Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Gods and mud bricks

This is wicked off-topic for this site. But this is also a busier site than my personal blog and I thought I'd get more input here, so if you're looking for our usual content just disregard.

Anyway, I was helping the Boy with his homework last night and it got me thinking.

His sixth-grade class is studying ancient Mesopotamia, and the question for discussion last night was "learn about monotheism and polytheism and their effects on society" in the context of the early irrigation civilizations of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The "book solution" was that a) the early Sumerians and Akkadians had a pantsload of gods that b) affected every aspect of their civilization, from architecture to social organization.

The kids' textbook didn't continue, but being who I am I had to follow the trail a little further. What I found based on a cursory look over the Internet was that c) the actual documentary evidence for early Mesopotamian religions is pretty skimpy - most of what we "know" is inferred from fairly fragmentary sources - and d) what consensus there is suggests that the "Sumerian" civilizations were solidly polytheistic - that is, that the peoples of the earlier inhabitants of the region centered around Sumer had a God of Bunions and another god for wheat and another for oral sex or whatever and they were all pretty much equals - but that as the "Akkadians" took over (that is, Babylon became the Big Ziggurat) a handful of the "bigger" deities tended to become, well, bigger. The various secondary sources seem uncertain as to how much this actually approached "monotheism" but agree that the result was somewhat different in both form and function from the earlier godly free-for-all.

The implication in the Boys' text was that this change in religion caused a change in society; gods first, people after.

But being the godless heathen I am I wonder; wouldn't it make just as much sense the other way around? If gods are - as I suspect they are - more a reflection of the people who imagine them why shouldn't the changes in civilizations result in a change in gods?

My brief understanding of the difference between the "Sumerian" and "Babylonian" (or "Akkadian") civilizations is that the latter was more centralized, and that the Akkadian rulers were more god-like god-kings than the earlier Sumerian versions; that Sumer was a bunch of city-states and that Babylon was Babylon and a bunch of tributary cities.

So why wouldn't it make sense for someone who looked at his or her society and saw that kind of heirarchy all around imagine the heavens as similarly organized? If your little city is just one among many it'd make sense that your city's gods were, too. If your city was the Big Pomegranate why shouldn't your god be the boss of the other cities' gods?

Makes sense to me, anyway, but I know from Mesopotamia what I know about Croatian poetry. Well, other than the Great Whore of Babylon because...well, because. It took everything I had in me not to sing the Boy the Crocodile Hotel Blues. I'm a Bad Dad that way.

Anyone with a bigger brain and more knowledge have ideas on the subject?


  1. Th Sumerians were split into small city states with wars with one digit casualties.
    We know that through the ages Semitic tribes, sch as these taking over as Akkadians, were associated with one god, who nurtured them to win against the favourites of another god. Winning an Empire, it was natural that the tribal order of god's favourites had to be reflected in the pantheon. Israel's monotheism is thoroughly based on this Semitic concept, only they are not willing to recognize that other supernatural beings deserve the title god, what most Semitic tribes of this day did. Our monotheism derives from such a god's favourite belief combined with there are other supernatural beings, but they fall off an ever increasing cliff from the status of our mighty god.

    1. What I got from what I read was most historians seem to think that the Akkadians weren't ready to go full-on mono. They had guys like Marduk that were "big" gods but still had "little" gods that were actual gods, just not the equals of the Big Boys and Girls. The Wiki entry for "monotheism" says "Monolatrism can be a stage in the development of monotheism from polytheism. Three examples of this are the Aten cult in the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, the rise of Marduk from the tutelary of Babylon to the claim of universal supremacy, and the rise of Yahweh from among the Israelite gods to the sole God of later Judaism."

      Two out of those three look to me like a genuine cart-horse question; you have two extreme-heirarchical societies with god-kings that - surprise - develop a single god-king-like deity. The early Jews seem like a social outlier; a tribal society that develops a single God religion.

      But which brings me back to my original quandry: which was it - was it the religion that produced the changes in the societies, or the societies that produced the changes in the religions..?

    2. No, the Jews were a pretty normal Semitic tribe. They had one tribal god and worshipped him. They developed a negative relation to all other gods, more negative than other Semitic tribes. Admittedly, we know little about the religion of all Semitic societies, nor is the Israeli polytheism a popular research subject, although there are documents of ist existance. Telling Jews that they started kind of polytheistic with a tribal chief god is still a possible career killer.

  2. The answer is clearly "Yes".

    Those gods that did well for their societies prospered.

    Look at the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem.
    God (or cholera) kicks Assyrian butt and the people trash idols and worship god.
    (and *boy oh boy* not getting conquered by the Assyrians was truly a heavenly reward)!

    Or look at the new world. Christian priests survived the plague far better than the old style shaman.
    Again, a clear judgement from on high.

