No one’s an island. Unless one grew isolated in a place far away from all and any contact with people and ideas, no one is free from being shaped by the society and culture where one is born and matures in. This is true for virtually all aspects of life, including religion.
So every now and then, in conversations with pagans and polytheists or by reading what they write, I find ideas and expressions that are seen as natural or obvious in religious matters, but which can make no sense when one is discussing traditional polytheisms. They’re not used maliciously or even by conviction – though correcting them can sometimes lead to heated resistance – but mostly out of habit, because they’re ideas and expressions one hears often in everyday life. Yet, just because they’re habitual or deemed obvious doesn’t make them right, just harder to deconstruct by reason of being so deeply rooted in our thinking. And because of that, though I’ve already addressed them before, I’ll go through it once again.
I’m speaking specifically about a set of characteristics of the Abrahamic monotheisms – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that have shaped the vocabulary we commonly use. And they’ve done so thanks to the cultural predominance they’ve enjoyed in the western world for more than a millennium, due to which it is only natural that the way Abrahamic monotheisms conceive religion is, by default, the very same that Europeans or North-Americans usually resort to when thinking and talking about the subject. It’s what is obvious to us, not because it’s necessarily true, but because it’s was we’re used to by virtue of the culture we grew up in.
Case in point: the assumption that one is a Hellenic polytheist just because one believes in the Greek gods. It’s a reasoning that works very well in religions where belief in one or in a set of deities immediately excludes the belief in other(s), so if I have a belief in them, then I’m automatically of that religion. Thus, if I believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, that makes me a Christian, because such a belief is not shared by Jews and Muslims. Or if I believe in Allah and that Muhammed is its prophet, that will make me a Muslim, because that belief isn’t shared by Christians and Jews.
This is a zero-sum game that’s at home in the exclusivist nature of Abrahamic monotheisms, which, by virtue of their cultural predominance, have become a full part of how one normally thinks and discusses religion in the western world. It’s the underlying assumption in simple questions like “which gods do you believe in?”, by which one tries to uncover the religion of the person being asked. And it’s so deeply rooted – or is so common in everyday life – that even militant atheists, who fashion themselves as staunchly anti-religious, nonetheless follow the Abrahamic line of reasoning when criticizing the exclusivist posture of “every religion”: why is yours true and all others false, which is your god real and the others not, etc.
Here’s another example: the assumption that one is a Norse polytheist if one worships Norse gods. Once again, this sort of reasoning is at home in Abrahamic monotheisms, where belief in a deity by exclusion of all others easily amounts to its cult. It’s an exclusivist dynamic that says that if I want to worship a particular god, then I have to join the religion that defends his existence, upholds his commandments and pays homage to him, because all others do not believe in him, do not follow his teachings and therefore do not respect him and do not worship him. An expression of this idea that I know from personal experience is some people’s reaction whenever I say I’m a Roman polytheist: “that means you worship the Roman gods!” (which is only partially true) or “you uphold the values of the gods of Rome” (which does not compute).
Plurality isn’t just a word
Why are these and other assumptions nonsensical in a polytheist context? Because, simply put, polytheism is not monotheism with more gods! Divine plurality has consequences that result in a notion of religion that’s different from the Abrahamic one and thus requires the usage of a vocabulary that’s also different from the one we’re accustomed to.
For instance, using the word “faith” as synonymous of religion. It’s something that’s tremendously widespread in the anglophone world (e.g. interfaith) and it makes perfect sense in the case of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, because they have an orthodoxy emanated from sacred scriptures and are thus religions with declarations of faith! I believe as a fundamental feature! For that reason, and once again due to the cultural predominance of Abrahamic monotheisms that makes their conceptions natural in our eyes, it is equally common to define religions and religious categories mostly if not exclusively by belief. Take, for instance, the idea that a henotheist who believes in many gods, but worships only one, is nonetheless a polytheist because she/he acknowledges divine plurality in principle. That amounts to saying that religious cult is indifferent, that belief or faith is everything! I believe as a fundamental feature!
Though polytheism is a diverse category and not a single religion and there are therefore internal differences, it is nonetheless a category where multiple religions have an orthopraxy – correct ritual practice, ritual rules – but lack an orthodoxy. It doesn’t mean that there are no beliefs, just that they are not regulated, varying freely depending on the individual, groups, theological currents or philosophical convictions. Additionally, not only is belief free, it can also be open, lacking the exclusivism that characterizes Abrahamic monotheisms. Which means that, apart from not denying the existence of any god, regardless of whether or not one worship it, it also entails the possibility of worshipping any deity, no matter the pantheon it comes from.
This, in the end, is an ultimate consequence of the divine plurality that’s present in the meaning of the word polytheism: many gods and thus many beliefs, many cults, many forms of conceiving and worshipping many deities. Legitimately and freely. And it explains why the aforementioned assumptions, while logical in the Abrahamic monotheisms, may be non-sensical when talking about polytheisms.
One is not a Hellenic polytheist if one simply believes in the Greek gods, because that belief is not exclusive of that religion. Similarly, one is not a Norse polytheist if one simply worships the Norse gods, because they can be worshipped in different religions and in different ways. A religion that has no orthodoxy cannot be called “a faith”, because by not having regulated beliefs, but free and thus diverse ones, it has no uniform doctrine that can speak for the whole of that religion. What would, for instance, be the “Hellenic faith”? Believing in the Greek gods? That’s not sufficiently specific, because polytheists from other traditions may share that belief. A better criterion would be ritual practice – the orthopraxy – where the manner of worshipping the gods determines to which religion one belongs: Wicca if you do it the wiccan way, Roman if you do it the Roman way, Norse if you do it the Norse way, even if the deities being honoured originate from different pantheons. But in that case, we’re in the realm of religions that are defined not by an orthodoxy, but an orthopraxy – and that was true for many of the traditional polytheisms of the ancient word. Which means that a henotheist who worships a single god is not a polytheist, because even if there’s a belief in many, we’re not talking about a religion defined by a faith or an orthodoxy, but by an orthopraxy. Meaning, that henotheist lacks the criterion of plurality in worship, which is as or more important than belief in religions defined by ritual practice.
The tip of the iceberg
These are just a few examples of how, often without realizing it, we project features and dynamics of Abrahamic monotheists onto the way we speak of and think about other religions, in this case orthopraxic, non-orthodox and non-exclusivist polytheisms. There are similar issues with the notions of sacred space, for a temple is not necessarily a building where groups of worshippers enter to pay homage, as if it were a synagogue or a mosque. Or with the idea of moral codes, because we’re used to seeing religious leaders pontificating about people’s daily behaviour, stipulating what should and shouldn’t be allowed based on a moral code believed to be divine in origin. Or with the idea of scriptures, because we’re used to the practice of discerning a higher will in particular texts. The list goes on.
Deconstructing the habit of using terminology and frameworks seen as obvious for being common isn’t easy, because it demands change in how we think and a constant attention to what’s being said and done until new habits are created. But it’s something that has to be done if one is serious about reviving ancient religions in a modern world. It’s not enough to believe in or worship the same gods as in the past. One will not be doing a good job by creating, for instance, a Church of Odin where “believers” gather every week to pray, read passages from the Eddas, toast and hear sermons about faith, values and exclusive unwavering loyalty to the Norse gods. That would essentially be monotheism with more gods or with a different god: same dynamics, same ideas – the ones we’re used to – but with other deities.
One final and important note, just so I’m clear: I’m not saying this out of a view that Abrahamic monotheisms are evil and should be eliminated from our lives. They’re different religions entitled to the same tolerance and fundamental rights as polytheisms. But because they’re different, you can’t expect their features to be equally valid in a polytheist context. You have to review your thought process, check your often unconscious bias and construct a more apt terminology and framework.