From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Polytheism is belief in or worship of multiple deities. The word comes from the Greek words poly theoi, literally "many gods." Ancient Greek and Roman religions were polytheistic, holding to a pantheon of traditional deities. Polytheism is in most cases the origin of later monotheism, where one of the divinities becomes the only worshipped one.
In polytheistic belief, gods are perceived as complex personages of greater or lesser status, with individual skills, needs, desires and histories. These gods are not always portrayed in mythology as being omnipotent or omniscient; rather, they are often portrayed as similar to humans (anthropomorphic) in their personality traits, but with additional individual powers, abilities, knowledge or perceptions.
Philosophical perceptions of gods are different to the way they are portrayed in mythology. In philosophical traditions gods are seen as eternal, perfect at one with each other and omnipotent. Neoplatonism taught the existence of 'The One', the transcendent ineffable God and unifying principle of polytheism. "The One is God": Plotinus 204-270 BCE
For polytheists, gods may have multiple epithets, each with its own significance in specific roles, and have dominion or authority over specified areas of life and the cosmos. The Greek gods are an example of one system that assigns each god one or more clearly defined roles: Apollo is the god of music, but also medicine, Demeter the goddess of agriculture and the spring season, and Aphrodite the goddess of love and beauty. A god can also have a particular role in the god-hierarchy, such as Zeus, the father of the Greek pantheon, or designated to a certain geographical phenomenon, a cosmological phenomenon, a region, town, stream or family, but also to abstract ideas such as liberation Dionysos. In mythology, gods can have complex social arrangements. For example, they have friends and foes, spouses (Zeus and Hera) and (illegitimate) lovers (Zeus and his consorts and children), they experience human emotions such as jealousy, whimsy or uncontrolled rage (The fight between Tiamat and Marduk) and they may practise infidelity or be punished. They can be born or they can die (especially in Norse mythology), only to be reborn. However, such representations of gods are seen by the philosophers as hiding deeper spiritual and psychological truths such as archetypes in mythology
Whereas monotheism is a self-description of religions subsumed under this term, there is no equivalent self-description for polytheist religions: monotheism asserts itself by opposing polytheism, while polytheism does not use the same argumentative device, as it includes a concept of divine unity despite worshiping a plethora of gods.
- Types of Theism
- Culture hero
- Folk religion
- Hero cult
- Myth and ritual
- Polytheistic reconstructionism
- Sacred king
- Shirk (polytheism)