On Being a Bad Polytheist

There’s been some discussion in polytheist circles about sin, piety, ritual purity, and the like. I haven’t been paying much attention because I’ve been spending a lot of time on tumblr and when I’m not on tumblr I’m probably outside, enjoying the last few weeks of hot weather before fall ruins everything.

Honestly, I find the whole debate to be kind of silly, because not only do different traditions have their own customs when it comes to preparing for prayer and ritual, some folks seem to really be pushing the whole “miasma” thing. Seriously, it’s a Hellenic thing, it will never fly in Vanatru circles, ever (or at least, not in my Vanatru circle, I can’t speak for other Vanatruar). You can argue about it and use whatever fancy academic terms you want, but it’s not my circus, not my monkeys, end of discussion.

I’m a Bad Polytheist. Sometimes I yell and swear at my deities. I eat most of the offerings I give, and the stuff I don’t eat gets thrown in the trash. I might take a bath before doing a ritual, maybe. Sin is something I did when I was a Catholic, but no longer, and I doesn’t have a place in my Vanatru, either. I have taken serious religious musings and turned them into sex jokes, or gallows humour. I’m a pop culture Pagan. I’m the irreverent, impious polytheist certain other polytheists have warned you about.

The worshipers of my deities horrified observers who complained about the “unmanly clattering of bells”. The Vanir weirded out the Aesir with their habit of incestuous marriages (not that I condone incest). Freyja taught the other deities the transgressive, likely sexual, tole-defying magic of seidr. If you can name it, chances are Loki’s done it, but after Loki, the Vanir have probably done it, and they do it so well that even other Heathens are uneasy when it comes to the Vanir. Nobody wants to talk about those weird deities from another land with a habit of marrying giants.

I have no use for a concept of piety that always has everyone dressing in their Sunday Best and acting in a perfectly proper and reverent manner all the time and honestly, judging from both the lore and personal experience, I don’t think my deities have much use for it either.

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29 thoughts on “On Being a Bad Polytheist

  1. I’m pretty irreverent too, but I’ve eaten offerings the day after leaving them so that the food won’t go to waste. (Not saying that food is wasted when it’s being offered to the Gods, it’s just that I don’t like throwing out perfectly good food, and throwing it out is my only other option since I don’t live near a park or other wooded area where I can leave the offerings to the elements anymore.)

    Piety has something of a role in my polytheism though. Basically I define it as being true to the Gods, being a moral person, and conducting myself in a way that would please Them and my ancestors (since ancestor veneration is part of my practice). The extent that purity plays in my practice isn’t ritual purity like you’d find in Hellenism, but more like purifying the space to get rid of bad energies as well as keeping neat surroundings to keep the wights happy and keeping the altar clean and tidy out of respect for the Gods and Ancestors. *shrug*

  2. Of course I’m, being a Kemetic, going, “Of course you eat offerings, that’s what you’re supposed to do with them”. 😉 Wouldn’t surprise me if the piety crew were big on Not Doing That Thing, of course.

    Gotta keep ringing them bells.

    1. It gets so much worse. There’s an article on polytheist.com about “Foundational Polytheism” which is apparently a “best guest starting point” for newbies where you are absolutely not supposed to eat the offerings because most polytheistic faiths don’t do the thing. So here they are advising newbies to do things according to what they see as “foundational” for polytheist traditions and the rest of us are just like “So we kind of all have different ways of doing things, you know?”

      1. You missed the point of that article. What it says is that if you’re just *getting started* and have *no tradition specific* instructions on how to do things, then go for what most do, like not eating the offerings – because in most traditions, consecrated food is property of the Gods and cannot be consumed or at least not without going through some ritual procedure.

        Once you pick a tradition, then yes you’ll have rules that are specific to it and no longer have to guide yourself by generic instructions. Foundational is just that – the starting point. Beyond it, it’s a different matter.

        1. Yeah, but as plenty of other people have pointed out, it’s really only “foundational” for *some* polytheistic traditions (which includes both new and old traditions, like Shinto) if indeed it could be called foundational, since traditions are often varied. Heathenry, for instance, has examples of both eating and leaving offerings. It’s assuming a “one size fits all” approach to polytheism, which isn’t even a belief system, it’s simply the belief in multiple deities, you don’t even have to worship those deities if you want. It would be just as ludicrous to me to talk about “foundational monotheism”. IMHO, all the Polytheist Movement is doing is trying to push their own particular definition of what a polytheist is, which not only erases newer polytheistic traditions, but older ones as well (like Shinto, or Vodou, which is “monotheist-ish”).

