Towards Building a Functioning State – Pre-modern Japan Some thoughts for Sixth Form

THE construction of a functioning state is evidently a gradual process, and must inevitably be influenced by or exert influence on other nations and peoples around. It would be impossible to develop a full blown state which existed and developed completely separated from external influences – small, tribal societies would perhaps have managed this in the very earliest times, though it is hard to imagine how a fully self contained society would have been possible as this would exclude practicalities such as trade, and indeed the biological necessity of ‘fresh blood’ being introduced to the localised gene pool. As soon as two of these smaller tribal societies have contact, swap genetic material in the form of marriage contracts or merge, the influences of belief, culture and ideas expand the original two isolated societies. After multiple merges, the necessities of a state might be met, but no part of it remains a totally ‘uncorrupted’ form of the original society, however dominant one group may have become.

Where, then, can we try to look to find a relatively homogenous society which developed into a full blown State, adopting the parts of surrounding nations which they perceived as necessary, but adapting them to their own needs, even to the point where the originally adopted practice or structure has been adapted to an almost unrecognisable level? The easiest and most obvious is probably pre-modern Japan. The geographical positioning of the Japanese Islands in the earliest times, allowed for a certain level of contact with the Kingdoms of Korea and the mighty western Chinese Empire, but also permitted as much a level of isolationism from the outside world as the developing social leaders required in order to form an individual society, though influenced by, highly distinct from the other societies.

The key primary texts are the two Kojiki and Nihon-shoki which are the traditional chronicles of Japanese history. These documents describe the arrival and gradual conquering of the Eight Islands (Japan) by the so named First Emperor, Jimmu, either by guile and cunning or by the sword where necessary. This story, while it may be taken as relatively apocryphal on the surface, does allow for the certainty that the peoples of the Eight Islands were not, at this time, in any way a homogenous culture, but rather groups of smaller, tribal social structures, and that the first attempts at creating a centralised nation were carried out when the Yamato-uji (the Clan named for the Yamato plain) became the predominant group, absorbing or conquering the minor clans and groups. The Yamato Clan, according to the Chronicles were, as the descendents of the sun goddess Amaterasu, the hegemons, deserving of the right to control and dominate the rest where any form of assimilation was deemed impossible, based on divine right – what, in Chinese tradition, was termed the Mandate of Heaven. What can be stated with a relative amount of certainty, however, is that these peoples did constitute a network of tribes which were classed as organised and advanced enough to come to the attention of Chinese historians, who also stated that the dominant region was called Yamatai, though the Chinese did class these as one group whom they termed ‘WO’.

The earliest periods of the history of Japan, while immensely interesting and worthy of detailed study, only really take on a relevance to the question of a state formation with the Yayoi period, where the social structure and technological advancements had allowed for a not only sedentary, but fully developed agricultural society which had a hierarchical structure led by a shaman-chief.[1] Perhaps two of the key advances in this period were the early development of the rice paddy system of cultivation and villages which appear to have been totally centred on this, and the development of metallurgy in iron work. External contact with Han China and influences apparently coming from Korea to the west seem to have played a role in the distinctive Yayoi culture and archaeology would appear to demonstrate that these developments of bronze weapons and ritual bells arrived first in northern Kyushu and moved out from there.[2]

The Chinese history, the Wei Zhi, from 297 AD, states that the Yayoi period was dominated by the Hsieh-ma-t’ai (Yamatai) and consisted of:

‘…a total of one hundred and fifteen provinces, comprising five hundred and eighty seven counties…’

Of these, it is estimated that approximately 30 were in direct contact with the Chinese Imperial Court. The governing structure which the Wei Zhi states to have been instigated after the Yamatai had subdued the other counties and provinces is a very specific one – the grand shaman Himiko reigned supreme, though only her brother had access to her[3]; she is said to have been born in 183 and died at 65 in 248.

The archaeological evidence from many Yayoi sites does back up much of what is claimed of standard practice among the Wo[4], though it is questioned as to the distinction between the Wa[5] and the Yamato State: as Barnes points out, Himiko is referred to as ‘Queen of Wa’ by Han and Wei Chinese, whereas the records for Tang and Korean Silla use the term to refer to northern Kyushu and is contrasted with Yamato.[6] While the Chinese chronicles record intermittent tributes being sent by nascent guo from as early as 57, the Japanese chronicles do not acknowledge the fractured provinces and counties which constituted the settlements across the Japanese islands, even to the extent that they ignore Yamatai and Himiko; for them, the history of Japan was to be counted from the inception of the Yamato Court.

At some point c. 250, the Yamato Kingdom was instigated on the Nara Plain in Central Japan. The Yamato ôkimi (great kings) were interred in huge ‘keyhole’ shaped tombs called kofun[7]. The so called Kofun Period lasted until 710 and was principally defined by a philosophy of political rulership and principally, defined burial customs in the funerary practices of the elite:

‘In anthropological terms, mounded tomb burial signifies the stratification of early Japanese society into two classes: the rulers and the ruled.’[8]

The kofun tombs are today cared for and designated as imperial tombs, emphasising the continuity of the imperial line which is a key point in the archaeological treatment and understanding of them.[9] The requisites for the construction of these tombs on such a monumental scale would demand a highly skilled level of organisation which, in itself would lead to the supposition that a hierarchical system which was much more delineated than the ‘primus inter pares’ system which might easily have existed in the small rice producing settlements due to the necessity for organisation on a wider level:

‘…their (the leaders’) was gradually consolidated and led to the stratification of social relations in the form of intra- and inter-communal social stratification and the associated destruction of the corporate ties internally binding such communal units as lineages and clans. This multilayered process, Takakura contended, finally reached the point around the end of the Yayoi period/the beginning of the Kofun period when both the chieftainship of a regional polity of floodplain scale and the chieftainship presiding over a number of such floodplain-scale polities were established and the chieftainship also became monopolised by a particular lineage/household and inherited by its members.’[10]

In evidencing an integrated stratification on the social structure, we see the instigation of a state on a wider level than the smaller area dominated by shaman-chieftains in the Yayoi Period. It is this coalescing and acceptance of a common belief system in a political sense as well as shared ritual, and ergo cultural, norms which allow us to begin to examine the Yamato State in the origins of Japan as we understand it, rather than as a series of minor, disparate guo which the Chinese historians accepted. The Yamato period was also heavily influenced by the incoming cultural and trade exchanges with both China (eg bronze mirrors[11]) and with the Korean Peninsula.

Over the fourth and fifth centuries, the funerary goods developed to include a very heavy dominance of military goods – armour, swords and into the sixth century, horse trappings[12]. The Yamato centre also developed an increasingly close relationship with the Korean kingdom of Paekche. Yamato troops are known to have fought on the part of their Korean allies against the separate Korean kingdom of Koguryo[13], most likely as a way of safeguarding access to iron deposits, Japan being particularly lacking in natural resources.

