What is Polytheism?
Polytheism is the belief of multiple deities also usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own Myth and rituals. In most religions which accept polytheism, the different gods and goddesses are representations of forces of nature or ancestral principles, and can be viewed either as autonomous or as aspects or emanations of a creator deity or transcendental absolute principle (monistic theologies), which manifests immanently in nature (panentheistic and pantheistic theologies).
Polytheism is a type of theism. Within theism, it contrasts with monotheism, the belief in a singular God, in most cases transcendent. Polytheists do not always worship all the gods equally, but they can be henotheists, specializing in the worship of one particular deity. Other polytheists can be kathenotheists, worshiping different deities at different times.
Polytheism was the typical form of religion during the Bronze Age and Iron Age up to the Axial Age and the development of Abrahamic religions, the latter of which enforced strict monotheism. It is well documented in historical religions of Classical antiquity, especially ancient Greek religion and ancient Roman religion, and after the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism in tribal religions such as Germanic, Slavic and Baltic paganism.
Notable polytheistic religions practiced today include Taoism, Shenism or Chinese folk religion, Japanese Shinto, Santería, most Traditional African religions and various neopagan faiths.
Hinduism cannot be exclusively categorized as either monotheistic or polytheistic, as some Hindus consider themselves to be monotheists and others consider themselves to be polytheists. Both are compatible with Hindu texts, and the right way of practicing Hinduism is subject to continued debate, with many Hindu schools regarding it as a henotheistic religion. The Vedanta school of Hinduism practices a firmly monotheistic version of the religion, holding that Brahman is the cause of everything and the universe itself is the manifestation of Brahman.
The term comes from the Greek πολύ poly (“many”) and θεός theos (“god“) and was first invented by the Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria to argue with the Greeks. When Christianity spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, non-Christians were just called Gentiles (a term originally used by Jews to refer to non-Jews) or pagans (locals) or by the clearly pejorative term idolaters (worshiping “false” gods). The modern usage of the term is first revived in French through Jean Bodin in 1580, followed by Samuel Purchas’s usage in English in 1614.
Soft versus hard
A central, main division in modern polytheistic practices is between soft polytheism and hard polytheism.
“Hard” polytheism is the belief that gods are distinct, separate, real divine beings, rather than psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces. Hard polytheists reject the idea that “all gods are one god.” “Hard” polytheists do not necessarily consider the gods of all cultures as being equally real, a theological position formally known as integrational polytheism or omnism. For hard polytheists, gods are individual and not only different names for the same being.
This is often contrasted with “soft” polytheism, which holds that different gods may be aspects of only one god, that the pantheons of other cultures are representative of one single pantheon, psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces. In this way, gods may be interchangeable for one another across cultures.
Gods and divinity
The deities of polytheism are often portrayed as complex personages of greater or lesser status, with individual skills, needs, desires and histories; in many ways similar to humans (anthropomorphic) in their personality traits, but with additional individual powers, abilities, knowledge or perceptions. Polytheism cannot be cleanly separated from the animist beliefs prevalent in most folk religions. The gods of polytheism are in many cases the highest order of a continuum of supernatural beings or spirits, which may include ancestors, demons, wights and others. In some cases these spirits are divided into celestial or chthonic classes, and belief in the existence of all these beings does not imply that all are worshipped.
Types of deities
Further information: List of deities
Types of deities often found in polytheism may include
- Creator deity
- Culture hero
- Death deity (chthonic)
- Life-death-rebirth deity
- Love goddess
- Mother goddess
- Political deity (such as a king or emperor)
- Sky deity (celestial)
- Solar deity
- Trickster deity
- Triple Deity
- Water deity
- Lunar deity
- Gods of music, arts, science, farming or other endeavors.
Religion and mythology
Main article: Religion and mythology
In the Classical era, Sallustius (4th century AD) categorised mythology into five types:
The theological are those myths which use no bodily form but contemplate the very essence of the gods: e.g., Cronus swallowing his children. Since divinity is intellectual, and all intellect returns into itself, this myth expresses in allegory the essence of divinity.
Myths may be regarded physically when they express the activities of gods in the world.
The psychological way is to regard (myths as allegories of) the activities of the soul itself and or the soul’s acts of thought.
The material is to regard material objects to actually be gods, for example: to call the earth Gaia, ocean Okeanos, or heat Typhon.
