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Before ReligionA History of a Modern Concept$

Brent Nongbri

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780300154160

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300154160.001.0001

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The Modern Origins of Ancient Religions

The Modern Origins of Ancient Religions

(p.132) Seven The Modern Origins of Ancient Religions
Before Religion

Brent Nongbri

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the history of the modern perception of ancient religions. It first outlines how, during the period of European colonial encounters with the modern “pagans” and “idolaters,” the entities now designated as Greek and Roman gods went from being demons in a biblical Christian system to being the central figures of what is now called “ancient Greek and Roman religions.” It then investigates the interconnected stories of Greek and Roman religions through the twentieth-century to offer some background for the current state of affairs, in which most classicists, despite recognizing the concept of religion, who are ill-suited to the materials they study, continue to speak of ancient Greek and Roman religions. It then analyzes how a “new” ancient religion is constructed. Finally, it considers some of the tensions involved in the study of ancient religions.

Keywords:   religion, ancient religions, Greek, Roman classicists, European colonial encounters, Christian system


In broad strokes, the preceding two chapters have outlined how the category of religion came into being and how we have come to think of the world as being carved up into different World Religions. What remains to be discussed is exactly how this recent innovation has come to seem so universal, natural, and necessary. Many factors are at play, but the one I emphasize is the role of specialists in ancient history in producing and maintaining the category of religion. In Chapters 2 and 3, I critiqued translators of ancient texts for rendering ancient terms as “religion,” and I argued that descriptions of various ancient events as “the birth of religion” were problematic. Since religion is such a recent development, how and why we have come to speak so easily of ancient religions requires some explanation.

I shed light on these questions by undertaking three tasks in this chapter. First, I outline how, during the age of European colonial encounters with modern “pagans” and “idolaters,” the entities we now designate as Greek and Roman gods went from being demons in a biblical Christian system to being the central figures of what we now call “ancient Greek and Roman religions.” I then quickly trace the intertwined stories of Greek religion and Roman religion through the twentieth century to provide some background for the current state of affairs, in which most classicists, despite recognizing that the concept of religion is ill-suited to the materials they study, persist in speaking of ancient Greek and Roman religions. Second, I look at how a “new” ancient religion is constructed. That is to say, if the gods and cults of ancient Greeks and Romans had been known (at least in the guise of demons and satanic ritual) to Europeans continuously and were transformed into actors in these new entities, Greek and Roman religions, then what of the heretofore unknown gods and (p.133) rituals revealed by the discovery and deciphering of ancient texts from previously unstudied cultures? I explore the case of “Mesopotamian religion” to show how a new ancient religion comes into being, and again I follow this new invention through its twentieth-century incarnations. Finally, I consider some of the tensions involved in the study of these ancient religions. Many specialists recognize that religion is a troublesome concept when handling ancient evidence. Yet few scholars are willing to abandon the term. Instead, they have cultivated rhetorical devices to smooth over these conceptual difficulties and make religion seem timeless and universal. I conclude by briefly examining one of these rhetorical tropes, the notion of “embedded religion.”

The Origins of the Study of Greek and Roman Religions

Europeans have in some form or fashion been aware of the gods of Greece and Rome continuously from the time of the earliest Christians.1 From the fifth century until the sixteenth century, most people who thought of Greek and Roman gods regarded them as demonic minions of Satan. This line of thinking dates back at least to the patristic writers. Thus Augustine declared that the Roman pantheon consisted not of “righteous gods” (dii iusti) but rather of “impious demons” (daemones impii) or “evil spirits” (maligni spiritus).2 Among the more educated population, this view existed alongside (or intermixed with) two others. For some, the Greek and Roman gods were heroic humans of old who had come to be regarded as divine at a very early period (the so-called Euhemerist explanation of the gods, associated especially with Lactantius and Isidore of Seville).3 For others, the gods and their stories were simply harmless allegorical expressions of virtues and vices.4 Thus the Greco-Roman pantheon could safely adorn the art and architecture of public spaces (and even churches) throughout Europe, and Christian Neo-Platonists could with clear consciences freely employ deities of Greece and Rome in their symbolic speculations.5 With the increasing number of newly discovered classical manuscripts and the birth of modern archeology (p.134) from the time of the Italian Renaissance on came a growing interest in classical antiquity and its many gods. Yet even the great humanists rediscovering ancient Rome regarded its deities as something less than gods.

As we might expect from the preceding chapters, the beginning of critical reflection on these gods as parts of “religions” was tied to the colonial enterprises of European powers. As Europe's reach across the world expanded, the data of explorers, travelers, and missionaries flowed back to Europe. While the focus of these descriptions of far-off peoples and places was their strangeness and difference, the accounts were full of comparisons and contrasts to more familiar concepts. Comparison of the new peoples' beliefs and practices most often centered on how they resembled and differed from Christianity (since a looming concern for many European thinkers was the possibility of spreading the gospel to the New World). The gods of classical antiquity, however, also came to occupy an important place in these accounts, and, as historian Frank E. Manuel put it, “virtually any writing which shed light on ‘conformities’ between Greco-Roman ritual and the religion of contemporaneous heathen societies, whether people living in a state of civility—the Chinese, the Hindus, the Persians—or savage Negroes and American Indians, helped fashion [a] new view of ancient paganism…. To the business agents of the great companies native religious customs seemed important intelligence on the character of the inhabitants with whom they had to deal, and Greco-Roman illustrations were normal forms of communication with the educated directors in Amsterdam and London.”6

Authors of this type of communiqué presented both general observations about broad similarities between the new peoples and classical antiquity and parallels to specific practices. Such comparative activity went all the way back to the early Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. I offer just a few examples. The Jesuit missionary José de Acosta gave a general description of the idolatry of the Mexicans in his widely read account from the late sixteenth century:

(p.135) The Mexicaines Idolatrie hath bin more pernicious and hurtfull then that of the Inguas, as wee shall see plainer heerafter, for that the greatest part of their adoration and idolatrie was employed to Idols, and not to naturall things, although they did attribute naturall effects to these Idolls, as raine, multiplication of cattell, warre, and generation, even as the Greekes and Latins have forged Idolls of Phoebus, Mercurie, Iupiter, Minerva, and of Mars. To conclude, whoso shall meerly looke into it, shall finde this manner which the Divell hath used to deceive the Indians to be the same wherewith hee hath deceived the Greekes and Romans, and other ancient Gentiles, giving them to understand that these notable creatures, the Sunne, Moone, Starres, and Elements, had power and authoritie to doe good or harme to men.7

Other authors noted more specific points of comparison. Bartolomé de Las Casas peppered his Apologética Historia of the New World (probably completed by 1560) with references to classical authors and patristic writers (especially Augustine) who wrote about the gods.8 His detailed classical learning colored his prose in interesting ways, such as in his description of a figure in a New World temple as “a Serapis.”9 In a work of the late seventeenth century, Richard Blome gave an account of the natives of “Mary-land” in America: “Their Idol they place in the innermost Room of the House, of whom they relate incredible Stories, they carry it with them to the Wars, and ask counsel thereof, as the Romans did of their Oracles.”10

