Friday, July 10, 2009

The Ancients Whisper: Further Notes on Mesopotamian Religion

I have moved on from Mesopotamia to a campy "popular" history of Egypt, Barbara Mertz's Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. But I did not express to my own satisfaction in my last post the underlying dialectics of ancient Mesopotamian religion. So here goes ...

The fact of the Mesopotamian additive, accumulative, and mechanical listing and doubling approach to imagining the influence of the divine upon everyday life does not mean that there was not a dialectic going on. Mechanical thinking is, I would assert, only a rhetorical means of approaching the expression of the irreducible dialectics of being and living. What that means in the concrete is that the pragmatic side of Mesopotamian religion was not burdened with a supervening transcendence which could obscure its practicality and tolerance as opposed to what came later ... religion as repression and exclusive monomania.

This was the contribution of the ancient Hebrews. I hasten to pre-credential myself ... that is to cover my derrière ... by noting that my speculations on ancient Hebrew religion express nothing of my lifelong love of the Jewish cultural influence on Western society. I have never written about that here, and I will have to do so at some point. But the ancient Hebrews effected a revolution in thought that transformed the ambient pan-cultural and accumulative religious system into a "national," exclusive, and substitutive one. Where any individual or community could choose from a pantheon which divinity they preferred as their intercessor and defender, the Hebrews required allegiance to one god. By that move, they had to create a god who transcended the mechanical relationship between the divine and the real ... in other words, no longer was each event or moment the result of a narrative or an approachable decision maker, but now all reality was transcendentally controlled ex nihilo by one supervening and enveloping totality.

Monotheism ... what a curse. And a fraud ... because the high level notion of the great oneness never quite matches up with the on-the-ground practical need for intercession, exorcism, and help. That ultimately is where Christianity with its Jesus myth and Islam with its countless Sufi and Shia cults came in to "liberate" Hebrew religion from its ethnic cubbyhole and remake it into popular, boundary-less, and transmissible religious systems. The persistence of Hebrew religion among Jews over the millennia as the most pure of monotheisms is one of the most remarkable stories in human history. There's no go-between for the Jews and their god.

But that is not what I want to address right now.

Hebrew religion served as the transmission belt for the worst aspects of Mesopotamian religion ... its at-bottom nihilism, the dialectic of blinding brilliance and dispiriting terror. Its hopeless view of human life as coming from nowhere and ending in nothingness.

As I have been re-reading ancient history, I am simultaneously obsessed with wondering what it was like to live then, and ensnared by the horror that their obsessions with hopelessness and terror infected all of human history ... the venom that Fred Phelps and, today sadly, the SCLC spew against those they revile is the transmogrified religious system of Uruk in the fourth millennium B.C.E.

Transmogrified ... in other words, it is not that Mesopotamian religion was filled with hatred, for it did not seem to be. It was filled with dread. But dread plus monotheism equals hatred.

It's reasonably easy to assign reasons for the small steps in history ... why Prussia beat France in 1870, or why Octavian won at Actium. But it is difficult to understand what the particular impetuses are behind the huge earthquakes. As the aforementioned Barbara Mertz speculates, why did Egypt rapidly move from a millennia-old string of villages splayed down a river to a great, unified kingdom that would last for millennia? And why after 3500 years did Mesopotamian religion go into an occlusion, only to re-emerge with a vengeance in the era of Constantine and conquer the as yet unimagined Western world? Why was faith, the successor to the fatalism of the Mesopotamians, able not just to conquer reason, the concomitant and anointed successor to Greco-Roman religion, but to harness reason to its own purposes? Why was reason not able to crush the last stingy upwelling of the Mesopotamian miasma?

Of course, I pose these things from my own perspective. Plenty are those, blithely ignorant of the Babylonian genesis of the christ myth, who shudder in ecstasy at having that special intercessor ... just as the Mesopotamians shivered as they performed their rituals to whatever intercessor they might choose.

So this is not felicitous prose ... I know it ... but I leave you with this question: what determines which ancient historical dynamics turn out to be unextinguishable? I think that is why I read history.


Anonymous said...

Zoroaster introduced to Iranians the concept of monotheism about 3000 BC, long before the Hebrews. The Jews, who were polytheists up to 500 BC, learned of Iranian monotheism when Cyrus the Great invaded Babylon and liberated the Hebrews. This is important distinctions. Also, Akhenaten introduced the concept of a single God to Egyptians in 1500 BC -- this predates the Hebrews as well. New historical evidence suggests that the Hebrews modeled Moses after Akhenaten and Jesus after Zoroaster.

Anonymous said...

Barbara Mertzs borrows much of her descriptions from ME Monckton Jones to whom she gives little to no credit. She also belongs to the camp who believe the jews were slaves in Egypt. No such thing. All fantasy on part of Hebrews.