Many Vs. One – Crucial Paradigms

I had a conversation with a Christian today that didn’t devolve into an argument. I understand enough about Christianity and monotheism in general that I understand that the gods within those systems tend to work with a supremacy clause – either:I am the only god in existence” or “I am the only god worthy of worship” or a combination of the two. For all the Abrahamic faiths, I’d say it’s generally a combination.

Anyway, she was attempting to understand my views and beliefs – after telling me that she didn’t view my religion as a religion at all – which is such a knee-jerk, commonplace reaction that I no longer get angry, but I still roll my eyes at it (if I got angry every time it happened, I’d be perpetually angry, and, as I said to a friend recently, I refuse to invest in anger). She said that she understood that people used to believe in there being gods for everything, that they saw the moon as a god, the sun as a god, the wind as a god, etc. And I give her credit – she was trying so hard to understand, but she was doing so from a monotheistic worldview.

Polytheism is difficult, at best, for even us, as polytheists, to articulate. Because it comes in so many flavors, so many varieties – for some polytheists, maybe the moon is a god. For some of us, there are multiple gods who are associated and/or responsible for the moon. For others, there may only be a single moon god – who knows? The possibilities, the varieties, are endless. To explain those varieties to a monotheist who clings to the Bible as the literal truth (that was expressed during the conversation) is virtually impossible.

The most interesting part of the conversation, however, happened when she asked about the concept of sin. And I tried to explain that sin doesn’t really exist – I mean, there are technically two “sins” in the Norse framework (oath-breaking and kin-killing), but there is no concept of humanity being inherently flawed. I’m not sure that there is a concept of sin at all in the Hellenistic world – I think the closest one comes is in accumulating an overabundance of miasma, but that can be cleansed. And I honestly just don’t know if the concept of sin exists outside of Abrahamic religions at all – which made that a difficult topic. I guess it’s an area I need to do more research in, so that when Christians ask that question, I can properly answer it. I just wasn’t expecting such an in-depth inquiry.

And then we got to a question that illustrates one of the fundamental differences between Abrahamic faiths and polytheistic faiths. She asked, “So what do your gods tell you to do?” Like she expected me to list out a set of edicts and commands that the gods had set forth to be followed. Maybe the gods of monotheism want their followers to do everything to the letter, to be perfect little soldiers, but those aren’t the gods I know. And I wouldn’t – and don’t – follow gods that demand perfect obedience from me.

The gods I honor have never demanded perfect obedience from me. In fact, they have never demanded my loyalty, my friendship, or the sacrifices I make for them. Everything I have done for the gods – and continue to do for them – is done because I made a choice. Odin didn’t ask me to swear an oath to him, to become one of his warriors – he made an offer, and I accepted it. I swore fealty to him on my own, bound myself to him of my own volition. It was never a command.

I didn’t become Loki’s priest because he commanded me to do so. He asked me if I wanted to do it, and I chose. I stepped into the opportunity he offered – I made the decision on my own. I was never forced into the position. Loki would never force anyone into anything – that’s just not who he is.

I have never done anything for the gods I call friends, whom I honor with my offerings, prayers, libations, and rituals, against my will. I have never been presented with an ultimatum from any of them. I have been offered hard choices, and I have always been told that the path I choose to walk is my own.

Perhaps, in this, my Celtic ancestry shows through. I am loyal to the gods who have never attempted to command it, in the same way Celtic warriors were loyal only to the men who proved themselves worthy of the title of warlord. Those men never demanded loyalty from their warriors – they simply earned it. That reflects the way that I have come to know the Norse gods. I’m not loyal to them because they demand it – I am loyal to them because they have inspired me to it.

But to explain that to a Christian who views the Bible as the literal truth, other religions (and therefore other gods) as falsehoods, and cannot envision a god who doesn’t command – well, there’s the crux of the problem. We don’t have gods who lead us through our lives with laid-out commands or promise us impossible rewards. We have gods who will throw us out of nests to teach us to fly and show us that the benefits in life can be reaped only after the ordeals we endure.

