Posts tagged ‘animism’

Celtic vs. Mediterranean Polytheisms

In pan-polytheistic online discourse I frequently see assumptions about polytheism from different cultural or philosophical types of polytheists. For better understanding of where I’m coming from as an Irish polytheist, a previous post compared Celtic & Germanic polytheism. This is an attempt to compare Irish polytheism and a little about continental Celtic polytheism with polytheistic religions bordering the Mediterranean, specifically I’m thinking of Greece, Rome and to a lesser degree, Egypt.  These are generalizations referring to several spectra of cultures that existed (and still exist just in different forms) across a long time period. Feedback, corrections and critique are welcome and I’ll make note of changes.


Theology– Our theolog(ies) are very much up to us as contemporary revivalists to discover and develop. Beings in our lore and literature are not easily categorized as gods, ancestors, heroes and spirits of place. There is much overlap between them. It’s debatable how much particular gods were euhemerized by monks or whether the Irish Dindsenchas- that explains the legendary origins of place name or the tales of Mythological Cycle are more authoritative.  Even the question of whether a particular being is friendly or not towards humans can vary by place or even specific person! For example, Balor is a monster thought to symbolize the dangers of the late summer sun being too hot and threatening the harvest. He was defeated by the god Lugh in battle, the young, many skilled god who brings the harvest. But in the folklore of the Tory Islands the two were reversed and it was Balor that was honored!  The Good People are for the most part avoided and propitiated but certain individuals do make treaty and develop a relationship with a spirit or group of spirits. Sometimes these people are called fairy-doctors and act as an intermediary between the spirit and a local community.

Departmental Deities– I often hear people in Irish/Gaelic/Celtic pagan or Druid groups explain to newcomers that “unlike the Greek or Roman pantheons we don’t pigeon-hole gods into departments like god of love/sun/thunder.” Fair enough, but that’s also not an accurate description of either Greek or Roman religion. It’s an oversimplification that might fit a specific cultus at a given time or for your classical mythology class, but not for all times, places and practices. This is also the case for Irish gods. There also isn’t a fixed, organized pantheon with a set hierarchy, no “chief god” and the family trees of the gods and other beings contradict each other in different sources. You know, like in Greek mythology!

Purity– there is a concept of ritual purity, but it doesn’t seem to be a emphasized as it is in Greek and Roman polytheism. Here is an essay discussing concepts of purity/impurity in Gaulish polytheism.

Hubris (or hybris  in the original Greek)- isn’t really a concept that exists in Celtic religions. There are certainly boundaries of respectful and disrespectful behavior in general and in ritual specifically, particularly related to hospitality and reciprocity. Threatening the gods or spirits, especially with weapons or use of iron in general (esp. towards the Good People) are all certainly ill-advised. Boasting, especially among warriors was as common as it was in ancient Scandinavia. The consequences for going too far with boasting were social and sometimes legal in nature, resulting in a loss of honor and possibly being publicly satirized.

Images– statues and images in continental Celtic territories seem to be mostly a later Roman influence and earlier images seem to be syncretized or influenced by Thracians and Scythians. I occasionally come across the assertion than the Celts had a taboo on divine images, but that is likely a projection from Abrahamic laws against idolatry. That said modern Celtic polytheists do typically use various images for the gods in worship.

Lack of primary sources from pre-Christian times- as with most Germanic & Slavic traditions, we don’t really have anything recorded directly by polytheistic Celtic peoples themselves, We have secondary sources from the Romans who were fighting or trading with them, and later ruling over them but of course these have some built-in biases.  Texts written by monks in Ireland recorded native literary traditions and combined them with classical and Biblical references. Christian era folklore & customs end up being really important in Gaelic & Brythonic traditions because they give us more of an idea of everyday spiritual practice of regular people, particularly towards local spirits and the dead. Reconstructing continental Celtic religion involves study of archaeology and comparative linguistics, religion and mythology.

Similarities with Kemetic religion (from my limited knowledge of it!)

-Strong belief in afterlife, alternate realm, though in Celtic cosmology typically there is an Otherworld existing parallel to our own that is partly afterlife realms, but many other realms belong to gods and the Good People.

-the concept of Ma’at -meaning roughly justice & order in a cosmic sense reminds me a lot of An Firinne- which means truth in Irish, cosmic order with a moral dimension

-The ritual role of kingship, relationship to people and the land. This does not necessarily mean a need for a contemporary king/queen, but the concept of kingship/queenship and sovereignty is key to cosmology. Were Celtic kings/queens deified after death, as with pharaohs or some Roman emperors? Not as a rule that I’m aware of, naturally they’d be important ancestors, founders of particular dynasties, kingdoms, chiefdoms, clans were historically viewed as family patrons, and this practice has been continued with the revival of polytheism with key ancestors.

