A very interesting video full of useful information and great hope…but also some fear.
A very interesting video full of useful information and great hope…but also some fear.
I visited The Hindu Temple of St. Louis yesterday with a friend, and my experience there inspires this article. I was extremely pleased with the magnificence of the temple and the great care that was taken to maintain it. The presence of people offering prayers was very refreshing and the very first I had seen in person since my adoption of polytheism about three years ago. And it was a special experience indeed: the Hindus have the largest and strongest tradition of polytheism in continuance. Surely we revivalists and reconstructionists can learn a great deal from the example of this prosperous people who seem to be flourishing within a diaspora. To that end, through careful observation, I have reflected on the following points as necessities for the establishment of a polytheist or pagan community.
1. People with a common interest and vision
Any new community of faith begins with a certain number of people that, in being distinct from the majority around them, hope to maintain and also nourish their particular beliefs and customs. What number is the least to set out with is subject to opinion, but I can’t help but think that even as few as three or four people can take it upon themselves to form something and aim at future growth, because a common interest for or devotion to what is being preserved can only be sustained by growth and can only be begun by a bold initiative. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis was first conceived as an *idea* in 1983, a time when not too many Hindus lived around, but because the growth in the numbers of Hindus was inevitable (because of families), the idea was solidified as a non-profit organization five years later.
2. Monetary contribution
How can a piece of land and a particular structure be allotted to the religious activities of a community? It must first be purchased, unless it is offered for free, which is almost never the case. Just as parents look forward by saving for their children’s college education, they must also do the same towards their spiritual and cultural education. The same happened with the Hindus of St. Louis as with any other community of faith; donations were gathered after the situation was explained to parents and then a piece of land was purchased. The ground-breaking ceremony for the Temple and first rituals before construction were performed in 1990, two years after the non-profit organization was formed. Construction was obviously gradual, and patience needed to be plentiful, but when there is a will, there is a way; no vision can be stronger than that of a home and the grander it can be, the greater the community will prosper. The first phase of construction was completed within a year and a half. At first, there were only pictures of the Gods, but in the course of five years, the temple received the splendor it deserved.
3. A connection to a native culture with deep roots
The Hindu parents were not to allow their children to lose the native traditions and precious beliefs they had come with from abroad, because they were sure what they brought was valuable. Especially in such a different country as America, where either Christianity or materialism determined the general way of life (in the absence of sufficient native voices), traditions could decay or decline easily within one generation, unless care was taken. The depth and strength of the cultural roots that the migrants brought, they could never bear to see gone because it would mean the severing of many centuries, indeed millennia, of continuity. It was only natural that an architect from India, and a renowned one too, would symbolically plant a native seed in a foreign soil by designing the temple, just as if it were magically transported from India. And the native languages needed to be maintained also, as also the native food and clothing, because the ritual experience could not have otherwise been authentically “Indian”, just as it was at home, where the kin and ancestors were. As for those of us who are less fortunate with regards to historical continuity, a heavy burden is on us, which history will judge us by: we must still look back and somehow seek our deeper roots, both cultural and ancestral, a task that is by no means easy, but is necessary. There can be no such thing as “American” polytheism, because it never existed, except for the lucky natives themselves whose ways and lineages have survived. Any attempt to Americanize polytheism, will only cause division and subversion, usually in socio-political factions that parallel those already in existence, and this is something we can already witness. For those in a diaspora, including White Americans, some serious connection to a distant past must be made; the absence of deep roots signifies a weak or stunted growth, if not one that dies off in time. True polytheism requires much more than the worship of many Gods, and the Hindus teach us this.
If rituals are not performed correctly, the temple cannot remain in function, and thus the whole purpose of a temple that can help people by serving the Gods will be weakened or lost. But who determines how the rituals should be performed? Those with a continuous tradition have an easy answer: those who study and know the ancient ways of the ancestors. There are four priests that serve the Hindu Temple of St. Louis, because the languages and ways of India are diverse. For revivalists, the task of attaining and maintaining a priesthood is very difficult, but can become easier, if those with learning consult with the Gods and with one another about the best general courses to take in ritual practices. Once this foundation is laid, each community can further develop its rituals organically. Communities understand the value of leadership, including priesthoods, precisely because communities cannot be formed except with the initiative and vision of leaders.
After a community grows in number and flocks together, certain differences are bound to arise, even among those who strongly share the same vision and hope. There is a natural tendency for minds to battle through conflicting opinions, especially in the beginning when there is much at stake. But if the common vision is continuously emphasized, and people are always reminded of it, diatribes can turn into discussions and disputes into discourses. It is an inherent part of every community to endure early struggles, but the way to reduce the difficulty is always to maintain the bonds that were originally put in place. By this means, general structure becomes more important than particular details, or to express it better, structures guide details, and details are not permitted to be emphasized so much as to lead to the formation of distinct structures. Perhaps if polytheists think of polytheism as a structure and traditions as details, at least until such time as each group can form distinct communities, we will be far happier than we are now.
6. Organizational bodies
Cooperation must always require management within a collective effort. If priests serve as those who organize and lead rituals, committees and boards serve as those who lead and organize the larger system. The Hindu Temple of St. Louis is no exception to other successful community centers: They have a Board of Trustees and an Executive Committee, the latter with distinct functions for overseeing and deciding how the temple is cared for. The executive committee is moderately hierarchical and consists of a president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer, joint secretary, joint treasurer and general members. These positions are elected with three-year terms. The proceedings of committee meetings are shared with the community, because there is no need to hide anything from those you are eager to serve; positions come with a privilege, but also a duty. This resembles a small nation, but as we all know, small nation is far happier and easier to manage than a large one.
The initial money discussed earlier is never enough for the preservation of a great project that continues and indeed grows with time. A community of faith is a serious investment that demands considerable management and funds before satisfactory returns can be made. The Hindu Temple’s Board of Trustees ensures that sufficient funds are collected as well as spent efficiently. The construction of a grand temple and all its very magnificent components could not have been accomplished without plenty of dedication and generosity. After 30 years, they continue to grow: I saw the community center, a project worth $6 million, still in construction. It is needed for the current and future generations of the 16,000 Hindus that live within the larger region.
8. Community events
Rituals are necessary in a community of faith, but social events are necessary in any community. There must be activity, including entertainment, to keep a community alive and proud of itself. In addition to the Hindu Temple and the new cultural center, there has been a cultural center (within the same large plot of land), where musical performances, weddings and other events take place. There is a library also where books may be borrowed. As I was leaving at the end of my visit, I noticed lights outside after what must have been a very festive Diwali. Such events always help the younger generations stay within the community rather than leave it, which is essential for continuity.
9. Youth groups
A further step must always be taken with youngsters, because they have additional energy and soon become ambitious to make their mark. Channeling their energy towards the right direction is a serious matter that requires a clever mind, but the benefits are huge when it is done correctly. A well-trained youth can become the life-blood and fuel that drives a community forwards. The Hindu Temple has a youth group with its separate page, publications, events and achievements. The youth are divided into four groups, ranging from kindergarten to high school. This allows the older youth to lead the younger, which lessens the burden they sometimes feel when they are led by adults. In fact, there is hardly any burden at all, once the youth understand their purpose and their value, through the guidance and care of adults.
10. Community service
This is what connects the community to others in the region and gives it a good reputation. One becomes more confident in and proud of his community when he knows that it helps others who are in need, even if they are not of the same faith. How else can the world become more harmonious and less hostile, but by such means? It is obvious that the Hindus are a minority, but they must make themselves heard and known, much like the other faiths in the area and region. Accordingly, the Hindu Temple generously offers the needy donations of food by various efforts, as well as a free legal and health clinic at certain times of the month.
I saw these a few weeks ago, but I forgot to share them. They are about 30 minutes total in length, but are very worthwhile. The author has not published parts 3 and 4 yet, but these two are probably the most important to consider in the case of polytheism. Although the videos were produced by a rational humanist following a philosophical group called “Hyperianism”, there is plenty of useful information, accurate explanations, and deep ideas that polytheists can and should reflect upon, in regards to the theory and practice of their traditions. In this site, I think the theories and conceptual framework has been more or less between Participation Mystique and the Axial Age, which happens also to be the position of the Homeric tradition I seek to follow. A question to think about: is your polytheistic theory & tradition more to the side of Participation Mystique or the Axial Age or even beyond in the Modern Age, and why?
Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. They might well be the first Indian and Chinese films respectively you have ever seen. Links are provided. Another warning: although I enjoyed these films greatly, I have something to say against Buddha and Confucius themselves. Pardon the intensity, but do correct me and engage if you have cause!
Gautama Buddha, 2007—set in North India around 550-450 BCE
Visual: Immediately I loved the attractive sets and colorful costumes. An older camera must have been deliberately used to make the film seem older and I think this had pretty good effect in the storytelling.
Verbal: The script was serious and literary, with much to analyze. Buddha is obviously given the largest share of speech, and he is always teaching and reflecting with success. There are also beautiful folk songs that are meant to adorn the story.
Portrayal: The character of Buddha seemed too withdrawn and self-centered to invite a sympathetic connection, at least from my position. He leaves his wife on a whim and treats everyone with a sense of superiority and grandeur, and then when he returns to see her and his son after many years, he is without any emotion at all—a mere piece of wood. Indeed, if one looks closely enough, some of Buddha’s behavior and speech resembles that of a psychopath! Since the film was quite successful, the depiction and performance offered must have been very acceptable to the viewer and even admired as such.This implies that the film was not only meant to celebrate Buddha, but also in effect to deify him. He is often called “bhagwan” (god-man) by his followers and others who meet him, including former enemies. The question that the film (and indeed the story itself) raised but did not answer for me was, what did Buddha preach that was really new and why is he so admired for his erratic individualism?
Thematic/Moral: The main moral and theme was the promotion of peace and happiness by the limitation of desire. I admire the film for this purpose, but not so much the story itself. One thing I disliked is that women (in the form of the wife and later the courtesan) are placed on the side of desire and serve as obstacles to tempt the Buddha from transcendent salvation, but certainly he overcomes them because he is transcendent. Women are included in Buddha’s school at the very end, but we still don’t see any of the feminine power and agency of the traditional Hindu religion, where women serve as priestesses and oracles, for example. Moreover, regarding desire, even though Buddha merely organized a few ideas already known, Buddha must have desired excessively to be known, otherwise he would have conformed a little to what others were doing (including other sages-note the melodrama with the Hindu priest who hates Buddha). Moderation is a noble idea and Buddha should be admired for promoting it, but (this in reference to the film) he must not allow others to call him a “god-man” while declaring himself an agnostic, nor should he be so immoderately spiritual. But perhaps that is an inherent problem with individualism and the Axial Age “philosophy” that go along with it. It is said that the followers of Epicurus (who also invented nothing, but unlike Buddha preached absolute nonsense), who did not care for traditional worship or believe the Gods influenced life, erected a shrine for him.
Confucius, 2010—set in Eastern China around 500 BCE
Visual: Quite satisfactory and noble
Verbal: The script was somewhat Western in its brevity, but still there is some complexity and room for analysis between the lines.
Portrayal: Confucius reminds me very much of Buddha in his individualism and egotism, but at least he seems to care for tradition and other people. He weeps for one of his scholars who died trying to save texts, but at the end of the film he is shown surrounded by thousands of copies of his texts, directing one of his students to send copies to such and such a prince. I am not sure whether his humanization rather than deification is something the Chinese state would prefer, but in any case there isn’t much to deify about him, when all is studied historically. I know that he is a folk Hero in China, which I respect as far as local tradition and ancestral worship is concerned, but I question that one should go beyond. In the Analects, he alleges that Tian (Heaven) spoke to him, but not in words, and I don’t see how this is different from what any traditional Chinese shaman would experience. But Confucius’ concentration on Tian, the transcendent supreme Deity or Spirit, parallels his high-flown spirituality and ambition in the film. He is in the company of kings and nobles, and there are hints of Chinese unification and imperialism in his thought, or at least this is what the film depicts. The character of Confucius does not seem to fit his time at all, but fits the modern age quite well, which annoys me, although it isn’t his fault alone. The nobles had their share of wrongdoing in an unstable period and Confucius reminded people of some old traditions such as filial piety. His exhortation against the human sacrifice of retainers was also noble, but there was no need for the violent depiction to prove the point.
Thematic/Moral: Transcendence, avoidance of temptation (we see another courtesan, but at least Confucius doesn’t disrespect his wife), asceticism, self-righteousness, and other Axial Age pomp as before. I can’t help the criticism! I wish Buddha and Confucius weren’t such individualists who constantly subverted their own humility and thus weakened their lessons!
One correct and fair, from a careful reader of history*
And the other distorted and biased, from an American Conservative
* The comment section is unfortunate though, since some American Conservatives have taken advantage of its light tone (without heeding its essence) to subvert the lesson & message it should otherwise deliver.
A lengthy post was published yesterday by a self-proclaimed “Julian Hellenist”, Klaytonus Silvanus, wherein he attacks “Folkish” pagans and polytheists. This seems to be a sequel to an earlier post, one I had attempted in vain to initiate a discussion about. After a misunderstanding regarding my comments, Silvanus took the liberty to ban me as a “folkish” polytheist, which I take as a serious accusation and will refute accordingly. To that end, I will respond to his post in my defense, as if it were directed at me. Since it is well written (with exception to ad hominem) and provides an excellent example of the universalist position, I intend to comment on most of it; I take this both as a rhetorical challenge as well as an opportunity to enable my fellow polytheists to know me better, whether they agree or not with my views. Silvanus is certainly welcome to discuss it further here—I do not ban those with whom I disagree, so long as there is no deliberate insult or impiety. My language may be forceful sometimes (though never injurious), but I trust Silvanus understands the Hellenic rhetorical tradition allows of it.
Against the Folkish “Pagans”
There is a Folkish problem in Paganism. The Folkish are an inane sect of deplorables who take on a “racialist” attitude towards religion, who have all the time in the world to chatter nonsense about their ancestry and blood, but none for theology and religious practice. These racists pose a threat that is potentially ruinous to our work because of how they will appropriate anything of value, ruin it, and then simply move on when they’re done with it. This article shall demonstrate how these vulgar imbeciles are, in truth, not even Polytheists nor Pagans at all, but rather merely bigoted LARPers playing dressup.
Since the title is written in the style of a theological or rhetorical polemic in Late Antiquity, it is unfortunate that the author uses ad hominem and unnecessarily weakens his arguments from the very beginning. If I remember correctly, there isn’t even such language used by Christian polemicists against Pagans, or indeed vice versa. However, to speak of and for myself, I am neither a “racialist” nor a “folkish pagan” nor a supporter of Trump (what was meant by “a deplorable”). I am aware of the current developments in Western and American politics, but I do not mix observation with observance. My views are a mixture of left and right positions, as I had explained before—I maintain a careful and useful balance. Equating my views with the likes of Varg Vikernes, Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor would be a great mistake. My views on ancestry are fair for all peoples and I seek the very same well-being & ethnic celebration for each of them. I can’t and won’t defend the views of pagan “folkists” and “racialists”, but I believe they should be (as reasonably as possible, with exceptions) heard and engaged with in discussion, because they do have real concerns and hopes and fears, which are worth addressing rather than merely dismissing. If anything otherwise is done, the distance & animosity will only grow. When the author says “our work”, he attempts to speak for all polytheists, which is impossible. But perhaps he speaks only for his universalist tradition modelled on the Julian Platonism of Late Antiquity, or for universalists in general. Either way, I will address his arguments further.
Folkish “Paganism” is Reductionist
One thing is overwhelmingly clear: Folkish people do not actually believe in the Gods. They hold a “metagenetic” or “racialist” view of the divine which attempts to posit that the divine limit Their interactions with “foreigners” outside of “the race.” This worldview can be adequately understood as atheism by its materialist reductionism, which attempts to reduce the number and kinds of entities countenanced as real— securing a multiplicity of Gods ontologically through a base materialism which reduces the Gods to merely archetypes of “the race.”
This is not my position, at least. There are known instances from mythology where certain Gods deal with foreigners, but it depends on how far it went. Zeus abducted Europa from Phoenicia, but he didn’t go to Gaul or to China or to the Baltic sea. And it wasn’t because he couldn’t, but because frankly he had no business where other distant Gods were—he ruled over the peoples that worshipped him and interacted with a few other neighbors passingly. Denying this is denying the power and legitimacy of other Gods to rule over the indigenous lands of the people that worshipped them. The “race” here is not relevant, but only the indigenous/ethnic people who existed within the geographical location who shared some culture. A Briton is as foreign to Greece as a West African or a Chinese, and the same applies all around. Now, the universalist position, first developed by Greek philosophers, seeks to enlarge the “province” of the Greek Gods not only to the whole world, but to the whole universe. This is not possible, in view of distinct polytheisms, otherwise you have imperialism—theological at least. A geographical scope is not at all “materialist reductionism” in the case of divine immanence (where the material & spiritual are joined—the traditional position), but it is with the sort of high-flown transcendence that universalists (can we call them imperialists too?) believe in. The author’s view of divinity here seems dualistic and therefore akin to Gnosticism and Christianity. Finally, I suppose the Gods being archetypes of “race” is an argument against anthropomorphism, but a poor one that I have already addressed in my post against Xenophanes.
This ridiculously binds the Gods as subject to a materialist social construct developed by imperialists during the Colonial era, dating to the early Age of Enlightenment and beginning of industrial slavery, far after many of the very same powers destroyed the various polytheisms of the ancient world. This denies that the Gods are real, independently existing entities with agencies of Their own who may engage in personal relations with people outside their ethnicity. This is because Folkish types do not believe that there is anything to the Gods except for customs and ethnicity, and thus do not believe the Gods are capable of actions independent of their own ethnicity.
Yes, “race” was a social construct developed by colonial imperialists, etc, etc. But there is an interesting point to consider—they developed it (in the New World) in order to lessen the effects of ethnic differences in Europe and thus populate the colonies quickly (by substituting class & culture for race) as well as make them operate smoothly. It was a kind of continentalism, if you will, quite akin to universalism. Nationalism arose the same way—Phillip united a war-torn Greece and then Alexander attacked Persia & founded colonies; next, the Romans consolidated power in Italy at the expense of Carthage and the Gauls. So, my question to universalists is: Is your emphasis similarly on numbers and size rather than quality and distinction? Is polytheism then a sort of “grand buffet” where one may choose Gods at pleasure without any medium or regulations, based on ancient tradition (which we always need to refer to), to guide the choice? The divine cannot be understood except by means of human language and belief and necessity and ethnicity, and those are all bound by culture—this does not mean that the Gods are bound, but that we the worshippers are. However, we can also use our divinely given minds to think of the Gods fairly: Would the Gods be equally concerned with distant foreigners (note the adjective) as with natives? I won’t even answer that rhetorical question. Let’s actually imagine a situation where the natives forget of their native Gods (note the adjective) and then distant foreigners, who are dazzled, begin to worship those same Gods (after probably forgetting of their ancestral ones), would those Gods be pleased only because “a human being” is worshipping them? It does not belong to older and traditional polytheism. The idea of humanity in general being cared for by the Gods is a monotheistic/monistic/deistic one that arose out of Greek philosophy and developed during Late Antiquity. And it wouldn’t have applied much in any case outside of the “empire”—You think the Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire were capable of believing that their Gods (which they obviously thought were superior) cared for them as much as the Chinese Gods over in the Han Empire? These limitations of worldview in ancient times had meaning and this necessities a serious theological theory that applies to all peoples and lands and Gods in our modern, globalized times. If religious universalism unites with cultural globalization, let’s bid polytheism farewell, except for the few and isolated, i.e. the weak. I am sick of Western hegemony and the imperial Protestant thinking that is infecting the planet.
And one more question, if the Gods are “real independent entities” (which I believe to be true), why are universalists often interested in syncretic Gods, usually those of Late Antiquity??
In doing so, Folkish types engage in a transgression against the divine: hubris. By actively denying the all-powerfulness of the immortal Gods and trying to limit them as bounded to “the race,” the Folkish display a desire to substitute their human judgment over that of the Gods. Their doubt of the interaction of certain people with the Gods is as though they think that they have the right to tell the Gods who they should interact with and how. This objectifies the Gods and leads to Folkish types treating the Living Immortals as though they mere cultural trinkets. However, the Gods are not mere culture nor objects which can be appropriated– They are real, living and eternal Beings who may reveal Themselves to and call upon whomever they like to worship Them, and thus They cannot be appropriated. To deny religious experience and denounce true devotion, especially when that deity has asked for it and initiated the personal relation with the devotee, is simply atheism. So are you to decide who the Gods choose to impart with knowledge of them?
