“If you are like most people, then like most people, you don’t know you’re like most people.”
You may not realize it, but Caer Jones just wrote the most important post on polytheism you’ll read all year. This is the point at which I pause and urge you in the strongest terms to go read it before continuing with my article. Got it? Alrighty.
Jones addresses a lot of important concepts in her article. The first is that most of what we consider modern paganism or polytheism is descended from a culture known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans. You won’t find the Proto-Indo-European nation on a map, nor are there any ancient documents written in their language. As far as we know, they didn’t have writing, and our best conjecture of the language they spoke is derived from the intricacies of comparative linguistics. We don’t know for sure where they came from, and we don’t have any of their artifacts, because we can’t know with certainty which of the artifacts we’ve dug up are specifically theirs.
Most of the “pantheons” or hearth cultures or whatever you call your particular cultural divisions of our faiths, are direct cultural and linguistic descendants of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, collectively: Indo-European cultures. (Egyptian and Canaanite are both examples of polytheisms that don’t belong to this linguistic family.) Roman, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Vedic, and more are part of it. Have you ever wondered why there are so many similarities between the religions of these cultures? It’s because they spring from the same source.
This leads to the number one reason people are going to argue with Jones’ excellent article. From her piece:
“Most of us who claim polytheism today rarely go back to the original PIE culture (at least as far as I’ve seen), instead focusing on individual hearth cultures that came from it. Even worse, we tend to look at the entire body of knowledge belonging to each culture as monolithic. It’s like we think these cultures sprang fully-formed from the ground and didn’t have any growing pains at the beginning, that they didn’t have centuries to develop, that they didn’t have to start somewhere.”
Why is that? Has anyone ever given this any thought? From earlier in the article:
“I’ll admit, the Survivor Scenario is the one I’ve been working with for years now. It permeates modern polytheism so strongly that I didn’t even know it was there until I started getting more into my studies. “
What makes this attitude so pervasive is a basic building block of human psychology: we all view ourselves as more unique than we are. We have a major emotional investment in seeing ourselves as distinct from our fellows. This goes double in the world of paganism, where most of us have broken with religions-of-origin, in many cases as a bid for identity. Daniel Gilbert explains in his work, “Stumbling on Happiness”, that we naturally conclude we’re more unique than others because we experience ourselves differently than how we experience others. We’ve got a front row seat for every one of our own thoughts, but for others, we have to infer what they’re thinking and feeling from their behaviors. This disconnect makes us tend to assume there is more thought behind our own choices and decisions than behind those of the people around us.
Similarly, we experience our own religious traditions from the inside, with study and in-depth knowledge. We invest a lot in their reconstruction, and we don’t want to believe they’re too similar to other branches. But there’s a treasure waiting behind that door: a richer, more multifaceted tradition than we ever believed we could possibly take part in, of which each Indo-European descendant is one family branch. Culturally, linguistically, we belong to all of them. We don’t have to pick one and never let it touch the others, or become distressed when neighboring deities come knocking on our doors. And we have a LOT more information to work from on our reconstruction than most of us ever realized.
Instead of struggling to figure out whether you “belong” more with Slavic or Anglo-Saxon traditions, wouldn’t it be more fulfilling to embrace the parts of both that speak to you the most deeply and use them to inform one another? Instead of bemoaning the cultures that refused to write anything down (I’m looking at you, Celtic and Germanic) and feeling like you’re not allowed to use something from outside your pantheon, wouldn’t it be nice to know there were neighboring cultures that probably preserved the bits they lost? Instead of feeling like an interloper or having awkward conversations about ancestry when we’re all mutts anyway, wouldn’t it be nice to know that there’s a legitimate basis for you to reach out to Roman and Vedic and Norse in the same practice? It turns out, there is!
But wait! It gets better! We’re not going to these traditions empty-handed, trying to scrape up the ashes of what once was. Instead, we can use our modern perspective, access to information, and the joys of comparative everything (linguistics, mythology, cosmology, anthropology…) to uncover deeper mysteries. As Jones points out:
“We in the modern era have archaeology and psychology and sociology, biology and chemistry and physics, to deepen our understanding of our world far beyond what our ancestors had. We can use that to fuel our polytheism. We can share information between continents, in real time. I’m sharing this blog post using a system containing information that rivals the most celebrated libraries of the ancients, and almost 90% of our population can read it. We’re not just locked into studying one hearth culture to the exclusion of the others by virtue of our physical location alone – we’re in the enviable position of being able to study all of them, simultaneously, from the comfort of our own homes, and we can use that knowledge to inform our practices.”
If you ever needed an engraved invitation to create new spiritual traditions, to build on what we have, to take the best of our times, our culture, and the interactions we find ourselves having with the spirits around us, congratulations! Here it is! Instead of trying to pretend we live in ancient Europe, or even Medieval Europe, live on farms, or live in a mono-culture, and forever fall short, and forever feel like we don’t really belong, we can embrace the broader tradition to which we absolutely DO belong. We can come to that tradition standing on the land we actually live on, and interact with the spirits who are here, as our ancestors have done for countless thousands of years whenever they migrated. We can compare the different Indo-European descendant cultures to our own modern American culture, see where the values and practices survived, and then build on them. We can have a greater trust in our own minds, our own hearts, and especially our own spirits, to carry the spark of this broad, long-lived tradition, because it’s still there.