Tag Archives: polytheism vs monotheism

Reclaiming Biblical figures for polytheism

In asserting our polytheism, we often resort to emphasizing the difference between our beliefs and monotheism. This is necessary to a certain degree, if we hope to preserve our movement from being assimilated, something monotheism has proven to be skilled at. Nevertheless, when too stark of a contrast is made, we run the risk of not only overlooking polytheism’s complex history, but also carelessly opposing all what monotheism had unfairly appropriated as its own. This is true of various characters in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, who are often regarded by monotheists as the heroic founders of their beliefs, blessed at the hands of and guided to their destiny by “the one true god”. Religious elders and scholars in ancient times were able to manipulate disparate stories and myths in such a way that they became serviceable to their system of theology and political ideology. What was once a particular and polytheistic event or figure was transformed into general symbols of monotheism, representing several phases and parts of what was painted as one glorious whole. It is however rather easy for a studious eye to find out many inconsistencies and serious contradictions in this fragile lump that is bound together merely by fervent faith and inane interpretations. Even the Old Testament mentions other Gods besides Yahweh and not always in negative reference. The rediscovery of Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Near Eastern mythology and historical records has, for more than 100 years, been welcomed by monotheists in order to corroborate their tales, but how mistaken are they to use such dangerous material in their own service! Below is a list of notable Biblical characters and their original function & chronological order (as shown by scholarship or inferred from educated guesswork) before monotheism was imposed on them:

Adam- means “man” literally in Phoenician. His myth may be comparable to that of Prometheus in Greece, and Eve comparable to that of Pandora.

Noah- a copy of the character Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Moses- an Egyptian follower of Akhenaten who escaped to Canaan during the persecution of Horemheb. His knowledge and leadership made him an ancestral hero of the Jews. Not at all associated with Yahweh.

Samson- a hero very similar to the Sumerian Enkidu (character in the Epic of Gilgamesh) and the Greek Herakles

Yahweh- an epithet of the high Canaanite God “El” or a local weather God of nomadic herders. Later, the patron God of the city-state of Jerusalem where he was worshipped henotheistically by the early Jews.

Asherah- wife of “El” and later consort of Yahweh.

Abraham- a folk hero and progenitor of the early Jews, who may have offered him ancestral worship. May be associated with Yahweh or originally regarded as his son (compare to Greek myths about the ancestry of heroes). Perhaps the mythical founder of Jerusalem. Most probably flourished after Moses if a real character (i.e. during the earlier part of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, when control of Canaan was lost), otherwise he is a version of Gilgamesh.

Isaac and Ishmael- likewise semi-divine progenitors of various tribes. May or may not be sons of Abraham.

Jacob and Joseph- Canaanite noblemen associated with Egypt, perhaps seeking opportunity there during the latter part of the Third Intermediate Period.

David- a tribal chief/petty king who became a hero of his people through his great exploits at war. Comparable to Greek heroes of the Trojan war

Solomon- the pious successor of David. He set up a shrine (rather than a temple) to Yahweh, which may have also been used to honor his ancestor Abraham.

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).

Polytheism in media (part 1): The Egyptian 1954 and Pharaoh 1966

Spoilers below. If you haven’t seen the films yet, I recommend them greatly. Links are provided for further reading.

 

The Egyptian, 1954

Set around 1335 BCE

**Initial reactions:

-Beautiful scenes and set (later used for The Ten Commandments)

-Excellent script and performances

-Thematic depth, but with somewhat fixed charactersTheegyptian

-Peter Ustinov’s drollery

-Egypt is depicted with splendor, but there is social decay

**Critical thoughts:

-Horemheb should have been replaced with the historical Ay, and perhaps giving a presence to the Amun priesthood would have also added complexity.

-Akhenaten is depicted as a wise saint as well as a tragic hero, but this was hardly the case in reality. His unprecedented invention of monotheism resulted from a bitter struggle with the priesthood of Amun for the domination of Egypt.

-The artistic and thematic allusions that compare Christianity to Atenism are rather weak in a historical respect, but significant in what the film wishes to achieve for a popular audience. In particular, I mean the “whore of Babylon”, the Moses story, the ankh/cross, and Akhenaten’s selfless humility.

-General Horemheb massacring Akhenaten’s “fanatics” turns the story into somewhat of a melodrama, but I can understand its purpose for the plot without justifying its huge inaccuracy. It is also entirely misleading and unlikely for the historical Horemheb to have done so, because Akhenaten’s “reforms” were neither popular with the masses nor did the common people worship Aten directly—rather, they worshipped the Pharaoh and Akhenaten served as sole mediator and priest with Aten. If there was any real violence associated with this historical event, it was probably committed by Akhenaten in order to force the Egyptians (the priesthood especially) to adopt his heretical innovations.

-Sinhue’s conversion and transcendence at the end of the film, after hearing Akhenaten’s last words, is obviously something that would annoy a polytheist. This increases with the intended foreshadowing of corruption and inevitable decline in Egypt when Horemheb becomes Pharaoh (because he doesn’t care for ideas or morality), which contrasts to the foreshadowed moral & philosophical ascendance of monotheism to reform the world. In reality, Egypt was to decline seriously (and never recover) about two hundred years after Akhenaten, because of the raids of the mysterious Sea Peoples, who actually succeeded in destroying the Mycenaean and Hittite civilizations. As for the purported improvement of monotheism upon polytheism, the present state of the world says enough to prove otherwise…

 

Pharaoh 1966:

Set around 1070 BCE

**Initial reactions:

-A very magnificent and monumental set and scenes

-Excellent script and performance

-Thematic simplicity, but with great depthFARA-2

-Several interesting characters

-As before, Egypt is depicted with splendor, but there is decay

**Critical thoughts:

-Although Ramesses XIII is a fictional pharaoh, the film is set at the onset Third Intermediate Period, which was a time of great decline for Egypt, from which it was never to recover. One thing to admire is that this film, unlike the other, doesn’t seek to add inaccurate ideas or choose sides to prove its point. The theme that was unfortunately missing in The Egyptian, i.e. the struggle between the Amun priests and pharaoh for power, is present here to the full.

-As with the other film, we have a contrast between the virtuous, humble woman and the deceitful, tempting one. This film gives us the familiar Hebrew and Phoenician contrast, which is rather worn out and stereotypical, but at least it is wrapped up in political intrigue. It was good (and somewhat surprising) to see that the other film didn’t further degrade its complexity with such unnecessary Biblical allusion.

-I am not sure what to make of the failure of the Pharaoh to defeat the priesthood. On the one hand, I am glad of it as a polytheist, but on the other, I know that the Amun priesthood was corrupt and touchy, much like the Catholic bishops and monks before Protestantism. However, I am baffled by what the film was intended to achieve according to its writer and producers, who were operating under Communism. Why does the Amun priest’s prayer cause a successful sandstorm against the mob that is depicted as divine? I can understand the Pharaoh’s youthful mistakes and tragical end, but his case becomes weak when he stands alone against the priesthood, except for a few bitter or ambitious associates.

-As a continuation of the above, it’s interesting to note that the priest of Amun is murdered by the Pharaoh’s men and the Pharaoh is murdered shortly after. It’s as if there is revenge and retribution for violating the sacred, especially since the priest was murdered just outside a temple.

-I couldn’t tell if the Greek youth, who looked like the Pharaoh and murdered him, acted symbolically in his capacity. Does it perhaps confirm our idea that the Pharaoh, in effect, destroyed himself? We know that the Pharaoh operated in a difficult environment and a period of decline, but his failure to understand his limitations and act patiently with good counsel led to his end.

Ten Differences between Polytheism and Monotheism

JustitiaI thought of this topic as an adequate introduction to many others to follow. Before polytheism is considered and discussed in itself, it ought to be first distinguished from monotheism. The truth is, the word polytheist (as well as pagan and heathen) was actually invented by the ambitious monotheists in the time of Rome to set themselves apart from usual people who follow the ways of their ancestors. But now since we have unfortunately been reduced to a small minority, after many centuries of persecution and cruelty, we are forced to continue to use a term that almost acknowledges the victory of monotheism. At least polytheist is far superior to pagan, the latter a name of contempt levelled at polytheists (not much different from infidel); it is derived from paganus, a Latin word which means country dweller. Nevertheless, in the end, it is things, rather than words, that we must look to understand and comprehend, and to that end, I present the differences between polytheism and monotheism below,  some of which are known and others sometimes overlooked. In my future writings, I will take up or allude this essential topic again.

I.

*Monotheism began with persons who alleged they were prophets divinely guided and sent to guide others.
i.e., Abraham, Akhenaten, Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, Buddha (to some degree), etc.

*Polytheism grew gradually out of the collective culture and views of a certain people. No single person claimed to be a sole mediator.

II.

*Monotheism acknowledges only one god to exist, who rejects all others and demands submission from all the world. Therefore, there is only one truth and one way.

*Polytheism acknowledges many Gods to exist, even in other cultures. There are many truths and many ways.

III.

*Monotheism preaches a firm and unchanging dualism in matters of morality. Thus, there is good and evil, heaven and hell, etc. based on moral absolutism.

*Polytheism acknowledges the obvious distinction between the good and the bad. But instead of preaching it, polytheists follow the customs of their ancestors, which are based on moral relativism.

IV.

*Monotheists often experience fear and guilt in spiritual matters, which is a sign of piety to them.

*Polytheists experience awe in  ritual matters, and may go through shame within difficult situations regarding customs, which is natural.

V.

*In Monotheism, the earth belongs to believers, who are allowed by their god to use it for themselves and against the forces of “evil” represented in the “infidels”.

*In Polytheism, the Earth belongs to the Gods collectively, and its use is regulated by custom and ritual practices.

VI.

*In Monotheism, proselytes, or converted followers, are always searched for to gain rewards from their god and increase their power.

*In Polytheism, people belong to native cultures with distinct customs and distinct ancestries, which are respected and maintained. However, one may be initiated into a new neighboring cult, to worship a foreign God, by means of a fee, or through marriage within a foreign culture. Ethnic Gods constantly worshipped by foreigners is discouraged and suspected.

VII.

*Monotheism preaches equality and egalitarianism, but maintains a religious hierarchy.

*Polytheism acknowledges the value and efforts of all social classes as well as the distinctions between the sexes. The essence is community and society, not equality.

VIII.

*In Monotheism, the soul is more valuable than the body. Thus, the body is to be subjected to spiritual dominance.

*In Polytheism, the soul and the body are inseparable and of equal importance in ritual.

IX.

*In Monotheism, people often pursue individualism, like their “prophets”. They seek a personal connection with the divine or lead a holy life distant from society. Society may also be theocratic in nature, or such a government is very often desired.

*In Polytheism, there is no individualism in ritual practice. Community (collectivism) is more important than individualism. Society is political in its nature and government.

X.

*In Monotheism, theology, a mixture of philosophy and faith, is used to justify and glorify holy texts or “revelation”.

*In Polytheism, there is no theology, but only mythologies or epic poems. Holy texts are usually hymns and ritual tradition, not commentary on “revelation” by priests.