          1. It’s not a one size fit all approach, but a matter of probabilities *when you’re getting started*. Or in practical terms, if you wish to approach one or more gods, *but have not yet chosen a tradition* and therefore have no ritual protocol by which to guide your actions, you use the rules that are *more likely* to be correct, i.e. that which is most common. And if in most traditions food offerings are not consumed or at least not before they’re gone through some ritual action…

            And just to be clear, the author of the article in question constantly and consistently says that polytheism is not a religion, but a category of religions. Which is exactly why people who are new to it and don’t know how to approach one or more gods given the diversity of traditions may, *at first*, chose to do so by following what is most common.

          2. And if you haven’t read the article, but only heard about it, here it is:

            http://polytheist.com/featured-voices/2016/07/19/foundational-polytheism/

            Also, here’s a quote on the core idea (emphasis mine):

            “Foundational Polytheism is a collective *starting point*, a methodology of approach and procedure, for religious engagement and *“entrance” into polytheism*, in practice or identity, addressing particular distinct needs of polytheistic religions not adequately provided for elsewhere. *It does not replace, or supplant, or override the internal structures of individual polytheistic religions, but rather, it provides a practical bedrock of foundation for those who might not yet have access to, or involvement with, or knowledge of, a given specific religious tradition.”*

            1. I have read it, actually, and the comments, and I still think it’s every bit as silly as someone claiming to teach “foundational monotheism”. Maybe my experience is unique but I certainly didn’t wake up one day and be like “I’m going to worship many gods now!”

              Also, there’s the assumption that they know what is “most common” and aren’t just trying to project their own biases on ancient traditions (which has definitely happened in the past).

              If you ask me, the Polytheist Movement is less about honoring deities (or diversity) as it is trying to assert control over many very diverse communities who can only really agree on the fact that they all worship many deities, there’s no common ground, no foundation, but that, and this polytheist isn’t buying what they’re selling at all.

              1. So if you were stepping into polytheism, came from a monotheist or atheist background and had no idea what to do, though you were interested in one or more gods and maybe were even getting taps on the shoulder from Them, how would you go about? What practical advises on how to worship would you have for someone in that situation? Just saying “do what feels right” isn’t a good answer, because that person came from a background that isn’t open to the idea of many gods and so what “feel right” may simply be a monotheist reflex, familiar and hence comfortable. And as such, that person simply end up transferring monotheistic practices into a polytheistic context: prayer, but no proper ritual; the need to go to a church or temple in order to be a “good believer”; the need for a weekly mass of sorts and a holy book, etc. How would you introduce that person to a polytheistic mindset and practices?

                1. “Well honestly I can’t tell you because to me asking about ‘polytheism’ is like asking about ‘science’, you can talk about science in general, but it’s a very broad field and some questions you are asking about science are actually questions about biology, some are about chemistry, you over there are asking about the social sciences.”

                  The thing is that there is no one “polytheistic mindset”. There is no one proper polytheistic practice because polytheistic traditions are not a monolith, just like there’s no one “Heathen worldview”. The difference between a monotheist and a polytheist is that one believes in only one deity, and the other believes in many. Every polytheist tradition has its own worldview, its own way of looking at the deities, and its own way of interacting with them. It’s not really something you can generalize, and a shift in mindset isn’t going to happen overnight, and honestly, I’ve noticed a few people lecturing others about monotheism seem to have a considerable amount of monotheist baggage themselves. What even counts as “monotheist baggage” anyways when I’ve seen different folks claim that two completely contradictory things are “monotheist”.

                  I don’t think it’s bad to want to give newcomers something to work with, but I feel like there’s a number of assumptions in the basic premise that don’t reflect the experiences of many polytheists, especially when the language being used (at least in this particular article) is inaccessible to the average person. I’m kind of skeptical that newcomers will find the approach valuable if they can’t make sense of it.

                  1. Well, if the average person can’t understand complex language – and that somehow discredits the content of what’s being said or justifies anything on the grounds of “I can’t get what you’re saying” – then we’re basically in the world of anti-intellectualism. If you can’t understand what’s being said, ask; or try harder; or ask and try and ask again if necessary. To go from “I don’t understand you” to “you’re not the boss of me” or “that’s not how I feel about it” or “you’re an academic elitist” isn’t the right answer.

