1 What Polytheism is, and what it isn’t

If you look up Polytheism on Wikipedia, you will read that it is a “form of religion” or “type of theism” alongside monotheism, henotheism, atheism, pantheism, panentheism, and a host of other supposed -isms. It is defined there as “the worship of or belief in multiple deities, which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religious sects and rituals”. That seems simple and unambiguous enough. But is it accurate?

The same page in fact quickly demonstrates that the apparently so precise categories of different -theisms used by the Wikipedians are essentially useless at describing existing religions: “Hinduism,” we are told, “while inherently polytheistic, cannot be exclusively categorized as either pantheistic or henotheistic, as some Hindus consider themselves to be pantheists and others consider themselves to be henotheists.” This sentence is awkward and paradoxical, not because Hinduism is awkward, but because these -isms are so badly defined.

The reason for this is that the two basic terms from which the -theisms are all derived, monotheism and polytheism, are not really general “forms of religion”, but originate from one specific historical context. It is here that they can be most meaningfully, and most unambiguously, applied. I am referring to the world of the Ancient Mediterranean, in which first Judaism and Samaritanism, then Christianity and after that, other religions, differentiated themselves from the beliefs and practices of others by making the number of the gods into a central ethical question: one God or many gods?

Those who demanded (and continue to demand today) that everyone make a choice, and choose the one God, the only god, are appropriately called monotheists. The actual word “monotheism” (gr. monotheïa or monotheotēs) was rarely used then, but Jewish and Christian writers often insisted “one must say that He alone (monos) is God (theos)” (Pseudo-Clement, Homily 16.2.1). The wellspring of all such expressions, one might say, is the Biblical Shema Israel, “Hear, o Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

Those who were not monotheists did not traditionally identify themselves as worshippers of many gods specifically, but thought that all peoples, with perhaps a very few exceptions, worshipped the gods. (That is why they often did not even understand the perspective of monotheists, and simply regarded them as godless, or ‘atheists’.) Some philosophers had proposed that the divine may somehow be unitary – albeit not in the sense of divine unity assumed by the monotheistic religions –, but it was not a marker of religious difference. Such philosophers went to the same sanctuaries as everyone else, and in that of Zeus, they called on the name of Zeus; in that of Athena, they prayed to Athena. That is why calling them “monotheists” is misleading, and contriving some other kind of -theist for them to be is a fool’s errand. Polytheistic (or, if you prefer, pagan) theology was a thicket of subtly different theories, but largely confined to lecture halls and the shelves of well-stocked libraries. Even people with a good education ordinarily learned only a few (superficial) points about each philosophical school, and less with the purpose of choosing one, than to understand and make learned references to them all. As such, it was never a matter of clearly defined sub-communities or “forms” of polytheism to be arranged into a tree of genera, species and sub-species.

2 Defining Polytheism

The burden on us, now, is not to find a definition of polytheism that can be applied across human history. We only need to find out what it is that monotheism was reacting against, and how, in turn, it reacted against the rise of monotheism as a political force by first coalescing into a self-conscious identity – which we can call Polytheism or Paganism. (Since either is sure to offend some, and no term is inoffensive to all, I use both, as well as others.) If others find that their traditions can also be called polytheistic, or wish to ally themselves with polytheists, all the better; but that is another matter. In this Guide, I am aiming at conceptual clarification based on a close study of intellectual history, not at political organizing.

Well then, to our task! Let us begin with the already-cited Wikipedia definition, as is customary on the internet: “(1) the worship of or belief in (2) multiple deities, (3) which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, (4) along with their own religious sects and rituals”.

  1. “The worship of or belief in deities”: In ancient Greek ethical writing, it is indeed a central moral injunction that one must honor (timan), revere (sebeisthai) or fear (phobeisthai) the gods – words that are also used to describe filial piety (the honor paid to parents) as well as piety toward the gods. In the case of the gods, another word, nomizein, also occurs. It means both ‘to believe in’ and ‘to worship’, as in the comic poet Philemon’s lines: “Believe in (nomize) and worship (sebou) the god, but do not investigate him. / For you will receive nothing more than investigating” (Stobaeus, Anthology 2.1.5a).
  2. “Multiple deities”: As the singular form “the god” in Philemon suggests, the multiplicity of the gods was not always front of mind to Greek-speaking pagans when talking about worship. Not, however, because they tended towards a monotheistic conception, but because they could speak about the multitude of gods in grammatically singular forms. Compare the way that old-fashioned English used the word ‘man’ for ‘humankind’. This could be done in ancient Greek too. Ho anthrōpos, literally ‘the human being’, could be used in a generic sense (i.e., ‘the human being as such, the species human’), or in a collective one, where a simple plural may not suffice (i.e., ‘humanity, humans as a whole’). In the same way, ho theos, literally ‘the god’, can be used as a generic singular (‘the genus of gods’ – ‘godkind’, so to speak), or as a collective one (‘the gods, all the gods’). Interpreted generically, Philemon’s verses mean that we must honor gods, collectively, that we must honor all gods.
  3. “The deities are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses”: This mention of “all gods” brings us to the next issue, the pantheon, a strange modern hybrid form of the Greek word pantheion (‘something related to all gods; something entirely divine’) and its Latin form, Pantheum, famously the name of a temple at Rome. Strangely, the original meaning of the word has become turned into its virtual opposite in modern parlance. Ancient prayers were often addressed to “all gods”, or to “all male gods and all goddesses”, but what was meant in such cases was all deities, not merely a circumscribed group of them. There were, to give just one example, countless temples of Isis in Greece, yet she always remained an Egyptian goddess; it was not necessary to adopt her from an ‘Egyptian pantheon’ into a ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman pantheon’ for the people of other lands to worship her. If there is something real being referred to by the word ‘pantheon’, it is either (a) systems of mythical genealogy, which are neither consistent nor closely correlated with belief or the practice of worship, or (b) the most prominent, or the totality, of the gods worshipped in a certain area or place – which is a rather more open-ended grouping than the word suggests.
  4. “Alongside the pantheon, the deities have their own religious sects and rituals”: This may be true of other religions, but in Ancient Mediterranean Polytheism, there were no sects (that is, mutually exclusive groups with different beliefs and practices) centered around specific gods. There were sects, such as the Pythagoreans, who rejected at least some aspects of animal sacrifice; but they defined themselves by the philosophy they followed, not a deity. Thiasoi, local fellowships that came together to worship a certain god or celebrate a festival, did not claim their members’ exclusive attentions, and while certain religious commitments

(like a priestly office, initiation into mysteries, or, exceedingly rarely, a private decision to worship only one deity) could place restrictions on what other rituals one could partake in, this

(Aristides 45.23 on Sarapis; Men Motyleites)

Why am I using Greek?

3 Why Greek philosophy and ‘syncretism’ are not monotheistic


4 Further Reading