Pagan religion
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Pagan religion. Religions form another major sphere of social interaction through which people construct identities Hellenism assimilated deities and myths, but did not suppress local cults or local forms of worship

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  • Religions form another major sphere of social interaction through which people construct identities

  • Hellenism assimilated deities and myths, but did not suppress local cults or local forms of worship

  • Local or regional cults became a channel through which local or regional identities could be affirmed


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Iconic images through which people construct identities


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  • A significant number of Syrian deities were recognizable through the use of distinct cult images

  • Contemporaries could regard elements of these cults as non-Roman or non-Greek

  • Herodian (a Syrian historian): the statue was not “of the sort that Greeks and Romans put up”

  • Some ancient writers saw these distinctions as positive: for a cult to contain non-Greek elements was seen as good

  • References to ‘ancestral’ gods: tradition and the tribal gods were positive aspects

  • During the period of the Second Sophistic, these differences are stressed rather than played down, and representations of ‘ancient’ cult images are more common than in earlier times

  • The Greek tradition had an interest in traditional cults of peoples


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Jupiter Heliopolitanus through the use of distinct cult images


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Hadad and Atargatis through the use of distinct cult images


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Jupiter Dolichenus through the use of distinct cult images


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Baetyls through the use of distinct cult images


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Herodian says the stone was Helios (Sun), that it was “conical in shape and black” and “worshiped as though it were sent from heaven; on it there are markings that are pointed out, which the people would like to believe are a rough picture of the sun, because that is how they see them”


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  • Pious titles were often used rather than names of gods and goddesses, as if perhaps the names were too holy to mention

  • Baal (Lord); Baalat (Lady); El (God); Elat, Allat (Goddess)

  • Sometimes made more specific by adding qualifications: Baalshamin (Lord of the Heavens); Baalmarcod (Lord of Dances)


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Origins of deities goddesses, as if perhaps the names were too holy to mention

  • Hadad and Atargatis: Aramaean

  • Symbols of Hadad include the thunderbolt and ears of corn, thought to be associated with storms and rains from heaven and the growth of crops, also the bull (thunder?)

  • Baalshamin also Aramaean, very similar to Hadad


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  • Phoenician deities goddesses, as if perhaps the names were too holy to mention

  • Supreme male dieties often called Baal or El; female ones Baalat or Astarte

  • Symbolism of Astarte was complex: lions and sphinxes associated with her; she was associated with the planet Venus and therefore with the Roman goddess Venus and her equivalent, the Greek goddess Aphrodite

  • She was also seen as a type of Fortune and therefore Tyche, and was a warrior goddess; also a mother goddess associated with a young god (e.g. Eshmun at Sidon; Adonis at Byblos)


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  • Nabataean deities goddesses, as if perhaps the names were too holy to mention

  • Dusares or Dushara (The One from the Shara) – a supreme god and also a god associated with Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and death

  • Allat (Goddess), commonly associated with the Greek warrior goddess Athena

  • Shair al-Qaum, ‘who does not drink wine’, a patron of nomads, soldiers and caravans – equivalent of Greek Lycurgus, the opponent of Dionysus?


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  • Mesopotamian deities goddesses, as if perhaps the names were too holy to mention

  • Bel, supreme god at Palmyra

  • Nebo, son of Bel, identified with Greek gods Apollo and Hermes

  • Nergal, a warrior deity associated with Heracles


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  • Sun cults seen as typically Syrian goddesses, as if perhaps the names were too holy to mention

  • Shamash, the Greek Helios, Latin Sol

  • Elagabal of Emesa had strong solar associations


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  • Most cults appear not to have had authoritative scripture that defined the nature of the deity or the manner of cult worship

  • There is some evidence for ‘triads’, particularly arrangements of father/mother/son, at certain cities, particularly the Phoenician cities of the coast

  • Some have seen a Phoenician and Aramaean preference for deities associated with agriculture and the natural cycles of death and renewal, contrasted with an Arab one for celestial deities


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  • Deities had to prove their value in the contemporary world to survive

  • It was up to worshippers to champion the cause of their ancestral gods

  • Powerful social groups might try to control the manner of worship or the meanings of the gods in a sanctuary they controlled

  • But there may have been times when it was useful to change the manner of worship or add or alter meanings, particularly when faced with pressure from another powerful group to incorporate other gods into the cult

  • So some triads might not have been very ancient, but were solutions to social pressures and religious tensions at a particular sanctuary


