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!).
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Disclaimers out of the way, let’s be off:
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:
The deity selection screen, where you choose what god your character ‘believes in.’
Alternately, you have probably run into conversations like this one:
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.
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.
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.)
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.
(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 matter – what 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.
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!)
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?
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.