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It seems a common position that monotheism tends to evolve out of polytheism. Wikipedia offers a few historical examples of this.

However, many polytheistic religions seem to have monotheistic overtones.

Further, some of the most famous polytheistic religions have a different definition of "god" than the monotheistic religions do. Every monotheistic religion (that I am aware of, there may be exceptions) believe that their god is the creator of the world, and all that inhabit it. From this view point, many gods in the famous polytheistic religions would be considered simply spirits (possibly angels, possibly demons, depending on the terminology of the specific monotheistic religion).

Consider the following famous polytheistic religions:

  • Ancient Egypt -- Amun-Ra is apparently a self-created creator god, who ruled over many (all?) of the other Egyption gods.

  • Ancient Greece -- All Greek gods can be traced back to the single primordial god, Chaos.

[Please note I do not pretend to have anywhere near a complete understanding of the mythologies of these groups. I've just done a very superficial survey of these belief systems.]

There seems to be enough evidence, at least from a superficial look at these few religions, that it would have been feasible for these various religions to have grown out of a monotheistic world view, rather than vice-versa.

Is there any evidence to suggest whether either polytheism or monotheism came first, as an established form of religion? Or do we even have any way of knowing?

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Hinduism can sometimes come in a monotheistic flavor, but not necessarily. In fact, according to the creation hymn, this world may or may not have been created by the Supreme Spirit. –  apoorv020 Nov 4 '11 at 10:52
Why the down vote? Is this a bad question some how? –  Flimzy Nov 4 '11 at 10:52
My years of playing Civilization tell me that Polytheism comes first. –  Travis Christian Nov 4 '11 at 15:11
Any statement that polytheism "came first" must presume any form of monotheism to be false. If such a presupposition is not made, their entire timeline of pre-historic history falls apart. –  Caleb Nov 9 '11 at 11:34
@Caleb, I'm not sure you're right. Wouldn't it be possible for there to be a period in which monotheism is true in fact but not known to any people? –  Isaac Moses Dec 1 '11 at 23:02
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6 Answers

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"Is there any evidence to suggest whether either polytheism or monotheism came first, as an established form of religion? Or do we even have any way of knowing?"

The oldest written records we have that mention religion are all polytheistic. The writer will sometimes claim that his god rules over the others, but this tends to have a 'my dad can beat up your dad' tone. The word god is used for all of them - in other words, there's no claim that the writer's god is a fundamentally different kind of being.

As you say, the main god sometimes developed a more central place in the cosmology, but we can often trace how that happened.

Amun, for example, started out as the patron god of Thebes. When a Theban became pharoah, a lot of people found it expedient to talk about how great Amun was. This often took the form of claiming that the local deity was really just another form of Amun, which was convenient for both the locals and the conquerors - no one really wanted a long drawn out religious war.

Ra was a fairly widely worshipped sun god, so Amun-Ra is a commonly known form, but it happened with others as well.

A similar thing happened with Zeus and some of the other Greek gods, though the cause was more often cultural than military expansion. Stories about local gods could easily be stories of Zeus taking another form; heroes could be identified as one of Zeus' children by a woman or nymph. Over the years, Zeus came to look like quite the player.

Similarly, the oldest Vedas are pretty clearly polytheistic, with the monistic ideas you mention developing during the Upanishad era and later.

It's more difficult to trace the development of religious ideas in areas without a written record, like Africa and North America. Generally, though, what you see is that groups with very little technology don't place much emphasis on gods, if they have them at all; their religious practices tend to be more animistic. Examples of that would be the Inuit and the Kung San.

You start seeing more elaborate mythologies and pantheons - ie, polytheism - among people with more complex social structures. Thus, any monistic ideas that we find among cultures like this are generally taken to be newer developments or imports, rather than holdovers of a primitive monotheism that has never been observed.

So... yeah. Without building a time machine, there's no way we can be 100% sure of how religion developed. But most of the evidence we have points towards polytheism coming first.

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Thank you for the thorough and respectful answer. –  Flimzy Feb 7 '12 at 19:10
In China monotheism pop up first. Kong Fu Chu is monotheists. –  Jim Thio Mar 18 '13 at 2:07
+1 : "there's no claim that the writer's god is a fundamentally different kind of creature" - exactly. That is the defining characteristic of monotheism. (Although "creature" is not a good term.) –  comeAndGo Sep 2 '13 at 0:43
+1 for "The writer will sometimes claim that his god rules over the others, but this tends to have a 'my dad can beat up your dad' tone." Would like to add the word "monolatrism" somewhere there: first, "there are many gods" (polytheism), then "there are many gods, but my favourite god is the mightiest" (still polytheism), then "my god jealous of other gods, and he wants me worship only him, the mightiest one, but you can go ahead and worship your inferior gods" (monolatrism), then "there are no other gods, only one almighty God" (monotheism). –  Michael Oct 2 '13 at 16:44
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Your examples don't really count. Yes, polytheistic religions don't consider all gods as equals. But that's simply the hierarchy of human societies applied to gods, it comes naturally with the human psyche being what it is.