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Syncretism e.g. at Aradus when find the god Zeus-Kronos

  • The merging of two or more gods into one

  • Important cults were likely to attract many worshipers and there were probably strong social pressures to syncretize

  • Atargatis of Hierapolis: the Syrian writer Lucian says she possessed the features of the Greek goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, Selene, Rhea, Artemis, Nemesis and the Fates


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  • Palmyra had two major cults of a supreme god: Bel and Baalshamin

  • There were thus two gods equivalent to the Greek Zeus, both with separate cults and temples in the city

  • Both were celestial deities and both had sun and moon gods as associates

  • There is evidence that different tribes at Palmyra were promoting their ancestral deities


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Worship Baalshamin

  • Visiting temples and sanctuaries was a key element of pagan religious experience

  • Most cults had a major ‘home’ sanctuary, and pilgrimage to that place was a way to experience the chief temple of the cult

  • Sacrifice was the central act of devotion

  • Seeing the cult image was also often important

  • Rituals and symbols added further layers of meaning, and many temples had ‘wise men’ who could explain the meanings


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  • People also came to temples to consult the gods through oracles and dreams, gave thanks for help, offered sacrifices, consecrated themselves or their children to the gods, or demonstrated their devotion through ordeals

  • Gods also gave instructions to mortals through dreams and oracles

  • Divine images participated in the life of the community through religious banquets and processions

  • Each deity had feast days, and major cults had grand public processions, sacrifices and banquets that might be attended by thousands of people


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  • At public festivals the crowd gathered in the courtyards in front of the temples, and sacrifices were offered on altars in front of the temples

  • Animal sacrifices were cooked on the altars and the meat then divided among the worshipers

  • In many cases wine was also drunk

  • There might be athletic and cultural events, dances, or the distribution of gifts

  • The doors of the temple might be opened to expose the image of the deity, or the statue brought out of the temple and led in procession

  • There were also processions to temples, especially if the temple was located in the countryside


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  • Extreme evidence of devotion: pilgrims to Hierapolis could get a tattoo on their neck or wrist to show that they had been there

  • At Niha in the Bekaa, a virgin called Hocmaea fulfilled her vow to a local god, Hadaranes, by not eating bread for 20 years

  • Some male devotees of Atargatis castrated themselves to make themselves free from the impurity of sex


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Thiasos to questions; the gods sometimes gave people orders

  • “Sacred company”

  • A ritual banquet, not a public affair

  • The thiasos was a small cell of devotees, who had their own dining room, in a sanctuary or elsewhere. They may all have been members of the same family or tribe

  • Early Christian churches may have been rather like thiasoi

  • Attendance was by invitation only

  • Entry into a thiasos of a major cult was probably costly, with the expense of an official sacrifice and banquet being paid by the family of the new devotee


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High Priests to questions; the gods sometimes gave people orders

  • The chief functionaries of a sanctuary

  • There may have been dynasties of high priests, but there is not much evidence for this

  • Most key functionaries at the main temples seem to have been elected annually, or at least on a regular basis

  • They were probably not professional theologians, with careers as high priests


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Temples to questions; the gods sometimes gave people orders


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  • Many temples face east and were probably oriented to face the rising sun on the most important day of the cult’s calendar, but others face in other directions

  • Temenos = sanctuary, Latin templum

  • Sacred space delineated by a boundary wall = peribolos

  • The main ritual events – sacrifice, burning of the sacrifice and division of the sacrifice among the worshipers – took place in the temenos


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Propylon the rising sun on the most important day of the cult’s calendar, but others face in other directions


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Theatron small shrines and theaters for ritual activity, sometimes banquet halls for thiasoi


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The naos small shrines and theaters for ritual activity, sometimes banquet halls for thiasoi

  • It was normally reserved for priests and held the cult image, which was normally a statue but at Palmyra was often a relief


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Church at Qalb Lozeh, Syria which may indicate variations in function


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Many Lebanese temples have towers as well which may indicate variations in function


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Cella which may indicate variations in function


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Adyton which may indicate variations in function


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Crypt which may indicate variations in function


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Nabataean motab which may indicate variations in function


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Baalbek (Heliopolis) which may indicate variations in function


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Dimensions which may indicate variations in function

  • Projected size of podium: 58 x 100 m, 12 m high

  • Height of columns: 16.6 m; weight 130 tons each

  • Total height of temple: 48 m


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Temple of ‘Bacchus’ which may indicate variations in function


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Bel temple, Palmyra which may indicate variations in function