are real and may often be engaged with (either reciprocally or not). A person of this identity type often experiences tremendous and cruel, harmful, dangerous erasure, prejudice, bias, or institutional attack; because of their affirmation of gods-and-spirits as real and perhaps present in the world in engageable and often directly (immediately) experienced ways, they are often (by the supremacist secular worlds) often written off as psychotic, or superstitious, or “devolved”. One popular S.F. Bay Area scholar, who is a regular engager in the esoteric and Pagan worlds up that way and teaches in professional folkloric capacity, called for a “culling of the herd” (direct quote) with regard to people who talk to their gods and hear back from them, and that these deserve to be institutionalized without consent, to become wards of the state. This conversation included at least one or two licensed mental health workers, who agreed. When we say “at risk”, we mean literally at risk. Persons for whom experiences and lived “real” relationships with the gods, in direct and immediate ways, are central to their lives — be they professional spirit workers or not — are at risk for losing their jobs, losing custody of their children, or being criminally or medically scrutinized for their religious and paradigmic experiences. This can include adherents to certain world religions and spirit-working traditions, many of which are polytheistic in nature, and can also include those who are Polytheists without a parent tradition, e.g. those who do not have a former organized religion (yet?) to house their experiences in. (Which is, after all, how religions often come about in the first place: through divine relation in that “raw” capacity.) As repeatedly pointed out, NOT EVERYONE INVOLVED IN A POLYTHEISTIC RELIGION IS A POLYTHEIST AT THE IDENTITY LEVEL. That’s not how words work. That’s not how THESE words work. Not because I, or anybody else, said so; but because that’s not how they’re used rationally and reasonably in the study of people or religions. (Again, the repeatedly cited example of the atheist Catholic applies.)
You seem to be conflating “Polytheist Identity” with “Foundational Polytheism”.
Which means you’re not reading, or comprehending, the definitions of either.
Further, “polytheistic religious traditions”, such as Shinto, or certain expressions of Yoruba traditional & derived religion (of which some statistics indicate there are 65 million practitioners of in the English and Spanish speaking worlds), are not “Foundational Polytheism”; they’re specific “polytheistic religious traditions”. As I said, repeatedly.
Foundational Polytheism is, as has also been repeatedly stated, not a religion, nor is it a set of instructions for established polytheistic religious traditions.
However, a lot of polytheistic religious traditions, worship groups, or smaller household practices, are coming out of (and/or struggling to survive within) a Monotheistic overculture, which would see them daily erased, subjugated, minimized, negated; as such, these can benefit from some of the basics of Foundational Polytheism.
You seem to have a totally secular view of what religions are, e.g. that the spirits and the gods and the rules within them are 100% socio-cultural, rather than the other way around (wherein the socio-cultural might be formed by, or informed through, spiritual relationships and connection). This view you seem to hold is totally modern Western view. It is not, generally speaking, a polytheistic view.
Lots of people “find” or “are taken up by” or “experience profoundly” or are “claimed by” or “stumble into relationship with” gods and spirits who they might not even know the names of, well outside the bounds of established tradition or continuity of formal practice. This happens daily. How do I know this? Because I am a full-time priest and I spend probably sixty hours a week responding to phone-calls and email correspondence and otherwise providing counsel and consultation for persons who have had this happen to them, and the same is true of every colleague I work with across over a dozen religious traditions and polytheistic frameworks. For those who are “new” to worshipping or engaging with or relating to or being plucked up and overcome by real gods and spirits — not myths, not stories, no ideas, not concepts, but real beings and intelligences with agency and immediacy — what is needed is not conjecture about myth, or archetypes, or secularisms, or cultural meanderings. What is needed is immediate structure, support, and some basic foundations through which a process can be assembled to deal with it, and — maybe — build a religious practice out of it.
Foundational Polytheism is adaptive, and elastic, in terms of what it is presenting. For example, in Kemetic Polytheism, devotees might perform a ritual offering wherein they are required to *eat the food items given* at the end, for this is how they receive blessings from their gods. This is counter to a LOT of polytheistic religious practices, wherein offerings of that sort are *not to be eaten* by the worshippers. A newcomer to experiencing gods all of the sudden, unless they know or presume these gods to be of a Kemetic nature, should probably not start snacking on the offerings that they’ve given to those gods. Why? Because in most cases, this is an offense: it is sort of like giving a slice of cake to an honored guest whose hospitality you are responsible for, and then grabbing it out of their mouth while they’re chewing, and ramming it into your own. That’s rude, disgusting, and a major hospitality violation. Kemetic religion, on the other hand, requires this; although I don’t know that the worshipper is *punished* if they fail to do it (e.g. their is no harm in failing to eat the offered food, aside from missed blessings). This means that advising newcomers whose gods are not presenting as Kemetic in nature to give offerings which are then *not to be eaten by the newcomers* is a good foundational starting point, which can be adjusted, adapted, or expanded on as time goes on and those relationships deepen.
