What is Polytheism and how I became Polytheistic
by Sam Webster ©1993
Polytheism is what happens when you know more than one God, or at least that’s how it happened to me. Coming across the Kali image in Ram Dass’s Be Here Now broadened my horizons and sent me looking for more. Of course, I had known of the Greek and Roman gods of the myths, but here was a Goddess, a deity that was not the Yahweh of my parents, that people took seriously. Lifting my head from my cultural furrows, I discovered a whole world of deities. From Kali’s Hindu pantheon I worked my way back West by way of the Norse, the Egyptian, and the Irish by reading their myths. When I began meeting contemporary Pagans, I again found some people who took these many gods seriously.
The Way I do Polytheism
Now as a Pagan priest, I have learned and evolved an approach to polytheistic religion. First, I look for a deity that fits in my life. In part I do this by reading stories and myths of the deities, mostly of cultures I feel an attraction to. I am of Irish descent and so her deities have a cultural appeal. On the other hand the Greek Deities have had such an impact on Western thought that their presence is rich in our culture. Their relevance seems quite palpable. [do I need some example here?]
From this mass of data I sort out a deity who’s nature is relevant to my life. Sometimes I do this by identifying an arena in my life, like work, school, relationships, etc., that is important to me. Because it is important to me I wish to improve my skills in that arena. I then look for a deity that has domain in that arena. Or sometimes the attraction to the deity comes first and with it comes focus on their respective arena.
The deity is (in part) the embodiment of competence in their arena. Mars, for example is competent in war. To be an embodiment means that the deity can be experienced as a lived through feeling of distinct character. Some metaphors that describes this experience are ‘looking through the eyes of the deity’ or ‘wearing the form of the deity’. To have this experience I invoke the deity by their qualities and attributes that I found in the myths and in tradition. I begin with praise and description, calling to mind the image, the sound, the feel of the deity. The pattern of invocation is sometimes described as, “I call you, I see you, I see you come, I become you (or I come before you)”.
The process of invocation is in essence the process of feeling what it is to be the deity that is being invoked or at least to be in their presence. By focusing attention on the deity through words, gestures or objects, all of which are essentially symbols associated with the deity, the deity is felt or embodied. The symbols convey the distinct character of the deity and impart it to those who let the symbols impact them deeply. The result is feeling like the deity or seeing the world from their point of view. The value of this is that their point of view includes the wisdom or skills for competence in the arena. While you are ‘wearing’ the deity these are more available to you and, with continued invocation, the skills of the deity are retained even after ‘dismissing’ the deity.
Naturally, the kind of invocation in which you become the deity is a method of union with deity, very popular in the East, not so in the West. The West tends, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to ‘dwell in the presence’ of the deity, which has a similar, though not identical effect. ‘Dwelling in the presence’ tends to have a mood of adoration and brings comfort and support. ‘Becoming the deity’ moves from adoration to identification with the deity and brings empowerment. For me each time I invoke or become another deity, my world also gets larger, more pluralistic, more accepting. Each deity invoked is time spent walking in another being’s shoes, helping me become more compassionate.
All this fantastic technique begs the question Why? Why would someone go to all this trouble to invoke these many deities? It comes from the heartfelt intuitive realization that here in the world in which we live, all is not as it could be. Many suffer and it is intolerable not to act to end that suffering. Deities are influential forces whose powers can be brought to bear on the world, potentially changing its historical course for the better. Being aware of these powers and being able to make them present and effective brings with it the responsibility to do so and to do so wisely. My task as a priest is to make those powers that I know of cause the changes in the world necessary to end the suffering in it. I know of no higher goal.
The deity classes
Not all deities are experienced in the same way. I have found it useful to classify deities into a few broad categories. This was necessary as different types of deities required different kinds of handling and provided different benefits and insights.
For instance, the Ancient Egyptians saw their deities, the ‘Netcheru’, as the principles of nature given human and human-animal form. Thus, right discrimination is given the name and form of Jackal-headed Anubis, or the growth of green living things that of the mummified Osiris. If you wished to understand the nature of that principle in the world, you would study it and meditate on it with the same intent as you would study a science today. Osiris is thus an instance of how they approached their biological ‘science’. For the Ancient Egyptians the world was alive, and every part of it had a being who looked after maintaining that piece of order in the vast cosmos.
Adopting this method is of great value to the contemporary polytheist because in it the world comes alive in all of its particularity. It is given face and voice so that I, as an individual, can relate to it. The world is not some dead abstraction expressed in cognitive symbols, but instead is rich in feeling. In polytheism, the sun, the sky, the earth, the weather, the crops and game all become beings with whom I can relate. Indeed, they demand relationship; the demand not to be simply used or abused. These principles of nature, or Netcheru to use the Egyptian term, are the first class of deities it is easy to point to today, because they so directly parallel our scientific notions of principles of nature. On a personal level, they were the first class of deities I came to understand as a discrete set.
how relevant the khemith?
The Egyptian deities, the Netcheru, as an example of nature principle deities, helped me come to understand this class of deities. Their particular virtue is that they were ‘designed’ with a distinctness and a purity that was not altogether human. In part this is visible in their fantastic shapes and animalistic forms. They are to be apprehended through the heart and gut more than through cerebral consciousness and so they reach deeper into the world than my usual ‘heady’ approach. The Netcheru also do not have the rather human but contentious and at times ignoble qualities that the Olympian pantheon exhibit. Though, after Alexander conquered the Egyptians and Ausar became Osiris and Auset became Isis, the Greek myth makers began making the Netcheru more human, complete with human foibles. They joined the many other kinds of deities that relate more directly to the human and interpersonal level of experience. When invoked in their pre-conquest aspect however, the Netcheru present to the polytheist a way of relating to the world beyond the bounds of human centered experience. This is of great value since generalizable yet particular characters of worldly experience are as present to day as they were to the ancient Egyptians they remain accessible. Knowing the deity relevant to a particular arena makes that arena, for the reasons given above, more accessible and the invoker more effective in it. Also, although they are not the only nature-principle deities, with all of the documentation available on the Egyptian Netcheru, it is easy to construct invocations of them.
Nature principle deities, however, are more of an abstraction than the first deities most aboriginal cultures tend to become aware of. These were the deities of place, the ‘genii loci’. They were the deities of this land, not the land and this river, not of rivers in general, and so on. Having lost touch with our polytheistic heritage we rarely even think to say hello to the spirits of place and time, however awesome the space or the moment. Our ancestors, when they would come to a new land, would make offerings to the deities of that place as a thanksgiving for the sustenance that they would take from that place. They would offer up some livestock, or at least pour out a drink for them. This custom of making offerings has sadly fallen by the wayside, even among Pagans today. This is unfortunate as it is a powerful way of establishing relationship with deities of all kinds and especially with the lesser spirits of locations. It is from the Indo-European root word ‘loka’ meaning place or region that we derive our word ‘luck’, because having made offerings to the local spirits, the genii loci, they will be more likely to help us and make us lucky in our activities rather than interfere with us. Try pouring a drink for the ‘wee folk’, as the Irish put it, the next time you have a job interview, or need some luck.
In the same way that places can have presiding deities, so can groups of people. These tribal deities are among the most vigorous and important for us today. The best known of them in the West is the tutelary deity of the Israelites, Yahweh. Simply put, Yahweh made a deal with Moses: He would protect and aid Moses and the people who were to become the Israelites, and give them the land of Canaan, if they were to worship him and obey his commandments, particularly the commandment to worship no other gods besides Him. This is a story we all know well.
As tutelary deities the Vedic pantheon is for the Asian Indians, the Tuatha dé Danann deities are for the Irish Kelts, the Aesir are for the Norse. Many contemporary Pagans have chosen to work with a single pantheon to achieve a depth of relationship with them. Yet, in one sense, if you are not of these cultures their deities may have little relationship with you. Further, many of these cultures are dead and buried and any connection with them is at best vague. We, especially in America, are not tribal and have a mixed heritage. But what makes contemporary Paganism different from the practices of the ancients who mostly worked with the specific pantheon of their own people is that today our pantheons can be composed of deities from many cultures. Vedic, Irish, Norse, Egyptian, Canaanite, Assyrian and Sumerian deities all have places in my pantheon. I have found that as each culture learned valuable lessons about the world, and which their deities express, invoking the deities of an otherwise alien culture permits me to widen my view of the world and acquire some measure of that culture’s wisdom. For me this polycultural pantheon is what makes Paganism a distinct entity and a modern or post-modern phenomenon. The ancient ‘pagans’ principally worshiped the deities only of their own culture.
Another helpful aspect of working only with the pantheon of a particular culture is that it comprises a complete set. There is a wholeness to it when grasped altogether that provides a well rounded way of relating to the world. When we start breaking apart pantheons, selecting those deities that we need or want to work with we start imbalancing our system of deities. I handle this by establishing sets of deities that are specifically arranged in a whole set and working with them all to attain to that well rounded balance. For example one way I do this is with planetary deities. Astrology, like most divinatory systems is constituted by whole sets and so is suited to the task. Also, as pointed out in De Santillana’s Hamlet’s Mill, the seven classical planets and their associated deities provide a Rosetta Stone for comparison and translation between widely separate myth systems. These range from the Mahabharata to Hamlet to the myths of the Dogon of Africa.
The principle virtue of working with the planets is that they provide a symbol set for one of the deep structures of our society, and other and other societies as well, if De Santillana is correct. For instance we have seven days of the week, each named for a planet. Some systems have seven worlds or layers of realms, there are seven classical metals in alchemy, and so on. Seven is a sacred number the world over. When we look at the Olympian deities, they cluster around the seven planetary types, both male and female, although the male tend to be emphasized. I get at them through the techniques of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in which I am adept. They developed a technique of using the Hexagram, a six-pointed star like the Jewish Star of David. To each of its points are assigned one of the planets. This is then visualized and drawn during invocations by starting with the point of the planet being called. In essence this technique is a gesture and graphic image generator for a complete set of deities. Invoking each one in turn on their respective day of the week for an entire week is a basic planetary practice. This gives an experience of world divided into and made up of seven parts or arenas each having an embodiment in the deities associated with them and provides me with a well rounded repertoire of competencies to invoke.
The Olympian deities had started out as abstractions to me and as planetary entities worked fine for quite a while since they are excellent expressions of seven principal modes of human interaction. However I generally avoided working more deeply with the personalities of these gods since their stories tell of their rather warped and abusive nature. Zeus’s philandering, the Bribing of Paris, the Rape of Persephone did not attract me. I prefer my gods as ideals. But this raises the question as the relevance of Greek gods for twentieth century Americans. Jean Shinoda Bolen disabused me of my aversion by pointing out in her Goddesses in Everywoman and Gods in Everyman books that the twisted qualities of the Olympian deities are the same twisted qualities of our own culture. Her books provide a wonderful guided tour of the Western psyche by means of the these gods showing that they are still alive and effective in our minds. My response is to study these forms for their virtues and for their pathologies to better understand my culture and myself.
Jungian archetypes and deities
These days, the Jungians are working with archetypes in a manner similar to deities, but there are distinct differences between them. Deities are not archetypes. Archetypes are wide-spread highly generalized characteristics of human experiences, some of which have vaguely human form, like Mother or Child or Healer. Deities may be a manifestation of one of the archetypes but always with some manner of particularity that gives them a specific character. They are not a generalized abstraction but a particular experienced expression of that character. They always occur in some cultural setting and are apropos to it. This fact points to the problems associated with transporting a deity out of its culture of origin. The deity no longer fits in the niche it did with all the associations it previously possessed which gives the deity its impact, meaning and power. Thus trying to work with deities outside of their cultural setting requires more effort in rebuilding their place in the culture and life of the person working with them.
For example, I principally function as a priest of Hermes today. As a companion of the road, as a friend of human kind or glib of speech, Hermes’ power in a general but vague way, relates to today. But as Lord of the Threshold, teacher of writing, giver of technology and inventor of musical instruments, His mastery of Information and Wisdom and being a guide on the path of Transformation has particular application to our society. It took my getting inside the traditional qualities associated with Hermes and then looking out at my world to see how He is manifest now. When I did, I found Him looking back at me, grinning.
After spending years in the kind of invocations I mention above I began to experience some of the deities as something other than a ‘psychic mask’ through which I view the world. The deities began to have some presence and volition other than what I had invoked. There was an impulse to engage in dialogue. However, I was dubious of what I heard and so suppressed this kind of connection. It took meeting a priestess of Hekate who introduced me to the Queen of Witches, to have a sufficiently clear contact with another consciousness to recognize it. This changed my assessment about the nature of deities.
It is easy to delude yourself about having mind-on-mind contact. However, the awe and trembling felt in the presence of a deity, or of any greater spirit, is unmistakable. It was the feeling of being is the presence of such tremendous power that I began to realize our, Hekate’s and mine, relative places in the scheme of things. Having established relationship with Her, She lead me through many learning experiences that deepened my practice. She, through these experiences, enabled me to better relate to deities so that I could perceive them as beings and not dead forms animated by my attention. I realized that at least some of these deities are living entities of another plane of existence than my own.
Through Hekate I also became quite clear that deities are not all-powerful. In a deep yet subtle way they have very limited effect on the physical plane, however much they may be an embodiment of a natural force. They need us as willful collaborators in this realm as they work in their own. Working with the Deities and not for them may be a (post-)modern phenomenon. Raised an American, I am not willing to subjugate myself or my will to any being, however powerful. Yet I am willing to work with that which is much more powerful than I to achieve my ends. Driving a car or using electricity are common place examples of these. As I have worked with several deities in this manner the metaphors that describe our relationships are not liege and subject, or parent and child, but as collaborating friends or as lovers. There are echoes of this as far back as Sumer where the High Priestess was married to the God of the temple and the High Priest to the Goddess. But there is something different in the modern form that the deities are accommodating themselves to, something about the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
The very fact of this accommodation is somewhat contradictory to the usual understanding of deities as immortal and unchanging. Over the years I watched as Hekate has grown and changed in Her manifestations, becoming as it were a better Goddess for these times. She is better able to relate to our problems and better able to understand our character and resources. This tells me that these deities are alive, for growth and change are the hallmark of life.
Nowadays, I work with Hekate in tandem with Hermes, the Greek ‘Messenger’ God, along with my wife who is a priestess of Hekate. In some forms of their myths they are lovers, and thus suitable for a husband and wife team. They each bear the title ‘psychopompos’, or ‘guide of souls’, and are preeminent practitioners of magick and transformation, keepers of thresholds and crossroads. Since much of my work involves initiatory ritual they are excellent colleagues.
Polytheism has a place in the world’s future partly because of its broadly inclusive nature. Yet it can not be assured of that place unless those who practice ‘the old ways’ do so openly, usefully, and with vigor. I see the task of today’s polytheists being to reawaken the practices of the old deities to manifest again their presence here. This can be done through embodying the deity in their relevant arena. As I see that the first task of the priestcraft is to bless, I feel that all those who have the power of making present the presence of a deity should do so on all appropriate occasions so that the deity’s nature may be widely experienced, and so its power may be of good effect again in the world of humankind. For example, when ever people travel, I bless them in the name of Hermes Mercurius, that He may watch over them in their travels. This would spread deities fame and thus strengthen their presence here. The second task would then be to rebuild the worship of those deities. For example, it was ancient custom in Greece to make offerings of smoked meats, cakes, and drink to Hermes and Hekate on the night of the dark of the moon at the herms, the square based knob topped roadmarks, and at the triangularly based heketerions at the places where three roads meet. These simple things can make the power of the deities present and effective in one’s life.
One world or many?
An other of the current challenges facing the Pagan and Goddess movements, and to a certain extent all cultures, is to be able to relate to non-earthbound deities. We have been extremely geocentric in our polytheologizing. We have made of our earth and our sky deities. Most of our deities wear human or earth-animal faces. What happens when we get off our planet? The Tibetan tradition of Dzog-Chen claims that it is practiced on thirteen other planets. They explain that the reason why some of their deities and protectors look so strange is that they are not from our world and appear as only vaguely human so as to be able to communicate with us. The Hermetic tradition of Thelema provides an interesting approach having a principle Goddess who is “Infinite Space and the Infinite Stars thereof” and a God who is a being going in space. This is very much the experience of someone in a spaceship, navigating by stars. I have taken to treating Earth as ‘just another planet’ when working planetary magick, adding an eighth to the classical seven. The challenge remains for us to be able to integrate our experience, including going out into space, into our spiritual expression and into our religions. Will we make offerings to the deities of the planet’s we land on, as did our forebears? Can we expand our horizon to include a spiritual ecology that embraces the whole universe? What would be the religion of a space-faring people for whom there is no up or down and Heaven is the space all around their ships? What would the divine look like then?
Monotheism has a distinct disability in its often not-so-subtle mono-‘thesis’ism. With its stress on the Sole God, it often subtly, and at times not so subtly, saying that there is only one correct idea about that god and its worship and what life thus means. Islam and Christianity, to name the two largest monotheistic traditions, are famous for their rigid attitudes and violent proselytization. Polytheism on the other hand speaks to a kind of openness in its very structure that welcomes a plurality of ‘theses’. As each deity presents a different approach to life, any one or more of which could be suitable to any person. Working with Hermes as ‘Lord of Information’ helps me navigate in our emerging information culture. The openness of a pantheon makes for an openness in dealing with people whose character is radically differently than one’s own. One just expands the pantheon to accommodate the new deity. This is a power we need in our highly pluralistic age. It would permit us to truly sit down at the same table to live and to worship.
Author blurb: Sam Webster, M.Div., Mage, is a priest of the Pagan Hermetic tradition. He is the director of Crescent Ritual Works, a center for the teaching and study of ritual and Pagan culture.
Jean Shinoda Bolen, Goddesses in Everywoman (New York: Harper & Row, 1985)
Jean Shinoda Bolen, Gods in Everyman (New York: Harper & Row, 1989)
The Holy Books of Thelema, (York Beach, MA: Samuel Weiser, 1983)
Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt, The One and the Many (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982) John Baines, tr.
Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: the Self-Perfected State (London: Arkana, 1989) John Shane, tr.
Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill (1969)
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