In Praise of Polytheism  

Maurizio Bettini. Translated from the Italian by Douglas Grant Heise. University of California Press, 2023. 164 pages. $24.95.

In Praise of Polytheism cover image

John McWilliams

Scholarly books do not have to be long-winded, humorless, meandering, and pretentious, readable by specialists only.  In Praise of Polytheism avoids all these deficiencies, seemingly without effort. Bettini’s 112 pages of text consists of 15 chapters on discrete subjects, an average of only seven pages each.  Chapter titles invite the reader in by their implied contrasts: “Sacrificing the Nativity Scene and Bombing the Mosque,” “Translating the Gods, Translating God,” “The Twilight of Writing, The Sunset of Scripture.”  Facts, subjects, and conclusions, whether drawn from history, literature, anthropology, linguistics, or comparative religion, are deftly interwoven in ways that fasten our attention on the essential difference between Monotheisms and Polytheisms, presumably worldwide. At book’s end, readers have been on a compact but wide-ranging journey toward better understanding of the potential advantages Polytheism poses for the contemporary as well as the ancient world.  

Ease and accessibility of reading do not lessen the challenge posed by the two-sided thesis implied in Bettini’s title. The three monotheistic “Religions of the Book” (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) all insist upon worship of the one true God defined in scripture. Thus the chief attribute of a monotheistic religion is its insistence on its singular exclusiveness from all others. As God declares to Moses, “you shall have no other gods before me…. You shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus, 20,3; 34.14). By itself, the exclusiveness of monotheism is not a new idea; Bettini credits Jan Assmann’s recent scholarship for an idea that runs back through Freud’s Moses and Monotheism and beyond. The originality of Bettini’s book lies rather in what he discovers about the complementary but opposite idea, the inclusiveness of Polytheism. 

The chief attributes of Polytheisms, which have no single sacred book written by the one and only God, is their ability to adapt to, even to adopt, the Gods of other religions. For polytheistic cultures, the consequences have been comparative religious tolerance and a reluctance to begin war in the name of religion. The contrast has proven deadly for monotheisms: 

Conceiving the god-relationship as exclusive and radically oppositional has, over the course of history, notoriously resulted in tragic consequences.  This choice has led populations into acts of religious violence, into a hostility toward all those who refuse to worship the “true” and “only” God. As we all know, the monotheistic religions based on the “Mosaic distinction” have disgracefully adopted this characteristic with particular enthusiasm, repeatedly waging wars, persecutions, and violence in the name of God and continuing to do so in certain parts of the world (as we learn almost every day in the news).  

Bettini’s contrast is too absolute to apply to every instance, but it remains undeniable and important, whether or not one cares about a particular religion as the source of one’s personal faith.   

Readers whose exposure to the Graeco-Roman world has been limited to secondary school memorization of equivalencies among the gods, or to courses in introductory philosophy, epic poetry, or Greek Tragedy, have much to learn from Bettini’s perspective. He sees the gods of the classical world not as “mythology” but as a religion in the sense of a “cultural product” that has, borrowing a phrase from William James, “cash value” for the individual adherent. (Williams James, in turn, had borrowed “cash value” from Thomas Carlyle’s “cash nexus,” the one value that in the 1850s seemed to hold the Western world together.)   

Through etymologies and examples drawn from canonical Roman and Jewish authors, Bettini explores Roman practices of translating, interpreting, associating, and borrowing the Greek Gods into Roman culture. Not a matter of copying but of incorporating in altered form. The Lararium of a Roman household contained statues and figurines of the indigenous Lares and Penates, but also of foreign Gods taken over from conquered cities, of heroic demigods, even of Abraham or Jesus. All were to be worshipped in varying and time-appropriate degrees.  

Inevitably, the Roman Gods, in conflict among themselves, also accumulated multiple conflicting qualities within themselves, but all were designed to serve the collective well-being of polis and civitas.  The Gods were creations of men’s minds for civic purposes; stories about them were told and written down by men. Roman wars were not begun for the purpose of destroying foreign faiths. Gods came in many separable forms. By contrast, the Trinitarian belief in God, the Christian God as Three in One, presupposes an absolute hierarchical Oneness foreign to more flexible Graeco-Roman ways of thinking.  

Bettini scarcely mentions the Theogony, but Hesiod provides us confirmation of Bettini’s thesis from a time near the beginning of recorded Greek history (eighth century BCE). Theogony was written by a man named Hesiod, of whom we have biographical knowledge. The known world began with Chaos, followed by Earth and Night, then the Titans, and finally the Olympians. Hesiod‘s book is a listing of some 300 named Gods, interspersed with violent stories about a select few. The Gods proliferate so fast that Hesiod quickly reverts to a formula stating that A mated with B, giving birth to C, who mated with D—a process that can only end when the poem ends. And so the Greek Gods accumulate; Hesiod makes no effort to sort out any ordered Pantheon or to demonstrate that there is a First Cause for all things that dispenses ultimate justice according to Divine Providence. The unsolvable problem of Theodicy, which has bedeviled monotheistic thinkers for centuries (vide John Milton), is of no conceivable concern to Hesiod.  

Even in a scholarly book of 164 pages, a light touch is needed to alleviate the weight of Bettini’s metaphysical and historical concerns. The heated 17th century quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns is dismissed by a passing reflection on its unknowable end: “Even though the ancients will never know anything about it, they have been for the moderns the muses for whom they searched.” Bettini brings in Mallarmé to affirm that “if the gods don’t do anything discreditable, then they are no longer Gods.” Yesterday’s biblical film epics are summed up by dismissive metaphor: “the movie industry has revived many ancient gods, hybridizing them with Marvel characters.” Even at book’s end, when predicting “the twilight of writing, the sunset of scripture”—a grim subject for any academic humanist—Bettini prefers to grant its inevitability rather than indulge in techno reactionary judgment:  

Behind today’s vanishing of books from shelves and the growing reduction in their sizes—behind the anxious search for an instant bestseller, and the success of books/non-books produced by authors whose only merit is media visibility, resides the decline of syntax in favor of bytes, the replacement of sentences by a “person” or by his or her image.  

Surely, therefore, it is best to preserve the distance of the comedic about Bettini’s subject. If “a god,” or “the God,” or “the Gods” are only the names we blind mortals have always given to everything we do not understand, who are we to trumpet our opinions as Truth? Let the mystery be.  

John McWilliams (ΦBK, Princeton University) is emeritus professor of humanities at Middlebury College and a resident member of the Beta of Vermont chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.