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polytheism

(pŏl`ēthēĭzəm), belief in a plurality of gods in which each deity is distinguished by special functions. The gods are particularly synonymous with function in the Vedic religion (see VedasVeda
[Sanskrit,=knowledge, cognate with English wit, from a root meaning know], oldest scriptures of Hinduism and the most ancient religious texts in an Indo-European language.
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) of India: Indra is the storm god, Agni the fire god, Vayu the wind god, Yama the god of death. Polytheistic worship does not imply equal devotion or importance to each deity. The religion of dynastic Egypt included hundreds of deities, but worship (as in Greek Olympianism) tended to be city-centered; thus, Anubis, the jackal- or wolf-headed god who guided the dead along the dangerous path to the underworld, had his cult at Abydos, and Ba, the ram-god, was worshiped at Bubastis. Polytheism probably is a development from an earlier polydemonism, characterized by a variety of disassociated and vaguely defined spirits, demons, and other supernatural powers. It is also related to animismanimism,
belief in personalized, supernatural beings (or souls) that often inhabit ordinary animals and objects, governing their existence. British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued in Primitive Culture
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, ancestor worshipancestor worship,
ritualized propitiation and invocation of dead kin. Ancestor worship is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead continue to dwell in the natural world and have the power to influence the fortune and fate of the living.
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, and totemism (see totemtotem
, an object, usually an animal or plant (or all animals or plants of that species), that is revered by members of a particular social group because of a mystical or ritual relationship that exists with that group.
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). All of these forms of belief are based on human propensity to worship all objects on earth and in heaven, all that is unusual or useful, strange or monstrous. Unlike the supernatural forces in polydemonism, however, those of polytheism are personified (see anthropomorphismanthropomorphism
[Gr.,=having human form], in religion, conception of divinity as being in human form or having human characteristics. Anthropomorphism also applies to the ascription of human forms or characteristics to the divine spirits of things such as the winds and the
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) and organized into a cosmic family. This family becomes the nucleus of legends and myths and, eventually, of a cosmology that seeks to explain natural phenomena and to establish people's relation to the universe. As polytheistic religions evolve, lesser deities diminish in stature or vanish completely, their attributes being assigned to preferred gods, until the religion begins to exhibit monotheistic tendencies—thus the Olympian Zeus, originally a sky god, became the titular head and most powerful of all Olympian deities; the Egyptian Ra was the original, self-generating and supreme deity; and the Vedic gods of India, once numbering several thousand, were gradually displaced by the trinity of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Significantly, both the Greeks and Indians subordinated their supreme deities to a more profound principle of Oneness or Supreme Fate, which the Greeks called Moira and the Vedic Indians named Rita.

Polytheism

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Polytheism—whose name is derived from the Greek words for "many" and "gods"— refers to the belief in, and worship of, many deities. Early humankind's concept of deity included gods of wind, water, fire, air, storm, sky, hunting, and fertility. Polytheism was found in Sumeria, Greece, Rome, Egypt, and elsewhere, and was passed on to the present day via many primitive tribes, such as those found in Africa, South and North America, and Polynesia.

Witchcraft is a polytheistic religion (although it might be more accurate to term it duotheistic, since its followers worship a god and a goddess rather than a multitude of deities). Although Christianity professes to be monotheistic, its inclusion of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the many saints—who are revered and prayed to— would seem to indicate that this is actually a polytheistic religion. James, E. O.: The Ancient Gods. Capricorn Books, 1964. Leach, Maria (ed.): Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend. Harper &

Row, 1984.

Polytheism

 

the worship of many gods.

Polytheism arose in early class society. It developed from polydemonism—the worship of various spirits of the tribal-clan religions—as a reflection in ideology of the social stratification and complication of religious fantasy. In polytheism the supernatural world is represented as a hierarchy of gods possessing varying degrees of power, each with his own individual name, his own (often anthropomorphic) appearance, and his own definite sphere of control in nature and society. At the head of the pantheon, corresponding to earthly power, is a supreme god; but he is not the only one, in contrast to monotheism. Polytheism does not preclude the recognition of the gods of other peoples. The main role in the ritual of polytheism is played by priests, who are associated with particular temples.

Adherents to polytheistic religions include the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, as well as the peoples of modern India, Japan, and tropical Africa. Many of the concepts and rituals of polytheism continue to exist in all the “monotheistic” religions—belief in a “holy trinity” (the god-father, the god-son, and the holy spirit), worship of prophets, and the cult of the mother of god and the saints.

REFERENCE

Donini, A. Liudi, idoly i bogi, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1966. (Translated from Italian.)

polytheism

the worship of or belief in more than one god
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