Polytheism?

Our aim is to encourage the expansion of Heathen thought into the domains of theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology and other discplines that have yet to be examined by Heathenry or any other form of European polytheism.

Thus say the editors of the Journal Of Contemporary Heathen Thought. I have said it before, I am no fond of describing heathenism as polytheistic, mine not for sure!
Webster describes polytheism as “belief in or worship of more than one god”. This is of course the literal interpretation. In a way, there is even little to object to this term, but a longer explanation is more so:

Polytheism was the typical form of religion during the Bronze Age and Iron Age, up to the Axis age and the gradual development of monotheism or pantheism, and ultimately atheism.

So says Wikipedia. This is the usual idea that polytheism, or the worship of more than one God is primitive, undeveloped and that evolution came to the more sensible monotheism, or “the doctrine or belief that there is but one God” (Webster again, the word “doctrine” is funny here do you not think?).
Are there more Gods? It is of course a way of explaining things. What are Gods would be a question that needs to be asked first. In the Northern European prechristian faith, the answer could be a simple as: Odin, Thor, Freyr, etc., but how Godly are all these Gods? They are mortal, like man, most of them die during Ragnarök as we all know from the Völuspa. Some Gods, eh? But Webster again, says that “a god” is

a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically : one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality

“More than natural powers” and “require human worship”, that does not seem to have to imply that “being or object” to have to be immortal, not even divine! A superman or hero from a story could be a god. So I suppose Odin et al fit the definition, so there are indeed many Gods in the Northern pantheon. So the religion of old and the new version of it today is polytheistic? I am still not convinced.
Sure, there are more (poly) Gods (theos), but my main objection against the term is the idea that these (mortal!) Gods are the ‘most divine’, because that is not true in my humble opinion. Sure, Odin is the “allfather”, Tyr might have been the original “sky God”, but it is not they or any of them who is the Ultimate Source. For starters Odin, Vili and Vé (or Odin, Hoenir and Lodur, the three Gods who created the world) were the sons of a giant called Bur who on his turn stemmed from Ymir, the primordial giant from whose body “three” created the heavens and the earth. Ymir came forth from the reaction of fire and ice in the “yawning gap” called “Ginnungagap”.
So what is my point? As according to some Hindu texts everything including the Gods came from Brahma, in our own texts, everything including the Gods eventually came forth from Ginnungagap. So in the end, is it fair to talk about polytheism? On a certain level perhaps, but I prefer the idea of an Ultimate Divinity, a source from which everything came and to which everything will return (just like the breathing Brahma). There are “Gods”, sure, in a way, the in the end there is only One, so I do not consider myself polytheistic. A “monist” then?

a : a view that there is only one kind of ultimate substance
b : the view that reality is one unitary organic whole with no independent parts

A “pantheist“?

1 : a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe
2 : the worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently; also : toleration of worship of all gods (as at certain periods of the Roman empire)

(not with these explanations!)
A “panentheist” then?

a belief system which posits that God exists and interpenetrates every part of nature, and timelessly extends beyond as well. Panentheism is distinguished from pantheism, which holds that God is synonymous with the material universe

Man, I dislike all these cabins that none exactly fit (and for the better!)!

5 comments

  1. It seems to me that the wikipedia definition expresses an inherently flawed Marxist view– used not in the polemical sense, but literally philosophically Marxist, as influenced by the Hegelian progressive view of history, placing atheism at the end of a line from primitive to advanced, in the same way Hegel did with Liberalism and Marx with Socialism as a necessary endpoint of all human development. Working from such a narrow and, in most circles, rejected view of sociology and ethnography, it is no surprise that in places of real academic rigour, wikipedia is a byword for inaccuracy and lack of informed opinion.

    Working within strict definitions will ultimately create “cabins that none exactly fit” in your phrasing, but that is because the definitions are so strict. It seems to me that your definition of God itself is likewise so strict I am surprised you use it at all to describe our Gods–the notion that somehow the Gods are mortal strikes me especially as a misconception of what “mortal” and “immortal” mean. Immortal does not mean indestructable by any stretch of the imagination. For example, let us look to our cousins the Hindus– Vishnu is most certainly immortal and Divine, but he has ten different avatars, or incarnations, each of which do, ultimately, perish. Krishna, Rama, and the others are no less “immortal” because they perish– they are most certainly not “mortal” because of the Divinity inherent to their being. Likewise, if one is going to express any belief in the Gods of our ancestors, one must necessarily accept them to be Divine, and that which is Divine simply cannot be mortal– otherwise we would have no need for such concepts as demi-gods or heroes.

    Therefore, the rejection of the term “polytheism” because of a Christian or Mohammedan belief in God being “absolute” does make some sense, but it reflects a narrow definition of “God” itself alien to our ancestors and, therefore, our Faith, since the grounding of the Faith must be in our ancestors, or it is little more than an arbitrary form of neo-paganism no different than inventions like Wicca or Thelema.

    1. Krunaadh, do not mistakes these few remarks as some kind of theology. There are a few things I put a questionmark behind: are “the Gods” the highest Divinity? Do these Gods resemble humans like the texts suggest? My main point is that poytheism is taken too literally. The Gods we know from the Edda’s are not factual descriptions of beings, they are images to explain something. So sure the Gods can die at Ragnarok, but that does not mean that whatever for example Odin represents dies, or otherwise, Odin is not the “allvater” in that sense. “The Gods” are not the highest there is, especially not the Gods from the Eddas.

      Therefore, the rejection of the term “polytheism” because of a Christian or Mohammedan belief in God being “absolute” does make some sense

      Wow, you really misunderstand what I am trying to say here! I say that Ginnungagap is the Ultimate Source, or at least, the best description for that in our sources. Ginnungagap resembles in almost nothing the creator Gods of the monotheistic faiths. I could argue as easily that the Christian God, Allah and especialy Jehova is not the Ultimate Divinity. I certainly do not see the Gods from the Eddas as children to some higher, but similar, God (Mithotyn is a popular one for that). Besides, I do not reject polytheism, since in the literal sense it means but the belief in more Gods, I just say that in the end (or rather the beginning), these poly Theos are but a part of the Whole.

      a narrow definition of “God” itself

      Actually, the broadest definition possible. Everything came from Ginnungagap, including Ymir, Bur, Odin, Vili and Vé and then the rest.
      “[S]ince the grounding of the Faith must be in our ancestors”. Sure, but be aware that you do not see your understanding of that as that faith. You say “alien to our ancestors”, but that is but your perception. Personally I think that your ancestors, just as any genuine religion, had an esoteric side as well, a side of greater interest for me personally. You can call that “an arbitrary form of neo-paganism no different than inventions like Wicca or Thelema”, but that is just your opinion against mine. All I can say is that if that is your opinion, my scribblings may not be for you. But of yours I do not mind sparring a little with somebody with a different opinion.

  2. >>”Sure, there are more (poly) Gods (theos), but my main objection against the term is the idea that these (mortal!) Gods are the ‘most divine’, because that is not true in my humble opinion.”

    I feel significantly misunderstood here; my comments regarding your justification for discomfort with the term “polytheist” relates primarily to the above. You are very clearly here objecting to the term “polytheist”, or at least expressing discomfort therewith, because of the Abrahamic view of the term “God” being an absolute, being a “highest divinity”. I understand your discomfort, but also urge you to see that such discomfort is really unnecessary when one considers that the absolutist, if I may use the term, view of a deity *is* something alien to our ancestors– no, that’s not an opinion, that’s from the scripture itself, which is the only voice speaking to our religion today that has any real connexion to our ancestors. If you want to wander deep into the land of esotericism to build a *foundation* for the religion, feel free, but you’ll be leaving all rationality and all theological basis–and I submit, legitimate basis–for a religion behind, and building a new cult rather than rebuilding an ancient religion. Such ventures, though attractive, are ultimately always deadly to the project of establishment and foundation which a young faith such as our own still has yet to complete.

    It is indeed true, of course, that all true religions do have a mystical and esoteric component, but it is not fundamental in any real religion, but rather an embodiment of an aspect of what is truly fundamental, which is a tradition, to be specific a written tradition. From the Hindus to the Jews to the Mohammedans to the Buddhists and beyond, all true religions have an ancient and timeless tradition which is recorded– a voice, so to speak (pardon the pun), of the father(s) of the religion, speaking down through the ages to their children.

