While ancient Egyptians had no conception of religion as a distinct sphere of life, modern scholars have identified a wide range of Egyptian beliefs and practices relating to the divine. Egyptian religion can be traced back to predynastic times, and it developed continuously until the decline of temple religion in the Roman Period. Three mythic cycles are key to its understanding: the creation of the world, and the related solar cycle, which describe the origin and maintenance of the world, and the Osiris cycle, which provides a justification for the human institutions of kingship and funerary rites. Egyptian religion may be seen as being centered on its temples, which functioned both as sites for the worship of the resident gods and the elaboration of their theologies and as important economic and political centers. In addition to gods, three other categories of divine beings played important roles in Egyptian religious practice: kings, sacred and divine animals, and the dead. The king was intimately involved in the temple religion, as the mediator between the divine and human spheres, the patron of the temples, and the beneficiary of his own rituals, while divine and sacred animals seem to have been likewise understood as living embodiments of divine power. Death was understood through a range of metaphors, to which the ritual response was to link the deceased to one or more of the cosmic cycles through practices aimed at translating them into the divine sphere and thus ensuring their continued existence. As with all aspects of the religion, these rituals changed over time but show remarkable consistency throughout recorded history. Alongside these rituals centered on temple, royal, and funerary cults, a number of personal religious practices have been reconstructed as well as one major break in continuity, the “Amarna Revolution,” in which the ruling king seems to have briefly instituted a form of monotheism.
Festivals are periods of time, cut out from daily life, during which a group performs activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world. Festival names in Greece and Rome often express this close connection with a divinity, a hero, or a human founder, or they refer to a ritual activity that is characteristic for a festival. The basic ritual elements that underlie a specific festival scenario are similar in both cultures (as well as in other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world): processions, sacrifices with ensuing banquets, and athletic and musical contests are most common and exist already in the festival descriptions in Homer, such as the New Moon festival on Ithaca in the Odyssey. Common festivals founded and expressed group identity, first and foremost on the city level, but also for smaller and larger groups, from the family and clan group to the tribe or the community of all Hellenes. Greek and Roman festivals were so similar in their basic forms that, during the Imperial epoch, cities in the eastern part of the Empire adopted Roman festivals despite the fact that Greek cities followed a lunar calendar, whereas Rome early on had introduced a luni-solar system. The one festival type absent from the Roman world, at least during the Republican epoch, was the mystery ritual that, typically through a one-time initiation ritual, founded groups that transcended a single city, as well as the limits of gender and social status.
During the Imperial epoch, both Rome and the cities of Greece continued their traditional festivals, but also developed their festival calendars in new directions, continuing and exploring innovations that had occurred already in Hellenistic times. An early development was ruler cult, developed in the Greek cities during Hellenistic times and adopted for the cult of Roman emperors, who exploited its potential to tie together a heterogeneous empire through shared cultic activities. The most important driving force was an understanding of divine power that was defined through its helpful manifestation and thus allowed the cult of outstandingly powerful humans. Wealthy citizens of Hellenistic cities also founded festivals in the memory of family members, and during the Imperial period, such foundations multiplied and gained in grandeur. The Imperial epoch also saw the extension of single festivals to events that lasted many days, if not an entire month and helped to shape the Christian festival calendar with its long festival periods.
The ancient Egyptians were surrounded by various manifestations of their many gods. Though their gods usually lived in heaven or in the netherworlds, they were permanently represented on earth by monuments, statues, symbols, animals, and plants, as well as by social concepts. The Egyptians described their gods by various names and images, always aware that in the end their true personalities and characters remained elusive.
The ancient Egyptian universe comprised heaven, earth, and netherworld, all part of creation and surrounded by eternal darkness. Though separate areas, they were permeable for the gods and the dead. The universe ran smoothly as long as there was respect and cooperation between them and the living. This formed an ideological, social, and economic cohesion.
The gods were powerful but benevolent, and approachable in many ways. The divine king was the hub between the world of the gods and the human sphere. He was the main entity responsible for organizing the supply and welfare of the humans, and for keeping order. During official festivals, the living, the gods, and the dead celebrated together, but there were also a number of more personal ways to approach deities. The various sites of interaction between gods and men formed a vast network connecting all the players: the gods were responsible for creation and abundance, the kings and elites were primarily responsible for ensuring that the system ran according to Maat (“Order”), and the people were responsible for living and working throughout the country.
The system of ancient Egyptian gods structured Egyptian ideas, policies, and everyday life from the end of the 4th millennium
Concepts of religion and humanity form an integral component of Mesopotamian narrative literature, and these ideas are evidenced in the frequent exploration of themes involving mortality and immortality, power and authority, and creation and destruction. Through the use of plot, characterization, literary themes and techniques, and also structure, Mesopotamian myths and epics transmit religious ideas and beliefs, as well as informing on cultural identity and meaning. In both oral and written transmission, storytelling is a powerful medium for exploring ancient theology.
Religious ideas are expressed in a wide array of Mesopotamian literary works, and while some features, such as the polytheistic view of the divine hierarchy, remain generally constant, different texts and “genres” show changes in focus and in the perception of the divine and the human. While deities and supernatural creatures have a prominent role in literature, Mesopotamian myth is not only concerned with theistic matters, but also with what it means to be human.
