Polytheism (from the Greek: polus, many, and theos, god) refers to belief in, or worship of, multiple gods or deities. This mode of belief is an extremely common form of religious expression. Most ancient religions involved belief in pantheons of deities ruling over various aspects of life. Further, these polytheistic beliefs remain a vital part of Hinduism, Shintoism and many other religious traditions into the present day.
The term "polytheism" is sometimes applied to a wide variety of religious traditions with a range of divergent theological stances. A deeper investigation into the nature of belief is needed if we are to avoid misunderstandings. In particular, some beliefs that acknowledge the existence of many gods nevertheless tend in the direction of monotheism when considering the nature of Ultimate Reality; these include henotheism (the acknowledgment of one supreme god among a pantheon), monaltry (the worship of one particular god while acknowledging the existence of others) and even emanational mystical monotheism (the interpretation of many deities as being different names for a single God).
Polytheism has been denigrated by monotheists: for example, Jews and Christians believed the gods of Greece and Rome to be fallen angels and the source of Roman cruelty and oppression. Stories of the loves and hates of the gods have been alleged to promote a culture of moral laxity. Philosophers of religion who view religion's development as an evolutionary process have regarded it as an inferior stage. On the other hand, certain modern scholars prefer polytheism over monotheism for its greater tolerance of diversity.
Polytheism as a Category of Religion
In the history of religious studies as an academic discipline, polytheism was originally conceived of as a "middle stage" in the evolutionary progression of religious thought. Early scholars of religion, most significantly E. B. Tylor (1832-1917) and J. G. Frazer (1854-1941), viewed religious thought as a continuum, which begins with animism (the belief that everything, whether animate or inanimate, possesses a soul) or primitive magic (the belief that the natural world can be controlled through mystical, paranormal, or supernatural means), and culminates in monotheism (the belief in only one divinity). They theorized that in the interim stages a belief system called polydaemonism arose, which asserts that the world is replete with spirits that can be channeled by shamanistic practices. The first two belief systems (animism or magic and predaemonism) were perceived as "primitive" by these scholars: a likely result of their culturally-biased preference for monotheistic religions. Regardless, they theorized that polytheism represented an evolutionary phase between "primitive," animistic beliefs and monotheism, in which gods became personalized and hence more complex than earlier stages. However, these gods still existed in a multiplicity, which was taken to reflect a lingering deficiency in the given culture's thought. In the intervening centuries since the formulation of these theories, they have been rejected by many scholars, who have perceived that there is not as much evidence for such an evolutionary process of religious belief.
Although the expressions of polytheism have varied considerably from culture to culture, some common characteristics can be identified. The gods of polytheism have independent and individual personalities with specific skills, needs and desires. They are often thought to lack a material form of their own, although they can (on occasion) assume physical bodies. They are seen to possess a high level of relevance to human life, as they can intervene in human affairs. They are often motivated to do so by way of rituals and sacrifices, or simply by their own volition. However, unlike humans, they are generally conceived to be immortal. Usually, such gods are not omnipotent or omniscient; rather, they are often portrayed as similar to humans in their personality traits, failings and vices, but with additional supernatural powers and abilities. Some may be conceived of as having jurisdiction or governance over a large area, and are seen as the "patron god(s)" of a geographical region, town, stream or family. In many civilizations, the pantheons grew over time as the patron gods of various cities and places were collected together as empires extended over larger territories. In others cases, the various gods may have arisen due to a perceived "division of labor," with each having dominion or authority over specified elements in the human and natural worlds. For example, the Greeks posited discrete gods of love (Aphrodite), music and technology (Apollo), and even gods of particular foods such as wine (Dionysus) and wheat (Ceres). Further, these gods (whether originating as patron spirits or as divine representatives of earthly processes) may have each held particular roles in the celestial hierarchy. Many of these traditions posited the existence of a primary divinity that acted as ruler or father of the pantheon, including the Greek Zeus, the Norse Odin and the Chinese Shang-di. These celestial pantheons may be thought to include more general spirits in the polydaemonic sense or even ancestors, as in the case of some Asian religious systems.