                    But besides that, you’re neglecting the fact that polytheism isn’t simply a *belief* in many gods, but is best defined as a religious regard for Them. And a regard that’s manifested by acts of worship. If you believe in many, but worship only one, you’re not a polytheist, but a henotheist, which is a different thing. Similarly, if you worship many gods, but see Them as really just aspects of a single deity, then you’re best described as a monist, not a polytheist. It’s one thing to see some deities as being the same and quite another to see all as just one. So belief alone won’t cut it; practice alone won’t either. A polytheist needs both, not just one.

                    If you’re new to polytheism in general and live in a society where the notion of many gods is normally seen as primitive or a form of monism – which is what interfaith dialogue is often about – then there’s a base you first need to grasp and build on if you’re going to be a polytheist and not a henotheist or a monist. And that’s the religious regard for many gods. Which is why the article says that it’s not enough to say that the gods are real: you need to act accordingly, meaning, in the case of offerings, that when you give something to a deity, you’re actually giving something to someone, not just putting it in one place or shelf and then picking it up to eat it. There’s a religious regard that needs to be addressed, even if you consume the offerings afterwards.

                    Once you move to a specific tradition, then you’ll get specific protocols. But when you’re just stepping into from a non-polytheistic background or mindset – which is normally the case in western societies – you need to get the basics, i.e. a religious regard for many gods. If you act as if They’re not really there or They’re just really one – and in that case it might as well be the Christian god – or you really just want to worship one deity, even if among many… then that’s not polytheism by its most basic and fundamental definition.

                    1. Y’know, I really have to wonder how you’d approach this if the question was not gods but local spirits and how you’d handle the fact that there is not in fact a “foundational concept” of hospitality that COULD apply.
                      Because, for example, if a local spirit offers you food in Northern Europe, you have two very very distinct rules.
                      One: If the spirit is English tradition, you absolutely should not eat it if you don’t want to be bound to their service for life.
                      Two: If the spirit is Nordic tradition, you absolutely must eat it or they will be gravely offended and possibly hurt you.
                      What is the foundational practice here? Which hospitality is right? How can you use a base rule to handle this here? Some of the gods are very like those spirits.
                      Since when should orthopraxy be more important than understanding? If your foundations are not based on finding out who you’re dealing with or what they want, but based on assuming what they MUST want based on what you THINK they want, you are teaching people wrong practices they will have to unlearn if the actual tradition is drastically different. That is not even remotely good practice.
                      (Also that is an awkward choice of icon wow)

                    2. It’s not assuming what they must want, it’s what’s *most likely* to be the case. It’s basically the same principle as when you visit a foreign country and are faced with unknown customs: if you have any common sense – and actually want to engage with local folks – you use what you believe to be most common thing in the rest of the world. Now, if you were born, raised and live in a society where polytheism is unheard of or not the norm, your common sense might be way off, because it is entirely or almost exclusively shaped by monotheism, monism or atheism. This doesn’t mean that even for a polytheist there isn’t the risk of being wrong, because that’s always there when you’re starting. But part of the point of foundational polytheism is to offer a starting point that has a high degree of being correct, even if it’s not full proof and there are variations.

                      Plus, if the spirit you’re dealing with is real and not just a product of your imagination, then it has to be treated accordingly, in which case here too the issue of religious regard comes into play.

                    3. Asking for more accessible language isn’t anti-intellectualism. If the intended audience for your work can’t read your work, it kind of defeats the purpose of writing something for that audience. It’s not your audience’s fault if they don’t get what you’re trying to tell them when it’s supposed to be aimed at them. Would you write a book for children using the same language you would use when talking to adults? Of course not. If your intent is to write something for newcomers (who may or may not be academically trained) then write it for them. If your intent is to write for academics, write for academics, but don’t dress something up in pseudo-academic jargon and then complain that the average person is too stupid to understand what you’re trying to say.

                      I actually know my theisms, thanks, and henotheism is absolutely a kind of polytheism, not all polytheists are henotheists, of course, but a person can call themselves both and there’s absolutely no contradiction, just because it doesn’t fit your definition of polytheism doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid. It’s a common feature of many cults to address a deity as if they are the “highest” deity, for instance, even if they aren’t actually the highest ranking deity in their pantheon. A person may specifically ID as a henotheist, but I’m not going to give them grief for also IDing as a polytheist, because many ancient traditions had elements of both. Honestly, all of these labels are mostly modern ways of categorizing religious beliefs, and they’re actually much more flexible than the Polytheist Movement makes them out to be. It’s great that you want to make sure everything is nice and labelled properly but that’s not really how it works, labels are nice but they often don’t reflect the lived experiences of many religious, past or present.

