The Evolution of Religious Thought: Cultural Diffusion Part II


This is revision B to the second installment of The Evolution of Religious Thought.  My intention was always to readdress each of these chapters as I progressed.  However, it became clear while I was researching other areas, that the first revision of Cultural Diffusion was insufficient, and at times, grossly inaccurate.  Before moving to the next chapter, I thoroughly researched this topic so as to avoid similar inaccuracies again.  What you read now will be expanded upon in the future, but this is far more robust than revision A.  I have also provided endnotes in this version.

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 implemented, and the reason for their implementation won’t be foreign.  Finally, here is a link to the first section of The Evolution of Religious Thought: The Genesis of Credulity.

Cultural Diffusion

Any serious researcher of religion will admit that at one point or another, the idea of a common primitive religion is hard to avoid.  At every turn, another similarity emerges; interpreted at first, perhaps, as a unique and mysterious practice, but ultimately recognized later as the borrowed tradition of an older culture.  It becomes progressively difficult to separate the unique from the common.  Ideas, at some point, began to pass freely between cultures.  Men of all eras have been aware of these similarities, and fairly sophisticated philosophies were developed to explain some of them.  In many cases, the devout made no distinction between various representations; such was the case with Aphrodite, Astarte and Hathor. On occasion, it even went so far – as is the case with the aforementioned deities – that a single alter was shared between them.[i]

The cause for such diffusion, however, is less important than the process, so I will refrain from positing theories.  Instead, we will remain focused on three main courses of cultural diffusion.  The first course is subsequent, and results from, conquest and emigration.  The second course typically exists as a combination of trade and immigration.  And finally, the third course is the amalgamation of the above, but limited to periods and nations wherein multiple subcultures exist; such as the Roman Empire in the first century C.E.

So, beginning with the first we find that 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.  The Spartans, however, 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.[ii]  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.[iii]

As a result of the Indo-European colonization, Greece entered a transitional era.  It is an era salient in the minds of researchers because two cultures coalesced to form an altogether new one.  With respect to religious beliefs, this period can be viewed as an intermediate stage between animism and complete anthropomorphism.  That much is clear from the nature of the pre-Mycenaean cults, such as the double-axe and thrones mentioned above; for a deity cannot hold an axe, or sit upon a thrown if he is vacant of human attributes.  Yet, 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.

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, or at the very least, less powerful 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.” [iv]  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.

I am not, however, suggesting that ancient deities were permanently anchored to their home soil.  Evidence to the contrary can be inferred from the examples above with respect to the importation of Indo-European deities into Greece.  Unfortunately, the variables involved are countless, which renders this subject convoluted – to say the least.  But despite this reality, there is enough evidence to put forward a descent theory of why foreign deities were often revered.

The tendency to integrate beliefs from other cultures possibly emerged due to the nature of conquering nations.  That is, conquering nations tend to be wandering peoples, preferring the sword rather than the plough.  A conquering nation, having left their native soil behind, would have required those they subjugated to continue tilling the soil.  This subjugated race would have continued worshipping their native deities, and since they were likely agricultural, their deities would be rooted in the soil as well.

If we return to the pre-Mycenaean period, there is evidence to suggest that the scenario described above happened to the followers of Kronos, who was originally a harvest god.  Moreover, the Titans are often referred to as sons of Gaia, which suggests that they were spirits of the earth and vegetation.  Now, during Kronos’ festival, slaves were permitted a degree of equality – they were allowed to sit and eat with their masters as equals.  These slaves would have originally been members of the conquered nation, so it makes sense that on the day of their god’s festival they were granted equality; wherein they could remember and celebrate the freedom they once had under his protection.[v]  As time passed, the mythology of the Olympians and Titans were interwoven, just as the two cultures blended into one.

Of course, conquests were not the only means of cultural diffusion.  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.[vi]  That is, by way of explaining the origins of Perseus’ Phrygian cap – through the connection between Perseus’ son and Persia – it becomes evident that the Tarsian cult of Perseus had strong Persian lineage.  Perseus’ lineage is further upheld by Sir William Ramsay in The Cities of St. Paul.

“All the numerous representation of the hero Perseus on coins of the southeastern region of Asia Minor are probably to be taken in connection with this [Sandan] young native god.  Perseus is the immigrant hero, who is connected artificially with the older religion of the country.  He represents a new people and a new power.  In him probably are united features both of Persian and of Greek character…”[vii]

As it became clear that there was a cult of Perseus throughout Cilicia, Ulansey began comparing the astrological traditions of Tarsus and the constellation of Perseus to establish a likely derivation of the Mithraic 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.

