The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
By Patricia Eddy
LONDON, (CAIS) -- In religion, as in war, success often lies in numbers. Nowhere has this been quite as true as in the Near East of 5,000 years ago. While dreaded armies grimly enlarged the borders of their empires, legions of mythical gods and goddesses were thought to garrison the heavens. A heavenly being seemed to exist to support every human desire. Love, food, and luck in war, to name just a few, all had their mythic benefactors. Safety, if not happiness, resided in the large numbers of gods thought to be managing the affairs of their human supplicants, including the beginning and end of the world.
The divine court hummed with beneficent activity for the believers, and happy worshipers were free to pick and choose among the celestial throng. People were not restricted to just one deity. They could select an entire team to champion their multiple desires. If one god ignored your needs, you were free to choose another, either from your local pantheon, or from your neighbor’s. But the mythical multitude in heaven represented just a small part of the supernatural crowd surrounding the earth.
Diversity of Man and Spirit
The ancient Near East teemed with diverse peoples, who thought a horde of invisible residents occupied the world as well: gods, spirits, shades, genies, nymphs, angels and demons—a multitude nearly exceeding the numbers of human citizens. The unseen were believed to jostle for position at every human gathering, and lay in solitary wait for the hapless traveler in the wilderness. The supernatural residents of those ancient lands represented all genders and sexual predilections. The animal kingdom, often in creative combination with human forms, was abundant among the spirit world of myth.
When a nation went to war, the human worshipers were certain the spirits accompanied them into battle. But the spirits didn’t start the wars, and unlike the humans sharing the ancient world, the multitude of supernaturals lived together in peace and harmony. Except, that is, when some zealous evangelist from Persia or Egypt billed an upstart deity as the only-god. When the divine assembly was squeezed, mortal and immortal beings alike felt the pinch. With the coming of monotheism, heavenly out placement of unemployed gods became a real problem for their earthly priests and worshipers.
Somewhere between 1700 and 493 BC, a prophet arose in the land that was destined to become Persia. While scholars debate the date there is little doubt that the powerful prophet reshaped the notion of God for much of the world. He is known as Zoroaster in the West. His new religion was one of the earliest forms of monotheism, and Zoroaster’s god, called Ahura Mazda, was one of the precursors to the later God described in the Bible. But the responsibility for managing heaven and earth seemed to weigh heavily on the shoulders of Ahura Mazda—his worshipers believed he created an entire pantheon of god-like immortals to help. In contrast, the Bible’s chief occupant of heaven allowed no others of godly rank to share his powers.
What could be more efficient than a single ambitious god in charge of everything? Surprisingly, one god, a salubrious idea to the practitioners of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, caused unexpected ills for unsuspecting worshipers. In short, monotheism had some nasty side effects.
So what if the God of the Bible didn’t like the other gods or their followers. Wouldn’t it be easier for worshipers to focus on just one deity, and eliminate the overlaps and confusion of an overpopulated heaven? Wouldn’t such an efficient concept, as a single god for a single universe, serve to unify humanity? But along with that only-God came a seemingly never ending procession of religious wars: from the subduing of ancient pagan tribes in Europe by the Christians, to the conquering of much of the Middle East and Mediterranean world by Islam, to the persecution of the Jews nearly constantly. People believed that a god that rejects other gods, rejects their worshipers as well.
An Unpopular God
Modern monotheists are perplexed at their rejection by much of the world. So, too, were the ancient Israelites when rebuffed by Moses for building the golden calf. They were just imitating their neighbors. But the repercussions of fabricating that idol were tumultuous. Not only was the golden calf ignominiously reduced to bullion, the Canaanites were keenly insulted by Moses’ elitist attitude. Claiming that one’s god is mightier than a neighbor’s was tolerable, but the claim that the neighbor’s god doesn’t exist at all breached the known standards of etiquette. In reality, the Bible was slow to make such an unprecedented pronouncement, and for good reason.
