Here is the question a correspondent asked me:
“What ever happened to the Greek and Roman gods?
I will start with the philosophical. First, you have to define “gods.” I’ll stick with the basic, popular definition of a “god” (as opposed to “God.”) This is a being, usually non-material, which has supernatural powers to direct and control reality, and with whom human beings can have a relationship. The concept of a “god” is still in our language, and if language defines reality (as many modern philosophers will say), then the “gods” have not gone anywhere, nor ceased to exist. As long as language still names them, they still have existence.
To say that the gods are still around because they are part of written culture, rather than living belief, brings us back to the first answer, which is that they are part of language. And language, along with culture, “creates” reality. I will have much more to say about this later on in this essay.
A more fruitful way to explore whether the old gods still exist is to look at them from a historical standpoint. Classical scholars and archaeologists spend lifetimes uncovering and explaining to modern folk, the relics and evidence of ancient civilizations. There is a great deal of material remaining, both in texts and in ruins and artifacts, about the old Greek and Roman gods and how they were worshipped. Texts can explain not only how the ancients worshipped, but often how the ancients felt about their religion, those intangible factors which simple archaeology can’t always reveal.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind about the history of religion is that ideas about God and gods change, and that different groups can view the same religion and deities in very different ways. Another thing that’s important to realize when talking about ancient religions is that we in the modern world cannot help but see ancient religion through eyes conditioned by our own religious experience, which is almost always within the great Western monotheisms: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Given this, it’s necessary to talk a bit about how ancient polytheists viewed their gods.
We modern monotheists assume that if a god is divine, that god is divine everywhere and is the same everywhere. But in the ancient world, that wasn’t necessarily true. For ancient believers, gods were often local and tribal. You worshipped any number of small local divinities, and if there was a major divinity shared by a region, (such as Zeus) you might be more likely to worship the Zeus of your neighborhood, rather than one universal Zeus. The same would go for the other gods and goddesses – often a local divinity would be blended (the official word is “conflated”) with the major divinity so that your village or city had its own Diana, its own Venus, etc. Similarly, a god was thought to be the god only of an ethnic tribe or clan, and often was in conflict with the gods of other ethnic tribes and clans.
You find this situation even in the early books of the Old Testament, where YHVH, the One God of the Jews, was in historical reality not the One God of the Universe but only that of the Hebrew tribes in their struggle against the gods of other tribes. “Thou shalt not have any other gods before me” doesn’t mean that the other gods didn’t exist – it meant that you should not worship them.
The idea of a single, universal Divine entity, whether Zeus or another god, did exist in the ancient world. Quite early on, the Pre-socratic Greek philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE speculated about a single principle or being which would cover every divine (and material) phenomenon. And much earlier (perhaps as early as 1500 BCE) in a far distant place, Central Asia, the prophet Zarathushtra proclaimed his message of one supreme and universal God, Ahura Mazda (which means, the “Wise Lord”). This teaching became the basis of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia, which by 500 BCE had spread westward to the shores of the Mediterranean with the Persian Empire. It is likely that the early Greek philosophers of the Eastern Mediterranean had some knowledge of Zoroastrian teachings since they lived in Persian-occupied territory.
From these beginnings, the idea of a universalist monotheism with One Big God took root in Western civilization – but mainly among the learned and the philosophically minded. To a philosophical devotee, Zeus, Aphrodite, Artemis, the gods and goddesses of what are known as the “Olympian pantheon,” were all just manifestations of this one big impersonal God principle – transparent names and images, rather than real beings. You went along with temple worship because it was a civic duty, but your own religious life dealt with the philosopher’s abstract God.
For the majority of the people throughout ancient times (and up to modern times too!) religion was not philosophical. You prayed to and worshipped the god of your home, your family, your clan, your tribe, your region – without much thought to universalist Big Gods. The “Olympian pantheon” was important mainly for civic and imperial religion, big public ceremonies. Your own personal religion was not “Olympian” but local and personal. Only if you had the notion to join a mystery cult – which featured fancy rites and a taste of esoteric philosophy along the lines of what would be called “New Age” nowadays – would a layperson share the beliefs of the philosophers.
Elsewhere on the borders of the Persian Empire, another religious change was taking place which would have major consequences for the development of Western religion. In the 6th century BCE, the intellectuals and the elite of the Jewish people were taken into captivity in what is now Mesopotamia (Babylon) – or Iraq — but was then Persian territory. These Jewish folk, despite their exile, survived in their new home but their religion of necessity changed. The tribal God of the Hebrews had not protected them against conquest by a foreign power, and their temple, the only place where YHVH could be properly worshipped, had been destroyed. How could they sing YHVH’s hymns in a pagan country (as in Psalm 137)? The Jewish faith changed forever in exile. They began to conceive of God not just as a tribal protector, but as a single universal Divinity which would bring justice to all nations. And this God could be worshipped anywhere, with songs of praise and prayer, rather than just sacrifices in a single temple.
