the leaky “pagan umbrella” and the myth of idolatry

Veering off from my regular subject manner to address something else for the moment. Don’t worry I will return to the regular scheduled programming in short order. Having been doing some reading recently I found that I take issue with two things: 1. the generic labeling of “pagan”; and 2. the assumptions made in regards to polytheistic religions being idolators by viewing such religions through the christian lense.

I will start with the idea of the “pagan umbrella.” This seems to be a popular term for people within the dubious so-called “pagan community” and for those who are referring to polytheistic religions. It has even expanded to include any and all of those who don’t belong to any of the Abrahamic traditions but who don’t self identify as polytheistic, much less pagan. Indeed you can’t even say that all “pagans” are polytheistic to begin with. Therefore we end up with a catch-all term that ends up being rather useless, and attempts to define it often falling short of everyone that they want to include in the community. Granted there is this idea that it is better to join forces via similarities rather than stand at a smaller, weaker, divided standpoint. But I question what good this does if those under the umbrella can’t identify with what paganism stands for or even what new definition has been tacked on it.

I will give a good example. I recently saw a post for a pagan event which invited all people who follow an “earth-centered-religion” to join in. Well this caused me to pause. I dont’ consider Hellenismos an “earth-centered-religion” (presuming that this refers to the worship of nature) in so much that civilization and nature are both areas governed by the gods. I can’t say that my religion is nature centered when so much of my religion deals with human society and civilization. And especially considering that the god I love and follow is particularly associated with more abstract ideas in addition to the more visible presence of his domain via his light that manifests most literally in nature. Is there a strong element of the natural world in Hellenismos…yes but of course there is…but that is not the entire summation of the religion either as far as I see it, especially considering that there are gods who have areas in their domain that you wont’ see anywhere in nature outside of humanity. The same can be said for those religions who are lumped under the pagan umbrella that may not even consider a veneration of nature to be part of their spiritual identity. Therefore this modern definition of what “pagan” is most commonly deemed to be falls by far rather lacking.

Of course there is the banner of protest that pagan just means country-dweller. Yeah that makes me feel a whole lot better. I can just see the christian romans sneering down their noses at the pagans who have held on to the more simple and rustic celebrations of the gods minus the civic cults of the cities which had been replaced with christianity. So basically all I hear when I see a desire to reclaim this is term…something which refers to a fragmentary surivival of the ancient religion on its death-bed….usually comprised too of the uneducated and more superstitious segments of the populace….is that paganism is the religion of ancient remnants practiced by uneducated people and lacking in anything deeper than the most superficial aspects of an obsolete belief. This is image painted by the christo-roman term which I don’t feel any effort of reclaiming of it for positive use can save it from.

In any case, as I more or less stated above, I don’t think that there can be any umbrella term that would ever be effective. If I were to to try to make a wide-sweeping term I think I would have to make several of them…and even those wouldn’t work very well together in the end. But out of curiousity’s sake I will take a brief stab at it. First it seems important to identify different *types* of religions.
1.Polytheistic (a religion that has many gods, whether these gods are believed as manifestations of a singular spiritual energy on a philosophical level is besides the point. If it has more than one god it is generally polytheistic as the word means “many gods”. And if one is revering many gods it seems it would fall into this category, even as the Egyptian religion in which the gods are all part of Ra–more or less since I am not an expert on Egyptian religion—it is still considered a polytheistic religion.)
2. Monistic (a religion that is characterized in the belief of one supreme (perhaps impersonal) force which may express itself in many ways. There seems in some cases to be a fine line between polytheism and monism, for a monism acknowledges that the one can appear in a variety of ways but doesn’t always give reverance to those many manifestations…preferring to give worship to the one. )
3. Monotheistic (the worship of one god, and only god. Typically seen in the Abrahamic religions and in one instance of Egyptian religion for a brief period when  Ankenaten (forgive the horrible spelling) attempted to replace the gods of Egypt with the monotheistic worship of the Aten.
4. Duotheistic (the worship of a pair of gods only. This views that all gods and goddesses are manifestation of a god and goddess pair and therefore the worshiper will usually pick an “archtype” out of mythology for their god and their goddess..but all worship centers on two divine beings.
5. Witchcraft religions (religions that are specifically created around the principles of magic and occultism. Whereas it is true that a person can be a witch without being religious, and that other religious traditions have their own forms of magic, I am speaking specifically of religions here that have evolved around the practice of witchcraft and typically follow deities directly associated with the arts of magic and witchcraft (such as Italian witches following Diana for instance). Wicca can kinda fit here, but mostly this speaks mostly to hereditary traditions with their own set of gods, whereas wicca tends to fall usually in the duotheistic camp with magic added to it. I would hesitantly add Voudon/Santeria/etc here as it is a magic-based religious tradition for the most part.
6. Shamanitic/Animistic traditions (this is not going to be a great definition but I see it as native traditions from various parts of the world of a tribal character which may or may not have a god but put emphasis on the spiritual nature of beings in the world.)

