The ancestor cult was a common feature of pharaonic society, aiming to provide social cohesion to extended families as well as close intermediaries with the netherworld. As active members of their respective households, ancestors were objects of veneration and care but were also subject to social obligations toward their kin. However, the continuity of such cults was not exempt from threats, from gradual oblivion to destruction of tombs. Furthermore, tensions between individual strategies and customary duties toward one’s kin were another source of instability, especially when officials sought to create their own funerary services and to transfer them to their direct descendants. Such tensions are particularly visible in social sectors close to the king. The assertion of royal authority depended on the elimination of potential sources of political counterweight, and also on the weakening of kin solidarity among members of the elite. As such, the promotion of the cult of royal ancestors, granting individual rewards to selected members of the court and developing personal contact with gods, was part of this strategy. In other cases, “cultural ancestors” provided prestigious links with golden ages of the past, for instance when authorship of sapiential texts was attributed to famous officials of the past or when scribes wrote graffiti in their tombs. Finally, ancestors and ancestral memories were also invented and manipulated for ideological purposes, such as providing legitimacy in periods of political division or prestigious links with the royal palace and the values it promoted. Ancestor worship thus appears as an active, multifaceted social activity, operating at different levels (individual, domestic/family, community, palace), whose distinctive idiosyncrasies depended on the context in which it operated. Tensions but also mutual influences permeated all these spheres, thus making ancestor cults a dynamic manifestation of social values, political practices, and religious beliefs in pharaonic Egypt.
Ancestral Cults in Ancient Egypt
Juan Carlos Moreno García
Ancient Egyptian Religion
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.
Approaches to Ancient Religions
Ancient religions can be defined as the religions of Mediterranean antiquity, with important connections to the neighboring Ancient Near East. While different approaches to these religions formed throughout European intellectual history, proper academic theories and methods of their study started to emerge in the nineteenth century, with a proliferation of new approaches beginning with the 1990s. Historical approaches reconstruct the development of religions through time and discuss the problems of such reconstructions. Textual criticism studies manuscript traditions and attempts to reconstruct the original text. Various philological methods developed and used especially in biblical studies include the analysis of written and oral sources behind the text, the examination of editorial processes, and reasoning about the original context of the text. Archaeology studies built structures and artifacts from antiquity, employs a variety of dating methods, connects artifacts to social, economic, and environmental conditions, and explores the size, distribution and interconnectedness of archaeological sites. Texts and artifacts might tell different stories and interpretation is needed to gain information from both types of historical evidence. Literary theory approaches texts as finished artifacts instead of looking at the history behind the text. Text-centered approaches include rhetorical, narrative, and typological analysis. Reader-response criticism emphasizes the role of the reader in establishing the meaning of the text. Psychological approaches include traditional psychoanalysis and depth-psychology, as well as historical psychology that uses insights and models from contemporary personality psychology and social psychology. Among social scientific approaches, memory studies look at the formation of textual traditions, including oral composition, transmission, and performance. Models of cultural memory also gained currency. Sociology, social history, and economic history shed light on the socioeconomic background of ancient religions. Religious studies had an intimate connection with anthropology especially in its early period, while models borrowed from cultural and structural anthropology influenced the study of Mediterranean values and social interactions more recently. Gender studies and feminist approaches initially focused on the reinterpretation of women’s roles in ancient religions and especially since the 1990s they addressed gender as a socially constructed category. Work on voluntary associations in the Greco-Roman world sheds light on the social context of private cults. Among new developments, postcolonial criticism both examines the colonial history of ancient cultures and addresses the colonial origins and inclinations of scholarship on religious antiquity. The approach of lived religion focusses on how individuals experience religion in their everyday lives. Cognitive science approaches study the evolutionary and psychological foundations of ancient religious thought and behavior, drawing especially on insights from neuroscience, experimental psychology, and evolutionary theory. Ritual studies employ models of individual and collective ritual behavior to understand cultic practices in religious antiquity. New approaches to magic move beyond cultural constructivism and use the concept as an analytical tool to understand a set of behaviors and attitudes. Insights from cognitive neuroscience have been applied to the study of religious experience. Cultural evolutionary theory has been employed to explain the success of particular religious movements and the development of oral and written traditions. Digital humanities include the computer-assisted collection and analysis of historical evidence and computer modeling tools, such as agent-based models. Finally, network science sheds new light on geographical, social, and textual patterns and dynamics in ancient religions.
