Polytheism is NOT a tradition

I’m going to keep this brief, because I have a life to live. But if someone tells you that diversity is “destroying polytheism” please show them this.

Dear Concerned Party,

You are being shown this blog post because you seem to think that diversity is contrary to Polytheism. You want to set up a Polytheist Community wherein only certain types of Polytheists count.

I’m just going to start by assuming that you have never taken an Anthropology 101 type course, and that your grasp of ancient human cultures is extremely limited. Forgive me. I can think of no other reason for your distress, or for your misguided notion that you can treat Polytheism like it is one community and one tradition.

I can think of no other reason why you would look at the ancient world, the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Icelandic, German, Celtic, Slavic, Chinese, and Nigerian Polytheisms, and think that you can sit there as a single individual, and make vast, sweeping generalizations about what Polyhtheism is.

Just speaking of ancient Polytheisms, tell me, which of them do you plan to exclude? Will you exclude the Egyptians because they had a period of monotheism for a little bit? Will you exclude the African or Hindu faiths for having some variants which believe in some kind of supreme being? Or maybe you’ll exclude the Norse for not having well developed ideas of ritual purity? Maybe the Romans will get left out in the cold for having been syncretic. Or the Greeks, because they believed that their gods physically walked among them, were strongly involved in human life and motivated by human offerings (i.e., is relational)?

Tell me, because I really want to know. Which of the ancient traditions that venerated many gods will you determine are actually venerating something other than gods? Which of them will you discredit based on their history? Or their philosophers? Or their lack of monolithic adherence to a single, non-contradictory, unchanging belief system?

Or, are you slowly coming to the conclusion that maybe you don’t really have the authority to exclude ancient faiths from having been Polytheistic? Maybe you don’t get to tell people in faiths and cultures that you don’t belong to what their religion means to them, or how many deities they think they have.

All I can advise you to do is this: study. If you don’t know where to start, read Pausanias, or other mythographers. See for yourself how even inside of one ancient faith, myths and ideas and values vary widely. Read Homer and then Nonnus, and see how beliefs change over time. Look into plural traditions and compare them. Notice how they may believe in plural divinities, but that might actually be where the similarities end, in some cases. Don’t just study a religion, but study it’s evolution over time in response to ecological, social and political factors.

Polytheism is not and never was a tradition. It is a descriptor. Words. They mean things. And this word? It’s from Greek. Polu- many, Theoi- gods, isma- related stuff.

Nowhere in the modern definition or etymology of that word is implied relational, devotional, mystical, rational, exoteric, purity-obsessed, unbothered by purity, high ritual, low ritual, reconstructionist, deconstructionist, presence of ancestor worship, absence of ancestor worship, liberal, conservative — No.

The word means, straight up, that the religions to whom the adjective applied believe or believed that they worshipped many gods. Religions, not religion. Gods according to their definitions, not according to yours.

The word isn’t yours, personally, to add extra definitions to. It doesn’t belong to your community. It belongs to humanity. If you want a definition of it, look in the dictionary. If you want to define it further, please study a large number of ancient and modern traditions to whom that word applies before you go saying anything foolish.

Yours truly,

Thenea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 comments

  1. Aine

    Though I was part the creation of ‘relational polytheism’ – and I know some people who find the word useful, and am glad of that! – I really do just like plain ol’ ‘polytheism’. Dictionary definition, simple but so much depth polytheism.

  2. Helio

    There is an issue of correct labeling that may be missed here: Hinduism is not a religion, but many, some polytheists while others are monists. You cannot therefore simply equate Hinduism with polytheism because they are not full synonyms and a similar reasoning applies to ancient Egyptian religion: if you call it Kemeticism, it can be a myriad of things, including monism and polytheism; but if you call it Kemetic or Egyptian polytheism, then it implies a religious regard for many gods, not just one (no matter how superior) nor many who are faces of one (which is monism).

    I sometimes get the impression that people use “polytheism” as a plain synonym for “ancient religion” , which is a mistake and can lead some to claim it just because they practice a (revived) pre-Christian tradition – even if a monist one.

    • Thenea

      Yeah, that was kinda why I put Hinduism and African religions in the same category. These are religions among both that are polytheistic, though not all are. Despite having that as a difference, the Hinduisms (and some number of Central African traditions) bear striking resemblances to one another. There are some who would exclude *all* Hindus from the Polytheist umbrella because a fair number of them subscribe to monist, pantheist or henotheist ideas. There are also people who want to make sweeping generalizations about “African Traditions,” seeking to exclude Santer@s, even ones who are additionally dedicated to Norse deities, for example, from the umbrella. That was why the two were included in the same sentence.

      I want to put forth the idea that a person, as a Monist, could be a Polytheist, Monotheist or Atheist (in the sense of believing in zero deities, as opposed to being an anti-supernaturalist). I am not a Monist. Trying to look at the world through a Monist lens is uncomfortable to me, at best. Yet, if a monist tells me that they believe in many gods, I am not going to tell them that they don’t. After all, a Blavatsky-style Monist believes in One Essence, and that all humans, too, are manifestations of one spiritual entity, but that doesn’t mean that they assume every person they meet can read their mind, or wants what they want. They may be philosophically a Monist, but they nonetheless recognize the existence of plural people. It is possible, as a Monist, to treat plural deities as separate and distinct entities with their own will and autonomy while fundamentally believing that their separateness is a metaphysical illusion.

      As for the Kemetic Orthodox faith, it is diverse, but I want to quote what they put in their own Wikipedia article, “Without belief in these gods one would have little reason to consider oneself Kemetic Orthodox” — Monist? Unclear. Not in the Madam Blavatsky sense, but in some sense. Polytheist? If you cannot adhere to the religion without believing in “these gods” then that religion is a polytheistic one. If they are seeking to use the label which means “many gods” because they see many gods in their religion, why should anyone be standing there telling them that they don’t actually see many gods? Why should anyone be telling them what they see in their religion?

      Atenism is also Kemetic, but it doesn’t attempt to call itself a Polytheism.

      The most important question in determining whether a tradition is Polytheistic or not is this question: How many deities does your religion venerate?

      Two religions might describe the same structure of the universe. If one calls some number of intelligences that is greater than one “gods” and venerates them, it is a polytheism. If it identifies only one thing in that worldview worthy of worship, it is a monotheism. That is why Judaism is a monotheism, despite believing in angels — because it says it is. Because, at the end of the day, Jews may believe in a world alive with divine beings and magic, but they don’t believe that anything but their singular tribal deity is worthy of their worship, no matter how strongly they might believe in the will and autonomy of that deity, and of humans, and of various other entities in the Hebrew cosmos. Because no one but them gets to say what they are actually venerating. Right?

  3. Tess

    This is wonderful. I’ve just started reading your blog, but I already know I can count on you to cut through the crap. Your practical and knowledgeable approach is appreciated!

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