Polytheism is a vague term that needs classification

The etymology of the term “polytheism” is insufficiently descriptive, even as it attempts to establish a clear difference from monotheism. While it is by no means useless or misleading, especially in the classification of general religion, it can be of some disservice to serious polytheists who are interested in the extensive and complex history of polytheism, either for ritual practices or theoretical understanding. Being among that number, I have always found some sort of difficulty in expressing my socio-religious views to other polytheists or explaining historical, cultural and socio-political developments regarding various ideas in and forms of polytheism. I needed to introduce adjectives like “traditional” or “regional” or “indigenous” which did not go far enough. And it seemed wrong that there should be a term such as “animism” for a distinct yet simple worldview, but only one term to denote various and profound stages of polytheism’s worldview. Anthropologists often hold that polytheism arose after the discovery of agriculture, but this did not explain its development or forms. I noticed also that many misunderstandings and misinterpretations among practitioners and thinkers resulted from the vagueness of the term “polytheism”, perhaps giving an impression of the fragmented and weak state of the movement. Since worldview is of paramount importance in belief and reconstructionism, natural distinctions resulting from distinct historical traditions should be classified properly. To this end, I will introduce four new terms, inspired by social anthropology; in these the worldview is immediately apparent from the etymology of the term. Since religion is a socio-cultural phenomenon bounded by place, it seems reasonable to be guided by the anthropological terms that classify human societies, i.e. band, tribe, chiefdom (simple, complex), and state. For this reason, the etymology addresses the geographical scope of the society that held such a worldview, namely, village, city, confederation/union, and world/universe. Hence, kometheism, politheism, koinotheism, and cosmotheism. Below is a table in some detail. 

Table

N.B. Three points to make. First, it might seem contradictory to place both monotheism and “polytheism” within cosmotheism, but this is necessary in view of the common origin of both systems of beliefs. Monotheism appeared during the evolution of a particular set of universalized ideas and syncretic circumstances within an expanding and competitive world grasping for an explanation of reality and hoping for an end to the pains of imperialism. It shouldn’t be thought that since monotheism denies all Gods except one, it is therefore of a totally different cast. The evolution of monotheism itself and the continuing the polytheistic remnants within it are proof against this rather simplistic opinion. Secondly, the four stages of polytheism are obviously not exclusive in descending order. Every cosmotheism will contain certain elements of the three previous worldviews, although not in a consistent or even manner. Lastly, I hope it will be understood that this is not an attempt to account for the development of Gods in material terms. Gods are real, but the earliest conceptions of them (before a tradition is made) depended on the nature of the experiences and lifestyle of those who first established the connection, as dictated by the natural environment and culture. The Gods, theoretically speaking, are not fully known to us. Animism is probably the closest we can reach because the natural and supernatural are equivalent, leaving little room for uncertainty as far as divine presence and experience is concerned. But polytheism later added new ideas and practices (mirroring changes in society) that can be compared to a mantle or cloak which covers the God, giving that God a more particular appearance or function for the convenience of distinct cultic practices and purposes, but simultaneously (because the God is covered) making that God somewhat less accessible to our conceptual understanding (hence the development of monotheism and later atheism).

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11 thoughts on “Polytheism is a vague term that needs classification

  1. K

    I think the Goths were the first Germanic people to shift to koinotheism. They lead the way in the migration period and the fight against the Huns(though the Huns also had a lot of Goths on their side). They were so prominent that “the old Goth” and other Goth related names are among the by-names for Odin. The Goths were also the first Germanic people to make a sort of national religion entirely beneath their king focused on a particular set of gods(9 of them) after doing away with the institution of priestesses(probably like the diviners of other tribes) that they had before. They were among the first to really be exposed to Romanization and Christianity to a large degree. They and some other migrating Germanic peoples started to adopt Arianism, though I question how much that really meant. We still see references to ‘household gods” centuries after that, and much of the evidence from things like early medieval burial practices(they remained the same as before) point to syncretism. Charlemagne was the one who really started to enforce Catholic orthodoxy and stamp out anything heathen, though some Catholic Anglo-Saxon kings had caved into Church pressure before then and started to actually ban heathen worship(which had not been formally banned).

