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What’s a Cult?

The word cult has an incredibly negative connotation in English. It is applied to counter-social, often deadly movements. But in the context of ancient Greek practices, it was a much more general concept, simply the way deities were worshipped individually. This is actually in keeping with the formal sense of the word in the early modern period. As Zeller notes: “The historic usage of the term ‘cult’ traces to the early modern period and the formal sense of the term – borrowed from the Latin cultus and the French culte – to indicate a system of religious veneration of a particular figure saint or deity”(pg. 27)

“Cults in ancient Greece were characterized by rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices dedicated to specific deities. That’s all. Well, it’s not ALL. They existed in a variety of contexts, but they were overall a normal, essential part of the society.

Table of Contents

Hero Cults

Hero cults were another integral aspect of ancient Greek ‘cult’ practices. Heroes, often legendary figures with divine ancestry, were venerated in a manner similar to the gods. These heroes were celebrated for their heroic deeds and were believed to provide protection and guidance to the community. Hero cults were especially prominent in ancient Greek city-states, where local heroes were revered as cultural and spiritual icons.

Civic and Political Cults

‘Cult’ in ancient Greece also had significant civic and political dimensions. We have the concept of the civic cult, worship performed to a city-state’s patron deity. Cults were closely tied to the identity of a city-state, and participation in cult activities was a way for citizens to demonstrate their loyalty and commitment to their community. Many city-states had their own unique cults and festivals, contributing to their distinct cultural identities. The offerings and donations made during cult rituals also had economic implications, as they often contributed to the upkeep of sacred sites and the welfare of the community.

Contrast with the Modern Definition:

The modern definition of ‘cult’ has evolved to carry predominantly negative connotations. In contemporary usage, a cult is often associated with a group or organization characterized by extreme devotion to a charismatic leader, unconventional beliefs, and practices that deviate from societal norms. This contrast between the ancient Greek and modern definitions of ‘cult’ is striking. This definition arose in the late nineteenth century, largely as a rhetorical tool against divergent strands of protestants.

1. Negative Connotations:

Unlike the ancient Greek ‘cult,’ which was primarily associated with religious and cultural practices, the modern usage of the term has a negative undertone. Modern cults are often seen as secretive, manipulative, and potentially harmful to their members.

2. Social Isolation:

Modern cults often isolate their members from mainstream society, whereas ancient Greek cults were an integral part of the social fabric. The ancient Greek ‘cult’ was a means of reinforcing community bonds and identity, whereas modern cults are often accused of creating isolation from friends and family.

3. Religious vs. Ideological:

Ancient Greek ‘cult’ was rooted in religious and mythological beliefs, while modern cults are more often associated with ideological or philosophical systems created by charismatic leaders. Given the overall nebulous nature of greek mythology and greek religion, there was no leader and no set ideology. The ancient Greek cults were part of a broader religious framework, while modern cults often exist outside established religious institutions.

4. Control and Manipulation:

Modern cults are often characterized by strict control over their members, including their beliefs, behaviors, and finances. In contrast, ancient Greek ‘cult’ practices were more decentralized, with various cults coexisting within a society, indeed, being PART of the society and allowing individuals some degree of choice in their religious affiliations.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the term ‘cult’ in ancient Greek society referred to a complex set of religious, social, and cultural practices associated with the worship of deities and heroes. It was an integral part of ancient Greek life, contributing to their cultural identity and reinforcing community bonds. This stark contrast between ancient and modern interpretations of the word ‘cult’ can be surprising for new readers and highlights the evolution of language and the shifting cultural contexts in which words are used, as well as the specialized jargon used inside of subject areas.

Bibliography

Zeller, Richard (2022) “Chapter 4 – Cult” In Contested Concepts in the Study of Religion – A Critical Exploration eds. George D. Chryssides and Amy R. Whitehead

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