Hellenistic Beliefs

Mike Strubbe

During the Hellenistic period, the Mediterranean region was rich with many different types of religions. Hellenism is a word that has evolved to mean paganism. This culture began in the fifth century B.C.E. During that time the traditional Greek gods such as Zeus, Apollo and Athena were the main religion that was practiced. During the fifth century B.C.E. this religion began to decline and was no longer the only religion practiced. "In the Hellenistic age...the old religions began to crumble, and men looked for new focal points for their adoration." (Ferguson, 65).

During this time people questioned the existence of such gods. Philosophers and thinkers of the time contributed to the decline of the traditional religion by directly challenging the system of beliefs. Many scientists such as Plato and Aristotle answered the people's questions by stating their own opinions about the short comings of the traditional religion. These opinions challenged the traditional beliefs, and since it was supported by Plato and Aristotle, people put faith in them. Famous writers such as Plutarch told of such things as amulets, magical materials and other related things. From the lack of confidence in the traditional religion in Greece people began to believe in the occult, magic, astrology and other religions as an alternative to the traditional religion.

The most popular non traditional religion that came about during the Hellenistic period were the mystery religions. The mystery religions had existed many years before the Hellenistic period. But during this time they became increasingly popular, and grew throughout the Mediterranean region. "The mystery religions of the Greco- Roman world offered to their initiates the promise of blessedness after death through revelation and communion with the divine on conditions of ritual and moral purity." (Ferguson, 157). Each of the mystery religions involved a myth and some of these religions were very similar. The religion of Hellenistic times included new ways of worshipping old Gods as well as new forms of religion. "These cults promised much, but not enough; and their promises were often better than their performance." (Grant, 98). The most famous of the mystery religions were the cult of Demeter and Kore at Eleusis. The religions of Eleusinian, Orphic, Isis and Cybele were some of the other popular mystery religions of the time. Each mystery religion involves traditional Greek religious figures and are based on the lessons that are taught by their actions. A common theme in these religions were that they were based on such things as guilt, happiness and remorse.

Another different type of religion that began to form during the Hellenistic period was the imperial cult. This religion was very much like the religions practiced in the far east in Asia, where people worshipped kings and leaders. This belief that arose from paganism, and was practiced mainly in Italy. Emperors both living and dead were worshipped and received animal sacrifices by those who worshipped them.

Astrology was a form of religion that was widely practiced in the eastern Mediterranean region during Hellenistic times. By practicing astrology, it was believed that one's destiny could be discovered and life made to conform it. By practicing this belief, it was believed that a person could see his destiny by observing the stars. Astrology is one of the few beliefs that is still in existence today. Though not practiced as a religion, as it once was, it still holds value to a number of people in the world today.

In 532 B.C.E. a philosopher named Pythagoras of Samon formed a religious community in South Italy. Pythagoras' religious movement triggered the start of philosophical religions. During this time philosophers and rationalists would travel the country and lecture people about their beliefs. At this time in history, it was difficult to spread information to people. One way for someone to spread his ideas was to travel the country, and spread his beliefs by word of mouth. These beliefs ranged from atomism to agnosticism.

The Hellenistic period showed that alternate religions can over power long standing traditional religions. Religions such as the mystery religions, the imperial cult, philosophical religions and astrology dominated the Greco- Roman world, where the traditional religion of Zeus had existed for such a long period of time. This rebellion of religions made it possible for future religions to evolve, such as Christianity. It was all made possible when people questioned their beliefs, and when they did not like the answer that they got they formed their own ideas and opinions. The Hellenistic period also showed that if the traditional religion can lose its popularity in Greece, than no religion is safe from extinction.

Works Cited

Ferguson, John. Greek and Roman Religion, a Source Book. New Jersey: Noyes Press, 1980.

Grant, Fredrick. Roman Hellenism and the New Testament. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.

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February 29, 1996

prepared for Intro. to the New Testament
by Mike Strubbe
StrubbeM@albsun3.alb.edu