Breaking the Taboo On Polytheism

Written by Dyami Millarson

Polytheism remains a taboo in the West, and this taboo may be broken by expressing polytheism with animist terminology. Hence polytheist discourse may be brought about by animism. In a practical sense, this may mean that one could speak of polytheist deities as spirits, ghosts or souls, which may make the subject matter more acceptable to an audience that might otherwise be unreceptive to or uncomfortable with it. Certainly, it is important to introduce genuine polytheist thought to people, because it represents the mode of thinking of many ancient and modern peoples. There are many flavours of polytheism, yet they have a notion of divine diversity in common. Namely, what defines the polytheist is the firm belief that the divine is diverse rather than one.

The diversity of the divine may seem weird or alien to some, but when one thinks of the fact that there is never one ghost or spirit but always many, this makes sense. Polytheism is one with the natural world, and the basic concepts of animism (i.e., ghost, soul or spirit) may help the audience to grasp the basics of polytheism. Animism may thus be a conceptual gateway to polytheist discourse. This is very important for how one should recount polytheist narratives to audiences that may be unreceptive or outright hostile to polytheism. Animism may take that hostility away, because all humans are familiar with animism to some degree. All peoples believe in ghosts/souls/spirits.

Relating a familiar concept to a new one is very helpful whenever people are afraid of what seems weird; unfamiliarity breeds fear and this fear may be resolved by making people feel something is familiar rather than alien. To Western audiences, polytheism is a very distant and alien concept and this may be remedied by animism. After all, animistic concepts are still present in Western thought; animism is what all modern, pre-modern and ancient Western thinkers have in common. Although animism may seem different from polytheism on the surface, the concept of animism is fundamentally the same as polytheism; one may seek to distinguish the concepts, but polytheism is actually just the basis of animism made explicit, namely the belief in the diversity of the supernatural forces ruling the natural world.

Polytheism is, was and always will be animist; polytheism is neither a distinct development from animism, nor is it an offshoot of animism, but it is already completely indistinguishable from and fully embedded in animism. Polytheism is what animism looks like in a society where the diversity of the divine is no taboo. When polytheism becomes a taboo, it takes a more concealed form; animism is actually polytheism gone into hiding. Thus, when polytheism is forced into the background, it may take the form of animism; and that is why polytheism may be discussed using terminology that is characteristic of this animism which represents repressed polytheism.

In conclusion, polytheism is highly explicit animism, whereas animism may continue to exist in a society where its highly explicitly variant is repressed. Animism may take the shape of implicit polytheism in a society where polytheism is repressed, while it may take the shape of explicit polytheism in any society where it is not repressed. One could call the former lower animism and the latter higher animism, but this might lead one to think erroneously that these are two different levels of evolutionary development (and one may also confuse this with hierarchical notions within polytheism/animism, such as the distinction between the Æsir and Álfar where the former have a higher rank and the latter a lower rank in the Great Chain of Being). In fact, implicit polytheism is simply an adaptive form of animism which can survive in a society where explicit polytheism is somehow prohibited.

The adaptivity of animism/polytheism is important to understand, because this flexible understanding of polytheism is also for talking about polytheism with audiences of different persuasions; if an audience may be unfamiliar with or hostile to polytheism, it may be best to present polytheism to the audience in its implicit form, whereas it may be best to present polytheism in its explicit form to an audience that is already familiar with it. Moreover, when an audience is already comfortable with the subject matter, it may be easier to reach certain conclusions, whereas one might have to take more of a detour with an audience unfamiliar with the subject matter; explicit polytheism is much more direct, whereas implicit polytheism is more indirect. Therefore, the former may also be called direct polytheism and the latter indirect polytheism. Hopefully, these terms will help you to remember that polytheism may either be presented in a direct or indirect way depending on the needs of the audience; a Western audience will need a much more indirect way of addressing this issue, whereas an Eastern audience will be fine with addressing this topic directly because the belief in the diversity of the divine is not a taboo in East Asia, which is very unlike the situation in the West where the polytheist roots have long been forgotten.

Approaching the topic in different manners based on the audience is a relevant social skill; one has to tread softly when discussing polytheism with Westerners, while one can already make much more noise when discussing it with Asians. This is a cultural difference that is important to keep in mind. It may be perceived as a matter of social and cultural sensitivity (after all, social and cultural norms tend to overlap). Practice makes perfect; one may train this sensitivity through interacting with various audiences. While trying one’s best to register the audiences’ reactions, one should try to adapt to their needs; a negative or positive reaction to one’s message require a different response. Asians will be much more receptive to polytheism because they are familiar with it, whereas Westerners may be uncomfortable with it. In the latter’s case, the negative reaction should be resolved by talking about the issue in a more indirect way and thus treading more softly.

Published by Operation X

Operation X is a team of young and enthusiastic language learners who wish to save, promote and study (critically) endangered languages. We have already adopted Klaaifrysk, Wâldfrysk, Aasters, Westers, Eilaunders, Hielepes, Mòlkòrres, Seeltersk, Wangerōgersc, Harlingerland Frisian, Wursten Frisian, Upgant Frisian, Hâtstinge Fresh, Trölstruper Freesch, Hoolmer Freesch, Hoorninger Fräisch, Halifreesk, Karhiirdinge, Naiblinge Frasch, Halunder, Amring, Aasdring, Weesdring, Söl'ring, Hogelandster Grunnegers, Oostfreesk, and övdalsk.

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