Polytheism is the belief in many gods. Polytheism may be contrasted with Monotheism or belief in one God, or with Atheism, belief in no god whatsoever. Most archaic religions, like Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman Religion were polytheistic, though they may have believed that somewhere there was a supreme god or principle. Religions like Hinduism, Mahayan Budhism, and Taoism today may appear to be polytheistic, but many of their adherents would insist that the many gods or Buddhas and Bodhisattvas one sees in their temples should be regarded more like, say, the saints in Roman Catholicism: gloriﬁed human beings who have attained near-divine holiness and so can help us, or else as personiﬁ cations or aspects of the One. Some would say that Shinto in Japan is the most nearly polytheistic religion found today in a major advanced society.
Polytheism has very ancient roots. In primal tribal societies, one can ﬁ nd belief in various spirits—ancestors, spirits of places like mountains and woods, of animals—as well as usually a ruling high god. Generally each tribe, and later each city, would have its guardian or patronal god too. But it was in the ancient empires like Egypt and Babylon that polytheism really grew. As many tribes and cities were combined into larger empires, all their local gods might become parts of a vaster pantheon of gods. At the same time, as human life became more complex, gods of specialized occupations came to be honored by their followers. Sometimes a heavenly bureaucracy paralleled that of the empires of Earth. It was against this greater and greater complexity of polytheism that monotheism ﬁ nally rebelled.
But wherever found, in remaining tribal societies, in the archaic world, in Japan or elsewhere, polytheism is important because it communicates a different vision of the sacred than monotheism. As the theologian Paul Tillich once put it, polytheism is a matter of quality as well as quantity. It is not just that the polytheist has many gods while the monotheist has one; it is that this makes the whole experience of God different. For the monotheist, the whole universe is uniﬁ ed under one rule and one will. For the polytheist, it is divided up, pluralistic, nuanced: There is a separate god for this sacred tree and that sacred waterfall, for love and for war, and each can be sovereign in his or her own time, but all are also ﬁ nite and none can rule the whole show. Decisions in a polytheistic universe must be made by divine consensus, notﬁat. A few people today, in Neo-Pagan movements, are attempting to recover something of the spirit of polytheism.