AskDefine | Define polytheism

Dictionary Definition

polytheism n : belief in multiple Gods [ant: monotheism]

User Contributed Dictionary



From (polus) "many" and (theos) "god"


  • /pɒli'θi'ĭz'əm

Alternative spellings

  • sometimes hyphenated or expressed as a phrase: poly-theism, poly theism
  • sometimes either the P or both the P and T are capitalized: Polytheism, PolyTheism
  • variations of capitalization and spacing may be combined: Poly-theism, Poly-Theism, Poly Theism, Poly theism


  1. The belief of the existence of many gods.


belief of existence of many gods

Extensive Definition

Polytheism is belief in or worship of multiple gods (usually assembled in a pantheon) together with associated mythology and rituals.


English polytheism is attested from the 17th century, loaned from French polythéisme (since 1580). In post-classical Latin, the term is polytheismus. The word is attested later than atheism but earlier than theism.
It ultimately derives from the Greek adjective (from "many" and "god"), in the meaning "of or belonging to many gods" found in Aeschylus (Suppliant Women 424), in the meaning "believing in many gods" in Procopius (Historia Arcana 11).

Gods and divinity

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 ethnic 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.


Polytheists believe that gods are distinct and separate beings. They may believe in a unifying principle such as the "One" of the Platonists. The Greek gods provide an example. The ancient Greeks believed that their gods were independent deities who weren't aspects of a great deity and did stand on their own.
Soft polytheism is a variety of polytheism in which adherents believe in many gods or goddesses but consider them to be manifestations or "aspects" of a single god (or god and goddess) rather than completely distinct entities. Soft polytheism may include varieties of monolatry, henotheism or polytheist mythologies coupled with forms of pantheism or panentheism.
"Soft polytheists" regard their multiplicity of gods as being manifestations of either common entities, or representing different aspects or facets of a single personal god, the latter also sometimes known as "inclusive monotheists", as are many modern neopagan groups.
Ancient Egyptian religion in its later phase (New Kingdom) espoused soft polytheism in the form of triads or triple gods or goddesses. They believed that certain gods were aspects of a greater god. Amon was an aspect of Ra and was usually known as Amon-Ra. The presence of triple gods such as Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, or "the Trinity", shows that even though their gods may have distinct personalities and traits, they are considered to be aspects of another deity. In Hinduism, the Smartha tradition can also be seen as a form of soft polytheism.
"Hard polytheism" is most prevalent in mythology, where the gods appear as independent agents who can be, and often are, in conflict with one another. An example of hard polytheism is Euhemerism, the postulate that all gods are in fact historical humans. In this sense, hard polytheism from a monotheist perspective becomes indistinguishable from atheism. An example of gods in mutual conflict can be seen in Plato's Euthyphro (6e), a foundational text for the emergence of Neoplatonist and Christian monotheism, wherein Socrates criticizes a definition of piety because of the possibility that the gods might disagree among themselves on whether to approve of a particular action.
The emergence of "soft polytheism" in antiquity was a result of theological speculation: Monism emerges in early Hinduism, leading to the notion of Brahman existing alongside a continued vigorous polytheist tradition. Soft polytheism can also be detected in the tendency to identify gods as aspects of one another, e.g. in the interpretatio graeca of non-Greek gods, or the triads in Ancient Egyptian religion, which postulated that certain gods were aspects of a greater god.
The terms "soft" vs. "hard" polytheism are often used to describe theological positions in Neopaganism. 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 proved so popular among some Neopagans (notably, Wiccans) to the extent that it is often thought to be ancient, traditional lore, rather than the product of a recent work of fiction. Fortune's soft polytheist compromise between monotheism and polytheism has been described as "pantheism" (Greek: πάν ( 'pan' ) = all and θεός ( 'theos' ) = God). However, "pantheism" has a longer history of usage to refer to a view of an all-encompassing immanent divine.

In comparative religion

Monotheism may be contrasted with polytheism in that the former a belief in the existence of only one god. Polytheism and monotheism, being -theisms, may not be contrasted with -isms. The latter incorporate principles that do not necessarily reflect any relationship to theos "(of) god(s)." For example, monism is the term for any system with exactly one primal/primordial unity from which all other entities derive. The confusion of 'monism' with 'monotheism' in popular understanding is due to the fact that Abrahamic religions are both monotheistic and monist.

Mythology and religion

In the Classical era, Sallustius (4th century CE) categorised mythology into five types:
  1. Theological
  2. Physical
  3. Psychological
  4. Material
  5. Mixed
The theological are those myths which use no bodily form but contemplate the very essence of the gods: e.g., Kronos 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: e.g., people before now have regarded Kronos as time, and calling the divisions of time his sons say that the sons are swallowed by the father.
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. (See also the Judgement of Paris.) 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.

Historical polytheism

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.

