When you get right down to it, where is the line between monotheism and polytheism? At first glance, it might seem like the answer is simple, but it becomes a bit more complex when you take into account how different religions define gods. If you look at the dictionary definition
, it can mean either one supreme being or several beings "presiding over...worldly affairs." When discussing Roman mythology, for instance, we often use the term "gods" to refer to not only the big guys like Jupiter and Neptune, but also the Lares and Penates
. But are these household spirits all that much more powerful than angels in the Judeo-Christian tradition? While early mentions of angels simply make them messengers of God (with the possible exception of the willful Nephilim), the Jews were later influenced by the Persian idea of angels fulfilling various roles. Revelation 14:18 mentions "the angel who has authority over fire" (possibly Uriel, whose name means "fire of God," although it isn't specified). In both Daniel and Revelation, the Archangel Michael is portrayed as God's war leader. In a different religion, could these angels have been considered minor deities? Catholics pray to saints as intercessors between themselves and God. The church's distinction is that the saints are only venerated, not worshipped, but is that particularly relevant outside Catholicism itself? Were all of the gods in the Greek pantheon necessarily worshipped? I'm not sure, for instance, that anyone had Eris as a personal deity until the advent of the parodic Discordianism in the late fifties. She was still a goddess, though, right?
Another complicating factor in numbering gods is that of aspects, where seemingly different individuals are considered to be parts of one deity. In mainstream Christianity, there's the Trinity, making the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all aspects of one supreme being. This presumably means that Jesus saved the world by sacrificing himself to himself, which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Then again, I guess Odin did much the same thing, didn't he? Muslims consider Christians to not be fully monotheistic because of the Trinity, and Allah isn't described as having any alternate personalities. The idea of aspects isn't unique to monotheistic religions, either. Just yesterday, I mentioned how Selene and Hecate, initially goddesses in their own right, eventually came to be seen as aspects of Artemis. Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary founder of occultism, is a cross between the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. Similar gods were frequently combined when cultures made contact with each other. I believe that, when the Greeks conquered Judea, they tended to see Yahweh as an alternate version of Zeus, which understandably pissed off the Jews. Hinduism is big on aspects and avatars of various gods, to the point where it's sometimes considered monotheistic and polytheistic at the same time.
Also perhaps worth mentioning are henotheism and monolatry, which essentially say that there are multiple gods, but you only get one. Monolatry is stricter, in that someone practicing it would acknowledge that there's more than one god, but considers only one worthy of worship. Henotheism is more relativistic, and a henotheist would accept that other deities might be just as good as his or her own. The Bible provides passages that suggest that Judaism, before becoming completely monotheistic, was perhaps in between these two. There are mentions of other gods, but Yahweh is more powerful than any of them, and the Jews aren't permitted to worship them. That said, only Jews were bound by this rule, and they didn't expect other nations to worship Yahweh unless they converted. Christians generally aren't as keen on such systems, although there might still be hints of monolatry among the "God Bless America" crowd, who seem to see the Christian God as a national deity. The old question of how anyone can lose a war when BOTH sides believe God is on their side comes to mind, and I suppose the monolatrous take on this would be, "Well, my god can beat up your god." Hey, I sometimes see people claiming that Muslims worship a different god than Christians, despite the fact that the Quran is clear about them being the same deity.
Perhaps one key difference between pure monotheism and polytheism is that, in the former, God is without doubt the most powerful being in the universe. He might have supernatural helpers, but they're totally subordinate to the Almighty. In polytheism, the gods have their leaders, but they aren't always the most powerful (from what I've read, I get the impression that Zeus and Poseidon were about on par, and Thor has more raw power than Odin), and even if they were they couldn't govern the universe alone. Zeus and Odin had their own functions, but controlling the world was a team effort, and you don't so much get the idea that these rulers could do it alone. Now, in later Greek philosophy, it was sometimes proposed that Zeus really WAS all-powerful, or that there was one supreme being who outranked the rather petty Olympians. For some reason, the general trend was for polytheism to eventually develop into monotheism, or at least a system where one god was far superior to the others. Perhaps it was just more convenient that way. Or maybe it's just a temporary thing in the history of human belief, and polytheism will come back into fashion someday. Who knows? While I don't believe in Zeus or Odin any more than I do in Yahweh or Allah, I do think the old systems of squabbling gods often did a better job at explaining the chaotic nature of the world. You'd think a truly all-powerful being wouldn't have made such a mess of things.