Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part IV: Little Gods and Big People

For the last three weeks, we have been talking about the ancient practice of polytheistic religions without getting too much in big philosophic questions like the nature of humans and the divine. And there was a reason for this, because in these religions, belief derives from practice, not the other way around. It made sense to move in the same order.

Today, we are finally getting to the nature of the gods themselves. But rather than opening this as a theology discussion, we’re going to approach the question in the same way these religions do: through the lens of practice. We’re going to look at the blurry line between humans and gods through the lens of the borderline cases: little gods and big humans.

And we’ll start with a topic that you all have been clamoring for for three weeks now: the little gods.

As always, if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.

Little Gods

When we teach ancient religion in school – be it high school or college – we are typically focused on the big gods: the sort of gods who show up in high literature, who create the world, guide heroes, mint kings. These are the sorts of gods – Jupiter, Apollo, Anu, Ishtar – that receive state cult, which is to say that there are rituals to these gods which are funded by the state, performed by magistrates or kings or high priests (or other Very Important People); the common folk are, at best, spectators to the rituals performed on their behalf by their social superiors.

That is not to say that these gods did not receive cult from the common folk. If you are a regular sailor on a merchant ship, some private devotion to Poseidon is in order; if you are a husband wishing for more children, some observance of Ishtar may help; if you are a farmer praying for rain, Jupiter may be your guy. But these are big gods, whose vast powers are unlimited in geographic scope and their right observance is, at least in part, a job for important people who act on behalf of the entire community. Such gods are necessarily somewhat distant and unapproachable; it may be difficult to get their attention for your particular issue.

Fortunately, the world is full up of smaller and more personal gods. The most pervasive of these are household gods – god associated with either the physical home, or the hearth (the fireplace), or the household/family as a social unit. The Romans had several of these, chiefly the Lares and Penates, two sets of gods who presided over the home. The Lares seem to have originally been hearth guardians associated with the family, while the Penates may have begun as the guardians of the house’ storeroom – an important place an in agricultural society! Such figures are common in other polytheisms too – the fantasy tropes of brownies, hobs, kobolds and the like began as similar household spirits, propitiated by the family for the services they provide.

(As an aside, the Lares and Penates provide an excellent example on how practice was valued more than belief or orthodoxy in ancient religion: when I say that they ‘seem’ or ‘may have originally been,’ that is because it was not entirely clear to the Romans, exactly what the distinction between the Lares and Penates were; ancient authors try to reconstruct exactly what the Penates are about from etymologies (e.g. Cic. De Natura Deorum 2.68) and don’t always agree! But of course, the exact origins of the Lares or the Penates didn’t matter so much as the power they held, how they ought to be appeased, and what they might do to you!)

The Lararium (household shrine to the Lares) in the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. The paterfamilias, or perhaps an ancestor/genius figure, stands at the center, flanked by the Lares, who each hold up a rhyton – a ceremonial drinking horn (in this case, shown for its use in libations – liquid offerings to the gods).

Household gods also illuminate the distinctly communal nature of even smaller religious observances. The rituals in a Roman household for the Lares and Penates were carried out by the heads of the household (mostly the paterfamilias although the matron of the household had a significant role – at some point, we can talk about the hierarchy of Roman households, but now I just want to note that these two positions in the Roman family are not co-equal) on behalf of the entire family unit, which we should remember might well be multi-generational, including adult children with their own children – in just the same way that important magistrates (or in monarchies, the king or his delegates) might carry out rituals on behalf of the community as a whole.

There were other forms of little gods – gods of places, for instance. The distinction between a place and the god of that same place is often not strong – when Achilles enrages the god of the river Scamander (Iliad 20), the river itself rises up against him; both the river and the god share a name. The Romans cover many small gods under the idea of the genius (pronounced gen-e-us, with the ‘g’ hard like the g in gadget); a genius might protect an individual or family (we’ll discuss the genius of the emperor in a moment) or even a place (called a genius locus). Water spirits, governing bodies of water great and humble, are particularly common – the fifty Nereids of Greek practice, or the Germanic Nixe or Neck.

Other gods might not be particular to a place, but to a very specific activity, or even moment. Thus (these are all Roman examples) Arculus, the god of strongboxes, or Vagitanus who gives the newborn its first cry or Forculus, god of doors (distinct from Janus and Limentinus who oversaw thresholds and Cardea, who oversaw hinges). All of these are what I tend to call small gods: gods with small powers over small domains, because – just as there are hierarchies of humans, there are hierarchies of gods.

Fortunately for the practitioner, bargaining for the aid of these smaller gods was often quite a lot cheaper than the big ones. A Jupiter or Neptune might demand sacrifices in things like bulls or the dedication of grand temples – prohibitively expensive animals for any common Roman or Greek – but the Lares and Penates might be befriended with only a regular gift of grain or a libation of wine. A small treat, like a bowl of milk, is enough to propitiate a brownie. Many rituals to gods of small places amount to little more than acknowledging them and their authority, and paying the proper respect.

The Lararium in the House of Menander (note: so called because there is a fresco of the poet Menander in it; it did not belong to a Menander) in Pompeii, with a little house for offerings to the Lares to be placed in.

