Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.43

Page duBois, A Million and One Gods: The Persistence of Polytheism.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2014.  Pp. 199.  ISBN 9780674728837.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Anna Collar, Aarhus University (


Page duBois sets out not to defend polytheism, but to recognise the difficulty that modern scholarship has with discussing it in a sensible way, so biased is the field towards monotheism. The book rests on the premise, unstated in much Western scholarship on religion, as well as in monotheist religions and popular culture, that polytheism is somehow a primitive aspect of religious behaviour and belief, and that monotheism represents an ethically and philosophically superior development out of such primitive beginnings. DuBois introduces the book by exploring etymologies of the words used to describe religion – God, religion, deity – and highlights the legacy of monotheism in the English definitions, for example, the idea that worship involves love of the deity; in polytheist worship, reverence of a deity can be as inspired by respect or fear or other emotions, and does not require love. Her concern throughout the book is to bring out the roles that polytheism continues to play in Western life, although at a subaltern level, and to show the reader what can be learned from them.

It is from this starting point that she explores, in chapter 1, the prejudices against polytheism as manifest in modern secular states, popular culture and scholarship – even as complicit with racism in some instances. What follows is a whistle-stop tour through Western philosophical and religious writings from the Enlightenment onwards, demonstrating the ‘threat’ that polytheism has posed to Western cultures, highlighting how the term polytheism has been invented by monotheists, and also the way that polytheist beliefs have been distanced – both in time and space, as with the Greeks and Romans, but also through ‘othering’ – so-called ‘primitive’ peoples have been gendered as effeminate or weak in their beliefs, all of which has enabled the easy justification of colonialism and imperialism. The discussion has a strong continental and post-structuralist approach, and essentially explores different manifestations of the generally held Western notion of a progressive religious trajectory, which equates the monotheism of (Protestant) Christianity with the ultimate goods of the modern world: civilisation and reason; and polytheist religions with inferiority, as well as with the natural world. The chapter is illuminating and forthright, though feels at times a little piecemeal: it is subdivided into 13 sub-sections, one of which features quantities of text repeated verbatim from online forums – part of the ‘soup of popular culture’ (38).

She is naturally on firmer ground in chapter 2, ‘Greeks, Romans and Their Many Gods’, which looks briefly at the polytheism of Sappho, the figure of Dionysos and the polytheism of Rome – all through literary lenses; though true to the form established in chapter 1, she breaks beyond simply considering polytheism in antiquity and also includes discussion of the presence of “Athens” in the twenty-first century – including contemporary pagan polytheism called Hellenismos, novels, video games and so on. Democracy is the most treasured of Western political ideals, a proud connection to the world of ancient Athens, and yet, she argues, Greco-Roman polytheism, with which democracy was tightly bound, is consigned to children’s picture books. DuBois attempts to untidy our often sanitized view of the Greek gods, dispelling ideas of ‘one’ god of war, and emphasizing the way the world was full ‘of divine energies and forces, not coherent, not directed from a center’ (59).

In chapter 3, ‘The Polytheism of Monotheism’, duBois sets out to show how polytheism is, in fact, present in much of monotheist thought and belief, both in the beginnings of monotheist faith, and today. ‘All of the so-called monotheisms, historically and in the present, to some degree or other teem with supernatural beings-not just their one god, but other gods, male and female, angels, saints, jinns, and demons’ (88). Beginning with the religion of ancient Israel, duBois notes that in many narratives, the diversity of religious forms in ancient Israel are excised: here, relying explicitly on the work of scholars of the Hebrew Bible, she translates their scholarship into an accessible account of the palimpsest of different conceptions of deity as seen in the Pentateuch, and how ancient Israel’s gods and goddesses are still present as vestiges, haunting the text of the Bible. Although generally reliant on up to date scholarship, she nevertheless includes, without references, outdated views such as ‘Sigmund Freud believed that the brief period of imposed monotheism of Akhenaten led eventually to the monotheism of ancient Israel, transferred at the time of Israelite enslavement to the Egyptian Pharaoh’ (94). She then moves on to explore the persistence of polytheism in Christianity, through the figure of Satan, demons, the Trinity, the Virgin Mary and the saints. For example, although Satan is dismissed as a ‘demon’, he is nevertheless present as an object of belieffor many, if not worship. The final section of the chapter offers a very brief look at polytheism in Islam, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, all heavily reliant on the work of other scholars. The discussion throughout the chapter is broad ranging in topic and takes in a wealth of different primary sources, and offers a valiant attempt to work through these complicated texts and their various interpretations. However, this wide angle means equally that the discussion is fairly cursory (the section on the Trinity and the various theological debates of late Antiquity is a particular example).

The final chapter of the book, ‘The Politics of Polytheism’, looks at the relationships between polytheism, monotheism, conflict and political systems through the ages. She draws out interesting cross-cultural links between the imposition of absolute monotheism and the consolidation of monarchic power, but the main body of the chapter explores the theme of polytheism as resistance – including that of the survival of indigenous beliefs in Mexican Catholicism, or vestiges of Yoruba religion carried with West African slaves to Haiti, the Caribbean and the Americas, and Hinduism. For this reader, it was these case studies that are the most interesting in the book – partly because they fall outside my field of expertise, but also because they reveal a world of modern religious syncretism and synthesis, of persistence of beliefs, and the true glorious untidiness and complexities of polytheisms.

Where the book deals with the Classical and pre-Classical Mediterranean world, it is firmly rooted in literary analysis and traditions, and perhaps could be improved with more recourse to material sources of evidence, but the main aim of the book is not to discuss the polytheism of Greece and Rome. Far from it: the book spans global space and ranges in chronology from ancient Israel to the modern period. It is relatively short and has its eye on the lay-reader, so discussion is necessarily too brief at times, and it is light on references. However, duBois should be praised for her brave and lively attempt to write about polytheism more broadly, for in doing so, she brings to the fore many elements of scholarship’s underlying biases, as well as those of our contemporary world more generally. And it is a useful book for scholars of the Classical world too, for as she herself admits, ‘the ancient Greeks look different to me now, as does my appreciation of human invention and ingenuity, loyalty to traditions and powers of improvisation and innovation’ (15).

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