Tag Archives: anthropology

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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Polemical topics for polytheists (part 14): Moral & cultural relativism

First view: Moral and cultural relativism are consistent with polytheism’s diversity and should apply at the level of the individual.

Second view: Moral and cultural relativism are wrong because they divide polytheists and hurt their reputation.

Balanced view: Moral and cultural relativism, much like pluralism, apply far more to the distinct community and tradition than the separate individual, but this occurs mostly with details rather than broad principles.

The variety of traditions in polytheism and the historical distance between them, attended by several differences in customs and morals, lead us to reflect on the topic of moral and cultural relativism. When universalism was discussed previously in part 11, it was shown how promoting one standard for all usually results from imperialism. Here we are brought to the very fundamental question of what is right and what is wrong, a topic that has occupied the minds of many philosophers throughout history. As usual, polytheism can provide us with a rather simple and powerful answer that we can examine further: each tradition has both similar and differing cultural and moral principles, that is to say, its own yardstick to measure right and wrong by. It is not surprising that most philosophers of Western Civilization, drawing from the tradition of Plato (emphasis on the word tradition), always tried to apply moral and cultural universalism, in order to arrive at what is the “best” for all people. This narrow-minded fault and futile attempt (however well-meaning) was attended by another one espoused by a minority of radical philosophers, beginning with Protagoras: that the individual only is the judge of what is right or wrong*. It was only after many centuries following the decline of polytheism and the loss of tradition that a reasonable academic reconciliation was arrived at: the terms “moral relativism” and “cultural relativism” were first used by archaeologists in the early 20th century who sought to explain without bias the differing traditions and beliefs they encountered during their study of various indigenous peoples who had not yet become modern**. The terms have since become well established in archaeology, but are still misunderstood in both philosophy and its other dependents like international law. In the current universal interpretation (which follows Epicureanism and materialism) of what is right and wrong, right is often confused with pleasure and wrong is confused with pain. This is why, for example, some people frown on blood sacrifice and cannot understand (I don’t say approve of) the reason many of our ancestors practiced (though rarely) human sacrifice as part of their rituals. Once again, this attempt at objectivity (another word for universalism) fails in view of the distinct traditions in polytheism, because it is not for outsiders to judge nor can they judge fairly. Indeed, in all cases where outsiders take it upon themselves to correct a perceived “fault” in another tradition, it is a sure sign of imperialism and colonialism. While it is too well-known that this was done and has been done always by monotheists towards polytheists (recently by Indonesian monotheists against indigenous peoples), we must be aware that polytheists did it too. The Romans exaggerated the human sacrifices of the people of Gaul and used it as a pretext to colonize the region, and again afterwards to exterminate the druidic tradition that was promoting resistance to the Romans. Who were the Romans to judge the Gauls? Weren’t there enough Gauls to judge other Gauls? Certainly. But the Romans desired to conquer and used their hypocritical self-righteousness to justify it. The monotheists likewise never ceased to repeat that trick. The conclusion is easy to make from here: Humankind shares a set of broad principles and behaviors we call cultural universals (another archaeological term), but the details are left and must be left to distinct traditions and relativism. This does not divide us, but distinguishes*** us.

 

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*Protagoras is known to have said “Man is the measure of all things”, a statement that carries several meanings, but falls largely within the interpretation above, as Plato understood it. It was certainly a radical thing to preach (because it challenged customs, traditions, and even the Gods themselves) and therefore it afterwards caused, among other untraditional beliefs he held, his banishment from Athens.

**An obvious synonym for “modern” is “western”.

***Pun intended.