The nature of lay religiosity in Roman Egypt from the 2nd to 5th centuries

Tamar Elderton-Welch

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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This thesis examines the forms and nature of lay religiosity in Roman Egypt from the second through to the fifth century A.D. I clarify not only the nature of lay religiosity but also locate its relationship to the social and cultural frameworks of Roman Egypt. I employ anthropological theory and readings of religion in contemporary and early modern societies to explore the relationship between religious practices and social structures. Previously much of the secondary
literature on Egyptian religion has retained a focus on ethnicity as a primary analytical frame or has followed a traditional trope of intellectual history in being interested primarily in origins and as a result has often been written within a predominant trope of ‘decline’.

My approach is to locate religious activity within frameworks of social meaning within Egyptian society and thereby understand Egyptian religion as a vital and inventive element within Egyptian social mentality. This mentality is dynamic in that it shifts in form and meanings in parallel with changes in Romano-Egyptian society. The Egyptian paganism I uncover is not a religion in decline. It is a religion that builds on traditions, yet is notably eclectic in drawing influences from a range of sources and inventive in developing new forms and cults in the
Roman period. The inventiveness of religious practices in Roman Egypt reflects an engagement with Mediterranean cultures, but I argue that drawing on cultural influences from outside Egypt is an attempt, in part, to understand and reflect the networks of power within the Roman empire.

Further, the Egyptian religious literature of the Roman period seems notable in the relative absence of institutional structures, hierarchies and authority. The hierarchies that emerge in the magical and Hermetic texts derive purely from religious knowledge and power, not from institutional or social status. I see Egyptian religion as emerging more fully from temple contexts and undergoing a quasi-democratisation through textual dissemination. This shift, together with
the eclecticism, produce a religious mentality which is more disordered and more anarchic. Within this anarchic potential there is both an oppositional potential to Roman imperial hierarchies and a profound uncertainty about the world (especially as reflected in the magical texts).

I argue that this uncertainty is reflected in particular cultic activity, but also corresponds to anthropological models of group and grid that suggests a profound shift in Egyptian religious mentalities and a questioning of the place of the individual and the community in the cosmos. I approach these problems through detailed analysis of a variety of literary and archaeological
materials, used and circulated away from the traditional temple. I examine the issue of change and continuity in traditional Egyptian religiosity in the philosophical Hermetica and the Graeco- magical papyri; and the rise of magic and its relations to individualistic religion. Key bodies of evidence include the magical papyri and the Hermetica.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Alston, Richard, Supervisor
Award date11 Mar 2016
Publication statusUnpublished - 2016


  • lay piety, roman egypt

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