Where does polytheism come from?

(for mods: not sure this is the best forum for this topic… feel free to move to a more appropriate forum)

Ok, guys, let’s say that ever since time began, there has only ever been one god.
After the big bang “creation” event things worked out pretty much like science describes them, galaxy formation, Solar System, plate tectonics, dinosaurs, mammals, Australopithecus, present man… the works! (as I’m aware, that’s the standard catholic view)
At some point, according to the holy texts, there was a great flood and the sole surviving humans didn’t just believe in the existence of a single deity, but had first hand experience of it and it’s awesome power, right? They knew! And it stands to reason that they would impress this notion on their children and it would be expected for their children’s children to do the same… after all, these were the only righteous people who deserved to survive the big human culling… oh, bad choice of words… the great flood.
And we all know that indoctrination works quite well.
So, my question is, after the flood, how would polytheism come about? And how long would it have taken (in years or just generations)?

This second question may be somewhat simpler to answer, as I know of one or two genealogies of Jesus in the NT… and, at least, one of them goes through Noah.
We then know that at the time of Moses, a polytheist religion was in full force, in Egypt. I just can’t tell who in the genealogy may have been a contemporary of Moses…
So, maybe we can know how many generations there were between Noah and Moses to see how many generations it takes to go from full knowledge of the one true god to making up a bunch of others, for whatever reason, to actually convincing a whole nation to follow this pantheon… not to mention the enslavement of a part of those who kept the belief in the original true god… a damn good part, by some accounts, 2 million slaves (?).

As a corollary question, how many generations of humans does it take to generate 2 million people, starting with one family (let’s assume inbreeding isn’t a problem)?

  1. Polytheism arises whenever people start to deify the creation instead of the Creator: sun, rivers, sky, sea, people, etc. People start to ascribe the natural fenomena to the actions of many gods, instead of the One. It is the easier way for them to explain seeming “injustice” in the world.

  2. Are you asking Catholics that question? We are not the ones who interpret the Old Testament literally. Yes, Jesus was from the lineage of David. The details, like the number of generations, are not important.

So many questions! Plus how many generations would it take for Noah’s family to generate all the races on earth? :hmmm:

Catholics do not have to believe the flood is literally true.

forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?p=13142950#post13142950

hmmm… I see… :frowning:
But there seems to be a chance that someone does consider it literally… I’ll wait for that person! :slight_smile:

A discussion of the origins of nature worship and idolatry can be found in the book of Wisdom, chapter 13 to at least chapter 14.

I’ll throw in my two cents.

Polytheism is a way to explain away the world, and to justify actions that are intuitively wrong or immoral.

No one in ancient times was a rabid polytheist. Polytheism was a way to slide through life.

Atrocities in war? Taken away by the spirit of Mars.

Having an affair with your neighbors wife? Worshiping at the throne of Venus.

Basically, it’s “The Devil made me do it” excuse taken to colorful extremes.

Dear pocaracas

Epic fail.

God bless Annem

:wink: if you must fail, do it with epic proportions!

if you must fail, do it with epic proportions!

And even better, you do it with panache!

God bless Annem

Where does polytheism come from? Animism. :wink:

No seriously. Apparently, it’s a development: first people thought that everything in nature - plants, animals, natural phenomena, inanimate objects like rocks, people - is animated by a spirit or life force, which makes them ‘alive’, makes them what they are.

From that basic idea you progress to revering all these other beings that have the life-giving spirit in them. Many animist cultures also tend to perform ancestor worship, for pretty much the same reason (reverence for the life force that animated your ancestors). Since we humans find it easier to think in terms of our species, all these other beings are anthropomorphized - ascribed human characteristics. And that’s probably where animism becomes polytheism: human traits are ascribed to these other components of nature (animals, plants, etc.). With that, these - or the animating spirit(s) thought to inhabit them - became ‘gods’.

After the epic fail proportions above, I’ll take this! :slight_smile:

I’d agree with your assessment.
Could we take the next step and consider monotheism as the coalescence of all these features into a single (anthropomorphized) entity?

I think you have to be a bit more charitable to the forum members!!

How so?
Archaeological evidence suggests such a chronology…
Animism -> polytheism -> monotheism.

Besides, I’m just going for monotheism… as the wiki says:
“Monotheism characterizes the traditions of Babism, the Bahá’í Faith, Cao Dai (Caodaiism), Cheondoism (Cheondogyo), Christianity, Deism, Eckankar, Islam, Judaism, Rastafari, Ravidassia religion, Seicho no Ie, Shaivism, Shaktism, Sikhism, Tenrikyo (Tenriism), Vaishnavism, and Zoroastrianism and elements of the belief are discernible in numerous other religions including Atenism and Ancient Chinese religion.”

One step at a time. :wink:

I believe CS Lewis takes a different approach, and says the early religions were not wrong but represent a partial revelation to the ability of the people of the time to understand it.

