Among all peoples fire has been held sacred. It was thought of as the central principle of life. Among the Kafirs in South Africa every religious ceremony must be performed in front of a fire. The Indians of Guatemala regard it as their greatest and oldest deity. The fire test was practised by the Aztecs of Mexico, as well as by the Moloch worshippers of Syria. In Borneo the crackling of blazing twigs is the speech of the gods. The vestal fire of old, and the perpetual fire of the modern Christian altar are both founded upon the assumption of its sacred character.
As the experience of man widens, he discovers not only that he can destroy the tree whose spirit he, and can entrap the animals and subdue them, but also that the sun, moon and stars do not vary their action at their own option. They are obliged to move about in certain more or less prescribed courses. Even the clouds are driven to and fro by some superior power and are not free to follow their own desires. Hence he easily and naturally comes to see the truth that there must be powers above these forces that are far more worthy than they are of his homage. He rejects the notion that the forces of nature reveal the highest spirits, and he looks up to deities that can use these forces freely at their option. As distinguished from nature-worship and other lower forms of religion, this doctrine is called polytheism, although it differs from these other forms not in kind, but only in degree.
Undoubtedly, the development of this doctrine is closely related to the development of the social and governmental relations existing among the people themselves. When chiefs and kings begin to make their appearance in any community, then these greater gods begin to be recognized as over and above all lesser spirits. Oftentimes the kings and chiefs themselves are elevated to the sphere of gods, and in some cases, even while alive, receive divine honors. Rarely, however, does polytheism do away with any of the lower forms of religion. On the contrary, it usually coexists with belief in disembodied spirits, local genii of rocks and fountains and trees, household gods, and a host of other good and evil demons. The deities of this form of religion simply take their place as presiding over all inferior gods, using them as messengers or agents for the furtherance of their plans and purposes.
At first, each tribe or district is thought of as having its own particular deity. But as the tribes intermingle and learn more of one another, the tribal gods give way to national. At the outset the national gods of one country are regarded as distinct from those of another, but of equal powers. Even the ancient Hebrews considered the gods of other nations, such as those of Assyria, Phœnicia and Egypt as real divinities.
Many tribes and peoples have risen in some degree to the stage of