Temples and Sanctuaries in the Ancient World – a basic introduction

THE presence of the spirits of the ancestors and then the gods and goddesses as a reality was an intrinsic truth for all the peoples of the early civilisations, as has been discussed in the previous chapter. The spiritual realm of the numinous powers which revealed themselves in the divinities of any given pantheon was as real as the physical realm in which the people lived. The manner and form which these immense powers chose to reveal themselves to any given group of people might vary from one city to another or from one civilisation to another; the sway of a particular power in one incarnation might be more important and influential in one geographic situation than another – but overall, these powers were recognised and worshipped in their perceived chosen form, this allowed for the syncretism of deities on a transnational and/or transcultural level as explained in the introductory chapter.

“Temples and the cultic care within them served as the primary and official way of interacting with and influencing the otherwise distant deities who controlled the cosmos, thereby affording humans some security in an otherwise insecure world. In the temple, heaven met earth, allowing regulate interaction with the deity to the benefit of all parties involved.”[1]

The deities had areas – houses – set aside for them; places often of mystery and even fear – the temples of the ancient civilisations were not like the churches or cathedrals of today – they were the designated areas where the world of the profane and the world of the sacred met, interacted and through ritual were interwoven, delineating the houses as being something exceptional – only a ‘house’ in the sense of the place where the god or goddess was encouraged to dwell; no obligation of residence could be imposed on the power of a god, however minor a god he might be; no goddess could be forced to be where the congregation wanted her to be – the divine presence, or indeed absence, was something which was purely at the whim of the deity, and he or she was the one who chose whether to be resident in the temple or to abandon it. A deity’s choice to be present would be perhaps influenced by what s/he was offered, either in sacrifice and offerings or in ritualised worship – most commonly a combination of both.  It also meant that they were often places not of comfort and rest, but places of trepidation and dread – unlike the Christian concept of a loving God, these divinities were capricious and indeed often cruel. These were divinities who were to be feared and their houses were places of awe, majesty and terror.

“The ancient Near eastern temple represented an uneasy symbiosis, a necessary mixing of human and divine spheres. As the house of the divine, the temple had elements of the numinous. As a building in human space, it also had elements of this world. The temple was built in the natural world with earthly materials and was frequented by humans. Because it was a physical, terrestrial abode we are right to call it a home, but as the home of a god, it was different from all human analogs, requiring elements of analogical representation that point to otherness.”[2]

However large the temple complexes became, however convoluted an architectural edifice, however large the temple estates given to the god/dess, there would be a small shrine area which was the inner sanctum, the Sanctus Sanctorum, the place where the essence of the deity, the numinous divine would reside, usually in the form of the cult statue which was the holiest object in the temple.[i] It would be here that the daily rituals and the intimate worship of the god would happen – the bathing of the idol, clothing it in garb worthy of royalty, perhaps putting on makeup to symbolise the presence of the spirit of the deity in the statue (cf Hindu worship today in the temples), placing offerings of food and drink before the statue, burning incense for the smoke to carry the prayers to the god/dess and to honour her/him, the ‘cleansing of the mouth’ with salt and pure water, all of these were integral parts of both encouraging and appeasing the numinous power for it to continue in watching over the city and its people of all social standings.

Sharon Steadman defined religion as:

“… a system of beliefs that posits supernatural beings and resolves mysterious or unexplainable phenomena; it is a set of practices and associated trappings that allows believers not only to engage the supernatural world but also to demonstrate their devotion and faith in it. It is intricately intertwined with every aspect of culture that shapes social structure, while it also in turn is shaped by it.’[3]

In order for this to occur, there must be the spaces which the congregation agrees to define as sacred and ergo the places where the interactions and engagements can take place. The reflection of the cultural expectations and understandings of the interactions in the form of ritual occurs not only in these sacred spaces, however, but in the wider context of the whole society. Religious understanding and societal constructs form a symbiotic relationship which binds the community together and offers a bipartite support to the state and the accepted social structure.

It is for this reason that the study of temples as entities in themselves within the archaeological and historical context is so important. The House of the God in any given urban setting in the ancient world is often the most important construction of all – only in the capital would the Palace rival the Great Temple, forming a further symbiosis of divine and regal power. The key element for this to function for the good of all was the divine presence and the proper form of worship to ensure that divine presence:

“The temple was secondary to both divine presence and ritual action, serving as the setting for both. Without them it was merely an empty building, a stage bereft of actors and action. However, when all three elements converged, the temple became a place of power, accomplishing specific functions and communicating specific messages.”[4]

The messages which the tripartite elements shared relied on an effective transmission to the wider populace, something which required language, but a very specific language, and a language which is broadcast not only through words, but also through imagery, symbols and rituals, and architectural patterns which are continued and repeated in form, enhancing the religious message that the divine presence is required for the flourishing of the city, the state and the people. All of these occur in the precinct of the temple and are carried outwards from the deity’s home by the attending worshippers, emphasising the role of the divine and the ‘taming’ of the numinous power inherent in the divine presence.

This brings the researcher to the first key place in the temple – the gateway – the door which symbolically separated the profane from the sacred. The role of the entryway into the divine realm was of utmost importance, often built on an immense scale, such as the pylons of the Great Temple at Karnak. These gateways were an integral part of the sacred enclosure from the earliest of times, a reflection of the cave entrances which most likely served as the earliest sacred spaces (see last chapter). The symbolic movement from one reality to another was carried from the original, created in nature, to the artificial in the urban context, though still retaining the same metaphorical context and constructed according to the pertinent architectural canon. For the majority of the populace, the area after the first gateway – usually the grandest and most imposing of the plethora of door- and gateways in the temple proper – would form the public precinct, the area where the public sacrifices and rites took place, and the only part of the temple they would ever see. As those allowed access went deeper into the temple complex, closing in on the holiest place, the shrine of the cultic statue, there would be further gateways, symbolically separating those with access from those without access, demonstrating an individual’s place in the regard of the divinity; as the sacred space

Pylons_and_obelisk_Luxor_templefig 1 – Temple of Luxor (Wikimedia Commons free use)



fig 2 – the ‘High Place – Reconstruction of the Great Temple of Marduk in Babylon(Architektura Mezopotámie)

moved away from the open space and the main gateway, the access becoming ever more restricted until the inner sections, the holiest places, and above all the Sanctus Sanctorum of the god which would be accessed by an ever diminishing number of the temple clergy and societal hierarchy, eventually reaching the main shrine which would be accessible only by the hierarchs and the monarch – a simple allegory: in a house, the hallway may well be open to all visitors, but gradually the rooms become more limited in accessibility, finally reaching the ‘inner sanctum’ of the master bedroom, often even with limited access to other family members.

The orientation of the gateways is something which altered over time in the construction or reconstruction of the temples by later kings, something which Mary Shepperson examines in her paper ‘The Rays of Šamaš’ in which she analyses the access of sunlight into the Mesopotamian temples through the evolution of temple architecture and the orientation of the gateways:

“Light is not often addressed directly in archaeological research but is a factor which touched almost every aspect of ancient life, as it does life today. Lighting affects architecture and the way in which it is used; it can be viewed functionally as a practical constraint, dictating when and where activities can be carried out according to their varied lighting requirements, or it can be approached through its symbolic meanings related to ideology, culture and religion. As such, the consideration of light can act as a tool with which to connect ideology, symbolism and social practice with the material remains of architecture and daily life.”[5]

Wightman (2007) delineates these areas of access through Primary (the room of the cult statue, or the master bedroom to use our previous analogy); Secondary (the cella, the area which surrounds the shrine proper – this might be associated with access to the upstairs of a house where there is a downstairs toilet); Tertiary (the outer rooms where the chapels of the minor gods, the stores and the scriptoria etc. would be situated – think of this as the old fashioned parlour) and the Quaternary (the  area accessible to the public and usually an open space). The Primary would be open only to the monarch and the highest ranking priest or those classed as chosen by the divinity; the Secondary would be open to the high clergy, though they would not enter the most sacred space; the Tertiary would be the realm of the lower ranking temple staff; the Quaternary to the worshipping congregation. An integral role of the temple in its being physically situated at the heart of the city was

“As a principle means of establishing security in an otherwise insecure world, it situated the deity in the midst of human habitation, so that humanity might offer service and gifts in exchange for divine protection and prosperity.”[6]

The building was required to be impressive, imposing and on a scale which dwarfed all other buildings other than the palace in the capital city – a building which would often be in close proximity to the temple complex, highlighting the close relationship between the two major power structures of the state. Where no regal dwelling per se was in the city, the temple complex would dwarf the other structures, either in sheer grandeur such as in Luxor, or in height such as the great ziggurats of the Mesopotamian cities (fig 3).



Hundley, MB (2013)                        Gods in Dwellings, SBL

Hundley, MB (2013)                        Here a God, There a God in Altorientalische Forschungen 40, 68-107

Laneri, N (ed) (2015)                       Defining the Sacred, Oxbow

Shepperson, Mary (2012)             The Rays of Šamaš: Light in Mesopotamian Architecture and Legal Practice in Iraq, LXXIV

Steadman, S (2009)                         The Archaeology of Religion: Cultures and Their Beliefs in Worldwide Context, Left Coast Press

Wightman, GJ (2007)                      Sacred Spaces: Religious Architecture in the Ancient World, Leuven Peeters

[1] Hundley, (2013), vii

[2] Hundley, 2013, 11

[3] Steadman, 2009, 23

[4] Hundley, 2013, 3

[5] Shepperson, 2013, 51

[6] Hundley, 2013, 3

[i] These terms and explanations are only apposite to the polytheistic religions. The one exception, Judaism, is a monotheistic faith in which any ‘graven image’ representing Elohim is strictly forbidden. I will return to Judaic worship later.




Religious Belief and Practice in the Ancient World: An Introduction for Sixth formers.

“Basic to all religion – and so also to ancient Mesopotamian religion – is, we believe, a unique experience of confrontation with power not of this world. Rudolph Otto called this confrontation “Numinous” and analyzed it as the experience of a mysterium tremendum et fascinosum, confrontation with a “Wholly Other” outside of normal experience and indescribable in its terms; terrifying, ranging from sheer demonic dread to sublime through awe majesty; and fascinating, with irresistible attraction, demanding unconditional allegiance. It is the positive human response to this experience in thought (myth and theology) and action (cult and worship) that constitutes religion.”[1]

 “For most religions, especially the most ancient and, as we say, “primitive”, it is impossible to know anything of their beginnings; they are lost in the deep night of prehistory or in the impenetrable form of “parahistory,” of which we have no accounts or documents to orient ourselves. Every religion of this type is ultimately only a reflection of the culture out of which it developed.”[2]

HUMANS have always had a desire either to understand and quantify or to explain all that occurs around them. For the earliest groups who had the time and resources to reflect on the phenomena which took place through the varying seasons, the processes of birth, life and death, sensual pleasures and systems of complex morality;  the fears and struggles of a day to day existence being in certain ways facilitated by the settling of the wandering communities and the developments of systems of governance and reflection, allowed for development into the religio-philosophical systems we are aware of through such as the Olympian mythology, the zoomorphic divinities of Egypt, or the monotheism of Judaism surrounded by Cana’anite polytheism. As far as the Ancient World is concerned, however, these are many of the later stages of the organised religions with which we are familiar, but where did such as these begin? Where is the evidence that questioning and attempting to understand the world around them was explained by concepts of the divine – incarnating the ‘Numinous’ as divinities with set abilities, powers and responsibilities in the running of the Universe and explaining what makes the world ‘go round’? Which sites were set aside as sacred – as the homes of the divinities – and why were these sites and geographical situations chosen? Where was the idea of an organised system we would recognise as a religion developed, and under what circumstances? How did the divine hierarchies develop and for what purpose? Where, when and how did the rituals to appease these incarnated numinous powers develop, and why was there such variance in cultures which were neighbours? What role did the development of religion play in influencing the ways in which societies were governed and to what extent was religion used as a tool in the governance of a nascent civilisation by those at the top of the socio-political hierarchies? All of these are questions of major importance in understanding both the development and role of religion and many aspects of the social and political constructs of the earliest civilisations – civilisations which ultimately evolved to the societies in which we live today – though it must be stated here and now that many of these questions are, at present, partially answerable at best, and only theoretically, debated based on scant evidence at worst! This does, however, open some of the most interesting areas of the Ancient World – in attempting to understand the religions and the concept of the religious in the Ancient World, we see the most basic aspects of the cultural development:

“…in its choice of central metaphor a culture or cultural period necessarily reveals more clearly than anywhere else what it considers essential in the numinous experience and wants to recapture and transmit, the primary meaning on which it builds, which underlies and determines the total character of its response, the total character of its religion.”[3]

The concept of the numinous is, however, the only constant – how it was interpreted, understood and represented varied, not only across the varying cultures and civilisations, but also evolving as the civilisations grew, flourished and fell into decay.

Evidence in Archaeology

FINDING evidence in archaeology which is specifically related to a cultic purpose is notoriously difficult, particularly when referring to pre-literate societal structures. What can we look for to guide our association of the foundations of a building or a few stones of a wall with a religious context especially when the settlements are small and the remains seem to indicate that the edifices were of a very basic construction, unlike later where the great temples, the Houses of the Divine, were evident in their structure and in the materials from which these cultic centres were constructed?

It is in many cases virtually impossible to ascertain certain proof of the earliest religious and cultic sites as these would be natural features in the landscape, though there are exceptions. In caves, which likely served as the earliest sanctuaries, there can occasionally be found paintings which were protected from the elements by the living rock. Certainly associating these with religious ideas or practices can be a metaphorical minefield. Examples of cave art dating back to the earliest days of human social structure can be seen at Lascaux in France and Cresswell Crags in Nottinghamshire among other places. These show images of the animals which would have been the standard prey of the hunter-gatherers who drew them – per se this appears to be an innocent pastime. However, these images are found deep in the darkest recesses of these caves, in places which are hard enough to access today with artificial lighting and protective equipment. The artists had none of these, only fire torches, which they would have to bring with them, and painting materials made from natural elements. It is the location which implies a supernatural interpretation to these images. In entering the cave complex, travelling from the light to the darkness, from above ground to the chthonic world, from the omnipresent sounds of the day light world to the almost silence of the cave system, the only sounds being dripping water or the movement of rock, the painters of these prey animals were moving from one world, an open, busy, light ridden, familiar world to the oppressive darkness and silence of the ‘otherworld’. What would the purpose of concealing such detailed and beautiful works of art in specific dark places, inaccessible to the majority populace, and away from all viewpoints (at Cresswell Crags, the artist would have had to lie in an extremely uncomfortable position to create the images)? The questions are, of course, unanswerable as these date from beyond the advent of literacy, but probabilities can be posited. Why choose required prey animals as the images? Are hunter-gatherers simply representing their principle requirements for survival? Very probably. That is not the main question, of course. Of whom are they asking these? THAT is the more important question. With these images, there are none of what might be interpreted a deity or a supernatural being, simply those of those animals which supplied them with food, clothing, tools inter alia. Why choose the darkness and silence of deep underground? What are the most probable associations? The dead are buried in most cultures, either as the body, or as bones after excarnation (removal of the flesh), and certain early human remains do show signs on the surviving bones of the removal of the flesh post mortem – removing that which rots away and leaving the permanent (for them) in the bones. Again, many interpretations have been placed on the excarnation process, from a ritual act of preservation to cannibalism of prisoners – or even cannibalism of the deceased by their descendents so that the essence of the dead might live on in these descendents, consumed in the flesh, though these can only be interpretations based on later knowledge and supposition. The burial of the dead does, however, imply some idea of continuance after crossing the threshold from life to death – from the world of light to the world of perpetual darkness and from above the earth to under its surface – this can give an idea of meaning to the positioning of the images. The most obvious hypothesis is that these were images beseeching the ancestors to help by supplying access to the prey animals in the numbers required. Perhaps this is a broad jump in hypothesis, of course, but a hypothesis which does make sense, on a basic surface level at least.

These places, whether at the time of their creation associated with anything which we might today interpret as ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’ or whether they served another purpose, were evidently abandoned and forgotten – after all, they survived to be discovered by hazard some 20,000 years later! Other natural places, however, certainly did take on a sacred association as people settled into permanent groups and villages began. These might be mountain tops and high places, sacred pools and rivers or, as before, caves. On the surface, very different places, but they do all have one thing in common – they are all places of transition from one reality to a perceived other.[4] This evident idea of the transference of being from one mundane reality to a complex, supernatural ‘other’ is something which was gradually brought artificially into the settlement or just outside of the settlement as civilisation began in the form of sacred space within a building. The natural places of contact with the ‘other’ were either gradually forgotten, or became great sanctuaries and places of direct contact with the gods or ancestors, places of pilgrimage and, often, political importance as well (cf The Great Oracle of Apollo at the Sanctuary of the Pythia at Delphi in Greece).

How, then, do we begin to distinguish the sacred from the profane in the earliest settlements we can access through archaeology?

The easiest is perhaps to look at the shape of the buildings and whether there be any differences in the materials used from any remains which we can certainly associate with housing – something which is often, though by no means always, an easier interpretation to make – or storage buildings. This may be something as simple as the materials from which the floor of the presumed cultic construction is made, such as at Ain Ghazal where the remains at Beidha thought to be associated with a cultic purpose have a floor of clay rather than a plaster floor.[5]

At whichever site, however, the earliest buildings which archaeologists define as possibly associated with a cultic purpose tend to be no bigger than the housing, despite their materials being different (eg orthostats as opposed to mud brick). These buildings would not have been able to hold a large number of worshippers – this leads to a varying set of possibilities. Did the cults expect there only ever to be a small number of adherents to the divinity to which the religious ‘shrine’ was dedicated (these are arguably not large enough for them to be termed ‘temples’) at any given time? Was the cult restricted in its numbers – either as a minority cult or as an élite cult? Was the building itself what was to develop into the later ‘inner sanctum’ of the great temples, containing the cult statue of the divinity, the totem animal in the form of an idol or, as in the Temple in Jerusalem, an empty, but holy Sanctus Sanctorum which was the dwelling place of the divine animus in spirit form, accessible only to the chosen priestly caste and perhaps a small, select number of the social hierarchs, most particularly the king? Such might well imply that the rest of the community as worshippers would gather outside to honour their singular divinity, pantheon or ancestors, or even that the priestly caste with their select group of rulers were the representatives of the people with the divine and as such carried out all that was requisite to appease the numinous power, the participation of the people not being a necessity, such as is posited as the case in Late Predynastic Egypt. There is, of course the other possibility that the building had no cultic significance whatsoever and was a chamber for a small gathering of elders, or even for storing any surplus goods, the stone construction making it harder to break into. (Of course, either of these does not definitely exclude an association with the divine protection with which a chosen deity would be linked – a council chamber may well have contained a cult statue such that the divine oversaw the deliberations and the decisions taken, or surplus produce was placed under the protection of the divine presence which had given it in the first place, such that all in the community might benefit from it when it was needed; all of these were roles of areas in later temples and organised religions). So, what can then be used to define a building in these earliest settlements as having a likely association with the divine? Again, at Ain Ghazal, we see not quite monumental, but large statuary – statuary which could well be associated with representations of the divine, though again it is impossible to state with absolute certainty as these statues date from the era termed Pre Pottery Neolithic (PPN) which covers the period 9950 – 6410 BC; a period which is divided into shorter segments:

Major Period Period or Culture Estimated beginning Estimated ending
Pre-Pottery Neolithic (PPN) PPNA 9950-9750 8500-8350
Early PPNB 8500-8350 8300-8000
Middle PPNB 8300-8000 7580-7450
Late PPNB 7580-7450 7000-6700
Late Neolithic PPNC 7000-6700 6500-6410

Fig 1[6]


IN the Northern Levant Region of modern day Turkey, the site of Göbekli Tepe and that in the Central Levant at Jericho give us the evidence of the earliest settlements both of which have certain aspects which may be associated with the development of early religious cultic processes – these are the two best documented PPNA societies. Jericho shows evidence of fortification walls and towers which, evidently, demonstrate the existence of a complex culture. Under the house floors have been found lime plastered human skulls which, it has been argued, may indicate a form of ancestor worship, though without any more certain evidence, this remains and will continue to remain a hypothesis – it might equally be argued that these are the remains of a sacrifice to protect the house and household, trophies of war, or simply the honouring of the family founders as opposed to worship of the ancestor genus.

Göbekli Tepe, however, does seem to be a more likely area for the evidence to be interpreted in a religious or cultic manner. Here are found huge stone circles consisting of monumental sized T shape pillars, in themselves evidence of a highly advanced level of technical architectural ability, but when combined with zoomorphic reliefs and full sized zoomorphic figures as well as possibly very heavily built female figures carrying stylised serpents, the likelihood of a cultic purpose becomes more evidential.

While the majority of PPNA archaeological evidence is to be found in the Middle Euphrates region, apart from one possible example where aurochs horns have been found in a single circular building at the small settlement of Jerf el Ahmar, which MAY give evidence of a cultic use, there is no definite archaeological evidence of religious connexion with any specific building from this earliest period.

In the Levant, the sanctuary as a definite building in a settlement, seems to be uncertain until the late Chalcolithic, though prior to this we can look at burial practices, such as at the site of Tell Sabi Abyad in the Balikh Valley, some 25 miles south of the Syro-Turkish border in Syria, where Leiden University has carried out extensive digs over the last three decades. The burials give evidence of four specific phases of deposition in the area – A: c.7100-6200 BC, B: c.6200-5900 BC, C: c.5900-5800 BC and D: c.5800-5500 BC. This places the earliest phase in the Initial Pottery Neolithic (7000-6700 BC).[7]

The burials here, containing children and adults, number some 200, crouched position, approximately 1m deep being the norm, though there are variances in position and alignment, as well as both multiple and secondary burials found. That there are grave goods often associated with the burials does, however, indicate the acceptance among this community, of a life after death – otherwise, why give goods required for a continuance of ‘normal’ life? The reburial of bones does also seem to tie in with the possible cultic use of ancestral bones in a form of ritual or with a ritual purpose, though what such might be is impossible to define with any certainty at all. The reburial of bones in ceramic ossuaries which often took the form of a dwelling are found along the coastal Levant, particularly in Israel. These would then be deposited in caves such as at Peqi’in in Galilee where hundreds of such examples with what may be associated grave goods of basalt, ivory and copper and what may be fertility figurines in ‘violin’ form have been found.[8]

Late Chalcolithic sites demonstrate a rapid rise in buildings which give better evidence of what can more probably be associated with a religious context – associations of pools and ponds as well as the possibility of the presence of a sacred tree at ‘En Gedi where an unpaved 3 metre diameter circular feature in a courtyard has the remains of an unpaved pool.[9]  The idea of the sacred tree was common in the later Bronze and early Iron Ages, associated with the goddess Asherah[10], depicted between two ibexes (cf XIII C BC Lakhish Ewer which refers to her in the inscription as ‘ilat (goddess)[11]). Near to this was found a fragment of an alabaster vase which originated in Egypt, or was very closely based on an Egyptian original.[12] This idea of a sacred symbol is one unusual to us in the way that the Ancients would have interpreted it (outside of Judaism – an unsurprising truth as many of our concepts are based upon Judaic, monotheistic understandings). While the totem itself represents the divinity, that totem also contains the essence of the power associated with it – hence the frequent later iconography where the totem is either shown as accompanying the divinity, being a part of the anthropomorphic deity or, as in Egyptian representations, the human form bearing the head of the totem animal or even object. Unlike in the Hebrew Bible, where Elohim is associated with the burning bush or the pillar of fire in the desert of Sinai, but is a completely separate entity, not being contained within the bush or the fire:

“An ancient Mesopotamian would have experienced such a confrontation very differently (Moses and The Burning Bush). He too would have seen and heard numinous power, but power of, not just in, the bush, power at the center of its being, the vital force causing it to be and making it thrive and flourish. He would have experienced the Numinous as immanent.”[13] (My bold)

In even later Mesopotamian iconography, an integral part of the power which forms the divine essence can be used as the symbol of the god or goddess – Jacobsen again:

“…the form given to numinous encounter may adjust to the content revealed in it. It may be abbreviated to a single salient feature, as when Inanna, the numinous power in the storehouse, assumes the form of the characteristic gatepost emblem of the storehouse, rather than the storehouse as a whole.”[14]

There must, therefore, have been associated ritual practices which accompanied these developments in cultic buildings and sanctuaries evidenced by these archaeological finds. While we have little evidence other than that which has been found in the grave goods and the repetitive nature of the burial practices, both of these as repetitive acts indicate the ritualistic aspects of such.

What, then, is the purpose of such ritual?

“Compared with less hierarchical systems chiefs and monarchs perform more elaborate rituals at religious ceremonies. Bloch (1974) points out that increased ritualization of behavior is in effect an increased elaboration of authority. Ritual by its repetitive nature in collective situations emphasizes and is in fact a rigid imposition of rules for behaving so that the entire congregation acts out, and accepts, the authority of those in charge of the ritual performance. In this sense, says Bloch, ritual is culturized and symbolic authority. As such it supports authority. Thus, to increase the ritual associated with a local headman’s office, is to increase or to substantiate an increase in his authority.”[15]

This demonstrates the close association of a religious construct with control and power, though to what extent it can be clearly demonstrated that the purpose of religion was control (be that of the elements, the universe or the populace, or all of these combined), or whether its original purpose was to explain and this later developed into the idea of a controlling influence is and will remain an imponderable as such associations are developments from the pre-literate societies and any archaeological evidence is most certainly highly debated.

Ritual, in itself, must, however, serve a purpose, and it influences its surroundings as much as its surroundings influence it. Ashley:

“…ritual is performance that often directs the gaze of its participants toward focal artworks that are constituted through ritual action for ritual performance in that context. The relation between them is not unidirectional (art used in ritual) but reciprocal; ritual creates its artworks while the art or architecture also enables ritual activity.”[16]

 This artwork could be seen as dating from the original representations of the prey animals on the walls at Lascaux and moving on to aiming the ritual at the cult statue in the inner sanctum or an abstract representation of that divinity (such as an eternal flame in a ritual vessel) – religious iconography which is both the centre of the ritual and the reflector of that ritual back to the worshipping community.

This idea widens the concept of the theatre of religious practice – the sacred space becomes more than the traditional idea of the temple – an enclosed space which is often cut off from the majority, no matter how large these edifices become (eg the Shrine of the Naos at Karnak or the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon; two immense enclosures but with a small area which was totally sealed off; sealed from the external world, open only to the sacerdotal hierarchy and, significantly, the monarch, and in which the essence of the divinity resided, either in the form of a cultic statue or Elohim in pure essence in Judaism). Then, the combination of ritual which was associated with the personal, day to day life of the divinity (waking, washing, clothing, feeding etc) and which took place in secret became as integral a part of the worship as the public ritual of sacrifice to propitiate the numinous power which took place in the open and was witnessed by the multitude. As well as these which occurred in the sacred enclosures, the early belief systems have associations with high places, often mountain tops, with sacred groves and even with the chthonic depths of caves and ‘deep, dark places’ as explained above, often linked to the divinities controlling weather for the heights, nature and growth with the groves and with death and fear with the caverns or deep, still pools and the Underworld – these are most likely the earliest sacred spaces where the raw power of the elements are encountered, face to face.

This does not, however, imply that the sacred space was a representation of the entire cosmos alone as has been posited, but as having close ties to the natural world around it, again reflecting the idea of the high places, the sacred grove and the dark places. Early Hindu temples are carved into the living rock of the mountains, adapting the natural form to the artistic requirements of the rituals performed there – the question here arises, is it the adaptation that renders the space sacred or simply an adaptation of a space which was already classed as sacred prior to the architectural developments which allowed for such adaptations? Is the space made sacred by the ritual, or are the rituals effective through the sacredness of the space in which they occur? Furthermore, where, as in the case of the Assyrian city of Assur, the urban settlement builds up around the sacred mountain which is per se the house of the god, does the sacred space end? Is the settlement itself classed as a sacred space, sanctified by the presence of the god? Unlike a temple, which is in itself a man made construction and as such is the scared space alone, the walls delineating the end of the sacred space, does something as enormous, permanent and credited as almost divine in itself sanctify all that area around it?

“The supremely sacred places — altars and sanctuaries — were, of course, constructed according to the traditional canons. But, in the last analysis this construction was based on a primeval revelation which disclosed the archetype of the sacred space in illo tempore, an archetype which was then indefinitely copied and copied again with the erection of every new altar, temple or sanctuary. We find examples everywhere of this construction of a sacred place following an archetypal pattern.”[17]

To look at the early conurbations and how they developed alongside the religious life takes us from the small settlements to a more complex and more highly structured society. As the life of the city evolved socially and politically, so did the ideas pertaining to the sacred, both in the physical spaces and the theological concepts.

“…the efforts to achieve and insure divine presence took the form of building temples. The Sumerian and Akkadian words for temple are the usual words for house (é – bitum). They imply between the divine owner and his house not only all the emotional closeness of a human owner and his home, but beyond that a closeness of essence, of being, amounting more nearly to embodiment than to habitation. In some sense the temple, no less than the ritual drama and the cult image, was a representation of the form of the power that was meant to fill it. Like a human dwelling, the temple was the place where the owner could be found. Its presence among the houses of the human community was visible assurance that the god was present and available, that he – as the hymn to the moon god expressed it – “among the (creatures) in whom is breath of life has settled down in a holy abode.”

Like a human dwelling, too, the temple called for a staff, for organization and management. The daily service was that of other great houses: the priests were house servants presenting the god with his daily meals, changing his clothes, cleaning his chambers, making his bed for him. Outside were lands belonging to the god and cultivated by other human servants, the god’s retainers. Thus the god – because the temple was his home – was not only near and approachable; he was involved with the fortunes of the community and committed to maintaining it.


Unlike a human dwelling, though, the temple was sacred. The ancient Mesopotamian temple was profoundly awesome, sharing in the tremenum of the Numinous.”[18]

At Uruk, commonly accepted as the first true city, it can be argued that prehistory evolved to history as writing was developed and literacy began. Liverani:

Out of small and modest cult buildings progressively, but rapidly, developed great temple complexes. They differed substantially from normal houses in size and in architectural and decorative quality, and they acquired a preeminent and central position in the early urban settlements. By assuming economic functions besides cultic ones, these temples appropriated and redefined the old practices of ‘communal storage’, which were already present in the much earlier Neolithic villages. Storage attained very different dimensions, and very different social and ideological values, however.” [19]

The temples grew as agricultural production grew, and the chiefdom gave way to the state. Along with this, a dedicated pantheon was defined in Mesopotamia. Literacy developed and the Temple bureaucracy which was required to record and control production, requirements and surpluses, broadening the concept of ‘religion’ and its role in the lives of the people, leading to such as the great temple precinct of Inanna. This is, however, on the proviso that the archaeological interpretations are correct – the public buildings in Sumerian towns can only be certainly assigned as temples where there is a dedicatory deposit to the divinity whose home it was. As the temples were the homes of the gods, it is common sense to have them constructed in the same plan as an élite home – a plan which would also be employed by those at the top of the social hierarchy. Moreover:

 “JD Forest has made a case for the majority of these large buildings being meeting places and centres of local administration rather than shrines. He sees the ‘altars’ as podia on which the local sheikh would sit to receive petitions or preside over discussions.”[20]

This, combined with the fact that in the early Dynastic Period in Sumer, the two ‘classic’ plans for temples seem to have been abandoned and no specific example of a regular building pattern replaced them[21], leads to major difficulties in the interpretation of remains to which might be specifically assigned a religious or cultic use.

