A parliament of dieties
I have heard it said that the Romans, or the Greeks before them, hardly believed in their gods: They were seen more as just mythic characters in the literature of the day.
But as the American classical scholar Mary Lefkowitz reminds us in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, the ancient Greeks believed that their gods were real and that they constantly intervened in human affairs.;
The Romans inherited their panoply of gods from the Greeks: Zeus, the head god, became Jupiter, and so on down the line.
["inherited" isn't the right word -- dm]
Zeus did not communicate directly with humans but his children — Athena, Apollo and Dionysus — did so continually. A mortal could have the support of one god while angering another. Belief and obedience were, at heart, political.
[first thought: Oracle at Siwah ... second thought ... Zeus impregnates a pile of women; is that communication? -- dm]
The ancient Greeks and Romans were always bargaining, praying and beseeching their gods for favours. Their world was a place where human beings were courtiers to a veritable parliament of deities.
[good ... spelled it right that time -- dm]
Smart operators like Odysseus (Ulysses to some) knew how to play the game. Others, like the suitors he slaughtered when he returned home from Troy, were not so cunning.
The gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans weren't sweet and gentle. They were often bad tempered, lustful and petty.
But they had two characteristics that ordinary humans envied: They were powerful and they were immortal.
These gods fought among themselves just like we do. Living forever, it seems, gave them no monopoly on wisdom. Even Zeus was not all-powerful or completely wise. He lived within his divine limitations. He had his favourites and his dreadful temper.
Still, there are advantages to believing in a polytheistic universe, as Lefkowitz tells us.
For one, it eliminates the problem of theodicy: Why would a good god create evil?
The monotheistic religions of the world — such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam — have to explain to their followers why God created cyclones and blood thirsty murderers. (After four thousand years, there's hardly a good answer, except, perhaps, have faith and mind your own business.)
The Greeks didn't believe in sentimental, loving gods. (When their gods loved, mortals had to watch out for their daughters!)
As Lefkowitz tells us, the classical gods made life hard for humans. They weren't out to improve our condition. The only things they seemed to have a true interest in were valour and human achievement.
The Greeks, and the Romans who followed them, understood human fallibility. They believed mortals could question their gods, who were as imperfect as they were. They believed that all beings — divine and human — were prone to error.
The second great advantage to polytheism is its openness. It gave the ancient world a modern, Canadian virtue — diversity.
The Greeks were the original multiculturalists. There was always room in the temple for a new god, as long as his or her highness didn't want to take over the place.