Ancient Religious World Views

Procession of twelve gods and goddesses. The figures from left to right are: Hestia (goddess of the hearth), with scepter; Hermes (messenger of the gods), with cap and staff; Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty), with veil; Ares (god of war), with helmet and spear; Demeter (goddess of agriculture), with scepter and wheat sheaf; Hephaestus (god of fire and metal-working), with staff; Hera (queen of the gods), with scepter; Poseidon (god of the sea), with trident; Athena (goddess of wisdom and the arts), with owl and helmet; Zeus (king of the gods), with thunderbolt and staff; Artemis (goddess of the hunt and moon), with bow and quiver; and Apollo (god of the sun), with “kithara.” 1st century BCE – 1st century CE. / Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

By Dr. Nicholas K. Rauh
Professor of Classics
Purdue University


The ruins of Göbekli Tepe / Photo by Teomancimit, Wikimedia Commons

By 4000 BC patterns of dense human settlement were occurring in large river basins throughout Eurasia and North Africa. Sedentism was emerging in the Nile river basin, the Tigris-Euphrates, the Indus, the Yangtze, and the Huang-gu. By the time that fully developed civilizations emerged in each of these places (ca. 3000 BC) the earliest records and the earliest recorded hierarchies in nearly every instance were religious. The development of sites such as Göbekli Tepe already by 9600 BC indicates that leadership cadres acquired their elite status based to large degree their claim to religious authority. Since religious ideology was obviously fundamental to the formation of these cultures, we need to address the reasons for this as well as for the tendency of religious authority to become transformed into political, social, and legal power. Modern readers of ancient texts of all kinds — the Old Testament, Demosthenes’ speeches, Plutarch’s lives, the Rg Veda or the Egyptian Book of the Dead — need to be cognizant of the inherent organization and logic of ancient religious world views. Otherwise, much of what they have to relate will seem unintelligible or illogical.

This is a reduced, distilled model for ancient polytheistic world views. Generalizations are necessary yet inevitably unsatisfactory. The texture of all religious world views is complex and multifaceted, making it difficult to do justice in broad strokes. Nonetheless, a template must be furnished for the chapters to follow. We are going to examine first the cosmology or world view of the polytheistic mindset. How did ancient societies generally perceive the universe to be organized? We will then examine the inherent logic to this world view. The fact that this world view was consistent and coherent demonstrates that its believers gave it considerable thought. Next we will examine the ways in which inhabitants of ancient societies communicated with their deities. To ancient worshipers the ability to communicate with deities meant that they could to some degree control these and through them the natural environment. Last we will consider ancient views of afterlife, since the manner in which ancient societies revered their dead says a great deal about what they cherished in life. Hopefully what will come from this discussion is an appreciation for the manner in which the ancient religious world view not only fulfilled the needs of past societies but also formed part of the essential fabric of their inhabitants’ daily lives. It is difficult to appreciate how ancient peoples went about organizing their societies, their communities, or their lives without understanding their spiritual attitudes.

At the outset the profound uniformity of ancient religious beliefs needs to be confronted. Ancient peoples tended to be highly superstitious. All around them natural phenomena released destructive energy that they could not understand. All they knew is that these forces were greater than human kind. To a considerable degree ancient polytheistic world views focused on the causation and / or the deterrence of destructive or frightening natural phenomena. An impulse to make sense of it all and to attribute transcendent meaning to natural phenomena ultimately led to a great diversity of belief systems and ritual practices. All early human cultures subscribed to the belief in divine beings that more or less exerted control over natural phenomena and human fortune. Lacking scientific understanding prehistoric peoples presumed that any force more powerful than humankind — lightening, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc. — was inherently divine or a direct manifestation of the divine. The assignment of names and personalities to these various manifestations enabled prehistoric peoples to identify and to classify divinities and to devise means with which to communicate with them. To some degree the process resembled the tagging of a crime scene. The more divinities one could identify, the greater the likelihood that one could communicate with that divinity and appease it.

In addition to identifying forces of nature, ancient polytheistic religions were also concerned with the process of the life cycle, that is, the seemingly perpetual cycle of Birth, Death, and Regeneration. Events such as the birth of infants, the marriage of newlyweds, and the interment of loved ones represented rites of passage for human kind. They were also symptomatic of the limits of human mortality and tended to evoke the most pious, profound emotions. The love that existed between life partners, the love of parents for their children (and vice versa), the pain at losing a loved one, and the fear of death were all embodied by belief systems concerned with the life cycle. In addition, much of ancient worship concerned animism, that is, the use of magical power to gain control over one’s food supply. Bound up in this concept was the recognition that all organic life inherently had to consume life to exist. In essence, one is what one eats. When combined with broader notions of anthropomorphic divinities that existed and manifested themselves on the earth, the power to take life assumed profound significance. How did one know, when hunting down a deer in the forest, for example, that one was not in fact slaying the favorite deer of the huntress goddess Artemis? This is precisely what occurred in the legend of Agamemnon, the King of Bronze Age Mycenae, who was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in recompense. To avoid the risk of divine retribution, ancient peoples intrinsically recognized the sacred character of life by offering to share the fruits of the hunt with the gods through sacrifice. Despite its complementary tendencies toward the ecstatic and the macabre, sacrifice implicitly recognized the sacredness of all life and the fine line that existed between corporeal existence and nothingness.

Polytheistic Cosmology

Polytheism means the belief in the existence of many gods. This was true of all ancient cultures. There were anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic deities in most ancient cosmologies. By projecting human experience onto the transcendent realm, humans tended to perceive their gods organized as families, with a father deity (usually the sky god) exerting patriarchal control over his consorts, siblings and offspring. Simultaneously, divine beings operated in a political dimension, with the supreme god presiding as king and a retinue of advisor gods (resembling a king’s council of elders) offering advice. As king he could choose to accept their counsel or not. Such gods were naturally depicted in human form (anthropomorphism), although attributes such as wings, multiple limbs, etc. were often added to emphasize power. Most cosmologies conformed to a familiar pattern of a sky god father ruling his often fractious family, whose members not only squabbled among themselves, but interacted for better or for worse with the lives of humans.


[LEFT]: Votive statues of Melqart from the Temple of Melqart in Cadiz / Photo by Antonio M. Romero Dorado, Wikimedia Commons
[RIGHT]: Baby Herakles strangling a snake, 2nd century CE / Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen, Capitoline Museums, Rome

As noted above, most ancient societies displayed a bewildering tendency to incorporate gods — new gods, foreign gods — into their cosmologies as a means to obtain the benefit of new and potentially untapped divine resources. When coming in contact with foreign cultures it was commonplace to search for recognizable attributes of one’s own deities in the newly encountered deities of foreigners. This resulted in syncretism — the merging of religious beliefs across cultures. Traveling abroad the Greeks associated Phoenician Melkaart with Hercules (the hero of civilization), Near Eastern Astarte with Aphrodite (the goddess of love), and Anatolian Cybele with Rhea (the mother of the gods). The Libyan Desert oracle consulted by the Macedonian King Alexander the Great at Siwah and known to the Greek world as the oracle of Zeus Ammon furnishes a famous example of syncretism. The priests of this oracle were the first to identify Alexander’s direct descent from Zeus, setting in motion the Macedonian ruler cults of the Hellenistic era. Even more illustrative is a passage from the second century AD Northern African author Apuleius, which lists a litany of ancient goddesses from the Near East, Greece and Rome, and equates them all with the Egyptian goddess Isis.

Enuma Elish tablets, Neo-Assyrian / British Museum

Where did all these gods come from? The earliest recorded creation stories exhibit a discernible cross-cultural pattern: the gods who ruled the universe were rarely perceived as the earliest of the gods; rather, they represented a second or third generation of divine beings who had successfully wrested supreme power from their predecessors. This earlier generation of gods had acquired power by suppressing an even earlier group of primal forces that arose from inchoate matter, such as primordial ether or watery abyss. Each generation of new gods grew increasingly anthropomorphic. In Mesopotamia the Enuma Elish hymn relates how Tiamat and Apzu emerged from a watery mass to spawn a new generation of gods. Apzu ultimately decided to destroy these gods, but the god Enki or Ea killed him first and thus assumed control of freshwater forever. Enraged by the death of Apzu, Tiamat sought to exterminate the younger gods. However, a council of the gods appointed Enlil (the god of air, later known as Marduk to the Babylonians) to confront the chaotic sea goddess in battle. Enlil defeated Tiamat, divided her carcass in two, and used half of it to create the dome of the sky and the other half to create the surface of the earth. Thus, the sky (An or Anu) and the earth (Ki) became separated by atmosphere (Enlil), and the earth was perceived as a large rectangular land mass floating on the body of Apzu or freshwater. Beyond the earth loomed the primeval ocean of Nammu. The Hittite – Hurrian creation story Kingship in Heaven, was remarkably similar. In this instance, Alalush, the original king of heaven, was overthrown by a revolt led by his servant, the sky god Anush. He in turn was castrated by the god Kumarbi, who swallowed the sperm and somehow generated the storm god Teshub. Teshub then overthrew Kumarbi and ruled without a rival for all eternity. This gruesome motif of castration recurs in the Greek creation myth as told by Hesiod in his Theogony. According to several world views, therefore, each generation of gods overthrew its predecessor and grew more human in form.

The Al-Masalla obelisk, the largest surviving monument from Heliopolis / Photo by David Schmid, Wikimedia Commons

The Bronze Age Egyptian tradition surrounding the god Atum of Heliopolis was only slightly different. According to this tradition, in the beginning there was nothing but the sea, then a mound of earth (the Atum) emerged above the water to furnish the origins of life. Much like the Black Earth rising from the receding waters of the Nile flood, all life ultimately arose from this mound. In a second tradition two gods of opposite sex mated to produce the sky and the earth which in turned generated all other elements of life. A third myth, known as the Memphite theology, explained that Ptah, the heart and tongue of all the gods, generated the gods Atum, Re, and Horus (who in turn created all living things), while others explained that Min, the fertility god of Coptos or Amon, the creator god of Thebes, were the sources for creation. Despite so many strands of myth, the Heliopolitan myth of Atum became dominant. High ground whether in the hills above the Nile Valley or the rising floor plan of Egyptian temples served as a metaphor for the emergence of the Atum above the waters. The material world and all life on it allegedly arose from inchoate, fluid substance.

Procession of twelve Olympian gods and goddesses. 1st century BCE – 1st century CE. / Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

As the Mesopotamian tradition indicates, the ancient universe was perceived as existing in three planes – the arc of the heaven above, the flat land surface of the earth in the middle, and the arc of the underworld below (typically associated with an underground freshwater sea). The deities who inhabited the heavens were the Sky Gods, or the Olympic deities. These deities were typically associated with celestial bodies, the sun, the moon, stars, etc., though Zeus, the father of the gods in Mediterranean cosmology was mostly personified as the storm god. The sky gods controlled the changes of day and night and the seasons; they could also induce storms, floods, drought, snow, hail, and wind. These abilities inevitably gave them power over human affairs. Their ability to peer down on humans from the heavens also enabled them to observe and thus to witness human behavior, both good and bad. Where the fulfillment of sacred oaths were concerned, the Olympic deities enjoyed the capacity to determine equity, that is, the recognition that a mortal could be prevented from fulfilling a sacred vow by circumstances beyond his or her control. The sky gods tended to recognize the untoward outcome of an obligation, not merely its original terms. Generally, sky gods gave good things to human kind and were beseeched with promises and prayers.

