corner graphic   Hi,    
ver. 2.0.20.01.21
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to classic.studylight.org/

Bible Encyclopedias

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Polytheism

Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

a general name for those systems of religion which involve a belief in more deities than one.

I. Name. Neither this word nor the similar ones, atheism, monotheism, theism, are to be found in the ordinary Greek or Latin dictionaries. Philo the Jew employs such words as the neuter adjective πολύθεον with the article to express the idea; also the forms πολυθεότης, and in Philo ἀθεότης, occur with the sense now attached to endings in μος . Polytheism denotes the belief that there is a plurality of gods, and for the sake of convenience may include dualism, which, however, can be used also to signify the doctrine of two principles that are not necessarily both divine. If it be asked what is intended by gods, we answer:

(1.) That in the word polytheism the notion of gods does not include absolute attributes or creative efficiency, owing to the fact that the human mind cannot readily admit the idea of more than one such being. While, then, monotheism generally means the doctrine of one absolute infinite being, polytheism is not its exact opposite, except in putting many for one, since the attributes of the many are conceived of as inferior to those of the one. This is an accommodation to the state of facts; but in philosophical writing monotheism may itself be divided into absolute and relative, as Schelling has done, with whom the latter denotes the worship of one being, thought of not as infinite, but as limited in his nature. Atheism, again, denies the real existence of any kind of gods; it is alike opposed to polytheism and to monotheism. The idea of God, the infinite one, is not transferable to gods many, and hence there is a necessary vagueness in the heathen conception of their deities, as it respects power, knowledge, duration, especially a parte ante, and other properties. The question, then, arises as to gradations of gods, and as to the difference between them and demigods, heroes, etc. The Greek worshipped these latter; and they had in their mythologies (apotheoses such as that of Hercules, the son of Zeus by a mortal mother. Hence worship is not a criterion of godship. But although the line cannot be drawn accurately between gods and superhuman beings who stood below gods but above men, and had some local agency in human affairs, it may be said that great but not infinite power and knowledge, ability to answer prayer, special functions and agencies in providence, with immortality, entered generally into the conception or definition of a god or divine being. Polytheism is used synonymously with heathenism and paganism, only that the two latter are wider terms, denoting not a mere religious system, but including also the state of things connected with such a system.

Paganism comes from the Latin word pagus, a country district, a canton, the adjective from which, pagtanus, denoted pertaining to such a peagus, then not a soldier, then boorish or unlearned, and finally, among the Christian writers, one not a Christian or Jew, from the fact, apparently, that Christianity came last into the rural districts. In Augustine's time this sense, though already it may not have been uncommon, was new enough for him to say, "The worshippers of gods false and many we call pagans." Heathenism, from heathen, is generally taken, as being a derivation from heath, to have meant a dweller in lonely or remote uncultivated parts of a district, and may have been a translation of pagan into the northern languages of the Germanic stock. From gentes, finally, as a Latin equivalent of the Hebrew word גּוֹים, denoting in the Old Testament the other nations who were polytheists, as opposed to the Jews, and from ἔθνη, with the same sense as used in the Septuagint, are derived gentilism and the ethnic religions. An interesting inquiry is whether the lower races of the heathen world can properly be called polytheists, or whether their spirit-worship is not so unlike the worship of gods among the higher pagan races Is. to require the putting of them into another class. A full answer to this question can only be given at a later stage of our way, and it is embarrassed by traces of the worship of one or more gods, strictly so called, which appear in the religions of this part of mankind. We shall adopt the plan of considering them by themselves, only remarking here that if their worship is more vague than that of the more highly endowed or more cultivated races, it is equally divided between a great number of objects. Polytheism is generally found in company with idolatry; but it can be shown that within the Aryan or Indo-European races all the branches were not primeval idolators. It is probable, therefore, that for a long period, in some parts of the world, the worship of divinities by means of visible forms was unknown; while in the dualistic religion of Iran, or the Persian religion, idol-worship was opposed with almost fanatical hostility. Another of the nations belonging to the same race, the Romans, had only symbols at first; their temples were without images for more than 170 years (Varro, in Augustin. De Civ. Dei, 4:31); and, according to a tradition, Etrurian artificers made the first for them out of wood or clay.

History. A very important question, therefore, respecting polytheism relates to its origin. What did mankind first worship? And among heathen objects of worship, which were the earliest? What is the genesis of the gods of the higher races?

1. The first question that here arises is, Was polytheism earlier. in the order of time, or later than monotheism? The answers to this question rest either on historical or philosophical grounds, or on the authority of revelation.

(a) The rudest nations now and the whole world, as far as we can go back, have had some form of polytheism, if we include the worship of spirits in this term. The Jews are the only strictly monotheistic nation of antiquity: and when Abraham left his clan to go westward, they had already begun to worship other gods (Joshua 24:2). Some traces of the worship of one god appear in the history of Melchisedek and of Balaam. Yet all the nations with whom the Jews came into contact worshipped not only more gods than one, but worshipped them by means of images, with the exception of those addicted to the religion of Zoroaster. Approaches towards monotheism among heathen nations were the results of philosophical reflection, as in Brahminism, where a pantheistic doctrine of the universe prevailed; or in Iranism, where the reforms attributed to Zoroaster show a progress from the earlier Vedic religion, or from something like it. So much the more wonderful is it that the one small people of the Jews clung, amid innumerable temptations to idolatry and defections from their ancestral faith, to an exalted monotheistic idea of the Godhead, which has been the origin of all the monotheism now existing in the world.

