The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity

Take a close, behind-the-scenes look at religion and life in the ancient Mediterranean world to see how early pagan religions helped shape the world as we know it today.
The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 35.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not a fan I'm gonna stay neutral on this course. Not a fan of the set design. I really disliked the dark set. It set a very somber mood for the course. Strike one. Not a fan of the lecturer. He did not seem friendly toward his audience. I actually felt he was talking down to, not with me. Strike two. Not a fan of the manner in which the topic was presented. It seemed more PhD to PhD than an attempt to enlighten the student. I guess this went along with the somber set. Strike three. There was lots of info presented, it was just not my preferred style. So, A strike out for me, but, that's just me. I see by the comments many found the course appropriate to their taste.
Date published: 2021-04-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Quite informative and well presented Professor Mueller is an excellent speaker and teacher. I have learned so much from this course.
Date published: 2021-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Pagan Religions I appreciated the professor's presentation style and dry humor. Even if you have previous knowledge of a lot of the material, I think you'll enjoy, and learn something new or get pleasant refresher. Plus, if you don't already know Latin and Greek, you'll get a few tidbits on origin of some common English terms. If purchased on sale, you probably can't go wrong here.
Date published: 2021-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Mueller is my favorite This is my very first Great Courses course, and I'm worried now that everything else will just be a little less awesome in comparison. Dr. Mueller is amazing. He is objective, clearly knows his stuff, and is also hilarious. I find myself laughing out loud at least once or twice a lecture. Much of the basics presented here were not new to me, but Dr. Mueller's delivery and command of the material and interesting little details make it completely fascinating. I wish he had more courses on here because I've never had a strong desire to learn Greek, but I guess I could always move to New York and take his classes in person!
Date published: 2021-03-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating material Dr. Mueller is a really gifted instructor. The course was informative, entertaining, and, I really enjoyed his subtle sense of humor.
Date published: 2021-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Illuminating for ancient practices While the course at least briefly touches upon non-western pagan practices, be aware that the content is weighted toward the Mediterranean region. Nonetheless, what it may leave wanting for global perspectives it may make up for in its depth of treatment for Egyptian, Greek, and Roman practices. The lecturer is clearly well-versed and strives to be objective and rely upon the archaeological record to present themes. The lecturer seems to have invested effort in respecting the perspectives of ancient peoples without overstepping to either judge or make suppositions about their experiences.
Date published: 2021-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very good lecturer! I have been interested in the subject for a long time and the lecturer made it even more interesting. It is a good idea to have a transcript which one can read after the lecture.
Date published: 2021-02-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating topic with a touch of humor. I went into this course not knowing what to expect, but after Dr. Mueller's self-deprecating introduction of himself I knew I was in for a special experience. Dr. Mueller covers the beliefs of the ancient world with an emphasis on Greece & Rome, with some attention paid to India, Mesopotamia and Egypt. He presents ancient texts with wry commentary. Take the trip with Dr. Mueller and find out which ancient civilization was so passionate about their ancient deities that there was even a god of door hinges. It's a very rewarding course.
Date published: 2020-12-31
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In The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity, you will meet the fascinating, ancient polytheistic peoples of the Mediterranean and beyond, their gods and goddesses, and their public and private worship practices, as you come to better understand the foundational role religion played in their daily lives. Because their religion circumscribed almost all aspects of life both inside and outside the home, it makes a wonderful lens through which to gain a deeper knowledge of their world.


Hans-Friedrich Mueller
Hans-Friedrich Mueller

The Latin language offers keys to more than most people can imagine…until they too learn Latin. I have devoted my life to helping others obtain the keys that they need to unlock the intellectual treasures that interest them most.


Union College
Dr. Hans-Friedrich Mueller is the Thomas B. Lamont Professor of Ancient and Modern Literature at Union College in Schenectady, New York. He earned his M.A. in Latin from the University of Florida and his Ph.D. in Classical Philology from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Before coming to Union College, he taught at The Florida State University and the University of Florida. Professor Mueller won the American Philological Association's Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Classics at the College Level, as well as two awards for excellence in teaching at The Florida State University. At the University of Florida, he developed a graduate distance-learning program in classics for high school teachers. In addition to writing numerous articles, Professor Mueller is the author of Roman Religion in Valerius Maximus, the editor of an abridged edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the translator of Andreas Mehl's Roman Historiography: An Introduction to Its Basic Aspects and Development. He is also the author of Caesar: Selections from his Commentarii De Bello Gallico and coauthor of Caesar: A LEGAMUS Transitional Reader.

