Monday, July 26, 2010

5. Polytheism

Polytheism is the belief in multiple deities, usually gendered as gods and goddesses. These deities are commonly assembled into a pantheon or assembly of the gods.

Polytheistic faiths tend to create elaborate mythologies and rituals, but generally do not honor a single canonical text as their controlling Scripture.

Examples of polytheistic religions include the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Shinto, and (as a rule) Neopagan cults today. Some polytheists, such a the modern devotees of Wotan, prefer to worship one deity chiefly, while recognizing the existence of others. This tendency is sometimes termed monolatry.

The conventional wisdom holds that there is a bright-line distinction between polytheism and monotheism. In fact there are borderline cases, such as Mahayana
Buddhism, where the proliferation of bodhisattvas attests to a de facto polytheism.

Purportedly, all three Abrahamic religions are strictly monotheistic. As the following pages will make clear, that claim cannot be accepted at face value. To put the matter in its simplest form, Islam has been, for the most part, the most resistant to the temptations of polytheism, while Christianity has, arguably, succumbed to it. With many variations over the centuries, Judaism has assumed an intermediate position.

By a curious irony, medieval Christians absurdly stereotyped Muslims as polytheists. This is clearly a case of projection,


The Hebrew Bible contains many names of God or Gods. Orthodox Jews maintain that every name refers to the same God, except those terms which designate the false deities of other religions. Some of the approved names, however, are strikingly similar to the names of gods from the polytheistic religions surrounding ancient Israel.

A major turning point was the uncovering of religious documents in Ugarit (Ras Shamra), an ancient city on the coast of Syria. At the summit of Ugaritic religion stood the chief god, Ilu or El, the "father of mankind," and "the creator of the creation." The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the 'lhm. The most important of the other great gods were Hadad, the king of Heaven, Athirat or Asherah (familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (Sea, the god of primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction) and Mot (Death). Other gods honored at Ugarit were Dagon (Grain), Tirosch, Horon, Resheph (Healing), the craftsman Kothar-and-Khasis (Skilled and Clever), Shahar (Dawn), and Shalim (Dusk). As this enumeration suggests, Ugaritic texts offer a wealth of material on the religion of the Canaanites and its connections with that of the ancient Israelites. Professor Mark S. Smith of NYU has provided a cogent analysis of this link in several books, including his The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Smith, 2001).

Let us note some obvious parallels. In the Hebrew Bible God is often designated as El, recalling the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon. Furthermore, the term Elohim, which is now thought of as merely another name of God, was in Canaanite religion a term for the whole court of El. (The original Hebrew texts not having vowels, Elohim in Hebrew is basically the same as 'lhm.) Some of the other Gods featured in the Ugaritic texts are also mentioned in the Bible, not as synonymous with the Jewish God, but rather as "other gods," which are now (by Orthodox Jews) thought to mean "idols" or false gods.

Asherah is extremely significant in the Canaanite pantheon. She is the "consort" of El, and the mother of his seventy sons. Scholars believe that Asherah was worshiped by many in ancient Israel and Judah; Jeremiah refers to her as "the Queen of Heaven."
Jeremiah 7:18 reads as follows: “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead [their] dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven, and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger.” (NRSV)

Another major Canaanite deity is Ba'al, who is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Today, Orthodox Jews understand Ba'al to be a false god--or several false gods--yet the figure was evidently quite popular in Jeremiah's time.

In the Hebrew Bible Yahweh is assimilated to El. But Yahweh may have started out in Canaanite religion as one of the seventy sons of El. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deuteronomy 32:8-9, agreeing with the Septuagint, reads as follows: “When the Most High ('Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance, when He divided up the sons of man, He fixed the boundaries for peoples, according to the number of the sons of El. But Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob His own inheritance.”