It is often observed in modern scholarly works that humans, in the Babylonian Flood narrative of Atrahasis, and the creation myth of Enuma Elish, were born to serve the gods and perform their menial tasks. This is undoubtedly an important observation for the analysis of humanity and religion, yet the presentation of human/divine relations as one of simple subjection gives a misleading and superficial impression of the interaction between the mortal and divine spheres, one that is at odds with the subject’s complexity, variety, and subtlety.
Myths and epics provide a multifaceted picture of a number of different types of relationships between gods and humans: even in the narrative of Atrahasis, individual deities interact with humans in different ways; there is no “one size fits all” divine connection in Mesopotamian literature. Despite a rigid hierarchy in favor of the divine, these relationships are frequently close, involving strong emotional bonds. The human/divine connection is not solely beneficial to either party, but reciprocal and often mutually rewarding. At the same time, the relations between humans and deities can be destructive and damaging—with the harm most often depicted to occur on the human side, possibly because of the vulnerability offered by mortality and the lack of supernatural abilities. Humanity is reflected in the anthropomorphic representations of deities and also the sociomorphism of their family-oriented community structure. For heroes of epic literature, the divine connection can be perilous, but also rewarding. The success of heroes in accessing divine support is frequently (but not exclusively) linked to the morality of their actions.
Religion and humanity in literature concern not only deities’ interactions with humans, but also how the authors of literature conceptualized and gave meaning to the human condition. It is clear from Mesopotamian literature that close, positive relationships with the divine were important for survival and success during the human lifespan (and even beyond), yet at the same time, the answer to questions of finding meaning in mortal existence is at times presented in very human terms. Love, alongside shared human achievements and experiences, is presented in several literary sources as essential for giving meaning to the human condition.
Historians of antiquity used to argue that, from the 6th century
What is certain is that pagan religion and its many deities became the target of a concentrated attack by the Christian Fathers; but that alone can hardly explain why traditional worship lost its appeal to so many of its adherents in quite a short period of the 4th century
“It is impossible to imagine ancient Greece without its sanctuaries.” (J. Whitley, Archaeology of Ancient Greece [Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001], 134). The same statement could be made for the Roman world. Sacred space was a key omnipresent tenet of ancient Greek and Roman societies—the physical manifestation of the degree to which the ancients dedicated time to the wide spectrum of gods who controlled their worlds. Since the 1990s, the study of sacred space has moved from one primarily undertaken by archaeologists and architects fixated on monumental structures (with the study of religious ritual conducted by scholars of religion mainly through literary and inscriptional sources), to one in which the space is understood as a dynamic and key component in the ritual process, an equal player in the creation of the human understanding and experience of the divine. Yet alongside this reconsideration of the importance of space in the dynamics of ritual, there has also been an increasing appreciation of the multiple roles sanctuaries played, and played host to, within the wider landscape. Sacred spaces are thus key players in the ordering of landscapes, they offer the potential for the development and scope of civic and individual power, and they act as the locus for identity development, civic competition, and the articulation of changing power balances in the wider world. Sacred space has as a result shed its fixed and positivist image: we recognize sacred spaces as everything from natural groves to massive architectural complexes—as places that are constantly changing and constantly being used simultaneously for a variety of sacred and secular activities, experienced and understood simultaneously in a multitude of ways by their different users, and that engage dynamically and heterogeneously with their surrounding secular environments.
As “cultic citizens,” women participated in state festivals at Athens alongside men and celebrated their own rituals apart from them, at shrines within the house and in cults outside the house in the company of other women. Their association with fertility made them indispensable performers of rites connected with the agricultural year. Women also served as priestesses, as dedicators, and as euergetai (benefactors). At home, their rituals accompanied nuptial preparations, the laying out of the dead, and the departure of soldiers for war. Female religious activity was considered so critical to the welfare of the community that it was sanctioned by law and financed by the polis. Religion further allowed women’s widespread movement throughout the city as they left their homes to participate in processions and festivals, visit shrines, sanctuaries, and cemeteries. By performing rituals on behalf of the city, Athenian women distinguished themselves from female foreigners and slaves as rightful citizens of the polis. Women-only festivals further offered opportunities to build and strengthen female social networks, to act autonomously, and perhaps even to subvert social norms. Domestic rituals accomplished by women in turn helped to mark the life stages and strengthen familial identity.
The difficulties of reconstructing the ancient Greek religious system are well known, even for the period for which there is the most evidence, classical Athens. Even more challenging is the task of recovering the religious activities of women within this structure, given that men served as the primary religious agents within both the polis and household. The prevailing view that the polis mediated all religious activity, including domestic, encompassed by the concept of “polis religion,” has further obscured our understanding women’s ritual activities. Influenced by feminist and social-network theories, recent research has argued for a more nuanced model of religious activity that takes into account the varieties of individual religious experience, particularly those of members of marginal groups, such as slaves and women. It dismantles the traditional binary model of public and private by showing how polis and household were intricately interconnected and interdependent at all levels. These new approaches allow us to consider the ways in which women’s ritual activities intersected with and reinforced polis ideology, allowing women a significant presence and agency in the civic sphere, despite their exclusion from politics, commerce, and certain public spaces. It can also help us understand their engagement with noncivic celebrations and domestic ritual.