This universalist monotheism, and many other aspects which would re-surface in later Judaism and Christianity, was also influenced by the Persian religion of Zarathushtra which the Jewish exiles encountered. Jews and Zoroastrians were both monotheists in a polytheist world. And Zoroastrians had found a way to reconcile the One God with the many gods of the polytheists. Though Ahura Mazda was the single supreme God, the pagan gods of the Indo-Iranians had been “recycled” into “yazatas,” (“worship-able ones”) semi-divine beings, created by the One God to serve him in the battle against evil. Thus the Persians reconciled the One with the many.
To bring us to another group of answers, we must leave history and go to theology. Theology, rather than economics, is the “dismal science.” I find few things less conducive to religious inspiration than studying theology, but like economics, it can tell us a great deal.
We must not forget another type of monotheism, namely atheism, or in its milder form, agnosticism. Atheism is monotheism, because if you believe in Nothing, there is only one Nothing! Atheists, like absolute monotheists, declare that there are no gods worthy of worship because they don’t exist. They just delete one more God, the God of absolute monotheism. So for Atheists, no gods exist, and no gods ever existed – anything that went by the name of God or “god” or Zeus or Artemis was an illusion from the beginning. This is one answer to where the “old gods” went – they never existed in the first place! This answer is more popular than you might think, and is probably the answer most scientists or academics would give you.
If you are a “catholic” monotheist (though not necessarily a Catholic!), the old gods were not beings in themselves, but the glimmerings of religious understanding among pre-scientific peoples. The myths, art, literature, and philosophy of the people who believed in those old gods still contain much of value which God (the One True Universal God) imparted to those people even before Monotheism arose. These partial truths, which are called by Eastern Orthodox thinkers, the “seeds of wisdom,” could be found among pagans or non-Christians, and can be assimilated and preserved by monotheistic believers, even though the gods of the pagans must be rejected. Did they exist? Are they gone now? Rather like the “local” monotheists, the more catholic monotheists would say that they were dim, early images of the divine, created by a previous civilization that has now been superseded. But the best, the truest parts of that older civilization, live on inside the new, true religion.
If you are a Deistic type, you might regard those old gods as quaint and colorful manifestations of the primitive human imagination, but ultimately they had no substance – so, as with other monotheists, the old gods never really existed as gods. So they have never gone anywhere – they never were, rather like shadows disappearing at the advent of Deistic dawn. For a monist, however, these Gods, like everything else in manifestation, were God – they existed within the unified Divine Energy. Gods were God, worshippers were God, all was, and is, ultimately One Existence.
So far we’ve examined some common monotheistic attitudes towards the existence or nonexistence of the old polytheistic gods. But what about polytheists? Are there any? Does anyone still believe nowadays in the Olympian gods of the Mediterranean – either because their beliefs have survived since ancient times, or because they have taken these beliefs up again?
During the later centuries, some eccentrics, occultists, and poets made cultural scandal by openly admitting to worshipping pagan gods – though some of this was more of a daring pretense than a real act of worship. The Romantic movement of the 19th century, with its challenges to bourgeois religion and morality, was a strong impetus to this kind of defiance. The modern movement of neo-paganism has its roots in these Romantic and late 19th-century explorations.
The modern neo-pagan movement began in postwar England, among groups of unconventional types who drew on Theosophy, Jung, Western occultism, Freemasonry, and the work of anthropologist Margaret Murray, who promoted the theory (now considered dubious) that pre-Christian pagan religion survived in northern Europe as “witchcraft.” From these English ritualists came the first openly polytheist modern religion, now known as “Wicca.” Wicca, though it presents itself as a re-surfacing of a submerged but continuous tradition, is more accurately a revival and re-construction of what modern ritualists and believers think might have been ancient pagan religion. Even this has been heavily diluted and modernized to fit the laws and culture of the modern world – for instance, Wiccans do not sacrifice animals.
Wicca and a myriad of other neo-pagan offshoots do resemble ancient paganism, though, in that they are local in reach and highly diverse in belief. You would have difficulty getting any kind of universal doctrine that fits all Neo-pagans. So, to get back to our question, do these Neo-pagans worship many gods? Do they believe that the old gods, the Olympian gods, still exist and are worthy of worship?
