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Ursus

A Brief Overview of Paganism

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Paganism means different things to different people. Pagans, of course, never referred to themselves as such, the term being coined by early Christians to refer to their religious opponents. In the modern era a variety of New Age cults have lain claim to Paganism, though their connection to the cults of antiquity are tenuous at best. What then, was Paganism so-called? Paganism as such was a collection of practices, mythologies and worldviews from a variety of cultures that existed before the Christian era.

 

The history of religion begins somewhere in the Stone Age, but those murky origins lie outside the scope of this essay. It is in the Bronze Age, with the beginning of written history, and formation of nascent classical cultures, that the student of paganism can begin on a sound footing. This essay is designed to be a brief overview. It necessarily places breadth over depth and concentrates on generalities rather than particulars. Am emphasis is placed on the Hellenistic era Ptolemaic conception of the cosmos, given the influence it would later exert on imperial Roman cults.

 

The mythologies of the various Bronze Age cultures in the Mediterranean and Near East usually partitioned the cosmos in a similar scheme. At the center of the universe was the earth, or rather its land mass, often conceived as a flat disk. Upon this disk lay humanity and animals, and a variety of minor spirits and mythical creatures. Surrounding the earth was a watery firmament or other natural barrier against which no human could hope to pass. Beneath the earth was the underworld, where the dead were interred and where nefarious spirits resided. Above the earth were the heavens, where the highest gods were thought to reside. Students of Greek mythology can easily recognize this in the tale told by Hesiod, where three divine brothers cast lots for the cosmos. Hades gains the underworld, Poseidon the ocean, and Zeus the heavens. Earth lay in common to all three, and earth was sometimes personified as a goddess herself, perhaps even the mother of the other gods.

 

The political reality of the early Bronze Age was dominated by the city-state. Each city-state laid claim from one to three deities whom they especially revered; patron deities, in effect. The idea was that while the gods resided in the heavens (or sometimes the ocean or underworld), they had for whatever mythical reason become attached to a particular locale on earth. City-states constructed temples to these deities, which usually had a cult statue of the deity and other relics of interest tended to by clergy. It was felt that temples and the statues provided a nexus between divinity and humanity, a focal point whereby humanity could reach out to divinity. The central idea was that a patron deity could confer certain supernatural benefits on its chosen locale (good harvests, cure for diseases, military victory) in exchange for regularly performed offerings and sacrifices. Beneath these deities were lesser powers still propitiated: demigods, heroes, local demons and the spirits of ancestors living in the underworld.

 

Mythographers were wont to assemble the patron deities of all the city-states of a given culture into a pantheon, a kind of divine family or association. And so we have the charming, sometimes confusing and often contradictory tales associated with the gods of Greece, Egypt and other cultures. While culture-spanning mythology held a certain power over the population's imagination, the fact remains that cultic practices of deities throughout much of the Bronze Age were localized and specific. The inhabitants of the era lived in a small world after all; a small disk floating in aether, with the heavens above and hell below, and their city-state as the chief socio-political reference point in this cosmos. Their city's patron, if properly propitiated, should be enough to guide them through the rigors of earthly life.

 

Two phenomena shattered this worldview. On a cosmological level, advances in science had expanded the celestial horizons. The Near East and Egypt had long been students of astronomy, and their science was further refined by the Greeks. The movements of the heavens could now be watched to some degree, and while the ancients still mistook the earth for the center of the universe, they were at least aware the earth shared its immediate space with other planetary neighbors. The old distinctions of earth, heaven and underworld now seemed inadequate. Politically, the trend for sometime in the Near East and the Mediterranean was the consolidation of independent city-states into multi-ethnic kingdoms. This reached the culmination in Alexander's vast if briefly held empire, uniting East and West for the first time. The city-state now found itself simply a component of a much larger realm, and its provincial gods less suited to a spanning world cosmos. These two trends slowly transformed religion.

