polytheism

polytheism (pŏlˈēthēĭzəm) [key], belief in a plurality of gods in which each deity is distinguished by special functions. The gods are particularly synonymous with function in the Vedic religion (see Vedas) of India: Indra is the storm god, Agni the fire god, Vayu the wind god, Yama the god of death. Polytheistic worship does not imply equal devotion or importance to each deity. The religion of dynastic Egypt included hundreds of deities, but worship (as in Greek Olympianism) tended to be city-centered; thus, Anubis, the jackal-headed god who guided the dead along the dangerous path to the underworld, had his cult at Abydos, and Ba, the ram-god, was worshiped at Bubastis. Polytheism probably is a development from an earlier polydemonism, characterized by a variety of disassociated and vaguely defined spirits, demons, and other supernatural powers. It is also related to animism, ancestor worship, and totemism (see totem). All of these forms of belief are based on human propensity to worship all objects on earth and in heaven, all that is unusual or useful, strange or monstrous. Unlike the supernatural forces in polydemonism, however, those of polytheism are personified (see anthropomorphism) and organized into a cosmic family. This family becomes the nucleus of legends and myths and, eventually, of a cosmology that seeks to explain natural phenomena and to establish people's relation to the universe. As polytheistic religions evolve, lesser deities diminish in stature or vanish completely, their attributes being assigned to preferred gods, until the religion begins to exhibit monotheistic tendencies—thus the Olympian Zeus, originally a sky god, became the titular head and most powerful of all Olympian deities; the Egyptian Ra was the original, self-generating and supreme deity; and the Vedic gods of India, once numbering several thousand, were gradually displaced by the trinity of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Significantly, both the Greeks and Indians subordinated their supreme deities to a more profound principle of Oneness or Supreme Fate, which the Greeks called Moira and the Vedic Indians named Rita.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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