There is an impiety in keeping somebody out of a Pagan religious tradition for political reasons. That the Gods exist means that they can do or say something “different than you expected, different than what you believe, different than what you might wish to say in Their names” (EPButler, 17 September 2018 1:22 PM). So you can be sure that if a God does not want a particular worshiper that They will expel them Themselves. They do not need you doing it for Them, and if you’re taking for granted that They do, then you’d best be wary of your own personal connection with Them and not everybody else’s. For the God you are at the most risk of drifting from, “hands down…, is the God to Whom you are closest, but take for granted” (EPButler, 16 September 2018 1:57 PM).
What do you mean that we substitute human effort over that of the Gods? Don’t the philosophers (at least) believe that the Gods are discovered by human effort and that we share a part of their divinity (the soul)? The author is using as much human judgment as I am, when he subscribes to a certain religious tradition and defends it. Hubris is an interesting accusation, but I will turn it entirely on its head, with three considerations. First, it was hubris on the part of the Greek philosophers (whom the author follows) to invent their own systems in opposition to the traditional conceptions of their day, as if they knew everything and scorned what everyone else believed. Secondly, it is hubris for those who believe in the Late Antiquity religious system to apply it universally and arbitrarily upon all the rest of people (which won’t work anyway for various reasons, colonial and cultural)—whereas on the other hand, the traditional system is fair in that it seeks to return to an even field where all or the vast majority of traditions existed distinctly (with measurable overlap, as explained before) and without interference from distant foreigners. And now the greatest hubris of all: believing that an Immortal God, all-powerful, etc. can stoop to *call on you* in particular…I thought the Platonic position was that the Gods didn’t need anyone, is it not so, because they were perfect and absolutely self-satisfied? I disagree. I believe that we need the Gods and they us, but that in any case they don’t call on us—rather, the ancestors (and their culture) act as mediators in this case. I don’t believe the Gods are universally all-powerful, because then the world would not stand from a continual war (theomachy, if you will). This is another essential reason why a theology of the Gods that encompasses the distinctions in the world (based on land and people) is necessary. Otherwise, if the Gods cross here and there, changing constantly like Heraclitus would say, their power loses meaning to us, and then, like the philosophers, people will become monists, deists, skeptics or monotheists, rather than polytheists.
A brief note: The author quotes a modern scholar of some renown to corroborate his views, but for a full response, see what is said and by whom in the quote section of this site to corroborate my views.
Pagan Religions cannot be Culturally Appropriated
As stated, the Gods cannot be appropriated. But what about the particular cultural systems of worship centered around the divine which Pagans engage in? Sometimes, Folkish types will try to appropriate the rhetoric of indigenous groups around the world who stand against cultural appropriation— trying to claim that “outsiders” (usually subjective, but typically excludes people of colour) should not enter or partake in Pagan religious traditions because doing so would be “cultural appropriation” in the same vain as someone encroaching on the closed space of an Indigenous American people would be.
There is a obvious and strong distinction (both cultural and moral) between indigenism and nationalism/racism that I need not dwell on. Furthermore, the nascent concept of “re-indigenization” (see this website for example or here also) is probably unknown to the author, but I encourage the readers to seek it out and understand it well, because it is one of the greatest & fairest ideas of these fallen times.
Sure, Pagan religions and cultures are often appropriated in popular media (e.g., the disrespect towards the Gods and ancient traditions during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece with their mascots, or that Gods-awful TV series Vikings). But not all appropriation is cultural appropriation. The problem with claiming that ancient traditions can be culturally appropriated is that these religions and the cultures have been dead for centuries, and thus cannot be culturally appropriated. Pagan religious movements which revive broken traditions are not on par with unbroken Indigenous traditions. While Indigenous traditions around the world have been brutalized and colonized by European powers yet still manage to survive in unbroken religious traditions, contemporary Paganism attempts to revive traditions from the ground up centuries after these cultures have been destroyed. There is no host country for these cultures or religions, even if there are contemporary cultures which descend from or populate the regions of once-existing dead pre-Christian ones, as they have been thoroughly washed by the new religions which came to dominate their areas. Sure, there are cultural artifacts or even direct religious practices which can remain in some of these cultures and countries, but the prior has been decontextualized (e.g., remains of the Partheon) and the latter has been thoroughly washed by the new religion which came to dominate the culture and recontextualized (e.g., the practice of dedicating imagery of the part of the body that need healing which were originally offerings to Asklepios being reassigned to Mary), and assimilation to the culture will not acclimate one to the religion. Connecting to contemporary Greece, with Orthodox Christianity as its state religion, will not inherently lead one to practicing Hellenism. Connecting to contemporary Germany, which is mixed Protestant and Catholic, will not inherently lead one to worshiping Woden. Connecting to contemporary Egypt, which is a predominantly Arab-state practicing Sunni Islam, will not inherently lead one to praising Ptah.
This section is very unfortunately expressed, I am compelled to say. The author willfully insists on killing or dismissing the remnants of ancient culture and religion in order to prove his point about universalism applying to “dead” traditions. I recall an article I read by Angelo Nasios, wherein he does not oppose the worship of Hellenic Gods by outsiders, but fairly demands that it not be called Hellenism, because it is cultural appropriation. I would add that the Gods can’t be separated from the historical media they were reached by, culture, language and ancestral practice. It’s greatly unjust however to demolish any traces of ancient indigenism that have survived after monotheism, and contrast it with modern (more fortunate) indigenous societies, as if that would lessen the former people’s efforts towards re-indigenization. I need not emphasize that the whole world was once indigenous, and a great part of polytheism’s beauty derives from the simpler times during which our various ancestors lived and their Gods were worshipped. I am not sure what’s the argument regarding contextualization here? Shouldn’t we decontextualize the earlier decontextualization, whenever possible? That’s the essence of reindigenization: It’s a glorious rediscovery of the past, of who we are and what we should do with one another across cultures in orderly to live well. Universalism, manifested by the author’s thinking here, seeks to dismiss this, because it is an inconvenience to their personal inclinations. Great Gods, as if this is a matter of individuals, and not the destiny of peoples! Being German (of whatever religion) won’t inherently lead a person to worship Woden? What does that mean? If they are educated in history and morality, that German should inherently choose polytheism, and Woden would be among the first they think of. If the author’s point is there was no continuity for an immediate transition, I still disagree: Language is a sufficient bridge, that is, if the author must dismiss ethnicity (which I disagree with entirely).