For Blome and most of his predecessors, the “Idols” found in the Americas were diabolical. In describing the inhabitants of the island of St. Vincent, Blome wrote that they believed “that there are a number of Good and Evil Spirits, the Good being their Gods,” and “when their several Priests call upon their several Gods together, as they speak, these Gods, or rather Devils, rail, quarrel, and seem to fight with each other. These Daemons shelter themselves sometimes in the Bones of dead Men,” and “Persons of Quality and exquisite Knowledge, who have long lived in St. Vincent's Island, do affirm, that the Devils do effectually beat them, and they show on their Bodies the visible marks of the blows.”11 Yet, some writers were beginning to (p.136) offer different possibilities. Sabine MacCormack, for instance, has traced the transformation of the Incan deity Pachacamac. In 1533, Spanish invaders sacked the pyramid temple of Pachacamac near Lima, destroying the central cult statue and robbing the temple of its gold and silver. Contemporary Spanish reports of the incident focus on the issue of idolatry: “the Christians explained to the Indians the great error in which they had been enveloped, and that he who was talking in that idol was the devil.” The leader of the expedition, Hernando Pizarro, “broke the idol in the sight of everyone, told them many things about our holy catholic faith and gave them as armor to defend themselves against the devil the sign of the cross.”12 Near the end of the sixteenth century, José de Acosta, while still firmly convinced of the activity of the devil and demons in the New World, observed that although the natives lacked a word for “god,” nevertheless “in trueth they had some little knowledge, and therefore in Peru they made him a rich temple, which they called Pachacamac, which was the principall Sanctuarie of the realme. And it hath beene saide, this word of Pachacamac is, as much to say, as the Creator, yet in this temple they used their idolatries, worshipping the Divell and figures.” Acosta reflected on the significance of this acknowledgement of a creator:

As it is therefore a trueth, comfortable to reason, that there is a soveraigne Lorde and King of heaven, whome the Gentiles (with all their infidelities and idolatries) have not denyed, as wee see in the Philosophy of Timee in Plato, in the Metaphisickes of Aristotle, and in the Aesculape of Tresmigister, as also in the Poesies of Homer & Virgil. Therefore the Preachers of the Gospel have no great difficultie to plant & perswade this truth of a supreame God…. But it is hard to roote out of their mindes, that there is no other God, nor any other deitie then one.13

Pachacamac had become for Acosta something quite distinct from the devil worshipped in his temple. In the early-seventeenth-century Commentarios reales of Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spanish conquistador and an Incan princess, Pachacamac found still another manifestation. Garcilaso noted that the Incas worshipped the sun and (p.137) their kings “with as much Veneration as the ancient Gentiles, such as the Greeks and Romans, did their Jupiter, Mars, Venus, &c.,” but at the same time, “they proceeded by the mere light of Nature, to the knowledge of the True Almighty God our Lord, Maker of Heaven and Earth …, which they called by the Name of Pachacamac, and is a word compounded of Pacha, which is the Universe and Camac, which is the Soul; and is as much as he that animates the World.” Writers who held that “they called the Devil by this Name” were thus quite mistaken:

Howsoever they are mistaken where they say that the Indians gave the name Pachacamac to the Devil, for whom they have another Word, which is Cupay, which when they utter, they spit, with other signs of Detestation. Notwithstanding this Enemy so far insinuated himself amongst these Infidels, that he caused himself to be worshipped by them by entering into all those things, which they called sacred, or Holy; for he spake to them in their Oracles, their Temples, and the Corners of their Houses, calling himself by the Name of Pachacamac, and by this subtilty the Indians worshipped every thing through which the Devil spoke, believing it to be a Deity; but had they believed it was the Cupay, or Devil, whom they heard, they would certainly have burnt the things through which he spoke.

Garcilaso concluded that in worshipping Pachacamac, “it is evident that the Indians held our invisible God to be the Creatour of all things.”14 Thus over the course of roughly a century, and in comparative conversation with the old classical deities, Pachacamac transformed from a demonic idol into the one true Christian god. And Pachacamac would undergo a further change in the eighteenth century, becoming simply the central figure in “The Religion of the Peruvians” in handbooks such as Bernard Picart's Ceremonies and Religious Customs.15

Related transformations of the ancient pagan gods were occurring simultaneously. As Frank E. Manuel has noted: “With the accumulation of voyage literature and missionary relations and commercial reports, the documents of the ancient world ceased to be mere book learning or source material for theological disputation among rival (p.138) Christian sects which vilified each other as heathens. Pagan religion became a living flesh-and-blood reality which was mirrored in contemporary barbarism…. The parallel always worked both ways: it infused meaning into the savage rites in the new world, and at the same time it became the key to a reinterpretation of the spirit of the ancients.”16 The close juxtaposition of the classical pantheon and its cults with modern non-Christian worship brought about a more concrete understanding of the ancient deities. The new peoples Europeans encountered had the effect of making the gods and odd worship practices of classical literature seem more like “real options”; Europeans were able to imagine into existence ancient Greeks and Romans acting in ways not unlike these new, contemporary pagans. Just like “Hinduism” and “African religion,” then, ancient Greek and Roman “religion” in Europe emerged out of this mix of colonial and missionary interests.17

In some ways, the individual Greek and Roman gods were for a short period dissolved into the general “pagan religion” that authors such as Edward Lord Herbert of Cherbury used as the basis for theorizing about the origins of “religion.” For example, in Alexander Ross's Pansebeia, both “The Religions of the Romans” and “The Religions of the Grecians” are subject headings, but both are judged to be part of “the same Paganism” present in the rest of the ancient world.18 More erudite students of ancient Greece and Rome in fact left the discussion of the gods to such cross-cultural compilers and theorists.19 In his widely read handbook on ancient Rome, Romae Antiquae Notitia: Or, The Antiquities of Rome, which was first published in 1696, Basil Kennett included a section dedicated to “the Religion of the Romans.” Kennett covered the topics of priests, sacrifices, and festivals, but he sidestepped any discussion of the gods: “For it would be very needless and impertinent to enter into a Disquisition about the Deities, a matter that, having its very Foundation in Fiction, is involv'd in so many endless Stories, and yet has employ'd several Pens to explain it.”20 What was central about Roman religion to Kennett was its utility in governing: “That Religion is absolutely necessary to the establishing of Civil Government, is a truth far from being denied (p.139) by any sort of Persons.” He began his discussion of religion by quoting Machiavelli with approval: “For Religion, saith he, produc'd good Laws; good Laws good Fortune; and good Fortune a good end in whatever they undertook. And perhaps he hath not strain'd the Panegyrick too high, when he tells us, That for several Ages together, never was the Fear of God more eminently conspicuous than in that Republick.”21

In the eighteenth century, such positive valuations of the role of Roman religion in statecraft generated comparisons with Christianity, further contributing to Greek and Roman “religion” coming into being as objects of study. For Enlightenment thinkers put off by the Christian bickering that surrounded them, Greek and Roman “religion” could be shaped into “a self-consciously pagan counter-position to Christianity.”22 The second chapter of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example, celebrated the tolerant religious practices of the Romans in contrast to the hard-headed intolerance of the Christians. The enlightened skepticism Gibbon attributed to the Romans would shape discussions of Roman religion for two centuries: “The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth.” A footnote followed that specifically contrasted this outlook with Christian attitudes.23 Gibbon went on to discuss the viewpoint of “the philosophers” of Rome:

In their writings and conversation, the philosophers of antiquity asserted the independent dignity of reason; but they resigned their actions to the commands of law and custom. Viewing, with a smile of pity and indulgence, the various errors of the vulgar, they diligently practised the ceremonies of their fathers, devoutly frequented the temples of the gods; and sometimes condescending to act a part on the theatre of superstition, they concealed the sentiments of an Atheist under sacerdotal robes. Reasoners of such a temper were scarcely inclined to wrangle about their respective modes of faith, or of worship.24

