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POLYTHEISM . The term polytheism, derived from the Greek polus ("many") and theos ("god") and hence denoting "recognition and worship of many gods," is used mainly in contrast with monotheism, denoting "belief in one god." The latter concept is considered by theological apologists and nineteenth-century cultural evolutionists alike as a "higher" form of belief, to be superseded (at best) by modern, scientific atheism. To understand polytheism, one must look at the base component theism, meaning the belief in "gods" as distinct from other types of powerful or supernatural beings (ghosts, ancestor spirits, etc.). Unfortunately, no discussion of polytheism can ignore the connotations implied by the Greek word theos, especially as it is the Greek term that has influenced most Western discourse on the subject. Clearly Japanese kami (whose number according to Shintō tradition is 800,000) and Greek theos are not quite the same; nevertheless this article shall, at the risk of oversimplification, stay with traditional Western usage.

Historical (or rather, pseudo-historical) theories concerning the origin of polytheism were closely related to the evolutionist views that characterized early Religionswissenschaft. Primitive humanity was aware of its dependence on a variety of powers that were often conceived as individual nonmaterial ("spiritual") beingsfor instance, the spirits of departed humans, especially ancestorsor as supernatural entities. One of the many modes of contact with this world of spirits was shamanism, a level of primitive beliefs and ritual behavior that has also been referred to as "polydaemonism." Sometimes more important figures emerge in these systems, especially in connection with accounts of the origins and beginnings of all things (first ancestors, culture heroes, originator gods), but such figures are not always central in the actual cultic life of the community. Even originator gods often remove themselves subsequently to the highest heavens and remain inactive. Although no longer generally accepted, this account of things has been reproduced here because for some time scholars have viewed it as a kind of initial stage in religious development, the last and final stage being monotheism. In this view, animism and polydaemonism become polytheism, and the latter evolves (how and why, nobody seems to know) into monotheism.

An opposing view known as the "Ur-monotheism school" (associated with Wilhelm Schmidt and the so-called Vienna School that defended also the Kulturkreiselehre ) asserted that monotheism was the original creed of humankind and that polydaemonism and polytheism developed as humans degenerated from a more innocent state. The element of theological apologetic in this theory is evident (though by itself that fact constitutes no argument either for or against its validity). In fact, it is an anthropological refurbishing of the traditional theological doctrine that Adam and his descendants were obviously monotheists, but that at some time between Adam and Noah, and then again after Noah, a process of corruption set in. The medieval Jewish version of this process is spelled out in detail by Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon). Polytheistic humanity was then reintroduced to monotheism by divine revelation or by more mature philosophical reflection. There is an element of truth in the latter assertion, for although there is no evidence whatsoever of an evolution from polytheism to monotheism, it seems true to say that monotheism appears either as a sudden, revolutionary development (for example, no really polytheistic stage can be demonstrated in ancient Israelite religion) or else as a monistic tendency (as in late Roman antiquity or in certain forms of Indian religion), as a result of which the multiplicity of gods (divine powers or manifestations) are subsumed under one superior, all-embracing principle ("the One," "the All," brahman, and so on.).

The Nature of Polytheism

Turning from speculative historical guesswork to the phenomenology or morphology of polytheism, one is struck by the curious fact that polytheism, while it is one of the major and most widespread phenomena in the history of religions, has attracted less than the attention it deserves. It seems to have fallen, as it were, between the two stools of "primitive religions" and monotheism. Or perhaps one should say three stools, if nontheistic religions such as Buddhism are also taken into account. Like all phenomenological ideal types (to borrow Max Weber's term), polytheism does not exist as a pure type. The historical variety is not easily reducible to a common denominator. Greek polytheism is different from Japanese Shintō, and the latter is different again from Maya religion. Nevertheless some basic and characteristic features are discernible, even though not all of them may be present in each and every case.

