The majority of religions, from ancient times to the present day, believe in a pantheon of gods which help followers attain a path to a higher moral plane, be in harmony with all living things, and understand our place in the universe.
What Is Polytheism?
Polytheism is the belief in many gods and their worship. The majority of the world’s religions are based on polytheism, excluding, of course, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which follow the principles of monotheism.
The origin of polytheism is most likely routed in early belief systems, according to numerous sources. Nebulous concepts of demons, spirts and other forces of the universe which couldn’t be explained at the time generally formed the basis of early culture and religion.
Types of Polytheism
In the early stages of religious development, primitive societies believed in many spirits or animae. In later stages, the spiritual universe became more personalized as humankind became more aware, leading to polytheism. Often a singular god or supreme being would emerge as the belief system developed, with lesser gods or goddesses beneath the supreme being. The group of gods, or pantheon, then became that particular culture’s key to understanding their environment, both the natural phenomena as well as their raison d’être. With the growth of the culture and their belief system, the number of gods would grow too, forming into a hierarchical structure, with the lesser gods eventually falling away.
Divinities in polytheism often relate to nature and physical objects. In times when agriculture and harvest were critical, the religions of the time were connected closely with fertility. The sun was considered very important and, as nothing would grow without its power, it was believed to be a god in many religions. Since the sun dominates the sky, the gods linked to it are attributed with all-knowing power, and the light provided by the sun is often associated with creation myths. The moon, however, was generally not equated with the same level of power.
Seemingly, astrology has been greatly influenced over the years by gods associated with the sky. In India and the Middle East, astrology formed a major part of religion. In Gnosticism, astrology forms an integral part on a physical, psychological and esoteric level. Similarly, the ancient Greco-Roman religions believed in the importance of astrology in religion, as did the Aztecs.
Polytheistic religions routinely link gods to the elements. Certain gods, such as Zeus and Indra (a deity in Hinduism), are closely associated with storms. Gods were often linked to specific geographical features of an area too, such as underground rivers, mountains and seas. Trees also form an important part of spiritual beliefs, for instance, the Tree of Life. Deities were frequently connected to specific plants, like Dionysus, the god of the grape harvest and ecstasy. In ancient religions, Gods are often represented as animals, such as a snake, bird or monkey. In Greek mythology, the gods frequently take on human form. It was also possible for mortals to take on a godly form, like the divination of Roman emperors.
Prior to the influence of the Roman Empire, ancient Greece revered the 12 Olympian gods which included, among others, Zeus, Poseidon and Apollo. After Roman occupation, Roman and Greek traditions melded together. The later influence of philosophical systems such as Stoicism introduced a more structured cosmology. In the Hellenistic period, mystery cults, such as the cult of Demeter, were influential and focused more on the afterlife. Only those initiated into the mystery cult were privy to its secrets. Initiates often had their hair shaved, had to walk around in the dark as part of their initiation, and participated in secret rituals in the mountains where the free-flowing wine was accompanied by frenzied dancing.
In ancient Nordic religion, Odin, Thor and Freyr were the three main gods worshiped. Odin is the god of war and rules over Valhalla, the hall which housed the spirits of honorable warriors. Thor is an all-powerful warrior, the god of thunder and defeater of the giants. The god of fertility, Freyr, was said to be hated by none. The Norse pre-Christian worldview was more complex than the concept of good and evil and embraced the possibility that one value may conflict with another. Their myths mirrored the dynamic balance in nature and were also cyclical, with the gods and goddesses and the cosmos also subject to birth, death and rebirth.
The Middle East
In ancient Egypt, the people sought to understand their existence through the actions of their pantheon of gods. They also patterned their religion on the cycles of nature. The Egyptians believed in a fundamental order of the universe called Ma’at, a concept of balance, morality, truth and justice. Followers worshiped many gods, including Osiris, the god of vegetation; Isis, the goddess of fertility; Horus, the god of light and the sky; Set, the god of storms; and Ra, the god of the sun. During the ninth year of his reign, the pharaoh Akhenaten tried to change to a monotheistic religion, with the worship of only one god, Aten, but the people revolted and continued to worship the other gods.
In Sumer, in Mesopotamia, the god of heaven, An, was viewed as the progenitor. Lesser gods also existed and each city had its own patron deity. Marduk was the patron deity of Babylon. A temple built to venerate Marduk, the ziggurat Etemenanki, was said to be the model for the Tower of Babel. According to some sources, early Sumerian and Egyptian religion served as the basis for Middle Eastern religion and may have influenced Hellenistic religion, too.
In China, Confucianism was taught by the philosopher Confucius in the 6th to 5th century BC and is considered both a religion and philosophy. Confucianism includes ancestor worship and heaven worship, but does not otherwise concern itself with the mysteries of the universe, focusing rather on everyday living and a person’s moral responsibilities. Confucianism has been linked with other major eastern religions and had a major spiritual and political influence on the people’s way of thinking, stretching into present day.
Similarly, Daoism is viewed as a both a religion and philosophy. It developed from a folk religion in rural China and eventually became the official religion in the Tang Dynasty. The principles focus on maintaining balance in nature and the cosmos, and postulate that every person is basically good. With guidance and reminding, a person can live in harmony with their surroundings. Ancestor and spirit worship, similar to Shintoism, became a part of Daoist ritual and sought to bring the people closer to the spirits and gods.
In Japan, Shinto beliefs center on the communication with kami or spirits. In Shinto there is no unequivocal right or wrong. Followers of Shinto worship at shrines and aim to live in harmony with others and with nature.
In ancient Mesoamerican religions, a pantheon of gods were venerated in accordance with a cyclic calendar. Their gods purportedly represented various elements of the cosmos. The Mayans believed in keeping the cosmos balanced through blood sacrifice. Their creator god was Hunab Ku, and other major gods included a reptilian deity, Itzamna; a sun deity, Kinich Ahau; and a rain deity, Chac.
Aztecs similarly used blood and human sacrifices as part of their religious construct. The majority of Aztec deities were human-like, with all life being allegedly created by Ometecutli and his partner, Omecihuatl. Deities were personified in rituals to renew the cosmos and prevent the end of the world. The Incas believed the universe was created by Viracocha. They also worshiped a sun god called Inti, a god of rain and storms named Illapa, and a moon god called Mama Quilla. Pacha Mama, the earth mother, resided in the Ukhu pacha or inner earth realm.
In approximately 330 BC, though scholars disagree on the dating, an Iranian religious prophet, Zarathustra, shifted importance away from the long-standing polytheism which had existed in ancient Iran with the introduction of his one god, Ahura Mazdā. One of the most important deities, prior to Zarathustra, was associated with fire. It was considered an extremely sacred element in the religion, to the degree that even fires in a fireplace inside the home were not allowed to be extinguished.
The Buddhist pantheon was said to originate from Hinduism and local and Indian folk religions. The various gods reflect the many aspects of enlightenment, and followers do not believe in a single creator god. Certain Buddhist gods have a humanlike appearance, while others may have multiple heads and arms, like Avalokitesvara, the god of mercy with 11 heads; Harati, the god of fertility; Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, and Gandharvas, the celestial musicians.
Hinduism is considered one of the oldest religions in the world. In the Hindu religion, the gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma form the trimurti and are responsible for the continual creation, maintenance and destruction of the universe. Followers believe in a supreme being as well as a multitude of other gods and goddesses, numbering in the millions, which reflect the forms and qualities of the supreme being. Hindus are free to worship according to their own tradition as no single system of beliefs exists.
In neo-paganism, practitioners believe in a god and goddess, with Wicca favoring the goddess especially. Deities reflect the aspects of the god and goddess and are worshiped in accordance with the different seasons. Followers also believe that that divinity resides in everything.
The mysteries of the universe are complex, dynamic and ceaseless. For those that seek to understand its murky depths through religious pursuit, would a polytheism approach not align better with the inherent nature of the cosmos?