With so many different pantheons out there, it can be difficult to know the difference between them, or be able to sort out which one’s which off the top of your head. We’re going to take a look at six pantheons in this blog, giving an overview of each and comparing and contrasting them in sets of two.
The pantheons we’ll be delving into today will be Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, Norse, and Celtic. But first, what exactly is a pantheon? It’s a collection of all the gods of a specific polytheistic religion, tradition, or mythology. Some pantheons have less than 10 deities, while some have thousands.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the two most well known ancient pantheons out there.
Greek Vs Roman
Ancient Greek mythology predates that of the Romans by around 1,000 years. Despite that time difference, the two religions have much in common. This will be the only comparison in which we’ll be able to make a table like this because for every Greek God out there, there is a Roman counterpart. And it wasn’t just the original 12 Olympians that found themselves copied in Roman Mythology. The majority of lesser gods and goddesses, as well as personifications, like the Fates, found Roman Counterparts as well.
|Greek Pantheon||Roman Pantheon|
The mythologies of the Greek and Roman pantheons as we know them today were both compiled in literary works. Circa the 8th century BC, Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, detailing numerous Greek myths. Between 29 and 19 BC, Virgil composed the epic the Aeneid, which chronicled Aeneas’ travels to Italy from his home of Troy. Throughout the poem, Roman gods and goddesses are depicted, and, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the myths and legends of Rome are told.
Gender and Appearance
So now that we’ve discussed the things that these two pantheons have in common, let’s take a look at their differences. First and foremost, despite the fact that we have the tendency to assign them genders, the Roman pantheon weren’t actually gender specific, whereas the Greek gods and goddess were, and were always assigned human-like traits.
The two mythologies also differed in the way they appeared to mortals. The Greek gods were beautiful in every way. They were, essentially, the perfect representation of human-like physical traits. This was not something that the Romans copied from the Greeks. In Roman mythology, the gods and goddesses did not have a physical form. Any depiction or representation of them in sculpture, painting, or pottery comes solely from the imagination of the sculptor, painter, or potter.
Though Greek mythology didn’t place much emphasis on the afterlife – as their importance was placed on life on earth, instead of the eventuality of an afterlife – we do know that the Underworld played a pivotal role in many of their myths. Unlike many other religions, however, the souls of the dead did not face judgement upon their death. Ruled by Hades and filled with rivers – Style, the most prominent of the Underworld rivers; the Acheron, the river of misery; the Phlegethon, the river of fire; the Cocytus, the river of wailing; and the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness – souls of the dead would arrive at the banks of the River Styx upon their death. Buried with a coin beneath their tongue with which to pay Charon, the Ferryman, they would be ferried across Styx and into Hades’ realm.
Roman mythology placed much more emphasis on mortals doing good deeds so that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. As usual, borrowing from Greek mythology, when a Roman soul left its body, the god Mercury would escort them to the River Styx, where they would wait to be carried into the Underworld by Charon. There, they would go in front of Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aenaeus, who would judge them and thus determine the next step of their journey. If they were deemed to have been good people in life, they would move on to paradise – ordinary people went to Asphodel Meadows, while warriors went onto the Fields of Elysium. If, however, they were deemed to have been bad people in life and had a debt to be paid, they would go to Tartarus, where they would be tortured by the Furies until their debt was paid.
Egyptian Vs. Sumerian
The Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations are often compared because of the fact that they’re two of the most ancient civilizations for which we still have written records. They both built their civilizations near fertile rivers – the Egyptians on the banks of the Nile, and the Sumerians on the floodplains of the Euphrates and Tigris. They also both created forms of writing, with the Sumerians’ Cuneiform being the oldest form of written language ever documented.
But that’s about where the similarities end. So let’s take a look at the differences between the two ancient civilizations.
Sumerian: The Sumerians were one of the first civilizations to develop a writing system emerging from the proto-writing of their ancestors. Their writing system was called Cuneiform after the wedge-shaped writing utensil they used. It was written on clay tablets and fired in a kiln to preserve the text.