 

The Ptolemaic cosmos knew of the earth and the moon, and of the seven planets that could be observed with the naked eye. It also knew of the stars, but mistook them for fixed points of light just beyond the observable planets. The major deities were often equated with the sun, moon, planets and stars. Their movements around the earth exacted a certain sympathetic reaction on earth and its creatures. Beneath the moon lay a variety of elemental and demonic powers that also exerted influences on hapless humans. But unlike the planetary deities, these lesser powers might be negotiated with or even controlled. And beyond the fixed stars, beyond human vision, were the empyrean heavens where resided the highest deity, by whatever name he or she was known, the real power of the universe and the origin of creation.

 

When one starts building a vast and clock-like universe, one begins to wonder how much free will one really has amidst a flood of impersonal cosmic forces. Fate, Chance, Fortune - whatever it may be called, this was now felt the real master of those born beneath the sublunar realm. Astrology became increasingly popular as a way of predicting the influence of the planetary deities on earthly life. Side by side, and often in conjunction with this, the art of magic gained acceptance as a way of dealing with the demonic spirits of the earth. While the cults of the city-state gods still formally existed, these newer forces in religion proved quite influential with the masses.

 

The political heads of the new superstates were regarded as divine themselves. For what were gods and spirits but forces of vast power that could intercede in human affairs for better or worse? From that perspective, there was no more immediate manifestation of said power than the Monarch who headed a vast multi-ethnic state, commanding armies and a bureaucracy with the power of life and death over its subjects. The ruler cult flourished, and the monarch was entreated as another god who could save the suppliant from an often unfortunate fate.

 

But even this was not enough. For it was construed that the highest deity who lived in the Empyrean, beyond the fixed stars, might be persuaded to come down from its lofty heights and rescue men from the march of Fate. Amazingly enough, these soteriological deities were, in the midst of patriarchal societies, usually construed as feminine. Perhaps the old cults of the Mother Earth Goddess that had been common in the Bronze Age were simply elevated to Supreme Celestial Goddess once Ptolemy had expanded the cosmos. However it was, cults of goddesses that had once been localized were now universalized into savior goddesses. Within closed societies, initiates learned mysterious rites that would appeal to the savior goddess and implore her to intercede in the life of her adherents for a better fate. Demeter from Greece, Atagartis from Syria, Cybele from Phyrgia - all formerly culturally specific goddesses now elevated to the level of the empyrean savior. But the most successful of these was the Egyptian Isis, whose cult captured all the major port towns in the Mediterranean and beyond.

 

In an increasingly intellectual age, the intellectual elite took things a step further. Perhaps the city-state gods were mere social conventions, quaint metaphors for common people who could not understand the true nature of the cosmos? Thus the cosmos was seen by philosophers as a creature of a single divine force. It could be one of two things. If one were a Stoic, one believed in a pantheistic universe (call it the fire of Zeus if you like!) exerting a fate to which all must peacefully submit. Or if one was a Platonist, one believed the universe had an ultimate point of divine origin that emanated through various layers, until the bottom realm we humans inhabit was but a shadowy pale reflection of higher truth.

 

But in a syncretic age, things often blended together whether they were intended to or not. The fatalistic pantheism of the Stoics merged quite nicely with astrology. The Platonic belief in an ultimate reality was reconciled with soteriological savior cults and their deities of the empyrean.

 

Under the Roman Empire, which expanded and refined the Hellenistic Age, these two trends merged further still, along with a widespread belief in magic. Thus by the Late Empire, the last breath of paganism was exemplified by Neoplatonic philosophers. In the furthest heavens of the Empyrean, they believed, lived the highest god, the ultimate source of creation, the first spark of the divine. Through him emanated various lesser deities and powers, the planets and the stars, and all these exerted their various level of influences on humanity. Through a practice known as theurgy, the magician could learn to recognize and navigate the various levels of a divine universe, until finally the human conscious could absorb the likeness of godhood and ascend into the empyrean. The last pagan Emperor, Julian, belonged to this school of thought.

 

This evolution of paganism came to a screeching halt when Christianity came into possession of Roman imperial power. Fittingly though, Christianity was itself a product of the times. Yahweh was no longer merely the patron god of parochial Hebrew tribes, as he once had been, but had become the universal Creator deity of all humanity before whom no other gods could be placed. His presumed son, Yeshua, called the Christ or "anointed one" by his adherents, embodied in his person various of the soteriological devices of the age. In a syncretic age wrought by the empires of the Greeks and then the Romans, Christianity blended the cultural religions of the Hebrew with the Hellene. Some versions of the cult such as the Gnostics, later considered heretical by the Pauline churches, were even more firmly entrenched in the various syncretic movements of the era before their eventual eradication.

 

Works used and further resources

Martin, Luther. Hellenistic Religions: an Introduction.

Rives, James. Religion in the Roman Empire.

Turcan, Robert. Cults of the Roman Empire.

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That's a great essay Ursus! It's interesting to see that Pagan beliefs changed and were sometimes abandoned as new discoveries were made in astronomy and science. It's also interesting to see how late paganism was influenced by Ptolemy's view of the universe. Had classical Paganism survived into the fourteenth - fifteenth centuries AD, would it have adapted to the Copernican system? Or would it have been as opposed to the Heliocentric version as the Christian church was? We will never know.

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Excellent work Ursus, most commendable .

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Excellent work Ursus, Ive always had a basic understanding of Paganism and have been happy to leave it at that but after reading your essay about the origins of paganism and how it's evolved considerably over the years it really does seem like a fascinating subject.

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Brilliant essay, Ursus! I have a question...

 

Each city-state laid claim from one to three deities whom they especially revered; patron deities, in effect. The idea was that while the gods resided in the heavens (or sometimes the ocean or underworld), they had for whatever mythical reason become attached to a particular locale on earth.

 

Do you see a difference between those cities that adopted a god as their patron, and those cities that adopted a goddess?

 

Not asking because I do or don't see a difference, myself. But interested in your take on it. Specifically, whether the chosen gender of the patron deity might have influenced the cultural development of the city (towards either militarism or the arts -- although, in the case of Athena, I guess she encompasses both of these perceived masculine and feminine attributes). Or, whether a deity of male or female gender was chosen because the city already was inclined towards either a perceived masculine or feminine cultural nature.

 

-- Nephele

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Do you see a difference between those cities that adopted a god as their patron, and those cities that adopted a goddess?

 

 

I don't see a difference. Just about all the ancient societies were "patriarchal" by modern standards, so women didn't have a much of a say in the choice of patron deities.

 

 

Rome had three deities, two of which were female, and it was known more for its armies than for its arts. So I don't think gender was reflective of cultural development.

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Do you see a difference between those cities that adopted a god as their patron, and those cities that adopted a goddess?

 

 

I don't see a difference. Just about all the ancient societies were "patriarchal" by modern standards, so women didn't have a much of a say in the choice of patron deities.

 

 

Rome had three deities, two of which were female, and it was known more for its armies than for its arts. So I don't think gender was reflective of cultural development.

Maybe you should define "pagan" with a little more detail. I have been a "gentile

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Maybe you should define "pagan" with a little more detail.

 

We can't. The term was never used by the people to whom it was actually applied. It was used by early Christians as a catch-all and somewhat perjorative term for everyone in the ancient world who wasn't Jew or Christian. Modern New Age groups have adopted the term for themselves, thus expanding the scope and making the term even more meaningless.

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Excelent overview Ursus

 

In the furthest heavens of the Empyrean, they believed, lived the highest god, the ultimate source of creation, the first spark of the divine. Through him emanated various lesser deities and powers, the planets and the stars, and all these exerted their various level of influences on humanity. Through a practice known as theurgy, the magician could learn to recognize and navigate the various levels of a divine universe, until finally the human conscious could absorb the likeness of godhood and ascend into the empyrean.

 

This is, to a large extent, what christianity believed as well.

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Is it possible that monotheism is simply an overdeveloped patron deity?

 

This is getting off topic, but one can argue this is exactly what happened in regards to the confederation of Hebraic tribes and their patron deity YHWH.

