There are a number of seriously vexing problems with which monotheism must contend that are avoided by polytheism. In fact, attempting to answer these problems constitutes almost the entirety of the history of Judaic, Christian and Muslim theology.
1. Can one perfect God really create something separate from itself? From what does it create this? How can it distinguish itself from its creation? This leads, almost irresistibly, to the collapse of creator and creation into one another and gives rise to a Pantheism in which the universe is God, or an emanation of God.
2. If all things originate in God, doesn't that make God the source of evil? The Problem of Evil is sometimes put succinctly in the following manner. These three claims are central to standard monotheism but are inconsistent:
God is Good.
God is All Powerful.
Evil (i.e. innocent suffering) exists.
If God is Good, but doesn't protect the innocent, it can't be All Powerful. This applies even to the standard "free will" dodge that claims evil exists because of the misuse of freedom. Were this the case, an All Powerful God could still create a universe that is free and in which innocents do not suffer. If this wasn't possible, it was because of a limitation in God.
If God is All Powerful, but doesn't protect the innocent, it can't be Good.
The only way to avoid rejecting God's goodness and omnipotence is to reject the reality of evil which, on any honest assessment, is either unconvincing or appallingly callus.
3. If God is perfect it cannot change, as perfection means completeness, and so can also not have the anthropomorphic characteristics monotheist religions base their personal appeal upon (God loves you, God cares what you do, God listens to you and answers prayers, God punishes, etc.). Perfection can not desire because it can not lack. It can not alter because it would have no motivation to do so.
4. If God is All Powerful it must know the future, and so freedom is an illusion. This is the problem of Predestination.
The problems above derive from two connected characteristics, the omni- and uni- nature of God. God's singularity and totality raise each classically heretical view. Polytheism avoids these various problems in the easiest manner imaginable. It can (though it doesn't always) reject both the unity/singularity and totality of divinity. There are gods, and so evil or freedom or singularity can derive from conflict amongst the gods. Similarly, since they can conflict without conclusion the many gods are finite. Powerful, but not all powerful; good, wise or beautiful in various ways but not perfect. It is friction amidst the finite gods which give rise to multiplicity, individuality, freedom, suffering and change.
My interest in the next couple of posts is not to engage in theological debates or stake a claim on the preferability of one religious proposal over another. Rather, I wish to engage in a more detailed and careful investigation of the various forms the wars amidst the gods take and what these forms might tell us. I am interested in the most well known conflicts such as those between the Titans and Olympians in Greek polytheism but also in lesser known manifestations such as the war between the Vanir and Aesir in Norse polytheism, between the Formorians and Tuatha de Danann in Ireland, between the Welsh and Irish Celtic Gods, between Apollo and the Delphic pythian serpent and so on.
These conflicts come in various types and convey a variety of messages. Some of them capture theological teachings about the conflict between the fundamental forces of the universe, others (or the same when seen on a different level) hint at an interesting historical conflict between cultures or between different families of divinity. If conflict between the gods is one of, if not the primary, unique element of polytheism it may be that we have the most to learn when we carefully and deeply consider the nature of these conflicts.