The Hellenistic civilization and Hellenistic religions

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Per Bilde, Atargatis/Dea Syria: Hellenization of Her Cult in the Hellenistic-Roman Period?


The essence in what we by scholarly tradition have been forced to call Hellenism was the establishment of a world-wide (Mediterranean) dynamic, urban civilization in which Greek culture – and in particular its critical rational spirit – was expanding and played an increasing role.112 In this cosmopolitan civilization, especially in its first phase in the 4th-3rd centuries BC, there was a growing international market, a growing communication of goods and ideas, a growing social mobility, an accelerating development in philosophy, science and technology, and, consequently, a growing specialization and professionalization.113 This new dynamic civilization represented the threat of destruction to all kinds of traditional, local and static structures, attitudes and ideas. And by this “destruction” the Hellenistic civilization created a crisis in particular for the urbane individual, because it eroded the traditional basis for his identity and symbolic universe. It was primarily this crisis that opened up for all the radical new “Hellenistic” developments in culture, philosophy, literature, art and religion that occurred especially in the cities in this period.114

In the religious sphere, apart perhaps from remote rural districts untouched by the mainstream of culture, this radical cultural development caused a gradual undermining of the basis of traditional local cult. Corresponding to the general revolution of the conditions of human life, traditional religions either collapsed, lost their meaning or were forced to change their symbolic content.115 Urbane man, therefore, had to work out new values, new ways of understanding and identifying himself, in other words, new religions.116 This process of religious re-orientation was carried out by means of transformations (cf. section 1) which again were worked out by re-interpreting117 already existing symbolic systems: the traditional religions and other, perhaps “philosophical”, attitudes and ideas. This is essentially what happened in the radical changes and developments which took place in all spheres of urban religious life during the Hellenistic and Roman period.118

Traditional city state religion lost its content, and traditional rural fertility cults were in a number of cases, at least partly, transformed to urbane individualistic “salvation” or “mystery religions”. Apparently, this was what happened with the traditional Oriental religions of Cybele and Isis, and later the cult of Mithras.119 Similar changes seem to have taken place in the cults of Artemis, Dionysos, Eleusis, Orpheus and others. And the general tendency in this important process of religious transformation in these centuries was the change of emphasis from a more static local, agricultural, collective and mostly immanent to a more dynamic, universal, urbane, personal and often transcendental (dualistic) character.120

The essential point and the driving force in this important religious transformation was the vulnerable and threatened situation of the urbane individual in particular, which in the Hellenistic and Roman world appears to have been created as a by-product of the dynamic urban Hellenistic civilization. Often urban man might have felt as being thrown into this new “open” and limitless world. In this way, a basic insecurity and frustration could be created which by some “philosophical” souls might be met with “heroic” atheism or agnosticism, or with a “Stoic” or “Epicurean” “apathetic” attitude. It could also be met with the help of astrology, magic, or a desperate “belief” in Tyche or Fortuna. Or, it could be met with such a transforming reinterpretation which took place in the “new” Oriental or Greek “mystery” or “salvation religions” such as those of Christianity, the cults of Cybele, Isis and Mithras or – the religion of Atargatis.

Per Bilde, Atargatis/Dea Syria: Hellenization of Her Cult in the Hellenistic-Roman Period?
(In Studies in Hellenistic Civilization, Vol. I – Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom, pp. 178-179.
Aarhus University Press, 1990, 1996)


112 These features have been emphasized esp. by Laqueur (1925), Kaerst (1968) and Schneider (1968), cf. Bilde 1990.

113 Cf. esp. Kaerst 1968 II, 80ff; Walbank 1986, 60-78, 159-97.

114 Cf. Dodds 1956, 236-55, esp. 237 (on the “open” Hellenistic society, cf. also 244-45, 252); Kaerst 1968 I, 110-30.

115 Similarly Colpe 1981, 34-35; Nilsson 1961, 308-09.

116 Cf. Colpe 1981, 7, 34-35; Cumont 1929, 11; Dodds 1956, 242.

117 Cf. Cumont 1929, 111-12; Goossens 1943, 139-41, 199-201.

118 Cf. Martin 1987, 3-15; Nilsson 1961, 308-09; Nock 1933, 65; Walbank 1986, 209-26.

119 Also Judaism and Christianity were “Oriental” religions and belong in this context, cf. Colpe 1981, 9, 13; Rostovtzeff 1938, 66-67. This “Hellenization” of the Oriental (and other) religions often occurs at the same time as an “Orientalization” can be observed in other areas, such as e.g. the temple architecture, as we have seen (in section 7), cf. also the essay by Hannestad, Potts elsewhere in this book.

120 Cf. for Sabazios, Fellman 1981, 318, 331-32, and for Artemis, Fleischer 1981, 298-99, 305-06.


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The original numbering of the footnotes is preserved. Only sources cited in the excerpts are listed in the bibliography.