    Priests that could predict the correct day to plant the crops, or predict the coming of floods and famine did better than the priests who could not.

    We all love winners.

    1. The thing that makes me wonder, tho, Ael, is that there were a fair number of genuinely-polytheistic civilizations that worked just fine...the Egyptians and the Hittites kicked some Babylonian ass, the Greeks and Romans and so didn't seem plausible to assume that mono = success until well into the CE. So I couldn't just flat out say "Oh, sure, this was just the result of social changes that produced changes in the religion..."

    2. That is exactly the point. People go with winners. If a civilization is winning, then their social institutions get reinforced. Polytheistic or monotheistic doesn't matter. When it starts losing, society casts around, looking for scape goats to punish and winners to back. I don't think it was an accident that Rome went monotheistic only towards the end.

  3. Even in much of Christianity, mankind tends to create god in their own image and likeness, so I would agree with your notion that society's movements indeed had an impact on how the gods were perceived. The Big Cahuna or the Big Cahunas, and what about Deputy Big Cahunas?

    Take certain elements of Christianity, for example. He looks like a gracefully aged Charlton Heston and sounds like James Earl Jones. No question about it. While Genesis says man was created in the image and likeness of God, does that simply mean physical attributes, and if so how are differences in race accounted for? And since Christianity believes in a Trinity, well, why don't we look like a dove? Meanwhile, the Jews do not even begin to consider humanizing the G-d described in those same writings.

  4. In addition to sociological terms, these different approaches to god(s) need to be investigated in basic theological terms. The G-d of the Jews is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and eternal. All concepts beyond human experience, and beyond human concept. Christianity, in the main, ascribes the same, although we find some denominations that, in practice, appear to ascribe human characteristics. Sat in on an interesting discussion where a Protestant pastor said, "God cannot lie." I said that the Orthodox would say, "God does not lie, because he chooses not to." He said that if God could lie and only chooses not to, he would not be God, as we couldn't be assured He was telling the truth. In his view, it is an inability to lie that sets God apart from humans. So I asked who imposed such a limit on God, and he was stuck. I asked him if he ever considered the notion that what sets man apart from God is when given the choice to lie, it is man that might choose to lie, while God never does? However, that requires defining man as an imperfect, limited version of his God, versus trying to define God as a somewhat more perfect version of man. Does the sun revolve around around the earth or visa versa?

    Most polytheistic cultures ascribed significant human characteristics to their gods' power, knowledge, presence and life span. Thus the division of labor amongst the gods, stories of their gods' birth, mortal battles between the gods, progeny, etc. One would really have to dig as to why they were more comfortable with this.

  5. What about Tao (or Dao?) in ancient China? It is still going strong with well over a hundred Gods and Goddesses. Or Shinto? I realize that Shinto is not necessarily an organized religion with Bishops or Ayatollahs. But when I lived in Japan back in the early 60s it seemed there were tens of thousands of Shinto shrines, almost one on every corner and even more in the countryside. These religions were developed in mature or perhaps maturing civilizations. Hindus? Some have called it the oldest religion in the world. There have been homo sapiens in India for 75,000 years.

    I am not so sure about monotheism in the West and Middle East. Not religious doctrine per se but the way it is practiced by Jack and Jill Doe. My wife's girlfriend, a devout woman prays more to St Mary, St Anne, St Jude and St Christopher than she does to Jesus. And I forget the name of her Kitchen Saint of whom she has a statue in a place of honor on her stove-top. Some Protestants are no exception with their ancestor worship of the old prophets. Muslims may be the most monotheistic of us all but are not immune either. Sunnis have djinns and angels. Some Shia Muslims seem to be praying more to Ali and other martyrs than to Allah.

    For myself the older I get, the more I seem to drift towards Animism. If men can aspire to God, then why can't a pod of whales or a run of Salmon?

  6. Mike, there is a bit of confusion about the practice in Catholicism and Orthodoxy which is, correctly described, asking saints to pray for you, just as one might ask a neighbor to do the same. It is based on the belief that the souls of the departed are awaiting, somewhere, the Second Coming of Christ, when they will be judged, and thus are engaged in constant prayer. The entrance into heaven or hell isn't until after the Judgment at the Second Coming and the subsequent resurrection of their bodies. Since the saints seem to have led a life pleasing to God, one would hope that their prayers are a bit more convincing. Also, the saints are admired as examples of humans choosing to live a God pleasing life, usually at personal expense.

    As to the origins of man, deities can be put into two categories: creators or first ancestors. We are creations of the former and descendants of the latter. In some faiths, man was “created” from some element of the deity and thus non-reproductive descendants.

    Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in a God who is the uncreated (He is eternal) creator of all. Angels and heavenly hosts (cherubims, seraphims, thrones and dominions) are not deities, but created by the deity to serve and glorify Him. And, all of creation is His work, and our first ancestors are Adam and Eve, who were not deities, but created humans. And all of this creation stuff was from nothingness.

