I’m not sure if I would call this a “divide” in the Pagan community (at least not just yet) but there is a great deal of discussion out there (even outright bickering) regarding “pure Polytheism” and for lack of a better term “soft Polytheism”. I’m sure everyone will have their own definitions for these two terms, but generally speaking pure Polytheism is seeing the Gods and Goddesses of each pantheon as separate entities, while a soft Polytheistic view would be seeing all Goddesses as aspects of one Great Goddess and all Gods and different faces of the Great God.
I’m finding that many Pagans argue that our ancestors were pure Polytheists, seeing the Gods as purely separate from one another, so therefore this view would be the most historically accurate. I understand this point of view. When I work with different deities their energy and personalities are very distinct and different from one another. Athena is Athena, not the Morrigan with a Greek helmet on. Cernunnos, while a dark God, simply does not have the same energy or attitude as Hades. The beauty of this view point is that we experience the Gods not as archetypes but as individuals. When you don’t think of Oya as just another personification of the “warrior aspect” of the Goddess, you can build a more personal bond with that Goddess, and truly learn her mysteries. But does that mean that all these separate gems of divinity can’t still be separate and individual beings who also make up a beautiful complex whole?
Soft Polytheism would be more of the traditional Wiccan point of view. To quote Dion Fortune “All gods are one god, and all goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator.” In this view all the many Gods and Goddesses are aspects that make up a greater whole. The down side to this is that for many working with the Goddess has become a sort of Chinese takeout version of spirituality. We look at a list of Goddesses embodying similar qualities and pick which one to invoke at the next full moon ritual as if we were ordering General Tso’s Chicken. We forget to really get to know the Gods. We forget that even if Athena, Oya, Sekhmet, and Morrigan embody the “dark” Goddess or the “warrior” aspect of the Goddess that they are still different Goddesses, their energy within ritual work is not identical. Their lesson may be similar but not identical.
Is one view better than the other? Is one outlook the “correct” one? Can both be true at the same time? More importantly can the two sides get along? In a way it seems these two points of view are beginning to veer off into extreme schools of thought. There are both good and bad aspects to either point of view. Personally I don’t think either one is wrong. My own personal point of view is that both are correct. With my own practices I try to both look at the past, and combine it with what I am sensing and picking up on from my own personal experiences with divinity. I see the Gods as individuals. They are distinctly different from one another, but I also believe that they are aspects of a greater whole, a greater whole that is far too complex for us to perceive in our mortal states. My beliefs are somewhat a combination of both, and I think there are valuable lessons to be learned from either view point.
The only problem that I see is that soft Polytheism is slowly becoming deemed as a creation of “fluff bunny” Paganism, and that it has no value or historical backing. But it truth many Pagan cultures where not strict Polytheists. Some cultures did see their Gods are purely separate, and had no concept of all gods being one god. In fact I would argue that the concept of “all gods are one god/goddess” is a modern one. But ancient Paganism does clearly show us that our ancestors did see some Gods as aspects of others. Many cultures weren’t pure Polytheist or soft Polytheist but rather a mixture of the two.
For the last few weeks I’ve been doing some research on Egyptian deities. Tracing the origins of any Egyptian Goddess can make your head spin. The Egyptians liked nothing better than to mesh deities together to form new interpretations of the divine. As one Goddess rose to prominence and her worship spread she absorbed the identities and attributes of other Goddesses. Hathor for examples took on the attributes of Sekhmet, Isis, Mut and Bat. When Mut’s worship in Thebes grew to prominence she became worshiped as Mut-Wadjet-Bast, then later when her worship became combined with Sekhmet she was hailed as Mut-Sekhmet-Bast. Three Goddesses meshed into one. The Egyptians sound like the first Wiccan theologizes. To the Egyptians merging their Gods complemented rather than detracted from each God’s stature. For them it made sense that these Goddesses could be individuals, yet still be aspects of one another.
The Roman’s had a similar view point. As they conquered foreign lands they compared their Gods to the local ones, seeing them as the same deity just hailed by a different name. At Bath the Celtic Goddess Sulis became Sulis- Minerva. Similarly the Greeks equated their own Gods to those they found in Egypt. In his writings Herodotus claimed Isis was the Egyptian Aphrodite.In the end I think the debate between the two is moot. If we look back to the Pagan beliefs of the past we find both schools of thought being practiced. Saying one is better than the other is verging on being dogmatic. I think what has surprised me the most is how adamantly some Pagans will tell other Pagans that their beliefs are “wrong”. Do we as a community want to venture down that path? The Pagans of the past did not all view the Gods the same way, just as the Pagans of the present. Ultimately no matter how we choose to view the Gods I think it is our relationship with them that is of the upmost importance. A “pure Polytheist” Priestess of Brighid and a “soft Polytheist” Priestess of Brighid are still honoring the same deity, can share similar experiences, and learn from one another. When we forge a true bond with divinity the term “pure Polytheism” and “soft Polytheism” should cease to matter.