The Gods are beautiful and worthy of worship. If you are anxious about honoring them, don’t feel embarrassed. This post walks through some false beliefs and expectations that are useful for anyone with such anxiety to address.
A few days ago, I wrote something on social media because I was disquieted by some things I was seeing about people (I think in the witchcraft community, which is not my community) scaring people away from worshipping the Gods. It disturbed me because, as Iamblichus says, a secure relationship to the Gods grounds us in what is lasting and what can make us truly happy, not ephemerally happy. I decided to expand on those comments here; it’s worthwhile to make the same points in different media in the hopes that this reaches those who need it.
In cultures where a monotheism is the predominant religion, we often exoticize many Gods due to a lack of awareness of the central role they have often (and still do) play in our species’ societies. We are encouraged to do this by the media we consume, ranging from cable documentaries that use ridiculous camera angles when talking about the sincere religious practices of a group of people halfway around the world to the way that various deities are “used” in occult horror films and shows as destructive villains or ambivalent wild cards.
Regardless of how different a group of Gods is from a familiar-to-you paradigm, their otherness doesn’t make them occult or beings to be warned away from worshipping. Religions with many Gods are not the occult.
Now, there is an important bit of nuance here: Due to the history of the pagan and polytheistic revivals in the West, said religious movements often have more contact between and overlap with people whom we would classify as into the esoteric and/or occult. This is a common phenomenon for new religious movements in general, and for movements that don’t fizzle, the association becomes less strong over time as the demographics of the movement shift away from countercultural trailblazers.
What does this mean for someone trying to get started? Many who say “I want to worship the old Gods” or “maybe lighting a candle for a God is something I want to try out” are plunged into a chaotic subcultural environment and do not easily find their bearings. It is far harder to find practical information about shrine upkeep and schedules than it is to locate the mountains of paper and ink that describe paganism-adjacent occult practices, including some types of witchcraft and pop culture spirituality.
Religious beliefs and practices are the system you use to honor Gods, in addition to other beings associated with the natural, built, and familial environments. For the majority of human history, people would (and still do in many, many places) offer to household Gods, spirits of the natural world, divinities relevant to their professions & livelihoods, and so on.
These systems also give you rules for how to honor a God — the types of things said and done when you give an offering, the types of offerings appropriate, and anything you have to do before or after the offering. Far from being baseless and outdated constraints, these methods invite a worshipper into a living expression of theological and cosmological principles associated with a religion’s myths and practices. All religions have these.
An example in Hesiod is the admonition not to go uncovered before the household shrine after sex out of respect for Hestia. A non-Hesiod example is to not go to the shrine/temple distracted — intend to go, and go without deviating from the purpose — out of respect for the Gods. I was involved in my college’s official pagan group decades ago, and it made Wiccans very uncomfortable to do a non-Wiccan pagan ritual because the idea of casting a circle was so fundamental to how they operated and what they thought was correctly pagan.
Once we differentiate between religious reverence of the Gods and the religion-adjacent practices that are often confused with them due to proximity, we can tackle things like mysticism and esotericism. Mysticism and esotericism are parts of religion, but not mandatory practices for everyone — anyone can have a fulfilling and serious religious practice without them. Some people will phrase this as “you may not be ready yet” because they assume (consciously or not) that mysticism is like the capstone course to be a real polytheist. Out of the billions of polytheists in the world, I guarantee you that the majority are praying at small household shrines and not thinking that much about union with the One. You are far more likely to be into mysticism if you make an oath to a deity or develop a hunger for research that leads you down unfamiliar textual alleyways. I didn’t do mysticism until I was reading a translation of Hermias and had a transformative experience. I was literally reading that text so I could get all of the context I was lacking for several passages about Helen of Troy and purification and never expected it would fall over my head like a bucket of cold water.
Basically: Think about what makes sense for you.
Now, if you’ve thought about making offerings, you may have anxiety caused by social media influencers. If you take a look at hashtags for paganism and polytheism on Instagram or at the images shared in groups, many of them are glitzy and glamorous — crystals, spell supplies, smoke cleansing kits, and so on. By the dog, some of them are even atmospheric vibe fashion photo shoots disguised as paganism.
Take a step back from that by typing “household shrine” into Google Images.
You will see numerous results — ones from continuous traditions, syncretic ones, revivals and new religious movements, even exclusivist faiths.
“All things pray except the First,” as Proclus said.
Many such spaces are functional — an image, a place to make offerings. People who keep these shrines come from all walks of life: doctors and nurses, technicians and computer scientists, teachers and professors, food service workers, trade professionals — every job humans do. Some spend a few minutes a day, and others spend more, with prayers. They are a part of everyday life … so why are shrines and the Gods they hold space for so exoticized?
Desacralization and commodification has an impact on all of us, even if we have an active religious practice. It’s what turns something like this ordinary beauty and engagement into something to be bought and sold and made into an aesthetic or an object of performance anxiety. That prevalent current turns things that are natural and universal like prayer and sacrifice to Gods into the commodified and exoticized — Gods are treated either as something fashionable and trendy or as a dangerous Other to be avoided.
When commodified and exoticized, one may hear appropriative justifications for why someone is engaging with the Gods — “they gave these Gods up, so they have no right to them, but I do,” or “these people should be grateful that I did x and use it because [savior mentality],” &c. When treated as a dangerous Other, exoticism takes a Turn, as if sticking one’s hand into a pile of old wood without checking for brown recluses. It could manifest as an unwillingness/fear to pray, delusions akin to reenacting blockbuster movies starring oneself fighting baneful Gods, or group-fevers about Gods disappearing or being cursed or what have you.
Yes, be careful what you vow (but you should always do that with absolutely anyone, as it’s good form to be truthful; lies and broken promises waste everyone’s time). Yes, there can be a learning curve and/or difficulty in finding good mentors. However, you can still pray.
You can come to Gods as you are, from the culture you are in and the background you have, confidently and without any weird pretensions of being anything else but you — just remember to uphold the sacred. Here are some ideas to get started with a deity-focused practice.
Some of my favorite passages about prayer are from Proclus, and here’s a post I wrote a while back while reading through his Timaeus commentary, especially this one:
It is to this reversion that prayer offers an enormous contribution by means of the ineffable symbols of the gods, which the Father of the souls has sowed in them. Prayer attracts the beneficence of the gods towards itself. It unifies those who pray with the gods who are being prayed to. It also links the Intellect of the gods with the formulations of those who pray, inciting the will (boulêsis) of those who contain the goods in a perfect way within themselves to share them unstintingly. Prayer is the creator of divine persuasion and establishes all which is ours in the gods.Proclus, Timaeus Book II, 210.30-211.8
(Father is a technical term in Platonism. There are triads, Abiding-Proceeding-Reverting, and Abiding is often called the Father as a way of evoking stability and an anchor-like sense. It is often used in a very different way in Christianity, and knowing its correct sense can enrich a reading of the above passage.)
Prayer is a gift. It connects, even when you are unaware of it. There are many things to unpack theologically about the details of how prayer operates — my mind and fingertips are overwhelmed thinking of the tapestry one can weave from the theological words of the wise — but ultimately, the point is, you can pray without fear. The best way to start is by asking the Gods to grant what, in their wisdom, is best for us, and to follow that path forward trusting that they are opening the route that preserves us from the worst of the storms and squalls upon the treacherous sea.