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Did the Pagan Gods and Goddesses Exist?

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The transcript for the article, “Did the Pagan Gods and Goddesses Really Exist?” was generated by It has not yet been edited.

Yesterday, I received an email from a parent asking for some clarification about some statements that I made while teaching an introduction to Homer’s Iliad. I’ll grant before even saying anything about this, that my teaching on this topic is uncommon among Christians, but so is the study of the classical liberal arts. So I really don’t think that’s much of a concern.

Now, the topic that this mother wrote about, and it was all friendly, there was no controversy or anything like that, but she asked, because when I introduce Homer’s Iliad, the writing of Homer in general, as well as other sources, in classical literature and philosophy, I take a course or have a certain conviction that very few Christians share and I’m aware of that. I have reasons for thinking and speaking as I do. The issue has to do with references to gods and goddesses in pagan literature. There is sort of a default or automatic response to those things, from Christians, where Christians say “There are no such things as gods or goddesses. There’s only one God, and that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Anything else that is said to be a God simply doesn’t exist. The Greek gods and goddesses the Roman gods and goddesses, any other pagan gods and goddesses, these things don’t exist. They’re invented by men. They’re meaningless. “

To this, I say, I disagree.

Again, I know that my opinion on this is rare, but I’d like to explain it. I disagree. And I think that the Christian judgement, of the teaching of pagan peoples on gods and goddesses is actually not careful. If it were more careful, we would, I believe, understand their teaching differently and respond differently.

Now, it’s true, and I say this as a Catholic man, there is only one true God; there is one Creator and Redeemer of the world. And as I said, that God is the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God in three persons. The one and only God that exists in this universe, is the God who is confessed in the Apostles’ Creed, and worshiped in the Catholic Church. I firmly believe that and I see nothing in what I’m about to explain that contradicts that in any way.

The Roman poet Vergil, with the "muses", Clio and Melpomene.
The Roman poet Vergil, with the “muses”, Clio and Melpomene.

