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Greek Terracotta Figurines on Delos Testify to Pre-Christian Religious Tolerance

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In the second century BC, residents on the Greek island of Delos saw nothing wrong with using others’ gods in their prayers. Caitlin Barrett, Cornell assistant professor of classics and author of Egyptianizing Figurines From Delos: A Study in Hellenistic Religion, examined terracotta figurines found on Delos to determine what influence Egypt’s religion had on the Hellenized inhabitants and their daily lives.

Terracotta figurines are potential evidence for the religious ideas of a wide swath of the population, not just the rich. Such inexpensive figurines were accessible to many because they could be made rapidly and in bulk. Figurines of Egyptian gods appear as offerings at Greek gods’ temples on Delos and vice versa. Barrett explains:

The fact that somebody’s dedicating a figurine of a Greek goddess like Aphrodite to an Egyptian goddess like Isis suggests that the two were associated, or at least that their worship wasn’t considered incompatible. Greeks saw these other gods not as alternatives to the Greek pantheon but as something compatible with their own traditions.

The religious wars raging around the globe today and ingrained religious intolerance attest to the current rigidity of religions, the consequence of the intolerant tradition of Judaism with its jealous god entering the west via Christianity—Judaism for goyim—and displacing the tolerance of Hellenism. At this earlier period the tendency in Egypt and Greece was the other way—towards toleration. Barrett notes:

What’s interesting is the degree to which these foreigners—Italians, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Syrians and Jews—interacted with each other’s deities and the cross pollination among worshipers.

Hellenistic Harpocrates with Egyptian Hairstyle and Upturned Torch

Although most of the figurines were produced by local craftspeople, many of them have iconography reminiscent of Egyptian deities. The Græco-Macedonian Ptolemies ruling Egypt at this time worshiped the Greek gods, while ceremonially serving the traditional Egyptian pantheon. Barrett says:

This led to the creation of syncretic imagery that combined aspects of both Greek and Egyptian traditions, and that could speak to members of this heterogeneous population. Some of that imagery wound up becoming hugely popular in the rest of the Mediterranean as well.

Delian craftsmen used techniques of figurine manufacture and conventions of artistic style that derive from Greek traditions, while conveying concepts that are fundamentally Egyptian. Barrett explains that Egyptians depicted children like adults with a finger to their mouth—because babies put their fingers in their mouths—rather than smaller and with the features of a child. However, in truth, Later Greek writers misinterpreted figurines of Harpocrates as a child to mean, from the characteristic gesture of his forefinger to his lips, that he was silencing people, and he became thought of as the god of silence and secrecy. To the Egyptians he was the symbol of the reborn sun and early vegetation, whence the upturned torch in the illustration (not a figurine from Delos), and his being a child (in the illustration having childish features and an Egyptian side lock of hair).

To pretend that Christianity avoided any trace of syncretism, as fundamentalists argue, is quite absurd. Many, perhaps most, Christian traditions and calendar dates copied ones already in use by older religions. Christmas is merely the most obvious example. It is a massive shame Christianity did not adopt and practice Hellenistic toleration too.

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