Thursday, June 6, 2013

Putting the Deities First

I have been asking myself, what happens when we put the deities first?

When I ask myself this question, I find my priorities shift.

When I put the deities foremost in my mind in all things, I realize what a tragedy monotheism has been and is. Henotheism, a belief in many deities and the choice to honor only one, is fine and indeed some self-proclaimed monotheists could be better described as henotheists. But the “crush all the other non-monotheists and deface their deity statues and temples” kind of monotheism is wrong. Yes, wrong. I used the wr- word. I realize it isn’t politically correct to use this word, but it is the best word for the matter. Crushing our deities’ images, their temples, and their sacred ways is wrong.  I see our great temples smashed, abandoned, or buried under Jewish synagogues, Christian churches, and Islamic mosques. There is no way I can get close to many of my deities’ holy sites in the “Holy Land”—sites which belong to my deities first and foremost—even to pray let alone make offerings. The deities are refugees kicked out of their own houses.

Further insult comes when in modern cultures the deities are spoken of in the past tense, as if the deities are as dried up and dead as the sands of ancient history. This past-tense language fills the library books of civilization and mythology as if we somehow grew up and got too old for what some called superstitious nonsense.  Supposedly as Constantine made much of the world Christian, we are all somehow better off. The Discovery Channel and the History Channel use past-tense language too, even when they have no problem describing the “reality” of extraterrestrial aliens.

In everyday speech, we use phrases that commonly support a monotheist’s world. “Oh my God,” which god do we mean? “Go to Hell,” in the Christian cosmology? Even “damn” is inappropriate because the phrase often means “condemn it to Hell.” Many are the cries to “sweet Jesus.”

In Pagan and New Age thought, sometimes the deities don’t fare much better than being viewed as ancient history or as human mental constructs. There’s a tendency in some groups to lump the deities into one cosmic “energy” or two individual “forces,” then see the deities as “masks” of this energy or these forces. The term “soft polytheism” as it is often used isn’t polytheism at all but a monist or a dualist philosophy. Monism means a philosophy that “reality is a unified whole and that all existing things can be ascribed to or described by a single concept or system.”  The kind of monism that would seek to see the deities as facets of one whole and worship the whole over the deities is the kind that I find incompatible with polytheism. This is different from a concept of a Big Bang theory, or a belief that the deities are sons and daughters of a parent. Dualism is “The view that the world [or universe] consists of or is explicable as two fundamental entities.” By contrast, “hard polytheism” is just polytheism, plain and simple:  Polytheism means “the...worship of more than one god,” deities which are separate, individual and acting on their own in their own right. (Definitions are from The Free Dictionary.) There is no such thing as “soft polytheism,” and there is no such thing as “hard polytheism," since the previous terms monism and dualism cover "soft polytheism," while the term polytheism covers ideas presented under "hard polytheism." It's helpful when we use consistent terminology and when when use the appropriate terms for particular concepts.

To further understand a modern polytheist’s point of view, I would suggest an article by Galina KrasskovaEven if a budding polytheist is uncertain, she/he approaches the matter by "consciously [making] the choice to act in accordance with this principle [that the gods are real] until you have enough experience that it is no longer in doubt. Choose to behave as though the Gods are real even if you're not sure, and allow that choice to guide your behavior."

Archetypists sometimes essentially use a deity to reflect the archetype, instead of the other way around. Archetypes are psychological tools, not deities. The act of championing the theoretical human mental construct over the divine reality and treating the deity as a human construct, is a form of atheism. Worship of a tool over the deity is distasteful, even offensive to us in the modern day as it would have been in the past. Our spiritual and biological ancestors did not worship twentieth century psychological tools. The ancestors did not view the deities as purely constructed from the human mind: this idea would have struck the ancestors (and many of us modern folk, too) as hubris. These ways are obviously meaningful and moving to the people who practice them and I do not suggest otherwise, but sometimes it's not about one's own self, personal philosophy, or theories, it's about putting the deities first and relating to the deities as, well, deities. We didn’t create the deities, and the deities will be here long after we are gone. 

