When I think about American polytheism and sustainability, two big things come to mind: (1a), the cycles of festivals and ritual in honor of the Gods; (1b), the shifting sands of what it is to live in a multicultural, multi-pantheon nation, where the boundaries between the traditions are permeable and shifting from generation to generation; and (2), a conversation I had with someone several years ago when I said that a major reason for the solstices’ veneration among modern polytheists is that we’re all on Earth and experience the solstices, whereas festivals for Gods are less universal; honoring whichever God of the solar series we worship is pagan ecumenicalism. Today, I would perhaps add to (2) that honoring the Gods associated with the various measures of time is encouraged by writers like Proclus, so there is nothing strange about branching out.
By sustainability, I mean intergenerational polytheism. It is a given, speaking as someone raised in paganism, that children should be given the opportunity to engage in ritual with their parents and not shielded from it as if they’re not wanted there. I would argue that, at least in the United States and other countries that have similar histories (conquest contact, colonialism, and so on), the sustainability of polytheism across generations by necessity must involve lowest-common-denominator work and “pagan ecumenicalism,” where sets of basic required things like the existence of many Gods, the importance of offerings, and the establishment of household offering spaces (with a range depending on individual and family circumstances) are the foundation.
Beyond that, especially once we get a few generations in, holidays like the June and December solstices and regular observances like the full and new moons will likely need to serve the role of intergenerational, common-ground glue. Right now, we have seen a convergence at the December solstice partly because it occurs near Christmas. The reason the December solstice is so singled out for decor and festiveness is that Christians pick whatever holiday near Christmas they can find in other religions, regardless of importance, to add a song to their Christmas carol recital roster so the program can be performed in secular settings. In the future, hopefully, it will be balanced against the June one.
I grew up Neopagan, and my formative religious memories involve things like the women’s Mabon grape stomp, the burning of harvest effigies, and the burying of fertility offerings beneath the maypole in gatherings of 20-60 people every six weeks. The number of second- and later-generation polytheists is still quite small, and I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve encountered as an adult who have disclosed this. Usually, I’m talking to teen/adult converts, and when I was a young woman online (let’s say 20), I learned very quickly that this background was a liability because there was a backlash against Wicca at the time. While I downplayed (and, in fact, rarely mentioned) that background when I was in my 20s, over time, I’ve come to understand that a lot of the tension is due to the high convert-to-raised ratio within modern American paganism and polytheism. In the case of Hellenic recons, it’s often led to inflexibility surrounding things like historical periods to consider “valid” (yeah…) when building ritual and theology.
As a result of all of this, I’m slowly learning to trust my gut and my judgments and seeing where the more reasonable ones lead. My current judgment about American polytheism and paganism is that it is dynamic, interacting with many subcultural and cultural identities. While groups for specific polytheistic religions will likely grow and solidify as nexuses for religious observances for specific pantheons, the membership of those groups may shift from generation to generation, with only some descendants remaining within them completely. Individuals may even move from group to group as they move through their lives. We live in a place where, due to the cultural capital afforded to Greece and Rome after the Renaissance and the identification with those cultures that persists in our education system and culture-at-large to this day, children are often exposed to Hellenic and Roman myths before they can walk. One of my nieces has been binge-watching a Scandi-themed TV series called Hilda since she was five. The saturation of Gods from all cultures is only increasing as the world becomes more physically and digitally interwoven. Exposure to other pantheons is very different from the Christian messages that are often sent to us by mainstream American culture, as Gods within polytheism are typically not exclusivist, nor do they require oaths of fealty to them and No Others Ever like the Christian God, so children who are used to worshipping many Gods from a specific pantheon may become fond of Gods from a pantheon their parents do not focus on and want to branch out.
This looks a lot like something I read a few years ago in The Final Pagan Generation about the many festival calendars operating in tandem in cities. Depending on the history of a city, a festival may have been central or peripheral; not everyone participated in all of them, but most participated in the big ones. Thiasoi (to borrow the term in Ancient Greek religion for religious organizations centered on a specific deity or deities) of the ancient world would play a crucial role in this kind of system if adapted to the modern world, acting as the anchors and institutional memories for a population that flows dynamically, like rivers.
A child raised in Wicca like myself, who was exposed to Bast a year before my family started doing Circle because I liked mummies and Brigid at Circle because she was the Goddess worshipped heavily with the creative jam every Imbolc by our group, may eventually click with a God like Apollon, and le may ultimately leave Wiccan theology and praxis for something more like Hellenic religion — but le could be just as likely to remain within Wicca. A child raised by Kemetic parents could fall in love with Freya due to a fondness for cats and end up blending Kemetic and Asatru traditions; a Gallic polytheist could integrate Norse and Egyptian deities because the deities ler family was connected to when le was growing up were Odin and Sekhmet. A less religious child could grow up with household rites and schedule vacation time as an adult during the more important religious gathering times, as is common in faiths with higher levels of intergenerational persistence and lower levels of converts. None of these examples is necessarily the same as converting to another faith; one begins at a baseline of that shared experience of the Gods, and while the rituals, Gods, and theologies may change, it’s still an interwoven tapestry of polytheism in a culturally and subculturally heterogeneous landscape.
These are just the beginnings of my thoughts on this topic, and I think that the time leading up to the December solstice is a great time to explore them. North of the equator, it grows darker every day, and those of us who honor the return of the sun are busy with preparations. It’s also the time of year when my own family’s cultural traditions come to the forefront, like the saffron buns (lussekatter) and hot cocoa on December 13th, with years of memories of my mom waking me up before dawn to put on a white dress with a crown of candles to bring everyone breakfast in bed, or the cardamom bread with the rainbow-colored fruit that my mom braids before baking (I need to figure out how to make it gluten-free and still haven’t …). I decorated my apartment with two julbock, a few tomte, and a tiny artificial tree last week. All of us have some degree of syncretism or eclecticism in the traditions we celebrate, and shifts in who we worship and how don’t need to be ruptures. Instead, we can embrace the dynamism and try our best to ground it in the best of practical, social, and theological concerns, striving for the middle ground between polytheistic revivals’ longitudinal needs and our own transient ones.