A Definition of Polytheism


By John H Carlson, originally published in Scroll of Oplontis in September, 1991 ce.

The word “polytheism” is derived from the Greek words “polu” and “theos”, which mean “many” and “god”. Polytheism is defined as a belief in the existence of many gods. It is the idea that there are many divine powers. It is the idea that divinity ultimately resides in many separate entities and beings.

There are many gods and goddesses. The gods are the greatest and most powerful beings. They are wise and just. They are immortal. They are worthy of respect and adoration.

The gods have many forms and they can reveal themselves in many ways. They are both immanent and transcendent. They are present in the elements and forms of being. They are manifest in the forces of nature, in matter and energy, but they are also transcendent beings not bound by any material form. The gods can reveal themselves in the human mind. They can appear as human or other beings, as plants or animals, or as material objects. There are no limits of form or being upon the gods and goddesses. They are what they choose to be.

Divinity is multiple and various, both in appearance and in reality. No single god or goddess hides behind all the multitude of divine forms. The gods and goddesses are objectively real entities whose existence is not dependent upon the beliefs or actions of lesser beings. They are not archetypes. They are not imaginary symbols of human activity or of the human mind. They are not symbolic representations of natural events and processes.

The gods and goddesses are real. They exist. Their wisdom and power give shape to the world. Their beauty and grace will last forever.

The gods and goddesses are free and independent beings. They are equally divine. They are not controlled by any other entity or power.

The gods and goddesses are pleased when lesser beings freely acknowledge their existence and offer them respect and worship. They do not need or require this acknowledgement. The all powerful gods and goddesses need nothing. They create whatever they desire.


Commentary on October 4, 2010 ce: This particular definition of polytheism was an attempt to express my own thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about the existence and nature of the gods. It is more or less culturally neutral, although it does fit with the religious concepts of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as expressed through their mythology, poetry, ritual activities, and art. Although this definition was written nineteen years ago, it still expresses my essential and basic beliefs and opinions about the gods. 

All true religion is ultimately based on experience rather than on the written word, but nevertheless the written word can be very useful in describing what experience has revealed. Ancient religions did not generally have formal statements of belief or theology. If people were performing a ritual to Zeus they would not have started the ceremony by saying “I believe in Zeus”. It would have been silly, since, obviously, if someone didn’t believe in the existence of Zeus , then that person would not be participating in a ritual to Zeus or asking for the god’s blessings. Nevertheless, formal statements and explanations of theology can be very useful when defining a group of religious concepts and practices as a religion. Ancient Greek and Roman culture did not as a general rule incorporate specific named religions. Groups such as the Orphics and the Pythagoreans are a partial exception to this observation but only a partial exception. The Orphics and Pythagoreans had their own specific teachings, but these groups were still part of the mass of beliefs and practices that form what we call “ancient Greek religion”.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 8:15 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This is a really good post – both the original piece and your informed commentary on it. It’s impressive that you hit so solidly on the truth that little needed to be changed even after all those many years. You make a particularly good point about named religions.

  2. Thanks. I find theology to be an interesting subject, and formal statements such as this can be very helpful in explaining or exposing one’s beliefs and opinions. Perhaps it’s my Roman Catholic academic background showing through: I attended Catholic schools from third grade through high school, and while I do not accept Catholic theology, traditional Catholic academic standards and procedures for producing theological statments can be very useful. Something that is interesting to do is to write down your thoughts or opinions about something and then revisit the piece, say a year later, and see if it still reflects your perception of reality.
    I have some longer items on theology and syncretism in the works.

    • I’m really looking forward to the follow-ups!

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