The Problem of Apples, Pt. IV: The Problem of Apples

•June 6, 2017 • 6 Comments

Author’s Note: This is the fourth part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

The sum of this entire discussion is what amounts to the “Problem of Apples” – the problem of a broadly reductionistic association between deities of wildly different spheres of cultural and religious matters and meanings.  Though many polytheistic restorations and revivals make similar claims in regards to the reduction of divinity, Heathenry appears to be unique in the frequency with which it is engaged.  In some cases, it appears to be the passive reaction to the concept of pluralistic divinity.  It is an act of modern convenience and an anachronistic prevalence that serves little apparent purpose in light of the discrepancies of etymology, iconography, and other socio-cultural contexts.  As has been shown, all of these elements are broadly positioned by their role in the religious and social culture, and all inform the religious hypotheses and experiences of their individual systems.

In the case of the conflation of Ēastre with Iðunn, we see dissimilar deities inorganically melded together for little apparent purpose.

Within contemporary Western polytheism there is much to-do that is made about the implications of negative appropriation and appropriative acts, crafting a double standard in terms of reception towards the inclusion of divinity.  It appears that these appropriative actions which are performed within something like the Heathen cultural group – within the wider Germanic foundational culture – are not critiqued in any meaningful way as being inherently deleterious to identity.  This paper has endeavored to show that care must necessarily be taken in the forced association of deities with such vastly different scopes and roles.

Traditional indigenous European polytheism, which ultimately anchors these Western restorations, was a highly mutable concept of divinity; deities would go through several localizations, redefinitions, and other gradual changes.  This culture was never static, as should be expected within any meaningful living system.  Appropriations were common between different cultural groups – various cults made their way around the Mediterranean basin through conquest and trade.  This is easily seen throughout the spectrum of Indo-European and Indo-Iranian religions when new aspects of divinity were codified, as well as the dissolution of older concepts that had once circled around the identity of the god.  These all melded their divinity in inherently different ways.

In some cases this metamorphosis was encouraged by new aspects of deification entering the (particularly local) mythology of the individual deity.  Other deities experienced the removal or the loss of their functional foci, which inherently altered the understanding of the deity in question.  Syncretism, the act in which deities were correlated and commingled within an alternative cultural paradigm, is an almost inherent part of polytheistic identity and absolutely happened within these traditional cultures.  Dissolution, likewise, was not uncommon.

We can see this metamorphosis even within the Germanic system, despite the paucity of information that we have.  The recognition of two deities within the Norse polytheistic paradigm, that of Frigg and Freyja, is an example of this.  Earlier Germanic peoples, it is commonly argued, understood the role of the singular divinity (originating in the Proto-Germanic *Frijjō).  Through the dissolution of the functional foci and the change, this unity was dispersed between two Nordic deities.

Within the polytheistic system, these are all valid interpretations and experiences within the realm of hierophany and the experience of the numinous.

The theology of syncretic belief is, however, deeply nuanced and extends beyond simple equation of deities and their equivalencies (or not) within their culture.  It encompasses a detailed understanding of divinity that is unfamiliar to many modern polytheists, either through their inculcation from other belief systems or due to a lack of resources for more accurate study.  The case of the conflation of Ēastre and Iðunn serves no apparent syncretic purposes in a religious culture.  It was born not from an organic or identified need, but an easily understood comparison and appropriation between deities because of a fundamental deficiency in Heathen understanding of polytheistic theology.  

It is this deficiency which should be endeavored to be recognized.

An important point to consider is the overall status of Western polytheism in its present state as an organized attempt at restoration.  As decentralized as it is, it still maintains an identity of necessity as a minority religious culture beneath a more domineering paradigm.  The comparatively young age of these restored/reinterpreted traditions necessitate care in divine appropriation, and the role of divinity within the various expressions of polytheistic theology should be considered in light of this.  While the modern trend of Globalization and the rapid exchange of ideas has fundamentally altered the manner in which information is disseminated and adopted – creating a culture almost reminiscent of traditional cosmopolitan ethos that support the commingling of ideas – it has opened up ever-greater risks for the erasure of tradition.

There was an implicit understanding of the essential nature of the divine that amounted to a wholesale cultural acceptance that pervaded every layer of society that was so concerned.  This understanding extended to those instances of syncretic development and tendencies towards religious amalgamation.  This enabled syncretic deities to exist alongside the common conceptions of their “constituent parts”, with little in the way of potential erasure.  Even when the divinity of one deity was ultimately subsumed by another (as in the case of Rome and Quirinus/Romulus) the recognition of the essential qualities and foci of the subsumed deity persisted.

Western Heathen polytheism, a modern practice which exists beneath the fairly hegemonic monotheistic cultural force of Protestant theology, does not maintain this basic understanding of divinity on an inherently understood level.  It must ultimately be reoriented and redeveloped.  The threat of erasure of these arguably minority restored traditions and beliefs by the larger mass is very real, especially when done out of convenience or an ignorance of theological concerns.  The false perception of a singular Heathen identity only serves to reinforce this potentially disrupting and diminishing paradigm.  

Reductionist theology, for a lack of a better term, isn’t the pluralistic understanding which most traditional polytheistic theologies are known for.  It is ultimately the product of an incomplete and haphazard theological understanding, one which possesses an inherently limiting effect on one’s exploration of the vibrancy of polytheistic worship.  Understanding the multiple nuances of divinity from functional foci, to innate contexts that intersect their expression within the religion, to a myriad of other discussion which are ultimately beyond the scope of this paper, are crucial to the proper expression of religious action and right ritualism.

Misunderstanding these concepts impacts more than simple acceptance of differing deities.  They potentially risk significant repercussions within the very structure of the religious enactment itself.  The end result is not an offense to practitioners, but a fundamentally dangerous mistake in the performance of ritual – one which possesses theological consequences.

Associating Ēastre with Iðunn due to these theological implications does nothing to further the cult worship of either and instead reduces a characteristically Anglo-Saxon deity to subservient and lackluster role under a more dominant cultural force.  Heathens who are of differing cultural orientations from the Anglo-Saxon exegesis are more than capable of (if not encouraged in) engaging in Ēastre’s cult; this is not an admonition of worship or an attempt at “divine gatekeeping” in this regard.  

What this is constitutes a discussion on the realities of realistic syncretism and divine commingling in light of concerns with proper practice and religious sensitivity.  Ritualism and orthopraxis ultimately imply a correct form of ritual and practical action, a guide to religious enactment and the proper approach of divinity.  Heathenry, if it continues to be mired in these reductionist tendencies, will never be able to fully embrace its polytheistic quality of religious theology and remain a stunted and lackluster expression of belief.


The Problem of Apples, Pt. III: Words, Icons, and Apples

•June 6, 2017 • 1 Comment

Author’s Note: This is the third part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

In the last entry we discussed the concept of approaching the deity in terms of their functional status within society, as well as detailing some of the pitfalls in a methodology that seeks to look at the religious tradition outside of the social and cultural structure in which it was found.  In this we will endeavor to delve into the background of either deity and discuss how Ēastre and Iðunn compare in deeper terms.

Linguistically and etymologically, the words which came to describe both goddesses are unrelated, and do not come from words of similar root meanings.  Though the reconstruction of linguistic lineages is based on comparative analysis they are still only theoretical, they nevertheless provide useful clues for the understanding of divinity and divine relations.  

The etymological lineage for Iðunn is particularly lacking, and only a handful of name-meanings have been suggested by various scholars [10].  Jacob Grimm associated her name with the Old Saxon idisi, of which the Old Norse dís is a North Germanic cognate [11].  Old Norse dís, meaning “goddess”, is thought to be derived from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *dīsiz, meaning “goddess”, itself from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European *dʰēs-, taken to mean “holy one, hallow, deity” [12].  This association is, however, unsubstantiated and is at best a hypothetical and as-of-yet unproved theory.

