Religion is a vehicle that replicates ethical codes and social composition in the process of civilization, but also forms cultures and affects the growth and expansion of civilization and society as a whole. Religion has been an incredibly influential element of society and has, of course, played a vital role in the development of civilizations.1 This paper will provide an in-depth examination of early development in religion and the impact on the following civilizations: Persia, Hebrew, Islamic, Aztec, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian. The study will be broken down into two meaningful divisions namely polytheistic and monotheistic civilizations. Within each category, similarities and differences amongst religions and the greater effect on civilization will be explored.
Similarities and differences between Aztec, Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods
The two major western civilizations between 4,000-1,000 BC were the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. There are many similarities as well as differences between these two civilizations. For instance, they both followed polytheistic civilization and believed that their world was ruled by more than one god.2 The Egyptians, as well as the Aztec culture, believed that they were created for the intention of serving their gods. Aztec, the Egyptians, and Mesopotamians worship many gods in their religious practices. For instance, the Aztec empire has a religion that is known as the Mesoamerican religion that is characterized by numerous religious festivals whereby rituals such as human sacrifices are done.
Aztec religion valued the worship of astronomical objects like the planet Venus, the moon and sun among other important deities such as Tezcatlipoca, the god of sorcery, war, fortune and destiny, and Quetzalcoatl, the god of order and civilization. 3Other gods included the patron god called Huitzilopochtli and the god of rain, Tlaloc. On the other hand, the Mesopotamians have over two thousand gods that they worship. They include Marduk, Bel, and Astarte among others. The Egyptians too have diverse gods such as Ptah and Osiris among others. However, there is a slight difference in their worship. While the Aztec and the Egyptians worship among other things heavenly deities, the Mesopotamians do not since their gods have a humanoid form.
People in ancient Egypt ranging from the peasants, merchants, priests, workers, too individual kings worshipped their gods formulated in the pre-dynastic Egypt and expressed in pictures. Initially, animals were included in the Egyptian religious cults. That is perhaps why archeologists found preserved graves where cats, gazelles, bulls and sheep were carefully buried. The worship of pictures did not last for long as they were turned into human portraits. This, also referred to as anthropomorphism, was unique in the sense that the pictures took human form but retained an animal’s body or head.
4The Egyptians, like the Mesopotamians, believed that these gods had human emotions, drank, ate, gave birth, went into battle, lived among people and died. The reigns of these gods were believed to merge at times and in other instances overlap. The Egyptians, Aztec, and Mesopotamians gave to their gods’ descriptive names or qualities such as majestic, virile or strong. Among the Egyptians, each god had five names and as aforementioned, was worshipped at different times, for different purposes and in different locations depending on the myth.
Societal Impact of Religion in Polytheistic Civilizations
Many social patterns are common in the early stages of the civilization of Aztec, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. However, not having very clear contact with each other, all three of these religions believed in education. The inhabitants of Sumer were deemed to do what was asked of them and to perform appropriately while in school. The ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia had different theories about how they came into existence. However, they both believed that God created them. They later had the conclusion that the mightier gods compelled the weaker gods into slavery. Besides, before civilization and after, the priests’ roles were equally important in ancient Egypt, Aztec, and Sumer.
They included reading scrolls before religious events, preparing images and statutes, caring for the image gods, and acting as the voice of the oracles, stewards of granaries and temple riches and being pinnacles of decisions of their gods. 5Furthermore, the ancient religion allowed the use of magic that was commonplace. Warding off evil was done through the wearing of amulets, magical texts, spells, concoctions, and rituals were used and their successes and their failures were attributed to the gods Legal systems It is important to understand that the ancient religion in Egypt and Aztec, was centralized despite the hierarchy of deities. This indicates a sharp contrast between Egypt and Mesopotamia as in the latter, religion was decentralized.
Also, the focus of the Egyptian temple was for worship unlike in Sumer where it was for religious, economic and political functions.6In ancient Egypt, Sumer, and Aztec, their theology was formed on the educational systems and codes of law. The differences in these civilizations can be traced out from the medical practices in their religious culture and their interpretations of the great floods. The kings played an integral part in religion by connecting the gods and Egyptians. Until around the third dynasty, the kings were believed to be a bridge crossing over the chasm that divided gods and men. Their reign during this time in ancient Egypt did not have an organized hierarchy structure.
The power of their gods relied on the power of the reigning king. A powerful king would imply a powerful god and so it was also with the name, location, and dominance of the kings. 7Additionally, religious names were believed to be very powerful and full of mystery. For instance, in a normal society, people would die or get afflicted when certain traditional rituals were done to their names. In the same respect, certain names were used to express or describe the phenomenon that was good and beneficial. However, unlike the Egyptians, the Aztecs neither coped well with their strict laws nor had given much care for their social codes, as there is much evidence of dispute over the laws and penalties.
