May 25, 2010
Consider this as a movie plot: man finds a way to get ahead; accumulates tons of wealth and power; gets increasingly anxious about losing it all; starts acting weird to try to keep real and imagined threats at bay. Sounds familiar? It’s a classic story which has created some of the greatest movies of our time, such as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, Part II. It’s also the story of mankind, as the first generations of agriculturalists, whose ancestors had forever been hunter-gatherers, found themselves taking up new habits and getting themselves embroiled in a new set of values that had never before been part of the human experience.
The shift to agriculture is viewed by many anthropologists as “the most profound revolution in human history,” one which established “the ultimate economic foundation for the past 10,000 years of population growth amongst the human population, indeed for the phenomenon of civilization as we know it.” It began with the simple, but powerful, realization that if you did certain things to crops and animals, they produced more. If you collected seeds from this year’s harvest of wheat and planted them, then more wheat would grow next year in the same place. If you captured that baby goat and fed it your scraps, then it would produce milk for your family and could eventually be killed for meat.
These new techniques led to something that had never occurred before in human history: surplus. And over many generations and thousands of years, this simple change in home economics led to the development of vast civilizations that stretched around the world, a process described here by archaeologist Graeme Barker:
The ability to produce food and other products from domesticated plants and animals surplus to immediate subsistence requirements also opened up new pathways to economic and social complexity: farming could mean new resources for barter, payment of tax or tribute, for sale in a market; it could mean food for non-food producers such as specialist craft-workers, priests, warriors, lords, and kings. Thus farming was the precondition for the development of the first great urban civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, China, the Americas, and Africa, and has been for all later states up to the present day.
The thing about a surplus is that it changes how you live your life. If you were smart or lucky enough to collect a whole lot more wheat than your family really needs, this is something you have to deal with. First, you need to protect it, so no-one takes it away from you. Then, you can use it, trading it for something valuable someone else has. And if that other guy wants your wheat but doesn’t have anything to trade, well, how about trading his labor instead? “The way is open,” writes archaeologist Colin Renfrew, “to the appropriation of property and to differentiation in terms of property: the roots of inequality.” And if you’ve spent your life accumulating more than those around you, then it’s natural to want to pass it on to your kids. As a result, “social reproduction takes on new forms. The children will wish to secure ‘their’ land and ‘their’ cattle from appropriation by outsiders, and rules will have to be established to determine which children have the right to which land.”
Before too long, a new value constellation has arisen that no hunter-gatherer community would ever have conceived of: property, wealth, hierarchy, gender inequality and power. “Nothing in the development of human society,” Renfrew believes, “appears more significant than this ascription of meaning and value to material goods and to commodities.”
In the view of some scholars, this agricultural value constellation was the cause of some things that we generally view as part of human nature: the urge to compete, even the institution of monogamous marriage. “The propensity to compete,” in the view of Egyptologist Barry Kemp, “and thereby to disturb the equilibrium appears to be inherent within those societies which settle and create an agricultural base.” And in a recently published article, anthropologists Fortunato & Archetti argue that “monogamous marriage emerged in Eurasia following the adoption of intensive agriculture, as ownership of land became critical to productive and reproductive success.”
As ownership and hierarchies became more established, the boundaries of group identity expanded. An individual hunter-gatherer identified with his extended family, or clan. But as agriculture’s surplus permitted increasing social stratification and complexity, the organizational group also began to grow, first to the size of a tribe, then to a chiefdom, and as the millennia unfolded, some of the great early civilizations, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia and China, began to form.
Unfortunately, group identities weren’t the only thing to increase in scale. As we all know, the more you have, the more you have to lose. And as the boundaries of agricultural communities expanded along with their populations, the desire for power, wealth and security played itself out over the millennia in the form of ever-increasing scales of warfare. Here’s how anthropologist Brian Ferguson describes what happened:
War emerged when humans shifted from a nomadic existence to a settled one and was commonly tied to agriculture. With a vested interest in their lands, food stores and especially rich fishing sites, people could no longer walk away from trouble.
