Polytheism, Monotheism, and Scholarship

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 7, 2011 — 24 Comments

I was recently pointed to a just-published piece at the Bryn Mawr Classical Review that reviews the 2010 edited volume “One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire.” That book grew out of a 2006 conference at the University of Exeter, and once you scratch the surface, points to a far larger conversation within academic circles over monotheism, polytheism, and how the shift from many gods to one God changed the world. In the introduction to “One God” editors Stephen Mitchell and Peter Van Nuffelen note how the “prevalance of monotheism” has colored all inquiry into pre-Christian polytheistic religion.

“…for this reason the differences between Graeco-Roman polytheism and the Jewish, Christian, or Islamic monotheisms, which have dominated our own religious and cultural experiences since the end of antiquity, pose a serious challenge to our understanding of the past. We view ancient religion through a filter of assumptions, experiences and prejudice. Monotheism contains its own internalized value judgments about polytheistic paganism, and these have always influence, and sometimes distorted, the academic study of ancient religion.”

When the scholars in this book, and in other books like 1999’s “Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity,” talk about “Pagan monotheism” they are often describing what we would call henotheism, that is, the worship of one god (or goddess) to the exception of others, while still acknowledging and accepting the existence of other deities.

“[Stephen] Mitchell’s essay ends with a statement worthy of concluding the volume: “We cannot call the cult [of Theos Hypsistos] monotheistic in the strictly exclusive sense that is applied to ancient Judaism and Christianity, but it involved a series of coherent and explicit rituals and practices which were based on belief in a unique, transcendent god, who could not be represented in human form” (p. 197). The acknowledgment that Theos Hypsistos is not exactly like other monotheistic religions does not mean, as Mitchell rightly argues, that elements of monotheism cannot be found in it and in other pagan cults. But this lack of exclusivity does open up the possibility of claiming that pagan monotheism also has elements of polytheism. The fluidity in defining pagan monotheism reflects the fluidity of the religious realities in which these cults were worshipped.”

Books like “One God” seem to be asking whether monotheism as a system of religion must be inherently intolerant, or if  it was merely “concomitant aspects of religious change which are subsumed within monotheism” that caused such a shift towards religious intolerance. To German Egyptologist Jan Assmann, who released “The Price of Monotheism” in 2009, it comes down to what he calls the “Mosaic Distinction,” which created a distinction between “true” religions and “false” religions.

“This shift does not just have theological repercussions, in the sense that it transforms the way people think about the divine; it also has a properly political dimension, in the sense that it transforms culturally specific religions into world religions.  […] What seems crucial to me is not the distinction between the One God and many gods but the distinction between truth and falsehood in religion, between the true god and false gods, true doctrine and false doctrine, knowledge and ignorance, belief  and unbelief.”

To Assmann history is full of “monotheistic moments” where this distinction between true and false religion rises up to cause mayhem and destruction.

The back-and-forth of scholarship may seem a bit too “inside baseball” to matter, but the debate over the nature of religion in antiquity and late antiquity casts a shadow on more popular works today, including in journalism, and helps shape the way we think about a topic. Whether acknowledged or not, there are competing narratives in works like Alan Cameron’s  “The Last Pagans of Rome”, which argues that paganism was a spent force that went out with a whimper, or the work of Owen Davies in books like “Paganism: A Very Short Introduction” or “Grimoires: A History of Magic Books” that looks at how pagan ideas and beliefs managed to persevere, adapt, and survive. That “in contemporary society, Paganism can be a liberating spiritual and social force […] it is no less relevant than it was when it was redefined by Christians nearly two millennia ago. It has retained its ability to stimulate intellectual curiosity and spiritual exploration.”

The shift to reevaluate polytheism has almost certainly influenced figures like religion professor Stephen Prothero, whose 2010 book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World-and Why Their Differences Matter”, while no love letter to polytheism, did insert Yoruba into the pantheon of religions that “run the world”. Prothero is the go-to guy for religion at CNN’s Belief Blog, and was a main source for the PBS series “God in America,” how he thinks about polytheism today has far-reaching effects. It is also why the field of Pagan Studies is so important. Pundits, bloggers, and journalists regularly turn to “experts” for new information and confirmation of their ideas and theories, the more good information there is about the validity of polytheism and of contemporary Pagan religions, the more people like me have to reference when we make our own arguments in the public sphere. That there is a wide-ranging discussion about polytheism and monotheism within academia should excite modern Pagans, as it means there could be a seismic shift in how our culture approaches these topics as well.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Anonymous

    Whole lot of men doing all of that writing. Just saying.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      LOL.

