Posts Tagged ‘Babylonia’

A Black Woman Visits Qatar’s Museum of Slavery

April 3, 2022

Very interesting video posted by Angela B. on her channel on YouTube. It was posted five years ago for Black history month. The hostess is an English-speaking Black woman, who lives in the Middle East. One of her parents is African, while the other comes from the Virgin Islands, which gives her a personal connection to the history of slavery. The video is her visit to a museum of slave trade in Qatar. This covers the history of slavery from ancient Greece and the use of enslaved Ethiopians in the bath houses, which understandably chills Angela B on what they saw and what they were used for – through the Atlantic slave trade and then the Arabic slave trade. It has animated displays and the voices of the enslaved describing their capture, the forced march through the desert during which many were left to die where they fell before arriving in Zanzibar, Kilwa and other east African islands under Arab suzerainty. The museum describes the enslavement of boys as pearl fishers and the abolition of slavery in Qatar in 1951. It also goes on to discuss the persistence of slavery in the modern world. Angela B is personally chilled, as someone with ancestors from the Virgin Islands, by the sight of the slave manacles in the museum. Interestingly, the explanatory panels in the museum also talk about serfdom in medieval Europe, which she doesn’t comment on. Serfdom is one of the numerous forms of unfree labour that is now considered a form of slavery by the international authorities. It’s interesting to see it referenced in an Arabic museum to slavery, when it is largely excluded from the debate over slavery in the West, which largely centres around the transatlantic slave trade. The recorded speech and voiceovers in the Museum are in Arabic, but the written texts are bilingual in Arabic and English.

The video’s also interesting in what the museum and Angela B include and comment on, and what they omit. There’s a bias towards Black slavery, though how much of this is the museum and how much Angela B obviously attracted to the part of the slave trade that affected people of her own race is debatable. Slavery was widespread as an unremarkable part of life in the Ancient Near East long before ancient Greece. There exist the lists of slaves working on the great estates from ancient Egypt, some of whom had definite Jewish names like Menachem. Slavery also existed among the Hittites in what is now Turkey, Babylonia and Assyria, but this isn’t mentioned in the video. If the museum doesn’t mention this, it might be from diplomatic reasons to avoid upsetting other, neighbouring middle eastern states. Or it could be for religious reasons. Islam regards the period before Mohammed as the ‘Jaihiliyya’, or ‘Age of Darkness’, and discourages interest in it. This is perhaps why it was significant a few years ago that the Saudi monarchy permitted the exhibition in the country’s museums of ancient Arabian pre-Islamic gods, except for those idols which were depicted nude. If the museum did include that era, then Angela B may have skipped over it because her video is concentrating and Black slaves. At the same time, the video doesn’t show the enslavement of White Europeans by the Barbary pirates and other Muslims. This may also be due to the same reason. The ancient Greeks used slaves in a variety of roles, including as craftsmen and agricultural labourers. Some of the pottery shows female sex slaves being used in orgies. There’s also a piece of pottery in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in the shape of a sleeping Ethiopian boy curled up around a wine pot. I wonder if the piece about enslaved Ethiopians serving as bath attendants was selected for inclusion in the museum because it was similar to forms of slavery they would have been familiar with.

The video’s fascinating because it, like another video about the Arab slave trade I posted and commented on a few days ago, it shows how the issue of slavery and Black civil rights has penetrated the Arab world. The other video included not only discussion of Libya’s wretched slave markets, but also covered modern Afro-Iraqis and their demand for civil rights and political representation. These are issues we really don’t hear about in the west, unless you’re an academic at one of the universities or watch al-Jazeera. But there’s also an issue with the museum. While it naturally condemns historic slavery, Qatar and the other Gulf Arab states effectively enslave and exploit the foreign migrant workers that come to the country. This has provoked protests and criticism at the country hosting the World Cup and one of the Grand Prix’.

