Friday, August 06, 2010

Frederick C. Grant, Hellenistic Religions; The Age of Syncretism

Frederick C. Grant, Hellenistic Religions; The Age of Syncretism, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Indianapolis, New York, 1953

The Hellenistic age was that period in Mediterranean and Near Eastern history which was inaugurated by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon, who died in 323 B.C. The conquered area included Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia—in short, form the Aegean eastward the whole territory of the old Persian Empire, extending as far east as the Indus River. This vast area was steadily Hellenized during the centuries after Alexander. (xi)

It is customary to define the Hellenistic age as extending form Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire (say, his defeat from Darius at Gaugamela in 331 B.C.) to Octavian’s defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 B.C., or to the annexation of Egypt the following year. But some writers use the term to include the period of the early Empire, since there was no real break in the history of culture, ideas, or religion… (xii)

The main characteristic feature of Hellenistic religion was syncretism: the tendency to identify the deities of various peoples and to combine their cults. Thus the Greek Zeus becomes Zeus-Amon-Re in Egypt, … (xiii)

The mysteries at Eleusis and Andania were thriving in the second Christian century, as popular apparently as in the days of Pericles… (xviii)

…when later on the Roman emperor was given divine honors, there were ample precedents not only in Roman but also in Greek religion, as well as in Egypt and the Near East. What was new was the length to which such divine honors were carried, the demand for them by living monarchs, and the opposition they aroused on the part of the intransigent “new race” of Christians. Moreover, emperor worship in the West lacked an important advantage which it had enjoyed in the East, namely, that aura of mystery and remoteness which had separated the Ptolemies from their people. (xix)

Roman religion had broken down during the Republic, especially during the last two centuries of uninterrupted foreign and civil warfare. The Augustine restoration, for all Virgil’s poetic idealization, never quite got to the heart of the matter; the beautiful ancient pietas and gravitas of the early Italian could not be restored by the simple expedient of erecting new and magnificent temples in the City nor by re-establishing ancient rites and priesthoods. But the religion of the countryside lived on; long after, it still continued to survive under a veneer of Christian doctrine and worship. (xx)

Homer remains our starting point for the study of specifically Greek religion, it is true. But back of Homer lay a long development during a heroic age when the Greek spirit fist began to cast off the primitive conceptions of magic, theriomorphic gods, and the whole surviving apparatus of animism. Homer, indeed, marks the end of an era; the heroic age is already past, and the religious ideas which he takes for granted have been rationalized and secularized. … the separate songs of early balladists and minstrels had been subjected to a profane, unbelieving, even cynical and ribald “Milesian” influence. (xxi)

Instead of taking Homer as the “Bible” of the Greek world (this would be true only at a far later period), the real religion of the Greek people was to be found mainly in local cults, usages, and beliefs. The myths presupposed the cultus, rather than the cultus the myths. (xxi)

The two main streams of early Greek religion, in cult as well as in myth, were the Minoan and the equally prehistoric Mycenaean. (xxi)

Into the originally local, purely cultic, largely agricultural religion of the Greek people there swept a movement, as early as the archaic age, which left behind it effects destined to survive, often underground, for many centuries. This was the secret cult of Dionysus, and in its trail the movement known as Orphism. Many of the features of Dionysiac worship (or frenzy) were plainly primitive, such as the eating of raw, sometimes even living flesh, torn from a dismembered fawn. But the ultimate form of the cult and the beliefs which gathered about it (chiefly in Orphism) were far from primitive, having to do with the attainment of immortality. With this was associated a belief in the transmigration of the soul after death and the hope of a blessed immortality after a series of lives, in each of which the soul was further purged of its grossness and sins. It was in this form that the movement appealed to such rare spirits as Pindar and Plato; (xxii)

In contrast to this movement of mysticism and emotional religion, the same period saw the assertion of another important element in traditional Greek religion, namely, legalism and rationalism. Hesiod was its poet, though not its only one. Apollo was its god, and Delphi its sacred center. The famous Delphic maxim, “Know thyself,” was no philosophic counsel of introspection (though it was later mystically interpreted in this sense), but meant simply, “Acknowledge that you are a mortal, and do not overstep the limits of your lowly estate; do not be guilty of pride or violence, and do not infringe upon the prerogatives of the gods.” (xxii)

In the classical age, specifically in the fifth and fourth centuries, a reaction arose against the traditional cult—but more against the crude, primitive myths that surrounded it than against the cult itself. …The result of this criticism of religion was unfortunate, partly owing to political circumstances, especially after the tragic end of the long-drawn-out war between Athens and Sparta. It was a time when religion was needed more than ever before, in order to hold together a nation torn asunder and threatened with destruction not only by its external foes (Persia, for example, which still had its eyes on the Greeks) but also by internal dissention. To call religious views in question at such a time was treason, not only against the gods but against the state. This is the background of the trial and condemnation of Socrates, who died, not for his system of philosophy, nor for having a new religion, nor for a higher code of morals, but for unsettling the youth. (xxiii)

