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Many fantasy worlds (for instance Tamriel from The Elder Scrolls) and also ancient civilizations have or had polytheistic cults to the point where the same holy place would be shared among different, even competitive, deities.

Historically, birth of monotheistic cults would try to impose the new belief over or against the former ones, with different levels of "competitiveness". (Aton in ancient Egypt, Catholic colonizers/missionaries in the new world).

Would or could a modern or future civilization embrace a polytheistic cult, having deities originating from monotheistic cults?

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  • $\begingroup$ The Egyptian religion was polytheistic... $\endgroup$ – Styphon Sep 28 '14 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Styphon: Well, most of the time. The Pharaoh Echnaton tried to enforce monotheism (with the sun god as only god), but that was reversed after his death. $\endgroup$ – celtschk Sep 28 '14 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Styphon my mistake, Ra, the major deity, and others were tentatively replaced by Aton (another sun god) as a monotheistic cult. $\endgroup$ – guido Sep 28 '14 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking whether a polytheistic religion can absorb a monotheistic one, such that the monotheistic god becomes just one of the pantheon? The question is a bit unclear. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Sep 28 '14 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Bobson you are right but i couldn't find a better wording; I am asking if/how a modern civilization could have a single polytheistic cult and if so, whether former monotheistic cults could be made part of that one. $\endgroup$ – guido Sep 29 '14 at 13:49
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You're really asking two questions here, and I'll address them separately.


Can a "modern" civilization have a polytheistic religion?

Assuming that you mean "scientific-based" when you say modern, then there's no reason to believe that there's an inherent conflict between polytheism and a modern-level civilization. There are certain aspects of a polytheistic religion which don't translate well, but overall the concept would hold.

Specifically, the most likely scenario is that deities as explanations of natural phenomena will get marginalized, but patron deities will stay around and get more established.

For example: The ancient Greeks attributed lightning to Zeus. A modern civilization would know that lightning is a natural phenomenon caused by charge differentials between the sky and the ground. So while phrases like "Zeus' wrath" might be used to describe the impact of a lightning bolt hit, no one will actually believe that Zeus is flinging bolts around. However, Zeus was also the god of hospitality and oaths (among other things). His name would still be meaningfully invoked before swearing an oath, and religious hotel managers would almost certainly pray for his favor.
Likewise Apollo-as-sun-god wouldn't get more than nominal lip service, but Apollo-as-patron-of-music would be invoked all the time.

It's worth sidetracking to point out that just as today many Christians only pay nominal lip service to God and/or Jesus, but often use them as exclamations, a "modern" polytheistic religion would likewise have many people who are technically adherents but don't really believe, but still invoke the appropriate gods for cursing, swearing, or just exclaiming in surprise.

(I do not address Hinduism here, as it's highly complicated and can't just be called "polytheistic". I also don't specifically address religions, such as Shinto, where there are no "gods" per se, just spirits of greater or lesser power - although the principles I laid out above would probably apply there as well.)


Can a polytheistic religion incorporate a monotheistic deity?

Assuming that you mean "monotheistic" in the sense of the Biblical omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, invisible God, then there are a few ways this could happen, depending on the relative strength of the monotheist believers' culture vs that of the polytheist one, but it's not a very likely process. A henotheistic deity is much more likely to get absorbed in this way, but that's not what you asked about.

If the monotheistic culture is stronger, the most likely scenario is that the polytheistic deities would be absorbed into non-deific roles in the monotheistic religion. Beelzebub is a great example of this - originally the Canaanite god Ba'al, he got co-opted into a prince of Hell. Santa Claus is another, incorporating elements of the Norse god Odin. Thus the pantheistic gods could become angels (or the equivalent) in the monotheistic religion, serving the higher god. However, it'd only be a matter of degree and semantics for them to still be deities in their own right (even if subordinate ones). In this case, the monotheistic god becomes the chief god (I'd guess in a "hands-off"ish way, with the former chief being the much more visible second), but the religion is still polytheistic.

If the monotheistic culture is weaker, the outcomes I can see would be for the polytheistic one to conflate the other deity with their king of the gods (Zeus -> Jupiter), to assign the monotheistic one a specific role ("You're a scholarly people - your god is the god of scholars"), or to simply say "It's a valid deity, but not part of our pantheon". That last could potentially be incorporated as being a god of a place ("Make sure to offer a prayer to XXXXXX as you travel through his lands.").

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer. Catholic church also showed a way of incorporating former deiteis using saints, as happened during the colonization of South America (Candomble', Santeria...) $\endgroup$ – guido Sep 30 '14 at 10:48
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    $\begingroup$ @guido - Ooh, saints! I knew I was forgetting another good example. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Sep 30 '14 at 11:24
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    $\begingroup$ I think that Shinto is more similar to the ancient Greco-Roman pagan religion than you’re giving it credit for. Lesser divinities like lares, lemures, and nymphs are roughly equivalent to the various lesser kami. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Oct 17 at 23:16
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 - It's very possible. It's not something I've looked into to any great depth. I suspect the main difference is whether there is a specific, distinct being that embodies something vs whether it's just one of many. Each of the major Greek gods is unique, whereas the more minor mythical beings are classes of creatures (e.g. Zeus vs nymphs). In my vague understanding of Shinto, it's more of a spectrum, where everything is in the same category, just of varying importance. I find comparative religion fascinating, but it's not something I've actually studied. $\endgroup$ – Bobson Oct 18 at 0:36
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The classic “monotheism plus polytheism” thing would be what is sometimes called a deus otiosus. This is an omnipotent or at least super-powerful creator god who has in some way removed him/her-self from everyday life.

