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Monotheism is the belief there is one god, god meaning the creator of this world, and omnipotent over it. It is contrasted, usually unfavourably, with polytheism, belief in many gods, each with control over one function of this life. The comparative value attached to this contrast has always seemed rather silly to me. It is not as clear cut a distinction as it seems at first.
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all claiming a kind of superiority because of this ‘monotheism’, there is only one god (though three different ones, Yahweh, Jesus and Allah), but a multitude of other spiritual beings as well, all of them subject to the power of god, but many of them having control over one aspect of the creation. They are god’s intermediaries, in some cases indistinguishable from god. A visitor from another faith would find it hard to understand the claim of monotheism (“these are like god, they have power over human affairs as god does – but they are not god”).
In the many state cults and mystery religions of the Graeco-Roman world, on the other hand, lumped together disparagingly as ‘paganism’, there are many gods, each with their specific rites of worship. In the background of this pantheon, as in many other religious systems, there is a creator god, one who seems to have receded into the background of worshippers’ consciousness. Many religious ‘pagans’ however are recorded as believing that behind the many gods there is one god, that the gods are but manifestations of an unknowable divinity. This reached a truly monotheistic form with the concept of the One, the ultimate reality of the second century AD philosopher Plotinus, probably an Egyptian. Polytheism seems not always incompatible with monotheism.
In polytheism can be found monotheism, in monotheism can be found polytheism.
In Hinduism god is believed to exist throughout the creation, and far beyond it. It is no surprise then, if by austerity and meditation, a holy man should see god. Many of the visions are not compatible with one another, nor are the myths, which have arisen from a conflation of many cultures. The Hindu’s reaction is, “who can contain god?”. Gods have a bewilderingly large number of aspects, as what appear to be two distinct gods come together at some places as two faces of the same god, and elsewhere turn out to be not one, two or three gods but a myriad. Holy men become gods, gods are manifestations of one another, the same god is known under different names. Is this polytheism or monotheism?
I had imagined that monotheism implied the existence of one spiritual being, god, who created, contained and was the whole creation, and that to be aware of this was the practice of religion. But few it seems agree.
The distance between mankind and god, or the gods, is immense. Man cannot know anything about god, who is by definition unknowable. One of the things unknowable, I would have thought, was if there were many or one gods. As god is thought to have power over human affairs, and is prayed to as an intercessor in times of trouble, it should make little difference to worshippers if there were one or many gods. So why this insistence on the importance of monotheism? It’s conceptually tidier to have one god, and logically necessary if one allows Aristotle’s deduction of the Prime Mover. But is it religiously necessary?
One of the features of monotheistic faiths is revelation. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all know of revelations which have revealed to mankind the fact there is one god. These three religions have sought to distinguish themselves, when minority faiths, from the polytheistic faiths around them. One way was to assert, not just their difference, but their superiority, and revelation gave them the authority to do so. Under the banner of revelation, these three religions spread. The Hebrews conquered Canaan and massacred the followers of Baal; the Christians spread throughout Europe and suppressed ‘paganism’, Judaism and the old Germanic religion of Thor; Islam spread around the Mediterranean and destroyed the gods of the Persians, Babylonians, Byzantines and Jews. These three religions, once minority faiths in danger of being swamped by a proliferation of many much more popular ones, reacted by becoming fiercely proselytic, and justified this by recourse to revelation through a book of scriptures.
The distinction is again not a clear cut one. Many polytheistic religions had revelation, holy men who spoke to god and learned his will. Most polytheistic religions though are tolerant of other faiths. The famous persecutions of Christians under the Roman Empire turn out to be, not only less extensive than is thought, but carried out as a political measure against traitors, not as a means of ensuring religious conformity. Look a little closer and you can see that the intolerance of monotheists is not based on revelation after all, but associated with the acquisition of political power. Submission to a faith allied with suppression of divergent faiths is a function of the growth of kingdoms. Conversion even today is part of colonialism.
I would have thought the important part of a faith is how it affects the behaviour of the believer. If it enables one to lead a better life, isn’t that ‘religious’? So calls to monotheism as being a ‘higher’ form of religion are suspect, a little like referring to certain races as being higher or more evolved than others. Perhaps assertive monotheists are merely racists? Destroying another race’s cultural values because you find them distasteful surely isn’t religious?
Other belief systems are not so insistent. Henotheists (they don’t usually call themselves that, and no, nothing to do with the belief that god is a hen) believe in one god while allowing others to worship other gods, as the early Hebrews did; so-called panentheists believe that god is all, containing and extending beyond the universe, and so containing all worlds, all gods and all faiths. In fact all the faiths we know of fluctuate between many of these various concepts at various times in their history. It is impossible to call any faith monotheistic or not without referring to a particular period of time or a unique individual.
In my opinion the nature of god, including its number, is an impossible speculation, and the idea of nations and faiths disputing which concept is correct is one of the more ridiculous contentions in the history of mankind. It reminds me of the war in Gulliver’s Travels which arose through a dispute about which end to cut to eat a boiled egg.
The first known example of monotheism was the religion created by the Pharaoh Akhn-aton from about 1370 BC. This may have begun as a political move, an attempt to free the Pharaoh from political restrictions imposed by the dominant priesthood of Amon at Thebes, which may have gained a virtual hegemony over all the cities of Egypt. It may be relevant that Akhn-aton ascended the throne at age 13, and appears to have co-ruled with his mother Tiy for the first four or five years, 1375 BC to 1370 BC, under her guidance and that of the Amon priests. Surviving inscriptions indicate the cult of the Aton was, or became, a sincere conviction on Akhn-aton’s part. It is no exaggeration to say that he founded a new religion in Egypt, though at first it was related to that of the earlier supreme god Ra. The religion was originally polytheism, a new state cult of the Aton alongside other cults, then henotheistic, that is, admitting the existence and worship of the traditional gods of Egypt but claiming the Aton was unique, the sole god. The claim that there was no god but the Aton (and that Akhn-aton was his son) comes only from the last two years of the reign. Akhn-aton, who died aged only 30, in 1358 BC, may have been very ill at this stage. There is some speculation by Egyptologists that Aton may have been a god of the Mitanni and could have been bought to Egypt by the wife of Thut-mosis IV, Gilu-Hepa (Akhn-aton’s grandmother), who came from that region. The Mitanni were an ancient people of northern Syria who at first contained the emerging Hittite power and were an ally of Egypt.
Akhn-aton’s growing commitment can be seen, firstly, in the change of his birth name Amon-hotep (peace of Amon) to Akhn-aton (Aton is satisfied). Then came the extraordinary remove of the Pharaoh and his court from Thebes to a new city, built specifically to worship the Aton, in about 1368 BC. This holy city, built at an expense that only the treasury of Egypt, the centre of a stable, tribute-yielding empire for many centuries, could afford, was at the region of Amarna and was called the City of the Horizon of the Aton. It was abandoned and demolished less than 10 years later, after the Pharaoh’s death. Statements made about the Aton at this time and onwards include: Aton is the only god; Aton is the god of all nations; the Aton is the fire of the sun; no image can be made of the Aton; the Aton is the father in heaven; the Aton rules through love; the Aton is a god of peace.
In the last year of his reign Akhn-aton introduced a proscription of all other state cults of the gods, and ordered that his subjects adore only the Aton, and himself, the son of the Aton. This measure was extremely unpopular (as unpopular as a later religious figure’s recommendation to “love your enemies”). There is some evidence that the efficient administrative system of centuries may have broken down at this stage, that the treasury may have approached bankruptcy, that parts of the empire in Syria may have broken away from Egyptian control. There was a disputed succession, and only in 1333 BC did Tut-ankh-amon (originally called Tut-ankh-aton), Akhn-aton’s son, become Pharaoh. The episode of Akhn-aton’s reign is similar in some respects to the puritan rule of the Commonwealth of Saints of Oliver Cromwell in England in the 1650s. Both Pharaoh and Protector attempted to legislate for holiness, and both were subsequently set aside.
Akhn-aton is sometimes seen as a precursor to Moses and Jesus, but we don’t know enough about the three men to really make any but the most presumptuous comparisons. Events in Egypt seem to indicate that Akhn-aton moved from polytheism to monotheism, but may have ended by using that doctrine merely to bolster his own increasingly insecure rule. The evidence is extremely ambiguous. What is not ambiguous is the fervor and power of his personal beliefs. His existing “Hymn”, fragmentary as it is (and even if composed for him by a scribe) contains feelings that people of most faiths today could empathise with. Although readily available, here it is in Arthur Weigall’s translation, only slightly adapted by me. (Still a very good account of Akhn-aton’s times is The Life and Times of Akhnaton Pharaoh of Egypt by Arthur Weigall, first published in 1910. Weigall was Inspector General of Antiquities for the Egyptian government, following Howard Carter’s tenure in this position, worked for the Cairo Museum, and was author of many books on ancient Egypt. Copies of his book on Akhnaton are available from the Internet Archive).
I [The life giving power of Aton bestowed through the sun]
“Your dawning is beautiful in the horizon of heaven,
O living Aton, beginning of life!
When You rise in the eastern horizon of heaven,
You fill every land with Your beauty;
For You are beautiful, great, glittering, high over the earth;
Your rays encompass the lands, and all You have made.
You are Ra, and You have carried them all away, captive;
You bind them by Your love.
Though You are afar, Your rays are on earth;
Though You are on high, Your footprints are the day.
