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.
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.