Where are you getting lost in this?
Real gods, real spirits, real relationships.
And, handy articles and scholarship detailing how these terms should be rationally and reasonably employed.
The “Polytheist Movement” is not a religion, either: it is a loosely organized band of writers, priests, devotees, and scholars, working toward the expansion of human rights, religious freedoms and resource/outreach/education in the sectors of polytheistic religion and Polytheist identity.
In fairness, Ashley, I think you’re understanding “affirmation” as being creedal in nature when it isn’t necessarily. The dominant monotheistic religions are based on belief, and thus their essential epistemology is one of propositional knowledge, i.e. assent to these facts/truths and you are a member in good standing of this religion. Polytheist and animist religions have tended to be experiential and practical religions, non-creedal in nature, and thus their epistemological emphasis is on both acquaintance/experiential knowledge and procedural knowledge, i.e. encounter these things, do these things, and the understanding involved lies in the encountering or the doing, etc. “Affirmation with religious regard” does emphasize both experiential/acquaintance and procedural knowledge rather than propositional knowledge.
You are correct on Shinto, and it is almost entirely focused upon a religious epistemology of procedural knowledge, and thus emphasizes correct practice above all. However, that practice is based on a notion that what one is doing is effective and useful, and thus the Kami being venerated–no matter how they might be understood or defined theologically (if they are at all)–do exist on some level, and thus what one is doing for them is effort not in vain, and while it may have some benefits for personal development, it is essentially an extrinsic, extroverted practice. As you say, the exact beliefs (polytheist, monist, archetypalist, atheist) within the practice of Shinto aren’t taught and don’t matter (unless one is a theologian, but the Motoori Norinagas are pretty rare on the ground, both now and historically!), but underlying these practices has to be a basic sense that what one is doing is useful and effective, and that tends to require the acknowledgement of the existence and personhood of the Kami.
Bonus points for “personhood” being brought into this by somebody other than me— thank you as ever, PSVL. I probably could have held back and just waited for you to respond to the above. Ah well…
Essential to the discussions of polytheistic paradigms — and where applicable, animist structures and related — is the idea of attributed-and-affirmed personhood, which is an idea that I have written about (and have not seen very many others “tackle”) as essential to the discussion of agency-and-autonomy of “things that are not humans”, including gods and spirits and, in this instance, Kami.
Without a firm understanding not only of what “personhood” implies explicitly, but of what *affirmed* attribution of personhood looks like in execution, discussions of this sort are just circle-jerk tail chasers.
At this rate we might actually move beyond the preamble and establishment of terms and get to actual conversations about our religions. WOULDN’T THAT BE NEAT.
Apologies to The Thracian for replying to PSVL first. I accept the criticism from both of you that I am interpreting “affirm” too narrowly. But I do want to be sure of just what this new “polytheist” identity requires of belief…
PSVL, I think it depends on what you mean by “personhood”? Folks who buy an emi probably believe that kami can help them in their endeavours. Others feel grateful towards the kami and wish to express that. But as to what the kami actually are… maybe they’re really real beings with their own lives, maybe they’re religious interpretations of parts of nature and culture, maybe they’re fictional characters who have somehow ascended to be something else, maybe they’re purely metaphors in an essentially mechanical world. None of these beliefs are incompatible with Shinto, and I’m sure you can find folks believing any of these visiting a shrine any day of the week.
My own approach is to eschew theology in favour of mythology, where possible: mythology is what tells us of the gods, so the gods are real the way their mythology is true, that is, subjectively and in the context of particular time and place and culture, not absolutely or objectively.
