A few weeks ago I concluded my summer reading group on Greco-Roman religion. When I realized over spring break that I was meant to be a biblical scholar, I waltzed into my professor’s office the first week of classes and asked if he would be my guide to the religions of Greece and Rome. I am grateful for his patience with my seemingly last-minute whimsy — especially because this is such a vital topic for understanding early Christianity. We continued through the summer.
What did we read?
- Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi
- Jon Mikalson, Ancient Greek Religion
- Mary Beard, Religions of Rome, Volume I: A History
- Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, Book I
- Simon Price, The Imperial Cult in Asia Minor
- R. Gordon Wasson, The Road to Eleusis
- Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice
- Fritz Graf and Sarah Iles Johnston, Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets
- Apolostos Athanasakkis, The Orphic Hymns
- W.K.C. Guthrie, Orpheus and Greek Religion
- E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational
- Chris Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic
What did I get out of the reading group?
My professor defined Greek religion as “approaching the gods with respect and knowledge that they are more powerful.” The religion of the Greeks involved piety, which is knowing your place in the universe. It involved satisfying various psychological and cultural needs: love, food, the security of the state, etc., all of which required the help of the gods to keep going. From those premises, we went on to look at the functions Greek and Roman religions served for their practitioners, and tried to draw connections to modern times.
First, I was reminded how difficult it is to really compare religions. It’s very easy to forget that there is no such thing as a “religion,” that it’s a made-up construct. It is useful for explaining some things but we must not take it too seriously.
It is hard to compare religions because any religious tradition sufficiently broad has both sides of many of the binaries members or scholars of that religion construct to simplify it. These binaries are usually created for some kind of apologetic purpose, and I tend not to trust them.
So for example, it might be easy to say that Greco-Roman polytheism was just empty ritual, done more for the purpose of social cohesion than for any kind of individual, powerful relationship with a deity. But then we look at the Dionysiac cult, or the Orphic cult, or any number of the mystery religions that sprung up during the Hellenistic era. Even the “empty ritual” of the imperial cult could be heartfelt devotion, as Simon Price demonstrated in The Imperial Cult in Asia Minor.
One reason some study Greco-Roman religions is to better understand why early Christianity was so successful. One is tempted to ask: what was Greco-Roman religion missing? I’m not sure that is even a valid question. I’m still figuring it out. But understanding that classical paganism was very multi-faceted defeats means we can’t seek facile answers to the question above. The minute we think something was missing, it turns out it was there, but in a form we may not recognize. For example, Matthew Ferguson at Adversus Apologetica argues that there was a concept of “sacred text” in Greek polytheism. (His essay is long but worth checking out!)
Second, if religion is in part about getting what one needs from the gods, it only makes sense that religious syncretism is a practice of those who need the help of the gods most. In other words, if you need all the help you can get, you will request it from all the gods you can get. So the evidence on magical papyri and mystery cults, both practices associated with the socially marginalized, show influences from all over the Mediterranean. Some of the liturgies of mystery cults quoted in Marvin Meyer’s sourcebook quote from Greek, Jewish, Persian, and several other pantheons and cults.
These syncretistic practices, because they come from the marginalized, represented a threat to the elites who write most of what we know about them. Just witness the Mother Cybele or the cult of Dionysus in Rome!
Third, at the end of the term I had to revise my professor’s definition. I would say that Greek religion is “requesting favors of the gods with respect and knowledge that they are more powerful.” From this perspective, religion is a tool for getting what we need from the gods, whether or not you believe those gods and their myths are real and true.
Just some thoughts. Summer is winding down for me — I get married this Saturday, have a honeymoon for one week, then immediately start my MA program. Yikes. So this week is the calm before the storm.