    • Grimmorrigan

      Yup.

    • Don

      And?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1362174498 Lillitu Shahar Kunning

        Really? You didn’t know that who you are often colors your perceptions? and that folks do research that meets their own beliefs? Really?

        • http://paosirdjhutmosu.wordpress.com Djhutmosu Si-Hathor

          I hope I can be forgiven for being perplexed by the notion that the presence of dangly bits or non-dangly bits in a scholar has more than (or even only) marginal relevance (if any at all) on the existence or non-existence of pagan monotheism.

          If the subject was the role of men or women in Roman society or something, you’d have a more cogent case there. In this case, if I’m going to concern myself about the scholar’s identity, I might be more concerned about their religious leanings than their sex or gender.

        • Don

          “You didn’t know that who you are often colors your perceptions? and that folks do research that meets their own beliefs?”

          It can and does happen, but to immediately assume that is the case is very uncharitable thinking, nearly conspiratorial.

          • http://paosirdjhutmosu.wordpress.com Djhutmosu Si-Hathor

            Thank you, Don. This, too.

        • Grimmorrigan

          Sounds like someone more interested in the dangers of postmodern theory rather than the realities of research. Unless you’ve read the work and have solid criticisims about the material you are simply spouting off based on YOUR own biases. I love academic irony.

          • http://paosirdjhutmosu.wordpress.com Djhutmosu Si-Hathor

            Thank you, Grimmorigan! That,too! Thank you and Don for articulating what I had wanted to say, but forgot to. :)

    • http://egregores.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Polymnia Athanassiadi has played a prominent role in the revisionist (“Pagan monotheism”) camp, while Sarah Iles Johnston is the editor of a volume that contains one of Jan Assmann’s most important statements on the question of polytheism versus monotheism (Religions of the Ancient World).

      • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

        Right. Polymnia Athanassiadi is a major figure in this whole “Pagan monotheism” issue. Sorry, Hecate, it’s not all men.

    • Grimmorrigan

      So.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I had to chuckle at the way your comment drew so many one-syllable replies.

    • http://blog.chasclifton.com Chas Clifton

      Polymnia Athanassiadi has been a major figure in this “Pagan monotheism” discussion for years, both as writer and as co-editor of an influential edited collection. “Whole lot of men?” I don’t think so.

    • http://egregores.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Sexism in scholarship is unquestionably a legitimate issue, and the overwhelming predominance of male scholars in any given field (such as history in general, and late-antique studies in particular) is unquestionably a factor in perpetuating sexism.

      The issue of sexism quite often rears its ugly head with respect to the late antique transition from Paganism to Christianity in a very specific way: when the claim is put forward that women were attracted to early Christianity because they found it “empowering” (or at least less unempowering than the prevailing traditional Paganism), and that women positively benefited from the triumph of Christianity as the official state religion and the concomitant suppression of Paganism.

      No less a figure than Riane Eisler made this argument in her seminal “Chalice and the Blade”. One even finds Pagans (who often know less than nothing about our actual history, and especially about this particular part of our history) mindlessly repeating this nonsense (for that is what it is).

    • http://egregores.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

      Sexism in scholarship is unquestionably a legitimate issue, and the overwhelming predominance of male scholars in any given field (such as history in general, and late-antique studies in particular) is unquestionably a factor in perpetuating sexism.

      The issue of sexism quite often rears its ugly head with respect to the late antique transition from Paganism to Christianity in a very specific way: when the claim is put forward that women were attracted to early Christianity because they found it “empowering” (or at least less unempowering than the prevailing traditional Paganism), and that women positively benefited from the triumph of Christianity as the official state religion and the concomitant suppression of Paganism.

      No less a figure than Riane Eisler made this argument in her seminal “Chalice and the Blade”. One even finds Pagans (who often know less than nothing about our actual history, and especially about this particular part of our history) mindlessly repeating this nonsense (for that is what it is).

  • http://manualwitchcraft.blogspot.com Wesley Young

    Seems like another example of how both the conservative monotheistic community willfully looks away from its own history…not that modern Paganism does too much better.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Remember, the definition of an expert is a person who agrees with you.

    • Grimmorrigan

      ex·pertnoun /ˈekˌspərt/ 
      experts, plural

      1.A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area
      – experts in child development
      – a financial expert

      adjective /ˈekˌspərt/ 

      1.Having or involving such knowledge or skill
      – he had received expert academic advice
      – he is expert at handling the media

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1678081929 Bill Wheaton

      expert: X – being the unknown. Spurt – being a drip under pressure.

  • http://egregores.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

    What the purveyors of “Pagan monotheism” consistently fail to do is to explain how the (supposedly monotheistic) Paganism of late-antiquity differs in any way from what one finds in Homer, when it comes to the number of Goddesses and Gods who are worshipped. Other scholars (such as Gilbert Murray, Gilbert Francois, Jan Assmann, and Rowland Smith) have looked at precisely that question and have found that Hellenic polytheists were not bothered with the artificial dichotomy between “one” and “many” Gods. That is, ancient (and also late antique) Hellenic Pagans had no difficulty in “believing in” their Goddesses and Gods as “real”, while simultaneously also being able to conceive of Divinity as an impersonal abstraction, with its own “reality”.

    This theological flexibility also extends to what people today think of as “pantheism”, for ancient polytheists had no difficulty in recognizing the physical Cosmos as a single, conscious, rational and benevolent deity, while also recognizing the Sun, Moon, etc, as deiteis in their own right as well, and just as “real”.

    The desire to find monotheizing elements in classical Paganism is nothing new. It dates all the way back to Eusebius, who claimed that such monotheizing was part of the process of “preparing the way” for the Gospel of Jebus, which is essentially no different from the modern redaction of the same idea.

  • http://heathenhall.blogspot.com Joseph

    Sounds like a fascinating book. Yet another to add to the very long Amazon wish list.

  • http://egregores.wordpress.com Apuleius Platonicus

    No one has ever produced a single quotation from a Pagan source in which one finds a statement that can reasonably be construed as an affirmation of monotheism. You know, something like “there are not many Gods, but only one God.”

    On the other hand, one can easily produce explicitly polytheistic statements from precisely those Pagan sources who are most often cited as examples of “Pagan monotheism”. A little over two years ago I took the trouble to do exactly that in the case of eight different Pagan authors labeled as “monotheists” in the book “Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity”. If you want extensive quotes and primary sources look here. If you want the Executive Summary, here it is:

    Celsus mocked ‘the goatherds and shepherds [who] followed Moses, who taught them that there was but one God.’ Aelius Aristides was a priest of Asclepius who also revered Sarapis, Athena, Zeus and Poseidon. Maximus of Tyre believed, like Homer and Hesiod, that Zeus is the Supreme God, and he also worshipped the other traditional Gods and accepted the authority of traditional Pagan oracles, and also accepted the existence of ‘intermediaries’ between the Gods and humans called Daemons. Julian ‘associated with Gods in countless initiations’, ‘set up altars to all the Gods separately’, and ‘desired first to restore the lost rituals once again to their original position, and secondly to add fresh ones to the traditional rites.’ Themistius honored Demeter, Persephone, Asclepius, Hermes, Athena, Apollo and Dionysus, and began his funeral oration to his father by saying ‘The holy gathering of Gods and the assembly of benevolent Daimones received you.’ Sallustius declared that the Gods have always existed, speaks of the specific characteristics and symbolism of each Olympian Deity, and also accepts the divine authority of the traditional myths and oracles as well as the ancient mystery cults. Apuelius was proud of being an Initiate in multiple mystery cults, is the most famous devotee of Isis, and was also intimate with Hermes and Asclepius.”

    There is one Pagan missing from the above summary: Symmachus. Here is what he had to say:

    “If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing…. let me continue to practice my ancient ceremonies, for I do not regret them. Let me live in my own way, for I am free. This worship of mine brought the whole world under the rule of my laws, these sacred rites drove back Hannibal from my walls and the Senones [Gauls] from the Capitol’….And so we ask for peace for the Gods of our fathers, for the Gods of our native land.”