Egyptians: The Egyptians used Hieroglyphics to document information and record history. Aside from being etched into temple walls and other sacred objects, they recorded stories, history, medical information, and rituals – among other things – on sheets of papyrus, which they made from reeds farmed from the Nile floodplains.
Sumerian: It’s difficult to pin down the exact pantheon of the Sumerians, as the clay tablets that have survived give different accounts. Some say that the original pantheon consisted only of the four main gods, An, god of the heavens; Enki, god of water, creation, and knowledge; Enlil, god of storms and wind; and Ninhursag, goddess of earth and fertility (some say that Ki was the goddess of earth, brother and consort to An). While others state that they worshipped The Seven Gods Who Decree, which included the four named above, as well as Utu, god of the sun, justice, and truth; Inanna, goddess of the love, beauty, sex, and war; and Nanna, god of the moon. The Sumerians also worshipped the Anunnaki, descendants of An and Ki, who were worshipped as Fate Deities.
Egyptian: The Egyptian Pantheon consisted of some main gods and goddesses, but in total, over 2,000 deities were worshipped throughout the land. The main deities worshipped in ancient Egypt were Osiris, god of the underworld; Isis, the Great Mother, wife of Osiris, goddess of magic, healing, fertility, motherhood, death, and rebirth; Horus, son of Osiris and Isis, god of the sky, hunting, and war; Set (or Seth), god of chaos, violence, and storms; Ptah, god of craftsmen, builders, and architects; Ra; the sun god; Hathor, “the Lady of the West,” goddess of motherhood and fertility; Anubis, god of death, embalming, mummification, cemeteries, and the afterlife; Thoth, the god of wisdom and writing; Bastet (or Bast), the cat goddess; and Amon, (prior to merging with Ra to become Amun-Ra) the “Hidden One,” god of the air.
The Sumerians: As the Sumerians were vulnerable to attack, they tended to live quite a volatile existence, their burial practices reflected that. They didn’t go to the great, elaborate lengths that many of the Egyptians went through to prepare their dead for the afterlife. Bodies were often wrapped in reed mats or placed in coffins and were buried in cemeteries, complete with markers, or under the homes of relatives in dug-out tombs.
The Egyptians: Though we all know about ancient Egyptian mummification, it was a practice that was usually only reserved for the wealthier members of society, as it was expensive and time-consuming. For the most part, upon their death, regular citizens were buried in simple pits in the desert. But for the wealthiest members of society, it was believed that the mummification and funerary process would prepare them for the afterlife. They were placed in elaborate sarcophagi with their organs placed in canopic jars placed in the tombs with them. Also in the tombs were items of importance, gold and jewels, food, clothing, and even their beloved pets. All things they would need to live happily in the afterlife.
The Sumerians: The Sumerian Afterlife was a dark, gloomy underworld known as Kur. It was overseen by the goddess Ereshkigal, and people wished to avoid going there for as long as possible. Despite being constantly hungry and thirsty, souls in the afterlife had nothing to eat or drink but dust, unless a family member visited their grave and left offerings of food and drink. Eternal existence in Kur was nothing but gloom, and souls were neither rewarded for their deeds in life nor punished for them. If Heaven is white and Hell is black, Kur was nothing but dull greyness. The only beings to avoid such a dull eternal afterlife were babies who were stillborn, who, according to Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh, would “play at a table of gold and silver, laden with honey and ghee.”
The Egyptians: The Egyptian beliefs of the afterlife were very different from the Sumerians. In ancient Egypt, when a person died, they would go in front of Anubis and Thoth in the Hall of Two Truths, where their heart was weighed on a scale against one of Ma’at’s (the goddess of truth and justice) feathers. If the heart was lighter than or balanced with the feather, it meant the person had led a good and decent life, and they would be deemed worthy enough to spend their immortal afterlife with Osiris in the Field of Reeds. However, if the heart was heavier than the Ma’at’s feather, it would be devoured by the crocodile-headed goddess Ammit, “The Devourer of the Dead,” and their soul would spend eternity restless and wandering. This was considered dying a second time.