What connects these gods with the big ones is not their scale but a certain kind of power. The Romans called this power numen. Literally, the word means a nod – or more correctly, a thing produced by nodding. Presumably this has something to do with the power to produce results without directly effecting them, to do so ‘with a nod.’ As with most things, this spark of divinity may be left pleasantly vague and blurry. After all, it doesn’t matter how it works, but only that it works. But note how that conception of divine power – the ability to change the world ‘with a nod’ as it were – leaves a tremendous space for differences in scope: Forculus might open a door with his nod, which is rather less impressive than if Poseidon crumbles the entire house with his (Poseidon, in addition to ruling the seas, was the Earthshaker).

These gods – the ones we don’t often think of – defined many of the rhythms of life for ancient practitioners of these religions. For instance, a Roman boy wore a small charm called a bulla to protect him from evil magic – when he came of age (and thus had his own masculine energy which could repel the feminine evil magic – one of these days, we’ll talk about the weird way Roman magic is gendered), he offered that charm to the Lares and Penates as thanks for protecting him through his youth. It was a key passage into adulthood. Likewise, a Roman girl surrendered the trappings of girlhood to the Lares and Penates before her wedding, and offered her new Lares – those of her husband’s house – a copper coin on her arrival so that they would bless the addition to the household.

The key thing to note here is that divinity, as we’ll see, is not an all-or-nothing proposal. Beings that have numen do not all have equal amounts of it. The powers of the great gods – Jupiter, Zeus, Thor, Marduk, Ra, that sort – are vast and global in scope. Arculus isn’t going to strike you with lightning, or flood out your city, or cause your army to lose a battle – but he may keep you from getting robbed (or cause the valuables in your storage chest to rot!). And for a lot of work-a-day people, that kind of power is all you need, for the relatively small concerns of your life.

Heroes, Legends and Ancestors

Now that we’ve covered the smallest of gods, it is time to talk about the biggest of humans.

Let’s start with a bit of an anomaly: Greek hero cult. Now those of you who know your mythology probably expect us to go to the obvious thing next: the heroes who become gods. A handful of heroes from Greek mythology become gods as part of their story. The most famous of these is Heracles, raised to godhood at his death, along with Castor and Pollux – twin demi-god heroes with enough divinity between them to make one of them god and the alternated the honor. Leucothea (lit: the white goddess) – the divine form of the woman Ino – makes her apperance in the Odyssey (Book 5!) to save Odysseus.

These figures – complete with tales of being swept up into divinity while still alive or at the moment of their death – are in some way atypical of hero worship in the Greek world. More typical is a figure like Achilles, who very definitely was mortal and very definitely died and whose spirit is very much in the Underworld in the Odyssey (and neatly contrasted with Heracles – only Heracles shade is in the underworld, for his soul was divine; but cf. Pindar on Achilles, Olympia 2.75-85). Our sources (e.g. Plin. Nat. 4.26) continue to speak of Achilles as a man, with a physical tomb. And yet Alexander pays him honors (Arr. Anab. 1.12.1) and we have ample evidence for cult observances of Achilles in the Greek world. it was possible to be a man in life, and yet have enough influence to be worthy of cult in death.

This sounds strange, but its worth noting that some of the most common mortal figures to receive this kind of cult worship were founder figures – people (often legendary or mythical in nature) credited with the foundation of a community. We’ve actually discussed that here before in Lycurgus and Theseus, but as you might imagine, such figures were very common. It is not entirely crazy to assume that these figures have some power to shape your world or life, because they already have – you live in the city they founded! They deeds in life continue to shape the confines of your experience – why wouldn’t that influence, in some way, carry with them?

(And while I’m here, I should note that the American architectural veneration of our founder figures on the National Mall is explicitly framed in terms of Mediterranean cult observance. The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials both borrow their forms from Roman temples and contain super-life-sized cult statues exactly as and where a Roman temple would has the cult statue of the god, while the Washington Monument – as an Egyptian style obelisk – mimics Egyptian practice quite intentionally. We even have our monuments to the di manes in our war memorials, framed around collective veneration. A Roman time-traveler would have no problem interpreting the display, and might think the many millions of visitors coming from all corners quite pious in their observance.)

Pictured: Cult center for the veneration of the founder-deity Abraham Lincoln (c. 1922), with the cult statue clearly visible. Approximately eight million pilgrims visit the shrine to show their respects to the Great Emancipator every year (but for some reason, when I try to sacrifice a sheep or a goat there, everyone gets upset!)

This kind of cult is most clear and common in the Greek world (Greek hero cult is unusually well established and pervasive, compared to similar religious institutions in the Near East or at Rome), but not wholly restricted to it. We know that, for instance, the Sumerian King of Uruk, Bilgames (immortalized in Akkadian as Gilgamesh in his eponymous epic), received divine honors in Uruk and beyond. The Apkallu, the seven Sumerian sages fall into a similar space between mortal and divine, themselves associated with legendary kings.

