As I announced in a previous post, I am taking a seminar this quarter on ancient Mediterranean religions and their relation to Christian origins. In particular, we are looking at the Greek (and sometimes Roman and Egyptian) polytheistic religions that were predominant in the regions of the Mediterranean that Christianity first originated and spread within. Since polytheism is just as important to the time and region that I study (the Roman Empire c. 31 BCE – 192 CE), as Judaism and Christianity are, I think it will be worthwhile to discuss some of the history and theology of the polytheism that once thrived in the pre-Christian ancient world.
I think that a good place to begin this discussion is by reviewing an influential monograph on this topic — Louise Zaidman and Pauline Pantel’s Religion in the Ancient Greek City (1992). Zaidman and Pantel’s study is highly foundational to modern approaches to Greek religion, since they were among the first to emphasize the importance of the polis (“city-state”) to ancient understandings of polytheism. The polis was the basic political, economic, and social unit that emerged in Greece during the Archaic period (c. 800-480 BCE). The Greeks did not have a united political center or capital, and this form of cultural organization deeply affected how they viewed their religion.
The fact is that for most of us living in Western cultures, we are something of a mystery to ourselves. Our modern concepts like democracy, philosophy, science, theatre, and even sports all grew out of Pagan, polytheistic societies. But these societies were taken over by a variant of Christian theism in the 4th century CE. After that event, polytheism moved from the foreground to the background in European society, until dwindling to the point that few of us in modern times really understand it. But polytheism was once pervasive in cultures that are historically linked to our own. To rediscover this polytheism is thus to rediscover a bit of ourselves, even for secularists.
To begin with, a striking contrast between ancient polytheistic religions and the orthodox monotheistic religions that we are accustomed to today is that polytheism had very different organizing principles. There was no structured community of believers like the church, nor was there a sacred text like the Bible. Polytheistic mythologies like Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod’s Theogony were *not* holy books. They were pieces of poetic literature that were designed for art and entertainment, and we should not conflate polytheistic mythology with modern theistic doctrines.
The ancient polytheists were also not as dogmatic about their religions as many monotheists are today. The existence of only one ‘G’od often implies the notion that other gods are false and do not exist (though, henotheism is somewhere between these views). If Christianity is true, then Islam is false, and vice versa. But the ancient polytheists did not view religion this way. Instead, different regions and localities had different gods. Moreover, even the same gods on the Greek Pantheon had different epithets and local associations. The ancients were thus fine with other regions sacrificing to other gods. In fact, when the Roman emperor visited various provinces, he would pay tribute to many foreign deities.
No church, no sacred text, and no dogma might create the impression that ancient polytheists cared less about their religion or were more secular than we are today. However, this is far from the truth. The reality is that polytheistic religions were highly pervasive in ways that we in modern times seldom understand or appreciate. One of the biggest differences between polytheistic religions and modern monotheistic religions is that they had a different understanding of the “sacred and the profane” than we do. As Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 92) argue:
“One of the Greek city’s distinguishing marks was that it recognized no separation between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the secular, of the sort with which we are familiar.”
The sacred-profane dichotomy is a distinction that was first posited by French sociologist Émile Durkheim. The “sacred” represents the human tendency to place certain exalted concepts — such as prayer, God, and holy scriptures — into a distinct religious sphere. The profane represents the ordinary, mundane, and secular sphere. This distinction does not equate to good vs. evil, by the way. Sacred things can be good or evil, and the same goes for the profane.
We see this dichotomy a lot in many modern Protestant sects. There are specific books of the Bible that are “canonical” and inspired. Other books are not inspired and should not determine doctrine. There are only so many sacraments that the church should perform (such as baptism and holy communion), and other sacraments should not be considered part of doctrine. There are specific creeds that the church should obey regarding the nature of Christ’s divinity, and other creeds outside this group should not determine doctrine. Many Protestants thus have a very specifically designated sacred sphere.
For the polytheistic Greeks, however, the sacred was everywhere. The gods not only were to be worshiped in temples, but at the household hearth with its household deities. Many other domains were also religious. Theatre was a religious event, athletic games such as the Olympics were religious events, voting and taking part in democracy was considered to be a religious activity. There was no separation between church and state. To even become a citizen of Athens was an act of religious initiation. As Zaidman and Pantel (pp. 66-67) explain:
“Once a young man had been enrolled on the register of his father’s deme and ritually endowed with the status of ‘ephebe’ (literally ‘on the threshold of the majority’) at the age of eighteen, his first action was to make a tour of all the sanctuaries of Athens. That and the oath he was obliged to swear (witnessed by no less than eleven deities …) are exemplary proof of the fact that religion and civic life were mutually and inextricably implicated.”