To the pagans in the ancient Near East, multiple gods seemed to be hard at work keeping chaos at bay. Checks and balances were thought to be provided by competing deities, as was the equilibrium of forces required to maintain the harmony of the universe. In contrast to the heavenly teamwork approach, the adherents of a solitary god thought he required the aid of the earth’s people to achieve his goals. This meant, among other things, that people had to fight God’s wars. Unfortunately for the world, the dreary concept of holy war, and the frightful battle to be fought at the end of time, known as Armageddon, were the mythic fallout of Persia’s monotheistic deity. This problem was exacerbated when Zoroaster’s end of the world concepts were enlarged upon in the Bible and eventually reached a far larger audience.
The First Attempts of the Only God
Ahura Mazda was not mankind’s first foray into the isolated realm of a solitary god. The seedbed for single gods was the same as for their more numerous counterparts, the great civilizations of the ancient Near East. These included Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia, to name just the most well known. Ancient people believed that the older gods who were not killed in heavenly battles by younger, and more powerful rivals, retired peacefully as sons were born mightier than themselves.
The road to monotheism was paved with myths of lesser gods combining forces to grasp additional power under a single name. Enterprising deities consolidated themselves to yield a stronger heavenly presence, and wield greater clout over expanded territory. Mergers, that ever popular pastime of the business world, actually started in heaven.
The Lesser Gods at Work
Long after the concept of abstract deities overseeing vast areas of the ancient Near East emerged from the swamp of animism’s prehistory—their worshipers still believed that lesser gods protected locality, tribe, or even households. But at any level in the heavenly hierarchy, the mythic fates of the divines rose and fell with the fates of their worshipers.
The deities of the victorious rose to power and absorbed the forlorn gods of the defeated. Sometimes, winning gods pressed the losers into their service, a few of the defeated even became angelic bureaucrats. For instance, when Babylonia became an empire, Marduk absorbed most other Babylonian gods, including his own father Ea. In the absence of heavenly copyrights, the myths of the earlier gods were attributed to him, and the previous divinities’ hymns were sung in his name. Eventually, the elderly deities simply died of neglect for lack of worshipers.
In some cases, the old gods suffered an even more ignominious fate; they became demons in the new religious regime.
The Nile—Spawning Grounds of the Gods
In all the ancient Near East, nowhere was the game of heavenly politics played with as much ardor, or as much skill, as in Egypt. The Egyptians simply had more gods to work with. An Alexandrian wit once remarked that it was easier to find a god in Egypt than a man. Temples were everywhere, and the teeming population of Egyptian deities and their worshipers were densely packed along the Nile. Caring for gods became one of the world’s first service industries; the larger-than-life statues of the temple occupants were daily bathed, coifed, and perfumed by armies of attentive and well-paid priests.
At least one outstanding mortal, Alexander the Great, was promoted to god by his venerators in Egypt. After his untimely death, a legend arose that his body was preserved in honey and placed in a glass case in Alexandria for his worshipers to view.
The First New Agers
The Egyptian civilization seemed to the rest of the ancient Near East to be the New Agers of their era. As with the New Age movement today, the Egyptian theological menu overflowed with delectable spiritual delights. The gods enjoyed the same cosmopolitan atmosphere as the humans. Many Egyptian deities combined animal parts with their human form, a mythic image that didn’t dim their popularity in Egypt or other areas.
By the time of the Roman Empire, the popular writer Lucian made a favorite pastime out of commenting upon the excesses of the vast numbers of multi-specie gods and their uncritical welcome in the ancient world. When not tweaking Egypt’s combined human/animal temple dwellers, he skewered the overcrowded Greek pantheon. Lucian noted that any animal that managed to escape from Egypt became a god on Mt. Olympus. Surprisingly, over a thousand years before Lucian, the crowded Egyptian pantheon was briefly pushed aside when the Nile’s fertile religious spawning ground gave birth to one of the earliest monotheistic gods.
The Only-God Makes His Debut
Perhaps even before Zoroaster’s foray into the world of monotheism, the idea of a supreme god was slowly taking shape in Egypt; not so much from the force of theology as from the pressure of politics. When warring factions were united by treaty, The treaty makers also combined their rival gods into a divine, if wary union. One such happy event occurred in the 14th Century BC, when Upper and Lower Egypt were reunited.
The cooperating princes shuffled the political powers by moving the capital to Thebes, in Upper Egypt, and shook up the entrenched religious establishment by combining two gods from the lower part of the land, Amun and Re. The resulting balancing act worked, and Amun-Re became the supreme god of a freshly energized Egyptian Empire.
Success was assured when a newly ordained and appropriately grateful priesthood firmly buttressed the new establishment. They also seized the opportunity to enhance their own power as well. The priests of Amun-Re enjoyed the same monopoly as their god, and as oracles of the royal courts, they wielded power far beyond their temple confines. As can be expected, Amun-Re’s spokesmen benefited from every divine utterance.
The older Egyptian deities did not take this lying down. The priests of rival gods, exalting their own as the highest in the land, began to sound a lot like monotheists. Their gods were so much more mighty than their neighbor’s, that they might just as well be the only god in the land—if not the whole world.
The idea grew, and a little later in the 14th Century, one god called Aten briefly raised his lonely head above the banks of the Nile, and challenged the army of Amun-Re’s priests garrisoning the temples. The new god’s mentor, Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), attempted to break the power Amun-Re’s potent but corrupt priests, by establishing a new god, Aten. Unfortunately, the established priesthoods of the deposed gods, as well as the gods themselves still retained great popularity. People had relied on them for centuries—and now an upstart, unproven god was to take over.
The Problems of Aten
Akhenaten eliminated the possibility of competition for his new deity, by making him the only-god of the universe. When he thought the new heavenly player’s dominant position was secure, Akhenaten ingloriously demoted Amun-Re, and banished him along with the rest of the disgruntled Egyptian pantheon. He also banished Amun-Re’s throngs of priests, who used the time afforded by their enforced retirement to plot against Akhenaten and his new upstart god.
Akhenaten’s deity, true to the monotheistic tradition, was practically without image. As Aten retreated far enough into the heavens to contemplate the entire earth, he lost his visible form. A simple winged sun disc was his only outward manifestation. Not surprisingly, the still powerful priesthood of the lavishly accoutremented refugee, Amun-Re, attempted to bring the austere Aten to heel. In retaliation, Akhenaten had Amun-Re’s statues smashed and his temples destroyed.
Aten was credited with absolute power, but he was not quite alone as god. The universal creator shared divinity with his human creator. But the new god of the universe seldom peeked over the walls of the Pharaoh’s palace. Aten never attained much popularity beyond his new capital in central Egypt, and only among Akhenaten’s court and hangers-on.
Aten was largely ignored by the majority of the of the population of Egypt who continued to ensure their well being by dabbling in magical spells and plying their household gods with extra goodies Aten existed for a mere 14 years, until Akhenaten died. Then the flood gates opened for a tidal wave of old gods returning from exile, and the lonely young deity was swept away.
The Persian Persuasion
Centuries later, the Persian only-god emerged from the solitude of the steppes of Central Asia, heralded by his prophet Zoroaster. This god was far more successful than his Egyptian predecessor; he still has about 100,000 worshipers even today, mostly in India and Iran. The new god, then called Ahura Mazda in the sixth century BC., was also a nearly monotheistic deity, at least in the beginning. He provided a model for that militantly solitary divine, the Hebrew supreme being. But the Israelites took many more mythical concepts from the Persians than just the idea of monotheism.
Persia’s first great king, Cyrus the Great, liberated the captive Israelites from the Babylonians in 539 BC, and allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild their beloved temple. Naturally, the Persians wielded tremendous influence over the grateful Hebrews. Persia held the satrapy containing Judea for about 200 years, plenty of time to influence the impressionable Bible writers.
