The Matter Of The Gods

This essay by Jonathan Woolley is among the great works published in A Beautiful ResistanceEverything We Already Are, available in print or digital.

Roy Cohn: What’s it like? After?
Belize: After…?
Roy Cohn: This misery ends?
Belize: Hell or heaven?
Roy Cohn: [laughs]
Belize: Like San Francisco.
Roy Cohn: A city! Good! I was worried… it’d be a garden. I hate that shit.
Belize: Mmmm. Big city. Overgrown with weeds, but flowering weeds. On every corner a wrecking crew and something new and crooked going up catty corner to that. Windows missing in every edifice like broken teeth, gritty wind, and a gray high sky full of ravens.
Roy Cohn: Isaiah.
Belize: Prophet birds, Roy. Piles of trash, but lapidary like rubies and obsidian, and diamond-colored cowspit streamers in the wind. And voting booths. And everyone in Balenciaga gowns with red corsages, and big dance palaces full of music and lights and racial impurity and gender confusion. And all the deities are creole, mulatto, brown as the mouths of rivers. Race, taste and history finally overcome. And you ain’t there.
Roy Cohn: And Heaven?
Belize: That was Heaven, Roy. [1]

Many Gods; Beyond Belief?

There is something strange happening within Paganism. It is strange not because it is unexpected—indeed, all families of religions go through it at one time or another—nor because it is unusual—indeed, its like happens all the time. What is strange about it, is that it seems to run contrary to the social circumstances of Paganism today. Indeed, given our highly networked and increasingly virtual world, and the relatively small size of the Pagan community (small, even when compared to the number of Pagans who don’t “do” the Pagan community, but are solitary), it seems quite remarkable.

Paganism is diverging.

In America, we are witnessing the ascent of a new kind of hard polytheism. The familiar refrains of Gaia-theorists, duotheist Wiccans, archetype-channelers, and feminist Mono-theaists are now joined by the carousing of a bunch of upstarts. These contend that no, the gods are not all aspects, incarnations, or faces of The One (or The Two), that is Nature, or its Creator Goddess and her God. The gods are real, and distinctly so–each a person in their own right, just as we [humans] are, and that believing in them as Actually Extant Beings is, really, okay. These polytheists reject the slippery theorising documented by Tanya Luhrman’s trailblazing ethnography [2,] and the postmodern construction of experience-as-basically-subjective articulated by Sabina Magliocco [3]. The Gods, for the new polytheists, are Real.

In Europe I have seen a different trend. The same old order –in which the same gentle theologies held sway—is being complicated here too, but not by a radical call for belief in many gods. Rather, belief itself is being set aside. European Pagans increasingly do not identify as “religious” or “believers” per se. Rather, to them, Paganism is something that is lived through, crafted, cast, brewed, known—hewn from raw being itself. To talk of “believing in the gods” here seems inappropriate. The gods as we know them are real, but the question of how they are real is both an open one, and one that doesn’t matter very much. They are like love, maths, or motion sickness; part of our world, part of our traditions and customs—in a way that makes what we might think about them, well, purely academic. Fun to discuss, certainly. A question for the philosophers, perhaps. But not important for defining what we do, and think.

As the late (and much loved) author Terry Pratchett once said,

“Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.” [4]

The witches of Britain are, in my experience, much like those of Pratchett’s Discworld. Why bother believing in something, if you know it exists?

Much of this could be put down to broader differences between European and American societies. Although American society has been shaken by the rise of the unaffiliated “nones”, religious ideas and themes nonetheless hold tremendous power in the collective imaginaries of the American people. In Europe, however, religion itself is a highly discredited concept—exhausted by millennia of ecumenical strife, and bored by centuries of tame state churches, European peoples no longer see religious concepts as being especially meaningful or relevant. As such, Paganism has increasingly developed along lines that are cultural, aesthetic, or philosophical in nature, rather than expressly religious.

Talk is not of setting up churches, temples, and monasteries; but villages, festivals, and campaign groups. Although the Druid Network did succeed in getting approved as a religious charity by the Charity Commission recently, this development was greeted with disapproval amongst the majority of the Druids I know—Druidry, as many said to me, is not even a religion. I cannot say for certain if this is a purely Druidic phenomenon, but there does appear to be evidence from across the continent that suggests a gradual transformation of Paganism from a “religious” phenomenon, into a broader “cultural” one that is anything but “fundamentalist” – whether or not we look to socially progressive Asatru of Iceland, or the nature spirituality of atheistic Estonia.

