Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wicca and polytheism

It should go without saying that no one speaks for Wicca. But certain authors have nevertheless attempted to pin the label "duotheist" on Wicca with the explicit intention of creating a clear bright line separating modern Wiccans from the historical Paganism of the ancient world, which reveled in extravagant polytheism.

Question: Do Wiccans recognize (revere, worship, adore, call upon, pray to, honor, sacrifice to, sing hymns of praise to, dedicate works of art to, dedicate their lives to ...) one and only one God and one and only one Goddess?

Answer: Uh, no.

As our first and only witness, let us call Gerald Brousseau Gardner. In Chapter XIII of The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner states (on page 170 of the 2004 Weiser edition), regarding ancient forms of Paganism and their relevance to Wicca, that "the only kinds of paganism with which we are concerned here are those which may have had some influence on the witch cult." Gardner then names three such sources of influence in particular: (1) "Druidism, the religion of the Celts", (2) "the religion of the Great Mother Goddess or the old Hunting God", and (3) "the Mystery Cults of the ancient world".

Having cited the Mystery Religions as an important part of Wicca's connection with the ancient Pagan past, Gardner then poses the question, "have we any way of ascertaining what the Mysteries taught?" To which he immediately provides the answer:
"Fortunately, we have. In the fourth century A.D., when paganism was engaged in a fierce struggle with the new creed of Christianity, Sallustius, who was a close personal friend of the Emperor Julian (called the Apostate because he tried to restore the old religion), wrote a treatise called Peri Theon kai Kosmou, About the Gods and the World. It is probable that this treatise was a kind of manifesto of the highest type of paganism prevailing at that time, and it is evident that its author was an initiate of the Mysteries."
[p. 171]
At this point, Gardner launches into an extended commentary on the contents of Sallustius' "Pagan Manifesto", with lengthy quotations from several sections of that work. (Gardner uses the English translation of classicist Gilbert Murray, the full text or which is available online in several places, including the blog of yours truly here. The translation was originally published in Murray's Five Stages of Greek Religion.) At the end of this, having given a fairly detailed summation of selected aspects of Sallustian Paganism, Gardner then states:
"Now the thing that will, I think, strike most the consciousness of the reader who is well versed in the teaching of the higher type of spiritualist and occult circles generally is not the antiquity of this teaching of Sallustius, but its startling modernity. It might have been spoken yesterday. Further, it might have been spoken at a witch meeting, at any time, as a general statement of their creed .... [T]he spirit of his teaching, the spirit of the Mysteries of his day, which is also the spirit of the beliefs of the witch cult, is timeless."
[p. 174]
There can be no doubt whatsoever that Sallustius' "Pagan Manifesto" was thoroughly polytheistic. In fact, the opening words of the manifesto declares that it is addressed to "Those who wish to hear about the Gods." Here is a quote from section VI:

"Of the Gods some are of the world, Cosmic, and some above the world, Hypercosmic. By the cosmic I mean those who make [ποιοῦντας] the Cosmos. Of the hypercosmic Gods some create [ποῖουςι] Essence, some Mind, and some Soul. Thus they have three orders; all of which may be found in treatises on the subject.

Of the Cosmic Gods some make the world be, others animate it, others harmonize it, consisting as it does of different elements; the fourth class keep it when harmonized.

These are four actions, each of which has a beginning, middle, and end, consequently there must be twelve Gods governing the world.

Those who make the world are Zeus, Poseidon, and Hephaistos; those who animate it are Demeter, Hera, and Artemis; those who harmonize it are Apollo, Aphrodite, and Hermes; those who watch over it are Hestia, Athena, and Ares.

One can see secret suggestions of this in their images. Apollo tunes a lyre; Athena is armed; Aphrodite is naked (because harmony creates beauty, and beauty in things seen is not covered)."

