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Religion In The Hellenistic World Notes

Classics Notes > The Hellenistic World: societies and cultures 300 BC to 100 BC Notes

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Hellenistic Religion During the Hellenistic period the full extent of the decline of belief in the classical cosmology became realised; the traditional pantheon and the individual anthropomorphic aspects of all the gods had shaped the works of Homer and Hesiod and defined civic religion for many centuries. This decline had begun at the end of the fifth century with the rise of rationalist philosophy and mystery cults but accelerated through the Hellenistic period, with the decline of city states as the main socio-political force in the world acting as a strong catalyst. Previously religion had been a very civic specific action, with each citizen worshipping the patron god of his city, but with the rise of the age of kings and the international dynamic they brought to every aspect of life this began to change. This gave the opportunity for the mixing of Greek and non-Greek cultures and religions and it certainly seems that the Greeks were willing to accept foreign deities; for example the Syrian Atargatis and Phrygian Cybele. There was also an explosion in the popularity of chthonic mystery cults such as that of Demeter at Eleusis and Isis, the latter being a particularly good example because it combined elements of an old Greek religion and traits of Egyptian Osiris and Apis worship; it travelled widely throughout the world from its base in Alexandria under the patronage of Ptolemy Soter. The most appealing aspects of these religions is that they promised happiness and worldly prosperity as well as a more personal relationship with the deity, as opposed to the old system which involved merely appeasement of terrifying and wrathful gods. This perhaps represents the more turbulent socio-economic climate of the age which came to be identified by Polybius as the capricious workings of Fortune; certainly universal mother goddesses, such as Cybele, were seen as the protective antithesis of Tuche and were even adopted at Rome under the guise of the Magna Mater. However perhaps the most important aspect of religion in this period was the role that the divine played in Hellenistic kingship and how it was exploited by both kings and people in order to try and shape the most desirable socio-political conditions for both. Ruler cults, initiated by the cities, and dynastic cults, begun by the kings themselves, were seen in every kingdom of the Hellenistic world and were always used to much the same effect; the kings could use them for legitimacy and popularity and the citizens could use them to get significant benefactions from their rulers. These sorts of cults had some precedent but nothing on the scale that is seen now and they certainly represent the most important advancement in religion during this period because they had such a real impact upon the way kings and cities interacted. The first dynasty which felt the advantages of the growth of ruler cult was the Antigonids; Austin 32 is a decree from Scepsis dating from 311 which gives divine honours to Antigonus Monophthalmus, the first time such things had been bestowed on a living ruler. He was given a temenos, an altar, cult statue and a festival, in other words the full repertoire of divine honours which were to be seen given to many different monarchs by many different cities over a long period of time. The most important part of this decree is not religious, but highly political; the people wish to make it clear that these honours are being given as a reward for the benefits of peace and autonomy that Antigonus has given them. It is also

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