Archaeology of Ancient Religions
Caitlín E. Barrett
Archaeology is essential to the cross-cultural study of religion. Archaeologists’ focus on material evidence enables them to investigate groups not represented or underrepresented in textual traditions, including non-literate societies and non-elite members of literate societies. Accordingly, archaeology provides a broad comparative lens and longue durée perspective, as well as a means to study the practices of individuals across the social spectrum. Additionally, a disciplinary emphasis on material culture and human-thing relationships enables archaeologists to investigate the materiality of ancient religious traditions—the entanglement of ancient beliefs and practices within the material world. Because every stage of the archaeological process involves interpretation and theorization, archaeologists’ theoretical stances and methodological choices shape the data they obtain. For example, any discussion of the “archaeology of religion” will be shaped by the author’s (explicit or implicit) operational definition of “religion” itself (see Part I, “Considering ‘Religion’ and ‘Ritual’”). Modern Western constructions of “religion” involve culturally specific concepts that developed within particular historical contexts, and ancient people’s understandings of their beliefs, rituals, and objects may often have employed quite different analytical categories. Additionally, archaeological approaches to ancient religions have undergone significant transformation over the 20th and early 21st centuries (see Part II, “History of the Field”). In contrast to the “New Archaeology” of the 1960s–1970s, which portrayed religion as epiphenomenal and downplayed its significance as a primary generator of social change, late-20th-century movements brought renewed attention to ancient symbolism, ideology, and religion and encouraged scholars to seek methodologically rigorous ways to study ancient religion and ritual. The third section of the article (“Current Perspectives and Developments”) examines contemporary research on the archaeology of religion and analyzes the field’s intersections with, and importance to, broader interdisciplinary debates. Today, a proliferation of new scholarship on the archaeology of ancient religions explores the complex interactions between people, objects, and ideas in antiquity. Within the resulting range of new and ongoing developments, this article emphasizes (1) a productive engagement with the broader “material turn” in the humanities and social sciences; (2) a renewed emphasis on religion as a causal force for social change; and (3) an increasing focus on religion’s embeddedness within daily life, entailing the reconsideration of analytical categories such as “domestic cult,” “personal religion,” and “magic.” The contemporary archaeological study of ancient religions is a deeply multidisciplinary endeavor, frequently requiring archaeologists to engage with theories, methods, and specialists from fields that may include anthropology, religious studies, archaeometry, art history, philology, and more. Archaeologists not only generate empirical data about specific sites or cultures, but also investigate broader intellectual questions concerning the role of religion in society, the importance of material culture to religious experience, and the forms of agency wielded by both humans and objects. The archaeology of religion thus has important contributions to make to numerous subjects and debates throughout the humanities and social sciences.
Art and Religion in Ancient Greece and Rome
Robin Osborne and Caroline Vout
One of the challenges shared across cultures and faiths is the intangible, ineffable nature of the divine. One problematic, yet theologically productive, solution to this problem is to embody the divine in sculpture and painting; another is to seek divine aid and attest to divine presence by making votive offerings. In the absence of a sacred text, it was sculptural and graphic representation of the divine that made sanctuaries and temples in Greece and Rome theologically active places. But the need to experience god was not confined to these centers. Greek and Roman gods were everywhere—on coins, gems, drinking vessels, domestic wall paintings. Even when they were not there, their power could be felt in the representation of those who had felt their power. They were as pervasive as they were all seeing. This article examines how this material culture worked to bring gods and mortals into contact. It does so by tackling three major issues: first, it discusses how a wide range of artifacts, monumental and modest, shaped sanctuary space and guided and recorded the worshipper’s interaction with the divine; second, it looks at images of gods themselves and how these affected epiphany, while maintaining a critical gap and insisting on their strangeness; and third, it uses art to rethink the relationship of religion and myth. Although there are some continuities between cultures, the rise of Hellenistic and Roman ruler cults created a new subcategory of gods, creating additional representational challenges. Out of this came Christ, who was god incarnate. We briefly explore how early Christian artists used the problems of anthropomorphism to their spiritual advantage.
The Bodhisattva-bhūmi (Resources for Bodhisattvas) is part of Resources for Yoga Practitioners (Yogācāra-bhūmi), an encyclopedic treatise that was one of the most important works of the Indian Buddhist School of Yoga Practitioners (Yogācāra). It contains material relating to the doctrines and practices of both Mainstream Buddhists and Mahāyānists, mostly in condensed form. The Bodhisattva-bhūmi brings together disparate sources, and there is considerable overlap between the various lists it presents and the explanations of their contents. Contemporary text-critical scholarship has led to a broad consensus that the text available in the early 21st century is most likely a product of centuries of development during which material was compiled and edited, internal cross-references were provided to direct readers to similar discussions in other parts of the Bodhisattva-bhūmi and the Yogācāra-bhūmi, and a loose structure was imposed. It presents itself as a sourcebook of lore that can help both aspiring bodhisattvas and those who have embarked on the bodhisattva path to awakening (bodhi) in order to free sentient beings from suffering and guide them either to the peace of nirvana or to the ultimate attainment of buddhahood. Keywords: Buddhism, Yogācāra, bodhisattva, Asaṅga, Mahāyāna
Book of Job
The book of Job is the longest and most thematically and linguistically challenging of the “wisdom books” in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. In the book’s prologue (Job 1–2) the narrator introduces readers to a man named Job (Hebrew ‘iyyōb; etymology unclear). Job’s prosperity extends into all areas of his life, and seems at least potentially linked to his moral status as completely righteous and blameless before God. The earthly scene then gives way to a heavenly setting, where a figure called “the accuser” (literally “the satan”; haśśātān) appears before God. God boasts about Job’s righteousness, but the accuser counters, suggesting that Job’s moral achievement has been merely the byproduct of God’s protection. The accuser and God enter into a bet: Job’s children will be killed, Job’s possessions stripped, and Job’s body afflicted with a painful disease—all to see whether Job will curse God. Job initially responds to the distress with pious statements, affirming God’s authority over his life. In a state of intense suffering, Job is joined by three friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and then eventually a fourth, Elihu—who offer rounds of speeches debating the reasons for Job’s situation (Job 3–37). Job responds to the friends in turn, alternately lamenting his situation and pleading for a chance to address God directly and argue his case as an innocent man. The friends accuse Job of committing some great sin to deserve his fate; they urge repentance, and defend God as a just ruler. God enters the dispute in a forceful whirlwind (Job 38), and proceeds for several chapters (Job 38–41) to overwhelm Job with resounding statements on creation (38:1–38), animal life (38:39–40:14), and visions of two powerful creatures, Behemoth (40:15–24) and Leviathan (41:1–11). The book ends with Job acknowledging to God the fact that he is overmatched in the face of divine power. God condemns the friends for not speaking “what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7), and then restores Job’s lost possessions and children (42:10–17). Job has enjoyed a rich reception history in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and, perhaps more than any other book in the Bible except Genesis, as a world literary classic in its own right. Within the Bible, it is the most bracing statement on the problem of suffering, as it presents a situation wherein a clearly righteous person suffers immensely—putting it at odds with more straightforward descriptions of why people suffer in Proverbs, Deuteronomy, and other texts. Scholarly research on Job has focused on the book’s place among other ancient Near Eastern wisdom materials, on questions of language (given the large amount of difficult Hebrew terms in the book), on historical-critical concerns about authorship and the way the book may have come together in its present form, and on the history of the translation of the text into Greek and other ancient languages. In the 21st century, interpreters have increasingly taken up readings of Job that situate it among concerns related to economics, disability, gender, and the history of its reception in many different eras and communities.
