The Hallmarks of Classical Polytheism

Jeremy J Baer

Values are a tricky thing. What are they? There are I think at least two main branches: ethics and civilizational hallmarks. By ethics I mean the codes of conduct that people are expected to employ in interacting with each other. Others have written very eloquently about classical ethics.

But for now I wish to focus on civilizational hallmarks. By that I mean the really grand notions that have come to define a culture and its gifts to the world. I’m a Big Picture type you see; I like to take in the structure of the whole painting before I work my way down to the details.   I think that with all the petty squabbles between different pagan groups and personalities, The Big Picture sometimes gets lost.  I want to give you The Big Picture, as I see it, when it comes to classical polytheism.

Democracy and Republicanism are Classical Polytheist Values
You’ll meet Jews and Christians who think government of the people is best conducted within a Judeo-Christian framework. Where they got this ridiculous notion I have no idea. Democracy is a Greek word, developed by Athenian pagans, meaning rule of the people. Whether it is the tempered democracy of Solon or the radical democracy of Cleisthenes, we essentially mean a system where power is invested in an assembly of people and its officers. Republicanism meanwhile comes from the Latin res publica, the commonwealth, the Roman scheme of having various social assemblies elect colleges of magistrates in place of a king.

Democracy and republicanism can’t be understated. We still live in a world where many people in Asia, Africa and the Middle East suffer under dictatorships or theocracy. Democracy is sometimes imperfect at best in Russia or Latin America. Even in the good old USA there are people who are committed to theocracy – and strangely these are often the same people who say democracy is a gift of the Judeo-Christian process.

Even in greater paganism, democracy sometimes take a back seat. I’ve met more than my share of groups run by cult leaders and their cronies. I don’t need a high priest/ess, a sacral king/queen, a High and Mighty Prophet or an Egghead Elitist to tell me what do to do with myself. Now if someone goes out and conquers most of the known world like Alexander the Great, I might be willing to offer them monarchial devotions.  But when most self-confessed pagans seem no more qualified than I or anyone else to run the show, count me a democrat.

Civic Responsibility is a Classical Polytheist Value
Neopaganism as a group tends to be very political, or at least what it tends to regard as political. I don’t know how many times I get lectured on various issues that are of Supreme Importance to Neopagan activists. On the other side of the coin are Christians activists who seem to think Jesus went on to found the United States and the Republican Party after his alleged resurrection.

I don’t need a lecture from either group.   My cultural ancestors more or less invented the Western political climate.   The very word “politics” comes from polis, the Greek word for city-state. Whether we are talking about classical Greece or republican Rome, people lived and died for the city-state. Life and religion were extremely communal, and everything revolved around the public life known to a city-state. Dignity and Honor meant having a good reputation among one’s peers, which meant channeling one’s energies positively into the political, military and cultural life of the city-state. The social elites gained honor by spilling their blood and money to further the glory of the city-state.

I’m a law abiding, tax-paying citizen who pays keen attention to my government. I vote and otherwise participate in the political process, and I donate money and time to causes I find worthy. I majored in political science out of my love for politics.   I’m happy so many pagans are politically active, but I do think there is a difference between politics proper on one hand, and ranting and raving about hot button wedge issues on the other.

Family and Home are Classical Polytheist Values
Greek and especially Roman religion started with the family and household rituals. Certain gods or familial spirits were thought to watch over the security and prosperity of the home, and ancestor worship was a duty. There were rites to accompany an individual from birth to death. Extending outward, the familial religion embraced clans, or groups of related families. Every Roman had, as part of their formal name, a designator of which clan claimed them – the “Julius” in Julius Caesar means he belonged to the Julian clan.
Some monotheists seem to think their faith has a monopoly on what they deem “family values” which is obviously false. Many neopagans are indifferent or hostile to “family values,” as many came from abusive or negligent homes where they saw little evidence of these values.
As for me, I like family, or at least my idea of what family should be. I don’t know where I’d be if my parents and grandparents had not contributed to my upbringing. Family holidays are filled with food, drinking and laughter.  My home is my refuge, a sacred space where I can compose my thoughts and worship my gods.  My family is my strength, and I look forward to starting my own family some day.

Cosmopolitanism is a Classical Polytheist Value
But the classical world was not completely insular, focusing always inward on family and clan. In time, Rome and Alexandria became the first world cities, drawing all surrounding cultures and religions into their orbit. “Cosmopolitan” is of course from Greek origin, meaning world city.
It’s fair to say that early Greeks and Romans were like most other peoples in holding others outside their culture in contempt. But this didn’t hold true forever. Alexander’s conquests brought Hellenism to the Orient, and in time foreigners who went through the institution of the Gymnasium, learning its values and its language, could be considered culturally Greek. The appeal of Hellenism was strong to many; the Jewish Bible was translated into Greek at Alexandria, and some Jews became very Hellenized. Educated Romans became Hellenized too.
Rome had a habit of gradually granting citizenship to foreign persons and peoples. These people learned to speak Latin and live as Romans. Eventually, almost every freeborn inhabitants of the empire was granted citizenship.
The combined Helleno-Roman culture exerted a unifying effect on many different peoples, binding three continents under its sway. This lead to the birth of universal religious cults like Bacchus and Isis, who were not attached to any particular city-states. These cults were practiced everywhere in the empire, and many people who otherwise felt displaced and lost in a vast universal empire considered these cults their true homes.

Science and Engineering are Classical Polytheist Values
Much is made of the modern dichotomy between faith and science. It wasn’t always so. In fact, the only dichotomy is among those who take their religious myths too literally and seek to quell scientific truths that don’t support their narrow interpretations.
Working off earlier discoveries made by Egyptians and Babylonians, Greeks took knowledge to a new level. A chain of philosophers culminating in Aristotle were able to separate Logos from Mythos, universal reality from religious piety, thus founding what would be called the scientific method. In the Greco-Egyptian city of Alexandria, this would reach a climax. There royally funded scholars made scientific discoveries that would not be rivaled until the Age of Enlightenment.

The Romans were not ones for pure science, but their engineering achievements speak for themselves. Their roads and temples and monuments glittered throughout the Mediterranean like so many jewels, and even today one unconsciously assumes a picture of Roman ruins when speaking of classical grandeur. The Egyptians too were no slouches when building monuments or temples; I am told their pyramids are still standing some several millenia after their construction.

Insight into the workings of the universe, and practical applications of science for construction, do not threaten any person of true faith. The fact that Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all felt wisdom proceeded from a particular deity confirms this. Western science begins with the Greeks.

Art and Poetry are Classical Polytheist Values
At first this may seem trite. Doesn’t every culture produce art? I suppose. Even cultures whose chief religions forbid images manage to produce something in the way of art. But I am talking about art. The kind of world-shattering, soul-stirring creations that become immortal and all but define an epoch.

The Greek artists and poets owed something to Egyptians and Babylonians who came before them. But they took Eastern concepts and went far beyond them. The Greeks were the first people to invent realistic depictions of human beings, and for some Greek artists man was the measure of all things. The Greeks also invented theater. And while they didn’t invent epic poetry or architecture, they certainly added their contributions to them.

Greek religion or Greek culture without Greek art is almost unthinkable. The stunning Parthenon was not only the chief monument to Athena from her favorite town, but it was a conscious statement of grandeur from an imperial and democratic Athens. Greek drama originated from rites to Dionysus, but evolved into a secular mirror of democratic Athenian values.

The Roman contribution was to internalize Greek art; we know of Greek art today largely through surviving Roman copies. The Romans rarely improved upon Greek art, but they did add some of their own touches. Ovid and Virgil were Roman literati who inspired later Europeans and whose works still delight today. But nonetheless, as with Western government and Western science, Western art begins with the Greeks.

Art is the one area where Christianity can compete with paganism. Western art without Gothic and Renaissance paintings is unthinkable. Renaissance and Byzantine churches were sometimes designed to outdo pagan temples, and in some cases did. But it must be remembered that Byzantine and Renaissance artists were working off earlier artistic concepts from the Greco-Roman world; indeed all Western art owed something to the Greeks until the 20th century.
In the long run I don’t think paganism can survive without art. We need poets, writers, painters and sculptures of great talent. When the time comes, we’ll need architects for our temples. This means that the great mass of pagandom, obsessed with trivial pursuits such as fanfic and slash, need not take itself so seriously until it produces something of actual worth.

These are the hallmarks of classical civilization as I see it.  These are its gifts to the world.  Any classical polytheism of my understanding has to be imbued with these tenants, or I wouldn’t care to practice it.  In analyzing the various details of paganism,  let’s not lose sight of The Big Picture.


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