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The term polytheism, referring to the worship of several gods, was coined in the sixteenth century. For medieval European Christians, the religious universe could be exhaustively categorized in terms of Judaism, Christianity, and paganism. This neat tripartite division was rendered obsolete by the Reformation. The first recorded use of the term polytheism was in a treatise against witches published in 1580 by the noted French thinker Jean Bodin (1530–1596). Significantly, Bodin also wrote an unpublished series of dialogues between “sages” who each practiced a different religion (including a Jew, a Roman Catholic, a Lutheran, a Calvinist, and a Muslim, among others) and who, unable in the end to resolve their differences, worshiped together in harmony. Bodin’s dialogue suggests a moral equivalence among all these religions that might be characterized as “monotheistic,” a term that would be invented slightly later.
This contrast between polytheism and monotheism appealed to secularizing Enlightenment thinkers precisely because it did not privilege Christianity. In particular, in The Natural History of Religions (1757), David Hume, deliberately turning his back on the biblical account, suggested that polytheism was the earliest form of human religion. It was not, he argued, born out of abstract speculation or contemplation, but rather in response to human hopes and especially fears—of illness, childbirth, war, and so on. Each such fear was governed by its own divinity, and because humans had an abundance of fears, they had a plethora of divinities. Only much later, according to Hume, did monotheism emerge as a (relatively) rational explanation of the world in terms of a single creator. In other words, polytheism was a religion of the passions, and monotheism a religion of reason. Hume was himself pessimistic about the capacity of reason to triumph over passion, and he envisaged the past and future histories of religion in terms of oscillation between the two poles of polytheism and monotheism.
The notion that “polytheistic” religions were emotional and irrational was used by Europeans to disparage non-European peoples and their religious practices. Charles de Brosses’s 1760 work Du culte des dieux fétiches (On the cult of the fetish gods) compared West African and ancient Egyptian religions in terms of their worship of gods who combined animal and human characteristics in a manner particularly repellent to Enlightenment criteria of rationality. Initially, late-eighteenth-century British observers of Brahmanical Hinduism characterized it as essentially monotheistic, in light of ancient texts. However, in the nineteenth century, Hindu “polytheistic” worship was evinced as evidence of the degeneration of Indian society.
Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century, emerging anthropological theories of social evolution easily incorporated the distinction between polytheism and monotheism into their vision of human progress. Most notably, Edward Tylor’s Primitive Culture (1871) traced the origins of religion to “animism,” the belief, derived from the experience of dreams, that there existed a “soul” independent of the human body. Primitives believed that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects also had souls, making nature worship the earliest and least rational form of religion. Polytheism, involving a hierarchy of greater and lesser gods and spirits, represented an initial advance, a step in the direction of monotheism and, ultimately, “scientific” atheism. Sigmund Freud gave this perspective a psychoanalytic twist in Moses and Monotheism (1939), associating the plural gods of polytheism with the different urges of the id, and the God of monotheistic religions with the superego.
Beginning in the early twentieth century anthropologists challenged the broad evolutionary schemes of their predecessors, preferring to concentrate on the intensive study of small-scale societies in the field rather than on “conjectural history.” Their studies were committed to demonstrating the rationality of non-European peoples and explaining their religious ideas in their own terms. They had little use for a term such as polytheism that, in their eyes, lumped a multitude of particular and radically different cultures and religious traditions into one broad rubric. Although the term was not the object of specific anthropological critique, anthropologists by and large avoided its use. The most conspicuous exception was E. E. EvansPritchard, whose influential study Nuer Religion (1956) described Nuer belief in and worship of a single “Spirit” (Kwoth) alongside a host of greater or lesser “spirits” (kuth). The Nuer alternatively could be described as monotheists or polytheists, a contradiction Evans-Pritchard attempted to reconcile by suggesting that lesser spirits were in fact understood as refractions of the one Spirit from the point of view of specific groups or individuals.
However, too exclusive a focus on the religious particularities of small-scale societies obscured the ways in which multiple cults of divinities could proliferate regionally, nationally, and indeed transnationally. Hinduism is an obvious example. C. J. Fuller recently argued that “fluidity—which means that one deity can become many and many deities can become one—is a supremely important characteristic of Hindu polytheism” (Fuller 1992, p. 30). Not only does this allow the cult of greater divinities such as Vishnu, Shiva, and Devi to articulate with the local worship of tutelary gods and goddesses, but it also reconciles the seemingly antithetical eighteenthand nineteenth-century characterizations of Hinduism as monotheistic and polytheistic. Similar examples can be drawn from West Africa, such as the cults of orishas among the Yoruba, and the cults of their neighbors who were transported across the Atlantic by the slave trade and formed Candomble in Brazil, Vodun in Haiti, and Santeria in Cuba. As with Hindu divinities, orishas have multiple names if not multiple personalities, and often are associated with specific localities. The myths that relate the principal orishas of the Yoruba pantheon to one another exist in multiple, and sometimes contradictory, versions. It is important to point out that individual worshippers form a personal bond with one specific orisha. Seen in this light, polytheism is not intrinsically a fixed and overarching system, but rather a highly flexible framework that can articulate local cults within a wider regional or supraregional framework. Attempts to systematize the theology and worship of such religions, most particularly Hinduism, are modern outcomes of colonial and postcolonial situations.
- De Brosses,  1989. Du culte des dieux fétiches. Paris: Fayard.
- Evans-Pritchard, Edward 1956. Nuer Religion. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Fuller, Christopher 1992. The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Hume, D  1956. The Natural History of Religion. Ed. and intro. H. E. Root. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Matory, Lorand. 1994. Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Tylor, Edward 1871. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. 2 vols. London: J. Murray.
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