When we talk of “Pagan” gods or religions, we are inherently labeling things from a Christian perspective, as the word “Pagan” derives from the Latin “Paganus”, which was reappropriated by Christianity, first in the fourth century AD, to alienate those who did not adhere to the Christian religion.
Originally it had signified that somebody was “rural,” “rustic,” or simply a “civilian,” but the later Christian adaptation, which was further developed in the Middle Ages, connoted that pagans were backwards and anachronistic, neglecting the one true biblical god for heretical pagan religions that demanded grotesque sacrifices.
Indeed, this latter image is one that has remained remarkably stubborn, especially in the Western world. Elsewhere, the pagan gods of Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt, or the Celts are not so alien to the Hindu or Shinto pantheons of the East. Essential to most of them is a polytheistic conceptualization of the divine – many gods rather than one, each with their own area of patronage, be it war, wisdom, or wine.
Unlike the Judeo-Christian deity, they were not benevolent or loving, but they were powerful, and it was important to placate them and have them on your side, if possible.
For the ancients, they were inextricably linked to the natural world around them; to placate them, meant to be on good terms with the world and life itself.
Pagan Gods from Different Cultures
Thunder Gods of the Sky in Celtic, Roman, and Greek Mythology
Zeus (Greek) and Jupiter (Roman) as well as their lesser-known Celtic counterpart Taranis, were all ancient gods of thunder, that awesome manifestation of nature’s power. And indeed, the grappling with nature and the effort to understand it, is often cited as one of the primary reasons that the Ancients established their mythological pantheons and accompanying cults. It is therefore fitting to begin with these three.
For the Greeks, Zeus – who was born of the Titans Cronusand Rhea – was the “King of the Gods” and operator of the universe. After killing his father, Zeus reigned supreme on Mount Olympus amongst the pantheon of lesser Greek gods, a group known as the Olympians, and was married to the goddess Hera (who was also his sister!). When described by the poets Hesiod or Homer, he is an all-powerful mover behind every event and aspect of the universe, particularly its weather.
Indeed, in ancient works like the Iliad of Homer and Clouds by Aristophanes, Zeus is literally personified as rain or lightning. Additionally, he is often characterized as the driving force behind time and fate, as well as the order of society.
As such, it is no surprise that he was revered as the greatest of the gods, celebrated as the chief dedicant of each Olympic Games, and honored with the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, which housed the famous “Statue of Zeus” – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Zeus’s Roman counterpart Jupiter was not quite his exact equivalent. Whilst he was still the supreme god, carrying a thunderbolt and posturing as a muscle-and-beard-bound ruler of the universe, his rituals, symbols, and history is decidedly Roman.
Instead of the Aegis (shield) that Zeus is usually donning, Jupiter is more typically accompanied by an Eagle – a symbol that would come to represent and embody the Roman Army.
In Roman “Mytho-History,” the early Roman King Numa Pompilius supposedly called down Jupiter to help with a bad harvest, during which he was lectured on proper sacrifice and ritual.
One of his successors, Tarquinus Superbus later built the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in the middle of Rome – where white oxen, lambs, and rams would be sacrificed.
Though later Roman rulers were not so lucky as Numa in actually conversing with the great god, the iconography and imagery of Jupiter would later be reappropriated by the Roman Emperors to enhance their perceived majesty and prestige.
Diverging more from these Graeco-Roman Gods of Thunder, we have Taranis. Unfortunately for both him and us, we do not have much information on him at all, and what we do have is undoubtedly influenced by Roman prejudice against “barbarian” Gods.
For example, the Roman poet Lucan names Taranis, along with two other Celtic gods (Esus and Teutates), as deities that demanded human sacrifice from their followers – a claim that may be true but is also likely to be borne from the stigmatization of other cultures.
What we do know is that his name roughly translates to “the thunderer” and he was typically depicted with a club and “solar wheel”. This image of a solar wheel ran throughout Celtic iconography and ritual, not only on coins and amulets, but also embodied by the votive burial of wheels themselves, in rivers or at shrines.
Additionally, we know that he was revered as a God throughout the Celtic world, in Britain, Hispania, Gaul, and Germania. When these regions became gradually more “Romanized” he was often synthesized with Jupiter (a common practice throughout the empire) to make “Jupiter Taranis/Taranus”.
