Five Points About Polytheism

In 1931, librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan proposed a set of five laws of library science that are still in use today. I was reflecting on these earlier today while thinking about the ethical difficulties of reader’s advisory and collection development (when there is a conflict between the materials you wish people were asking for and the ones that they actually are asking for) and in how the ethical imperative of service-oriented neutrality about the materials we collect sometimes comes in conflict with other ethical considerations, and indeed is also undermined by subconscious biases about what is “worth it” to collect in the first place.

Those thoughts are more relevant to the library science literature, but I’d like to share what these five laws are with all of you and take this in a fresh direction by providing an adaptation of them into five points about polytheism — when I looked over these with fresh eyes, possibly because I’ve been eyeball-deep in Proclus’ Elements of Theology again, the weighty questions about library science flew out of my head. Many librarians have engaged with these concepts to apply them to new information, but I started to think about this in terms of the Gods we worship as theists.

Here you go:

  1. Books are for use.
  2. Every person his or her book.
  3. Every book its reader.
  4. Save the time of the reader.
  5. A library is a growing organism.

Books are objects, and Gods are divine persons, yes — but having fun with these five rules can playfully give us a set of commonalities to think of among all of us who pray:

  1. Gods are reachable.
  2. Every person ler [their] God.
  3. Every God ler devotees.
  4. Protect the time of each devotee.
  5. A set of Gods [pantheon] is a growing organism.

Now, on Point 2: Book is in singular, so I rendered God in singular. Obviously if we think about this in terms of libraries, people don’t just check out one book at a time or only one book ever during their lifetimes.

Point 4 gave me some pause about how to play around with it, but this does make some sense. Too often, I think, people give complicated advice to others, and there is so much noise about how to get started with everything from astrology to magical practices to philosophical study that the Internet tends to drown out what most people need: baseline practices, guidance, and inspirational examples. Just as librarians try to be timely in how we answer reference questions, so too does anyone who gives tips and advice about practice as a devotee need to actually put themselves in the mindset of what will be most time-effective and actionable for the average person to implement. Efficacy-wise, some ritual practices (chants/prayer styles/offerings/&c.) are better at establishing contact with specific Gods than others. When a devotee knows what rituals and practices to focus on for a specific God, and especially the principles behind why those practices work (which helps adaptability of the rites to new places/times), it saves/prioritizes time, as le doesn’t have to work from scratch. This isn’t always possible, but it does help.

(Note: There are occasions when librarians go over time in our reference consultations with people who need our help, and that usually happens when we identify a specific functional area that someone needs help with over the course of assisting them with locating materials. This is less likely to happen over email than it is in a Zoom or in-person encounter.)

Point 5 speaks to something that, I think, many of us in the modern polytheistic movements have been thinking about for a long time, from the discourse about why the term pantheon is an unhelpful term to the one about what is meant when cultures come into contact and do syncretism, interpretatio, and so on to the practical elements of a person or family or small group falling into the routine of which set of Gods they worship. It may even get at what some say about how a person or group’s polytheism might settle in conversation with place. And it definitely gets at what I was talking about in The Soul’s Inner Statues about how our religious practice is a coming-to-be process of listening and iterating in conversation with the Gods based on the various personal heritage, cultural heritage/milieu, and situational/life event contexts we find ourselves in. The fingerprints of our embodied lives are unique, and they are a harmony, a composition like a concerto or sonata. Like someone playing an instrument, we are constantly tuning based on our environment and the way our instrument changes as it warms up and responds to its active use, and we grow through experience, ideally reaching a level of sound maturity. A spiritual practice is like that. We become so we can be. A set of Gods is a changing organism.

I also find it interesting that Point 5 identifies the set as an organism, as a living thing, itself. That’s something that could probably be worked with in a metaphysical sense, the idea of a set as divine in and of itself — although whether it is a God proper or a natural image of a God is up for analysis.

So, in other words, this playful exercise was a bit of fun. I’m going to leave it there rather than working through that last paragraph, as that’s a prompt that would work better as a conversation-starter among theology nerds. Have a good Sunday, everyone.

7 thoughts on “Five Points About Polytheism

  1. As a reader who maintains a community (free) library for Minerva, I agree on all accounts. I have too many books, but every book needs a reader, a reader a book. So, I furnish the local community reading nook with lots of books. What has happened is that the little nook has had more people reading and donating books, becoming a true community place.

    Time and room are important to creating abundance.

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    1. That sounds lovely!! I see small free libraries on people’s front lawns near their walkways during my commute, and they’re such a nice thing for the local community. I notice that families stop at them all the time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The one that I maintain is in a strip mall next to the local supermarket. People ask me about the books, and I tell them take some and read them. They are delighted in something that they can just stop by on the way to the market.

