What is Polytheism?

Photo by Sandra Lara

I don’t “look” like a priest. I wear no emblems except my ring. You’re more likely to meet me over drinks than prayers.

And I don’t bring it up. Religion talk should happen naturally, from a shared interest.

So when people see my calling card they look twice. “Are you really a priest?” And the other question:

What Kind of Priest Are You?

I’ve already mentioned I’m not Christian, so they’re curious. This question choked me up for a long time. How to even begin to explain to an invariably Christian-or-ex-Christian stranger? And how without invoking the specter of Neopaganism, which is not what I do?

Polytheism has no central creed: it’s tough to sum up.

This led to a lot of humming and hawing for the first 1,200 miles. But I did eventually learn how to talk about these questions. Here’s how I answer.

What religion are you?

I’m a polytheist.

What’s that?

Polytheism is a group of religions. There’s no central authority over all of them.

But we have certain things in common. Most of these traditions believe nature is sacred, or even that nature is the most sacred thing. And most are tied to a specific culture.

For example, I’m trained as a priest of the old Irish gods, the gods who were worshiped in Ireland before Christianity was brought there.

That part in italics? I find that important. Saying you follow the gods of nature invites a common Christian rebuttal: what about the god who created Nature?

To a Celtic polytheist that doesn’t compute. The natural world was not created. The highest gods are its soul, not its maker; they too will pass away into nothing when the whole universe ends. The universe simply is; if that’s hard to understand, it’s no worse than the Christian paradox of who-or-what created God.

In every cosmology, something has to be uncreated. It can’t be turtles all the way down.

What would you add to this definition? What would you change?


16 thoughts on “What is Polytheism?

  1. I remember once spending some time contemplating the concept that the many thousands of gods of ancient Egypt in many ways correlate with the thousands of “-ologies” of modern science, given how narrow some of the gods’ fields of authority were.

    • Ha. I like that.

      I think giving each science a patron deity would be a worthy project, for a pantheon like the Egyptian one that has such specific deities. A theonomy for a free society.

  2. J_Agathokles says:

    Off course it’s not turtles all the way down. The Earth is a disk on the back of a giant turtle floating through space, remember? :P

  3. Brooke Waldrup says:

    Hi Drew, Your writing is helpful. I am deeply concerned with loyalty and consistancy in the realm of polythiests. I am finding way too many online “sorcerers” paying homage to Michael the Arc Angel and other Judeao-Christian entities like Handel and Bach lol…I think that if we truly want to honor our God(s) we will learn what loyalty and true devotion means. I think people who are combining opposing entities even in the details are setting themseves up for bad chaos or at best “nothing”. How do you feel about extreme loyalty from the heart and soul to your “pool” of Irish gods…are you still celebrating St Patricks day for example lol???

    • Excellent questions Brooke. I’ll do my best.

      First of all, while loyalty is among the highest Irish virtues, I would treat loyalty to the gods with care. There is absolutely nothing in ancient polytheism that indicates exclusivity: if you wanted to worship the gods of other tribes, no sanctions existed to discourage you. Indeed, the cult of Lugus would never have risen to the prominence that it did if an exclusionary attitude existed.

      But this comes with a “however.” Even though it’s fine to worship, say, Irish and Egyptian gods, it’s important to learn and maintain the Irish and Egyptian traditions around each. In other words, mixing them together into one hodge-podge flies in the face of polytheism, to me. I believe that honoring them separately, with their own traditions intact, creates a stronger and deeper bond to each.

      All of the above, though, is in reference to practicing different polytheistic traditions side by side. It becomes more complicated if you add Christ to the mix. This is because Christian teaching typically comes with a doctrine of their god being the highest, best, or only. Combining that with tribal polytheism usually just means the tribal gods get demoted to lesser beings than God. I don’t approve.

      So do I celebrate St. Patrick’s Day? Absolutely not. And I no use for a single Creator deity above and beyond the gods – nor for a savior, since there’s nothing to save us from.

      Finally though, I notice you couched your question in terms of sorcerers. While neopagans like to stake out magic as something ancient and pagan, the truth is that almost all of Western magic is Judeo-Christian. It was developed during the middle ages and the connections to ancient Greek and Middle Eastern practice is minimal. Then in the New World it mixed with many African and Native American practices who are all highly syncretic and don’t mind adding Christianity.

      So, I wouldn’t really bash magical practitioners for using Christian language; it’s central to some of the best Western magic out there.

  4. Pingback: My Secret Religion «   Rogue Priest

  5. Brooke says:

    Ok, I see what you mean after reading some more. You are about ideals and I was talking about rules. Travel has been a huge part of my life…it’s not always what I wanted but it is always what I have found myself doing. Now with kids in Houston suburbs I had wished I could travel and live in a better place but now ironically I am “dying” to find stability, consistancy and roots for my family, so Texas is home for now!

  6. Brooke says:

    It has found me. I don’t deserve it nor have I earned it. I am polythiestic, interested in magik, and telepathy with the living and dead and after some experiences (that I certainly did not ask for) last night I believe in honoring my eternal oaths that I personally was called to starting at age 12. We all have such different experiences. Dear Rogue Priest, I actually thought your only reply was the small blurb AFTER your long post which I just read. Oh my gosh hahaha, I was so disturbed by that tiny aloof reply I was going to come back and address it and talk about passion, humility and then still I remembered that no one is called to prove their morality to anyone, that’s not what true religion is about. Blessings to you! I am happy in my religion but I love learning and searching about others!

  7. Rua Lupa says:

    I like the Anishinabek way – no self described titles. A medicine person is only known as such through others, to say that you are is usually considered pretentious. If directly asked, the response can be along the lines of, “that is what others call me” or “I’ve done medicine work”. So it is very much a merit thing which I really like.

  8. Pingback: My Vodou Apprenticeship «   Rogue Priest

  9. Pingback: The one religion that’s not part of my spiritual quest |   Rogue Priest

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