Are there any Neo-pagans who believe in multiple Gods – really believe in them? Yes, and they are able to pick the pantheon of their choice. Some who are fascinated with Norse culture choose (or claim to be chosen by) the gods of the North: Odin, Thor, Freya, even trickster Loki. Neo-paganism in the USA and Britain is heavily dependent on Celtic culture, portrayed in a highly idealized manner, and some “Celtic” pagans profess belief in old Irish gods and goddesses. Others, including some African-Americans, have picked up the ancient Egyptian pantheon and offer services to Isis, Osiris, and Horus. Have any neo-pagans chosen the old Olympian gods? Yes, there are Roman and Greek revivalists who claim to have returned to the worship of Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, or their Roman counterparts. These classical neo-pagans are involved in other revivalist activities like Roman re-enactment, costuming, cooking from Roman recipes, crafts, and antiquarian research. They keep in touch with each other through Internet, an ancient communications device only recently recovered from the undersea ruins of Atlantis.
So here’s yet another answer to whether anyone still worships the old Olympian gods: yes! They may not be “original” believers – they’re most likely computer programmers living near large American cities – but they are sincere. Not only do they believe that the old gods exist, they believe that Zeus, Apollo, or other Roman or Greek deities can answer prayers, give prophetic dreams, comfort the worshipper in affliction, bring good fortune, or even heal illnesses. They don’t have the elaborate temple structure and priesthood that the ancient religion had – their numbers and resources are far too small for that. But these neo-Olympians will build little shrines and personal altars, at which they burn candles and incense, and offer simple gifts like small cakes and flowers, much as the ancients did at their own niches. Yes, ancient worship lives again.
For this answer, I must cross over into the realm of esotericism, that field of philosophy and art which is the soft underbelly of Western culture. To talk seriously of esotericism means death to an academic career, but I’m not in any danger because I don’t have an academic career. Esotericism, which I’ve mentioned in regard to theosophy and Jung, is the other side of monotheistic absolutism. It’s the dusty attic where all the ideas that didn’t make it into mainstream religion get stored. Fortunately, the much-maligned postmodern movement in philosophy, along with the modern experience of “cyberspace” and “virtual reality”, has come along to rescue some of this material and bring it into the light.
One of the things that comes from esotericism is a view of “reality” which is not dualistic. When the average rationalist thinker considers “reality,” he will likely break it into “real” and “unreal.” Similarly, if he is a religious believer of some sort, he will break reality into “physical” and “spiritual.” Horses are real, Pegasus is unreal. Dogs are physical, angels are spiritual. Reality conveniently fits into these pairs of dualisms. Or does it? What if there were another layer of reality which was neither real nor unreal?
Are there things in the Imaginal World which people have NOT made up? The believers say, probably. The demons and the hells of torment, the paradises and the angels of delight, may reside here, as well as the saints, heroes, and villains of legend. There are places both terrifying and joyous, beings malevolent and gracious – and every moral shade in between. Sherlock Holmes lives here, and so does Dracula. Helen of Troy visits with Faust again; Humpty Dumpty gets put back together. There are infinite possibilities here, and it is just as possible that explorers of the Imaginal World are discovering things, as it is that they are making things up. Or so a believer would say. To old-fashioned rationalists, the Imaginal World is just another name for “silly fairy-tales,” “fabricated myth,” or “delusions,” or “hallucinations.” But in our modern age, we have yet another name for this Imaginal World: “virtual reality.”
To me, this is the best answer to where the old gods have gone. They are not theatrical spirits, who are only present when there’s an audience to believe in them. Nor are they necessarily Divine Beings with the all-encompassing status of the monotheists’ One True God. They are imaginal beings, who live in this middle world. And the Imaginal World is not a dreamworld dependent on the whims of one person; it is a shared multicultural universe, springing and flowering from the ground of millions of human beings and their minds and their creativity. Once the image, the poem, the character, the myth, the mathematical theorem, the story, the song, the magic, has been created, and has been set down in writing or in a computer file or in any other medium that can be communicated, it has left the confines of one person and entered the Imaginal – or the cultural world.
For now, the Imaginal World is based in culture and its communications media, and from there, in the minds of anyone here who has imagination. The gods live here. This is why fanatical fundamentalist monotheists try to censor culture and Imaginal gateways like books, movies, websites, storytellers. They know that the gods their God hates are still alive. Of course there is indeed a dark side to the Imaginal World, and many a dreamer has been drawn in to ruin; you have to be as cautious in the Imaginal World as you are in the real one, perhaps more so. But here is where the secret temples are, the “ineradicable cultural objects” that not even the might of the One True God can stamp out. Do you want to meet the forgotten gods? Have tea with Zeus and Apollo? Here are the directions: the Word, the Image, the Sound, the Creative Imagination, and then the recounting. Don’t forget to tell us, however you can set it down, where you’ve been, and how Athena’s been doing these last two thousand years.
© 2003 Hannah M.G. Shapero
Day of the big snow February 17, 2003