What sorts of support did people get from religion in the ancient world?

Mythologies as Information Dispensers:

In the ancient world as is so in the modern world, myths have been an essential component of religion. In ancient societies, word of mouth stories were very significant because they explicated human and divine nature. In an era when the written script was not yet invented, this was a valuable method of information. The myths, packaged into stories, communicated history and preserved the past. Elements of intrigue and exaggeration were deliberately induced to make the assimilation and transmission more interesting. In other words, it could be asserted, that the Greek Mythology was the forebear for all subsequent performance arts. In the primitive world, mythology served as a primitive form of theatre. But this is only one side of the truth. Myths were cleverly used by the religious leaders to impose their authority on the unsuspecting masses. This was done by distorting and warping historical truth in a way that strengthened their present hold over the masses. (Bremmer 1994)

Ancient Religion laid the foundation for Rational Inquiry:

It is surprising to learn that the Ancient Stoics sought religion for intellectual reasons. For them religion is an avenue for rational enquiry into the natural laws. The Ancient Stoics reasoned thus – since all physical phenomena followed natural laws and explainable by reason, the creator of this world himself must be comprehensible through the same instrument. Reason itself is divinity. This is quite an advanced usage for religion, one has to admit. But this theological framework had its failings, for rationality does not answer all questions on nature. Religion, inevitably it would seem, belong to a realm beyond rational enquiry. On this account, when the oracle at Delphi proved difficult to interpret and understand the Greek were not surprised. Gradually, the Stoics came to associate exclusively all that is unknown to the divine, thus deviating from their more advanced provisions for rational enquiry in religion.

Religion as a Means of Control:

The Greek and Roman theologians detested the concept of religious tolerance. Religion was little more than a cult at this time, centred on tradition and manifested through elaborate rituals. When contact with new cultures brought notice to new gods, they were assimilated or added to the existing pantheon. Britain is a good example – here altars to Mars, Hercules and Epona are found. On the darker side, it was common in Rome to make sacrifices to the new god in the way of appeasing him. Sacrifice of all forms was carried out in the name of appeasing the gods, who were in turn assumed to bless the people with safety, prosperity and health. Such practices could not have been beneficial to a vast majority of the followers. They were more an instrument of political oppression and control, which was thrust on the innocent majority by the ruling clergy (Bremmer 1994).

Religion as a Social Cohesive:

Ancient religion was a highly organized affair and in this way it was a communal enterprise. For example, in the days of the Roman Empire the head of a family also acted as the priest duly assisted by the younger members. Groups of families comprised a tribe, and a group of tribes comprised a state. The rituals and practices at the family level were similar across the state. In theory, the whole of Rome was one big family, the king being the head of this family and its chief priest. Consistent with the family model, the king was assisted in his rituals by the family heads. This arrangement ensured regular contact between the king and his subjects. Also, all members of the community were directly or indirectly represented. This social structure provides a crude form of democracy that mitigated the interests of the rulers and the subjects.

The Allegorical Representation of Deities:

In Greek religion, the Gods themselves were portrayed to be part of a familial hierarchy. For example, Hesiod’s Theogony depicts the divine family as follows. Zeus is the figure head of a closely knit family, the members of which are powerful enough to challenge the natural forces. Though the Gods were said to possess super-human powers they were also subject to the dictates of fate – just as humans themselves were subject to. Thus, the Gods were not omnipotent and omniscient. The Greek Gods were very human like, a concept that the ancient Greeks would have found easier to relate to and attach themselves with. The biggest appeal of the Homeric pantheon was their anthropomorphic portrayal. For instance, each Olympian was designated a particular Greek city under his/her purview and protection. Each had a civic role to fulfil – namely, resisting epidemics, foreign invasions, etc. This ensured that the mythology was a source of solace and comfort to the ancient Greeks (Bremmer 1994).