Conversely, the etymology of Ēastre/Eostre has been treated at length variously by scholars in attempt to prove her origination one way or another, whether pan-Germanic, regional, or a simple fabrication of Bede.  Ēastre “is thought to have evolved from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *austrǭ, for “dawn”, which is variously argued to be of uncertain lineage from Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“dawn”) or *h₂wes- (“to dawn”) [13].  Any permutation of linguistic ancestry denotes references to the dawn, the act of dawning, a reddish or bright coloration, etc.  An interesting point of consideration is the related term *austraz (“east, dawn”) which also derives itself from the Proto-Indo-European *h₂ews- (“east”), which may intimate less of a dawn-based facet to Ēastre and more of a directionally oriented one, as the assumption that Ēastre is potentially related to a linguistic shift from the Old English word “ēast” [14].

Comparative etymological study with Ēastre is critical, for Jacob Grimm utilized the naming convention for his popularization of an Old High German Ostarâ in his etymological deconstruction of the then still-used ôstarmânoth.  This Ostarâ is familiar to many contemporary Heathens and Pagans as the Goddess most worshiped on the Spring Equinox.  His ultimate etymological recreation was *austrǭ, already mentioned [15].

Supporters of the etymological connections between Ēastre and a German continental  contemporary point to a remarkable discovery of a series of 150 votive objects discovered in the vicinity of modern day Bonn, Germany.  These votives date from the 2nd to 3rd centuries, and have all been dedicated to a series of regional deities known as the Matronae Austriahenae [16].  Their use in the argument for the support of a pan-Germanic goddess necessitates a brief discussion here.

Initial printings of some of the inscriptions occurred in 1960, but a secondary printing occurred in 1962 containing the following:





S • E • S • L • M

“To the Mothers Austriahenae, M. Antonius Sentius, for him and his, gladly and deservedly.”[17]

The similarities between “Austria” in the Austriahenae with Grimm’s austrǭ (and thus with Ēastre) should be readily seen.  The apparent etymological connection between the Matronae Austriahenae and Ēastre appears to satisfy most in the exploration of any continental antecedents to this putative goddess.  Here we have to return again to the etymology of Ēastre as it is supposedly associated with *austrǭ which is, as a term in Shaw’s estimation, consisting of the root to be “east”.  As stated above, these terms are clearly related, but by no means are they cognates nor are they identical or possess any features which would indicate a commonality of association [18].

Given the uncertain suffix of -henae, which is only assumed to correlate with the Latin suffix of -ium and thus denoting a place, it would perhaps not be unwise to assume that the Matronae Austriahenae to be the ‘Mothers of the East’, or “the eastern most people”, perhaps those surrounding the legionary fortress of Bonna.  This is circumstantially supported by Shaw’s interpretation of the existence of the Austriates as a social or tribal group [19].  

In light of this, the assumed correlation of Ēastre with *austrǭ is apparently unfounded.  Shaw further, following Sermon and McKitterick, supports the influence of a more unconventional method of transmission of Ēastre/Ēostre-influenced names into the Old High German which gave rise to Grimm’s Ostarâ and ostarâmânoth.  It is not at all implausible that conversion activity in the region, undertaken by Anglo-Saxon missionaries who repeatedly requested the treatises of Bede and his contemporaries from their Northumbrian colleagues for a lengthy period of time, helped disseminate the material and was not indicative of a pan-Germanic goddess figure [20].  This is an opinion that the author holds.

With the differences in etymological lineage established, some word should be said about presumed and inherent iconographies between both of these deities.  Iconography and image remnants are another significant batch of evidence in the understanding of the divine.  Again, these are particularly under-attested for the lesser known Anglo-Saxon deities and only assumed through their roles in society and estimated cults; the epigraphic corpus is unfortunately scant.  There are no known native depictions of Ēastre in an Anglo-Saxon context, and the images alluded to her cult in particular are based off of comparative study with the festivals of the period of the year of Ēostremonath from Germanic and Germanic-adjacent peoples [21].

Comparatively, there is merit to the idea in order to develop a more thorough understanding of the cult of a deity, as this forms the basis of reconstructionist methodology.  It is often utilized in polytheistic practices to fill in the holes that may be had through the shoddy material record.

Ēastre is linked with Iðunn through the assumption of iconographic similarity with other Northern European goddesses, notably the connection to the Matronae Austriahenae.  As a whole, the Matronae tend to consist of similar iconography, with fruit often being associated with deities particularly concerned with fertility, wealth, and plenty, as well as who they bless with their good fortune.  As Ēastre has been commonly and paradoxically characterized as a spring or fertility goddess, the assumption is that fruit is a valid representative symbol for her.  

At best, this is tenuous, as there are a number of concerns regarding the proliferation of apples and their role in early Germanic society from which the Old English came.

Iðunn is inextricably associated with a specific iconography which has become intrinsically representative of her mythology: that of the apple, and her role in the maintenance of the divine youth of the gods.  This iconography is itself thought to be a representative remnant of a fundamental Proto-Indo-European mythological construct, as the origination of it in the North Germanic mythos is uncertain.  Whatever the origin of this, Iðunn herself is an enigmatic figure of an uncertain linguistic etymology.  H.R. Ellis-Davidson claims it was possible that her figure was an extra-Germanic origin and later borrowing, identifying both the Celtic West (Ireland) or the classical world as probable transmitters of the myth [22].  The latter classical influence would be in mimicry of the Garden of the Hesperides.  Davidson also claims that fruit had a long association with the gods in traditional Germanic paganism and particularly notes that the apple is representative of this [23], although this line of inquiry appears to be largely unrecoverable.

Iðunn’s account in the Skáldskaparmál mirrors other Indo-European mythologies centered around the iconography of apples, replicating in a certain capacity through Greek and Irish mythology primarily and forming the basis of Davidson’s claims of mythological transmission.  Indo-European myth contains several references to the incidence of apples, as explored in Roger Woodard’s book To Fetch Some Golden Apples.  Variously identified as apples, quinces, or oranges, these iconographic features have become a staple of mythological convention, most common to modern Westerners through the Biblical narrative of the Garden of Eden, although the role of the apple is inherently different.

It is ironic that those who would utilize Dumézil ’s functionalist approach for linguistic commonality would be willing to take a less-literal position to this mythological iconography and assume that representations of apples are not in actuality supposed to represent apples.  If apples are Iðunn’s most recognizable feature – who fundamentally is identified as a fertility and rejuvenatory goddess [24], then some commonality in representation should occur.   The lack of the emphasis, indeed, the lack of an identifiable role of the apple in early Germanic society as a whole, casts some doubt on the pan-Germanic association that Davidson would otherwise claim.

Native apples have grown wild in Britain since the Neolithic period, however these were crab apples consisting of a particularly bitter flavor for much in the way of culinary use.  They were sparsely scattered, as well, as they were of an anti-gregarious tree type which limited their proliferation [25].  The Mediterranean had known more palatable varieties of apple since at least the time of the Greeks, having been introduced to them through trade contacts in the Ancient Near East.  These fruits entered into the epics and mythologies, making their appearance in Classical literature by being featured in Homer’s Odyssey.  Eventually, like much of the Germanic world, the introduction of these apple varieties and their system of cultivation came about through the influence and settlement of the Romans [26].

The Roman withdrawal from Britain saw the abandonment or degradation of much of the classical infrastructure and cultural traditions which had taken hold during the period of the Roman administration.  In particular, this included the tending of apple orchards and, presumably, the knowledge of their propagation as the Germanic tribes which pushed into Britain had no known understanding of this agriculture [27].

This lack of awareness of the use and cultivation of the apple in Anglo-Saxon England is presumed by a distinct lack of the appearance of what would be identified as a modern apple – or products made of that fruit – in the Anglo-Saxon food-rent lists [28].  While the Old English language did contain a word which gives rise to the modern word for “apple” (“æppel”) it was used as a general term for fruit of all types, as was the case with the blackberry (“brembel æppel”).  It was not until the end of the Anglo-Saxon period where accounts can be found of the general cultivation of fruit in what can be identified as orchards (“orceard”), with the apple being reintroduced into Britain by the Normans after the Conquest and, even then, consisting of only one account within the Domesday Book [29].

