Methods of Interpreting the Gods

Category: Frameworks

1 Summary

Despite the existence of many distinct religious traditions in the Ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, it is a mistake to think that each of them had independent methods of interpreting and explaining the nature of their gods. “Philosophy”, “theology” and other frameworks of analysis often shared across nominal religious boundaries, and on the other hand, have been historically absent from a given tradition. Intellectual autarky is not a criterion of value in judging ancient religions, nor a plausible aim in reconstructing them.

2 Introduction through the example of “Roman religion”

On the model of Christianity, we often expect other religions to similarly have a name, clear boundaries of membership, standardized rituals, canonical holy texts and a tradition of theology or philosophy. But that is often not the case. In fact, many social phenomena we might describe as religious do not constitute “a” religion at all.

What we call Roman religion, for instance, is difficult to separate from the traditions of other ancient Italian cities. Jupiter, for instance, although often called a “Roman god”, was worshipped across the region long before Rome began to dominate it, whether under the same name (as by the Umbrians) or under a different one (as by the Etruscans). As such, while the Romanization of Italy brought many changes, it did not require people to abandon one god for another, to reject local ritual traditions for a priesthood or festival calendar imported from the capital, to adopt any kind of sacred book, or to affirm a set of dogmas. Assimilation did occur, but by other means and along other axes.

Most crucially for the present page, Romanization did not bring Roman theology or Roman philosophy, because there were no such things. Theologia in antiquity referred primarily to mythology – more technically called theologia mythica or fabulosa –, and the principal authorities of mythical discourse were Greek poets, such as Homer and Hesiod. While there were Roman myths, they cannot be extricated from the influence of Greek models, as they rely on the broader framework of Greek mythology and its genre rules.

The principal authorities of philosophia, likewise, were all Greeks – not necessarily in an ethnic sense, but insofar as they wrote and taught in Greek rather than Latin. The efforts of some Roman writers, such as Cicero and Seneca, to popularize philosophical teachings in Latin did not change the fact that any serious student of philosophy would have to learn Greek and seek out primary sources and philosophy teachers in that language. Thus, philosophical discourse about the gods – theologia physica or naturalis – once again was rooted in Greek authorities.

According to Varro (1st cent. BCE), there was a third mode of theologia (‘discourse about the gods’), the political or civic. This was represented by the local traditions of a community (a polis or civitas), as maintained through the customs, laws and priests. As such it was, in the case of Rome, more uniquely Roman. But already before Varro’s time, the efforts of Roman intellectuals to interpret the meaning of their civic theologia took place through the application of Greek genres of investigation and analysis: myth, philosophy, and history.

Now, all this is not to say that the ancient Greeks are the wellsprings of all mythology, historiography and philosophy; as I have already said, it was primarily a question of language, not ethnicity. The point is that, within “Roman religion”, there was no independent tradition of interpreting the meaning of religiō (‘piety, worship’). Instead, Romans (and outsiders) used the same methods of analysis that were generally current, which at that time happened to be Greek – much in the same way that in English Studies, scholars may interpret US American literature through French theory.

Of course, not every Roman intellectual studied Greek deeply, and over time there did emerge a Latin-based tradition that concerned itself with many of the same questions as mythology and philosophy, and incorporated their methods. I am referring to what the ancients called the art of grammar. This too was based on the model of Greek grammar, but was often taught independently.

In the following sections – gods willing – I am going to discuss each of the aforementioned methods of interpreting the gods, as well as some others, with a particular focus on their transmission or spread across multiple religious cultures. I hope that this will enable readers to understand ancient polytheistic traditions in a more textured way, avoiding the extremes of completely flattening them (as if polytheism or paganism were one overarching religion) or making them incommensurable (as if each tradition constituted a self-contained and self-complete religion).

4 Theory embedded in ritual texts

Although all utterances, and in a sense even all human actions, are theory-laden (since they presuppose certain general assumptions about how things work), ritual texts are often written in such a way as to make the underlying theories deeply obscure to anyone not already immersed in them. Indeed, the most familiar ritual actions may be so commonplace as to largely escape explicit interpretation even by those who are immersed, while with the less familiar ceremonies, it may be more important to all participants that they are impressive or out of the ordinary than what they mean or how they function. In short, it is entirely possible to have a good working knowledge of ritual practices without having the tools to interpret them, or to analyze the nature of the gods at whom they may be directed with any depth.

On the other hand, rituals often involve extended speech acts, which may explain surrounding actions, the function of the speech itself, or other matters, sometimes in a cursory, sometimes in a highly intricate fashion. I am not referring to simple invocations and descriptions of the gods, their actions, and their relationships to each other – what we may call first-order discourse – but texts which reflect upon the meaning of divine names, titles and attributes, as well as on underlying principles. It is perhaps an exaggeration to speak of a specific method of interpretation here, but we can treat this as a loose umbrella for explanatory discourse that does not fall into more specific categories.


