Essays, Modern American Polytheism

Modern American Polytheism

Originally published in Cup of Wonder, Issue 7, in the fall of 2003

While I hate describing things in the negative, let me start by explaining the basics of my beliefs by what they aren’t – it will help clarify things more quickly than trying to define them in the positive.

First off, I’m not Wiccan. No calling the guardians of the directions, no elements, no Silver RavenWolf, no cone of power, no “all Gods are one God” no “The Goddess as supreme being and her consort, who is occasionally useful for reproduction.” For me, while the Gods have different spheres of influence, there is not necessarily a rule for who is most powerful – and there are lots of Gods. Rituals with circles, High Priest & High Priestess, and lots of trappings aren’t generally in my world-view either.

I’m not a Reconstructionist. I don’t follow the Gods of a previous culture – although I do use that history as a guideline. History shows how others have seen the Gods, and how they have worshipped. There’s no sense in starting from scratch when there’s so much useful information out there to use as a springboard. I’m syncretistic, not eclectic, and occasionally make offerings to specific Gods from older cultures when they seem to be the most appropriate. But when I do that, it’s with a lot of background knowledge about that particular God and the culture from which that information comes.

I’m also not a new-agey fluffy white lighter, who believes everything is love, light, and lollipops. Go back and read the stories, folks – you leave offerings for fairies, elves, and the like to keep them from hurting your family or doing other nasty things, not because you’re trying to be neighborly.

I’ve recently taking to describing myself as a MAP – a Modern American Polytheist. While I fully understand the idea of worshiping Gods in a cultural context, I see no reason that my current culture cannot be that context. In the past, when people moved, they took their Gods with them, but also found Gods specific to their new homes…and I believe the same is true within the United States. Throughout history, new Gods come into favor, and others fall out of favor; Gods take on new responsibilities as their
society changes around them.

With those thoughts in mind, let’s continue on with the basic ideas of Modern American Polytheism, as I see them

The Gods Themselves

There seem to have been differing numbers of Gods in any society, but some were always the most popular or most well known, while others were local deities, or only worshipped by those in certain trades. The Romans had Gods for everything. Hundreds of them. Looking at the complexity of the world around us, such an idea seems to be reasonable.

And it’s pretty hard to know all of them – realistically, I’ve met thousands of people in my relatively short life. I regularly interact with maybe 100-150 of them, and I’m friends with an even smaller group. Gods are probably similar – maybe you’ll meet some of them once or twice, and you’ll occasionally interact with a small subset of those you’ve met who are appropriate to your daily life. But on a regular basis, there will be a small number – maybe a dozen, probably less – which you regularly worship or honor.

Somewhere along the way, each of those Gods made themselves known to men. While we’re not always sure how a new God comes into the popular culture, unless a being appears in the middle of a village and says “hey, I’m a God, worship me and good things will happen,” it almost certainly starts with just a few people on the human end of the equation – or maybe even just one person.

What about those you don’t know? The Romans had, as noted in the Bible, shrines for “unknown” Gods. My usual method of dealing with such a God or Goddess is to basically say “I don’t know who you are, but would whoever is responsible for such-and-such please hear this request?” If I end up needing to interact with that God or Goddess more often, I try to find a name – any name – that generally fits, until or unless the God tells me otherwise. Sometimes it’s as simple as a description.

In the US, there are many “concepts” in modern life that seem to have taken on God-like status in the mainstream world. We talk about Lady Liberty, Lady Luck, and “Sun Worshippers.” We have Elvis, still worshipped by many as “the King” (of rock & roll), even after his death – people make pilgrimages to his home, sing his songs, dress up like him, and insist that they’ve seen him alive.

Additionally, most conservative Christians will tell you that anything we treat as more important than JHVH is a “false god” or an idol. But think about their beliefs – maybe they’re right about the idea that those things are Gods…just not their God.

There are Gods and Goddesses out there – we just need to find them.

Definitions

Let’s talk a bit about the meanings of words.

Pantheism is defined by Webster’s as “a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe” or as “the worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently; also the toleration of the worship of all gods.”

In typical conversation among the modern, wide-ranging “Pagan” community, pantheism often refers to the idea that the divine is in everything around us.

Animism is defined by Webster’s as “a doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit,” “Attribution of conscious life to objects and in phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects,” or “Belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies.”

My experience is that people usually mean that second definition – that inanimate things are alive.

While I don’t see them as alive, or as having souls or thoughts, I do believe that many of the things around us have spirits associated with them. Much like the land spirits are seen in Norse and Roman mythology – land wights and lares – the spirits are a part of the land; it belongs to them, and they belong to it, but they have a separate existence.

One of my on-going theories is that there are “levels” of power for these spirits. Gods are the biggest and most powerful, with large spheres of influence, while other spirits may only have enough power to be responsible for a flower, a tree, or a house.

And generally speaking, I take a loose definition of what makes something qualify as a God – if it seems to be a God, it’s probably best to treat it as such, since I’m not going to be able to tell the difference between “almost a God” and “a Real True ™ God.”

Personal examples

A big part of my life revolves around computers. And they’re known for being temperamental. It’s my belief that there are several Gods, along with a host of spirits – envision the computer version of a dryad – that make the infernal things work (or not, as the case may be). With an average of 5 computers per person (that’s about one for every 125 square feet in our house), and more than one printer per person, keeping the computer Gods happy is a useful thing. We leave offerings of Doritos (the original flavor) and either Mountain Dew or beer for them – as often as we can remember to, at any rate. As long as we make our offerings fairly regularly, we have very few problems – and the times we’ve forgotten to leave our offerings, things have reminded us (like the week we had several hardware failures plus we broke 2 of our printers, one of which required 2 service calls and almost $1000 in consumable parts, plus cleaning lots of internal parts, to fix).

I occasionally leave offerings for the spirits of my house – bread with honey and milk seem to work well when things keep getting lost. I burn incense, candles, and use other methods of communicating with my Gods as seems most appropriate. When I’m trying to do something specific, I look at how other cultures have worshipped similar Gods, and see what portion of those suggestions seems meaningful.

Final thoughts

Finally, I see this as a journey – nothing is set in stone, nothing is absolutely required or absolutely forbidden. What matters is my interactions with the Gods that seem most appropriate for my life, and most interested in interacting with me. The more I learn about other cultures and other means of worship, the more likely it is that I’ll get it right the first time when I’m interacting with a God or Goddess I’m just meeting for the first time.

Check out my new energy work page, http://www.facebook.com/GoodVibrationsEnergyStudio

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