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Polytheism


Throughout most of human history, polytheism has been the dominant way in which humanity has understood the divine. Polytheism can be defined as the recognition and worship of more than one god or goddess.  Typically, each god or goddess has authority over a specific realm of nature. Thus, one god is associated with the power of the sea, another is connected to the realm of agriculture, and yet another reigns over the underworld. There are even gods or goddesses associated with specific trades and professions. The classic example of polytheism is found in ancient Greece and Rome where a large number of deities were recognized and worshipped. Moreover, temples and other shrines were built for the worship of each of these gods and goddesses.

While individuals may recognize the existence and power of more than one deity, they would typically be devoted to the deity most closely connected to their class, occupation or culture. In other words, it was virtually impossible to participate in worship to each of the gods and goddesses. Consequently, individuals would primarily worship the deity to which they connected by virtue of their needs, work, or geographical location.

This last point highlights the wide appeal of polytheism: whatever the specific need or occasion, an individual knew which deity to approach for help. Put another way, polytheism usually represents the divine as immanent - near and approachable. It is not surprising, therefore, that as Christianity spread throughout Europe, the old gods did not really disappear; rather, they were replaced with numerous saints, each of which was associated with a particular cause, profession, or place. In many cases, churches were built on the sites where a god or goddess was worshipped. For example, the magnificent cathedral in Chartres, France was built on the site where a goddess was worshipped. It is probably not a coincidence that there are more symbols for the Virgin Mary in Chartres than in any other cathedral. Basically, Christianity simply subsumed the old pagan deities into its belief system.