American and European polytheisms

So I’ve been away from the blogosphere for a very long time, for no reason other than work and rest. Between papers and a book on Norse mythology I finished in late December (265 pages long… phew!), plus some time to ride my bike, workout and clear my mind, it left very little space for blogging. Now that things are a little less hectic, it’s time to resume it. My initial plan was to write something about this year’s Vialia, which is going to be a lot less outdoorsy since it’s raining, but then Galina Krasskova wrote something in her blog and it led to a heated discussion on Twitter, so that turned out to be the topic at hand.

What triggered things was this post. In it, Galina talks about what she finds appealing in the Roman approach, starting with orthopraxy and moving on to values, namely a sense of collective heroics, modesty (especially sexual modesty), piety, virtus and civic engagement. On Twitter, I pointed out that generally speaking those were social values, not religious ones, and she replied by stating that ancient Romans did not really separate the two. Which isn’t wrong, in that religious life was an extent of social one. But that doesn’t mean social and religious values are one an the same, especially in a polytheistic non-orthodox religion with no revealed truth, scriptures or moral commandments.

See, the thing about a solely orthopraxic religion, with no regulated and exclusive faith, is that it works a bit like a liquid: it assumes the shape of its vessel. If its host society is conservative, the religion will reflect conservative values; if it’s more liberal, it will convey liberal views. And that in turn will have an effect on ritual practices, no matter how orthopraxic it is. There’s a good historical example of that in the reaction to the cult of Cybele when it was first introduced into Rome: confronted with ecstatic and sexually ambiguous practices, Roman authorities enforced a series of limitations meant to place the new cult more in tune with the city’s moral code. You might also want to consider Gallo-Roman religion, which is another case of liquid-like behaviour, in that native Gallic practices assumed forms of a Latinized society. This isn’t an exclusive trait of Roman or other forms of orthopraxic polytheism, since you can also find a certain degree of flexibility in other religions. That’s how Christianity has historically adapted to different cultural contexts or Buddhism has given birth to various schools and sects. But the lack of scriptures that create standardized beliefs and morality means that the cultus deorum is a lot more flexible. A lot more!

As such, what we would normally perceive as the values of Roman polytheism were actually those of society at large or of the predominant philosophical school. They were not the values of the religion per se, but the stances it reflected in a given time and place. Change the vessel and the liquid assumes another form; change the social and historical context and the religion takes on new shapes. It basically absorbs the values of its host society, but it is not one and the same with them. They’re entwined, but not inseparable. The reason being that it’s a religion without sacred scriptures that crystallize moral teachings in the likes of the Bible or the Quran.

Take an example from Christianity. Some of its followers claim that homosexuality is wrong because it says so in Leviticus 20:13. Regardless of its theological merit – and you will find different opinions on it – the argument is a textbook case of an ancient social norm that was inserted into a text deemed sacred, the word of God, and has thus become part of the moral discourse of the religion that’s based on that same text. Or to put it differently, it’s a social value from a given time and place that has been crystallized and thus seen as timeless by virtue of being given a sacred status.

No such thing exists in Roman polytheism or at least it shouldn’t, because it has no sacred scriptures that can regulate faith, let alone a moral doctrine. Yes, ancient Roman authors wrote abundantly about morality, their views on the Gods, correct religion and social behaviour. But neither are they apostles or prophets, nor are their writings divine word or scriptures. They’re the opinions of people from a given time, place and philosophical school. You can have different values and beliefs on the nature of the Gods, see society differently, and still be a genuine Roman polytheist so long as you retain a basic orthopraxy. Because in a non-orthodox religion, morally is socially based, even if it can be religiously reflected.

This can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for recon and recon-inspired polytheists, since unlike more eclectic and free-styled pagans, they strive to be culturally or historically focused. I get that. But there’s a point where that focus becomes fossilization or cultural fetishism. When it stops being about studying a past religion so it can be revived in a modern context and starts being about reproducing an ancient society. Be it its clothing, social structure, political institutions or values. But you don’t have to re-enact or reproduce attitudes and fashions in order to be a genuine Roman polytheist, no more than Japanese people need to go back to the time of the Shoguns to be genuine Shintoists. You can be modern and still practice an ancient religion, especially one that has no moral doctrine and thus awards you the freedom to take in the values of the host society, so long it is plural and free enough to allow for religious difference.