(b) Philosophers are divided on the point of the priority of the two religious systems, the belief in one or many gods. Although some deists of a former age regarded monotheism as the earlier of the two, the only consistent ground for those who deny supernatural revelation is that of Mr. Hume. This is, in brief, that the natural progress of human thought is from the less perfect through abstraction to the more perfect; that polytheism was universally diffused, and that monotheism, if earlier could not have been lost. It is needless to say that a great part of the thinking of the present age runs in the same channel. Man was a savage before he became possessed of arts or settled any of the problems of the universe, just as species are evolved out of earlier less finished forms. The many gods were lost out of popular worship, according to Mr. Hume, by adulation, or the zealous attempt of some worshippers to exalt their god above the rest, which is an unfortunate way of accounting for a result that has never been reached, unless it can be shown that an elimination took place in the Jewish system. Opposite to this is Schelling's view in his lectures on mythology, written after he had left his first philosophical position: this was, in brief that monotheism was prior in the order of time, but without any dogmatic definition or distinct view of the divine attributes. At the same time man was awake to all impressions from the material world, in which the great objects seemed to him full of power and life. Here were the beginnings of a worship of nature, which at length drew a part of men away from the worship of the God above nature. This defection made those who resisted it aware, as they were not before, of the vastness, the absoluteness of the one God. Thus the human mind, in the case of those who adhered to the primeval worship, was enlarged in its religious conceptions: it may even be regarded as a part of the scheme of Providence that the apostasy of some helped the infantile race to take grander views of the Supreme Being.

(c) The account given in the Scriptures is that God revealed himself to mankind at the creation, but, as man fell away from God, he did not like to retain him in his knowledge, and that the teachings of the world itself concerning him were rejected (Romans 1:19-20). He therefore devised a religion and an idolatry of his own, which were consistent with foul wickedness. As the world became darker in its apprehensions of God, God began a new revelation of himself to Abraham, when primeval monotheism was in danger of utterly fading out of human belief. If now we may suppose that polytheism arose when men were but children in art, and had no science, those who went farthest from the central points of the primeval world would easily fall into barbarism, and their religions might show the influences of their new and less favorable situations.

(d) Have any traces remained in the world of this primeval monotheism? A number of Christian writers have given an affirmative answer, but they put their reasons for their opinions on diverse grounds. First, we may notice such writers as Cudworth, who in an uncritical way collect together the expressions of writers of every age, and give as much weight to later philosophers as to earlier authors. There is no doubt that philosophers like Plato reached a first principle of the world, or that, before him. Anaxagoras conceived of mind putting already existent matter into appropriate forms. But their voice is not that of popular religion. Next to these we may rank those writers who have noticed a subordination among the objects of worship. The supreme god of Greece is a monarch, father of gods and men with very great powers, the head of moral order, the chief agent in providence. Some of the poets speak of him in terms truly sublime. There are passages in the Suppliants of AEschylus and in the Antigone of Sophocles, which breathe the spirit of the Scriptures. But all that can be fairly drawn from such evidence is what Naegelsbach draws from it in his Posthomeric Theology-that there was in the best age of Grecian authors a certain monotheistic tendency which had no decisive control over Greek faith. "This tendency," to use his words, "was an almost unconscious, a naive one, an obscure impulse, a light that shineth in darkness, but the darkness comprehendeth it not." "The religious consciousness, on the one hand, so to speak, reduced the world of gods to Zeus but on the other could not shake off the plurality of divine forms which nature first furnished to it." If there was any monotheism in the Greek religion it had its representative in Zeus. But what kind of a representative was he? He was not eternal, but born; he was not a creator, for the Greek theology never embraced a creation. He was not all-powerful, but was generally represented as controlled by fate. He had in the popular faith and mythology attributes most unlike those of a divine being. He was, in short, a monarch surrounded by gods of his own kindred, and very far from the conception of a holy or an absolute being. How could a holy and absolute being become so completely changed in the faith of a nation as to lose not only his absolute character, but also what ought naturally to be fixed in the minds of men his purity and holiness? We can conceive of men changing their gods, passing from one to many, or from many to one, but we cannot conceive of one and the same god as undergoing such utter transmutations. Still further it has been urged, with justice, that monotheism and polytheism rest on different bases.

The first separates divinity from nature; the second identifies it with nature, and incorporates it in natural objects. The two are entirely different: how can the one slide into or retain characteristics of the other? This argument, however, does not derive its force from the oneness or manifoldness of the objects of worship, but from their essential relations to the world, so that a passing over from the worship of one not absolute god to that of more than one, also not absolute, is far from being incredible. Hence, if we could accept Schelling's view of the character of original monotheism, we could admit of addition to or subtraction from the number of divinities. Nor can we maintain that traces of a primitive monotheism are certainly preserved in the religions of the other nations of antiquity. The earliest records of the Aryan race, as they appear in the Vedas, give us no indication that one god was of a higher class than the rest. Indra, as Prof. Whitney (Orient. and Ling. Studies, p. 36) remarks, "stands at the head of the Vedic divinities. By this is not meant, however, that he is king among them, endowed with an authority over the rest: no such reduction to system of the religion had taken place as should establish a relation of this kind among its gods. They are as independent, each in his own domain, as the natural phenomena of which they are the personifications." And the further remark is made that the nature of Varuna's attributes and of his concerns with the affairs of human life place him decidedly above Indra. Further, in the later stages of the Indian religions, a deity, comparatively subordinate, Vishnu, has reached a chief place, while the old gods have fallen more or less out of worship. The Iranian or Persian religion contains very exalted conceptions of its supreme divinity, Ormazd, or Ahura Mazda, i.e. the wise lord called also Spentomainyus, or the holy-thinking one-the holy spirit, according to Spiegel, while Haug explains this name as denoting the white spirit. He is also a creator; and in many respects this religion stands very far above all others of the same race. But if Ormazd is a creator, Ahriman (or Angramainyus), the bad spirit, is a creator also; and while there is an evident effort of philosophical reflection to elevate Ormazd, who perhaps represents Varuna, above the other mythological beings of the older faith such, for instance, as Mithra the religion has not succeeded in attaining to the position of a pure monotheism, but is a dualism with decided remains of polytheism. Once more the supreme divinity of the Greeks and Romans, Zeus or Jupiter, i.e. Diov-pater, is now thought by the best etymologists to answer to Dyaus-pitâ, a mythological conception of the Vedas, who is spoken of as the father of Indra, but who either dropped out of or never fully entered into the Vedic religious system. If he dropped out, we find him retained by other portions of the Indo-European race; if he had not entered into it, we find other members of the same family bringing forward this personality as their chief god. While the Greek and Italic branches did this, we find in Scandinavian mythology a god Tyr, answering, as Jacob Grimm (Deutsche Mythol. ch. 9) shows, to Ziu or Zio, with a genitive Ziuwas or Ziewes, in Old High-German, and thus standing for the same being as Zeus or Jupiter.

How can we believe that the representative of monotheism was thus raised or depressed, that he took the place of another displaced supreme god, or himself gave way to Odin (Wuotan)? The true explanation is that the head of the gods, differing in rank but not in nature from the rest, rose and fell in his station, or even dropped out of worship altogether, owing to changes within a nation or race which we cannot now explain. This is only one of the many changes through which polytheism passed. It never had any stability or permanent condition. We only add that if Zeus can be explained, as etymology points out, to be the personification of the bright sky or daylight, this again must prevent us from regarding such a divinity as handing down the monotheistic idea, because this was only one of the most prominent of visible objects. The same remarks in general may be made in respect to the religions of all cultivated races the Assyrian and Babylonian, the Egyptian and the Mexican religions, for instance. We do not deny that individual reflection may have risen above the level of the religions themselves, or that philosophical doctrine may have sought to mix itself with the prevailing mythologies, but that the polytheistic religions, including their highest divinities, did not hand down a distorted monotheism, but stood on essentially another foundation.

(e) Can the actual monotheistic religions be explained on the hypothesis of elimination? This would mean that all the gods except one faded out of the religious system of a nation, or of certain nations. It is a matter of fact that there has been but one such nation. All the monotheism in the world came from Judaism into Christianity and Mohammedanism. Can the worship of one god in Judaism be accounted for on the hypothesis just spoken of, that there was a time when several gods divided the allegiance of the nation among them, and that one, by the adulation, as Mr. Hume calls it, or the superior zeal of his worshippers, crowded out the others from the minds of the people. Historically there is very small ground for such a hypothesis. The descendants of Jacob had such a hankering after polytheism and idolatry that their whole history is a succession of apostasies; new objects of worship were adopted continually, notwithstanding the efforts of prophets to inculcate what all regard as a vastly more exalted religion. The tradition carried back the worship of Jehovah-not perhaps under that name, but as the Almighty God, the maker of heaven and earth-to Abraham and to his progenitors, nay, to the very beginning; and the very idea of Judaism, that which has given to the race its historic importance, is its separation, as the people of Jehovah, from all the rest of the world. "Thou shalt have no gods before me," "Thou shalt not make any graven image," are the two "articuli stantis vel cadentis Judaismi." Without entering into this subject at length, we will only add that no hypothesis of the rise of Judaism can stand which derives it from a previous polytheism. It must have come from philosophical reflection, or from primeval tradition, or from revelation. Its unique character shows that it is no work of man, and its place in the education of the human race shows that it had an important place in the scheme of Providence (comp. O. Pfleiderer, Das Wesen der Religion, 1, 11).

2. Among the objects worshipped by polytheists, which were the earliest? However we may answer this question, it ought to be laid down, before we attempt an answer, that the objects of worship must have been thought of as having personal qualities and relations to man. Worship, the recognition of a divine superintending power, did not begin, could not begin, in the adoration of dead matter; of a sun invested with material qualities, for instance, then personified, and finally converted into a person with will, feeling, and agency in the world. We must start with attributing to man a religious sense or sentiment. The world, to the first polytheists, was full of divine power and agency; they did not create to themselves the divine life in nature, quickening it into life by a personifying imagination, but it was there for them to recognize; they felt their dependence upon it; it surrounded them on every side. But it was broken up to their minds into the many great objects on which they depended; it met them everywhere, and they worshipped this divine power and will in its parts as the source of benefits. With this premised, we may say that the heavenly bodies, the phenomena of day and of light, the earth itself, the sea, the sky or heaven, were among the primeval objects of heathen worship. The sun, for instance, not only as a sun-god, but also, in what was perhaps an earlier form of religion, the visible luminary itself, was among the first divinities of heathenism. The luminary was considered as alive, and possessed of the power of seeing things upon the earth. When Hades snatched away the virgin Proserpine, and carried her to his realms below through a chasm of the earth to be his wife, no one heard her cries for help except Helios, son of Hyperion and Hecate. Zeus, to whom she cried for help, "was sitting apart from the gods in a thronged temple, and receiving choice offerings from mortal men," so he did not hear her (Hymn. in Cer. 25-29). The attributes of Helios in the Greek religion, in which he was by no means a very important deity, are all to be referred to the heavenly body, endowed with perception, and noticing as well as hearing what takes place here below. The people believed that the sun was a living being, and the philosophers had the same faith. Anaximander is said to have ascribed a fiery body and a vital principle to it; and Anaxagoras so offended the Athenians by his doctrine that the sun was a red-hot stone or mass of metal that he was accused of impiety, and, although defended by Pericles, was fined five talents and banished (Plat. Apol. Socr. 26 D; Diog. Laert. 2, § 12 sq.).

In the same manner the worship of the sun, as distinguished from the sun-gods, appears in the Vedas, although of less importance than these latter; the Greeks attributed the same worship to this luminary among the Persians; and Plato makes Socrates use the following words: "It seems to me that the earliest inhabitants of Greece held those only to be gods-whom many of the barbarians now regard as such-sun, moon, stars, and heaven" (Cratyl. 397 C). In the Scriptures the worship of the heavenly bodies is spoken of as an apostasy from God to which Israel would be tempted: "Take ye good heed to yourselves lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven, and when thou seest the sun, and the moon, and the stars, even all the host of heaven, shouldest be driven to worship them, and serve them" (Deuteronomy 4:15-19). And in fact they were driven into this kind of worship at as late an age of their history as the reign of Josiah, who put down "them that burned incense to the sun, and to the moon, and to the planets, and to all the host of heaven." We hardly need to refer to the prevalence of such worship, especially of the planets, in Babylonia and Assyria, nor to the fact that sun-worship was the foundation probably of the honors paid to Baal and Moloch among the Ammonites, in Canaan and in Carthage, nor to the importance of this element in the Egyptian religion. We only add that the religion of Peru that is, the religion of the Incas, which superseded an older religion-was direct sun-worship, and that the same was spread over a large part of this continent, among the tribes even of the Red men in North America. The heathen part of the Dakotas still have their sun-dances, and as late as 1872 one of their practices was to look steadily many minutes at the blazing orb, as an act, it was understood, of religious worship. This is only one of those objects of nature to which were paid divine honors. The earth, as the general nursing mother, the sea, tie sky, the life in the air, in trees, even in animals, all seemed to be divine. The Earth particularly -as the Great Mother, the Syrian goddess Cybele, Demeter, Ceres-although exalted into a person separate from the dead earth, as the cause of life to vegetables, and ultimately to man, was worshipped, and in some countries, as in Asia Minor, with the most frantic rites.

