22/10/2017 · The History of Monotheism
A survey of the facts of the Egyptian religion may yield the same induction. Apart from the temper of the people, its polytheism contained within it no principle of intolerance: only a village or community that was fervently devoted to a special animal-god might be infuriated against another village that treated that animal with disrespect. It is only when Amenhotep IV established a pure monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of the sun-god, Aton, that now the idea emerges of a jealous god that endeavours to extirpate all religion save his own. But the priesthood and the people could not live up to the height of this monotheistic creed, and the exclusive cult with the dynasty that favoured it was soon overthrown.
This post is the first in a new category on the history of religion
Although we have been rescued from the fallacy that ensnared Herbert Spencer and others that ancestor-worship and hero-worship was the foundation of all religion, there is no doubt that it has been an independent and prolific source of polytheism; for the heroized ancestor under favourable conditions could rise to the status of a high god, as a court-physician rose in Egypt, and as we may believe was the career of the Hellenic Asklepios: and in parts of Christendom the local saint might count so much for the village-community as to entitle him to the status and designation of a local god. The tendency to heroize or deify the illustrious dead was very rife in many areas of ancient culture; and though it might be reconciled with monotheism, its natural trend was polytheistic.
We understand, then, the world-wide diffusion of the phenomenon, which is attested by the ancient records of most of the ‘Aryan’ and Semitic and other Anatolian societies and of Egypt. And we are inclined without any minute examination of these religions to believe that men's views about God and his attributes are likely to be different under a polytheistic system from those prevalent under monotheism. On the whole, this is true. For polytheism is not so likely to engender the atmosphere in which the highest religious emotions, such as awe and reverence, and the highest conceptions of the majesty and omnipotence of the deity will spontaneously develop. It is certainly not true to say that ‘a definite moral system is irreconcilable with a multiplicity of gods’; for the polytheism may be well organized under a supreme god and on an advanced moral basis; nor is there any lack of high moral ideas in the polytheistic cults of Greece and Babylon. But as any particular polytheism always contains in it the deposits of many different periods, scarcely any is moralized all through, especially as many nature-deities are hard to moralize and discipline. Therefore backward or even degraded ideas will still attach to certain of the personalities, while others have been refined and idealized according to the demands of high religion. Side by side with a High God of Justice, Mercy and Truth, the cults of a goddess of sensual love, a God of intoxicating drink, or of thieves and liars, might be maintained. Also, in any large pantheon of gods and goddesses, the sex-motive is likely to be prominent and to taint the mythology and at times the cults. In respect of the mythology, though on the whole not of the cults, this was true in Hellenism, and true in respect of both in India.
Polytheism: Polytheism, the belief in many gods
In fact, the sources that gave life to polytheism were manifold and are still active. Animism and fetichism would evolve an indefinite plurality of spirit-powers vaguely conceived as personal; and certain groups might crystallize into one definite deity, but there were many groups and it was therefore natural that many deities should emerge. Again, nature-worship has prevailed at certain times in every community of man; and the imagination of the ages has peopled the visible world with deities of air, earth, fire, and sea. The feeling that much in nature was weird, awful, and powerful—the feeling that is one of the elemental sources of religion—was more likely to be associated with the perception of its infinite manifoldness than of any underlying unity in it. Even when the primitive mind by a singular achievement can reach to the latter idea, as the Algonquins of North America have achieved the idea of ‘Wakondah’, this does not necessarily or immediately make for monotheism; ‘Wakondah’, for instance, could be conceived as the permeating vital force that sustains the life of gods, men, and natural objects.
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We can indeed theoretically and without difficulty reconcile this poetic mood and interpretation of Nature with an ethical monotheism such as the Judaic. We can recall many great passages in our Psalms and the Book of Job that interfuse the sublimer phenomena of nature with the might and the majesty of the One God. We shall find in the monotheistic hymn of Ikhnaton a deep sense of the beauty of nature. But as a matter of history the foster-mother of this mood in us is to be sought elsewhere, namely in Greek polytheism.
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As it is part of our subject to consider the influence upon our own history of any particular aspect or imputed attribute of God, it is relevant to enregister the contribution of a polytheistic creed to our poetic endowment. We have considered already the momentous part that Greek idolatry has played in the history of our art.