In addition to the processes above, many cults were transferred between cities under the direction of oracles.  Serapis of Sinope was taken to Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy I, and the Great Mother of Pessinus made her way to Rome in this manner.[viii]  There was nothing in place, dogmatically, to prohibit such relocations in the pagan world.  In fact, it was custom to acknowledge foreign deities and even necessary – for political reasons – to show them respect.  This is evidenced, for instance, in the dedication that Publius Servius erected after conquering the Galatian city Isaura Palaia, requesting protection by “whichever” gods looked after the city.[ix]

The examples above demonstrate the relative ease in which belief systems travelled across the Mediterranean.  Rome, on the other hand, made such travels effortless.  Rome was, from its inception, accustomed to assimilating the deities of neighboring cultures into its own.  Thus, Zeus became Jupiter; Venus was known as Aphrodite; and Ceres became Demeter.[x]  The Romans, so as not to limit themselves to the Greek pantheon, absorbed other deities as well; such as the Celtic deity Lug, who was equated with Minerva.[xi]

Thus the Romans, being particularly eclectic with regard to the inclusion of ideas, technology, and religious beliefs, can be viewed – contrary to the views of some contemporaneous scholars – as tolerant of foreign customs and practices.  In fact, their readiness to embrace foreign customs contributed greatly to the success and subsequent expansion of their empire.[xii]  They were, quite literally, antiquity’s melting pot.[xiii]  Even their laws are said to have been of foreign origin.  For instance, Numa Pompilius – the Roman equivalent to Sparta’s Lycurgus – was said to have been Romulus’ successor.  However, Numa was not Roman; he was from Cures, a famous Sabine city.  Upon Romulus’ death, the Romans needed to elect a new king, and since half of Rome’s population was comprised of Sabines, Numa was elected and sent for.  It was said that the Sabines were descendants of Lacedaemonia; hence the Laconian laws found within those established by Numa.[xiv]

At the height of Rome’s influence, customs and beliefs were being shared, altered and condensed into quasi-monotheistic cults in every corner of the world.  The Egyptian goddess Isis, for example, was viewed in a quasi-monotheistic manner.

“I am nature, the universal mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual… the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.”[xv]

To be sure, cults such as Isis still acknowledged other gods as divine, but people began to emphasize the superiority of one god more frequently during the first centuries of our common era.  Moreover, the tradition of adopting foreign customs and the immensity of the Roman Empire enabled these “belief transactions” to occur on a scale never seen before.

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 is the environment that Constantine I grew up in.  In addition to the tolerance displayed by Rome, Constantine was, at times, exposed to an enormous degree of intolerance.  Up until the Edict of Milan, Christians were persecuted for various reasons, and it left a bitter taste in the mouths of Christians and pagans alike.  Diocletian, for example, was notorious for using the persecution of Christians as a political strategy against his Christian-friendly opponents.  Constantine, it seems, recognized the disapproval of these violent persecutions.  Keeping with the traditions of assimilation described above, Constantine welcomed Christianity into the empire and took advantage of the established bishoprics for political expediency.

Contrary to the desires of Lactantius and Eusebius, however, Constantine continued to worship numerous deities throughout his lifetime.  Coins that represent Mithras are constantly being discovered with inscriptions of SOLI.INVICTO.COMITI.[xvi]  These coins, along with countless other artifacts, support the theory that Constantine adopted Christianity for purposes other than those proposed by Eusebius and the like.  For this reason, Constantine’s reign marks another transitional period of religious thought.  His was a reign that was representative of a culture struggling to maintain its traditions, while he himself recognized that new customs were not only inevitable, they could be easily exploited.   As we shall see in the succeeding chapter, Constantine took advantage of the Roman proclivity to merge customs and beliefs; and in doing so, he set Christianity upon a path of seemingly inexorable success.

[i] Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine The Great, p. 135.

[ii] Plutarch, Plutarch’s Lives, p. 83.  The following quotation from Plutarch may sum up Lycurgus’ position on foreign customs the best:

And this was the reason why he forbade them to travel abroad, and go about acquainting themselves with foreign rules of morality, the habits of ill-educated people, and different views of government.  Withal he banished from Lacedaemon all strangers who would not give a very good reason for their coming thither; not because he was afraid lest they should inform themselves of and imitate his manner of government (as Thucydides says), or learn anything to their good; but rather lest they should introduce something contrary to good manners.