To be a polytheist is to embrace a multitude of experience, of perspectives, and of the way life itself is lived. Monotheists can’t think that way – their religions promote a singular truth, a single perspective, a single experience. Tunnel vision is a problem only monotheists have – there’s truth to the statement that polytheism can easily incorporate monotheism, but monotheism leaves no room for anything but itself. Because of that, finding acceptance in the monotheistic society we live within may prove to be close to impossible, but that’s one battle I refuse to stop fighting. That’s the mistake the polytheists of old made, and it’s one I won’t repeat – our polytheistic religions are valid. And I will not back down from any monotheist who tries to convince me that I am somehow less human than them because I’m not like them. If there’s any cause in the world I’ll raise a banner for, it’s for polytheists.

 

Loki & Polytheism

Laine Delaney has posted a new article about Loki on her patheos blog, The Lady’s Quill, and that post can be found here.

I thought it was a good article that raised a a good point. The point she made was that it can be difficult for American Heathens who grow up in a predominantly Christian culture to transition into a polytheistic worldview. That actually echoes what I’ve been reading in the book I mentioned previously, “The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology,” by Jordan Paper.

In the introduction, he states, “Due to the mind-set of singularity normative to monotheistic thinking, it is difficult for beginning Western researchers of polytheistic traditions to understand that in these traditions the numinous are actually multiple. For example, a few years ago I was at an international religious studies conference in South Africa. Several graduate students studying African religions approached me regarding their problems in comprehending the fullness of these traditions. If the rituals are oriented toward the ancestors, then how can Earth, and so on, also be numinous? And what about the deities (who are dead human beings in these traditions)? What needed to be understand is that all of these can be numinous simultaneously, without contradiction and without conflict; this is the essence of polytheism.” 

That is perhaps the best way that I have ever seen the difficulty between monotheistic and polytheistic thinking explain. In her article about Loki, Laine points to the difficulty people transitioning from a monotheistic faith with a sense of absolute good and evil to a polytheistic faith where good and evil are far from absolute and every deity shares equally in both. It is far easier to scapegoat one of the gods into a figure of absolute evil than try to understand evil as a relative (rather than absolute) concept.

When put in that context, it is easy to understand why Loki gets put in a box labeled “evil, do not touch,” by so many Heathens. Monotheistic thinking and polytheistic thinking are 100% non-compatible. In the United States, where the majority of people are monotheists, the culture reflects that as the norm. It’s easy to see the monotheistic imprint of the Western world in nearly everything. The superhero movies we have that everyone loves are often set to the tone of “here’s this one guy that saves the world,” and it’s a very monotheistic way to look at the world. There are exceptions, of course, but the theme is a very familiar one.

So when a person turns away from a faith like Christianity that considers itself monotheistic, that person also has to confront an entirely new ideological framework. It is very easy to fall into the patterns of thinking that the monotheistic culture around us engenders – absolute right vs absolute wrong – and turn a god like Loki into a figure of absolute evil.

Yet, if there is one thing that a polytheist shouldn’t do it’s to try and corral their ideals into two distinct corners. I’ve come across the argument that duotheism and polytheism are separate ideologies, and I’ve been reflecting on that for awhile now in order to decide whether I agree or not. I find that I do agree – duotheism and polytheism aren’t the same type of ideology at all. “Duo” means “two,” “poly” means “many.”

It could be argued, in fact, that Christianity is a duotheistic faith rather than a monotheistic faith. Christians believe in a God and they believe in Satan. They don’t worship Satan, but they believe he exists, and because he is the Christian God’s primary adversary, he can be considered a god in his own right. That is a duotheistic framework, and that framework cannot be applied to polytheism.

When we think about polytheism, especially since we live in a monotheistic culture (or duotheistic, however you choose to look at it), we need to remember that poly means “three or more.” And once you have three deities who all differ in modality, the question of absolute right and absolute wrong disappear. Between three people, there are going to be issues where there are three separate arguments, and that doesn’t allow for a either-or type of scenario.

Yet because we live in a monotheistic culture, a lot of new Pagans (and new Heathens) try to apply the concepts of absolute right and wrong to polytheistic concepts. It’s no wonder so many people end up hopelessly confused as they try to muddle through. It took me years to fully mentally integrate myself into a polytheistic modality of thought – monotheistic thinking no longer makes sense to me. But there is definitely a transitory period that every new Pagan must experience before a polytheistic modality becomes commonplace.