In contrast to this serene picture, Gibbon depicts the “inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians.”25 (p.140) The Christians were, to be sure, less obstinate and zealous than the Jews, from whom they inherited such characteristics, but nonetheless Gibbon's fifteenth and sixteenth chapters (the last two chapters of the first volume) portrayed early Christianity as a kind of antithesis to the benevolent skepticism and open-minded religious atmosphere of the early Roman empire, and not just “native” Roman religion.26 Indeed, for Gibbon, it was “the aspiring genius of Rome” to be able to absorb the worship practices of foreigners.27

The detection of a close relationship between “religion” and the “essence” of a people was a trend that only intensified during the rise of Romanticism and the growth of nationalism in Europe during the nineteenth century, though the nativist element absent in Gibbon would make a strong revival. A renewed European interest in mythology fueled (and was itself fueled by) nationalist concerns.28 This situation increased interest in ancient “religion” while at the same time provoking a distinct change in attitude toward classical antiquity that favored Greece at the expense of Rome, since the Greeks of antiquity were thought to have a much richer store of mythology (and hence a much richer national spirit) than the ancient Romans.29 This philhellenism saturated classical studies, particularly work on Greek and Roman “religion,” since many thinkers regarded “religion” as especially embodying the “spirit” of a given people (Volksgeist).30 In Hellenic studies, the works of Karl Otfried Müller in the first half of the nineteenth century and Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrate some of the range of Germanic philhellenism of that era.31 Müller's Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie, published in 1825, along with his Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst (1830), linked the production of Greek art (and not Roman imitations) with the particular characteristics of Greek religion, which were expressed especially in mythology.32 In Der Glaube der Hellenen, the second volume of which was published posthumously in 1932, Wilamowitz emphasized continuities between the universalisms of Greek religion and Christianity, linking what he judged the best parts of Christianity with Greek precursors, again taking Greek (p.141) mythology as the key datum. Unearthing early, or “original,” Greek myths became in the nineteenth century an important preoccupation of classicists, one that would persist well into the twentieth century.

In this atmosphere, Roman “religion” suffered in comparison to Greek “religion.” For classicists of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, Roman “religion” of the historical era consisted merely of borrowed Greek myths and copious external rites devoid of any actual, genuine beliefs, aside from those borrowed second hand from “Oriental religions.” The easy tolerance Gibbon had celebrated, these later scholars condemned. The nineteenth century's most acclaimed historian of ancient Rome, Theodor Mommsen, falls into this group.33 Mommsen admired early “Latin religion” along with Greek religion in the first volume of his monumental History of Rome, but his treatment of Roman religion in the subsequent volumes describes a decay of the “pure” and “simple” older “faith.” The following sentiments are representative: “The ancient Italian popular faith fell to the ground; over its ruins rose—like oligarchy and despotism rising over the ruins of the political commonwealth—on the one side unbelief, state-religion, Hellenism, and on the other side superstition, sectarianism, the religion of the Orientals.”34 This type of thinking reached its apex in the work of W. Warde Fowler, who traced how a “natural and organic” early Roman household religion, which “in its peculiar way was a real expression of religious feeling,” disintegrated through foreign contamination by the time of the Roman republic into an empty formalism and obsession with ritual more dismal even than “the legalism of the Pharisees.”35

The intense, sometimes obsessive, interest in origins continued to thrive through the close of the nineteenth century. Several landmark studies appeared in the space of little more than a decade. The first edition of J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough was published in 1890.36 The early twentieth century brought the first edition of Georg Wissowa's Religion und Kultus der Römer in 1902 and Jane Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion in 1903.37 All these works still display a passionate concern for the “original” form of the given (p.142) “religion,” but Wissowa and Harrison together marked a shift that began to see cult and ritual as the central features of “religion” in the classical world.38

The mid to late twentieth century marked a period of transition in the study of Greek and Roman religions. The concern for the “original” and “pristine” forms of classical religions perhaps hit its high point with the work of Georges Dumézil, La religion romaine archaïque, in 1966, in which this scholar of ancient Indo-European cultures attempted to isolate the most archaic (and thus, of course, most genuine) form of Roman religion.39 It is, however, the interest in ritual that became fruitful in studies of the later twentieth century. One result of the newfound centrality of ritual in Greek and Roman religions was the more vehement distancing of classical “religions” from Christianity, which was (when distilled into an ideal Protestant form) much more concerned with belief than ritual. Recent classicists have thus, in a way ironically similar to Gibbon, consciously constructed Greek and Roman “religions” as everything that Christianity was not. The historian Moses Finley provides a representative comparison: “How fundamentally alien Greek religion was (to our eyes) is most easily shown by a simple listing…. Greek religion had no sacred books …, no revelation, no creed. It also lacked any central ecclesiastical organization or the support of a central political organization … there could, strictly speaking, be neither Greek orthodoxy nor Greek heresy.”40 The list of differences could go on, and the outlook is perhaps best summed up by the classicist Paul Cartledge, who wrote that “Classical Greek religion is ‘other,’ desperately foreign to (in particular) post-Christian, monotheistic ways of conceptualizing the divine.”41 I find much of this recent classical scholarship very useful. Its honesty about just how much the ancient Greek and Roman worlds differed from our own has helped me to think in new ways about the ancient world. Yet, such statements of the sheer difference of Greek (and Roman) religion from popular understandings of religion also raise the central question: If these configurations are so utterly different from modern “ways of conceptualizing the divine,” if the things that modern people conceive of as (p.143) “religious” were not so conceived in the ancient worlds and vice versa, then how and why are ancient practices to be recognized as “religion” at all? Before I answer this question, I broaden the scope of the discussion by turning to the invention of Mesopotamian religion.

A Formula for Creating a New Ancient Religion: Mesopotamian Religion

The amalgam described as “Mesopotamian religion” provides an excellent example of the birth and growth of a new “ancient religion.” While some of the gods of the ancient Near Eastern world were known by name from the Bible, there was nothing akin to the recovery of classical sources for Greek and Roman gods that had occurred during the Italian Renaissance. Nevertheless, the notion of “ancient Mesopotamian religion” was already beginning to form in the seventeenth century. It existed as a kind of shell, a basic outline that could not really be filled out largely because of a lack of evidence. The situation is evident in the sprawling book of Alexander Ross already mentioned, Pansebeia, which was first published in 1653. Ross has a short section devoted to “The Religions of the Ancient Babylonians,” which proceeds in his typical question-and-answer format: “What kinde of Religious, or rather, Superstitious Government was there among the Ancient Babylonians? They had their Priests, called Chaldeans, and Magi, who were much addicted to Astrology and Divination…. They worshipped divers Gods, or Idols rather; the two Chief were Belus, or Bel, or Baal, by whom they meant Jupiter; and the other was Astaroth, or Astarte, by which Juno was understood.”42 Ross continues for another page in this mode of equating the various gods. At the close of his discussion of the topic, he cites his sources: “See Diodorus, Philostratus, Eusebius, Scaliger.”43 That is, the sources were classical and patristic authorities along with the work of Joseph Justus Scaliger, the sixteenth-century polymath who had coordinated and synthesized the calendrical systems of different ancient cultures. Even though firsthand knowledge of Mesopotamian sources was almost totally lacking, these classical sources and the (p.144) emerging framework of World Religions allowed the basic contours of what would become “Mesopotamian religion” to be set in place. It was immaterial whether or not the primary source evidence that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would show that such a category was native to ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Mesopotamian religion as a concept had been created, and it was only a matter of time until data would be provided to fill in the blanks.

