Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part I: Knowledge

Today we’re going to start looking at one facet of how polytheistic religions function, their practicality. This is going to be a four-part series (II, III, IV) looking at some of the general facets of how ancient polytheistic religions work. And work is the operative word, more so than many religions and life philosophies you all may be more directly familiar with.

Now I need to make some necessary disclaimers. Religion – especially religions as diverse as polytheistic ones – is a complex enough topic that, even though I spent a number of years teaching mythology surveys at the college level (no, really – check my CV), it is simply impossible to be an expert in all of them, or even most of them. I like to think I have at least a passing familiarity with many, but of course my core area of knowledge is in Greek and Roman religious practice. I do have some teaching experience (and thus some research) background in world religions more broadly (particularly Egyptian and Mesopotamian), but there are areas where my knowledge is less complete.

So what I am going to lay out here in terms of my understanding is going to be most true for the broader Mediterranean world, although my understanding of world religions more broadly is that they tend to follow many of the same structures. I am particularly interested, if any of my readers practice a modern polytheistic religion, like Hinduism or Shinto, the degree to which you think that your religion and practice mirrors what I’m laying out for ancient polytheisms (leave a comment!).

Disclaimers out of the way, let’s be off:

D&D Religion

I want to start with a pop-cultural baseline, because illustrating the ways in which this is the wrong way to think about polytheistic religions is actually a quick way to cut to some of the core principles of real historical polytheistic practice. If you have played functionally any high fantasy pen-and-paper or computer role-playing game in the last few decades, chance are you have, at some point, run into a screen like this:

Deity select in Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, a grossly underappreciated gem of an RPG you should all play.
There is a particular silliness to this situation though. This screen appears while your character is sitting down with Berath, the goddess of the dead, who has just made clear has total control of your soul…and you are choosing pointedly to venerate some other god at this particular juncture?
Good Luck. With. That.

The deity selection screen, where you choose what god your character ‘believes in.’

Alternately, you have probably run into conversations like this one:

Good ol’ Harrim telling us all about his preferred deity, Groetus. Oddly, despite the inevitability of death, there isn’t anything better about following Groetus. He doesn’t make you immortal, or even promise a better afterlife. Why devote your time to a god who doesn’t do anything for you, when you have so many other options!

Where the nice NPC (non-player-character) cleric in your party extols the virtue of ‘his’ or ‘her’ god, often by arguing for the importance of a clear value of ethical system related to that specific deity. Harrim in Pathfinder: Kingmaker extols the moral virtue of is quiet (somewhat whiny) resignation before the inevitability of death as an argument for the superiority of ‘his’ deity. In Pillars of Eternity, Eder and Xoti present dueling justifications (Eder in PoE1, Xoti in PoE2) for their belief and loyalty to Eothas/Gaun, a fertility god.

For players that do select a diety, that selection is usually tied to an ‘alignment’ (as with D&D 3.5 Paladins, or most diety selection in the Pathfinder system) which in turn often corresponds to a system of ethics or a way of life. Paladins in Pillars of Eternity receive bonuses to the degree to which their statements and actions match the ethics of their orders, for instance. But while there is a big emphasis on following the ethics or worldview of the god, there is functionally no emphasis on ritual, and even less on the kinds of ritualized exchanges that dominate actual ancient polytheistic practice.

Deity selection for a cleric from Pathfinder: Kingmaker. Now how this (and in fact, all) of the gods restrict a player to a specific starting alignment in order to follow them. Do evil people not have dreams? If they do have dreams, why wouldn’t they want to be in good with “The Great Dreamer?” It doesn’t matter if Desna is nice or mean or chaotic or lawful – presumably, Desna is, so anyone who has dreams, which is everyone, needs to keep in right relationship to her if they expect to sleep the night.

This, to put it kindly, is not how these sorts of religion work.

So how do they work?

Polytheism at Work

The most important thing to understand about most polytheistic belief systems is that they are fundamentally practical. They are not about moral belief, but about practical knowledge. Let’s start with an analogy:

Let’s say you are the leader of a small country, surrounded by a bunch – let’s say five – large neighbor countries, which never, ever change. Each of these big neighbors has their own culture and customs. Do you decide which one is morally best and side with that one? That might be nice for your new ally, but it will be bad for you – isolated and opposed by your other larger neighbors. Picking a side might work if you were a big country, but you’re not; getting in the middle is likely to get you crushed.

Uh, so should we speak French, German or Italian?

No. You will need to maintain the friendship of all of the countries at once (the somewhat amusing term for this in actual foreign policy is ‘Finlandization‘ – the art of bowing to the east without mooning the west, in Kari Suomalainen’s words). And that means mastering their customs. When you go to County B, you will speak their language, you wear their customary dress, and if they expect visiting dignitaries to bow five times and then do a dance, well then you bow five times and do a dance. And if Country C expects you to give a speech instead, then you arrive with the speech, drafted and printed. You do these things because these countries are powerful and will destroy you if you do not humor whatever their strange customs happen to be.