That transition is made more difficult by the fact we live in a monotheistic culture. If I am out in a storm, I see Thor’s hand at work. If I see someone helping a homeless man, I see Tyr’s hand at work. When I come across beautiful poetry, I see both Odin and Bragi. When I see beautiful clothes, I see Freyja. When I meet someone whose compassion makes her an excellent mother, I see Frigga at work. When weird things happen (like snacks getting caught in a vending machine), I see Loki at work. I see all of these things because I see the world through a polytheistic lens. What monotheists see, when these things happen, is, at best, coincidence.

In my experience, polytheism eradicates the concept of coincidence. Things don’t happen just because they happen – there’s a reason for even the tiniest events. This isn’t the type of worldview that the dominant monotheistic culture in the United States employs, and that means that the majority of people cannot understand polytheism. They don’t have the foundation for a polytheistic framework, and it takes years to properly develop one after being exposed (especially if force-fed) a monotheistic doctrine.

That, I think, is why there is so much fear and misunderstanding directed towards Loki. As a God that is neither good nor evil, but amoral (some of you may remember the post I wrote about how I view the Gods to be amoral by human standards), His nature is wholly outside of the expectations and understanding of the dominant monotheistic culture. That’s probably the reason those who are called to Him are those who, in some ways, already stand outside that culture due to certain aspects of who they are, such as sexuality and gender identity.

Those of us who were part of minorities before becoming Pagan already felt like we didn’t belong to the dominant culture, which means we never fully embraced the monotheistic construct of that culture. In turn, that made it easier for us to transition from the monotheistic framework to the polytheistic one, and that is why it so much easier for us to understand Loki than it is for others.

Consequently, however, once a polytheistic framework is fully adopted, it is virtually impossible to understand the monotheistic framework so many people bring with them into polytheistic paths. That may be why so many Pagans choose Wicca over other faiths – although there are Wiccans who are polytheists, Wicca itself is a duothestic faith that operates on a God & Goddess structure. It is much easier to go from believing in one God to believing in one God and one Goddess than it is to go from believing in one God to believing in multiple deities of different genders. Then throw in the wights and spirits, and you have a recipe for a very confused new pagan.

What I have seen, over and over, throughout the years, is that for a lot of people, Wicca is a gateway spirituality. I don’t mean to discredit Wicca at all – I think Wicca is a beautiful faith, and I commend those who follow that path. But I have seen that many people start with Wicca when they turn to Paganism and then they, for a lack of better word, outgrow the faith. They need more. Two deities aren’t enough.

Even if Wicca is only ever used as a gateway spirituality, it is a vital, intrinsic tradition among Paganism. We need Wicca to serve as the foundation for a transition from monotheism to polytheism; it is the bridge between the two worlds, and it is the only one that exists. There are a lot – a LOT – of Heathens who make disparaging remarks about Wicca, and that really needs to stop.

I remember one of the very first Heathen groups I joined talking about how Wicca wasn’t a “real” religion because there was no lore. There was so much pride in the fact that Asatru has its own lore and a historical foundation, which would have been fine if it hadn’t been accompanied by a “look how much better we are than Wicca!” attitude to accompany that pride.

Back then, I was too new to Heathenry to be able to make a rational argument against that attitude, but after six years walking this path, I can make that argument today. Wicca may not have the historical foundation that Asatru does, but Asatru’s lore has been decimated by the way it was passed down through a Christian writer. Too much monotheism has bled into Asatru as a result of the lore, and it is because of that stain on our lore that gods like Loki are so misunderstood.

Being Pagan is hard enough, but to turn to Heathenry and then have to constantly reinterpret the lore through polytheistic eyes (when it was interpreted through monotheistic ones originally) that the majority of new Heathens do not yet possess – that approaches a level of insanity. The Norse myths have been rewritten for a monotheistic audience, and Heathens are, for the most part, polytheists.

Because of the difficulties found within Heathenry, I will always identify myself as a polytheist first, pagan second, and heathen third. The reason for this is that polytheism is the framework on which my spirituality is built, paganism is broad enough to encompass multiple belief systems, and heathen, for me, just lets people know that the Norse pantheon of Gods is the pantheon I put before the other pantheons.

Polytheism, like the deities themselves, is very complex, and it is important to understand that the level of complexity found within a polytheistic framework is incredibly difficult to develop when surrounded by a dominant monotheistic culture.