Humans, in contemplating the ultimate questions of life, overwhelmingly posit the existence of a supernatural world. Confronted by the same problems of existence, various peoples have attempted to unravel mysteries and allay fears through encounters with this sacred realm. In polytheistic cultures, human contact with this world takes the form of interaction with sacred beings, or gods and goddesses. The culture of deities takes the form of a pantheon, a hierarchical structure wherein gods and goddesses live in a sacred community.
Although polytheistic systems most easily incorporate pantheons, monistic and monotheistic cultures may also possess similar images of the sacred. Monism allows for pantheons, viewing deities as emanations of the one divine reality. Although monotheism purports the existence of one, and only one, supreme deity, it has on occasion absorbed the pantheons of cultures it missionized, downgrading deities into helpers, such as angels or saints.
Whether a religion revolves around a polytheistic, monistic, or monotheistic view of the divine, pantheons possess a dynamic structure. Believers continually reexamine and reevaluate deities. New deities arise and take over the work of older deities and absorb their attributes. Deities merge, change gender and form, or fade away altogether.
Despite the diversity of cultures in existence, the functions and attributes of deities possess similarities the world over. Deities touch human existence at its most crucial junctures, dealing with issues of food, fertility, protection, birth, and death. The hierarchical structure of the pantheon often reflects the various functions of the deities, in turn, this sacred structure both reflects and creates the structure of human society and life itself.
The highest order of deities, generally associated with the sky, serve as the creators and guardians of cosmic and societal order. Deities associated with meteorological activities often take the roles of protectors or warriors. Earth deities fulfill tasks related to fertility and prosperity, both in the realm of food, such as gods and goddesses of the hunt or deities associated with agriculture, and in the realm of love and childbearing, dealing with romance, marriage, and procreation. Domestic and community deities also fall under this heading, protecting home and hearth. Underworld, or chthonic, deities rule the realm of sickness and death, often conversely associated with healing.
The realms of deities and humanity exist on different levels; however, certain deities, often tricksters, bring culture, art, technology, and esoteric knowledge and magic to humanity, helping people to bridge the gap between the mundane and the holy.
How a people understands its deities can range from viewing them as personifications or archetypes of abstract concepts to personal knowledge of them as mythological beings with their own histories, personalities, and distinct reality as persons. Often a belief system incorporates both understandings, with a divine ground of reality existing on a very remote, abstract plane, and the members of the religion's pantheon existing in a more immediate, immanent way, intimately concerned with the day-to-day aspects of an adherent's life.
In the United States today, three different groups possess readily recognizable pantheons. Native American religionists represent indigenous ideas of deity. Immigrants from India and Asia often bring their old religions with them, possessing a multitude of deities and supernatural entities. Africans hide their old ways in a syncretic fashion in religions such as Santerıa and Vodou. Finally, Neopaganism, a modern movement that seeks to revitalize the ancient religions of Europe, mainly adheres to a polytheistic view of the cosmos.
Various groups within Neopaganism vary widely in what pantheons they adopt and what practices they follow. Religions such as the Asatru follow one pantheon only and to re-create, or revitalize, an ancient European tradition in its entirety. The Asatru follow Norse or Germanic traditions, worshiping only members of the Norse pantheon, such as Odin, Freya, and Thor, and attempt to both conceptualize and worship them in the "old" ways. On the other side of the continuum, Wiccans often feel free to adopt deities from any pantheon in existence, often mixing and matching members from diverse pantheons. The main rituals of Wicca loosely follow the pre-Christian rituals of the British Isles; however, Wiccans view all pantheons as equally viable and real. Some witches limit themselves to an individual pantheon, with the gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt proving especially popular. Witches sometimes even adopt icons from popular culture, such as Star Trek or other fictional "universes." The central theme of Neopagan religions lies in the acceptance of both a goddess and a god, which may reveal themselves in a variety of forms.
Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. The Witches' God: Lordof the Dance. 1989.
Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. The Witches' Goddess:The Feminine Principle of Divinity. 1987.
Jordan, Michael. Encyclopedia of the Gods. 1993.
1. The rotunda erected by Emperor Hadrian (reigned ad 117–38) in Rome (ad 118–28), with coffered concrete dome (illuminated by an oculus at the top) set on a very thick circular drum (the internal diameter of which is the same as the internal height to the top of the dome), and octastyle temple-front portico attached to the drum outside. Any similar building is known as a Pantheon.
2. Building for the general burial-place of or memorial to the great dead, such as the Panthéon, Paris (formerly Soufflot's Church of Ste-Geneviève).
pan·the·on / ˈpan[unvoicedth]ēˌän; -[unvoicedth]ēən/ • n. all the gods of a people or religion collectively: the deities of the Hindu and Shinto pantheons. ∎ (also Pantheon) (esp. in ancient Greece and Rome) a temple dedicated to all the gods. ∎ a building in which the illustrious dead of a nation are buried or honored. ∎ a group of particularly respected, famous, or important people: the pantheon of the all-time greats.
From this specific use the word was extended to mean a temple dedicated to all the gods (especially in ancient Greece and Rome) or a building in which the illustrious dead of a nation are buried or honoured. The term is now used for the gods of a people or religion collectively, or for a group or set of people particularly respected, famous, or important.