Posted by: aediculaantinoi | January 26, 2014

Paganalia/Sementivae 2014, Part III: A Discussion With Relevance to Modern Paganism and Polytheism

May Ceres Legifera bless my efforts and guide my words on this her holy festival.

So, I’ve written about this two-day festival, Paganalia/Sementivae, in the past for 2012 and for 2013. If you want to know more of the history of this festival, I suggest you read those. My celebration of it this year, as with most of the festivals I’ve observed thus far, has been with more poetry and less explanation, and I hope to keep that trend up for the remainder of this month and the rest of 2014 to come.

There is much that I could write here today, on various things of note and relative importance, but I’d like to first point out a few things that were linked to on The Wild Hunt in the course of this festival that might have some relevance not only to it, but to the topics I’m going to discuss today.

First, there is a review of Ronald Hutton’s new book by Graham Robb that mentions Sterculinus…I don’t know if Wiccans at Stonehenge think of Sterculinus while they use the porta-potties, but there are certainly more than a few reconstructionism-methodology-employing polytheists who do, including the present writer…!?!

Next, on a Christian philosophical website, John Cuddeback has written a short article on (ancient) pagan piety mentioning Aeneas…and while it’s a good article in general (though, of course, it asks certain questions and has certain assumptions because its author and intended audience is Christian), I kind of have to respond: “Yeah, but what about us modern pagans and polytheists?” And, in terms of writing about pagan or polytheist piety, I’m also asking The Wild Hunt why they haven’t mentioned this topic when it has been written about recently by many different modern polytheists (pretty much the only modern pagans of whom I’m currently aware who use the term “piety” in a non-pejorative sense), but that it merits a mention in a “Pagan News Roundup” when it is written by a Christian, and not even from a viewpoint that considers such things (i.e. pagans or polytheists) still exist and are worth taking seriously.

And segueing from that topic into the next one, I cite three things that have been posted (to my knowledge) in the last few days: one by Rhyd Wildermuth, one by John Halstead, and one by Sannion, all having to some extent to do with both the matter of “Pagan Tea Time” that is going on over at Patheos, and of the issue of polytheism and the wider world of paganism. (I don’t have the time nor the technology to make “Pagan Tea Time” possible at present, unfortunately, but I commend anyone who is able to do so.) Further discussions of this nature, including ones I’ve been taking part in, have also occurred over the last few days in various backchannels, and while I acknowledge them, I don’t think it’s necessary to direct you to them; I hope to address some of these matters below.

And all this on the heels of the latest post from The Wild Hunt by Heather Greene, which talks about the mainstreaming (or, at least, the mainstream acceptance of) Wicca. The gains made by Wicca in this regard are not likely to extend to any reconstructionist-methodology-employing forms of polytheism anytime soon, and thus the further ability to marginalize and ignore the concerns of polytheists is a privilege that Wicca enjoys while other forms of paganism do not.

Why am I writing some of the above? Because today and yesterday are the festivals known as Paganalia, and I always think it’s useful on these days to reflect on the “state of paganism,” as it were; in previous years, I’ve written why I still call myself a pagan (even though many polytheists no longer do so), and why I think that paganism is still a useful and viable concept and a productive umbrella under which to gather.

After 2013, though, I’m not sure I can or would still argue that point.

Something that was very useful in the discussion (particularly in their comments sections) between Rhyd and John Halstead is that there are some real differences between how certain words are being used, and they amount to much more than different groups of people arguing over which definition in Webster’s they’re preferring at a given moment. There are very real differences between an adjectival usage of polytheism and polytheist (e.g. “There are polytheistic elements in my theology”) and a substantive usage of it (e.g. “I am a polytheist”). I think Rhyd is very much on to something as this matter being one of major importance, and which is likely at the root of many of the debates that have occurred in the past few months especially.

There is a very big difference between the simply meaning of “polytheism” (i.e. “many gods”) and the ways in which “polytheism” is being defined as people are often wont to define it (i.e. whatever adjuncts they want to add to it which fit their own adjectival usage of it and more fully describe the remainder of their theological position, but which has nothing to do with polytheism-qua-polytheism). Add in the matter of the qualified term “devotional polytheism” (which tends to mean that there are many gods, and that those who identify as such place the gods and their concerns, and our concerns for the gods, first and foremost in our practices and theologies), and you’ve got a recipe for all kinds of confusion, resentment, and arguing that seems to have no end (which may be due to entirely other factors, e.g. people’s attraction to drama, etc.; and, I don’t exclude myself from that distinction on some occasions).

What first must be understood in the above matters is that no polytheist (adjectival or substantive) speaks for all polytheists; further, no devotional polytheist speaks for all devotional polytheists, and no devotional polytheist speaks for all the varieties of polytheist. We all just speak for what we think is best personally for ourselves, and sometimes doing so involves saying why we disagree with something someone else is saying about these matters. I’ve written about the highly contextual nature of polytheism here previously, so I shouldn’t need to rehearse all of those arguments again…

So, perhaps, in no particular order, I should jot down some ideas or responses to some of the things I’ve been seeing abroad in the blogosphere in relation to these matters.

1) The statement “you [meaning devotional polytheists] don’t own the word ‘polytheism.'” Yes, but that’s true of any and every word–no one owns these words any more than they do any other word, and that’s the nature of language. This is why, I think, the Greeks regarded Hermes as the god of language as well as the god of thieves, because all of us “steal” our knowledge of language from all others we interact with all of the time. (It’s not to excuse or discount legitimate plagiarism when it exists, or copyright infringement, etc.) So, if no one owns it, no one controls the definitions of it exclusively–and that also extends to those who are saying “you don’t own it” to others in order to define it however they wish.

2) BUT, that doesn’t likewise mean that the word (or any word) can be defined any-old-way, however one wants to define it. The utility of language is in its specificity, which is why we consider a phrase like “I’m going to talk about some stuff and things that are important to people” to be not very useful, whereas “This article is on the Roman holiday of Sementivae and how it was observed by the lower classes in the late first century BCE in Southern Italy” is considered extremely useful because of its precision (even if it’s not a topic that will appeal to or interest everyone–which is, again, why the specificity is useful, because it tells those who are interested to look at it, and those who aren’t that they can afford to pass it up). The range of meaning of words does eventually get exhausted in some cases, particularly when it shades into the territory of other words that already exist. Let’s take the word “mother”: it tends to mean the female biological parent of offspring, but it could also mean a female adopted caregiver of youthful offspring, or a temporary person fulfilling such a role, or anyone who acts in a way to nurture something in development. But, if I insist that my usage of “mother” also includes “biological males who tend plants in a community garden once a week,” people are going to start thinking that the word “mother” has legitimately lost its meaning in that particular set of usages. That variety of person is not called a “mother,” it’s called a “community gardener,” and keeping those two sets of terms distinct is actually quite useful. There are limits to how elastic certain definitions can be, and though semantic shifting and drifting can and does occur, there is a point where it becomes rather nonsensical.

3) In any case, the matter of “who is a real polytheist?” still seems to be a question lurking behind a lot of these discussions, and it is a rather important one. Further questions that should be asked are: what does one gain by identifying as a polytheist, or by laying claim to the term as part of one’s overall theological makeup? The reason that the question is important is because those who have a similar definition of polytheism, and who invest that understanding with a similar weight of importance, are more likely to understand one another and to be able to work together better than those who make polytheism a subordinate or adjunct to another theological model or understanding that has practical implications for their spirituality.

So, here’s the resolution I’m going to adopt for myself in the future, and it’s one that I’m not entirely happy with, as you’ll see.

I’m going to call myself a “devotional polytheist” from now on. I hate the term “hard polytheist,” and have never really liked it nor adopted it for myself; there’s all kinds of sexist and phallocentric aspects of the terminology that I find resentful and distasteful. I’ve preferred “polytheist” all on its own, because I think it is simple and relatively easy-to-understand and does exactly what it says on the tin, i.e. indicates the acknowledgement of many gods, which is the best understanding of my own theological position that I have ever come up with for the last twenty years of my practice. (“Polytheanimist” is also not bad, to highlight the animist aspects of my practice…but anyway.) However, I am willing to concede at this point that because there is so much misunderstanding about “polytheism” generally, and that some who have polytheistic aspects of their theology may not weight it as heavily as I do, that a more specific term that is qualified by another term would be more useful to future discussion. I have never resented or been put off by the term “devotional polytheist,” and I do use it from time to time; now I’m going to have to be more assiduous about using it all the time. I still think that “polytheist” should be able to carry the weight of my entire theological and practical outlook, but apparently it can’t, because some people who use the term don’t think that the recognition of the reality of multiple deities is either the most important descriptor of their outlook, or that devotion to the deities is important and essential. I concede that on the latter point in particular, “polytheism” alone has probably never been sufficient to indicate that such a focus for one’s practices is as high a priority as it is for those of us in the modern world who identify in this fashion.

At the end of the day, I am still a pagan (in the ancient definitions of the term), because I’m rural, I’m a civilian (and as I teach at a military college, and am a non-military member of a family that has been largely military, I live and work in a predominantly military community, and for many other reasons that such a distinction is important!), and I also worship the gods…and yet, it was only the latter matter that became important when the term “pagan” was used theologically by Christians in late antiquity when they came to prominence and eventual political hegemony. For many pagans today, being a “nature worshipper” is more important than acknowledging gods…which is fine, but it is a very good reason why many devotional polytheists no longer identify as such. And, I’m going to leave that matter for the moment…

Rather than focus on the Paganalia aspects of this set of holidays, therefore, I am instead finding that I’ve focused on the Sementivae aspect. What do I mean by that? It’s not so much that we are all united as children of “Mother Earth,” it’s that we worship and properly acknowledge the goddesses Tellus Mater (or Gaia, if you are more Greek-leaning) and Ceres. It’s not so much that we should all be united under the pagan umbrella any longer in Paganalia, but instead that the “scattering of seed” that is implicit in Sementivae means that we will all grow in whatever way we might where we find ourselves scattered to upon the earth. To use the ecological and rural metaphors that have been so beloved of many of us, it does no good and makes the pagus starve if all of the seeds remain together, because only some of them (on the outside) will germinate, while many others never will. In order for us all to flourish, we must scatter, and we must not fear doing so.


