Essential distinctions in polytheism (part 5): Mythology & Ritual v.s Philosophy & Theology

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In considering this unusual distinction, it will be useful and indeed necessary to recall the former one on traditionalism and modernism. Since I am a Hellenic polytheist, this matter is of special importance to me and my religion, because it began and spread with my ancestors the Greeks, contributing to the early foundation and growth of what was afterwards called modernism. I will spare no sincerity and honesty in this topic, in spite of the shame that the Greeks might incur for their contribution of certain mistakes and faults that gradually grew into horrible disasters at the hands of others; it is a bitter lesson that the Hellenic polytheists must learn never to repeat, and the rest of the world never to imitate.

It may well shock any reader who knows about the ancient Greeks to hear that philosophy and theology were foreign and whimsical inventions that not only gradually undermined the Hellenic religion, but also paved the way for Christianity to conquer the world. If this seems too shocking and absurd a statement to be true, it is because the world has been taught various falsehoods for many centuries, based on the doctrines of monotheism, and now our minds are still influenced by them. But before the statement can be justified, let us reflect on this provoking question, and then attempt to answer it: If Greek philosophy and theology were really attached and essential to the Hellenic religion, as some say, why did the Christians, of all people, adopt them as the main weapons to weaken the polytheists and strengthen their claim to rule the world? The history of philosophy and theology in Greece is a lengthy one, full of strange details and minute points that can fill many volumes. But for the sake of brevity, it will be necessary to give a general view of its nature and development, otherwise answering the question above will prove impossible. Now, before attempting the answer, it will not be amiss to shock the reader again by stating this little known secret: the history of Greek philosophy and theology is the most eminent (and unfortunate) chapter in the history of monotheism and atheism.

It is known that the founder of monotheism is Abraham, the son of a Mesopotamian priest who rejected his ethnic Gods and left his native city to roam the world and teach a new religion according to his own whim. By preying on credulous people of weak minds to follow his personal doctrines and peculiar deity, he was the first to do with religion and ideology what his fellow Mesopotamian Sargon did with politics and war, i.e. he founded an empire, an entity not based on civilized culture and ethnic customs, but one which continually expands itself to gain ever more power and wealth. His descendants and followers, called the Hebrews and Jews, were a mixed people who travelled and settled within various places in the Fertile Crescent, spreading their peculiar views but rejecting all others, converting whomever they could but refusing to worship native Gods, and calling those who obeyed chosen people who followed Yahweh and rejected the devil. This being the case, it is hard to believe that Greek philosophy and theology had anything to do with Judaism; however, looking beyond appearances, we find not only common principles between them, but also (afterwards) a great deal of mutual influence.

Zarathustra, a Persian man (some say Mesopotamian), seemingly inspired by either the teachings or success of the Jews, founded his own species of monotheism, commonly called Zoroastrianism, and imitated the Indians by writing a holy text, called the Avesta, not based on ancient tradition (like the Indian Vedas), but only on personal reflection. The religion was soon adopted by the Achaemenid Empire of the Persians, and it spread with their conquests. It is here Greek philosophy and theology begins.

The Persians first encroached on the Greeks of Asia Minor in the reign of Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid Dynasty, during the 6th century BCE. The Persians were resisted by brave Greeks, but the valor of small city-states soon succumbed to the might of a huge empire. Besides, the splendor and luxury of the Persians soon dazzled the simple and modest Greeks, and at the same time, it attracted the wealthy and ambitious among them. Just as wealthy Europeans would travel to Italy for culture and learning, the wealthy Greeks did so with the Persians. This was perhaps the greatest fault ever done in the history of Greece, because it was the mother of many other faults that destroyed the freedom and religion of the Hellenic peoples.

About the reign of Cyrus, in the 6th century BCE, we find a strange series of so-called sages appearing not only in Greece, but elsewhere in the world. Zoroaster in Persia, Thales, Pythagoras and Orpheus in Greece, Buddha in India, Confucius and Laozi in China, are all estimated to have lived at about the same time, within a period of 100 years. Of all these men, only Confucius deserves praise as a man of learning and modesty who was not selfish and really cared for the collective benefit of his people. A testimony of his wisdom and sincerity for the common good, is contained in his Analects, when he states that he is no inventor of new ways but only a transmitter of old teachings that were forgotten by Chinese society, to its detriment.

