When did Greek Mythology come about?

I apologize for my lack of understanding, but I wanted to know if anyone knew much about the history of the belief in multiple gods.

When did this practice of worshiping many gods come about? If Adam and Eve were the first humans and obviously knew and spoke to the one God, when did people started believing there were multiple gods?

I don’t know my history very well, so I just wanted to see if anyone could give me an easy explanation of this topic. I apologize if this is an ignorant or foolish request; I’m just know starting to get really interested in my faith, and this topic is something that is stumping me.

Let’s see. Homer was born around 800 B.C. and worship of the Greek gods would have definitely begun before his birth. It was around for a long time before Homer, I would believe.

But the question of polytheism is more complicated, it really depends: which region are you talking about? Hinduism is a polytheistic religion and that existed several thousand years BC. It is descended from religious traditions that may have stretched as far back as 2,000 BC or more, though those traditions might be unrecognizable to modern Hindus.

The people living in modern day Israel were once polytheists as well, many years before Christ (and even most were around the time of Christ, naturally, the Romans were but so were many others.)

Egyptian polytheism, like Greek polytheism, dates back thousands of years BC.

Sumerian polytheism would be sometime WELL before 3,000 BC.

Polytheism was probably preceded in most regions by animism and ancestor worship.

So, in short, polytheism is VERY old.

Around 400 BC at the latest and around 750 BC (Homer’s death) at the earliest, 3500 years after Adam and Eve.

However, it’s quite possible the elites never worshiped in a polytheistic sense - the earliest pre-Socratics, like Anaximander (600 BC), student of Thales of Miletus (650 BC). Anaximander taught that all natural phenomena were caused by one eternal pre-existent condition of chaos, the apeiron: full-fledged popular Hindu-like polytheism (educated Hindus are often some sort of mono-pan-theist) is not visible amongst the educated even two hundred years after the earliest possible date of Homer’s composition of the Iliad.

By the time of Plato and Aristotle ca. 300 BC, the earliest philosophers of which we have a relatively complete record of teachings from, “Greek mythology” was accepted as pure myth, even if vestiges of polytheism remained in Aristotle (multiple prime movers), but not truly in Plato (everything made sensible by the unitary Form of the Good).

As Gibbon said, and I have no reason to doubt, although he was writing of the Empire, I would project his statement back to the time of Plato at the latest, and likely to Anaximander or Thales: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful” (variously attributed to Seneca, Cicero, or Lucretius).

Now, in other cultures, “true” polytheism - straight-up paganism that is self-evidently absurd - has a much longer tradition, back to scarcely a millennium after Adam was created, amongst the Sumerians, Babylonians, Akkadians, and other ancient near Eastern peoples. Hindu and Egyptian polytheism didn’t come along until quite a bit later, Egypt probably around 2000 BC at the earliest, and Hinduism as we know it was never purely polytheistic. The early proposed ancestor of Hinduism, the “Vedic religion” (which was supposedly purely polytheistic, from what I understand) dates from around the time of Moses (about 1500 BC) according to the commonly-accepted estimates, although it was never written down, and little evidence of it survives. The dualistic Zoroastrianism dates from the middle of the first millennium BC.

The Black Africans (not the North Africans who were converted to Islam and were previously part of the Empire) are not really polytheists but pantheistic-animists, where everything is a god, demon or is suffused with the divine, but there are no good records of 99% of African religion (nor any other aspect of Black African life); it started probably before Islam, and maybe “from time immemorial”.

A proper answer to your question is impossible on any internet site because the subject is so vast. One could easily obtain a PhD in the history of polytheism and read several hundreds of books in the process.
Polytheism, the worshiping of many gods predates the Greeks by many thousands of years.and actually dates from the earliest years of mankind. You have historical evidence of Polytheism in every culture throughout the history of Man. It finally died out in Western Culture with the Christianization of the Roman Empire, yet, despit the prolystation efforts of Islam, Polytheism remained active in Asia, and still persists largely in India, where the Hindus worship many gods, and in Africa among the many tribes that never converted to Christianity or Islam. Polytheism died out in North and South America with European colonization during the 17th and 18th centuries. By the late 19th Century most of NA and SA were Christianized except for a few indigineous tribes in the far North and in remote SA jungles.