The apple as either literal or metaphorical theological symbol arises only within a Norse context, and is not generally found within a wider Germanic exegesis.  Religious symbols, broadly, retain two particular purposes: practical and representational interpretations.  This is obviously how they interact within the wider community and the role that they take in what is considered performative acts as compared with how the symbols are thrown back to the religious object or belief in question and are containing representative qualities [30].  Of course, theological symbolism is inherently difficult to interpret as this thinking is highly contextual, easily misinterpreted, and consists of varying qualities of implied and ascribed meaning.  These meaning-contexts are subtle, as are the ways in which these constructs are portrayed.

In the Republic, Plato first asserted that it was mainly through repetition and imitation in which the spiritual parts of the soul is educated – that is, the ways in which one’s religiosity and spiritual paradigm were inculcated.  This is in contrast to the ways in which one’s desires and rationality are likewise informed [31].  These symbols can both be divine hypotheses and representations of the devotion of the worshiper, which are only realized through proper cultural interpretation.  Repetition and imitation would imply a reoccurrence of imagery, which is woefully under represented in Anglo-Saxon art, mythology, and society, as shown.  

What is shown is that on all the levels that have been discussed – the linguistic, symbolic, and iconographic – that there is truly no connection or similarities between the two deities other than in the most superficial of ways.  Even the connection to the Matronae Austriaheae are weak attempts at forcibly fitting the evidence into the hypothesis that Grimm had previously championed.  These features, seemingly innocuous and artifacts of their time and place in history, are absolutely important to the proper understanding of the context of divinity so that one can engage ritually with them.

Endnotes, pt. III

[10] John Lindow, in Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (2001) gives her meaning as ‘Ever Young’, while Andy Orchard in Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend (1997) gives as Iðunna’s meaning ‘Rejuvenator’.  Rudolf Simek in Dictionary of Northern Mythology (2007) gives the meaning of her name to be ‘The Rejuvenating One’.  A clear connection to the mythology of her being the guardian of the Asgardian youth and immortality is apparent.

[11] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. I (London: George Bell and Sons, 1882) p. 402.

[12] Wiktionary. “dís.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified May 25 2017, accessed May 17, 2017.

[13] Wiktionary.  “Easter.” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary. Last modified March 25, 2017, accessed: May 17 2017.

[14] Wiktionary. “Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/austraz”, Wiktionary: The Free Dictionary.  Last modified March 27, 2017.  Accessed May 17, 2017.

[15] Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. I, p. 291.

[16] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.  No images of the iconography of the Matronae Austriahenae have been published. It is presumed that they were of a similar iconographic continuum with other Matronae figures found throughout the Continent, of which their association with “fruit” (and thus, apples) is assumed.  This is especially notable in traditions that seek to reconstruct a pre-Germanic Proto-Indo-European religious identity as found with the PIE Religion website at:

[17] Alfred Merlin (ed.), “Item 99”, l’Annee Epigraphique, Presses Universitaires de Frances, Paris, 1963.  Elaboration by author.

[18] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.

[19] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 63.

[20] Shaw, Pagan Goddesses, p. 54.  This naturally intersects with Shaw’s theory that Bede revived the “character” of Ēastre in the writing of his works.

[21] Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Trans. James Stallybrass, Vol. II (London: George Bell and Sons, 1883) p. 380.

[22] H.R. Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 165.

[23] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[24] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[25] Contributors, “A Brief History of Apples and Pears in UK”, English Apples & Pears, accessed May 17, 2017.

[26] Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 165.

[27] Peter C. Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”, Ða Engliscan Gesiðas: The English Companions, March 18, 2011, accessed May 17, 2017,

[28] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[29] Horn, “Alcoholic Drinks of the Anglo-Saxons”.

[30] Robert C. Neville, The Truth of Broken Symbols, (New York City: SUNY Press, 1996), p. 135.

[31] Plato, The Republic.  See books 2 and 3, respectively.


Part IV can be found here.

The Problem of Apples, Pt. II: Function

•June 5, 2017 • 3 Comments

Author’s Note: This is the second part of a four part entry for “The Problem of Apples”.

Previously, we have been introduced to the idea that Heathenry, as a modern polytheistic religious restoration, contains within itself an inherent deficiency in regards to polytheistic theology.  In this section we will approach concepts of divine functionality and approach a number of influences that impact what is considered the “function” of a god within its context.

Divine concepts are often and commonly related to functional spheres of control “possessed” by the divinity in question.  This is one of the key characteristics of polytheistic and animistic religious identity, and in this Heathenry is no different.  Recognition of these functional and spatial foci was of the utmost importance and constituted a defining feature of the polytheistic religious system. These were not static, but fluid: a deity which was associated with “wine” might, on specific days, be associated with the “vintage” or other, broader, agricultural concerns in conjunction with “wine” [4].  In this way the deity “of wine” is truly not focused just on “wine”.

It needs to be remembered that these people, however, understood their gods within the contexts of their polytheistic environs.  Western civilization has largely been supported by a religiously exclusivist position: that of hegemonic monotheistic Christianity and the idea of divine functional exclusivity.  The fluidity of polytheistic identity, as it was understood in its own context, enabled the transmission of multiple deities despite having similar or dissimilar foci and selectiveness.  A deity could travel from Egypt to Greece to Rome and never truly be an outsider to any system because it was inherently anchored in polytheistic identity as a concept, although the cults might emphasize different qualities.  They had no need to be changed to fit the system, so long as they could be anchored into the system they were being moved to through the use of functional (cultural role) and spatial (cultic locations) foci.

The West, mired in a tradition focused around the nameless, formless, and above all hegemonic concept of the Judaeo-Christian ‘god’ has lost the implicit understandings of the polytheistic system and the ability to conceive of these gods, their functional foci, and how to approach the re-engagement with a polytheistic identity.  Their emphasis on the function of the deity is sanitized, much in the same way that the concept of do ut des was reduced through the application of Pauline theology to a mere business exchange between worshiper and divinity [5].

This lessening of polytheistic identity under this hegemonic force has lead to a simplistic understanding of the divinity, and Heathenry is in particular no exception.  These functional foci which form a core aspect of that religious identity have been placed to the side in favor of well ordered lists that offer one dimensional “god of..” functions, with the invariable result of being subsumed into the facets of other deities with the loss of these foci and theological understandings.  To identify them strictly by their function reduces deities to mere actions, and ignores important facets to the understanding of their perfection and essence [6].  

We see this mirrored in various social scientific disciplines, including the study of Classical history.  Notably driven by the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the 20th century, the idea that Mediterranean religion (particularly in this instance the study of Roman religion) was “sanitized” was common.  It was presented as a joyless, soulless religious expression, being portrayed as an emotionless transaction not unlike a client and patron.  What is lost in this strict concern with the sanitized, contextless function is the character of piety.  This, of course, informed the later approach to these “primitive” non-Christian religions.

Though it existed and pervaded scholarship prior to the publication of his works, Georges Dumézil popularized a particularly structuralist and culturally functionalist approach to Proto-Indo-European culture, which investigated the spread of concepts regarding culture and divine.  His interpretation of this theory was most elaborately published in his work L’idéologie tripartite des Indo-Européens, which was published in 1959 and had been built off of his earlier works Flames-Brahman and Mitra-Varuna, published in both 1929 and 1940 respectively.  

Conceptually, the theory devoted itself originally to the functions of Proto-Indo-European cultural development and expression, but was later expanded to include those representative divinities associated with those social and cultural groups.  In essence, each social group had a representative god or group of god-families which matched it in functional role (eg. groups of deities concerned with the priestly, warrior, and common social classes).  Dumézil and those bearing the torch of his tripartite hypothesis sought to apply this theory in a contemporaneous sense throughout the breadth of the studies concerning the Indo-European cultural spectrum.