Making sense out of Chaos, out of Order

It might be imagined that these changes are pulling in opposite directions—the American trend reflecting a “radicalisation” of religious doctrine in the form of polytheism, while the European trend representing the fulfillment of the secularisation thesis. I would disagree with this characterisation. To my mind, these trends have far more in common than might appear at first glance.

If we consider the old theological consensus, what becomes readily apparent is that in many respects, it really isn’t too far removed from the spiritual conventions of the Western world’s established religious orthodoxy. Pantheism and Panentheism have a vibrant life outside of Paganism, and the Goddess has her anchorites even within Christianity and Judaism. Even the duotheism of Wicca arguably puts very little clear water between itself and the distributed godhead of Christianity; instead of a Holy Trinity, we have a Holy Tryst. In short, from a theological standpoint, the first generations of Pagan writing owe far more to lay Catholicism and the New England Transcendentalists, than to anything recognisably pre-Christian.

However, what it did do was create a formal break with Christian and Jewish religious authority and the commitment to dogma that came with it. For 1500 years, the Christian Churches—be they Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Restoration—held almost exclusive sway over the souls of Western Europeans; no spiritual life—save that of the oft-persecuted Jewish community—existed outside their universal purview. By creating a new category of spiritual expression that was officially outside both the Christian and Jewish communities, any mandatory requirement to fit with the creeds and customs laid down in Holy Scripture, Halakha or Canon Law was abolished. This was in itself startlingly radical; though the Enlightenment established the legitimacy of secular thought, it was the rise of new religious movements, including that of Paganism, that actively challenged the formal, ecclesiastical control of the spiritual realm.

In short; the first few generations of Pagan sages made a gateway through which forgotten beings, old souls, and the old ways could return to human society.

And that is exactly what is now taking place.

The Old Ways, Plural

The crucial thing to remember is that what defined the old Paganism was explicitly not a single set of beliefs, nor a single set of customs. Europe, before the arrival of “the Nazarene” and his vision of the world, was a patchwork of different traditions, methods of enlightenment, esoteric systems, state cults, philosophies, and initiatory systems—all flourishing and fighting with one another, all very different in range and content. What united them—if anything—were cultural exchanges and political alliances that took place over time. The Druids, for example, commanded influence across tribal and linguistic boundaries in Iron Age Europe, just as Greek art, language and philosophy came to flourish across the Mediterranean during the same period. The Cultus of the Divine [Imperial] House united all who lived within the Roman Empire, just as various state-sponsored reverential traditions had forged civic or national identity prior to the Roman conquests.

Before the arrival of Christianity, a wide variety of interpretations of divinity existed—from the dualism of the gnostics, to the naturalism of the Stoics; from the pragmatic polytheism of the official cults to the mystical techniques advocated by Plotinus. When Christianity developed into a powerful force within Imperial politics, the drive to produce the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth became the new unifying ideology across the Roman world—an exclusive one, at that. Lacking any term to describe what they stood for, the opponents of this new order came to refer to the old ways as “Hellenism”; the defining attribute of which being a love of the Greek classical heritage that the Romans had inherited, and everything that had been syncretised with it. As Talal Asad has argued, before the rise of religion as a category, Christianity was once described as a disciplina—a system of government—just like that of the Empire itself [5]. The Christianisation was, then, the bringing of Imperial rule in line with the expectations of Christian discipline, at the expense of pre-Christian mores.

In a sense, what can be seen in the rise of The Church is a continuation of the process of conquest initiated by Rome itself. When Rome began, it was one political vision amongst many—the Capitoline Triad were just one constellation in a myriad of political cults, spreading out from Alexandria to Bibracte and beyond. But as Roman rule became ever more absolute, the geopolitical reality of many peoples, each with their own moral, legal, and spiritual alliances faded away; being replaced by the singular authority of the Roman State. As the notion of this single disciplina became ever more established—manifest in the deification of the Roman State in the genius of the Emperors – it became possible to re-imagine the divine order in a way that better reflected what had been realized on Earth; a total system of control, focused upon a single authority.

Christianity, with its emphasis upon one God and an absence of idols, was the perfect theological companion to this new arrangement. The fact that the unstable bricolage of Hellenism failed to halt the Christian advance is not at issue here: what is interesting is that the term adopted by the proponents of a non-Christian influence was linked to a loosely-organised cultural assemblage—Hellenism—that grew out of a long, mutual history of trade, war, and intellectual and ritual expression, and not a singular body of authoritative doctrine or law, laid down by a prophet and codified by his disciples.


