My Blog List

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Axial Age.

I am puzzled.
Why is there little or no reference in books about the influence of the Assyrians and Persians in Egyptian history?

Granted, the longest period of time Egypt was actually ruled by 'Eastern powers' is equivalent to the time the Romans were in Britain; but we are taught all about the effect the Romans had on British life, even though a lot of it -'they gave us central heating-- is not terribly accurate.

I don't doubt that there is recorded history from Ancient Egypt: Manetho (circa 350 BC) and Herodotus (circa 450 BC) for sure, but by then the Assyrians and Persians had gone.

Why I'm interested in the effect of ideas brought in to Egypt by 'Assyrians and Persians'  is that this time period corresponds specifically with that time the Greeks were- according to so many text books -busy 'creating' Western civilisation.

Homer circa 800 BC.
Hesiod circa 600 BC.

The Assyrian king Esarhaddon captured Memphis in 671 BC, leaving Necho 1 as the chief king of twelve rulers. After the Assyrians came the Persians: Cambyses II (525 BC) is the next conqueror, followed by Darius.

Then Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 331 BC.

Trying to decipher the history is complicated by the terms and language historians use: 'Persian,' Phoenician,  Babylon, Oriental, Baal, even Assyrian, are terms used interchangeably and in a relative way.
'We three kings from Orient are'
...just about sums it up!

In asking myself why an exchange and influence of ideas between the 'East' and Egypt is disregarded I assumed that until cuneiform was translated, the Greeks appeared to be the original 'Western' civilization.

For thousands of years Mesopotamian mathematics lay unread in fragments of clay.

Until they were translated it was reasonable to think that Pythagoras and Euclid had invented geometry.

But we have been able to read cuneiform for over 150 years, yet still Mesopotamian history is omitted from 'our' history.

Babylon was 'found' in the early nineteenth century, Claudius James Rich visited 'Babylon' and wrote: Memoirs on the ruins of Babylon in 1818. It was published in London in 1839- Google books has it as a free download.

The 'Assyrian'  language recorded in cuneiform, began to be deciphered in 1857 and approximately one hundred years latter scholars began to publish books about 'Babylonian' mathematics. But the idea of a spreading out or diffusion of ideas, a cultural exchange wasn't as convincing to people as the idea that Greek knowledge was a result of Alexander the Great's conquest of 'Persia'.

I'm still reading modern articles and books insisting upon a kind of cultural purity: books and articles that do not consider the probability that Assyrian and Persians (including rule by a Persian king) could possibly have any effect at all upon Egyptian myth!

It seems that even though the idea of  'The Axial Age' is easily disproved, there is something about it that appeals to people, even now.

The term: Axial Age came from Karl Jaspers in his book: Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History) written in 1949. The Axial Age, according to Karl Jaspers, is the period between 800 to 200 B.C.E.
"It was the time in which all foundations that underlie current civilization came into being".
This is patently untrue. Writing first appeared in Sumer in 3200 BC, likewise irrigation canals and great cities. By 800 B.C.E Sumer and then Akkad had risen and fallen.

In 1952 Samuel Kramer was translating the Code of Ur-Nammu (one of the oldest legal texts in existence dated to 2000 BC).
"…After An and Enlil had turned over the Kingship of Ur to Nanna, at that time did Ur-Nammu, son born of Ninsun, for his beloved mother who bore him, in accordance with his principles of equity and truth... Then did Ur-Nammu the mighty warrior, king of Ur, king of Sumer and Akkad, by the might of Nanna, lord of the city, and in accordance with the true word of Utu, establish equity in the land; he banished malediction, violence and strife, and set the monthly Temple expenses at 90 gur of barley, 30 sheep, and 30 sila of butter. He fashioned the bronze sila-measure, standardized the one-mina weight, and standardized the stone weight of a shekel of silver in relation to one mina... The orphan was not delivered up to the rich man; the widow was not delivered up to the mighty man; the man of one shekel was not delivered up to the man of one mina."
800 BC used to be thought of as the time Homer was writing the Iliad and Odyssey, this is why that particular date was chosen as a starting point.

Karl Jaspers idea of individual, key axial age thinkers having  a profound influence on future philosophies and religions; in other words- one man making a big difference- is a concept that has a lot in common with  Helena Blavatsky's idea (circa 1875) that human culture is advanced by Golden Ones, or The Shining Ones (an idea repackaged by Philip Gardener).

As Karl Jaspers risked being sent to a concentration camp for being less than perfectly Aryan, he may have had an inexplicit agenda in believing that 'Aryans'  a word derived from Arya (noble,  noble ones) and defined by anthropologists of his time as  Indo-Iranian, could not have had any connection with the increase in knowledge during the so called Axial Age...


But the idea of an axial age does not go away:
"...violence and suffering seem to be a sine qua non of a spiritual quantum leap forward [link]"
To dismiss the religions that came before monotheism as unable to create 'a spiritual quantum leap' is unfair; it is also un-provable.

Is it true that war, famine and plague are good for people, that suffering teaches people compassion?

Or is it as equally reasonable to believe that children who have been brought up with violence accept its inevitability?

For what ever reason Iranian and Assyrian influences on Greek and Egyptian culture (let alone on Tibetan Buddhism- don't get me started!!!) are invisible; they are there though, wrapped up in 'Pythagoras', 'Orpheus' and 'Mithras' and finally in Christianity.

In other words, Iranian (can't keep using the term Persian) and Assyrian ideas became a part of Greek philosophy. For this to happen there does not need to be direct copying or transference, or conquest of whole concepts and ideas for this to be true.

Ideas don't respect borders or nationalities.

Hesiod's theogeny was influenced by Hittite myth, and the letters I'm typing now migrated from the Phoenician alphabet into the English.

The slip from polytheism to a profoundly 'Zoroastrian' monotheism probably began its migration via Assyrian culture.

In Greece the 'new' religion was centered around a new type of 'god' and a 'mystery' religion; promising a life beyond death for those who took a new way of life.

The idea that perhaps the soul is made of a spark of the Holy, and could ascend above the earth to other planets is an Orphic idea, recalling the Sepheroth of the Cabala, and the Akkadian idea of the stars as domains of the gods.

In the cult of Mithra, the Zoroastrian journey to the Isles of the Blessed, the realm of  'The lights without end' finally becomes a ladder to the stars.

The idea of the ascension of the soul up to heaven.

Orpheus represents a new  interpretation of the gods and of what god wants from humanity. The creation of mankind myth in the Orphic myths,
explains our nature- both monstrous and godlike.

Soul trapped in matter...
Religion moved from immanence towards transcendence.
The soul must be liberated.

The location of the land of the dead stopped being the underworld; it became at first simply far away, the Islands of the Blessed, somewhere far away over the horizon.

The first step that the soul of man made, 
placed him in the good thought paradise;
the second step . . . in the good word paradise;
the third step . . . in the good deed paradise;
the fourth step . . . in the endless lights."
—The Abodes Of The Soul, Zend-Avesta