Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 5—c. 1000-31 B.C.E.—Mythical Gods Without Merit
“Every religion has its origin in Asia.”—Japanese proverb
THE Japanese are right. The roots of religion are traceable to Asia. More specifically, basic religious teachings and practices found in the world’s religions issued from ancient Babylon, located in Asia.
In confirmation, the book The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria says: “Egypt, Persia, and Greece felt the influence of the Babylonian religion . . . The strong admixture of Semitic elements both in early Greek mythology and in Grecian cults is now so generally admitted by scholars as to require no further comment. These Semitic elements are to a large extent more specifically Babylonian.”
The Babylonian elements of Greek mythology were easily absorbed into early Greek religion, which, according to The Encyclopedia of Religion, had “no sacred book in which the truth was fixed once and for all . . . It sufficed for a person performing rites to give credence to a vast repertory of stories learned in childhood. Each of these stories existed in many versions, allowing a wide margin of interpretation.”
Typical of such stories were the ones told in the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, the renowned Greek poet probably of the eighth or ninth century B.C.E. His works, highlighting the relations between the mythical gods of Mount Olympus and humans, including intermediate godlike mortals venerated as heroes, became a ready source from which Greek religion could draw. That is why, explains writer G. S. Kirk, “myth and religion overlap.”
Greek religion drew also from other sources. The New Encyclopædia Britannica points out that “the Hellenistic world, which favoured mystery religions with special zeal, adopted [from Egypt] the cults of Osiris, Isis, and Horus.” From there “they were spread over the entire Roman Empire.” How did this happen?
Greek Mythology Takes Rome Captive
Early ancestors of the Romans practiced a simple religion that held the gods to be impersonal spirits residing in material forms of all kinds. It was a religion of superstition that recognized omens and the magical properties of plants or animals. It held annual festivals, like the Saturnalia in December, at which time people exchanged gifts. The book Imperial Rome describes it as “a religion of form, of ritual, with little emphasis on the spiritual. The Roman made a compact with his gods—you do something for me and I will do something for you—and his religion was largely a meticulous observance of that bargain.” This made for a spiritually barren religion, causing the Romans to seek spiritual sustenance elsewhere.
More elaborate religious observances, as well as the use of temples, statues, and images, were later introduced by the Etruscans.* The same book says that they were also the ones “who gave Rome its earliest significant contact with the Greek gods and goddesses, many of whom the Romans eventually absorbed virtually unchanged.” Before long it could be said that “religion in Rome wore many faces and had many names: each new people the Romans encountered through conquest or trade seems to have added to the Roman pantheon.”
The early Roman clergy were not expected to be spiritual or moral leaders. It sufficed, says Imperial Rome, for them to know “the proper forms of addressing the god, the taboos associated with his worship, and the complicated liturgy.” In contrast with the common people, known as plebeians and ineligible to hold high office, leading clergymen were able to acquire impressive political and social powers.
Thus, for about a thousand years, from Homer’s time onward, Greek mythology so strongly influenced the religions of both Greece and Rome that The New Encyclopædia Britannica says: “The importance of Greek mythology in the intellectual, artistic, and emotional history of Western man can hardly be overestimated.” At least religiously speaking, Horace, a Latin poet of the first century B.C.E., was correct when he said: “Captive Greece took Rome captive.”
A Greek God on the March
Alexander III was born in 356 B.C.E. at Pella in Macedonia. Reared in royal surroundings, he enjoyed the tutorship of famed Greek philosopher Aristotle, who helped him develop an interest in philosophy, medicine, and science. The extent to which Aristotle’s philosophical teachings shaped Alexander’s way of thinking is a matter of debate. But there is little doubt about Homer’s effect on him, for Alexander, an avid reader, had a special passion for Homer’s mythological writings. In fact, it is claimed he learned the Iliad by heart, no small feat, since this entailed memorizing 15,693 lines of poetry.
At 20, after his father was assassinated, Alexander succeeded to the Macedonian throne. He at once embarked upon a campaign of conquest that eventually earned him the title Alexander the Great. Generally recognized as one of the greatest military men of all time, his greatness elevated him to godship. Both before and after his death, divinity was attributed to him.
Alexander drove the Persians from Egypt, where he was hailed as a deliverer. The book Man, Myth & Magic says: “He was accepted as Pharaoh and when he visited the oracle of the god Ammon . . . he was formally hailed by the priest as ‘son of Ammon.’” This incident evidently accounts for the story that he was the son of Zeus, chief god of the Grecian pantheon.
Alexander pushed eastward, finally reaching parts of India. On the way he conquered Babylon, from which had come many of the ideas found in the mythology and religion of his homeland. It was therefore appropriate that he planned to make it the capital of his empire. But on June 13, 323 B.C.E., after having reigned for a little more than 12 years, the great Greek god faltered—dead at 32!
