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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 4.4 out of 5 by 60.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Worthwhile Study Companion “The Pagan World: Ancient Religions Before Christianity” deserves to be recommended. For me, it filled in gaps in the history covered by other courses. Its greatest strength was its rich sum total of content, presented by Dr. Hans-Friedrich Mueller, a knowledgeable and insightful lecturer. His occasionally wry or ironic manner took a little getting used to, though, and I considered his opening two lectures lacklustre, with too much time spent recounting autobiographical information best reserved for the guidebook. I encourage other students to avoid hasty judgement of the course, as I am extremely glad that I stuck with it to its conclusion. I warmed considerably to the professor’s style and now admit that he taught me plenty! Here are some of the best points gained from this video course: * Ancient pagans recognized “the supernatural” in “the natural.” * A deity like Zeus was acknowledged as having a multitude of manifestations. There were local Zeuses and household Zeuses, for example, with what one might consider different guises or personae. * The Assyrians were to the Babylonians as the Romans were to the classical Greeks, with the later culture in each pair absorbing and adapting much of the religion and mythology of the earlier culture. * The complexity and variety of ancient practices of sacrifice, consultation of oracles, and participation in cults was made more clear to me than per explanations in other courses. * A distinction was pointed out between promises and vows in the context of ancient religions. * Patriarchal worldviews permeated a great many aspects of pagan cultures. * The professor shared considerable political history of the Roman Empire, which I regarded as a bonus, alongside his avowed focus on religious history. * Lecture #24 on the waning of paganism was particularly clear and memorable. * Some of Dr. Mueller’s analogies (e.g., one between the ancient requirement to perform rituals precisely and the present-day need to spell e-mail addresses just right if one wants to get messages through) were choice. Here are some relative weaknesses: * Frequent and fairly lengthy quotations (such as from Homer’s and Ovid’s epic poetry, the Rigveda, Hebrew scriptures, and other sophisticated source materials) were recited without their words appearing on-screen. To me, this was a particularly significant presentational weakness. A technique used in many other Great Courses, whereby a professor appeared in an inset while recited texts were showcased, would have been helpful here, especially since unfamiliar vocabulary and names were involved and the present course’s guidebook did not include a glossary. * Illustrations accompanying the professor’s words were sometimes out of synch with, or actually contradicting, what he was saying at the time—the most egregious such error being that a pen-and-ink drawing by Carle van Loo of the human sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia appeared on-screen while Dr. Mueller was saying that many ancients sought healing at the shrine of Asklepios! * Some maps were displayed lacking labels altogether or with inadequate labelling. * The studio background and the music introducing lectures seemed unnecessarily gloomy. I was disappointed that Dr. Mueller did not say much about pagan myths and religions of Northern Europe; however, since such had never been advertised in the course overview, I did not factor that disappointment into how I rated the course. Overall, it’s a very good course—don’t miss it.
Date published: 2023-05-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, thorough overview... Good, thorough overview... at times it was dry, especially when the professor would rattle off the names of the most miniscule of gods. Wish he had spoken about Norse-Germanic Heathenry (guessing that wasn't his area of expertise). I agree with other reviewers that it would have been better with more visuals.
Date published: 2023-03-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing and enthralling course I really have enjoyed this course. Dr Mueller is an amazing teacher and he keeps the course constantly entertaining and engaging. As a Neo-pagan I was really looking to understand how Ancient Religion was practiced and believed and I was not disappointed. He was never condescending towards these people or their beliefs but just kept things factual and entertaining. I was both enchanted and disgusted at times but it really gave me an appreciation for these ancient cultures from which we have inherited so much from. Bravo Dr Mueller I really hope you will have some future courses on Wondrium for me to enjoy.
Date published: 2023-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very well done! Informative and entertaining. The professor's delivery (and aside remarks) and makes this course well worth the time and money.
Date published: 2022-07-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not Quite What I Was Looking For The Pagan World? Ancient Religions Before Christianity? Great! I mean, we hear so much about the Greek and Roman gods, but there were other systems in Europe, too. Lithuania was officially pagan as late as the 14th century. Surely this was my chance to learn something about the religions that Christianity replaced, how they differed, how they were connected. You know... the Pagan World? Ancient religions, plural, before Christianity? Now, I don't agree with reviewers who found Professor Mueller arrogant or condescending. I think they're misreading his wry sense of humor. Nor did I find him boring. I thought his lectures were organized very well. He took some often extremely complicated information and distilled it into a neat, cogent narrative. I especially liked the way he always pointed out connections between ancient pagan terminology and modern English words. He's a good scholar and a good lecturer, and I like his poker-faced sense of humor. I think I'd really enjoy having lunch with this guy. Unfortunately for my expectations, Professor Mueller's idea of the pagan world stops cold at the Alps. Other than a brush with Mesopotamia and a few minor nods to Egypt, the course was all Greek and Roman, with heavy emphasis on Roman. So I'd have appreciated a more accurate title, like "Mediterranean Religions Before Christianity." I did watch the entire course, and I did gain some new insights. But a lot of it was ground long since covered in my education, and I spent a lot of time bored. Do I recommend the course? Yes, if you know what you're getting. Yes, if you have a sense of humor. Yes, if what you're looking for is the pagan religion of Greece and Rome and how it influenced society, politics and everyday life. No, if it's the post-classical period that interests you. No, if British comedies make you say "Huh?" No, if you're hoping to learn something about the Slavic, Finnic, Nordic, Baltic, or Celtic religions before Christianity. It's not a bad course. Not at all. I just should have browsed the lecture titles more carefully. That's all.
Date published: 2022-07-03
Rated 2 out of 5 by from We are returning this course. A topic we have had an interest in, but this is a very uninspired and unenthusiastic presentation.
Date published: 2022-06-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Classical Background revisited In my first year of high school, I was ‘taught’ a subject called Classical Background. It was taught by bemused history teachers to even more bemused students. Most of us never understood a word of it and never took it seriously. I’m pleased to report that this course ‘The pagan world:ancient religions before Christianity’ changed all that. Professor Mueller managed to condense a multitude of information into more manageable and understandable timelines and he did so in an easy going way so it was never too dry or boring. He enlivened lists of Gods or Caesars, for example, with anecdotes, witty asides or flourishes of Greek and Latin. He has an engaging manner and cleverly weaves the material across various eras and places in a straightforward but not simplistic way. The lectures always seemed too short and left me wanting to know more and, indeed, I am missing the course now I have finished it and will probably watch it again. I certainly learned a lot more from this short course than I ever did with the year of Studying Classical Background at school. I’m also looking forward to watching more courses with this fantastic Professor- Greek and Latin, here I come.
Date published: 2022-06-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Hail, Dr. Mueller! Entertaining and informative. Celebrate another triumph, Dr. Mueller.
Date published: 2022-05-29
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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

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

Greek 101: Learning an Ancient Language
Latin 101: Learning a Classical Language
The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity
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