Nevertheless, polytheism seems to be the more obvious form of religion: a single almighty god is very abstract and hard to imagine, a number of gods each with his own area of responsibility is a simpler concept. Particularly if you consider that religion originally sought to explain nature - it was logical to imagine a different cause (god) of each phenomenon as opposed to a single cause for all of them. In fact, even Christianity today sometimes seems to have the same polytheistic properties: at least in the Russian Orthodox Church it isn't uncommon to direct prayers to saints rather than to god. Regardless of the church's official position, many people prefer to view saints as subordinate gods with their respective areas of competence.

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Most of Christianity's (especially Catholicism's) saint-worship is kind of a "delegation" thing. God's real busy, you know, he's got the whole universe to run. Jesus, well he's kind of busy too, what with 7 billion living souls to save. So, pray to Mary; she's got the Big Guy's ear. Similarly, the miracles of the saints in their lives are evidence that God works through them in a particular area, and as such they can advocate on our behalf. But, all powers of all saints come directly from God, and there is only one God. –  KeithS Nov 4 '11 at 15:35
The Catholic tradition of praying to saints as "gods" is very common here in Mexico, too, but if anything, this is an example of "polytheism" growing out of monotheism, is it not? –  Flimzy Nov 4 '11 at 22:41
I'm having a hard time understanding how polytheism is "simpler." It's clearly not simpler in a "mathematical" sense, as polytheistic religions tend to have very complex systems explaining the relationships between their various gods. In what sense is polytheism simpler than monotheism? Perhaps point me to a resource, since this is starting to get off topic for comments :) –  Flimzy Nov 7 '11 at 5:43
@Flimzy: Human psyche is very far from math. Simpler is what is less abstract and easier to imagine (as it matches the world surrounding us better). I'm not sure whether there are any resources on this - Google brings up lots of opinion pieces on this but nothing with a solid psychological argumentation. –  Wladimir Palant Nov 7 '11 at 7:50
@Flimzy - human branis evolved to be super-efficient at getting social hierarchies. Witness the dumbest people following entire casts and plotlines for soap operas, or gossiping about extended families/social circles. For human brain, the whole intricate system of the Olympians is a breeze. –  DVK Nov 20 '11 at 0:56
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No, these did not start out as monoteistic religions and grew more gods, rather the idea in some religions that all gods are aspects of the same god has been something that grew out of the polytheistic religion. Polyteistic religions in turn have grown out of a sort of "base-religion" which is an anthropomorphic view of nature, where everything is or has a spirit.

See for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prehistoric_religion and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_religion

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Orthodox religions all stem from the same root, Isis and Osiris from the Sumerian clay tablets, the first known writings in this epoch. They even had their own "Noah" as most religions do now, just a copy. Simply a way of connecting to others.

The first to come along were the Jews and Christians, but there were also the Greeks, who were polytheistic. Yet again, all stories hailed from the myths within the Sumerian tablets, written before all these you and I are familiar with.

There may be a god, but religion doesn't get any of us there. At least not in the way they claim.

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This is opinion, unsupported by evidence, coupled with provocative comments. It is also fundamentally incorrect. This is not suitable for H:SE –  Mark C. Wallace Apr 7 at 9:38
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I can not imagine how the idea of multiple gods came before the idea of one. Under this idea democracy would have came before deposit-ism or monarchical rule. To me it is more likely that a king declared himself god so people worshiped that king and only that king. Then perhaps later the implementation of numerous gods came into play. I can not see a person jump from the idea of not having or lack of understanding a god to all of a sudden there are hundreds of them. It would be more complex and time consuming to create numerous gods with thousands of task than to create the idea of one god that does all. Yes the idea of current monotheism is complex but i feel we are comparing current monotheism to monotheism that would have existed at that time.

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This is an unsourced opinion "I can not imagine". That really isn't a good fit for H:SE. Can you answer based on history? –  Mark C. Wallace Mar 22 '13 at 10:46
"democracy would have came before deposit-ism or monarchical rule." - which is EXACTLY what happened. Primitive hunter gatherers were significantly MORE egalitarian than most of "democracies" of recorded human history, for a simple and expedient reason that if you aren't advanced enough to have surplus of resources at all, your society can't afford a dedicated "king" who doesn't produce resources and merely uses the surplus. "Germs, Guns and Steel" touches on that to an extent if you haven't read it. –  DVK Mar 22 '13 at 14:16
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I think men created God in their own image.

I think the idea of true monotheism, namely one absolute God that's almighty, start of in the beginning of almighty absolute monarchies. That is, during the age of empires.

