Polytheism, or Do We Really Need to Elaborate?


So, I went and reread John Halstead’s blog wherein he discussed Pantheacon’s “Wiccanate Privilege Discussion,” and something caught my attention. Having a TBI, it takes my brain a while to process what I am reading and interpreting that information. So while some will say “Duh,” it’s not for me. Yeah, I don’t get the obvious. Anyway, moving forward…at the bottom of the article, John has a subsection entitled “Polytheistic with a Hyphen.” In the article he referred to Lupus’ discussion of the word polytheism and the nuances which can cause confusion and, thus, conflict when using a word which may mean different things to different people. John encourages people within the Greater Pagan Communities who identify as “polytheists” to perhaps use prefixes which differentiate their particular polytheist thealogy (i.e. devotional, hard, soft, Jungian, etc.). Galina responded to John’s suggestion of the hyphen usage here, and it’s a great write-up. I strongly suggest reading those articles before reading my own thoughts on the entire matter below.

Let’s start with the basics. Polytheism is rooted in two Greek words:

Polu – “Many”
Theos/Theia – “Divinities.”

But there is much more than just the simple definition given above. Ancient Greek carried with each word an entire cultural milieu that had a specific set of visual associations which pertained to the semiotics of the word. Thus, “theos” came with a shared cultural understanding of a phenomenon. That phenomenon sharply contrasts with our modern Western Christian-infused concept of “God.” For modern people within our Christian-majority environment, “theos” or “God” comes with a specific set of synonyms and adjectives including the notion that the Sacred is separated, or transcendent from, the mundane. Humanity, as part of the mundane sphere, cannot be privy to the sphere wherein lies the Divine Concept but through the sacrificial acknowledgement and belief in the expiation of Jesus. But more than this, “theos” has come to insistently mean “One.”

One God, One Being, One Power, One Force.

And even where the Christian Trinity can be clearly cited as an example of Polytheism, yet the Christian doctrine emphasizes repeatedly that the paradox is that it is “3-in-1.” So, no matter how separated the various Beings are, invariably They are One. The monistic concept of the Trinity has bled into our Pagan/Polytheist outlooks, with evidence around that people simply have trouble abandoning their Christian doctrines in the face of even the apparent contradiction that the Church enforces its believers to adopt. When we say that the world is filled with spirits and a host of Celestial Immortals, those still entrenched in Christian philosophy cry out “No! They are not independent Beings but simply ‘Many-in-One!’” The plurality of polytheism is surrendered for a desired homogenous state that exists only within the utopic minds of its adherents. The works of Joseph Campbell in his “Monomyth” and Frazer’s “Archetypal Sacrificed God” have also served many modern Pagans to give notice to the “Mono” over the “Many.” While the works of both have brought many people a wonderful foundation into modern Paganism, the unfortunate side effect is that people try to find in our practices how the variety of Temples, Cults and Traditions are similar before meriting an agreement of “Hey look! We can have a festival together!” The differences are excluded in favor of false conformity.

A World of Spirits and Beings
To the ancient Greek mind (and, cross-cultural comparatively other pre-Christian cultures both ancient and modern) there existed no word like “religion.” Instead, a concept that comes closest to that word is theon timai “Honors to the Theoi.” The honors given to the Theoi are encapsulated within the ethos in how we live, what we practice, how we serve cultus, and the festivals which we celebrate. In other words, polytheism is not simply about faith, but it is more so directly tied into action and works. Again, our Christian culture has bled its teachings of “By faith and not by works” wherein people have tons of altars and shrines without ever feeding or giving attention to the Deities in question. Statues are mere decorations, and rituals are more concerned with the participants attending and the facilitator’s skill at drama and timing (so as not to interfere with the feasting!) over the specific acts which touched our ancestors with the spirit world. But Polytheism is about honoring the Theoi (or insert pantheon here) with action and works which ripple into our very lives. These actions and works are important because “theos” itself implies a “third objective power.” (L.A. Wilkinson, Socratic Charis: Philosophy Without the Agon). It refers to a specific presence that carries a weight and validity to the people who are within Their sphere.

