Missing Religious Ontologies in Ancient Polytheism

Below is a brief paper that I wrote for my “Greek Religion” seminar last quarter, where I address some of the ontologies of religion (e.g. sacred texts, church, dogma) that appear to be absent from ancient Greek polytheism. I discussed some of these religious ontologies in my earlier review of Zaidman and Pantel on this blog. In the paper I argue that the religious functions that these ontologies serve were not being unmet by polytheism, rather than that they are harder to identify, because of the fact that polytheism was often far more hermeneutically flexible than monotheism.

Monotheistic religions like Christianity often come with a prepackaged set of religious texts, doctrines, and denominations. Ancient polytheism, in contrast, was far more fluid. One could practice Greek religion, as well as Egyptian religion, while also being able to join a wide range of different philosophical schools, without breaching any particular religious boundaries. That does not mean, however, that polytheists did not have any sense of religious belief or community, even if such functions were often far more blurred than they are in monotheistic religions today. Here is the paper:


One of the most striking features of studying ancient Greek polytheism is the fact that Greek religion had very different organizing structures than most Western religions practiced today. As Zaidman and Pantel (Religion in the Ancient Greek City, pg. 11) argue, “The Greek city knew neither church nor dogma. As a consequence Greek religious conduct, whether pious or impious, lacked the precisely defined character it would acquire in other religions.” Ancient polytheists had no authoritative sacred text like the Bible, nor are the religious doctrines of polytheism as easy to identify as monotheistic doctrines such as the Nicene creed. As a result, scholars have cautioned against “Christianizing” assumptions when studying Greek religion. Such admonition is aimed at preventing anachronisms and the tendency to impute our foreign concepts onto an ancient culture.

In place of a monotheistic or Christian religious ontology, therefore, scholars for the last several decades have favored the “polis approach” to Greek religion, which interprets its polytheistic religious ontology in terms of the city-state and civic life. As Julia Kindt (Rethinking Greek Religion, pg. 4) explains, “The polis approach, as developed during the 1960s and 1970s, posited the existence of the polis as a ‘unitary entity and the uniting factor behind Greek history.’” This paper does not seek to challenge the polis approach to Greek religion, but rather to question the assumption that polytheistic religious ontology is really that disparate from the ontologies of modern religions [1]. In particular, the claim that Greek religion lacked church and dogma needs to be re-evaluated.

An over-emphasis on the polis approach to Greek religion can often create the impression that ancient polytheism simply lacked many aspects of religious experience. Ontologies that are common to subsequent religions appear to be missing. Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 231) thus describe Greek religion as “desperately foreign,” due to “its own peculiar categories and frames of reference,” and caution that “misinterpretation may arise through confusing their categories with our own.” An obvious example of such conflation would be to assume, for example, that Greek religion had different denominations, such as how Catholicism and Protestantism operate within Christianity today, or to assume that Greek polytheists had dogmatic notions of religious inclusion and exclusion, such as the modern distinction that one cannot be a Christian and also a Muslim, and vice versa. To describe Greek religion in this way would indeed be to confuse its categories with our own.

Greek polytheists saw no conflict with honoring the gods of multiple cities, or even the same gods with different epithets, and it was not assumed that if one practiced Egyptian religion, for example, that they were thereby excluded from Greek religion. Even the concept of “polytheism” was one that was imputed from the outside. As H.S. Versnel (Coping with the Gods, pg. 24) explains:

Coping with the Gods“Greeks of the archaic and classical periods did not use that term to typify their own religion. It is a qualification—or rather a disqualification—invented by Christian monotheists in order to give expression to a conceptual antithesis. Their polytheistic opponents, in their turn, stigmatized the Christians as atheoi [atheists], not as monotheoi [monotheists].”

It is quite a leap, however, to argue from these considerations that Greek religion was “desperately foreign.” Many of the social and individual functions that Greek religion served can quite readily be identified with the functions served by modern religions today.

A modest theoretical assumption that will be advanced in this paper is that the structure of religious practice in any given society may not be the most effective hermeneutic to understanding the role that religion serves in individuals’ lives and what they believe about religion. The polis was the principal organizing feature of political, economic, and cultural life in Greece during the archaic and classical periods. It is not surprising, therefore, that the polis played a central role in the structure of Greek religion. However, as Kindt (pg. 13) argues:

41MtZXCR01L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“Polis religion is focused more firmly on religious agency and neglects religious ideas and religious discourse. In doing so, the model relies on an implicit conception of religion as simply mapping on to the structures of Greek society—a simplification of the manifold ways in which religious symbols shape and are shaped by society.”

