How Polytheism morphed into Monotheism: first steps

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by Neil Godfrey

m-typesOne of the more intriguing books I read not many years ago was Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, edited by Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede. Its opening chapter by Martin West looks at some of the earliest signs of the transformation of polytheistic religions into monotheistic thought. He begins with Greek and “Near Eastern” (sic) literature.

The essence of polytheism is that the many gods have independent existences, rarely crossing each others paths as they are respectively called on by devotees to help out with their special talents. A thief would call on a god of thieves for blessing, not the god of justice — unless or until he was himself wronged. The Homeric hero Odysseus was persecuted by the god Poseidon but regularly protected by Athena. The Bible narratives likewise point back to the time when Yahweh was among many gods with his own distinct provenance:

You have the right to take what Chemosh your god gives you, but we will take the land of all whom the Lord our God has driven out before us (Judges 11:24)

But Homer, West argues, also introduces readers to something contrary to true polytheism. The gods meet in council and subsume their individual wills to their exalted chief, Zeus.

Some gods chaffe under Zeus’s final orders, and some go behind his back if they feel they can get away with it. But despite these ongoing expressions of rebellious individualism, they all accept the idea that they have an obligation to act as one, with one mind and purpose.

Ditto plus more with the Babylonian, Ugaritic and Phoenician deities going as far back as the second millennium bce. The writings referring to a single general assembly of the gods is not confined to poetic stories, but includes ritual and temple texts as well.

The idea of such an assembled gathering of gods was useful for both poets and priests when they wanted to speak of “all the gods” supporting a single plan of action or idea.

The gods’ will would be done on earth just as a king’s will was pronounced and executed through his earthly council.

West discusses the significance of the terms found in Homer, The Mind (nous) of Zeus and The Will (boule) of Zeus. This supreme Divine Plan governs all the action of the drama and predetermines the final outcome, even though along the way it is not always fully understood by mortals and divinities alike. Such a concept is a stark contradiction of the essence of polytheism.

As early as the fourteenth century bce Egypt, one god would be singled out for such special adoration and that other gods would have to be acknowledged merely as being in the shade of this supreme power. Many are familiar with Pharaoh Akhenaten’s special devotion to the sun-disc Aten. The Hymns of the Persian Zoroaster likewise speak of a chief god, Ahura-Mazda, surpassing other gods, without denying the existence of those others. At different times in Mesopotamia, the gods Anu, Narru, Shamash, Marduk and Ashur were exalted to such overshadowing supremacy. After Marduk slew the monster Tiamat he returned to assign all the other gods their specific (and subordinate) places in the cosmos. All gods “became mere functionaries of Marduk” (p.25).

The Greek poet Hesiod in Theogany said as much of Zeus:

But when the blessed gods had finished their toil, and settled by force their struggle for honours with the Titans, they pressed far-seeing Olympian Zeus to reign and to rule over them, by Earth’s prompting. So he divided their dignities amongst them. (881-885)

Compare Deuteronomy 32:8:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly [the sons of God].

and its accompanying footnote:

“Sons of God” is undoubtedly the original reading; the MT and LXX have each interpreted it differently. MT assumes that the expression “sons of God” refers to Israel (cf. Hos. 1:10), while LXX has assumed that the phrase refers to the angelic heavenly assembly (Pss 29:1; 89:6; cf. as well Ps 82). The phrase is also attested in Ugaritic, where it refers to the high god El’s divine assembly. According to the latter view, which is reflected in the translation, the Lord delegated jurisdiction over the nations to his angelic host (cf. Dan. 10:13-21), while reserving for himself Israel, over whom he rules directly. For a defense of the view taken here, see M. S. Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” BSac 158 (2001): 52-74.

West writes (pp 26-27):

Hebrew poets took over the old Canaanite motif of the assembly of the gods, presided over by El, which we find in the Ugaritic poems, and they made Yahweh the central figure, identifying him with El and sometimes giving him this name. We read of his assembly in several passages. In the 82nd Psalm, for example, he speaks fiercely to the other gods:

God (elohim) was standing in the congregation of El; amid the gods (elohim) he was holding judgment. ‘How long will you just unjust judgments and show favour to the wicked?

Those who attend these gatherings are elsewhere referred to as ‘the holy ones’ . . . or ‘the sons of gods’ . . . ; according to normal Semitic idiom ‘sons of gods’ means ‘members of the class of “god”, not individually distinguished’, just as ‘sons of craftsmen’ means ‘craftsmen’. In the 29th Psalm these lesser deities are actually addressed directly:

Render to Yahweh, O sons of gods, render to Yahweh glory and strength; render to Yahweh the glory of his name, worship Yahweh . . . .

The myth of the fallen angels

This later Hebrew myth expressed the ultimate demise of all earlier gods to being subsumed to the will and focus of the highest god. A counterpart is found in the myth of Prometheus who was depicted in Greek drama as having to be cast out by Zeus because of his proudly independent spirit and his mocking of the god Hermes for becoming a mere mouthpiece of Zeus. Prometheus railed against Zeus for being a cruel tyrant.

All these myths, then, convey the notion of a great shakeout, in which plurality and diversity of divine agents, with the potential for conflict between them, are reduced to a totalitarian unity. (p.27)

The Greek dramatist Aeschylus portrayed a reconciliation of gods by virtue of their final submission to the mind and will of Zeus in his play the Suppliants, and Zeus is exalted in “biblical” metaphors:

For the paths of his mind stretch thick-grown and deep in shadow and cannot be pointed out to the view. . . .

Zeus, whoever he may be, . . . I cannot find a likeness for him . . .

What of these things is not brought forth by the mind of Zeus? What is fulfilled without Zeus? What of these things is not divinely ordained?

Compare passages from the Psalms and the Prophets:

How great are they works, Yahweh: very deep are they thoughts/designs. . . . there is no searching out his cleverness . . . .

To whom will you liken El, or what likeness will you set against him? . . . .

The Lord of Hosts has sworn, saying, ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand forth . . .

and the attributes of Mesopotamian deities:

[A named god], by your skilful planning in intricate designs . . . not to be traced by the eye . . . . / [a wisdom] unfathomable as inmost heaven . . . .

Without him who can do what? . . . .

The transition from polytheism to monotheism was a long time coming, but it was not a huge step. Once one god became supreme in wisdom and might, and all other gods were brought into line with his all encompassing will, it was only a matter of time before those lesser gods were reduced to a rank below the god-class. Jewish monotheism makes its first appearance via this route. The Most High god is the Lord of Hosts, angelic hordes, his messengers and mouthpieces, remnants of those who had once been proudly sparkling individual divinities, each once with their own private turf and talents.

Continued with a look at ancient philosophical views here and here, including a discussion of the indifference between the plural “gods” and singular “god” in the Greek literature.

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Neil Godfrey

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