This is a two part series article on Perspectives of Modern Paganism. I have written this article to examine not only the phenomenon of our culture after nearly two millennia of monotheism, but also to examine and contrast that to what the ancient polytheists practices and believed. From this contrasting analysis, I believe that Modern Pagans, such as myself, can better understand the task of creating a real world religion and navigating the problems and pitfalls that monotheism has placed before us. The second part of this two part article looks at ancient polytheism and how we can incorporate aspects of what we know about those religious practices into a Modern Paganism so as to make more authentic and less like modern monotheistic faiths.
The most important question is what were the ancient polytheistic religions like and how were they different from monotheistic religions today? First off, calling the ancient polytheistic religious practices a “religion” is very misleading. They didn’t function as unified institutions back then as they do today. Despite the fact that there are different factions to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, these monotheistic religions have a far greater uniformity than supposed polytheistic religions of antiquity. The very concept of “religion” as we understand it today is a recent creation promoted by the monotheistic religious culture. The habit of grouping things into monolithic aggregates and structures even affects the modern theories of science.
A pagan religious organization in ancient times was centered wholly within the cultic shrine. The fact that there were many of these cultic centers in various locations, and sometimes in the same village, town or city-state, represented the fact that the overall cultural religious perspective was polytheistic. Still, the cultic center or shrine was usually focused on one or a couple of deities, even though other lesser deities were also represented within it as part of the cultic family. Polytheistic cultic centers were very sociable regarding their deities and mythic personages, and no deity was ever depicted as being alone, isolated or without a cosmic context that included practically everything.
Nature was believed to be the emanation of the many deities, and instead of being apart from it, they were very much participants in nature and imbued in it. In fact, cultic centers were like machines that every day engaged in the nurturing, caring and worshiping of the many images or statues of the gods ensconced within them. Ancient people believed that the cultic centers kept the intimate connection between the deities and humanity viable, and this led to a harmonious balance between humanity and nature itself. They also believed that if this continuous activity failed to be enacted faithfully and perfectly then the harmony between nature and humanity fostered by the constant intercession of the gods would be lost, and that chaos and world destruction would follow.
Another interesting fact about polytheism is that all ancient religious cults had a simultaneous perspective of many gods and also one god. They could speak on one hand about a specific deity and then also talk about a God that is supreme. They may have a name for that preeminent deity or they may have just called it God, such as the ancient Egyptian word “Neteru” that was used as a determiner for the ultimate godhead. (Later on, many polytheistic religions made their chief deity into a representative of the one supreme deity.) There is an excellent quote from Professor Assmann in his book titled “Search for God in Ancient Egypt ” that I would like to share with my readers about this apparent phenomenon of monism in polytheism.
“But most polytheisms known to the history of religion are complex in the sense that they reckon - or better, live - with a divine realm beyond which there is a ‘god’ or ‘higher being’ who created the world and its deities. This coexistence is always problematic, but therein lies the complexity of genuine, living traditions as opposed to scholarly theories that deprive polytheism of its divine plurality, such as the ‘original monotheism’.., or go to the opposite extreme and deny a concept of ‘god’ beyond the plurality of deities.” ("The Search for God in Ancient Egypt", Assmann, p. 11)
Thus one of the most important concepts is that ancient polytheism was never merely the worship of an arbitrary collection of gods. Since it was a complex system of interrelationships, there was always an inherent perspective of monism imbedded within it. This is evident today when Hindus in India can talk about specific Gods to whom they worship and give offerings to, and also their overall singular expression, “God.” Adherents to the ancient polytheistic religions understood the concept of monolatry (serving a single deity) as well as serving many deities within a cultic center along with an underlying monistic perspective; but they would have been perplexed by a monotheistic theology that excluded all of the deities except one. To them it would have been like denying the variety of nature itself. Nature is abundant and so are the manifestations of deity. We live in a world that proves this hypothesis to be true every single day, as people of all different faiths, cultures and nationalities successfully experience manifestations of their respective deities within their chosen religious faiths.
Perhaps one of the most important distinctions between monotheism and polytheism is the difference between implicit and explicit theology. Monotheistic religions have as their foundation a form of explicit theology, in other words their sacred writings represent a discourse about the nature of God and the divine world as philosophical arguments aggregated into religious laws, public doctrines, liturgy and mission statements. While polytheistic religions did, over time, develop their own explicit theology, most notably in ancient Greece and Rome, the basis of polytheism is an implicit theology.
Implicit theology are the practices and beliefs that are not documented or established as laws or doctrine. It is represented by three different dimensions integrated together consisting of cultic or political activity, sacred cosmos and the sacred language of symbol and myth. The entire focus of an implicit theology consists entirely of the praxis of the cultic center managed by the priests, and how they engaged that praxis within their community. The temple shrine and the cultic center represented the political core of the village, town or city-state, and the principal deity within that center was considered the lord or lady of that place. Being an active member of a town obligated one to participate in the festive community of the deity, which was the outward manifestation of the internal and secret workings of the cultic center. Thus the cultic center was the focus of the divine presence within the community as well as the source of the social, political and religious sodality. Therefore, an implicit theology doesn’t consist of external doctrines and statements of belief, religious based laws or sacred history - there is no book of sacred writings. Instead, polytheism relied on the beliefs and practices deeply imbedded into the very culture and language of the place where the cultic center resided.
According to Professor Assmann, we can define ancient polytheism as having three different forms of divine presence or manifestation. The first consists of shapes, the second, transformations, and the third, names. These exist within the interlocking domains of the cultic center and its practices, the divine cosmos and the mythic and linguistic foundation.
Shapes - Divine Statues and the Cult
Shapes refer to the images, statues, or the various symbolic representations that are used to depict the form of the deity in the cultic center. Ancient polytheism did not believe that the statues or images that they worshiped were in fact the actual deities, but served instead as a marker or point of manifestation of a deity into a specific location. Of course, such an image would have been properly prepared, invested and powerfully charged with the association of the deity, and then treated to daily activities as if it were the actual deity itself. Temples were truly houses for the deified statues, and only later became accessed by select members of the community. Otherwise only the priesthood and their servitors resided in the temple to serve the deity. The social dimension of the deified statues and shrines were the many festivals and special occasions when the deified statues (or their proxies) were brought forth from the temples on elaborate conveyances where they mingled with the populous in joyous processions. Sometimes the deified statues were taken to other temples to visit with the deified statues worshiped there as a kind of social reunion between deities. Still, the hourly, daily and weekly rituals performed for the deified statues were accomplished mostly in complete privacy and typically unobserved by the common populous. Much of this same kind of activity still occurs in the same manner in the various cult centers and temples in India.
Typical layout of an ancient Egyptian temple
Houses of worship today built for the various sects of monotheistic religions were not built to house replications of the deities, but instead serve as meeting places for the faithful. There might be sanctified statues, as in Catholic churches, but no one worships them as exclusive representations of God, since such an act would be condemned as idolatry. The church, synagogue, or mosque is a place for the public to gather together and give worship to an invisible and transcendent deity whose actual place is beyond the boundaries of that building, or even the whole universe. Despite the elaborate buildings and decorations, and the aesthetic nature of modern houses of worship, the God that they worship is not physically present in them. Their God is unbounded and transcends all physical limitations. A church, mosque or synagogue might contain the symbology of their Deity, but it a special place where the faithful meet to steep themselves in the accouterments of a God that is inseparable but distant from them.
Such a distant and transcendental concept of deity would have been unthinkable to the polytheists of antiquity, because for them the houses of the gods were their respective location points of emanation - the places where they were immanent, and therefore, resided. While polytheists saw their deities as taking part in the never ending drama of the cosmos, they also had a toe-hold on the earth where their followers could physically encounter them - the cultic center. It was where they lived and belonged so long as the constant rites that made them resident were continuously and perpetually enacted. The distinction between monotheistic religious houses and the temples of ancient polytheists were quite profound. Since most of us were raised in a monotheistic creed, attempting to create a cultic center would be quite difficult. There would be the problem of getting enough people together who could agree on a common faith and all the particulars of housing, decorating and empowering the shrine with daily rituals and periodic festivals. And then the idea of sequestering this temple so that only a qualified priesthood would be engaged with tending to the statues of the gods would be something that most Modern Pagans would find difficult to fathom and respect.
