From: Loren Petrich
Subject: The Classical World's Religious Tolerance
The question was brought up here some weeks back on the
question of the level of religious tolerance in the classical Greek
and Roman world.
I believe that this subject has some misunderstandings due to
the nature of their religion. Although they considered performing
their religious rites very important, belief was not a necessary part,
and "theology" was typically riddled with contradictions. Is Zeus
Kronos's oldest son (Homer) or his youngest son (Hesiod)? Is
Persephone/Kore in the underworld part-time (the Hymn to Demeter) or
full-time (most other sources)? Is Zeus immortal (most of Greece) or
does he die and get resurrected every year (Crete)? (Cretans were
called liars because of this)
Furthermore, their religion was non-exclusive and often
syncretic. Worshipping one deity did not exclude the worship of
others. True, Roman conservatives would grumble about outlandish "cults"
like that of Cybele and Attis, whose male followers would castrate
themselves and dress like women, but one would see Gauls continuing to
worship the horse goddess Epona and Egyptians spreading the "cults" of
Isis and Serapis (Osiris-Apis).
Syncretism? Certainly. Herodotus in his _History_ referred to
the deities of the people he discussed as versions of the familiar
Olympians. Thus, for example,
Zeus == Amon-Ra == Ahura Mazda == Marduk
That was a common practice, and Roman deities were identified with
Greek ones in precisely this fashion. They also referred to Gaulish
ones as versions of theirs, also.
Philosophers' attitudes? My favorite of these is that of the
Skeptics (literally "lookers"; their attitude became the well-known
word). Some of them argued that they worship the gods and state that
they exercise providence, but that they do so without any unwarranted
belief in such things.
Some were rather critical. Xenophanes commented on the
mischief attributed to the gods, and noted that horses and cows and
lions would believe that their deities looked just like them. Someone
else (I forget who) commented that if Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo had
to pay the fine for deflowering a virgin, they would bankrupt all the
temples in Greece. Plato stated that the works of Homer and Hesiod
ought to be banned from his Republic, because of such mischief as gods
laughing and lusting.
My all time favorite cutesy comment was in Aristophanes' play
_The Clouds_, in which an old codger reveals that he had always
believed that rain was Zeus pissing through a sieve (_dia koskinou
ourein_). It is remarkable that he got away with this blasphemous
Seen in that light, Christianity was something rather
outlandish. Judaism had had the same exclusivism, but Jews had kept to
themselves, for the most part. An aggressive sect that denied all
deities except theirs probably seemed antisocial, as might be seen
from Apuleius's _The Golden Ass_, where Christianity is called the
cult of "the only God".