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On Polytheism

We all have a drawer somewhere in our homes–maybe it’s in the kitchen or the den or the office–where you sort of just cram a bunch of important items together.  Things you need, but things for which you don’t quite have the right place elsewhere in the house.  So, the remote ends up next to the spare keys and the extra light bulbs.  And, every time you need the hot glue gun, you know right where to look.

That drawer?  That’s my polytheism.

a group of 20 gods seeming to enjoy each others company
The Council of Gods / Raphael – Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Religious but not Spiritual

I like to call my self “religious but not spiritual.”  I love my religion, it guides me and it helps me in my life — as yours may do for you.  But, it does so primarily as an intellectual exercise.  I long to be a mystic, a mouthpiece for the gods, but so far that’s not the way in which I’ve interacted with them.

How have I interacted with them, you may ask?  Very little, I would answer.  Perhaps: never.

See, I’m a skeptic.  It’s hard for me to get out of my own head and experience life.  Even during non-religious activities, I find myself analyzing the space, watching the room, looking for where there might be a problem for me to solve or a person who needs some help.  It makes me feel involved and valuable at the event, but it takes me out of the moment.  As a result, while I’ve been in space with those who have had deeply moving numinous experience, I’ve not really had one of my own.

If you ask me on any given moment about my belief in the gods, I’m going to hesitate before I answer that I do believe in them.  That moment of doubt is a necessary part of my faith.  It forces me to re-examine my assumptions and think again about how to answer the question.  And, frankly, it’s not a foregone conclusion that I’ll answer in the affirmative.

But, I love ceremony.  I love ritual.  I love the behavior that religion brings to my life and the experiences it brings me when I sit with others — especially those who interact deeply with the gods.  For me, the religious and social aspects of my Pagan community, and the administrative process to keep that community moving, are very rewarding and have been the way in which I have found a place for myself.

So, why polytheism?

From what I wrote above, it’s clear that almost any religious–and many non-religious communities–could probably sustain me, so why polytheism?

When delivered by a monotheist or an atheist, the question often has a sense of incredulity about it; like they can’t believe a modern human–one who works with technology, who has a master’s degree, and frankly who is an American and white and seems pretty damn vanilla–could possible believe in multiple gods!  And, there’s an undercurrent of elitism here, too.  Polytheism is what “they” believe, and “they” are clearly ignorant of modern understandings of science and/or theology.

When brought up by other polytheists, sometimes I almost feel … pity from them.  As if my lack of contact with the gods is as a wound that won’t (or, perhaps, can’t) heal; that a key piece of life’s puzzle was removed and the picture of my life will never be fully complete without it.

But, in thinking about it for some time (like years), I came to the conclusion that polytheism is the only way for me to reconcile the experiences that others have described to me.  I have heard stories from Pentecostal Christians who describe been filled with the Holy Spirit.  I’ve seen a woman call down her goddess and wear the mantle of Oracle.  I’ve stood in the space and watched as others shivered at the passage of both the gods and the mighty dead.  And, in a very few moments, I’ve felt them touch me and remind me that, while our relationship may be that of distant relatives–ones that have little time left at the end of the day to keep in touch–that they are out there.

Atheism doesn’t work for me.  The rationality of it doesn’t match the irrationality of my experience of the world.  Monotheism doesn’t seem to work either; a singular god that shows as many faces to the world as people experience is either deceitful or suffering an identity disorder.  But, polytheism has room for the irrational, the unexplained, and the magical, and there’s no struggle to understand a woman who finds Kali supportive during a difficult divorce or a veterinarian that sometimes feels that Artemis guides his hands when assisting with the birth of puppies while at other times Asklepios leads him through a difficult surgery.  One doesn’t have to cram all of the divine experiences of all the humans of the world into one being, but instead can see these experiences has having been inspired by or perhaps stemming from different beings, a multitude of gods, each with their own interests, strengths, and weaknesses.

And, the drawer?

Well, it was just a metaphor, but to return to it, my experiences of the gods are (as I’ve mentioned) few and far between.  And, with distance and time, my inner skeptic begins to wonder if I really felt what I felt, or if I’ve merely constructed a more meaningful (to me) memory out of the raw fabric of what really happened.  And, I don’t always know what to do about that; I don’t always have a place for those thoughts or for the gods and the experiences that inspire them.

So, I put them in the drawer.  But, like the extra set of AA batteries for my bike’s headlamp, I know where to go looking for them when I need them.