The gods of the Greeks and Romans (Galatians 4)

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The “religious marketplace” was extremely crowded during the Hellenistic era. The Olympian deities (and their Roman equivalents) still held a place in popular religion: mighty Zeus and his consort Hera, warlike Ares, erotic Aphrodite, prophetic Apollo, the virgin warrior Athena, Artemis the huntress, Hermes the messenger of the gods, Hephaestus the smith, Poseidon of the sea, Demeter of the field and Hestia of the hearth. Pluto, the grim god of the underworld, was not always listed among the “Twelve” but retained a significant place in religious thinking. While these deities were certainly reverenced, they were seldom seen as admirable characters. To the contrary, myths described them as violent and lustful, as well as capricious and conniving in their dealings with humans ans with one another (as is seen in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses).

It is not surprising, then, that these deities and their stories were later sanitized by the philosophers. In some systems, for example, Zeus was equated with the organizing principle of the univers (examples are Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus and Aratus’ Phaenomena). This transformation of the idea of Zeus was so thorough that Jews and Christians could sometimes make use of material related to Zeus in their apologetic teaching in the Hellenistic world (as in Paul’s reference to a poem by the stoic Aratus in Acts 17).

Foreign cults also proliferated in Greece and Rome during the Hellenistic age. The worship of the god Sarapis was particularly popular, even though it appears that he was invented as late as the third century B.C., drawing together characteristics from various Greek and Egyptian deities. Widespread stories of his offering help to his followers (deliverance from shipwreck, healing etc.) compensated for his lack of a long history. Isis and Osiris, other Egyptian deities, were also popular objects of worship.

In addition to these major deities, there remained a host of local spirits and gods that attracted veneration throughout the empire. Household gods, preserving hearth and home, were especially popular among the Romans. Naiads were described as water-nymphs associated with fountains, just as Dryads were associated with trees and Nereids with the sea. Various spirits connected with the earth were thought to bring fertility to crops, as well as to be associated with death and the underworld. The terrifying goddess Hekate was particularly prominent and was frequently invoked in magic spells. Finally, heroes from the past, most notably Hercules, were thought to aid people in distress and sometimes to serve as spiritual mentors.


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