Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World

Take a deep dive into the ancient roots of our culture as you explore the religious history of the ancient Mediterranean world.
Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World is rated 3.7 out of 5 by 65.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Very poor course I have purchased a large number of courses from Great Courses and they have been very good or good. This one was an exception, and was terrible: Not worth the money. Boring presentations, Used big words in an apparent attempt to impress viewers, No visuals. Do you provide refund or credits for folks with this kind of experience? Jack Ferguson
Date published: 2021-09-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Lots of information but boring Lecturer is obviously knowledgeable but his presentation is dry and monotone. I was really looking forward to this course but frankly I am having trouble finishing it.
Date published: 2021-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Engaging and Informative This was a fascinating and sweeping survey of how individual religions worked, and how they influenced each other in the ancient world - just what I was looking for. The 48 lectures went by quickly. Dr Holland is engaging and well spoken and to the point. I found it to be a no-frills meat and potatoes course, full of information that sticks to your ribs. It has done a lot to shape my understanding of how these ancient religions came to be, and how and why they changed over time.
Date published: 2021-04-23
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Lectures! Slightly Dated Style! The lectures are fantastic. You'll have to get past the dated style of communication. But any moderately academic student will learn the key aspects of these great ancient religious systems.
Date published: 2020-12-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from View of the ancients on our own terms The presentation is semi-chronological. It follows The Bible in case of Israel and historical periods in case of Greece; Egypt and Mesopotamia however, are frozen in time and when watching these lectures, I was never sure which century I was in. The working definition of religion introduced in lecture 2 appears to fit our modern world more than most of the ancient period. Did not the governance, laws and decision making at every level come from the gods and was all about the gods for ancient people? This is not quite captured by the definition. What exactly was “the idea of the sacred” for Achilles? The mandatory lectures about female deities seem to stem more from our modern sensibilities rather than reflect the state of mind of ancient people.
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good survey of a lot of history This course gave me a perspective on the ways ancient peoples viewed their places in this world. These thoughts flow through to religions practices today.
Date published: 2020-01-05
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Overwhelingly detailed but where is the message? I was really highly motivated when taking this course...the professor,yet,while quite certainly being an eminent expert provides,in a monotonous,verbose way,enormous amounts of details but clear take home messages are virtually absent..I have started the course now for the fourt or fifth time,but I am unable to finish more than one or two lectures and then skip to other great courses,I simply cannot stomach such an overkill of facts without summary,take away message and the occassional joke,sorry,professor,you lost me,thats too much..heartfelt congratulations to those,who were able to ingest the whole material and make sense out of it
Date published: 2019-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Good overview This course is a good overview but the scope is huge & even 48 lectures is not enough to get really in depth. It is a good way to see which areas are particularly appealing & a more in depth course can be done in that specific area. Still, a good coverage overall. It is interesting how much the study of religion is also a study of the history & geography of the area. Now that so many people follow one of the religions of the book (Judaism, Christianity & Islam) it is easy to forget that for much of history the gods were much more closely tied to the land, seasons & events.
Date published: 2019-05-09
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How did ancient people cope with the overwhelming mysteries of the universe? This course uses ancient texts and archaeological evidence to explore the religious cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world, from the earliest indications of human religious practices during prehistoric times to the conversion of the Roman Empire. You will learn about ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine, and more.


Glenn S. Holland
Glenn S. Holland

To learn about religion is to learn about what motivates and inspires people at the most basic level, leading them to look beyond the everyday business of life to something more meaningful and ultimately more satisfying.


Allegheny College

Dr. Glenn S. Holland is the Bishop James Thoburn Professor of Religious Studies at Allegheny College. He earned his B.A. from Stanford University, his M.A. in Theology from the University of Oxford, and his Ph.D. in the Bible and New Testament Studies from the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Professor Holland is the recipient of several honors and awards, including the Thoburn Chair in Religious Studies in 1992, and the Divisional Professorship in Humanities at Allegheny College in 2003. Professor Holland wrote and edited several books, including Philodemus and the New Testament World and Divine Irony, a study of irony as the adoption of the divine perspectives on events in the human world. Professor Holland is a contributor and assistant editor for the award-winning journal Common Knowledge.

By This Professor

Talking About Ancient Religious Cultures

01: Talking About Ancient Religious Cultures

The lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea provide the basis for most religious beliefs and practices in the modern Western world. Professor Holland previews the major features of the course, which will use stories as a primary means to gain insight into the religious cultures of the region.

33 min
What is Religion?

02: What is Religion?

What is religion? Our working definition includes the idea of the sacred, the systematic unity of beliefs and practices, and the community created through those common beliefs and practices.