(I should add that, over time, these customs won’t seem so strange anymore. Humans have a tendency to assume that whatever the customs – for instance, for diplomacy – are in our time, that this is just the right and normal way to do things. But diplomatic customs vary wildly by time and culture and are essentially arbitrary.)

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry (11th cent.) showing what is simultaneously both a religious and diplomatic ritual, albeit a Christian, rather than a polytheist one.

Ah, but how will you know what kind of speech to write or what dance to do? Well, your country will learn by experience. You’ll have folks in your state department who were around the last time you visited County B, who can tell you what worked, and what didn’t. And if something works reliably, you should recreate that approach, exactly and without changing anything at all. Sure, there might be another method that works – maybe you dance a jig, but the small country on the other side of them dances the salsa, but why take the risk, why rock the boat? Stick with the proven method.

But whatever it is that these countries want, you need to do it. No matter how strange, how uncomfortable, how inconvenient, because they have the ability to absolutely ruin everything for you. So these displays of friendship or obedience – these rituals – must take place and they must be taken seriously and you must do them for all of these neighbors, without neglecting any (yes even that one you don’t like).

This is how these religions work. Not based on moral belief, but on practical knowledge (I should point out, this is not my novel formulation, but rather is rephrasing the central idea of Clifford Ando’s The Matter of the Gods (2008), but it is also everywhere in the ancient sources if you read them and know to look). Let’s break that down, starting with the concept of…


For the Roman (or most any ancient polytheist) there is never much question of if the gods exist. True atheism was extremely rare in the pre-modern world – the closest ancient philosophy gets to is Epicureanism, which posits that the gods absolutely do exist, but they simply do not care about you (the fancy theological term here is immanence (the state of being manifest in the material world). Epicureans believed the gods existed, but were not immanent, that they did not care about and were little involved with the daily functioning of the world we inhabit). But the existence of the gods was self-evident in the natural phenomena of the world. Belief was never at issue.

Some gods, from the so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (Munich Freize). Seated in the chariot is Neptune who governs the sea and his new wife Amphitrite. Doris, also a sea goddess (and the mother of Amphitrite) is on the right.

(This is, as an aside, much the world-view we might expect from a universe – as is often the case in speculative fiction or high fantasy – where divine beings are not merely immanent, but obviously so, intervening in major, visibly supernatural ways. The point at which this or that supernatural, divine being brings someone back to life, grants them eternal youth or makes swords light on fire ought to be a pretty substantial theological awakening for everyone there. Even for other polytheists, such displays demand the institution of cult and ritual.)

This, of course, loops back to one of my favorite points about history: it is generally safe to assume that people in the past believed their own religion. Which is to say that polytheists genuinely believe there are many gods and that those gods have power over their lives, and act accordingly.

In many ways, polytheistic religions, both ancient and modern (by modern polytheisms, I mean long-standing traditional religious structures like Hinduism and Shinto, rather than various ‘New Age’ or ‘Neo-pagan’ systems, which often do not follow these principles), fall out quite logically from this conclusion. If the world is full of gods who possess great power, then it is necessary to be on their good side – quite regardless of it they are morally good, have appropriate life philosophies, or anything else. After all, such powerful beings can do you or your community great good or great harm, so it is necessary to be in their good graces or at the very least to not anger them.

Consequently, it does not matter if you do not particularly like one god or other. The Greeks quite clearly did not like Ares (the Romans were much more comfortable with Mars), but that doesn’t mean he stopped being powerful and thus needing to be appeased.

So if these polytheistic religions are about knowledge, then what do you need to know? There are two big things: first you need to know what gods exist who pertain to you, and second you need to know what those gods want.

Two things I want to pull out here. First: the exact nature and qualities of the gods do not really matter, because remember, the goal is practical results. Crops need to grow, ships need to sail, rain needs to fall and the precise length of Zeus’ beard is profoundly unimportant to those objectives, but getting Zeus to bring storms at the right times is indispensable. The nature of the gods largely does not matterwhat matters is what you need to do to keep them happy.

Second, you may be saying – you keep ramming home the idea that you have to cultivate all of the gods – what is this ‘pertaining to you’ business? What I mean by this is that while the polytheist typically accepts the existence of vast numbers of gods (often vast beyond counting), typically only a subset of those gods might be immediately relevant. Some gods are tied to specific places, or specific families, or jobs, or problems – if you don’t live in that place, belong to that family, hold that job, etc., then you don’t need to develop a relationship with that god.

Judgement scene from the Hunefr Papyrus (c. 1310 B.C.) now in the British Museum, London. It shows the gods judging a deceased man. These are some gods you probably want to keep happy!
The image here shows a process, going from left to right. Pictured (left to right), lower register: Hunefer (the dead guy), Anubis, Anubis again (using the scale), Ma’at (truth, she is the scale), Ammit, Thoth, Hunefer again, Horus, Osiris and finally Isis (front) and Nephthys (back).

Nevertheless, everyone typically needs to develop a relationship with the big gods – the sort whose name you kn0w from a high school or college class – that control big parts of life we all share, along with a bunch of smaller gods which pertain to smaller parts of our lives or perhaps only to select groups of people (we’ll talk more about these ‘little’ gods later in this series, because they are fascinating).

Ok, if that’s what you need to know, how do you go about learning it?

Learning the Gods

Now, normally when you ask what the ancients knew of the gods and how they knew it, the immediate thought – quite intuitively – is to go read Greek and Roman philosophers discussing on the nature of man, the gods, the soul and so on. This is a mistake. Many of our religions work that way: they begin with a doctrine, a theory of how the divine works, and then construct ritual and practice with that doctrine as a foundation.

This is exactly backwards for how the ancients, practicing their practical knowledge, learn about the gods. The myths, philosophical discussions and well-written treatises are not the foundation of the religion’s understanding of the gods, but rather the foaming crest at the top of the wave. In practice, the ruminations of those philosophers often had little to do the religion of the populace at large; famously Socrates’ own philosophical take on the gods rather upset quite a lot of Athenians.

Instead of beginning with a theory of the divine and working forwards from that, the ancients begin with proven methods and work backwards from that. For most people, there’s no need to know why things work, only that they work. Essentially, this knowledge is generated by trial and error.

Let’s give an example of how that kind of knowledge forms. Let’s say we are a farming community. It is very important that our crops grow, but the methods and variations in how well they grow are deep and mysterious and we do not fully understand them; clearly that growth is governed by some unseen forces we might seek the aid of. So we put together a ritual – perhaps an offering of a bit of last year’s harvest – to try to get that favor. And then the harvest is great – excellent, we have found a formula that works. So we do it next year, and the year after that.

Sometimes the harvest is good (well performed ritual there) and sometimes it is bad (someone must have made an error), but our community survives. And that very survival becomes the proof of the effectiveness of our ritual. We know it works because we are still here. And I mean survival over generations; our great-great-grandchildren, for whom we are nameless ancestors and to whom our ritual has always been practiced in our village can take solace in the fact that so long as this ritual was performed, the community has never perished. They know it works because they themselves can see the evidence.

(These sorts of justifications are offered in ancient works all the time. Cicero is, in several places, explicit that Roman success must, at the first instance, be attributed to Roman religio – religious scruples. The empire itself serves as the proof of the successful, effective nature of the religion it practices!)

Detail from the Paris Freize of the so-called Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus (late second century B.C.), showing a suovetaurilia, the sacrifice of a pig, a sheep and a bull to Mars for purification, part of a larger state ritual called a Lustratio.
In this case, what we are seeing is clearly a large and major state religious ceremony. We’ll get into the differences between the rituals the state does and the rituals people do a little later in this series, but for now: some rituals are done by individuals or families on their own behalf, but the leaders of the state may also do some rituals on behalf of the entire community.

Of course this oversimplifies the process: there is no neat, clean ‘origin’ or ‘invention’ point for many of these rituals. They emerge out of other, yet older religious practices – applying an old ritual to a new god, a distant religion to a new place, adopting a foreign practice, etc. The beginnings of that process stretch back far beyond the point where history – or even archaeology – allow us to see. Humans are doing ritual things pretty much the moment their patterns of life become visible to us.

I have found that students often find that this form of learning sounds very silly to them, at least at first glance. But we actually discover only a very few things theory-first, from first principles. Instead, we learn most of what we know this way. This is how you learned to farm, to cook, to work metal, to make crafts. This is how we learn most things in our daily lives – if not by trial and error directly by ourselves, then by benefiting from a chain of knowledge that eventually ends in someone else’s trial and error.

Crucially, for individuals living in a traditional, pre-modern society, this process of hard-won trial-and-error knowledge passed down through generations is how most of them know everything: how to do their jobs, live their lives, act on a daily basis, how the world works, all of it.

The More Things Stay the Same

And if you asked a Roman or a Greek (or an Egyptian, or Mesopotamian, or what have you) how they came upon their knowledge of the gods, this would more or less be the answer: at some time in the deep past, our ancestors either figured out the correct way to keep the gods happy, or else the gods themselves delivered such a method to us (or often, some combination of the two) and we have done everything exactly that way ever since.

With the benefit of the strange sort of historical vision that lets us view multiple centuries at the same time, we can see that this is not so. Cult (by this term I don’t mean ‘creepy religion’ I just mean ‘a unit of religious practice,’ which is what it actually means) expands in importance or contracts. Certain gods that were seen as very important become less so and vice-versa. New practices move in, or arise seemingly out of nowhere, old practices pass out of use. And I find that also often befuddles students: so much is obviously changing, so how can these folks believe they’ve been doing everything the same since forever?

Another scene of a suovetaurilia, from the Column of Trajan (c. 110 A.D.) some two centuries later than our previous image. Given Rome’s incredible military success in the intervening two centuries, it is safe to say that the ritual works!

A big part of the answer is that they do not see history the way we do. For someone taking, say, a Greek history survey, you are viewing Greek society from space – zooming over entire decades, sometimes whole generations, in a single paragraph, compressing vast amounts of granularity. Change that appears rapid and obvious to us was often so slow as to be unnoticeable to people at the time – something we should remember will seem true about us when we are viewed by future humans as well.

The other thing to note is that these religious systems do allow for the idea that the gods are known imperfectly – this is another one of Clifford Ando’s excellence observations – and so the system is both devoted to tradition (if it works, keep doing it) and open to change (if it doesn’t work, innovate!). The system is thus more able to incorporate change without it seeming like anything has changed than many modern religions which have fixed religious texts with strongly accepted meanings.

Note here: it is not that the gods change, but that information about how to keep them happy can be learned. That does not produce a ‘newer is better’ mentality though: new rituals are untested, whereas a ritual that has been practiced for centuries beyond counting has clearly worked for centuries beyond counting – after all, our society still exists and functions, so clearly, it worked!

Consequently, old practices are seen by practitioners as the best practices, but in the event of an emergency – a sudden setback that might imply the goodwill of a god (or, worse yet, the gods generally) has been lost, innovation is possible. And if that new ritual sets things right – the crisis abates – then it gets added to the portfolio of rituals-that-work, to be repeated, step for step, precisely, for future generations.


Now, there is another more active and direct way to figure out what the gods want (you can ask) and we’ll get to exactly how that works in a couple of weeks. But I want to recap our key take-aways so far, because they’ll serve as the foundation for what we’re going to get into going forward:

  • Polytheistic religion is less about ethics or worldview and more about achieving practical results, by venerating, pleasing or appeasing the right gods.
  • Because many gods can produce practical results for you – both good and bad! – you cannot pick and choose, but must venerate many of the relevant gods.
  • A society learns how to do this by doing: successful practices are codified into tradition and repeated, creating a body of knowledge about the gods which is carried on through generations by tradition.

Next time, we’ll take these points and apply them to the actual practice of religion: what sorts of rituals do you engage in and how is the knowledge of what to do transmitted forward. We’ll also discuss what you do when rituals fail.

55 thoughts on “Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part I: Knowledge

  1. I found this fascinating and useful. Fascinating as it sheds light on an area of history I am only vaguely across and useful because I am currently writing a story where religiosity is an important motive. So thanks!


  2. What a wonderful topic to address! I was recently prompted to think more about this kind of religious practice when I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Lavinia” (a retelling of the 2nd half of the Aeneid from Lavinia’s perspective); I thought she did a really interesting job with it, especially with the emphasis on the household gods and rituals.


  3. One product of Christianity is the change from orthopraxis (right practices) to orthodoxy (right belief). Several of the false teachers of the church, those who emphasize works over belief, have been declared heretical by various councils. It is still a problem in the modern Church, i.e. if I pray hard enough or I use the right prayers, God will reward me or do what I ask.

    Also, rituals are comforting. They encourage social cohesion and provide a sense of satisfaction that the liturgy (the work of the people IIRC) has been done. And in the ancient context, if the liturgy is done well, the god in question is propitiated.

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  4. How do people associated with a specific god fit in, say an Oracle of Apollo, a Vestal virgin or a priest of a particular god? Did they devote all of their religious efforts to their chosen deity or did they just render that deity special service while still propitiating all of them? What about situations where there chosen deity had a particular enmity with another?

    And how about foreign gods? Did Alexander need to stay on Ram’s good side?


    1. We’ll get to some of this, but for the most part, “yes, they needed to take care of all of them.”

      Gods can have fights with gods, but no moral can afford to offend any of them – note on this especially Euripides’ Hippolytus, which makes this point explicitly, but also the action of the Odyssey and the Aeneid, both of which imply this strongly. Having a divine backer, even Jupiter (!) is not good enough if the rest of the gods are not properly propitiated.

      Priestesses who became themselves sacred – the vestals and the pythia (note: the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi is not a person, but an institution; the person is the pythia) might seem like exceptions, but my sense is that they too continued to observe the cults of other gods; the vestals presence at state religious functions is noted, in particular. As for normal priests, in the Greek and Roman world, these were not dedicated or consecrated individuals, but part-time amateurs (we’ll talk about it), so they definitely had to maintain the full range of religious activity.

      As for foreign gods: yes, if you are in their lands. We see lots of evidence for Roman soldiers stationed in Gaul taking up local religious practices as a way of hedging their bets, and Alexander himself goes through royal rituals in both Egypt and Babylon.


      1. What about Indo-European synchretism? Thomas Rowsell postulates that the ancient peoples of Europe understood Mercury to equal Odin, Jupiter to be called Thor, to take examples from Germanic paganism.
        Therefore soldiers stationed in Gaul worshipping “Celtic” gods would have seen themselves as simply worshipping their own gods, but in the Celtic language.

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        1. The Romans are a weird case, because they had an official state policy of figuring out what gods those weird barbarians were worshiping under the wrong names and properly syncretizing them. AFAIK, that kind of formal syncretization policy is unusual in the ancient world.


