What American Gods Tells Us About the Need for Religious Ecstasy

American Gods is a novel by Neil Gaiman, which has now been made into a (really good) TV series on Starz.  The premise of American Gods is that the people who came to the American continent–including conquerors, slaves, and immigrants–brought with them their gods … literally.  The gods now walk around disguised as human beings.  But the old gods have weakened as belief in them disappeared, and they now battle with new gods, gods of the internet and credit cards and super highways.

The Growth of Devotional Polytheism

The publication of American Gods in 2001 coincided with the rapid growth of interest in deity-centered Paganism, or what came to be called “devotional polytheism.”  One of the basic premises of devotional polytheism is that the gods are real and so polytheist rituals should be reflective of thatAmerican Gods was significant for the emerging polytheist movement because it was a realistic and contemporary account of the gods of the ancient polytheistic cults. 

Polytheism isn’t new of course.  People have worshiping gods for millennia.  But the recent growth of devotional polytheism under the Pagan umbrella is new.  Prior to the turn of the 21st century, the gods of contemporary Paganism were most often understood to be either (simplified) Jungian archetypes or aspects of a single Goddess or a God-Goddess pair.  But sometime after 2001, that started to change, and more and more Pagans began talking about the importance of belief in literal and distinct gods.

There were Pagans practicing devotional polytheism prior to 2001.  For example, Sabina Magliocco has documented, in her book Witching Culture (2004), that Diana Paxson was experimenting with the intersection of Voudun and Heathenry in the 1990s.  No doubt there were others doing similar work.  But they were the pioneers.  Interest in devotional forms of polytheism increased exponentially sometime after 2001.

The earliest example I have found in print to what may now be recognized as devotional polytheism is Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone’s book, Progressive Witchcraft, which was published in 2003, and includes a chapter on “Deity-Centered Witchcraft.”  That Janet Farrar was the author was significant, because she and her late husband Stewart were, possibly more than anyone else, responsible for the popularization of the Jungian conception gods in the 1980s, with their publication of The Witches Way (1984) and The Witches’ Goddess (1987) and The Witches’ God (1989).

The Dilution of Popular Paganism

To understand why devotional polytheism appeared when it did, it’s necessary to give a little historical background.  In the 1990s, access to World Wide Web grew exponentially, which led to the unparalleled spread of information about Paganism, both ancient and contemporary.  The rapid increase in the availability of information on Paganism drove the growth of non-traditional, eclectic, and solitary Paganism.

As a result, Paganism experienced a dilution which is the inevitable result of the popularization of any movement.  The number of Pagans who had not had an initiatory experience swelled in proportion to the number who had.  Exoteric forms of Paganism began to be emphasized over the esoteric forms.  And Paganism increasingly became understood as a form of self-expression, rather than a form of self-transformation.

In addition, a consumeristic attitude toward the gods developed.  The idea that we create the gods in our own image can be an empowering one.  But the downside of this was a trivialization of the divine, what David Rieff called, “Designer Gods,” and others labelled “plug-and-play” polytheism.  In the long run, these consciously constructed gods left many Pagans with the empty feeling of staring at themselves in the mirror.  Where was the transcendence of self?  Where was the connection to the divine “Other”?  Where was the ecstasy (a word which means “to stand outside oneself”)?

All of this was coming to a head around the turn of the millennium.  In addition to general millenarian angst, Americans were traumatized by the events of 9/11.  The turn toward more literalistic forms of religion can be understood as a response to the anxiety caused by this collective tragedy, born of a desire for an increased sense of stability and meaning and dissatisfaction with more relativistic forms of religion.

These events also coincided with the “anti-fluffy” movement in Paganism.  In 2001, the term “fluffy” (later “fluffybunny”) was popularized by the author of the internet essay, “Why Wiccans Suck.”  The essay was little more than a personal rant against non-traditionalism and eclecticism, but the term caught on, and spurred a seemingly endless stream of anti-fluffy critiques of other people’s Paganism.  Many of these critiques were soon echoed by devotional polytheists, who railed against both archetypalism and the notion that “All gods are one god, and all goddesses are one goddess” (aspect monism).

American Gods

It is in this historical context that American Gods made its way into the Pagan consciousness in 2001.  A lot could be written about the relationship between Gaiman’s portrayal of the gods and contemporary polytheists’ beliefs.  But one scene in the book in particular stands out.  It is an encounter between the god Odin, disguised as a human being, who goes by the name “Wednesday,” and a waitress, who is a feminist goddess worshiper:

“… I’m a pagan,” the woman behind the counter said. …

“Really?” said Wednesday. “… And tell me, as a pagan, who do you worship?’

“Worship?”