Such mapping can have the effect of over-correcting away from “Christianizing” assumptions, by over-emphasizing the polis as a structural paradigm that contrasts Greek religion with our own. Kindt (pg. 34) continues:

“For a religion that lacked the organizational structure characteristic of most modern religions, such as a structured community of believers (such as a church), and a systematic and authoritative statement of belief (such as a creed), it offers an alternative concept of religious administration and signification … The weaknesses of the model, however, spring from its narrow and problematic promotion of the polis as the primary discourse of power relevant for the study of ancient Greek religion.”

This paper agrees that Kindt’s criticisms of the polis model in this aspect are justified.

Rather, the theory employed here will be that it is perhaps better to understand the role of religion by the functions that it fulfills, in terms of its sociological and intersubjective purposes. It is fair to say that an organized church, for example, serves a social and community role among a group of people. It is also fair to say that dogma and doctrines help to establish beliefs among both individuals and groups. But, if there is no church and dogma, does that mean that community and beliefs cease to exist? This paper argues for a definitive “no” to this question. Identifying the aspects of Greek polytheism that served similar functions to church and dogma in their religion can be challenging, however, especially since, as has been repeatedly emphasized, the structure of Greek religion was very different from our own.

If a church provides a structured community of believers in monotheistic religions, then where did Greek polytheists have to go to fulfill this need in their own religion? Taking the polis approach to answering this question, Jon Mikalson (Athenian Popular Religion, pg. 83) argues, “The social, political, and religious life of the Athenian citizen in this period was largely structured by his membership in his polis, tribe, deme, phratry, genos, and family.” Civic and family life, therefore, provided an organized community for individuals to participate in religious activities. This feature of Greek religion is not really “desperately foreign” from our own. After all, the family, even today, still serves as a sub-unit within most church communities. The same was true of the ancient Greeks. As Robert Parker (Polytheism and Society at Athens, pp. 44-45) argues:

Parker“The walls of the oikos did not divide the religion of the oikos from that of the city at large. It is altogether a fallacy to suppose that the temples of the acropolis and the festivals of the city hosted a formal and civic religion detached from the more personal and urgent religious concerns of the Athenians. Civic festivals were important events in the life of individuals and families. But the oikos itself was not a sealed unit. Sacrificing together and attending festivals together were the most important contexts for the expression of social intimacy, but one might engage in these activities with one’s kin, with one’s friends, or with a mixture of both.”

Simply because Greek religion lacked an official church structure similar to our own, therefore, does not mean that the social functions that the church fulfills were not being met in Greek polytheism.

Perhaps one challenge to understanding the role of community in Greek religion is the fact that its spheres of community are in many ways different from our own. Today, baptism and communion are common forms of initiation into most Christian communities. Similar rituals can be identified in Greek religion. For example, Zaidman and Pantel (pp. 66-67) explain:

Zaidman and Pantel“Once a young man had been enrolled on the register of his father’s deme and ritually endowed with the status of ‘ephebe’ (literally ‘on the threshold of the majority’) at the age of eighteen, his first action was to make a tour of all the sanctuaries of Athens. That and the oath he was obliged to swear (witnessed by no less than eleven deities …) are exemplary proof of the fact that religion and civic life were mutually and inextricably implicated.”

The initiation described above, however, is into Athenian citizenship, which is not quite the same as joining a church today, or even being initiated into an ancient mystery religion, per se. In this way the boundaries can be blurred.

Part of the problem has to do with the fact that the ancient Greeks probably had a very different understanding of the sacred and the profane than our own. As Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 92) argue, “One of the Greek city’s distinguishing marks was that it recognized no separation between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular, of the sort with which we are familiar.” The role of religion in modern Christianity has been especially allocated to specific spheres of religious life, such as the church and holy texts. For the ancient Greeks, however, religion was far more pervasive. In this way, their communities of believers were far more diverse and inter-mixed, and also probably more widespread.

Religious piety was heavily understood in a social sense. As Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 11) point out, “Asebeia (impiety) was the absence of respect for the beliefs and rituals shared by the inhabitants of the city.” Nevertheless, we should hedge in this conclusion just a bit. As Kindt (pp. 190-191) argues:

“If we base our conception of ancient Greek religion exclusively on its civic, official, and communal religious aspects, we run the real risk of ascribing to it a degree of conformity, inner coherence, and boundedness, of assigning it a quasi-dogmatic quality which it never really had and which is more reminiscent of religions such as Christianity than of the vibrancy of and plurality of religious life in the ancient world.”

But the point remains that Greek religion served many of the social and community roles fulfilled by churches today, meaning that it probably did not lack this ontological attribute common to modern religious practice.