That seems to be the reason why, around the 5th millennium BCE in Europe, (what’s referred to as the late Mesolithic era), “warfare had become a common reality,” according to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe. He tells us how “forty-four per cent of the burials found in Denmark displayed evidence of traumatic injuries on their skulls.” And if you read the heroic literature from the civilizations that arose thousands of years later, you can see that the slaughter of your enemies had become something to be immensely proud of, as in the words of the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad around 800 BC:
Thirteen thousand of their warriors I cut down with the sword. Their blood like the waters of a stream I caused to run through the squares of their city. The corpses of their soldiers I piled in heaps… The city I destroyed, I devastated, I burnt with fire, and I… laid claim to the whole of the country under the ancient title of “King of Sumer and Akkad.”
This was, of course, no isolated example. Homer’s Odysseus was proud to describe how, in his sack of Ismarus, where he “destroyed the menfolk, we divided the women and the vast plunder that we took from the town so that no one, as far as I could help it, should go short of his proper share.”
Nice guys, both of them. But of course, things didn’t always go as well as they did for Shamshi-Adad and Odysseus. And that’s why, perhaps the greatest new human experience that agriculture and its surplus brought to the human race was anxiety.
I’m not talking about a simple moment of anxiety, such as “will I be hungry today?” or “will I get laid tonight?” I mean a profound, cosmic anxiety shared by agricultural civilizations across the world, described by historian Calvin Martin as “the anxiety over cosmic disorder that seems to lie at the core of all the agrarian religions.” The more complex, grand and ordered early civilizations became, the more concerned they were about the forces of chaos that might destroy them.
In another post I’ve described how, for hunter-gatherers, Nature appeared as a giving, nurturing parent. Not anymore. Once you’re committed to agriculture, you become utterly dependent on the whims of the seasons. If the rains don’t come; if the freeze lasts too long; if the floods are too intense… then all collapses around you. And so, in a strange and inexorable evolution, Nature becomes more distant, more irascible, more unpredictable. It’s no longer regarded as the parent, but is increasingly associated with the more distant ancestors. Everywhere around the world, from China to Mesopotamia, Egypt to Mesoamerica, worship of the ancestors becomes predominant.
The increasingly hierarchical structures and market economies that characterized agricultural societies also infused the worship of those ancestors, who were believed to only give their wealth “in return for favours rendered.” Archaeologist Jacques Cauvin describes how “the theme of the ‘supplicant’ introduces an entirely new relationship between god and man… a new distinction at the heart of the human imagination between an ‘above’ and a ‘below’, between an order of a divine force, personified and dominant, and that of an everyday humanity.” The gods were just as likely to be threatening as they were to be benign, so you’d better treat them with the same respect you’d show to the king.
Just as the gods were becoming more separate from the humans who worshiped them, so nature was also becoming more distant. Barker describes the modern view of the cognitive shift that occurred from the hunter-gatherer to the agricultural idea of nature:
Prehistoric foragers probably saw themselves as part of the cosmos, along with the animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. …[O]nce people became farmers, their cognitive world had to shift profoundly from a sense of belonging to and being part of the wild to ‘acculturating’ it as it became something to control and appropriate rather than be part of.
But no matter how distant the gods and the natural world became, they were always seen as sharing the same cosmos that the people inhabited. There were no sharp distinctions between humans, ancestors and gods. Instead, the borderlines between all these categories were blurred in what one scholar has called an “ontological continuum … a natural, organic connection between man, gods, and nature, all of which are formed from the same substance and governed by the same causal framework.” This continuum between humans and the gods existed in all early civilizations and agricultural communities around the world. Whether for the Aztecs, the Yoruba, the Egyptians or the Chinese, it was “possible for humans to become deities, as well as for deities to be woven into human history.”