These cults appear as a super-charged variant of ancestor worship which is extremely common within polytheistic religious systems. Ancestor worship systems often collectivize the ancestors – as with the Roman di manes, the divine shades of your dead ancestors who watch over you – seemingly as if the influence of a single deceased ancestor isn’t quite enough, but collectively they wield power. Such collective ancestor worship is extremely common in these religious systems and even figures highly into modern Shinto. A hero, by contrast, mightier in life, might be mightier in death too and so able to stand on his own and offer you a little bit of that power to help you out.

What holds these figures together is the influence they have on the structure of your life – ancestors, founder figures, and heroes all did things in life which set the confines for the person you are, and it seems as though that power bleeds over into the afterlife. I want to note my use of ‘seems’ here, because – again – ancient polytheists were not overly concerned with the metaphysics of how that worked. It just did work, and it made intuitive sense besides.

That influence, of course gets back to the idea of the numen – the divine sort of influence – being what defines a god. We tend to think of the distinction between mortal humans and immortal gods as a bright-line distinction, in part because of how we perceive the divine: immortal and spiritual beings. But polytheistic gods are often – as we’ve seen – not particularly transcendent, and while they have spiritual concerns, they also have earthly cares (e.g. Zeus and his many philanderings). Immortality isn’t even a common trait of the gods. Sure Greek and Roman gods are incapable of death, but Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Norse gods are quite capable of dying (and several do!).

What separates gods from mortals is that influence, the numen – and so a deceased mortal who wielded sufficient influence might shade into being something like a god themselves, possessed of a sort of low-grade numinous power, much like a small god. I want to be clear here: a figure like Achilles does not rise to the same level as, say, the Olympian gods – or even to the level of a significant non-Olympian god (e.g. Thanatos, Nyx, Nemesis, etc), but he might wield the same sort of power as a household god, or as a river god, or the god particular to a local town.

Kings and Emperors

And all of that brings us around to the main topic I wanted to discuss here: divinized kings and emperors. Nothing in ancient religion strikes my students as so utterly strange and foreign as that idea. The usual first response of the modern student is to treat the thing like a sham – surely the king knows he is not divine or invested with some mystical power, so this most all be a con-job aimed at shoring up the legitimacy of the king. But as we’ve seen, the line between great humans and minor gods is blurry, and it is possible to cross that line. It is not necessary to assume that it was all an intentional sham.

Divine rulership was not universal however – it was subject to cultural context. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was the Living Horus, a physical incarnation of the divine; when he died he became Osiris, the ruler over the underworld. The mystery of the duality whereby a Pharaoh was both a specific person (and might be a different person in the future) but also the same god each time seems to owe something to the multipart Egyptian conception of the soul. Naram-Sin, an Akkadian King (2254-2218 B.C.) represents himself as divine (shown by his having horns) on his victory stele; future kings of Akkad followed suit in claiming a form of divinity, albeit a lesser one than the big-time great gods.

Victory Stele of Naram-Sin originally found in Susa (but probably from Sippar), now in the Louvre Museum, dating to c. 2250 B.C. The greater height of Naram-Sin and his horns show his ascent into godhood, yet his gaze, cast up at the stars and his progression up the side of the mountain speak to continued subservience to the greater gods.

But in Mesopotamia, the rulers of Akkad were the exception; other Mesopotamian kings (Sumerian, Babylonian, etc) did not claim to be gods – even very great kings (at least while alive – declaring a legendary ruler a god is rather more like a divine founder figure, discussed above). Hammurabi (king of Babylon, c.1810-c.1750 B.C.) is shown in his royal artwork very much a man – albeit one who receives his mandate to rule from the gods Shamash and Marduk. Crucially, and I want to stress this, the Achaemenid kings of Persia were not considered gods (except inasmuch as some of them also occupied the position of Pharaoh of Egypt; it’s not clear how seriously they took this – less seriously than Alexander and Ptolemy, quite clearly). The assumption that the Persians practiced a divine kingship is mostly a product of Greek misunderstandings of Persian court ritual, magnified in the popular culture by centuries of using the Persian ‘other’ as a mirror and (usually false) contrast for European cultures.

But the practice that my students often find most confusing is that of the Roman emperors. To be clear, Roman emperors were not divinized while they were alive. Augustus had his adoptive father, Julius Caesar divinized (this practice would repeat for future emperors divinizing their predecessors), but not himself; the emperor Vespasian, on his deathbed, famously made fun of this by declaring as a joke, “Alas! I think I’m becoming a god” (Suet. Vesp. 23.4). And yet, at the same time, outside of Rome, even Augustus – the first emperor – received cult and divine honors, either to his person or to his genius (remember, that’s not how smart he is, but the divine spirit that protects him and his family).

I think it is common for us, sitting outside of these systems, to view this sort of two-step dance, “I’m not a god, but you can give me divine honors in the provinces and call me a god, just don’t do it too loudly” as fundamentally cynical – and so some degree it might have been; Augustus was capable of immense cynicism. But I think it is possible to view this relationship outside of that cynicism through the lens of the ideas and rules we’ve laid out.

La maison carrée (the square house) in Nîmes, France, an imperial cult center built in the first decade of the first century A.D.

