First of all, I want to congratulate Bekah Evie Bel of Hearth Witch Down Under for her adept dismantling of John Halstead’s blog response to my comments —his own post basically translates to “I’m not trying to police people’s behaviour, but let me give you a textbook justification of respectability politics.” Feel free to see for yourself, and then judge whether or not his rodomontade seems at all in line with the inagural Gods&Radicals essay by Jason Pitzl.
I also feel I should expand from Bel’s thoughts, as well as another FB friend’s, to springboard the rest of the post.
Halstead goes on at length about how we should respect ourselves to get respect, implying all over the place that folks like Phelan MoonSong seem to lack this self-respect that Halstead alone is the judge of. I’ll have to disagree with that, and here’s why:
First off, it takes a lot of self-respect to maintain such a flambouyant appearance for the many years MoonSong has claimed. Someone without much self-respect tends to care very little for their personal appearance, and MoonSong obviously cares a great deal for his own. A person lacking in self-respect has a hard time asserting their rights – again, MoonSong has demonstrated that he is dedicated to asserting his rights. Clearly, self-respect is something that MoonSong either possesses, or is very good at faking (though I doubt he’s faking it).
Furthermore, the idea that respect from others will be a given when one has sufficient self-respect is just preposterous. Nothing in this life is a given, and it reeks of victim-blaming those who are routinely disrespected for nothing more than being true to himself. That’s the kind of attitude that blames Matt Shepherd for being murdered (“if he’d just stayed in the closet!”) or the countless trans women on the annual Lists of Our Dead whose only crime was existing (“if only they didn’t just rub that lifestyle in everyone’s face!”) The proper response isn’t to suggest that the status quo lacks respect for the pagan movement because of the weirdoes, but to challenge the status quo to be more tolerant of the weirdoes. It is pure folly to believe that the oppressed have ever gotten the respect of their oppressors by mimickry.
Also note how absolutely no-one supporting Phelan MoonSong is saying that all pagans and polytheists must dress flamboyantly, unless that’s what one feels compelled to do to be true to oneself. We’re not playing the No True Pagan game. We’re not saying those pagans and polytheists teaching at universities in suits and ties and Fred Rogers sweaters are making us “look bad.” In fact, we’re saying the opposite: We’re saying to be true to oneself – if that means taking the call to modify one’s appearance as an act of dedication to one’s god/s, awesome, and if that means teaching Philosophy at a prestigious university, that’s also awesome.
Commenter kenofken made a comment on Bel’s post that I think touchesw on some important things in this latest pagan blogosphere debate, though:
Basically what John Halstead and the other respectability politicians want, what they feel entitled to, is to reorder the Pagan movement into affirming, Safe For Work, socially progressive, Moral Therapeutic Deism churches. They want us to be goddess-haunted versions of the United Church of Christ or Presbyterian Church. They don’t want real-life Pagans. They want the sanitized Disney version. They don’t want to be labeled as the blue noses and advocates of conformism they are, so they couch their crusade in terms of “It’s time to get serious and act like adults.”
it seems to me that the most vociferous and dismissive criticism of Moonsong seems to come from non-theistic Pagans, if not outright secular humanists. They have no experience of the gods nor even acknowledge their existence as substantive beings. Of course it’s very easy for them to dismiss the idea that a deity would command a man to wear goat horns on his head 24/7, or that any sane or serious man would heed such a call if it came. Those of us who identify as “hard polytheist” do not find Moonsong’s assertions so hard to believe. We know that gods and goddesses interact with people in highly individual ways. Moonsong’s relationship to Pan or his ministry may indeed not be typical, but neither is it beyond the pale.
Those of us who dedicate ourselves fully to a god, or are chosen by one are not infrequently commanded to things FAR more arduous or inconvenient or silly than wearing goat horns. If you value your relationship with that god or goddess, and trust them, you do it. The fact that that deity is not known to routinely command that thing from his or her followers has no bearing on the legitimacy of that calling. Only the one follower knows whether it’s real or not, and even that can take some hard discernment. The rest of that god’s followers and Pagandom generally is free to reject, accept or ignore the situation.