While we might think this cosmic continuum offered a sense of comfort that’s missing from our denatured modern world, it also brought with it a momentous weight of responsibility. Anthropologist Anthony Aveni, for example, describes how the Maya “believed they were active participants and intermediaries in a great cosmic drama.” They had to participate in rituals to help the gods “carry their burdens along their arduous course,” because “without their life’s work the universe could not function properly.” And strangely, as the gods became ever more distant and threatening, so the actions that needed to be taken to propitiate them became ever more extreme. In the case of the Aztecs, that sense of active participation led to their infamous blood sacrifices. “Only by supplying the sun with life’s vital fluid,” Aveni tells us, “could they hold it on its course in the present age.”
Blood sacrifice to keep the gods propitiated? Not even Citizen Kane went that far… But the parallels are, I believe, instructive. We have agriculture to thank for so many of the comforts that we take for granted, but also for many of the values that – for good and bad – structure our lives. It’s interesting to see how some of those values have become embedded deep into our collective psyche, while others have been layered over and have virtually vanished from view.
Let’s take a final look at that value constellation:
- Ownership, property, wealth, social hierarchy are all new good things in agricultural society.
- Demolishing your enemies and stealing their women and possessions are virtuous acts.
- Propitiating the ancestral gods, and treating them with abundant fear and respect, are essential behavior if you hope for a long, happy life.
- Even more important is participating with the rest of the community in the ritual requirements necessary to keep the cosmos ordered and chaos at bay.
These values developed over thousands of years, and it’s striking how, even though the outward manifestations were so different from one civilization to the next, the underlying values were shared by each of the civilizations. But then, beginning around 1,000 BCE, some of these civilizations entered what’s become known as the Axial Age, a period when new value systems appeared in China, India, Greece and the Middle East , systems that were as different from each other as they were from anything that had gone before. And that Axial Age is what we’ll be exploring in the next post.
 Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 414.
 Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 14.
 Barker, op. cit. 1-2.
 Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 122.
 Ibid, p. 135.
 Kemp, B. J. (1991). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, New York: Routledge, 35.
 Fortunato, L., and Archetti, M. (2010). “Evolution of monogamous marriage by maximization of inclusive fitness.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23, 149-156.
 Quoted in Horgan, J. (2009). “The end of war.” New Scientist(4 July ), 39-41.
 Cunliffe, B. (2008). Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD 1000, New Haven: Yale University Press.
 Cited by Dilworth, C. (2010). Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind, New York: Cambridge University Press, 282.
 Cited by Dilworth, op. cit. 307.
 Quoted by Barker, op. cit., 410.
 Barker, ibid.
 Barker, op. cit., 414.
 Cauvin, J. (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, T. Watkins, translator, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 69-70.
 Barker, op. cit., 38.
 Uffenheimer, B. (1986). “Myth and Reality in Ancient Israel”, in S. N. Eisenstadt, (ed.), The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
 Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 421.
 Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 223.
 Ibid., 241.
February 4, 2010
By Jean Bottéro
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001
Elsewhere on this blog, I argue that dualism and monotheism have caused a profound change in our collective consciousness over the past two thousand years. Underlying the monotheistic/dualistic thought pattern is the notion that two different dimensions exist: a worldly dimension of the body, and an eternal dimension of the soul. If my argument is correct, then prior to the advent of Platonic dualism and Judeo-Christian monotheism, people around the world must have viewed their cosmos with blurrier distinctions, not conceiving of two utterly different dimensions.
Jean Bottéro’s Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia is an authoritative but accessible assessment of one of the major worldviews that existed before the advent of dualism and monotheism. Bottéro is “one of the world’s foremost experts on Assyriology,” having studied it for over fifty years and the book certainly delivers on its title, reviewing Mesopotamian religion from the perspectives of religious sentiments, conceptual representations, and behaviors.
So, does Bottéro’s review support my position? I think it does, especially when you compare some of the themes he describes in Mesopotamia to the contemporary religious worldview in Ancient Egypt. Although these two civilizations come from very different traditions, it’s fascinating to see how some of the underlying structural aspects of their worldviews are at the same time so similar to each other, and so fundamentally different from the later monotheism of Christianity.
