Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian – Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I, The Old Pagan Civilizations by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations

Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian
Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism
Religion of The Greeks and Romans: Classic Mythology
Confucius: Sage and Moralist
Ancient Philosophy: Seeking After Truth
Socrates: Greek Philosophy
Phidias: Greek Art
Literary Genius: The Greek and Roman Classics

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations
John Lord

Topics Covered
Ancient religions
Christianity not progressive
Jewish monotheism
Religion of Egypt
Its great antiquity
Its essential features
Complexity of Egyptian polytheism
Egyptian deities
The worship of the sun
The priestly caste of Egypt
Power of the priests
Future rewards and punishments
Morals of the Egyptians
Functions of the priests
Egyptian ritual of worship
Transmigration of souls
Animal worship
Effect of Egyptian polytheism on the Jews
Assyrian deities
Phoenician deities
Worship of the sun
Oblations and sacrifices
Idolatry the sequence of polytheism
Religion of the Persians
Character of the early Iranians
Comparative purity of the Persian religion

Ancient Religions: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian

It is my object in this book on the old Pagan civilizations to present the salient points only, since an exhaustive work is impossible within the limits of these volumes. The practical end which I have in view is to collate a sufficient number of acknowledged facts from which to draw sound inferences in reference to the progress of the human race, and the comparative welfare of nations in ancient and modern times.

The first inquiry we naturally make is in regard to the various religious systems which were accepted by the ancient nations, since religion, in some form or other, is the most universal of institutions, and has had the earliest and the greatest influence on the condition and life of peoples–that is to say, on their civilizations–in every period of the world. And, necessarily, considering what is the object in religion, when we undertake to examine any particular form of it which has obtained among any people or at any period of time, we must ask, How far did its priests and sages teach exalted ideas of Deity, of the soul, and of immortality? How far did they arrive at lofty and immutable principles of morality? How far did religion, such as was taught, practically affect the lives of those who professed it, and lead them to just and reasonable treatment of one another, or to holy contemplation, or noble deeds, or sublime repose in anticipation of a higher and endless life? And how did the various religions compare with what we believe to be the true religion–Christianity–in its pure and ennobling truths, its inspiring promises, and its quiet influence in changing and developing character?

I assume that there is no such thing as a progressive Christianity, except in so far as mankind grow in the realization of its lofty principles; that there has not been and will not be any improvement on the ethics and spiritual truths revealed by Jesus the Christ, but that they will remain forever the standard of faith and practice. I assume also that Christianity has elements which are not to be found in any other religion,–such as original teachings, divine revelations, and sublime truths. I know it is the fashion with many thinkers to maintain that improvements on the Christian system are both possible and probable, and that there is scarcely a truth which Christ and his apostles declared which cannot be found in some other ancient religion, when divested of the errors there incorporated with it. This notion I repudiate. I believe that systems of religion are perfect or imperfect, true or false, just so far as they agree or disagree with Christianity; and that to the end of time all systems are to be measured by the Christian standard, and not Christianity by any other system.

The oldest religion of which we have clear and authentic account is probably the pure monotheism held by the Jews. Some nations have claimed a higher antiquity for their religion–like the Egyptians and Chinese–than that which the sacred writings of the Hebrews show to have been communicated to Abraham, and to earlier men of God treated of in those Scriptures; but their claims are not entitled to our full credence. We are in doubt about them. The origin of religions is enshrouded in mystical darkness, and is a mere speculation. Authentic history does not go back far enough to settle this point. The primitive religion of mankind I believe to have been revealed to inspired men, who, like Shem, walked with God. Adam, in paradise, knew who God was, for he heard His voice; and so did Enoch and Noah, and, more clearly than all, Abraham. They believed in a personal God, maker of heaven and earth, infinite in power, supreme in goodness, without beginning and without end, who exercises a providential oversight of the world which he made.

It is certainly not unreasonable to claim the greatest purity and loftiness in the monotheistic faith of the Hebrew patriarchs, as handed down to his children by Abraham, over that of all other founders of ancient religious systems, not only since that faith was, as we believe, supernaturally communicated, but since the fruit of that stock, especially in its Christian development, is superior to all others. This sublime monotheism was ever maintained by the Hebrew race, in all their wanderings, misfortunes, and triumphs, except on occasions when they partially adopted the gods of those nations with whom they came in contact, and by whom they were corrupted or enslaved.

But it is not my purpose to discuss the religion of the Jews in this connection, since it is treated in other volumes of this series, and since everybody has access to the Bible, the earlier portions of which give the true account not only of the Hebrews and their special progenitor Abraham, but of the origin of the earth and of mankind; and most intelligent persons are familiar with its details.

I begin my description of ancient religions with those systems with which the Jews were more or less familiar, and by which they were more or less influenced. And whether these religions were, as I think, themselves corrupted forms of the primitive revelation to primitive man, or, as is held by some philosophers of to-day, natural developments out of an original worship of the powers of Nature, of ghosts of ancestral heroes, of tutelar deities of household, family, tribe, nation, and so forth, it will not affect their relation to my plan of considering this background of history in its effects upon modern times, through Judaism and Christianity.

The first which naturally claims our attention is the religion of ancient Egypt. But I can show only the main features and characteristics of this form of paganism, avoiding the complications of their system and their perplexing names as much as possible. I wish to present what is ascertained and intelligible rather than what is ingenious and obscure.

The religion of Egypt is very old,–how old we cannot tell with certainty. We know that it existed before Abraham, and with but few changes, for at least two thousand years. Mariette places the era of the first Egyptian dynasty under Menes at 5004 B.C. It is supposed that the earliest form of the Egyptian religion was monotheistic, such as was known later, however, only to a few of the higher priesthood. What the esoteric wisdom really was we can only conjecture, since there are no sacred books or writings that have come down to us, like the Indian Vedas and the Persian Zend-Avesta. Herodotus affirms that he knew the mysteries, but he did not reveal them.

But monotheism was lost sight of in Egypt at an earlier period than the beginning of authentic history. It is the fate of all institutions to become corrupt, and this is particularly true of religious systems. The reason of this is not difficult to explain. The Bible and human experience fully exhibit the course of this degradation. Hence, before Abraham’s visit to Egypt the religion of that land had degenerated into a gross and complicated polytheism, which it was apparently for the interest of the priesthood to perpetuate.

The Egyptian religion was the worship of the powers of Nature,–the sun, the moon, the planets, the air, the storm, light, fire, the clouds, the rivers, the lightning, all of which were supposed to exercise a mysterious influence over human destiny. There was doubtless an indefinite sense of awe in view of the wonders of the material universe, extending to a vague fear of some almighty supremacy over all that could be seen or known. To these powers of Nature the Egyptians gave names, and made them divinities.

The Egyptian polytheism was complex and even contradictory. What it lost in logical sequence it gained in variety. Wilkinson enumerates seventy-three principal divinities, and Birch sixty-three; but there were some hundreds of lesser gods, discharging peculiar functions and presiding over different localities. Every town had its guardian deity, to whom prayers or sacrifices were offered by the priests. The more complicated the religious rites the more firmly cemented was the power of the priestly caste, and the more indispensable were priestly services for the offerings and propitiations.

Of these Egyptian deities there were eight of the first rank; but the list of them differs according to different writers, since in the great cities different deities were worshipped. These were Ammon–the concealed god,–the sovereign over all (corresponding to the Jupiter of the Romans), whose sacred city was Thebes. At a later date this god was identified with Ammon Ra, the physical sun. Ra was the sun-god, especially worshipped at Heliopolis,–the symbol of light and heat. Kneph was the spirit of God moving over the face of the waters, whose principal seat of worship was in Upper Egypt. Phtha was a sort of artisan god, who made the sun, moon, and the earth, “the father of beginnings;” his sign was the scarabaeus, or beetle, and his patron city was Memphis. Khem was the generative principle presiding over the vegetable world,–the giver of fertility and lord of the harvest. These deities are supposed to have represented spirit passing into matter and form,–a process of divine incarnation.

But the most popular deity was Osiris. His image is found standing on the oldest monument, a form of Ra, the light of the lower world, and king and judge of Hades. His worship was universal throughout Egypt, but his chief temples were at Abydos and Philae. He was regarded as mild, beneficent, and good. In opposition to him were Set, malignant and evil, and Bes, the god of death. Isis, the wife and sister of Osiris, was a sort of sun goddess, representing the productive power of Nature. Khons was the moon god. Maut, the consort of Ammon, represented Nature. Sati, the wife of Kneph, bore a resemblance to Juno. Nut was the goddess of the firmament; Ma was the goddess of truth; Horus was the mediator between creation and destruction.

Temple of the Sun, Baalbek, From a photograph

But in spite of the multiplicity of deities, the Egyptian worship centred in some form upon heat or fire, generally the sun, the most powerful and brilliant of the forces of Nature. Among all the ancient pagan nations the sun, the moon, and the planets, under different names, whether impersonated or not, were the principal objects of worship for the people. To these temples were erected, statues raised, and sacrifices made.

No ancient nation was more devout, or more constant to the service of its gods, than were the Egyptians; and hence, being superstitious, they were pre-eminently under the control of priests, as the people were in India. We see, chiefly in India and Egypt, the power of caste,–tyrannical, exclusive, and pretentious,–and powerful in proportion to the belief in a future state. Take away the belief in future existence and future rewards and punishments, and there is not much religion left. There may be philosophy and morality, but not religion, which is based on the fear and love of God, and the destiny of the soul after death. Saint Augustine, in his “City of God,” his greatest work, ridicules all gods who are not able to save the soul, and all religions where future existence is not recognized as the most important thing which can occupy the mind of man.

We cannot then utterly despise the religion of Egypt, in spite of the absurdities mingled with it,–the multiplicity of gods and the doctrine of metempsychosis,–since it included a distinct recognition of a future state of rewards and punishments “according to the deeds done in the body.” On this belief rested the power of the priests, who were supposed to intercede with the deities, and who alone were appointed to offer to them sacrifices, in order to gain their favor or deprecate their wrath. The idea of death and judgment was ever present to the thoughts of the Egyptians, from the highest to the lowest, and must have modified their conduct, stimulating them to virtue, and restraining them from vice; for virtue and vice are not revelations,–they are instincts implanted in the soul. No ancient teacher enjoined the duties based on an immutable morality with more force than Confucius, Buddha, and Epictetus. Who in any land or age has ignored the duties of filial obedience, respect to rulers, kindness to the miserable, protection to the weak, honesty, benevolence, sincerity, and truthfulness? With the discharge of these duties, written on the heart, have been associated the favor of the gods, and happiness in the future world, whatever errors may have crept into theological dogmas and speculations.

Believing then in a future state, where sin would be punished and virtue rewarded, and believing in it firmly and piously, the ancient Egyptians were a peaceful and comparatively moral people. All writers admit their industry, their simplicity of life, their respect for law, their loyalty to priests and rulers. Hence there was permanence to their institutions, for rapine, violence, and revolution were rare. They were not warlike, although often engaged in war by the command of ambitious kings. Generally the policy of their government was conservative and pacific. Military ambition and thirst for foreign conquest were not the peculiar sins of Egyptian kings; they sought rather to develop national industries and resources. The occupation of the people was in agriculture and the useful arts, which last they carried to considerable perfection, especially in the working of metals, textile fabrics, and ornamental jewelry. Their grand monuments were not triumphal arches, but temples and mausoleums. Even the pyramids may have been built to preserve the bodies of kings until the soul should be acquitted or condemned, and therefore more religious in their uses than as mere emblems of pride and power; and when monuments were erected to perpetuate the fame of princes, their supreme design was to receive the engraven memorials of the virtuous deeds of kings as fathers of the people.

The priests, whose business it was to perform religious rites and ceremonies to the various gods of the Egyptians, were extremely numerous. They held the highest social rank, and were exempt from taxes. They were clothed in white linen, which was kept scrupulously clean. They washed their whole bodies twice a day; they shaved the head, and wore no beard. They practised circumcision, which rite was of extreme antiquity, existing in Egypt two thousand four hundred years before Christ, and at least four hundred years before Abraham, and has been found among primitive peoples all over the world. They did not make a show of sanctity, nor were they ascetic like the Brahmans. They were married, and were allowed to drink wine and to eat meat, but not fish nor beans, which disturbed digestion. The son of a priest was generally a priest also. There were grades of rank among the priesthood; but not more so than in the Roman Catholic Church. The high-priest was a great dignitary, and generally belonged to the royal family. The king himself was a priest.

The Egyptian ritual of worship was the most complicated of all rituals, and their literature and philosophy were only branches of theology. “Religious observances,” says Freeman Clarke, “were so numerous and so imperative that the most common labors of daily life could not be performed without a perpetual reference to some priestly regulation.” There were more religious festivals than among any other ancient nation. The land was covered with temples; and every temple consecrated to a single divinity, to whom some animal was sacred, supported a large body of priests. The authorities on Egyptian history, especially Wilkinson, speak highly, on the whole, of the morals of the priesthood, and of their arduous and gloomy life of superintending ceremonies, sacrifices, processions, and funerals. Their life was so full of minute duties and restrictions that they rarely appeared in public, and their aspect as well as influence was austere and sacerdotal.

One of the most distinctive features of the Egyptian religion was the idea of the transmigration of souls,–that when men die; their souls reappear on earth in various animals, in expiation of their sins. Osiris was the god before whose tribunal all departed spirits appeared to be judged. If evil preponderated in their lives, their souls passed into a long series of animals until their sins were expiated, when the purified souls, after thousands of years perhaps, passed into their old bodies. Hence it was the great object of the Egyptians to preserve their mortal bodies after death, and thus arose the custom of embalming them. It is difficult to compute the number of mummies that have been found in Egypt. If a man was wealthy, it cost his family as much as one thousand dollars to embalm his body suitably to his rank. The embalmed bodies of kings were preserved in marble sarcophagi, and hidden in gigantic monuments.

The most repulsive thing in the Egyptian religion was animal-worship. To each deity some animal was sacred. Thus Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis, was the representative of Osiris; the cow was sacred to Isis, and to Athor her mother. Sheep were sacred to Kneph, as well as the asp. Hawks were sacred to Ra; lions were emblems of Horus, wolves of Anubis, hippopotami of Set. Each town was jealous of the honor of its special favorites among the gods.

“The worst form of this animal worship,” says Rawlinson, “was the belief that a deity absolutely became incarnate in an individual animal, and so remained until the animal’s death. Such were the Apis bulls, of which a succession was maintained at Memphis in the temple of Phtha, or, according to others, of Osiris. These beasts, maintained at the cost of the priestly communities in the great temples of their respective cities, were perpetually adored and prayed to by thousands during their lives, and at their deaths were entombed with the utmost care in huge sarcophagi, while all Egypt went into mourning on their decease.”

Procession of the Sacred Bull Apis-Osiris After the painting by E.F. Bridgman

Such was the religion of Egypt as known to the Jews,–a complicated polytheism, embracing the worship of animals as well as the powers of Nature; the belief in the transmigration of souls, and a sacerdotalism which carried ritualistic ceremonies to the greatest extent known to antiquity, combined with the exaltation of the priesthood to such a degree as to make priests the real rulers of the land, reminding us of the spiritual despotism of the Middle Ages. The priests of Egypt ruled by appealing to the fears of men, thus favoring a degrading superstition. How far they taught that the various objects of worship were symbols merely of a supreme power, which they themselves perhaps accepted in their esoteric schools, we do not know. But the priests believed in a future state of rewards and punishments, and thus recognized the soul to be of more importance than the material body, and made its welfare paramount over all other interests. This recognition doubtless contributed to elevate the morals of the people, and to make them religious, despite their false and degraded views of God, and their disgusting superstitions.

The Jews could not have lived in Egypt four hundred years without being influenced by the popular belief. Hence in the wilderness, and in the days of kingly rule, the tendency to animal worship in the shape of the golden calves, their love of ritualistic observances, and their easy submission to the rule of priests. In one very important thing, however, the Jews escaped a degrading superstition,–that of the transmigration of souls; and it was perhaps the abhorrence by Moses of this belief that made him so remarkably silent as to a future state. It is seemingly ignored in the Old Testament, and hence many have been led to suppose that the Jews did not believe in it. Certainly the most cultivated and aristocratic sect–the Sadducees–repudiated it altogether; while the Pharisees held to it. They, however, were products of a later age, and had learned many things–good and bad–from surrounding nations or in their captivities, which Moses did not attempt to teach the simple souls that escaped from Egypt.

Of the other religions with which the Jews came in contact, and which more or less were in conflict with their own monotheistic belief, very little is definitely known, since their sacred books, if they had any, have not come down to us. Our knowledge is mostly confined to monuments, on which the names of their deities are inscribed, the animals which they worshipped, symbolic of the powers of Nature, and the kings and priests who officiated in religious ceremonies. From these we learn or infer that among the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians religion was polytheistic, but without so complicated or highly organized a system as prevailed in Egypt. Only about twenty deities are alluded to in the monumental records of either nation, and they are supposed to have represented the sun, the moon, the stars, and various other powers, to which were delegated by the unseen and occult supreme deity the oversight of this world. They presided over cities and the elements of Nature, like the rain, the thunder, the winds, the air, the water. Some abode in heaven, some on the earth, and some in the waters under the earth. Of all these graven images existed, carved by men’s hands,–some in the form of animals, like the winged bulls of Nineveh. In the very earliest times, before history was written, it is supposed that the religion of all these nations was monotheistic, and that polytheism was a development as men became wicked and sensual. The knowledge of the one God was gradually lost, although an indefinite belief remained that there was a supreme power over all the other gods, at least a deity of higher rank than the gods of the people, who reigned over them as Lord of lords.

This deity in Assyria was Asshur. He is recognized by most authorities as Asshur, a son of Shem and grandson of Noah, who was probably the hero and leader of one of the early migrations, and, as founder of the Assyrian Empire, gave it its name,–his own being magnified and deified by his warlike descendants. Assyria was the oldest of the great empires, occupying Mesopotamia,–the vast plain watered by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,–with adjacent countries to the north, west, and east. Its seat was in the northern portion of this region, while that of Babylonia or Chaldaea, its rival, was in the southern part; and although after many wars freed from the subjection of Assyria, the institutions of Babylonia, and especially its religion, were very much the same as those of the elder empire. In Babylonia the chief god was called El, or Il. In Babylon, although Bab-el, their tutelary god, was at the head of the pantheon, his form was not represented, nor had he any special temple for his worship. The Assyrian Asshur placed kings upon their thrones, protected their armies, and directed their expeditions. In speaking of him it was “Asshur, my Lord.” He was also called “King of kings,” reigning supreme over the gods; and sometimes he was called the “Father of the gods.” His position in the celestial hierarchy corresponds with the Zeus of the Greeks, and with the Jupiter of the Romans. He was represented as a man with a horned cap, carrying a bow and issuing from a winged circle, which circle was the emblem of ubiquity and eternity. This emblem was also the accompaniment of Assyrian royalty.

These Assyrian and Babylonian deities had a direct influence on the Jews in later centuries, because traders on the Tigris pushed their adventurous expeditions from the head of the Persian Gulf, either around the great peninsula of Arabia, or by land across the deserts, and settled in Canaan, calling themselves Phoenicians; and it was from the descendants of these enterprising but morally debased people that the children of Israel, returning from Egypt, received the most pertinacious influences of idolatrous corruption. In Phoenicia the chief deity was also called Bel, or Baal, meaning “Lord,” the epithet of the one divine being who rules the world, or the Lord of heaven. The deity of the Egyptian pantheon, with whom Baal most nearly corresponds, was Ammon, addressed as the supreme God.

Ranking after El in Babylon, Asshur in Assyria, and Baal in Phoenicia,–all shadows of the same supreme God,–we notice among these Mesopotamians a triad of the great gods, called Anu, Bel, and Hea. Anu, the primordial chaos; Hea, life and intelligence animating matter; and Bel, the organizing and creative spirit,–or, as Rawlinson thinks, “the original gods of the earth, the heavens, and the waters, corresponding in the main with the classical Pluto, Jupiter, and Neptune, who divided between them the dominion over the visible creation.” The god Bel, in the pantheon of the Babylonians and Assyrians, is the God of gods, and Father of gods, who made the earth and heaven. His title expresses dominion.

In succession to the gods of this first trio,–Anu, Bel, and Hea,–was another trio, named Siu, Shamas, and Vul, representing the moon, the sun, and the atmosphere. “In Assyria and Babylon the moon-god took precedence of the sun-god, since night was more agreeable to the inhabitants of those hot countries than the day.” Hence, Siu was the more popular deity; but Shamas, the sun, as having most direct reference to physical nature, “the lord of fire,” “the ruler of the day,” was the god of battles, going forth with the armies of the king triumphant over enemies. The worship of this deity was universal, and the kings regarded him as affording them especial help in war. Vul, the third of this trinity, was the god of the atmosphere, the god of tempests,–the god who caused the flood which the Assyrian legends recognize. He corresponds with the Jupiter Tonans of the Romans,–“the prince of the power of the air,” destroyer of crops, the scatterer of the harvest, represented with a flaming sword; but as god of the atmosphere, the giver of rain, of abundance, “the lord of fecundity,” he was beneficent as well as destructive.

All these gods had wives resembling the goddesses in the Greek mythology,–some beneficent, some cruel; rendering aid to men, or pursuing them with their anger. And here one cannot resist the impression that the earliest forms of the Greek mythology were derived from the Babylonians and Phoenicians, and that the Greek poets, availing themselves of the legends respecting them, created the popular religion of Greece. It is a mooted question whether the Greek civilization is chiefly derived from Egypt, or from Assyria and Phoenicia,–probably more from these old monarchies combined than from the original seat of the Aryan race east of the Caspian Sea. All these ancient monarchies had run out and were old when the Greeks began their settlements and conquests.

There was still another and inferior class of deities among the Assyrians and Babylonians who were objects of worship, and were supposed to have great influence on human affairs. These deities were the planets under different names. The early study of astronomy among the dwellers on the plains of Babylon and in Mesopotamia gave an astral feature to their religion which was not prominent in Egypt. These astral deities were Nin, or Bar (the Saturn of the Romans); and Merodach (Jupiter), the august god, “the eldest son of Heaven,” the Lord of battles. This was the favorite god of Nebuchadnezzar, and epithets of the highest honor were conferred upon him, as “King of heaven and earth,” the “Lord of all beings,” etc. Nergal (Mars) was a war god, his name signifying “the great Hero,” “the King of battles.” He goes before kings in their military expeditions, and lends them assistance in the chase. His emblem is the human-headed winged lion seen at the entrance of royal palaces. Ista (Venus) was the goddess of beauty, presiding over the loves of both men and animals, and was worshipped with unchaste rites. Nebo (Mercury) had the charge over learning and culture,–the god of wisdom, who “teaches and instructs.”

There were other deities in the Assyrian and Babylonian pantheon whom I need not name, since they played a comparatively unimportant part in human affairs, like the inferior deities of the Romans, presiding over dreams, over feasts, over marriage, and the like.

The Phoenicians, like the Assyrians, had their goddesses. Astoreth, or Astarte, represented the great female productive principle, as Baal did the male. It was originally a name for the energy of God, on a par with Baal. In one of her aspects she represented the moon; but more commonly she was the representative of the female principle in Nature, and was connected more or less with voluptuous rites,–the equivalent of Aphrodite, or Venus. Tanith also was a noted female deity, and was worshipped at Carthage and Cyprus by the Phoenician settlers. The name is associated, according to Gesenius, with the Egyptian goddess Nut, and with the Grecian Artemis the huntress.

An important thing to be observed of these various deities is that they do not uniformly represent the same power. Thus Baal, the Phoenician sun-god, was made by the Greeks and Romans equivalent to Zeus, or Jupiter, the god of thunder and storms. Apollo, the sun-god of the Greeks, was not so powerful as Zeus, the god of the atmosphere; while in Assyria and Phoenicia the sun-god was the greater deity. In Babylonia, Shamas was a sun-god as well as Bel; and Bel again was the god of the heavens, like Zeus.

While Zeus was the supreme deity in the Greek mythology, rather than Apollo the sun, it seems that on the whole the sun was the prominent and the most commonly worshipped deity of all the Oriental nations, as being the most powerful force in Nature. Behind the sun, however, there was supposed to be an indefinite creative power, whose form was not represented, worshipped in no particular temple by the esoteric few who were his votaries, and called the “Father of all the gods,” “the Ancient of days,” reigning supreme over them all. This indefinite conception of the Jehovah of the Hebrews seems to me the last flickering light of the primitive revelation, shining in the souls of the most enlightened of the Pagan worshippers, including perhaps the greatest of the monarchs, who were priests as well as kings.

The most distinguishing feature in the worship of all the gods of antiquity, whether among Egyptians, or Assyrians, or Babylonians, or Phoenicians, or Greeks, or Romans, is that of oblations and sacrifices. It was even a peculiarity of the old Jewish religion, as well as that of China and India. These oblations and sacrifices were sometimes offered to the deity, whatever his form or name, as an expiation for sin, of which the soul is conscious in all ages and countries; sometimes to obtain divine favor, as in military expeditions, or to secure any object dearest to the heart, such as health, prosperity, or peace; sometimes to propitiate the deity in order to avert the calamities following his supposed wrath or vengeance. The oblations were usually in the form of wine, honey, or the fruits of the earth, which were supposed to be necessary for the nourishment of the gods, especially in Greece. The sacrifices were generally of oxen, sheep, and goats, the most valued and precious of human property in primitive times, for those old heathen never offered to their deities that which cost them nothing, but rather that which was dearest to them. Sometimes, especially in Phoenicia, human beings were offered in sacrifice, the most repulsive peculiarity of polytheism. But the instincts of humanity generally kept men from rites so revolting. Christianity, as one of its distinguishing features, abolished all forms of outward sacrifice, as superstitious and useless. The sacrifices pleasing to God are a broken spirit, as revealed to David and Isaiah amid all the ceremonies and ritualism of Jewish worship, and still more to Paul and Peter when the new dispensation was fully declared. The only sacrifice which Christ enjoined was self-sacrifice, supreme devotion to a spiritual and unseen and supreme God, and to his children: as the Christ took upon himself the form of a man, suffering evil all his days, and finally even an ignominious death, in obedience to his Father’s will, that the world might be saved by his own self-sacrifice.

Driving Sacrificial Victims into the Fiery Mouth of Baal After the painting by Henri Motte

With sacrifices as an essential feature of all the ancient religions, if we except that of Persia in the time of Zoroaster, there was need of an officiating priesthood. The priests in all countries sought to gain power and influence, and made themselves an exclusive caste, more or less powerful as circumstances favored their usurpations. The priestly caste became a terrible power in Egypt and India, where the people, it would seem, were most susceptible to religious impressions, were most docile and most ignorant, and had in constant view the future welfare of their souls. In China, where there was scarcely any religion at all, this priestly power was unknown; and it was especially weak among the Greeks, who had no fear of the future, and who worshipped beauty and grace rather than a spiritual god. Sacerdotalism entered into Christianity when it became corrupted by the lust of dominion and power, and with great force ruled the Christian world in times of ignorance and superstition. It is sad to think that the decline of sacerdotalism is associated with the growth of infidelity and religious indifference, showing how few worship God in spirit and in truth even in Christian countries. Yet even that reaction is humanly natural; and as it so surely follows upon epochs of priestcraft, it may be a part of the divine process of arousing men to the evils of superstition.

Among all nations where polytheism prevailed, idolatry became a natural sequence,–that is, the worship of animals and of graven images, at first as symbols of the deities that were worshipped, generally the sun, moon, and stars, and the elements of Nature, like fire, water, and air. But the symbols of divine power, as degeneracy increased and ignorance set in, were in succession worshipped as deities, as in India and Africa at the present day. This is the lowest form of religion, and the most repulsive and degraded which has prevailed in the world,–showing the enormous difference between the primitive faiths and the worship which succeeded, growing more and more hideous with the progress of ages, until the fulness of time arrived when God sent reformers among the debased people, more or less supernaturally inspired, to declare new truth, and even to revive the knowledge of the old in danger of being utterly lost.

It is a pleasant thing to remember that the religions thus far treated, as known to the Jews, and by which they were more or less contaminated, have all passed away with the fall of empires and the spread of divine truth; and they never again can be revived in the countries where they nourished. Mohammedanism, a monotheistic religion, has taken their place, and driven the ancient idols to the moles and the bats; and where Mohammedanism has failed to extirpate ancient idolatries, Christianity in some form has come in and dethroned them forever.

There was one form of religion with which the Jews came in contact which was comparatively pure; and this was the religion of Persia, the loftiest form of all Pagan beliefs.

The Persians were an important branch of the Iranian family. “The Iranians were the dominant race throughout the entire tract lying between the Suliman mountains and the Pamir steppe on the one hand, and the great Mesopotamian valley on the other.” It was a region of great extremes of temperature,–the summers being hot, and the winters piercingly cold. A great part of this region is an arid and frightful desert; but the more favored portions are extremely fertile. In this country the Iranians settled at a very early period, probably 2500 B.C., about the time the Hindus emigrated from Central Asia to the banks of the Indus. Both Iranians and Hindus belonged to the great Aryan or Indo-European race, whose original settlements were on the high table-lands northeast of Samarkand, in the modern Bokhara, watered by the Oxus, or Amon River. From these rugged regions east of the Caspian Sea, where the means of subsistence are difficult to be obtained, the Aryans emigrated to India on the southeast, to Iran on the southwest, to Europe on the west,–all speaking substantially the same language.

Of those who settled in Iran, the Persians were the most prominent,–a brave, hardy, and adventurous people, warlike in their habits, and moral in their conduct. They were a pastoral rather than a nomadic people, and gloried in their horses and cattle. They had great skill as archers and horsemen, and furnished the best cavalry among the ancients. They lived in fixed habitations, and their houses had windows and fireplaces; but they were doomed to a perpetual struggle with a severe and uncertain climate, and a soil which required ceaseless diligence. “The whole plateau of Iran,” says Johnson, “was suggestive of the war of elements,–a country of great contrasts of fertility and desolation,–snowy ranges of mountains, salt deserts, and fields of beauty lying in close proximity.”

The early Persians are represented as having oval faces, raised features, well-arched eyebrows, and large dark eyes, now soft as the gazelle’s, now flashing with quick insight. Such a people were extremely receptive of modes and fashions,–the aptest learners as well as the boldest adventurers; not patient in study nor skilful to invent, but swift to seize and appropriate, terrible breakers-up of old religious spells. They dissolved the old material civilization of Cushite and Turanian origin. What passion for vast conquests! “These rugged tribes, devoted to their chiefs, led by Cyrus from their herds and hunting-grounds to startle the pampered Lydians with their spare diet and clothing of skins; living on what they could get, strangers to wine and wassail, schooled in manly exercises, cleanly even to superstition, loyal to age and filial duties; with a manly pride of personal independence that held a debt the next worst thing to a lie; their fondness for social graces, their feudal dignities, their chiefs giving counsel to the king even while submissive to his person, esteeming prowess before praying; their strong ambition, scorning those who scorned toil.” Artaxerxes wore upon his person the worth of twelve thousand talents, yet shared the hardships of his army in the march, carrying quiver and shield, leading the way to the steepest places, and stimulating the hearts of his soldiers by walking twenty-five miles a day.

