Son of Hades? But isn't Jupiter, like, your bosses' boss?
January 13, 2012 1:38 PM   Subscribe

What is the day-to-day experience like for a true follower of a polytheistic religion, when that religion has an inherent hierarchy?

Been watching the HBO show Rome. Religion plays a not-insignificant role in the characters' lives. There's Jupiter and Mars, but also lesser-known figures like Bona Dea, Concordia and Spes. At one point, a character proclaims himself a Son of Hades, freaking everyone out with its apparent blasphemy.

How does this work in a hierarchy of gods?

In other words, why bother making an appeal to Janus when Jupiter is the "king of the gods?"

Why bother with Janus when you can talk to the Big Guy? Are you going against Jupiter when you reach out to Janus?

* Thor and Odin
* Ganesha and Vishnu
* Why have shrines to Sarutahiko Okami and not double down on your veneration of Amaterasu?
posted by Cool Papa Bell to Religion & Philosophy (28 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Specialization. If I'm a farmer I prefer the god of harvests and fertility over anyone else because dude really knows his shit.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:44 PM on January 13, 2012 [14 favorites]

You can relate more to certain gods due to their personalities: hence, praying to Krishna or Ram rather than Vishnu. Ganesha is very popular and 'in charge' of new enterprises.

Also, there are functional differences. Laksmi may not be as "big" or important as Shiva or Durga, but she is in charge of money and prosperity, so you have to pay her respect.
posted by goethean at 1:44 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

There's a hierarchy, yes, but each deity also has his or her own specialty or sphere of influence. If you need more success at romance, you talk to Aphrodite, not Zeus.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:45 PM on January 13, 2012

IIRC, there's a good explanation in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart." There's one head god but there's do much for him to do, so he delegates to other gods for specific tasks, as Foci for Analysis suggests.
posted by Melismata at 1:47 PM on January 13, 2012

Same reason that if you were having a problem with your laptop, you'd contact technical support rather than the CEO of the company that manufactured it. Assuming that the lower folks were in good standing with the big guy, he'd rather you take your issues to the proper authority rather than bothering him with every little thing. He's busy ruling over everything and doesn't really have time or energy to deal with the small stuff, anyway.
posted by decathecting at 1:49 PM on January 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

Why bother with Janus when you can talk to the Big Guy? Are you going against Jupiter when you reach out to Janus?

The same reason you don't go to your CEO when you want to take the day off for your kid's birthday.

And the same reason Catholics pray to St Anthony when they lose stuff. In polytheistic religions, gods specialize.

Also, a lot of polytheistic religions, especially in empires, absorbed local cults -- one example of this was Artemis, who was in no way a secondary god in her home country.
posted by empath at 1:50 PM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: This notion of a diety "delegating" a task because he has too much to do, or that a lesser god has a greater control of a smaller sphere, implies that the diety is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. That's where I'm confused. Do Hindus think that Vishnu is not all-powerful?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:52 PM on January 13, 2012

If I recall correctly, the assumptions about the logistics of polytheism that are held today are incorrect. In Egypt, for example, the different gods and goddesses are not entities unto themselves, but manifestations of a single, greater theistic unit. These deities were subdivided simply for convenience and specialization. I hope I can find some good research to point you towards when I get home. :)
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:53 PM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Definitive Guide to Vodou discusses the hierarchy of vodou deities.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:53 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

> Do Hindus think that Vishnu is not all-powerful?

Omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence are mostly categories of Christian theology.
posted by goethean at 1:56 PM on January 13, 2012 [9 favorites]

Zeus wasn't all powerful, not even remotely.
posted by empath at 2:00 PM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

For whatever reason, everything I've read about classical theology suggests that deities were much more human back then-- more fallible, more capricious, etc. (I mean, Greeks believed that the gods literally lived at the top of a local mountain.) That seems to mesh with the idea of delegation, distinctly contrasting with modern major monotheism with its omnipotent, infallible, do-it-all Yahwehs.
posted by supercres at 2:01 PM on January 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

It's probably whatever deity/manifestation that you imagine might be most sympathetic to your cause.

A Christian might pray to God for enlighterment & acceptance, to Jesus for strength and forgiveness, the Virgin Mary for good fortune, St. Anthony for assistance in finding car keys. The more particular to need, the lower down the hierarchy.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:06 PM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

It can also be a manifestation/god/avatar/whatever that you, individually, feel more comfortable with or connected to. The Great All-Powerful Oz might feel too distant and abstract, but the Cowardly Lion you (as the worshipper) can identify with.

Also, assuming that your religion does, in fact, work as advertised and supernatural events occur upon appeal to a deity, if you appealed to Joe-the-lesser-God and got your miracle, you're likely to keep appealing to Joe, even if Bob-God is his "boss." ESPECIALLY if appealing to Bob-God has gotten you nothing in the past but Joe usually comes through for you. Of course confirmation bias comes into play when we're talking about something as unprovable as deities and their supernatural actions in the world.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:10 PM on January 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

...and I would just put forward the Roman Catholic Church, with it's Holy Ghost, hundreds saints, winged angels and demonic Lord of the underworld, is probably a more organic outgrowth of the pre-Christian Roman pantheon than we are generally lead to believe.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:16 PM on January 13, 2012 [11 favorites]

Like Eyebrows McGee says. Plus word of mouth plays a big part in confirmation bias. When a house stays on the market too long, someone is going to tell the seller to bury St. Joseph upside down in the yard. St. Joe takes the credit for any subsequent good fortune.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:24 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a polytheist, I often focus on on the gods I feel closest too, or if their is one which really fits the context in hand, I might go outside of my comfort zone. This has lead to some startling realizations and alterations in my relationships with the gods. For example, one time when a window on my mom's car wouldn't roll up and she was going to be driving through an area with snow, I asked for the intervention of Thor - with whom I had no contact prior - because of his role as the protector of mankind and his connection with electricity, in exchange for a lot of beer and some personal concessions; he followed through (Thor is so one of the nicest gods) and the sense of him I got in that moment was so different from what I expected that it entirely altered my view of him and relationship with him.

The Norse gods are a lot less hierarchical than people tend to portray them, though; I wonder sometimes if that's an artifact of the more hierarchical cultures which took over and filtered the myths down to us. Odin is the Alfather, but he is also that guy who dressed up as a girl to learn Seidhr, and his wife famously tricks him into betraying one of his human choices in Grimnirsmal. I don't know how other pagans are, but I view the gods as my extended family and each as distinct, not a proto-monotheistic view of them all somehow being "one" at some point. There is a force which even the gods fall before - wyrd - but wyrd is not incarnated nor does it have a personality and the closest to representatives it has is the three Norns.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:30 PM on January 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

If I recall correctly, the assumptions about the logistics of polytheism that are held today are incorrect. In Egypt, for example, the different gods and goddesses are not entities unto themselves, but manifestations of a single, greater theistic unit. These deities were subdivided simply for convenience and specialization. I hope I can find some good research to point you towards when I get home. :)

If I'm not mistaken, the same is true of Hinduism.
posted by asnider at 2:32 PM on January 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

Another Note about at least the Greek gods - the big Three (Hades, Zeus, and Posiden) are effectively equals, each witht heir own sphere of influence - death, life, and the ocean. Likewise, Odin isn't in charge of the whole world; he has his areas of influence, leading out from Asgardhr, but there are equals in the other races and even forces he may push around a bit but still must appease (I'm thinking Ran, for example, who rules the deep sea). A lot of modern society has always seemed to me to be focused on finding the One Big Thing in whatever people talk about (the supreme god, the best medicine for illness X, the best way to teach people, the best form of government) when actual evidence points to the power in including multiple modalities and ways of responding and building the ability to navigate a wider variety of variables with graces as being hugely valuable.

