Ancient mythology is an area that really interests me. This might seem like an odd thing for a Christian to like, but for me it seems fairly natural that if you have a strong belief in a god, you would be interested by others who have had a strong belief in different gods throughout history. However, I’m not going to lie and say that the interest is completely intellectual, because I have to admit that I also love learning about the events within the mythology for no reason other than that they’re fantastic stories. It’s probably no surprise that I prefer Greco-Roman mythology above other ancient traditions, and I suppose that this is because the literature and stories from that region are the easiest for us to access, given the influence of the Roman Empire on Western Europe and the way that this imprinted their culture on countless future generations. I’ve been learning about the Greco-Roman stuff for years now, probably since I was 9 or 10, but in more recent years I’ve taken more of an interest in ancient Near Eastern religions (due to the impact they had on both early Greek religion and, more importantly, early Jewish religion) as well as ancient English/Germanic/Nordic religions (which cross over a fair bit), though that latter interest is more to do with the cultural history of England than anything else. So what can we, Christians and non-Christians alike learn from those ancient, extinct religions?
For one thing, we can learn where our culture comes from. English culture, as well as a large part of Western Europe, and probably America/Australia/New Zealand and anywhere else that’s been affected by ‘Western’ ideas, is a very strange amalgamation of historic cultures. Our way of thinking – rational, sceptical, analytical – comes largely from ancient Greece. It was spread and altered in various ways by the Roman Empire, particularly under Julius Caesar, and his adopted son, Augustus. Then early Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the Empire, becoming the dominant religion across Roman Europe. Along the way, there was a natural clash with existing local cultures. England, being on the fringes of the Roman world, has a more obvious remnant of non-Roman culture than some mainland European countries, particularly those around the Mediterranean. We can see this in our names for the days:
Monday – Moon Day Lundi – Moonday
Tuesday – Tyr’s Day Mardi – Mars’ Day
Wednesday – Woden’s (Odin’s) Day Mercredi – Mercury’s Day
Thursday – Thory’s Day Jeudi – Jupiter’s Day
Friday – Frigg’s (Freya’s) Day Vendredi – Venus’ Day
Saturday – Saturn’s Day Samedi – Saturn’s Day
Sunday – Sun’s Day Dimanche – Root: ‘Dominica’ – ‘Day of God’
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are all derived from our old Nordic gods rather than the Roman ones as we see in the French week. Monday and Sunday both have Roman roots (although the Sun and Moon were worshiped fairly universally) and I really have no idea why we plonked Saturn (the Roman father of Jupiter) in there. The English days of the week are a great example of the amalgamation of cultures that went into making the thing that we call culture in the 21st century.
So, if we acknowledge that our culture has the ancient roots, I think it can be really interesting to discover how the founders of those cultures thought. One of the easiest ways to do this is to look at their mythology. In Greek mythology, there is an abundance of symbolism which shows us how they were making sense of the world. This may be seen as simplistic, but in many ways it can be seen as the forerunner to modern sciences, with educated people observing phenomena and coming up with theories to explain it. These theories were debated and disputed endlessly by philosophers and scholars, with the public falling in with whoever they particularly liked (although a large part of the debate seemed to be for intellectuals only). Doesn’t this sound familiar in terms of modern day science and religion? There was also a healthy dose of nationalism, with monsters in Greek art often symbolising ‘barbarians’ (anyone who wasn’t Greek). This became particularly important around the time of the Persian invasion at the turn of the 5th century B.C.
As for Near Eastern mythology, it is interesting to compare and contrast these religions from ancient Mesopotamia and the surrounding area – Babylon, the Hittites, the Phoenicians etc. – with the Hebrew view of God. I don’t know whether they were unique in their monotheistic belief, but the Jews’ religion certainly went against most local traditions in that sense. Also, there were important differences in the ways that the Jews related to their God, particularly in the light of purity and holiness. One thing that I find fascinating is that the Jews believed that God had firmly instructed them not to worship the gods of other nations (not that this stopped them). In all the polytheistic religions of the time that I know of, there was nothing to stop people from adopting foreign gods into their culture and mixing and matching their religion as much as they wanted to. A sceptic may put this down to something like Hebrew ultra-nationalism, but I can’t help but think that the Jews were unique in this because they were God’s chosen people and he wanted them to remain pure in their worship of him.
There is not too much more that I can say in this post about the Nordic religion that was popular in Scandinavia as well as England to some extent, only that the stories therein are an important part of our cultural and linguistic history. However, it is hard for someone like me to know exactly what our ancestors thought, because the books that are easy to access, such as the Prose Edda, written during the 13th century, are heavily influenced by both Roman religion and Christianity, to the extent that the author of the Edda equated the Norse gods Thor and Loki with the Greco-Roman heroes Hector and Odysseus (Ulysses) respectively and tried to fit the stories in with Christianity by saying that a strange man called Odin used magic and illusions to create the Norse mythology and the illusion of the Norse gods, who weren’t really gods because Jesus was God. Simple, right? Now I obviously agree with the sentiment, but it does make it hard to get to the core of Norse mythology through the fog of other cultures.
I appreciate that this is different to the sort of things that I normally post, but there is so much of interest in these ancient cultures that a lot of people are in danger of missing. It’s easy to dismiss this stuff as irrelevant and boring, but it’s really not! By looking at these stories of gods and monsters, we can see fibres and threads that are woven into our culture, that have shaped the way we think throughout history and still affect us today. On top of that, the stories are good fun to read. So why not stroll down to your local book shop and pick up the Aeneid or one of the Eddas? You might find you like it.