Persia and the Bible
As it turned out, the Israelites adopted an entire complex of Persian religious ideas. These included just about all the favorite features of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: angels, the holy spirit, paradise in heaven, eternal life, Judgment Day, the resurrection of the dead, a fiery hell, a messianic savior, and man’s personnel responsibility to do God’s will. These concepts were not entirely lacking in other religions, but they were central in Zoroaster’s faith. The Persian underpinnings became the very pillars of the Bible.
The prophet Zoroaster’s revelations from Ahura Mazda came at a time when he, like his Egyptian predecessor, was reacting to a corrupt priesthood. All sacrifices had to be performed by monopolistic curates, who took a healthy cut for their services. Officiating like imperious maitre d’s at upscale New York restaurants, the prime tables at the heavenly banquet were reserved for the patrons with the deepest pockets.
No religious ceremony could be held without the paid ecclesiastical presence, who recited from memory, the precise rites for the occasion. Needless to say, the proper rituals were seldom written down, lest they fall into the hands of cut rate practitioners, or worse, unpaid do-it-yourselfers. According to ancient documents from Mesopotamia and Egypt the same situation existed in these regions also, and probably throughout the Ancient Near East.
There are traces in the Bible of a similar monopolistic priestly practices when the centralized Hebrew priesthood was instrumental in eliminating the family-officiated ceremonies held regularly at the unregulated altars described in the book of 1 Samuel. This strongly suggests that power grabbing by established priests existed among both Persians and Israelites—the next to take up monotheism.
The Middlemen and the Only God
Ahura Mazda’s followers, however, believed they could do them an end run around the priests because they were allowed direct communications with their new deity. In short, Zoroaster eliminated the middle men, at least for a while. Of course, this created much enmity from the religious establishment whose incomes diminished along with the influence of their gods.
The same thing might have happened to the ancient Israelite priests, but the astute Aaronites, who had learned their lesson from the golden calf incident, adopted the Hebrew solitary god, known as Yahweh in the Bible. The Aaronites won out over several rival priestly groups and thrived for the next 1000 years. The ancient Jewish priesthood eventually met its demise when the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. But their God survived—sheltered in the safe care of rabbis and Christian evangelists.
The Enigma of Evil
Zoroaster’s Ahura Mazda was faced with the problem which confronts any monotheistic deity, how to account for evil. The solution was easy when the mythical pantheon was amply populated. One of the gods could always be counted upon to play the villain. But for an only-god, things were more difficult. People wanted to know if he personally created all the misery and misfortune facing mankind, or if some other force was responsible for it.
Already, Ahura Mazda’s claim to be an only-god was tenuous. He anticipated cloning by several thousand years when he created six other immortals, all “emanations” of himself. If there existed yet another completely independent deity responsible for evil, Zoroaster’s claims for an only-god would become even more questionable. To solve this problem, Zoroaster assumed the existence of primeval spirit (Angra Mainyu), who chose evil over good. Angra Mainyu was not created, exactly, he just was. As could be expected, this evil spirit went about producing the vicissitudes of life. But Ahura Mazda’s reputation was left unblemished.
Zoroaster taught that his deity was a just god. But, problems arose when his worshipers suffered while evil doers prospered. Clearly, justice was not being done. But Zoroaster saved the day. He preached that rewards for the faithful and punishment for sinners will be meted out at a judgment day—but at some far distant future time in an afterlife. As decades passed and the sinful still flourished, judgment day receded ever further into the future, finally arriving at the latest possible date—the end of time.
The Persian End of The World
Zoroaster’s religious concepts included humanity’s personal responsibility to help their god. This notion also carried over into warfare. In the ancient Near East, many gods gained power in the beginning of their reigns or their version of the creation of the world by defeating evil represented by a mythical dragon god. One good example is the defeat of Leviathan by the Canaanite God Baal.
