Polytheism is, at its core, the belief in and worship of multiple deities. The word “polytheist” comes from the Greek poly, meaning “many,” and the Greek theos, meaning “god.” Essentially, the word “polytheist” can be understood to mean “many gods.” Polytheism can be difficult to explain to others due to the multiplicity inherent in its practice. Because of that, the first thing to be aware of about polytheists is that no two polytheists believe in the exact same gods or explore their faith in the exact same way. That is where the difficulty of explaining polytheism originates.
While it may be easy for a monotheist to explain to others that they believe in a single unifying supreme deity, that ease comes from the fact that a monotheist’s belief is singular in nature. Monotheism includes all of the Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. While there are other monotheistic faiths, the Abrahamic faiths are the most well-known and the most wide-spread.
Because of the prevalence of monotheistic faiths, it is not a surprise that polytheism is rarely encountered and that people living in monotheistic cultures lack the ability to truly comprehend the various types of belief systems found within polytheistic religions. The reason for that lack of comprehension stems from the inability to understand that there is no unifying practice that ties all polytheists together. A monotheist who encounters another monotheist – a Christian meeting a Muslim, for example – can exchange their understanding of the singular deity they share and acknowledge that, while the names they use are different, the faiths are remarkably similar in execution.
In contrast, a monotheist who encounters a polytheist can’t exchange spiritual knowledge of that nature, due to the contradiction inherent in the belief in one god versus the belief in many. This encounter doesn’t provide two opposing viewpoints – no, it provides two opposing worldviews. A monotheist cannot understand a polytheist because of this. And a true monotheist will never be able to properly comprehend a polytheistic worldview.
However, a polytheist IS capable of understanding the worldview of a monotheist because a polytheist’s faith, in general, consists of multiple worldviews that often contrast with one another. Switching worldviews is a way of life for most polytheists, so it is far, far easier for a polytheist to find ways to explain the complex nature of polytheism in a simple enough way for monotheists to understand.
The easiest way to explain polytheism to a monotheist is to use the polymorphism approach. Hinduism is a prime example of a polytheistic religion that utilizes this type of polytheism. Polymorphism, in and of itself, is the belief of one God with many different names and forms. In essence, it is the belief that a single divine being has multiple aspects. In modern-day polytheism, this type of polytheism is also known as soft polytheism. Polymorphism, is, however, the proper terminology.
Because polymorphism incorporates multiple aspects of a deity into one supreme being, it is the easiest way to explain polytheism to a monotheist. A common ground can be created using this approach, and further spiritual discussions can be held. Some polytheists may argue that a monotheist should work harder to try and understand the more complex forms of polytheism, but that is a failure to understand the different levels of complexity inherent in following a polytheistic faith in comparison to following a monotheistic faith.
In science, we expect our experts to condense the knowledge they have gleaned in multiple subject matters down to a point where laymen can understand it. A good scientist is capable of making even the most complicated theory one that we can all understand, and I would argue that a polytheist must be capable of simplifying the complex in order to facilitate discussion amongst peers.
We need to face the reality that we live in a world that is predominantly monotheist. Rather than railing against how unfair or how prejudiced the world is against polytheism, we need to be the ones taking control of the conversation so that we can explain, tirelessly if need be, why polytheism is as valid a spirituality as monotheism. To do that, we need patience, understanding, and a thick skin.
To make monotheists aware that polytheism is a valid path will take a lot of time and a lot of energy. Most polytheists probably don’t care enough to try and have that conversation. But I would argue that it is one of the most vital conversations to start because polytheistic faiths are gaining in adherents. More and more people are turning to faiths that are polytheistic in nature.
Which is great, but there’s one huge problem – most people turning to polytheistic faiths are doing so after growing up being steeped in a monotheistic culture. Monotheistic thinking does not work with polytheism, yet many new polytheists attempt to bring bits and pieces of their old worldview with them when they turn to polytheism. There are no primers for aspiring polytheists, and there are few polytheists willing to explain what it means to live a life rife with multiplicity.
