BY Chris - Feb 25, 2017
When the Romans came to Bath, they found a set of natural springs and a thriving local religion based around a deity whose name they rendered as ‘Sulis’. Sulis was not a goddess with whom they were familiar, but they did not doubt her existence, destroy her shrine, or suppress her worship – far from it. Noticing that Sulis had many qualities in common with their own goddess Minerva, they decided that they must be different aspects of the same idea. They therefore built a massive sacred complex dedicated to the worship of ‘Sulis Minerva’, and then presumably got on with their lives.
It’s important not to make the common mistake of projecting modern values onto ancient people. Constructions such as ‘Cyrus the Human Rights activist’, or ‘Hatshepsut the Feminist’, are patently ridiculous. But one thing which can certainly be said about paganism is that it was essentially pluralistic. Naturally, there were limits (the Romans and human sacrifice, for example), but the general tendency of pagan mentality was to search for commonality over difference, and to co-opt and co-exist with alien cults. Religious intolerants like Akhenaton and Nabonidas are remembered as anomalies in what was an overwhelmingly pluralistic religious world.
The Romans at Bath, the Greeks in Bactria, the Egyptians in Nubia – all demonstrate similar patterns of encounter. Contact is made with a foreign deity, inquiries are made as to their attributes, and a native parallel is found, not to replace, but rather to combine with it. This tendency must reflect a mentality which was as intellectually curious as it was tolerant.
When we compare this with religious encounters as conducted by the Abrahamic monotheists, the comparison is not at all favourable. From Joshua (either in reality or imagination) to Cortes, it can be clearly seen that monotheism walks a much shorter track to genocidal violence. Even curious, ethnographically-minded Jesuits or Caliphate scholars all eventually arrive at the same place: ‘Your gods are false, my god is not.’
It’s easy to see why the rise of monotheism is seen as such a significant event in human history. Viewed clearly, it was nothing less than a psychic apocalypse – the death of ancient pluralism and a catastrophic interruption to the globalising movements of the age. It created an epoch of murderous intolerance and a world where religious war became not just a norm, but a near constant. It drew, much more harmfully and definitively than Sykes/Picot or the British Empire, the lines which so bitterly divide us to this day.