Polytheism Is Not “Idolatry”

Yes Virginia, some people still believe in many gods today, and it’s every bit as legitimate as believing in just one.

 

Anthropomorphism is the act of characterizing something that isn’t human (whether animal, vegetable, or mineral) with human qualities, feelings, and motivations. Bugs Bunny, for instance, speaks English, stands on two legs, and is generally a smartass. We all know real rabbits don’t do either of these things, so Bugs is what we call an anthropomorphized rabbit (and a damn funny one, too).

It’s impossible to practice any sort of theistic religion without anthropomorphizing the god or pantheon that’s involved to some extent at least, even when it comes to monotheism. Polytheists are only the most obvious example, given that we actually invoke our gods into cultic images. Usually these icons are at least somewhat humanoid, even if they have animal heads (like the Egyptian pantheon) or multiple appendages (like the Hindu pantheon). Even when these images are completely zoomorphic, polytheists tend to be animists as well, believing that animals have souls just as humans do (as well as trees, rivers, stars, planets, etc.). So polytheism actively encourages us to anthropomorphize the entire cosmos.

Monotheists condemn this practice as “idolatry,” which is extremely offensive to polytheists for several reasons. First, it demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of what we believe and do. For some reason, monotheists always think we are cavepeople who think the icons we create and use for worship are actually alive and can move around or something like that. But not even ancient polytheists were that naïve. Our gods are not the man-made images themselves, but the cosmic forces these images are designed to signify. The statue of a god is merely a tool for worship, not the actual object of worship itself.

Just consider this story from biblical folklore:

Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship. One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?”

While I understand this story is allegorical, it is still dehumanizing and insulting to polytheists. Personally, I hope Abram’s father replied, “I don’t worship the idols; I worship THE GODS, whom the idols REPRESENT!” (And then I hope he grounded the little ingrate, since that little stunt probably cost their entire family several meals!)

When I invoke Set into one of His sacred images that I keep in my home, I treat the image as if it were a living, breathing entity. I kiss it, share offerings with it, or even blast some heavy metal and headbang with it. However, I am not naïve enough to think the image really IS Set. Gods are powerful, invisible cosmic forces that we’ve never been able to completely understand; we can see them working through natural phenomena, but we can’t actually see them directly. (And even if we could, it would probably make our brains explode and leak right out of our ears!) By anthropomorphizing the gods and inviting them into humanized images that we have created for them, we can demonstrate our love and respect for them just like we do for all the people and animals we love. When I kiss an image of Set, I know I am really only kissing an image; but the act of kissing that image is itself a powerful symbolic act. So while we can’t see or hear or touch the gods like we can see or hear or touch each other, this is the next best thing.

I fail to see how this is any different from how Roman Catholics treat their images of Jesus, the saints, and the Virgin Mary. They light candles in front of these statues and talk to them while they pray, but none of them are daft enough to think the statues are actually Jesus, Mary, or the saints themselves. At the same time, most Christians (including non-Catholics) would consider it blasphemous to step on a crucifix or tear up a Bible, both of which are powerful iconic images. And when people think about the Christian god, they visualize him as a white-bearded patriarch sitting on a throne in the clouds. Part of the entire point to Jesus, in fact, is that he’s supposed to be Yahweh himself in human form—and it doesn’t get any more anthropomorphic than that! In other words, Christianity anthropomorphizes its god and is every bit as “idolatrous” as Paganism is; but for some reason, it’s only “bad” or “evil” when non-Christians do these things.

This image wasn’t invented by Seth McFarlane; it goes all the way back to the Canaanite god, El.

Despite what anyone else might say, anthropomorphism is not a “bad” thing at all. It is also not entirely removed from reality. For example, we now know that willow, poplar, and sugar maple trees will actually warn each other about impending insect attacks; that bees possess cognition and an extremely complicated language; and that beavers are basically hydraulic engineers, creating dams to make ponds and build houses for the families. Trees, bees, and beavers might not think, feel, or communicate the same way human beings do, but they DO in fact think, feel, and communicate. And when ancient peoples anthropomorphized these and other aspects of nature, it was their way of living in balance with the rest of the universe. Even atheists can’t help projecting human thoughts and emotions onto their beloved pets, and it’s really a good thing that human beings do this. Anthropomorphism encourages us to empathize with nature, rather than treating it like some soulless, alien thing that only exists for us to exploit. The earth would not be burning out of control like it is right now if more people anthropomorphized nature today.

Polytheists are also stigmatized for offering gifts, especially of food and drink, to images of our gods. People assume we think the images will actually move and eat the food, or that we think our gods will “starve” if we don’t “feed” them. In all my years of identifying as a polytheist, I have never met a single person who ever believed either of these claims—not even once. If you have trouble understanding why anyone would want to offer food to a god, all you really need to grasp is the historical importance of sharing meals. Food is just as important today as it was in ancient times, and having enough of it is often a struggle for many people. Hence why sharing your food with someone else is considered a HUGE sign of compassion and respect in virtually every culture across the globe. Even today, inviting people to breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner is still a prominent form of social bonding. And that right there is the true purpose of offering food to deities: to bond with them socially. By invoking gods into images and offering them food, polytheists are inviting these cosmic forces over to dinner and treating them as distinguished houseguests. This is not just some wacky superstition, but a deeply affectionate form of religious worship that is every bit as authentic, legitimate, and passionate as anything that Christians, Muslims, or Jews practice.

Different polytheists make offerings in different ways. The Egyptians ingested their offerings, believing their gods would consume the spiritual energy of the food while the worshipers consumed its physical substance. I have always liked this way of doing it best, because it feels more like one is sharing with the deity than simply giving them things. When we treat people to dinner, we don’t just pay for them to eat and not eat anything ourselves; we eat with them. And if the gods truly consume anything during this process, it is the love and good will we express to them through such demonstrations of faith. But food and drink are not the only things we can offer; we can also offer actions, like helping a deity’s sacred animals, or writing literature and/or creating art for the god(s). We can participate in our communities in ways that honor them, like donating to a library for Thoth, picking up trash in a park for Geb, or visiting a dairy farm and feeding the baby milk cows for Hathor. There are all kinds of things we can offer to the gods and share with them and others that will make our souls and spirits glow with love and good vibes.

Another stigma against polytheists is the belief that we commit human sacrifices. It is true that certain civilizations engaged in this practice, but the Egyptians do not seem to have done so for any theological purpose. In those cases where a Pharaoh’s servants were ceremonially killed and buried with the deceased king, it was to appease the king, not the gods. As a polytheist, I think killing anyone except in self-defense is a barbaric offense against the gods, and most other polytheists will tell you the same. If a person kills someone in the name of a polytheist god, they are in the exact same category as monotheists who bomb abortion clinics or fly airplanes into skyscrapers because “God told me to.”

As for animal sacrifice, most polytheists do not engage in this practice today, but those who do usually live in rural areas and are accustomed to killing their own food. They are not cat-slashing sociopaths, but regular hunters or farmers; all that’s different is that they dedicate the animals to their gods and thank the animals for their lives before killing them and eating them. It’s not that different in principle from butchers preparing kosher or halal meat products. Suffice it to say that polytheists who live in urban or suburban areas have no reason to kill any animals, since we are just as accustomed to buying our food from local supermarkets as everyone else. Many of us are also vegetarians, vegans, and/or animal rights activists, so the idea that we run around bathing ourselves in goat’s blood is total bullshit.

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