There are big holes in my knowledge of literature and as life speeds by I'm trying to fill them. If I were a scholar, I would do this methodically, but I'm only a curious person and The Aeneid, which I have just finished re-reading, has got me thinking about Gods.
If you replace the word Gods with the word spirits, there are similarities between the worlds of the Greeks and Romans and aboriginal cultures in North America. For example, the orenda is a supernatural force believed by some tribes, such as the Iroquois, to be present in, to animate, all objects and persons. About the same time I was reading Virgil, Joseph Boyden, the author of a novel called The Orenda, was explaining the concept in various radio interviews. I have The Orenda on order, so can't yet say how the concept plays out in his historical novel, but it sounds similar enough to the polytheism of the ancient world to have me wondering what polytheism offers over monotheism
While acknowledging that I am simplifying in a way that would drive classicists (and aboriginal culture scholars) crazy, it seems to me that the relationship between the Gods and humans was reciprocal. Aeneas was pious, brave, loyal, and so when he got into trouble on his journey to Italy, the Gods stepped in to help. His enemies destroyed his ships, but instead of letting them fall to the bottom of the sea, the Gods transformed the ships into maidens that swam beneath the waves until they were needed again and turned back into ships. Because of the love of his mother Venus, when it seemed that Aeneas's cause would be lost, his mother asked Vulcan to fashion armour to send to Aeneas so that he could win the battle and ultimately triumph over Turnus.
"Aeneas rejoiced at these gifts from the goddess and the honour she was paying him... the terrible, crested, fire-spurting helmet, the death-dealing sword, the huge, unyielding breastplate of blood red bronze like a dark cloud fired by the rays of the sun and glowing far across the sky.... " (The Aeneid, Virgil, a prose translation by David West).
I like it that the relationships between the Gods and the mortals were direct and particular. Today when someone, especially a non-aboriginal person, talks about honouring, let's say the forest spirit, or the spirit of a salmon, they might be dismissed as hippies or wackos. Considering that polytheism existed way longer in human history than monotheism, you'd think that we'd want at least to hedge our bets.
Most of us crave to know why things happen - natural disasters, personal tragedies, unexpected turns in fortune, and as science took over the role of providing answers to much of what we want explained, there was a move to one god. Thing is, science has changed; instead of the more linear cause and effect world of Newtonian physics, relativity has come into it. Explanations are more complex and include the factor of randomness.
I wonder if our contemporary understanding of nature will wind us back to the time when honouring the spirit behind the person, the tree, the ocean, will become important once again in a way that makes us more aware of our personal responsibilities.