Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of January 21st - January 27th,  2000

Give Me That Old Time Religion

Columns Archive


   Roman state religion was inseparably bound up in politics, and was used, in part, to help manipulate the populace. In the early Republic, there was a genuine regard for the will of heaven, and the reading of the flight of birds and omens. But as the Age of Aries winds down, the spiritual spark wanes, and tradition attempts to preserve its essence in ritual in an arthritic embrace. We've already examined the social and political disintegration of the classical civilization, but it occurred on a religious level as well. Few really believed in the gods anymore.


A Divine Courier;
carried to Olympus
by the Eagle of Zeus

   After the wars, Augustus established the Pax Romana, bringing back security for the populace. He also rebuilt the temples and rededicated the state to the gods; and why not? Astrologers called for a New Age; Augustus the new 'Prince of Peace'. But the New Age was to eventually bring a new religious focus and dedication to monotheism rather than the old polytheism. The state was able, with its new found power and vitality, to prop up the old religion for a few, short centuries; but as the Aries-Libra polarity shifted to the new Pisces-Virgo equinoctical axis, Greek rationalism took hold. People developed a new, critical mind set which examined the material and practical realities at work around them. Any Age has built into it a fundamental hypocrisy. The Pisces-Virgo opposition manifested as rationalism during an age of mysticism. Eventually, this evolves as the development of the scientific method. But as Aries ended, the quality, and focus, of the old spiritual community, the old polytheism, began to waver.

   Centuries old customs, monitored by a priestly caste, fell into disbelief and disarray, as patricians sliped into political corruption, manipulating these powers for their own ends. Rituals, now devoid of their spiritual rudders, drifted on a sea of superstition, waiting only for the true heir apparent to take his rightful place as leader of the new religion centuries later.

   We tend to think in lofty terms when we picture the divine, its essence reflected in life around us. While the divine will can be seen in the flight of eagles (Zeus), or hawks (Horus), it can also be read anywhere, even in other feathered fowl. It is for this reason that Rome maintained the sacred chickens.


Cadmus battling the Serpent.
Note birds over temple.

   Interpreting the will of god through the chickens was simple.

   They were offered feed.

   If they ate, heaven endorsed the proposition.

   If they didn't, the reverse was true.

   In an attempt to coerce the situation, priests in charge of this process eventually learned to keep the chickens hungry until the appropriate time, and then feed them, thereby leveraging the opportunity for celestial endorsement.

   As the spirit of the divine fire of Aries began to flicker, Virgonian practicality took over, snuffing out the flame as only earth can.

   Ancient authors record many stories of omens, augury, and even the chickens. This is one which illustrates both a loss of faith in a dying system, and its results.

   When Claudius Pulcher, the Roman Consul, saw the augury of the sacred chickens before setting out for battle with the Carthaginians in the first Punic War, he realized they were not going to eat. Wanting to get on with the conflict, his anger got the better of him. Seizing the cages which held the blameless birds, he threw them overboard, with the words, "If they will not eat, let them drink!"

   In Latin, of course.

   In the ensuing battle of Drepana, he was soundly defeated, losing 93 of the 123 ships in the greatest naval disaster in any of the three Punic wars Rome waged with Carthage.


Symbolic Signatures

   Throughout the Age of Aries, many themes rose to prominence as a part of the sign of the times. Individuality, courage and heroism are among some of the most noble attributes, but it was also a time defined by war and conflict, as shown here by Cadmus (above), and Athena (below).

Athena, identified by her owl, battling a Titan

   It is entirely possible that the birds shown around these figures were part of a symbolic signature, establishing the identity of these gods and heroes. While the owl is easily recognized as Athena's bird, how many would be able to read her name today, written in Greek, over the owl? How much easier it is to simply see the recognizable symbol, and know that it is Athena?

   While this may seem self evident to some, remember that we are also looking back to a period of time when much of the populace was illiterate. As we have been examining through the last few weeks, this may have been part of a signature shorthand, to identify, and call upon, the power of the gods.


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