The Pantheonic Challenge to ‘Decalogic’:
Polytheism as Contemporary Theology
The Issue of Human Sacrifice

Sunday 2 November 2008

Michael York
Bath Spa University

Polytheism: the very name for many raises exotic notions along with feelings of fascination and excitement. For myself, I tend to conjure cinematic images of ‘natives’ dancing in open-air, torch-lit temples where the hero of the film seeks to steal the gigantic ruby embedded in the worshipped figure’s forehead. Or is this idolatry? Should the two ideas be separated? Is it their adjacent biblical condemnation in the Decalogue that simply links them?

My answer here is ‘no’. Whereas polytheism is simply a multiple and gender-differentiated understanding of godhead, through the ubiquity of the divine in pagan perception, it allows the comprehension of the sacred in corpo-spiritual terms. Strictly theistic credos that posit a God external to and/or wholly transcendent of the empirical realm of nature or the matter-energy continuum are passed over for an approach that locates divinity as immanent and even as possibly tangible. As the root of religion and virtually all religions, paganism has bequeathed many of its ideas to its descending competitors, and Christianity, among them, retains its own doctrine of the Incarnation in which God becomes flesh and human. David Abram, in fact, captures the contemporary physiotheistic grounding of any historic psychotheistic understanding of god as pure spirit when he declares that “a wholly immaterial mind could neither see things nor touch things – indeed, could not experience anything at all.”[1]

Since the advent of Christianity and even later the evolutionist school of social anthropology, there has been more than a tendency to dismiss polytheism or multitheism as a transient stage of development. Writing in the early 1930s, John Oman understood only two historical results from the beginning of reflection in polytheistic thought: “One was in the direction of pantheism and absorption in the One; and the other in the direction of monotheism and victory over the many.”[2] By contrast, and in an overall sense, polytheism in both its naturalistic and humanistic forms tends to resist the rationalism of pantheism but accepts nonetheless the basic understanding of the non-transcendental immanence of deity, while at the same time it retains theism’s notion of divine personality (in this case, multiple) whether as a reality, a metaphor or both.[3]

Popular today among some pagans is the argument of panentheism. Gus DiZerega is one prominent champion of this school of thought. Many Christians are also attracted to this idea in rejecting Karl Barth’s contention that the Abrahamic God is ‘wholly other’. But even Rudolf Otto in his pioneering work on the ‘numinous’ conceives of the holy as ‘wholly other’, and the human experience of it from the initial ‘angst of dread’ belonging to the ‘primitive’ to the ‘loftier’ morally infused experience of the Christian God are invariably presented in terms of advance and progress. James Frazer, of course, argued for an applauded evolution in which magic and superstition are replaced by religion, and religion in turn is superseded by science. Alfred Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne developed their panentheistic theology as Christianity’s answer to pantheism. Instead of simply the all being sacred, the sacred all is to be located within God as something greater. A pagan like myself, however, becomes suspicious that panentheism is simply a Christian ruse ‘to have their cake and eat it too’. Grace Jantzen is open in feeling that the earth is the ‘body of God’,[4] but I also remember Colin Gunther during my student days at King’s College London arguing that panentheism “collapses” into pantheism. For DiZerega, this very ambiguity concerning panentheism allows it to be the perfect vehicle for ecumenical dialogue between ‘Christians and Pagans’. But while the intention is honourable, Robert Corrington’s Nature’s Religion argument appears to grasp the fundamentally differentiating factor between paganism and the religions of transcendence. For him, there is “nothing whatsoever outside of nature. The sacred is in and of nature and cannot outstrip nature.”[5] Nature is the all that is. If there is a God, this God is either nature or a part of nature but not apart from or wholly other than nature. It is this contention that I contend is the fundamental position of paganism as a theological offering: the holy or divine is the all of nature and whatever nature produces; metaphorically, nature and that to which nature gives birth – including humanity and humanity’s technology, art and culture.