My analysis so far is heavily influenced by a school of thought—propounded by such scholars of religion as Talal Asad, S. N. Balagangadhara, and Timothy Fitzgerald—which argues that our contemporary concept of “religion” is highly specific to the context of modern, Western Christianity. Religion—as a separable sphere of life, concerned with spiritual beliefs, divinely-sanctioned morality, ritual, prayer, and mythology—is not a human universal. It is perfectly possible for spiritual life to exist in forms and varieties that look strikingly different to “religion”, as that word is normally understood. Pre-Christian spiritual life in Europe—in all its bewildering diversity, contradiction, and creativity, inseparable from the rest of both public and private life—is a case in point. Indeed, it is arguable that the very fact that people define the spiritual so differently today—largely through the lens of “religion”, rather than disciplina or anything else–means that it is impossible for us to posit any real substantive similarities between ancient and modern Paganisms.

But to my mind, the development of highly diverse, de-centralised expressions of “unChristian” practice in Europe and America suggests otherwise. Once the spiritual authoritarianism of Christendom was declared to be in abeyance, people began to adopt a much wider spectrum of positions, covering territory theologians have not dared occupy for a thousand years. And this is not just to be expected; it is to be celebrated. It represents a gradual, and quite organic, restoration of state of affairs truly authentic to pre-Christianity—one that puts clear water between itself and Christendom, and thrives in its own right. By acknowledging the lesson taught by Asad and his fellow social constructionists—that “religion” is a term with a specific history and social context that limits its relevance—we are freed from the expectation to conform to the implicit standard of what “counts” as a religion.

Rather than trying to revive ancient spiritualities by consciously trying to reconstruct specific rites and rituals, we have delivered a spiritual environment similar in key respects to that of the ancient world, without even meaning to. Though what Pagans think and do is thoroughly contemporary; the fact that we’re all doing it differently, in ways concordant with our particular contexts, is quintessentially pre-Christian.

Like the common heritage that gave some semblance of unity to the Classical world in the face of the conquering army of Christ, so it is with Paganism today. As Ethan Doyle White points out, Pagans are united not by a common set of rituals, beliefs, or literary canon, but by a common social history; involving diverse groups exchanging ideas, practices, concerns, and themes over time, who began appearing in the 1800s, all drawing on the pre-Christian past in various ways [6.] Just as there are Dharmic religions (who look to Dharma), or Abrahamic religions (who look to Abraham and his legacy), so, Doyle White argues, there are Pagan ones (who look to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Europe).

But this observation also points out a crucial difference between the Pagan religions of today, and the Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity; Abrahamic faiths tend to focus upon the teachings of a specific prophet—Jesus, Moses, Muhammad—and earnestly affirm and search for compliance with such figures’ singular authority. All other trusted teachers and texts are judged by their compliance with the truth stated by these great men; a truth which itself originally comes from a [singular] divine source. Paganisms, however, both past and present, look to many different sources of authority – without any one of these trumping the others.

Beyond the Big Tent and into the Earthly City

Although this epistemology is applied extensively in practice, the theory has yet to catch up. Many authors within the community and in the academy still attempt to define “Paganism” with reference to the everyday definition of “religion”—as a bounded belief system pertaining to spiritual matters. Rather than allowing for a historical understanding of contemporary and ancient pagan spiritualities—whose connections are constructed through the relationships between Pagans living and dead – it is assumed that the question “What is Paganism?” can be answered with reference to a particular set of ideas, that owe their validity to a single authoritative source. In doing this, we treat Christianity – with its emphasis on just such an arrangement – as the gold standard to which we must aspire.

We see this clearly in attempts to create a “Big Tent” of Paganism, based as they are around a desire to establish certain broadly-worded statements of belief. Do you, like the Pagan Federation, believe in the role of the feminine in the godhead? Theological pluralism? Sacredness of nature? Perhaps Paganism is—as Margarian Bridger and Stephen Hergest argued, a triangle –with strong polytheism, an aspecting pantheism, and Jungian humanism at its points? [7] Or do we describe Paganism with reference to four poles—Nature, Deity, Community and the Self? [8] Such efforts are interesting, and noble—but they nonetheless attempt to shape Paganism after the fashion of the Christian ecclesia—a community joined by common belief[s]—and as a result, fail to do justice to our traditions. Rather than devote our energies to dreaming into being successors to the older, pre-Christian relationships that were barely hinted at by the word hellenismos, we instead spend a lot of time and effort trying to herd conceptual cats.

