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Polytheism: Definition, Origins & Examples

Polytheism: Definition, Origins & Examples
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  • 0:01 Definition
  • 1:46 Origins & Growth
  • 2:23 Examples of Incorporation
  • 4:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson offers a brief look into the definition, origin, and modern views of polytheistic beliefs. How have they evolved? Are there currently any still in existence? Read on to find out, and then take a quiz.

Polytheism

What do Odin, Zeus, Ra, Vishnu, and Matres have in common? Each belongs to a group of deities, with worshipers paying homage to multiple deities of varying power. These figures are part of polytheism, or the belief in and worship of many gods. The roots of this word are poly- ('many') and -theism ('gods').

Typically in polytheism, a particular deity is called upon for a specific event, a specific need, or the god's relationship with an area (grape fields, volcanoes, war) or families. Gods would be organized in a Pantheon, or a collection of all of the gods of a group of people. Some examples would be the Norse Pantheon, Greek or Roman Pantheon, Egyptian Pantheon, etc. However, you have to be careful with the Roman Pantheon because it was also a building.

Ancient polytheistic religions are often referred to as mythology, a term that reduces them from the religions that they once were. For example, the Greek Mythology of Zeus, Hera, Athena, Ares and others was once a religion, with priests and priestesses, prophets and followers. But now it has been relegated to fantasy stories of the past.

Today, polytheism is noted for being part of Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, as well as contemporary tribal religions in Africa and the Americas. Many of these remain within cultures that have resisted attempts at religious conversion to a monotheistic religion, or have found ways of having the two remain side by side. For example, it is not uncommon in many parts of the world to have several religious buildings near each other.

Origins

It has been hypothesized that along with the Proto-Indo-European language a natural form of religion formed as well. This primitive religion focused on deified versions of natural events and things. Some of the basics include the Sky Father, the Earth Mother, the World Tree, the Trickster, and other basic concepts.

Which Sky Deity is this?
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As time passed, the religion took on new complexities. Basic characters took on new features and aspects. For example, the basic Sky Father would become more supernatural, as seen in the Egyptian sun god with the falcon head and the solar disk Ra, or more human with the Norse Sky Father Odin.

Examples of Incorporation

What happens when a group of people who worship pantheon A comes into contact with a group of people who worship pantheon B? One option is that the groups worshiping different pantheons will go to war and attempt to eradicate the other side. But that takes a lot of work. You have to kill a lot of people and destroy a lot of useful stuff (pottery, art, stone statues, and more) just to erase the opponents' gods.

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