What is found is that religion and culture are indelibly more nuanced than Dumézil would otherwise portray.

While popular, this functionalist approach nevertheless fails within the parameters of its own methodological concerns; most important to remember is that linguistic affinity does not necessarily lead to the existence of an expected conceptual affinity.  If we approach Dumézil’s theory heuristically, the lack of these concepts in action and, more specifically, the lack of any known mutual tripartite cultural structures cast significant doubts on the validity of this popular flagship theory [7].  It quite simply exists as a theory and has not been found to be replicated in cultural reality.

Despite this, the limited idea of the function of divinity, the role of the divine within a culture as it pertains to the reflection of society, remains well-entrenched within both secular academic scholarship and contemporary polytheistic research.  Often, deities are reduced down to their basic components within the culture in which they are found, for ease of interpretation or dissemination or for a plethora of other reasons.  In other religious fields, the functionalist approach to exploring the divine has been slowly replaced by other – more sociological – approaches.  

Specifically important in this instance is the academic approach of Émile Durkheim in viewing the religion from the perspective of the society, rather than viewing society from a series of postulated theoretical categories and attempting to fit the religion into that theory [8].  We find that the true understanding of the role of the “function” of a god is not just in the “of..” qualities or the associated sphere, but in the effects of social and religious forces.  The sphere of a deity’s true foci is impacted and informed by qualities of tradition, social adjustments, etymology, and other developments between analogous deities, which confer importance in many cases into both the private and public spheres [9].  This approach has only been employed by the late 20th century, and largely only within an academic sense.  It is rare to find its mirror within the largely academically-adjacent polytheist reconstructionist communities.

In terms of Heathen polytheistic approach towards the reconstruction of religiosity there is still a great deal of concern maintained around the apparent function of the divine, and the resultant role that the deities had in society.  This is ultimately exacerbated by the comparatively small population of known deities in the Germanic world.  The lack of divinities, as compared with the other larger and more established polytheistic traditions of Eurasia means that a reconstructionist understanding will ultimately suffer in its execution.

Engaging in reconstructionist methodology is ultimately an exercise in empiricism, built upon a continuum of linguistic, historic, and extra-historical academic disciplines in order to inform the practical foundations of the revival that is Heathenry.  In most cases it begins with approaching any literary sources which remain known to scholarship.  In a Heathen context, this research results in an unfortunately limited scope of information, necessitating the inquest of researchers in other directions.  The secondary and tertiary stops for Heathen reconstructionism are generally etymological and material remains, in either order.  These inquiries are nevertheless of supreme importance to the piecing together of religious practice, let alone concepts of divinity, from the fragmented sources which have survived the passage of time.

In the case of the erroneous comparison of Ēastre with Iðunn even a cursory glance of either aspect will show that there is little to no association between the two deities which exist other than the most superficial and circumstantially reductive ways.  That is what will be approached in the next section.

Endnotes, Part II:

[4] Michael Lipka, Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach, (Boston: Leiden, 2009) p. 67.

[5] Lipka, Roman Gods, p. 4.

[6]  James R. Harrison, Paul’s Language of Grace in Its Graeco-Roman Context, (C.B. Mohr, 2003), p. 284.  This discussion on perfection as it concerns a divine unity (and thus a mischaracterization as reductionist monotheistic tendencies) is in part explored from a particularly Platonic perspective in Edward Butler, “Polycentric Polytheism and the Philosophy of Religion,” in Essays on a Polytheistic Philosophy of Religion,  (New York City: Phaidra Editions, 2012), p. 74.

[7] Lipka, Roman Gods, p. 4.

[8] Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Carol Cosman (London: Oxford, 2001) pgs. 154, 318.  This approach was particularly championed by Max Weber and Pierre Bourdieu.

[9] Lipka, Roman Gods, p. 69.


Part III can be found here.

The Problem of Apples

•June 3, 2017 • 17 Comments

Author’s Note: The length of this article got too big for a comfortable readership on the format of this blog, and so I have broken it up into four parts which will be released consecutively.  Endnotes will be released along with each part, but will maintain a running total throughout all four parts consecutively.  If there is demand, I will format it properly into a .pdf for future use.

Heathenry’s approach to conceptions of divinity is unnecessarily limited and self-curtailing, despite being a reconstructed polytheistic revivalist religion.  Evidence most often used within Heathen reconstruction generally consists of literary, material, toponymic, or folkloric elements and despite the value of these disciplines, the material with which Heathens have to reconstruct the knowledge of their religious fundamentals is limited. This is especially true when compared to the restoration of other polytheistic traditions.  The paucity of this information appears to reinforce a an unwillingness in exploring new theological perspectives outside of a few specialized corners.  The end result is a narrow, stunted, and misinformed interpretation of divinity that is transmitted into the general Heathen population.

When the idea of “Heathenry” is brought up in discussion, it  is often done so in terms of a singular religious monolith.  This is excusable perhaps from the position of viewing it as a new religious movement and one that is still getting its religious identity and basic foundation built underneath it.  In this regard, a singular religious identity is often easier to work with, especially concerning the development of comprehensive ideas and their eventual transmission.  

Religiously, of course, Heathen practice and belief are both descended from a continuum of common religious ancestry that of the related Germanic cultures.  These cultures themselves are indebted to both Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo-European antecedents and share some similarities.  As a result common themes exist across the spectrum of Heathen religious identity, in some cases a mirror of common cultural themes shared between the Germanic peoples of the pre-Christian era.  This similarity of expression is what ultimately provides for a mutually intelligible religious dialogue between practitioners, regardless of the historic cultural expression of choice.

Yet the cultural expressions which form a core component to any individual Heathen religious practice nevertheless have an understated impact on that resulting practice.  Composed of linguistic considerations, geographic influences, or cultural and historic divergences, these factors are just as inherently important in the identification of a unique religious tradition and often help to separate the identity of one practice from another.  It is ultimately what marks a difference between a Heathen with an emphasis on Anglo-Saxon practices and a Heathen who focuses on Norse practices.

It is an unfortunate fact that these unique expressions and developments are often placed to the wayside in the discussion of the religion.  They are most often ignored, either in favor of advancing the religious understanding of the whole of the religion, or due to some other consideration.  

These cultural mores and historic interpretations are, at best, treated as extraneous hangers-on in the discussion of Heathenry in a communal space.  They exist as a cultural ‘skin’, draped around the common skeleton of identifiable “Heathen” practice and belief, but are ultimately viewed as an aesthetic with no true formative distinctions.  Despite an ever-increasing willingness within modern Heathenry to embrace the uniqueness of regional variations of Heathen identity, this tendency remains unfortunately common in the public sphere.

At worst, and all the more frequently, these cultural differences are ignored or simply subsumed under the most dominant cultural paradigm in Heathenry, eg. Eddic or Nordic Heathenry.  Worse yet, some of these cultural differences are cherry picked or negatively appropriated into the larger, creating an untenable and unstable pan-Germanic morass.  The end result limits and diminishes the even-more minority expressions in favor of the wider dissemination of information for appeal and consumption in public.

In some cases this practice is innocuous and ultimately harmless: instead of referring to urðr it is commonly known by the Old English wyrd.  The two terms and two interpretations are close enough that referring to it as either does neither harm, although their expressions may differ somewhat within their cultures of origin.

In other cases it is a more deleterious force in regards to the traditional understanding of individual group identity.  This is often the case with the Anglo-Saxon deity Ēastre (Ēostre), who is perhaps the most well known of the native pre-Christian deities of Anglo-Saxon England who does not have an identified mirror elsewhere.  Due to the association of her name with the Christian observance of Easter (Pascha), she has become a popular entree into general Heathen consciousness, having been lifted out of her native Anglo-Saxon context and embraced by Heathens regardless of their own cultural orientations.  This is done despite having little in the way of external identifiable reflection in much of the wider Germanic linguistic and etymological corpus.

Ultimately, Ēastre is an enigmatic and putative figure.  She exists only in a Christian recording of contemporary month names, and is generally associated with the coming dawn, and contemporaneously with the Spring and fertility [1].  

The veracity of these accounts or the existence of this figure is not the focus of this piece and will not be discussed here, despite there being some debate to this end in both Heathen and academic circles.  Suffice to say, Philip A. Shaw’s work Pagan Goddesses in the Early Germanic World provides a compelling argument for the figure’s historic existence – albeit in a far more limited scope and minor divine role than commonly portrayed in Heathen religion.  It is that perspective which is used here.

This enigmatic nature has both benefited and hindered the development of Ēastre’s cult and, more importantly, has encouraged her appropriation into extra-Anglo-Saxon cultural enactments.

As an Anglo-Saxon deity – or, rather, a deity arising strictly within a native Anglo-Saxon cultural Context – Ēastre is contextually very much a suitable representation of the conditions of early pre-Christian England as well as of the people who venerated her.  She fits into the Anglo-Saxon worldview through her positions as a near-tutelary goddess and representative divinity of her group of people [2].  In comparison, she is markedly out of place within the wider community of pan-cultural Heathens, given their focus on Norse and Icelandic cultural lore, or the even smaller Germanic cultural groups drawing their traditions from the Continent.  In order to fit, her figure has taken on roles which it did not originally have.

Those changes are similarly not up for discussion.

Regardless of her adoption outside Anglo-Saxon circles, Ēastre is  nevertheless wedged into a pan-Germanic Heathen identity.  This is most often done in a reductive association with the Norse deities of Frigg, Sif, or even Iðunn [3].  All of these conflations are problematic and inexact in their interpretation and etymologically false, providing no baseline for the association between the figures.  For the purposes of this discussion, the conflation of Ēastre with Iðunn will be the focus of the piece.  In this way we will see how an incorrect equivalency will not only harm the understanding of the cults of the deities in question, but also perpetuate poor history and effectively whitewash a minority perspective within a larger, dominating culture.

Endnotes, Part I:

[1] Bede, De Temporum Ratione.  “Eosturmonath has a name which is now translated “Paschal month”, and which was once called after a goddess of theirs named Eostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month. Now they designate that Paschal season by her name, calling the joys of the new rite by the time-honoured name of the old observance.”

[2] Philip A. Shaw, Pagan Goddess in the Early Germanic World: Eostre, Hreda and the Cult of the Matrons, (London: Bristol Classic Press, 2011) p. 70.

[3] “Edmund”, r/Pagan Discord message to the author, February 8, 2017.


Part II can be found here.

The Realization of Polytheism

•June 1, 2017 • 8 Comments

“Religion is ‘a verbal and nonverbal structure of interactions with superhuman being(s).” – Hans Penner, Impasse and Resolution: A Critique on the Study of Religion.

“[Religion is] a convenient label that we use to put together all the ideas, actions, rules, and objects that have to do with the existence and properties of superhuman agents such as God.” – Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought.

“All religions follow the same structural contours.  They invoke supernatural agents to deal with emotionally eruptive existential anxieties, such as loneliness, calamity, and death.  They have malevolent and predatory deities, as well as many benevolent and protective ones.– Scott Atran, “Religion’s Social and Cognitive Landscape”, in Handbook of Cultural Psychology.

“Persons who spent whole days in prayer and sacrifice to ensure that their children should outlive them were termed ‘superstitious’ (from superstes, a survivor), and the word later acquired a wider application. Those on the other hand who carefully reviewed and so to speak retraced all the lore of ritual were called ‘religious’ from relegere (to retrace or re‑read), like ‘elegant’ from eligere (to select), ‘diligent’ from diligere (to care for), ‘intelligent’ from intellegere (to understand); for all these words contain the same sense of ‘picking out’ (legere) that is present in ‘religious.’” – Cicero, De Natura Deorum II.72.


On the surface, despite many numerous differences, definitions of religion are predicated on – or otherwise revolve around – the concept of an identified object of extra-human and “supernatural” quality.  Something which necessarily sets itself apart from nature or is otherwise added to the natural world.  Of course, as a trained anthropologist, as well as a historian who has dealt with religious history quite frequently, religion as a definition genuinely transcends the notion of a mere supernatural qualifier.  Pascal Boyer’s quote, above, is largely comparable to my own internalization and use of the definition of the phenomenon of “human religion”.

This year – 2017 – marks the twentieth year as identifying as a Pagan in the contemporary religious sense.  While I’m not hardly in the running for that being any length of time, I am particularly seasoned.  And as that anniversary draws closer I will do my best to commemorate it.  But, to me, it has always been the pull to the “supernatural”, to the imminency of this religious quality, that gets ascribed to the definition of religion by academics.  I do not feel that the term “supernatural” is wholly appropriate as a description of the quality of the divine, as I view it as pervasive within the natural world.  The description of the gods, the spirits, and other holy powers is diminished through the use of this word, implying that they exist beyond nature – a transcendent quality which informs the greater understanding of “religion”.  It, in some way, simply does not apply.

I am an empiricist.  I have training in two social sciences and rely on qualitative observations and the collection of identified facts in order to orient my deductions and assumptions.  Two of the primary philosophical schools which I ascribe, and which inform my worldview, are Empiricism and Scepticism as they’re understood in the humanistic understanding of the Renaissance, prior to the period of the Enlightenment.  I trust in the scientific method.  I am excited by new discoveries that rewrite our understanding of our place in the cosmos, of evolution, and of the geologic timescale.

As a result of this very logical framework to my training and my approach to life I do not particularly favor coincidence, repetition, and other probable qualities as indication of some greater-than-human force within the world.

And yet, I am an ardent polytheist and animist.  This is because of my experiences in this world, many of which do not have a logical answer.

I suffer from a very mild form of depression, which is being treated.  Who from the millennial generation doesn’t?  That is the extent of any “aberration” to my mental health.  I do not have a history of greater mental health problems in my family.  I do not “crack” under stress.  I am considered healthy and active. Other than a bout of unemployment, I’m productive.  I’ve never done drugs, other than drinking a ton of coffee and socially drinking alcohol.  I’m generally pretty boring.

Why is this laundry list important?  Because they are generally the first qualities which skeptics and atheists look for in the overtly religious, in order to denigrate our intelligence or our actions.  That there’s something wrong with us.  That our intelligence is up to question.  Or we’re inherently inferior.  I find that polytheism receives the brunt of this, because we don’t believe in just one “imaginary friend”, but many.  

But, because of this, I am forced to accept that there is more to the world than what I know and conceivably articulate or explain.  To me, and to my experience, that translates to a multiplicity and plurality of divinity, and an intersection with a world of spirits that I share the space with.  I never “lost” the worldview of my youth, was fortunate that it was never stamped out by over-zealous parents.  I was raised in a fairly a-religious household, with a mother and grandmother who were interested in other religions.

So being a polytheistic Pagan is very much just a natural progression of my life.

But what I learned early on was that being a polytheist – and by that I mean one who doesn’t reduce down the deities into a mere two (or less) beings, or view them as facets and manifestations of the human condition – was very atypical.  I came to Paganism during the heyday of the Llewellyn craze, after the SRA panic settled and Wicca and Paganism were commodified.  After The Craft.  One year before Charmed.  

Paganism, Wicca, and “the supernatural” were suddenly trendy.  Marketable.  

Polytheism, however, was not.  At least, not in the same way.  Our gods were “petty and cruel”, according to the lead-in of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.  They were really aliens, either little grey men or parasitical worm that enslaved worlds, as in Stargate.  Fast forward into the Aughts, and Supernatural, and Loki was really Gabriel and the Gods were all demons.  Or whatever, that show is trash.  While Wicca and Paganism were being rehabilitated (regardless of their accuracy), polytheism languished as a cheap television trope.  Something either blatantly wrong, or the hallmark of primitivism.  (We’ll see if American Gods changes that, but I’m hardly expecting it to).