One of the difficulties of understanding what the ancient Greeks believed about their religion, however, is the fact that it was associated with such a wide range of activities and expressions. I stated above that the poems of Homer and Hesiod were not holy books, but they were religious in nature, just as sacrifice was, or voting was. Likewise, it is hard to understand these individual forms of religious expression in isolation. As Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 228) explain:
“One important fact has emerged from our very cursory survey of the questions raised by the study of the Greeks’ figuration of the divine: this is the large degree to which all their systems of representation — pantheons, myths, visual images — were mutually supportive. If there was a logic at work behind the constitution of the pantheon and the elaboration of myths, this was no less true of the creation of the visual images of the divine that populated the Greek city. Moreover, these systems of representation cannot be separated from the rituals which gave expression to the underlying systemic structures. It is clearly impossible, for example, to study a statue in isolated abstraction from the ritual use to which it was put.”
The polis (“city-state”) has been advanced as an organizing principle that can explain the structural paradigms of Greek religion. Deities and rites were very much associated with specific localities. There were the gods of Athens, just as there were the gods of Rome. The idea of impiety, for example, did not mean what we think of today. Today, we often think of impiety as implying blasphemy or a lack of reverence for orthodox teachings or sacred figures. However, the ancient Greeks saw it more as a matter of civic (dis)loyalty to the city. As Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 11) explain:
“The Greek city knew neither Church nor dogma. As a consequence Greek religious conduct, whether pious or impious, lacked the precisely defined character it would acquire in other religions … Asebeia (impiety) was the absence of respect for the beliefs and rituals shared by the inhabitants of the city.”
This was the sense in which the Athenian philosopher Socrates was accused of “atheism.” This accusation was not the same as the medieval Catholic church, for example, cracking down on a heretic. Socrates was accused of undermining the laws and civic duties of Athens, not only by studying strange and unaccustomed things both above and below the Earth, but even more importantly for “corrupting the youth” away from the norms of Athenian life.
The locality of polytheism also led to the cultivation of “sacred spaces.” The presence of the gods were thought to inhabit Greek temples, and these were their local homes. If a temple was destroyed, you needed to rebuild it in the exact same sacred space. You also needed to maintain the upkeep of the temples, honoring the gods with regular sacrifices, and adorning their halls with dedications. In fact, in Archaic Greece the first large and elaborate architectural structures that were built were temples. Private homes, even for the nobility, were considerably smaller in size during that period. Likewise, Greek temples were hyper-sensational and surreal environments, with incense, music, and statues, some of which gazed directly at the viewer.
The importance of city to religion, however, was not just a feature of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian religion, it was also important to Judaism as well (it should be noted that Judaism in antiquity was probably more similar to henotheism than strict monotheism). The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was the only place where sacrifices to their god could be made. In fact, that is why there was Jewish hostility against the Samaritans. They had built another temple outside of Jerusalem, and thus they were not longer proper members of Jewish religion.
In fact, Judaic Studies scholar Daniel Boyarin, who visited UC Irvine this last Winter quarter, is doing current research on understanding Judaism as a civic, city-state religion. I should not even use the term “Judaism,” because Boyarin has explicitly argued against using that term. Instead, Boyarin argues that we should refer to the ancient Jews more properly as “Judeans,” since the region and city that they inhabited was the dominant feature of their identity (Rabbinic Judaism postdated this phase, and Boyarin explains that there wasn’t even a word for “Judaism” in the Jewish language until the 18th or 19th centuries). Likewise, Boyarin argues that we can use many of the same civic features to describe Judean religion that we use to describe Greek religion.
Every Greek polis (“city-state”), like Athens, had a politeia (“constitution”) and politai (“citizens”). In the case of Athens, Solon had been the lawgiver who gave them their politeia, and we saw above the religious initiation that was required to become a member of the politai citizen body. The Judeans were very similar. The Judeans had a polis, Jerusalem, a politeia given by a lawmaker, namely the Torah given by Moses. Likewise, to become a member of the politeia, you had to go through initiation rituals, such as a circumcision (I myself would prefer swearing oaths to eleven different deities like in Athens!).