European travelers and missionaries in the seventeenth century had begun to send artifacts from Mesopotamia back to Europe.44 By the early eighteenth century, cuneiform inscriptions were beginning to be published in learned journals, but no one was able to read them. The academic discipline of Assyriology, then, did not emerge in Europe until the middle of the nineteenth century when systems of cuneiform writing began to be decoded and systematic excavations commenced in the Middle East. The actual decipherment of Assyrian cuneiform is generally credited to Henry Creswicke Raw-linson, a British lieutenant serving with the East India Company.45 Having learned Persian, Arabic, and Hindi in the course of his service in India, Rawlinson was in 1835 sent to act as a military advisor to the Persian government. During that year, he began to study cuneiform inscriptions, including the trilingual Behistun Rock Inscription. Over the next decade, and in the course of military exploits in Afghanistan and elsewhere, Rawlinson managed to decode the Old Persian portion of the Behistun Inscription, paving the way for understanding the use of the cuneiform in other languages.46 Also in the early 1840s the French and British began systematic archeological expeditions in the region of present-day Iraq. A wealth of new material made clearer the relevance of Mesopotamian culture for the understanding of biblical narratives, which in turn increased philanthropic financial support for further archeological excavations as well as the creation of professorships in Assyriology at major universities.

As is clear from Rawlinson's story, the development of Assyriology was subject to its own set of colonial dynamics. The raw materials (p.145) upon which the discipline was built (cuneiform tablets and other inscribed artifacts) needed to be excavated and removed from sites in Mesopotamia. From 1850 to 1950, institutions in Europe and the United States sponsored archeological expeditions that brought (literally) tons of texts into Western libraries and museums. As these newly discovered artifacts were interpreted, a vocabulary and conceptual apparatus were already established, including the concept of “Mesopotamian religion,” such that ancient data could simply be slotted into place. Again, I mean this quite literally. At the British Museum, for instance, cuneiform tablets were labeled with a system of letters to identify their contents (H for history, R for religion) and filed away accordingly.47

By 1898, Professor of Semitic Languages Morris Jastrow could write a synthetic work, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, which ran to 701 pages, plus bibliography and index. The book made impressive use of the new textual discoveries and archeological reports. It was divided into three sections (gods, religious literature, and religious architecture) followed by an assessment of “the influence exerted by the religion of Babylonia and Assyria,” said to be measured in three areas: “doctrines, rites, and ethics.”48 Thus in the early twentieth century, the study of “Mesopotamian religion” was on its way to gaining a footing equal to that of the other major religions. The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria was part of a series, of which Jastrow himself was the editor, called “Handbooks on the History of Religions”49.

The continued study of Mesopotamian religion in the twentieth century can helpfully illustrate what often counts as “advances” in the study of an ancient religion. Such studies tend to change as popular notions of religion change. While Jastrow's “Mesopotamian religion” consisted of gods, religious literature, religious architecture, doctrines, rites, and ethics, later treatments of the topic would keep pace with the growing interest in “religious experience” heralded by studies such as those of William James and Rudolf Otto already mentioned. The Assyriologist Niek Veldhuis has recently discussed the use of “religion” in the field of Mesopotamian studies (p.146) by contrasting the approaches of two highly influential Assyriologists of the twentieth century, Thorkild Jacobsen and Leo Oppenheim.50 Veldhuis's main goal is to stress the differences between the two, and he is surely justified in doing so: Jacobsen had no qualms about reconstructing complex Mesopotamian religious systems, whereas Oppenheim's view was summarized in his chapter subtitle “Why a ‘Mesopotamian Religion’ Should Not Be Written.”51 What I want to point out, however, is that despite their different approaches, Jacobsen and Oppenheim shared some very basic assumptions about “religion.” In keeping with popular twentieth-century characterizations of “religion,” both focused on religion as individuals' personal experiences, and both saw religion as a matter of “feelings.” Because Jacobsen and Oppenheim are often seen as representing diametrically opposed approaches to Mesopotamian religion, the demonstration of their shared assumptions helps to show the rather narrow confines that the concept of religion establishes for the interpretation of ancient evidence.

Oppenheim and Jacobsen do not frequently appear in each other's footnotes, but each was well aware of the other's work. The two had a tumultuous working relationship for more than a decade at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute during the production of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary. One can get the flavor of their rapport from this excerpt from a statement of Oppenheim to the Oriental Institute in 1959: “Dr. Jacobsen loves to profess—and that at [sic] nauseam—that my scholarly thinking is not as deep as his, nor is, for that matter, anybody else's. This, I have found out, means in simple terms that Dr. Jacobsen considers his arguments so wonderful and convincing that he expects all his colleagues to accept them as the only and god-revealed divinely inspired truth” (strike-out in the original).52 That the scholarship of the two should be in opposition at a rhetorical level is thus not surprising, but their mutual animosity renders their similarities all the more interesting.

I begin by briefly summarizing the approaches of these two scholars. Jacobsen unapologetically began his book-length treatment of (p.147) Mesopotamian religion with an appeal to the universality of religion as described by Rudolf Otto's notion of the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum.53 Very similar appeals to Otto and William James introduce the substance of his programmatic essays on Mesopotamian religion.54 This opening statement from The Treasures of Darkness is characteristic of the way Jacobsen wrote about “religion”: “Basic to all religion—and so also to ancient Mesopotamian religion—is, we believe, a unique experience of confrontation with power not of this world. Rudolf Otto called this confrontation ‘Numinous’ and analyzed it as the experience of a mysterium tremendum et fascinosum, a confrontation with a ‘Wholly Other’ outside of normal experience and indescribable in its terms.”55 According to Jacobsen, Mesopotamian religion was just like “all religion”; it consisted of the individual's experience of “the Numinous,” which is, by definition, indescribable. Jacobsen followed this statement with an extended account of the development of Mesopotamians' changing reactions to “the Numinous” from the fourth millennium through the second millennium B.C.E.56 It is a grand synthesis. For my purposes, however, most intriguing are his reflections on his own project. He claimed that he wanted to isolate “the forms of approach to ‘the Numinous’ generally available” at a given time.57 To take but one example, Jacobsen argued that during the fourth millennium, since Mesopotamians were principally concerned with the rhythms of rural life and staving off famine, the experience of “the Numinous” consisted of worship of Dumuzi and other gods as providers and gods of fertility. During the third millennium, the dramatically increased importance of the “secular” office of king opened up a new form of “approach” to “the Numinous” for Mesopotamians: “this new concept of the ruler, though purely secular in origin, actually provided an approach to central aspects of the Numinous which had not been readily suggestible before: the aspects of tremendum as ‘majesty’ and ‘energy.’”58 So, for Jacobsen, “the Numinous” is always and everywhere the same; it exists outside all cultural contingencies.59 In his reading, religion involves an ever-present and unchanging “Numinous” to which (p.148) humans react. His book and essays trace the changing human reactions to this universal, unchanging, and indescribable thing. His sweeping descriptions of these personal experiences are what constitute “Mesopotamian religion.”

