Henotheism, Kathenothism and Polytheism

14 June, 2011

The gaming journals have suddenly been discussing polytheism, Evil Machinations talks about Fantasy Pantheons: Deities are more fun when there’s more than one, over at Harbinger of Doom there is Religion in Fantasy and Fantasy Gaming (which references Why D&D Polytheism is Flawed).


But, let me define my terms (all definition from wiktionary):

Polytheism: The belief of the existence of many gods.

Henotheism: Belief in or worship of one deity without denying the existence of other deities.

Kathenotheism: Belief that multiple deities exist, and different deities are supreme among them at different times.

Most D&Dish game worlds are built with a polytheistic structure but we tend to see them through our own cultural lenses, which are usually monotheistic.  I have written about Greek and Roman Faith and Roman Religion and Superstition here.   But in general, in a polytheistic world, people pray to the god (or gods) that are directly tied to what they are concerned about: going on a sea voyage, ask the sea and wind gods for safe passage, courting someone, talk to the goddess of love, and so on.

Now, some people will be priests and priestesses of a particular god, while others will seek a patron among the gods, those people start to drift into henotheism as they accept there are other gods but they reserve the majority of their worship for just one.  Coming out of our monotheistic culture, that is probably easier for most of us to grasp then the “buffet of blessings” usually implied by polytheism.  I suspect this is the easiest take on polytheism for most of us to play, “Sure, there are a bunch of gods, but Thor is mine.”

While kathenothism, as a belief system, could imply that the gods are constantly striving against each other to gain power and influence.  Which could make a very good background for a game world.  This sort of cosmology is likely to lead to competition between the pantheons as well as inter-pantheon rivalry.  For example: Trust the Olymipians over the Egyptian Deities, make your sacrifices to prove it.  Like democratic ideals?  Back the goddess of democracy’s faith and exalt both it and her.  And so on.

Anyway, just some thoughts on how to work with polytheism (and its variants) in a game world context.



  1. Yay! You know the technical terms for a lot of the stuff I was talking about. 😉 I like blog posts that expand my applicable base of knowledge!

    • Glad to help. I was pleased that there are such specialized terms, it makes discussion easier.

  2. […] Henotheism, Kathenothism and Polytheism (seaofstarsrpg.wordpress.com) […]

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