So where does this leave us with polytheism? Here we come to Thomas Aquinas’ dreaded term, the ‘supernatural’. While we all use this expression, both affirmatively or dismissively, Aquinas coined the term to describe the transcendent God as above nature. A more preferable term for me would be the ‘preternatural’ as an ‘other nature’ rather than a ‘super nature’. With contemporary Western paganism, however, there are many who reject both the ‘supernatural’ and the ‘preternatural’ as fictions incommensurate to and retarding for understanding the miraculous as intrinsic to nature itself.[6]  Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature editor Bron Taylor becomes disturbed by the very notion of theos in ‘theology’ and by theology itself. Notions of the supernatural are for him counterproductive and unnecessary. Graham Harvey, author of Animism: Respecting the Living World, likewise desires a purely naturalistic paganism, but his ‘new animism’ is a pluralistic form of Platonic personalism in which the ‘person’ replaces the magical, quickening spirit or presence of ‘old animistic’ beliefs.

The debate here is ongoing, but I wish to stress that the preternatural is not empirical nature.[7] It defies for the most part, if not exclusively, laboratory experimentation. Traditionally it is approached through metaphor and symbol, through myth and legend, through art and ritual. It cannot be located and pinned down directly through our senses. It is instead an ‘other realm’ that might be discerned through trance and inspiration, one that is perhaps always present but normally invisible and hidden. Its access requires the special situation and/or a specially developed insight. It may not be undeniably necessary for ecological reform and environmental restoration; it may not be necessary for the development of communication and respect for any of a whole range of elements or ‘persons’ of nature, i.e., ‘other than human’ persons; but it remains for many a resource that is available for those who choose it. With the consensus concerning respect for magic that dominates contemporary paganism if not paganism both historically and as a whole as well, a rediscovery or restoration of magical practice is a large part of pagan ritual. But, as with polytheism and idolatry, the thaumaturgical sides of paganism would appear to be regressive when measured against the advances of science and rational thought. It is here where we find the challenge of paganism against the established paradigm of evolutionary advance extolled by Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Edward Tylor, James Frazer, Rudolf Otto, Yves Lambert,[8] Robert Bellah, Anthony Grayling, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens among many, many others – both Christian and atheist alike. Contemporary Western paganism denies the whole notion of linear progress as unmitigated evolutionary advance. Its basic metaphors are the circle and spiral, and pagans today reexamine and sift through much of the rubbish heap of culture looking for ideas, practices and even beliefs from the past that may once more have validity and utility for our globalised, over-populated, environmentally endangered and depersonalized bureaucratic planet and life of today.

In his 1936 essay, “The One and the Many,” Aldous Huxley argued that it is impossible to prove whether the godhead is singular or plural. What becomes more the point for him is the usefulness of the differing concepts to reflect either the unifying urge or an understanding of the diversity of things. Huxley concedes that “though the ‘real’ existence of the deities of any pantheon may be doubted, the existence of the internal and external diversity of which they are symbolic is undeniable.”[9] The beauty of a polytheistic framework is that within it there is something for everyone. It becomes reflective of the pluralism and multiple values of today while affirming the dignity of the individual and the personal freedom of choice. There is a concerted effort to reject Hegelian reduction to the ‘logic of the same’.[10] There is instead a celebration of difference in Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense; not just a toleration of difference but its affirmation. By rejecting worship of an abstract or perfect ‘One’, polytheism affords veneration as a vehicle for re-finding life in terms of wonder and variety. It allows a framework by which an individual can be in intimate contact with the world, capable of assimilating from nature through the senses, through desire, through both thought and feeling. As Huxley elaborates this further, the human being, from both external and internal diversity, with her “poetic imagination … extracts the deities of polytheism.”[11] A polytheistic reflection on godhood and value allows both Baktinian celebration and Weberian re-enchantment, where, for the pagan, the drive for monotheistic oneness does not. At the end of the day, unity has no more value than plurality; one is merely the ‘first’ among equals, a primus inter pares. Two, three, five, nine, and all the numbers are equally valid; equally sacred.[12] The selection of any depends on the occasion and the project.

