Polytheism Explained

by | Polytheism & Paganism

What Is Polytheism?

Polytheism is the belief in multiple deities or gods. This is opposed to atheism, which is a lack of belief in any number of gods.

There may be one deity that rules over others, such as Zeus ruling over Olympus in Hellenic Polytheism. The core of polytheism though is the acknowledgement and belief in multiple gods in some way.

Paganism is often used as an interchangeable term, but that isn’t necessarily accurate. More commonly, paganism is a term to refer to any religion other than the “main” world religions, especially Christianity but also Islam and Judaism. The term pagan can include polytheistic religions, but may also relate to other types of belief.

Types of Polytheism

Polytheistic religions typically consist of a pantheon or pantheons of numerous gods.

Hellenic polytheism, for example, consists of hundreds of gods, from the twelve Olympians and the Cthonic gods, to the Titans and Fates and Nymphs, and so on.

Other religions can have one or more groups of gods too, such as the Æsir and Vanir in Norse paganism. And this was not limited to Europe, as Hinduism and Buddhism are polytheistic, as well as religions of ancient Mesoamerica, and other parts of the world.

Polytheism vs Monotheism

Whereas polytheism is a belief in multiple gods, monotheism is a belief in one single god. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are the most widely practiced monotheistic religions.

Historically, polytheism was much more widely practiced. The ancient Greeks, ancient Egyptians, pre-Christian Rome, Celts, and Norse peoples all believed in multiple gods across multiple pantheons. But with the rise of Christianity and as the Christian church pushed proselytisation, polytheistic religions began to diminish. This was especially the case throughout Europe.

However, polytheism still exists and is still practiced by many. The third biggest religion in the world is Hinduism, which is polytheist. And the last few decades has seen a growing movement for revivals and reconstructions of old religions.

Hard Polytheism vs Soft Polytheism

While we can discuss polytheism versus other types of belief system, it’s also worth talking about different views within the polytheist community. One of the greatest debates within polytheism is that of hard polytheism and soft polytheism.

While polytheism is the belief in multiple gods, you might ask “how many gods?” or “which gods?”

Hard polytheism holds that there are numerous gods that exist and are independent of each other. They are discrete beings that act and exist separately to one another.

Soft polytheism on the other hand holds that while many gods exist, not every god humanity has believed in exists discretely. This view tends to see the gods more as archetypes than independent beings.

An example of this is comparing Zeus and Jupiter. To many, they appear to be the same god. A soft polytheist would likely say they are the same god known by different names, whereas a strict hard polytheist would say they are entirely different beings.

There are those who say that “hard polytheism” is just polytheism, and that “soft polytheism” is reductive and often leads to a form of monotheism. Soft polytheism can easily lead to the concept of a single deity with many facets, but ultimately a single god.

My personal opinion lies somewhere in between, but with a leaning towards hard polytheism. I believe in multiple gods with a distinction between them. Jupiter may be another name for Zeus, or they may be entirely separate gods. My approach to the divine lines up well with the ancient Greeks and they are the gods I feel drawn to, so they are who I focus on, but gods from other pantheons could exist.

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