Polytheism: Where We Are and Where We Can Go

A few years ago, we had a successful (albeit small) Hellenic Polytheist meetup in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was during the contact high phase after the Polytheist Leadership Conference, back in the year PSVL was involved in the West Coast spin-off event; Galina and Rhyd weren’t shouting at each other publicly; and across the Internet, there was a feeling of possibility and excitement that — despite our obvious differences as stakeholders in this enormous and complex community — we could come together and build something meaningful for many gods.[1]

The shit hit the fan in the blogosphere several months later, so to speak, and I asked in divination if I should continue to do those meetups. The answer was no — I should not involve myself in the Greater New York City area community. The answer was not the one that I wanted because I like a lot of the NYC polytheists (both Hellenists and otherwise), and I do want face-to-face community. Gods tend to give me inconvenient answers.[2] The answer from the gods made sense given that I view the challenges faced by our polytheistic communities in a highly specific way and the challenges faced by Hellenic Polytheism in a complementary way to the larger movement.

In 20-30 years, I want our communities to have temples, local civic organizations, and a good foundation for success. I want scholarships for polytheist kids who attend college so we can build leadership capacity. Many of our organizations are doing a fantastic internal job and have great leadership practices. (In Hellenism, this means Elaion and Hellenion and Neokoroi.) This post is more concerned with the marginalia of our communities, which means public-facing blogs, social media communities, and the like. When someone Googles how to worship Apollo for the first time, le won’t find our private listservs or our message boards, and le is probably not going to take the next step and join one of those communities for a while.

Le is going to find the polytheistic blogosphere, and we collectively have a lot of work to do before that blogosphere is a good experience.

This is not a post that I want to write. I didn’t even realize that I needed to write it until I composed that post on the Tenets of Solon and realized that I have not been living up to the counsel to say what is necessary, not what will please people. For reference, here are the tenets:

His counsel to men in general is stated by Apollodorus in his work on the Philosophic Sects as follows: Put more trust in nobility of character than in an oath. Never tell a lie. Pursue worthy aims. Do not be rash to make friends and, when once they are made, do not drop them. Learn to obey before you command. In giving advice seek to help, not to please, your friend. Be led by reason. Shun evil company. Honour the gods, reverence parents.

τοῖς τε ἀνθρώποις συνεβούλευσεν, ὥς φησιν Ἀπολλόδωρος ἐν τῷ Περὶ τῶν φιλοσόφων αἱρέσεων, τάδε: καλοκἀγαθίαν ὅρκου πιστοτέραν ἔχε. μὴ ψεύδου. τὰ σπουδαῖα μελέτα. φίλους μὴ ταχὺ κτῶ: οὓς δ᾽ ἂν κτήσῃ μὴ ἀποδοκίμαζε. ἄρχε πρῶτον μαθὼν ἄρχεσθαι. συμβούλευε μὴ τὰ ἥδιστα, ἀλλὰ τὰ ἄριστα. νοῦν ἡγεμόνα ποιοῦ. μὴ κακοῖς ὁμίλει. θεοὺς τίμα, γονέας αἰδοῦ.

Diogenes Laertius,
Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 1.60. (English) (Greek)

I have bolded the text that has convinced me to write this. Quoting this text is also important because I am approaching these problems as a Hellenist, within the moral framework of arete, and I know that those values are not universal. Paradoxically, I am talking about the broader polytheistic communities.

I started this post by invoking those feelings of possibility several years ago and the places I want us to be in several decades. It’s important to take what I say in the context that what follows is my counsel on how we can effectively get there.

If you read nothing else in this post, read this: We need to work on our interpersonal dynamics and how we handle conflict. Period.

