HELLENISTIC RELIGIONS . Whereas religion is never a mere reflex of political, economic, and social conditions, there are periods in history when these factors exert a palpably strong influence on religious thinking. The Hellenistic age was certainly such a period. Its early phase, which began with the conquests of Alexander the Great in 334 bce and continued with the rule of his successors, brought military and political upheaval to many peoples. When Roman imperialism later became the dominating power, there was greater apparent political stability, and the consciousness of a unified world, which Alexander's victories had furthered, was enhanced. The thought of one world does not necessarily lead to the idea of one God, but it does raise questions about a possible spiritual unity behind the manifold manifestations of religious experience.
Culturally this was a world that gave primacy to the Greek language, and Alexander himself, although a Macedonian, was a fervent disseminator of Greek culture. Within his empire other languages continued to flourish, including Aramaic, Hebrew, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Latin, but it was Greek that bore the official stamp of the ruling powers. Alexandria largely replaced Athens as the world's cultural capital, with Pergamum in northwestern Asia Minor as a splendid rival. Alexandria gave a Greek form to its glittering artistic and intellectual achievement, although it harbored several other cultural and religious groups, not the least of which were the Alexandrian Jews. In philosophy, however, Athens retained some of its pristine vigor because it was there that the new schools of Epicureanism and Stoicism first found a footing. In different ways both Epicurus and Zeno, the founders of these schools, were reacting to the broadened horizons created by Alexander's achievements. Even before this the Greek world was no narrow enclave, for Greek colonies had long since spread to Asia Minor and the Black Sea area, to Egypt and North Africa, and to southern Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Gaul. What was new in the Greek dimension of Alexander's conquests was the thrust in an easterly direction to Syria and Palestine, to Persia and Babylon, and through Central Asia to parts of northern India. In the wake of the military thrust, Greek settlements and cities were established in many non-Greek areas. Eventually the force of the population impact weakened, although Alexander's successors continued to hold sway for several centuries. An encounter with very diverse cultures ensued, and the traditional division between Greeks and barbarians underwent radical revision. In terms of religion the resulting counterthrust of Eastern traditions meant that the Greeks received more than they gave.
It was not the brute power of military aggression that brought about the change in outlook. In his Alexander the Great (Cambridge, 1948), Sir William Tarn argues that Alexander himself had a dream of the unity and reconciliation of all peoples, but the sources are more faithfully interpreted as recording a prayer by him for the cooperation of Greeks and Persians as ruling imperial partners. Yet the aftermath of his victories brought a realization of the unity of East and West.
New Trends in State-supported Religion
In spite of the great change in worldview thus effected, the old order was not swept away quickly. In Greece itself the city-states continued to function after the Macedonian conquests, and this meant that the official religious cults espoused by these states were still maintained. Politically, however, the citizens were aware that they were carrying on under the shadow of Macedonian imperialism and that the substance of their political power, particularly in foreign policy, had much diminished. This sense of insignificance must have demeaned the quality of their religious worship. The Athenians continued to honor their patron goddess Athena, especially as Athena Promachos ("defender"), but they knew very well that they were subject now to whatever Macedonian dynast was in power in the area. Such a situation threw the citizens back on their own spiritual resources so that their concerns as individuals counted correspondingly more. In later ages the emphasis on the individual might often seem to be at the very heart of religion, as in A. N. Whitehead's well-known definition of it: "Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness." The ancient world, in contrast, viewed religion as something essentially communal that was realized, above all, in public activities arranged by the state. In the Hellenistic age these activities continued to some extent, but in other ways there was a marked focus on the concerns of the individual.
Not that the social urges suffered atrophy: A popular feature of the religious life of this age was the great vitality of the associations or clubs formed by adherents of the various cults, with or without the sanction of the state. While these associations were often allowed the use of sacred premises, their main activities were usually convivial and charitable. They provided good cheer in the way of wine, beer, and banquets and also a good deal of help to needy members. Naturally the religious element was not ignored, and the name of the patron deity normally appears in records of their proceedings. The evidence concerning them derives from a great part of the Greek world. Prominent in this evidence are towns that were centers of trade and therefore rather cosmopolitan in character, such as Rhodes, Delos, and Piraeus (the harbor town of Athens). Abundant testimony has also been forthcoming from centers of the native cults in Egypt, and at that time these cults, especially those connected with Isis, were spreading to other countries. Thus at the end of the first century ce there was a club of this kind attached to a temple of Isis in London.
Emphasis on the importance of the individual came from a quarter that at first sight might seem surprising: the belief in astrology, which was then so fashionable. Its origins were in Babylon, where astronomy had also been pioneered. The Babylonians had shown that the heavenly bodies moved in a fixed order that could be scientifically forecast. Then their astrologers, who were also astronomers (the two fields had not yet diverged), introduced the belief that events in the world were somehow linked to events among the stars. It followed that worldly events could also be prophesied since they too had been ordained beforehand. Under the Roman emperors astrologers were several times banned and expelled; yet many of the emperors themselves had recourse to them. When applied to the individual, astrology meant that everything depended on the personal horoscope, which was based on the exact date and hour of birth and on the planet then in the ascendant and on its relation to the zodiac. The effect of the prognosis could be depressing, even terrifying. In a Greek magical papyrus (found in the corpus of Preisendanz, 13.708ff), the astrologer thus advises his anxious client:
You must enquire, "Lord, what is fated for me?" And he will tell you of your star and the nature of your Daemon [guiding spirit] and your horoscope and where you shall live and where you shall die. But if you hear something bad, do not break into screams and tears. Ask him, rather, to cancel it himself or to change its course. For this god has power to do everything.
Here the astrologer is invoking the aid of religion with his allusion to a god who can change the prognosis. But a fatalistic acceptance is more often indicated. What is clear, in any case, is that the personal horoscope is the basis of the procedure. The fate of the individual is the center of attention.
A new development that imparted fresh vitality, albeit of dubious sincerity, to the official state worship was the gradual establishment of the cult of the ruler, whether king or emperor. The first clear instance of it in this period was the worship of Alexander the Great as a divine person. In his case it was conspicuously an upshot of religious practices long prevalent in the Eastern countries that he had conquered. In the nations of Mesopotamia the king had regularly been associated with the gods. He had not been defined theologically as a god, but there was an aura of divinity about him. A victory stela of Naram-Sin of Akkad shows him towering above his followers, with a clear suggestion of his superhuman standing. In Egypt, on the other hand, the pharaoh was given an official status of divinity. When alive he was equated with the god Horus, and in death he became the god Osiris, father of Horus. He was also called "the son of Re" (the sun god). The distinctions are well delineated by Henri Frankfort in his Kingship and the Gods (Chicago, 1948).
It is significant that the inital divinization of Alexander was associated with Egypt. According to ancient historians he visited the oracle of Amun at Siwa in the Libyan desert some four hundred miles southwest of what was later Alexandria. There, in 331 bce, an Egyptian priest accosted him as the "son of Amun" in a way that corresponded to traditional Egyptian practice. To be regarded as the son of a god must have appealed to Alexander, and from that moment on he seems to have pressed the idea purposively, demanding obeisance and worship in many countries. Greeks and Macedonians did not take easily to the idea, yet there was a strand within the Greek tradition that allowed the divinization of dead heroes and eventually of living rulers. This contributed to the cult of the dead Alexander in Egypt and, in the time of his successors there, led to the worship of the living king and his queen, a practice started by Ptolemy II and his wife Arsinoë, who assumed the title theoi adelphoi, "the brother-sister gods." (The Ptolemaic kings regularly married their sisters.) Less thoroughgoing modes of the ruler cult prevailed in the other regions of Alexander's empire. By gradual steps the Seleucids of Syria and the Attalids of Pergamum eventually followed the practice, although the Attalids were accorded full divinity only after death. The Macedonians were slower still in coming to it, perhaps because of skeptical resistance.
To assess the depth or sincerity of the worship produced by the ruler cult is difficult since it soon came to be a test of political loyalty. In 307 bce the Athenians paid divine honors to Demetrius Poliorcetes, the ambitious Macedonian soldier-king. Their hymn of praise to him couples him with the goddess Demeter and describes him as the son of Poseidon, god of the sea, and of Aphrodite, goddess of love. Then it contrasts his nearness with the distance of the traditional gods: "Other gods are far removed or do not listen; or they do not really exist or do not heed us at all. But thou are here with us; we can behold thee, not shaped in wood or stone, but here in person. And thus we pray to thee." In spite of some military successes, Demetrius was a rake and a scoundrel. It may therefore safely be assumed that the fulsome language of the hymn disguised a degree of disgust.
When the Romans took up the ruler cult, Egypt was again influential in the early stages, and there was a measure of continued tradition; yet in Rome itself there had been antecedents in relation to "the divine Julius" (Julius Caesar.) The full-scale cult was at first enacted in the provinces only, but eventually it was insisted on as a test of loyalty. To adherents of the many polytheistic religions there was no problem in this claim, since it merely meant that the divinized emperor was to be added to the variegated pantheon already in existence. Even followers of the mystery religions were not embarrassed by the claim, for the demands of these religions were by no means exclusive. Those in serious trouble were the adherents of Judaism and Christianity, two religions of uncompromising monotheism. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" may not imply strict monotheism, since the commandment does not necessarily deny the existence of other gods, but rather demands the exclusive worship of Yahveh. By the Hellenistic era, however, Judaism had become unequivocally monotheistic, and Christianity inherited its unbending stance. To upholders of the polytheistic tradition it seemed a form of fanatical intolerance, and it sometimes provoked very harsh reactions.
An aspect of the ruler cult that was more serious than the superficial matter of expressing political allegiance was the whole question of divine incarnation. Was it possible to conceive of the divine taking human form? In early Greek thought it is sometimes suggested that the gulf between human and god is not wide and that an affinity exists between them. In the early fifth century bce Pindar expresses it thus: "Of one stock are men and gods, and from one mother do we draw our breath" (Nemean Odes 6.1). Some of the heroes of Greek mythology were deemed to be offspring of mixed unions, the father being divine and the mother moral. Herakles is in this category, for his father was said to be Zeus and his mother the mortal Alkmene, daughter of a king of Mycenae. Zeus was not able to achieve union with her until he disguised himself as a victorious warrior.
Rather different is the process by which historical heroes came to be worshiped after death. Their historicity cannot always be demonstrated, but the likely evolution followed from a lively memory of their deeds. One might rephrase Shakespeare to explain the distinctions enacted: "Some men are born divine, some achieve divinity, and some have divinity thrust upon them." The hero worship that developed among the Greeks outside mythology is akin to the second category; it involved outstanding individuals who by their own merit and fame came to be especially honored after death. The triumphant commander who "liberated" or "saved" a city naturally qualified for special honors akin to those paid to divinity. An early and successful candidate was the Spartan commander Lysander, whose deeds secured for him this type of apotheosis even during his lifetime. But Alexander decisively outshone heroes of such caliber since his deeds encompassed not only the Greek world but much else as well. Quite apart, therefore, from his experience at Siwa, which gave him an Egyptian passport to divinity, he qualified splendidly according to the criterion of Greek hero worship. When his cult was established in Egypt, followed by that of the Ptolemies, several of the new royal divinities were inevitably ill qualified to attract real worship. They might be said to have had divinity thrust upon them automatically.
Behind the developments in Egypt stood the long-standing dogma of the god-human, and its influence in the Hellenistic world went beyond the particular instances of divine dynasty. This dogma became prominent in the New Kingdom (1551–1070 bce) when the claim was made that the pharaoh had a mortal mother but a divine father. His procreation was explicitly, albeit tastefully, described as a visit by the god Amun to the queen. In so doing the god was said to take on the guise of the living pharaoh, so that what was ostensibly a natural process was given a supernatural interpretation.
A story told about Nectanebo, the last pharaonic king of Egypt, gives prominence to this doctrine. The Greek work called the Alexander Romance relates how Nectanebo, in spite of his vaunted magical power, was defeated by the Persians and fled to Pella in Macedonia after suitably changing his appearance. A prophecy from Memphis announced that he would return to Egypt as a young man who would overthrow his enemies and conquer the world (a reference, of course, to Alexander). Furthermore Alexander's mother, Queen Olympias, is said to have welcomed Nectanebo in Macedonia because of his fame as a magician, and he at once fell in love with her. When the queen informed him that her husband, Philip, being then away at war, was said to be beguiled by another woman, Nectanebo confirmed the rumor and told her that a god would visit her in a dream and have intercourse with her and that from this union would come a son who would avenge her on Philip. The god was to be the Libyan Amun, with golden hair and ram's horns. Olympias duly experienced the divine visit in a dream but then declared that she wanted not merely a dream but the real thing, whereupon Nectanebo impersonated the god and had intercourse with her himself. The son who was born of the union was naturally deemed to be Alexander, thus marked out as of divine origin. Although Alexander was said to have caused the death of Nectanebo, he was also said to have recognized him as his father and to have buried him with honor. The Greek writer of this story has told it with a sense of skeptical irony, yet it points to the fact that the people of the age were engrossed with the idea of the god-human and with the possibility that the divine could break into the sphere of human life through incarnation.
Magic, Myth, and Miracle
According to the Pauline saying, it was the Jews who demanded signs (that is, wonders or miracles) while the Greeks sought wisdom. In fact, it was not only the Jews who demanded miracles; the majority of the Greeks did also, and so did the majority of other peoples. From time immemorial religion had been mingled with magic, and the power to produce miraculous events was regarded as the mark of godhead acting either in a direct intervention or through chosen intermediaries.
In considering ancient magic, one must avoid any notion of conjuring tricks made possible by sleight of hand or by various illusionary processes. Some charlatans did resort to such stratagems, but the true medium of divine power did not approach this task thus. In the oldest myths of many nations, the creation of the world itself is the result of miraculous divine actions, and the teasing thought of what lay beyond the beginning of things often produced the image of one creator god, who was unbegotten and who had to initiate a process of creation without the help of a spouse. The early Greeks who followed the Orphic teaching believed that a cosmic egg was the source of everything. This idea might appear to derive from a natural symbol, but probably it came to the Greeks from Egypt, although the Egyptians had several other theories of creation. By the Hellenistic age some Greeks had become familiar with a similar doctrine that had spread from Iran.
Strangely enough, the Greeks did not regard their supreme god, Zeus, as a creator god. Yet their myths about him are replete with miracles, especially when his many dealings with mortal women are portrayed. For instance, having fallen in love with Io, a priestess at Argos, Zeus changed her into a heifer in order to hide her from his wife Hera. Metamorphosis became a frequent medium of miraculous intervention by gods. Early in the first century ce, the Roman poet Ovid devoted a whole cycle of poems to this theme, and in the next century it was the central motif of the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, an entertaining and often ribald novel that nevertheless conveys a deeply religious vision.
It tells the story of Lucius of Corinth, a Greek who was changed into a donkey through a mistake made in the employment of magic. After many strange adventures in asinine form, he is restored to human form by the goddess Isis at Cenchreae, the harbor of Corinth, during the spring ritual of the Ship of Isis. The last part of the novel movingly portrays his devotion to this new religion.
Unlike the immortal gods, however, heroes are not usually invested with miraculous powers, in spite of their divine associations. Herakles achieves his great deeds with might and main, and Prometheus, while he sometimes deploys a kind of low cunning, is a culture hero intent on benefiting humankind.
