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Olympian Religion

  Of all ancient religions, the Olympian system is the one most deserving of attention in the modern world. It was the religion of ancient Greece and Rome, and its iconography, ideas and myths therefore underlie much of the subsequent thought of Europe, and from there of the Western world. It was the chief religion opposed by the early Christians (who called its adherents pagani, ‘yokels’), and its ideas thus influence directly, or by deliberate contrast, the whole cast of mind of the early church, and thence of Christendom today.

The Olympian religion centred on a trinity of deities: Zeus (‘shining sky’; Roman Jupiter), ruler of the visible world, Hades (‘invisible’), ruler of the unseen world, and Poseidon (‘giver of drink’; Roman Neptune), ruler of salt and fresh water. They headed an enormous pantheon of gods, spirits and other supernatural beings, each of whom had an assigned function and area of operation. The 12 most senior gods were thought to meet in council in a sky-palace high above Mount Olympus in Greece—hence the name ‘Olympian’.

Stability, in the Olympian system, depended on maintenance of balance in the universe. The gods were thought to have human characteristics, magnified to infinity and since these qualities included such things as irritation and jealousy, there were frequent squabbles and wars in the universe, a mirror of human affairs on Earth. Humans were made in the gods\' image (by Prometheus, who stole for them the fire of intelligence, hitherto the gods\' prerogative and given to no other mortal creature). Gods often desired humans, and mated with them to produce ‘heroes’, beings endowed with half-human, half-divine natures and powers. The ordinary contract between human beings and the gods or spirits of particular places or phenomena demanded prayer and sacrifice from the mortal, favours (or absence of hostility) from the immortal. Since the gods were thought to take pleasure in the same activities as delighted humans, they were worshipped in huge festivals incorporating not only prayer but feasting, athletics, dancing, singing, storytelling and the other arts, at which their (invisible) presence was assumed. They were also thought to speak to mortals in oracles, by omens, and through inspired prophets, sibyls and other intermediaries.

Like many ancient religions, this system was emotionally and spiritually satisfying without needing an enormous infrastructure of intellectual argument. It was a religion primarily of practice, and offered not only the satisfaction of participation in large occasions, but also the opportunity for private devotion and ritual (gods and spirits of place, including the hearth and the home, were fervently worshipped, and were later subsumed in many of the saints and holy places of European Christendom). There was an important mystical element, based in the idea that interpenetration between the mortal and immortal worlds was possible in certain places, at special times, and to favoured people after the correct ceremonies had been carried out. All this practice was adopted, in a more or less modified form, by Christianity, and was grafted on to rites and rituals inherited from Judaism. Even the detail of Christian ritual owes as much to Olympian, ‘pagan’ practice as it does to anything from ancient Israel.

The main religious legacy of Olympianism, however, comes not from what it offered, but from what it lacked. The absence of intellectual rationale led many thinkers in ancient Greece and Rome—people who were often sincere, practising believers in the Olympian system—to ponder those matters which religion did not address, or explained in simplistic, straightforward assertions and imperatives. Ethics and morality, in particular, were regarded as subjects for philosophy rather than religion, and were studied and debated without the overtones of partiality and specificity they had in areas subject to religions of other kinds. The result was that, by the time of Christ, there was a vast edifice of ‘pagan’, secular thought on such matters in Europe, and it was regarded as essential baggage for any educated mind. St Paul, before his conversion to Christianity, was trained in this tradition, and when he came to codify Christian moral and ethical belief, to rationalize what had previously been matters of faith or instruction alone, he drew on the Olympian tradition. For many centuries afterwards, the philosophers of ancient Greece were ranked in a hierarchy of ‘proto-Christians’: people who, it was claimed, would have been Christians if they had only known about Christ, and to whom the Christian God was thought to have vouchsafed specific revelation, as he did to the pre-Christian prophets of Judaism. Socrates, thanks to his moral and ethical teaching as reported by Plato, was regarded with particular reverence.

In the wider cultural world of early Christendom, this inheritance was matched, in a similarly lateral and unstated way, by the overwhelming prevalence of Greek and Roman styles in the arts rather than those of, say, ancient Israel. The Olympian idea that the gods were like magnified humans led Greek and Roman artists to imagine their appearance and their utterance as idealized forms of those known in everyday existence. Aphrodite (Roman Venus), goddess of beauty, for example, was depicted in paintings and sculpture as the model of ideal womanhood; Zeus was shown as the embodiment of regality and authority. Myths of the gods and heroes became a vast quarry for intellectual work of all kinds, and often philosophical ideas were grafted on to them, so that they expressed not merely a religious view of life (as do, for example, the myths of ancient Sumeria or Egypt) but a considered human view, putting the supernatural and natural worlds into the same intellectual frame. (Aeschylus\' Oresteia or Virgil\'s Aeneid are typical: works of art based on ancient myth but putting forward clear ideas about such matters as duty, fate, guilt, honour, justice and law.) Artists in all fields sought, in their work, to make their creations fit for the ears or eyes of the gods—quality in the arts was a matter of aspiration as well as of satisfying clients in the here-and-now. All these ideas, and the art-styles which arose from them, were part of the continuum of culture throughout the Greek and Roman world—and this legacy of the thought processes depending on Olympianism affected the cultural style and attitudes of Europe, and of areas influenced by Europeans, to an extent shared, among ancient religions in other areas, only by two of those which still survive today: Hinduism and Shinto. KMcL



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