Religion in the Ancient World

By Tim Lambert

Religion in Ancient Egypt

The Egyptians were polytheists. That is, they worshiped many gods. Gods and goddesses were usually depicted as human beings though sometimes they had animal heads. Among Egyptian gods were Amun-Re, the sun god and the leader of the gods. Nut was the sky goddess. Her brother Geb was the earth god. Osiris was in charge of the underworld. His wife was Isis and his son was Horus (who was sometimes depicted with a falcon’s head). Hathor was the goddess of joy and love.

They also worshiped Anubis, the god of the dead and mummification. He was a man with a jackal’s head and Egyptians believed he guarded the places where the dead were buried. Other gods included Thoth, a man with an ibis head, who was the god of the moon and wisdom. Ptah was the god of craftsmen. Taweret, a pregnant hippo, was the goddess of childbirth. Maat was the goddess of law and order and truth. Hapi was the god who made the Nile flood.

The Ancient Egyptians had a goddess of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Her name was Seshat. The Egyptians believed that the gods ‘lived’ in temples (the god’s spirit was believed to inhabit a statue). Three times a day priests cleaned the statue, changed its clothes, and placed fresh food before it for it to ‘eat’. (After a while priests removed the food and ate it).

After death Egyptians believed they would be judged. Their heart was placed in a balance and weighed against an ostrich feather (a symbol of truth and justice). If the heart was good it would balance the feather and the person was granted eternal happiness. If it was evil the feather would outweigh it. In that case, the heart was fed to a monster called Ammit, who was part lion, part crocodile, and part hippo. If Ammit ate your heart you ceased to exist.

Egyptians tried to preserve dead bodies by mummifying them so the owners could use them in the next life. The dead were also buried with ‘grave goods’ to use in the next life. Animals, especially cats, were also mummified. To mummify a body the Egyptians first removed its internal organs (otherwise they would rot). They rinsed the cavities with palm wine and then covered the body with a salt paste called natron to dry it. After 70 days the body was washed and wrapped in linen bandages.

Religion in Palestine

The people of ancient Palestine were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The chief god of the Philistines was Dagon. The chief god of the Moabites was Chemosh. The Canaanites worshiped Baal, the god of rain and storms. They worshiped Baal on high places such as hilltops. They also worshiped his wife, Asherah, a fertility goddess. They worshiped wooden poles dedicated to her.

Religion in Ancient Greece

The Greeks were polytheists (they worshiped many gods). The Greeks imagined that gods and goddesses were like human beings. Often they behaved just as badly! Among the gods were Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love, Athena, goddess of wisdom, Artemis goddess of hunting, the moon, and childbirth. They also worshiped Dionysus god of wine, (he was also the god of music, dancing, and the theater), Demeter goddess of crops, Hephaestus the blacksmith of the gods, and Hermes the messenger of the gods.


Other gods were Poseidon god of the sea and Hades the god of the dead who ruled over a gloomy underworld where the spirits of the dead dwelt. Apollo was the god of the sun, music, and poetry. The chief god was Zeus. His wife was Hera, the goddess of marriage.

Every city had many temples. People went to the temple to pray. Outside them were altars where offerings were made and animals were sacrificed. Very often Greek houses also had an altar in the courtyard where they made offerings to the gods.

When Greeks died they were either buried or they were cremated and their ashes were then buried. Food, drink, and goods were buried with the dead person, and from time to time the family of the dead person made offerings on the grave. The Greeks believed that when you died a ferryman called Charon rowed your spirit across a river called the Styx to the entrance of the underworld. The entrance was guarded by a three-headed dog called Cerberus, who prevented anyone from leaving! If you were n bad during your life then after your death you went to a place called Tartarus to be punished. If you were very good you went to a beautiful place to be rewarded.

However, most people were neither particularly good nor bad. After death, they went to a dull and dismal place. The Greeks believed that if they made offerings to a dead relative it would temporarily brighten their existence in the dreary underworld.

Ancient Roman Religion

The Etruscans were a highly civilized people who lived in central Italy from about 800 BC until the Romans conquered them. The Etruscans were polytheists (they worshiped many gods) including Tinia the ruler of the gods and god of thunder, Fufluns the god of vegetation, Nethuns the god of water, and Tiv the moon god.

The Romans too were polytheists. They worshiped many gods. Jupiter was king of the gods. His wife Juno was the goddess of women and marriage. Minerva was the goddess of wisdom and crafts. Mars was the god of war and Mercury was the messenger of the gods. Neptune was the god of the sea and Bacchus was the god of wine. Diana was the goddess of the moon and of hunting. Ceres was the goddess of crops. Saturn was the god of farming. Venus was the goddess of love and beauty and Vulcan was the god of blacksmiths. Pluto was the god of the underworld, where the dead dwelt.

The Romans believed it was important to keep the gods happy. To do this sacrifices were made outside the god’s temple. Houses usually had a shrine called a lararium where the family made offerings of food and wine to the gods who, they believed, protected their household. Children were also given a charm called a bulla to protect them from evil.

The Romans were usually tolerant of religion but they sometimes persecuted Christians. The Romans also introduced religions from the East. By the 3rd century, Mithraism was popular. It involved the worship of the Persian god Mithras, the god of light and the sun. In the late 1st and 2nd centuries, the Romans practices cremation. However, in the 3rd century, they began to bury the dead. Citizens were buried in cemeteries outside the walls. The persecution of Christians ended in 312 when Constantine converted to the new faith. In 395 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Celtic Religion

The Romans claimed that the Druids practiced human sacrifice but this claim is doubtful. (See n ). The Celts had priests called Druids. The Druids were very important in Celtic society. As well as being priests they were scholars, judges, and advisers to the kings. The Celts were polytheists (they worshiped many gods and goddesses). They did not build temples but instead worshiped at natural sites such as groves of trees, springs, rivers, and lakes. Sometimes the Celts sacrificed valuable goods by throwing them into lakes and rivers.

The Romans claimed that the Druids practiced human sacrifice but this claim is doubtful. (See n ).In Celtic times the practice of building barrows died out. Instead, people were interned in individual graves. They were still buried with grave goods showing the Celts had a strong belief in an afterlife. They believed that when you died your spirit went to a place called the Other World.

The Romans claimed that the Druids practiced human sacrifice but this claim is doubtful. Unfortunately, although the Celts did have a system of writing most of what we know about their religion comes from Roman writers. Since they conquered the Celts the Romans were likely to have been biased. The Romans claimed that the Druids practiced human sacrifice but this claim is doubtful.

The main Celtic festivals were Imbolc at the beginning of February at the start of the lambing season, Beltane at the beginning of May, when cattle were sent out to graze in the fields after being kept indoors and fed on hay during the Winter, Lughnasadh in August when the crops were growing ripe and Samhain at the beginning of November. That was the time when animals were brought in from the fields for the Winter. The Celts could not grow enough hay to feed them all so those not needed for breeding were slaughtered.