Adult Home Study for Hellenic and Roman Polytheists
How do we know what we know about the gods? Much of our knowledge comes from mythology: ancient tales about the gods, fantastic creatures, heroes, and mortals.
There is another meaning of the word “myth”: “widely held, but false, ideas or beliefs,” and all too many of the readily available sources of information about mythology fit that definition. A vast majority of the general population discovers Greek and Roman mythology from motion pictures, video games, and general texts like D'Aulaires Book of Greek Myths and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. A few more have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and Apuleius’ Golden Ass.
Yet more scholarly, in-depth resources are available to polytheists who want to learn about mythology. The fields of history, archaeology, anthropology, religion, literary criticism, art history and psychology all look at mythology from different perspectives.
- History examines how the myths were composed, who told or wrote them, and what people said about them.
- Archaeology identifies mythological motifs found on objects and structures, and tries to determine their meaning to those who viewed and used them.
- Anthropology seeks to understand the cultural reasons for the creation and transmission of myths, and the relation of myth to rituals such as rites of passage such as the transition to adulthood, marriage, and death.
- Religion regards myths as sacred stories that explain the creation of the universe, and teach moral truths, and seeks to understand the relationship between mythology, belief, and ritual.
- Literary criticism investigates the sources of myths, the oral art of storytelling, motifs and themes, the composition of texts, style, meaning, and comparison of different versions.
- Art history focuses on images from mythology throughout history, the religious and symbolic meanings, and artistic techniques.
- Psychology delves into the myths as archetypes and symbols, expressions of the collective unconscious, or as a symbolic language to help individuals find meaning and negotiate challenges.
You’ll notice there’s some overlap between these fields. And you should remember that scholars don’t talk to people outside their fields as much as they should.
Many people are initially drawn to the gods after viewing a work of art or reading a story. Some of us have an experience in nature, or in an altered state of consciousness. Becoming aware of a deity is known as an ephipany or personal gnosis, a subjective perception or experience of the presence of the divine. It can be a feeling that a place is sacred, a sense that there is a greater power than ourselves in the universe, or a realization that a higher power has brought about a particular situation.
So, how we know what we know about the gods is…complicated. To really know something, one must regard it from different angles, and take time to understand it. Taken altogether, it’s fairly obvious that each of us necessarily has a different interpretation of mythology, depending on our personal study and experiences.
Unfortunately, many Hellenic and Roman and polytheists have only read the basic mythology titles listed above in their study of the gods. A few more have read books on devotional practice, but most of us haven’t gone much further in our studies. And, because the sources we’ve read just scratch the surface of available knowledge about the gods, our understanding is so superficial that many of us lack the vocabulary to describe our beliefs, and may even harbor misconceptions about one or more gods that harms our relationship with them. Not only does this impede our spiritual progress, but it makes it difficult to talk about our religion to another person. “I worship the gods of the ancient Greeks,” really tells them nothing, except that one is a polytheist.
Since you’re reading this, I assume your religion is an important part of your life, and, if so, your understanding of it deserves to be developed to the best of your ability. I realize not everyone is interested in or has the temperament for research, and that books can be expensive and difficult to obtain. However, most libraries have sections on the fields above, quite a lot of solid information is available online, and it can be done in easy-to-digest bites.
Here are some ideas for study that can help to enrich your understanding and interpretation of mythology:
- Read about a Mystery cult, a hero cult, the cult of the nymphs, the Roman Imperial cult or the deified personifications of the virtues in ancient Greece and Rome.
- Visit a museum and learn about the archaeology of the regions in which your deities were historically worshiped.
- Learn the names and significant events of the different time periods in the ancient Mediterranean. How did agriculture, literacy, mathematics and theater affect society and religion?
- Mark the locations of temples dedicated to one of your deities on a map. Are they focused in one area, or are they widespread? What conclusions can you make based on this information?
- Read the Orphic hymn(s) about a deity to whom you feel little connection, and read a list of their epithets and cult titles. Think about whether the deity seems more approachable, or just as inaccessible.
- Study a work of mythological art. What does it tell you about the meaning of the subject in the era in which it was created?
- Read an article on Hellenic or Roman mythology from the viewpoint of of a modern monotheistic or polytheistic religion.
- Learn a bit about C.G. Jung’s psychological theories and use of mythic symbols, or Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.
- Choose a favorite myth and see how many different versions you can find. Are the versions from different times, different places? Do they have similar or different meanings?
- Learn some of the terms used by scholars to describe key concepts in the study of religion. Which of the concepts applies to your own beliefs and practice?
- Prepare a meal from an ancient recipe using ingredients that were available in antiquity.
- Find out what the ancient philosophers and critics thought about an epic poem or drama.
- Select an art or skill favored by one of your gods, study it, and try applying in your own life. For instance, you could dedicate a study of strategy in honor of Minerva and apply one of the techniques to help win a game, or learn a little about weaving to make a wall hanging to honor Athena.
- Choose an ancient war. What issue(s) led to conflict? How was it resolved? What were the chief deities of each side? Did religion, omens, or religious rites play any part in the warfare? Were there heroes of the war? Were legends told about them? Were they given offerings such as a monument or hero-shrine?
The more one studies, the more one can deepen their relationship with their deities, the more clearly one may be able to explain their religion to others, and the better equipped one may become to counter criticism of their beliefs.