The Evolution of Religious Thought: Cultural Diffusion


PREFACE

This is the second installment of The Evolution of Religious Thought.  In this section I describe the process in which religious beliefs transfer between cultures.  Towards the end, I briefly touch on the affect this had on monotheism, specific to Christianity.  The purpose of this section is to provide the reader with a background on cultural diffusion so that when I begin discussing monotheism, some of the processes that Christianity and Islam implemented won’t be foreign.  I have assumed an intermediate level of understanding with regard to my examples, so if anyone feels I should elaborate more, please let me know.  Finally, here is a link to the first section of The Evolution of Religious Thought: The Genesis of Credulity.

Cultural Diffusion

There are generally three ways a conqueror handles those he defeats: by genocide, displacement, or assimilation.  The most common method is assimilation; often through slavery, but frequently by the establishment of a social caste.  An example of this can be found in the relationship between the Spartans and Helots.  However, the Spartans are an extreme case as they maintained the traditions established by their lawgiver – Lycurgus – for longer than any other Greek city-state; thereby prohibiting the integration of customs from those they conquered.  It was significantly more common to see a gradual assimilation where customs fused, and new traditions began.  This is demonstrable in the archeological evidence found during the Indo-European colonization of Greece.  This period was just slightly before the shift from animism to anthropomorphic deities, as seen in the pre-Mycenaean cults of the double-axe and thrones.

The pre-Mycenaean cults can be viewed as an intermediate stage between animism and complete anthropomorphism.  That much is clear from the nature of the cults; for a deity cannot hold an axe, or sit upon a thrown if he is vacant of human attributes.  Yet, the representations from this period are absent of human form; instead, we simply find an axe or an empty throne.  But as the pre-Mycenaean civilizations mixed with the invading Northerners, the semi-anthropomorphic cults of the double-axe and thrones were incorporated into what would become the Greek pantheon.  This is evident by the disappearance of the native cults, and the sudden inclusion of the double-axe into images of Northern deities such as Zeus.

Now, the reason for this fusion is largely due to an essentially universal belief throughout the Mediterranean:  that deities were tied to the soil.  In other words, a deity from Thebes would be of little use in Buthrotum.  For instance, Apollonius Rhodius tells us that upon reaching Colchis, the Argonauts “… poured sweet libations of unmixed wine to the river, and for the Earth and the native gods and the souls of dead heroes, and prayed that they would do them no harm, but be kindly helpers and receive their ship propitiously.”  Similar acts of veneration were administered to the gods of conquered people, and when coupled with the proclivity to maintain one’s own culture, the cause behind an eventual synthesis is ascertained.

Of course, conquests were not the only means of cultural propagation.  Many deities were simply passed from one city to another by trade and immigration.  It is by this method that David Ulansey describes the origins of the Roman Mithraic Mysteries.  That is, through explaining the origins of Perseus’ Phrygian cap – by way of the connection between Perseus’ son and Persia – it becomes evident that the Tarsian cult of Perseus had strong Persian lineage.  Additionally, Ulansey uses the astrological traditions of Tarsus and the constellation of Perseus to establish a likely derivation of the tauroctony.  Because Tarsus was an influential city of Cilicia, it is probable that the cult of Perseus was modified into the Mithraic Mysteries and then spread by the Cilician Pirates.  Upon defeating the Cilician Pirates, Pompey is said to have brought the Mithraic Mysteries to Rome; thereby establishing a demonstrable path from Persian Zoroastrianism, to Greek mythology, to Roman mystery.

Whatever the path, as gods began uprooting themselves, population centers acquired multiple “native” deities; hence the creation of pantheons and divine hierarchies.  With this development, however, came the effortless acquiescence of foreign gods.  Thus, the degradation of hierarchal order, and the accrual of varying beliefs within a single culture.  This is exemplified in Rome through the continuous shift in supremacy from one divinity to the next.  For instance, one general may have called upon Mars Gradivus, while another called upon Sol Invictus.  Whichever of the two generals became more successful correlated to the success of the deity he chose to worship.  All of this caused a great deal of confusion.  Which god is best to worship, which is most powerful, which did the common soldier most revere?

This lack of efficiency is at the forefront of monotheism’s victory over paganism; most notably, by Constantine I.  Constantine reasoned, and reasoned correctly, that one jealous god was sufficient.  One god could unite his entire army.  All praise, all worship, and every sacrifice could be directed to one omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient being.  Here, Constantine decided that polytheism was an “outmoded illusion”, but there were still obstacles he would need to overcome.  As we shall see, by integrating older pagan customs into this relatively new version of monotheism, and by unifying its doctrines, Constantine set Christianity upon a path of inexorable success.

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23 replies

  1. This is an interesting brief to the genesis or the evolution from polytheism to monotheism. I guess it will be covered in the subsequent chapters, the idea of saints especially in the RCC. I think in as much they succeeded in having one omni god, they created saints to occupy the places that were originally covered by gods so that they have a saint for virgin girls, for the sick and so on whom they invoke to pray for them.
    maybe i will become a saint myself :)

    • That’s an interesting point, Makagutu. I hadn’t planned on discussing the saints and their relationship to pagan mythology, but it’s certainly something worth mentioning. I wrote this piece in its entirety a while ago, but as I edit, I’ve been taking it in various directions. I’ll likely update each post after it’s completely done, but I’m definitely going to take your comment into consideration. I appreciate it!

      If you would like, we can make a pact. Whichever of us goes first, the other must submit the necessary proofs for canonization. Though we would be in the company of several detestable individuals! :)

  2. Wow, that was kind of awesome. I’ve not read anyone writing exactly how I see things on this topic. I am probably starved of formal training and so am ignorant, but I like reading someone else’s thoughts that match my own.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the reblog! I think many of us hold the same thoughts. I have found that while reading other people’s work, I often realize that I have had a similar thought process at one time or another. Whether we express them is all that separates most who are interested in these subjects; and there are so many sub-topics, it makes it impossible to cover all of them. Again, glad you enjoyed it and thanks!

  3. Reblogged this on myatheistlife and commented:
    Here is a good post. There is need of all of us to study what happened in ancient times and not just what that books says to look at. Look at all of it, study it as a history so that we may know real facts.

  4. *quote* Now, the reason for this fusion is largely due to an essentially universal belief throughout the Mediterranean: that deities were tied to the soil. In other words, a deity from Thebes would be of little use in Buthrotum. For instance, Apollonius Rhodius tells us that upon reaching Colchis, the Argonauts “… poured sweet libations of unmixed wine to the river, and for the Earth and the native gods and the souls of dead heroes, and prayed that they would do them no harm, but be kindly helpers and receive their ship propitiously.” */quote*

    And yet we see Hera for example helping the Argonauts out all over the place during their trip. She asks Aphrodite to send her son Eros to Colchis to make Medea fall in love with Jason, she even personally appears on a mountain top to warn them of the wrong river to sail on in order to get back home. This is more in line with a view of local deities either being different cultural interpretations of their own Gods, and of some local deities being exactly that, local, deities or spirits of a particular place, rather then the Gods being tied explicitly to the soil as you express it.

    *quote* This is exemplified in Rome through the continuous shift in supremacy from one divinity to the next. For instance, one general may have called upon Mars Gradivus, while another called upon Sol Invictus. Whichever of the two generals became more successful correlated to the success of the deity he chose to worship. All of this caused a great deal of confusion. Which god is best to worship, which is most powerful, which did the common soldier most revere? */quote*

    I think this is a misinterpretation of the way the ancients worshipped. They all worshipped many Gods, though some people became devotees of certain Gods, but not to the exclusion of the others. Jupiter Capitolinus and Optimus Maximus was the Supreme God to the Romans, and only in the late Roman Empire do we see Sol Invictus rising in status, but even Elogabalus had to try and forcefully impose the idea that Sol and not Jupiter is the Supreme God.

    “his lack of efficiency is at the forefront of monotheism’s victory over paganism; most notably, by Constantine I. Constantine reasoned, and reasoned correctly, that one jealous god was sufficient.”

