Welcome to the latest in our on-going column, ev0king the Question. Here, we invite regular ev0ke contributors and guests to share their thoughts on a particular question. Sometimes, it will be silly. Sometimes, it will be serious. Sometimes, a little bit of both.
Below, find this month’s question, and answers from Pagans and polytheists from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. Do you have thoughts of your own? If so, please feel free to share them below.
The Question: Polytheism is really just monotheism — except that it’s not. For too long, the many different polytheistic traditions of the world have been interpreted through a monotheist lens, leading to the assumption that any polytheism is “really” monotheism. Do you agree with this interpretation? If not, why not? How is polytheism NOT monotheism?
Rebecca Buchanan is a regular contributor to ev0ke, and is a widely published author of Pagan-themed fantasy, mystery, poetry, romance, and science fiction. A complete list of her published works can be found at Eternal Haunted Summer.
No, polytheism is not monotheism. It’s right there in the word itself. “Many” not “one.”
Are there monotheistic strains within polytheism? No. Some people might point to monism or henotheism as forms of monotheism, but they are not. Monism is sort of the theological equivalent of the Big Bang Theory: everything starts as one and then diversifies. Henotheism is devotion (primarily or exclusively) to a single Deity, while acknowledging the existence of multiple powers. I know quite a few Pagans who are focused in their devotion to Dionysus or Isis or Odin — but not a single one of them denies the existence of the constellation of other Deities associated with their Patron/Matron. (Seriously, would worshipping Isis make any sense without the entire mythic cycle centered around the murder of Osiris and the birth of Horus?)
Polytheism recognizes the multiple intelligences within creation. Sometimes they are cooperative, sometimes antagonistic; sometimes benevolent, sometimes indifferent, sometimes malevolent. Polytheism recognizes the variety in spiritual experiences, and validates and celebrates those differences.
Ashley Nicole Hunter is the founder of and a regular contributor to ev0ke.
While I think some deities wear different names/titles in different cultures (we know that some deities, including Dionysos, migrated), I believe in multiple gods as easily as I believe in multiple people. A few entities going by various names does not a conspiracy in which all are one make. Oftentimes I believe monotheism arose from a desire by some priests to consolidate power and invalidate other priests (and thus, their gods) or by some rulers to want to place themselves at the top. But monotheism is a relatively modern (and rare) phenomena, and one which too often comes hand-in-hand with desires to stamp out differences and homogenize cultures for purposes of power and exploitation.
Irisanya Moon (she/they) is an author, witch, and initiate in the Reclaiming tradition. She is devoted to Aphrodite, Iris, Hecate, and the Norns.
There’s a quote that jumped into my head when I first read this prompt: tradition is just peer pressure from dead people*. I think tradition is easy. And it’s great, to be clear. But, mostly, it can be easier. If the human body is designed for efficiency and has a tendency toward habit, why not our minds too?
If we are already immersed in an overculture that leans toward monotheism, it makes sense that it would be easier to say polytheism is just a fancy trend or spinoff. That it’s just a way to add facets to the larger idea of spirit or divine, the mirrors on a disco ball, shining out religion or belief EVERYWHERE, but really, it’s all one ball.
I don’t think so.
I had a question in a class I taught the other day about love spells and Aphrodite: is Venus the same? My answer is: no. They are from different cultures and thus different environments. And to me, that means they are wholly different entities. That said, one’s experience of them is likely similar because, well, they do seem to share a lot of qualities. They have been substituted for each other a lot, so people just think they are one and the same.
My experience with deities is that each one has their own personality, emotional landscape, and appearance. The more I interact with each deity, the more I learn and the more I refine what I perceive. It’s like getting to know anyone. Even though two people might have red hair and blue eyes doesn’t mean they’re the same person. The more you get to know them, the more you differentiate and see uniqueness.
So, you have to do the work of getting to know them. Their needs, desires, flaws, histories, cultures, etc.
The fact that many people have agreed upon certain qualities makes sense because I believe each deity has a core something. (No idea what the word is.) But I also know that just because I see and experience Aphrodite in one way that it’s not the way everyone does or will — and I don’t expect them to.
I just don’t think there is one godd to rule them all, so to speak. And even if there was, I can’t imagine how you would define it or name it. Even Christianity has the three-in-one idea of a Holy Trinity. Even God isn’t alone in this idea of monotheism, even if he’s the head honcho.
There is no one answer to everything. There is no one way to see everything. There are no neat packages or answers or beliefs.
How could there be? Why would there be? It seems like a very strange experiment for life to emerge with all of its uniqueness and evolution and differences, only to be just one thing. Just one answer. Just one ‘right.’
If you are trying to find a simple answer, dig deeper. Maybe it’s time to move beyond the peer pressure of the ancestors or the overculture. Ask yourself, am I trying to learn and build a relationship or am I trying to make it easier on me?
Maybe get to know more deities. Maybe set up altars and sit still enough to find out what should be placed on them because of the forming relationship. Maybe sit in the silence long enough to remember that not all of the answers are easy to come by.
The Mystery is meant to be mysterious, after all.
*I’ve found several sources for this quote and am unsure of its accurate origination.
Ed Vanderjagt is an author, game creator, and Sumerian polytheist. You can find him on Youtube.
I am a Sumerian and I see this sort of thing a lot. It’s the idea that you can just take what you know from one system, change the labels, and call it the next thing. You can’t even do that with monotheistic religions. Try taking a Muslim to Catholic Mass and see how comfortable they are. Try taking someone of the Baháʼí Faith to a Mormon service. It just isn’t good enough to simply change the names without changing the outlook.
The flip is also true. There are people who approach the gods as though one god or goddess is interchangeable with a similar deity from a neighboring religion. Zeus and Enlil might both be heads of their respective pantheons, and Enlil being the god of the gentle rain and good fortune is similar to Zeus being god of storms and a symbol of fertility, but they are quite distinct with completely different personalities. As a result, they have completely different worship surrounding them.
Let’s look at it a different way. Imagine you and a friend are at a party. You have been an influence on that friend and you even share some of the same likes, but your behavior and style are completely your own. At this party there is someone who keeps getting you confused. Would you consider that person to be your friend? Do they know you all that well? If you want to get to connect with the gods then pay attention to what makes them unique on their own terms. You can compare them to the gods of other pantheons, but don’t lose sight of what makes them distinct.