Quotes about traditional polytheism and ancestral religion

“Honor the Gods and local heroes in accordance with ancestral practice”—Dracon of Athens, lawgiver

“Admit that the Gods exist”—Bias of Priene, lawgiver

“Respect and fear the Gods, for this prevents a man from doing or saying anything impious”—Theognis of Megara, poet

“If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably—after careful considerations of their relative merits—choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best; and that being so, it is unlikely that anyone but a madman would mock at such things. There is abundant evidence that this is the universal feeling about the ancient customs of one’s country.”—Herodotus of Halicarnassus, historian

“In regard to matters pertaining to the Gods…our ancestors did not worship them or celebrate their rites irregularly or erratically. They did not on a whim send 300 oxen to be sacrificed while omitting the ancestral sacrifices [as the Athenians began to do]. Nor did they celebrate supplementary festivals which incorporated a banquet in an extravagant manner, while doing sacrifices cheaply when it came to the most sacred of their holy rites [likewise an innovation]. Their principal concern was not to omit any of the ancestral practices and not to add anything that was not traditional. For they recognized that piety consists not in paying out large sums of money, but in preserving unchanged the rites which their ancestors had handed down to them.”—Isocrates of Athens, rhetorician

“Impeach those who do not believe in the Divine Beings [i.e. Pericles’ and Protagoras’ skepticism] or teach doctrines relating to the heavens [i.e. Xenophanes’ theology]”—Diopeithes of Athens, seer

“It’s because you say that the Daimonion [divine spirits] comes upon you from time to time. So, on the grounds that you [Socrates] are innovating in religious matters, Meletos lays this charge against you and comes to court”.—Euthyphro of Athens, citizen and character in a Platonic dialogue

“But before I deal with the question I will say a few words about myself. You must know then, Balbus, that I am not a little moved by your authority, and by the closing words of your discourse urging me to remember that I am both Cotta and pontiff [Roman archpriest], which meant, I suppose, that I should defend the beliefs relating to the immortal Gods that we have received from our ancestors, and the sacred rites, and ceremonies, and religious observances. Now I always will and always have defended these, and no one’s utterances, be he learned or unlearned, shall ever move me from those convictions with regard to the worship of the immortal Gods that I have inherited from our forefathers. But in questions of religion I follow the chief pontiffs, Tiberius Coruncanius, Publius Scipio, and Publius Scævola, and not Zeno, or Cleanthes, or Chrysippus, and in Caius Lælius, who is at the same time an augur and a philosopher, I have an authority to whose remarks upon religion, in that famous speech of his, I prefer to listen rather than to any leader among the Stoics… You are in possession of my opinions, Balbus, both as an individual and as pontiff; let me now understand yours, for from you who are a philosopher I ought to receive a reasoned account of religion, whereas it is my duty to believe our ancestors even when they offer no such account.” Gaius Aurelius Cotta*, Roman Pontiff and participant in Cicero’s religious discussion, On the Nature of the Gods

“They [Manicheans] have set up new and hitherto unheard of sects in opposition to the older creeds so that they might cast out the doctrines vouchsafed to us in the past by divine favour, for the benefit of their own depraved doctrine…our fear is that with the passage of time, they will endeavour…to infect…our whole empire…as with the poison of a malignant serpent…Ancient religion ought not to be criticized by a new-fangled one”—Diocles (Diocletian), Roman Emperor [in a decree]

“Christians are like a council of frogs in a marsh or a synod of worms on a dung-hill croaking and squeaking ‘for our sakes the world was created!’”—Julian, Roman Emperor

“[Upon seeing migrating Abyssinian Christians converting to Islam shortly after meeting with Mohammed] What a wretched band you are! Your people at home sent you to bring them information about the fellow, and as soon as you sat with him you renounced your religion and believed what he said. We don’t know a more asinine band than you.”—Amr ibn Hisham, leader of Meccan polytheists

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. –Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”—William Wordsworth, poet

“Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors, the dreams of our old men, and the visions of our sachems; it is written in the hearts of our people”—Seattle of the Suquamish, chief

“Albanians, you are killing kinfolk,

You’re split in a hundred factions,

Some believe in god or allah, …

But you’re brothers, hapless people!

