When in Rome…. Part 1
A quick recap of our prior discoveries would probably be good at this point. We started in the Fertile Crescent with the most ancient civilizations and their polytheism. The Assyrians, Akkadians and Sumerians. The establishment of a chief male deity, a creator type, with a subordinate male and female representing the sun and moon with many lesser gods and goddesses representing planets and nature.
Ancient Egyptian religion was a complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals which were an integral part of ancient Egyptian society. It centered on the Egyptians’ interaction with many deities who were believed to be present in, and in control of, the forces of nature. Rituals such as prayers and offerings were efforts to provide for the gods and gain their favor. Formal religious practice centered on the pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who was believed to possess a divine power by virtue of his position. He acted as the intermediary between his people and the gods and was obligated to sustain the gods through rituals and offerings so that they could maintain order in the universe.
This polytheistic system was very complex, as some deities were believed to exist in many different manifestations, and some had multiple mythological roles. Conversely, many natural forces, such as the sun, were associated with multiple deities. The diverse pantheon ranged from gods with vital roles in the universe to minor deities or “demons” with very limited or localized functions.
Magic was closely associated with the priesthood. Because temple libraries contained numerous magical texts, great magical knowledge was ascribed to the lector priests who studied these texts. These priests often worked outside their temples, hiring out their magical services to laymen. Other professions also commonly employed magic as part of their work, including doctors, scorpion-charmers, and makers of magical amulets. It is also likely that the peasantry used simple magic for their own purposes, but because this magical knowledge would have been passed down orally, there is limited evidence of it.
From Egypt we moved to the Greeks by way of Ptolemy and Alexander the Great adopting the Serapis and the renaming of many lesser gods and goddesses. In the 4th century BC, Egypt became a Hellenistic kingdom under the Ptolemaic dynasty (305–30 BC), which assumed the pharaonic role, maintaining the traditional religion and building or rebuilding many temples. The kingdom’s Greek ruling class identified the Egyptian deities with their own. From this cross-cultural syncretism emerged Serapis, a god who combined Osiris and Apis with characteristics of Greek deities, and who became very popular among the Greek population. Nevertheless, for the most part the two belief systems remained separate, and the greater Egyptian deities remained Egyptian.
Religion in ancient Rome encompasses the ancestral ethnic religion of the city of Rome that the Romans used to define themselves as a people, as well as the adopted religious practices of peoples brought under Roman rule. The Romans thought of themselves as highly religious, and attributed their success as a world power to their collective piety (pietas) in maintaining good relations with the gods.
As Rome came into contact with foreign cultures, and conquered them, foreign religions increasingly attracted devotees among Romans, who increasingly had ancestry from elsewhere in the Empire. As the Romans extended their dominance throughout the Mediterranean world, their policy in general was to absorb the deities and cults of other people rather than try to eradicate them, since they believed that preserving tradition promoted social stability. One way that Rome incorporated diverse peoples was by supporting their religious heritage, building temples to local deities that framed their theology within the hierarchy of Roman religion. Inscriptions throughout the Empire record the side-by-side worship of local and Roman deities, including dedications made by Romans to local gods.
The emperors promoted the Imperial cult around the empire, as well as, imported mystery religions were generally practiced alongside the official religion. Rejection of the state religion was tantamount to treason. This was the context for Rome’s conflict with Christianity.
The Imperial cult of ancient Rome identified emperors and some members of their families with the divinely sanctioned authority of the Roman State. Rome’s citizen-soldiers set up altars to multiple deities, including their traditional gods, the Imperial genius and local deities – sometimes with the usefully open-ended dedication to the diis deabusque omnibus (all the gods and goddesses). They also brought Roman “domestic” deities and cult practices with them. Traders, legions and other travelers brought home cults originating from Egypt, Greece, Iberia, India and Persia. The cults of Cybele, Isis, Mithras, and Sol Invictus were particularly important.
Cybele is an Anatolian mother goddess; Her Phrygian cult was adopted and adapted by Greek colonists of Asia Minor and spread to mainland Greece and its more distant western colonies around the 6th century BCE. She was partially assimilated to aspects of the Earth-goddess Gaia, her Minoan equivalent Rhea, and the Harvest-Mother goddess Demeter.
In Rome, Cybele was known as Magna Mater (“Great Mother”). The Roman State adopted and developed a particular form of her cult after the Sibylline oracle recommended her conscription as a key religious component. Cybele is the precursor to the Madonna and the deification of Mary.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus has a more central role in Roman Catholic teachings and beliefs than in any other major Christian group. Not only do Roman Catholics have more theological doctrines and teachings that relate to Mary, but they have more festivals, prayers, devotional, and venerative practices than any other group. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The Church’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship.” (CCC:971)
Recalling Isis from the polytheistic pantheon of Egypt, having her worship spread throughout the Roman Empire and the greater Greco-Roman world, Isis is often depicted as the popular motif of suckling her son. Isis lives on in a Catholic context as the popular image of Mary suckling her infant son Jesus from the fifth century onward. Additionally she give the title Queen of Heaven.
Mithraism, also known as the Mithraic mysteries, was a polytheistic mystery religion centred around the god Mithras that was practiced in the Roman Empire from about the 1st century to the 4th century. The religion was inspired by Persian worship of the god Mithra (proto-Indo-Iranian Mitra), though the Greek Mithras was linked to a new and distinctive imagery, and the level of continuity between Persian and Greco-Roman practice is debated. The mysteries were popular in the Roman military.
According to M. J. Vermaseren, the Mithraic New Year and the birthday of Mithras was on December 25. Mithraic initiates were required to swear an oath of secrecy and dedication, and some grade rituals involved the recital of a catechism, wherein the initiate was asked a series of questions pertaining to the initiation symbolism and had to reply with specific answers.
There were seven grades of initiation into Mithraism, with symbolic emblems that are connected either to the grades or are just symbols of the planets. The grades also have an inscription beside them commending each grade into the protection of the different planetary gods. Mithraism reached the apogee of its popularity during the 2nd and 3rd centuries, spreading at an “astonishing” rate at the same period when the worship of Sol Invictus was incorporated into the state-sponsored cults.