But if paganism today is a re-affirmation of what have become considered within the mainstream outmoded beliefs and practices, if contemporary pagans reassert polytheistic values over monotheistic ones, where is the line to be drawn between former institutions that might still be regarded as unsavoury in line with present-day aspirations? A specific question in this regard concerns blood sacrifice – in particular, human sacrifice. While paganism may endorse change fully, it nevertheless recognizes that some changes are better than others – better in the sense of being more commensurate to human dignity and worthiness. Some historical changes that have occurred in the ‘march of time’ may be viewed as detrimental and a throwing of the baby out with the bathwater, but how necessary is blood and human sacrifice to bona fide pagan expression?

This is not a superficial question or an easy one to answer. In December of 2007 I was privileged to have visited Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I found myself overwhelmingly impressed by the ceremonial centres of the Maya, by their artifacts and art, by their technology and spirit. Here was an undeniable pagan culture that would warm the heart of most pagans as well as those perhaps of many others. But intricately related to their rich pantheon and elaborate ceremony was the slaughter of thousands of captives if not others as well to their gods. I found this disturbing and began to wonder on how integral human sacrifice might be to polytheism. If one is to be restored, why not the other?

This is a question with which I am still grappling. Ovid (Fasti 3.291-344) tells the story of Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome and legendary architect of the Roman festival calendar, and his bemusing outwitting of Jupiter concerning the expiatory ritual necessary after lightning has struck the community. Each time Jupiter informed Numa that he wanted the ‘head’, ‘human’ and ‘life’, the king quickly inserted the respective words ‘of garlic’, ‘hair’ and ‘of sprats’. With the sky-lord’s laughter over the king’s audacity, Numa saved the lives of his subjects and the materials of the procuratio were henceforth to be garlic, hair and living fish.

Human sacrifice, the killing of a human person as an offering to a deity or preternatural power, is of course an extension of animal sacrifice in general. In his MAGICK in Theory and Practice, Aleister Crowley enunciated an ancient understanding concerning the efficacy of blood sacrifice as essential to magical ritual. Without its Temple, Judaism is no longer able to perform this rite, but ritual killing of animals still occurs in Afro-Latin cultus (chickens being the usual victim in the West), in Tantra (more often the goat) as well as elsewhere. Ancient Greeks and Romans employed oxen, bulls, goats, dogs, etc., and the central ceremony for the Vedic peoples was the horse-sacrifice (ashvahmedha). Today, however, we prefer to acquire our carnivorous dietary supplements from the supermarket or butcher rather than through the mess of slaughtering our food ourselves – ritually or otherwise. As far as I know, cannibalism has not been associated with human slaughter per se – placing the ceremonial offering of human life into a different category.

There are vestiges of the practice even among Indo-European peoples despite the move away from such for civilized culture, such as evidenced by the Numa tale. Among the Greeks, Agamemnon offered his daughter Iphigenia to appease Artemis. And, though the Romans eschewed the use of human victims in religious ritual, they certainly resorted to capital punishment let alone gladiatorial games. They also ritually strangled enemy leaders before a statue of Mars during the triumph celebration. Moreover, Vestals who had violated their vows of chastity were buried alive. Perhaps less ritual, these instances range between entertainment and capital punishment. Further north, the Norse peoples reputedly sacrificed to Odin and Nerthus. Among the Gallic tribes, victims offered to the triad of Esus, Taranis and Teutates were, respectively, hanged, immolated or drowned. We also hear from Strabo that Celts prognosed from the death spasms incurred through ritual combat. Even earlier, there is the Lindow Man, an Iron Age person who was discovered in 1984 in a peat marsh in northwestern England – presumably a ritual death, though it might have been an execution.