The argument for the original polytheism presiding at Judaism's birth is bolstered by the name "Elohim." Grammatically, "Elohim" has the form of a plural masculine noun, and indeed is often used that way in the Hebrew Bible when used to refer to "other gods." (Needless to say, the belief found among some Christians that Elohim is a reference to the Trinity is extremely unlikely.) However, the term is often treated as a singular noun, as in Genesis 1:1. Many scholars hold that the plural form of "Elohim" reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue that it originally meant "the gods,” or the “sons of El,” the supreme being. They suggest that the word may have been recast as a singular noun by later monotheist priests who sought to erase evidence of worship of the many gods of the Judean pantheon, replacing them with their own special patron god Yahweh. This is the Yahweh-alone gambit. As we have seen, however, the erasure was incomplete.

On several occasions the Pentateuch mentions El Shaddai, usually translated in English-speaking Bibles as “God Almighty.” The expression may mean "God of the mountains," referring to a Mesopotamian sacred concept. In Exodus 6:3 the term serves as one of the patriarchal names for the tribal god of the Mesopotamians.

As a toponym, Shaddai was a late Bronze Ages Amorite city on the banks of the Euphrates river in northern Syria. It has been conjectured that El Shaddai was therefore the "god of Shaddai.” Since there are associations with the Abraham legend, the name may have been imported into Israel in that connection. At all events the later effort to assimilate El Shaddai to Yahweh is simplistic, for why would Yahweh need such an alias?

Acknowledging the polytheist substratum helps us to understand why there are four distinct words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, Eloah, and El Shaddai. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then serve to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself. As we have noted, El Shaddai may have been an imported cult.

This hypothesis casts light on the Elohim saying "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26) as well as Yahweh’s commandment to Israel, "worship no other gods [Hebrew: Elohim] before me." The fact that one can worship other gods suggests that they exist.

While early Israel was, so to speak, laced with polytheism, it had a somewhat skimpy corps of deities--what might be described as the incredible shrinking pantheon. As we know from the Ugaritic documents, the Canaanites acknowledged over 200 deities. Ancient Israelites had only seven main ones: El, Baal, Asherah, Yahweh, and the sun, moon, and stars. Frugal as it is in comparative perspective, that heptad suffices to demonstrate polytheism, not monotheism. Moreover, with further archaeological work, the presence of other deities may become evident through the discovery of shrines and images.

A side point is that not all the deities recognized in the slimmed-down Israelite pantheon are rooted in Canaan. Yahweh himself was probably originally at home in the south, in Edom and in the Midianite region. Moreover, even if gods like Baal were hated and despised (not members of the approved pantheon), they were still widely accepted as g o d s. Theophoric names, such as Jezebel and Beelzebub, attest this status.

A different point is the retreat of the old idea of Canaanite religion as a licentious fertility cult. This notion has attracted a certain prurient interest, but its main function has been to contrast the self-indulgent Canaanites with the noble, self-denying Israelites, who bequeathed to us the supreme gift of ethical monotheism. As Dennis Pardee remarks: "The fertility cult so dear to the heart of the older generation of Hebrew and Ugaritic scholars shows up clearly in neither corpus; the sexual depravity that some have claimed to be characteristic of the Canaanite cult in general has left no trace in any of the Ugaritic texts"—at least those that have been edited and translated (Pardee, 2002).


In his 1967 book "The Hebrew Goddess" Raphael Patai collected various types of evidence for a feminine divine (or semidivine) principle in Judaism, culminating in Hokhmah (personification of Wisdom, or Sophia). This concept was later partially masculinized by Philo as the Logos.

In terms of religious evolution, the starting point of this development is the figure of Lady Wisdom (Hokhmah) as found in the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Lady wisdom also figures in the noncanonical books of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon. (The traditional ascription of some of these books to King Solomon has been generally abandoned). Lady Wisdom is a personification, to be sure, but she verges on being a self-sustaining emanation, or even an independent deity.