Alongside the appearance of the kofun tombs, there were other changes noticeable – moats were no longer constructed around the settlements per se, though the elites seem to have removed themselves to moated residences which were physically separate from the settlement itself. These two changes seem to have occurred relatively contemporaneously, again giving the association between the new ‘mountain’ style places of interment and the distinctly separate social elites.[14]

It is, as Sasaki has pointed out, generally accepted that the Japanese State as a political entity dates from the Kofun era, although when exactly this change was consolidated and the state became a political entity is highly debated, depending principally on two specifics: how far was political power centralised and what was the true extent of Yamato hegemony over the other regions? Douglas Fuqua:

‘Yamato influence in the periphery was nominal, based for the most part upon Yamato control of diplomacy and trade with the continent in essential commodities such as iron.’[15]

One hint at the expansion of the influence, if not hegemony per se, is the expansion of iron armour which was most likely produced centrally and exported from there, though this does not answer the question of the centralisation of the state at an earlier period as posited by Kobayashi Yukio inter alia, or whether the polities were only loosely linked and had a greater level of autonomy until the VII C as posited by Sasaki inter alia.

While relations with the Chinese courts were in flux, those with the Korean kingdoms were very much a result of political-military alliances and shifting rivalries. An inherent weakness in the Imperial Court, however, allowed for a sixth century clash between the major uji (clans) of Soga and Nakatomi which stemmed from the introduction of Buddhism via a Paekche diplomatic mission which presented a statue of the Buddha and  sutra scrolls to the Imperial Court in 552. Kinmei, the emperor, put it to the Court as to what should be done with these – the Soga advised worshipping the idol and the sutras whereas the Nakatomi stated this would offend the traditional kami and ujigami (gods and clan protectors) and result in the loss of their support for the Emperor and hence the legitimacy of the continued Imperial Line. This culminated in a war from the early 580s and ended in a Soga victory in 587 when Buddhism was given official Imperial recognition. This adoption of a ‘foreign’ code was to have consequent effects in the willingness of the ruling class to look at outside ideas in the political and cultural spheres as part of the development of the Japanese State. The centralised state based on Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist ideologies which had been instigated in China under the Sui Emperors and consolidate under the T’ang dynasty was adopted by the Korean kingdoms alongside the Buddhist faith in order to ensure Imperial Chinese backing and support against any external threat from neighbouring (ie basically Yamato) kings. Prince Shôtuku adopted the State structure and more complex system of positions based on the Chinese Mandarin system of ability rather than birth and delineated by different coloured caps were all instituted in Japan in 603 and through his Seventeen Articles of 604 which were heavily influenced by both Confucian ideas and his own Buddhism, he convinced the Court of the usefulness of such external ideas and beliefs in structuring a broader State structure, introducing an idea of ‘The Mandate of Heaven’ (which all Chinese Emperors were deemed to have) and the advocating of:

‘…propriety, caution, impartiality, meritorious service, and other traits in keeping with the teachings of both Confucianism and Buddhism.’[16]

 Over the long term, the Yamato kings tended to be more on the side of Paekche and Koguryo, and had more of a rivalry with the ultimately more powerful kingdom of Silla, which, with the aid of T’ang Chinese troops, unified the whole peninsula in 668, five years after the crushing naval defeat that the Japanese forces suffered at the Kum or Paekch’on River mouth. The surviving Japanese and a good number of Korean troops and refugees reached Kyushu, after which the Yamato kings, particularly the Emperor Tenji (668-671) spent their time setting up defences against a (never materialised) invasion by combined Silla and T’ang fleets and armies. This was a key event in the centralisation of the power structure in order to coordinate the defences as well as in the isolationism of Japanese policy. Trade was still, however, required for the importation of iron and political embassies continued due to the need for success in order to legitimise authority on the Japanese mainland. The centralisation process of Imperial power was strengthened after the defeat of Tenji’s son by his uncle, the Emperor Tenmu[17] (673-686) and his consort and successor, Empress Jitô (690-697). These latter two were also, for the first time, referred to in the term ‘Living Gods’ and were associated as direct descendants of the Sun goddess, Amaterasu, giving them not only divine right through birth, but also centralising the political and the religious aspects of power in the one individual. The acceptance of these as roles of the Imperial Line rendered the ruling Emperor inviolable (and indeed, this idea continued right through until Emperor Hirohito officially renounced his divinity after WWII) and a perpetual guarantee of the Mandate of Heaven, something which could not be removed, unlike in the Chinese system where an Imperial Dynasty would fall when the Mandate of Heaven was withdrawn by the gods. This was reasserted in the Kojiki and the Nihon-shoki of the eighth century, giving the title Tennô not only to the reigning Emperor or Empress, but being applied to all previous imperial rulers, emphasising the continuity of the Imperial line from Amaterasu.

Relations with China drifted until 702, when diplomatic envoys (kentôshi) were dispatched to the T’ang Court. These links were strengthened throughout the subsequent two centuries in a sphere of influence dominated by the T’ang emperors, and including not only Japan, but Silla and the Mancurian kingdom of Parhae after 698 when it came into being. While the grasp of the central power did diminish over the two hundred or so years, ‘high culture’ in the form of Buddhism, Chinese writing system (kanji).

I shall continue in a later post.


Adolphson, M (2000)      The Gates of Power, Uni of Hawaii Press

Adolphson et al                (2007)   Heian Japan, Uni of Hawaii Press

Barnes, G (2007)               State Formation in Japan: Emergence of a Fourth Century Ruling Elite, Routledge

Bender, R                            The Edicts of the Last Empress of Nara Japan, 749-770, (

Bender, R (2018)              The Imperial Edicts in the Shoku Nihongi, CreateSpace

Cambridge History of Japan, vols 1 – 4

Ferejohn & Rosenbluth War and State Building in Medieval Japan, Stanford Uni Press


Friday, KF (2004)               Samurai, Warfare and the State in Early Medieval Japan, Routledge

Friday, KF (ed) (2012)     Japan Emerging: Premodern History to 1850, Westview Press

Friday, KF (ed) (2017)     Handbook of Premodern Japanese History, Routledge

Hennessey, JL (2015)      Discourses of the Heian Era and National Identity Formation in Contemporary Japan, Centre for East and SE Asian Studies, Uni of Lund

Koji Mizoguchi (2006)     Archaeology, Society and Identity in Japan, CUP

Totman, C, (2003)            A History of Japan, Blackwell

[1] Important developments in what we might term civilisation had been developed in the previous Jomon period (c 5,000-3,500 BC), such as highly intricate pottery and ritual sites and practices, as well as a huge increase in the populace, advanced pit style houses inter alia.

[2] Cambs History of Japan, vol I, 81.

[3] It further states that she was served by 1,000 female and 1 male attendants, and though guarded by 100 men, she was only accessible to her brother.

[4] Eg, the claim they ate with their fingers rather than the Chinese chopsticks – a complete absence of said implements in any finds support this; also, there are myriad burnt bones in pits which support claims of scapulimancy.

[5] The Chinese term Wo becomes Wa in Japanese.

[6] Barnes, 2007, 86

[7] The whole period is often referred to as kofun, after these keyhole shaped tombs.