Beyond the European classical and Indian sub-continental worlds, the practice of human sacrifice is associated with early Egypt, Mesopotamia, Scythia, Mongolia and Mesoamerica. There have also been instances during the Shang and Zhou dynasties of China as well as by the Ming emperor Hongwu. Scapegoating sacrifices are known to have occurred in India, and there were also ritual killings in ancient Hawaii as there are still today through witchcraft in Mexico.[13] Further instances have been located in the Benin empire of West Africa. In many of these cases, ritual deaths amount to isolated cases, and in the West in particular under the influence of the classical world already from pre-Christian times the practice has been virtually eliminated. This does not prevent present-day accusations of human sacrifice occurring as part of satanic ritual. A close look at the allegations, however, will reveal that, apart from the Eastern Africa muti killings, the cases supplied are invariably committed by deranged individuals and not by organized groups –  satanic ‘cults’ or otherwise.[14] While the biblical Jephthah, through an irony of self-entrapment, is forced to sacrifice his daughter in Judges 11:29-39, the Genesis 22 tale of Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son Isaac signifies the seminal abandonment of this practice for the Judaeo-Christian world.

This move against human sacrifice appears also to be encapsulated by the first two Commandments. There are Roman Catholic and Lutheran versions in which the two are made into one, but the repugnance toward human sacrifice, especially child sacrifice as in the cult to Moloch, is probably the real purport here. Paganism is by-and-large ‘anti-Decalogue’ in conception and instinct. The peculiarity of the Abrahamic tradition is that if one disagrees and presents counter-values to its own, one is labeled ‘satanic’ and made into enemy. Protest and argument become automatically suspect. The pagan self-identifier of today faces an uphill battle against intimidation, ridicule and even persecution within Western society. There are several different versions and wordings of the Commandments, but the gist as I recall them would be as follows:

1. You shall have no other gods before me
2. You shall not make for yourself an idol
3. You shall not commit blasphemy
4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
5. Honor your father and mother
6. You shall not murder
7. You shall not commit adultery
8. You shall not steal
9. You shall not lie
10. You shall not covet other people’s belongings
(Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21)

Interestingly, these are all – with the exception of numbers 4 & 5 – ‘thou shall nots’; negative commands. By contrast, contemporary Western paganism stresses the positive that one ‘should’ do over the negative that one ‘should’ not, but the point here is the general disagreement with the biblical encoding as a whole. Killing, stealing and lying are the exceptions and are likewise opposed in pagan agreed-upon morality; and while desire is cherished as a positive, the pagan is apt to agree with its aura of corruption in the notion of coveting. Adultery is more ambiguous because it may rest on notions of ownership ‘over’ those of free will. And while pagans are ‘big’ into ‘ancestor worship’, they are more likely to agree that parents are to be honored if they behave as honorable people. Sometimes the most ‘honorable’ response is to get as far away from them as possible. In place of the Sabbath, pagans have sabats as well as other festivals, celebrations and holidays. But the irony is that our secular society has itself moved away from the old ‘Sunday laws’. Nevertheless, the real question I wish to ask is whether it has really moved away from ritual murder – from that mad act of mass ritual killings conducted within both the Mayan and Aztec cultures? How little different today in the most fundamental sense are the slaughter-offerings our culture makes in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere? What moral level have we achieved today that differentiates us from the Mesoamerican cultures in this sense?

In paganism, no god can be truly blasphemed. The gods flourish to be honored, but one is always free to say what one wants. It may not be considered the wise thing to do, but liberty remains a preeminent value in the pagan pantheon.

And polytheism and idolatry are not exactly central, but they are intrinsic. Idolatry stems from the corpo-spiritual idea that tangibility can be holy and sacred; polytheism from understanding the godhead as multiple, fluid, dynamic, inclusive, fusing, differentiating, recombining, regenerative and, if approached properly, a benign influence. A pagan god may be considered a force, spirit or principle or a combination of these – the first as some form of the matter-energy continuum (e.g., the sun, earth); the second as the numinous awesome wonder of the otherworld or other nature (health, wisdom, the divine, the imaginal of entrancement); the third as basic embodied human ethics (e.g., the cardinal virtues of strength, prudence, temperance and justice, or perhaps what I like to call the ‘heptatheonic’ virtue-values of freedom, comfort, health, worship, pleasure, productivity and generosity).

Paganism today aspires to re-locate and restore valuable ancestral understandings. And it seeks, often with difficulty in an unsympathetic world, not to be arrestingly intimidated in its unabashed endorsement of pleasure, in its cathartic worship of nature and even bending of knee before an ‘idol’, and in its affirmation of endless multiplicity and variation in its godhead. Judgments of regression are just that, namely, value-judgments from a contrasting tradition that regards itself as in some way superior. And, as John Oman explains, “Polytheism is only irrational when … we regard its theology as its essence.”[15] However, for the pagan the multiple understanding of godhead remains not irrational regression but the restoration of the hope for progress in meaningful ways. Since the abandonment of ritual sacrifice had already occurred within pagan society as it transformed into more urban-centered forms of spirituality – at least in Occidental culture, human blood atonement and offering became no longer considered essential long before pagan consciousness was itself prohibited. Of course this cannot be proven, but the return of pagan culture is in no way tied to the return of blood sacrifice. It remains within the parameters of pagan identity to cherish the past, albeit selectively, and to champion change and innovation for a balanced and positive future.

An etymological inquiry into the source of the word ‘sacred’ traces it to the root *sak- with the general significance of ‘sanctifying’, ‘to make sacred’.[16] However, David Phillip Herbst connects this root with *sek- ‘to cut’ and considers that the fundamental meaning of sacred when applied to a thing or person is that that something is ‘set apart’ or at least is ‘distinguishable’.[17] If we follow the full logic of the sacred as the special or consecrated, the pantheistic consideration that ‘everything is sacred’ is a contradiction of terms. The all might be holy or divine, but it cannot be sacred since this last refers to a special category that is distinguished from everything else. In the popular Wicca of our times, the various goddesses and gods are reduced or considered to be instances of, respectively, the Goddess or the God. But in the reconstructionism of different ethnic traditions, there is no blurring of divine individuality into one or two all-embracing figures. However, an even more radical form of polytheism would hold that there is not one sacred but multiple sacreds – whether this is understood as a triad, the pentad of totality, a heptatheon, the Egyptian ennead, or the Greco-Roman pantheon of twelve deities. Unlike the Hindu consideration that the 330 million gods and goddesses are merely different names or aspects of ‘the Supreme Being’,[18] in contrast to “monotheistic polytheism,” radical polytheism would hold that each fundamental deity comprises an intrinsically separate sacredness – one that is not necessarily to be fused with and as any other form of sacredness. If the Jewish-Christian God embodies the whole of the sacred for his followers, the radical polytheistic pagan would contend that there is more than one sacred, that the pagan pantheon is a symbolic presentation of multiple sacreds. A pagan understanding of the sacred sees it in constant dynamic ferment – bifurcating as soon as it approaches a coalescing unity, then multiplying, fusing and recombining in a never ending process. Polytheism is the theological expression of the sacred as perpetually vibrant and active. Pluralistic spirituality, for Huxley, has the potential to be all “that human life actually is.”[19] And echoing Weber’s thoughts on the one-dimensionality of the iron cage of bureaucratic modernity, Huxley contends that even in its worst moments, “polytheism never degenerated, as monotheism has done, into bloodless religious spirituality on the one hand, and an irreligious worship, on the other, of no less bloodless intellectual abstractions and mechanical efficiency.”[20]

Referring to the megalithic sites of Western Europe and the British Isles, Philip Lucas comments that “[as] places connected to the sacred, however defined, they encourage followers of nature spirituality to re-claim a pre-Christian past, and to draw on the forces and beings connected to a site in a myth and tradition for spiritual empowerment in the present.”[21] He considers that nature spirituality is an attempt to reconnect its adherents or searchers to the natural world to foster activity that protects the ecosystem and its life forms. To the degree that paganism is to be understood as earthen religion or nature spirituality, its polytheisms seek to achieve this very end. The multiplicity of godhead is, consequently, one more member of what Lucas refers to as the ‘toolkit’ of nature spirituality (or paganism), namely, “symbols, myths, histories, rituals, sacred places, and beliefs.”[22] In short, pagan pantheons resuscitated from pre-Christian loci enable “human beings [to] construct worlds of religious and spiritual meaning using emblems, symbols, and representations of the past.”[23] Lucas explains this process in terms of Berger and Luckmann’s sedimentation theory in which human experiences congeal as recollection sediments that, over time, become objective signs and part of cohesive religious systems whose formative processes have been lost in the fog of prehistory. Lucas sees the overall developments as means to enlist former symbols and entities (in the present case, deities) “to validate spiritual experiences that fall outside mainstream religious practice … and … promote an ethic of ecology in a time of environmental crisis.”[24]