    I have to admit I find it somewhat disconcerting that you would view the Gods, even if they are not absolute, as merely “images to explain something”. The Gods are real, they must be real, they must *exist*, for without their existence, the scripture becomes nothing more than aphorism, as temporal and mortal as we who read it, and the whole religion dips into the pit of secularism. Of course, there are always lessons and wisdom to be gained from the stories of the Gods, put into an comprehensible format for their acolytes, and in this sense the stories the Gods are indeed meant to explain and represent something, but to say they are not in some sense true is to completely rob them of their value as mythology– disbelief is no foundation of a real religion, for reasons which I hope are clear without having to be articulated.

    Putting aside the above warnings from one theologian to another (despite what you may claim, and despite how much you clearly run and hide from notions like “dogma” and “theology” and “doctrine”, you are nevertheless proposing a theology when you write things of this nature), I would like to say I find this notion of Ginnungagap, the “yawning abyss”–the great nothingness– being the ultimate or highest reality positively fascinating. The physical act of creation, however, still falls into the hands of deities, you must admit, as it attested in scripture. Ginnungagap is the nothing that was before there was creation; it seems to me that if one wants to seek the highest, one would be looking at some substance, some reality, or some *thing*, rather than an absence thereof. Ymir, after all, did not arise *from* Ginnungagap, and he was not formed *by Ginnungagap into the world, but rather *in* Ginnungagap– his actual birth took place from Niflheim and Muspell, understood and described in the lore as substantive and physically interactive realms.

    If one wants to talk of a greater whole (which, I agree, most certainly exists and of which the Gods are most certainly a part), then it seems to me one should not be looking for any thing, realm, place, stuff, substance, material, time, &c., but a deeper spiritual and esoteric reality shared by the Gods, by Men, and by all other things and beings. In this regard, I feel we are in total agreement, but finding our absolute in two different places. I would suggest to you that the truly unifying factor in all of the beings who take their shape *in* Ginnungagap is a common thread of ancestry, a spiritually inherited bond tracing from Ymir to the Gods themselves to we, the race of Men who were made privy to their secrets. This is a fundamental source of the Folk, as many have come to call it. Another route to take would be to consider the force which gave rise to the existence of Ginnungagap and the rest, some unmoved first mover as Aquinas would phrase it. I am reluctant to tread that path, but there is nothing to say much could not be gained from a Thomist Heathenry (what a thought!).

    If one is looking for a single existence rather than absence to call the “absolute”, I would venture Yggdrasill would be the prime candidate, since it takes on the role of Ginnungagap in supporting all of existence, but, unlike Ginnungagap, it is not a *lacking* but a *having*, and therefore, unlike Ginnungagap, is it life-affirming.

    I would nevertheless like to see this Ginnungagap theology developed further, it has the potential to spark the first genuine theological debate our religion has ever seen, to the effect of furthering the process of establishment and re-establiment of our ancient faith.

    1. Krunaadh I hoped to be able to give a reaction to the discussion at the Heathen Journal forum, but let me first try to give a reply here.
      We are probably talking alongside eachother somewhat because we have different starting points, it seems that we do not disagree on the point of discussion though, perhaps more so about other things. The few thoughts that you replied to, were nothing more but a little tease to set people to think, not a theology, founding, philosophical exercise or anything. Apparently that worked in your case, but we are now discussing (other) details. My point is that many people who like to say that our religion is polytheistic, forget the point of what you call a “greater whole […] of which the Gods are most certainly a part”, nothing more, nothing less.