3. But polytheism would have been comparatively dead, and possessed of fewer attractions to the religious sentiment of many, if it had stopped short in its development of the divine in nature. The next step was to convert these comparatively fixed objects, exhibiting superhuman agency to the eyes of men, into persons separated from the objects themselves. The sun, regarded as a god, in this process became a sun god; that is, his personality was no longer identified with the sun, and confined to its orb, but he became free to go whithersoever he would, and to exercise supernatural powers away from the sun, his proper seat. This was a very great stage through which the religions of all the higher races passed. The spirit of the sun, possessed of will and feelings like a man's, but of more than human power, is now free to move abroad, to mingle in human affairs, and thus to transcend his first agency by a very much wider and more varied new one. It is possible for him thus to become mythological; that is, the effects which he produces become events in history. The sun god's rays to the imagination become darts, and as the rays of the sun in summer cause malignant fevers, so he is conceived of as shooting his arrows at men and beasts, the cause being some offence or dishonor done to his sacred rites or to his servants. The beginning of the Iliad will illustrate what we mean, it being assumed, what is now generally admitted, but what some eminent scholars have denied, that Apollo is indeed a sun-god. This the Greeks of the time of Sophocles and Euripides held, but they held it more as an inference than from any traditional opinion. But, furthermore, the sun god might become the especial object of worship of a city or a tribe their tutelary god; and thus he acquired a new character, and stood in new relations to a part of a people. From them his worship might spread over the whole of a tribe or of a race, and his old original nature would be almost lost out of sight; he would have outgrown, so to speak, his youthful properties. In this way it could happen that a war-god could be developed out of the divinity of a nation of warriors, although his attributes at first might have had no relation to armed strife. Thus the Roman god Mars was the divinity of an agricultural people, it seems probable, a god of spring and of fructification, before he became a god of war. Apollo also, if a god of the sun and of light at first, had from this source naturally the attributes of a destroyer and of a healer (the latter attribute being shown in the names Apollo and Paean, the avertes and healer), of a pure one and a purifier; to which were added his connection with music and poetry, as well as his prophetic office of giving forth oracles as a mediator between Zeus and mortals. The relations of Apollo to social life in its various departments, and his connection with Delphi, where the religion of Greece found its center, made him the most important of all the Greek divinities, Zeus only accepted. His attributes may possibly all be evolved from the original conception of him as a nature-god; but it is hard to see how this can be done.

We have reached the point where we can state in brief several laws, as they may be called, of polytheism, which might be illustrated by an infinite number of facts, but will, we trust, commend themselves to our readers, after what has been said, without much explanation.

(1.) To a great extent, polytheism at its foundation is the worship of nature, i.e. of objects in nature which strike the attention of man, and are important aids to his well-being in the world.

(2.) These objects are conceived of as living existences, and as having, together with superhuman power, the feelings and the will of men.

(3.) In the course of time, the living thing or god in the natural object becomes detached from it, is conceived of as an agent in human affairs, and may greatly enlarge its sphere of operations.

(4.) This process changes the attributes and functions of the divinities. In this way, or by the mythological processes, the religions of heathenism may for some time be in a constant flux, and this will last as long as faith in the gods and the mythological spirit lasts.

(5.) Among the changes may be mentioned the following:

(a) the god of a clan or district becomes the god of a race;

(b) foreign gods are introduced;

(c) the same divinity, through the help of a new name, becomes a new personality by the side perhaps of the old one;

(d) old divinities drop out of worship;

(e) the relative importance of different gods may change;

(f) what is called theocrasia, that is, a confusion of gods, takes place, but generally this is due to philosophical reflection: this is sometimes a pantheistic process, and in the later stages of Greek history it is carried so far that all the leading gods are considered to be forms or expressions for one and the same potency;

(g) in the most cultivated nations of heathenism there came on a time when the mythology was rejected as being immoral, or was explained on various principles so as to bring it within the limits of the natural; and the religion, under the attacks of a skepticism produced by moral feeling or philosophical doctrine, lost its hold on the national mind. This would naturally destroy the life of the nation, unless some new religion should take its place.

To illustrate the changes through which the heathen religions can pass, we refer, first, to Hinduism, which appears in the Vedas as a simple worship of the gods of light, fire, etc.; then passes into Brahminism, where Vishnu, an inferior god of the Vedas, and Siva, perhaps the same as the storm-god Rudra of the Vedas, take the principal place, and divide in their ramified mythologies the worship of the nation between their respective religions. A second instance is presented by the religion of Rome, which in its early stage tias a punctilious, superstitious veneration of certain divinities, somewhat allied to those of Greece, together with other vague, shadowy powers, and in its second stage adopted many of the gods and much of the mythology of Greece, so as to throw its own indigenous religion into the shade. Then, in its third stage, Rome almost entirely lost its old religion, and was a common harbor for all Oriental superstitions-the worship of Cybele and Isis and Mithras, and the Virgo Coelestis from Carthage, and the Moloch-Jupiters of Syria. A third instance, with less clear outlines, is presented by Mexico, the religion of which seems to be a composite made up of parts from the religion of the Mayas, from that of the Toltecs, from that of the Aztec conquerors, and of a residuum perhaps from other quarters.

