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Varieties of Polytheistic Experience

Once upon a time, perhaps toward the end of the eighteenth century, at any rate when Greece was still part of the Ottoman Empire, Athens was suffering from a long drought. The Turks went to their mosques and prayed to Allah, to no avail. The Greeks gathered in their churches and sought help from the Prophet Elijah, yet the Attic skies stayed blue for months on end. Last and—in the eyes of the others—very much least, the “Arabs” or “Ethiopians,” the Turks’ black slaves, gathered at their open-air mosque amid the pillars of the old temple of Olympian Zeus, near the base of the Acropolis. With their women and children all together, they prostrated themselves on the ground. Then three times they cried out to God, beating their breasts and pinching their children till they howled. After the first cry, a few small clouds peeped out from behind Mount Hymettus. After the second, the sky became thoroughly overcast. During the third, sheets of rain swept across the little town’s houses, its mosques, and its churches.1

In the multicultural Ottoman Empire, as in the multicultural US nowadays, religious and ethnic identities often reinforced each other. Sometimes ethnic differences might be even stronger than the bonds of shared faith—hence the need of the Athenian “Arabs” for a place of worship of their own, apart from the Turks. The basic exclusivist model was provided by the most ancient of the monotheisms, Judaism. The continuing history of the Jews has provided a permanent example of the close link between religion and ethnicity.

And yet there are elements of the Torah—the Decalogue, for example—that by no means stand in the way of a more open, inclusive, and universalist understanding of religion. In the Hellenistic period, Jews such as Philo wrote about their faith for the benefit of Greeks, and formerly polytheist converts were to be found in many synagogues. The earliest Christians did not immediately or easily disentangle themselves from the synagogue; but the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have Jesus send out his apostles to baptize all peoples, while the Apostle Paul made a decisive opening toward the gentile world. As for God’s third great revelation to mankind, the scripture in which it was set down calls itself repeatedly an “Arabic Koran,” and was addressed in the first instance to Arabs. Yet it did not take long for others to decipher it, as they had the Hebrew of the Torah and the Greek of the Gospels.

It was in a speech delivered on the Areopagus hill, just at the opposite end of the Acropolis from the temple of Olympian Zeus, that Paul first revealed to the Athenians God’s new dispensation, while at the same time manifesting a certain respect for their ancient and prestigious culture, at least for the reverence they accorded the “Unknown God.” He even quoted from the poet Aratus. Three hundred years later, not long after Constantine became the first Roman emperor to accept Christian baptism, Bishop Cyril of Jerusalem proclaimed that the Church is called “catholic” because it extends throughout the whole world, but also because it teaches whatever mankind needs for salvation. The Church is the repository of truth in all its aspects.2 Taking as its model the Children of Israel, who “despoiled the Egyptians” before embarking on their exodus, or (more eirenically) Jesus who came to fulfill, not to destroy, the law and the prophets, the early Church was, it seems, disposed to take over whatever there was of truth and virtue to be found in the gentile as well as the Jewish world, before the Incarnation.

Hence the belief that there had been “Christians before Christ”—including the prophets, of course, but perhaps also the ancestors of Jesus who are so carefully listed in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Balkan Christians in late Byzantine times and afterward, taking their cue from an iconographic theme already known in thirteenth-century Italy, often painted Christ’s genealogy onto the walls of their churches in the form of the “Tree of Jesse.” Beside the recumbent, sleeping figure of David’s father, Jesse, springs up a mighty vine, in whose tendrils are painted portraits of Christ’s ancestors. Some of these ancestors, though, are not to be found in any gospel: they include, among others, Homer, Solon, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Josephus, and Plutarch—even Aristophanes. The sages of ancient Greece—along with Plutarch and the Jew Josephus, both of whom had lived after Jesus—are in this way accepted as foretellers or witnesses of the Gospel. Each usually holds in his hand a scroll on which is inscribed a prophecy of Christ’s coming—the idea is taken from late antique compilations such as the Prophecies of the Seven Sages, which attributed to various ancient Greek divinities (notably Apollo), and to mortals as well, oracles of the destruction of the old gods and the coming of Christ, along with theological pronouncements of distinctly monotheist tone.

Even though, in the shape of Josephus and Plutarch, a handful of unbaptized figures from the Christian era slipped into the “Tree of Jesse,” they were exceptions. They could not much dilute the Church’s sense that, as the Gospel spread, those who ignored let alone opposed it did so at their own risk. As a sequel to his Paganism in the Roman Empire (1984), the Yale historian Ramsay MacMullen has now written Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, a study that traces the deliberate resistance offered to the Gospel by worshipers of the old gods, and other ways in which, even when this phase had passed, certain practices associated with polytheism “continued,” as he repeatedly puts it (e.g., pp. 156-157), within the context of the Church. These persistences and echoes of polytheism, which were possible both despite and because of the Church’s basically assimilationist instinct, fall into various categories, not all of them discussed by MacMullen.

First of all, there were worshipers of the old gods who quite simply carried on worshiping them exactly as they had always done. The Church gradually found ways of making such insouciance more and more difficult and even risky, but MacMullen shows how common these persistent worshipers were, especially in rural regions, at least until the mid-sixth century, when the emperor Justinian cracked down on them.