But such efforts are doomed to either shoe-horning the wild variety of Pagan lived experience into a conceptual prison, or being so broad as to be empty of usefulness or rigour. We are left with Hobson’s choice, of either leaving some Pagans out in the cold, or frogmarching those who would rather be outside the tent—often people of colour and indigenous communities—into its confines. Rather than create our own discourse about how our communities fit together, as Foucault might suggest we do [9], we consistently adopt the familiar mythos of the powerful.

The problem with a tent, is that it is a pre-defined space—it has a canopy, canvas walls, pegs, ropes, and—most of all—poles. All these things delimit the space, setting its dimensions firmly in time and place, rendering it static. If anybody tries to move any of these components, there is a very real risk the entire edifice will come crashing down.

Paganism, as a movement encompassing a range of very distinct religions, is ever-changing, ever-moving, ever-shifting. As such, it is as profoundly un-like a tent as you can imagine. Instead, Paganism is much more like a spontaneous gathering of people, in a place open to the elements—a crowd, a throng, a rally, a carnival. And as it has been going on for some time, it has become the permanent version of these: a city.

Cities do not have fixed borders, edges, limits in the same way that a tent does. Though we can easily point out the dimensions of a city in any given moment, this act is in no way is that definitive—indeed, cities are constantly changing in population and extent. All you need is for more people to come in, or for some others to leave, for some buildings to be built or torn down, and you have changed the city’s limits. Nor is a city defined by single function or concept. Certainly, something will have attracted the first settlers there—a spring, a fertile field, a crossing place, or a defensible hill—but oftentimes this feature will vanish and be forgotten as the city grows. Over time, the city will gain its own character, based on the people who have lived there, the land upon which it is built, and the events that have happened there. In short, what defines a city—and attracts more people to it—is not any one thing you find within it, but rather its history; the ongoing story of its making.

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. [10]

Saint Augustine of Hippo once wrote a searing invective against what he called “The Earthly City” – a metaphor for the disciplina of the Roman Empire and all polytheistic societies. For Augustine, in such places it was Mankind who was the measure of all things, and not the Holy Spirit to which he professed allegiance. He exhorted Christendom to dwell instead within the City of God, wherein it was God, not mankind, who was the subject of devotion, and therefore the absolute standard against which society was weighed.

It is, perhaps, unfair of us to be too hard on Augustine. The Roman Empire was indeed an evil Empire; in which many bad men were raised up to a station they did not deserve. But Augustine’s vision of the City of God and the Earthly City – one holy, one fallen, each centred on one thing – is, in the terms I have lain out above, less of a tale of two cities, but more of a tale of two big tents, with big poles in their middle. The reality behind Augustine’s metaphor was, of course, but one city—Rome—that had yet to decide whether to accept the Divine Providence of Christ Crucified. In that choice, Augustine saw all of human history.

But in Augustine’s Earthly City, we can see an echo of our own situation. His City of the Pagans did not recognise the total authority of the One True God, and neither do we. In echoing this refusal, we share in a key aspect of our ancestors’ broader attitude toward the spiritual. But against Augustine, I would say that the true solution to the iniquity of Empire is not to choose an Emperor-God over a line of God-Emperors—but to dispense with the throne upon which both would sit.

The Earthly City – if by that, we mean the example of Ancient Europe that inspires Pagans today, and not the decadent late-Imperial Rome that Augustine knew – has no one king, no one centre, no one idol to occlude the vibrancy and variety on its streets.

Let us not search in vain for the one public square, the one scenic landmark, the one ancient temple, the one leader who shall take precedence. Let us not worry unnecessarily over the matter of the gods; but explore it with curiosity, and accept the inevitably of many answers to the same questions. Let us leave belief—and all the problematic baggage that it carries—behind.

For there are far more important conversations; over how we should govern ourselves, about the security of our water and our weather, and about who our friends [and enemies] are. Because the more situated, the more contemporary, the more specific in time and space, the more rooted in the pragmatic concerns and the lived experiences of people today our spirituality is, the more like the wisdom of the ancients it becomes. Let us no longer falsely aspire to dwell in the City of God – obsessed with abstraction and unattainable discipline – but rather build together an Earthy city – where we are all sensitive to the way we need to live now, and are free to do so.

And may no one god, nor no one man, be the measure of all.

Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.