(6.) From this exposition it would seem safe to affirm that few religions preserve anything more than the spirit of their original form. They continue to be religions of nature, that is, of divine power as it appears in the diversified objects of nature. Hence the philosophy which arises in heathen countries will be apt to be pantheistic, to confound God and nature.

Polytheism, in any true view of it, must be considered in its relations to mythology; but we must speak on this branch of our subject with the greatest possible brevity, as we have already considered mythology by itself. Mythology takes up the raw material, so to speak, furnished by heathen theology, and converts it into history, mingling with it much of poetic invention, but all in good faith; for there can be no doubt that the earliest successors of the mythological age believed in their religion in this shape, as presented to them by the imaginations of a prior age unconsciously coloring what they received for true. Mythology starts with attributing to its divinities human form and feelings (anthropomorphism and anthropopathism); and, of course, from these premises infers in regard to events of life certain specific feelings on the part of the gods, resentful or kindly, out of which the events grew. It attributes sex to the gods on natural principles, for in every language the gender of different objects in nature differs. Not always is the sun masculine nor the moon feminine, but all things are alive, and, according to the especial mode of thinking in each nation, are male or female. Causation, again, is conceived of under the image of procreation; and where the gods were thought of as coming into being, they themselves were begotten by parents, until the mind landed in a first cause, which was blind and impersonal. Thus theogonies arose, such as we find in Greece, Phoenicia, Scandinavia, and even among the passive races of this continent. (See MYTHOLOGY).

A room was thus opened for the impure imagination, which, not content with imputing to the gods love and lust towards each other, without regard to the laws of kindred or wedlock, represented them as enamored of men or women also, and as thus the progenitors of extraordinary persons, demigods or heroes. From this conception the way was easy towards attributing to extraordinary persons some divine sire or mother, and of allying them to the celestials. And as thus the gods were only a little higher than mortals, the distance was bridged over, so that demigods were both mortal and divine. Hence it became easier to fall down into the worship of men of great power or skill, until in the old age of some of the religions we find kings receiving divine honors even in their lifetime, and deified after their death. This vagueness of the line between the divine and the human reacted on religious theory, so that a doctrine like that of Euemerus had easy currency when the divine had sunk so low-the doctrine, namely, that all the gods were originally dead men, and were deified on account of great achievements and services to mankind.

This is only one theory of mythology, which, indeed, is a wilderness where one is in danger of getting lost, and, if one would attempt explanations, must do so with caution. There are many forms of explanation. There is the physical, where phenomena of nature are turned into events, and here the difficulty, not easily solved, meets us of explaining how an event of nature which happens every day is represented in mythology as a unique occurrence in history. There is, again, historical mythology, that in which some fact is the basis, and the drapery is mythological invention. But in adding this drapery, and in other such inventions, the poets did not feel that they were chargeable with fraud, any more than Milton blamed himself for uniting his own poetical threads with the woof of Scripture truth. There was also a mythology breathing an allegorical spirit, and dictated perhaps by the desire to teach moral truth in the form which religious truth assumed. This was more consciously fictitious. Theological mythology, again, concerned itself chiefly with the births and life of the gods before they came into the religious system. We have in Greek a working up of this that goes under the name of Hesiod, and may belong to the 8th century B.C.; and the fragments of another also ascribed to a primeval poet, Orpheus, but later by one or two centuries than that of Hesiod. A comparison of these seems to show that the theological poets were free in changing the myths which they had to deal with, either inventing in part, or drawing their materials from earlier poems where a different religious philosophy was exhibited. The mythology of Greece was fully grown in the age of Homer; it is not true that he and Hesiod created it, but rather they and others like them gathered it, and gave it a form of greater beauty. Nor is it true, as we think, that a priestly class gave the first form to mythology. More true is it to say that a nation did this, and an age-a very long age, perhaps. We are not to conceive of a body of philosophers teaching in figures, the shadows of things real, those realities that lay in sunshine before their own minds; on the contrary, the mythological spirit was spread over all; it was the way in which all conceived of things supernatural.

A word or two may not be inappropriate here in regard to objects of worship that may be called secondary, that is, such as do not attain to the rank of principal divinities, or even of divinities at all, but still played a not unimportant part in some heathen religions. Among these we name,

(1) the representatives or personifications of the life in the inferior objects of nature, like those which went by the title of nymphs in the Greek mythology, as the nymphs of the wood, of fountains, of the sea-beings having a narrow range of habitation and of attributes. Some of these spirits inhabited the object or element after which they were called, but were thought of as more or less able to disengage themselves from it. Thus the sea-nymphs wandered over the coasts, the wood or mountain nymphs over the mountain. Some of them, being personifications of the life of perishable objects as the hamadryads-were supposed to die when the tree, their substratum, died.

(2) The spirits of the departed. Such were the heroes and demigods of Greece; the spirits of ancestors or of other mortals, who might be causes of good or of harm, might be believed to be present on earth, to be under the ground, and capable of being raised by rites of evocation, or to inhabit the stars, like the Fravashis in the Persian religion. Faith in the continued existence of men after death was very widely diffused over the world, and furnished a support for such arts as necromancy, and an explanation for the phenomena of dreams. Nations in which the family feeling was strong were especially addicted to the veneration of ancestors, as the Chinese and the Romans.

(3) The attendants on other gods, who sometimes were almost deities in the popular mind. Such were the Fauns; Silvanus, among the Romans; Satyrs among the Greeks, the subordinate sea-gods of the latter, etc.

(4) Abstract notions personified, which presuppose the tendency to give full personality to real objects. Examples of these are furnished by the Greek religion, such as Thermis and Dike, personified law and justice; Metis, Mnemosyne, Thanatos, the daemons of battle; and a great number in the theogony of Hesiod. The Roman religion is full of vague, misty shapes floating between reality and abstraction, such as Pavor and Pallor, to whom in a battle the third king of Rome vowed to erect shrines; Honor and Virtus, Pax and Victoria, to the two last of whom important temples were built in the later days of Roman history.