“Otiose” is a word that means “Leisure,” or even “Serving No Practical Purpose.”  The word has come to be used in anthropology circles to describe polytheistic faiths such as Hinduism, some sects of Buddhism, and aboriginal tribal beliefs that do espouse a “One” Spirit that created everything or was responsible for creating the host of Beings and Spirits that inhabit a particular Cosmos, but the One itself is Unknowable, Untouchable, and Unconcerned with the world as-is. That’s why He/She created the Spirits in the first place: to run things. Think of a CEO playing golf and away from the company, never visiting or knowing what’s going on even with the daily worker. No, it’s the lead workers, the department managers, the operation supervisors and such within the company’s hierarchy that are concerned with the daily welfare of the corporation and its people. That’s us folks: we humans are the people at the bottom of the Cosmic rung in many ways. My Tradition’s teachings have a “One” as well: an otiose Protogonoi that cannot be touched or fathomed because S/He is everywhere. Yet S/He is unconcerned with anything at all except Hirself, and in the Grand Cosmic Scheme of things that’s all that matters really. So just because we have a “One” concept doesn’t mean we’re monotheistic. No, we’re Polytheistic. We work with the Divine Beings and Spirits that inhabit this world, and our temple’s power rests upon the honors that we bestow upon Them through our ritual actions and works.

Emic vs. Etic
Abundant evidence of polytheistic practices demonstrates that for many in both the ancient and modern world, rituals are tied specifically to a spirit or Divinity. As Jan Bremmer writes, “It is neither practical nor advisable to study the two entities separately.” (J. Bremmer, Ed., The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations). But the problem with modern Polytheism in general is that arguments against Polytheism are coming from those who are outside the Polytheistic scope. They are brandishing themselves “polytheists” without the complex understanding that the word in and of itself entails: the honoring, through ritual action and works, of many individualized and supra-powered Beings. In cultural anthropology, the contrasting view between studying the innards of a paradigm from a person within that culture as opposed to an objective observer who is an alien to that paradigm is known as emic vs. etic, respectively. The problem with etic observers is that they come with a template of biases which cloud what they are attempting to document and understand. They have a limited background that is not rooted within the Polytheist Model. If you want to approach Mythology and the Theoi (or insert pantheon here) via the Jungian School of Thought, you are not a Polytheist. You are a lay psychologist, a Jungian, or perhaps a Pan-Deist. But you are not a Polytheist.

It surprises me that we even need to have this argument of “hyphens” and prefixes. Polytheism is what it is. I reverence the Ancestors, the Heroes, and the Theoi of my Temple. I am a Polytheist. They are independent of me, and ritual is my lifeline to Them. It is also how I feed my spirits, those to whom I am aligned to. I probably could have just come out straightforward and made these statements, thus making the blog shorter. But honestly, I think some backstory was needed; research, if you will. Polytheism is not a term for anyone to use – in my opinion (lest I get angry messages about being too authoritative and…ah fuck it!) ….

Polytheism is NOT a term for ANYONE to use unless they are serving Spirits and Beings which are viewed as independent and volitional Beings in Their own right – NOT figments of the imagination or caricatures of the human psyche.

Go ahead, send the e-mails.

Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)


Bremmer, J., and Erskine, A. (Eds). (2010). The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations.

Wilkinson, Lisa A. (2013). Socratic Charis: Philosophy Without the Agon.

3 thoughts on “Polytheism, or Do We Really Need to Elaborate?

  1. suspectglow says:

    I don’t understand why this is so difficult to get through people’s heads. Most people aren’t going to take you out back behind the wood shed if you aren’t a polytheist, so you don’t need to go cramming yourself into a label that doesn’t work.

    Especially “soft-polytheism”. What people usually mean is “open monotheism” or “monolatry/monism”, where there’s one deity who manifests in many forms (like in some Hindu sects). But calling yourself an “open monotheist” just doesn’t give you the same amount of street cred, I suppose.

    I’m mostly okay with “devotional-polytheist”, though, because I feel like it describes a particular kind of relationship (or desired relationship) with the Powers.

  2. runeworker says:

    I’m going to send you an email right now :P

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