When I was in Croatia I spent a lot of time talking with Jehovah's witnesses. One of them was from a family of communists whose take on communism was an international world wide brotherhood. For her the movement was about bringing together the people of the world into one happy community - I am sure you have seen their pictures of happy multiracial groups reaping a rich harvest of fruits.
Another had been a hard line nationalist before conversion. I remember being quite chilled when he referred to a group drunks who lived upstairs from where we were meeting saying the sooner Jesus came to rule the planet and got rid of such people the better. His hatred of his rival ethnic group had been simply transferred to the unbelievers.
It would be tempting to say that their religious beliefs were just covers for their underlying belief system but I don't think this was the case. However, both had managed to reshape in their minds their new beliefs to be compatible with old.
C. S. Bartholomew wrote:There were probably "rationalists" in Ancient Athens but I suspect they would have been a small minority of cultural outsiders. Elisabeth Vandiver raises the question did the people in Ancient Athens believe in the actual existence of Aphrodite. She says that would be like asking if they believed in sexual desire. I think that over simplifies the issue. Reducing Aphrodite to personification of sexual desire and nothing more than a personification in my view is modernism imposing its world view on the ancient text.
You are right to say that reading Aeschylus' daemons as mere personifications is to misread what is actually written and that Aeschylus as far as we can tell did have in mind real beings with higher powers and you are right to reject my suggestion of "force of nature". But these "spirit beings" are very fuzzy. If Jehovah witnesses are able to shape what is a pretty rigid faith with a very firm party line according to their outlook, surely it was even easier for Aeschylus to do the same.
One reason for reading an ancient Greek text is to understand the culture. But attempting to fully understand the attitudes actually makes it harder to sympathise. The attitudes towards slavery and the subordination of women seen in many Greek comedies are not ones I can ever have any sympathy for.
But while Aeschylus' plays are shaped by religious belief systems very different from our own that is not the whole of Aeschylus. His "spirit beings" may be, in Aeschylus mind, inspiring Orestes to come back and avenge his father. At the same time, for a son to wish to avenge his father does not require a spiritual inspiration. Which agency in Aeschylus' mind is decisive , the urgings of spirit beings or the human emotion of the anger of a bereaved son? As both push in the same direction there would have been no need for him to even ask that question.
For modern readers of Aeschylus it is however the human desire for vengeance and the consequences of that which make it relevant and allows Aeschylus to speak to us. The religious element inevitably something that none of us can subscribe to.