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A discussion of the religious ceremonies of paganism

Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. In recent decades this theory, always highly speculative and over-dependent on the views of ancient philosophers, has been largely abandoned. In fact, down to the 2nd, even the 3rd century ce, pagan worship still seems to have been an important element in the way cities and communities of the Roman Empire worked, sustaining the power of ruling elites, but also defining the way individuals expressed their private concerns and problems.

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For the overwhelming majority, the old deities kept their hold, and there is a strong tradition of dedications, in fulfillment of vows to gods and goddesses, that bears witness to a continued tradition of individual piety.

At the same time, although the Empire was successful from the 1st century bce onwards in maintaining widespread order and prosperity, the nature of city life was changing in fundamental respects.

With stability came a high degree of mobility, and cities of both East and West came to find themselves with religious groups living in tense proximity, first of Jews, then of Christians, Manichaeans, and others. To those with a taste for broad generalizations, it has been appealing to interpret these developments as a great conflict between polytheism and monotheism, some rating monotheism as so superior that it could be treated as an inevitable step up in the evolutionary progression of the human race.

Paganism was therefore doomed in advance. What is certain is that pagan religion and its many deities became the target of a concentrated attack by the Christian Fathers; but that alone can hardly explain why traditional worship lost its appeal to so many of its adherents in quite a short period of the 4th century ce: Efforts at resistance to Christianity, in particular, once thought very important, prove to have been evanescent at best in the light of recent research.

To find a new understanding of these very profound changes in religious history, analysis is needed: Answers cannot lie in studying only Christians, or only Jews, or only pagans, as is still too often the practice, but rather in the nature of their interactions with one another. The kind of religious competition for members that characterized this situation was quite a new phenomenon to the great majority of the inhabitants of the Empire. They were not accustomed to dealing with competing religious groups each with their own ideas and doctrines.

Pagan deities had always needed to attract worshippers to their a discussion of the religious ceremonies of paganism but they were defined by myths, rituals, and the functions they performed, not by having distinct theologies or creeds.

It was the coming of competition and conflict that radically changed the religious landscape and generated new elements in religious life. Meanwhile, once the Emperors had adopted Christianity, paganism, which had always been involved in the exercise of central power, retreated to the margins. The changes in question took place gradually over these centuries; for that very reason, they were not for the most part observed or explained by contemporaries and have to be reconstructed or inferred by historians.

One major theme is the terminology used to discuss the practices, ideas, and institutions of the Greco-Roman world when they were dealing with their gods and goddesses. This is inescapable, because of the quite different implications of the words as we use them today.

Pagan weddings

What we can be certain about is that, in this period, there were major and wide-ranging changes: All these groups, and others, must have been in competition for membership and this competition is one of the new elements in the situation that need to be recognized and, if possible, explained. To some extent, there would have been competition for members and resources in earlier periods as well, but the basis of traditional pagan loyalty was largely determined by the community to which you belonged.

The gods were the gods of your city or community: The traditional explanation for the rate of religious change in this period combines the presence of new religious groups, especially Christians, with the supposed long-term deterioration of pagan practice. The Roman antiquarian Varro 116—27 bce claimed, according to Saint Augustine, that he was saving the gods of his city from neglect and forgetfulness by including them in his writings.

In recent decades, this theory, always highly speculative and over-dependent on the views of ancient philosophers who did discuss the deities and their existential status, has largely been abandoned by historians of religion. There is every reason to think that the old deities kept their hold; there is, for example, a strong tradition of dedications in fulfillment of vows to gods and goddesses that bears witness to a continued and developing tradition of individual piety.

We need to remember too that, if deities were being forgotten, they were not the great gods and goddesses, but minor ones, whom Varro himself was digging out from old records.

The fact is that the forgetting of ancient deities and the discovery of new ones went hand in hand in the life of Rome, which had countless deities great and small. The clash of cultures here is brutally exposed, but the interpretation of the passage remains highly problematic.

To do this more effectively, they ransacked pagan Latin writings, particularly those of Varro, for everything that could be regarded by Christian standards as repulsive and irreligious; or a discussion of the religious ceremonies of paganism might, alternatively, betray the secret that the leading so-called pagans held views quite different from those of the credulous masses, but concealed them for fear of losing control.

The Religious History of the Roman Empire

There is no way, and no reason, to challenge all the criticism of pagan gods offered by Christian writers such as Lactantius, Arnobius, and Augustine. However, since so much has been made in the past of the assumed inferiority of pagan religion, it is important to recall at once some of its very great strengths: In many ways they were more like fellow-citizens than slave-masters in the sky.

It is quite anachronistic to assume that the educated elites of the ancient world, with whom modern classical scholars tend to have strong sympathies, shared modern monotheistic assumptions. The unifying assumption that underlay these 19th and 20th century judgments was at root quite a simple one, derived from religious assumptions shared by the critics and their ancient Christian authorities, which they would have regarded as a common-sense assumption, scarcely meriting discussion or debate.