Consistently, polytheistic beliefs are associated with extensive mythologies tracing the day to day lives of the gods. Unlike the Abrahamic God, whose history is inextricably linked with humanity's, polytheistic gods often have extensive accounts of their own histories, including their family affairs, sexual partnerships, offspring, and battles they participated in. Further, these stories tell of the complex social arrangements of the gods. For example, gods have friends, allies, spouses, lovers and enemies; further, they experience human emotions such as jealousy, whimsy or uncontrolled rage, or may even practice infidelity and subsequently be punished for it. In this way, the many gods featured in the mythologies provided a medium by which humans could answer questions not only of cosmogony, but also of certain social, political and religious practices they observed. The polytheistic notion of divinity is highly differentiated and structured, reflecting the human perception of a cosmos that is similarly divided. Many gods, each providing separate forces for the maintenance of various aspects of reality, allowed human beings to assert essential differences between these various aspects and to provide etiological explanations for the relationships between (and the functioning of) many elements in the natural world. Thus, the gods of polytheistic systems (and the myths that described them) became an epistemological foundation for understanding the universe. It is not surprising, then, that in many cases (such as those of the Greek or Norse mythology), the stories of the gods form the cornerstone for virtually all religious endeavors. These mythologies have been said to make polytheistic gods highly appealing to the human mind, as they represent the divine in personalized, anthropomorphic terms (rather than using often inaccessible theological formulations).
Varieties of Polytheism Found in Human Culture
Mesopotamian and Sumerian mythology
Mesopotamian and Sumerian myths told of numerous gods, such as An (god of the heavens), Enlil (god of the air and storms), Enki (the god of water and the earth), Ninhursag (the goddess of the earth), and Inanna (the goddess of love and war). Further, certain gods represented various jurisdictions of the Mesopotamian Empire, such as Ashur, the patron god of Assyria, and Marduk, patron god of Babylon. In terms of religious practices, every shrine in Sumeria was named after a single god; for example, the E'anna temple in Uruk was named after Inanna. With the extension of the Sumerian civilization into surrounding areas, these gods became part of a single family of divinities known as the Anunaki. The degree to which Sumerian and Mesopotamian gods were conceived as anthropomorphic also developed through the centuries and with the expansion of the empire. Early on, the Sumerians conceived themselves as living inside a divine realm. Rather than viewing An as "the god" of the heavens, they decided that he was the heavens. With the growth in size and importance of the temples, the social status of the temple functionaries grew as well, and a hierarchy developed headed by the En (chief priest). Through a joint process of anthropomorphization and Euhemerization, these priests became divinized and the gods they represented came to be seen in increasingly human terms. For example, the chief priest of the god of the air (Lil) at the E-kur temple at the city of Nippur became En-Lil (later Enlil). In their more humanized form, these gods and their mythologies formed the template for later polytheistic systems, most notably that of the Greeks.
- Main article: Greek Mythology
The Greek gods provide the example of polytheism that is most familiar to Western scholarship. Their extensive mythological tales (preserved in plays, visual art, and epic poems) show that the ancient Greeks believed in independent, highly personified deities who were not aspects of a greater divinity. Rather, they were seen to stand on their own, representing certain aspects of the cosmos or human experience. The first gods were largely tied to natural or primordial processes, such as Uranus, the father god of the sky, Gaia, the mother goddess of the earth, and Chronos, the godly personification of time. Later gods, such as the Olympians, became identified with more specific aspects of experience. For instance, Apollo was the god of light, dance, reason, music, archery and medicine, while also exemplifying the difficulties of human relationships through the stories of his many failed loves. Athena, meanwhile, was heralded as the goddess of wisdom, artistry, education and inner beauty, as well as war. Finally, Zeus represented the god of weather. While each of these gods and goddesses evidently had dominion over a certain portion of reality, they also were members of a celestial pantheon and were, at various junctures, ruled over by Chronos, Uranus, and finally Zeus. Their belief in Zeus as a father/ruler God meant that the Greek polytheism was perhaps best described as a henotheism. Later developments in Greek philosophy no doubt shifted the Greek belief from polytheism or henotheism to a more monistic theism: as Plato and Aristotle each spoke of a perfected unity which governed all things, and Plotinus described all of reality as divisions of the One.
Early Egyptian mythological beliefs can be split into five distinct groups, which are tied closely to localities. Within each of these localities existed numerous gods, above whom one chief god was hailed as supreme. For the Ennead of Heliopolis, the chief god was Atum; for the Ogdoad of Hermopolis, it was Ra; among the Chnum-Satet-Anuket triad of Elephantine, the chief god was Chnum; among the Amun-Mut-Chons triad of Thebes, it was Amun; and among the Ptah-Sekhmet-Nefertem triad of Memphis, the chief god was Ptah. Throughout the complex history of Egypt, the dominant beliefs of the ancient Egyptians changed considerably as leaders of different groups assumed power over the other localities. For example, when the New Kingdom was formed by the merger of the Ogdoad and the Amun-Mut-Chons, the respective chief gods Ra and Amun became Amun-Ra. This amalgamation of two gods into a single god was typical in Egypt and, over time, the Egyptian pantheons underwent many syncretic recombinations. However, even when taking part in these relationships, the original deities did not become completely "absorbed" into the combined deity. Similar to the Greeks, the ancient Egyptians also believed that certain gods were aspects of a greater god, although the individuality of the weaker god was often greatly impoverished. Also, these syncretic relationships sometimes involved more than just two deities. For instance, Ptah, Seker and Osiris, were merged into a triune, and goddesses followed similar patterns. Thus, even though Egyptian gods and goddesses may have had distinct personalities and traits, they seem to have been considered aspects of other, greater deities.
