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There are a handful of polytheistic pantheons that we are generally familiar with today, The Greek pantheon, the pre-Christianity Roman pantheon, and the Norse gods; while I see this from a western Christian lens, I also am vaguely aware that Indian religions and at the very least far east religions may be polytheistic.

The major mono-theistic religions I'm familiar with today assert that theirs is the only god which of course excludes the possibility that other cultures could be correct, however in polytheistic religions there is no assertion that there is one god.

In the ancient world there was certainly some trade across long distances where existing cultures would encounter other polytheistic religions (I'm thinking Greek/Roman trade with say Egypt for example which had two different pantheons) -- are there records of how differing pantheons were handled? Were the pantheons largely merged, or alternatively, were there any claims of "No, there are only [defined set of gods], yours is not a god" recorded in history?

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    Please document your preliminary research The examples of the Greeks and Romans ()particularly with respect to the Egyptian pantheon, which was incorporated into the Roman, and the Jewish and Christian religions, which were suppressed) and of the Chinese and Japanese would seem to be particularly instructive.
    – MCW
    May 9 at 15:42
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    The scope of this question should be narrowed. Presently, it's asking about thousands of years of history and countless belief systems. You might find it interesting to look at Greek borrowings from Levantine cultures - perhaps contrasting how certain gods are merged (e.g. Herakles and Melqart) and others are borrowed outright (e.g. Adonis)
    – Juhasz
    May 9 at 16:21
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    Here's an interesting discussion of the complex interactions between Buddhism and Hinduism in Southeast Asia: iseas.edu.sg/images/pdf/nsc_working_paper_series_1.pdf
    – Brian Z
    May 9 at 16:58
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    Few if any ancient religions had a theology or a canon of beliefs, and a religion, while sometimes being similar over a wide region varied a lot in detail from village to village. The Norse religion seems clear enough today, but this is because most of what we know about it comes from a synthesis by a 13th century Icelandic antiquarian. We know that Norse beliefs varied profoundly in both space and time. The Romans didn't care what people believed or even if they believed at all, as long as they carried out the right rituals. I think your question may looking with too modern an eye.
    – Mark Olson
    May 9 at 17:37
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    I highly recommend this series of articles about how polytheism (particularly in the ancient world) worked in practice, which will answer your question and give you a much clearer lens through which to understand such cultures: acoup.blog/2019/10/25/…
    – dbmag9
    May 10 at 9:19

5 Answers 5

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The polytheists did not regard "pantheons" as schematically as we see them in mythology books.

There were some general approaches in polytheist religions when you encountered people with different gods and practices:

  • Ignore it all. You continue to practice the rites of your ancestors, your neighbor continues to practice the rites of his ancestors, all is well.
  • Identify your neighbor's god as one of yours. This happened so thoroughly with the Greeks and Romans that we now regard them as one god with two names, despite discrepancies, but it was more widespread. For instance, Hermes was identified not only with Mercury but with the Egyptian Thoth and the Germanic Woden. Gods in inscriptions often have long lists of names.
  • Adopt the worship of a particular god. Apollo was adopted by the Romans, perhaps because they had no god to identify him with.

It is hard to tell any pattern, particularly with the evidence as sparse as it is.

Paganism in the Roman Empire by Ramsay MacMullen is good on this.

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    the second option also clearly happened within the Greek religion itself. The many local epithets of many gods within Greece are used to describe the god in a huge variety of roles that are sometimes mutually contradictory
    – Tristan
    May 10 at 10:06
  • The Greek and Roman gods are still considered distinct in that the different cultures had different traditions regarding them, even though they both believed they were the same gods. As for modern times, I know that Jeopardy! will consider your response incorrect if you give a Greek god's name when they want a Roman god's name or vice versa (e.g., a statue of Hermes is not considered a statue of Mercury). May 11 at 8:42
  • The Greek pantheon may contain an earlier pantheon which it absorbed (the Titans). Likewise with less evidence, the Norse pantheon (Ice giants?)
    – nigel222
    May 11 at 9:14
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    I don't know much about it, but the Hindu religion is polytheistic, and also a major religion in today's world.
    – nigel222
    May 11 at 9:18
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    @KefSchecter. Yes, there were always discrepancies. Mars was a lot more favorably viewed, and a god of agriculture as well as war
    – Mary
    May 11 at 12:11
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however in polytheistic religions there is no assertion that there is one god.

