Let’s face it, all traditional (that word again) polytheisms involved sacrifice, usually of animals. You give to the gods, they give to you, right? There was even carryover into the Middle Eastern monotheisms — Kapparot for some Jews,sacrifices of sheep or cattle at Eid al-Adha, and of course Jesus as the “lamb of God” who is the supreme sacrifice. Some people sacrifice their sanity—less blood that way.
Monotheistic assumptions so pervade our culture that even those few people born into polytheist religions (or those who grew up with no religion at all) cannot help but be influenced by them.
Polytheology raises questions that cannot be adequately addressed by answers originally developed in a monotheistic context. Because polytheism is inherently open to variation, the goal of polytheology is not to arrive at a single truth so much as to elucidate the possibilities, to honor and embrace differences, to explore the nature of the Gods and their relationship to humanity. These philosophical ideas provide a greater understanding of the Cosmos, Gods and humanity, and topics such as morality, mortality, and myth.
The contributors are Edward P. Butler, Patrick Dunn, John Michael Greer, Brandon Hensley, Wayne Keysor, Gwendolyn Reece, and Samuel Wagar.
Sometimes, as in the Roman West, you get the feeling that the upper classes, at least, just followed a fashion set by the emperor: “If you’re going to get ahead, it helps to be a Christian.” The lower classes were slowly brought around by a mixture of preaching, examples, and punishments.
The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, whose best-known work, Things Fall Apart, is set in a late-19th-century Igbo community, describes government-backed missionaries’ influence on the community, and some of the people’s response (or rather, non-response) might surprise you.
In one instance, however, indigenous people fought a war against the missionaries and won. It was Pagans 1, Catholics 0, at least until the rematch.
To summarize a lot of history: During the 16th century, several Spanish expeditions crossed or probed the upper Rio Grande Valley of what is now New Mexico, as well as entering settlements to the west, such as Zuni (New Mexico) and the Hopi towns (Arizona).
Serious colonization began in 1598 under the leadership of Don Juan de Oñate. About fifty Franciscan monks and priests were part of his expedition, bringing not just their gospel but Mexican chiles, tomatoes, and melons, as well as Eurasian peach tree seedlings and more, thus changing foodways of the American Southwest forever. More colonists, soldiers, and missionaries continued to arrive subsequently, although never in large numbers.
It was the usual story:
The Franciscans not only wanted to replace the idolatrous religious practice of the Pueblos, which were clearly the work of the omnipresent Devil, but also all aspects of their non-European, barbarian way of life The Indians needed to learn to wear proper clothes and shoes, to be modest, and to never engage in adultery.1)Jake Page, Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom (Tucson: Rio Nuevo, 2013), 57.
Over the next eighty years there were sporadic acts of resistance but nothing major. The leaders of rebellions were usually questioned, tortured, and executed. In one 1675 round-up of rebels, 47 religious leaders (medicine men) from nearby Pueblo towns were brought to Santa Fe, where a few were hanged and the rest flogged and imprisoned. One man, a shaman named Po’pay (also spelt Popé), from San Juan Pueblo (now using its old name of Okeh Owingeh again), upon his release announced to the people back home that the gods had given him a plan.
He and his group carried out an astonishing strategy: they organized warriors who spoke multiple languages (all unwritten), over distances of hundreds of miles, to all rise up on the same day, 11 August 1680. Inevitably, there were some security leaks — the Spanish governor in Santa Fe found out what was planned, and so Po’pay told people in his area to strike a day early.
The priests died first. Churches — even huge adobe edifices like the first church at Pecos — were burned internally and then torn down brick by brick. Other warriors attacked Spanish farms and ranches, killing and looting. In the north, survivors fled to the governor’s palace, the casas reales, in Santa Fe, while others further south gathered at Isleta, south of today’s Albuquerque. Twenty-one Franciscan friars “achieved martyrdom” that first day.
At Hopi, after they torched the churches, “the two-hundred-pound bells, so piously hauled the thousand miles from New Spain [Mexico] over the years, were destroyed, except at Oraibi where they were hidden, and remain so to this day.”2)Ibid., 115.
The survivors, less than half of the colonial population, prepared to break out of their siege in Santa Fe, even though most were not fighting men. But the Indians, who outnumbered them, let them go, and they straggled south, eventually stopping where Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, now stands.
Good bureaucrats, the Spanish censused the survivors:
Catalina de Zamora passed muster with four grown nieces, Spaniards, all on foot and extremely poor, and five servants [presumably Indians]. The enemy killed two of her nephews and more than thirty relatives. She does not sign because of not knowing how.3)Ibid. 136.
