The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity

Watch The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity

  • 2020
  • 1 Season

The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity is a fascinating exploration of the diverse religious beliefs and practices that existed throughout the ancient world prior to the rise of Christianity. Presented by Hans-Friedrich Mueller, a professor of Classics at Union College, this Great Courses Signature Collection series delves into the mythologies, rituals, and philosophies of various pagan cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Celts, and more.

Throughout the course of 24 lectures, viewers are taken on a journey through time and across the globe, exploring the rich tapestry of beliefs and practices that shaped the ancient world. From the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete to the far reaches of the Roman Empire, this series examines the gods, goddesses, and supernatural beings that the ancients worshipped, as well as the rituals and ceremonies that they used to connect with these divine forces.

One of the key themes that runs throughout The Pagan World is the pervasive influence of polytheism in ancient civilizations. Unlike the monotheistic religions that dominate much of the world today, polytheistic belief systems allowed for a much wider variety of deities, each with their own stories, personalities, and spheres of influence. Mueller discusses the different ways in which these gods and goddesses were worshipped, from elaborate public ceremonies to private household shrines, and how their worshippers sought to connect with them in their daily lives.

Another important aspect of ancient paganism that this series explores is the deep connection between religion and the natural world. Many ancient cultures saw the earth, sky, and sea as living beings or god-like entities, and their religious practices reflected this belief. Mueller discusses the ways in which environmental factors like geography, climate, and natural disasters often served as the inspiration for myths and religious practices, and how this relationship helped to shape the worldview of the ancients.

In addition to examining the beliefs and practices of individual cultures and civilizations, The Pagan World also highlights the ways in which ancient religions influenced and borrowed from one another. Mueller points out the similarities and differences between the Greek and Roman pantheons, for example, or the ways in which Egyptian religion spread throughout the Mediterranean world. He also discusses the impact that the rise of Christianity had on pagan belief systems, and how many of these religions continued to exist and evolve even as Christianity became the dominant faith in Europe and beyond.

Overall, The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity is a fascinating and comprehensive look at the rich and varied tapestry of pagan beliefs and practices that once dominated the world. With its engaging presenter and thought-provoking content, this series is sure to appeal to anyone with an interest in ancient history, religion, or mythology.

The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity is a series that is currently running and has 1 seasons (24 episodes). The series first aired on February 28, 2020.