As opposed to the Olympic deities of the heavens, Earth Gods, also known as Chthonic deities, represented the dark, primordial forces of the earth. In Mediterranean cultures these included the widespread belief in the Mother Goddess– epitomized by deities such as Isis, Demeter and Persephone, and Inanna (Ishtar). The underworld was also perceived as the realm of the male god Hades or Pluto, the underworld carnation of Zeus. Hades was sometimes identified as Zeus’ brother, sometimes identified as Zeus’ own mirror image, Zeus Chthonios. Since earth gods dwelled below the surface of the earth where everything was dark, they were perceived as blind and spiteful, having to take their cue from messages emanating from the Sky Gods. As a result they tended to follow the “letter of the law.” If a mortal failed to abide by a sacred agreement, for example, earth gods were obligated to see to the transgressor’s punishment with no regard for equity. Most of all, Chthonic deities controlled the life cycle. Since all living things ultimately arose from the earth at birth and returned to the earth in death, the earth gods were presumed to direct this process. As the king of the underworld, Hades received the spirits of all deceased humans and was described by poets as “rich in souls.” Earth gods were generally feared, therefore. Since their control of the life cycle was absolute, human dealings with them were unavoidable. The best one could hope was to placate the Chthonic deities through sacrifice and veneration and thereby delay the inevitability of one’s own demise or that of a loved one.

Numina, non-anthropomorphic deities, or spirit forces, were another divine element that had to be placated. In Greco-Roman society Hestia or Vesta, the essence of fire, was goddess of the hearth. In fact, human mastery of fire dated back some 350,000 years and represented the first natural energy to come under human control. The maintenance of the eternal flame of an ancient community such as Rome was viewed as a sacred responsibility, not to mention a communal necessity. The Romans appointed a high ranking college of priestesses, the Vestal Virgins, to watch over the fire.


[LEFT]: Lar holding a cornucopia from Axatiana (now Lora del Rio) in Roman Spain, early 1st century AD / National Archaeological Museum of Spain
[RIGHT]: One of the Roman penates / British Museum

Other Roman numina included the Lares and the Penates, friendly spirit forces who warded over the doorsill, the pantry of the household, and the crossroads of farming communities. Many of these spirit forces or energies appear, in fact, to have been closely linked to agricultural environments (molds and fungi that could damage crops, for example) and possibly originated there. Their presence at the surface plain of the earth seemed certain. Most Classical cultures populated their world with lesser spirit forces such as these: demons, angels, ghosts; demigods and woodland spirits like nymphs and satyrs, and powerful spirits of the dead, whether in Greece or in China. The number and variety of such spirits surpasses summary description, but the phenomenon needs to be emphasized in order to demonstrate the degree to which the „real’ world was perceived as inhabited by a variety of spirit forces.


Busts of Zeus (left, British Museum) and Hera (right, Archaeological Museum of Tirana)

In general one could define polytheistic deities of antiquity as superhuman entities that displayed both the best and worst attributes of human nature. Everything that humans did the gods seemingly did to an extreme. Just as humans became angry, the gods became violently angry; if humans felt passion, a god’s passion was uncontrollable. Consider the example of Zeus and Hera, the former of which would disguise himself in animal form to have sex with beautiful nymphs and maidens. He would then boast about his conquests in the presence of his jealous wife Hera, who would invariably wreak her vengeance on the unwitting victim. It is difficult to conceive of Zeus, the fornicating, inebriated, mercurially angry sky god as the discriminating judge of all human actions and the guardian of sacred oaths. Nonetheless, ancient Greco-Roman societies perceived of him in just such a manner. Partly this is a consequence of the relatively open character of Greek religious practices; there was no church, no hierarchy of priests, no ‘bible’ of revealed sacred truths. The works of Homer and Hesiod were fundamental to the shaping of Greek views about the gods, but these were poets and storytellers, not religious thinkers, and the gods they described amounted to little more than literary portrayals. The difference between the characters portrayed in these works and true religious sensibility can be perceived in the figure of Hera. As we have noted, the myths surrounding Hera cast her in the role of the jealous and vindictive wife of Zeus; however, the material evidence of her cults and rituals present a far more positive impression. As the patron of marriage and childbirth, Hera presided over two essential areas of life, especially for women. Hera’s range of divine patronage, allowing for contradiction, provides one of the defining distinctions between polytheistic and monotheistic world views.

Yin Yang – universal balance / Photo by Hartwig HKD, Creative Commons

Even in Egypt, where public religion was tightly controlled by the religious hierarchy, authorities tolerated and even promoted a very fluid and paradoxical set of deities whose roles and identities overlapped in ways unthinkable in monotheistic terms. Polytheistic world views, with multiple gods often in direct competition with each other, suitably explained the apparently random character of natural phenomena. Floods, earthquakes, famines – even the outcomes of human disasters such as wars – were not random instances of meaningless chaos, but elements of a cosmic order that was subject, at least on one level, to the whims of gods and goddesses with essentially human motivations. There was righteous anger to be sure (justice was dear to the gods), but also irrational jealousies, favoritism, animosity, what have you. At the mercy of such forces, humans could at best try to cover their bets by offering prayers and sacrifices and by performing proper rituals to maintain what the Romans referred to as the pax deorum, or the peace of the gods. Permeating most ancient cultures was a notion that the balance of the universe was constantly off kilter and required the direct attention of human kind. This concept, the need to maintain the order and harmony of the universe, was known as Me in Sumer, Ma’at in Egypt, Karma in India, and the Mandate of Heaven in China. Even the gods could not escape the consequences of cosmic disorder.

Polytheism vs. Monotheism

Ethnic Hellenes Spring Equinox ritual at an ancient temple of Goddess Artemis in Peloponnese, Greece, in March 2016. / Creative Commons

It is common to view polytheism, the belief in many gods, as the opposite of monotheism, the belief in one god only, and equally commonplace for monotheists to regard polytheism as primitive. However, it may be more beneficial to view polytheism through a kind of theological prism. Just as white light refracted through a prism stone emits a spectrum of diverse colors, one could argue the varied pantheons of ancient gods and goddesses functioned as manifestations or even approximations of a genuine but remote divine reality. Benefit arguably obtained from a multitude of gods. For example, the sheer number of female deities in ancient polytheistic world views served to elevate the importance of that gender on a cosmic scale, particularly when compared with the all too commonly masculine character of monotheistic divinities. Neither belief system was ever truly devoid of ambiguity. Most polytheistic world views tended to recognize one god who was supreme and superior to all the others (e.g., Greek Zeus, Egyptian Amon Re, Babylonian Marduk, Hindu Brahman); conversely, several monotheistic world views recognize multiple sources of godhead. For example, Roman Catholicism recognizes three divine entities combined in one god (father, son, and holy spirit), Zoroastrianism posits a nearly equal but evil god, Ahriman (Aingra Mainyu), to oppose the good god, Ahura Mazda, just as the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) recognize a Satan who opposes their God. In addition numerous devout monotheists ascribe to the belief in a wide array of spiritual beings apart from God: saints who possess formally recognized abilities to assist the living as well as angels and demons. These beliefs would easily have found a place in ancient polytheistic communities.