When you read that the natives of western North America “got horses from the Spanish,” 1680 is when that happened.
No Golden Age emerged in the former colony. Some communities mounted a “de-Hispanization” campaign. At Okeh Owingeh, Po’pay ordered un-baptism ceremonies and forbade his people to ever mention Jesus, Mary, or other saints again. Other communities relocated to more defensible locations, expecting that the Spanish would return — which they did, twelve years later, in 1692.
Meanwhile, inter-tribal wars flared up again, Apache raids were a constant problem, and drought was always lurking.
The Reconquista is sometimes described as “bloodless,” but it was not. Many Pueblo towns looked at their odds and decided to surrender. Without the grand coalition of 1680, the 50 veteran Spanish soldiers who accompanied the new (or returning) colonists could defeat the warriors of any single town.
Yet in some places, there were bitter fights. Archaeologists found evidence of them only relatively recently — David Roberts’ The Pueblo Revolt (linked at the image) tells that story. Jake Page’s Uprising: The Pueblo Indians and the First American War for Religious Freedom, which I have quoted here, is stronger on the cultural background issues and the long-term effects of the Great Pueblo Revolt and the Reconquest. I would recommend it as a good first book on the revolt.
With the Reconquest, the Franciscans and other Catholic missionaries came back too, but they never ruled the Pueblo towns as before. Many tribal members took a “dual faith” approach, attending Mass but also celebrating their own festivals or blended festivals, while keeping much of their various Old Religions a private matter. It was, Page notes, “a mutual accommodation.”
Written by Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat-turned-policy wonk, Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms is a journalistic survey of ancient religions that might likely be crushed by the Islamic State (like the Yazidis) or by other Muslim fundamentalism (Egypt’s Coptic Christians or the polytheistic Kalasha people of the Aghan-Pakastani boder).
Or they may all end up in Michigan — except for the Yazidis, whose chief immigrant home is Lincoln, Nebraska. There is a reason why the final chapter is titled “Detroit,” since that metro area has attracted many Middle Eastern immigrants.
In the course of fourteen years as an Arabic- and Farsi-speaking diplomat, working and traveling in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon, I enountered religious beliefs that I had never known of before: a taboo against wearing the color blue, obligatory mustaches, and a reverence for peacocks. I met people who believed in supernatural being that take human form, in the power of the planets and stars to steer human affairs, and in reincaration.
He visits and interviews the Mandaeans, who trace their religious lineage to John the Baptist (a “greater miracle worker than Jesus”), people who lived in Iraq since biblical times but who have now mostly fled.
The Yazidis. whose recent persecuation by the Islamic State made headlines, follow “an esoteric religion that has superficial similarities to Islam but is very different from it. . . . Yazidis believe in reincarnation, sacrifice bulls, and revere an angel who takes the form of the peacock.”
But they have also been frequently accused of “devil-worship,” with predictably bloody results. They might have a root in the ancient worship of Mithras, whose cult was important in imperial Rome as well, brought home by legionaires who served in the Middle East.
He briefly visits some Alawite Muslims too, “technically Shi’a [but with] as little in common with orthodox Shi’a as Unitarians . . . with evangelical Protestants,” who may share a religious lineage with the ancient inhabitants of the city of Harran, who themselves long kept up a sort of Neoplatonism by convincing their Arab conquerors that they were somehow “people of the book,” i.e., fellow monotheists.1)The Alawites are secretive about their doctrines, he adds, and because Syrian President Assad is one, he did not ask many questions.
Zoroastrians, followers of the ancient Persian religion, hang on in small numbers, celebrating the winter solstice with watermelons and pomegranates. (Their way has enjoyed a small revival lately among the Kurds, who were part of the Persian empire.) They gave us the word “magic.” And they like dogs better than cats, as their scripture tells them:
“When passing to the other world, the soul of a person who has hit a dog “shall fly howling louder and more sorely grieved than the sheep does in the lofty forest when the wolf ranges.” A man who kills a dog is required by the Avesta to perfomr a list of penances eighteen lines long. One of the penances is to kill a thousand cats. Because Muslims preferred cats over dogs, which they think of as uncean, disputes over the treatment of dogs often led to fights between Zoroastrians and Muslims.
(Can’t we be ecumenical here?)
The few hundred Samaritans, living in Israel and Palestine, were the Hebrews who never accepted the consolidation of the cult of YWHW, with Jerusalem the only official temple site. Like the Druze, they marry only within their own group. The Druze themselves, Russell suggests, carry on some of the teaching of Pythagoras and Hermes Trismegistus — but living in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, have often formed their own armed factions in the region’s wars.
