AskDefine | Define henotheistic

Extensive Definition

Henotheism (Greek heis theos "one god") is a term coined by Max Müller, to mean devotion to a single primary god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities. Müller stated that henotheism means "monotheism in principle and polytheism in fact". He made the term a center of 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.
Variations on the term have been inclusive monotheism and monarchical polytheism, designed to differentiate differing forms of the phenomenon. Related terms are monolatrism and kathenotheism, which are typically understood as sub-types of henotheism. The latter term is an extension of "henotheism", from (kath' hena theon) —"one god at a time". Henotheism is similar but less exclusive than monolatry because a monolator worships only one god, while the henotheist may worship any within the pantheon, depending on circumstances. 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 in various religions

Classical Greco-Roman

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. To illustrate, 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 Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus taught that above the gods of traditional belief was "The One".


It is difficult to clearly characterise Hinduism, which can take the form of polytheism, as in some of the Vedas, or monotheism, as in Smarta Hinduism. In popular form it appears sometimes as polytheism, or as inclusive monotheism admitting multiple deities as manifestations of a single being. However, the Rig Veda (undeveloped early Hinduism), was the basis for Max Müller's beliefs about henotheism. In the four Vedas, Müller saw a striving towards One being aimed at by the worship of different cosmic principles, such as Agni (fire), Vayu (wind), Indra (rain, thunder, the sky), etc. each of which was variously, by clearly different writers, hailed as supreme in different sections of the books. Indeed, however, what was confusing was an early idea of Rita, or supreme order, that bound all the gods. Other phrases such as Ekam Sat, Vipraha Bahudha Vadanti (Truth is One, though the sages know it as many) led to understandings that the Vedic people admitted to fundamental oneness. From this mix of monism, monotheism and naturalist polytheism Max Müller decided to name the early Vedic religion henotheistic.
However, unprecedented and hitherto unduplicated ideas of pure monism are to be found even in the early Rig Veda Samhita, notwithstanding clearly monist and monotheist movements of Hinduism that developed with the advent of the Upanishads. One such example of early Vedic monism is the Nasadiya hymn of the Rig Veda: "That One breathed by itself without breath, other than it there has been nothing." To collectively term the Vedas henotheistic, and thus further leaning towards polytheism, rather than monotheism, may play down the clearly monist bent of the Vedas that were thoroughly developed as early as 1000 BC in the first Aranyakas and Upanishads. However, to deny that a form of polytheism is also present may equally be to ignore aspects of the early Vedic texts. Whether the concept of "henotheism" adequately addresses these complexities or simply obscures them is a matter of debate.
As for classical Hinduism, it evolved within the Vedic line but truly came into being with the ascendancy of aspects of God like Shiva and Vishnu in the Puranic and post-Puranic developments. Many sects of monotheistic bhakti (loving devotion) worshippers came into vogue who, while admitting other deities, saw them as clearly emanating from one principal source. Extreme monists within the Advaita Vedanta movement, Yoga philosophy and certain non-dual Tantra schools of Hinduism preclude a broad categorization of Hinduism as henotheistic, what with the conception of Brahman, a formless non-being-being that is posited to be pure consciousness, beyond attributes, the Divine Ground from which all else that is limited and temporal sprang. The fundamental Hindu trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are seen as many as being creation, preservation and destruction subsumed in one cycle of being that is ultimately transcended with the attainment of moksha. Nevertheless, different devotional traditions have disputed the primacy of Shiva over Vishnu and vice versa. Again "henotheism" is a loose term covering complex traditions and disputes. The period of Hinduism that most closely corresponded to henotheism as Müller understood it was the early Vedic period (before 1000 BC within the four preliminary Vedas) and even that is disputed by some scholars, most notably the great Hindu mystic Aurobindo Ghosh.


Many Christians believe in a pantheon of angels, demons, and/or Saints that are inferior to the Trinity. Christians do not label these beings as gods per se, although they are sometimes the object of prayer and some signs of honour. Mainline Christian churches which permit prayer to saints, however, insist that such prayer is only proper when limited to asking for the angel or saint's intercession to God. They are adamant that saints possess no powers of their own, and any miracle able to be attributed to their intercession is the product of the power of God and not any supernatural power of the saint. Were there to be any aspect of worship toward these angelic or saintly figures, then the matter would reflect polytheism, rather than henotheism, monolatry, or monotheism. This stance and use of the acknowledgment of other heavenly beings (Saints, most often) during prayer is primarily practiced in traditional Catholicism, whereas the vast majority of Protestant denominations hold the God being as the only appropriate object of worship.
Such practices could be construed, however, as acts reflecting monolatrism rather than henotheism, and it is thusly important to note that, within a religious belief system, the acknowledgement of angels, saints, or any other spiritual entities does not immediately imply their worship nor their worthiness of receiving worship.
When Christianity was adopted by Greco-Roman pagans or African slaves, the new converts often attributed to these saints features of their previous polytheistic figures. In some cases, these beliefs have developed out of the Catholic Church and form syncretisms like Santeria. These beliefs are somewhat similar to Hinduism which distinguishes between God in the form of Vishnu or Shiva, and devas which are subordinate to God and who supervise forces of nature such as Agni (i.e., fire) or Vayu (i.e., wind).
Some non-trinitarian Christian denominations have also been labeled henotheistic:
  • Gnosticism is generally henotheistic.
  • Although most Mormons adamantly label themselves as monotheists, some lay claim to henotheism. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the LDS Church or Mormon church) considers the members of the Christian Godhead as three distinct beings, where God the Father is supreme, yet all three beings are defined collectively as "God". Though not mentioned in canonical LDS scripture, some Latter Day Saints infer the possible existence of other gods and goddesses. However, they aren't known, acknowledged, and have no relevance to this Earth or humanity.See Godhead (Mormonism). Another supposition not discussed in canonical scripture is the concept of a Heavenly Mother. Mormons worship one god; this belief is most easily described as worshiping God the Father through the conduit of the Son, Jesus Christ. Whereas other Christians speak of "One God in Three Persons", LDS scripture speaks instead of three persons in one god. See the Book of Mormon's ("they are one God"), and LDS interpretation of John 17:11 (Jesus asks the Father in prayer that his disciples "may be one, as we are").
  • Jehovah's Witnesses are viewed as henotheistic, because they worship the god Jehovah, while viewing Jesus, Satan and angels as lesser gods. Satan in particular is referred to as "god of this system of things", that is, the invisible spirit having control over governments and other institutions of the secular and religious world, a position he has held since Adam and Eve's defection in Eden, with its implicit change of allegiance from God (Jehovah) to Satan. Jesus is referenced as sitting at the right hand of God, assisting in all acts of Creation aside from his own, hence his status as "only begotten" (cf. John 1:14, 18). It should be noted that no "god" aside from Jehovah is an appropriate object of worship for Jehovah's Witnesses. Jesus alone is accepted as an intercessor between God and man, but even he is not worshiped as such. Thus, the belief system may more appropriately be described as monolatristic rather than henotheistic, though both appellations would likely be disputed by adherents.