In contrast to Jacobsen's presentation, Oppenheim's approach seems much more restrained. Oppenheim claimed that a systematic account of the type that Jacobsen offered was simply not possible. As we will see, however, his reasoning for not wanting to write a “Mesopotamian religion” was based on a concept of “religion” quite similar to that of Jacobsen—a focus on individual “experience.” Oppenheim demurred from the project of writing a “Mesopotamian religion” for two reasons: “the nature of the available evidence, and the problem of comprehension across the barriers of conceptual conditioning.”60 On the first point, he argued that the surviving evidence does not provide data for “religion.” For instance, the many extant Mesopotamian prayers “contain no indication of an emotion-charged preference for a specific central topic such as, for example, the individual in relation to spiritual or moral contexts of universal reach, the problem of death and survival, the problem of immediate contact with the divine, to mention here some topoi that might be expected to leave an imprint on the religious literature of a civilization as complex as the Mesopotamian.”61 Thus, his problem with the evidence was not so much its fragmentary nature as its failure to answer the questions raised by the modern notion of religion (note the assumption that “religious literature” was presented as a self-evident category). Oppenheim “expected” religion in “a civilization as complex as the Mesopotamian,” but he was disappointed that the extant evidence simply did not give him insight into the particular Mesopotamian manifestation of the universal religious experience of the “common man.”62 He saw a similar problem with using Mesopotamian “myths” as evidence for “religion” because they did not directly express the “religious experience” of individuals. He wrote that Mesopotamian myths “form something like a fantastic screen, enticing as they are in their immediate appeal, seductive … but still a screen which one must penetrate to reach the hard core of evidence that bears directly (p.149) on the forms of religious experience of Mesopotamian man.”63 Again, it is not the case that religion was an invalid category for Oppenheim. Rather, religious experience, “the hard core of evidence” in his terms, was just too difficult for modern scholars to reach.

Oppenheim's second reason for shying away from a “Mesopotamian religion” is summed up in the phrase “conceptual difficulties.” It is not polytheism in and of itself, said Oppenheim, that constitutes the unbridgeable gap between our world and that of ancient Mesopotamians. Rather, the problem was the “plurality of intellectual and spiritual dimensions” of “the higher polytheistic religions”: “This conceptual barrier, in fact, is more serious an impediment than the reason usually given, the lack of data and specific information. Even if more material were preserved, and that in an ideal distribution in content, period, and locale, no real insight would be forthcoming—only more problems. Western man seems to be both unable and, ultimately, unwilling to understand such religions except from the distorting angle of antiquarian interest and apologetic pretenses.”64 For Oppenheim, “Mesopotamian religion” was an entity “out there” in antiquity; it is just that scholars lack either the conceptual tools or the willpower to excavate it properly.65 Oppenheim, then, did not oppose writing about “Mesopotamian religion” on the grounds that the category of religion is inappropriate for the culture he studies. Indeed, in 1950, he wrote a synthetic piece titled simply “Assyro-Babylonian Religion” for a collection on “forgotten” and “living primitive” religions.66 Instead, he was concerned that modern investigators cannot accurately grasp a polytheistic religion. He was, moreover, just as interested in “religious experience” as Jacobsen. To be sure, the two men had reached radically different conclusions about Mesopotamian religious experience. The following two quotations highlight those differences. Oppenheim, in the context of discussing Mesopotamian prayers, had concluded that

the influence of religion on the individual, as well as on the community as a whole, was unimportant in Mesopotamia. No texts tell us that ritual requirements in any stringent way affected the individual's physiological appetites, his psychological preferences, or his attitude (p.150) toward his possessions or his family. His body, his time, and his valuables were in no serious way affected by religious demands…. He lived in a quite tepid religious climate within a framework of socioeconomic rather than cultic co-ordinates…. Manifestations of religious feelings, as far as the common man is concerned, were ceremonial and formalized rather than intense and personal.67

Compare Jacobsen's formulation:

The religious framework thus affected and conditioned life in ancient Mesopotamian society intensely and on all levels. It may be assumed that, as in most societies, the majority of men in ancient Mesopotamia had normal aptitude for, and sensitivity to, religion and religious values. Occasional individuals lacking in such normal sensitivity, who could see in religion only meaningless restrictions on their personal inclinations, will of course have been found, perhaps especially among the slaves and brutalized poor. To balance them the civilization seems to have had an unusually large number of highly sensitive minds, religiously creative poets, thinkers, and priests. Mesopotamian religious literature at its best is the literature of a people highly gifted in religion, capable of profound religious insights and of finding profound and moving expression of them.68

Despite these drastically different takes on the evidence, both Jacobsen and Oppenheim center on individuals' “religious experience” or “feelings” as the locus of “Mesopotamian religion.” This focus on interiority and personal experience is a distinctly modern take on the ancient evidence.69 Like Greek and Roman religions, ancient Mesopotamian religion turns out to be very much a modern entity.

Making Something New Old Again; or, Why Religion Seems Like a Natural Category

Like Jacobsen and Oppenheim, the overwhelming majority of scholars in ancient history simply assume the universality of religion. Yet as I pointed out at the beginning of Chapter 2, many specialists working on a variety of ancient cultures are well aware that religion was not a concept native to the cultures they study. As we saw earlier (p.151) in this chapter, many scholars of classical Greece and Rome have recently come to stress the great differences between typical modern conceptions of religion and what went on in the ancient Mediterranean world. For the most part, though, even these historians still write as though religion was in fact a concept native to the ancient world. How and why do they do so?

One of the dominant means of talking about “religion” in ancient Mediterranean cultures is through the use of the terminology of “embeddedness.” It is quite common to read that religion “was embedded in all aspects of ancient life.”70 Indeed, this trope of “embedded religion” is ubiquitous in recent studies of ancient “religion.” The authors who employ it argue that the behaviors modern people generally collect under the heading of “religion” did not compose a well-defined category in ancient Mediterranean antiquity. Rather, “religion was embedded” in many or all aspects of ancient cultures. The use of this notion of embeddedness is salutary insofar as it helps to emphasize that categories post-Enlightenment thinkers often regard as distinct (such as politics, economics, and religion) were not distinct in the ancient world. Yet, such terminology also presents problems. I want to emphasize that I do not see the following critique as overturning or dismissing the important work of the scholars who have employed such tropes. Instead, I would argue that the following observations carry these scholars' insights to what I view as their logical conclusions. With that caveat in mind, it is useful to recall the discussion of descriptive and redescriptive uses of “religion” from Chapter 1. The authors who use the trope of “embedded religion” generally write in a descriptive register (they present themselves as giving an accurate account of an ancient culture). Yet, their use of the idea that “religion was embedded” in the social structures of the ancient world suggests that “religion” is in fact a redescriptive term (ancient people did not recognize religion as a distinct sphere of life). The trope of “embedded religion” can thus produce the false impression that “religion” is a descriptive concept rather than a redescriptive concept for ancient cultures (that is, there really is something “out there” in antiquity called “Greek religion” that scholars are simply describing rather (p.152) than creating). By permitting this slippage between descriptive and redescriptive uses of “religion,” the rhetoric of “embedded religion” allows historians to have their cake and eat it, too. They can (correctly) recognize that religion was not a concept in ancient cultures, but they can continue speaking as if it were. The result of such techniques for speaking about antiquity is the reinscription of religion as something eternally present in all cultures.71


Although the Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, and many other peoples have long histories, the stories of their respective “religions” are of recent pedigree. The formation of “ancient religions” as objects of study coincided with the formation of religion itself as a concept in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It thus makes a good deal of sense that some of these “ancient religions” have come to seem strangely foreign to modern notions of religion. Even in the face of this growing sense of discomfort with the concept of religion, the vast majority of scholars continue discussing “ancient religions.” I suspect this persistence is due to their unwillingness or inability to contemplate certain kinds of difference. The cultural critic Russell T. McCutcheon has aptly summarized the state of affairs:

Just as the concepts nation or nation-state—let alone individual or citizen—are today so utterly basic, even vital, to many of our self-understandings and our ability to self organize that we routinely cast them backward in chronological time and outward in geographic space, so too it is difficult not to understand, say, ancient Romans or Egyptians as having a “religion.” After all, common sense tells us that religion is a human universal. But … there is something at stake in so easily projecting, in this case, backward in history or outward in culture our local classification, for along with its ability to organize certain sets of human behaviors comes attendant socio-political implications. By means of such projection we may be doing something more than neutrally or passively classifying the world around us; instead, by means of such classifications, we may very well be actively presenting back to ourselves the taxonomies that help to establish our own contingent (p.153) and inevitably provincial social world as if their components were self-evident, natural, universal, and necessary.72

It is hard to overstate the importance of this point. If we want to go on talking about ancient Mesopotamian religion, ancient Greek religion, or any other ancient religion, we should always bear in mind that we are talking about something modern when we do so. We are not naming something any ancient person would recognize. In our current context, we organize our contemporary world using the concepts of religious and secular. Furthermore, we carve up the religious side of that dichotomy into distinct social groups, the World Religions. Intentionally or not, when we bring this vocabulary to ancient sources, baggage comes along with it. I am advocating that we admit to and embrace this fact. Religion is a modern category; it may be able to shed light on some aspects of the ancient world when applied in certain strategic ways, but we have to be honest about the category's origins and not pretend that it somehow organically and magically arises from our sources. If we fail to make this reflexive move, we turn our ancient sources into well-polished mirrors that show us only ourselves and our own institutions.


(1.) I have found few accounts of the development of “Greek religion” and “Roman religion” as objects of study. On the Greek side, one can consult Michel Despland, “Seven De cades of Writing on Greek Religion,” Religion 4 (1974): 118–50. Despland commences with developments in the late-nineteenth century and provides an overview of scholarship from that point until the middle of the twentieth century. For Roman religion, see Guy G. Stroumsa, A New Science: The Discovery of Religion in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010), 149–57, and the literature cited there.

(2.) Augustine, City of God, 2.24–25. The notion probably goes back to the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 10:20–22) and ultimately to the Septuagint's Greek rendering of Ps. 95:5: “all the gods of the nations are demons” (pantes hoi theoi tōn ethnōn daimonia).

(3.) For Lactantius, see Book 1 of The Divine Institutes, trans. Mary Francis McDonald (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1964). On Isidore, see the introduction, text, and commentary of Katherine Nell MacFarlane, “Isidore of Seville on the Pagan Gods (Origines VIII.11),” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 70:3 (1980): 1–40. Such a view can also be found in Augustine (City of God, 7.18).

(4.) See Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, trans. Catherine Tihanyi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004 [French ed. 1996]), esp. 107–65.

(5.) See the images and analyses of Jean Seznec in The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art, trans. B. F. Sessions (New York: Pantheon, 1953). For a striking example of the pagan gods as church decor, see the fifteenth-century sculptures and bas reliefs of the church of San Francesco in Rimini (ibid., 132–34).

(6.) Frank E. Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 15–16.

(7.) José de Acosta, The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies, Intreating of the Remarkable Things of Heaven, of the Elements, Mettalls, Plants and Beasts which are Proper to that Country: Together with the Manners, Ceremonies, Lawes, Governments, and Warres of the Indians, trans. (possibly) Edward Grimeston, 2nd ed. (London: V. Sims for Edward Blount and William Aspley, 1604), 337–38. The original Spanish edition appeared in 1590; there were also early translations of the work into Dutch, Latin, French, and Italian.

(8.) Although the Apologética Historia was not published until the nineteenth century, Las Casas's other works were published and well known, and manuscript copies of the Apologética Historia circulated already in the sixteenth century. See Henry Raup Wagner and Helen Rand Parish, The Life and Writings of Bartolome de las Casas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1967), 200–204 and 288–89.

(9.) See chapter 102 of the Apologética Historia in Bartolomé de Las Casas, Obras Completas, ed. Vidal Abril Castelló, 14 vols. (Madrid: Alianza, 1988–1994), 7.783–88. I owe the reference to Peter N. Miller, “Taking Paganism Seriously: Anthropology and Antiquarianism in Early Seventeenth-Century Histories of Religion,” Archiv für Religionsgeschichte 3 (2001): 183–209, citation from 190.

(10.) Richard Blome, The Present State of His Majesties Isles and Territories in America, viz. Jamaica, Barbadoes, S. Christophers, Mevis, Antego, S. Vincent, Dominica, New Jersey, Pensilvania, Monserat, Anguilla, Bermudas, Carolina, Virginia, New-England, Tobago, New Found-land, Mary-land, New-York. With new maps of every place. Together with astronomical tables, which will serve as a constant diary or calendar, for the use of the English inhabitants in those islands (London: H. Clark for D. Newman, 1687), 199.

(11.) Ibid., 67–69.

(12.) I quote MacCormack's translation (“Gods, Demons, and Idols in the Andes,” Journal of the History of Ideas 67 [2006]: 623–47, quotation from 626–27). The report is from Miguel Estete as recorded in the account of Francisco de Xeres.

(13.) Acosta, The Naturall and Morall Historie, 334–35.

(14.) Garcilaso de la Vega, The Royal Commentaries of Peru, in Two Parts, trans. Paul Rycaut (London: Miles Flesher for Jacob Tonson, 1688), 28–29. The original text, Los Commentarios reales, que tratan del origin de los Yncas, was published in two parts in 1609 and 1616 (the latter under the title of Historia general del Peru).

(15.) See Bernard Picart, Ceremonies and Religious Customs …, 7 vols. (London: William Jackson for Claude du Bosc, 1723–1739), 3.187–211, and Hurd, A New Universal History of the Religious Rites … (Blackburn: J. Hemmingway, 1799), 501–14.

(16.) Manuel, The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods, 18–19.

(17.) It is probably no accident that the word “polytheism,” which had been rather rare in the European vernaculars, gained a newfound popularity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (both Bodin and Purchas used it). See Francis Schmidt, “Polytheisms: Degeneration or Progress?,” History and Anthropology 3 (1987): 9–60.

(18.) Alexander Ross, Pansebeia: Or, A View of All Religions in the World … (London: James Young and John Saywell, 1653), 95–107.

(19.) A related phenomenon is documented by John Scheid, “Polytheism Impossible; or, the Empty Gods: Reasons behind a Void in the History of Roman Religion,” History and Anthropology 3 (1987): 303–25.

(20.) Basil Kennett, Romae Antiquae Notitia: Or, The Antiquities of Rome. In Two Parts (London: A. Swall and T. Child, 1696), 64. Later editions (a seventeenth edition was published in 1793) reworded the passage as follows: “a matter that is involved in so many endless Fictions, and yet has employed so many pens to explain it.” The citation of Machiavelli is drawn from his discourses on Livy.

(21.) Ibid., 61.

(22.) I owe the phrase to Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985 [German ed. 1977]), 1. Burkert refers only to the Greek material, but his statement holds for the treatment of Roman evidence as well.

(23.) Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Edited, with an Introduction and Appendices, by David Womersley, 3 vols. (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1994), 1.57 and n. 3. The first volume of Gibbon's work was originally published in February 1776, the second and third in 1781, and the last three in 1788. The first volume quickly passed through two more editions (the second edition in June 1776 and the third in May 1777), both of which adjusted the discussion of “religion.” See David Womersley, Gibbon and the “Watchmen of the Holy City”: The Historian and His Reputation, 1776–1815 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2002), particularly the first chapter, “Revision and Religion.”

