Advice for Newcomers to Polytheism

A while ago I participated in a reddit thread that asked a simple question: what advice would I give to anyone new to paganism or polytheism? I posted a short list of a few things I feel are universal truisms that a brand new practitioner might not have gotten a chance to think about yet, but which would serve them well as they continued to gain experience. I was asked to elaborate on the last point – leave some part of your practice undocumented – and boy did I get wordy! But I think I’ll elaborate on the rest of them now as well.

Be patient with yourself.

This is just a good rule of thumb for mental health reasons, but it’s also important to remember that gods and spirits don’t work on human timescales. What’s a day to a god? It is both the blink of an eye and an encapsulation of eternity itself. This is not an excuse to be lazy and sacred space should be treated as such*, but it is a kind of decentering of the self, and the self’s idea of preeminence, spiritual progress, and “competition” with other practitioners. Worship is a marathon, not a sprint!

Read books and feel feelings voraciously.

Read books of all kinds, not just academic. We should be able to discern the presence of our gods in fiction, in poetry, in screenplays. We should be able to feel the powers of the hearth or the love of our ancestors when we flip through a cookbook. In reading widely, we gain a better understanding of the world, and in so doing, we gain a better understanding of the numinous. Narrow focus in the context of deep devotion is one thing, but obsession with few types of knowledge for its own sake can be a sign that one is afraid to engage with the full spectrum of experiences and patterns within reality. Gods are everywhere, the matter is whether or not we choose to see them. This is not to say that the obsessive pursuit of entertainment or information is justified by dedication to the sacred – I don’t think it is, and I don’t think it’s good for mental health – but rather that we shouldn’t turn our backs on information just because its relevance to religion isn’t immediately palpable. Wisdom always serves us well.

As for feelings, the same logic applies. There is a middle ground between mal-adaptive guilt and self-effacement, and unimpeded self-indulgence. One of the things the gods will absolutely teach you is to be your own person, find your own strength, and trust your intuition. They will teach you emotional self-sufficiency. For some, this can be a terrifying proposition in practice. For others, it may come as a shock to learn that their personal defense mechanisms are actually too overwrought, and that they’ve been robbing themselves of experiencing the breadth of their own emotions. As emotional states are one of the easiest things for the gods to reach us by, we should strive to be aware of ourselves as often as possible. The alternative is numbness.

Consider the things you take for granted, and consider them often.

The milk in your morning cereal: where does it come from? The roadway: how far does it go? Who first laid down its path? How about the sewing needle? The shoes on your feet?

This is a mindfulness practice, essentially, and a way to continuously orient ourselves toward the sacred. By doing this we can feel out the threads connecting all things in the world, and their connection to the gods. It embeds us in the landscape, it makes us aware of our bodies, how we are situated within the cosmos, and done for long enough, has the capacity to pave the way for wisdom.

There is a time and a place for everything.

The sacred is not in all things, though sacred potential is in all things. Minding the world is to mind the patterns and cycles happening in it, and being able to recognize when something is not what you think it is – or want it to be – is crucial to meaningful practice.

Not everyone has to be a religious specialist.

What it says on the tin! Not everyone is called to be a priest, or spiritworker, or godspouse, or oracle. And believe it or not, but this is as intended. Just as biodiversity serves the health of an ecosystem, diversity of strategy and engagement serves the health of our religious communities. Everyone has a calling and a purpose, and it’s good that those don’t all look the same. A priestess of Epona is just as important as the headblind devotee who donates to racehorse sanctuaries, for example.

More and bigger isn’t always better.

Bigger shrines and more gods doesn’t make you a better practitioner – it really just means you have more to clean, and more obligations to honor! It can be tempting to equate the real estate religion takes up in your life with more piety or virtue, but at a certain point it just becomes a game of accumulation. And giving the appearance of busyness can quite often be a facade to cover up stagnation, or a more fundamental inadequacy. If you feel the need to make a grand gesture, pause for a moment and ask yourself why.

