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Gods in Ancient Greece and Rome  

Matt Dillon

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.


Women in Classical Greek Religion  

Laura McClure

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.


Early Christian Worship  

Paul F. Bradshaw

The forms of Christian worship changed and developed considerably during the first four centuries of its existence, not least from a distinctive local or regional diversity to an increasing standardization of practice throughout the ancient world. One of the major factors influencing these changes was the eventual adoption of the New Testament as the Christian scripture, and another was the emergence of the church into public life early in the 4th century. Rites of initiation chiefly involving baptism in water marked the entry of new converts into the community of believers. The central observance was the Eucharist, celebrated every Sunday from at least the end of the 1st century. This was supplemented by services of the word on certain days of the week and by regular times of prayer each day undertaken by individuals or small groups of believers. Annual festal celebrations, the majority of which were associated with the anniversaries of martyrs and others who had died, also increased in number as time passed. Christians understood the worship that they offered through Jesus Christ to be the spiritual fulfillment of the sacrificial cult of the Old Testament. Although at first insisting that they were not a religion like others around them—indeed, they were regarded as atheists by their contemporaries—they ultimately came to adopt the language, images, and terminology of standard religious discourse once their persecution had ceased and the Church had emerged as a cultus publicus in the 4th century. This also coincided with a shift from an understanding of worship as an essentially corporate action presided over by its appointed ministers to one where those ministers were seen as carrying out its liturgy on behalf of the people.


Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome  

Fritz Graf

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.


Religion and Gender in Ancient Rome  

Meghan DiLuzio

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.



Barry Stephenson

In contemporary scholarship, the term ritual serves double duty. On one hand, ritual is a theoretical concept; on the other, ritual is a catchall term for a diverse set of cultural forms or practices, such as worship, baptism, parades, coronations, and festivals. These two uses of the term ritual are typically intertwined. As a distinct concept and discourse, “ritual” emerges in early modern Europe during the Reformation era, accompanying the emergence of secular modernity, taking its place alongside related concepts such as religion, art, ceremony, culture, and the secular. In the post-Enlightenment period, the intellectual and cultural influences of Protestantism, Rationalism, and Positivism created a general climate of suspicion about ritual’s merits: ritual was often deemed a backward, premodern cultural form, just as religion was considered a stepping-stone on the path from a magical and animistic worldview to modern science. At the same time, however, there emerged within European culture a longing for a perceived loss of transcendence and sociality, which included the urge to recover or reinvent lost or suppressed rites and cultural performances. Running through European thought, culture, and scholarship is a tension between ritual’s conserving and transformative potential. In the 19th century, in the new disciplines of anthropology and sociology, and in the detailed, comparative study of textual traditions, ritual was given considerable attention, although research was largely focused on the practices of non-Western and historical cultures; this research, coinciding with the heights of European colonialism, was often saddled with prejudicial and stereotypical views of ritual. The turn, however, to studying ritual in the field (rather than only in texts) laid the foundation for the emergence, in the 1970s, of ritual and performance studies as an interdisciplinary area of research, shaped in part by feminist, postcolonial, and critical theories. An important feature of this “performative turn” was to explore the connections between ritual and art, especially performative arts such as music and drama. Until the mid-20th century, ritual, under the influence of structural functionalism, was usually theorized as a stabilizing, normative social practice. In the 1970s, there begins an effort, stimulated by the thought of Victor Turner, to develop a more dialectical understanding of ritual, emphasizing both ritual’s aesthetic, expressive qualities; its relationship to other performative genres such as music, theater, and sports; and its dynamic role in processes of cultural change and transformation.


