Saturday, November 8, 2014

How Pagans Interpreted Their Own Significance

Pagans of the Roman Empire in the Second and Third century were undergoing a change with the advent of Christianity and the long-term exposure to the Jewish faith.  The way that Pagans interpreted the significance of their own lives and their view on what happened to them after death can be described as somewhat eclectic. 

The Romans had a strong sense of familial honour and duty.  One way that this is evidenced is by their need to increase the fame and laudability of the familial name.  This fame could at times increase to the point that a person was regarded (or regarded themselves) as a demi-god.  On one epitaph is found an inscription comparing a member of the second squad from Tarsos by the name of Melanippos to Herakles (Hercules)[1].  Citing the myth of Hercules and the twelve labours that he had to endure and complete to gain admittance into the realm of the gods[2], Melanippos is reported to have done the same number, and was killed in doing a thirteenth.  This comparison of Melanippos to Hercules is drawing fame to Melanippos as well as his family and is also conveying the message that he was significant in life in that he completed similar tasks as those done by a legendary demi-god.

Pliny the Elder[3] talks about the value that was placed on the family as well.  Pliny describes the Roman house as having portraits and models of the ancestors’ faces on display as opposed to statues and other artwork by ‘foreign artists’.  These models were also used in funeral processions for other family members, so that a representation of the entire family would be in attendance.  Further to this, the library of the house was kept with records of al the official careers held by ancestral family members, as well as large genealogical charts hung on the walls.  All of the acts preclude to the Roman pagans as having a high regard of their own significance in life and death and ensuring that the appropriate honour and glory were marked. 

There were instances among the rulers in the Second and Third Centuries that this need for glorifying oneself and ones family went to the extreme of creating ruler worship or ruler cults.  This was the case with Phillip II, Alexander the Greats’ father as noted by Diodorus Siculus, “Such was the end of Philip, who had made himself the greatest of the kings in Europe in his time, and became of the extent of his kingdom had made himself a throned companion of the twelve gods.[4]

Another view that the Pagans had on their life significance is dependant on their viewpoint of Fate.  The question as to whether or not Fate was in control of everything and they were just along for the ride from birth to death or whether they could control some aspects of their lives affected the Pagans overall actions.  One way that those who believed that Fate had already determined the outcome of their life were able to gain a feeling of control was by visiting the oracles.  These oracles, such as the one at Delphi, provided insights, foretellings, and guidance to the Pagans, which in turn allowed them to feel as though they had some control and input into their life.  This also contributed to their sense of self and importance as the oracles were mouthpieces of the gods, and if an oracle communed with them, it was the same as a god deigning to speak to them, and having one’s god speak to you is significant. 

Pagan belief on the afterlife was slightly varied in the Second and Third Centuries.  There was a belief among some of the Pagans that when they died, they ‘returned’ to where they were before they were born.  A few examples of this can be found in translated epitaphs such as “For this is what the Fates’ thread spins for us, to come once more to Hades”,[5]  “After a good life I departed home, where a place of piety has been reserved…”[6] and “…I died after enjoying the light of eleven months, then I returned it.”.[7]  

Contrary to the belief of ‘returning’ to a previous place that they existed after they die, however, there were Pagans that believed that there was no pre-existence and possibly no post-existence either.  There are also some translated epitaphs supporting this as well; “…I did not think about things which I ought not to: whether I had a previous existence…”[8], and “I did not exist, I was born…”[9]  The strong wording of the epitaphs containing the belief that there was no other existence other than the mortal Earthly one, lend themselves to the opinion that there was a marked division amongst the Pagans at this time with a shifting belief structure.  This is further corroborated in the last cited epitaph with the phrase “I do not exist; so much (for that).  If anyone says anything different he will be lying: I shall not exist.”[10] 

The Pagans also appear to have had a tradition of addressing the ‘gods of the underworld’[11] [12] in the epitaphs.  This appears to call attention of the gods in a supplicatory manner, highlighting the good deeds and virtues of the deceased, or an injustice such as an untimely death.  This would possibly indicate the belief on the part of these Pagans that there is an afterlife, and that the soul remains influenced by the gods.  In conclusion, the Pagans had a many-varied view on the afterlife by the Second and Third Centuries which shaped and influenced their viewpoints on death and their own significance during life. 


Ancient Sources

Book of Readings

Harding, Mark. "Graeco-Roman religion (extract)" in Early Christian Life and Thought in    Social Context: A Reader , Harding, Mark , 2003 , 175-191

Modern Sources

Cotterell, A., and Storm, R.  (2005)  The Ultimate Encyclopaedia of Mythology.  London.

Harding, Mark. "Graeco-Roman religion (extract)" in Early Christian Life and Thought in    Social Context: A Reader , Harding, Mark , 2003 , 175-191

[1] NewDocs IV #1
[2] Cotterell & Storm (2005:50-51)
[3] Harding (2003:178)
[4] Ibid. p. 182
[5] NewDocs IV #5
[6] NewDocs IV #4
[7] NewDocs #10
[8] NewDocs #7
[9] NewDocs #11
[10] Ibid
[11] NewDocs #7
[12] NewDocs #9

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