And, it seemed, that these common themes were repeated in the wider Pagan community in attitudes and reception.  I ventured into the world of online Paganism shortly after I embraced it and what I found was reductionism and reactionary baggage and toxic “free spirited” counterculture.

The Gods are all facets of One God, the Goddesses are all facets of One Goddess.  There were no gods, but a universal divinity towards Nature.  Worship was what Christians did.  The Gods are myths and stories and do not exist.  Spells, spells, spells.  These thoughts, and others, were the common zeitgeist of the collective discussion Paganism.  Discussion was on spells and self-realization and either ego/self-centric or nature-centric practice.  If you believed in [Divinity] you were a Wiccan or a Druid, but always in a reductionist way.  Deity reduced to a Duality or Nature.  Or nothing at all.

If you believed in multiple and independent deities, well, you were wrong.  You were corrected.  The gods were all facets of one universal source, not independent entities.  The same people who said that belief didn’t matter, and that Paganism was focused on action, were the first to cast aspersions were you to go beyond the pale of indoctrinated theology and believe – truly believe – in multiple gods.  

And it’s funny because in my twenty years, that really hasn’t changed.

It’s more accepted now, but polytheism in a Western context is still looked at as aberrant.  It is still openly derided and mocked by those who would claim a part of the community, and expect respect and toleration for their blatantly intolerant views.  It’s been beaten into the Western mind that the Gods are fables, myths, stories, demons, or sheer delusions.  They’re tropes, archetypes, figments of personality, or mental projections.

The great writers of the past who earnestly believed in these beings, who took part in their cults, and who lived these lives, are looked at as relics with little religious value.  The words of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations are viewed as an example of “someone who really didn’t believe” in a polytheistic divinity (Secret: He did), and the modern Stoic Revival distances itself from the religious implications of his words.  In exchange, modern Pagan and Wiccan writers that look at the gods as metaphors are excused, accepted, and lauded.

Can we really argue against an anti-polytheist indoctrination within Contemporary Paganism, even if it is unintentional?  I’m not even sure that it truly can be that unintentional.

Contemporary Paganism is full of people with agendas, like any other human institution.  And it’s not a new feature.  Margot Adler had a very specific view of what she felt should be promoted in the Paganism she wrote about in Drawing Down the Moon.  She was not above reporting false information (Claimed Ray Buckland’s Seax-Wica/Saxon Witchcraft tradition was founded as a “joke” and refused to recant).  It is as full with petty drama as any other community, both in the online and in the offline spheres.  Witch wars were, and still are, a thing – often driven by ego.

And that’s not even getting into the politics.  Woo, boy.

Is the growth of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism an effort to enforce an orthodoxy, a correct belief in the multiplicity of the divine?  The sinister attempts of a cabal to enforce a rigidity designed to trample expression and belief?  Of a rising fundamentalism of religion?  There are many who would portray it that way and who believe it to be that way.

Or is it due to forces that have only really taken hold since the early 2000s?  The growth of online communities connecting people in far-flung areas, to discuss their ideas of worth, value, religion, and belief?  And the realization that there are many more than the dominant culture would otherwise have expected?  A burst of new interests, new changes, new developments, and a maturing community?

The pressure against polytheism within the Contemporary Pagan community bears the hallmarks of a majority population feeling threatened by a vocal minority who are agitating for representation within the demographic.  Accusations that any one space are overrun with the perspective and paradigm, false portrayals and misrepresentative accounts of the group in order to discredit the whole.  Accounts are diminished in ways that would rile people up if it was done to the indigenous folk religions of other peoples.

Since 2012-2013, we’ve largely seen some of that representation.  The Wild Hunt now refers to “the polytheism community” (itself a problematic term, but that’s another story).  Initiatives like Polytheist.Com were launched, although apparently now deceased.  Devotional and theological anthologies treating the deities with due reverence, honor, and respect are published frequently, taking advantage of more affordable small-scale publishing and print on demand services (although Neos Alexandria as an organization predates this by several years).  There were talks of the establishment of polytheistic Pagan conventions.  We first had the Polytheist Leadership Conference, from which spun out Many Gods West.  

(Still hoping on a Many Gods East, or comparable meetup.)

The theological beauty of polytheism is that it is inherently pluralistic.  It can coexist with a variety of other theological perspectives because it is a non-exclusivist position.  It makes only one universal claim: that the gods exist and those gods number more than two.  The iterations of them are up to the individual religion and context.

It clashes with the assertion of a transcendent deity.  It has problems when people tell us that there are no deities and that we are backwards people believing in a fiction.  It denies our agency and the claims of our legitimacy of practice, and represents an all-too-ethnocentric viewpoint.  The expectation that we are broken, or that we should meekly kowtow to the popular will of an overly reductionistic society, rankles.  The implication that we are only “new” since the turn of the millennium is simply incorrect.

The belief in immanent spirits and deities is an “anthropological universal”, and is one of those features that is widely regarded as consistent across all human cultures.  It has been since the beginning of humanity, and is thought to be represented in our closest hominid relatives.  Our belief is not “new”, even if our contemporary practice is.

If polytheism has one universal quality that it asserts, it is that the gods and spirits exist.  They simply are.  They don’t need to have their detractors believe in them.  Their worshipers need to not have people try to silence them.

To Those Erecting Fallacious Political Strawmen in Response to My Last Post

•May 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Alfred Glasses

The Marginalization of Polytheists in the Public Sphere of Paganism

•May 28, 2017 • 7 Comments

Of late, there’s been some question as to the position of varying theological Pagan-types within the public (largely Online) sphere of Contemporary Paganism, and the definition of core defining characteristics of Paganism as a contemporary religious umbrella term.  And, what happened to begin with the question about definitions has warped into a general attack on polytheistic theology.  With this, I am putting my hat in the ring and adding my perspective, even though those I’ll be criticizing have already succeeded at getting out numerous tracts since Sunday.

This has been most notably found within discussions (beginning in early April) of the question about whether or not Paganism was both an “earth-centric” religion (as denoted here:  “On “Earth-Based Religions””) or, if Paganism was “dying” as an institution (as denoted here: “Paganism Isn’t Dying; It’s (Finally) Maturing”).  It’s your general, frivolous Pagan drama in its reception.  Both topics are somewhat nuanced, and, I think reflect on the changing demographics and cultural shift of Pagan practitioners.

The death of pan-Pagan institutions, and the changing demographics are absolutely something that needs to be discussed.  And people should absolutely have reasoned debate about it.

However this debate has one notable point that consistently comes to the fore: the reactions of some of the people in the comments section of the second post (“Paganism isn’t Dying”), who have made appearances in other spaces of the public Pagan fora.  These people are those who inherently talk down about polytheistic belief in the public sphere.  People who are, for all intents and purposes, acting like anti-polytheists.  I encourage people to read those comments, to see this in action.

I feel that most people who are getting their dander up about this whole situation, which Hrafnblod of Grennung Hund Hearth has quite willingly provoked, do so because they lack a fundamental ability to critically read the situation of which is being spoken.  That, or they elect to raise purposefully misleading strawman arguments in an attempt to control dialogue and mischaracterize the discussion.  We’ll see a bit of this later.

It should be said that in my experience, most (because I obviously cannot speak for everyone in this matter) polytheists aren’t trying to tell nature-worshipers, deep pantheists, non-specific Druidic practitioners, or whomever else that, by in large, their nature-based practice and interpretation of Paganism is wrong.  They’re trying to expand and move the dialogue of Pagan definition beyond archaic and Romanticized variants of back-to-nature Western philosophy that the 19th Century and the Victorian Era both inculcated within the popular discourse.