Leave some part of your practice undocumented.

And the elaboration I initially provided:

Basically, keep some part of your practice “secret”. Don’t take pictures of everything, talk about every detail with others, especially online with strangers, etc. The reasons I believe this is important are twofold.

Firstly, it impacts you the practitioner. The dopamine hits from oversharing is a very real thing that people can get addicted to. It’s a psychological phenomenon that groups like r/nosurf exist to help with, and it’s an insidiously widespread problem nowadays. It can also very easily turn from “I’m just sharing something useful” to something like virtue signalling, which is annoying at best, and actively harmful to a community at worst. Then there’s the ways that oversharing can impact your practice and relationship with your numinous powers. Another related phenomenon is one in which the way talking about your plans to work toward something actually makes you less likely to succeed. The main takeaway from that article if its tl;dr:

These research results suggest that wanting to have a particular identity is an important motivator in carrying out the activities one needs to perform to succeed. When those activities are the only marker that you and others have that you have taken on a particular identity, then your motivation to work hard will be strong. When there are other ways to communicate your identity to others, your motivation to work hard will not be as strong. So when you are just starting out on the road toward a big undertaking, it is probably best to let your actions express your intentions louder than your words.

Or in our case, louder than our tweets, our instagram photos, and our tik toks. So if you commit more time to talking about your practice than actually practicing? That’s something like a mild addiction that’s getting in the way of what you actually want to achieve, which is worship and piety and gnosis and all that stuff.

Keeping aspects of your practice to yourself also forces you to process information you’ve learned, or things you’ve experienced, in the vacuum of your own mind and without the input of others. Being able to sit with these things, these thoughts and emotions, does a great deal in strengthening our emotional resilience, which is a vitally important life skill. And it also forces us to do the work of integrating these things into our lives and practice on our own, without help, which is often second-rate anyways. And being that the sacred and sublime isn’t often transmissible information, even trying to reproduce it for the sake of profane rewards like “discourse” or “likes” might be hubris. Or at least damaging to your relationship with the numinous power in question – you wouldn’t share a photo of your naked lover without their permission, would you? We should be striving to avoid those kinds of presumptuous mistakes.

Secondly, it can damage the community when done on a large scale. As said above, when practitioners start focusing more on discourse, more on the dopamine hits from interacting with other humans rather than engaging in worship and right relationship, it damages our religions. It creates an unnecessarily turbulent sense of FOMO, it elevates the phenomenon of virtue signalling, it invites trolls and meddlers from outside that can result in undue anxiety and depression. And overall, it cheapens the experience for everyone to lay everything bare – to attempt to share every aspect of religious experience, you have to rely on words, which are often inadequate. Our gods, spirits, and traditions are so much more than a bulleted list of symbols and events in a dream, they cannot and should not be dumbed down for an audience!

Thinking on it, I don’t feel that I have much to add. The problem of FOMO in our religions is just as much of an issue as it is for society more broadly, and it is twisting our perception of engagement and meaning in profoundly disturbing ways. As I said above, our communities need layfolk just as much as they need specialists and academics. What they don’t need is more altar photos, more “grand gestures” designed to win more favor with humans than with numinous powers, and more frantic streams of consciousness passing itself off as gnosis or genuine wayfinding.

Not documenting everything and leaving parts of your practice to sit and macerate within your own mind and nowhere else, is another method of fostering mindfulness and building intuition. These are things you cannot have without a well-cultivated inner life – if you rely on social media as your only form of discernment, there is emotional resilience and self-sufficiency techniques you absolutely need to learn.

And if you’re having a tough time keeping things to yourself, then perhaps swing back to a few other things I listed, and focus on those in the meantime: remember to have patience, and remember that not all things belong in all places at all times.

What advice would you give?

PS – since this post is getting to be somewhat popular, and since there was much more ground covered in the original reddit post that is left out from this one, I have one more recommendation to make for new polytheists: learn a system of divination, have access to people who know other ones, and absolutely learn and apply discernment techniques in your practice!

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