The most beautiful of these cults was that of the Egyptian Isis, with its open shrine, its daily services, lustrations with Nile water, and its offerings of incense instead of bloody sacrifices; its hymns, liturgy, and sacred literature; its mystical theology. Virtually, Isis took the place of all other gods and goddesses when she claimed that their names were only various epithets or titles of her own and that their functions really belonged to her; that she, and she alone, was the great Mother Goddess of the whole world, though she left room for her consort Osiris and her son Horus. / In contrast to this widespread, genteel, mystical, and very feminine cult was the wild Anatolian worship of the Mother Goddess Cybele, originating at Pessinus in Phrygia… As early as the third century (204 B.C.) her cult was introduced at Rome by official invitation, as a result of the exigencies of the Punic Wars, and by direction of the Sibylline Oracles. But republican Rome did not take kindly to her rites, and none but foreigners were permitted to engage in them. Associated with the worship of Cybele was the savage and probably primitive, certainly barbarous, corybantic enthusiasm of the Galli, devoted to the worship of Attis (or Adonis), young consort of the aged Mother Goddess. In their mad hypnotic dances, accompanied by the shrill scream of Phrygian flutes which drowned out their own cries, they stabbed, hacked, and mutilated themselves in honor of Cybele and her divine lover. One might think that civilized men would be utterly disgusted by the sight, but apparently it was a common practice for centuries. A society that enjoyed gladiatorial exhibitions also enjoyed such examples of primitive worship. Indeed, the two may ultimately go back to the same more primitive source, a sort of fanatical devotion to death. (xxxvii)

RULES OF PURITY FOR VISITORS TO THE TEMPLE OF ATHENA AT PERGAMON (Dittenberger, Sylloge, 566 2-9 (S, 982); Michel, Recueil, 730. This is a copy of a very old law which undoubtedly was still in force in the Hellenistic age.)
Whoever wishes to visit the temple of the goddess [Athene Nikephoros], whether a resident of the city or anyone else, must refrain from intercourse with his wife (or husband) that day, from intercourse with another than his wife (or husband) for the preceding two days, and must complete the required lustrations. The same prohibition applies to contact with the dead and with the delivery of a woman in childbirth. (6)

REGULATIONS FOR VISITORS TO THE TEMPLE OF ALECTRONA AT IALYSUS (Dittenberger, Sylloge, 560 (S, 338); Insc. Gr. XII. 1. 677; Michel, Recueil, 434. This marble tablet from the third century B.C. was found at Ialysus on the Island of Rhodes.)
Whoever disregards this law, let him cleanse the sanctuary and the sacred enclosure, and in addition offer sacrifice; or else let him be guilty of irreligion [i.e., subject to the curse that haunts those who disregard, dishonor, or disobey the gods]. (7)

Greek religion was formal, and did not leave the procedures of worship and sacrifice to the choice of the individual; the cultus had its strictly prescribed rules. … As a rule, the sacred laws were handed down by tradition and, where written out, were often inscribed on stone for all to read. (25)

RULES FOR THOSE ABOUT TO BE INITIATED IN THE MYSTERIES AT LYCOSURA (Dittenberger, Sylloge, 939 (S, 999); Insc. Gr. V. 2. 514. The date is unknown, but the primitive character of the rules is obvious. Such regulations survived long after their original promulgation, especially in as conservative a region as Arcadia. Even in Rome the similar taboos governing the flamen dialis continued in force as late as the second century A.D., and probably later.)
It is not permitted to enter the temple of the Lady Goddess with any object of gold on one’s person, unless it is intended for an offering; or to wear a purple or bright colored or black garment, or shoes, or a finger ring. But if one enters wearing any forbidden object, it must be dedicated to the temple. Women are not to have their hair bound up, and must enter with bared heads. No flowers are to be brought in at the mysteries; no pregnant women or nursing mothers are to have any part. If anyone wishes to make an offering, let it be of olive, myrtle, honey, grains of barley clean from weeds, a picture, a white poppy, lamps, incense, myrrh, spice. But if anyone wishes to offer the Lady Goddess sacrificial animals, they must be female and white… (27)

Oracles apparently were not as sacred as the mysteries. The demands of popular religion did not require that a hero with a cult, a shrine, and an oracle must have led an exemplary life. The basis of cult observance and of oracle consultation was pragmatic: results were obtained, whatever the character of the hero. The revival of interest in oracles early in the Hellenistic age and their decline and eventual failure by the time of Plutarch is well known. (33)