So if I’m praying for good crops or my baby to get well, I’m going to pray to a local fertility goddess or similar – no need to bother the Big Guy, who’s quite possibly not listening and somewhat irascible besides. But when the s--t hits the fan and we’re facing a major drought and our prayers to all the local divinities aren’t doing the trick, we get the priests to lead us in some kind of large-scale ritual to plead for the intervention and mercy of the Big Guy.

There are examples of this kind of phenomenon all over the world. For a long time, missionaries tended to assume that these systems were “really” monotheism that had been somehow debased, or on the other hand evidence that the natives were “really” aware of the One True God. So they’d try to explain that the Big Guy is God, and the others are saints (or just superstition). There are a number of examples in which this effect lasted, too.

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YES

Polytheism is alive and well in the world today so the question "Would modern civilization embrace a polytheistic cult?" (I read cult = religion here) is a moot point. Yes, as a matter of fact they would.

Hinduism is a polytheistic religion in the extreme there are hundreds of gods. There are also concepts in philosophies like Shintoism that one could argue make them polytheistic.

In the end the drive toward any religion is a person seeking a framework for helping them navigate life. I won't comment on which kinds of religions make the most sense or are "right", in my mind they all serve the same fundamental function and that is what is relevant to this question. Should a "new" or "consolidated" polytheistic religion touch the right chord with humanity it could succeed as well as anything else. I actually feel it likely that at some point the main monotheistic religions on earth will blend together, whether that is in the form of a pantheon or a single super god amounts to about the same.

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  • $\begingroup$ Polytheism is alive and well alongside monotheistic religions -- mostly they just don't interact. Are you aware of any cases where a polytheistic religion has "absorbed" a monotheistic god? $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Sep 29 '14 at 21:09
  • $\begingroup$ That's a good question, I don't think the OP asked for a past historic example but now you've made me curious...I would suspect that some of the Hindu deities were in fact stand-alone local gods that got rolled into the religion but I have no proof of that. What do you mean when you say that mono/polytheistic religions don't interact? $\endgroup$ – James Sep 29 '14 at 21:19
  • $\begingroup$ On the interaction part, I just meant that while, yes, Christians and Hindus (for example) have certainly encountered each other, the religions aren't entwined the way, say, Christianity and Islam are -- in the former case, as I understand it (not being a member of any group I've named so far), they don't make claims about each other or each others' gods. I may be misreading, but I understand the question to be about one religion absorbing another's gods rather than them just ignoring each other. Does that help? $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Sep 29 '14 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ That point is more a matter of geography and timeline really, I could share some interesting information about Mithras being both a Zoroastrian (first "mono" theistic religion) and Hindu figure, who was also absorbed into the roman pantheon...but that may need to be taken to chat or another question entirely. $\endgroup$ – James Sep 29 '14 at 21:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio there are also the old world city gods. Middle East, before the rise of organized religion, each city had their own god they worshipped (which later got roped in together as the pantheon for the Assyrian empire). The 'more power god' was just the patron god of the city that conquered their neighbours. $\endgroup$ – Fayth85 Feb 4 '17 at 1:18
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The difference between polytheism and monotheism is that in the narratives of the sacred text, the deities of polytheism are characters with human like struggles and emotions. But the narratives about monotheism, the characters or human ( the divine reduced to human life.) Polytheism is more like the characters in a small town drama whereas monotheism is the stories of humans struggling to understand something so large it cannot be grasp or seen in it's whole.

Not sure how to make a polytheistic religion out of a group of monotheistic entities. The cosmologies are different. Polytheistic gods are powerful being but they don't define reality in most cases. Monotheistic gods do define reality or rather, reality is a subset of the god.

Probably about the best you could do would be to claim that each monotheistic god wasn't the actual \the god, but just one view, like the parable of the blind men and elephant no group of humans sees all of god. So to get a better view of the god, it took the presence of multiple monotheistic religions, all of which reveal some facet of the one god.

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Most of the world population are Hindus, Christians, Jews , Buddhists or Muslims. In my study all of them originated as Monotheistic religions. As time passed , people started adding gods to their beliefs. This mostly happened due to the phenomena called "belief vacuum".

Every individual born in this with a mind to believe 100 percent in the omnipotent Creator. as the person grows up , due to various circumstances , the belief level comes down. to keep it in the same level , one has to search knowledge and think. When the level goes down , a vacuum is created , but vacuum is not stable. So it is filled up with belief in something else. This is how news gods are "born".

Regarding the question of conflict, i wonder where is the scope for that. If one reads the basic scriptures of these religions, all of these advocate harmony and co-existence even with non-believers.

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