The fundamental ingredient in the relationship between humans and gods in these religions is one of an imbalance in power: the gods have it and we don’t. That power is expressed in the numen, the sort of influence to change the world – in large ways or in small ones – through merely a will, or a whim, or (literally) a nod. Ritual – through do ut des exchange – provides the means by which humans might manage that power imbalance and even persuade the gods to use some of their power for our benefit.

Now think about people in the provinces. The emperor is remote and distant, much like a god, and his power is vast. Augustus (the first emperor and thus the model for imperial cult) could with a nod destroy your town, or greatly improve your life. An order from him might double your taxes – or cancel them. It might raise your town up in status, or order it razed or relocated. For someone in the provinces, facing that vast power imbalance and the same sort of ineffable with-a-nod kind of influence over human affairs, applying the rubric of cult observance isn’t a huge leap of logic to make. After all, if it works with other Powers-That-Be, why not with Augustus?

As we noted before, the tense of do ut des was variable – you might offer something to a god in advance, or in later recognition of a good turn done to you before. And that’s precisely the pattern we see in many cases of imperial cult: a town might send the emperor a letter, asking politely for some favor – remission in taxes, some new status or privlege, or even just restraining the local soldiers – along with a happy note that they had just established a new observance of the cult of his genius, or requesting permission to dedicate some ritual to him directly. Or perhaps the emperor had already done something that greatly benefited the town – then you dedicate your imperial cult in response.

This gets back to the very nature of practical polytheism. It is fundamentally about two things: the extreme power imbalance between mortals and gods, and the benefits that a god might deliver – and has delivered in the past – to a person or a community.

Now, as with a figure like Achilles, it is important to note that the emperor doesn’t suddenly rise to the level of one of the great gods. Indeed, much of imperial cult recognizes the sort of ‘borderline’ nature of the emperor’s nodding-power by directing the cult not to the person of the emperor, but to the genius which watches over him. When an emperor dies – or ‘becomes a god’ in Vespasian’s phrasing – that power, which had been temporal, becomes spiritual and thus the emperor becomes a god. Yet, it should be noted, the emperor still does not suddenly become a god on the same order of power as Jupiter or Mars. Much of the apparent silliness of the idea of a divine emperor is resolved by remembering that no one thought he suddenly gained the ability to throw thunderbolts.

Why then is imperial cult so pervasive? Well, it gets to the immediateness of imperial power. Household gods were very small gods – but their cult was pervasive because they were so close to you, even though they were limited in scope. Likewise, though the emperor was not a god on the order of Jupiter or Mars, he was also not distant like Jupiter or Mars – you could write a letter to him, and be reasonably sure that you’d receive a formal response (there was an office for this, the office ab epistulis (lit ‘for letters’) in both Greek and Latin).

Now that gets to the second question tied up in these ideas: did these god-kings believe their own spin? Certainly, they do not seem to have thought that being elevated to a divinity or receiving divine honors made their bodies indestructible of immortal – but remember: many of the gods were not indestructible or immortal either. Being a god wasn’t about immortality, but about the power to shape the world summed up by that concept of the numen.

The ‘Great Cameo of France,’ (first half of the first century A.D), showing the defied members of Augustus’ family among the gods. To be clear on the artwork, this is carved out of a single piece of sardonyx, 31cm wide, so those details are tiny. Such carvings (called cameos) were very popular as jewelry and ornamentation in the first century; this is easily one of the most impressive examples of the form.

For a ruler who was fantastically successful in war or politics, it was not inherently insane for them to think they had some sort of special mojo – some minor numinous element – to them. How else could their long train of victories and successes – against men and armies otherwise no weaker than they – be explained? Remember, no one thinks that Augustus can, by his divine will, throw a thunderbolt – but he can move legions, which is a far sight more than your Lares and Penates can do!

That’s why I wanted to deal with these two topics – little gods and big men – together. Of course, in a Christian or Muslim context – one where there is one God and He is a being almost wholly unlike humans in His unlimited and perfect nature – the idea of a divine ruler seems ludicrous. But in a religious system full of small gods, with little numina, it makes sense that the very greatest of mortals might shade into the kind of power wielded by lesser gods.

Conclusion: the Nature of Practical Polytheism

Now is a good moment to circle back to the metaphor we used to understand polytheistic practice in the very first post – that of powerful neighbors. As we’ve explored the topic, we’ve seen how apt the metaphor is: to the polytheist, the gods – members of the community, you will recall – are our neighbors, they move among us. And they are powerful neighbors, capable of great benefits and great harms, who must be befriended, or at least managed. Because they have power.

That, in turn, is why polytheism must be practical, rather than moral or ethical – as we see with the physical world around us, beings with power often wield that power quite apart from their moral or ethical virtue. To the Roman or the Greek, this too was true of the spiritual realm. But you could no more afford to cross a wicked king than a good one – and no more afford to cross a vain god than a beneficent one.

The way humans manage that power is through rituals, which in turn are created from a form of knowledge, derived from generations of experience.

And that finally gets us to the biggest take-away of this series, which is that these systems make a very real sort of sense. The common temptation as moderns reading history is to assume that everyone in the past was just stupid (as if we don’t believe similarly ridiculous things!) or that all of the ‘smart’ ones (and so often ‘smart’ is unthinkingly equated with ‘rich elites’) viewed this all cynically. As I have said before, and I will say again, it is generally safe to assume that people in the past believed their own religion.

These religious systems are not stupid and they do not demand that smart people follow them only through cynicism. Instead, these systems were supremely practical, focused on harnessing powers in the world for human ends, through a kind of knowledge and careful craft.

And that’s that for this look at Practical Polytheism. I promise we will come back to ancient religion – especially Roman religious practice – in more detail in the future. There are many topics here were only briefly glanced over, or didn’t touch entirely (mystery cults, burial rituals, the role of mythology, etc). What I wanted was for this series to serve as a basis for those topics, when we get to them.

But next week – something different!

63 thoughts on “Collections: Practical Polytheism, Part IV: Little Gods and Big People

  1. “Immortality isn’t even a common trait of the gods. Sure Greek and Roman gods are incapable of death, but Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Norse gods are quite capable of dying (and several do!).”

    I’ve read a number of stories in which a god dies, but in all of them that death seems to have taken place in the indefinite or remote past. Are there any cases of a polytheistic religion where a significant god is said to have died as a current event? How did those cultures react to that death?

    1. Pan is said to have died during the reign of Tiberius. However its not clear how widely this was accepted seeing as shrines to Pan were still utilized in many areas. Otherwise I don’t know of any other gods that were said to have died during the present, but I could just not know of them.

    2. This last installment brought everything home for me. The polytheistic spiritual landscape is clarified greatly. My questions is, practically speaking, by what means did the common person come to “discover” or “meet” the Lares that should receive their honor/offerings in order to make their lives better in some way?

      Are they said to be somehow self evident, did they give them names or did they discover their name? Did a local spiritual leader above the Paterfamilias help to formulate rituals to them for the benefit of the family/community etc?

      Thank you for this series of articles.

  2. What do we know about Vespasian’s philosophy and religious beliefs? Given Vespasian is making fun of the Imperial Cult it sounds like he doesn’t really believe in it. Is that a fair interpretation?

  3. How did this understanding of there being small gods all over work out when conducting hostilities with people who are propiating them for protection, such as when soldiers are looting a city with all of those household gods and perhaps the city god being called on to protect the inhabitants of the houses and the walls? Was triumph in battle taken as the small gods abandoning their charges, were there rituals that would be undertaken to appease these small gods in order to attack those under their protection, or was there some other understandings of what was happening and how to prevent misfortune on behalf of the attacking force?

    1. Speaking from the Roman context, there are a few ways this is understood:
      1) Our better religio (latin word, understand it here as both ‘our better knowledge of how to work with the gods’ and also ‘our greater diligence at doing so’) meant that we had more support from the gods than you did
      2) The Romans had a ritual, called evocatio, to specifically call out – essentially bribe – the gods of another city to come over to Rome’s side. The bribes offered were things like festivals and temples (so this is, essentially, a vow).
      3) Our gods proved stronger than your gods. Victory is proof that the victor’s gods were mightier and thus more worthy of veneration.

      Some set of all of those ideas might be in play, on both sides.

      1. The third option sounds like an exception to the rule that one ought to be in good graces with all of the gods, or at least not have them unhappy with you. This sounds like it would be less common than the other two, unless the interpretation sprung into ideas such the gods of the defeated being likewise vanquished, cowed, or conquered.

        Once an area was conquered and land and loot was taken to pay off the soldiers, would the soldiers care to adopt the local customs to appease the gods and make sure their looted items don’t act up? If so, did they worry about the defeated locals trying to subvert them by hiding or distorting the information on the right rituals?

        1. Staying in the good graces of all the gods is of course the ideal outcome, but it’s not always possible. When gods fight each other, safest option for any given mortal is almost certainly “stay out of it” – but if circumstances are such that you can’t, “figure out who’s winning, support that one” is often a workable backup plan.

          Deliberately teaching some ritual wrong to spite the invaders strikes me as unlikely, though admittedly I’d also be somewhat surprised if it had literally never happened. Overall better plan might simply be job security through exclusivity of institutional knowledge:

          “Alright, fine, you’ve conquered us, I surrender – but you’d better keep me alive, and at least somewhat free to continue existing cultural practices. You may have already noticed there are a lot of poisonous-herb and avalanche spirits around these parts? If you had to figure out from scratch how to avoid pissing them all off, that’d probably take a long time, and involve many painful, expensive mistakes.”

  4. The “practical polytheism” thesis seems to also imply why Roman Paganism weakened enough for Christianity to take over: Roman Paganism stopped working.

    All of the chaos of the Crisis of the Third Century is evidence that “something was very wrong”. That is an opening for new belief to come in. Even within the “Practical Polytheism” framework, if something isn’t working, change it! Consequently, Roman religious practice became Christian.

  5. I am a huge fan of your blog and just wanted to add that this series on polytheism has been really fascinating and informative. It has given me a completely new perspective on ancient polytheistic religious practice.

  6. Would the Romans think it necessary to persecute atheists?
    Or would not worshiping the gods only harm those ignorant fools, rather than result in collateral damage?

