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Polytheism & Henotheism

Polytheism & Henotheism


This lesson defines and differentiates polytheism, as the belief in multiple gods, from henotheism, the belief in a single god that allows for the possible existence of other gods.

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Video Transcription

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Welcome to this tutorial on polytheism. Polytheism is, quite simply, a belief in multiple gods and goddesses. Let's take a look for a second at the Greek pantheon as an example of polytheism. The Greek pantheon is divided up in terms of responsibilities, so we have Hephaestus, god of the smith; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; Dionysus , who's responsible for wine-making and wine drinking; Poseidon, the god of the sea; Zeus, the King of the gods; and Demeter, a fertility goddess. We could also go back further generations, to the parents of these deities, so Kronos and Rhea are the parents of Zeus. Two people are responsible for setting these down, Hesiod in a book called the Theogany, and Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, building on earlier oral traditions and setting them down in writing. Polytheism is a form of theism. Polytheism has in common with monotheism, that they agree that there's divinity in the world, they just disagree about how this divinity should be expressed. We've already talked about the Greek pantheon, we could say much of same thing about the Norse pantheons, which are mostly no longer worshipped, there are neo-pagan revival movements though. Also, Shinto and Taoism are still polytheistic today, Shinto with its nature spirits, and Taoism with the Taoist immortals, who can be contacted through elaborate rituals. Let's talk about polytheism and another term called henotheism, henotheism comes from the Greek words heis theos, which means "one god." In henotheism you have one main deity, but other deities might also be worshipped. As an example of henotheism, we could talk about Hinduism. In Hinduism there is no official theology, there is no overarching orthodoxy, there might be various different orthodoxies, but there's the idea that the deity that you're worshipping at the moment is considered to be the absolute. At another time, another deity might be considered to be the absolute deity. It was Friedrich Schilling who first used the term henotheism. He believed that henotheism was an early form of monotheism, and there's a kind of, gradual transition, towards monotheism. And indeed, in the Jewish scriptures, you can find passages that do not actually deny the existence other deities, they just say that Yahweh is the highest deity. So perhaps there's a gradual transition from henotheism to monotheism. Just to recap, we said that polytheism is the belief in multiple gods and goddesses, and that polytheism frequently divides the responsibilities of the deities in two areas of responsibility. We said that polytheism agrees with monotheism, in the idea that the Earth and the cosmos is suffused with divinity. We said that the Greek and Norse pantheons are mostly not practiced today, but that they give us insight into the nature of polytheism. We gave the examples of Taoism and Shinto, as two currently practice polytheistic religions. Despite claims that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, we can say that it does not actually have an official theology that over arches all branches of Hinduism, and that it could be described as henotheistic, among many other descriptions. The word henotheism derives from the Greek words heis theos, and means "one god." It's the belief that although there might be one primary god, there may be other deities worthy of worship. Henotheism was first used by the philosopher, Friedrich Schilling, to describe an early form of monotheism.

Terms to Know

The belief that one god exists as primary, but that other gods may exist who are worthy of worship--most notable in Hinduism.


The belief that more than one god exists.