Removed from the category of gods and heroes was the human purveyor of magic and miracle. At his best he had to be a knowledgeable person. Astrology was often within his professed prowess, and the secrets of astrology were not available to any ignoramus. His attitude to the gods seems to have varied. Respect and devout loyalty characterized him in the role of their chosen instrument. Yet sometimes the magician was expected to compel the gods to act in a certain way, and a number of magical spells are extant in which the gods are fiercely threatened unless they comply. But it was important to use the correct formula and to know the functions and mythology of the deity concerned. In the Hellenistic era magic was especially used for treating disease.
Here the doctrine of demons was often basic. Regarded as intermediate between human and god, demons (spirits) were divided into good and evil categories, with the possibility that good demons could be promoted to the rank of gods. Under the influence of Iran this sytem was sometimes developed into a thoroughgoing dualism connoting a hierarchy of both angels and devils but with devils headed by a supreme figure of evil. This view regarded all disease as the creation of evil demons. To conquer the disease therefore demanded the defeat and expulsion of the baleful spirit that had taken possession of the victim. A person's good demon, on the other hand, acted as his guardian angel. Yet the good demon was not normally regarded as potent enough to deal with an evil demon who had entered a person. A spiritual power from outside was needed, and the first task was one of diagnosis, which meant the correct identification of the occupying demon. The magician was expected to announce the name of the hostile power and to order its expulsion in the name of a superior and beneficent power; there are familiar examples in the New Testament. Treatment of disease in both the Jewish and the pagan world was often colored by these concepts.
This was not, however, the only technique practiced by magicians and priests. Instead of a frontal attack on the demon, a mollifying approach was sometimes adopted, as when insanity was treated by the playing of soft music. A multitude of medical charms have come down to the present, and they combine popular medicine with magical rites. Central to these, very often, is the power of the spoken word of the magician himself, whose incantations are recorded, for purposes of reading and imitation, in Greek and Egyptian magical papyri. Moreover, the direct interventions of the gods of healing, particularly of Asklepios, Isis, and Sarapis, are often lauded.
In origin Asklepios was perhaps a hero; later he was raised to the rank of a divinity and became the foremost god of healing in the Hellenistic world, with temples at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese and at Athens, Rome, and Pergamum; the most celebrated of his temples was on the island of Kos, northwest of Rhodes, the home of a famous Greek medical school. Numerous inscriptions set up in the temples of Asklepios record the gratitude of worshipers for the cures obtained, which were frequently regarded as completely miraculous. Yet some of the techniques used partook of current orthodox medical practice, for example, prescribed dietetic rules, hot and cold baths, and various types of exercise. Special use was also made of incubation, whereby the worshiper slept in the temple of the god in order to experience a visitation from him through a dream or vision; such a visitation could bring both a cure for the disease (or advice as to how a cure might be obtained) and a revelation of a spiritual nature. The grateful records do not refer often to medical prescriptions or details of diet, so one may infer that psychological processes were involved: autosuggestion, experiences of spiritual illumination, and a sense of serenity deriving from a loving relationship. The term faith healing could well be applied to such felicitous procedures. What is particularly impressive, as well as eminently consonant with the temper of the Hellenistic age, is the fervent personal relationship with the god that ensued and the worshiper's sense of trust and devotion. There exists, fortunately, one intimate record of these experiences in the Hieroi Logoi (Sacred Stories) of Publius Aelius Aristides, a rhetorician of the second century ce.
Magic is customarily divided into the categories of "black" and "white," a division that can certainly be applied to the practice of it by the Greeks. In early prototypes, such as Circe and Medea, the two aspects appear. The Homeric Circe, semidivine in origin, is a powerful magician who uses potions and salves and also teaches Odysseus to summon the spirits of the dead. Medea was the outstanding enchantress of the myths used in Greek tragedy. She enabled the Argonauts to get the golden fleece by putting the dragon of Colchis to sleep; moreover, she possessed the evil eye and could make warriors invulnerable. Orpheus was another master of magic. Son of the muse Calliope, he rendered wild beasts spellbound with his music.
The two words most often used for "miracle" were thauma ("wonder") and sēmeion ("sign"). Obviously the two aspects could be embraced by either word. A miraculous event that astonishes people can be pleasing or punishing in intent and can be a sign, or omen, from the gods as an expression of their power but with a similar possible duality of purpose. Religion in ancient times had a bias toward beneficent magic, its prayers normally being expressions of devotion and appeals for help. But the appeal might concern the destruction of an enemy, which could involve harsh miraculous intervention by the gods. At the same time divine intervention could inflict moral retribution on individuals. Even the kindly Isis, whose magic was mainly beneficent, sometimes inflicted blindness on sinners.
When a beneficent miracle was enacted in public, it was regularly followed by an expression of blessing or felicitation, the macarism. Thus when Isis restores Lucius from asinine to human form in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius (also called The Golden Ass and written about 170 ce), the people who see the event declare:
This is the man who has been today restored to human shape through the splendid divinity of the all-powerful goddess. Happy is he, by heaven, and thrice blessed, to have clearly deserved, by the purity of his former life and his pious loyalty, such a wondrous favor from heaven that he is, as it were, born again and has at once pledged himself to service in the sacred rites. (11.16)
Although the priests of Isis have taken part in the miracle, as for instance in providing the garland of roses to be eaten by the ass-man, it is the goddess herself who naturally receives the acclaim.
Sometimes, nevertheless, the human agents were not averse to claiming a measure of glory. Among the rhetorical practitioners of the second sophistic movement, which flourished in the first and second centuries ce, especially at Athens, Smyrna, and Ephesus, were a few literati who combined their philosophical and oratorical gifts, which they displayed as peripatetic lecturers, with a keen interest in magic. One was Apuleius, whose interest in magic is evident in much of his work, especially the Metamorphoses. Early in his career, however, he was accused of using magic to gain the hand of a rich widow in marriage. Although acquitted, thereafter he was reluctant to practice any form of the art.
In the context of magic and miracle the most remarkable person in the second sophistic movement was undoubtedly Apollonius of Tyana, who lived in the first century ce and came from Cappadocia in Asia Minor. An account of his life, written about 217 ce by another Sophist, Philostratus, presents him as a wandering scholar whose travels embraced Babylon, India, Egypt, and Ethiopia. In spite of his fame, his life was ascetic and disciplined and modeled on Pythagorean ideals. In addition, however, he frequently performed miracles that included acts of healing, magical disappearances, and even raising the dead, deeds that recall the claims made for Jesus of Nazareth.
The trustworthiness of Philostratus, however, has been much impugned. He cast his life of Appollonius in the form of a Greek travel romance, which suggests a fictitious element. Further, he wrote the book at the request of Julia Domna, the second wife of the emperor Septimius Severus, so that the possibility of anti-Christian animus and parody cannot be excluded. It is likely, then, that some more modest deeds by Apollonius provided a basis for the heightened account presented. The simple asceticism of his mode of life must also have impressed people, although Philostratus exaggerates even here, as when he says that Apollonius was "a more inspired student of wisdom than Pythagoras" (1.2).
One of the faculties ascribed to Apollonius was clairvoyance. At Ephesus in 96 ce, he is said to have had a miraculous vision of the emperor Domitian being murdered in distant Rome, a vision whose validity was afterward confirmed. The event is related by both Philo-stratus and the historian Dio Cassius, so that its truth need not be questioned. Even the less sophisticated type of magician was expected to indulge in processes of divination that would let him foretell the future. This did not usually imply powers of prophecy in a general sense but, rather, the ability to judge and foretell the outcome of a particular problem or issue. Methods of divination included dreams, incubation (sleeping in a temple), auguries based on observation of birds, extispicy (especially the inspection of the entrails of animals killed specifically for this purpose), and the interpretation of weather signs, not to mention the whole area of astrology. Several of these methods had been developed originally in Babylon and Egypt.
