The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Absolutely fabulous Professor Mueller is one of the most engaging presenters I've ever had the pleasure of listening to. He combines a facility with the subject matter, with well-timed delivery and a sense of humor so subtle you might miss it if you're not paying attention. I have laughed out loud many times at his sly "I merely report"-type comments. I'm half-way through the course, listening to each lecture twice and taking notes the second time. I had absolutely no background in the history of the classical world and India. I have a budding Pagan religious practice and wanted an academic foundation for the ritual work I am doing. This course is giving me this in a way that is compelling and yet feels rigorous. I was also hoping for an understanding of how misogyny has crept into these practices over the years, and Professor Mueller has not disappointed in that regard. I am tandem reading "The Alphabet Versus the Goddess", which parallels his course nicely.
Date published: 2020-11-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from ANOTHER GREAT CLASS FROM DR. MUELLER I really enjoyed Dr. Mueller's Latin course and I thought his humor added to the learning process of a fairly dry topic. I was very excited to see his course in a fascinating classical topic. I though his approach to the subject was excellent and his course was very enjoyable. I hope he get more classes on your site!
Date published: 2020-09-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course I thoroughly enjoyed this course. It was well presented and very informative. The instructor was a pleasure - very informed, has a dry humor. I will look for more courses with him.
Date published: 2020-09-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The greatest. This course is taught by someone who you'd like to have as a guest for a dinner party- smart, full of detailed knowledge of his subject, and constantly enlivening the discussion with wry wit and dry humor. I am sad I will no longer be welcomed as a student of "ancient religions and cult practices", but I'll continue to pursue my studies, and view all "my nights and days" as auspicious!
Date published: 2020-09-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well organized and well delivered. Very informative. Learned a great deal about Roman religion.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Entertaining and informative This is a great course. Very informative and interesting. The only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars was because he would tantalize with a topic and then saying he would talk about it later. He did that often enough that I got a wee bit frustrated. But the course itself was excellent.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The ancients were not idiots With passing of Daniel Robinson the appearance of Hans-Friedrich Mueller may be the best hope for genuine scholarly and intellectual distinction in the catalog of "great courses." For example, who else can throw out a reference to Paul Valery's essay "Notes on the greatness and decline of Europe"? He challenges you to take ancient religion and cult practices seriously, quoting Valery, "(the Romans) found in the entrails of their chickens more just and consequent ideas than are contained in the whole of our political science." Mueller's witty and erudite lectures--alas, to few--are a persuasive unpacking of that paradoxical judgement; and in the short time devoted to the subject he offers the best explanation of paganism's demise and the triumph of the Galilean. Especially not to be missed are the thoughtful and often profound questions in the course guidebook.
Date published: 2020-07-26
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointing Dr. Mueller started each lesson with this: "Welcome disciples of ancient religion and cult practices." I found this offensive and this is NOT how the course was described. I bought this course expecting history lessons about the beliefs and practices of how the ancients thought about and worshiped the gods of the ancient world so I could evaluate the surrounding cultures around biblical Israel to give me a greater understanding of the Old Testament and the people therein. I did not buy this course to learn to be a disciple of ancient religion and cult practices. Only to understand them intellectually. Also by the 4th lesson he already had stated twice that Yahweh began as a sky god (one of several). Well this is factually wrong. Yahweh is the God of creation who created the sky and universe (not as a sky god) but he was never worshiped as a sky god. He has yet to explain why he is stating this as fact. Several times he equates the biblical teachings with ancient beliefs in ancient gods or myths of gods. This is a narrative only devised to undermine the biblical teachings and I found it offensive. Even so if he had delivered on facts and information about the ancient gods and practices without assuming I am a "disciple" I would have continued the course for the facts and information which I did not find forthcoming. Very disappointed and have quit on lesson 4 because it did not deliver what was promised.
Date published: 2020-07-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An Exceptional Course, by a Gifted Lecturer. This will be a difficult review to write, for one simple reason: To set forth its merits in appropriate detail would result in a review few Great Courses regulars would take the trouble to read. So let me summarize. I'm a History guy. Majored in it. Did graduate work in it. Taught it for many years. Still devote most of my reading time to it. And this is a great course. Dr. Brad Gregory doesn't just know his stuff, he has thought about it deeply. He can present the most controversial topics - especially those involving the theological bases of various Christian denominations - with balance and lucidity. I've taught this period for years, and I was astounded at how much I had yet to learn about it. I have little doubt that Dr. Gregory is a Roman Catholic, and some of what he says runs counter to the mainline Protestantism I learned as a youth. But nowhere did I detect anything close to bias in his approach. Instead, he was scrupulously fair to every point of view. Beyond that, I would add that Dr. Gregory did not - as so many modern "historians" are wont to do - sit in judgment of men and women of another time, in light of the values of our time. He presented them, I believe, as they would wish to be understood - in their own terms. I cannot praise this course too highly. It would be a mistake not to include it in your Great Courses library.
