Watching My Step

Over the last year or so, the Pagan blogosphere has been host to several discussions of polytheism. Some have been friendlier than others.

“Polytheist” means, basically, belief that the gods are many. Seems simple enough, and apparently applies to the majority of modern Pagans. There’s some controversy about it; despite the relatively clear definition of the word. A lot of people have said a lot of things, but the central issue isn’t that complicated.

In brief, there are a small but growing number of folks who identify themselves as Polytheists as well as, or instead of, identifying as modern Pagans. To these people, the experience of the gods and spirits as individual entities, independent of humanity, with their own personalities and preferences, is vitally central to their spiritual lives.

In contrast, modern Pagans, at lest on a community level, hold common practice to be more important than the details of one’s personal experience of the gods and spirits. This leads to a communal ritual form enacting a metaphysical understanding in which the individuality of any given spirit is secondary to their inclusion in broad, easily identifiable categories, even to the point of denying that gods and spirits have any independent reality at all.

Many pixels have died in the flame wars over the implications this distinction has for the real inclusivity of modern Pagan communities, and whether or not those identifying as Polytheists really have any place in the perhaps-not-as-big-as-we-thought tent of the Pagan community.

This is all by way of context; I don’t want to re-hash the whole debate here. The point of this is to show part of what I’m navigating in entering into a more Polytheist practice, and part of why I feel a need to do so with careful, conscious intent.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with enacting communal religion with folks who don’t share my understanding of the gods. They aren’t me, so I shouldn’t expect that their experiences and needs will the the same as mine. Even so, I do need to be more careful about what kind of community rituals I give my support and energy to. The distinction between a ritual wherein encountering the gods as personal beings is not the point and a ritual that denies the personal reality of the gods is more important to me, now.

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About Lon Sarver

Lon Sarver is a polytheist priest of Dionysos, living in the San Francisco Bay Area and contemplating (with a healthy amount of dread) making a second attempt at a career in Marriage and Family Therapy. View all posts by Lon Sarver

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