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.
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.
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.
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.