(5) The personified forces of inanimate nature. Here. as in the case of the abstractions just now mentioned, the cause or force was conceived of as an agent. Thus the winds, especially Boreas, were more or less worshipped in Greece; and the same is true of volcanic or other subterranean phenomena. In India, and even among our Red men, a similar kind of nature-worship prevailed; in some of the North American Indian tribes the north-west wind attained to a high rank among the divinities, was confounded even with the Great Spirit, and played quite an important role in the mythologies.

(6) Evil, that is malevolent, spirits, had a place in some religions of the more cultivated races, but in general not a very important place, nor were they worshipped except by way of propitiation. Such were the rakshas of India, the daevas of Iran, the god Typhon of Egypt, the larvae and lemures of Roman superstition-the former of whom were bad spirits of departed men, and scarcely to be distinguished from the latter, to whom the propitiatory rites of the Lemuria on the ninth of May were offered.

(7) Finally we mention certain house-spirits, who may be included under (3) as the attendants of family gods, such as the Roman Vesta. Such were the penatos, the spirits presiding over the penus or the family stores and inner part of the houses of the Romans; and the lares, protectors of the house, the cross-road, etc. Such, too, may have been the traphim of Scripture, or rather the beings represented by the teraphim, a kind of family gods answering somewhat to the protecting saints of the Roman Catholic Church.

We have come in the course of our subject to the religions of the uncultivated races, a department of the religions of mankind, where it is difficult to solve all the problems or to get upon entirely satisfactory ground. These religions have been divided, as by Wuttke (Gesch. d. Heidenth. vol. 1.), into Jetichism and shamanisin; but as authors differ greatly in the meaning which they attach to the first of these words, and as what is called shamanism may be found everywhere, we cannot make much headway in our subject by the help of these words. We shall come upon fetichism again when we speak of worship; at present we content ourselves with saying that a fetich, as first used by Des Brosses in his Essai sur le Culte des Dieux Fetiches (1760), signified any object, however worthless, in which a god or spirit was supposed for the time to reside, and which might be used as a preservative against evil or malignant influences. The word-in the Portuguese form feitico, connected with the Italian fattizio, made by art, from the Latin facticius -denoted a charm, or object employed as a charm; and it was used to set forth a striking characteristic of the religions of Western Africa with which the Portuguese at an early day came into contact. Wuttke (u. s.), after Stuhr, in his Religious Systems of the Heathen Peoples of the East (Berlin, 1836, p. 257), regards a fetich as an outward object of worship, selected at will or by accident. The fetich- worshipper chooses and discards, according to a freak, the object in which his divinity is supposed to lodge. To use Wuttke's language, while in sun or star worship the heavenly body says to the man, "I am thy god," the worshipper of a fetich says to the worshipped object, "thou mayest be, I will permit thee to be, my god" (u. . vol. 1, § 36). Others, as Meiners (Allg. Geschichte d. Religion [Hanover, 1806], vol. 1, Ik. 2) and J.G. Mü ller (Amer. Urrelig. p. 74, 75), regard the fetich as in the belief of the worshipper a divine essence; not a symbol of divinity, but, like the sun or moon, a god. The fetich-worshipper carries his subdivision of nature, which is divine to the rude heathen, further down than the higher races do; he worships many worthless objects. These definitions are not satisfactory to us, nor do they point out any generic difference between the fetich- worshipper and the worshipper of an image of Athene Polius by a principal artist of Greece. For

(1) if the fetich were a precious thing in itself, doubtless the Negro would be constant in the respect he paid it. The selection and rejection need to be accounted for, but the worthlessness of the object must greatly contribute to the inconstancy of the devotee.

(2) There are village as well as house fetiches in Africa, and these seem to have a more fixed hold on the religious feeling.

(3) The use of the fetich as a charm or amulet is not essentially unlike the use of saints' bones for the same purpose, and the feeling is like that of the cultivated heathen towards his graven image. This feeling is to be accounted for in part by a confusion of the subjective and the objective. The sense of security, caused by the realization of the presence of a protector, is attributed to the object itself.

(4) Some fetiches have the rude beginnings of likeness to men. Here, certainly, there is image-worship in its infancy.

(5) The belief in spirits which-to say the least-very many rude races have, is inconsistent with Muller's view that the fetich-worship is worship of a detached part of nature. The spirit has the fetich for its house, it dwells there, as the Greek god was conceived by the mass of the people to inhabit the statue, and as the pictures of saints in some Catholic lands wink with their eyes because the saint is there in the belief of the superstitious. The fetich is discarded, perhaps, because it ceases to awaken certain religious feelings which it awakened for some reason at first, and so the Negro looks for some other reminder or the spirit's or the divinity's presence.

(6) Some fetiches are living animals, and here the inquiry arises, which we must dismiss for the present, whether these are conceived of as tenanted by higher beings, or as symbols of higher beings. The same answer, as it appears to us, must be given as it regards Egyptian or Indian animal- worship, and as it regards that which prevails in Africa or America.

We conclude, then, that fetich-worship is not essentially distinct from idol- worship, and we may find all the characteristics of it in the religions of the cultivated men. Among the Greeks, as belonging to an early period of their religion before sculpture had made much proficiency, we find such memorials of gods as three-cornered pillars in the temples of the Charites at Cyzicus, conical pillars of Apollo, the pillar of Hera at Argos, and a plank of wood sacred to her at Samos, not to mention the sacred stones called boetyli, and the stone of the mother of the gods, transferred from Pessinus to Rome, and there venerated and carried about in processions. These were fetiches, and so were wrought images, as long as the faith continued that the god was present in the outward object. The most characteristic mark of fetich-worship-as it seems to us-was that which struck the eyes of the first travelers in Africa-its connection with charms, and in general the prevalence of witchcraft, and of various magic arts. The religions are religions of fear, in which a small body of men governs the rest by terror, and thus stands in the way of the higher religious ideas. This cannot have been coeval with the religions themselves. It must have taken some time, perhaps ages, to develop the system of witchcraft or magic art by which so many rude people have been kept down in their degradation, by which, according to the natural course of things, their degradation has been increased.