Yes, one might feel a deeper connection to a certain religion if they come from a particular cultural background (e.g., a person of Latin background, say Portuguese, connecting better to the Religio Romana), but simultaneously religions such as Christianity or Islam have thoroughly become embedded in these cultures, and their hold is anything but tenuous. It is all pervasive, and part of reviving ancient traditions involves things like moving past the baggage that everyone has as a result of being raised in the society they were raised in because let’s face it, no one is raised within a vacuum. Because the majority of Pagans are converts coming from Abrahamic faiths, they will thus begin with many presumptions about religion which derive from their society. If one thinks that there is an easy way back to the Old World’s religious traditions by connecting with contemporary cultures, then that person has clearly never actually engaged in Pagan religions.
“One might feel a deeper connection” is a perfect indication of what is wrong here, not so much in the author’s expression, but in the mentality of those the author speaks for. One—might—feel—are all and each the wrong terms to be considering in this profound context. The problem here is that polytheists think of themselves as individuals first (without joining community—although alas, there aren’t any yet), and then don’t consider their ancestry (hence the “might” arising from a weak identity) and then feel this matter of destiny rather than think thoroughly about it. If “no one is raised within a vacuum” and grew up with “Abrahamic faiths”, it shouldn’t stop people from seeking to live in distinct communities and with distinct practices just as their ancestors did, rather than live within the modern, globalized “contemporary cultures” that are the antithesis of polytheism, being in almost every way aligned with monotheism and atheism.
Pagan Religions are both Ethnic and Universal
In the Greek New Testament, those who ascribe to pre-Christian religions are called ta ethnē, “the nations” (Luke 24:47, Matthew 25:32, Matthew 28:19). As such, religions of “the nations” were deemed ethnikos, as pertaining to a nation, in opposition to Christianity’s katholikos, meaning “catholic” or “universal.” In English translations of the New Testament, the word ethnē often gets translated as “Gentiles,” and in Latin “Paganus,” or Pagan. This essentially posited the “one universal Christian faith” against a multiplicity of “ethnic” religions. This does not, however, mean that Pagan religions were closed traditions. On quite the contrary, ancient polytheisms were universal traditions which, although they may have originated in one geographic territory, had a tendency to spread into other regions and become part of that area’s culture.
My response is mainly to the last sentence: “Had a tendency to spread into other regions” is a euphemism for imperialism and the falsely “universal” system that arises from it. We need to distinguish the spreading that results from a slow, formative establishment of several regional Gods within the same pantheon, from the quick, innovative expansion of a powerful foreign God (or Gods) over weaker indigenous ones.
The actual issue was not that Christianity’s universalism purported itself as holding a universal truth for all peoples, but that it purported itself as an exclusivist, sole path to salvation, and actively denied the legitimacy of other paths to the truth, especially from long-standing traditions, as being false and abhorrent. This is what was antithetical to the undeniable pluralistic and diverse nature of ancient Pagan religions. The ancient world was, after all, fairly cosmopolitan. We can hardly say that something like Graeco-Roman civilization, which built a temple dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess Isis on the far-away Celtic lands of Britain, was anything but incredibly pluralistic and diverse. The ancient Germanic tribes are another clear example of an ancient peoples becoming well-accustomed to elements of foreign cultures. This is variously seen with the Swedish Viking ruling class of the Kievan Rus, how many different members of tribes such as the Batavi, Saxons, Goths, and Cherusci (among many others) would frequently become Foederati within the Roman military and adopt Roman cults and styles of dress, the intermingling and intermarriage of native Britons and Anglo-Saxons, with early Saxon cemeteries having both bodies from continental Europe and bodies native to the Isles buried in them, and the substantial overlap between Germanic peoples and the Gauls nearest to the Rhine. The Suebi are such an example, with Suebic chieftans Maroboduus and Ariovistus having Gallic names, with the latter speaking fluent Gallic (Gaius Iulius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico 1.47), as well as the Franks, who took up many elements of Gallo-Roman culture.
I could not disagree with the first sentence more. Is the connection between monotheism and universalism so weak as not to be seen? A socio-cultural examination of the history of monotheism is needed to rectify this mistake (my next post will provide a lengthy chronology with commentary on this topic), because otherwise we will repeat it. But I must ask: what period and place and proportion of the ancient world was “fairly cosmopolitan”? Such a view is too literary, because most people lived out of cities in their regional homelands practicing agriculture. And it was the city-dwellers who always innovated and sought to profit from their new ideas. It saddens me that the author goes at great lengths to pass off coping with imperialism (to avoid further misery) as evidence of diversity…So, the Roman Empire conquers Egypt and subjugates its people, but then the worship of Isis, carried by earlier imperializing Greeks, spreads to Rome and to Britain—surely we can’t complain because Egypt should be proud and Isis, great mother as she is, would approve to see her native people as impoverished subjects while she acquires more generous, numerous and wealthy worshippers abroad?
While the translation of the Greek word ethnos does have a connotation as pertaining to a nation, this does not have the same connotation as a “nation-state,” let alone “race,” both of are very modern social constructs which developed many centuries following the extinction of the ancient religions. The latter especially developed quite recently among European imperialists during the Colonial era, dating from the early Enlightenment and beginning of industrial slavery, multiple centuries after many of the same powers destroyed the numerous polytheistic traditions of the ancient world. It is out of touch with reality to believe that the many different ethnic groups populating parts of Europe (Graeco-Romans, Celts, Germanics, Illyrians, etc.,) would have recognized themselves as part of the same people, let ago have seen eye-to-eye with eachother, based on an anachronistic idea of “whiteness” which only developed multiple centuries later. If the ancient world cared about someone’s race, then it would have been very unlikely that the Romans would have had Septimus Severus, a Roman who was half-Italic on his mother’s side and half-Punic and Berber on his father’s side, as their Emperor for almost two decades. There is no such thing as a “white gene,” “brown gene,” or a “black gene,” and what we consider to be “racial” is merely an observation of physical attributes that can change over time. To think the ancient world, let alone the Gods, would care is simply delirious. Rather, the Greek term ethnos means a community of people held together by the same culture, customs, language, and religion, rather than about anything remotely similar to contemporary notions of “race.”
The term “ethnos”, in its earlier sense, actually refers to the tribe and a tribal society but the term may have changed afterwards in Late Antiquity. An ethnos (usually agricultural and pastoral) is distinguished by anthropologists as distinct from the later urban polis that developed from it and sought to unite tribes into one city-state (synoecism). The ethnos however remained even in the latter stage, since marriages excluded within citizenry brought a sense of common ancestry. The different ethnic groups throughout Europe could not have brought themselves together as one group, but they approached that idea with the Roman Empire—in this case, however, they didn’t see it as “race” because they were all, except for very few, of the “Caucasian race” anyway, unlike the colonizers and slave traders of later times, who perceived great differences suddenly and proceeded with evil imperialism in order to justify their subjugation of the weaker people as a means to “civilize” them. This is why I dislike imperialism: in time, it molds a new large identity, whether an empire or a race (the two concepts are congruous), while replacing or weakening smaller ones, for the sake of some twisted, hypocritical ideology. And this is why I seek re-indigenization through regionalism.
So sure, if one is called to by a God or even simply wishes to participate in these religions, then necessary respect and acknowledgement must be given to the culture that the God created, and one well ought to be interested in learning as much as they can about it. This does not, however, merely come from birth. No, this comes from work. This is a clear understanding from the ancient world, as the divine Emperor Julian tells us: “though my family [the Constantinian dynasty] is Thracian, [I] am a Greek in my habits,” or in other words, logos displaces genos (Flavius Claudius Iulianus, II 501). Being a Hellene, or any practitioner of a Pagan religion, does not designate a people (genos), but a mindset (logoi) (Libanios, Or. II.184) (Kaldellis 2011, 54). One becomes part of a Pagan religion (such as Hellenism) because they share in a culture which was attained through education (such as paideia), rather than “common stock (physis)” (Elm 2012, 378-379). Indeed, while these religions are ethnic because they originated with a group of people, ancient religions are at the same time katholikos, or universal, because by their very nature they reflect the reality and universal principles of the Cosmos itself.
Yes, Julian was a Thracian, which was within the bounds of Greece, especially during his time. Zeno of Citium the Phoenician was accepted even earlier. Quoting late authors like Libanios doesn’t help in a universal sense, because their (urban) world was already jumbled up by imperialism (beginning with the Hellenistic) and thus Hellenism lost its original cultural identity and developed a false transcendental one. Even though I am a Greek, I can easily blame the Greeks for their cultural imperialism in the Near East, the same region where Libanios came from—he must have felt inferior if he were not considered Greek, and therefore he went along with the imperialism as a coping mechanism. A similar thing happens with immigrants in America, like my parents, and even happened with me when I returned to America after living 10 years abroad. And a brief note once again: Don’t be quick to equate the Greek philosophical system’s universal cosmology to what other traditional and regionalized cultures do with their cosmologies/mythologies, because that will lead to the dismissing of the latter, since modern science agrees often with the former.
Pagan Religions are God-centric, not ancestor-centric
I want to establish that in no way am I dismissing ancestor veneration. It’s a practice that is prevalent in many Pagan religious traditions, and plays a strong significance in the Religio Romana. However, Folkish types will often claim that the core of Paganism and polytheism is about “tribe and ancestors.” There is a few problems to this. Firstly, though some Pagan religions may have a kind of focus on a tribe, such as Germanic polytheism, the ancient concept of a tribe is very unrelated to the very contemporary notion of a “nation-state,” which many Folkish types will try to extrapolate the concept to anachronistically. Secondly, their tone-deaf description of Paganism and polytheism will always inherently fall short because it completely displaces the core of what polytheism is actually all about. The focus of polytheism, as the word implies in Greek (“polús,” meaning many, and “theós,” meaning God), is the veneration of the many living, eternal Gods. Period. We don’t seek the mediation of the Gods to worship our ancestors because ancestors are not the focus of polytheism.
Polytheism needs to be understood beyond its simple etymology. There is plenty of socio-historical and socio-political theory to comprehend within it before you can even worship correctly, and this includes our knowledge about what ancient ancestry is and the importance of re-developing a direct connection to it. I have already explained how our various ancestors and their cultures are media between us and their Gods. Certainly the opposite is not true: the Gods are not mediators between us and our ancestors. Finally, I disagree with nationalism (or the nation-state), because of its inherent imperialism and anti-regionalism, since one tribe is required to conquer the rest before a “nation” is formed. Nationalism is almost as unreasonable as globalization.
Folkish people don’t even engage in actual ancestor veneration
For all the lip-service that the Folkish preach for ancestors, the Folkish typically have an incredibly reductionist view of what the ancestors actually are, commonly resting it on mere biological descendance. This is in contrast to the ancient world, such as in Rome, where your ancestors wouldn’t even necessarily be biological since biology was never really thought as being important. Noble families would frequently adopt males unrelated to them to follow in their footsteps, and when you were adopted into a family, you would be expected to worship that family’s ancestors. Because after all, what of people who were not raised by their biological family in any way, but instead, were raised by adoptive parents? What family’s ancestors would they even have to worship if only their biology mattered?
Folkish people will claim that minorities should refrain from joining Pagan religions because, again hearkening back to their erroneous “metagenetics” argument, people should only “worship the Gods of their ancestors.” But this argument is one of brittle bones which can be easily broken by just pointing out that most of their parents, let alone their ancestors for at least the past five centuries, are almost guaranteed to not have been engaged in the worship of the very same Gods that they are right now. Are those ancestors suddenly no longer of any worth? If so, that’s a pretty detestable view of one’s ancestors. But let’s play devil’s advocate and for the sake of this specious argument ignore this elephant in the room. If only biology mattered, then one can assume that they would have absolutely no problem with mixed people trying to join their traditions. But evidently, they overwhelmingly do. So how do the Folkish reconcile their worldview of biology with mixed peoples who want to enter Pagan traditions? For example, the majority of African-descendant people in the west are mixed, having European ancestry somewhere in their family tree, sometimes being the direct result of a biracial union. But of course, most Folkish types would reject them, even though they would rarely if ever complain if someone of mixed European descent wanted to join, or even someone of a completely separate fair-skinned peoples entirely. This is because genuine ancestor veneration is not something which the Folkish even actually engage in when they play at “honouring the ancestors.” This distortion of ancestor worship that the Folkish engage in, coupled with how they relegate Gods to archetypes of “the race,” informs us that, in reality, Folkish types misuse the component of ancestor veneration in Pagan and polytheistic religions as an excuse to go all-out blood and soil. Their “ancestor veneration,” and worship in general, is merely a form of self-indulgent pomposity because all it means to them is that it “honours their great race.” Beneath the shallow dressing, they are merely worshiping the phenotype. Their religion is white people. Nothing else.
I have explained on my site how people of mixed ancestry (citing myself also) can deal with the point of culture and worship. I don’t have a problem with people of mixed races joining and assimilating within a community, but I wouldn’t encourage the mixing (even inter-ethnic marriage) in the first place, for various reasons (mainly because it’s used by white leftists to heal past wrongs as if their continual colonialization will go away when they do it), which universalism does. I don’t mean to divert the discourse here, but the author is very insensitive when he mentions people of African descent in the west with European ancestry, because we all know how that ancestry was forcibly acquired and how they forcibly came to the west in the first place. So, why would they be venerating white or European ancestors at all?
Pagan Religions are a result of Post-Modernism
The Folkish have this unbridled phobia of Post-Modernism, even to the point where they will use it as a buzzword against detractors, despite not having any actual idea of what it is about nor its significance for contemporary polytheism. To simplify it, Post-Modernist philosophy is merely a kind of skepticism about Modernism, which is itself a philosophical movement which, by trying to simplify things and arrange them in a linear fashion out of a desire to create stories with clear beginnings and ends, argues for a straightforward progression towards truth and liberty, which gave rise to theories like whig history. When applied to religious modes of thought, Modernism would hypothesize that earlier religious modes of practice and belief are inherently more “primitive,” because they’re not in the “now,” positing that a “primitive society” would begin practicing a form of animism, which itself would give way to a “more developed” polytheism which humanizes abstract spirits, which in turn would reject the “ridiculous idea” of many Gods and cultivates into monotheism as the “pinnacle of spiritual development,” with another step sometimes included with a jump from monotheism to atheism.
Post-Modernism rebukes Modernist theories of linear human development, arguing that it doesn’t make sense as the way in which things actually happen because, much like biological evolution, what sticks in human development is not always an improvement; it is in essence random. Post-Modernism’s rejection of modernist approaches to historiography allowed for a resurrected interest in ancient paganisms which revived devotional polytheism in the west. Because of this, Post-Modernism has been in large part responsible for the reconstructionist methodology we use today in reviving these ancient religions, and that our Post-Modern culture has inspired more genuine interest in polytheism and ancient paganism than say, the romantic and Völkisch environment of turn of the 20th century Germany.
I am actually a post-modernist, but I still believe that monotheism developed from socio-political conditions within certain species of polytheism and from certain groups of polytheists. Furthermore, I think the author projects linearity when he implies (though subtly) that our earlier tribal societies were less moral and less culturally superior than those of Late Antiquity and afterwards. As for Volkisch rotten nonsense of the Nazis which sought to elevate the Nordic “race” above all others, I have nothing at all to do with it—I am actually partly Sephardic Jewish on my father’s side and I said this on the author’s site, but he still proceeded to call me “Folkish” with the same insensitivity displayed earlier about Africans in the west. Finally, it was rather shameful for the author to equate me with these miserable Folkish nordicists and in the same breath, ban me in order to prevent me from defending myself.
Stating the obvious: the Folkish and their rhetoric are visibly ignorant and foul. These blatant fascists are inherently violent because of how their canards incites the dehumanization and harassment of minorities by unnecessarily forcing them to validate themselves both as practitioners and as people, and inherently impious because of their flagrant atheism and hubris which objectifies the Gods and ancestors as mere trinkets who only serve to propound the short-sighted pomposity they have about their “race.” This only produces a toxic environment where the both the pious and the marginalized are left unwelcome, and as such, their hatespeech is undeserving of any audience. Their platforms in Pagan circles should be torn down, and any individuals who are espousing their abhorrent rhetoric should be barred from any and all participation in any legitimate polytheistic and/or Pagan community. Their points are not to be debated: they are to be ridiculed.
My conclusion: The author’s conclusion will make things worse rather than better for polytheism on the whole, at least on the internet. Meantime, I will continue (to the best of my ability) writing as I do, honestly, fairly, respectfully and carefully, in the service of all Gods and all peoples (the right kind of universalism), until such time the Gods will allow me to form or join a real & closed polytheistic community in Greece that will promote re-indigenization and regionalism.
This topic seems to have been in discussion lately and John Beckett published on it a few days since. I think it is a part of a larger topic of huge importance about early Greek philosophy (of the religious or secular form or indeed a mixture of both). I will stick to the man and also touch on the movement. Now, we have many fragments about Xenophanes, as well as a historical period to which he was contemporary, that allow us to form a clear view of the man’s ideas and let me add, motives. We know that he lived after Homer and Hesiod, and was very bold to criticize them: “Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all things that are a shame and a disgrace among mortals, stealings and adulteries and deceivings of one another.” Xenophanes belonged to a movement, anticipated a little by Hesiod, which criticized the old ideas and traditions (including mythology and anthropomorphism) while searching for a universal “Truth”. What surprises me is that Xenophanes doesn’t try to allow Homer and Hesiod much credit, or attempt at least (using the very “critical thinking” he seemingly wishes to distinguish himself by) to allegorize some myths and their import. Nor is there any constructive criticism; Xenophanes boldly attacks his renowned predecessors (somewhat like his contemporary and Heraclitus, who said “Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped”) and without much reason. First of all, Homer and Hesiod were widely acclaimed throughout Greece, and deservedly so, because they wrote beautifully and wisely, including about the Gods. Very few doubted that they did anything wrong, either artistically or theologically, and if objections were raised, reverence was most likely shown. Secondly, Xenophanes’ movement owed part of its existence to some of Hesiod’s new ideas which were in opposition to Homer’s. Greece had already begun to change and it seems Xenophanes was a thorough individualist who sought to have his own ideas spread, in order to “reform” a Greece that had been “corrupted” in its religious thinking. We know from another fragment that he travelled throughout Greece for 67 years, most probably for that purpose. His main concern was anthropomorphism, which we can infer from three fragments on the topic:
“But mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are, and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form.”
“Yes, and if oxen and horses or lions had hands, and could paint with their hands, and produce works of art as men do, horses would paint the forms of the gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and make their bodies in the image of their several kinds.”*
“The Ethiopians make their gods black and snub-nosed; the Thracians say theirs have blue eyes and red hair.”
One cannot be exactly certain where this new idea against anthropomorphism first arose and why**, but it was undoubtedly damaging to polytheism in the long run. The traditional view of mythology and cultic practice was that the Gods were represented in a form similar to the people who worshipped them. This has universally been done throughout all polytheistic cultures. Indeed, it’s an obvious and necessary thing for ritual practice that wouldn’t have been questioned in the first place by someone who cared about ancestral and cultic continuity as well as the sanctity of religious tradition, rather than an individual opinion. That Xenophanes objected to such a common and strongly established cultural/theological/mythological norm inevitably gives the impression that he was either unduly confused or ambitious. It’s not wrong to suspect someone who objects to what everyone else does in an environment that was entirely original, that is to say, where there wasn’t anything previously lost in order to be restored (which we polytheists are doing today). Instead of enjoying his travels by expanding his knowledge of the distinctions in regional Greek practice, he sought to teach everyone how they were mistaken and needed improvement. In one fragment, he says “The Gods have not revealed all things to men from the beginning, but by seeking they find in time what is better.” Well, how could Xenophanes be so sure he was “better” and everyone else was less so in regard to this point of anthropomorphism? Apparently he wasn’t better by his own admission, as we can see from another fragment:
“There never was nor will be a man who has certain knowledge about the Gods and about all the things I speak of. Even if he should chance to say the complete truth, yet he himself knows not that it is so. But all may have their fancy.”
