2016 update: as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, I now disagree with many of the “philosophical” or theological viewpoints I presented on this site back when I wrote the core articles in 2012, and I also question the degree to which many of them can be accurately applied to the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples. This article sticks out as one of the most error-prone. I’m going to leave it up because a lot of people have found some value in it, and because I think that what it was really getting at was an attempt to defend pluralism and individualism in theological terms – and I’m as passionate a supporter of pluralism and individualism as I’ve ever been. I just think the theology here itself is rather dubious. At bottom, polytheism and monotheism really are just quantitative concepts, and neither has any inherent advantages or disadvantages relative to the other.
Without further ado, here’s the original article. I encourage you to evaluate it critically and come to your own conclusions.
As the astute Christian theologian Paul Tillich noted, “polytheism is a qualitative and not a quantitative concept.” In other words, polytheistic religions don’t hold the same view of divinity and the sacred as monotheistic religions do, as if the only difference were a mere multiplication of the number of deities. Rather, the concepts of “divinity” and “the sacred” mean very, very different things to polytheists and monotheists. And, accordingly, the two worldviews involve very different conceptions of morality or values.
The Sacred and the Profane
In monotheistic religions, the sacred and the profane are typically dichotomous – that is, they form a pair of mutually exclusive, black-and-white, dualistic opposites that never, ever intersect or overlap. In fact, the entire theology of monotheism can be properly understood as an outgrowth of viewing the sacred and the profane as a dichotomy that corresponds to the other closely related dichotomies at the heart of monotheistic theology: God vs. the world, spirit vs. matter, the soul vs. the body, good vs. evil, being vs. becoming, etc. In all of these other dichotomies, the first element corresponds to the sacred, and the second element corresponds to the profane. The French thinker Alain de Benoist articulates and develops this same insight when he writes:
It could be said that all of Judeo-Christian theology rests on the separation of the created being (the world) from the uncreated being (God). The Absolute is not the World. The first source of creation is entirely distinct from nature. The world is not divine. It is not the “body” of God. It is neither eternal nor uncreated nor ontologically self-sufficient. It is not a direct emanation or a modality of the divine substance. Nor is its nature or essence divine. There is but one Absolute, and this Absolute is God, which is uncreated, without genesis or becoming and ontologically sufficient unto itself. Everything that is not God is the work of God. There is no middle term, middle stage, or intermediary state between “to create” and “to be created.” Between God and the world there is only nothingness – an abyss that God alone can fill. Completely alien to the world, God is the antithesis of all tangible reality. He is not an aspect, a sum, a level, a form, or a quality of the world. “The world is entirely distinct from God, its creator,” the first Vatican Council of 1870 reminds us.
This explains why monotheists worship only one god. The Judeo-Christian god is a personal representation of a single abstract principle: the Absolute – that is, the absolutely good (as opposed to evil), the absolutely spiritual (as opposed to material), the absolutely sacred (as opposed to profane), the absolutely static (as opposed to the fluctuation and change that characterize the physical world), and the absolutely self-sufficient (as opposed to the rest of us limited beings). Thus, monotheistic descriptions of God typically involve lots of uses of the prefix omni-: omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-loving), etc.
To summarize monotheistic theology, then, God and the world are absolutely distinct, and God is absolutely sacred, whereas the world is absolutely profane.
Polytheism offers a radically different view of divinity and the relationship between divinity and the world – and, consequently, of the relationship between the sacred and the profane. For a polytheist, gods and goddesses are the pantheistic animating forces of this world. Everything in the physical world – wind, sunlight, trees, wolves, buildings, humanity – is a manifestation of some god or goddess or other invisible, divine being. These concrete manifestations may be profane, but they all point back to their sacred wellsprings. Divinity and the sacred don’t exist apart from the visible world; rather, “they are in transparency behind the sensible, or in its heart.” Thus, for a polytheist, the world in its entirety is ultimately sacred. The sacred encompasses the profane and sacralizes it, rather than merely negating it.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the Roman historian Tacitus said of the Germanic tribes (exemplary polytheists one and all), “Their holy places are the woods and groves, and they apply the names of deities to that hidden presence which is seen only by the eye of reverence.”
Anyone who has ever contemplated his or her experiences honestly and openly is well aware that the world, in all its subtlety, vibrancy, and contradiction can’t be reduced to a single absolute principle. The monotheist’s answer to the world’s complexity is to reject the world. The polytheist, however, sees amongst this strife and confusion numerous irreducible (and finite and limited) powers at work. The polytheist’s plurality of divinities is an affirmation of the inherent plurality of the world.
As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Pagans [polytheists] are all those who say Yes to life, for whom ‘god’ is the word for the great Yes to all things.”
Polytheism and Pluralism
These same tendencies play out in the realm of ethics as well. Monotheistic morality is static, monolithic, and objectifying, whereas polytheism offers an extremely dynamic and pluralistic framework within which many different value systems can readily coexist side by side.
The morality of monotheistic religions consists of a single set of laws that all people, in all places, at all times, are expected to follow. Why? Because there’s only one God, and He commands that everyone, everywhere, at all times, obey Him and only Him. By denying the personal particularity of those who are expected to unconditionally submit to this single, unwavering, universal standard, monotheistic morality casts all humans as being, in essence, interchangeable objects.
William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, aptly summarized monotheistic morality: “one law for the lion and the ox is oppression.”