Two quick points, though I recognize this reply was to PSVL (I’m confident e won’t mind my tossing in):
1) Personhood is not an abstract term with a whole bunch of different meanings; it’s a specific term in the study of religion and philosophy:
“Personhood” is a philosophical term that denotes a thing’s state of being at a spiritual level as unconditionally warranting consideration and rights, and should not be mistaken to be a form of anthropomorphic or human-centric qualities. Humans are one category of persons, but so are trees, animals, elves, rocks, deities and mountains; places, gods, baby deer and green lichen are all also beings which carry considered personhood, within an animist religious framework, and these may or may not be also attributed a measurable agency. “Other-than-human persons” is a term used in animist dialog to discuss these considerations with clarity. This is the essential concept in animism. Graham Harvey’s Animism: Respecting the Living World, New York: Columbia UP, 2006, is essential reading on the subject of animism, which are to be considered foundational to a polytheist framework. It can take a while to wrap one’s mind around when coming from a purely secular and humans-and-animals-as-the-only-things-that-matter-or-feel viewpont. Discussions of “rights” in an animist sense should not be mistaken to mean “legal rights” in a civic sense.” (Thrax, Theanos. “Religions of Relation: Place, Hospitality, and Regional Cultus in Modern Polytheist Religion and Practice.” Walking the Worlds 1, no. 2 (2015).)
2) “This new “polytheist” identity” is an incredibly condescending and disdainful way to describe what we’re talking about. Kindly adjust the way that you approach this subject, or find yourself elsewhere. Decorum, and such: you are a guest here, and “here” is a place which was established to create the safe space for discourse for polytheistic considerations, including and especially those for the at-risk demographic of persons who are identified as Polytheists at the core-level (paradigms) of self-and-world. The rules of hospitality apply, I am your host, and this is the only time I’ll speak on this matter. Further, there is nothing “new” about this identity. It is as old as time. In our current 21st century secular and mythographic culture of oppressive erasure, there is a newfound momentum toward visibility and defense of this identity. Tread not upon it, or you will find yourself unwelcome, with expedience.
2. Oh dear. I certainly don’t mean to disdain polytheism, and I apologise for suggesting so. But I am still considering how I feel about your Foundational Polytheism. Polytheistic religious traditions are bound up with culture and ethnicity, and I understand “polytheist” as describing cultures.
The new thing here is “polytheist” identifying individuals in a larger non-polytheist culture, in particular drawing on polytheistic religious traditions they have no direct cultural exposure or connection to. My feelings on this: it’s kind of missing the point, but at the same time there may not be any better option for a lot of people. I’ve been more interested in the concept of ethnic religion, revival and continuation of the polytheism still threaded in one’s own everyday culture.
1. Let’s put what you and PSVL said together: underlying the practices of Shinto has to be a basic sense that what one is doing is useful and effective, and that tends to require the acknowledgement of the existence of the Kami and that they unconditionally warrant consideration and rights.
I think this reaches too far. What one can say: that the kami inspire awe, or some similar emotion — but not necessarily all the time in all contexts. The presence of the kami can be a powerful experience, but a subjective and contextual one. A tree or a rock may have a powerful presence, one inspiring respect marked by a shimenawa (rope with dangly paper), but the nature of the personification of that presence is going to be highly variable. Sometimes that means folks collectively decide some kind of protocol, (e.g., don’t walk through the center of the torii, don’t pee on the sacred mountain, etc.) so that’s kind of like “rights” I guess?
I’ll be honest with you: while I’m not a Jungian or archetypalist, and I’m certianly not “godless” or “humanist”, the recent anathematisation of those folks rather rattled me and made me wonder if the new polytheist movement is something I can be a part of. For me truth itself is contextual: the gods exist, vitally and powerfully so, in some contexts, while in others the notion of “gods” is meaningless. For this reason I tend to speak of presence and absence of gods, as subjective personal and cultural experience, rather than objective belief in existence. I seek (and find!) the presence of gods here in the world, without worrying about commitments to believe, and Shinto has been an excellent model for that, but your Foundation does not seem to be.
I have to say, I’m getting a lot out of this conversation, as it’s helping me organise my thoughts, and I’m grateful to you (and PSVL) for that. But I can understand if I’m exasperating you.
“Polytheistic religious traditions are bound up with culture and ethnicity, and I understand “polytheist” as describing cultures.”
You are, of course, free to use whatever words you want to describe whatever you want, but these definitions and ideas you’re using are not reflected in any of the current polytheistic discourse taking place in the sectors referenced, which represent thousands of readers, dozens of writers, a huge intersection of different categories of polytheistic religious traditions, and a host of solitarily identified Polytheists. So, good luck with that; none of the terms and ideas and nuances you’re employing here will find “purchase” in this conversation, because you’ve failed to recognize the (very clearly, directly) defined usage of terms in the conversation you’ve entered.