True. That's one of the major differences between mono- and polytheistic religions.

I live in Thailand. Once I visited Wat Hua Lamphong, close to the (former) railway station. To my surprise, I saw statues of Jesus, Joseph and Mary. The temple also has many statues of Hindu deities as well as statues of kings Rama V and IX. They are treated with exactly the same deference. People pray in front of them, light incense, make donations.

My home is very close to the Erawan shrine. This is a shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma. Not to Buddha, as you might expect, but to a specific Hindu god.

I've been in many smaller local temples, you often see statues of Chinese or Hindu deities. Polytheistic religions have no problems with that. But by default, that is impossible in any monotheistic religion. Even the concept is difficult to comprehend (hence the question).

That is current, today. Not something people did in the past.

I understand - coming from a monotheistic religion - some people find it weird or difficult to understand. In a monotheistic religion, there is only one god. Therefore, all other gods are not real gods.

Polytheistic religions do not have this problem. Any god is a god. They have no problem 'integrating the competition' in a temple. For monotheists, Brahma and Buddha are not real gods. For Hindus and Buddhists, Christian deities are just as much gods as their own deities.

The same applies to the present and to the past.

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    Some evangelicals regard the different names of a single God as different faces of the one, true, God. Other, more fundamentalist believers regard this as false. Notably there is much discussion over YHVH/Allah.
    – Martin
    May 10 at 8:51
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    @TheHonRose Very true, and lets not get started on parton saints :) May 10 at 11:07
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    "parton saints?" While I admire Dolly, she's not even Catholic!! (No offense, i just needed a laugh this morning and thought I'd share. if I had a nickel for every time I've typed the wrong spelling.....)
    – MCW
    May 10 at 11:58
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    Maria+Saints vs just the Trinity: we had a few centuries of killing each other over that argument amongst others in Europe! It even, in part, led to the creation of the United States. Dangerous waters to paddle in.
    – Martin
    May 10 at 13:54
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    @AustinHemmelgarn at guess because ~94% of Thailand's Buddhist, with the remainder almost entirely Muslim or Christian; so the surprising thing would be that it was a Hindu shrine in the first place. May 10 at 21:04
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Polytheistic pantheons do not appear fully formed out of nowhere, like Athena out of Zeus's head.

Every settlement had its own local deity, and neighbors had to trade, so they had to avoid religious strife, so they had to reconcile their local deities. The easiest way to do that is to agree that your god is (say) a brother of mine. And thus a pantheon is built up.

Followers of a polytheistic pantheon would be willing to accommodate another deity into their "godly family" as long as it carries a political/economic benefit (alliance or trade).

However, meeting an alternative pantheon (as opposed to an individual god) would imply meeting a completely different culture (like Greeks vs Persians) and reconciling pantheons could be too much work for no benefit (as alliance is not an option).

OTOH, since the forces being worshipped are universal (fertility, planets, sky, wind, earth &c), "gluing" the pantheons (e.g., "Isis" == "Aphrodite") is usually possible instead.

Cf Did Greeks and Romans tolerate those who only worshipped some of their gods?

