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.

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!

12 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?

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  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?

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  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?

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    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.

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      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?

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  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.

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  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.

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  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?

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    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.

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