Belief and Unbelief in a Troubled World
By Philip Blair

Chapter 1 In the Beginning

Modern assumptions

Writers on primitive or comparative religion these days usually take for granted the idea that monotheism, belief in a single Creator-God, was a relatively late development in the story of humankind, post-dating and springing from a belief in spirits (or 'daemons') and gods of nature(1).

Early humanity, it is generally held, considered all nature to be in some sense alive. And since it was alive, what happened in it could only be described in terms of personal activity, in stories or 'myths' about visible phenomena - stones, mountains, plants, trees, animals, birds, the moon, the sun - and about imagined spirits, cosmic powers, or gods lying behind that phenomena. Such a way of looking at life is described in the classic study of primitive myths, beliefs and speculations in the ancient Near East, Before Philosophy. The authors write, 'The fundamental difference between the attitudes of modern and ancient man as regards the surrounding world is this: for modem, scientific man the phenomenal world is primarily an "It"; for ancient - and also for primitive - man it is a "Thou"... The whole man confronts a living "Thou" in nature; and the whole man - emotional and imaginative as well as intellectual - gives expression to the experience.' That expression took the form of accounts or explanations of natural 'happenings' or 'individual events' in the form of stories. 'In other words,' the authors conclude, 'the ancients told myths instead of presenting an analysis or conclusions.' (2)

Perhaps the most important myth invented by the ancients, according to this construction of early religious development, was that of creation. This was often seen as analogous to the act of birth, a primeval couple being postulated as the parents of all that exists. Thus for the ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks the first pair were Earth and Sky (as in the case of other 'primitive' peoples). Alternatively, creation could be seen as the act of begetting by a single parent - whether a mother goddess, as in Greece, or a daemon, as in Babylonia, or even a male figure, as with the Egyptian god Atum. As mythmaking developed, these primeval creative agents gathered around them a crowd of lesser gods, their 'children' or 'grandchildren', often corresponding to natural phenomena. Atum, for example, sun-god and creator, begot Shu and Tefnut, Air and Moisture, and they in turn begot Geb (or Qeb) and Nut, Earth and Sky, from whom finally issued the great Egyptian god Osiris, possibly a personification of vegetation. (3)

Eventually, modern scholarship has it, there emanated from the increasingly complex cycle of myths the idea of a single, supreme deity, creator and lord of all life, spiritual and physical, gods and men. The Memphite Theology (or Drama), an Egyptian text thought to date from the fourth millennium BC, is probably the earliest known written statement of such belief. This identifies the supreme deity and creator as Ptah.

As the text reads, 'Ptah, the Great One; he is the heart and tongue of the Ennead (ninefold pantheon) of gods... who begot the gods.' Yet Ptah is seen by modern interpreters as a relatively late invention of man, almost a first attempt to rationalise an earlier mythology, with a pantheon of gods. To quote again from Before Philosophy, 'In the Memphite theology, the Egyptians, at one point, reduced the multiplicity of the divine to a truly monotheistic conception and spiritualised the concept of creation.' (4)

Such, very briefly, is the generally accepted view of the development of religion, culminating in monotheism. The idea of God, belief in a single, supreme, creative, spiritual being, was - as with belief in the lesser gods - no more than the construct of our early forbears as they sought to explain the strange world in which they lived. Even if a monotheistic faith arose earlier than was once thought, it was not an innate consciousness of reality; it was most certainly not a truth revealed to man through some manifestation of, or message from, the actual Deity.

Is this view correct? Is it true that monotheism grew out of polytheism, both being an invention of man's mind? Or is there evidence that humankind has always revered a Supreme Creative Spirit, has always believed in one God? Let us look more closely at the data.

