What do we know about ancient religious faith?
February 17, 2015 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Having studied Christian theology in college, I am aware that much of what we have reflecting ancient Greek and Roman religious belief survives because Christian apologists were refuting source materials drawn from that culture. But what else do we actually know?

In a movie I watched recently, a character seemed to pray earnestly for Jupiter to help him survive an ambush attack. This made me realize that I can't think of any personal accounts of religious faith from the ancient world.

I'm aware that "testimony" was a principally Christian invention, so that Augustine and others were creating a new genre. I'm also aware that much of what we have survives in fragments that were being refuted by Christian scholars.

But do we have any source materials reflecting ancient individual religious faith among Romans? What about other religious groups that aren't around any longer? I was reading about Manichean scholars in 12th century China, and wondering what any of them would have said had they been told their religion would vanish from the face of the earth. It made me wonder what other deeply-held religious beliefs were invalidated by the passing of time. Just what do we know?
posted by jefficator to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
It made me wonder what other deeply-held religious beliefs were invalidated by the passing of time.

Not sure if this is what you had in mind, but ancient Judaism centered around sacrifices. When the first (and later, the second) Temple was destroyed, prayer services took their place. Before that, prayer as we understand it probably didn't exist on a communal basis. More than that, the account of Hannah in the Book of Samuel (1:10-18) suggests that even personal prayer was unheard of early on (both of this and the last sentence are speaking only for Judaism, of course).
posted by Mchelly at 11:00 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Jewish scholars also spent some time writing about other (now very dead) religions they did not approve of.
c.f. Leviticus 20:2, Psalm 106:37-39
posted by emilyw at 11:11 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Would you count ancient epics as primary source material? The Illiad, the Odyssey, the Saga of Gilgamesh are three ancient texts that come to mind that involve lots of interactions between the gods and the human characters.
posted by jasper411 at 11:36 AM on February 17, 2015

We know a good amount about religion in the ancient Hellenic world. Theoi is a pretty comprehensive omnibus site with references to original sources. Though it attempts to cover the whole of "Greek Mythology", the discussions of the cults of various gods include pretty thorough descriptions of what we know regarding religious practice in the ancient world. Consider, for instance, this page on the cult of Dionysos.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:49 AM on February 17, 2015

You might enjoy the conversion scene at the end of Apuleius' Golden Ass, where the protagonist becomes a follower of Isis.
posted by dd42 at 12:07 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

From Jupiter to Christ is an excellent work describing the practice of Roman religion before, during, and after the introduction of Christianity. It's a 2014 English translation of a 2010 German book.
posted by jedicus at 12:16 PM on February 17, 2015 [6 favorites]

Which ancient religious faith do you want to know about?
What do you want to know?

Polytheistic or Pagan Reconstructionism is the term often used when followers today try to use historically accurate sources to 'reconstruct' a religion.

So, there is a fair amount of material for Greek and Roman religion (Hellenismos, and Religio Romana).

Surprisingly little for Celtic religions (which means you'd think there would be less to get completely wrong, but no....).

Asatru, or Germanic/Norse Paganism (they'd prefer the term Heathenry) has a lot - mythology, history, the eddas, religious rituals (such as the blót).
posted by Elysum at 12:20 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Just for clarification: I'm looking less for reconstruction of dead theological systems, and more for personal accounts of individuals who believed in those systems.

That is to say, I know the Norse gods and their interactions. I'd like to read a Viking's personal account of existential struggle with Thor.
posted by jefficator at 12:37 PM on February 17, 2015

You might try reading some of the Icelandic sagas. Eyrbyggja Saga involves a man who is called the astvinr - or "beloved friend" of Thor. Thorgrim Freyrsgothi is Gisla Saga is said to be so beloved of Freyr that the god won't let snow grow on his grave once he dies. And Hrafnkels Saga is about a man who starts out a devotee of Freyr but who struggles with his faith and gradually converts to atheism.
posted by darchildre at 1:06 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, there is plenty of this in the Old Testament. To what degree the Psalms, Prophets, Job, Lamentations etc. etc. are literal first-person "testimony" or have been edited by others, is up for debate. But that is certainly the form. Christians took over "testimony" in one shape or another from Judaism and in that respect it is ancient.

I would personally go straight to the ancient prayers on record from a vast number of ancient traditions. "At the Origins of the Christian Claim" by Luigi Giussani opens with an astonishing survey of a bewildering variety of religious experience from a POV angle e.g. ancient Egyptian, Shamanic, etc. before going on to the Judaic, Islamic and finally Christian experiences. I found it a useful summary. Of course he built on Eliade and so on.

There is waaaaaaay more stuff on a very personal level in all kinds of ancient inscriptions and other sources.
posted by KMH at 1:42 PM on February 17, 2015

From your studies, you have probably heard of Zoroastrianism. Try googling the story of King Vishtaspa and his struggle with faith. Is that what you had in mind?
posted by leslievictoria at 5:21 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Or, Siddhartha?
posted by leslievictoria at 8:02 PM on February 17, 2015

We have very little of Celtic religions because they were very big on not writing stuff down. (That would have spoiled the monopoly the druids had on knowing the law.) But we do have a lot of curse tablets -- prayers to various gods written in lead.

From ancient literate cultures, especially the ones in deserts, we have quite a lot of knowledge about their beliefs and practices. Obviously we know quite a lot about ancient Egyptian burial practices!
posted by musofire at 8:45 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

How about the personal journals of Marcus Aurelius? It’s not a book he wrote for others, but instead notes to himself primarily about Stoicism — the gods do come up from time to time.
posted by D.C. at 1:29 AM on February 18, 2015

Wait a minute - when you say studying Christian theology in college, do you mean from the point of view of a believer? Because the type of study you did might affect what texts you were exposed to, and knowing that might affect the range of answers you get here.

The BBC series Meet the Romans with prof. Mary Beard might have some info about religious ideas. I don't remember perfectly but I think there were sections on various inscriptions - graffiti, votive prayers, funerary stuff - that hint at the way Romans thought about religion. To an extent, interpreting the surviving material is a long process of deduction and inference. For one thing, the revelatory part of the religion was elite knowledge. It wasn't told to just anyone, it was secret, so it wasn't written down - you had to be initiated into it to know about it. On the other hand the large amount of scripture around Christianity is a function of it being a new, contested religion whose tenets were still being worked out, codified and fought over. Also, the 'secrets' of Christianity were open to all, which is one reason why it became so popular.
posted by glasseyes at 10:26 AM on February 18, 2015

Best answer: You might find The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts a good starting point.
posted by culfinglin at 11:10 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might want to look at the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, also known as 'The golden ass' (think 'donkey', not 'arse'). It's a Roman work of fiction about a guy who is turned into a donkey, after which metamorphosis hilarity ensues, but the last chapter gives you some idea of what the (Romanised) cult of Isis looked like.

For a non-fiction approach, 'The ancient mysteries, A source book, Sacred texts of the mystery religions of the acient mediterranian world', edited by Marvin W. Meyer, might provide a starting place (on preview: jinx!), though I have no idea whether this is still in print. For gnosticism and hermetism, ' The Nag Hammadi Library' , Translated into English under the editorship of James M. Robinson, might be the place to start.
posted by rjs at 11:41 AM on February 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Heh, rjs, funny that you mentioned Ancient Mysteries, too! And yes, it's still in print.

FWIW, Meyer was my honors advisor. This is exactly the sort of question he'd have loved.
posted by culfinglin at 12:43 PM on February 19, 2015

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