Henotheism (Greek ἑνας θεός henas theos "one god") is the belief in and worship of a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities.[1][2] The term was originally coined by Friedrich Schelling (17751854), and used by Friedrich Welcker to depict primordial monotheism among ancient Greeks.[3]

Max Müller (18231900), a German philologist and orientalist, brought the term into wider usage, in his scholarship on the Indian religions.[4][5][2] 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

Friedrich Schelling coined the term henotheism, from heis which literally means "single, one".[1][2][6] The term refers to a form of theism focused on a single god. Related terms are monolatrism and kathenotheism.[1] The latter term is an extension of "henotheism", from καθ' ἕνα θεόν (kath' hena theon) — "one god at a time".[7] Henotheism refers to a pluralistic theology wherein different deities are viewed to be of a unitary, equivalent divine essence.[2] Another term related to henotheism is "equitheism", referring to the belief that all gods are equal.[8] Further, the term henotheism does not exclude monism, nondualism or dualism.[5]

Henotheism has become a less used term, and was later replaced with monolatry where a single god is central, but the existence or the position of other gods is not denied.[1][6] A henotheist may worship a single god from a pantheon of deities, depending on his or her choice, while accepting other deities and concepts of god.[5][2] Henotheism and inclusive monotheism are terms that refer to a middle position between unlimited polytheism and exclusive monotheism.[1]


Further information: Zoroastrianism and Iranian studies

Prods Oktor Skjærvø has defined Zoroastrianism as henotheistic: "a dualistic and polytheistic religion, but with one supreme god, who is the father of the ordered cosmos".[9] Ahura Mazda, the one supreme god, has the yazatas ("good agents") serve him, some of which include Anahita, Sraosha, Mithra, Rashnu, and Tishtrya. Richard Foltz has put forth evidence that Iranians of Pre-Islamic era worshiped these figures, especially Mithra and Anahita.[10] The primary text of Zoroastrians, called the Avesta, praises numerous yazatas, in particular Anahita in Yasna 65 of the Avesta.[11] The Iranian holiday Mehregan was also posited to have originally been devoted to praising Mithra. Moreover, Amesha Spentas are seven emanating divine beings that support Ahura Mazda, representing virtues, and are also venerated.

Ahriman, the evil spirit, has the daevas serve him, but they were seen as bringing Druj ("falsehood", "deceit") in opposition to the Asha (Truth, "order, justice") of Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrians viewed Ahura Mazda's cosmic order as manifested in light, daytime, virtuous conduct, and certain phenomena and in a dualistic struggle with Ahriman's disorder and lies, which manifested as darkness, nighttime, misdeed, and certain phenomena.[12] For example, frogs and toads were seen as agents of Ahriman[13] whereas cows were considered blessed by Ahura Mazda.

Fires in individual households and eternal flames in fire temples were maintained during the Sassanian Empire, believing it to ward off Ahriman's encroaching darkness.[14] Zoroastrians prayed towards the fires in their temples with the intent to commune with Asha Vahishta, one of the Amesha Spenta who embodied truthfulness and provided a conduit to Ahura Mazda's Order. Contemporary Zoroastrians in Iran and India continue to preserve much of these henotheistic beliefs, worshiping numerous deities while believing in the one supreme god Ahura Mazda. Conversely, an extinct and unorthodox branch of Zoroastrianism called Zurvanism viewed Ahriman and Ahura Mazda as twins subservient to a morally neutral God who embodied Infinite Time, called Zurvan, and may likewise be considered henotheistic.


To what is One

They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni,
and he is heavenly-winged Garutman.
To what is One, sages give many a title.

