Monotheism and Polytheism

Jan Assmann


What is polytheism?

“Monotheism” and “polytheism” are recent words, not older than the 17th century CE, and they have different statuses. Monotheism is a general term for religions that confess to and worship only one god. “One God!” (Heis Theos) or “No other gods!” (first commandment)—these are the central mottos of monotheism. The religions subsumed under the term polytheism cannot, however, be reduced to a single motto of opposite meaning, such as “Many gods!” or “No exclusion of other gods!” On the contrary, the unity or oneness of the divine is an important topic in Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Greek, and other polytheistic traditions. Polytheism is simply a less polemical substitute for what monotheistic traditions formerly called “idolatry” and “paganism” (Hebrew 'ăbôdâ zārâ, Arabic shirk or jahiliya). Whereas monotheism constitutes a self-description of religions subsumed under that term, no such selfdescription exists for polytheistic religions. Monotheism asserts its identity by opposing itself to polytheism, whereas no polytheistic religion ever asserted itself in contradistinction to monotheism, for the simple reason that polytheism is always the older or “primary” and monotheism the newer or “secondary” type of religion. Monotheism is self-description, polytheism is construction of the other. However, although polytheistic religions include a concept of divine unity, these religions undoubtedly do worship a plethora of gods, which justifies applying a word built on the element poly (many) to them. Unity in this case does not mean the exclusive worship of one god, but the structure and coherence of the divine world, which is not just an accumulation of deities, but a structured whole, a pantheon.


Theologia tripertita

The most cogent theory of polytheism comes from an ancient author. Varro's concept of a “tripartite theology” refers to a general structure that is perfectly

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Ancient Religions
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Introduction vii
  • Note on Translation and Transliteration xiii
  • Abbreviations xv
  • Encountering Ancient Religions 1
  • What Is Ancient Mediterranean Religion? 3
  • Monotheism and Polytheism 17
  • Ritual 32
  • Myth 45
  • Cosmology: Time and History 59
  • Pollution, Sin, Atonement, Salvation 71
  • Law and Ethics 84
  • Mysteries 98
  • Religions in Contact 112
  • Writing and Religion 127
  • Magic 139
  • Histories 153
  • Egypt 155
  • Mesopotamia 165
  • Syria and Canaan 173
  • Israel 181
  • Anatolia: Hittites 189
  • Iran 197
  • Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations 206
  • Greece 210
  • Etruria 220
  • Rome 225
  • Early Christianity 233
  • Epilogue 241
  • Contributors 253
  • Index 255
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