(Greek) Polytheism FAQ



  1. The Gods
    1. What is a god?
    2. (Why) do we believe there are gods?
    3. How do we know of the gods?
    4. What kinds of gods are there?
    5. Which gods are there?
  2. Practice

1 The Gods

1a What is a god?

There are many possible answers and definitions. A common one is that they are “immortal rational living beings”, while humans are “mortal rational living beings” (e.g., in Porphyry’s Isagoge). Themistius defines a god as “an eternal living being beneficent to humanity” (e.g., Paraphrase of On the Soul = CAG vol. 5/3, p. 5). But there are also accounts of gods dying, which some have accepted and others denied.

So, perhaps a better answer is that of Simonides. When he was asked what a god was like, he asked for one day’s deferral, then another two, then four, and so on, eventually explaining that the more he pondered the question, the more impossible it seemed to find a solution (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 1.60; translated here).

This is why many have agreed with these lines of the poet Philemon (see Limits of Human Knowledge):

“Believe and revere the gods, but do not investigate!
For you will have nothing more than the investigation.
Do not wish to learn whether they are or are not,
But always revere them as if they are, and are near!
What they are, the gods do not wish you to learn.”

1b (Why) do we believe there are gods?

According to the Stoics, who define the deity as “an intelligent fiery breath without shape”, we originally derived the concept of gods from the goodness of the phenomena around us, “because no good thing arises randomly and by chance, but rather through a kind of art of creation” (Aëtius in Pseudo-Plutarch, On the Opinions of the Philosophers 1.6).

Epicurus, who did not believe that the world was created by the gods, instead argued that people had derived the concept of gods from dream visions, “because, when great and anthropomorphic images came to them in their sleep, they understood that certain such anthropomorphic gods also existed in reality” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Natural Philosophers 25).

The Platonic philosopher Iamblichus went even further than Epicurus and claimed that “there is an innate knowledge of the gods co-subsisting with our very essence, superior to all judgment and opinion; it is prior to reason and demonstration” (Iamblichus, Response to Porphyry 1.3). However, there were also pagan philosophers who denied the reality of the gods, puncturing the persuasiveness of this view.

Servius gives the following survey of relevant opinions: “Cicero says in his books On the Nature of the Gods that there are three opinions about the gods: that there are no gods […], that there are and they are not providential, [or] that there are and they are providential” (On the Aeneid 4.379).

Epictetus, as Arrhian records, considered there to be some further gradations: “Concerning the gods,1 there are some who say that the divine does not exist; others, that it does exist, but is inactive and careless, and exercises no providence over anything; a third group, that it does exist and exercise providence, but only for great and celestial things, but for nothing upon the earth; a fourth, that they do provide for things on the earth and human affairs, but only in general and not individually for each; the fifth group, and this includes Odysseus and Socrates, say that:

“‘Not a movement of mine escapes you’ (Iliad 10.279–280).”

(Arrhian, Discourses of Epictetus 1.12.1–3; translated here.)

“From this”, wrote Sextus Empiricus, i.e., from the opposition of contrary opinions, “the suspension of judgment of the Skeptics is derived, and the inconsistency (of attitudes) about the gods in ordinary life particularly agrees with them. Different people have various different conceptions about the gods, after all, so that they can neither all be believed, because they are conflicting, nor some of them over the others, because they are equally persuasive.

“This is further underlined by the invention of myths by the mythological poets, since it is full of impiety. This is also why Xenophanes, criticizing the likes of Homer and Hesiod, says:

Homer and Hesiod attribute all things to the gods
Which are a disgrace and a scandal among humans:
They steal, they sleep around, and cheat each other.”

(Sextus Empiricus, Against the Natural Philosophers 192–193.)

In another work, he lays out the actual position of the Skeptics more clearly: “When we follow (the habits of) ordinary life, we do say that there are gods, we venerate the gods, and we also say that they exercise providence, but we do this undogmatically, and we speak against the overconfidence of the dogmatic philosophers” (Sextus Empiricus, Pyrrhonic Outlines 3.2).

A more confident, but still fairly skeptical position is claimed by the famous medical writer Galen of Pergamum: “I say that I do not have knowledge of whether the cosmos is unoriginated or originated, whether there is something beyond it or not. I also admit that I am ignorant about the following, what the creator of all things in the cosmos is like, whether incorporeal or corporeal, let alone where he dwells. Indeed, I profess that I am at a loss about the gods, just as Protagoras once said, and that I do not know of them what they are like in essence.

