Can You Believe It?

In this series of posts I’m mostly interested in exploring what the ancient travel writer Pausanias has to say about local myth and local ritual in ancient Greece, but a number of people have asked me to say something about whether or not the ancient Greeks believed their myths. That’s an interesting question—it’s a question I was asked in every course I ever taught on myth—but it’s not easy to answer. A good answer would take a whole book, and I’m going to try to manage in a post or two, so everything I say needs further explanation and qualification. In this post I will discuss some general characteristics of ancient Greek myth and religion and in the next couple of posts I will get more specific.

But I begin with a question about the question. Why do we ask if the ancient Greeks believed their myths? Perhaps because we find it hard to believe these stories, and so we wonder how the Greeks could have believed them. For example, there’s a myth that when a fellow named Aktaion (or Acteon) was out hunting with his dogs he accidently saw the goddess Artemis naked. As a punishment, she turned him into a deer, and his dogs attacked him and tore him apart. How could the ancient Greeks have believed this story?

I think we should be slow to criticize another culture for their beliefs, even if we find their myths completely incredible. Many stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition are no easier to believe than the story of Aktaion, but many people today believe some or all of these Judeo-Christian myths, and if you go back a couple of hundred years, pretty much everyone in Judeo-Christian cultures believed them.

But did the ancient Greeks believe their stories? In order to discuss this question, we need to examine the connection among myth and religion and belief in ancient Greece.

The ancient Greeks were polytheists. There were something over a dozen major gods—the so-called Olympian gods plus a few more, such as Pan—and an uncounted number of other gods, including divinized abstractions, such as Peace or Chance. In addition, the ancient Greeks honored heroes—mortals who were considered to have certain powers after death. Many of the most important and famous heroes were figures from myth—Theseus, for instance, or Orestes, and the most famous of all, Heracles—but other heroes were real people, and new heroes and hero cults were created well into the historical period. It may be useful to make a distinction between myths mostly about divinities—such as the myths about the three generations of the kings of the gods—and myths that are more about heroes—such as the story of Oedipus or the story of the Trojan War.

Ancient Greek religion did not have any established doctrine or any scriptures. There was a lot of writing about religion, but there were no authoritative texts like the Bible or the Koran. The ancient Greeks didn’t have the kind of formalized religious institutions that are found in the modern monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). There were no churches, at least as we think of churches. There were temples, lots of temples, but these were not churches. There were priests, but they weren’t like modern priests; they often managed the affairs of a particular temple or festival, but they were not considered authorities in the explication of religious doctrine.

Many Christian sects have a written body of expected beliefs, a creed, and if you don’t agree with the creed, then you don’t belong. The history of Christianity is full of violence and warfare against those who don’t have the right beliefs. Ancient Greeks were not in the habit of killing each other because of religious disagreements. Of course they found lots of other reasons to kill each other.

On the other hand, ancient Greek religion was full of ritual. There were family rituals which were performed perhaps every day, and there were various civic rituals which were usually performed at set times of the year. Each polis had its own calendar of festivals—we have a detailed idea of the Athenian calendar of festivals, but we know less about the calendars of other cities. Participation in these festivals wasn’t mandatory (as church attendance has been mandatory in some Christian societies); some festivals were probably small, but others were thronged. A ritual ordinarily included some kind of sacrifice, often animal sacrifice. In later posts I will give some examples of interesting and unusual rituals described by Pausanias.

Because Greek religion didn’t have doctrine but did have an extensive calendar of rituals, some scholars have argued that ancient Greek religion was not a religion of belief but a religion of practice—as if these two different ways of being religious were incompatible. It’s clear Greek religion wasn’t particularly dogmatic, but there was a general belief in divine powers, and a general belief that these powers intervened in human affairs and even revealed themselves in epiphanies.

One of the most famous of these epiphanies occurred in 490 BC, during the Persian invasion of Greece. The Athenian army and its allies were facing the Persians at Marathon, north-east of Athens. Before the battle, the Athenians sent a messenger, Pheidippides (or Philippides), to alert the Spartans and ask for their help. According to Herodotus (VI.105), “Pheidippides met the god Pan on Mt. Panthenium, above Tegea. Pan, he said, called him by name and told him to ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, in spite of his friendliness towards them and the fact that he had often been useful to them in the past, and would be so again in the future. The Athenians believed Pheidippides’ story, and when their affairs were once more in a prosperous state, they built a shrine to Pan under the Acropolis, and from the time his message was received they have held an annual ceremony, with a torch-race and sacrifices, to court his protection” (translation by Aubery de Sélincourt, revised by John Marincola).

Several other divine or heroic figures are supposed to have taken part in the Battle of Marathon—including the hero whose name was Marathon, as well as Theseus, Athena, and Heracles (Plutarch’s Life of Theseus and Pausanias [I.15.3]). According to Pausanias, “At Marathon every night you can hear horses neighing and men fighting. No one who has expressly set himself to behold this vision has ever got any good from it, but the spirits are not wroth with such as in ignorance chance to be spectators.” The Marathonians say “that there chanced to be present in the battle a man of rustic appearance and dress. Having slaughtered many of the foreigners with a plough he was seen no more after the engagement. When the Athenians made enquires at the oracle the god merely ordered them to honour Echetlaeus (He with the Plough-tail) as a hero. A trophy of white marble has been erected” (I.32.4–5).

Oracles, such as the one just mentioned in the previous paragraph, are also good evidence that the Greeks believed in the gods and believed that the gods could communicate with human beings. We have records of hundreds of oracular responses; many of them are on quite practical questions, such as the management of shrines and rituals.

The ancient Greek world was awash in representations of the myths. The myths were told in epic poems or in other poetic forms, they were re-enacted in drama, and they were represented on vases and statues and paintings. It’s hard to imagine that the stories about the gods and heroes didn’t influence the way people thought about the gods and heroes who were honored in ritual. But the relationship between ancient Greek myth and ancient Greek religion is hard to determine.

Consider, for instance, the story of the Daedela, which I discussed in an earlier post. Pausanias heard this story from the people in Platea; it seems to explain two local festivals, the Little Daedela and the Great Daedela. The story says that Hera got mad at Zeus and went away to Euboea. Zeus then pretended to marry another woman, but his pretended bride was really a piece of wood dressed up as a woman. Hera stormed back in anger and tore the clothing off the bride and discovered that it was just a piece of wood, and Zeus and Hera were reconciled. To commemorate this incident, the Plateans celebrate these festivals, in which a piece of wood is dressed up as a bride, placed on a wagon, and driven along in a procession.

Did the ancient Greeks believe this story? Most ancient Greeks didn’t believe it because they didn’t know it. Pausanias tells it in his book because it wasn’t generally known. It doesn’t make much sense to ask if the ancient Athenians believed it, since they probably didn’t know it. Did the Plateans believe it? There doesn’t seem to be any important point of theology at stake, insofar as the Greeks had theology. Pausanias himself doesn’t vouch for the story; he just says that the Plateans tell it, and his retelling leaves certain details vague—Hera’s reason for being mad at Zeus, for instance. The story explains why the Plateans perform the ritual they way they do, but there’s no way to know for certain which came first, the story or the ritual.

My own hunch, for what it’s worth, is that the ritual came first, and the story was made up to explain why they put clothing on a piece of wood. The ancient Greeks loved aetiological stories, stories explaining the origin of things. I think there’s no way to know if the Plateans believed the story or if some of them did and some didn’t. Belief is not a simple Yes or No choice, anyway. We believe lots of things without much strength of belief, especially if there is nothing important at stake. Sometimes, however, there is better evidence to show that people did or did not believe a story, and I will look at a couple of those in my next post.

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