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Polytheism

POLYTHEISM.

The concept of polytheism was a creation of the Enlightenment. Before then, Europeans had characterized the religious universe in terms of Christianity, Judaism, paganism, and (eventually) Islam. As late as the sixteenth century, the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, in his remarkably detailed and sensitive account of pre-Columbian Mexican religion and culture, equated various Aztec divinities with their putative Roman equivalents. The rubric of "paganism" embraced any and all religions with multiple divinities.

The very distinction between monotheism and polytheism, lumping together, as it did, Christianity with Judaism and Islam, was the product of secularizing intellectualsdeists if not agnostics or atheistsdistancing themselves in this manner from any specific theology. These implications were most fully developed by David Hume in The Natural History of Religion (1755). Polytheism, he argued, was the earliest form of religion: "the first ideas of religion arose not from a contemplation of the works of nature, but from a concern with regard to the events of life, and from the incessant hopes and fears which actuate the human mind" (p. 139). Such hopes and fearsabout childbirth, illness, a bad harvest, and so onwere multiple, and each was presided over by a separate divinity. Eventually such notions gave way to a far more rational understanding of the world in terms of a single ideal creatorin other words, monotheism. In this way, the difference between polytheism and monotheism embodied the conflict between reason and the passions, which for Hume, ever the pessimist, led not to the ultimate triumph of reason but rather to a perpetual "flux and reflux in the human mind" (p. 58) when the cold and abstract reason of monotheism left human hopes and fears unsatisfied. Worse yet, the emotions aroused by monotheism were "sacred zeal and rancour, the most furious of all human passions" (p. 161). Polytheism was more irrational but also more tolerant than monotheism.

Polytheism as an Evolutionary Stage

Nineteenth-century anthropological theorists adopted the perspective of their Enlightenment predecessors, not to mention their anticlerical biases, by categorizing types of religious beliefs as more or less rational. However, they did not share Hume's pessimism; instead they incorporated such ranking within an overall narrative of evolutionary progress. Sir Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871) developed the most elaborate scheme of religious evolution. He categorized the most primitive religious beliefs as animism, the idea of a soul whose existence was separate from the body. The idea that human souls survived the death of the body engendered a belief in malevolent ghosts or the veneration of more benevolent ancestors. The notion that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects such as rocks or streams also possessed souls led to the worship of various nature spirits. Genuine polytheism emerged only at a higher stage of human development as distinctions of rank became increasingly important: "As chiefs and kings are among men, so are the great gods among the lesser spirits. They differ from the souls and minor spiritual beings which we have as yet chiefly considered, but the difference is rather of rank than of nature" (vol. 2, p. 334). If monotheism represented yet a higher stage of religious development, it was still characterized by survivals from the most primitive beliefs, not least of all in the soul. For Tylor, as for his contemporaries such as Herbert Spencer or James Frazer, science represented a development of human thought that made all religions, including monotheistic ones, obsolete.

Sigmund Freud's last book, Moses and Monotheism (1939), was the last major formulation of this kind of evolutionary scheme. For Freud, all religions were projections of unconscious facets of the human mind conceived and experienced as external forces. The gods of polytheism represented the multiple sexual urges of the Id, which had in some measure to be appeased if not gratified lest they wreak a terrible revenge, but which were by their very nature amoral at best. Monotheism, invented by the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaton and transmitted to the Jews by Moses, an Egyptian prince, represented a great advance in its worship of one God, a father figure and an externalization of the Superego, the arbiter of good and evil.

Polytheism in Modern Anthropology

In the twentieth century, anthropologists rejected the grand evolutionary schemes of their predecessors and pursued the study of religion through attempts to understand religious beliefs from the perspective of the cultures they studied firsthand. Anthropologists concerned themselves with the internal logic of a culture's beliefs, not with their rationality as compared to those of our own or of other cultures. The very idea of polytheism, to the extent that it amalgamated highly disparate systems of religious belief in different places and times, was largely irrelevant to this enterprise.

One notable exception that indeed proves the rule was E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Nuer Religion (1956). Evans-Pritchard was concerned with reconciling Nuer concepts of kwoth (God or Spirit) with ideas about a variety of different kinds of spirits of the above and below. Spirits of the above included Deng, associated with illness, Buk, his mother, and Col, associated with rain; spirits of the below were mainly totemic spirits associated with different lineages. Evans-Pritchard's solution was to suggest that

Since God is kwoth in the sense of all Spirit and the oneness of Spirit, the other spirits are all, being also kwoth, thought of as being of the same nature as God. Each of them is God regarded in a particular way; and it may help us if we think of the particular spirits as figures or representations or refractions of God in relations to particular activities, events, persons, and groups. (p. 107)

In other words, as far as the Nuer were concerned, the distinction between monotheism and polytheism was not one of religious belief but rather a question of emphasis, either on the oneness of Spirit or of the plurality of its manifestations.