Polytheism in world religions


See also: Hindu views on monotheism
The system prevalent in Hinduism is defined by the soft polytheistic Smartha philosophy and sect; this theory allows for the veneration of numberless deities, on the understanding that all of them are but manifestation of one impersonal divine power. That ultimate power is termed Brahman (not to be confused with Brahma) or Atman, and is believed to have no specific form, name or attribute. Because the ultimate power is impersonal, the system is monistic. Smarta theologians are influenced by the Advaita philosophy expounded by Sankara. By contrast, a Vaishnavite considers Vishnu as the only true god worthy of worship, and worship of other forms as subordinate or simply incorrect. Shaivite worshippers's position is usually similar to Vaishnavism. They worship Shiva alone as the supreme.

Buddhism and Shinto

See also God in Buddhism, Devas vs. Gods, and Nontheism in Buddhism
In Buddhism, there are higher beings commonly designed (or designated) as gods, Devas. However, Buddhism, at its core, does not teach the notion of praying nor worship to the Devas or any god(s).
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 many 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 because of its lack of a strict position on theism. 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 kami, created a tradition which prays to the kami (plural beings; the same term exists for singular and plural). Thus, there may be elements of worship of gods in some forms of later Buddhism.


Judaism has categorically condemned polytheism since Biblical times. Rabbinic views make a distinction between avodah zarah (idolatry) and shittuf (lit. "association"), defined as any doctrine that recognizes one supreme god, but ascribes power, albeit secondary, to a created being (the term refers to one who does not deny the monotheistic and exclusionary aspect of God, but "associates" something else with him). Judaism prohibits shittuf for Jews as idolatry; it is a matter of dispute if it is prohibited for non-Jews. The Tosafist Rabbeinu Tam, in Bekhorot 2b and Sanhedrin 63b, implies that trinitarianism could be permitted to gentiles as a form of shittuf. This view was echoed by Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet (Rivash, responsa 119) and apparently accepted by Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema, Orah Hayyim 156:1.) Nevertheless, many rabbinic sources disagree and prohibit shittuf to gentiles as well. There are no rabbinic source that allow Jews to worship through any form of shittuf. The punishment for polytheism was death. There is also a theoretical death penalty for polytheistic worship in the seven Noahide Laws (Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin 57a), and this is a factor in modern opposition to the notion of a Noahide legal system. Jewish scholars respond by noting that Jews today no longer carry out the death penalty, even within Jewish communities.


Christianity is descended from Judaism and its theology shows the monotheism of late-biblical and post-biblical Judaism. However, it has evolved a doctrine of Trinity in post-Nicene Christianity, which is explicitly monotheistic, but denounced as polytheism in Islam, Judaism and Unitarianism. Veneration of Saints in folk Christianity, in particular the concept of patron saints "responsible" for a certain aspect of life or society, may in some cases become indistinguishable from polytheism, and indeed in many cases seamlessly continues pre-Christian traditions.. Some Critics of Christianity have also criticized the concept of the Trinity as soft polytheism. Most Christians reject this stating firmly that there is only one god and this one god has three aspects. Also, some denominations of Christianity attack Mormonism for being polytheistic
The ten commandments state "I am the lord your god thou shall not have any gods before me". Also Protestants during the reformation such as Martin Luther criticized Catholicism and its veneration of many saints as being polytheistic and Idolatrous.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus said, "Where there are three deities, they are divine. Where there are two or one, I am with that one."(30)


Islam, an Abrahamic religion, is also staunchly monotheistic. According to the Qur'an, shirk (polytheism) is the greatest of sins. The concept of the Trinity is also believed by Muslims to be a form of polytheism.

Folk religion

The emphasis on monotheism during Christianization of Europe resulted in a re-casting of most gods of European traditions into either Saints or diminutive creatures of folklore such as fairies, wights, sidhe etc.
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. There are also a large number of polytheist folk traditions subsumed in contemporary Hinduism, although Hinduism is doctrinally dominated by monist or monotheist theology (Bhakti, Advaita). Historical Vedic polytheist ritualism survives as a very minor current in Hinduism, known as Shrauta.

New religions movements

New religious movements advocating polytheism are usually summarized under "Neopaganism", although that term also extends to purely monist or pantheist philosophies. Among Neopagan movements, explicit polytheism is most explicit in polytheistic reconstructionism, which has the stated aim of reviving historical forms of polytheism.


Blain, Jenny (2004) An Understanding of Polytheism. Quotation used here with the author's permission.

Further reading

  • Assmann, Jan, 'Monotheism and Polytheism' in: Sarah Iles Johnston (ed.), Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Harvard University Press (2004), ISBN 0674015177, pp. 17-31.
  • Burkert, Walter, Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, Blackwell (1985), ISBN 0631156240.
  • Greer, John Michael; A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism, ADF Publishing (2005), ISBN 0-976-56810-1
  • Iles Johnston, Sarah; Ancient Religions, Belknap Press (September 15, 2007), ISBN 0-674-02548-2
  • Paper, Jordan; The Deities are Many: A Polytheistic Theology, State University of New York Press (March 3, 2005), ISBN 978-0791463871
  • Penchansky, David, Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible (2005), ISBN 0664228852.

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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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