It’s worth noting that this is in no way unique to Pagan religion. Every prophet and most saints in the Christian tradition were individually called to do things which were bizarre and uniquely bizarre. In the 4th Century, a Catholic monk named Simeon decided regular monastic life was too soft for him. He ended up in Syria, where he climbed a 20 foot pillar of rock, built a one-meter square platform and stayed up there praying and doing his thing for 40 years until he croaked. I was raised Catholic and I was a pretty good theology student, and I can tell you that nowhere in the New Testament or Canon Law or anywhere else in Catholic tradition are followers commanded nor even encouraged to sit on top of a rock for four decades. By your measure, Simeon must have been nothing more than an attention-hungry fruitcake. And some thought he was, including his original religious order. The church evidently saw something deeper in it as they made him a saint…
Now, this topic also reminds me of something The Dionysian Artist pointed out on Facebook: It is common for pagans to make some attempts to make even the slightest modification to their appearances upon conversion. This is not a phenomenon unique to pagan religions – it’s been noted amongst all manner of religious conversion that the converts often (note: not universally) attempt to one-up those who were raised in the religion.
Think about it – whether it’s something as simple as wearing a triquetra or pentagram pendant, a subtle tattoo easily concealed, or just being more mindful of what one eats and wears, or even taking up yoga. It’s fairly common for pagans to mark outselves in all manner of ways. It’s almost impossible to throw a rock in any direction at a pagan gathering without hitting someone wearing an ankh or pentagram, or Thor’s hammer, or Celtic knot on their person (in some form). Considering those who undertake in ordeal rituals, glue-on goat horns is actually kind of tame, even if he wears them full-time, and the scars from ritual suspension are often easily concealed by the average t-shirt, but the amount of ordealists who blog about their own, even under their legal names, makes it hard for those in-the-know to think that goat horns are all that strange.
To mark myself as a spouse of Eros, I’ve tattooed His name in Greek letters across my right knuckles and have made an effort to wear a nose chain frequently (though not daily). As the first teacher of Erotic Hedonism, I’ve tattooed a Luna moth (Nys and psyche) sitting atop a purple thread (the Moirai) wound about a an arrow with heard-shaped head (Eros) on my left forearm, and for Apollon, I have ravens on my shoulder (though this also expands on an old “Nevermore” tattoo I’ve had since I was 22). As an Hedonist devotee to Adonis (Who is said to have laid as a woman with Apollon) and Eros Diphuēs, I’ve been forbidden to cut my hair, and compelled to transvestism, including keeping my nails as long as I can manage. These all are at risk to respectability – tattoos visible outside what’ve covered by the average t-shirt are still given pause, even on men, and especially on the hands. The effeminate and even high femme appearance puts a further divide between myself and other trans men – even in jeans and a polo (during my brief “I’m not a Goth anymore” phase), something still struck a of trans guys as incredibly femme about me, which pissed them off, and certainly met me with several disparaging comments from questioning my gender identity to even accusations of how being a femme guy, “if” I manage to transition to male (gee, it’s almost like they expected me to be gatekept – joke’s on them, I’m having my hysterectomy, next month), I’d just make the rest of them look like girls who want a dick, and not like men.
My Erotic Hedonism tattoo is subtle, and most people just think it’s pretty and, since it’s a luna moth, that it’s just a pretty goth tattoo. The Eros tattoo hasn’t gotten much comment in the local community, but the local meet-up (now on hiatus) had one of those elusive African American Wiccans, so knuckle tattoos are obviously not what everyone is finding so remarkable. The transvestism juxtaposed with a FTM history is more contentious in the trans community than the local pagan community. Still, though, I certainly look weird, and am used to others using my unconventional appearance to question my “seriousness,” as an “adult.”