“The cult, by its very complexity, makes the gulf between the spheres of the holy and everyday life, which it is meant to bridge, all the more palpable. On the occasion of a feast, however, these boundaries between secrecy and publicity, sacred and profane, inner and outer, were suspended. The gods then appeared in the public outside the temple walls.” (“Of God and Gods,”Assman, p. 16)
The theme of this feast, as the theme of all such public events, is the union of heaven and earth and the coming forth of the god. While the deity resides in the temple it passively receives the adoration, veneration and nurturing of the priesthood; when it emerges into the public domain it is activated and empowered by the common people and the ruling class who witness and participate in the feast. Without the continual secret activity of the priesthood the empowered presence of the deity would dissolve and its outward projection into the public sphere would cease to be possible. We can easily imagine the cultic center as the perpetual power generator for the immanent presence of the deity that allows it to briefly and periodically emerge forth, illuminating and empowering the rulers and the people, imbuing their lives with structure and meaning, giving them a place of belonging and an identity as a unified people. All of this occurred long ago without the need for declaring any kind of universal philosophic doctrine, sacred laws or liturgical dogma.
Transformations - Cosmos and Nature
Transformations refers to the specific and cyclic cosmic changes of nature itself. We are talking about the cycle of light and dark (day and night), the changing of the seasons (cycle of the Sun), the Lunar cycles, wind and rain, the occurrences of birth, growth, harvest, death and rebirth (so-called fertility), and the ever pervading and mingling of the spirits of deity enmeshing with everything, human, animal, vegetable and even mineral. There is no distinction between nature and deity, since deity manifests itself as nature. This overall cyclic process is the cosmotheology that Jan Assmann talks about, and it is something indeed that modern Pagans must develop into a perfected system of Polytheistic theology. Thus, cosmos is not a locality, it is a process. Order within the cosmos is determined by over-coming chaos, the primordial condition. The deities of a pantheon jointly participate in maintaining the cosmic order. The process of cosmos manifests as the regular cyclic changes of time. While the cosmos has a point of origin, i.e., the first day, once established, it is eternal and without end.
Therefore, the emanations of cosmic processes, such as the diurnal cycle of day and night, the lunar cycle, the cycle of seasons and the solar cycle, the regular occurrence of constellations and their apparent positions, as well as the perceived motions of the planets, represent a sacralization of the divine world. The deities, who were once an important part of the primal earth (chthonic), are embedded into the cosmic process. Yet because they are also a part of the earth, they also simultaneously manifest in specific locations or cultic centers. These are the five basic occurrences of this cosmic process: day and night or light and darkness, waxing and waning of the moon, the changing seasons of the sun and the growth and harvesting of crops, and the longer cycles where living creatures are born, achieve their purpose in procreation and then die. Amongst these many manifestations is the all-pervading occurrence of the many deities and their specific powers and mysteries (the fifth occurrence), as well as the underlying manifestation of the One.
What transpires in the cosmic process has a direct impact upon the material world because they are one and the same. It is my opinion that neolithic cultures in general, and some of their decedents like the Egyptians, were deeply concerned with the occurrence of regular and recurrent natural phenomena. Through this continuous scrutiny of nature they ultimately formulated a sacred cosmology. Other Bronze age civilizations, such as the Mesopotamians, and the later Iron age cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans, were divination cultures that observed the exceptional and the unusual in nature in order to determine the will of the gods. This, I believe, was a later adaptation of a sacred cosmology. Still, these divination cultures had their own perspective that was based on a foundation of sacred cosmology, and their focus on abnormal natural occurrences was grounded in a keen understanding of contrasting natural processes.