Simon Webb on Black History’s Appropriation of Other Cultures

November 24, 2021

In this video, Simon Webb of History Debunked critiques another Black history book promoting racial propaganda and fake history. The book’s Black History Matters, published by Franklin. The book follows Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, published in the 1980s, in viewing ancient Egypt as not only a Black civilisation, but the ultimate source of western civilisation as its cultural achievements were taken over by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Webb states he read the book in the 1980s, and while it was interestingly written he thought it was a load of rubbish. Since its publication there has been further research into the ethnic origins of the ancient Egyptians, including DNA analysis. This has found that the ancient Egyptians didn’t descend from Black Africans, but were genetically related to the people’s of the ancient Near East, such as Mesopotamia. The Black component of the modern Egyptian genome was introduced later during the Arab occupation. The book has pages on ancient Egypt,, and at one point declares one of the manuscripts recovered to be a ground-breaking medical compendium. Well, sort of, but not really. It’s a collection of spells for use against various diseases. This was pretty much the standard practice in the ancient Near East at the time. Similar spells against disease are known from Babylon and the Hittite Empire. But it ain’t medicine as it’s now understood, Jim.

The book goes on to discuss Ethiopia, but neglects to mention that this was an Arab colony, as shown by the Semitic nature of its languages, Amharic and Tigrinya. These are descended from various South Arabian languages, like Sabaic, the language of the ancient kingdom of Sheba, now Marib, in Yemen. The book also discusses the Swahili civilisation without acknowledging that it, too, was the result of Arab colonisation. The Swahili culture was founded by Arabs from the Sultanate of Oman, who were also responsible for setting up a slave trade in east Africa. However, while there is plenty of material in the book on the transatlantic slave trade, there is absolutely nothing whatsoever on the Arab slave trade. This is despite the fact that the Arab slave trade captured and transported the same number of slaves as White Europeans.

The belief that the ancient Egyptians were Black and were the ultimate source for western culture is widespread in the Black community and passionately held. Much of it comes from the Senegalese Afrocentrist scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop in the 1960s, and Webb has also made a video debunking this fake history. It goes back further back, however, to Black American travellers to Egypt in the 19th century. It’s understandably based on a simple syllogism: Africa is the home continent of the Black race. Egypt is in Africa, therefore the ancient Egyptians were Black. There’s also a psychological need behind the identification of the ancient Egyptians as Black: much western scholarship before the rise of the modern Black power movements scorned African culture as worthless, and Blacks themselves as racially and intellectually inferior. This has created a need amongst Black activists to demonstrate their cultural and intellectual equality, if not superiority to Whites. And as the best known, and most magnificent ancient African civilisation, ancient Egypt fits this requirement. There also seems to be a conspiracy grown up about the Black identity of the ancient Egyptians as well. I remember being told by a Black American exchange student at College that the reason so many statues from Egypt missed their noses and lips was because they had been hacked off by those evil imperialist Victorians determined to hide their true race. As noses and lips are some of the features most likely to be chipped off over time, regardless of the race of the statue, I don’t believe that at all. But it shows the paranoia and racial suspicion among some Afrocentrists.

There have been a number of attempts outside of Afrocentric history to find an African component in ancient Egyptian civilisation. A few years ago archaeologists examining a number of mummies found that the features of their occupants were more characteristically African than the portraits on the cases. This fuelled speculation that, due to first the Greek and then the Roman domination of Egypt, indigenous Egyptians were deliberately having themselves painted to appear more European. If this was the case, it would come from the oppressive system of apartheid the Romans operated which reduced indigenous Egyptians to second class citizens. A head of Queen Tiyi, which has rather African features, was also adduced as proof that the ancient Egyptians were Black, or had some Black ancestry.

In the 1990s New Scientist also published a piece speculating about a prehistoric sub-Saharan contribution to ancient Egypt. An ancient stone circle had been found further south, and the central stone seemed to be roughly carved to resemble a cow. The archaeologists behind the discovery speculated that the circle dated from the time when the Sahara was still green and had been made by a Black, pastoralist people. As these people’s livelihood and culture was based on their cattle, they naturally worshipped a cow goddess. As they climate changed and the region became a desert, the herders moved north to join the White ancestors of the Egyptians, and the cow goddess became the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor.

There were also programmes by the Beeb at the same time that claimed that the Egyptians were Black until the race became lighter following the Arab conquest. On the other side, I don’t recall any of the Roman or Greek authors, like Herodotus, who visited ancient Egypt, describing its people as Black.

