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Ancient Religions.

Ancient Religions, by Sarah lies Johnston, General Editor. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007. xvii, 266 pp. $19.95 (paper).

Ancient Religions is a collection of nineteen essays culled from a larger work from 2004, Religions of the Ancient World, which originally had over one hundred and forty contributors. The nineteen essays in this volume are divided into two groups, "Encountering Ancient Religions" and "Histories." The first set of which are accompanied by Sarah Iles Johnston's "Magic." The second section begins with Jan Assmann and David Frankfurter's "Egypt," and continues with Paul-Alain Beaulieu's "Mesopotamia," David E Wright's "Syria and Canaan," John J. Collins' "Israel," David P. Wright's "Anatolia: Hittites," William Malandra and Michael Stausberg's "Iran," Nanno Marinatos' "Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations," Jon Mikalson's "Greece," Olivier de Cazanove's "Etruria," John North's "Rome," and Harold W. Attridge's "Early Christianity." Bookending these chapters are an introduction by Johnston and an epilogue by Bruce Lincoln.

The first set of essays tends to be more intriguing because they are more speculative and theoretical in nature. This is not to say that the latter papers are not interesting; rather, they are very complex and detailed. This review will focus on some of the essays from the first cluster that struck the reviewer as particularly good. The rest of the essays are very competent and should be read and studied by anyone interested in the religions and religious histories of antiquity.

Graf's "What Is Ancient Mediterranean Religion?" endeavours quite well to examine the extent to which religions cross-fertilized in the past. Graf argues for "homogeneity--or at least an osmotic similarity--of cultural space" that greatly affects historical methodology: any observation of "parallels and agreements in ritual and mythology, diffusion, however complex, is as likely an explanation as is parallel origin" (p. 5). This "homogeneity" is one of large contours and not of details. Indeed, similar details in disparate cultures do not necessitate transmittal or absorption of religious elements from one culture to another. Moreover, when cultures clashed through war or conquest, each culture retained, for the most part, its unique gods, festive calendar, and myths. The political disruption, reconfiguration, or reaffirmation may have added to the indigenous religious system, but did not fundamentally alter it.

Bremmer's "Ritual" is one of the most engaging essays in the volume. It concentrates on rituals that have moved from one culture to another or have been commented upon by members of a dissimilar society. Bremmer includes the scapegoat ritual, festivals of the old and new years, and processions and purifications. In an unfortunately all-too-brief essay, Bremmer gives the reader his thoughts on the relationship between myth and ritual. He notes that while one cannot be separated from the other, myth only focuses on a certain part of the ritual, that "what is symbolic and reversible in ritual often becomes realistic and irreversible in myth," and that myths travel more widely than rituals (p. 43). I would recommend that any instructor in any myth class assign this essay as part of the syllabus. Though brief, the article supplies plenty of information and would serve as good starting point for class discussion.

Attridge's "Pollution, Sin, Atonement, Salvation" attractively posits that the concept of "sin" is treated in two ways. Sin can be viewed as "objective defilement," which is any type of pollution that contaminates the sinner and whomever or whatever the sinner contacts (p. 71). In order to remedy this situation, the pollution or pollutant must be removed, which could be accomplished through burning, burying, or washing the tainted person or article. If the pollution was widespread, more drastic means were needed. The second approach views sin as "an insult or offense to divine power," and the offended deity must be propitiated (p. 71). Once again, I would recommend that Attridge's article, which is only twelve pages in length, be included in any syllabus that treats ritual, myth, sin, or expiation in the course.

Sarah Iles Johnston's "Mysteries" and "Magic" are the most fascinating pieces in the collection. In the former, the reader receives a methodical introduction to the major mystery cults (Eleusinian, Samothracian, Bacchic, the cult of the Meter, Mithraic, Isiac) and the various modes in which they have been interpreted. In the latter, the author centers on the problem of defining magic and differences in how religion is defined. The author writes that "looking at the ancient world from own vantage point, we can make no clean division between [magic] and religion" (p. 141).

Ancient Religions is a book worth reading for one's own edification and should be used in the undergraduate or graduate classroom. The essays are well-written and very informative. It is also a more affordable alternative to the original group of essays.

Edmund Cueva

Xavier University
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Author:Cueva, Edmund
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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