Part of the reason polytheists lack that willingness to explain is because of how difficult such a task is. It is impossible to sum up all polytheistic faiths because there are vastly different approaches taken in each one. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t a few common threads that run between many polytheistic faiths (but not all). Teasing out those threads is an important part of furthering the conversation amongst other polytheists as well as important for the growth of polytheism as a whole.
So far, what I have managed to piece together as being representative of many polytheistic faiths (again, not all!) is as follows:
- Belief in/worship of multiple (fallible) Gods: Generally, the Gods aren’t omniscient, omnipotent, or omnipresent. They can make mistakes. Many pantheons consist of immortal Gods, but there are also many pantheons that consist of mortal Gods.
- Offerings/Sacrifices to the Gods: Generally, offerings are made to the Gods in order to establish the link between the human world and the divine world. This is also the primary way in which the Gods are honored.
- Ancestor Veneration: Offerings are made to ancestors in order to establish the link between the past generations and the current ones. Generally, polytheists focus more on ancestor veneration than on direct veneration of the Gods. Ancestral spirits, being more directly connected to the practitioner, are better able to help than the Gods.
- Multiverse Cosmology: The belief in multiple worlds or planes. While generally threefold in nature, there are cosmologies that incorporate a larger number of worlds.
- Sacral Nature: The belief that nature is sacred and should be treated with respect.
- Orthopraxy: Literally, “Right Practice.” Polytheistic faiths are focused on practicing faiths through rites and offerings instead of being focused on orthodoxy, or “right thought.” Polytheistic faiths require active participation.
Note: Not all of these threads can be found within all polytheistic faiths, and each polytheist may define each thread in a different way than I have described them here.
Types of Polytheism include:
- Traditional Polytheism: Also known as “hard polytheism;” the belief in/worship of multiple gods believed to be separate, distinct deities
- Shinto, Hellenistic Paganism, Asatru/Heathenry, Kemetism, Druidism, etc.
- Polymorphism: Also known as “soft polytheism;” the belief in/worship of multiple gods believed to be part of a greater singular deity
- Hinduism, Wicca (some traditions), etc.
- Henotheism: devotion to a single deity while acknowledging the existence of other gods that are worthy of worship
- Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, etc.
- Monolatrism: belief in the existence of multiple deities while asserting that only one god is worthy of worship
- Atenism, Hinduism, etc.
- Kathenotheism: belief in many gods, but only one god should be worshipped at a time
- Smarta Tradition of Hinduism, etc.
- Duotheism: the belief in two equally powerful gods, often with complementary properties and in contrast opposition
- Wicca, Dvaita Vedanta Tradition of Hinduism, Druidism, etc.
I found the types here.
I’m certain I didn’t mention every polytheistic faith or type of polytheism – there is essentially the same number of polytheistic faiths as there are polytheists. A general overview is all we can really hope for, and I hope I’ve done a decent job with what I have put together here.
As for my polytheism, I am a traditional polytheist, and the six threads I feel run through most polytheistic faiths run through mine as well. I may have missed something or included something unnecessarily, so please feel free to respond and expand this conversation. I think this is where we need to start, if we are to ever have meaningful philosophical discussions that incorporate polytheistic worldviews.
2 thoughts on “Defining Polytheism”
I think another difficulty in conversations between the two world views is that many people believe polytheism is like a less educated and more childish faith. When one comes from that point of view, it makes healthy discussions between both difficult and sometimes mean spirited conversations.
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That’s true, too. Addressing the belief that polytheism is a “barbaric & uncivilized” way of interacting with the world is part of the conversation. Without being willing to have that conversation (and yeah, you have to have a super thick skin to deal with the rough comments that get thrown around), then the slim chance we have of getting others to understand polytheism as a valid theological choice slips away from us completely.