1 In the Beginning
on primitive or comparative religion these days usually take
for granted the idea that monotheism, belief in a single Creator-God,
was a relatively late development in the story of humankind,
post-dating and springing from a belief in spirits (or 'daemons')
and gods of nature(1).
humanity, it is generally held, considered all nature to be
in some sense alive. And since it was alive, what happened in
it could only be described in terms of personal activity, in
stories or 'myths' about visible phenomena - stones, mountains,
plants, trees, animals, birds, the moon, the sun - and about
imagined spirits, cosmic powers, or gods lying behind that phenomena.
Such a way of looking at life is described in the classic study
of primitive myths, beliefs and speculations in the ancient
Near East, Before Philosophy. The authors write, 'The
fundamental difference between the attitudes of modern and ancient
man as regards the surrounding world is this: for modem, scientific
man the phenomenal world is primarily an "It"; for
ancient - and also for primitive - man it is a "Thou"...
The whole man confronts a living "Thou" in nature;
and the whole man - emotional and imaginative as well as intellectual
- gives expression to the experience.' That expression took
the form of accounts or explanations of natural 'happenings'
or 'individual events' in the form of stories. 'In other words,'
the authors conclude, 'the ancients told myths instead of presenting
an analysis or conclusions.' (2)
the most important myth invented by the ancients, according
to this construction of early religious development, was that
of creation. This was often seen as analogous to the act of
birth, a primeval couple being postulated as the parents of
all that exists. Thus for the ancient Egyptians and ancient
Greeks the first pair were Earth and Sky (as in the case of
other 'primitive' peoples). Alternatively, creation could be
seen as the act of begetting by a single parent - whether a
mother goddess, as in Greece, or a daemon, as in Babylonia,
or even a male figure, as with the Egyptian god Atum. As mythmaking
developed, these primeval creative agents gathered around them
a crowd of lesser gods, their 'children' or 'grandchildren',
often corresponding to natural phenomena. Atum, for example,
sun-god and creator, begot Shu and Tefnut, Air and Moisture,
and they in turn begot Geb (or Qeb) and Nut, Earth and Sky,
from whom finally issued the great Egyptian god Osiris, possibly
a personification of vegetation. (3)
modern scholarship has it, there emanated from the increasingly
complex cycle of myths the idea of a single, supreme deity,
creator and lord of all life, spiritual and physical, gods and
men. The Memphite Theology (or Drama), an Egyptian text thought
to date from the fourth millennium BC, is probably the earliest
known written statement of such belief. This identifies the
supreme deity and creator as Ptah.
text reads, 'Ptah, the Great One; he is the heart and tongue
of the Ennead (ninefold pantheon) of gods... who begot the gods.'
Yet Ptah is seen by modern interpreters as a relatively late
invention of man, almost a first attempt to rationalise an earlier
mythology, with a pantheon of gods. To quote again from Before
Philosophy, 'In the Memphite theology, the Egyptians, at one
point, reduced the multiplicity of the divine to a truly monotheistic
conception and spiritualised the concept of creation.' (4)
briefly, is the generally accepted view of the development of
religion, culminating in monotheism. The idea of God, belief
in a single, supreme, creative, spiritual being, was - as with
belief in the lesser gods - no more than the construct of our
early forbears as they sought to explain the strange world in
which they lived. Even if a monotheistic faith arose earlier
than was once thought, it was not an innate consciousness of
reality; it was most certainly not a truth revealed to man through
some manifestation of, or message from, the actual Deity.
view correct? Is it true that monotheism grew out of polytheism,
both being an invention of man's mind? Or is there evidence
that humankind has always revered a Supreme Creative Spirit,
has always believed in one God? Let us look more closely at
falls in the evening time, but He is always there.' So a tribesman
of the Ashanti hinterland witnesses to the Sky-God, or Supreme
Being, assuring an inquirer that members of his tribe are not
hinterland comprises the northern territories of Ghana, West
Africa, where there are a number of diversely named tribes,
the majority of whom speak languages having a common base. The
root of the word used by all these tribes for the Sky-God is
we (sometimes wu). This word certainly means 'the sun'.