Gods, Goddesses and Pantheons

IN Pre-dynastic Egypt, the questions regarding religious development are perhaps even more complex. Bárta[22] interpreted examples of rock art at Wadi Sura II as being original representations of Nut (Sky), Geb (Earth), Shu (Winds) and Tefnut (Rains), divinities who would ergo have appeared in their traditional forms at some point between 4,300 – 3,200 BC, though this has been questioned by Gillian Woods in her PhD thesis, pointing out that the Nile Valley supplies no evidence of such evolved deities in any recognisable or definable form throughout the early period.[23] It is in the early part of the Old Kingdom that the standards of Egyptian belief (life after death, funerary procedures and cults, and the interrelationship of the Twin Crown and the gods in the person of the divine Pharaoh) were instigated in a form recognisable at least for those familiar with Ancient Egypt. These were to remain the bedrock of Egyptian religion for some three millennia, though most other aspects evolved and changed, even to the point where conflicting interpretations of divinities and diametrically opposing rituals continued side by side, something which the Greeks and Romans saw as chaos and demonstration of the Egyptian addiction to religious practice.[24] Combine this with the zoomorphic representations of the divinities, and the religion of the Twin Lands would seem decidedly alien to the outsiders. For the Egyptians, who had no real theology other than that this life was but preparation for the next and it was here that they prepared for that life, however long or short that life be, and that balance, incarnate in the goddess Ma’at, was a necessity in the good running of the universe, avoiding Chaos, there was no dichotomy at all in these apparently conflicting beliefs, ideas and practices – these were simply different aspects of the divine reality. The varying levels of cross influence in religious beliefs and practices seen in the other early civilisations such as Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Levant, and later Greece and Rome, were less evident in Egyptian religion – geographically, Egypt was isolated through being surrounded by scarcely surmountable deserts; culturally, Egypt viewed herself as the most important society, superior to all others. This meant that there was little external influence in the religious beliefs and practices of the Egyptians right up into the New Kingdom and the Age of Empires. Certain external divinities were imported, perhaps most significantly Reshep, a war god, from Canaan (despite there being an indigenous war god, the hawk headed Montu). The first evidence of honour and respect for foreign deities comes from c. 1350 BC when Amunhotep III requested that an idol of the goddess Ištar of Nineveh be sent by King Tušratta of Mitanni to heal an illness. A much later and more complex system of syncretism occurred under the Ptolemies and the subsequent Roman occupation. The Egyptian pantheon was among the largest of any civilisation – by the New Kingdom, the divinities numbered in the thousands – possibly tens of thousands if one includes local gods and goddesses among their number.


 Fig 2 Palette of Narmer British Museum Museum

 There are, however, early representations of divinities which are at least certain. On the Palette of Narmer, which dates from Dynasty 0, c. 3000 BC (fig 2), we see the cow eared goddess Bat (likely a forerunner of the Great Cow Hathor) and the falcon of Horus (Hrw) as well as the Great Bull (though whether this be Horus, Montu or simply a zoomorphic representation of the power of the Pharaoh is debated).

Divine representations which are part human and part totem animal appear in early iconography in Dynasty I, such as a woman headed serpent at Tell el-Farkha and possibly (though the dating to Dynasty I is disputed) of colossal statues representing the fertility god Min in full anthropomorphic form. Combine this with certain deities always being in human form (Ptah, god of craftsmen, though to confuse matters, he is mummified), others being in a multiplicity of forms (Djehuti (Toth) god of writing and wisdom) as a baboon, an ibis or an ibis headed man, or a single animal representing a multiplicity of gods (most noticeably the hawk – Horus, Re, Montu, Soqar inter alia) or, in the case of a woman with bovine horns being Isis, Hathor or even a queen! The areas which the gods controlled often overlapped – wisdom came under Djehuti and Ptah; creation processes under a multiplicity of gods (Khnum, Atum, Re, Nefertum, Ptah!!!) Sutekh (or Set), dark god of chaos, the Red Land and the killer of his brother Osiris, was also a major divinity in defending the Barque of Re from Apep, serpent of Chaos, as the aged Re travelled through the Underworld overnight, regenerating so that the sun would rise up at the following dawn. When processes of syncretism were developed, combining aspects of various gods into one divine being, the permutations became endless. Perhaps the most renowned of these is Amun-Re, a syncretic god representing the powers of Royalty and the Crown, though such syncretic deities did not remove nor replace the original divinities, nor lessen their power or roles… Gods might have multiple aspects across the country – especially Amun after he became the state god and others which were particularly associated with one place which would be the centre of their cult and often places of pilgrimage, but had temples countrywide (eg Sobeq at Qom Ombo, Khnum at Elephantine, Amun at Thebes etc). The lack of any set theology (despite Egypt’s being a theocracy) and the belief that it was the necessity of correct performance of rituals, the correct words with the correct ritual movements, have led certain scholars to define the Egyptian belief system as a gathering of rituals and magical processes rather than as a true religion. Carry out the correct procedures day in and day out – procedures which experience had taught were pleasing to the divine powers through years of blessing – these would continue to appease the gods and therefore they would continue in their blessings.

The houses of the gods, prior to the introduction of monumental temples in the Third and Fourth Dynasties, are extremely hard to work out. The very earliest sites were most likely caves or dark places which were associated with magic and supernatural occurrences. There are possible representations of early cult structures on ivory labels from the First and Second Dynasties which, if such be correct interpretations, may well have been temporary structures which might be erected as required. The practice of religion in the Early Dynastic Period seems very much something which was conducted by the King and the upper echelons of his entourage, and had very little to do with the ordinary people and their everyday lives. Presumably, as long as the King carried out the correct rituals to the correct gods at the correct time, life for the populace in the Nile Valley would continue in its benevolent form and all would be well. Local cults honouring the genus loci would be the responsibility of the populace in that village or area, small shrines being all that was required (though certain of these shrines, as pointed out already, would grow in importance and might even become a great state cult – the earliest Tabernacle at the greatest temple complex in Egypt at Luxor was a small shrine to Montu, hawk- headed or taurean god of war). The importance of an individual deity as a genus loci can be found in their names or titles (Nekhbit – Lady of Nekheb) and their importance to the populace can be found in personal names – nineteen Early Dynastic names contain ntr (god) or ntrt (goddess) and a multiplicity are theophorous (they bear the name of a divinity).[25] Such theophorous names continued throughout Egyptian history (Montuhotep, Meriamun inter alia), and were, indeed, not a specific of Egyptian nomenclature – in Mesopotamia, are found names translating as;

 ‘I-was-spared-on-account-of-Ishtar’, ‘May-I-not-come-to-shame-O-Marduk’, ‘Assur-knew-my-loyalty.’[26]

A multiplicity of names calling on the gods was a common across the Levant, Cana’an, and even the monotheistic Israelite-Judean Kingdoms – any names containing –El for example.

As with divinities such as Nekhbit, names of deities could often be associated with place – in the Phoenician pantheon, particularly at Tyre, the chief god was named Melqart – a name which, in Punic, is M’alq Qart – King of the City, and the chief god of the Assyrian pantheon, Aššur, was tied with the city and the mountain of Assur – to the point that the mountain was his only full temple in Assyria, even after the capital was transferred to Kalhu.

Another common incarnation of the divine was that superimposed on the heavenly bodies. Evidentially, the easiest and most obvious were the sun and the moon. For the Egyptians, the Sun was associated with a number of divinities – Re, the original king of the gods, Atum, the Aten. The Moon was the god Khonsu and the star Sirius was associated with the goddess Isis. For the Mesopotamians and peoples of the Levant, the Sun and Moon had a variety of names, eg Shamash for the Sun and Sin for the Moon (after whom the name Sinai comes) but rather than Sirius, it was Venus as the Morning or Evening Star which was believed to be associated with their goddess Ištar/Astarte. This also gave associations with certain professions in Mesopotamia through perceived aspects of the heavenly bodies’ ‘actions’. As the sun travelled across the heavens each day, looking down on the Earth, Shamash was linked to professions which also involved travelling – merchants, sailors, soldiers, heralds. These were key professions in the early Semitic societies – the former two brought the raw materials from distant lands and sold the surplus produce of their home society, boosting the economy; the soldier travelled either on ensuring peace throughout the kingdom or conquering new lands; the herald carried the King’s decrees far and wide, consolidating Royal power and bringing stability to the nation. This political stability was supported by the influence of Shamash, reflecting the stability of the Heavens, justifying the position of the King and the state:

“Most exalted of the gods,

Shamash, the sun, who holds in his hand the life of the land…

Daylight, chief herald on the mountain ranges,

Herald of the brightening sky…

He sustains campaigners and travelling merchants in foreign lands,

Foreign lands render up lapis and silver to the travelling merchants,

Cedar forests yield virgin timber, boxwood, cypress, standing tall,

Like splendid standards,

Fit for a prince to adorn his house.

He loads up his barge with aromatics, oils, honey,

The goods that merchants bring…”[27]

This hymn dates back to around the time of the birth of Sargon of Akkad, already demonstrating the widespread trading area exploited by the Akkadians – lapis from Afghanistan, cedars from Lebanon, aromatics (perfumes and incense) from Dilmun (likely Oman or Yemen). All these safe journeys and successful trading expeditions were associated with the blessings of Shamash. As Shamash was royal, mercantile and military power, Sin, the moon god, was a much more secretive deity. His wonder, however, was great for the Akkadians – whereas the sun was unchanging and unflinching, the moon waxed and waned, representing renewal and autonomous recreation. The silver light of the full moon decreased to the finest crescent in the night sky – a barque traversing the darkness, a diadem of power or the horns of the Great Heavenly Bull, all of which were linked with Sin. He was also associated with oracles – engraving the will of Heaven in the livers of sacrificial animals, and this fast became a standard part of political policy for the Mesopotamian monarchy throughout its history. It is likely that this dedication to the oracular function of Sin is the explanation for the close link and devotion that the Akkadian royal family showed to this deity, though this is hypothesis only.[28] Even one of the greatest Mesopotamian kings had, in his name, an association with the lunar deity – Sennakherib means ‘Sin has replaced a brother’. There must have been a death of a prince, replaced with Sennakherib after appeal to Sin.

IN the early Ancient Near East, however, the majority of gods were much more closely related to a city state, and the city state with its patron deity. There were, as we have seen, gods which were worshipped across the entirety of the existence of the civilisations, such as Marduk of Babylon and Shamash the solar deity – Ba’al, the major Phoenician god, and his consort, Tanit, Astarte/Ištar and Isis had a transnational aspect, adopted in a multitude of cultures, but the majority remained localised deities. Their roles changed and were adapted depending on the city or the area where they held sway – the major gods in one city would play the dominant role in their cultic centre, but would give way to the same role of the dominant deity in another cultic centre. The myths became ever more complex and interwoven over time, the roles of the gods varying according to the political landscape and the dominant city state at any given time. When a city fell, however, it was not seen as the defeat of a deity or that deity’s cessation, but rather that the patron deity had abandoned the home city and left its temple, hence leaving the city vulnerable. This even went as far as the practice of ‘godnapping’ – the cult statue of the patron in a defeated city would be carried off with the rest of the spoils, but, unlike the melting down of the Great Menorah after the sack of Jerusalem and the Great Temple by the Romans, the idol would be taken to the home temple of the victorious city, and, though in a lesser position, would be honoured and offered worship throughout her or his residence in the victor’s temple. An example of this is when, after the defeat of Babylon, the cult statue of Marduk, who had become the state god of Babylonia, was ‘godnapped’ and took up ‘residence’ in Assyria.

IN Egypt, there were different parameters, as the Twin Lands had been unified under Narmer, the Scorpion King, in the third millennium BC. The various nomes had their own gods and temples; the early unification of Egypt into one political entity allowed for localised deities to take on a supra regional, or even national level. Horus and Osiris, the two main gods associated with the Pharaoh, were the main example of this due to the cult of the divine king, an incarnation of Horus when alive, becoming an Osiris post mortem. Osiris’ combined roles as King of the Underworld and Lord of vegetation and plant growth gave him a particular importance both as a Royal god and as a giver of food in the agrarian society of the Nile Valley. The Royal association of these gods was also a key aspect in the ‘correct’ balance of all that was required for ‘good governance’, represented by Ma’at, the Feather of Truth. The gods associated with the Royal Capital of Thebes, particularly Montu, Mut and Amun-Re all at one point or another rose from localised cult to national importance and worship through Royal patronage. The iconography of the entire Dynastic Era in Egypt has a leitmotiv of the Pharaoh in the company of assorted divinities – worshipping and honouring the gods, much as would be expected, but also being greeted and honoured by the gods, both in their roles as the living Pharaoh and in the mortuary temples and tombs where the recently dead Pharaoh is welcomed into the company of the collected divinities as an equal. Statuary was also a key religious / propaganda tool throughout the kingdom. Fig. 3 shows the Pharaoh Amunhotep III being protected by the crocodile god of Qom Ombo, Sobeq. The Pharaoh is a much smaller figure than the seated god, emphasising the power of the divinity. The king wears the false beard and the cobra on the nemes headdress, though these are his only royal trappings, and he wears nothing which would be directly associated with godhood. Sobeq’s image, however, wears the atef crown consisting of many royal/divine symbols – the ostrich feathers, the solar disk of Re in the centre, the ram’s horns, associated both with Amun as the royal god and Khnum, the creator potter. Sobeq is holding the ankh, symbol of divine power and of being given life by the gods. The two figures are so close that Sobeq appears to have his left arm round the Pharaoh’s back (though this is appearance, as the left hand is seen nowhere). This statue is a perfect demonstration of the symbiosis of the royal personage and the divine personage in all forms.


Fig.3 Amunhotep III being protected and honoured by Sobeq – Cairo Museum

 In the Mortuary Temple of Seti I, wall engravings of the new Pharaoh, Ramses II show him offering to the collected triad of Osiris in seated, mummified form and wearing the atef crown, Isis with bovine horns and solar disk, and Horus wearing the pschent double crown of the Twin Lands. Unlike in the statue, the Pharaoh is the same size as the gods, though in his actions (offering worship) he is evidently the supplicant. The Pharaoh is wearing the blue khepresh crown. Above the king can be seen the goddess Nekhbit in her form as the Great Vulture, protectrix of Upper Egypt, the Crown the king wears bears the raised cobra – symbol both of Pharaonic power to punish and the goddess Wadjet, protectrix of Lower Egypt and the Delta region. The king is offering a tray on which are a small statue of the deceased king wearing a feathered crown and in a position of worship in front of a pillar which bears the hawk head and solar disk of Re, the original royal god and king of the gods. The casket which separates the Pharaoh from the gods carries a small figure in the zoomorphic jackal form of the funerary divinity Anubis. The gods both carry the ‘was’ sceptre of divine power and both they and Isis carry the ankh. Isis has her right hand raised in a movement of both greeting and honouring the Pharaoh.