Israelite beliefs and Judaism

It is generally uncontroversial that many of the Iron Age religions found in the land of Israel were henotheistic in practice. 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 Asherat as the chief deities, with 70 sons who were said to rule over each of the nations of the earth. These sons were each worshipped within a specific region.
Several Biblical stories allude to the belief that the Canaanite gods all existed and possessed the most power in the lands that worshipped them or in their sacred objects; their power was real and could be invoked by the people who patronised them. The Israelites may have considered the other gods demonic or evil, but they probably were not fully monotheistic before the Babylonian Captivity. 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. 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. 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. Also, in the Book of Jonah, Jonah attempts to set sail to Tarshish in the belief that Yahweh will not reach him there. Jonah was written long after the Babylonian Exile; hence, its author believes in Yahweh as a universal deity and Jonah is thwarted.
According to the Five Books of Moses, Abraham is revered as the one who overcame the idol worship of his family and surrounding people by recognizing the Hebrew God and establishing a covenant with him and creating the foundation of what has been called by scholars "Ethical Monotheism". The first of the Ten Commandments can be interpreted to forbid the Children of Israel from worshiping any other god but the one true God who had revealed himself at Mount Sinai and given them the Torah, however it can also be read as henotheistic, since it states that they should have "no other gods before me", not that there are no other gods. Nevertheless, as recorded in the Tanakh ("Old Testament" Bible), in defiance of the Torah's teachings, the patron god YHWH was frequently worshipped in conjunction with other gods such as Baal, Asherah, and El. Over time, this tribal god may have assumed all the appellations of the other gods in the eyes of the people. The destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon was considered a divine reprimand and punishment for the mistaken worship of other deities. By the end of the Babylonian captivity of Judah in the Tanakh, Judaism is strictly monotheistic. There are nonetheless seeming elements of "polytheism" in certain biblical books, such as God's reference to himself as "us" in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22, in Daniel's frequent use of the honorific "God of gods" and especially in the Psalms. Jewish scholars were aware of this, and expessed the opinion that although the verse can be understood wrongly, God was not afraid to write it in the Torah. However, the word God in Hebrew (Elohim) is also a plural, meaning "powerful ones" or "rulers". This is true in Hebrew as well as other related Canaanite languages. So "Elohim" could refer to any number of "rulers", such as angels, false gods (as defined by Torah), or even human rulers within Israel, as described in Exodus 21:6; 22:8-8, without violating the parameters of monotheism. Some scholars believe that Exodus 3:13-15 describes the moment when YHWH first tells Moses that he is the same god as El, the supreme being. This could be the recounting, in mythical form, of Israel's conversion to monotheism.

Henotheism and monolatry

Henotheism is closely related to the theistic concept of Monolatry, which is also the worship of one god among many. The primary difference between the two is that Henotheism is the worship of one god, not precluding the existence of others who may also be worthy of praise, while Monolatry is the worship of one god who alone is worthy of worship, though other gods are known to exist. Henotheism thus supposes to know less about divine matters, and Monolatry more.
henotheistic in Bulgarian: Примотеизъм
henotheistic in Czech: Henoteismus
henotheistic in Danish: Henoteisme
henotheistic in German: Henotheismus
henotheistic in Spanish: Henoteísmo
henotheistic in French: Hénothéisme
henotheistic in Galician: Henoteísmo
henotheistic in Italian: Enoteismo
henotheistic in Hungarian: Henoteizmus
henotheistic in Dutch: Henotheïsme
henotheistic in Japanese: 単一神教
henotheistic in Norwegian: Henoteisme
henotheistic in Polish: Henoteizm
henotheistic in Portuguese: Henoteísmo
henotheistic in Romanian: Henoteism
henotheistic in Russian: Генотеизм
henotheistic in Slovak: Henoteizmus
henotheistic in Finnish: Henoteismi
henotheistic in Swedish: Henoteism
henotheistic in Turkish: Henoteizm
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