God Forms and Conflict: The Downside of Polytheism

25400853_sPertaining to the question of One or Many, I’m going to write a pair of posts, this week and next, on the downsides of both, this week on polytheism.

Inevitably and by its nature, polytheism involves splitting the Cosmos into multiple fractal images, each with its own special character. A monotheistic God is a metaphor for the cosmos as a whole, but a deity in a pantheon, while reflecting the All as every deity must, emphasizes a portion or aspect of the All more than the rest of it. As a result, the potential for conflict arises (or increases) between worshipers of different deities.

This conflict, which is evident in the Neopagan community today and would be more so if Pagans didn’t see themselves as a potentially persecuted minority and so have an instinct to circle the wagons, is different from the types of conflict that can arise where monotheists are involved. Monotheists are more likely to fall into the “one way” mental trap and to condemn those of divergent views; polytheists seldom do this, or not as often as monotheists, anyway. But polytheists open themselves to conflict of another type, not about their gods, but because of their gods.

Worshipers take on the attributes of their deities. This process is partly magical and partly mental, but over time a devotee of a particular deity amplifies those aspects of his personality which resemble the god and becomes, to the extent he is able, the god’s avatar or channel. To some extent those attributes are almost always present beforehand, as otherwise the devotee would not be attracted to worship of that deity, but over time and repeated invocation they become amplified. When those aspects make for conflict between devotees of different deities, conflict is likely to arise.

Is a Wiccan devotee of a peaceful Mother Goddess a natural ally of a worshiper of Odin who sees himself as a warrior, merely because both can be lumped under the “Pagan” label and both are polytheists? Only if they see themselves as struggling against the monotheistic Christian majority, in which case it’s an alliance of convenience against a common enemy. Absent that external stimulus to cooperation, the fissure between them would be wide, even if both recognized the unity underlying the diversity of the gods (and of course, not all Pagans do).

The myths and legends of deities arising from polytheistic religions always present them as conflicting with each other and for good reason. That’s within single pantheons; when we mix pantheons from different cultures in a single society, which is what we are doing (as well as inventing new designer deities), we compound the problem.

A follower of Apollo is sure to have very clear delineations of right and wrong in his moral viewpoint and likely to be somewhat ascetic. A worshiper of Loki will be allergic to clear moral distinctions and regard everything as morally gray. A devotee of Dionysus becomes hedonistic and prone to excess in pursuit of spiritual ecstasy. These are not easily reconcilable qualities. The follower of Apollo won’t usually contend that the Loki or Dionysus worshiper is following a “false god” or condemn these individuals for their religious behavior as such, but he will inevitably condemn the Loki worshiper’s willingness to engage in morally questionable acts and the Dionysian’s hedonism, without reference necessarily to the gods they worship. Even when there is no religious dispute as such (and sometimes there is, even with all the emphasis in the Pagan community on tolerance and diversity), the fragmenting of the divine image exacerbates and focuses personality and lifestyle conflicts.

And that, in my opinion, is why the Pagan community features so much in the way of squabbling, back-biting, bickering, and personal vituperation, far out of proportion to its numbers.

Is there a solution to the problem? Perhaps, but it requires a degree of enlightenment that is beyond the scope of most people, particularly those new to the spiritual path. It requires recognition that the cosmos is One, even if its aspects are Many, and an ability to transcend the limits of a particular deity. It may require that a polytheist avoid being the particular devotee of any one god or goddess, but give his heart and reverence instead to all of them, recognizing each as a pathway to the All. Not all Pagans even believe in the unity underlying the diversity of the gods, let alone incorporate it into their personality, so if that’s a solution it’s one that can’t be implemented at this time.

It may well be that there is no solution, except on an individual level, allowing a person to avoid the traps.

Next week: False Certainty and Dogma: The Downside of Monotheism

Image credit: outsiderzone / 123RF Stock Photo

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1 Comment

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One response to “God Forms and Conflict: The Downside of Polytheism

  1. This was fascinating. I do not know anyone who is a pagan and I learned a lot from this essay.

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