Nor do we think of the Gods as different Gods among different peoples, nor as barbarian Gods and Greek Gods, nor as southern and northern Gods; but, just as the Sun and the Moon and the Heavens and the Earth and the Sea are common to all, but are called by different names by different peoples, so for that one Reason which keeps all these things in order and the one Providence which watches over them and the ancillary Powers that are set over all, there have arisen among different peoples, in accordance with their customs, different honours and appellations. Thus men make use of consecrated symbols, some employing symbols that are obscure, but others those that are clearer, in guiding the intelligence toward things Divine, though not without a certain hazard. For some go completely astray and become engulfed in superstition; and others, while they fly from superstition as from a quagmire, on the other hand unwittingly fall, as it were, over a precipice into atheism.
[Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris]
Stephen Prothero has an article in this Sunday’s Boston Globe promoting his latest book. Here’s a quote that puts the depth of Prothero’s ignorance on full display:
For most of world history, human beings have seen religious rivals as inferior to themselves — practitioners of empty rituals, perpetrators of bogus miracles, and purveyors of fanciful myths.
Prothero knows less than nothing about the actual history of religion. If that were not the case, then he would know that “for most of human history”, in fact, human beings have not thought in terms of “religious rivals” at all.
Those who actually study the history of religion know that the very idea of “religious rivalry”, especially in the sharp sense that Prothero has in mind (“the exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or nirvana or paradise”) is foreign to most of the world’s religions to this day, and was virtually unknown prior to the advent of Christianity. Even today, this “exclusivist missionary view” is limited to the monotheistic religions.
The problem with Prothero’s whole approach is nicely illustrated by his use of the word “missionary”, a term specifically associated with the peculiarly militant attitude that Christianity has toward all other religions, to characterize what he claims is a general feature of all religions throughout “most” human history.
Ancient polytheists of the Greco-Roman world simply did not think in terms of “religious rivals” whose religions were comprised of “empty rituals”, “bogus miracles”, and “fanciful myths”. James B. Rives, in his Religion in the Roman Empire, goes so far as to state that they did not even think in terms of “different” religions from their own:
[O]n a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the [Roman] empire had more similarities than differences. As a result, when people from one tradition were confronted with another, they often found much that was familiar and immediately understandable, and tended to treat what was unfamiliar simply as a local peculiarity. In short, the impression we get from the sources is that people thought not so much in terms of “different religions,” as we might today, but simply of varying local customs with regard to the gods.
[James B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire, p. 6]
Rives, writing in 2006, was to a great extent re-iterating what Ramsay MacMullen had already written a quarter century earlier in his Paganism in the Roman Empire:
Plutarch’s friend Clea, herself a priestess at Olympia, was also initiate in the rites of Osiris. She, then, could hardly have objected to the accommodation of a second loyalty; no more the priestess of Sun at Philippi, initiate into the mysteries of Cybele and of Dionysus. A cult association of Hercules set up a dedication to its own God in the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus in rome, and “the votaries of Sarapis,” another guild, built a meeting room for Isis and Cybele in Rome’s port. Examples abound of ministrants of one sort or another erecting an altar or a plaque or themselves signing some honorific inscription, in worship of a God other than the one they served. The practice can be observed without distinction of honorand, whether Roman, traditional Greek, Oriental, or Celtic; without distinction of area; and only circumscribed in time, perhaps. It may be that such actions are more often attested in the period after A.D. 150 than before. But even that is not sure.
These apparent betrayals of one’s God were of course no only open, else never known to the present; they were divinely authorized. “By the interpretation of the rites of Sol,” a worshiper honors Liber and Libera. Obviously the priest himself had overseen whatever was done; or a village honors “Zeus Galactinos according to Apollo’s command”; a “priest of Sol invictus saw to the dedication of holy Silvanus, from a vision”; and so on, by a direct order from Hercules or Men or Apollo. It can only have been priests who guided these acts, seeing in them no betrayal at all. No one but priests can have permitted the placing in the temple of Dolichenus, in Rome, a relief that shows the God sitting next to his consort and holding busts of Sarapis and Isis: he had welcomed his friends from Egypt into his house. Priests directed that the feasts of Iarhibol and Aglibol in Palmyra should fall on the same day. The accommodation, fraternal welcome, courteous referra, or punctilious deference shown in one or another part of the surviving testimony seems to an unbeliever merely the interaction of worshipers and priests. But the worshipers and priests naturally saw it as the reflection here below of relations existing in the world above. Tolerance in paganism operated at both levels, until Christianity introduced its own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods.
[Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire, p. 93]
Nor was Macmullen stating anything new. David Hume, writing 250 years ago, had this to say:
The tolerating spirit of idolaters, both in ancient and modern times, is very obvious to anyone who is the least conversant in the writings of historians or travellers. When the oracle of Delphi was asked, what rites or worship was most acceptable to the Gods? “Those legally established in each city,” replied the oracle. Even priests, in those ages, could, it seems, allow salvation to those of a different communion. The Romans commonly adopted the Gods of the conquered people; and never disputed the attributes of those local and national deities in whose territories they resided. The religious wars and persecutions of the Egyptian idolaters are indeed an exception to this rule; but are accounted for by ancient authors from reasons singular and remarkable. Different species of animals were the deities of the different sects among the Egyptians; and the deities being in continual war, engaged their votaries in the same contention. The worshippers of dogs could not long remain in peace with the adorers of cats or wolves. But where that reason took not place, the Egyptian superstition was not so incompatible as is commonly imagined; since we learn from Herodotus, that very large contributions were given by Amasis towards rebuilding the temple of Delphi.
The intolerance of almost all religions which have maintained the unity of God is as remarkable as the contrary principle of polytheists.
[David Hume, “Comparison of these Religions with regard to Persecution and Toleration.”, in his The Natural History of Religion]
Egyptologist Jan Assmann has gone even further and shown that this “contrary principle of polytheists” (ie, the mutual recognition of the religions of different peoples) was not at all peculiar to Greco-Roman civilization, but rather was already ancient when Athens and Rome were founded. Assmann traces what he calls the “translatability” of the Gods back at least to the 3rd millennium in Mesopotamia (see his Moses the Egyptian).
Much more could be said on the very well documented “universalistic” tendencies of ancient polytheism. For example, there is the fact that Homer portrays the Achaeans and Trojans and all the other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean as worshipping the same Gods. Herodotus does the same in his Histories, as does Vergil in the Aeneid.
In addition to the works by Rives, MacMullen, Hume and Assmann already referred to, an excellent overview can be found in Jan Assmann’s essay Monotheism and Polytheism, in the volume Ancient Religions edited by Sarah Iles Johnston.
To be continued . . . . .