Submitted by bhejda t3_yrrbk8 in history

I understand that religion is a wide subject, so I would like to stay focused on this one aspect for this discussion:

Also, please, let's just focus on the inner workings of one culturally coherent society. The numerous (and often bloody) consequences of a society meeting another with different one only right definition of morals is covered in many other sources.

My point is - in monotheistic (and if I understand it correctly to some extend in Hinduism too) religions, the deity is unified with whatever are considered the virtues of the society

The god in monotheistic religions is the (body-less) embodiment - or the very definition - of what is right.

The priestly caste then could draw their authority from the claim, that since they have higher knowledge of the deity, they can be arbiters of morals. It gives a guidance to asses whether a priest is a good one or bad and can serve as a basis for discussion about what role religion should have in politics and other questions.

In Greek and Roman religions, the gods are pretty much just humans (with both human virtues and failings) with superpowers. But how did their stories relate to anything going on down on Earth? And why would any power derived from them give you any authority over other people? What did Greek and Roman priests even do? And why?



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LSofACO t1_ivva7ff wrote

There's a great series on practical polytheism here:

tl;dr the gods cause problems if you don't appease them, and sometimes even if you do. It's basically a reminder that before you do anything you should consider relevant factors that are outside your control: the weather, for instance.

EDIT: A more direct answer to your question is that the virtue being promoted by these religions is humility, or lack of hubris (a greek concept). They want you to never forget that forces outside your control and comprehension (personified by the gods) govern every aspect of your life.


edric_o t1_ivvd6mv wrote

To vastly oversimplify:

The gods are powerful and you are afraid of what they might do.

So, you want to make sure you don't piss off the gods, and if possible you want to appease them and persuade them to help you. The priests have special knowledge about what will piss off or appease the gods, and special abilities to communicate with the gods and make sure the gods notice you when you try to appease them (because these gods are not omniscient; they might fail to notice things).

So as you can see, there is little connection between morality and religious belief/worship in this system. The gods aren't good, they are powerful. The gods also don't necessarily want or expect you to be good - they want you to do the things they like.


DHStriker t1_ivwazsw wrote

Quite similar to modern monotheistic religions where priests and ministers have “special” knowledge on how to get in God’s good graces.


edric_o t1_ivwcey8 wrote

Sure, but that's the only similarity.

In monotheistic religions, God wants you to be good, and offers a definition of what "good" means. Monotheistic religions generally come with a philosophy attached to them.

In polytheistic religions, different gods want different things from you and those demands can be contradictory (something that appeases one god may anger another god). Generally, the demands of polytheistic gods are linked to their domains rather than morality. The god of war usually wants you to murder your enemies in spectacular fashion, for example.

As someone else said, one of the reasons why philosophy flourished in Classical Greece was because their religion didn't really say anything about what was good and what was evil, so people started debating that.


Netroth t1_ivx4ujs wrote

Which is proof that religion need not be involved in the making of law at all.


edric_o t1_ivx8cfn wrote

Or proof of the precise opposite, because their laws would count as extremely cruel by our standards.

One of the new ideas that Christianity introduced to the Mediterranean world was the idea of a common humanity, the idea that there are some rules that should apply to all people. Granted, these rules were very bare-bones things like "murder is bad no matter who you're murdering", but the point is that polytheists didn't think that murdering barbarians was morally problematic. In fact, murdering barbarians was heroic. Caesar brags about how many civilians he killed in Gaul - it was considered praiseworthy, and Roman generals almost certainly exaggerated their death toll to make themselves seem more glorious.

Today, modern propaganda is all about denying your atrocities, not exaggerating them. That is moral progress, even though atrocities still happen.


ViceroyGumboSupreme t1_iw1klj9 wrote

>but the point is that polytheists didn't think that murdering barbarians was morally problematic

Neither did Christians.


edric_o t1_iw1p8l7 wrote

Yes they did, very explicitly. Early Christian writings about the sins and evils of the world are full of condemnations of war, violence, gladiatorial games, and the like.