    1. Oh yes. Failure to pay due respect to the national gods was unpatriotic and dangerous as if too many do it the gods will get mad. Christians were persecuted not so much for their faith as for the excusivity that kept them from performing their duty to the state cults. Jews with their one God, were considered the next thing to atheists,as well as seriously weird.

      1. Though a Latinist told me the Romans gave Jews an exception, based on antiquity (that theme again). “They deny the gods, but they’re still around, their god must have some deal going with the other gods, okay then.” So Jews didn’t have to do the imperial cult, but they kept rebelling, so got crackdown for *that*.

        Christianity, being new, didn’t get such forbearance for their abstention from state religion.

        1. Also, when Roman-Jewish relations were not too strained, the Roman policy was “you ask your god (who weirdly refuses to let you worship Rome and the emperor) to bless Rome and the emperor, and we’ll call it good enough.”

          1. In fact, if you read Terullian’s apologies, one of his arguments is just like this: Christians *do* pray for the Rome’s and emperor’s well-being, and since they pray to the one true God, it’s actually working out even better than all those other rituals!

    2. If you look at it from the lens of the last section of this post, about the emperor cult, I think it is possible to see why this is not how it works. Lets say we have a village, with an ‘atheist’ who doesn’t believe in the power of the emperor. One day, the emperor comes through the town on his travels and the ‘atheist’ says ‘You have no power here, you can do nothing against me! (And for Christians: For I am protected by my own lord, a guy called Jesus)’. The emperor nods. His guards grab torches and light aflame the village.
      To the emperor, destroying this town to prevent this rebellion of anarchists from spreading seems like a pretty good deal, he has thousands more towns! (and that is assuming he only acts rationally and doesn’t order this in a fit of anger) To the neighbours of this guy… not so much.

      People not worshipping the bigger gods would be similar, but on larger scale: We cannot let those people keep on doing that because if Poseidon earthquakes them off the earth, the entire city will collapse!

  7. I note that in China, which gods you could sacrifice to was heavily regulated. Some gods, only the emperor could sacrifice to, and nobles and lower people had to have a specific connection to a god to sacrifice — you could not sacrifice to a city god without a specific connection to the city.

    1. Interesting! I’d like to learn more.

      Do you have a recommended book? I would prefer english, as my Chinese is not at the level of reading academic texts.

      1. There are a number of books on Chinese religion in English, but the particular one I read that in was (IIRC) Religions of China in Practice edited by Donald S. Lopez Jr.

  8. Thank you for writing these. Fascinating stuff. One question though:
    In the beginning, you started by contrasting actual polytheism with its portrayal in video games. One notable thing in those is how rigidly defined those gods are. You commented that every person should be concerned with dreams. But did those ancient people see gods in so rigid terms? Did you call on Hephaestus because he was the greatest of smiths, or did you call on him because he was the being that “administrated”, so to speak, smithing? A Dungeons and Dragons blogger touches on this here: saying that it was something he’d read about Greek versus Roman beliefs, but from what you’ve written, it sounds more like a little of both. Is there any truth to this notion?

    1. So, I think that dichotomy is actually, to a degree, missing how the system works.

      You call on Hephaestus because it works. Later on you can think about why it works, pass down stories about how it works. But the *working*, the practical benefits of the ritual performed properly, is more important than the myths or the explanations.

    2. Thing is that the Iliad is not religion, it’s story. Starting with the myths as we generally are started in elementary school is a very poor guide to polytheistic religion. Notice, for one, that we get the Greek myths. Why not the Roman? That’s because the Romans weren’t so big on the stories. It didn’t make the religion lesser. Indeed, in Egypt, the gods are often the gods of this city or that one, and the cosmological myths comes later, to justify the cities that were in power in various periods.

  9. From my perspective, the obvious point of comparison is saints, both living and deceased*. I’ve been waiting for a comparison regarding similarities and differences throughout the post.

    * Other holy men, Jewish tzadikim for example, blur the lines between divine and arcane power a bit more.

    1. The most obvious point of difference is that saints do not have spheres of influence. Anyone can pray to any saint for intercession in any matter. Or all of them at once.

      1. I’d say otherwise. Catholic saints are rife with having specialized domains.

        Saint Catherine of Siena for example has patronage over nurses and sick people. St Jude has lost causes and hopeless situations. St Christopher has travelers. St James has apocatheries and fullers. St Veronica is the patron saint of Photography, etc.

        1. Those are just common. One can pray to any saint for anything.

          At that, you will find people saying that St. Corona is not a patron saint against epidemics. The correct answer to that is — she is now.

  10. Fascinating series! I grew up with Maori mythology and ritual, and although nobody today actually believes it to be literally true (perhaps excepting one slightly batty uncle – it’s hard to tell), I still feel a natural kinship with ‘other’ polytheists.

    A Muslim friend once started asking about various elements of ‘my religion’. Given her background it was profoundly hard to get across how, for instance, I recall emphasis being on ancestors and local spirits rather than any one domineering figure; how many of our core legends celebrate the triumph of a mortal hero over hostile divinities; how little faith overlaps with day-to-day morality; how ‘holiness’ is a burdensome quality that people sometimes actively sought to have removed.
    It’s always proved frustratingly hard to explain this stuff to monotheists, and refreshing to discuss with people who ‘get it’ (e.g. other Pasifika, Hindus).

