Hellenistic religion: Wikis


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Serapis, a Greco-Egyptian God worshipped in Hellenistic Egypt

Hellenistic religion is any of the various systems of beliefs and practices of the peoples who lived under the influence of ancient Greek culture during the Hellenistic period and the Roman Empire (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE). There was much continuity in Hellenistic religion: the Greek gods continued to be worshipped, and the same rites were practiced as before. Change came from the addition of new foreign cults, such as the Egyptian cults of Isis and of Serapis, and the Syrian cults of Atargatis and of Hadad, which provided a new outlet for people seeking fulfillment in both the present life and the afterlife. The worship of Hellenistic rulers was also a feature of this period, most notably in Egypt, where the Ptolemies adopted earlier pharaonic practice, and established themselves as god/kings. Elsewhere rulers might receive divine status without the full status of a god.

Superstition and magic were practiced widely, and these too, were a continuation from earlier times. Throughout the Hellenistic world, people would consult oracles, and use charms and figurines to deter misfortune or to cast spells. Also developed in this era was the complex system of astrology, which sought to determine a person's character and future in the movements of the sun, moon, and planets. The systems of Hellenistic philosophy, such as Stoicism and Epicureanism, offered a more rational alternative to traditional religion, even if their impact was largely limited to the educated elite.


Classical Greek religion

Remains of the temple of Apollo at Corinth

Central to Greek religion in classical times were the twelve Olympian deities headed by Zeus. Each god was honoured with stone temples and statues, and sanctuaries (sacred enclosures) were founded, which, although dedicated to a specific deity, often contained statues commemorating other gods.[1] The city-states would conduct various festivals and rituals throughout the year, with particular emphasis directed towards the patron god of the city, such as Athena at Athens, or Apollo at Corinth.[1] Religious practice would also involve the worship of heroes, individuals who were regarded as semi-divine. Such heroes ranged from the mythical figures in the epics of Homer to historical persons such as the founder of a city.[1] At the local level, the landscape was filled with sacred spots and monuments, such as cults of the Nymphs at springs, and the stylised figures of Hermes which could be found at street corners.[1] Superstition and magic were a central part of Greek religion,[2] and oracles would allow one to determine divine will in the rustle of leaves; the shape of flame and smoke on an altar; the flight of birds; the noises made by a spring; or in the entrails of a sacrificed animal.[3] Also long established were the Eleusinian Mysteries, associated with Demeter and Persephone.[3] The mystery cult was entered via an initiation ceremony that involved secrets to be kept from the uninitiated. Such cults had the goal of bettering the worshipper in both the present life and the afterlife.

Hellenistic religion

In the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek culture spread widely and came into much closer contact with the civilizations of the Near East and Egypt. The most significant changes to impact on Greek religion were the loss of independence of the Greek city-states to Macedonian rulers; the importation of foreign deities; and the development of new philosophical systems.[4] Older surveys of Hellenistic religion tended to depict the era as one of religious decline, discerning a rise in scepticism, agnosticism, and even atheism, while simultaneously (and with some contradiction) describing an increase in superstition, mysticism, and astrology.[5] There is, however, no reason to suppose that there was a decline in the traditional religion.[6] There is plenty of documentary evidence that the Greeks continued to worship the same gods with the same sacrifices, dedications, and festivals as in the classical period,[7] and the cities of Greece continued to regulate their cults in detail.[8] New cults did appear in this period, but not to the exclusion of the local deities,[9] and only a minority of Greeks were attracted to them.[10]


New cults

2nd century statue of Isis

The Egyptian cult of Isis was the most famous of the new cults. The cult was spread by Egyptian priests, initially for the small Egyptian communities in the port cities of the Greek world.[10] Although her cult found only a small audience among the Greeks themselves, her popularity spread under the Roman empire,[11] and Diodorus Siculus wrote that the cult was known throughout almost the whole inhabited world.[12] Almost as famous was Serapis, a Greek cult, despite the Egyptian name, which was created in Egypt under the Ptolemaic dynasty.[13] It was patronised by the Greeks who had settled in Egypt. The cult involved initiation rites like the Eleusinian Mysteries.[14] Strabo wrote of the Serapeion at Canopus near Alexandria as being patronised by the most reputable men.[15] The cult of Atargatis (related to the Babylonian and Assyrian Ishtar and Phoenician Astarte), a fertility goddess from Syria, was also popular. By the 3rd century BCE her worship had spread from Syria to Egypt and Greece, and eventually reached Italy and the west.[11] The cult of Cybele (or the Great Mother) came from Phrygia to Greece and then to Egypt and Italy, where in 204 BCE the Roman Senate permitted her worship. She was a healing and protecting goddess, and a guardian of fertility and wild nature.[11] The cult of Dionysus was another mystery cult. Although rare in mainland Greece, it was common on the islands and in Anatolia.[16] The members were known as Bacchants, and the rites had an orgiastic character.[16]

These foreign cults only had a limited impact within Greece itself; the main exception was at Delos,[10] which was a major port and trading center. The island was sacred as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, and by the 2nd century BCE was also home to the native Greek cults of Zeus, Athena, Dionysus, Hermes, Pan, and Asclepius. But there were also cult centers for the Egyptian Sarapis and Isis, and of the Syrian Atargatis and Hadad.[17] By the 1st century BCE there were additional cults for Ba'al and for Astarte, and there was also a Jewish Synagogue and Romans practicing their own traditional cults.[17]

Ruler cults

Another innovation in the Hellenistic period was the institution of cults dedicated to the rulers of the Hellenistic kingdoms. The first of these was established under Alexander, whose conquests, power, and status had elevated him to a degree that required special recognition. His successors continued his worship to the point where in Egypt under Ptolemy I Soter, we find Alexander being honoured as a god.[18] Ptolemy's son Ptolemy II Philadelphus proclaimed his late father a god, and made himself a living god.[18] By doing so, the Ptolemies were adapting earlier Egyptian ideas in pharaonic worship. Elsewhere, practice varied; a ruler might receive divine status without the full status of a god,[10] as occurred in Athens in 307 BCE, when Antigonus I Monophthalmus and Demetrius I Poliorcetes were honoured as saviours (soteres) for liberating the city, and, as a result, an altar was erected; an annual festival was founded; and an office of the "priest of the Saviours" was introduced.[19] Temples dedicated to rulers were rare, but their statues were often erected in other temples, and the kings would be worshipped as "temple-sharing gods."[20]

Superstition and astrology

Curse Tablet

There is ample evidence for the use of superstition and magic in this period. Oracular shrines and sanctuaries were still popular.[3] There is also much evidence for the use of charms and curses. Symbols would be placed on the doors of houses to bring good luck or deter misfortune for the occupants within.[2] Charms, often cut in precious or semi-precious stone, had protective power.[2] Figurines, manufactured from bronze, lead, or terracotta, were pierced with pins or nails, and used to cast spells. Curse tablets made from marble or metal (especially lead) were used for curses.[2]

Astrology - the belief that stars and planets influence a person's future - arose in Babylonia, where it was originally only applied to the king or nation.[21] The Greeks, in the Hellenistic era, elaborated it into the fantastically complex system of Hellenistic astrology familiar to later times.[21] Interest in astrology grew rapidly from the 1st century BCE onwards.[21]

Hellenistic philosophy

An alternative to traditional religion was offered by Hellenistic philosophy. The most widespread of these systems was Stoicism, which taught that life should be lived according to the rational order which the Stoics believed governed the universe; human-beings had to accept their fate as according to divine will, and virtuous acts should be performed for their own intrinsic value. Its principal rival was Epicureanism, which taught that the universe was subject to the random movements of atoms, and life should be lived to achieve psychological contentment and the absence of pain. Other philosophers such as the Cynics, who expressed contempt for convention and material possessions, and the Academics and Peripatetics, who studied the works of Plato and Aristotle, also flourished. All of these philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent, sought to accommodate traditional Greek religion, but the philosophers, and those who studied under them, remained a small select group, limited largely to the educated elite.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d Shipley 1999, p. 154
  2. ^ a b c d Chamoux & Roussel 2002, p. 347
  3. ^ a b c Chamoux & Roussel 2002, p. 330
  4. ^ Mikalson 2006, p. 218
  5. ^ Shipley 1999, p. 155
  6. ^ Shipley 1999, p. 170
  7. ^ a b Mikalson 2006, p. 220
  8. ^ Shipley 1999, p. 175
  9. ^ Mikalson 2006, p. 217
  10. ^ a b c d Mikalson 2006, p. 219
  11. ^ a b c Shipley 1999, p. 168
  12. ^ Diodorus Siculus, i. 25
  13. ^ Chamoux & Roussel 2002, p. 340
  14. ^ Shipley 1999, p. 167
  15. ^ Strabo, xvii.1.17
  16. ^ a b Chamoux & Roussel 2002, p. 331
  17. ^ a b Mikalson 2006, p. 209
  18. ^ a b Shipley 1999, p. 159
  19. ^ Chaniotis 2003, p. 436
  20. ^ Chaniotis 2003, p. 439
  21. ^ a b c Evans 1998, p. 343


  • Chamoux, François; Roussel, Michel (2002), "Chapter 9 - The Needs of the Soul", Hellenistic Civilization, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 0631222421  
  • Chaniotis, Angelos (2003), "The Divinity of Hellenistic Rulers", in Erskine, Andrew, A Companion to the Hellenistic World, Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 1405132787  
  • Evans, James (1998), The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195095391  
  • Mikalson, Jon D. (2006), "Greek Religion - Continuity and Change in the Hellenistic Period", in Bugh, Glenn Richard, The Cambridge Companion to the Hellenistic World, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521535700  
  • Shipley, Graham (1999), "Chapter 5 - Religion and Philosophy", The Greek world after Alexander, 323-30 B.C., Routledge, ISBN 0415046181  

See also


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