You have been duped by priests and imams

To divide you, keep you wretched. …

Wake, Albanian, from your slumber,

Let us, brothers, swear in common

And not look to church or mosque,

The Albanian’s faith is Albanianism!”—Vaso of Shkodra, poet

“The conviction reigns that it is only through the sacrifices and accomplishments of the ancestors that the tribe exists–and that one has to pay them back with sacrifices and accomplishments; one thus recognizes a debt that constantly grows greater, since these ancestors never cease, in their continued existence as powerful spirits, to accord the tribe new advantages and new strength.”—Frederich Nietsche, philosopher

Hesiod was unable to foresee [in the Theogony] that his [arbitrary] separation of the anthropomorphic Gods from the Gods who were powers of nature would in the long run prove ruinous to the anthropomorphic Gods…The mantle of anthropomorphism [because of allegory] around the Zeus of Hesiod has worn very thin, and the name of “Zeus” has become, for intellectual and religious purposes, a convenient symbol…as for the lesser Gods, they have in varying degrees undergone the same process…The effort of thought which we call Greek philosophy therefore sprang out of the identification of the supreme god with a divine substance, manifest in the actual universe, and which either produced the universe out of itself (Thales) or produces the universe by combining itself with another substance [monism]…The belief in the perfection of the supreme god is one of the two great driving forces that stimulated philosophers to differ from their predecessors, to invent new doctrines of the supreme god, and to demolish the theological systems that had hitherto been accepted…The other driving force [was] the conviction that the ultimate divine reality must somehow or other account for and explain the universe, which is immediately present to the senses…These brilliant intellectual inventions all belonged to the realm of theology and metaphysics [and became] as absurd and as sterile as one would expect, despite occasional and wholly incidental opinions which strike us as prophetic anticipations of modern scientific knowledge.”—Roy Kenneth Hack, historian (as quoted from his distinguished book God in Greek philosophy)

As far as the question whether there is one God or whether there are many Gods is concerned, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between the Christian position and the position of Plato, Aristotle, Zeno, and their followers in later antiquity and thus the vast majority of philosophers in late antiquity.”—Michael Frede, historian (as quoted from his co-authored book Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity

“Modern interest in the Orphic tradition arose from the perception of its similarities with Christianity, and this is still one of the main reasons for the curiosity that Orphism arouses among scholars of ancient religion. [Both advocate] an original state of moral impurity from which only believers are purified; an individual and intimate relation with divinity; the possibility of passing beyond the border of human and the divine: these notions and others associated with them seem completely inconsistent with the image of the Olympian religion transmitted in the Iliad, in Pindar’s odes or in Aeschylustragedies…Mortals communicate with the Olympian immortals by means of a public cult, with the declared aim of securing their favor for a life characterised entirely by social and secular aspirations…Current scholarship generally attributes the majority of the observed parallelisms between the mysteries and Christian practices to their common origin in the spiritual koine [common ideas] that began to emerge in the Mediterranean in the second century BCE, rather than a sole and direct dependence of the latter upon the former or vice versa…Aristotle said…that one became initiated [in Orphic mysteries] in order not to learn (mathein) but to experience (pathein). From the evidence we have, it appears that Orphism placed more emphasis on the former than on the latter: it is sufficient to observe that in such clearly ritual-related evidence as the tablets, the knowledge that the initiated should possess is much more important than any ritual action undertaken. The consequences are clear: a group brought together by intellectual speculation -even supposing that several people took part in it– is far less stable and characterized by less tight bonds of belonging to a group [i.e. community] defined by the celebration of a ritual and the shared experience this produces.”—Miguel Herrero de Jauregui, scholar (as quoted from his work Orphism and Christianity in Late antiquity)

Anthropomorphism, the moira motif [the belief in fate and destiny], and the historical emergence of many of the Olympians out of primeval nature Gods or spirits prone to ethical neutrality were the key intellectual obstacles to the formation of a religiously grounded morality, while the particularism of nucleated communities militated against the clear articulation of universalistic standards. As we shall see, attempts were made to elevate Homer’s Gods and to establish Zeus as a transcendental moral authority, but these efforts were limited and restricted in their social impact. It was not to the heavens that the majority of Greek society would turn for moral guidance and bonding norms, but to their own society, to the civic religion of the polis itself.“—Joseph M. Bryant, scholar (as quoted from his work Moral Codes and Social Structure in Ancient Greece). 

“Religious innovation is a special problem for polytheists…Every attempt to introduce a new God creates a political and social crisis. New cults seems an obvious key to cultural change in Ancient Greece.”—Doyne Dawson, historian (as quoted from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion in his review of Robert Garland’s famous book, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of the Athenian Religion).




*Cotta occupied the rather strange position of being, at the same time, an Academician (a philosopher from the sceptic school) and a traditionalist.