    I highly disagree with the assessment that polytheism is inefficient. If monotheism is so much more efficient then it would have been victorious for far longer and would have spread victoriously across the Earth. Which it has not. It has not yet succeeded in it’s attempted ethnocide and sometimes even genocide of people across the world who still cling to their native traditions and refuse to bow down. Monotheism has ultimately only led to death, destruction, and devastation on such massive scales as had never before been seen. Neither have they been successful in stamping out other traditions good enough, for the native traditions of Europe, West-Asia, and North-Africa are again starting to sprout. Why? Because it is more efficient and more logical then one omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent – yet jealous – God. Not to mention the theological problems with such a deity.

    • Jonathan, thank you very much for your insight and opinion on the subject. I sincerely appreciate your criticisms as they can only make my theories more robust. You certainly have some good points, but I think most of your contentions are hinged on my simplifications and the general assumptions I’ve made of my readers’ foreknowledge. I’ll address each of your comments and if you feel I’m still off-base, please let me know.

      Your first point with regard to the Argonauts is due to my terse explanation. I am in no way suggesting that deities were intransigent. In fact, I think that’s obvious by the assimilation of beliefs (i.e. the double-axe cult could not have been incorporated into Zeus’ repertoire if he was not brought from the North). Although gods often travelled with those that worshipped them, we also know that the perceived power of these gods was potentially lower than the gods native to whatever land one found himself in. I’d like you to focus on the words I used in the last sentence (i.e. potential and perceived). These topics are never entirely explained by one theory owing to the volatile nature of polytheism. I tried to express this in the first sentence of the section you quoted: “… LARGELY due to an ESSENTIALLY universal belief.” In saying this, I think it’s clear that examples to the contrary are certainly available. That said, please don’t refrain from providing them.

      Your second point is again caused my terse explanation. I am making assumptions that the reader is following my thought process (obviously I need to elaborate). First, I am briefly covering thousands of years worth of practices, so at one time Jupiter may have been the supreme deity while at another (during the reign of Elogabalus, for example) Sol was. I have not misinterpreted ancient practices; no where did I suggest that with a shift in supremacy, lesser gods were excluded from worship.

      On your final point we find ourselves diametrically opposed; and I mean this in two ways. First, this explanation for the favoritism Constantine displayed towards Christianity is historically supported, which I’ll eventually discuss. Second, though monotheism hasn’t spread to every corner of the Earth, I think you would agree that in the West, it pretty much has. You can probably cite examples such as the African Fang people, or various pockets of European pagans, but from a population standpoint it certainly has been victorious. The length of time is inconsequential. If I defeat you at chess today, I’m the victor until you defeat me. It does not matter how long I remain the victor; for the current moment is all that matters.

      Again Jonathan, I sincerely appreciate your comment. I’ll obviously need to clarify some points. Before I go, I’d like to say that I have no problem with my readers disagreeing with me; in fact I encourage it. A different perspective is always welcome. :)

      • Reckon you pretty much covered all bases. Nit-Picky Christians will no doubt find ways to refute everything about Constantine,and threaten to set William Lane Craig on you for being naughty but then they always do…yawn.
        Constantine was a shrewd bastard and although there were minor reversals once Theodosius had stamped Christianity as the One and Only the rest is history.What the Romans failed to do under lots of gods they eventually managed quite well under one, god they not?
        Ah, yes, Jesus wants us all for little sunbeams!

        Good post.

        • They can certainly try to refute things about Constantine, but the proof is in the pudding.

          I often wonder how the West would be if Julian didn’t die during his Parthian campaign. Would tolerance prevail? Would Theodosius ever attain the imperial throne? Would…

          Thanks for the comment. One of these days I’ll get around to posting the next section.

        • “What the Romans failed to do under lots of gods they eventually managed quite well under one, god they not?”

          What exactly do you mean with this?

  5. Haven’t come across that reason for Constantine’s Big Idea before – probably because I knew it from an Art History point of view – but it makes simple sense. Also your piece has provided me with some interesting musings regarding the jostling of archetypes and their thirst for recognition, a sort of genetics for the meme, a reversal, or mirror image, where the deus ex machina is, perhaps, the one who pulls the strings….

  6. Very informative R.L.

    Whatever “god” or however many, the same purpose is always served; control. As is so clearly illustrated by; “One god could unite his entire army.”

    If I simply replace “unite” with “control”, it rings more true for me.

    And in place of “army” one can readily substitute tribe, clan, village, kingdom, etc.

    Religion; the first known form of mass indoctrination. The omnipotent and ultimate “Big Brother” who is always watching everyone.

    • Indeed, Richard. Those terms (unite / control and army / tribe, etc.) are certainly interchangeable. The purpose of religion seems so overt to some – like you and I – I find it difficult to understand how anyone can be oblivious to it. Then again, most people aren’t concerned with thinking.

  7. A great read, R.L! The first pantheon, that of the Sumerians, coincided with the rise of the first dynastic rulers. Before that moment the first five Sumerian cities of Eridu, Bad-tibira, Larsa, Sippar, and Shuruppak were theocracies controlled by the En’s; the cities High Priests and keepers of time. We know this today because the word En, or Ensi, is referred to in the earliest known Sumerian cuneiform tablets as ‘prince’ or ‘ruler’ of a city whereas in later tablets En is presented as subordinate to a new word, Lugal, which is composed of the symbols for ‘Big’ and ‘Man,’ denoting the first ‘Kings.’ Why it happened we can only guess at, no written account has yet been found, but in time the authority once wholly in the hands of the priests was ceded to the first dynastic rulers; a shift which announced the arrival of the Bronze Age proper as recorded in the first entry of Sumerian King List, “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 8 sars.”

    This transfer of authority reeks of intrigue and points to a societal power struggle in which the En’s presumably took a calculated step back and aligned the temple with the palace. By doing so the priests secured their entirely invented authority behind the muscle of the state; no doubt quickly learning how to delicately massage king-sized ego’s while always keeping one careful step ahead of the shifting political winds. And shift those winds surely did: After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 8 sars. Alaljar ruled for 10 sars. 2 kings; they ruled for 18 sars. Then Eridug fell and the kingship was taken to Bad-tibira. In Bad-tibira, En-men-lu-ana ruled for 12 sars. Dumuzid, the shepherd, ruled for 10 sars. 3 kings; they ruled for 30 sars. Then Bad-tibira fell and the kingship was taken to Larag. In Larag, En-sipad-zid-ana ruled for 8 sars. Then Larag fell and the kingship was taken to Zimbir. In Zimbir, En-men-dur-ana became king; he ruled for 6 sars. Then Zimbir fell and the kingship was taken to Curuppag. In Curuppag, Ubara-Tutu became king; he ruled for 5 sars. In 5 cities 8 kings; they ruled for 67 sars. Then the flood swept over.

    The King List speaks of socio-political drama at its best and seemingly on cue the pantheons also became impregnated with the theatrics of dynasty. One followed the other.

    • This is fascinating, John! Thank you for that quick synopsis. I must admit, I’m more familiar with Greek and Roman history. You have brought my ignorance of this subject to the forefront of my mind, which I sincerely appreciate. I’ll need to look into this further and I’ll likely roll some of this into my final draft. As always, I appreciate your comments. They’re always full of intriguing bits of knowledge.

      • Sorry, it was a little rambley, didn’t make much sense. Anyway, what are you doing this for, a book?

        • BTW, that odd passage is actually the opening movements in the Sumerian King List. I forgot to identify it, but that’s why it reads a little weirdly ;)

          • I caught that about half way through. :) I’ve read things on the Sumerian King list, but it has been so long I’ve forgotten most of it. Your comment is exactly the thing I’m looking for though.

            I’m using WordPress as a tool to process some of my thoughts, document them, receive criticisms, etc. Eventually, I’ll expand on these writings and incorporate them into a book. That’s the goal at least. :)

Trackbacks

  1. The Evolution of Religious Thought: The Genesis of Credulity « R. L. Culpeper
  2. A Terse Explanation for the Enduring Nature of Religion « R. L. Culpeper
  3. The Evolution of Religious Thought: Cultural Diffusion Part II « R. L. Culpeper

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