Like I said, these categorizations are very vague at best even in this sense, for in each category we can easily subdivide it further…but these seem to be the ones that stick out the most prominent in my mind if I were to go really general. And with the exception of monotheism, these are all what are habitually lumped under the word pagan. This is not taking into consideration that even within each category you have extreme differences in philosophy, divine interaction etc. For instance, I would probably find more in common to talk about with someone practicing a Khemetic (Egyptian) religion, and religions of the Mediterannean in general than I would with Slavic, Nordic, Germanic/Heathen polytheists. That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t have respect or find interest in these other traditions, but there would be little ground for commonality. This doesn’t prevent supporting the continuance of said traditions though.

Lets face it, putting everyone under a lump umbrella of any kind doesn’t  really serve anyone, and we are still going to have a tendency to segregate ourselves in any case, preferring the company of those with religious philosophies similar to our own. If anything the “pagan umbrella” tends to work against us as the world, by what evidence I have seen, views paganism via its intended christian message. This does nothing at all to help us as far as I can see. All it really seems to do is take a blockade of an ambiguous “us” against “them” that speaks nothing of spirituality and philosophies as I have pointed out…since there is no term that can speak adequately for all those group thus represented.

This brings me to the next issue. Even as people embrace the word pagan they are embracing another word along with it (for pagan is never without this word in christianity) and that is the word Idolatry. Nevermind the fact that this practice just doesn’t exist, or if it does it is a minority. I have never heard a modern worshiper, or read in ancient text, that anyone of a polytheistic belief literally believed that the images they venerated were the gods. There is a difference of course between Idolizing and Venerating. And the christians are the first to point it out…we idolize and they venerate. It is ok for them to hold the cross as a sacred symbol, and Catholics take it even further with all their images of saints, Madonna’s (the mother of Christ not the singer), angels, and Jesuses they adorn everywhere. Even Hindus say that they use the images of their gods for focus of the mind….well folks that is what most polytheistics use imagery for too. We do tend to respect the image because it is used in activities of worship and is representative of the god…but then the Christians take exception to profaning the cross so I don’t see anything particularly remarkable there. But I challenge anyone to find a polytheist who actually believes that the statue on their altar/shrine is literally the god they are praying to! Some vague case can be made in the case of animists but this isn’t idolatry  either because this belief holds a spiritual nature to all things, so that spiritual being which they are communicating with is going to be quite literally the thing. But this is an entirely different group and spiritual thought, and has nothing to do with the concept of Idolatry. No one can create distinction from polytheists on the premises that they don’t practice idolatry..because neither do polytheists and therefore your distinction you are trying to make is moot.

In closing, though the reclaiming idea is popular when it comes right down to it this terms borrows trouble and causes as many divisions as what it claims to bring together as well as problematic associations (such as the idea of idolatry). It is good thing to embrace that which distinguishes us all while retaining respect and admiration for each other’s traditions. We don’t need to believe the same thing to be able to support each other’s rights to believe it. And we can still have a good time together in a gathering too (though the big “public rituals” at such “pagan gatherings” can be disclusive since it tends to alienate those of other traditions to follow the ritual of one religious tradition..usually wiccan. It just seems to me that it is time to pack up the leaky umbrella and move on.


4 thoughts on “the leaky “pagan umbrella” and the myth of idolatry

  1. No Egyptian theology posits that “the gods are all part of Ra”. Egyptian religion is polytheistic, plain and simple. There are some who get confused by its radical polycentricity, its multiplicity of cosmogonic narratives, and so forth, and as a result posit some abstract essence of divinity for which the Egyptians themselves felt no need; but something is obviously wrong when multiplicity in itself becomes a reason to intervene and posit some underlying or overarching unity. It is this logical weakness that polytheists need to get over themselves, and learn to correct in others.