      2. For the syncretism, you want to look up the interpretatio graeca. Yes, they frequently identified gods across countries. So much so that they would say “the Greek interpretation” to mean the Greeks interpreting one god as another


      3. Regarding the comment about syncretism in the ancient world, that “that foreign god is really actually a god from my people”, “Your god X is really just my god Y” is, from what I’ve read, much more something the Greeks and especially Romans were in the habit of doing, than a universal way of thinking about “foreign gods”.


        1. It was, after all, the interpretatio graeca — the Greek interpretation.

          I blame the philosophers. They THOUGHT about such things.


    1. I wasn’t planning on doing so in this series, but this hopefully will be a good foundation for doing that in the future. Mystery cults very much fit within this system, rather than being an alternative to it.


  5. Thanks, that was helpful.

    I’m wonder how this ancient polytheism compares with multitude of supernatural agents in Catholicism.
    While worshiping them is optional, you still lose out on many benefits if you don’t:
    * you can use them to appeal to Jesus (“Holy Mary, … plead for us sinners”)
    * they have special skills (e.g. Saint Antonius helps you to find lost stuff)

    House altars devoted to specific agents are said to be especially common in Italy.
    Could they have been inspired by Roman lararia?


  6. If you don’t mind talking about it, I’d be curious to hear about your own religious background and beliefs. I’m always interested in what sort of perspective people are coming from.


  7. This all sounds about right for Shinto, based on studying it for my own Japanese degree. You haven’t touched on it as much, but Shinto is fairly explicit about its elasticity – new gods in need of new rituals are added all the time. For example, hundreds of thousands of students (and their moms) go to one particular shrine to appeal to a god of scholars, Tenjin, for exam season every year. This was a court official who died in exile in 903 CE. In 930, when a series of disasters coincidentally disproportionately killed many of his former rivals (and their descendants), it was decided he’d become a powerful spirit and needed to be appeased by restoring his office and recognizing him as a deity. After a few centuries, he was less associated with disasters and more with his earthly skills as a scholar.


  8. To balance the D&D/PoE religion fails you talk about, you might contrast Gloranthan religion in the excellent “King of Dragon Pass” computer game (and the earlier RuneQuest P&P RPG). By your lights I think this gets polytheism spot-on; all gods must be respected, with the choice of which to propitiate most being an important element of strategy, and knowledge of the gods is an in-game currency enabling better performative rituals with better results.


  9. Ha! I know a game which features this kind of polytheism and god worship!

    POWDER (a roguelike game)

    Not only do gods approve or disapprove of certain actions, but they also favor proper dress code. While you do select a god to worship on every level up, gods you aren’t officially worshiping still observe you and may punish you. Fortunately, a friendly god often intervenes when another one is about to punish you.

    “The Horselord H’ruth is the patron deity of true warriors. To those who measure civilization by cloth or scratches on parchment, H’ruth’s followers are called barbarians.

    Followers are encouraged to kill and wade into the thick of battle, ideally whilst properly garbed.
    Followers are discouraged from attacking from afar.
    Followers are forbidden from using any spells.

    Followers gain +20/0 per level. ”

    “Quizar the Black is the patron deity of rogues. On the mortal plane, Quizar takes the form of a large black squirrel.

    Followers are encouraged to attack from afar, identify items, find secrets, dress well, and strike the helpless. Followers are discouraged from making a lot of noise.

    Followers gain +10/+5 per level. “


  10. You’re generalizing way too much and too widely from one book about one tradition of polytheism, extending those observations (such as they are) to all polytheisms that have ever existed. All of the Indic polytheistic traditions (including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), in their ancient and modern incarnations, have concerned themselves centrally with moral belief and ethics–the elusive nature of dharma is at the centre of the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The Gita, which is at the heart of the Mahabharata, is a debate about the moral duty of a warrior. Despite the presence of many divinities, you absolutely can choose one god or goddess as the focus of your devotions; you can be a Vaishnav, or a Shaivite, or a Shakta, or a Hanuman worshipper, etc. Plus–what happens to the notion of “polytheism” when the various gods and goddesses and humans are part of an ontological and existential underlying unity (sometimes termed Brahman)? And we haven’t even begun to think about the various atheistic streams of thought which provisionally accept the reality of divinities or powers but reject the notion of a Creator, and their exegeses of ethics. A very good introduction to some of these issues through the Mahabharata is _Disorienting Dharma: Ethics and the Aesthetics of Suffering in the Mahabharata_, by Emily T. Hudson.


      1. It’s already in the article, “So what I am going to lay out here in terms of my understanding is going to be most true for the broader Mediterranean world, although my understanding of world religions more broadly is that they tend to follow many of the same structures. I am particularly interested, if any of my readers practice a modern polytheistic religion, like Hinduism or Shinto, the degree to which you think that your religion and practice mirrors what I’m laying out for ancient polytheisms (leave a comment!).”

        Over all four posts, I’ve gotten – here and on twitter – a few, “my religion is different” responses (like this one), and quite a few more, “yes, this broadly resembles what we do.”

        I read all such replies with interest but without much comment – I am not going to tell anyone else how their religion works.


  11. Fair, but it seems Monkey’s comment is a criticism of your work more than a statement about his own beliefs, and therefore invites a response. I have no idea whether you are or are not generalizing too much, but I do know that the Indic religions share a common origin with European paganism and therefore might shed some light on the topic.
    Is it possible that there was a more mystical component to European polytheistic cults than blunt pragmatism? The theory you put forward seems to share a great deal with modern atheism in terms of its materialistic attitude, and is lacking nuance, ambiguity, mystery, etc.- all the things that have forever drawn the curious and the suffering to the divine.
    It is also known that Classical civilization had similar characteristics to the modern West. Our civilizations are like in that the primary focus is material economy and trade, which conquest serves and protects; and in the cosmopolitan and ‘progressive’ nature of the respective elites. My interpretation of your theory is that in Classical culture they appeased Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Juno as we today appease the Economy, the Wars [against terrorism, drugs, and ‘for freedom and liberty’), the Authorities, and Charitable/Virtuous Causes.
    I suggest this does not necessarily extend beyond our urbanized culture. Elsewhere there is still an appreciation and respect for the numinous, ineffable, and awe-some, and the more rural the environment the more this is so. Therefore I’m not sure that information on Roman and Greek religious attitudes can provide information about even other Indo-European practices. Of course correct ritual was of greatest significance. However, was the purpose of sacrificing a calf to Cernunnos truly as mundane and fearful as sending a cheque to the Taxman?


  12. Frankly Brett’s article matches my understanding of ancient Western and Middle Eastern polytheism as being rather mechanistic; you gave to the gods and they gave back to you, good crops, good hunting, children, whatever.
    It wasn’t necessarily unemotional though there are votary stela in Egypt thanking the god for healing the petitioner or their child that overflow with joy and gratitude and a deeply religious spirit of connectedness to the Divine that has done this thing for them.
    Such a connection, and a secure afterlife, is what mystery cults had to offer and why they became so popular.


    1. Indeed, there are Hindu tales about the gods deliberately inducing demons to give up pure Vedic sacrifice, because as long as they practiced it right, the gods could not go after them. (Obviously, knowing how accepted those tales were might be hard to judge.)


  13. I’m not a scholar of religion, but I do have an encyclopedic knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons and would like to address some of the points made comparing it to ancient paganism. Its actually a lot closer than you suspect.
    Lets take the Forgotten Realms, pretty much the D&D flagship setting. It isa setting blessed with a lot of gods. Really, loads of them. Characters generally have a patron deity that matches somewhat to their alignment. These deities have portfolios like the ancient pagan gods. Chauntea is the goddess of agriculture. Silvanus the god of the wild forests. Mask is the god of thieves Torm the god of duty and so on. But the system is polytheistic. people in the setting pray to all to gods for relevant situations. No one would consider taking a sea voyage without propitiating Umberlee, the (rather spiteful) goddess of the Sea.
    The patron deity though is vital when it comes to the afterlife. Mortals in this setting, when they die, end up on the Fugue Plain where they wait to be collected by their patron deities. You then get taken off to that gods celestial (or infernal) realm to live in whatever manner they see fit. Those people without a patron god, either because they refuse to worship or because their god was killed and they didn’t pick a new patron in time, or because your god rejected yo for some reason, end up in the hands of the god of death, who, in this setting is actually a fairly reasonable guy. But he does put you in to the wall of the faithless where you gradually dissolve and cease to be. Those who did have a patron but did not follow their tenants sufficiently are judged to be False and receive their punishment from the god of death, punishment which varied depending on how bad you were. Some False become celestial civil servants to the god of death while others are tortured for eternity.
    So having a personal patron and living in a manner they see fit is very much a matter of practical concern for peope in the setting. Also note that gods in this setting are explicitly empowered by worship. Umberlee has few real followers, but she gets a lot of worship to ward off her evil shipwrecking ways. Many of the evil gods get a good chunk of their power from the prayers of those who wish them to turn their gaze elsewhere.
    Further we should assume that gods in a setting where they are real would interact differently to a setting where gods are only believed to be real (i.e. reality). In reality, you have to guess at what will make a god real and base your decision on what previously worked. If you kill a bull to honour Mithras and you win the next battle then clearly that worked. Therefore killing a dozen bulls when you are threatened by a larger army might be a good way to go.
    In the Forgotten Realms you have individuals wielding divine power given to them directly by their deity who can tell you what the gods want. Depending on when you set your campaign and where you set it, you might actually meet the gods themselves, directly in avatar form on one of the (many) occasions that they manifested in reality.
    So the Forgotten Realms has a religious system made up not of belief, since everyone has concrete and tangible proof of the existence of the gods, but of practice, worship directed to the gods in exchange for services while alive, and in exchange for salvation at the point of death.


    1. The thing is, the ancients *believed* they lived in a world broadly analogous to the Forgotten Realms. They believed that the gods were actively responsible for a lot of the things we would now attribute to luck, and rationalized connections between what we would call random events and the will of the gods.

