Ancient religion: different from your religion

Getting started



Ancient religion wasn't like our religion. Civic religion, whose magic beings make it look to us like "religion", was mostly about controlling the world by bargaining with the god-beings—hardly a function of "religion" at all, as we see it. Philosophy was about ethics and morality, but it didn't have revelation, so to us it doesn't look like religion at all.

Ancient religion was different from ours, but not the way you probably think. If you're like most people, you see the main difference as we've got one God and they had lots. Yeah, sure.  

What you're about to see is that ancient religion was functionally different from our religion. It served different purposes. Our religion has been squeezed down to where it's mostly about morality and salvation. Ancient religion did those, but it also did other stuff. Which is why it's smart to separate ancient religion into parts. Like so...

Civic Religion
Personal, family, tribal, city and national religions
Function:  a) bargain with the God-beings so they'll cause good things to happen
                   b) access the power of the God-beings to predict the future
Morality. Science.
Mystery Religions
Personal contact with God. Salvation.

We'll talk about Civic Religion now. We'll hit Philosophy and Mystery religion on the next two pages.

Civic Religion
OK, we just saw how the ancients' view of cause and effect was different from ours. Not having impersonal mechanical laws of nature to explain cause and effect, the ancients invented a zoology of invisible, intelligent personalities to cause the events people saw in day to day life. It won't surprise you to learn that these God-beings could be talked to, and reasoned with, and and asked for favors.

And because their god-beings caused so much of what happened, the ancients were able to control the world by bartering with the god-beings. In that way the purpose and function of ancient religion was qualitatively different from ours.

Can you guess the name of modern God-being I'm thinking of right now, the one who can be talked to, and reasoned with, and asked for favors?

The Theory
If you did nice things for the god-beings, they used their super-human powers to do nice things for you. They would cure illness, ward off storms, ease childbirth, make you lucky in love or business. Like that. From time to time some high falutin' intellectual would write up how this probably worked, but in practice people didn't need formal doctrine to explain what anyone with half a heart (the organ of thought) could see was simple common sense


By the way

Ancient god-beings had powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, but their powers were superhuman, NOT super-natural. See, the ancients' faith was greater than ours. Their Gods weren't sissy spiritual phantoms lurking some imaginary place no one can see or go to. Their Gods were elements of nature, real beings living real (eternal) lives in the real world.

What nice things could people do for the Gods? Pour "libations" of wine. Sacrifice animals at the God's altar. The intellectuals weren't exactly sure how it worked, but when you burned parts of an animal, the Gods liked—some people said they were nourished by—the smoke from the altar fire.

Here's a bit from Homer's poem the Iliad, written down in maybe the eighth century BC. When the Greek fellows burned lambs for the God Apollo >> 
the fragrant smoke somehow made Him help them in return.  

No, come, let us ask some holy man ... who can tell why Phoibos Apollo is so angry, if for the sake of some vow, some hecatomb [sacrifice] he blames us, if given the fragrant smoke of lambs, of he goats, somehow he can be made willing to beat the bane aside from us.'

Homer, Iliad, 1.62 ... 67 (8th century BC), -- which you can find in: Lattimore, Richmond. The Iliad of Homer (1951 / 1961),
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

After the "Babylonian Noah," a guy named Utnapishtim, had survived the Gods-sent flood that wiped out humanity, but before he'd spotted land from the ark the Gods had told him to build, he sent out birds. At first the birds came back. Then one didn't. Hurray, said Utnapishtim, that means "Dry land!"

Happy Utnapishtim sacrificed to the Gods. >> 
And the Gods smell the pleasant fragrance of the smoke.

I put out and released a raven.
The raven went, and saw the waters receding.
And it ate, preened (?), lifted its tail and did not turn round.
Then I put (everything ?) out to the four winds, and I made a sacrifice.
Set out a surqinnu-offering upon the mountain peak,
Arranged the jars seven and seven;
Into the bottom of them I poured (essences of ?) reeds, pine, and myrtle.
The gods smelt the fragrance,
The gods smelt the pleasant fragrance...