[8] Barnes, G in Friday (ed) Japan Emerging, Westview Press, 2012, 77

[9] Koji Mizoguchi, Archaeology, Society and Identity in Japan, CUP, 2006, 103

[10] Koji, ibid, 106 on Takakura

[11] It has been posited that the bronze mirrors sent from the Han Court were distributed to loyal chieftains by the Yamato rulers as symbols of trust and authority.

[12] Barnes, G ibid, 84

[13] Koguryo Stela, erected 414

[14] Sasaki, K in Friday, K (ed) Routledge Handbook of Premodern Japanese History, 2017, 68

[15] Fuqua, D in Friday, K (ed) Japan Emerging, 99

[16] Ibid, 103

[17] Tenmu means ‘Heavenly Warrior’, implying not only his military prowess, but his having won the Mandate of Heaven through battle and therefore his justification in defeating his nephew who, evidently, did NOT hold the Mandate of Heaven.


Culture and History – KS4 Introduction

AN INTEGRAL part of studies of History as an academic subject entails a close examination of the cultures and cultural mores of the civilisations and periods in which the historical events we study occurred. Today, we tend to look on culture as opera, ballet, musical forms, literature and the like – we use it as a generic term for classifying various social activities which are practised or seen as being appreciated by certain groups in any given society. Cultural aspects of history do go much deeper than this surface definition and an understanding of these is required in order to try to make sense of the historical events in their context on what can be termed the historical continuum – in simplistic terms, the ‘comic strip’ of events, interactions etc which constitute the narrative of History; like a comic strip, the historical continuum can be viewed as a sequence of cartoon boxes, independent of each other in the lines separating the boxes, but each box containing a part of the story which is intrinsically linked to the boxes which have preceded it and both linked to and influencing the subsequent boxes in the story – a story which constitutes the narrative of our world – the discipline we term History. Unlike most comic strips, however, the contents of each of the boxes in historical terms can both be broken down into ever smaller ‘comic strips’, concentrating on ever tighter points in the narrative, covering an ever more restricted period of time in said narrative, but also, unlike a comic strip, it can be viewed through a variety of different lenses, interpreted, employed and understood in a variety of (often conflicting) ways – these constitute the various ‘Schools’ of not only historical, but anthropological, sociological, philosophical, psychological and cultural interpretations and understandings of the events which constitute this historical narrative.

In the same way as a society, a culture is not something which exists on a vague, metaphysical plain, but is an accepted group composed of individuals who accept and practise the same beliefs and mores. This can be on a complete state level or on a restricted group within a social structure: it is all too easy to underestimate the power over an individual or individuals whom any given society chooses to place outside of the prevailing culture at any given time – a classic example here is the exclusion of Jews, Socialists, homosexuals and modern artists under the Nazi regime post the Machtergreifung of January 1933, the consequences of which are well known and some of the most horrendous in the history of humanity. This is the most extreme example of recent history, but there are myriad other examples which are evident in every historical period one might examine.

It has often been presumed, and in many ways rightly so, that the earliest groups of homo sapiens would not have constituted a culture per se[1] and that what we would recognise as a cultural aspect to civilisation, and therefore history, was a consequence of the after effects of a sedentary society post the development of agriculture and domestication of livestock, though this could be disputed if one were to place the cave paintings of such sites as Lascaux in France and Cáceres in Spain[2], though the various possibilities of the purpose of these images are debated. Is an image created without known purpose a cultural communication? Whether the purpose was religious in its widest sense (see previous blogs on Early Religious Belief and Practice), whether a communication with the unseen, whether simply to preserve what they saw or perhaps even an act of what we today would term vandalism, they are, nonetheless, a part of the cultural and sociological history of our species. Their importance can be seen in the sense that even images as old as these show us some key aspects of the group or culture which produced them – they show what the group held to be important – these images give us a major insight into how the producers viewed and interpreted the world around them. These images gradually evolved and changed as the societies evolved – the cultural remnants change to reflect the societies which produced them and as the societies changed, the cultural aspects of the artefacts we have left can be seen to reflect not only these changes, but changes in belief and in perception of the world as each society understood it.

Marxist historians have had a tendency to associate the concept of cultural history with the development of a class structure (as pointed out at the start of this entry, our tendency to regard it as ballet, opera etc). However, this must be challenged with the emergence of narrower cultural historic studies – Women’s History, ‘Queer’ History inter alia – which reflect sub cultures which are not dependent solely upon economic factors and perceived economic inequalities (though these play a certain role), but in less subtle themes such as alienation and oppression as well as the changes which are reflected in the accepted emergence of these sub cultures[3], challenging the long standing overarching cultural norm of heterosexual patriarchy or male dominance in cultural, political, economic and social history, gradually rendering chauvinism a sub culture and equality for women and LGBT evolving from an oppressed sub culture to a cultural norm.

A clearer example, perhaps easier to grasp, is the Sixties’ Revolution. In the post war period, the gradual improvement in economic prosperity, the collapse of Empire with the independence of the Indian Sub Continent, the end of rationing in 1954, the improvements in educational provision and the arrival of the NHS and the Welfare State all led to huge changes for all groups in society – not always for the better, however[4]. The end of WWII saw a diminishing in the authority of the upper classes (in perception at least) and the freedom from drudgery for many women allowed for radical changes in perception – the arrival of the contraceptive pill on the NHS in 1961 and eventually the Abortion Act of 1967 allowed for a ‘less inhibited’ sexual freedom for many – not only the young as is often perceived. All of these were key social changes, but they can be seen to be reflected in the cultural changes as well – the arrival of Rock and Roll in the 1950s (though it could be argued that the wartime Big Bands of such as Glen Miller allowed for a breakdown of much of the pre war prudery and restrictions on at least public behaviour), a gradual abandonment, if not outright rejection of the Protestant Christianity which had dominated UK life since the Reformation and the perceived ‘upper class’ nature of the Church of England especially[5] replaced by an interest in the spiritual practices of the Sub Continent, and particularly forms of Hinduism, again, expanded culturally through the Beatles’ interest in this and their adherence (short term for all apart from George Harrison, who continued to practise Hinduism until his death) to the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

In 1964, the pirate radio station, Radio Caroline, was set up, broadcasting from on board the eponymous ship which was anchored in international waters, thereby circumventing the broadcasting laws of the United Kingdom, but perhaps more significantly in the cultural historic sense, it broke the moratorium held on broadcasting by the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) which many at the time held to be little more than an instrument of the State, dictating which programmes and genres of music were to be determined ‘popular’.[6]

The changes in the social structure can be seen to be reflected in these movements and ‘rebellions’ demonstrated by the cultural practices of the younger generation. This was, however, most certainly not something which was new in the 1960’s –

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers.”

This quote was attributed to Socrates by Plato in the fifth century BC…

This is no more than a basic introduction – the importance of examining the cultural changes over time and their reflecting the social changes which were taking place around these developments are an intrinsic part of the historical continuum, and are ignored at the historian’s peril.

[1] Hunter gatherer is the term under which these earliest groups tend to be classified, though this is based upon a practical reality of food acquisition as opposed to any specific cultural aspects or understanding.

[2] These latter, dated to c. 64,000 BC (uranium/thorium dating), were created, it is believed, by Neanderthal artists; ergo it can be debated as to whether these fall under homo-sapiens history. They are, however, human history.

[3] Remember, for example, that a homosexual man could be imprisoned simply for being homosexual as late as 1967 under English Law.

[4] Life for the Windrush Generation, brought in from the West Indies from 1948, was often horrendous in a society where racist abuse and prejudice were not just accepted but were the expected norm.

[5] For many Roman Catholics, the division came with the Second Vatican Council which lasted from 1962-65 and massively changed the monolithic structure of the Church of Rome, perhaps best demonstrated in the abandonment of the Latin Tridentine Mass for a modern version in the vernacular – another cultural change.

[6] It is interesting to note that, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, the BBC is again criticised by many as being nothing more than the ‘mouthpiece of the Government’ and rejecting the ‘impartiality clause’ in its news broadcasts.

How do we judge a character in History? GCSE

HISTORY, it might be said, is the characters who play the roles – their interactions, their actions, their inactions, the influences on them which lead them to act in a certain manner. If this be true, then we are obliged to make value judgements, both of the actions and the character of these individuals. Upon what criteria, however, can we make these judgements? Morality is not a static – it changes, evolves and develops over time, though whether that be for the better or the worse is again, in itself, a value judgement! An easily accessible example here is how attitudes to homosexuality have changed over the last half century in the UK – until 1967, a man might be imprisoned for being homosexual yet on 29th March 2014, marriage between homosexual couples was recognised in English law as the same as heterosexual marriage. This does not mean that homosexuality is not the subject of bigotry, but changes in the moral judgement and acceptance have evolved and changed.

Judging actions can seem extremely easy – killing an individual is for most people today wrong unless soldiers killing soldiers on the battlefield (though many would certainly dispute this as acceptable), or for certain countries the execution of certain criminals for defined crimes, whereas many countries abhor the idea of capital punishment as legalised murder and have removed it from their statute books. Yet where do we draw a line? Is a war which is defensive the only justifiable reason to enter a conflict – where your country is invaded, or where an ally is invaded and is losing (eg British Empire and France going to war with Germany in defense of Belgium in 1914 or of Poland in 1939)? Might one country justifiably invade another country to overthrow what is perceived as a corrupt or a repressive regime? (A relatively recent example of this is Operation Desert Storm to topple Saddam Hussein on the 2nd August 1990). Again, where do we judge one conflict ‘right’ and another ‘wrong’? These are questions we find hard enough to answer in our own recent past – how much more when we look back in History? How do we judge the morality of an action? In our terms or in their terms? Indeed, CAN we judge actions in their terms?

Actions are, as can be seen, hard to judge without laying a very slanted view on them, a view which is inevitably heavily influenced by our own moral stance. How much more complex are the characters of individual protagonists in these actions when we judge them? How do we weigh up the evidence we have regarding these characters, and how do we evaluate what role their personalities play in the actions in which they are involved? After all, which of us has not done or said something when tired, distracted or angry which we do not regret later? Should our character to the future be judged on these actions? If not, are we whitewashing History by trying to eradicate our actions and the consequences? Are these (regretted and hopefully atoned for actions) not still an integral part of our own personal role in History, however insignificant a role we might perceive that to be? If we accept the former, and that these actions ought to be ignored (ie eradicated in historical terms), then why would that not be acceptable for all individuals in History? This proposition is evidently inane – none but the deluded would hopefully justify the eradication of the deeds of individuals involved in the Holocaust now! What, however, do we use as criteria in, say, the destruction of Carthage by the Romans in 146 BC? Can we judge this on our own terms? How do we then judge Scipio Africanus as the individual who led the destruction of Carthage? What about Cato the Elder who consistently stated “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed) as the culmination of his speeches? Was he an evil warmonger? Was he someone we can morally condemn as calling for the massacre of a people and the destruction of a civilisation a millennium older than that of Rome (Carthage was, remember, a daughter city of the Phoenician city of Tyre)? Or can we stand back and look on as a struggle to the death between the two powers and see that, in calling for the destruction of Carthage, Cato was indirectly calling for the survival of his own civilisation as only one could survive? Does that justify the words and the consequent action? Which of us would not be willing both to say and do the same were our own survival to rest on this?

Equally, how do we judge the militarism of the Roman Republic? Can we say we are being Historians if we condemn it as we find it wrong in our terms, or we find it a laudable attitude if we believe in the maxim “might is right”? How can we look at this ideological point of view in Roman terms? In his Philippics 7.3, Cicero states:

“Why then do I oppose peace? Because it is corrupt, because it is dangerous, and because it is not possible.”[1]

Did Cato’s words, then, simply reflect the standard Roman viewpoint as expressed by Cicero?

Rather than going too deep into the mists of Ancient History here, let’s look at other contentious figures in more recent history – Vlad Dracul in Wallachia, viewed as either the cruellest butcher (not nicknamed the Impaler for nothing) or as the saviour both of Romania and Christian Europe according to Romanian thought; as I have mentioned in an earlier post, Oliver Cromwell (English Republicans look on him as a great hero, for the Irish he remains a monster after the massacre at Drogheda), Richard III over whom the debate still rages as to whether he was a child murdering monster or a massively maligned man who would have been one of the greatest Mediaeval monarchs had he not been betrayed on Bosworth Field.

However, one character often ignored, but just as contentious and perhaps more interesting to look at is King Henry VI, third of the Lancastrian kings, the youngest child to accede to the throne of England, and the only English monarch to be crowned (if generally not accepted) King of France. He has been viewed as everything from a Saint whose intercessions bring healing to the afflicted to a bumbling fool who destroyed all his ancestors had achieved – as a man of weak mental health seen in his collapse and inability to rule to a gentle soul and victim of a malignant, self aggrandising nobility. Was he a victim? Was he an incompetent? Was he a man mentally ill in an age which had no understanding of this? Was he the cause of the Wars of the Roses? How can we make a balanced judgement? I shall look at Henry VI in more detail in the next post.

[1] Cur igitur pacem nolo? Quia turpis est, quia periculosa, quia esse non potest.

Interpretation, Decision, Truth – What is History? GCSE History Introduction

WHAT IS HISTORY? A facetious question? On the surface, perhaps, but beyond that, a deep question. Is it simply a dry school subject consisting of interminable lists of dates and long dead monarchs? Sadly, for many, this was their experience of History as a part of the school curriculum. But History is much more complex than this. Dates may be important; the monarchs and their reigns equally important, but only when put in their context on a historical continuum – a continuum which we can follow from today back through years, decades, centuries, millennia, even aeons if we choose to include palaeontology as an integral part of the history of the world (the history of the universe would require an inclusion of billions of years!) To go beyond the first archaeological evidence of human deeds is something which is, however, generally taken to be beyond the scope of historical investigation, and indeed, for most, History is taken to be that which falls in the period of time delineated by the advent of the earliest written records, and as such, that is what we shall use here.

