I understand that the fundamental well accepted definition of polytheism is usually

The worship of two or more god deities

But from studying about philosophy of god (concepts of god) and psychology and history of religion I understand that there might be a more sophisticated definition, involving a pattern of how polytheism is done → most often by worshiping two or more gods with a human or human-animal hybrid form, personality and biography;
Practically it would likely be done by creating statues of this deity and also behaving as follows:

  • Bowing before deity statues
  • Burning incense near deity statues
  • Burning the bodies of dead (or in some very sad cases, alive organisms) near deity statues
  • Bringing food or gifts (including money) to priests near deity statues
  • Putting offerings near (or on) the statues until these decay and get cleared.
  • Celebrating calendaric holidays often including special prayers and offerings

The worshiped gods usually deemed eternal (unless killed), large in body size, and such that require the care of humans worshiping them at their "houses" (temples) on earth; also, they are often ancestors or totems of an ancestor.

My problem

From all my learning about this subject it is unclear to me if philosophers have isolated a most common pattern of polytheism which would be shared between most polytheistic religions.

My question

Is there an hypothesis about global features of polytheism and if so, what is it?

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    It is difficult to have "essential" definitions regarding social and historical facts: Polytheism "is the worship of or belief in multiple deities." We have found many different versions of it, also not historically related and it is difficult to imagine that they must have some common "deep" feature. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Feb 18 '20 at 12:39
  • Hello @MauroALLEGRANZA ; I kindly disagree it's difficult ; I honestly recognize no reason to assume such assumption. – user44368 Feb 18 '20 at 12:54
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    This is not a problem for philosophers but for etnographers, anthropologists, and comparative religion scholars. This question seems more suitable for Psychology SE or Mythology & Folklore SE. – Conifold Feb 18 '20 at 13:40
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    @Dcleve Sure, but "human or human-animal hybrid form, personality and biography; creating statues of this deity and also... bowing before deity statues..." do not strike me as philosophical patterns. Philosophers are not equipped to judge which practices are sufficiently universal in polytheistic worship any more than to judge which linguistic templates (if any) are sufficiently universal in human languages. There could be a philosophical question about the "essence of polytheism", but this one isn't. It is the Frazer's Golden Bough type of material. – Conifold Feb 18 '20 at 21:25
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    So you have listed several common (in your opinion) traits of polytheistic beliefs. Fine. But pray tell me, how are they specific to polytheism? I'd say Christianity ticks most of the boxes. – IMil Feb 19 '20 at 0:26

Two writers who have produced 'global' hypotheses about the features of polytheism are Jean-Pierre Vernant and Walter Burkert.

Vernant identifies the following features:

A god is a power that represents a type of action, a kind of force. Within the framework of a pantheon, each of these powers is defined not in itself as an isolated object but by virtue of its relative position in the aggregate of forces, by the structure of relations that oppose and unite it to the other powers that constitute the divine universe. The law of this society of the beyond is the strict demarcation* of the forces and their hierarchical counterbalancing. This excludes the categories of omnipotence*, omniscience and of infinite power.

Compare this with Burkert:

The distinctive personality of a god is constituted and mediated by at least four different factors: the established local cult with its ritual programme and unique atmosphere, the divine name, the myths told about the named being, and the iconography, especially the cult image.

The point may be obvious but Vernant is surely right to stress that polytheism debars omnipotence. The collectivity of gods might be omnipotent but if one god is omnipotent, the picture becomes monotheistic in all but name. Polytheism can recognise differentials of power among the gods but not the categorial difference between one omnipotent god whose power is not demarcated at all and other, finite gods.


Jean-Pierre Vernant, Religion grecque, religions antiques, in the series Textes à l’appui (Maspéro Paris 1976): 15; tr. H.S. Versnel, Coping With the Gods, Brill. (2011): 27-8.

Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical (translated by J. Raffan, Oxford 1985): 119.

  • Downvoted for logical flaws. You and Vernant both seem to completely miss a possibility. You both talk about how polytheism prohibits omnipotence of one particular god over the others, because then it's apparently "actually" monotheism. But what if all gods in the pantheon are omnipotent? Based on your logic here, there wouldn't appear to be a problem with that, which means polytheism doesn't actually prohibit omnipotence. – probably_someone Feb 18 '20 at 22:05
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    Also downvoted because calling polytheism with one omnipotent god "monotheism in all but name" is setting an entirely arbitrary brightline, based on a definition which favors monotheism. I'm sure many monistic polytheists, many followers of Hinduism included, would be very surprised indeed if you told them that their religion of many gods was actually just a religion of one god, and that the things that they worshipped weren't actually gods. – probably_someone Feb 18 '20 at 22:12
  • To be clear, by "all gods are omnipotent" I specifically mean "every single god is individually omnipotent". – probably_someone Feb 18 '20 at 22:14
  • Anyway, if you apply Burkert's definition, as you've quoted it, you could make an argument that Catholicism, with its religious rites devoted to Mary and the saints, is "polytheism in all but name". And that's not even getting into the theology of the trinity, which a polytheist might say is just 2,000 years of trying to make an essentially polytheistic concept fit in a monotheistic frame (unsuccessfully, I might add, due to the many schisms it spawned that still exist today). – probably_someone Feb 18 '20 at 22:17
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Dcleve Feb 19 '20 at 5:24

Part of the problem you are having lies in the way you are framing the issue, i.e., where you say:

The worshiped gods [...] require the care of humans worshiping them at their "houses" (temples) on earth

You've inverted the relationship. Gods do not need the care of humans on earth; humans want to appeal to the power that gods ostensibly have, and offer temples and devotions and such as a way of building a relationship. Thus you might think about a 'rain dance': a tribe needs rain to raise crops and fill rivers, so a shaman begins a rain dance in order to attract the attention of whatever god or power controls the rain.

Polytheistic societies (as Geoffrey Thomas noted in his answer, with a quote from Vernant) tend to anthropomorphize all of the various forces that impact their lives, or at least those that are seemingly out of their immediate control: sun, weather, tides, success in warfare or love, different aspects of nature, etc. By making these forces anthropomorphic, the society can then appeal to them as it would to a powerful human, seeking its support and favor. In more advanced polytheisms these personifications tend to lose their 'naturalistic' qualities and become more archetypal: i.e., practitioners tend less to appeal to the god and tend more to identify with it. This shift towards identification leads down the road towards monotheism, as people stop trying to appeal to any force except the one they choose to identify with.