By Bart D. Ehrman, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Ancient pagans were polytheists rather than monotheists; they worshiped many gods. Different gods performed different functions, involving everything from life to death, to health, to childbirth, and even to climate. Not just that, every mountain, forest, stream, city, home, and family had its own god.
Pyramid of Power
In ancient pagan world, the gods could be conceived of as standing in a kind of pyramid of power. The greatest god, say Zeus, or Jupiter, or some unknown god would be at the very pinnacle, at the very top of this pyramid.
Below that god, in the popular imagination, there were others of unimaginable power—for example, the gods of Mount Olympus, known from Greek and Roman mythology. Below that god and the other gods were other divinities who were far beyond human capacities; gods of various places and gods of various functions, who were superhuman.
And below them were lesser divinities, sometimes called ‘daimonia’. This is where we get the word ‘demons’ from, but these were not demons necessarily—some were good, while some were bad. They were simply low-level divinities. They were not as powerful as the Olympian gods, but they were far more powerful than humans and able to affect people for good or evil.
Below the daimonia was another level of divinity. This comprised beings who were partly divine and partly human. Ancient people realized that there were some people who were far more powerful than others, far more intelligent, and far better looking. This was because they had a part of divine within them.
For example, in the Roman world, the Roman emperor was worshipped as a divine being. He was one of those beings who were superior to others, but below the gods, and so, he was a divine human. And as a divine human, he was to be worshipped as other divinities were to be worshipped.
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Monotheistic Versus Polytheist Culture
In the modern monotheistic cultures, we are accustomed to having religion be exclusive. If one is an Orthodox Jew, they are also not a practicing Mormon. And even among Christian denominations, if one is a mass attending Roman Catholic, they’re not also likely to be an Appalachian snake handler. This is because most modern religions in the West are exclusive; one has to choose.
However, polytheistic religions in antiquity were almost always inclusive rather than exclusive. In the ancient world, one didn’t have to choose; that’s what it meant to be a polytheist. If one worshiped one god, they could still worship other gods; they didn’t have to stick to one god.
If one worshipped Zeus, they could worship Athena, and Apollo, and any other god they wanted to. If one wanted to start worshipping a new god, they simply added him or her to the gods they already were worshipping.
As a result, ancient religions were almost always highly tolerant of one another, not intolerant. They were inclusive rather than exclusive.
It is noteworthy that the ancient pagan religions focused on the present life instead of the afterlife. It appears that many, possibly, most pagans simply did not believe there would be an afterlife. There certainly were stories of the afterlife in the ancient classics, in poems such as Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid, but these poems were understood to be good stories. They were not seen to be descriptions of reality.
That many pagans did not believe in an afterlife at all is attested in some inscriptions that have been found on ancient tombstones. They had abbreviations on ancient tombstones, including one that was a simple seven-letter Latin abbreviation.
The seven letters were n.f. f. n.s. n.c which stood for the Latin words Non fui; fui; non sum; non curo—’I was not; I was; I’m not; I care not’. So, you didn’t exist, you came into existence, you don’t exist anymore, and it doesn’t matter.
This was a common view in the ancient world. But, if that’s true, if there’s no life after death, why would people possibly want to be religious? Is it because they wanted to survive, and possibly even thrive in the present life?
In an age lacking modern medicine, transportation, technology, and communication, life itself was lived on the edge. In that world, there was no cure for illness or a difficult pregnancy or childbirth. If the rain failed one year, a village would starve next year. There were no modern methods of irrigation and no guarantee the livestock would survive.
There were all sorts of things the people couldn’t control in the ancient world. However, the gods were powerful. They could provide such things. The gods could make life possible. They could help people survive and even thrive. They could ward off pain and misery and death as long as possible.
For that to happen, the gods needed to be on the side of the humans, and that required that they be recognized by proper forms of worship.
In the ancient context, there was no separation between what we would call politics and religion. It was understood that the reason the city and the state survived and became great was because of the gods. And so naturally, the city and the state sponsored the worship of the gods; there was no separation of church and state.
Common Questions about Religion and Gods in the Ancient Pagan World
In the pagan pantheon, above humans were low-level divinities, sometimes called ‘daimonia‘. This is where we get the word ‘demons’ from, but these were not demons necessarily—some were good, while some were bad. They were not as powerful as the Olympian gods, but they were far more powerful than humans and able to affect people for good or evil.
Polytheistic religions in antiquity were almost always inclusive rather than exclusive. If one worshiped one god, they could still worship other gods; they didn’t have to stick to one god. Moreover, if one wanted to start worshipping a new god, they simply added him or her to the gods they already were worshipping.
The ancient pagan religions focused on the present life instead of the afterlife. Many, possibly, most pagans simply did not believe in there being an afterlife.