May 25, 2010

The Age of Anxiety: An Exploration of Agricultural Values

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Values and the pfc tagged , , , , at 9:34 pm by Jeremy

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.

Citizen Kane: power – and agriculture – can do funny things to your mind.

The shift to agriculture is viewed by many anthropologists as “the most profound revolution in human history,”[1] 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.”[6]

Was agriculture responsible for the emergence of monogamous marriage?

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.”[7] 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.”[8]

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.[9]

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.”[10] 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.”[11]

Assyrian king Shamshi Adad: proud of his devastation.

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.”[12]

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.”[13] 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.[14]

With agriculture, ancestor worship became predominant across the world.

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.”[15] 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.”[16] 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.[17]

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.”[18] 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.”[19]

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.”[20] 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.”[21]

Aztec human sacrifice: needed to keep the cosmos going.

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.


[1] Barker, G. (2009). The Agricultural Revolution in Prehistory: Why did Foragers become Farmers?, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 414.

[2] Bellwood, P. (2005). First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 14.

[3] Barker, op. cit. 1-2.

[4] Renfrew, C. (2007). Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, New York: Modern Library: Random House, 122.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, p. 135.

[7] Kemp, B. J. (1991). Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, New York: Routledge, 35.

[8] Fortunato, L., and Archetti, M. (2010). “Evolution of monogamous marriage by maximization of inclusive fitness.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 23, 149-156.

[9] Quoted in Horgan, J. (2009). “The end of war.” New Scientist(4 July ), 39-41.

[10] Cunliffe, B. (2008). Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC – AD 1000, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[11] Cited by Dilworth, C. (2010). Too Smart for Our Own Good: The Ecological Predicament of Humankind, New York: Cambridge University Press, 282.

[12] Cited by Dilworth, op. cit. 307.

[13] Quoted by Barker, op. cit., 410.

[14] Barker, ibid.

[15] Barker, op. cit., 414.

[16] Cauvin, J. (1994/2000). The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, T. Watkins, translator, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 69-70.

[17] Barker, op. cit., 38.

[18] 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.

[19] Trigger, B. G. (2003). Understanding Early Civilizations, New York: Cambridge University Press, 421.

[20] Aveni, A. (2002). Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks, and Cultures, Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 223.

[21] Ibid., 241.

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March 4, 2010

Towards a “Phase Transition” in Anthropology?

Posted in Ascendancy to Power: Agriculture, Book/article Reviews tagged , , , , , , at 6:25 pm by Jeremy

Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations

By Norman Yoffee.

New York: Cambridge University Press.

Casual readers beware!  The “myths” of the archaic state in Norman Yoffee’s title are not the original myths of the early civilizations.  Rather, Yoffee is referring to academic “myths” of traditional scholarship that his book aims to debunk.  This means that his work is targeted mainly for those already steeped in the theory of anthropology rather than those wanting to learn about the ancient civilizations themselves.

That said, there’s plenty of intriguing material about daily life in Mesopotamia in particular that will reward careful reading.  Yoffee’s approach emphasizes the dynamics of social roles and power dynamics in early civilizations, and as such he offers unusually detailed analyses of real world activities.  For example, a particularly memorable section is entitled “Imagining Sex in an Early State”, and describes how the Assyrian word for prostitute, kezertu, was derived from the verb kezeru, which means “to curl the hair.”

Fascinating as that is, the most notable aspect of Yoffee’s book for me is his application of complexity theory to understanding the major transitions in early human history.  Theories of complexity and self-organization are gaining increasing acceptance in biological specializations such as collective animal behavior or cellular dynamics, but it’s still rare for these approaches to be applied in disciplines that deal with the collective behavior of that rather strange animal called “the human.”

Yoffee first lays his theoretical foundation, describing a complex adaptive system as one that “cannot be reduced to the ‘sum of its parts’ because the action of some parts is always affecting the action of other parts, so that equilibrium of the entire system is never reached or maintained for very long.”  He then clenches his proverbial teeth and takes the plunge, stating:

I mean to show … that not only are ancient states and civilizations complex systems …, but so are all human societies playgrounds for social negotiation and for the empowerment of the few, and their parts remain far from some equilibrium with each other and their environment… the task is not to ask whether a society is complex but how it is complex…

On this basis, Yoffee borrows some of the “concepts and terminology from research on ‘complex adaptive systems” to show how minor perturbations in a social organization can occasionally lead to extremely rapid and dramatic change.

In taking this approach, Yoffee becomes a pioneer in an intellectual movement that I believe will have sweeping consequences in the years to come.  He’s not the first prominent anthropologist to undertake this intellectual journey.  For example, twenty years ago, Gregory Possehl, in writing about the Harappan civilization, made the following observation:

Thinking systematically, we see that virtually all parts (institutions and individuals) of the vast interconnected, largely seamless web of sociocultural systems are surely involved in the dynamic of change, as agents of both effect and affect… [N]either our anthropological vocabulary nor our discipline’s conceptual apparatus facilitates expression of the complex, subtle notion involved here… Once change has started there occurs a kind of “domino effect,” … a complex set of positive and negative “feedback” exchanges that sustain the process…[1]

However, while Possehl identified the same dynamic, he seemed well aware that he lacked the theoretical language to be able to apply it systematically to his subject.  Yoffee, by contrast, explicitly describes the rapid evolution of city-states in the late 3000s-early 2000s BC as a “phase transition” from “one state of being to another,” and compares it to the classic example from physics of hot water transitioning to boiling only at the point where it’s heated to 100˚ Celsius.

In another section, Yoffee uses the complexity theory concept of “emergent properties” to delve into the dynamics that transformed hunter-gatherers to settled farmers.  In this case, he goes beyond the usual analysis of how humans transformed crops and animals by considering the reciprocal effects of domesticated plants on human activity.  He describes how people needed to spend an increasing amount of time and energy looking after the crops and animals that were gradually becoming tamer and less able to compete in the wild, so that “people also become dependent on domesticants,” their movement restricted by the requirement to tend their new assets.

I believe that Yoffee’s pioneering approach is taking anthropology in a fertile direction, but I think these are only the first, tentative steps in a long journey.  I wonder if a breakthrough available to Yoffee and others in the field might be to join the concept of “punctuated equilibria” proposed by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould with the “phase transition” dynamics of complexity theory.  Yoffee mentions Gould in passing in his book, but only in reference to the work of another anthropologist.

In their foundational 1977 paper on punctuated equilibria in speciation, Gould and Eldredge suggested that “a general theory of punctuational change is broadly, though by no means exclusively, valid throughout biology.”[2] Just as complexity theory is now increasingly being applied beyond biology to the arena of social sciences, the same case might be made for punctuated equilibria.  In fact, an argument could be made that Gould & Eldredge’s application of their theory to evolutionary speciation may be one particular applied case of the more general rule of emergence in complex dynamic systems.

Gould himself, a few years later, speculated on some of the wider implications of his theory, stating:

In the largest sense, this debate is but one small aspect of a broader discussion about the nature of change: Is our world … primarily one of constant change (with structure as a mere incarnation of the moment), or is structure primary and constraining, with change as a “difficult” phenomenon, usually accomplished rapidly when a stable structure is stressed beyond its buffering capacity to resist and absorb.[3]

Here, by way of comparison, is Yoffee’s summary description of the sudden shift from village communities to city-state in ancient Mesopotamia, which seems to fit Gould’s characterization:

In Mesopotamia, villages that were centers of production and exchange, that were located on trade routes and/or rivers, that lay near great agricultural land, seats of temples and regional worship, and that were defensible locations from attacks by neighbors – for hundreds or thousands of years – suddenly became cities, as people from the countryside increasingly moved into them.

The concept of punctuated equilibria has already been applied by leading thinkers in other disciplines within the social sciences.  For example, Richard Klein refers to it in characterizing his view of the pattern of human evolution;[4] Quentin Atkinson et. al. see it as a model for the evolution and divergence of languages;[5] and Joel Mokyr sees it as a “paradigm for technological history” in analyzing the phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution.[6]

At first glance, the very term “punctuated equilibrium” seems incompatible with the general rule of complex dynamics systems existing “far from equilibrium.”  However, I believe this may be a problem with Gould & Eldredge’s choice of terminology rather than the underlying dynamics they are describing.  If you consider the paradigmatic example of water coming to the boil, it may appear at equilibrium at the surface, but underneath there is an increasing flow of currents as the water gets ever closer to a phase transition.  Similarly, in Yoffee’s example of Mesopotamian urbanization, the forces affecting village dynamics would have been slowly building even while, at the surface, the village appeared stable.  Perhaps a more apt name for Gould & Eldredge’s dynamic might be “punctuated continuum,” suggesting a relatively stable, gradually changing continuum suddenly entering a phase transition of rapid transformation.

There is some theoretical underpinning for this linkage of the two concepts in the writings of Per Bak and Kim Sneppen, the two physicists who first coined the term “self-organized criticality.”  In two different papers they write about the two sets of phenomena as one dynamic:

The model self-organizes into a critical steady state with intermittent coevolutionary avalanches of all size; i.e. it exhibits ‘punctuated equilibrium’ behavior… this behavior indicates that the ecology of interacting species has evolved to a self-organized critical state…

Gould and Eldredge have coined the term punctuated equilibrium to describe the intermittent behavior of the evolution of single species.[7]

The implications of this approach in analyzing the major changes in early human society are widespread.  Once you accept, as Yoffee has, that “the task is not to ask whether a society is complex but how it is complex,” then there is a profound impact on methodology.  Instead of trying to identify a major cause or causes for a phase transition, the focus shifts to understanding how the different factors interacted with each other, and perhaps even more consequentially, how the larger social pattern then effected downward causation on the original factors, thus leading to the “reciprocal causality” characteristic of true emergence.

Thompson & Varela, two leading theoreticians in the study of complex systems, describe this self-organizing confluence of both “upward” and “downward” causation:

Emergence through self-organization has two directions.  First, there is local-to-global determination or ‘upward causation’, as a result of which novel processes emerge that have their own features, lifetimes and domains of interaction.  Second, there is global-to-local determination, often called ‘downward causation’, whereby global characteristics of a system govern or constrain local interactions.  This aspect of emergence is less frequently discussed, but has long been noted by researchers in the field of complex dynamical systems.  It is central to some views about consciousness and the brain…[8]

Let us hope that Yoffee’s pioneering efforts in this area have begun their own pattern of emergence, whereby his approach, along with others, initiate the beginnings of some “downward causation” in their field, leading perhaps to a “phase transition” in methodological approaches throughout the social sciences.


[1] Possehl, G. L. (1990). “Revolution in the Urban Revolution: The Emergence of Indus Urbanization.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 261-282.

[2] Gould, S. J., and Eldredge, N. (1977). “Puctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered.” Paleobiology, 3(2 [Spring 1977]), 115-151.

[3] Gould, S. J. (1982). “Darwinism and the Expansion of Evolutionary Theory.” Science, 216(4544:April 23), 380-387.

[4] Klein, R. G. (2000). “Archeology and the Evolution of Human Behavior.” Evolutionary Anthropology, 9(1), 17-36.

[5] Atkinson, Q. D., et. al. (2008). “Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts.” Science, 588.

[6] Mokyr, J. (1990). The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress, New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Bak, P., and Sneppen, K. (1993). “Punctuated Equilibrium and Criticality in a Simple Model of Evolution.” Physical Review Letters, 71(24), 4083-4086.  Also: Sneppen, K., Bak, P., Flyvbjerg, H., and Jensen, M. H. (1995). “Evolution as a self-organized critical phenomenon.” PNAS, 92(May 1995), 5209-5213.

[8] Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

Thompson, E., and Varela, F. J. (2001). “Radical embodiment: neural dynamics and consciousness.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 5(10), 418-425.

February 4, 2010

Monotheism By Numbers?

Posted in Book/article Reviews, Monotheism tagged , , , , , , , at 7:15 pm by Jeremy

Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.


[1] Hornung, E. (1971/1996). Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, J. Baines, translator, New York: Cornell University Press.

[2] Assmann, J. (1984/2001). The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, D. Lorton, translator, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.