When I tell people that I’m a hard polytheist, they don’t always know what that means. In a nutshell, “hard” polytheism is the belief that the gods are separate, conscious entities in Their own right, rather than merely aspects of a single God/dess. It often amazes me how difficult a concept this is for some folks to grasp, judging from the way they immediately begin trying to tell me I’m wrong.
“But…don’t you believe that we’re all worshiping the same thing?” No, actually, I don’t. I do not believe that the many gods and goddesses I reverence and honor are masks worn by some One God/dess who’s pulling all the strings. Nor do I believe that there is only one set of entities who embody all of the archetypes to be found in the Holy Ones’ myths, and who just have different names depending on what culture we’re discussing. I especially don’t believe that Loki, Anansi, Coyote, and Eleggua are all the same trickster entity in different, ethnically-appropriate clothing, or that there’s a single Goddess or God who can be Brigid/Kali/Kuan Yin or Cernunnos/Apollon/Thor at the drop of a hat. My personal experiences have not borne that out, and in the end, I have to go by what I know, rather than what I’m told by others.
It probably comforts some people to think of the Holy Ones as really being a single, vague, genderless being in the sky. To me, that’s not only not a part of my reality, it’s inherently distressing to think about. I like the fact that there are many gods for me to worship and get to know. I like that, when push comes to shove, I am not dependent on, at the mercy of, or without recourse from a single, omnipresent being — that there are Those in my corner, and perhaps Those willing to be in my corner, regardless of what hot water I’ve gotten myself into. I like getting to know my gods one at a time, each for His or Her own power and magnificence. The Holy Ones are individuals, in the same way as you and I are, and that is far easier for me to relate to than some ineffable power with no name and no personality of its own. And on that note…
“All gods are part of the Universal Source anyway, so why not just worship the real essence of the Divine?” Because to me, that both ignores Their unique personalities, histories, and functions, and also ignores the fact that we humans don’t treat each other that way. Sure, one might argue that a big part of many traditions (including most Pagan ones) is to be able to see the holiness in all things, but there’s a big difference between recognizing the Divine as it is expressed in someone else, and ignoring that person’s conscious existence in favor of the immanent Divine. Let me put it this way: I don’t make friends with the “Universal Source” in other people; I become friends with each person because they are unique and utterly themselves. Do my gods deserve any less acknowledgement of Their own individuality?
It may well be that I, and everyone else I know who is a hard polytheist, is severely deluded. But I highly doubt that. I wasn’t a hard polytheist before Loki came along, you see. I rarely thought about the gods in more than an abstract sort of way. Once I had direct experience with Them, however, it became impossible for me to see Them, in all Their splendor, as merely archetypal. I don’t fault others for believing this, themselves; other people have to go by what they know, as well. I realize that I’m fortunate to have had the experiences I have, but even if none of those are ultimately “real,” I still have to live my life as if they are, regardless of what people think. Unfortunately, being secure in this approach tends to threaten some people.
“Well, that’s all fine and good for the likes of you, but my views are more enlightened.” Trying to reduce the gods and Their many worshipers to a few commonalities isn’t inherently more enlightened than being a hard polytheist — nor is it really all that inclusive to ignore or eliminate differences in favor of squeezing a variety of viewpoints into a single mold. When it comes down to it, being a hard polytheist requires an ability to accept contradictions, disagreements, and loose ends in ways that can’t be neatly rationalized by pinning them all on one Source. It requires that one accept real diversity of opinion and praxis, since nobody can perfectly understand all the ways of all the gods. It requires tolerance for other people’s ways, even when you don’t agree with them, and that is as “enlightened” as you can get.
I don’t think that monotheism has done the world as many favors as people seem to believe. While human nature is what it is, and I doubt there was ever a time or place where people lived in equality and harmony, I believe that polytheism engenders a more tolerant approach to other people and their religious traditions, without the need to impose one’s own or eradicate the ones that don’t agree. Holy wars are a function of monotheism, it’s been said, but in the end, I doubt that all of the dead who perished by the sword would agree that dying for one’s religious beliefs is any better or worse than dying because someone else wanted your lands or wealth. In the end, dead is dead…even if we all end up in different places afterward.
Despite my bitching, I’m not in the business of telling other people how to approach the gods, and I don’t expect everyone who reads this to share my opinions. At the same time, I’m tired of people who think that I need to be “educated” about the wrongness of my primitive, unevolved belief system. I just want to point out that it is possible to be an intelligent, well-educated person and still worship a bunch of different gods without calling them aspects or avatars or what have you. For those who are interested in further reading on this topic, John Michael Greer has written a book called A World Full Of Gods, which I recommend to anyone wanting to think about polytheism as a viable, modern approach to religion, or who just wants to consider an alternative point of view.