Greek religion also probably did not lack structured beliefs simply because it lacked dogma and doctrines identical to those found in monotheistic religions like Christianity. Identifying the aspects of Greek religion that served similar functions to dogma, however, can likewise be challenging. A major obstacle is that there are no directly analogous religious scriptures to holy texts like the Bible and the Koran, nor texts articulating doctrines such as those of the patristic church fathers. As Mikalson (pp. 3-4) discusses, “What we should most welcome, of course, is a ‘confessional’ literature in which individuals spell out their own religious beliefs and detail those points in which they differ from conventional beliefs. But such a literature is alien to Greek religion.” That does not mean, however, that other texts did not serve a religious role in ancient polytheism.

The role of literature in Greek religion was probably far more fluid and hermeneutically flexible. As Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 16) explain, “the entire range of Greek literature provides us with every sort of information about religion.” Even courtroom orations can contain subtle theological implications. For example, Mikalson (pp. 15-16) explains:

Mikalson“The antithetical structure of Greek thought and language has contributed not a little to a dualistic expression of sacred and profane. Many of these statements are put forward in antithetical μέν … δέ clauses [on the one hand … on the other hand], and the conventional priority of the sacred assigns it to the μέν clause. The profane then follows it in the δέ clause.”

Despite lacking confessional literature, therefore, divine priority is still a theological notion that can be identified in Greek literature.

Perhaps the most analogous form of literature to sacred scripture in Greek religion was philosophy. As Pierre Hadot (Philosophy as a Way of Life, pg. 265) argues:

Hadot“Philosophy was a mode of existing-in-the-world, which had to be practiced at each instant, and the goal of which was to transform the whole of the individual’s life … Philosophy was a method of spiritual progress which demanded a radical conversion and transformation of the individual’s way of life. Thus, philosophy was a way of life, both in its exercise and effort to achieve wisdom, and in its goal, wisdom itself.”

Philosophy was likewise, therefore, a religious activity. In fact, for many early church fathers, Christianity was even seen as a form of philosophy in competition with Pagan philosophies [2].

Ancient philosophical texts were likewise similar to sacred scriptures in the manner that exegesis was performed [3]. As Charles Thurot (Extraits de divers manuscrits latins pour servir à l’histoire de doctrines grammaticales au Moyen-Age, pg. 103) explains:

“In their explanations of a text, the glossators did not seek to understand the author’s thought; but rather to teach the doctrine itself which they supposed to be contained in it. What they termed an ‘authentic’ author could neither be mistaken, nor contradict himself, nor develop his arguments poorly, nor disagree with any other authentic author. The most forced exegesis was used in order to accommodate the letter of the text to what was considered the truth” [4].

This manner of exegesis is quite similar to how many Christians interpret the Bible today [5]. While modern scholars often rely on historical-critical methods for understanding biblical scripture, faith-based forms of interpretation tend to emphasize doctrine, ethics, and lessons for daily life. However, it likewise seems that philosophical texts were used in this way by polytheists in antiquity.

Different philosophical schools provided a range of choices for religious membership, not unsimilar to choosing between different faiths and denominations today. As Hadot (pg. 59) argues:

“Each school … represents a form of life defined by an ideal of wisdom. The result is that each one has its corresponding fundamental inner attitude—for example, tension for the Stoics or relaxation for the Epicureans—and its own manner of speaking, such as the Stoic use of percussive dialectic or the abundant rhetoric of the Academicians. But above all every school practices exercises designed to ensure spiritual progress toward the ideal state of wisdom, exercises of reason that will be, for the soul, analogous to the athlete’s training or to the application of a medical cure.”

In this way, one could join a philosophy in order to identify with a certain community of believers and mode of living life.

Philosophical schools and texts, therefore, fulfilled religious functions similar to those fulfilled by churches and religious scriptures today. Perhaps the most striking difference is the fact that Greek philosophy was far less dogmatically and hermeneutically sealed. A diverse array of philosophical texts could provide religious insights, whereas in Christianity the range of religious texts tended to be more confined by doctrine. Once more, the role of the sacred and profane was different, with monotheistic religions tending to restrict the range of sacred literature more to a specific canon than was common among polytheists. However, polytheists still had religious texts. Considering the wide range of religious functions that literature can fulfill, it is fruitful to heed the words of Paul Veyne (Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?, pg. 19):

Veyne“Literature is not reducible to a relationship of cause and effect with society any more than language is reducible to a code or to information, for it, too, serves an illocution, i.e., the establishment of different specific relationships with the listener. To promise or command are attitudes that cannot be reduced to the content of the message; they do not consist in giving information about a promise or a command. Literature does not reside entirely in its content.”

The theoretical approach of understanding religious practice in terms of the functions that it fulfills rather than the structure in which it takes place allows for some re-evaluation of the claim that Greek religion was “desperately foreign” from our own. Certain ontological aspects, such as church and dogma, may appear to be missing. As has been demonstrated, however, the functions that these ontologies fulfilled were not lacking. There were certainly structured communities of believers in Greek religion, even if the lines were drawn differently and more ambiguously than our own. The Greeks had theological beliefs about the divine, and these appear across a wide range of literature. The Greeks could engage in doctrinal disputes, and philosophy appears to have been the primary medium for this manner of discourse.