Perhaps the most striking fact about polytheism is its appearance in more advanced cultures only. (This may, incidentally, be one of the reasons why the evolutionists saw it as a post-primitive phenomenon.) In most cases, at least for the purposes of this article, the phrase "advanced cultures" means literate cultures (e.g., China, India, the ancient Near East, Greece, and Rome), though polytheism is occasionally also found in nonliterate cultures (e.g., in Mesoamerican and South American pre-Conquest religions, among the Yoruba people of West Africa, or in Polynesia). Usually such cultures also practice a more sophisticated type of agriculture (for example, one in which the plow supersedes the hoe), although, once again, this is not necessarily the case everywhere. In the case of Polynesia it could be argued that the bountiful earth itself produced the surplus that rendered possible the social and cultural background of polytheism (social stratification, division of labor, authority structures, and so forth), which elsewhere depended on more advanced types of food production. "More advanced" cultures are those whose economy in some way provides sufficient surplus to create a certain distance between humankind and nature. Society no longer lives with its nose to the grindstone, as it were. The result is increased division of labor (including bureaucracies and a priesthood), social stratification (including warrior castes, chieftains, royalty), and political structures (cities, city-states, temple establishments, empires). Greek polytheism flourished in city-states; Mesopotamia (Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia) and Egypt were kingdoms and at times empires, and the same holds true of pre-Conquest Mesoamerica and Peru. The Indo-Aryan and pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religions certainly were not primitive. Similarly, the Yoruba kingdoms of y and If (present-day Nigeria), for example, clearly represent a high though nonliterate culture, as does early Japan with its kami worship, practiced long before the infiltration of Chinese culture and literacy.

The above considerations are not meant to explain or otherwise account for the appearance of polytheism. They merely suggest the cultural and spiritual background against which the emergence of polytheism becomes intelligible. In every religion, society attempts to articulate its understanding of the cosmos and of the powers that govern it, and to structure its relationship with these powers in appropriate symbolic systems. In the societies under discussion here, humankind already faces the cosmos: closely linked to it but no longer inextricably interwoven in it. There is a sense of (at least minimal) distance from nature and even more distance from the powers above that now are "gods," that is, beings that are superhuman, different, powerful (though not omnipotent) and hence beneficent or dangerousat any rate their goodwill should be securedand to be worshiped by cultic actions such as sacrifices. These divine beings are personal but not material (although they can assume bodily shape temporarily and for specific reasons); above all, their behavior and motivations are similar to those of humans. Their relevance to human life is due to the fact that, unlike the primitive high gods (originator gods of the deus otiosus type), they intervene in human affairs, either on their own initiative or because called upon to do so in prayer, sacrifice, or ritual.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of gods, as compared to human beings, is their immortality. Though not eternal in the abstract, philosophical sense, the gods, as the worshiper knows them, are the "immortals." Herein lies the main distinction, not (as in monotheistic religions) in a fundamental difference of essence that then, on the philosophical level, becomes transcendence. Even when the difference is emphasized, it is not a contrast between creator and creature, but one of levels of power and permanence. The relation is one of bipolarity; humans and the gods, though different, are related. Hesiod (Works and Days 108) relates "how the gods and mortal men sprang from one source." Even so, "one is the race of men, one is the race of gods, and [i. e., although] from one mother [i. e., Gaia] do we both derive our breath. Yet a power that is wholly separated parteth us: In the one there is nought, while for the other the brazen heaven endureth as an abode unshaken forever" (Pindar, Nemean Odes 6.15).

Yet although the gods to whom humanity is related are durable and permanent, this does not mean that they do not have origins or a history. Unlike the biblical God who makes history but himself has no history, let alone a family history, their history is the subject of mythological tales, including accounts of their family relations, love affairs, offspring, and so on. Hence the mythological genealogies, stories of the gods that preceded the ones ruling at present (e.g., Greek Ouranos-Gaia; followed by Kronos, followed by Zeus; or, in later Indian religion, the replacement of originally principal gods like Indra, Varua, and Mitra by Śiva, Viu, and other deities). These gods are personal (in fact, this personal character is also one of the main features and constitutes one of the main philosophical problems of monotheism), and herein resides their religious significance: They are accessible.

Such a generalization must, of course, be somewhat qualified in view of the phenomenon of "dying and rising" gods such as Adonis, Attis, Osiris, Dumuzi, also in polytheistic myths and rituals.

