Pagan religions seem very strange to people living in our own world. These were religions were focused on practices of sacrifice to the gods in order to placate them. Pagan religions involved sacrifices of animals and of vegetable products—food products, in order to please the gods. These religions did not by and large have doctrines that had to be believed by their adherents. These were not religions based on faith or belief: these were religions based on sacrifices to the gods. You probably had to believe that there were gods and that they wanted these sacrifices, but there were no creeds, no doctrines that had to believed by people involved in pagan religions.
Oddly enough, these religions did not have ethics as a major component. People in the ancient world did think you should be ethical but ethics were not a matter of religion, they were more a matter of philosophy and personal lifestyle. There were very few religious requirements for what we would think of as ethical behavior.
These are religions that are unlike the ones that most people in our context would be familiar with—that did not have sacred books. They were not scriptural types of religion.
Oddly enough, most of these religions did not emphasize anything like exclusive commitments. In other words, if you participated in one religion—sacrificing to one god in a particular way—that didn’t prevent you from worshipping another god at another time and another place. In fact, people worshipped lots of gods and could worship them in any way that seemed appropriate and traditional. There were not exclusive religious commitments.
Probably the most strange thing about ancient pagan religions for people in our context is precisely the very core of these religions, namely, that they were devoted to multiple gods. These religions were extremely diversified, to the extent that most scholars doubt you can even label something called ‘paganism’ in the ancient world and have it mean very much. They were extremely diversified as religions but these religions were all unified to the extent that they were all polytheistic.
Pagans believed in a multitude of gods of all kinds:
- The great gods of Greek and Roman mythology.
- Local gods of the city or town.
- Gods of various functions.
- Gods who oversaw crops, health, childbirth.
- Gods of specific locations.
- Gods of the fields, of the rivers, places within the home.
- There were gods of the hearth, for the pantry, for the threshold.
As I’ve already intimated, pagans for the most part did not see their gods as jealous beings, or as being in competition with one another. This is why there weren’t exclusive commitments to one god or the other. Gods didn't mind which other gods you worshipped so long as you gave each god its own due.
Most pagans appear to have understood the realm of the gods as a kind of pyramid of power and authority. So you can conceptualize the divine realm in pagan religions as a kind of pyramid.
At the very top of the pyramid, for many pagans, there was some kind of supreme deity, one ultimate god. I don’t mean to say pagans were monotheists believing only in one, but most thought that—at least most that wrote our literary remains, in other words, the educated elite, believed that there was some kind of ultimate deity at the very top of all things.
Below this supreme god, whether its Zeus or Jupiter of some unnamed god, there were the great gods, for example, the gods of Mount Olympus, that we know from Greek and Roman myth. The ancients by the way didn't literally subscribe to the myths as being true events from the past that people today might believe in the stories of the Hebrew scriptures or the New Testament. The myths told interesting stories about the gods, but even most ancients realized that these weren’t literally true stories about them. But the gods, that the stories were about, did exist—the great gods of Greek and Roman mythology.
Below these great gods, were other kind of local deities, who were still unbelievably powerful from the human perspective, but were not as powerful as the great gods.
Below these different kinds of local deities, there were family and personal deities. These were very minor gods in terms of the entire divine realm, but quite important to individuals, and who were more actively involved in individual lives.
Below these kinds of gods was an even lesser group of divinities, that was often called daemoniae. This is the word we get our word ‘demons’ from, but they weren’t necessarily evil spirits that would inhabit bodies, that would force them to do all sorts of nefarious things. Daemoniae were not necessarily evil spirits, they were just lower level divinities that were more closely involved with human lives.
Below these daemoniae there was another tier in this divine pyramid that comprised of demi-gods—that is to say, humans that were half-mortal and half-divine. Included in this group were people of fantastic power and physical strength like Hercules in the Roman tradition (Heracles in the Greek tradition), or individuals of superhuman wisdom like the philosopher Pythagoras, or of mind-boggling eminence like the Roman emperor. Within the Roman empire, people did understand that the Roman emperor himself was in some sense was divine. This did not mean that he was the ultimate god! In terms of the divine realm, he was extremely low on the totem pole, but from the human perspective, he was unbelievably powerful and strong and he was in fact partly divine.
On this lowest tier of the divine realm would be other miracle-working representatives of god, some of them thought of as half-divine, like Apollonius of Tyana, and presumably for many pagans, Jesus.
Professor Bart D. Ehrman, Historical Jesus, The Great Courses, Lecture 2, “One remarkable life”.