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  • 1) Angels in America, Tony Kushner
  • 2) Luhrmann, T. (1989) Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • 3) Magliocco, S. (2013) Sabina Magliocco: Pagan Fundamentalism? In The Wild Hunt. Available at Last accessed 13/09/2015.
  • 4) Pratchett, T. (1991) Witches Abroad. Victor Gollancz: London.
  • 5)Asad, T. (1993) Genealogies of Religion. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press: Baltimore.
  • 6) Doyle-White, E. (2012) “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique” in The Pomegranate:The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1, pp. 5-21.
  • (7) Bridger, M. and Hergest, S. (1997) Pagan Deism: Three Views in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies Vol. 1 No. 1 pp. 37-42.
  • 8) Beckett, J. (2014) The Four Centers of Paganism in Under the Ancient Oaks (Patheos). Available at Last accessed on 13/09/2015.
  • 9)Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. Routledge: London.
  • 10)Augustine, Saint – Bishop of Hippo (2014) De civitate Dei – English and Latin. Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA.

40 thoughts on “The Matter Of The Gods

  1. “But such efforts are doomed to either shoe-horning the wild variety of Pagan lived experience into a conceptual prison, or being so broad as to be empty of usefulness or rigor.”

    I’m not sure you haven’t done a bit of this yourself in the beginning of this piece, Jonathan.

    Many American polytheists (myself among them) would not phrase their viewpoint as a “belief,” and would echo what Terry Pratchett said in relation to Deities–we “believe in” them (in the way that Christians and atheists use that phrase) no more than we are keen to declare that we “believe in” oxygen or the sun, which is to say, They’re there and present and to be understood and appreciated for the roles They play in our lives. It is our (Pagan) detractors who have accused us of focusing too much on “belief” (again, understood as the Christian usage of the term, which is what the atheist usage of it derives from as well) and being concerned overmuch with theology, when the reality is that this articulated belief and delineated theological position arises from our experience of the reality of individual Deities. (Indeed, that’s where any religious belief, in the Greek sense of pistis and the Roman sense of credo, rather than the modern Christian sense, arises from: experience and the trust/confidence which follows from it.)

    But that doesn’t fit into as neat a conceptual prison, I suppose, which can then be so conveniently summarily dismissed by your superior European improvement upon/development of how Paganism has been in its first generation, it appears. Oh well…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m becoming worried about the forced dichotomy between Polytheists and Pagans. Reading some of our polytheist collegues lately, the word ‘belief’ is becoming a bludgeon to enforce an orthodoxy and delineation between ‘those who believe x” and those who ‘reject the one true creed.’

      But more hopefully, I run into an increasing amount of non-professed polytheists (many of them anarchists and not even self-declared ‘Pagans’) who truck with multiple gods and have never thought it important or useful to articulate their experiences into a code of belief, more along the lines of Jonathan’s analysis of European Paganism. Their resistance to the lure of Orthodoxy has been pretty inspiring, similar to those who reject dichotomous gender roles.

      Liked by 5 people

      1. While I agree that oftentimes “belief” gets used in ways that are not properly nuanced (and this has been a pet peeve of mine for well over a decade with EVERY religious group…and no matter how much I’ve tried to assist in better nuancing these discussions, few if any ever re-evaluate their usages or pay any attention to those posts I make), I don’t know that the dichotomy you’re seeing is one that is actually forced in any meaningful way. I don’t think anyone is actually saying “you’re with us or against us,” really, so much as they’re saying “if you look at these two things, you can see there are differences between them,” and then people are being left to decide on their own whether it is appropriate for them to modify their self-identifications, continue connections with certain groups and such, or what-have-you. There are a fair few polytheists who don’t seem to mind, and are still involved in public Pagan activities to various extents; there are others who aren’t finding it meaningful any longer (like myself), and yet some people are still insisting on saying we’re part of their bailiwick no matter what we might have to say on the matter.

        For myself, I find nothing in common with those under the Pagan umbrella any longer, and any attempt to seek acceptance within those communities for myself or my practices is completely futile. Yet, several of those within those communities would say that I’m the schismatic. There are demands of conformity coming from both sides of this divide, and the ones coming from the majority (i.e. Pagans) are not actually being recognized as such in the watering down of terminology, the dismissiveness toward certain viewpoints, and in the various other manifestations of saying “everyone’s welcome and all viewpoint are true, EXCEPT THOSE ONES,” and so forth.

        I also think that there is a very large confusion going on regarding “orthodoxy.” Just because someone articulates a doxa does not mean there is an “ortho-” attached to it. I’m not seeing very many–if any–comprehensive forms of doxa being put forth by anyone, much less any of them being enforced with anything that can be called a drive toward “orthodoxy.” Yes, the terms have been discussed recently, and the notion that a standard of “right practice” will entail a notion of “right understanding” to accompany it (which is reasonable–though, note, the existence of such a contextualized orthodoxy does not necessitate it be a “One True Way” statement, only that it is best appropriate for those who decide that XYZ practice is the best one for them), but I’ve not seen anyone then go on to say “Therefore, we believe ____ and everyone else must, too.”

        For crying out loud: the Shinto Shrine you attended with me earlier this year has stronger and more insistent “statements of belief” that are said aloud each morning by the Shinto priest, usually by himself in the daily ceremony, and yet I’ve heard no one talk about how oppressive and apt to abuse the existence of such statements, including making the recitation of them part of one’s liturgy, are. If people need to get some perspective on this issue, that would be a great phenomenon to examine.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. As I continue I find the apparent differences between Pagans and Polytheists actually reduce along class lines, not belief lines.

        The most vocal critics of what Polytheists do have been precisely what Marx would have defined as “The Bourgeoisie,” upper middle-class, gender normative, hetero-centric, almost always white people. (you know exactly whom I’m talking of here…)

        They challenge the existence of gods through the narrative of ‘belief,’ and gods-folk end up defending themselves in those terms, even attempting to use the entire structure of Liberal Capitalist ‘rights’ language (“polytheism is a Human Rights issue??!!??”..) which only further affirm Hegemonic control of our meaning.

        Jonathan’s point (and I utterly agree) is that we should construct our own narratives rather than constantly trying to mimic discourses of the powerful. That includes not playing the game of belief and instead creating our own meaning.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. A parallel might be useful here.

        During almost every anti-capitalist and anti-war protest, WTO or Occupy or what have you, the first thing the Media and the critics of such events do is demand individuals within those movements to clearly delineate what they stand for.

        In essence, they demand a creed or manifesto. But then, because there are thousands and sometimes millions of people in those movements, they then point out that there seems to be no coherent platform (when, actually, there’s a Myriad of coherent platforms, not just one). Then, the movement is belittled or dismissed because no clear creed is articulated.

        In some movements, there’s a push to then actually create a platform/creed in response to the criticisms. And when that happens, the movement is usually about to die, because you cannot make one statement fit a million different experiences.

        The same thing happens with polytheist experiences.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Your 2nd paragraph – that’s certainly why I feel comfortable as a contributor and participant at G&R. I’m a polytheist in that I acknowledge a multiplicity of gods but it isn’t the primary organising fact of my praxis.


  2. I really like your essay and I think you have done a great job of defining what Paganism is – at least organizationally. What I have a hard time wrapping my head around is the concept of a city to describe how Paganism is “disorganized.” Do you think a forest would be a better analogy? You have different niches filled by different species, each species wanting survive and grow, but with no central authority? Maybe that fits pre-Christian European religion a bit better. What do you think?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You know -I- think a forest is a perfect metaphor, 🙂

      In this case, I like Jonathan’s use of city, though, because cities are forests of humans, or could be, if we’d get rid of those pesky tyrants who are always trying to exploit people and putting up way too many streetlights and condos. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cities have walls though, plus the more humans you put into a given area, the more it seems there is the need for authority, organization, laws and surrendering of freedoms. I’m with you on streetlights though – what a waste of resources!


      2. Woods Wizard – cities don’t necessarily have walls 🙂 As for hierarchy being tied to cities – nobody has yet conclusively proven that hierarchy is tied to urbanism in quite the way you suggest, there are lots of utterly rural societies that are intensely stratified. With the world’s population and economy being what they are, for most of us a forest is a distant place – rather than the home of our daily lived experience. It’s important that we reclaim the city as a vibrant, living place (a forest of people, as Rhyd says), rather than consistently elevate wilderness as the dominant metaphor for all PAgan thought.

        Also, it’d be quite easy to gloss a forest in a hierarchical fashion: most ecosystems have “keystone” species, which have a determining impact upon the habitats in which they live. How often do you hear oaks being described as “regal”?


      3. JW, cities themselves don’t have walls, but the buildings within the city do. Having lived both in the city and the country, I have found that neighbors are more likely to know each other in the latter environment, even though they are more interdependent in the former.

        I will readily concede that social stratification did occur in agrarian societies, but it is nowhere near as well-developed, nor are restrictions on behavior nearly as oppressive in rural environments. (I give you homeowners associations as an example of repression in non-rural environments).

        While the oak may be stately and majestic (or the cedar where I live), in no way is the oak an example of social stratification, so that argument, I think, fails.

        How to connect to a nature-based path in an urban environment seems to be very tough to me, which is why I don’t live there. How the city can be captured as a pagan place is a mystery to me, even though, I suspect, the majority of Pagans live in such places. We’ll see how that goes in about 150 years when we exhausted the fossil fuels on this planet, because the cities cannot survive without them.


      4. Wood wizard – Rural buildings don’t have walls?

        I’d like to see some evidence for your assertion that stratification of rural societies is characterised by less restrictive, “less developed” systems of control. (I won’t refer to “agrarian” here, as many agrarian cultures are also urbanised – Ancient Egypt, Sumer, indeed any pre-Industrial society). Residents’ associations are often found in rural communities in the UK (they dominate the councils in rural towns – including Beccles where I did some of my PhD fieldwork), so I’m not sure that case really carries the weight you accord it.

        Oaks dominate the habitats in which they are found: they shade out other plants, dry out the soil with their extensive root systems, and prevent the seeding of other plant communities. Of course, there’s nothing inherently hierarchical about this – but neither is there anything inherently hierarchical about a forest of humans.

        Although your account of life in rural areas attests to a very real element of country life, the situation where I work (rural norfolk) is quite different – communities are very individuated, and a lot of residents jealously guard their privacy, with a huge difference between the rich and poor. My point isn’t that rural areas are necessarily more hierarchical than cities: just that hierarchy is more of a condition of capitalism than it is of urbanism.

        I’m not sure that rural places would survive under those circumstances either: remember most of our agricultural production is dependent upon fertiliser made from oil, most agricultural machines are fuelled by petrol and oil – even basic things like nails and chicken wire are made in factories fuelled by fossil electricity and mining. I’d be interested to know if you have some measures in place to survive without these basic tools and commodities? I went to Norfolk for such things, and I couldn’t find them!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with the analogy of a city as a forest of beings (I’d include every living being that grows and crawls and slithers and prances…. though). The walls of the cities have long been crumbling down and the latest attempts of reinstalling the walls (gated communities) are doomed from my point of view and still they cannot hinder the way cities grow and reach out and connect. I find it quite interesting to follow this discussion if only as a more or less quiet spectator. I haven’t been able to fit my own magic into any belief system so far and I don’t feel the need to. The earthly city comes really close to my own idea of an organic structure that is able to hold, but still there are mentioned blockades, e.g. authorities that maybe have to be overgrown with moss and lichen first.

    Great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rhyd: “gods-folk end up defending themselves in those terms, even attempting to use the entire structure of Liberal Capitalist ‘rights’ language (“polytheism is a Human Rights issue??!!??”..) which only further affirm Hegemonic control of our meaning.”

    Hey Rhyd, on this subject – I’ve been pondering the Commons. As a concept at least, this originally derives from the Enlightenment notion of rights where all things created by God rather than by individuals are common-wealth, right? So if polytheist anti-capitalists wish to claim or re-claim Commons, from where does the ‘in common’ quality derive? It seems pretty essential to define the source of legitimacy for any new commons if recommoning is to make headway. I would like to think that simple local / community opinion counted for something but in practice this can manifest as tyranny of the masses, nimby-ism, and be easily ignored by the state and authorities. Any thoughts? Thanks, A


    1. If I might cut in, only because my thesis is actually on common sense!

      You’re absolutely right about the Enlightenment. I think what’s most interesting about Western polytheism / animism – currently – is that there is no majorly influentual moral account of how we ethically use resources that are, properly speaking, sentient. It’s also left largely undetermined what the material parameters of other-than-human personhood are: is a mountain part of the body of a goddess, a god/dess in its own right, or a gift from another deity? What distinguishes animate features of our world, from inanimate ones? Emma Restall-Orr has “Living with Honour”, but frankly I found it rather uninspired.

      But the Commons, I think, is a way out. The commons is the landscape of shared experience; built by gods, men, and spirits together. A fact of that common is the continual re-cycling of “stuff” – matter/energy, be it psychical or physical. Humans have their rightful role within that process; a role we have exceeded, jeopardising the stability of the common itself, inviting disaster.

      As you can see, this is less of an account of shared resources (owned by no man, but rather God), but instead shared perception and wisdom.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks for this Jonathan. I’m generally in full agreement with this. I see it as shifting from a ‘truth’ based standpoint to a ‘lore’ based one. My only reservation is that physical space is important and re-claiming them at this point in history requires cooperation with others of different backgrounds and motivations so finding a source of legitimacy that crosses boundaries may be important.

        (Feel the same way about the Restall-Orr book. It felt very backward looking and strangely conventional in where it looks for solutions.)


  5. Paganism might be defined by something like “lifestyle” or culture instead of as a religion or belief system. Back in the earliest times, and today in earth based cultures, religion and belief are not comprehended. All was integrated into their daily lives, their culture. How we live is the fullest expression of any religion or belief; how we live is most significant.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would disagree. My rural lifestyle, with my own well, extensive vegetable and herb gardens, berry bushes, etc. is far different from a Pagan city-dweller. That is integrated into my life – right down to wood heat. A city-dweller doesn’t have that opportunity and would have a different lifestyle or culture even though we can both be Pagans. It is our beliefs or maybe our ideals that make us Pagan.


  6. I would disagree with that Woodswizard, I live in pretty central London; have fruit bushes, veg garden, herbs and until recently my own chickens. I can forage for all the wild berries and nuts I want all within the inner parts of London.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I seem to be, a lot lately, pointing out that “paganism” is a socio-cultural movement, not a religion. (And approaching it in religious terms, with religious expectations, goes all kinds of ugly, ugly places sometimes.)

    I’m glad to see someone else making basically the same point, because it’s all felt rather like a lot of pissing in the wind.

    (Though I’m amused, once again, to be apparently a mainstream European born on the wrong side of the pond.)


    1. It seems to me that it is just as hard to make an all-encompassing social statement about paganism. I know people from militant pagan Republicans to Marxists,


      1. That’s another field entirely from what I’ve been ranting about, actually. :}

        I’ve been doing a lot of pointing out the sociocultural origins of paganism as a movement – basically, the stuff Hutton pointed at, but covering more than Wicca and druidry (I’ve not read his druidry stuff but). The way the same stew of contents gave rise to stuff from Feraferia to the Church of All Worlds to Asatru to Reclaiming to….


  8. I started out techno-utopian as a teen back in the late 80s, and have actually spent time studying new communications modes professionally. And I’m largely convinced that ubiquitous computer-mediated communication is a project that has failed. It’s a form of discourse that tends to amplify conflict (because conflict creates page views, and page views equals money and status), creating some very real confirmation biases in participants. Polarization among pagans and polytheists into “parties” of pluralist polytheists, perennialists, and non-theists isn’t the only example. Similar rifts exist online between gay, lesbian, bisxual, and pansexual communities, and within feminism. Thankfully, I don’t think these debates within paganism and polytheism have devolved into doxing, swatting, and workplace harassment yet. (Meanwhile, political candidates blame encryption of all things, and not the toxic escalation of rhetoric that routinely happens in plaintext.)

    I don’t know what the answer is here, or if there is even an answer beyond retreating to my own physical shrine and community.


    1. There are certainly drawbacks to digital communication: we can’t hear tone, can’t see body language, and as humans, somehow we seem to read the worst into communications. OTOH, it expand sthe number of people with which we can communicate. We are certainly exposed to newer people and more ideas than prior to the internet. It has only failed, IMO if you were expecting perfection.


      1. Good points. My views are perhaps informed by some of the women who did early research in online communication and harassment. (Gamergate is just the latest iteration.) The most vulnerable minority populations are more likely to be shouted out or just drop out rather than deal with online conflict. Those spaces become hegemonic over time. And with ailing newsrooms treating Twitter and Facebook as primary sources, that polarization becomes reflected in the larger cultural debate.


  9. I really like this articfle, Jonathan, except for one thing.

    You wrote: “Even the duotheism of Wicca….”

    This implies that all Wiccans are duotheists (something that, sadly, all too many polytheists, and especially Polytheists, believe to be the case).

    There are polytheist Wiccans, atheist Wiccans, duotheist Wiccans, animist Wiccans, monist Wiccans, NeoPlatonist Wiccans, and all-of-the-above-depending-on-the-context. I thank the gods that there has never been a creedal test for being a Wiccan, and I hope and pray (devoutly) that there never will be.

    But as a polytheist Wiccan, I would be ever so grateful if people didn’t deny that I exist.


  10. Hi Yvonne,

    I would agree with Jonathan on this.

    Wicca is a duotheist cult; our covens have a pair of deities we call upon and do our thing with most often, yet we do work with other gods at different times. That said we come back to Himself and Herself.

    Wiccans on the other hand come in all the forms you mentioned. In much the same way that classical cults were often monotheist in their outlook yet sat within polytheist societies.

    and I say this as a polytheist Wiccan


  11. Bloody great article for Solstice reading. And a bloody great discussion too. Intelligent, respectful disagreement, what a joy. Thanks all.


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