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Henotheism (Greek εἷς θεός heis theos "one god") is the belief in and worship of a single God while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped. The term was originally coined by Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775–1854) to depict early stages of monotheism. Max Müller (1823–1900), a German philologist and orientalist, brought the term into wider usage. 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.
Definition and terminology
Variations on the term have been "inclusive monotheism" and "monarchical polytheism", designed to describe differing forms of the idea. Related terms are monolatrism and kathenotheism, which are typically understood as subtypes of henotheism. The latter term is an extension of "henotheism", from καθ' ἕνα θεόν (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 or she will usually worship only one throughout their 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 was coined to describe the theology of Rigvedic religion. 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 Müller named 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." Hinduism later developed the concept of Brahman, which implies a transcendent and immanent reality. Different schools of thought interpret Brahman as either personal, impersonal or transpersonal. Ishwar Chandra Sharma describes it as "Absolute Reality, beyond all contradictions of existence and non-existence, light and darkness, and of time. space and cause."
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" and "all divinities were interpreted as aspects, particles or epithets of one supreme God". 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 Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus taught that above the gods of traditional belief was "The One", and polytheist grammarian Maximus of Madauros even stated that only a madman would deny the existence of the supreme God.
Canaanite religion and early Judaism
Rabbinical Judaism as it developed in Late Antiquity is emphatically monotheistic, but its predecessor, the various schools of Hellenistic Judaism and Second Temple Judaism, and especially the cult of Yahwe as it was practiced in ancient Israel and Judah during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, have been described as henotheistic.
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 Asherah 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. Kurt 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.
- Müller, Max. (1878) Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion: As Illustrated by the Religions of India. London:Longmans, Green and Co.
- Online Etymology Dictionary: kathenotheism
- What is Monolatry?
- Sugirtharajah, Sharada, Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective, Routledge, 2004, p.44;
- Ishwar Chandra Sharma, Ethical Philosophies of India, Harper & Row, 1970, p.75.
- Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures C. 360-430, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, p.145; p.160
- Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Maximus Tryius.
- Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures C. 360-430, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, P.70
- K. L. Noll Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction, Continuum, 2002, p.123
- David Bridger, Samuel Wolk et al., The New Jewish Encyclopedia, Behrman House, 1976, pp.326-7
- Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Eerdmans Publishing, 2002, pp.58, 183
- Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict, InterVarsity Press, 1997, p.118