Another important divinatory method was by oracle. In the Greek tradition the personal mouthpiece of the god of the oracle was the prophētēs, who might be a man or a woman. He or she was thought to be possessed by a divine power, a process that Plato compared to poetic inspiration. The medium became entheos ("full of the god") and was in a state of ekstasis ("standing out of oneself"). In the oracles the power of prophecy was linked to special sites and to particular gods. Here a paradox emerges: The Greeks are famed for their rationalism and are regarded as the pioneers of intellectual enquiry and scientific thinking, yet their belief in oracles belies this approach. To some extent, the inconsistency can be explained through social division: The credulous majority trusted oracles while the educated elite evinced skepticism, the latter trend becoming more pronounced in the Hellenistic era, as Plutarch showed in the first and second centuries ce.
The paradox reveals itself to some degree in the figure of Apollo himself. He is the god of light and reason, yet he is the dominant god at Delphi, seat of the most celebrated oracle. In his Birth of Tragedy, the philosopher Nietzsche contrasts Apollo and Dionysos, the one representing the cool temper of rationalism, the other the passionate surrender to ecstasy. Certainly this antithesis is at the heart of Greek thinking.
One noted feature of Greek oracles was the ambiguity of their response. Statements that could be interpreted in more than one way were often forthcoming. Among the problems posed on behalf of states were political issues, and this meant that some oracles, particularly the one at Delphi, exerted considerable influence on the states' policies. But the Hellenistic age saw the decline of Delphi and the rising prestige of other oracles, such as those of Asklepios at Epidaurus and Rome and that of Trophonios in central Greece.
Oracles in other countries were also much frequented, such as that of Zeus Amun in Libyan Siwa, where Alexander had a significant personal experience. Sometimes the questions raised were those of individuals, reflecting the private problems of simple people: A man is anxious to know whether his wife will give him a child, a woman wants to be cured of a disease, someone asks a commercial question about the best use of property, or a man wonders whether the child his wife is carrying is his own.
In his work On the Obsolescence of Oracles, Plutarch (c. 46–125 ce) discusses why so many oracles in Greece have ceased to function. Various answers are supplied in a discussion presented in the form of a dialogue. The population had decreased, says Plutarch, and there is some atrophy of belief. There is also the theory, seemingly endorsed by Plutarch himself, that in the oracles it is not the gods but beneficent demons who are at work.
Another writer who provides a revealing picture of what goes on at an oracle is Pausanias, who flourished about 150 ce. In his Description of Greece (9.39) he gives many details of the procedures at the oracle of Trophonios in Lebadea (modern Levadhia) in Boeotia. Regarded as relating to the hero cult, Trophonios may have been in origin a fertility god with chthonic associations; his sanctuary was built over an alleged entrance to the underworld. The person who wished to consult the oracle had to first wait quietly in the house of Agathos Daimon ("gracious divine being"), where various rites of purification and dietetic regimen were observed. Then came whippings, various offerings and sacrifices, an anointing with oil, bathing in a river, a special drink, and a prayer, after which the inquirer was dressed in a linen tunic and pulled through a narrow hole into a subterranean cave where he was terrified by snakes but able to calm them with honey cakes. Only then did he see or hear Trophonios and become enlightened concerning his future, after which priests explained his experiences. It was said that the inquirer always came out of the cave of Trophonios dejected and pale. Psychologically the treatment was rigorous and searching; modern parallels might be sought in regimes using drugs such as methedrine with stringent concomitants. In ancient times the initiations in the mystery religions provide the nearest parallel.
Universalism and Syncretism
Although Alexander the Great did not establish a world state in the world as then known, his empire transcended the national states and induced a sense of cohesion and interdependence. It was in this era that the word kosmopolitēs ("citizen of the world") came into vogue. The idea had occasionally appeared before this. Democritus of Abdera had said in the fifth century bce, "To the wise every land is open; the good soul looks on the whole world as his country." More pointed and forceful expression was given to the idea by Diogenes the Cynic (c. 400–325 bce), founder of the Cynic sect. He came from Sinope on the southern shore of the Black Sea but spent much of his life in Athens. He was given the nickname of "the Dog," while his followers were similarly called "Dog Philosophers" or Cynics, from the snarling way in which they and their master condemned accepted conventions and defied civilized life, embracing instead a style of extreme poverty, simplicity, and hardship. Among the conventions that Diogenes rejected was attachment to the polis, or city-state. His rejection was practical in that he wandered from one country to another without accredited citizenship or a settled home (in Athens he lived in a tub). In principle he was a kind of anarchist. He called himself a "citizen of the world," but this did not imply any politically defined belief. It was in effect a negative claim denying the value of the city-state.
It was the Stoics, however, who succeeded in giving to this approach a more positive and meaningful basis. Initially they were intellectually indebted to the Cynics, but Zeno of Citium in Cyprus (335–263 bce) went far beyond them and included a religious interpretation in his cosmopolitanism. According to Zeno the whole universe is governed by divine reason, and people should therefore live in conformity with it and with the order of nature established by it. A saying of Zeno that Plutarch has recorded presents the view that people should not live in a state of division according to separate cities and peoples and differing rules of justice; rather, all people should be viewed as belonging to one state and community and sharing one life and order. Plutarch wryly adds that in writing thus in his much-admired book The State, Zeno was presenting a dream or ideal of a well-ordered philosophical world.
It was indeed an age when several "utopias" were written. Plato had set an example with his Republic, but later writers in this genre deployed a good deal more fantasy, as when Iambulus in the early second century bce wrote of his voyage to the southern seas, where he stayed for seven years in the seven "Islands of the Sun." He painted an idyllic picture of the islands: Their climate is perfect and their land ever fruitful; the inhabitants are all supermen and there is no distinction between slave and free; property is shared and women and children are held in common; there is no strife of any kind, and their deities are the powers of nature—the sun, the heavenly bodies, and the sky.
There were a few practical ventures, too, in utopianism. Alexarchus, brother of King Cassander of Macedonia, after being given some land on the Athos peninsula, built a big city that he called Ouranopolis ("city of heaven"), where the citizens were called Ouranidai ("children of heaven"), and the coinage was adorned with figures of the sun, moon, and stars. Rather similar was the concept implemented briefly by Aristonicus of Pergamum (in 133–130 bce), who led a popular rising against Rome. He planned a state called Heliopolis ("city of the sun"), whose inhabitants he called Heliopolitai ("citizens of the sun"); but after some initial successes he was captured and killed by the Romans. The Greek satirist Lucian, who wrote in the second century ce, provided a witty parody of literary utopias in A True Story, a travel romance full of irony and burlesque, of which Swift's Gulliver's Travels is a modern descendant.
In the context of Stoic philosophy the doctrine of world citizenship was elaborated somewhat by Chrysippus (c. 280–207 bce), who noted that the word polis was given two senses: the city in which one lived; the citizens and the state machinery. Similarly, he argued, the universe is a polis that embraces gods and human, the former wielding sovereignty while the latter obey; yet gods and humans, for all their difference in status, have a means of contact and converse since they both use reason, which is "law by nature." In the last phrase he is overturning a contrast present in previous political thought. A later Stoic, Panaetius (c. 185–109 bce), was more pragmatic in his approach. A world state seemed no longer within practical reach, but he continued to believe in the general unity of all humankind. At the same time he restored to the city-state a certain secondary role, admitting its usefulness in a realistic sense while denying its claim to decide in any final sense, matters of right and wrong; such decisions were to remain in the domain of reason and nature.