We can also see similarities in the importance placed on certain traditions. In Rome, the Sacred Fire of Vesta was supposed to be an eternal flame, symbolizing the city’s common hearth. If the sacred flame was extinguished, Vestal Virgins could be punished by scourging. We see a similar concern in the story behind Hanukkah, where it was very important to keep the Menorah lit for eight days, even without enough oil.
One of the other distinctions between ancient polytheism and the monotheistic religions that grew out of Late Antiquity was the fact that the polytheists appear to have had few, if any, religious wars. There were no Crusades, no Jihads, no inquisitions. The ancient polytheists certainly killed and persecuted other people, but primarily for reasons other than religion. Even when Christians were persecuted for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor, this was primarily done because it was seen as unpatriotic. If you didn’t sacrifice to the emperor, that means you did not honor Roman law, but it wasn’t really understood as a matter of religious doctrine.
Part of this “embeddedness” of Greek religion, where it was anywhere and everywhere, with no distinction between the sacred and profane, is that it appears to have been much less volatile in motivating political and social change. As Robert Parker in Polytheism and Society at Athens (another book we have been reading) points out (pp. 452-453):
“In the Christian centuries religion has, we know, been a major motivation for political action, a factor that can seldom be ignored for very long in the writing of narrative history … Religion provoked no revolutions in Greece, started no wars, inspired no new movements in thought and feeling. These negative claims are not merely consequences of the preference of ancient historians for secular explanations of events. Religion in Greece was not, in chemical language, a volatile substance. It was stably partly, to continue the metaphor, because it did not react explosively to other polytheistic systems, but could blend or coexist with them. There were no wars of religion in the ancient polytheistic world because there was nothing for such a war to be about.”
This is indeed an important distinction between ancient polytheistic religions and our own. I should point out, however, that the polis model of understanding ancient polytheism has been challenged. In particular, Julia Kindt in Rethinking Greek Religion (a controversial book among scholars) has raised a number of objections to understanding Greek religion solely through the polis (“city-state”) structural framework. I will possibly discuss some of her arguments too, if I get the chance to blog further about this issue.
Overall, I found Zaidman and Pantel’s treatment of Greek polytheistic religion in Religion in the Ancient Greek City to be highly interesting and informative. However, they did drop the ball in one important respect. Because they limited their study to the Archaic (c. 800-480 BCE) and Classical (c. 480-323 BCE) periods, they tend to downplay the importance of polytheism in the Hellenistic (c. 323-146 BCE) and Roman (c. 146 BCE – 325 CE) periods. However, polytheism was alive and active during those periods. Zaidman and Pantel (pg. 233) claim:
“Civic religion did not simply disappear with the Greek cities’ loss of political independence. The establishment of the Hellenistic kingdoms in the late fourth century BCE in no way signalled the demise of the religious system that had become institutionalized during the preceding epochs … Over the centuries, however, the spirit of these devotions did alter, and the collective dimension of Greek religion with its function of providing reassurance to the civic community as a whole did gradually wither. As the repetition of ancient rituals became rigidly formulaic and meaningless, so at the same time the old spirit was superseded by that of personal communication with the godhead.”
When they say “over the centuries,” bear in mind that we are talking about a period spanning roughly seven centuries in duration! That is longer than the history of Archaic and Classical Greece combined! It is true that polytheism changed during this period (heck, almost anything changes after 700 years), but it did not become as meaningless as they claim. People continued to find meaning in polytheistic expressions of religion well into the Christian era (we know that they did through archaeology).
However, the polis (“city-state”) emphasis in polytheistic religions did seem to diminish in Late Antiquity. With all of the inter-mixing of the Roman Empire, local identities became less important. As such, people started to look for forms of religious expression that were not restricted to specific localities. Roman soldiers, for example, were highly drawn to the Cult of Mithras, a mystery religion, because they could participate in it in a framework beyond local, city religion. Christianity, which likewise extended beyond the polis conceptual framework, was another religion that became popular during this period.
I am very much enjoying this Greek religion seminar (in addition to my other seminar on the New Testament) this quarter. I have wanted to blog more, but I have simply been too busy reading and learning (and commuting through LA traffic). However, when I find the time, I hope to blog some more about the research that I have been doing this quarter. Till then.