More specificity transpires in the account of creation in Proverbs 8, in which God has a divine cohort, Wisdom (Hokhmah), who declares that she was with God "from the beginning, from the origin of the earth ... there was still no deep when I was brought forth, no springs rich with water, before the mountains were sunk." When God "assigned the sea its limits" and "fixed the foundations of the earth," she says, "I was at his side as confidant. I was a source of delight every day, playing before him all the time" (Timothy Beal's translation).

These elaborations demonstrate that polytheistic straying was not limited to the period of the formation of Judaism. It has recurred.

Flourishing during the Middle Ages, Jewish mysticism fostered new polytheistic themes. In his 2002 monograph "Mirror of His Beauty," Peter Schäfer focuses on the presence of the feminine principle within the Godhead, the Shekhinah, as it appears in the Kabbalah texts. He shows that late in the twelfth century, the Bahir, the first known book of the Kabbalah tradition, depicted the inner life of God and that the tenth emanation, or sefirot, is the Shekhinah, the mediator between the divine and the earthly. He maintains that the operative condition for this feminine presence within God's very self was purloined from the Christian quasi-deification of the Virgin Mary, who was portrayed as mediator or even co-redeemer, assumed body and soul into heaven at the time of her death.


As the above discussion has shown, the religion of the Tanakh, and the Judaism that flowed from it, evolved, like any other human institution. As with similar movements, adepts yielded to the temptation of retrojecting later convictions back into earlier centuries. So it is with Yahweh-exclusivity.

Matters were not always thus, especially as regards the ideas that formed the Torah in the strict sense (a.k.a. the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch). That set of books is laced with polytheistic remnants, as we have seen. One can insist that the true religion of Judaism is the evolved version, the ostensibly pure monotheistic form of the Later Prophets. But that is not what the rabbis (beginning with the Mishnah, ca. 200 CE) have uniformly held. It is primordial.

For the rabbis the Torah in the strict sense of the Five Books of Moses is supreme. And it is totally monotheistic (sic).

Unfortunately, one cannot have it both ways. One must choose: either Torah-supremacy or monotheism-supremacy.

The passages cited above suffice to show the polytheistic entanglements of the religion of ancient Israel. This was a heritage it never succeeded in erasing or renouncing. Inconveniently for the champions of the pure-monotheistic thesis, the taint lingers in the received text of the Tanakh, transpiring in passages recurring so frequently that they cannot be disregarded.

As we have them, the earlier (if only seemingly earlier) Tanakh documents are mainly monotheistic. Efforts to censor material that was inconvenient have had their effect. That process notwithstanding, the residues of earlier strata suffice to demolish the claim, often naively embraced by modern Jews. that the formative faith of Israel was monotheism, pure and undefiled.


Together with many secular observers, Jews and Muslims find it difficult to assent to the claim that Christianity is truly monotheistic.

First is the problem of the Holy Trinity. Christian orthodoxy holds that the three are also one. To the extent that they are three, however, monotheism seems to be compromised. Comparative studies have suggested that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity was not part of the original Christian message, but entered the religion from Greek polytheism. (See Chapter Four, above.)

The three persons of the Trinity act, we are told, in perfect harmony with one another. Not so the Devil. In mainstream Christianity the Devil is sometimes known as Satan and sometimes as Lucifer. However, some interpreters hold that the reference in Isaiah 14:12 to Lucifer, or the Son of the Morning, is a reference to the Babylonian king.


Many modern Christians believe that the Devil was originally an angel who, along with one-third of the angelic host (the demons) rebelled against God and has consequently been condemned to the Lake of Fire. He hates all humanity, or more accurately creation, opposing God and spreading lies and wreaking havoc everywhere. Today, many liberal Christians interpret the Devil in symbolic terms, as referring figuratively to human sin and temptation and to any human system in opposition to God.

Satan is commonly identified as the serpent who convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit; for this reason, Satan has often been depicted as a serpent. Though the identification of the serpent-tempter and Satan is not explicit in the Genesis narrative, the conflation goes back at least as far as the time of the writing of Revelation, the last book of the Christian Bible, which specifically identifies Satan as being the serpent (Rev. 20:2). In the Gospels he is described as having tempted Jesus (Matthew 4:1).

