• The True Faith is the life of the follower, without it he is nothing, with it he has contained something of all creation. Robert Cochrane
    "The Faith of the Wise", published in Pentagram (4), November 1965

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My Polytheism

Inspired by reading this post and this post, and of course the conversations that inspired them to write. (And to ping other people who wrote on this that I found after starting this, let’s say this post and this post.)

My polytheism is a hot mess.

My polytheism doesn’t include having a neat and tidy sense of what is a god and what is a spirit and what is a thing that has divine power and what is a thing that is a divine power. It is full of apotheosis, tree spirits who are just as describable as the god of that specific tree, dead gods, reborn gods, fictional gods, good folk, spirits of various shapes, things that are obliquely lurking on the boundaries of god-dom, demons, and perhaps a shortage of angels because that one I can’t actually shake the popcultural model for well enough to actually use that word for ‘that thing that’s sort of a messenger-emanation of something that’s probably categorisable as a god, with at least partially independent existence’.

I don’t envy people who have cleaner and tidier lines among these categories, so much as am wholly baffled by them. Nothing in the universe is that straightforward; even species is a blurry-boundaried category. I can take no comfort in categorisations that are so simple and obvious; even aside from the fact that I am so often uncomfortably in the middle of either-or dichotomies, they so easily shatter into heroes and villains, us and them. (And if there are heroes and villains, and gods and everything else, then the only way to be a hero is to be on the side of the gods against everything else, and how much does that explain in the world?)

My polytheism doesn’t much care if something’s a god. Everything is, nothing is, something more complicated than that; all these things are true. The gods tell me to do less for the gods, and more for other beings, and some people tell me that that’s still all about Absolute Service To The Gods, who tell me to go do something else. People confuse me a lot; gods rarely do. For all that communication and communion with the gods is riddle-laden, confounding, full of communication static, and sometimes more based on hope than security, it is less bewildering than the human ability to twist meanings. Respecting the preferences of a god is not that different than respecting the preferences of the land spirits or respecting the preferences of a human being or, for that matter, the cat, though the cat is more likely to pee on things than most gods.

My polytheism sprawls. It takes up more than its fair share of the bed. It encompasses both “Of course you offer to so-and-so for that problem, they’re the one in that pantheon that handles that kind of issue, it doesn’t matter that you aren’t devoted to them personally” and “Actually, this god pointed me at that outside contractor.” It remembers a blot to gods I’d never addressed before and might never address again, earnest, “You don’t know me, but I know one of yours, and she’s having brain surgery, please look after her,” thrown out in the vague direction of what I hoped was audible to the Norse powers. It includes emails to people planning on attending a gathering, “Who are your guests this time? Do we think everyone will get on or do we have to plan around that?” It includes figuring out how to balance my own gods with those of the people I live with, building household shrines that encompass us all. It accretes, like a katamari, things that it rolls over, some of them becoming important, others a casual acquaintance, someone who checks in sometimes, someone who I’m on friendly terms with without giving extra honour to.

My polytheism doesn’t worry about whether the lines are cleanly drawn between forms, between one god and another, between polytheism and other things. It cannot get worked up about monism, for is not Ptah in every body and every mouth of all the gods, all men, all cattle, and so on? Do not from her all things emerge, and unto her all things return? Or is that line too much witchcraft and not enough Twoo Polytheism? My polytheism doesn’t care. My polytheism notices that the gods are distinct, except when they are not, and that the same gods are and are not blurred together, rather than becoming, as one scholar said of Egypt, “a vague, solar-tinged pantheism”. My polytheism knows that all things are Ptah, and that all things are themselves, and that the parts of the human body are also the parts of gods, and that all of this stuff is in ancient texts that I could smack someone with multiple translations of that I can almost reach from where I sit. Anyway, today Hetharu may also be Sekhmet, but tomorrow they might not be. Gods are like that, sometimes.

My polytheism is of the world. This thing here, this notable moment, might be a theophany of someone. Best to treat it with respect. That voice might be divinely inspired. This tree might be holy. But there is no might be; there is are, each tree, each voice, each living being, is the breath of a god, and breath is the soul, is the soul of a god, and what is the difference between the soul of a god and a god, anyway? Setting aside the fact that my polytheism has theologies of apotheosis, of human obligation to strive for the divine, the better to bring the divine into the world, embody it, make all things whole.

My polytheism is ecological. Not only does it demand plurality, demand the proliferation into the proverbial millions of things, but it does so because the world requires many different approaches, many different points of view, and monocultures die in plagues. If Wepwawet opens a door, Set blasts through a wall, and sometimes the world needs doors, and sometimes the world needs holes blasted in the wall. (Building a livable house has different requirements than Cold War-era Berlin.) There are a myriad powers and a myriad worldviews and a myriad wounds in the world, and not all of them have the same solution. Further, the web of life – of which one might say the gods are custodians – has give and take among differences, has different roles, different functions, and no one thing can do all things. That my polytheism differs from others’ is just a given; I have a different place in the web, after all. I wonder at people who don’t get wary of too much sameness, too little opportunity for cross-fertilisation, who want the practices to collapse, the holinesses to all line up; controlling the web never works.

My polytheism is social. Not just that a pantheon comes with a net of relationships, and one engaged with a pantheon becomes a part of that webbing, its obligations, its reciprocations. But – like so many ancient cultures did – I adopt new things. New powers. New patterns. I am not any more afraid of putting Jesus up there with other powers than my ancestors were, the one who understood social connections better than the missionaries who thought they had convinced them to abandon one thing and take up another. Though these days that horrifies as many pagans as it did missionaries back then. People never change.

My polytheism doesn’t shy away from modernisms and innovations and weird personal insights. I don’t care whether the ancients would recognise everything I do because no matter what I do they wouldn’t; the world is just too damn weird. I keep most of this stuff out of my research-oriented face, because it doesn’t matter to the stuff that the research is about, and it’s not really footnoteable, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not real and in my practice. And really, if Hetharu wants to have a theophany as a Queen of Fairy I am not going to be the one to tell her no. If Captain America wants a little light I’m not going to argue with him about whether or not he’s a real god, or a real whatever he actually is, LED candles are under a buck a pop.

My polytheism comes with obligations. With things to do, and things not to do. Some of these obligations are bound up in tradition, and some of them are my burden alone, to better serve the work that I have to do. I am not burdened with a need to honour every god I encounter, but I am also not given strictures forbidding me from doing so, at least not so far. I have duties and promises that conflict with the pronouncements of those who claim to speak for all gods, to all people, things forbidden me that they say are obligatory, things I am obligated to that they say are forbidden. I put my trust in the gods before prophets, especially false ones; I do not have a prophet-oriented religion in the first place.

My polytheism tastes of salt and baking soda, cool water on the hands, ready for the formal with carefully assembled purity. It tastes of honeyed bread, laced with spices, buttered lavishly, a piece set aside for the house spirit in accord with our agreements. It tastes of spiced hot meat and divine laughter when I have poured too much spirits to drink and am obligated by tradition to finish it, winding up entirely too drunk and quite silly. It tastes of chocolate used as a shrine. It tastes of incense smoke. It tastes of red beer and red wine. It tastes of cake made according to ancestral recipe.

My polytheism demands action. My polytheism knows that every woman doing her cosmetics is seeing Hetharu in the mirror, that Amun hears all prayers, that the gods are fed on ma’at, and that ma’at is an ethos of community and a call to restore health to the wounded – body, soul, society, world. My polytheism may have its moments in the shrine, in the cleansed and pure and simplified, and then my polytheism wants to know when I am going to take what I’ve got and put it into the world. Among the things my gods have forbidden me is the lazy and self-indulgent life of singing their praises, tending their shrines, and failing to do anything real with their interests in the world.

My polytheism is entirely likely not your polytheism. Your tradition-specific theological concerns may not mean anything to me. Your assumptions about what devotion has to resemble are likely irrelevant to me. Your sense of the sacred has no hold over me. Your movement will not co-opt me.

My polytheism does not demand anything of you. Your belief is your problem. I’m certainly not interested in making it my problem. I have enough to do.

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