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Polytheism is the worship or belief in multiple deities usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals.

Polytheism is a religious construct and a type of theism. Within theism, it contrasts with monotheism, the belief in a singular God. Polytheists do not always worship all the gods equally, but 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 gradual development of monotheism or pantheism, and atheism. It is well documented in historical religions of Classical antiquity, especially Greek polytheism and Roman polytheism, and after the decline of Greco-Roman polytheism in tribal religions such as Germanic paganism or Slavic mythology. There are various polytheistic religions practiced today, for example Shintoism, Chinese folk religion, Thelema, Wicca, Druidry, Taoism, Ásatrú and Candomble. Hinduism is sometimes included in this listing; but despite the presence of polytheistic elements it is contains pantheistic and monotheism ones as well and has been classed as a "pantheism with polytheistic elements"[1]


The term comes from the Greek poly ("many") and theoi ("gods") 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, in a clearly pejorative 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.[2]

Gods and divinity

Main articles: Deity, God (male deity) and Goddess

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

Mythology and religion

In the Classical era, Sallustius (4th century CE) categorised mythology into five types:

  1. Theological
  2. Physical
  3. Psychological
  4. Material
  5. Mixed

The theological are those myths which use no bodily form but contemplate the very essence of the gods: e.g., Kronos 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.

The mixed kind of myth may be seen in many instances: for example they say that in a banquet of the gods, Eris threw down a golden apple; the goddesses contended for it, and were sent by Zeus to Paris to be judged. Paris saw Aphrodite to be beautiful and gave her the apple. Here the banquet signifies the hypercosmic powers of the gods; that is why they are all together. The golden apple is the world, which being formed out of opposites, is naturally said to be "thrown by Eris" (or Discord). The different gods bestow different gifts upon the world, and are thus said to 'contend for the apple'. And the soul which lives according to sense – for that is what Paris is – not seeing the other powers in the world but only beauty, declares that the apple belongs to Aphrodite.

Historical polytheism

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 pejoratively 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. It is speculated[by whom?] that there was once a 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 with the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans, and also to the introduction of elements of a "foreign" religion into a local cult, as with Egyptian Osiris worship brought to 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 out of Hellenistic traditions in Late Antiquity in the form of Neoplatonism and Christian theology.

Neolithic Era
  • Serer religion[3]
Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity
Late Antiquity to High Middle Ages

Ancient Greece

Main article: Religion in ancient Greece

The classical scheme in Ancient Greece of the Twelve Olympians (the Canonical Twelve of art and poetry) were:[4][5] 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[6][7] that obviously do not suggest Hestia surrendered her seat, though he suggests she did. Hades[8] 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.[9] 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.

Folk religion

Main article: Folk religion
Further information: Saint, Angel, Folk Catholicism and Shamanism

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.

Contemporary world religions

Buddhism and Shinto

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 as well as nontheistic 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 a form of Buddha. 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 considered 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.


Historically, most Christian churches have taught that the nature of God is a mystery, in the original, technical meaning; something that must be revealed by special revelation rather than deduced through general revelation. Among early Christians there was considerable debate over the nature of Godhead, with some factions arguing for the deity of Jesus and others calling for an Arian conception of God. These issues of Christology were to form one of the main subjects of contention at the First Council of Nicaea.

The First Council of Nicaea, held in Nicaea in Bithynia (in present-day Turkey), convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 325, was the first (or second, if one counts the apostolic Council of Jerusalem) ecumenical[10] council of bishops of the Roman Empire, and most significantly resulted in the first uniform Christian doctrine, called the Nicene Creed. With the creation of the creed, a precedent was established for subsequent 'general (ecumenical) councils of bishops' (synods) to create statements of belief and canons of doctrinal orthodoxy— the intent being to define unity of beliefs for the State church of the Roman Empire and eradicate heretical ideas.

The purpose of the council was to resolve disagreements in the Church of Alexandria over the nature of Jesus in relationship to the Father; in particular, whether Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father or merely of similar substance. St. Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius took the first position; the popular presbyter Arius, from whom the term Arian controversy comes, took the second. The council decided against the Arians overwhelmingly. (Of the estimated 250-318 attendees, all but 2 voted against Arius).

Christian orthodox traditions (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical) follow this decision, which was codified in 381 and reached its full development through the work of the Cappadocian Fathers. They consider God to be a triune entity, called the Trinity, comprising the three "Persons" God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the three of this unity are described as being "of the same substance" (ὁμοούσιος). The true nature of an infinite God, however, is asserted to be beyond definition, and "the word 'person' is but an imperfect expression of the idea, and is not biblical. In common parlance it denotes a separate rational and moral individual, possessed of self-consciousness, and conscious of his identity amid all changes. Experience teaches that where you have a person, you also have a distinct individual essence. Every person is a distinct and separate individual, 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."[11]

Some critics, especially among Jews and Muslims, 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. This concept dates from the teachings of the Alexandrian Church, which claimed that Jesus, having appeared later in the Bible than his "Father," had to be a secondary, lesser, and therefore "distinct" God. This controversy led to the convention of the Nicaean council in 325 CE. Christians overwhelmingly assert that monotheism is central to the Christian faith, as the Nicene Creed (and others), which gives the orthodox Christian definition of the Trinity, begins: "I believe in one God".

Some Christians reject mainstream trinitarian theology; such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism, the Unitarians, Christadelphians, Church of God General Conference, Socinian; and some elements of Anabaptism do not teach the doctrine of the Trinity at all. In addition Oneness Pentecostals reject the creedal formulation of the Trinity, that there are three distinct and eternal persons in one being, instead believing that there is one God, a singular spirit who manifests himself in many different ways, including as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Deism is a philosophy of religion which arose in the Christian tradition during the Early Modern period. It postulates that there is a God who however does not intervene in human affairs. Alvin J. Schmidt argues that since the 1700s, expressions of Civil Religion in the United States have shifted from a deistic to a polytheistic stance.[12]

Unitarianism is a Christological doctrine in contrast with Trinitarian Christianity, postulating that Jesus was a completely human messiah.[13]


Further information: Hindu views on monotheism

Hinduism is a far from 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.[14] Theistic Hinduism which encompasses both monotheistic and polytheistic tendencies and variations on or mixes of both structures.

Hindus venerate deities in the form of the Murti, an icon. 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.

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 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,[15] and states that, "only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness."[16] 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."[17]

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 [18]

Serer religion

Main articles: Serer religion, Timeline of Serer history and States headed by ancient Serer Lamanes

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.[3] The supreme creator deity in Serer religion is Roog. However, there are many deities[19] and Pangool (singular : Fangool, the interceders with the divine) in Serer religion.[3] Each one has its own purpose and serves as Roog's agent on Earth.[19] Amongst the Cangin speakers, a sub-group of the Serers, Roog is known as Koox.[20]


"Hard" polytheism is the belief that gods are distinct, separate, real divine beings not 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 omnitheism.

This is contrasted with "Soft" polytheism, which holds that gods may be aspects of only one god, psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces.

Soft Polytheism is prevalent in New Age and syncretic currents of Neopaganism, as are psychological interpretations of deities as archetypes of the human psyche. 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."[21] This phrase is very popular among some Neopagans (notably, Wiccans) and incorrectly often believed to be just a recent work of fiction. However, Fortune indeed quoted from an ancient source, the Latin novel The Golden Ass of Apuleius. Fortune's soft polytheist compromise between monotheism and polytheism has been described as "pantheism" (Greek: πάν pan 'all' and θεός theos 'god'). However, "Pantheism" has a longer history of usage to refer to a view of an all-encompassing immanent divine.

Neopaganism often blends polytheism with pantheism or panentheism.


Wicca is a duotheistic faith created by Gerald Gardner that allows for polytheism.[22][23][24] Wiccans specifically worship the Lord and Lady of the Isles (their names are oathbound).[23][24][25][26] It is an orthopraxic mystery religion that requires initiation to the priesthood in order to consider oneself Wiccan.[23][24][27] Wicca emphasizes duality and the cycle of nature.[23][24][28]


Reconstructionists are Neopagans who apply scholarly disciplines such as history, etymology, archaeology, linguistics and others to a traditional religion that has been destroyed such as Norse Paganism, Greek Paganism, Celtic Paganism and others. After researching his or her path a reconstructionist or "recon" for short will apply the customs, morals and worldview to the modern day. Although many describe themselves as "hard" polytheists, others claim that this is not the only historically accurate polytheist theology.[29]

See also


Further reading

  • 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
  • Marbaniang, Domenic Google Books (See Chapter 3 Empirical Epistemics of Divine Reality for philosophical analysis of polytheism)
  • 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.

External links

  • The Association of Polytheist Traditions - APT, a UK-based community of Polytheists.
  • monochrom
  • Integrational Polytheism
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