Mortuary Temple of Seti

Fig. 3 Mortuary Temple of Seti I

The Pharaoh here is carrying out a magical ritual which was required for the safe passage of the ka (soul) of his father to the presence of the benevolent gods of the Fields of Reeds – the Egyptian heaven. Wearing the khepresh crown and in royal long kilt, he is representing not only royal power, but also the country and ergo the people in this ceremony of honour and collective grief. These images, unlike the highly coloured paintings in the tombs which were decorated in honour of the dead and to assist their passage through the trials to the next life, were very brightly painted and decorated the walls of the Great Temples which would be visible to all who worshipped or visited the temple – a demonstration of the piety of the king, that he fulfilled his duties to the gods, both personal (cf fig. 4 where the king is carrying out the daily cult rituals for the gods and abasing himself by kowtowing before the gods) and on behalf of all the people, but also that the gods bless and show favour to the Pharaoh, and in the symbolic representation of royal power, to Egypt as a whole and all her people.


Fig. 4 The King carries out the daily cults – Temple of Karnak

IN Anatolia (especially Hatti), Mesopotamia and across the Levant, syncretism was again a common practice, though perhaps not to the same extent as in Egypt and it occurred in a transnational or transcultural sense as opposed to combining native deities. The Hittites had their own pantheon, but also syncretised the Hurrian god Tešub and the Mesopotamian god Enki.[29] As the cultural and economic ties between the various Ancient Near Eastern, Mesopotamian and Levant states expanded, then the transference and transmutation of the pantheons increased. This might explain why the Storm/War gods tended to be dominant in the separate pantheons and had similar if not identical iconography. There is also evidence that other deities came from the East via trade and cultural links with the Indo-Aryan civilisations in modern day Pakistan/India, though this was in a limited period (Kassite rule at Babylon) and the eastern deities remained officially at least subservient to the indigenous Mesopotamian deities.[30]

As societies developed and the concept of Empire came into being, the gods also travelled farther and farther afield from their natal cities or states. In the Iron Age, we see the Egyptian goddess Hathor being syncretised with both Astarte and Anat in the Cana’anite pantheons, and after a major deportation of Egyptians to Nineveh we find evidence of a syncretism of Horus and the Mesopotamian god of wisdom and literacy, Nabu – oddly enough, not Djehuti (Toth) as would perhaps be expected.[31] This was something which was to continue across the Graeco-Roman period as well.

Offerings and Sacrifices

The relationship of the profane world to the divine was one which relied on the concept of giving and receiving. If a people wished to receive the intervention and blessings of the gods, then there was the understanding among the devout that they would be expected to offer something to the gods in return. This is not necessarily for concrete goods, however – none expected, as far as we can evidence it, that piles of gold or foodstuffs would simply appear on the altar or in the temple storerooms overnight. The need for security, for water enough to drink and cultivate, for protection from foreign tribes, from illness, from famine; these were much more immediate concerns for early civilisations trying to build up their settlements. As the urban settlements grew, political stability, military success, and mercantile and economic growth were added to these. In exchange, the gods received worship, adoration and gifts in the form of sacrifice. As mentioned above, the earliest evidence so far discovered which might be interpreted as sacrifice can be found in the cave paintings at sites such as Lascaux. The offering is in the form of the ritualistic works of art in a concrete sense, but also, it may be posited, in the ‘pilgrimage’ – the act of going through the difficulties of squeezing through tight, dark spaces, of maybe taking a wrong turn and being lost forever, of transporting the equipment needed to produce the ‘sacrificial’ images, the inevitable cuts, bruises, possibly broken bones which would accompany the ‘pilgrimage’ both to and from the ‘sacrificial’ site. The expectation that the ancestral animae would look favourably on the undertakings and difficulties of those petitioning their intervention in finding enough food animals was possibly an expectation of the artists and their communities. There is another possibility, either as a separate interpretation, or as a conjunct of the petition to the ancestors – one which is still used in certain animistic belief systems today – an apology to the spirits of the animals which have died or are about to die to supply the human community with that which they need. Plains native peoples in America are known to have apologised to the spirit of a bison prior to its death, an intercession between the animus of the bison and the Great Spirit.

As the complexities of pantheons consisting of deities with specific responsibilities grew up, the expectations of the said divinities regarding that which was sacrificed to them evolved. Where a specific profession would have specific requests or thank offerings to make, the object sacrificed might vary (the classic example of this is in Genesis – the story of Cain and Abel; the farmer is expected to sacrifice the first fruits of the harvest in thanks, the shepherd the fattest and fittest of the new lambs).

The altar on which the intercessory sacrifice would be offered was not, however, usually in the inner sanctum of the Temple, but in an open space in the temple precinct. There are a number of purposes to this. On a purely practical level, the smells and sounds would be awful. The blood, the defecating animal, the panicked cries, the smoke of the burnt offerings… On a different level, however, which would make more sense to those who were participating in the sacrifice, either as worshipper or as the conducting priest or priestess. The open space allowed for the whole company of the heavenly pantheon to look down on the sacrifice and see the honour with which the patron deity was being worshipped – a sacrifice within the sanctuary itself would be visible only to the deity whose House the Temple was. This would be expected to raise the kudos of the divinity of whom the request was being made, and as such render a positive answer more likely. The smoke and incense of the offering would rise up to the Heavens, nourishing the god or goddess being honoured (the deities seem to have always been nourished by inhaling the essence of the sacrifice in the smoke of the burnt offering) accompanied by the prayers, hymns and petitions of the worshippers. Such a public sacrifice brought the people who worshipped the divinity together, uniting them all as one people – even if in private they had a personal devotion to another or other deities – something which had a strong political and sociological outcome in bonding the community together in worship of their city’s or state’s divine protector or protectrix. The ritual, which may well have included the participation of the king and the royal family, the élite, both bureaucratic and military, and the aristocracy when carried out to honour the protecting deity at the great festivals, was thus enhancing the divine patronage for the governing class and system. This can be, as in Marxist ideas, interpreted as keeping the populace in its place, but this can also be challenged as a modern interpretation on a system very far removed from ours. In a world where everyone looked to the ruler for protection and help in keeping the numinous powers appeased and positive, the role of the monarch or hierarch was of an importance we find hard to credit. The role was imperative for the survival of the state, and the survival of the state was imperative for the prospering of the people – such that in certain cultures (most especially Egypt) the monarch was not simply a chosen representative of the heavenly powers, but was himself an incarnate deity as explained above. As the greatest and most important High Priest of the country and intercessor with the gods and goddesses of the pantheon, the Pharaoh was not simply the most important political figure in the Twin Lands, but also the most important sacerdotal figure – even to the extent that the Pharaoh as king might worship himself… not pure arrogance, but making perfect sense where the king as the main high priest and a mortal human is worshipping the divine essence incarnate in him as the immortal living Horus and deceased Osiris, ensuring the blessings of the Royal Gods on Egypt and the continuance of their patronage – two completely separate entities combined in the personage of the Pharaoh.

There were, however, also altars in the inner sanctums. These would be required for the libations and all associated with the daily life of the god and the rituals which this entailed. These would not be rites and rituals which were important for the people, the general élite nor for the well being of the State on a political level – though they certainly would be important in the appeasement and well being of the deity. The cleansing of the cult statue, the food and drink offered to the god or goddess, the dressing of the cult statue in the best of clothes, fresh and cleaned or even new each day, the personal offering of incense on a brazier, even the light allowed to shine in the inner sanctum, were all necessary parts of the daily worship of the god or goddess. Indeed, many of these practices are still to be found in modern Hindu temples, where parts of the daily rituals are openly accessible to the worshipping community, and parts are carried out in private, witnessed only by the chosen Brahmins and the cult statues of the divinities.

Sacrifice was always required to be of the best that the worshippers had to offer – again, referring back to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis, Elohim’s blessing is given to the sacrifice which was of the best of the first fruits – it was withheld where the sacrifice was not the best available. It was the expectation that, where the worshippers both honoured and petitioned the divinity with the best of that which the divinity had given them in the first place, the divinity would be pleased enough to return that gift manyfold as an act of benevolence to its people. This does, however, lead to what was classed as the ultimate sacrifice – that of another human being or human beings. It is a hugely contentious subject and the morality of such a sacrifice is to modern day understanding unquestionable – but in this, are we again imposing our modern day values on the ancient societies where such would have been viewed very differently. The ancient peoples lived in a very different world to ours – it was filled with threats, pain and suffering – illness was brought by daemons or as a punishment; famine, drought, natural disasters, military defeat, life for most was short, brutal and painful; these were absolutes for these people. The gods who controlled these aspects of life were often very capricious and seemed to view humans as, at best, playthings which gave them gifts and worship, and at worst as a pest which caused annoyance and was there to be crushed as and when an angry divinity chose. Where two of these numinous, absolute powers fell out and conflict ensued, it was their adherents who did the fighting and the dying, as, were the gods to go to war themselves, the forces they would unleash would have only one consequence – the destruction of the universe and all in it. This sort of a universe might, on certain occasions, require the ultimate sacrifice, the extremes of which were witnessed in the Aztec civilisation in Mesoamerica where hundreds and on occasion thousands, would be sacrificed on the altars of the rather bloodthirsty pantheon, especially the sun god. In its earliest times, the definite purpose of any specific use of human sacrifice is almost impossible to ascertain – indeed, it is only within the context of the find that a likely interpretation of purposeful human death can be made.

“In itself, it is of no importance that a given ritual should appear “unethical,” “revolting” or “barbaric” to a given scholar; opinion and science are two different things … it is when the scholar proceeds to argue that, because a ceremony or ritual is revolting (to him), it ought, therefore, to be explained away as the relic of an even more barbarous age, or rejected as an interpolation of “popular” origin, that one finds oneself involved in all sorts of errors of fact.”[32]

For where this as a practice first occurred, we must turn to archaeological evidence of human deaths associated with religious and cultic practices – and this is an important distinction; the first evidence of human deaths seem to be associated primarily with funerary practices in Early Dynastic Egypt and the Royal Tombs at Uruk. The ceremonial burial of the ‘victims’ here, does question whether these were sacrifices in the sense explained above.

At Uruk, as discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley, 16 tombs of royal personages were excavated in which other human remains were found – some containing over seventy skeletal remains. These tombs date from c. 2900-1700 BC, beginning in the earliest years of the Dynastic Era and ending in the earliest years of the Old Babylonian Period. An example is Tomb PG 789, assigned to King Abargi. In this were found some 63 sets of human remains of mixed gender, all situated in different positions within the funeral pit. On the ramp down lay the remains of six soldiers (copper helms and spear points) guarding the tomb. Two wagons drawn by cattle with human remains around them, nine female remains in elaborate costumes of precious materials lay against the wall, and in between the rest of the human remains as well as a large number of animal bones. Woolley interpreted this as a group who chose to accompany their lord to the next world – the women dressed in their finery – the remains of a great feast, music played until the last minute after the ‘sacrifices had taken poison from the cups scattered around them. Then, the priests came down, slaughtered the cattle and the grave-pit was buried to seal the tomb. While this fanciful account may seem to bear more resemblance to a Hollywood ‘sword and sandals’ epic, the archaeological evidence, on the surface, does tie in well with such an interpretation. There are, however, some skulls with pike holes in them – a rather more violent ending, though not necessarily one which excludes the voluntary nature of the ‘victims’ – there may have been a requirement for such a death of a male and a female in the funeral rituals. Other evidence of adult human sacrifice is highly debatable – often it is through a combination of human bones alongside animal bones found in sacred sites. While these may be evidence of the ritual placing of dismembered human corpses, perhaps of prisoners of war – it is known that bones of ancestors were removed from their graves in order to be used in specific ritualistic practices and then reburied – perhaps these individual bones were simply a deposition which was part of the construction of the sacred site.

A more disturbing find to the modern mind comes from the site of Tell Umm el-Marra in Northern Syria where funerary installations have been found which contain not adult, but infant remains alongside puppies and equid skulls. It has been posited that these youthful and infant sacrifices were used as a ritualistic purification process, though, with the strong likelihood that child sacrifice was a norm in the Cana’anite and Phoenician religious practices, its purpose as no more than a ritualistic purification process seems perhaps too narrow an interpretation.

While in the Ancient Near East and Mesopotamia, the definite statement of actual human sacrifice is extremely difficult as there is no indisputable iconographic evidence, in Early Dynastic Egypt, there is one group of possible images (figs. 5a and b) of human sacrifice through bleeding from the chest of a bound victim, the blood being collected in a bowl for an evident ritual purpose.


fig 5a from Hor-Aha’s tomb at Abydos – ivory label – theoretical reconstruction of two partial finds (Ellen F. Morris)


fig 5b From Mastaba 3035 at Saqqara Djer

 (Images from Crubézy and Midant-Reynes, 2000, 38 in Performing Death)

The question here, on the proviso that this be a correct interpretation of the labels, is who the sacrificial victims were. Are they volunteers, chosen from the populace, prisoners of war, or true victims? Even that they appear to be bound is not necessarily exclusive of voluntary victimhood – the sacrifices are not being held by anyone else, as would have been expected were they enforced victims – even bound, a sacrificial victim who is unwilling will thrash about and struggle – even a willing victim will automatically curl up to protect the chest area and the heart – the areas here apparently being slashed open. Again, however, such an interpretation must be taken in context and with a very large pinch of salt – might this be a blood sacrifice, and even a willing one, but NOT a sacrifice where the sacrifice dies. A limited exsanguination of perhaps a member of the royal family, a virgin or even the Crown Prince / new Pharaoh might equally be interpretations – sacred blood which was required for the purification of the tomb, perhaps.

This is a basic introduction, and I hope it has stirred the readers’ interest in this fascinating field which falls under Ancient History, Theology, Anthropology and Sociology – I would fully recommend that you look at the works cited in depth – there are a plethora of more detailed works freely available on sites such as or in pdf format under a Google scholar search.

This is where I shall stop this post and will continue for the Mediterranean regions at a later date.


 Altaweel and Squitieri, (2018)                     Revolutionizing a World, UCLA

Alvarez-Mon et al (eds) (2018)                   The Elamite World, Routledge

Ashley, Kathleen (1992)                                               Art in Ritual Context: Introduction – Journal of Ritual Studies 6 – 1-11

Aubet, ME (2001)                                             The Phoenicians and the West, Cambridge

Bárta, M (2010)                                                Swimmers in the Sand, Dryada

Bottéro, Jean (2001)                                        Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, Chicago

Bryce, T (2004)                                                 Life and Society in the Hittite World, OUP

Claessen and Skalnik (eds) (1978)               The Early State, Studies in The Social Sciences 32, Mouton

Crawford, H (2004)                                          Sumer and the Sumerians, Cambridge

Crubézy and Midant-Reynes, (2000)            Archéo-Nile, 10, 21-40

Dever, WD (2005)                                            Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Eliade, Mircea (1996)                                      Patterns in Comparative Religion.  Reprint edition. Translated by Rosemary Sheed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Foster, BR (2016)                                              The Age of Agade, Routledge

Frahm, E (ed) (2017)                                       Assyria, Wiley Blackwell

Gal , Z. , Smithline , H. and Shalem , D. ( 1999 ) “New iconographic aspects of Chalcolithic

art: preliminary observations on finds from the Peqi ’ in Cave” , ’ Atiqot 37 : 1 – 16 .

