The Full Wiki

Henotheism: Map


Wikipedia article:

Map showing all locations mentioned on Wikipedia article:

Henotheism (Greek heis theos "one god") is a term coined by Max Müller, to mean worshipping a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities. Müller made the term central to his criticism of Western theological and religious exceptionalism (relative to Eastern religions), focusing on a cultural dogma which held "monotheism" to be both fundamentally well-defined and inherently superior to differing conceptions of God.

Variations on the term have been "inclusive monotheism" and "monarchical polytheism", designed to differentiate differing forms of the phenomenon. Related terms are monolatrism and kathenotheism, which are typically understood as sub-types of henotheism. The latter term is an extension of "henotheism", from (kath' hena theon) —"one god at a time". Henotheism is similar but less exclusive than monolatry because a monolator worships only one god (denying that other gods are worthy of worship), while the henotheist may worship any within the pantheon, depending on circumstances, although he usually will worship only one throughout his life (barring some sort of conversion). In some belief systems, the choice of the supreme deity within a henotheistic framework may be determined by cultural, geographical, historical or political reasons.

Henotheism is based on the belief that god may take any form at any time and still have the same essential nature. The central idea is that one name for god may be used in a circumstance where a particular aspect of god is being represented or worshiped while a different name may be given to or used to describe or worship a different aspect of god in a different circumstance. This example does not imply the superiority of one over another, but simply that god can exist in many forms at once and offering worship or praise using different names does not have to imply polytheism. Henotheism is sometimes considered a sophisticated version of monotheism in that it allows the worshiper to believe in essentially one Supreme Being and still appreciate and not limit the names, expressions, or manifestations used to describe it.

Henotheism in various religions

Classical Greco-Roman

While Greek and Roman religion began as polytheism, during the Classical period, under the influence of philosophy, differing conceptions emerged. Often Zeus (or Jupiter) was considered the supreme, all-powerful and all-knowing, king and father of the Olympian gods. According to Maijastina Kahlos "monotheism was pervasive in the educated circles in Late Antiquity" Maximus Tyrius (2nd century A.D.), stated:
"In such a mighty contest, sedition and discord, you will see one according law and assertion in all the earth, that there is one god, the king and father of all things, and many gods, sons of god, ruling together with him."

The Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus taught that above the gods of traditional belief was "The One" and Maximus of Madauros even stated that only a mad person would deny the existence of a single God.


Contemporary Hinduism is mostly monistic, or in some instances monotheistic (see Hindu views on monotheism). The concept of Brahman implies a transcendent and immanent reality, which different schools of thought variously interpret as personal, impersonal or transpersonal. With the rise of Shaivism and Vaishnavism in the early centuries of the Christian era, Hinduism can largely be considered monotheistic, although the monism of Advaita school following Adi Shankara (see Smartism), is generally viewed as 'inclusive' monotheism.

The Devas of the historical Vedic religion are usually confused with demigods or angels, but they are better described as "celestial gods" or deities representing personification of supernatural forces within material nature. The Rigveda was the basis for Max Müller's description of henotheism in the sense of a polytheistic tradition striving towards a formulation of The One (ekam) Divinity aimed at by the worship of different cosmic principles. From this mix of monism, monotheism and naturalist polytheism Max Müller decided to name the early Vedic religion henotheistic. A prime example of the monistic aspects of the late Rigveda is the Nasadiya sukta, a hymn describing creation: "That One breathed by itself without breath, other than it there has been nothing."


Christians believe in angels, demons, and/or saints that are inferior to God. Christians do not consider these beings as gods, though they are sometimes the object of prayer and veneration. However, Christian churches which teach praying to saints insist that such prayer is only proper when limited to asking for the angel or saint's intercession to God. They do not teach that saints possess any powers of their own, and any miracle attributable to their intercession is the product of the power of God and not any supernatural power of the saint. Were there to be any aspect of worship toward these angelic or saintly figures, then the matter would reflect polytheism, rather than henotheism, monolatry, or monotheism. This stance and use of the acknowledgment of other heavenly beings (Saints, most often) during prayer is primarily practiced in traditional Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, whereas the majority of Protestant denominations hold God as being the only appropriate object of prayer.