      The only difference is the lack of specific belief in needing a “patron deity” in order to have a good afterlife.


      1. Indeed, the expression, “O gods” was not an invocation to the ancient Greeks but a diagnosis — this sort of stuff only happens when a god’s involved.

        OTOH, it was notoriously difficult to work out what the gods wanted. For instance, faced with insanity, they would go to propitiate a god known to cause insanity. If that one didn’t work, well, obviously you had the wrong god — or maybe you didn’t do enough. Oracles and omens got worked overtime but both were vague.


  14. Proofreading corrections I noticed while reading this post:

    decades, chance are you have,-> decades, chances are you have,
    moral virtue of is quiet -> moral virtue of his quiet
    that do select a diety -> that do select a deity
    or most diety selection in the Pathfinder -> or most deity selections in the Pathfinder
    Now how this (and -> Note how this (and
    sorts of religion work -> sorts of religions work
    regardless of it they are -> regardless of whether they are
    discussing on the nature of man -> discussing the nature of man (deleted on)
    had little to do the religion -> had little to do with the religion


  15. A lot of people today believe orthodoxy is permanent and unchanging. Most American Protestant pro-lifers believe that opposition to abortion has always been the belief of Protestants when it was actually a major shift that happened in the 1970s – in living memory for many people.


    1. I’m curious about whether you can support this claim? Might it have been part of the “belief” without having been codified anywhere?


      1. We have plenty of records showing that opposition to abortion was constant throughout Christian history. More to the point, we have no records of any teaching to the contrary.


          1. There’s too many variations even within just the Christian sphere to say any position on abortion is constant throughout history. The Southern Baptists for instance only adopted an anti-abortion doctrine in 1980. Most likely what Chryx is referring to here is the rise of the “pro-life” movement in the US after 1973, which was very much a change from the previous behavior of church groups. Only the Catholics had previously organized against abortion in a political sense rather than a moral/ethical sense.


          2. Well, that was what I was getting at, really. Chryx seemed to assume that today’s pro-lifers are ignorant of the actual history. I suspect that Chryx had read something or heard something that led to the comment, which was made as a blanket statement without factual support. If they had simply said “I know someone who thinks” or even “I know people who think,” I would not have asked for them to support their claim.


          3. There’s a world of difference between saying they adopted the doctrine and they organized politically.

            Also, what was their doctrine on the matter before 1980? And what is the evidence for that?


    2. I mean, the Didache is a Christian teaching text fhats’s nearly two thousand years old, and it’s pretty explicit that Christians are to be against abortion and infanticide, so I’m not sure this claim holds water.


    1. I do that in this very post, asking any readers for their input. Several of them offer it in this comment section (and the ones for the three following) in fascinating ways.

      If your point is that I should not have posted without doing that first – it is not possible to develop meaningful expertise in everything. If I waited until each of these posts was as completely researched as, say, a peer reviewed article this blog would be sparse indeed. I try to signal where my expertise is and where it isn’t, because it cannot be everywhere and I’d rather admit what I do not know (or may know but am not confident on) than pretend I am omni-competant or that I can be omni-competant.


  16. So, I’m going to take upon myself the embarrassingly awkward act of being the person who simultaneously agrees and disagrees with a given point of yours. Namely:

    “This is how these religions work. Not based on moral belief, but on practical knowledge”

    From my own understanding of classical polytheism in the Mediterranean, this is on its most basic level completely true. That being said, as you yourself note, you do what actions are viewed as appeasing or outright pleasing the gods, which in certain contexts can have a moral component.

    In Mesopotamia for example, there’s a fairly large emphasis on the gods looking with favor upon ‘righteous men’ and punishing those who commit ‘evil’. Of course, what the gods consider ‘righteous’ and what they consider ‘evil’ is highly variable and, at least according to Thorkild Jacobsen and scholar of like-mind, at times inherently alien to a human perspective. Nevertheless, deities such as Utu/Shamash and Inanna/Ishtar, and the shifting ‘head gods’ such as Enlil, Marduk, Ashur, and nominally Anu in earlier periods, are often viewed as going out of their way to establish ‘justice’ in the land (though, this is often a part of royal ideology, so….).

    So, in summation, while I’d agree that moral belief isn’t the foundation of the old religions, I’d say it’s not absent from them either.

    My apologies if this comment was just born out of reader’s misunderstanding on my part


  17. An interesting Indic example of separation between the ethical/doctrinal and practical aspects of religion is found in Sikhi.

    Doctrinally, Sikhi is purely monotheistic: the founders were monotheistic Hindus and Muslims, building a doctrine-first religion explicitly condemning polytheism. In practice, very many Sikhs continue to perform Hindu rituals (puja). (I’m sort of sneaking in the doctrine-first perspective here: in practice the difference between a Sikh who does puja and a Hindu who goes to gurdwara is who their family is or nothing at all, not doctrinal.)