- Main article: Norse Mythology
Norse mythology, or Viking mythology, acknowledges three "clans" of deities, the Æsir, the Vanir, and the Iotnar. The Æsir were the principal Norse gods, including notable mythological figures such as Odin (the chief god, commonly representing wisdom, battle, and death), Baldr (the god of innocence and beauty), Loki (the god of trickery), and Thor (the god of thunder). The Vanir, a secondary pantheon of gods, included Njord (the god of fertile coastal land and sailing) and Freyja (the goddess of love and sexuality, who was married to Odin). The Iotnar were a race of superhuman giants who stood in opposition to the gods. The Æsir and Vanir are said to have engaged in a prolonged battle that the Æsir had finally won. This led to a pact of peace, after which the two groups reigned together. The Æsir and the Vanir are generally considered to be enemies of the Iotnar. Some of the giants are mentioned by name in the Eddas, and they generally seem to be representations of natural forces. The Norse pantheon also contains numerous additional supernatural beings, such as Fenrir the gigantic wolf and Jörmungandr the sea-serpent (who was thought to be the progeny of Loki). Further, some human capacities are given supernatural relevance, as in the case of thought and memory, which are given form in the beings of Hugin and Munin, the two ravens who alert Odin of earthly happenings.
Norse mythology provides an intriguing mirror to the Norse culture, as exemplified by their joint emphases on war. The brave Norse warrior was goaded into dying in battle by his belief that his soul would be carried to Valhalla (the hall of the gods) by Valkyries. The afterlife was a place of unending war, where each day one would take part in monumental battles, only to be healed at sunset so as to be able to fight again tomorrow. At the end of the day, these undead warriors would sit at the same long-tables as their gods, drinking meads from the skulls of their most-hated enemies. Likewise, the Norse apocalypse (Ragnarok) was understood as a final, cataclysmic conflict between the Æsir and the Iotnar, one which would tear the world asunder. As in all cases, these mythological beliefs are tremendously relevant to understanding their respective culture's overall worldview.
- Main article: Aztec Civilization
The Aztec religion of central Mexico in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries was, from its inception, pointedly polytheistic, as is evidenced by one of the most prominent of their many creation myths. In this myth, the creation of the earth is paralleled by the creation of the twin gods: Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. Quetzalcoatl was seen as the primary creator god and represented rulership, priests and merchants. His presence was manifest in the natural world through the wind. Tezcatlipoca, meanwhile, existed as a rival to Quetzalcoatl. He was viewed as an omnipotent god of sorcerers and warriors, and was closely related to darker imagery such as night and death. In nature, he was represented as a jaguar. The Aztecs acknowledged hundreds of gods and goddesses, the most notable among them Xipe Totec (the god of the seasons, seed germination and renewal; the patron of goldworkers), Huitzilopochtli (the supreme god of the city of Tenochtitlan; the patron of war, fire and the sun), and Nanahuatzin (a diminutive goddess whose self-immolation saved humanity from immanent destruction).
The Romans held beliefs very similar to those of the Greeks, attributable to the fact that the Romans inherited much of their mythology after conquering the Greeks in 146 B.C.E. The Romans asserted the existence of numerous, highly specialized gods who held dominion over virtually all aspects of human life. Janus and Vesta watched over the door and hearth, while Ceres overlooked the growth of grain and Pomon the ripening of the fruit, for example. Gods and goddesses even interceded in aspects of life beyond the natural world, such as Cloacina, who was the goddess responsible for the Roman sewage system. Watching over these gods and all the others was the triad of Mars, the god of youthful men, Quirinus, the patron of the armies, and Jupiter, the overall ruler of the gods. Thus, while Roman religion was polytheistic in its belief in a multiplicity of gods and goddesses, like the Greek tradition it was more accurately characterized as henotheistic.