Here's an example from St. Cyprian of Carthage (first half of the 3rd century):

>For a brief space conceive yourself to be transported to one of the loftiest peaks of some inaccessible mountain, thence gaze on the appearances of things lying below you, and with eyes turned in various directions look upon the eddies of the billowy world, while you yourself are removed from earthly contacts — you will at once begin to feel compassion for the world, and with self-recollection and increasing gratitude to God, you will rejoice with all the greater joy that you have escaped it. Consider the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale.

>And now, if you turn your eyes and your regards to the cities themselves, you will behold a concourse more fraught with sadness than any solitude. The gladiatorial games are prepared, that blood may gladden the lust of cruel eyes. The body is fed up with stronger food, and the vigorous mass of limbs is enriched with brawn and muscle, that the wretch fattened for punishment may die a harder death. Man is slaughtered that man may be gratified, and the skill that is best able to kill is an exercise and an art. Crime is not only committed, but it is taught. What can be said more inhuman — what more repulsive? Training is undergone to acquire the power to murder, and the achievement of murder is its glory.

To our modern ears, "killing people for sport is evil and disgusting" sounds like common sense, and something so unremarkable that we probably pay no attention to it when reading it on a page. But ancient Romans did not think so. This was a pretty shocking thing for a Roman to write.


Notabug255 t1_ivy9l10 wrote

kinda interesting how eventually they go from that to persecuting people as well


edric_o t1_ivyb6cd wrote

What we call "religious persecution" was done by absolutely everyone everywhere in the world until about the 18th century (and even then, it was only in the 20th century that the majority of countries stopped doing it).

This is because all adherents of all religions agreed that it was a matter of public interest to ensure that the right gods were worshiped, and worshiped properly. If your city didn't worship the right gods, or didn't worship them correctly, they might decide to smite your city. To allow your neighbor religious freedom seemed as absurd as allowing your neighbor to set his house on fire - the fire might spread to your house, so you can't do that.

The modern idea of religious freedom only became conceivable once people basically stopped believing that God or the gods intervened in the world very much. That's why the first supporters of religious freedom were Deists (people who believed in a distant, non-interventionist God).


Jonathan3628 t1_ivvaoo6 wrote

The gods are powerful; it doesn't matter if you like them or think they are "good", what matters is if you don't keep the gods happy, they can mess you up. The priests are the people who are most knowledgeable about how to keep the gods happy, and this ensures successful harvest, success at fighting, safe childbirth, etc.

I recommend reading It explains how Mediterranean polytheism worked quite well.


VanaTallinn t1_ivvitkc wrote

Nice strategy for job security.

Actually sounds like CISOs. Make shareholders/CEO scared about cyberattacks. Tell them you can appease the threats and reduce the risks. Make good money to take care of it but resort to prayers mostly because nothing you can offers any guarantees.


podslapper t1_ivvo74l wrote

The Greeks didn't have a priestly class with any real authority like the Vedic Indians, ancient Israelites, Egyptians, etc. It seems like the Mycenaeans did, but at some point during the 400 year dark age after the Bronze Age Collapse, they were displaced for unknown reasons. Classical Greece technically had priests, but they were completely subject the polis and and didn't do a whole lot other than maintain the temples, etc. You didn't have to be a priest to perform a sacrifice like in many similar societies. Any male citizen could do it. The lack of a priestly class in Greece to control the society's behavior through established dogma, etc., freed poets and (later) philosophers up for religious and cosmological speculation.


artaig t1_ivvbd8r wrote

What you say about monotheism and later Hinduism, is the work of Zoroaster. He deduced that if there is "the good" the that's the virtue of the one god (oversimplifying). He single-handedly gave birth to philosophy and religion as we understand it in the West. Before him, gods were but anthopomorfizations of vices/virtues and natural forces.


cinimod35 t1_ivviwhx wrote

Generally Roman and Greek people in classical antiquity would worship the God(s) who they wanted favours from or who might grant them protection. So if you were going to War you might burn an effigy and make a sacrífice to a God that could lend a hand (Zeus, Apollo, Ares), if sailing at sea (Neptune).

Some Gods like Bacchus were physically harmful, and people would hang phallic totem outside their doors to ward off Bacchus from breaking into their home and sodomising them (literally).

The Gods were generally troubled and fallible like people, but had special powers. Moral virtue was something that living people taught, the philosophers for instance.

The Romans had soothsayers who could predict the future based on the reading of natural phenomenon (flight pattern of birds, congealed blood of slaughtered beasts). The Greeks had oracles (mad woman) who talked in riddles that required imaginative interpretation. They had the vestal virgins protect the holy eternal flame (Rome). But as far as I know they did not have priestly class who had a working relationship with the divine, if that's what you are asking.


[deleted] t1_ivvw4ze wrote

The huge difference, besides monotheism, is that the Greco-Roman religions were not about morality at all. They were about a contractual (best definition) relationship to obtain favor and avoid disfavor of the gods. Roman's considered Christians to be atheists because (1) Christianity was not ancient and cultural (Judiasm in contrast) and (2) Christians refused to honor the Roman religions, whose God's were tied to the success of the state.

Ancient Greco-Roman polytheism did not "go to church", did not listen to sermons, etc. The religious services were impersonal and involved specific rites carried out by appointed priests and professional acolytes.


BasurarusaB t1_ivw7p0e wrote

I generally agree with what you are saying but morality did creep in especially in areas like guest/host relationships and ritual contamination.


TomtheBombadilly t1_ivxgq3x wrote

Perhaps that’s where we get into the weeds: where morality is closely tied to culture and vice versa. Perhaps (this is a big perhaps with a capital “P”) what separated Greco-Roman religion from the monotheistic religions was the relatively universal nature of the latter. It’s cross-cultural applicability. As someone else has commented, one idea could be that of universal human dignity (the “made in the image of God” thing). Again, I think morality as a human idea is culturally embedded and can’t be untied from culture. The Greco-Romans were moral as much as they were social. You can’t be social without having rules (hence morality). Christianity’s contribution to morality (and PERHAPS social and cultural interaction) was its universality (incorporating non-Jews and Jews within a single spiritual and embodied community).


Scurouno t1_ivvo10w wrote

As several others have said, the gods are powerful entities over their domain and as such require propitiation to work toward your best interests. In this way, many polytheistic practices require "magical thinking". The domains of life outside human control are personified and your actions towards those personified entities can produce (sometimes)predicatable outcomes. Sometimes this may demand certain modes of living, but generally meant "giving cult" to the religious practitioners representing the deity.

That is one if the reasons why philosophy became so prevalent in ancient polytheistic societies. Philosophy is what discusses the meaning of life and the mode of attaining that meaning through modes of being or living. In most monotheistic practices, this role is collapsed into the head religious practitioner. Paul, to a certain degree, sold Christianity to Greeks and Romans as a new philosophy, as that would demand life change, rather than just another deity to offer cult to.

Paul Hadot's book "Philosophy as a way of Life" demonstrates this well.


TheHipcrimeVocab t1_ivw50l5 wrote

By coincidence, a while back I became fascinated by Roman religion. Roman religion is so much more complex and multifaceted than just the pantheon of gods and Greek-derived myths we learn about in school. It infused every aspect of society, including tutelary deities, ancestor cults, family cults, demons, spirits, festivals, sacrifices, etc. Every person was thought to have their own spirit, called a genius, which is where we get that word (it also influenced His Dark Materials)

For priests specifically, Wikipedia has a very good page on it:

See also:

I became interested in this topic after reading The Ancient City by Foustel de Coulanges. I would recommend that book if you want to know more.


Peter_deT t1_ivwgq79 wrote

First - the Mediterranean religions were very different from each other, although all were polytheistic. Some had dedicated priests, some did not (Rome had both dedicated priests and a role for male heads of families, who led worship of the household gods). Some had a focus on individual devotion (most notably in Syria), some were more communal. Socially, worship was an occasion for an expression of civic virtues and often a celebration of significant events (foundings, victories), plus benefaction and display of status.

The gods ranged from local powers of a spring or grove through (in Greece) personifications of emotion or capability (Love, Memory) to supernatural aspects of society (the Avengers) or cults devoted to particular activities (War, Agriculture) to sources of law and justice (Zeus the Law-Giver). How you conceived of them and what you did were highly contextual. Priests knew the right way to conduct the rituals and the appropriate prayers, so were experts on the care and feeding of the gods. They often had authority at certain times and occasions, and sometimes their persons were sacred (as in Vestal Virgins). The rites could be arcane - one High Priest in Rome had to sleep on a bed in contact with the earth and could not see a man in chains (if he did the man was immediately freed).

In short - the world was numinous, everyone acknowledged this and did their best to placate the invisible powers, and some people were professionals at this.


NomadHellscream t1_ivwdivn wrote

In monotheistic religions, God is a benevolent ruler. He will help you if you live by his rules and commandments.

In polytheistic religions, the Gods are basically gangsters. If you don't pay your protection money, there will be an unfortunate accident.


domoincarn8 t1_ivxum5f wrote

There is no way in hell I would call the monotheistic Abhrahmic God "benevolent". The entire Old Testament is well, a testament to his atrocities, for no reason.

He got a makeover later on, but most older polytheistic Gods could not get that makeover, due to their religions dying out.


Stori_Weever t1_ivwynuk wrote

I think deities in general are a means of personifying in an attempt to come to terms with big abstract forces difficult for a human to come to terms with.

Someone might have difficulties reconning with the realities of war might have conversations with war personified, through prayer or a priest to attempt to come to terms with that reality.

In this interpretation, monotheism is simply dealing with these concepts as part of a whole or to attempt to deal with the root of all of these concepts directly.


chaosg0hd t1_ivxhopc wrote

in my opinion, polytheism allows for more options to enact something, eg do this to appease that, also maybe possibly, for cross-cultural/tribal dialogue, what if the various deities were patron deities of specific groups and unifying them under one pantheon would make sense


windsingr t1_ivxznla wrote

It is important to note that Ancient Hellenic practice was an orthopraxic religion, not an orthodoxic one. What this means is that religious observance was about DOING the right thing rather than THINKING the right thing. Want to appease the gods? Give them presents, don't talk shit on them. An orthodoxic religion wants you to feel bad if you miss church or believe in a set of commandments.

The practical upside of the more reasonable orthopraxic practices is where they benefit the people regardless of their religious standing. In Hellenic religion you might sacrifice animals or cloth or grains or wine to the gods, but they only require a small portion of the consumable parts or take the inedible parts. What happens to the rest? It's a party! The amount of meat involved in a bull, pig, or goat sacrifice can be substantial, and feed not only the family but whole neighborhoods in a polis. This now means that thanks to the full religious calendars, even the poor are getting meat on a regular basis. To say nothing of wine, grains, cloth...

Orthopraxic Hellenic religion was not just a source of moral guidance, but a provider of public works and a source of welfare as well in a very direct way.

Even monthly household observances meant a meal left out for the gods at a nearby Herm or crossroads... Where homeless people and travelers could often be found. Come back the next day and look! The food is gone! The gods loved your offering! It's a miracle! And the homeless travelers think look! There is food when I need it! What a miracle! And no one thinks to question that traveler, because what if it's a god in disguise? This is also the source of the concept of Xenia, or Guest Right, which is incredibly common throughout that part of the world to this day.


Ferengi_Earwax t1_ivz2orr wrote

Most polytheism follows the same rules. The gods are powerful and represent fate, nature, or forces they didn't understand. They didn't care for humans, unless you made a deal with them with a sacrifice. The gods were expected to return the favor after the sacrifice. Roman and Greek priests served a myriad of functions. They served as judges, as actual priests thar conducted rituals, they kept the calender, they kept time, they stored the treasury, they stored peoples wills, they acted as a pension system to the poor, and they also were hospitals at some temples. All of the government services we have now were basically wrapped up into religion and the temple system. That is except law making and politics. That being said, the senate house in Rome, the forum and the immediate area was a vast religious complex made up of a vast number of temples and buildings where justice/law was conducted under the eyes of the gods. There almost always was some type of boundary delineating the sacred precincts.


War_Hymn t1_iw109p5 wrote

>What did Greek and Roman priests even do?

Speaking as someone from a family that still practices polytheism, as most priests elsewhere, Greek and Roman priests were "privy" to certain divine rituals and rites that people wanted and demanded. This could be rites for good fortune or luck, favour from the deities, protection against harm or evil, or even curses against rivals and foes.

For many of these services, fees will be charged. A temple or sect might also receive patronage and donations from wealthy or powerful believers who want to show their piety or devotion to a deity (or at least the public perception of them).

>In Greek and Roman religions, the gods are pretty much just humans

That just simplify things for people that practice these religions. If the gods are just humans with super powers, then the rational is that they will behave and act like humans. My neighbor Marcus might not be a saint, but if I gift him an jar of wine, he'll most likely be pleased and do me a good favour in return. Likewise, if I sacrifice an amphora of wine to Jupiter or Juno, they'll likely be pleased by it and answer my prayers. In Roman religion, this concept is known as do ut des ("I give that you might give").

Keep in mind, morality is subjective. Just because your version of morality doesn't wholly applied to the beliefs and mythology of Greco-Roman polytheism, does not mean they didn't have their own form of morality in place. What you perceive as "good" or "bad" might be different for a Roman or Greek living two thousand years ago.

>And why would any power derived from them give you any authority over other people?

I mean, you can say the same about monotheistic religions. What gives the Catholic or Islamic priests the authority to represent their monotheistic god on earth? Many instances, monotheistic religious figures have acted and behaved contrary to their "moral" teachings of their faith, yet their members still followed them. These monotheistic institutions have also been challenged and supplemented throughout their history, so they're not exactly invulnerable to strife and discord.

Traditions are powerful thing. Once a religion - mono or poly - establishes itself in a local society, it tends to proactively maintain its place in a way that keeps the people believing in the system.


AgaOfKish t1_iwzvjaf wrote

"The god in monotheistic religions is the (body-less) embodiment - or the very definition - of what is right."

Yes, I believe that is a fair description of monotheistic theology.

"In Greek and Roman religions, the gods are pretty much just humans (with both human virtues and failings) with superpowers."

Kind of yes, but not really. I take polytheistic gods to be embodiments of *some* aspects of perfection.

In a monotheistic religion, all those aspects are united in a single being. When we talk about "Elohim", for example, we are using a plural word that to some people, means the unification of all "El" (can be translated as power) in a single being. It's like they took all of the deities that each represented one aspect of perfection and merged them together into a single being that possesses all aspects of perfection and, therefore, cannot lack it in any way, thus being perfection itself.

"But how did their stories relate to anything going on down on Earth?"

Their stories convey lessons related to that aspect of perfection that they are believed to embody. A god of war, being the embodiment of a perfect warrior and of the perfect way to wage war, cannot be also the embodiment of a perfect musician, and his story will reflect the lacking of those perfections, sometimes as a way to emphasize the perfections related to the god, and sometimes to emphasize the imperfections that are taken to be normal to a warrior.

"And why would any power derived from them give you any authority over other people?"

Again, through examples. If you are in a situation in your life where you need to be victorious, you go to the temple of Nike in order to learn about victory itself. If you need to get married, you look for a temple of Hera and learn what you need from the stories told about her. If you wish to be a good musician, you look for the servants of Pan. And so on.

Many gods were patrons of specific professions and their followers were the experts in those fields. If you wanted to become a successful blacksmith you were bound to seek help from a follower of Hephaestus.

"What did Greek and Roman priests even do? And why?"

They kept a tradition related to the role/nature/perfection related to the god they served. They kept oral traditions, books, and rituals (that are usually theatrical demonstrations of principles applicable to the perfection they served). They collected sacrifices and used them to fund the entire operation of keeping a place that must serve many generations and be a hub for the study of a particular aspect of reality.

I welcome any correction to this way of understanding it.