This is a wicked challenge for all of us. You don’t get to that place without learning nonviolent communication, the science of how to have effective and constructive conflict, and how to file nonprofit paperwork. All of that takes time, and a lot of it is significantly more boring than yelling at people on the Internet. At some point — if we want these things — we need nonprofit boards, fundraising bases, and enough people that we can have regular leadership turnover to prevent burnout. Large groups of people always have interpersonal issues. Successful groups deal with it well. Unsuccessful groups don’t.

You also need to know some things about me before I continue writing, especially if you don’t regularly read KALLISTI. In the library and archives community, we often say that authority is constructed and contextual. What we mean by this is that one needs to understand how a specific community views the rivers of its information flows, its relationship to sources, and how we as outsiders (or insiders) need to view it. The word authority itself is fraught because it is often related to power imbalance. My authority in this situation is my position as a person who has been in Hellenic Polytheism for about ten years. If you need to know how bias shapes my perspective, check Footnote 3.[3] 

So, with that out of the way, how do we confront this challenge? One goal might be to create an environment where our interrelated polytheistic communities can thrive and grow. I’m going to start with three things.

Three Things

  1. We need to realize that we’re all in this movement together. The people in our community are the people who are here. Let’s figure out how to work with who we have.
  2. People outside of our community usually only realize we’re here when we’re having enormous blogosphere battles.
  3. Racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, mental illness, diseases of despair, (dis)ability, and other equity issues are not external problems. These affect members of our own communities and impact the ability of our own communities’ members to access the means of giving offerings to gods, learning accurate information about gods, interacting with virtual and tangible communities, and every other aspect of devotional practice.

I’m going to say a few words about each of these below. First, a caveat: I am not on Facebook. #1 and #2 are not related to anything currently happening on Facebook. It was clear to me in late 2016 that Facebook was a huge source of interpersonal stress for me, and since leaving, I have been a much happier person. This is unsurprising because “leaving Facebook improves mood” is backed up by scientific research. I can only (a) see public Facebook (b) with a giant white box covering most of the pages.

We’re all in this together. 

Regardless of our politics, our ways of approaching the gods, and the other factors that make us each unique humans, we are the polytheistic communities. When people write stuff that pisses me off, my first step is to remember that. There’s a beautiful piece in The Oatmeal that talks about our deeply human, burn-it-with-fire response to anything that challenges our deeply held worldviews. 

My gut response to reading a post by an alt-right or alt-right-sympathetic polytheist, I will admit, is sometimes, Oh my gods what if our movement gets put on the SPLC list and we go down in history books as a hate group and what if I can’t call myself a polytheist in public in 15 years without backlash where is the closest paper bag. This is because I have problems with anxiety. That gut reaction is hyperbolic. You might be in the camp of, Oh, by the name of Herakles, what is this Millennial SJW snowflake talking about on the Internet, this world is not a kumbaya party and our gods are under threat from this really awful thing. However, I actually do read things that are not in alignment with my worldview. There’s usually an actual reason why something bothers me, and there’s an actual reason why someone said what le said. If I respond to something at all, I try to remember that we’re all in this together and that the other person probably doesn’t know me well enough to separate my concerns from all of ler previous history responding to people who write comments in the heat of anger.

The general rule I have to posting things publicly on the internet is this: Does what I’m doing contribute positive change to the polytheist communities? By positive change, I mean creating that scaffolding that empowers someone to do worship, to be public about ler beliefs, and to realize that le is part of communities of people who have ler back. If something I write bullies someone, calls people out in ways that will make others descend on someone like an angry mob, or anything else, I don’t do it.

Why?

Because people outside of our communities usually only realize we exist during incredibly heated arguments in which we’re all attacking one another. 

I read something earlier this spring focused on white gay men and the rates of depression and suicide. The tl;dr: Many white gay men come out and are looking for a supportive community. Instead, they are exposed to femmephobia and bullying. This can lead to depression, suicide, and other negative outcomes. I read it and started thinking about newbie polytheists trying to find their feet in our community. What do they think when they realize that saying one wrong thing on the Internet could lead to trolling and death threats?[4]

I mean, has anyone else tried protecting people from our community? I once read a post on an LGBTQ blog about Artemis and knew that I had to respond despite (a) having a positive opinion of this person and (b) knowing that the audience was mostly secular or non-polytheist. After posting the comment, I decided not to say anything to anyone in the polytheistic communities about the problematic post le made because I was terrified that people would eat lim alive. I like this person.

This surprises no one, but it’s rare that an argument will change someone’s worldview. Usually, when I engage, it’s with a different goal in mind — such as providing an alternative viewpoint with no expectation that I will move mountains. Attacks and infighting might generate blog stats, but the short-term rewards are outweighed by the fact that these things hurt all of us. How do we help create a supportive environment for new people?

We do this by acknowledging that we are a diverse set of communities and that members of our own faiths are impacted by prejudice and bias.

There are (probably not out) pagans and polytheists among the refugees fleeing Syria. Low-income (and lower middle class) polytheists might have problems procuring enough money to make offerings. Transgender and genderqueer individuals — particularly transgender women of color — are hard-hit by a lot of intersecting factors. Helping the most vulnerable among us, interestingly enough, lifts the rest of us, too.

We have an expectation that everyone can afford Internet access, that everyone can be in a park after dark to leave offerings, and that all are educated enough to know where to find the information they can access. This is not true. One of the issues I see with keeping it “about the gods” is that there are human hands making offerings, and those human hands are connected to a voice that utters prayers and a mind that thinks them and a body that exists in space. Supporting social justice isn’t about centering the human experience over the gods for me, but understanding the human dynamics that make devotional practice easy or hard depending on intersectional identities.

One of the ways in which whiteness is a privilege is that Wicca, neopaganism, and polytheism, when done by a white person, are innocuous. When done by a non-white person who practices Santeria or an indigenous American religion, religious practice and devotion can suddenly be regulated and policed. They are all part of the polytheistic communities, and fighting for their rights is fighting for our rights. Many polytheists face health challenges, so services like universal health care enable those suffering from depression, anxiety, cancer, autoimmune disorders, and the like to receive treatment. This improves their ability to participate in our communities. I don’t romanticize struggle or oppression. There is nothing edgy or cool about being forced to choose between giving offerings and having food/meds. Certainly, people learn a lot from the moments when life sucks. That doesn’t mean we should aspire to that.

One of the reasons I love the ideas of government and statecraft is that they have tremendous potential to improve human happiness, dignity, and liberty. I love the idea of civic engagement and responsibility. One of the things we have lost as a society in America is the sense that our successes and our richness can benefit the community. Those who are successful don’t take enough pride in the fact that your taxes provide the roads, the snow plowing, the grant funding, and a host of other services for the majority. It’s not a burden. It’s a privilege in the best sense of the word to know that your success is paying forward and that you personally are the bedrock. I’m a social democrat because I believe that providing support for the most vulnerable among us regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and ability is the foundation of a functional civil society. It levels the playing field so that we can focus on the things that make humans happy, such as religious and civic engagement, the arts, scientific and philosophical inquiry, and innovation. Technological progress, too, can be done in such a way that it preserves the dignity and autonomy of people.

Dignity, self-efficacy, and purpose are the three things that everyone wants. Hunting for these is at the core of every modern social or activist movement everywhere on the political spectrum.

The Open-Ended Ending

Obviously, the challenges I outlined won’t be fixed by one blog post regardless of how much pride I have in my written persuasive skills. If you have a different idea about civic and community engagement, the place of civility in our communities, and everything else I have said, it’s likely that you disagree with me. The one thing I request from responses to this is that they be civil and focus on the issues I have raised.

The meat of this entire blog post has been about rethinking the way we handle conflict, and we owe it to ourselves to take the time and energy to make a better world for everyone involved.

