Mythology - Was It Ever Really A Practicing Religion?

I had always assumed that - for example - what we now call Greek Mythology was at one time during that age actually a widely believed in and practiced religion, is this accurate?

I ask because I remember taking a mythology class as an elective in college many years back and when I asked the instructor this, I was met with a soft “no” which always stuck with me and now I question.

So did the Greeks of the time really believe that lightning was Zeus being angry and throwing bolts at the Earth?

Were coastal storms the work of an enraged Poseidon?

There are stories of lore that warriors that fell in battle had a coin placed upon their eyes to pay the boatman of the river Styx… is this all made up, rooted in some truth, or mostly factual?

Did Viking Warriors of their time, really believe in Odin and Valhalla?

I suspect the answers might be a bit nuanced and not exactly black and white.

And finally if these were actual beliefs… were the “enlightened” and educated scholars of the time, more agnostic or scientific while the uneducated masses followed “religion”?

Interesting question! @CalMeacham may know.

Greek gods certainly had temples and priests, so I think we can safely assume some form of religion was practiced. As for the belief of the average guy on the street, it’s harder to say; none of their telephone polls have survived to the present day.

I too had always presumed that. I always figured that the only difference between “mythology” and “religion” was that one is for ancients who are no longer around to defend themselves, and the other is for moderns so you better be careful not to offend anyone.

Looking forward to seeing the responses.

There’s a huge difference between mythology (sacred narratives and artistic representation thereof) and religion (religious beliefs and practices).

This is like asking “Do Christians really believe that Adam ate a magic apple because a snake told him to?” The answer is kind of yes, but it’s not the same kind of belief as believing that water is wet or crocs are ugly.

The Greeks more or less believed in the fundamental characters, characteristics, and values transmitted by their myths, but they weren’t fundamentalists who took them literally.

Julius Ceasar: I thought you had reservations about the gods.
Gracchus: Privately I believe in none of them - neither do you. Publicly, I believe in them all.
Spartacus 1960

I suspect there was a big difference between state religions/practice and what people did in their day-to-day lives. We certainly have evidence the Greeks practice a form of state religion with temples and institutions. If you read Herodotus, the number of times the Spartans don’t want to leave home to fight because they’re going to miss a religious festival is surprising. (Okay, they probably didn’t want to leave the Helots unattended for very long.) But I don’t know how much evidence we have regarding the daily importance of religion.

I will note that when we’re talking about Greek mythology we’re talking about a fairly long period of time among a somewhat diverse group of people. The Greeks weren’t monolithic even if we lump them all together today. And Athenians of 500 BCE weren’t necessarily the same as Athenians of 900 BCE.

There were certainly temples and coin/tributes paid. It seems like it was a mix of religion and entertainment on a soap opera level. What shenanigans did Zeus get up to this time. Did he turn into a golden mist and seduce someone again.?

It is accurate, but even without formal polls, how can you quantify how pious “the average guy on the street” is versus someone who is just going through the motions (arguably at least as important)?

The Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say

One issue I can see is that “mythology” wasn’t all one thing, created in one short span of time. Myths evolved over time, so it’s probably going to be hard to define exactly which parts of which myths were believed to be true at any given time, and which parts were just fun stories that used the gods as characters.

I expect you’ll find it’s a mixture. Sure, they believed that Zeus or Odin or Jupiter actually existed, and had power over human affairs, but maybe this particular story was just a cautionary tale about begging the gods too much, or something.

And we still see that today. There’s lots of people that profess a belief on the Christian God, and Jesus, but there’s also a lot of debate about certain things in the Bible. Was Noah’s flood a real event? How about Adam and Eve? Is Hell a real place, or is Satan just a metaphor for human sin? There are people on all sides of those debates, and more.

There’s a bit in Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror where she quotes a 12th-century bishop complaining about some people who said there was no such thing as an afterlife, like animals we just live our lives and die… So I don’t doubt that there plenty of people in every place and time who were cynical to many degrees about religious orthodoxy of the day.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall has a chapter about how Christianity so completely replaced the ancient religions of Rome once it was accepted by the powers that be. The crux, IIRC, was that nobody was as heavily invested in that religion.

I see a lot of this mythology as “Just so stories” about human behaviour, as they are often still used today - certainly more believable tan an omnipotent being who stands aloof and lets bad things happen, but supposedly cares. I’d hazard a guess too that the more worldly educated types had the same skepticism that (as others mention) we take to the more absurd bible stories of miracles, or the lives of the saints.

The core question is why we make a distinction between mythology and religion in the first place.

In western society we can trace it back to the Torah, which inveighed against idols and false gods plural and made clear in the commandments that monotheism was the only true belief. All others were enemies. Christians adopted this attitude from the Jews. They spent the next thousand years slowly filling out all of Europe, battling what they called pagans every step of the way. The next thousand years saw them spread their religion to all their far-flung colonies, making it dominant everywhere.

Does monotheism have core differences from paganism? The Jews and Christians were certainly aware of Mediterranean and European beliefs. Those may not have had a single holy text of guidance but they definitely had oral and written stories about gods and morality. They had priest classes. They had holy sites. They observed rituals. They laid down rules and strictures for their people. And when the Christians moved around the world, they found other groups with equivalent cores. The details were never exactly the same, but Christianity itself has varied greatly in two thousand years.

History is indeed written by the winners. Modern anthropology tells us that the only difference between religions is detail. (Some outliers may diverge from this oversimplified depiction but humanity is huge.) The only reason that Christianity gets to call itself a religion and relegates the beliefs of the peoples it conquered to mere mythologies is that they conquered and won and imposed by sheer force their beliefs on the western world and much of the rest.

Most of the world lived under theocracies until very recent times. Religion was all-pervasive in lives; it was the air that they breathed, the sea that they swam in. Within that sea people just lived their lives. They farmed, they hunted, they sewed, they built, they raised children, they suffered calamities, they fought wars. We can’t say minute-by-minute how much religion was in their heads. But it was all religion. Mythology is a mythical concept.

If anything, mythologists were more hardcore about their beliefs than the religious are.

In ancient times, people were sacrificed to the gods. Wars and life were decided by divination. People were made to participate in sexual acts in the name of the gods. People had shrines in their home, giving away their hard-earned food.

Abrahamic religion’s aniconic, anti-sacrifice position removed much of this. The rise of humanism and its secret takeover of our shared morality has removed most of the rest. But, definitively, people used to be far more willing to do insane things for the gods. If you want to use the words “mythology” and “religion” to separate that then that’s certainly reasonable, since there is a difference, but the religious side would be the mellower, more atheistic variant of the two.

Thanks for the vote of confidence.

It’s complicated, but the short answer is “yes” Whenever you discuss mythology, you’re really talking about someone else’s religion. This is true of mythology the world over, and ought to give you pause any time you think that someone else’s myths are silly or trivial. Remember, to them, your own religious beliefs can be cast in an equally unflattering light. (Being an atheist or agnostic doesn’t get you out of this. You still have some philosophy or beliefs behind your actions)

In the earliest days, I’m sure that the Greeks and Romans did believe their myths as certainly as any group does. It lay at the basis of their history and science and politics. What makes people question the Greek and Roman sincerity of belief is, I suspect, the sophistication of their culture and the ease with which, in later days, they modified or defied the beliefs.That seems like the behavior of someone who doesn’t really take the religion seriously anymore.

There is a section from the Phaedrus of Plato that I quote at the start of chapter 5 of Medusa. Socrates and Phaedrus are walking by the Ilissus River near Athens, and Phaedrus asks Socrates if they are near the spot where Boreas, the North Wind, is supposed to have abducted the maiden Oreithuia. The story is told or alluded to by many writers. Pausanias, who in the second century CE wrote a guidebook to Greece that still exists, points out the spot. Socrates says the spot is a little further down than they are at the time, and that there’s an altar to Boreas at the spot.
Phaedrus says: “But tell me, Socrates, before Zeus, do you believe this mythical tale to be true?”

Socrates responds that "if he disbelieved it, as the wise do, he wouldn’t be unusual. People have tried to account for this and other myths with rationalizations. This, says Socrates, requires a lot of leisure time, and he himself does not have much of that. To him, the truth or lack of it in the myth of Boreas is not important, and not worth arguing over. Real philosophy was worth arguing over, not speculating about the apparently fantastic with little information.

It seems to me that there was a range of belief in ancient society, with the sophisticates believing little or nothing, down to fundamentalist literalists. But everyone observed the forms and practices of religion – the ceremonies, the feast days, the household gods, and so forth. And there were a LOT of temples and religious festivals. If you don’t believe that, have a look at A.B. Cook’s massive three-volume (although it’s five physical books) work Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion

And it’s not that different from today, when you have unbelieving atheists and agnostic, middle-of-the-road practicing communicants and dyed in the wool literal believers.

If you read the various writers on mythology you can identify their own philosophies and outlooks. Apollodorus, whose Library is a treasure trove of background, but who tries to cram in every known detail and keep it consistent. I think of him as a Continuity Geek, but for serious religion rather than, say comic books. Ovid, on the other hand, regarded the myths lightly, and had no compunctions about changing details or even inventing new versions if it suited him. Dionysius Skytobrachion was even more extreme, completely re-arranging the myths. But the core of the myths remained constant, repeated by countless other voices and represented in vase paintings and other art. The excursions of Ovid or Dinonysios didn’t make much headway against the inertia of belief.

So did the Greeks and Romans believe in their myths, or were they the “gay fantasies of the poets” as one saying had it? Overall, most people believed at least some of the myth, and acted that way. Those that didn’t still observed the outward signs, whatever they may have felt inside. I suspect that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in Spartacus had it dead on when his invented character Gracchus purchasing a chicken to sacrifice to the gods “I thought you had reservations about the gods,” remarks Julius Caesar. “Privately I believe in none of them. Neither do you. Publicly I believe in them all.”

Do religious believers sorta think differently about what their religion tells them about the past - i.e., Adam and Eve, the deluge and ark, or the spot that the North Wind abducted some maiden - and how they perceive the present day deity? What the OP described as Poseidon sending a hurricane or Zeus tossing thunderbolts. Or God listening to prayers.

I suspect a believer’s thoughts on these 2 areas might tend to be somewhat in tandem, but it is sorta one thing to say, “Well, that bible story is a myth”, than to assert “God definitely exists.” IME, relatively few believers take the Bible as unerring fact. But far more are certain God exists.

And WRT the latter, one can have any number of perceptions of how God appears/acts… Even today, I bet the majority of Christians are familiar with the personification of God as some old white guy w/ flowing hair and beard, up in the clouds somewhere. But every thoughtful Christian I’ve discussed God and the afterlife with quickly gets pretty vague about what they believe is the manifestation of God. It usually boils down to some sort of “force” - most often described as “love.” And, of course, many fall back on simply saying it is “unknowable.”

So I guess what I’m saying inartfully is that I could imagine Greeks believing that some sorta nebulous force or being they call Poseidon is out there that needs to be mollified, without really believing it is some guy with a trident.

I think the operative thing to remember is that people are people, and always have been.

I somehow doubt that devout belief somehow started with the Abrahamic religions; there were almost certainly fervent and devout believers in Cernunnos, Mithras, Hermes, Thor, etc…

So there were probably the professional religious sorts (priests, etc…) and a relatively small number of hardcore true believers. Then a larger number of somewhat religious, and/or nominally religious people.

I kind of doubt that your average Roman/Celt/ancient Greek/etc… was necessarily more religious in a day-to-day sense than your average person today.

And then there’s the issue of what “devout” actually means in a polytheistic religion. In monotheism, it’s pretty straightforward, you believe in god or else. But if there’s many gods, there’s a bit more wiggle room. You might believe in all the gods, but only really pray and sacrifice to the one or two you think have the biggest impact on your life. Soldiers aren’t too likely to worry about what the God of Weaving has to say, after all.

We have many, many examples of major societies outright borrowing entire gods from other cultures, as well. If you lost a war because Zeus decided you weren’t worthy, well then, screw that god, I’m worshiping Mithras now!

So very true.

And to turn things around and look at our own time. Lots of people claiming to be Christians believe in astrology, hang up dream catchers and fear banshees. Do they Believe in those things? Well that would negate their belief in the Christian god,

Or do they sorta, kinda, just in case, think there might be something to it, while a bit uneasily reading the horoscope.

Faith and belief aren’t monolithic, either or. And knowing that people are people, having your household god be Odin, and worshipping to him fervently, doesn’t mean that throwing a chicken at the altar of Thor occasionally is really a bad thing.
Just in case.

And in fact, he wrote in the introduction to Metamorphoses that he “prates of ancient poets’ monstrous lies”.

There was a lot of variety. Some of it was thought of the same way that we think of Superman or Batman: Everyone knows they’re fictional, but they’re convenient characters to tell stories about, and to debate what they would “really” do. Some of it was thought of the same way that we think of Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty: Fictional characters, but representing real things. And yes, some of it was thought of the same way that most modern Americans think of Jesus. And all of this could vary tremendously from one time or place to another.

By the time of Jesus, what we would call religious belief in the Greek pantheon was on the decline, which left a niche open for the “mystery cults”, among those who were inclined to deep religious faith. One of those mystery cults was Christianity… but another was the cult of Diana, which is clearly derived from Greco-Roman belief.

Also note that “Greco-Roman” belief wasn’t originally one thing. Before the heavy Greek cultural influence, the predominant Roman religion didn’t have myths nor anthropomorphized deities. Pre-Greek Jupiter didn’t look like a muscular, bearded man holding a lightning bolt: He looked like a lightning bolt. The Roman religion held that everything had a spirit associated with it, and the spirits of particularly large and important things like the sky or agriculture were called “gods”, but they were still qualitatively similar to the spirits of lesser things like a particular tree, or the like.

Also I think you have to accept that the gods were popular characters whose exploits could be invented to entertain audiences. Imagine an “Adventures of Jesus” serial on TV where every new week you got a brand new never seen before Jesus story.

ETA: Or what Chronos just said

Doesn’t that depend on what you mean by “mythology”?

I sometimes wonder if our own “mythology” today, our own gods and heroes and monsters, analogous to Zeus and Hercules and Medusa, would be characters like Batman and Spider-man and Han Solo and Dracula and Mr. Spock and etc.

Anyway, here are a couple of previous threads on a similar question: