Way back in the dark ages (by which I mean the 90s), I knew of two kinds of polytheism–hard and soft–and was mighty proud of myself for knowing the difference. Hard polytheism meant you believed that the gods were separate entities; soft polytheism meant that you believed that they were aspects of a larger entity. Back then, while I knew the difference, I didn’t give it a lot of thought but would probably have set myself just to one side of the “soft” side of the fence (in honesty I was just so happy to have learned that modern pagan religion existed that I didn’t think it out much beyond that).
Ten years later there was Aphrodite, and an in-person introduction to hard polytheism, separate entities and all.
Please note that I’m not saying “The gods are separate, individual entities.” What I am saying is that, when I began to experience deity in that way–as separate, individual entities–everything “clicked” for me, relating to deity became oh-so-much easier, and things started to make sense in a way they had not previously. For the first time in my life, faith was something I understood. I had found the way in which I could relate to deity. For other folks, that way may be quite different. Deity is complex, far more so than I can ever grasp, and the most I’m willing to say is that, somehow, I found something that works for me. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach to religion and I think different people will see the gods differently because different ways of seeing “work” for different people.
My philosophy has been that–regardless of whether what I see as separate gods are in fact separate gods or whether there is something else going on there–if what is manifesting is manifesting as separate, individual entities, it is probably a the best use of my spiritual time and energy to work with that rather than against it. YMMV of course.
What I do think is true is that the gods (however one defines them) approach us as individuals. I think they will often use whatever tools will be most effective in getting across to us, and that’s something that will vary between human individual to human individual. And those ways feel “right” to us because they are right for us. I think it’s fine to talk about what works for us–I don’t think it’s fine to tell others what will work for them.
As for me, I am not quite on the far side of hard polytheism, but I am not far from it. I see the gods as individual, separate entities.
I don’t see them as aspects of another entity, the classic “soft polytheism” I first heard about so long ago. That is a view that works for some, but doesn’t work for me.
I don’t see them as a group of entities with differing names in differing places–I don’t think you can equate Aphrodite with Freyja, or, indeed, with Venus (although there is a lot going on between Aphrodite and Venus, I don’t see them as the same entity.) Again, works for some, doesn’t work for me.
This means that I end up with a lot of gods.
On the other hand, I don’t tend to see epithets as indicative of different entities. To me, Zeus Olympios is not a different entity from Zeus Horkios (or, indeed, from Zeus Meilichios :)), although he is going to have a different “feel” about him depending on the context provided by that epithet. Artemis of Ephesus is quite different from any other guise worn by the goddess, but–to my mind–she is still Artemis. So certainly my polytheism could be harder than it is.
And, while I do not equate the Greek and Roman divinities, I do relate them somewhat. Zeus is not Jupiter, but they do share a fair amount of mythos and iconography. That, too, softens my polytheism to some degree.
But I still end up with a lot of gods.