Modern Scholars on Ancient Paganism
Below are brief overviews of five major works on historical Paganism by contemporary scholars. In the next post there will be five more. Each of these ten books provides a wealth of information and insight that will greatly assist anyone interested in a better understanding of what the word “Pagan” actually means, by way of understanding those who were the first to be called “Pagans”. Some of these selections are more challenging than others, and they tend to become more difficult as one goes down the list.
- Religions of the Ancient World edited by Sarah Iles Johnston
- The Christians as the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken
- The Morality of Happiness by Julia Annas
- Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives
- Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam by Robert G. Hoyland
- Babylon, Memphis, Persepolis: Eastern Contexts of Greek Culture by Walter Burkert
- Religion in Late Roman Britain by Dorothy Watts
- Athenian Religion: A History by Robert Parker
- Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World, edited by Scott Noegel, Joel Walker, and Brannon Wheeler
- Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets By Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston
1. Religions of the Ancient World edited by Sarah Iles Johnston.
|Sarah Iles Johnston
This anthology consists of standalone chapters written by scholars who are experts in the areas they write on, but the chapters are intended for a general (intelligent and curious) audience. Topics include: “What is ancient mediterranean religion?”, by Fritz Graf; “Monotheism and Polytheism”, by Jan Assmann; “Religions in contact” by John Scheid; and separate chapters on “Mysteries” and “Magic” by Sarah Iles Johnston. Also includes separate chapters on specific cultures including Egypt (Jan Assmann and David Frankfurter); Mesopotamia (by Paul-Alain Beaulieu); Israel (John J. Collins); Etruria (Oliver de Cazanove), and more.
As Johnston notes in her Introduction, whereas modern westerners take it for granted that, at least in theory, we have a wide variety of religious alternatives to choose from if we are so inclined,
Only relatively recently, however, have scholars recognized the extent to which ancient peoples, as well, were exposed to a diversity of religions, both indigenous and imported — or even, indeed, acknowledged that ancient peoples were exposed to a diversity of cultural influences of any kind. The historical reasons for this failure [until recently — on the part of modern scholarship] are political and ideological, as well as intellectual, among which three are especially interesting, as Walter Burkert and other scholars have shown (see esp. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution). First, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, following a long period during which scholars of the Bible and of classical antiquity had taken cultural interaction in the ancient Mediterranean for granted, the boundaries between academic fields were redrawn in universities, and what we now callclassics and theology strove to assert themselves as independent entities. As they did so, each one naturally stressed the grandeur and achievements of the cultures it represented — respectively, ancient Greece and Rome, and the ancient Near East.Second, at about the same time, Romantic nationalism developed. In their desire to show that particular myths, literatures, and forms of religion could be tied to particular ancient cultures that served as models for contemporary nation-states, Romantic nationalists not only discouraged any assumption of cross-cutural influences within the ancient Mediterranean, but also brought new energy to the old quest of tracking the specific, discrete origins of each cultures practices and ideas. Finally, and also at about the same time, notions about a lost “pre-language,” shared by the Greeks, Romans, Germans, and other “Aryan” peoples — but not by the Semites — crystallized into the proposal for the language we now cal “Indo-European.”
I have written previously in this blog about this treasure trove of a book in these two posts:
Monotheistic Robots of Doom, Part Deux
Paganism is not a European religion, Part Deux
2. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, by Robert Louis Wilken
A modern day Christian theologian takes a startlingly honest look at how ancient Pagans viewed the new religion of Christianity and its early followers. If you read this book with the right frame of mind it is a textbook of anti-apologetics. In fact, the Japanese translation of the book has sold well primarily due to its popularity among people in Japan who are adamantly opposed to the spread of Christianity in their country (Japan has so far proven admirably resistant to the blood cult of Jebus, thank the Gods). Wilken gives surprisingly good summaries of the main criticisms leveled at the Christians by Celsus, Porphyry and Julian. Sometimes you have to filter out the predictable bullshit, though, like Wilken’s idiotic claim that Christians engaged Pagans in a “dialogue” concerning their differences, when in fact the Christians were only interested in murdering their opponents and burning their writings.
Here is a very positive review from a perspective sympathetic to ancient Paganism.
And here is another positive review from a rather different perspective, published in the Christian journal Theology Today.
Another Christian review of the book, this one published by the Associated Baptist Press.
And yet another Christian review (from the jollyblogger blog).