One of the intriguing dynamics shared by both Mesopotamia and Egypt was the tendency to pray to a particular god as if he or she were the only god, or at least the only god that mattered. This is known either as “monolatry” (from the Greek “single worship”) or “henotheism” (from the Greek “one god”). Bottéro describes it as “a profound tendency… to encapsulate all sacred potential into the particular divine personality whom [the Mesopotamians] were addressing at a given moment.” He gives a few examples:
Anu was ‘the prince of the gods,’ but so was Sîn. The ‘Word’ of each god was ‘preponderant’ and ‘was to be taken above those of the other gods,’ who were subjected to it, ‘trembling.’ Each god was ‘the ruler of Heaven and Earth,’ ‘sublime throughout the universe,’ supreme and ‘unequaled’.
Over in Egypt, they were doing just the same thing. Egyptian scholar Erik Hornung describes how, “in the act of worship, whether it be in prayer, hymn of praise, or ethical attachment and obligation, the Egyptians single out one god, who for them at that moment signifies everything.”
At first sight, this seems like a form of proto-monotheism, but Bottéro takes pains to deny that, asserting that “contrary to what has sometimes been believed… a true monotheism could scarcely be born out of this religion, which assuredly never ceased to intelligently rationalize and organize its polytheism, and which, in truth… never departed from it.”
One of the crucial ways in which Mesopotamian and Egyptian cosmologies – indeed the cosmologies of every historic polytheistic culture worldwide – differed from monotheism was their acceptance of the gods of other cultures. This goes beyond the notion of religious tolerance. It was inconceivable to either the Mesopotamians or Egyptians to question the existence of another region’s gods. Gods presided over specific areas, so it was quite consistent with polytheistic beliefs to worship your own gods even while your neighbors – and perhaps your enemies – were worshiping theirs. Bottéro gives a helpful analogy, comparing this view to how we might think of political offices in the modern world:
The foreign pantheons were tacitly considered as what they were: the product of different cultures, with their members playing a role analogous to that played by the indigenous gods of Mesopotamia. It was as if, on the supernatural level, they had recognized the existence of a certain number of divine functions, of which the titularies bore, depending on the lands and the cultures, different names and personalities – a bit like political offices, which were pretty much the same everywhere; only their names were different, as were those of the individuals who held the offices.
With this analogy, we can see how denying the existence of another region’s gods would be as nonsensical as Hillary Clinton traveling to China and denying that they have a Communist party. Again, the Egyptians shared the same mindset. Egyptian scholar Jan Assmann tells us how:
The different peoples worshipped different gods, but nobody contested the reality of foreign gods and the legitimacy of foreign forms of worship. The distinction I am speaking of [monotheistic true/false] simply did not exist in the world of polytheistic religions.
Perhaps the most subtle yet profound disconnect between early polytheistic worldviews and monotheism was their lack of sharp distinctions between the realms of human and divine. Gilgamesh was a mortal, an ancient king of Mesopotamia, and yet his parents, Lugalbanda and Ninsuna, were semi-divine. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells us that “two-thirds of him is god; one-third of him is human,” leading Bottéro to conclude that “the notion of ‘divinity’ was somewhat ‘elastic.’” Once again, over in Egypt, Assmann tells us, we see an “interpenetration of the cosmic, the sociopolitical, and the individual,” such that “the Egyptians did not view their gods and goddesses as beyond nature, but rather in nature and thus as nature.”
If monotheism represents such a vast disconnect from previous polytheistic thought, it’s reasonable to ask what were the underlying factors that led to this great shift. My proposal is that certain functions mediated by the human prefrontal cortex – the capacity for abstraction and symbolization – gained increased prominence in our collective consciousness until they became values in themselves: the pure abstraction of an eternal, infinite God. Interestingly, Bottéro identifies the seeds of this transformation in Mesopotamian culture: not in their polytheism, but rather in their attribution of divine value to their number system.