    I don’t see any problem with putting monotheism in cosmotheism. I have argued several times that Zoroastrianism is not monotheistic. Classical Zoroastrianism certainly was not. Take away that issue, and it is still very similar to Abrahamic monotheisms. Ancient Egyptian religion despite being polytheistic had many points of similarity with Christianity. Too many people are focused only on the number of gods involved, and not other factors.

    Madhva and his Dvaita Vedanta thought is a good example. He had a very dualistic interpretation of the Vedic literature, as opposed to monism or qualified monism of other thinkers. He also promoted bhakti(devotion) of Vishnu to the point of virtual monotheism. He did not deny other gods, but in his view(and this is common among Vaishnavas today) other gods are functionaries and subordinates made by Vishnu, who is supreme. Worship of Vishnu is the key to salvation in this system. Madhva taught that only by Vishnu’s grace could one attain salvation, not by any effort at knowledge by one’s own power. Madvha also, strange for a Hindu thinker, came to a conclusion vary much like a form of Calvinism, complete with reprobates destined for eternal damnation. He did this independent of Abrahamic religion.

    Or look at the Buddhist teacher Shinran from Japan. He came up with a notion of salvation derived from, but with radical differences from, older Japanese and Chinese Buddhist practice focused on the worship of Amida and hope of rebirth in his Pure Land. Shinran taught that people in this corrupt age(mappou) are unable to reach enlightenment by their own effort. Faith in Amida and his promise to save all beings who call on him is what will save you. Shinran, unlike previous thinkers, was even more insistent on this, as prior to him one’s own efforts and practices were considered important. But Shinran insisted on faith alone, and discouraged any practices except worship of Amida and reading of the sutras about Amida and his vows. He even taught against distinctions between priests, monks, and laiety, got married himself(despite being a monk), and taught against observing anything but the most basic Buddhist rules. He taught that anyone of any class can have faith in Amida, and that other practices for other Buddhist figures or even gods(whether the Vedic, Chinese, or native kami all worshiped in Japan) should be put aside. He had a low opinion of some other Buddhist sects like Zen and of what we would call Shinto, to the point of calling them heresies and false. Years ago when I studied him and is sect(and its precursor sect) in depth, I thought I was reading some Christian writer. He sounds at times like Martin Luther or Paul. And yet he had no contact with any form of monotheistic Abrahamic religion. This kind of religious system is something that goes beyond distinctions like monotheism or polytheism, or even cultural distinctions.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Good points. From my observation, it seems that koinotheism is always preceded by expansion or invasion and the resulting confederation or union that follows it. I don’t know too much about the Goths, but they were certainly koinotheists from your descriptions. Remnants of older theism will often be found like “household worship” but the emphasis or eminence is given to higher forms and systems of divinity- compare this for example in Hellenism to the local God Pan or Goddess Britomartis as opposed to the Twelve Olympians. Genealogy is also a common feature of koinotheism, because localities must become fused in the new, larger worldview.

      “Too many people are focused on the number of gods involved, and not on other factors”. This is what has inspired many of my posts, including this one in particular. It sounds like pedantry when it’s argued that monotheism is completely different from forms of polytheism just preceding it. Religious mentality evolves out of circumstances relating to lifestyle and worldview; hence, monotheism did not at all arise within a vacuum. It’s incumbent on us to seek out not only how to revive polytheism but also to understand why it declined or took a wrong course. Cosmotheism, of whatever form, is the religion of empires and those living within them. There is direct correlation and indeed causation between a larger worldview and the larger authority/role/province of divine figures.

      The examples of cosmotheism you give from Japan and India are very valuable and worthy of reflection. If this was the case, without any influence from Near/ Middle Eastern monotheism, then this mentality is not accidental but has particular causes and symptoms, arising within a particular kind of environment. I would argue, as I have consistently, that empire of some form (military, commercial, political) is to blame. The Axial Age never arose outside the province of large and complex state societies, and if they did, it always happened at the fringes, in areas where imperial influence was exerted or once existed.

      One thing I didn’t add to the post was my personal theory on an ideal position of polytheism when taking these forms into account. After some reflection, I thought each of the four served a purpose, but in different measure. This is what I arrived at: kometheism 65%, politheism 20%, koinotheism 10% and cosmotheism 5%. In other words, the emphasis is on autonomous community, with some regional sharing. National/ethno-linguistic activity is present but kept low and beyond the nation, the little that remains is ceremonial based on a few common principles & ideas (for example, imperialism is bad or female deities shouldn’t be below their male counterparts in station).

