Roman Religious Symbols- Deities, Virgins, and Gods among Men

The religious beliefs and system of Ancient Rome is intriguing, as it seems very modern in its evolution.  The Roman religion adheres to Geertz’s definition of religion as a “(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” These symbols appear in many aspects of the Roman culture, for example: its modern evolution and synchronization with other religions the Empire encountered, the prestige of priesthoods in society, and the deification of great leaders.

The evolution of the Roman religion is a very interesting topic as it focused on the symbols and superstitions of other cultures and indoctrinated them into their own culture. The Numen, the original set of Roman Gods were knock offs of the Greek God’s Zeus (Jupiter) and Ares (Mars) with one Sabine God Quirinus- the God of social organization.  The Hellenistic influence went, as far as to say that Romulus and Remus, the mythological brothers who were said to have founded Rome were descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas. Many other Hellenistic Gods would enter the fore as the Republic expanded and increased trade with the Greeks. Hellenistic and Roman values were intertwined with each God’s specialty. Mars was the God of war awarding virtue to those with courage on the battlefield, Neptune granted fishermen good harvest, metalworkers would connect with Vulcan the God of smelting, merchants would look to Mercury, and farmers would affiliate themselves with Ceres the Goddess of agriculture. Upon invading new territories, the Romans began to take in aspects of their culture and religion some of these Gods include: Isis- the Egyptian Goddess of the Earth, Mithras- the Persian God of the Sun, and Janus- the Italian/Etruscan God of beginnings and endings.

The Gods were essentially symbols to the trade plied by the Roman people making all of their lives full of meaning and purpose, hence formulating a general order of existence and make their moods and motivations realistic.  The Romans even had a God for parties and gatherings in Bacchus, as social affairs were considered very important.  This kind of polytheism created acceptance for people in all walks of life. However, one god was mightier than the rest.

Jupiter was the most important of all the Gods. He was the most heralded deity until the pagan religion was usurped by the rise of Christianity. He was the God of the sky and to Romans was in charge of the social state. He had the largest temples dedicated to him (Jupiter Optimus Maximus)  and was referenced by many names by the Romans. In many ways it was the dominance of Jupiter that led to the transition from the Hellenistic paganism into Christianity. Jupiter was a God among Gods as Juppitus Optimus Maximus Soter, which stands for: the best, the biggest, the savior. This seems similar to Hinduism in a sense. Hinduism is known for having many Gods however it is in fact a monotheistic faith as all the Gods are just aspects of Brahman, the supreme cosmic power. In Roman courthouses and the senate citizens swore their oaths to Jupiter akin to how citizens of the United States swear upon the Bible. Similar to America’s trademark phrase ‘In God We Trust,’ the Romans entrusted everything to Jupiter from the well being of the people to protection against foreign invaders. This further accentuates his supremacy, as Mars was the God of war yet soldiers would praise Jupiter for their victories.

The prestige of priesthoods was another huge aspect of Roman society and religion. For families it was a symbol of prestige to have a son or daughter indoctrinated into the church.  These consisted of Pontiffs, Augurs, Vestal Virgins, and Fetials.

The head pontiff was the Pontifex Maximus a title still held today by the Pope.

The pontiffs presided over religious affairs such as rituals (such as burial of the dead, organizing festivities, and being keepers of the religious archives), prayers and sacrifices. Sacrifice was an important part of Roman worship and was accompanied by prayer and offerings allowed restoration of the spirit, of crops and of Mother Earth. In Early Rome one such festival was Fordicidia, a ritual where they would sacrifice and burn a pregnant cow in hopes that this cows fertility would transfer into mother earth and increase the Numen (spirit) force.

Augurs and Auspices were used to figure out the will of the gods through interpreting omens. This priesthood symbolized the effect that superstition had upon Roman society. They would interpret the flight of birds as omens and were often employed if there were big political decisions to be made or important battles to be fought. Other Omens included thunder, lightning, and the color of the liver of a sacrificed animal, to unearth the will of the gods.

