Ancient Religions

Sarah Iles Johnston
general editor

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2007

1. Religions. 2. Civilization, Ancient.
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 285 p
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 978-0-674-02548-6 (pbk. : alk. paper)
 2004, 2007
 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College 

When Croesus, the king of Lydia, was debating about whether to
attack the Persian Empire, he decided to seek advice from the gods. Being a
cautious man, however, he decided first to determine which source of divine
advice was the most reliable. He sent envoys to each of the famous oracles in
the ancient world (which happened to be in Greece and Libya) and instructed
them to ask the gods what he was doing in faraway Lydia one hundred days after
the envoys had left his court. He then devised an activity that he was confident
no one could guess: he boiled the meat of a tortoise and the flesh of a
rabbit together in a bronze cauldron, covered by a bronze lid. When the envoys
returned with written records of what each oracle’s god had said, Croesus discovered
that only two of them—Delphic Apollo and Amphiaraus—had correctly
described his strange culinary experiment. He proceeded to make enormously
rich offerings to Apollo (and lesser offerings to Amphiaraus, whose
oracle was not as prestigious) and then asked Apollo’s advice. Upon receiving
it, Croesus attacked Persia (Herodotus 1.46ff).

Croesus’s experiment serves as an apt parable for this volume because it is
one of the earliest examples of what might be called religious comparison
shopping: rather than simply asking his own experts to obtain the gods’ advice,
Croesus checked out all the divine resources within his reach and staked his future
on the one that looked best. The general concept should be familiar
enough to readers who live in America or western Europe, where religious plurality
offers a spectrum of deities, practices, and beliefs to which one might
pledge allegiance. Our immediate environments (in sad contrast to more distant
parts of our world, including some where Croesus once walked) offer us
easy access to numerous variations of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism,
and Buddhism, as well as a plethora of newer religions such as Wicca and Scientology.
Some of these are imports from other cultures; others are combinations
of previously existing religions.

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 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 call classics 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-cultural influences within the ancient Mediterranean, but also brought
new energy to the old quest of tracking the specific, discrete origins of each culture’s
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 call “Indo-European.” Linguistics provided another
reason for separating the (Indo-European) western Mediterranean from the
(non–Indo-European) eastern regions.

One might have expected the scholarly barrier between east and west to
erode during the later 19th and early 20th centuries, which brought such advancements
as the deciphering of hieroglyphs and cuneiform writing and of the
Hittite language (an Indo-European language attached to an “oriental” culture),
along with the discovery of Mycenaean civilizations and of orientalizing
elements in Greek art. Some erosion did in fact begin to occur, especially in
the fields of art history, ancient history, and the study of ancient magic (a field
that was itself only in its infancy). Yet during the period between World War I
and World War II, scholars, particularly in Germany, once again sought to assert
the unique character of each Mediterranean culture. In 1946, publication
of the Hittite creation myth, which offered significant thematic parallels to
Hesiod’s Theogony, reopened consideration of the question of cultural exchange
in the ancient world. Slowly but surely, a new consensus emerged: the
Mediterranean Sea had been not a barrier between disparate cultures after all,
but rather a conduit, through which both material goods and ideas were easily
transported. No ancient culture was left untouched by its neighbors. In the
mid-1960s, scholarly publications based on this now widely accepted understanding
began to appear, and have continued ever since.

Religious beliefs and practices, which permeated all aspects of human life in
antiquity, were inevitably transmitted throughout the Mediterranean along
with everything else: itinerant charismatic practitioners journeyed from place
to place, selling their skills as healers, purifiers, cursers, and initiators; vessels
decorated with illustrations of myths traveled along with the goods they contained;
new gods were encountered in foreign lands by merchants and conquerors
and, when useful, were taken home to be adapted and adopted.
The essays in this volume are drawn from Religions of the Ancient World, a
larger reference work that both collected information about religions in the ancient
world and organized it in such a way as to encourage readers to investigate
those religions within the comparative framework that is now considered
essential for their comprehension. By presenting material from the ten cultures
and traditions that it investigated side-by-side, Religions of the Ancient World
strove to inform its readers and generate comparative thought in complementary ways.

