July 29, 2008 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Do we have any evidence about whether people believed in the gods of Greek & Roman mythology as people today believe in the gods of Christianity, Islam, etc?
posted by xmutex to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Other than hundreds of statues and temples? Their holidays? The naming of calendar months?

Although I suppose it's not inconceivable that we could eventually have BradPittuary and TomCruisember.
posted by JaredSeth at 12:01 PM on July 29, 2008

There are many, many contemporary accounts of sacrifices and organized worship services to said gods. I don't know of any other way to say, "yeah, they thought it was real."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:04 PM on July 29, 2008

They made sacrifices to them, built temples, did dances and wrote songs in their honor, had personal altars in their homes to particular gods/goddesses, asked them for favors, prayed for mercy, etc. Sounds like all the stuff "we" do these days in monotheistic religions.
posted by rtha at 12:06 PM on July 29, 2008

That 'as' makes it tricky. If you were to compare key elements of Greek and Roman religious practices to, say, Shinto or Hindu or Daoist or Mahayana Buddhist practices, you'd find lots in common. And for all their theological sophistication, the major monotheistic religions also incorporate such things in common practice, whether they're syncretic or just because people seem to like venerating ancestors, celebrating the season, etc.

If you're asking about religious sensibility, states of mind are harder to crack. Though it's arguable that the belief model of Protestantism (and possibly Islam, though I'm less certain here) really counts as the exception rather than the rule when you look at how people do and have done their religion.
posted by holgate at 12:29 PM on July 29, 2008

Yeah, they all believed in their gods, except for Socrates, I suppose.

On the flip side, it wasn't unheard of for wealthy individuals to bribe the oracle at Delphi. So they also had their church corruption, etc. just like us.
posted by ailouros08 at 12:35 PM on July 29, 2008

The answer to your question is probably impossible to know directly, even if we were magically able to transport a Greek of the 4th century BCE to our times for interrogation: how would you define the ardor of belief?

What we do have: the hundreds of recovered defixiones or curse tablets recovered from sites, along with the ubiquity of religious iconography in Roman homes (such as Pompeii and Herculaneum) suggests that religious belief was as well-integrated into society as modern times, probably even more so. (More public display of religious devotion than the modern West, for example). Given the evidence, it would be a reasonable conclusion that ancient Romans and Greeks believed in their gods just as much as monotheists. Being polytheists, they were probably more adaptable to new religious strains (Emperor cults, Mithra, Christianity after Constantine) than monotheists, able to integrate new belief systems into their own, much like Voudoun... but that doesn't mean they believed any less.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 12:38 PM on July 29, 2008

There are two different answers to your question, depending on what you are asking:

Did the ancients believe in their gods as strongly as we believe in ours? Most certainly, if not more so. The idea of atheism as we understand it, for instance, was not conceived of in the ancient world. You believed in the gods. It was only a question of which gods, and what you did about it. Without question there were people who did little to worship the Roman divinities, in the same way that we have people who rarely practice Christianity in the US, even if they profess to believe it. And there were the fundamentalist crazies, like the Mithraists, who had beliefs wacky enough to be considered a danger to the state at times (and a firm bulwark of the state at others).

Did the ancients believe in their gods in the same way that we believe in ours? Most definitely not. The central question of ancient religion was rarely "what would Zeus do?" but rather "how can Zeus help me?" Prayers were often stated as contracts: "Neptune, if you see me safely to Alexandria I will sacrifice a bull to you." Where modern religion tends to draw divisions ("Allah is not Jesus"), ancient religions, especially Roman religion, tended to revel in them ("This Danubian River god is actually Mercury by a different name!")

Most importantly, Greco-Roman religion was just as constant and monolithic as any human organization spanning millions of people and a thousand years. Which is to say, not at all. If you want to dig into this topic, I would highly recomend Cults of the Roman Empire. This deals with several cults that were adopted into the Roman state religion over time, including their practices and their social meaning.
posted by Maastrictian at 12:40 PM on July 29, 2008 [9 favorites]

There have always been wars of/for religion. No one would doubt the veracity of the faith of Pharaoh when he was confronted by Moses and Aaron. You have to also remember that the faith of the Romans, Paganism, did not die when Constantine converted to Christianity. It lived on for probably 200 more years in many places in the dying embers of that empire.

There is also evidence that in Roman England that there were temples to Egyptian, Greek, Phoenician, and Carthaginian gods. These temples were erected by laborers and others brought there by the Romans. Their faith was probably as strong as we consider ours to often be - unbridled by distance from the source and the wellhead of inspiration.
posted by parmanparman at 12:45 PM on July 29, 2008

I also wanted to recommend Greek Religions by Burkert or the Religions of Rome series. Both can point you to original sources, so you can read what (select) contemporary ancients thought of their own religions.
posted by ailouros08 at 12:50 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

One more bit of data: a slur against the early Christians is that they were "atheists," because they didn't believe in the tradition Roman pantheon. That says something about how the majority felt about their gods. See here for more.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:50 PM on July 29, 2008

They certainly believed in their gods and their religions; what was unique about Christianity that caused it to outshine, if you will, the other religions of the time, is that unlike the other deities, the Christian god required *exclusivity.*

Say you were a farmer, and made offerings for good weather, praying for sun or rain or fertility or what have you at different times of the year. With Christianity, you gave that up. You had to choose only the one god. Islam, to my limited knowledge, has that same exclusivity cause: "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."

So really it wasn't that they believed less in their gods, just that their religions were more accepting of polygamy, while Christianity and Islam don't allow a believer to "hedge his bets" by making offerings or sacrifices to more than one deity. Gradually, this monotheism essentially "killed off" the other gods because of its non-inclusion policy.

That may have been the initial appeal of Christianity to some believers, as well, from an economical standpoint. Certainly it was cheaper to pray to one god, light some candles and attend services, then to pray to several who all demanded regular tribute in the form of offerings and/or sacrifices.
posted by misha at 1:00 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Not sure what you're getting at. But as a counterpoint you might want to check out Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 1:01 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

You might find this book interesting:

Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?

posted by BigSky at 1:05 PM on July 29, 2008

I recently listened to this course which had some information about it.

The most ancient Greek gods were personifications of real things. You would use the same word for "Earth" the thing you dig up in your garden, as the goddess "Earth". So if you asked an ancient Greek if you thought "Earth" was real, they'd think you were crazy. Or from the notes:
IX. Aphrodite is an excellent goddess through whom to contemplate some of
the implications of gods who are personifications of natural forces.
A. With this type of god, "belief" is not a matter of debate the way it is in a
monotheistic religion.
1. To ask, "Do you believe in Aphrodite?" is, on one level, as absurd
as asking, "Do you believe that sexual attraction exists?"
2. The question of whether personification is an appropriate way to
represent these forces remains, and some classical authors would
answer that it is not.
So, it's not really an answerable question because the ancient world-view was just too different to our own. They didn't really draw a sharp distinction between the real and the metaphorical as we do. But as others have said, they put a lot of effort into religious ritual and seem to have thought it was effective.

She also points out later on that while there were lots of stories about the gods impregnating human women, this was always believed to be something that only happened in previous ages. Nobody thought it happened anymore, and you certainly couldn't use it to explain away an inconvenient baby.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:09 PM on July 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

...while Christianity and Islam don't allow a believer to "hedge his bets" by making offerings or sacrifices to more than one deity. Gradually, this monotheism essentially "killed off" the other gods because of its non-inclusion policy.

The Catholic Church has, to some degree, replaced the hedging of bets amongst many gods with the pantheon of Patron Saints of this, that, and the other thing. One certainly doesn't sacrifice to the Patron Saint of railroad journeys, but one can invoke his or her patronage when hopping aboard the Metroliner. Clearly there is only one God, though perhaps the many Patrons have replaced the many gods.
posted by johnvaljohn at 1:16 PM on July 29, 2008

Maastrictian is right on. The question, "Do you believe in the gods?" was irrelevant. Greek religion was not a religion of "belief" in our sense, but of ritual. It wasn't what you believed or thought, but what you did. The relevant question would have been, "Do you sacrifice to the gods?"
What the Romans tried to force early Christians to do was sacrifice to the gods, not uttter a creed or declaration of faith about them.
posted by feelinggood at 1:18 PM on July 29, 2008

I don't read much Greek or Latin, but from what I've read in English translations of Greek and Roman works I'd have to disagree with Burhanistan - my impression is that the Greeks and Romans very much viewed their gods as specific, anthropomorphic incarnate beings with distinct and human personalities and egos, as opposed to simply being names of processes or forces.

In that sense they would be similar to some sorts of Christianity that portray a very personal and sympathetic Christ. In fact, in my opinion one of the "features" of Christianity that makes it successful is the "trinity" concept, that through doublethink permits the Christian to have both a close, comprehensible Son who is easy to relate to, while at the same time maintaining a Father that's a Freudian big-beard-in-the-sky authority. Whether the "triune God" really counts as monotheism is an involved and charged debate, of course.

