This week I want to talk about a contentious issue in modern paganism- the divide between “hard polytheism” and “soft polytheism.”
Soft polytheism is any version of the idea that the gods are all just aspects of a greater transcendent unity, or that they are psychological archetypes within the unconscious rather than independent personalities with genuine power. Soft polytheism is typical of Wicca and of any version of neopaganism influenced by Jung or Campbell. The problem with soft polytheism is that it can reduce the power and mystery of the divine to a convenient internal game- when you want to be brave, you visualize Athena, only you don't actually believe in or worship her.
Hard polytheism is the idea that the gods are distinct individual beings with real power, not aspects of a greater unity and certainly not archetypes. Hard polytheism is typical of Reconstructionist forms of paganism. The problem with hard polytheism is that it isn't what pagans in ancient times actually believed, which is supposed to be the main issue for Reconstructionists.
How can I say this? Because pagans in ancient times would combine deities without a second thought. Just consider all of the inscriptions to combined Gaulish-Roman deities like Sulis Minerva. If Sulis and Minerva are separate, really-existing entities, then who or what is Sulis Minerva?
Then there's the fact that ancient pagan writers of the Neoplatonic schools clearly did conceive of the deities as aspects of a greater unity, and clearly did conceive of them as archetypes, although not in the modern sense of purely internal psychological constructs. Instead, they thought of an archetype as a divine pattern, a higher-world model for all lower-world realities.
It is my contention that hard polytheism is a type of pagan fundamentalism with no real historical justification in ancient pagan theology. However, it is also my contention that soft polytheism is equally far off the mark, if it treats the deities as being less than real, purely internal, or unworthy of genuinely religious worship and devotion. Because this is such a complicated theological topic, I'll continue my exploration of hard polytheism, soft polytheism and the nature of the gods in my next blog.