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“Religion in the Ancient World” Glanville Study Day & Lecture 2018

This year’s Glanville Lecture in Cambridge was given by Jan Assmann who is an expert on the religion of Ancient Egypt, and to go along with the lecture there was a study day which had 6 speakers (including Assmann) who each told us about a different topic to do with religion in the ancient world. (Well, the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern portion thereof.)

Glanville Study Day: “Religion in the Ancient World”

“Egyptian Concepts of Cosmogony and the Origins of Philosophy” Jan Assmann

The day started off with Jan Assmann’s first talk, about the theology of Ancient Egyptian ideas about the creation of the world/universe. His key point was that the Ancient Egyptians believed the world evolves from a transformation of god rather than being created by god. It is not chaos then cosmos, instead there is pre-existence which has continuity with existence.

The canonical cosmogony (theory of the origin of the universe) in Ancient Egypt is called (by Egyptologists) the Heliopolitan Cosmogony. Atum is the pre-existing divine being, and he transforms and becomes Re (the sun god). Atum/Re then becomes three, and the other of this new triad are Shu (air or life) and Tefnut (fire or truth). From them are generated Nut & Geb (the sky & the earth), and they give birth to Osiris, Isis, Seth & Nephthys. The son of Osiris and Isis is Horus, and from there on we are into history – all Pharaohs are avatars of Horus. The first texts that describe this lineage of gods say that Shu and Tefnut were born of Atum, but by the time the Coffin Texts are written it’s not birth but “the moment when Atum became three”.

The underlying Egyptian idea is of endless repetitions rather than of a single moment. Every day the sun comes up from the underworld. Every year the land comes out of flood. Every Pharaoh is a new avatar of Horus. And there is no conflict or violence in the creation of the world – instead that belongs to the emergence of rulership and to history. Even the being in opposition to Re (the snake Apep or Apophis) is in opposition to the maintenance of the universe and not in opposition to the creation.

Assman also explained that this cosmogony sets up the hierarchy of the universe. If you originate from something you depend upon it. If you depend upon something then you are ruled by it. And thus given that Atum transforms into Re from whom everything originates then Re is the first ruler/king. He noted that this means the sun god is supreme as the source of everything throughout all periods of Egyptian history and not just in the Amarna period.

As well as the Heliopolitan Cosmogony we also know about the Memphite Cosmogony from Ancient Egyptian times – this is a text found on a stela that’s now in the British Museum, it’s easy to spot as it had a second life as a mill stone so it has large grooves on it. Assmann argues that we shouldn’t see this as an alternative idea, instead he regards it as a commentary on the canonical cosmogony. In this text instead of Atum becoming Re/Tefnut/Shu (sun/fire/air) he becomes Ptah/Horus/Thoth (creator/heart/tongue). The text still stresses the continuity of pre-existence & existence, but this time the emphasis is on creation by language. The tongue (Thoth) reads the words that the heart (Horus) creates. This idea is reminiscent of the Biblical tradition of creation by the Word, but the critical difference is that in the Bible God remains distinct and outwith creation but in the Egyptian tradition Atum becomes and has continuity with creation.

Assmann finished his talk by arguing that the ideas of the Memphite Cosmogony feed into and are part of the origins of Western philosophy via the Greeks (in particular he mentioned Iamblichus’s “De Mysteriis”. But I’m afraid I got rather lost at that point and didn’t even follow him well enough to take notes, let alone summarise it.

“Gaming with Death” John Tait

The second talk of the day was given by John Tait on the game Senet, during which he gave us an overview of what we know about the game and where we get our knowledge of it. The game of Senet was developed within Egypt and is attested over a long period of time. The board consists of three rows of 10 squares, some of which (generally the last five) have markings on them. It’s a race game for two players with 5 or 7 pieces per player. The movements of the pieces are governed by throwing sticks or knuckle bones (i.e. dice), and they travel across the board in a Z shaped path ending “safe” at square 30.