30 min
Early Prehistoric Religion

03: Early Prehistoric Religion

This lecture explores the earliest forms of human religious expression by examining the material culture of the Old and Middle Stone Ages. The evidence shows a desire for harmony and equilibrium among human beings, and between human beings and the spiritual world.

30 min
Prehistoric Religion—The Neolithic Era

04: Prehistoric Religion—The Neolithic Era

We move on to the great revolution in the human way of life represented by the New Stone Age, or Neolithic era, and the acceleration of cultural change that ultimately resulted in the beginnings of the first great civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean world: Egypt and Mesopotamia.

30 min
Egypt—A Unique Religious Culture

05: Egypt—A Unique Religious Culture

This lecture considers the beginnings of Egyptian civilization and some of its typical depictions of the gods. All of Egyptian religion and its stories refer either directly or indirectly to the three primary realities of life in ancient Egypt: the sun, the Nile, and the divine pharaoh.

30 min
Egyptian Creation Stories and Their Meaning

06: Egyptian Creation Stories and Their Meaning

There are four means of creation in Mediterranean mythic cosmogonies: creation by making, creation by combat, creation through sexual generation, and creation by word. We study Egyptian creation stories to learn what they tell us about the relationships among gods, humanity, and the cosmos.

30 min
The Egyptian Pantheon

07: The Egyptian Pantheon

The Egyptian pantheon may be divided into gods that represent natural phenomena, regional gods, funerary gods, and gods identified with professions. There was inevitable overlap in association and function among the gods, as evidenced by the many solar deities.

31 min
Egyptian Myths of Kingship

08: Egyptian Myths of Kingship

The pharaoh was at the center of Egyptian religious culture. He was responsible for establishing divine order and justice, enabling the proper functioning of the human and divine worlds. His legitimacy and authority were supported by the myth of the contest between Horus and Seth.

30 min
Egyptian Myths of the Underworld

09: Egyptian Myths of the Underworld

The Egyptians show more concern with preparation for the afterlife than any other ancient civilization known to us. We examine the range of Egyptian beliefs and practices related to death, especially the spiritual and physical preparation for the dead to enter the realm of Osiris.

30 min
Egypt—The Power of Goddesses

10: Egypt—The Power of Goddesses

Goddesses play an important role in Egyptian creation mythology, both as personifications of the cosmic elements and as mothers to new generations of gods. As a group, the Egyptian goddesses display strength, initiative, cleverness, and other virtues traditionally associated with women.

30 min
Egypt—Religion in Everyday Life

11: Egypt—Religion in Everyday Life

We study official and popular religious practices in ancient Egypt. Official daily rituals included washing, dressing, and "feeding" the cult statue of the temple. Popular religion focused on magic and rituals, including the use of spells and amulets, and attempts to see the future.

30 min
Egypt—The Beginning of Wisdom

12: Egypt—The Beginning of Wisdom

Proverbial wisdom is part of the cultural heritage of all peoples throughout history. We conclude our examination of Egyptian religious culture with a discussion of its literature of ethical instruction, which provides our earliest example of the Mediterranean world's wisdom tradition.

30 min
Mesopotamia—The Land Between the Rivers

13: Mesopotamia—The Land Between the Rivers

We begin our study of the religious beliefs and practices of Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region was home to a succession of related but distinct civilizations that shared a common religious culture, albeit one that was constantly evolving through the centuries.

30 min
Mesopotamia—Stories of Creation

14: Mesopotamia—Stories of Creation

Mesopotamian gods are like overlords in a political hierarchy, but with divine authority and power. This lecture reviews the gods of the Mesopotamian pantheon and discusses two stories, Enuma Elish and the myth of Adapa, that describe the origins of all things and the human situation.

31 min
Mesopotamia—Inanna the Goddess

15: Mesopotamia—Inanna the Goddess

The Mesopotamian fertility goddess was worshiped in Sumer as Inanna and later in Babylon as Ishtar. We consider the different attributes, titles, and powers that made her the most important and powerful goddess in the Mesopotamian pantheon.

30 min
Mesopotamia—Gilgamesh the King

16: Mesopotamia—Gilgamesh the King

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving epic poem. This lecture discusses the first part of this haunting masterpiece, which narrates the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, two heroes who set out on a long journey to slay Humbaba, a monster of the wilderness.

30 min
Mesopotamia—The Search for Eternal Life

17: Mesopotamia—The Search for Eternal Life

We continue our discussion of The Epic of Gilgamesh by reviewing the two heroes' encounter with Ishtar, which results in Enkidu's death and Gilgamesh's quest for eternal life. The quest has many parallels in the wisdom literature we have already considered.

30 min
Mesopotamia—The Great Flood

18: Mesopotamia—The Great Flood

The story of Ut-napishtim and the primeval flood in The Epic of Gilgamesh has clear parallels with the story of another Mesopotamian hero, Atrahasis, and the biblical story of Noah. The differences reflect a fundamental incongruity between Mesopotamian and Israelite conceptions of the divine.

31 min
Ancient Concepts of the Divine

19: Ancient Concepts of the Divine

This lecture looks at the different concepts of the divine that lie behind polytheism (belief in many gods), henotheism (belief and trust in one chief god among the many gods that exist), and monotheism (belief and trust in the one and only God who exists).

32 min
The Gods of Syria-Palestine

20: The Gods of Syria-Palestine

We begin our study of Syria-Palestine, whose chief god was 'El, creator of all things. His son Ba'al, god of storms and fertility, recalls several Mesopotamian myths. The worship of the Lord in Israel was both different from and consistent with other Syro-Palestinian religious traditions.

30 min
Israel's Ancestral History

21: Israel's Ancestral History

The stories about Israel's ancestors in Genesis reflect the life of nomadic herders in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. We examine these stories and the development of Israelite religious culture in the aftermath of the Exodus, which established a new relationship between the Lord and Israel.

30 min
Israel's National History

22: Israel's National History

When the Israelites settled in Palestine, their way of life changed profoundly, a change reflected in their religious culture, as Ba'al became a rival to the Lord. We review Israel's history primarily in terms of its evolving understanding of its covenantal obligations to the Lord as the God of Israel.

31 min
Prophecy in the Ancient Near East

23: Prophecy in the Ancient Near East

A significant factor in the development of religious culture in Israel during the monarchy was the independent religious voice of prophecy. We consider prophecy as a cross-cultural phenomenon and how it resembles other methods of divining the will of the gods or of foreseeing the future.

29 min
Early Prophecy in Israel

24: Early Prophecy in Israel

Scholars have identified three types of prophecy in ancient Israel: guild prophecy carried out by groups under a leader; official prophecy carried out through the royal court or the cult; and independent prophecy carried out by prophets who speak on the Lord's behalf without official sanction.

30 min
Classical Israelite Prophecy

25: Classical Israelite Prophecy

Continuing our discussion of prophecy, we look at the prophetic messages and careers of some of the great prophets of Israel, those usually referred to as the "writing prophets" because they have biblical books of prophetic oracles named after them.

30 min
Israel's Great Crisis

26: Israel's Great Crisis

This lecture examines the religious crisis that surrounded the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of many of its people to Babylon. We see how the prophets made sense of this disaster, and in doing so, reaffirmed the Lord's faithfulness and loving concern for his people.

31 min
Syria-Palestine—The Problem of Evil

27: Syria-Palestine—The Problem of Evil

Polytheistic and henotheistic religions can blame evil on conflicts between gods, but monotheistic religions must reconcile belief in an all-powerful and morally perfect God with the existence of evil. We look at two responses to the problem of evil: the book of Job and apocalyptic literature.

30 min
Early Aegean Civilizations

28: Early Aegean Civilizations

We begin our discussion of the civilizations around the Aegean Sea, examining Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations and their religious cultures. The nature of Minoan civilization is deeply mysterious; Mycenaean civilization is the historical setting for events in the Iliad and Odyssey.

30 min
Religious Culture in the Iliad and the Odyssey

29: Religious Culture in the Iliad and the Odyssey

The Dark Age following the Mycenaean era saw a drastic decrease in the scale and quality of life in Greece. Writing disappeared, and memories of the Mycenaean era were preserved in oral stories of gods and heroes, most notably in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

30 min
Religious Culture in Archaic Greece

30: Religious Culture in Archaic Greece

This lecture covers the religious culture of the Archaic Age, a period of robust growth and development that established the basis for Classical Greek culture. Two poetic works, the Homeric Hymns and Hesiod's Theogony, give insight into prevailing beliefs and attitudes towards the gods in the Archaic Age.

31 min
Greece—How Things Came to Be

31: Greece—How Things Came to Be

The Greek story of creation in Hesiod's Theogony resembles myths from Egypt and Mesopotamia. Similarly, the Greek story of the flood has many points of contact with the Mesopotamian stories of Atrahasis and Ut-napishtim, as well as with the biblical story of Noah.

30 min
Greece—The Goddess

32: Greece—The Goddess

Although goddesses in polytheistic religious cultures often have associations with fertility, most of them develop beyond this primary identity. This is the case in Greece, where goddesses represent a range of female activities. We look at three: Athena, Demeter, and Aphrodite.

30 min
The Classical Era in Greece

33: The Classical Era in Greece

The Classical Era in ancient Greece fell between the Persian wars and the death of Alexander the Great, when Greek city-states, especially Athens, achieved a remarkable political and cultural synthesis. Greek philosophy from the period saw human reason as a part of divine nature and pursued the virtuous life based on knowledge of the good.