To the degree that earth or nature is allegorically regarded as the corpo-spiritual ‘mother of the gods’, with regard to the sacred as pluriform, she becomes simply the primus inter pares ‘first among equals’. With the growing differentiation of life on planet earth in the twenty-first century, pagan polytheism not only becomes reflective of, or commensurate with, the endless growth of human variety but is also expressive of an even wider range of cosmic and aspirational possibilities. In a word, polytheism becomes a devotional indicator of pagan imagination – especially as a response to a time of crisis and challenge for individual life, cultural well-being and environmental precariousness.



[1] Abram (1996:68).

[2] Oman, John, The Natural and the Supernatural, Cambridge: University Press, 1931/1950:407.

[3] Multiple personalization is no less an attempt to ‘humanize’ the universe than the projection of a single personal deity as author or co-inhabitant of the cosmos. Stewart Guthrie argues that this is the essence of religion, namely, the attempt by human beings to appeal to compassion and understanding in an otherwise impersonal or hostile cosmos. Stewart sees this as an attempt to increase the odds for survival. Vide S.E.Guthrie, “Religion: What Is It?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35:4 (December 1996) pp. 412-19.

[4] Grace Jantzen, God’s World, God’s Body (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984). See also John Macquarie, Twentieth-Century Religious Thought (London: SCM Press1988:438f).

[5] Robert Corrington, Nature’s Religion, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997:10.)

[6] See, for instance,
(accessed 13 March 2008).

[7] Lambert (vide infra pp. 22f) refers to a “réalité supra-empirique … un ordre qualifié de surnaturel, supra-empirique, supra-humain, méta-social, supra-sensible, invisible ou transcendant.”

[8] In his La naissance des religions de la préhistoire aux religions universalistes (Paris: Armand Colin, 2007:13), Lambert speaks of “une évolution progressive depuis les <<religions primitives>> jusqu’aux religions monotheists.”

[9] Huxley, Aldous. 1936. “One and Many.” Do What You Will. London: Watts, p. 16.

[10] See Bill Martin, Matrix and Line: Derrida and the Possibilities of Postmodern Social Theory (Albany: SUNY, 1992).

[11] Huxley loc. cit. p. 36.

[12] Alain Daniélou (The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism, New York: Inner Traditions, 1991) argues that existence itself comprises multiplicity and that if something is not multiple it does not exist. Since all existence is relational, unity can neither exist nor be causal. Envisioning divinity as personal or qualified is to render it automatically as plural – since, Danielou argues, there must be a complimentary or contrasting form or deity. In short, he maintains that divinity is necessarily multiple.

[13] E.g., (accessed 2 March 2008).

[14] (accessed 20 February 2008).

[15] Oman, John, The Natural and the Supernatural (Cambridge: University Press, 1931/1950:401).

[16] Calvert Watkins, “Indo-European Roots,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ed. William Morris (Boston/New York/Atlanta/Geneva, Illinois/Dallas/Palo Alto: American Heritage Publishing & Houghton Mifflin, 1969:1537).

[17] (accessed 11 March 2008). See also Ilkka Pyysiäinen, (Temenos 32 [1996:263-9]).

[18] (accessed 3 March 2008).

[19] Huxley, loc. cit. p. 40.

[20] Ibid. p. 38.

[21] Phillip Lucas, “Constructing Identity with Dreamstones: Megalithic Sites and Contemporary Nature Spirituality,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 11.1, 2007:34.

[22] Ibid. p. 31.

[23] Lucas loc. cit. p. 34.

[24] Ibid.