More recently, Robin Horton's analysis of conversion to Christianity and Islam in Africa attempted to identify a sociological dimension to polytheism and monotheism. African cosmologies, he argued, included ideas about a high god, a creator, as well as a multiplicity of lesser spirits associated with specific localities or kin groups. These lesser spirits governed local events and social relationships, whereas the creator god transcended specific localities. Small-scale societies whose members were relatively unconcerned by events outside their social microcosm emphasized the importance of local spirits in their religions. As the social horizons of groups and individuals expanded, religious emphasis shifted toward the creator, if not toward monotheism, as beliefs in local spirits were ill equipped to make sense of the social macrocosm. Horton's self-styled intellectualist approach shared with his Enlightenment predecessors an emphasis on religion as a means of understanding and manipulating the world; but rather than rating religions in terms of rationality, he suggested that different kinds of religious beliefs were appropriate for different types of societies.

Most anthropologists found Horton's scheme too general to account for the complex historical interactions that led (or did not lead) to conversion in specific cases, African or other. J. D. Y. Peel, initially a proponent of Horton's approach, wrote one such account of the encounter of the Yoruba people with Christianity. Indeed, rather than studying polytheism as such, anthropologists such as Andrew Apter and J. Lorand Matory wrote rich, historically contextualized ethnographies of the worship of various deities in the Yoruba pantheon, while Sandra Barnes, among others, studied the ways in which these gods made their way into New World religions such as Voudou in Haiti, Candomble in Brazil, and Santeria in Cuba.

See also Animism ; Religion .

bibliography

Apter, Andrew. Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Barnes, Sandra, ed. Africa's Ogun: Old World and New. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism. Translated by Katherine Jones. New York: Knopf, 1939.

Horton, Robin. "African Conversion." Africa 41, no. 2 (1971): 85108.

Hume, David. "The Natural History of Religion." In his Four Dissertations. London: A. Millar, 1757. Repr. as The Natural History of Religion, edited with an introduction By H. E. Root. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1956.

Matory, J. Lorand. Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Peel, J. D. Y. Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. London: J. Murray, 1871. Repr. in 2 vols. as The Origins of Culture and Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.

Robert Launay

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Polytheism

Polytheism

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The term polytheism, referring to the worship of several gods, was coined in the sixteenth century. For medieval European Christians, the religious universe could be exhaustively categorized in terms of Judaism, Christianity, and paganism. This neat tripartite division was rendered obsolete by the Reformation. The first recorded use of the term polytheism was in a treatise against witches published in 1580 by the noted French thinker Jean Bodin (15301596). Significantly, Bodin also wrote an unpublished series of dialogues between sages who each practiced a different religion (including a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a Lutheran, a Calvinist, and a Muslim, among others) and who, unable in the end to resolve their differences, worshiped together in harmony. Bodins dialogue suggests a moral equivalence among all these religions that might be characterized as monotheistic, a term that would be invented slightly later.

This contrast between polytheism and monotheism appealed to secularizing Enlightenment thinkers precisely because it did not privilege Christianity. In particular, in The Natural History of Religions (1757), David Hume, deliberately turning his back on the biblical account, suggested that polytheism was the earliest form of human religion. It was not, he argued, born out of abstract speculation or contemplation, but rather in response to human hopes and especially fearsof illness, childbirth, war, and so on. Each such fear was governed by its own divinity, and because humans had an abundance of fears, they had a plethora of divinities. Only much later, according to Hume, did monotheism emerge as a (relatively) rational explanation of the world in terms of a single creator. In other words, polytheism was a religion of the passions, and monotheism a religion of reason. Hume was himself pessimistic about the capacity of reason to triumph over passion, and he envisaged the past and future histories of religion in terms of oscillation between the two poles of polytheism and monotheism.

The notion that polytheistic religions were emotional and irrational was used by Europeans to disparage non-European peoples and their religious practices. Charles de Brossess 1760 work Du culte des dieux fétiches (On the cult of the fetish gods) compared West African and ancient Egyptian religions in terms of their worship of gods who combined animal and human characteristics in a manner particularly repellent to Enlightenment criteria of rationality. Initially, late-eighteenth-century British observers of Brahmanical Hinduism characterized it as essentially monotheistic, in light of ancient texts. However, in the nineteenth century, Hindu polytheistic worship was evinced as evidence of the degeneration of Indian society.

Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, emerging anthropological theories of social evolution easily incorporated the distinction between polytheism and monotheism into their vision of human progress. Most notably, Edward Tylors Primitive Culture (1871) traced the origins of religion to animism, the belief, derived from the experience of dreams, that there existed a soul independent of the human body. Primitives believed that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects also had souls, making nature worship the earliest and least rational form of religion. Polytheism, involving a hierarchy of greater and lesser gods and spirits, represented an initial advance, a step in the direction of monotheism and, ultimately, scientific atheism. Sigmund Freud gave this perspective a psychoanalytic twist in Moses and Monotheism (1939), associating the plural gods of polytheism with the different urges of the id, and the God of monotheistic religions with the superego.

