Polytheism is a belief system that involves venerating multiple gods or divine beings. Usually, this takes place within the context of a single religious tradition such as Hinduism.
It is juxtaposed to monotheism, which involves worshiping just one god.
Polytheism can encompass anything from straightforward belief in multiple deities to complex structures encompassing various gods with distinct traits and functions.
Throughout the span of human history, polytheism has been a widely accepted belief system across cultures. Its presence is evident in Ancient Egyptians, Greek civilizations, as well as several Native American tribes.
Sociologists and cultural anthropologists explore polytheism to gain a deeper insight into the spiritual customs of different societies and how religion has formed part of an individual’s identity. In addition, they investigate its role in uniting people as one cohesive community.
Polytheism is a spiritual ideology that recognizes the existence of many gods or deities. These divine entities are believed to oversee different aspects of life and possess considerable power over natural phenomena.
According to Domenech (2015), polytheism
“…is the worship of or belief in multiple deities, which are usually assembled into a pantheon of gods and goddesses, along with their own religions and rituals” (p. 37).
Polytheism entails more than just believing in deities; it’s the acceptance that many divine powers control the universe.
It is a flexible faith that provides individuals with full autonomy to select their preferred god or gods they desire to venerate (Rodgers, 2020).
To put it briefly, polytheism is a belief in many deities. This particular faith system was influential in establishing the foundations of various spiritual and religious beliefs we see today.
- Ancient Egyptians: The Ancient Egyptians believed in multiple gods, such as Isis and Osiris, who were associated with the sun, death, fertility, and other natural phenomena (Dubois, 2014). They also venerated several minor gods, known as the “netjeru,” who were responsible for overseeing everyday aspects of life, such as justice or writing.
- Ancient Greeks: Ancient Greek mythology boasted a divine pantheon of gods and goddesses who were credited with governing various domains, like Zeus (supreme ruler) or Poseidon (lord of the oceans) (Cornish, 2014). Additionally, particular deities sometimes served as patrons to certain cities—Athena was patroness to Athens and Athena had her protégée Sparta.
- Norse Mythology: Norse mythology follows the polytheistic beliefs of various Scandinavian cultures, such as the Vikings (Dubois, 2014). It revolves around numerous gods, known as the Aesir and Vanir, who were believed to be responsible for controlling fate, war, and the seasons.
- Hinduism: Hinduism is believed to be one of the oldest polytheistic religions in existence, honoring a large pantheon of gods. Adherents venerate Shiva and Vishnu that are seen as the most important deities, alongside other gods and goddesses who are associated with different aspects of nature (Nugteren, 2019).
- Traditional African Ethnic Religions: Many traditional African religions, such as the Yoruba and Igbo faiths, follow polytheistic beliefs. They recognize numerous gods and goddesses who are responsible for overseeing certain aspects of life, such as fertility, health, and success.
- Shinto: Japanese mythology follows the polytheistic principles of Shinto, an ancient faith. This belief system recognizes numerous gods, such as Amaterasu (the sun goddess) and Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto (moon god), who are associated with natural phenomena (Dubois, 2014).
- Wicca: Wicca is a modern-day polytheistic religion that is based on ancient European pagan beliefs. Followers venerate many gods and goddesses, such as the triple goddess (maiden, mother, and crone) and the horned god (Cornish, 2014).
- Taoism: Taoism is an ancient Chinese faith that believes in honoring multiple gods and goddesses. Among them, Laozi (the god of wisdom) and Guan Yin (the goddess of mercy) are venerated in Taoist temples (Cornish, 2014).
- Asatru: Asatru is a contemporary polytheistic religion that celebrates the ancient customs and beliefs of Norse mythology. It recognizes many gods and goddesses, such as Thor (the god of thunder) and Freya (the goddess of love) (Nugteren, 2019).
- Candomble: Candomble is an Afro-Brazilian faith that follows polytheistic principles. Paying homage to a plethora of gods, the religion pays tribute to figures such as Oxala (king of the gods) and Xango (the god of thunder), each connected with different aspects of life (Cornish, 2014).
Origins of Polytheism
Polytheism is an ancient belief system that predates most organized religions. Its roots can be traced back to prehistoric times when multiple gods were worshiped for their influence over various aspects of nature.
Polytheistic societies were abundant throughout the world, and many ancient civilizations, such as those found in Egypt, India, and Greece, had their own unique pantheons of gods and goddesses.
The first written evidence of polytheism appears in Sumerian tablets from the 4th millennium BC, referencing multiple gods and goddesses associated with different facets of life (Domenech, 2015).
Some believe that polytheism originated with the Agricultural Revolution when people began recognizing the power of multiple gods in providing fertility and plentiful harvests (Chung, 2019).
Over time, polytheistic beliefs spread to different regions and cultures, often evolving based on local mythology and traditions.
This type of belief was also found in various African traditional religions, Asian faiths like Shinto and Taoism, as well as modern-day practices such as Wicca and Asatru.