Epic of Gilgamesh, 11th tablet (early second millennium BC), -- which you can find in: Dalley, Stephanie. Myths From Mesopotamia; Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (1989 / 2000), pg. 113- 4]
Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

After the Bible-onian Noah, a guy named Noah, had survived the Gods-sent flood that wiped out humanity, but before he'd spotted land from the ark the Gods had told him to build, he sent out birds. At first the birds came back. Then one didn't. Hurray, said Noah, that means "Dry land!"

Happy Noah sacrificed to the Gods>> 
And the Gods smell the pleasant fragrance of the smoke,
and was pleased.


Genesis 8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.
21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.

Old Testament, Genesis Chapter 7

Don't believe me, believe the ancients themselves.

The Practice
People sacrificed to the Gods of their home at home altars. Priests and priestesseses sacrificed to the Gods of the city or country (or grove, or river, etc.) at the altar of the God's temple.

Sacrifices were common practice throughout the ancient world, dating back to prehistoric times. Occasionally the sacrificed animal was burned up entirely ["holocaust"], but generally the God got the non-tasty bits like the guts, and maybe a good part or two, like a thigh, and people ate the rest. It worked like that in Rome, in Athens, in Egypt, and at the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

The Jew's tribal God Yahweh was a sacrifice-smelling temple God, but Jesus wasn't. We're getting a bit far from POCM's theme. If you'd like to know more about the mechanics of civic temple sacrifice religion, go to these good books.

By the way

In 167 BC Judea's foreign ruler, a guy named Antiochus Version 4.0, forced the Jews at their Temple in Jerusalem to give up sacrificing to their Jewish God, and switch to sacrificing to his Pagan God. (Zeus maybe. Some people say Dionysus.)
All that changed was the animal killed and the name of the God. The fact that an animal was killed—at an altar, in a God's temple, with incense, that part was burned for the God and the rest was eaten—and that everyone, Pagan and Jew, knew exactly how that worked and what it meant, that didn't change.
Judaism was continuous with Paganism.

Let's talk more about how the ancients' ideas of cause and effect shaped their civic temple-sacrifice religion.

Lots of Gods; one religion.
There were lots of people, lots of tribes, lots of cities, lots of events to explain. It made sense there had to be many agencies—many Gods, many demigods, many spirits, etc.—to cause many events. The ancients had lots of Gods, but one religion.

The point of civic religion was to get the Gods' help. Your household "lars" God helped you because you sacrificed to Him in the morning, not because you didn't sacrifice to Jupiter in the afternoon. And none of the Gods cared whether the stories you believed about them were precisely correct. Temple visitors wrote about having different priests tell them contradictory versions of a God's myth—at the same temple, on the same visit!


Gods helped people. People were happy to get help wherever they could. Initiates in the the mysteries of Dionysus could and did simultaneously belong to the mysteries of Isis—and the mysteries of Mithras, and the mysteries of Attis. At the Temple of Jupiter, in downtown Rome, believers honored not just Jupiter, but Serapis, or Dionysus, or Mithras—and no one complained. Of course not. Complaining would have made no sense. People even sacrificed to Unnamed Gods, just to be sure.

Doctrine didn't matter
This next point is hard for us to understand, because the notion that it's a good idea to convert people to your own religious theories is so familiar to us that it's hard for us to get our mind around the fact that for ancient civic religion, doctrine didn't matter. But it didn't. You were nice to the Gods. They helped you. End of story.

There were intricate rules of religion, but they were about getting the mechanics of sacrifice just right, to be sure the God was pleased.

We'll see later that ancient philosophical-religion cared about doctrine. But not civic religion.


