Henotheism is the worship of a single, supreme god that does not deny the existence or possible existence of other deities that may be worshipped.[1][2][3] Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854) coined the word, and Friedrich Welcker (1784–1868) used it to depict primitive monotheism among ancient Greeks.[4]

Max Müller (1823–1900), a German philologist and orientalist, brought the term into wider usage in his scholarship on the Indian religions,[5][6] particularly Hinduism whose scriptures mention and praise numerous deities as if they are one ultimate unitary divine essence.[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 concepts of God.[7]

Definition and terminology

Friedrich Schelling coined the German term Henotheismus from Greek ἕν (hén) 'one' and German Theismus 'theism' (which comes from Greek θεός (theós) 'god').[2][8][9] The term refers to a form of theism focused on a single god. Related terms are monolatry and kathenotheism.[3] The latter term is an extension of "henotheism", from καθ' ἕνα θεόν (kath' hena theon) '"one god at a time"'.[10] 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.[11] Furthermore, the term henotheism does not exclude monism, nondualism, or dualism.[6]

Various scholars prefer the term monolatry to henotheism, to discuss religions where a single god is central, but the existence or the position of other gods is not denied.[3][9] According to Christoph Elsas, henotheism in modern usage connotes a syncretic stage in the development of religions in late antiquity. A henotheist may worship a single god from a pantheon of deities at a given time, depending on his or her choice, while accepting other deities and concepts of god.[2] [6] Henotheism and inclusive monotheism are terms that refer to a middle position between unlimited polytheism and exclusive monotheism.[3]


Further information: Zoroastrianism and Iranian studies

Zoroastrianism is often regarded as one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world. Although Ahura Mazda is the supreme god, Zoroastrianism believes in lesser divinities known as Yazatas.[12] These yazatas ("good agents") include Anahita, Sraosha, Mithra, Rashnu, and Tishtrya. According to some Scholars,there are two issues that have long made it problematic to identify Zoroastrianism as true monotheism: the presence of lesser deities and dualism. But before hastening to conclude that the Amesha Spentas and the other yazatas compromise the purity of monotheism, we should consider that the other historical monotheisms too made room for other figures endowed with supernatural powers to bridge the gulf between the exalted, remote Creator God and the human world: the angels in all of them (whose conception in post-exilic Judaism was apparently developed after the pattern of the Amesha Spentas; Boyce and Grenet, 1991, 404–405), the saints and the Virgin Mary in several Christian churches, and the other persons of the Trinity in all of Christianity. Despite the vast differences with Zoroastrian theology, the common thread is that all these beings are subordinate to the Godhead as helpers or (in the case of the persons of the Trinity) co-equals, hence they do not pursue different interests and are worshiped jointly with the Godhead, not separately; therefore the supplicant's dilemma does not arise.[13] Others such as Richard Foltz has put forth evidence that Iranians of Pre-Islamic era worshipped all these figures, especially Mithra and Anahita.[14]

Prods Oktor Skjærvø states Zoroastrianism is henotheistic, and "a dualistic and polytheistic religion, but with one supreme god, who is the father of the ordered cosmos".[15] Other scholars state that this is unclear, because historic texts present a conflicting picture, ranging from Zoroastrianism's belief in "one god, two gods, or a best god henotheism".[16]


Further information: Hinduism, Hindu views on monotheism, and History of Hinduism

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[17][18]

Henotheism was the term used by scholars such as Max Müller to describe the theology of Vedic religion.[19][2] Müller 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",[20] 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][6][9]

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.[21] The Vedic hymns treat it as "limitless, indescribable, absolute principle", thus the Vedic divine is something of a panentheism rather than simple henotheism.[21] 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.[21][22][23] 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.[24] Hinduism calls the metaphysical absolute concept as Brahman, incorporating within it the transcendent and immanent reality.[25][26][27] 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."[28]