In addition to the twelve Olympians mentioned above, Sallustius also speaks of Asklepios, Dionysos, the Charities, and Kronos, and he also makes frequent references to the Daemons who occupy a place between humans and the Gods. In addition, Sallustius also insists that the Gods must be worshipped properly in the traditional manner. In other words, the Paganism of Sallustius is a seamless continuation of the traditional polytheism of the Greek and Roman civilizations.

But recall that according to Gardner, as quoted above, all of what Sallustius says "might have been spoken yesterday. Further, it might have been spoken at a witch meeting, at any time, as a general statement of their creed .... [T]he spirit of his teaching, the spirit of the Mysteries of his day, which is also the spirit of the beliefs of the witch cult, is timeless."


Suggestions for further reading:
  1. Thomas Taylor on the Religion of Socrates
  2. Beauty, Nature, Divinity, Secrets
  3. Sallustius, Gardner & Wicca: "A general statement of their creed."
  4. Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil
  5. Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and Reincarnation
  6. "Divested of their garments"
  7. "On the Nature of the Gods and the Cosmos" (full text)
  8. Plotinus In Defense of Polytheism
  9. More on Plotinus on the Gods
  10. Hinduism, Paganism, & Polytheism


Katy Anders said...

This is intriguing stuff.

I was recently reading a book about Jewish "monotheism" and the (very mainline Christian) author said that "monotheism is a concept of the Enlightenment that modern writers have tried to retroject onto the people of the past."

It's amazing how much we try and squeeze people from the distant past into our modern straitjackets.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Hi Katy! One could argue that the phenomenon of "monotheism" existed long before the term was coined. One reason for this is that when we use the term today it is in the context of "comparative religions". But monotheists don't actually believe in any such thing as "comparative religions". To them there is only One True Religion and all else is just the work of Satan.

Scott said...

It is certainly *not* thus proved, AP. The fact that Gardner approvingly cites an openly-polytheist author from the classical period does not actually demonstrate that Gardner considered *his own* viewpoint to be strongly polytheistic (as opposed to duotheistic). You're simply reading too much into the evidence. Furthermore, if you want to only call Gardner as a witness on the alleged duotheism of Wicca, then you'll have to explain such seemingly-duotheistic statements as these:

"Of the witch festivals, on the other hand, the two summer festivals were in honour of the goddess, wherein she takes precedence, and the two winter ones were those wherein the god takes precedence. In practice it appears to me that in summer the goddess takes precedence, riding on a broom (or other) stick before the god if he is present; but in winter he is not superior but merely her equal; they both ride side by side. It is true, of course, that in summer the main prayers are to the goddess, while in winter it is chiefly the god who is prayed to." (Witchcraft Today, chapter 12)

"It must be understood clearly that witchcraft is a religion....They [witches] think that the God and the Goddess assist them in making their magic, as they assist the God and the Goddess in their turn by raising power for them by their dances and by other methods." (The Meaning of Witchcraft, chapter 2) well as the references to "the God" and "the Goddess" in the singular throughout his writings on Wicca, sometimes *explicitly contrasted* (as when discussing the Saxons in MW) to openly-polytheistic cultures. If Gardner did *not* consider Wicca to be "duotheistic," then why do his writings convey such a strong impression of a singular God and a singular Goddess as the objects of worship?

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Gardner goes much further than merely saying that he generally approves of Sallustius. If you want to claim that there is theological space between Gardner and Sallustius then you have your work cut out for you considering the sweeping nature of Gardner's claims that Sallustius' work amounts to a "general statement of the Wiccan creed", and that "it might have been spoken yesterday ... at a witch meeting," and also that "the spirit of his teaching, the spirit of the Mysteries of his day, which is also the spirit of the beliefs of the witch cult, is timeless."

Since Gardner lays this on so thick, to turn around and insist that such a fundamental theological issue separates him from Sallustius demands strong evidence!