When Christianity was adopted by Greco-Roman pagans or African slaves, the new converts often attributed to these saints features of their previous polytheistic figures. In some cases, these beliefs have developed out of the Catholic Church and form syncretisms like Santeria. These beliefs are somewhat similar to modern Hinduism which distinguishes between God in the form of Vishnu or Shiva, and deva which are subordinate to God and who supervise forces of nature such as Agni (i.e., fire) or Vayu (i.e., wind).

Some non-trinitarian Christian denominations have also been labeled henotheistic:
  • Gnosticism is generally henotheistic.
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (colloquially known as the LDS Church or Mormon church) considers the members of the Christian Godhead as three distinct beings, where God the Father is supreme, yet all three beings are defined collectively as "God". The Church teaches the worship of one god, which belief is most easily described as worshiping God the Father through the conduit of the Son, Jesus Christ, as led by the Holy Ghost. Whereas other Christians speak of "One God in Three Persons", LDS scripture speaks instead of three persons in one god. See the Book of Mormon's ("they are one God"), and LDS interpretation of John 17:11 (Jesus asks the Father in prayer that his disciples "may be one, as we are").
  • Jehovah's Witnesses are viewed as henotheistic because they worship the god Jehovah while viewing Satan as a lesser god. Satan in particular is referred to as "god of this system of things", that is, the invisible spirit having control over governments and other institutions of the secular and religious world, a position he has held since Adam and Eve's defection in Eden, with its implicit change of allegiance from God (Jehovah) to Satan. Jesus is referenced as sitting at the right hand of God, assisting in all acts of Creation aside from his own, hence his status as "only begotten" (cf. John 1:14, 18). It should be noted that no "god" aside from Jehovah is an appropriate object of worship for Jehovah's Witnesses. Jesus alone is accepted as an intercessor between God and man, but even he is not worshiped as such. Thus, the belief system may more appropriately be described as monolatristic rather than henotheistic, though both appellations would likely be disputed by adherents.


Modern Judaism is unequivocally monotheistic, but there are traces of henotheism in biblical accounts of Israelite culture. It is generally uncontroversial that many of the Iron Age religions found in the land of Israel were henotheistic in practice. For example, the Moabites worshipped the god Chemosh, the Edomites, Qaus, both of whom were part of the greater Canaanite pantheon, headed by the chief god, El. The Canaanite pantheon consisted of El and Asherat as the chief deities, with 70 sons who were said to rule over each of the nations of the earth. These sons were each worshiped within a specific region. K. L. Noll states that "the Bible preserves a tradition that Yahweh used to 'live' in the south, in the land of Edom" and that the original god of Israel was El Shaddai.

Several Biblical stories allude to the belief that the Canaanite gods all existed and possessed the most power in the lands that worshiped them or in their sacred objects; their power was real and could be invoked by the people who patronised them. There are numerous accounts of surrounding nations of Israel showing fear or reverence for the Israelite God despite their continued polytheistic practices. For instance, in 1 Samuel 4, the Philistines fret before the second battle of Aphek when they learn that the Israelites are bearing the Ark of the Covenant, and therefore Yahweh, into battle. In 2 Kings 5, the Aramean general Naaman insists on transporting Israelite soil back with him to Syria in the belief that only then will Yahweh have the power to heal him. The Israelites were forbidden to worship other deities, but according to some interpretations of the Bible, they were not fully monotheistic before the Babylonian Captivity. Mark S. Smith refers to this stage as a form of monolatry. Smith argues that Yahweh underwent a process of merging with El and that acceptance of cults of Asherah was common in the period of the Judges. 2 Kings 3:27 has been interpreted as describing a human sacrifice in Moab that led the invading Israelite army to fear the power of Chemosh.