Polytheism does tend to articulate the randomness of causality. Put simply, “stuff happens.” Natural phenomena were inherently violent, destructive, and unpredictable, but they were not intentional. Accordingly, they were neither moral nor immoral, but amoral. When there is no rhyme or reason to why things happen, there is only chaos, and as modern chaos theory has demonstrated even chaos is randomly predictable. Polytheistic traditions that explain the seasons and natural phenomena as the work of gods thus furnish religious rationale for what is random without denying its implicit randomness. By contrast, monotheistic systems typically insist on a causality emanating from the will of a single god, a just god who controls every aspect of reality. Everything that happens does so for a reason in accordance with God’s will. Accordingly, monotheists tend to see inherent logic to the universe. Gradually identified universal truths, such as mathematical theorems and the predictable motion of the stars, demonstrated to ancient thinkers that the universe contained irrefutable particles of order.

Judaism – belief in a most powerful god (henotheistic) to Yawheh alone (monotheism)

Where there was order, there had to be law or a set of guiding universal principles. Law, in turn, implied that there was a right way and a wrong way to do things, just as order implied the existence of a reasoning intellect responsible for the architecture of the universe. In other words, there had to be a god, one god, and a just god at that, who controlled every aspect of reality. However, monotheistic world views inevitably stumbled over the issue of theodicy, or the belief in divine justice, particularly when they attempted to reconcile a belief in god’s will with the actual course of events, where all too often “bad things happened to good people.” The book of Job in the Hebrew bible furnishes a profound examination of divine justice, where the just and pious Job was subjected to a devastating series of disasters to see if his faith could withstand the test. His friends saw his demise as punishment for some fault or sin, yet, Job resolutely insisted that he was innocent, and he refused to abandon his belief in god’s essential goodness; he would not take his wife’s advice to “curse god and die.” Ultimately he was granted an interview with god (as a voice from the whirlwind), whose transcendent greatness (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?”) reduced Job to humble submission. In short, however great the likelihood that a monotheistic god attended to divine justice, the problem exceeded human understanding.

Atheism / Creative Commons

Given these philosophical conundrums, a third option was atheism or agnosticism. To contemplate the possibility that the universe lacked controlling deities or to assume, if they did exist, that they ceased to concern themselves with human activity ages ago was to commit the crime of hubris. Hubris was a loaded term that entailed a range of meanings. Principally it referred to human arrogance, the act of putting oneself at the level of the gods, to deny their existence, or to say that they had no power over oneself. To engage in hubris was to invite divine retribution, and since the gods were immortal they did not need to punish mortals in any predictable manner. The gods enjoyed a different sense of time and place; simply killing a transgressor would teach him nothing. For greater effect they might choose to punish the guilty party’s loved ones, his descendants, for example, his community, or his entire society through the introduction of plague and pestilence. As the Athenian lawgiver Solon noted in his poem, such is the vengeance of Zeus…one man pays immediately, another later; but to those who manage to escape punishment themselves…it relentlessly follows and the innocent pay for the crimes, either in the form of their children or the next generation thereafter (1.25-32). In essence, the act of hubris put one’s entire society at risk and was therefore punishable by death. Accused in 399 BC of corrupting the youth and of denying the existence of the gods, Socrates ultimately ran afoul this logic and paid for it with his life. A sensible person feared the gods and scrupulously followed their prescriptions. Careful attention to the wishes of the gods ensured the maintenance of order (the Me, the Ma’at, the pax deorum), the fecundity of nature, and the maintenance of life. The fear of the unknown was a fundamental tool used by religious authorities not only to control their societies but also to impose religious conformity on their inhabitants.

Principle Means of Communication with Ancient Deities: Ritual, Sacrifice, and Divination

Given the omnipotence of the gods, what was the purpose of human kind? Given that the gods were remote; how did one approach them? Since they were mysterious; how could one understand them? And since they were so obviously powerful, how could one negotiate with them? The apparent gap between the transcendent and the mundane was vast, and it is not surprising that most cultures recognized a special status for intermediary figures who claimed to bridge the divide between humans and the divine. The earliest such figure was the shaman, a man usually believed to have powers to communicate with the spiritual world. When true civilizations developed, the shamanic role tended to devolve to a class of priests, who often exercised temporal as well as spiritual powers. The duty of the priestly class was to communicate with the divine on behalf of the community, to ensure proper rainfall, a bountiful harvest, success in battle, and so on.

Most ancient cultures distilled the practice of communicating with divinities into three principal parts: Ritual, Sacrifice, and Divination. Ritual was the invocation of the gods through magical prayers and chants. If properly invoked a god could be compelled against his or her will to attend to human requests.


Procession with Augustus as Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) of Rome, from the Ara Pacis / Wikimedia Commons

Ritual consisted of various forms of prayers, chants, oaths, and curses (essentially black magic). The success of a given ritual gave it timeless legitimacy, not to be deviated from. Ritual was accordingly highly formulaic, entrusted with divine importance, and all but frozen in time. Ritual inherently imposed inalterable norms on worshipers. Ritual reinforced social solidarity and was believed to be undermined when performed poorly or not at all. In the Roman view, the pax deorum was jeopardized by such errors, and since the priests were politicians, ample care was taken to appease not only the gods, but the restless populace as well. Equally pragmatic was Confucius, whose dedication to li (the rites) is legendary. For him, ritual provided a social lubricant to ensure that all things were arranged in their proper place and that due respect was shown for the traditions of the ancestors. Egyptian and Brahman priests were equally renowned for the intricacy and elaborateness of their rituals. The ritualistic component to ancient religion rendered it one of the most conservative attributes of any human culture, accordingly.


