How polytheism worked

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

15 thoughts on “How polytheism worked

  1. Monotheism was also very divisive. When polytheistic business people wanted to do business, they often enough embraced each others gods as signs of earnestness. Either equivalences were claimed (Zeus, Jupiter, etc.) or, well, adding one more god to one’s pantheon was no big deal.

    The same thing happened when “kings” started conquering other peoples. They were allowed to keep their gods, possibly with a name change but the same deities. Compare that situation with the Romans and the Jews. Monotheism bakes in antagonism. The Romans were fine with adding Yahweh to their god crew, the Jews not so much.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think that aspect of it was one of the major disruptions that destabilized the Roman empire in the 4th and 5th centuries. It split the empire culturally at a time when it was under pressure from outside forces. Many Christian Romans had more in common with the (often) Christian barbarians than with their fellow Romans.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Hi Mike and Steve,

      Thank you for your thoughtful discussion on polytheism.

      A philosopher, computer programmer, thinker, atheist and writer by the name of Kevin Solway once told me that ceremony or ritual is the end of Tao (or Dao 道), for a seeker of truth or an enlightened person has little or no concern for ritual or ceremony.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks SoundEagle. I think Solway had a point about the empty actions we often refer to as ritual today.

        But someone from ancient times might see more resonance with our daily practice of brushing our teeth to keep decay away, in their view paying homage to the god of teeth.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I actually feel kinship with the people who did these things. They were trying to solve problems in the only way they knew how. It seems like anyone who has ever developed a superstitious habit before attempting something has felt the draw that led to these kinds of rituals and beliefs.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “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?”

    Yes, I often wonder the same thing. And of course, It’s fun to add the future to the past and present. What would we (today), or people from ancient times, think about the cultures that may exist a thousand years from now. And what would our future counterparts think about our current cultures and those of the ancient past? Given the exponential growth of a great many things, how similar might the present and the past look from such a distant future, even though the present and past seem quite different to us today?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I wonder something similar when people talk about “the culture” of ancient Egypt, a civilization that spanned thousands of years. I’m sure someone from the New Kingdom saw themselves as very different from someone from the Old Kingdom. Classical Greeks were very different from the Mycenaeans, though we tend to lump them all together. And post-exilic Jews were very different from pre-exilic Judeans and Israelites.

      For someone a thousand years from now, the differences between Americans and Europeans, or between 21st century norms and 19th century norms, may be too nuanced for them to notice.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “It makes me wonder what a person from such a culture would think of the modern clashes between science and religion.”

    I think they’d be horrified that it’s a “clash” in the first place. Such cultures don’t draw a line between the two, they unify them. As you suggest, their religion was a form of science for them. (As I think I mentioned in a previous thread: religion leads to philosophy which leads to science.)

    With regard to ritual, something in the human mind thrives on ritual. We see that in athletes, musicians, the military, and in the careful daily habits many keep. Some brains seem more enthralled by it than others. I don’t think religion leads to ritual so much as provides fertile ground for it.

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    1. I agree that they’d probably find the clash puzzling, and possibly pointless. But then they’d probably think the same thing about the conflicts between various religions and between various denominations and sects of those religions. Their attitude might be, what do I need to do to avoid trouble? They’d find the conflict relevant to the extent the factions provided different answers.

      I think you’re right that the mind is attracted to ritual. If you think about it, a ritual is a complex habit. Once ingrained enough, performing it provides a feeling of continuity and comfort. In that sense, they can take on a life of their own. I read a blog post the other day from someone saying that they now find washing their hands provides a feeling of satisfaction.

      I don’t know if it’s a factor of some brains not being enthralled with ritual, so much as which ones interest a particular person. It’s probably a factor of which ones they think actually provide benefit. There are rituals I follow daily because I think they’re necessary for health. An ancient polytheist might see it as me paying homage to the gods of health, with my scientific account just an alternate view of the forces involved.

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      1. I see habit and ritual as different. We fall into habits that become rote, or develop habits due to compulsion. Habits come from within. Ritual seems more external and almost pro forma to me. Ritual comes from social constructs.

        I also do think some people are more prone to ritual than others, although I suspect we’re all equally prone to habit. There are people who thrive on ritual and others (like myself) who despise it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, now that I think of it, habits and ritual aren’t the same. Rituals are broader, they span far beyond a single person. There are rituals that are thousands of years old and have survived through successive religions. (The example Bellah gives is the Agnicayana, an ancient Indian ritual with Vedic roots.)

          But within the person themselves, for a ritual performed regularly, I’d say they are a type of habit. And I do think some things we don’t normally think of as rituals, like brushing our teeth, have a claim to being something like them.

          Of course, there are rituals that are performed infrequently, some only once in a lifetime. In some cases the ritual may take days to perform. Definitely nothing habitual about them.

          I’m definitely not a fan of most things we call ritual, but I recognize some, like a funeral, can be comforting for the people at the center of it.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. You know, I never thought of it this way before, but ancient polytheism kind of sounds like OCD. We have to do these very specific things in very specific ways over and over again, because if we don’t we’re scared something bad will happen.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m sure there were people who took it to that level, but from what I’ve read, polytheists could be as disdainful of people who overdid as many people are toward those who overdo it today. Someone who was constantly and compulsively making offers to the household gods (which could be costly) beyond whatever the prescribed frequency was, would probably be seen as excessive, and possibly not healthy.

      Liked by 2 people

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