Another name, Beelzebub, originally designated a Philistine god, specifically a manifestation of Baal, from Ba‘al Zebûb, literally, "Lord of Flies."

Angels are messengers of God in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an. In art angels are often shown with wings, perhaps reflecting descriptions in the Hebrew Bible, as seen in the chariot of Ezekiel’s vision and the Seraphim of Isaiah. The attribute of wings serves to attest their superhuman status and powers.

The early Christians inherited the Jewish traditions regarding angels. In the early stage, the Christian concept of an angel characterized the angel as a messenger of God. Angels are creatures of good, spirits of love, and messengers of the savior Jesus Christ. Later came identification of individual angelic messengers: Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and Uriel.

By the late fourth century the Church Fathers agreed that there were different categories of angels, with appropriate missions and activities assigned to them. In the Christian interpretation of the Bible, the angels rank as a body of spiritual beings intermediate between God and men: "You have made him (man) a little less than the angels..." (Psalms 8:4, 5).

Many Christians regard angels as asexual and not belonging to either gender (cf. Matthew 22:30). Nonetheless, angels are usually described as looking like male human beings. Their names are also masculine. And although angels have greater knowledge than men, they are not omniscient, as Matthew 24:36 points out.

The New Testament describes a number of interactions and conversations between angels and humans. For instance, three separate cases of angelic interaction deal with the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. In Luke 1:11, an angel appears to Zechariah to inform him that he will have a child despite his old age, thus proclaiming the birth of John the Baptist. Then in Luke 1:26 the archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary in the Annunciation, foretelling Jesus’ birth. Angels proclaim the birth of Jesus in the episode of the Adoration of the shepherds in Luke 2:10. Angels also appear later in the New Testament. In Luke 22:43 an angel comforts Jesus during the Agony in the Garden. In Matthew 28:5 an angel speaks at the empty tomb, following the Resurrection of Jesus and the rolling back of the stone by angels. Hebrews 13:2 reminds the reader that they may "entertain angels unaware.”

Essential to the New Testament story, angels have sometimes reputedly visited Christians in later centuries Pope John Paul II emphasized the role of angels in Catholic teachings in his 1986 address titled "Angels Participate in History of Salvation," in which he suggested that modern mentality should come to see the importance of angels.

In Christianity saints are individuals endowed with special holiness and charisma. There is no official head count, but one can assured that they are very numerous. The official Catholic view is that the church does not make anyone a saint; instead, it recognizes a saint. In the church the title of saint refers to a person who has been formally canonized (officially recognized according to specified procedures) by the Catholic Church, and is therefore known to be in Heaven.

The veneration of saints, or the "cult of the saints," describes a pattern of particular popular devotion to the saints. Although the term “worship” is sometimes used, its scope is ostensibly limited to the meaning to honor or give respect. The Catholic Church holds that true worship is properly reserved only for God and is never to the saints. To outsiders at least the distinction is not always clear, given the aura of supplication, solemnity, and incense that typically surrounds the cult of the individual saints. Saints can be asked to intercede or pray for those still on earth.

A saint may enjoy the status of a patron of a particular cause or profession, or invoked against specific illnesses or disasters, sometimes by popular custom and sometimes by official statements of the Magisterium. Relics of saints are often thought to have special, quasi-magical powers.

The most important saint of all is, of course, the Virgin Mary. Beginning in 432, when the church recognized Mary as the Theotokos (Mother of God), her cult advanced, seemingly inexorably. The doctrine of Mary's Assumption made her the only human, aside from her Son, to escape the normal consequences of death and to be transported directly into heaven. There, as seen in countless medieval depictions of the Coronation of the Virgin, she sits at the right hand of her Son. These depictions, suggesting a double enthronement, suggest a kind of co-regency with her son. According to medieval belief, Mary had a special role as intercessor. To her, very frequently, prayers were addressed, with the understanding that she would forward them to her Son. The medieval doctrine of the Trinity forbade Mary's formal accession to coequal status. Yet she enjoyed it in all but name, as the Trinity became, to all intents and purposes, a Quaternion.

