|I'd rather be a
|Suckled in a creed outworn
Classical mythology, otherwise known as Greco-Roman religion, is an umbrella term used to refer to many religious traditions practised within the Roman Empire and eventually syncretized and assimilated into something resembling a complex whole. It originated largely in the pre-existing mythology of ancient Greece, which was appropriated by the Romans into their own religious practices. In its latter years, when it competed with Christianity, it was referred to by followers of that religion as paganism.
Ancient Greek religion
We know about Ancient Greek religion from reading sources such as Homer and Hesiod. Hesiod synthesised a wide range of earlier Greek traditions in his work Theogony. The Theogony describes the creation of the world out of chaos, and the Succession Myth tells how the original chief god Uranus was overthrown by his son Cronus, who was in turn tricked and defeated by his son Zeus. Zeus was the youngest of Cronus's six children, the main gods and goddesses that replaced a previous generation of deities (the Titans, other of Uranus' offspring), namely:
- Hestia, goddess of the hearth
- Demeter, goddess of crops and the harvest
- Hera, queen of the gods and goddess of women
- Hades, god of the underworld
- Poseidon, god of the sea and earthquakes
- Zeus, king of the gods and god of the sky
These five gods (all but Hestia, who chose to remain virgin forever) in turn had various children in different combinations (a lot of them coming from Zeus, as seen to the right), producing a pantheon considered to reside on Mount Olympus.
The Greek pantheon (the Greek word is a collective noun expressing the idea of a gang of gods) was large, dominated by the Olympian gods and goddesses (Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Athena, etc.) but also containing many regional gods which the Hellenes added as they encountered new peoples with different gods as Hecate, with myths serving to weld them to their pantheon, as well as personifications of things as abstract concepts (ie, Eris) and celestial bodies (ie, Selene as personification of the Moon). The major pantheon of Greek gods themselves is likely based on a set of Indo-European myths that have been lost, but which would have influenced the Greeks (through the Minoans and the Mycenaeans), the ancient Hindus, the Norse, and the Middle East (Sumerians, etc), each of which share similar structures in the organization of their gods: Indra and Zeus, for example, or Parvati and Gaia.[note 1]
Historically, Mycenaean religion had a number of differences with the later Greek one. While some deities or at least their precursors can be recognized, there were a number of differences as Poseidon instead of Zeus being the top deity and Hades seemingly not being present and less can be said with certainty of the Minoan religion, as their language has to date not been translated, even if it seems their chief deity was a goddess and some deities as Athena could have been around by then. Both, however, show evidences of human sacrifice and even cannibalism, that would have been very frowned upon in later Greek religion at least if one goes by the myth of Tantalus.
When the Romans appropriated the religion, they changed many of the gods' names; Zeus became Jupiter, Poseidon became Neptune, Hades became Pluto, etc. Native Roman gods such as Terminus were also preserved from earlier traditions, producing the Greco-Roman blend.
That said, Roman mythology had its own set of unique myths and their deities characteristics not present in the Greek ones, so it is inappropriate to think that they were merely copycats. For example, the Roman god of time and agriculture, Saturn, was often depicted as wise, elderly, and kind. Meanwhile, his Greek "counterpart" Cronus was depicted as a tyrant who castrated his father and devoured his children in a bid for power. Furthermore, the Greeks were also guilty of being copycats themselves, as syncretism between their deities and foreign ones aside, they often imported such god(esse)s as Isis or Astarte, that would become Aphrodite, into their pantheons.
Besides thus losing the support of a sector of the intelligentsia, the outland conquests of Greece and Rome repeatedly saw the traditional cults undermined by imported mystery cults, such as that of Bacchus in the early second century BCE and that of Mithras two centuries later, which gained large followings among the common people. They, along with philosophical traditions such as Manichaeism, became popular enough that the emperor Diocletian, the first "absolute" ruler of the Roman Empire, undertook religious reforms intended to restore the Olympians to their former stature.
Christianity did not gain the upper hand until force was employed against the Pagans. In CE 312, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity after a victory in battle against another contender for the imperial throne. Within a few years, he removed all legal restrictions on Christianity in the Edict of Milan. The Christians then began roving about smashing Pagan shrines in spite of laws set up to protect them. Also, Constantine and his successors began almost immediately to proscribe Pagan rites and work on converting the population to Christianity by force, culminating in the total ban of Pagan rituals in 392. Increasingly, isolated pockets of Pagans survived for some centuries longer; notably Hypatia of Alexandria, murdered in 415 in the midst of a religious dispute, and the Maniots, inhabitants of a mountainous region in southern Greece, who were the last Greco-Roman Pagans to be Christianized, in the 9th century.
Greco-Roman deities, helped by lots of works in popular culture derived from them and their mythos, are now present in modern paganism, with the practitioners ranging from people who try to be as historically accurate as possible to standard eclectic paganism that includes practices certainly not used by ancient Greeks and Romans as Tarot readings, Crystals, and other New Agey nonsense, and everything in between.
In 2017, the Greek government recognized Hellenism as an official religion, allowing its practitioners to perform official marriage ceremonies or buy land to build temples.
Historical blending of the religions and views on morality, ethics, and the gods
Throughout most of Western history, the retellings of the Greek and Roman myths were done in a way that treated the whole of the ancient Greco-Roman world as having had a single monolithic religion rather than dozens of diverse cults and local variants on the worship of the same god(dess), etc. This was largely because the myths were viewed through the lens of Christianity, which tended to lump all the different cults together under the label of "paganism," and did not care much about the distinctions between them. As G.K. Chesterton put it, "The term 'pagan' is continually used ... as meaning a man without any religion, whereas a pagan was generally a man with about half a dozen.". Modern scholars, using techniques that put the old myths back in context, have documented much more extensively the rich and complex religions that existed across the Hellenic world.
Greco-Roman religion saw relationship with the gods as in a sense contractual — offer respect and honour to them through offerings and sacrifices ("Kharis") (in which, in the case of animal ones (save for Chthonic (underworld) deities, who got the entire animal burned), the gods got just the bones and the fat as burned offerings, and everything else was eaten by all participants in a large banquet, unlike what can be read in the Old Testament) and they'd reward you depending on what the deity you worshipped ruled over, if you were pious (ie, a farmer would pray to Demeter hoping she would reward him with a rich harvest, while a sailor would worship Poseidon expecting a safe sea voyage in return, with extra offerings to thank them after one got what (s)he wanted, and always without forgetting to honor Hestia at the beginning and at the end of these rites save for chthonic deities)[note 2], with the gods — unlike Judeo-Christian views of God where his frag count is also presented in a good light— being also accepted to be fallible and imperfect and having been argued that them being presented in this way plus negatively in the myths was to serve as lessons for humans to strive and to be better than them, even if morality and ethics were not as primary as in modern views and hubris against the gods was a thing, them punishing it very harshly in the myths (just ask, for example, Niobe even if it seems that to
play stupid games and win stupid prizes mess with the gods and seeing who got the harshest punishment was a sport among mortals in Greek mythology). It should also be noted how one thing is the way gods are presented in precisely the myths (which were sometimes just allegorical or contained a deeper insight, not being meant to be taken literally at least in theory), and other quite different how both their worshippers, including often referring to them as compassionate, and at least some philosophers saw them with Socrates first having already noted how the gods in the stories that featured them were quite fickle, capricious, erratic, tyrannical, dishonorable, or just plain childish even by human standards and Plato later wanting to ban such works as they presented a distorted view of them quite different to his idealized vision of the gods.
Christian-based views, finally, have also influenced the way some of these deities are now seen on popular culture and not just because of ignoring how myths were composed in a context very different to the modern one or what's noted above of what they actually were for, most notably Hades, where it's so bad that he got a trope in TVTropes named after him, even if ancient Greeks certainly did not like both Hades and especially his wife Persephone, mostly because of the natural fear of death and the unknown and Hades being considered unbribable, as no matter how much one prayed or gave offerings to him no one was spared of dying, nor did anyone come back from the Underworld[note 3].
- Greco-Roman religion
- Ancient Greek and Roman Religion
- Parting the Parthenon Debunking the Greek gods
- Ancient Greek Mythology
- The gods of the Slavs can also be included in this; for example, Perun shares Zeus's association with the sky and lightning, while Veles shares Hades' association with that which is underground.
- If has often been argued that is one of the reasons that explain the spreading of Christianity in the Roman Empire, as someone dying gruesomely to save mankind and give everyone a blissful afterlife, even if threats of eternal torment for idolaters would have not been absent, in exchange for (next to) nothing was something novel in those days next to such a businesslike relationship, a grey, generic, afterlife save for some selected ones, and especially the many hardships people of those times had to endure with things not improving at all after dying.
- Still, Hades had also associated the richies given by earth (precious metals, etc) and even its fertility. However even in such much nicer side Hades was worshipped with different names
- Minoan Human Sacrifice?
- Ritual human sacrifice in the Mycenaean palace of Kydonia
- The Minoans: How They Lived, and How They Died
- THE GREEK STATE HAS FINALLY RECOGNIZED THE HELLENIC ETHNIC RELIGION AS A ‘KNOWN RELIGION’
- Kharis (Χάρις); our relationship with the Gods
- Was Greek ‘religious’ thought linked with morality?
- Homer's Gods, Plato's Gods
- Summary and Analysis Book II: Section III