        Since then, others have donated books, and now we have about 100 books for reading.

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  2. Very much agreed on all points! 🙂

    I have found that my own “greater pantheon” on a personal level, as well as what I have understood to be the “Antinoan pantheon” and its various sub-pantheons or related ones, has evolved greatly over time…and the aretalogical collection is an attempt to think about it in as large and limitless terms as possible.

    The idea from Egyptian theology that various different localities usually had a Triad of Deities is a good one to work with, and lead to a great deal of useful speculation in the case of Antinoopolis…which, it turned out, was absolutely right and provably so archaeologically! Antinous, Bes, and Hathor are not explicitly stated to be “the Antinoopolitan Triad” in anything which has come to light thus far, but They are the three principal Deities of that city, unquestionably so based on what has become available, though there’s also an argument to be made that the Triad also fits within a larger group at the site, too. And, one finds comparable things in many Egyptian locations. It kind of takes the Epichoreios Theos idea found in Greece and thinks of it in larger terms, in certain respects.

    But also: thinking of Deities like books is also a very good exercise for a number of reasons, including ones that library cataloguers consider: what is the difference between “the work” (a particular book title by a particular author), “the edition” (which version of a particular work a library might have, including whether it has more than one, and thus it is useful to have those multiple copies due to differences in the editions), and “the example” (a particular book that is important because it has an alternate cover, an inscription by someone famous, or was from the collection of a significant individual, amongst many other possibilities why a particular book may be “more” than just the title and the edition in any given case), for starters, in a given book. Thus, what is the difference on a theological level between The Deity (writ as large as that Deity can be), The Epithet (i.e. the focalization of that larger Deity in any given instance), and The Epiphany/Theophany (how that Deity and other aspects of Them manifests, acts, or appears in any given devotee’s experience of Them on a given occasion). These things are not the same, whether it is a Deity or a book that is concerned, and not understanding that there are such differences, I think, leads to all sorts of misapprehensions about Deities and the arguments people may have over them, which would amount–in cataloguing terms–to thinking that a given Deity, in a particular epiphany under a specific epithet, has to therefore be constitutive of all epiphanies; or that a particular epiphany, because it has resonances with a certain epithet but is significantly different from it in certain other ways, is considered by some people “invalid” even though it is clearly partaking of a larger Deity complex, just in a unique theophany for that particular instance or individual, etc. This is all basic info and ways of thinking for librarians, I think, and yet most people have no idea that these are different things (including many students, and even some professors!).

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    1. Thank you for sharing that information about your personal pantheon. For me, the only constant has been Apollon, and the Gods I worship the most otherwise have shifted a lot since I was a child.

      The mention of the differences between a work and its many versions is a good one, and it beneficial in that it further distances the Gods from materiality, which was the one thing about the comparison to books that I was hesitant about. The BIBFRAME 2.0 model, for example, breaks this into the following:

      Work, Instance, and Item.

      Work. The highest level of abstraction, a Work, in the BIBFRAME context, reflects the conceptual essence of the cataloged resource: authors, languages, and what it is about (subjects).
      Instance. A Work may have one or more individual, material embodiments, for example, a particular published form. These are Instances of the Work. An Instance reflects information such as its publisher, place and date of publication, and format.
      Item. An item is an actual copy (physical or electronic) of an Instance. It reflects information such as its location (physical or virtual), shelf mark, and barcode.”
      (https://www.loc.gov/bibframe/docs/bibframe2-model.html)

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      1. Yes! I was a little worried that I had the terminology wrong, as I heard a librarian (who specializes in cataloguing!) talk about this a number of months back, and I had never heard that sort of fine-grained discussion before. As a culture (and especially in pagan and many non-mainstream religious/spiritual circles), we are both very happy to have highly specific vocabulary for certain things (especially as far as identity distinctions are concerned), but at the same time there’s a reaction against categorization, “labels,” and other such things, so I think that considering particular subjects in these ways is just something a lot of people I know or have encountered would have an instinctive allergy to, I suspect. But, I think these discussions, and systems of categorization, are useful…insofar as they actually ARE useful, and I think this one is, even outside of library catalogues!

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      2. I worked as an archivist at the Federal Reserve Board (Money and Banking). What I discovered is that people did want categories that made sense to them without being too fine in the details. Some aspects of money and banking are very nebulous and required more detailed thought.

        Of course, I had to hash things out with both the U.S. Archives and the Board as to what made sense. Defining a category and a subcategory does make things more real and material. It also can limit it at times.

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