A Book List for Polytheists

The following list of books are the only ones I know of that deal with Polytheism in a theological/philosophical way. There aren’t a lot of books available on the subject, and there may be more that I just haven’t stumbled across as of yet.

The Deities are Many: A Polytheist Theology by Jordan Paper

A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism by John Michael Greer

Sacred Gifts: Reciprocity and the Gods by Kirk S. Thomas

Walking with the Gods by W.D. Wilkerson

Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion by Edward P. Butler

The books above are ones that I personally own. Notice that most of these titles deal with Polytheism as a whole, rather than through the lens of a particular tradition. Due to the nature of Polytheism, it is much more difficult to find books written about Polytheism from a philosophical/theological position than it is to find books written about particular traditions or about particular deities.

If there are other titles that you think I should add to this list, please let me know. It’d be awesome to have a much longer list than this!

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Polytheistic Theology: Avenue of Avenues

When we think of theology, we typically think of monotheistic theology, especially the structures found within Abrahamic faiths. But theology itself is not inherently monotheistic – in fact, theology is simply the study of deity. Because most polytheistic faiths are inherently pluralistic, it is safe to say that it is impossible to identify a single theology that unifies polytheistic belief. That’s part of what makes polytheistic faiths so beautiful.

It’s easy to prove how impossible it is to identify a single theology for polytheistic faiths. Take Hinduism, for example, and examine the way many sects of Hinduism base their faith around the idea of a unified plurality – there are multiple deities, but those deities are all aspects of the greater whole. Then take another polytheistic faith, like Asatru, that bases faith around the concept of multiple distinct deities, all separate and completely unique from one another. While there are certainly connections between polytheistic faiths like Hinduism and Asatru, the way that deity is approached is distinct between them.

Because of that distinction, a singular approach to theology – the study of deity – is impossible. However, I do think that it is possible, within each polytheistic faith, to approach deity through multiple strands of exploration. That is what I propose is the best way to approach the study of deity through polytheistic faiths, and I am proposing a framework for a polytheist to use in their own study of deity within their own religions, rather than proposing that deity can be understood the same way through all polytheistic faiths.

Note: When I say deity, I mean the essence of deity or what makes a god a god (what makes gods gods).

I believe the following components can be explored through all polytheistic faiths:

  • Cosmogony
  • Cosmology
  • Theogony
  • Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices
  • Eschatology
  • Axiology
  • Pneumatology
  • Psychology
  • Semiotics & Symbology
  • Sexology
  • Sophology
  • Occultology

Cosmogony is the study of the creation of the universe (or multiverse). Studying how the cosmos originated in accordance with a particular polytheistic tradition through myths and legends allows us to begin to develop a framework with which to approach deity through our respective faiths.

Cosmology is the study of the universe (or multiverse). Different faiths propose different models of the world. For example, in many shamanistic traditions, there are three worlds while in the Norse view, there are nine worlds. Understanding the cosmos is a necessary foundation before exploring what deity actually is can really get underway.

Theogony refers to the lineage of the gods. Every pantheon has a unique structure and hierarchy (though it can be argued that some pantheons aren’t hierarchal). It seems self-evident that the pursuit of theology requires the understanding of theogony.

Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices. This particular component is really three-in-one, but every polytheistic faith has a calendar of sacred rites and practices. Since most (if not all) polytheistic faiths are orthopraxic (focused on right practice), this is the most direct route of exploring theology – again, when I say theology here, I mean the pursuit of the understanding of deity.

Eschatology is the study of death, judgment, and final destination. In essence, it is the study of the afterlife. Every faith has an idea of what happens to a person after they pass from this world. Not all polytheistic faiths believe in a final judgment, but some do. This is an area where the greatest discrepancies between faiths exist, and it may also be an area where the greatest insights into the nature of deity can be found.

Axiology is the study of values and ethics. In other words, the study of morality. At first glance, it may not be obvious what this has to do with theology. However, the myths and legends of each tradition shape the morality of the people who follow those traditions. Understanding the ethics held by a particular culture can enhance the pursuit of theology.