Is History, as such, nothing more than a list of events and happenings? Of chance occurrences? Of sequences which follow on as consequences of the prior events? Which events are decided upon and accepted as important in History and which irrelevant? Ultimately, who gets to decide? A record of all events that have ever occurred in any part of the world and at any time would be not only an impossible, but a ridiculous concept – though a seemingly insignificant event in one context may have immense historical consequences – would it be important that Tut-Ankh-Amun sneezed after getting up on his eleventh birthday? Evidently not! However, the fact that the assassin of President Kennedy did NOT sneeze as s/he pulled the trigger on that fateful day in 1963 had an immense impact and a complex series of consequences. Does this, then, qualify as an important happening (or rather non happening) which requires recording in the course of History? Again, evidently not – all that is required is that an unknown person assassinated President Kennedy.

It is generally accepted that the first people to record History in some form of narrative which attempts to be neutral were the Greeks. Prior to this, major inscriptions on temples, pylons and stelae were rather of a propagandistic nature, simply recording the res gestae of kings and portraying them in a light which would glorify that king. A classic example of this is Ramses II’s account of the Battle of Qadesh which he portrays as an almost single handed victory over King Muwatalli’s Hittite forces, yet the evidence from both the Hittite side and likely reality interpreted from the subsequent peace treaty is that the battle ended more or less in a stalemate, and indeed, had the second Hittite army arrived, would have resulted in a likely defeat for the Egyptians. His victory he credited, as was the norm in the Ancient Near East, to the gods by whom he was favoured.

Herodotus is called the ‘Father of History’ – a term which is perhaps somewhat grandiose, but nevertheless does show that his historiai (enquiries) were carried out with at least the absence of relying on the intervention of the divine in the events he attempts to investigate. This does not, however, mean that he discounted the role of the gods in History:

‘He (Herodotus) makes it clear from the outset that his inquiry would show that all human achievement is transitory, and that human beings always would always get things wrong, while true and complete knowledge is reserved for the gods.’ [1]

Is this then to be dismissed as an ultimately facile reliance on the supernatural to explain away aspects of History which appear inexplicable? It would be easy to dismiss it as such, but if we attempt to look at this idea through contemporary eyes, it could be easily transposed to something we might accept – if historians are obliged to rely on interpretation, as we ultimately are, then will we ever be truly correct, or must we always accept that in some way, however trivial that may be on the surface, we are inevitably going to be wrong due to the constantly evolving nature of society, a result of the expected progress which we inevitably expect society to make? If we accept this, then who would see the whole picture of History? Only those who stand outside of time – the Immortals, for Herodotus, the Olympians. Whether we believe in an omniscient, divine God or dismiss such, the reality remains the same – ‘complete knowledge’ of History must remain beyond the ken of humanity. Can we get any further than simply trying to understand a truth in the complex scope which we call History?

For these first Hellenic Historians, this ‘truth’ was termed aletheia – that which is unforgotten. For something to be accepted as historical truth, it must be remembered – and therefore classed as worthy of remembrance. The point of writing their Histories was to commemorate and therefore historicize those deeds which should be unforgotten and the protagonists who carried out said deeds.

For the modern historian, however, there must be a caveat in this definition – for the ancients, their mythology was also classed as aletheia. This does not, however, imply that any necessarily took these myths as a literal truth, but as a metaphorical truth, where moral truths for their society were transmitted – truths which were so deeply engrained in the social structure that they formed much of the cement that united the people to one another and therefore had to be inculcated in the people as individuals so they remained a cohesive people. Thucydides did attempt to make the first major discrimination between logographoi (the writers of stories) whose main purpose, he felt, was to appeal to the listeners and what they wanted to hear, as opposed to those recorded the alethesteron – that which was worthy to be remembered.[2] It cannot be denied that Thucydides, despite his intentions, still relied on the same techniques that storytellers did, but can he be criticised for this? After all, are popular, narrative histories, via which many are brought into History today, not also reliant on the techniques of storytelling? These are still the gateway for many who were put off by the dry and dusty History of past education into a deeper study of a historical period which has seized their imagination (look at the number of popular histories on the shelves of any bookshop concerned with the Tudors, and especially Henry VIII and Elizabeth I).

If we are only looking for truth in History, where do we draw the lines? Do we only accept that which has empirical evidence, turning History from an Art/Humanity to a Science? Must a truth only be a concrete reality for it to be accepted as History? Or is History an attempt to understand the human condition and where we are now in terms of the past and the long road which had led us to where we as the ultimate purpose? Do we need to look at mythology, scriptures and folklore as an equally intrinsic part of the truth of the historical continuum as without it can we understand the thought processes and the interpretations of the world of our ancestors and how they viewed it? Can we empathise with them without examining the mythology which forms the contemporary social memory and therefore their world view? What about where we have differing mythologies and ergo variant world views? How do we examine diametrically opposing ideas which lead to opposing views of specific events and their place and role in the historical continuum? Who decides what History is?

It is an often cited cliché, but ‘History is written by the victor’ can be very apposite here. In its simplest terms, this can be seen as obvious (and especially in the Ancient World) – Rome destroyed Carthage in 146BC after three major wars. The Romans annihilated Carthaginian culture, history, the physical presence of the Punic city and left us with only THEIR understanding and beliefs regarding the Carthaginians. Is this truth? Despite the grudging admiration for Hannibal Barca, and the mythology of fear of him that burned itself into the Roman psyche (Hannibal ad Portas (Hannibal’s at the Gates) was a cry when the city of Rome was in great danger even centuries after the events of the Second Punic War), do we have a reliable truth of Carthaginian history? If we accept the accounts of the Romans regarding Carthage, if we accept the inscriptions of Ramses III of his immense victory over the invading Sea Peoples as can be seen in his mortuary temple at Medinet Habw, then ought we to accept the accounts in the Biblical books of Kings and Judges? Where do we deny a document as History and place it in fiction? While the Creation Myth of Genesis is often used to dismiss a religious understanding of the universe, if we look at it in a historical context, where the people who first wrote the myths were attempting to comprehend the world around them, might we not find it quite astonishing that Jewish priests and scribes of so long ago had a grasp, however vaguely defined in Genesis, of the concept of evolution? That one event of evolution was a consequence of those which had preceded it? Or ought we simply to dismiss it as a folly?