    Your breakdown really helps to understand the fundamental differences from an outside perspective. Should people ask again in future, I feel able to explain without making a total botch of it. Thanks heaps!

  11. Bret, for some reason, when the list of posts is loaded, this one does not provide a button for “Continue Reading” like the others do/?

    Proofreading corrections continue below:

    god and the alternated the honor -> god and they alternated the honor
    only Heracles shade is -> only Heracles shade is (possessive apostrophe inserted, direction will correct itself in regular text)
    They deeds in life continue -> Their deeds in life continue
    in some way, carry with them? (doesn’t sound right, but I can’t tell what was intended)
    would has the cult statue -> would have the cult statue
    so this most all be a con-job -> so this must all be a con-job
    bodies indestructible of immortal -> bodies indestructible or immortal
    Caption for Great Cameo: showing the defied members -> showing the deified members

  12. A question maybe somewhat related to the Roman emperor veneration thing. I’ve visited a few Limes museums on the Danube frontier in Bavaria, and one thing they are strikingly well equipped with is busts of emperors. Which are of remarkably high quality and generally look like realistic portraits of real people.

    My question is this: how did the local jobbing sculptor near some obscure cavalry fort on the Bavarian frontier know what the new emperor looked like? The emperor was hundreds of miles away in Italy/Anatolia/Syria, most people had never and would never see him. Were likenesses sent around for people to copy? Or were the busts centrally produced and distributed?

    1. That makes me imagine how annoyed all the sculptors were when the new emperor was deposed after 9 weeks.

    2. > Were likenesses sent around for people to copy?

      On some level, yes — as coins. I don’t know if that would be enough for an accurate bust, though.

    3. Did the bust of an emperor look like a real person? Sure! There’s plenty of real people around for our sculptor to look at for inspiration, after all. Did they all look like the same real person? That’s the real question to ask.

  13. One thing I don’t get, as a practical matter.

    If the rituals were followed because “they worked”, how did anybody determine they actually _did_ work?

    So much was left to interpretation, it seems very possible (indeed, very likely) the interpreter could (would!) spin the outcome the way the “client” wanted. Failing that, just get somebody else (a second opinion, so to speak). Was there a way to insure against that?

    If that couldn’t be prevented, how can it be said the system “worked”? (Leaving off the prospect of gods lying or trying to provoke cheating.)

    That said, I’ve found this series very informative. I had no knowledge of how ancient religion worked. Now, at least, I have a basic grasp. Thx!

    1. Ah! This is how superstitions arose.

      You determined how they worked by what happened after. And you certainly were not fool enough to risk a double blind experiment to see what would happen without it.

      So a ritual could work on a purely mundane level by four ways:

      First, it could have stumble on genuine effects. You, as part of your ritual to the headache goddess, drink willow-bark tea.

      Second, it produced a placebo effect.

      Third, it worked by reversion to mean. Burning incense to the god of colds would, like most cold treatments, clear up your average cold in a couple of weeks.

      Four, it kept people too busy to make matters worse. During the Crusades, the most effective way to treat a wound was to find the weapon that inflicted it, pray over it, and destroy it –which meant you WEREN’T poking around at the wound and preventing it from healing on its own.

    2. That was covered in part I, but an important factor is the combination of the communal nature of polytheism and the anthropic principle. Specifically the main rituals are (thought to be) and centred around the maintenance of the community and/or the family, rather than the individual. And by virtue of that community or family being in place to believe and enact the ritual, it is clear that their rituals work overall for them. The fact that not every individual request has been dealt with is kind of beside the point. If you are in a situation where the community really is threatened with extinction you might try something new, preferably anchored in something old, and again the pass/fail test afterwards is ‘are we still around’.

    3. What isn’t touched in the articles is that there is a thriving industry (for lack of a better term) of mystics, magicians, and travelling holy men in the ancient Roman world (and I imagine other polytheist societies) that literally exist on their ability to interpret signs and symbols and tell and sell how to make a suddenly failing ritual work, or how to get a god or spirit to strike your neighbor with leprosy, or what have you. If you were good enough at it, you might even catch the attention of big officials or even emperors and have your weird dead snake god elevated to prominence empire wide. But most of these people catered to the common folks that had no real access to, like, the Oracle at Delphi, or the augers in Rome.

      1. I rather wish that had been touched upon, because my understanding is that the Romans maintained a strict separation between religious ceremonies, in which one bargained with the gods for benefits, and magic, in which one attempted to force the gods to act, the latter being strictly prohibited and punished.

        1. Certainly in theory. There are trials for magic where the defense was that it was not an attempt to coerce.

  14. The point on the divination of Kings and Emperors resonates with what I recall from Plato’s Phaedo and St Augustine’s confessions, where philosophy (or appropriate worship/understanding of God) will better enable your spirit to navigate the afterlife.
    If we’re operating in a paradigm where abstract veneration/tribute has some influence on the ability of a god to intervene (along with it’s likelihood of doing so), assuming kings & emperors who already have a high base level of veneration and experience with numen in temporal matters will have some ability to influence this world from their place in the afterlife makes a kind of sense. I know a big part of this series is dispelling any investigation of the *how* as missing the point, but I couldn’t help myself.

