On Identity Generation in Western Polytheism
Posted on March 8, 2022
Identity formation is an ongoing process – achieved through both interactions with groups of individuals consisting of a common outlook, and through performative actions of rituals throughout life (Khademi-Vidra, 2014). How they form, are applied through the self or from external sources, and how they are integrated has spawned a century-old subfield of sociology, which only briefly will be spoken about here.
In the modern world, identity formation and enactment is often stripped from individual and communal spaces, largely through a combination of socio-economic forces that dismantles in order to replace in the service of its own ends – that is, the exploitation of capital (Krawec, 2022). Social spaces and relationships which would otherwise ground and offer foundation to one’s identity are destroyed; in its place a deep-rooted insecurity and longing for a sense-of-self is erected, as neighborhoods, ties to location and history, and even family ties are all uprooted and dissolved.
At the same time as it is being stripped, “identity” is often commodified. Whether for retail sale and sightseeing (including fetishization), the proffering of “authentic” products targeted to both diasporas and voyeur tourists (Heller, 2003), or even in the case of for-profit genetic testing kits. The latter is particularly representative of the dystopian capitalist landscape, a product developed which capitalizes on this very insecurity and lack of historic ties in order to “aid” individuals in finding some sense of themselves.
The intrinsic sense of longing which many Westerners feel under this demeaning socio-economic system, for identities which have been sundered and the urge for belonging by forging family connections, for a sense of continuity in place, is indelibly grafted into the cultural psyche. Raised in and exposed to this climate for the past thirty or forty or more years, Western polytheists (especially in America and Canada, but to an extent in Europe) are seeking identity for themselves, and their notion of self often intersects and interacts with their religious perspectives.
Identities, as with many other labels, are sometimes gained and applied, shed and discarded, as one develops a greater sense of self; matures into a greater sense of perspective or expectation of the world, especially regarding their role within it and, ultimately, who they desire to be. The possession of such labels and self-identifying qualifiers can even amount to reappropriation – as Galinksy et al explore in “The Reappropriation of Stigmatizing Labels: The Reciprocal Relationship Between Power and Self-Labeling”. Self-identification and self-labeling provide a powerful tool in the development of the self, as they encourage self-esteem or give individuals and groups the opportunity to more properly define their own discursive expressions of identity.
How we apply those labels – who is attracted to those identities – are intrinsically linked, especially due to the nuances driving ways in which we collectively act on social and (in some cases) the parasocial levels. For communities which are amorphous and possess nebulous boundaries consisting of many varied characteristics (as in the case of those which are primarily considered “online” versus “offline”, as one such example), it can be challenging to define identity. This is especially true when there is no such perception of cohesive social expression, where things like widespread globalization, reliance on ephemeral and distant relationships for companionship – especially through the near-omnipresence of social media – and neoliberal managerialist attitudes conspire to create societies consisting of little to no physical community (Karkov, 2020).
In contemporary Western polytheistic practice it is common to associate one’s religio-spiritual identity with a previous cultural incarnation, one that broadly aligns to both notions of divinity as well as practical religious enactment. That is, modern practitioners appropriate the image of extinct ethnonyms as their own form of self-identification and the labeling of their religious practice.
In the various non-Wiccan, non-Wiccanate polytheistic circles it is common to be a “Norse” or “Anglo-Saxon” Heathen, a “Roman” cultor, a “Gaul”, or other such identified practitioner. It is commonly employed shorthand, used to easily identify oneself from another group in terms of appearance and “flavor” of belief. Likewise, two individuals with great vagaration in practical behavior may nevertheless ascribe to the same identifying label. These ethnonymic labels appear to provide an easy, all-encompassing range by which people can develop a sense of religious identity; how they can collectively act on both the personal and on the macroscopic social level in an inter/intrafaith dialogue.
And yet, there are repeated incidents where individuals feel their faith is in crisis, that their identities do not encapsulate all that they feel they should be or that they exist out of step with their notion of self, leading to dissatisfaction in practice and a constant seeking for a missing piece.
It is understandable. Defining communities as varied and amorphous as those encompassing contemporary polytheisms in a satisfactory manner is intrinsically difficult due to extensive nuances, historical precedents and divergences, and an understanding that in the transition from individual/microcosm to communal/macrocosm a definition will ultimately try to assert a relatively narrow display of norms and views.