If we dismiss this as folly, then where do we draw the line between an accepted historical truth and that which should be ignored? Imperial powers have their mythology and justifications which are often portrayed as historical fact, even centuries later – look at the ideas often seen today regarding the opposing interpretations of the British and French Empires of the 18th and 19th centuries and the way that politicians and the media both portray and exploit their own interpretations of the Empires in order to push or justify their own ends. Individuals can be even more contentious – it is very rare to encounter a historian of Anglo-Irish history who can remain neutral with regards to Oliver Cromwell – was he a great Republican hero? Was he a pawn in a much more complex game played by ambitious nobles? Was he a traitor and regicide? Was he a heartless butcher who escaped answering for his crimes? Was he a religious fanatic worthy of comparison with the Taliban? All of these are commonly held interpretations of this one individual and all rely on the same documentary and archaeological evidence to support such diametrically opposing views. Similar views can be cited of Richard III, of Henry VIII, of Mary Tudor, of Winston Churchill, of ‘Bomber Harris’ and of many others, simply to look at players in an Anglo-centric situation often encountered in GCSE and A level exams. Our view of Richard III as the child killing, sociopathic hunchback owes much more to propaganda pieces written by Sir Thomas Moore and Shakespeare to appease and justify their Tudor overlords than to historical accuracy – examinations of the King’s remains show he had scoliosis, but not the Quasimodo like deformity often shown – the painting which shows him hunchbacked was doctored in Tudor times; if he were the usurper to the throne as often claimed, why did the Three Estates of Lords, Commons and the Church offer him the throne? If he were intending on an incestuous marriage to his niece, why did he publicly deny this? If his nephews were murdered in the Tower, what would Richard have had to gain as the Three Estates had already proclaimed them illegitimate and therefore invalidated their claim to the throne? There are many more such questions which are often posed and which will, inevitably, remain unanswered in absence of time travel unless some new, thoroughly reliable contextual and contemporary evidence (such as a signed and witnessed document commanding the death of the Princes or a confession by a known possible killer witnessed and sealed) be discovered. Are these representations of King Richard III any more or less valid than the Biblical accounts of King David, King Solomon, than the Pharaohs on their temples and tombs? Ultimately, each historian must look at the evidence which is present and decide for her/himself, but be willing to look beyond the most basic levels and the surface acceptance of any ‘truth’ – ultimately remember in your studies of History, beyond dates, question everything and take no single interpretation as pure truth.



[1] Lefkowitz, M in Tucker, A, 2009, 354-5

[2] Thucydides, I.21

Truth in History? Sixth Form Introduction

Can we trust ‘History’?

‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would

not stay for an answer.”[1]

ONE OF the biggest difficulties faced by any historian, but more especially those starting out on their studies of academic History, is the question of ‘trust’ in what we see and read. Can the history we study, research and produce be classed as truth? In the quote above, Bacon insinuates that Pontius Pilate was asking the famous question ‘QVID EST VERITAS’ in the Gospels[2] as an ironic riposte to Christ’s statement he was a Witness to the Truth, but, ironic or not, the question is as pertinent to the study of history today as it was in first century Jerusalem – What is Truth?

At the start of his magnum opus, the Latin poet Lucretius (though referring to an understanding of Epicurean ideas) gives a poetic statement of where every historian hopes one day to find him/herself (or, on occasion where s/he believes s/he already stands…):

‘Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis
e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem;
non quia vexari quemquamst iucunda voluptas,
sed quibus ipse malis careas quia cernere suavest.
suave etiam belli certamina magna tueri
per campos instructa tua sine parte pericli;
sed nihil dulcius est, bene quam munita tenere
edita doctrina sapientum templa serena,
despicere unde queas alios passimque videre
errare atque viam palantis quaerere vitae…’

(‘Pleasant it is, when over the great sea the winds shake the waters,
To gaze down from shore on the trials of others;
Not because seeing other people struggle is sweet to us,
But because the fact that we ourselves are free from such ills strikes us as pleasant.
Pleasant it is also to behold great armies battling on a plain,
When we ourselves have no part in their peril.
But nothing is sweeter than to occupy a lofty sanctuary of the mind,
Well fortified with the teachings of the wise,
Where we may look down on others as they stumble along,
Vainly searching for the true path of life. . . .’)[3]

Can the Historian actually stand on the shore and watch the rest of the world struggle to find the truth of any given historical period, or even event? Can s/he rise above and view both dispassionately and with clarity the ‘great armies battling on a plain’ in controversies such as the German Historikerstreit? If we stand outside an event (as historians must do by necessity, particularly the further back in time an event be), can we truly see the whole event? And perhaps more importantly, can we understand that event? Is it possible to understand an event or a period in the context in which it originally occurred? How, if at all possible, can historians view any historical event in a fully dispassionate way? If we are truly the sum of our own individual experiences, then how can we leave behind the experiences and cultural tropes which have moulded us into the person we are? Indeed, to what extent are we as individuals able to recognise the limitations to our understanding imposed by the ideas and concepts inculcated by our upbringing in a specific social, cultural and historical context? Can we examine past events in a meaningful way, being cognisant of the external interpretations we bring to our examination of the said event, and therefore bypassing such? What, ultimately, is the truth of anything in a historic and historical context? These are questions which must be faced by any who study History as an academic exercise, and are questions which have haunted historians since the concept of History as an investigation was produced by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE at least, though likely much earlier.

A second area to look at critically is the purpose of any history (or histories) which are available.

‘All groups have a sense of the past, but they tend to use it to reinforce their own beliefs and sense of identity. Like human memory, collective or social memory can be faulty, distorted by factors such as a sense of tradition or nostalgia, or else a belief in progress through time…nineteenth century historicism…taught that the past should be studied on its own terms, ‘as it actually was’. However, this more detached approach to the past can put historians in conflict with people who feel their cherished versions of the past are under threat.’[4]

Why is any given History such as it is? What is the purpose of that History, and can that purpose be externally justified and validated, or can we only validate any historical perspective internally by looking out from the perceptions of those who lived through and ‘created’ that History? Where does the line lie between ‘personal histories’, ‘social history’ and ‘real history’, if there can be any universally accepted delineation, or do we have an impossible situation which is obfuscated by philosophy, argument and dispute? Which of the historical possibilities holds the main role in our studies and our understanding of the past, if any?

Definition in these questions is perhaps the key factor. Personal histories, as recorded in diaries, letters and firsthand accounts, and the printed media of any given event are often the first primary sources encountered by the school aged historian. These are often the most easily accessible, and can be used to gain a variety of highly useful insights into any given period or event – Nella Last’s diaries of WWII Cumbria, the Paston Letters for the Wars of the Roses, and perhaps most famously, Anne Frank’s diaries of her experiences in the ‘Achterhuis’ as a Jewish girl in WWII Amsterdam. These we can immediately define as interesting to an historian, evidently, and useful, but on what level? They are firsthand accounts and give the reader an insight into the viewpoint of the individuals who wrote them – this is self-evident. However, on a purely historical level, we must question their value – despite being written by individuals who were present in the events they describe, they are ‘eye witness testimony’ – often relied upon in criminal cases, but accepted as being a highly unreliable form of evidence by forensic psychology and criminology. It is easy to sway the ‘memory’ of a witness to an event, for people to believe fully that they witnessed something which they did, in fact, NOT witness![5] Nevertheless, juries in court cases are known to place great weight on eyewitness testimonies in criminal trials – how then might the historian be able to avoid being influenced by eyewitness accounts to events when written in a letter, diary or interview transcript? How difficult is it to place EQUAL weight on opposing accounts of the one period? As an example to ask yourself, regarding the Netherlands in WWII, would you be able to place an equal level of historical validity on the Diary of Anne Frank and the diary of a young Dutch man who joined the Nederlandse SS regiment as a fully convinced Nazi? Can these be said to have equal, if opposing, levels of historical validity? Do we bring our own horror at what the Nazis did in judging the validity of the diary of a member of the HJ or BDM? Are we correct in doing so? Note, I am NOT referring to any apologist for the Nazis, any moral exculpation for one of the most horrendous regimes the human race has ever produced nor any acceptance of the beliefs nor the deeds of the National Socialists – on a moral level, the regime was pure evil – but can we as historians truly understand the reasons for which the Nazis came to power or the beliefs which moulded a malleable youth without placing equal validity on such documents on a purely historical level? These are delicate points, and questions which cannot be swept under the proverbial carpet for any budding historian.

Social history is an equally complex area:

“Social groupings need a record of prior experience, but they also require a picture of the past which serves to explain or justify the present, often at the cost of historical accuracy.”[6]

When we look at the history of an event or events on a broader, sociological context, can we fully clarify where that history is a representation of the reality which is simply a recreation of the ‘truth’ and which serves no purpose other than justifying and supporting an accepted set of cultural beliefs and aspirations as opposed to what actually happened? Is a society, which is composed of individuals who are, if one accepts such, the sum total of their experiences and ergo their memories, anything other than a conglomeration of such individuals who agree to be bound by an accepted sense of being and moral constraints, in other words, is a society any more able to survive without its cultural memory than an individual without her or his memories? Examples of such accepted norms often begin with foundation myths and creation myths which form the uniting basis for that societal structure – examples are Theseus and Athens as a polis, Dido/Elissa and Carthage, and even what appear to be opposing myths, such as the dichotomy of the twin foundation myths for Rome – Romulus and Remus or Aeneas? While none (or at most very few) individuals today would consider such myths History, and would dismiss the intervention of the gods or monsters such as the Minotaur in these, as pure fantasy per se, the historian must consider what these meant to the peoples themselves in their particular times. These myths – likely as not disbelieved by the citizens of Athens, Carthage and Rome on a literal level – were of intrinsic importance in the way these peoples viewed themselves and their position in the societies and history of their world, something which the historian of the Ancient World must understand when examining the documentary and archaeological evidence for these societies and their structures.

In a more modern context, the social history of workers, of women, or of Afro-Caribbeans is a highly complex and, amazingly, still an often contentious area of study. The need to look back in order to understand the present was made clear by Malcolm X:

“If we don’t go into the past and find out how we got this way, we will think that we were always this way. And if you think that you were in the condition that you’re in right now, it’s impossible for you to have too much confidence in yourself; you become worthless, almost nothing.”[7]

In order to understand where we are now, we must look back to where we started and examine the journey between that initial state and the state in which we find ourselves now – that is, according to Malcolm X, the priority in History and the way in which it can be viewed in order to better ourselves and the society in which we live, and indeed, better our position within that society. Such is the purpose of the concept of a social history if we accept this premise. Again, however, can such a view and understanding of History be examined in an impartial fashion? SHOULD it be examined in an impartial way? The slave trade, responsible for the enforced transportation and hellish existence on the plantations of the Caribbean, Brazil and the Southern States of America is fraught with problem areas for the historian who tries to remain totally impartial due to the, in reality, unavoidable emotional and moral questions intrinsic to this period of our history. Examinations in a more detached form of the institution of slavery are perhaps more ‘safely’ tackled under the auspices of the Ancient World and most especially, the Roman Empire which could hardly have functioned as it did without the millions of servi and ancillae who supported a large section of the Roman economy, but is this a valid approach to History? Is finding ‘something similar’ in a more distant era an acceptable way of avoiding awkward or embarrassing problems or, as in the case of slavery, avoiding facing a horror which we, as a society or as individuals, would rather not have to examine? What is the purpose of History if we ‘cherry pick’ areas that we can better accept or feel to be less contentious? Under such circumstances, could it be regarded as anything other than propaganda for any given political group or set of beliefs that a ruling elite wish to promulgate and inculcate in the populace of a given society? (The abuse of History as a political weapon or by confrontationists is something which shall be covered later).

Attempts to avoid such biases in History have been made, particularly since the nineteenth century. One founder of the first major attempt was Leopold von Ranke, a German professor at the Universität Berlin from 1825 until 1872. In 1841, he was appointed the State Historian of Prussia. He is one of, if not the, leading light in the School of Historicism (the historical wing of the Romantic Movement in simplistic terms). Ranke’s theory of History is stated clearly in the Preface to his first of over sixty oeuvres:

‘History has had assigned to it the task of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of the ages to come. To such lofty functions this volume does not aspire. Its aim is merely to show how things actually were.’[8]

‘How things actually were’ (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist) was the key part of History for von Ranke and the Historicists.

‘The scientific historiography Ranke himself practiced (sic) in his own works and reflected upon in his methodological observations is characterized by four main principles: the objectivity of historiographic truth; the priority of facts over concepts; the uniqueness of all historical events; and the centrality of politics.’[9]

This ideology was the

‘…notion that historical subjects should be studied, not in relation to transhistorical standards, but according to their own social and cultural terms.’[10]

‘…the autonomy of the past must be respected…each age is a unique manifestation of the human spirit, with its own culture and values. For one age to understand another, there must be a recognition that the passage of time has profoundly altered both the condition of life and the mentality of men and women – even perhaps human nature itself.’[11]

In order to understand where the historian is, there is a necessity to understand the past which led up to this point, but through the eyes of the past, not of the present. Is this possible?

‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’[12]

An oft cited quote, but, however clichéd it has become, nevertheless an important statement. If we accept Ranke’s Historicist viewpoint, does History become a series of loosely connected snapshots of events which have occurred somewhere prior to our existence? Clearly not – cause, consequence and continuum are seen to be self-evident in History. The significance in a historical context of any given event is, in general, enhanced by its place in the historical continuum – two nobles are shot in a backwater of Eastern Europe on 28th June 1914 might seem relatively insignificant until we look at the role the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Archduchess Sophia, played in the outbreak of the First World War, to cite an obvious example. If the Historicist view be accepted, the only proper understanding of this assassination would apparently come from looking at the event through the eyes of those who were present at the time. The question arising from this is obvious – whose eyes? Those of the Black Hand Gang? Those of the Austro-Hungarian Royal Family? Those of the German hierarchy; military and civilian? Those of the British Government? Those of a poverty stricken peasant family in Eastern Russia? All of these people were to be profoundly affected by that single event, so if we can only understand the historical event in terms of its historical position through the eyes of the historical personages, where do we begin, and is it possible to analyse through all the conflicting viewpoints?