(24.) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1.58–59.

(25.) Ibid., 1.447.

(26.) Early responses to Gibbon demonstrate that his depiction of early Christianity was indeed understood as a critique of contemporary Christians and Christianity. See, for example, Richard Watson, An Apology for Christianity: In a Series of Letters Addressed to Edward Gibbon, Esq., Author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Cambridge: F. Archdeacon for T. and J. Merrill et al., 1776); and James Chelsum, Remarks on the Last Two Chapters of Mr. Gibbon's History, of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in a Letter to a Friend (London: Printed for T. Payne and Son and J. Robson and Co., 1776). Both works went quickly through multiple printings. See also Shelby T. McCloy, Gibbon's Antagonism to Christianity (London: Williams and Norgate, 1933), and Womersley, Gibbon and the “Watchmen of the Holy City.”

(27.) Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1.61. And this revitalization of the Greek and Roman pantheons was not only a scholarly enterprise, as the work of the Romantic poets (most notably Friedrich Schiller in “Die Götter Griechenlandes”) attests (see Schiller, “Die Götter Griechenlandes,” Der Teutsche Merkur [March 1788]: 250–60). See also Richard Jenkyns, The Victorians and Ancient Greece (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), 174–91.

(28.) For a concise account of the resurgence of the notion of “myth” in the nineteenth century, see the third chapter (“The History of Myth from the Renaissance to the Second World War”) of Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

(29.) The growth of philhellenism varied in Europe and the United States. For scholarship in Great Britain, see Frank M. Turner, “Why the Greeks and Not the Romans in Victorian Britain?,” in Rediscovering Hellenism: The Hellenic Inheritance and the English Imagination, ed. G. W. Clarke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 61–82. For the mood of Germany and the United States, see Thomas N. Habinek “Grecian Wonders and Roman Woe: The Romantic Rejection of Rome and Its Consequences for the Study of Latin Literature,” in The Interpretation of Roman Poetry: Empiricism or Hermeneutics?, ed. Karl Galinsky (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1992), 227–42. For an interesting example of the connections between what was happening in Great Britain and Germany with regard to the study of Greek antiquity, see the letters of Sir George Cornewall Lewis to Karl Otfried Müller, collected in Teaching the En glish Wissenschaft, ed. William M. Calder III et al. (Zürich: Georg Olms Verlag, 2002).

(30.) See Suzanne L. Marchand, Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750–1970 (Prince ton, N.J.: Prince ton University Press, 1996), 43–47 et passim.

(31.) On Müller's influence, see the essays collected in Zwischen Rationalismus und Romantik: Karl Otfried Müller und die antike Kultur, ed. William M. Calder III and Renate Schlesier (Hildesheim: Weidmann, 1998), particularly Robert Ackerman, “K. O. Müller in Britain,” 1–17. On Wilamowitz, see the essays in Wilamowitz und kein Ende: Wissenschaftsgeschichtliches Kolloquium Fondation Hardt, 9. bis 13. September 2002, ed. Markus Mülke (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 2003); and Friedrich Solmsen, “Wilamowitz in His Last Ten Years,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 20 (1979): 89–122. For a rather less celebratory evaluation of Wilamowitz's work on “religion,” see Egon Flaig, “Towards ‘Rassenhygiene’: Wilamowitz and the German New Right,” in Out of Arcadia: Classics and Politics in Germany in the Age of Burckhardt, Nietzsche and Wilamowitz, ed. Ingo Gildenhard and Martin Ruehl (London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2003), 105–27.

(32.) Both were translated into English by John Leitch, Introduction to a Scientific System of Mythology (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1844); and Ancient Art and Its Remains: Or A Manual of the Archaeology of Art, 2nd ed. (London: A. Fullarton, 1850 [1847]). On the nexus of nationality, art, and religion, Müller writes: “The whole artistic activity, in so far as it depends on the spiritual life and habits of a single person, becomes individual, on those of an entire nation, national … The spiritual life which expresses itself in art is connected in the closest manner with the whole life of the spirit … However, art universally stands most especially in connexion with religious life, with the conceptions of deity, because religion opens up to man a spiritual world which does not appear externally in experience, and yet longs for an outward representation which it more or less finds in art according to the different tendency of nations” (“indem die Religion dem Menschen eine geistige Welt öffnet, welche in der Erfahrung nicht äuβerlich erscheint, und doch eine auβere Darstellung verlangt, die sie nach der verschiedenen Richtung der Völker mehr oder minder in der Kunst findet”). (English, Ancient Art and Its Remains, 11; German: Handbuch der Archäologie der Kunst, 2nd ed. [Breslau: Max und Romp, 1835 (1830)], 15–16).

(33.) Mommsen's work was first published as Römische Geschichte, 3 vols. (Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1854–1856); the third edition, (p.223) which appeared in 1861, was first translated into English by W. P. Dickson as The History of Rome, 4 vols. (London: Richard Bentley, 1861–1866). I cite from this translation.

(34.) Mommsen, The History of Rome, 3.426.

(35.) The fullest statements of Fowler's outlook are his Gifford Lectures delivered in 1909–1910. My quotations are drawn from the published version: The Religious Experience of the Roman People: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus (London: Macmillan, 1911), 92, 249, 3. Fowler quotes the comment about the Pharisees, with only some reservations, from M. Jean Réville by way of Franz Cumont.

(36.) Although it was not a study of the classical world, William Robertson Smith's Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (Edinburgh: A. and C. Black, 1889) also merits mention in this context because it appeared at exactly the same time and also evinces this turn toward an interest in ritual.

(37.) The intriguing story of the “on-and-off” influence of Harrison's work is available in Mary Beard, The Invention of Jane Harrison (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000). It should also be noted here that the works in English take a more comparative approach than those in German, which often keep strictly to the classical sources. The influence of the developing field of anthropology (à la E. B. Tylor and the so-called Cambridge ritualists) is certainly felt more among the English authors.

(38.) A focus on both ritual and origins is not surprising. Denis Feeney writes: “In many earlier studies, the focus on cult is perhaps rather grudging, as if the authors have regretfully come to the conclusion that they must concentrate on this, however repellent it may be, since there is after all nothing else which is native or authentic in Roman religious experience. An almost necessary corollary of such an approach to Roman ritual is an interest in origins at the expense of practice. The reality of ritual, according to this school, is to be found in its trace of an origin: meaningless and obsessive in its historical manifestation, at least Roman ritual holds up a promise of a recovery of a pristine, pure, and preferably rustic originary moment” (Literature and Religion at Rome: Cultures, Contexts, and Beliefs [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998], 115). Wilamowitz's Der Glaube der Hellenen, 2 vols. (Berlin: Wiedmannsche Buchhandlung, 1931–1932), can be read as a reaction to this “anthropological” interest in ritual (and origins).

(39.) Mircea Eliade wrote the warm preface to the English translation published in 1970, Archaic Roman Religion with an Appendix on the Religion of (p.224) the Etruscans, 2 vols., trans. Philip Krapp (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).

(40.) Moses I. Finley, foreword to Greek Religion and Society, ed. P. E. Easterling and J. V. Muir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), xiv–xv.

(41.) Paul Cartledge, “Translator's Introduction” to Louise Bruit Zaidman and Pauline Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City, trans. Paul Cartledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 [French ed. 1989]), xvii.

(42.) Ross, Pansebeia, 38–39.

(43.) Ibid., 39.