Holloway, SW (2002)                                       Aššur is King! Aššur is King! Brill

Holst, S (2011)                                                   Phoenician Secrets, Santorini

Jacobsen, T (1976)                                           The Treasures of Darkness, Yale

Kuhrt, Amélie (1997)                                      The Ancient Near East (vols I and II) Routledge

Kynard, T (2015)                                              The Esoteric Codex: Mesopotamian Deities, Raleigh

Laneri, N et al (eds) (2007)                             Performing Death, Oriental Inst

Liverani, M (2006)                                           Uruk – The First City, Equinox

Liverani, M (2014)                                           The Ancient Near East

Lloyd, Alan B (ed) (2014)                                Ancient Egypt, Wiley Blackwell

Moscati, S (1999)                                              The World of the Phoenicians, Phoenix

Naveh, J (1982)                                                 The Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Paleography. Jerusalem: Magnes Press/Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Nemet-Nejat, KR (1996)                                               Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Hendricksen

Plug et al (2014)                                                Tell Sabi Abyad, Syria: Dating of Neolithic Cemeteries in Radiocarbon, Vol 56 Nr 2, 543-554

Pongratz-Leisten, B (2015)                           Religion and Ideology in Assyria, De Gruyter

Postgate, JN (1992)                                         Early Mesopotamia, Routledge

Potts (ed)(2012)                                               Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Wiley Blackwell

Pritchard, JB (2011)                                         The Ancient Near East, Princeton

Rice, Michael (1993)                                        Egypt’s Making, Routledge

Ragavan, D (ed)(2012)                                   Heaven on Earth, Oriental Inst

Raja and Rüpke (eds) (2015)                       Archaeology of Religion in the Ancient World, Wiley Blackwell

Rollefson , G.O. (2000),                                 Ritual and social structure at Neolithic ‘ Ain Ghazal , in Kuijt, ed., 165 – 190.

Shafer, Byron (ed) (1991)                             Religion in Ancient Egypt, Routledge

Snell, Daniel (ed) (2007)                               Ancient Near East, Wiley Blackwell

Spaeth, BS (ed) (2013)                                   Cambridge Companion to Ancient Mediterranean Religions, CUP

Whitehouse, RD (2001)                                 “A Tale of Two Caves: The Archaeology of Religious Experience in Mediterranean Europe” in Biehl et al (eds) The Archaeology of Cult and Religion, 161-7

Whitney Green, AR (1975)                           The role of human sacrifice in the ancient Near East (Missoula, Montatna: Scholars Press

Wilkinson, Toby (1999)                                  Early Dynastic Egypt, Routledge

Woods, Gillian                                                   In the Beginning… The Origins of Predynastic Religion, 2015 PhD Thesis, Cardiff University

Yorke, MY                                                           Sacred Space and Ritual Practice at the End of Prehistory in the Southern Levant in Heaven on Earth (Oriental Inst), 2012

Images – Wikimedia open access

[1] Jacobsen, 1976, 13

[2] Bottéro, 2001, 5

[3] Jacobsen, 1976, 4

[4] Cf.Whitehouse, 2001: 166 in Raja and Rüpke, 2015, 1

[5] Rollefson, 2000

[6] From Potts, (ed) ANE Archaeology Vol I, 2012, 397

[7] Plug et al, Tell Sabi Abyad, Syria: Dating of Neolithic Cemeteries in Radiocarbon, Vol 56 Nr 2, 2014, 543-554

[8] Gal et al 1999

[9] Ussishkin, 1980 in Potts (ed) 2012, 412

[10] Dever, 2005, 222-232

[11] Naveh, 1982, 33-35

[12] Rowan, YM 2012, 266

[13] Jacobsen, 1976, 6

[14] Jacobsen, 1976, 7

[15] Cohen, R in Claessen and Skalnik (eds) 1978, 63

[16] Ashley, K, 1992, 10

[17] Eliade 1996, 371–72

[18] Jacobsen, 1976, 15-16

[19] Liverani, 2006, 23

[20] Crawford, 2004, 75-76

[21] Crawford, 2004, 76

[22] Bárta, 2010

[23] Woods, G, 2015, 1

[24] Herodotus, 2, 37: ‘The Egyptians are religious to excess, beyond any other nation in the world.’

[25] Wilkinson, 1999, 262

[26] Nemet-Nejat, 1998, 175

[27] Muses, 50-51 in Foster, 2016, 136-137

[28]Foster, 2016, 137

[29] Bryce, 2004

[30] Kynard, 2015, 54

[31] Altaweel and Squitieri, 2018, 243

[32] Whitney Green, AR, 1975, 189

The Development of the State in The Ancient Near East – Part 2

“The problem of varying degrees of socio-political complexity is not resolved by using similar terms for significantly different organizational forms. Equating the state to any or all political organizations makes the worthwhile point that all humans try to live their lives within some form of social order, that includes variations in power, authority, and a system of values that prescribes some and proscribes other activities. However, because all societies have organized social and political behaviour does not mean that all have similar forms within which it takes place.” (Cohen, R in Claessen and Skalník, 32)

“Zῷον πολιτικόν“ (“Man is a political animal.”) (Aristotle: Politics, Book 1, section 1253a)

IN looking for the origins of what we today understand as a state, we must keep in mind Cohen’s warning – to try to understand the early state through our contemporary eyes and definitions can be a dangerous area. The idea of a political structure as one of the foundations of any successful state, be that ancient or modern, is self-evident. Can we, however, look at the early state as a concept objectively? As Kosso has put it:

“Describing the past in ways that make sense to us may amount to just describing ourselves in different circumstances. But subjectivity might be unavoidable, since we have to describe the past in ways that make sense to us and on our own terms.”[1]

With such a long gap between us and the early states, to what extent can we ever hope to understand the naissance of what we would today recognise as a state as opposed to a society? Indeed, can we today truly understand what the contemporary understanding of a state was through our modern eyes or can we only make sense of it through our modern understanding? We can turn to archaeological evidence, but again, how far can we understand that evidence when it is so incomplete? And even where we find almost intact evidence, can we look at it in the same way that those who created it did? Is it possible to look at such evidence as we have in a manner that is in any way objective? We may attempt to look for ‘facts’, but, particularly in the pre-literate period, how can we know what that ‘fact’ is (other than the obvious ‘It is a piece of granite from x’ or ‘The figurines are made from clay from y’)? Kosso again:

‘Even if the facts are collected, discovered rather than invented, the assemblage, the facts we choose and the way we put them together, might be contrived. The inevitable process of selection, description, and arrangement in terms of relevance will be done under the influence of our existing beliefs about the past. In this way, even if the facts are individually independent of our present ideas, they collectively form a picture that is a matter of interpretation. The ramifications of the need to select historiographic facts pose one of the most widely discussed issues of analytic philosophy of historiography. It applies to either sense of the concept of facts, as the events in the past or as descriptions of the events. We are simply not interested in everything that happened in the past.’[2]

As was mentioned in Part I, from Rousseau through to present day, the concept of ‘social stratification’ is one generally accepted idea of the early state in its structural sense. In simplistic terms, the state as a socio-political structure is viewed as something which is created in the first place by the rich or the powerful. Very quickly, this group set up systems – political, religious, judicial – which support their power and dominance over those who are now on the lower social strata; strata which rely upon this powerful elite for much of what they require for their daily life, be that protection, water supply in a desert environment, intervention with the capricious divinities of their pantheon or an expansive trade network which allowed for their goods to be sold and their supplies purchased. For Fried, an institutionalised inequality arises from this early social stratification, and it is the control of the goods and requisites for life which lead to the centralised governmental structure which is the dominant factor in the rule of all the most archaic states.[3] Marx and Engels blamed such structure for most of the evils of societies in their time.

The first question, if this be accepted, is where such an institutionalised societal inequality first arises? Who, in the proto state, decided or allowed those who were to become the socio-political elite of the established state to reach the position of dominant chieftain? Was such a societal structure already established and easily adaptable when hunter-gatherer tribes became domesticators and agriculturalists? When the wanderers became the settled communities? Or was this something which was a post settlement ‘invention’ and a response to the changing requirements of the new form of societal structure that an agricultural settlement brought? And again…how can we know? Are there clues in the later societies (cf the dual titulary of the Kings of Mari as described in Part I and Fleming’s interpretation[4])? Can we see in this the earlier pastoral elite which developed into the later dominant urban elite? Or do we have two separate elites which eventually combined into the one person of the King of Mari? Which of these became the hegemon when the earlier societies came together to form the bipartite state, if such it indeed were?


THE earliest social structures are exceptionally hard to define. It is necessary to look to the archaeological evidence for some of the oldest settlements to attempt to place any institutionalised hierarchy in context. These are tied in with, as would be expected, agricultural developments as such allowed for a settled life, even though this amounted to little more than a purposeful cultivation of wild plants. Liverani:

‘Already in its incipient phases (10,000–7,500 BC), this new mode of production (ie cultivation of wild plants) had a visible impact on the social structure of human groups and the organisation of resources. Communities began to build round-houses, partly set in the ground and with a tent-shaped roof. Therefore, the earliest permanent base-camps appeared (particularly where the first attempts at cultivation also took place), alongside seasonal camps for hunting purposes (which remained a fundamental activity) and other seasonal activities. The appearance of the first silos for the conservation of food and seeds from one year to the next indicates how these communities had by now overcome the daily dimension of nutrition. Moreover, herds and camps also raised the issue of property and inheritances. This led to the development of tombs, either for individuals or family groups.[5]’ (My italics).

While the silos most probably, and the round-houses very likely, were potentially communal constructions, the procedures of interment and the idea of an individual tomb or a family tomb are rather different (cf the discussion of the Early Neolithic tombs at Tell Qarasa North in Part I, though they date from the IXth millennium BC). These fall in what is classed as the Natufian Period in archaeological terminology (which had been preceded by the Kerbaran c. 20,000 – 12,000 BC) and lasted from c. 12,000-10,300 BC). Perhaps the two key earliest settlements are arguably Jericho in Palestine and Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. For evidence of deliberate cultivation, the “Golden Triangle” (Turkish Euphrates and Taurus region of Upper Mesopotamia)

“…according to recent paleobotanical and paleozoological data – Neolithic innovations such as the domestication of wild plants and animals occurred here for the first time (Aurenche and Kozłowski 1999)”.[6]

So, what does this have to do with the formation of a State? In simplest terms, population increase. When the settled agrarian and domestication communities had mastered and more or less guaranteed a regular food supply (indeed, with surpluses as the silos show), this facilitated two major steps in a growth in population – first, the evident – a regular and sufficient food supply with excess to cover any required shortage. The second, however, is perhaps less obvious. In a group where the greater part of the year is spent in migrating, following the wild herds and the wild plants which feed the members of said community, the time-frame for safely producing children is somewhat limited. Evidence from Lee (1972) based on the population changes in Bushmen communities when they settled, suggests:

“…sedentarization alone may trigger population growth, since women may have children more frequently without any increase in work on their part, and without reducing their ability to provide for each one.”[7]

It is most likely that this would be as apposite to the first settled communities as to the Bushmen of the twentieth century. A growth in population has two further key knock on effects – if in a limited geographic area, the growth will put an added strain on the supplies and resources available to the community, yet also, the greater the population, the greater the potential for a community to expand through its new intrinsic power base and pool of human resources. Though a gradual process, this presumably led to wider communities, but stratified on a socio-political level. The weaker are absorbed into the stronger, with the potential for a wide variety of results and concomitant developments: Will the weaker simply be absorbed and adopted into the hegemonic community, adopting their customs, belief systems et al? Will they be left to their own devices and allowed to continue as a separate cultural if not political entity on the proviso that they acquiesce to the overlordship of the hegemon? Will the two communities form a single political entity, yet remain in two parts on a cultural level (cf the dual titulary of the kings of Mari, again)? Will the weaker be forcibly crushed and enslaved by the hegemonic power? Will they be seen as an ‘under race’ and there as a pool of labour and ‘cannon fodder’ in the inevitable clashes which will ensue from aggressive contact with other powerful communities? In fact, as time went on, all of these were found to exist on one level or another.

“Sedentism creates a new value for children, wives and indeed on any or all means by which local groups can increase their size, Thus, from the Neolithic onwards, person acquisition by social units becomes an important feature of social life. This leads to increased birth rates, to adoption, to polygyny, bridewealth, clientage, fostering and even to forcible capture and enslavement of strangers who are then used to add size and strength to local groups.”[8]

The other limiting factor in the population expansion and the march towards the concept of a state is topography. The limitations of the geographical situation of a population have major implications on expansion and developments of a populace and its socio-political structure. In the area now termed the Ancient Near East, limitations were relatively obvious – mountain ranges, desert areas, swamps and marshlands near the Euphrates/Tigris delta on the Persian Gulf. In the earliest periods of settlement, these could also act as barriers from aggressive neighbours, but quickly, trade routes would develop, facilitating exchanges of ideas, beliefs and customs. Again, the dominant culture would assume the position of hegemon over its area, and in large part due to the successful growth in population combined with the best use of the natural resources available to said community. In the areas which relied upon the major rivers for their livelihoods in all forms needed to be able to cope with the major floods which occurred (specific evidence dates from the III Millennium BC[9]), the gradual salinisation of the fields through over irrigation inter alia as, unlike the Nile in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates in particular were most certainly not gentle bringers of a benevolent flood! In the third part, I shall look in more detail at individual communities which developed into states and the consequences in both the sort and long term of these burgeoning power bases.

[1] Kosso, P in A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, Blackwell, 2009, 10

[2] Kosso, op cit, 13

[3] Fried, MH, The Evolution of Political Society, Random House, 1967, 186

[4] Fleming, Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Cambridge, 2004, xiv

[5] Liverani, The Ancient Near East, Routledge, 36

[6] ANE Archaeology, Blackwell, 2012, Vol I 382

[7] Lee RB, in Population Growth: anthropological implications (ed Spooner) Cambs, 1972, 342

[8] Cohen, op cit, 43

[9] Oguchi & Oguchi, “ Mid – Holocene floods of the Syrian Euphrates inferred from ‘ tell sediments ’ ” 1998

State and Statehood – GCSE Introduction to Development in the Ancient Near East – Part I



WHAT do we understand by the term ‘state’? At what point can a community be said to have ceased to be simply a community and to have become a state? Is the state simply a social construct imposed on a community when it achieves a certain size and requires a set pattern of rules in order to function? When did the idea of the state as an entity develop? How have interpretations of the state varied and evolved over the passage of time? What are the requirements of a state in order that it be termed a state? What do the earliest communities and states tell us of their understanding of the concept and the developments in this through written, archaeological and epigraphic evidence they have left to us; and indeed, how well and truly can we interpret this evidence in light of our modern understanding and interpretations of the state and statehood?

There is one major problem in our understanding – there is no single, universally accepted definition of what a state actually is.[1] While this may seem rather unusual, it leads to a level of confusion and countermanding of opinions among scholars, and this in particular with reference to the earliest of states.

Radcliffe Brown (1940) defines the state as:

‘…a collection of individual human beings connected by a complex system of relations. Within that organization different individuals have different roles, and some are in possession of special power or authority.’