Rigveda 1.164.46
Transl: Klaus Klostermaier[15][16]

Henotheism was the term used by scholars such as Max Muller to describe the theology of Vedic religion.[17][2] Muller noted that the hymns of the Rigveda, the oldest scripture of Hinduism, mention many deities, but praises them successively as the "one ultimate, supreme God", alternatively as "one supreme Goddess",[18] thereby asserting that the essence of the deities was unitary (ekam), and the deities were nothing but pluralistic manifestations of the same concept of the divine (God).[2][5][6]

The Vedic era conceptualization of the divine or the One, states Jeaneane Fowler, is more abstract than a monotheistic God, it is the Reality behind and of the phenomenal universe.[19] The Vedic hymns treat it as "limitless, indescribable, absolute principle", thus the Vedic divine is something of a panentheism rather than simple henotheism.[19] In late Vedic era, around the start of Upanishadic age (~800 BCE), theosophical speculations emerge that develop concepts which scholars variously call nondualism or monism, as well as forms of non-theism and pantheism.[19][20][21] An example of the questioning of the concept of God, in addition to henotheistic hymns found therein, are in later portions of the Rigveda, such as the Nasadiya Sukta.[22] Hinduism calls the metaphysical absolute concept as Brahman, incorporating within it the transcendent and immanent reality.[23][24][25] Different schools of thought interpret Brahman as either personal, impersonal or transpersonal. Ishwar Chandra Sharma describes it as "Absolute Reality, beyond all dualities of existence and non-existence, light and darkness, and of time, space and cause."[26]

Hellenistic religion

Further information: Hellenistic religion

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".[27] 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."[28]

The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus taught that above the gods of traditional belief was "The One",[27] and polytheist[29] grammarian Maximus of Madauros even stated that only a madman would deny the existence of the supreme God.[27]

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 Yahweh 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.[30]

Several Biblical stories allude to the belief that the Canaanite gods all existed and were thought to possess the most power in the lands by the people who worshiped them and their sacred objects; their power was believed to be real and could be invoked by the people who patronized them. There are numerous accounts of surrounding nations of Israel showing fear or reverence for the Israelite God despite their continued polytheistic practices.[31] 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. The Israelites were forbidden [32]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.[33] 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.[33] 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.[34]

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Some scholars have written that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be characterized as henotheistic, but others have rejected this stance.

Eugene England, a professor at Brigham Young University, asserted that LDS Presidents Brigham Young and Joseph Fielding Smith along with LDS scholar B.H. Roberts used the LDS interpretation of 1 Corinthians 8:5–6 as "a brief explanation of how it is possible to be both a Christian polytheist (technically a henotheist) and a monotheist".[35] BYU Professor Roger R. Keller rejected descriptions of the LDS Church as polytheistic by countering, as summarized by a reviewer, "Mormons are fundamentally monotheistic because they deal with only one god out of the many which exist."[36]

In their book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, Richard and Joan Ostling, wrote that some Mormons are comfortable describing themselves as henotheists.[37]

Kurt Widmer, professor at the University of Lethbridge, described LDS beliefs as a "cosmic henotheism".[38] A review of Widmer's book by Bruening and Paulsen in the FARMS Review of Books countered that Widmer's hypothesis was "strongly disconfirmed in light of the total evidence".[39]

