Which is always a rather fun debate and discussion among polytheists and pagans. I generally try to stay out of these types of debates, because while I much love a good debate, there are things like this where there’s just no “right” answer–and people get very…well, stubborn is perhaps a kind word to use, in their defense of position. Which I totally understand; as I am totally guilty of the same thing in my own turn. And while I love a good debate, there are just some things I have always decided are better not to jump into the melee for. And then there is also just, sometimes the lack of definitive “right” in a debate can be problematic just for the people involved.
This is one of those topics, because it really is a minefield sometimes. Not that I mean minefield in the sense of totally contentious, though it can be, but also just that it’s so fraught with so many perceptions, thoughts, beliefs and ideas that it can be difficult to even begin to reach an understanding on what is being discussed. And without a basic foundation assumption, real discussion and debate are fraught. That’s really all it boils down to.
But this is also a topic I like thinking about, so there’s that too.
Generally speaking, Polytheism:
the doctrine of or belief in more than one god or in many gods. – Dictionary.com
Which is saying a little bit, but not a whole lot, if we’re totally honest about it. Sure, that’s the definition; but then again, there’s a lot of room for interpretation there. What are the many gods, where do they come in, how are they there, how do they relate to other people’s gods? – the questions pour ever on in regards to this definition. And also, just what people think on a personal level. There’s just so many questions that pop up with this definition, even before we get into the individual opinions of everyone who is possibly involved in any discussion on polytheism in general, abstract, or specific.
Doctrine and belief. — To me these have different meanings, and perhaps these color my own standard of understanding and how I interact with each word and the arguments using each word. It’s not as though it’s unsurprising, but I do sometimes have to stop and consider just what it is that influences my own reactions. I like the self-reflection, so this is always good and I welcome the chance to evaluate further.
Doctrine to me is strict, codified and has regulatory aspects to its meaning. It is enforced and has all sorts of rules and bylaws (per say) that govern it. All in all, I generally associate doctrine with the “Big Three” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and with large belief systems that have been codified down through generations (Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, and others). It has regulations and rules that are related and well-known by those who follow. It is also taught, written and controlled in some manner by some person/entity/organization/office that is held in authority or control.
Belief is (again for me) personal, individual, and has a touch more of the “spiritual” to it. It is very personal and can be very private in nature, a set of thoughts and understandings, and deep understandings, that direct individual action and thought on certain subjects. It’s faith, confidence in the thought–but there’s no proof needed. It is understanding that is not necessarily codified or regulated. It does not require any outside verification or teaching. There doesn’t need to be an arbiter of the information, and there is no need for advocating on behalf of a single person or entity.
a particular principle, position, or policy taught or advocated, as of a religion or government. – here
something believed; an opinion or conviction. – here
Wherein, believe (verb):
to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so. – here
At its core, polytheism is agreeable to define as belief in many gods. But once you get past that, the real question begins. Dictionary definitions are all fine and dandy–and they do give great starting points–but they do have their limitations. Which is why I’m a fan of dictionaries to base discussion, but then it’s down to individual variations and perceptions to ensure we can all find out new information and ideas.
These two different words for the same result are fine. I am not particularly caring about whether it is a belief or a doctrine that leads to the understanding in many gods.
Which of course leads to the main question: just what do we mean by many gods? There’s a lot of wiggle room there. And that’s the real fun of the debates and discussions about polytheism: hard or soft.
- Hard polytheism: the many gods are distinct entities all their own
- Soft polytheism: the many gods are connected to each other
⇑ This is of course grossly simplified, and there are the spectrums within these two classifications that overlap and bleed together. Nothing, even in the dichotomy of hard/soft, is nearly so simple. And that really is some of the fun and the beauty of this whole debate. The bleed-over of course also causes all sorts of fun debates. I’m going to of course talk about my perceptions of the two “types”–because that’s the way these things go.
Soft Polytheism: at the core this is the understanding that the gods are interconnected. There’s the type where people believe that “similar” gods are the same or all manifestations of a primary form. So for example: Thor, Perun, Zeus – they are all chief gods, lightning-related. In some soft polytheistic understanding that means that these are all just local manifestations of the same core/root god. So it would not matter in effect if you prayed to Thor or to Zeus, as they are just different names with some cultural/localized differences from the people who worshiped them. They’re similar and the same, so they’re fine to interchange. Another way I’ve seen it is that different pantheons (Greek, Egyptian, Norse, etc) all have the same gods in them, and so you can interchange the individual gods, since they’re from the same core. There’s another type that is archetypes. Admittedly this one is one I personally have more difficulty with. It’s not just that the gods are aspects of one root god (perhaps too far back for cultures to remember as one specific entity). Archetypes, in my understanding, are more that gods are manifestations of specific themes. And then there are a few people online who I know use Jung’s psychology with archetypes. That’s a bit more difficult for me, because I’m admittedly not too familiar with or good at understanding that aspect.
Hard Polytheism: this core-wise is an understanding that the gods are definite, separate entities. That means that each pantheon is separate and their own, self-contained and individual. So Zeus, Thor, Perun–they’re all totally separate gods. Yes, they might be similar, but that’s the result of the base human condition. There’s no interchanging or mixing of gods between pantheons just because they have similar aspects. If you work with Perun, you cannot just pray to Thor expecting that he’ll do whatever you needed Perun to do. They are distinct entities with their own traditions, needs, and if you wanted to work with both–well, you had better forge relationships with both of them.
That’s the basic understanding at least. But then there’s the further questions, like what do polytheists think about other pantheons and gods/entities? There’s a bit of fun in that debate, I think. Because even if people can reach a bit of understanding between hard or soft polytheism, this one is another point.
There are polytheists who refute that the gods are separate; that is, they are all manifest the same, and so identification as following a specific pantheon or tradition is not really true, because one is actually worshiping the original form and just using a specific name. Then there are those who say that the names are just for our own edification, and that all gods are the same one (not even divided into gods and goddesses with separate aspects). Then we move onto those who believe all pantheons are different–but! But their pantheon is the only real one, and others are just plain mythology. Then there are those who accept all “pagan” pantheons as real, but YHW/God/Allah is definitely not real. Some others who will say that “pagan” pantheons are real, but Hindu and Buddhist entities and deities are not real. Then further on into those who believe all gods worshiped are real. — So really there’s a huge spectrum within the polytheist “community” on what individuals believe.
Myself personally – I’m a hard polytheist of the last variety. I believe that gods, entities, deities from all pantheons are real and exist separately from each other. It does not matter to me that I do not worship any of them myself, because that is immaterial to the understanding of their existence. I acknowledge their existence and their separate nature from my own gods, and can respect people who worship, work with, or honor these other gods. My own beliefs follow my path, but there’s no doubt to me that other entities are out there, and they work with other people.
I’ve gotten into a few online debates (and real-life debates with my friends who lean fiercely atheistic and agnostic) on the nature of differing beliefs. It has always been a bit of a contentious debate with my friends, especially. Because of my raising, I was brought up in an intensely respectful view that others’ beliefs in god, spirit, entity or being are correct, and that I should listen to their perspectives when are shared. I’ve held no animus against any religion or belief, which means that I’ve gotten a lot of friends and I’ve met a lot of people with such varied beliefs. I’ve always enjoyed this; though it is quite different than how most of my friends were raised. – I am not disparaging any of my friends who were raised in devout households (by nature of this being the US, and where I went to HS – this is majority Christians). Their beliefs are their own, and I am not one to criticize that. But I did learn that, thanks to my family’s rather egalitarian view of belief, religion and spirituality, I am far more open-minded than many of my friends. I don’t have a religious worldview and belief structure from childhood that I fall back on when brought to new information.
For my friends, it has always been a shock that I’m as open as I am. For all that I am very devout and strong in my own faith and beliefs, I am not at all confrontational on others beliefs in other gods. So, when you get my somewhat militant atheist friends (raised in Christian families and somewhat “rebelling” from that, to coin a phrase) who get somewhat bellicose and argumentative on the fundamental belief, rightness and truth of God and beliefs, well there’s always a bit of a disconnect for them with me. I’m no way Christian, have never been, but I have an open knowledge there, and can just as passionately defend the beliefs of Christianity as I can my own polytheism. Then I have a few pagan friends who are very stubbornly stuck on the fact that only their type of paganism is right, and that others are just looking at “mythology”. This is an ironic type of argument really, considering what they get from our Christian friends.
This I can mirror in my online discussions/debates/arguments I’ve had in some groups over the years. I’ll always be respectful of another poster’s deities, be they God, Thor, Athena, Zeus, Veles, or any others from a host of belief systems throughout the world. This means I’ll also fight passionately for everyone’s gods, deities and entities to be respected in equal footing. It never has mattered to me whether you follow a major, well known pantheon that is “global” in nature, your ancestors local gods from your native land, spirits and syncretic beliefs…all of those types of understandings are respectable. It’s always fun in online discussions, because I’ll fiercely be myself and talk about my own beliefs, but I’ll also in the same breath defend others right to practice, worship and believe their gods (please though, I do not tolerate stupid, illegal or immoral).
All in all – my own beliefs as a hard polytheist who personally honors and works with Slavic deities influence my own world view. I am a hard polytheist because of my introduction to, dealing with, and learning from my friends and others from many different beliefs throughout my childhood and even up until today. I am fortunate to work with so many people with so many beliefs. I constantly learn. And the more I learn from others, the more it reinforces to me–that for me— it is only right that I continue as a hard polytheist. I honor the knowledge of other deities, spirits and gods existing, even if I myself do not deal with them.
Still! I am going to continue to engage in further discussions, debates, and conversations on the topic. I’m always interested in others perspectives, so I like learning how others fall on their understanding of polytheistic nature.∗