Ancient Religions by Sarah Iles Johnston

By Sarah Iles Johnston

spiritual ideals and practices, which permeated all elements of lifestyles in antiquity, traveled well-worn routes through the Mediterranean: itinerant charismatic practitioners traveling from position to put peddled their talents as healers, purifiers, cursers, and initiators; and vessels embellished with illustrations of myths traveled with them. New gods encountered in overseas lands by means of retailers and conquerors have been occasionally taken domestic to be tailored and followed. This choice of essays by way of a distinctive foreign staff of students, drawn from the groundbreaking reference paintings Religion within the old World, bargains an expansive, comparative point of view in this complicated religious international.

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In contrast, we are extremely well informed regarding ancient Greece. Epic and lyric, comedy and tragedy, lexicography and travelers’ accounts, archeology and epigraphy—all have contributed to our knowledge of the various Greek rituals, which we can sometimes follow over many centuries. Yet even in ancient Greece we can regularly see a ritual only through a glass darkly, since public rituals received more attention in our sources than private rituals, and the tradition often concentrated on the less “normal” aspects of rituals.

In the aftermath of this revolutionary step, the gods are readmitted into cult and general worldview; the henotheistic perspective, however, still prevails, and the gods tend now to be demoted, especially in hymns to Amun, to “names,” “manifestations,” “symbols,” “limbs,” and so on, of the One. This post-Amarna theology is closer to pantheism than to monotheism; however, the tripartite structure of divine presence—the cosmic, cultic, and mythic dimensions—is again fully expressed in the religious life of the country, and the new concept of a fourth dimension, history, does not in any way invalidate the importance of the other three.

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 5). The distinction between true and false religion has not only a cognitive, but also a moral meaning. In this early stage of monotheism, the “false gods” are conceived of as fully existent and powerful beings who constitute a constant temptation and lure the human heart into the pitfalls of idolatry. Idolatry is seen not only as an error but also as infidelity and immorality. Without the existence of other gods, the commandment to be faithful to the one god would have little meaning.

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