“I do claim to know from their works that they exist, since the design of animals is their work, and they foreshow so many things through lots, symbols and dreams. The god in Pergamum,¹ whom I honor, has shown his power and providence, in addition to many other things, when he once healed me; and I have experience not only of the providence of the Dioscuri at sea, but also of their power.²

“However, I do not think that it is of any harm to humans not to know the essence of the gods; but I know that one must honor them, following the ancient law, seeing that even Socrates consulted the oracle of Delphi. And this is what I hold in matters concerning the gods” (Galen, On His Own Opinions 2).

1: The god in Pergamum, Galen’s hometown, is Asclepius.
2: That is, the Dioscuri not only granted him safe passage at sea (providentially), but also saved him when he was already in danger (by their power). The Dioscuri were often called upon when there was trouble at sea. Compare Servius, On the Aeneid 1.39: “All affairs of people befall us either by our own will, as for example sitting and getting up; or by the necessity of fate, like being born and dying; or by the will of the gods, like sailing or benefitting from honors.”

1c How do we know of the gods?

Some of the gods are visible or perceptible to us, such as Heaven and Earth, or the Sun and the Moon (Aëtius in Pseudo-Plutarch, Opinions of the Philosophers 880ab). Others are ‘intelligible’, only known by the intellect (Apuleius, On the God of Socrates 1).

Knowledge of the unperceived may come from common notions;¹ the traditions handed down by poets (gr. theológoi) and the like; from oracles of the gods; rituals (teletaí); or interchange with the gods (cf. Damascius, On the Phaedo B 93, although he is speaking about knowledge of the underworld there).

Humans also form conceptions of intelligible gods more actively, as Apuleius describes (On the God of Socrates 2): “There is another kind of gods, which nature denies our sight, but we contemplate nevertheless with the understanding of our intellect, by contemplating sharply with the sharpness of the mind. Among their number are those twelve whose names were arranged by Ennius in two verses:

“‘Juno, Vesta, Minerva, Ceres, Diana, Venus, Mars,
Mercury, Jove, Neptune, Vulcan, Apollo’,

“And the others of that kind, whose names are long familiar to our ears. They are powers conjectured by our wits on the basis of the various benefits in the leading of our lives which have been observed in those matters over which each of them watch.”

Specifically, as Aëtius writes, after people “derived the concept of deity from the visible stars”, “in the second and third place, they divided the gods into harmful and useful: and the useful are Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Demeter (and the like); the harmful, the Punishments (Poinai), Erinyes, Ares (and the like), consecrating them because they are harsh and violent.

“Fourthly and fifthly, they assigned (certain gods) to things, and to affects, such as Eros, Aphrodite and Pothos (‘Yearning’); and among things, Hope (Elpis), Justice (Dikē) and Good Order (Eunomia).

“The sixth place was taken by the inventions of the poets. For instance, Hesiod, wishing to give parents to the gods who came into being, introduced the likes of ‘Coeus, Crius, Hyperion and Iapetus’ (Theogony 134) as their ancestors. Hence, this has been called the mythical.

“Seventh and last of all is that which has come to be honored for the benefit to common life, although born human, such as Heracles, the Dioscuri, and Dionysus” (Aëtius in Pseudo-Plutarch, Opinions of the Philosophers 880bc).

Because of the less certain foundations of the knowledge of intelligible gods, some cast doubt on their reality. Thus, Pliny the Elder, the compiler of the encyclopedic Natural History, who wrote that “the cosmos […] is worthy to be called a god, eternal, immeasurable, neither originated nor ever to perish” (Natural History 2.1), and that the Sun “is the ruler of the stars themselves and of heaven; considering its works, it is fit to believe that it is the soul and truly the mind of the entire cosmos, the principal ruler and god (numen) of nature” (ibid. 2.12–13), next goes on to say:

“…” (Natural History 2.14–21).

However, by a different logic, “everything” in the cosmos – including deities like Hera and Justice – is in principle “visible […] to the human being, either by nature or by some divine art. And either manner is divided in two: ‘by nature’ is either through the present (bodily) mode of perception or through the perception of the luminous vehicle;² ‘by divine art’ is either by spontaneous inspiration³ (gr. autoùs entheázontas) or via certain rituals (teletaí)” (Damascius, On the Phaedo B 38). Thus, Plato divides the gods within the cosmos not into the perceptible and imperceptible, but “those who revolve (around the heavens) manifestly, and the gods who manifest only insofar as they wish” (Plato, On the Timaeus 41a).

In addition, Plato also posits certain gods beyond the cosmos. Confusingly, these are again called ‘intelligible’, not because they happen to be known only by the intellect, but because they are of an incorporeal, mental essence that is inherently without perceptible shape. However, only some philosophical schools accepted the existence of such a class of deities – principally the Platonists and Aristotelians, but not the Stoics and Epicureans. Others were agnostic, like Pliny: “To investigate anything beyond (the cosmos) does not pertain to humanity, nor can the conjecture of the human mind grasp it” (Natural History 2.1).