Now, I’m of the mind that non-specific nature-based spirituality is a type of Contemporary Paganism.  I’m talking about things like the Hindu-like, Emersonian post-Christian nature spirituality types of Robert Corrington.  Even if they’re influenced by liberal Protestant theology.  But I adamantly do not believe that definition of Paganism as a fundamentally “nature-based religion” is at all applicable as a broadly defining characteristic any more.  That doesn’t mean that it is invalid for all Pagans, though.

And I’m certainly not kicking them out from the table.  I’m certainly not trying to define their religion for them.  I am trying to see that Paganism, as a non-specific descriptor of varying religions, expand accordingly.

I’m trying to establish space for polytheism.  I am not going to go over the timescale of this last debate or discussion, because the roots of this go back further than just these past two months.  I had largely thought it had blown over after the bigger names had said their piece, and certainly seemed to quiet down.  Last Sunday night, however, defecation hit the proverbial rotating oscillator.

I have made my position abundantly clear over the years, but I think perhaps it is best to recount this for some people who may be drawn into this space:

  1. I am a Pagan.  No, really.  I am.  For twenty years this year, even!  But, that’s obvious, right?  Isn’t that why we are all here.  I have a vested interest in the comings and goings of this community.  And despite not being as prolific as others, that nevertheless gives me the right to share in the space.
  2. I am a reconstructionist.  Like, a lot.  Like, a lot-a lot.  But I’m not one who thinks everyone should be a reconstructionist.  It’s a methodology for those who are inclined to do so.  However, I do recognize that a lot of reconstructionist work is used by avowed non-reconstructionists, while reconstructionists themselves are looked down upon.  And I think that this should be rectified.
  3. I am an American, specifically a Northeasterner.  I was born in the 80s.  I am part of the 21st century.  I don’t pretend to be anything else.  I have never said that any bit of my religious expression was anything but a contemporary interpretation of a historic one, modified to the present world.  Very few people in historic or reconstructionist polytheisms will say that what they’re doing is 100% accurate to the past, or believe they can totally revivify what is there.
  4. I am focused on humanity and our intersection with the divine.  After all, we experience divinity, even if it exists without us or our impact. I don’t classify my Paganism as nature-based at all, no more than Rome would be considered a “nature based” civilization because they were subsistence agriculturalists.  And I am not alone – Urbanites, or Cosmopolitan Pagans routinely question their place in Contemporary Paganism with its seeming emphasis on “nature worship” as a descriptor.  And this is something that isn’t going to change any time soon, with the expected 15 million to 20 million new urban dwellers by 2050.  We’re seeing a shift in demographics away from suburbia back towards urban centers.  Let alone the fact that many millennials aren’t looking at being able to afford a house, or land, or whatnot.  All of these need to be considered in the definition of Pagan identity.
  5. I am an unrepentant polytheist and animist.  That should go without saying, if you know anything about me.  I believe in the multiplicity of the divine and the pluralism of the religious spheres through a polytheistic and animistic religious system.  And, as such, I have been targeted by specific rhetoric implying I am religiously and ideologically contaminated.

So let’s talk about the incidence of polytheist marginalization.  Along with other polytheistic faiths (Hinduism, Shinto, etc.), polytheistic Pagans face comparatively more discrimination from the overarching society because of this fundamental disagreement with what is considered an “acceptable” religious orientation.  First we’ll take a look at ways in which society approaches polytheism, especially in regards to the more ‘legitimate’ polytheistic faiths.  Then, we’ll take a look at some of the ways polytheistic experience in Contemporary Paganism is marginalized, and how a certain few attempt to control the narrative in order to diminish what is already an arguably minority population.  

I was going to publish a more formal piece from a more academic view point, so I’ll be drawing a bit of information from this unpublished paper.  

As a religious theory, polytheism is inherently aberrant to modern Western society, with its predominantly Christian cultural foundation.  It has been constantly and externally defined, as is the case of the origination of the term “polytheist” by Philo of Alexandria, to routinely disparaged as primitivist, as by Jesuit missionaries.  In those Western countries which are thoroughly Protestant, I contend that the perception of the aberrance of polytheism is magnified immensely.  I’ll be speaking to this largely from the perspective of an American Pagan although I have personally had discussions with Northern European Pagans that would intimate a commonality of reception to polytheistic practices.

One of the notable ways in which polytheism is marginalized within society can be seen in the discussion of public “secular” space and how this space is inherently used to reinforce a singular religious paradigm, e.g. Protestantism.  And this is not some claim of self-victimization, but discussed at length in a variety of scholastic works.  Notably, this is spoken about in The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, where it is highlighted how the public space is “encoded”, and supporting of various Protestant monotheistic traditions.

This is done by establishing a perspective of what is considered religiously normalized with an eye to internal consistency.  Everything that falls outside of this popularly perceived “norm” is pushed into the private sphere as they are not palatable or appropriate for group consumption.  Americans are quite familiar with the concept of the separation of Church and State, and use it both as a weapon and defense against religious encroachment.  But it should be remembered that this accomplishment  and by extension the whole of what is considered the “public sphere” in regards to religious discourse is largely a Protestant (and overwhelmingly monotheist) accomplishment.  In short, this public sphere presupposes and blatantly reaffirms the dominant religious tradition as what is effectively considered secular, while purporting tolerance.

What we find in the public is the lack of a pluralistic understanding of religion, which takes into account the differences in cultural expressions and religious concerns not at all.  It masquerades certain religious tolerance – more appropriately in some cases as mere toleration – only if it evacuates public life.  The demarcation between “secular” and “religious” space is inherently untenable for theists who take an immanent view of divinity.  Divinity – and by extent the enactment of the religion – pervades facets of everyday life which necessarily includes accountings in public space.  This defined separation is unnatural and ultimately disenfranchising.

What we find is that, essentially, a “separation of Church and State” ultimately fails in its task of being a multi-religious, pluralistic model within our “Secular Democracy”.  The result is that secular public space does inherently assume and favor a church (or a series of confessional/congregational populations), at least as it exists in North America.  Compared to the multireligious pluralistic state of India, the United States (and the United Kingdom) effectively engages in state-sponsored religious coercion in which their definition of “religion” inherently privileges Christianity.

The failing of popular society to distantly tolerate – let alone anything socially outrageous like embrace – concepts of pluralistic polytheism are apparent.  C.S. Lewis’ work Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life quite clearly indicated a form of “chronological snobbery” (his term) where the hegemonic forces of Christianity are felt; the intellectual and cultural capacities of an earlier time positioned as inherently inferior to that of the present modern time, simply by view of the present being experienced and dominated by Lewis’ own ‘ethical monotheism’.  

Predating and complementary to Lewis, the followers of the “Psychologists of Religion”, inspired by Wellhausen, Hegel, Boyer, and others, position the theisms of animism and polytheism as an archaic religious “primitivism”, something that will naturally and ultimately give way to more “advanced” expressions of religious thought until something akin to Lewis’ ethical monotheism is obtained.  Atheistic writers and philosophers push this synthesis of biological evolution and cultural progress further, aiming for an ultimate goal of a mature society existing in a state of post-monotheistic secularism.

These views, along with lingering colonial attitudes towards identifiably non-European peoples, pervades the reception of polytheistic theology, even in the nominally “modern” and “tolerant” West.  We find these notions of modernity and enlightened tolerance to be hollow claims.

We see this biological argument even in the sphere of Paganism, with the discussion of the “evolving trajectory” of religion.  We see in these words the same intellectual rhetoric of C.S. Lewis, only consisting of  the idea of a non-specific post-Christianity instead of his ethical monotheism.  We see the same assumption of chronological snobbery, that the modern period is better than the pre-modern.  That looking to the past is unrealistic and applying anything from it is anachronistic.