Relief of a sacrificial Hecatomb / Wikimedia Commons

Sacrifice was the gift or offering made to a god in exchange for which humans could ask a favor. Sacrifice implied that humans potentially exerted power over the gods. The ancient Sumerians asserted that the gods had molded humans out of clay, mixed with god’s blood, and in their own image in order to feed and to serve them. The gods did not necessarily need to eat, in other words, but they longed for the sensations that arose from the pleasure of eating. In much the same manner the gods desired the vicarious experience of all corporeal pleasures– eating, drinking, sexual relations, and sleep. These were the only genuine proofs of physical existence, and since mortality was fleeting they possessed value to humans and gods alike. The sharing of corporeal pleasures thus gave humans leverage over the gods. The logic of this is explained in the Gilgamesh Epic, where Utnapushtim (the Sumerian Noah) conducted his sacrifice following the flood, (lines 150-165). As the text notes, the gods smelled the sweet savor, the gods crowded like flies around the sacrifice.

Human dealings with the gods were viewed very much in terms of contractual agreements. The Latin vow, do ut des (I give to you so that you might give me in return), expressed this succinctly. Humans venerated the gods by offering them gifts on a daily basis. Since the purpose of mortal existence was to serve the gods, social hierarchies regarded the construction and maintenance of religious shrines (alters, temples, sanctuaries) as a primary duty. Likewise, it was customary for citizens confronting life-threatening enterprises such as hazardous journeys, military engagements, illness, old age, or childbirth, to beseech the aid of the gods through votive offerings. Successful fulfillment of a prayer would then result in another round of votives, typically in the form of altars, statues, shrines, captured weaponry, or tithes of profits. The development of built environments at sanctuaries such as Delphi and Olympia in Greece, where the erection of thousands of small monuments testified to the god’s repeated response to prayers, offered visual proof of the power of the god and his or her willingness to come to the aid his worshipers. Permanent monuments were expensive, however, and therefore occasional gifts; the typical offerings on a daily basis were largely made as sacrifice.

Sacrifice was divided into two types, blood and non-blood sacrifices. Although non blood sacrifices such as the dedication of votive objects and libations into the ground were probably more commonplace, blood sacrifices of animals such as chicken, sheep, goats, cows, and bulls naturally arrest our attention. The animals to be sacrificed had to be perfect specimens with no blemishes. They were frequently adorned with wreaths and, at least in Greece and Rome, were believed to show no hesitation as they were led to the altar. After the sacrifice, the edible parts of the animal were usually distributed to the participants or to the public. The grand sacrifice of the Greeks, the hecatomb (literally one hundred cattle’) was as much a barbecue as it was a religious event. Occasionally, the entire animal would be burned as a special offering known as a holocaust (that is, ‘burnt whole’). Sacrifices, thus, represented social interaction at a number of levels. First and foremost they functioned as a feast (adding protein to one’s diet) typically shared among a collective since by necessity the victim needed to be consumed all at once. By cooking the inedible portions over a fire to create a sooty smoke column visible in the heavens, they represented the sharing of life with a deity (communion). In addition, the macabre experience of witnessing the shedding of blood convinced participants of the divine power of the sacrificial experience, that is, the human capacity to take life. And by focusing on the otherworldly aspect of the moment, frequently enhanced through consumption of wine or other stimulants, sacrifice exposed the participants to an ecstatic experience shared in a collective. Humans could rarely witness the taking of life without undergoing feelings of unnatural, heightened sensations of transcendence, thus, affirming the otherworldly character of the experience.

By its spectacle and the awe that it inspired sacrifice tended to command center stage. Inevitably, the question of human sacrifice arises. In archaic Bronze Age civilizations such as Ur (Sumer), Old Kingdom Egypt, or Shang Dynasty China, human sacrifice on a significant scale occurred in the form of „retainer’ sacrifice, where individuals are killed and buried with the sovereign to serve him in the next life. These sacrifices were ultimately modified through the substitution of icons and figurines in place of live humans. In later Classical era civilizations human sacrifice did occur on occasion, but it was typically viewed as distasteful and as a last resort to summon the attention of the gods.


Diagram of the sheep’s liver found at Picenum with Etruscan inscriptions on the bronze sheep’s Liver of Piacenza / From Lokilech, Wikimedia Commons

Divination was the belief that the gods sent signs predicting the future and that these signs could be interpreted by skilled professionals. This is typically what the priest or devotee requested, and what the god returned, invoked or uninvoked. Invoked signs implied that the gods could be summoned magically or even compelled to give answers to human prayers and requests. Uninvoked signs were natural phenomena sent by the gods uninvited, such as storms with damaging hail and lightening or births of unnaturally deformed animals. These indicated disruptions to the pax deorum that required immediate attention. The chief purpose of invoking the gods through ritual and sacrifice was to summon the attention of a deity momentarily in order to place before it a proposed course of action. All official “state sponsored” activities required due consultation of the gods. Divination took many forms: astrology (observing the sky for natural phenomena), hepatoscopy (the examination of the livers of sacrificial victims), and even the trance-like utterances of inspired priests and priestesses. Typically it would occur in a precinct referred to in Latin as a templum, a ritually purified area for purposes of divination. In Rome before a public voting assembly could be convened, the priestly college of the augurs would monitor a given quadrant of the night sky for the “flight of the birds.” Depending on the omens that were observed (positive vs. negative types of birds) an assembly either would or would not occur. Military commanders typically consulted the shape of the livers of sacrificial victims before committing their forces to battle. With his navy arrayed in battle formation, a Roman admiral had to await the outcome of the feeding of sacred chickens, kept in a cage on the deck of his flagship. If they ate with gusto, that was a positive sign and a naval battle would ensue. If they hesitated and looked to the heavens this was a bad sign and the admiral was religiously obligated to refrain from committing his warships to a divinely unsanctioned action.