Polytheism vs. Monotheism
|Belief in one supreme deity
|Belief in multiple gods or divine beings
|Focus of worship
|Relationship with deity/deities
|Personal and direct relationship with one deity
|Interactions with multiple gods through rituals and offerings
|Christianity, Islam, Judaism (see more monotheism examples)
|Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religions
The primary difference between polytheism and monotheism is the number of gods worshiped: the former believes in multiple deities, while the latter honors one sole god (Nugteren, 2019).
Polytheistic religions, some of which date back to ancient civilizations and are known for their primitive rituals, embody a range of gods and goddesses that govern different aspects of nature.
Monotheistic religions, on the other hand, honor one single god or higher power. This type of faith usually emerges from an organized set of scripture and doctrinal beliefs.
Monotheism is a cornerstone of the Abrahamic faiths, including Judaism and Christianity. Moreover, monotheistic beliefs also have been embraced by Islamic and Sikh traditions, valuing the veneration of one singular deity above all else (Bayat & Herrera, 2021).
While polytheism and monotheism have their differences, they also share some commonalities. Both religions recognize the power of a higher being in overseeing certain aspects of life, and both are based on faith.
Soft Polytheism vs. Hard Polytheism
In modern polytheistic traditions, there is often a distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ polytheism. While soft practitioners recognize the similarities among gods, hard believers see each deity as a completely separate entity.
Soft polytheism is often associated with pantheistic faiths such as Hinduism. This type of belief system adheres to the unity of all gods, acknowledging them as aspects of one larger spiritual force rather than separate entities (Kangatharan, 2020).
Hard polytheism, on the other hand, is found in traditions such as Asatru and Candomble. It views each god or goddess as an independent being, recognizing their individual power and influence (Kangatharan, 2020).
Ultimately, the primary difference between soft and hard polytheism lies in how each is practiced—the former being more inclusive, while the latter is focused on honoring specific gods.
For example, Asatru is a hard polytheistic tradition that acknowledges each god as a distinct figure, while Wicca is a soft polytheistic practice that reveres various gods and goddesses as part of one collective source of divine energy.
Types of Deities in Polytheism
Polytheistic religions often feature a variety of gods and goddesses that rule over different activities, such as fertility, agriculture, war, and healing.
According to Dubois (2014), the most common types of deities in polytheism include:
- Sky deity: This type of god or goddess is usually associated with the sky, weather, and celestial phenomena. In ancient Greece, for example, Zeus was the king of the gods and lord of the sky.
- Love goddess: Also known as a fertility goddess, this type of deity is typically associated with love, beauty, and romance. Aphrodite, in Greek mythology, was the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility.
- Earth goddess: This type of deity is typically associated with the land, earth, plants, and harvests. In Norse mythology, the goddess Freya was associated with fertility and agriculture.
- Water deity: Gods and goddesses of this kind customarily control the oceans, rivers, lakes, springs, and other bodies of water. Poseidon—the Greek god, was in charge of the sea as well as its tempests.
- Creator deity: This type of god or goddess is responsible for the world’s creation. In many cases, this deity also serves as a source of order and structure in the universe. For example, in Hinduism, Brahma is considered to be the creator of all things.
- War deity: In Norse mythology, Odin is commonly related to warfare and combat. He is viewed as the god of warriors, battle, and death.
- Sun deity: A sun deity is frequently associated with the sun and its cyclical nature. For instance, in ancient Egyptian mythology, Ra was a renowned figure – he traversed through the sky on his chariot every day as the Sun God.
- Political deity: This type of deity is usually associated with political power. In Greek mythology, Zeus was often seen as the ruler of all gods and humans alike.
Polytheism is a belief system that revolves around multiple gods or goddesses. It was once the dominant religion of many ancient cultures and is still practiced by many people today.
Polytheism typically centers around honoring multiple deities that each have their own power and influence over different aspects of life, such as fertility and combat.
It is also divided into two main branches: ‘soft’ polytheism, which views all gods as part of a larger spiritual force, and ‘hard’ polytheism, which sees each deity as a completely separate entity.
No matter what type of polytheism is practiced, it is clear that this type of belief system has been around for centuries and continues to be an important part of many people’s spiritual lives.
Bayat, A., & Herrera, L. (2021). Global Middle East: Into the twenty-first century. University of California Press.
Chung, D. (2019). The evolution of theisms: The four technological revolutions and the four theistic revolutions. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 07(04), 213–242. https://doi.org/10.4236/jss.2019.74018
Cornish, R. (2014). 5 minute apologist. Tyndale House.
Domenech, A. (2015). The Domenech Bible interpretations. WestBow Press.
Dubois, P. (2014). A million and one gods: The persistence of polytheism. Harvard University Press.
Kangatharan, D. J. (2020). Multilingual neuropoetry. Lulu.com.
Nugteren, A. (2019). Religion, ritual and ritualistic objects. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.
Rodgers, J. (2020). A modern polytheism? Nietzsche and James. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 34(1), 69. https://doi.org/10.5325/jspecphil.34.1.0069
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]