It’s as if an archetype serves as a coat hanger: one invokes The Warrior Goddess and figures out what clothing she will wear today—the battle kilt of ‘Anatu, the chiton of Athena, or the cloak of the Morrigan, or all three since they all represent the same “being” or "symbol."  The monist or dualist looks at a deity as a mask, an archetypalist looks at a deity as a robe, and all three are dressing up what is essentially a monist, dualist, or atheist ideology in the deities’ images and sometimes calling it polytheism. Either way, we’re seeing costumes and masks, not deities.

No, no, and no.

When we put the deities first, we see this thinking as a reversal of what our main priority should be. These ways divorce the deities from their splendor, and reduce them into a human construct or water them down to where they are meaningless. When one experiences and knows the deities as living individual beings, one realizes just how badly conceived some of these practices and ideologies are, and one can’t continue silently giving an impression of agreement. For a Christian, this would be like seeing Jesus used to forward Richard Dawkins's theories. Awkward. And you can bet that Christians would pick up picket signs and crinkle their brows in collective prayer over such an issue.

I know bringing up this issue is going to very soon make me very unpopular with many folks. But when I put the deities first, I realize that much of the problems in the deities’ treatment are due to human pride, ignorance, inertia, misunderstanding, and silence—on my side, on another’s side, on all sides. When I put the deities first, I realize where my priorities lay. Serving them can hurt sometimes, but it is an honor to do so. Even when speaking up sucks.

If I see someone trying to fix a plugged-in toaster oven while standing in a full kiddie pool, as a decent person  I kind of am obligated to speak up. If I see someone spray painting tags on a church, I should do something about it. And if I see people using the deities, not putting the deities first in honor, or treating the deities with disregard even if that disregard is due to a lack of knowledge or understanding, I’m obligated to draw attention to the matter. Yes, a person’s spirituality is his/her own business—I advocate personal responsibility. I am not making anyone do or believe anything. That would be impossible, and I would refuse to try. Because I put the deities first, and I do what I do, I am obligated to speak out—another  person can take or leave my public service announcement.

It sounds harsh, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for a lot of us who have been raised in monotheism then sought rebellion in alternative philosophies. I’ve actually lost friends over some of these issues. Sometimes we have to ask the difficult questions and contemplate what is uncomfortable. But it’s nothing compared to the harm the deities have put up with for a few millennia at our own hands and at the hands of some of our own monotheistic ancestors. And when we put the deities first, we owe it to them to face these issues and to be honest and transparent about the issues.

There’s a lot of anger between the Pagan and the polytheist communities right now over these issues.  I think that this stems from issues that have lurked under the surface for a long time. A polytheist and a Pagan know that a Christian, no matter how kind and well-meaning, thinks they’re both wrong. A polytheist and a Pagan know that a Muslim, no matter how wonderful, thinks they’re both wrong. That these two groups, Christians and Muslims, think that polytheists and Pagans are both wrong, is quietly understood by all sides present. Sometimes it’s vocalized, but often in civil discourse it’s known and not brought into the open. I don’t take offense that they think I’m wrong; it’s just a fact and I accept it whether or not I agree with it. There are other things we can certainly agree about, things like human rights and equality, for which we can get along together quite well and help each other attain. A mutual truce is most often the state of affairs: I know where they stand, and they usually know where I stand.  It’s only when hate speech or harmful acts take place that are the problem, which doesn’t happen all that often when you consider how many people interact with each other on a daily basis peaceably on planet Earth.

In contrast to a Christian or a Muslim, a Pagan often assumes that a polytheist agrees with the Pagan about the nature of the deities or expects that a polytheist will automatically accept and embrace a Pagan’s undefined relativistic viewpoint or post-modern theories. A problem arises when people begin to clarify just what they do mean and what positions they take on the nature of the deities. And that’s when people get angry. Anger is often a reaction to a difference from what one assumed. For a long time, a polytheist’s silence or failure to be heard and understood has been overlooked or misconstrued as tacit agreement. It is not.

