An Open Letter to Polytheists — Especially Our Leaders, Clergy, Elders, and Religious Specialists

Content Warning for: chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, Autism spectrum disorders, other nuerodiversity, intense emotions, insecurity,  bullying, name calling, emotional abuse, the polytheist vs. Pagan and polytheists vs. other polytheists schism/internet fight.

This is a hard post to write. They’re mostly all going to be hard, because even though I miss blogging, there are a lot of reasons why it would just be easier for me not to blog and why I’d often prefer not to. But I can’t do that, at least not honorably and not while serving one of my Gods in one of the ways He wants me to — maybe even the biggest way He wants me to. I want to be clear that unless I state otherwise, these words are my own. I’ve been asked, told, pushed, poked, prodded into blogging, and in particular into blogging on certain subjects and topics by one of my Gods and possibly more. And I believe some of the reason for that is because He and I share some overlapping areas of interest, as well as some opinions — and because I am a writer. There are probably other reasons, too. But I am not saying that I am speaking for Them. Unless I state otherwise, I am saying what I, personally, think or believe. I believe this is important because there are instances when polytheists and Pagans say things and it is not always clear if what they state is what they personally believe, or if they are passing on direct messages from the Gods and Powers. This especially can happen if the person speaking is clergy, an elder, well-known, has many years of experience, or is speaking with authority. And it can be especially hard to tell the difference for those who are new to our communities. Those who are young, impressionable, insecure, or just not very experienced yet. To further clarify, I am not clergy, an elder, or well-known. I want to be clear, but I’ve digressed enough. As to the meat of this post:

I strongly believe that it would be beneficial in our communities if we strive to be more mindful of what we say, and of how we say it. Now, as I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I am not perfect. I try things and I fail, and sometimes I don’t even try things because I forget or don’t have the energy or mental capacity at the moment, or because I don’t think it will make a difference, and sometimes even just because I don’t feel like it. So I want to be very forthright that I am not standing up on some pillar saying that I always do things well or make good decisions or that I never do things badly or that I never do things that are harmful.

But I think it is very important to try.

I have seen people who identify as polytheists (including people who have explicitly stated they believe that many individual, independent, and autonomous Deities with agency exist) called Pagans dismissively by other polytheists. I personally identify as both a Pagan and a polytheist, but this is a significant issue because many polytheists don’t. Or they do, but they are told by other polytheists that they aren’t really polytheists. This often seems to occur just because those other polytheists either a) disliked the people of whom they spoke, b) disliked the politics of the people of whom they spoke, or c) had theological disagreements with the people of whom they spoke. I also want to point out that the word “Pagan” is now being used derisively in almost the exact same way that early Christians used it to refer to polytheists.

I have seen people criticized for the ways they live their lives, including in areas that probably do not have a negative impact on how they practice their religion or express their devotion. I have seen people insulted, called names, and cursed at.

In the past I have seen it implied that mentally ill people or people who easily become emotional should not be polytheists. I have also seen statements made in a way that seemed to me to deliberately imply all Pagans are rapists and that polyamory and open relationships are bad in the same type of way that rape is bad, if not necessarily to the same degree.

Liberal polytheists and Pagans have been painted as belonging to a specific philosophical system, whether they do or not, and labeled as being members of particular social movements, whether they are or not. Pagans and polytheists have been accused of wanting to destroy polytheism, devotion, and religion. Often these statements have gone way beyond disagreements and straight into psychological warfare. They are attempts to demoralize the people about whom they speak.

The people making these types of statements are generally religious, polytheistic, and devout. Many, if not all of them, do good things for the Gods and other Holy Powers, and also for their communities. I’m not sure how to express this fluently, but part of why I’m so bothered by their actions is precisely because so many of them do such good work. It’s not that I wouldn’t be upset if they didn’t — because I would — but it would also be easier to just dismiss and/or ignore them, or at least to strongly disagree with them but otherwise go about my business. Because to be honest, some people have to do exactly that. There are even times when I have to do exactly that. There are days when I just can not handle reading any more ad hominem attacks or casual cruelty. And so I don’t read the blogs of some of these people for a day, a week, months, and now in a couple of cases, ever.

And this bothers me, on so many levels. For one thing, if I sometimes miss excellent religious writing because of this type of speech and behavior, how much more are other polytheists who can no longer read many (or sometimes any) of these writers missing out? I have read many excellent blog posts and articles by both polytheists who do make those kinds of attacks and those who don’t. I even have books from some of them. Many people in both groups are people who I deeply respect and admire in many ways.

