History of religion

Religions of Antiquity I: Introduction

(Published in GralsWelt 33/2004)

When we Europeans speak of antiquity, we really only think of the Mediterranean region, but especially of Greece and Rome.

We were taught at school that this is where the roots of our culture lie; this is where philosophies were devised two and a half millennia ago and which continue to have an impact today; and on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea - in Palestine - the Christian religion emerged, which first spread through the Roman Empire and finally over the world.

But Christianity does not stand on its own. As is almost generally known nowadays, it is based - more or less - on Judaism, which itself again unites many religious ideas and which possibly even owes its monotheism to Persian suggestions.

Also from pre-Christian, “pagan” (= non-Jewish) religions, more has flowed into later Christianity than the churches want “to be true”.

For a better understanding of Christianity and other religions of today, it makes sense to deal with ancient religious ideas, which often contain deeper thoughts than are generally believed to be.

"What the Greeks create art,
Like the Franconian with the guns
Lead to the Seine beach,
And in splendid museums
He shows his trophies for victory
To the astonished fatherland.

They will be silent to him forever,
Never get off the racks
In the fresh line of life.
He alone owns the muses
Who carries her in his warm bosom,
They are stone to the vandal. "

Friedrich v. Schiller (1759-1805)

Even in antiquity, some valuable knowledge was widespread, some of which was taken over from Christianity, but in no small part was fought and exterminated by Christian monks.

The lost knowledge includes, for example, the news of the essential helpers, the natural beings (devas), who today we mostly only know from fairy tales and legends as dwarfs, gnomes, elves, mermaids, etc., mostly without suspecting that these ones are make an indispensable contribution to the development of creation and to life on our planet.

Until well into the 19th century, religious scholars understood almost exclusively Christianity by “religion”.

Since the Enlightenment, the Jewish religion was tolerated as the forerunner of Christianity, but it was still devalued. And with the Asian understanding of religion, especially Islam, the West still has problems today.

Even the linguistic derivation of the term religion is uncertain. Cicero (106-43 BC) derived the word religion from the Latin relegere (to observe carefully), while the church writer Lactantius (died after 317) preferred the Christian understanding of closer religare (to be bound (to God)).

The concept of religion has accordingly many facets. Mostly a doctrine of faith is meant which should lead its believers to inner experience, to religious experiences, and thus to a cognitive process that changes the inner person. Often, however, it becomes a denomination that only requires formal confessions and participation in established rituals.

In retrospect, ancient times sometimes seem to us to be a carefree, happy time.

In Greece as an example, people lived in hygienic cities, met for the happy Olympic Games, and thought deeply about people and the world, which are still often quoted today. A good time, however, only for the free men, less so for women, by no means for the numerous slaves and everyone who had to suffer from the many wars.

Religions were important for the cohesion of groups or states; religious and state laws were often one and the same, and participation in the cults was an expression of loyalty to the state and society.

Until well into the 20th century, shared values based on religion and religious festivals celebrated together remained an important bracket.

If this cohesion fails, religious cults become folklore, and even once undisputed values are shaken. Society can then disintegrate into groups of individuals without a common understanding of values, and the states become pure communities of convenience without overarching legitimation. If such states get into serious difficulties, the lack of community awareness can lead to the disintegration of the state structure.

In ancient times - with all the generosity towards the various religions - the state cults were seen as a bracket for the community. When the first Christians rejected the state cults, they declared themselves to be enemies of the state in the ancient understanding.

The ancient Greeks knew nothing of the biblical fall, the fear of eternal damnation was alien to them, and perhaps the only "sin" they knew was hubris, the arrogance which the gods punish.

However, humans (and also gods) were subject to a mysterious fate from which they were unable to escape.

The spiritual development that is so important for Christians, or even the “redemption from sins”, was usually not the goal of ancient religiosity, which in pre-Christian times actually only expected participation in cults and sacrificial acts without requiring deepened, personal religious understanding. To what extent this was different with the many mystery cults is not known for certain, as too little has been passed on of these secret cults. If a philosopher like Socrates (470-399 BC) spoke of his personal religious experience, he encountered such total incomprehension among the majority of his contemporaries that his enemies were able to enforce his execution as blasphemers.

In addition, there were numerous different deities, innumerable cults, mysteries shrouded in mystery, which at first glance make ancient religiosity appear chaotic to us.

But in all the chaos there were again parallels (see box): the numerous deities had different names among the different peoples, but the ancient man apparently recognized the same working principles in them. So continued z. B. Caesar (100-44 BC) the gods of Gaul equal to those of the Romans.

There is also a vague feeling of the one God standing above all gods in Egyptian, Indian and Mediterranean teachings, which were not untouched by monotheistic ideas Zoroaster, Akhenaten, Moses to be led back.

