As you’ve no doubt discovered, Wicca does not dictate one way of believing in the Divine to its practitioners. While Wicca worships a God and a Goddess, who they are (and indeed, the very meaning of the word “worship”) is largely left up to the individual. But for those who have never studied religion before, all these terms can be confusing. What does it mean to be a “hard” polytheist? What is the difference between pantheism and panentheism? Hopefully, this post will clear up some of those questions.
Monotheism- The belief in one god, whether that god is a personal entity (the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god), the Divine source of all the Universe (many New Age and some Wiccans), or some other way in which the Divine is essentially one being. Dianic Wiccans are monotheistic in practice, if not in belief, because they only worship the Goddess. Some would argue that beliefs such as the Hindu belief (that all the gods are one Divine being) are monotheistic. I would argue that falls in the polytheistic category, but we’ll explore that more completely when we get to hard and soft polytheism.
Polytheism- This is the belief in many gods (poly=many). By many, I mean two or more, although some would put duotheism (two Divine beings) in its own category. Polytheism can be divided into two different viewpoints, “hard” and “soft”.
Soft polytheism is the belief that the many gods and goddesses are aspects/parts of either one God and Goddess or one Divine force that has chosen to express itself in the forms of the many gods and goddesses, maybe because it is easier for humans to relate to, or maybe because that best expresses its complexity or both. Dion Fortune said, “All the gods are one God, all the goddesses are one Goddess, and there is one Initiator.” This is a very good sum-up of soft polytheism, although some soft polytheists would stop at the “all gods are one God, and all goddesses are one Goddess” part of things.
Hard polytheism is the belief that all the gods are individual, personal gods, with their own individual personalities, desires, plans, and perspectives. Hades and Anubis are totally separate gods, despite them both being underworld gods. Hathor and Aphrodite are just as much two different individuals as John Doe and Jane Doe on the street. There are those who believe that there are separate gods and goddesses, and yet they all are one Divine being; this is the belief of Hindus. Given that they believe the separate gods all have stories, personalities, agency, etc., I don’t think it’s fair to say they are monotheists.
The difference between the two beliefs is all the difference between the Christian Trinity and the Jewish Yahweh. It is a real, concrete difference. However, unlike the above example, the practice of many (not all) soft polytheists is basically indistinguishable from hard polytheism. Soft polytheists will have images of the varying gods, make offerings, have separate altars, celebrate certain gods and goddesses at different times, etc. Some hard polytheists feel that soft polytheists are either duotheists (belief in a God and Goddess as the supreme deities) or monotheists (believing all comes from one Divine source.) I would argue that soft polytheism acknowledges the reality of the different gods and goddesses in many ways, and is not very different from hard polytheism in the sense that there are real, authentic connections built up between the person and the manifestation of that deity.
Then there are those who don’t believe in The Divine as a person at all, not in the sense of being an independent being with agency. Instead, God/dess is a force, a divine energy that runs through us all. The gods and goddesses are man’s creation, an attempt to understand and personify this force, which is immanent in all things. In the sense that they have Divine energy in them, though, they are real. The world and The Divine are identical. This belief is called pantheism.
There is a lesser-known spin-off, if you will, of pantheism called panentheism. It too believes that The Divine is immanent in the world, but it doesn’t stop there. God/dess permeates the world, but it also more than the world. It contains the world. God/dess is not a force to the panentheist; there is agency and personality there. Some panentheists work polytheism into their beliefs; the God/dess, with their agency, chose to manifest themselves as the individual gods and goddesses. Others are more monotheistic- there is one overriding Reality.
As you can see, there is a lot of overlap in some of these beliefs. And many Wiccans hold to more than one belief.
I would say that the practice- which is what is important in paganism (after all, the only certain thing we can know is our own experiences)- of most Wiccan resembles that of polytheists. Different gods and goddesses are worshipped/honored. Many Wiccans have “patron deities”. I can honor Persephone and Hades at Samhain with other Wiccans without us necessarily agreeing on the in-depth nature of things.
I am a soft polytheistic panentheist. (To non-pagans, I usually describe myself as a duotheist unless I’m up to explaining each term, and they seem interested-which is almost never). I believe the God/dess possesses personality and agency. So I can’t be a pantheist. That quote I gave pretty much sums up my beliefs. But I think many would see my practice as very similar to a hard polytheistic practice. I honor different goddesses and gods. I have my particular patrons, but I honor others as well. I make offerings. I go to the trouble to learn about deities, their histories, and their correspondences and I don’t play “flavor of the month” when I need something.
It’s the coherence of it all that makes me a soft polytheist and not a hard one. The Celts, Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians may all have different gods and different views of the underworld, but they all have an underworld and gods that come from it. Inanna was not the only goddess to descend to the underworld. Pan is not the only horned god of nature. Aphrodite and Aine, and Hathor are not the same, but they have some in-depth similarities. To me, it is ethnographically impossible that all these similarities are by invention and/or chance. So that’s where the “soft” polytheism part of my polytheism comes into play.
As far as the nature of the God and Goddess in the larger sense goes, I’m a panentheist. I believe that The Divine is immanent in the world. I do not believe that it is identical with the world. I am permeated with water. It’s 70% of my structure. And yet, I am not water. A loose analogy, but you get the picture. I believe The Divine is bigger then creation- I believe there was intelligence and creativity, and thought behind the creation of the known (although not in the creationist sense of their being a creator). I believe in a first cause. Something Uncreated is behind the Created.
And that is how I believe in the Divine and how I choose to worship Them. But I believe knowing the exact details about their nature is less important than worshipping them or honoring them, whichever term you prefer. Unity in diversity is an overused phrase, but it applies quite well here.