    Regarding “monism”, it is a term borrowed from philosophy, and I’ve never heard anybody use it in a religious context with any coherence. “Monism” refers to the doctrine that everything is fundamentally made of the same stuff, or is reducible to the effects of some single type of causality, but it has nothing to do with the number of entities that exist, and its relationship to theological positions is utterly undefined. For example, one can be a monist in the sense that one believes there to be a single fundamental principle; but holds that the principle in question is the principle of individuation; and thus the universe is, at bottom, made of individuals, of whom there are irreducibly many. (We call people who hold this position “Platonists”.)

    • Thanks for the clarification Edward.
      I admittedly do not know much about Egyptian polytheism but some years ago I thought I had read a book which said something to that effect. I confess that was something that rather turned me off of Egyptian religion all those years ago when I had read it. It is good to know otherwise. So thank you for the correction on that 🙂
      As for monism, I have seen the term bandied about a bit as a spiritual philosophy and point of view in worship by some few people. Again I won’t claim to know much about this either…and therefore in the end I suppose my impression of it was rather off the mark too. But this seems to have been a result of some few barraging with talk of the One and almost excluding polytheistic elements. So that makes the idea a bit of confusing mess for me…I was just trying to be inclusive though 🙂

  2. A few things that cross my mind, in no particular order:

    We do have a need for big, wide, umbrella terms, even when they’re so wide as to be almost meaningless. They’re meaningless to us, those under them, because we know enough to know that it is impossible to capture all the nuances of what we can be with one or two soundbyte-sized words (pigeonholing the gods, anyone?). But, in order to talk to others we need them. To use a common example, “Christianity,” is a pretty big umbrella too, though it’s a bit smaller. I was shocked and amazed when I was in Philly and talking religion with a coworker and mentioned Catholicism, and he had no idea what I was talking about. He’d never heard the term. Coming from a large Irish-and-Italian area as I had, I wasn’t sure how to proceed at that point. Umbrella terms help. I could fall back on “Christian.” When I’m talking to people, I have to judge my vocabulary accordingly. With people who likely have no idea about paganism, I’ll use either heathen or pagan — my own path, for all that I’m Poseidon’s and have touches of a Hellenic practice, is far more heathen flavored. The Hellenic stuff is in there *for* Poseidon, and while some of it feels second nature to me now, it wasn’t always so. But, heathen, in our English speaking area, seems to be more of a hot-button than pagan is, and pagan is more widely known as this other thing, and so I generally use that. With fellow pagans, I might use polytheist. Even then I can’t really narrow it down to what I actually am — because there isn’t a name for what I am. That’s part of the issue, too, I think. I know a lot of us don’t fit neatly into any label. So we start vague and big and whittle it down.

    Because a lot of my experiences with Christainity growing up was with Catholicisms (I was raised Protestant, but my mother had converted and the rest of her family was Catholic), with all the statues and the fancy crucifexes, I’ve never understood how they couldn’t understand the use of a symbol as a focal point. They don’t think that one statue of the cross with Jesus *was* Jesus, so why was it hard to believe that we’d use our statues the same way?

    Of course, people also seem to believe that the Greeks didn’t actually *believe* in their gods and were using them as “just-so” stories. (Womens Work could have been such a good book if not for that repeated approach by the author *sigh* I hate when intelligent people aren’t.)

    • I guess in that instance I would prefer to fall back on polytheist as being the larger descriptor rather than the word pagan (since the word pagan seems to include polytheist and then some). And if someone doesn’t understand what it means I can just break down the greek for them 😉
      But I do understand what you are saying and that sometimes people may feel the need generic terms…I am just not so sure that paganis the best generic term. To me that is a bit like a christian saying…I am an Abrahamic. There may be some differences between the different sects of christianity…but they do retain a number of common features, whereas there are larger divisions between Christians, Muslims and Jews…but they can be classified in a lump term as Abrahamic religions.

      Yeah there does seem to be a double standard there doesn’t there 🙂 My grandmother was a very devote Italian lady who had crosses and paintings all throughout the house, so I understand what you are saying entirely.

      You know, I think we can come across that alot in media…a standpoint that is just absurd. I think it stems from the fact that the western christian world so much wants to embrace Hellas as the birthplace of the western world, but wants to disassociate it from its polytheistic religious roots. So it makes them feel better to say that “oh the ancient greeks didn’t even believe in their gods.” Of course this defies reason as we all know, but it is their comfort story. I am not sure I would have been able to make it all the way through that book if I had encountered such things being said.

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