On the outset, questions easily arise: which group of people in an oftentimes broad coalition of tribal entities serves as a model? Whose views and norms shall be appropriated? And so on, and so forth, with ever-smaller units of expression being utilized as identities that people latch onto, effectively hyper fixating on reconstructing a particular location and narrow period of time.
Doing so, ultimately, accomplishes two things:
- It relegates the myriad understanding of theological concerns to a mere cultural affectation and accoutrement. That is, if we consider the worship of the divine as a (or, perhaps more appropriately, the) defining feature of polytheistic religious identity, then this action shoe-horns myriad different and numinous beings into strictly human categories. It effectively conflates the demarcation of divinity with what is essentially a demarcation of perceived cultural boundaries, creating false barriers when none were historically present.
- It also establishes boundaries based on what amounts to superficial understandings of cultural identities in a very anachronistic sense, all based on temporally distinct and no-longer-applicable ethnonymic categories which ignore the nature of polytheistic theology (as above), the precedents of cross-cultural transmission, pluralism, and a fluid exchange of ideas which are all historically attested.
The idea of a rigidly and clearly defined boundary for religious practice and definitions is appealing to many people for many reasons; perhaps it stems from a scientific perspective, where an orderly world of classifications and categories delineate disparate groups, stemming from historic and scholastic convention. This point is especially true of religious beliefs as presented by antiquarians and nineteenth century scholars – the foundations of much of modern scholarship as presented by writers like Thomas Bullfinch who promoted the idea of uniformity of belief through collections of mythologies categorized by their rigid philological or linguistic background and not through any notion of the development of culture.
As modern scholars of the study of pre-Christian and non-Christian religions have relatively recently begun discussing, scholasticism does not often do the vagaries in these religious identities justice. Instead of consisting of orthodox arrangements of neatly defined beliefs which are categorically identifiable (a la Christianity, the archetypal “representation” of religion in Western scholarship), these religious instances are instead being typified as various “religious systems”. For instance, instead of speaking of a cohesive and rigid representative “pantheon”, as Terry Gunnell explores in “Pantheon? What Pantheon?” (Gunnell, 2015), scholarship reappraises and challenges conventional modes of thinking with these pre-Christian peoples. This reappraisal often accepts and elaborates on a shared diversity of belief, blurred boundaries of practice and worship, and the intrinsic notion of differences between geographic and civic regions, theological entities, and mundane professions.
This notion of an academically constructed and constrained idea of religion, influenced and typologically presented in the vein of (or contrast to) Christianity, or the Christo-Academic experience, is not a new phenomenon in recent scholarship; it is one that has been addressed for the religions of other pre-Christian peoples in many disciplines. Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel (trans. Paul Cartledge) opened their introduction of Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Zaidman, pg. 3) by advocating for a “preliminary mental readjustment” in order to “abandon familiar cultural territory and radically question received intellectual categories” when studying ancient Greek religious life. Out of the gate they stress the incompatible nature and the fundamental difference in societal concepts between twentieth (now twenty-first) century conceptual frameworks that were used to describe “contemporary religious phenomena”, and those frameworks of the ancient Greeks themselves.
Jonathan Z. Smith went so far as to claim that “Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy” (Smith, cf. Polinskaya, pg. 4). In the case of the study of Greek religion, Jean-Pierre Vernant argued that “in the checkerboard pattern formed by various typological combinations there is no square in which to enter Greek religion. It hardly appears as a religion at all.” (Smith, cf. Polinskaya, pg 3). These developments of notions of “popular religion” among pre-Christian peoples while skewing somewhat from its Christian teleological influences, nevertheless are indelibly marked by the privileged position held by that other religious system’s existence in the mindscape of Western intellectual thought.
Western polytheists who embark on the various reconstruction attempts, utilizing the methodology of reconstruction (which, perhaps, encourages this line of thinking unintentionally given its close relationship with academia), must likewise undertake an intellectual readjustment. Theirs no more privileged, no more “correct”, an intellectual position simply because they themselves choose to believe in and enact with the efficacy of these religious systems, where modern scholars or lovers of mythology may otherwise not. Divestiture from these academically-fostered notions is as fundamentally required to the Western polytheist as it is to the academic.
In order to cleave to an identity within a system dominated by singular religious enactment – one which is intrinsically hostile to polytheistic expression, Western polytheists focus on the resurrection of an ethnos of a people. This refraction of their desires for an understanding of themselves and their modeling of “religion” is cast through what amounts to a distorted prism that not only locks divinity into a-historic group borders but also transposes very modern views of ethnicity and belonging onto the past.