Filial Piety in Chinese Buddhism  

Guang Xing

Many people, even scholars like Kenneth Ch’en, thought that filial piety is a special feature of Chinese Buddhism because it has been influenced by Confucianism, which considers filial piety as the foundation of its ethics and the root of moral teaching. In fact, we find in the early Buddhist textual sources that filial piety is not only taught and practiced in Indian Buddhism but also considered an essential moral good deed although it is never taken as the foundation of Buddhist moral teaching. One of the most important sutta-s related to this issue in early Buddhist resources is the Pāli Kataññu Sutta, which teaches children to pay their debts to the parents who gave them birth and brought them up with much difficulty and hardship. When Buddhism was introduced in China during the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220), Confucianism already occupied the central position in Chinese philosophical thought, and it continued until the end of imperial rule in the beginning of the early 20th century, although its position was challenged by Buddhism and Daoism from time to time. In response to Confucian criticism of Buddhists being unfilial, the learned Chinese Buddhists retorted in theoretical argumentation in the following four ways: (1) translations of and references to Buddhist sutra-s that teach filial behavior; (2) writing scholarly refutations of the charges of unfilial practices, such as Mouzi’s Lihuolun and Qisong’s Xiaolun; (3) interpreting Buddhist precepts as equal to the Confucian concept of filial piety; and (4) teaching people to pay four debts to four groups of people: parents, all sentient beings, kings, and Buddhists. Ordinary Chinese Buddhists replied to the criticism by (1) composing apocryphal scriptures, such as the Fumu Enzhong Jing (Sūtra on the Great Kindness of Parents), to teach filial piety and (2) popularizing such stories and parables as the Śyama Jātaka and the Ullambana Sūtra by way of public lectures, painted illustrations called Banxiang or tableaus on walls and silk, and annual celebration of the Yulanpen festival, popularly known as the ghost festival. Chinese Buddhism has become a religion that emphasizes the teaching and practice of filial piety with rich resources through such exchange and interaction with Confucianism and Daoism for the last two thousand years. Even today, ordinary Chinese Buddhists still teach and read the Fumu Enzhong Jing and celebrate the Yulanpen festival every year. This influenced Daoism such that they also created a similar text teaching filial piety and celebrate the festival on the same day and perform same activities of feeding the hungry ghosts, but they call it Zhongyuan.


Religion in Ancient Greece  

Ivana Petrovic

Ancient Greek religion was a polytheistic religion without a book, church, creed, or a professional priestly class. Due to the extraordinarily rich regional varieties in cult, fragmentary evidence and conjectural interpretations of it, conflicting mythological accounts, and the span of time treated, not a single absolute statement can be made about any aspect of Greek religion and exceptions exist for every general rule stated here. Since Ancient Greeks perceived all aspects of nature as either divine or divinely controlled, and all aspects of individual and social life were thought to be subject to supernatural influence, paying proper respect to the gods and heroes was understood to be a fundamental necessity of life. Since no aspect of individual or social life was separate from “religion,” scholars refer to Ancient Greek religion as “embedded.”1 The closest Ancient Greek comes to the English word “religion” are the noun thrēskeia (“acts of religious worship, ritual, service of gods”) and the verb thrēskeuō (“to perform religious observances”). Basic components of religious worship were the construction and upkeep of divine precincts, statues, altars, and temples, the observance of festivals, performance of sacrifices, bloodless offerings and libations, prayer, hymning, and observance of ritual abstinences and purifications. The closest Greek equivalents to “belief” were eusebeia (“reverent piety,” “respect”) and pistis (“trust in others” or “faith”).2 Both words could qualify a relationship between humans, as well as a relationship between humans and a supernatural entity. Since the Ancient Greeks did not have authoritative or divinely sent books of revelation, there was no script telling them what or whom to believe in and outlining the reasons why. The Greeks did not have professional priests who preserved, interpreted, and disseminated religious norms.3 However, Greek literature is brimming with gods, and the stories about the gods, which they (and we) call “myths,” were not only in all their texts, but everywhere around them: depicted on their pottery, painted on their walls, chiseled on the stones of their buildings.4 In the public space, there were countless divine statues, and the temples, altars, sacred groves, and divine precincts were everywhere around them. Ancient Greeks learned about the gods by hearing, watching, and doing: by seeing their parents perform a sacrifice, by observing them as they prayed, swore an oath, or performed libations, by participating in processions, singing and dancing in the chorus, eating the sacrificial meat in the sanctuaries, and by drinking wine, the gift of Dionysus. Ancient Greeks had no immediate need for theodicy, for the gods could be either benevolent, or angry, and their benevolence was perceived as a sign that the worship the community offered was appropriate, whereas natural catastrophes, crippling defeats in wars, or epidemics were interpreted as manifestations of divine anger, provoked by some human error or misstep.5 Ancestral gods and heroes and the traditional way of worshipping them formed the cornerstone of Greek religiosity.