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The End of Paganism in the Roman Empire
24. The End of Paganism in the Roman Empire
February 28, 2020
Individually, it was relatively easy for people to convert to Christianity because it offered many familiar aspects of traditional religion. But at the state level? Explore the many fascinating reasons why, after so many centuries of success with its own state-sponsored religion, the Roman Empire finally adopted Christianity as its official faith.
Popular Religions of Late Antiquity
23. Popular Religions of Late Antiquity
February 28, 2020
In late antiquity, even after the initial emergence of Christianity, the majority in Rome and Italy held to the traditional religion and ancient gods. Explore the relationships between paganism, Manichaeism, and Isis worship at the time of the rise of Christianity and learn why Rome's rulers could not accept or tolerate Christianity.
Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians
22. Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians
February 28, 2020
Before Christianity, two major monotheistic religions existed in the ancient Mediterranean area. Explore the similarities and differences between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and emerging Christianity, and how the empire initially accommodated their teachings and actions. You'll also learn about the grievances on all sides.
Emperor Worship in Rome
21. Emperor Worship in Rome
February 28, 2020
The deification of Julius Caesar represented a turning point in Rome's religion. The polytheistic, state-sanctioned pantheon made room for new gods: the Caesars. Learn how and why Octavius, Caesar's adopted son, instituted a monarchy that appeared to be a republic, and how the worship of his family and his personal authority transformed traditional religion.
Julius Caesar: A Turning Point in Roman Religion
20. Julius Caesar: A Turning Point in Roman Religion
February 28, 2020
Julius Caesar began his public religious career as a teenager, and early in his political career announced that he was descended not only from kings, but from the gods Venus and Mars. Learn how he used his priesthood and political success, as well as military and financial success, to become a dictator and have the Senate declare him a god after his death.
The Roman Calendar and Sacred Days
19. The Roman Calendar and Sacred Days
February 28, 2020
The college of pontiffs was responsible for keeping track of all the gods and their holidays; the necessary public festivals and the seasons; as well as the days, weeks, months, and cycles of the Moon. But by historical times, the calendar was completely out of sync. Learn how and why Julius Caesar reorganized the calendar into a version very close to what we use today.
Rome's Reactions to Foreign Religions
18. Rome's Reactions to Foreign Religions
February 28, 2020
Rome incorporated many of the gods of its conquered peoples. But it could not tolerate people assembling on their own to worship without state supervision, or sexual activity that could undermine property rights. Examine the Bacchanalia, and see why Rome considered worshippers of Bacchus an existential threat to the state, and why the practice was violently suppressed.
Religion, Politics, and War in Rome
17. Religion, Politics, and War in Rome
February 28, 2020
Is it possible that one of the world's greatest empires was based in great part on the art and science of birdwatching? Absolutely. The calls, flight patterns, and eating styles of various birds were all were signs from the gods. Explore the college of priests, the Sybilline Oracles, and the detailed rituals of divination required before state officials could take any decisive action.
Priests and Ceremonies in the Roman Republic
16. Priests and Ceremonies in the Roman Republic
February 28, 2020
Whose responsibility was it to care for the Roman gods and goddesses, maintaining appropriate worship and relationships? Learn what roles the four collegia of priests, the pontiffs, and the Vestal Virgins played in Roman religion. They played a crucial role in maintaining stability by calming the deities and keeping them on the side of Rome. In fact, the state's survival depended on them.
Gods of the Roman State
15. Gods of the Roman State
February 28, 2020
Rome was remarkable in antiquity in that this sexist, classist, and slave-owning culture incorporated conquered peoples into the Roman body of citizens. Discover how they also incorporated the gods of the conquered in a practice known as interpretatio Romana. Of course, summoning a deity from an enemy city was a formal process, as you'll see through the fascinating stories of Juno and others.
Gods of the Roman Household
14. Gods of the Roman Household
February 28, 2020
Roman gods were involved with every aspect of daily life. Explore the great pantheon of gods that influenced everything from doors hinges to meals to sex. Learn how women's religious activities reflected their roles in that patriarchal culture, from the involvement of four goddesses and two gods to oversee the consummation of marriage, to the use of terra-cotta uteruses as votive offerings.
Ancient Roman Ancestor Worship
13. Ancient Roman Ancestor Worship
February 28, 2020
How did the descendants of the shepherds and criminal outcasts who founded Rome on the hills above malaria-infested swampland conquer the entire Mediterranean? According to the Romans, their greatest strength was their religion. Learn about the cultus deorum and how precise relationships with dead ancestors, as well as the gods, allowed the conservative Roman culture to flourish.
Egyptian Influences on Ancient Religion
12. Egyptian Influences on Ancient Religion
February 28, 2020