Until the 19th century, meanwhile, a few indigenous Pagan tribues lingered in “Kafirstan”2)meaning Land of Unbelivers/Polytheists (now Nuristan), a mountainous region at the northern edge of British India. They were freedom-loving, warlike, and prone to raids and blood-feuds. In 1895, the Muslim amir of Kabul, whose troops had guns, conquered most of them.
In the 1950s, the British travel writer Eric Newby was shown a stone red with the blood of those who chose execution [over conversion to Islam.
One group the “Iron Amir’s” troops missed was the Kalasha, numbering just a few thousand, celebrating their festivals, worshipping their gods, and being less obssessive about sexual control than their Muslim neighbors — for instance, women can request a divorce without penalty and walk around with their faces unveiled. That freedom influences a sort of Pakistani sex-tourism, however:
I was told that the summer festival attracted many Pakistani tourists who were as intrigued as those from Greece or countries even further afield . . . some came with the wrong idea: they expected that because Kalasha women did not wear veils and were not Muslims, they would be available for sex. [A Kalasha prohibition on sex during the festival] does not stop prostitutes from coming from other parts of Pakistan to exploit the legend by dressing as Kalasha women, though, trading on this desire for the exotic.
There is a special connection between the Kalashas and the Greeks — maybe — it has at least led to some privately funded Greek foreign aid.
Many of these groups, who survived by living in remote places or by making accomodations with Islamic rulers, now are being ground between fundamentalist Islam and increasing bureaucratic efficiency of nation-states. Consequently, many have left: Chaldean, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians in particular are fleeing.
As late as the 1990s there were still 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Now . . . probably only a third of that number remain, or even fewer.
Druze and Mandaeans live in Boston; Yazidis, as mentioned, have congregated in Lincoln, Neb., and some other places. But the negative propaganda follows them:
The one thing that upset the family about American culture was the way their religion was represented. Abu Shihad said he had heard a CNN reporter describe the Yazidis as “the most hideous religion in the world.” I found this hard to believe, but he was very sure he had heard it.
The tragedy, Russell suggests, is that since many of these groups have been keeping their doctrines secret and marrying only in-group according to complicated rules for so long, once transplanted to North America they find it impossible to carry on as before.
Take the outdoor funeral for an 86-year-old man surnamed Huang in central China’s Henan province in December 2012. A woman in a short, white skirt and halter top pulls a mourner on stage and begins to undress him, while periodically peeling off a piece of her own clothing.
I learned that cow dung cakes can now be ordered on the Indian Amazon website. Out of curiosity, I ordered 6 pieces. It cost me 236 rupees, about $4. I called the local office of Amazon and spoke to Jaideep, who was very courteous and happy to answer my questions.
Some of the links that I saved that never turned into blog posts . . .
• The Internet loves quizes, so “What Kind of Witch Would You Be?” (answer: hearth witch). I always suspect that the answer is based on just one question, while the others are there just for fluff and decoration.
This is, indeed, one of the roots of many problems in modern polytheism – people being unwilling to wait and let things naturally evolve. My biggest concern here isn’t the specific examples of mis-assignment (though they do exist, and are indicative of a serious lack of understanding in some cases). It is the fact that these folks are sitting around trying to artificially assign gods to places and things as if it’s just a game, or at best an intellectual exercise.
Responding to the Islamic State’s campaign of destruction against Pagan holy sites, blogger Galina Kraskova writes,
We are horrified, and rightly so, by the human rights violations this filth commits, but we should be equally horrified, if not more so, by the destruction of ancient spaces and places of worship. The destruction of a place like Palmyra, isn’t just the destruction of an ancient building, it’s an attack on the future and what it might be, what it can become. It’s a severing of any link with a pre-Islamic past, and likewise a severing of possibilities for the future. In blowing up the Temple of Ba’al Shamin and the Temple of Bel, they’re damning future generations and that is an attack far more long lasting in its impact, than simply the loss, however grievous it might be, of an antique site.
If there is a blessing to be gathered out of the ashes of the wanton acts of evil Daesh [the Islamic State] has done here, it is that polytheists are gathering together, protesting in solidarity. I hope and I pray that for every temple they threaten, and for every mine they plant in these dusty, dry, decaying ruins, seven more living, new shrines or temples will spring up. As great as our fury is, we may feel drawn to hurl curses upon the heads of those who would threaten these sacred places. I do not say “do not curse them”—by all means, if you feel moved to do so, be my guest—but I firmly think that there are more important things that need doing first and foremost.