According to the Five Books of Moses, Abraham is revered as the one who overcame the idol worship of his family and surrounding people by recognizing the Hebrew God and establishing a covenant with him and creating the foundation of what has been called by scholars "Ethical Monotheism". The first of the Ten Commandments can be interpreted to forbid the Children of Israel from worshiping any other god but the one true God who had revealed himself at Mount Sinai and given them the Torah, however it can also be read as henotheistic, since it states that they should have "no other gods before me." The commandment itself does not affirm or deny the existence of other deities per se. Nevertheless, as recorded in the Tanakh ("Old Testament" Bible), in defiance of the Torah's teachings, the patron god YHWH was frequently worshipped in conjunction with other gods such as Baal, Asherah, and El. Over time, this tribal god may have assumed all the appellations of the other gods in the eyes of the people. The destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalemmarker and the exile to Babylon was considered a divine reprimand and punishment for the mistaken worship of other deities. By the end of the Babylonian captivity of Judah in the Tanakh, Judaism is strictly monotheistic. There are nonetheless seeming elements of "polytheism" in certain biblical books, such as in Daniel's frequent use of the honorific "God of gods" and especially in the Psalms. Jewish scholars were aware of this, and expressed the opinion that although the verse can be understood wrongly, God was not afraid to write it in the Torah. However, the word God in Hebrew (Elohim) is also a plural, meaning "powerful ones" or "rulers". This is true in Hebrew as well as other related Canaanite languages. So "Elohim" could refer to any number of "rulers", such as angels, false gods (as defined by Torah), or even human holders of power including rulers or judges within Israel, as described in Exodus 21:6; 22:8-8, without violating the parameters of monotheism. Some scholars believe that Exodus 3:13-15 describes the moment when YHWH first tells Moses that he is the same god as El, the supreme being. This could be the recounting, in myth form, of Israel's conversion to monotheism.


Pre-Islamic Arabs (whose religion Islam rejected and undertook to rectify) were henotheists. The Koranic term for their religious doctrine is shirk (i.e. "sharing"); it describes them as mushrikin (i.e. those who believe in God, but "share" other gods in divinity). Pre-Islamic Arabs believed in a supreme god, and the word they used for him (Allah) is the same one used in Islam. But they did believe in lesser gods too. The unequivocal monotheism of Islam (often described as the foundation of the religion and its most fundamental article of faith) arose as a reaction to this belief system. Of course, shirk is a very pejorative term in Islam, and is considered one of (if not) the gravest of sins. The Koran (Al-Nisa: 48) says that God can forgive anything except shirk.

Egyptian Religions

While the ancient Egyptian beliefs usually recognized many gods, worship was often focused primarily upon a supreme deity, and this focus also changed from time to time. When Amenhotep IV became Pharaoh (circa 1353 BC), the supreme deity was considered to be Amun-Ra (itself the result of an earlier rise to prominence of the cult of Amun, resulting in Amun becoming merged with the sun god Ra). Gradually, the new pharaoh shifted the focus to the god Aten, eventually declaring that Aten was not merely the supreme god, but the only god. He changed his own name to "Akhenaten" and eventually ordered removal from the temples of the name Amun (as well as references to the plural 'gods'). After his death, the prior religious establishment was restored to power, and Amun-Ra once again became supreme, among many lesser deities.

Henotheism and monolatry

Henotheism is closely related to the theistic concept of Monolatry, which is also the worship of one god among many. The primary difference between the two is that Henotheism is the worship of one god, not precluding the existence of others who may also be worthy of praise, while Monolatry is the worship of one god who alone is worthy of worship, though other gods are known to exist. Henotheism thus supposes to know less about divine matters, and Monolatry more.

See also


  1. Müller, Max. (1878) Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion: As Illustrated by the Religions of India. London:Longmans, Green and Co.
  2. Online Etymology Dictionary: kathenotheism
  3. Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures C. 360-430, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, p.145; p.160
  4. Encyclopedia Britannia, 11th edition, Maximus Tryius.
  5. Brahman
  6. Smartas worship 5 deities - Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Surya, Devi, Ganesha.
  7. Smarta Hinduism, a contemporary “soft polytheistic” (technically,“inclusive monotheistic”) religion, recognizes thousands of gods and goddesses, each representing one characteristic of a supreme Absolute called “Brahman. Educational Horizons
  8. The True History and the Religion of India: A Concise Encyclopedia of Authentic Hinduism
  9. Catholic Encyclopedia: Intercession
  10. John 17:11, . .
  11. K. L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction, Continuum, 2002, p.123
  12. David Bridger, Samuel Wolk et al., The New Jewish Encyclopedia, Behrman House, 1976, pp.326-7
  13. Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Eerdmans Publishing, 2002, pp.58, 183
  14. Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict, InterVarsity Press, 1997, p.118
  15. Varieties of Theism: What are Henotheism and Monolatry?

External links

Embed code:

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address