“That’s right. I imagine you must have a pretty wide open field. So to whom do you set up your household altar? To whom do you bow down? To whom do you pray to at dawn and at dusk?”

“The female principle. It’s an empowerment thing. You know.”

“Indeed. And this female principle of yours. Does she have a name?”

“She’s the goddess within us all. She doesn’t need a name.”

“Ah,” said Wednesday, with a wide monkey grin, “so do you hold mighty bacchanals in her honour? Do you drink blood wine under the full moon, while scarlet candles burn in silver candle holders? Do you step naked into the seafoam, chanting ecstactically to your nameless goddess while the waves lick at your legs, lapping your thighs like the tongues of a thousand leopards?”

“You’re making fun of me,” she said. “We don’t do any of that stuff you were saying.” She took a deep breath. Shadow suspected she was counting to ten. “Any more coffees here? …”

They shook their heads, and the waitress turned to greet another customer.

“There,” said Wednesday, “is one who ‘does not have the faith and will not have the fun,’ Chesterton. Pagan indeed.”

In the quote above, Gaiman contrasts a vague and metaphorical Goddess feminism with an ecstatic and literal polytheism.  What’s really interesting about this scene is how Wednesday’s dismissive attitude toward the Goddess worshiper is reflected perfectly in the attitude of many devotional polytheists toward other forms of Paganism today.  I don’t know how familiar Neil Gaiman was with contemporary Paganism, but American Gods possibly reflected and probably magnified a dissatisfaction among many Pagans with popular forms of Paganism.  And it offered one possible alternative: literal belief in the gods and devotional forms of worship.  Popular Paganism was failing to produce the kind deep religious experiences that many of Pagans craved, and devotional polytheism promised to answer that craving.

Of course, not everyone who found popular Paganism wanting became a hard polytheist.  Some left Paganism.  Some found other routes to transcendence or ecstasy under the Pagan umbrella.  Contemporary Paganism offers many routes to the divine “Other”, some of which that don’t require belief in literal gods.  But nevertheless, devotional polytheism has become the most popular alternative for Pagans today.

The Missing Ingredient: Ecstasy

It is important to understand the role that American Gods had in the rapid growth of devotional polytheism in the last 15 years.  This is not just a historical curiosity.  It teaches us a lesson about how the power of our religions can be diminished when we lose sight of the importance of religious ecstasy and self-transcendence.

In his book, Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion (1948), Alan Watts diagnosed the decline of mainline Protestantism, just as that decline was beginning.  According to Watts, Protestantism had lost the art of worship, which he described as a kind of “corporate self-forgetfulness”–in other words, transcendence or ecstasy.  In its place, Protestantism offered only “morality tinged with emotion.”  The soul, wrote Watts, desires “release from itself,  that infusion of life and meaning through being possessed by a power greater than itself.”  That is what evangelical Pentecostalism offered, which filled the vacuum made by the mainline Protestant churches.

By the end of the 20th century, contemporary Paganism was beginning to suffer from the same symptoms that mainline Protestantism was experiencing in mid-20th century (and is still experiencing): a general lackadaisical attitude and a kind of spiritual anemia.  And just as evangelical Pentecostalism arose as a response to the inadequacies of mainline Protestantism, so devotional polytheism arose in response to the inadequacies of popular Paganism.

The similarities are more than superficial:  Both devotional polytheism and evangelical Christianity are religions which center on direct encounters with literal gods.  Both have devotional styles of worship.  And both promise to connect their devotees to a power which is both personal and transcendent.  If we want to understand the growth of devotional polytheism or the slow decline of popular Paganism, we need look no further than Wednesday’s criticism of the feminist Goddess worshiper.

A Path to Ecstasy for Religious Naturalists?

There is a lesson here for Godless Pagans, Humanistic Pagans, and other Religious Naturalists.  If we want our religions to thrive, and if we want to experience the depths that spirituality has to offer, we must find ways to tap into the experience of transcendence and ecstasy.  One path to ecstasy is devotion.  Belief in the gods is not necessary to engage in religious devotion.  I’ve written before about the idea of a devotional practice toward the earth itself.  Wayne Martin Mellinger has written about a naturalistic path to ecstasy using entheogens and about shamanistic trance from a naturalistic perspective.

As a community, I think we still have a lot of work to do on the path to ecstasy.  It seems to me that Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans are the Pagan equivalent of Unitarians in the Christian world.  Unitarians struggle to sing their own hymns, as the joke goes, because they’re too busy reading ahead to see if they can intellectually assent to the lyrics.  Humanistic and Naturalistic Pagans often struggle to let go for similar reasons.  We are too literalistic, both when talking about religious concepts and in our choice of language in ritual.  We are too individualistic, which cuts us off from the ego-transcending experience of group ritual.  And we are near phobic of anything that requires relaxing or letting go, even temporarily, of our rational judgment.