That perspective gets imposed on polytheism (why worship Vishnu when Shiva burns it all to the ground? Why spend time getting to know Freya when Odin is the Alfather?) but within the mindset of polytheism it's largely meaningless. The best example I can give of why it's meaningless which someone monotheistically minded might understand, is asking "why not just go to the top" is like asking "Why spend any time with anyone but your oldest, wealthiest relative? What use is it to spend any time with friends, or other members of your family when you can get the best stuff by focusing on Grandma and getting her to give you all her stuff?" Anyone who 1) loved their grandma, not what she could give to them and 2) cared about the rest of their friends and family would be appalled at this mindset, and I'm similarly appalled at the thought I should neglect some of the gods in favor of the one who theoretically can give me the "best stuff".

Also, in the case of Odin that is ASKING for a spear in the back. Srsly. I love my old man, but if it's in his/the Aesir's best interest that you die now, no amount of "keep me alive and give me stuff" will change his actions.
posted by Deoridhe at 2:48 PM on January 13, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think of it like this, you have a family, a weird slightly dysfunctional family now lets say you need help moving house who do you call? Grandma whose specialty is great lasagne, or you could ask your Dad, but you know he's grumble and bitch the whole time and make you feel guilty because you haven't called (or made burnt offerings or whatever) or there is always your cousin that works out a lot and has a truck? They all would help you, because hey its' family, but some are better at some tasks than others.
posted by wwax at 3:36 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Shinto is polytheistic, in the sense that all animistic religions are. But the concept of a "god" is a bit different in animistic religions. There are temples, of course, and you do pray at them. But the temple doesn't belong to any specific deity (though there are exceptions). When you pray, you're praying to the collective body of kami.

The idea is that there is a spiritual essence to nearly everything. There are kami in rocks, and in trees, and in the wind. There are kami in rain, and in rivers, and in the sea. The top of the hierarchy is Amaterasu, the Sun Goddess, but that doesn't mean you pray to Amaterasu. Instead you pray to the collective, and if they choose to help you then whichever kami is best suited to do so will take care of it. (Or so I understand, and my understanding is definitely not at the expert level.)

Having said that, it isn't the case that they're viewed as different names/faces for a single underlying deity. They're definitely distinct.

And the situation is made more complicated by the way that Buddhism and Shinto got intermingled. Some of the Buddhist gods got renamed and imported e.g. the Hindu goddess Saraswati was adopted by the Buddhists, who brought the idea to Japan, where she was renamed Benzaiten.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:38 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, I'm not certain you can generalize across polytheisms. One explanation of Hinduism I've recently heard is that while Brahman is infinite, humanity is not. To understand Brahman is to become one with Brahman. Gods and avatars manifest as intermediaries to make the incomprehensible comprehensible to human beings.

With Roman culture, you had a number of things going on:

* ethnic religions from the provinces.
* household Gods associated with your family and its ancestors
* social hierarchies and stratification
* a certain amount of regionalism
* philosophical religions
* mystery cults.

To use a political analogy, while you could just write letters to the President, it's more effective to make friends with your senators, representatives, city council, friendly appointees, and career administrators as well. And if one of them is a friend of the family, from your hometown, member of your profession, or a member of your social network, that's even better.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:52 PM on January 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

Roman politics strikes me as being very complex, and the setting of HBO's Rome still had a taboo against people calling themselves kings. So Jupiter's sharing of power with various other deities likely reflects the realities of a culture where the Emperor had to play factional politics to avoid a knife in the back.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:13 PM on January 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Check out Hindu religion, for how it actually plays out in practice.

Not to mention, you kind of answered it when you talked about your "Bosses' boss". If you've got a Networking problem in your office, do you talk to the networking guy in the IT department, or do you talk to his bosses' boss, who might just be the General Manager?

Not to mention, a lot of Gods are gods of place. A holy well or spring often had a goddess who manifested only in the locale of the well itself. E.g. Sulis, Romanised as Sulis-Minerva. You could rely on her being there, and she was very popular for healing, retribution etc.

On the other, it's almost more personality than specialisation.
For starters, humans are not equipped to deal with the idea of a monotheistic god. We have a tendency to classify, to personalise, to stereotype. You cannot personalise an 'All'.
In Monotheistic religions, you often start putting a false face on a deity. And lo, you end up with an 'All-God' depicted as an old white guy.

Not only is that inaccurate, but think for a moment about what that does for the values of your culture.
When you put a face on an 'All-God', when you depict the All as a One, you are saying that that is only One True Way.
That in a literal way, someone who is old, male and caucasian, is closer in image to 'God', than someone who is female, or african/asian/pacific etc, can EVER be.

Polytheism, at it's base, says that there are Many right ways to be. That regardless of your gender, your age, your occupation, your sexuality, your ethnicity, and the expression of personality, that you can see yourself within one or more deities, and each of those characteristics is sacred in and of itself. That whether an artist, a smith, or a hunter, you can be a sacred devotee of your god.
Gods themselves weren't usually or always single-occupation gods either, that would deny the multiplicity of human talents. The Celtic Brigid, Catholicised as the well known Saint Bridget of Ireland, was responsible for Poetry, Healing, and Smithcraft.

Relationships between Gods are usually seen as more Familial, than Hierarchical. Nana & Grandad might be head of the family, but you want to talk to the younger generation if you're having trouble with your email (say Hermes), or doing research into a tricky legal problem (Athena).

Not to mention, polytheistic religions don't usually exclude other polytheistic religions - the gods of another tribe are exactly that, gods of their tribe. If cross contact is maintained, members of each culture may either identify other gods as different identities of their existing gods (See Interpretatio Romana, as new gods to be incorporated into their pantheon, or as gods who are particular to that locality (Gods, but usually Goddesses, of particular springs, rivers, and mountains etc).

Many Modern Neopagans talk of as being selected by their God, not the other way round, similarly to Yoruba, Voudoun, and other Afro-diasporic religions. A particular God will establish contact, through dreams, signs and symbols, and in some, eg Afro-diasporic religions, via divine communication and possession.

Which is what it essentially comes down to. Most polytheists will have felt themselves to have been in personal connection with at least one or more gods, through any of the above means, and that is what would cement their belief.

Interestingly, many polytheistic religions could be described as Orthopraxies, rather than Orthodoxies. In Rome, it usually wasn't required to believe in any particular dogma, or the literal existence of Gods, so you could be an Atheist, but you were expected to participate in the holidays and festivities of the community (literally, when in Rome, do as the Romans do!).

In modern paganism, there is often a distinction between hard and soft polytheism. Hard, is that Gods and Goddesses are completely independent personalities (see generally Norse Religion/Asatru), soft is that they are faces or facets of an all (many types of neopagan Wicca, with either dualistic God & Goddess, or singular 'Goddess' [in the same sense that single sex cells are Mother & Daughter cells]).

For example, somewhere in between, is the Vodou Bondye. It explains it quite well on that page.
It's the concept of a passive All. Basically, the concept that a Universal power, is incompatible with being a Personal power. Therefore that kind of being, is not accessible via prayer, or communication, and so, while it exists, is only relevant as theological theory. In some places, it wasn't really known of outside of basically the theologians of the culture, which also complicates research into it, because of possible 'cultural contamination' (e.g. Io, of Maori/Pacific origin). See also Pantheism.

There are also Judeo-Christian Pantheists, but technically it is a Heresy in both standard Judaic and Christian Traditions - the standard view there is that God made the world, 'he' is not present within it, God is the Potter, he is not the Pot. That doesn't stop many, many lay Christians believing God is present in all things, and personally, I can identify with that view a lot more, and think it's a bit disappointing it's a heresy.

Finally, for comparison, early Judaism could be more accurately be described as Henotheism (believing in the presence of other gods, but only worshiping one god). Examples being, the world being described as being created by the 'Elohim' (deity, with implications of 'plural'), but Garden of Eden by JHVH, and they being JHVH's Chosen people, Cain going and marrying one of the 'Other People (where did they come from?!?), and that they should have 'No other Gods before me' (Not, there are no other gods, but that they must not be worshiped, because JHVH is a jealous god, etc).

In Christianity, there is often a pseudo-polytheistic framework, with God, Jesus, Mary, and guardian Angels or Saints all arising as individual constructs in the popular culture, and Satan kind of playing a dualist role, like that of Ahriman in Zoroastrianism.

On a side note, as far as Omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence go, they are logically inconsistent with human free will, or a 'Good' God, but there are critiques of that elsewhere.

Anyway, I hope that rambling overview of bits of ancient and modern paganism, provided something coherent!
posted by Elysum at 4:42 PM on January 13, 2012 [13 favorites]

In other words. I don't think that Jupiter represents the "king of the gods" in terms of absolute dictatorial power, but in terms of representing governmental authority in a harmonious, idealized, and stratified society. You'd turn to Mars rather than Jupiter to prevent crop disease or for obedient valor in battle because in the divine order of things, that's what Mars does.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:44 PM on January 13, 2012

I can only speak to how this works in Hinduism, but I suspect that it has similar mechanics in other "polytheistic" religions.

First of all, Hinduism is a very large category that encompasses people with lots of different beliefs and religious practices. Some Hindus really only worship one diety, who is seen as central and all-powerful. This is particularly the case with the more ascetic orders of Hinduism (like the various sadhu groups), who are really focused on cutting out the middle-men and getting in direct, intense contact with the divine.

Most Hindus do recognize a variety of deities. However, they do not necessarily view these gods as different entities. Instead, they see the diverse group of gods as representing different aspects of one ultimate god. If Hanuman, Krishna, and Lakshmi are all really Bhagavan, then it doesn't matter which one you worship. It helps that Hinduism has long been very flexible and inclusive, picking up gods from other groups, and has never had the prohibition against idol-worship seen in, say, Christianity.

Accordingly, even people who are praying to Vishnu do not necessarily see the ultimate target of their prayers as a blue guy sitting on a lotus. Rather, that blue guy is actually a form taken on by a universal spirit that is unknowable and indescribable. The blue guy is the master of the gods, but he is actually just one aspect of God. And he is no more "legitimate" an aspect of God than, say, Radha the lovesick milkmaid, consort of Krishna.

The gods people chose to worship are often those who are most approachable. This is why Ganesh is such a popular god: he's a friendly, chubby, half-elephant. He loves sweets. People feel comfortable asking Ganesh to help solve small problems and to grant small favors. Compare Ganesh to his father, Shiva, who spends all his time meditating topless on a snowy mountain, wearing a tiger skin, with ashes smeared all over his body. Meanwhile, Shiva is popular with the aforementioned sadhus, who see him as a model for asceticism and fierce single-mindedness.

And why does the Supreme Spirit even take on these forms? Because humans find the infinite, indescribable reality of God terrifying and incomprehensible. There's a great part in the Bhagavad Gita where Arjuna begs Krishna to show him his true form. Krishna relents, and lets Arjuna behold the infinite, overwhelming image of God. Arjuna is so freaked out by what he sees that he begs Krishna to change back into the friendly charioteer he was before.
posted by bookish at 6:13 PM on January 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

I don't believe this question is yet answerable for Rome. (For India there are people who could answer it a lot better than me.) Everything we know about ancient Greek and ancient Roman religion is heavily filtered. First, when those religions were in their hay day, there really isn't any good theological or anthropological source material. The closest we have is Homer, and there are so few particulars in Homer that Julian Jaynes could write his borderline crackpot stuff with Homer as a source. As time goes on the documentation gets better but the religion gets weaker. Then Christianity takes over and all the best stuff gets destroyed. Nobody knows what happened in the Eleusinian rite for example.

So Rome the television show and Ancient Roman religion are a disjoint set for 99% of what matters.
posted by bukvich at 11:52 AM on January 14, 2012

If one god (or face of god) feels relevant to you at a particular moment--because of what's going on inside you or around you-- then that is what will attract your mental energy; intellectual knowledge is not relevant. Also height and abstraction often go together: the higher a divinity is, the more abstract they are likely to be (in how they are conceived of by a religious community); therefore the less points of contact there are in the idea of them for the psyche to hook on to.
posted by Paquda at 9:28 AM on January 16, 2012

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