The Vestal Virgins were some of the only priesthoods offered to women. They were Priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of hearth.  They had a very prestigious and ceremonial role as ‘protectors’ of Rome. Much like the ravens at the Tower of London superstition sought that these women’s well being was essential to the security of Rome.  They took a vow of chastity in order to adhere to perfect practice of state rituals and to keep the sacred flame of Rome lit. They would prepare food for festivals and were seen as the housewives of the city (and later the Empire). They were entrusted with safeguarding the wills of important men (such as Marcus Antonius and Julius Caesar- although Marc Antony stole Caesar’s will from their temple) and guarded many sacred objects. These women were honored throughout Rome and had many privileges that exempted them from average women in Rome. Essentially they were treated like queens. However failure to adhere to the rules set in place for their priesthoods they could be buried alive. This video can explain more (apologies for the advert):

The Fetials dealt with issues of peace and war. The early republic saw them organize peace treaties and directly deal with enemies across Italy. They would also officially declare war via throwing a fire-hardened spear across the boundaries. Fetial law governed the declaration of war even after the ritual became impractical.

Deification was a practice in Rome. This was a rarity and was often reserved for great leaders or influential men. Deification was essentially the celebration of historic individuals to the extent of worship. The months of July and August were renamed after Julius and Augustus Caesar (this was also mentioned in Augustine’s ‘On Christian Teaching’). They were known as God’s of the Imperial Cult. They had divinely sanctioned authority of the Roman state considered Princeps (first among equals). Deifications would be awarded posthumously and they would join the Roman Pantheon once deified. This was done through the process of Apotheosis, the former ruler being acknowledged as divine by his successor, the senate or by public vote. The first man to be deified in Rome was Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar became a staple to the Roman Empire, perhaps the most famous of all Roman leaders without holding the office of Emperor. His legacy makes him synonymous with Rome, as the Romans chant was ‘Hail Caesar’ for centuries after his death. 

It is clear to see that Roman Religion is clearly a system of symbols. From various deities symbolizing the industry of the people, the supremacy of Jupiter, the superstitions in society, and the ability for a man to become a God. Rome had all man could aspire to, ruling the world yet falling with a whimper.

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Violent God: The slaying of Laban

The Book of Mormon is an intriguing read and carries many similarities in style to that of the King James Bible, but what is perplexing is perhaps the extent of the violent death of Laban at the hands of Nephi.

In the traditional Bible there are many instances of God smiting, but the death of Laban seems to take it into new territory. Laban was a man of great wealth with many followers, he was also a distant relative of Nephi and Lehi’s kin as they both descended from Joseph. God had commanded that Lehi’s sons retrieve the brass plates with the stories of his ancestors in order to bring them to the new promised land. Laban had originally resisted and threatened to kill Nephi, the second confrontation saw Nephi and his brothers (Lemuel and Laman) offer all that was precious to them in exchange for the plates. Laban accepted the offer but stood them up and had his men attempt to kill them. Upon this occurrence God appears before the three brothers stating that he will deliver Laban into their hands. Upon their next attempt to retrieve the sacred brass plates, Laban appears before them inebriated and God orders Laban to kill him. At which point he grabs Laban by the scalp and beheads him in glory. This is excessively violent and also really scary. There are many passages similar to this in the Book of Mormon and the Bible but the symbol it seems to portray is that God is violent. If God is all powerful why did He not confront Laban and tell him to hand over the plates? Did he expect Laban to have an anagnorisis? Laban is human and is also protecting his family’s plates, if three strange men entered your home and asked to hand over a piece of jewelry or a luxury that had been part of the family for generations would you just give it to them? It seems utterly illogical.

On the other hand Laban is very corrupt, is cruel to his servants and was portrayed as an irresponsible drunk but are his frailties so much that they do not deserve redemption from God- the redeemer himself? Shockingly Nephi passes the test of killing in the name of God. Karen Armstrong would be proud.