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".[29](pp 145, 160) Maximus Tyrius (2nd century C.E.) 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."[30] The Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus taught that above the gods of traditional belief was "The One".[29](pp 145, 160) Maximus, the polytheist grammarian of Madauros,[29](pp 70) even stated that "only a madman would deny the existence of the supreme God".[29](pp 145, 160)

Canaanite religion and Yahwism

Second Temple Judaism and Rabbinical Judaism are emphatically monotheistic; however, its predecessor—the cult of Yahweh as it was practiced in ancient Israel during the 9th and 8th centuries BCE (Yahwism)—has been described as henotheistic or monolatric. 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.[31]

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.[32] 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 to worship other deities; according to some interpretations of the Bible, they were not fully monotheistic before the Babylonian captivity. The biblical scholar 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]

In Christianity

Paul the Apostle, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, writes that "we know that an idol is nothing" and "that there is none other God but one".[35] He argues in verse 5 that "for though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth", "but to us there is but one God". Some translators of verse 5 put the words "gods" and "lords" in quotes to indicate that they are gods or lords only so-called.[36]

In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul refers to "the god of this world",[37] which the 18th-century theologian John Gill interpreted as a reference to Satan or the material things put before God, such as money, rather than acknowledging any separate deity from God.[38]

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Some scholars have written that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) can be characterized as henotheistic but others have rejected that stance. Eugene England, a professor at Brigham Young University, asserted that LDS Presidents Brigham Young and Joseph Fielding Smith along with the 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".[39] 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."[40]

In their book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, Richard and Joan Ostling, wrote that some Mormons are comfortable describing themselves as henotheists.[41] Kurt Widmer, professor at the University of Lethbridge, described LDS beliefs as a "cosmic henotheism".[42] 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".[43] Van Hale wrote that "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. According to Van Hale, henotheism might appear to be "promising" in describing LDS beliefs but is ultimately not accurate because henotheism was intended to describe the worship of a god that was restricted to a specific geographical area.[44]

See also


  1. ^ Noll, K.L. (2001). Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction. Sheffield Academic Press. p. 249. ISBN 978-1-84127-318-1. From many of the examples provided above, it should be clear that the best preserved example of Iron Age Canaanite henotheism is the anthology we call the Jewish Bible (Christian Old Testament). Although the Bible contains a few late additions designed to transform its religion into monotheism, the overwhelming majority of its texts are henotheistic. To be more precise, the Bible usually expresses monolatry, which is a more extreme form of henotheism. Whereas henotheism believes in many gods, but with one supremely powerful god, monolatry believes in many gods, but with only one god that is worthy of worship. Thus, the monolatrist is a henotheist who acknowledges lesser gods but refuses to worship them.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Charles Taliaferro; Victoria S. Harrison; Stewart Goetz (2012). The Routledge Companion to Theism. Routledge. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-1-136-33823-6. Archived from the original on 2023-01-15. Retrieved 2016-10-15.
  3. ^ a b c d Monotheism Archived 2017-12-29 at the Wayback Machine and Polytheism Archived 2020-11-11 at the Wayback Machine, Encyclopædia Britannica (2014)
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Müller, Max. (1878) Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion: As Illustrated by the Religions of India. London:Longmans, Green and Co.
  6. ^ a b c d Ilai Alon; Ithamar Gruenwald; Itamar Singer (1994). Concepts of the Other in Near Eastern Religions. BRILL Academic. pp. 370–371. ISBN 978-9004102200.
  7. ^ Muller, F. M. (1907). Thoughts on Life and Religion / An Aftermath from the Writings of The Right Honourable Professor Max Müller. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable, Printers to His Majesty.
  8. ^ "Definition of HENOTHEISM". Archived from the original on 2022-10-24. Retrieved 2022-10-24.
  9. ^ a b c Christoph Elsas (1999). Erwin Fahlbusch (ed.). The Encyclopedia of Christianity. Wm. B. Eerdmans. p. 524. ISBN 978-90-04-11695-5.
  10. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary: kathenotheism". Archived from the original on 2009-06-29. Retrieved 2009-06-24.
  11. ^ Carl Olson (2007). The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. Rutgers University Press. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-0-8135-4068-9.
  12. ^ Ferrero, Mario (2021). "From Polytheism to Monotheism: Zoroaster and Some Economic Theory". Homo Oeconomicus. 38 (1–4): 77–108. doi:10.1007/s41412-021-00113-4. Archived from the original on 2023-11-01. Retrieved 2024-03-09.
  13. ^ Ferrero, Mario (2021). "From Polytheism to Monotheism: Zoroaster and Some Economic Theory". Homo Oeconomicus. 38 (1–4): 77–108. doi:10.1007/s41412-021-00113-4. Archived from the original on 2023-11-01. Retrieved 2024-03-09.
  14. ^ Richard Foltz, "Religions of Iran: From Prehistory to the Present", Oneworld Publications, 2013, p. xiv
  15. ^ Prods Oktor Skjærvø (2006), Introduction to Zoroastrianism Archived 2017-07-13 at the Wayback Machine, 2005, Harvard University Archives, p. 15 with footnote 1
  16. ^ Brian Arthur Brown (2016). Four Testaments: Tao Te Ching, Analects, Dhammapada, Bhagavad Gita: Sacred Scriptures of Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 347–349. ISBN 978-1-4422-6578-3.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ See also, Griffith's Rigveda translation: Wikisource Archived 2019-05-06 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Sugirtharajah, Sharada, Imagining Hinduism: A Postcolonial Perspective, Routledge, 2004, p.44;
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ a b c 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.[permanent dead link]
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ PT Raju (2006), Idealistic Thought of India, Routledge, ISBN 978-1406732627, page 426 and Conclusion chapter part XII
  26. ^ Jeffrey Brodd (2003). World Religions: A Voyage of Discovery. Saint Mary's Press. pp. 43–45. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5.
  27. ^ Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 978-8120814684, page 91
  28. ^ Ishwar Chandra Sharma, Ethical Philosophies of India, Harper & Row, 1970, p.75.
  29. ^ a b c d Kahlos, Maijastina (2007). Debate and Dialogue: Christian and pagan cultures c. 360–430. Ashgate Publishing.
  30. ^ Tyrius, Maximus (1804). "Dissertation I. What God is according to Plato". In Taylor, Thomas (ed.). The Dissertations of Maximus Tyrius. p. 5.
  31. ^ K. L. Noll Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction, Continuum, 2002, p.123
  32. ^ David Bridger, Samuel Wolk et al., The New Jewish Encyclopedia, Behrman House, 1976, pp.326-7
  33. ^ a b 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. ^ Bible, 1 Corinthians 8:4–6
  36. ^ "1 Corinthians 8:5b, in the NKJV and several versions". blueletterbible.org. Archived from the original on 27 May 2015. Retrieved 19 March 2013.
  37. ^ 2 Corinthians 4:4
  38. ^ Gill, John. John Gill's Exposition of the Bible. pp. 2 Corinthians 4:4.
  39. ^ Englund, Eugene. "The Weeping God of Mormonism". Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 35(1), Spring 2002, pp. 63–80.
  40. ^ 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, Michigan: Pryor Pettengill, 1986)
  41. ^ Osterling, Richard and Osterline, Joan (2007). Mormon America: the power and the promise. HarperCollins. p. 310
  42. ^ Kurt Widmer. Mormonism and the Nature of God: A Theological Evolution, 1830–1915. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2000, p. 158
  43. ^ Bruening, Ari D. and Paulsen, David L.. "The Development of the Mormon Understanding of God: Early Mormon Modalism and Early Myths". FARMS Review of Books 13/2 (2001), pp. 109–169.
  44. ^ Hale, Van. "Defining the Mormon Doctrine of Deity: What Can Theological Terminology Tell Us About Out Own Beliefs?" Sunstone 10 (January 1985), pp. 23–27.