Van Hale has written, "Mormonism teaches the existence of gods who are not the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost" and "the existence of more than one god [is] clearly a Mormon doctrine", but he also said that defining this belief system in theological terms was troublesome. Henotheism might appear to be "promising" in describing LDS beliefs, Hale wrote, but it is ultimately not accurate because henotheism was intended to describe the worship of a god that was restricted to a specific geographical area. [40]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Monotheism, Encyclopedia Britannica (2014)
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Charles Taliaferro; Victoria S. Harrison; Stewart Goetz (2012). The Routledge Companion to Theism. Routledge. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-1-136-33823-6.
  3. Robert Karl Gnuse (1997). No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 132–133 with footnote 6. ISBN 978-1-85075-657-6.
  4. Müller, Max. (1878) Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion: As Illustrated by the Religions of India. London:Longmans, Green and Co.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Ilai Alon; Ithamar Gruenwald; Itamar Singer (1994). Concepts of the Other in Near Eastern Religions. BRILL Academic. pp. 370–371. ISBN 978-9004102200.
  6. 1 2 3 Erwin Fahlbusch (1999). The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans. p. 524. ISBN 978-90-04-11695-5.
  7. Online Etymology Dictionary: kathenotheism
  8. Carl Olson (2007). The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. Rutgers University Press. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-0-8135-4068-9.
  9. Prods Oktor Skjærvø, Introduction to Zoroastrianism, 2005, p.15, http://m.friendfeed-media.com/c4c57f85613fa399c17c0f066f44f71a529eb1c6
  10. Richard Foltz, "Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present", Oneworld Publications, 2013, p. xiv
  11. http://www.avesta.org/yasna/index.html#y65
  12. Prods Oktor Skjærvø, Introduction to Zoroastrianism, 2005, p.14, http://m.friendfeed-media.com/c4c57f85613fa399c17c0f066f44f71a529eb1c6
  13. http://www.zoroastriankids.com/frogs-and-toads.html
  14. Richard Foltz, "Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present", Oneworld Publications, 2013, p. 45
  15. Klaus K. Klostermaier (2010). A Survey of Hinduism: Third Edition. State University of New York Press. pp. 103 with footnote 10 on page 529. ISBN 978-0-7914-8011-3.
  16. See also, Griffith's Rigveda translation: Wikisource
  17. Sugirtharajah, Sharada, Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective, Routledge, 2004, p.44;
  18. William A. Graham (1993). Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion. Cambridge University Press. pp. 70–71. ISBN 978-0-521-44820-8.
  19. 1 2 3 Jeaneane D. Fowler (2002). Perspectives of Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Hinduism. Sussex Academic Press. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-1-898723-93-6.
  20. James L. Ford (2016). The Divine Quest, East and West: A Comparative Study of Ultimate Realities. State University of New York Press. pp. 308–309. ISBN 978-1-4384-6055-0.
  21. Ninian Smart (2013). The Yogi and the Devotee (Routledge Revivals): The Interplay Between the Upanishads and Catholic Theology. Routledge. pp. 46–47, 117. ISBN 978-1-136-62933-4.
  22. Jessica Frazier (2013). Russell Re Manning, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology. Oxford University Press. pp. 172–173. ISBN 978-0-19-161171-1.
  23. PT Raju (2006), Idealistic Thought of India, Routledge, ISBN 978-1406732627, page 426 and Conclusion chapter part XII
  24. Jeffrey Brodd (2003). World Religions: A Voyage of Discovery. Saint Mary's Press. pp. 43–45. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5.
  25. Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, page 91
  26. Ishwar Chandra Sharma, Ethical Philosophies of India, Harper & Row, 1970, p.75.
  27. 1 2 3 Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures C. 360-430, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, p.145; p.160
  28. Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Maximus Tryius.
  29. Maijastina Kahlos, Debate and Dialogue: Christian and Pagan Cultures C. 360-430, Ashgate Publishing, 2007, P.70
  30. K. L. Noll Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction, Continuum, 2002, p.123
  31. David Bridger, Samuel Wolk et al., The New Jewish Encyclopedia, Behrman House, 1976, pp.326-7
  32. Exodus Chapter 20 Verse 3
  33. 1 2 Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Eerdmans Publishing, 2002, pp.58, 183
  34. Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible & Spiritual Conflict, InterVarsity Press, 1997, p.118
  35. Englund, Eugene. "The Weeping God of Mormonism". Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 35(1), Spring 2002, pp. 63–80.
  36. Sillman, H. Jeffrey. "A One-Sided Dialogue", Sunstone, June 1989, pp. 48–49 (review of Roger R. Keller's "Reformed Christians and Mormon Christians: Let's Talk", Ann Arbor, MI: Pryor Pettengill, 1986)
  37. Osterling, Richard and Joan Osterline. Mormon America: the power and the promise, Harper Collins, 2007,HarperCollins, 2007, p 310
  38. Kurt Widmer. Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830–1915. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2000., p. 158
  39. Bruening, Ari D. and David L. Paulsen. "The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Early Myths". FARMS Review of Books 13/2 (2001), pp. 109–69.
  40. Hale, Van. "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity: What Can Theological Terminology Tell Us About Out Own Beliefs?" Sunstone 10 (Jan. 1985), pp. 23–27.
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