While a basic interpretation, as a grounding from which to work, this serves as well as any other – though, as Engels stated:

‘The state…has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which have managed without it, which had no notion of the state or state power. At a definite stage of economic development, which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage.’ (in Claessen and Skalník, ibid, 4)

Is this therefore the defining factor in determining a state? That the differences imposed through an economically determined class structure are the way in which the concept of statehood be understood? What then of those communal societies Engels cites which had no concept of a state? While the Marxist interpretation may look at this in the hope that the removal of social class boundaries will remove the economic differences, would that mean the removal of the State as an entity? Could social structures of hundreds of millions truly return to a none state in the form of a network of truly egalitarian communities, such as may theoretically have existed when communal structures were based upon small familial groups which supported one another (if, indeed, any such ever existed in the first place!)? Where did such pre-industrial, pre-capitalist, pre everything we associate with a modern definition of a state, exist, and when? Have we any concrete proof of such, in any form that we can examine in a meaningful way? With reference to Claessen and Skalník, however:

‘These examples all could be suspected of being secondary state formations, that is developed under the influence of another case and modeled on it. Visibly lacking were exactly those cases that had created the history of the problem in the course of a century and a half of reflection and research on the question… The data visible today are quantitatively disproportionate in the documentation and obscure the few and difficult proto-historic data. Thus, essentially, the comparativism of neo-evolutionists, in its principles and choice of documentation, puts at risk a historical approach to the problem of the origins of the state and complex society.’[2]

THE earliest bulk records at present are the written records from Syria-Mesopotamia, stemming from levels IV and III in the sacred Eanna precinct at Uruk up to the much later caches at Mari, Ugarit inter alia when city states and burgeoning empires were the dominant socio-political structures, fully developed and interacting on a massively complex level, records which stretch over a long period and give us an insight at least into the social and civic constructs which developed into a state structure. The complex interactions between the different groups and individuals which played defining roles in the evolution, areas ruled by petty kings, tribal groups, small communities and their growth into larger polities which, as they evolved, adapted and expanded their concepts of the state and of states, and statehood. In these, the reader can find almost every possible form of governance, from absolute monarchy to early communal governance (though whether this may yet be termed democracy, proto-democracy or any other similar term is as disputed as the whole idea of a single, accepted definition of the state). One of the greatest repositories of these written records is the archive of the kings of Mari, some 3,000 clay tablets covered in Akkadian cuneiform which composed the collection of the last Lord of Mari, Zimri-Lim, and give an overview of the system which had developed over the larger part of the third millennium BC, when Mari had dominated the banks of the Euphrates along an area which today forms part of the Syrian-Iraqi border region.

Zimri-Lim’s self proclaimed title, ‘King of Mari and the Land of the Hana’ is telling in our understanding of this early state at least. As Fleming points out:

‘The first title defines him by the walled city that he made his seat of power, and the second associates him with mobile pastoralists who identify themselves by tribe.’[3]

That the king of a, in reality, minor kingdom of no more than mediocre importance, but one which survived for almost a millennium, needs to refer both to the urban populace and the pastoralist populace under two separate and varying titles, demonstrates that the, what must have been, principle division in the social structure held a great importance. Is there evidence that Engels’ idea of economic division is here present? Was there an urban elite who relied on the taxes and tribute levied on a pastoralist majority underclass? Was there a pastoral elite which controlled the land and held the urban populace in thrall, depending on the food supplies which the pastoralists granted them? Were the tribal loyalties of a pre-urban structure something which the king might ignore in the urban structure, but still of major importance when dealing with a conservative pastoral social structure beyond the city walls? This was, after all, well after the states which composed Mesopotamia had developed into a complex structure of political alliances, wars and marriages.  These are questions to which I shall return.


WHAT happened between the earliest sedentary communities dating to c.10,000 BC and the full blown urbanised and complex societies of around 3,000 BC? What turned them from small communities to States?

The major prerequisite for any state form to develop, under almost every definition, would require a regular supply of the basic commodities needed for survival. Without such, the sole imperative becomes that of a hand to mouth survival, such as is evident from archaeological evidence of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. The two principle of these are evidently food and water, without which the only outcome can be death either through dehydration or starvation – a self-evident statement, but nevertheless, the primary prerequisites. The food supply which the hunter gatherer system gave was highly dependent on the constant nomadic lifestyle as was dictated by the following of migrating animals or moving according to the weather conditions which controlled the wild plant food supplies such as the berries, nuts et al gathered to supplement the meat. There are seeming settled communities at certain places along littorals where the fish and shellfish supplies must have been regular throughout the year, but they are very much in the minority. Some of the earliest polities we find are in the area referred to as the Ancient Near East, and such communities show evidence of early settled agricultural production, based on nine main plants:

Table 1[4]

Wild Progenitor                          Cultivar                                                 English name

Triticum urartu                           ?

Triticum boeoticum                    T. monococcum                                    einkorn

Triticum dicoccoides                  T. dicoccum                                           emmer


Spontaneum                              H. distichon                                              barley

Lens orientalis                           L. culinaris                                              lentil

Pisum humile                            P. sativum                                                pea

Cicer reticulatum                        C. arietinum                                         chickpea

Vicia ervilia                               V. ervilia                                                  bitter vetch

?                                                  Vicia faba                                                 broad bean

Linum bienne                             L. usitatissimum                                   flax


These nine plants were to remain the mainstay of the agricultural food supplies and textiles from plants through the whole of the western Ancient and Classical worlds.

The cultivation of these plants requires a settled lifestyle, and this, both for the crops and for the agriculturalists, has one joint necessity – water. Regular rainfall is not something which is found in the Ancient Near East away from certain areas which are under the influence of the coastal climate. Even then, for much of the summer period, the rains are not common, and this requires the storage of the rains where no fluvial waters are available; where the rivers are the suppliers of the waters, irrigation on a massive level and the controlling of the waters (where possible) under the floods from the Zagros mountains flowing down the Tigris and the Euphrates were required for a regular and reliable harvest to be available to feed the populace, both pastoral/agricultural and urban. Post the domestication of herd animals, a level of relatively settled life was still a priority when in a desert geographic situation due to the need for water, unlike areas where water and grasslands were plentiful and ergo permitted for the continuation of a more nomadic lifestyle. For Karl Marx, this was a key factor in the development of an early state:

‘He (Marx) particularly emphasized the dichotomic relation between agricultural communities and the state organization, occasioned by the necessity of constructing and maintaining irrigation systems.’[5]

When the agricultural production reached a certain level, the water necessary for the irrigation of the crops could only be supplied by a state which had the capacity to undertake construction on the required scale. When the control of the water falls into the hands of the state, then those who wield that control become the de facto elite; an elite which will demand labour, tribute and taxation in return for ensuring the supply of water through dams, aquifers or ditch systems, both in order that the construction projects be achieved, and as a reward for their services, eventually developing into the social class structure against which Marx and Engels wrote. Does the archaeological and epigraphic evidence support this theory? Or is this a massively simplistic segregating of a hugely complex system which was interpreted simply to support a nineteenth century (AD) politico-philosophical system?

It is necessary to return to the evidence to support the development of agriculture and pastoral domestication and the sequence which led to the situation of a (supposed) elite commanding the water supplies. Liverani:

‘…Neolithic Revolution, when fundamental techniques for food production (agriculture and farming), the necessary instruments (tools and containers), and the earliest forms of housing (houses, villages, and farms) were first developed… (then) the Urban Revolution of the Early Bronze Age. This phase saw the development of recording techniques (which culminated with the development of writing), the introduction of specialised labour (such as full-time craftsmanship) and mass production, as well as the development of cities and the rise of the concept of the state. The third phase took place between the late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, when a number of innovations, such as the alphabet and increasing use of iron were developed. This led to a sort of ‘democratisation’ of the former palace and temple economies, and a stronger presence of socially and geographically marginal areas compared to the former supremacy of the city.’[6] (My bold)

Liverani here places the conscious idea of the state in a situation where the necessary socio-politico-economic and religious concepts and constructs have been not only developed but are firmly ensconced in the minds of the populace. So, can the state be defined in the sense of a social evolution which leads to an easily definable end by means of clearly delineated path, almost following a set pattern? Again – very debateable! This would, were it true, necessitate a common starting point in all ‘archaic states’ – indeed, there would surely be an archaic state which was a common prototype – and there most certainly was not. Not all early ‘states’ were tyrannies, there is no standard pattern or ladder of developments which all followed, and there were no requisite developments politically, socially nor economically that all communities followed in order to develop into a clearly defined concept of the state.[7]

The concept of the community, and on a larger level, the state, is the idea of ‘US’. The commonality, the shared ideas, beliefs and experiences are what underlie this idea of ‘us’ – those who lie outside of those commonalities become ‘them’ and are the foreigners. How do the small communities overcome this ‘us’ and ‘them’? Without this, would the small communities be able to grow to the level where they can be called a state? Do they simply rely on a growth in population? If so, how is this guaranteed? The healthier diet which agriculture and the domestication of animals brought, and the regular supply of food which was enhanced by the control of the water supply was evidently a factor in helping this. We can see the effects by examining the graves which are found in the archaeological evidence of the earliest settlements. The graves show something else of equal importance:

“Funerary rituals act as one of the most important mechanisms of ideological regeneration and are a fundamental vehicle to be able to define, develop and strengthen identities, collective memories and social relationships.”[8] These are all things which are intrinsic to the idea of ‘us’.

The graves at Tell Qarasa, dating from the late ninth millennium BC, show a variety of developments which are key in the evolution to statehood: first, there is certainly ritual. The bodies were:

“..buried in oval graves, placed on their side in a flexed position and oriented along an E-W axis. Skulls and, in some cases, long bones were later extracted for certain funerary rituals in which the memory of the deceased was relevant and which were carried out in an abandoned house and its attached courtyard.”[9]

This, combined with the fact that, despite this being a pre-pottery level of history, the bodies were interred with figurines which show features and genitalia as, presumably, totems of the dead, shows a certain level of ritual – indeed, such continue to be found, particularly in the form of the shabti of Egyptian funerary goods, though whether the earlier Syrian figurines are representations of the deceased or as labour for the afterlife is impossible to tell. These grave goods, ritualistic burials and the seeming evidence of excarnation give an almost certain suggestion of the development of a religious system and rituals to allow the deceased to continue or to progress through death to the life hereafter. Without this, there seems little or no point in the ritual. At such an early level in the settled existence of our ancestors, there exists not just a basic or primitive funerary process and ritual, but a highly developed and complex system – something which takes a very long time to develop. What is impossible to ascertain here is whether the excarnation of the isolated bone was part of the ritual (it is known that certain bones, especially the long bones and the skull, were later removed, used in presumably ritual, and returned to the ground, either to the grave or apart) or whether it was a part of a different ritual, or cannibalism of a human sacrifice (to carry hypothesis to its hyperbolic extreme) to accompany the death and interment of an important individual, we cannot tell as there is too little evidence as of yet.

[1] Claessen and Skalník (eds) The Early State, Mouton,1978, 3

[2] Liverani, Uruk-The First City, Oakville, 2006, 9-10

[3] Fleming, Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Cambridge, 2004, xiv

[4] A Companion to the Archaeology of the ANE, Blackwell, Vol I, 2007, 166

[5] Claessen and Skalník (eds) 1978, 8

[6] Liverani, The Ancient Near East, Routledge, 2014, 27

[7] For an in depth explanation, cf Yoffee, Myths of the Archaic State, Cambridge, 2004, 5ff

[8] Santana et al, Interpreting a ritual funerary area at the Early Neolithic site of Tell
Qarassa North (South Syria, late 9th millennium BC), 2015, 1

[9] ibid

[10] Ibid, 8

Solon and the Seisakhtheia – Sixth Form Introduction


“‘Eγώ δέ τούτων έν μεταιχμίω | όρος кατέστην…“ (I stood like a horos in the middle ground between them) frag. 37

One of the most highly complex questions of the Archaic period is that of what Solon actually did and why. The scant references we have rely on a series of statements which are almost completely   beyond interpretation given the fact that Solon wrote in poetic form and Aristotle and Plutarch are centuries later. Modern interpretations are equally complex and at variance – Finley, (Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, 86–9) posited that the reforms were per se responsible for the inauguration of the Attic slave based economy, as the chattel slaves were required to replace the indentured labourers from the pre reform era. Indeed, he went so far as to state “one aspect of Greek history is the advance, hand in hand, of freedom and slavery” (ibid, 115).

This question to a great extent rests upon the true meaning of one word –  σεισάχθεια – seisakhtheia. Literally, it is the ‘throwing off of burdens’, and is often taken as meaning the cancellation of debts – debts which had left the social structure of the Athens of the time in a state of stasis – discord, an apparently insurmountable division in the populace which was on the verge of tearing apart the social structure and the subsequent dangers that such would bring. Was the seisakhtheia a freeing of the many from a vassal state where one sixth of their goods were payable in tax to the land owner (the hektemoroi) or was it a simple cancellation of the debts which they had built up, and is it a question which we can definitively answer?

“To the ancient historian searching for clues about Solon’s mysterious Seisachtheia, lines 3–7 of fragment 36 of the lawgiver’s poetry appear initially to offer a valuable hint. In the passage Solon boasts of removing from the land the horoi, which had been planted far and wide (őρους άνεîλον πολλαχή πεπηγότας). As a result, the land, once enslaved, is now free (πρόσθεν δέ δουλεύουσα, νϋν έλευθέρη). The author of the Constitution of the Athenians (12.4), followed by Plutarch (Solon 15), used these lines to support the view that the Seisachtheia was in effect a cancellation of debts.” (Harris, A NEW SOLUTION TO THE RIDDLE OF THE SEISACHTHEIA in The Dev. of the Polis in Archaic Greece, 2005, 65)

The change that Solon instigated was on perhaps the most fundamental level – it was to involve a change in the most basic identity of the citizen body. The division of the aristocratic and the non aristocratic based on birth was abandoned in favour of the divisions of social class based upon wealth. Meier sums this change in society, in practical, theoretical and, perhaps most importantly psychological levels, succinctly:

“Knowledge of public affairs and claims to participation must become so firmly rooted in the whole complex of common interests and attitudes that the relatively minor abstract interest in politics shared by many of the citizens can increase and, transcending all the obvious divisions among them, become a major interest shared by all. A usurper knows roughly what he wants and simply has to seek the power and opportunity he needs in order to realize his aims, but where the broad mass of the people is concerned it is necessary, at such an early stage of political evolution, first to awaken, and then to reinforce and perpetuate, the idea that they can win a regular and powerful position in the community. A new political role has to appear, not just a new player to take over an old role. This calls for social reasoning of a quite different and more abstract kind. Finally, since the first democracies in world history could presumably arise only as direct democracies, a readiness for serious commitment had to take shape among the citizens, and this meant nothing less than a transformation of social identity.” (Meier, The Greek Discovery of Politics,1990; 29)

In order for the changes to be implemented, they have to be first accepted, and this required, as stated, the ‘new political role’ in order that the altered system not be perceived as a simple change in nomenclature of the previous system. This does raise questions, however. The new census classes which Solon used to divide up the social structure, with the exception of the pentekosiomadimnoi were not new terms. The top class is the only one which had the numerical name – the others, (hippeis, zeugetai and thetes) appear to be more archaic terms, associated with the eupatridai – the ‘well-born’. Solon had been severely critical of the ruling classes, those who seemed to all intents desirous of resurrecting the full blown aristocracies of the Dark Ages:

“you who have pushed through to glut yourselves with many good things” (fr. 4c.2)

“(who) do not know how to restrain their greed or how to order their present festivities in the peacefulness of the banquet” (fr. 4.9-10)

The eupatridai dominated a system which

“…was oligarchic in all other respects and in particular the poor were enslaved to the rich…they worked the fields of the rich. All the land was in the hands of a few, and if the poor failed to pay their rents both they and their children were liable to seizure.” (Ath Pol 2.1)

The labour here was, by insinuation, indentured with the possibility of slavery for not only the labourer but also his family on the failure of payment. This is the situation to which Harris, cited above, was referring, and indeed the situation the reforms of Solon in his social restructuring were battling in the creation of the new roles to which Meier referred. These were, by intuitive process, necessary as there must, by definition have been those outside of the eupatridai who were prospering on an economic level, as, had there not been, it is questionable as to whether the class reforms based on wealth would have had any point – after all, the majority of those who, in the seventh century, had been the indentured labourers were to remain in the lowest theses class post reform, and as such main outside the high political roles with only a membership of the ekklesia as their sole political right. In liberating the land (πρόσθεν δέ δουλεύουσα, νϋν έλευθέρη) Solon was not claiming to have removed the horoi:

“The act of removing boundary-markers was considered a serious crime. Horoi that marked boundaries to private land were expected to remain fixed and enjoyed the protection of Zeus Horios ([Dem.] 7.39–40). Plato in the Lam (8.842e–843b) condemns their removal as an act of sacrilege, the crime of ‘moving what must not be moved’. Other sources reveal that in several poleis magistrates could punish this crime with severe fines. Are we to believe that Solon in fr. 36 was boasting about committing a crime?” (Harris, op. cit, 56)

Solon, as said at the start, proclaims that HE stood as a horos – a boundary marker which, under threat of divine punishment, could neither be moved nor ignored. He, as the reformer, was the immutable boundary marker between the two sides – the eupatridai and those who stood outside the ruling oligarchic class. Had the meaning by Solon been such that he referred to a literal moving of the boundary stones, then not only would he be boasting of what was both a criminal and indeed sacrilegious act, but also rendering his metaphorical incarnation as a horos an irrelevancy, thereby invalidating any claims to reform that he would make – the fact that his reforms DID take place and were followed through shows that this was not the case: fr. 5

“έστην άμφιβαλών кρατερòν σάкος άμφοτέροισι, νιкάν δ’ ούк εϊασ’ ούδετέρους άδίкως”

(held a mighty shield over both sides and did not allow either side to enjoy an unjust triumph)

The constant refrain is holding the middle ground and showing favour to neither one side nor the other. This was NOT, however, any move towards an egalitarian system, despite the move towards the democratic processes of the following centuries. Ath. Pol. names him “the first champion of the people” – the oppression of the people in Solon’s own words “πόλεμόν θεϋδοντ επεγείρει” (rouses war from its slumber) fr. 4, a decidedly overt warning of the unavoidable consequences of a pre reform status quo. A remaining question is why those who were already in the position of the ruling class were willing to accept the reforms when these would apparently undermine their politically and ergo legally dominant position? Solon’s

“poems too testIfy to his concern to foster a wider understanding of political affairs. We do not know the size of the circle in which Solon wished to encourage and facilitate a stronger commitment to politics. It is clear, that politIcal discussion took place among a wide public. Solon hImself put hIs program to the citizens. Admittedly none of this produced a readiness for regular political commitment, and Athens subsequently succumbed to tyranny, which the great majority of its citizens apparently dId not find unwelcome.” (Meier, op cit, 47)

Did they recognise that the neighbouring states problems and civil wars and serious strife were uncontrollable in the long run under an oligarchic or a tyrannical system, yet that the insecurity would lead to their playing a part in the dominant subsequent tyranny under the Pesistratids, a tyranny which, as Meier points out, was at least accepted if not openly welcomed by the greater part of the Athenian citizen body? In the 620’s (?), as Plutarch recounts:

“When the Megarians had expelled Theagenes their tyrant, for a short time they were sober and sensible in their government (politeia). But later when the popular leaders (demagogoi) poured out untempered freedom for them, as Plato says, they were completely corrupted, and, among their shocking acts of misconduct toward the wealthy, the poor would enter their homes and insist upon being entertained and banqueted sumptuously. But if they did not receive what they demanded, they would treat all the household with violence and insult (hubris). Finally, they enacted a decree whereby they received back again the interest that they happened to have paid their creditors, calling the measure “return interest.” (Mor. 295c–d)

The Athenians could look to next door Megara and see what the results of an unfettered freedom for the people could, and likely would, bring to Athens were she to undergo a similar revolution – the Megaran situation was still fresh in the minds of the eupatridai and they would evidently have no desire to experience the same as their fellows, many of whom would be relations either by marriage or terms of guest friendship. Yet the warnings of the impending disaster for the eupatridai are made clear, and, despite his birth as one of the eupatritid class, where his sympathies on this front lay:

“Restrain your mighty hearts in your breasts, you who have pursued every good thing to excess, and let your pride be in moderation ; for WE shall not obey, nor will these things be perfect for you.” (fr. 4c, 5-8 (Ath Pol 5.3))

Solon’s achievement, IF his own words are to be believed, were in that ‘ξυνήγαγον δήμον’ (I brought the people together). Whether he did or not remains a highly debated question. The ideas and the moving to the fore of the right thinking and the readiness to participate – the opening of the social progression now dependant upon changes in circumstances as opposed to birth were certainly long term results of the consequent changes after Solon. In his own words cited in Plutarch’s “Life of Solon” to finish:

“πολλοὶ γὰρ πλουτεῦσι κακοί, ἀγαθοὶ δὲ πένονται:

ἀλλ’ ἡμεῖς αὐτοῖς οὐ διαμειψόμεθα

τῆς ἀρετῆς τὸν πλοῦτον: ἐπεὶ τὸ μὲν ἔμπεδον αἰεί,

χρήματα δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἄλλοτε ἄλλος ἔχει.”

(Some wicked men are rich, some good are poor;

We will not change our virtue for their store:

Virtue’s a thing that none can take away,

But money changes owners all the day.)

Literature and In Our Time Episodes

Inspired by Andy Keen – Literature on the In Our Time Podcasts – Divided into:

Individual Works, Authors and Poets, Eras and Themes and Miscellaneous


Eugene Onegin (Andrew Kahn, Emily Finer, Simon Dixon)

Gaskell’s North and South (Sally Shuttleworth, Dinah Birch, Jenny Uglow)

Four Quartets (David Moody, Fran Brearton, Mark Ford)

The Wasteland and Modernity (Steve Connor, Lawrence Rainey, Fran Brearton) )

Epic of Gilgamesh (Andrew George, Frances Reynolds, Martin Worthington)

Animal Farm (Steven Connor, Mary Vincent, Robert Colls)

Songs of Innocence and Experience (Sir Jonathan Bate, Sarah Haggarty, John Lee)

Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Francis O’Gorman, Jane Thomas, Dinah Birch)

Aurora Leigh (Margaret Reynolds, Daniel Karlin, Karen O’Brien)

Tristan and Iseult (Laura Ashe, Juliette Wood, Mark Chinca)

Emma (Jane Todd, John Mullan, Emma Clery)

Jane Eyre (Dinah Birch, Karen O’Brien, Sara Lyons)

Beowulf (Laura Ashe, Clare Lees, Andy Orchard)

Icelandic Sagas (Carolyne Larrington, Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Emily Lethbridge)

Le Morte d’Arthur (Helen Cooper, Helen Fulton, Laura Ashe)

Kafka’s Der Prozeß (The Trial) (Elizabeth Boa, Steve Connor, Ritchie Robertson)

Mrs Dalloway (Dame Hermione Lee, Jane Goldman, Kathryn Simpson)

Tristram Shandy (Judith Hawley, John Mullan, Mary Newbould)

The Tempest (Sir Jonathan Bate, Erin Sullivan, Katherine Duncan-Jones)

King Lear (Sir Jonathan Bate, Katherine Duncan-Jones, Catherine Belsey)

Decline and Fall (David Bradshaw, John Bowen, Ann Pasternak Slater)

Joyce: Ulysses (Steven Connor, Jeri Johnson, Richard Brown)

Joyce: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Roy Foster, Jeri Johnson, Katherine Mullin)

Robinson Crusoe (Karen O’Brien, Judith Hawley, Bob Owens)

Tennyson: In Memoriam (Dinah Birch, Seamus Perry, Jane Wright)

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Sir Jonathan Bate, Jane Stabler, Bernhard Jackson)

Silas Marner (Dinah Birch, Rosemary Ashton, Valentine Cunningham)

Brave New World (David Bradshaw, Daniel Pick, Michele Barrett)

Swift: A Modest Proposal (John Mullan, Judith Hawley, Ian McBride)

Dante’s Inferno (Margaret Kean, John Took, Claire Honess)

Wordsworth: The Prelude (Rosemary Ashton, Stephen Gill, Emma Mason)

Conrad: Heart Of Darkness (Susan Jones, Robert Hampson, Laurence Davies)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Celeste-Marie Bernier, Sarah Meer, Clive Webb)

Authors and Poets

Christine de Pizan (Helen Swift, Miranda Griffin, Marilynn Desmond)

Chaucer (Carolyne Larrington, Helen Cooper, Ardis Butterfield)

Emily Dickinson (Fiona Green, Linda Freedman, Paraic Finnerty)

John Clare (Jonathan Bate, Mina Gorji, Simon Kovesi)

Fanny Burney (Nicole Pohl, Judith Hawley, John Mullan )

Rudyard Kipling (Howard Booth, Daniel Karlin, Jan Montefiore)

Chekhov (Catriona Kelly, Cynthia Marsh, Rosamund Bartlett)

Annie Besant (Lawrence Goldman, David Stack, Yasmin Khan)

Christina Rossetti (Dinah Birch, Rhian Williams, Nicholas Shrimpton)

Siegfried Sassoon (Jean Moorcroft, Fran Brearton, Max Egremont)

Alexander Pope (John Mullan, Jim McLaverty, Valerie Rumbold)

Samuel Johnson (John Mullan, Jim McLaverty, Judith Hawley)

Kit Marlowe (Katherine Duncan-Jones, Sir Jonathan Bate, Emma Smith)

John Milton (John Carey, Lisa Jardine, Blair Worden)

Oscar Wilde (Valentine Cunningham, Regina Gagnier, Neil Sammells)

Charles Dickens (Rosemary Ashton, Michael Slater, John Bowen)

Eras and Themes

12th Century Renaissance (Laura Ashe, Elisabeth van Houts, Giles Gasper)

The Blue Stockings (Karen O’Brien, Elizabeth Ager, Nicole Pohl )

Elizabethan Revenge (Sir Jonathan Bate, Julie Sanders, Janet Clare)

The Metaphysical Poets (Tom Healy, Julie Sanders, Tom Cain)

Victorian Pessimism (Dinah Birch, Rosemary Ashton, Peter Mandler)

Epistolary Literature (John Mullan, Karen O’Brien, Brean Hammond)

Pastoral Literature (Helen Cooper, Laurence Lerner, Julie Sanders)

Modernist Utopias (Jaon Carey, Steve Connor, Laura Marcus)

Faust (Juliette Wood, Osman Durrani, Rosemary Ashton)

The Later Romantics (Sir Jonathan Bate, Robert Woof, Jennifer Wallace)

Sensation (John Mullan, Lyn Pykett, Dinah Birch)

Sensibility (Claire Tomalin, John Mullan, Dame Hermione Lee)

The Epic (John Carey, Karen Edwards, Oliver Taplin)

Victorian Realism (Philip Davis, A.N.Wilson, Dinah Birch)

Yeats and Mysticism (Roy Foster, Warwick Gould, Brenda Maddox)

The Sonnett (Sir Frank Kermode, Phillis Levin, Sir Johnathan Bate)

Literary Modernism (John Carey, Laura Marcus, Valentine Cunningham)

Gothic (Chris Baldick, ANWilson, Emma Clery)

Psychoanalysis and Literature (Adam Phillips, Malcolm Bowie, Lisa Appignanesi)

The Romantics (Sir Jonathan Bate, Rosemary Ashton, Nicholas Roe)

Shakespeare’s Work (Sir Frank Kermode, Michael Bogdanov, Germaine Greer)

Masculinity in Literature (Martin Amis, Cora Kaplan)

Tragedy (George Steiner, Catherine Belsey)

The Novel (DJTaylor, Gillian Beer)

Shakespeare and Literary Criticism (Harold Bloom, Jacqueline Rose)


The Muses (Paul Cartledge, Angie Hobbs, Penelope Murray)

The Scriblerus Club (John Mullen, Judith Hawley, Marcus Walsh)

Early Solar Eclipses: Intro for Primary School


“On the New Moon, month of Hiyar, the Sun was made shame and did descend in the day, Mars in attendance” (Description of Ugarit Eclipse)


ARGUABLY the earliest solar eclipse recorded was the Ugarit Eclipse (there is an apocryphal tale of two Chinese, Ho and Hi, the “Drunk Astronomers” from 2137 BC ), believed to have been on the 3rd May 1375 BC, observed in the port city of Ugarit on the Eastern Mediterranean littoral (coastal region) in modern day Syria.



The tablet above (which records all solar eclipses between 518 and 465 BC) is typical of the innumerable astronomical records which were kept by the astronomer/astrologer priests of the great city of Babylon, based upon their constant observations and then recorded in Akkadian cuneiform. The solar and lunar eclipses were not all they recorded – the movements of the planets they could observe, in particular the “sacred stars” Mercury and Venus – tablets recording observations from 1700 BC for the 19 years to 1681 BC. They also recorded (some 650 years later!!) the full solar eclipse of 31st July 1063 BC “it turned day into night”; the Assyrian astronomers continued with this tradition, particularly the full eclipse of 15th June 763 BC in Nineveh (“There was insurrection in the city of Aššur: in the month Sivan, the Sun was in an eclipse”). These observations over such an enormous time period allowed for Babylonian astronomers to work out the Saros Cycle (a period of 18 years 11.33 days) after which the solar and lunar eclipse cycles repeat. This meant the, despite their not being able to observe the eclipses necessarily (they occur at repeated times, but on varying observable areas on the Earth’s surface), these astronomers were able accurately to predict the dates and times on which eclipses would occur.

Dracula: Whose testimony is missing and why? Sec. Eng. Lit.

“We were struck with the fact that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document; nothing but a mass of typewriting, except the later notebooks of Mina and Seward and myself, and Van Helsing’s memorandum. We could hardly ask anyone, even did we wish to, to accept these as proofs of so wild a story.” (Dracula: 444–5)

“Dracula is more than a Gothic villain, however, more than the mercenary and mundane bandit that they too often turn out to be. As the sublime synthesis of the human and supernatural terrors of Gothic writing, he is both villain and ghostly diabolical agent whose magic and power cannot be reduced to mere tricks or effects of overindulgent, superstitious imagination: more than rational, he serves to elicit rather than dispel superstitious beliefs, demanding, not a return to reason and morality, but a reawakening of spiritual energies and sacred awe.” (Fred Botting: Gothic (The New Critical Idiom) Routledge, 1999 95)

LITERARY analysis has given varying interpretations of the vampire Count over the time since the novel’s appearance in 1897: symbol of evil, incarnation of nightmares, and most especially representation of sexual degeneracy among others. However, as Hughes has pointed out:

Modern criticism’s preoccupation with sexuality dominates – and indeed inhibits the development of – the debate on vampirism…This recourse to sexuality, however, arguably represents – for both fictional character and commentating critic – the edge of an epistemological problem. Quite simply, the vampire may not be as sexual as the preoccupations of the perceiving discourses suggest it ought to be. (Fictional Vampires in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in in A New Companion to the Gothic,199)

How, then can we avoid such a preoccupation when it seems to be in almost every literary essay or book dealing with vampires and most especially Dracula?

Twitchell (1996) gives us, as readers, a different aspect to examine:

“Ironically, Dracula, the greatest vampire novel, is the work of literature that takes the vampire out of fiction and returns him to folklore”  (132)

The tale is recounted in a variety of extracts – letters, transcriptions of phonographic records, diary entries, newspaper article references. They are produced at the hands of Jonathan Harker, Mina Harker, John Seward and Abraham Van Helsing – they contain remembered conversations, descriptions of areas, buildings and events, all recalled later, as Harker points out in the first quote. We are guided by their words and the story which is built around them as the main raconteurs of the events – yet the one character whose written point of view that is missing is that of Dracula himself. His words and actions are only passed to us through these recollections of all that happened – his written contributions consists of a few notes and letters addressed to Harker as the latter travels to Castle Dracula at the outset of the novel. Why, of all the characters in the book, is the cultured, well read eponymous anti-hero the only one of the major protagonists whose thoughts and outlook are NOT presented to the reader? Simply to state that it is because he is the ‘baddy’ and the rest are ‘goodies’ or that, as Churchill pointed out, history (even invented literary history) is written by the victors, is a much too simplistic an answer. How far is the tale one of folkloric legends and superstitions, and how far does it run deeper than this? Can we, by examining a literary “what if”, look at the possible deeper meaning of the novel? The “what if” – “what if Dracula had put forward his point of view and interpretation of the events?”