  1. The family, in the Roman understanding of the word, included the slaves owned by the paterfamilias as well as the blood relations and freed people. Persecution on this scale was a rare event in paganism, and nothing similar happened until the Christians had begun to establish themselves.
  2. In fact, down to the 2nd, even the 3rd century ce, pagan worship still seems to have been an important element in the way cities and communities of the Roman Empire worked, sustaining the power of ruling elites, but also defining the way individuals expressed their private concerns and problems. As with most Pagan rituals, a handfasting will be followed by feasting and celebration by the company.
  3. A couple may choose to handfast for the traditional period of a year and a day, and it is not uncommon for Pagans in long-term relationships to renew their vows after each year and a day has passed so that neither comes to take the other for granted. Elite Romans probably did not like associating with either of these groups of newcomers, but their existence must over time have widened their knowledge and ideas, arguably including toleration.
  4. Rings will be exchanged and the ceremony will conclude with 'jumping the broomstick' - the couple leaping hand in hand over a broom held horizontally before them, thus crossing the symbolic boundary between their old lives and their new, shared, one.
  5. The names of Roman deities are found widely, but often as translations of local gods and goddesses. New Groups Persecution for Your Beliefs?

In its basic form, this would have been the conviction that any rational person would agree, once it was put to her or him, that the idea of there being a single power controlling the cosmos and its working was an infinitely more powerful and plausible conception than that of a multiplicity of distinct deities with limited, local overlapping powers.

What is now being recognized is that understanding the religious ideas of an ancient city cannot be achieved by such a simple effort of modern common sense. It should be accepted that we need a new vocabulary and a new set of conceptions, if we want to grasp how ancient human beings interacted with ancient supernatural ones.

Our understanding of the religious life of the ancients is interwoven with the problems of the vocabulary we use to describe it. The discussions that follow should not be seen as debates about words, but attempts to disentangle the connection of words with institutions and actions.

However successful the gods, goddesses, men, and women of Rome had been in the republican centuries, the 1st a discussion of the religious ceremonies of paganism bce saw the system fall into political conflict, confusion, and eventually civil war.

The new order created by Augustus was remarkably successful in maintaining widespread order and prosperity, and during these years, the nature of city life was changing in fundamental respects. With long periods of widespread stability, travel, and trading, there came a high degree of mobility of peoples and deities.

The cities of both East and West came to find themselves with groups living in tense proximity with Greeks and Romans: This situation implies two areas of change: For Greeks and Romans, at least those living in the major cities of both East and West, living in proximity with groups of foreign origin and different religious practices must have become a familiar part of life.

The universal prevalence of slavery throughout the Empire will have meant that the same would have been true even in their homes and on their farms. Elite Romans probably did not like associating with either of these groups of newcomers, but their existence must over time have widened their knowledge and ideas, arguably including toleration.

The Romans did not seek to regulate the lives of the peoples in their provinces, beyond what they thought necessary to keep order and collect taxes. In their religious activities, as in their civic lives more generally, local elites were allowed freedom of action in return for accepting and largely administering Roman rule in their areas, subject to limited oversight by Roman administrators.

The names of Roman deities are found widely, but often as translations of local gods and goddesses. There is no question that the Empire provided both the context within which the mixture of different practices and the evolution of new ones became possible. As Greek and Roman enquirers looked around the world they knew, they found a great deal of similarity, as well as variety, in detail between the religious practices and ideas of their own societies and those of their contemporaries in other parts of the world they knew.

For the most part, they would have found a multiplicity of deities; their gendered division; the regular use of domestic animals as sacrificial victims; the presence and power of priests and diviners of various kinds; a deeply local character in the activities of communities, cities, and tribes; and a close connection between the rituals, the rulers, and the authorities of their societies. Because they found such widespread similarity, they did not look to classify or give a name to this type of activity, which seemed to them a normal aspect of the life of human societies.

  1. Pagans take the swearing of oaths very seriously indeed and believe it important that they articulate the sincere, considered intentions of the individuals concerned rather than merely repeating a standard formula. The Jews were identifiable as a people or ethnos, scattered across the world because of their history, but sharing a myth of their origins, strange customs, common ancestors, and above all a book that revealed the story of god and human beings from their origins.
  2. Bacchus was a powerful god who had strong traditions all over Italy, which explains why the final settlement made such concessions to the continuation of his worship.
  3. However successful the gods, goddesses, men, and women of Rome had been in the republican centuries, the 1st century bce saw the system fall into political conflict, confusion, and eventually civil war.

We today use the word paganism to describe such religious activities; this provides a useful name which will be used in this account for this huge range of religious practices.

But the word is a modern invention, intended to bring such practices into line for classification purposes with Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and others. Meanwhile, the Latin word paganus—pagan in English—was not used before the Roman imperial period and was invented by the a discussion of the religious ceremonies of paganism Christians to refer to those not of their faith; a recent and highly plausible explanation of the word is that it simply meant a civilian, as opposed to soldiers in the army of Christ.

