Q. What is polytheism and how does it operate? Is it still a factor in the worldwide religious picture today?
A. Polytheism is a belief in many gods (and goddesses). It is taken from the Greek words poly, meaning “many,” and theos, meaning “god.” Many Polytheistic systems permeated the ancient world, in the well-known civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for example. They also existed in the Promised Land, among the peoples that God displaced, such as the Canaanites and Amorites.
The gods of polytheistic systems were somewhat limited either regionally and/or to their areas of expertise. Many ancient polytheistic peoples, having agricultural economies, had gods that controlled the aspects of their livelihoods. There were gods of the sun, the moon, rain, crops, rivers, and so forth. Their followers believed that, in order to assure good crops, these gods had to be placated. Sometimes, when one polytheistic group conquered another, the victorious people’s gods ascended in influence, while those of the vanquished declined in power. Obviously, in any such system, no god could have the absolute power and authority that the true God of the Universe has for us.
Some of the gods worshipped by the people of the ancient Middle East included:
Molech, the Ammonite god of fire, who demanded that parents sacrifice their children through fire in order to “purify” them (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2).
Baal, variously worshipped as a god of fertility, thunder, or war, with whose prophets Elijah had a dramatic encounter (1 Kings 18).
Dagon, a god of grain, who fell on his face before the Ark of the Covenant in Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1-5).
Unfortunately, polytheism is still alive and well today. Its largest body of adherents consists of those in Hinduism. Over one billion Hindus, mostly in India, worship some 330 million gods. Smaller polytheistic groups include Shintoism, largely in Japan; Santeria, in Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean; and some of the animist religions still prevalent in Africa and South America.
Followers of polytheistic religions live with a great deal of insecurity, not knowing if the gods they worshipped will be vanquished by others or not. On the other hand, we who follow the one true God can rest in the assurance that He is on His throne forever, with our best interests at heart. So it is that the Bible tells us:
“Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the LORD, he is God; there is none else beside him,” (Deuteronomy 4:35).