Now some would argue that unlike Rome, Japan has preserved its native identity, whereas modern cultores have to go back in time to retrieve a sense of Romanitas. Which is an ironic argument for History-minded folks, because Roman polytheism was never just about Rome, nor has the city’s language and culture simply vanished into thin air in the 5th century. It evolved, morphed into something wider that’s still present: Latin gave way to romance languages and Roman culture became a part of the identity of European countries or of the wider western culture. Romanitas is alive and well, thank you very much. It’s in modern institutions, legal traditions, religious practices, folklore, mindset, language. And here, I’d argue, lies the root of the problem with Galina Krasskova’s stance on religion and modernity.

An ocean apart
In the past, I ocasionally ran into blog posts that mentioned differences between US and European polytheism. I could see what they were getting at, but I was never really confronted with it nor has it become clearer to me as in yesterday’s discussion with Galina. And it reminded me of what she herself wrote in the opening pages of the second number of the Walking the Worlds journal. To quote Galina Krasskova, page 2:

There seems to be an insecurity and anxiety around restoring traditions on foreign soil that has created some very reactionary, almost xenophobic threads within American Heathenry. It has led to a certain romanticization of the Heathen past, including the development of fundamentalist traditions like Theodism, which seek to reconstruct not just the religion, but the feudal social structure as well (…). Most of all, there’s a deep antagonism toward change and evolution within the tradition. I lay the responsibility for many of these trends, and the general fundamentalism of American Heathenry at the feet of this: we’re in a Diaspora. There’s an anxiety over not being on the religion’s ancestral land. There’s an anxiety over whether or not we’re doing it right and with that, there’s a certain fear of external influences.

To be clear, I’m not saying Galina is xenophobic. I never read anything from her that can be understood that way. And while her words focus on Heathenry, they can be applied to any form of modern reconstructed polytheism and many other things – including her stance on Roman values. To be blunt, Galina wasn’t born and raised in a southern European country with a native Latin language and culture. She did not grow on a former Roman land, next to Roman ruins, living with traditions and folklore rooted in the Roman past. She’s a Diaspora polytheist. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, and you can be a genuine Roman polytheist no matter where you’re born and live. But Galina seems to take it in the same direction as those heathens she criticizes: with an anxiety that leads her to emulate the Romanitas of yesterday since she has no sense of today’s. Or at least today’s doesn’t seem to be enough or she doesn’t see herself in it, so she takes refuge in a romanticization of the Roman past.

There’s more to it, though, for she could be a Diaspora polytheist, yet hold less radical views. But she’s also a US American and thus a product of US culture wars. Not to say that every American is – far from it! – but in her case, it’s true. You can see it in her vitriolic speeches on modernity, monotheism or the “slut” culture of today’s women; in her constant underlying or outspoken opinion that we’re at war and the modern world is our enemy. It’s a siege mentality that has more in common with Bible belt Christians then Galina probably cares to admit. Which is sadly ironic. I mean, we keep hearing Christian and Muslim fundamentalists claiming modern society is opposed to them, that it needs to be sanctified so they can truly practice their religion, and then we turn to our polytheistic community and end up finding an almost identical speech in some corners. Same radicalism, same anti-modernity, same war-mongering, but with more gods into it. You sort of wonder what happened to reason when people react to religious fundamentalism with a mirrored stance.

On this side of the pond
Now, I’m not claiming Europe or my country in particular are perfect. They’re not! I’m also not saying that the modern world is flawless and should be uncritically accepted. But neither do I see it as inherently evil or an enemy I’m at war with. Nor do I share the romanticized view that the past was better. It wasn’t. For all its shortcomings, the modern western world is more egalitarian, tolerant and democratic. But of course, that’s the view of a native Portuguese polytheist.