Finally, here is a blog post on Robert Louis Wilken by the always interesting Arturo Vasquez (this is based on a talk that Wilken gave at Notre Dame in 2009 on the topic of “Reading St. Augustine in the 21st Century”).
3. The Morality of Happiness by Julia Annas
My favorite go-to source on the subject of Pagan Ethics is a big, fat book with the very catchy title of The Morality of Happiness, by Julia Annas, Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of Arizona.
The main point of the book, and the reason behind its catchy title, is to present to a broad, albeit intelligent and motivated, audience (without assuming much, or even any, previous study of classical philosophy) the ancient Pagan approach to ethics. This classical approach, very widely held among Pagans in the Greco-Roman world, was based on the Greek concept of eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), which literally means “good spirit”, but which can also be translated simply as happiness. That is to say, eudaimonism refers to “happiness-based” ethics.
But is it possible to base an ethical philosophy on the simple human desire to be happy? Not only is this possible, but the greatest philosophers of the ancient Pagan world were close to unanimous in their view that this was the only proper basis for ethics. This attitude is in turn based on the (happy) assumption that human beings are naturally drawn to what is good (agathos, ἀγαθός) and beautiful (kalos, καλός). Therefore, in order to act ethically (that is, in order to live well), human beings need only act in accordance with our true nature.
The great strength of eudaimonistic ethics is that it seeks to work with human nature rather than against it. The three great difficulties of eudaimonism, however, are (1) discovering what this “true” nature of ours really is, (2) demonstrating that this nature is genuinely “good”, and doing so in a way that is convincing enough so that we can be genuinely confident that acting in accordance with our true nature is the same as living well, and (3) explaining how it is that we do not already act in accordance with Nature.
Here are several relevant links:
4. Religion in the Roman Empire by James B. Rives
This is an excellent overview of the truly vast subject of Roman Paganism. While Rives for the most part avoids the term “Pagan”, he explains in the Introduction to the book that his use of the word “Religion” as opposed to “Religions” in the book’s title is deliberate and is meant to convey Rives’ own contention that to speak of “religions” in this context “is fundamentally misleading.” Rives then goes on to say that
“The diversity of religion in the Roman world was not that of separate and distinct ‘religions,’ each with its own set of core beliefs adn principles and its particular scriptures, clergy, shrines, rituals, and customs …. on a fundamental level the various religious traditions of the 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.”
A while back I wrote three posts consisting mostly of excerpts from a paper by Rives on the subject of “Christian Expansion and Christian Ideology”: Part One (Exclusivity); Part Two (Homogeneity); and Part Three (Totalization).
Also, here is a review of the book at BMCR, and here is another review at the rogueclassicism blog. And below is an excerpt from a review by Ursus at the Roman Reconstructionist website UNRV.com:
Rives offers the viewer some interesting ways of looking at polytheism. He divides polytheistic reality into several layers – cult, myth, art and philosophy – and looks at each one in turn. He explores how polytheism was experienced by individuals, households, private organizations and city-states. He documents the mobility of both worshipers and deities themselves under the aegis of the Pax Romana. Rives showcases some of the off color religious options in the classical world, such as esoteric mystical sects and freelance magicians. Finally, he looks at sources of authority in the classical world and how they imposed themselves (or not, as the case may be) on society.
Rives correctly assesses that polytheism was, by and large, a social and cultural experience, rather than an individual experience. Religion was something experienced by families, tribes or city-states and was integral to daily life, not separate from it. The religious authorities in the classical world were also, by and large, the same socio-economic elite who directed civil matters (exceptions, such as the Druids with their authority stemming from mastery of arcane lore, were treated with suspicion). Religion was therefore participating in communal life, and placating those powers thought to preside over communal life. While there were cults with different presumptions, they always operated either parallel to the civic cults or on the fringes, never quite replacing civic religion. The scope and practice of religion in the classical world was therefore entirely different from what modern Westerners experience today.
Rives writes for a general audience and is a delight to read. Those with little exposure to classical religion should be able to easily follow this clearly written and highly organized work. He offers no pre-conceptions about either polytheism or monotheism and writes with complete academic objectivity, something all too often rare in religious commentary. Aiding the work is an extended bibliography, glossary, maps, illustrations and topical inserts. This work is highly recommended for those wishing to acquaint themselves with classical religion.