THE ORACLE OF AMPHIARAUS (Pausanias Guide to Greece I [Attica] 34. In describing an oracle which is still active an another which is now “the most trustworthy,” Pausanias enables us to see how oracles were viewed by the rank and file, and how they maintained their popularity. See also what this same author has to say about another second-century oracle which he visited, the Oracle of Trophonius, in Guide to Greece IX [Boeotia]. 27. 1-40. 2, quoted below. What Pausanias says of the popularity of oracles must be balanced against what Plutarch says of their decline.)
(4) The Oropians have a spring near the temple, which they call the spring of Amphiarus, but they neither sacrifice in it nor use it for purifications or for washing their hands. But when any man has been cured of disease by means of the oracle, it is customary to throw a gold or silver coin into the spring; for it was by this route, they say, that Amphiaraus rose up after he had become a god. … (5) Amphiarius was, I think, especially skillful at divination by dreams, and it is certain that when he became a god he set up a dream oracle. And whoever comes to consult Amphiaraus must first, according to custom, purify himself; that is, he must sacrifice to the god. They sacrifice not only to him, but also to all the other gods whose names are on the altar. And after all these preliminary rites, they sacrifice a ram and, spreading its skin under them they go to sleep, expecting to receive divine direction in a dream. (38)

THE ORACLE OF TROPHONIUS (Pausanius Guide to Greece IX [Boeotia] 39. 5-14. Here we learn more details about the origin, history, and modus operandi of oracles. This oracle was in Plutarch’s neighborhood (Chaeronea), and one should bear the passage in mind in reading Plutarch’s essay on the decline of oracles.
(5) What takes place at the oracle is as follows: When a man has decided to descend to the oracle of Trophonius, he first stays a fixed number of days in a certain building, this being sacred to the Good Spirit [Agathos Daemon] and to Fortune [Tyche]. While he stays there, he practices various regulations for purity, including warm baths and bathing in the river Hercyna [or, he abstains from warm baths, and baths only in the river]. He has plenty of meat from the sacrifices, for everyone who descends sacrifices to Trophonius himself… At each sacrifice a diviner [mantis] is present, who looks into the entrails of the victim, and after an inspects prophecies to the person descending whether Trophonius will receive him kindly and graciously. The entrails of the other victims do not show the mind of Trophonius so much as a ram, which each inquirer sacrifices over a pit the night when he descends, invoking Agamedes [Trophonius’ brother]. Even though the previous sacrifices have appeared propitious, no attention is paid to them unless the entrails of this ram give the same indications; but if they agree, then the inquirer descends full of hope. The descent is as follows. (7) First, during the night he is taken to the river Hercyna by two boys, sons of citizens, about thirteen years old, named hermae [guides]; after taking him there, they anoint him with oil and wash him. These are the ones who wash the descender and do all other required services as his attendant boys. After this he is taken by the priests, not at once to the oracle, but to springs of water very near to each other. (8) Here he must drink water called the Water of Forgetfulness, so that he may forget all that he has been thinking of hitherto; afterward he drinks of another water, the Water of Memory, which causes him to remember the things seen during his descent. After looking at the image which they say was made by Daedalus (it is not shown by the priests to any except those who are going to visit Trophonius), having seen it, worshipped it, and offered prayer, he proceeds to the oracle, dressed in a linen tunic, girded with ribbons, and wearning the boots of that country. (9) The oracle is on the mountain, above the grove. It has a circular foundation of white marble, in circumference about that of the smallest threshing floor, while its height is just under two cubits. On this foundation stand spikes, which are of bronze, and so are the crossbars that hold them together; through them gates have been made. Inside the enclosure is a chasm in the earth, not a natural one, but skillfully constructed from a most accurate design. (10) The shape of this structure is like a bread oven. Its breadth across the middle one might guess to be about four cubits; its depth can hardly be estimated to extend more than eight. They have made to way of descent to the bottom; but when a man gets to Trophonius, they bring him a narrow, light ladder. Going down [farther] he finds a hole between the floor and the structure. Its breadth appears to be two spans and its height one span. (11) The descender lies with his back on the ground, holding in his hands barely cakes kneaded with honey, and pushes his feet into the hole; himself following, he tries hard to get his knees into the hole. After his knees, the rest of his body is at once swiftly drawn in, just as the largest and swiftest of rivers will seize a man in its whirling and drag him down. It is after this that those who have entered the shrine learn the future, not always in one and the same way, but sometimes by sight and at other times by hearing. The return upward is the reverse of the descent, through the same mouth, the feet being pushed out first. (12) They say that no one who has made the descent has ever been killed, except one of Demetrius’ bodyguards. But they say that he performed none of the required rites in the sanctuary and that he descended, not in order to consult the god, but hoping to steal gold and silver form the inner shrine. It is said that the body of this man appeared in a different place, and was not cast out at the sacred mouth. There are other tales about this fellow, but I have given the one most worthy of consideration. (13) After his ascent from Trophonius, the inquirer is again taken in hand by the priests, who seat him upon a chair called the Chair of Memory, which stands not far from the shrine, and they ask of him, when seated there, all he has seen or learned by his inquiry. After obtaining this information, they then turn him over to his relatives. These lift him up and carry him to the building where he formerly stayed with Fortune and the Good Spirit, though he is still paralyzed with terror and is wholly unconscious, both of himself and of his surroundings. Afterward, however, he will be no less ale to think than formerly, and will even be able to laugh once more. (14) What I write is not hearsay; I have not only seen other inquirers but I myself have inquired of Trophonius. Those who have descended into the shrine of Trophonius are required to dedicate a tablet on whichis written all that each has heard or seen. (39-41)