When we put the deities first, we realize that sometimes we must offer some tough love and disagreement when the deities are used instead of put first.

Today is
27 [Ugaru], Shanatu 85

It has been 27 days since the previous new moon, and it has been 85 years since the rediscovery of the Canaanite city of Ugarit. The month name is one of three that have been reconstructed for the Canaanite calendar; all other month names are indeed retained in Late Bronze Age texts. The word "Ugaru" means "field," and Ugaru is a messenger god of the storm god Ba'lu Haddu.

Our next holiday begins on the eve of the summer solstice, June 20 (13 Gapnu, Shanatu 85). It is the 'Ashuru Zabri, the Festival of Prunining; also called the 'Ashuru Qazhu, the Summer Festival.

Image Notes
Photo of Jabal Umm Fruth Rock Bridge in Jordan. Photo taken by David Bjorgen and used under GNU Creative Commons License. 


  1. " invokes The Warrior Goddess and figures out what clothing she will wear today—the battle kilt of ‘Anatu, the chiton of Athena, or the cloak of the Morrigan, or all three since they all represent the same 'being' or 'symbol.'"

    This mentality doesn't make much sense to me, because being warriors is about the only thing these gods have in common. But more than that, this view of the gods is disrespectful to the cultures they came from, not just to the gods themselves. These "beings" were worshiped and understood within specific cultural contexts. That alone makes it useless to try to lump gods together as deities of war, or the sun, or love.

  2. I'm totally with you, Tess! (I even have been using the same words and examples as you ;-) ) thank you for posting this, it really needs to be said!
    One thing however I would argue with (because theology in all its diversity is a personal hobby-horse) : the theological model you describe as monism i.e. the "deities" being merely forms / manifestations of one divine, is called 'Inclusive Monotheism' it still is monotheism, even though -on a superficial level- it allows for other [expressions] of divine. Actual monism (belief of one 'divine ground of all being') is well compatible with [real] Polytheism; and this combination is historically attested (e.g. Platonism). Believing the deities come from a Source (who is not another God or Goddess! - can't stress that strongly enough!), does not take away from Their individuality. (E.g. a rose-bush and a tree growing from the same ground are still different and separate beings.) Of course that does not imply that a Polytheist *has* to embrace monism, too - only that one can.
    Also the term 'Pagan' technically describes a pre-Christian *polytheistic* religion. The religious, spiritual, (and sometimes expressively secular) paths, that have recently claimed the term 'Pagan', are actually neo-pagan (i.e. derived from Pagan religions) at “best” and New Age at “worst”. The reason that this got all muddled up, and the realization that these neo-pagan and New Age traditions are as different from Pagan Polytheism as monotheistic religions made me leave the 'Pagan' community, as well as using the term Pagan not without additional explanation when referring to my religion (i.e. Cultus Deorum [Romanorum]).

    1. The kind of monism I refer to here is a form of "all the deities are facets of one energy" type because I feel that it worships one "energy" and supersedes the deities' individuality. The idea that we all come from one source, i.e. like the Big Bang theory, or an idea that we're all brothers and sisters from one parent, is compatible with monotheism. I didn't make that clear in my article and I need to fix that, and I hope I have now. Thank you, Athena.

    2. A very good article! I have same things in mind all the time... The old gods are real, so let us work with, pray to them. It works! Today I was in Israel in 2007 and there ist mostly nothing to see of old Canaan... :/ I work on reviving many old pagan cults in cooperation with other polytheists. The paths of the new aeon will be to lead to equilibrium with new and old ideas. ... The monotheists will fall. Their time is over. We just have to make them to the new polytheists. I don't want proselytise someone, but we have to tell people, that they can choose an other, better way. Most people think there is no choose in religion and the extremists in monotheism won't let them a chance to choose...
      Richard Milton wrote a good book about the conflicts in the minds and the paradigmata: Forbidden Science. There are similarities to your ideas inside... ;)
      Thanks for your article! May the gods be always with you!