Devotional polytheists and pagans are far more likely to take our mark further than a pendant or subtle generic-pagan-symbol tattoo. Whether Phelan MoonSong identifies with the devotional movement or not, he’s certainly made himself a visible representation of those in the devotional movement within paganism who have been compelled by our gods to, let’s be frank, look weird.
To him, though, it’s not “too weird,” it’s a fair and justified display of reverence to Pan. Why that is “too weird” for some people, but my tattoos and transvestism barely get a mention seems a completely arbitrary reflection of the overculture – tattoos have become more-acceptable, and cross-dressing isn’t something I clearly engage in daily, so why bother saying anything about it, right? Thing is, twenty years ago, that was not the case, and those who see little issue with my own appearance, but object to the publicity Phelan MoonSong has received would certainly have, in the mid-1990s, be having the same objections to my own hypothetical publicity: A cross-dressing goth with tattoos on his hands? That makes “us” look bad! Just so silly, he’s doing it for attention!
Thing is, though, literally every way we visibly “mark” ourselves to show religious reverence – even something as simple as a necklace – is done so knowing it’ll almost certainly get us attention for it. When those “discrete, concealable” pentagram charms wriggle out of our shirts, other people notice, even if we aren’t asked. Same with the Thor’s hammers (which, in many circles, don’t necessarily signify Heathenry, but White Supremacy), the Tree of Life, and even Triquetra knots. When we dare to say what is “too silly” for the pagan religious movement, not only are we suggesting that “paganism” is some unified religion that it is not, we’re setting up a precedent that just about anything is going to be “too much” to fit in with the status quo. That’s the trap of respectability politics: Ultimately, nothing we do is conservative enough to fit in, until we abandon our religions and start going to church.
No-one has the right to tell another person what self-respect looks like. Visible tattoos are becoming normalised not by removing those with them from view, but by saturation. Most employers no longer bat an eye at blue hair, because it’s been gradually normalised over the last thirty years. Both of these examples have been disparaged by critics as somehow signs of “no self-respect,” and now are increasingly part of everyday life in the West; they became that way not by kow-towing to the status quo, but by challenging it to tolerate these things.
It greatly disappoints me that people who should know better are obstinately giving platform to someone who endorses and defends respectability politics, essentially further normalising it in their allegedly anti-Capitalist movement.
If you participate in contemporary Paganism, chances are, you might have also participated in respectability politics: I know that I have. I’ve endorsed the traditional party line on how to engage with the press (sharp suit, conservatively groomed, approved talking points), applauded efforts that made us more relatable to the Christian majority, and even volunteered for outreach “opportunities” I didn’t want to do for fear of who might fill the void left by my refusal. The underlying message being that if we do this work outsiders will, if not embrace us, then at least tolerate us, if we seem to be like them.
I am here to say that I was wrong in my self-perceived sensible moderateness.
[Scott Cunningham’s The Truth About Witchcraft Today (1987)] came out in the heat of the “Satanic” moral panics, and I suppose one can forgive our community for being afraid. Lives were being ruined, police were being trained by “occult experts” that our symbols might point to dastardly deeds, and a new, muscular, Evangelical Christianity was riding high, ready to push back on the “sins” of a previous era. An unspoken set of rules for how to behave, an ethos of respectability, was being formed in response.
- Dress modestly when you think you might encounter the press.
- Remind people that we are not Satanists, and that we don’t harm children.
- Subcultural markers like tattoos, “extreme” hairstyles, dramatic makeup, or facial piercings, are to be frowned on.
- Sex in our faiths and our communities is to be downplayed at all times, good or bad.
- Remind people that we are doctors, soldiers, lawyers, and members of other respected professions.
- Distance yourself publicly from more flamboyant members of the community. When confronted on their existence in the press, stress that they are the exception, not the rule, to how we look, act, and behave.
