People find their way into polytheism through a myriad selection of roads, pathways, and avenues. There are many routes into polytheistic religion and Polytheist identity. Some of these are natural and in-born, others are taught early enough to be life-long, and for many they are roads taken up through conversion from something else later in life. Each of these represents a different type and experience of engagement with polytheism.
As Polytheists and polytheistic religious traditions continue to gain increase visibility and platforms to voice their views, express their needs, and expand on their theologies, ritual technologies, and ethical structures, it is important to keep in mind that this ongoing polytheistic discussion is not in any way singularly uniform; quite the contrary, it is polyform in intrinsic expression.
There are some distinct demographics to consider when reading, writing, thinking about, or talking about polytheistic religious practices, and it is important that these distinctions be kept somewhat in mind to avoid accidental erasure (as a writer or commenter) or overly personalizing one’s interpretation of a given contribution (as a reader) and responding with hostility when the item in question may not have been intended to speak to or provide for that given person’s needs. Here is a brief, and not at all comprehensive, list of such demographics to consider, which are not always mutually exclusive to one another:
- Those who come out of extant, living, unbroken (or at least many-generationed) polytheistic traditions, whether these are new-to-them-as-individuals-or-not. These almost always overlap with ethnic, racial, or culturally marginalized populations who are globally at-risk.
- Those who are new to the concept and approach of “many distinct gods who are affirmed as real and given religious regard” (for example, folks coming out of magical traditions which emphasized dualistic or monistic or unity based philosophies, because magic and religion are different things) and may not entirely know if they are at the identity level paradigmic Polytheists, or if they’re better described as practitioners of a polytheistic tradition, whether they have an established tradition (e.g. Thiasos of the Starry Bull, Asatru, etc) or not.
- Those who are not new and have been doing this a while, and are not “seekers” trying to “figure it out”. That’s called living a tradition. (Even if, in the case of somebody who practices in solitary devotions outside the scope of a larger group, they do not have a structured collective tradition.)
- Those who converted to polytheism from some other category of religious practice or identity (e.g. monotheism, atheism, non-theistic magical/occult philosophy, etc)
- Those whose polytheisms are indistinguishable in their lives from other cultural artifacts, such as involvement in or identification with the American Neo-Pagan Movement.
- Those whose polytheism is animist at the core, recognizing a plethora of spirits and cross-related continuities of beings, through the material and immaterial and supermaterial world(s). These might be called “polytheanimists”, a term I coined to describe my own theistic and spiritual frameworks.
- Those whose polytheism is not animist at the core, and primarily or exclusively concerned with worship of the class of beings called gods.
- Those who are Polytheists at the identity-level but are culturally or practically engaged in a different sort of structure which is not defined at its intrinsic core as polytheistic, such as Unitarian Universalism, Catholicism, Judaism, Wicca, or Feri.
- Those who did not convert, and had polytheism as their religion for their entire lives, whether because of being born into an extant tradition (see above) or because the spirits and/or gods claimed them early on such that they never had another religious paradigm or identity, including the absence of one (such as atheism, secular non-theism, etc).
- Those who have an education and background in the study or discussion of religion (their own included), and are both versed in, and interested in contributing meaningfully to, these pursuits, in good faith.
- Those who have a more folk religion relationship to their practices, which are not necessarily informed by formal study or education in the disciplines of religion. Another term used by some for this concept is popular religion
- Those who have folk religion practices and are also familiar with the formal disciplines of religious study, as these are not mutually exclusive by default.
Some of these groups will have different needs from one another, for different reasons. Some might have needs in understanding polytheistic foundations because they are totally new, do not have a formal tradition, and need help.
At this time, it is those in the most need of foundations and stable understandings who the ongoing public polytheistic dialog is often most catered to. This can include individuals, groups, newcomers and veteran polytheistic religionists, and even some who have been doing polytheism for some time without even realizing it, because that happens sometimes. Not everybody will need these foundations to inform their practices, because their practices might come out of a structured tradition which provides them the instruction that they need; but these may still benefit from learning foundations in order to better understand other people and traditions to avoid conflicts by assuming that their way is the only/right way.
Trying to force one uniform image or idea of polytheism is not what the Polytheist Movement is about. There are many polytheisms, and many ways to be Polytheists; all of these, however, require intrinsically the affirmation with religious regard of many gods, who are distinct from one another and human consciousness.
In almost all instances, random bickering between the different extant expressions of polytheistic practice and/or identity is stupid, wasteful, and destructive. Intellectual, theological, and ethical debates are the substance of growth, change, and wisdom-sifting; however, these are best approached with meaningful intent and a disciplined use of language (or, at the very least, the discernment to recognize when somebody else is expressing a different use of words or meanings, so that instead of engaging in random fighting by dancing around the central disagreement, it can be met head-on with clarifying language).
Words having meanings. Meanings are important. Some words have several different possible meanings (which might differ between cultures, or have distinct meanings because of international translations) and some words need to be held to a slightly higher, more formatively essential understanding — like “polytheism” itself, described above — in order for any good-faith discourse to be possible.
There are many roads in, and thankfully that also means that there are many roads back out again, if indeed you’ve found yourself engaged in something that maybe isn’t what you meant when you started using those words. Involvement in or with polytheism is not like a national identity with a benefits package and a retirement plan: if you don’t affirm with religious regard that there are many gods who are distinct from one another and from human consciousness, maybe you’re missing out on some really groundbreaking religious, spiritual, or self discoveries in some other area or discipline by insisting that your religious approach belongs in a category that doesn’t really describe it, accurately.
Nobody is blocking the exits, here. Also, nobody is throwing people out them. But we are, kind of emphatically, pointing to the basic intrinsics of what the defining nature of polytheism is, such that it can be realized polyformically as the exponential-and-expansive thing that it is. And, moving forward? It’s important that we all — readers, writers, clergy, laity, seekers, leaders — remember that there are many, many distinct roads leading into this category of religious practice and identity, and that these distinctions may also call for distinct needs.