Growth of civilization
The civilization of ancient Egypt happened at the same time Mesopotamian civilization was taking place in other areas in the nations of the Akkadians, Babylonians and the Sumerians. Hence, most other parts of the world were also going through major revolutions in the religious spheres. For instance, the Egyptian civilization is believed to have originated from the west and other neighboring nations as well as some internal influences.
As mentioned before, civilization in ancient religious practices saw the worship of animals turned into the worship of image and pharaoh’s role as a mediator between gods and people changing to a position where he considered himself a divine being.8 The rule of pharaoh which was believed to have qualities such as righteousness, order, justice, and truth brought stability and harmony which earlier on was not manifested in image worship. Due to this and other related factors, religion created optimism, confidence and acted as a unifying factor.
Similarities and differences between Persian, Hebrews and Islamic gods
One of the most significant similarities in worship among the aforementioned religious groups is the worship of one God. The three religions were influenced by Judaism and are all Abrahamic religions. However, since they are monotheistic, they differ in how they regard and name their god. The Persian Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism refer to their god as Ahura Mazda, the god of purity and fire. The Hebrew refer to their God as Yahweh, a trinity God while the Muslims refer to theirs as Allah.
Monotheism is the belief in the existence of a single god. It has been the foundation of some of the major civilizations in the world such as Persian, Islam, and Hebrew. However, monotheistic religions may still include concepts of a plurality about the divine, like the Trinity, where God is one having three eternal persons. 9 The Hebrews also played a significant role in the civilization of ancient Egypt. The influence exerted by the Hebrews on the western intellectual tradition and the western society was so immense that affected the patterns and activities of other great institutions.
According to the Hebrews, there is only one God to whom they are committed to worship and follow his laws as stated in the Old Testament. The heroes of the Jews, Muslims, and Persians, unlike the Egyptians, were men and women and not gods and goddesses. These heroes represented both the strong and the weak men and women. The Egyptians and the Sumerians had adopted the worship of many gods also referred to as polytheism and as mentioned earlier on, the dominance of the gods depended on the kings. The Hebrews, Persians, and Muslims, on the other hand, believed their God was sovereign and practiced monotheism.
Before the introduction of Islam into Iran, Persians were practicing one of the very oldest monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism. 10Their civilization had been developing around this religion, which proclaimed the existence of the only one Lord Wisdom known as Ahura Mazda. The other important perceptions of the religion were Senta Mainyu, the character of good and Angra Mainyu, the character of evil. The later monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Islam are said to have taken several prophetical teaching and practices from Zoroastrianism. Even though it has a very few followers now, it is still practiced as several Iranian festivals are centered on the specific calendar of this religion.
Even though the Hebrew civilization had been badly impacted by the invasion of the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Persians, their spiritual legacy influenced most of their contribution to the later expansion of Western civilization. The development of Islam was highly influenced by the Hebrews monotheistic beliefs and spiritual legacy centered upon Judaism. Hebrew civilization had affected the Judaea-Christian heritage of Western civilization, including their ideas about law, ethics and morality, and the social justice system.
Societal Impact of Religion in Monotheistic Civilizations
The starting of monotheism had great effects between the state and society as a whole in comparison to polytheistic religious practices. Social, psychological and economical processes have identified the moral, egalitarian and ethical elements of the religions in general and monotheistic civilizations in specific. Armstrong states:
“It has to be said that this imaginative portrayal of God in human terms has inspired a social concern that has not been present in Hinduism. The Jews would be the first people in the ancient world to establish a welfare system that was the admiration of their pagan neighbors”.11
Even though the writings on religion and economics were relatively embryonic, they still entail some important contributions on the relationship between religion, economics, and government. From an economic point of view, monotheistic civilizations engaged in a strong degree of enlarging returns to scale and the natural monopoly powers commensurate with it. The Hebrews believed that the worship of idol gods that like in the case of ancient Egypt was not ideal as it represented an incapable god put in images making them less sovereign. Further, the Hebrews believed that the Egyptians could not obtain freedom from idol worship.
The arrival of the Hebrews into Egypt brought a different influence to the ancient Egyptian way of worship. Their belief system and the sovereign expression of their God in the rescue mission of the Israelites from Egypt played a key role in creating change in the religious atmosphere in Egypt. Additionally, the Hebrews believed in the universal significance of their religion. Their culture and life was to control their way of life by complete segregation form of society and to maintain relatively secured collective boundaries. 12Undergoing the long Halkhic predominance period, the inter-civilizational elements were about the other monotheistic civilizations. Christianity and Islam, the axial monotheistic religions were in their efforts to constitute all others into their civilization including the Jews.
The Persian existence within the Islamic general population affected many core aspects of the Muslim culture and society. The various areas of the Islamic civilization including architecture, music, literature, art, clothing and fashion, culture, and economy were highly influenced by the Persian emperor’s invasions.13 The Islamic Civilization was a global civilization that incorporated people from diverse cultural backgrounds working together to create knowledge in the field of art and science.
