Would you believe it? A selection of ancient faiths ripe for revival

Stoicism has already made a comeback... so what other age-old beliefs can be repurposed for the 21st century?

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

Exciting news from the world of philosophy! Next year will see the 20th anniversary of the New Stoa, an online community of ‘all those who are Stoics and who wish to be known by the commitment they have made’. Stoicism, the philosophy of choice for sanctimonious Roman billionaires, is evidently making a comeback. Its appeal, to an age obsessed equally by smartphones and virtue signalling, is no great mystery, I suppose. Seneca, who served as Nero’s tutor and whose manipulation of the overseas currency markets may well have precipitated Boudicca’s revolt, was a Stoic. ‘Though finding fault with the rich, he acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces,’ wrote the historian Dio Cassius; ‘and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had 500 tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike.’ Truly, there is something timeless about ancient philosophers.

That being so, might they perhaps provide us with some further role models? If Stoicism can find buyers in today’s marketplace of ideas, what about other ancient philosophies, religions and cults? Antiquity, the breeding ground which gave the world its two most popular faiths, had so much more to offer than Christianity and Islam. Here, in the hope that it provides something for everyone, is my selection of ancient belief systems suited to the modern palate.


What are they all about? In the beginning existed the supreme deity Ahura Mazda, wholly wise, just and good, whose wishes were revealed to the world by his prophet, Zoroaster. Against him, so Zoroastrians taught, stands the principal of evil, Angrya Mainu. The two of them are engaged in a fight for supremacy spanning both space and time, and in which humans are fully embroiled. Zoroastrians are summoned to choose light over darkness, in the assurance that time itself will ultimately come to an end, and all humanity be judged. So ancient that some scholars date its origins back to 1800 bc, the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been immeasurable. Enshrined by the kings of Sasanian Iran as the state religion of their empire, it suffered grievous contraction under Muslim rule, but continues to be maintained to this day by some 150,000 followers. Londoners can find a Zoroastrian temple conveniently located in an Art Deco cinema next to Rayners Lane underground station.

Pros: Zoroaster, it is said, was the only baby ever to have laughed at birth: a legend that wonderfully expresses the moral beauties of this luminous religion. Anyone anxious about its take on hedgehogs should be reassured that they are much loved: ‘From midnight to morning they kill thousands of the creatures of the Evil One.’

Cons: Conversion is officially frowned upon, so it’s hard to join if you weren’t born into the religion. Zoroastrianism may not be best suited to people who like cats: its scriptures condemn them as the epitome of treachery. And those who don’t fancy having their naked corpse eaten by birds once they are dead may also have reservations.

Suited to: Anyone who likes a religion that believes in good and evil, the resurrection of the dead and a day of judgment, but wants something really exclusive. Star Wars fans.

Famous Zoroastrians: Zoroaster (if he existed); Darius the Great (possibly); Khusrow the Great; Freddie Mercury.

Zoroastrian, Freddie Mercury (Photo: Getty)

Zoroastrian, Freddie Mercury (Photo: Getty)


What are they all about? ‘We say that pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily.’ So declared Epicurus, a 4th-century bc Athenian whose garden in the city played host to a radically egalitarian community in which women and slaves were admitted as equals. Unsurprisingly, he was condemned in hysterical terms as a hedonist by his enemies. But Epicurus himself, abstemious and quite possibly bulimic, defined pleasure merely as that which removes pain. To that end, he recommended withdrawing from public life, rejecting anything that smacked of superstition and accepting his own authority as absolute. ‘Act always,’ he advised his followers, ‘as though Epicurus is watching you.’ Science, he taught, should be studied because it demonstrated that the gods were not worth worrying about, and sex — although he seems to have enjoyed droit de seigneur over his female followers — was dismissed as something that had ‘never profited a man’. Imagine the Mahirishi crossed with Richard Dawkins for a sense of how Epicurus might play today.