But to be honest, I lose a lot of that respect when I see how willing people are to do others harm, especially ad hominem attacks for religious disagreements, casual criticisms, and petty insults. I question their motives. I wonder if they handle other religious matters in the same way, even if I’m pretty sure they don’t. And if they don’t, I consider why that might be. I am wary of deciding to seek them out for divination or other religious services, even if I would otherwise think they would be the most skilled or competent specialists available — sometimes even if they are the only specialists available. It’s also interesting to me that while sometimes that type of behavior and language carries over to books these polytheists have written, it often doesn’t, or it is much more subdued.

Now, I’m not saying that no one can ever have a bad day, or say things they regret, or even say things that are vindictive that they don’t regret. I know I have personally done all of those things. I have been petty. Back when I was involved with social media, I posted things without thinking. I’ve said things out loud without thinking. And there are times when I’ve been mean, even cruel, when I was angry or hurt or anxious or scared or offended. And while I fail — and I fail often — as I stated earlier, I feel it is very important to try.

It may be that the people who say these kinds of things are just having bad days, or are strongly feeling some of the emotions I mentioned and don’t know how else to deal with them. But I see a long-running pattern of behavior, not isolated days. In addition to genuine anger, I see what seems to be deliberate and even gleeful provocation and menace. I see bullying. Having been bullied by many people as a child and a teenager, and by one person for many years into my adulthood, and having witnessed other bullying throughout my life, I am very familiar with what it looks and sounds like. There is also an attitude where these people feel that they are better polytheists than others (often trying to eliminate the ability of some to even identify as polytheists), and it seems, by extension, better people. The latter is not explicitly stated, but it is frequently implied in the attitude with which they relate to and refer to other people. What I find particularly vicious is that, after this particular group of polytheists have verbally attacked and insulted Pagans and other polytheists — and deliberately attempted to disparage and demoralize them — they will then turn around and claim that the attacked parties are too sensitive, or are overly emotional and easily wounded.

I mentioned that this post would be hard for me to write. It is, because of time, energy, concentration, and attempts to be careful in my speech, but also to balance that with what I feel I must say. But it is hard for other reasons, too. There is a possibility no one will see this post and it will be completely ignored. But if people do read it, there is a high probability that I will be insulted, criticized, and verbally attacked and disparaged by at least some of the people who take part in the kinds of behavior I mentioned. I fully expect it if this post is read by more than a few, and I believe the benefit of posting it outweighs the cost. But it will be hard.

I have many illnesses, including chronic illnesses and mental illnesses (not that mental illnesses can’t be chronic, but for the ease of explaining in the moment, this is how I’m writing it). One of my chronic illnesses interacts badly with one of my mental illnesses. They amplify each other and each makes it harder to manage the other. That particular mental illness used to be under much better control, and while I am working to restore that control, it is severely hampered by my chronic illness. And it may not even be entirely possible to restore my former level of control over it due to the effects of medication I take for the chronic illness, which I literally need to take to stay alive. One of the symptoms of that mental illness is an unstable sense of self. When I had it managed better, my sense of self was much more stable and complete, though that statement should be taken in relation to my mental illness and not in relation to the sense of self of someone who doesn’t share my mental illness, or another illness with the same symptom. I also, as I mentioned, was bullied for many years, and I was also emotionally abused for much of my life. I am not bringing this up as a “poor me” thing, but to illustrate a point and because it really does strongly affect my life (and because people with chronic illnesses and mental illnesses are often essentially told to “get over it” when it isn’t that easy, or even always possible).

When someone is bullied and/or abused over a period of time, they often start to believe the things their bullies or abusers tell them, even if they logically know it isn’t factually true. This can easily be the case even with healthy, neurotypical people. Try to imagine how much worse it can be for people who already have low self-esteem, or a malleable sense of self, or a pathological desire to please or aversion to conflict (which is not to say that all desires to please or aversions to conflict are pathological, but some definitely are), or an illness that strips away the energy, mental capacity, or other ability to defend oneself, or to reason in the moment, or to rebut the accusations being made.

So when I was told that I was bad, stupid, lazy, crazy, disgusting, and other things for years, I started to believe them. When I was cursed at, and called names, I eventually started to believe them. Then when I see people calling people names, and I’m part of the group which they’re describing, I start to believe those things — or I at least wonder if they could be true. And when I’m not part of the group they’re describing, I can see a little clearer. In both instances, I can usually logic out if what they’re saying is factually true or not, but that doesn’t necessarily change my internal belief or feeling if it is something critical of me. As I said, I can usually see clearer when they are criticizing groups that don’t include me. But in both instances, I get hurt, disappointed, and angry. I worry because I see the harm it causes people, sometimes including me, but sometimes not. I have an Autism spectrum disorder, which mercifully shores up that ability for logical deduction. But sometimes it doesn’t. And there are people with the same mental illness I have who do not have Autism, or some other way to use logic to counteract strong emotions or faulty thinking.