In Catholicism we have the concept of patron saints. So there are certain saints who take care of and protect certain countries, cities, professions, situations etc etc. People from said countries, cities, professions etc can in prayer ask said saints for intercession on their behalf.

A primitive version of said revelation might lead to the misunderstanding or mistranslation that the patron saint is actually some sort of deity.

This would be consistent with the biblical view that Adam, Noah etc knew God, but that the understanding of him somehow got garbled as the message was transmitted from generation to generation, and the prophets were sent to correct these aberrations.

The problem with the current idea of the three-stage evolution of religion (animism evolved into polytheism, polytheism evolved into monotheism) really is you can’t pigeonhole every belief system into neat categories that terms like ‘animism’ or ‘polytheism’ or ‘monotheism’ imply, as if one directly evolved from the other. Even if we posit some sort of evolution in religious thinking, it wouldn’t have been as simplistic as the model implies; the development was not necessarily the same across different cultures. And of course, in a number of cultures, the different shades of ‘animism’ and ‘polytheism’ and ‘monotheism’ could and do still coexist with each other: the other ideas were not thrown away.

In between polytheism and monotheism, for example, you have:

  • Polytheism: I believe many gods exist, and all these are/can be worshiped
  • Kathenotheism: I believe many gods exist, but I only worship them one at a time (treating every one of them as supreme in turn while I’m worshiping them)
  • Henotheism: I believe many gods exist, but I personally only worship one of these gods (but that doesn’t mean other people might worship the other gods)
  • Monolatry: I believe many gods exist, but I hold that only one of these gods is worthy of worship
  • Monotheism: I believe in just one single god.

Even monotheism could be divided into an ‘exclusive’ variety (there’s only a single deity, period) and a ‘pluriform’ one (many ‘gods’ exist, but at the same time, all these are really just different manifestations of the one single deity). There’s a fine line between pluriform monotheism (which kind of intersects to monism) and polytheism. And then you need to consider all the other stuff like pantheism or panentheism.

‘Animism’ itself is a rather vague term, because when you look closely, animistic cultures show some difference in their thinking. Some varieties veer towards pantheism, or rather, panpsychism (everything in existence is united/connected, sharing the same spiritual essence), others don’t (everything has its own unique spirit/soul).

That makes sense, of course… CS Lewis thought about it! :wink:

Could it be possible that those saints are reminiscent, or left overs, from a polytheist past?
A polytheist past, where one god rose above all others…

Tying up with patrick457’s reply, there’s also the hierarchical pantheon where you believe several gods exist, but some are more important than others - Egypt switched the main divinity from the Sun god (Ra) to the moon god (Amun)… and then merged them both in Amun-Ra, one god which was both the others’ characteristics.
I don’t know under which label these would fall… perhaps Kathenotheism?

As you see, it was not unheard of, in ancient times, the merging of two deities into one… Actually, Ra got merged with a few others as well: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ra#Gods_merged_with_Ra

I should just note that ancient Egyptian religion was hardly singular/consistent (different gods, different myths, different practice): in fact, just about every indigenous religion was. Look at ‘Hinduism’: it encompasses a wide range of beliefs ranging from polytheism to pantheism to monotheism to even atheism (not Western-style materialistic atheism, note). Also, Japanese Shinto: animism to polytheism to emperor worship (y’know, pre-WWII Japan) to pantheism to henotheism / monotheism.

Good point! :thumbsup:

That reminds me of something I read about the canaanites:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan#Culture

According to archaeologist Jonathan N. Tubb, “Ammonites, Moabites, Israelites and Phoenicians undoubtedly achieved their own cultural identities, and yet ethnically they were all Canaanites”, “the same people who settled in farming villages in the region in the 8th millennium BC.”
…]
This polarity, between coastal towns and agrarian hinterland, was illustrated in Canaanite mythology by the struggle between the storm god, variously called Teshub (Hurrian) or Ba’al Hadad (Semitic Amorite/Aramean) and Ya’a, Yaw, Yahu or Yam, god of the sea and rivers.

Different names for the same manifestation of the divine, suggest different practices.

I should add: in some belief systems labelled ‘animistic’ you do apparently have the idea of a creator deity (although of course not necessarily in a Judeo-Christian monotheistic sense).

In African religions, for example, you have such an idea: there is usually a single creator deity, who creates the world directly or through the means of created lesser spirits. This creator god is usually thought to not be involved directly in earthly affairs, however (this is a ‘god’ in the deist sense: it creates the world, then leaves its creation to its own devices). Instead, the lesser spirits are the ones who are involved in the daily lives of the people: they are the ones who inspire awe and reverence and are visualized, unlike the unseen great god.

Prehispanic Filipino mythology (also another belief system labelled ‘animistic’) runs along the same lines actually: there is an unseen supreme god(dess) who is sometimes seen as generally unconcerned with earthly affairs, and then there are the lesser divinities plus the spirits of nature / the lesser divinities who are the spirits of nature who are closer to the people and are usually the ones who are given ‘worship’.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.