Polytheistic Religion: How Pantheons Reigned in the Ancient World
Over the years there have been gods for creation, death, love, war, and everything in between. Zeus, Hera, and their companions on Mount Olympus, Odin, Frigg, and the rest of the Æsir, Osiris, Isis, and their friends and enemies…polytheistic religions and pantheons were big in the ancient world. Many of these elevated beings are still spoken of, often with reverence, today.
What is Polytheism?
Polytheism is one of the two major types of theism (the belief in a deity / deities), the other being monotheism. Etymologically speaking, the word ‘polytheism’ is a combination of the Greek words ‘polys’ and ‘theos,’ meaning ‘many’ and ‘god,’ respectively. Likewise, the word ‘monotheism’ is formed by combining two Greek words, ‘monos’ and ‘theos’, the former meaning ‘one’.
Thus, while monotheism is the belief in, and worship of, a singular God, polytheists believe in and worship many deities.
Not all polytheists are the same; polytheistic religions may be sub-divided into various forms. These include hard polytheism, soft polytheism, henotheism, and dystheism.
Minerva and the Triumph of Jupiter, illustrative of Roman polytheism. (Public Domain)
According to an article published by the Pew Research Centre in 2017, more than half the world’s population (in 2015) considered themselves to be monotheists. Of the world’s 7.3 billion inhabitants at that time, 31.2 % (2.3 billion people) consider themselves Christians, whereas 24.1 % (1.8 billion) profess the Islamic faith; these are two of the major monotheistic religions today.
It is expected that monotheism will continue to dominate in the decades to come. According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of Muslims is projected to naturally increase (i.e. the total number of births minus the total number of deaths) by 70 % between 2015 and 2060. Within the same time period, the world’s Christian population is expected to increase by 34%.
Many Gods Ruled the World
Although the world today is dominated by Christianity and Islam, and it is expected to remain so for the time being, monotheistic religions are a minority in human history. Apart from the Abrahamic faiths, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and a handful of other religions, such as Atenism and Sikhism, virtually all the religions in the history of humanity have been polytheistic in nature. There are so many forms of polytheism throughout history that scholars have been able to place them into different categories. Before proceeding into the different types of polytheism, however, some words should be said about another aspect of the academic study of polytheism.
Early scholars of religious studies and the history of religion considered religious thought to have evolved over a period of time. This view was held especially by Edward Burnett Tylor, a British anthropologist considered the founder of cultural anthropology, and James George Frazer, another British anthropologist (and folklorist) best-known for his work entitled The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (retitled The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion in its second edition).
The Emergence of Animism
These scholars considered animism to be the starting point of religious thought in human society. Animism is the belief that all things, be it animate or inanimate, possess a soul. Alongside animism, human beings practiced primitive magic, which is the belief that the natural world could be controlled through mystical, paranormal, or supernatural means. Both animism and primitive magic were regarded by these scholars to be ‘primitive.’
The next stage of the evolution of religion was called polydaemonism, whose adherents believe that the world is full of spirits that can be channeled by shamanistic practices. This system is similar to polytheism. Polydaemonism and polytheism were perceived to be a progress form the earlier ‘primitive’ religions, as the spirits and gods worshipped in these cultures became more personalized.
The Emergence of Monotheism
The pinnacle of the evolution of religious thought was said to be monotheism. This theory of the evolution of religious thought was first proposed during the 19th century, and since then it has been rejected by many scholars, due to the fact that there is not much evidence to support the view that religious thought went through an evolutionary process.
Interestingly, the theory formulated by these scholars also tells us something about them and the society they were living in. The idea that ‘primitive’ religions evolved into the more complex polydaemonism and polytheism before finally becoming monotheism reflects the cultural biases held by the scholars who proposed them. At that time in Europe, monotheism was the dominant religious system and monotheists have had a long history of denigrating polytheism.
What Did Ancient Monotheists think of Polytheistic Religions?
While the 19th century scholars saw polytheism as an inferior form of religion, early monotheists regarded polytheism as false religions. For instance, Jews and Christians held the view that the gods of ancient Greece and Rome were in fact fallen angels, which served as a perfect explanation for the cruelty and oppression inflicted on them by these polytheists.
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Jews and Christians held the belief that the gods of ancient Greece and Rome were fallen angels. (Lena_graphics /Adobe Stock)
Arguably the most poetic manifestation of this view in the English language is John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1667. In Book I of this masterpiece, Milton has Satan, after being cast into Hell following his failed rebellion against God, summon all his followers to him in order to plan another assault on Heaven. This is followed by a list of the most notable fallen angels who supported Satan.
These include the gods worshipped by various known polytheistic religions, including “ Astoreth, whom the Phoenicians call’d / Astarte, Queen of Heav’n, with crescent Horns,” “ Osiris, Isis, Orus and their Train / With monstrous shapes and sorceries abus’d / Fanatic Egypt and her Priests, to seek / Thir wandring Gods disguis’d in brutish forms”, and “Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans Issue held / Gods, yet confest later then Heav’n and Earth / Thir boasted Parents.”
As mentioned earlier, polytheistic religions may be sub-divided into a number of different categories. The most common of these (and also the one most people would be familiar with) is known as ‘hard polytheism.’ This form of polytheism considers the various gods and goddesses to be distinct and independent entities who interact with each other through co-operation or conflict. This is the most recognizable form of polytheism as it is seen in the mythologies of various cultures around the world, including the Egyptians, Norse, Aztecs, Greeks and early Romans.
This type of polytheism is also seen in a system of belief known as Euhemerism, which is named after a 4th / 3rd century BC Greek mythographer by the name of Euhemerus. This theory seeks to rationalize the stories found in mythology by suggesting that the gods in these tales are in fact great men in history who were deified and worshipped after their deaths. A good example of Euhemerism is the Chinese god Guan Di (known also as Guan Gong or Wu Di), who is immensely popular among the Chinese people, due to the belief that he is capable of protecting his devotees from all manner of evil spirits.
A mural of Guan Yu's "Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles" (千里走單騎) in the Summer Palace, Beijing. (Shizhao/CC BY SA 1.0)
This god was once a mortal by the name of Guan Yu and was a great general during China’s Three Kingdoms period (which lasted for the greater part of the 3rd century AD). Apart from his historical and religious significance, Guan Yu is also an important figure of literature, as he is one of the main protagonists and most popular characters of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a romanticized version of that historical period that was written during the Ming Dynasty.
Another type of belief system that comes under ‘hard polytheism’ is Omnism. While some polytheistic religions may not regard the deities of other religions as real, Omnists believe in all religions, approaching each of them with an open mind, and seeking the connection between them to unite them into one single philosophy. The earliest known use of the word ‘Omnism’ is found in Festus, published by the English poet Philip James Bailey in 1839.
In the poem, Bailey states “I am an omnist, and believe in all / Religions, – fragments of one golden world / Yet to be relit in its place in Heaven –.” Omnism may be considered a relatively modern phenomenon, one that is the product of an ‘awakened’ society. Nevertheless, Omnism’s precursor, syncretism, has much deeper roots.
Syncretism is sometimes considered the logical conclusion of Omnism and refers to the fusion of different religious beliefs and practices. This practice dates all the way back to the Hellenistic period, with the conquests of Alexander the Great, and continued during the Roman period. Needless to say, many of the deities worshipped by the ancient Romans came from the Greek pantheon.
Although the deities of ancient Greece and Rome share many similarities, the Romans renamed almost all of these deities. Thus Zeus, Hera, and Athena became known as Jove, Juno, and Minerva, who were the three members of the Capitoline Triad. Incidentally, the worship of a trio of deities was not originally a Roman practice, but one derived from the Etruscans.
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The Romans also adopted and adapted the deities they encountered during their conquests, a good example of which being Sulis, a Celtic goddess worshipped at Bath. The Romans associated Sulis with their own Minerva and built a temple at Bath to Sulis Minerva.
Head of Minerva Sulis from the Roman baths in Bath. (Hchc2009/CC BY SA 4.0) The Romans associated the Celtic goddess Sulis with their own Minerva and built a temple at Bath to worship her.
Another type of polytheism is ‘soft polytheism,’ which holds the view that while there are many deities, all of them are in fact manifestations or aspects of one divine being, and therefore are essentially the same. This view is similar to ‘inclusive monotheism,’ which is considered one of the ‘middle positions’ of monotheism.
An example of ‘soft polytheism’ is visible in most forms of Hinduism, as well as in some New Age currents of Neo-Paganism. Yet another form of polytheism is henotheism (from the Greek heis theos, meaning ‘one god’), which, incidentally, is also considered to be a ‘middle position’ of monotheism. Henotheists worship one god, but at the same time do not deny the existence of other gods and are perfectly fine with the idea that others could worship their own gods with equal truth.
In other words, henotheism may be described as ‘monotheism in principle and polytheism in fact.’ A variation of henotheism is called monolatrism / monolatry, which accepts that other gods exist, but only one god is worthy of worship. Henotheism is sometimes equated with kathenotheism (from the Greek kath hena theon, meaning ‘one god at a time’).
As their name suggests, kathenotheists worship one god at a time, believing that each deity has his/her turn at being supreme. Henotheism, monolatrism, and kathenotheism are normally found in ancient cultures that have a highly centralized monarchical government, such as in certain periods of ancient Babylonian and Egyptian history. In the latter, for instance, there were sets of gods for each hour of the day and night, as well as for each Egyptian nome, i.e. province.
Egyptian gods. (siloto /Adobe Stock)
Malevolent Beings May Exist Too
Finally, some polytheistic religions include the existence of malevolent beings. An example of this type of polytheism is ditheism or duotheism, which is the belief that two equally powerful gods exist, but they do not complement each other and are often in conflict with one another.
This belief is seen, for instance, in Zoroastrianism, where the benevolent Ahura Mazda is locked in eternal conflict with the malevolent Angra Mainyu. This concept is also seen in Gnosticism, which holds the view that the true God exists beyond this world, while the one worshipped by human beings is in fact an evil imposter.
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Ahura Mazda (Alexeiy /Adobe Stock) is locked in eternal conflict with the malevolent Angra Mainyu.
Yet another form of polytheism that falls under this category is misotheism, which means ‘hatred of God / gods.’ This term was first used in the English language by the English essayist Thomas de Quincey in 1846. Nevertheless, this word already appeared as early as the Classical Greek period, when it was used by Aeschylus in one of his tragedies; and the concept of hatred towards the gods existed long before the term was coined by de Quincy.
Strictly speaking, misotheism describes an attitude towards the gods, rather than their nature, though it would not be too difficult to imagine that misotheists hate the gods because they believe them to be evil.
Lastly, there is dsytheism, whose adherents believe that the gods exist, but that they are not entirely benevolent, and may even be evil. Deities who exhibit this quality include the trickster god, Loki, from Norse mythology, and Set from the myths of ancient Egypt.
As you can see, while the theory of the evolution of religious thought proposed during the 19th century suggested polytheism was the lowest form of religious belief, it is evident that monotheism has actually been the minority in human religious history. Most famously, the Egyptians, Norse, Aztecs, Greeks, and early Romans all followed some form of polytheism; however, this style of religious thought continues to be present today, especially in its more moderate forms.
Top Image: Egyptian gods. Source: Catmando / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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