The main sources of our knowledge are the boards that have survived and pictures in tomb reliefs, there’s not much textual evidence. The physical boards have mostly been found in tombs, but there are also graffiti boards so the game was definitely played in life as well as in a ritual or funerary context.

Senet is not the oldest game known from Ancient Egyptian tombs – there’s a game played on a spiral board that Tait called the serpent board/game. There’s no definite evidence that this was played in life, and we know little about it. Senet shows up first in Old Kingdom tombs, and the reliefs it’s seen in were originally interpreted as part of the daily life scenes but it now seems clear that the context is that of the mortuary celebration. In the Middle Kingdom depictions are rarer, but in the Coffin Texts the ability to play Senet is something that the deceased is said to gain. In the New Kingdom the board develops into a box, and the Book of the Dead lists playing Senet as one of the things they deceased can do whilst Going Forth By Day. Later the box form of the game disappears again.

There are also signs of cultural exchange with the surrounding area. The game of Senet spreads during the New Kingdom period to various places including Nubia, Iraq and Cyprus. There is also a 20 square version of the game board that is sometimes found on the back of the Senet board. This is a Mesopotamian import and is akin to the Royal Game of Ur.

Tait felt he was running short of time at this point, so skimmed over the last couple of sections where he would’ve told us about the throwing sticks and the symbolism of the marked squares on the boards which was a shame as the little bit we saw looked interesting. The talk also hadn’t touched much on the “with Death” part of the title, and a couple of the questions afterwards tried to draw this out but he still didn’t expand much on it.

“Antinous and Death in the Nile” Tim Whitmarsh

The last talk before lunch stayed with Egyptian culture for its subject but moved us significantly up in time to the 2nd Century CE – the period of the Emperor Hadrian & his lover Antinous. Tim Whitmarsh is a classicist who told us about a poem written shortly after Antinous death and subsequent deification.

He began by setting the scene with a little bit of discussion about the Greek fascination with the flooding of the Nile, and about how life in Egypt is defined by the tension between the desert and the river even up to relatively modern times. He then moved on to tell us about the discovery of the Oxyrhynchus papyrii in the late 19th Century CE. This large group of papyrii includes texts relating to daily life & politics in Graeco-Roman Egypt, and also a lot of Greek literature. Only about 10% have been published (and they are crowdsourcing the transcription process, although the site’s currently being rebuilt and won’t be back online till July 2018).

Whitmarsh was talking about two fragments from this collection which are of the same poem about Antinous. He read us a section of it (in translation) about a lion hunt that Hadrian and Antinous have gone on, and in this part Hadrian casts the first spear at the lion but deliberately misses so that his boyfriend can get the practice at spear casting and perhaps the kill. Whitmarsh speculates that the missing parts of the poem would go on to detail Antinous’s death and link it with the lion hunt.

The poem is in the epic genre, and the lion hunt is a common Graeco/Roman trope. Whitmarsh said that the most important part to Hadrian would be the equation of Antinous with a red lotus – young dead men becoming flowers is another common Greek trope and is linked with the deification of these men. The poem itself must’ve been well regarded as it can’t been written long before the Oxyrhynchus papyrii were assembled. So it must’ve been copied a lot in a short space of time to’ve ended up there – a measure of popularity.

The poet is known from a reference in another work – a 3rd Century CE piece by Athenaeus called Deiphnosophistae is about a dinner where the diners impress each other with their knowledge of poetry (amongst other subjects). From this we know that the poet was called Pankrates and that he told the poem to Hadrian. He was probably an Egyptian, which is important for understanding the poem – particularly in that it links Antinous to Osiris and to the Nile, and thus to the continuing cycles of death & rebirth that are part of the Egyptian imagination.

“Communicating with the Gods: Liver Divination in Ancient Mesopotamia” Selena Wisnom

After lunch we started up again by returning to the ancient world, but moving geographically to Mesopotamia with Selena Wisnom telling us about reading omens from sheep livers. This is the talk that particularly encouraged me to go to this study day as some of the exercises in the Akkadian course I’m doing involve translating omen texts – and as J said, it was surprising I didn’t start growling at the mention of them as those are some of the toughest exercises. Not only do the scribes appear to have appalling handwriting, but the texts themselves are cryptic at best. But this talk was really useful in providing an overview of what we actually know about liver divination (which my textbook isn’t interested in, being a language course).

Wisnom started by giving us some context. The study of omens in Ancient Mesopotamia goes back to at least 4.5 thousand years ago, although the texts are much later than that. Many texts survive – clay tablets are more durable than other writing materials. She also showed us a map of the region, stressing that Babylon was the cultural centre of the region even when not the political centre.

The premise of extipacy is that the gods are always sending messages, so we need to pay attention and interpret them. The signs or omens are not causative, they just announce the message. The colour of a fresh liver is reminiscent of a fresh clay tablet, and there can be creases on it that look a lot like cuneiform signs – thus livers were an important source of messages from the gods. She illustrated her talk throughout with photos of livers from Armenian sheep*, and showed us some examples of these creases. Wisnom thinks this coincidence of form between liver & their writing system is why liver omens were the most important ones.

*Sheep in Western countries are dosed with a lot of antibiotics & other medicines and so are healthier than ancient Mesopotamian sheep. So she used Armenian sheep (a colleague visited Armenia and took photos for her) to see a wider range of liver structures.

Omens are interpreted using wordplay & allusions, and each one has a meaning something like: If this feature looks like this sign then (something). And it helps that cuneiform signs may have multiple associated syllables or words, so there’s plenty of scope to interpret the creases in a variety of ways. They are also not literal prophecies, as became clear when she walked us through the process. Liver divination allows one to ask a question of the gods, they will then write it on the liver of the (living) sheep you have provided and then you can interpret it once you sacrifice the sheep. So one begins by appealing to the gods Šamaš and Adad, and then one asks a yes/no question. There are then several formulae to recite to guard against accidental impurities – in the way the sheep has been handled, or things you might’ve touched yourself. After this the sheep is sacrificed and the omens are read from the liver. This was done by examining all the marks on the liver and counting favourable vs. unfavourable omens, more favourable omens means “yes”, more unfavourable ones means “no”.

The Mesopotamians asked many different types of questions of the liver omens. They could be to do with statecraft including things about illnesses of important people, appointments to offices, or foreign affairs. They could also be more personal questions, and could be asked by people of much lower status than the king – so long as you could afford the sheep & the priest (this was not a DIY process) then you could ask a question of the gods. Liver omens could also be used to cross check other omens, and she gave an example of a text where a priest had written to the king having done just that. The eclipse they had seen was deemed not to be unfavourable, as the liver omens were favourable.

Wisnom is interested in figuring out the logic underpinning the omen interpretations. It isn’t a random or chaotic system, it seems clear to her that this is almost a science – they are attempting in the omen collections to categorise & classify the world in a systematic way. Even if it does seem absurd to us! The texts are grouped by category, and they extend past the things they have seen into theoretical possibilities – for instance there are omens that start “if there is no heart”, which is clearly an impossibility if the sheep was alive until the moment of sacrifice!

She finished up by talking about what her future research questions are, ranging from the specific to the general: why are some things linked to specific meanings? Why is this general sort of divination still practised in some human cultures today? What does this tell us about how humans think?

“Egyptian Afterlife Texts and Ancient Christian Apocrypha” Simon Gathercole

The second talk of the afternoon, presented by theologian Simon Gathercole, took us from the Book of the Dead through to Christian apocrypha and traced the threads that link these two bodies of literature. I must confess I struggled to concentrate during this talk so my notes are less than complete. It was a combination of post-lunch slump and the presentation style – there were no slides, instead we were given a handout with excerpts of the texts he was discussing which he also read out for us.

He started by saying that the Egyptian point of view is that it’s not faith that moves mountains, but the right spell. He is exploring this in the later variants of the Book of the Dead and in Christian apocrypha. In the Book of the Dead spells are often answers to questions that the deceased will be asked on the journey into the afterlife – e.g. “who are you?” or “where do you come from?”. Another theme is the naming of guardians in order to pass them. Some successor documents to the Book of the Dead (such as the Document of Breathing) act as passports – possession of the document was as important as the spell on it. Later documents are also hidden knowledge – you must keep the knowledge secret and keep secret that you possess the knowledge.

He then discussed some of the early Christian apocrypha, including the Apocalypses of James and of Paul and the Gospels of Thomas and of Mary. These contain some of the same themes as the Book of the Dead texts – they are hidden knowledge, and permits to pass guardians. They also contain the names you need to know. So his conclusion is that the traditional Egyptian literature influenced the later Christian writings.

“Demons in Late Antiquity” Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe

Sophie Lunn-Rockliffe was another theologian, and her main work is on Satan but she was talking to us on this occasion about demons in Late Antiquity. She began by discussing the terms she was using – starting with “Late Antiquity” which is a very loose and vague period which might cover as much as the 1st Millennium CE. It’s a post-classical world, and period of transition characterised by the ending of the Roman Empire. During it the Roman/post-Roman world transitions from pagan to Christian beliefs. The other important term is “demon” which she uses as an umbrella term to cover two different groups – daimōns (divine or ghost entities) and pneuma (wind/spirit).

The evidence for ideas about demons during this period comes from hagiographies & sermons, and from texts of ritual power (both theoretical & applied magic). Whilst the story we tell about Late Antiquity is of a clash between the Pagan and the Christian world views, she thinks the evidence shows more traffic between the cultures than that.

Exorcising demons is a cross-cultural activity, and Lunn-Rockliffe illustrated this by comparing stories of Anthony banishing demons with magical texts. In the Anthony stories he is shown having a superior (holy) ability to detect the presence of demons, and he casts them out by rebuking them in the name of Jesus Christ. One of the magical texts is very much consistent with the Anthony stories – it uses language & abbreviations used in Christian literature and details a spell to drive out demons in the name of Jesus Christ. The other magical text she talked about was more broad ranging in its influence – it is bilingual and mixes the name(s) of the Christian god with names from other traditions. Essentially it calls on as many powerful names as possible so that something will work.

Taming demons is not separate from exorcism, the two processes are regarded as two sides of the same coin. Her first example here was of a saint who cursed his son with a demon as that would stop the son sinning (the demon here being the lesser of two evils). It demonstrates that the knowledge that lets you drive out demons also lets you call them. The next Christian example Lunn-Rockliffe gave was of Anthony being able to tell that someone’s visions were granted by demons because he could ask those demons to tell him something about them that he wouldn’t’ve otherwise known. The magical examples that Lunn-Rockcliffe discussed were of types still familiar from modern mythology – a spell to summon a demon to answer one’s questions, and a pair of melted wax dolls with a text intended to bind a woman to love the man who performed the spell.

Lunn-Rockliffe summed up by saying that the evidence suggests that rather than a great culture clash of Christian vs. Pagan such as was written about by the zealots, in practice people actually turned to whichever practitioners were convenient.

In the Q&A section Jan Assmann mentioned something interesting to me because I’m learning Akkadian – the il/ilu Semitic stem has a broad definition in the same way that Lunn-Rockliffe was defining & using the term demon to encompass divine beings, ghosts, and creatures of wind or spirit. So the Akkadian word “ilum” which my textbook translates as “god” is not as narrow as that might imply.

Glanville Lecture: “The Book of Exodus and the Invention of Religion” Jan Assmann

For the Glanville Lecture itself Jan Assmann chose to talk about his Biblical research & ideas (which are the subject of his new book) rather than Egyptological subjects. Personally I think this was a shame (although I can see why he did it, it’s his current research area) – many people only came to the evening lecture which is billed as an Egyptology talk, and an extended version of the talk he gave at the start of the day would’ve fit the audience better in my opinion.

He introduced the subject by saying “Invention of religion – isn’t that preposterous? isn’t it as old as humanity?” and went on to explain that he sees a qualitative difference between religion as we think of it in a culture shaped by Christianity (or Judaism or Islam), and religion as other cultures (for instance the Ancient Egyptians) would think of it. And he posits that “our” concept was developed over a roughly 200 year period in Israel around the 6th Century BCE with the critical difference being that the older concept of religion is not separate from state or culture, whereas the new one is its own distinct thing. One is religion as a cult, which is and always was. The other is religion as a covenant, with a date when it starts and/or was revealed – e.g. for Judaism he said this was 1446 BCE (effectively backdated to the Exodus from Egypt).

He spoke about how culture as a whole can be separated out into autonomous cultural spheres – e.g. law would be one – and each of those spheres can be broken into a binary by a “leading distinction”. In this case of law this would be justice vs. injustice. All archaic states are based on sacred knowledge, but this is not an autonomous cultural sphere. You can say that the leading distinction in Ancient Egyptian religion is Ma’at vs. Isfet (order vs. chaos) but this wasn’t a distinction limited to religion, it was also applicable to law, or to kingship or to other cultural spheres. So religion permeates throughout the culture. The shift in Israel around the 6th Century BCE is for religion to become autonomous, and so the rest of culture is now not religious.

Revelation is key to the new religion. The old paradigm is that religion is a part of reality, it is something that is. The new paradigm is that it is a transformation of reality – there is a founding event after which the new religion is revealed, and this event is commemorated afterwards to keep the community together. The new paradigm shifts how people’s attitudes towards religion are perceived. In the old paradigm one was either attentive or neglectful but still part of the community either way. In the new paradigm it’s about belief vs. unbelief or loyalty vs. defection – are you one of us? Or are you one of them?

Assmann spent the next part of his talk going through the Book of Exodus in detail as an illustration of this new paradigm for religion. He started by pointing out that the Book of Exodus is distinct from the myth of the Exodus. The myth is split into three phases – the emigration from Egypt, legislation in the wilderness (I think that’s what he said) and finally the conquest of the promised land. The Book of Exodus also has three phases but these are – emigration from Egypt as before, then the covenant and the law culminating in the construction of the tabernacle.

He then ran through the story of the Book of Exodus in more detail, before talking about the themes of revelation that run through it. There are 5 steps of revelation through the story – the central revelation is that of the law, and is at the heart of the new religion. Revelation is the key point of the story – and faith in these revelations is what sets the new religion apart from the old ones. In the older religions the way things are is a matter evidence, and your belief is not relevant or required. But the faith that the new religion requires, a concept that Assmann defined as a mixture of belief plus truth plus loyalty, implies the possibility of alternatives which are wrong/untrue. It’s possible not to believe in it, and then you are wrong & other.

The next part of Assmann’s talk was about how this paradigm of religion implies conflict and leads to violence – and because it dominates the modern world both in the West and in the Middle East it is the source of a lot of our modern problems. He used Carl Schmitt (a Nazi philosopher/politician) as an example of where the distinction between the faithful & unbelievers can lead. He also talked at length about how the murder of Moses begins an Old Testament theme of the murdering of prophets which then culminates in the Passion of Christ in the New Testament – but I got rather lost here so I’m not sure exactly how this fit in. Not least because I don’t recall the story of Moses being murdered from the Bible – and looking it up this is a proposal of Sigmund Freud’s that Assmann has written about before, so I perhaps got lost because he assumed the audience had rather more context for this than I had.

Assmann closed by summarising the key features of this new religion that has become our modern norm:

  1. autonomous cultural system against politics
  2. independent of the state
  3. controls all other cultural systems
  4. the new religion can be taught to others and they can convert
  5. may be practised everywhere so long as there are people to do it
  6. it’s incompatible with other religions
    • you can’t “believe” both
    • you can’t translate between them
  7. based on revelation and demands faith
    • either true or false
    • no third way
    • leads to violence
  8. prophets of it are in opposition to the state and to the mainstream

His take home message was that the way out of the conflict & violence that this paradigm has brought to our world is for us to once again remember that no one faith has the truth, each is a way to seek the truth.