- Engage with local interfaith councils to change perceptions about our faiths.
- Refer to magic as “another form of prayer,” and stress a general theism, or a nature-loving pantheism, over a more “difficult” polytheism.
- “We love nature.”
- Quietly resist intersectionality within our own struggle. Maintain a false “apolitical” don’t-rock-the-boat facade in public.
Those were messages that I saw, heard, or felt were implied throughout my years coming of age within modern Paganism. These were never carved out commandments, but they don’t have to be. Once this tactic is adopted, it is the dominant culture that calls the shots on “proper” behavior. The problem with these kind of conservative ideologies is that one can never truly be conservative enough, so long as our core nature, and the dominant system’s norms, remain unchanged.
This was the first post I’d read on Gods & Radicals, and I found it endearing, and a promising start for that blog (and I thank the unnamed friend who’d reminded me of it). Though written by Jason Thomas Pitzl, one can only assume it was endorsed by Editor-in-Chief, Rhyd Wildermuth, as it was handpicked to be the inaugural essay of the blog, but as we now see, calling out and denouncing respectability politics is taking a back seat to the hit counts that people like John Halstead can bring to the publication.
The blog has now lost all integrity, as far as I’m concerned, in Rhyd’s dedication to playing nice with a clear Conservative who has said outright that “paganism” both can and should appeal to the status quo. One cannot play nice with whose who hold ideals contradictory to one’s own and truly maintain those ideals for long; Rhyd himself has said as much.
Once again, Halstead is arguing with strawmen. No-one ever said that we should not seek respect, only that appealing to the “respectability” as defined by the status quo, excludes those who are most vulnerable.
Respectability politics is a tool of the right-wing. Its recorded history goes back to late 19th Century affluent and Conservative African-Americans seeking to appeal to White society by distributing pamphlets in poor Black communities, telling them how to talk, how to dress, how to fucking bathe – things that those people already considered perfectly fine ideals, but were, on some levels, out of reach to them: Enunciation isn’t going to put food on the table, when you’re trying to put food on the table, dressing Beau Brummel isn’t going to be too high on the priorities, either, and when you’re fucking dirt-poor without indoor plumbing, chances are, you’ll get your baths when you get them. Shit like this is mirrored in Halstad’s words.
In England during the 1970s, when Quentin Crisp’s memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, was made into a BBC television film, telling Crisp’s experiences as a high-feme homosexual man (if he were a twenty-something on Tumblr, he’d probably identify as genderqueer), The Gay Times issued a scathing review, suggesting that Crisp’s memoir was have been best published “posthumously” – implying all over the place that the world would be best off without queers who don’t just fuck queerly, but walk it, talk it, live it every second of every day. The Gay Times was endorsing a respectability politics that said to mainstream Britain, “we know you’ll only respect gays who look and act as much like heterosexual men as possible, so we’re going to act just like you in order to make you accept us. We don’t want the flaming fairies around any more than you do. They don’t have your respect, so they won’t have ours, either.” Thi, too, is mirrored in Halstead’s words.
When people like John Halstead (who, it’s been long established, is only “pagan” because he says he is, but this has been put far more eloquently by others) point at people like Phelan MoonSong and say “this does not help people take Paganism seriously,” he is aligning himself with the sentiments of bourgeois-aspiring 19th Century blacks patronising to the working class blacks, and the misogyny and femmephobia of The Gay Times in the ’70s. This is typical bourgeoisie respectability politics that Halstead is engaging in, and it is a tool of KKKapitalism and the Right Wing, designed to divide; Halstead has made it absolutely clear, in absolutely no uncertain terms, that he cares more about making paganism appeal to the status quo than he cares about challenging the status quo to accept differences.
At this point, I can no longer take Gods & Radicals seriously as an anti-Capitalism publication, for at least as long as they are giving platform to John Halstead. When they give platform to a proponent of respectability politics, they endorse it as perfectly normal, even acceptable within “anti-Capitalist paganism,” as they define it.