Pneumatology is the study of spiritual beings and phenomena. Beliefs about mythical creatures like dragons, sirens, mermaids, brownies, kelpies, the Fae, ghosts, landvaettir, etc. This is where understanding the cosmology of a polytheistic faith comes into play as well, as some traditions have worlds set aside specifically for certain types of entities.

Psychology is the study of the soul, and it is the closest term I could find to describe what I actually mean. When I say psychology here, I don’t mean the traditional Western version of the study of the human psyche. I wish there were a better term (so if someone has an idea for one, I’m all for suggestions). What I mean is the study of the constructs of the soul-the parts of the soul. Many polytheistic traditions propose that the soul is not a singularity but a plurality, constructed of a myriad of parts that are meant for particular purposes. Understanding the way in which the soul is viewed is vital in the pursuit of theology, as the soul is the expression of the most inherent divinity a living being has in its possession.

Semiotics & Symbology is the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretations and uses. This includes things like the study of divination and omens. While some symbols are fairly universal – like the serpent that represents wisdom – others are not as clear-cut. Understanding the way that a particular tradition utilizes semiotics & symbology helps create a clearer path towards the understanding of deity.

Sexology is the study of sex. Each religion approaches sex in different ways, and in many traditions, the act of sex is one the most powerful ways to experience divinity. There aren’t many polytheistic faiths that view sex in a negative light, and I say that simply because there may be a few that do – I do not proclaim to be an expert on all the polytheistic faiths that exist, and I do not wish to potentially exclude even one.

Sophology is the study of wisdom. Defining wisdom is a very difficult thing to do, as it is a very abstract concept. Generally speaking, it is the ability to take acquired knowledge and put it to good use. In many polytheistic traditions, the study of wisdom is equated with the study of the myths and the cultures with which the traditions started. But because wisdom relies on application, it assumes that a person will take the myths and cultural learning they have developed and will incorporate it into their own practices. Applying the knowledge gained of deity through the myths is, perhaps, one of the most direct ways to approach theology, although it is by no means the only way.

Occultology is the study of the occult, meaning mystery or secret. It is generally associated with magic, and there are several polytheistic traditions that incorporate magic into their practice. There are many different types of magic, but the one that deals most directly with deity is Theurgy, which is magic done with the aid of deity.

Many of these components, on their own, require extensive research, and many of them weave in and out of one another. These are the strands that I see throughout every polytheistic faith – though each faith has its own unique set of these strands.

I’ve read multiple books on polytheistic theology, and every time, I see the same problem arise – there is no unified set of principles that underlie every polytheistic tradition. Some polytheistic traditions venerate ancestors, others don’t. Some believe in pluralistic deities, others in unified plurality.

So this is my attempt to address that issue – rather than looking for underlying principles that exist in all polytheistic traditions, I decided to look for the categories of principles that weave through all polytheistic traditions. Sometimes, to simplify, you have to complicate, and looking at categories instead of principles isn’t an obvious thing to do. The stark truth is that we still live in a predominantly monotheistic culture, and we all often fall into the trap of trying to collapse things down into smaller parts.

As polytheists, we need to work on expanding outward, breaking things into larger pieces rather than collapsing things down into smaller ones. So what I have done here is propose a framework, an avenue of avenues of exploration for those who are interested in the pursuit of theology from a polytheistic perspective.

Defining Polytheism

 

Polytheism is, at its core, the belief in and worship of multiple deities. The word “polytheist” comes from the Greek poly, meaning “many,” and the Greek theos, meaning “god.” Essentially, the word “polytheist” can be understood to mean “many gods.” Polytheism can be difficult to explain to others due to the multiplicity inherent in its practice. Because of that, the first thing to be aware of about polytheists is that no two polytheists believe in the exact same gods or explore their faith in the exact same way. That is where the difficulty of explaining polytheism originates.

While it may be easy for a monotheist to explain to others that they believe in a single unifying supreme deity, that ease comes from the fact that a monotheist’s belief is singular in nature. Monotheism includes all of the Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While there are other monotheistic faiths, the Abrahamic faiths are the most well-known and the most wide-spread.

Because of the prevalence of monotheistic faiths, it is not a surprise that polytheism is rarely encountered and that people living in monotheistic cultures lack the ability to truly comprehend the various types of belief systems found within polytheistic religions. The reason for that lack of comprehension stems from the inability to understand that there is no unifying practice that ties all polytheists together. A monotheist who encounters another monotheist – a Christian meeting a Muslim, for example – can exchange their understanding of the singular deity they share and acknowledge that, while the names they use are different, the faiths are remarkably similar in execution.

In contrast, a monotheist who encounters a polytheist can’t exchange spiritual knowledge of that nature, due to the contradiction inherent in the belief in one god versus the belief in many. This encounter doesn’t provide two opposing viewpoints – no, it provides two opposing worldviews. A monotheist cannot understand a polytheist because of this. And a true monotheist will never be able to properly comprehend a polytheistic worldview.

However, a polytheist IS capable of understanding the worldview of a monotheist because a polytheist’s faith, in general, consists of multiple worldviews that often contrast with one another. Switching worldviews is a way of life for most polytheists, so it is far, far easier for a polytheist to find ways to explain the complex nature of polytheism in a simple enough way for monotheists to understand.

The easiest way to explain polytheism to a monotheist is to use the polymorphism approach. Hinduism is a prime example of a polytheistic religion that utilizes this type of polytheism. Polymorphism, in and of itself, is the belief of one God with many different names and forms. In essence, it is the belief that a single divine being has multiple aspects. In modern-day polytheism, this type of polytheism is also known as soft polytheism. Polymorphism, is, however, the proper terminology.

Because polymorphism incorporates multiple aspects of a deity into one supreme being, it is the easiest way to explain polytheism to a monotheist. A common ground can be created using this approach, and further spiritual discussions can be held. Some polytheists may argue that a monotheist should work harder to try and understand the more complex forms of polytheism, but that is a failure to understand the different levels of complexity inherent in following a polytheistic faith in comparison to following a monotheistic faith.

In science, we expect our experts to condense the knowledge they have gleaned in multiple subject matters down to a point where laymen can understand it. A good scientist is capable of making even the most complicated theory one that we can all understand, and I would argue that a polytheist must be capable of simplifying the complex in order to facilitate discussion amongst peers.

We need to face the reality that we live in a world that is predominantly monotheist. Rather than railing against how unfair or how prejudiced the world is against polytheism, we need to be the ones taking control of the conversation so that we can explain, tirelessly if need be, why polytheism is as valid a spirituality as monotheism. To do that, we need patience, understanding, and a thick skin.

To make monotheists aware that polytheism is a valid path will take a lot of time and a lot of energy. Most polytheists probably don’t care enough to try and have that conversation. But I would argue that it is one of the most vital conversations to start because polytheistic faiths are gaining in adherents. More and more people are turning to faiths that are polytheistic in nature.

Which is great, but there’s one huge problem – most people turning to polytheistic faiths are doing so after growing up being steeped in a monotheistic culture. Monotheistic thinking does not work with polytheism, yet many new polytheists attempt to bring bits and pieces of their old worldview with them when they turn to polytheism. There are no primers for aspiring polytheists, and there are few polytheists willing to explain what it means to live a life rife with multiplicity.

Part of the reason polytheists lack that willingness to explain is because of how difficult such a task is. It is impossible to sum up all polytheistic faiths because there are vastly different approaches taken in each one. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a few common threads that run between many polytheistic faiths (but not all). Teasing out those threads is an important part of furthering the conversation amongst other polytheists as well as important for the growth of polytheism as a whole.