Tribal religion

'The sun falls in the evening time, but He is always there.' So a tribesman of the Ashanti hinterland witnesses to the Sky-God, or Supreme Being, assuring an inquirer that members of his tribe are not sun-worshippers. (5)

The Ashanti hinterland comprises the northern territories of Ghana, West Africa, where there are a number of diversely named tribes, the majority of whom speak languages having a common base. The root of the word used by all these tribes for the Sky-God is we (sometimes wu). This word certainly means 'the sun'. To distinguish that heavenly body from the Supreme Spirit, however, the former usually has some other word prefixed or suffixed. It might superficially appear that the Supreme God for these people is in fact the sun. Yet the idea of the sun as the sun being a god does not occur to them. Hence the above statement made by the tribesman to the inquirer.

My father, the late Harold A. Blair, conducted research into the language, customs and religion of some of the Ashanti tribes in the 1920s and 30s, publishing his findings in government reports and other articles and books. Among the Konkomba (more properly Kpunkpamba), a general name covering several closely connected tribes in the Ashanti region, the Sky-God is called Nawuni (na meaning' chief'). In his work A Creed Before The Creeds, my father recounts their 'myth' of creation and fall. This is his rendering of the story, as he heard it from some of these people in their own language:

In the old dark days, Nawuni created man and set him to live on a rocky plain, full of holes, chasms and abysses. The surface was so slippery and the chasms were so horrible that men dared not move at all. They prayed to Nawuni, who then created sand, gravel and clay, which he ordered his messengers to spread abroad over the earth. This they did, but with a high angelic carelessness, which accounts for the number of rocky hills still projecting above the surface.

Man, now able to walk where he would, became proud and ceased to care for Nawuni and his worship. So Nawuni thought out a scheme for enforcing the allegiance of men and angels. He called them to him, and showed them a wonderful and new thing, which he had created, the belly, for before that men had had no bellies.

Men were foolishly delighted with these, especially when Nawuni exPlained the Pleasure which they brought with them, the solid joy of eating and the wild exhilaration of drink. So men prayed Nawuni to give them bellies, which Nawuni gladly did. Thus men became dependent upon Nawuni for their daily bread.

The angels were wiser and refused to pray for these gifts; so they preserved their independence, and were given positions of rule and authority in the earth. They became the tingbana (Perhaps the 'skins of earth '), each with his or her own territory on earth of which the rights, fertility and power belonged to them.

The story goes on to describe the coming of death, caused by the seduction of man's messenger; the dog, by an evil Djinnee. The dog was carrying man sprayer for Life to Nawuni, but was delayed by the Djinnee; meanwhile the malignant goat reached Nawuni with a false message that man chose Death. So Death was decreed as the lot of man. (6)

In this story, or 'myth', we have a number of strands, some of which- despite their fascinating character - I shall leave aside for the moment. What is interesting for our present purpose is the centrality of Nawuni, the Supreme God and Creator, throughout the tale. It is difficult to imagine this figure having been invented at a later time than his 'messengers' or 'angels', who become gods of the land. There is some plausibility to the speculation (it is no other) that the Egyptian god Ptah was a piece of rationalisation, reducing the multiplicity of the divine to a monotheistic conception, but in the Konkomba mythology the person of the Creator can scarcely have been tagged onto an earlier story about local gods. Most interesting is the fact that the creation of Nawuni's messengers or angels, who became the tingbana (singular, tingbane, or territorial gods, is not even mentioned. This therefore is not an account of how the tingbaana came to be, unlike the account of Ptah begetting divine progeny; it is an account of how these messengers of God came to possess earthly authority.

Other West African tribes, besides those from the Ashanti hinterland, acknowledge a Supreme Being. The Bura, Margi and Kilba tribes of Northern Nigeria, for instance, call him 'Hel' or 'Hyel'; these tribes do not identify or associate him with the sun, but regard him as the Sky-God and Creator, with prayers being addressed to him directly. As his name suggests the Semitic 'EI', it has been conjectured that there might at some early time have been some Semitic influence on this region of Nigeria, but etymological speculation of this kind is notoriously unreliable. (7) The Yoruba of Nigeria give the name Olodumare to the single Deity. Other Mrican tribes who venerate a single, supreme Creator include the Ganda of Uganda, and the Zulus of southern Mrica, who call him Ukqili. (8)