To be fair, not every Black intellectual believes this. Caryl Phillips wrote a book, Afrocentrism, debunking it way back in the ’90s/ early 2000s, which was reviewed in the Financial Times. I’ve seen the Egyptians as a race somewhere between White and Black. They certainly portrayed themselves as darker than Europeans. Ancient Egyptian art stereotypically shows men as reddish-brown in colour, and women as yellow. European cultures, like the Minoans, painted themselves as pink. The Egyptians also, however, painted the Black cultures further to the south as Black. However, it makes more sense to see ancient Egypt as part of the ancient Near East because it was part of that geopolitical and cultural area. Basil Davidson, a White Afrocentrist, defended his view that the ancient Egyptians were ultimately the source of Greek and Roman culture and science by stating that it was what the Romans themselves said. Perhaps, but the majority of the foreign contribution to Greek science actually comes from the Middle East, such as Babylonia and Phrygia, rather than Egypt.

Davidson also wrote an interesting history of the Swahili culture, which I found in Bristol’s Central Library years ago. This was written as a kind of ‘bottom-up’ history. Instead of viewing it as an Arab culture that had been imposed on Black Africans, he saw it as Black Africans accepting Arab culture. However, he did not deny or omit the Arab contribution, as this book appears to do.

The book’s title clearly shows that it’s been rushed out to cash in on the Black Lives Matter movement. Unfortunately, instead of being proper history it’s just pushing racial, if not racist, propaganda. I’d argue that any attempt to argue that Black Africans are the unacknowledged source of White culture and dwelling on the transatlantic slave trade while saying nothing about the Arab is racist against Whites.

African culture and history is genuinely fascinating without its reduction to myths and racial propaganda, and there are a number of excellent books about it. Unfortunately it looks like they’re going to be ignored in favour of extremely flawed and biased treatments like this.

The Saturn/Jupiter Conjunction and the Star of Bethlehem

December 30, 2020

One of the interesting pieces of astronomical news this past month was that of a conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter. Conjunctions are when two planets appear next to each other in the sky. This conjunction was particularly interesting, not just because it’s a comparatively rare astronomical event, but also because a similar conjunction 2000 years ago may have been behind the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem. In the Bible, the wise men who came to honour Christ at His birth were led to Him by a star. One of the theories that people have devised to explain this is that it may have been another conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred around 3 BC, which many scholars believe is the real date of Christ’s birth. The wise men, magi, were probably mobeds, Zoroastrian priests. Zoroastrianism is the ancient religion of Iran. It’s a dualist faith, holding that the universe was created by two gods, the good god Ahura Mazda or Ormuzd, and Ahriman, the evil god. However, they believe that at the End Time a saviour shall appear, the Saoshyant, who will overcome Ahriman and the forces of evil, Ormuzd will triumph, the Earth will be transformed and new age of eternal peace, justice and goodness will begin. The Zoroastrian priests were also astrologers, and in Babylonian astrology the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn represented the birth of a king. Hence it’s possible that the Persian priests, observing the celestial event, may well have gone westwards seeking the new king it heralded.

That’s one theory. There are others, but this story provided a bit of suitably seasonal material for the media. I don’t know which king’s birth has been announced by this latest conjunction. It certainly isn’t Joe Biden’s, and definitely not Trump, though I don’t doubt that the Orange Generalissimo would have claimed it was had it appeared four years earlier at the start of his term. But Trump is definitely on his way, assuming they can prise him our of the White House. Unfortunately, I see nothing in the stars or anywhere else that suggests we’re going to get a better set of politicians or government in this coming year. Rather the opposite. But still, we live in hope!

The Babylonian Condemnation of Libel and Slander

October 3, 2019

A few days ago I put up a few verses from the Old Testament, Exodus and Deuteronomy, which condemn telling lies. This was for the benefit of certain individuals, like Rachel Riley, who have been all too happy to make false accusations of anti-Semitism against others. When they themselves are criticised, however, they falsely accuse their critics of libelling them and threaten them with court action. Riley has done this to Mike and 16 others, after they blogged about how she and Tracey-Ann Oberman, in their view had bullied a sixteen year old schoolgirl with anxiety. The girl had put up a post supporting Jeremy Corbyn. This was then criticised by the two, who said they were going to ‘re-educate’ her and demanded that she meet them in London. The girl couldn’t as she had to be in school. They then accused her of anti-Semitism, and encouraged their supporters to pile in. When Mike put up his account of this sordid incident, Oberman appeared and claimed it was libelous. When Mike asked what was libelous about it, he received no reply. He was then informed that Riley was taking him to court.

The Babylonians, like the Hebrews, also condemned libel and slander. Their precept against it is preserved in the Counsels of Wisdom, a collection of short moral adages. These appear to have been copied sometime between 700 and 400 BC, although the texts themselves may date back to the period 1800-1000 BC. It runs

Do not utter libel, speak what is of good report,

Don say evil things, speak well of people.

One who utters libel and speaks evil,

Men will waylay him with the retribution of Shamash.

D. Winton Thomas, ed., Documents from Old Testament Times (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons 1958) 106.

Shamash was the Babylonian sun god.

Similar sentiments are expressed in the Ancient Egyptian The Teaching of Amenemope. The scroll of this held by the British Museum may date back to 1000-600 BC, but there is a fragment written on a potsherd which may date back 1100-946 BC. The precept against libel runs

Injure not a man, with pen upon papyrus-

O abomination of the god!

Bear not witness with lying words,

Nor seek another’s reverse with thy tongue.

(Page 182).

Thus, what Riley and Oberman appear to be doing to silence their critics, who seem to be mostly supporters of the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn, is utterly wrong, even by Babylonian and Ancient Egyptian standards as well as those of Ancient Israel and today.

 

Dan Cruikshank on ISIS’ Attack on Ancient Monuments

June 24, 2015

Next Tuesday the Beeb is showing a programme by Dan Cruikshank on the threat posed to the great antiquities and priceless monuments of Middle East by ISIS. It’s entitled Dan Cruikshank’s Civilisation under Attack. The blurbs for it in the Radio Times state

Islamic State have declared war on some of the planet’s most important architectural sites, with jihadi fighters seemingly set on destroying the wonders of the ancient world. Dan Cruikshank charts the likely course of the militant group’s advance, investigating why it is happening. (p. 86)

and

Watching the videos here of Islamic State fighters taking sledgehammers and drills to Assyrian reliefs in Nimrud – then blowing up the whole site – is hard. Similar attacks in Mosul, Nineveh and Hatra have brought global condemnation, and now the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra lies under IS control.

Dan Cruikshank talks to Islamic scholars about the claimed rationale behind the IS actions and what, if anything, can be done to challenge it. ‘Are we prepared to use armed force to protect the cultural heritage of all humanity?’ demands one expert. But it turns out to be not nearly that simple, in a programme that can offer few answers. (p. 83.)

The programme’s on BBC 4 at 9.00 pm, if you can bear to watch the footage of this gratuitous vandalism.

Cruikshank is an architectural historian with a deep appreciation of the glories of the world’s architectural heritage, not just that of Britain. A few years ago he presented a series, in which he toured the globe’s great buildings and monuments, including those of Iraq and Afghanistan. These included either Babylon or Nineveh, where he was horrified to find how botched and tawdry the ‘restoration’ performed by Saddam Hussein had been. The monument had been partly restored using modern brick stamped with the late dictator’s own name. I’ve got a feeling this was slightly before the West’s invasion of Iraq, as he stated his own, real fears about the threat a war in the country posed to the survival of these precious antiquities. He also talked to one of the leaders of the Christian community in Iraq about the deterioration in relationships between them and their Muslim compatriots. The interview was quite strained, with ominous pauses where the bishop appeared to be thinking very carefully indeed about how to explain his people’s embattled situation. He explained that relations between Christians and Muslims had previously been quite harmonious. Tensions had increased, with members of the Christian church physically assaulted, with the threat of invasion from the West.

Alas, Cruikshank’s fears have been borne out. Christian communities throughout Iraq and the Middle East have been attacked and expelled by ISIS as part of their radical Islamisation of the territories they capture. And it’s not just been Christians that have suffered. They’ve also attacked, brutalised and enslaved the Yezidis, and have killed Muslims, whose religious views differ from and are opposed to their own. I’ve blogged before about how many Islamic clergy have been murdered and mosques demolished by ISIS, simply because they dared to have a different conception of Islam.

And in addition to destroying churches, and ancient Assyrian monuments, they’ve also destroyed historic Islamic shrines, again because they are ‘un-Islamic’, according to their twisted ideology.

All this is a deliberate attack on an ancient heritage that belongs to the world and specifically to the peoples of the countries ISIS have conquered and brutalised. These monuments are a threat, as they show just how ancient the history and culture of these peoples are. Archaeologists and historians of the ancient Near East, such as Georges Roux in his Ancient Iraq have noted, for example, that the style of housing used by the ancient Babylonians is very much the same as that traditionally used in Iraq. The forensic scientist and Egyptologist, Dr Jo-Anne Fletcher, made the same point about the type of houses built and used by modern Egyptians. This is also very similar to those built by their ancient predecessors thousands of years previously.

