What's the Difference Between Polytheism and Monotheism?

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  • 0:07 What is Polytheism?
  • 1:01 Amarna Period
  • 1:56 Israelites' Monotheism
  • 3:17 Polytheism vs. Monotheism
  • 6:15 Story of Hippolytus
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture discusses the origins of monotheism. It then compares monotheism to polytheism, with especial emphasis on the problematic nature of holy law. Finally it uses the Greek story of Hippolytus to compare the ancient polytheistic perspective to a modern christian perspective.

What is Polytheism?

This is a lecture about the emergence of monotheism. Monotheism refers to the worship of a single, supreme deity.

Today, about half the world's population practices one form of monotheism or another. Yet for much of human history, monotheism was far from popular. Most of the world's religions have been polytheistic, meaning that they worship a collection of gods, known as a pantheon. These gods came in all shapes and sizes, from animistic spirits of natural forces, like animals, trees, rivers, etc., to anthropomorphic gods, which take the shape and characteristics of humans, to anything in between.

In whatever form, polytheism was the norm for religion for thousands of years, while monotheism was very rare indeed.

Amarna Period

The first historical reference we have for monotheism comes from Egypt. Around 1375 B.C.E., the Pharoh, Amenhotep IV, decided he would worship only Aten, the god of the Sun. Amenhotep suppressed the worship of the rest of the Egyptian pantheon. He shut down a lot of temples and upset a lot of priests. He moved his capital from Thebes to Akhetaton. He even changed his own name to Akhenaton, (devoted of Aten). This created an explosion of novel art and architecture called the Amarna period.

Amenhotep IV worshiped only Aten and suppressed worship of the rest of the Egyptian pantheon

Egypt's experiment with monotheism did not survive Akhenaton long. Jealous of their positions of power, the priests of Egypt's many gods abolished monotheism and brought the Amarna period to an abrupt halt.

The Israelites' Monotheism

Yet there was another people in Egypt at the time, the Israelites, whose monotheistic beliefs may be linked with this Amarna period, though it is impossible to determine whether the Israelites influenced the Egyptians or the Egyptians influenced the Israelites. Whichever it was, around the time of the Bronze Age collapse (about 1200 B.C.E.), the children of Israel left Egypt and formed a covenant with their single deity, whom they called Yahweh. To ensure that they stayed on the straight and narrow, Yahweh gave the Israelites a code of ten commandments, the first of which explicitly forbids the worship of any god but Yahweh.

Yet, according to their own holy texts, the Israelites had difficulty obeying that first commandment, let alone the other nine. Oh, they did all right when they were wandering through the desert. Yet no sooner had the children of Israel begun fighting other people for control of their promised land, than they began worshiping the gods of their rivals.

This begs the question: What did established monotheists like the Israelites find so appealing about polytheism? To answer that question, we must compare polytheism to monotheism.

Comparing Polytheism to Monotheism

Polytheists divide their world up into a variety of domains and assign gods to each: a god of the sea, a god of the sun and so forth. In their efforts to cover their bases, polytheists end up with conflicting gods. A god of war and a god of peace, a god of virginity and a god of fertility, a god of creation and a god of destruction. Things that might please the god of war, would upset the god of peace. Rites of fertility would be directly opposed to rites of virginity. In short, pretty much anything a person can do might please one god and anger another. This may seem a recipe for chaos, but we must remember that life, and indeed the world itself, is chaotic.

In polytheism, any action that would please one god would displease another

In a world without science, when nature itself seems unpredictable, a variety of gods allows for flexibility. Since no one action is inherently good or bad, one is free to do what one must to get through the day. If everything you do or don't do will anger a deity, it doesn't so much matter what you do, as much as how much you do it. In this way, polytheism encourages moderation. Rather than seeking unwavering devotion to a single value system, ancient people instead looked for balance.

By contrast, monotheism establishes a single authority. To make this authority cover the countless complexities of life, monotheistic religions create large bodies of holy law. The law of Moses would add over 600 laws to the original ten.

The result is a very restrictive belief system, one that the Israelites clearly chafed under. Moreover, holy laws end up contradicting each other. Such contradictions would not be a problem if the laws were not, as it were, set in stone.

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