Further, it is possible that contemporary polytheist identity so manufactured can be critically viewed through the lens presented by Zygmunt Bauman – something akin to a retrotopia. That is, it is a place or world which no longer maintains the hope for a future utopia and so transposes happiness and communal identity on what amounts to an imaginary past. It is something which is centered on a yearning and an emptiness, one which may (or may not) be exacerbated by the incidence of larger, and more distant, virtual communities (Bauman, cf., Karkov, 27).
It would not be unrealistic to present these views as ultimate products of a form of nostalgia – a rejection of the modern (and thus within the West) Christian-influenced world, buttressed by a melancholia for the imagined conditions of the past. What starts as a seemingly easy method of classification and categorization of identity (ethno-religious identity) morphs into something more haunted and consuming – it becomes a potential avenue for self-expression from what is seemingly mundane, the solitariness of modern Western existence.
This adopted ethnicity and culturally identifying heritage, again paraphrasing Bauman, seemingly becomes both a refuge and, in some respects, a weapon in this battle to establish community (Bauman, 58-60). To practitioners of Western polytheist traditions, the most well known representation of this battle is the inclusion and exclusion of groups based on racial “appropriateness” to such a regional religious identity. Typically constrained to geographic locality or ethnic affinity (read: vagaries of whiteness), claims of exclusivity of worship of deity and religious systems are used as bludgeons against those deemed “other”.
In these peoples and in what amounts to constructed religious identities, the past is rectified and amplified, something which is ultimately enhanced. But it is also simultaneously antiquated and modernized, familiarized but exoticized, and adapted to present conditions while clinging to memories and desires of what is overall an imaginary, out of touch, people. Descartes wrote that “Even the most famous histories that neither change nor argument the significance of things to make them more readable, almost always omit the most commonplace and least striking events, thereby distorting what they leave in.” (Descartes, 51-2).
What can one then expect from Western polytheists who are working to rebuild and revivify the idea of religious worship from spot-welded, incomplete histories and accountancy, rife with preconceived notions and influenced by external themes? Beneath the surface of doing so is the risk of creating a mythic past, encouraging the persistent error of understanding. No matter how unintentionally, it is a mythic past which is both indebted to, and ripe for, the misuse by romanticist, ethno-natonalist designs.
Intentions aside, this type of identity building is ultimately an act of anachronistic appropriation. It is the definition and constraining of one’s religious identity typified by delineations of a people not one’s own. This identity, so often, proves itself to be an inexact fit within the world-as-it-exists, leading practitioners to question their role in their religion, their religion’s role within their lives. Questions relating to piety, to acts of worship, and to ritual efficacy are instead trumped by feelings of inadequacy of self, of being less-than-perfect at whichever polytheistic enactment one has decided upon, which then reinforce the belief that one is not good at, does not belong to their religious practice. Or, damningly, that their religious practice doesn’t exist in a real and tangible sense.
Western polytheistic edifices, constructed around incomplete and romantic notions of ancient peoples, yet at the same time eschewing modern labels and identities in favor of a seemingly nostalgic past will continue to suffer repeated identity crises, and continue to proffer themselves as an ultimately empty space. To paraphrase Catherine Karkov from her book Imagining Anglo-Saxon England (Karkov, 216), this “retro”-migration leads directly into a form of Bauman’s retrotopia of tribalist identity, one which does little to instill the importance of true religious veneration, instead only serving to erect arbitrarily drawn borders and influence the conceptions of peoples who came before.
Theirs is a heightened potentiality of developing what amounts to a static ontology (again, paraphrasing Karkov), one which is steeped in perpetuating a melancholic position and image, that is concerned more with authenticity of what amounts to an imaginary ethno-tribalist image than it is concerned with religious enactment.
Western polytheists have the tools at their disposal which can create identity, without resorting to rigid structures of cobbled-together identities mistakenly derived from these ethnonyms which fundamentally act out of step of their day-to-day. Instead of something as trite as being hung up “as a Saxon” and only begrudgingly observing familial birthday celebrations (despite any lacking historicity to the notion), Western polytheists can instead embrace the notion of the divine as truly autonomous beings worthy of worship, of elaborating worldviews and philosophies and applying those to their daily lives, of disavowing the makings of problematic and romanticized constructs which can be used for ethnic hierarchies and ideologies, and, most importantly, not looking back in order to find their voice, but look forward towards a more holistic and encompassing, inclusive, expression.
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