There was much that is interesting about the ancient Persians. All the old authorities, especially Herodotus, testify to the comparative purity of their lives, to their love of truth, to their heroism in war, to the simplicity of their habits, to their industry and thrift in battling sterility of soil and the elements of Nature, to their love of agricultural pursuits, to kindness towards women and slaves, and above all other things to a strong personality of character which implied a powerful will. The early Persians chose the bravest and most capable of their nobles for kings, and these kings were mild and merciful. Xenophon makes Cyrus the ideal of a king,–the incarnation of sweetness and light, conducting war with a magnanimity unknown to the ancient nations, dismissing prisoners, forgiving foes, freeing slaves, and winning all hearts by a true nobility of nature. He was a reformer of barbarous methods of war, and as pure in morals as he was powerful in war. In short, he had all those qualities which we admire in the chivalric heroes of the Middle Ages.

There was developed among this primitive and virtuous people a religion essentially different from that of Assyria and Egypt, with which is associated the name of Zoroaster, or Zarathushtra. Who this extraordinary personage was, and when he lived, it is not easy to determine. Some suppose that he did not live at all. It is most probable that he lived in Bactria from 1000 to 1500 B.C.; but all about him is involved in hopeless obscurity.

The Zend-Avesta, or the sacred books of the Persians, are mostly hymns, prayers, and invocations addressed to various deities, among whom Ormazd was regarded as supreme. These poems were first made known to European scholars by Anquetil du Perron, an enthusiastic traveller, a little more than one hundred years ago, and before the laws of Menu were translated by Sir William Jones. What we know about the religion of Persia is chiefly derived from the Zend-Avesta. Zend is the interpretation of the Avesta. The oldest part of these poems is called the Gâthâs, supposed to have been composed by Zoroaster about the time of Moses.

As all information about Zoroaster personally is unsatisfactory, I proceed to speak of the religion which he is supposed to have given to the Iranians, according to Dr. Martin Haug, the great authority on this subject.

Its peculiar feature was dualism,–two original uncreated principles; one good, the other evil. Both principles were real persons, possessed of will, intelligence, power, consciousness, engaged from all eternity in perpetual contest. The good power was called Ahura-Mazda, and the evil power was called Angro-Mainyus. Ahura-Mazda means the “Much-knowing spirit,” or the All-wise, the All-bountiful, who stood at the head of all that is beneficent in the universe,–“the creator of life,” who made the celestial bodies and the earth, and from whom came all good to man and everlasting happiness. Angro-Mainyus means the black or dark intelligence, the creator of all that is evil, both moral and physical. He had power to blast the earth with barrenness, to produce earthquakes and storms, to inflict disease and death, destroy flocks and the fruits of the earth, excite wars and tumults; in short, to send every form of evil on mankind. Ahura-Mazda had no control over this Power of evil; all he could do was to baffle him.

These two deities who divided the universe between them had each subordinate spirits or genii, who did their will, and assisted in the government of the universe,–corresponding to our idea of angels and demons.

Neither of these supreme deities was represented by the early Iranians under material forms; but in process of time corruption set in, and Magism, or the worship of the elements of Nature, became general. The elements which were worshipped were fire, air, earth, and water. Personal gods, temples, shrines, and images were rejected. But the most common form of worship was that of fire, in Mithra, the genius of light, early identified with the sun. Hence, practically, the supreme god of the Persians was the same that was worshipped in Assyria and Egypt and India,–the sun, under various names; with this difference, that in Persia there were no temples erected to him, nor were there graven images of him. With the sun was associated a supreme power that presided over the universe, benignant and eternal. Fire itself in its pure universality was more to the Iranians than any form. “From the sun,” says the Avesta, “are all things sought that can be desired.” To fire, the Persian kings addressed their prayers. Fire, or the sun, was in the early times a symbol of the supreme Power, rather than the Power itself, since the sun was created by Ahura-Mazda (Ormazd). It was to him that Zoroaster addressed his prayers, as recorded in the Gâthâs. “I worship,” said he, “the Creator of all things, Ahura-Mazda, full of light…. Teach thou me, Ahura-Mazda, out of thyself, from heaven by thy mouth, whereby the world first arose.” Again, from the Khorda-Avesta we read: “In the name of God, the giver, forgiver, rich in love, praise be to the name of Ormazd, who always was, always is, and always will be; from whom alone is derived rule.” From these and other passages we infer that the religion of the Iranians was monotheistic. And yet the sun also was worshipped under the name of Mithra. Says Zoroaster: “I invoke Mithra, the lofty, the immortal, the pure, the sun, the ruler, the eye of Ormazd.” It would seem from this that the sun was identified with the Supreme Being. There was no other power than the sun which was worshipped. There was no multitude of gods, nothing like polytheism, such as existed in Egypt. The Iranians believed in one supreme, eternal God, who created all things, beneficent and all-wise; yet this supreme power was worshipped under the symbol of the sun, although the sun was created by him. This confounding the sun with a supreme and intelligent being makes the Iranian religion indefinite, and hard to be comprehended; but compared with the polytheism of Egypt and Babylon, it is much higher and purer. We see in it no degrading rites, no offensive sacerdotalism, no caste, no worship of animals or images; all is spiritual and elevated, but little inferior to the religion of the Hebrews. In the Zend-Avesta we find no doctrines; but we do find prayers and praises and supplication to a Supreme Being. In the Vedas–the Hindu books–the powers of Nature are gods; in the Avesta they are spirits, or servants of the Supreme.

