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On the Value of Polytheism

by Ian Corrigan

From its founding, Ar nDraiocht Fein has chosen to approach divinity and spirit through the traditional models of Indo-European polytheism. We have taught that the many gods and spirits are individual persons, and not simply 'aspects' of some greater single 'God', or of any pair of deities, male and female. We find no evidence that the ancients believed that all goddesses are aspects of one Great Goddess, or all gods of one Great Horned God. Rather the Powers (i.e. the god/desses and spirits) were worshipped individually, each given their proper honor.

In our effort to rebuild the Old Ways we encourage students to adopt this approach to divinity. To some it will seem perfectly natural, while others may find it a bit jarring at first. Most Pagans come to us from modern cultures in which the divine is almost universally described as a single thing. This common assumption is the result of many centuries of deliberate effort by the missionaries of monotheistic religion.

The Victory of Monotheism

Beginning, perhaps, with a pharaoh of ancient Khemi, followed by the prophets of Israel and Judea and the Magi of Zoroaster, a small group of ancient peoples came to believe that a single divine person, omnipotent and omniscient, was the creator, owner and operator of the universe. They taught that the god/desses of other tribes were at best delusion or minor spirits, and at worst demons. They used military power to destroy ancient ways, razing the holy places, slaying their men and raping their women. They proselytized in the Graeco-Roman world, and monotheism gained control of the Roman Empire, pursuing a systematic effort to destroy Pagan religion. Eventually the new religious movement known as Christianity was enforced throughout Europe by the cultural descendant of the Empire, the Roman Catholic Church.

In the following centuries monotheistic belief spread through the world. Carried by merchants and missionaries in the in the Christian world, as well as by military force, monotheist ideas spread among traditional religions. Perhaps the final phase of that ideological expansion was the European colonialism of recent centuries. Using military and economic power, European nations ruled much of Africa, Asia and the New World. They did whatever they could to destroy traditional religions wherever they found them, and to impose monotheism.

The social Darwinism of the colonial era taught that there had been an 'evolution' in society and religion, and that European Culture and monotheism were the natural flower of human history. In this way they justified their economic and cultural domination of third-world peoples.

As a result of this long history of cultural imperialism, most of the intellectual world that the only 'civilized' concept of divinity is the monotheistic notion of a single universal being. Modern monotheism isn't limited to religious orthodoxies. They may be influenced by late Hindu philosophy, and may reject the Hebrew tribal Deity of the Mosaic tales in favor of a much more abstract principle. But among intellectuals, polytheist notions are far too often dismissed as 'primitive superstition'.

So it is not surprising when people bring monotheistic assumptions to their efforts to rebuild Paganism. That trend is supported by the strongly monotheistic trends of in much of so-called New Age thought. This modern esotericism combines Hindu and Buddhist doctrines with mystical strains of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The New Age often seeks to create a kind of universal religion, attempting to reconcile differences and applying novel interpretations to traditional symbols and ideas. This trend often restates the notion that humanity is undergoing a spiritual evolution from 'primitive' notions of many gods and spirits to a more 'sophisticated', unified understanding of divinity.

This version of spiritual evolution is not really less insulting to the ancestors coming from New Agers than it is from fundamentalists. It devalues the spiritual traditions of tribal and traditional religions, and asserts that western technological society is developing the 'true' new religion to supersede those of the past.

Unity and Diversity

ADF has largely rejected the idea of uniting the world's religions into one coherent whole. Examination of both the means and the goals of the world's spiritual paths makes it clear that there are several very distinct kinds of religion in the world, and a huge selection of subsets and sects. It is fashionable to deplore that situation, and to blame many of the world's conflicts on our inability to unify our beliefs. Both orthodox and New Age monotheists have suggested that if only the world could come together under the banner of Divine Truth, our petty divisions and conflicts would end. From a polytheistic perspective that expectation appears deeply flawed.