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How 19th Century Americans could relate to Christ in the Book of Mormon (Third Book of Nephi Chapter V)

Much like the Kebra Negast for Ethiopia, the Book of Mormon, more accurately the Third Book of Nephi within the scripture brings America ‘the promised land’ to the forefront. The Third Book of Nephi chronicles the events preceding to and the arrival of Jesus in America. In the 19th Century, America was greeted by an influx of settlers from all over the globe, those of which who had settled generations ago were now considering themselves American. To see America as a promised land equates to the settlers immigration there perhaps even linking them to this event. Jesus came to America following his death and ascension depicted in the New Testament. He descended onto the land Bountiful and immediately bowed down to him although they were beginning to lose faith amongst the great trials and tribulations which they had confronted prior to his arrival. Many settlers moved to America due to ill treatment in their own lands of origins and many Irish moved due to the Potato Famine, therefore they could easily relate to the destruction of war, famine and disaster experienced by the tribes depicted in the Book of Nephi prior to Christ’s arrival. America was (and still is) seen as a land of opportunity, Christ’s coming to this land. Nephi essentially becomes John the Baptist and washes away the sins of the people, much like how people came to America to start anew with a clean slate. It shows America as a promised land spiritually, having been blessed by Jesus, and the fruits of the nation shall be sweet and long lasting in the eyes of settlers. These parallels have perhaps been an essential reason as to why Mormonism is the 4th largest religious sect in America.

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Acceptance in Religion- Bahai

Baha’u’llah once preached: “All peoples and nations are of one family, the children of one Father, and should be to one another as brothers and sisters.”

The Bahai faith is one of acceptance and love, Karen Armstrong’s video “Charter for Compassion” although not linked to the Bahai faith accentuates this message. Random acts of kindness make people’s days. Religion is part of our world to ensure good will onto all human beings. It is here to preach that love always beats hate and that in the face of adversity we must be bigger than those who oppress us.Armstrong’s video begins via advertising the most prominent religions as becoming ‘militant’ and overly dogmatic, no longer recognizing their initial purpose. The story of Baha’u’llah  shows that he experienced a plethora of adversity throughout his life through being part of the Babi movement, his exile from Iran, and his imprisonment in the Ottoman Empire. Yet through all of this he never wavered from his faith, never took arms and was a great diplomat. He attempted to unify the world through faith in claiming that he was a manifestation of God (NB not God in human form but with attributes and teachings of the Lord).

“Religious fanaticism and hatred are a
world-devouring fire, whose violence
none can quench.” Baha’u’llah.

In a nutshell Baha’u’llah preaches the exact same thing as Charter for Compassion. To unify people through religion as opposed to casting others away. Bringing people into their own religious fold as a human being, not as an infidel or heathen but as the same species under the same God. Not a same God in the sense of one path to follow but same God as a god of acceptance of people’s virtues, people’s glories and people’s beliefs. Baha’u’llah was truly a man of the people but more so a true preacher, a true lover of humanity and a true leader.

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Kebra Negast:Ethiopia as a holy land. (week 6)

The Kebra Negast dictates how God shifted the holy land of Israel to Ethiopia. The story follows the Queen of Sheba’s (N.B. Sheba is considered to have been either Ethiopia or Eritrea) conversion from sun worshipper into monotheism in the form of following the Abrahamic God and her son bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia. Akin to many other religious texts the Kebra Negast sets a code of ethics and morals and links the Judean line of kings to the Ethiopian line. However, it links them through the defamation of King Solomon of Judea. In the story Solomon desires the virginal Sheba and to lure her into fornication he ‘poisons’ her curry. Although the story shows that Solomon essential date-rapes the Queen of Sheba he is depicted as a learned and wise man showing the ways of the God of Judea to the Queen. Perhaps his cunning is a reason why God chooses to favor Ethiopia as the new Israel.