Norse Vs. Celtic
Our last comparison in this blog is the pantheons of the Norse and Celtic mythologies. There are not many similarities between these two mythologies, aside from the fact that they were created within a couple hundred years of one another, as far as we can tell. A lot of their mythologies also come to us through written works, like the Greeks and the Romans. For the Norse, there is the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda, and for the Celtics, there is Lebor Gabála Érenn, or the Book of Invasions. From these two works, we glean much of the information we know today about these ancient pantheons.
The Norse: The Norse pantheon consisted of two tribes of gods. The Æsir and the Vanir. The Vanir are considered Old Gods, and include:
- Njörðr, the god of merchants, the sea, and wealth.
- Freyr, god of abundance and fertility.
- Freya, sister to Freyr, goddess of love and fertility.
- Gullveig, the personification of gold.
- Nerthus, associated with fertility and goddess of water.
While the Æsir are the main pantheon of gods and goddesses of Norse mythology. Among the Æsir are:
- Odin, the Allfather and Chief of the Æsir. He was the god of poetry, war, wisdom, healing, and death, among many other things.
- Thor, the god of thunder, lightning, strength, sacred trees and groves, fertility, and was the protector of mankind.
- Baldr, the god of light, happiness, beauty, and love.
- Vidar, the god of vengeance.
- Vali, who was born solely for the purpose of avenging his brother Baldr.
- Bragi, the god of skaldic poetry.
- Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost, the bridge between Asgard and Midgard.
- Tyr, the god of war. He decides who it is that wins a battle.
- Ullr, son of Sif, Thor’s wife, god of archery.
- Forseti, the god of reconciliation and justice.
- Frigg, wife of Odin, Queen of Asgard, goddess of love and fate.
While the Celtic pantheon is a bit harder to tie down because there were so many gods and goddesses worshipped throughout the entirety of the mythology, we do know that the main pantheon consists of what is called the Tuatha Dé Danann. The most prominent members of the Tuatha Dé Danann include:
- The Dagda, who was the chief god of the pantheon.
- The Morrigan, the goddess of fate and war.
- Lugh, a master craftsman, warrior, king, and savior. Associated with law, truth, and oaths.
- Nuada Airgetlám, the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann before they came to Ireland.
- Aengus, the god of love, youth, and poetic inspiration.
- Brigid, daughter of the Dagda, goddess of poetry, wisdom, healing, domesticated animals, blacksmithing, and healing.
- Manannán, king of the underworld and a god of the sea.
- Dian Cecht, god of healing.
- Goibniu, god of blacksmithing and metalworking.
The Norse: The Norse actually had five different realms to which the dead would go, depending on their nature during life. The most well-known of these realms is, of course, Valhalla, The Hall of Heroes, the realm where Vikings who died in battle would go, if deemed worthy by Odin. Folkvangr, The Field of the People, is where the other half of those slain in battle would go. It was ruled over by Freya. As for the other three realms, Hel, The Realm of Rán (also called the Coral Caves of Rán), and The Burial Mound (literally where a person was buried), there isn’t really any literature on who went where and why.
The Celts: The Ancient Celts tended to believe in reincarnation, and so would bury their dead with food, clothing, weapons, jewelry, and other goods they would need in their next life. The Celts didn’t have an “afterlife” or “underworld” as such, though they did have the Otherworld, which was a realm inhabited by fairy folk and other supernatural beings, who would often try and entice mortals to their realm. Some scholars claim that the Otherworld was the Celtic underworld, but there are not ancient texts to back that up.
Here is where you’re going to see some similarities between Norse Mythology and Celtic Mythology. As was often with ancient religions in those days, maybe of their holy days coincided.
|Date||Norse Holy Day||Celtic Holy Day|
|October 31st/November 1st – The end of Harvest Season||Vetrnaetr||Samhain|
|February 1st/2nd – The start of Planting Season||Disablot||Imbolc/Imbolgc|
|April 30th/May 1st – The start of Spring||Walpurgisnacht||Beltane|
|August 1st – The first harvest of the year||Freysblot||Lughnasadh|
Though there are so many different pantheons and mythologies out there, we thought we’d give you a little head start in your research (because who doesn’t love researching this kind of stuff, honestly), but comparing and contrasting six of the most well known mythologies out there.
Did we miss one you wanted to see? Let us know!