Myth versus Religion

A common sticking point about Hellenic Polytheism for both those following it and critics has been the nature of our myths. “Why worship a god who is so violent!? Aren’t they supposed to be role models??” and “I love the Theoi and worship all of them except Zeus because these myths…” are two sides of the same error.

Historical Angle

Ancients didn’t take myths for fact because they knew Homer or Hesiod or someone else mortal had made them. There is plenty of proof for this, but one example I like is in Plato’s Republic, where Plato’s (characterization of) Socrates critiques how poets have depicted the Theoi and calls for a total censorship in the fictional, ideal city. Aside from the innate moral question, we have here a genuine, contemporary voice recognizing the fault in the myths and their mortal origins.

Curiously, the Adonia in particular reverses the progression of the myth of Adonis it is based off of. The ancient Athenians celebrating this festival, then, saw a need to honor the myths while not being strictly bound by them and using it for symbolic rituals about agriculture and growth. I recommend The Garden of Adonis by Marcel Detienne for a very in depth analysis of Adonis’ mythology and the Adonia overall.

Furthermore, ancients would have known just like we do that myths conflict each other(at least to some extent, but Herodotus surely must have pondered this often). This means even if one version was correct, then another would be false. Unless…they were not meant to be taken literally.

Which brings me to my next point.

Ancient Entertainment

Theaters of ancient Greece are well known to most. Obviously they were used for plays which often depicted myths. Songs seem to have been important in ancient Greek culture; hymns were sung, not read. So ancients saw myths as entertainment in an era before books. It still could have questionable morals and affect children like violent video games are feared to do (Plato would oppose those too). Thus ancients, or at least philosophers, probably knew the myths weren’t to be taken for their word.

So what do we do?

In terms of alternatives to seeing myth as straightforward truth, one could take them as allegorical truths, or go from the more anthropological perspective and think about how ancients sought to explain natural phenomena. In the former, it would benefit one to read myths and ponder the lessons ancient Greeks were being taught in each. In the latter, one could say the Theoi are the energies or forces behind those phenomena, orchestrating larger patterns and so on, capable of overlapping each other and interacting with us.

Whatever the path you decide to take with it, it’s highly recommended to read historical books at least to some degree so that you know what you are doing or basing your practice off of.

Floundering about with only the guidance of the myths is like a Christian Bible-thumper who doesn’t know how to pray or what the church is.

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