One of the many intriguing aspects of the text is how it legitimizes Ethiopia as a holy land and how it reaches out to the Ethiopian people. The text is said to have been written around 1300 AD but the story takes place around 900 BC, Christianity was not one of the main African religions at this point as there had been very little European influence in the area at the time especially considering that Christianity had a very Eurocentric background. The text becomes more akin to propaganda for the African people to follow and gives a sense of meaning to an impoverished state.

Ethiopia as the holy land creates unity for its people, a link to great kings of old, and an aura of factuality as Geertz would state. This aura would prove a catalyst to future movements such as Rastafarianism whose holy land is also Ethiopia.

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Augustine and Superstition. (free blog week 5)

Before we get started on this just a relaxing piece of Stevie Wonder:

Augustine’s view on non-Christians does differs throughout “On Christian Teaching.” His interpretation of heathens seems to be pretty general as he refers to most mankind to having heathenesque frailties such as superstition (although Dawkins would count all that St.Augustine held holy as superstition). Human institutions (which I believe to equate to other religions) are rife with superstition, all ritual is superstitious. Yet even superstitious behavior that does not equate to religious ritual is found to be offensive by Augustine. In everyday life, a stone, dog or bout coming across friends arm in arm.

Heathen

A convoluted yet ‘astute’ observation of a strange superstition. This part of the book has very little to do with reading scripture, but is more just a rant about “what grinds Augustine’s gears.”  He rants about Astrologers as being heathens because they grant stars names and believe that stars were once great people or God’s that walked the earth. In the modern era astrology is used in the daily lives of many Christians through sections of newspapers and online. A common ice breaker is “what is your star sign?” So Augustine would hate the modern world where people don’t step on pavement cracks in fear of breaking mama’s back. But these signs and symbols provide some use in society. Man is wired to be superstitious, it is not something you can just throw out as it is part of one’s genetic build up, a view that would likely be supported by Robert Marantz Henig. Humans adapt to make sense of things and although superstition is often incredibly silly it is often practiced as a parameter to allow something good to happen. Augustine equates some ritualistic medical practices to the devil, these superstitious practices are done with the purpose of helping people.

Then why is it bad?

It is bad because Augustine in his own Human arrogance claims that all of these are borne of the devil and of heathen practices. Unfortunately he believes that if something superstitious is done in an attempt to help someone the devil (the encompassment of all evil) must have been involved. Kudos.

Once again it may be said that modernity wins on this count.

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The difference between Augustine’s book 2 On Christian teaching and J.Todd Billings on how people should interpret the Bible

The main difference between the two opinions of how to interpret Christian teachings in the bible is simple. Augustine believes that it is futile for people to develop their own unique understanding of the Bible as human arrogance and the disease of human will as the signs (words) in the bible are stepping stones on a stairway to heaven. Billings believes the contrary as he belongs to a modernistic school of thought that interprets everyone as individuals with their own opinions: “With both the blueprint and smorgasbord approaches, we end up using Scripture for our own purposes. We are in control. The Bible may be viewed as authoritative, but it provides either confirmation of our preconceived ideas or divine advice for felt needs.” Augustine argues that the Bible would be misconstrued through “knowledge of things instituted by Men.”

Both writers agree that understanding of the Bible is essential in terms of staying on the right course with God but Augustine’s views are definitely old fashioned. He views the most important part of interpreting the scriptures is “fearing God” which is the first step to wisdom as we can only achieve what God has set out for us if we fear that God will end our lives.

In terms of fully interpreting the Bible Augustine and Billings both believe a good historical background is needed to facilitate the readings and fully understand the actions of the people depicted in the Bible and of God. Billings puts more of an emphasis on interpreting the stories of Jesus Christ whereas Augustine views interpretation of the Old and New Testament of equal importance. Augustine also pioneers acceptance of other cultures, although in his opinion they are heathens, he points out that God does function in their lives and advances as much as in Christian lives.

Overall both authors view reading the Bible as a positive and important ritual of religion. Scripture holds signals of how to live in God’s world and be an important part of it.

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