“The new thing here is “polytheist” identifying individuals in a larger non-polytheist culture, in particular drawing on polytheistic religious traditions they have no direct cultural exposure or connection to.”
You’re still missing the point here. Polytheistic religious practice, and identity, are global; you seem to be treating them as “white people in America” topics, which just isn’t the case at all. You’re also making some pretty gross (and ignorant) assumptions about people’s backgrounds, “direct exposure”, experiences, connections, and so forth. You are mistaken, more or less about everything you just said, objectively and completely.
There is nothing “new” about people being polytheistic in a non-polytheistic culture, at least insofar as recent world history is concerned: what is “new” is the organization, visibility, and advocacy (human rights) work. Which, if I’m reading correctly, you take issue with. So just to clarify that for you, you’re suggesting that people shouldn’t be engaging in their own human rights work, on the grounds that you’ve (in many cases wrongly) assumed things about their cultural, ethnic, and world experience backgrounds. Go you: I’ll take erasure and colonialism 101 for 500, Alex…
It’s possible that you don’t mean these things the way that you’ve, well, said them. Directly said them. But in such a case, probably you should do some more reading, before seeking conversations that you “get a lot out of” and which “help you organize your thoughts”; probably these discussions aren’t to help you or your thoughts, in that they’re geared toward human rights, advocacy, and representing the needs of at-risk demographics you seem to be more likely to make weird othering assumptions about than understanding, finding solidarity with, or helping?
You’re [coming across as] not terribly well informed about religion, about animist world-views, or about what “identity” and “paradigm” are. Even from a cultural studies standpoint, you’re [writing as though you are] very under-read on religion, ecstatic experience, received traditions, and so forth; you’re [seeming to be] writing from an entirely secular and socio-civic standpoint, which has little to nothing to do with these discussions. (And I say that as a sociologist.)
Thank you for this article and the other resources posted within it. I believe this will be a valuable resource for those of us who handle inquiries from people interested in or new to our particular polytheist trads. My particular one is Kemetic and ‘Reconstructionist’, and though I am a newcomer to the public sphere in comparison to many others, already I’ve been responding to people with pre-conceptions of Kemetic practice and approaches – usually from a generic pagan or new age perspective. This is not a ‘bad’ thing, I think, in any moral sense. It is perfectly natural, but needs careful correction without injury or insult to either those traditions or the individuals seeking to find their way. And _that_ is why resources such as this are important to the communities of polytheists. I will be pointing people to this post as a way they can get started in thinking about how and where they may belong.
On your discussion of Kemetic consumption of offerings in the comments:
That is a valuable discussion in itself! I’d like to add to your comment about whether _not_ consuming offerings is ‘punishable’ in a Kemetic framework. The practice is named in Egyptian texts (wDb-rd, wDb-(i)xt) and there are ritual utterances that were and are used for it. We call it ‘Reversion of Offerings’ in English. The root meaning of the verb underlying those compound nouns above is ‘to turn around; to pull back; to re-route; to divert’. In our particular group (the Temples founded by and/or associated with Richard Reidy and his work) there is no notion of punishability if the offerings are not directly comsumed. But if we don’t consume directly, we offer them to plants or animals outside. It would be an insult to the Gods to throw them in the trash, especially since they so often have symbolic associations that are explicit in the ritual language used to offer them and they are part of the upholding of the Cosmic order by virtue of their being offered – all Egyptian ritual occurs on the Divine Plane (this is _not_ an Egyptian term) and so the objects and words used are therefor made sacred. (Note: that last sentence is my own personal elaboration, and it is a very terse summary of a big topic, so nuances apply that aren’t well-expressed in this small space).
The reversions in Egypt were vast hierarchical re-distributions of offerings – from the Chief God or Goddess of a Temple to the Associated Deities with their shrines there, to Royal Ancestors, to Private Tomb Chapels, to other Temples in the region (we have the records for this), to Priests (and their families), and/or to ordinary people (especially during the major festivals).
I am not familiar with how leaving offerings for consumption by animals and plants and fungi comports to the traditions that do not follow a human consumption model, but for a beginner who is as yet unsure, I believe they will be just fine placing or burying the offerings where other life may consume and thus revert them. Kind of like taking that hierarchical distribution to its inevitable conclusion while leaving out the middle persons who happen to be human. Would that work in a generic sense for those traditions where the hospitality mode is prevalent and consumption by people thus taboo?