It thus appears that the idea of being a citizen of the world, vague and ill defined as it often was, came to include, under Stoic inspiration, the religious concept of a ruling divine reason. Although the reality of a world state was missing, the idea of humankind as one community had a powerful spiritual effect. Whereas it cannot be assumed that everyone, or even the majority, embraced the idea fully and fervently, there are many signs that thinking people accepted it. A sharp division had existed previously in attitudes toward other nations: Pride and prejudice were clearly present in the categories of Greeks versus barbarians or Jews versus gentiles. Certain nations enjoyed more power than others since, in the empire bequeathed by Alexander, Macedonians, Greeks, and Persians were in the ascendancy until Rome took control. In religious matters, nonetheless, the great variety of national traditions was often regarded as a common heritage of humanity. This is the attitude taken by Plutarch when he argues, doubtless under the influence of Stoicism, that the gods of Egypt should be preserved as "our common heritage" and not made the peculiar property of the Egyptians. In chapter 67 of his treatise Isis and Osiris he states his belief that the gods of the various nations, in spite of their differing names, are essentially the same and that behind the divergent forms there is a universal reason and providence:
Nor do we regard the gods as different among different peoples nor as barbarian and Greek and as southern and northern. But just as the sun, moon, heaven, earth and sea are common to all, though they are given various names by the varying peoples, so it is with the one reason [logos] which orders these things and the one providence which has charge of them, and the assistant powers which are assigned to everything: They are given different honours and modes of address among different peoples according to custom, and they use hallowed symbols, some of which are obscure and others clearer, directing the thought towards the divine, though not without danger. For some, erring completely, have slipped into supersition, and others, shunning it like a marsh, have unwittingly fallen in turn over the precipice of atheism.
At the same time, Plutarch is occasionally ready, within the same work, to accept the Iranian doctrine about the happy end of the world, when Areimanius (Angra Mainyu), the god of evil, will be utterly obliterated by the gods who follow Horomazes (Ahura Mazda), lord of light and good. The happy final state will reflect the blessed unity of humankind: "The earth shall be flat and level, and one way of life and one government shall arise of all men, who shall be happy and speak the same language" (chap. 47). Here the universalism envisaged is somewhat colorless and depressing; it accords with Iranian sources, one of which (Bundahishn 30.33) declares that when the universe is renewed, "this earth becomes an iceless, shapeless plain." According to this teaching, mountains were created by the Spirit of Evil and will disappear with his overthrow; Isaiah 40:4 reflects the same viewpoint when the prophet announces, as part of a serene vision, that "every mountain and hill shall be made low" and "every valley shall be exalted," thus achieving the uniform flatness of Plutarch's Iranian dictum.
The union and solidarity of the human race are also a part of the Iranian teaching, for the Dēnkard (9–18), a Pahlavi book of the ninth or tenth century ce that probably preserves earlier ideas, prophesies a final outcome in these terms: "At the final Rehabilitation the whole of mankind will be firmly and unchangeably linked in mutual love, and this will mean that the demons will utterly despair of ever being able to harm man again.… Then there will be a universal joy for the whole of creation for all eternity; and fear will be no more" (trans. R. C. Zaehner, in The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism, London, 1961, pp. 280f.)
Stoicism may well have influenced the idea of "one government of men," but Stoic sources apparently do not mention the use of one language as a requirement of the cosmopolis. The inherited traditions vary on the question of languages. In chapter 11 of Genesis the story of the tower of Babel points to an original state of bliss when all people spoke one common language, and a Babylonian legend sees the multiplication of tongues as a cause of discord. Egyptian tradition, on the other hand, praised Thoth as the creator of languages and viewed his act as contributing to the rich variety of creation in general, with its many races and kinds of living beings. The Christian tradition, as in Revelation 7:9 with its allusion to "a great multitude of all tribes and peoples and tongues," certainly envisages a universalism in which diversity is present in unity and humanity is a "community of communities."
Whatever the variety of the traditions so freely transmitted in the Hellenistic age, in religious matters there was usually a readiness to acknowledge and respect diverging ways of belief, worship, and ritual. A process that went even beyond this was that of syncretism, a term often hailed as the hallmark of the age. In origin a Greek word, it was not used by the Greeks with the exact meaning assigned to it today. It derives from the verb sugkretizo, which itself derives from Kres, "a Cretan"; it was used politically of two parties combining against a common enemy, while the noun sugkretismos was used of a federation or union of Cretan communities.
In English and other modern languages the noun denotes the attempted union or reconciliation of diverse or opposite tenets or practices, especially in the philosophy of religion. The usage is also often extended to include the equation or identification of diverse deities and the combination or fusion of their cults, the latter practice being a specifically Hellenistic development. Earlier experience was indeed fully conversant with the equation of deities.
In ancient religions the most thorough process of syncretism in this sense is found in the developed phase of Roman religion, when Roman deities were identified with Greek counterparts—Jupiter with Zeus, Juno with Hera, Venus with Aphrodite, Ceres with Demeter, Mars with Ares, and so on. In some cases this conscious process found no easy counterpart: Janus, the god of the door, was a distinctively Roman concept. In other cases a Greek deity was adopted without any attempted assimilation. Thus the Greek god Apollo was worshiped in Italy by the Etruscans and was afterward much revered by the Romans, becoming a favorite god of the emperor Augustus. A simple act of comparison could lead to syncretism of this kind: One community compares its own gods with those of another; when similar powers or functions are recognized, the comparison may lead to identification. Of course, this process is valid only with polytheistic communities since monotheism rejects comparisons. Nor does the process arise when there is no contact between communities and therefore no need to make comparisons, except in instances where a plurality of deities within communities of the same culture invites an equation of functions. This may lead to assimilation and the use of one divine name instead of several. Thus it appears that among the Greek communities there were several forms of the corn mother, but eventually the name of Demeter, best known, was applied to most of them. Even so, local varieties persisted in several of the cults. The "Black" Demeter of Phigalia, a town of Arcadia, for instance, was very different from the Demeter of Eleusis. In Phigalia the Black Demeter was said to be the consort of a horse-shaped Poseidon.
In the fifth century bce the Greek historian Herodotus indulged freely in the kind of syncretism that meant identifying the gods of different nations. In his second book, which deals with Egypt, he consistently identifies the Egyptian Osiris with the Greek Dionysos and the Egyptian Isis with the Greek Demeter. Probably this was prompted only by recognition of their similar functions, although he does refer to festivals. Later, however, in Hellenistic times, the cults of these deities influenced one another. Isis, for example, was often depicted with ears of wheat on her headdress in a manner traditionally associated with Demeter, while ivy, the plant of Dionysos, figured in the rites of Osiris. Again, the phallus was sometimes carried now in processions of Osiris in Egypt, as it had been regularly in the rites of Dionysos among the Greeks; the Egyptian tradition had previously known nothing of this. Another good instance of active syncretism was the god Sarapis, worshiped in Egypt and elsewhere under the Ptolemies. He derived from the Egyptian god Osir-Api (Osiris-Apis) but was now represented in Greek style in a form rather like that of Zeus (but with the modius, a measuring vessel, on his head). He was identified with Zeus and with Helios. He was not, however, a new creation; his emergence points to amalgamation and adaptation.
