Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Let's say at the outset that the concept of polytheism is ambiguous and a source of deep misunderstandings. A trite observation should already put us on guard: the Greeks didn't define themselves as polytheists; they didn't know this word, they didn't have this concept. The word "polytheism" was coined by monotheists.Rudhardt is of course correct, although it's well known that the word πολύθεος (polytheos) occurs with the meaning "of or belonging to many gods" (Liddell-Scott-Jones) as early as Aeschylus, Suppliant Women 423-425 (tr. Alan H. Sommerstein):
Disons d'emblée que la notion de polythéisme est ambiguë et source de profonds malentendus. Une remarque banale devrait déjà nous mettre en garde: les Grecs ne se sont pas définis eux-mêmes comme des polythéistes; ils ont ignoré ce mot, ils n'ont pas eu ce concept. Le mot «polythéisme» a été inventé par des monothéistes.
And do not look on while I am seized as plunderBy "seats belonging to many gods" (ἑδρᾶν πολυθεῶν) Aeschylus means the altar on stage. Cf. lines 188-190:
from this abode of so many gods,
you who hold all power in this land!
μηδ᾿ ἴδῃς μ᾿ ἐξ ἑδρᾶν πολυθεῶν
πᾶν κράτος ἔχων χθονός.
It is best from every point of view, girls, to sit at this rock sacred to the Assembled Gods; an altar is an unbreakable shield, stronger than a city wall.Some or all of the "many gods" are named in lines 209-221 of the play. They are Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, and Hermes. Cf. also 222-223:
ἄμεινόν ἐστι παντὸς οὕνεκ᾿, ὦ κόραι,
πάγον προσίζειν τόνδ᾿ ἀγωνίων θεῶν·
κρεῖσσον δὲ πύργου βωμός, ἄρρηκτον σάκος.
Now honour this common altar of all the Lords.Statues of the many gods stand near their common altar, and the suppliant women threaten to hang themselves from the statues if their plea for asylum isn't granted (lines 461-465).
πάντων δ᾿ ἀνάκτων τῶνδε κοινοβωμίαν
In Greek tragedy, the altar on stage is usually an altar belonging to only one god or one closely knit group of gods (such as the Eumenides). On the anomaly of an altar to many gods, only loosely connected, in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, see Jon D. Mikalson, Honor Thy Gods: Popular Religion in Greek Tragedy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991), pp. 74-75, with notes on p. 259.
The superlative of the adjective πολύθεος occurs in Lucian, Zeus Rants 14 (tr. A.M. Harmon):
For the meeting is packed with gods, as you see.
πολυθεωτάτη γάρ, ὡς ὁρᾷς, ἡ ἐκκλησία.
The first monotheist to use the word polytheism seems to have been Philo. The following translations all come from F.H. Colson's Loeb Classical Library edition of the works of Philo (passages preserved only in an Armenian version are omitted).
On the Confusion of Tongues 11.42:
Those whose system includes many origins for the family of the soul, who affiliate themselves to that evil thing called polytheism, who take in hand to render homage some to this deity, some to that, are the authors of tumult and strife at home and abroad, and fill the whole of life from birth to death with internecine wars.On Flight and Finding 21.114:
οἱ μὲν γὰρ πολλὰς ἀρχὰς τοῦ κατὰ ψυχὴν γένους συστησάμενοι, τῷ πολυθέῳ λεγομένῳ κακῷ προσνείμαντες ἑαυτούς, ἄλλοι πρὸς ἄλλων τιμὰς τραπόμενοι ταραχὰς καὶ στάσεις ἐμφυλίους τε καὶ ξενικὰς ἐδημιούργησαν1 τὸν ἀπ᾿ ἀρχῆς γενέσεως ἄχρι τελευτῆς βίον πολέμων ἀκηρύκτων καταπλήσαντες.
But the promiscuous, polyandrous cause of polytheism, or rather atheism, the harlot, he deigns not even to look at...On Rewards and Punishments 28.162:
τὸ δὲ πολυμιγὲς καὶ πολύανδρον καὶ πολύθεον, ἄθεον μὲν οὖν κακόν, πόρνην, οὐδὲ προσιδεῖν ἀξιοῖ...
I have now described without any reservation the curses and penalties which they will deservedly suffer who disregard the holy laws of justice and piety, who have been seduced by the polytheistic creeds which finally lead to atheism...On Drunkenness 28.110:
τὰς μὲν οὖν ἀρὰς καὶ τιμωρίας, ἃς ὑπομένειν ἄξιον τοὺς τῶν ἱερῶν νόμων δικαιοσύνης καὶ εὐσεβείας ὑπερορῶντας καὶ ταῖς πολυθέοις δόξαις ὑπαχθέντας, ὧν ἀθεότης τὸ τέλος...
For polytheism creates atheism in the souls of the foolish.On the Account of the World's Creation Given by Moses 61.171:
τὸ γὰρ πολύθεον ἐν ταῖς τῶν ἀφρόνων ψυχαῖς ἀθεότητα <κατασκευάζει>.
Secondly, that God is one. This with a view to the propounders of polytheism, who do not blush to transfer from earth to heaven mob-rule, that worst of evil polities.On the Migration of Abraham 12.69:
δεύτερον δ᾿ ὅτι θεὸς εἷς ἐστι, διὰ τοὺς εἰσηγητὰς τῆς πολυθέου δόξης, οἳ οὐκ ἐρυθριῶσι τὴν φαυλοτάτην τῶν κακοπολιτειῶν ὀχλοκρατίαν ἀπὸ γῆς εἰς οὐρανὸν μετοικίζοντες.