How do you figure 750 at the earliest? Are you proposing that Homer (and/or his contemporaries) invented the Greek pantheon? :confused:

Now, in other cultures, “true” polytheism - straight-up paganism that is self-evidently absurd -

Well that is pretty insulting…

Thank you for all of your answers thus far.

I understand the question is quite vast and probably would involve a great deal of studying but I was just interested in some history on the subject.

I still just don’t understand why cultures became polytheistic and why at what point many were unaware to worship one God. I suppose there might not be an answer to this question

Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough is the classic history text of the origin of ancient gods.

amazon.com/Golden-Bough-Sir-James-Frazer/dp/1479107441/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1362081672&sr=1-1&keywords=the+golden+bough+frazer
**
I still just don’t understand why cultures became polytheistic and why at what point many were unaware to worship one God. I suppose there might not be an answer to this question.**

Excellent question. There simply aren’t that many historical records that are reliable about how polytheism developed. Theoretically, it’s very possible that most tribes of mankind were originally monotheistic, but as the tribes merged with each other they adopted the gods of the other tribes; so that by the time of Homer, for example, the Greek gods of Olympus had been brought to Olympus ever so gradually over hundreds of years until the Pantheon was established.

Just a theory some historians have suggested. :smiley:

You know, that’s a fine question. I wish I was back in school, so I could write my history thesis on a question like that.

Here are some possible angles to explore:

Polytheism may have been the norm due to cultural mixing, combined with a lack of critical thinking. So in a totally unhistorical example,

  1. Let’s say that we have two tribes, one of them is called the “Greeks” and the other is the “Romans.”

  2. Let’s say that the Greeks are a monotheistic tribe that worship one god named Zeus, and the Romans are a monotheistic tribe that worship one god named Mars.

  3. Let’s say that the Romans conquer the Greeks. Then they see that the Greeks have this god named Zeus. Some Roman soldiers marry Greek women, and begin worshiping Zeus. Conversely, the Greek women begin worshiping the god of their husbands, Mars.

  4. In this scenario, no one really has any critical thinking skills when it comes to this stuff. They may reject the existence of a god, but really, what reasons do they have to do so? They don’t know any better. There may be some that stick more with Zeus, and some that favor Mars more, but in the end, the two gods begin traveling the same circles and being accepted as “real” to a lesser or greater degree by all people within the newly created Greco-Roman tribe.

Alternatively,

  1. Perhaps the Greeks and Romans in this scenario didn’t fight each other at all. Instead, let’s say that they merged in order to form an alliance against other tribes.

  2. Perhaps in such a scenario, the Greek leaders required the Romans to accept Zeus, and the Romans required the Greeks to accept Mars.

  3. The Greek and Roman leaders recognize how well the merger between their two tribes is going. They begin to wonder to themselves how they can explain the natural affinity of their peoples towards each other.

  4. Perhaps then they reason, well, maybe our god, the Greek god Zeus is a brother of the Roman god Mars. That would explain why our people get along so well, wouldn’t it? We like them and they like us because our creators are brothers!

  5. The process continues as additional tribes merge with the Greco-Romans, adding new gods - father gods and mother goddesses, brothers, sisters and cousins. Hence, a pantheon is formed.

So those are a few examples of why polytheism may have flourished early on.

But why the switch to monotheism?

Perhaps:

  1. Monotheism offers a more powerful god. More power = good.

  2. Monotheism simplified their lives. You mean I don’t have to offer sacrifices to Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Dionysius, Hera, and this god and that goddess and this god and that goddess anymore? I can just sacrifice to a single, more powerful god? Oh heck yeah!

  3. Monotheism is exclusive, so the new monotheistic religions forced out polytheistic traditions that would have normally allowed them to adopt the monotheistic god in addition to their whole pantheon.

Keep in mind that Adam and Eve most likely existed thousands of years before any type of written communication. The 1st humans would have come about about 200,000 years ago. Thats a long time to forget things.

Thank you all for your helpful insights! I’ve come with a little more clarity on the subject now, and I’ll just take to heart that we can never truly know how or why people started believing in multiple gods.

Veritas

**So those are a few examples of why polytheism may have flourished early on.

But why the switch to monotheism?**

As I indicated above, it is just as possible that the switch was from monotheism to polytheism.

The Jews are the perfect example of a tribal culture with one God that, because it never integrated completely with other tribes, never gave up it monotheism. True, some Jews did convert to polytheism, but only when they saw some benefit in doing so. The faith itself, so far as we know, started out and remained monotheistic.

Well, in the post above, I listed a few possibilities to explain that, also. It was at the bottom of the post and it was from a sociological, not a Catholic perspective.

As I indicated above, it is just as possible that the switch was from monotheism to polytheism.

I don’t necessarily disagree with you. Heck, the Greek and Roman story I created in my previous post even begins with that premise.

As with so much in history, though, I doubt this is clear cut and linear. For example, what is a “god”, even? Those of us here might reach a general consensus after a lengthy discussion, but there will still be small differences here and there in our understanding of that word and its meaning.

Supposing we reach a consensus, our understanding of what it means to be a “god” would likely still differ from the ancients, and the ancients in turn would have their own disagreements on the matter.

Sometimes, real life heroes became the subjects of myth and legend after they died. Many kings were deified during their lives, or after they died. In many cases they may retain some element of their humanity but would they be viewed as “gods”? Yes, perhaps, or maybe not… depending on how you define the word.

The Jews are the perfect example of a tribal culture with one God that, because it never integrated completely with other tribes, never gave up it monotheism. True, some Jews did convert to polytheism, but only when they saw some benefit in doing so. The faith itself, so far as we know, started out and remained monotheistic.

This is really complicated, I don’t feel too qualified to handle this one except to say that I really doubt that it’s so linear. There are hints of polytheism or allusions to various gods all over the Old Testament.

I’m not talking to you with the following statement, but I feel the need to say it.

Most people don’t realize how difficult and rich history truly is. It is not nearly as simple as what people read in their textbooks. There is so much more going on under the surface, it would blow people’s minds. I’m not exaggerating, it’s amazing.

Veritas

**This is really complicated, I don’t feel too qualified to handle this one except to say that I really doubt that it’s so linear. There are hints of polytheism or allusions to various gods all over the Old Testament. **

The reason given by the Jews for being the Chosen People of God was that they and they alone had been faithful to the one true God, Jehovah. They even reckoned that Adam and Eve were their original ancestors, and therefore they had a special claim to monotheism.

Any references to polytheism among the Jews in the Old Testament are generally scornful and judgmental and subject to the wrath of their “jealous God.” When polytheism existed among some of the ancient Jews it was generally during their periods of captivity by the Egyptians or by the Persians, who were polytheistic and who drew some Jews into polytheism when they saw there was something in it for them. :wink:

By the time of Jesus there can be no doubt that virtually all the Jews in Jerusalem had returned to their monotheism, and they have been monotheistic to this day.

  1. In its current form, as it is known to us, and was known to later Greeks, yes. I do propose that a few literary elites (Hesiod and Homer, mainly), used extant mythological material and reformed it dramatically, basically inventing the pantheon we know. One can discern this relatively easily by reading the fragments of ancient Greek mythology, their contradictions, and how they were smoothed out and synthesized by later Greek authors, and, especially, the Romans, who took over the Greek pantheon virtually intact.

  2. It’s true. Actual polytheism - what is called by some “hard polytheism”, where there are multiple gods that are on an even playing field, so to speak - is self-evidently absurd. It’s also rare. Most pantheons generally have one God or principle that created or fathered all of the other gods that are currently in existence (Zeus after the deposing of his parents for the Greeks), and have a measure of authority over them. At the most developed, you have the “soft polytheism” of something like Hinduism, where there are many gods, but the gods are as much analogous to very powerful angels as they are “gods” in their own right, all deriving from the one source, Brahman, to which all things return.

Further, the Jews and early Christians did not doubt the existence of the pagan gods. They knew they were real, and had real power - the difference was in viewing them as demons, fallen angels subject to the one God who created all. Zoroastrians went the opposite direction and made tribal gods such as Mir the lieutenants (angels) of Ohrmazd (the Zoroastrian “good god” and, later, creator). They did not doubt the existence of sorcery: why else would sorcery be forbidden? The Bible reports that sorcery exists, and even in the New Testament, there is a sorcerer - Simon Magus - who attempts to buy the Power of God.

Thus there are gods spoken of in the Old and New Testaments (in the New by various names such as Artemis, and general terms as “Powers and Principalities” and “Lord of this world”), which have real power insofar as the true God allows them to have power. God is not the only spiritual force that exists; demons (pagan gods) do as well, as do angels (maybe some pagan gods, or tribal gods of areas that never heard the gospel, so that they began to worship a messenger) - but God is the only one and pre-eminent all-powerful spiritual force, which has power over all others.

Further, the idea that Adam and Eve “may have been 200,000 years old” destroys any possibility of Christianity being a coherent religion (as people-groups diverged at such a time, according to the evolutionary timescale, meaning that not all men could be descended from first parents, and death and suffering existed long before then, destroying the meaning of Eden, paradise, and redemption from original sin which scarred the world). If true, it demonstrates why monotheism should have existed long before we have record of it, on one interpretation: on the other hand, it demonstrates why polytheism should still be dominant, as, if true, it proves that God has never spoken to man (which is considered by religious individuals, the reason for monotheism to have become dominant).

  1. Monotheism offers a more powerful god. More power = good.

This is quite obviously why most people - especially the Northern Barbarians - converted to Christianity. A missionary would go in and desecrate pagan temples and cut down sacred trees, and survive. The native priesthood would be pissed at him, but the people saw that he wasn’t struck down, and therefore Jesus was more powerful than whatever gods they worshipped before, and thus convert, wanting the protection and power of the new, more powerful god.

(Continued)

The Romans by and large converted because the Emperor did, and some before then because of the evident power of God in the lives of the martyrs. The Jews that converted were some of the few to do so out of intellectual conviction brought on by the prophecies and preaching, as did likely some of the pagan intellectuals, and, especially, Egyptians (Alexandrians), and some of the Greeks, where there was a long history of searching after the truth.

Of course, all of the above were merely ways God used to open the hearts of said converts to the Holy Spirit. But, the ways used were very rarely “missionary” in the sense we think of it today: they were power-based, either in supernatural (Jesus beats your god) or natural (the Emperor worships Jesus) terms.

Conversions to a religion always thrive when the political system associated with that religion wields much power, which is likely a more powerful incentive for the majority of individuals than truth or martyrdom (however, it also leads to Nicodemism): witness conversions to Islam, when the sword of Islam was powerful, and all empires fell or were dismembered in the path of its advance, and witness the decline of conversions to Islam after the house of Islam ceased to steamroll everything around it, sometime in the late 8th century, and the further decrease when it ceased to be a superpower.

Christians were brought under Islamic polity: the threats combined with the God-showed favor upon the Muslims (no Christians doubted that God let the Muslims dismember their empires due to their sins, or for some other reason), led to an “Allah beats Jesus” scenario, while at the same time a “the Caliph worships Allah” scenario, and a “if you worship Jesus, you have little rights” scenario.

The lure of power works for false religions too, and it’s easy to see how Nicodemism (and the resultant syncretism and influx of foreign influences) can become dominant in a short period of time, by the massive influx of individuals converting for pragmatic reasons only (my god beats your god, my emperor worships your god, no rights unless I worship your god), not pragmatic reasons plus the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

That is simply factually incorrect. The number of cult sites of deities is substantial; many of these predated Homer. Homer emerged out of a long oral tradition and his poems fit within a larger Epic Cycle, most of which treated material never touched by Homer, although some antedated him. Furthermore, although innovation in myth is common, the archaeological and material evidence cannot be ignored. The Greek deities were worshiped prior to Homer and Hesiod. The Pythia had already gained supremacy by the 8th century; the Olympic Games were first celebrated in 776 BC, etc.

One can discern this relatively easily by reading the fragments of ancient Greek mythology, their contradictions,

These contradictions are easily explained by localized cult and mythological traditions.

and how they were smoothed out and synthesized by later Greek authors

Authors (versus Greek scholars) did not always smooth them out; often they simply chose one variant over another based on their own purposes.

Most pantheons generally have one God or principle that created or fathered all of the other gods that are currently in existence (Zeus after the deposing of his parents for the Greeks),

Zeus did not engender the rest of the gods. In fact, the Orphic strain of Greek mythology was notable in relation to monotheism because it did involve a creator deity, namely Phanes. This was significant because it stood in contrast to the more common Greek polytheism proper, in which there was neither a beginning principle nor a common father.

and have a measure of authority over them.

While Zeus has royal authority, his authority is limited.

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