Preliminary Thoughts on Intergenerational Polytheistic Revivals

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.

🤶

24 thoughts on “Preliminary Thoughts on Intergenerational Polytheistic Revivals

  1. Good piece! I’m trying to write the text of a talk that I am supposed to give at library in Oregon (via Zoom, of course, the official app of 2020) on whether the Christians “stole” Christmas, and what you say about the solstice resonates. We all feel it, but it seems more “costmic/cyclic” and less deity-focused than the cross-quarters –that’s my own Wiccan background coming out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Good luck with your library talk — Zoom leads to such interesting opportunities!

      I think that when it comes to cosmic-cyclic holidays, they’re definitely still deity-focused (identifying the Gods to be worshipped is the key part there), but more universalizing because they can be adapted easily to different pantheons. I agree that something like Mabon is highly context-dependent.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Kaye! Like so many other commentators have already said, I really value and appreciate the perspective you bring to these issues.

    I’m especially struck by your reflections on shifting the focus of our cultus and devotion. I think it’s always worth emphasizing that while this would be anathema to the monotheist mindset, as polytheists, this is a feature and not a bug.

    Thinking about it in broadly Platonic terms, the Gods, considered in themselves, don’t change. They’re eternal, in some sense outside the flow of time. And even the celestial Gods, Iamblichus tells us, “are not contained by bodies, but rather, contain bodies within their divine lives and activities” (De Myst. I.17). But we, who are limited by our embodiment, by space and time, we do change. And so, based on those changes in space and in time, in our life circumstances, as we change and grow and move, our fitness to receive the Gods, to encounter them, will inevitably shift and change.

    Whatever that shift looks like—a focus on different Gods, or on different aspects of Gods with whom we’ve long been familiar, or coming to a richer understanding and experience of our existing cultic practices—it’s a sign of life and vitality in our time-bound relationships with the living immortals.

    (I can also say that, at least for myself, part of this also has a cyclic aspect. There are quite a few Gods who I regularly worship at this time of year, close to the Winter Solstice, but really only then. Yet returning, and eagerly anticipating that return, year after year.)

    Thank you again for your beautiful and inspiring words!

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    1. “And so, based on those changes in space and in time, in our life circumstances, as we change and grow and move, our fitness to receive the Gods, to encounter them, will inevitably shift and change.” <— Yes, this! — with a wide range of different types of shifts, including whether we’re living a life where we are parallel or perpendicular to the God who is closest to us.

      One of the things I really appreciate about Platonism, incidentally, is the terminology related to unfolding, where there is a definite sense of that dynamism prior to the embodied changes that each of us undergoes. It’s very beautiful and perhaps speaks to your comment about monotheism in another way. “I keep moving to be stable,” as the Peter Gabriel song goes. ^__^

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is such a great post, Kaye, you have rare insight! I’ve been pagan a long time, but it still will never compare to being raised in the faith. Your thoughts on the future of polytheism and where it probably needs to go in North America (I broaden this to include Canada, since things are much the same here, though it is a more secular society) in order for paganism to be a lifeway for people rather than just a hobby that you build up over your life and then it dies with you.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you! I’m hopeful that Neopagan/polytheistic revivalist parents read things like this from second-gens. It seems like everyone around me (okay, maybe 30-40%?) has kids or wants kids, and I think hearing a bit about what worked and didn’t work in the previous generation will be useful.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. As someone who also grew up on pagan festivals and traditions, I agree with the value inter-generational practices have even if a child ends up with different beliefs than their parents. Particularly since, as you pointed out, much polytheism and/or paganism allows for a wider worldview than American Christianity often does.

    I’m always going to cherish the memories of making Brigid bread with my mother on February 2nd, and how she would read a season-appropriate story every Samhain/Halloween.

    And I think the way she raised us allowed my sister and I to feel comfortable choosing our own (very different) faith paths.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My poor kids got dragged through my spasmodic explorations of a brand of Christianity I could stomach (when they were small it didn’t even occur to me to look outside of Christianity.) They were included in my Wiccanesque festivals in my early years of paganism and really enjoyed them. I was pretty sure they’d end up pagan (probably Norse) but they didn’t. I get a ton of shit from Hellenes for not ‘raising my kids with the Theoi’ but having lived my exploration of paths with me, it would have seemed weird and hypocritical to foist my eventual landing spot onto them instead of encouraging them to find their own ways.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If I had had kids, I would have brought them up with Pagan values and encouraged them to discover their path for themselves, but I certainly wouldn’t leave them in some sort of spiritual vacuum. I agree that it is appropriate and desirable to share festivals with kids.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I truly adore your blogposts and always look forward to seeing a new one show up on my feed. I think you’re spot on with this one. I think a lot of pagans come from faiths that put a lot of pressure on missionary work/evangelizing and on making sure their children adhere to the proper beliefs full stop. This lends itself to these pagan converts later keeping their beliefs secret or otherwise not engaging in them with their own children/families so as not to “pressure” them into this path. I think this is a disservice to the faith we now have, the Gods we worship, who we are ourselves (supposing that our religion forms an important part of our lives), and to the children themselves. As someone who is a convert (and who started in Wicca by picking up a Ravenwolf book waaaaay back in middle school ie the early 2000’s) surrounded almost exclusively by fellow converts, I love hearing your thoughts, especially when it comes to topics about our community.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, I appreciate this and hope it’s useful! While I was very proactive about getting involved and never felt excluded, I learned a few years ago that one of my younger sisters didn’t feel as included, and I felt a bit bad about all of the missed opportunities in our childhood for me to have been a better older sister. I think it’s always an excellent idea to involve kids or at least to let them know that the family would be happy to have them there. Kids, especially as they get older, are usually very vocal when they don’t want to be involved in something.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I love everything about this post! You’re one of the few adults I know who was raised in any sort of paganism. A lot people try to construct a Pagan Past but most are pretty flimsy- a mom who meditated before a flame, an auntie who used herbal cures that worked, a grandpa who scattered the silver in his pocket periodically ‘for the little ‘uns.’
    With all the yammering over the years over being uncommitted or a playgan or, gods forbid, an eclectic, it’s very refreshing to read what thoughtful worship and blending practices look like to someone who was raised in one of our many paths.
    But how on earth did you get the crown of candles to work somewhat safely?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve actually come to appreciate battery operated candles. lol. While I use regular candles for ritual and such, battery operated ones allow me to keep a candle always burning on my ancestor shrine, and I really like that. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  8. I like this post very much. I often blur Hestia and Frigg when I light a votive in my kitchen every morning. I am not always clear on whether the house tomte is a kind of agathos daimon, but I offer up the prayers anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

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