Chapter 4: Ancient Religious World Views



This lecture presents a “distilled” model for ancient polytheistic religions. We are going to examine first the cosmology or world view of the polytheistic mindset. How did ancient societies generally perceive the universe to be organized? We will then examine the inherent logic to the ancient cosmological world view. The fact that this world view was consistent and coherent demonstrates that its believers gave it a considerable amount of thought and that their explanations account for aspects of order that they observed in the universe. Last we will examine the ways in which inhabitants of ancient societies communicated with their deities. To ancient worshipers the ability to communicate with deities meant that they could to some degree control them and through them the natural environment. Hopefully what will come from this discussion is an appreciation for the manner in which the ancient religious world view not only fulfilled the needs of past societies but also formed part of the essential fabric to their inhabitants' daily lives. It is difficult to appreciate how ancient peoples went about organizing their societies, their communities, or their lives without understanding their spiritual attitudes.


In a word, ancient peoples were extremely superstitious. All around them natural phenomena released destructive energy that they could not understand. All they knew is that these forces were greater than human kind. Ancient polytheistic world views focused on the causation and/or the "deterrence" of destructive or frightening natural phenomena. Lacking scientific understanding prehistoric peoples presumed that any force more powerful than humankind -- lightening, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. -- were inherently divine or the direct manifestations of divine forces. The assignment of names and personalities to these various manifestations enabled prehistoric peoples to identify and to classify divinities, and hence to devise a means by which to communicate with them. To some degree the process resembled the tagging of a crime scene. The more divinities that one could identify, the greater the likelihood ultimately that each one could be communicated with and appeased. In addition to identifying forces of Nature, ancient polytheistic religions were also concerned with the process of the "life cycle," the seemingly perpetual rhythm of Birth, Death, and Regeneration. These events represent corporeal "rites of passage" for human kind and evoke the most pious, powerful emotions. The love that existed between man and woman, the love of mother and father for their children (and vice versa), the pain at losing a loved one, and the fear of death were all embodied by belief systems concerned with the “life cycle.” In addition, much of ancient worship concerned animism, that is, the use of magical power to gain control over one's food supply. Bound up in this concept was the recognition that all organic life inherently must consume life to survive. In essence, one is what one eats. When combined with broader notions of anthropomorphic divinities that existed and manifested themselves on the earth, the power to take life acquired vast significance. How did one know, when taking the life of a deer in the forest, for example, that one was not in fact slaying the favorite deer of the huntress goddess Artemis? This is precisely what occurred to Agamemnon, the King of Bronze Age Mycenae, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in recompense. To avoid the risk of divine retribution, ancient peoples intrinsically recognized the sacred character of life by offering to share the fruits of the hunt with the gods through sacrifice. Despite its complementary tendencies toward the ecstatic and the macabre, sacrifice implicitly recognized the sacredness of all life and the fine line that existed between corporeal existence and nothingness.




Polytheism means the belief in the existence of many gods. There were anthropomorphic and non anthropomorphic deities in most ancient cosmologies. As noted above, most ancient societies displayed a bewildering tendency to incorporate more gods, new gods, foreign gods, into their cosmologies as a means to obtain the benefit of new and “untapped” divine resources. When coming in contact with foreign cultures it was commonplace to search for recognizable attributes of one’s own deities in the newly encountered deities of foreigners. This resulted in syncretism -- the merging of religious beliefs across cultures. Traveling abroad the Greeks associated Melkaart with Zeus, Astarte with Aphrodite, and Cybele with Artemis. The Libyan desert oracle consulted by the Macedonian king Alexander the Great and known to the Greek world as the oracle of “Zeus Ammon” furnishes a famous example of syncretism.