There are a couple more common pan-polytheistic topics that I am unsure of. What do we know about expectations of piety in pre-Christian Celtic societies? In Ireland, which is the area I’m most familiar, our sources of information about ethics are Brehon law, a system which continued with some modifications long after Christianization, and advice for kings on good behavior. I will have to check them to see if anything is said about piety. But my general feeling is that a sense of piety would be pretty different than a Greek or Roman one. Celtic traditions overall strike me primarily as animistic in character and secondarily polytheistic, they are more primal and localized and tribal. Those elements are definitely in place in both Greece and Rome especially in earlier periods and even later on in certain aspects- the cult of Dionysus seems like something Celts would totally be down with. Whereas Greece and Rome seem more primarily polytheistic.


October 13, 2018 at 8:40 am 7 comments

Nature/Green/Eco-Spirituality isn’t always Pagan

Like all the Centers of Paganism, the Nature-center definitely extends beyond the bounds of Paganism. There has been a general rise globally in ecological awareness in both secular and religious contexts, and Pagans have most certainly played a role in the latter. But seeing nature as sacred and worthy of protection and/or preservation is not a uniquely Pagan feature!

In my opinion, making an effort to conserve resources and be ecologically mindful is just part of being a good citizen of planet Earth. You can have some theological rationale for it, like regarding the Earth as a living being (the Gaia hypothesis), being a steward of the Earth (as in the Abrahamic faiths) seeing everything as divine (pantheism) or see many spirits as being part of nature (animism) You can even combine some of these beliefs as many people do. Or you can simply regard the Earth and all its creatures (including humans) in a scientific manner. I think the important thing is what you do, not why you do it!

For indigenous people, the issue of sovereignty and habitat preservation is important to maintain traditional relationships with the land, animals and plants- and thus their cultures. For example, with global climate change, the warming of Arctic areas is having an adverse effect on the reindeer herds that the Saami people of Scandinavia & Russia depend on. Closer to home (for myself) the Idle No More movement led by First Nation people in Canada has been gaining steam, including some support from polytheists and Pagans.

One approach that can be easily incorporated, regardless of a person’s location and culture, includes scientific information and gives a lot of space for various theological views and practice, is bioregional animism.

The intersection of ecology and religion (and socio-political implications related to it) is very broad and complex, so I’ll go into more specific aspects of it in other posts. For now here’s a preliminary list of reading to get you started. (To be frank I have not read most of them- with the exception of Creation Spirituality!) As time goes on and I read more, I will post reviews- for one I am very interested in Lupa’s works.


Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality & the Planetary Future by Bron Taylor

Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey

The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature by Emma Restall Orr

The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythyms of Nature by Starhawk

Plant & Fungus Totems, New Paths to Animal Totems, DIY Totemism, other works by Lupa- see her website Green Wolf for more info

Ecoshamanism by James Endredy

Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality, other works by Matthew Fox (from a Catholic viewpoint, but much of it applicable/inspiring to people of other traditions

Bibliography of Earth-based Judaism– Tel Shemesh

May 19, 2015 at 1:37 am 5 comments

What is Bioregional Animism?

Last post I mentioned bioregional animism. What the heck is that you might ask? Well first off-

Animism– belief or philosophy that the world is full of spirits- this may or may not mean that *everything* has a spirit- but at least it typically includes living things, and often rocks and other natural features. It may also include human-made objects, particularly ones that have a lot of significance and history attached to them.

Now to unpack some baggage attached to this label- the term animism has its origins in anthropology, in older and Western-centric view that more “primitive” cultures first had animism and totemism, before developing polytheism, henotheism, monotheism and then (depending on the person interpreting all this) atheism. Some people reject the use of “animism” for this reason. However, with the rising influence of ecological thought, some people have been developing a philosophy of New Animism, that takes this idea of many spirits seriously and has more respect for indigenous worldviews and their regard for “non-human persons”. I would caution that I have encountered some attitudes on new animist websites that seem to have a Noble Savage or Michael Harner-style “Core Shamanism” influences*. We definitely need to be wary of those ideas!

Bioregionalism– a bioregion is an ecologically & geographically defined area that is smaller than an ecozone but larger than an ecoregion and an ecosystem. It is defined by watershed, soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism is an ecological, political and cultural philosophy that considers the role of bioregions as central to making decisions in the best interests of the inhabitants (human & non-human) and the land. Bioregions cross state/provincial and national boundaries, so they can require international cooperation. In the United States & Canada, the bioregion that has developed the strongest identity- even with its own flag and independence movement- is Cascadia, in the Pacific Northwest.

Now for these various ecological divisions- I’ll start with the biggest, then work my way down to the smallest. There are varying systems used by different governmental and non-profit ecological organizations, so I will consult several.