Is it in fact better understood in hindsight, the one thing which might seem to allow us to stand on the shore in Lucretius’ metaphor and view the significance of the assassination in the continuum which led to the timeline of the First World War? If this latter be true, then why are there still disputes as to the original causes of WWI? Do we then discount the historical record produced by contemporary writers because they simply describe the events through which they lived, unable to see the wider picture of their place in the historical continuum? Evidently not – such would imply we ignore all the ‘original historians’ to return to the earliest attempts to write Histories:

‘These original historians, then, transform the events, actions, and situations present to them into works of representation. The content of these histories, therefore, cannot be of great external scope…The culture of the author and of the events in his work, the spirit of the author and of the actions he tells of, are one and the same. He describes more or less what he has seen, or at least lived through. Short spans of time, the individual patterns of men and events…’[13]

While questions here might be posed with regard to Thucydides, who at least attempted to question combatants and significant figures on both sides of the conflict we know today as the Peloponnesian Wars, his clear admitting that he created speeches based upon what he was told was said and what he feels would have been said would bring into question his validity as an historian in the modern day context. Why, then, do we still look on Thucydides as the first true historian? In attempting to widen the picture of the war, in questioning as many and as wide a scope of participants as was available to him, by reflecting on the significance of the Pentekontaetia in the historical continuum which led up to the Arkhidamian War (the first conflict of the Peloponnesian Wars), Thucydides could be said to have laid down the basic pattern on which all modern Histories are based – such things as recording what was most likely said in speeches and debates while unacceptable in a modern context, were perfectly acceptable in fifth century Hellas. While Herodotus’ Histories are often enough to get him the title ‘Father of History’, his reliance on what he was told then putting forward numerous possibilities to question these, then leaving it to the reader to decide, compares less favourably with Thucydides’ attempts to present as unbiased a picture of the Wars as was, at the time, possible. These are the original ‘Inquiries’ – the meaning of Historiai in Greek. Are these early Histories anything more, then, than res gestae – a simple record of the deeds of humans? Perhaps not – but is any History from any period any more than such as this, whichever interpretation we might try to place on it? Are context and continuum, action and consequence anything other than these res gestae in their place in the wider context and an examination of the interplay of these actions over however long or short a period the historian is examining? If this is what we accept, where then does the idea of causation lie? Is it a result of the actions, are the actions simply results of the situation at any given point or are the two so intrinsically linked that it becomes impossible to find any border between them? And ultimately, does it matter!?

‘Do causes exist objectively in the world, or are they just a category our mind uses to order sensory inputs, in which case, causation is subjective. Causation could even be a culturally obsolete anthropomorphic projection of human agency on the world to be eliminated by the scientific description of the world as structured of symmetries.’[14]

In a philosophical interpretation, might our modern day term ‘causation’ be any more accurate and relevant than Herodotus’ ascribing certain events to the Olympian pantheon, or Mesopotamian records and Egyptian inscriptions ascribing certain historical decisions to the gods and through their intervention where the king, as the representative or incarnation of the divine, makes and carries through said decisions or actions? Might, then, ascribing the term History to such intangibles be as relevant as ascribing it to our modern causational narratives, the basic concept being the same despite our differing ways of representing it – modern day idea as compared to ancient deification of ultimately that same concept? Can causation be categorised as one individual process in historiographic terms? There can be certainty – the meteor which struck the Yucatan Peninsula ultimately led to the mass extinction of the larger dinosaurs; if I stick my hand in a fire as a child, I will suffer burns and be scarred in later life – the original action has set causational consequences dictated by scientific realities. There can also be alternatives – to return to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophia in June 1914, had Germany and Russia remained aloof from the conflict, the consequence of this assassination might have been remembered simply as another confusing conflict in the Balkans as part of the death throes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Had the Stanleys fought with Richard III on Bosworth Field as they had agreed to do, the Tudor Dynasty would likely never have happened, and England might well have remained a Catholic country and favourite of the Papacy. ‘What ifs’ can be an interesting game in examining the concept of causation and consequences of actions – but ultimately, to return to the original question, is this anymore than an attempt to examine the consequences and causes of the res gestae referred to earlier? Are these actions the only verifiable historical truth and all else interpretation and possibility?

To return to our original question, how can we define historical truth? There is the age old philosophical question – if a tree falls in a forest where there is no one to observe it, does it make a sound? In itself, the philosophical aspect is irrelevant, but it would be a historical fact that the tree fell, whether it made a sound or not – the tree was standing, now it lies prone on the ground, ergo, it fell. Why did it fall? Due to gravity – a law as valid in the time of the dinosaurs as today. The dinosaurs needed no understanding of the concept of gravity for it to exist. This is an objective truth and can be scientifically validated. Can such certainty be applied to historical truth (if such exist!)? Lucretius’ ‘view from the shore’ would, in reality, be a view from ‘nowhere’ – any view from ‘somewhere’ would, by definition, place the viewer in a context connected to the action or event. Can objectivity be a part of that historical truth? For Nagel, events:

‘cannot be adequately understood from a maximally objective standpoint, however much it may extend our understanding beyond the point from which we started’[15]

If we remove ourselves totally from the event (ie stand on the high cliff overlooking), then, by our objectivity, we place limitations on what can be learned from that event – the further we distance ourselves to perceive the larger picture objectively, we lose out in understanding the truth of the situation for Nagel.

Further to this, objectivity requires absolute neutrality in its purest form. As humans, is this feasible?

‘Perhaps the main problem associated with historiography is bias, particularly political bias. Beard (in Stern 1956, 324) insisted that “[w]hatever acts of purification the historian may perform, he yet remains human, a creature of time, place circumstance, interests, predilections, culture,” while Fulbrook (2002: 165) noted that historians “are also human beings”, implying that they bring to their studies all the foibles and idiosyncrasies that we all carry with us. However, it is far from clear that bias should be a problem if value judgments are an inevitable and NECESSARY part of historiographic inquiry.’[16]

Are the biases and preconceptions historians bring to any given History ultimately a necessary part of the ‘truth’ of that History; a part which the historian brings to the jigsaw of the concept of historical truth which will help future historians to examine the events and situations to extend the concept? Ironically, is the personal subjectivity of each historian in integral part of the ultimate objectivity to which we all aspire?

[1] Bacon, F “Of Truth”, 1593

[2] St John, 18, 38

[3] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 2. 1-10

[4] Tosh and Lang, The Pursuit of History, Pearson, 2006, 1

[5] Cf

[6] Tosh and Lang, op cit, 3

[7] Malcolm X, On Afro-American History 3rd ed, Pathfinder, 1990, 12

[8] Cited in Gooch, GP, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed, Longman, 1952, 74

[9] Gil, T in Tucker, A (ed) A Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography, Blackwell, 2009, 393

[10] Mah, H in Lloyd and Maza, A Companion to Western Historical Thought, Blackwell, 2002, 157

[11] Tosh and Lang, 7

[12] Hartley, LP, The Go-Between, 1953

[13] Hegel, GWF, Introduction to the Philosophy of History Hackett, 1988, 4

[14] Tucker in Tucker, op cit 98

[15] Nagel, The View From Nowhere, OUP, 1986, 7

[16] Newall, P, in Ticker, A (ed) 2009, 173

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