Related to our discussion on religion, I found this series of posts from Bret Devereaux on Practical Polytheism pretty interesting. It matches descriptions I’ve read from writers like Bart Ehrman, on how ancient polytheism worked.
In summary, at the center of polytheism was ritual, ritual to appease the gods so that the harvest would come in okay, or the new baby would be healthy, or that maybe some business venture would go well. People conducted these rituals because they expected them to work, mostly because they appeared to have worked in the past, so there was a strong incentive not to change anything about them. Any deviation might spell disaster. When we say someone is “religious” about doing some task consistently, this seems to be where it comes from.
This focus on ritual matches what I read from Robert Bellah, who put ritual at the center of religion, in what gives it its enactive aspect. Bellah points out that many rituals in particular regions actually survive through multiple successive religions.
An interesting thing about polytheistic rituals is that belief was optional. It didn’t really matter what you believed, or whether you were a good or bad person, as long as you did it. Of course, you were a lot more likely to do it if you did believe, but belief in the ancient world wasn’t really between gods and no gods. Complete atheists were rare. Variations in belief tended to be more about the backstory of whatever spirit needed to be appeased. The crucial thing was the appeasement itself, or what misfortune might arise if you failed to do it.
The other major aspect were the sheer quantity of gods. We tend to think of the big gods, in Greek mythology: Zeus, Hera, Ares, Apollo, Athena, etc. But getting the attention of these gods for most people seemed unlikely. Instead they focused on local gods, such as the gods of their town, household, or of practical things, like a god of strongboxes. A pious individual made sure to propitiate any of these forces that might affect their fortunes. These local spirits are the progenitors of brownies, sprites, and faeries, which also often had to be appeased.
This seems to show how much polytheism was basically animism with big gods added on top. In the evolution from the animism of hunter-gatherer cultures to the polytheism of agricultural ones, the local spirits didn’t go away, they just become part of a vast hierarchy.
It also shows just how jarring monotheism must have been for polytheistic culture. The switch meant more than just dismissing multiple big gods. It meant dismissing all the local spirits and essences that permeated daily life. No wonder ancient Romans saw early Christians as trouble.
It was such a jarring change that in many places, it only happened superficially. As noted above, many of the local minor forces evolved to be faeries. And reportedly more than a few traditional saints were old pagan deities with a human origin story tacked on.
Ancient paganism strikes me as very rooted in attempting to solve practical problems. It makes me wonder what a person from such a culture would think of the modern clashes between science and religion. Which one would they have more affinity for?
h/t Shivam Bhatt