On this website– Earth is divided into 6 Bio-Kingdoms, 35 Bio-regions, and 156 bio-provinces

Eco-zones– a different system based on plate tectonics

What type of biome do you live in? The same biome can be found in many different bioregions, depending on climate, latitude, soil types etc. For example- desert, forest, tundra though they get more specific than that.

Eco-zones & Eco-regions in Canada

Eco-regions of North America– Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Wikipedia

Eco-regions in Minnesota

*A good critique of Core Shamanism by Lupa, a bioregional animist can be found here

April 9, 2015 at 1:56 am 1 comment

Inclusive Polytheism

So with various discussions of “devotional polytheism” vs. “immersive polytheism” going on, I find myself puzzled by what these terms mean and if I personally relate to them at all. Once again the Unitarian Universalist in me is saying “Who cares what someone’s theology is if they act like a jerk?”

Now I think theology does matter in helping us find others who have enough in common with us spiritually to create in-depth and meaningful worship. I do enjoy and find meaning & beauty in UU worship, but it’s more about sharing with others the sacredness of Life, the Universe and Everything than expressing devotion to specific divinities and spirits. From a polytheist/animist viewpoint, UUism’s strong point in the piety department is towards ancestors and heroes, particularly individuals important to UU history and various social justice movements. I believe this is an area that we can keep building on theologically and liturgically, in a way that is still very inclusive of UUs of different belief systems.

So here’s my idea of “inclusive polytheism”- by inclusive I do not mean anything goes, I do not want a lowest common denominator definition that paganism now has, I want a meaningful definition.


  • Functional ritual polytheism– treating gods or spirits as individual beings in ritual & prayer
  • Expectation of reverence & respect for deities and spirits by ritual participants (if not literal belief) thus balancing obligations of guest & host
  • Reconstructionism is a methodology, not an end to itself. Not all polytheists are reconstructionists.
  • Inclusion of syncretism, eclecticism and following more than one tradition. Practicing blending & mixing of religions is like playing with a chemistry set: sometimes it blends together well. Sometimes explosions happen.


  • Soft agnosticism (gods might exist, leaning toward belief/treat them ritually like they exist even if belief is uncertain), polydeism– many gods that are less directly involved in the world and straight up polytheism, primarily philosophical polytheism and primarily magical polytheism as parts of a theological spectrum/cluster
  • Animism, a belief in many spirits (or that everything has a spirit)
  • Patron and godspouse relationships happen but are not a requirement, people who have more intense relationships with deities/spirits are not necessarily “better” or “more spiritual” than others, they just have a more specialized path/role. Same with being a temple/cult priest/ess. If you don’t recognize them as being a Real Legit Thing within your tradition, cool. It’s not your tradition.
  • Nontraditional deities/spirits (that people may have channeled, created, discovered in popular culture/history/legend/their imaginations) happen in polytheism. However, Tinkerbell/American Gods theology (if I believe it, it exists/has power if I stop believing, it doesn’t) is bad polytheistic theology.
  • Archetypes, eregores and magical “thought constructs” might be Things in your path, but they are not gods.

Identity Issues:

  • People with polytheistic theologies/practices may or may not primarily identify as polytheists. They may prefer calling themselves Pagans, Heathens, Witches, Wiccans or other more specific terms.
  • Polytheists do not all adhere to any one political ideology or party, apart from most likely, supporting religious freedom and impartiality towards a variety of religions and non-religious people. (As for separation of church & state- this may very by country)
  • Whether service to the Gods is “more important”, less or equally important to helping fellow humans is up to the individual, and has no bearing on whether they are a “true” polytheist
  • Question: is a “polytheist community” one in which participants primarily identify themselves as polytheists, or people who happen to be polytheistic, regardless of self-identification? 

Notes: the reverence & respect portion is an opinion I came to after reading this interview by Jason Mankey with Amy B., an atheist pagan who says she does ritual (as a priestess!) for “entertainment purposes”. Understandably, many Pagans and polytheists were offended, and other humanistic pagans like John Halstead were “horrified”. The second portion was inspired by writings on PSVL’s blog about hospitality in ritual. Can’t find the post!

The statement about theological diversity, is I think much more reflective of the reality of ancient polytheism than the way some have promoted polytheism in modern times. Some people in both ancient and modern times were/are more focused on the pursuit of philosophy, ethics, truth and knowledge, others focus more on magical practice and occult knowledge, and may do so while still being legitimate polytheists, though they likely won’t call themselves devotional polytheists, or use the term polytheist much at all.

I’ve also seen several people assert that they consider serving the Gods to be higher priority than helping other humans. As a humanist and a polytheist, I don’t take that position (it seems a false dichotomy!), but I do consider it one of many ways of being a polytheist. I can see there being a place in community for a small number of individuals whose primary calling is serving the Gods/Spirits directly. However for most of “serving the Gods” is going to be part of a long to-do list!