Two caveats – first – I am not looking to become a Dracula apologist, turning him into a hero in the mould of the “Daywalker” of the Blade films, the warrior of Underworld or most particularly, the brooding, spoilt teenage used for a vampire in Twilight. Dracula is and must remain Dracula and the deeds he carries out unquestioned – the motives may be the telling part. Second,

Any reading raises suspicions “that we pretended was the author’s meaning was in fact only our own”  (106-7). This is the delusional possibility that lurks within every act of criticism: analysts/interpreters may “see things” in texts that are the product of their own desires, fantasies and delusions. (Scott Brewster, “Seeing Things: Gothic and the Madness of Interpretation” in A New Companion to the Gothic 485)

Simply to over interpret any literary text leads very possibly to the imposition of our own ideas rather than understanding the work in the way the author intended (though it could equally be argued that such an understanding via our own experiences is that which must be, as we can understand it in no other way!)

Perhaps the first question to ask would be why Dracula, wielder of power, a feudal lord who had complete dominion over those in his lands, would choose to leave this and head to London where he will be unknown? As the centre of the Empire and the largest conurbation in the world at the time, London was a cosmopolitan centre, a centre of economic, scientific and military power. It was, however, a city divided. The huge wealth of the West End was in striking contrast when juxtaposed with the abject poverty and horror of life in the East End. Dracula, published in 1897, was only nine years after the terror of the Whitechapel killings by the apparently self-named Jack the Ripper. This would surely be the obvious place for Dracula’s new regime. Here, he might be anonymous among the teeming, multi-national throngs of the London populace, but also where he could use that anonymity to his own perfidious ends. In a city where violence is nothing unusual, where a multiple killer has escaped the noose for his crimes a mere decade prior to the Count’s arrival, this would surely be the evident locus to begin whatever plan he wishes to carry through. In transferring his physical situation to the West (London) from the East (Transylvania), is he a latter day symbol of the barbarism and superstition which had been made incarnate in the Huns and their leader Attila in the latter days of the Western Roman Empire? Is he the one who will succeed where Attila failed? Dracula links himself in his ancestry to the nomadic, warrior tribes who swept in from the North and the East, linking his familial origins to such by ties of honour and blood, and above all, violence. Indeed, Wasson (“The Politics of Dracula”, 1966, 24-7) went so far as to posit that Stoker, recognising the rise of the ideals of fascism in Central and Eastern Europe, made these incarnate in Dracula’s person, battling the Western values which are represented in the community of allies who face up to him (eg Law in Harker, Science in Seward, Christianity in Van Helsing et al), though this, I feel, is perhaps taking the interpretation one step too far, for the reasons cited in Brewster above.

In this move to London, however, there is no rejection of the standard Gothic setting. Though he has migrated to the metropolis of modernity and scientific advancement, Dracula’s home is still to be the old, decaying house, Carfax, where he can still be wrapped in the trappings of all that he would find familiar. In this, Dracula is painted to be:

…the sublime synthesis of the human and supernatural terrors of Gothic writing, he is both villain and ghostly diabolical agent whose magic and power cannot be reduced to mere tricks or effects of overindulgent, superstitious imagination: more than rational, he serves to elicit rather than dispel superstitious beliefs, demanding, not a return to reason and morality, but a reawakening of spiritual energies and sacred awe. (Fred Botting, “Gothic (The New Critical Idiom)” 103

In such a representation, can we begin to view anything from Dracula’s point of view? Indeed, is he merely a symbol of evil, superstition and primitivism, something which has no real character to analyse? Is this the reason that, after his continual presence in the first half of the novel, he more or less disappears as a physical character in the most part of the latter half, only becoming a physical presence again in the denouement where he his presence is requisite only to be extinguished at the hands of the modernists represented in the other protagonists? Early in the novel, Dracula explains why he wishes to remove himself to London – he wishes to be:

…a stranger in a strange land…men know him not – and to know not is to care not for. I am content if I am like the rest, so that no man stops if he sees me, or pause in his speaking if he hears my words, to say ‘Ha, ha! a stranger!’ I have been so long a master that I would be master still – or at least that none other should be master of me.’ (20)

In this, is Dracula, as the personification of the ‘synthesis of the human and supernatural terrors’, stating that he is the power which will, while remaining hidden from view, fight and vanquish the modern which is represented in the Western protagonists? He will not be a stranger, but as the atavistic vampire, he will use the powers at his disposal to remain as much master in London as he is in Transylvania? He is the epitome of Freud’s Unheimliche – Uncanny – he is the terror, the power of the unknown, but equally as part of the familiar by fitting into the social structure of Victorian London without being the stranger, no longer the ‘other’.

Why did we not get part at least of Dracula’s testimony? Partially, the social mores of the later Victorian England. Dracula is not just a representation of pure evil. He is also licentiousness, unfettered sexual depravity and perhaps most shockingly for the time, the corrupter of the innocent represented in Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray (ie prior to her marriage when her sexual innocence would be at an end through the consummation of the marriage). As Hughes states:

Sexuality functions as the key to the uncanny, the “real” meaning behind the unease associated with the supernatural. (Hughes in A New Companion to the Gothic, 212)

His successful despoiling of Lucy and turning her to a vampire is one of the most shocking episodes, and something which per se would deny the possibility of there being any testimony from the direct words of the Count. What there is of his attitude is only that which can be reported by the others in the novel, that which must be not an apology for the vampire (how can one be an apologist for pure evil?), but the parts which show him simply for what he is – this also demonstrated in the (even more shocking for the contemporary audience) overt sexual predatoriness demonstrated first by the vampiresses in Dracula’s castle and then in the reanimated, undead Lucy. Unlike Anne Rices’ LeStat, who does put forward a vampire’s point of view, Dracula cannot. The evolution of the mores from Late Victorian to modern times allow for a sympathetic view, somewhat ignoring the truth of the vampire (as in the Twilight series of books where the brooding teen vampire is rendered the hero) or in allowing the succumbing to the need for something as “beautiful and as devastating as my kill” (Vampire Chronicles, 1977, 36), both of which being attitudes which would be unconscionable to a Victorian audience. The lust and misuse of innocence, the abandoning of the food, the “banquet” which means no more to him than a plate of soup would to a human, the idea that a pure maiden might be simply a meal which remains as much in the vampire’s memory as a side of beef would to a human, despite the use of the most primitive of sexual instincts to win access to that food, is the horror. In this, we are, as Freud’s Uncanny demand, made to face something of ourselves in the vampire, though it is carried to the absolute extreme, the hyperbole of overt carnality and degeneracy and the consumption of the life force in the drinking of the blood, and therefore enough beyond what we are to allow us to distance ourselves from its being a true representation of ourselves. A vampire could only become acceptable, and therefore have the right to be represented in his own testimony, if he were to recant these practices, and he would ergo no longer be a valid participant as he would no longer be a vampire. As Dracula is THE archetypal vampire, the greatest of them all, the controller of the supernatural powers and nature as demonstrated in his control over the “children of the night”, that is something he could by definition NOT leave as it is his very being, his purest essence. To allow Dracula to speak in his own words would be to deny his reality, deny that which he is and must ever be. For Dracula to be Dracula, he must remain silent other than in the words of others in later documents written by his destroyers.

Gothic Literature – A Reflection of Social Change – 1 Religion Part 2 Vampyres, Vampires, Vampiri – Polidori’s Vampyre

ASK anyone to name a Gothic monster, the chances are that the first mentioned will be the Vampire. Will everyone have the same image? Certainly not! Research the listed standard images, all from tales of the vampiric – which would be the archetype you would choose? 

Vanrney the Vampire             Carmilla                                        Nosferatu

Bela Lugosi  Dracula               Christopher Lee Dracula         Louis Jourdan Dracula

Leslie Nielsen Dracula           Gary Oldman Dracula               Kate Beckinsale Underworld

Robert Pattinson (Twilight)

Each of these depictions covers the representation of a vampire at various times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The main vampire among the pictures is, inevitably, Count Dracula, though never truly twice the same! In these, however, can we see any noticeable changes in attitude, and are these reflected in the social constructs of the era they were produced?

The concept of vampirism is, as far as we can tell, as old as civilisation – there were fiends which fed from human blood in the tales of Mesopotamia, China, Greece, Rome… While not necessarily the vampire which we would automatically recognise today, they were, nevertheless creatures of nightmare which consumed the life force of their victims through draining them of blood.

The idea of the modern (perhaps better termed European) vampire, was mainly prevalent in the areas we now know as Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and into Eastern German and Hungary – what is generalised as Central Europe, though also in Greece, the Balkans and Turkey as well. It is, however, through Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula that the standard association of the area of Transylvania with the homeland of vampires was born.

“For, let me tell you, he (the vampire) is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India even in the Chersones; and in China…the wake of the Berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar.” (Dracula 239)

Interestingly, the great imperial power, Britain, is apparently free of resident vampires…

How might we interpret this as a reflection of the ideas of the time?

What was Britain’s role on the wider world stage?

Why does this make Dracula’s determination to move to England, and more specifically London, all the more significant?

Why was this the chosen area? Primarily, the link is to the fifteenth century Voivode of Wallachia, Vlad Ţepeș or Vlad Dracul (also known, for fairly self evident reasons, as Vlad the Impaler). Unlike Stoker’s creation, however, this Dracula was an historical figure, and one who is still regarded as both hero and freedom fighter, defender of Christendom from the Ottoman Empire when it was under threat. The only portrait of Vlad III dates from the very early sixteenth century and hangs in Schloß Ambras in Innsbruck, Austria:


The portrait here, when compared with the Count of the novel, is  most certainly not the vampire lord, bearing no real resemblance to Stoker’s creation, though van Helsing does intimate a link:

“I have asked my friend Armenius, of Buda-Pesth University, to make is record…The Draculas were, says Armenius, a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by the coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One.” (240)

Why, then, would Transylvania be chosen as the key area in the first part of the tome? An explanation is offered at the start of the novel:

“I had visited the British Museum, and made search among the books and maps of the library regarding Transylvania; it had struck me that some foreknowledge of the country could hardly fail to have some importance in dealing with a noble of that country. I find that the district he named is in the extreme east of the country, just on the borders of three states, Transylvania, Moldavia and Bukovina, in the midst of the Carpathian mountains; one of the wilds and least known portions of Europe.” (Dracula, 1)

It is the strangeness, the otherness, the idea that it verges on the edge of civilisation, still feudal in nature and riddled with superstition that makes it so attractive as its setting.

This is something which we find in many of the nineteenth century vampire tales. The standardly accepted first, Polidori’s The Vampyre, while starting in England, has Ruthven and Aubrey travel to the continent, first to Italy and then on to Greece, travelling eastward, and therefore, by definition, away from the rational West and to the superstitious Orthodox East, via Catholic Italy. Is this unusual for the time? Hardly! This is the standard route for the Grand Tour which involved taking in the homes of Classical civilisation, the civilisations upon which the rationality of Western Europe was grounded. Indeed, it is highly likely that Aubrey and Ruthven’s trip is based on that of Lord Byron’s creation (Byron was Polidori’s patient, and cited as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know) of a young narrator and Augustus Darvell, someone of whom the narrator was in awe, though in The Vampyre, Ruthven is most certainly Byron! Aubrey parts company with Ruthven in Rome after finding out the latter had seduced the daughter of a mutual acquaintance, heading out to Greece where he falls in love with the innocent figure of the peasant girl Ianthe who is continually distracting Aubrey from his drawings of the classical ruins with legends of vampires. The key hint of the inevitable conclusion to the sojourn in Greece:

“She detailed to him the traditional appearance of these monsters, and its horror was increased, by hearing a pretty accurate description of Lord Ruthven; he, however, still persisted in persuading her, that there could be no truth in her fears, though at the same time he wondered at the many coincidences which had all tended to excite a belief in the supernatural power of Lord Ruthven.”

In this association, we see the standard Gothic trope of das Unheimliche of Freud (1919) – the frightening supernatural brings us back to that with which we are familiar – in recognising Ruthven in the descriptions of the ‘vampyre’, Aubrey has an insight of highest importance, though he does not act to save Ianthe, and is unable to save either his sister or himself after the return to London due to an oath of silences he swears to the dying Ruthven after they are ambushed by bandits. The resurrected (or rather reanimated) vampire, Ruthven, is able, due to Aubrey’s holding to his oath until it is too late, to become the dominant power of the tale as the oath is extracted BEFORE the ‘death’.

The role of religion in The Vampyre is minimal, though, according to O’Malley (2006):

“…this fascination with Ruthven mirrors the Gothic fascination with Catholicism as unredeemable alien, deadly and yet irresistibly seductive.” (147)

While this is debatable (the fascination could equally be with Byron and his reputation after Lady Caroline Lamb’s 1816 novel, Glenarvon, and the image of him left in the public mind), there could easily be an element of truth to the mirroring of the emotions evinced by the portrayal of the Church of Rome in the Gothic in general. Equally one can see that the Catholic would be relatively difficult to introduce as the protagonists, in Aubrey and Ruthven, are both English, and therefore, despite much of the supernatural taking place in Catholic/Orthodox countries, not part of the “Papal Aggression” which caused such fear among the evangelical clergy and the conservatively Protestant populace of the British mainland. Unlike later vampires, though, Ruthven does not, by his bite, infect those upon whom he feeds, turning them into the Undead as later vampire fiction will intimate.  The vampire here is part of the establishment as well, not simply part of the populace. It could perhaps be argued that he mirrors the growing influence and fear from the Oxford Movement which was to reach its heights two decades later, where the Catholic ritualism was adopted by a sector of the established church and was to develop into the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, where the infiltrator was not a foreigner, was not a stranger, but was a corrupted limb of the established social hierarchy, a canker which might fester, grow and infect the entire body of the church and state, sucking the pure Protestant faith dry: as Henry Morley (cited in O’Malley) stated in 1852:

“To ‘an honest ghost’ one has no objection; but an animated corpse which goes about in Christian attire, and although never known to eat, or drink, or shake hands, is allowed to sit at good men’s feasts; which renews its odious life every hundred years by sucking a young lady’s blood, after fascinating her by motions which resemble mesmerism burlesqued…passes all bounds of toleration.” (149)

(This is evidently based upon the early description of Ruthven:

“…it was caused by their fearing the observation of one, who by his colourless cheek, which never gained a warmer tint from the blush of conscious shame or from any powerful emotion, appeared to be above human feelings and sympathies, the fashionable names for frailties and sins. His peculiarities caused him to be invited to every house.” (33))

The infiltration here can easily be twisted to associate with the perceived heartlessness, superstition and corruption of the Catholic Church in the eyes of the more rabid Protestant critics, (eg the “motions which resemble mesmerism burlesqued” might be exaggerated to refer to the liturgical movements and genuflections et al of the Mass, the “animated corpse…in Christian attire” a reference to the again deemed spiritually dead Catholicism which exists though only covered in the thinnest veneer of Christianity – such heavily biased and anti Catholic ideas were commonplace at the time, as we have seen), it could be equally argued that this is most certainly a step too far, and that the corruption incarnate in Ruthven is in fact a moral corruption rather than any religious connotation whatsoever, particularly when the association of the the two nobles, Ruthven and Byron.