This very difference between the invention of the new and the transmission of the old is what truly distinguishes mythology and ritual from philosophy and theology. Poets and priests on the one hand, preserve and embellish religion for their ethnic people, but philosophers and theologians continually invent various methods to expand and shift their writings to gain more and more followers. It is not surprising then that all original religions (i.e. polytheism) have no founders, because their practices and beliefs developed collectively by their respective ethnic peoples; monotheists and atheists not only acknowledge their founders by name, but they also follow and revere them in everything, even to the degree of worship, overlooking and rejecting any possibility or obvious sign that these very founders were extremely selfish, ambitious and tyrannical. It is unfortunate to infer from this truth that both founders and followers really suffer from some form of mental illness, narcissism in the case of the first, and martyr complex in the case of the second.

That the founders of philosophy and theology in Greece are known to us, and that many of them imitated the peculiar behavior and views of Zoroaster and Abraham, is proof that they entirely belong to the history of monotheism. For the sake of convenience, to avoid a confusion known to the ancient Greeks, I will use the term philosophy to describe irreligious views of the universe, and theology to describe religious ones. The more ancient of these is obviously theology, as we see with the Avesta of Zoroaster. Now, in spite of this and other superficial differences, both philosophy and theology are intimately joined, since they agree in invented peculiarities, a sense of personal superiority, and the rejection of all native and common customs.

Greek philosophy begins with Thales, and Greek theology begins with Orpheus. It is perhaps no wonder they travelled to the East and brought foreign thinking and inventions of their own to the Greeks, since neither of them were ethnically Greek. Thales was a Phoenician who lived in Asia Minor (today Turkey) , and Orpheus was a Thracian, living just north east of Greece, or even in Asia Minor. Their middle position between the Greeks and the Persians facilitated, if not caused, their inventions of a new mixture to form. Being already somewhat connected to the East by ancestry, their curiosity drove them to travel there and seek learning. The seeds they brought upon their return and sowed in their lands would afterwards bring forth many disastrous fruits not only in Greece, but also the world, which we can see and taste to this day.

Thales, like other wealthy Greeks in his day, travelled to famous places along the Mediterranean Sea in order to see the world and bring back stories. The most common places were in Egypt, a magnificent and civilized country of great antiquity and wonders. Considering the philosophy he brought back to Greece, he must have visited the great Egyptian cities of the time, each of which had its own cult, priesthood and cosmogony. He may have also seen Persians, Jews and Mesopotamians either during his travels or his stay. Having admired Egypt, but seen the differences in its polytheism (from city to city), at a time of decline in Egypt, it seems that he became uncertain of himself and his own views. When he returned to his native city, he withdrew himself and no longer pursued his old business, but rather began to reflect on the world in general. Within this isolation and uncertainty, he then invented a peculiar view contradicting the Hellenic religion and cosmogony, i.e. that the world is based upon one common principle called nature derived from water, which was afterwards set in motion by an intelligent mind. The Greek Gods to him were nothing but popular manifestations of this single universal principle (see monism), which applied to all people and the whole world. In cautiously teaching this doctrine (to avoid the condemnation of impiety), he must have thought of himself as a second Cadmus, the Phoenician prince who brought the knowledge of writing to Greece. His subsequent followers, were Anaximenes, Anaxagoras, and Heraclitus, who advanced their own views on the universal principles of nature. Afterwards, Leucippus and Democritus developed the same philosophy and advanced the theory of atomism, which, joined with the moral teachings of Epicurus, degenerated into a covert atheism, as we clearly see by the time of the Roman Lucretius. Like Abraham and Zoroaster before them, these men rejected their native cities and ethnic customs, travelled and absorbed foreign views, and invented established forms of universalism that they believed applied to all mankind. However, the new corruption they added to monotheism was an early form of what we call modernism, a mixture of selfish individualism and false intellectualism that plagues the world to this day.