And if we don’t go deeper, we will go the way of Unitarianism.  But if we are going to swim in the depths of religious experience, we’re eventually going to have to let go of the side of the pool.  Or, or paraphrase Chesterton, we won’t have the fun, until we have the faith.  It’s not faith in supernatural agencies that’s required though.  Rather, we’re going to need to have faith in ourselves, in each other, and in the process–the same kind of faith that is required to swim in the deep end of the pool.


* Wednesday’s quote comes from a poem by G. K. Chesterton, “The Song of the Strange Ascetic”:

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have crowned Neoera’s curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I;
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight–?
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

9 thoughts on “What American Gods Tells Us About the Need for Religious Ecstasy

Add yours

  1. “Prior to the turn of the 21st century, the gods of contemporary Paganism were most often understood to be either (simplified) Jungian archetypes or aspects of a single Goddess or a God-Goddess pair. ”

    I seriously beg to differ!!

    If you had said “…the gods of contemporary Wicca/Witchcraft were most often….”, I would agree, but us Neo-Pagans prior to the turn of the century definitely *were* polytheistic in our worship! It was that mono/duo theistic belief structure that caused me to leave the practice of Witchcraft in the late 1980s since it clashed with my own personal perceptions of The Gods. A number of groups that were not Wiccan based were fully polytheistic, ADF was. Discordians certainly were, various flavours of North European Paganism were, and most in the Celtic Neo-Paganism movement were definitely polytheistic. But most practitioners of Wicca/Witchcraft were working in either monotheistic (all god/desses were facets of one deity), or duo-theistic (Male/Female dichotomy), with a small minority seeing the Gods as archetypes.

  2. I was there too, Farrell. Since 1987. And I, and many of my Pagan friends, did NOT believe in literal deities. We saw deities as metaphors and teaching stories, not literal beings. So while I’m sure your experience is true of YOU, you cannot generalize to “us Neo-Pagans” your own belief in literal deities. And *seriously*: Discordians? Their entire shtick is tongue-in-cheek. You cannot represent Discordians as literal believers.

    John, what I object to in this piece is not the characterization of history. I don’t know that American Gods had much to do with it, but what I saw in the late 1990s was exactly as you described.

    No, what bothers me is this idea that naturalistic Pagans are “holding onto the side of the pool” or “excessively literal”. That doesn’t describe me: I have an ecstatic practice and I share ecstatic rituals with members of my community. I prefer *not* to hash over thealogical minutia and only wade into the nonsense with polytheists when some fool starts in with the “drive the naturalists from the doors of Paganism” nonsense.

    I’m NOT a Unitarian. Of any stripe. And that’s why my blog focuses on experiences and practices far more than theory. I’ll be doing three consecutive nights of all-night fire circle rituals in mid-July, and believe me, that takes one out to some very non-thinky and ecstatic places.

    1. At the summer solstice in 1980, I dedicated myself to the Goddess Eris. And I can tell you, many Discordians are very sincere about their belief in Eris/Discordia. Just because they express their faith through humour doesn’t make it any less valid than worshipping some zombie on a stick, or Gaia.

      1. No doubt, as to the validity. But I’ve known a lot of Discordians, too, and many of them are in it in exactly the same sense that some people are into the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So I think it’s fair to say we can”t generalize.

  3. Overall, a good analysis. But don’t forget about the mystical, relational polytheists (mostly witches). We get stick from all sides!

  4. My experience of the 70s and 80s was that while there were a lot of Pagan atheists, there were a lot more Pagan agnostics, of various degrees of belief (indeed, the degrees often changed frequently for the individual). Many were duotheistic, but just as many were polytheistic. Jung was so big in 70s and 80s psycho-spirituality (the birth of Transpersonal Psychology), he could hardly avoid having an effect; yet as we experienced magic, ecstasy, and being spoken to by those with wisdom we could not believe came from us, we basically stopped bothering about closely defining the source. None of us know, and neither position is worth getting heated over. (I know that most of your heat is just reaction to very stupid and unnecessary criticism.)

    As a matter of fact, this description still holds for most of my fairly wide but over-40 and British acquaintance of Pagans.

    Your assessment has given me much to think about. I had put it down not as a reaction to fluffybunnies (a term we were using freely in the 80s, but we meant people who were all unicorns and rainbows, and would not look at darkness, death, or Nature Red in Tooth and Claw), but as a different manifestation of the same rapid growth, whereby newbie Pagans had broken from their Abrahamic upbringing superficially, but had not discarded the paradigm by which they still needed men with beards in heaven, but now they had to have wives.

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