Polytheistic gods aren’t nearly so jealous or petty. A complex and contradictory world characterized by a riotous diversity of perspectives and experiences calls for a corresponding level of complexity and contradiction in our value systems, our rules and customs that enable us to adapt to life and direct that adaption along certain preferred lines. Nietzsche rightly characterized polytheistic Europe in the following terms:
One was permitted to behold a plurality of norms; one god was not considered a denial of another god, nor blasphemy against him. It was here that the luxury of individuals was first permitted; it was here that one first honored the rights of individuals. … The freedom that one conceded to a god in his relation to other gods – one eventually also granted to oneself in relation to laws, customs, and neighbors. Monotheism on the other hand, this rigid consequence of the doctrine of one human type – the faith in one normal god beside whom there are only pseudo-gods – was perhaps the greatest danger that has yet confronted humanity.
As the famed historian of religion Georges Dumézil has shown over and over again in his numerous works, this harmonious agonism was central to the social/political/economic/religious structure of Indo-European societies, including, of course, the Norse and other Germanic peoples.
Some values and actions were appropriate for some people and some situations; others were inappropriate for those people and those situations, but very well might be appropriate for other people and other situations. It was customary for pre-Christian Germanic men and women to have a fulltruí, a patron god or goddess, literally “one to whom one is fully true,” from among the vast array of divine figures who populate Germanic mythology, and to adhere to the values associated with that god or goddess.
This was not the “anything goes” attitude of moral relativism, however, which is, after all, simply the inversion or denial of the Judeo-Christian perspective of an absolute, universal morality. In traditional Germanic society, a person who occupied a particular social role and was a devotee of that role’s corresponding god or goddess could rightly be held to the standard of conduct appropriate for that role and its divinity.
To give a few examples, many Viking Age men looked to the gods Tyr, Thor, Freyr, or Odin as their fulltruí. Devotees of Tyr were ruling-class men who ordered their lives according to upholding and administering the law and societal standards of justice. Those of Thor were predominantly warriors (the second of the three Indo-European classes or “functions”) whose codes of conduct emphasized strength and bravery in the defense of one’s people and way of life, and a meticulous adherence to standards of honor and manliness (which, as the sagas demonstrate, often ran afoul of the law and justice). Freyr’s men were mostly farmers (the third class or function) whose lives were much more hedonistic and centered around fertility, fecundity, and production. Those who held Odin in especially high regard were, like Tyr’s favorites, of the first function, but followed a path of ecstatic and creative self-actualization that often seemed fickle, ruthless, irresponsible, and even shameful by the standards of a man of Thor, arbitrary by the standards of a man of Tyr, and unnecessarily harsh and demanding by a man of Freyr. And this is to say nothing of women’s roles and values, which were just as diverse.
The indigenous Germanic worldview also had a healthy appreciation for what we today would call “moral ambiguity” – the recognition that one’s values often conflict with each other, and that one often finds oneself in situations where one is forced to sacrifice a cherished value in favor of another – as evidenced by Tyr’s actions in the tale of The Binding of Fenrir, or the actions of the gods as a whole in the tale of The Fortification of Asgard.
The pre-Christian Germanic worldview was, to use a famous phrase of Nietzsche’s, “beyond good and evil” – much more reflective of and better adapted to the actual conditions of life than a morality that attempts to divide all actions into two universal, simplistic, and stultifying categories of “good” and “evil.”
The recognition that the world, in all its sublime contradiction and bewildering complexity, is inherently sacred and worthy of unconditional affirmation doesn’t imply any kind of passive surrender or moral relativism. One of the defining patterns of the world’s dynamism is its ceaseless effort to overcome itself, to sweep away stagnation and to foster growth. We observe this whenever day gives way to night or night gives way to day, as summer turns to autumn or winter turns to spring. And just as day and night, winter, spring, summer, and autumn, are all necessary for life to flourish, so are competing divinities and values that overcome each other by turns.
The pre-Christian Germanic peoples honored this principle in their myths, which follow a cyclical trajectory involving the birth, death, and rebirth of the cosmos and all of its gods and goddesses, the same pattern we observe in the procession of the seasons and the day. They also honored this principle in their approach to ethics, wherein any conceivable action is recognized to have its proper place, and the respectful coexistence of antithetical values mirrors and contributes to the dynamic balance of the more-than-human world.
If you’ve enjoyed this article and want to learn more about Norse mythology, I recommend picking up one of the books listed in this guide: The 10 Best Norse Mythology Books. And if you’re particularly interested in the worldview of the pre-Christian Norse and other Germanic peoples, you might want to take a look at my own book, The Love of Destiny: The Sacred and the Profane in Germanic Polytheism.
 Tillich, Paul. 1973. Systematic Theology. Volume 1. p. 222.
 De Benoist, Alain. 2004. On Being a Pagan. Translated by Jon Graham. p. 23.
 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1968. The Visible and the Invisible. Edited by John Wild, translated by Alphonso Lingis. p. 150.
 Tacitus, Cornelius. 1948. The Agricola and Germania. Translated by Harold Mattingly. p. 109 (Germania 9).
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1954. The Antichrist. In The Portable Nietzsche. Edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann. p. 641.
 Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1974. The Gay Science. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. p. 191-192.
 Such as, for example:
Dumézil, Georges. 1988. Mitra-Varuna: An Essay on Two Indo-European Representations of Sovereignty. Translated by Derek Coltman.
Dumézil, Georges. 1973. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Edited by Einar Haugen.
 Dubois, Thomas A. 1999. Nordic Religions in the Viking Age.