- Main article: Hinduism
It is considered likely that Hinduism as it is known today evolved from the merging of two ancient polytheistic systems: the proto-Indo-European pantheon of the Aryans and the Indus Valley or Harrappan religion, which may have been related to Sumerian beliefs. Early Vedic Hinduism is replete with accounts of numerous gods, such as Varuna (the keeper of the heavenly waters), Indra (the warrior god), and Agni (the god of fire). Of these gods, Indra was typically seen as the overlord, a title he earned in a battle with Varuna. Thus, this early Hindu polytheism should be considered henotheistic, just as that of the Greeks.
Many members of the Hindu faith take the view that it is only through conception of a multiplicity of divine beings that humans can find for themselves what this transcendent, indescribable force really is. This view has persisted into modern times and remains very much alive in many theological systems (such as the philosophy of the Smarta school), which allows for the veneration of numberless deities, but with the understanding that the various gods are each really just manifestations of the single divine power, Brahman. For example, some Hindus teach that their gods Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of Brahman. As mentioned earlier, this system is often perceived by non-Hindus as polytheistic; however, it is better described as emanational mystical monotheism, where the one primordial principle is perceived as having many forms. All gods, then, are "cut from the same cloth" (Brahman), a sharp contrast to the Greek belief that any two gods are essentially different entities. Hindu writers often go to great lengths to clarify this point to practitioners, so their beliefs are not confused with more compartmentalized beliefs in multiple gods. By contrast, other Hindu sects, such as Vaishnavism and Shaivism conform more closely to a Western standard of monotheism. For instance, the Vaishnavite considers Vishnu (and/or his avatars) as being the one and only true God. This attitude resonates with that of the Abrahamic religions.
Despite these qualified forms of polytheism, the Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy can be declared to be explicitly polytheistic. According to the Mimamsa philosophers, the devas (celestial spirits) are the sovereign rulers over the forces of nature, with no particular deva rising above the others as the supreme deity. To perform a desired action, human beings must please one or more of these devas by worshipping them with proper Vedic rituals.
- Main article: Shinto
Followers of Shintoism, the ancient religion of Japan, pursue the path of the kami, a term that is generally thought to describe myriad mysterious supernatural forces. The kami are thought to appear outside the realm of the ordinary, possessing a power which inspires awe. Collectively, the totality of kami are called Yaoyorozu no Kami, an expression which literally means "eight million kami." This figure was most likely chosen arbitrarily to reflect the sheer multitude of kami in the Shinto consciousness. This quality is apparent in the virtually innumerable quantity of things thought to fall under this heading of kami, including everything from nature spirits, to the objects and local deities of the Shinto folk cult. The most widely worshipped of the kami is the sun-goddess Amaterasu. Many shrines have been constructed in her honor, although the most notable is the Grand Shrine of Ise. Within this shrine, Amaterasu is usually symbolized by a mirror. Alternatively, the inner sanctum may be empty, symbolizing the idea that everything one sees through the mirror is the embodiment of Amaterasu, as well as every other kami. In this way, the notion of an underlying oneness that often characterizes polytheistic beliefs seems to be present in Shinto, as well. It should be noted, however, that the large number of kami recognized in Shinto practice sometimes lead to its characterization as an animistic tradition.
Most Neopagan traditions are polytheistic. In Wicca, for example, two deities are worshipped: Mother Goddess or the Earth (similar to the Greek goddess Gaia) and a God (her male consort). The Goddess and God are seen as playing complementary roles, with neither dominating. In some traditions, however, the Goddess alone is worshipped, with the God (if present at all) playing a diminished role. It is also common among more traditional groups to acknowledge a Dryghten, or supreme godhead, which is often composed of ancient Celtic deities. While most historical pagans did not believe in a single divinity at the core of their polytheistic pantheons, some modern Neopagans assert that there is a single life force underlying the universe, which encompasses both the natural and the supernatural worlds. The numerous manifestations of this divinity are not viewed as wholly separate from the divine, but rather are seen as different aspects of it.
Recent decades have seen the emergence of numerous variations of goddess spirituality, a series of movements nurturing the importance of female spirituality. Such movements are typically grounded in feminist thought, especially in relation to their critique of the patriarchy that is frequently associated with monotheistic belief. Specifically, they argue that monotheism, with its dogmatic and exclusivist standpoint, has ubiquitously conceived of the Divine in masculine terms. The monotheistic God is an idea that feminists often criticize as reinforcing male oppression. Moreover, since God is most often conceived of as male, the male body frequently becomes the standard for humanity, and subsequently the female body is considered an aberration of the "true" human form. Such ideas have sometimes perpetuated a lower standing of women in the monotheistic traditions. It is said that goddess spirituality seeks to counter-balance these male biases by glorifying the feminine aspect of the divine and creation, such as childbearing, as well as women themselves.
