What do we know about pre-Christian religious rites?

What were the services to Athena like? To Jupiter/Zeus?

To Odin?

Do we have any idea about the prayers & practices of these old faiths?
BTW–I do not mean the Modern Neo-Pagans, as I have a sneaking suspicion that they may perhaps get creative with History. Perhaps.

Book titles appreciated.

Just type Roman or Greek, before christian religion into a search engine.

We know very little of Norse religious practice, just what can be deduced by archaeological evidence, the odd mention in sagas written down a couple centuries after the fact by Christian scholars and comparison with Germanic tribes we have biased Roman reports about.

“The golden bough” by Frazer is one of the classics in this field. I recommend the abridged edition ( which is still over 1000 pages ) unless you have a LOT of time on your hands. The complete edition is 12 volumes :slight_smile:


Anything further?

Search engines are not going to add anything further. No one nowadays can add anything. It’s not like anything “extra” was added to belief in Odin or Zeus.

Hindus and Buddhists were around before Jesus.

Evenso, there are no “new” writings from before Jesus available now that were not available 3 years ago…unless you mean FRPG writings…

As in… “Have archaeologists discovered any new material in the last year?”

No. No, they have not.

I think the Hebrew Bible might have some good information.

As, of course, were Jews.

There were very strong similarities between the early religious rituals of the Hindu Brahmin and the Old Irish Druids. This article is about new Irish Kings bathing with a sacrificed horse and compares it with the traditional Vedic Hindu royal inauguration. And there are other similarities between ancient Indic and Irish religions; as well as relationships to Greek, Roman and Norse religions.

This connection seems odd — Ireland is a long distance from India; the Irish and Indic languages separated about 5500 years ago; the two populations have different Y-chromosome haplogroups. I think these religious parallels may suggest the great dominance of the early Indo-European culture.

The more likely explanation is that these had nothing whatsoever to do with one another.

Yeah, the common threads I see there don’t really amount to much. Given that you’re sacrificing animals (which is common to a lot of religions), and given that horses are a very important animal, and given that kings are likewise very important, it’s not too surprising to see kingship associated with sacrifice of horses.

This is a note about Scandinavia. And now that I wrote it and re-read the OP I realize that it is not really answering the question. But I will not let that stop me, god damnit. It is at least fairly “factual”.

Names of places are an indicator of how widespread the cult of different gods were. For instance, in Scandianvia, one can conclude that Odin, Thor and Frey had a widespread cult before Christianity. One can also draw the conclusion that Tyr, to take another example, had a greater following in Denmark than in Sweden and Norway. These indications are also to a lesser extent hinted at on rune stones.

Adam of Bremen is a direct account of Norse paganism and its traditions, as he wrote about it in the 11th century, while it was still prevalent. Saxo Grammaticus wrote about it in the 13th century. These works are of course colored by the time, place and motivation of the writer, but are nonetheless invaluable for the study of the Scandinavian culture and pagan rituals before Christianity.

One must also appreciate oral tradition. Thoughts, beliefs, rituals, and so forth, of common people, do not disappear at the same instant the king decides to convert to Christianity. The old traditions were especially strong in Iceland, and Snorre Sturlaon wrote his compilation of the Norse myths, worldview, etcetera, in the 13th century. Of course, once again, one has to take into account of the fact that he was Christian and so forth, but there is no reason to believe that his Edda was not “accurate” (as far as that goes).

Then of course there is the so called Poetic Edda, a collection of (mostly) contemporary poems regarding the pagan gods; it draws from several sources, many of which are most likely pre-christian. It is perhaps the prime source for our knowledge of how pre-christian Scandinavians thought about their gods.

Also, there are the sagas, from 12th to 14th century, tales about the vikings and as such illustrations of their worldview, beliefs and religious traditions. One can also compare these writings those of Saxo’s and see that they complement each other, rather than contradict. There are also other, more “isolated” sources of different kinds (surviving tales of certain persons, poems about gods, and so on); of course there is a whole area of archeology that supports the findings and so on.

To summarize we have pretty solid historical data on the pre-christian Scandinavian worldview, beliefs and traditions, and how different gods were regarded and so forth. Of course enormous amounts of study have been done on this field, so while we cannot be sure exactly how for instance a midwinter blót was conducted, we have a fairly good picture of pagan religion in Scandinavia, and the rituals that came with it.

Do either of you have a cite for this? I’m certainly not expert on this topic but I’ve done a fair amount of reading and thought there was a scholarly consensus for strong parallels among Indo-European religions.

Of course the details vary. In the ancient Irish royal anointment, the King fornicates with a sacrificial white mare. In the ancient Hindu ritual it is the Queen who fornicates with a white stallion.

The royal Celtic name Epomeduos (< ek’wo-medhu = “horse + mead”) reflects the ceremony, mead being the fermented honey imbibed during the ritual. Was it coincidental parallel development that the Vedic ritual is called Ashvamedha (अश्वमेध), cognate with the Irish name (although AFAIK no fermented honey is involved in the Vedic ritual)?

There are other specific parallels between the functions and rituals of Druids and ancient Brahmins, down to the ceremonial clothing color (white — also in each society the warrior caste wore red).

Are you only interested in Greco-Roman and Norse religion? We have extant religious texts from the Near & Middle East which are far older.

No we don’t. We have very limited, anecdotal, many times hearsay from biased writers on a few rituals in separated times and places. With some good scholarly analysis of this we can get a sketch of pagan religion in Scandinavia, but it consists of a lot of guesswork. Qualified guesses, sure, but interpretation none the less, and the flimsiness of the underlying evidence is rarely conveyed in popular science descriptions or by people posting on the internet.

Pre-Christian, ok.

The very first form of human religion is what we moderns call “shamanism”. We have to realize that in its time, it was never called “religion”. That word, or its concept, did not even exist, although in today’s world shamanism is automatically associated with “religion” of some form. We moderns cannot seem to get our minds around the fact that certain spiritual practises are not associated with “religion”.

In fact the very appearance of this word “religion” in human language marks a line in the sand between pure spiritual practice, and the ritualized repressive pseudo-spiritual experience offered to us over the centuries by organized religious organizations, whose principal objective is, in essence, the livelihood and maintenance of said organization. YMMV

That’s some very bombastic statements on pre-history. Of course nothing was called religion back then, this is way before even proto-indoeuropean, but there’s nothing to say ancient shamans didn’t recognise and use and abuse the position their religious authority gave them in even the smallest communities. Your image of “pure spiritual practice” is wholly unfounded and very likely wishful thinking.