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.
88 thoughts on “Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part I: Knowledge”
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
And killing or dispersing the peoples of whose god(s) they couldn’t fit into their orthopraxy. Let’s not forget the Romans committed genocide or near to it a few times in regards to religions they just couldn’t get a handle on. Famously with the Jews, but perhaps most effectively with the druids.
Given the unreliability of our knowledge of the druids, it’s uncertain what the Romans did to them.
For instance, Julius Caesar talks a lot about them in his set pieces about Gaul’s culture, but, in light of his descriptions there, it’s surprising to see that he mentions nothing about them during the course of the war, which is out of line with the importance he claims they have.
From what I’ve heard, religion wasn’t a huge deal for the Romans’ treatment of the Jews; clearly, what they had worked, since they hadn’t been wiped out by the gods’ wrath. They just keep violently objecting to Roman rule for some reason.
(Christians were another matter entirely.)
Yes, but a big part of the reason the Jews kept objecting to Roman rule is that the Romans kept committing intolerably sacrilegious acts or expecting the Jews themselves to do so.
To pick a simplistic and possibly inaccurate example to illustrate my point without doing ten minutes’ background research (lazy, I know)…
If you worship one god, and one of his absolutely mission critical commandments that he made VERY sure would be ingrained in your culture, to the point of, like, engraving it in letters of fire on holy stone tablets as part of the sign of your god’s pact with your people, thou shalt have no other gods before Me…
And the Romans keep saying “hey, worship our emperor’s genius as a god” when your culture doesn’t even understand what a genius is and certainly doesn’t consider them worthy of worship…
Well, you have a choice, at that point. You can piss off the Roman emperor, or you can piss off your people’s god.
Now, both your god and the Roman emperor have a reputation for being ferocious and unrelenting masters, who inflict appalling tribulations on peoples that forget or dishonor them.
The difference is, in theory, dishonoring the Roman emperor is something you can get away with. If your people are good enough warriors, in principle you might force him to leave you alone, or at least to stop asking you to worship him or something.
But you’re not going to be able to force the Lord your God to leave you alone, no matter how great your warriors are. Indeed, much of your recorded history consists of stories that boil down to “and then our people grew proud and forgot to properly honor God, and God decided to see to it that our people got slapped around a bit, and lo there were generations of misery and humiliation and slavery.”
And as if that wasn’t enough…
Well, God’s assistance is reasonably likely to help you repel the Roman Empire, you may think. After all your prophets were able to literally deep-six entire armies that had your people really in trouble before! It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a shot!
By contrast, if God is angry with you, the Roman emperor will super-de-duper-definitely not be able to save you. You’ll be in for a kicking, and no two ways about it.
So your people choose to keep honoring their God, who is powerful and jealous, rather than the Roman emperor, who is both less jealous and less powerful. Perfectly understandable.
Now, it turns out that in practice, the Roman emperor is perfectly capable of making your people miserable anyway. He takes exception to your resistance, falls upon your people with his legions, and scatters them to the four corners of the Earth. But them’s the breaks. If you keep praying long enough, and demonstrate your loyalty hard enough, maybe next year you’ll be back in the holy city!
Eventually. If you’re patient.
All of this really does make sense if you really believe in that unrelenting, all-powerful and jealous God who watches out for your people but has very high standards of behavior from them.
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
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”.
It was, after all, the interpretatio graeca — the Greek interpretation.
I blame the philosophers. They THOUGHT about such things.
This is absolutely fascinating. Will you be talking about mystery cults as part of this series?
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.
I was wondering how they fit into it all, so I’ll look forward to whatever you write on them in the future.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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. “
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.
Great point! I look forward to reading Devereaux’s reply.
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.
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?
Of course the problem in this discussion of Hinduism is that Hinduism is a current and modern religion(which often says it is just a philosophy) which has grown and changed and the importance of certain parts of it have as well, influenced by the many religions that flourished over the years in these areas.
Greek and Roman polytheism not so much.
Buddhism doesn’t apply because it isn’t a polytheistic religion and indeed does not require a belief in god at all. It is supposed to be something one doesn’t “believe” so much as discover oneself as the nature of reality.
