History of Paganism 102

Ancient Civilizations - Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome


Many paths which are often called Pagan are, in reality, the reconstruction of the religion of an ancient culture; and is done by the studying and researching of any and all ancient texts which are still in existence. This article I have written will address some of the ancient polytheistic cultures existing prior to the advent of Christianity; yet traveling along a similar timeline as Judaism.

In Lascaux, France, cave paintings were discovered in 1940. The images were of animals, hunters carrying weapons, and the outlines of hands. Why were these drawings made, and why in deep, dark caves? Were they part of a rite of passage, or a ritual to some deity? To this day, no one is exactly sure, but we do know that Cro-Magnon man was a hunter and gatherer; attuned to his surrounding environment and his role in nature. As man developed to the nowadays species of Homo Sapien, weapons became more specialized, paintings, and now little statues, more detailed, and rites, such as burial of the dead, became more ceremonial. Besides hunting, fishing was now used to provide food for the clan; fire offered warmth and a cooking source; simple tasks such as sewing gave more advantages. But again, the question remains, when did the actual acknowledgement and worshipping of deities emerge? One theory is that early man did not believe in any specific god or gods, but did believe in reincarnation. The dead were buried with possessions, so when they returned, they would have their belongings with them. The cave paintings offered the returned ones an opportunity to remember the life they had lived before, and they would not fear their new life; it would be familiar in a manner.

The earliest recorded history is from 5,000 BCE, centering around Mesopotamia, and the people known as Sumerians. Though it was mostly an agricultural community, they were known for their craftsmanship, the development of the wheel and sailboat, often traveling and trading along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Their sailing vessels are strikingly similiar to the Viking longboat which causes one to theorize that the Sumerians may have traveled up to the northern lands. Settling in this colder climate, they would have adapted; their skin, hair and eye color lightening, food would be gathered via hunting as the land would be too harsh for farming; sailing and trading would still be viable resources.

The Sumerians were polytheistic, believing in many gods, and that anything that happened was a result of a god's pleasure or displeasure. Since the gods lived in the sky, huge temples, known as Ziggurats, were built, with steps climbing upward to the top. Ceremonies were held at these tops, and offerings of food and wine were given to the gods. The Ziggurats, again, are strikingly similiar to those of the Incan and Mayan cultures, causing one to theorize that the Sumerians may have traveled to the Americas. For these cultures were also developing along the same timeline as the Sumerians. Agricultural communities, fine craftsmen, and believers in many deities, centering their worship around nature.

The earliest evidence of the emergence of the Egyptian culture is 3,100 BCE, stemming from the founding of hieroglyphic writing. Like the Sumerians, the Egyptians were agriculturalists and craftsmen, and their culture was based on the loving of life, even after death. They developed mummification of the dead; the body prepared for the afterlife, possessions gathered, even favorite pets and slaves buried within the tomb. Deities numbered in the 2,000; major deites wielding great religious, spiritual and political powers, while many others were minor gods, demons and creatures, often chosen favorites of individual households. Egyptians were fond of animals, the cat especially, and it was not unusual for a deity to have the head of an animal instead of that of a mere human.

Around 1,100 BCE saw the emergence of the Greeks whose agricultural life was being challenged by overcrowding. They moved to lands east and west of their own, establishing trading posts. Eventually, as towns built up, temples to the various gods were also erected. However, the lands that were being taken over did not similarily worship those gods of the Greeks, so the Greeks, instead of destroying those they took over, assimilated them into their own culture. The Greeks deities were of human form, with superhuman abilities and ageless beauty. However, with the human form came human feelings, desires and vices, causing many a conflict between human and god; and god to god, or god to goddess depending on the vice. Many of the documents and texts that are still in existence are due to the Greeks being meticulous record keepers, and having a great respect for history, knowledge and learning.

Rome, founded in 753 BCE, was more a warrior nation than its agricultural neighbors. Amassing land via conquest, it was not unusual for this conqueror to incorporate into its own culture that which pleased it, and then destroying all else. The phrase, "history is written by the conqueror" aptly fits the Roman Empire. Power, wealth and fame moved mere farmers to become plantation landowners; slaves were a profitable trade, leaving their owners to indulge in lavious lifestyles. However, the Romans also made great achievements in building (the aqueducts), philosophy and the sciences.

Originally, the deities of the Romans were of a rural tradition, they being more as spirits than actual gods. But as the Empire expanded, so did the number of gods, and they became more specified. There were incorporated so many gods, that festivals were a common occurrence, so no god would be left unworshipped, and, thereby, insulted or angered. At first, Christianity was not tolerated as a new religion in Rome because its worshippers refused to acknowledge the Emperor as a god. The religion was outlawed, its worshippers persecuted and many put to death for their beliefs. Christianity finally became legal during the reign of Constantine with the Edict of Milan in 312 CE.


  • Paganism - http://ladywinterwolf.fcpages.com/paganism.html
  • MrDonn.org - http://www.mrdonn.org/index.html
  • BBC History - http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/
  • Ancient Greek World - http://www.museum.upenn.edu/greek_world/Index.html
  • Ancient Rome - http://www.crystalinks.com/rome.html
  • Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends by Lewis Spence