I’ve always had problems with the so-called “hard polytheism” that pervades certain forms of paganism, especially when so often you hear the loudest hard polytheist voices saying that theirs is the only *real true way* of being a pagan. The alternative, “soft polytheism” also makes little sense to me. If “all goddesses are the same goddess” then why are they so different in the myths? To conflate them seems to deny the historical reality that these are different figures who developed in different cultures at different times.
Ian Corrigan of ADF (who is one of the deepest pagan thinkers out there, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions – check out his current Patheos blog and his old blog Into the Mound), has a middle way: the wonderfully-named “Squishy polytheism“!
I can’t stand by the so-called ‘hard’ position – that every named deity is a separate and unique individual – and feel true to my understanding of ancient religion. Nevertheless I am a polytheist and animist, and continue to apply reconstructionist methods to my effort to build modern spirituality. Doing so does not require any specific position on the nature of the gods.
When it comes to how the ancients understood or practiced their polytheism, he writes:
The most basic examination of either ancient European Pagan literature or of modern polytheist religions makes it clear that a range of metaphysical models always exists in the polyvalency of a nature-modeled religious system. We see multiple names of what is understood as the ‘same’ deity, even as local expressions of that deity diverge over time.
In practice, as in modern ADF practice, the gods are addressed “as if” they were distinct individuals, i.e. as if hard polytheism were true. This is a core “game rule” (to use Michael J. Dangler’s term) that allows ritual to function. But your own opinions or beliefs about what, if anything, the gods *really* are, is up to you.
Ian even fits us non-literal, archetypal naturalist pagans into the “squishy” model, saying:
Incidentally this largely solves, for me, the problem of those archetypalists who feel inclined to define themselves as atheist when contrasted with the current hard polytheist position. The ‘archetypalist theist’ is, to me, every bit as much a theist as is the literalist. It seems to me that in the big tent of our modern Pagan restoration we mainly agree (or act as if we agree) that the gods and spirits exist. We disagree on what they exist *as* – discarnate intelligences, self-willed complexes in a collective consciousness, psycho-linguistic cultural artifacts – all these are theoretical models of what the spirits “really” might be.
I would quibble at being called a theist, since the term denotes “someone who believes in the existence of a god” (Cambridge Dictionary), but otherwise I appreciate the archetypal/metaphorical model of paganism being mentioned here.
So, I’m happy to be squishy!