There hasn’t been much conversation on my blog itself, but elsewhere, I’ve seen a bit, about what I’ve had to say. Thank you to those who took the time to read, and to comment. I was writing very early in the morning after a long week with a death in the family. This is not an excuse for places where I left out important parts of my argument, in any way. It is an explanation of why that happened, and why I’ll write some more here, in the form of response to very good questions that were raised.
But Agi, monotheists do rituals too.
This was the most common response to the article, both from monotheists and from Pagans and/or polytheists. It seems there is a difference, and it still seems like that comes down to whether or not said Pagans are living in the proximity of the monotheistic black hole; nobody’s broken that theory of mine (yet; I’m secretly hoping someone will). And it is true. Some monotheists are exceptionally good at rituals. Islam and Catholic Christianity are excellent examples of monotheisms with an intense ritual focus. The main difference is that those rituals come from two places. Either they are pre-monotheistic rituals that were folded into monotheism as it took hold (now there’s a subject for its own blog for the next, oh, 5000 years), or they are rituals provided for the monotheism’s use by the instructions/scripture given by the god to its people, as in the case of Islam’s five pillars.
The difference between polytheistic ritualizing and monotheistic ritualizing is that the former is done to participate in the same world with the gods: to celebrate with Them, to ask Them for help, to acknowledge Their presence at all levels of the world, seen and unseen. Polytheistic ritual is done explicitly to reinforce both the gods’ presence in creation, and to deepen a two-way relationship between the gods and humans in the created world. It does not require belief to be effective. It does not negate the existence of other gods who might not be served by a particular ritual, and while it can have personal benefit for the individuals who practice it, that is neither its main purpose nor its focus of existence.
Monotheistic ritualizing is done explicitly by people, and for people. It is done because it is the god’s will that the ritual be done, for the betterment of the people, so that they can achieve whatever it is they need to achieve to acquire salvation or grace. Once they achieve salvation/grace, they can go to the next, other, or outside world where the god resides: almost always after death (salvation leading to afterlife), but occasionally in various liminal states during lifetime (mystic encounters). The god remains outside of creation, far away from humans. Monotheists do rituals to get that faraway god’s attention, but they do not mistake that attention (if they get it; monotheistic scripture is full of lament for a distant god who doesn’t always help) for a god Who resides in creation alongside them.
The closest the monotheistic god gets to being a part of creation is in two ways. The first is by incarnating (as in Christianity, in the person of Jesus Christ). This process alone illustrates the difference between the monotheistic and the polytheistic worldviews, and how they have been argued for way, way longer than recent Pagan bloggers. (Take heart!) Intense and unresolved arguments about how deeply Christ’s incarnation affected creation or not, and whether or not Jesus really became part of our world, actually broke Christianity in half in its early history, and continue to affect it to this day.
The second way is by the god “living in the heart,” as you will read in Protestant and some Islamic scriptures. However, the god-in-the-heart doesn’t come out of the heart into the seen world, in the form of nature, or in any other tangible, literal form. It remains an abstract, a faraway thing, and thus it still maintains the different worldview of monotheism. The god in the heart only comes into the heart to make a person better prepared for salvation, and the more important next world.
But Agi, some polytheistic gods are outside of creation, aren’t They?
Again this is a valid point, if perhaps subject to interpretation. Very simply put, there are gods Who existed before creation. Some are still around (Nyx, Shu and Tefnut, many Titans), some are dead (Tiamat), some became the created world itself (Atum, Ymir, etc.). There are also gods that exist, whether by choice or function, in places that is not immediately or always accessible to humans (again, the Titans come to mind, and other deities Who are less immanent in personal experiences).
The big difference is that polytheists have the option of many gods to approach, and not all of the gods they approach are outside of creation. Monotheists get one, and they can’t ever be in the same place as that one unless they leave the created world. Even if a particular polytheist only engages with gods that aren’t immanent in creation, the worldview permits for that possibility and existence, and it approaches those gods using that worldview’s toolset.
But Agi, what about the ancestors?
This is a question from me. Acknowledging the dead, and having the dead be present in one’s life in a direct way, is also a huge component of the polytheistic worldview that tends to be dismissed, or even demonized entirely, in the monotheistic worldview. I’ve written about that elsewhere in the blogosphere, many times, and my thoughts about the inclusions of the ancestors in our work are well known. But this is another topic that is important to acknowledge, when we’re trying to see how close to the black hole we live or don’t. It has been my experience that new pagans, or people who are still too close to the monotheistic gravitational pull, do not do anything ritually or otherwise with their ancestors, and often get a sort of angry approach to the idea, as if it were ridiculous to suggest that being in touch with your ancestors was an important part of being a polytheist. All of the pre-monotheistic polytheisms contain a huge ancestral portion. In most of them, one actually does more with the ancestors than with the gods; one could go one’s entire life without engaging with gods and still have a good spiritual connection simply by connecting to the ancestral power and legacy. It is not possible to be polytheist without acknowledging the ancestors, at least not beyond an intellectual aping of polytheistic ideas atop a monotheistic framework. (It’s also interesting to note that the monotheisms that do engage with the ancestors on a meaningful level are all the ones who retained some of their indigenous/polytheistic values; the further you get from antiquity, the less emphasis there is on the ancestral component.) This is a topic worthy of its own several blogs, so I’ll stop here for now.
Who the Hades are you, anyway?
I deliberately did not post biographical information on this blog, because I was asked not to by my gods. They wanted me to approach my Thraco-Egyptian work without any of the biases or benefits of my other work; both because I needed to make sure I was treating all things separately, and because they did not want others to assume that this work is a part of other work that I do. I have “outed” myself a couple of times by accident, there are people who know who I am because they are working with me in this process and had to know, and anyone who reads this blog closely enough will figure out who I am. While I’m not being obvious, I am certainly dropping more than enough hints. Eventually, the gods will give me permission to be more open about my life beyond the Cave of Night, and we’ll deal with that as it is necessary.
At first I thought the request to know who I was, was an appeal to authority, where someone just wanted to know if I had the right or the training to say the things I’m saying, so they could use that to refute me. I think that is part of why my gods have instructed me to remain relatively anonymous; they also don’t want me to use that as a fallback tactic. Then, I realized that the current argument on blogs is so contentious that there were people who were honestly worried that I’m one of the bloggers involved in the argument already, trying to trap them. I promise you that I’m not.
This is what I can tell you about myself for now. I am
Spartacus in my 40s, and I have studied religion academically at a university level since age 18. I am currently in a doctoral program in religion, where my dissertation focuses on ancient Egyptian religion as it transitions into Coptic Christianity. The change of worldview from polytheism to monotheism is of particular interest to me, and has been for many years. I’ve written extensively and presented articles at academic conferences on this topic and subtopics within it since I started my first master’s degree; I currently possess two, one in Egyptology and one in Coptic Studies. I’ve been a polytheist my entire life, having been raised in an indigenous, polytheistic culture, with the exception of a short period where my parents engaged with a Protestant denomination for about four years (for me, ages 11-15 or so; my inability to cop to a monotheistic worldview contributed to my not lasting with the church very long).
That’s it for now. Long enough blog. Maybe you’re not all asleep yet.