By the way

You didn't have to sacrifice to every God. Some Gods demanded worship that was to bizarre or disgusting to be worth the trouble. The city of Rome did outlaw some sects.
The Bacchants of Dionysus were viscously suppressed in 186 BC, for political reasons, and because their dissipated sexual practices offended conservative social values.

The government introduced worship of the Great Mother to Rome in 204 BC, but Roman citizens were forbidden to become Galli, Her priests whose notable feature was they castrated themselves and dressed like women. Hey, that creeps me out.

Christians were banned because their atheism (they denied the divinity of the Pagan Gods) threatened the public order.

The Pagan ancients persecuted religions for cultural or political reasons; they didn't persecute false doctrine.

So what? So syncretism
Because doctrine didn't matter, and people welcomed help from wherever they could get it, ancient believers borrowed and adapted from each other. Associate professors call this syncretism. Ancient civilization was a religious melting pot; myths and rituals spilled from region to region, God to God.

After Alexander (in the 300s BC) conquered the Middle East, the Greek Gods were equated with the Middle Eastern Gods—not just in name, but in myth and ritual. The Greeks borrowed from the Middle East, and rebuilt their religion from old parts.

The Romans conquered the Greeks and, you know this, adopted and adapted the Greek religion as their own. The Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and rebuilt their religion from old parts.

Borrowing and rebuilding happened on a local level too. Cybele and Attis are both famous for having priests, called Galli, who cut off their own testicles as an act of religious devotion. But the Goddess Atargatis also had castrated priests, and so did the God Ma. Ancient religion was fluid and adaptive. Over and over, ritual and myth and theology passed between peoples and cultures. Over and over, people rebuilt their religion from old parts.

Another example: Nowadays we associate frenzied, wine-drunk ecstasies with the God Dionysus ("Bacchus" in Rome)—and we're right. But other Gods were worshiped with similar rituals, including the Thracian Sabazius (beer, instead of wine), and the eastern Corybas (associated with the Goddess Cybele), whose sacred possession is called "Corybantism." Even Isis and Cybele were worshiped with wild dancing. Ancient religion was fluid and adaptive. Over and over, ritual and myth and theology passed between peoples and cultures. Over and over, people rebuilt their religion from old parts.


Good Books for this section

Greek Religion
by Walter Burkert

What you'll find:

Here's a surprise, a book by a world renown expert that's well organized and easy to read.

Ancient Greek religion, feature by feature

This book is organized by feature- of- religion:  ritual, the Gods, Heroes, the dead, polytheism, the mysteries, and philosophy-religions.  That gives you a compare and contrast look at, for e.g. baptism or, blood sacrifice across the culture.  So the book complements the cult by cult organization of Finegan and Turcan.


The Cults of the Roman Empire
by Robert Turcan

What you'll find:

In depth details of the political history of the main ancient religions, and intricate details about the theology and ritual

Like Finegan's book the power of this book is that it isn't aimed at proving a connection between paganism and Judeo-Christianity—so you're sure the author isn't skewing things to fit that argument. 

This book is more detailed than Finegan's—giving Highly recommended.



Myth and Mystery
An Introduction to Pagan Religions of the Biblical World
Jack Finegan

What you'll find:

An easy to read survey of pre-Christian Western religion by a mainstream scholar.  Chapters on: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Zoroastrianism, the Canaanites, Greece, Rome, the Gnostics, Mandaeanism, and Manichaeism.

The power of this book is that it isn't aimed at proving a connection between paganism and Judeo-Christianity—so you're sure the author isn't skewing things to fit that argument. Yet you'll read about flood and creation myths paralleling Noah and Adam, about pre-Christian ideas of the immortality of the soul and life after death, and about lots and lots of Gods who die and are reborn.



Isis and Osiris
in Moralia V
Loeb Classical Library #306

by Plutarch

This is the same Plutarch who wrote Plutarch's Lives.  Like Solon, Plato and Pythagoras before him, when he wasn't biographying Plutarch traveled to Egypt and studied the mysteries of Isis and Osiris—probably even got initiated (though he doesn't say for sure).