This also means that, for at least as long as G&R is giving platform to John Halstead, I cannot at all trust their editor-and-chief, Rhyd Wildermuth, either. I already have trust issues with butch gays, because they have a habit of just being far too comfortable with respectability politics, because the proponents of said almost never come for the butch gays – the butch gays are “safe,” in the politics of respectability, so to them, challenging respectability politics is just an abstract concept that they can agree to disagree on, it’s not something that actively threatens them and their existence or their right to space in activism. He may have appropriated the “faggot” identity, but sit any two-year-old down with a picture of Rhyd and a picture of Quentin Crisp, ask that child which one the “faggot” is, and which one’s the “butch”, we all know who that child will identify as each. (I could go on about how Rhyd has no right to appropriate the word “faggot”, when his careful cultivation of a burly, smelly, sweaty Manly image, to contrast with gay pagans and polytheists who are considerably less so, means that term does not apply to him, according to the homophobic masses, but that’s another story for another time.) I already have trust issues with butch gays, so now it’s up to Rhyd to prove that he’s trustworthy.
The status quo is just as threatened by femme FAGGOTS, like myself, as John Halstead is threatened by any pagan he deems too “weird” to be respectable to the status quo he desperately envisions pagans appealing to.
If he continues to keep John Halstead on the G&R staff of writers, Rhyd is an enemy to ALL who are vulnerable to respectability politics. The longer he keeps Halstead on, the more he proves he’s an enabler of all that comes with respectability politics, including racism, femmephobia, misogyny, cissexism, ableism, freakphobia, and so on. The longer he keeps Halstead on G&R staff, the more Rhyd proves he’s an enabler of the bourgeoisie, and a total sell-out.
Respectability politics has no place in paganism — and it has no place in radical Far Left politics.
I have made several posts here, in the past, about how I have no need for respectability politics, both explicitly and implicitly, not necessarily because I don’t care about coming off as “respectable” to others (though I admit, I really don’t care about that, either), but because it’s ideologically incompatible with so much of what I consider to be truly important. The fact of the matter is, one simply cannot advocate for civil rights while also blaming those who are most-vulnerable to human rights violations for making the movement look bad.
As a trans person, the only love I have for gays in the 1980s is what came from the art community, especially the underground. Why? That was officially the decade that suburban bourgeois and -aspiring gays and lesbian “activists” decided to officially throw trans people (as well as drag queens and effeminate men – but, intriguingly, not drag kings or butch women, for reasons that ultimately come back around to misogyny, but that’s another story for another time) under the bus for “making the movement look bad.”
As a trans man who is also a male crossdresser (think about what that means, try not to hurt yourself), I have no real love for a lot of mainstream trans activists of the 1990s and early 00s, either, because they’ve proved more than willing to throw drag queens and other effeminate men under the bus because we “make them look bad,” as if there was some magical way to offer legal protections and socially normalizing trans women while also denying even just the latter to a genuine man in a dress.
Respectability politics is a con game, in the end, and it can be shown, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be a product of Capitalism (which is itself a product of Protestantism), and like Capitalism, really has no place amongst true civil rights activism. Now, this is not an anti-Capitalism blog, true, though I do believe that the personal is political because there is literally nothing we can do that doesn’t somehow relate back to how we are politikon, political animals designed for and living in a highly social world (id est, not at all the same thing as party politics). So then what happened?
Well, last night, I passed out for nearly twelve hours due to a burrito that apparently had soy in it (my big food allergy), and I woke up to see this here being shared by a friend on The Farceborg: Pagan Priest Wins Right to Wear Horns in Driver’s License Photo.
