Nonveiller, Paganism in 7th century Byzantium

Paganism in 7th century Byzantium: the dynamics of exclusion and inclusion that defined Orthodoxy

Elena Nonveiller (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris)

This paper aims to contribute to efforts to define the conception of  “paganism” elaborated by the imperial and ecclesiastical byzantine authorities in the late 7th century AD in the canon law collection so-called Quinisext Council or Council in Trullo (692 AD). This codification constitutes a milestone in the development of the canon law collections of the Orthodox Church in the Greek East. Although the canons were formulated ostensibly to complement the work of the Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils, their real purpose was the ideological defense of Christian identity by fortifying the social order in response to political and religious crises. They represented an immediate response to current historical threats (economic, political and social crisis and the Arab and Bulgarian invasions), reflecting the worries of emperor Justinian II and the bishops about persistent forms of heterodoxy among Christians. The primary intent of authorities was, in fact, “to extirpate from the Christian communities any remainder of pagan or Jewish perversity”. Several canons banned heathen customs (hēllenika ethē) and different kinds of worship, such as bloody sacrifices, banquets, festivals and polytheist cults (particularly that of Dionysus). The term “pagan” is used in a sense synonymous with the hellēnikos, which referred to any aspect of social life derived from non-Christian Graeco-Roman culture. Some of the practices mentioned constituted actual practices of worship, but many others were ancient calendar customs which had Graeco-Roman pagan origins that, by the time of the Quinisext, were expressions of daily customary rites and local traditions. Multicultural ritual synthesis and religious syncretisms combined Christian, pagan and various cultural elements and later were often incorporated into Orthodox ceremonies. Despite being banned, these heterodox practices (such as the bloody sacrifices) can be traced even now in Greece and the Balkans.