(44.) In what follows, I rely on the accounts of E. A. Wallis Budge, The Rise & Progress of Assyriology (London: Martin Hopkinson, 1925); C. Wade Meade, Road to Babylon: Development of U.S. Assyriology (Leiden: Brill, 1974); and Benjamin R. Foster, “The Beginnings of Assyriology in the United States,” in Orientalism, Assyriology and the Bible, ed. Steven W. Holloway (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006), 44–73.

(45.) A number of other scholars had been at work on deciphering cuneiform scripts since the late eighteenth century, most importantly Georg Friedrich Grotefend and Christian Lassen. Budge's account tends to minimize their contributions, but this is not surprising given the nationalist thrust of his book: “The object of this book is to tell the general reader … how [the science of Assyriology] was established solely by the Trustees of the British Museum, and to show how the study of it passed from En gland into Germany and other European countries, and finally into America” (The Rise & Progress of Assyriology, xi).

(46.) Rawlinson's edition of the inscription was published as “The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun, Deciphered and Translated; with a Memoir,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 10–11 (1848–1849), though draft forms of his work had already been circulating in the scholarly community a de cade before the publication.

(47.) Budge, The Rise & Progress of Assyriology, 155.

(48.) Morris Jastrow, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1898), ix, 690.

(49.) As far as I know, this ambitious project yielded only five books: Jastrow's own, Edward Washburn Hopkins's Religions of India, treatments of the religion of the Teutons and the religion of the Hebrews, and an introduction to the history of religions.

(50.) Niek Veldhuis, Religion, Literature, and Scholarship: The Sumerian Composition Nanše and the Birds, with a catalogue of Sumerian bird names (Leiden: Brill/Styx, 2004), 13–17.

(51.) Jacobsen's views find fullest expression in The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976), and the essays collected in Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture, ed. William L. Moran (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970). Oppenheim's classic statement is in his Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1964). A lightly revised edition appeared in 1977 under the editorship of Erica Reiner; page citations here are from the later edition.

(52.) Excerpt from Erica Reiner, An Adventure of Great Dimension: The Launching of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2002), 109–14. I am indebted to Eckart Frahm for bringing this fascinating work to my attention.

(53.) Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness, 1–2.

(54.) See Jacobsen's essays “Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Central Concerns” and “Formative Tendencies in Sumerian Religion” in Toward the Image of Tammuz. The same unproblematized notion of religion (as any culture's reaction to “the supernatural, the sacred, the numinous,” etc.) is found more recently in Jean Bottéro, Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods, trans. Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992 [French ed. 1987]), 203, and Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001 [French ed. 1998], a revision of his 1952 La religion babylonienne).

(55.) The Treasures of Darkness, 3.

(56.) Jacobsen summarizes as follows: “Applying this general chronological framework, we can distinguish three major aspects or phases of ancient Mesopotamian religion, each phase roughly corresponding to, and characterizing, a millennium; each reflecting the central hopes and fears of its times. In our presentation we shall consider therefore: 1. An early phase representative of the fourth millennium B.C. and centering on worship of powers in natural and other phenomena essential for economic survival. The dying god, power of fertility and plenty, is a typical figure. 2. A later phase, representative approximately of the third millennium which adds the concept of the ruler and the hope of security (p.226) against enemies. This phase has as typical figures the great ruler gods of the Nippur assembly. 3. Lastly, there is a phase representative of the second millennium B.C. in which the fortunes of the individual increase in importance until they rival those of communal economy and security. The typical figure is the personal god” (ibid., 21).

(57.) Ibid., 73.

(58.) Ibid., 79.

(59.) There is a tension in Jacobsen between his worry over importing modern categories (Toward the Image of Tammuz, 2) and his easy assumption that Mesopotamians, like all people, had a “religion” that focused on “salvation, which characterizes the human response to the numinous experience” (ibid., 10).

(60.) Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 172.

(61.) Ibid., 175.

(62.) For Oppenheim's concern for the religious experience of “the common man,” see, for example, ibid., 181.

(63.) Ibid., 177.

(64.) Ibid., 183.

(65.) It is not entirely clear how Oppenheim would have scholars proceed. In his epilogue to Ancient Mesopotamia, he writes, “My discussion of Mesopotamian religion represents a frankly polemic shift of interest from the tepid climate of sentimental and patronizing interest in which it is customarily treated. Purposely, the subject matter has not been set forth in what may be called its ‘best light’—if light can indeed be called the frame of reference provided by our built-in Old and New Testament ‘guidance system.’ A de-westernization of the topic is aimed at, although I fully realize that the aim is utopian and that work in this direction will have to wait for a generation of Assyriologists free from emotional and institutionalized interests in the religions of the ancient near east. I shall offer the same excuse for not making full use of the textual evidence to present the several Mesopotamian concepts of the divine, ranging from the great celestial figures to the fallen gods, demons, and evil spirits” (333).

(66.) See Forgotten Religions (Including Some Living Primitive Religions, ed. Virgilius Ferm (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 63–79, republished as Ancient Religions (New York: Citadel, 1965). He covers much of the same ground as in Ancient Mesopotamia, but the presentation is more schematic, with subheadings for “Assyria and Babylonia,” “The Pantheon,” “The Divine,” “The Temple,” and “The Common Man.”

(67.) Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 176–82.

(68.) Jacobsen, Toward the Image of Tammuz, 38.

(69.) Again, the problem is not that their picture is modern (all products of our scholarly work always will be); it is that they are unaware of that fact. The phenomenon of the so-called personal gods as evidence of a developed “personal religion” is overplayed by Jacobsen (The Treasures of Darkness, 152–64). Oppenheim's treatment of this phenomenon under the rubric “Psychology” (by which he seems to mean “physiology and anatomy”) seems more appropriate and illuminating (Ancient Mesopotamia, 198–206).

(70.) Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 89. For an extensive collection of examples of this phenomenon and a more in-depth assessment, see Brent Nongbri, “Dislodging ‘Embedded’ Religion: A Brief Note on a Scholarly Trope,” Numen 55 (2008): 440–60.

(71.) In the study of Asian “religions,” another rhetorical move accomplishes a similar feat, the trope of “diffused religion.” This particular phrase is especially associated with the work of C. K. Yang (Religion in Chinese Society: A Study of Contemporary Social Functions of Religion and Some of Their Historical Factors, repr. ed. [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967 (1961)]). In the middle of the twentieth century, Yang wrote to correct what he regarded as the erroneous views of earlier scholars that the historical record of China indicated that Chinese culture lacked a notion of religion. He cites several such claims: “Whether China has a religion or not is a question that merits serious study,” “the educated people of China are indifferent to religion,” “China is a country without religion” (Religion in Chinese Society, 5–6). Yang attempted to argue that religion was extremely important in China by highlighting the presence and importance in Chinese society of things that were, to him, self-evidently religious (the numerous temples and house hold shrines, the “institutional religions” of Buddhism and Taoism). He argued that previous students of Chinese religion had underestimated the importance of “religion” because they did not take account of “diffused religion,” which was “intimately merged with the concepts and structure of secular institutions and other aspects of the social order” and “was a pervasive factor in all major aspects of social life” (ibid., 20 and 295–96). Here again, a rhetorical trope promotes confusion between descriptive and redescriptive usages of “religion.” The claim that religion was “intimately merged” with “secular institutions” and “pervaded” all (p.228) aspects of social life suggests that, at a descriptive level, religion was not something that was independently recognized in Chinese society.

(72.) Russell T. McCutcheon, The Discipline of Religion: Structure, Meaning, Rhetoric (London: Routledge, 2003), 255.