Pros: If you own a garden, can fund a commune of philosophically inclined layabouts, and feel that the object of life is to sit around doing nothing, then what’s not to like?

Cons: Adrenaline junkies are liable to end up very bored.

Suited to: Admirers of The God Delusion. People who don’t like politics. People with gardens.

Famous Epicureans: Epicurus; Lucretius; Thomas Jefferson; Christopher Hitchens.


What are they all about? A Jewish sect based near the Dead Sea, the Essenes were eulogised by Pliny the Elder, Rome’s equivalent of Wikipedia, as ‘a people unique of its kind and admirable beyond all others in the entire world: for they live in celibacy without women, without money, and having for company only palm trees’. Applicants to join the Essenes would first be obliged to serve a three-year period of probation, and then, on admission, submit to a strictly communal lifestyle. Pacifist, vegetarian and egalitarian, Essenes were expected to dress in white and never go anywhere without a pooper-scooper. The soul, so they taught, was immortal, ‘an emanation from the finest ether’, and human flesh merely a prison.

Pros: If Jeremy Corbyn strikes you as being a bit of a red Tory, then the Essenes will definitely tick your box — provided, that is, you overlook the fact that they were a group of Jewish settlers on the West Bank.

Cons: No bacon sandwiches.

Suited to: Guardian readers.

Famous Essenes: None.

No bacon sandwiches allowed

Essenes cons: No bacon sandwiches allowed


What are they all about? Galli were cross-dressing priests of Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess whose ultimate origins reached back to the Neolithic, and who probably holds the record as the deity who has been worshipped for the longest span of time. She was notorious among the Romans for driving her most frenzied followers to slice off their testicles. Processions in her honour — complete with flutes, tambourines and spectacular displays of self-laceration — were a common sight across the empire. Many Romans professed themselves appalled. ‘If a god desires worship of this kind,’ Seneca declared flatly, ‘then she does not deserve to be worshipped in the first place.’ Nevertheless, many Romans were attracted to the heady perfume of the counter-cultural that clung to the worship of Cybele. A first-person account by Catullus of a devotee who makes the ultimate sacrifice in honour of the goddess constitutes one of the most powerful and unsettling poems in the whole of Latin literature.

Pros: What could be less hip than being cisgender? So off with those testicles!

Cons: Off with those testicles!

Suited to: Exhibitionists. Masochists. Caitlyn Jenner.

Famous Galli: Nero is reported to have dressed as one on one occasion, and to have praised Cybele as the only goddess worth worshipping — but he then changed his mind, and urinated on her statue.

Caitlyn Jenner (Photo: Getty)

Caitlyn Jenner (Photo: Getty)


What are they all about? Odin, the All-Father of the Viking pantheon, was a god who combined deep wisdom with a relish for the surge and shock of battle. One-eyed, long-bearded, and sporting a broad-brimmed hat, he rode an eight-legged horse, and had two pet ravens who kept him up to date with goings-on in the world. Like Jesus, he once hung from a tree; like Allah, he had a multitude of names; like both of them, he was noted as a generous patron to those who merited his favour. They would gain invulnerability against the biting of iron; the fettering with paralysis of an enemy, who would find it impossible to lift his sword; weapons that sang in the heat of battle, with a loud and ringing sound. The surest marks of his favour, though, lay not in charms but in a ferocity so terrible as to render those possessed by it bestial. ‘Wolfskin-wearers they are called, who bear bloody shields in the slaughter; they redden spears when they join the fighting.’ As they howled and ran in packs at their prey, so Odin-worshippers would see the battlefield swept by red rain: a warp of blood.

Pros: Useful for dealing with rush-hour crowds.

Cons: Turning into a wolf might be awkward if it occurred at the wrong moment.

Suited to: Telegraph readers.

Famous Odin-worshippers: Ragnor Hairy Breeches, Ivar the Boneless, Erik Bloodaxe, Erik the Red.