Most polytheistic religions possess, as has been indicated in the preceding paragraph, a highly developed mythology that is not restricted to theogony and cosmogony though it is often used, or deliberately manipulated, to account for things as they are and to legitimate the cosmic, social, political, and ritual order. But such is not always or necessarily the case. Perhaps the best example of a highly developed polytheism with an elaborate ritual system but almost totally lacking a mythology is ancient Rome. In this respect the contrast with ancient Greece is striking. Yet even when there exists a rich body of mythology, its imagery reaches the present in comparatively late literary elaborations. Thus the mythology of ancient (pre-Buddhist) Japan is accessible only in literary works composed after the absorption of Chinese (i. e., also Buddhist) influences.

Without implying commitment to any simplistic theory about the divine order always and necessarily being a mirror of the human and social order, one cannot deny that the two are correlated. The polytheistic divine world is more differentiated, more structured, and often extremely hierarchized, because the human view of the cosmos is similarly differentiated, structured, and hierarchized. There are many gods because humans experience the world in its variety and manifoldness. Hence there is also specialization among the gods, of a nature that is either local and tribal-ethnic (gods of specific localities, cities, countries, families) or functional (gods of specific arts, gods of illness, cure, fertility, rains, hunting, fishing, etc.). The highly developed Roman sense of order could take things to extremes, and the early Christian fathers in their antipagan polemics made fun of the Roman indigitamenta, or invocations of highly specialized gods. Each householder had his genius; women had their Junos; children were protected when going in, going out, or performing their natural functions by Educa, Abeone, Potin. In fact, there was a goddess responsible for the toilet and sewage system: Cloacina. (The Roman example illustrates another important principle. Deities can be mythological beings of symbolic immediacy, to be subsequently "interpreted" or rationally allegorized; they can also be the personifications of abstract concepts.)

To cite another example of parallel hierarchy, few divine worlds were as hierarchical as the Chinese; in fact, these realms seem to be exact replicas of the administrative bureaucracy of imperial China. Just as the illustrious departed could be deified by imperial decree, so gods too could be promoted to higher rank. (Japan subsequently adopted this Chinese model, as it did so many others.) As late as the nineteenth century, these imperial promotions were announced in the Beijing Gazette.

The possibility of elevation to divine rank of living or departed humans (in the Western world such was the case with Hellenistic kings and Roman emperors) calls for a qualification of an earlier statement that polytheism displays an unbridgeable difference (though not quite as radical as that of monotheism) between humans and gods. For, much as humans can occasionally attain to divinity, the gods can assume human shape (as in the example of the Hindu avatāra s) or exist in human manifestation (as in the Japanese concept of ikigami ).

An important corollary of polytheism is that, though the major deities can be very powerful, no god can be omnipotent. Only a monotheistic god, being monos, can also be all-powerful. With growing moral differentiation, originally ambivalent gods split into positive (good) and negative (bad, evil, or demonic) divinities. Thus the original Indo-Aryan asura s (deities) became, in Vedic and post-Vedic India, demonic antigods, in opposition to the deva s. The multiplicity of gods of necessity produced a hierarchy of major and minor gods and a pantheon, or overall framework in which they were all combined. The more important gods have names and a distinct personality; others form the plebs deorum, a body often indistinguishable from the nameless spirits of animism. Many gods are experienced as real though unidentified, and hence a Roman might invoke the deity si deus si dea or distinguish between dei certi and dei incerti (rather like addressing a prayer "to whom it may concern"). There even is a reference to aius locutus "[the god] who has spoken [on a certain occasion, whoever he may be]."

When polytheism is superseded by monotheism, the host of deities is either abolished (theoretically), or bedeviled (i. e., turned into demons), or downgraded to the rank of angels and ministering spirits. This means that an officially monotheistic system can harbor a functional de facto polytheism. No doubt for the urban masses in fourth-century Rome, the cult of the Christian martyrs was merely a kind of transformation of the earlier polytheistic cults, and the same is probably still true of much Roman Catholic Christianity, especially in rural areas.

