What's the Difference Between Polytheism and Monotheism?
- Track Progress
- 0:07 What is Polytheism?
- 1:01 Amarna Period
- 1:56 Israelites' Monotheism
- 3:17 Polytheism vs. Monotheism
- 6:15 Story of Hippolytus
This lecture discusses the origins of monotheism. It then compares monotheism to polytheism, with especial emphasis on the problematic nature of holy law. Finally it uses the Greek story of Hippolytus to compare the ancient polytheistic perspective to a modern christian perspective.
What is Polytheism?
This is a lecture about the emergence of monotheism. Monotheism refers to the worship of a single, supreme deity.
Today, about half the world's population practices one form of monotheism or another. Yet for much of human history, monotheism was far from popular. Most of the world's religions have been polytheistic, meaning that they worship a collection of gods, known as a pantheon. These gods came in all shapes and sizes, from animistic spirits of natural forces, like animals, trees, rivers, etc., to anthropomorphic gods, which take the shape and characteristics of humans, to anything in between.
In whatever form, polytheism was the norm for religion for thousands of years, while monotheism was very rare indeed.
The first historical reference we have for monotheism comes from Egypt. Around 1375 B.C.E., the Pharoh, Amenhotep IV, decided he would worship only Aten, the god of the Sun. Amenhotep suppressed the worship of the rest of the Egyptian pantheon. He shut down a lot of temples and upset a lot of priests. He moved his capital from Thebes to Akhetaton. He even changed his own name to Akhenaton, (devoted of Aten). This created an explosion of novel art and architecture called the Amarna period.
Egypt's experiment with monotheism did not survive Akhenaton long. Jealous of their positions of power, the priests of Egypt's many gods abolished monotheism and brought the Amarna period to an abrupt halt.
The Israelites' Monotheism
Yet there was another people in Egypt at the time, the Israelites, whose monotheistic beliefs may be linked with this Amarna period, though it is impossible to determine whether the Israelites influenced the Egyptians or the Egyptians influenced the Israelites. Whichever it was, around the time of the Bronze Age collapse (about 1200 B.C.E.), the children of Israel left Egypt and formed a covenant with their single deity, whom they called Yahweh. To ensure that they stayed on the straight and narrow, Yahweh gave the Israelites a code of ten commandments, the first of which explicitly forbids the worship of any god but Yahweh.
Yet, according to their own holy texts, the Israelites had difficulty obeying that first commandment, let alone the other nine. Oh, they did all right when they were wandering through the desert. Yet no sooner had the children of Israel begun fighting other people for control of their promised land, than they began worshiping the gods of their rivals.
This begs the question: What did established monotheists like the Israelites find so appealing about polytheism? To answer that question, we must compare polytheism to monotheism.
Comparing Polytheism to Monotheism
Polytheists divide their world up into a variety of domains and assign gods to each: a god of the sea, a god of the sun and so forth. In their efforts to cover their bases, polytheists end up with conflicting gods. A god of war and a god of peace, a god of virginity and a god of fertility, a god of creation and a god of destruction. Things that might please the god of war, would upset the god of peace. Rites of fertility would be directly opposed to rites of virginity. In short, pretty much anything a person can do might please one god and anger another. This may seem a recipe for chaos, but we must remember that life, and indeed the world itself, is chaotic.
In a world without science, when nature itself seems unpredictable, a variety of gods allows for flexibility. Since no one action is inherently good or bad, one is free to do what one must to get through the day. If everything you do or don't do will anger a deity, it doesn't so much matter what you do, as much as how much you do it. In this way, polytheism encourages moderation. Rather than seeking unwavering devotion to a single value system, ancient people instead looked for balance.
By contrast, monotheism establishes a single authority. To make this authority cover the countless complexities of life, monotheistic religions create large bodies of holy law. The law of Moses would add over 600 laws to the original ten.
The result is a very restrictive belief system, one that the Israelites clearly chafed under. Moreover, holy laws end up contradicting each other. For example, the sixth commandment quite clearly states, thou shalt not kill, yet there are hundreds of sins in Mosaic law that carry a sentence of death. Such contradictions would not be a problem if the laws were not, as it were, set in stone.
The problem is that divine commandment lacks flexibility. Breaking a divine law is a sin, plain and simple. With such a massive assortment of inflexible, contradictory laws, it's impossible to even go through a single day without sinning at least a couple times.
So imagine you're an Israelite on a Saturday night, which would you rather do? Sit at home and pray that you don't accidentally upset an incredibly demanding god, or expand your worship to Gestin, whose divine will is for you to get drunk, and Ishtar, who commands you to engage in holy orgies?
The Story of Hippolytus
To bring this point home, let us look at the Greek story of Hippolytus. By Christian standards, Hippolytus is the perfect man. He worships but one god, Artemis, and no others. Artemis is, among other things, a goddess of virginity. Hippolytus wants to maintain his virginity for life, an ideal still followed by some proponents of Christianity.
Yet Hippolytus' single-minded devotion to Artemis angers Aphrodite, the goddess of sex. In her rage, Aphrodite makes Hippolytus' step mother, Phaedra fall in love with him. Despite mounting pressure to give in, Hippolytus holds his beliefs and maintains his virginity. In an act of desperate vengeance, Phaedra kills herself and leaves a note claiming that Hippolytus had raped her. Hippolytus' father is enraged, and sentences his son to death.
From a Christian perspective, Hippolytus is an innocent victim of a horrendous crime. Yet by ancient standards, Hippolytus only got what was coming to him. Life requires people to act in many different ways, some of which contradict each other. By refusing to acknowledge reproduction as an important part of life, Hippolytus doomed himself to disaster.
This was, essentially, the perspective of the ancient world on monotheism. By focusing on a single value system, no matter how noble, monotheists came across as lopsided, one-dimensional zealots, much as we view religious extremists today. The vast majority of people would continue to view monotheism with skepticism, confusion and distrust until a man named Jesus did away with all the oppressive and contradictory code of Mosaic law, and replaced it with a single commandment: Love one another.
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Chapters in History 101: Western Civilization I
- 1. Prehistory (9 lessons)
- 2. History of the Ancient Near East (20 lessons)
- 3. History of Ancient Greece (16 lessons)
- 4. Hellenism and the Athenian Achievement (11 lessons)
- 5. The Rise of the Roman Republic (16 lessons)
- 6. The Fall of the Roman Empire (16 lessons)
- 7. The Dark Ages (14 lessons)
- 8. The Early Middle Ages (9 lessons)
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