                    4. Sorry, but polytheism and henotheism are not the same thing. The latter is a midpoint between the former and monotheism, which naturally means that it has a bit of both, but it also means that it’s neither. And henotheism also isn’t the same as having a highest deity, but is defined by *worshipping* just one while acknowledging the existence of several. You can worship solely the lowest ranking god and that will still be henotheism, because you’re honouring just one and not any of the others you believe in.

                      And you’re assuming that people who are stepping into polytheism have the mental age of a ten year old or are actually of that age. If it’s the former, you have a problem that maybe you should try solving before you decide on a religion; if it’s the latter, you’re probably too young, unless you were raised in a polytheistic family, in which case the need for foundations is redundant.

                    5. “t’s basically the same principle as when you visit a foreign country and are faced with unknown customs: if you have any common sense – and actually want to engage with local folks – you use what you believe to be most common thing in the rest of the world.”

                      You have no idea how much “hospitality” varies around the world, do you?

                      Like, are you aware of how you can get shit on for the use or non-use of “Sir/Ma’am” across the USA by simply going from The South to New England?

                      Are you aware of how many cycles of declining refreshments are required in England vs Russia vs Iran?

                      Are you aware of how soon you’re allowed to help with dishes as a guest in English culture vs Serbian vs. Japan?

                      Do you realize that getting this wrong, on ANY level, is considered childish at best or flagrantly rude at worst?

                      Note – ‘childish at best’. Someone who is new to polytheism will of course be assumed a child. They don’t HAVE to know what they’re doing if they listen and make an effort to learn what their elders are teaching them.

                      Now, if you go around claiming that you’re a universal elder, you’re going to teach them the WRONG BEHAVIOURS. If you help them to learn the God they’re hearing, you’re facilitating them learning from the right Elder for the place they’re going to wind up in.

                      Why would you butt your nose in when you have no idea what they need? “Universal Rules” are bullshit.

                    6. AActually, I do have a very good idea of how hospitality changes around the world. After all, I’ve lived in different countries – lived, not visited them – and have shared a flat in different places with people from… about ten different nationalities and cultures and not just from one continent. And one thing I’ve learned from that experience is that when you have no clue, you should keep things to the minimum and never assume that something is yours. So for instance, don’t greet with a kiss or a handshake, just wave or bow (until further instructions or information); or don’t start eating until someone else does or you’re told to or how.

                      Similarly, don’t assume that what you give to a god is to be eaten just as ordinary food. Until you have a protocol, which normally means having a tradition, offer it and then leave it.

                    7. Actually, the definition of henotheism I was using was taught to me by my professors, you know, because I actually have a degree in religious studies, but whatever, you can just continue being wrong and splitting hairs.

                      Also the foreign country analogy is laughable. For starters, who decides they’re going to *a* foreign country, any foreign country. I don’t know about you but I have a list of specific countries I want to visit, like that’s literally not how travel works. I mean I could understand wanting to visit say, Eastern Europe, but even then I could look up some general manners in Eastern European countries and muddle my way through the rest. Also the locals tend to understand that someone is foreign and are usually willing to forgive small faux pas and appreciate if a foreigner is trying to be respectful.

                2. That question seems to me to be conflating a whole bunch of different things, and has an interesting tacit assumption.

                  The interesting tacit assumption: that polytheism contains some sort of mindset or practices beyond “there are multiple gods”. The corollary to this assumption, underpinning the conflations, appears to be that the only legitimate polytheistic practices and mindset are in a historical style, and thus that a post-Christian polytheism is in some way illegitimate or false.

                  Now, the conflations. Things which are not at all the same thing:
                  – how to identify a specific god from nudges or interests (not in your comment, but a very common issue I’ve seen people needing a lot of help with)
                  – how to start a devotional practice to a specific god
                  – how to start a devotional/religious practice with a specific pantheon
                  – how to select and practice religious rites and rituals
                  – what offerings to make and how to interact with them
                  – the nature of prayer
                  – how to conduct formal prayer
                  – how to deal with tacit carried-over assumptions about religion when converting

                  These are all things one might have a newbie needing help with, and even without getting into the specifics of that person’s particular situation, the answers that are needed are very different.

                  For example, my common advice of, “Look into how that god was honored historically and the associated practices” is completely useless for someone whose information is on the level of, “So… I think I’ve got a … storm god who likes … trees?”