ON THE DECLINE OF ORACLES (Plutarch On the Failure of Oracles 10 (415a). Briefly stated, Plutarch’s theory is that the responses at the oracles were given by daemons, semi-divine beings whose supernatural knowledge enabled them to foretell the future, explore secrets, read the minds of men, unravel the processes of nature. But the daemons were not wholly divine, and hence were subject to mortality—in brief, they, like us, grow old. Hence the decline in the wisdom, accuracy, and even ability to hear of these great spirits. Just as for early Christians, the world was for Plutarch very old, and the daemons, who had begun giving responses in the early times, were now advanced in age. (41-42)

Lucian The Syrian Goddess 1 and 49-60. Lucian was born in Samosata, the capital of Commegene, and flourished in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, in the middle of the second century A.D. His account of the shrine of Atargatis is an exception to the usual brevity of ancient authors in describing Oriental cults. Although written as a literary performance (it is in Ionic Greek, in the style of Herodotus), it nevertheless contains a vast amount of factual detail.
(1) In Syria there is a city, not far from the river Euphrates, which is called the Sacred City; it is sacred to the Assyrian Hera. … I write as a native Assyrian who has witnessed some things with his own eyes, while others he has learned from priests; these occurred before my time, but I narrative them as they were told to me.
(49) The greatest of all the festivals I know is the one held in the early spring; some call this the [Feast of] Fire, others the Torch. At that time they offer sacrifice in the following way. They cut down great trees and set them up in the court; then they bring goats and sheep and other cattle, and hang them up alive on the trees; among them they hang birds and garments and ornaments of gold and silver. After all this is done, they carry their gods round the trees and set fire to them [the trees]; in an instant they are all afire. To this festival a great multitude gathers from Syria and all the regions roundabout, each of them bringing his own god and the images which each one has for this purpose.
(50) On certain days the multitude crowds into the temple, and the numerous Galli of whom I spoke, who are hold men, perform the ceremonies, gashing their arms and truns their backs to one another to be lashed. Many of the bystanders play flutes; many beat drums; others sing inspired and sacred songs. This performance takes place outside the temple, and those engaged in it do not enter the temple.
(51) During these days men become Galli. While the others play flutes and perform their orgies, the frenzy seizes many of them; and many who have come as spectators presently engage in the same activity. I will tell you what they do. The young man who is thus seized strips off his clothes, and with a loud shout pushes his way into the midst of the crowd [of flagellants] and picks up a sword—for many years, I suppose, these swords have been stacked there. He takes it and at once castrates himself and then runs through the city, carrying in his hands what he has cut off. He throws it into any house he chooses, and from this house he takes women’s apparel and ornaments. This is what they do in their ceremonies of castration.
(55) I will also tell you what those who come to these festivals do. The first time a man sets out to visit the Sacred City [Hierapolis] he shaves his head and his eyebrows; then he sacrifices a sheep and cuts up its flesh and eats it. The fleece he lays on the ground and kneels on it, but the feet and head of the animal he places on his own head; as he does so, he prays that the present sacrifice may be accepted and promises a greater one next time. When this rite is complete, he crowns his head with a garland, and also the heads of all the others who have come with him on the same pilgrimage. Then, leaving his home, he sets out on the road, using only cold water for bathing and drinking, and always sleeping on the ground; for he is not permitted to sleep in a bed until his pilgrimage is over and he has come home again.
(56) Arrived at the city of Hierapolis, he is received by a public host, even though he is unknown to him; for there are public hosts appointed in each city who entertain guests according to their country. These men are called by the Assyrians “teachers”, because they teach them everything [relating to the solemn rites].
(57) They sacrifice victims, but not in the temple itself. After the victim has been presented at the altar and a libation poured there, the animal is brought home alive. Returning to his house, the owner slays the animal and offers prayers.
(58) There is also another method of sacrifice, like this: they adorn the live animals with garlands and throw them headlong down from the temple’s entrance; naturally they die after such a fall. Some even thrown their own children down, not as they do the cattle, but they first sew them into a sack and carry them in [and toss them down], jesting the while and saying that they are not children but oxen. (117-120)


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