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      1. K

        I was going through my link archive. I remembered a book I had read because of an found an article mentioning it years ago. I found the link again.

        https://vividness.live/2015/04/04/ritual-vs-mentalism/#breakdown

        I also got to reading the posts on this by following links starting from the ritual vs. mentalism article over the past week.

        https://meaningness.com/meaningness-and-time

        It struck me a few days ago that your chart and some of this can be compared. The sections on choicelessness, systematic mode, and system breakdown.

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  2. K

    The Germanic poetic sources(I mean all of the languages involved) have a lot of focus on genealogies and stories of certain clans and places associated with them. The Gjukungs, Volsungs, Ulfings, Scyldings, Ynglings, and certain famous rulers(many of them Goths like Ermaneric, Theodoric, and Heidrick) are found throughout these sources across a wide range of time and place. One of the old Eddic poems is a genealogy that Freya gets a jotun to recite to her. Sagas are all about genealogy, and many of the mythological poems outside of the Poetic Edda are about genealogy. It is not all that different from early Greek mythology, including Homer. We even have our own pan-Germanic hero in Sigurd(or Siegfried, or Siward, or Sjurdr as the name varies by language) like the Greeks held up Achilles as theirs. Sigurd’s story does not take place in Scandinavia at all, but he was famous there and all over the Germanic sphere.

    The thing missing from the religions I talked about is a drive to hate and destroy all “idolatry” or infidels. Shinran and Madhva did not demand that. Their sects remained one view among many. India, China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the rest of Asia are full of diverse religious practices and ethnic religions that are mostly known to anthropologists. Most people in Asia follow ethnic religions that are put under the label “Hinduism”, “Confucianism”, “Taoism”, or “Buddhism” because Christians(mostly European ones) wanted to class them as “world religions” to frame as competition to Christianity. Except for Buddhism(and not in every case), no one in Asia had even heard of those other religions before then as specific, separate religions. If I had to have cosmotheism, I would rather have something like those labels I listed, rather than Abrahamic ones.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      You are right. The sagas are epic poems and these become standardized and spread under koinotheism. Hence the term, Germanic Heroic Age, which matches with the Hellenic. In this sense also, Abraham, Moses and David were probably mythical figures comparable to Sigurd and Achilles, in other words, Heroes and eminent Progenitors from whom nobles at first claim some sort of descent, and then (after a process of nationalization) all people. Monotheism reshaped the latter stories later to suit a new set of ideas, but the Greeks (at the influence of Athens mostly) replaced Achilles with new Philosophers.

      It is true that Near Eastern monotheism is unique in its desire to destroy religious opposition. I think there is a particular reason for this: the original idea behind the “Church” was the “Kingdom of Heaven”. When this later combined with imperialism under Constantine, all spiritual competitors were removed. Just as the Romans (or any other empire) expanded and crushed revolts, the Church later did this in a spiritual sense.

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      1. K

        I have often wondered where that desire to destroy everything else comes from. I suspect it comes from the inherently dishonest nature of the whole Abrahamic project. Christianity is the most dishonest. But they all need to get rid of alternatives. If there is no one to say anything different, a lie is a lot like the truth. The early Jews knew that the majority of their people were polytheistic, and that all their ancestors were. They had to find excuses for that and cover that up, hence the narrative of constant “straying from the path” in the Primary History. Christian dishonesty in the New Testament puts the Old Testament to shame. Islam is at least honest about what it is about, but the Quran had to be tacked onto the Bible to bolster it. The book itself is very overrated.

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      2. Melas the Hellene Post author

        One might well say to the same effect that monotheism was dishonest, hypocritical or deluded. It seems to be that all imperial systems follow the same basic pattern of thinking: “We are the best and therefore all others must bow down to us”. Were the Christians really more dishonest than the Romans or Assyrians? Rome justified its conquests, plundering and subjugation of other people by invoking the superiority of its system and the glory of its heroes. “Join our glorious ways or die forgotten and useless”. The monotheists did the same, but added some demonization, consistent with their dualism of good vs evil, as opposed to the Roman dualism of glorious vs feeble. It’s a difference in trappings rather than in substance.