3 Sayings, maxims and wisdom literature

5 Theologia mythica. Mythological discourse(s)

[Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.20.2 and passim; also reflects on the difference from history frequentlys.]
[Book of the Fayyum? Or is that a different mode? Philological, iconographical?]

6 Philological, grammatical and rhetorical traditions

[Akkadian scholarship → Cratylus / Papyrus Derveni-style exegesis → Stoicism → Grammar]
[Aristides, Menander, Alexander]
[Determinatives etc]
[Lexical lists, Herodianus, etymologica]

7 Astrology and the gods

8 History as a distinct method of interpretation

[Hecataeus, Herodotus, Palaephatus(?), Euhemerus; Rome]

9 Theologia physica. Philosophy and its permutations

While many of the forms of discourse we have already gone through may be described as philosophical in a general sense, I find it best to limit discussion of ancient philosophy to that which the ancients actually called philosophy. This does not limit us to Greek philosophy (or Greek-language philosophy, to be more exact), but also includes the teachings of the Celtic Druids – obscure as they are to us –, of the followers of Zalmoxis in the Balkans – who are even obscurer –, the Iranian Magi, the Chaldaeans of Mesopotamia, the Egyptian priesthoods, and the Jews. Indian Brakhmanes (sanskr. Brāhmaṇa) and Gymnosophists or Sarmanes (sanskr. Śramaṇa) too were consistently recognized as philosophers, although the extent of their influence on Ancient Mediterranean thought is very unclear.

In the case of the Romans, by contrast, whiler there was a perception was that the early kings (especially Romulus and Numa Pompilius) encoded certain philosophical ideas into the laws and religious customs, explicit philosophical teachings were not attributed to them. Neither did anybody trace a lineage of native Roman philosophers from them. Instead, the institutions supposedly founded by them were interpreted through the lens of Greek philosophy, and said to derive from the Greeks; Numa in particular was often regarded as a Pythagorean.

We may thus distinguish between three loose types, although their boundaries are blurry: traditions which allowed of philosophical interpretation (like the Roman), traditions which had indigenous forms of philosophy (like the Chaldaean or Egyptian), and Greek-language philosophy. The latter was a late bloomer, and profoundly shaped by other philosophical traditions, but through contingent historical circumstances became the dominant medium of philosophical expression across the Ancient Mediterranean. This should not be understood in terms of a replacement of old philosophies by a new one. On the contrary, other traditions both continued to be maintained alongside Greek philosophy, and were re-expressed in Greek and in Greek terminology. This why I prefer to call it Greek-language philosophy: countless “Greek” philosophers were of non-Greek ethnic origins, and either brought elements of their native cultures into the shared forum, or adopted Greek philosophy as a means of understanding their own cultural institutions.

So much in general terms; but let us now turn to the subject of philosophical discourse about the gods in particular. As mentioned in the introduction, this form of theologia was called ‘physical’ in Greek (‘natural’ in Latin), because it investigated the real nature (gr. phýsis) of the gods, in distinction from other forms of theologia which relied on the dubious authority of poets and lawgivers. (This is not the same thing as Christian or post-Christian “natural theology”, which is opposed to “revealed theology”. In pagan theologia naturalis, there was no reason not to appeal to oracles and the like, and unlike Christian natural theology, it concerned the gods, not God.)

[Stoicism; persistence of older ideas and generation of new ones; application to various traditions; grammar; other philosophical schools (Platonic, ‚Hermetic‘); relationship to non-Greek traditions – Diodorus, etc.]
[Julian ‚xaldaioi de kai assurioi‘; Aristides the apologist? Plutarch! On Egyptians, Chaldaeans, Magi. Berossus, Manetho, Philo, the other Philo and Josephus, Grecoo-Roman writers. Achilles Tatius.]
[Diodorus Siculus on Chaldaeans; Strabo 1.2.15]
[Chaldaeans in two senses. Proclus In Tim. 1.208. Aristotle. Xenophon, Kyropaideia?]
[Pseudo-Hippolytus on Assyrians. Lucian, Macrobii 4. Biographies of Plato and Pythagoras and Apollonius. Strabo 7.3.5; 16.1.6 (Chaldaeans); 16.2.39. DL pr. Clement? Numenius in Eusebius. Phoenicians.
Hermetica. Reception of Greek philosophy in Iran etc. Last Pagans of Iraq.
[Magi: Apuleius, Olympiodorus; Strabo 15.3.13]
[Expositio totius mundi; texts on the liberal arts]
[Δεύας; βηλόν τινες κατὰ Χαλδαίους τὴν ἀνωτάτω τοῦ οὐρανοῦ περιφέρειαν]

10 Arithmetical Theologoumena

11 The invention of Theology as a discipline in late antiquity

[Procl. In Parm. 646]