Egypt in the Old Testament
The relationship between Egypt and ancient Israel and Judah was far more complex than is often recognized. Egypt figures prominently in their national myths of origin as a way station for the patriarchs and as the “house of slaves” and starting point of the Exodus. Although no Exodus event can be confirmed from extrabiblical sources, its significance in the Bible suggests an historical kernel. The diverse existing traditions about Egypt in the texts of the Pentateuch and other early biblical writings, combined and written down at a later date, seem to reflect different experiences on the part of the groups that coalesced into Israel By the time of the monarchy, there is more direct evidence for Egyptian influence on Israelite culture, particularly in administrative affairs. It is also clear that Egyptian religion was practiced in the Levant at this time and would have been known in Israel and Judah. By the time of the divided monarchy, the historical picture comes into better focus. Relations between Egypt, Israel, and Judah were quite variable. Although Egypt’s New Kingdom empire in the Levant had ended, the region continued to be a useful trading outlet, and the pharaohs were not above raiding to assert their power. However, there are numerous examples of fugitives from the Levant finding refuge from their enemies in Egypt. In the interest of maintaining a buffer zone against the northern empires that encroached, Egypt and Kush gave military aid to Israel and Judah at times, through both direct action and supplies. The prophets had not forgotten Egypt’s role as an oppressor and frequently condemned it, as well as the tendency of Israelite and Judahite rulers to seek its help. But at times the prophets also envisioned peace with Egypt. There are a number of specific Egyptian texts that supply mutually illuminating points of comparison with biblical texts, including wisdom instructions, prayers, hymns, creation accounts, and autobiographies. These are indications of the extensive, ongoing, cultural interactions between Egypt and the cultures that produced the Old Testament.
Fazlur Rahman Khan: Structural Engineer
Dr. Fazlur Khan was one of the world’s top structural engineers of the 20th century. Fazlur was a preeminent, innovative, award-winning structural engineer who, among his many achievements, was noted for elevating the role of the engineer to a partnership with the architect. He was responsible for the structural design of many landmark buildings such as the John Hancock Center and the Sears (Willis), both in Chicago, and the Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Born and raised in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), his Muslim upbringing had a lasting impact in shaping his gracious, humble, and generous personality. Fazlur died in 1982 at the age of 53.
Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome
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.
Gods in Ancient Egypt
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 bce to the rise of Christianity and beyond. The ancient Egyptians’ beliefs were polytheistic, acknowledging the existence of thousands of gods and endless deceased humans. At times, the ancient Egyptians appeared to be henotheistic and would exalt a deity in his or her uniqueness. Moreover, with Akhenaten, they were the first to experiment with monotheism, though that did not last much longer than a decade. The ideas and images created for the Egyptian gods and religion had an impact on many contemporaneous cultures, as well as on later religions.
Gods in Ancient Greece and Rome
The religions of both the ancient Greeks and Romans were polytheistic (with many gods), but centered on a finite and homogenous group of deities who were worshipped through prayer, animal sacrifice, and festivals. It was believed that the gods, in turn, provided mortals with specific benefits, at the individual, family, group or state levels. Gods were anthropomorphic (in human form) and powerful but not eternal or all-powerful. New gods could be introduced into both pantheons (groups of gods), but the number of such additions was in fact fairly limited. And both Greeks and Romans concentrated on the cults of their traditional gods, whose worship they found both beneficial and satisfying for over one thousand years.
Greek and Roman Priests and Religious Personnel
The Christian word “priest,” which is generally used to translate the Greek word hiereus and the Latin word sacerdos, only inadequately captures the essence of how those who bore this title functioned and were perceived in Greek and Roman polytheism. Foremost among the differences between pagan and Christian priests is the fact that the former did not have any pastoral responsibilities, were not expected to lead exemplary lives, and did not exist in a hierarchy under a centralized religious authority. Instead their duties were largely liturgical and administrative, the proper performing of sacrifice and the upkeep of the sanctuary being among the foremost. Methods of appointment varied—some priesthoods were reserved within specific kin-groups, others were available to the entire citizen body, and still others could be sold to the highest bidder. There were, however, important distinctions between Greek and Roman priests. In the Roman world, for instance, there were far fewer priestesses and a closer connection between religion and politics. In both systems, however, religion provided important outlets for women, not least by presenting them with a unique opportunity to enhance their social status. In Rome the connection between religion and politics strengthened over time. Under the Augustan Principate the position of pontifex maximus, a kind of high priest, became central to the identity of the princeps and was filled by all his successors at least until the late-4th century. The Graeco-Roman world also had a variety of other religious personnel, who performed important functions like the supervising of temple finances or the expounding of sacral law. Among the most important were seers or diviners, who produced oracles and had the expertise to interpret omens.
