When we think of theology, we typically think of monotheistic theology, especially the structures found within Abrahamic faiths. But theology itself is not inherently monotheistic – in fact, theology is simply the study of deity. Because most polytheistic faiths are inherently pluralistic, it is safe to say that it is impossible to identify a single theology that unifies polytheistic belief. That’s part of what makes polytheistic faiths so beautiful.
It’s easy to prove how impossible it is to identify a single theology for polytheistic faiths. Take Hinduism, for example, and examine the way many sects of Hinduism base their faith around the idea of a unified plurality – there are multiple deities, but those deities are all aspects of the greater whole. Then take another polytheistic faith, like Asatru, that bases faith around the concept of multiple distinct deities, all separate and completely unique from one another. While there are certainly connections between polytheistic faiths like Hinduism and Asatru, the way that deity is approached is distinct between them.
Because of that distinction, a singular approach to theology – the study of deity – is impossible. However, I do think that it is possible, within each polytheistic faith, to approach deity through multiple strands of exploration. That is what I propose is the best way to approach the study of deity through polytheistic faiths, and I am proposing a framework for a polytheist to use in their own study of deity within their own religions, rather than proposing that deity can be understood the same way through all polytheistic faiths.
Note: When I say deity, I mean the essence of deity or what makes a god a god (what makes gods gods).
I believe the following components can be explored through all polytheistic faiths:
- Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices
- Semiotics & Symbology
Cosmogony is the study of the creation of the universe (or multiverse). Studying how the cosmos originated in accordance with a particular polytheistic tradition through myths and legends allows us to begin to develop a framework with which to approach deity through our respective faiths.
Cosmology is the study of the universe (or multiverse). Different faiths propose different models of the world. For example, in many shamanistic traditions, there are three worlds while in the Norse view, there are nine worlds. Understanding the cosmos is a necessary foundation before exploring what deity actually is can really get underway.
Theogony refers to the lineage of the gods. Every pantheon has a unique structure and hierarchy (though it can be argued that some pantheons aren’t hierarchal). It seems self-evident that the pursuit of theology requires the understanding of theogony.
Sacred Calendars, Rites, and Practices. This particular component is really three-in-one, but every polytheistic faith has a calendar of sacred rites and practices. Since most (if not all) polytheistic faiths are orthopraxic (focused on right practice), this is the most direct route of exploring theology – again, when I say theology here, I mean the pursuit of the understanding of deity.
Eschatology is the study of death, judgment, and final destination. In essence, it is the study of the afterlife. Every faith has an idea of what happens to a person after they pass from this world. Not all polytheistic faiths believe in a final judgment, but some do. This is an area where the greatest discrepancies between faiths exist, and it may also be an area where the greatest insights into the nature of deity can be found.
Axiology is the study of values and ethics. In other words, the study of morality. At first glance, it may not be obvious what this has to do with theology. However, the myths and legends of each tradition shape the morality of the people who follow those traditions. Understanding the ethics held by a particular culture can enhance the pursuit of theology.
Pneumatology is the study of spiritual beings and phenomena. Beliefs about mythical creatures like dragons, sirens, mermaids, brownies, kelpies, the Fae, ghosts, landvaettir, etc. This is where understanding the cosmology of a polytheistic faith comes into play as well, as some traditions have worlds set aside specifically for certain types of entities.
Psychology is the study of the soul, and it is the closest term I could find to describe what I actually mean. When I say psychology here, I don’t mean the traditional Western version of the study of the human psyche. I wish there were a better term (so if someone has an idea for one, I’m all for suggestions). What I mean is the study of the constructs of the soul-the parts of the soul. Many polytheistic traditions propose that the soul is not a singularity but a plurality, constructed of a myriad of parts that are meant for particular purposes. Understanding the way in which the soul is viewed is vital in the pursuit of theology, as the soul is the expression of the most inherent divinity a living being has in its possession.
Semiotics & Symbology is the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretations and uses. This includes things like the study of divination and omens. While some symbols are fairly universal – like the serpent that represents wisdom – others are not as clear-cut. Understanding the way that a particular tradition utilizes semiotics & symbology helps create a clearer path towards the understanding of deity.
Sexology is the study of sex. Each religion approaches sex in different ways, and in many traditions, the act of sex is one the most powerful ways to experience divinity. There aren’t many polytheistic faiths that view sex in a negative light, and I say that simply because there may be a few that do – I do not proclaim to be an expert on all the polytheistic faiths that exist, and I do not wish to potentially exclude even one.
Sophology is the study of wisdom. Defining wisdom is a very difficult thing to do, as it is a very abstract concept. Generally speaking, it is the ability to take acquired knowledge and put it to good use. In many polytheistic traditions, the study of wisdom is equated with the study of the myths and the cultures with which the traditions started. But because wisdom relies on application, it assumes that a person will take the myths and cultural learning they have developed and will incorporate it into their own practices. Applying the knowledge gained of deity through the myths is, perhaps, one of the most direct ways to approach theology, although it is by no means the only way.
Occultology is the study of the occult, meaning mystery or secret. It is generally associated with magic, and there are several polytheistic traditions that incorporate magic into their practice. There are many different types of magic, but the one that deals most directly with deity is Theurgy, which is magic done with the aid of deity.
Many of these components, on their own, require extensive research, and many of them weave in and out of one another. These are the strands that I see throughout every polytheistic faith – though each faith has its own unique set of these strands.
I’ve read multiple books on polytheistic theology, and every time, I see the same problem arise – there is no unified set of principles that underlie every polytheistic tradition. Some polytheistic traditions venerate ancestors, others don’t. Some believe in pluralistic deities, others in unified plurality.
So this is my attempt to address that issue – rather than looking for underlying principles that exist in all polytheistic traditions, I decided to look for the categories of principles that weave through all polytheistic traditions. Sometimes, to simplify, you have to complicate, and looking at categories instead of principles isn’t an obvious thing to do. The stark truth is that we still live in a predominantly monotheistic culture, and we all often fall into the trap of trying to collapse things down into smaller parts.
As polytheists, we need to work on expanding outward, breaking things into larger pieces rather than collapsing things down into smaller ones. So what I have done here is propose a framework, an avenue of avenues of exploration for those who are interested in the pursuit of theology from a polytheistic perspective.
4 thoughts on “Polytheistic Theology: Avenue of Avenues”
Thank you for the glossary. Some of those words were new to me.