Isis and Osiris, at just over 90 pages, is modern scholarship's main source for the goodies on one of the ancient world's big name Pagan religions. 

This Loeb translation is pretty easy to read. And fun. You'll discover "accounts of the dismemberment of Osiris and his revivification and regenesis" [Isis and Osiris, 365]—His death and resurrection!  


Be careful, there are a bunch of P's Moralias in print at Loeb and elsewhere. For Isis and Osiris, you want number V, which is Loeb #306.

And the good thing is, you don't have to believe me, you can read it for yourself.


Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion
by Jane Ellen Harrison
(1850- 1928) Lecturer in Greek and Russian at Cambridge University


What you'll find:

673 pages of highly technical "introduction" to ancient Greek religion. First published in 1903, back when every educated person knew lots about Greece—and Harrison knew mountains more than most.

Translations of the "Dionysian Gold Lamellae"—the gold leaves (Italy, 4th century BC) found in the coffins of Dionysus' faithful, giving them instructions on finding salvation in the afterlife.

Way too advanced to be a good first book, but fine for the advanced student.

Still widely cited and still in print --because it is very good.


Religions of Rome
Volume 1 A History
by Mary Beard

Religions of Rome
Volume 2, A Sourcebook
by Mary Beard

What you'll find:

Volume 1: a well organized, well written and very detailed look at Roman religion—mostly Roman civic religion.

Volume 2: instead of footnoting hard to find primary sources, Beard provedes an excellent sourcebook giving extended primary sources illustrating and expanding the points made in volume 1.

Highly recommended.


Volume 1 at

Volume 2 at


The Gods of Ancient Rome
by Robert Turcan

What you'll find:

A short (165 pages), readable book packed with facts about the Roman family and civic Gods, and a little bit about the Gods of the mysteries.  Good, fun, background reading.




The Greeks and the Irrational
by E.R. Dodds

What you'll find:

A classics professor's literate review of Greek ideas about things that are not rational: divine possession, the human soul, and similar religious concepts.

First published in 1951 and still in print—because it is very very good.


The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age
by Professor Walter Burkert

What you'll find:

A look at how archaic Greek religion borrowed from Mesopotamian religion.

Dr. Burkert's standards for Pagan borrowing turn out to be a bit different from the standards he uses elsewhere to find—or avoid finding—later Christian borrowing.


Backgrounds of Early Christianity
by Everett Ferguson

An outstanding book to start with.

What you'll find:

A powerful introduction to the background of Christian-Pagan borrowing, the ancient Pagan (Greek, Roman, Egyptian, etc), Jewish, and early Christian political and religious culture and history.

A treasure: an unusually readable, well writtenfun!—book.

If you need a special-purpose book to understand Christianity's Pagan origins, then probably Christianity didn't have Pagan origins.  It does; you don't.  What you really need is a good book describing ancient Pagan culture and religion.  This outstanding, easy to read book is the best I've read.

From Greco-Roman religions (Mithras, Isis, Dionysus, Eleusis, the mystery religions, etc.) and philosophies (monotheism, the soul, life after death, etc.), on through an excellent section on Second Temple Judaism and another on early Christianity, you'll discover the facts and issues behind modern scholarship on Christian origins.

I bought this book on a whim, figuring it would have a relevant section or two;  I ended up reading the thing cover to cover, 600 delightfully clear and well written pages.  But you don't have to read it cover to cover—just pick the section you're interested in.



Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
by Emma & Ludwig Edelstein

What you'll find:

This is the definitive scholarly work on the God Asclepius. You get two volumes in one book.

Volume 1: 450 pages of primary source material: ancient literature, history, and inscriptions mentioning the God Asclepius.

Volume 2: 260 pages describing and analyzing the evidence. The Hero, the God, Temple Medicine, Cult, Image, Temples.

Primary evidence assembled in the 1940s, still in print because no one since has done better.