There’s a great deal of needed dialogue going on in various polytheist, animist, Pagan, and associated communities right now. I have been part of this, on and off, and while I do deeply feel these things are necessary, I also think that reaching out to the folks coming into this fresh, or those looking at coming back to the polytheist, animist, and Pagan communities are needed as well. I have not seen a post like this make the go-arounds in a long while, at least on WordPress, so this post is made with these folks in mind.
What is polytheism?
Polytheism is defined by OxfordDictionaries.com as “The belief in or worship of more than one god”. That is it, in a nutshell. Most polytheists I know, and those I count among my co-religionists define polytheism in this manner. This is because polytheism, as a word, describes a worldview and theological understanding, rather than a religion in and of itself. A polytheist religion would be Northern Tradition Paganism, or any one of a number of Heathen religions. Polytheists are those, then, that believe in or worship more than one God.
The polytheist religions I know of, especially those I am part of, hold that the world itself, as well as most things, are ensouled in some fashion, and/or are in part imbued with the numinous. In this, most polytheists are, in some fashion, animists. Animism is “The attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena” and/or “The belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe“. Like polytheism, animism is a theological position and worldview.
Polytheism as a word says nothing about the Gods one worships, what kinds of practices are accepted practice within a polytheist community, nor how one is expected to conduct oneself in or out of that community. All these things are determined by religious communities that are polytheist.
What makes up a polytheist worldview?
Cosmology and relationships. This may seem fairly simple, but when you take a look at the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, it’s far from it.
In these religions the cosmology, “An account or theory of the origin of the universe“, informs a deep amount of how the religion is structured and the place of the people within it. The creation story alone is a wealth of information, namely on who created what, and where things came from. Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar are described as discrete categories of Beings in the creation story, and form different tribes that intermarry on occasion, and war on others. So too, Alfar (Elves) and Dvergar (Dwarves) are discrete categories of Beings. The Dead are as well. Even within our own Ancestors, the categories of Disir and Alfar/Väter (I use Väter, the German word for “Fathers” to differentiate between the Elves and powerful male Ancestors) differentiate the powerful female and male Ancestors from the rest of our Ancestors. One of the lessons one gains from reading or hearing the creation story is that there are discrete categories of Beings, and They exist in hierarchy to one another and between each other.
In reading or listening to the creation story and others from these religions, it is understood that relationships form between the Aesir, Vanir, Jotnar, Alfar, Dvergar, and ourselves cooperatively as well as hierarchically. The Aesir and Vanir war before peace and cooperation ensues, and an exchange of hostages occurs. Likewise, there are tribes of Jotnar who make continuous war on the Aesir, those who do not, and Jotnar who join the Aesir by assertion of rights as with Skaði, or with Vanic Gods by marriage, as with Gerða and Freyr. There are Jotnar who do not war on the Aesir, but keep to Themselves just as not all the Aesir war with Jotnar. In other words, there are a great many kinds of relationships that exist between these various Beings.
If we take these stories as examples, there are a great many relationships we can maintain with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir (spirits). Part of how this is done is by understanding our place within the cosmology.
Our understanding of where we are in the Worlds means a great deal to the religions we are part of. It places us in how we relate to all things. Jörð, and Nerthus, for instance, place us into direct relationship with the Earth beneath our feet as a/many Goddess(es).
What makes this even more interesting, in my view, is that because I am a polytheist, I accept a great many more Gods of the Earth than just one, including not only female Gods like Jörð, but male Gods such as the Egyptian God Geb, and others of differing/no genders, sexes, etc. This does not create competition for this role of being a God/Goddess of the Earth, but more that They are in the same wheelhouse. It need not be an either/or idea.
Rather, I look at it as an “and/and” notion that there are many Gods of the Earth Itself. Sometimes I understand Jörð as the Earth Itself, and other times She is a local Earth Goddess. Cosmology places us, and relationships form from this understanding of where we are and how we relate to the Worlds around us. The particulars of how these relationships are shaped, what ways they develop or fade, and how things shake out otherwise depend on the religion(s) one is part of and how the relationships themselves go.
Polytheism is a foundation upon which the worldviews polytheist religions rest and build from. Alone, it only asserts that a person holds belief in or worships Gods. Everything else, from the relationships one forms with what Gods, clear on down to what kind of things are taboo, derive from the polytheist religion one is part of and are communal and individual. In the end, the leaders one follows, or lacks, entirely depends on whether or not a person joins a community in the first place. This acceptance or denial of joining a community will, in turn, impact the relationships that one maintains with the Gods, Ancestors, and/or spirits of one’s religion. This does not make these choices one makes right or wrong. It makes them choices that carry consequences. If one rejects belonging to a community it impacts one’s relationships with the Gods just as belonging to one would, though in different ways. My relationships have definitely changed with the Gods I worshiped before and after I helped establish my local Northern Tradition/Heathen Kindred. Many vaettir I had worked only a little before became quite vocal in my life. It takes all kinds to make a Kindred.