August 12, 2014 at 12:36 am 8 comments

The Conversion Narrative

Over on the Cauldron Forum, there was a thread about conversion and Naomi J  made a comment about the concept in sociology of religion of conversion narratives that many converts to a new religion create a “spin” on their life story that explains how it was destiny or somehow inevitable that they would convert. (see post #9) I think that’s perfectly understandable, after all, when looking for a religion a person is often trying to find a way to make sense of the world and their life, but the problem is when they begin to distort events so that they fit into the narrative and deny and invalidate their past.

I wonder about this myself. As time has gone I’ve realized how some of the ways I viewed things spiritually as a kid ultimately led me to paganism. Also upon more conversations with my parents, I’ve realized how theologically liberal they are compared to their peers in the churches we attended.  At this point my dad is basically agnostic but OK with (non-fundie) religious people, and my mother is from my conversations with her, an animist essentially. I think she’s always believed in fairies to some degree, and rocks and plants (and of course animals) hold an importance to her that they don’t to other people.  My mother’s family is from Montana, and being good Westerners they all have a certain reverence for nature, and sense of wonder and respect for it. My mom’s twin is a retired park ranger who worked for many years in Yellowstone National Park. My uncles like to go hunting, and I know for them respect for the animals and the ecosystem is key. My oldest uncle even belongs to multiple hunter conservation groups, like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Another uncle has lived for many years on a Crow Indian reservation, and has kind of been “adopted” by them to some degree, he is even a trained sweat lodge leader.

Back to myself- sometime in toddlerhood my parents realized that I was different – I threw tantrums more than other kids. A doctor labelled me as having “fragile moods”, a brilliant deduction that did not impress my mother.  Later this was identified as “autism” and my brother was labeled autistic as well.  One situation in which I would often throw tantrums was in church. I had to sit quietly and listen to some guy drone about stuff I didn’t understand. So naturally (to me anyway) I protested with “This is BORING!” and demanded to leave. My parents ended up taking turns going to church or staying home with me until I matured more.  But I still had anxiety and social problems which made fitting it at church, school or any other setting difficult.  So I’ve often thought the me ending up pagan is related to me being autistic- not fitting in, and looking for someplace else where I did, following my interests avidly, and just plain thinking differently than other people.

I was a voracious reader from a young age, and my fascination with fairy tales continued as I got older. The fairy tales were next to the mythology books in the library and so I got into those even further. I became an expert on Greek Mythology by the time I was in junior high, and I began exploring other topics I came across- Atlantis, Theosophy, Buddhism. It was more “New Age” than Pagan to begin with, as that was what was available.  I remember feeling sad that the worship of the Greek Gods had gone away. I remember wondering in Sunday School class about  the contradictions I felt between the religious tolerance that my parents taught me and the “thou shalt have no other gods before me” and idol-smashing that went on in the Bible. Wasn’t that intolerant? What’s wrong with Baal or Asherah? What made them “false gods”?  I also remember my mother talking about Mother Nature, and coming to the conclusion that Mother Nature/Earth must be God’s wife. God, Our Father who art in Heaven- that seemed to fit together just right. But then I learned that “Mother Nature” was just a poetic metaphor.   And once again, the contradictions- I was taught to believe in gender equality by my parents, and yet God was always male.

I dutifully went to confirmation class at my Methodist Church and was confirmed. (Back in Iowa, I dropped out of confirmation class in junior high due to bullying- the bullies in question were the children of the Queen of the Church Ladies, hence they could do no wrong)  I remember telling my teacher that the concept of the Trinity didn’t make sense to me, and she tried to use the metaphor that water can be liquid, solid or gas but it is still water. That answer didn’t quite satisfy me, but I went ahead and was confirmed anyway.  Reciting a creed in front of the congregation was a big mistake. I didn’t understand it, and I didn’t know what I believed. Who was Jesus? Who was God? How can someone else “die for your sins”? My parents never knew how to answer my questions, and they became rather uncomfortable when I asked them.  So, I looked for my own answers. I briefly considered plain ol’ atheism/agnosticism but I found religion much too fascinating to give up, so I went to the Hamline University library and the St. Paul Public library and hit the books.  I found books on feminist theology at Hamline, like Womanspirit Rising and yes, good ol’ Drawing Down the Moon. I know some people find that one to be a rather tedious tome, but I was fascinated. There are other people who want to worship the old Gods? I was amazed, and I knew I was one of them. This was who I was meant to be.

(Next chapter- me entering the Twin Cities Pagan Communit(ies)

Other Cauldron Blog Project Posts on Conversion:

The Conversion Narrative by Naomi J (she explains it a lot better than me)

Seeking & Conversion by Juni 

Childhood Religion & Conversion: from Buddhism to Witchcraft and Back Again by Morag Spinner

Conversion & NRE (New Relationship Energy) by Veggiewolf

January 31, 2014 at 12:00 am 1 comment


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