  15. “Bah, look at these stupid pagans, with their divine emperors! I’ll believe in imperial divinity when he chucks a lightning bolt.”

    “Bah, look at these stupid Christians, with their transubstantiation! I’ll believe in Jesus when my wine tastes like blood.”

  16. Fascinating the parallels between ancient (western) civilizations and our 21st century (western) civilizations. We have different names for our cults, but the same basic attitudes (if you treat your President the same as a Roman would treat a divine emperor, for instance, does it matter that you “know” he is neither divine nor an emperor?). Polytheism and ancestor/hero worship replaced with same structures under different names and “understandings” of the paradigm.

    What strange creatures humans are, truly.

  17. Worth noting that the Norse gods were not only mortal, but susceptible to aging and dying. They needed to eat of the apples of Idun to stay young.

    (Nowadays, Idun is a company that makes ketchup.)

  18. I’m curious whether there exists in any ancient polytheistic religion a good analogue to the Christian concept of the intercession of saints. Of course that concept has its own complexities native to Christian theology, but the basic idea seems very well-suited to a religious system with developed hierarchies of gods. (Probably why later Protestants found it so easy to accuse Catholics of idolatry!). Are there ancient sources which refer to or allow space for the idea of smaller gods as points of access to the bigger ones?

    I feel as though you could certainly read that into Homer: I recall one point at which Achilles asks his mother to beseech Zeus on his behalf, and she literally goes to Hephaestus to obtain his armor. But I don’t know how applicable that example is to ordinary ancient peoples, since Achilles is semi-divine himself, and Thetis is only “small” by comparison to the Olympians.

    1. it might appear that way from the outside …Luther thought that that the very idea of trying to make a deal with God which underlays “do ut des” was absurd.
      The angels and saints are deemed to still have free will and agency but, being in heaven, can’t/won’t do anything contrary to God’s will. (I’m not certain if the rebellion of Lucifer was a one time only event or if angels
      are transcendent and it represents all angels who did/are/would ever go against God’s will (the eternal reeks havoc with verb tense) so it is unclear if asking for intercession is an attempt to get them to change God’s mind
      Although I did hear a glib but charming explanation of special devotion to Mary as “what boy would say “No” to His mother?”

      1. It’s hard to comprehend a being that could make the decision to be Good or Evil in one fell swoop at the moment of creation, and harder still to comprehend one who could contemplate all of time as a thing, including both the prayer and its answer.

  19. > Now think about people in the provinces. The emperor is remote and distant, much like a god, and his power is vast.

    There is a proverb in Russian language, “the Czar is far away, the God is far above,” although it has a rather pessimistic meaning: “good luck trying to get justice out of local authorities”. Because, you see, the local authorities ain’t particularly interested in being just; the higher powers *could* force them to be but those powers are, well, see the proverb.

  20. What about a sorceror? If I was an ancient Greek child and I told my parents about a story I heard featuring the goddess Circe, would they correct me? She can do things with a nod, she can make lives miserable or happy depending on how you treat her. Is there some other additional criteria for what an ancient Greek would call a god?

  21. “Fortunately, the world is full up of smaller and more personal gods.”

    This reminds me of the beginning of The Diary of a Japanese Convert by Uchimura Kanzo, where he relates how as a pious boy he was absolutely exhausted by the sheer amount of obeisances due to the innumerable gods:

    “One god would impose upon me abstinence from the use of eggs, another from beans, till after I made all my vows, many of my boyish delicacies were entered upon the prohibition list. Multiplicity of gods often involved the contradiction of the requirements of one god with those of another, and sad was the plight of a conscientious soul when he had to satisfy more than one god. With so many gods to satisfy and appease, I was naturally a fretful timid child… The number of deities to be worshipped increased day by day, till I found my little soul totally incapable of pleasing them all.”

  22. I couldn’t help but chuckle when the part about copper coins segued into the way we venerate modern Founders as hero-figures, on account of what I run into at work. I work at Historic Christ Church in Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin is the most famous of our graves. Each year, probably two million people leave pennies on his gravestone “for luck.” We know that the tradition partly originates from the Anglican/American Episcopal Church partly preserving that Roman tradition into the nineteenth century (with brides often leaving coins on the “new” family graves on the way into the church for their marriage), but the development of the Cult of the Founding Fathers created a particular old-school sort of propitiation to “the patron saint of Philadelphia” once a new fence was added in front of his gravesite in the 1850s (the iconography of Franklin in this city is very hero-deity in a lot of ways).

    Pardon the delayed response. I love this blog and its writings, even if I’ve only discovered it in recent months. Always good to dip my feet back into the ancient/classics reading of my undergraduate days before having always been early modern/revolutionary in graduate days and my museum work!

  23. I am curious what would have been considered a successful outcome for a death ritual. Aside from divination what criteria would the survivors be looking for in determining whether burial or cremation was the better ritual approach, as example, or what they were hoping for in terms of petitioning deities during those rites.

Leave a Reply