“The main difference between the Vedic and Avestan religions is that in the latter the Vedic worship of natural powers and phenomena is superseded by a more ethical and personal interest. Ahura-Mazda (Ormazd), the living wisdom, replaces Indra, the lightning-god. In Iran there grew up, what India never saw, a consciousness of world-purpose, ethical and spiritual; a reference of the ideal to the future rather than the present; a promise of progress; and the idea that the law of the universe means the final deliverance of good from evil, and its eternal triumph.” [1]

The loftiness which modern scholars like Haug, Lenormant, and Spiegel see in the Zend-Avesta pertains more directly to the earlier portions of these sacred writings, attributable to Zoroaster, called the Gâthâs. But in the course of time the Avesta was subjected to many additions and interpretations, called the Zend, which show degeneracy. A world of myth and legend is crowded into liturgical fragments. The old Bactrian tongue in which the Avesta was composed became practically a dead language. There entered into the Avesta old Chaldaean traditions. It would be strange if the pure faith of Zoroaster should not be corrupted after Persia had conquered Babylon, and even after its alliance with Media, where the Magi had great reputation for knowledge. And yet even with the corrupting influence of the superstitions of Babylon, to say nothing of Media, the Persian conquerors did not wholly forget the God of their fathers in their old Bactrian home. And it is probable that one reason why Cyrus and Darius treated the Jews with so much kindness and generosity was the sympathy they felt for the monotheism of the Jewish religion in contrast with the polytheism and idolatry of the conquered Babylonians. It is not unreasonable to suppose that both the Persians and Jews worshipped substantially the one God who made the heaven and the earth, notwithstanding the dualism which entered into the Persian religion, and the symbolic worship of fire which is the most powerful agent in Nature; and it is considered by many that from the Persians the Jews received, during their Captivity, their ideas concerning a personal Devil, or Power of Evil, of which no hint appears in the Law or the earlier Prophets. It would certainly seem to be due to that monotheism which modern scholars see behind the dualism of Persia, as an elemental principle of the old religion of Iran, that the Persians were the noblest people of Pagan antiquity, and practised the highest morality known in the ancient world. Virtue and heroism went hand in hand; and both virtue and heroism were the result of their religion. But when the Persians became intoxicated with the wealth and power they acquired on the fall of Babylon, then their degeneracy was rapid, and their faith became obscured. Had it been the will of Providence that the Greeks should have contended with the Persians under the leadership of Cyrus,–the greatest Oriental conqueror known in history,–rather than under Xerxes, then even an Alexander might have been baffled. The great mistake of the Persian monarchs in their degeneracy was in trusting to the magnitude of their armies rather than in their ancient discipline and national heroism. The consequence was a panic, which would not have taken place under Cyrus, whenever they met the Greeks in battle. It was a panic which dispersed the Persian hosts in the fatal battle of Arbela, and made Alexander the master of western Asia. But degenerate as the Persians became, they rallied under succeeding dynasties, and in Artaxerxes II. and Chosroes the Romans found, in their declining glories, their most formidable enemies.

Though the brightness of the old religion of Zoroaster ceased to shine after the Persian conquests, and religious rites fell into the hands of the Magi, yet it is the only Oriental religion which entered into Christianity after its magnificent triumph, unless we trace early monasticism to the priests of India. Christianity had a hard battle with Gnosticism and Manichaeism,–both of Persian origin,–and did not come out unscathed. No Grecian system of philosophy, except Platonism, entered into the Christian system so influentially as the disastrous Manichaean heresy, which Augustine combated. The splendid mythology of the Greeks, as well as the degrading polytheism of Egypt, Assyria, and Phoenicia, passed away before the power of the cross; but Persian speculations remained. Even Origen, the greatest scholar of Christian antiquity, was tainted with them. And the mighty myths of the origin of evil, which perplexed Zoroaster, still remain unsolved; but the belief of the final triumph of good over evil is common to both Christians and the disciples of the Bactrian sage.


Rawlinson’s Egypt and Babylon; History of Babylonia, by A.H. Sayce; Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible; Rawlinson’s Herodotus; George Smith’s History of Babylonia; Lenormant’s Manuel d’Histoire Ancienne; Layard’s Nineveh and Babylon; Journal of Royal Asiatic Society; Heeren’s Asiatic Nations; Dr. Pusey’s Lectures on Daniel; Birch’s Egypt from the Earliest Times; Brugsch’s History of Egypt; Records of the Past; Rawlinson’s History of Ancient Egypt; Wilkinson’s Ancient Egyptians; Sayce’s Ancient Empires of the East; Rawlinson’s Religions of the Ancient World; James Freeman Clarke’s Ten Great Religions; Religion of Ancient Egypt, by P. Le Page Renouf; Moffat’s Comparative History of Religions; Bunsen’s Egypt’s Place in History; Persia, from the Earliest Period, by W. S. W. Vaux; Johnson’s Oriental Religions; Haug’s Essays; Spiegel’s Avesta.

The above are the more prominent authorities; but the number of books on ancient religions is very large.

[1] Samuel Johnson’s Religion of Persia.

Religions of India: Brahmanism and Buddhism

Beacon Lights of History, Volume I : The Old Pagan Civilizations