    While Shinto does not have a well defined origins of man story, the closest thing is the emergence of an ancestral couple from amongst a number of deities.

    Hindism is polytheistic, but sees Brahma as the creator of all, but from his own being, not nothingness.

    And so on with various variations, combinations and permutations. All to explain some very complicated concepts and origins rooted in eternity and infinity. As the eminent Romanian theologian, Dumitru Stăniloae put it, "No matter how much more we may be able to know about God, we cannot reduce how much we do not know." Not an easy concept for "rational man", is it?

  7. One of the most curious little bits of Judaism (and, by adoption, Christianity) is expressed in the passage quoted in Genesis 6:2: "And the sons of the Elohim saw the daughters of the adam that they were good; and they took to them wives whomsoever they chose."

    האלהים בני, literally "B'ni Elohim" has been interpreted in a buttload of ways, typically to avoid the meaning of the word "Elohim" as commonly used in the Mosaic scripture as a synonym for "God" as in "the one and only GOD", YHWH, He Wh IS Whom He Is, etc...the implication being that these "sons of God" are just that - divine beings, petty gods or angels or some variety of spiritual critter alike to the "God" of the Torah/Old Testament in the same sense that the offspring of Marduk and Sarpanit or Zeus and Hera...

    1. It doesn't matter. They were all wiped out by the flood.

    2. Well, sure. But the existence of that particular little piece of text suggests that even the Jews - who with the Muslims and the more extreme Xtian sects - seem to me the MOST mono of the monotheists had there moments of reflection back to a less-dogmatic past...

      Being utterly unchurched I'm probably the last person to consult on the entire issue, but ISTM that - given what would seem like a massive subjectiveness of the whole religion business - taking the position that "my God is the ONLY God and not only are your god(s) fakes and phonies but you are in dutch with my God for not believing in Him" seems...well, a trifle louche at best and downright inconsiderate at worst. Which isn't EVEN to get into the whole subject of butchering "infidels", which seems to be one of those things that often comes with religions like those little dessication packets inside the bag of beef jerky.

      But I suppose that treating one's religion as a sort of harmless hobby would kind of take all the fun out of it.

  8. Chief: "Well, sure. But the existence of that particular little piece of text suggests that even the Jews - who with the Muslims and the more extreme Xtian sects - seem to me the MOST mono of the monotheists had there moments of reflection back to a less-dogmatic past..."

    A theology prof at Manhattan College put it this was:

    There are 4 Ms: Material, Mental, Magical and Mystical. Man's experiential ability is limited to the first two. Thus, how do we confront space and time, which are infinite and eternal? We can simply say that we haven't yet attained the Material and Mental skill to explain everything, but we definitely will. We can adopt Magic, which claims that there is secret knowledge or hidden meanings about all of creation, or we can accept Mystical, whereby we humbly admit that for some things, be they spiritual or material, we will never have all the answers.

    Judaism has gone through periods of trying to intellectually and almost magically figure out more about their G-d. Thus scholars who try to ascribe the meaning to, for example, the number of words in a sentence of the Torah, or meaning in the number of letters in a word or phrase. The quest for hidden meaning (Magic) is a well established human endeavor.

  9. Nice can of worms you opened here, Chief.

    Lessee...since this is my field of study let me preface it with, "Not everything seems so up and up as it first appears."

    We, and by "we" I mean our modern culture/civilization/world-view has a lot going for it...unfortunately, because we're so damn rational we have a hard time understanding the culture/civilization/world-view as the people four to five thousand years ago saw it.

    For example, you're making bread, today (just for arguments sake) and you're reasoning is, "I'm making bread because it's fan-freaking-tastic when I make bread, and it's kind-of-sort-of fun, and besides, who doesn't like the smell of fresh bread baked in the morning?"

    Four-to-five thousand years ago, a wife baking bread was an expression of her devotion to both her god(s), her family, and her society...hence the reason the "breaking of bread" was such a fucking ceremony (Just tear the damn thing, and lets eat!). The reasoning being is that food, as plentiful as we have it today, wasn't so then.

    They didn't have groceries stores, and the markets were mostly loaded with spices...because, you know, reasons...actually, because spices transported over distances a lot better than crops/produce. So, Habib down the road a bit, and Methusala up the road a bit were all growing the same thing you were growing...which is to say, variety wasn't a was literally, same-old, same-old.

    Another point, yes, as much as the Bible likes to present itself as COLOSSALLY MONOTHEISTIC, BOO-YAAAH BITCHES! a careful reading says otherwise. The Israelites, like all the societies around them at that time had their pantheon too. The reason why we don't know much about that pantheon is because of that small little incident which we'll call the Babylonian dispersal.