Shamanism may be defined as the worship of spirits, so called from the Shaman or priest-conjurer of many religions in the northern parts of the world. The spiritual world seems to embrace all things that have life, and in some parts the spirit detaches itself from the tree or other living thing at will, to return there again. This kind of religion has prevailed, or once prevailed, among the Finns, Huns, ancestors of the Magyars, Mongols, Japanese, Chinese, and in Thibet. Something like it is found among the Red men and other aborigines of this western continent.

Some of the Northern Asiatics make a threefold division of spirits: first, the souls or powers which have taken a concrete form in physical objects; secondly, the spirits of deceased ancestors; thirdly, spirits, some of which may have been human souls, which have a wider sphere of action, such as have relations to a whole tribe or as protectors in certain undertakings. These may be kindly or malignant.

Besides these spiritual beings, the Finns believed in a supreme god, Jumala, whose name, as Castren thinks, may have denoted at first place of thunder, heaven, then god of heaven, then god in general. The Lapps of Norway had three classes of spirits-those in the air, those in the heavens, and others above the heavens. Among the last is a higher god, who creates everything through his son-which must Le a conception borrowed from the Christians in their neighborhood. Among the Tunguses there are several ranks and spheres of operation in the spirit system; but above them all is a god of heaven, Boa, who knows all things, but does not concern himself with what comes to pass, nor punish the wicked; and, besides him, a spirit of the sun, more powerful than the rest, to whom prayers are offered; a spirit of the moon, from whom dreams come; spirits of the stars, who are protectors of particular men, etc. (Comp. Castren's lectures on Finnish mythology, translated from the Swedish.) In the religions of our continent the Great Spirit has been supposed, without reason, to have corresponded with God, the sun, north-west wind, etc. The spirits are supposed to be capable of detaching themselves from their corporeal frame, and of taking various forms as they see fit. It is a most interesting inquiry, but one in which it is difficult to reach certainty, whether there are in the uncultivated races remembrances of a primeval monotheistic faith. The difficulty is due to several causes, the first of which is their reserve, often extreme, in communicating with persons higher in the scale of civilization, and their readiness to agree for the moment to what such persons may say. Another circumstance to be considered is the propagation of religious ideas from foreign sources-in Africa on both sides of the continent from the Mohammedanism which has long been making progress, and in this continent from Christianity. The Red men near the whites have forgotten their former human sacrifices and cannibalism, and neglect of parents in extreme old age; and they seem to have imbibed some religious notions from the white men which have modified their religions.

We find, also, this to be sometimes confessed by some tribes in Africa that they believe in a being above all, but neglect him because he is too far off, too high to concern himself with their affairs. This may be an excuse for neglect of worship of such a being, or it may be conformed to a real but obscure tradition. We may suppose the supreme god to have been in the primeval religion of their fathers, and to have been thrust out of worship by the spiritual weakness and imbecility of fallen man. In some tribes, again, there appear to be no such faint traces of monotheism. A missionary, who lived over thirty years in Southern Africa, once told the present writer that he never found any such embers of an early religion among those with whom he was conversant. The question is thus one not so easily settled. We close what we have to say of it by a brief citation from the important work of Waltz (Anthropol. d. Natuvolker, pt. 2, p. 167). He is speaking of the religion of the Negroes. After denying the justice of imputing to them a peculiar and rude form of polytheism, he adds that the deeper penetration into their religions, to which of late a number of conscientious investigators have attained, leads to the surprising result that a number of Negro tribes, among whom the influence of nations that stand higher in point of culture cannot be pointed out nor scarcely be suspected, have made much greater advances in the development of their religious conceptions than almost all other nations in a state of nature. And this to such a degree that, if we may not call them monotheists, still we may assert of them that they stand on the borders of monotheism; while yet their religion is mingled with a great amount of gross superstition, which in the case of other peoples where it is found seems entirely to cover up with its rank growth the purer religious conceptions."

II. Observances. We have considered polytheism thus far on the side of its nature and origin. We proceed next to a brief exposition of its practical side, or its outward worship, including priests, images, altars, and temples, liturgical services, and offerings.

(1.) Throughout paganism it has been felt that the gods must be approached in a certain way, and the knowledge of that way has been in the hands of a certain tribe or class. If there were written records, sacred songs, or formulae, the knowledge of these pertained to this class alone. Moreover, a method of ascertaining the divine will grew up of which they alone had the knowledge. Whatever rites were necessary to propitiate the anger of the gods, or to secure their favor, they alone could authoritatively tell. If any occult science relating to human destiny or the divine will existed, they possessed it exclusively. They had from their position such advantages that they first would have the literature, science, philosophy, and history of the nation in their keeping. Thus to a great extent they controlled the progress of events, stood by the side of rulers to direct their counsels, trained the people, shaped the theory of religion, turned it perhaps into a new direction.

The influence and standing of the priests varied with the freedom of the nation, with the compactness of the priestly order, and with various other causes. In some countries, as in Egypt and in India, they formed one of the leading castes, and all knowledge, secular or religious, was in their hands. In the Persian or Zoroastrian religion the priest, called Athrava in the records, has also in the inscription of Behistun (of the time of Darius Hystaspes), and in the Greek and Latin writers, the name of Magus. The Magi, according to Herodotus, were a Median tribe, which, becoming necessary for the offices of religion, was diffused over Persia also, and perhaps over East Iran or Bactria. They resembled the tribe of Levi in their living in villages, and had no great political power, owing perhaps to the almost religious authority of the Persian king. The Avesta consists, to a great degree, of long prayers, of invitations to the gods to be present at acts of worship, and the like, and religion entered into all the important concerns of life. Frequent purgations, and the maintenance also of the sacred fire, fell to their office. It is difficult to explain the connection between these Magi and the practice of magic, for there were Babylonian Magi also; but the word was probably indigenous in Iran. Duncke, the historian, finds the connection in the formulae of conjuration which they used in order to drive away the devas or devs, the evil-minded spirit- servants of Ahrinan, which formulae had a kind of constraining power over the spirits, just as prayer in India was conceived of as putting a force on the gods.