Typically, the ancient universe was perceived as existing in three planes – the arc of the heaven above, the flat land surface of the earth in the middle, and the arc of the underworld below. The deities who inhabited the heavens were the Sky Gods, or the Olympic deities. These deities were typically associated with celestial bodies, the sun, the moon, stars, etc., though Zeus, the father of the gods in Mediterranean cosmology was mostly personified as the storm god. The sky gods controlled the changes of day and night and the seasons; they could also induce storms, floods, drought, snow, hail, and wind. These abilities inevitably gave them power over human affairs. Their ability to peer down on humans from the heavens also enabled them to observe and thus to witness good and bad behavior. Where the fulfillment of sacred oaths were concerned, the Olympic deities enjoyed the capacity to determine “equity,” that is, the recognition that a mortal could be prevented from fulfilling a vow by circumstances beyond his or her control. The sky gods tended to recognize the untoward outcome of an obligation, not merely its original terms. Generally, sky gods gave good things to human kind and were beseeched with promises and hope.


As opposed to the Olympic deities of the heavens, Earth Gods, also known as Chthonic deities, represented the dark, primordial forces of the earth. They included the widespread belief in the Mother Goddess– epitomized by deities such as Isis, Demeter and Persephone, and Inanna (Ishtar). The underworld was also perceived as the realm of the male god Hades or Pluto, the underworld carnation of Zeus. Hades was sometimes identified as Zeus’ brother, sometimes identified as Zeus’ own “mirror image,” Zeus Chthonios. Since earth gods dwelled below the surface of the earth where everything was dark, they were perceived as blind and spiteful, having to take their cue from messages emanating from the Sky Gods. As a result they tended to follow the “letter of the law.” If a mortal failed to abide by a sacred agreement, for example, earth gods were obligated to see to the transgressor’s punishment without regard for equity. Most of all, Chthonic deities controlled the “life cycle.” Since all living things ultimately arose from the earth at birth and returned to the earth in death, the earth gods were presumed to direct this process. Chthonic deities such as Hades received the spirits of all deceased humans and was described by poets as “rich in souls.” Earth gods were generally feared, therefore. Since their control of the life cycle was absolute, human dealings with them were unavoidable. The best one could hope was to placate the Chthonic deities through sacrifice and veneration and thereby delay the inevitability of one’s own demise or that of a loved one.


Numina, non-anthropomorphic deities, or spirit forces, were another divine element that had to be placated. Hestia or Vesta, the essence of fire, was goddess of hearth. Human mastery of fire dated back some 300,000 years. In fact, fire was the first natural energy to be mastered by human kind. The maintenance of the eternal flame of an ancient community such as Rome was viewed as a sacred responsibility, not to mention a communal necessity. The Romans appointed a college of priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, to watch over the eternal flame of the city. They were chosen at puberty from leading aristocratic families and remained virgin devotees of the goddess for the 30 year duration. They lived in a cloistered villa beside the temple and faithfully maintained the cult. They enjoyed high prestige in the community, attended numerous state functions, and otherwise enjoyed privileged status even for Roman aristocratic females. Due to their elevated status most Vestal Virgins chose to remain with the cult when their term of duty expired. However, whenever bad portents were received by the state, it was customary for the religious authorities to investigate the recent behavior of the Vestal Virgins to insure that none had violated the sanctity of their office. Vestal Virgins convicted of immodest activities were executed through live inhumation. Other numina included the Lares and the Penates, friendly spirit forces who warded over the doorsill , the pantry of the household, and the crossroads of farming communities. Many of these spirit forces or energies appear, in fact, to have been closely linked to agricultural society (molds and fungi that could damage crops, for example) and possibly originated their. Their existence at the surface plain of the earth seems certain.