A Revered Roman God
The city of Rome had been founded on the neighboring peninsula of Italy in the middle of the eighth century B.C.E., centuries before Greece reached its pinnacle of world dominance under Alexander. After Alexander’s death, world power slowly shifted in Rome’s direction. General Julius Caesar, head of the Roman state, was assassinated in 44 B.C.E., and after some 13 years of unrest, his adopted son Octavian defeated his rivals and went ahead to establish the Roman Empire in 31 B.C.E.
Imperial Rome calls Octavian the “greatest of Rome’s many emperors,” saying that the “Romans called him Augustus, meaning ‘the revered’, and provincials hailed him as a god.” As if to confirm these opinions, Augustus had signet rings made bearing the likenesses of him and Alexander, who had gone before him. Augustus was later deified by the Roman Senate, and shrines were built throughout the empire in his honor.
Did They Merit the Name?
Today, no one would place his hopes for world peace and security in the hands of Roman or Greek gods—not in the mythical ones that ruled from Mount Olympus, nor in the real human ones that ruled from political thrones. And yet, from their Asiatic origins down to this very day, false religions continue to mislead people into placing their trust in mythical gods that bear the name but lack the merit. Fittingly, Alexander’s beloved Homer wrote in the Iliad: “How vain, without the merit, is the name.”
It has been said that ancient Greeks viewed the Iliad “as a source of moral, and even practical, instruction.” Today, there are many other writings that are considered in a similar way. How properly to evaluate such religious best-sellers will be the subject of our article in the March 22 issue.
The origin of the Etruscans is controversial, but the theory most widely supported is that they migrated to Italy from the Aegeo-Asian area in the eighth or seventh century B.C.E., bringing along an Asian culture and religion.
[Box on page 23]
Pervasive Greek Piety
The ancient Greeks had no specific word for religion itself. They used the term eu·seʹbei·a, which can be translated as “piety,” “right conduct in regard to the gods,” “revering well,” and “godly devotion.”*
The New Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Greek religion, in its developed form, lasted for more than a thousand years, from the time of Homer (probably 9th or 8th century BC) to the reign of the emperor Julian (4th century AD), though its origins may be traced to the remotest eras. During that period its influence spread as far west as Spain, east to the Indus, and throughout the Mediterranean world. Its effect was most marked on the Romans, who identified their deities with the Greek. Under Christianity, Greek heroes and even deities survived as saints, while the rival madonnas of southern European communities reflected the independence of local cults.”
The early Christians had to face the worshipers of Greek and Roman false gods. The Bible account tells us: “And the crowds, seeing what Paul had done, raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian tongue: ‘The gods have become like humans and have come down to us!’ And they went calling Barnabas Zeus [presiding god of Greek pantheon], but Paul Hermes [god who served as messenger for other gods], since he was the one taking the lead in speaking. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was before the city, brought bulls and garlands to the gates and was desiring to offer sacrifices with the crowds. However, when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they ripped their outer garments and leaped out into the crowd, crying out and saying: ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are humans having the same infirmities as you do, and are declaring the good news to you, for you to turn from these vain things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all the things in them.’”—Acts 14:11-15.
See 1 Timothy 4:7, 8 in The Kingdom Interlinear Translation of the Greek Scriptures, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Chart/Pictures on page 24]
Greek and Roman Divinities
Many gods and goddesses of Greek mythology held similar positions in Roman mythology. The table below lists some important Greek and Roman divinities.
Greek Roman Position
Aphrodite Venus Goddess of love
Apollo Apollo God of light, medicine, and poetry
Ares Mars God of war
Artemis Diana Goddess of hunting and childbirth
Asclepius Aesculapius God of healing
Athena Minerva Goddess of crafts, war, and wisdom
Cronus Saturn In Greek mythology, ruler of the
Titans and father of Zeus; in Roman
mythology, also the god of agriculture
Demeter Ceres Goddess of growing things
Dionysus Bacchus God of wine, fertility, and wild
Eros Cupid God of love
Gaea Terra Symbol of the earth, and mother and
wife of Uranus
Hephaestus Vulcan Blacksmith for the gods
and god of fire and metalworking
Hera Juno Protector of marriage and women.
In Greek mythology, sister and wife
of Zeus; in Roman mythology, wife of
Hermes Mercury Messenger for the gods; god
of commerce and science; and protector
of travelers, thieves, and vagabonds
Hestia Vesta Goddess of the hearth
Hypnos Somnus God of sleep
Pluto, or Pluto God of the underworld
Poseidon Neptune God of the sea. In Greek mythology,
also god of earthquakes and horses
Rhea Ops Wife and sister of Cronus
Uranus Uranus Son and husband of Gaea
and father of the Titans
Zeus Jupiter Ruler of the gods
Source: “The World Book Encyclopedia,” 1987 edition, Volume 13, page 820
Photo Sources: Hermes, Diana, and Jupiter—Courtesy of British Museum, London
Asclepius—National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece
[Picture on page 20]
Athena, goddess of war and wisdom—statue at city gate, Wesel, Germany