      As for the other points, I do not really care much for theology or philosophy. I have not read (much of) the famous theologians and philosophers and I am not interested in being able to approve or deny points in my way of thinking with referring to them. In my opinion a religion should be experienced, not sifted out and written down. I obviously am not very good at that either, so that may be why!
      My starting point is naught. Pythagoras (indeed, a philosopher of some sort) had a beautiful way of explaining how things came to be: the Tetraktys. All comes from naught, the 1 (maybe ‘only here’ we can place Ginnungagap, but there are reasons to say that Ginnungagap is the naught), duality (fire and ice and/or Ymir), three principles (for example Odin Vili and Vé) and the four (elements) that form the world. Where would that place the Gods? Somewhere between three and four I suppose, otherwise at four, in the world of becoming. Now Ginnungagap in this picture is of course not a creating entity. What I like about the image of Ginnungagap is that it can impossibly be mixed up with some anthropomorphical creative force. Things emanate from Ginnungagap, like in the Kabbalistic picture of Tzim-tzum where the tree of life emanates from a breaking vessel (Aun Soph Aur). There are three terms for the same idea, naught, Ginnungagap, Ain Soph Aur. I do not mind using such terms through eachother if any of them makes a better explanation in some situation. To take this point a little further, since everything came from ‘one point’, so did the Primal Law (“Örlögr”) and the ‘first faith’ (by lack of a better term). The latter is the Tradition of René Guénon and the like, the stem of which all religions are branches and (in the end/beginning) the stem which is ‘true esotericism’. Religion is the outer form, esotericism the inner. My primal concern is esotericism. Since esotericism is something wholly different from religion and religion forms a means or hopefully a path, but certainly the outer part, religion is no less valuable/necessary. I personally find the religion of my very far ancestors more most natural one and that is why I walk the heathen path. I have no intention to re-establish “our ancient faith” though. Religion is a living thing, not a static one (contrary to its foundation). Since I live over a thousand years since the religion of old was painted over with another one, my religion will not be the same as that of a thousand years ago, it will only be build on it.

      If you want to wander deep into the land of esotericism to build a *foundation* for the religion, feel free, but you’ll be leaving all rationality and all theological basis–and I submit, legitimate basis–for a religion behind, and building a new cult rather than rebuilding an ancient religion.

      You seem to be even more a child of our times than myself here. “Rationality” and “theological basis” have nothing to do with true religion (and less even with esotericism) and I to not build a foundation, I try to use a foundation that is already there. You can call that a “new cult”, but I can argue that modern heathenry based on rationality and theology is just as alien to the way our ancestors lived with their Gods as you think my approach is.

      because of the Abrahamic view of the term “God” being an absolute, being a “highest divinity”. I understand your discomfort, but also urge you to see that such discomfort is really unnecessary when one considers that the absolutist, if I may use the term, view of a deity *is* something alien to our ancestors– no, that’s not an opinion, that’s from the scripture itself, which is the only voice speaking to our religion today that has any real connexion to our ancestors.

      Ginnungagap is in “the scripture”, right? Don’t use the term “God” is you get “Abrahamistic” sentiments from that term. Since the term actually comes from the prechristian Northern European language, I am quite happy with it. Again, the only thing I wanted to say is that “the Gods” emanated from something, so they cannot be the ‘highest’ there is. Perhaps Ginnungagap isn’t either. I do not mind have an idea of Divinity that is beyond my rational thinking. Further, I do not use “the scripture” as “the scripture”.

      It is indeed true, of course, that all true religions do have a mystical and esoteric component, but it is not fundamental in any real religion, but rather an embodiment of an aspect of what is truly fundamental, which is a tradition, to be specific a written tradition.

      Disagree. That is exactly what esotericism is not.

      I have to admit I find it somewhat disconcerting that you would view the Gods, even if they are not absolute, as merely “images to explain something”.

      I do not mean that in a psychological sense or something (another thing I do not care much for). What I mean is that Odin is not an old man with one eye and a big hat, but that image represents something, a principle (or rather a set of principles) (maybe that is a psychological explanation, I wouldn’t know). The stories in the Eddas, etc. are not just stories about human-like figures doing funny stuff, they can also be explained in another way. Of course, each level of interpretation is valid.

      it seems to me that if one wants to seek the highest, one would be looking at some substance

      While I think Ginnungagap is the source of all, does not mean that I suggest to ‘worship’ it or whatever. How can one worship, or even ask things to naught? “The Gods” would be much better for that 🙂

      To close off, my “theology” (if you like) can be found scattered around these pages. My article about “Traditionalistic Asatru” could be a starter. What I hope to accomplish with my writings is not that people agree with me, follow my ideas, approve or deny theories, just to make people think, investigate and come to their own temporary conclusions.

  3. “All I can say is that if that is your opinion, my scribblings may not be for you”

    On the contrary, even if you are wrong, discourse is the only way we’re going to get anything intellectual going in this religion and keep it from being dominated by the tiny-brained hedonists and play-act “vikings”.

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