Modern feminists, together with Carl Gustav Jung, have drawn an interesting conclusion: Christianity has three gods--and one goddess. Curiously enough, Muhammad seems to have held that in Christian belief (which of course he rejected) Mary was the third person of the Trinity, and not the Holy Spirit (Sura 5:116). The Prophet may have picked up this idea from the Collyridians, an obscure Christian sect that reputedly worshiped the Virgin Mary as a goddess. At all events, it is to Islam that we now turn.


The Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie got into a great deal of trouble when he published his novel “The Satanic Verses” in 1988. Rushdie did not invent the notion embodied by his title. It stems, if we are to believe the early accounts, from a particularly low point in Muhammad’s career in Mecca.

Even a cursory reading of the Qur’an will show that as a rule it strenuously supports absolute monotheism, opposing what it calls “associating"--the idea that some other figure, whether Jesus, Zeus, or Isis can share in the attributes of the divine. “There is no God but God.” (passim). “He begot no one, nor was he begotten.” (Sura 112).

Nonetheless, the Qur’an mentions several non-Allah deities in the Qur’an, among them three female deities: al-Lat, al-Uzza and Manat. Each goddess had a shrine of her own in places not far from Mecca. They enjoyed the exalted rank of daughters of God.

As it now reads, the Qur'an--as one would expect--rejects these deities. Yet did the Qur'an and Muhammad always reject them?

During Muhammad’s years in Mecca (until 622), his followers were few. His movement grew slowly and as it did attitudes became sharply polarized. The Prophet felt the pain of estrangement from his tribe. According to the standard biographical and historical accounts (such as the writings of at-Tabari and Ibn Sa’d), Muhammad longed for better relations and reconciliation with his community. God proved accommodating, revealing Sura 53 to Muhammad. This text includes two crucial verses:

“Have ye thought upon al-Lat and al-Uzza
And Manat, the third, the other?” (53:19,20)

In the original text two more verses followed (the “Satanic verses”):

“These are the exalted cranes (intermediaries)
Whose intercession is to be hoped for.”

The cranes whose intercession was sought were, of course, the three goddesses. Once this ukase was proclaimed, Muhammad, his followers, and the pagan Arabs all prostrated themselves in unison. Tensions eased, and there was a sense of general satisfaction. So at least we are told.

But the Prophet soon regretted what had happened. How to account for it? Jibril (Gabriel), the angel of revelation, appeared with distressing news: Satan had cunningly exploited Muhammad's desire for reconciliation with the pagan leaders by feeding him the satanic verses. In this way the “interceding cranes” shamelessly flew onto their perches pitched in the very revelation of God.

They were not destined to reside there permanently, though, Not long after, the two offending verses disappeared. As it now reads the sura continues:

“Are yours the males and His the females?
That indeed were an unfair division!” (53:21,22)

The sense appears to be this. By custom the Arabs favor male offspring over females, Yet the traditional polytheistic view seems to contradict this principle, for the high God, most unpatriarchally, seems to prefer daughters (the goddesses). Surely this cannot be right. Conclusion? The three goddesses are false.

Two other passages from the Qur'an deal with the compromise between Muhammad and the traditionalists, concluding with Muhammad's eventual rejection of it. The first reads:
“And they indeed strove to beguile thee (Muhammad) away from that wherewith We (God) have inspired thee, that thou shouldst invent other than it against Us; and then would they have accepted thee as a friend. And if We had not made thee wholly firm thou mightest almost have inclined unto them a little. Then had We made thee taste a double (punishment) of living and a double (punishment) of dying, then hadst thou found no helper against Us.” (17:73-75)

The second passage seeks to comfort Muhammad:

“Never sent We a messenger or a prophet before thee but when He recited (the message) Satan proposed (opposition) in respect of that which he recited thereof. But Allah abolisheth that which Satan proposeth. Then Allah establisheth His revelations. Allah is Knower, Wise;