I must say I commend the frankness of Xenophanes here, because unlike so many other philosophers, he conceded that the “Truth” in a universal sense was really unattainable. One ought to acknowledge that he was honest about the reality of where intellectual universalism always ends, i.e. uncertainty. Each culture has its own ideas and traditions, and therefore it would be impossible, not to mention unfair, to attempt to bring them all under one system, especially an arbitrary one derived from individual conception. This is why we have pluralism inherent in polytheism; just as there are many Gods, there are many traditions, and just as the Gods are venerated, the traditions should also be respected. The essence of polytheism is far more continuity of ancestral practice rather than refining conceptions about the divine in a universal manner. Xenophanes contradicts himself and undermines his validity when he simultaneously attacks Hesiod, Homer, as well as anthropomorphism, and in effect doubts what he is saying. This makes Xenophanes somewhat of a skeptic. But now let us move to the more relevant question of proto-monotheism. Xenophanes was far removed from the time of Akhenaten, an undisputed monotheist or proto-monotheist, depending on interpretation. Yet he was part of a new movement in Greece, originating in Ionia, the same region where the first philosophy of Thales and his Milesian school developed. It was a prosperous, commercial region where commodities and ideas were exchanged among Eastern Mediterranean cultures and somewhat beyond. Thales, like Xenophanes’ contemporary Pythagoras, is known to have travelled abroad. In encountering various cultures and their differences, he must have had the negative reaction of doubting his own beliefs because of plurality rather than the positive reaction of admiring that very plurality. From this doubt, which Xenophanes shared also from extensive travels (albeit Hellenic) he sought a greater “Truth” that explained this new, large world he experienced. Everything, he must have thought, was related and had a common origin, and therefore it was only prolonged isolation and merely popular tradition that led to differences, which “covered” this primal “Truth”, which was equated to natural elements. This anticipates the rise of monotheism (one could also say deism) in its second form, i.e. the intellectual form that differed from the earlier quasi-political & imperialistic form under Akhenaten**. Xenophanes gives a strong impression of this proto-monotheism, when he states the following in several fragments:
“One God, the greatest among Gods and men, neither in form like unto mortals nor in thought . . . .”
“He sees all over, thinks all over, and hears all over.
“But without toil he swayeth all things by the thought of his mind.”
“And he abideth ever in the selfsame place, moving not at all; nor doth it befit him to go about now hither now thither.”
Now this is not monotheism, but only an earlier anticipatory form of it. Xenophanes is still a “polytheist” but he is also making a transition unto something else. The phrase “One God, the greatest among Gods and men”, looks like ambiguous evidence, but it is the first term ‘One God’ that really holds almost all the weight, especially if we also consider the three latter fragments. Some philosophers, like the Orphics contemporary to them, accorded to the ruling God (in this case Zeus, but sometimes they held the God to be a natural element) greater powers than ever before, and although they did acknowledge other Gods, the status of those Gods now dwindled in the rising supremacy of the Head. The “Mind” was now absolutely supreme and pure in the order of things, and intellect, not ritual or prayer or festivals, was the way to reach it. As M.L. West explains in an article from the book Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity:
“Empedocles describes a God who does not have human form—no head, no arms, no feet, no knees, no hairy genitals—but consists simply of a marvelous holy mind, darting across the whole universe with its swift thoughts. This may remind us of Xenophanes’ and Heraclitus’ accounts of a disembodied intelligence; but they were speaking of a unique being, whereas Empedocles‘ description may have been applicable to any of the life-long Gods…The philosopher who first gives us a clear statement of the role of the controlling Mind in the material universe is Anaxagoras, who is a little older than Empedocles. Like Heraclitus [and most probably his contemporary Xenophanes also–my note], he emphasizes that Mind or Intellect is something separate from everything else. He says it is unlimited, unalloyed, homogeneous, eternal, autonomous, the finest and purest of all substances, with knowledge of everything and the greatest power, governing all living beings, and responsible for initiating the rotation of the cosmos, which led to the separation of all things from the original mixture and continues to be productive in the same way…Here we have a single power, uniquely responsible for shaping the world we know. There is no mention of other Gods. We might say that here at last is a clear case of a monotheistic system, except that it is difficult to justify treating Anaxagoras’ Nous [the Mind] as divine…Nevertheless, theistic or not, his system interestingly illustrates the tendency to look for a single, intelligent governing power in the world”.
Michael Frede adds the following in his article from the same book, when he speaks of the continued developments of Aristotle to the concept of the “one God” above:
“Given that it is clear that there is a substantial sense in which Aristotle believes in one God, though there are many other things he is prepared to call ‘divine’, let us consider these…It is part of the order of the universe which depends on the first unmoved mover [Nous/the Mind] that there be immaterial substances, pure unembodied minds who, being immortal, enjoy eternal bliss contemplating the first unmoved mover and the order which depends on him…[As for Plato’s position in Timaeus] So there is one God, but there are also other beings which are called ‘divine’, though they are created, because they are by Divine grace immortal and enjoy a good life. But they only exist as part of God’s creation and they are immortal and hence divine only due to God’s benevolence or grace, that is to say they owe their very divinity to God. So far, then, the Platonist account, in its essential features, is very much like that of Aristotle and that of the Stoics.”
What we see here is proto-monotheism through and through, where the status of the other Gods is reduced subserviently (one may say blasphemously) to that of “angels”, dwarfish beings in comparison with the absolute, supreme God. There are those who may object (and perhaps even quibble) in the defense of Xenophanes or others, by stating that this was merely another form of polytheism and not proto-monotheism at all. Such an objection is rather inane, because if that kind of reasoning is used, Christianity itself becomes a form of polytheism too, except for the thin partition of intolerance that divides them apart. This fluidity was actually present in Late Antiquity, when all what differed between a Neoplatonist and a Christian was really not so much the point of whether there is one or many Gods, but whether Jesus was the savior and intercessor. The Christian author Augustine points this out in The City of God:
“If the Platonists prefer to call these ‘gods’ [lower case ‘g’ for emphasizing lower status] rather than ‘daemons’ and to count them among those of whom their founder and master Plato writes that they are Gods created by the highest God, let them say what they wish. For one should not engage with them in a controversy of words. For if they say that they are not blessed by themselves, but by being attached to him who has created them, then they say precisely what we say, whichever word they may use for them”
For fear of falling into this trap of quibbling where evidence is otherwise strong, I must therefore state in conclusion that Xenophanes is certainly a polytheist, but at the same time he is undoubtedly a proto-monotheist or a proto-deist or both, depending on your interpretation.
*It’s easy to detect a satirical, overbearing tone here, and one that does our friend Xenophanes no credit at all, but rather weakens his case.
**Akhenaten’s defacing and prohibiting of divine images is known, but no connection has been established with Greece. Nevertheless, we know the Greek minds whose new ideas paved the way against anthropomorphism, i.e. Thales, the first philosopher who equated Gods with elements, and who was followed later widely by fellow philosophers. Even earlier than Thales, a problem with anthropomorphism was already anticipated from the Theogony of Hesiod, wherein he shows that traditional, anthropomorphic Gods that were worshipped, were preceded by earlier generations of non-anthropomorphic and non-cultic Gods, and in a few cases, allegorical Gods that represented the forces of nature. See Hack’s article on Hesiod in his work God in Greek philosophy.
***The two forms were later to combine very destructively under the Emperor Constantine and again under Mohammed.