Myths frequently intersect Greek religion, but Greek myth is neither coterminous with ancient ritual nor merely an appendix to it. The ancient poets and writers who took up the tasks of narrating, explaining, and expanding it did so with considerations which went far beyond the strictly religious. In antiquity myths were a repertoire of narratives which took place in a story-world located in a distant past which stretched from the beginnings of the universe to several generations after the return of the Heraclids to the Peloponnese. This repertoire featured episodes, events, genealogies, gods, and heroes that were shared across the Greek world, but within this common cultural paradigm there was broad tolerance for continual invention and improvisation: contingent local concerns fueled constant creation and manipulation of these stories. This apparent contradiction between a common canon and the mass of mutually contradictory variants and versions that it comprised is paralleled by the way that these myths could be simultaneously held up as paramount expressions of Hellenic culture while intersecting in significant ways with the traditions of the Greeks’ neighbors. Myths were used among ancient Greek communities in broadly etiological ways: they explained why the world of the present was as it was. Myths existed to explain landscape features, political structures, regional alliances, ethic affiliations, cultic rituals, and theological principles. Myths could also be used in rationalistic modes to offer up a historicist vision of the past and in allegorical modes to illustrate philosophical paradigms. Greek myth remains a rich and varied body of stories with an intricate reception history. Nonetheless, what we know of it in antiquity is limited by the patterns of its survival. For the most part, preservation was through written sources (extant poetic and prose literature, documents from epigraphy, and papyri) and material evidence (statuary, votives, vase painting, wall painting, coins, and decorative objects). Although the context of these sources can offer radically different perspectives on myths, the viewpoint is most typically that of the elites.
Iconography and the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible
Ryan P. Bonfiglio
With respect to the study of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the term iconography refers to the visual images produced in the ancient Near Eastern world. Various types of ancient Near East (ANE) images are attested in the archaeological record, including monumental reliefs, freestanding statues and figurines, picture-bearing coins and ivories, terracottas, amulets, and seals and their impressions. These artistic materials, which constitute an important component of ancient material culture more broadly, display a wide variety of subject matter, ranging from simple depictions of human figures, deities, divine symbols, animals, and vegetation to more complex visual portrayals of worship scenes, battles, and tribute processions. Despite the presence of legal texts in the Old Testament (OT) that ban the production of divine images, ancient Israel produced, imported, and circulated a wealth of images, mostly in the form of seals, scarabs, and amulets. The study of ANE iconography focuses primarily on the subject matter of images, as opposed to issues pertaining to materiality, technique, style, aesthetics, and provenance. Thus the goal of iconographic investigations is to describe the content of a given image and to interpret the message(s) and ideas it was intended to convey. This process often entails analyzing the development of certain motifs over time and how they were deployed in various historical, religious, and social contexts. In this sense, the study of ancient iconography approaches images not so much as decorative pieces that reflect the creative expressions of individual artists, though stylistic creativity of this sort is sometimes possible to discern. Rather, the study of ancient iconography approaches images as forms of communication that were intentionally commissioned, often by the king, to publicly disseminate specific messages, be they political or religious. At a more basic level, the study of ancient iconography can also enhance the reader’s understanding of what objects and places would have looked like in the ancient world. The relationship between ANE iconography and the OT is complex. With few exceptions (cf. Ezek 23:13), the image-text relation is not simply a matter of biblical authors describing a visual image that they had seen. Neither is it a matter of images being created to depict biblical stories or events. Rather, the connection between ANE iconography and the OT is best understood to operate at a conceptual level. Specifically, literary imagery in the OT often reflects motifs and themes that are also present in the iconographic repertoire of the ancient world. The use of ANE iconography in the study of the OT is most commonly referred to as iconographic exegesis. This method of analysis first surfaced in the early 1970s through the pioneering work of Othmar Keel, at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and has since been furthered through the work of loose network of scholars known as the “Fribourg School.” Much of this research has focused on aspects of the canon that are especially rich in literary imagery, such as the Psalms and the Prophets. ANE iconography has also proven to be a valuable primary source in the study of the history of Israelite religion. Of particular interest is the nature and development of ancient Israel’s ban on divine images and the resulting tradition of aniconism—the notion that Yahweh was not to be represented in visual or material form and/or that any divine image was an impermissible idol.
Richard S. Hess
Emerging from the academic study of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures during the Enlightenment and Reformation, Israelite religion became a topic of study in terms of the presentation in the Bible of Israel’s worship of its God. Gradually this separated into a synthesis of biblical teachings on worship and its prescribed practices, on the one hand, and a study of the history of biblical Israel in terms of beliefs and practices toward one or more deities, on the other. The former branch evolved into biblical theology, while the latter developed into the topic of Israelite religion. Beginning in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations and the interpretation of ancient Near Eastern texts preceding and contemporaneous with the period of the Bible broadened the picture. Comparing and contrasting archaeological and textual sources with the application of anthropological models derived from comparative religious studies led to modern syntheses of the subject. Initially these were heavily based upon the biblical text, often with the application of theories of literary and historical criticism. Since the 1980s, however, a focus on texts from the same time and region, as well as interpretation of artifacts with religious significance, has challenged older models of Israelite religion. Influences and the interactions of believers and their deities appear increasingly complex. No longer is there an understanding of a mere one or two religions in Israel (e.g., worshippers of Yahweh and worshippers of Baal). It now seems clear that various religious practices and texts attest to the presence of multiple religions followed by people in the region of ancient Israel, sometimes reflecting differences in gender, culture, ethnicity, and other factors. While a form of worship as described in biblical accounts may have been followed, there were other forms which, in various ways, syncretized Yahweh with other goddesses and gods. This has led scholars to question the factors that led to, and the time of emergence of, belief in a single deity in Israel, as well as to question the nature of that deity. Answers and models remain in a state of flux; evidence remains to be reviewed and interpretations demand critical interpretation.
Lived Ancient Religions
“Lived ancient religion” offers a new perspective on ancient religion. It shares the priority on ritual of many studies from the late 19th century onward but reconstructs ancient religion not as a set of rules or coherent system but a dynamic field of change and tradition. The central notion is taken from contemporary religious studies. The concept of “lived religion” was developed in the late 1990s and has gained a growing reception ever since. Rather than analyzing expert theologies, dogma, or the institutional setting and history of organized religion, the focus of lived religion is on what people actually do: the everyday experience, practices, expressions, and interactions that are related to and constitute religion. In this way, religion is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, beliefs, and communications hinging on human interaction with super-human or even transcendent agent(s), usually conceptualized by the ancient Mediterraneans as gods. Material symbols, elaborate forms of representation, and ritualization are called upon for the success of communication with these addressees. The concept of lived religion has only recently been applied to the analysis of ancient religion. With a view to the dynamics of religion in the making, research based on this new concept critically engages with the notions of civic religion and (elective) cults as clearly defined rule- or belief-based systems. It stresses the similarity of practices and techniques of creating meaning and knowledge across a whole range of addressees of religious communication and in light of a high degree of local innovation. The emphasis is not on competing religions or cults but on symbols that are assuming ever-new configurations within a broad cultural space. The central notion of religious agency offers extended possibilities of imagination and intervention—of imagined, invoked, and even experienced divine support in real situations. In this way, the attribution of agency to divine actors provides appropriately creative strategies for the human agents (and sometimes even their audiences) to transcend the situation in question, whether by leading a ritual, casting a person as possessed, invoking means not yet available (as through a vow), or bolstering one’s own party with the favor of divine members. Religions, as seen from below, are the attempt—often by just a few individuals—to at least occasionally create order and boundaries through means other than a normative system imperfectly reproduced by humans. Such boundaries would include the notions of sacred and profane, pure and impure, public and private, as well as gendered conceptions of deities. Institutions such as professional priesthoods and the reformulation of religion as knowledge that is kept and elaborated by such professionals could constitute further features of crucial importance for sketching a history of such systems. This is religion in the making, though it casts itself as religion made forever. Acknowledging the individual appropriation and the production of meaning at play in these situations excludes the employment of only cultural interpretations, drawing on other parts of a dense and coherent web of meaning.