True monotheism doesn't show up or be popular enough to become a state religion until Persia (zoroaster), China (Shang Ti), or Rome (Christianity).

Republics and democracy or less absolute monarchy tend to be polytheistic because their leaders need to be reminded that they too can be toppled. Absolute small monarchy like ancient judaism tend to be henotheistic. Only large empires start off true monotheism like what we have.

Rome become monotheists after they become monarchy. After that Byzantine's empire is split into different kingdom. Then their monks have a hard time explaining why the same God would tell 2 different christian kingdoms to kill each other. In ancient judaism, this is not an issue. Well, their God is YHWH and the other guys have different gods. Having many small kingdom and yet one God causes cognitive dissonance. Either religion or politics then change to match the other.

Religion is a very ancient way to impose our will against other. Rather than saying you got to do what I say, people tend to say, and still say, you got to do what my God says. So the kind of God I made up is decided by the kind of claim I found profitable to make.

First I need to differentiate between monotheism with polytheism because even in polytheist religions, one god is quite often supreme.

In both case, one God is often boss of all boss. El Elyon in Judaism and Zeus in ancient greek are both supreme. So simple hierarchy cannot be the difference.

Well, the difference between polytheist and monotheist is the relative power of their God. In polytheist religion, Zeus is boss over boss. However, if all the other gods unite against Zeus, he's death. Zeus has supreme political power but comparable muscle power with Poseidon, Hades, etc.

In monotheist, God is the boss and even if everything unite against him, He prevails.

In Judaism, God alone is not only politically powerful, but by himself almighty. That is the claim of most absolute monarchy. That the emperor is chosen by the almighty and need only to answer to him. That emperor will still be emperor no mater how many rebels are fighting him as long as the supreme God still favor him.

Greek before democracy are not as absolute monarchy as China. Seed of "equality of men" are in greek long through western europe, etc. Even Spartha is a republic and their king got to appease the people.

If I am very powerful, I would claim that my power is absolute. You just have to do what I said or else. So I will produce monotheism. Do what I said or else.

If I am a president, or a leader in republic or democratic countries, I would make a claim that I should be your leader because I am a good king. If I am not a good king you would kick my ass. So I too will produce a religion that reflect that. I would say, Zeus is boss, like I am boss. But well, if he pissed of Hades, Poseidon, or Hera he's screwed. So I am still your leader but I recognized that others have power to disagree.

So if the country is absolute monarchy, then God tend to be monotheistic. If a country is republic or democracy or recognize men capability to topple their king, the religion reflects that and tend to be polytheistic. The supreme god in democracy tend to get toppled a lot unless he get consensus from his followers.

Politic evolves faster than religion. So the link got weaken over time. However, original religions may correlate well with original government form.

In fact libertarian is effectively saying that I am free to do what I please and I do not want to obey you or your god, which I don't believe to exist anyway. So soon, atheism will be common too.

Religion is tale that enforce politics. Absolute monotheist/monotheist means a claim of absolute monarchy. Polytheists means a claim of non absolute monarchy. True monotheists means a claim of absolute monarchy for the whole world. Atheism means a claim for individual freedom.

So which one come first depends on which government system show up first. After a while, the link between form of government and number of God tend to get weaken.

Monarchies like israel tend to be monotheistic/henotheistic (Torah may be written during the monarch era). Republics like greeks tend to be polytheistic.

Ancient jews, persia, chinese are all monotheistic. One God, one King. One king per God.

The bigger the monarchy, the more "almighty" their view of God is.

In fact, true monotheism, where the God is almighty and is the only one out there, probably start of at the start of large absolute monarch empire like Persia, Roman, or Chinese. Before it's either polytheist (in case of republics) or henotheist (for small country like israel).

There is one God. That one God appoint one Emperor. Me. So all of you got to do what I say. That's the message of monotheism.

Imagine if I am an emperor and says, there are many Gods. Zeus better behave lest Hades kicked his ass. Then the people would say, you too should behave o emperor, lest we kicked your ass.

Religion is a way to impose your will against others.

So the nature of god that a person made up tend to correspond to the nature of power that he possess.

If I am just a leader of a small kingdom, it's not toward my best interest to say, my God is almighty all of you have to bow before Him and pay me tribute and give your daughter as my sex slaves. Saying that would provoke a bigger country to just smash me and said, "where's your God?" Happened to jews a lot.

This is why ancient big countries like chinese/persia believe in an almighty single God where smaller country like israel believe in a henotheistic God.

In a sense, ancient jews didn't claim that their God is almighty. Christians claimed that given that Christian is the official religion of the mighty roman empire.

In China, Shang Ti is the God/emperor of all and chinese emperor is emperor of everything under heaven. So all this time, according to my ancestors, all of you are chinese. You just don't know it. It's not until the Qing dinasty that the chinese start seeing that they are just a nation among nation.