Increasingly in Hellenistic times, the cults of Oriental deities were introduced to the cities of the Greek world and Italy. Such a procedure had been very difficult, and indeed dangerous, in previous ages, for the orgiastic nature of some of these cults was much feared, and all public cults were rigidly controlled by the state. But a radical change of attitude came in Hellenistic times. State control remained, but often it now actively supported foreign cults, as for instance the cult of Dionysos in Ptolemaic Egypt. When Stratonice, the wife of Seleucus Nicator in Syria, resettled the city of Bambyce as Hierapolis in about 300 bce, one feature of the worship sanctioned there was the fusion of the great Syrian goddess Atargatis with the Hellenic goddesses Artemis, Hera, and Aphrodite. In Egypt this type of cult syncretism was furthered by the system of the sunnaoi theoi ("temple-sharing gods"). This was used principally to advance the claims of the Ptolemaic kings and queens as divine beings in temples throughout Egypt in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus and afterward; the names of the royal divinities were added as gods who shared the temple with the main deity worshiped there. The reigning Ptolemies and their wives were thus promoted to an honored position on a par with that of the traditionally accepted deities.
Usually the Greeks raised a temple in honor of one particular deity, as Athena was honored in the Parthenon at Athens, Zeus in the great temple at Olympia, and Apollo in his temples at Delphi and Delos. Yet it was very natural that associated deities, especially those connected in myth, legend, and cult, should be represented and worshiped in the same temple. Thus Artemis was honored with Apollo as his twin sister, just as Hadad was honored with the Syrian goddess Atargatis as her consort.
Hellenistic practice went a good deal further than this in the mingling of gods, which the Greeks termed theokrasia. One is at first surprised to read in Apuleius's Metamorphoses, when he describes the preparations for the initiation of Lucius into the cult of Isis, that the high priest in charge of the rites is called Mithra and that he is linked to the initiand "by a certain divine association of constellations." A close and friendly attitude toward Mithraism is clearly indicated, and astrological lore is also openly deployed. Furthermore, when the temple of Mithra was discovered in the Walbrook area of London by W. F. Grimes in 1954, the finest work of statuary to come to light was of the Egyptian god Sarapis. Nor does the evidence of inscriptions and literature suggest anything other than an attitude of sympathetic cooperation between these and other religions.
There was, of course, no claim of exclusiveness to prevent such an attitude, as was the case with Judaism and Christianity. Well-known instances indicate that even priesthoods of different religions could be held by the same person. Plutarch's friend Clea, to whom he dedicated his study of the Egyptian cults, was a priestess of Dionysos and also of Isis and Osiris. Similarly, in the fourth century ce one Vettius Agorius Praetextatus was initiated into the Dionysian, Eleusinian, and Mithraic mysteries.
Popular religious practice and belief are undoubtedly best reflected in inscriptions, whether in temples, on tombstones, or on amulets, and in magical incantations. Often the gods of different countries are named together in dedications and formulaic expressions of thanksgiving. This is also true of inscriptions that are official and public in character. Thus, in an inscription dated between 50 and 35 bce, Antiochus I of Commagene, a small kingdom north of Syria, presents an exposition of his religion. He begins by calling himself "the God, the righteous God" and "friend of Romans and Greeks," and then declares that he has made his kingdom "the common dwelling place of all the gods." He alludes to the ancient doctrine of Persians and Greeks and refers with reverence to Zeus-Oromasdes, to Apollo-Mithra-Helios-Hermes, and to Artagnes-Herakles-Ares. This showpiece of syncretism contains an element of political expediency: The king is eager to pander to both Romans and Greeks (the Seleucid rulers); his religion is basically Iranian but with Greek embellishments.
In contrast, the easy and fluid permutations of popular magical texts indicate a general readiness to mix varying religious traditions very freely. Two frequent names are the Greek Zeus and the Jewish Iao (Yahveh ). In the case of Zeus one cannot always be sure whether the name conceals a Mesopotamian or Egyptian deity since these brief formulas rarely reveal the double personality expressed in Antiochus's Zeus-Oromasdes, where the second element is obviously more important than the first. Sometimes the Jewish Iao is identified with Zeus or Dionysos.
Nor does the resulting fusion always refrain from a conflation of myths. Thus a magical papyrus now in Oslo (Papyrus Oslo 1.105–109) addresses the god Seth-Typhon, whose name combines Egyptian and Greek deities. The papyrus goes on to say that the god's mother is a white sow, an allusion to an Egyptian myth about Seth and the goddess Nut. It then hails the god as "thou who dost hold in Heliopolis an iron staff with which thou didst barricade the sea and enable them to pass through." Heliopolis here is the city of the sun god in Egypt, but the "iron staff" is apparently that of Psalms 2:9, "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron," while the words that follow allude to the passage of the Hebrews through the Red Sea. The god addressed is therefore a fusion of the deities of three nations, including the Jewish Yahveh, and it is Yahveh who dominates the last part of the invocation.
One of the results of syncretism in religion was a sense of tolerance and sympathy. People who are ready to borrow from other religions are clearly not about to condemn them. Judaism and Christianity are again the exceptions, and their fervid intolerance was a source of strength in the struggle for survival. Only very rarely does a sense of conflict and hostility appear among the adherents of the pagan religions. Plutarch sometimes inveighs against the primitive cruelties unveiled in facets of mythology; his method is fairly radical in that he is prepared to reject such elements as unworthy of the gods.
In his novel about the ass-man rescued by Isis, Apuleius is appreciative and respectful in his allusions to most other religions. Here there was almost a logical imperative operating since Isis, as he often stresses, combined the attributes of all other goddesses. Yet there are two glaring exceptions to his tolerant attitude. One is the portrait of the baker's wife (9.14), who is described as a retailer of all the vices and as one who "scorned and spurned divine beings and instead of accepting a definite faith … falsely and blasphemously professed belief in a god whom she regarded as the one and only god." The description might apply to the Jewish or Christian faith, but the list of vices corresponds rather closely to those named in 1 Corinthians 5:11, so that a Christian allusion is a little more likely. Even more hostile is Apuleius's withering depiction (8.24ff., 9.3ff.) of the priests of the Syrian goddess Atargatis. They are said to be addicted to homosexual practices, to crude begging, to flagrant pilfering (they steal even the golden cup from the temple of the mother of the gods), and to unscrupulous manipulation of an oracle. Doubtless the praise of Isis was heightened by this attack, and for once the age seems to be characterized by competing and conflicting religions.
In general, syncretism tended to induce a belief in pantheism. The free mingling of many varying divinities suggested to some minds that the world was full of God in some form or another. Aratus of Soli (c. 315–240 bce), in his astronomical poem Phaenomena, said that "all the ways are full of God, and all the meeting-places of men, the sea and the harbors; and at every turn we all need God, for we are related to him" (the Greek has Zeus for God ). The last clause was quoted by Paul in his address at Athens (Acts 17:28): "As some of your own poets have said, 'We are also his offspring.'" At the same time syncretism furthered the quest for the unity of the divine. Earlier Greek philosophers had been concerned with the idea that there was one god behind the many names and forms. Now that the deities of divergent national traditions were being actively equated and fused, the idea of one divine reality was becoming still more widespread.
The Rejection of Religion
It may seem a paradox that, in spite of the religious tendencies delineated, the direct or indirect rejection of religion was also a feature of Hellenistic thinking. Direct rejection was restricted to a small minority of philosophers, but its intellectual vitality is manifest, although it was not a completely new development. Several of the Sophists of the fifth century bce had propagated a doctrine that questioned accepted religious beliefs. Before the Sophists, Anaxagoras had done the same. While he may not have plainly denied the existence of God or the gods, his belief that mechanistic laws were behind the workings of the universe excluded a divine causation or operation, even in Mind (Nous) was seen by him as the initiator of cosmic motion.