In language, too, there is considerable similarity and some remarkable survivals from the ancient cultures. Akkadian, the language of the Assyrian Empire, was, like Arabic and Hebrew, a Semitic language. And there are still words in modern Arabic, which are clearly derived from, if not exactly the same, as those uttered by the Assyrians. Certain customs and cultural practices have also survived down the centuries from the ancient past. In the programme about Palmyra, Cruikshank pointed to a relief, which showed a group of veiled women riding camels or mules. This, he pointed out, showed how ancient the veiling of women was in the Middle East. It certainly does. Respectable married women were required by law in ancient Assyria to veil themselves in public.

ISIS’ destruction of these monuments is a deliberate attempt to erase the history and cultural identity of Iraq and Syria. It’s the same totalitarian strategy pursued by Hitler and Stalin, in their brutal campaigns to remodel Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union, so that no trace of their former cultures could survive to challenge the regime. And the cultural vandalism didn’t stop there, but was also imposed on the nations they conquered. Hitler, for example, had the Paris metro destroyed, as he had claimed that Berlin was the only city in the world that had such an underground railway system. This was clearly belied by the existence of the French system, and so it had to be destroyed. And as Orwell stated in 1984, that classic SF dystopia, if you want to control the future, you have to control the past. Hence the Ministry of Truth, which existed to rewrite history in order to satisfy the ideological and propaganda needs of Big Brother’s tyranny.

Orwell based his book on Stalin’s Russia. Since then, Communism has fallen, although Putin seems determined to revive some of Stalin’s reputation and his brutal methods. And ISIS have now succeeded the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as destroyers of culture and history in the pursuit of totalitarian power.

They haven’t always been able to get their own way, however. There has been the odd case where the local people have protested so strongly against their attempts to destroy one of their country’s monuments, that ISIS have been forced to retreat. One of these cases was when the locals gathered round to protect an historic minaret.

Their actions stand in stark contrast to far more enlightened approach of the early caliphs. What made medieval Islam such a powerful cultural and scientific force in global society, was its willingness to seek out, absorb, and assimilate the learning of the peoples they had conquered. This was then synthesized and built on, with the result that Muslim scholars made astonishing advances in astronomy, medicine, physics, mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, historiography – the philosophy of history – and even in areas ISIS utterly detest, such as musical theory.

ISIS, by contrast, are destroyers, and their deliberate and calculated attack on these ancient monuments has left the culture of the world and the Muslim and Arab peoples themselves badly impoverished.

From Ancient Assyria: The Poor Man’s Revenge on a Rich Mayor

March 17, 2015

The other day I put up a post about a book arguing that the roots of Western democracy go back beyond ancient Greece to Mari in ancient Mesopotamia, now Iraq. I also mentioned Sasan I. Samiei’s book criticising the belief that there has always been a conflict between a freedom-loving, democratic West, and a despotic East. It’s been extremely well received, and I thank everyone who’s read, reblogged or commented on the post. It seems to me that there are an immense number of people out there, who are heartily sick of war-mongering and the demonization of the Middle East and its peoples. It shows that there are many out there, who have had enough of the big multinationals and their wars to exploit these nations on the one hand, and religious bigots and extremists like ISIS on the other. Many wish to stand with them in establishing a far more just, fair and peaceful international order, which promotes the respect and dignity of all nations and their citizens.

I mentioned in my original post that there was a story from ancient Assyria that suggested that there was something like a democratic mentality there thousands of years ago. The story was about a poor man, who gave a gift to the local mayor expecting him to do something for him in return. The mayor didn’t, and so the poor man arranged to have the living daylights beaten out of his nominal ruler.

