Lately the subject of monotheism has come up for me in several areas. My initial reaction to the term is a rather negative one. Having been raised in a superficially monotheistic religion -no version of Christianity can really be considered monotheistic in its expression- the word speaks to me of a judgemental path. "There is one deity, we have it, get with the program".
There is a lively debate right now on whether the Egyptians can be considered monotheists rather than polytheists. Many of the early Egyptologists took one approach or the other.
Those that wished to make the Egyptians more sympathetic to Europeans tended to emphasize the monotheistic interpretations, and made a pet of Akhenaten, "history's first individual" or "history's first monotheist", both of which characterizations are absurd. He drew from the pantheon a deity that resonated with and for him - as we do. As he was Pharaoh, his choices had more impact, and they certainly had their political conveniences as well. We tend to think that, in "pure, spiritual" civilizations such as we perceive Egypt to be, that petty politics and intertemple squabblings did not exist. As the records show, they certainly did.
The scholars that wished to disparage the achievements of Egypt emphasized the dizzying variety of gods and goddesses, as had the Greeks before them - though Greek civilization was certainly not without a well-staffed pantheon. For the Greeks, the fact that the Egyptians symbolized deity forces with animals was the ridiculous, and they blindly "misunderstood" this point repeatedly. (Let's skip over Zeus and his many forms - he wasn't artistically represented in those forms and so they didn't "count". But the Egyptians didn't have the proper sensibilities and insisted on showing their gods and goddesses in full animal glory.)
One of the arguments for monotheism in Egypt is that many of the hymns were interchangeable from deity to deity. This is true - the daily rites in the temples were largely identical with each other, though other rituals specific to an individual god or goddess were distinctly different. A second pro-monotheism point is that most of the gods and goddesses were conflated with many other gods and goddesses. Isis was certainly successful in this area, but so were many others. In my opinion, these conflations served several purposes. First, there was the simple, universal, and often petty "Our goddess is better than your goddess - or, even better, IS your goddess under another form. Please forward all your offerings to this new address". This is expedient, but not necessarily indicative of any spiritual truth. Secondly, deities develop. They are not static. Try to find an "agriculture" goddess from 35,000 bce. Or a "God of the Forge" prior to the age of metal.
If spirit is expanding and exploring, as I believe it to be, when new things develop, new functions are taken on by those deities presently at work in the world. In a given place, another deity may have previously handled that portion of the work, or may be concurrently working in the same area of human involvement. The "new titles" may or may not mean that a given deity is taking over that area from another. It may simply be an advancement or rediscovery of an aspect of a given deity. When few Egyptians sailed the sea, there was no great need for a goddess of seafaring. When this situation changed, the deity Isis expanded her role. Why Isis and not, say, Nut? Isis is by her nature a relatively flexible goddess, who seeks knowledge and new things. She was present in the right places, along the seashore.
Supporting the point of view of polytheism was the great number of specific deities, worshipped in many different places and often given one or more titles specific to an individual site. We can see in Greece that when a major deity is given a place-title, it often means that the major deity has "taken over" the functions of a previous, similar, but lesser-known (or less-favored by authority) god or goddess. Artemis of Ephesus is one instance - the goddess worshipped at Ephesus bore little in common with her forest-prowling sister.
In the worship of Isis, we can find many titles that lend themselves to a monotheistic viewpoint. She is the "Only One", the "One who gave birth to her Mother", una quae omnia, "I who am all".
The urge to make the Egyptians monotheists in retrospect seems to me an effort to let it compete with the "superior" monotheism of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But what is superior about monotheism, other than that it presumably comforts its followers? After all, if there is only one god, and you follow that god's precepts, you are reassuringly safe. No choice equals no mistakes. In a universe of many valid deities, how would one know? Unfortunately, the answer to this dilemma from the viewpoint of religious authorities has often been to attempt to wipe out all traces of opposing or alternative religions - can't have one's followers facing that particular dilemna. And of course, as noted above, in practice, none of these faiths are truly monotheistic. The conflict of having to allow for a deity who is unreliable has forced the concept of the anti-god - and that makes two. Include saints, prophets, intercessors, sons, daughters, angels and other possessors of some fragment of the divine power and excuse me, but the purity of the single deity is tainted. You can't have it both or multiple ways with pure monotheism.
It is interesting from the human perspective that literally all religions, while professing monotheism, seem to shake hands with polytheism. And I think that this is the reason. The only real "monotheism" is the recognition that all of the spiritual energy in the universe springs from a single source. The gods are of this nature, and so are we. The only time that this energy could be worshiped as a whole unity is when we are all absorbed into it - and it can't be perceived that way then. As soon as the divine monad is perceived, it is no longer one, because there now exists the perceiver.
Some persons, in trying to understand a deity, go back the "purest" or earliest beliefs. Unfortunately, these are generally the least appropriate and least accessible for modern practice, not to say the least comforting or inspiring for the modern believer. The deities themselves have evolved and changed, and while their energies can be picked up now, they can only be active in a new form that connects with this time and place. But this "new form" must be consistent with their divine essence. However, in general, the entities that are the deities seem to be better able to understand themselves than we do, and will buck if worshipers attempt to either whitewash or tarnish that essence in their practices.
So no, I am not a monotheist, but, potentially, a monad-theist. I do recognize the divine unity behind all of the manifested and unmanifested universe. However, theologically, that does virtually nothing for me. The Monad is not accessible to me as an individual entity. It has its own vastness and is also the combination of all of its creations. There is simply no "customer service" department, no "training branch".
So, on the path of my own part of the spiritual evolution, I am thrown back on connecting with the deity forces that I can access. As I grow, these multiply, not subtract. So, though I can readily follow the thread of Isis back to the great Monad, I do not regard her as identical with it. She, vast and divine, is yet part of the same sphere of energy that we are, and there are others like her, and others like us.
I once disappointed a woman at a conference who seemed determined to make me say, or agree, that Isis is Mary. This is another expression of monotheism, that all goddesses are essentially the same, that all gods are essentially the same. On certain esoteric levels, as I touched on above, this is true, but for our general dealings with the deity forces, it is not. Several gods and goddesses may share the same or virtually identical functions, but this does not make them the same thing. I am frequently in the company of groups of priestesses of Isis. Any one of them can function perfectly as a priestess of Isis in a variety of rituals. However, can all priestesses be treated as any priestess, or any priestess treated as a "generic" priestess? I wouldn't recommend it. They are individuals, and so are our deities. Sometimes the same deity name covers several different "individuals", and the aspects are often so sharply different that they are in fact separate deities. Isis is rare in this respect in that many of her functions do reside in a single unity.
-deTraci Regula Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.