Sacred Messages & The Written Word

Sacred Writing

Messages from God

The importance of the written word can be seen in the number of religions that have sacred texts, and in how often it is claimed a god wrote those texts.

Examples of Ancient Writings

  • The Egyptians believed that the ibis-headed Thoth, the scribe of the gods, gave humanity the gift of writing.
  • The Assyrians believed it was the god Nabu who gave them the gift of writing.
  •  The Maya believed that Itzamna, the son of the creator, invented writing and books.

Sacred texts were distributed on a variety of writing materials prior to the invention of paper – and some, such as the Jewish Torah, are still preserved handwritten on animal skin.

Paper: Paging Through History
Paper: Paging Through History

Mark Kurlansky

How Did The Days Of The Week Get Their Names?

Sun and Moon

Weekly Seven-Day Cycles

The idea of dividing the cycle of the moon into four seven-day weeks may have begun in Babylon. In its familiar modern form, it probably derives from a Jewish model, echoing the story of Creation as told in Genesis, in which God, having made the world in six days, rested on the seventh – and ordered humanity and their animals to do likewise. As a result, every week connects us to the beginning of time itself, as the days plot the round of our work and leisure, the recurrent rhythm of our existence.


Our Language and Beliefs

The weekday names depend on our language and our beliefs. The names that we give the weekdays in English are an inherited meditation on the cycles of time, as we observe the pattern of the sun, the moon and the planets circling above us – though the story they tell us is for English-speakers only, since nobody else’s week is quite the same as ours.

Days Named After Gods

Sunday, Monday – the week begins with the sun and the moon, whose separate movements mark the months and years. After them, come the days of the easily visible planets. In Romance languages, this is Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus – the sequence that the Romans followed and left behind.


In England, around the seventh century, the planets tethered to the gods of Rome were renamed for the equivalent northern gods, and it is their Anglo-Saxon names – Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Frige – that distinguish the days for English-speakers on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Saturday, the Anglo-Saxon gods are joined by Saturn, which retained its Latin name, making our week, like our language itself, a peculiar German-Latin hybrid.

Cosmological History

Encompassing the different cycles of sun, moon and the five planets, every week thus implies not just a long span of many years, but also the company of gods and the vastness of space itself. In the names of our days is the entire solar system – the time-space continuum as it was known in the ancient Mediterranean world and transmitted to the north of Europe. The turn of the week is – in English – a concise cosmological history, in which we still live every day with the gods of our ancestors inhabiting an ancient, but stable structure of time.

Living With the Gods
Living With the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples

Neil MacGregor

Background on Neil MacGregor

How Did The Ancient Games Shine A Spotlight On The Roman World?


Diversity of the Games

The Roman games were a religious festival held in honor of Jupiter. The sheer diversity of the games amounted to a celebration of the immensity of the Roman world. They consolidated the ancient bond between the plebs (Roman citizens) and the Senate. Nobility turned out in force to attend the games.

The games were more than a grand parade of the nobility – they were a time of wonder for all. Huge stocks of gold evaporated in a week so the amphitheater could be turned into a place of miracles. For a blessed moment, the rules of normal life were held in suspense.

The diversity of the games included tightrope walkers, ballet dancers, amphitheaters filled up with water for naval spectacles, and fountains with perfumed water. But, above all, the animal world poured into the city – from all over, all to Rome.

Animals Imported for the Games

  • Crocodiles from the Nile.
  • Irish wolfhounds from Britain.
  • Lions from north Africa.
  • Antelopes & gazelles from the Sahara.

What the Animals Represented 

  • Like the empire itself, their capture and eventual slaughter represented a triumph of human order over a savage world.
  • Most beasts were lethal – they were destined to be slaughtered, by skilled huntsmen, armed with pikes, who were the matadors of the classical world.
  • Beasts were slaughtered in a solemn mood.

What happened in the amphitheater was more than a blood sport – it was a fortifying lesson in the triumph of civilization. The activities celebrated the victory of human energy, human skill, and human courage over the wild. For this reason, “human animals” also made their appearance – and, like the rest of the animals, they were destined for slaughter.


Saxon prisoners of war were sent to Rome to serve as gladiators, condemned to fight to the death in front of the Roman people. The deaths of such prisoners, rounded up from the coasts of the English Channel, were intended to make plain, in the middle of Rome, the most magical of all energies – the eternal victory of empire along the frontiers of the North.

Christian Nobility and the Games

The bronze tokens issued on the occasion of the Roman games show that representatives of Christian noble families presided at the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum over spectacles that were as thrilling, as cruel, and as calculated to cause the raw, pre-Christian adrenaline of worship for the city and the empire to flow in their veins just as any pagan family.