    Up to that point of Nebbie's, "Yo, you're outta of here!" Israel had a systematic belief of hierarchical gods/angels who were viewed/worshipped as YHWH's mechanics/drones/helpers/yada/yada/yada and were the ones actually responsible for the making/creating/fashioning of the creepy/crawly/growy/thingys/heavens/cosmos with YHWH playing head cheese. Kind of like a company with the CEO telling the Production manager to go forth and produce widgets.

    This is why there actually two openings to Genesis...the first opening, i,e, Genesis 1-through-2..or is it 3...dam...anyway, it's there, just read it and you'll see. To continue, all this comes post Babylonian where the Rabbi's during the Babylon exile come together, said, "we need to lock this shit down fast, so YHWH doesn't drop kick our asses through an even farther goal-post of 'get'er right boys, or it'll be worse next time!'" and basically told the Israelites, "hey, that pantheon of god shit you've been holding on too...yeah, not so fast." And thus, the reason Genesis 1 reads like it does...

    "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

    You see, that simple little sentence right there overthrew thousands of years of traditional familial pantheons in individual households for Israel. There is no, "And God delegated the grasses to Ainu, and the waters to Enu, and the tree's to Seti." Nope, it was all G-d. And that, right there, is why post Babylonia Israel became monotheistic.

    The Rabbi's formed an intellectual block based on all the scriptures/histories/prophecies/writings/opinions from the past, decided that there were too many loop-holes for people to crawl through, and thusly, closed those loops holes. The final form of this all was the implementation of rabbinical schools where all male children were to be educated in the Torah...and if they did alright there, they might move on to being a Rabbi's disciple....but that is for another discussion.


  10. Sheer- considering that the written accounts of creation were all done long after the fact, and were not the writings of the first creatures, of course they would have seen some form of evolution and "clarification".

  11. Hi Al,
    If memory serves...and every year seems a good bit of it just vaporizes, is that the earliest confirmed version that has the original without the additions from the Babylonian edits is three thousand BC...maybe four thousand BC...I seem to recall that they found the inscription on the wall of a home that was excavated.
    Ugh, hard to remember, and I don't have that magazine article anymore but it was pulled from an archeological magazine...dam, can't even remember the name, now.


  12. I think the hard part to figure out with Scriptural archaeology is the degree to which this sort of stuff represents borrowed ideas that got locked in because of Tradition!, older pieces of pre-strictly-monotheistic-Judiasm that survived because nobody was arsed enough to want to cut them out, or actual bits of the active religion that just don't jive with what we think are supposed to be the tenets of the biz. Add to that the tortured history of the manuscripts; when you spend any sort of time looking into the provenance of manuscript documents you come away amazed that you can feel confident that more than about 50% of what's in any modern edition was written by the original author - or, for that matter, WHO the original author(s) was/were and when he (or they) wrote the thing.

    I mean...Flood stories. Everybody in the ancient Near East seems to have had one. Does that mean that there WAS a Flood...or just that somebody had a Flood story in their cosmology and that was what all the Kool Kidz had, so, there...

    1. A fair point to be sure, and one that is supported with archeological evidence.

      I think the hobgoblin to much of what we see as "100% certitude" amongst christians, muslims, and jews is that when one starts to get into the physical evidence...i.e. archeological evidence, the certitude seems to drop to 50%. In fact much of what has been dug up shows that the middle-east was home to a large variety of practices.

      I think the hubris in much of todays more rabid followers is a refusal to understand the context/history of the cultures involved. The major problem with much of todays scholarship is that we want to differeniate ancient cultures into discreet cultural blocks when the truth of the matter is...well...that's not how they, the ancients saw themselves. They were just extensions of their home turf. For example, Abraham...home-team wasn't Jewish by no amount of the imagination. Sorry, he wasn't even hebraic...why? Because Hebrews didn't exist. period. end.of.statement. Abraham was from the land of Ur...which makes him...well, Arabic if we're going to assign racial lineages...which, to be honest...isn't very accurate, either as the term Arab didn't exist at that point in time, either. Nobody considered themselves, "arabic" as we understand arabic.
      Which is a long way of saying that as much as we like to think, "all these people had the same concept of myths/legends/gods" the truth of the matter is...the reason they were all similar to each other is because they are...because they all came from the same cultural region, and therefore, the same root. We, today, are the ones who assigned differences...but for those people back wasn't different. They just expanded from the same root stock.

      As always,


  13. All of which brings to mind how one of my Early Church History profs described the discussions amongst the Church leaders about the Cannon of Scripture back in the 4th Cent. Eastern reps wanted Hebrews included, Western did not. Western wanted Revelation, Eastern did not. Finally, Western reps told Eastern reps, "We will give you Hebrews and two future draft choices in return for Revelation." And thus the deal was made.