Most people are quite familiar with the deities worshiped by the ancient Greeks. Ask someone if they know very much about ancient religious practice and they’ll typically insist that it’s not something they’re overly familiar with. But specifically bring up Zeus, Aphrodite, Athena, Hades or the other ancient deities and most people will be able to offer up at least cursory explanations of their general attributes. However, when asked whether it’s a living religion or not these same people will be quick to insist that it’s long dead.
It brings up a very interesting point though. Is Greek mythology a living religion simply due to the fact that it’s become an integral part of the educational system? Even a fairly basic education in the modern world will usually spend some time on classic epics such as the Iliad or the Odyssey. Part of examining these literary masterpieces is learning all about the religious beliefs featured within them.
It’s impossible to really understand the Iliad without understanding the nature of the Gods featured within it. Somewhat ironically, most school children can be expected to get a better basic education on Greek mythology than whatever religion is practiced in their particular area. However, this still leaves a question of whether knowing about a religion should qualify as taking part in it. This isn’t nearly as clear cut a question as it might seem at first. When speaking of most modern monotheistic religions one can make an unequivocal negative answer to the question. These modern religions require set behaviors, various codes of conduct, and active earnest belief. Their religious texts themselves usually make it very clear that active belief and dedication to the religion is needed to be considered a part of it.
Ancient Greek religion is something very different than most modern monotheistic traditions. The exact nature of belief in Greek mythology by the people of ancient Greece is heavily debated by scholars today. However, it’s widely accepted as being quite different than the beliefs and systems of worship seen in religion today. In general the deities of ancient Greece were seen in multiple different ways. Even the same individuals might have dual interpretations about what actually constitutes divinity. The ancient deities were often seen as both conscious individualistic entities and the personification of natural processes.
An example can be seen by looking at a common experience in most people’s lives. Everyone’s familiar with the feeling of new love. Everyone’s had moments in their life when a special someone could cause their heart to beat faster. That special someone causes the face to blush, the mind to sing in joy, and the world to seem brighter. Today we’d call that love or infatuation. The ancient Greeks would attribute it to Eros. The emotion itself would often be thought of as one and the same as the deity. Their view of the cause and effect during natural processes was different in many ways to the modern take on things.
Today we don’t use the name Eros specifically. However, it’s often unknowingly alluded to when calling a feeling erotic. Erotic writing, for example, is in many ways exactly what ancients would call an evocation to Eros. When people discuss emotion as a personified thing that’s somewhat abstracted from the individual feeling it they’re also doing the exact same thing that the worshipers of the past would often do within the context of that religion. If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet than it can be argued that changing the names of ancient systems of worship will still leave it as valid belief. Even if the person doing so might not realize it’s worship at all.
And of course there’s the subject of modern religious revivals of the ancient mystery cults. There’s been a growing interest in the ancient Greek religions by people living in that area today. Estimates by people involved in it tend to place the numbers at around 100,000 active participants. Lower outside estimates place it closer to 2,000. However, this is an indisputable answer to the question of whether Greek mythology is still a religion. It’s more a question as to how many people participate in it. This ultimately comes down to whether someone accepts the more abstracted and academic views of Greek religion within the modern world as active practice or not. If one accepts this more free form view as actual practice than millions or even billions of people participate in the religion. Otherwise the numbers are somewhere in the thousands.