Polytheism As A Form Of Religion


In the course of analyzing and recording various beliefs connected with the gods, historians of religions have used certain categories to identify different attitudes toward the gods. Thus, in the latter part of the 19th century the terms henotheism and kathenotheism were used to refer to the exalting of a particular god as exclusively the highest within the framework of a particular hymn or ritual, for example in the hymns of the Vedas (the ancient sacred texts of India).

This process often consisted in loading other gods’ attributes on the selected focus of worship. Within the framework of another part of the same ritual tradition, another god may be selected as supreme focus. Kathenotheism literally means belief in one god at a time. The term monolatry has a connected but different sense; it refers to the worship of one god as supreme and sole object of the worship of a group while not denying the existence of deities belonging to other groups. The term henotheism is also used to cover this case or, more generally, to mean belief in the supremacy of a single god without denying others. This seems to have been the situation for a period in ancient Israel in regard to the cult of Yahweh.

The term "animism" has been applied to a belief in many animae (“spirits”) and is often used rather crudely to characterize so-called primitive religions. In evolutionary hypotheses about the development of religion that were particularly fashionable among Western scholars in the latter half of the 19th century, animism was regarded as a stage in which the forces around human beings were less personalized than in the polytheistic stage. In actual instances of religious belief, however, no such scheme is possible: personal and impersonal aspects of divine forces are interwoven, for example, Agni, the fire god of the Rigveda (the foremost collection of Vedic hymns), not only is personified as an object of worship but also is the mysterious force within the sacrificial fire.

Belief in many divine beings, who typically have to be worshipped or, if malevolent, warded off with appropriate rituals, has been widespread in human cultures. Though a single evolutionary process cannot be postulated, there has been a drift in various traditions toward the unification of sacred forces under a single head, which, in a number of non-literate “primal” societies, has become embedded in a supreme being. Sometimes this being is a deus otiosus (an “indifferent god”), regarded as having withdrawn from immediate concern with men and thought of sometimes as too exalted for men to petition. 

By: Jallo Ali

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