In one instance, the Battle of Drepanum in 249 BC, the Roman admiral P. Claudius Pulcher was ready to engage the war fleet of his Carthaginian adversaries, but his sacred chickens, kept in a cage on the deck of his flagship, refused to eat. Becoming exasperated Pulcher seized the cage of frightened birds and threw them into the sea. As this example demonstrates, no public activity could occur without due invocation of the gods and nothing was done without their consent. Religious authority, in other words, was directly translatable into legal, military, political, or judicial power. Neither kings nor subjects could escape the will of the gods. In China at the end of the Bronze Age (1122 BC), the Zhou dynasty overthrew the ruling Shang by proclaiming that the Shang had lost the confidence of the sky god T’ien and that they could no longer guarantee the divine safety of the Chinese people. By arguing this principle the Zhou introduced the concept of the Mandate of Heaven. Diviners educated in the required rituals guided the Zhou and later kings through their sacrifices at the Altar of Heaven and monitored the resulting omens. A clustering of bad omens might very well indicate that a given king’s mandate had expired. This development not only placed inordinate emphasis on ritual procedures as these pertained to the monarch, but it also introduced the concept of royal accountability to a higher moral authority. Throughout Classical Chinese history once a dynasty was believed to have lost its moral ascendancy (in part through negative prognostication), its authority was jeopardized.

It is important to recognize that today’s worst superstitious phobias represented officially sanctioned policy in the past. Days were viewed as Fas or Nefas (divinely sanctioned or unsanctioned). Any untoward occurrence could be interpreted as an omen. Stepping on a crack in the sidewalk, breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, avoiding the path of a black cat all pale in comparison to the texture of superstitious lore that was sustained during antiquity. What equally needs to be stressed is the inseparable character of religious and secular life in most ancient civilizations. On any given day, sacrifices of family cults would occur in each and every household, sacrifices would occur in civic centers before they could be opened for business, and no army would commit to battle short of an appropriate sign from the gods. Religious activity assumed a regularized, permanent component to the fabric of everyday life. Its activities were so commonplace that they passed without comment by ancient writers and their audiences. Ancient writers in essence took it for granted that their readers were fully cognizant of this fact, thus, offering little explanation.

Ancient Views of Afterlife

Illustration of the boatman of the dead on the Apzu / Wikimedia Commons

The standard view of life after death was fairly grim: the souls of departed humans traveled to the underworld kingdom of Hades where they existed for eternity as shades. In Mesopotamia the Sumerians believed that the dead – kings and slaves alike — all went to a bleak place known as The Land of No Return. To reach this land the spirits of the dead had to be ferried across a fearsome underground river (Apzu) by a boatman who expected to be paid. Family members buried their dead with offerings of food and drink to maintain them until they reached their destination, including personal objects to be used in the underworld and tokens of precious metal to pay the boatman and other waiting demons and deities. Belief in this one-way journey prevailed in most ancient cultures, and while some traditions, such as that of the Egyptians, insisted that the sun illuminated the underworld during evenings, most, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, presumed that underworld was a place of utter darkness where the inhabitants spent eternity eating dust and clay.

Egyptian Akh as the crested ibis / Wikimedia Commons

Even cultures that viewed the afterlife as a blissful abode recognized that the voyage there was perilous. Bronze Age Chinese aristocrats believed, for example, that the spirits of deceased relatives embarked on a long and tortuous journey into the heavens with little guarantee of success. Those who arrived at the ultimate destination were allowed to sit at the court of T’ien or Shang Ti, “The Supreme Ancestor.” It was the duty of Chinese descendants, particularly the eldest male of a given family, to assist these spirits in their journey by feeding them through ritual sacrifices so that they could attain their place in the heavens and assist their descendants on earth. Not only the canonical ritual vessels but even the pictographic forms of early Chinese characters are believed to have been fashioned to accommodate this process. As with most aspects of Egyptian religion, the Egyptian voyage to heaven entailed a complex series of recombination. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a person’s spirit (Ka) depended on the physical remains of his body to survive and would return to earth periodically to visit them; it also needed food and drink for nourishment. After death and with the aid of the proper rituals, an Egyptian’s Ka would combine with his Ba, or his unique individual soul, to form the Akh (a spirit of light) and ascend to heaven. This was accomplished through carefully administered burial rites, but before the Akh could ascend into heaven, it had to endure a final judgment of the gods. A council of gods, presided over by Osiris, the god of the dead, would judge each person’s deeds. Those who failed to live righteously would neither endure this trial nor survive their corporeal existence. Those who did joined the gods on their daily round into the underworld and back again into the heavens. Anyone who could afford the costs of mummification, a tomb, the sustained practice of the necessary rites, and, of course, the conviction of a blameless life could expect to become a god in the after world. As these examples demonstrate, therefore, even world views that offered optimistic places of afterlife tended to insist that the voyage there was fraught with peril.

Chinvat Peretum – Bridge of the Requiter, Judgment & Separation / Wikimedia Commons

Another extremely influential worldview for the development of afterlife beliefs was Zoroastrianism, which originated among the Iranian peoples of Central Asia near the end of the Bronze Age (1200-1000 BC). According to the Avesta, based on the compiled hymns of prophets beginning with Zoroaster, the human soul had to endure various ordeals on its way to reward or punishment. To reach paradise, for example, the soul had to traverse the Chinvat Bridge, the breadth of which shifted according to the morality of the soul, broadening for the virtuous but sharpening to a razor’s edge for the wicked. Such ordeals set the stage for a universal final judgment (frash-kreti, a cyclical process worked out over three millennia) to be initiated by a savior figure (saoshyant). According to the Avesta, the entire universe was locked in a cosmic battle between Ahura Mazda („Wise Lord’), the all- knowing and all-good deity, and Ahriman, the malign power that was always and everywhere hostile to good. The conflict was most frequently expressed in terms of Truth versus Lie, and it was a human responsibility to choose the side of Truth. In the end, following three millennia of conflict, the souls of all those who had served the cause of Ahura Mazda would be resurrected into heaven. There was divine judgment, in other words, but that judgment would occur at the end of time. As the religion of the Persian empire, Zoroastrianism was well positioned to influence religious thinking both in Greece and in Israel, and it is quite possible that views of the afterlife as a place of reward and punishment on moral grounds, as well as the idea of an end time brought on by the coming of a messiah figure (a term actually used by the prophet Isaiah to describe the Persian King Cyrus the Great) can be traced as much to Zoroastrian roots as to those Egyptian.

Still another unique and influential perception of afterlife emerged nearby in the Indus river valley. Among the civilizations of this environment arose the concept of transmigration of the soul and dharma or karma (literally “action”), the spiritual process that projected the soul forward and backward through life. Although this world view may have existed earlier, the first recorded texts were the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads (ca. the 8th century BC). The belief system was so universally recognized among the tribal communities of the Indian subcontinent that it was readily accepted by all the mainstream schools of philosophy, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. According to the construct of dharma, all morally charged activity had consequences that inevitably redounded against the one who performed them. As a spiritual process dharma represented a long-term process that worked itself out over innumerable lifetimes. An individual soul would move upward (to higher human or semi-divine status in a sort of heaven) or downward (to lower animal or demon status in a sort of hell) depending on its accumulated quotient of positive or negative karma. This in turn was determined by one’s performance of good works and pursuit righteous behavior during earthly existence. The ultimate goal was to escape this cycle of rebirths (called samsara) and to achieve liberation (moksha) and ultimate union with the infinite (nirvana). Rigorous moral strictures and meditative practices directed by a spiritual leader (guru) furnished a clearly defined path to achieve this goal. Despite variations on divine judgment (the Ma’at, the end time, dharma) and equally significant variations on the essence of spiritual existence, the notion that the process of afterlife entailed a long arduous journey runs like a thread through most conceptualizations of afterlife.

Regardless of whether one’s conception of afterlife was dark and gloomy, light and heavenly, enduringly repetitive, or pregnant with waiting, most ancient worshipers believed that like other spirit forces deceased humans emitted an energy force that could be cultivated by the living through libations. Libations of wine and oil poured into the earth were believed to infuse the remains of the departed with substances resembling blood to remind the spirits, however briefly, of the ineffable qualities of life. By revering the dead, therefore, one gained the potential assistance of their spiritual energy, which like other energies could be channeled toward negative as well as positive ends. Reverence of the dead helped to maintain the link between the living and the deceased in the wider cycle of life. With so many ways to go about this, our understanding of ancient afterlife beliefs, specifically, the character of afterlife for humans as individuals requires further distillation. Beneath these broader constructs of afterlife belief that were more likely to be discussed by educated priests, prophets, and philosophers, everyday people tended to organize their burial affairs according to an array of exclusive religious groupings most appropriately identified as cults. Despite the modern tendency to associate this term negatively with unorthodox, antisocial religious communities, its application to the exclusive religious associations that existed antiquity — as opposed to officially practiced state religions — renders it an appropriate term. With the exception of public officials such as kings, queens, and other heads of state, the preparation of last rites for the dead invariably remained a private matter, conducted among related members of families then as now. However, since significantly large elements within ancient urban communities lacked families or the necessary means to inter the dead, unrelated individuals frequently joined in collectives to insure the necessary requirements of interment. The identification of a cult, as opposed to a religious sect, rests with the closed character of its membership and its tendency to focus attention on a particular afterlife divinity. At least three types of cults existed in the ancient world: ancestor cults, mystery cults, and hero cults.

Ancestor Cults

Charye-sang, table setting for ancestor worship ceremony / Wikimedia Commons

From the perspective of social status, ancestor cults were the most notable of the three. Extended families of respectable, property holding citizens in ancient communities tended to claim and / or to recognize descent from a common ancestor, usually a hero descended from the gods. Land-holding families could point to the cemetery plots on their estates as proof of the duration of their lineage. The collective energy of so many ancestors, when properly revered, offered enormous potential of assistance in the spirit world. Each family had its own unique cultic rituals and observances that were handed down from father to son as the head of each presiding generation in the household. The chief duty of the eldest male in such a context was to produce a male heir who would maintain the cult of the dead after he himself had passed into the afterworld. Otherwise, the cult observances would come to a close, and he would be held responsible for having irreparably disrupted the continuum connecting the living and the dead. In ancestor cults the focus was always on male lineage because adult females would marry into the households of unrelated families, thus abandoning their own cults in favor of those of their husbands. Ancestor cults tended to focus on the continuum of life, that is, the fact that all humans descended from ancestors who had managed to avoid extinction and who were available to assist the living through proper maintenance of the family cult and its principle assets, the remains of the ancestors themselves. In many ancient societies the presence of family burial plots rendered land inalienable because of the associated religious taboo.

Proof of one’s descent from heroic lineage typically identified someone as an aristocrat. It did not hurt, of course, that aristocrats also claimed possession of the largest and most productive portions of a community’s arable land, and it was always a good question which came first, aristocratic descent or large landholdings. The very least an aristocrat could claim was that his family had occupied a particular estate for as long as the community itself could remember. The very notion of aristocratic descent distinguishes itself from modern concepts of class identification because it was intrinsically based on non-economic criteria such as “blue bloodedness.” Since descent from the gods furnished the basis for nobility, aristocratic elders tended to stand as the chief priests of the gods in question. Even at times when family cults were incorporated by state authorities into the emerging urban landscape, it was usually conditioned on the requirement that the priests of the newly established state cult be selected from members of the original cultic lineages. The distinction of divine descent carried with it a presumption that aristocrats as humans were more capable of communicating with the gods. Why rely on someone whose connection was remote? This notion conferred on aristocrats intrinsic leadership responsibilities. As we have seen, the religious authority of aristocratic leaders was directly transferable into law.