                  For that person, advice more along the lines of, “Start simple. Try lighting a candle, that goes over well with most gods. Introduce yourself. See if you can get some more information. Do you know anything about what type of tree? Oaks are pretty common for storm gods, maybe you can do some research and see if something pings there” may be vastly more useful.

                  For another person, the advice they need is, “No, you do not need to find *a goddess* and *a god*. That is not how pantheons work. Stop calling Athena a matron, dear gods, what.”

                  For yet another person, they need an introduction to the idea of practice-based religion – not “these are the practices of polytheists” because no such thing exists as a universal, but principles of action as more important belief and an introduction to something like do ut des.

                  And so on.

                  Trying to answer *all of those questions* with one thing is going to produce, at best, an introduction that will be yet another set of things that someone has to *unlearn* when they’re actually into substantial practice. At worst, well. There’s always that subset of people who take whatever they read as gospel truth, and start bitching out people who do things differently, even if the doing things differently is what their actual specific religion requires.

                  And the thing is, this stuff could be written up for a website, but it’s not one essay. It’s a whole bunch of interlinked answers, depending on which question is being asked AND THE ACTUAL RELEVANT GODS.

                  Because trying to provide a general answer for polytheism-as-a-whole is DISMISSING THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ACTUAL GODS, who have different historical contexts, different individual desires, and different relationships with different people. I cannot shake the gut feeling that it is a sign of horrible *contempt* for those gods, for their differences, for their variety, an attempt to wedge them into a Procrustean bed and make them conform to one set of human desires. Just, ew, no.

                  1. The notion that there are multiple gods has to have practical consequences if it’s to be polytheism. Otherwise, if you simply believe in many, but worship only one, then you’re not a polytheist. You’re a henotheist (and that’s okay!). Polytheism is more correctly described as a religious regard for many gods and for people first stepping into it – and coming from a social background that’s opposed or deeply different from polytheism – the issue is how to go about having a religious regard for many gods. Lighting candles is a good advice, yes, but the basic principle is that if you’re offering it or its flame, you’re actually giving something to someone, meaning that you then shouldn’t go about using that flame to light a cigar or the kitchen stove – unless the smoke from the former or the food you’re going to cook in the latter are offerings, too.

                    That’s religious regard for many gods. They’re not just figures of your imagination and thus what you give Them isn’t something you can then treat regardless of the fact that they were offered. And hence the whole thing about eating food offerings: if you’ve offered it, it’s not like your everyday meal. This is a basic principle that goes to the core of what polytheism is and isn’t tied to specifics like what candle, what tree, when, etc.

                    1. Generic polytheism as presented there appears to be attempting to present “a religious regard for many gods” by erasing the actual gods from the equation to me. That’s not going to change. Any putting of the *concept of polytheism* over the actual specific gods has that problem.

                    2. How is religious regard for many gods erasing Them if it implies the idea that They’re real and if you offer Them something, you’re actually offering something to someone and not just taking things from one shelf to another? How is recognizing that the gods have agency and are an actual and independent part of the equation – as opposed to just the will, feelings and interests of the worshipper – in any way erasing Them?

                    3. The manifestation of a particular *format* of regard regardless of Who it is directed towards.

                      I’m not going to recommend “do not consume food offerings” to someone starting out, because I am rooted in a tradition in which failing to consume a food offering is *rejecting the blessing of the god*.

                      (I will, in fact, not recommend food offerings to a newbie *at all*. Someone who really needs basics needs to start with something with less fraught etiquette.)

                    4. But you would recomend lighting a candle, but then what? Use it as you will? No further indications, no stress on the fact that you’re actually offering something to someone and not just lighting a candle because it’s pretty?

                    5. I would recommend lighting a candle, introducing oneself to the power, and finding out who they are and what they want. Like I said before.

                      Because the important first step is the “who they are and what they want” one. That’s the thing about the gods having agency and individuality; coming at them with “I’m going to assume you want things this way because someone told me it’s common and save” is ignoring that they do.

                    6. If you assume they have agency, you assume they have to be treated accordingly, which means that what you’re giving them – even if just a candle – can’t be treated as a common object. That’s what’s at the root of the suggestion that food offerings shouldn’t be eaten *if you have no protocol whatsoever to guide you*. If you do, that’s a different issue.

                    7. Clearly we are just going to go around and around about this, as we’ve repeated ourselves three times each or something.

                      Suffice to say: we disagree substantively about respectful treatment of the gods in this regard. This is why you do things over on polytheism.com and I don’t. 😉

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