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Polytheism is the belief in and/or worship of multiple deities, called gods and/or goddesses. These are usually assembled into a pantheon, along with their own mythologies and rituals. Many religions, both historical and contemporary, have a belief in polytheism, such as Shinto, Ancient Greek Polytheism, Roman Polytheism, Germanic Polytheism, Slavic polytheism, Chinese folk religion, Neopagan faiths and Anglo-Saxon paganism.

Polytheists do not always worship all the gods equally, but can be monolatrists, specialising in the worship of one particular deity. Other polytheists can be kathenotheists, worshiping different deities at different times.

Polytheism (belief in one or more gods), is a type of theism but contrasts with monotheism (belief in a singular god), which is the dominant belief in the world today. In certain religions, such as Wicca, the various deities are seen as emanations of a greater Godhead.



The English language word "polytheism" is attested from the 17th century, loaned from French polythéisme, which had been in use 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 πολυθεός (from πολύς "many" and θεός "god"), in the meaning "of or belonging to many gods" found in Aeschylus (Suppliant Women 424), or "believing in many gods" in Procopius (Historia Arcana 13).

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 folk 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.

Types of deities

Types of deities often found in polytheism[citation needed]

In comparative religion

Monotheism may be contrasted with polytheism in that the former is 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.[citation needed]

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

Some 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.

Hellenistic religion may still be regarded as polytheistic, but with strong monistic components, and monotheism finally emerges out of Hellenistic traditions in Late Antiquity in the form of Neoplatonism and Christian theology.

Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity
Late Antiquity to High Middle Ages

Polytheism in world religions


Polytheistic religions

Folk religions

The various folk/indigenous religions of the world are practically all polytheistic.

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. Also, a large number of polytheist folk traditions are 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.

Ancient Greek polytheism (Hellenic polytheism)

Ancient Greeks recognized the 13 major gods and goddesses: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Ares, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Athena, Hermes, Demeter, and Hestia, though various lesser gods were also worshipped. Different cities worshipped different deities, sometimes with epithets that specified their local nature.

The Hellenic Polytheism extended beyond mainland Greece, to the islands and coasts of Ionia in Asia Minor, to Magna Graecia (Sicily and southern Italy), and to scattered Greek colonies in the Western Mediterranean, such as Massalia (Marseille). Greek religion tempered Etruscan cult and belief to form much of the later Roman religion.

Indian religions


While Hinduism is Monistic, it can sometimes be misinterpreted and misunderstood as polytheistic. Hinduism believes in one god, the brahman, which can be realized in many forms.

Hinduism can be misinterpreted as polytheistic, monotheistic or pantheistic. Whilst there are a great number of polytheistic deities in Hinduism, such as Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Hanuman, Lakshmi, and Kali, they are essentially different forms of the same god- The Brahman.

A medieval Hindu view was that all the deities were separate entities. Though many today believe in different deities emanating from a single God, that one entity does not have a form and the majority continues to worship a deity as a matter of personal belief or tradition as a representation of this supreme being- The Brahman.

In the Smartha denomination of Hinduism, the philosophy of Advaita expounded by Shankara allows veneration of numerous deities with the understanding that all of them are but manifestations of one impersonal divine power, Brahman.

In contrast to the Smartha sect, Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism follow an established singular concept of a personal god, as panentheistic monistic monotheism, but differ in their conceptions of the Supreme God. A Vaishnavite considers Vishnu or Krishna as the only god worthy of worship, and worship of other deities as subordinate, or recommends worship of other forms of God as aspects or expansions of the Supreme. Many Vaishnavas regard Shiva as the topmost devotee of Vishnu, not to be confused with Sadashiv, who is regarded as an expansion of Vishnu. Shaivite worshiper's position is usually similar to Vaishnavism, however, they worship Shiva alone as the Supreme.

East Asian religions

Buddhism and Shinto

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. 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 deities called kami or kamigami (kami's plural form), created a tradition which prays to the deities of Shinto as a form of Buddha. Thus, there may be elements of worship of gods in some forms of later Buddhism.

In Neopaganism

Hard Polytheists believe that gods are distinct, separate real divine beings not psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces. Hard polytheists reject the idea that "all gods are one God"

This is contrasted with Soft Polytheism, which holds that Gods may be aspects of only one God, psychological archetypes or personifications of natural forces.

It is a misconception that Hard Polytheists consider the gods of all cultures as being equally real; that is a theological position more correctly called integrational polytheism.

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 is very popular among some Neopagans (notably, Wiccans) and incorrectly often believed to be just a recent work of fiction. However, Fortune indeed quoted from an ancient source, the Latin novel The Golden Ass of Apuleius. 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.

Neopaganism often blends polytheism with pantheism or panentheism.

Germanic Neopaganism

Germanic Neopaganism is a polytheistic faith, worshipping the same deities as historical Germanic paganism.


Wicca is a pantheistic, duotheistic, and a polytheistic faith. It sees the universe as being comprised by a divine Godhead (known by various names), but whom is subdivided into the opposing polarities of The God and The Goddess. Each of these deities can be further divided into many different polytheistic deities, which are aspects of The God and The Goddess. Wicca is tolerant in the understanding of divinity, but emphasises a balance and equality between male and female deities, whereas other polytheistic faiths have often placed male deities at the top of the hierarchy.


Romuva is a polytheistic faith. It follows the old religious practices of the Lithuanian people.

See also


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
  • Marbaniang, Domenic Epistemics of Divine Reality Google Books (See Chapter 3 Empirical Epistemics of Divine Reality for philosophical analysis of polytheism)
  • 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.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Polytheism is the belief and worship of multiple gods.



  • The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
  • "It must appear impossible, that theism could, from reasoning, have been the primary religion of human race, and have afterwards, by its corruption, given birth to polytheism and to all the various superstitions of the heathen world. Reason, when obvious, prevents these corruptions: When abstruse, it keeps the principles entirely from the knowledge of the vulgar, who are alone liable to corrupt any principle or opinion."
    • David Hume, The Natural History of Religion, sect. 1, p. 312 (1898).
  • The Vedic approach, is perhaps the best. It gives unity without sacrificing diversity. In fact, it gives a deeper unity and a deeper diversity beyond the power of ordinary monotheism and polytheism. It is one with the yogic and the mystic approach... In this deeper approach, the distinction is not between a true One God and false Many Gods; it is between a true way of worship and a false way of worship. Wherever there is sincerity, truth and self-giving in worship, that worship goes to the true altar by whatever name we may designate it and in whatever way we may conceive it. But if it is not desireless, if it has ego, falsehood, conceit and deceit in it, then it is unavailing though it may be offered to the most true God, theologically speaking.
    • Ram Swarup, The World As Revelation: Names of Gods.
  • Polytheism: "Not at all similar are the race of the immortal gods and the race of men who walk upon the earth." - Homer
    • Civilization IV, Post-Research Quote.
  • They question you concerning fighting in the sacred month. Say: 'fighting therein is a grave (matter); but to prevent access to Allah, to deny Him, to prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, to expel its members, and polytheism are worse than slaughter. Nor will they cease fighting you until they make you renegades from your religion. If any of you turn back and die in unbelief, your works will be lost and you will go to Hell.
  • Comparative theology is a two-edged weapon, and has so proved itself. But the Christian advocates, unabashed by evidence, force comparison in the serenest way; Christian legends and dogmas, they say, do somewhat resemble the heathen, it is true; but see, while the one teaches us the existence, powers, and attributes of an all-wise, all-good Father-God, Brahmanism gives us a multitude of minor gods, and Buddhism none whatever; one is fetishism and polytheism, the other bald atheism. Jehovah is the one true God, and the Pope and Martin Luther are His prophets! This is one edge of the sword, and this the other: Despite missions, despite armies, despite enforced commercial intercourse, the "heathen" find nothing in the teachings of Jesus -- sublime though some are -- that Christna and Gautama had not taught them before. And so, to gain over any new converts, and keep the few already won by centuries of cunning, the Christians give the "heathen" dogmas more absurd than their own, and cheat them by adopting the habit of their native priests, and practicing the very "idolatry and fetishism" which they so disparage in the "heathens." Comparative theology works both ways.
  • Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville's unforgettable line, "Created sick — Commanded to be well." And there are totalitarian insinuations to back this up if its appeal should fail.
  • The remote dwellers upon the Ganges distinctly made known that future life about which Moses is silent or obscure, and that unity and Omnipotence of the Creator which were unknown to the polytheism of the Greek and Roman multitude, and to the dualism of Mithraic legislators, while Vyasa perhaps surpassed Plato in keeping the people tremblingly alive to the punishment which awaited evil deeds."
    • General Joseph Davey Cunningham, (1812-1851) author of A history of the Sikhs, from the origin of the nation to the battles of the Sutlej.


  • For atheism and polytheism there is no special problem of suffering, nor need there be for every kind of monotheism.
  • The deepest difference between religions is not that between polytheism and monotheism.
  • I studied the Koran a great deal. I came away from that study with the conviction there have been few religions in the world as deadly to men as that of Muhammad. So far as I can see, it is the principal cause of the decadence so visible today in the Muslim world and, though less absurd than the polytheism of old, its social and political tendencies are in my opinion to be feared, and I therefore regard it as a form of decadence rather than a form of progress in relation to paganism itself.

See also

External links

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Look up polytheism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary

Simple English

Polytheism means believing in many gods. A person that believes in polytheism is called a polytheist. A religion with polytheism can be called a polytheistic religion.

Usually, a polytheistic religion has a set of stories about the gods. This is called mythology. The most famous and complete mythology is Greek mythology.

Other ancient people who were polytheists include the Celts and the Norse. Modern people who are polytheists include Pagans, such as Celtic Reconstructionist Pagans and Asatruar.



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