So far, what I have managed to piece together as being representative of many polytheistic faiths (again, not all!) is as follows:

  • Belief in/worship of multiple (fallible) Gods: Generally, the Gods aren’t omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. They can make mistakes. Many pantheons consist of immortal Gods, but there are also many pantheons that consist of mortal Gods.
  • Offerings/Sacrifices to the Gods: Generally, offerings are made to the Gods in order to establish the link between the human world and the divine world. This is also the primary way in which the Gods are honored.
  • Ancestor Veneration: Offerings are made to ancestors in order to establish the link between the past generations and the current ones. Generally, polytheists focus more on ancestor veneration than on direct veneration of the Gods. Ancestral spirits, being more directly connected to the practitioner, are better able to help than the Gods.
  • Multiverse Cosmology: The belief in multiple worlds or planes. While generally threefold in nature, there are cosmologies that incorporate a larger number of worlds.
  • Sacral Nature: The belief that nature is sacred and should be treated with respect.
  • Orthopraxy: Literally, “Right Practice.” Polytheistic faiths are focused on practicing faiths through rites and offerings instead of being focused on orthodoxy, or “right thought.” Polytheistic faiths require active participation.

Note: Not all of these threads can be found within all polytheistic faiths, and each polytheist may define each thread in a different way than I have described them here.

Types of Polytheism include:

  • Traditional Polytheism: Also known as “hard polytheism;” the belief in/worship of multiple gods believed to be separate, distinct deities
    • Shinto, Hellenistic Paganism, Asatru/Heathenry, Kemetism, Druidism, etc.
  • Polymorphism: Also known as “soft polytheism;” the belief in/worship of multiple gods believed to be part of a greater singular deity
    • Hinduism, Wicca (some traditions), etc.
  • Henotheism: devotion to a single deity while acknowledging the existence of other gods that are worthy of worship
    • Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, etc.
  • Monolatrism: belief in the existence of multiple deities while asserting that only one god is worthy of worship
    • Atenism, Hinduism, etc.
  • Kathenotheism: belief in many gods, but only one god should be worshipped at a time
    • Smarta Tradition of Hinduism, etc.
  • Duotheism: the belief in two equally powerful gods, often with complementary properties and in contrast opposition
    • Wicca, Dvaita Vedanta Tradition of Hinduism, Druidism, etc.

I found the types here.

 I’m certain I didn’t mention every polytheistic faith or type of polytheism – there is essentially the same number of polytheistic faiths as there are polytheists. A general overview is all we can really hope for, and I hope I’ve done a decent job with what I have put together here.

As for my polytheism, I am a traditional polytheist, and the six threads I feel run through most polytheistic faiths run through mine as well. I may have missed something or included something unnecessarily, so please feel free to respond and expand this conversation. I think this is where we need to start, if we are to ever have meaningful philosophical discussions that incorporate polytheistic worldviews.

 

The Fine Line

I’ve talked before about how a lot of the practices I employ are shamanistic in nature. For those who are unaware, I was born into a family of Empath-shamans and was raised learning how to employ shamanistic techniques. I grew up thinking that the techniques were Empath techniques until I met a few Empaths and realized that the major work that Empaths do was the basis of all the work that I do. In other words, I take empathy into the realm of shamanistic practice because that is what I was raised being taught to do. My teacher was my mother, and, in my family, the shamanistic gift is passed through the maternal line (through the paternal line comes the gift of prophecy).

There were three very important lessons that I was taught when I first started learning. The first was that it was vital that I learn not to judge others for things they couldn’t control. I was taught that everyone was different, that different people viewed the world in different ways, and I needed to learn how to see the world through many, many perspectives.

That lesson may seem pretty straightforward, but it isn’t. When my mom told me that I had to learn to see the world through many different perspectives, she didn’t just mean I needed to consider the situation of each person I came across. She meant I had to learn what it felt like to live within their skin. I had to learn to merge my aura with the auras of others, and I had to learn how to compartmentalize my mind so that I could truly shift into the mentality of another person. I can’t say much more than that, however, as the techniques I use are ancestral ones.

That actually brings me to the second lesson I was taught, which was that the more I discussed a technique with others (those outside my family), the weaker the ability would become. For years, I was terrified of talking to people about being an empath (I didn’t know I was using shaman techniques until I was in my 20’s). I eventually learned that it was okay to talk about empathy – that is the surface level of the type of shamanism that I have inherited – but I have to be careful not to discuss the unique techniques I use that are purely shamanic in nature.

For example, I can teach people the process of learning how to dreamwalk, but I can’t disclose the methods I use to cross from this realm to another realm – it feels forbidden. And it’s a feeling that resonates in my soul – it’s not a feeling that comes from any sort of external source. There are methods I can suggest to others because they are common knowledge, and they do work, but they aren’t as effective.

It can be rather frustrating to not be able to talk about certain things because sometimes I’d really like to share the things I know. I’m the kind of person who always wants to share everything. It took me until I was in 4th grade before I realized that when people said things to me about other people, I was supposed to keep those comments to myself. To be fair, I grew up in a household where I was taught that if I wasn’t comfortable saying something to someone’s face, I shouldn’t say it behind their back. When I was younger, I thought everyone behaved that way, so the idea of keeping secrets was incredibly foreign.

I love to share. I love to tell people about the things that I experience whether those stories come from my mundane life or my spiritual life (which are very intertwined). But I can’t. When I go world-walking, I am oath-bound not to reveal what is going on in the nine realms without explicit permission from the deities involved. In some cases, I am not permitted to even give the names of the deities who have asked for my help. The most I can say about what is going on in the nine realms is “Things are hectic right now, so the Gods may take longer to respond than usual,” which is what I would have said at the beginning of the year. Crazy things were happening – bad things. Things that threatened to shake the stability of certain realms. Things which are currently in the process of being mended, which is why the Gods are hanging around a bit more than They were.

And I hate that I can’t be more specific – I had to rewrite the last three lines until the Gods were satisfied I wasn’t giving too much away. I’d love to be able to tell everyone exactly what is going on, but I can’t. The oaths that bind me aren’t ones that I myself have given the Gods, but oaths that originate with far-distant ancestors.

I mostly wanted to bring this up (I’m sure some of you are asking why I’m talking about something I can’t actually talk about) because I feel it important to explain why shamans and certain godhis/godhas don’t share all the UPGs they experience. I’m sure it’s just as frustrating for those on the receiving end of comments like, “I can’t tell you that,” or, “All I can tell you is its hectic/calm/etc,” as it is for me when I have to make those kinds of comments. It’s really difficult when I come across UPGs that don’t match what I’ve seen while worldwalking or when I come across UPGs that are true but revealed without evidence that thought has gone into the decision to share them or not.

I’ve been thinking about this since I started reading “The Deites are Many: A Polytheistic Theology,” by Jordan Paper, and I was struck by the part in the introduction where he explicitly says that there are some things that he absolutely cannot talk about. When I read that, I was astonished to find someone else who understands the difficulty of sharing without sharing too much. So far, the book is amazing.

Now, if you’ll remember, I mentioned three rules, and I’ve only discussed two. The third rule my mother taught me was that the most difficult people to understand are those we are closest to because we tend to blind ourselves to their faults (especially lovers and close friends). Because of that, there is an intrinsic instability to energy work performed on the behalf of other family members or incredibly close friends (i.e. you would die for them type of close). It isn’t impossible, it’s just very, very difficult.

The main reason it’s so difficult is because we make assumptions about family members that we don’t make about outsiders. Most of us assume that our families will support us, and when that assumption proves false, it is devastating. We have certain concepts of their behavior and personalities which make it difficult to truly understand what they need or desire out of life.

In general, people tend to think that it is the opposite – that energy work is easier when done for family members. In reality, however, it is much easier to wreak havoc by trying to help out where we aren’t wanted. I’m reminded of the section of the Havamal where it says (paraphrased), “Often he saves for a foe what he has planned for a friend, for much goes worse than we wish.” Or to put in terms everyone will understand, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” It’s the same concept.

Anyway, I wanted to share some of the most important lessons that I was taught that still underlies the framework of the shamanic work I do today. I will answer questions, where I can, but please be aware that there are some things that I just can’t tell you. It isn’t that I won’t tell you – it’s that I’m oath-bound not to share certain things. And the one thing I don’t do is break my oaths (even when those oaths are ones made by my ancestors).