By This Professor

The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity


Early Pagan Religion in Mesopotamia

01: Early Pagan Religion in Mesopotamia

Explore the ways in which the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia tried to understand, worship, and cultivate supernatural forces in the world around them. Learn how the Enuma Elish, the great Mesopotamian creation myth, mirrors human concerns we still address today—power struggles, gender issues, family discord—as it explains the origin of the world, its organization, and humanity’s place in it.

35 min
The Rigveda and the Gods of Ancient India

02: The Rigveda and the Gods of Ancient India

While most of the early religions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome have been supplanted over time, the early religions of India are still thriving today. Explore the ancient Rigveda, one of the four sacred texts of modern Hinduism. An ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns, it is alive with riddles, paradoxes, and as-yet-unsettled doctrines that leave plenty of room for stimulating speculation.

32 min
State Religion in Ancient Egypt

03: State Religion in Ancient Egypt

Explore how the Egyptian Book of the Dead and a pyramid inscription reveal the existence of Atum, the creator god who rose from primordial chaos to create himself and nine additional gods. But what happens to Atum when the cities of Memphis and then Karnak rise to power? Learn how political power and religion were interwoven in ancient Egypt.

30 min
From Myth to Religion: The Olympian Deities

04: From Myth to Religion: The Olympian Deities

While the modern world often thinks of the Greek gods and goddesses as myth, they formed the basis of religion in ancient Greece. Learn about this relationship between myth and religion and explore the fascinating puzzle of Zeus. Could Zeus have been a single god with many “persons,” perhaps somewhat similar to the single god of Christianity which exists in three persons? Or were there many different gods, each known as Zeus?

32 min
Household and Local Gods in Ancient Greece

05: Household and Local Gods in Ancient Greece

The daily life of the average ancient Athenian family wasn’t dominated by the gods who lived on Mt. Olympus, but by the gods who protected their front door and hearth and blessed the marriage bed. Discover the many ways in which these household gods were woven into the fabric of daily life and who was responsible for the household religious activities.

30 min
Feeding the Gods: Sacrificial Religion

06: Feeding the Gods: Sacrificial Religion

From the Mediterranean regions to ancient India, animal sacrifice played a central role in the relationship between people and their gods. Learn about the required elements for a proper honorific, atoning, or sacramental animal sacrifice. Discover the many ways in which the sacrifice benefitted the peoples involved—and what the gods required of the animal.

30 min
Prayers, Vows, Divination, and Omens

07: Prayers, Vows, Divination, and Omens

For these ancient peoples, signs from the gods existed everywhere—from the shape of sacrificial animal organs and the properties of smoke when they were burned, to the sudden appearance of birds in the sky, dreams, and more. Explore the many ways in which the people and their gods communicated with each other, and why no army would move forward to the battlefield without their soothsayers and priests.

27 min
Delphi and Other Greek Sanctuaries

08: Delphi and Other Greek Sanctuaries

Major sanctuaries attracted people from all cities and states and served to unite the Greek world. Explore the fascinating Temple of Apollo at Delphi and the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus. In addition to the expected altars, you might be surprised to learn about the sporting events, libraries, hospitals, and even racetracks at these significant shrines.

27 min
Cults and Mystery Religions

09: Cults and Mystery Religions

Public worship celebrations—such as the annual Panathenaic festival honoring the goddess Athena—provided a political benefit in unifying citizenry. But in addition, some gods were worshipped in private cults requiring membership and initiation rites. Learn about the benefits of such membership, both in this world and the next, particularly for women.

29 min
Philosophical Critiques of Paganism

10: Philosophical Critiques of Paganism

While most ancient Greeks worshipped, sacrificed, and celebrated as the state preferred, others had their own ideas. Explore the fascinating outlier philosophies of the Pythagoreans, Orphics, Stoics, Epicureans, and more. Most of these small, isolated groups were not a threat to the state’s status quo. But if the state felt threatened, it reacted forcefully, as in the execution of Socrates.

32 min
Greek Funerary Practices and the Afterlife

11: Greek Funerary Practices and the Afterlife

The ancient Greeks considered it a solemn religious duty to prepare the bodies of their dead, burn the bodies, and then bury them with a variety of household or military objects. Even long after burial, people continued to bring offerings to the dead, including food and drink. Explore why these rituals were significant to the state and became a powerful force for conservative values opposed to innovation.

29 min
Egyptian Influences on Ancient Religion

12: Egyptian Influences on Ancient Religion

Egyptian religion had a significant impact on the religions of the Mediterranean world, particularly Greek and Roman. Based on pyramid texts, coffin texts, and spells written on papyri, learn what these ancient peoples believed about the potential for a soul to become immortal, the location of the afterlife in the West, and why the dead needed nourishment from the living.