Magic in the Graeco-Roman World
Magic in the Graeco-Roman world is a disputed concept among modern historians, whose interpretation has changed significantly over the last 200 years of study. In studying it we may either focus on terms from ancient languages translatable as “magic,” or examine materials and practices that may be classified as “magic” according to modern definitions. Ancient terminology centers around terms such as the Greek word mageia, and its Latin cognate magia, referring to superhuman practices that often involved the manipulation of the natural and divine worlds through secret knowledge and ritual. Objects identified by modern scholars as magical include curse tablets, written objects intended to injure, bind, or render harmless their victims, magical handbooks written on papyrus, providing instructions for rituals, and amulets, often in the form of semiprecious stones inscribed with images of deities and short texts. While some of these practices are reflected in ancient literary sources discussing magic, literary texts also show an exaggerated discourse, in which magic-users may be stereotyped according to their ethnicity (exotic magicians from Egypt, Syria, or Judaea) or gender (lurid images of witches), and practices are depicted as fantastical and extreme, involving acts such as human sacrifice. Popular images of magic and actual practice come together in laws and regulations against magic and its users, primarily from the period of the Roman Empire. These may be in the form of imperial law, or else Christian and non-Christian cultic rules, which prescribe social exclusion or even death, so that accusations of magic could be a potent tool in social conflicts.
Objects and Ancient Religions
Objects are implicit in understanding ancient religious practice. Taken as any material artifact used by an individual practitioner, faith community, or religious hierarchy for devotional or ritual purposes, objects can be interpreted as playing a number of roles in ancient religious practice. These roles include being a marker of faith identity; the physical locus of a metaphysical agent, able to be utilized in devotional practice; a talisman imbued with apotropaic effect; or an object ascribed with a ritual function (distinct from other objects of the same type), for example, a chalice. These objects are large and small, stationary and mobile. They can be carried by groups in ceremonial procession or by an individual person; worn as jewelry or installed on a domestic or public altar; buried or purposively broken; and exchanged with others to create and maintain social and interfaith relations. In addition to the recognized statue forms embodying divinities, examples may also include ancient Egyptian funerary goods, carved gemstones (e.g., Gnostic gems), pendants (e.g., Thor’s hammer or a Christian cross),votive images and dedications (including small figurines and models of building complexes), amulets (e.g., inscribed objects or texts worn on the person), sacred robes or headdresses, temple furniture, musical instruments used in rituals, relics, and pilgrim’s mementoes. Religious studies as an academic discipline has historically emphasized the textual foundations of belief practice; however, a turn toward “Material Religion” since the beginning of the 21st century, informed by broader material culture studies, has increasingly focused research upon the significant role of objects in religious practice. Of especial interest is their role in establishing, signaling, and maintaining individual and community identity and worldviews. This emphasis on material agency, although initially applied to interpreting prehistoric and indigenous “religion,” has more recently been employed to rethink identity and practice in faith traditions both ancient and contemporary. The very process of production (smelting, using naturally formed material, which may have been carved or painted,etc.), as well as how this is to be understood within a religious framework, including the metaphorical associations attributed to different types of material, has also been an area of sustained inquiry. Thus, these religious objects and what can be known of their use are “read” to understand lived religious practice. Rather than viewed as “secondary” to the written text, they are seen as crucial to the practice and development of faith. However, debate remains vibrant concerning those objects and their accompanying iconography when no, or limited, supporting textual sources exist and where conflicting interpretations have been presented. Further, there is increased recognition and critique of the degree to which academic fashions of the past have placed emphasis upon certain types of objects rather than others: for example, Greek statues contra artifacts involved in practices designated “magical” (and therefore not orthodox or mainstream; e.g., phylacteries, ritual handbooks, “demon bowls”), those employed in domestic piety (with associated gender bias), objects designated “low” culture, or objects of a rural or village practice rather than those found in urban centers.
Religion and Gender in Ancient Rome
Roman society was patriarchal, which is to say that it was marked by sexual asymmetry in which males tended to have power over females. As in most ancient societies, religion contributed to a pervasive belief that such an arrangement was part of the “natural” order of things. Ritual practices allowed Romans to perform and internalize ideas about gender roles and the relation between the sexes. This was true in both civic rituals as well as in the ceremonies performed by individuals and households. The ritual sphere was an ideal space for the formation of gender roles because it was fundamentally inclusive. Numerous ancient sources testify to the communal and collective dimension of worship, and not just at births, marriages, and funerals, where women naturally performed a range of important ritual functions. Men and women worshiped the same gods and participated in many of the same civic cults and festivals. They held important public priesthoods and presided over many of the same rituals, including even blood sacrifice. Religion permeated the daily lives of men and women in ancient Rome, playing an important role in the transmission of cultural and social practices and values related to gender.