Polytheistic religions are, by design, multifaceted. There is no single model that encompasses every polytheistic religion. There are, however, several different fields that can be used to explore polytheistic religions, just as there are different fields in every subject. History, for example, can be broken down into many different fields – environmental history, labor history, queer history, women’s history, race history, statistical history, microhistory, etc. In the same vein, polytheistic religions can each individually be explored through certain fields of study.
I try to utilize the twelve fields that follow when I am studying a polytheistic religion. I’ll go more in-depth with each one in regard to the Heathen religion in my future posts, but for now, I am just going to introduce the fields themselves.
The first field is cosmogony, which is the study of the creation of the universe. Every religion has an origin story for the cosmos – some have several. Understanding those creation myths are vital to understanding the religion they underpin. In Heathenry, the creation myth revolves around the collision of fire and ice giving rise to the spark of life in the middle of the Ginnungagap, or yawning void, which then gave rise to everything else.
The second field is cosmology, which is the study of the universe itself. This differs from cosmogony because cosmology looks at the structure of the universe after its creation. Said a different way, the creation myth/s of religion are so integral that they require a separate, in-depth study. In Heathenry, the cosmology centers around the World Tree, Yggdrasil, the Nine Worlds that rest in its branches, and the Three Wells that lay at its roots.
The third field is theogony, which refers to the lineage of the gods. This gives us information about the family of the gods, how the gods structure and arrange themselves, and what the relationships are between different gods. Within Heathenry, there are two or three families of gods, depending on your perspective. Traditional Heathens only acknowledge the Aesir and Vanir families, but others acknowledge the Jotuns (Rokkr) as a third family.
The fourth field centers around sacred calendars, rites, and practices. This includes the calendars that the religion historically used, the days considered sacred, the rituals practiced and the method of practice, and the daily way of life. Many people approach polytheistic religions through this field, as most polytheistic religions are centered on right practice (orthopraxy). Polytheistic religions are lived religions, so practice is a necessity – it is the only requirement. While there are many ways to study a religion, there is only one way to follow a religion, and, in polytheistic religions, that means through practice.
The fifth field is eschatology, which is the study of death, judgment, and final destination. It is the study of the afterlife. Every religion views death differently. Considering the fact death is the most intriguing and terrifying phenomena in the universe, it makes sense that there are so many different ideas of what happens when you die. Within Heathenry, there are several different afterlives, but there are also several conflicting views as to who goes to which life. Most polytheistic religions are life-affirming, so they are rooted in a this-world mentality. Heathenry is no different, as the afterlife you receive is considered to be one based entirely on the deeds you perform in this life.
The sixth field is axiology, or the study of values and ethics. It is the moral creed that underpins religion. Many polytheistic religions do not have creeds that are explicitly stated; instead, the moral codes are culturally embedded and learned through the myths themselves. Within Modern Heathenry, the moral codes are often found in the Poetic lay known as the Havamal. This is a set of maxims supposedly given by Odin himself, as the translation of Havamal is “Words of the High One.”
The seventh field is pneumatology, or the study of spiritual beings and phenomena. This deals with the types of spiritual creatures a person would be expected to encounter and/or honor. This can include the gods but is typically focused on other classes of spirits. Within Heathenry, that includes elves, wights, and trolls – Kvedulf Gunndarson has a wonderful book on the topic called “Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry” that really explores the pneumatology of Heathenry.
The eighth field is soulology, or the study of the soul or soul-complex. Soulology itself is a modern term, as the traditional word here would have been psychology. Psychology was once understood to be the study of the soul, but in its modern iteration, it is known as the study of the human psyche. These aren’t identical concepts, so it is important to differentiate them. Within Heathenry, the soul is considered a soul-complex with many parts to it. It is not unusual, in polytheistic religions, to see soul-complexes that describe five or more souls or soul parts.
The ninth field is semiotics & symbology, which is the study of signs & symbols and their interpretation and uses. Within Heathenry, there are many signs and symbols, all of which mean vastly different things. Runes are the mainstay of Heathen symbology, but there is also the Helm of Awe, Mjolnir, the Runic Compass, the Valknut, and the Irminsul (to name a few).
The tenth field is sophology, or the study of wisdom. In this sense, wisdom comes from reading the myths, applying appropriate cultural interpretations to those myths, and using the myths as guidelines for experiential living. It also requires utilizing knowledge gained from other fields of study and/or life experience and synthesizing that knowledge into a composite whole. Wisdom does not operate in a vacuum nor can it be found in a single place. Ethics are a part of wisdom, but morality changes depending on the culture. Due to its nature, wisdom is virtually impossible to pin down or describe, as it has a variety of forms. Within Heathenry, wisdom is highly valued, as Odin, the chief god of the pantheon, is a god of wisdom who always seeks more of it.
The eleventh field is sexology, or the study of sex. This includes the act of sex itself and how it was viewed, as well as gender and how that is construed within the religion. Different religions view nonbinary identities as incredibly sacred; others view them as perverse. In some religions, there are gods that require practitioners to be of one sex or another, and some practices are restricted to certain sexes. In the modern world, people often find it offensive when religious restrictions prevent them from accessing certain gods or certain rituals. Not all people need access to all things. That is why there are still closed religions, and it is important to respect the closed nature of those religions.
The twelfth field is occultology, or the study of the occult (meaning secret). Within polytheistic religions, this refers to magic derived from religious practices. Within Heathenry, there are three specific branches of magic. There is seidhr, which is a type of trance/oracular magic, traditionally only performed by women (there were and are exceptions). There is galdr, which is runic vibrational magic, that was traditionally magic done by men (again, exceptions exist). Lastly, there is spaecraft, and in today’s terms translates to herbalism and/or cunning.
The fields can, and do, overlap each other. That said, it is sometimes easier to use a narrow lens to look at a complex subject to better understand it. Though each of these fields can be used as narrow lenses to explore polytheistic religions, it is important to keep in mind that every religion is far more than the twelve fields listed here – i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
I am the farthest removed you can get from being a reductionist, and I highly discourage anyone from trying to use these fields in a manner that suggests that they are the only parts of a religion. They are not – these are simply the ones that I have found useful in my own studies. I’m sure there are thousands upon thousands of other techniques to use to approach the study of religion. These are just the ones that I have developed for myself. If they help you, great, but do not go out and try to tell people that they are the “only way to study religion.” That is a mindset born from living in a monotheistic culture, and, if you are practicing a polytheistic religion, it is one I highly encourage you to divest yourself of as soon as possible.
Going forward, I will be examining Heathenry through these fields. Some will require more discussion than others, some will require less – in any case, it won’t be as simple as a 12-part series. Moreover, the views I express are mine alone, and they do not represent the views of the entire Heathen community.