Ancestor cults and descent from the gods, thus, furnished the basis for aristocratic control of state religion. Participation in the public cults of a state or community typically required aristocratic status. The remainder of the community assumed the more passive role of being allowed to observe aristocrats as they conducted the rites associated with preserving the safety of the collective. Lesser people could, of course, approach the gods on their own, but it was tacitly understood that the gods would listen to the prayers of those who were more directly related to them (aristocrats) and could afford the most elaborate sacrifices (the wealthy). Those seeking a more personal experience with the divine, particularly those who by force of circumstance (enslavement, migration, or flight) had become separated from their places of origin, tended to turn to other forms of cultic experience such as mystery and hero cults.

Mystery Cults

Fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii / Wikimedia Commons

Mystery cults focused on a more intimate personal experience with deity who according to tradition died and was reborn. These included Dionysus, Isis and Osiris, Demeter and Persephone, and Attis / Adonis. Members of mystery cults did not necessarily deny the existence of other gods; rather, by entering into the cult they vowed to commit their energies to the veneration of a particular god above all others. All mystery cults tended to exhibit the same attributes, including exclusivity (there was a clear distinction between members of a cult and those without), rites of initiation (to enter a cult all members had to undergo secret rites that revealed the true essence of the deity), ecstatic experience (various means – wine, macabre sacrifices, orgies – were used to heightened the consciousness of cult members and to convince them of the immortal power of the god), communion with a deity (in this instance, belief in a one-to-one relationship with the god as its devotee), democratic recruitment (membership was frequently status-blind with slaves and freedmen welcome to membership; women were frequently listed as chief priestesses, though some cults were gender specific), and the possibility of afterlife. Since the belief systems of mystery cults remained secret, the precise nature of a member’s afterlife expectations remain hidden. At the very least it was believed that the power of the venerated deity would make the member’s experience of the afterlife somehow more tolerable that otherwise.

The widespread popularity of mystery cults during the Roman Empire, including those of Dionysus, Isis and Serapis, Mithras, or the Magna Mater (Cybele), testify to the void they filled in the lives of people seeking a greater sense of meaning to their otherwise mundane existence. As opposed to the cold, detached character of the official state religions, these cults offered a more intimate and meaningful religious experience to its members. Members of cults typically formed closed communities usually with a central religious focus, and habitual meetings enabled members to develop closer personal bonds. Together they celebrated the pivotal rites of passage of the human experience, births (and birthdays), weddings, and funerals. Elderly members could take comfort in the notion that their remains would receive proper rites after their departure. In fact, the main purpose of most local cults was to function as burial associations. Members had to pay dues to insure their proper attention in the afterlife. The chief purpose of a cult ultimately appears to have been to enable those without family networks (isolated slaves, freed persons, orphans, and widows) to forge surrogate families to ensure their status in the afterworld.

Hero Cults

Greek marble relief c. 300 BCE depicting a pious family offering a ram to two deities dining at a table in a temple. The male deity is presumed to be a deified hero, as the head of the horse in the background was a symbol of heroization. / Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Hero cults are slightly different from mystery cults in that the object of devotion was essentially a mortal who performed such superhuman achievements on earth that he was awarded divine status on his demise. The best example of this was the hero-god Herakles (Hercules). Destined by Zeus to be his greatest progeny he was cheated of his rightful place in Olympic pantheon by jealous Hera and was required to complete a series of superhuman labors in order to earn it. Each of his labors in some way concerned his conquest and overcoming of death. In the process he rid the world of primordial monsters, taught humans the science of agriculture, and showed them the proper manner to worship his divine father Zeus. Dying tragically, Herakles attained his rightful place in the heavens and demonstrated to everyday mortals that it was possible to defeat one’s allotted fate and obtain a better outcome in life. One simply had to believe in the power of Herakles and faithfully tithe a portion of one’s earnings to his cult. The tradition of the tithe and other aspects of the cult point to the syncretic origin of this hero cult with the Phoenician cult of Melkaart of Tyre. In any event, Herakles became a patron deity to all those embarking on life-threatening missions, including merchants, sailors, warriors, and women in childbirth. He offered the hope of overcoming one’s allotted fate in life to all those who believed that they stood in a disadvantaged state through no fault of their own and desired more.

To attain the divine status of a hero demanded superhuman accomplishments. The two most notable examples in this regard were the above-mentioned King of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, (357-323 BC) and the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar (101-44 BC). Alexander conquered vast tracts of territory from Greece all the way to India without ever losing a battle. Julius Caesar conquered ancient Gaul and then defeated all his rivals in a protracted civil war only to be assassinated by his remaining political rivals on the Ides of March. On the night of his funeral a comet appeared in the sky removing any doubt among the devout that his soul had ascended into heaven. An altar was erected on the site of his cremation that was widely used by ordinary Romans for oath-swearing ceremonies. It is worth noting that both heroes were high born, both claimed descent from the gods, and both enjoyed optimum positions and every possible advantage with which to attempt superhuman accomplishments in the first place. Be that as it may, each was believed to have attained divine status, laying the foundation for the ruler cults of their successors and reassuring the devout of the genuine possibility of obtaining divine status in the after world.


In our attempt to distill the wide range of ancient religious world views to a manageable set, we have hastily covered a lot of ground. Each of these world views will be discussed in greater detail in the chapters that follow, alongside discussion of philosophical developments that typically emerged in response to world views as recursive institutions of civilization took hold. In conclusion, we recommend that the student bear in mind the inherent organization and fundamental logic of ancient religious systems as we proceed. Otherwise, much of what they have to relate about their civilizations tends to get ignored. The importance of ancient religious activity is arguably the single greatest facet of ancient civilizations. Ancient religious world views furnished foundational touchstones to the structural boxes (structuration) from which cultures ultimately arose. All intellectual disciplines including writing, architecture, science, and philosophy ultimately evolved from them. Given the centrality of religious activity to ancient social life, this textbook devotes considerable attention to the matter and relies on it as a signpost for the values and aspirations of the various civilizations to be discussed.