In the mid-to late 19th century, the eminent linguist, Orientalist, and comparative religions scholar Max Müller (1823-1900), one of the founders of the “scientific study of religion” (Religionswissenschaft) and the “father of nature mythology,” coined the term henotheism from the Greek words for “one” (hen, neuter) and “god” (theos). Müller had translated the Vedas from Sanskrit and had observed that a Vedic poem would praise a personification of nature in the most exalted terms—”Creator,” “Giver of Life”— as though (s)he were the only one, true god, which would be monotheism (monos, “one,” “only”; theos, “god”). However, other poems were just as laudatory in praising other gods/goddesses, which would be polytheism. Müller sought a new term for this phenomenon. His usual language was henotheism, literally “one god” (but not the only god). Occasionally, however, he also used the term kathenotheism, which captures the parallel idea that one god(dess) after the other was being praised (kathh + hen, “one-by-one”; theos, “god”).
Henotheism (kathenotheism) should be distinguished from monarchial polytheism and monolatry. In monarchial polytheism, Müller’s polytheism, one god becomes supremely powerful among the gods in a fixed hierarchical arrangement. Examples are Zeus in the Greek pantheon or Isis in the Egyptian pantheon. Monolatry (monolatrism) describes the affirmation that only one god of those admitted to exist (polytheism) is truly efficacious and therefore worthy of worship (Greek monos, “one only”; latreuo, “I worship”): “Our god” is greater than “your god(s).”
Henotheism was conceived in a 19th-century European intellectual climate influenced by colonial contact with non-Western religions and the quest for the origin and evolution of religion. Ernest Renan (1823-1892) had claimed that the unique contribution of “the Semites” was monotheism and that, moreover, monotheism was the earliest form of religion. Müller countered by claiming that Renan’s theory simply echoed the medieval view that an original revelation had fallen victim to polytheistic idolatry in all the nations but the Jews. Influenced by the Romantic philosopher Schelling (1775-1854) and armed with the Vedas, Müller held that henotheism came first. As dialects evolve into a formal language, he argued, so henotheism evolves into hierarchical polytheism. The evolution continued: First came the quest for an underlying unity, either monistic pantheism (the Upanishads) or monotheism (the Jewish Bible), and finally, there might also appear an atheism that leads to true faith, as in the case of the Buddha, Socrates, and “the blasphemer” Jesus.
Müller’s henotheism concept had elements from the psychology of religion. One of his definitions was the belief in and worship of objects in which humankind first suspected the presence of the invisible and infinite. These objects, Müller believed, were raised into something “more than finite, more than natural, more than conceivable.” Müller offered many examples from the Vedas to show how natural objects (for example, the sun) evoked awe and were given names, then personified, then placed in a divine family, and finally described with exalted titles.
Müller argued that henotheism also appeared among the Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Israelites. With respect to the last, descriptive phenomenologist James Livingston has recently referred to the revelation of God’s name as “Yahweh” in the Sinai theophany (Exodus 3:4-14), as follows: “It is not a fully conceived monotheism but a henotheism that, for intents and purposes, can be called ‘practical monotheism.'” Recent specialists in Israelite religion seem less inclined to use the term, perhaps reflecting the tendency to abandon the quest for origins and evolution in general. However, scholars still debate related phenomena: the Hebrew plural form of God’s name (Elohim); God’s image as “male and female” (Genesis 1:27); Yahweh’s connection with Canaanite gods; the divine court; and monotheism as a late (post-Exilic?) historical development.
- Livingston, J. C. (2001). Anatomy of the sacred: An introduction to religion (4th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Müller, F. M. (Ed.). (1867). Chips from a German workshop: Essays on the science of religion I (4 vols.). London: Longmans, Green.
- Müller, F. M. (Ed.). (1878). Lectures on the origin and growth of religion as illustrated by the religions of India. London: Longmans, Green.
- Smith, M. S. (1990). The early history of God. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
- Van den Bosch, L. (2002). Friedrich Max Müller: A life devoted to the humanities. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.