 

One can also see something of it in Stoicism where Zeus becomes the breath of fire in which all things are contained. Or in the Roman Cult of Isis, where Isis soon becomes the goddess, and all other goddesses are mere local aspects of her.

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The term "Pagan"

originated through the following event: Both Gratian and Theodosius

were zealous champions of the orthodox Church, and a large portion

of the edicts issued during their joint reign had for aim the

uprooting of " Heresy" or the suppression of Pagan Worship. Gratian

at his accession had taken away the sacred colleges at Rome , their

endowments and had caused to cease the payment of salaries to the

members of these bodies. As places in these associations were held

by senators( Christianity was being reformed under the Battle

standard of the Labarum, the Christian Standard, this is the letters

XP, written with the words above it " under this sign we shall

conquer " first sign was used in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge

by the Emperor Constantine over the Emperor Maximus the pagan , this

put the peaceful early Church follower , and there were many, under

Arms for the first time, in the name of the Christian God...

Christian Warriors and the state religion was thus born) the

confiscation of property of the colleges dealt paganism a heavy blow

by bringing it about that the pagan party in the senate should no

longer have a personal and material interest in maintaining the

ancient religion.

The Final blow to the old religion , that is the worship of the

founding Gods of the Eternal city, was given the positive

prohibition of the pagan cults. Speaking generally, from the

accession of Constantine , the Christian Emperor, down to the time

which we have now reached, AD 390, the pagans had been allowed full

toleration of worship. There was, during this period , what we call

religious liberty , but not perfect religious equality; for some of

the Christian Emperors favored their own faith in their legislation

and in their appointments to office. But now paganism from being a

tolerated idealism , became a proscribed religion.

It was Theodsius the Great who , by his effective measures against

heathenism , earned the title of " the destroyer of Paganism" . At

first he simply placed the pagan under many disabilities, but

finally he made it a crime for any one to practice any pagan cult,

or even to enter a Temple at all. In the year AD 392 even the

private worship of the `Lares and Penates' was prohibited.

The struggle between Christianity and heathenism was now virtually

ended

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Paganism means different things to different people. Pagans, of course, never referred to themselves as such, the term being coined by early Christians to refer to their religious opponents. In the modern era a variety of New Age cults have lain claim to Paganism, though their connection to the cults of antiquity are tenuous at best. What then, was Paganism so-called? Paganism as such was a collection of practices, mythologies and worldviews from a variety of cultures that existed before the Christian era.

 

The history of religion begins somewhere in the Stone Age, but those murky origins lie outside the scope of this essay. It is in the Bronze Age, with the beginning of written history, and formation of nascent classical cultures, that the student of paganism can begin on a sound footing. This essay is designed to be a brief overview. It necessarily places breadth over depth and concentrates on generalities rather than particulars. Am emphasis is placed on the Hellenistic era Ptolemaic conception of the cosmos, given the influence it would later exert on imperial Roman cults.

 

The mythologies of the various Bronze Age cultures in the Mediterranean and Near East usually partitioned the cosmos in a similar scheme. At the center of the universe was the earth, or rather its land mass, often conceived as a flat disk. Upon this disk lay humanity and animals, and a variety of minor spirits and mythical creatures. Surrounding the earth was a watery firmament or other natural barrier against which no human could hope to pass. Beneath the earth was the underworld, where the dead were interred and where nefarious spirits resided. Above the earth were the heavens, where the highest gods were thought to reside. Students of Greek mythology can easily recognize this in the tale told by Hesiod, where three divine brothers cast lots for the cosmos. Hades gains the underworld, Poseidon the ocean, and Zeus the heavens. Earth lay in common to all three, and earth was sometimes personified as a goddess herself, perhaps even the mother of the other gods.

