This is a question I get a lot. “Why Polytheism?” “Why not monotheism?” “Why not atheism?” “Why are you not doing what everyone else is doing?” and really, the answer lies in just being honest. I would not say that I was into monotheism growing up. My mother raised us in the Catholic tradition, but there was a lot about it that we did because that is what the family did and it was what mom wanted us to do. We thought astrology was fun and we loved to hear about ghost stories. We never took the religion thing too seriously to be honest. We just lived our lives and had fun. Then I met Carnonos (Cernunnos) and my perspective started to change. It became obvious that I had to completely redefine how I looked at the world and the idea of religion and everything that goes along with it. When people around me were debating whether God existed or not, I was asking, “What makes a god, a god?”
When I went to college, I took anthropology, archaeology, and philosophy classes when others took business and trade classes. I studied the aboriginal people of Australia, the Amazon, and the northern people of the arctic. I looked into Hinduism and African tribal cultures. I looked and studies everything I could except for the Abrahamic religions. My line of logic was that if I found the truth I was looking for, it would be true regardless of whether I studies Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Also, if I found it independently of these religious traditions, that it would reinforce the legitimacy of what I found. With 5 years of research, what I found was that the only underlining principle that seemed to exist with all of these religious traditions was us and the relationships we choose to have with the world around us.
What is a god?
One of the first things that I ran into with this question was that everyone defines a god based on whatever their cultural norm is. Currently within western culture, it is an all-powerful being who is all knowing. Within Hinduism, this is different. Many of the gods are aspects of Brahma. In tribal societies, this changes as well. Gods are heroes who perform great deeds that people use to explain the world around them. Everyone assumes that their answer is the right one because it feeds into their sense of the world, whether adopted or inherited. Based on the research I have done, from a cross cultural standpoint, I have come to define a god as:
“A person, place, or thing, that is seen as either being emanate, transcendent, or a variation of the two in which forms of prayer and/or veneration are given to in either the hope or expectation of some form of reciprocity/benefit in return.”
To clarify what I am saying here is that culturally, the nature of a god is not what makes a god, a god. In Christianity and the other Abrahamic traditions, these two points are conflated with each other because of the traditions that they have inherited from their ancestors. Within those cultures, one automatically leads to the other. But in polytheism (at least hard polytheism), this is not the case, which means you basically have to take everything you know about religion and the nature of god-hood (assuming you are coming from a monotheistic perspective) and the throw them out the window. In addition, what I have seen is that the people of a community are the ones who decide what they choose to honor, revere, and worship. People do have tendencies towards certain themes based on their sociological and economic structures, but that is not inherent to the thing being honored as it is towards the people who are doing the honoring.
How does monotheism fit into this?
If you take all the world religions and you just put them on a list, you will find that monotheistic religions are a small minority. The few that are there are rooted in or at least influenced by the same parent traditions. What really brought it together for me was when I started to look at monotheism again after being polytheistic for many years and my meditations/prayers were urging me to start to look at the traditions that my mother kept trying to raise me and my brothers in. I approached the Abrahamic traditions the same way I did the rest of them by looking into the history and the anthropology. I immediately ran into major contradictions regarding the material, the interpretations of the source material, not to mention that much of the information was being ignored. I felt like I was running in circles trying to lock it down. It was the advice of an old teacher that finally broke me out of this spinning. “When things don’t make sense, go back to the source.” So I looked at not just Judaism, but the origins of Judaism. And that led me to the Canaanites and the liberation from my confusion.The Canaanites lived in the Middle East as early as 3,800 years ago in the area known today as Lebanon. They were a cultural group that seemed to be connected by burial customs and cultic structures within that region and there are various historical records regarding their presence in the Middle East, especially from the Egyptians. However, most of what modern western people know about them come from their particular translation of the Bible. The reliability of the stories from a historical perspective is questionable at best and based on the similarities in archaeological and linguistic commonalities, it became clear to me that the early Israelites and the Canaanites lived together in the land of Canaan. In addition to this, since the Canaanite people were not a unified ethnic group, but a collection of various ethnic groups connected by where they lived, language, architecture, and other cultural imagery, it was obvious that the early Israelites were actually one of these Canaanite ethnic subgroups. So the early Israelites were one of the sub-ethnic groups associated with the Canaanites and each sub-group had their own gods that they followed. Some gods like El Elyon and Baal were common among various groups and based on the original Jewish writings, Abraham conversed with El Elyon and made him his primary god above others. It wasn’t until we see the introduction of the Exodus story, that we first see the name Yahweh come up as a god of war and liberation from oppression. As one god among many, Yahweh devotion would move to the forefront of the developing Jewish culture until he became the primary god followed among the Jewish Hebrew people. At this point, many Hebrews would have been classified as Henotheist (follower of one particular god among many gods) and due to various social pressers from within the Hebrew community and outside of their nation, Yahweh would be “re-branded” blending both his profile and the profile of El Elyon into what we identify as the God of the Jews. So why is this important? Because understanding where something comes from, helps clarify it’s nature. For me, it put the final nail in the coffin regarding the difference between monotheism and polytheism. The “Monotheistic god” was originally a Canaanite war god who was elevated to creation god status among his followers. The other gods did not magically go away just because his profile changed and people decided to follow him above all others. Thus, what you have polytheism.