There are other gods/spirits. They all work for Shang Ti. He's a boss of boss sort of. Emperor above. God most high. Shang Ti (supposedly) pick only one emperor and that one emperor is emperor of everything under heaven. That's what chinese used to believe. How can chinese believed that? Because chinese emperor said so. How can chinese emperor make that claim? That's because he's an emperor of a very big country.

Persia as a large empire have that same point of view with zoroaster.

Judaism is strange. If you ask a jew, I bet they said that from the beginning they have been worshiping an omnipotent, religious tolerant, democratic God that opposes stoning.

It seems though that many part of jewish's God is borrowed from countries they've been around with.

Original judaism seems to be henotheistic. There shall be no other God before me doesn't mean there is no other gods. It could mean that even when there are other gods you're not supposed to worship that one.

A sample is deuteronomy 32:8. Most ancient scrolls jot that down differently suggesting that many different bible compiler may think that the original is too controversial they ended up changing it.


for example, noted how The Most High, divide (the 70 nations) according to the number of children of God. Ancient Canaanites pantheon also had 70 children. YHWH portion is Israel. So it seems that the original view is that Yahweh is the God of Israel and Israel alone. The other 69 nations have their own God that is comparable to YHWH.

I was surprised when I found that finding part of the tanach that support unambiguous monotheism before babylonian exiles is not easy. Do you know any?

Then jews become foreigners in many places. From Persia they adopt monotheism and religious tolerant. From western europe they adopt democracy and equality. The almighty aspect of God seems to come from Plato, which then become the almighty God that we're familiar with.

Again I may be wrong. I hope there are other historical records that show otherwise. If so, please tell me.

For example, is there any jewish comentary that claim that YHWH is almighty before Plato, for example. That'll be interesting. It seems that the idea that YHWH is almighty comes from Plato rather than from original judaism.

Being able to split seas doesn't mean you're almighty. In fact, we humans can do that easily now.

Curiously, the word "El" in Judaism can be used for gods or powerful being to further add confusion. Curiously too, jewish bible translation like http://www.mechon-mamre.org translate El as God anyway even when modern Judaism claim that it's not God. Such as when Jacob wrestle with El, mechon-mamre would translate Israel as struggle with God and Peniel as face to face with God even though modern judaism believe that Jacob is wrestling with an angel rather than God.

In all cases, judaism believe in many "El"s.

Now what about republic or democracy? Well, the greek is democratic. The Canaanites are republic or federal. So they tend to have multiple gods.

Zeus, Cronos, may just be a model of ancient king that got toppled for being a tyrant. I think that's the true message of polytheism. Leader better behave lest you got toppled.

Note: When I said God here, I mean images of God that people actually believe and worship. How the actual true God behaves is out of my capability to see and I really want to know more. It is possible, as 3 billions (and growing number of) people believe, that YHWH is indeed "The God" equal to (the same guy as) Shang Ti. However, historical evidence seems to show that original jews didn't believe that their God is almighty or the only one around. Mighty, but not almighty.

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Your opinion is easily refuted: Ancient Egypt was a polytheistic monarchy, Roman Empire was a polytheistic monarchy, most states of Ancient Greece were monarchies despite being polytheistic (see Macedon for example). I don't think that there is a real relation between political system and religion except for both monarchy and polytheism being prevalent at that time. Oh, and none of the modern democracies turned polytheistic, no matter how long they've been practicing democracy. –  Wladimir Palant Nov 21 '11 at 11:47
Roman empire used to be a republic. Athen is democratic. Carthage is republic. The sacrifice of sons, according to Matt Ridley, shows up as a way to reduce voting power, and hence appeasing your fellow co rulers. It's like anti polygamy laws in western civilization. It's there to appease fellow voters by not making too many kids. Egypt is interesting. The real power is in the priests. The killing of Egyptians' most royal general is there to weaken the king's power relative to the priests :) –  Jim Thio Nov 21 '11 at 11:56
Yes modern democracies don't turn polytheistic. Religion changes slowly. Politic evolves faster. So the link weaken a lot. If you used to believe that God is one, and then suddenly you change government form, you don't convert to Hinduism right? –  Jim Thio Nov 21 '11 at 11:57
Ok, if you insist on taking Athens as representative for all of Greece (which it wasn't), here a trick question: what religion was practiced in Athens before it became a democracy? –  Wladimir Palant Nov 21 '11 at 12:13
Well, the difference between polytheist and monotheist is the relative power of their God. In polytheist religion, Zeus is boss over boss. However, if all the other gods unite against Zeus, he's death. In monotheist, God is the boss and even if everything unite against him, he prevails. Greek before democracy are not as absolute monarchy as China. Seed of "equality of men" are in greek long through western europe, etc. Even Spartha is a republic and their king got to appease the people. –  Jim Thio Nov 21 '11 at 12:22
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