My first thought was “Oh, dear, does he look like a tool…,” but I followed the link, anyway, because I wanted to see what he was saying his “priesthood” was and how exactly this gave him an exception on “religious headgear” grounds. Turns out that, last year, he legally changed his name to Phelan MoonSong (ho boy…) and he states that he literally wears goathorns every day as a dedication to Pan (fair enough, I guess), and has managed to cherry-pick some texts to justify the status of “religious headgear” in the same way that a traditional nun’s habit, or a Muslim woman’s hijab, or a Sikh’s turban would be allowed as “religious headgear.” A DL or State ID photo should accurately represent how one looks most, if not all of the time, which is why there are certain rules in place to keep people from wearing outlandish costumes that do not at all represent how they look on a day-to-day basis, and to comply with the US Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights’ granting the freedom of religion, there are specific clauses stating that only specific types of items that cover some portion of the head and neck area are allowed – otherwise, how many fifteen-year-olds would get their Restricted Driver Permit photo taken dressed as a ninja? (Be honest: enough that we can see the sense in these rules). In an ideal world with ideal pagan community, even the fact that MoonSong had to invoke the ACLU to get his driver’s license photo approved should have just ended with this story.
…then I read the comments, and literally the first one was John Halstead whining like the petulant tyke he is about how MoonSong is supposedly making all pagans everywhere look bad, and this isn’t “serious” paganism, anyway, and OH, HIS ATHEIST NOT-GODS, PEOPLE: ALEPPO!!!!
In case you’re still honestly wondering, I don’t have the highest opinion on Halstead. I didn’t have a good opinion on him, yesterday, but today, it went even lower with his belligerent defense of respectability politics. I know I’m not going to change his “mind” (I doubt anything short of a frontal lobotomy could, really), but for those of you who might be both reading this blog and somehow one the fence about “pagan respectability”, let me break down the reality of the deal here, for you:
- This guy’s DL photo literally won’t change anyone’s mind about pagans. Those who know about paganism will know MoonSong does not at all represent all pagans, and those who don’t actually know about the pagan community fall into two camps: those who don’t know, yet, and the willfully ignorant. The former camp will learn, if we teach them, and the latter cannot be taught.
- There is nothing about MoonSong wearing horns that ever could “set us back twenty-five years” (as another commenter said) in terms of mainstream acceptance. Those legal battles over the last twenty five years that pagans and polytheists celebrate as milestones, such as Patrick McCollum going to court for pentacles on US Veteran headstones, have been fought and won and, with luck, will continue to be protected by those who truly value religious freedom. As to our day-to-day interactions, see Item 1 – people either do already, or do not yet know that MoonSong is representative of only his religion and himself, OR they are willfully ignorant and will remain so.
- If you think that shit like MoonSong’s DL photo has some great magic(k)al ability to “make us all look like weirdos,” I highly advise you to think again, because the answer is that it does not. The fact of the matter is, in a highly Christianised society like pretty much the entirety of Western Civilisation, pagans are already weirdos by default. You can put Fiona Horne on Aussie telly all you want, those who believe we’re weird just for being pagan will believe that she’s just an exception. You can put Patrick McCollum in a suit and send him to court, most people are still going to believe he’s a weirdo, albeit one who cleans up once in a while and pretend to seem normal. You can put Stevie Nicks (at this point, it’s pretty much an open secret that she’s some kind of witch) in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, this just means she’s a double-plus weirdo, cos normal people don’t end up in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. MoonSong wearing horns in his DL photo didn’t make us look weird – we made ourselves look weird simply by being pagans (whether we accept that label or not).
I think it’s great that he was able to do this without going to court – it sets a precedent that even the highly disorganized pagan religion that he apparently practices is worthy of recognition and status. It will now be harder for such things to be challenged, in the future. This is a pagan community milestone worthy of some acknowledgement. Kudos to him.