Gods and Goddesses of the Earth and its Wilderness
Just as the ancients conceptualized gods and goddesses when looking up to the sky, they did the same when they looked around them at the earth. .
Furthermore, whilst a lot of our surviving evidence for ancient cultures come from the remains of urban settlements, most people actually lived in the countryside as farmers, hunters, traders, and craftsmen. It’s no surprise then that these people had gods and goddesses of the wilderness, hunting, trees and rivers to accompany them! In a less-Christianised way, these really were the more “pagan” (rural) deities!
Diana is perhaps the most famous of these “rural” deities and as well as being the patron Roman goddess of childbirth, fertility, the moon, and crossroads, she was also the goddess of the countryside, wild animals, and the hunt. As one of the oldest Roman gods that we know of – derived most probably, or at least reappropriated from the Greek Artemis, she was worshiped throughout all of Italy and had a prominent sanctuary by Lake Nemi.
At this sanctuary, and later throughout the Roman world, the Romans would celebrate the Nemoralia festival in August every year, in honor of the goddess Diana.
The celebrants would light torches and candles, wear wreaths, and make prayers and offerings to Diana for her protection and favor.
Furthermore, whilst sacred countryside places like Lake Nemi retained their special status, Diana was also symbolized as a domestic and “hearth” God as well, especially for rural worshippers, protecting their homes and their farms.
Cernunnos, meaning in Celtic “the horned one”, or the “the antlered god”, was the Celtic god of wild things, fertility, and the countryside. Whilst his image, as an antlered god is quite striking and perhaps menacing to a modern observer, especially where it appears on the famous “Pillar of the Boatmen”, the use of antlers on images of Cernunnos (as opposed to horns) was supposed to connote his protective qualities.
As a god with zoomorphic features, who was often accompanied by a stag or a strange semi-divine ram-horned snake, Cernunnos is presented very much as a guardian and patron of wild animals. Additionally, sanctuaries to him were often found close to springs, indicating a restorative and healing property to the God.
We know that Cernunnos was a prominent god across the Celtic world, with local variations throughout Britannia, Gaul, and Germania.
However, our earliest known depiction of him comes from a province in northern Italy from the 4th century BC, where he is sketched on stone.
Whilst his zoomorphic features were popular with the Celts, the Romans refrained for the most part from depicting their gods with animal properties. Later, the image of an antlered god would carry close associations with the Devil, Baphomet, and occult-worship. Accordingly, Cernunnos was likely to be looked back on with disdain and distrust by the Christian church, as an early precedent to the horned Devil.
The last of these earth deities here discussed, is Geb (also known as both Seb and Keb!) who was the Egyptian god of the earth itself, and all that sprouted forth from it. Not only was he god of the earth, but he actually held the earth up according to Egyptian myth, just as Atlas, the Greek Titan was believed to. He appeared usually as an anthropomorphic figure, often with a snake (as he was “God of Snakes”), but he was also later depicted as a bull, ram or crocodile.
READ MORE: Snake Gods
Geb was prominently placed in the Egyptian pantheon, as the son of Shu and Tefnut, the grandson of Atum, and the father of Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.
As the god of the Earth, that plain between the heavens and the underworld, he was seen as integral to those who were recently deceased and were entombed in that very earth.
Additionally, his laughter was believed to be the source of earthquakes, and his favor, the determining factor of whether crops would grow. However, even though he was clearly venerated as an awesome and omnipotent god – often equated in later times with the Greek titan Cronus – he never received his own temple.
Now that we have covered the skies and earth, it is time to turn to the gods that controlled the vast oceans and numerous rivers and lakes of the old world.
Just as the skies and the fertile earth were important for everyone in antiquity, so too was the steady flow of rain and the calmness of the waters.
For the ancients, the sea provided the quickest routes to faraway regions, just as the rivers provided handy boundary points and borders. Immersed in all of this was a divine aspect, which could conjure up storms, floods, or droughts – matters of life and death for many.
We shall begin a bit further north now, with the Norse deity Ægir, who was not technically a god, but a “jötunn” instead – which were supernatural beings, contrasted with the gods, though they were usually very closely comparable. Ægir was the personification of the sea itself in Norse Mythology and was married to the goddess Rán, who also personified the sea, whilst their daughters were the waves.
