In the tradition of Welsh Druidry that I am exploring in this blog, we believe in the reality of the Gods. I’ve explored something of their nature in, for example my series on the Three Great Families, and on Gwyn ap Nudd.
In our tradition, the Otherworld exists, and there are beings – the Tylwyth Teg, or the Fair Folk – who exist both in that world and in ours. There is a world of spirit, overlapping with our world, where dwell spirits which once were incarnate in flesh, and others which have never been incarnate.
And then there are the gods. We believe that they exist; that they are present in the world with us. They are powerful. They can make decisions, and they can act in this world with effect. We can, to a greater or lesser degree, communicate with them.
How should we deal with this, as modern polytheists? There are cultures in the world where polytheism still exists in a traditions unbroken since time before memory; I have encountered one of these in the Chinese folk Daoism of south-east Asia. India and Japan are other examples, with Hinduism and Shinto respectively. The Yoruba-based religions of the Caribbean are newer forms of polytheism. For us in the West, though, we have lost our cultural inheritance of how to live as polytheists, in a world where gods walk beside us.
It’s tempting, and easy, to use a rebranded Christian way of thinking; my suspicion is that this is what happens when pagans declare that a particular god has become a father figure to them (or, of course a mother figure!). They will write in passionate terms about how the god protects them and cares for them, engaging in a personal bond in which the role of the god is to make the worshipper’s life easier.
I don’t believe that this is how things really work. The gods are themselves; they have agency, and they have their own interests to look out for. What is the actual relationship between them and us, and how should we behave?
I know that John Michael Greer has written a book on the subject – A World Full of Gods (review) – but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. So, I was delighted to fairly randomly discover an excellent exposition of a polytheistic worldview and life, written from the perspective of Bret Devereaux, a historian specialising in the Roman world. His purpose is to help students of the Classical period understand the way the pagans of that time saw the world, why they acted the way the did, and the assumptions underlying their thinking. So, it’s not written from a contemporary pagan viewpoint, or for that audience – but I think it’s all the stronger for that.
The series, Practical Polytheism, runs over four blog posts:
Personally, I’ve found it very useful in terms of helping me adjust my thinking to see the world on the assumption that we are surrounded by gods, from the might to the minor, how I should relate to them, and what their expectations might be of me.