That said, it’s still not going to have much effect on our day-to-day interactions with non-pagans. Did we suddenly become great esteemed pillars of society when the pentagram became an acceptable religious symbol on the headstones of soldiers and veterans? Ha! Don’t make me laugh – the only real-world effect that action had is that now soldiers can have a pentacle on their headstone, and the government will pay for it, that’s it, that is what McCollum put on a suit and tie for, not for John Halstead and Aline “M Macha NightMare” O’Brien to tokenise for their play at respectability politics (and really, the latter and her goofy-ass “craft name” really shouldn’t be fooling herself with respectability politics, but hey, I learned something else about her today that makes me question her position of relative esteem in the pagan community). My neighbours aren’t going to start thinking I’m any weirder than they already do because of some vague associations one may imagine I have with some jackass in Maine who wears goat horns, and trust me, I’m the transvestite dwarf on the third floor who plays the harmonium and sings “Lady Stardust” at 3am from his balcony, my neighbours already think I’m plenty weird, even before you bring in the fact that I worship multiple god Who were venerated in ancient Greece. If you don’t want your neighbours thinking that you’re weird, might I suggest pulling a Star Foster and start going to church? Cos really, if you think this Mainenite in goat horns is enough to tarnish what you erroneously seem to think is some highly favourable public opinion of pagans, then you don’t know much about the general public at all, and that’s a fact.
So, I had hoped to respond to Ms Cell Machine’s comment here, but apparently Halstead is still afraid of my knowledge, wisdom, and/or cock, so here it is:
Reconstructed Polytheism is ‘new’ but not as ‘new’ as many Wiccans, Wiccanate Neopagans, and others want people to believe. Sannion gave a decent taste of the recon timeline, but only a taste: http://thehouseofvines.com/2014/01/24/and-people-wonder-why-theres-conflict/ I’ve been working on something more thorough.
The problem is, Reconstructed Polytheism shares many traits that Zell describes in his ‘paganism’ that pre-dated the arrival of Wicca in the States and shares much of the ‘legacy’ that Halstead is claiming for ‘Neo-Paganism’, while sharing a clearer connection to the ancients than either, especially by those among us who put the Gods and Goddesses first. Reconstructed Polytheism isn’t a ‘Humanism enhanced with the language of Theism’, it’s more a ‘Theism that Humanists have a bone for’ as evidenced by the very clear desire of atheists and secular humanists to paint extremely pious ancient figures, such as Pythagoras, Epicurus, Socrates, Hypatia, etc… as one of ‘theirs’.
As for the ‘reclaimation’ of the term ‘Neo-Pagan’, certainly that would be the birthright of Classicists, especially the agnostic and ambiguously theistic, including Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and the Uranian poets, non? After all, such were, indeed, the first such sorts to be called that, and clearly had a better understanding of the gods than most of the people using the term and applying it to their piss-poor understanding of Jungian psychology.
…I read in the comments by Keith C. McCormick on Halstead’s blog:
“polytheism” doesn’t require hyphenation in the case of multiple deities. It is only in the case of a belief that deities are not independent beings that such clarification is necessary. From an anthropological standpoint, polytheistic societies acknowledge multiple independent godlike Powers, regardless of the underlying cosmology. Plenty of traditional polytheistic societies have a concept of “oneness” (and plenty don’t), but in those cases, the “Oneness” is rarely the focus of veneration- it’s simply a cosmological idea, not a theological practice.
Perhaps one of the reasons that the “devotional” or “hard” polytheists are so adamantly defending “polytheist” as meaning only traditions in which the gods are real and distinct is because, from a historical perspective, that is true. I can’t think of a traditional religion in which shamans or priests to say “I ask Spirit”- no, they generally ask “the spirits”, “the ancestors”, or “the gods”. Any tradition that reduces the cosmos (or even just divinity) to a single entity is supposed to have “mono” in the title somewhere. Describing Athena, Frigga, and Amaterasu as archetypes or undifferentiated faces of a single Power is a belief in “one”, not a belief in “many”.