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      3. K

        Here is something for you to consider about Rome and Christianity. The idea might be to familiar to you, I don’t know.


        Sigurd features in church artwork in Scandinavia. He was so important a figure that they had to adopt him. Several other famous stories are featured even in Christian artwork, the Christians built up a system of correspondences between Germanic myths and the cobbled together Christian mythos. Early depictions of Jesus for Germanic peoples depict him as a warrior slaying a dragon, like Sigurd. Daniel in the lion’s den was compared to the death of Gunnar in the snake pit(he was put there by the Hun king). A very interesting artifact(the Frank’s Casket) has a mixture of scenes from the Bible, Roman mythology, and Germanic mythology that may have been chosen for correspondences. Of all the Biblical figures, David is the one that stands out to me as the closest to the old idea of a hero. He has the common faults of heroes in the stories about him too. I sometimes wonder if Moses and Abraham were put out there to replace the actual heroes that the Hebrews honored before. Or at least sideline them.

        The way that stories from Germanic myths and poetry present heroes acting is in line with a harsh, stoic attitude. You can’t change the predetermined day of your death, so there is no reason to worry about it. Fate is more powerful than any man. Honor is more important than reason, profit, or your own life. The gods have their plans, and they don’t always include what you want. This way of life is antithetical to middle class values that center on not making a fuss, conformity, and calculation of profit and loss. They would very often see the actions in the heroic poems as illogical or unethical. This is what happened to the Greeks, but it is more complicated for other European peoples.

        https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2018/11/23/shamgar-son-of-anat-and-israels-age-of-heroes/

        Something relevant. You have seen at least the previous article about Bethel.

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      4. Melas the Hellene Post author

        I had been aware of Atwill’s theory about the Flavian attempt to introduce Christianity to the Jews as an alternative to Messianic Judaism. The videos you share discuss a similar theory. It’s impossible to be entirely sure about such plausible things. I find it somewhat far-fetched, but who knows. The US is said to have created ISIL, but this was less possible in ancient times, especially for a peaceful movement. Rome under the Flavians may have encouraged it, but I doubt they invented it. In any case, what remains certain, is that there is close affinity between Roman imperialism and Christianity (Nicaean at last) and that empires have the same basic premises and offer similar kinds of false promises.

        You are right about the middle class, although I have revised some of my views on the heroic ethic. I still find them to be superior to the middle class, but I find it problematic that there is continuity between it and empire, the later being merely a bigger form of the same heroic thirst for glory. Narmer and Sargon, like Caesar and Genghis Khan later (among others) were warlords who sought to outdo their predecessors and this be remembered as great “heroes”. So, for me it’s a matter of scale. Also, I do distinguish between defensive and offensive heroes (Spartacus or Vercingetorix vs Caesar or Genghis). Anything going too far seems harmful, including the middle class. In fact, the middle class at certain points did much good in balancing the *excess* of nobles and producing literature. Nothing remains constant in history, and ideas are quite complex to tease out and comprehend. After all this is said, I’ll add that I do believe ancient polytheism had certain imperfect ideas (owing to the inevitable & erratic course of history and the incomplete unconsciousness of those living about what was happening) and therefore should be revised and reformed accordingly, though these ideas should be very broad and general, so as to allow for pluralism. Eg. Imperialism is bad and human sacrifice is wrong. This is what I meant by the 5% of cosmotheism earlier.

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      5. K

        https://web.archive.org/web/20120921020151/http://www.oe.eclipse.co.uk/nom/Half.htm
        This is a good example of a legendary saga. Not all that long, but full of genealogical information easy to connect to other sources(it alludes to the fate of King Vikar) and a lot of old poetry.

        I can understand your feeling toward imperialism, somewhat. I did not take the same path as you did to get to where I am, so imperialism was never a big issue to me. It did not figure at all in me becoming a heathen, or Germanic polytheist if you prefer. Too much drive for glory often ends badly, at worst it leads to he kind of hubris displayed by Bellerophon. Or that of Ivar Vidfamne, who got very greedy to conquer more and more and depose every other king. In a partial saga, Ivar is compared to the World Serpent and condemned for his “Hel-greed” in wanting to rule every kingdom. It does not end well for him, his extreme pride gets him unexpectedly killed and his wide domains secede. More importantly, all this does no good to his clan, the key moral factor in this equation for the Norse. Hel-greed seems to be a kenning referring to fatal greed. This is a common pitfall of empire. Stable empires arise from more organized societies. A heroic age requires a decentralize society and actual frontiers. Empires inevitably drive these conditions out, if they are actually centralized states.