The Israelites lived for generations in the land of Canaan, and Baal is mentioned frequently in the Bible’s Book of Judges. But with a monotheistic deity, there could be no evil dragon gods or any other gods to defeat in order to establish power. The Bible’s deity heralded the arrival of evil into the world with the creation of humanity—the notion of original sin. Thus Leviathan was no longer needed to personify evil, however two mentions of the defeat of Leviathan or a similar dragon are contained in Psalms 74 and 89. These appear to be holdovers from ancient pagan religions.
The Battle of the Gods Moves to Earth
As a result, the myth of the defeat of the evil dragon in the beginning for other gods became the myth of the defeat of the evil dragon at the end of the world in the Bible. In Isaiah 27:1 we read of the defeat of the seven headed Leviathan “in the sea” at the end of time. It is interesting to note that Isaiah in 45: 14-25 is the first prophet to insist that Yahweh is the only God. In spite of the fact that these portions of Isaiah were written by two different people, monotheism is definitely linked with the defeat of the evil dragon at the end of time.
With the faithful actively aiding their only-god, this battle moved to earth to be fought by men, aided by heavenly forces. For example, the Israelite version is seen in the Bible’s writings on Holy War. This concept meant that wars should be fought as often as needed to keep the sinners at bay until time for the final victory. This gave rise to the notion of holy war as initial skirmishes for the last battle, Armageddon.
According to Zoroaster, the last battle was to be headed by a messiah known as a Saoshyant. The Persian concept of the messiah was a little more lavish than the Israelite no frills version; they claimed there would be three—all born of virgins. But, only the final Saoshyant would lead the final battle.
The messages of the first two Saoshyants would be ignored by the Persians. But the final Saoshyant savior would herald a thousand year millennium, an era of peace and plenty, to arrive after the last battle defeating evil. Preceding the war would be an apocalypse, to soften up the sinners, and gain the attention of the people. All of these concepts found their way into the Bible, and into the mythology of the modern West.
The Guiding Myth of the West
Zoroaster could not have known that his notion of a great, final, world-ending war would become one of the guiding myths of Western civilization. Similarly, modern people, both secular and scientific-minded, don’t realize how much they are influenced by these ancient ideas, which are now well ensconced in Western mythology.
When another hapless end-of-the-world cult isn’t making the headlines, climactic shoot-em-ups are featured in movies and on TV. In everyday life, doomsday saturation is demonstrated in our urge to bring conflicts careening to an abrupt end, as in a Rambo shoot-’em-up or the gunfight at the OK Corral. Lawmen are quick with violence when faced by such groups as the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. Clearly, Armageddon has attained the power of myth.
It is a vast oversimplification to say that all of the Bible’s writings about the end of time were taken whole cloth from Persia. Many Biblical scholars point out that the Persian writings describing similar features with the Bible are dated from about 900 AD. What these scholars overlook is that 900 was the date that the ancient traditions were written down, not the date that they were created. The ancient Persian writings in question were probably scattered when the Arabs overran Persia in the eight century AD, and were restored in 900 AD. At one time the only complete copy of the Bible was dated 900 AD., but no scholars claimed that the activities in the Bible occurred only during that time.
Other ancient cultures influenced the Bible writers, such as the burning of the world by the Hindu god Shiva and the Akkadian prophecies from Mesopotamia, especially the Uruk Prophecy which predicts a messiah-like king that takes over the world, rewards the just, and rules forever. The Egyptians also contributed to the end of the world ideas in the Good Book. The dead were judged for the good or evil deeds accomplished during their lifetimes by the god Maat. These myths were given new life in the Bible and have shaped everything from warfare to art in the West. They are unseen, but felt by all.
The Trouble With Lonely Gods
Those of us raised in one of the great monotheistic religions most likely take a single, universal deity for granted, never realizing the tradeoffs that went into the finished product. Unfortunately, for the solitary god’s unsuspecting worshipers, an only-deity can require more of a balancing act for the faithful than the crowded pantheons of his godly cousins. One reason is the late date of the rise of monotheism. The single god’s late arrival on the religious scene required him to depopulate a once crowded heaven, sort of like divine genocide. But the real problems came with the dying gods’ priests. They did not evacuate sumptuous temples, nor give up their well paid monopolies peacefully. The pagan worshipers were also loath to relinquish the security in having many gods from which to choose.