I’d like to end this on a positive note. There are a lot of people doing extremely good work in the marginalia between our communities. Polytheist.com was/is great, especially PSVL and Edward Butler’s columns. Galina Krasskova’s interviews with polytheists have been food for thought over the past few months (and yes, I read the interview with the alt-righter[5]). Gods & Radicals is equally thought-provoking, especially their portal on Paganism.

There are also amazing people who work within the Hellenic community. Baring the Aegis (Elani Temperance) is a phenomenal resource for everyone, and I love that Elani regularly answers questions from people just starting out. Cara Schulz (who writes for the Wild Hunt), other members of Hellenion/Elaion/&c who do visible-on-the-open-web stuff, and the ones who do translation work from Greek into English for those of us in the Anglosphere all completely rock and do amazing things. I won’t go into listservs, community fora, or Facebook because those are not visible to the public.

My point is that there are people doing things. We just need to do more of the good.


[1] The polytheist movement still has a way to go, as evidenced by the fact that I just had to add the word gods to my personal Google Drive dictionary because Google thought it needed to be a singular possessive. Many of the services and institutions we use in our society assume monotheism implicitly, if not an atheistic response to monotheism.

[2] Unless my divination is wrong, Artemis is not a lesbian, but a homoromantic asexual, and I will go against ingroup norms in the LGBTQ community to point this out. Going against ingroup mentality is cognitively hard.

[3] My bias is that I am a social democrat who believes in a strong central democracy and the power of the Rousseau-style social contract between a government and its people. Social democrat and democratic socialist do not have the same definitions. I take civic responsibility very seriously. I believe that nation-states have important responsibilities to govern the Commons and that America is failing its citizenry. This puts me in alignment with some social change radicals, with the exception that I can go into long oratorical performances on how much I love government (abstractly; I’d give our current government a D on its report card). If you do not love government and you are reading this, you might want to take a break to read this beautiful comic from The Oatmeal, which talks about how information generates emotional responses. I am also a queer femme lesbian. I grew up with a mother committed to Native allyship. I consider myself Woke in some ways and Sleepwalking in others, both due to my amazing Scandinavian American mother and the post-9/11 environment. I know the name of my paternal ancestor who conquered Québec and the regiment in which he served. As a child and teen, I awoke at 5 AM to put on a prickly fake evergreen crown of lights and serve my family Saint Lucia buns, tea, and hot chocolate. My maternal great-grandfather was a Steuben glassblower. My paternal family literally has a giant leather-bound published book detailing all of my ancestors and our lineage, stopping at my grandfather’s generation. We also have a family museum in Canada that I have never visited. I don’t know what it’s like to be a white person who doesn’t have family narratives describing where le comes from, so that impacts how I respond to broad statements about white people being unmoored from or ashamed by our heritages. I support #BlackLivesMatter and intersectional social justice. As a person of French ancestry, my French last name opened me to othering post-9/11 when the US-French relations were bad. I happened to be in World War II history at that time, and we covered the ways in which German Americans were othered and intimidated. Being personally othered as a potential enemy of the state by my classmates made me feel a lot of bitterness because some were kids with German last names whose grandparents would have faced similar intraracial biases in previous political environments. This made me highly aware of racial, religious, and ethnic power imbalances in America with one big caveat: As someone who is white, people don’t know about my heritage if they don’t know me. People of color don’t have that same protection.

[4] “But this sounds like respectability politics!” is something I can imagine someone thinking. Respectability politics means pretending that a group’s set of social values is compatible with mainstream values rather than challenging said mainstream. I am talking about mutual civility and manners.

[5] I do not agree with the worldview presented by Kenaz Filan and just want to make sure that this is clear. 

 

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One thought on “Polytheism: Where We Are and Where We Can Go

  1. This is one of those rare long blog posts that I delighted in reading. Went back and read it a second time, and when next I need a reminder that there’s stable, thoughtful folk in the Pagan community…well, I’ll likely read it a third time.

    Liked by 2 people

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