Some well-known historical polytheistic pantheons include the Sumerian gods and the Egyptian gods, and the classical-attested pantheon which includes the ancient Greek religion and Roman religion. Post-classical polytheistic religions include Norse Æsir and Vanir, the Yoruba Orisha, the Aztec gods, and many others. Today, most historical polytheistic religions are referred to as “mythology” though the stories cultures tell about their gods should be distinguished from their worship or religious practice. For instance deities portrayed in conflict in mythology would still be worshipped sometimes in the same temple side by side, illustrating the distinction in the devotees mind between the myth and the reality. Scholars such as Jaan Puhvel, J. P. Mallory, and Douglas Q. Adams have reconstructed aspects of the ancient Proto-Indo-European religion, from which the religions of the various Indo-European peoples derive, and that this religion was an essentially naturalist numenistic religion. An example of a religious notion from this shared past is the concept of *dyēus, which is attested in several distinct religious systems.
In many civilizations, pantheons tended to grow over time. Deities first worshipped as the patrons of cities or places came to be collected together as empires extended over larger territories. Conquests could lead to the subordination of the elder culture’s pantheon to a newer one, as in the Greek Titanomachia, and possibly also the case of the Æsir and Vanir in the Norse mythos. Cultural exchange could lead to “the same” deity being renowned in two places under different names, as seen with the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans, and also to the cultural transmission of elements of an extraneous religion into a local cult, as with worship of the ancient Egyptian deity Osiris, which was later followed in ancient Greece.
Most ancient belief systems held that gods influenced human lives. However, the Greek philosopher Epicurus held that the gods were living, incorruptible, blissful beings who did not trouble themselves with the affairs of mortals, but who could be perceived by the mind, especially during sleep. Epicurus believed that these gods were material, human-like, and that they inhabited the empty spaces between worlds.
Hellenistic religion may still be regarded as polytheistic, but with strong monistic components, and monotheism finally emerges from Hellenistic traditions in Late Antiquity in the form of Neoplatonism and Christian theology.
- Neolithic Era
- Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity
- Religions of the Ancient Near East
- Historical Vedic religion
- Ancient Greek religion
- Ancient Roman religion
- Celtic polytheism
- Late Antiquity to High Middle Ages
Main article: Religion in ancient Greece
The classical scheme in Ancient Greece of the Twelve Olympians (the Canonical Twelve of art and poetry) were: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Athena, Ares, Demeter, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Hestia. Though it is suggested that Hestia stepped down when Dionysus was invited to Mount Olympus, this is a matter of controversy. Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths cites two sources that obviously do not suggest Hestia surrendered her seat, though he suggests she did. Hades was often excluded because he dwelt in the underworld. All of the gods had a power. There was, however, a great deal of fluidity as to whom was counted among their number in antiquity. Different cities often worshipped the same deities, sometimes with epithets that distinguished them and specified their local nature.
The Hellenic Polytheism extended beyond mainland Greece, to the islands and coasts of Ionia in Asia Minor, to Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy), and to scattered Greek colonies in the Western Mediterranean, such as Massalia (Marseille). Greek religion tempered Etruscan cult and belief to form much of the later Roman religion.
The animistic nature of folk beliefs is an anthropological cultural universal. The belief in ghosts and spirits animating the natural world and the practice of ancestor worship is universally present in the world’s cultures and re-emerges in monotheistic or materialistic societies as “superstition”, belief in demons, tutelary saints, fairies or extraterrestrials.
The presence of a full polytheistic religion, complete with a ritual cult conducted by a priestly caste, requires a higher level of organization and is not present in every culture. In Eurasia, the Kalash are one of very few instances of surviving polytheism. Also, a large number of polytheistic folk traditions are subsumed in contemporary Hinduism, although Hinduism is doctrinally dominated by monist or monotheist theology (Bhakti, Advaita). Historical Vedic polytheist ritualism survives as a minor current in Hinduism, known as Shrauta. More widespread is folk Hinduism, with rituals dedicated to various local or regional deities.
In Buddhism, there are higher beings commonly designed (or designated) as gods, Devas; however, Buddhism, at its core (the original Pali canon), does not teach the notion of praying nor worship to the Devas or any god(s).
However, in Buddhism, the core leader ‘Buddha’, who pioneered the path to enlightenment is not worshiped in meditation, but simply reflected upon. Statues or images of the Buddha (Buddharupas) are worshiped in front of to reflect and contemplate on qualities that the particular position of that rupa represents. In Buddhism, there is no creator and the Buddha rejected the idea that a permanent, personal, fixed, omniscient deity can exist, linking into the core concept of impermanence (anicca).
Devas, in general, are beings who have had more positive karma in their past lives than humans. Their lifespan eventually ends. When their lives end, they will be reborn as devas or as other beings. When they accumulate negative karma, they are reborn as either human or any of the other lower beings. Humans and other beings could also be reborn as a deva in their next rebirth, if they accumulate enough positive karma; however, it is not recommended.
Buddhism flourished in different countries, and some of those countries have polytheistic folk religions. Buddhism syncretizes easily with other religions. Thus, Buddhism has mixed with the folk religions and emerged in polytheistic variants (such as Vajrayana) as well as non-theistic variants. For example, in Japan, Buddhism, mixed with Shinto, which worships deities called kami, created a tradition which prays to the deities of Shinto as forms of Buddhas. Thus, there may be elements of worship of gods in some forms of later Buddhism.
The concepts of Adi-Buddha and Dharmakaya are the closest to monotheism any form of Buddhism comes, all famous sages and Bodhisattvas being regarded as reflections of it. Adi-Buddha is not said to be the creator, but the originator of all things, being a deity in an Emanationist sense.
Although Christianity is officially considered a monotheistic religion, it is sometimes claimed that Christianity is not truly monotheistic because of its teaching about the Trinity, which believes in a God revealed in three different persons, namely the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is the position of some Jews and Muslims who contend that because of the adoption of a Triune conception of deity, Christianity is actually a form of Tritheism or Polytheism, for example see Shituf or Tawhid. However, the central doctrine of Christianity is that “one God exists in Three Persons and One Substance”. Strictly speaking, the doctrine is a revealed mystery which while above reason is not contrary to it. The word ‘person’ is an imperfect translation of the original term “hypostasis”. In everyday speech “person” denotes a separate rational and moral individual, possessed of self-consciousness, and aware of individual identity despite changes. A human person is a distinct individual essence in whom human nature is individualized. But in God there are no three individuals alongside of, and separate from, one another, but only personal self distinctions within the divine essence, which is not only generically, but also numerically, one. Although the doctrine of the Trinity was not definitely formulated before the First Council of Constantinople in 381, the doctrine of one God, inherited from Judaism was always the indubitable premise of the Church’s faith.
Jordan Paper, a Western scholar and self-described polytheist, considers polytheism to be the normal state in human culture. He argues that “Even the Catholic Church shows polytheistic aspects with the ‘worshipping’ of the saints.” On the other hand, he complains, monotheistic missionaries and scholars were eager to see a proto-monotheism or at least henotheism in polytheistic religions, for example, when taking from the Chinese pair of Sky and Earth only one part and calling it the King of Heaven, as Matteo Ricci did.
Further information: God in Mormonism
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, believed in “the plurality of Gods”, saying “I have always declared God to be a distinct personage, Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods”. Mormonism also affirms the existence of a Heavenly Mother, as well as exaltation, the idea that people can become like god in the afterlife, and the prevailing view among Mormons is that God the Father was once a man who lived on a planet with his own higher God, and who became perfect after following this higher God. Some critics of Mormonism argue that statements in the Book of Mormon describe a trinitarian conception of God (e.g. 2 Nephi 31:21; Alma 11:44), but were superseded by later revelations.
Mormons teach that scriptural statements on the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost represent a oneness of purpose, not of substance. They believe that the early Christian church did not characterize divinity in terms of an immaterial, formless shared substance until post-apostolic theologians began to incorporate Greek metaphysical philosophies (such as Neoplatonism) into Christian doctrine. Mormons believe that the truth about God’s nature was restored through modern day revelation, which reinstated the original Judeo-Christian concept of a natural, corporeal, immortal God, who is the literal Father of the spirits of humans. It is to this personage alone that Mormons pray, as He is and always will be their Heavenly Father, the supreme “God of gods” (Deuteronomy 10:17). In the sense that Mormons worship only God the Father, they consider themselves monotheists. Nevertheless, Mormons adhere to Christ’s teaching that those who receive God’s word can obtain the title of “gods” (John 10:33–36), because as literal children of God they can take upon themselves His divine attributes. Mormons teach that “The glory of God is intelligence” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36), and that it is by sharing the Father’s perfect comprehension of all things that both Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are also divine.
Further information: Hindu views on monotheism
Hinduism is not a monolithic religion: many extremely varied religious traditions and practices are grouped together under this umbrella term and some modern scholars have questioned the legitimacy of unifying them artificially and suggest that one should speak of “Hinduisms” in the plural. Theistic Hinduism encompasses both monotheistic and polytheistic tendencies and variations on or mixes of both structures.
Hindus venerate deities in the form of the murti, or idol. The Puja (worship) of the murti is like a way to communicate with the formless, abstract divinity (Brahman in Hinduism) which creates, sustains and dissolves creation. However, there are sects who have advocated that there is no need of giving a shape to God and it is omnipresent and beyond the things which human can see or feel tangibly. Specially the Arya Samaj founded by Swami Dayananda Saraswati and Brahmo Samaj founder by Ram Mohan Roy (there are others also) do not worship deities. Arya Samaj favours Vedic chants and Havan, while Brahmo Samaj stresses simple prayers.
Some Hindu philosophers and theologians argue for a transcendent metaphysical structure with a single divine essence. This divine essence is usually referred to as Brahman or Atman, but the understanding of the nature of this absolute divine essence is the line which defines many Hindu philosophical traditions such as Vedanta.
Among lay Hindus, some believe in different deities emanating from Brahman, while others practice more traditional polytheism and henotheism, focusing their worship on one or more personal deities, while granting the existence of others.
Academically speaking, the ancient Vedic scriptures, upon which Hinduism is derived, describe four authorized disciplic lines of teaching coming down over thousands of years. (Padma Purana). Four of them propound that the Absolute Truth is Fully Personal, as in Judeo-Christian theology. That the Primal Original God is Personal, both transcendent and immanent throughout creation. He can be, and is often approached through worship of Murtis, called “Archa-Vigraha”, which are described in the Vedas as likenesses of His various dynamic, spiritual Forms. This is the Vaisnava theology.
The fifth disciplic line of Vedic spirituality, founded by Adi Shankaracharya, promotes the concept that the Absolute is Brahman, without clear differentiations, without will, without thought, without intelligence.
In the Smarta denomination of Hinduism, the philosophy of Advaita expounded by Shankara allows veneration of numerous deities with the understanding that all of them are but manifestations of one impersonal divine power, Brahman. Therefore, according to various schools of Vedanta including Shankara, which is the most influential and important Hindu theological tradition, there are a great number of deities in Hinduism, such as Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Hanuman, Lakshmi, and Kali, but they are essentially different forms of the same “Being”. However, many Vedantic philosophers also argue that all individuals were united by the same impersonal, divine power in the form of the Atman.
Many other Hindus, however, view polytheism as far preferable to monotheism. Ram Swarup, for example, points to the Vedas as being specifically polytheistic, and states that, “only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness.” Sita Ram Goel, another 20th-century Hindu historian, wrote:
“I had an occasion to read the typescript of a book [Ram Swarup] had finished writing in 1973. It was a profound study of Monotheism, the central dogma of both Islam and Christianity, as well as a powerful presentation of what the monotheists denounce as Hindu Polytheism. I had never read anything like it. It was a revelation to me that Monotheism was not a religious concept but an imperialist idea. I must confess that I myself had been inclined towards Monotheism till this time. I had never thought that a multiplicity of Gods was the natural and spontaneous expression of an evolved consciousness.”
Some Hindus construe this notion of polytheism in the sense of polymorphism—one God with many forms or names. The Rig Veda, the primary Hindu scripture, elucidates this as follows:
They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutman. To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan. Book I, Hymn 164, Verse 46 Rigveda
Neopaganism, also known as modern paganism and contemporary paganism, is a group of contemporary religious movements influenced by or claiming to be derived from the various historical pagan beliefs of pre-modern Europe. Although they do share commonalities, contemporary Pagan religious movements are diverse and no single set of beliefs, practices, or texts are shared by them all.
English occultist Dion Fortune was a major populiser of soft polytheism. In her novel, The Sea Priestess, she wrote, “All gods are one god, and all goddesses are one goddess, and there is one initiator.”
Main article: Polytheistic reconstructionism
Reconstructionist polytheists apply scholarly disciplines such as history, archaeology and language study to revive ancient, traditional religions that have been fragmented, damaged or even destroyed, such as Norse Paganism, Greek Paganism, Celtic polytheism and others. A reconstructionist endeavours to revive and reconstruct an authentic practice, based on the ways of the ancestors but workable in contemporary life. These polytheists sharply differ from neopagans in that they consider their religion not only inspired by the religions of antiquity but often as an actual continuation or revival of those religions.
Wicca is a duotheistic faith created by Gerald Gardner that allows for polytheism. Wiccans specifically worship the Lord and Lady of the Isles (their names are oathbound). It is an orthopraxic mystery religion that requires initiation to the priesthood in order to consider oneself Wiccan. Wicca emphasizes duality and the cycle of nature.
In Africa, polytheism in Serer religion dates as far back to the Neolithic Era (possibly earlier) when the ancient ancestors of the Serer people represented their Pangool on the Tassili n’Ajjer. The supreme creator deity in Serer religion is Roog. However, there are many deities and Pangool (singular : Fangool, the interceders with the divine) in Serer religion. Each one has its own purpose and serves as Roog’s agent on Earth. Amongst the Cangin speakers, a sub-group of the Serers, Roog is known as Koox.
Use as a term of abuse
The term ‘polytheist’ is sometimes used by Sunni Muslim extremist groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as a derogatory reference to Shiite Muslims, whom they view as having “strayed from Islam’s monotheistic creed because of the reverence they show for historical figures, like Imam Ali“.
Polydeism (from the Greek πολύ poly (“many”) and Latin deus meaning god) is a portmanteau referencing a polytheistic form of deism, encompassing the belief that the universe was the collective creation of multiple gods, each of whom created a piece of the universe or multiverse and then ceased to intervene in its evolution. This concept addresses an apparent contradiction in deism, that a monotheistic God created the universe, but now expresses no apparent interest in it, by supposing that if the universe is the construct of many gods, none of them would have an interest in the universe as a whole.
Creighton University Philosophy professor William O. Stephens, who has taught this concept, suggests that C. D. Broad projected this concept in Broad’s 1925 article, “The Validity of Belief in a Personal God”. Broad noted that the arguments for the existence of God only tend to prove that “a designing mind had existed in the past, not that it does exist now. It is quite compatible with this argument that God should have died long ago, or that he should have turned his attention to other parts of the Universe”, and notes in the same breath that “there is nothing in the facts to suggest that there is only one such being”. Stephens contends that Broad, in turn, derived the concept from David Hume. Stephens states:
David Hume’s criticisms of the argument from design include the argument that, for all we know, a committee of very powerful, but not omnipotent, divine beings could have collaborated in creating the world, but then afterwards left it alone or even ceased to exist. This would be polydeism.
This use of the term appears to originate at least as early as Robert M. Bowman Jr.’s 1997 essay, Apologetics from Genesis to Revelation. Bowman wrote:
Materialism (illustrated by the Epicureans), represented today by atheism, skepticism, and deism. The materialist may acknowledge superior beings, but they do not believe in a Supreme Being. Epicureanism was founded about 300 BC by Epicurus. Their world view might be called “polydeism:” there are many gods, but they are merely superhuman beings; they are remote, uninvolved in the world, posing no threat and offering no hope to human beings. Epicureans regarded traditional religion and idolatry as harmless enough as long as the gods were not feared or expected to do or say anything.
Sociologist Susan Starr Sered used the term in her 1994 book, Priestess, Mother, Sacred Sister: Religions Dominated by Women, which includes a chapter titled, “No Father in Heaven: Androgyny and Polydeism”. Sered states therein that she has “chosen to gloss on ‘polydeism’ a range of beliefs in more than one supernatural entity.” Sered used this term in a way that would encompass polytheism, rather than exclude much of it, as she intended to capture both polytheistic systems and nontheistic systems that assert the influence of “spirits or ancestors”. This use of the term, however, does not accord with the historical misuse of deism as a concept to describe an absent creator god.
- Assmann, Jan, ‘Monotheism and Polytheism’ in: Sarah Iles Johnston (ed.), Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Harvard University Press (2004), ISBN 0-674-01517-7, pp. 17–31.
- Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, Blackwell (1985), ISBN 0-631-15624-0.
- Greer, John Michael; A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism, ADF Publishing (2005), ISBN 0-9765681-0-1
- Iles Johnston, Sarah; Ancient Religions, Belknap Press (September 15, 2007), ISBN 0-674-02548-2
- Paper, Jordan; The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, State University of New York Press (March 3, 2005), ISBN 978-0-7914-6387-1
- Penchansky, David, Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible (2005), ISBN 0-664-22885-2.
- Swarup, Ram, & Frawley, David (2001). The word as revelation: Names of gods. New Delhi: Voice of India. ISBN 978-8185990682
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia