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 classical polytheism in tribal religions such as Germanic polytheism or Slavic polytheism. It persists into the modern period in traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Chinese folk religion, etc., and it has been revived in currents of Neopaganism in the post-Christian West.
Polytheism is 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, worshipping different deities at different times.
The deities of polytheistic religions are agents in mythology, where they are portrayed as complex personages of greater or lesser status, with individual skills, needs, desires and histories. These gods are often seen as 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.
Gods of music, arts, science, farming or other endeavors.
Mythology and religion
Main article: Mythology and religion
In the Classical era, Sallustius (4th century CE) 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.
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.
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 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.
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. Explicit polytheism in contemporary folk religion is found in African traditional religion as well as African diasporic religions. In Eurasia, the Kalash are one of very few instances of surviving polytheism. Also, a large number of polytheist 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.
Religious Hinduism is a broad category which encompasses both monotheistic and polytheistic tendencies and variations on or mixes of both structures, Hinduism is accused of polytheism but Hinduism cannot be considered polytheistic as all great Hindu religious leaders have repeatedly stressed that god is one and his forms are many,the ways to communicate with him are many and focussing or concentrating on the icon is one of those ways. For a Hindu the human language itself is a symbolic representation of the divine.
Hindus venerate God 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.
Hindu philosophers and theologians also 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. Hindus believe that the decision of whose path to god is correct will be decided by god only, so everything must be left to and surrendered unto god and no one should take the matters into his own hands or use violence.
Many Hindus believe in different deities emanating from Brahman, and the majority continues to worship a deity as a matter of personal belief or tradition as a representation of this supreme being, as a representation of the 'One God'.
In the Smartha 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."
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, there are many gods in Buddhism who end being worshipped in practice. Worshipping images of Buddha is common, Buddhism has also integrated with the Chinese Folk Religion and many gods from that religion are considered Bodhisattvas which means incarnations of the Buddha.
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.
Hard Polytheists believe 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"
This is contrasted with Soft Polytheism, which holds that Gods may be aspects of only one God, psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces.
It is a misconception that Hard Polytheists consider the gods of all cultures as being equally real; that is a theological position more correctly called integrational polytheism or omnitheism.
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." 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').[who?] 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 pantheistic, duotheistic, and a polytheistic faith. It sees the universe as being comprised by a divine Godhead (known by various names), but who is subdivided into the opposing polarities of The God and The Goddess. Each of these deities can be further divided into many different polytheistic deities, which are aspects of The God and The Goddess. Wicca is tolerant in the understanding of divinity, but emphasises a balance and equality between male and female deities, whereas other polytheistic faiths have often placed male deities at the top of the hierarchy.
Reconstructionists are neopagans which 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. In general they are considered "Hard Polytheists" and value historical research over personal insight.
^Stoll, Heinrich Wilhelm (R.B. Paul trans.) (1852). Handbook of the religion and mythology of the Greeks. Francis and John Rivington. p. 8. "The limitation [of the number of Olympians] to twelve seems to have been a comparatively modern idea"
Polytheism — • The belief in, and consequent worship of, many gods. Catholic Encyclopedia. Kevin Knight. 2006. Polytheism Polytheism † … Catholic encyclopedia
Polytheism — Pol y*the*ism, n. [Poly + Gr. ? cf. F. polyth[ e]isme.] The doctrine of, or belief in, a plurality of gods. [1913 Webster] In the Old Testament, the gradual development of polytheism from the primitive monotheism may be learned. Shaff Herzog.… … The Collaborative International Dictionary of English
polytheism — (n.) 1610s, from Fr. polythéisme (16c.), formed from Gk. polytheos of many gods, from polys many (see POLY (Cf. poly )) + theos god (see THEA (Cf. Thea)). Polytheist first attested 1610s … Etymology dictionary
polytheism — ► NOUN ▪ the belief in or worship of more than one god. DERIVATIVES polytheist noun polytheistic adjective. ORIGIN from Greek polutheos of many gods … English terms dictionary
polytheism — [päl′i thē iz΄əm, päl΄i thē′iz΄əm] n. [Fr polythéisme < Gr polytheos, of many gods < poly , many (see POLY ) + theos, god: see THEO ] belief in or worship of many gods, or more than one god: opposed to MONOTHEISM polytheist [päl′i thēist]… … English World dictionary
polytheism — polytheist, n. polytheistic, polytheistical, adj. polytheistically, adv. /pol ee thee iz euhm, pol ee thee iz euhm/, n. the doctrine of or belief in more than one god or in many gods. [1605 15; POLY + THEISM; cf. F polythéisme] * * * Belief in… … Universalium
Polytheism — the view that there is one or more gods or goddesses. More specifically, it may also mean the belief in God, a god, or gods, who is/are actively involved in maintaining the Universe. A theist can also take the position that he does not have… … Mini philosophy glossary
polytheism — This term (from the Greek polys, meaning many, and theos, meaning God ) refers to belief in and worship of several different gods, who are often envisioned as having different functions in the world. Polytheism is contrasted withmonotheism,… … Glossary of theological terms
polytheism — noun Etymology: French polytheisme, from Late Greek polytheos polytheistic, from Greek, of many gods, from poly + theos god Date: 1613 belief in or worship of more than one god • polytheist adjective or noun • polytheistic also polytheistical… … New Collegiate Dictionary
polytheism — noun /pɒliˈθiˈĭzˈəm The belief of the existence of many gods … Wiktionary