[iii] Guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods, p. 33.

[iv] Ibid., p. 29.

[v] Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, vol i, ch.3.

[vi] Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries

[vii] Ramsay, The Cities of St. Paul, p. 152 – 153.

[viii] Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine The Great, p. 135.

[ix] Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind, p. 68

[x] Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind, p. 48.

[xi] Ibid., p. 57.

[xii] Polybius, for example, describes how the Romans, unaccustomed to sea warfare, captured Carthaginian ships during the First Punic War and reverse engineered them; thereby advancing their own knowledge and subsequently using the knowledge of their enemy against them.

[xiii] The parallels between the United States’ beginnings and Rome’s beginnings are uncanny.  The U.S. should make note that one of the key factors in Rome’s decline was the formation of a patriotism that disenfranchised people of different cultures.  Had they continued to embrace people on the outskirts of their empire, they may have avoided disintegration from within.

[xiv] See Plutarch’s chapter on Numa Pompilius in Lives.

[xv] As translated by E. J. Kenny from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass.

[xvi] Burckhardt, The Age of Constantine The Great, p. 293.

Categories: Religion

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22 replies

  1. Excellent. Coming back to read this again tomorrow.

  2. Most excellent. I have long held that Constantine was in fact an atheist. An atheist who used what was available as a means to an end. I believe that the Holy Roman Empire was built on false pretense as a means of preserving it through the most useful tools of control available to him. That it was not the ideals of Christianity but the usefulness of control that had him convert.

    • From everything that I have come across, I’d say that is a more than reasonable assessment. I’m not sure if he was an atheist though, or a pagan that took advantage of the existing leadership found within the structure of the bishoprics. Christianity at this time didn’t necessarily clash with paganism, as is evidenced by numerous “heretical” sects. Furthermore, it’s clear that he cared more about the stability of the Church than its dogma; as illustrated by his leadership at Nicaea. Interesting period, to say the least. Thanks for reading and I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      • Oh, I’ve been involved this evening on the ties between Pauline letters, Constantine, and the modern Christian religion tonight. I think that to abandon your beliefs publicly for new beliefs requires a certain level of atheism. He clearly did not care for Christianity all his life nor in all ways. To ‘use’ religion as he did reqires a certain disdain for it… or so I’ve come to understand. This is why I conclude that he must have been atheistic.

        • What do you mean “abandon your beliefs publicly”? He never did such a thing, to my knowledge. If any historians from his age suggested such a thing, it’s contrary to 4 out of 5 artifacts we find. The only historian that I can imagine suggesting this is Eusebius, and most Christian scholars even acknowledge that he is unreliable. Like I said though, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he was an atheist.

          • He converted to Christianity in one of the most public ways possible. This is an abandonment of previous belief, thus the word conversion. It may be argued whether this was political expediency or not, but it was done in full view of the ‘known world’. I think we may be confused a bit on the timeline and which beliefs. I also see how I stated it would be confusing. Mea culpa. I should have been more specific.

  3. Excellent work, R.L!

    I understand its not your central theme here but one cannot look at Constantine (in the context of religion) without also looking at his domineering mother. She was a Christian zealot, a rabid theist who Constantine appointed as chief (Christian) relic hunter.

    • Thanks, John! I fear I’m never completely satisfied with these, but at least I’m making progress.

      I included Constantine’s upbringing in the next chapter. It briefly mentions growing up in Diocletian’s court, the beliefs of Constantius and Helena’s influence on Constantine.

      The whole period is filled with intrigue. Another overbearing mother that comes into play is Augustine’s. Very peculiar relationship.

      I’m just answering some emails now and then I’ll swing by to see what you have been up to. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Very informative and well done.

    Since I am greatly out of my depth here, religion being a subject that I have never felt a need to delve into very deeply, this is very educational for me.

    Thank you.

  5. Seriously, well done, RL, & worth the wait.I always hear your words in this BOOMING yet deliberate voice. I enjoy it.

  6. I just want to know what happened to all those ‘original’ crosses Constantine’s mum supposedly found. 😉

    It’s nice to learn something new even if I’ve read the core of the subject matter many times before. Another take is always refreshing.
    Engaging read. Thoroughly enjoyed it.


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