What about Atheism?
As a polytheist, I approach all things from a polytheistic angle, which includes atheism. Much from what I have seen regarding atheism today is that the modern era approach to the topic of religion assumes that monotheism is the standard model that religion is based on. With what I wrote earlier in this article, you can see that I took those basic assumptions and threw them out the window……..If you look at the origins of our understanding of atheism, it is rooted in the Greek word atheos (not-god, godless, or against the gods). The thing to keep in mind when it comes to polytheistic religions is that they are rooted in orthopraxy (right practice), not orthodoxy (right belief) like Christianity. The ancient Greeks didn’t care what your opinion was about the nature of the gods as long as you participated in the community rituals and festivals. They felt proper practice was more important then your particular opinion regarding them. Many schools of philosophy debated on the nature of the gods or even if the gods were even knowable. Opinions varied greatly and much of the debates would have been strongly in the category of what we call agnosticism today. The closest thing we have to modern atheism is documentation of philosophers like the Sophist Prodicus who stated that “The gods of popular belief do not exist”. Given that every culture has their own view on what a god is, their own views on how these gods relate to their lives and histories, and given that one can follow the practices of a particular religious tradition and honor the gods as much or as little as they choose regardless of what their personal opinion is, from a polytheistic perspective atheism just seems not to have much relevance. It is a personal choice on where you choose to focus your values and that personal choice only applies to those who have adopted it. Whether someone decides that something has value or not doesn’t automatically discredit it or validate it with others. There are various reasons to follow cultural traditions other then their literal interpretation. Also that act of dedication to a cause and what it stands for can evolve into acts of worship towards what that cause can represent (how polytheists define worship is different then how it is seen in Christianity. You can find a great description of how polytheist see worship here). As for the argument of “gods are all in your head and don’t really exists”? I have heard people say that over the years and that “thing in your head” is a cluster of neurons firing in a particular pattern sequence, which is a real thing that physically exist in this world. If that is “all of what a god is” to you, that is fine, but that god still physically exists in the world and is a real thing. It may not be how it is presented by religious followers and mythologies, but to say it doesn’t exists when it clearly does is being disingenuous.
The philosophies that govern polytheism are different then they are for monotheism. Assuming they should be the same and presenting them as such is a misrepresentation of what is going on, especially when the evidence clearly shows otherwise. Personally, I have no issue if someone chooses to follow one god over others. Henotheism is a valid religious route to go and if that is what calls to someone, great! If you don’s see the value in following a god or the idea of religion in general, awesome! You got to walk your truth. My truth took me to polytheism and all the evidence I see reinforces that choice. It doesn’t reject others or their choices, and it constantly engages me to reflect on why I do what I do. It tells me to embrace and celebrate my humanity, not to reject it and it reminds me to celebrate the diversity that is humanity and the world.
“To be Pagan is to celebrate what it is to be human.”
- Who were the Canaanites? Live Science.com, https://www.livescience.com/56016-canaanites.htmlArmstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ballantine Books, 1994Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World Review – disbelief has been around for 2,500 years. The Guardian Weekly.com, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/09/battling-the-gods-atheism-ancient-world-review