APT logo

Association of Polytheist Traditions

An understanding of Polytheisms

Copyright © J Blain 2003

Polytheism refers to the honouring of 'many deities', each of whom is experienced and acknowledged as an independent, individual personality, not as an aspect or archetype of something else.

Polytheist belief systems have a number of deities or sacred beings. Some may have jurisdiction or governance over a large area, others may be associated with (e.g.) a particular river or town, or a particular family. Sacred beings may include spirits, wights, ancestors, 'small gods'. Often individuals within polytheistic cultures will form relationships with a small number of specific goddesses, gods, or other beings while acknowledging their kinship to other discrete entities who are important within the culture, cosmology, and landscape.

In polytheistic cultures, deities are experienced as complex personages. Many have particular skills or abilities but are not restricted to these. A goddess is unlikely to be, for instance, simply a 'goddess of grain' or a 'goddess of weaving', although she may have particular interest in these areas, just as a human musician is also a member of a family and a community, visiting shops and participating in political debates.

Most pre-Christian cultures of Europe, and indeed many cultures around the world, have been and in some cases remain polytheistic. Today many people in the 'Western' world are returning to polytheism. Often they will attempt to reconstruct or re-establish a specific pre-Christian belief system, by studying its history and archaeology, ancient writings (which may or may not be viewed as 'sacred texts'), and the cultures which embraced it, to recreate a living spirituality that works within today's world.

Examples of ancient texts include the Odyssey, Sumerian poems, or the Eddas - writings which make reference to deities and other non-human beings, and give insight into the worldviews of those who composed them.

Individual deities may be known by more than one name, just as human people may be known by different names or titles (Doctor, Dad, etc.) to different individual people. For instance, Odhinn has over 100 names in mediæval texts, and is a master of disguises. He remains distinct from other gods such as Thor or Vidar, just as a cousin who is an actor (taking many parts) is distinct from other relatives or members of the wider community (including other actors).