As a collection of new religious movements, contemporary Pagan polytheisms are often suspect in regards to the their claims of religious legitimacy to practice or concerns regarding their theism as being accepted.  In a religious and social culture that expects identified figureheads, these people are often without an overarching authority or representative body.  This is to say nothing about how the recognized polytheistic religions have had to adapt to these hegemonic monotheistic cultural forces.

Even the “legitimate” polytheism of Hinduism, when in the diaspora of the United States, was forced to contend with and eventually adapt to these hegemonic forces.  Prema Kurien’s Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism offers an engaging and fascinating account of the pressures of American Hindus in adapting their religious image to one of a “model minority”, both in regards to religion and ethnicity.  These pressures ultimately lead to the assimilation to Western culture in both the colonial and the immigrant contexts through a constructed, organized Hinduism based in both text and history, and heavily reminiscent of the monotheism of the colonizing or immigrant culture.  

Within the Protestant, monotheist West, we see significant cultural pressures against polytheistic traditions.  Consider that one of the world’s oldest, and largest, polytheistic religions finds itself at the mercy of these prevailing hegemonic forces.  What is a minority religion with a lack of resources like polytheistic Paganism to do?

It is absolutely true that most Pagans do not face the same associated racism and ethnic prejudices that the polytheistic cultures of South and Southeast Asia experience.  I am identifiably white, and I make no such claims that my discrimination is anywhere near the same.  But, the same distrust, disgust, and diminishment of religious experience remains.  Contemporary Pagans are, of course, well versed in the struggles of being a religious minority – doubly so in parts of the West at the mercy of evangelical monotheisms in social and political power.  In these places there exists an even greater pressure in regards to engaging in an identifiably polytheistic religion, resulting in the expectation of religious privatization for economic or safety concerns.

So how can we say that Paganism engages in this same type of marginalization?

Regardless of the location in which it originated, Contemporary Paganism was reared within a Protestant and Protestantized monotheist culture.  If Gerald Gardner’s foundation of British Traditional Witchcraft is held as the “beginning” point of Contemporary Paganism, that is a product of his Protestant culture.  If we’re speaking specifically to the American exegesis and the varying developments primarily driven by American Pagans, these likewise were birthed under a Protestant monotheist overculture.  If the “proto-Paganisms” of the Romantic and Victorian eras are counted as the first stirrings of Contemporary Pagan thought they are undeniably of Protestant origin.

All Westerners are exposed to these Christianized, monotheistic, and ultimately hegemonic forces.  They’re externally and internally used as a metric which all other things – morals, ethics, actions, beliefs – are inherently measured.  In seeing how minority religions like Hinduism acclimate to these forces in their own diaspora, we can perhaps see the types of hegemonic forces that are exerted on us without our awareness.  

Everyone and anyone – even people who were never raised within a religious household or were not raised within a monotheistic religious system (a-religious, atheistic, etc.) is raised this way.  No one is raised in a vacuum, not even Contemporary Pagans.  As a product of this culture, Paganism sees these same prejudices and the same biases which have to be addressed by everyone in some capacity.  I have, in the past, written about some of these biases in the form of baggage and reactionary definitions which serve to warp our conception of Paganism into a shadow or an inversion of the overarching culture.  This problem is far less easy to approach than identifying baggage because it deals with a fundamental understanding of our society which we are all collectively raised with.

When polytheism enters the public sphere it is subject to this same type of baggage by other Pagans.  And invariably they are attacked not for the theological substance of their claims but for strawmen that are erected which are quite clearly not the focus of discussion.  These misrepresented arguments are masked behind the claims of their detractors, like Mark Green’s “not being in competition with theism” in “Atheopaganism and the Future” (linked above), or in John Halstead’s willful misrepresentation of claims of supporting polytheism and polytheistic Pagans.  But, when pressed, they always revert back to disparaging, insulting, and painfully public comments.  What is lacking is a fundamental understanding of the basic qualities of (particularly Western) polytheistic practice, with no apparent attempts to learn.

This is the culture that preaches tolerance (remember: toleration) of polytheism within Contemporary Paganism – these logical thinkers, empiricists, and humanists who would value the “human experience” within Paganism so much that they would denigrate theistic belief as inferior and morally primitive.  The same attitudes that we see repeated in anti-Hindu, anti-indigenous, and overwhelmingly monotheist tracts.  

Their “sympathy” masks their moral positioning and supposed intellectual superiority.  Even when they admit that we are not remotely the same thing, at all, on a basic cosmological level.  And in the same breath state that because polytheists might have issues with being marginalized, our faith is weak.

What we see with commentary like Halstead’s and Green’s is a concerted and well admitted attempt to simultaneously control the polytheist narrative and to diminish polytheistic theological experience within the nominally and ostensibly public sphere.  These even go so far as to directly insult the fundamental basis of polytheist belief through repeated efforts to portray polytheists as backwards and conservative ignorants who worship “fictional” characters or “imaginary friends”.  It follows the footsteps of the majority of the monotheistic West in viewing polytheism as something fundamentally flawed and erroneous in belief, to be pitied and not defended.

Halstead and company imply that our “disenchantment” with the world is a result of our failure to view the interconnectedness of all things in life and to enjoy our place within this reality as it is.  In fact, our “disenchantment” is due to the colonization of aberrant hegemonic monotheistic forces that continually warp and assault polytheistic beliefs, practices, and idols.  Polytheists aren’t “re-enchanting” their religious life.  They’re recognizing it for what it is, and embracing this ancient and widespread theological paradigm, and honoring these timeless beings anew.

The marginalization of Western polytheists persists with an abundantly glaring, disheartening frequency.  The attempts to portray the gods as thoughtforms, archetypes, or imaginary friends simply takes its theological place as adjacent to Protestant monotheism.  It has become normalized, with constant attempts to diminish the oddities of multiple-god worship.  Following Hindu attempts to make their polytheistic values palatable to Westerners, Contemporary Pagans have engaged in reductionist efforts to make their many gods as close to monotheistic as possible.  

What is done in the name of “tolerance” is reaffirm these hegemonic practices in the public space.  Halstead, Green, and those who would cast aspersions on polytheistic theology are perpetuating this.  These actions diminish pluralist thought in favor of privatization of “aberrant” philosophical and theological outlooks.  It is an irony of this entire argument that both sides are claiming marginalization and victimization, a gulf created by people who consistently fall back on questioning the “realness” and existence of the other’s focus of worship.

However, what religious and social history both show is that only one of these two theisms has consistently been marginalized since before even the time of Lactantius, establishing a culture of bigotry, marginalization, and ridicule.  And this rhetoric only promotes it.



Works Referenced:

Butler, Judith, Jürgen Habemas, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

duBois, Page, A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Green, Mark, “Atheopaganism and the Future”, Atheopaganism: An Earth Honoring Religion Rooted in Science, May 5, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017.

Green, Mark, “What About Those Who Insist Their Gods are Real: A Policy Statement”, Atheopaganism: An Earth Honoring Religion Rooted in Science, May 25, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017.

Halstead, John, “Literal Gods are for the Literal Minded: Re-Enchanting Polytheism”, Humanistic Paganism, May 25, 2017, Accessed May 28, 2017.

Halstead, John, “I Got Played By A Troll”, Patheos Pagan, The Allergic Pagan, November 3, 2016, Accessed May 28, 2017

Hrafnblod, “On Earth Based Religions”, Grennunghund Hearth, April 5, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017.

Hrafnblod, “Paganism Isn’t Dying, It’s (Finally) Maturing”, Grennunghund Hearth, May 21, 2017, Accessed May 27, 2017.

Kurien, Prema, Place at the Multicultural Table: The Development of an American Hinduism, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007.

Levi-Bruhl, Lucien, Primitives and the Supernatural, New York: E.P Dutton & Co., Inc, 1935.

Lewis, C. S., Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1955.

York, Michael, Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, New York: New York University Press, 2003.


*Note: I make no apologies for my caustic commentary on Hrafnblod’s blog.  I stand by those words, although I recognize that I could have been a little bit less acerbic.