Mono-, Duo- & Polytheisms

an excerpt from

Authentic Thaumaturgy

Copyright © 1979, 1998, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits

Here’s an excerpt from the Second Edition of Authentic Thaumaturgy, my book on magic and religion for players of fantasy games such as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons®, G.U.R.P.S.®, and Magic: The Gathering®, etc. “A.T.” is published by Steve Jackson Games and is available from them, from, or from your local game store.

Mono-, Duo- & Polytheisms

A monotheistic religion is one in which the theologians claim that only one deity exists (theirs, of course) and that all other spirits claiming (or claimed) to be deities are actually “demons in disguise.” Monotheistic deities are usually created through hyperapotheosis, which is the promotion of one’s tribal deity to the rank of Supreme Being of the Entire Universe.

Pure monotheisms are very rare (not until modern times do any seem to have existed at all) and are magically very weak. What usually happens is that various divine relatives, angels, saints, and demons join the “One” God as a part of the mythology. Most of these entities are indistinguishable from the deities and lesser spirits of the polytheistic religions previously occupying the same territory, because most of these associated spirits are the Gods and godlings from the previous religions (or current ones from neighboring cultures).

Historically, monotheisms are created via henotheisms, which are religions in which there is one important deity and a bunch of lesser ones, all of Whom are recognized as “real” Gods. Eventually the Clerics in a henotheistic faith start getting more and more power (religious, political, economic, and military) and they announce a divine coup d’etat and that from now the King of the Gods is the “Only” God.

A century or so later all the other deities have snuck back into the religion under different names and the common people go right on worshipping their Old Gods and Goddesses, pretending (when the priests are around) that these spirits are inferior in power to the “One” God they are supposed to be worshipping. The theologians go through a lot of metaphysical gymnastics to explain all the lesser spirits, which arguments wind up convincing nobody but themselves.

An authentic pure monotheism occurs only after the magical technology in a given culture has become so incompetent that miracles don’t happen anymore, intellectuals become completely materialistic, and nobody really believes in any deities as real personalities. The problem, of course, is that such systems of belief don’t really count as “religions” any more (as we’re defining the term herein), because their philosophical and ethical beliefs no longer have a magical system connected.

A duotheistic religion is one in which the theologians claim that there are two deities, usually of opposite gender, and that all other spirits are “aspects” or “faces” of these two. The best known example of this in the modern West is Neopagan Witchcraft, which seems to be a compromise between polytheistic ideas and a monotheistic culture (it started as a Westernization of Hindu Tantra and Shakti cults). For some, however, duotheism is a temporary stop on the way to a henotheism in which only “the Goddess” will be important, to be followed by a monotheism in which “the Goddess” will be the only deity allowed to be worshipped.

Duotheism should not be confused with dualism. This last is the religious doctrine that states that all the spiritual forces of the universe(s) are split into Good Guys and Bad Guys who are constantly at war. Almost every existing monotheism (except for the modern pure ones) is actually a dualistic polytheism. The process of evolution is this: First they have to invent a Supreme Spirit of Evil to explain why the Good God lets there be evil in the world He created. Then this spirit quickly develops into an Evil God (though seldom officially called that). Then His minions (displaced polytheistic deities) are said to be fighting the Good God, Who then needs minions (more displaced deities) of His own. Celestial and infernal armies clash throughout the cosmos and various figures on both sides become popular and/or feared enough that they become full scale deities again, despite the fact that the monotheistic theologians never call them that (see In Nomine for a game based on just this dualist mythology).

Remember that a religion is a psychic structure composed of the beliefs of all of its followers, not just the theologians. In fact, the opinions of theologians are often irrelevant to the real magical and spiritual power of a religion, though not to the psychological, social, economic, military, or political power it may accumulate.

Although polytheistic faiths often have spirits of chaos and/or evil, these are seldom if ever glorified to the heights of paranoia so common in the monotheistic religions, simply because polytheistic ones have more good spirits (and a lot of ambiguous ones) to share the blame for worldly evil and trauma, and because Pagans don’t usually think of their deities as “perfect.” So they avoid the logical paradoxes that force the creation of an Evil God.
Mono-, Duo-, Poly- Spirits


A polytheistic religion is one in which the polytheologians claim that there are many deities, of varying power, and usually many lesser spirits as well. Each separate “cult” (group of devotees) within a polytheistic culture may decide that its deity is the “best” one, but all accept the reality of the others as genuine gods and goddesses.

Differences in Attitudes of Clergy and Laity

Since just about every religion in the world admits that there are lots of different kinds of spirits around, the real differences come in the psychology and most especially the politics of celestial power. Monotheists want only their one Good God to be worshipped (have mana given to) and all other spirits to be respected or reviledbut never worshipped. Duotheists say that when one is worshipping the “lesser deities” one is actually worshipping “the God” and/or “the Goddess.” Polytheists say that people can and should worship any spirit they feel like worshipping, or Who chooses them as worshippers.

A lot of the basic differences in the day-to-day life of Clerics and lay-persons in these various sorts of religions are based on this “Supreme Being” worship question. Monotheists feel that only the Supreme Being Who created the entire universe is worthy of being worshipped and He (almost always “He”) just happens to be their tribal Godwhat an amazing coincidence! Polytheists usually feel that the Supreme Being has little or no interest in humans and that She/He/It neither wants nor needs worshipping. Local gods and goddesses, on the other hand, are said to be interested in humans and need worship if They are to be strong enough to help Their worshippers.

Monotheistic religions are based on single value (“binary” or True/False) logic systems. Since “there is only One God,” (“and He is the Sun God. Sun God, Sun God, Ra, Ra, Ra!”), there is only One Reality, One Truth and One Way of Worship. Any concept differing from the official theology is not only False, it is Evil, Evil, Evil!and must be stamped out, along with its believers.

Polytheistic religions are usually based on multiple value (orfuzzy”) logic systems. The existence of many deities implies many realities, truth is thought of as fluid (in vino veritas?) and disagreements mean error, stupidity or imaginationnot “Evil.”

Monotheistic faiths usually set up official priesthoods that are the only official channels by which important matters are supposed to be brought to divine attention. Polytheistic ones usually set up official, semi-official and amateur priest- and priestesshoods that are thought of as the best, but not the only way, to call for divine help in times of dire need. The head of each household is usually the “Cleric” for his family.

Polytheistic religions encourage or ignore a great deal of individual magical and Clerical activity from the masses. Monotheistic ones actively discourage individual efforts by anyone who is not an official Cleric and will often kill anyone who tries to break the established monopoly on mana. This is to say, that while monotheistic individuals are allowed to pray for divine help at any time, they are not supposed to do powerful ceremonies on their ownand heaven help them if they start doing miracles! Polytheistic individuals may do both without interference from the Clergy, except that they are likely to be subjected to intense recruitment efforts by the local Clerics and/or deities.

In short, in polytheistic cultures the lines between Mages and Clerics tend to blur, in monotheistic ones the lines are kept artificially sharp.

Copyright © 1979, 1998, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. Unlike his other sharetext postings, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of a book available for purchase from Steve Jackson Games and/or If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

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