Hoyland’s book is included here primarily because of the chapter devoted to “Religion”, which is nearly 30 pages long. Here is an excerpt:
In monotheism the sacred is concentrated in one omnipotent and omniscient entity, whereas in polytheism it is diffused over a wide range of beings, places, objects, practices and human personnel. In reality there is both seepage in most monotheisms, with saints and shrines and the like tending to proliferate, and some telescoping on the part of many polytheisms, with one God often being preferred over the others. But the difference between the two is real and substantial.
Firstly, in pre-modern societies that had not secularised public life and relegated religion to the private domain, monotheism is by nature intolerant and intransigent. For there to be only one true God all the other must be impotent frauds, and those who worship them are not just in error, but damned, and should be fought or at the very least shunned. If you believe in many Gods however, there is no reason to be hostile to Gods not your own, nor any bar to paying them and their faithful your respects. “When you enter a village, swear by its Gods” as the old Arabian proverb goes.
Second, the words of a unique omnipotent God must needs be the absolute Truth, in the light of which its recipients should therefore regulate their lives and interpret their world. Polytheism, on the other hand, is neither so unitary nor so coherent. It is rather a variegated worldview, one capable of eliciting a rich and subtle range of meanings from a multi-faceted reality, one desirous of understanding and influencing the many and varied ways the natural world impinges upon us . . . .
[T]he sophisticated civilization of south Arabia had the most developed pantheon in Arabia with the names of over one hundred deities featuring in the surviving inscriptions, though many of these probably represent different aspects of manifestations of the same God. ‘Athtar almost always occupies first place in lists and his cult was spread throughout the region. Moreover, in one text we find a worshipper thanking another God for “interceding on his behalf with ‘Athtar”, confirming that he enjoyed a certain primacy . . . .
The patron diety (shym) of a people was of more immediate significance in south Arabia than the remoter figure of ‘Athtar. The four principle peoples had as their patrons Almaqah (Sabeans
), Wadd (Minaeans
), ‘Amm (Qatabanians
) and Sayin (Hadramites
), and each people was collectively termed the “children” of their respective patron deity. The last would be characterised as the “lord” of the shrine that served as the cultic centre for his people (e.g. “Almaqah lord of Awwam”, the principle temple in Marib) . . . .
In less complex societies than south Arabia the pantheon might be much smaller and the patron deity might assume a particularly prominent place. Thus the inhabitants of the fertile oasis of Dedan turned to Dhu Ghaba, “the master of the grove”, for their needs and rarely to any other. The Minaean God Wadd appears in a few inscriptions, but these are presumably attributable to the Minaean colony that ran trade operations in the oasis. Then there is Kutba (or Aktab), God of writing, who is probably related to a Babylonian scribal deity, perhaps brought to northwest Arabia by the Babylonian monarch Nabonidus. But other Gods are mentioned no more than once or twice, probably invoked by travellers passing through rather than native worshippers.
The Nabataeans were similarly loyal to Dushara, “the master of the Shara”, the mountain range encompassing their capital Petra, and “the God of our lord … the king of the Nabataeans”. At Petra itself the only very popular deity was al-‘Uzza, “the mighty Goddess”, who is celebrated both in texts and and in artistic representations. However the Nabataeans were rulers of a kingdom, and in the territories they controlled many other deities were worshipped
, such as Hubal and Manat in Hijaz, and Allat in the Hawran and the Syrian desert.
Moreover, as international merchants, they were exposed to many foreign influences, and it is not therefore surprising top find that the cult of the Egyptian Goddess Isis was widespread in Nabataea . . . .
Palmyra was a special case, for it possessed a very cosmopolitan population, many members of which had brought their Gods with them, and by virtue of its location had long been exposed to a number of different cultures, which had left their mark on its religious life. Hence a great diversity of deities jostle for position in the city’s epigraphic record. The best documented cult, since AD 32 at least, was that of the divine triad Bel, Yahribol and Aglibol. Bel emerged as a supreme God, while Yahribol, an ancestral deity of the oasis, and Aglibol, a deity of a north Syrian immigrant community, became his acolytes. However, Bel continued to associate with other divinities, such as the sun God Shamash and in particular his female partner Herta. We also hear of the ancient Canannite/Phoenician deity Ba’alshamin, the Arab Goddess Allat, the Mesopotamian deity Nergal and so on.
[Robert G. Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs, pp. 139-142]