30 min
Greece—Philosophy as Religion

34: Greece—Philosophy as Religion

During the Classical Era many of the elite rejected mythology as unworthy portrayals of the gods, and turned to philosophy as an alternative. We look at philosophy as a means of gaining insight into the divine world and bringing human behavior in line with the divine will.

32 min
Religious Culture in the Hellenistic World

35: Religious Culture in the Hellenistic World

The conquests of Alexander the Great were accompanied by the growth of Hellenistic culture, as key elements of Classical Greek culture were imposed on the subject nations. Religious synthesis arose when gods, rituals, and mythology of one religious culture were combined with those of another.

30 min
Mystery Religions in the Hellenistic World

36: Mystery Religions in the Hellenistic World

The Hellenistic Era saw a return to the worship of earth-based gods by groups practicing secret rituals. The gods of these "mystery religions" were often fertility deities whose myths were reinterpreted as stories of death and rebirth. We look at these cults as expressions of religious yearnings of the period.

30 min
Mystery Religions from the East

37: Mystery Religions from the East

Apuleius's novel The Golden Ass provides information about two mystery religions: the cult of the Syrian goddess and the mysteries of Isis. The Syrian goddess resembles the Great Mother worshiped in Asia Minor, while Isis came the closest of any ancient god to being the focus of a worldwide religion.

31 min
Roman Religious Culture Before the Empire

38: Roman Religious Culture Before the Empire

We turn to the religions of ancient Rome by considering its religious culture in the centuries before the beginning of the Roman Empire. The Romans believed the cosmos was suffused with spiritual power they could perceive in groups, places, activities, and the objects of everyday life.

33 min
Rome—Saviors and Divine Men

39: Rome—Saviors and Divine Men

Augustus Caesar was accorded divine honors in his lifetime, reflecting the era's need for "savior" figures—gods or humans with the spiritual power to aid suppliants. Another sort of savior was the "divine man," endowed with divine power manifested in wisdom and miraculous works.

31 min
Rome—Divination, Astrology, and Magic

40: Rome—Divination, Astrology, and Magic

This lecture looks at three strategies for dealing with the forces of fate: divination was used for discerning the will of the gods in a given situation and gauging how to please them; astrology provided insight into divine intentions; and magic was used for healing, love charms, cursing, and thwarting curses.

31 min
Rome—Critics and Charlatans

41: Rome—Critics and Charlatans

We consider philosophical critiques of Greco-Roman religious traditions. These include attacks on religious beliefs as either unworthy of the true nature of the gods or inconsistent with worldly reality, and criticism of religious people as hypocritical con artists or gullible fools.

31 min
Jesus of Nazareth as a Figure in History

42: Jesus of Nazareth as a Figure in History

In this lecture, we start with the hypothesis that Jesus believed he was called to reform the Judaism of his time. This idea is tested and supplemented with widely accepted historical data about Jesus. The result is a theory of Jesus' intentions consistent with his standing as a unique religious thinker.

31 min
Creating Jesus Communities

43: Creating Jesus Communities

The Jesus movement began as a sectarian group within Judaism, with its own rituals and prayers. We discuss the movement's growth and development as a nonconforming religious community in the early Roman Empire, and the break with Judaism that left it open to persecution by Roman authorities.

31 min
Living and Dying for the God(s)

44: Living and Dying for the God(s)

The idea that death is sometimes preferable to life has a strong grounding in the Greek religious and philosophical tradition. We discuss the idea of martyrdom, and the idea that a person's philosophical or religious convictions are best demonstrated by a fitting death.

30 min
Women's Religious Roles in the Early Empire

45: Women's Religious Roles in the Early Empire

We discuss women's participation in Roman, Jewish, and Christian religious cultures, which included both domestic and official duties. For example, the Vestal Virgins performed priestly duties for the Roman state, and early Christian women served as congregational patrons and missionaries.

31 min
The Jesus Movement in the Greco-Roman World

46: The Jesus Movement in the Greco-Roman World

Responses to a series of crises in the late 1st century shaped the New Testament and other works of the Jesus movement. We discuss reactions to the Jesus movement among Roman elites, and the movement's attempts to explain its doctrines in philosophical terms.

33 min
The Death and Rebirth of the Old Gods

47: The Death and Rebirth of the Old Gods

Christianity steadily gained strength in Roman society from the late 2nd century onward. This lecture considers how the polytheistic religious heritage of the ancient Mediterranean world was overcome by a triumphant Christianity, and to some extent, synthesized into it.

30 min
Conclusion—Persisting Ideas and Yearnings

48: Conclusion—Persisting Ideas and Yearnings

In this final lecture, Professor Holland reviews the major themes of the course and discusses some of the enduring ideas characteristic of ancient Mediterranean religious culture that still exert an influence on religious thinking in the West today.

31 min