The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







In religion and philosophy, henotheism is a term coined by Max Müller, meaning belief in, and possible worship of, multiple gods, one of which is supreme. It is also called inclusive monotheism or monarchial polytheism. According to Müller, it is "monotheism in principle and a polytheism in fact".

Communities which have an exclusive relationship with one deity whilst not denying the existence of other deities are called monolatrous.


Henotheism in various religions

Classical Greco-Roman Paganism

While Greek and Roman religion began as polytheism, during the Classical period the religion was thoroughly henotheistic. Zeus (or Jupiter) was viewed as the supreme, all-powerful and all-knowing, king and father of the Olympian gods. To illustrate, 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."

The Philosophers Plato and Plotinus respectively taught that above the gods of traditional belief was "The One" also called God. The One is the impersonal unifying principle of divinity.


While Hinduism is generally monistic or monotheistic admitting emanating deities, the early Rig Veda (undeveloped early Hinduism) was what Max Muller based his views of henotheism on. In the four Vedas, Muller believed that a striving towards One was 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 Muller decided to name the early Vedic religion henotheistic.

This, however, is clearly a one-man view. Extremely advanced, indeed unprecedented and thitherto unduplicated ideas of pure monism are to be found in the early Vedas, 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, is to ignore the clearly monist bent of the Vedas that were thoroughly developed as early as 1000 BCE in the first Aranyakas and Upanishads.

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 give the lie to 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. Indeed, the only period of Hinduism that ever approached henotheism was in the early Vedic period (before 1000 BCE within the four preliminary Vedas) and even that is disputed by scholars, most notably the great Hindu mystic Aurobindo Ghosh.


Although Christians adamantly label themselves as monotheists, some argue that Christianity is properly a form of henotheism. Most forms of Christianity include the belief in a Christian Godhead consisting of God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, with God the Father being dominant "actor" and "creator". However, Trinitarian Christians strongly reject the view that the three persons of the Godhead are three distinct gods. Rather, they describe the three persons as having a single "substance", thus counting as one god. The Council of Nicea (325 C.E.) affirmed that God was "One Substance (Greek Ousia) and three Persona (Greek Hypostasis)". The Christian Trinity, like the Classical Pagan Hypostasis and Hindu Trimurti, has an impersonal divine substance as its unifying principle.

In addition, most Christians reject the view that God the Father is supreme over Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

In addition, many Christians believe in what some consider to be a "pantheon" of angels, demons, and/or Saints that are inferior to the Trinity. Christians do not label these beings as "gods", although they are attributed with supernatural powers, and are sometimes the object of prayer. When Christianity was adopted by Greco-Roman pagans or African slaves, the new converts 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 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.) In fact, Madwacharya, a follower of Vishnu who espoused Dvaita philosophy said that he was an incarnation of Vayu and told his followers to pray to Vishnu who alone can grant moksha.

Some non-trinitarian denominations of Christianity are more clearly henotheistic. Christian Gnosticism is generally henotheistic. In addition, some sects of Mormonism view the members of the Christian Godhead as three distinct beings, where God the Father is supreme. Some Latter Day Saints also believe in the existence of numerous other gods and goddesses who have no direct interest in this Earth or humanity. See Godhead (Mormonism). Though not explicitly discussed in canonical scripture, some Latter Day Saints also acknowledge a Heavenly Mother in addition to God the Father.


In very early Judaism, 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 Ten commandments clearly forbade 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. Unfortunately, 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 still 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. However, the word God, in Hebrew, "Elohim," is also a general term for "heavenly power." This is true in Hebrew as well as other related Canaanite languages. So this assertion is also very questionable, and "Elohim" can refer to any number of "heavenly powers," such as angels, 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.

See also

Last updated: 05-07-2005 18:00:16
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04