Now just as the creature with many feet and that without feet, opposite species in the genus of creeping things, are proclaimed unclean, so also atheism and polytheism, mutually antagonistic doctrines in the soul, are alike profane.Who is the Heir of Divine Things 35.169:
ὥσπερ δὲ τὸ πολύπουν καὶ ἄπουν, ἐναντία ὄντα ἐν τῷ γένει τῶν ἑρπετῶν, ἀκάθαρτα ἀναγράφεται, οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἄθεος καὶ πολύθεος ἀντίπαλοι ἐν ψυχῇ δόξαι βέβηλοι.
The first commandment among the duties to God, is that which opposes the creed of polytheism, and its lesson is that the world has one sole ruler.On the Virtues 39.214:
τῶν μὲν οὖν πρὸς θεὸν δικαίων πρῶτός ἐστι θεσμὸς ὁ ἐναντιούμενος τῇ πολυθέῳ δόξῃ, διδάσκων ὅτι μοναρχεῖται ὁ κόσμος.
Perception of these truths and divine inspiration induced him to leave his native country, his race and paternal home, knowing that if he stayed the delusions of the polytheistic creed would stay within him...On the Decalogue 14.65:
ὧν ἔννοιαν λαβὼν καὶ ἐπιθειάσας καταλείπει μὲν πατρίδα καὶ γενεὰν καὶ πατρῷον οἶκον, εἰδὼς ὅτι μένοντος μὲν αἱ τῆς πολυθέου δόξης ἐγκαταμενοῦσιν...
Let the idea that gods are many never even reach the ears of the man whose rule of life is to seek for truth in purity and guilelessness.On the Change of Names 37.205:
δόξα δ᾿ ἡ πολύθεος μηδ᾿ ὤτων ψαυέτω καθαρῶς καὶ ἀδόλως ἀνδρὸς εἰωθότος ζητεῖν ἀλήθειαν.
Such as in their pride extol their own mind and senses as the sole causes of all that happens amongst men—these are they who have spiritually lost the organs of generation by crushing or complete mutilation; such again as love the creed which holds that gods are many and pays all honour to that fellowship of deities—these are the children of the harlot who knows not the one husband and father of the virtue-loving soul,—are not all such with good reason expelled and banished? (Deut. xxiii. 1, 2).
τεθλασμένοι γὰρ τὰ γεννητικὰ τῆς διανοίας ἢ καὶ τελείως ἀποκοπέντες οἱ τὸν ἴδιον νοῦν καὶ τὴν αἴσθησιν ἀποσεμνύνοντες ὡς μόνα τῶν κατ᾿ ἀνθρώπους αἴτια πραγμάτων ἢ οἱ πολυθεΐας ἐρασταὶ καὶ τὸν πολύθεον ἐκτετιμηκότες θίασον, οἱ ἐκ πόρνης γεγονότες, τὸν ἕνα ἄνδρα καὶ πατέρα φιλαρέτου ψυχῆς θεὸν οὐκ εἰδότες, ἆρ᾿ οὐκ εἰκότως ἐλαύνονταί τε καὶ φυγαδεύονται;
Patristic examples of πολύθεος and related words can be found in G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 1116, col. 1 (click on image to enlarge):
H.S. Versnel, Coping with the Gods: Wayward Readings in Greek Theology (Leiden: Brill, 2011 = Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, 173), p. 24, n. 3, says that the word polytheism "was rediscovered for European tradition by Jean Bodin in 1580," but see some earlier occurrences in René Hoven, Lexique de la prose latine de la Renaissance, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 2006), p. 418, who cites polytheia from Guillaume Budé, Opera Omnia, 4 vols., (Basel, 1557; rpt. Farnborough, 1966), I, 18, 33; 137, 25; 143, 20; etc. and polytheus from id., I, 18, 53 (non vidi).
Jean Bodin, On the Demon-Mania of Witches, tr. Randy A. Scott, with an introduction by Jonathan L. Pearl (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995), pp. 71-72 (from Book 1, Chapter 5, ellipsis in original, with translator's footnote):
For as Proclus the Academician stated, polytheism is really atheism, and he who establishes more than one or a countless number of gods is trying to remove the true God....117Id., p. 53, n. 52 (translator's footnote):
117 On Proclus, see above, Book 1, note 52.
In his Elements of Theology, the Neoplatonist philosopher Proclus (A.D. 410-85) emphasizes the finiteness of the world as part of the "manifold," and its separation from the unity of the One, the single first cause.The French (and quoted Greek), from Bodin's De la Démonomanie des Sorciers (Paris: Iacques du Puys, 1580), f. 28 v., with marginal note:
Car comme disoit Procle3 Academicien, le Polytheisme est vn droict Atheisme, & qui met nombre pluriel, ou infini de Dieux s'efforce d'oster le vray Dieu, c'est à dire, ἀπειρία τὸν θεὸν ἀναιρεῖ.Image of the passage from Bodin's book:
3. ἀπειρίαν τὸν θεὸν ἀναιρεῖν καὶ πολυθεότητα ἀθεότητα εἶναι.
Using the index of Greek words in E.R. Dodds' edition of Proclus' Elements of Theology (1963; rpt. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), I can't locate the quotation. Dodds doesn't list the words ἀθεότης and πολυθεότης.
Thanks to Jim O'Donnell for some stimulating emails and help with this post.