1: [!]
2: According to the late Neoplatonists, humans not only have a visible ‘oyster-like’ body which decays after death, but also a more permanent ‘pneumatic’ body or vehicle (which souls retain after death and through which they can appear as “ghosts”) and an eternal ‘luminous’ body, which transcends most limitations of corporeality. As the present body has its sense perceptions, so does (in a subtler fashion) the luminous body. But these are niceties that only advanced students of Neoplatonism need remember.
3: [!]

1d What kinds of gods are there?

We also distinguish the gods by the places they inhabit or watch over, dividing them in various ways. Most commonly, a separation is made between the gods above and gods below – super(n)ī and īnfer(n)ī, as they are called in Latin. The former are referred to as heavenly/celestial,¹ Olympian,² ethereal³ or astral;⁴ the latter as chthonic (‘of the earth’) or katachthonic (‘below the earth’), i.e., belonging to the underworld.⁵ Among those below are the dead, so that ancient authors sometime refer to the ‘celestial gods and chthonic daemons’ (where ‘daemons’ means something like ‘ghosts’). But they include also the gods who rule over the dead, as the gods above rule over us (Servius, On the Aeneid 1.387).

Between these two classes of gods, others can be listed, especially marine or (more generically) watery gods,⁶ or those upon rather than below the earth, i.e., the terrestrials.⁷ Sometimes, all divine beings in the cosmos are assigned to the four classical elements, while at other times, the elements are inserted inbetween: “Some are celestial, others ethereal (i.e., fiery), others again aerial, watery, terrestrial (lit. ‘chthonic’) and, finally, some below the earth”⁸ (Damascius, On the Phaedo B 96).

Of these groups, the watery gods are the most distinctive, although often overlooked because of their relatively lesser importance, and the aerial probably the least distinctive and least acknowledged, although it is possible to draw up a reasonable list of some of the most important ones.⁹ Ethereal or fiery gods, on the other hand, are often enough referred to, but rarely differentiated from the celestials; likewise, the dividing line between terrestrial and chthonic (or chthonic and katachthonic) gods is very blurry.

That blurriness is not necessarily a problem, but if we seek some clarification, we can do worse than follow the philosopher Olympiodorus, who says that, “among the terrestrial (lit. ‘chthonic’) ones, some are rulers of regions, others keepers of cities, some again are domestic (i.e., ‘of the household’)”¹⁰ (Olympiodorus, On the Alcibiades 20).

1: Heavenly: gr. ouránioi = lat. calestēs. There are a number of other terms of (more or less) the same meaning, such as gr. Ouraníōnes, hyperouránioi, enouránioi, epouránioi, or lat. caelitēs and calicolae.
2: Olympian: gr. Olýmpioi = lat. Olympiī. In this context, ‘Olympus’ was often regarded as referring not to the mountain, but (symbolically) to the heavens.
3: Ethereal (i.e., of pure celestial flame): gr. aithérioi = lat. aetheriī. Also gr. enaithérioi.
4: Astral: gr. astrôᵢoi and the like, but more commonly called simply ‘stars’ rather than ‘astral gods’.
5: There is no straightforward word for ‘underworld’ in Greek or Latin, and so neither an adjective derived from it, but the term ‘chthonic’ (pronounced either thonnic or kthonnic) carries a fairly strong association with the ‘house of Hades’. Gods ‘below the earth’ can be expressed by hypógeioi, hypokhthónioi and katakhthónioi.
6: terms; example
7: terms; example
8: Damascius is technically speaking about daemons rather than gods, but the same classes apply to the gods within the cosmos, as shown by the close parallel in Olympiodorus. The terms he uses are ouránioi, aithérioi, aérioi, hydraîoi, khthónioi and hypokhthónioi.
9: Based on air epithets used in the Orphic Hymns, we may include not only the Winds and the Clouds, and Hera as the ruler of the air, but also the Fates, Erinyes, Nymphs and Curetes–Corybantes, as well as Rhea and Zeus.
10: The Greek terms are klimatárkhai, polioûkhoi and katoikídioi, respectively.

1e Which gods are there?

Although his list is very far from complete, Artemidorus gives perhaps the best catalogue of gods surviving from Greek antiquity, since he provides a classification according to the intelligible/perceptible distinction and their place in the cosmos:

+Odyssey Porphyry all things are full of gods

translations, god lists]

What do the names of the gods mean?

Supplementum Magicum II: Gê keuêmori môripharchôth (p. 33f)
all the variations of the Kore Ereschigal / Hermes Chthonios / etc. formula (already been collected?)
Hermes, Aphrodite, etc. names
Iamblichus etc.
Non-linguistic names (Hekate esp.)
Dionysus: PGM 2.134; 7.461; 13.920. Cyranides 1.8
Orphic Lithica kerygmata 24; Lithica 502 + 748

What are the forms of the gods?

Ps.Plutarch 880d; Ps.Plutarch De Homero; Life of Apollonius?

‚Late Antique Symbols‘

zhenxing – Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China – zhenxing 真形

Neo-Confucian Terms explained

days (lunaries, etc.)

4-6 Athena: yes!
9-10 Apollon: yes
11 Artemis: yes
12-16 Asklepios: i guess?
18, 19 Hephaestus: yes
20 Aphrodite Ourania, Charites: yes?
21/14 Demeter: ???
22 Demeter?: ?
23 Dikaiosyne: yes
24 Eleos: yes
25 Zeus: yes
26 Ammon: ?
27 Zeuses: yes?
28 Helios: yes
30 Hera: yes??
31 Herakles: yes?
34 Isis: ??
36 Meter: yes (!)
39 Mousai
41 Ourania: yes?
42 Pan: yes
43 Pantes, Pantheois, Dodeka: yes
44 Poseidon: yes!
45 Poseidon Hippios: yes
47 Sarapis: ?
50 Tyche: yes
51 Hygieia: ?
52 Hypnos: ?
58 Hermes: yes

add links

one god in multiple „realms“; epicleses
Julian of Laodicea

Sextus on gods?
Iamblichus etc. on knowledge of gods
Plato: oracles, etc. Cicero on whom we should worship. Epinomis?

kinds of knowledge: Servius on fabula and Mercury. Cicero on mos maiorum?

dream visions, manifestations

Kronos: 44,4 | 58,3 | 60,2
Zeus: 14,3
Ares: IV, 1 | VI,8-9 | 56,3(-5?) | 84-85
Helios: III,3 | 53,3 | 92,4
Aphrodite: VI,6 | 83 | 84,1 | 86,5
Hermes: II,2 | 16,1 | 19,3 | 20,3
Selene: 80-81(?)
+ Ibis: […]
+ Damigeron; german Ghâyah pp. 200-216; Ruska

-Theophilus of Edessa

Porphyry; Martianus (Mercury, Juno, Jupiter, etc.) on images

Sphaera p. 472 -> zodiac gods?
(Ibn Wahyhiyyah’s Thenkelôsha)

-examples of interpretation of barbarous names : Pistis Sophia
-languages! (Servius)
-major gods with iconography: contemplation. Planets. Earth. Elements. Etc.
-„pantheon“ / names across languages (esp. Greek & Latin vs. Egyptian)
-Olympian gods / twelve gods (zodiac) / etc.
-definition of ‚The God‘?
-link to texts on herbs, stones, etc. Dionysus (Cyranides)
-archangels, angels, daemons, heroes, Nymphs
-images/talismans: Picatrix (p. 115 of German version)
-those texts on fumigations, characters, etc.
-visualization? (true form / zhenxing?)
-iconography, name, characters (plenitude of meanings); Iamblichus: meanings revealed by the gods

2 Practice

2a What do we owe the gods?

“You don’t have to have purifications more complex than washing your hands, offerings other than silent prayer, or images other than sunlight” (Jake)
-Proclus: light as first embodiment

-astrologers on consecrations
-Also all things full of Zeus, etc. Aratus etc.
-different discourses: not that simple; priestly knowledge, devotional texts/rhetoric, literary texts and exegesis, philosophy
-gods/kinds of gods: Plato,
-offerings: Apollon! Psellus/Proclus. What else?
-celestial/chthonic distinctions
-different taxonomies: Artemidorus, Diogenes of Babylon, genealogy (two Aphrodites?), astrology, Cicero/Lydus/Clement/Ampelius/etc.

Follow the god; revere the god; reasons for worship (Theophrastus/Porphyry and others); types of prayer; types of hymn; Alexander on hymns

-daemons, greater beings, nymphs, etc.
-that sacrifice to Aphrodite & the Nymphs; how to make offerings to watery & terrestrial gods
-some daemons of important gods
-sober and ‚drunk‘ offerings

-confucius family sayings: principle
-simple rites: Plato, Cicero, etc.?
-hieratic, goêteia, mageia
-altars, temples, etc. (Sallustius). Time! (Lunaries)
-Maxims (Euripides, etc.) and ethics
-example prayers (ps.Plato/Orion, Marcus Aurelius, Menander Rhetor)
-prayers: Dion
-myths & exegesis
-Greek formulaic prayers? (like Cato and Secular Games?)

-what do we owe to the dead?
-Maxims: know yourself.
-Simplicius / someone or other on Isocrates: why gods first, etc.?
-cult statues: Sallustius, Proclus, Olympiodorus, Hermias, etc
-different opinions on soul and afterlife