Many excellent points have already been made in this discussion, some of which I can relate to personally. Among modern Roman polytheists, there are some who harbour a deep suspicion, if not outright disgust, for anything that goes too much into personal religion and instead expect individuals to deal with the Gods in the same emotionally sanitized way as a public cult. They’d argue there can be no personal devotion or patronage, because that’s either monotheistic baggage or a form of superstition, i.e. the religious equivalent of paranoia and obsession. Or so those modern cultores claim, but their reasoning is flawed, because it is based on the assumption that we have all the information on ancient Roman experiences of religion. We don’t! We have a sample of what some in the elites thought, but not a full range of views and even less so when we consider the lower classes. And most of the information refers to public religion, which is naturally formal and emotionally neutral, because that’s how things are when one deals with an institution. What those modern cultores do is to assume that what was valid for the State should be equally valid for the individual. In other words, they take data on part of the ancient Roman religion and assume it for the whole, so if public cults were emotionally sanitized, that should also be the case with individuals in their daily dealings with the Gods. It’s what happens when you try to revive an ancient religion on which you have only partial and poorly diverse information and fail to consider the full range of human experiences: you mistake the part for the whole. And you screw it big time as a result. Especially when the sources still give you glimpses of personal religion and individual devotion towards specific gods: Augustus took Apollo as his patron, Domitian was a devotee of Minerva, Apuleius went everywhere with a figurine of Mercury.
Now, I’ve addressed this topic more extensively in another post, so I’m not going to expand on it today. Instead, I’d like to briefly address something else brought up recently when Galina shared this post in which Nicholas Haney claims that he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead. And that, I’d argue, is misreading the notion of god in polytheism.
What is a god? The question is easily answered in monotheism: god is the all-knowing, all-powerful and all-seeing being who created and rules everything. And because there’s only one, everyone else is not a god, no matter how much they look and act like one. They’re called by other names: angels, demons, saints, prophets and so forth. But how does it work in polytheism, where there’s no divine monopoly nor a cap on the number of divine beings? Can godhood be restricted to a specific group of more-than-mere-human beings? No, it can’t. A landwight, just like an ancestor, is a deity. A nymph is a goddess, an elf is god, as is the spirit of a dead person. Whereas in monotheism the question of divinity is one of absolutes – one god and everyone else is not a god – in polytheism things normally work in multiple shades of grey: greater, lesser, local, universal, family, tribal, regional and national gods and demigods. Divinity is everywhere or, as Thales of Miletus would say, everything is full of gods. And this is so precisely because there is no monopoly or cap on the divine. There’s no limit to it and it can therefore be found in countless forms everywhere.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Check what ancient polytheists left us: Romans called the deceased Di Manes or Divine Dead; the god Silvanus is in one occasion called Lar Agrestis (CIL VI 646), even though the word Lar was also used for one’s ancestors (the Family Lares) and spirits of the roads (the Lares Viales); in England, one inscription addresses a Dea Nympha Brigantia or the Goddess Nymph Brigantia (CIL VII 875), while another mentions a Deus Genius Choguncis or God Genius Choguncio (RIB 119). Which shows that the divine status was not restricted to a specific group of higher beings. Simply put, what was a god, a nymph and a landwight was less of a matter of fixed or clear-cut categories and more an issue of function and scope where divinity was not a privilege of a limited few, but a trait of countless many. And in case you’re thinking these examples are too Roman and bear little meaning in other traditions, consider the Dísir in Norse polytheism: they’re divine women or mothers, tribal and family goddesses if not female ancestors, yet goddesses nonetheless; but the word dís is also used for the Valkyries, themselves minor deities of war and at one time called Odin’s or Herjans dísir (Guðrúnarkviða I, stanza 19); even Freyja is referred to as Vanadís or the Dís of the Vanir. Some find this messy, may even suggest it is the result of late sources and fragmented memories of a pre-Christian worldview, yet I disagree. You find the same fluidity and overlapping terminology in Roman polytheism, for which there are genuinely pagan sources.
So when a polytheist says he’s not god-centric because he focuses on ancestors and landwights instead of gods, he’s basically superimposing a monotheistic scheme on a polytheistic worldview. So just as in the former you have god at the top followed by strata of non-gods (angels, saints, prophets, etc.), in the latter you end up with multiple gods on the top followed by non-gods (landwights, nymphs, elves, dísir, ancestors, etc.). In other words, it amounts to organizing a polytheistic pantheon according to monotheistic standards. Yet polytheism is not monotheism with more gods. It has its own set of theological rules and dynamics, because divine diversity and multiplicity have theological consequences. Focusing on landwights and ancestors is being god-centric too, because landwights and ancestors are gods as well. Minor, local, family or tribal ones, but gods nonetheless. And I’m not the first person to say this: back in 2010, Cara Schulz addressed the same issue in a post called Regulating the Gods: A Hellenist on Hubris. Go and read it, people. Seriously! We live in a society where religious discourse is dominated by monotheistic assumptions, but if we want to understand and revive ancient religions in today’s world, we need to understand them on their own terms and, through that process, deeply review today’s conventional wisdom on religious issues. And that means confronting and ultimately dropping ideas like landwights not being gods or, for that matter, Heathenry or Roman polytheism being defined as a “faith”. I know it’s not always easy to do this sort of mental work. I’ve been through the experience multiple times and question my own assumptions often. But it needs to be done if we’re serious about reviving ancient religions in the modern world. Polytheism is not monotheism with more gods.