To distinguish that heavenly body from the Supreme Spirit, however,
the former usually has some other word prefixed or suffixed.
It might superficially appear that the Supreme God for these
people is in fact the sun. Yet the idea of the sun as the
sun being a god does not occur to them. Hence the above
statement made by the tribesman to the inquirer.
the late Harold A. Blair, conducted research into the language,
customs and religion of some of the Ashanti tribes in the 1920s
and 30s, publishing his findings in government reports and other
articles and books. Among the Konkomba (more properly Kpunkpamba),
a general name covering several closely connected tribes in
the Ashanti region, the Sky-God is called Nawuni (na meaning'
chief'). In his work A Creed Before The Creeds, my father
recounts their 'myth' of creation and fall. This is his rendering
of the story, as he heard it from some of these people in their
old dark days, Nawuni created man and set him to live on a rocky
plain, full of holes, chasms and abysses. The surface was so
slippery and the chasms were so horrible that men dared not
move at all. They prayed to Nawuni, who then created sand, gravel
and clay, which he ordered his messengers to spread abroad over
the earth. This they did, but with a high angelic carelessness,
which accounts for the number of rocky hills still projecting
above the surface.
now able to walk where he would, became proud and ceased to
care for Nawuni and his worship. So Nawuni thought out a scheme
for enforcing the allegiance of men and angels. He called them
to him, and showed them a wonderful and new thing, which he
had created, the belly, for before that men had had no bellies.
foolishly delighted with these, especially when Nawuni exPlained
the Pleasure which they brought with them, the solid joy of
eating and the wild exhilaration of drink. So men prayed Nawuni
to give them bellies, which Nawuni gladly did. Thus men became
dependent upon Nawuni for their daily bread.
were wiser and refused to pray for these gifts; so they preserved
their independence, and were given positions of rule and authority
in the earth. They became the tingbana (Perhaps the 'skins of
earth '), each with his or her own territory on earth of which
the rights, fertility and power belonged to them.
goes on to describe the coming of death, caused by the seduction
of man's messenger; the dog, by an evil Djinnee. The dog was
carrying man sprayer for Life to Nawuni, but was delayed by
the Djinnee; meanwhile the malignant goat reached Nawuni with
a false message that man chose Death. So Death was decreed as
the lot of man. (6)
story, or 'myth', we have a number of strands, some of which-
despite their fascinating character - I shall leave aside for
the moment. What is interesting for our present purpose is the
centrality of Nawuni, the Supreme God and Creator, throughout
the tale. It is difficult to imagine this figure having been
invented at a later time than his 'messengers' or 'angels',
who become gods of the land. There is some plausibility to the
speculation (it is no other) that the Egyptian god Ptah was
a piece of rationalisation, reducing the multiplicity of the
divine to a monotheistic conception, but in the Konkomba mythology
the person of the Creator can scarcely have been tagged onto
an earlier story about local gods. Most interesting is the fact
that the creation of Nawuni's messengers or angels, who became
the tingbana (singular, tingbane, or territorial
gods, is not even mentioned. This therefore is not an account
of how the tingbaana came to be, unlike the account of
Ptah begetting divine progeny; it is an account of how these
messengers of God came to possess earthly authority.
African tribes, besides those from the Ashanti hinterland, acknowledge
a Supreme Being. The Bura, Margi and Kilba tribes of Northern
Nigeria, for instance, call him 'Hel' or 'Hyel'; these tribes
do not identify or associate him with the sun, but regard him
as the Sky-God and Creator, with prayers being addressed to
him directly. As his name suggests the Semitic 'EI', it has
been conjectured that there might at some early time have been
some Semitic influence on this region of Nigeria, but etymological
speculation of this kind is notoriously unreliable. (7) The
Yoruba of Nigeria give the name Olodumare to the single Deity.
