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Basic Information

Polytheism (from the Greek "poly" (many) and "theos" (gods)) is a descriptive term for a religion which acknowledges and worships many gods1. A polytheist may well give at least token worship to any potentially divine entity he encounters - and to some degree it is only the level at which something ceases to be considered divine that divides a polytheist from an animist since it's entirely reasonable to a polytheist to encounter new gods as you move from place to place. Likewise, many polytheists are accepting of apotheosis and will worship various "ascended mortals" - culture heroes since promoted to divinity. That said, the concept of a pantheon is also a significant feature of many historical polytheisms - the worship of a given group of gods, generally said to be related to one another in some way: this creates a distinction between "our gods" and "those foreign gods" … although quite often a foreign god could be discovered to be a different aspect of one of your own pantheon and thus suitable for worship. Speaking of aspects, polytheisms are also particularly susceptible to forming cults - the same god may be worshipped in a completely different way from one city to the next.

A polytheist is also prone to expect less of their deities - to a monotheist, the one and only god needs to be aware and in charge of everything (unless the fact that he's asleep at the wheel, or otherwise fallible is part of your theology), whilst once knowledge and responsibility is chopped up amongst various powers, the final share of divinity might actually be quite small (the "god of things lost in drawers" is unlikely to be an especially major player in any cosmos). Likewise, the polytheist is unlikely to worship all of his gods, all of the time - likely he worships the war god when he has to fight, the god of merchants when he has a business deal in mind and the god of love when he plans to romance someone - regular weekly services are not to be expected.

Since very few people in the RPG business come from polytheistic cultures, polytheism is often misrepresented as tending towards henotheism - there is no absolute reason why a polytheistic culture shouldn't work like that, but no known historical example ever has and fictional examples often have large theological gaps in them based on this misunderstanding.


1. Blog: A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry. A series of articles on Roman polytheism.

Game and Story Use

  • For the majority of players, roleplaying a polytheist in a congruent manner is likely to be a challenge (last we heard, most roleplayers were members - even if not practicing members - of longstanding monotheistic cultures), likewise for GMs creating settings. When visiting ancient Rome, don't go looking for the service times at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
  • That thing about the "god of things lost in drawers" - true but ripe for subversion - the mcguffin could easily disappear into a desk drawer, only to appear in the nick of time, and an old fashioned hard copy archive full of filing cabinets would probably qualify as sacred space to the deity in question. Especially if it is poorly indexed.
    • A light hearted plot might involve cultists of the "GoTLiD" going around destroying archive indices for that very reason. Actually, this could be the cause of all sorts of archive related fun.
  • For added fun, deifying abstract concepts or well-understood processes was known in some pantheons. The typical member of Ancient Rome's urban poor presumably saw no contradiction between being grateful to the Emperor for the grain dole and thanking Annona for her bounty.
  • Another thing to note is that polytheistic religions can very often not be mutually exclusive. A typical Roman would have followed the state religion, but might also have privately (or publicly) worshipped Isis or Mithras, and would have considered Esus and Moloch to be real gods even if they did not deserve worship; so long as two polytheisms have compatible practices2, a character need not choose between them.
    • This can have story potential if the religions in question come into conflict. Does the character choose a side, committing apostacy? Do they try to stay neutral?
      • Followers of a religion popular in an enemy state are particularly likely to be considered a potential fifth column, especially when secular and religious authority are difficult to tell apart.
    • If the gods of multiple religions empirically exist and grant boons, the "ooh shiny" instinct of most players will be to pray to every god they can find, and this sort of thing does have historical precedent. Just remember that said player has also grabbed the various restrictions and obligations that come with those gods…
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