To describe such a “mono” religion as “poly” is the linguistic equivalent of calling one person drinking a martini a “cocktail party”. One might as well call a rainstorm by the name “water”. It is philosophically possible to defend such a position, but it not particularly useful in most circumstances. Why then do so many people so strongly object to a small group of people (Do we call them “Person” now?) insisting on a more precise, historically-accurate use of a term (“polytheism”) that until recently had a fairly precise meaning: belief in many gods?
Can’t we just cook up new terms for the hyphenated stuff? Polyarchetypicalist? Polyfaçadal Monist? Eclectic Jungian? I mean, monism gets to have a separate term from monotheism- why not let the people who believe in multiple, literal GODS keep the term they always had? Let’s just find a new term for people who address Unity through multiple faces.
Oh, I absolutely understand the emotional weight on both sides. But to my mind we need to be guided by our awareness of privilege (my anthro is showing, I know…) in the same way that we would for an indigenous society. I seem to recall that some of those elder pagans fought for Reclaiming of traditional definitions. For instance, “Witch”- an indigenous term colonized by Christian invaders.
It always falls to those in positions of power, prestige, or privilege to make space for those who would reclaim traditional practice by yielding the name. Adler, et all were not the first to be described as polytheists, it was a term that described a fairly specific kind of theology practiced by “others” (at the time). Now that people are becoming visible who more closely fit that definition, it is appropriate to allow the historical definition to reassert itself in the same way that “Witch” does not inherently mean an evil green lady riding a broom.
Why then is interpreting “theos” in the historically correct sense considered by many to be a dangerous and/or shameful belief? The difference here is not one of equally valued meanings but a choice between one interpretation that is “safe” and one that is “dangerous”, with those in positions of privilege deciding that their definition is “safe”. It seems that people like PSVL are trying to defend and resacralize the word “theos”- a word that many today seem bound and determined to divorce from its original meaning.
Your example of reclaiming Christ from Catholicism is flawed in that in it you are introducing a wholly new definition, not reclaiming an old one. I would be just as wrong to declare that Paganism is solely worship of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The example is in no way similar to a situation in which a few decades past some people redefined a word to suit their purposes and are today upset that another group insists on using the term in its original, historical context.
In this situation, neither the “hard” polytheists nor the “hard” theists are the newcomers, rather they are the newly acknowledged. In such cases, it is the responsibility of those in positions of power and privilege to force themselves to reflect on their own appropriation of language and to yield terms back to those who use them in their original context. This was the case with “witch” and it should be the case with “theos” and “polytheism”.
Unless we are willing to add new words to our language to accommodate new concepts while preserving the meanings in old words, we run the risk of confining our ability to conceive of concepts newer still.
Oh, Keith, make sweet, sweet love to me.
(Posted here because neither I nor my cat, Nigel Prancypants, are allowed to post to Halstead’s blog –and you know, to anyone who still entertains ideas that I am not “savvy” enough to be aware of IP-logging, actually, I am, I just didn’t give a shit enough, cos really, if i did, I would’ve at least used a pseudonym that’s not easily tracable back to myself.)
If you don’t believe the gods are gods, you are not a polytheist in any meaningful way —and you therefore should be the one with the “hyphenations”, not polytheists.
Your feelings, Margot Adler’s feelings, and anyone else’s pweshuss fee-fees don’t matter. Think about when people of certain Native American tribes say “no, totem is our word, and you’re using it in a way that demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of the concept, use a different term” –and people who really do care about proper reclaiming of terms start calling what they do “spirit animals” or “animals guides” or something else and they let the Natives have “totem”. Because “totem” meant something before a bunch of people who didn’t really understand the concept decided to use it for something they were doing.
“Polytheism” means, as many have said before me in this discussion “[belief in] many gods [as gods]”. If you don’t believe gods may actually exist, but you find archetypes a useful thing to give honour to or to aspire to, then call yourself an “archetypalist” or “archetypal polytheist” or anything else you’re comfortable with, but calling yourself a “polytheist” without any modifiers in that case is the very definition of intellectual dishonesty.