The Hebrews have a very rich and vibrant history, unlike many other ancient civilizations. Throughout the history, the Hebrew culture and civilization has undergone many challenges. Their ancestors lived in a time where only the strongest nations in terms of technological and military competence survived. Despite the consequences, the Hebrew culture survived with their lack of military capabilities and progressed technologies. The reason behind their survival and civilization, unlike other cultures and civilizations, was their culture, art and the strength of their sacred text, The Bible.
Growth of civilization
The reactions from various circles concerning the civilization of ancient Egypt display a mixture of feelings. Some scholars believe that ancient Egypt before civilization was of a unique distinction. Actually, according to history, it is believed that they were the first people to create a state embodying aspiration of the Egyptian race and the spiritual beliefs in the nation-state. The ancient state of Egypt which lasted for up to 3000 years showed a determined durability, assurance and extraordinary strength demonstrated by its framework of culture and an unmistakable purity of style. 14The indisputable unity that existed between culture, state and religion fell and what is seen to have remained is its peculiar geographical setting.
Indeed, religion in ancient Egypt led to a myriad of other changes that impacted the society politically, socially and economically. For instance, early developments in religion shaped the political systems and structures in ancient Egypt. Most of the rules and leadership dynamics used by Egypt rulers were largely borrowed from religion. The religiously-influenced political and social structures created other avenues and modalities on how people interacted. The sharing of religious activities in ancient Egypt has offered the world a broad perspective in understanding early social developments in Egypt. 15Contemporary life would have been rather blank in terms of rich history and perhaps, it would have been cumbersome to comprehensively bridge the past and modern history on religion and worse still, connect the future history with that of the past.
To sum up, it is imperative to note that both religion and civilization act as useful tools in bringing societies together. The monotheistic and polytheistic civilizations demonstrate different perspectives of understanding various cultures across the world. As mentioned in the paper, different religions have their unique way of worshipping their different gods. However, in carrying out their religious duties, they are similar in how they accord respect to their deities. As such, it is clear that people from diverse cultural backgrounds have unique ways of communicating with their perceived supreme being. Religious civilization, therefore, is not a set of personal beliefs but the underpinnings and supernatural answers to the obvious unknowable paradigms. Throughout the stages of human development, different civilizations are seen as a process to progressive societal life.
Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4000- year of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. US: A. A. Knopf, 1993.
Cataldo, Lisa. Multiple selves, multiple gods? Functional polytheism and the postmodern religious patient. Pastoral Psychology 57, no. 1-2, (2008): 45-58.
Iyigun, Murat. “Monotheism (From a sociopolitical and economic perspective).” University of Colorado, (2007): 1-62.
Oesterdiekhoff, W. George. Ancient Sun Cults: Understanding religious rites in terms of developmental psychology. Mankind Quarterly, 48.1 (2007): 99-116.
Patricia, Spencer. Dance in ancient Egypt. Near Eastern Archaeology, 66.3 (2003): 111-112.
Rosalie, David. The art of medicine: The art of healing in ancient Egypt: a scientific reappraisal. The Lancet, 372.9652 (2008): 1802-1803.
Sarah, Johnston. Ancient Religions: Beliefs and Rituals across the Mediterranean World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Sasso, Dennis C.. Judaism: An evolving religious civilization. Encounter 63, no. 1/2, (2002): 187-192.
Wallace, Catherine M. Readings at the Intersection of Culture and Faith Why Bother with Belief? Anglican Theological review. 87(3), (2005) 529-540.
- Lisa, Cataldo. Multiple selves, multiple gods? Functional polytheism and the postmodern religious patient. Pastoral Psychology 57, no. 1-2, (2008): 45.
- George, Oesterdiekhoff W. Ancient Sun Cults: Understanding religious rites in terms of developmental psychology. Mankind Quarterly, 48.1 (2007): 108.
- Ibid 110.
- Spencer, Patricia. Dance in ancient Egypt. Near Eastern Archaeology, 66.3 (2003): 111.
- Ibid 1803.
- Ibid 112.
- Johnston, Sarah. Ancient Religions: Beliefs and Rituals across the Mediterranean World. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 134.
- Ibid 112.
- David, Rosalie. The art of medicine: The art of healing in ancient Egypt: a scientific reappraisal. The Lancet, 372.9652 (2008): 1802.
- Dennis, Sasso, C.. Judaism: An evolving religious civilization. Encounter 63, no. 1/2, (2002): 187.
- Karen, Armstrong. A History of God: The 4000- the year of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. US: A. A. Knopf, 1993.p.48.
- Ibid 50.
- Murat, Iyigun. “Monotheism (From a sociopolitical and economic perspective).” University of Colorado, (2007): 45.
- Ancient religion 134.
- Ibid 191.