The uncertainty that troubled Thales was later taken for a sign of wisdom, notably by Socrates, when he boasted that he was wise only because he knew nothing. But what is more ridiculous, this uncertainty even became a new school of philosophy that was taught. Pyrrho, a Greek who travelled with Alexander, met with so many Zoroastrians and Indian philosophers, that he at last invented a theory that nothing is certain, i.e. skepticism. Cicero, a Roman skeptic philosopher, not aware that he was undermining the purpose and dismissing the seeming progress of philosophy, later held that all schools of philosophy were uncertain, because they all had as many faults as merits. We can thus conclude that the continual questioning of philosophers, from generation to generation, actually caused their theories to work against themselves and thereby only achieve noise, disagreement and more uncertainty, without any real benefit.

But now to turn to theology. As was noted, its founder was a Thracian by the name of Orpheus. Some believe he never existed, but that is because his followers invented so many fanciful tales about him and even went so far as to insert him as a hero (half-divine character) in Hellenic mythology, as a son of Dionysus. This interpolation would perhaps be excused if Orpheus and his followers had not invented their own cosmogony and doctrines, by which they even went beyond mere theology: in many respects, they invented a new religion. In Orphism, the usual Hellenic cosmogony is replaced with an Eastern one, which placed a deity called Phanes or Eros as the original being, from whom every God, man and thing came (see Dervini papyrus). They thus pretended to purify the mythical stories of Homer and Hesiod which to them seemed full of immoral actions done by the Gods. But this corrupt purification was not restricted to mythology; they adopted Eastern doctrines in their religion, such as the worship of the sun, the rejection of blood-sacrifices, the abstinence from eating flesh, the acceptance of poverty, the reincarnation of the soul, and the dualism of good and evil. Some of their mystical practices were at first derived from the famous and secret Dionysian mysteries, but they later competed with and interpolated them for their own influence an ambition.  For this reason, it is said that when Orpheus no longer worshipped Dionysus and promoted his own religion, the priestesses of Dionysus murdered him in a ritual frenzy. But his teachings continued: not only were new theological cosmogonies (which fortunately don’t survive) written, but a half-Phoenician by the name of Pythagoras adopted many doctrines of Orpheus to form his own religion. This Pythagoras was said to have traveled not only to Persia, and even (according to one later philosopher) learned under Zoroaster himself, but also went as far as India, which if true, it is possible he met with Buddha or his successors. Upon his return, he founded his own mystical religion, but promoted it privately in the Greek colonies of Italy. Within these colonies, the teachings of  Pythagoras later brought forth the theology of Parmenides and Empedocles, who were great influences upon the greatest theologian of them all, Plato. After traveling for 12 years abroad, he invented a peculiar theology that Zeus was only a material creator of forms second to an intelligent immaterial creator (later interpreted as Chronos) who drove the creation, a doctrine very similar to a school within Zoroasterianism called Zurvanism. He must have been very cautious with his academy in Athens, since Socrates was condemned to death for corrupting the religion. From the stock of Plato, so many new branches were formed, especially the Stoicism of the Phoenician Zeno, which battled with Epicureanism during the Hellenistic period (after Alexander of Macedon) for the supremacy of the Mediterranean, whereby it influenced Jewish theology. But as it happened, the teachings of Plato returned as Neoplatonism to dominate philosophy during the Roman Empire, and these were so popular and common, that they were adopted by the Gnostics, the Manichaeans, and even the Christians themselves. Through the Church fathers, Plato continued to influence Christian theology until Thomas Aquinas adopted the teachings of Aristotle in the 13th century, but even so, Plato’s influenced continued and re-appeared as Catharism, Bogomilism and the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance, which were all actually persecuted by the Church. O contradiction!

This is the story of Greek philosophy and theology and how they developed gradually into the atheism and monotheism we know well and bitterly lament. The world shakes from the wars between monotheism and atheism, as well as the wars within monotheism. That some Hellenic polytheists still respect and follow the teachings of Greek philosophy and theology, even going so far as to consider Orpheus and Plato especially as great men who improved and elevated their religion, is a madness that I can’t comprehend. If this were true, why did the Christians use these very sages to corrupt the Hellenic religion? All Plato’s dialogues survived loss because they were viewed favorably by Christians (and hence were not burned), and the teachings of Orpheus were actually adopted by the earliest Christians, who reinterpreted Eros as Agape, and Dionysus as Jesus, and the mystery as eucharist, among other similarities. There was even a Christian theologian (Eusebius) who wrote a book entitled the Preparation for the Gospel, in which he boldly argued that Greek philosophy and theology had prepared the world for the wisdom of Jesus to come. Hellenic polytheists should never be tricked and shamed a second time; whenever we favor philosophy and theology, the sources of individualism and modernism, above the mythology and ritual practices of our ancestors, nothing of real benefit can follow, but only the harm of selfish individualism and false intellectualism. The events of the last 2500 years, most especially the end of the Hellenic religion, are sufficient proof.

4 thoughts on “Essential distinctions in polytheism (part 5): Mythology & Ritual v.s Philosophy & Theology

  1. K

    I am going to have to counter signal here. I have seen this sort of thing before. To be fair, it has some truth. I can see a lot foreshadowing Christianity in Plato, but some of those trends go back to centuries before him. They don’t go back to just philosophers either, but poets as well. Plato was not the only one concerned about “moralizing” the myths and older poets. The poets themselves, Homer and Hesiod incuded, were innovators and synthesizers of even older and varied sources. Pindar the poet showed some concern about the morality of older myths.

    If you ditch philosophy and theology completely, you intellectually cripple your polytheism, Hellenic or otherwise. To the Christian, Muslim, or Jew, we non-Abrahamists are all pagans anyway, so I am just going to use that term as a catch-all. Those are very broad categories to consider. I would say merely by interpreting other pagan systems in terms of theirs, Greeks were already engaging in philosophy just in doing that. Think of all the foreign deities they equated with Hermes, Zeus, Dionysus, Herakles, and so on. The familial relationships between deities and the myths would differ widely, but the types they represented, as well as the phenomena associated with them, would be similar enough to map one onto another. That seems dangerously close to developing a sense of theology and philosophy to me. It also shows just how malleable local tradition was. It is not like the various cults, beliefs, and celebrations dropped from heaven and then never changed. It is just that changes and reformers tend with time to become the new status quo.

    What you seem to define traditional paganism as is civic religions, like those of the Greek poleis, or of the Roman republic and later empire. And of course, you would include more scaled down forms of those like tribal and ethnic religions. But sticking only to that makes paganism weak in front of Abrahamism, which will happily fill soteriological, social, intellectual, customary, and legal spheres, absorbing pagan or other ideas and rebranding them if necessary. The philosophical schools and mystery cults provided the competition against Christians. It is not necessary that a philosophic person needs to abandon civic, ritual, and mythological parts of paganism either. Julian the Emperor of Rome, and pagan philosophers like Proclus and Olympiodorus actively tried to integrate all these things. If you have read Heraclitus’ Homeric Problems, a defense of Homer against Plato, he made use of mythological interpretation in it.

    If there is no regard for truth, which should be the core of philosophy, then there is no ground on which to attack Abrahamism as untrue or harmful. If you stick strictly to rituals and myths, with each locale having slightly different ones, with no other consideration, and you also take your traditional paganism seriously, then you have to wonder how it makes sense in terms of truth, not just utility for holding tribes together. That is where philosophy helps. If one city believes that their solar deity vomited everything into existence, while another believes that the primal sea monster was killed and used to build the world, including the sun, it would seem that a person looking outside their immediate locale and actually thinking about it would wonder how both could literally be true. You can’t accuse Abrahamists alone of being small minded. For that matter, you can’t accuse them of ditching reason for faith if pagans get around this issue by refusing to look at it or just denying it.