Another problem was that an only-god required a doctrine to keep worship uniform, to preclude any differing versions of the deity from cropping up. To sum up, quality control was required. An only-god needed an only-dogma, and the power of the state to enforce it. Heretics had to be kept in line until Armageddon could stamp them out altogether.
Heresy and the Hidden God
It was no accident that the world’s first heretics arose with the world’s first major monotheistic deity. These were a sect known as the Zurvanites in Persia, who were unable to comply with all the strictures of an only-god and felt that the white haired father time had been short changed in the Persian doctrines. Allusions to this heresy can be found in the Bible’s major writings of the end of the world: Daniel 12: 1-3 and Revelation 20: 13-50.
Monotheistic gods, while commanding ever more territory on earth, receded further and further into the distant heavens. As they retreated behind the clouds, they become physically and conceptually remote from their earthly worshipers. The Bible contains traces of its Deity becoming less people-friendly. For instance, the neighborly God in Genesis 18, dressed like an ordinary human, traveled by foot to visit Abraham on a warm summer’s day. He did not claim to be the only-god in the land.
Later, in the Moses epoch in Exodus, the invisible Yahweh took over as the sole deity of the Israelites, convincing them of his sovereignty by throwing thunderbolts around Mt. Sinai. The very remoteness of a monotheistic god causes his image to dim, and causes him to become more threatening in the eyes of his followers.
The Problems of Being Among the Chosen
Monotheism is an exclusive form of religion; the single god chooses a single people out of all mankind. He is also the only resident in his temple, while pagan shrines were often occupied by entire heavenly families, and the occasional divine friend. This elitist, unfriendly attitude, made solitary god worshipers targets for persecution. Desecrating the Temple of the Jewish God, and imposing the Greek ways of polytheists, was great sport for the pagans in the Roman Empire. Later, facing the same problem, the early Christians sadly resorted to what amounted to a new career field: martyrdom.
But the biggest problem for the only-god’s worshipers, is that God demands human help in getting the divine work done, and men became personally responsible to carry out his will on earth. The ancient Israelites actually believed that they were under contract to God with their famous covenant. Nothing can be more dangerous than a human listening to heavenly voices who thinks he is doing the will of God. Often, such heavenly commands, heeding the Bible’s last-days myths, are for the purpose of bringing about the end of the world.
The Bible’s End of the World
The word Armageddon is used only once in the scriptures, in the very last book of the Christian Bible; the Book of Revelation. But location is everything, and the last war in the last book has inspired countless generations, from medieval crusaders to modern militias. Biblical scholars think Armageddon is an ancient place name, Meggido, but no one knows just where or what this was: a city, a mountain, a plain, or even a river. The most popular theory holds that Meggido is an ancient Israelite battlefield. An enterprising tour operator once dubbed a trash-strewn empty lot on the outskirts of Jerusalem as this mythic ground to enthrall eager tourists.
The spellbinding power of the millennium also comes from Revelation. The story describes a triumphant Christ reigning over the world for a thousand years—after the defeat of evil in the last battle. But in the secular world, a millennium can refer to any 1000 year time span. Both concepts have converged in the public mind, and the simple date of 2000 AD has somehow attained the mythic luster of the planet’s final days. Throughout the history of Christianity, these myths of the last days have generated hundreds of dates for the end of the world: at least one each decade.
A fascinating, if little told story, is how the Israelite Bible writers took the raw material from Persia and other ancient cultures and shaped it into one of the most intriguing myths in the world. In the hands of the Israelite prophets, the apocalypse was always lurking just over the horizon, and it became the stick of monotheism. The Biblical prophets’ carrot was the golden age of the millennium, and both were effective inspirations for the faithful.
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