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    "Every settlement had its own local deity, and neighbors had to trade, so they had to avoid religious wars, so they had to reconcile their local deities." I don't think this is correct. I've never heard of religious wars or threats of religious wars between polytheistic peoples before the appearance of organized religion as we know it today. The idea of 'religion' is a rather new one. Could you share where you based this statement off of? I'd love to look further into this.
    – Finn
    May 10 at 7:55
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    whilst some elements of some pantheons certainly can be explained as local genii loci, this explanation fails in many cases, as e.g. Egyptian religion had subpantheons (e.g. the ennead and ogdoad) that were still both localised and polytheistic, and many deities are defined largely by their relationships to each other (e.g. Asherah as the wife of El in Ugaritic and Canaanite polytheism)
    – Tristan
    May 10 at 10:04
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Well, in India, this argument is used to show that polytheistic religions are 'better' than 'Abrahamic' religions. It is one of the main right wing planks targeted at my people; so let me present a slightly contrarian view compared to the other answers

Religious iconoclasm was very much a part of pre-Christian cultures eg. Roman destruction of the Jewish Temple, the destruction surrounding the 2nd Punic war etc. At some point, it is not particularly possible to separate religion and secular culture into distinct baskets. Take for example, one of the principal arguments that the Chinese government uses for the takeover/retaking/conquest/occupation of Tibet, that the Dalai Lama was running a theocratic serfdom which had to be ended. The Tibetans may see it as integral to their religious identity, but the Chinese don't see it that way. Do events of that kind get classified under religious iconoclasm or secular political disputes?

In South Asia, Hindu-Buddhist relations are in many respects, as antagonistic as Hindu-Muslim relations, and in fact much more antagonistic than Buddhist-Christian relations. Anyone with a passing understanding of Myanmar and Sri-Lanka can easily see this. In Sri-Lanka, the Sinhalese national narrative is fundamentally built on the historical defense of Buddhist society against Tamil Hindu kings and is replete with tales of destroyed Buddhist temples and the trauma around it. Even in India, there has been genocidal levels of violence between Jains, Buddhists and Hindus.

I would also claim that Christian exclusivism is vastly over-hyped. I would definitely agree that such ideas are more a part of Christianity, than say, Japanese Shinto or Chinese Taoism. But the Christian social and political code is still predominantly Greco-Roman and not Jewish. I mean, why does say Nepal trust the UK more than their co-religionists in India. Are they incapable of realizing that the exclusivism of Christianity would make any nation with a Christian culture fundamentally antagonistic towards pagan societies? Well, it seems that is not their historical experience. In a practical setting, Christian societies don't derive their social behavior from theological ideas of exclusivity.

Even in a theological sense, exclusivity was never a big part of Christian belief system. In a mainline protestant setting, I have never heard a single sermon about one god, or why monotheism is better than polytheism. In fact, the main reason Christ was killed was because he went against the strict exclusivity of the time. Evangelicals generally seem bigger than they are because America has such a global cultural presence, but in terms of numbers, they are not really that many.

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    – Community Bot
    May 10 at 12:37
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    I myself have compared monotheistic and polytheistic views as part of my sermons. E.g. the book of Job only makes sense in a monotheistic setting: there is no dilemma of a just God causing Job to suffer if you can easily ascribe it to another deity. Monotheism is so central to Christianity, God being described in superlatives like all-powerful, all-knowing, etc, - it just makes no sense to assume there might be another god on the same level. ...
    – user24582
    May 10 at 14:36
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    Therefore, monotheism vs. polytheism works in a different way: There is only one almighty God. In comparison, all the other gods are merely statues, made of stone or wood. Because God is almighty, he does not need his followers to fight for him. Instead, he commands them to love the pagans. Then, they themselves might put away their old gods, and follow the one true God.
    – user24582
    May 10 at 14:36
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    "[...] Christ was killed was because he went against the strict exclusivity of the time." No, the Jews had Jesus killed for blasphemy - He claimed that He was the god of the Jews, not some other god. May 10 at 15:34
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    @Spitemaster Distinction without a difference.
    – ever_free
    May 10 at 15:35
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Religions don't believe in anything. It is people that believe or do not.

The adherents of the Greek and Roman pantheons simply acknowledged the other pantheon by looking for correspondances: Jupiter was the Roman interpretation of Zeus whilst Juno, the wife of Jupiter was the Roman interpretation of Hera, the wife of Zeus.

Given these correspondances would have only made the belief of the believers even stronger as another people would seem to believe in the same pantheon.

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