Among the Sophists, Protagoras was broadly in the same category. He once said concerning the gods: "I am unable to know whether they exist or do not exist, nor what they are like in form; for the factors obstructing knowledge are many: the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life." The relativism of Protagoras also tended in this direction, for it was he who said, "The measure of all things is man." If Protagoras may thus be rightly classified as an agnostic, Diagoras of Melos, also of the fifth century bce, was definitely an atheist; indeed, he was called ho Atheos. Like Protagoras, he was condemned for impiety, but trials and convictions for this are not always clear indications of a denial of the gods. Diagoras wrote a book in which he attacked the Eleusinian mysteries, and with these remarks he doubtless caused great offense. The main thesis of his book went a good deal further, declaring that the gods did not exist at all. What he saw as the obvious absence of divine punishment in human life was the ground for his denial. He is the first uncompromising atheist in the history of European thought.
In the Hellenistic age Euhemerus of Messene, who for a time (311–298 bce) served Cassander, king of Macedon, can also be listed as an atheist, although his attacks on traditional religion were more of a rationalizing reductionism than a frontal assault. In his travel romance Sacred History, which idealized life on the island of Panchaea in the Indian Ocean, he tells of an inscribed record of the deeds of the gods Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus. According to the record, these mighty deities had originally been human kings whom their appreciative subjects elevated to the rank of divinity. Clearly this approach could be interpreted as a defense of contemporary ruler cults, but when generalized in relation to gods everywhere, it meant that real divinity disappeared in the postulated human origins. The Greek hero cults also fitted the theory. It is easy to understand why "euhemerism" is still an influential force in the study of religions.
It is not surprising that the Cynics, who tended to oppose all established values, sometimes included religion in their abuse. Diogenes of Sinope expressed contempt for the Eleusinian mysteries. A man who could defend stealing from temples, cannibalism, and incest obviously took pleasure in destructive challenge. Yet his teacher Antisthenes, who attacked all religious conventions and the belief in a multitude of gods, maintained that there existed one God beyond all visible phenomena. The Hellenistic Cynics developed the popular and hard-hitting speech form called the diatribē, which combined comic effects with satire that was often abusive. Yet in spite of the Cynics, continued attacks on religious conventions, it is doubtful whether a full-fledged atheism should be ascribed to them.
Features of the Cynic tradition can be recognized in the works of Lucian (120–180 ce), who ridiculed both religion and philosophy; under the latter heading he especially attacked the Cynics, indebted though he was to them. His attacks on religion are well exemplified in his comic picture of Zeus struggling at a celestial reception desk to cope with the countless prayers of humanity. Nor does Christianity escape his lash. He says of Christians that "the poor beggars have persuaded themselves that they will be absolutely immortal and live everlastingly, and for this reason they scorn death and willingly surrender when arrested" (Peregrinus 13); they are "simple-minded people," he adds, who can be easily imposed upon by any charlatan or trickster.
A certain criticism of religion emerges also in the works of the philosophers called Skeptics. Their main emphasis was on the reservation or suspension of judgment, but this was applied in a general sense to the validity of sense perceptions and thus to the uncertain claim that knowledge of things can be attained. Specific problems concerning religion were discussed by Sextus Empiricus (c. 160–210 ce), who noted the vast amount of disagreement on the subject that prevailed. The very existence of the gods or of God, the propriety or otherwise of animal sacrifices and dietetic rules, the problem of how the dead should be treated, the right attitude toward death itself—all these matters produced debate and radically differing views. He argues that relativism is inherent in these areas: "All are matters of custom." Therefore, he concludes, judgment on questions of religious belief and practice must also be suspended.
Philosophy and Religion
The two most popular and influential philosophical schools of Hellenistic times were those of the Epicureans and the Stoics, both of which originated in the period immediately following Alexander's conquests. Both were also much affected, albeit in very different ways, by the radical political changes of the age as well as by the new international horizons. To some extent, both took up attitudes that were critical of traditional religious beliefs. Indeed, some would describe them, particularly the Epicureans, as rejecting religion, but this would be misleading.
Epicurus (341–270 bce) was born in Samos but spent much of his life in Athens, where he bought a house with a garden (his school was eventually called "the Garden"). For him, the aim of philosophy is to secure a happy life; "pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily." Pleasure of the soul is valued above bodily pleasure, and the ideal is ataraxia, "freedom from disturbance."
Epicureans were often accused of profligacy, but they lived a modest and simple life of seclusion. Women and slaves were allowed into the Garden, and among the women were several courtesans (hetairai ), who obviously became a pretext for some of the accusations made against the Epicureans of gross sexual immorality and of overindulgence in wine and food. Such charges came mainly from adherents who later abandoned the school.
In his moral doctrine and spiritual temper Epicurus paid great attention to the idea of friendship (philia, for which Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean, used the word amicitia ); and there is every reason to believe that he strove to follow his noble ideal. He says of friendship: "Of all things which wisdom supplies to make life entirely happy, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship." Again: "Friendship must always be sought for its own sake, although it has its origins in the need for help." And yet again: "That is also very beautiful, the sight of those near and dear to us, when to the bonds of kinship is joined a union of hearts." In his book The Faith of Epicurus (London, 1967), Benjamin Farrington aptly compares the saying of William Blake, "The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship" (p. 23), and even more appositely since its context is not far removed in time, cites the dictum of Aristotle: "Moreover friendship [philia ] seems to hold states together and lawgivers are more concerned about friendship than about justice. For concord seems to be akin to friendship …, and when men are friends there is no need of justice" (p. 29; Nichomachean Ethics 1155a). Friendship is seen, then, not only as a personal tie between individuals but also as the motivating force of a healthy society.
If these ideas indicate the quality of Epicurus's spirituality, his precise attitude to religion must be examined. This is well expressed in his Letter of Menoeceus, a letter to a disciple of his to whom he wished to explain the basic principles of his creed. First of all, one must believe that "God is a being immortal and blessed"; then, a little later, he says that "gods certainly exist, since our perception of them is clear." The apparent contradiction here between "God" and "gods" is familiar in previous Greek writing, especially in the works of Plato, who combines a suggestion of monotheism with the traditional polytheism.
Epicurus goes on to say that many false ideas are current about the gods, in particular the popular concept of reward and punishment whereby the injuries suffered by the wicked and the blessings enjoyed by the good are directly conferred by the gods. He then passes on to discuss death, a subject he often broaches in connection with religion. He tells Menoeceus that it is important to realize that death means nothing because it deprives one of all sensation. To realize this makes mortal life more enjoyable in that the desire for immortality is removed. The fear of death and of what may follow it is groundless; the wise man will think reverently of the gods and will be entirely fearless of death. Indeed, he will preserve his peace of mind and "live like a god among men." The life of the gods, as other Epicurean writings make clear, is regarded as one of calm beatitude. They enjoy a blissful existence far away from the turmoil of the human world, free of pain and peril. They take no interest in human affairs and are content with the immortality and supreme blessedness that is theirs.
Perhaps it is Lucretius (94–55 bce), the Roman exponent of Epicureanism, who has given the most attractive expression to these ideas, both in his depiction of the bliss enjoyed by the gods in their remote paradise and in his searing attacks on popular notions of punishments after death, which were associated with the divine control of Hades. Some of the attacks made by Lucretius on these popular misconceptions sound very much like a condemnation of religion in toto. After a breathlessly pathetic picture of Agamemnon sacrificing his own daughter Iphigenia to satisfy the claims of religion, the poet declares, "So many evils was religion able to instigate" (De rerum natura 101).
