Philadelphia Seminar on Christian Origins

an Interdisciplinary Humanities Seminar
in its twenty-fifth year under the auspices of
The University of Pennsylvania
Department of Religious Studies
Philadelphia PA

PSCO Minutes
April 7, 1988

"Christianization and the Transformation of Local Deities"
Frank Trombley

Frank Trombley was introduced by Kate Cooper, who commented that she and David Frankfurter have so enjoyed his article in Harvard Theological Review ("Paganism in the Greek World at the End of Antiquity: The Case of Rural Anatolia and Greece," HTR 78, no. 3-4 (Jl-O 1985): 327-352) they were inspired to invite him to speak at PSCO. Trombley then remarked that this was the most concrete benefit he had so far enjoyed as a result of a journal publication. Then, on a more serious note, he prefaced his talk by commenting that this is a section of a larger work in progress (which was ultimately published as Hellenic Religion and Christianization, c. 370-529 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994).)

Trombley began his discussion with an edict from Theodosius II which states that as far as he knows, the empire is completely Christianized (this document is dated to 430-440), but the evidence suggests that the opposite was true. In this talk, Trombley focused on the fifth and sixth centuries, since for his purposes, the fifth century was particularly rich in material. He highlighted the standard problems in the study of antiquity — the fragmentary evidence, the randomness of archeological finds, and so on, and so he chose to rely on law codes, hagiographies, and inscriptions. His plan for the evening was to show some illustrative texts for this transformative process of Christianization.

Many of these texts concern the monks' problems with daimones (a term he prefers since it is more neutral than demons). In the 3rd-4th c., Plotinus, Iamblicus, and Porphyry all approached the issue of what daimones are and what their function was. He read a passage from Porphyry from the handout [note: handout was not preserved] "Concerning Abstinence from Animal Meats." In this text, the issue was sacrifice, not vegetarianism. Porphyry talks about good and evil daimones quite a bit in this text. The good daimones do good for people and are mediators, the evil ones are disharmonious in appearance, cause pestilence and drought, passion, ambition, and war, and ultimately try to trick us into thinking that these bad things are from the Gods. The magicians know the evil demons and worship their chief. Demons feed off the smoke of sacrifices, but are not able to touch the pure soul. This is one of the most thoughtful analyses of daimones, situating them between the Olympian Gods and man. This demonology also parallels the Christian. "Daimon" is sometimes used for deities, e.g., Artemis the Great Daimon (as she is sometimes called in inscriptions). Trombley talked about an optimistic understanding of the world among pagans when it came to these good daimones, where the rivers are personified with their own daimones and obey the appropriate instructions. As for the evil daimones of pestilence, fevers and drought, he talked about these in light of a demonology of pathological disorders. In the 5th/6th c., what were the options if a person was ill? Doctors were expensive, and fevers such as malaria could strike the entire body, resulting in a change in personality. Confining people and performing exorcism was less intrusive, safer, and cheaper than bleeding someone. The ecclesiastical demonology of illness was more attuned to healing than the medical technique of the time.

Trombley identified magicians, sorcerers, and poisoners as the enemies of the Roman order (to borrow a phrase from MacMullen). Through spells, these individuals attempted to control the evil demons. The fact that they existed and did this was widely believed among Christians and pagans, and widely feared. There was a consensus among the educated Hellenes and the monks about magic. However, Christian demonologies were more intriguing to Trombley. It is here that he find transformations of gods into demons, and even local deities becoming archangels, and he brings the following texts to demonstrate this.

The first text he brought was an inscription from Ephesus [Inscriften von Ephesos IV 1351?] in which Demeas boasts that he had taken down the image of the demon Artemis and replaced it with a cross. Artemis was a fertility deitiy who was represented in a somewhat frightening, and certainly superhuman manner. She appeared with rows of breasts down her torso, a large crown, and a stiff tunic down to the floor, covered with images of beasts. Trombley suggested that we compare this to representations of Christ and the martyrs, who were quite human and humane looking. This he attributed to a differing view of what reaches the divine.

The next passage came from the 6th century biography of Eutichius (577-82), another story involving a female deity. In this case, someone was tearing down a mosaic depiction of a story about Aphrodite to make room for an image of an archangel, when the demon living in the image of Aphrodite attacked him. This reminded Trombley of a passage from the Life of Isidore, where images are also discussed. In this text, a person looked at the effigy of a god and became enthused if the spirit of the god was present. This shows that there was still the idea around that the image was inhabited.

The third text was from Theodoret, about the destruction of a serapeion in Alexandria. This story relates to the fact that the idea that statues had the daimon of the god in them was a technique used by priests to impress people. Celsus argues that the cult statue was only an image, but for the priests in the trenches the power of this stuff was very important. The next inscription Trombley brought was IG vol. 2, fac. 1, no. 783, which is a late 3rd-early 4th c. Athena inscription by a pagan priest from Asia Minor. Two observations on this: he suspects by this time that cities were about half pagan and half Christian; and when a local deity became a demon according to the monk, he refers to this as "recategorization."

The next example comes from CIG, an inscription from Syria about the martyrion of St. George, which tells the story of what happed to a local pagan temple when it got taken over by the Christian god. In this case, the inscription says that a man named John had a vision in 515 and then built the martyrion which booted the local demons. Trombley observed that the latest examples of pagan survivals are from Syria and the east. He wondered whether a similar example existed in a pagan context, and found one. In northern Syrian in 324 ce a pagan man had a vision of his god and achieves success as a result, and dedicated an inscription to the god a tomb explaining what happened. Here we have analogous religious experiences, deities appearing to people on both the Christian and pagan sides.

Next Trombley spoke about Theodoret's Lives of the Monks. In this, the career of Thalalious is described. He was a monk working to convert the countryside by taking up residence in a temple precinct. This monk invades the temenos and the deities attack the animals in the countryside, and he has terrible visions at night. There's nothing in the story to suggest that the people were coming to him seeking conversion — the peasants were probably concerned about keeping the peace of the gods. The monk built himself a little cage and hid in it (for years, according to the story). The populace came to appreciate his ability to do healings, and he was able to convert the place to the divine dead rather than the false gods. He specifically calls the daimones "falsely named gods" — this is the clearest example of recategorization Trombley has found, yet unfortunately it does not name specific gods.

The last example is in answer to the question "what happens to the Gods when they are Christianized?" In Asia Minor an 8th c. text called the Miracle of Michael the Archangel is one answer. Near Laodicea, a temple was found with the eugenios inscription. A bishop had survived the persecution and rebuilt the church. There was a resevoir there from when this was a pagan site. The archeologist was convinced that the resevoir had to go with the pre-Christian temple, but Trombley suggests that the site had been cohabited by the Christians and pagans. This archangel text tells us the story of how Michael diverted water against the pagans, and in this miracle story provides a prehistory of the place. There was a sacred spring in this place which could provide cures, and an idol worshipper had a vision of Michael, who told him to go to the spring. He went there, got a cure, and built the chapel. Both Christians and pagans continued to go to the spring, but only those who invoked Michael got the cures. This is how Christianization occurred — maybe the story is a pious fiction, but the social reality of these groups both continuing to use the same sites makes perfect sense in Trombley's model.

See also the ensuing discussion.

For related materials, consult other PSCO presentations and discussions on the topic for the 1987-1988 seminar, "Principalities and Powers: Demons and Angels in the World of Late Antiquity".