Polytheism (from the Greek polutheos, “many gods”) denotes a theological system involving a belief in, and worship of, multiple divinities. The term was first popularized in the writings of 18th century European ethnographers as they sought to identify and label the religious beliefs of “primitive” peoples they studied and contrast them to Judeo-Christian monotheism, or the belief in a solitary divinity. Over time, polytheism has been used to refer to various belief systems in which multiple beings are worshipped or propitiated. These may include gods, goddesses, semi-divine beings, good or evil spirits, or the spirits of departed ancestors. Depending upon the tradition, there may be an established and recognized hierarchy of worshipped beings or they may be seen to act independently. They may work in conjunction with one another or occasionally at cross-purposes. There are several significant characteristics typically found in polytheistic traditions, including:
- Each divinity or spirit being is typically believed to have a specific function (such as healing, protection in travel, etc.), to control a particular realm (material or nonmaterial), or to possess a specific power or range of powers. The latter can include forces of nature—such as rain, thunder, a celestial body, the seasons—or it may involve dominion over characteristics of human personality, like love, devotion, compassion, jealousy, revenge, and so forth.
- Each being is generally believed to either possess or adopt a specific human or animal form, aspect of nature, or a combination thereof, as his or her primary vehicle for the purpose of communicating with humans. Thus, a particular animal or natural phenomenon may be viewed as the manifestation of a particular deity, or even as an ancestor spirit. An eagle may signal the presence of a guardian spirit, or an erupting volcano may be seen as the manifestation of an angry goddess. As a result, reverence toward, and worship of, nonanthropomorphic forms, including animals, plant life, objects in nature, and natural forces, are commonplace.
- Singular devotion to one specific divinity is not necessary. Thus, simultaneous propitiation of several deities is common and accepted. In some cases, it is seen as practical and necessary, since different spirits control different realms or powers.
In one manner or another, polytheism is found as a feature of most indigenous religious cultures throughout the world. Of the variety of theistic views that have been grouped into this category, some have also been identified with their own specific terminology. These include henotheism, kathenotheism, and monolatrism.
Polytheism is rooted in a desire to perceive, contact, and influence unseen powers and forces that affect human existence. It can be found among the earliest religious cultures of the world, in both the East and the West. Various ancient mythological records and tales reveal beliefs in spirit beings that were propitiated, worshipped, and/or feared. These divinities often existed at the center of the cosmological worldviews of the cultures in which they were found. Prayers, rituals, and offerings to them were seen as fundamental to the maintenance of the known world of the believers. Catastrophes were often viewed as the results of angered spirits. Thus, regular appeasement of such divinities has also been integral in many cultures.
The powers possessed by, or the responsibilities of, the divinities may be inherent, such as in the case of a Sun goddess or storm god, or they may be assigned to them by a higher divinity. Over time, the hierarchy of divinities in various cultures can change, with some beings either falling into disfavor or coming to be seen as powerless, while others rise in prominence and power. Thus, the hierarchy and composition of a polytheistic tradition is not necessarily static. Moreover, even within a tradition itself, different individuals may give preference or deference to a particular divinity over another. On occasion, the divinity connected with a ruling individual, family, or clan can come to dominate the attention and affection of a people. This can result in its elevation to the top of the hierarchy, and it also may lead to the banning and rejection of other divinities being worshipped at the time, resulting in a monotheistic view. The early histories of both Judaism and Islam suggest this pattern.
Although monotheism is viewed by most Western-educated people as being a more evolved theological view, this is primarily a Judeo-Christian perspective, although it is integral to Hinduism as well. Thus, polytheism continues to be a persistent and prevalent belief system. Moreover, with the exception of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, polytheistic beliefs are integral in most of the world’s religious cultures and traditions. The reasons for this are several. First, human conceptualization of divinity typically endows it with humanlike characteristics, in both form and function. Images tend to be anthropomorphic and typically endowed with personality traits ranging from loving and compassionate to jealous and revengeful. In this manner, humans tend to conceive of the divine in their own image and likeness. Most of us experience power, knowledge, and authority as being possessed by many, not one. Whether it be in family, village, community, or nation, power tends to be in the hands of various individuals, and each tends to have a specific power and function. Within such a system, there can be various avenues to gaining assistance from one or more of those who possess these powers. Polytheism reflects this world experience in formulating its depiction of, and approach to, the realm of the divine.
Conversely, if one looks at the monotheistic concept of a solitary omnipotent divinity and at social and political systems in which ultimate power is in the hands of a single being, one typically finds absolute patriarchies, monarchies, and dictatorships. While such systems may be comforting to some, a solitary all-powerful ruler tends to be viewed as more distant from the individual and less available to provide personalized and individual assistance. Moreover, if supplicants unsuccessfully seek assistance from a singular authority, they remain helpless. Thus, the vast majority of individuals in such systems tend to remain weak and powerless. Alternatively, if there are a variety of beings to whom one can seek aid and comfort, the opportunity for success is greater.
Theologically, then, a multiplicity of deities to propitiate can provide comfort in the belief that if one is not successful in acquiring the aid of a particular divinity, then that person can seek out the assistance of another deity. As a result, it tends to be emotionally and psychologically more assuring to have a variety of possible divine beings to which one can appeal for help. The manifestation of this can be seen in the belief found in many traditions of individuals or families having a special connection with a particular spirit. Examples of this include the Hawaiian concept of aumakua, the Hindu concept of ishtadev, and even the Christian concept of saints and guardian angels.
Polytheism, therefore, mirrors the common human experience of family, village, and state. It is frequently found in cultures with a clearly stratified social and/or political hierarchy, in which power is held in the hands of different individuals, based on their position within the hierarchy. Different divinities, like different bureaucrats, have different powers. One then approaches and propitiates the being with the requisite power to fulfill the needs or desires of the supplicant. Further, one can focus on a divinity that appeals to the personality of the supplicant. In many ways, then, polytheism is a more pragmatic theological view than is monotheism.
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- Van Der Leeuw, G. (1986). Religion in essence and manifestation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.