Polytheistic religion, therefore, provided for many of the same functions as monotheistic religions today. The most striking differences are that polytheism had less of a distinction between the sacred and the profane and was likewise less dogmatically and hermeneutically sealed. This can make understanding the functions that it fulfilled a somewhat more difficult and ambiguous task, but it is a mistake to assume that it lacked the ontological attributes common to ancient and modern monotheistic religions.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] In terms of criticism of the polis approach to Greek religion, Kindt (pg. 4) explains, “Since the 1990s … classical scholars have started to express their dissatisfaction with this narrow and idealising conceptions of the Greek polis. It was observed that not all poleis looked the same and that there were significant differences in their social, political, and, indeed, religious make-up. The scholars of the Copenhagen Polis Centre in particular have pointed out (rightly I believe) that the history of the Greek poleis continued far into the Hellenistic and Roman periods.”

[2] As Hadot (pg. 74) elaborates, “The conflict between pagans and Christians, from the second century AD on, is highly instructive. As both pagans and Christians recognized affinities between their respective doctrines, they accused each other of theft. Some claimed Plato plagiarized Moses, while others affirmed the contrary; the result was a series of chronological arguments designed to prove which of the two was historically prior. For Clement of Alexandria, the theft dated back even before the creation of humanity. It had been some wicked angel who, having discovered some traces of the divine truth, revealed philosophy to the wise of this world.”

[3] As Hadot (pg. 72) explains, “The first commentator on Plato’s Timaeus seems to have been Crantor (ca. 330 BC), and Platonic commentators continued their activity until the end of the Athenian school in the sixth century. From this point, the tradition was continued, both in the Arab world and in the Latin West, up until the Renaissance (Marsilio Ficino). As for Aristotle, he was first commented upon by Andronicus of Rhodes (first century BC), who was the first in a series extending through the end of the Renaissance, in the person of Zabardella.”

[4] This translation of Thurot’s French is provided by Michael Chase in Hadot (pp. 73-74).

[5] Hadot (pg. 72) likewise points out, “In addition to commentaries stricto sensu, the exegetical activity of the philosophical schools took the form of dogmatic treatises, devoted to particular points of exegesis, and manuals designed to serve as introductions to the study of masters. Moreover, the end of antiquity witnessed the appearance of other authorities, in addition to Plato and Aristotle: the authority of Revelations. For Christians and Jews, this meant primarily the Bible, and for pagan philosophers, the Chaldaean Oracles. Both Judaism and Christianity sought to present themselves to the Greek world as philosophies; and thus developed, in the persons of Philo and Origen respectively, a biblical exegesis analogous to the traditional pagan exegesis of Plato.”

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4 Responses to Missing Religious Ontologies in Ancient Polytheism

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.

  2. jdhomie says:

    Matthew, I am a fellow blogger and a graduate student in biblical studies, and I’ve recently stumbled on your blog and started reading. Thanks for your lucid and well-informed posts.

    Just a thought on this. This summer I did some reading on Orphism, including the Orphic Hymns, the golden tablets recently translated by Fritz and Johnston, and a brief look at the Derveni papyrus. It seems that ancient Orphism (what little we know of it!) there was also this dimension of sacred text. Yes, all ancient Greco-Roman religion had texts, as you mention. But I get the impression that the Orphic cults placed greater focus on the text itself as a source of religious knowledge. What do you think? Does this fit your thesis as another example of sacred textualization in ancient polytheism?

    • Hey jdhomie,

      I’ll have to take a closer look at the Orphic texts that you bring up, since I haven’t studied them with the same depth that you have. But thanks for bringing them up, since this does seem to be very relevant to the role of sacred texts in Pagan polytheism.

      As far as my thesis goes, I think that the role that texts play in any religion can be highly fluid. The way that Medieval Jews and Muslims treated their holy texts, for example, is quite different from how 1st-3rd century CE Christians treated their holy texts. There was a lot more forgery in Christian circles, as well as a much wider array of literature, often espousing different theological views. Today, in the 20th-21st centuries CE, inerrantist Christians seem to have a different view of the Bible than how the first generations of Christians treated their holy texts.

      The main take away is that the religious structures in which holy texts are used can vary considerably. What I was trying to get at in this paper, however, was whether the basic function of holy texts (or, even more broadly, the fixation of language into literature) can be identified across most world religions. These Orphic examples shed some new light on this discussion, so I appreciate the reference!

  3. Pingback: On Greco-Roman religion. | Linguae Antiquitatum

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