Date published: 2020-07-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Exped to learn more about pagan myths, but the info was still somewhat interesting.
Date published: 2020-07-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Provides a lot of new insight into DaVince genius I use the Great Courses and Great Courses plus with their odf guidebook on each lesson for homeschooling a grandson whose doing high school and up level while still in middle school. And, both his mother (with whom I share homsechooling ) and I are learning right along with him. These are a wonderful resource for homeschoolers of all ages.
Date published: 2020-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from terrific overview of dynamics of language The Story of Human Language is a well taught course that provides an overview of the world's languages from prehistory to the present. The expected information of what languages are spoken where, how they are related or are unique, etc are covered in concise well thought out and clear lectures. The novel information was the dynamics of language, how languages fuse and change, how new languages arise and how written language slows the evolution of spoken language. The professor is a a natural teacher, smooth, well controlled, meticulously planned with a good sense of humor. Each lecture finished within +/- 30 seconds of the allotted 30 minutes!.
Date published: 2020-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent course, have this professor back for mor loved this course so much I cannot so how much, gave lots of knowledge and I really enjoyed it, am now watching the other courses this teacher has available.
Date published: 2020-06-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Religious Politics and Political Religion Excellent examples of how religion and politics were tied together in the ancient world. I appear to be the twelfth rater of this course. Read the previous eleven. They say it all. Perhaps he emphasized Rome a bit too much over other cultures; but, Rome was the "600- pound gorilla in the room" as far as the Western (Christian) World was (is) concerned. If you can not enjoy Processor Mueller's presentation …. well … what can I say. Being a bit of an actor does not hurt. The course Guide Book is one of the more complete of TGC's offerings.
Date published: 2020-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Auspicious lectures Twenty four times I was wished (as a student of religious cults and practices) for my studies, as well as my nights and days, to be auspicious. Twenty four times I vowed to look up the meaning of 'auspicious'. Here's what Merriam-Webster told me (in part): "showing or suggesting that future success is likely : propitious", and an as an example: "Such an auspicious start might have brought only honor and further triumph, but a witches' brew of scientific contentiousness, the temper of the times, and quirks in Dubois's own psyche soon derailed any pleasant development and turned Dubois's bounty into bitterness.— Stephen Jay Gould" I'm a fan of Gould mostly because his use of the English language is superb, as is his love of learning. Herr Professor Mueller is of the same mold. His presentation style is peppered with dry wit, of course, but his preparation and organization of this survey (college level), course is excellent. Although he can only hope to touch on the high points of such a rich and complex subject as several thousand years of religious history, lore, dogma and factoids, he manages inspire the student (of ancient religion and cult practices) to want to delve deeper into certain aspects of this 'pagan' world...since that world 'brung us to the dance', and created the world in which we live. I was particularly fascinated with his discussion revolving around the use of Greek and Roman (pagan) religion as a way to manipulate and control the general population through 'religious' interpretations and omens. It seems that the early Christian/Catholic establishment learned well from those practices. (I plan on following-up with 'The Rise of Rome' lectures by Prof Aldrete). Highly recommended (the 'guidebook' is excellent, btw)...if the times are propitious, and the sale/coupon gods will be rewarded.
Date published: 2020-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from just absolutely the best! With Great Courses I have been able to delve into Roman History, and specifically Roman Technology. I love the way photos are integrated with physical models showing exactly how the water systems, construction methods, and road making was done!
Date published: 2020-04-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from a German Professor,if there ever was one Although distancing himself a bit ironically from his forefathers the professor is an incarnation of a German protestant university professor, in his eloquence, extraordinary erudition and,well, a tiny bit to much love for his own voice...I, as an Austrian catholic was a bit irritated by rather bizarre and well-known and by and large debunked comparisons of the mother of god with pagan deities, but,taking into account, that the courses subject matter obviously is not exactly the centerpiece of the professors academic work, he manages to present a fine, highly interesting course...his occassional mannerisms were a minus in my humble opinion, but this should be a minor distraction, perfect complement to professor harls course ,which I would rate a bit higher overall; recommended