And if you really want to claim that Gardner "explicitly contrasts" Wiccan duotheism with polytheism, then you should state more precisely where he does that, and what this "explicit" contrast amounts to in Gardner's own words, rather than just your own characterization.

The fact is that Gardner is at times clearly polytheistic, while at other times he sounds more henotheistics, but with a henotheism focused on a sacred pair of Deities rather than a single Deity. It must be emphasized that henotheism not only does not preclude polytheism, but henotheism is only a coherent idea in a polytheistic context in which a multitude of Goddesses and Gods is simply taken for granted.

Scott said...

I'm sorry, AP, but I just don't agree with you. I don't think that general approval of Sallustius can be legitimately construed as endorsement of a non-duotheist polytheism, given the absence of a specific statement to that effect from Gardner and the vagueness of the reference to "the spirit of the beliefs of the witch cult," and *especially* since Gardner's work otherwise gives the strong appearance of a duotheism based around the Goddess and the Horned God. As you often do, you read Gardner broadly to support your own views, and then demand that others support their readings of his work narrowly.

In context of his own discussion, it seems apparent that Gardner's approval of Sallustius should be read in terms of the themes from Sallustius' work that he discusses: the teaching power of myth; the survival of the soul after death; the unity of the First Cause; the denial of a Power of Evil; the inner meaning of ritual; karma and reincarnation. Gardner does not address the question of the number of the Gods *anywhere* in his discussion of Sallustius. He even begins the section by asking "have we any way of ascertaining what the Mysteries taught about the origin of evil?" to define the thrust of his dialogue with Sallustius. (I note that you conveniently left "about the origin of evil" out of the quote in your original post, thereby decontextualizing Gardner's subsequent quotes.) Yet you infer that his quotation of Sallustius means that Gardner considered himself a polytheist instead of a duotheist, because the polytheist Sallustius uses polytheist language in the passages that Gardner is quoting in support of *completely different points*, and insist that this is sufficient to trump the duotheist viewpoint which can be read off of Gardner's *own words* describing witches and their beliefs and practices, as I quoted above.

I note that Gardner also says "Of course, not all of Sallustius' teaching stands up so well to the passing of time," which begs the difficult-to-answer question, given the paucity of evidence, of where Gardner's agreement with Sallustius actually ends. I am inclined to read that agreement as limited to the topics on which Gardner was actually citing Sallustius, and I think that the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate that a more expansive reading supporting a polytheistic Gardner is warranted. I do not think you have met that burden yet.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Gardner relies on Sallustius not as an isolated proponent of one narrowly defined school of thought, but rather as a representative, very broadly speaking, of "the highest type of Paganism of the time" (the time being late antiquity). Gardner also claims that Sallustius must have been "an initiate of the Mysteries". Therefore Gardner is relating to Sallustius both as a champion of ancient traditional Paganism in what Gardner holds to be its noblest form ("the Mystery Cults of the ancient world"), and also a representative of those who most stubbornly resisted Christianization and who therefore embodied Gardner's core mythos, that of the survival of Paganism in the form of "the Old Religion".

But if we look at Gardner's specific references to passages from Sallustius, the case for closely identifying GArdner with Sallustius' theology generally, and polytheism in particular, becomes even stronger. The first excerpt that Gardner quotes from Sallustius is the entirety of section XII, which is an emphatically polytheistic defense of the wise and beneficent nature of the Gods. In fact this section also defends the benificent nature of "daimones" (translated into English as "Spirits") as well as the Gods!

Next Gardner quotes at length from sections XIV and XV, both of which deal with what Gardner refers to as "the inner meaning of religious ritual". The titles of these two sections reveal that they are also pretty in-your-face as far as the whole polytheism things goes: "In what sense, though the Gods never change, they are said to be made angry and appeased." (section XIV), and ""Why we give worship to the Gods when they need nothing." (section XV)

For the full text of the sections quoted by Gardner and a discussion of the context, see my previous post: Gerald Gardner, Sallustius, and the Problem of Evil