You never know when you’re talking to someone or about someone if they have mental illnesses, chronic illnesses, neurodiversity, chronic pain, or are disabled unless it is either abundantly obvious in some way, or unless they disclose. Even if they don’t cope with any of those situations in their lives, I still disapprove of ad hominem attacks and I don’t understand the reasoning for the criticisms and malice I see online and occasionally in print. It also disturbs me that so many of these polytheists are willing to label individuals and sometimes whole groups as a certain thing, regardless of whether they actually are that thing. I have some theories about why they do these things, but they are only theories, they are sometimes different for different people and situations, they are incomplete, and I think it would do no good to air them here at this time, and especially because I could very well be wrong.

But these behaviors can often make it harder for people to come to the Gods. It can make it so much harder for the people who are scorned. If you already feel like you are not good enough for your Gods, if you have trouble coming before Them because you feel you do not deserve Their Grace, if you feel you do not do enough for Them, if you have executive function disorder and/or are worried about doing things wrong, if you are afraid of not doing things perfectly, if you have no energy or strength or cohesive thought to be able to pray and light incense or pour out offerings, if you already believe you are worthless or a failure — getting rebuked by others in your community, especially elders and leaders, is generally not going to help. It will often make things much worse.

There is a polytheist who I would love to talk with, really talk with, about several subjects. Who believes many things similarly to me, though we also have significant differences. I would like their opinion and advice. I would like to discuss theology with them. They are well known, and respected and admired by many and disliked and even reviled by others. Their books, prayers, and so many of their blog posts have helped me, inspired me, and positively influenced my practice. But I am afraid. I am afraid to ask them questions. I am afraid they will insult or ridicule me. I am afraid that I will be the next target on their blog ( I am willing to risk that for this, and through a blog post, but I am not for a personal conversation through email for something I may be able to muddle through on my own) and then maybe become the scapegoat for much of their group. I am afraid that they won’t take me seriously, or will say that I shouldn’t be a polytheist. I am afraid their words or actions will spark off my mental illnesses or past traumas. And I am so, so afraid that if I were to contact them and try to discuss things with them, that their words or actions or opinions of me would make it harder than it already is for me to approach my Gods and other Powers, crash the fragile sense of self-worth I hold onto with the tips of my fingers, and contribute to sending me into a downward spiral that I have to fight intensely to get out of. (In the interest of fairness, downward spirals I have to fight intensely to get out of can be caused by many things, usually more than one thing in conjunction). And any of those things happening will take time, energy, health, and emotional resources that I cannot afford to spare.

It is worth mentioning that I am not new to Paganism or polytheism, I am not a teenager or a very young adult, and while I do have the weak sense of self I mentioned earlier, I do have a very strong sense of right and wrong. While I struggle with intense emotions, I also can often use logic to my advantage. Before I got sick, I used to have a much higher intelligence quotient than I do now, but I still don’t believe it’s below average (though my memory and ability to concentrate are a different story, now). And I have people who I can run my thoughts by, or discuss things with (including openly talking about polytheism). Now imagine how it must feel for someone who doesn’t have one of those things to help them, or someone who doesn’t have several of them. Picture someone taking in this venom who is isolated from any community or someone who is in their teens and entirely new to polytheism. Might it scare them off? Might it cause them to think that they’re doing it wrong, or that they would be better off not practicing polytheism at all? Might they decide they don’t want to be part of our community? Might they be afraid to say anything in, or contribute to our community? To be honest, even though I’m neither young nor new to polytheism, those last two have been frequent thoughts of mine — the latter even stopping me much of the time, which I believe is beneficial to no one, certainly not to my Gods, nor to me.

I find that taking actions like the ones I’ve been covering in this post can harm the one who takes that action, as well. I’m pretty sure I’ve never accused someone who said they were a polytheist of not being a polytheist (with the exception of one person who is a henotheist and wasn’t aware of that word, but I still didn’t tell them they weren’t a polytheist, because they believe in many Gods), but in my life I have been petty, frustrated, spiteful, angry, wrathful, vindictive, and cruel. I have accused people of being things they weren’t and of not being things they were. I have cursed at people, I have called them names, sometimes even publicly.

