Mythology - Was It Ever Really A Practicing Religion?

Sorry, autocorrect changed Celsus to Celsius, in my previous post.

I’d just like to note my amusement that, at this moment, of the links I provided there were 0 clicks on sacrifice, 0 on divination, and 28 on “sexual acts”.

Titillations, fun as they may be, are probably not as telling as human sacrifice and running wars based on how a rabbit’s organs fell on the ground. These people were serious about their beliefs.

That is not my reading of the history. I believe that the prescribed Jewish sacrifices held a central and important place in Jewish worship. So much so that the priests of the one true central Temple fought for centuries for a monopoly on those sacrifices, prohibiting sacrifices at traditional “high places” and even executing as heretics those who continued to make them. (and i believe there are still some tiny groups of Jewish heretics living in Israel and sacrificing in traditional holy places.)

Then the Temple was destroyed, and most Jews were driven out of their traditional lands by the Romans. The Jewish religion underwent a crisis, and ultimately, the rabbinic branch survived, and stated that in lieu of the now-impossible sacrifices, God had given us prayers we could say instead. Most of the Jewish services still are named for the sacrifices they replaced, if i am not mistaken. The traditional leaders of the faith, who had been based at the temple and whose practices centered around those sacrifices lost authority (if they survived the Roman purge at all) because… well, they couldn’t do their thing any longer. And that’s how modern Judaism reconciles the many laws requiring sacrifice with modern practice.

There are fundamentalist Jews today trying to collect what is ritually necessary to restart sacrifices, and they hope to rebuild the Temple, which inconveniently stands on land since claimed as a Muslim holy site. But they can’t do anything until they obtain a perfect red heifer.

Meanwhile, Christianity declared that Jesus’ death by crucifixion was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. With this one, perfect sacrifice, no future sacrifices were needed.

As said above, what the Ancient Greeks believed can be considered a religion and while there was in all likelihood a spectrum of beliefs ranging from dogmatic “fundamentalist” belief to literal atheism (indeed, various degrees of belief/skepticism are recorded in surviving literature of the time), as a general rule you had to publicly acknowledge the gods and go through the motions of worship in order to not bring the wrath of society on you. Behind what we call myths was definitely a religion that was practiced and in which the gods mentioned in the myths were indeed worshipped; it was not merely a bunch of fairy tales that everyone took as nothing but mere fiction.

However, here is an important point that needs to be made. As far as we can figure out from the perspective of our modern sensibilities, the sources of the Greek myths are not “holy scriptures” bearing a dogmatic value in the same way as the Bible or the Qu’ran are to their respective religions. The Greek myths that have come down to us are largely sourced from literary and dramatic works; they often tell different stories about the same gods, and it is doubtful that everyone knew all these different versions or believed them as “gospel truth.” For example, our knowledge of the Ancient Greek creation myth largely comes from Hesiod, who wrote the “Theogony” (I.E., the genesis of the gods). But Hesiod spent time in Ionia (the Greek diaspora in Asia Minor, in the area of modern Turkey) and his version of the creation of the world may have been inspired by Near Eastern creation myths.

Or take this example: what happened to Helen of Troy, who escaped her husband King Menelaus of Sparta with the Trojan prince Paris (or perhaps was abducted by him), causing the Trojan War, after the Greeks sacked Troy and won the war? Well, if you go by Homer’s Odyssey, a literary work that would have been well-known in Ancient Greece, certainly in Ancient Athens, she and Menelaus made up. Helen is a character in several plays by the Athenian dramatist Euripides. In one of them, “Orestes”, follwing the war, there is a plot to kill Helen, but before this can be carried out, she is lifted up to the realm of the gods. In another work by Euripides, “The Trojan Women”, which is very sympathetic to the women of Troy, after the war, Menelaus is adamant that he will have Helen executed as punishment for her infidelity (but the chorus subtly indicates that he will change his mind on this matter). In the same playwright’s play “Helen”, however, Menelaus has hidden the woman he won at Troy in a cave, but then discovers that she was a mere image that the gods made of Helen, and that the real Helen had been kept in Egypt for all that time and was thus innocent of having cheated on him! These plays would have been performed at the Athenian Dionysia festival, which had a religious character, and thus could be considered a form of worship; however, they are most clearly also works of drama and art, and Euripides clealy didn’t have to follow one canonical version of the myth in crafting the plays.

Also, for example, Homer had his critics. In his work, he portrays the gods as bickering and having human flaws. There were writers who censured him for this, believing that the gods had to be perfect and that it was untoward to talk about iniquity among them. One writer even stated that Homer deserved “to be kicked out of the agora and given a beating.”

In short, even if the gods behind the myths, and to a greater or lesser extent the basic myths, were believed in, there doesn’t seem to have been a canonical set of myths that everyone believed in. A final point - some myths could be local. Some stories that Athenians believed in as part of their worship may have been different from stories believed in by people in Mycenae as part of their worship. Different cities emphasized cults to different gods (e.g. Athens had as its patron Athene, Rhodes strongly worshipped the sun god Helios), so local mythology may have reflected those gods as well.

Very little is known about the practice of Norse religion compared to how much we know of their myths. What little we know for certain is because the sagas contain a few mentions of religious practice, and because of practices that persisted until Christian authorities or lawmakers sought to ban them.

Yet the Bible and the Qu’ran also contain numerous instructional stories and parables designed to show proper morality and the dangers of violating social and religious practices.

That they are condensed into a single holy book is a product of a different mindset but they serve many of the same purposes as the multiple tales now called mythology from various cultures.


Though, as far as I am aware, a distinction to be made there is that of the apparent absence of a formalized canon – that the regular rituals in Greco-Roman paganism did not include a section dedicated to make every worshipper everywhere memorize one single authoritative set of didactive storylines, and there was never a council of high priests from the different worship centers sitting down to choose one single story arc to teach across the whole civilization.

So you could have multiple bios of a god/dess depending on where was he/she being worshipped and that was no problem as the origin stories were not the point, the point was worshipping them properly here and now and who cares if Aphrodite arose from sea foam stirred by Ouranos’ severed balls falling in, or she’s the daughter of Zeus and Dione.

I wonder if in a thousand years someone will be having a discussion about our “modern religions” and asking did they really believe this “BS”?

Many of these older religions lacked the concept of a central authority that dictated the authoritative canon - possibly because they also spanned the range of a huge number of city-states. No one state was going to subject its religion, and hence some level of control of the population, to a power in a different city-state.

The Roman Empire was probably the first to be sufficiently wide-spread to have that level of civil control over a large landmass that also encompassed the religion area. and… they turned the Emperors into Gods and demanded the population worship them, if Christian propaganda is to be believed.

Otherwise, there’s always the tug-of-war between the religious and civil authorities over who actually rules. (i.e. between Fredrick II and Pope Gregory) Much of the protestant unrest during the reformation was unwillingness to heed the more non-religious aspects of Rome rule, thinking it was an effort to control them and re-impose Roman control (along with the financial aspects of that). They weren’t wrong. Henry VIII was as much enticed by the 10% or more of England owned by the church that he could take, not just his urge to procreate far and wide. After that, the English fear for the next centuries was that submitting to Rome was actually submitting to foreign powers which controlled the papacy.

Similarly, from what I read, Ankhaten’s promoting his new Egyptian religion of the one Sun God was an attempt to wrest power (and riches) away from the many temples and their endowments that had control of a lot of Egypt. Money is power, and such religious institutions tended to accumulate a lot of both.

A history blog I follow has quite a good set of articles on especially Greek & Roman polytheism that touches on the OP’s question (Short answer, yes, definitely):

The most obvious example of how seriously religion was taken in the Greco-Roman world was the Oracle of Delphi. Immense number of pilgrims, vast amount of donations, widespread belief in the oracle’s pronouncements over quite a few centuries. The whole site was sacred for maybe 2 millennia.

And it wasn’t the only such site. St. Paul famously ran into idols and their makers all over. He got into serious trouble in Ephesus. Found Athens full of idols etc. Some of these idols were made of precious metals with the largest ones covered in gold, with ivory and so on. You don’t spend that type of dough on stuff you don’t believe in.

As to being organized, start reading here about the Pontifex Maximus and start clicking on links to see the hierarchy of Roman priesthood and such. It was incredibly regularized. (Note that not just the name, but the garbs were adopted later by Christians.)

As to sacred writings. They definitely existed. For the Romans, the Sibylline Books were quite important. Burned in the 4th century.

A lot of Greco-Roman religious text was just plain eradicated.

Note that the Roman Empire was very pluralistic. A lot of accommodation to the local pantheons. So there wasn’t one state religion that required an empire-wide church hierarchy controlling all aspects of all the various groups’ religious activities complete with master texts. That was a later development of the Christians and should hardly be taken as the norm in any way.

And of course many groups never became literate before Western contact so of course they have no ancient texts. But they definitely had/have religion. Not remotely “mythology”.

I like the distinction between religion, which is a system of beliefs and practices, and mythology, which is a set of stories, that might or might not support a religion.

So Christianity is a religion, and the stories about Adam reading an apple and Jesus dying on a crucifix and returning to life are parts of the Christian mythology.

The Greek and Roman mythologies did support religions that people believed and practiced. Not every single person in the culture, of course, just as our culture has people with a variety of beliefs, even among those who identify as “Christian”.

It’s important to keep in mind that in those times, believing outlandish stories (e.g. Zeus throwing lighting bots) was not necessarily a sign of piety or devotion. It’s simply that those stories were as good an explanation as any.

If we told a person of that time that we could know when a thunderstorm is coming by looking at a magic screen with a guy telling us it will happen at your house in 2 hours, they’d say it was way too fanciful. It’s not that they’re so invested in the idea of Zeus as a personal protector. For their purposes, they found the Zeus story to be as good as any, and it fit well enough with all the other stories.

One of the things that continues to amaze me about Greek mythology is that the legends were essentially entrusted to the care and keeping of the bards, not to any priests or other officials. It’s true that bards were believed to be inspired by the gods, but it also means that important parts of the myths might be altered by someone in search of a better rhyme.

I’m sure that the group belief and knowledge of the myths prevented the bards from straying too far from the basic story, but it’s also true that The Medium Shapes the Message*. The myths as told in epic poems differ from the same myths as told in drama or in vase paintings, in part because the storytelling medium affects the way the story is told. So Homer’s version of The Iliad is masterful (it really is. I’ve re-read it countless times), but I suspect that it differs from the story’s original forms.

The story of Phaethon, one that I’ve looked into at length (I’ve written an as-yet unpublished book about it), exists in multiple differing versions, most of which aren’t well-known because they’re in fragmentary form. But the basic story remains the same – kid learns that the sun god is his father; is granted a boon; asks for the keys to the car; chaos ensues.

*I do not hold with Marshall McLuhan that the Medium IS the Message. But it undoubtedly shapes the story itself, not just how it is relayed.

To expand on Cal. Cultures across time and space almost inevitably have a designated class of people to remember the stories that are important to the culture. They could be called shamans or magicians or elders or wise men and women or bards or priests. Priests seem to emerge after written religious texts, but the etymology is from presby- “word-forming element meaning ‘old,’ from Greek presby-, combining form of presbys ‘elderly, aged,’ as a noun, ‘elder, old man.’”

Their functions of course vary from culture to culture, but it’s a mistake to consider them a truly different category. The distinction is more than oral histories need active transmittal while written holy texts can be accessed by many. That was one of the splits that created Protestantism. Catholics discouraged access and individual study of the Bible, while Protestants encouraged individual study without the multi-level hierarchy that determined which opinions were official. They of course soon developed their own splits and heresies.

Oral cultures tend to have a continuity of traditions that many religions based on a fixed text lack. Native Americans and Australian Aborigines both claim that their stories go back to ancient times. No one can disprove this although what is known about oral transmission throws doubt. Many those stories have also subtly changed over time to account for changes in the world.

Form and transmission are lesser variants than the core elements of the need for sacred stories and cultural norms. Those have similarities that are nigh universal. Religion and mythology and rites and sacredness are all part of a rich stew, one that today includes fiction, self-help books, memoirs, screeds, philosophy, patriotic stories, fables and fairy tales and children’s books, songs, plays, movies, and - Og help me - tweets.

Absolutely not. All traditional Jewish sources condemn Jephthah for his impetuous vow and for not seeking a way to get out of it.

“Fine and happy?” Absolutely not. Heck, just two days ago was a national day of mourning for the loss of the Holy Temple, observed annually by Jews for the almost two thousand years since its destruction. The Bar Kochba revolt fifty years after its destruction had rebuilding the Temple as one of its aims, coins minted by him had images of the Temple on them. Prayers for the rebuilding of the temple and resumption of the sacrificial service are a staple of daily Jewish prayer, and many ritual reductions of joy in happy occasions (the most widely known of these would be the breaking of a glass at the end of a Jewish wedding ceremony) to remind ourselves that the nation still mourns for the loss of the Temple exist in Jewish practice. Resigned, certainly, though with faith that the condition is only temporary. But never happy.

Happy about giving up the sacrifices, the Ordeal of the Bitter Water, etc. not about losing the Temple itself.

I do not think that there is any separation in traditional Judaism between sadness over the loss of the Temple vs the sacrifices brought there. In the daily prayers, Jews pray specifically for the restoration of the “fire-offerings” in the Temple. The yearning is for our service of G-d to be as close to the Biblical ideal as possible. (which would include such rituals as the bitter waters…although of course, one hopes that there are not adulterous suspicions among married couples).

Yeah, even as a Reform Jew who is personally just fine about not having to make sacrifices at the Temple, i am aware that “Jews”, and more specifically, “Judaism”, remain distraught that the Temple doesn’t stand, it and that it’s not possible to fulfill those mitzvot. Also, it was dicey for Judaism to survive the loss of the Temple at all.