Bottéro notes how the number 60, the “supreme round number” (the Babylonians used the decimo-sexagesimal system), was attributed to Anu, “the supreme chief of the divine dynasty”, and 30 to Sîn, the moon god. He explains how they were evaluating the divine nature of the gods by “assigning them the most immaterial and abstract concepts, the least ‘tangible’ they had available – numbers – as if they knew that to speak righteously of the gods it was necessary, insofar as was possible, to go beyond the material and carnal reality of humans.”
This “attempt to stress both the transcendence and the mystery of the supernatural world” might possibly be seen as a precursor to the Pythagorean assignment of transcendent meaning to numbers, which became a foundation for Plato’s dualistic worldview. And the rest, as they say, is history.
 Hornung, E. (1971/1996). Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, J. Baines, translator, New York: Cornell University Press.
 Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
October 29, 2009
Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many
By Erik Hornung
New York: Cornell University Press
Erik Hornung is one of the great modern Egyptologists, and this book is probably his most important. However, it’s a fairly dense read, and I would recommend Jan Assmann’s The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, (written around the same time in the early 1980’s), as a more accessible in-depth view into ancient Egyptian thought.
Still, Hornung is clearly expert in his knowledge and applies it with a subtle mind. His primary purpose seems to be to argue against previous generations of Egyptologists who thought they saw a monotheistic cognitive framework in ancient Egyptian thought. Hornung’s argument is that, in fact, Egyptian cosmological thinking was polytheistic in its very essence. He believes that it’s easy to misinterpret many Egyptian invocations to gods that, in effect, flatter the god in question by asserting that he’s “the only one.” It’s a little like someone saying to his/her lover “To me, you’re everything.” That’s not a statement you’re meant to take literally, but it can still be true on a different level.
Hornung, however, goes well beyond that particular point. He describes Egyptian thought as pre-logical, a mode of cognition where if something is a, that doesn’t mean that it’s not also b. This, he argues, is a mode of thought that’s virtually unattainable for Western minds brought up on Aristotelian logic. If we could get there, he claims,
we shall be able to comprehend the one and the many as complementary propositions, whose truth values within a many-valued logic are not mutually exclusive, but contribute together to the whole truth: god is a unity in worship and revelation, and multiple in nature and manifestation.
That is, a god can be the only one in the cosmos, and at the same time be one of many. Consequently, Hornung sees monotheism, not as a stage along a continuum from polytheism, but as a “transformation”, accompanying the cognitive revolution to Aristotelian-style logic, a world of binary opposites, where the answer can be “yes” or “no” but not “yes and no.”
Although Assmann states that he disagrees with Hornung’s view of Egyptian polytheistic thought, I see their views as largely compatible. They both discuss the Akhenaten revolution – the short-lived imposition of true monotheistic worship on Egypt – as a hiatus utterly incompatible with the Egyptian worldview. But more than that, I think Hornung’s view of monotheism as a “conceptual transformation” fits in with Assmann’s view of the transition in Egypt’s history towards a kind of “cognitive dissonance”, with a “pantheistic theology of transcendence” which set the stage for later monotheistic thought. Under Assmann’s model, we’re still looking at a complete transformation between polytheism and monotheism – Assmann, in my view, goes further than Hornung by describing the transformative phase of post-Amarna Egyptian cosmology.
The most valuable take-away I get from Hornung is his emphasis on seeing the shift from polytheism to monotheism as a transformative stage in human consciousness. As he says, “Both of these worlds are consistent within their own terms of reference, but neither transcends historical space or can claim absolute validity.” I think this is an important frame of reference, which I elsewhere categorize by stages of the pfc’s advance in its power over human consciousness. In my categorization, there’s another shift from monotheism to scientific method, which has taken place over the past few hundred years. And most importantly, I think our world is ready for the next stage in the development of our global consciousness. But, that’s all material for another post…