I managed to trace the story down in Wolfram von Soden’s The Ancient Orient. I got some of the details wrong. It’s actually from ancient Babylonia, c. 1100, and the gift is a goat, rather than a gold cup. But here it is:

A Babylonian story which is completely unique for its time, about 1100, deals with the case of the impoverished Gimil-Ninurta, who out of desperation gives his only possession, a goat, to the mayor of Nippur in the hope of a receiving a commensurate gift in return. The mayor, however, contemptuously dismisses the man after giving him a mug of beer. As Gimil-Ninurta is leaving, he tells the gatekeeper that he will avenge himself three times, and requests as the first item an elegant chariot from the king. With this, he drives forth as the commissioner of the king, demands a private audience with the mayor, and then beats him thoroughly “from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet”. Afterward he takes from the mayor the amount in gold for the rental of the chariot. Gimil-Ninurta next disguises himself as a doctor seeking to treat the ill-handled mayor, then beats the offender as before. The mayor and his retainers then take up the pursuit of his tormentor, but he is trapped by Gimil-Ninurta under a bridge and beaten a third time. The text concludes with the words: “The mayor could only crawl back into the city [again].”

Von Soden concludes with the statement that ‘Many would certainly have had similar fancies regarding the powerful in that age, and just as today they have smirked over this story.’

So the moral of this story is: Politicians, don’t short-change the voters. And especially not poor ones, with nothing to lose. You don’t know who they’re friends with.

The Ancestors of Democracy in Ancient Iraq?

March 14, 2015

Ancient Greece is rightly venerated as the place where western democracy began. However, Daniel E. Fleming, in a book published in 2004, suggested that the origins of western democracy may lie even further back and to the east, in ancient Mesopotamia, now modern Iraq. In his book Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Fleming examined 3,000 letters from the archives of the ancient city of Mari, finding in them evidence for collective leadership and early democratic ideas and vocabulary in the city’s myths and literary traditions.

I haven’t read the book, but I think I can see where Fleming is coming from. The cities of the Babylonian Empire were ruled by three different layers of government. There was the governor, appointed by the emperor; the city’s local ruler, the mayor; and the karim, or chamber of commerce. This last could be the popular assembly of a limited kind that provided the proto-democratic element in the Babylonian political system.

The Babylonians were also rather like us, in that they also expected their rulers to act in their interests, and had a cynical contempt for them when they didn’t. There’s one Babylonian story about a citizen, who gives the mayor a golden cup, expecting a suitable favour in return. When he doesn’t get it, the citizen arranges a series of four incidents, in which the mayor has the living daylights beaten out of him in consequence. Okay, so it isn’t democracy so much as a bribe, but it does show that there were limits placed on the actions of their rulers, and the citizenry considered it their right to mete out appropriate justice when their rulers didn’t govern on their behalf.

Aside from this, since Edward Said’s Orientalism, there has been a move by some historians to challenge the simplistic notion of a free, democratic West versus a despotic East. Said traced this idea back to Herodotus’ The Histories, and the Father of History’s account of the Persian War as a battle between Greek democracy and Persian absolute monarchy. Sasan Samiei, for example, in his book Ancient Persia in Western History: Hellenism and the Representation of the Achaemenid Empire , wrote a measured attack on this view, in particular examining and contrasting the works of Goethe and Gibbon.

Said’s Orientalism was an attempt to challenge what he viewed as Western imperialist attitudes towards Arabs and their cultures, attitudes, which justified American and European imperialism and domination. The same attitudes have been seen as influencing Frank Miller’s 300, about the Spartan victory over the Persians at Marathon. Clearly histories like Samiei’s are important as they challenge the assumptions about the Near East and the Arab and Iranian worlds, which see them as a terrible ‘Other’ implacably hostile to the West and democracy, and which partly justify Huntingdon’s theory of renewed ‘culture wars’ between the democratic, free West, and a despotic, Muslim East.

And I wondered if Fleming’s book also didn’t provide another key to explaining the destruction of the priceless Assyrian artefacts by Isis a few weeks. They weren’t just trying to destroy the remains of a civilisation they considered to be pre-Islamic and therefore idolatrous. They were trying to destroy the reminders that Iraq had a history and culture going back thousands of years, in which democracy, rather than the rule of force, may have played a part. This last might provide a point a rapprochement between the West and Iraqi Islam. ISIS despise the West, and would like to provoke us into further attacking Iraq and its people further, in order to create more chaos. This would, they hope, further cut the rug from under the moderates and radicalise more of the people against us. Smashing those artefacts was part of that process, in the hope it would incense the West, as well as destroy the ancient, and possibly democratic legacy, of that ancient civilisation.