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Delivery of fascinating material! Professor Mueller delivers this historical survey of pagan religions with the same engaging dry wit as he employs in his teaching of Latin and Greek!
Date published: 2020-04-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worthwhile NOTE: This course has a warning for content that may offend some people. As one might imagine for a course in pagan religions, there is some sexual content and occasional street language vocabulary. This is a good course either for classicists or for those of the Jewish or Christian faith who are interested in the context in which their religions grew. NOTE: Dr. Mueller believes that the earliest Judaism worshipped a sky God and that this religion evolved into monotheism over time. However, he does not press this belief much in this course. This course surveys Indo-European, non-Judeo-Christian religions including early religions in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome. It also includes a brief survey of Zoroastrianism. The emphasis of this course is on Greek and Roman religious practices. I found Lecture 6 on Feeding the Gods: Sacrificial Religion to provide particular insight into the context surrounding the Tanakh or Old Testament. Dr. Mueller has an interesting, wry presentation style without trying to be comedic. He is clear and easy to follow. As an aside, he announces his birthdate in Lecture 1; perhaps he would take some of The Great Course offerings on protecting privacy information in the digital age. I got the video version but sometimes I played it in audio mode and I didn’t miss anything.
Date published: 2020-04-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Phenomenal content. Engaging instructor. Incredible value. Much better than the pagan religions class I took in college. I highly recommend this course to anyone interested in paganism in ancient societies.
Date published: 2020-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amusing Professor! I am so happy to have purchased The Pagan World Ancient Religions Before Christianity. Professor Mueller's dry sense of humor and wit kept me interested and engaged throughout the courses. I feel I know a lot about modern religion, but gained more insight having learned about the Pagan world! This is a "must purchase" for anyone who is interested in expanding the breadth and depth of their own religious understanding!
Date published: 2020-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Lecturer & Fascinating Material! Professor Mueller's teaching style is very approachable, interesting, and thorough. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2020-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I wish my professors were this good in college I've been trying to expand my horizons and explore topics that I don't come across day in and day out. This course certainly fit the bill and Professor Mueller's enthusiasm made me think I studied the wrong topic in college.
Date published: 2020-03-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Well-Done Overview This is a very well-organized and well-presented overview of the pagan world, primarily of ancient Greece and Rome, with brief excursions into the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, India, and Egypt, and with an excellent discussion, in the final lectures, of the transition to monotheism, with the emphasis on the Christian take-over of the Roman Empire. While I found this course fascinating - and while I have recommended a number of courses for all breathing human beings - I would suggest this one for those with at least some prior interest in this area. Because, unfortunately, so much ancient written material has been lost, and many details of ancient life were likely never recorded in the first place, many of the lectures can present only an outline of the life and beliefs being discussed. It is worth taking a good look at the detailed Course Overview before deciding, but very worth taking the course if you have any interest at all. Professor Mueller is excellent - remarkably knowledgeable, highly organized, and eloquent. He speaks with feeling and modulation which is a pleasure to listen to, and I found it easy to remain focused. While our professor makes it very clear - explicitly, multiple times - that he is speaking from the perspective of a classicist and not of a theologian, the implicit theological contrasts between pagan beliefs and practices and those of our so-called ethical monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) provide fertile ground for some deep ruminations about the pros and cons of both. The course may well be worth taking for this aspect alone. While I watched the video, the audio would be fine. And the Course Guidebook is quite complete and well-written. So - a very high recommendation for any with an interest in this area. Enjoy.
Date published: 2020-03-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Expropriating judaism I get calling jews Hebrews. I don’t get calling israel Palestine when Palestine was called israel. There’s something skewed about that. Also, reading from a prompter was so obvious
Date published: 2020-02-29
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The Pagan World: Ancient Religions before Christianity
Course Trailer
Early Pagan Religion in Mesopotamia
1: 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
2: 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
3: 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
4: 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
5: 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
6: 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
7: 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
8: 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
9: 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
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.


The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


Union College

About Hans-Friedrich Mueller

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.

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