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Chthonios Books focuses on scholarly research in western esoteric traditions. You might want to go directly to our Homepage, where you can find out about the best books in this and other fields, as well as read some online research and translations. Or browse awhile below.…
This page gives some background material and explains Chthonios’ approach to Ancient Religion and Paganism. Other pages look at Ancient Philosophy and Neoplatonism I Theurgy I Early Christianity and Gnosticism I Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism I Hermetica and Alchemy I Magic I Mediaeval & Renaissance Esotericism I Esoteric Traditions.
Esotericism is often thought of as a ‘third force’
in western thought, in contrast to biblical faith and Greek
philosophy (particularly that of Aristotle). Traditions in
thought and religion can be defined as ‘esoteric’ in
three ways :
I) In a general way they can be defined as special teachings or experiences reserved for an inner circle of initiates.
II) Another important perspective sees esoteric traditions as undercurrents in western thought and religion. Historically, the most important early streams here are the teachings of Pythagoras and Plato and their followers. Once dominant in Greco-Roman thought, they were pushed to the margins by the rise of Christian orthodoxy.
III) A third way of seeing western esotericism looks at the heterodox, unorthodox and heretical streams which flourished beneath the domination of Christian orthodoxy and normative Judaism.
The Chthonios approach to ancient religion focuses particularly on religions that were within the ambit of the Greco-Roman or ancient Israelite worlds, and which were therefore part of the matrix from which Christianity and Judaism arose. The especial focus is on those aspects which were driven to the margins by the domination of orthodox Christianity, but which retained a fascination for currents and movements usually deemed heretical and dangerous. The continued presence of these marginalised perspectives, when viewed as a whole, are usually considered the subject matter of esotericism
In the west, after the rise of orthodox Christianity, what has been considered normative in that perspective has tended to define ‘religion’ as a whole. As cases in point, it is worth noting that astrology and divination are now normally thought of as ‘occult’ rather than religious phenomena : but divination held a central role in most ancient religion, including that of early Israel; and astrology was widely accepted as an integral part of the ancient world view.
It is remarkable how in modern research, attitudes originally developed to serve the needs of aggressive Christian polemic, still shape the way that ancient non-Christian religions are seen. The following instances are not intended as a sneer at Christianity, and a passionate defence of Greco-Roman religion, but are examples chosen to point to distorted views which still hinder research.
‘Paganism’ is a term coined by ancient Christians to denote the adherents of all other religions besides Christianity and Judaism. It derives from the Latin paganus (rustic, yokelish, of the countryside), and reflects a contemptuous attitude, as well as the fact that ‘Pagan’ beliefs and practices clung on much longer in country areas than the towns. It was not used by the ‘Pagans’ themselves, who preferred the more neutral ‘Hellenes’ as, indeed, did pre-fourth century Christian writers.
‘Paganism’ can do useful service as a simple shorthand for ‘Greco-Roman religions contemporary with Christianity.’ Nevertheless, the continued use of ‘paganism’ amongst modern scholars (which is usually accompanied by confounding a group of very different religious phenomena) is a remarkable instance of how prejudiced attitudes to the rivals of Christianity still lives on.
If we doubt this, perhaps we should try importing the parallel of Christian/pagan into a more modern setting. What would we make, I wonder, of the objectivity of a history of the British Empire which proceeded along the division of the world into ‘Britons’ and ‘foreigners’? Of course, one obvious result of such a procedure would be to dismissively obscure the identities of the peoples involved. In fact, ‘Paganism’ was an assortment of varied religious dynamics, and was not a coherent set of religous beliefs until the later Neoplatonists created one for it by welding their various religious traditions into a comprehensive whole. This was done, of course, to give a coherent position from which to oppose Christianity.
Another point about ‘Paganism’ is that it is usually spelled with a small ‘p’. The general excuse for doing this, that Paganism is not a word derived from a proper name, (like Christianity from Christ, or Judaism from Jew [via Latin Iudaeus]), is surely nonsense. The dismissive origin is clear when we ask ourselves how many scholars of religion would dare write islam, with a small ‘i’ —on the basis that Islam is not a title based on a proper name, but derived from an Arabic word meaning roughly ‘surrender’? A similar set of circumstances applies to the common capitalisation preferences in the words ‘God’ and ‘gods.’ Here, evidently, only the ‘real’ God is worthy of the capital. History by the victors indeed!
For more on ancient religion, see now our online translations and commentaries on ancient texts.
Below is a list of some important terms and people (with variant forms) from ancient religion which Chthonios specialises in. See also Ancient Philosophy and Neoplatonism , Magic as well as Theurgy and Hermetica.
Ancient Religion and Paganism — Pagan, Pagans, Mystery Religions, Eleusis, Eleusinian Mysteries, Demeter, Baubo, hierophant, daduchos, Mithraism, torchbearers, Cautes, Cautopates, Mithras Liturgy, Orphism, Orphic Hymns, Derveni Papyrus, Bacchus, bacchic, Dionysus, oracles, Delphi, priestess, Apollo, dreams, incubation, Asclepius, Artemidorus, divination, prophecy, initiation, initiate, initiand, mystagogue, telete, mystes, mystai, epopteia, orgia, daemons, daimon, ancient cosmology, astrology, decans, zodiac, soma, sema, eschatology, syncretism, solar theology, aretology, asebia, apotheosis, adyta, Hades, Persephone, afterlife, underworld, ecstacy, trance, Goddess traditions, Great Mother, Magna Mater, Isis, Hekate, Hecate, Mithras, Orpheus, Phanes, Sabazius, Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism, Apollonius of Tyana, Bolos of Mendes, Bolus of Mendes, Harran.
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