Through the Eye of a Needle
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Peter Brown

Background on Peter Brown

How Do Stories Shape And Give Meaning To Our Lives?

Stories & Meaning

Our Need for Stories

We humans have a compelling need for stories that order our memories and hopes, and give shape and meaning to our individual and collective lives. A society with a belief in something that goes beyond itself, a narrative that goes beyond the immediate and beyond the self, seems better equipped to confront threats to its existence, to survive and to flourish.

Societies Exists Through Stories

At the beginning of the 20th century, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that without such overarching stories there can in fact be no society. Those stories, the ideals they illustrate and the ceremonies in which they are enacted constitute for Durkheim the essential elements of any society of communal belief – and, in a sense, the stories are the society. If, for whatever reason, we lose or forget them, in a very real way we, collectively, no longer exist.

Systems of Belief – Narratives of Meaning

Systems of belief almost always contain a narrative of how the physical world was created, how the people came to be in it, and how they and all living things should inhabit it. But the stories and associated rituals usually go far beyond that. They tell members of the group how they ought to behave to one another, and crucially they also address the future – those aspects of the society that will endure as succeeding generations come and go. They embrace the living, the dead and those still to be born, in one continuing story of belonging.

Stories Become Embedded in Everyday Life

The most powerful and most sustaining of any society’s stories are the work of generations. They are repeated, adapted and transmitted, absorbed into everyday life, ritualized and internalized to such a degree that we are often hardly aware that we are still surrounded by the tales of distant ancestors. They give us our particular place in a pattern which can be observed but not fully understood – and they do it almost without our knowing it.

Cover art
Living With the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples
Neil MacGregor




Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor

Born 1946

. Wikipedia

Robert Neil MacGregor, OMAOFSA, is a British art historian and former museum director. He was the editor of the Burlington Magazine from 1981 to 1987, then Director of the National Gallery, London, from 1987 to 2002, Director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015, and is currently the founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

MacGregor has made many programs for British television and radio. In the year 2000, he presented on television Seeing Salvation, about how Jesus had been depicted in famous paintings. More recently, he has made important contributions on BBC Radio Four, including A History of the World in 100 Objects and, in 2012, a series of fifteen-minute programs after The World at One called Shakespeare’s Restless World, discussing themes in the plays of William Shakespeare.

Books Neil MacGregor has written include:



What Did “Pagan” Mean In Ancient Rome?

Ancient Rome

Evolution of the Term “Pagan”

The word pagan itself only began to circulate widely in the 370s AD. It was a word used in a religious sense only by Latin Christians. And, Hellenes, meaning followers of the religion of the ancient Greeks, was the term used by Greek Christians.

Originally, pagan had nothing to do with religion. The term pagan is derived from paganus, a Latin word, which originally meant a mere civilian – a person who did not enjoy the honors and prestige attached to service of the emperor. Christians used the term to brand those who did not serve the true emperor, Christ. Such persons (pagans) were outsiders – they were not fully enrolled members of the empire of God.

Pagan was not necessarily a hate word. It was often used in a relatively neutral manner as a convenient, idiomatic term for non-Christians.

Was Symmachus a Pagan?

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (345-402 AD), better known simply as Symmachuswas a Roman statesman, orator, and man of letters. He sought to preserve the traditional religions of Rome at a time when the aristocracy was converting to Christianity. He “worshipped the gods” as he had always done.

Symmachus was the first person of Roman nobility who was forced to adjust to what amounted to an unprecedented situation. He was being labeled by others in confessional terms as a pagan, yet it wasn’t a label he would have chosen for himself. He did not see his fellow Romans (Christians or non-Christians) as divided between insiders and outsiders in this sectarian manner.

Whatever their beliefs, Symmachus wished to treat members of his class as peers held together by Rome’s old-fashioned “religion of friendship.” Symmachus was neither inert nor oblivious to the world in which he lived. He simply had better things to do than apply religious labels to his friends and colleagues.

Being Aware of Historical Trends

When considering how use of the term pagan evolved, it can be seen that we moderns are the heirs of what originally were novel Christian attitudes, which only became fully public in the 370s and 380s AD.

Through the Eye of a Needle
Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Peter Brown


Peter Brown
Peter Brown
Born 1935

Peter Brown is Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. He is credited with having brought coherence to the field of Late Antiquity, and is sometimes regarded as the inventor of the field.

Brown’s work has concerned, in particular, the religious culture of the later Roman Empire and early medieval Europe, and the relation between religion and society. He is a prolific author and editor, and has won prizes in the field of ancient history.

Books Peter Brown has written include: