My polytheism was waiting for me for a very long time.
It peeked at me out of children’s books on Greek mythology and popular surveys of archaeology and heavy tomes on world religions past and present. It smiled at me from a two-page illustration of hundreds of gods of the Hindu pantheon, with their multiple arms, their glittering ornaments, their unlikely skin colors. It beckoned me from the bright hues and stylized poses of ancient Egyptian art, which I emulated in my own childhood drawings.
My polytheism tapped me on the shoulder when the librarian at my neighborhood branch, who had an uncanny intuition for what her patrons would enjoy reading, handed me a recently published book with a gold geometrical design on a red cover: The Spiral Dance. It wove in and out of bad teenaged poems about the seasons and hymns to Dionysus and Athena. It took a breather and waited quietly when my grandmother’s sudden death sent me back to church, looking for a replacement for the stability I lost with her death. It was ready to woo me again when I met a man who liked intellectual conversation as well as I did and fell in love.
The man I fell in love with and married was (and is) a church organist, and while he was far from unsympathetic to my pagan and polytheist leanings, it’s hard to reject the Christian church entirely when it’s paying your salary. I spent the next twenty years or so exploring assorted pagan and polytheist paths, along with magical training and Tibetan Buddhism (which certainly looks polytheist to me), yet always wandering back to the church. It wasn’t until I was divorced and living on my own that I somehow made the emotional connection to a deity that had always been missing from the equation for me. That deity was Antinous, and regular readers of this blog know the rest.
I didn’t know I was missing devotion from my religious life until I felt it, experienced it. I say “devotion”, but I’m talking about a wide range of emotional responses to different deities, from the intensity of my feeling for Antinous, what you might call a higher octave of infatuation, attraction, erotic feeling, to my respect for Mars to my fondness for Flora to my increased interest in Jesus as a deified mortal, as a teacher, and as someone who created a path through death for those who trust in him. I never experienced Jesus as someone I could talk to, confide in, ask questions of and get answers from, as I experience Antinous. For many years I participated in the sacrament of communion every week, yet I never felt I had the kind of contact with Jesus from eating his body, drinking his blood, that I can get from talking to Antinous in the shower.
My polytheism, however, is not limited to devotion, though it includes it. My working theory of things, which in some ways has changed very little no matter what religion I named myself, is that the gods are interested in humans because they are interested in making more gods. Perhaps when you are immortal and don’t reproduce very often, it is easier to increase your numbers by upgrading other beings. My polytheism doesn’t think the gods are interested in offerings for the sake of offerings, in slaves like a Roman household had or even servants like an Edwardian household. They don’t want mortals to run their baths, cook their food, launder their clothes, clean up their mess. My polytheism thinks that what the gods want are agents, mortals to work for and with them, to share their values and carry out their agendas, with the eventual reward being promotion, deification, theosis. Some of the things that being an agent of the gods might require include magic, mysticism, meditation, contemplation, social activism, art and creativity, and much more.
My polytheism rejects the idea that other people’s polytheism has to look like theirs. It rejects the idea that 21st-century polytheism has to look exactly like 1st-century polytheism. And it rejects the idea that people cannot be good, worthwhile individuals who are contributing to the world unless they are religious people. I don’t want a hegemony of one religion in my society, not even my own religion; neither do I want a campaign against religion like the Communist regimes saw. My polytheism is happy to live in a secular society where a citizen can have any religion or no religion and all religions are equally protected and not promoted.
My polytheism is at times a hot mess, at times a work in progress. It involves my relationships with gods but also with spirits, with places, with birds and trees, with myself, with my body, my neuroses, my history. It can look like writing a poem for Antinous or like dropping offerings from a bridge into a polluted river. It can mean talking to a god or talking to a pigeon. It can include dancing for the gods in my little apartment or singing in a church choir. It doesn’t go away when I’m watching tv or reading fanfiction; it informs those things, too. My polytheism is about me and my gods, the values we share and what they want for me as well as from me; it’s not about a group, a culture, a time period. My polytheism respects other polytheisms, other religions, and firmly but politely asks that you respect it in return.