Polytheism

Polytheism is a category best defined as the religious regard for many gods. It distinguishes itself most obviously from monotheism, which acknowledges only one god, but also from monolatrism and henotheism, which accept the existence of many while worshipping only one – and hence why mere belief in many gods isn’t enough to define polytheism. It’s also different from reductions of divine plurality to mere manifestations of a single entity (monism) or two (duotheist), which is common in wiccan neopaganism and inter-religious dialogue, where there’s a prevalent notion that it’s all the same with different masks.

This doesn’t mean that monolatrism and monism are irreconcilable with polytheism, but only up to a point. So for instance, if I focus on a particular god, but without neglecting the worship of others, I’ll still be a polytheist; but if I concentrate my practices on one deity alone, without honouring any other and even if I believe in them, I’ll be a monolatrist or henotheist. And if I see some gods as being the same, I remain a polytheist, whereas if I believe them to be all one, I’ll be a monist. This is not mere semantics! Different words really do identify different practices and beliefs.

Beyond the basic definition, everything else are specifics that depend on the exact traits of different forms of polytheism. Some have orthodoxy, others are merely orthopraxic and emphasize ritual practice as opposed to regulated belief. There are those that have moral codes and scriptures and those that live fine without them. Some have a cultural focus, others are openly eclectic. One’s rites, as well as temples and symbols, may not be another’s and even if the gods are the same. Some are more philosophical, others more pragmatic and not all of them require some form of initiation. Many, if not most, are not even exclusivist. And all of this ends up reflecting divine plurality itself: many gods, many cults, many ways to see and live the world and without the stigma of conversion, punishment, submission or condemnation of the other. Once within the basic definition of belief and worship of many gods, diversity is a basic characteristic of not just polytheism as a religious category, but also of multiple polytheistic religions.