You might also be interested to know about the Catholic "cult of saints", in which during Middle Age Europe and subsequently there developed a pantheon of Christian saints who were identified with different needs and domains in the same way that deities in polytheistic religions are identified, permitting the lay Christian to pray for good crops et cetera in the manner that Maastrictian and misha ascribe to monotheists (and resulting in some amusing theological acrobatics by which Christian scholars would insist that this isn't really praying to the saints, it's praying for "intercession" by the saints. Gotta keep up the monotheistic appearances, don'cha know.)

I would hazard to guess that probably amongst the Greek and Romans there was a spectrum of piety from the devout believer through to the inherent skeptic who internally understood those religions as merely a system of symbolism and tradition.

For a primary source example, take a look at the second-to-last paragraph of The Periplus of the Euxine Sea, where the author (a Pontic Greek who was an agent of the Roman Empire around 100AD) talks about reports of sightings of Achilles (dead for a thousand years at that point in history and become a demi-god) near a temple dedicated to him on an island in the Black Sea and other experiences that today we would regard as supernatural phenomena:
... there lies an island, situated directly opposite to the course of those who sail with a North wind. Some call this the island of Achilles; others call it the chariot of Achilles; and others Leuce, from its colour. Thetis is said to have given up this island to her son Achilles, by whom it was inhabited. There are now existing a temple, and a wooden statue of Achilles, of ancient workmanship. It is destitute of inhabitants., and pastured only by a few goats, which those, who touch here, are said to offer to the memory of Achilles. Many offerings are sufpended in this temple, as cups, rings, and the more valuable gems. All these are offerings to the memory of Achilles. Inscriptions are also suspended, written in the Greek and Latin language, in praise of Achilles, and composed in different kinds of metre. Some are in praise of Patroclus, whom those, who are disposed to honour Achilles, treat with equal respect. Many birds inhabit this island, as sea-gulls, divers, and coots innumerable. These birds frequent the temple of Achilles. Every day in the morning they take their flight, and having moistened their wings, fly back again to the temple, and sprinkle it with the moisture; which having performed, they brush and clean the pavement with their wings. This is the account given by some persons. Those, who come on purpose to the island, carry animals proper for sacrifice with them in their ships, some of which they immolate, and others they set at liberty in honour of Achilles. Even those, who are compelled by stress of weather to land upon the island, must consult the God himself, whether it would be right and proper for them to select for sacrifice any of the animals, which they should find feeding there; offering, at the fame time, such a recompense, as to them seems adequate to the value of the animal so selected. But if this should be rejected by the Oracle, for there is an Oracle in this temple, they must then add to their valuation; and if the increased valuation be still rejected, they must increase it again, till they find, from the assent of the Oracle, that the price they offer is deemed sufficient. When this is the case, the beast to be sacrificed stands still of its own accord, and makes no effort to escape. A confiderable treasure is laid up in this temple as the price of these victims. It is said that Achilles has appeared in time of sleep both to those who have approached the coast of this island, and also to such as have been sailing a short distance from it, and instructed them where the island was most lately accessible, and where the ships might best lie at anchor. They even say further, that Achilles has appeared to them not in time of sleep, or a dream, but in a visible form on the mast, or at the extremity of the yards, in the same manner as the Dioscuri have appeared. This distinction however must be made between the appearance of Achilles, and that of the Dioscuri, that the latter appear evidently and clearly to persons, who navigate the sea at large, and when so seen foretell a prosperous voyage; whereas the figure of Achilles is seen only by such as approach this island. Some also say, that Patroclus has appeared to them during their sleep. I have thus put down what I have heard concerning this island of Achilles, either from persons who had touched there themselves, or from others that had made the same enquiries; and indeed these accounts seem to me to be not unworthy of belief. I am myself persuaded, that Achilles was a hero, if ever man was, being illustrious by his noble birth, by the beauty of his person, by the strength of his mind and understanding, by his untimely death in the flower of youth, by his being the subject of Homer's poetry, and, lastly, by the force of his love, and constancy of his friendship, insomuch that he would even die for his friends.
To me it sounds like the author Arrian, as an educated upper-class Roman citizen, concretely believes in a divine Achilles and believes in the sightings of him as much as some Christians today believe in sightings of Christ or the Virgin Mary. But does the Oracle of the temple who cranks up the price of the sacrifice really believe? Hmmm.
posted by XMLicious at 1:27 PM on July 29, 2008

The relevant question would have been, "Do you sacrifice to the gods?"

But this is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. It's quite possible the relevant question wasn't "do you believe in the gods?" because the existence of gods was taken as so much of a given that such a question was considered as meaningless as "do you believe in your child standing right over there?".
posted by Justinian at 1:33 PM on July 29, 2008

The idea of atheism as we understand it, for instance, was not conceived of in the ancient world. You believed in the gods.
posted by Maastrictian at 3:40 PM on July 29 [1 favorite +] [!]

Socrates would beg to differ with you.

Fascinating thread, all!
posted by IAmBroom at 1:37 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

What I learned in my Latin Class back in HS (nearly, ugh, 2 decades ago) was that there were the so-called civic gods, for whom rituals and other trappings were celebrated by the state; but more important to most Roman citizens were there own personal household gods, the Lares. (I think the Lares might be what Maximus prays to in Gladiator, but I'm not sure.)

Based on what I read and what I know now of modern religious worshippers, I'd wager that they were much like we are today: intensely devout when they're among the neighbors and the subject of religion comes up, maybe a little less so when they were in the prime of their youth and thought that vigor and enjoyment of life would last forever.
posted by lord_wolf at 2:48 PM on July 29, 2008

I also wanted to recommend Greek Religions by Burkert

Yeah, I was going to suggest that as well. Excellent book.

I would emphasize the point that Maastrictian brought up: ancient religion was not monolithic and underwent considerable change over time. In rural districts you'd get people stubbornly clinging to the good old religion (hence, probably, the word pagan, from Latin paganus 'of the countryside, rustic'); in the sophisticated urban centers, more and more as skeptical schools of philosophy spread, a lot of people were pretty much as snarky about it all as the average MeFite.

But as a counterpoint you might want to check out Julian Jaynes and his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Oh god, not that again. Very silly book that has an uncanny ability to cloud men's minds.
posted by languagehat at 6:04 PM on July 29, 2008

Belief is a pretty Christian concept. Fairly modern, too.

In pre-Christian Iceland, what you did was far more important than what you thought, said, "believed", etc. From what Feelinggood says, this may not have been uncommon.
posted by QIbHom at 6:57 PM on July 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Same shit different century. Your main (immortal) players, some key human characters. A little bit of 'magic' and some adventures complete with villans, heros and life lessons to cut out and keep. New thinking, branches, inclusions and offshoots to keep it all moving with the times. Various benefits, punishments and rules. Funds that must be outlayed - gods aren't free you know!! And most importantly enough faith to eat that shit up...

Do we have evidence to suggest it's different? (Or evidence to suggest it's not...)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 10:28 PM on July 29, 2008

i have a question along the same lines ...

i heard that the messiah of the bible (j.c.) was a 'copy' or followed other very similar messiah's prior. can anyone provide a link or copy of text of these other messiah's?

thank you!!!
posted by learninguntilidie at 11:37 AM on July 30, 2008

This guy seems relevant. This is not something I know much about.
posted by Maastrictian at 11:46 AM on July 30, 2008

Some Greeks believed that Aesculapius, the god of medicine, appeared to patients in his temples and healed them -- even performing some rather drastic surgeries -- in their sleep. The believers would go to the temples and lie down to sleep; incubation, it was called. The priests may have offered medical assistance, but in the inscriptions attesting these practices, the patients attribute their healing to the god.

"Jesus Christ took out my tumor" is about the same. Even more, the anecdotes resemble the modern American belief that little gray men from another star conduct medical examinations on you while you are supposedly asleep. There is probably a neurological basis for this delusion but the belief in Aesculapius influenced the ancient Greeks' interpretation of it. In Homer, a god sends a dream (personified) to a mortal sleeper's room to relate a message; the dream stands over the man's bed.
posted by bad grammar at 6:15 PM on July 30, 2008

Plato's dialogues contain many references to the general population's piety. The Ancient Greek's don't have a word that would translate to what we would call religion, piety is the closest word. In The Republic, Plato's Socrates has the gods remain (disregarding whether or not they exist) for the people to get some understanding of the world and such from. They weren't there for nothing.

The Clouds by Aristophanes shows the uneasiness and outrage at disbelief in the gods. You'll also find remarks in Xenophon.

The gods made up a major part of the political life at the time, and hence the artistic and poetic life. There were of course those who questioned them, or the details (Aristotle's "prime mover") but the public trial of Socrates says something about that.
posted by Outis at 6:34 AM on August 27, 2008

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