When we look at nature and the world we do not find unity or conformity. Instead we find a riot of diversity, an infinite blooming and combining of forms. A constant flux of birth, a vast divergence of life-paths, and an equally constant reflux of death takes every object through its physical existence, with a smaller number of more constant forms, such as sun, moon and the land.

As Pagans we take the reality of natural systems as one of our primary models of spiritual reality. So we find that the spiritual worlds and their inhabitants are also diverse, multiple and decentralized. Just as a physical ecosystem is composed of many different beings and processes, we understand the spiritual worlds to be the same. To assert that all these many things are under the exclusive rulership of a single mind, no matter how great, seems to run counter to the plain order of the world.

To continue an ecological metaphor, the many religions of the world provide a spiritual 'species diversity'. To attempt to unify them would be like breeding all the world's beasts into one generalized beast. Science teaches us that there is greater gain to be had from encouraging diversity, even if it requires special effort to contain conflict.

It is, however, unlikely that polytheism and its cultural implications are more likely than monotheism to cause social or cultural conflicts. The history of efforts to impose monotheistic religions on the world is, alone, enough evidence of that. Even in principle, the tenets of monotheism so directly contradict the order of the natural world that they must inevitably cause conflict. The human species is naturally of such diverse opinion and belief that any attempt to fins universal agreement on spiritual specifics must inevitably trample on the ways of many groups.

To put it simply, the desire for unity far too often, perhaps inevitably, becomes a demand for uniformity. When a belief system teaches that there is a single Divinity that humans are striving to discover, that system will inevitably produce conflict, because individuals and groups will always arrive at different conclusions about what that divinity is. Systems such as Christianity and Buddhism have found themselves mired in these difficulties, as varying sects proclaim that theirs is the 'true' version of their truth, and work to discredit one another.

By contrast the polytheism of Hinduism has produced many sects which have most often coexisted with each other. Those sects, though not without internal conflict and disagreement, hold to a set of mutual core beliefs, and recognize one another as on the same path, even as they keep their distinctive traditions. It is precisely the acknowledgment of multiple deities that makes this possible.

Polytheistic Concepts

With no mythic image of a being that is either the ruler or the sum of the cosmos, polytheistic philosophy is free to pursue real diversity, real tolerance. We assert that the Cosmos is intrinsically multiple in expression, whether as chemicals or as the stuff of spirit. The best attempts to depict Cosmic Wholeness might be mandalas - patterns made up of the dance of an often vast number of distinct persons and things. No single symbol, or being, can express the totality of Cosmos.

When we take up polytheism, we are plainly rejecting the claims of some religions that their God is the creator, owner and operator of the Cosmos. But we are also granting that the worship of every Spirit is valid and honorable. We are saying that every people, and even every person, may have their special spirits, their private ways and worship, and find acceptance. We reject the notion of the 'jealous God'. In polytheism all the god/desses worship one another, and their worshippers are seldom restricted to a single deity or form of worship. It is always proper to honor the gods of one's neighbors, and to expect them to honor one's own. We affirm that different life-ways, different paths, lead to different places. The Gods, the practices, even the morality of the farmer is distinct from that of the artisan, the merchant or the warrior. So we teach ourselves not to measure the world against our own standards, and to remember that there are many ways.

In the same way, polytheism promotes a wide variety of choices for the modern individual. Each person will in time develop a very personal set of god/desses and spirits to whom she gives worship Personal ancestors and local spirits of the land combine with the gods of one's labor and skill and the general worship of one's community to create religion with unique combinations in every household. We learn to extend tolerance not only to those outside our conceptual villages, but to our immediate neighbors and kin, with their special ways.

Polytheistic religion offers the individual a truly personal spiritual path inside an accepting community of spiritual principle and practice. It offers families a way to build spirituality into their homes. It offers communities a way to come together in acceptance of one another. It offers the world a return to a more realistic relationship with the goddesses, the gods, and all the spirits.

In closing I pray that all those ancient Powers of the Elder Days will continue to reveal themselves to us, and draw closer as we worship them.