Greece differed from the nations already mentioned in having no order of priests: any one might assume the office, and discharge the duties which the priest performed, and "there is no trace of a priestly discipline propagated by instruction through generations, nor is there any trace of an abiding connection between the priests of different cities" (K. Ottfried Mü ller, Proleg. p. 249, 250). At Rome the religious institutions took stronger root, in conformity with the regard for precedent, the formality and the superstition which characterized the early Roman people. The public priesthoods were originally in patrician hands, and the priests long monopolized the knowledge of the calendar and the legal formulae. Moreover, the private rites of families seem to have been thought of more importance than was the case among the Greeks. But there was no caste, there were no hereditary public priestly offices, and politics, becoming a vastly more inviting field, drew to itself the attention and efforts of all men who aspired to influence. The magistrates themselves observed the signs in the heavens and regulated the meeting of public bodies in accordance with their own wishes, under pretence of religious scruples. North of Rome lay the Etruscans, belonging to another race, who had a gloomy religion, in which the art of divination played a more important part than in that of any other nation of which we have knowledge. Here the leading men held the office of priests, and the principal priesthoods were hereditary. Beyond the Alps, in Gaul, the Druids formed a great corporation, at the head of which was a kind of pope; while Julius Caesar was struck by the want of a compact priestly class in Germany, and says that the race was not given to sacrifices. Of the nations inhabiting this continent, the Mexicans had a very numerous body of priests, some five thousand of whom are said to have belonged to the great temple at the capital. Over the hierarchy of priests two chiefs selected from leading families presided, whose position gave them high authority in state affairs. Under these chiefs a third, with his subordinates, had superintendence over the lower priests and the seminaries. There were also monks in Mexico, as well as in other adjoining countries, who have been compared with the similar bodies in Buddhist countries. In Peru, owing to the sacred dignity of the Incas, the priests, unless they pertained to the race of the Children of the Sun, had less independent weight than the similar class in Mexico, and the simplicity of the religion may have conduced to the same result. A remarkable institution of this country was that of the virgins of the sun, who, like the Roman vestals, had to keep alive the sacred symbol of fire.

(2.) The objects of worship were either invisible, or distant and yet visible, or something near at hand, in which a divine power was thought to reside. In the first case especially there was a longing in the pagan mind for some representation or image which might keep the presence of the deity in mind, and thus give a sense of protection to the worshipper. Image- worship, idolatry, arose from a desire, it seems probable, of feeling the nearness of the unseen power, or from conceiving that the divine power is lodged in or belongs to the object present before the eves as being inherent or represented by it. Image-worship has been diffused over the heathen world, but some nations have rejected it. The religion of Ormud rejected images and even temples with a kind of fanatical hatred. We believe that there are no traces of it in the Vedas. The Romans at first had only symbols and not forms in the houses of their gods. The probability is therefore that through the whole of the Indo-European race idol-worship was not known at the first; but in Egypt, in Greece, in the Hamitic and in some of the Shemitic peoples, on this continent, in Africa, and over the world, no earlier period can be traced than one in which either image symbol or fetich-worship was a part of the religions. As for direct worship of nature, one would suppose that images would not be needed by the pagan religious sentiment. The heavenly bodies especially are so great a part of the time in sight that no memorial of them would be needed. Thus we find that in Babylonia and Assyria, where sun and star worship, as distinguished from the worship of sun and star gods, prevailed, idols were common. Yet we find images of Bel, Nebo, and Merodach (Mercury and Jupiter) spoken of by the prophets (Isaiah 46:1; Jeremiah 1:2), while the Phoenician and Canaanite sun-god Baal is represented by pillars (of stone and wood? 2 Kings 10:26-27), and Asherah, probably the same as Astarte, by wooden posts (groves in our version, passim). It seems not unlikely that in proportion to the pagan mind's separation of a divinity from the object out of which it grew, the tendency to represent it by images, and especially after the figure of man "(Isaiah 44:13), would become more controlling, but to this there seem to be exceptions. As for the direct worship of other objects of nature, as trees and animals, especially snakes, there is no reason why this kind of worship should need images. And here we come to the difficult inquiry whether the animal is a symbol or a fetich, that is, a tenement of a god; and we may doubt also whether in different parts of the world, as in Egypt and on this continent the same conceptions lay under this species of cultus. In Egypt the sacred bulls Apis and Mnevis were certainly regarded as incarnations; but may not symbol have preceded and given rise to this belief? The representations with which the Egyptian religion abounds of gods in a composite form, partly human, partly bestial, hawk or jackal-headed, etc., show a symbolizing of particular qualities united to the expression of intelligence like that of man. But, on the other hand, the worship of animals elsewhere, the great number of sacred animals in Egypt, which it was a crime to kill, and the mummies of which were preserved, seem to point to a stage of worship in that strange country where the marvelous instincts and powers of animals pointed to a god within them all.

After what has been said in another place we need not speak at length of fetich-worship. The vagueness of the word ought to be cured by definitions, or it ought to be driven out of works on the pagan religions. If a fetich is a material in which a god or spirit is conceived to dwell for the time, a spell-bound protector and coadjutor of those who offer him worship, this is a distinct idea; or if it is a tenement chosen by the worshipper for his god, that too is distinct enough; but when we find, together with stones, mountains, water, wind and fire, plants, animals, and men, heavenly bodies also in a certain stage of human culture reckoned as fetiches, it seems as if fetich-worship might be made to include everything. In Greece the Thessalian sorceresses were thought to be able to bring the moon down out of the skies, and to work magic arts by her help. That is, Hecate, the moon goddess, was believed to be wandering abroad at night, and, being identified with the moon, was thought to come down from the skies. The same general notion of power over objects of nature appears in the rude fetich-worship of Africa. A clear line cannot be drawn between the religious conceptions of paganism in the lower and in its higher culture.

We ha


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Polytheism'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/p/polytheism.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, January 21st, 2020
the Second Week after Epiphany
ADVERTISEMENT
Search for…
Enter query in the box:
 or 
Choose a letter to browse:
A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M 
N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  Y  Z 

 
Prev Entry
Polystaurion
Next Entry
Pomarancio
ADVERTISEMENT
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology