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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?”

– Julius Firmicus Maternus

 

“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.”

– Z. Budapest

I am a galla. I belong to Kybele, Mother of the Gods, and Attis. I’ve taken vows to serve them however they prefer. That’s my unshakable priority.

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?


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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.”

– Chicago Women’s Liberation Union

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.

 


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Sophia Burns

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.

14 Comments »

  1. This was an amazing article! As heathen androgyne, I find it very affirmative that my practice is affirmative of my values and of my gender/sexuality. When it comes to associating with folks in a pagan setting, I do put my politics first because my personal practice cannot be conflicted with ideas/attitudes that I find harmful to myself and others. So yes! Politics first! Although I don’t think that my practice is predicated upon a set political framework, I feel that my practice affirms what my heart feels to be right. Thanks Sophia for an excellent read, may the Goddess be with you…

    Like

  2. Isn’t there a bittersweet irony in one first-generation pagan calling another a “fake pagan”?

    I’m totally, unashamedly fake, and I make the most of it. I don’t hesitate to make stuff up as I go along. Authenticity is a luxury I never had, being raised in one of the many cults of the one god. To resurrect paganism in the context of the very civilization that snuffed it out in the first place is a political act. And honestly, the Right need look no further than Younohu for a god to justify being a total asshole.

    I thought the point of polytheism was that there are more ways than one to go about it. That you find your god or gods to align with, or they find you, because of your values.

    However, there are gods to whom humanity is a resource to be exploited. Those who serve them are not my friends.

    @G&R: You can stop apologizing for your existence already.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t recall any of our ancestors assuming that the the gods and humans always shared the same agendas. I am not certain about a lot of things about my gods, but I will never claim that I personally know what they wants, as I am not one connected with them that closely. But one thing I do know I am not going to tell another person that their ideas about the gods, or their method of worship is wrong. What I like, or don’t like may have nothing to do with what the gods want, think, or like. So I could never call another Pagan a fake Pagan.

    I will agree that as nearly everything involves politics, it is nearly impossible not to deal with politics as well. That may include our relationship with the gods. Certainly our ancestors seemed to bargain with the gods. Even in larger religions people are argued with the gods. Knowing that my gods may decide to make use of me, I went so far to say it was okay by me, and enough odd things have happened that seem to suggest they took my offer.

    But I do not have direct connections, though I thank them for help and good fortune, and even for my learning good lessons from bad fortune. As I mentioned to someone even my bad fortune seems to carry some good luck, judging what I learn from it, how I have survived it, and growth I have had as a person afterward.

    Like

  4. Powerful and real, and something I think we can all feel in us. What we are, who we are, is political. I’m a bisexual woman living in Texas – how can my worship of Aphrodite and Hera be anything but political? This is an election year in the US – anyone who worships Zeus Basileus will be feeling very political. Religion has always been political, because people are political.

    This was such a good read and I can’t stop going over it. Thank you for this.

    Like

  5. We may not share the same politics but I cannot argue against anything you have said here. The one thing that I will “nudge” about is the combination of religion and politics. When religion and politics ride in the same wagon that wagon can (and often times does) carean out of control.

    I don’t know about your Gods but mine can be notoriously vague. My wish for a more just world, for more equality, for a safe place for people of all genders, sexualities and expressions comes from my sense of humanity. My moral compass is not dictated by my Gods. It is dictated by what is right and what is wrong. The Trans community has always been at high risk as well as being sexualy objectified. I don’t need my Lady and my Lord to tell me it is wrong. I need my moral compass as a human to tell me that is wrong and to demand that it end.

    You see, what if someone’s Gods were telling them to hate, to exclude, to discriminate. it is all too easy to interpret what the Gods are saying within the lens of one’s own perception. Let us not forget that Zeus has caused many of his own problems because he could not keep himself sexually under control. Odin demanded the lives of men as his sacrifice of choice. He too, was not a pleasant God.

    Their natures are beyond us. Mine are. I know that they are fiercely protective of me but they have not demanded that I take a side. Your’s seem to be directly devoted to Trans people. The argument could be made that they demand you act. The warning is how other people see what their Gods are “saying” and that they act accordingly, with the imprimatur of their Gods as their excuse.

    “I” demand that I take a side. The “human” in me demands that I take a stand on what is right and wrong. My humanity demands that I stand beside you, listen to you and support you in the manner in which you want and need me to support you… not my Gods… as real as my connection to them is, as palpable, as accessible. Not them.

    I respect GnR though do not agree with some of the radical politics. That being said, I read the posts when I can and keep an open mind.

    I just want to warn that if we all act from the belief that this is what our Gods want then we open ourselves up to others acting in an oppressive manner under the guise of what their Gods want. I would rather we act because it is simply right, ethical and moral. I would hope that oppressive people would come to see that their act of oppressing others is… unkind, immoral and unethical. Otherwise, what do we do? Pray to those people’s Gods to change the minds of their devotees?

    All I am saying is that we should tread lightly when we combine our politics and our religion. One has a way of corrupting and excusing the other… if we are not very, very careful.

    This, of course, just my personal opinion. I hope I have not offended anyone. My sole intention is to express a fear (which may be unwarranted), open a dialogue and offer, an open mind that is willing to consider differing views and is willing to change it’s own view in response to what I hear.

    If nothing else… in the very least, know that you have my support. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bernard, I personally would agree with you on a number of your points. My gods so far have not communicated anything directly to me, so I will not claim to know their feelings. But I certainly have my own concept of what is right and wrong and that is enough for me to make my decisions on. I have my own misgivings on the combination of politic and religion, judging from past history of such combination in other religions at other times. But that is a personal feeling and it sets how I see those two items in my life. Though I do agree that politics has a great deal to do with what we are allowed to do in our society, so that we certainly cannot ignore it safely.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I think you have done an excellent job of politicising your chose spiritual tradition, whether your gods demanded that of you I think is debatable based on what you present here. I say this because your discourse is highly refined and arguably comes from a number of modern political and discursive schools. Said discourse makes a number of implicit assumptions that I would feel uncomfortable laying on my Gods, mainly because I figure that I don’t like others to assume they know my mind better than I, so why would my Gods be different.

    Doubly so because they are Gods, and as another commenter has mentioned they have some different ‘unique’ (read vague/confusing/seemingly-contradictory) ways of expressing themselves too us.

    This is by no means to undermine the positive aspects of your post, I do think you are trying to do good things, but I also have to counsel that overly ascribing anything to our gods is a fine line between ‘inspired service’ and ‘dogmatic fundamentalism’. Between the ‘New Right’ the ‘Radical left’ (these days I don’t see a hell of a lot of difference) and certain religious groups, I feel we have more than enough fundamentalism in someone else’s name in the world today.

    Wise deliberation and some separation within the spheres of ones life is not always a bad thing, and I hope these words are taken in good faith as the weary council of an outsider, not an outright condemnation of anyone or anything.

    The right thing for the right reasons, not the right thing for the wrong reasons.

    Best wishes and good luck!

    Like

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