The human consumption model is not unique to Egyptian practice – it is also found in Sanatana Dharma traditions, where offered food is called prasadam and food directly offered on plates before the Images of Devas is called maha-prasadam. Comsuming that food is considered very auspicious once the ritual use is concluded. (But I’m sure many of you already know that)!
Again, thank you for the post!
I was a witness of the whole debate about offerings in 2013 and how it started at all. The initial problem with Tess Dawson’s article was, that it was written not exactly for a generic audience, but as a response to a person who was approached by *specific deity*. The deity presented Himself as Serapis.
And, instead of giving some more specific advice (and proper egyptian context), Tess wrote simply a generic response and did not ever mention that in kemetic context, there is reversion of offerings. Then a debate went to the very wrong route about people who can’t afford expensive offerings and such. When the root of the mistake was simple: the one particular person was approached by greko-egyptian deity and he asked for advice about starting worship. It was not that particular case when an unknown deity approaches the person.
Simple mention of reversion of offerings in that article as more suitable in the context of worshiping Serapis, would have helped to avoid the whole flame war that followed. Unfortunately, not all participants of the further discussion were aware that it all started with Serapis, and not the unknown deity.
In the cited article, which does not mention specific gods or traditions and instead provides a Foundational answer, the author very clearly states: “ I know that even though there is only one person asking this where I can see it, there are dozens more who wonder about the same matter but haven’t asked it aloud yet. (If this is you: you there! Start asking aloud! It is desperately difficult for a person to answer your question if that question only stays in your mind and isn’t translated into written or spoken words.)”
Why this selected passage is important:
The author is, in the blog article cited and linked, clarifying that the answer to the question is one that is *general* and *foundational* for more than just the specific answer. This is what reasonable good-faith readers recognize as a standard “Q&A” style discourse. We get messages like this all the time, from all corners of the internet, from folks who do or do not have a sense of what gods might or might not be engaging with them, or from what traditions they draw. Dawson posted a blog with some well-considered, thoughtful, and solid recommendations —- which at least some Kemetics (as written about elsewhere) find to be completely acceptable for Kemetic practice anyway, where the “rites of reversion of offerings” (if I am using that term correctly) can absolutely be done in the manner Tess describes (e.g. returning offerings to the land), although she was by no means attempting in any visible way to write Kemetic-specific dynamics.
The rejection of foundational response because it isn’t about [the reader, properly] is a bias common in readership, because often people on the internet treat it like something that should be at all times tailored to them specifically, and their views/perspectives as paramount and central. Foundational responses are quite the opposite of these: they’re basic building blocks, from which views could be built upon or find stability from.
The flame-war wasn’t started because Tess didn’t respond about a specific god, the flame-war started because people don’t like foundations… especially because, often, they don’t have any themselves, although maybe this was magically not the case in the continual mis-reading of this particular post.
Are you sure you’re getting the information right about Tess’ post and Kemetics?
You’re correct that there was a kerfuffle in December of 2013 (same month and year as the post you linked to above) about offerings, but it wasn’t the post that you linked to that caused the issues.
So it makes me wonder if you’re misremembering, or perhaps misheard, which post caused the issue (if you’re curious, it was the Whine and Wine post)?
If we’re going to imply that Kemetics blew things out of proportion, I’d at least like the correct post to be cited, because believe me, more than just Kemetics had issues with “Whine and Wine”.
I, too, was present at this time in 2013, and recall the particular conflict around the particular blog post. I was not “misinformed”: I wrote about it in real-time back then, too, and was a part of the greater conversation that followed. Your supposition that I am “misremembering” or was “misinformed” about a thing I was a part of contests with other people who also remember the conflict and the post such as the above commenter.
Was there more than one conflict around that time? Yes. It was a conflict-heavy period. (Isn’t it always?)
The response in and around the Tumblr side of polytheistic discourse often blows things out of proportion when they perceive themselves as being “told what to do” from sectors which are writing foundational and education oriented writings, as though somehow these readers are compelled to engage them repeatedly even when it has probably become clear that those writers are intended for a different audience.
As another commenter elsewhere stated, this is a classic case of “is it possible I wasn’t talking too you, specifically, with this?”, because as in all of the foundational dialogs, they’re not for everyone.
But, yeah, ahem, the link is correct.