In general one could define polytheistic deities of antiquity as superhuman entities displaying both the best and worst attributes of human nature. Everything that humans did the gods seemingly did to an extreme. Just as humans became angry, the gods became angry to an extreme; as humans felt passion, the gods’ passion was uncontrollable. Consider the example of Zeus and Hera, the former of which would disguise himself in animal form to have sex with beautiful nymphs and maidens. He would then boast about his conquests in the presence of his jealous wife Hera, who would then wreak her vengeance on the unwitting victim. It is difficult to conceive of Zeus, the fornicating, inebriated, mercurially angry god as the discriminating judge of all human actions and the guardian of sacred oaths. Ancient Greco-Roman societies perceived of him in just such a contradictory manner. Herein lay one of the defining distinctions between Polytheistic and Monotheistic world views. Polytheistic world views attempt to explain the random character of natural phenomena. Put simply, “stuff happens.” There is nothing altogether moral or immoral about an earthquake, a flood, or a volcanic eruption. Natural phenomena were inherently violent, destructive, and unpredictable. Accordingly, they were neither moral nor immoral, but “amoral.” When there is no rhyme or reason to why things happen; there is only chaos, and as modern chaos theory has demonstrated even chaos is randomly predictable. Monotheism insists rather that things happen for a reason, that there is an inherent logic to the universe. Gradually identified universal truths, such as mathematical theorems and the predictable movement of the stars, demonstrated that the universe contained irrefutable “particles” of order. Where there is order, there must be law or a set of guiding principles to the universe. Law, in turn, implies that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things. In other words, life has purpose. Order implies the existence of a reasoning intellect responsible for the architecture of the universe. In other words, there is a god. In short, polythiestic world views account for the random character of natural phenomena, monotheistic ones demonstrate its inherent order. The contrast is ultimately that visible.


To contemplate the possibility that the universe lacked controlling deities or that if they did exist, they ceased to concern themselves with human activity ages ago was to commit the crime of hubris. Hubris was a loaded term that entailed a range of meanings. Principally it referred to human arrogance, the act of putting oneself at the level of the gods, to deny their existence or to say they had no power over one. To engage in hubris was to invite divine retribution, and since the gods were immortal they did not need to punish a human in a predictable manner. The gods enjoyed a different sense of time and place; simply killing the transgressor would teach him nothing. For greater effect they could choose to punish the guilty party's loved ones, his village, or his entire society through the introduction of plague and pestilence. In essence, the act of hubris put the entire society at risk and was therefore punishable by death. Accused in 399 BC of corrupting the youth and denying the existence of the gods, Socrates ultimately ran afoul this logic and paid for it with his life. A sensible person feared the gods and scrupulously followed their prescriptions. Careful attention to the wishes of the gods ensured the maintenance of order, the fecundity of nature, and the maintenance of life. The fear of the unknown was one way by which religious authorities controlled but also imposed conformity on their societies.


II. Principle Means of Communication with Ancient Deities: Ritual, Sacrifice, and Divination


One can successfully distill the practice of communicating with divinities into three principal parts: Ritual, Sacrifice, and Divination. Ritual was the invocation of the gods through magical prayers and chants. If properly invoked a god could be compelled against his or her will. Ritual consisted of various forms of prayers, chants, oaths, and curses (black magic). The success of a given ritual gave it timeless legitimacy, not to be deviated from. Ritual was accordingly highly formulaic, entrusted with divine importance and all but frozen in time. Ritual inherently imposed inalterable norms on worshipers. The ritualistic component to religion renders it one of the most conservative attributes of any human culture. Sacrifice was the gift or offering made to a god in exchange for which humans could ask a favor. Sacrifice implied that humans potentially enjoyed power over the gods.  The ancient Sumerians asserted that the gods created humans to feed and to serve them. The gods did not necessarily need to eat, but they longed for the recollection of the pleasure of eating. In much the same manner the gods desired the vicarious experience of all the corporeal pleasures of human life – eating, drinking, sexual relations, and sleep. These were the only genuine proofs of mortal existence, and since mortality was fleeting it possessed value to humans and gods alike. Accordingly, the control of corporeal pleasures gave humans a handle over their gods. The logic of this is explained by the assigned reading in the Gilgamesh epic, where Noah or Utnapushtim conducted his sacrifice following the flood, (lines 150-165). As the text notes, “the gods smelled the sweet savor, the gods crowded like flies around the sacrifice.”