Secondly, there were polytheists who accepted baptism and all outward signs of Christian allegiance, but continued in secret to serve the many gods just as before. We may call these “crypto-polytheists,” by analogy with the much better documented “crypto-Christianity” practiced, for example, by Armenians and Greeks in Asia Minor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when, for whatever reason, it seemed advisable to appear Muslim, even if in the privacy of one’s household one continued to live and worship according to the Christian religion. We have an excellent account of a crypto-polytheist temple of Isis at Menouthis, a small town near Alexandria, just at the moment in the late fifth century when it was discovered by the local Christians. According to Zacharias of Mitylene, the temple was installed in a private house that belonged to a priestess. It was in a sealed-off room that could be reached only through a narrow window—the priest, too, had to squeeze through the window in order to offer sacrifice.

When the Christians got wind of this arrangement, they broke in and found a collection of idols and an altar drenched with blood. Crying, “There is only one God,” a mob set upon the images and made a bonfire of the less valuable ones, including statues in the Greek style, as well as the Egyptians’ usual collection of embalmed dogs, cats, monkeys, and crocodiles. The crowd then demolished the house itself, and the rest of the statues they carried off to the bishop, twenty camel-loads of them. It turned out that the polytheists had been bribing the local Christians to turn a blind eye to their gatherings and rituals.

The crypto-polytheists of Menouthis seem to have been small fry, and once exposed in such abrupt fashion they probably had little courage to carry on. At much the same time, though, a well-connected doctor called Gesius, having been obliged to accept baptism, recited as he emerged from the font Homer’s verse,

Ajax utterly perished when he drank the briny water.

MacMullen does not seem to have put Gesius—whom he would find, I suspect, a kindred spirit—in his book, though I admit I may have missed a passing reference to him. The notes to Christianity and Paganism are deep pools of erudition, which scholars who read less assiduously than MacMullen will fish in for years to come.

These two varieties of deliberate and self-conscious preservation of the polytheist tradition are perhaps the only ones that merit being called “survivals.” The third variety includes polytheists who accepted baptism but failed to conform sufficiently to Christian norms, either out of ignorance or else because they succeeded too well in maintaining earlier social identities even within the bosom of the Church—or in some cases for both reasons. They quickly came to be regarded as “heretics” by other Christians. We know of one such group, which converted out of sheer terror just after the great earthquake that hit Beirut in AD 348. The Church historian Philostorgius records that

the larger part of the town collapsed, with the result that a crowd of pagans came into the church and professed Christianity just like us. But some of them then introduced innovations and left, stripping off as it were the conventions of the Church. Dedicating a place of prayer, they there received the crowd, and in all things imitated the Church, resembling us just as closely as the sect of Samaritans does the Jews, but living like pagans,

a criticism perhaps intended to apply to their morals as well as their manner of worship.

Fourth, there were the echoes of polytheism to which MacMullen devotes his final chapter, entitled “Assimilation.” Here we have to do not so much with conscious polytheist practices as with habits that were not given up largely because they were never questioned. They had probably not been thought about much in the first place, or at least had not been thought about for a very long time. These customs included, notably, burial practices, to which MacMullen devotes much space. Bishops ranted ceaselessly against members of their congregations who danced or got drunk at the graves of kin or the tombs of the martyrs. They saw this as recrudescent polytheism; but the dancing drunks may well have just been doing what they had always done.

Finally, it is worth mentioning an idea that became popular among ethnographers, especially in the nineteenth century in countries, like Greece, that were, after long centuries of Ottoman rule, trying to reinforce an ethnic identity and assert a national one. In such circles it was believed, all too easily and uncritically, that contemporary Thracian fire-walkers or Mytileniot bull-sacrificers were symptoms of an unbroken polytheistic, especially Dionysiac religion that Christianity had never rooted out. For example, a well-known classical scholar wrote in 1910 that “by their acceptance of Christianity they [the Greeks] have increased rather than diminished their number of gods; in their conception of them and attitude towards them they have made little advance since the Homeric Age.”3 By constructing an ethnic pedigree built on such foundations, some Greeks and their supporters hoped to legitimize their claim to nationhood in the eyes of European elites bred on Homer and on Gibbon’s unflattering opinion of the Eastern Roman Empire and Christianity. Greece is today a land where parents christen their babies Achilles, Agamemnon, or Aphrodite, and when they reach school age, take them to admire restored “monuments of the ancient Greeks” which for centuries served what is still the state religion as living places of worship. Although strictly speaking revivals, these practices carry an umistakable implication of survival.

  1. 1

    D.G. Kambouroglou, Istoria ton Athinaion (Athens: A. Papageorgiou, 1889-1900), Vol. 3, pp. 92-93, and Ai palaiai Athinai (Athens: G.I. Vasileiou, 1922), p. 37.

  2. 2

    Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 18.23. I owe one or two points in this paragraph to an unpublished paper by Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia, “Athens and Jerusalem: The classical tradition and the Greek Fathers.”

  3. 3

    John Cuthbert Lawson, Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals (Cambridge University Press, 1910), p. 47.

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