The first part of that work reprinted here, “Encountering Ancient Religions,”
consists of eleven essays whose topics cut across cultural boundaries,
such as Cosmology, Myth, and Law and Ethics. The authors of these essays
were charged with stepping back from the particular cultures on which their
own scholarship usually focuses and taking a broader look at the given phenomena
as they were found throughout the Mediterranean: What remains consistent
as we cross from one culture or tradition to another? What changes,
and why? What, if anything, can we say about the core functions and expressive
modes that the phenomena manifest across several millennia of ancient
Mediterranean history? The authors also were asked to consider what essential
theoretical or methodological problems confront us as we approach these topics:
How can we define “magic” in contrast to “religion,” for example—or
should we even try to do so? How does the transition from an orally based religious
culture to one that is scripturally based affect not only the practices and
beliefs themselves, but also our approach to the evidence for them? The first essay
in this part asks a question that stands behind all the others: What counts
as “Mediterranean religion” anyway? Or to put it otherwise: In spite of the
long history of Mediterranean cultural interaction that scholars now accept,
what aspects of the disparate religions most closely coalesced to form a sort of
koinÁ, or common language, that could have been understood by anyone traveling
through the ancient landscape?
The second part, “Histories,” includes essays that trace the histories of religions
in each of the cultures and traditions between about the 3rd millennium
bce and the 5th century ce, offering accounts of how each of the cultures
and its political, social, artistic, and religious institutions changed over time.
Here readers will find, for example, a description of the Greek polis system and
its effect on civic religion, a discussion of the centrality of maÚat (justice, order)
within Egyptian thought, a description of how Zoroastrianism developed
within earlier Iranian religions, and a discussion of literary sources for Ugaritic
religion. The Epilogue is an important complement to the entire volume. It
poses and begins to answer questions that earlier essays, which focused on disix
crete topics, were unable to tackle. By asking what the phrase “ancient world”
signifies, for example, the Epilogue compels us to recognize another aspect of
the concern with definitions that first was broached in “What Is Ancient Mediterranean
Religion?”: once we have arrived at a working definition of Mediterranean
religions and have investigated them as fully as possible, what can we
then say about the way they differed from religions of later periods? Are the
common assumptions that we make about ancient religions serviceable or misleading
in understanding the transition? And was there a definitive transition
at all—can we even identify behaviors that are more characteristic of ancient
religions than post-ancient?

Some hundred and forty scholars contributed to Religions of the Ancient
World, nineteen of whom are represented in this volume. Each brought his or
her own methodology, style, and interests to the topics assigned. Rather than
attempt to impose an artificial consistency on their contributions, the book’s
editors left them alone as much as possible. Thus, some essays concentrate primarily
on conveying facts, whereas others produce a synoptic view of the topic
at hand, adducing facts only as necessary.

To some degree, these variations reflect differences in the state of research
among the fields: most of the texts and many of the archeological remains of
Greece and Rome have been available for two millennia; the texts of biblical
religion have been around for about the same length of time, while its monuments
have come to light more slowly; both the texts and the monuments of
other Near Eastern cultures were almost completely hidden until recently.
Egypt stands somewhere in the middle: its monuments have always loomed on
the landscape, but the languages of Pharaonic Egypt were unreadable until
about two hundred years ago. Fashions in scholarship and ideological agendas
also helped to condemn some cultures and their religions to near-obscurity for
most of the modern era. Some fields have been more eager than others, too, to
embrace new theoretical methods of study—to their benefit or sometimes their
detriment. Although the editors have worked to ensure that each essay presents
the basic facts that are salient to its topic, we have left the overall design and
approach of discussions to individual authors. We have even allowed occasional
disagreements between authors to stand, as indications of ongoing debate
within the larger scholarly community.

When Croesus asked Apollo whether he should attack Persia, the god answered
that if he did, “a great empire would fall.” Assuming this meant the
Persian Empire, Croesus attacked. But Apollo really meant the Lydian Empire,
and so Croesus eventually found himself standing on a pyre in front of Cyrus,
the Persian king, condemned to be burned alive.
Interpreting what someone else says is always a risky business, even if the
speaker is not a god famous for enigmatic pronouncements. Comparative work
is particularly fraught with risks because, try as we might, those of us who are
not trained in the languages and history of a given culture can never quite understand
its complexities or catch its nuances.We are apt to make innocent but
grievous errors, assuming, for instance, that the sacrificial act in Egypt had the
same resonance as it did in Greece, or that the professional priesthoods found
in many ancient Mediterranean cultures had correlates in the rest. To carry off
a project such as this volume requires a team of people who are not only excellent
scholars but also excellent communicators.

Throughout Religions of the Ancient World’s development, the exchange of
ideas was vital, and I could not have asked for better colleagues in this respect
than the members of the Editorial Board. Members of the Board of Advisors—
Elizabeth Clark, David Frankfurter, Albert Henrichs, Gregory Nagy,
John Scheid, and Claus Wilcke—were crucial to this process as well; all of
them have contributed their expertise to the project and some of them were
called on frequently. The contributors, some of whom wrote more than one essay,
are to be thanked both for their scholarly efforts and for their patience.
I cannot leave Croesus on his pyre. Just as the flames were licking at its edges,
Cyrus engaged Croesus in a debate about the meaning of happiness. Impressed
with his captive’s answer—Croesus held to a dictum he had learned from the
Greek statesman Solon, according to which no human life could be counted as
happy until one saw how it ended—Cyrus ordered that the pyre be extinguished.
It was too late, however, for human intervention to quench the flames;
only through Croesus’s earnest prayers to Apollo did help arrive, in the form of
a sudden rain shower. Stepping down from the pyre, Croesus went on to become
Cyrus’s staunch friend and advisor. And so ended Croesus’s experiment
in religious comparison shopping. Led astray through his misinterpretation of
a Greek god’s advice, saved when he adduced the words of a Greek sage and
prayed once again to the Greek god, Croesus the Lydian finished out his life
helping Cyrus (who was himself half Mede and half Persian) carry Persian rule
throughout much of the ancient world: Croesus became a true Mediterranean
cosmopolite. May the present experiment in religious comparison prove to be
just as inclusive in its embrace and just as fortunate in its fate.

Table of Contents
Introduction • Sarah Iles Johnston vii
Note on Translation and Transliteration xiii
Abbreviations xv
Maps xvi
encountering ancient religions
What Is Ancient Mediterranean Religion? • Fritz Graf 3
Monotheism and Polytheism • Jan Assmann 17
Ritual • Jan Bremmer 32
Myth • Fritz Graf 45
Cosmology: Time and History • John J. Collins 59
Pollution, Sin, Atonement, Salvation • Harold W. Attridge 71
Law and Ethics • Eckart Otto 84
Mysteries • Sarah Iles Johnston 98
Religions in Contact • John Scheid 112
Writing and Religion • Mary Beard 127
Magic • Sarah Iles Johnston 139
Egypt • Jan Assmann and David Frankfurter 155
Mesopotamia • Paul-Alain Beaulieu 165
Syria and Canaan • David P. Wright 173
Israel • John J. Collins 181
Anatolia: Hittites • David P. Wright 189
Iran • William Malandra and Michael Stausberg 197
Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations • Nanno Marinatos 206
Greece • Jon Mikalson 210
Etruria • Olivier de Cazanove 220
Rome • John North 225
Early Christianity • Harold W. Attridge 233
Epilogue • Bruce Lincoln 241
Contributors 253
Index 255


Note on Translation and Transliteration
Personal, divine, and geographical names are given throughout in familiar or
simplified forms, using no diacritical marks or special characters (Astarte,
Nike, Zarathustra). Transliteration of special terms follows standard scholarly
practice for the discipline involved (nawrÄz, eschatiÁ, pesaÉ).
Greek names are given in their Latinate form, except for those that are best
known in their Greek forms (such as Knossos) and cultic terms or epithets
(such as Hekatombaia and Zeus Ktesios).
Quotations from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament follow the Revised
Standard Version.
Translations of passages from other works, unless credited to a published
source, may be assumed to be by the article’s author.
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