Evaluating religious literature

To do polytheism right requires well-honed critical faculties and an appreciation for differentiation. Reading isn’t enough; you need to know how to properly evaluate what you’re reading or you’ll wind up meandering through mad and fruitless passages.

This is a significant problem within mainstream contemporary Hellenic polytheism and I think it stems primarily from an inability to distinguish between types of religious literature as a result of the priority given to the Christian scriptures in our society. That is to say, Christians have one Bible and how they treat this book has influenced our understanding of what it means for something to be a piece of religious writing, whereas the ancient view was far more nuanced and complex. Plus, they’re a people of the Book; we’re the people of the Library!

Take Orpheus, Homer and Diodoros Sikeliotes as an example. (Note that I am simplifying things greatly by positing a single “Homer” and “Orpheus” as authors of the works attributed to them, but I don’t want to get too side-tracked in this discussion.) All of these men wrote about Gods, mythological events and cultus and as such their work could be classed as “religious” but there’s a wide gulf between the type of writing they did and their intent in doing so. Consequently we should evaluate them differently and give their words varying degrees of authority.

Diodoros, for instance, was writing primarily as an historian – his discussion of Gods and their rites comes in a work intended to chronicle the totality of human culture and accomplishment from its start up to his own times. There’s a great deal of mythological material and accounts of variant local traditions, but it’s because this serves his narrative needs or he’s relaying the beliefs and words of others, not because he’s laying out his own understanding of things. Indeed he frequently expresses skepticism about his subject matter or offers his own rationalistic (often euhemerizing) interpretation as a counterpoint.

This is very different from Homer who is consciously working within an established, albeit localized and divergent, mythological tradition which he is using to provide a contextual background for the stories he wants to tell about the heroes of Troy. His intent is to praise these men (and flatter his audience by emphasizing their own connection to great events and figures from the past) and add to the tradition he has inherited from his oral predecessors. Homer’s words become invested with authority over time, recited at festivals and scrupulously studied, so that they come to shape a Pan-Hellenic consciousness of myth, tradition and the Gods and heroes. There wasn’t universal agreement with him, but all discussion was carried out with reference to his epic poems.

Different again are the works of Orpheus – they represent a unique revelation and a specific tradition with Orpheus as its head and final arbiter. They are not concerned with the products of human culture and the Gods as important peripherals to that – their intent is to bring about an understanding of these powerful personages and set forth the science of ritual engagement with them. (At least that’s what those who ascribed religious weight to writings and ceremonies attached to name-famous Orpheus – as Ibycus put it – held, no matter how much the different threads of Orphic tradition diverged, which is to be expected considering the heterogeneous populations which promulgated it – itinerant religious specialists, discount magicians, oracle-peddlers, poets, philosophers, aristocrats, athletes, soldiers and similar marginal figures.)

As such, we need to evaluate each of these forms of religious literature differently, regardless of whether we accept the claims made within them and in particular we must avoid assigning greater authority to them than was intended by the writer – or at least be conscious that we are doing so.

For instance, I find a lot of valuable information in the works of early Christian apologists such as Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytos of Rome and Origen – but these are very problematic sources, since they are often intentionally distorting what they discuss for aggressive rhetorical purposes, all the way down to outright fabrication. This hostility, in addition to the biases all authors possess, need to be factored into any conclusions one makes about ancient polytheist religion based on them.

Think about this the next time someone flings a quote at you – especially when it’s so easy to manufacture false ones. The truth will set you free, as Charles Manson said.


Comments are closed.