Bringing Man Closer to Nature:

The fortunes of ancient civilizations depended on the forces of nature. This led to the worship of the elements – water, fire, air, etc. Given the dependency on a favourable balance of nature, a belief set in of placating and pleasing the Gods. These endeavours inevitably took the form of rituals and rites. For example, the Romans worshipped Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, for a rich harvest. Other prominent figures include Apollo and Vesta. The former is the sun god and the latter the goddess of the hearth. The worship, assuming the forms of rituals and rites gave an illusion of control over nature. In hindsight we can see the folly in such beliefs, but for the primitive human mind this illusion of safety and security gave hope. And without hope humankind could not have progressed (Bremmer 1994).

Religion’s Parallel Evolution with Society:

The descriptions and legends of Greek gods were not fixed and rigid. Since Greek paganism lacked a definitive scripture, the mythology evolved to fit the existing social conditions. Aspects of the divinities’ personalities were modified to suit the existing social norms. It also manifested in the human and animal attributes assigned to the various gods. Also, every aspect of the Greek culture was accounted for by the divinities. Much flexibility was allowed in how the Gods were referred – for example, Zeus was also called Omrios. Religion was hence made more realistic. In this way Greek Paganism was not an abstract and obscure set of practices, but a living and integral part of everyday living (Johnston 2004).

Man for Himself:

Paganism was eventually replaced by Christianity as the predominant religion. This brought about a radical change in the beliefs and customs of the followers. Christianity professed the idea of life after death, giving hope of a better future to the presently disadvantaged. It also meant that individuals are responsible for their own actions. This move away from fatalistic and deterministic conception of life encouraged the primitive people for they were made to feel a sense of control over their own destiny. An equally appealing aspect of the emerging Christian faith was its notion of sainthood. With sainthood, man can evolve himself in the image of his creator, thus becoming one and equal. It gave the ancient believers an elevated goal to strive after. More importantly, it gave the primitive human a sense of spiritual direction (Johnston 2004).

Churches as Educational Institutions:

Another important advent of Christianity is the construction of churches. These sacred constructions were a lot more than places for religious congregation. For long, Churches have also been schools for Christian education. During ancient times, when formal education was unheard of, this was the only means of scholarship and knowledge. The factual inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the Bible could be argued, but its role as broadening and stimulating minds is widely recognized (Slack 2004).

A Religion based on History & Reality:

Unlike the older Greek and Roman pagan traditions, Christianity was based on history and not mythology. One can argue about a few factual inconsistencies, but on the whole the life of Jesus Christ is a historical record. This is a major factor in the decline of paganism and the rise of Christianity. A flesh and blood example of the Son of God held a greater appeal than the images of distant and imagined deities. Thus early Christianity brought Man and God closer together (Slack 2004).

Religion as a source of Practical Ethic:

More importantly, it offered a comprehensive code of ethics through the Bible. The Bible gave wholesomeness and authenticity to the belief system. Erstwhile, pagan religious tradition was maintained only through oral transmission. But the written scripture that is the Bible gave concreteness to the belief and inspired confidence in the devotees. It also helped them in leading ethical and enlightened lives (Johnston 2004).

Religion as an Avenue for Artistic Expression:

While the pagan religion was highly ritualistic, Christianity was more liberal in terms of the modes of worship. Music in the form of hymns and songs were introduced in the mainstream of Christian faith. This gave vent to artistic expression of the followers. Finally, it is important to note that ancient Christianity laid the foundations for further developments towards an advanced society. On a similar vein, the introduction of Christian festivities was an opportunity for recreation and rejuvenation (Slack 2004).

Foundations for an Advanced Society:

Early Christianity was not just confined to the theological aspects of life. It also held sway over the political and cultural atmosphere. Early Christianity changed the course of history through the missionaries. While much controversy prevails over the role of missionaries (some historians regard as political ambassadors), the missionaries were also instrumental in dispersing a universal standard of ethic across the globe. Credit should be given to the missionary institutions for instilling good values and basic education for all human races irrespective of their social and economic status (Slack 2004).

References:

Bremmer, Jan N. (Oct 1994),, “Greek religion. (New Surveys in the Classics No. 24).” Greece & Rome 41.n2 : S1(100).

Johnston, Sarah Iles., (2004), “Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide, Religion / Commentaries”, Harvard University Press.

Slack, S.B., (2004), “Early Christianity: Religions Ancient and Modern 1914” , Religion / Church/ History, Kessinger Publishing.