Polytheism is everywhere in secondary-world fantasy. While some settings feature a monotheistic church of some kind — usually one modeled on Christianity, as the word “church” implies — there’s a strong tendency toward multiple gods. Maybe because we associate that more with the past (even though monotheism dates back a very long time and there are polytheistic religions today); maybe because for most English-speaking westerners, polytheism is the “exotic” alternative to what they know. My money’s on a bit of both.
But how does polytheism work in practice?
First of all, it’s important to distinguish this term from “pantheism,” with which it is occasionally confused. Pantheism is an entirely different concept, which holds that there is no essential difference between reality and the divine, that God is the world. I suspect the confusion arises because the set of gods in polytheism is referred to as a pantheon (from the Greek for “all gods”), rather than . . . is “polytheon” even a word? The Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t seem to think it is, so let’s go with “no.”
While you might think there’s a hard line between monotheism and polytheism, in practice it isn’t quite that simple, because of the aforemention question of what constitutes a god. An outsider could be forgiven for looking at Catholicism and seeing a pantheon with one (or three) major gods and then a lot of demigods known as “saints.” Zoroastrianism, often cited as the first monotheistic religion, isn’t necessarily so; Ahura Mazda may be the greatest of the yazatas, but he isn’t the only one, and whether the other yazatas are lesser divinities or angels (and is there a difference . . . ?) varies between interpretations.
Some of those questions belong more properly in an essay on monotheism (look for that in the future). When it comes to polytheism, the exact feel of the religion can vary wildly. As I mentioned in the last essay, Roman religion was very contractual in nature: one of its central principles was do ut des, Latin for “I give, so that you may give.” It was very much built around the idea that mortals could bargain with the gods. Whereas if you read a Hindu epic, you’ll certainly find characters making offerings to the gods — but the ones who really want something often engage in ascetic practices until they draw divine attention. According to my college professor, such austerities generate tremendous spiritual heat, and it’s this heat which motivates the gods into taking action.
Unfortunately, a lot of the polytheisms I see in fiction feel more like Dungeons & Dragons than any real religion. For all that the various settings of that game rely heavily on pantheons of gods, few if any of the writers behind these worlds seem to really understand how that works. In particular, because of the alignment system in D&D — a moral framework that (in most editions) maps things out along the axes of good-neutrality-evil and law-neutrality-chaos — there are deities who are outright evil. And these deities, for some reason, have official priesthoods whose job is not to propitiate the dangerous powers so they won’t turn their wrath against mortals; instead it’s to cheer “yay, evil!” and do everything they can to spread things like plague and destruction throughout the world. Which . . . is really not how that tends to work.
Another way this type of fictional polytheism tends to go wrong is by being far too tidy. Every god has a clearly-defined sphere, and in many cases those spheres don’t overlap at all. Every god also has a holy (or unholy) text — often with a thoroughly artificial-sounding title, like The Bones Land in a Spiral (yes, Pathfinder, I’m going to pick on you) — as well as a favored weapon (used by their clerics) and a symbol. The use of symbols, whether weapons or otherwise, isn’t fundamentally unrealistic; icons like Poseidon’s trident, Shiva’s crescent moon, or Inari’s fox are a major part of how archaeologists identify religious artifacts as being related to a certain deity. But real symbols tend to be fairly simple. In games, the symbols are often incredibly complex, even to the point of specifying the necessary colors: the elven goddess Yuelral in Pathfinder has the symbol of “three crystals of pink, blue and green overlapping in the middle to form a six-pointed star shape surrounded by a golden circle.” Have fun carving that into a stone wall!
But the biggest mistake D&D-style polytheism usually makes involves how the people in that world relate to their gods. Time and time again, you’ll get characters, settlements, or whole nations identified as being worshippers of a single specific god.
This isn’t entirely wrong. Monolatry is the term for worshipping one god while acknowledging the existence of others. But it often happens in one of two contexts: either the worshipper’s way of life means that one thing is important to them above all others, or the worshipper’s theology elevates their chosen god to a sufficiently supreme and all-encompassing position that no others are needed.
You might see the former in the case of sailors, i.e. people whose lives are dominated by a single force (the sea) that could kill them any time. They won’t deny that it’s important to give offerings to the deities of agriculture and justice and so forth; it’s just that they leave such work to other people. Professional soldiers may also devote themselves to a particular god (as seems to have been the case with Mithraism in Rome, though we know so little about Mithraic cult activities that it’s hard to be sure whether that carried specific relevance for men at war). You see the latter in the case of Atenism during the Amarna period in Egypt, and in traditions like Shaivism in Hinduism, where Shiva is venerated as the Supreme Being.
But in a polytheistic society, most people are going to venerate different gods at different times, according to circumstances. They’ll make offerings to the deity of agriculture at times of planting and harvest, and offerings to the deity of marriage when getting hitched or trying to find a spouse for their child. They’ll pray in one temple for recovery from illness, and another one for justice when they’re wronged. If there aren’t separate temples for all of these things, they’ll still direct their prayers to the appropriate name — because the power in charge of death probably won’t be much use in helping you conceive a child. (Unless your theology happens to say the same entity is in charge of both things. Weirder pairings have happened.) Worship in this context is often fluid and situational, rather than fixed, and even a dedicated priest of a specific god may not see anything wrong with making offerings to another deity.
But who makes what offerings and when depends in part on what type of god you’re talking about. And that’s what we’ll discuss next week.