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Did the Indo-European people actually view the gods as physical or meta-physical beings beyond the view as archetypes?

If so, does this mean that the Indo-European people were, technically, atheists? Of course, I make no connection to the current wave of atheism, that is a whole other discussion that I want to avoid!

My thinking is that ceremonies and sacrifices alone don't constitute as "religious" activities if your gods are closer to you (not transcendental) than just floating in the sky. Does this make sense or should I explain more?

Edit 1 - Upon the request of Others

I mention Indo-European because it does, in fact, encompass a wide variety of people.

I wanted to start this discussion here because I don't want philosophy to be the main impetus. If the European people thought of their gods as more physical than transcendental, it would imply that the people would consider it to be a way of life rather than religious behavior. Similar situations can be found in the military with "warrior ethos" when young warriors are expected to attend special ceremonies and other abstract forms of sacrifice for the common way of life.

Edit 2 - Interesting Point

The reason I felt necessary to bring it up was that of the idea that the gods and goddesses of old could have been real people or aliens, I don't know. Essentially, it could have been a group of people that were highly influencial in their times to have deserved to stay on peoples lips beyond their deaths. Of course, as all things passed down vocally, stories change and it would have to be our job to not necessarily take stories like the Eleusinian Mysteries too seriously. I liken it to how some of the Japanese, when first laid eyes upon a train, decided to call it a fire-breathing dragon or whatever name they could come up with at the time. The choices of words are made by individual people. However, it doesn't seem to me to point, as evidence, that the Europeans were really religious in the forms that we are used to today with the Abrahamic religions.

The appearance of a god or goddess, as I see it, are representations or real events that have been distorted unintentionally and intentionally, depending on the tongue that spoke. So ceremonies that came forth out of the stories could have just been a social event in remembrance of these gods and goddesses, or significant leaders.

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    My high level answer would be: yes, they were probably incredibly religious, regardless of whether they were worshipping a rock or some sky god. (Archetypes are a recent concept, and represent only one strain of mythological analysis, associated with Carl Jung.) Where it gets cloudy is 5th century Athens with the rise of humanism and post-Socratic philosophy, Plato in particular, who started to re-cast the literal stories as metaphors. Ancient Greek literature has a subversive element which is generally regarded as undermining the gods and leading to humanism. – DukeZhou Jun 5 '17 at 20:59
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    I am not so sure to see your underlying question.. You are asking us if the people who built the pyramids could have been religious? (This is an example). You are asking us if possibly they could have been atheists? – Gibet Jun 6 '17 at 7:23
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    @Numbers682 Not what I asked... What I asked is: Are you interested in what was religion before any form of writing (before the pyramid). When writing is there (during the pyramid). In more modern forms (cathedral time). We can only speculate on religions before any form of writing. But we can easily answer for when there is writing. Hence my "the people who built the pyramid was religious". It is easy to answer this question. – Gibet Jun 6 '17 at 13:15
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    In the right direction. What I am wondering is that those acts could be a form of religion in one perspective, but a type of cultural/tribal "group-think" in another. The desire to build temples, pyramids, mosques, etc. could be the result of: religion, or a way of life that most of us do not experience now? Good example for the pyramids, but what what was the motivation behind it? – Numbers682 Jun 6 '17 at 13:56
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    @Numbers682 OK, so. It is both easy and hard to answer that. Easy because we have plenty of texts. Hard because: Could you tell what there is in the head of your wife or your children? Just try to imagine when talking about people living 4000 years before us, and from an alien civilization. Will post an answer. – Gibet Jun 6 '17 at 14:55
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There has been a fair bit of work put into Proto-Indo-European religion construction. Some of it is of course arguable, but a lot of it is well-attested enough, and unique enough to Indo-Europeans, that the reconstructions are most likely reasonably accurate.

The existence of any universal common bits, with relatively common names, shows that the people of all the child cultures cared enough about it to teach it to their children over the intervening hundreds of generations.

I would add that the original homeland of the PIE people was likely the Eurasian Steppe. If you've ever spent some time at night on the open prairie, the sky really does not seem that far away at all. Certainly lightning is far more than a metaphysical threat there too, as it likes to strike the tallest thing around, and in terrain without trees, that's often going to be a human.

I suppose one argument one could make against their religious belief is that there seems to be no common word or concept for a priesthood (strongly implying they didn't have any in the modern sense).


I would caution you against thinking that just because gods aren't seen as literal physical beings in a belief system, adherents to that system aren't religious. Many devout modern Christians think exactly that way about their God (He isn't in any one place, but rather in everything.) I've also made a study of the ancestral Osage (really Siouxan) religion, and they essentially viewed their Great Sprit (Wakonda*) as a concept much more like The Force than like a Judeo-Christian God. Yet a visitor from a neighboring tribe once commented on how religious the Osages were, spending an amount of time every day bowing and praying that would put a modern devout Muslim to shame.

* - Important clarification. Most modern Osages I know consider themselves Christian, and if they speak the language consider Wakonda interchangeable with the Christian God. I heard an Osage elder doing this in a native-language prayer just yesterday. When I use past-tense here, I'm referring to what little we know about their pre-conversion religion.