Human Fertility and the Problem of the Origin of Religion

June 2, 2013

One of the other arguments I had with the atheists on this blog a few years ago was about the role of human fertility as the origin of religion. According to one atheist, religion evolved so that humans would have more children. It’s easy to see how this idea came about. There are religions that encourage their members to have many children. In the West, Roman Catholicism is the best known example. In the ancient world, including the Bible, people hoped that God or the gods would provide them with many children and as well as abundant crops and livestock. Children and descendants and agricultural fertility were not just benefits, they were absolute necessities as famine and starvation were all too real. One estimate of child mortality in the ancient world at the time of Carthage suggests that 5-6 out of ten children died in infancy. People, tribes and states thus wished to have plenty of children not just to remain wealthy, powerful, with a strong army and an abundant labour forces, but also simply to survive. The Canaanite religion of ancient Syria made the conflict against sterility and death part of its religion. In its mythology, Baal fought a long battle against his adversary, Mot, whose name meant sterility or death.

There are certainly scholars of religion, such as John Bowker, who do consider the encouragement of fertility as the origin, but not the total explanation, of religion. In his article, ‘Religion’ in The oxford Dictionary of World Religions, states ‘Religions are the earliest cultural systems of which we have evidence for theprotection of gene-replication and the nurture of children.’ This is true even of those religions that consider celibacy to be a higher vocation. Boker himself is certainly not uncritical of this explanation. He states clearly that ‘there is much that is clearly wrong’, and has written a book tackling the subject, Is God a Virus? Genes, Culture and Relgion. His view is that genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution can only explain the emergence of humans capacity for certain activities and behaviours. This accounts why religions frequently share similar features. It does not, however, determine what people do with this biological preparedness.

Religions are also multi-faceted and include a number of different features. This means it is difficult for materialist explanations of religion to reduce its origin and function to any single factor. Early attempts to explain religion materialistically viewed them as attempts by early humans to explain natural phenomena. The sociologist Emile Durkheim believed religion served to organise society and create a vital sense of social solidarity. The view that religion emerged to encourage fertility appears to have been advanced in the 1990s as an attempt by socio-biology and later evolutionary psychology to provide an explanation of religion in accorance with evolutionary biology. This view also has its flaws. Bowker himself was aware that this evolutionary biological theory of the origin of religion was problematic and had its opponents. One of the problems of this view is the role of asceticism in many religions. If religion evolved solely to encourage increased reproduction, it would not explain the ascetism that also forms part of many faiths. Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, have members who withdraw from the world to lead celibate lives. In Christianity this includes the clergy in Roman Catholicism, and the higher clergy in eastern Orthodoxy. Monasticism is a part of both Christianity and Buddhism, while Hinduism has sadhus, yogis and yoginis, ascetics, who pursue their devotions in solitude. The ancient Babylonians also had orders of priestesses, who were required to remain celibate. They were aware of the dangers of overpopulation, and these religious orders, as well as disease, natural disasters and infertility, were viewed as being divinely established to prevent it.

The Atrahasis epic, the earliest flood myth from Mesopotamia, states that the humans were originally created by the gods to do their work for them. Over the centuries humanity increased so that

‘Twelve hundred years had not yet passed
When the land extended and the people multiplied.
The earth was bellowing like a bull,
The gods got distressed with their uproar.’

The gods then attempted to reduce humanity’s numbers with disease, followed by a drought. Humans go on breeding, however, and soon are reduced to starvation and cannibalism. People are forced to eat their children. The gods then send a flood to wipe them out completely, but the god Ea warns, and so saves, Atrahasis. The epic ends with Ea advising the mother-goddess Mami/ Nintu on how the danger of overpopulation is to be avoided in the future through the Malthusian checks of sterility, infant mortality and celibacy. He says to her

‘O Lady of Birth, creatress of the Fates…
Let there be among the people bearing women and barren women,
Let there be among the people a Pahittu-demon,
Let is seize the baby from the mother’s lap,
Establish Ugbabtu priestesses, Entu priestesses and Igisitu-priestesses.
They shall indeed be tabooed, and thus cut-off child-bearing.

Now this awareness and desire to avoid overpopulation is just one aspect of Babylonian religion. Nevertheless it, and asceticism and celibacy in other religions, as well as the incredibly varied nature of religion and religious experience, suggest that while fertility generally remains an important part of religion, it cannot be considered its origin.

Sources

John Bowker, ‘Religion’, in John Bowker, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1997) xv-xxiv.

Anton Jirku, The World of the Bible (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1967)

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq 3rd edition (London: Penguin 1992).