When You set in the western horizon of heaven,
The world is in darkness like the dead.
Men sleep in their chambers, their heads wrapped up,
Their nostrils stopped, and none see the other.
Stolen are all their things that are under their heads,
While they know it not.
The lion comes forth from his den, and serpents sting.
Darkness reigns, the world is in silence:
He that made them has gone to rest in His horizon.
Bright is the earth, when You rise in the horizon,
When You shine as Aton by day.
The darkness is banished
When You send forth Your rays;
The two lands [of Egypt] are in daily festivity,
Awake and standing upon their feet,
For You have raised them up.
Their limbs bathed, they take their clothing,
Their arms uplifted in adoration to Your dawning.
Then in all the world they do their work.
All cattle rest upon the herbage,
All trees and plants flourish;
The birds flutter in their marshes,
Their wings uplifted in adoration to You.
All the sheep dance upon their feet, all winged things fly,
They live when You have shone upon them.
The barques sail up-stream and down-stream alike.
Every highway is open because You have dawned.
The fish in the river leap up before You,
And Your rays are in the midst of the great sea.
You are He who creates the man-child in woman,
Who makes seed in man,
Who gives life to the son in the body of his mother,
Who soothest him that he may not weep, even in the womb.
Who gives breath to animate every one that He makes.
When he comes forth from the body . . .
On the day of his birth, You open his mouth in speech,
You supply his necessities.
When the chicken cries in the egg-shell,
You give him breath therein, to preserve him alive;
When You have perfected him that he may pierce the egg,
He comes forth from the egg to chirp with all his might;
He runs about upon his two feet when he has come forth.
II [Aton the only god, creator of the world]
“How manifold are all Your works! They are hidden from us,
O You sole God, whose powers no other possesses.
You created the earth according to Your desire.
While You were alone:
Men, all cattle large and small,
All that are upon the earth, that go about upon their feet;
All that are on high, that fly with their wings.
The countries of Syria and Nubia and the land of Egypt;
You set every man in his place, You supply their necessities.
Every one has his possessions, and his days are reckoned.
Their tongues are divers in speech,
Their forms likewise and their skins,
For You, divider, have divided the peoples.
You make the Nile in the nether world,
You bring it at Your desire, to preserve the people alive.
O Lord of them all, when feebleness is in them,
O Lord of every house, who rise for them,
O sun of day, the fear of every distant land,
You make [also] their life.
You have set a Nile in heaven,
That it may fall for them,
Making floods upon the mountains, like the great sea,
And watering their fields among their towns.
How excellent are Your designs, O Lord of eternity!
The Nile in heaven is for the strangers,
And for the cattle of every land that go upon their feet;
But the Nile, it comes from the nether world for Egypt.
Thus Your rays nourish every garden;
When You rise they live, and grow by You.
You make the seasons, in order to create all Your works;
Winter brings them coolness, and the heat [the summer brings].
You have made the distant heaven in order to rise therein,
In order to behold all that You made, while You were alone,
Rising in Your form as Living Aton,
Dawning, shining afar off, and returning.
You make the beauty of form through Yourself alone,
Cities, towns, and settlements, on highway or on river,
All eyes see You before them,
For You are Aton [or Lord] of the day over the earth.
III [Akhn-aton’s prayer]
“You O Aton are in my heart;
There is no other that knows You, save Your son Akhnaton.
You have made him wise in Your designs and in Your might.
The world is in Your hand, even as You have made men.
When You have risen they live; when You set they die.
For You are duration, beyond mere limbs;
By You man lives, his eyes look upon Your beauty until You set.
All labour is laid aside when You set in the west.
When You rise men are made to grow. . . .
Since You established the earth.
You have raised them up for Your son,
Who came forth from Your limbs,
The King, living in truth, . . . Akhnaton, whose life is long;
[And for] the Great Royal Wife, his beloved,
Mistress of the Two Lands, . . . Nefertiti,
Living and flourishing for ever and ever.”
This may have been translated into Hebrew, becoming psalm 104. Parts of it reminds me of Sydney Carter’s Lord of the Dance (not to mention Shiva).
Another early monotheistic faith is that of Zarathushtra, who lived in the mythic past thousands of years ago according to some, while others believe he lived about 600 BC. The beliefs of Zarathushtra cannot be separated from that of his religion, which, at first persecuted, became the state religion of Persia and included input from many hands. Zarathushtra’s religion is considered to have been one of the most influential religions ever created (or revealed). It seems to have risen as a corrective to superstitious polytheism. Ahura Mazda was the Lord of Light, and from this Lord emerged two lesser gods who battled for the creation, Ormuzd the creator himself, and Ahriman, lord of darkness. In later times the gods of the early polytheistic beliefs resurfaced in this religion. There was a battle between monotheism and polytheism the equal of the battle between darkness and light. Again and again in the hymns written by Zarathushtra, called the Gathas, he calls upon Ahura to show him the truth. Truth has remained one of the prime values in Persian culture. Unlike Akhn-aton, who sees the creation exulting in the love of the Aton which has created it, a kind of mysticism familiar from the example of St Francis of Assisi, Zarathushtra sees the need for truth, the need to separate the right way of life from that created by the lord of illusion. There is love here, but also deceit, and only vigilance will ensure right conduct. In other words, Zarathushtra sees the one god, but also the possibility of being misled. He has seen Ahriman as well as Ahura, not a devil as in Christianity, but a snare, a delusion, a form of entropy.
In the beginning there were two primal spirits,
Twins spontaneously active,
These are the Good and the Evil, in thought,
and in word, and in deed.
Between these two, let the wise choose aright.
Be good, not base!
And when these Twin Spirits came together at first,
They established Life and the Denial of Life;
And so shall it be till the world will last.
The worst existence shall be the lot of the followers of evil,
And the state of Best-Consciousness be the reward of the righteous.
(Ahunuvaiti Gatha, Yasna 30: 3, 4, trans. D J Irani)
This I ask Thee, tell me truly O Ahura;
In the beginning, who was the father and creator of
Asha, the Truth?
Who determined the paths of the sun and the stars?
Who, but Thee, so arranged the moon to wax and wane?
This, O Mazda, and much more, I fain would know.
This I ask Thee, tell me truly, O Ahura;
Who so balanced the earth and heavens to keep them apart?
Who created the waters and the plants?
Who yoked swiftness to the winds and motion to the clouds?
Who is the Creator of the Good-Mind, O Mazda?
This I ask Thee, tell me truly, O Ahura;
What great artificer created light and darkness?
What artificer produced the phenomena of sleep and
Who made the dawn, noon, and night
Which call the enlightened to their duties?
This I ask Thee, tell me truly, O Ahura;
Whether what I now announce is verily the truth,
Doth Armaity, through the benevolence of our
actions, further the cause of Truth?
Doth the Kingdom of Heaven rest on the foundation
of the Good Mind?
For whom hast Thou created this richly endowed world?
(Ushtavaiti Gatha, Yasna 44: 3, 4, 5, 6)
With my songs of praise and veneration
I seek the acceptance of my Lord!
For now indeed I see Him in my eyes, as the Lord
of the Good Spirit, the Lord of Good Word
I have realized Him through Truth, He who is
Verity I shall render Him homage in the House of Songs.
(Ushtavaiti Gatha, Yasna 45: 9)
The tide of empire was to see Egypt supreme at first in ancient Syria, then see Persian rule extend over Syria and to the conquest of Egypt itself. Between the two empires lived a people called the Hebrews.
Moses, possibly an Egyptian priest, was said to have led a group of followers out of Egypt into Judah, about the time Akhn-aton’s religion was being dismantled and his name vilified by his successors at Thebes. Moses may have been influenced by the worship of the Aton, though the connection is surely not as direct and simple as Freud believed (in his book Moses and Monotheism). Judaism is not similar to the religion of the Aton (though it might have begun so). Perhaps Zarathushtra’s religion may have been another influence on the development of Judaism? It is worth bearing in mind that although Akhn-aton existed, and we have his portrait, and his mummy, we have no evidence for the existence of Zarathushtra or Moses, who may have been composite figures, the nominal author of doctrines later ascribed to them (as might Gautama and Lao Tse). The religion of Moses was based on the Law, the Covenant and Righteousness, elements existent in the religions of Baal, the Aten and Mahura, and the Hebrews might have been as familiar with the creeds of Zarathushtra and Akhn-aton as they were with the rites of Baal.
The history of religions is full of those who have seen the light, know the truth, and are filled with the lord. Faith has a purpose, that of protecting us from the fear that we humans have no meaning or purpose. Protecting us from the terrifying thought we may be here today and gone tomorrow, vanished and forgotten forever. Faith when it comes brings certainty, loss of doubt. The emotion we feel then is exaltation. But that exaltation needs to be tempered. If the experience of revelation makes you intolerant, complacent, results in violence, the sense that normal restrictions of behaviour don’t apply, then what good is it? Likewise the feeling you know the unknowable, can pronounce on the nature and qualities of god, or that some prophet can, is more likely the result of illusion. Faith is a precarious balance with which to navigate the void: on one side lies atheism, on the other superstition. Monotheism is not a reliable guide in this matter.
Among the sayings of god, some are attributed to men (“know yourself”, “nothing to excess”, said by Solon and inscribed on the oracle at Delphi); some are attributed to wise men like Gautama, who stressed the development of the emotion of compassion for human beings (including oneself). Others are revealed by a god: “the kingdom of god is within you”. In searching for wisdom, look wide.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.