There are times when some strong emotions help me feel closer to the Gods and to do Their work in the world. But there comes a point — with emotions like wrath — where it is too strong, or goes on too long, and I can no longer experience enough outside of that emotion to do whatever it is They have set before me to do. In those cases, I have to pull myself out of it, collect myself, and recover from it enough to do whatever the task is, which is sometimes an exceedingly long process and it’s generally much better if I don’t get into that state. I find that being in those states, I am much more likely to take actions like those I’ve described — to be petty, vindictive, vengeful, etc. — and that I am more likely to act without thinking. I also find that when I am being spiteful, or angry past a certain level, or fearful — when I am calling people names or cursing or yelling or berating — that it is harder for me to hear the Gods. It’s harder for me to feel Them or to be close to Them. It is harder to get into a devotional mindset.

I also know that when I feel ashamed or embarrassed, it is harder for me to go before the Gods and pray. Sometimes I feel that way due to my mental illnesses, or due to internalized ableism, but sometimes it is because I am genuinely ashamed of myself and have done something to feel that way. I have so many mental, physical, and neurological, obstacles to get past in order to approach my Gods and pray or serve Them, often along with other external obstacles that I really don’t need to create any more. Which is not to say that I don’t, because have I mentioned I’m not perfect and I mess up often? And let me reiterate again, that I am speaking for what I have found my truths to be — doing those things makes it harder for me to approach the Gods. I am not saying it is necessarily that way for everyone, but I think it might be worth thinking about.

I think a lot of things might be worth thinking about. It might not change anything, and sometimes things shouldn’t be changed, but some things should, and do. And sometimes things can only change when they have really been thought about and considered. Regardless of whether something should change or not, I personally in general find it helpful to know where I’m coming from and why. So bearing that in mind, I have some questions for us all, myself included. I don’t mean that anyone who reads this post should turn around and answer these questions on their own blog or Facebook, or to their friends. I mean them more as something for us each to consider thoughtfully and try to answer honestly to ourselves (though of course what people do with these questions — including ignore them — is up to them, not me).

Pondering Points 

*Why am I a polytheist?

*How do I best serve my Gods and Powers?

*What most gets in the way of me serving my Gods and Powers?

*Are there detriments to the polytheist community being splintered, or different sections of it not communicating with each other? Are there benefits to it?

*To my direct knowledge, have my Gods authorized me to speak for Them? If so, do I trust the source and validity of that knowledge?

*To my direct knowledge, have my Gods authorized someone else to speak for Them who is saying something critical to/about me or a group I belong to? If so, do I trust the source and validity of that knowledge?

*If someone is saying something critical to me or about me, is it true? Why might they be saying what they are?

*Is reading/watching/listening to/saying/doing this (whatever this is) going to make it harder for me to connect with my Gods and other Holy Powers? This question has been asked many ways, in many religions, and I’ve seen it posed several times in the polytheist community. But in the modern polytheist community, I’ve also noticed that the question often does not extend to speech.

*What do my Gods and other Holy Powers have to say about this (whatever this is)?

*Does what I think, feel, or believe about myself mesh with what the Gods think/feel/believe about me? This is another one that I’ve seen posed in several religions, including modern polytheism.

*Do I believe I am harder working/more devout/more righteous/more sincere than other polytheists? If so, why? Do I believe I am less? If so, why? Regardless of the answers, how does that make me feel?

*Do I like being a polytheist? (Let it be noted that I am not implying that one should not be a polytheist if one doesn’t enjoy it, or that one should only be a polytheist if one does enjoy it). Why or why not?

*Do I like what I know of the polytheist community? Why or why not? What do I think would make it better or worse?

*If I am involved in the polytheist community, or want to be, or am instructed by the Powers to be, what are my goals?

*Do I want to aid other polytheists, or help rebuild polytheisms? If so, is what I am doing or saying helpful to that end? Is it detrimental to that end?

*Is what I am saying or doing helpful to my Gods, Ancestors, other Holy Powers, or my community? Is it hurtful?

*Do I really believe what I am about to say or do?

*Is there another way to phrase what I have to say?

*Have my Gods or the other Holy Powers given me any indication that I should care or take to heart what this person says about me, or about people like me? If not, why do I care? What can I do about it? If there is anything I can do about it, should I? If so, what have They indicated They want me to do about it?

*Have my Gods and Holy Powers authorized me to say who may and may not believe in Them? Have They authorized me to decree who may or may not worship Them?

*Have the Gods and Holy Powers instructed me to obey what a specific polytheist states should be done?

*Might the Gods ask for or want different things from me and from other polytheists?

*Will what I am about to do or say make me ashamed to face my Gods, Ancestors, or other Holy Powers? Do I feel it should?

*What do I want to say or do? Why?

*What do the Gods, my Ancestors, and other Holy Powers want me to do? Why?