Little is known about either of their roles in Norse society, although it is likely that they were venerated widely by the later Vikings, whose way of life was strongly dependent on seafaring and fishing.
In Norse mythological poems, or “Sagas”, Ægir was seen as a great host of the Gods, holding famous banquets for the Norse pantheon and brewing colossal batches of ale in a special cauldron.
Read More: Norse Gods and Goddesses
It would be remiss not to cover Poseidon in this short survey of sea gods from the Ancient world. He is undoubtedly the most famous of all the ocean gods and was reappropriated by the Romans as “Neptune.”
Famously wielding a trident and often accompanied by a dolphin, as the Greek god of the sea, storms, earthquakes, and horses, he held a prominent place in the Greek pantheon and in the myths and literature of the Greek world.
In Homer’s Odyssey Poseidon takes revenge on the protagonist Odysseus, because the latter blinded his cyclops son Polyphemus – who aimed to eat Odysseus and his crew anyway – hardly a justified grudge then! However, as protector of seafarers it was important to worship him in the Ancient Greek world, full of its many island city-states, or “poleis”.
The Egyptian god Nun, or Nu, was central to both Egyptian myth and society. He was the oldest of the Egyptian gods and father of the all-important sun god Re, as well as being central to the annual flooding of the Nile River. However, due to his unique position in Egyptian mythology, he played no part in religious rituals, nor did he have any temples or priests to worship him.
In Ancient Egyptian ideas about creation, Nun, along with his female counterpart Naunet, were conceptualized as the “primeval waters of chaos” through which the sun-god Re and all of the perceivable universe came forth.
As such his connotations are quite appropriately, boundlessness, darkness and the turbulence of stormy waters, and he was often depicted with the head of a frog and the body of a man.
Deities of the Harvest and Herds
It should be clear by now, that the natural world of antiquity was occupied and overseen by a wide host of Ancient Gods, whose temperaments were unpredictable, yet all-important. However, it was important for the lives of our Ancient and “civilized” ancestors, that they could actually tame nature and the elements as well, primarily through agriculture and farming. As you might expect, they had deities for these activities as well!
The Greek goddess of grain and agriculture Demeter was seen as a matronly figure who was the source of the changing seasons. The change in them was supposed to derive from the myth of Persephone (Demeter’s beautiful daughter) and Hades, the Greek god of death and the underworld.
In this myth, Hades steals Persephone from Demeter and is so reluctant to give her back that a compromise is met, wherein he can keep her with him in the underworld for a third of the year.
This dreary third of the year for Demeter therefore materialized into winter for mortals, until the goddess got her daughter back in spring! In another myth, Demeter charged an Eleusinian prince called Triptolemos to sow Attica (and later the rest of the Greek world) with grain, giving birth to Ancient Greek agriculture!
Similar in ways to Demeter, was her Egyptian counterpart Renenutet, goddess of nourishment and the harvest in Egyptian mythology. She was also seen as a matronly, nursing figure who not only watched over the harvest, but also was the guardian goddess of the pharaohs as well. In later Egyptian mythology she became a Goddess who controlled the destiny of each individual as well.
She was often depicted as a snake, or at least with the head of a snake, which was supposed to have a distinctive gaze which could vanquish all enemies. However, it also had the beneficial power of nurturing crops and providing the fruits of the harvest for Egyptian farmers.
Finally, we look at Hermes, who was the Greek god of herdsmen and their flocks, as well as travelers, hospitality, roads, and trade (amongst a catalog of miscellaneous others, such as thievery, earning him the title as the Greek trickster god). Indeed, he was known to be a bit of a mischievous and cunning god in various myths and plays – accounting for his patronage of both trade and thievery in tandem!
Yet for herdsmen, he guaranteed the prosperity and health of any given flock and was central to trade as it was often conducted through cattle. Additionally, he is accredited with the invention of different tools and implements for shepherds and herders, as well as boundary stones or shepherd’s lyres – a varied repertoire of divine duties indeed! Like the other Gods mentioned then, Hermes fit into a rich and varied network of deities whose powers were extensive and all important for those they patronized.
When it came to ways to understand the natural world around them through the divine, the ancients clearly weren’t short of ideas and myths! From patronizing thunder to flocks, and being powerful, nurturing, or cunning, the Pagan gods embodied absolutely every aspect of the world they were thought to rule over.