Some scholars consider henotheism (the exclusive worship of one god only without denying the existence of other gods) as an intermediary stage between polytheism and monotheism, the latter being defined as the theoretical recognition of the existence of one god only, all the others being (in the language of the Old Testament) sheer "vanity and nothingness." The terminology seems somewhat artificial (both hen and monos signify "one" in Greek), but it attempts to express a real distinction. Thus it has been claimed that henotheistic vestiges can still be detected even in the monotheistic Old Testament (e.g., Exodus 15:11, "Who is like unto thee among the gods, O Yahveh," or Micah 4:5, "For all nations will walk each in the name of its god" while Israel walks in the name of Yahveh, their god for evermore). The fact that the most frequent Old Testament name for God, Elohim, is an originally plural form is often mentioned in this connection, but the arguments are doubtful and perhaps influenced by lingering evolutionist patterns of thought. Henotheist tendencies are also evident in Vedic religion and, to a lesser degree, in the bhakti ("devotion") directed toward a variety of later Hindu deities.

One problem that cannot be ignored is the disappearance (with a few exceptions) of polytheism as a result of either monotheistic "revolutions" (e.g., ancient Israel, Islam) or unifying tendencies. Indeed, too little scholarly attention has been paid to the strange fact that polytheism has gradually disappeared except in some East Asian religions. In most contemporary philosophical discussions the alternatives considered as available to society seem to be monotheism or atheism; polytheism is treated as an important phenomenon or stage in the history of religions but hardly ever, philosophically or theologically, as a live option.

The quest of an overarching unity (one universe in spite of the multiplicity of forms of existence; one natural law under which all other laws can be subsumed) is clearly one factor that led to a view of the divine as one. By using impersonal language, it is relatively easy to speak of "the divine" in the singular. A personal god is a more difficult matter. But at any rate unifying tendencies are discernible everywhere, even in antiquity. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus speaks of "the one with many names," and the gveda says of the evidently one god that "men call him Indra, Mitra, Varua, Agni." The polytheistic paganism of the late Roman empire was syncretistic in the sense of evincing a tendency to identify the individual gods of the various (Greek, Roman, Oriental, Germanic) cultures. Hence it becomes possible to speak of a "pseudo-polytheism," a religious system that preserves the traditional polytheistic terminology but considers the many gods mere manifestations of what is ultimately one divine principle. This tendency is especially noticeable in many modern types of Neo-Hinduism. For some Hellenistic writers (e.g., Marcus Aurelius) the grammatical distinction between theos (singular) and theoi (plural) has become practically meaningless.

All monisticeven nontheisticviews on the higher and more sophisticated doctrinal levels notwithstanding, a de facto functional polytheism can continue to exist among the masses of devout believers. This is not the place for a psychological and sociological analysis of the role of the cult of saints among many Roman Catholics. In India, no matter what monist or nondualist doctrines are theoretically held, the religious life of the mass of believers is a de facto polytheistic one. The case of Mahāyāna Buddhism is even more striking. On the doctrinal and scholastic level, as well as on the level of higher mystical experience, there may be no god or divine being, and the key terms are emptiness, nothingness, and the like. Yet the ordinary Buddhist (and even the Buddhist monk) relates to the many Buddhas and boddhisattvas that in fact constitute the Buddhist pantheon like a polytheist to his gods.

See Also

Anthropomorphism; Apotheosis; Deus Otiosus; Dying and Rising Gods; Gods and Goddesses; Henotheism; Incarnation.


There is little, if any, systematic literature on the subject. Discussions of polytheism can be found in articles on monotheism in the older, standard encyclopedias (the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, and so on) as well as in accounts of specific polytheistic religions (for example, Germanic and Celtic; ancient Near Eastern; Greek and Roman; Indian, Chinese, and Japanese; Mesoamerican and South American). Perhaps the first modern discussion of polytheism, in the Western sense, is David Hume's The Natural History of Religion (1757), though Hume's account is obviously shaped by eighteenth-century European Enlightenment attitudes. Systematic considerations can be found in Gerardus van der Leeuw's Religion in Essence and Manifestation, 2 vols. (1938; Gloucester, Mass., 1967); E. O. James's The Concept of Deity (New York, 1950); and Angelo Brelich's "Der Polytheismus," Numen 7 (December 1960): 123136. On the relationship of polytheism to more highly developed political organization (e.g., the Greek polis), see Walter Burkert's "Polis and Polytheism," in his Greek Religion (Cambridge, Mass., 1985), pp. 216275.

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (1987)


views updated May 18 2018



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


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


views updated May 29 2018


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 .


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


views updated Jun 27 2018

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.


views updated May 14 2018

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


views updated May 14 2018

polytheism See MONOTHEISM.