    The impression I get is that it’s simply what is done, a matter of proper behaviour. One shows reverence to Hindu deities in much the same way that one shows deference to one’s parents or to prestigious people. It can involve a bit of fear of practical consequences as you describe, but it’s mostly that it would be weird and loutish not to.

    When explicit justification is offered (which isn’t often; devout Sikhs explicitly reasoning about doctrine tend to condemn this as superstition and idolatry) it’s also often in terms of social roles like this: that the Gurus made fun of Hindu gods and rituals because they were such great people that they didn’t need to respect them, but that it doesn’t apply to ordinary people who still owe them deference.


  18. “Let’s give an example of how that kind of knowledge forms. Let’s say we are a farming community. It is very important that our crops grow, but the methods and variations in how well they grow are deep and mysterious and we do not fully understand them; clearly that growth is governed by some unseen forces we might seek the aid of. So we put together a ritual – perhaps an offering of a bit of last year’s harvest – to try to get that favor. And then the harvest is great – excellent, we have found a formula that works. So we do it next year, and the year after that.”

    This reminds me of the Skinner’s experiment with a pigeon:


  19. Most forms of fantasy polytheism seem more like several coexisting henotheistic or monolatrous religions (sometimes) coexisting without really meshing into a single entity.
    This isn’t terribly surprising when you think about it; most Western authors were raised Christian, and the rest (within a rounding error) were raised surrounded by Christianity. The Abrahamic faiths are unique in a number of ways that change how people from those backgrounds conceptualize religion. Speaking from experience, it’s easy to get a lot of confusion and wrongheaded ideas by applying an Abrahamic framework to just about any other kind of religion.
    That said, I’m not sure that there’s a clear distinction between polytheistic “practical knowledge” and Abrahamic “proper ethics” (which Bill Sanderson called orthopraxis and orthodoxy, terms I’m going to use).

    Part of this is because Judaism had plenty of orthopraxis in its beliefs, at least until the diaspora (and probably thereafter, but my knowledge of Judaism in the Common Era is somewhat lacking). My favorite example (for a few reasons) is a Passover ritual where they took two lambs, transferred the sins of Israel to one of the lambs (which was set free), and the remaining, sinless lamb was sacrificed to God. It’s an elaborate ceremony with arbitrary rules that don’t make sense outside their cultural context and animal sacrifice, just like you’d expect out of any of its Classical-era contemporaries.

    Another part comes from the whole Hell thing. Think of Pascal’s Wager—if you follow orthodoxy, you will be rewarded in heaven. Follow the right practices, and you will be rewarded for eternity; fail, and you will be tormented for eternity. I’m far from the first to point out that this isn’t really a system of morality, so much as the cosmic carrot and stick. Orthodoxy becomes orthopraxis by promising a practical reward—only the reward itself is beyond empirical observation.

    Mind you, I’m just a layman when it comes to religion—a layman who knows fancy words like “henotheism” and “monolatry” and “Passover,” but a layman nonetheless. Maybe my observations aren’t worth much. But it definitely seems easier to fit modern Abrahamic faiths into the “practical knowledge” framework than it does to fit other religions into an Abrahamic framework.


    1. Oh, yes.

      It is something I’ve grumbled about for years because it is very obvious that a lot of people conceive of the worship of Zeus, Athena, Hermes, etc. as being equivalent to being an Episcopalian, Baptist, Catholic, etc.

      Though this does have to be tempered by the way that the gods actively need worshipers in D&D so rivalries are to be expected. OTOH, given their differing domains and the like, probably the gods would have deals to keep things from destroying everything.


      1. Some D&D settings (and some versions of each setting) handle this better than others, but in general…the divine-rivalries gods-need-prayer-badly thing with the kind of nigh-omnipotent interventionalist deities that the D&D gods sometimes prove themselves to be should shape the setting a lot more than the D&D gods do. Any gods should be trying to convert worshipers of any gods which they don’t have a formal alliance or informal ceasefire with, as aggressively as rival kings in the ancient world or rival CEOs in the modern one.
        That isn’t a theopolitical climate where you’d expect followers of rival gods to bicker like Lutherans and Catholics, unless they were gods allied in one pantheon, in which case you’d wonder why they followed only one specific god in the pantheon. You wouldn’t expect mortal kingdoms to engage in mortal politics divorced from the squabbling divinities’ concerns; either the kingdoms would ally themselves with specific gods for any benefits they could bargain for, or the gods would manipulate kingdoms for their own ends, or (judging by human history) quite probably both.

        But D&D is supposed to be a game where you can have a party of Bilbo Baggins, Conan the Barbarian, Alexander Anderson, and Harry Potter if that’s what the group wants to play, and it’s hard to have high fantasy adventure if the Material Plane is consumed by divine proxy wars. (That could be a heck of a campaign, though!)
        The gods need to be powerful so they can enable fantasy storylines reliant on powerful divine forces, benevolent or malevolent, but they also need to be largely absent, to enable storylines reliant on mortals being in charge of their own destinies. Reading through this series, it seems the classical model would be a decent way to build a setting like this, but…well, most people don’t read ancient culture bloggers.


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