At the same time, it is important to be aware of the messages encoded in this invented —ism language: Christianity is not an —ism like the others apparently implying that it, unlike them, conveys the truthand paganism is further put in its place by the insistence that it unlike all the others must be spelled with a lower case p: Judaism, we write, Christianity—but paganism. At the same time, the word is misleading to the non-expert.

There are some characteristics that are an essential part of an —ism religion. The member, or at least the student, must be able to expound the beliefs and doctrines, as well as the rituals and ceremonies that go with the name. But so far as we can tell, there is no real common ground among the many varieties of pagans beyond the common belief in there being a substantial number of deities and the attachment of importance to the performing of rituals.

It is true that the ancients already sought to identify equivalences between at least their high gods and goddesses and those of neighboring peoples. As early as Herodotus Book 2, written in the 5th century bce, Greek deities are identified with Egyptian ones. In fact the assumption was that they worshipped largely the same gods and goddesses, but called them by different, local names. What happened could therefore be called the translation of a set of names into the corresponding set of Greek or Latin ones, which must have presupposed that the correspondences between the deities were already established, albeit newly identified.

First, it is confusing to use the term polytheist, which implies an awareness of and rejection of monotheism. It is important to be conscious of this point because, throughout the centuries, when pagan cults were widespread, we know that in many societies, language could be used that we think of as monotheistic: Second, it is not at all surprising that there was no effective conception of a religious war between the various pagan peoples, tribes, and cities: We might call this a form of toleration, but it is toleration rooted in indifference not in principle: If they did see good reason to condemn a particular religious practice, they felt no compunction based on principle to abstain from banning or expelling the practice.

Thus the word religion might apply to the complex of a discussion of the religious ceremonies of paganism, festivals, and practices related to superhuman agents and supervised by the Roman colleges of priests. That definition would exclude areas of activity that we would expect to be included, such as theological ideas and discussions, spiritual advice, guidance for individuals, and explicit concern for the welfare of the poor and sick.

However, before pursuing this line of thought, it needs to be remembered that a great deal was thought and done in a city-state, at the level of local areas, families, associations, and groups of various kinds. The point was crisply made already by Francis Bacon. For instance, theology was generally seen as part of philosophy having little to do with priests, diviners, or rituals; religiosity, another word for which there is no Latin equivalent, belonged with myth and poetry; while spiritual support and comfort would have seemed part of family or city life, or perhaps belonging in the sphere of clubs and associations.

It would follow that Christianity, when established, did not so much invent a new form of religious life as bring activities and ideas previously thought of separately under the oversight of ecclesiastical authority.

This is why it is so misleading to use the same word priest for both pagan and early Christian religious authorities. Pagan priests were primarily concerned with rituals and, in their capacity as priests, paid little attention to beliefs, while early Christians had little time for rituals and soon began to define and argue about their beliefs. Roman literature, however, does give us at least one example of a priest offering an individual spiritual advice: For us, they serve to mark some of the profoundest changes brought about in the years of conflict between the pagan Roman authorities and the new religious forces of the imperial years.

Pagan weddings

The Character and Role of Beliefs and Believing Romans, like Greeks, placed a very high value on inherited rituals and on their scrupulous performance. Even the smallest aberration could lead to the failure of the ritual; if the failure could not be remedied, perhaps by the repetition of the ritual, the consequences might be dire.

This heavy emphasis on the ritual side of religious action has recently led to the controversial re-assessment of the part played by belief. We might call this implicit as opposed to explicit belief.

Belief, in modern religious contexts, is inextricably linked with doubt: Logically, at least, believer and doubter ought to share recognition of the uncertainty, though in practice they usually do not. This phenomenon must be limited to circles where religion is a subject of regular debate and discussion and the issue of believing attracts a great deal of conscious attention. We do know of sustained debates between Greek intellectuals from the 6th and 5th century bce onwards.

  • In many ways they were more like fellow-citizens than slave-masters in the sky;
  • For the overwhelming majority, the old deities kept their hold, and there is a strong tradition of dedications, in fulfillment of vows to gods and goddesses, that bears witness to a continued tradition of individual piety;
  • This is why it is so misleading to use the same word priest for both pagan and early Christian religious authorities;
  • As we have seen already, polytheism by itself is not a full or proper description of the religious position of the pagans;
  • In general, they cannot be characterised as specifically religious institutions, but we have seen that the Bacchic groups of the 3rd and 2nd century bce used this structure and certainly were religious in character;
  • The name was already reported in the New Testament.

Persecution does take place, as discussed here, but it is very unusual and may have been linked far more to practices than to belief. The proposition that pagan religion was primarily a matter of performance rather than belief can lead—and has— led to the suggestion that ritual action was supposed to take place with no accompanying cognitive activity at all.

One approach to the evidence, sometimes adopted, is to argue that actual beliefs can be inferred from ritual actions: However, reconstruction of this kind is hardly needed when a good deal of recorded thinking does make the required connection between ritual and cognition. It might be argued: