When Deities Say “No” to Apolitical Polytheism
While the New Right discussion has most recently dredged it up, everyone who combines a religious affiliation with Left politics hears it eventually. Apparently, because we prioritize both areas of concern, we must therefore be putting politics first. (Ironically enough, while our coreligionists make that claim, we often face the opposite accusation from political comrades.)
Of course, that begs the question: why should left-wing and religious concerns be at odds? Many Pagan leftists have reiterated lately that everything involving more than one person is, in some sense, political by definition. Others have denied any strict delineation between the religious and political components of their worldviews. I also might observe that when right-wing or reactionary politics get injected into Pagan theology, their proponents might get told they’re wrong, but they don’t get called “fake Pagans.” Not uncommonly, our detractors suggest that the mere existence of the Pagan Left somehow impedes the revival of polytheism itself. Sure, I think that right-wing politics and redbaiting are absolutely wrong, but I’d certainly never question someone’s religious sincerity on those grounds. I’d prefer to be extended the same courtesy, particularly from people who accuse us at Gods&Radicals of attempted censorship. It seems to me that there’s less a backlash against “bringing politics into polytheism” per se than against bringing in leftist, as opposed to rightist or liberal, politics.
(And again, there’s a category difference between censorship and asking Pagans to stigmatize the practice of discrimination. Public criticism isn’t censorship; for that matter, neither is no-platforming. Censorship means using violence, the threat thereof, or a direct position of power over someone to prevent them from disseminating their ideas. Anything short of that is just disagreement, and even if G&R wanted to censor our critics – we don’t – we lack the logistical ability to censor anybody, conspiracy theories aside. It’s not as if we’re a government agency with police powers.)
As a devotional polytheist, I don’t think that the gods’ multiple and divergent agendas cleanly line up with any worshiper’s ideology, my own included. I don’t promote a set of generalized or supposedly-universal spiritual values. Instead, I have specific deities whom I serve in particular ways. Am I putting my communism “first?” Without looking at the actual relational content of my religious life, there would be no way to coherently say. So, let’s take a look – after all, to my mind, my devotional situation actually requires some sort of political engagement.
“[Gallai] wear effeminately nursed hair and dress in soft clothes. They can barely hold their heads up on their limp necks. Then, having made themselves alien to masculinity, swept up by playing flutes, they call their Goddess to fill them with an unholy spirit so as to seemingly predict the future to idle men. What sort of monstrous and unnatural thing is this?”
“Transies who attack us only care about themselves. We women need our own culture, our own resourcing, our own traditions. You can tell these are men…Women are born not made by men on operating tables.”
Not everybody can be a galla. A cisgender person couldn’t, nor could a trans man. Being a galla requires a transfeminine identity. (Theologically, this involves the devotee’s relationship to the apotheosis of Attis.) After all, my deities’ spheres of patronage include the transgender community. Kybele collectively adopted us thousands of years ago, and my individual spirituality needs that context to work. One consequence of that is the importance of venerating the non-biological ancestors who constitute all the previous generations of trans people.
Further, I find myself charged with work going past prayer and cultus (though certainly including those!). Kybele’s children aren’t all ancestors yet, and Matar has conveyed to me that serving her implies serving trans people, too. Necessarily, that includes supporting other trans people’s material as well as spiritual and social needs. The ways trans people inhabit our bodies are often painful but always sacred. Every trans woman and nonbinary transfemme moves through the world echoing Attis’s own divine physicality. So when prominent and powerful people call those holy bodies little more than walking rape machines, trying to punish us for existing as we are, how apolitical could I in good faith allow myself to be? When Paganism contains leaders who theologize that rhetoric, how could I not challenge it without dishonoring my deities?
I last entered a Christian church on November 20th last year. The pastor had offered his sanctuary to a small advocacy group for their annual Trans Day of Remembrance vigil. As I stood there, candle in hand, reading aloud the names of some of the newest trans ancestors, I silently recited a prayer over and over. The TDOR list includes just the ones whose deaths were reported as murders and classed as hate-motivated, just the ones whom the police identified as trans, just the ones whose bodies have been found. Even without factoring in the many driven to suicide, everybody involved knows the official list represents a small portion of those actually killed. Despite these restrictions, I still can’t recall a year when the number of names didn’t hit triple digits. I venerate the trans dead alone every day, and once a year with everyone I know. This is part of my polytheism.
Anti-trans violence, of course, is neither bad luck nor a natural disaster. The nexus of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism that impoverishes trans communities also exposes Black, Indigenous, and Latina trans women to the most intense violence in the LGBT world. The patriarchal gender system and lack of legal jobs that disproportionately lead transfeminine people into sex work also criminalize that work, partly causing astronomical rates of incarceration (plus plus pushing up the work’s danger level). The gentrification in Seattle, where I live, that leaves so many trans people unhoused also gives us the third-highest rate of anti-LGBT hate violence in the US. The right-wing Christian organizations that cause parents to kick trans kids out also push laws that criminalize trans bathroom use and slander us as rapists.
That’s the shape of American trans people’s reality. These conditions kill some of us and prevent many more from living free and fulfilled. They are Kybele’s children’s needs.
My religious mission demands I address them. I can’t pretend they’re not political.
“With the realization that what we saw as personal problems were in fact social ones, we have come to understand that the solutions must also be social ones.”
Sure, I could ignore my community’s material conditions, but Kybele and Attis deserve gallai who don’t choose ignorance. Honest engagement requires analyzing these problems as they actually exist. They are structural, economic, and political. Personally, I’d connect the particular strain on trans people to society-wide systems that organize power and resources – capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. My opinion is that the best empirical understanding of those systems says that they’re about who does what work and who enjoys the benefits created by that work. Various divisions of labor have led to a class system, where some people make a living by skimming a chunk off the top of what working people create. Those people are a ruling class of business owners. They enforce their exploitative and unaccountable power through both organized violence and sophisticated propaganda. That’s capitalism. Further, capitalism keeps certain kinds of work – housework, emotional labor, most sex – out of the money economy and mostly makes women and femmes do it. That’s patriarchy. Under patriarchy, your gender isn’t just a question of your own identity. It’s equally a matter of whether or not others, in a given situation, expect you to do that unpaid gendered work. Trans women and nonbinary transfemmes get expected to do that work in an extra-exploited way. The enormous levels of violence (emotional, social, physical, and spiritual) that get thrown at us serve to keep us in line, doing that extra-exploited work. Marxist feminism means figuring out ways to fix all that.
Obviously, plenty of people disagree with that description of society. And while I believe it’s empirically true, my deities certainly never sat me down and said “read Silvia Federici.”
You may well think that’s 100% off the mark and incorrect. However, once we’re talking about whether my specific ideas are the most accurate ones, we’ve already conceded the point: politics won’t be dodged. If you think my politics are wrong, then all that means is that yours differ. I’d never expect my coreligionists to become communists en masse just because I’m one. No one else on the Pagan Left asks for that, either. Hell, I don’t even demand it of the people with whom I do secular activism.
But, my religious commitments and desire to piously serve my deities don’t permit me to eschew some sort of political consciousness. I take polytheism seriously. Therefore, I can’t ignore Kybele and Attis’s imperative to address the trans population’s needs, material ones included. Thus, I have to know and address those needs as they really are. More often than not, what they are is political.
My deities come first. That’s why I’m an organizer. That’s why I lack the option of deferring to “civility” or some supposedly-apolitical polytheist unity. Racist and male-supremacist discrimination is already happening in Paganism and polytheism. Attis and Kybele want and deserve gallai who won’t leave that alone.
The Pagan Left’s critics wish we’d just focus on rebuilding the cultus of the gods. Because I take that same mandate seriously, I’m with the Pagan Left. The gods don’t automatically align their plans with conservative polytheists’ comfort zones. From time to time, deities do, in fact, decide to be patrons of acutely oppressed populations. Mine are among those, so I do politics.
And that is what living polytheism looks like.
Sophia Burns is a galla, vowed to serve Attis and Kybele, and a Greco-Phrygian polytheist. After coming out in the small-town South, she moved to Seattle, where she is active in the trans lesbian community. Other than writing for Gods&Radicals, Sophia’s activities include political organizing, attending nursing school, and spending time with her partners, friends, and chosen family. This fall, she will lead a ritual at Many Gods West.
Sophia Burns is one of the authors appearing in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.