28 min
Ancient Roman Ancestor Worship

13: Ancient Roman Ancestor Worship

How did the descendants of the shepherds and criminal outcasts who founded Rome on the hills above malaria-infested swampland conquer the entire Mediterranean? According to the Romans themselves, their single greatest strength was their religion. Learn about the cultus deorum and how precise relationships with dead ancestors, as well as the gods, allowed the conservative Roman culture to flourish.

31 min
Gods of the Roman Household

14: Gods of the Roman Household

Roman gods were involved with every aspect of daily life. Explore the great pantheon of gods that influenced everything from doors hinges to meals to sex. Learn how women’s religious activities reflected their societal roles in that patriarchal culture—from the involvement of four goddesses and two gods to oversee the consummation of marriage, to the use of terra-cotta uteruses as votive offerings.

29 min
Gods of the Roman State

15: Gods of the Roman State

Rome was remarkable in antiquity in that this sexist, classist, and slave-owning culture incorporated conquered peoples into the Roman body of citizens. Discover how they also incorporated the gods of the conquered in a practice known as interpretatio Romana. Of course, summoning a deity from an enemy city was a formal process, as you’ll see through the fascinating stories of Juno and others.

31 min
Priests and Ceremonies in the Roman Republic

16: Priests and Ceremonies in the Roman Republic

Whose responsibility was it to care for the plethora of Roman gods and goddesses, maintaining appropriate worship and relationships? Learn what roles the four collegia of priests, the pontiffs, and the Vestal Virgins played in Roman religion. They played a crucial role in maintaining stability by calming the deities and keeping them on the side of Rome. In fact, the state’s survival depended on them.

34 min
Religion, Politics, and War in Rome

17: Religion, Politics, and War in Rome

Is it possible that one of the world’s greatest empires was based in great part on the art and science of birdwatching? Absolutely. The calls of the raven and owl, flight patterns of eagles and vultures, the eating styles of chickens—all were signs from the gods. Explore the college of priests, the Sybilline Oracles, and the detailed rituals of divination required before state officials could take any decisive action.

36 min
Rome’s Reactions to Foreign Religions

18: Rome’s Reactions to Foreign Religions

Rome incorporated many of the gods of its conquered peoples. But it could not tolerate people assembling on their own to worship without state supervision, or sexual activity that could undermine property rights. Examine the Bacchanalia, and see why Rome considered worshippers of Bacchus an existential threat to the state, and why the practice was violently suppressed.

35 min
The Roman Calendar and Sacred Days

19: The Roman Calendar and Sacred Days

The college of pontiffs was responsible for keeping track of all the gods and their holidays; the necessary public festivals and the seasons; as well as the days, weeks, months, and cycles of the Moon. But by historical times, the calendar was completely out of sync. Learn how and why Julius Caesar reorganized the calendar into a version very close to what we use today.

34 min
Julius Caesar: A Turning Point in Roman Religion

20: Julius Caesar: A Turning Point in Roman Religion

Julius Caesar began his public religious career as a teenager, and early in his political career announced that he was descended not only from kings, but from the gods Venus and Mars. Learn how he used his priesthood and political success (based in part on disregard for constitutional conventions) as well as military and financial success (primarily drawn from plunder and the slave trade) to become a dictator and have the Senate declare him a god after his death.

34 min
Emperor Worship in Rome

21: Emperor Worship in Rome

The deification of Julius Caesar represented a turning point in Rome’s religion. The polytheistic, state-sanctioned pantheon made room for new gods: the Caesars. Learn how and why Octavius, Caesar’s adopted son, instituted a monarchy that appeared to be a republic, and how the worship of his family and his personal authority transformed traditional religion.

34 min
Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians

22: Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians

Before Christianity, two major monotheistic religions existed in the ancient Mediterranean area. Explore the similarities and differences between Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and emerging Christianity, and how the empire initially accommodated their teachings and actions. You’ll also learn about the grievances on all sides.

31 min
Popular Religions of Late Antiquity

23: Popular Religions of Late Antiquity

In late antiquity, even after the initial emergence of Christianity, the majority in Rome and Italy held to the traditional religion and ancient gods. Explore the relationships between paganism, Manichaeism, and Isis worship at the time of the rise of Christianity and learn why Rome’s rulers could not accept or tolerate Christianity.

31 min
The End of Paganism in the Roman Empire

24: The End of Paganism in the Roman Empire

Individually, it was relatively easy for people to convert to Christianity because it offered many familiar aspects of traditional religion—life after death, community gatherings, a sacred meal, etc. But at the state level? Explore the many fascinating reasons why, after so many centuries of success with its own state-sponsored religion, the Roman Empire finally adopted Christianity as its official faith.

35 min