Egyptian religion had a significant impact on the religions of the Mediterranean world, particularly Greek and Roman. Based on pyramid texts, coffin texts, and spells written on papyri, learn what these ancient peoples believed about the potential for a soul to become immortal, the location of the afterlife in the West, and why the dead needed nourishment from the living.
Greek Funerary Practices and the Afterlife
11. Greek Funerary Practices and the Afterlife
February 28, 2020
The ancient Greeks considered it a solemn duty to prepare the bodies of their dead, burn the bodies, and then bury them with a variety of household or military objects. Even long after burial, people continued to bring offerings to the dead, including food and drink. Explore why these rituals were significant to the state and became a powerful force for conservative values opposed to innovation.
Philosophical Critiques of Paganism
10. Philosophical Critiques of Paganism
February 28, 2020
While most ancient Greeks worshipped, sacrificed, and celebrated as the state preferred, others had their own ideas. Explore the fascinating outlier philosophies of the Pythagoreans, Orphics, Stoics, Epicureans, and more. Most of these small, isolated groups were not a threat to the state's status quo. But if the state felt threatened, it reacted forcefully, as in the execution of Socrates.
Cults and Mystery Religions
9. Cults and Mystery Religions
February 28, 2020
Public worship celebrations, such as the annual Panathenaic festival honoring the goddess Athena, provided a political benefit in unifying citizenry. But in addition, some gods were worshipped in private cults requiring membership and initiation rites. Learn about the benefits of such membership, both in this world and the next, particularly for women.
Delphi and Other Greek Sanctuaries
8. Delphi and Other Greek Sanctuaries
February 28, 2020
Major sanctuaries attracted people from all cities and states and served to unite the Greek world. Explore the fascinating Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus. In addition to the expected altars, you might be surprised to learn about the sporting events, libraries, hospitals, and even racetracks at these significant shrines.
Prayers, Vows, Divination, and Omens
7. Prayers, Vows, Divination, and Omens
February 28, 2020
For ancient peoples, signs from the gods existed everywhere, from the shape of sacrificial animal organs and the properties of smoke when they were burned, to the sudden appearance of birds in the sky, dreams, and more. Explore the many ways in which the people and their gods communicated with each other, and why no army would move forward to the battlefield without their soothsayers and priests.
Feeding the Gods: Sacrificial Religion
6. Feeding the Gods: Sacrificial Religion
February 28, 2020
From the Mediterranean regions to ancient India, animal sacrifice played a central role in the relationship between people and their gods. Learn about the required elements for a proper honorific, atoning, or sacramental animal sacrifice. Discover the many ways in which the sacrifice benefitted the peoples involved, and what the gods required of the animal.
Household and Local Gods in Ancient Greece
5. Household and Local Gods in Ancient Greece
February 28, 2020
The daily life of the average ancient Athenian family wasn't dominated by the gods who lived on Mt. Olympus, but by the gods who protected their front door and hearth and blessed the marriage bed. Discover the many ways in which these household gods were woven into the fabric of daily life and who was responsible for the household religious activities.
From Myth to Religion: The Olympian Deities
4. From Myth to Religion: The Olympian Deities
February 28, 2020
While the modern world often thinks of the Greek gods and goddesses as myth, they formed the basis of religion in ancient Greece. Learn about this relationship between myth and religion and explore the fascinating puzzle of Zeus. Could Zeus have been a single god with many "persons"? Or were there many different gods, each known as Zeus?
State Religion in Ancient Egypt
3. State Religion in Ancient Egypt
February 28, 2020
Explore how the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a pyramid inscription reveal the existence of Atum, the creator god who rose from primordial chaos to create himself and nine additional gods. But what happens to Atum when the cities of Memphis and then Karnak rise to power? Learn how political power and religion were interwoven in ancient Egypt.
The Rigveda and the Gods of Ancient India
2. The Rigveda and the Gods of Ancient India
February 28, 2020
While most of the early religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome have been supplanted over time, the early religions of India are still thriving today. Explore the ancient Rigveda, one of the four sacred texts of modern Hinduism. An ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns, it is alive with riddles and paradoxes that leave plenty of room for stimulating speculation.
Early Pagan Religion in Mesopotamia
1. Early Pagan Religion in Mesopotamia
February 28, 2020
Explore the ways in which the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia tried to understand, worship, and cultivate the supernatural in the world around them. Learn how the Enuma Elish, the great Mesopotamian creation myth, mirrors concerns we still address today (power struggles, gender issues, family discord) as it explains the origin of the world and humanity's place in it. #Music, Philosophy & Religion
Where to Watch The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity
The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity is available for streaming on the The Great Courses Signature Collection website, both individual episodes and full seasons. You can also watch The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity on demand at Apple TV Channels and Amazon Prime and Amazon.
  • Premiere Date
    February 28, 2020