Polytheism (Paganism 101 Ch. 2)

Brandenburg Gate with sculptures of quadriga under blue cloudy sky
Photo by Kon Karampelas, accessed via Pexels.

Most pagan religions are polytheistic in nature, meaning they believe in multiple divine beings. This is one of the hardest parts of paganism for outsiders to understand. In a culture where strict monotheism is treated as the norm, it can be difficult to wrap your head around the idea of worshiping more than one god.

Ironically, monotheism — the belief in a single, all-powerful creator deity — is a relatively new invention. Zoroastrianism, the first monotheistic religion, is only about 4,000 years old. In the big scheme of things, that really is not a long time. Evidence for polytheistic religion dates back much, much farther (like, up to 40,000 years). We could argue that polytheism is the natural state of human spirituality.

Within pagan communities, polytheism is often described as a spectrum, with “hard polytheism” on one end and “soft polytheism” on the other. Hard polytheists believe that every deity is a distinct, separate, autonomous spiritual being. Soft polytheists believe that every deity is a part of a greater whole. As we’ve already discussed, extreme soft polytheism isn’t actually polytheism at all, but monism — the belief in a single divine source that manifests in different ways, including as different deities.

Hard polytheism is pretty straightforward. Norse paganism is an example of a hard polytheist system. Most Norse pagans believe that Odin is distinct from Thor, who is distinct from Freyja, who is distinct from Heimdall… you get the idea. Each of these gods has their own area of expertise over which they preside. If you’re dealing with a love matter, you’re probably going to seek out help from Freyja rather than Thor — unless you have a close, ongoing working relationship with Thor. (We’ll talk more about these types of close working relationships in a future post.)

Soft polytheism can be a little harder for people coming from a monotheist system to wrap their heads around. I think Jeremy Naydler describes it best in his book Temple of the Cosmos (here discussing Kemetic/Egyptian polytheism): “Shu and Tefnut are distinct essences dependent on Atum for their existence… The image often used in ancient Egyptian sacred texts concerning the gods in general is that they are the ‘limbs’ of the Godhead.” Shu and Tefnut, who are described in mythology as Atum’s children, are an extension of Atum’s creative power. However, they are also distinct beings with their own thoughts, feelings, and agendas. (It’s worth noting that we also have myths describing Atum’s birth. He is not a supreme being or a timeless force like the Abrahamic God.)

Monism is soft polytheism taken to its logical extreme. In her book, Wicca For Beginners, Thea Sabin describes it this way: “Think, for a moment, of a tree with a thick trunk that splits into two large branches. In turn, smaller branches grow from the large ones, and still smaller branches from the small ones, and so on. Deity is the trunk of the tree, and the God and Goddess are the two main branches. The smaller branches that fork off of the two big ones are the worlds gods and goddesses…”

If you’re not sure what the difference between soft polytheism and monism is, here’s a good litmus test: If you believe in the existence of a supreme divine force, you’re a monist. If not, you’re a polytheist.

Many pagans are somewhere in between hard and soft polytheism. For example, you may believe that Zeus and Jupiter are different versions of the same deity, filtered through the lens of Greek and Roman culture, respectively — but you believe that Thor is distinct and separate from Zeus/Jupiter, even though all three of them are gods of storms.

To make things even more complicated, there are some pagans (and some atheists, for that matter) who believe that the gods exist less as autonomous beings and more as archetypes within mankind’s collective consciousness. Their stories resonate with us because they serve as mirrors for different parts of ourselves. In this sense, we create the gods in our own image.

This belief is how we get “pop culture pantheons.” Some people work with fictional characters as archetypes in their spiritual practice. After all, if Sailor Moon is the ultimate representation of feminine power for you, what’s stopping you from putting her on your altar? Some pop culture pantheons have actually broken through into mainstream paganism — there are a lot of Wiccans who work with Merlin, believe me.

This interpretation is a bit different from polytheism, and could really be its own post (or several), so for the sake of keeping things short and sweet I’m not going to go any deeper into it. If this interests you, I recommend reading the work of Jungian psychologists like Clarissa Pinkola Estés and Robert A. Johnson. You may even want to check out The Satanic Bible by Anton LeVay for a particularly spicy take on the idea that we create our own gods and devils.

Just know that you can still practice paganism, even if you aren’t 100% sold on the idea that the gods literally exist.

Your take on polytheism doesn’t necessarily have to match up with the historical cultures you take inspiration from. For example, you may be a hardcore monist, but find that you’re drawn to work exclusively with the Norse gods. Or, you may be the hardest of hard polytheists, but find that the Kemetic gods are the ones who really speak to you. This is all totally okay! One of the benefits of paganism is that it allows for a lot of personalization.

Now that we’ve got the types of polytheism out of the way, let’s address the other big question that comes up when pagans discuss polytheism with monotheists: Does that mean you believe all those crazy myths are true? Once again, the answer depends on the pagan.

Just like some Christians are biblical literalists who believe that the Bible is a factual historical account, there are some pagans who believe that their mythology is factually true. However, many pagans accept that these stories have fantastical or exaggerated elements, but still convey a spiritual truth.

There are multiple Norse myths about men being transformed into dragons by their lust for riches, the most famous of which is probably the story of the dwarf-turned-dragon Fafnir. (Yes, Tolkien did steal that plot point from Norse mythology. Sorry.) These stories aren’t really about the dragons, though — they’re about the corrupting power of greed. The stories are true in that they teach a valuable life lesson that resonated deeply with ancient Norse culture. But did dragons really roam the earth in ancient times? Probably not.

This is one of the most important skills for any pagan: finding the spiritual truth in a myth or story. If you read a myth about Artemis transforming a man into a deer because he spied on her while she was bathing, what does that tell you about Artemis? Next time you read or listen to a myth or folk tale, try to find the message at the core of the story. You may be surprised by how this changes your understanding of the mythology.

If you’re interested in paganism but aren’t sure where to start, it might be helpful to gauge where you fall on the polytheism spectrum. Are you a hard polytheist, a soft polytheist, or somewhere in between? Are you a monist? Do you believe the gods function more as archetypes? Write it down so you can look back on it later.

When we talk about specific pagan traditions in future posts, I’ll point out where they fall on the polytheism spectrum. If you’re looking for a path that is compatible with your own beliefs, this is one thing to keep in mind.

Finally, know that your beliefs about the gods might change as you continue to learn and grow. That’s a natural part of religious exploration, so don’t try to fight it!

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