In relation to my recent posts concerning polytheism, monotheism, and the influence of the latter on the former lurking like a black hole around the periphery of contemporary polytheism and Paganism (here and also here), this came up in my reading for a class this evening, and I decided to share.
“It may be stressed that neither the number of deities worshiped, nor the absence or presence of definite (and carefully worded) answers to the eternal and unanswerable questions of man separate decisively a polytheistic from a monotheistic religion. Rather, it seems to be the criterion of a plurality of intellectual and spiritual dimensions that sets off most of the higher polytheistic religions from the narrowness, the one-dimensional pressure of revealed religions. Instead of the symbol of the path and the gate, which may be taken to be the ‘kenning’ of monotheism, a primeval, inevitable, and unchanging design or order (dharma, rta, shimtu) organizes the multifaceted structures of polytheistic religions. They are characterized by the absence of any centrality and by a deep-seated tolerance to shifting stresses, making possible the adaptability that such religions need to achieve their millennial lifespan. It is open to serious doubt whether we will ever be able to cross the gap caused by the difference in ‘dimensions.’ … Western man seems to be both unable and, ultimately, unwilling to understand such religions except from the distorting angle of antiquarian interest and apologetic pretenses. For nearly a century he has tried to fathom these alien dimensions with the yardsticks of animistic theories, nature worship, stellar mythologies, vegetation cycles, pre-logical thought, and kindred panaceas, to conjure them by means of the abracadabra of mana, taboo, and orenda. And the results have been, at best, lifeless and bookish syntheses and smoothly written systematizations decked out in a mass of all-too-ingenious comparisons and parallels obtained by zigzagging all over the globe and through the known history of man.”
From Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, by A. Leo Oppenheim (pages 182-3).