Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Arrival of the idea of Being

We can never recover the first instance when it occurred to someone that the character of living experience might be determined by the nature of reality itself, and that this exalted reality had a quite different nature to that manifested in the world of sense and experience. In other words, that the nature of reality was something quite other than that which could be determined by common sense. However it is possible to show that this kind of insight is not uncommon, and that it even can occur to a mind entirely unprepared for it by education, either in the present day, or in the past.

Many accounts of these odd insights into a different order of reality are presented in terms of mystical experiences, in which some aspect of the divine is encountered, or a strange exultation is experienced, or the entirety of the world is seen to be encompassed by a single grain of sand. But not all perceptions of the other nature of Reality present themselves in such poetic images.

This is a study of an idea: an idea which (I argue) underpins much of religious belief both in the present and in the ancient past, and the relation of religious ideas to the practice of philosophy, principally in the form of dialectical inquiry. This, expressed in one of a multitude of ways, is the idea of ‘the end’, the ‘telos’, of ‘completion’, and the nature of the ground of reality. The reality which simply is, and which does not move – and cannot move without breaching its integrity, is in essence the completion of completions, the end of ends, and was so understood. This is Being.

What is the essence of this theory of Being, from the point of view (first of all) of the historians of philosophy? Essentially they argue that it is a development of the concept of existence apart from its specific instances. That is, what it is to be, or to be real, in the abstract.[1] The appearance in text of the abstraction of the idea of Reality from specific, concrete instances, is read by modern scholarship as the first indication of the capacity for pure abstraction, so that for the first time it is possible to talk about things – concepts – which can have no specific instance, such as Being, Reality, Beauty, Justice, etc., but which, conceptually speaking, can be understood as lying behind specific instances. These questions are first clearly evidenced in the works of the Greeks: among the Presocratic philosophers, and most fully developed in the dialogues of Plato and the treatises of Aristotle.

This book does not deviate significantly from the contemporary scholarly idea that a theory of Being concerns existence apart from specific instances, and also key questions about the nature of reality in the abstract. It does however differ from the view of the historians of philosophy in that it does not read the first appearance of explicit discussion of the nature of Being and of Reality as the marker of its first discussion. Rather such evidence is just what it is: the first explicit discussion which we have available to us – created in a very specific set of circumstances. There is suggestive evidence that questions of Being were already current in the ancient world, and that the writings of the Greeks sometimes show their debt to these earlier sources.

Though framed as a historical study of its subject, this study is not intended to be definitive: we must walk before we can run, and such a history would be premature [2]. It is instead an exploratory survey of the cultural importance and pervasive scope of the idea of the end as a technical concept, a concept with a grammar and syntax of its own, which can be traced back (in iconographic, literary, and metrical terms) beyond the earliest direct documentary evidence. As a pioneering work, it is subject to errors of interpretation and detail, as all such works are. However, it would be disastrous for the progress of scholarship if the fear of making errors were to prevent the discussion of difficult subjects. I am sufficiently confident of the soundness of the general thesis to present it here, in a form refined by nearly thirty years of study.

By 1987 I understood that there was an important connection between the idea of kingship and completion in both Mesopotamia [3] and in Egypt [4], and was intrigued by the fact that completion was similarly an important idea in Greek philosophy, and, in the writings of both Plato and Aristotle, was also associated with kingship. Yet philosophy was supposed to be a Greek creation, without significant parallel conceptions in Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The importance of the concepts of completion and the limit in antiquity are inadequately explained by the scholarship of the past two centuries. The presence, the ubiquity of these concepts, reflected in some way at all levels of society, and across the whole range of ancient civilisations in the Near East and in Europe, implies the ubiquity of a teleological model of the world. In Greece itself, it is possible to trace the existence of this model at least as far back as Hesiod and Homer, which means the 8th and 9th centuries B.C.E., some four or five centuries before Plato and Aristotle, in whose works the concepts of completion and the telos form the backbone of many arguments.

For both Plato and Aristotle, the idea of completion is firmly associated with idea of the telos, and both ideas are involved in the definition of the Good, which is how these philosophers referred to the concept of absolute Being.[5] It is of course possible to accord importance to limits and ends without the presence of a teleological view of the world in support, and therefore the presence of a theory of Being. Even in such profoundly secular times we mark our passage through life with moments of explicit boundary crossing and transformation. However, where the terminology of limits and ends is used in a way which adapts the concepts to people, actions, objects, buildings, etc., then something more profound is involved.[6] Aristotle, for example, would speak of bricks existing for the final cause which was the house they complete; and Plato famously said that an individual existed for the sake of the end, and not the end for the sake of the individual. The context of this kind of usage, where these concepts form part of a coherent implex[7] of technical ideas, is what is of interest here.

A problem which has to be confronted however, is the axiomatic presumption of the scholarly, philosophical and theological communities that the concept of Being was not significantly understood before Socrates, and the assumption that it first receives forensic public discussion in the pages of Plato.[8] For instance, Henri Frankfort (et al.) in Before Philosophy, makes no mention at all of the concept of Being, or of a theory of Being, until the close of the book, where the legacy of the human intellectual adventure is being discussed. The index features three mentions of ‘Being,’ all referencing this final section. [9]

The reason why it is presumed that man thought about the world without a theory of being before the rise of classical philosophy is twofold – firstly, since the nineteenth century, there has been a general presumption that man has been refining his intellectual faculties, with the corollary being that the cognitive act of abstraction was less well developed in antiquity than it is now. Thus conceptions in antiquity were necessarily of a concrete nature.

Secondly, there is in existence apparently no theoretical discussion of theological matters (at least identifiable as such) of the kind which we find in the pages of Plato, or in the theologians of the Christian Church in the Middle Ages. This absence is taken, of itself, to indicate that in the early first millennium B.C.E. the philosophical discussion of theology, or matters related to theology, (such as the characteristics of ‘the One’, or ‘the Infinite’, etc.) was not practised at all, and that in all probability, was beyond the intellectual capacity of ancient man. [10] In short, the presumption of the presence of a theory of Being behind ancient discourse upon the world, in the form of myth ritual, symbol and icon, has no place in our approach to an understanding of antiquity. Not even as a hypothesis.

There is an important blind-spot in philosophical writings of the modern period however. This blind-spot can be characterised as an unwillingness or inability to address the possibility that reality might best be understood as a paradoxical matrix, in either contemporary discussion, or in earlier times. Writers in the 17th century say things like: ‘it is obvious that nothing can come from nothing’, and seem happy to rest on the assumptions of common sense. [11]

The essence of this common-sense approach is the assumption that the Aristotelian laws of logic – that a thing is itself; that a thing is either itself or something else; and that a thing is not something other than itself – are applicable in discussion or theorizing about the nature of the ur-reality underpinning the world of everyday experience, of description, including mathematical description, and that the world of everyday common sense experience and our understanding of it is in no way affected by the ur-reality and its properties. [12]

This is a strange assumption, and must seem so to anyone familiar with the religions and philosophies of the east which have their origins in antiquity. But the assumption is there. Plato's work does not enshrine paradox. We assume that we know this for sure because of Plato's demolition of the contradictions apparent in the argument of Parmenides about the One. If he demolished these arguments, he himself cannot have held such views about the nature of reality, in any shape or form. Yet he says very similar things in various parts of his extensive canon. He also explicitly says that certain characteristics of the forms allow them to 'pass into one another'. 

Pass into one another? It is obvious that this doctrine is not at all compatible with the Aristotelian laws of thought. Scholars have not been very alert to the fact that Plato is sometimes playful and mischievious by seeming to hold different views in different dialogues. It isn't simply,  as has been asserted, a matter of our lack of knowledge of the chronology and the development of his thought over time. He is trying to get us to think about what he is saying. What he appears to be saying is that, at one and the same time, ideas of the nature of reality are demolished by the use of logical argument, and yet these same ideas are nevertheless the case


[1] The study of Being is often referred to as ‘ontology’. It has two aspects – discussion of the nature of Being itself, and discussion of the ways in which we might understand the nature of Being. For those of an idealist tendency, it is often used to mean the study of the properties of Reality.  In modern times what we casually refer to as having existence (the raven, the cat, the table, etc.) have no real existence to the idealist, since these things do not (and cannot) have the properties and characteristics attributed to what might be referred to as the ground of true Being – the underlying Reality behind a world of appearances.
[2] Much of the evidence discussed in this book concerns the 1st millennium B.C.E. Professional historians and archaeologists are well aware that the history of the 1st millennium is a great deal less clear and certain than the lay public thinks, and therefore currently it would be extremely difficult to produce a satisfactory narrative account of the history of ideas in the 1st millennium B.C.E.
[3] The Akkadian term for king is ‘šar’, which also is a technical term indicating a completion. Herodotus was familiar with the Babylonian ‘Saros’ measure.
[4] Completion is a concept which appears in Akhenaten’s ‘Hymn to the Aten’, in connection wth both the birth of a chick from its shell, and the rising of the sun above the horizon on its daily voyage around the sky. Divinity is indicated in Egypt by the enclosure of the royal name in a cartouche, which is a representation of a length of rope, similar to that used to mark off an enclosure, a temenos, the foundations of a temple or city, or anything which has real being or existence.
[5] ‘Being’ was discussed as an abstract concept using the term ‘ontos’. All instances of Being were understood to be subsumed in the Good as the supreme end, for which all other ends exist. As such individual instances of Being were formal resemblances of the absolute Being upon which they depend for their reality.
[6] A modern illustration of the difference might be the way we refer to a head of state. We would have no difficulty referring to this person as the ‘head of his country’, or as ‘the political apex of his people’. We might also speak of him as ‘first among equals’, without quite understanding the origin of that phrase. But we would not speak of him as ‘perfected’, as ‘completed,’ or even 'the image of the divine.' Neither would we speak of him as the final cause of various actions and statuses in other individuals. Yet this is precisely how the ancients often speak.
[7] The use of the term ‘implex’ is borrowed from Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill, Macmillan, 1969. The authors used this term to refer to a body of concepts related to each other, but difficult to separate in a sequential or narrative structure. Rather they related to each other in the way in which a series of variations on a theme might form part of a fugue.
[8] The same is held to be true of the idea of infinity. The reason we have any discussion of these ideas from Greece at all is the result of a rare separation of philosophy and religion in Attica.
[9] Frankfort, Henri, (Mr & Mrs); Jacobsen, Thorkhild; Wilson, John.A., Before Philosophy, Chicago, 1946 [original title: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man]
[10] In the late nineteenth century and up until at least the last third of the twentieth century, this historic absence of the philosophic discussion of the divine was often seen within the frame of human evolution, so that the absence was explained in terms of our subsequent biological development toward a capacity to think in abstract terms. There never was any biological evidence for this, and no-one would mount such an argument today. Nevertheless, the idea of an intellectual development within historic time remains, at least as a cultural phenomenon. There was also a racist presumption that the Orient differed from the Occidental nations in their capacity to do philosophy at all. Within such a model of reality, there is both a disincentive to look for traces of philosophical thought in the ancient East, and an ever-present need to downgrade whatever traces are actually found. I recall a few years ago an Egyptologist stating that a symbol which had for some time been taken to indicate an unlimited number (i.e., the idea of infinity) meant no such thing, but rather a concrete conception of a limited (but very large) number. He was probably correct to say this. But it was clear that his purpose was to dismiss the idea that the Egyptians could have conceived the abstraction of infinity. The enlightenment notion of the primitive stupidity of ancient peoples took root before a single hieroglyphic text was deciphered, and it is at least a little odd that the judgements of scholars without access to a single word of ancient Egyptian are often borne out by subsequent research.
[11] John Locke is the case in point, who wrote this in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690); he regarded it as common sense that nothing could be generated from nothing. William Law expressed a similar sentiment. In both cases the assumption is that the Aristotelian laws of logic hold in a realm which is defined as transcendent of our own. This is a rather big and somewhat illogical assumption.
[12] Aristotle himself identified that insight involved the transcendence of a paradoxical situation, so that passing beyond an apparent contradiction resulted in understanding.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Divine and the Limit

This is an extract from a document (not a chapter in The Sacred History of Being) which was put together as part of a project to understand the role and function of the threshold and the boundary in Mesopotamia in general, and Assyria in particular. The purpose of this part of the document was to explore parallel cultural concerns with thresholds and boundaries elsewhere in the ANE, and also around the Mediterranean.  The extract concerns ancient Rome. I've not changed the footnote numbers, so since this is an extract, they start at 26.

In exploring these details, over a long period and in some depth, it is hard not to have the disturbing feeling that often, much of what we have understood to be the 'religion' of a culture, isn't anything of the sort, but a form of public show, which actually disguises what is regarded as important. As noted below, at sacrifices, the name of Janus was mentioned before that of Jupiter. Jupiter is supposed to be the supreme god of the Romans! There are strong connections between the public faces of the gods and the underlying ideas concerning reality of course, but often they aren't spelled out, or are otherwise glossed in a manner which misdirects those who do not belong to the priestly class.

I'm not referring to the traditional distinction that academics make between theology as the core of a religion, and the exoteric show as its external expression.These details are esoteric in nature, and exist below the surface level of whatever theology can be discovered.  In Assyria the role of the Sacred Tree is a perfect example. Its image is everywhere, but there is no formal discussion of it anywhere which survives. It plays a role in shaping their theology we know, but it seems that, like the Kabbalah for many centuries, its significance and use was confined to oral communication and discussion.

A short study of the significance of the threshold in Mesopotamia and Assyria will be published separately. The role and function of the Assyrian Sacred Tree is extensively discussed in The Sacred History of Being.


Temple of Janus represented on 
sestertius ca 65 CE,  reign of Nero Augustus.

...The Romans also had a tradition of veneration of the boundaries and limits of things. Oskar Seyffert describes the god Janus as ‘A god peculiar to the Italians, with no corresponding divinity among the Greeks’. However, the lack of a corresponding divinity does not mean the importance of limits and boundaries to their patterns of belief was unknown to the Greeks. Seyffert continues that ‘even the ancients were by no means clear as to his special significance; he was, however, regarded as one of the oldest, holiest, and most exalted of gods’.

Of course, if the special significance of Janus was close to the heart of Roman religion, an absence of discussion might, rather than signifying a lack of clarity about his special significance, mean quite the opposite, and that the written tradition is quite misleading as to the Roman understanding of Janus, at least within the priestly community.

 ‘In Rome the king, and in later times the rex sacrōrum, sacrificed to him’*26 'At every sacrifice he was remembered first; in every prayer he was the first invoked, being mentioned even before Jupiter’. Which is indication of high status. If we recall the remarks of Pythagoras on what comes first and why, we can see that the significance of Janus is extremely important indeed. This is further emphasised by the fact that ‘in the songs of the Salii (‘jumpers’ or dancers) he was called the good creator, and the god of gods; he is elsewhere named the oldest of the gods and the beginning of all things’ *27. The Salii were an old Italian college of priests of Mars, said to have been originally introduced at Rome by Numa Pompilius, the legendary 2nd king of Rome. He was said to be a native of Cures in the Sabine country, and was elected king a year after the death of Romulus.

William Smith says that ‘he was renowned for his wisdom and piety; and it was generally believed that he derived his knowledge from Pythagoras’*28. Given that the foundation of Rome is traditionally 753 B.C.E., this is impossible, since Numa and Pythagoras would have been two centuries apart. However the fact that later the institutions of Numa were associated with Pythagorean influence suggests that there was a perception of a relationship between the doctrines of Pythagoras and the foundation of Roman religion. Smith continues: ‘…he devoted his chief care to the establishment of religion among his rude subjects’, and to giving them appropriate forms of worship. He was instructed by the Camena Egeria (Aegeria), one of the twelve nymphs in Roman mythology. Numa later dedicated the grove in which he had his interviews with the goddess, in which a well gushed forth from a dark recess, to the Camenae.* 29

Seyffert continues regarding Janus: ‘It would appear that originally he was a god of the light and of the sun, who opened the gates of heaven on going forth in the morning and closed them on returning at evening’. Rather, Janus, being the divinity associated with boundaries, is associated with gates, crossings, risings and settings, beginnings and endings, and the daily movement of the sun is the most important visible instance of beginnings and endings. In course of time (Seyffert suggests) ‘he became the god of all going out and coming in, to whom all places of entrance and passage, all doors and gates were holy’ [my italics]. Seyffert, writing in the late 19th century, is assuming an evolution of the nature of the god. He continues:

In Rome all doors and covered passages were suggestive of his name. The former were called ianuae; over the latter, the arches which spanned the streets were called iani 

which Seyffert suggests, ‘is a term perhaps symbolical of the vault of heaven’*30. Many of these were expressly dedicated to him, especially those ‘which were situated in markets and frequented streets, or at crossroads’. In the case of crossroads, Seyffert tells us that ‘they were adorned with his image, and the double arch became a temple with two doors, or the two double arches a temple with four’. The way Janus was generally represented was ‘as a porter with a staff and a key in his hands, and with two bearded faces placed back to back and looking in opposite directions.’

Further, he is also the god of entrance into a new division of time, and was therefore saluted every morning as the god of the breaking day (pater matutinus); the beginnings of all the months (the calends) were sacred to him, as well as to Juno; and, among the months, the first of the natural year, which derived from him Ianuarius. For sacrifices on the calends twelve altars were dedicated to him; his chief festival, however, was the 1st of January, especially as in B.C. 153 this was made the official beginning of the new year. On this day he was invoked as the god of good beginnings, and was honoured with cakes of meal called ianuae; every disturbance, every quarrel, was carefully avoided, and no more work was done than necessary to make a lucky beginning of the daily business of the year; mutual good wishes were exchanged, and people made presents of sweets to one another as a good omen that the new year might bring nothing but that which was sweet and pleasant in its train.

The beginning of the year is a time when a major change occurs, and is marked by ceremony and ritual. For the Romans, this juncture of the year, like every other juncture over which Janus presided, was a region in which change was more possible, more likely, than at any other time. Therefore any immoderate behaviour, any departure from the normal daily pattern of life, whether through a quarrel or some other unpleasantness, might easily have taken root, and they might have found their whole lives dislocated as a result.

Seyffert continues that: ‘the origin of all organic life, and especially all human life, was referred to him; he was therefore called consivius (‘sower’). From him sprang all wells, rivers, and streams; in this relation he was called the spouse of Juturna*31, the goddess of springs, and father of Fontus*32, the god of fountains’. And:

As the god of coming and going and of traffic, he had power not only on land, but also on sea; he was therefore described as the husband of the sea-goddess Venilia*33 and as the discoverer of the art of shipbuilding. For this reason the Romans bore the impression of a ship on the obverse of the head of Janus.

In addition to this, in connexion with war:

... he was known in the fane founded by Numa near the ancient Forum, as Ianus Quirinus. When war was declared,the consul opened the double doors of this sanctuary and summoned the Roman youths capable of bearing arms to march through it with him. As long as war continued, the doors stood open, but on the declaration of peace they were closed. From the time of Numa to the year of the birth of Christ, this happened on four occasions only, and twice in the reign of Augustus. While Janus appears as the most ancient of the Roman gods, he is at the same time named as the most ancient king of the land, who dwelt upon the Janiculum on the right bank of the Tiber, and erected a temple to the gods and gave a friendly reception to Saturn. In very late times, he is represented with a bearded and an unbearded face; and, instead of his having the usual attributes of the key and the staff, the fingers of his right hand exhibit the number 300, and those of his left hand the number of the remaining days of the year.


26 the Rex Sacrōrum (or Rex Sacrificulus: ‘king of sacrifice’), was the name given by the Romans to a priest who, after the abolition of the royal power, had to perform certain religious rites connected with the name of king’. Thus, like the Greeks, the king formerly occupied a key role in the religious and cult activity of the Romans. ‘He resembles the archon basileus of the Athenian constitution. He was always a patrician, was elected for life by the pontifex maximus with the assistance of the whole pontifical college (of which he became a member), and was inaugurated by the augurs. Although he was externally of high rank and, like the pontifex maximus, had an official residence in the Regia, the royal castle of Num, and took the chair at the feasts and other festivities of the pontifices, yet in his religious authority he ranked below the pontifex maximus, and was not allowed to hold any public office, or even to address the people in public. His wife (like the wives of the flamens) participated in the priesthood….’ Seyffert also says that the rex sacrorum used to ‘summon the people to the Capitol on the calends and nones of each month’ (in the days before the knowledge of the calendar became general), ‘and to announce the festivals for the month. On the calends he and regina sacrificed, and at the same time invoked Janus…’.

27 Seyffert, Oskar, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, [rev & ed. by Nettleship and Sandys], 1906, 'Janus'.
28 Smith, William Smaller Classical Dictionary, 1891Janus'
29 the Camenae being the fountain nymphs who belong to the ancient religion of Italy, and which are sometimes identified with the muses.
30 19th century philology tended to the view that many of the gods developed from a primitive picture of the sky and the sun, and that the etymology of the names of the gods reflected this.
31 Juturna (Diuturna) was the nymph of a fountain in Latium (according to Smith), famous for its healing qualities, whose water was used in most sacrifices. A pond in the forum, between the temples of Castor and Vesta, was called Lacus Juturnae. The nymph is said to have been beloved by Jupiter, who rewarded her with immortality and dominion over the waters…’
32 According to Seyffert, Fontus was the Roman god of springs, son of Janus and Juturna, who had an altar in Rome on the Janiculum. A special festival, the Fontinalia, was held in his honour on the 13th October, at which garlands were thrown into the springs, and laid round the wells.
33 Venilia was a nymph, daughter of Pilumnus, sister of Amata, wife of king Latinus, and mother of Turnus and Juturna by Daunus [Smith: Venilia]

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Beyond the Religious Impulse

Millions of words have been written on the subject of human religion, and its origin, in the past two centuries or so. These words have been written in an intellectual and cultural landscape, in the western world at least, that has a very clearly defined structure. This means that each new writer on the subject of religion has had to negotiate these, while framing arguments which add to the sum of human knowledge, and which make sense of the data which is available to us.

The discipline of archaeology has given us a treasure trove of data which we did not have even a century ago, so that it is possible for us to analyse the past to a level of detail which can be quite revealing. Many of the things understood and believed by scholars in the nineteenth century have lost all value, except in terms of waymarkers in the development of a rational response to the evidence for the past.

The archaeologist James Mellaart, who was brilliant, but who did not entirely have the confidence of other scholars for one reason and another, once said in a lecture that ‘the important bit of evidence is always missing’. Meaning that there is no reason at all why the simple act of digging should provide materials which answer the questions you want to ask.

It is also true that the important bit of evidence is sometimes present, but often isn’t recognised, because the scholar is asking the wrong questions, and possibly asking questions within the wrong analytical paradigm. So there is in fact a very large quantity of material available to scholars which can tell us much about the intellectual life of the ancient world, but because of the contemporary intellectual and cultural landscape, with its fixed and defined structure developed over many years, it simply cannot be seen for what it is.

The most common explanation for the human insistence on the reality of the divine, and its long existence, stretching as it does, back (at least) into the Palaeolithic, if rock art is any guide, is that it is an intuitive and natural response to the nature of the reality which presents itself to man. That is undoubtedly part of the explanation, but it has an enormous weakness, in that there is nothing about this response which offers an explanation of any of the complexity of human religious observance and understanding. Of that we have only a phenomenological understanding; we can describe the phenomena represented to us in the evidence of texts and ritual objects, burial sites, temples, etc, and we can infer certain things about the ancient perception of reality, and of the nature of the divine, on the basis of these, usually within a comparative framework.

Analysis of a phenomenon within a comparative framework is always hazardous, because it is necessary to determine what is comparable. It may be the case that apparent parallels are simply phenomenal coincidences, without any deeper common meaning, and so the comparison is misleading. The comparative choices, and the nature of the decisions made in connection with them, have bedevilled comparative study of ancient patterns of thought concerning the divine since modern comparative study began. I remember the archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson’s confidence in interpreting the monument of Stonehenge as a place of the dead early in the first decade of this new century. He interpreted the routes to the monument, by water and land, as a processional route from some formerly existing and similar monuments made of wood (Durrington Walls and Woodhenge), and read from the whole array that the processional route symbolised passing from life to death.

This easy interpretation even sounds as though it belongs to the late nineteenth century, in its approach and assumptions. Why was he so confident of his interpretation? The answer is that he had met someone from Madagascar, where they have stone structures too, who told him that stone monuments are places of the dead.

So many questions could be asked! Why should practice and meaning in Madagascar be comparable with practice and meaning in Stonehenge? How does the Madagascan know about the meaning of stone monuments in Madagascar – is it still a current practice, and therefore it is possible to ask people what it means? If it is a current practice, why should it be the case that it reflects an earlier understanding of what it might have meant to build these things some four thousand years ago? If it isn’t a current practice, then what basis is there at all for conjuring an interpretation from the stones which is then used to interpret the meaning of Stonehenge?

Underneath this interpretation is the unpleasant notion that the strangeness of the ancient world arises from an essentially irrational view of reality, which we do not share because we are rational creatures (in this case a post-processual academic archaeologist of some standing). If we want to gain an insight into irrational phenomena, we need to find someone to ask who might still be in touch, in some way, with an understanding of that irrationality.


Scholars are looking for a simple set of solutions to the question of the origin of the religious impulse, because we imagine it must be simple. It is after all a universal phenomenon which has existed almost from time immemorial. But it isn’t the case that the set of solutions needs to be simple. It does however need to have been intelligible to the group which first mooted the idea of the divine, as does the idea of connection between man and the divine. Not everyone needs to understand the actual detail of how god was first understood by man, and the nature of the basis of the idea that man can have some kind of connection with the divine. What is necessary is the existence of such ideas. Human beings will do the rest.

So much of modern life depends on things we don’t understand in any real sense – technology, as Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out, if sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic. But we are able to live our lives on the basis of the knowledge of the functionality of our technology. The function of computers, phones, cameras and televisions is deliberately made simple, otherwise we would not know how to use them, or perhaps even understand how they might be of use to us. When I was a child of about six or seven, I was taught how to count in binary, and also taught how to draw flow diagrams. This was because at the time (the early sixties), this was the sort of knowledge it was imagined would be necessary for people to be able to use computers in the future. Which turned out to be wrong. I’ve had occasion to use this knowledge (rarely), only because I’ve worked professionally in the development of information technology. Very few people outside this relatively narrow group of techno-priests have any idea at all of the practical workings of the technologies they use.

What we identify as the religious impulse is what is phenomenally observed by us, both in the present, and also in the archaeological and literary record, where it takes some very strange forms. This evidence does not give us clear explanation of why our ancestors conceived of both the idea of the divine, and the idea that some sort of human-divine commerce could take place. In the absence of such a clear explanation, we follow the line of least resistance, and assume that the explanation lies in the credulity of the human mind, and that therefore what lies beneath the phenomena we observe is essentially irrational. On this basis, it is hard for scholars to see the history of religions as anything other than an interminable procession of human foolishness through time.

Yet there are many people for whom the human response to the divine is still more important to them than anything else that civilisation has made. They do not know why things are as they imagine them to be, but at some level, the notion of the divine makes profound sense. They need to live their lives in relation to the  observance of the reality of God.


 Much of The Sacred History of Being is an exploration of a hypothesized noumenal core of rational ideas about the nature of the divine, which also provides explanation for the idea that the divine and the world of time and space are in some way interwoven. This hypothesized noumenal core, and its nature, I inferred from surviving discussion which took place in antiquity, and close examination of the detail of ancient liturgy, ritual, and art. Some of the evidence is not obscure, and has been in circulation for a very long time, including materials which appear in the Old and New Testaments. It simply isn't seen for what it is. Other evidence comes from Mesopotamian texts, particularly from ancient Assyria.

Rational argument provides a basis for both the nature and reality of the divine, and also for the existence of connexion between the divine and the secular world. We have this discussion first from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE. In the place where the argument is made most explicitly, the conclusion to the discussion is not given. This is to be expected, since it represents an esoteric core of understanding of reality, and therefore a matter of great importance to any group who had religious doctrine built upon it. The nature of the conclusion is profoundly counter-intuitive, which is another reason why only the reasoning was given, and not the conclusion. But it can be figured out.

This counter-intuitive conclusion implies some extraordinary things about the nature of reality in general, and about the nature of material existence. The most striking thing is how closely the implications of this conclusion mirror known models of reality which have been in circulation in various parts of the world since the 2nd millennium BCE.

It is possible to extrapolate from the implications of this argument some things which would have become a focus of special interest to any priestly group who followed the logic of this kind of argument about the nature of reality. The Sacred History of Being discusses both the nature of the divine which emerges as a consequence of this argument, and its implications for the relationship between the divine and the world, plus the mechanics of the kind of interaction which can be predicted to take place. In addition it is possible to specify particular aspects of the world of existence which have the most powerful resonance with the divine world. Some of these were already known on the basis of the observance of these phenomena by ancient societies, but it wasn’t clear why they were accorded such importance.

Now it is possible to focus also on similar resonances, which might not already have been noticed. So the hypothesis has turned into a (so far tentative) reconstruction of a view of the world which was in existence around the Mediterranean and in the ancient near east in the 1st millennium at least, and most likely also in the 2nd millennium. This model is capable of making predictions about what may be found in the evidence, and can also be falsified on the basis of whether or not it is supported by the evidence.

Thomas Yaeger, 14th May 2015 (edited 15th May).

Monday, 11 May 2015

70 Million Animal Mummies: Egypt's Dark Secret

There was an interesting item in the running order of the Today Programme this morning (11th May 2015) on BBC Radio 4:
0740 am
Scientists have discovered that most of the animal mummies sold to Ancient Egyptians as religious offerings had little or no animal remains in them. Researchers estimate that up 70 million animals may have been mummified by the Ancient Egyptians, in a large scale industry which included factory farming. Dr Lidija Mcknight is an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, she has spent 15 years working on this research.

[The link to the broadcast recording was at: [Scroll to 1.45.50, which is the actual time the interview was broadcast. Recording no longer available 25 June 2015].

That’s quite a lot of mummies! But over three thousand years of Egyptian history that works out at around 23,300 per year, assuming the practice remained at the same level throughout. Or around 442 per week across the whole country. That’s about 70 per day, assuming that the mummifiers didn’t stop for weekends. I’m not sure that counts as a ‘large scale industry’ and ‘factory farming’. But they weren’t all cats, and included larger bodied animals, up to and including bulls. Perhaps various animals were more popular as gifts to the gods in some periods than in others, but we probably don’t have that level of detail available to us, except in a small number of cases.

The interview was with Lidija Mcknight, who has been using radiological imaging and other scanning techniques to explore animal mummies in a non-destructive way. The purpose of the interview was to promote a TV programme, ‘70 Million Animal Mummies: Egypt's Dark Secret,’ to be broadcast on the same evening at 9pm on BBC2. This programme is part of the Horizon series, which focusses mainly on science and research subjects. The key theme of the interview was that a surprising number of the mummies they investigated did not contain any of the expected contents – around 30 per cent of those that they examined (which is different to the suggestion made in the running order for the programme, which says ‘most’). So an apparently mummified cat might not contain any cat remains at all.

A number of explanations were offered, including that those providing the mummified cats, which were a popular offering to the gods, simply could not keep up with the demand, and resorted to using other materials. It was speculated that these might have been simply stuffing materials lying around the workshop, or perhaps the mummifiers were using materials which did have some sacred qualities, on account of where and how they might have been sourced. We were given some indication of the materials they found inside the mummies: these included reeds, mud, and eggshells. The possibility was mentioned that it was, for the purpose of the gift to the gods, not necessary for the cat mummies to contain cat remains – the offering would be considered sufficiently sacred on the basis of its contents.

The order of the explanations offered is interesting, since it starts from the one likely to be the most intelligible to a modern audience, which also is the most cynical: the animal mummy specialists were sometimes pulling a fast one on their customers. Which may be the dark secret. Knowledge isn’t much advanced by telling a modern audience that times never change. Times do change, which is why doing research into animal mummification is interesting and important.

It is hard now to communicate how important the concept of the sacred was in the ancient world, and how sophisticated it was. A phenomenon of ancient civilisation, which pervaded every aspect of life, and at this great distance, one which is scarcely intelligible to us.

The last explanation offered is likely to be the correct one, though no further discussion took place during the interview about why the offerings might be considered sufficiently sacred on the basis of the contents - whether actual animal, or reed, mud and eggshell. It will be interesting to see if the full documentary does elaborate on the sacred connotations of what they found.

[The programme will be available shortly after the 9pm (BST) broadcast ends, and will remain available (within the UK) for 29 days, in line with the BBCs unfathomable access policy (I know how they explain it to themselves). ]

Update - Programme now available on YouTube (25th June 2015):

Horizon Season 54 Episode 8 70 Million Animal Mummies Egypt's Dark Secret
The hashtag for the documentary is #animalmummies. 

In an article published by the Washington post today, Dr Mcknight said:
These wildly popular votive offerings help to explain why Egyptians would want animal mummies that were actually empty or, in some cases, filled symbolic items such as feathers and egg shells.“We shouldn’t view animal mummification through our modern, subjective standpoint of fakery and everything being some kind of con,” McKnight said. “There was probably much more to it than that and there was probably a much more innocent explanation for what was going on. The materials that they were using was just as important as the animals themselves.”


Mud and reeds recall stories of the creation, and the primeval mound of mud in the waters. Reeds also are symbolic of coming into existence, of generation, emerging as they do along the edges of waterways, and in the Nile Delta. The symbol of the cosmic egg sometimes stands in for the primeval mound. The image of the chick emerging from its eggshell is used in Akhenaten’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’. So these three things – mud, reed and eggshell recall as images the circumstances in which existence comes into being.


Much of what we know about mummification procedure comes from Herodotus, who arrived on the scene rather late. It is unfortunate that so much Egyptian social anthropology comes from Greek sources. We also know about the processes from excavation and the unwrapping of mummies, which shows that procedures varied in different periods of Egyptian history. Modern experimental archaeology has told us that the use of dry natron results in more efficient dessication of the body, so not all we have been told is reliable. Until the last 15 years or so, there has not been a great deal of work done in the area of animal mummies, so the Manchester research is in new and interesting 
territory, and is telling us new things.

Review of the Programme (12 May 2015)

The quality of the documentary was high (not all offerings by the Horizon series over the past ten years have been so satisfactory). We got clear information about what the researchers are doing, and how they are acquiring new information. We also got contextual information about the role of votive offerings, which mummified animals represented, and an interpretation of why the cult was so popular (animals were regarded as messengers to the gods who could plead on behalf of the person who dedicated the offering). An instance of such observance based on a papyrus from someone who was concerned about the likelihood that his father would survive was quoted to illustrate this. That's detail!

The cult of mummification seems to have reached a peak in the late first millennium BCE, which suggests that the incidence of animal mummification in earlier centuries might have been very much lower. Which indeed suggests that there was industrial production of mummies during the first millennium. Evidence was produced about diseased animals, which is what you would expect if they were being farmed in relatively confined circumstances. The geographic spread of the centres where mummy production was happening was also shown, but the chronology of this 'industrial' production was not clearly spelled out (it may not be known).

We also got a demonstration of experimental archaeology, with a piglet undergoing the process of mummification in the laboratory. The bandaging wasn't up to Egyptian standards, but that wasn't the point.

The cult of mummification probably ceased at about the time that Rome effectively proscribed the Egyptian religion by closing the temples in the fourth century CE.

We didn't get further detail about the contents of the ersatz mummies (sticks, reeds, mud and eggshell), but this wouldn't have made much sense to the general audience (even some Egyptologists), so I'm not surprised that they didn't include it. But odd to get more detailed information from a promotional interview than the actual documentary programme.

We never did find out what the 'dark secret' was. Just a clever promotional device. But I'm sure a lot of people watched it because of that title, who might not otherwise have watched.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Knowledge and Belief in Israel

Another sample chapter from The Sacred History of Being posted on this site, which looks in technical detail (as far as is possible at this distance) at the development of the idea of monotheism in Israel, is 'The Idea of Being in Israel'. Monotheism in Israel is nearly always read in the context of either a religious revelation or a dawning understanding that there is only one God. And that the revelation or the realization of the uniqueness of God represents some kind of cultural and intellectual triumph over the polytheism which prevailed elsewhere (and probably in Israel too, earlier in the 1st millennium BCE).

That is one way to tell the story. We tell it like that because the three major Abrahamic religions are all monotheistic, and are very uncomfortable with the idea of polytheism, which, without knowing too much about its nature or history, they regard as a species of error which afflicted the cultures which preceded their existence.

Polytheism from this point of view represents a failure of the purely human intellect to understand the nature of the divine. Polytheism is therefore a barbarous phenomenon, and is irretrievably associated with all that is coarse and unintelligible in antiquity, along with the ritual actions which have been jettisoned along the way, such as the sacrifice of animals and men, divination by entrails and the liver, augury by birds, the use of oracles, sacred prostitution, and so on. Even as a child I caught the rank smell of polytheism and its association with all other sins. Polytheism was close to damnation itself.

The evidence however, can be read another way.

'The Idea of Being in Israel' looks at a variety of passages which refer to polytheism and the worship of other gods in several of the books of the Bible. Some of these can be interpreted as referring to experience of worship in early Israel, but other passages clearly reflect the experience of Babylonian religion and practice during the time of the exile. And we now know some interesting things about the scope and function of polytheism in Mesopotamia which make it possible for us to change our perspective on religious developments in Israel. We now have some notion of what kind of ideas were in circulation in Israel after the exile. And these ideas, perhaps borrowed from Mesopotamian sources, if they were not already present as part of the cultural milieu of Israel, were quite sophisticated.

The polytheism of Mesopotamia was not, as might be imagined, a loose array of different cults, without essential connection. This is not to dispute the long accepted argument that the ultimate origins of the individual cults were likely to be local and tribal for the most part, and that their importance changed over time. But Mesopotamian polytheism in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, is not what it has seemed to be. The clue as to what is going on is in the properties and attributes of their gods, not their names. These can be detached and transferred to other deities, or shared, which process we can detect at work in the liturgy of the Babylonian New Year Festival,  Enuma Elish.

These processes are not explored in 'The Idea of Being in Israel', but in other chapters in The Sacred History of Being. There are two main points made by this chapter however, which are relevant to our understanding of how divinity was understood in Israel during the time of its existence in the 1st millennium. The first is that there is rational argument about the nature of the divine and its worship going on, and the second is that the history of this argument has been garbled and reframed by later scholars who either did not fully understand the nature and scope of the argument, or otherwise chose not to understand it, for largely political reasons.

It is possible to read the emergence of monotheism in Israel as a prolonged theological and philosophical controversy, in which the nature of a deity without form, colour, and shape, similar in nature to ‘the one thing’ that we should look to, as referenced by Plato, is debated. This debate was mired in the complex politics of the time, with the overbearing presence and interference of Israel’s neighbour to the north east, Assyria. And so there was also a political aspect to the debate, which helps to explain some of the decisions that were made concerning representation and ritual practice, and sometimes their reversal or modification, which we learn of in a number of the books of the Old Testament. The treatment of images in the history of Israel (as we know it) is complex and often confusing, which may reflect the confusions present in Israel at the time.

A concept explored elsewhere in The Sacred History of Being is that the phenomenal polytheism of the Mesopotamian states of Assyria and Babylonia enshrined a profound and noumenal monotheism, in that it had at its very core the idea that it was focused on ‘looking to the one thing’, which was also, as in Greece, understood as without shape, colour or form, and that this focus can be traced back at least as far as the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. That is what the god Aššur actually represented, even when given shape and form. * 1

This may always have been an idea of the divine present in the religion of Israel, or it may have been borrowed from Mesopotamian sources. However, the violent struggle in Israel and the eventual triumph of the ‘Yahweh alone’ group, which compiled the documents in the Old Testament, mean that we do not know with any certainty the nature of religion in Israel during the first half of the 1st millennium BCE.

The documents - as we have them - tell us that there were other gods in Israel, both Canaanite and foreign, and that there were prohibitions issued against their worship. These prohibitions eventually took in religious iconography and religious objects, and later images of any kind. In the end, private religious practice was discouraged, save with a simple altar of earth. The final stage was the removal of private worship of Yahweh altogether, and communion with the god of Israel was centralised in the Temple at Jerusalem.  

As discussed elsewhere in The Sacred History of Being, in Greece and Mesopotamia divine images functioned as a part of a complex system, a chain of images of Being, to enable intellectual access to the most difficult of all images which might be apprehended by man or god: the one true thing, which is the nature of reality itself, and the source of all knowledge.  

Over time, the polytheistic show was entirely removed in Israel. The monotheism which emerged in Israel was necessarily no longer about access to knowledge of the divine and its apprehension - a mental discipline - but about belief. 


 1.     It is suggested that forms of polytheistic religion which are built around a noumenal and transcendent monotheism should be distinguished by a term other than polytheism, which restricts our capacity to discuss the phenomenon without confusion. ‘’Eidetic-monotheism’ could be used to define a monotheism which uses images to recall Being itself. ‘Monotheism’ would then indicate an idea of transcendent Being which is not accessible through images, and is not represented in any way, as in Israel in the later 1st millennium BCE. The term ‘polytheism’ then could be used to refer to assemblages of gods which are clearly not intended to function as a way of recalling Being itself. 

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Scope of Philosophy (I)

Philosophy in the middle of the 1st millennium BCE covered a large range of subject areas, including ontology, epistemology, justice, beauty, virtue, morals and ethics. The best way of getting an overview of its sheer range in the classical and post-classical worlds of antiquity is to look at the systematic arrangements created by Alexandrian scholars for the works of Plato. They did this for Plato because Plato was the philosopher whose canon of works was the most difficult to understand. The arrangments are not consistent with each other, but both reveal the scope of philosophical thought during the classical period.

There is also Aristotle's Protrepticus, which is an invitation to philosophy. Part of it survives in a text of Iamblichus. This unacknowledged addition to Iamblichus's text tells us something of how neophytes were to be attracted to philosophy. [It was common in antiquity not to reference all quotations, especially those which were likely to be well known to the author's readers. This is true in the case of the Protrepticus: most of Iamblichus's readers would have recognised its authorship immediately.]

Beyond the range of subjects covered, there are also the technical approaches to analysis and discussion of these subjects. The principal of these is dialectic, which is easily defined as the process of collection and division.

At the time K.F. Herman wrote his Life of Plato in the early nineteenth century, no means of establishing the chronology of the dialogues existed. In antiquity the dialogues were grouped thematically, according to the assumed method and purpose of the dialogues. This is how they are arranged by Diogenes Laertius in Bk iii ‘Plato’ [iii. 50-51] There was no agreement in antiquity however as to how these dialogues ought to be arranged. Diogenes gives another arrangement, that made by Thrasylus iii. 57-61; and an arrangement accepted by Aristophanes the grammarian iii. 62.

[see Sandys i.126: where he states that Aristophanes of Byzantium (c257 - c180 BCE) succeeded Eratosthenes as Librarian at Alexandria c195 BCE, and that he was the pupil of Zenodotus, Callimachus and Eratosthenes. It was he who “reduced accentuation and punctuation to a definite system” and devised marks to indicate spurious passages, tautologies, etc. Since Diogenes mentions similar (though not identical) critical marks in the texts of Plato he or perhaps his source would appear to have been using editions produced in Alexandria, or perhaps in the library of Pergamum around the time of Antigonus of Caryotus (author of a life of Zeno – see Diog. Laert. iii. 66): Sandys  History of Classical Scholarship vol. I.].

No simple list of Plato’s complete works is given by Diogenes as he does in the case of Aristotle and other philosophers.

I give the thematic arrangements of Diogenes and Thrasylus here. I've keyed the latter to Diogenes arrangement, which indicates just how hit and miss this approach is.

 Diogenes on the division of the Dialogues (iii. 49-50)

Logical A
Statesman, Crat., Parm., Soph.


Physical B

Ethical C
Apol., Crito, Phaed., Phaedr., Symp., Menex., Clitoph., Epistles, Phileb., Hipparchus., Rivals


Political D
Republic, Laws, Minos, Epinomis, Critias

Midwifery E
Alcibiades, Theages, Lysis, Laches

Mental Gymnastics (obstetrics)

Tentative F
Euthyphro, Meno, Io, Charmides, Theaetetus

Critical Objections G


Subversive H
Euthydemus, Gorgias, Hippias Maj. & Min.

Tetralogies of Thrasylus (Diog. Laertius ii. 57-61) 

Euthyphro or On Holiness;
Apology of Socrates;
Crito or On what is to be done ;
Phaedo or On the Soul.


Cratylus – On Correct Use of Names;
Theaet. – On Knowledge;
Sophist – On Being;
Statesman – On Monarchy.



Parmenides – On Ideas;
Philebus – On Pleasure;
Phaedrus – On Love.
Alcibiades – On the Nature of Man
2nd Alcibiades – On Prayer;
Hipparchus – Love of Gain;
Rivals – On Philosophy.



Theages – On Philosophy;
Charmides – On Temperance;
Laches – On Courage;
Lysis – On Friendship;


Euthyd. The Eristic;
Protag. Or Sophists;
Gorgias On Rhetoric;
Meno On Virtue
Hippias On Beauty;
Hippias On Falsehood;
Ion On the Iliad;
Menexenus Funeral Oration;

Clitophon (the Introduction);
Republic On Justice;
Timaeus On Nature;
Critias Story of Atlantis;

[in iii.60 Diog. Says Critias is ethical, but at iii.50 it is political, though not mentioned by name, only as a dialogue concerning Atlantis]

Minos On Law;
Laws; On Legislation;
Epinomis Nocturnal Council, or Philosopher;
Epistles (all 13) [Welfare]



We are very fortunate to have Diogenes Laertius' work, since it is the only historical account of philosophy surviving from antiquity which gives us details of the lives of the philosophers. We are unfortunate in the same regard, since Diogenes was a compiler, and a compiler of materials which sometimes he did not understand at all. It is often obvious when he is copying materials of much higher quality than appear elsewhere in his work. There are for example some details about the scope of Pythagoras's philosophy which he does not understand, but he includes them anyway, without useful context. I'm grateful to him for doing this, because sometimes it is possible to recognise the proper context from a reading of  other philosophers, such as Plato and Porphyry.

Not only have the other historical surveys of Greek philosophy disappeared, except as excerpted and copied in the pages of Diogene's Lives of the Philosophers, but it seems possible that the size of the work was greater in the late middle ages (14th century) than it is now, according to a statement by the monk Walter Burley.

Another puzzle about Diogenes is his date. He could have been writing anytime from the life of Sextus Empiricus, who he mentions, up until the 5th century of our era. But there are no mentions of the later platonists, who we know as neoplatonists.