Human dealings with the gods were viewed in terms of a contractual relationship. The Latin vow, do ut des (I give to you so that you might give me in return), expressed this succinctly. [footnote For discussion of this, see the works of Walter Burkert, Homo Necans, and Greek Religion] Sacrifice was divided into two types, blood and non-blood sacrifices. Although non blood sacrifices such as the dedication of votive objects and libations into the ground were probably more commonplace, blood sacrifices of animals such as chicken, sheep, goats, cows and bulls arrest our attention. Sacrifices represented social interaction at a number of levels. First and foremost they functioned as a Feast (adding protein to one’s diet) typically shared among a collective since the victim needed to be consumed all at once. By cooking the inedible portions over a fire to  create a sooty smoke column visible in the heavens, they represented the sharing of life with a deity (communion). The macabre experience of witnessing the shedding of blood convinced participants of the divine power of the sacrificial action, that is, the human capacity to take life. And by focusing on the otherworldly aspect of the moment, frequently enhanced through consumption of wine or other stimulants, they exposed the participants to an ecstatic experience shared in a collective. In Classical World Civilizations human sacrifice did occur on occasion, but it was typically viewed as distasteful and a last resort to summon the attention of the gods.


Divination was the belief that the gods sent signs predicting the future and that these signs could be interpreted by skilled professionals. This is typically what the priest or devotee requested, and what the god returned, invoked or uninvoked. Invoked signs implied that the gods could be summoned magically or even compelled to give answers to human prayers and requests. Uninvoked signs were natural phenomena sent by the gods uninvited, such as storms with damaging hail and lightening or births of unnaturally deformed animals. The chief purpose of invoking the gods through ritual and sacrifice was to summon the attention of a deity momentarily in order to place before it a proposed course of action. All official “state sponsored” activities required due consultation of the gods. Divination took many forms: astrology (observing the sky for natural phenomena), heptascopy (the examination of the livers of sacrificial victims), avail observances, and even the hypnotic utterances of ecstatic priests and priestesses. Typically it would occur in a precinct referred to in Latin as a templum, a ritually purified area for purposes of divination.  In Rome before a public voting assembly could be convened, the priestly college of the augurs would monitor a given quadrant of the night sky for the “flight of the birds.” Depending on the omens that were observed (positive vs. negative types of birds) an assembly either would or would not occur. Military commanders typically consulted the shape of the livers of sacrificial victims before committing their forces to battle. With his navy arrayed in battle formation, a Roman admiral had to await the outcome of the feeding of sacred chickens, kept in a cage on the deck of his flagship. If they ate with gusto, that was a positive sign and a naval battle would ensue. If they hesitated and looked to the heavens this was a bad sign and the admiral was religiously obligated to refrain from committing his warships to a divinely unsanctioned action. No public activity could occur without due invocation of the gods and nothing was done without their consent. Religious authority, in other words, was directly translatable into legal, military, political or judicial power.


It is important to recognize that today’s worst superstitious attitudes represented officially sanctioned policy in the past. Days were viewed as Fas or Nefas (divinely sanctioned or unsanctioned). Any untoward occurrence could be interpreted as an omen. Stepping on a crack in the sidewalk, breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, avoiding the path of a black cat pale in comparison to the texture of superstitious lore sustained in antiquity. In 42 BC, Marcus Brutus’ army killed an African (black) man who happened to cross its path on the road to Philippi. What equally needs to be stressed is the inseparable character of religious and secular life in most ancient civilizations. On any given day, sacrifices of family cults would occur in each and every household, sacrifices would occur in civic centers before they could be “opened for business,” and no army would commit to battle short of an appropriate sign from the gods. Religious activity formed, therefore, a regular, permanent background to social activity and was so commonplace that it was taken for granted by ancient writers and their audiences. Ancient writers in essence took it for granted that their readers were fully cognizant of this fact, thus, offering  little explanation.



The standard view of after death was fairly grim: The souls of departed humans traveled to the underworld kingdom of Hades where they existed for eternity as shades. Despite the dismal character of this ghost-like existence in the dark sphere of the underworld, people believed that human spirits emitted an energy force like other spirit forces that could be cultivated by the living through libations. Libations of wine and oil poured into the earth were believed to infuse the remains of the departed with substances resembling blood to remind the spirits, however briefly, of the ineffable qualities of life. Thus, by revering the dead one gained the potential assistance of their spiritual energy, which like other energies could be channeled toward negative as well as positive ends. Reverence of the dead helped to maintain the link between the living and the deceased in the wider cycle of life.


