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Polytheism In Modern Anthropology

In the twentieth century, anthropologists rejected the grand evolutionary schemes of their predecessors and pursued the study of religion through attempts to understand religious beliefs from the perspective of the cultures they studied firsthand. Anthropologists concerned themselves with the internal logic of a culture's beliefs, not with their rationality as compared to those of our own or of other cultures. The very idea of polytheism, to the extent that it amalgamated highly disparate systems of religious belief in different places and times, was largely irrelevant to this enterprise.

One notable exception that indeed proves the rule was E. E. Evans-Pritchard's Nuer Religion (1956). Evans-Pritchard was concerned with reconciling Nuer concepts of kwoth (God or Spirit) with ideas about a variety of different kinds of spirits of the above and below. Spirits of the above included Deng, associated with illness, Buk, his mother, and Col, associated with rain; spirits of the below were mainly totemic spirits associated with different lineages. Evans-Pritchard's solution was to suggest that

Since God is kwoth in the sense of all Spirit and the oneness of Spirit, the other spirits … are all, being also kwoth, thought of as being of the same nature as God. Each of them … is God regarded in a particular way; and it may help us if we think of the particular spirits as figures or representations or refractions of God in relations to particular activities, events, persons, and groups. (p. 107)

In other words, as far as the Nuer were concerned, the distinction between monotheism and polytheism was not one of religious belief but rather a question of emphasis, either on the oneness of Spirit or of the plurality of its manifestations.

More recently, Robin Horton's analysis of conversion to Christianity and Islam in Africa attempted to identify a sociological dimension to polytheism and monotheism. African cosmologies, he argued, included ideas about a high god, a creator, as well as a multiplicity of lesser spirits associated with specific localities or kin groups. These lesser spirits governed local events and social relationships, whereas the creator god transcended specific localities. Small-scale societies whose members were relatively unconcerned by events outside their social microcosm emphasized the importance of local spirits in their religions. As the social horizons of groups and individuals expanded, religious emphasis shifted toward the creator, if not toward monotheism, as beliefs in local spirits were ill equipped to make sense of the social macrocosm. Horton's self-styled intellectualist approach shared with his Enlightenment predecessors an emphasis on religion as a means of understanding and manipulating the world; but rather than rating religions in terms of rationality, he suggested that different kinds of religious beliefs were appropriate for different types of societies.

Most anthropologists found Horton's scheme too general to account for the complex historical interactions that led (or did not lead) to conversion in specific cases, African or other. J. D. Y. Peel, initially a proponent of Horton's approach, wrote one such account of the encounter of the Yoruba people with Christianity. Indeed, rather than studying polytheism as such, anthropologists such as Andrew Apter and J. Lorand Matory wrote rich, historically contextualized ethnographies of the worship of various deities in the Yoruba pantheon, while Sandra Barnes, among others, studied the ways in which these gods made their way into New World religions such as Voudou in Haiti, Candomble in Brazil, and Santeria in Cuba.

See also Animism; Religion.


Apter, Andrew. Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Barnes, Sandra, ed. Africa's Ogun: Old World and New. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.

Freud, Sigmund. Moses and Monotheism. Translated by Katherine Jones. New York: Knopf, 1939.

Horton, Robin. "African Conversion." Africa 41, no. 2 (1971): 85–108.

Hume, David. "The Natural History of Religion." In his Four Dissertations. London: A. Millar, 1757. Repr. as The Natural History of Religion, edited with an introduction By H. E. Root. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1956.

Matory, J. Lorand. Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Peel, J. D. Y. Religious Encounter and the Making of the Yoruba. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Tylor, Sir Edward Burnett. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. London: J. Murray, 1871. Repr. in 2 vols. as The Origins of Culture and Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.

Robert Launay

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Planck mass to PositPolytheism - Polytheism As An Evolutionary Stage, Polytheism In Modern Anthropology, Bibliography