Beginning in the early twentieth century anthropologists challenged the broad evolutionary schemes of their predecessors, preferring to concentrate on the intensive study of small-scale societies in the field rather than on conjectural history. Their studies were committed to demonstrating the rationality of non-European peoples and explaining their religious ideas in their own terms. They had little use for a term such as polytheism that, in their eyes, lumped a multitude of particular and radically different cultures and religious traditions into one broad rubric. Although the term was not the object of specific anthropological critique, anthropologists by and large avoided its use. The most conspicuous exception was E. E. Evans-Pritchard, whose influential study Nuer Religion (1956) described Nuer belief in and worship of a single Spirit (Kwoth ) alongside a host of greater or lesser spirits (kuth ). The Nuer alternatively could be described as monotheists or polytheists, a contradiction Evans-Pritchard attempted to reconcile by suggesting that lesser spirits were in fact understood as refractions of the one Spirit from the point of view of specific groups or individuals.

However, too exclusive a focus on the religious particularities of small-scale societies obscured the ways in which multiple cults of divinities could proliferate regionally, nationally, and indeed transnationally. Hinduism is an obvious example. C. J. Fuller recently argued that fluiditywhich means that one deity can become many and many deities can become oneis a supremely important characteristic of Hindu polytheism (Fuller 1992, p. 30). Not only does this allow the cult of greater divinities such as Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi to articulate with the local worship of tutelary gods and goddesses, but it also reconciles the seemingly antithetical eighteenth- and nineteenth-century characterizations of Hinduism as monotheistic and polytheistic. Similar examples can be drawn from West Africa, such as the cults of orishas among the Yoruba, and the cults of their neighbors who were transported across the Atlantic by the slave trade and formed Candomble in Brazil, Vodun in Haiti, and Santeria in Cuba. As with Hindu divinities, orishas have multiple names if not multiple personalities, and often are associated with specific localities. The myths that relate the principal orishas of the Yoruba pantheon to one another exist in multiple, and sometimes contradictory, versions. It is important to point out that individual worshippers form a personal bond with one specific orisha. Seen in this light, polytheism is not intrinsically a fixed and overarching system, but rather a highly flexible framework that can articulate local cults within a wider regional or supraregional framework. Attempts to systematize the theology and worship of such religions, most particularly Hinduism, are modern outcomes of colonial and postcolonial situations.

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Culture; Evans-Pritchard, E. E.; Monotheism; Religion; Sociology

BIBLIOGRAPHY

De Brosses, Charles. [1760] 1989. Du culte des dieux fétiches. Paris: Fayard.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. 1956. Nuer Religion. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fuller, Christopher J. 1992. The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hume, David. [1757] 1956. The Natural History of Religion. Ed. and intro. H. E. Root. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Matory, J. Lorand. 1994. Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Tylor, Edward B. 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. 2 vols. London: J. Murray.

Robert Launay

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polytheism

polytheism (pŏl´ēthēĬzəm), belief in a plurality of gods in which each deity is distinguished by special functions. The gods are particularly synonymous with function in the Vedic religion (see Vedas) of India: Indra is the storm god, Agni the fire god, Vayu the wind god, Yama the god of death. Polytheistic worship does not imply equal devotion or importance to each deity. The religion of dynastic Egypt included hundreds of deities, but worship (as in Greek Olympianism) tended to be city-centered; thus, Anubis, the jackal-headed god who guided the dead along the dangerous path to the underworld, had his cult at Abydos, and Ba, the ram-god, was worshiped at Bubastis. Polytheism probably is a development from an earlier polydemonism, characterized by a variety of disassociated and vaguely defined spirits, demons, and other supernatural powers. It is also related to animism, ancestor worship, and totemism (see totem). All of these forms of belief are based on human propensity to worship all objects on earth and in heaven, all that is unusual or useful, strange or monstrous. Unlike the supernatural forces in polydemonism, however, those of polytheism are personified (see anthropomorphism) and organized into a cosmic family. This family becomes the nucleus of legends and myths and, eventually, of a cosmology that seeks to explain natural phenomena and to establish people's relation to the universe. As polytheistic religions evolve, lesser deities diminish in stature or vanish completely, their attributes being assigned to preferred gods, until the religion begins to exhibit monotheistic tendencies—thus the Olympian Zeus, originally a sky god, became the titular head and most powerful of all Olympian deities; the Egyptian Ra was the original, self-generating and supreme deity; and the Vedic gods of India, once numbering several thousand, were gradually displaced by the trinity of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Significantly, both the Greeks and Indians subordinated their supreme deities to a more profound principle of Oneness or Supreme Fate, which the Greeks called Moira and the Vedic Indians named Rita.

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polytheism

pol·y·the·ism / ˈpäli[unvoicedth]ēˌizəm/ • n. the belief in or worship of more than one god. DERIVATIVES: pol·y·the·ist / -ˌ[unvoicedth]ēist/ n. pol·y·the·is·tic / ˌpäli[unvoicedth]ēˈistik/ adj.

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polytheism

polytheism Belief in or worship of many gods and goddesses. The ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek and Roman religions were all polytheistic, as were the religions of the Americas before European settlement. Hinduism is a modern polytheistic religion. See also animism; monotheism

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polytheism

polytheism See MONOTHEISM.

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