I don’t feel the need to retrieve a social code from two millennia ago in order to feel Roman. I’m already native to a Latin culture, language and land where remnants of old Roman traditions, mindset and practices are still alive. I don’t see monotheism as an enemy and have never experienced it as such. It’s true that public discourse on religion is dominated by monotheistic views, but the key to diversity is going public about your religion, taking part in open debates in a civil manner, not viewing the world as your enemy. Or at least that’s how it goes on this side of the pond, where things are less hostile. I can gladly recall several of my birthday dinner parties where I saved a seat for Freyr and sitting next to it was a Baptist friend of mine. I can be at a table with Catholics and atheists and have a civil conversation on religion without having to go into protest mode. Or even take a few minutes to make an offering by the sea or road while on the beach or riding my bike with non-polytheistic friends. Heck, even the evangelical ladies who go preaching door to door are nice and will be clear about respecting my religion when I tell them what it is.

I’m also not interested in counter-culture. I’m not a polytheist as a form of protest or reaction against a “degenerate” modern world. Do I think polytheism has a contribution to make? Yes! Does that mean modernity is my enemy? No! I don’t normally work in zero-sum games of either/or, good/bad, us/them. That’s the sort of view I’d expect in a fundamentalist, not an open-minded polytheist. I’m a cultor because it feels right for me. I cherish the natural diversity of the world, see divine multiplicity as an extension of it, and have come to embrace Roman polytheism because it is tied to my native land, culture and language. But I also remain open to other forms of polytheism because, again, I love diversity. And it is the freedom and plurality of a modern European society that allows to make that choice and practice it freely.

So I honestly don’t see myself in the hostility I read in Galina’s posts. It looks to me as something out of place and frankly more akin to monotheistic fundamentalism than polytheistic openness. The whole emphasis on absolute deities who are not to be confused with humans or landwights, the sometimes underlying hint of submission to divine will, the focus on values and fighting the modern world, all of that reminds me of an evangelical sermon in some forsaken rural community. It’s not how I view and live a modern polytheistic tradition, but maybe her views are a serious trend across the Atlantic.

11 thoughts on “American and European polytheisms

  1. I think part of the reason we on this side of the Atlantic live with a siege mentality is because, in myriad ways, we are actually under siege. There are several communities for whom police may as well be judge, jury, and executioner. There is the constant bombardment from media and social figures to be one way or the other. There is the consistent bombardment of our populous as a whole with outright lies legally sanctioned by our judicial system as it is not, in fact, against the law to lie on the subject of the news as, according to a Supreme Court ruling, that would impinge a company’s free speech rights, Add this into the mix of having to fight and scrape in some cases just to get our basic rights as religious folks heard and upheld. We re actually engaged in fairly nasty culture wars any given day. We have presidential candidates willing and ready to massively deport people, even refugees, for being from countries they don’t care for. There’s those who call themselves Heathens that hold deeply xenophobic, racist, transphobic, and other hateful viws we’re consistently having to differentiate ourselves from.

    Factor all this into the notion that there are a great deal of us who hear the message “America is great!” and when we check our bank accounts or do our budgeting or try to live good, productive lives, we cannot see it and cannot experience it. After awhile, it gets really hard to see what modernity has produced besides more reliance on a crumbling infrastructure, more reliance on polluting and destructive means for convenience’s sake, and has produced ways of life that, whether it is peak oil or climate change or infrastructure collapse, or all of these acting together, will simply break down.

    Very often, even in liberal areas, the Baptists, the evangelicals are outwardly aggressive and push their religion and agendas onto you whether or not you have told them your religion and values are utterly at odds. When there are potentials for community-building between religious groups, in my own experience, there is open hostility and dismissal of our religions to be part of the experience or contributing members. We are already outside looking in. Just by dint of being religiously different, we are already so on the outside that American culture dismisses us or treats us as threats.

    Modernity is an assumed birthright for a lot of folks, particularly evangelical Christians, and all the work ethic beliefs, technological supremacy views, and so on that brings. It brings with it the assumption that animists and polytheists are backwards, wrong, etc. as per the Myth of Progress of Religions and they are something to be stamped out, or subjugated. The same with many of the New Atheists who place their own views on religion on top of this particular pyramid/linear schema. A good number of the evangelical Christian folks hold and are grabbing for more political power. The same in terms of New Atheists and academia. We’re very much in a culture war, unasked for, but there nonetheless.

    It is little wonder you’re hearing hostility from polytheists this side of the pond.

    There comes a point at which, when you raise your voice, you are standing in opposition, very often stark opposition given how polarized things are over here. By saying “I treat the land as a Goddess/vaettr” that brings within it a political shift that is unlike what most of our society over here accepts. It is also standing in stark contrast to modernity and the way things are in this country, whether you’re hanging from a bridge in Seattle, chaining yourself to a forest in Michigan, or decrying dumping waste-as-snow on a mountain sacred to indigenous people. If I say “this land is holy/a holy Being”, that brings with it responsibility to the land, and cascades of decisions that become closed off to a person. At least for our culture, simple statements like these brings with it political implications, and practical ones as well. In almost every way, my being a polytheist has affected how I eat, buy, and the activities I do, things I have learned, what I am seeking to learn and why, and how I am going about living my life and raising my kids. I don’t think this is exclusive to Americans, but it seems to be a lot less commented on in blogs from other parts of the world that I follow.

  2. You wrote:
    “For all its shortcomings, the modern western world is more egalitarian, tolerant and democratic”

    I believe it is significant to say that modernity guarantees us nothing.

    Without folks pushing its boundaries, modernity would never have expanded to give non-white men the ability to vote.
    The modern west is more outwardly egalitarian, tolerant, and democratic, but what does the modern western world actually do? Colonialism and imperialism have not gone away, they have merely changed faces. The very means by which I am typing this response to you is soaked in the blood of countless hands, from those who were children or slaves or so low-paid to mine for the rare earth materials they may as well have been, to those who put these components together in a Chinese factory, the plastics made by polluting the Earth and bringing up toxic chemicals. The hard drive of this computer is made with neodymium which is poisoning Inner Mongolia, as its the one place 90% of all this rare Earth material comes from. None of this would be possible without the ways in which modern societies export all the terrible costs of keeping the systems by which they run on an everyday basis. It’s colonialism without a direct, occupying military force, at least, in most countries.

    The only reason modernity looks attractive to us is because we’re not part of the calculations for the ‘externalities’ that are swept up in what makes modern life possible.

  3. Again, we’re talking from different standpoints. It’s not that I don’t get what you’re saying – I do! – it’s just that we obviously experience and hence look at modernity differently.

    To me, modernity is what allows me to be a Roman polytheist. Go back four centuries in Portuguese history and you would be arrested, tortured or killed for not being a Catholic. Fast forward to the late 1700s and especially to the 1800s and things started to change thanks to the liberal ideas produced by the Enlightenment and French Revolution. Portugal’s first constitution in 1821 was a by-product of those events and subsequent versions of the fundamental law increasingly expanded rights and freedoms. Simply put, I would not be here writing this, pouring offerings outdoors or speaking publicly about my religion if it wasn’t for modernity. Nor would the Catholic Church have changed the way it did since the 19th century and especially in the 20th.

    Now, is it perfect? Far from it! There’s still plenty of racism, bigotry and income inequality over here – of which I myself am a victim. European democracies have a lot of room for improvement and minorities are often discriminated or ill integrated. As in the US, most people don’t see polytheism as a serious religious option and assume that it’s outdated, a past stage in an evolution towards monotheism. Public discourse on religion, be it in the media or in the streets, reflects that. And we’re not short of environmental problems, either. But having said that, I honestly don’t have the negative or radical view that I’m increasingly aware of and of which Galina is a prime example. Perhaps because whereas you see modernity as part of the problem, I see it as part of the solution.

    The religious tolerance and freedom awarded by modernity allows me to speak publicly about my religion and hence change perceptions on polytheism. The democratization brought about by modernity in the past two centuries awards the basic tools for political change: look at Spain’s recent political upheaval or the election of an MP by an animal rights’ party in Portugal. The legal recognition of fundamental rights and of democracy as more than the dictatorship of the majority, something that’s also a product of modernity, makes way for a continuous legal and social struggle against racism and bigotry, which isn’t easy nor linear, but nonetheless advances: see gay rights, for instance, or look at the Middle East, which missed much of modernity; and at least over here, technology is increasingly part of the solution to environmental problems: renewable energies, better and more extensive recycling, circular economy, energy efficiency, better waste management – these and other things are a growing focus of European policies, which also increasingly factor in climate change.

    So forgive me for not seeing modernity as an enemy. There was a time when Europe in general and my country in particular were ruled by autocratic and confessional monarchies. Modernity changed that, so I beg to differ: western egalitarianism, tolerance and democracy are not merely outwardly things. They’re concrete changes in social, political and religious dynamics. Unfinished and far from perfect, yes, but if change occurred in the past and you have the mechanism to keep pushing for it, you have modernity to thank for.

  4. So you’re the one she wrote about on Facebook. I am friends with Galina on Facebook as she’s mentioned your argument over Twitter (which really isn’t the best medium for communicating *anything* in an effective manner). I must confess reading your side of the story changes what I think about the whole thing.

    I also never really considered how polytheism might differ between Europe, with it’s myriad different cultures, sub-cultures, regions, and countries, and the United States, which is a single country with a truly common history and politics, and how this impacts our experiences as polytheists. I’m also so steeped in news from the US and conversing with mostly US people, it’s probably blinding me to what’s actually happening in my own neck of the woods.

    I’m also grateful to you for voicing what I couldn’t, how modernity isn’t all bad as Galina tends to think.

    • You’re not alone in being steeped in news from the US 😉

      In retrospect, this has been brewing for quite some time. It’s been a slow-coming awareness, built both on a steady flow of posts from US Americans and the occasional text on a divide between the two sides of the Atlantic. Can’t recall where I read the latter, but it was a handful of posts that generally spoke of how views that are seen as fringe or radical in Europe come across as mainstream in the US. And I guess it was only a matter of time before that divide became obvious in a discussion that played out those different perceptions. Sort of the last drop in a full glass. Which is what happened last weekend, because Galina has an anti-modernity standpoint, while I don’t, if nothing else because I have modernity to thank for being able to freely choose and practice my religion. Her personal experience, as well as that of the US as a country, might be different, but I’m all too aware of the religious tolerance and democracy that did *not* exist in my country before modernity kicked in in the 1800s.

      • The same goes for Flanders and Belgium as a whole, traditionally a very Catholic country. It’s only after the Second World War, in the fifties and sixties that slowly things started to change and the Catholic Church started really losing ground, both in people coming to Church, as in actual believers, as in their influence on politics (which was already unconstitutional, but you know how these things can go). I have modernity to thank not just for being able to practice my religion, but being able to live as an out gay man (same as you; I guess 😛 ).

  5. Once again, I find myself far more in sympathy with the reported European approach to polytheism than the one that I see other people from my own country reflecting.

    I would say that yes, that sort of attitude exists on this side of the pond, but it’s also not universal; it’s not actually common in my personal circle of intimates, in part because I find it somewhere between off-putting and actively opposed to my ability to actually practice my religions.

    Perhaps your European attitudes are part of why I love your writing about these principles so much, even though I am not Roman in outlook. (I have your “My religion has no moral doctrine” post in my essential bookmarks.)

    • Thank you, Kiya. I also don’t think it’s a universal trend among US Americans, just as not every European thinks the way I do. To a large extent, my views are a product of a liberal upbringing in a liberal part of a country that, while a part of the Latin world, was not the center of Roman culture and politics. So there’s an element of middle ground and openness to it.

  6. Helio, good read, my WP reader has been wonky so I missed this when you published it initially. I have been similarly kerfuffled by Krasskova’s interest in the Cultus Deorum, given her history of simply misunderstanding and misrepresenting practical and terminological conventions, which in turn informs her fiery rhetoric.

    In response to you, however, I have to categorically deny that any polytheism, Roman or otherwise, was “solely orthopraxic”. I think that this is a fallacious statement in modern polytheistic and Contemporary Pagan movements to distance themselves from the overarching reach of a centralized authority embodied by the Church, and one which is increasingly problematic for people to comprehend. One cannot have right action without right belief, and one cannot have right belief without right action. The two concepts are intertwined indelibly, and Cicero himself claims orthodoxic statements when he approaches the concept of the gods receiving the piety of a “true believer” instead of a wealthy one approaching with sumptuous goods. A practical application of a theory still requires the theory.

    I also believe that the statements that the Roman religion(s), liquid or no, have no moral doctrine are not particularly accurate, either. It smacks a bit of revisionism, though I know that’s not your intention. Concepts like ‘fides’ were most absolutely relative between parties and persons, and not the gods themselves, but individual polytheistic systems absolutely have their own moral and ethical doctrine which was represented throughout the society. What they do not have are universal systems, which we know never existed in the past, despite Krasskova’s past claims.

    I think there is some definite discontinuity with “American” and “European” polytheisms, and I’ve experienced some of this. For instance, my experience with European “polytheists” by in large paint them as largely atheistic allegorical secularists who mock American belief in the Gods as something backward. As you say, it isn’t necessarily the truth of the whole. That these people come from “secular” Northern Europe only reinforces the fact that we can’t speak of either America or Europe as monolithic identities. While America doesn’t have nearly the historic factionalism as Europe, we are still very much shaped by our unique geographic regions and backgrounds, and I don’t know how much benefit a wedge between the two forms of national identities

    Like you, I have no interest in the counter-culture, nor do I have any interest in polytheism as a “radical theism”, and the confluence of political and social radicalism (which are not necessarily negative) and religious ambitions tends to make me a bit tired. I have a keen interest in polytheism as a valid, appropriate, form of religious expression accessible to people on the street and on the ground. My social and moral choices are viewed through a secular lens, through the concepts of human liberty and equality, and while I feel that we need to fight for those things, I do not believe that operating in a black and white mentality is at all the right way to do it.

    I think part of it is a distinct fabrication of an identity that we’re only distantly the inheritors of. Americans find it difficult to connect with the historic underpinnings because our histories only go back so long. Like the old saying goes, to an American one hundred years is a long time, but to an English man one hundred miles is a long distance.

    • Actually, you can have right action without right belief. The fact that ancient Romans dicussed the meaning of ritual gestures and offered different interpretations to it goes to show that orthopraxy coexisted with heterodoxy. The focus was on ritual actions, but their interpretation was up to the individual and his/her choice of philosophical school. Cicero can say all he wants, but he was *one* voice in a religious system with no theological authority and where others certainly saw things differently.

      Of course, the very notion of orthopraxy implies that of duty and hence pietas and fides. If you have to do it right, then by definition there’s a practical duty. But this refers to ritual matters and only by extension does it affect social practices. This is especially the case with regard to family duties, which apply to both living and deceased relatives in one devotional continuum. Yet it is also true that societies are not static and hence the reverence and role awarded to family members is also subject to changes. Take the paterfamilia, for instance: its ancient role makes no sense in a modern society, which is more egalitarian and has even come to accept same-sex couples.

      This naturally affects ritual practices, precisely because the religio has no moral doctrine that can fossilize a form of social and hence religious life. It has ritual requirements that affect one’s conduct, yes, but it will also take on the values of its host society. Even the notion of pietas as applied to family life is subject to that same changeability: in an age of individual freedom and critical thinking, obedience has little in modern societies. And if our dealings with the gods are an extension of our social life, in that they’re seen as extended family and patrons, then you’ll deal with them as a free person with critical thinking. Just as you’re expected to deal with your parents and grandparents once you’re a grown up: with respect and dedication, but not submission. It would be different if you lived in another society with different values.

      Which again goes to show that there’s no moral doctrine. There’s no sacred text saying to behave like this or do that in your everyday life. There are ritual requirements as prescribed by tradition and then there’s a continuous exchange between those requirements and the values of the society you live in.

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