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Show comments
  • blandings

    This Odin things sounds like my cup of tea.
    But you don’t mention chicks – Surely you get some good looking chicks after a hard days blood-thirsting. Maybe I should stick to being a rock star.

  • Muhmammad Aloha Snackbar

    When you speak in such mocking tones about Zoroastrianism, you are spitting in the faces of 2.6 million Zoroastrians.


  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    No one is really converting to Zoroastrianism and it is only mentioned due to the attacks on them by ISIS.

  • mumble

    I think “Famous Essenes” might be “Jesus (possibly)”

    • The Browning Version

      Never mind.

      • Richard Baranov


  • William Matthews

    I think the Sumerian pantheon should be due a revival. En:ki, En:lil, Anu and the boys. It’s a nice religion, no promises about the afterlife, chuck a coin at the temple, and all that ails you is either fixed or not fixed. Such is the gods want. Carry on with your life. I’d also like to see the updated version, the Roman/Greek Gods make a come back. Just think, we can all attend the debaucherous feast of Saturn: Women in skimpy Togas, wine, roast meat, big fires, more wine, women in skimpy Togas. (Twice for emphasis) Which would be a good deal more cheerful than babies in cribs attended by miserable farmers, not eating for 40 days or traipsing half way across the planet to stand in a big crowd to look a square building with a stone that may or may not be a meteorite in it. Or some other blood thirsty illiterate Arabs celebrating what ever it is bloody thirsty illiterate Arabs celebrate. Jew killing?

  • Birtles

    Mithras? Radiator on high on one side, freezer door open on the other. Easy.

  • King Zog


  • ecxxxaw

    Bring back Moloch. Never really liked kids.

  • JohnJ

    Thanks Tom – you must read American Gods It is the battle of the Gods in America for supremacy. The old Gods like Odin and the various native Indian gods battle it out with the new Gods – TV presenters…

  • Terence Hale

    Time to bring back Odin or as the Germans say Wōdan in the Ring of the Nibelungs. I made the Rhine gold in a time of Perplexity with personal relations I was pressured from many sides. In a decisive action I took the gold rings from my wife and three girlfriends and throw them in the Rhine at Büsingen am Hochrhein.

    • sidor

      Don’t you believe in Santa?

    • Hybird

      Did your wife and girlfriends survive the ordeal? I would not fancy being thrown in the Rhine. How much did you get for the rings?

  • sidor

    Famous Essenes: None


    John the Baptist, his pupil Jesus, Mani and his follower st. Augustine.

    • Callipygian

      The whole article is idiotic, surely?

    • douglas redmayne

      What is wrong with paganism?

      • sidor

        Nothing. Stupidity is a natural phenomenon: most of the people are unable to comprehend the concept of transcendental God, and, for that reason, believe in all sorts of funny crap.

      • terence patrick hewett

        The Roman Civitas comprised of the Urbs; the sub-Urbs (Suburbium) and the Pagus. After the conversion of Constantine it was the conservative rural Pagus who preferred the old way of doing things: hence Pagan: meaning “the hicks from the sticks”

        • sidor

          Constantine didn’t convert until 5 minutes before he died.

          • terence patrick hewett

            He certainly left it late: but it makes no difference to the root of the usage of pagus.

            The Hebrews of late biblical times did the same. Orthodox thought called country people ‘men of the land’ Am ha’aretz (עם הארץ) & viewed them as heretical since they had a tendency to combine Yahweh worship with older religions in groves & on hilltops.

          • sidor

            Two remarks.

            First, the Christian Romans after Constantine were still a small minority, at least it was the case when Christian Goths under Alaric conquered Rome in 410.

            Second, there was no unified Judaism 2000 years ago: there were different sects who didn’t like each other. After the distraction of the Temple only one sect survived.

          • terence patrick hewett

            Which again makes no difference to the usage of the word pagus To suggest that there was no orthodox Judaism at the time is a ridiculous assertion.

          • sidor

            2000 years ago there were sadducees, pharisees, essenes and other more radical sects like zelotes. Which one of them do you call Orthodox?

          • terence patrick hewett

            Within the three Abrahamic religions of the present day, which persuasion would you consider Orthodox?
            If we consult the first page of G K Chesterton’s book Heretics, he gives:

            ”Nothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern society than the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word “orthodox.” In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It was the kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics. He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them; they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security, the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State, the reasonable processes of law—all these like sheep had gone astray. The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stood alone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church.”

            As far as Orthodoxy goes: you pays your money and you takes your choice.

          • sidor

            I remind that you used the word Orthodox when discussing Judaism 2000 years ago. I am still waiting for your answer: which particular Jewish sect did you mean?

          • terence patrick hewett

            Your question was of the order “when did you stop beating your wife” Your answer was in my last post: all religions believe they are orthodox.

          • sidor

            Let’s try again. You wrote earlier:

            “To suggest that there was no orthodox Judaism at the time is a ridiculous assertion.”

            I asked you which of the Jewish sects existing that time you consider Orthodox. Still waiting for the answer. If you are unable to explain what you meant please let us know.

          • terence patrick hewett

            You appear both to lack a sense of humour and the ability to read : never the less;

            Happy Christmas! Which is the orthodox? The Gregorian or the
            Julian? Millions of people have died in the name of Orthodoxy: the art, music, literature and architecture of great cultures have been destroyed in the name of Orthodoxy. Millions of words have been written and great
            forests felled in the name of Orthodoxy. I agree with Chesterton: all religions regard themselves as orthodox and the most orthodox of the orthodox is the Heretic. The original text of that great nonconformist John Bunyan is powerful and poetic: The 17th century Bunyan is far closer to the spirit and vernaculars of the 14th century Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland than in many respects to the more contrived prose of his near contemporaries Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. But both would have regarded the other as heretical: and therefore of course Orthodox: very much like yourself!

  • grimm

    Ivar the Boneless?! Was that a real person?

    • Hybird

      He was. My favourite Viking name, though, is “Sigurd Snake-in-the Eye.”

      • Jeffrey

        they are, coincidentally, brothers

  • Rob74

    No mention of atheists. I suppose being right might be considered boring.

    • sidor

      They were (implicitly) mentioned when discussing paganism. Pagans can be divided in two categories: those who think they believe in whatever superstitions, and those who claimed to be atheists.

    • Anti_Theist

      Atheism is the lack of faith which is why it’s not listed

      • Rob74

        Do you need to have faith in stoicism?

      • sidor

        A small technical question: can you formulate the faith which atheists experience a lack of?

        • johnb1945

          Surely nihilism describes if best? Most atheists I’ve met are nihilistic to some extent.

          • Kuommentang

            And so does that render all theists Christians? Most theists I’ve net are Christian to some extent..

          • johnb1945

            That’s only because you live in a majority Christian culture.

            I know what you’re trying to say.

            Most ‘theists’ see intrinsic value in some eternal moral code which is part of a religion.

            Most atheists do not and this is often the basis of their atheism.

          • SPW

            Yes – an atheist can’t find God in exactly the same way a criminal can’t find a policeman.

    • johnb1945

      Or just being narrow minded yet convinced.

  • marvin

    I am a pagan – but I do not believe in any gods!

  • Wasmopolitan

    If you worship anything you are a bit silly.

  • Whitegold

    Anything but the true Christian faith.

    • anouther perspective

      this might be because the Christian faith is still worshiped and forced on others, also as a no Christian I would call it a false faith

      • SPW


        • King Kibbutz

          Exactly. But it’s a trendy jibe and gives morons the opportunity to comment. Don’t expect a reply, that would mean actual thought.

    • rationality

      You beat me to it. You would almost think there is an agenda.

      • oldoddjobs

        Are you both being sarcastic or are you both being stupid?

        • rationality