 

The political reality of the early Bronze Age was dominated by the city-state. Each city-state laid claim from one to three deities whom they especially revered; patron deities, in effect. The idea was that while the gods resided in the heavens (or sometimes the ocean or underworld), they had for whatever mythical reason become attached to a particular locale on earth. City-states constructed temples to these deities, which usually had a cult statue of the deity and other relics of interest tended to by clergy. It was felt that temples and the statues provided a nexus between divinity and humanity, a focal point whereby humanity could reach out to divinity. The central idea was that a patron deity could confer certain supernatural benefits on its chosen locale (good harvests, cure for diseases, military victory) in exchange for regularly performed offerings and sacrifices. Beneath these deities were lesser powers still propitiated: demigods, heroes, local demons and the spirits of ancestors living in the underworld.

 

Mythographers were wont to assemble the patron deities of all the city-states of a given culture into a pantheon, a kind of divine family or association. And so we have the charming, sometimes confusing and often contradictory tales associated with the gods of Greece, Egypt and other cultures. While culture-spanning mythology held a certain power over the population's imagination, the fact remains that cultic practices of deities throughout much of the Bronze Age were localized and specific. The inhabitants of the era lived in a small world after all; a small disk floating in aether, with the heavens above and hell below, and their city-state as the chief socio-political reference point in this cosmos. Their city's patron, if properly propitiated, should be enough to guide them through the rigors of earthly life.

 

Two phenomena shattered this worldview. On a cosmological level, advances in science had expanded the celestial horizons. The Near East and Egypt had long been students of astronomy, and their science was further refined by the Greeks. The movements of the heavens could now be watched to some degree, and while the ancients still mistook the earth for the center of the universe, they were at least aware the earth shared its immediate space with other planetary neighbors. The old distinctions of earth, heaven and underworld now seemed inadequate. Politically, the trend for sometime in the Near East and the Mediterranean was the consolidation of independent city-states into multi-ethnic kingdoms. This reached the culmination in Alexander's vast if briefly held empire, uniting East and West for the first time. The city-state now found itself simply a component of a much larger realm, and its provincial gods less suited to a spanning world cosmos. These two trends slowly transformed religion.

 

The Ptolemaic cosmos knew of the earth and the moon, and of the seven planets that could be observed with the naked eye. It also knew of the stars, but mistook them for fixed points of light just beyond the observable planets. The major deities were often equated with the sun, moon, planets and stars. Their movements around the earth exacted a certain sympathetic reaction on earth and its creatures. Beneath the moon lay a variety of elemental and demonic powers that also exerted influences on hapless humans. But unlike the planetary deities, these lesser powers might be negotiated with or even controlled. And beyond the fixed stars, beyond human vision, were the empyrean heavens where resided the highest deity, by whatever name he or she was known, the real power of the universe and the origin of creation.

 

When one starts building a vast and clock-like universe, one begins to wonder how much free will one really has amidst a flood of impersonal cosmic forces. Fate, Chance, Fortune - whatever it may be called, this was now felt the real master of those born beneath the sublunar realm. Astrology became increasingly popular as a way of predicting the influence of the planetary deities on earthly life. Side by side, and often in conjunction with this, the art of magic gained acceptance as a way of dealing with the demonic spirits of the earth. While the cults of the city-state gods still formally existed, these newer forces in religion proved quite influential with the masses.

 

The political heads of the new superstates were regarded as divine themselves. For what were gods and spirits but forces of vast power that could intercede in human affairs for better or worse? From that perspective, there was no more immediate manifestation of said power than the Monarch who headed a vast multi-ethnic state, commanding armies and a bureaucracy with the power of life and death over its subjects. The ruler cult flourished, and the monarch was entreated as another god who could save the suppliant from an often unfortunate fate.

 

But even this was not enough. For it was construed that the highest deity who lived in the Empyrean, beyond the fixed stars, might be persuaded to come down from its lofty heights and rescue men from the march of Fate. Amazingly enough, these soteriological deities were, in the midst of patriarchal societies, usually construed as feminine. Perhaps the old cults of the Mother Earth Goddess that had been common in the Bronze Age were simply elevated to Supreme Celestial Goddess once Ptolemy had expanded the cosmos. However it was, cults of goddesses that had once been localized were now universalized into savior goddesses. Within closed societies, initiates learned mysterious rites that would appeal to the savior goddess and implore her to intercede in the life of her adherents for a better fate. Demeter from Greece, Atagartis from Syria, Cybele from Phyrgia - all formerly culturally specific goddesses now elevated to the level of the empyrean savior. But the most successful of these was the Egyptian Isis, whose cult captured all the major port towns in the Mediterranean and beyond.

 

In an increasingly intellectual age, the intellectual elite took things a step further. Perhaps the city-state gods were mere social conventions, quaint metaphors for common people who could not understand the true nature of the cosmos? Thus the cosmos was seen by philosophers as a creature of a single divine force. It could be one of two things. If one were a Stoic, one believed in a pantheistic universe (call it the fire of Zeus if you like!) exerting a fate to which all must peacefully submit. Or if one was a Platonist, one believed the universe had an ultimate point of divine origin that emanated through various layers, until the bottom realm we humans inhabit was but a shadowy pale reflection of higher truth.

 

But in a syncretic age, things often blended together whether they were intended to or not. The fatalistic pantheism of the Stoics merged quite nicely with astrology. The Platonic belief in an ultimate reality was reconciled with soteriological savior cults and their deities of the empyrean.

 

Under the Roman Empire, which expanded and refined the Hellenistic Age, these two trends merged further still, along with a widespread belief in magic. Thus by the Late Empire, the last breath of paganism was exemplified by Neoplatonic philosophers. In the furthest heavens of the Empyrean, they believed, lived the highest god, the ultimate source of creation, the first spark of the divine. Through him emanated various lesser deities and powers, the planets and the stars, and all these exerted their various level of influences on humanity. Through a practice known as theurgy, the magician could learn to recognize and navigate the various levels of a divine universe, until finally the human conscious could absorb the likeness of godhood and ascend into the empyrean. The last pagan Emperor, Julian, belonged to this school of thought.

 

This evolution of paganism came to a screeching halt when Christianity came into possession of Roman imperial power. Fittingly though, Christianity was itself a product of the times. Yahweh was no longer merely the patron god of parochial Hebrew tribes, as he once had been, but had become the universal Creator deity of all humanity before whom no other gods could be placed. His presumed son, Yeshua, called the Christ or "anointed one" by his adherents, embodied in his person various of the soteriological devices of the age. In a syncretic age wrought by the empires of the Greeks and then the Romans, Christianity blended the cultural religions of the Hebrew with the Hellene. Some versions of the cult such as the Gnostics, later considered heretical by the Pauline churches, were even more firmly entrenched in the various syncretic movements of the era before their eventual eradication.

 

Works used and further resources

Martin, Luther. Hellenistic Religions: an Introduction.

Rives, James. Religion in the Roman Empire.

Turcan, Robert. Cults of the Roman Empire.

Salve! Do you know, besides christianism, which other religions were persecuted by the Roman Empire? I think that was the case for the Manicheans, some oriental cults, the druidism and maybe judaism.

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Salve! Do you know, besides christianism, which other religions were persecuted by the Roman Empire? I think that was the case for the Manicheans, some oriental cults, the druidism and maybe judaism.

 

Cults that couldn't fit in with the socio-political vision of the establishment met the displeasure of the state.

 

The Druids were snuffed out as centers of resistance to Romanization, but this arguably was the best thing for the advancement of Celtic society beyond its deliberately imposed tribal, illiterate morass.

 

Some eastern cults met the displeasure of the Republic and the early emperors as they were deemed too exotic or un-Roman. As the Empire itself became more Orientalized, this tended to become a non-issue.

 

I believe the Manicheans were considered agents of Persia more than anything else.

 

Judaism was more volatile in the Greek East than the Latin west. Judaism was an ancient religion and thus to be respected, but it was found hard to love people who made a point of denying the State gods. Circumcision and abstaining from pork was found just downright silly. Nonetheless a Jew is recorded as having become a prefect of Egypt, one of the highest positions in the Empire.

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