Polytheism really does take all kinds. There are polytheists who never will be part of a community, and others for whom their community is intimately bound up in their life. There are polytheists who have never had a powerful spiritual experience and never will, and others for whom there’s a quality of ‘They never shut up’ to their lives. There are polytheists who are stay at home parents, and others who have absolutely no aspirations to be parents. There are those who work in low-wage jobs as well as high. There are polytheists on every part of the political spectrum. In the end, the meaningful question in regards to polytheism is, “Do you worship or believe in the Gods?”
So now that you have a rough idea of how polytheism works, what about first steps into being a polytheist? When I began teaching the Northern Tradition Study Group in my area this is how we started out.
Determine the religion you will be focusing on.
This step is probably the most important. When we organized the NT Study Group it was because there was enough people who had expressed interest in such a group. Otherwise, folks were already developing relationships with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir of the Northern Tradition and Heathen religions alongside other religious and spiritual interests. Bringing the group together under a single religious focus in Northern Tradition and Heathen polytheism brought a lot of advantages with it. Having a single religious focus provides a shared lexicon and a deep amount of focus. Having a single religious focus helps develop an understanding of the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits of the religion one is working with, and develops the relationships within the framework of that religion. It also helps develop context for exploring and understanding spiritual relationships outside of this religion, giving a solid ground for the newcomer to put their weight down on.
I would recommend that anyone new to polytheism or animism pick a single religious path to focus on for at least a year. Even if you find that religion is not the one you end up staying with after that period of time it can provide good contexts and understanding for where you want to go or are meant to go from there.
Gather resources and do your research.
This means tapping resources both written and from people, especially if you have folks in your area actively involved in the religion you want to join. One of the sources I recommend at this stage is Spiritual Protection by Sophie Reicher. The idea here is to develop spiritual hygiene and protection techniques so good habits are made early. It also helps to separate out genuine religious and/or mystic experiences from sock puppets by doing the internal work early in the journey by developing methods of discernment early. The early research may be a source of deep exploration, or a reference point. It will depend on one’s personal journey with the Holy Powers, but at the least it gives everyone, especially if you’re doing this with a group, some mutual starting points to look at and refer back to.
This is the step in the formation of the group where I provided a list of books for folks to look at, with explanations for why. It is also the step where I recommend people talk to others in the community, even those who religious exploration will be solitary, because if you get a question you do not have the answer to you will be able to talk with others on it. This may also be a good time to figure out some good diviners in your communities to talk with when the need arises.
Determine your initial focus.
I put it this way because for some people the ‘in’ to polytheism is through the Gods, others the Ancestors, and others the vaettir. Determining Who you will be focusing on and developing your initial relationships with will help determine how your religious focus fleshes out in the following sections, what resources you will find of use, and in what ways you can best develop your religious work. Things may not stay this way, but it will help provide some of that foundation I mentioned in part 1 above.
Do regular religious work and ritual.
When we started I recommended folks take 5-10 minutes a day of dedicated time and go from there. Some folks’ lives are incredibly busy and setting aside even this amount of time can be hard, whereas for others setting aside this regular time is a source of orientation in their lives. This is the heart and soul of any religious tradition. Regular devotional work, even if it is a few moments of prayers with an offering of water, is powerful work, and builds on itself over time.
I personally recommend anyone interested in polytheism and/or animism develop a spiritual practice with their Ancestors. If the last generation or two has problems for you, I would recommend connecting with Ancestors further back, and talking to an Ancestor worker and/or diviner as you need guidance.
Refine your resources, practices, focus, and so on as needed.
I am not the same person I was when I became a Pagan in 2004. In that time my religious focus has changed quite heavily, as has my roles in my communities. Each person’s refinement might be different. When I first began researching the Egyptian Gods I started out researching the culture and the Gods in general. As my relationship with Anpu grew, I did a lot more research specifically into cities, festivals, and cultus around Him. While I was doing this, I was developing my relationship with Anpu, doing regular offerings and rituals on a regular basis. As things went on, I would do divination, or in some ways get direct messages such as through direct contact, omens, and other forms of communication between us. I would then update my religious practices and views as these came up and were accepted. This helped sustain me in the religion for the three years I was strictly a Kemetic polytheist. I went through a similar process with Odin when I became a Northern Tradition Pagan and Heathen, and it has sustained me, and those I have taught, ever since.
Relationship and Reciprocity
At the end of the day polytheism and animism are both based in relationships, and these relationships are based in reciprocity. What we do in reciprocity changes on our circumstances and the needs and desires of those we share in our relationships with. These relationships do come with baseline right belief, or orthodoxy. As far as polytheism itself goes that means you believe in or worship the Gods, whereas individual ptolytheist religions have their own orthodoxies that develop off from this understanding. The understanding of right action of polytheism itself, the orthopraxy, requires baseline respect for Them and the reciprocity that sustains that relationship. As with orthodoxy, polytheist religions will have their orthopraxy, and these will be dependent on so many contexts I could easily make hosts of posts about them.
The way in which a single person’s life could change for these relationships and be changed by them are incredibly diverse. It is my hope that as more people become or are raised polytheist that the need for these sorts of general polytheist guideline posts becomes less relevant. I hope to see all the polytheist religions respond to the needs of their individual communities and develop well. It is my prayer that, so long as these posts are needed, that this one and others like it help those who find it. May the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir bless the work before us.