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The invention of gods

Sat Dec 17, 2011 9:54 pm by Mutatis_Mutandis

The Roman emperor Julianius became famous (or even notorious) for turning his back in Christianity and attempting to restore paganism. But as historians observed, Julianius could not turn the clock back: Instead he had to re-invent paganism as a consistent religion with established doctrines, something it had never been. Ancient Roman theological doctrines were flexible and syncretic, easily enough incorporating the deities of other cultures, although conservatives looked askance at some of the wild eastern cults. And of course some philosophers were skeptic about the chaotic nature of this belief system.

But importing deities is one thing, inventing new ones is different. The Ptolemies in Egypt created Serapis, and thoroughly synthetic deity incorporating features from various competitors: The cult appears to have been amazingly successful. The Romans routinely deified dead emperors, and although Seneca was rebellously satirical about Claudius apotheosis, it appears to have been accepted without much protest.

So what was the mechanism behind this? Were the new official cults entirely formal affairs, while people found comfort in the worship of their house gods? Did ancestor worship and the godly pantheon merge seamlessly enough to make deification a logical step? Did pagan gods have prophets, similar to the monotheistic religions, who came forward to announce the new god?

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