“That He may make that which the devil proposeth a temptation for those in whose hearts is a disease, and those whose hearts are hardened – Lo! the evil-doers are in open schism.” (22:52-53)

These verses substantiate the satanic-verses conundrum. Whether these events actually happened as described remains, like much in seventh-century Arabia, obscure. But the account was honored by Muslims over many generations. Astoundingly, they affected to believe that Satan had the power to insert subversive verses into the message from God, in the Holy Qur'an itself. Satan suborned the Prophet, making him recite his demonic words as God's words!

In due course God took corrective action. He authorized a 2.0 version, purged of the satanic input.

Satan or no Satan, it seems that like some modern scribbler, God could edit himself. He could delete an awkward verse or two, replacing them with what hindsight showed was better content:

“Such of Our revelations as We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is able to do all things?” (2:106 ;cf. 16:101).

This is the doctrine of Naskh, or abrogation. which employs the logic of chronology and progressive revelation. Different situations require different strategies, and the newer approach supplants the previous one. A familiar example is the contrast between the relatively peaceful verses ascribed to the Meccan period and the more warlike ones of the subsequent Medina era. The latter abrogate the former. For this reason the familiar apologetic gambit of citing verses from the earlier phase of development to suggest that Islam is a religion of peace is not persuasive. These pacific texts have been superseded by bellicose ones.

The Naskh principle was acknowledged by Muslim theologians of later centuries, who carefully sorted out which Quranic passages were abrogating and which were abrogated.

Today, many Muslims disingenuously seek to deny this principle, rejecting the very possibility that God could cancel out or change his word in any way or form. Unlike mere mortals, God does not change his mind. In their damage-control efforts, they sometimes limit the applicability of Qur'an 2:106 (cited above) to the Qur'an’s abrogation of the previous Scriptures of Moses and Jesus—even though the Qur'an clearly teaches that these Scriptures are also the Word of God. As such they are presumably unchangeable.

Nowadays, the pious tend to resist the idea (once firmly believed) that the satanic verses formerly disgraced the Holy Qur'an. Many modern Muslims find it simply inconceivable that Muhammad, even under the severest pressures, would be so weak as to compromise with his Meccan enemies by making concessions to pagan polytheism. Even more insidious is the notion that Satan could somehow "whisper" his thoughts into the substance of God's holy Word, the Qur'an. For if Satan managed this once, could he not have done so on other occasions, yielding other satanic blather that actually lingers in the Holy Book?

If the matter were not so scandalous, this recognition could pave the way for a genuine renewal of Islam, by purging it of inhumane (“satanic”) survivals from the primitive tribal society of early medieval Arabia. Unfortunately, such a project would not enjoy much credit.

Our information about the satanic verses and the circumstances surrounding their revelation stems from the later Muslim accounts of at-Tabari and Ibn Sa’d. As we have noted, critical study suggests that these sources are not altogether trustworthy. In this instance, could they not simply have been mistaken? No one can know for sure, but on the microlevel, it seems hard to believe that someone could have come along and invented two spurious verses which fit seamlessly into the texts.

There is a broader issue. Modern Muslims who are inclined to dismiss the account of the early biographers as fabricated and unhistorical must still cope with the scandal that lingers--why was this ludicrous story of the Satanic verses so long accepted by pious believers?


In the religion of the Hebrew Bible, polytheistic motifs survive as part of the common West Semitic heritage as attested by the documents of Canaanite literature. Later manifestations weave together some reminiscences of these elements with newer motifs, some, perhaps, influenced by Christianity.

Christian polytheism seems to owe little to the earlier, truncated Hebrew tradition, but stems largely from the pagan environment. A partial exception is the cult of arcangels, who have Hebrew names.

Of the three faiths, Islam has been the most consistent in its effort to root out the earlier pagan heritage. However, the episode of the Satanic verses shows that this cleansing has not been complete.


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