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Polytheism & Henotheism

Polytheism & Henotheism

Author: Ted Fairchild

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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Hello. Welcome. In this tutorial, we're going to explain what polytheism and henotheism are. And we'll identify how they might be differentiated.

We'll start with polytheism, which is the belief in more than one god or goddess. And the word is formed from two Greek words-- poly, meaning many, and theoi, meaning gods.

Most religions that are polytheistic, like some branches of Hinduism, believe that each god or goddess has a particular domain of responsibility and influence within which to exercise their powers. And that these powers are specifically tailored to that domain. For example, the Hindu goddess, Lakshmi-- she's the goddess of wealth and prosperity, spiritual and material wealth and abundance.

Polytheism, then, is a type of theism which is contrasted with monotheism, the belief in one supreme deity or god, the belief in only one supreme deity. With Hinduism still as an example, there are polytheistic religions are practiced today. And in history, there have been many. Some of the classical religions of Greece and the north religions of Scandinavia are examples of polytheistic traditions that are generally not practiced anymore.

Along with our living example of Hinduism as a flourishing polytheistic religion, we can include the ancient indigenous religion of Japan called Shinto-- also Taoism, which has variously been categorized as a philosophy as well as a religion-- Taoism being more indigenous to China. Both of these are also living religions. And together have approximately 500 million adherents.

Now, we can talk about this word henotheism. Like the word polytheism, it has a Greek origin. And it also refers to the belief in one god. However, it admits the existence, in some cases, the possible existence, of other gods. That is to say it doesn't actively deny the presence of other divine forces and their possibility and the fact that they might deserve credit and deserve recognition in the merit of worship.

And in some cases with the derivative subcategory of henotheism, known as kathenotheism, this heartily affirms more than one god but only one at a time, as the Greek term kath' hena suggests. Both of these terms, henotheism and kathenotheism were coined by the German philosopher Frederich Schelling in the late 18th century.

Looking at Hinduism again, many scholars have categorized and described Hinduism as an example of polytheism. However, given the many nuances and the subtleties of the tradition, the term henotheism has become an acceptable and accurate description. Schelling applied the term to Hinduism, finding that it addressed the nuance of the monotheistic tendencies of certain Hindu traditions.

Many branches of Hinduism honor one supreme deity or god while, at the same time, recognizing their avatars or manifestations by other names. In general, it is agreed that the term henotheism addresses religions in their early phases of monotheism-- for example, Vaishnavism, which is sometimes thought to be a more recent expression of Hinduism's underlying monotheistic orientation, in this case, with Vishnu as the supreme deity.

So now, we can review and summarize. We started with a definition of polytheism, which is the belief that there is more than one god or goddess. And then, we looked at an example of a living tradition, a living religion, that is polytheistic. And that's Hinduism.

And we also looked its monotheistic tendencies. And that was a way of speaking about henotheism, which is the belief that there is one primary god that is venerated and one deity that is the principal foundation of the religion. And at the same time, there are other gods or manifestations or avatars of the god that are manifested and also recognized. In a way, it's a form of polytheism but the difference is that henotheism honors one principle god and, at the same time, recognizes others.

We mentioned Shinto and Taoism as examples of living traditions that are also categorized, often, as polytheistic. And then we looked at some of the ancient religions-- the pantheons of Greece and Scandinavia as being examples of no longer practiced, for the most part no longer practiced polytheistic traditions.

So the lines between the gods are not always so clear. And the distinction between the one and the many has perplexed us since the beginning. But I hope these two key terms have been helpful. And take care. Good luck.

  • Polytheism

    The belief that more than one god exists.

  • Henotheism

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