[sidebar drawing of two figures on an Attic white ground lekythos]


Within this larger “framework” of afterlife belief existed numerous religious associations more correctly identified as “cults.” The identification of a cult, as opposed to a religion, rests with the closed character of its membership, and its tendency to focus attention on a particular divinity. At least three types of cults existed in the ancient world: ancestor cults, mystery cults, and hero cults.


From the perspective of social status, ancestor cults were the most notable of the three. Extended families of respectable, property holding citizens in ancient communities tended to claim and/or recognize descent from a common ancestor, usually a hero descended from the gods. Land-holding families could point to the cemetery plots on their estates as proof of the duration of their lineage. The collective energy of so many ancestors, when properly revered, offered enormous potential of assistance in the spirit world. Each family had its own unique cultic rituals and observances that were handed down from father to son as the head of each presiding generation in the household. The chief duty of the eldest male in such a context was to produce a male heir who would maintain the cult of the dead after he himself had passed into the afterworld. Otherwise, the cult observances would come to a close, and he would be responsible for irreparably disrupting the continuum that had connected the living and the dead since time in memoriam. In ancestor cults the focus was always on male lineage because adult females would marry into the households of other families, thus abandoning their own cults in favor of those of their husbands. Ancestor cults tended to focus on the continuum of life, therefore, the fact that all humans descended from ancestors who had managed to avoid extinction and who were available to assist the living through proper maintenance of the family cult and its principle assets, the remains of the ancestors themselves. In archaic societies the presence of family burial plots rendered land inalienable because of the associated religious taboo.


Proof of one’s descent from heroic lineage typically identified someone as an aristocrat. It did not hurt, of course, that aristocrats also claimed possession to the largest and most productive portions of a community’s arable land, and it was always a good question which came first, aristocratic descent or large landholdings. The very least an aristocrat could claim was that his family had occupied a particular estate for as long as the community itself could remember.  The very notion of aristocratic descent distinguishes itself from modern concepts of “class identification” because it was intrinsically based on non-economic criteria such as “blue bloodedness.” Since descent from the gods furnished the basis for nobility, aristocratic elders tended to stand as the chief priests of the gods in question. Even when family cults were incorporated by state authorities into the urban collective, it was usually conditioned on the requirement that the priests of the newly established “state” cult would be selected from that particular family. The distinction of claiming descent from the gods meant that aristocrats were the humans most capable of communicating with them. Why rely on someone whose connection was more remote? This notion conferred on aristocrats intrinsic leadership responsibilities. As we have seen, the religious authority of aristocratic leaders was directly translatable into law.


Ancestor cults and descent from the gods, thus, furnished the basis for aristocratic control of state religion. Participation in the public cults of a state or community typically required aristocratic status. The remainder of the community assumed the more passive role of being allowed to observe aristocrats as they conducted the rites associated with preserving the safety of the community. Lesser people could of course approach the gods on their own, but it was tacitly understood that the gods would listen to the prayers of those who were more directly related to them (aristocrats) and could afford the most elaborate sacrifices (the wealthy). Those seeking a more personal experience with the divine, particularly those who by force of circumstance (enslavement, migration, or flight) had become cut adrift from their lineage homes, tended to turn to other forms of cultic experience such as mystery and hero cults.


Mystery cults focused on a more intimate personal experience with deity who according to tradition died and was reborn.. These included Dionysus, Isis/Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, and Attis/Adonis. Members of mystery cults did not necessarily deny the existence of other gods; rather, by entering into the cult they vowed to commit their energies to the veneration of a particular god above all others. All mystery cults tended to exhibit the same attributes, including exclusivity (there was a clear distinction between members of a cult and those without), rites of initiation (to enter a cult all members had to undergo secret rites that revealed the true essence of the deity), ecstatic experience (various means - wine, macabre sacrifices, orgies - were used to heightened the consciousness of cult members and to convince them of the divine power of the god), communion with a deity (in this instance, belief in a one-to-one relationship with the god as its devotee), democratic recruitment (membership was frequently status-blind with slaves and freedmen welcome to membership; women were frequently listed as chief priestesses), and the possibility of afterlife (since the beliefs of the cults remained secret the precise nature of a member’s afterlife expectations remain unrevealed; at the very least it was believed that the power of this particular deity would make the member’s experience of the afterlife somehow more pleasurable that otherwise). The widespread popularity of mystery cults such as those of Dionysus, Isis-Serapis or the Magna Mater (Cybele) during the Roman empire testify to the void they filled in the lives of everyday people seeking a greater sense of purpose to their otherwise ordinary lives. As opposed to the cold, detached character of the official cults maintained by local aristocracies, these cults offered a more intimate and meaningful religious experience to its members. Members of cults typically formed closed community usually with a central religious focus. Habitual meetings enabled members to develop closer personal bonds used to celebrate the pivotal rites of passage of the human experience, births (and birthdays), weddings, and funerals. Elderly members could take comfort in the notion that their remains would receive proper rites after their departure. In fact, the main purpose of most local cults was to function as burial associations and members had to pay dues to insure their proper attention in the afterlife. The chief purpose of a cult ultimately appears to have been to enable those without family networks (isolated slaves, freed persons, orphans and widows) to forge surrogate families to ensure their protection in the afterworld.