Feminist theologians cite archaeological evidence suggesting that goddess worship flourished in civilizations existing before the rise of male-dominated empires such as those of Greece and Rome. Thus, goddess spirituality harkens back to these ancient forms of polytheism, acknowledging and giving worship to the many goddesses from antiquity, such as those of Mesopotamian and Sumerian mythology (discussed earlier). In doing so, goddess spirituality infuses the female body with the conception of the divine, while also stepping away from the undertones of masculine dominance that can be associated with the history and philosophy of monotheistic thought. The multiplicity of gods are conceived by goddess worshippers to exist in the transcendent realm, which acknowledges and embraces the immense diversity we perceive in the immanent realm, not only in the case of genders, but also in such spheres as ethnicity or even religious affiliation. Thus, polytheism has served as an inclusive, liberating concept for feminist theologians who have etched out a contemporary spirituality based on recovered goddess beliefs.
Criticism and Appreciation of Polytheism
Perhaps the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes was the first to criticize polytheism. From his pantheistic point of view, he attacked the anthropomorphic polytheism of the poets Homer and Hesiod, saying that their gods are immoral, engaged in deeds such as theft and adultery: "Homer and Hesiod attributed to the gods all things which are disreputable and worthy of blame when done by men; and they told of them many lawless deeds, stealing, adultery, and deception of each other." The dispersed Jews, when faced with the gods of Greek mythology, considered these gods to be devils; so, the Septuagint, the Koine Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, identified the gods of the Gentiles with "devils" in Psalm 96:5, although that passage in the original Hebrew Bible simply stated that these gods are just "nothing." Also, the Jews under the Roman yoke in Palestine and the Christians suffering persecution in the Roman Empire believed the deities of Roman mythology to be fallen angels and apparently decided that the cruel Roman legions centering on the emperor were the manifestation of the Nephilim, a race of half-human giants who, according to Genesis 6:1-4, were conceived when these fallen angels came down to the earth and mated with mortal women.
Polytheism has often been pitted against monotheism, typically by monotheists and some academics who claim that polytheism is an inferior belief system. Critics argue that the idea of multiple gods takes away the rational unity of one solitary divine being, and that its stories of the loves and wars of the gods sanction forth moral relativism. Further, polytheism has been identified with idolatry in such Near-Eastern Abrahamic faiths as Islam and Judaism.
Academics charting the course of religious development in humanity, such as E. B. Tylor, J. G. Frazer, and Max Müller, put polytheism beneath monotheism and atheism on the evolutionary hierarchy of faith. Such an evolutionary theory of religion, however, has been challenged by many for a few reasons: 1) because there is apparently not as much historical evidence for it as was originally thought; 2) because it is culturally insensitive and disrespectful to non-monotheistic religions; and 3) because it is inclined to be unaware of monotheism's own weaknesses such as intolerance.
Some scholars, notably the French historian Alain Daniélou and the American writer Jonathan Kirsch, are of the opinion that polytheism is superior to monotheism. According to Daniélou, who was a Western convert to Hinduism, polytheism is better because it is closer to divinity and infinity than monotheism is: "we may be nearer to a mental representation of divinity when we consider an immense number of gods than when we try to stress their unity; for the number one is in a way the number farthest removed from infinity."
According to Kirsch, polytheism is better because it is less intolerant and less violent than monotheism. Yet many have observed that polytheism could be repressive and violent, not only in the Roman Empire but also in the modern era, notably Japanese Shintoism until the end of World War II and in the Hindu brotherhood in India in the 1980s.
For the sake of religious dialogue and mutual understanding, one can recognize virtuous deities and ethical elements in polytheism—such as basic tolerance, alongside the ethical standard inherent in monotheism.
- Edward B. Tylor. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom. 2 vols. (original 1871, reprint ed. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2007)
- James George Frazer. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, new abridgment from 2nd and 3rd eds. (Oxford University Press, 1998).
- "The Fragments of Xenophanes"
- Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 38-45.
- Alain Daniélou. Hindu Polytheism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964), 7.
- Jonathan Kirsch, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism (Penguin, 2005).
- Masanori Kurasawa, "Is Polytheism Really Tolerant?" Retrieved September 2, 2008.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
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All links retrieved November 24, 2022.
- The Association of Polytheist Traditions - APT A UK-based community of Polytheists with a website and a discussion group open to non-members, and a closed list for paid-up members. www.manygods.org.uk.
- The Pagan Federation A predominantly polytheistic educational and campaigning organisation serving the Pagan community. www.paganfed.org.
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