  • Yes, I have heard about the unorganized, or perhaps nonexistence, priesthood with regard to the lack of burial graves that would identify those people. I was told that it was likely due to the individual choosing to follow that way of life and that it never was intended to be a way to gain fame or popularity. Otherwise, very interesting! – Numbers682 Jun 15 '17 at 13:13
  • @Numbers682 - Well, to clarify a bit, it is really saying the PIE people likely didn't have priests, so there's no common conception of them between all their descendants. Its not saying their descendants didn't have priests. We know for a fact the Celts and Hittites had them (although in both cases they had political roles as well). – T.E.D. Jun 15 '17 at 14:38
  • @T.E.D. Very well put! I feel like the parable of the dog and the vacuum cleaner may be apropos. To wit: my dog is terrified of it. She has no basis for that terror, other than the noise presumably, but her terror is real, as is, I suspect, her "belief" in the fiendish nature of the vacuum. – DukeZhou Jun 15 '17 at 17:08
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When you say "Indo-European people", really includes a lot of beliefs. In different times of history is really hard to say and set a specific parameters of "this people X believes in AB", since individuals are never the same - but this is only my opinion, after all. You can find people who believes both physical, meta-physical beings beyond the view as archetypes... many traditions have similar aspects to incorporate (or invocate) the "god" itself in states of ecstasy, in some case using outside substances - drugs/medications - (for instance: wine, baco-dioniso) or inner substances (Consciousness level - dopamine, serotonin,etc..) through meditation and other techniques.

Towards your question about rituals, it really depends on how those people see their connections with their personal-god, higher-self, or whatever you name it. The use (or not) of rituals (or substances) is personal matter, people with different beliefs will consider some things necessary and others won't.

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Your view of religion is quite restrictive, but not unfamiliar or foreign to adherents of a particular faith, and who believe other forms of faith and practice to be invalid.

Your argument is valid within the context of the parameters you define, but invalid in an expanded context.

to undercut your thesis, I'll refer you to the Eleusinian Mysteries, which are fairly well documented. (Much had been written on this subject, and theories abound. One of my favorites, which I think will shed light on this issue for you, specifically in regards to the Indo-European roots, is Persephone's Quest. The subject is still likely regarded as fairly controversial, but the research is solid.)

It's hard to see modern Christian ideas arising independently of Ancient Greek religion, including the transcendental quality of physical deities such as Dionysus.

  • Dionysus is killed and resurrected, not just in spirit, by as spirit (wine), a direct referent for the Eucharist, in conjunction with Persephone's embodiment as grain.

In terms of worship, the Festival of Dionysus was a religions festival in honor of the god. People went and sat, much as people today sit in pews. There were likely many believers, as well as skeptics, just like today. The intent of the plays was religious to evoke laughter (Satyr plays) and, most importantly, catharsis per the dramas.

The emphasis on pity in Christianity is almost certainly influenced by the emphasis on "fear and pity" in the worship of the pre-Christian, dying/resurrected god whose blood is symbolized by the literal spirit.

I use the Greek examples because they are so well documented.

Judiasm and Islam may be distinct, but Christianity, which is also categorized as an Abrahamic religion, has similarities to European polytheism, and has even absorbed rituals and religious figures from polytheistic religions.

  • It's interesting. The reason I felt necessary to bring it up was that of the idea that the gods and goddesses of old could have been real people or aliens, I don't know. Essentially, it could have been a group of people that were highly influencial in their times to have deserved to stay on peoples lips beyond their deaths. Of course, as all things passed down vocally, stories change and it would have to be our job to not necessarily take stories like the Eleusinian Mysteries too seriously. – Numbers682 Jun 9 '17 at 14:18
  • I liken it to how some of the Japanese, when first laid eyes upon a train, decided to call it a fire-breathing dragon, or whatever name they could come up with at the time. The appearance of a god or goddess, as I see it, are representations or real events that have been distorted unintentionally and intentionally, depending on the tongue that spoke. I'm going to post this as an edit to see if it attracts any renewed attention. Thank you. – Numbers682 Jun 9 '17 at 14:18
  • @Numbers682 I don't have any objections to your theory of origin of myths, but that is a distinct question from "religiosity", which has to do with belief and ritual. – DukeZhou Jun 15 '17 at 16:56
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Before Christianity, people in European countries traditionally believed into complex hierarchies of gods, semi-gods and some really minor gods which are all well documented. In that sense, there was a religion beyond any doubt. See the list of Lithianian gods, for instance.

However unlike later beliefs who try to explain the sense of life and teach how to live, old beliefs are significantly focused about whom and how to worship with the goal of raising the agricultural productivity. That makes sense when it was not uncommon for a famine to wipe ten percent of the population in bad year. Gods had control over resources or processes (animals, crops, weather, sea, fishing, weaving, etc) and it was important to ask them for help.

Religions as recently understood attempt to provide the system of values human should care about, to give sense of life. The ancient pagan beliefs do not rush with such explanations. However it is still probably incorrect to call them exactly atheism.

It may also be possible that there was initially some system of human values in the old beliefs and not just "god X cares about crops, Y cares about forest, Z will take care about you when you die". Unfortunately significant part of the ancient mythology is lost.

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