The Nicene Creed: Ancient Defense Mechanism?


Justinian’s Nicene inscription from the Corinthian Isthmus. Dates to the 6th century CE. Ancient national security.

Hunched over a Greek inscription in OSU’s epigraphy center, I checked my translation again. It couldn’t possibly be right, could it?:

“φῶς ἐκ φωτός, θεὸς ἀληθινὸς ἐκ θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ…”

“Light from light, true God from true God…”

Yep, the opening line of my inscription was lifted directly from the Nicene Creed, the famous 4th-century profession of faith that distills all of Christian orthodoxy into one short passage. Inscribed in legible, albeit messy, handwriting, it bore all the hallmarks of the Late Antique period…poor syntax, imaginative letter-forms, and crosses. The fact that it mentioned Emperor Justinian, though, made it obvious:

+Light from Light, True

God from True God

guard the Emperor

Justinian and his

faithful servant

Victorinus as well as those

dwelling in Greece according to the living God.+

512px-Corinth_ast_2005129_lrgThis inscription was originally carved on a block on the Hexamillion Wall…a series of fortifications spanning the Isthmus of Corinth. At a mere 6.3 km wide, the Isthmus was the only land route between the Peloponnese and the Greek mainland, causing rulers to covet the land not only for its strategic value but also its commercial viability as a crossroads between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, merchants in antiquity used to transport their goods (and sometimes even their ships!) across the Isthmus on the Diolkos Road. Justinian wisely capitalized on this prime real estate, but stone and mortar alone apparently did not satisfy his defensive criteria. He required divine protection.

By invoking the Nicene Creed, this inscription not only broadcasted the emperor’s Orthodoxy but also called upon the power of God using a well-known formula. This strategy echoes other inscriptions intended to ward away misfortune, whether that be an enemy assault, plague, or demonic invasion. A similar block appears in the city of Miletus which reads:

Archangels! Protect the city of the Milesians and all the inhabitants!

Unlike the Hexamillion block, which only uses small crosses, the Milesian block includes esoteric magical symbols that were believed to harness and direct ritual power. Here we see two different strategies to defend imperiled space, one invoking God, the other archangels. However, early Christians had a panoply of options available to them for supernatural protection…some quite a bit less “orthodox” than Justinian’s pious inscription. The bishop John Chrysostom, for example, lambastes his congregation for wearing medallions of Alexander the Great around their necks: “Why rely on a Greek king when you can rely on the King of Kings??”

Today the Nicene Creed is synonymous with orthodoxy. Millions of Christians every week recite it in response to the question: “Christian: What do you believe?” But what does the Nicene Creed mean in an epigraphical context? Particularly when it closely resembles other Greco-Roman magical strategies?

As I’ve said before concerning amatory spells, Christians in Late Antiquity deployed any strategy they deemed effective regardless of “orthodoxy” when it came to magic. Although Christianity had blossomed in popularity by the 5th and 6th centuries, the Mediterranean world remained a religiously pluralistic society, enabling individuals who may have attended the basilicas on Sundays to appropriate indigenous practices into their own worldview. We shouldn’t interpret this as vestiges of “paganism” persisting in a sub-culture of semi-converted Christians, but rather, as culture’s inexorable tendency to assimilate readily available symbols and reinvest them with new meaning. Labeling this phenomenon as the intermingling of “Christianity” with “paganism” skews the social reality of Late Antiquity—a time when neither term was well-defined or used as discrete categories of classification.

Justinian’s Hexamillion inscription certainly proclaims Nicene Christianity, but the inscription joins a long tradition of employing stone to defend imperiled space. This should alert us to the fact that early Christians were a product of their immediate culture as much as we are today. Although we invoke symbols and discourses to differentiate ourselves from the Other, we may have a lot more in common with our neighbor than we think.

Further Reading:

Rangar Cline, “Archangels, Magical Amulets, and the Defense of Late Antique Miletus,” Journal of Late Antiquity, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring 2011, 55-78.


Animal Sacrifice, the Other, and the Day I Almost Fainted in Class

Sacrifice_boar_Louvre_G112When you research ancient magic, you acclimate to a world of weird, unorthodox, and downright gruesome rituals. Harvesting body parts for a spell? Graphic descriptions of ritual mutilation? Smearing animal dung on yourself for invisibility powers? Meh. I’ve read it all. So for all intents and purposes I’m impervious to being rattled by strange and disturbing rituals…right?

Well…apparently not…since I almost fainted in class after watching the beheading of a baby goat.

Seldom does Greco-Roman religion capture the attention of a class full of undergraduates, so what better way to rouse interest in Roman cult than showing an actual sacrifice? My professor pulled up this video—the sacrifice of a little goat in the West Bengal town of Tarapith in 2011.

She assured us that although she “could have found videos a lot worse than this,” anyone could close their eyes if it proved too much to handle. Of course, I wasn’t going to do such a thing. I, like any self-respecting expert in ritual, would watch with rapt attention and a scholarly eye to detail.

I watched as the priest flicked the goat with water, prayed over it, and stroked the weapon that would soon end its life. The video then reached a fevered pitch. With the drums pounding in the background, the priests carried the goat to the stake, pulled its legs back, and stretched its neck out as it bleated piteously. The sound was truly disturbing and shocked me out of my detached objectivity.

The priest then chopped its head off. No fanfare. No incantation or prayer. Just a hefty blow to the neck.

This didn’t disgust me. I felt more a sense of macabre fascination as the priests tossed the twitching body aside as if nothing happened. But as I ruminated over what I just saw (“wow, things really do twitch after decapitation!”), I started feeling lightheaded. First just simple dizziness. But then the voice of the professor became strangely distant, and I recognized the onset of a vasovagal syncope.

Somehow in the midst of my stupor, I had the mental wherewithal to feign taking notes on my iPad. Anything to save face as the only graduate student in the room right? I wouldn’t ever live it down.

Thankfully I recovered quickly enough. Shaken and sweaty, I sat back in my chair and brooded. What just happened? I’ve been raised in the Christian sub-culture. I’ve been reading about animal sacrifices since 1st grade Sunday school. Heck, I’ve been reading about human sacrifice since childhood if you count the episode with Abraham and Isaac. Am I really so shocked to see this for the first time? And even then, in a blurry YouTube video?

I decided the reaction stemmed from the radical “otherness” of the spectacle. For a modern churchgoer accustomed to well-tuned organs and dainty sippy-cups of grape juice as his idea of worship, beheading a goat is insurmountably weird or “other.“

This brings me back to a topic covered in an earlier post: how to exercise empathy in religious dialogue. One strategy to converse with “the Other” is to recognize the weirdness of your own religious practices in order to avoid creating a caricature. However, this recent episode illustrates how difficult this is. How can we honestly and openly dialogue between religions when sometimes the chasm of difference is so vast?

I have no easy answer. In fact, I’m apparently too ensconced in my own Western Protestant bias to even provide an answer. The true irony here is that animal sacrifice was the primary vehicle for relating to God for all the biblical heroes in the Hebrew Bible and a daily fact of life for many in the New Testament. Christianity’s modern iterations, in many (most?) respects, would be completely unrecognizable even to St. Paul. Like the sacrifice in West Bengal, the origins of my own faith are distant and foreign, and even though Christians like to cozy up with friendly characters like Moses or David, it takes a heavy dose of humility to acknowledge the difference in their religious experience.

As the British novelist L.P. Hartley quipped, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” This is the central challenge of the scholar and the layperson alike. We must excavate meaning from a culture that not only is foreign but is separated by millennia. Sometimes the differences appear insurmountable, but this should not discourage us from building bridges to the Other.