Other Mrican tribes who venerate a single, supreme Creator include
the Ganda of Uganda, and the Zulus of southern Mrica, who call
him Ukqili. (8)
other parts of the world, too, primitive tribes are known to
have revered one great God. To several aboriginal Australian
tribes he was known as Bunjil; he was, they believed, concerned
about morality,justice and peace. The Andaman Islanders, who
gave the name Puluga to the Creator, believed he was immortal,
utterly opposed to evil but compassionate to those in distress.
The first Christian missionaries to Greenland found, somewhat
to their surprise, that the Eskimos were sure there was a Supreme
Being who had made all things and was inherently good, worthy
of love and honour. (9)
Of course, though these tribes and peoples acknowledge a Supreme
Creator, they also have their religious cults, involving sacrifices
and other rites and ceremonies, taboos and fetishes. These are
associated not with the Creator but with lesser male and female
deities, gods and spirits of rain, crops, human reproduction,
tribal health and so on. These cults are served by priests and
sacred families, sometimes by the chief himself. Ancestor-worship,
veneration and appeasement or propitiation of the ancestral
ghosts, also plays a major role in such tribal religion. H.A.
Blair explains how with the Konkomba tribes, or at least among
those who claim to be 'people of the land' (for they comprise
several strata of aboriginals, immigrants, and invaders), there
is no divorce between ancestor-worship and the honour given
to the local guardian of the land, the tingbane. He writes,
'The spirits of the departed are taken into the spirit hierarchy
of the tribe which is also guardian of the tribal territory.
Worship is of the do ut des type ['I give so that you might
give']: there is peace on earth, at least within their boundaries.'
There seems no particular reason for thinking that the Supreme
God venerated by these tribes was an imaginative invention by
their distant tribal forefathers after their invention of territorial
gods or other spirits. There seems little reason to believe
that it was an 'invention' at all. Leaving aside the question
of how or when homo sapiens originated, what real evidence
is there that humankind has not from the first taken for granted
the existence of the Supreme Deity, together possibly with a
retinue of messengers, 'angels' or lesser 'gods'? As E.O. James
has written, 'The universal occurrence of High Gods among low
races suggests a probability in favour of the concept being
part of the original substratum of religious consciousness.'
It is commonly
taught that human civilization arose in Mesopotamia some six
thousand years ago, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley or 'plains
of Sumeria' (now Iraq), where great cities - Ur, Erech and Kish
- once flourished. It is to the Sumerians, as far as we know,
that we owe the invention of writing, their pictographic script
from which was derived the cuneiform script being the earliest
known system of recording information. This development probably
occurred around the middle of the fourth millennium BC. It was
in this period, sometimes called the Proto-literate period,
that there was a great increase in the population, planned and
large-scale irrigation began, and villages expanded into cities,
with imposing new buildings and monuments. Most impressive were
the new temples appearing on the plain, often sited atop huge
artificial mounds of sun-dried bricks, the famous ziggurats.
The new city-states needed political organisation, and this
developed into a primitive form of democracy. It was at this
time, too, it has been conjectured, that the Mesopotamian understanding
of the universe 'found its characteristic form'. (12)
Mesopotamians, like the tribes in Africa and elsewhere to this
day, acknowledged a Sky-God; they called him Anu, which was
their everyday word for 'sky'. Anu was the highest of the gods,
indeed, father of the gods, and prototype of all fathers. His
was the seat of authority; as the 'pristine king and ruler'
he was also the prototype of all rulers. The Mesopotamians themselves
sum up Anu's attributes in 'The Myth of the Elevation of Inanna'
(13), in which the great gods address Anu:
thou hast ordered (comes) true!
The utterance of prince and lord is (but)
What thou hast ordered, (that with which) thou art in agreement.
0 Anu! Thy great command takes precedence,
Who could say no (to it)?
0 father of the gods, thy command,
The very foundation of the heaven and earth
What god could spurn (it)?
The terms in which Anu is described, in particular the fact
that his command is 'the foundation of the heaven and earth',
suggest that the universe itself is considered to have come
into being through his word, his divine fiat. Anu is
in fact Creator, whose word is absolute, and absolutely efficacious.
the history of Mesopotamia we meet the Babylonian god Marduk,
who is the hero of a creation myth. The assembly of the gods
confers kingship upon Marduk, son of Ea. He is given absolute
authority so that everything in the universe conforms to his
will and what he orders immediately comes to pass. What is especially
interesting in the story, however, is that his command is seen
as being identical in essence with Anu, (14) so that the gods
exclaim, 'Thy word is Anu.' Clearly, even to the later polytheistic
Babylonians, a memory of Anu as Supreme God remained.
archaeological discoveries relate to the view that the earliest
form of Mesopotamian religion was monotheistic. Henri Frankfort,
already cited as co-author of the work Before Philosophy,
was Field Director in Iraq for the Oriental Institute of the
University of Chicago from 1929 to 1937. In his Third Preliminary
Report on the Excavations at Tell Asmar (Eshunna), in the
chapter headed 'The Religion of Eshunna in the Third Millennium
B.C.', he writes, 'In addition to their more tangible results,
our excavations have established a novel fact, which the student
of Babylonian religions will have henceforth to take into account.
We have obtained, to the best of our knowledge for the first
time, religious material complete in its social setting. We
possess a coherent mass of evidence, derived in almost equal
quantity from a temple and from the houses inhabited by those
who worshipped in that temple. We are thus able to draw conclusions,
which the finds studied by themselves would not have made possible.
For instance, we discover that the representations on cylinder
seals, which are usually connected with various gods, can all
be fitted in to form a consistent picture in which a single
god worshipped in this temple forms the central figure. It seems,
therefore, that at this early period his various aspects were
not considered separate deities in the Sumero-Akkadian pantheon.
(15) Dr Frankfort's statement suggests that in Mesopotamia polytheism
developed from monotheism, not vice-versa.
of the famous Hammurabi, the principal Amorite ruler of Babylon
(once dated around 2300 BC, but nowadays as late as the eighteenth
century), marks an important stage in the history of Mesopotamian
civilization. After governing the small city-state of Babylon
for thirty years, he united under one rule the hitherto independent
Babylonian states of southern Mesopotamia. In this period religion
was most clearly polytheistic, the gods being divided into high
gods and others of secondary power. The king was, of course,
supreme head of the state, as well as enjoying the privilege
of being a demigod. The deification of kings was practised before
the time of Hammurabi, though it was only fairly late in the
dynasty of Ur that the practice grew of deifying the king while
still alive, instead of waiting for him to take his seat among
the gods after death. Evidence of Hammurabi's divine nature
is seen in the use of names like 'Hammurabi-ilu' ('Hammurabi
is god'), as well as in the coupling of his name with those
of the gods in oaths. (16)
The outstanding feature of Babylonian religion in Hammurabi's
time was the unique position in the pantheon of gods newly assigned
to Marduk. Percy Handcock explains this development, 'Marduk
owed his exaltation to what we may without undue levity call
local interest. The dynasty of which Hammurabi was so illustrious
a monarch was the first dynasty of the city of Babylon itself;
and Marduk the local god of Babylon naturally shared in the
good fortune and prosperity of the people over whose welfare
he presided. To Marduk belonged the real credit, honour and
glory of his people's success, what wonder then that he should
be accorded the post of honour in the hierarchy of heaven!'
(17) If loyal Babylonian subjects usually resorted to the shrine
of Marduk, it was still thought prudent from time to time to
seek the favour and assistance of other gods. The most prominent
among other deities worshipped were: Anu, lord of heaven; Ishtar,
mother of the gods and goddess of love and war; Ea, god of the
deep; Sin, moon-god and patron of the people of Ur; Ninib, god
of war; and finally Adad, lord of the weather.
it must be emphasised, was originally responsible for just one
city, Babylon; he was thus one of many 'gods of the land', corresponding
to anyone of the local spirits or gods (messengers or 'angels'
of the Sky- God) who were guardians of the tribal territories
of the Konkomba peoples of north em Ghana. Yet, under Hammurabi,
Marduk's supremacy was so firmly established that approaching
two millennia later we find Cyrus the Persian, who captured
Babylon in 539 BC (replacing its last native rulers, Nabonidus
and his son and co-regent Belshazzar), ascribing victory to
the Babylonian god. 'Marduk', the cuneiform inscription has
it, 'sought out a righteous prince, a man after his own heart
whom he might take by the hand, and he called his name Cyrus
myth involving Marduk, to which we have already referred, played
a major role in later Babylonian culture. From the third millennium
BC down to Hellenistic times, a New Year Festival lasting several
days was celebrated. It became customary during the festivities
to recite the story of creation, in which Marduk had defeated
the powers of chaos on the First New Year's Day, when the world
was created. At the same time, a mock battle was fought in which
the king impersonated the victorious god. This event was, in
fact, part of the highly organised state religion, which included
a powerful priesthood and temples that were commercial centres
as well as seats of learning. Serving in the temple was a profitable
business and the privilege could be bought, sold or mortgaged.
Once obtained, however, such privileges were - if not sold -
inalienable, being transmitted from father to son.
(the region earlier known as Accad), with its capital at Nineveh,
was originally a small kingdom in Mesopotamia situated around
the Tigris River to the north of Babylon. During the second
millennium BC and into the first, however, it increased in power,
eventually overwhelming Babylon and becoming an empire that
stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to modern Iran. In
626 BC, following the death of the last great Assyrian ruler,
Ashurbanipal, Babylon again asserted her independence under
the Chaldean dynasty headed by Nabopolassar.
religion was Babylonian in origin and character. Gods from the
Babylonian pantheon, notably Anu, Bel, Ea, Marduk, Adad, Sin
and Ishtar, were venerated and temples erected in their honour.
However, the local god Ashur, who gave his name to the first
known capital city and eventually to the country itself, was
elevated to first place in the pantheon. Ashur was the divine
impersonation of Assyria, as Marduk was of Babylonia, though
for the former the identification was more pronounced, for when
Assyria declined and the empire crumbled the god himself virtually
'died'. Marduk, by contrast, maintained his influence during
the period of Babylon's eclipse; foreign conquerors, like the
Persian Cyrus, as we have seen, were swift to do him honour.
On becoming king of Babylonia, Cyrus sent foreign prisoners
back from Babylonia to their own lands; he also, more interestingly,
aided the restoration of their temples and returned their gods.
This edict would have included theJews. (19)
Theology, to which we have already referred, is a text thought
to date from the very beginning of Egyptian history, that is,
the fourth millennium BC. The actual 'document' is a battered
stone, now housed in the British Museum, which bears the name
of a pharaoh who ruled in about 700 BC. However, the pharaoh
in question claimed to have been copying an inscription of his
ancestors, and the language and physical arrangement of the
text bear this out. The text clearly originated from the time
when the first Egyptian dynasties made their new capital at
Memphis, the city of the god Ptah.
As we have
seen, the monotheistic character of the Memphite Theology is
considered by most modern scholars to have been an attempt at
rationalisation of an earlier. polvtheistic form of religion.
J .A. Wilson puts it thus, Memphis as the centre of a
theological state was an upstart: it had had no national importance
before. To make matters worse, Heliopolis, a traditional religious
capital of Egypt, the home of the sun- god Re and of the creator-god
Re-Atum, was only twenty-five miles from Memphis. It was necessary
to justify a new location of the centre of the world. The text
in question is part of a theological argument of the primacy
of the god Ptah and thus of his home, Memphis. (20)
at issue is whether the statement in the Memphite Theology of
Ptah's pre-eminence was a result of inter-city rivalry - rather
as the elevation of Marduk to the head of the Babylonian pantheon
of gods was a result of local pride - or whether it reflects
a deeper, older awareness of a supreme Deity. The terms in which
Ptah's creative power are described could be held to suggest
the latter. Other texts dealing with creation, such as those
from Babylon (later in date) or the Egyptian Book of the Dead
(also probably later), are relatively crude. In the Book of
the Dead, for example, the creator-god Re-Atum simply appears
from some primeval matter, as if self-generated. The text reads
(with explanatory glosses by John Wilson):
'I am Atum
when I was alone in Nun (the primordial waters); I am Re in
his (first) appearances, when he began to rule that which he
had made. What does that mean? This "Re when he began to
rule that which he had made" means that Re began to appear
as a king, as one who existed before (the air-god) Shu had (even)
lifted (heaven from earth), when he (Re) was on the primeval
hillock which was in Hermopolis.' The text goes on to emphasise
that the god was self-created and that he then brought into
being 'the gods who are in his following'. (21)
As we have
already seen, in the Memphite Theology Ptah is assumed to be
antecedent to the creator-god Atum. He in fact 'created' Atum,
and he did so in a remarkable manner. The text reads (again,
with glosses by John Wilson), 'There came into being in the
heart, and there came into being on the tongue (something) in
the form of Atum.' Indeed, Ptah's creative power, through his
'heart' and 'tongue', is extended further, 'Great and mighty
is Ptah, who has committed (power to all gods), as well as their
spirits, through this (activity of the) heart and this (activity
of the) tongue. It has come to pass that the heart and tongue
control every member (of the body) by teaching that he (Ptah)
is throughout every body (in the form of the heart) and throughout
every mouth (in the form of the tongue), of all gods, of all
men, of (all) animals, of all creeping things, and of what (ever)
lives, by (Ptah's) thinking (as the heart) and commanding (as
the tongue) anything that he wishes' (22) WIlson describes this
as a 'creation by thought conception and speech delivery',adding
that the idea comes close to the Logos doctrine of the New Testament,
'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and
the Word was God.' (23)
the MemphiteTheology gives us another biblical parallel, this
time with the Old Testament - indeed, with the very beginning
of the Old Testament, the book of Genesis, After the text has
summarised the range of Ptah's creative power as heart and tongue,
it concludes, 'And so Ptah rested after he had made everything,'
Wilson comments that the translation 'rested' might better be
rendered 'was satisfied', but even so the parallel with the
book of Genesis, where we read that God 'rested on the seventh
day from all his work which he had done', is remarkable. (24)
others assume that in the Memphite Theology the more fanciful
religious concepts of Egypt (like the creation stories of Atum
and his Ennead of gods) are for the first time subsumed into
a higher philosophy. Yet let us not forget that the text we
are dealing with tomes, as we have already pointed out, 'from
the very beginning of Egyptian history'; it is, in fact, the
oldest Egyptian document we have. Let us remember, too, that
in the first period of Egyptian history, the Old Kingdom, 'the
word "god" is used in the singular', which, as Wilson
concedes, is sometimes 'the creator or supreme god'. (25) This
being so, might not the 'higher philosophy' of the Memphite
Theology be the oldest concept of all? Might not an original
notion of a Supreme Creative Spirit lie behind the 'developed'
understanding of the god Ptah that we find in this text?
is so, it would accord with the findings of archaeology in general,
both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, with regard to the progress
in these lands of human civilization. For there is no evidence
of a movement from the crude to the more developed, no evidence
in these regions of earlier generations of primitive, aboriginal
man. As Dr H.R, Hall has written, 'When civilization appears
it is already full grown. (26)
J A, Wilson
writes thus, 'The emergence of Egypt into the light of history
seems to be a very sudden phenomenon, symbolised in the abrupt
appearance of stone architecture of the highest technical perfection.'
He talks of 'the sudden surge of vigour and the zest for action
and accomplishment which characterised the Old Kingdom of Egypt',
which also saw 'some of Egypt's highest intellectual achievements.'
He concludes, 'The reasons for this sudden spurt of power are
not clear... they [the Egyptians] sprang upward with a suddenness
which is miraculous to us.' (27) In the opinion of many, the
Egyptians of the earliest fully visible period 'reached heights
which were never surpassed later - in technical ability (as
in the Great Pyramid and in sculpture), in science (as in a
remarkable surgical papyrus and in the institution of a calendar),
and in philosophy (as in the Memphite Theology).' (28)
As for Mesopotamia,
whose history is if anything older than that of Egypt, L.W.
