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Chapter 2

chapter 2 religion.docx

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David Perley

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Chapter 2; Religions of the Ancient World; pp. 30-65
Religion comes from the Latin word religio
Some claimed that the word derived from religare (“to bind”)as in the unbreakable bond
between humans and gods, while others found its roots in relegere (“to go over again”)
A greek phrase meaning “to honour the gods by participating in customary practices” clearly
approximates the roman religio
For the Egyptians described by the greek historian Herodotus(the 5th century BCE greek known
as the ‘father of history’, who In his histories described the religious practices of numerous
people) as the most pious people of the ancient world the true religious practitioners were
those who met the following standards spelled out in the new kingdom mortuary text known as
the Book of the dead (a new kingdom collection of spells based on the earlier coffin texts,
designed to ensure the resurrection of the dead and their security in the afterworld. It’s a
modern designation; the actual title translate as ‘the coming forth by day’)
This understanding of religion combined ethical conduct, doing justice to other humans, with
the proper piety towards the gods
A roman grammarian of the second century CE defined religious people as those who
participated in the state’s traditional rituals and who avoided superstition (‘superstitio’)
Superstition was ‘irrational’ behaviour and might include anything from intentional disregard of
standard state practices to improper pursuit of secret knowledge, placation of gods based on
fear of their malevolence rather than trust in their beneficence, or overly emotional
engagement with a particular god
When Christians co-opted the term religio in the 4th century CE, they redefined it to refer solely
to their own ‘true’ faith in a single god, reclassifying the old traditions as false, not religion but
In 384 CE, symmachus, the prefect of Rome, attempted to defend the original non-specific
meaning of religio, arguing that ‘everyone has his customs, everyone his own rites; the divine
mind has designated different guardians and different cults to different cities’
4 decades later, the theodosian code (a compilation of all the laws enacted since the first
Christian emperor, Constantine), outlawed the traditional modes of piety as superstitions and
legally defined religion from the single perspective of the Christian church
Traditions at a glance
In the western context, the term ‘ancient world’ refers to the general region of the Near East
and the Mediterranean as it existed in ‘antiquity’ – the roughly 4 thousand years from the late
4th millennium BCE to the early centuries of the Common Era. In that time many religious
traditions emerged and evolved, sometimes independently and sometimes intersecting with
one another.
Founders and Principal Leaders

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The only ancient tradition to identify itself with a specific founder or leader was Zorastrianism
(and even today scholars disagree on the life and contributions of Zarathustra/Zoroaster)
Names of the Deity
- Each tradition recognized hundreds, if not thousands, of deities many of which also had multiple
Authoritative Texts
- None of the ancient traditions had a central text even remotely comparable to the scriptures of
Abrahamic religions
- Certain texts did become essential components of a canonic tradition: Gilgamest in
Mesopotamia and Homer’s Illiad in Greece
Noteworthy Doctrines
- All the ancient traditions were polytheistic, worshipping multiple gods, and all of them sought to
promote moral/ethical behaviour
- They all placed equal or greater emphasis on ritual of various types
- Antiquity or the ancient world encompassed a vast territory centred on south-western asia,
southern Europe, and north Africa but radiating as far as western and central Europe, nubia and
Ethiopia, central asia and Arabia
- Major regions of southwestern asia were Anatolia (roughly equivalent to turkey), Syria,
Mesopotamia(Iraq) and iran
- Anatolia and iran were primarily highlands
- Syria included coastal lowlands, mountain valleys, grasslands, and desserts
- Mesopotamia, the land ‘between the rivers’ was the Tigris-Euphrates floodplain
- For two millennia, north Africa was basically Egypt, the narrow floodplain on either side of the
Nile, but it eventually came to include all the land along the south shore of the Mediterranean
- Southern Europe consisted of the greek, Italian, and Iberian peninsulas the greek and Iberian
being relatively infertile areas
- This varied landscape supported three basic type of communities: desert or highland pastoralists
tending herds, agriculturalists dispersed across the countryside in rural villages, and
concentrated urban centres
- Over time, communities were organized on incrementally larger scales: urban states, territorial
states, and eventually universal states/empires
- The great age of territorial states was the mid second millennium BCE
- Anatolia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia intersected and interacted in Syria, the land adjacent to the
northeastern Mediterranean

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- Region remained central, and its development reflected the cross-fertilization of peoples, goods,
ideas, and cultures
- It was not coincidental that the land where Judaism and Christianity emerged was adjacent to
the most heavily travelled crossroads, or that both approached their ‘definitive’ forms in the
time of the last great empire of the ancient world
- The end of antiquity at whichever date historians choose to place it, was marked by continuing
antagonism between the western and eastern spheres
- Even after the collapse of imperial institutions in the western Mediterranean during the fifth
century CE, the eastern roman empire kept up a struggle with the latest iran-based (sassanian)
- That particular conflict served to weaken both empires, leaving them vulnerable to arab forces
and contributing to the rise of islam
- The earliest historically documented civilization was that of the Sumerian (the urban civilization
of southernmost Mesopotamia (sumer) in the 4th millennium BCE; Sumerian religion was the
substratum of Mesopotamian religion) people of southern Mesopotamia.
- They were followed by a succession of semitic people: akkadians, amorites, assyrians, and
- Identity was a matter of place
- One became a Mesopotamian by moving them into the region between the trigris and the
Euphrates; an Egyptian by moving into the valley of the Nile
- Greeks(hellenes) were different. One did not become a greek by moving into Greece
- One was a greek wherever greeks lived; greek mainland, Aegean sea islands, asia minor
(western coast of turkey), black sea coast, sicily, southern Italy, coastal eastern spain, coastal
north Africa
- As for rome, the roman identity was initially reserved for residents of the city
- When the city expanded, only citizens of the empire were classified as romans
- In 212 CE everyone within the empire gained citizenship
- Urbanites typically considered themselves superior to their rural counterparts: city dwellers
were urbane, sophisticated, and civilized, whereas those in the countryside paganus in Latin
were unsophisticated, even barbarian
- Archaeologists, based their divisions on technology (stone, bronze and iron ages) while
historians use periods (typically based on changing political regimes or large-scale cultural shifts)
- Egypt’s long history is broke down into multiple periods: early dynastic/archaic, old kingdom,
first intermediate, new kingdom, third intermediate, late, Ptolemaic, and roman, each ruled by
particular dynasties
Prehistoric beginnings
- Some scholars believe that human symbolic behaviour, such as the association of red ochre with
burials, can be traced to an equally distance time
- Gobelki tepe in eastern turkey represents the period of transition from hunting-gathering to
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