Did you know that fifteen years ago you wouldn’t have been able to find one person blogging openly about devotional polytheism? There were a few of us writing about devotional subjects on private Livejournal (and Deadjournal) accounts, but we didn’t call it devotional polytheism. In fact, I was fighting an uphill battle trying to convince people that “devotion” was more than just syrupy affection for the deities and spirits in one’s life, that it was the relational model that characterized our basic worldviews and reciprocal styles of interacting. So perhaps I can be a little forgiven if I’m going to be the “back in my day” guy for a bit here.
Devotional polytheism is fine.
Well, it’s certainly fine in the sense that people are out there, doing their thing, relating to their Powers, exploring reciprocation, learning about give and take in relationship, and striving to achieve a balance that is enriched by the numinous. Polytheists as a loosely defined demographic certainly have the same kind of problems that any other loosely defined demographic are likely to have, and we’ve identified problems that call for more focused attention (might-makes-right mentalities, abuse of power, white supremacist ideology, a rather too cozy attitude to global religious nationalist movements that are actually aren’t our friends or anyone’s friends, etc.). We can work on these things. We are working on these things. Learning to recognize the ways in which these problems are perpetuated and perpetrated are the first steps and the continuing steps; these skills are learned through implementation – by doing, and specifically by doing them over and over.
But the existence of devotional polytheism, by the fact of a relational existence, by the fact of a network of bonds, that web of obligation and affection and need and sustenance and giving and supply and honoring and care and nourishment and lack and appeasement and asking and granting and gift and love that holds us all within it?
That’s fine. That hasn’t gone anywhere. We’re all still held in it, our Powers are all still held in it, we’re all held together and we move within it and the tides of need and sentiment and bond move in waves throughout. Devotional polytheism is fine.
If you read Mr. Beckett’s article on trend’s in paganism, you’ll probably recognize the point I’m speaking to. He’s concerned about the waning of devotional polytheism of the type he’s familiar with, or at least people writing about it where he can see it. I’m sure he’s not the only one handwringing the decline of the golden age of devotional polytheism (or at least the one that took place where we all could see it), but he’s the one who wrote something that I saw, so I’ll speak to that.
Devotional polytheism as we think of it currently hasn’t existed for two decades. In fact, our collective thoughts about devotional polytheism change so rapidly that it hasn’t had time to solidify into anything, really. It’s one way, and then it’s another, depending on who currently has the largest online following. And when you think about it, that’s a really odd way for religious thought to develop. (And indeed, some people will recognize that that’s not a way that religious thought develop, but rather how other kinds of thought develops, which is probably why it’s not such a bad thing polytheist blogging has rather waned – and I even say this as a polytheist who happens to still have a blog and has finally remembered how to log in.) We’re still barely on board with the gods being real; the reality of relationships with them is still way beyond what a lot of people even within our own polytheist communities are willing to grant, even though that – to me – is a foundational assumption of a polytheist worldview.
Furthermore, we are presented with the question of what, exactly, our devotional bonds are for. To my view, devotional relationships – indeed, all relationships, whether one exists inside a polytheist worldview framework or not – are self-justified. They require no outside justification, no reason why beyond the fact of the relationship themself. They are relationship-for-relationship-sake, rather like art. Relationships form naturally because we are beings who naturally form relationships, just as we naturally create art. (And yes, we do in fact form unhealthy relationships, or form relationships that become unhealthy, but that’s a secondary fact beside this first.) Therefore the relationships we have with our Powers are self-justified. We don’t really need any theological explanation that details the purpose of these relationships, although various polytheist traditions may have their own explanations of the value or benefit of these relationships, and indeed individual practitioners may come to various conclusions about the value or benefit of these relationships within the context of their own life – but again, I believe these are secondary facts beside the first.
Because I believe that relationships – existing within a polytheist framework or not – are self-justified, based on the fact that we humans are relationship-building creatures, our relationships with the Powers do not exist for the sole or primary purpose of being shown to other people. Therefore, no one can feel entitled or permitted to access evidence of these relationships; our relationships with the Powers are not for consumption, and they are not “for” consumption. If an individual practitioner feels like sharing, feels like they have something to say about their relationship(s), about their life in relationship(s), or about their life as a polytheist (which again, is life lived in relationship(s)), then sure, yeah, excellent, whatever, awesome – but that’s not the point. There is no point, no purpose, no end-goal, no productivity quota, no measurement – relationship is just a fact, just a feature of life, like the shape of the horizon where you live. It has nothing to prove, and unless you choose to talk about it, it has nothing to say.
I also have to admit that I’m also leaning a bit into resisting the endless pressure to instrumentalize every bit of our lives. I’ve gotten smacked by this over and over again, endlessly, brought up short by this tendency, which has been ground into me, carved deep by social and interpersonal pressures that people don’t even know they’re exerting. What is instrumentalization? It’s making everything useful – and specifically, making everything profitable. And profitable not necessarily in the sense of monetary gain (though there is that goal underlying everything) but profitable in the sense of personal gain. There’s this endless pressure to make sure that everything I do has to ultimately benefit me in the sense of very tangible personal gain, including what I say online. And once I started seeing how I was weighing and measuring all these assessments, the more resentful I got – who wants me to profit? To whose profit am I ultimately working? Certainly I’m not personally getting ahead, so someone must be.
I want to choose, at least a little bit, how I am consumed. Admittedly, there are very few ways I can control how I am consumed, and how what I create and output into the world is consumed, so it’s perhaps no wonder that I’m a little picky about framing those outputs. No doubt others who have different life experiences and/or those who have reached different conclusions will feel differently about their creations and their output. But I’m tired. Maybe I’m just getting older and more quickly resentful of people who want things from me unasked. Maybe I’m getting more fiercely private and more quickly resentful of getting pulled apart by intrusive prying. Maybe I’m angry at myself for giving so much of myself away in hopes that it would, in fact, gain me something just like I was promised when it actually didn’t and I felt empty and used instead, and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.
So no, I’m not sharing the intricacies of my life lived in relationship because it’s not for consumption. It is self-justified, for itself, valuable for the fact of its existence alone, not so I can pull it apart for viewing and consideration by others – strangers and critics. In general, I don’t know what to think about the nuances of these relationships myself, even though I have plenty of information from wisdom teachings to draw from, so I don’t think dumping them on the general public will be at all helpful. Additionally, I want to make sure that I treat myself well – better than I used to! – that I avoid turning myself into a product for others to consume, a novelty that is picked up and turned over, laughed at or pitied, critiqued or considered. I deserve better. So do you.
So yeah – devotional polytheism is fine. You’re fine (probably. maybe there’s some people who seem to be fence sitting about white supremacy that you need to boot from your personal orbit, but you can do it. I believe in you). You can go look at the horizon in your area and not ask it to explain itself, and then you can similarly go look at the Powers in your life and, very gradually, stop asking Them why They choose to be with you.
Maybe we can both learn to do this together. I believe in us.