Asatru · Atheism · Devotional Polytheism

Reclaiming the term “Polytheist”

A lot has changed over the last couple of decades. Take, for example, the definition of the term “polytheist”. When I first came into Asatru, there were two types of polytheists – hard and soft. Hard polytheists believed in the literal existence of the Gods as distinct entities. Soft polytheists believed in the Gods as “aspects” of either two meta-Gods (most often the “Lord and Lady” or “The God and The Goddess”) or of a single meta-God.

This split had a lot to do with the complete overwhelming of the Pagan and Heathen communities by Wicca and Wiccanate ideas. With so many Asatruar at the time coming from a Wiccanate background, it made sense that a lot of them would retain that sort of “All Gods are part of The God” idea.

Today, however, perhaps owing to the growing self-confidence of Asatru and other reconstructionist faiths, the shadow of Wicca has receded somewhat, and those Asatruar who see Odin and Thor as aspects of a single male divinity, and Freja and Sif as aspects of a single female divinity, are few and far between. So the whole hard/soft thing has lost some relevancy in recent years.

However, the hard/soft dichotomy has been replaced by something of a struggle for ownership of the term “polytheism” by two factions who could not be more on opposite sides of the spectrum. On the one end, we have the atheistic Pagans who claim the term based on a loophole in the dictionary definition:

polytheism /ˈpälēTHēˌizəm/ noun
The belief in or worship of more than one god.

So because the dictionary differentiates between belief and worship, they claim the term can equally apply to them, even though they do not believe in the existence of one (or more than one) God. Personally, I don’t think that’s what the authors of the dictionaries intended; if so, then the definition of the words “theism” and “monotheism” would mirror that of “polytheism”, which they does not. Theism and monotheism are merely listed as a belief in a god and/or gods.

It’s my belief that the “or worship of” phrasing was included as an example of lingering (probably unconscious) Christian bias that no one could actually believe in such silliness; at some level the worship of Zeus and Thor was just play-acting. But that’s just my own possible explanation for the asymmetricality of the definitions.

On the other end of the tug-of-war rope, however, we have the devotional polytheists, who feel that any expression of polytheism that does not put their type of polytheism first and foremost is somehow a “betrayal“:

In my opinion, putting anything but the Gods first in a religious tradition is a betrayal of that tradition… 

And by that, what the author means is “whatever I say the Gods tell me at this moment, is what you should believe they want.” That, of course, isn’t putting the Gods first. It’s putting those who claim to speak for the Gods first, and is the worst sort of “revealed religion”, setting up a spiritual dictatorship of those who claim to speak with (and therefor, for) the Gods. That cannot be the chief universal expression of our religious faith, even though it is rightly an important expression of our religious faith for some.

For some it may well be perfectly appropriate to listen to the Gods and act on their instructions, no matter how far-fetched they may seem, as the primary motivator in their religious life. For yet others, religion is about connecting with our fellow folk, and that must be seen as just as legitimate a religious enterprise, because it is just as much a way of serving the desires and interests of the Gods as anything else. “Man is the joy of man”, if we are to believe Odin’s own words (Hávamál 47).

And where does that leave me, and the vast “silent majority” of Asatruar like me who, while we absolutely believe in the literal existence of the Gods as individuals, but who have other priorities in our religious lives than god-spousery (!) and following what self-proclaimed oracles say?

All I can do is to try to reclaim the term “polytheist” and bring it to its proper place between the two polar opposites. It means more than a hollow aping of religious ritual in honor of figments of the imagination, but so too does it mean less than a slavish devotion to what a self-proclaimed prophet says the Gods told her last night.

Those of us between those two poles must simply carry on believing in the Gods, and honoring them as well as the land-wights and alfs and house-wights and our ancestors, and enjoying the company of our fellow Asatruar, and forging and strengthening the bonds of friendship between us during sumbel and elsewhere, and studying the lore that has been left to us, and practicing the magic that our ancestors practiced, and building hofs and groves and sacred enclosures, and through martial prowess, and singing songs in praise of our Gods and our fellows, and trying to make the world a better place for our folk.

And we are polytheists none the less for all of that.

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