King writes, 'Although the earliest Sumerian settlements in
Southern Babylonia are to be set back in a comparatively remote
past, the race by which they were founded appears at that time
to have already attained to a high level of culture.' (29) Or
as the famous archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley wrote about
Sumeria in the era of 3500 BC, 'It is astonishing to find that
at this early period the Sumerians were acquainted with and
commonly employed not only the column, but the arch, the vault,
and the dome, architectural forms which were not to find their
way into the western world for thousands of years. That the
general level of civilization accorded with the high development
of architecture is shown by the richness of the graves.' (30)
It was not
until relatively late in the history of Egypt, in the days of
the empire, from the sixteenth century BC, that we find minor,
local gods coming into prominence, after the supreme god and
the pantheon of gods associated with him had become remote from
common man. As Wilson writes, 'In the latter part of the Empire
an Egyptian expressed a close personal relation to a specifically
named god, who was his protector and controller.' (31) It was
in the Empire period, too, that there developed the fourfold
cycle of the cult of Osiris, the god most commonly linked in
popular understanding with ancient Egypt.
Kingdom of Egypt collapsed as a result of a breakdown of centralised
rule, accompanied by (or perhaps resulting in) an influx into
the Egyptian Delta of Asiatic immigrants. In the Middle Kingdom
that followed, Osiris came more strongly to the fore; he was
god of the dead, with entry into eternal life largely in his
gift. In the earlier period, the supreme god, the sun-god, had
been the judge of men; then there was, in Wilson's phrase 'a
democratisation of the next world and Osirianisation', eternal
judgement taking place before a tribunal of gods; finally, the
fate of the departed was held to depend on a trial before Osiris
alone (32) The developed Osiris myth - his murder when reigning
as king on earth at the hands of his wicked brother Set; the
mourning of Isis, his sister/wife; the finding, then burial,
of his dismembered body; a kind of resurrection, 'Osiris of
the mysteries, who springs from the returning waters' (33) -
need not detain us. It was well after the Middle Kingdom, in
the days of the Empire, that Osiris became chief of the gods.
mentioned, a feature of Egypt in the later period of its history
- as in the later Roman Empire - was the multiplicity of 'gods'.
At around the time of Moses (see below), there were over forty
petty states in Egypt, each with its own chief god, worshipped
in his temple at the principal city. Each such god had other
gods associated with him - a wife goddess, or sons - and each
in his own territory was regarded as 'god almighty', creator
and preserver of the world. Besides these, each town and village
possessed its own god. All gods were given 'names', to distinguish
one from another. The Thebian Recension of the 'Book of the
Dead' gives the names of over 450, and altogether we now know
the names of over 2200. As in Mesopotamia, with the proliferation
and increased splendour of temples, there was an increase in
their staffing and wealth. Temple activities eventually became
the dominant factor in Egyptian political, social and economic
life, overwhelming everything and everyone, both people and
picture, I submit, has emerged from 'the history of God' we
have so far traced, amongst 'primitive' peoples in Africa and
elsewhere, and in the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia and of
Egypt. It is of belief in a Supreme Deity that steadily become
eroded, not of a slow development of belief from the daemons
or spirits of trees and other natural objects, through local
territorial gods to a pantheon of high gods, then on finally
to one Great Creative Spirit. We could illustrate the same pattern
from other parts of the world, notably China. It is little appreciated
that some fifteen hundred or more years before the blossoming
of Taoism and Confucianism in the fifth century BC, the ancient
people of China served a single supreme God, had no myths or
idols, and kept a strict moral code. Their name for God was
Shang Ti, meaning Heavenly Emperor, or literally 'Emperor Above'.
(34) Yet this fact need not surprise us. Evidence suggests that
the Chinese originally migrated from a site in Mesopotamia,
their culture - in the arts, in the sciences and in government
- showing marked similarity to that of the later Babylonians
and Assyrians. (35)
the same time a famous family migrated from Mesopotamia to the
land of Canaan. To that seminal event we shall now turn.
quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the Revised Standard
Version (RSV). Other versions occasionally used are the A uthorised
Version (A V), the Revised Version (RV) and the New International
Version (NIV). Abbreviations used for the gospels Matthew, Mark,
Luke, and John are Mt, Mk, Lk, and Jn.
1: In the Beginning
Frazer,j.G., The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion,
London: Macmillan, 1890; Vol. I, pp. 348-9; Otto, Rudolf, The
Idea of the Holy, Penguin, 1959 (German original, 1917),
pp. 28-31; Kennedy, Ludovic, All In The Mind, London:
Hodder and Stoughton (Sceptre Paperback), 1999, pp. 29-30, 33-35.
Kennedy refers also to 'some evidence' for 'some primitive tribes'
having 'fashioned a Supreme Being who existed conjointly and
had power over lesser gods' (see Notes 8 and 9, below). Cf.
Armstrong, Karen, A Histtory of God, London, Heinemann,
1993; Mandarin paperback, 1994, pp. 9-10. Armstrong refers to
the book The Origin of the Idea of God by Wilhelm Schmidt
(first published in German in 1912; published in English [transl.
by HJ. Rose] in 1931, with the title The Origin and Growth
of Religion), who argues that there had been a primitive
monotheism before men and women started to worship a number
of gods. She concludes: 'It is impossible to prove this one
way or the other. There have been many theories about the origin
of religion. Yet it seems that creating gods is something that
human beings have always done.'
H. and H.A., Wilson, J.A., and, T.Jacobsen., op. cit., Penguin,
1949, pp. 12, 14-15; originally published as The Intellectual
Adventure of Ancient Man, University of Chicago Press, Chicago,
pp. 17-18; also Frazer, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 301.
4. op. cit.,p.
R.S., The Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland, Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1932, Vol. I, p. 42.
6. op. cit.,
London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1955, p. 57.
C.K, Tribal Studies in Northern Nigeria, London: Kegan
Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., Ltd., 1931; Vol I, p.191.
L., op. cit., p. 33.
cit., p. 58.
Monotheism', in The Sociological Review, XXVII, pp. 337f.
(1935); cited by Oesterley, W.O.E. and T.H. Robinson, Hebrew
Religion: Its Origin and Development, 2nd ed., London:
S.P.C.K, 1937, p. 5; New York: Macmillan, 1930.
H., et al., op. cit., pp. 140-1.
by Wiseman, PJ., New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis,
6th ed., London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1953, p. 25; 1"
P.S.P., Mesopotamian Archaeology: An Introduction to the
Archaeology of Babylonia and Assyria, London: Macmillan,
1912, p. 375.
of Cyrus, inscription on baked clay, c. 536 BC; from Babylon;
see Wiseman, DJ., Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology,
London: Tyndale, 1958, p.74; cf (in the Bible) Ezra, Chap. 1.
H., et aL, or. cit., p. 65.
p. 65;John 1:1.
p. 68; Genesis 2:2
of the Near East; cited by Wiseman, P J., op. cit., p. 28.
H., et al, op. cit., pp.105-6.
and Akkad, p. 3; cited by Wiseman, P J., op. cit., p. 28.
Sumerians, p. 37; cited by Wiseman, P J., op. cit., p. 29.
H., et aL, op. cit., p. 107.
op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 301-305; concerning a resurrection of
Osiris celebrated at his mysteries, Frazer cites Plutarch, Isis
et Osiris, 35.
The Original Religion of China, London: Oliphant, Anderson
and Ferrier, 1909, pp. 19-20; cited by Rang, C.H., and Ethel
R. Nelson, The Discovery of Genesis: How the Truths of Genesis
Were Found Hidden in the Chinese Language, St Louis: Concordia
Publishing House, 1979, p. 2.
T. De La, The Language of China Before the Chinese, Taipei:
Ch' engwen Publishing Co., 1966, p. 114; cited by Rang and Nelson,
op. cit., p. 2.