        You may not like Genghis Khan, but Mongols do. Since I have brought him up before, I want to make it clear that I never intended to condemn Mongols for worshiping him. I brought him up as an example a few times before to contrast the Mongol attitude with what I consider to be the muddle headed attitude of Europeans today. If you are someone’s hero, you are probably someone else’s enemy. This is how it is. Heroes are often exemplary for their excellent qualities even if they had qualities considered bad, or acted in cruel ways at times. In older terms, this meant victory over their enemies, power, prosperity, wisdom, inventing something, founding institutions or making laws. If the enemy they overcame was something beyond man, like a monster or giant, so much the better.

        The Mongols worship Genghis Khan as Sulde Tengri(or Hulde Tengeri). Sulde is a word meaning a certain part of the soul-complex, indicating a divine aspect that comes from Tengri. Places have Sulde, particular lakes and mountains have powerful Sulde. Clans have Sulde. Individuals have Sulde. The more powerful Sulde a person has, the more powerful they are, in the sense of charisma and attracting good fortune to themselves. It is almost identical with the Roman idea of genius and the Nordic hamingja. When someone dies, their Sulde becomes something like a nature spirit and/or returns to Tengri. Maybe both of those. Worship of ancestral Sulde is important in Mongol religion. Khans in all those Turco-Mongol cultures are considered to possess powerful Sulde. Great leaders, like those who united many clans, won a lot of battles, or ruled over a great time of prosperity, were considered to have exceptional Sulde. You might see Sulde Tengri also referred to as a war god and also a name for the deified Genghis Khan. These don’t seem to be any different, other great leaders also got deified as Sulde Tengri, but Genghis Khan is the most famous today. Sulde Tengri is also associated with the tug(horse tailed standard) of a khan, like the genius associated with a Roman legion’s aquila.

        Sulde Tengri seems to be a divine genius that Mongols believe to come directly from Tengri to great leaders who are born at certain times, giving them their success and their best qualities. It is not clear if the personality of Temujin, his legacy as Great Khan, and the divine Sulde Tengri can be considered exactly the same thing, but Mongols do venerate his memory whatever the case may be. Sulde Tengri manifested in Temujin according to his people, that much is clear. With regard to war, I would have to admit that Genghis Khan was definitely no average leader. Maybe he was a brutal tyrant, but few people are entirely bad, and he did save his people from near extinction. The “Mongols”(the tribe, distinct from the later generalized term) of the time were on the edge of being pushed out or extinguished entirely, the remnants dispersed or mixed out. The Tatars just about finished them off. Temujin changed all that.

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      6. Melas the Hellene Post author

        That saga has many similar counterparts both ancient and recent (eg. The Tuareg of North Africa), especially among pastoral people with a warrior class.

        The term imperialism may have certain political connotations that may make some averse to it. But it is the concept I’m truly interested in; all things considered, “Hel-greed” is very closely a synonym and follows the same line of thought. There’s no considerable difference between Ivar’s desire to depose every king and Alexander’s attempt to conquer the world. Yet, even when there is this useful moral against hubris, some cultures look up to past examples and aspire to reach their height (eg. Mongols). I think however there is an important distinction between ritual reverence and actual imitation. Perhaps there is no real harm if the Mongols nowadays keep up the memory of such an unforgettable character as Genghis Khan; the Mongol empire has been eclipsed. The problem is, empire goes and is going on elsewhere, in different forms and at new heights, leading to the same old concerns of the destruction of regional cultures, identities and heritages. I take no pleasure in condemning Alexander or Caesar for my own sake, as if out of envy; if they must be remembered, so be it. But when it is time to preserve greater things and keep them from loss, the general idea that these individuals espoused must be opposed because it is essentially deluded and supremely unjust, however grand or glorious it may seem. The reform I mentioned should not consist of demonizing these persons in the form of the monotheistic devil (to make a material comparison) but rather the investigation into the causes of empire and the attempt either to lessen or to oppose it by non-participation.

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