Ancient religions were mostly not book religions. They had no written, binding teachings; no sacrosanct “Word of God” whose statements could not be questioned, no sophisticated theologies, no strict distinction between “true” and “false” religion. As a result, they were more open, more flexible and more capable of development than we know from later doctrines that often believe in letters, which are not infrequently dogmatically stuck and exclude those who think differently.

Correspondingly, antiquity knew no heretics who deviated from "pure doctrine"; at most wicked or blasphemers who desecrated sanctuaries or insulted gods. Many forms of popular belief and numerous gods could be united in ancient religion.

Later, Christian holidays were often placed on pagan feast days, and churches or chapels were built at pagan cult sites in order to bind followers of the old traditions to the new religion.

In inanimate and animate nature, innumerable, more or less complicated physical and chemical processes take place alongside and with one another. The prerequisites for understanding these natural processes were lacking in antiquity, which have only gradually been found in modern times. It seemed hopeless to bring order to this confusing variety of natural processes.

The religions provided the necessary explanations of the world with myths and legends, with reports of gods and heroes. At the time, these mythical traditions offered satisfactory answers that could be lived with.

When rational explanations of the world were sought and the old traditions were questioned, a natural philosophy arose among the sophists in Greece that moved away from pre-scientific myths and initiated a split between science and religion, as it has become so important in modern times.

The conflict between philosophy and religion, between logical thinking and religious experience began at the latest in ancient Greece, for example in the death sentence against Socratess, or in exile Plato. Since then it has not been possible to permanently unite a religious worldview with the scientific worldview, although the worldview of the Christian Middle Ages temporarily seemed to establish this unity.


We all know the gods of the Greeks and Romans from ancient legends, and we also know that Greek and Roman deities are largely identical.

The case becomes more difficult when we look for correspondences between Germanic and Greek or Roman gods. At first glance, one would like to draw parallels between Odin and Zeus, between Frigga and Hera, but on closer inspection, such identities become questionable again. The researcher comes to different conclusions depending on which of the “Nordic” myths are used as a basis. So one can equate with equal (or better?) The hammer-wielding Thor (who was worshiped by some Germanic tribes as the highest of the gods) with the lightning-throwing Zeus.

However, the Egyptian gods depicted with animal heads or even in animal form appear completely confusing (not to mention the Hindu gods). In their strangeness, these make it difficult for us to find access to themselves or to the cults that were once celebrated for them.

People of antiquity apparently had it easier with it; they saw the commonalities between the gods of the various civilizations as a matter of course, and also discovered traces of the cults they were familiar with in strange ceremonies. For example, had Herodotus (approx. 490-520 BC) no particular problems with the assignment of the Egyptian gods known to him to the Greek during his trip to Egypt. (See box).

Egyptian deities and Greek or Roman equivalents according to Herodotus:

Egyptian: Greek: Roman:

Aton Jupiter Zeus
Atum-Re Helios Sol
Bubastis Artemis Diana
Chons-shu Heracles Hercules
Hathor Aphrodite Venus
Horus Apollon Apollo
Isis Demeter Ceres
Mendes Pan Faunus
Osiris Dyonisos Bacchus
Ptah Hephaestus Vulcanus
Thoth Hermes Mercury (1)

The various gods cults of antiquity were not only widespread, but there were also more parallels between the different cults than we are aware of today.

The Persian Mithraic cult was practiced by Roman legionaries on the Rhine. The Egyptian Isis / Osiris cult found widespread use in the Roman Empire and had its followers, for example, in Rome, Hungary and Romania.

Even the numerous gods of the Hindus were not as alien to the ancients as they are to us today; there are quite a few parallels between the deities of Egypt and India. For example the triads (triads): In Hinduism Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva; in the ancient Egyptian Osiris-Isis-Horus, Amun-Mot-Chons, with the Romans Jupiter-Juno-Minerva, etc. Even the Indian monkey god Hanuman finds an equivalent in the Egyptian Chons, which is also partly depicted in monkey form. Is it all a coincidence, or an expression of the same experience, corresponding visionary scenarios?

So one can definitely get the impression that there was a relatively similar, almost uniform religion in antiquity, which in multiple cultic forms reached from the Himalayas to the Atlantic, from the Baltic Sea to the Sahara. The liturgies, the temples, the images of gods were different, but the contents were not entirely different, so that an ancient traveler like Herodotus knew how to find his way around foreign cults.

However, there are exceptions: The Persian (Zoroaster, cf. "Religions of Antiquity X") and Jewish monotheism, finally Christianity and finally Islam, which do not fit into the aforementioned scheme.


(1) Kolta, Kamal Sabri “The equation of Egyptian and Greek gods in Herodotus”, Diss. Tübingen, 1968.