Responses

  1. […] the occasion of the Paganalia/Sementivae festival P. Sufenas Virius Lupus shared some important thoughts and made the following […]

  2. I mentioned this elsewhere (and will comment better at a later time), but it seems some people want to use ‘polytheism’ to mean ‘many things [insert whatever Things they're talking about]‘ rather than, well, ‘many gods’. Which might be why we’re having some problems with the use of the word.

    • Yes, I think I saw your comment on Rhyd’s entry…I think that’s a big difficulty in all of this. People are perhaps mistaking “polytheism” for “pluralism,” and thus “many gods” for “lots of things that are equally weighted.” I think there is a certain degree of pluralism, at least as far as some matters are concerned, that is implied in polytheism (i.e. “You have your gods, I have mine, there’s no reason to get upset about either of us having any of them”); but, then there is this matter that is taken likewise that pluralism must mean relativism, and that those who are pluralistic can’t have standards, set definitions, or ways of understanding things, and must therefore approve of any/all other options out there (including ones that are poorly done or shoddy or outright incorrect) lest they no longer be pluralists. And, mistaking that standard of pluralism (which is really relativism) as necessary for polytheism…well, that’s where we all run into trouble, I guess…except those of us who are actually using those words the way they most literally indicate.

      (But, if you’re a “literal” thinker in any respect, of course, that’s bad, too, according to some…feck.)

  3. The first time I heard the term “devotional polytheist” I thought it was a wonderful descriptor–after all, i’m a polytheist whose practice is almost entirely devotional. I had the impression, though, that most of the folks who use it are of a more mystical bent than I am, so have been reluctant to adopt it. But if there are more cement-headed devotional polytheists out there I may need to rethink that.

    • It’s a very good distinction: one doesn’t have to be a mystic or a spiritworker to be a devotional polytheist. In fact, most of the people in India who are participants in bhakti yoga are not mystics or spiritworkers…even though there is a degree of what some might consider to be “mystical” involved in every level of devotion. (There are some pagans who seem to be defining “mystic” as anyone who has had an experience of gods…so, that would sort of make all devotional polytheists mystics to some extent or another…maybe…but it doesn’t have to.)

  4. […] wanted to make a brief reply to Sannion’s recent post in response to mine, regarding a very particular point that he drew out–guess what that was about? (And, since […]

  5. I find your distinctions here helpful. I have been someone for whom devotion to the gods was a central practice, for years; but I’m not now. My central spiritual practice involves family and community life, and when I do have a little time for devotions, I’m always left with the conviction that things are exactly as they should be and my relationships with the gods are appropriate for this point in my life. So the distinction you’re making between polytheist, which I still am, and devotional polytheist, which I’m not at the moment, fits my experience.

    I suspect that your perception about Wicca’s privileges not being extended to reconstructionist-type polytheists is pessimistic. The thing is, mainstream institutions can’t tell any of us apart. They don’t understand Wicca, so they don’t understand the difference between Wicca and reconstructionist religions. I think that, *if* the word that ends up in policy is not “Wicca” but rather “Paganism” or “Wicca and other Pagan religions,” so long as polytheists are willing to accept that term for the purposes of communications with institutions, there won’t be a problem.

    Personally, I am not that interested in having mainstream institutions understand my religion as long as it’s offered all the standard protections. I also don’t really care what they call it. I’m willing to accept the term “Wiccan” even though I don’t consider myself to be one, because for most institutional purposes, it’s close enough.

  6. P.S. My personal contribution to mainstreaming reconstructionist polytheism in the past two years was to write it both into my book and into the Harvard Pluralism Project’s resource on world religions in America. The latter, especially, has the potential to be seen by a lot of small-time policy-makers.

    I personally am not concerned about what we all call ourselves and whether or not devotional polytheists withdraw from the larger Pagan umbrella; we should all, obviously, do what suits our purposes best. But I do think there will be advantages for polytheist families, especially, to continue to use the term “Pagan” for public purposes — that it will offer a modicum of protection.

  7. Oh, and I hope you get to have some “tea times” at PantheaCon! In person conversations are always the best. :)

    • Indeed, I am hoping I can line that up with a person or two…

  8. […] despite some polytheists abandoning the label)? I had to explain–as I have many times before (including recently!) that I am a pagan in the literal sense: I am rural, I am a civilian, and I worship the […]

  9. […] i.e. a belief in multiple gods as independent volitional beings that exist outside of us.  E had recently blogged that e had adopted the term “devotional polytheist”, which I think is a good way of distinguishing his deity-centered polytheism from other forms of […]

  10. […] has a subsection entitled “Polytheistic with a Hyphen.” In the article he referred to Lupus’ discussion of the word polytheism and the nuances which can cause confusion and, thus, conflict when using a word which may mean […]


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