On the pertaining to issue — there was, of course, the importance of not ticking off any of them.
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.
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.)
There is a similar episode in Herodotus where Apollo attempts to goad a city into denying a suppliant so that he could punish them for even *considering* denying a suppliant at his temple.
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.
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.
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.
Both real polytheists and fictional D&D characters believe their gods are real. The difference – as pointed out above – is that in the fictional world of D&D the gods actually are real. So where real people might interpret natural events and coincidences as signs of the gods approval or disapproval, and build up rituals and beliefs that they believe propitiate the gods, in D&D the gods can send direct messages for what they want.
You still need to propitiate the gods, but they can make much more specific demands. You *can* have gods whose demands are similar to real world polytheistic religions. Sacrifice this animal on this date or under this circumstance. Use this ritual. Wear this article of clothing or symbolic jewelry. Propitiate all the relevant gods as well as you can, etc.
BUT you can also have gods who demand you live your life according to a certain moral code, or worship them primarily, or refuse to worship or even attack follower of other gods, or for that matter give you specific tasks outside of the normal rituals. Or really anything you can come up with. Since they’re ‘real’ within the setting, they are individuals who can express indvidual desires, as opposed to being beliefs and practices developed over time in response to trying to deal with the world around you.
And in D&D the power of the gods is manifested in different ways. Priests who follows the demands of their gods don’t just get good harvests or triumph in battle, but rather immediate magical power. In fact, they may not get good harvests or triumph in battle at all if another god succesfully oppose their god – and they’ll know that it wasn’t because they got the ritual wrong, because the god told them the exact ritual, possibly personally. It’s more like working for a powerful leader, who gives you benefits, but can be opposed by other factions, though also work with them. There’s no inherent reason you can’t worship multiple gods in this system, but the background material strongly suggests that the gods don’t want you to do this and tell you so. Or rather, it suggests that they’re fine with you appeasing other allied gods, but they still demand that you pick one as your primary patron, and that you don’t appease enemy gods.
I happen to like the idea of role playing game or fictional gods who are more similar to real polytheistic gods, with less ideology and more simply demanding sacrifices, rituals etc….though perhaps not quite no ideology or morality, but still less. But in fiction it’s just as logical that the god of agriculture would demand people live by certain tenets as demand sacrifices and rituals…or demand both most likely.
In fact there is generally no way to get good harvests because the magic focuses on gameplay.
Coming to this discussion late, but I’m struck by how well the myth of Perseus fits into the archetypal RPG hero quest (with the career of Heracles being the main other). Perseus had to kill a supermonster (the gorgon Medusa) so overpowered that it would ordinarily be pointless for a mortal to even consider it; heck, even being able to FIND and REACH the realm of the gorgons would be ordinarily impossible. Perseus succeeds because the gods literally loan him their god-level equipment.
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
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.
I’m curious about whether you can support this claim? Might it have been part of the “belief” without having been codified anywhere?
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.
That was my supposition, which is why I challenged Chryx to provide evidence of the shift they claim has occured.
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.
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.
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?
The Southern Baptist Convention adopted a resolution in favour of the legalisation of abortion in 1971; the (immediately) former president of the SBC (W A Criswell)’s reaction at the time was “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person”
In 1968, Christianity Today carried a leading article that said “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: ‘If a man kills any human life he will be put to death’ (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”
https://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/30/my-take-when-evangelicals-were-pro-choice/ is perhaps the most thorough summary of this position.
Note that this is very specifically Protestants; Catholics have been anti-abortion for far longer; indeed the permissibility of abortion was one of the big differences between the two until around 1980. Note that evangelical opposition to contraception is much more recent (and is distinct from Catholic opposition thereto) and is usually confined to contraceptives that prevent (or may prevent) implantation rather than those that prevent fertilisation – specifically IUDs and “morning-after” pills.
That would be a conflict occurring in a matter of a few years. What was their position before that resolution?
This guy has the details:
Thanks for your response. I appreciate having further background.
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.
If you regard abortion as a form of birth control, opposition to birth control goes much further back.
You could just ask one of over a billion Hindus out there how it works.
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.
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
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.
“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: https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Skinner/Pigeon/
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.
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.
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.
“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”
You can play D&D that way, but if so, then you’re in an intentionally non-specific, cross-genre setting and the group will have to figure out whether they get into the weeds of whether Bilbo goes to the Harry Potter afterlife. That group probably prefers to hand-wave the question away, or establish a deliberately silly answer. Gary Gygax gave a silly answer, to his players, in his table’s early development of the World of Greyhawk, when players asked for clerics to have a more specific power source than “the gods”. Eventually, people wrote and published specific, ornate, formal theologies for Greyhawk; but that came later.
I prefer a game in which the nature of the Divine has some internal consistency. I imagine you do too. Players who are elsewhere on the silliness axis, in games where the wizard summons spirits from the Elemental Plane of Salad Dressing, and the ranger wears salt-studded armor made from the hide of a Pretzel Dragon, don’t have to worry about such things.
Blatant signs of divine action would alter religion still farther.
In Order of the Stick, the gods have regions and treaties. In Rusty & Co, the gods are organized in Limited Liability Congregations where the gods split the duties and the devotion for a given domain; hence we have a cleric of Knowledge and a cleric of Luck. Both of which are humorous webcomics set in RPG-worlds but something like that would be immensely plausible.
I meant in a metaphorical sense, not in a literal crossover sense. My point was that, while you can (and arguably should) have the group decide on a consistent tone and theme for their campaign, D&D works if everyone brings their own different fantasy subgenres to the table, and that’s intentional.
Back when I was a kid, I had in my head a story about a world where gods absolutely did act like this – except twist, the world actually had a sapient creator (less ‘omnipotent and omniscient god’, and more ‘very lonely child who happened to be able to shape reality like clay’) who after making a bunch more worlds came back to this one… and didn’t like how they were acting. He never made his presence well-known, he was just “this evidently immortal guy you really shouldn’t piss off” – he didn’t even do reality warping to fix things to his liking, he just took up being a bard and spreading stories/songs which worked really well against the gods – and they couldn’t exactly *stop* him. (Some of the gods also instantly allied with him on this because they didn’t like the cutthroat environment and preferred the idea of being more chill).
As a practicing and believing Catholic, this rhymes with the Catholic justification of the ‘development’ of doctrine and orthopraxis while still denying the ‘evolution’ thereof (viz. the ability to make a claim of identity through time of the Deposit of Faith and the form of the Liturgy). Obviously in theological terms the concern isn’t whether God can be appeased to make the crops grow, but there is still a very large concern with doing (and believing!) the Right Thing.
You even find that much of what I’ll call peasant Catholic everyday rituals, as distinct from things actually recognized as good and right and true by the Church and that priests should do, involve appeals to God or the Saints for aid in an almost talismanic fashion.
Excellent and I look forward to further chapters. That said, here’s a pedantic quibble: the screen shot from Pillars of Eternity 2 (Deadfire) is not a generic patron deity selection for all characters. At this point in the story, Berath asks the PC who they were, before the destruction of Caed Nua. The detail of which god favored the PC (and vice versa) arises only if the PC was a priest at that time.
IMO, when Berath asks you a question, face to face, answer honestly. If you were a priest of Eothas, at the time you visited the Hall of Stars (the pantheon shrine room in Twin Elms) and bargained for divine favor to survive the descent into the final stage, then say so and hope for the best.
Chryses in the Iliad is priest of Apollo: “…because the son of Atreus had dishonoured Chryses his priest.” If Chryses later came face to face with Hades in the underworld, and Hades asked Chryses the same questions Berath asks, then how should Chryses answer?
It might be quibbling but I don’t think shoe fits for Socrates.
“famously Socrates’ own philosophical take on the gods rather upset quite a lot of Athenians”
Seems to me he was tried for being a well known person who had one two many close connections to all to many people associated with loosing the war for Athens or participating in the quisling Spartan tyranny. The amnesty protected him generally so charges had to different than just he is an unrepentant supporter of oligarchy even after we have seen the results.
Even Plato makes it clear he almost got acquitted and a more contrite request for banishment would have likely have succeeded.
I am late to the party here, but this blog hits a wonderful balance of being intellectually entertaining while remaining grounded with scholarly citations and argument.
Ancient Mesopotamia forms another data point. I’ve heard several times that of the copious collection of clay tablets that have survived, the astronomy, literature (Epic of Gilgamesh), history, and commercial correspondence are a tiny minority. The main concern of the civilization was in recording divination knowledge. This was considered to be practical knowledge that could help you avoid disasters and seize opportunity.
For one viewpoint, see Jean Bottero, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. Dr. Bottero notes that even ignoring texts on practice, and so forth, we have texts preserving at least 30,000 oracles. The tablets are specifically organized into “rules”: if you observe this, then you can expect such and such a result. They carefully sorted and classified these rules so they would be easy to find. And they would work through all the variations. If a man dreams of eating the meat of a dog, this presages rebellion or desire not realized. If he dreams of eating meat of a fox, that presages skin rash, but if one is ill it is a good sign. Etc
The gods were believed to write their will upon the world, so the prudent man tried to read these signs using hard won knowledge. For over 2000 years, the Sumerians and then the Assyrians embarked on what Bottero calls a scientific enterprise to deduce and refine these rules of prediction / divination, and recorded their knowledge for future generations.
I would tend to disagree from a Confucian and Legalistic mindset.
The Confucian school of thought emphasized the need to “respect and stay far away from” gods and ghosts (effectively the same thing). Real or not, Confucianism emphasized that they did not matter, and should not factor into the decisionmaking of the Moral Man. OTOH, it placed massive emphasis on ritual, performing the religious rites exactly as prescribed, for the purposes you emphasize above.
I have no idea how Legalism connected with religion, only that it emphasized that Rulers should promogulate an official ideology and privately keep a separate set of books (i.e. not drink their own kool-aid) so as to manipulate the Ruler’s officials and the masses.
Atheism, or the idea of secularism and religion for expediency, were reasonably clear concepts in ancient China, at least among the well-educated classes.
A note on Harrim and Groetus. Groetus is specifically noted to only be worshipped by madmen, precisely because he doens’t actualyl offer anything. Harrim is an outlier and social outcast who only follows Groetus because he validates his pessimism. In this case the benefit is basically personal validation.
“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!”
I see you haven’t heard of Sithrak https://www.oglaf.com/sithrak/
On the other hand, there’s some doctrinal dispute: https://www.oglaf.com/outreach/2/
The point about “picking a god to believe in” put me in mind of this exchange from Terry Pratchett’s excellent Lords and Ladies:
“I don’t hold with paddlin’ with the occult,” said Granny firmly. “Once you start paddlin’ with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you’re believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble.”
“But all them things exist,” said Nanny Ogg.
“That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.”
“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.”
I feel this misrepresents things as the deity selection is for a cleric (a divinely appointed enforcer of the deity’s will), not a generic worshipper. A guy that robs people at knifepoint because he’s a power-tripping asshole might sleep and dream and might even revere the beneficent goddess of dreams, but she’ll never give him spells because he’s not the sort of person she wants spreading her ethos.
Playing regular pathfinder the cleric/non-cleric alignment distinction is weirdly annoying to get across to my players too. The alignment system for clerics is sort of reasonable, in that Abadar doesn’t allow bank robbers to perform miracles, Iomedae doesn’t channel literal death through her clerics into rooms full of innocents and Asmodeus doesn’t grant hellish strength to those who vehemently disagree with his views on ‘self betterment’. But that only applies to paladins or clerics (and warpriests)- anyone who isn’t granted their powers directly by an identifiable god (even oracles, who’re actually just inexplicably cursed, and who knows what did that to them) can believe in whatever deity they want, regardless of alignment. Necromancer wizard who’s from Ustalav? well Pharasma probably is the church he grew up going to, even if he’s not good at following the rules, like a christian who wears mixed fabrics and likes oysters, only with more zombies. Lawful Good fighter who’s parents were part of a mad cult? there’s no reason his prayers wouldn’t be inexplicably directed towards rovagug, even if they just make the planet-sized mass of teeth and anger even more mad.