    All that said, philosophy as mere deconstruction, like Pyrrho, or modern deconstructionism, or sophistry, then it is corrosive and reduces to word games. That is probably why Cato the Elder and Cicero criticized what they saw as “Greek philosophy” at the time. But keep in mind, even Cicero in his writings on Roman religion made use of philosophy.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      I thank you for your generous thoughts. You make several points, to which I would respond:

      1. We can certainly see some early signs of theology (moral commentary) among poets before Plato, such as with Pindar, but I would argue that it proceeds mainly from the influence of Orpheus (a bard), and also indirectly from Hesiod’s Work and Days. The Theogony of Hesiod, however, is very different, and may even be the work of another author (see Pausanias’ testimony). Yet, there occurred a moral and intellectual shift in Greece beginning from the late 7th century BCE (against aristocracy, war, and Homeric principles in general), and it became more and more apparent after the conquest of Asia by the Persians in the early period of the next century, during which time, both Orpheus and Thales flourished, as mentioned above.

      2. I accept that philosophy is an intellectual system, but I view it as neither essential nor useful to Hellenic polytheism as a religion. On the contrary, because philosophy is founded on new interpretations, individual reflections and sensory experiments, it differs entirely from the ancient rituals, communal participation and spiritual transcendence of religion. Nevertheless, intellectual contributions to the city-state (not the religion itself) could be achieved through other means, especially history and rhetoric. The first Greek author to attempt what we call Interpretatio Graeca was indeed Herodotus.

      3. Intellect and theology do not strengthen Abrahamic religions, but rather inflate them for a time beyond their real size, and then lead to spiritual subversion and all sorts of decay. And again, these two could be better substituted for rhetoric and history, as far as the benefit of the polis is concerned. Nor should we forget of all the arts, among other pursuits of culture, which the Greeks excelled in. The mystery schools, contrary to what most believe, actually subverted the Hellenic religion and exposed it to Christianity; this is because the earliest Christians were actually very closely influenced by the practices and secrecy of those schools.

      4. My condemnation of Abrahamic religions proceeds chiefly from their belief in one supreme and universal way, at the expense of all other religions, and their hypocrisy in achieving supremacy by force when peaceful conversion fails. Their adherents pretend there is only one truth, which, by the way, the philosophers do also. Traditional polytheists are above such selfish claims; they accept that there are several truths and ways in the world, but they also seek to preserve their own. At the same time, traditional polytheists also act in accordance with their ancestors as well as their collective experience. This is by no means a sign of a small mind, but rather modesty and largeness of spirit; for us the highest action of the mind is the production of poetry, art and story-telling. Since you mention Pyrrho and Cicero, you ought to know that they represent the ridiculous fate of Greek and Roman philosophy, i.e. total confusion, unnecessary noise and endless uncertainty.

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  2. K

    Monotheism causes wars? According to Greek mythology, Eris stokes conflicts, as do gods like Enyo and Ares, who delight in it. For that matter, in the Iliad, the gods make sure that the Trojans and Achaeans don’t settle things peacably after the duel of Paris and Menelaos. Archaic and classical Greece was a collection of polities, often at war with eachother and with foreigners. I have heard Christians actually use this line of argument before in their favor. They say “the pagan deities were mean”, more or less. Granted, they don’t read their Bibles about how to conduct wars or about Yahweh’s personality. My ancestors worshipped Germanic deities, and I think you know enough to get the picture there. One of my ancestors’ prayers for the new year was for peace(frith) and plenty, but I don’t think Odin would cry over wars happening. Monotheism is resposible for some religious conflict, and certainly drove some imperialism and religious wars and persecutions by Muslims, Jews, and Christians. But it is hardly responsible for the warlike nature of humanity. There is conflict wherever life is.

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    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      I acknowledge that wars broke out among the Hellenic polytheists, as with all ethnic polytheists, and I’ll even grant that they were more frequent than among monotheists. The great difference, however, lies in the extent of warfare. For true polytheists, wars may be frequent, but they are rather small, or quick if large. The reason is that polytheists accept that conflict is a natural principle of the universe and mankind that will always continue. On the other hand, monotheists falsely believe in a final peace after the total destruction of the forces of evil. Hence, when I wrote above “The world shakes from the wars of monotheism” I meant that the monotheists are battling for what they falsely believe to be their final destiny before absolute supremacy and eternal peace.

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