Names and Sacred Language
Names refers to the names, titles and appellations of all of the various gods and goddesses, spirits, heroes, monsters, the whole host of divine beings that make up the spiritual fabric enmeshed in the physical world. Included are the myths, stories, rites, parables, riddles, jokes, and even the songs and recipes for food and drink. These are the linguistic representations of nearly everything that exists in the material world, the mind or the imagination - it is the foundation of the language of the sacred. It cannot be expressed wholly in books since that would represent something that is too objective and concrete. Ancient polytheists would have understood it as something that could only be experienced directly through the senses of the soul. Sacred language is used to engage and summon the divine presence through the use of descriptive flattery, eulogies, praise, songs and poetry, recited at the right time, place and by the right authority. It would have caused the gods to take a material form and to occupy their sacralized representations (statues), thereby becoming an immanent presence perpetually maintained.
Sacred language also functions as the overall semantic binding that draws the three forms of divine presence together so that the human, social, political and cosmic domains are integrated into a single holistic, cultural system. The sacred language of myth and story makes the mysterious powers of the divine cosmos into an intelligible and tangible phenomena, which can be apprehended by the individual and used to bolster the power and prestige of the state.
“Myth is not merely a story about the gods but a form of thought, a way of world making, a deep-structural generator of stories.” (Assmann, p. 19)
When we examine the religious myths of ancient polytheists we find that the stories about the deities reveal them to have human-like characteristics, but these sentiments are within the context of interrelations between other gods and demigods in a world of the divine. Myths represents the social networks of the various gods and goddesses within a pantheon and how they are interconnected. Thus, myths are a form of divine history that is restricted to the divine world (not the world of mankind). Myth is a narration of an implied or underlying theology, therefore, myth is the primary representation of an implicit theology.
All of this symbolism, sacred theater, images, rites, pageantry, clothing, smells (incense), the songs and music, food and drink are the triggers that open the adherent into the super-symbolic world of the divine. What transpires therein are the personal and subjective mysteries of the individual - the meaning of life and the knowledge of death as intimately communicated between deity and worshiper.
These three dimensions of cult, cosmos and myth were the basic elements of polytheistic religions that incorporated an implicit theology as their foundation. However, the missing dimension or element was the dimension of history, or sacralized history as first revealed by Judaism, and then incorporated by Christianity and Islam. It became an important and significant part of monotheism. Sacred history, according to Professor Assmann, consists of the encounters and communication between the one true God and mankind. Sacred history takes the place of myth and even cosmos, becoming the true stories of individuals and their privileged relationship with the Deity, showing God as the author and creator of all things material and spiritual, the giver of laws, supreme judge and scourge of all transgressors, and the giver of redemption and forgiver of sins. This sacred history is written down as holy scriptures inspired or even written by the hand of God. Instead of kings writing their histories on the walls of their palaces, the sacred history as recorded in holy scriptures is written by the prophets, and it is mostly focused on God and his actions, while everyone else, whether king, prophet or humble shepherd, are secondary and peripheral.
A sacred history is the principal cause and motivator of everything that has occurred in the past and everything that will happen in the future. Instead of an endless and eternal cycle the world view shaped by sacred history has a beginning and an end - it is a linear construct of time. One could consider this mental transformation from an eternal cycle to a finite linear sequence of events as something of a breakthrough in consciousness. However, there is also a problem associated with sacred histories, and that is that they must be true in all particulars in order to be valid. If any event or sequence of events is shown to be mythic and without any corroborating physical proof, or even shown as impossible occurrences, then the whole linear sequence of events must be considered mythic and legendary instead of true occurrences.
While myth tends to rely on narration and allegory, sacred history declares what truly transpired, from the time of creation to the time of the final revelation - the verifiable end of time and of the material world. Sacred history has a beginning and also an end, and all of it is orchestrated and fore-ordained by God. This becomes a problem, however, when sacred history is shown to be mythic when compared to a secular and scientific explanation of the origin of the universe and actual historical events as confirmed by secular historians and anthropologists. While this might not be a problem to mainstream adherents of monotheism who have softened their interpretation of their holy scriptures so that they can be seen as allegories or parables of God’s hidden and mysterious truth, those who interpret these same scriptures literally will find themselves at odds with the secular institutions of science and even government.
This is especially true for religious fundamentalists who interpret their sacred texts as the literal truth. They do not allow for subtle nuances nor do they attempt to sequester their religion from science, allowing each their own separate intellectual domain. They publicly insist that patently absurd myths are literally true; such as the Earth and all of its creatures were created in seven days, the Great Flood of Noah occurred as described or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. They will also feel oppressed by these same secular organizations and institutions and seek some way to overcome them, since they alone possess the absolute truth in guise of their holy scriptures. Only a monotheistic faith with its emphasis on exclusivity could grant its followers the legitimacy to interpret its holy scriptures as the literal truth. And, only a monotheistic faith would empower its followers to combat the very secular institutions that have granted them the freedom to worship as they see fit in order to establish for themselves a theocracy.
Ancient polytheistic religions didn’t have sacred writings or books of laws, tenets, decrees or a deified history of their race; what they had instead was the actual doorway to enter into the world of the deity and revel in the mystery of one’s own being. The priesthood and the cultic center provided the environment and the means to achieve this experience, since they kept this connection to deity alive and the doorway to this world accessible to their faithful followers. Perhaps the only valid representation of what holy books might have been like if ancient polytheists had written down their religious practices can be found in the Vedic and Upanishadic texts of India. These works contain the liturgical rituals, hymns of praise, and the myriad of myths and stories within the underlying theme of an eternal, cyclic and divine cosmos. Later on, a more explicit theological philosophy on the nature and mystery of God emerged, but still the underlying features of Indian polytheism is an implicit theology imbedded in the culture and an immanent presence of Deity manifesting from the various cultic centers and shrines.
Modern Paganism needs to somehow capture this ability and bring it into the modern world, indelibly shaped as it is by monotheism. It will not be an easy task, but certainly there are examples that can be followed in the real world, such as a local Hindu Puja ceremony if the seeker happens to live amongst the diaspora of a transplanted Indian community. Also, experimentation will certainly guide the Pagan adherent to that point or place where they might acquire a significant personal relationship with one of the many Gods.
Modern Pagans may lack the resources to build community temples or cultic centers with dedicated priests and priestesses, but they can at least install a temple or shrine in their own home. They can approach the gods as individuals or small groups, but there are some considerations as to whether it is either necessary or desired for Modern Pagans to build a massive cult center and perform perpetual rites of adoration, sacrifice, and the basic daily rites of tending and caring for a fully vested image or statue of the Deity and its associated divine family.
The emphasis of psychological and spiritual transcendence in our culture might make it less necessary for a temple cult to engage in constant and perpetual ritual activity in order to ensure a continuous immanent presence of the deity, since there is always the possibility of being able to achieve this kind of connection at any time or place once it has been experienced and fully understood. I have also discovered that this connection can be quickly re-established if for some reason it has lapsed over a period of time. During that lapse, the world didn’t end and the Gods were still there, fully invested in their temple niche when I re-approached and recalled them.
Modern Pagans encounter their Gods and Goddesses as beings that are both immanent and transcendent, since that is the nature of deity itself within our post-modern world. In this manner, modern Pagans can engage in monolatry and establish a personal relationship with a God or Goddess, or they can worship a group of Gods and Goddesses socially related within a mythic constellation called a Pantheon. They can acknowledge the various Deities of other faiths and cultures, and they can also realize that all Deities are one unnamed source. They can experience Deity as a personal and intimate force and glory in their lives, and they can also experience the vistas of higher consciousness and spiritual transformation. It is because of the cultural influences of a transcendental deity that gives modern Pagans the flexibility to be open to all aspects of religion, spirituality, transformative magic and a myriad manifestations of Deity.
We live in very different times now than did our ancestors, the ancient polytheists, and the nascent religions of Modern Paganism as well as the ascendancy of ritual and ceremonial magick represent a whole new chapter in the perennial philosophy. It will be interesting to see how all of this plays out. Yet we must first understand the past before we are fully capable of building a new religion for the future that will pass the tests of longevity and overcome the obstacles of adversity, not to mention the pitfalls and trials of intransigent monotheism.