Epicurus himself, on the other hand, is careful to point out that he regularly follows traditional religious observances: "Let it be enough to state now that the divine is in need of no mark of honor, but that it is natural for us to honor it, especially by having pious conceptions of it and secondly, by presenting to all the gods in turn the traditional sacrifices" (Philodemus, De musica 4.6, quoting Epicurus). At first sight a palpable contradiction occurs here. If the gods are not concerned with human life, why should human beings bother to honor them with prayer and sacrifice? Do not these religious acts imply a constant concern on both sides? To resolve this dilemma, it seems, one should ascribe to Epicurus the highest form of worship, the utterly disinterested adoration of the divine which expects nothing in return but has the joy of sharing in the divine happiness. Prayer and sacrifice enable such a worshiper to take part in the blessedness of the gods. It was said of Epicurus, "He appeals to the Completely Happy so as to strengthen his own blessedness." It could be argued that he is, therefore, receiving something from the gods, even though the gift is purely spiritual in character, and that the gods are ready to bestow it, thus belying the concept that they are a remote community of beings who have no care or concern for humanity.
Epicurus also recommended prayer because it enabled one to participate in the religious life of one's own country; he viewed it as natural and proper. This contrasts sharply with his constant advice to withdraw completely from political and public activity. But if there is a measure of inconsistency in his sanction of traditional religious rites, his condemnation of the astral religion propagated by Plato in his later years is perfectly consonant with the lofty view of the divine that Epicurus always tried to maintain. His creed is well summed up in the saying of Diogenes of Oenoanda in Asia Minor, who lived in the second century ce: "Nothing to fear in God. Nothing to feel in death."
In one respect the Stoics differed firmly from the Epicureans: They urged active participation in public life, not a retreat from it. While favoring the idea of a world state, they did not shrink from service to their own. Their basic teachings also differed. For them it was virtue, not pleasure, that was the supreme value in life; knowledge was important in the quest for virtue, but the essential thing was to live in agreement with nature since nature leads to virtue. In modern parlance, to follow nature may often imply an uninhibited pursuit of the natural instincts and their pleasures, but the Stoics' interpretation is quite different. For them the formative and guiding principle in nature is reason (logos ), which is identified with God himself and is said to manifest itself as fate or necessity and as providence. Another special manifestation is human reason, whose guidance it is one's duty to obey. For rational beings such as humans virtue alone is the vital possession, and from virtue alone comes happiness. Pleasure, on the other hand, is regarded as only a by-product of virtuous living and not as a proper end in itself. Like the Epicureans, the Stoics valued "freedom from disturbance" (ataraxia ) as a desirable state, as well as "freedom from emotion" (apatheia ) and "inward independence" (autarkeia ). The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium (335–263 bce), was highly regarded for his integrity, and it was said of him that "he made his life a pattern to all, for he followed his own teaching." He was succeeded as leader of the school by Cleanthes (331–232 bce), who was followd in turn by Chrysippus (280–207 bce). These philosophers showed varied emphases in their teachings, much more so than did the followers of Epicurus, who adhered closely to the precepts of their founding father and gave him almost divine status.
Among the Stoics, Cleanthes was the most concerned with religion. He is renowned for his beautiful Hymn to Zeus, where the god is addressed as the creator of the world and the universe and as a ruling spirit who continues to dwell in the whole of his creation. When this hymn is compared with previous Greek praises of the god, what is striking is the absence of any specific allusions to the mythology or cult of Zeus, and some of the mythology was quite scandalous. Instead, Zeus has become to Cleanthes an abstract figure standing for divine creativity, reason, law, and providence. He does refer to the thunderbolt of Zeus, but he links it to the Stoic doctrine of the conflagration that will end the world: "Nature's own stroke brings all things to their end." He also gives it a moral force, urging Zeus to use it to dispel darkness from the souls of humans.
Both Cleanthes and Chrysippus assembled arguments to prove the existence of God, giving prominence to the argument from design: The order and regularity of the heavenly bodies could not be produced by humanity, it is urged; they must have been produced by something better than humans. "And what name other than God would one give to this?" (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 2.16, quoting Chrysippus). As has been seen, in its whole view of nature and man early Stoicism assigns a built-in importance to religion. A moral earnestness is also evident in the writings of Stoics in the Roman imperial era, especially those of Seneca (5 bce–65 ce) and Epictetus (55–135 ce), whose idea of God is practically monotheistic. In their attitude to the gods of tradition, the Stoics were often charged with a pallid reductionism. They tended to equate the gods with the functions associated with them. Plutarch, a middle Platonist not unfriendly to Stoicism, complains in the early second century ce of the facile way in which gods were labeled according to their physical associations; Osiris was thus related to natural fertility while Dionysos was explained as wine and Demeter as grain. Another kind of reductionism was employed by the Stoics to explain myths whose primitive crudities offended them, namely, a wholesale use of allegory. Plutarch himself was prepared to use this method liberally. The Platonist school that he favored continued to flourish, but it had abandoned orthodoxy in its espousal of an open electicism.
The philosophical creeds with their variety of religious ingredients appealed, of course, only to an educated elite. Their quiet colonnades were far removed from the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace, as was the Epicurean Garden. Many confusing cries accosted common people in the marketplace, and they often found it most satisfying, as far as religion was concerned, to follow the emotional uplift and the offer of salvation presented by the mystery religions and by Christianity.
Apostles; Apotheosis; Astrology; Divination; Emperor's Cult; Gnosticism; Hermetism; Heroes; Incarnation; Jesus; Kingship; Manichaeism; Mystery Religions; Neoplatonism; Oracles; Paul the Apostle; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity; Roman Religion, article on The Imperial Period; Shape Shifting; Skeptics and Skepticism; Syncretism.
Bell, H. Idris. Cults and Creeds in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1953). Reprint, Chicago, 1975. This book deals with religious developments in Egypt that were, in several instances, influential in the Greek world generally.
Borghouts, J. F., trans. Ancient Egyptian Magical Texts. Leiden, 1978. Several spells from the Hellenistic period are included.
Farrington, Benjamin. The Faith of Epicurus. New York, 1967. A well-written study that shows the debt of Epicurus to Aristotle.
Festugière, A.-J. Personal Religion among the Greeks. Berkeley, Calif., 1954. A sensitive analysis of the devotional aspects of the cults of Asklepios and Isis.
Festugière, A.-J. Epicurus and His Gods. Translated by C. W. Chilton. Cambridge, Mass., 1956. A detailed and warmly sympathetic study that explains the spirit of evangelism in the Epicurean creed and apologetic.
Fraser, P. M. Ptolemaic Alexandria. 3 vols. Oxford, 1972. An authoritative work that gives detailed attention to religious themes.
Grant, Frederick C., ed. Hellenistic Religions: The Age of Syncretism. New York, 1953. A valuable collection of translated texts.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn, trans. and ed. Plutarch's De Iside et Osiride. Cardiff, 1970. An edition with translation and commentary. A representative of Greek culture and religion in the early centuries of imperial Rome, Plutarch presents remarks on the religions of Iran and Greece in addition to his ambitious analysis of the Egyptian cults.
Jones, Christopher P., trans. Life of Apollonius (Philostratus). Harmondsworth, 1970. Important for the study of magic and miracle.
Long, A. A. Hellenistic Philosophy: Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics. London, 1974. A learned and lucid study.
Nock, Arthur Darby. Essays on Religion and the Ancient World. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1972. Rigorously academic in style, these collected essays are the work of an outstanding scholar who devoted his attention mainly to the Hellenistic and Roman eras.
Sinclair, Thomas Alan. A History of Greek Political Thought. London, 1952. A sound survey with three chapters on Alexander's age and the sequel.
Vermaseren, Maarten J. Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult. Translated by A. M. H. Lemmers. London, 1977. A distinguished Dutch scholar traces the impact of these cults of Asia Minor on the Greco-Roman world.
Walbank, F. W. The Hellenistic World. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1981. Scholarly and readable.
Witt, R. E. Isis in the Graeco-Roman World. London, 1971. A comprehensive and well-illustrated study.
J. Gwyn Griffiths (1987)
"Hellenistic Religions." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 16, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/hellenistic-religions
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