Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology [Review-ish]

So far this year, I have read and/or finished three books that have something to do with the core topic of this blog: Hermes by Arlene Allan, the new Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology edited by Michael Hardy, and The Golden Ass by Apuleius.

Since it was produced by people in the polytheistic community, though, I’m going to share some long thoughts about Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology here. It’s halfway between a review and a meandering commentary, just as a warning. (I also wrote a short GoodReads review that does not overlap with what I have here by much.) People who read this blog may be interested in buying it.

Polytheism escapes the notice of most scholars, and those who do address it rarely write books intended for a general, non-academic audience.

The quotation above comes from the current title information for Ascendant, which is available in print or in ebook format from Amazon, KOBO, and other retailers. If writing something easy to jump into for a non-academic audience is the goal, the book has definitely succeeded.

Ascendant is a collection of essays from many people working in modern polytheistic theology. For people interested in polytheistic theology, almost all essays provide good points through which someone could onboard oneself to the polytheistic philosophical landscape via bibliographies and names dropped within the essays themselves.

My favorite ones were “Approaching Theology Through the Divine Individual” (Brandon Hensley), “The One and the Many: An Essay on Pagan Neoplatonism” (John Michael Greer), “Two Models of Polytheism” (Edward P. Butler), and “The Hellenic Gods and the Polis” (Gwendolyn Reece).

Reece’s essay was particularly interesting and very refreshing. I often feel like a broken record talking about the Erinyes, miasma, and Native genocide — people never even acknowledge that I have said something. Reece is literally the first other human being in our communities to comment on this, as far as I have seen (83% through the chapter):

But there are also deep challenges inherent in the American soul. We are suffering under the miasma, the spiritual pollution, of the genocide of the First Nations people and of the slavery of Africans and African Americans.

Butler’s contribution is well in line with his recent comparative looks at Platonism and South Asian philosophical schools, especially the attention given to Īśvara (the god on which a specific worshipper focuses). There are echoes in this of his essay on the Euthyphro, and I think his Ascendant essay is important insofar as it critically calls out modern tendencies to treat deities as correspondence tables and not people, especially the common misreading of what timai actually are.

John Beckett commented in his review of Ascendant that this is one of the more accessible articles Butler has written. I agree.¹

“You Can’t Offend the Gods” is interesting to me — it is surprisingly short in comparison to the other pieces, but it reminds me of some of my own experiences, namely that I have finally put an image of Apollon on my wall to replace an old one, and there have been certain results to that action. However, agos is real, and that’s a more accurate reading of the word offense in most cases — a consecration that one does not really want.

Greer’s essay wove certain aspects of the historical place of Late Platonism together in a way that I found very useful. It also helped me understand why I had decided to buy a used copy of The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism. 

I disliked two essays, specifically “Of Lying Gods and True Religion” (Wayne Keysor) and a second essay that was apparently removed from the book. (KOBO doesn’t update the text automatically even if it updates covers.) In both of those cases, I have many reservations. I will just talk about the one that was not removed. The essay involves deception, morality/immorality, gods, divine stories, and how people have coped with reading them. To be frank about Keysor’s essay, it could have been presented better, and it assumes a lot about both his audience and the modern polytheistic community. One of the assumptions is that we are all grappling with problems of mythological immorality in the same way.

I think that the gods do not exist on the moral-amoral scale, that they are good, and that the word good may not be the best word because I do not mean to evoke its antonym shadow. This may be partially influenced by how I grew up — my first introduction to Zeus, for example, was his role in an animated children’s film called Pegasus where he is portrayed positively. (I was a toddler, and first impressions matter.) I do also hold to the Platonic view. From my perspective, what is is in dialogue with itself; there are gods who exist, and there are ways that we exist in relation to a god, and the complexity of cause-and-effect and the rule of Fate is such that all things require tradeoffs. The end result must be something symmetric, and it is within this push and pull and this dance that the world moves like “the water flowing / the endless river / forever and ever” (to quote Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes”). Persephone’s woven tapestry of the world involves interlocking pieces; how do you move something without impacting yet another thing?

“[I]t also should motivate us to wonder whether they might turn on us once we become inconvenient, as they feel no moral compunction about violating a trust if it suits their needs” (79% into the chapter) made me furrow my brow because it came immediately after a paragraph that used the phrase “[w]e obviously see the problematic nature on the human plane of forming friendships with sociopaths.”

This section, like many others, relies on a tension between using and discarding ancient myths and a “logical coherence” in how the gods exist in moral/justice paradigms. It posits that the gods in their myths often behave immorally. Definitely, theological conversations since Plato have been saying that many of the myths are terrible, and yet they kept, and keep, getting told. Is this actual discomfort with the gods, though, or just the stories about them? Many people just enjoy talking about or learning about sordid shit.² They have a fascination with it. To use a contemporary example, this is why Jerry Springer, the podcast Serial, and other programs are so popular. (Is this part of what Socrates is getting at about why philosophers are so ill equipped to function in quotidian polis life?) Philosophers may be interpreting many things allegorically, but part of explaining the divine world must involve creating a culturally-grounded substratum before moving people up.

I rated this book five stars on Goodreads. Even the essays that I found less effective were thought-provoking, so I did get things out of them. 😊

  1. Admittedly, I did not immediately follow the way Butler wove between Vyāsa’s commentary on the Yoga Sūtras and aspects of Plato on two pages. I checked the reference so I could see more of what Vyāsa was talking about — commentaries on Yoga Sūtra I.24 usually focus on differentiating what Īśvara is from what a liberated soul is via defining Īśvara. Butler is referencing one such passage in Vyāsa’s commentary. I found a copy of the relevant text on the Internet Archive so I could get that context.

  2. This is not a technical term. See my comments on Apollon and Daphne for better context for what I mean with respect to Hellenic myths. I do honestly find some sordid tales beautiful, like the story of Zagreus, due to what it means philosophically. But as for stuff like spectator strife in modern pop culture, 🤦‍♀️. (Also, this footnote is an edit.)

4 thoughts on “Ascendant: Modern Essays on Polytheism and Theology [Review-ish]

  1. The comment regarding the crimes committed against the First Nations and African people is something that I have been contemplating for years and resonates deeply…sounds like I will have to pick up this book.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. thanks for this review, kaye! i’ve got this but haven’t started it yet. glad to hear that edward butler’s is a bit more accessible- i LOVE him but have to read him in tiny, tiny bite-sized pieces because i’m simply not smart enough to follow him for more than a phrase at a time. the keysor essay sounds dire- i may skip it altogether now that i know what it’s about (although the title is a giveaway) because i have zero patience for POVs that involve the Gods i love being assholes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Edward Butler requires a lot of focused attention to read — I tend to read him when I’m traveling, actually, because I’m in a position to focus without interruptions.

      I recommend reading Keysor’s piece anyway! It is a bit of a weird intellectual exercise, especially with a turn it takes in the final few paragraphs. Then again, I read a lot of stuff I disagree with just to stay on top of what other people think.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. you’re right, i should read more of stuff i don’t necessarily like. i’m just of an age where i don’t even have enough time left to read all the stuff i like! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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