Hero cults are slightly different from mystery cults in that the object of devotion was essentially a mortal who performed such superhuman achievements on earth that he was awarded divine status on his demise. The best example of this was the hero-god Herakles (Hercules). Destined by Zeus to be his greatest progeny he was cheated of his rightful place in Olympic pantheon by jealous Hera and was required to complete a list of superhuman “labors” in order to earn it. Each of his labors in some way was associated with the conquest and overcoming of death. In the process he rid the world of primordial monsters, taught humans the science of agriculture, and showed them the proper manner to worship his divine father Zeus. Tragically, in the end Herakles attained his rightful place in the heavens and demonstrated to everyday mortals that it was possible to defeat one’s allotted fate and obtain a better outcome in life. One simply had to believe in the power of Herakles and faithfully tithe a portion of one’s earnings to his cult. The tradition of the tithe and other aspects of the cult point to a syncretic origin in this hero cult with the Phoenician cult of Melkaart of Tyre. In any event, Herakles became the “patron saint” of all those embarking on life-threatening missions, including merchants, sailors, warriors, and women in childbirth. He offered hope of beating one’s allotted fate in life to all those who through no fault of their own found themselves in a disadvantaged state and desired more. To attain the divine status of hero required superhuman accomplishments. The two most notable examples in this regard remain Alexander the Great, the King of Macedonia (336-323 BC) and the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar (101-44 BC). Alexander conquered most of the known world from Greece all the way to India without ever losing a battle. Julius Caesar conquered ancient Gaul and then defeated all his rivals in a long and bloody Civil War (49-45 BC) only to be assassinated by other political rivals on the Ides of March 44 BC. On the night of his funeral a comet appeared in the sky removing any doubt among the devout that his soul had ascended to the heavens. An altar was erected on the site of his cremation that was widely used by ordinary Romans for oath observances. it is worth noting that both heroes were high born, both claimed descent from the gods, and enjoyed optimum positions and every possible advantage with which to attempt superhuman accomplishments in the first place. Be that as it may, each was believed to have attained divine status, laying the foundation for ruler cults for their descendants and reassuring the devout that the possibility of obtaining divine afterlife was real.



a brief description of the character of the Sumerian pantheon of gods needed here.


Sumerian gods:

Anu - sky god (Uruk)
Enlil (Marduk, Zeus) air god (Nippur)
Inanna (Ishtar, Aphrodite) - love and fertility
Enki (EA) earth and water, life giving (Eridu)
Utu (Shamash) - Justice
Nanna (Sin) - mood goddess (UR)
Hadad - storm god


In conclusion it remains essential for modern readers of ancient texts of all kinds -- the Old Testament, Demosthenes Speeches, Plutarch's lives, to inform themselves of the inherent organization and logic of ancient religious world views and to bear these in mind. Otherwise, much of what they have to relate will seem unintelligible, imperceptible, and largely misunderstood. Given the centrality of religious activity to ancient social life, this textbook devotes considerable attention to the matter as it addresses various significant civilizations. The importance of ancient religious activity is perhaps the single greatest facet of past civilizations that has become lost on students today. To understand the behavior of ancient societies we need to bear in mind this mindset.