Whenever we read, ancient literature, classical literature, we have to think of the chronology. The poet’s the philosophers. They lived, often, centuries before Christ, they lived outside of Israel, away from the sacred scriptures, separated from divine revelation. And yet, because they were created in the image of God, with understanding and freewill, they were moved through all time and in all places, to seek God to seek the end for which they were created. This is our name Nature, just as it’s natural for a stone, to drop to the bottom of a pond, it’s natural for man to seek to return to God. And so if you put human beings out in the world, in places where divine revelation is not given, those people will seek God. But they will make all kinds of mistakes. And those mistakes, they’re not intentional. They’re not made with understanding. They’re simply made in ignorance. And they should be expected, they’re normal. And I think we should ignore the errors of the pagan people. We should pay attention, however, to their successes. Because what’s really amazing about the pagan people about the classical philosophers and poets, is not that they got things wrong, that’s understandable. What’s amazing is how much they got, right? That’s what we should read and think about, and talk about and admire, in the ancient people, how much they got right, without any of the benefits that we enjoy today, or that any Christians have enjoyed, since the coming of Christ into the world, how much the ancient poets and philosophers got right about God, about this world, about man, about virtue and vice, and so on, about politics, about law and government. It’s amazing how much the ancients got right. And I would even say, that many of the ancients were much closer to God, than many of us are today. And we have no excuse. Now, in ancient writings, we do find poets and philosophers and prophets, speaking about gods and goddesses. And I think that their experiences were often real. I think they did see things, I think they did hear things, I think things were revealed to them. The best, the best, most honest and virtuous of ancient men, said that they received inspirations from spirits. And they called the spirits gods and goddesses. And this is not contrary to Catholic teaching, because we believe in the existence of spirits as well. We don’t believe that there is God, and men in the universe and nothing else. We believe in angels, and demons. And if we knew no better, and met with an angel, or a demon, we would surely think of them as some kind of superhuman divine power and refer to them as gods and goddesses. As Christians, we refer to them as angels, and demons. If we simply change these words, the teaching of the ancients becomes very easy to understand. Men like Homer and Socrates and many others, claimed to be visited by spoken to and inspired by, quote unquote, gods or goddesses. I think the reality of what they’re communicating is that they were influenced by angels by spirits. And how can we know whether these spirits who influenced ancient men or angels or demons, Jesus teaches us? You will know them by their or fruits, you will know them by their fruits. If we look at men like Homer, and Socrates and we see that in the midst of unbelief, in the midst of immorality, in the midst of so much darkness, these men were being moved by spirits, to seek after virtue, and beauty, and truth and wisdom, we have to ask the question, Does it appear that those spirits would be demons? Or angels? Why would demons be leading men out of pagan darkness? into truth? Why would demons who depend on deception, be leading human beings forward? In the discovery of the art of right reasoning? It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense that demons would be doing those things. Why would demons be helping men to establish true philosophy and become more virtuous? It makes no sense why demons would do those things. I argue that it was in fact angels, who were doing those things through history. And I believe that the development of ancient religion and poetry and philosophy was part of God’s plan of salvation. As God was revealing himself, in a certain way, by means of Patriarchs and Prophets, and written scriptures. And then by the incarnation of the Son of God, Himself, through miracles, and so on. He was revealing himself in different ways for different reasons, to the nation’s. And by the time of, of the coming of Christ, I don’t think it’s coincidental that pagan philosophy had reached its peak, with Aristotelian philosophy being established with the art of reasoning being established with the philosophical sciences being established, and so on. And the Christian faith with the Christian church, were placed into the context of this established true philosophy. Think of the government, and the wisdom and justice of the Roman Empire. The Christian Church was established in the midst of that political system, think of the wisdom and the complexity of Aristotelian philosophy. The church was placed into the context of that wisdom, think of the incredible beauty of Greek and Roman poetry, the church was placed into the context of that beauty and the church took of that beauty of that wisdom of that justice, for her own purposes. And I believe that that is the end for which these good spirits were sent among pagan men through history. Now, I know that there aren’t many Christians who teach these things. But like I said, there also aren’t many Christians who study these things, who get into the details of these things. And I believe when we do get into the details, it’s impossible to argue that evil spirits were leading men like Homer and Virgil, and Cicero, and Socrates and Plato and Aristotle, into all of this truth and wisdom and virtue and beauty rather than angels doing so. I believe that this progress among the Gentiles was guided, and directed by God himself, for the blessing and benefit of the Christian church, when it was to be established, and I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s coincidental that Jesus when he came into the world, referred to his day as the fulfillment of time. Not only, in my opinion was the time fulfilled in Israel. But I believe the time was fulfilled, outside of Israel, as well as secular philosophy, government, poetry, and so on, had all reached levels of perfection and excellence, that made it the ideal time for the establishment of the Catholic Church, and many of the wisest and best men in the secular world, converted to the Christian faith, and brought those arts and sciences with them into the service of Christ’s Church. And therefore, my argument is that though the ancient peoples referred to these spirits as Gods, and Goddesses, that was simply a way of, of naming something that was not human, that was greater, wiser, stronger, more beautiful, than any human. They refer to them as gods and goddesses. And that’s why even the most illustrious men and women who lived would eventually be numbered with the gods and goddesses. The idea of a god or a goddess in the pagan world simply meant, one who was of extraordinary strength, extraordinary wisdom, extraordinary virtue and grace, who did good things, for men. That’s what it meant to be a god or a goddess. The idea of gods and goddesses like I said, are very similar if we pay attention to them, to Christian teaching on angels, and on demons. And we have to realize that even the demons, though they be evil, in their own choices and actions, nevertheless, they are good in the sense that they are working in the providence of God, to bring about God’s will, in the world. So again, I think if we can get past this distraction of the use of the words God or gods and goddesses, and just understand that these are names given by pagan people, living centuries before Christ outside of Israel, to what they claim are spirits, influencing their studies, their works, their battles, their government, their discoveries, and so on. I believe the stronger argument is that these are testimonies of ancient pagan people, that angels were, in fact directing secular affairs, for the glory of God, in the fulfillment of time. And that all of these secular developments, all came to a climax, as the Church was founded, and set into the midst of them for the benefit of that church. And so when we read Homer, opening the Iliad or the Odyssey, and appealing to the muse, to come to his assistance, invoking this spirit of wisdom, and poetry, I don’t think there’s any reason in assuming that he’s summoning some demon, to deceive him and teach him falsehoods. He’s seeking to know the truth. And he goes on to tell a story of virtue and vice, which has encouraged and inspired men for 1000s of years. When Socrates who almost said single handedly destroys false teaching in ancient Greece about Gods about religion and discovers the dialectical method of philosophical investigation, which proves falsehood to be falsehood. And he says that, in what appears to be almost a superhuman intelligence, and skillfulness, in discussion, that it was a spirit, who was revealing things to him, I don’t think it makes any sense to argue that that spirit was some demon or some unclean spirit. When Socrates fought for truth, and virtue, and lead men to understand justice, and piety. I believe that that spirit that Socrates spoke of, was, in fact, a good spirit, directing one of history’s most excellent men, almost 400 years before the coming of Christ into the world, directing that man who would himself direct Plato, who would himself direct Aristotle, who would give us the perfection, of philosophy of the art of reasoning, the art of rhetoric, of the sciences of ethics, and physics and metaphysics, and many others. So this, this argument, that the pagan gods and goddesses and the spirits referred to by the great poets and philosophers were all just demons, or that they were simply making these things up and lying about them, is almost impossible to defend an argument, especially when the men saying these things were among the most honest, just courageous, and thoughtful men in the ancient world. So it’s no surprise when when parents sometimes hear me explaining these things, or talking about these things, in lessons as we read ancient literature. It may sound strange, but I just wanted to clarify and explain my views on these things. And I’m very persuaded of my judgment on these things. And therefore, rather than worry about what anyone thinks about my teaching, I would simply say, if you’re a parent, and you feel uncomfortable with my opinions, then simply don’t have your children, study my courses. Because I’m going to teach the things that I believe are true, because I believe that they’re helpful for the students, and rather than have you or anyone else, censor or edit my teaching, I would rather say, find another teacher who teaches what you think is true. And if you can’t find anyone, maybe you should take that as a hint that something’s not right with the way you think. So I hope that’s helpful. I hope that clarifies things. Again, I’ve been studying these things full time for 25 years. As I think about it. I’m turning 48. This month, I’ll have been studying classical literature and philosophy, and teaching for almost 28 years going on 30 years now. And so I’m quite confident in my teaching and understanding of these things. And I would like to be able to explain these things to the children because I believe that they will help them to think about them rightly and actually enjoy them and make good use of them. And as I said, as a Catholic, as a lay Dominican, as one who loves the Catholic faith and who believes ardently in all that the Church teaches. I don’t believe in any way that anything that I’m saying contradicts the Catholic faith in any way. So I submit that as my explanation, I hope that’s helpful. If you’d like to talk about this anymore. I’d be happy to do so. Please get in touch with me. But like I said, I hope that clarifies things and can give parents some peace of mind as to why I say the things I say, and why I think the things I do about these topics because, again, I know that it’s uncommon to hear Christians explain things like that. But it’s also uncommon for Christians to study and teach these subjects.

Mr. William C. Michael, Headmaster
Classical Liberal Arts Academy
Phone: (909) 281-7025

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The Classical Liberal Arts Academy works to research, restore, publish and teach the classical Catholic curriculum that has been enjoyed by wise men and saints through history. We invite you to study in our self-paced online courses and enjoy the benefits of online quizzes, written assignments, progress records and more. Get started with a free 30-day trial.

Not enrolled? Get started today for free!
The Classical Liberal Arts Academy works to research, restore, publish and teach the classical Catholic curriculum that has been enjoyed by wise men and saints through history. We invite you to study in our self-paced online courses and enjoy the benefits of online quizzes, written assignments, progress records and more. Get started with a free 30-day trial.

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