In other parts of the world, too, primitive tribes are known to have revered one great God. To several aboriginal Australian tribes he was known as Bunjil; he was, they believed, concerned about morality,justice and peace. The Andaman Islanders, who gave the name Puluga to the Creator, believed he was immortal, utterly opposed to evil but compassionate to those in distress. The first Christian missionaries to Greenland found, somewhat to their surprise, that the Eskimos were sure there was a Supreme Being who had made all things and was inherently good, worthy of love and honour. (9)

Of course, though these tribes and peoples acknowledge a Supreme Creator, they also have their religious cults, involving sacrifices and other rites and ceremonies, taboos and fetishes. These are associated not with the Creator but with lesser male and female deities, gods and spirits of rain, crops, human reproduction, tribal health and so on. These cults are served by priests and sacred families, sometimes by the chief himself. Ancestor-worship, veneration and appeasement or propitiation of the ancestral ghosts, also plays a major role in such tribal religion. H.A. Blair explains how with the Konkomba tribes, or at least among those who claim to be 'people of the land' (for they comprise several strata of aboriginals, immigrants, and invaders), there is no divorce between ancestor-worship and the honour given to the local guardian of the land, the tingbane. He writes, 'The spirits of the departed are taken into the spirit hierarchy of the tribe which is also guardian of the tribal territory. Worship is of the do ut des type ['I give so that you might give']: there is peace on earth, at least within their boundaries.' (10)

There seems no particular reason for thinking that the Supreme God venerated by these tribes was an imaginative invention by their distant tribal forefathers after their invention of territorial gods or other spirits. There seems little reason to believe that it was an 'invention' at all. Leaving aside the question of how or when homo sapiens originated, what real evidence is there that humankind has not from the first taken for granted the existence of the Supreme Deity, together possibly with a retinue of messengers, 'angels' or lesser 'gods'? As E.O. James has written, 'The universal occurrence of High Gods among low races suggests a probability in favour of the concept being part of the original substratum of religious consciousness.' (11)


It is commonly taught that human civilization arose in Mesopotamia some six thousand years ago, in the Tigris-Euphrates valley or 'plains of Sumeria' (now Iraq), where great cities - Ur, Erech and Kish - once flourished. It is to the Sumerians, as far as we know, that we owe the invention of writing, their pictographic script from which was derived the cuneiform script being the earliest known system of recording information. This development probably occurred around the middle of the fourth millennium BC. It was in this period, sometimes called the Proto-literate period, that there was a great increase in the population, planned and large-scale irrigation began, and villages expanded into cities, with imposing new buildings and monuments. Most impressive were the new temples appearing on the plain, often sited atop huge artificial mounds of sun-dried bricks, the famous ziggurats. The new city-states needed political organisation, and this developed into a primitive form of democracy. It was at this time, too, it has been conjectured, that the Mesopotamian understanding of the universe 'found its characteristic form'. (12)

The early Mesopotamians, like the tribes in Africa and elsewhere to this day, acknowledged a Sky-God; they called him Anu, which was their everyday word for 'sky'. Anu was the highest of the gods, indeed, father of the gods, and prototype of all fathers. His was the seat of authority; as the 'pristine king and ruler' he was also the prototype of all rulers. The Mesopotamians themselves sum up Anu's attributes in 'The Myth of the Elevation of Inanna' (13), in which the great gods address Anu:

What thou hast ordered (comes) true!
The utterance of prince and lord is (but)
What thou hast ordered, (that with which) thou art in agreement.
0 Anu! Thy great command takes precedence,
Who could say no (to it)?
0 father of the gods, thy command,
The very foundation of the heaven and earth
What god could spurn (it)?

The terms in which Anu is described, in particular the fact that his command is 'the foundation of the heaven and earth', suggest that the universe itself is considered to have come into being through his word, his divine fiat. Anu is in fact Creator, whose word is absolute, and absolutely efficacious.

Later in the history of Mesopotamia we meet the Babylonian god Marduk, who is the hero of a creation myth. The assembly of the gods confers kingship upon Marduk, son of Ea. He is given absolute authority so that everything in the universe conforms to his will and what he orders immediately comes to pass. What is especially interesting in the story, however, is that his command is seen as being identical in essence with Anu, (14) so that the gods exclaim, 'Thy word is Anu.' Clearly, even to the later polytheistic Babylonians, a memory of Anu as Supreme God remained.

Interesting archaeological discoveries relate to the view that the earliest form of Mesopotamian religion was monotheistic. Henri Frankfort, already cited as co-author of the work Before Philosophy, was Field Director in Iraq for the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1937. In his Third Preliminary Report on the Excavations at Tell Asmar (Eshunna), in the chapter headed 'The Religion of Eshunna in the Third Millennium B.C.', he writes, 'In addition to their more tangible results, our excavations have established a novel fact, which the student of Babylonian religions will have henceforth to take into account. We have obtained, to the best of our knowledge for the first time, religious material complete in its social setting. We possess a coherent mass of evidence, derived in almost equal quantity from a temple and from the houses inhabited by those who worshipped in that temple. We are thus able to draw conclusions, which the finds studied by themselves would not have made possible. For instance, we discover that the representations on cylinder seals, which are usually connected with various gods, can all be fitted in to form a consistent picture in which a single god worshipped in this temple forms the central figure. It seems, therefore, that at this early period his various aspects were not considered separate deities in the Sumero-Akkadian pantheon. (15) Dr Frankfort's statement suggests that in Mesopotamia polytheism developed from monotheism, not vice-versa.

The reign of the famous Hammurabi, the principal Amorite ruler of Babylon (once dated around 2300 BC, but nowadays as late as the eighteenth century), marks an important stage in the history of Mesopotamian civilization. After governing the small city-state of Babylon for thirty years, he united under one rule the hitherto independent Babylonian states of southern Mesopotamia. In this period religion was most clearly polytheistic, the gods being divided into high gods and others of secondary power. The king was, of course, supreme head of the state, as well as enjoying the privilege of being a demigod. The deification of kings was practised before the time of Hammurabi, though it was only fairly late in the dynasty of Ur that the practice grew of deifying the king while still alive, instead of waiting for him to take his seat among the gods after death. Evidence of Hammurabi's divine nature is seen in the use of names like 'Hammurabi-ilu' ('Hammurabi is god'), as well as in the coupling of his name with those of the gods in oaths. (16)

The outstanding feature of Babylonian religion in Hammurabi's time was the unique position in the pantheon of gods newly assigned to Marduk. Percy Handcock explains this development, 'Marduk owed his exaltation to what we may without undue levity call local interest. The dynasty of which Hammurabi was so illustrious a monarch was the first dynasty of the city of Babylon itself; and Marduk the local god of Babylon naturally shared in the good fortune and prosperity of the people over whose welfare he presided. To Marduk belonged the real credit, honour and glory of his people's success, what wonder then that he should be accorded the post of honour in the hierarchy of heaven!' (17) If loyal Babylonian subjects usually resorted to the shrine of Marduk, it was still thought prudent from time to time to seek the favour and assistance of other gods. The most prominent among other deities worshipped were: Anu, lord of heaven; Ishtar, mother of the gods and goddess of love and war; Ea, god of the deep; Sin, moon-god and patron of the people of Ur; Ninib, god of war; and finally Adad, lord of the weather.

Marduk, it must be emphasised, was originally responsible for just one city, Babylon; he was thus one of many 'gods of the land', corresponding to anyone of the local spirits or gods (messengers or 'angels' of the Sky- God) who were guardians of the tribal territories of the Konkomba peoples of north em Ghana. Yet, under Hammurabi, Marduk's supremacy was so firmly established that approaching two millennia later we find Cyrus the Persian, who captured Babylon in 539 BC (replacing its last native rulers, Nabonidus and his son and co-regent Belshazzar), ascribing victory to the Babylonian god. 'Marduk', the cuneiform inscription has it, 'sought out a righteous prince, a man after his own heart whom he might take by the hand, and he called his name Cyrus’ (18)

The creation myth involving Marduk, to which we have already referred, played a major role in later Babylonian culture. From the third millennium BC down to Hellenistic times, a New Year Festival lasting several days was celebrated. It became customary during the festivities to recite the story of creation, in which Marduk had defeated the powers of chaos on the First New Year's Day, when the world was created. At the same time, a mock battle was fought in which the king impersonated the victorious god. This event was, in fact, part of the highly organised state religion, which included a powerful priesthood and temples that were commercial centres as well as seats of learning. Serving in the temple was a profitable business and the privilege could be bought, sold or mortgaged. Once obtained, however, such privileges were - if not sold - inalienable, being transmitted from father to son.

Assyria (the region earlier known as Accad), with its capital at Nineveh, was originally a small kingdom in Mesopotamia situated around the Tigris River to the north of Babylon. During the second millennium BC and into the first, however, it increased in power, eventually overwhelming Babylon and becoming an empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to modern Iran. In 626 BC, following the death of the last great Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, Babylon again asserted her independence under the Chaldean dynasty headed by Nabopolassar.

Assyrian religion was Babylonian in origin and character. Gods from the Babylonian pantheon, notably Anu, Bel, Ea, Marduk, Adad, Sin and Ishtar, were venerated and temples erected in their honour. However, the local god Ashur, who gave his name to the first known capital city and eventually to the country itself, was elevated to first place in the pantheon. Ashur was the divine impersonation of Assyria, as Marduk was of Babylonia, though for the former the identification was more pronounced, for when Assyria declined and the empire crumbled the god himself virtually 'died'. Marduk, by contrast, maintained his influence during the period of Babylon's eclipse; foreign conquerors, like the Persian Cyrus, as we have seen, were swift to do him honour.

On becoming king of Babylonia, Cyrus sent foreign prisoners back from Babylonia to their own lands; he also, more interestingly, aided the restoration of their temples and returned their gods. This edict would have included theJews. (19)


The Memphite Theology, to which we have already referred, is a text thought to date from the very beginning of Egyptian history, that is, the fourth millennium BC. The actual 'document' is a battered stone, now housed in the British Museum, which bears the name of a pharaoh who ruled in about 700 BC. However, the pharaoh in question claimed to have been copying an inscription of his ancestors, and the language and physical arrangement of the text bear this out. The text clearly originated from the time when the first Egyptian dynasties made their new capital at Memphis, the city of the god Ptah.

As we have seen, the monotheistic character of the Memphite Theology is considered by most modern scholars to have been an attempt at rationalisation of an earlier. polvtheistic form of religion. J .A. Wilson puts it thus, ‘Memphis as the centre of a theological state was an upstart: it had had no national importance before. To make matters worse, Heliopolis, a traditional religious capital of Egypt, the home of the sun- god Re and of the creator-god Re-Atum, was only twenty-five miles from Memphis. It was necessary to justify a new location of the centre of the world. The text in question is part of a theological argument of the primacy of the god Ptah and thus of his home, Memphis. (20)

The question at issue is whether the statement in the Memphite Theology of Ptah's pre-eminence was a result of inter-city rivalry - rather as the elevation of Marduk to the head of the Babylonian pantheon of gods was a result of local pride - or whether it reflects a deeper, older awareness of a supreme Deity. The terms in which Ptah's creative power are described could be held to suggest the latter. Other texts dealing with creation, such as those from Babylon (later in date) or the Egyptian Book of the Dead (also probably later), are relatively crude. In the Book of the Dead, for example, the creator-god Re-Atum simply appears from some primeval matter, as if self-generated. The text reads (with explanatory glosses by John Wilson):

'I am Atum when I was alone in Nun (the primordial waters); I am Re in his (first) appearances, when he began to rule that which he had made. What does that mean? This "Re when he began to rule that which he had made" means that Re began to appear as a king, as one who existed before (the air-god) Shu had (even) lifted (heaven from earth), when he (Re) was on the primeval hillock which was in Hermopolis.' The text goes on to emphasise that the god was self-created and that he then brought into being 'the gods who are in his following'. (21)

As we have already seen, in the Memphite Theology Ptah is assumed to be antecedent to the creator-god Atum. He in fact 'created' Atum, and he did so in a remarkable manner. The text reads (again, with glosses by John Wilson), 'There came into being in the heart, and there came into being on the tongue (something) in the form of Atum.' Indeed, Ptah's creative power, through his 'heart' and 'tongue', is extended further, 'Great and mighty is Ptah, who has committed (power to all gods), as well as their spirits, through this (activity of the) heart and this (activity of the) tongue. It has come to pass that the heart and tongue control every member (of the body) by teaching that he (Ptah) is throughout every body (in the form of the heart) and throughout every mouth (in the form of the tongue), of all gods, of all men, of (all) animals, of all creeping things, and of what (ever) lives, by (Ptah's) thinking (as the heart) and commanding (as the tongue) anything that he wishes' (22) WIlson describes this as a 'creation by thought conception and speech delivery',adding that the idea comes close to the Logos doctrine of the New Testament, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' (23)

Interestingly, the MemphiteTheology gives us another biblical parallel, this time with the Old Testament - indeed, with the very beginning of the Old Testament, the book of Genesis, After the text has summarised the range of Ptah's creative power as heart and tongue, it concludes, 'And so Ptah rested after he had made everything,' Wilson comments that the translation 'rested' might better be rendered 'was satisfied', but even so the parallel with the book of Genesis, where we read that God 'rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done', is remarkable. (24)

Wilson and others assume that in the Memphite Theology the more fanciful religious concepts of Egypt (like the creation stories of Atum and his Ennead of gods) are for the first time subsumed into a higher philosophy. Yet let us not forget that the text we are dealing with tomes, as we have already pointed out, 'from the very beginning of Egyptian history'; it is, in fact, the oldest Egyptian document we have. Let us remember, too, that in the first period of Egyptian history, the Old Kingdom, 'the word "god" is used in the singular', which, as Wilson concedes, is sometimes 'the creator or supreme god'. (25) This being so, might not the 'higher philosophy' of the Memphite Theology be the oldest concept of all? Might not an original notion of a Supreme Creative Spirit lie behind the 'developed' understanding of the god Ptah that we find in this text?

If this is so, it would accord with the findings of archaeology in general, both in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, with regard to the progress in these lands of human civilization. For there is no evidence of a movement from the crude to the more developed, no evidence in these regions of earlier generations of primitive, aboriginal man. As Dr H.R, Hall has written, 'When civilization appears it is already full grown. (26)

J A, Wilson writes thus, 'The emergence of Egypt into the light of history seems to be a very sudden phenomenon, symbolised in the abrupt appearance of stone architecture of the highest technical perfection.' He talks of 'the sudden surge of vigour and the zest for action and accomplishment which characterised the Old Kingdom of Egypt', which also saw 'some of Egypt's highest intellectual achievements.' He concludes, 'The reasons for this sudden spurt of power are not clear... they [the Egyptians] sprang upward with a suddenness which is miraculous to us.' (27) In the opinion of many, the Egyptians of the earliest fully visible period 'reached heights which were never surpassed later - in technical ability (as in the Great Pyramid and in sculpture), in science (as in a remarkable surgical papyrus and in the institution of a calendar), and in philosophy (as in the Memphite Theology).' (28)

As for Mesopotamia, whose history is if anything older than that of Egypt, L.W. King writes, 'Although the earliest Sumerian settlements in Southern Babylonia are to be set back in a comparatively remote past, the race by which they were founded appears at that time to have already attained to a high level of culture.' (29) Or as the famous archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley wrote about Sumeria in the era of 3500 BC, 'It is astonishing to find that at this early period the Sumerians were acquainted with and commonly employed not only the column, but the arch, the vault, and the dome, architectural forms which were not to find their way into the western world for thousands of years. That the general level of civilization accorded with the high development of architecture is shown by the richness of the graves.' (30)

It was not until relatively late in the history of Egypt, in the days of the empire, from the sixteenth century BC, that we find minor, local gods coming into prominence, after the supreme god and the pantheon of gods associated with him had become remote from common man. As Wilson writes, 'In the latter part of the Empire an Egyptian expressed a close personal relation to a specifically named god, who was his protector and controller.' (31) It was in the Empire period, too, that there developed the fourfold cycle of the cult of Osiris, the god most commonly linked in popular understanding with ancient Egypt.

The Old Kingdom of Egypt collapsed as a result of a breakdown of centralised rule, accompanied by (or perhaps resulting in) an influx into the Egyptian Delta of Asiatic immigrants. In the Middle Kingdom that followed, Osiris came more strongly to the fore; he was god of the dead, with entry into eternal life largely in his gift. In the earlier period, the supreme god, the sun-god, had been the judge of men; then there was, in Wilson's phrase 'a democratisation of the next world and Osirianisation', eternal judgement taking place before a tribunal of gods; finally, the fate of the departed was held to depend on a trial before Osiris alone (32) The developed Osiris myth - his murder when reigning as king on earth at the hands of his wicked brother Set; the mourning of Isis, his sister/wife; the finding, then burial, of his dismembered body; a kind of resurrection, 'Osiris of the mysteries, who springs from the returning waters' (33) - need not detain us. It was well after the Middle Kingdom, in the days of the Empire, that Osiris became chief of the gods.

As already mentioned, a feature of Egypt in the later period of its history - as in the later Roman Empire - was the multiplicity of 'gods'. At around the time of Moses (see below), there were over forty petty states in Egypt, each with its own chief god, worshipped in his temple at the principal city. Each such god had other gods associated with him - a wife goddess, or sons - and each in his own territory was regarded as 'god almighty', creator and preserver of the world. Besides these, each town and village possessed its own god. All gods were given 'names', to distinguish one from another. The Thebian Recension of the 'Book of the Dead' gives the names of over 450, and altogether we now know the names of over 2200. As in Mesopotamia, with the proliferation and increased splendour of temples, there was an increase in their staffing and wealth. Temple activities eventually became the dominant factor in Egyptian political, social and economic life, overwhelming everything and everyone, both people and pharaoh.

A consistent picture, I submit, has emerged from 'the history of God' we have so far traced, amongst 'primitive' peoples in Africa and elsewhere, and in the ancient kingdoms of Mesopotamia and of Egypt. It is of belief in a Supreme Deity that steadily become eroded, not of a slow development of belief from the daemons or spirits of trees and other natural objects, through local territorial gods to a pantheon of high gods, then on finally to one Great Creative Spirit. We could illustrate the same pattern from other parts of the world, notably China. It is little appreciated that some fifteen hundred or more years before the blossoming of Taoism and Confucianism in the fifth century BC, the ancient people of China served a single supreme God, had no myths or idols, and kept a strict moral code. Their name for God was Shang Ti, meaning Heavenly Emperor, or literally 'Emperor Above'. (34) Yet this fact need not surprise us. Evidence suggests that the Chinese originally migrated from a site in Mesopotamia, their culture - in the arts, in the sciences and in government - showing marked similarity to that of the later Babylonians and Assyrians. (35)

At much the same time a famous family migrated from Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan. To that seminal event we shall now turn.

Notes and References

Biblical quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV). Other versions occasionally used are the A uthorised Version (A V), the Revised Version (RV) and the New International Version (NIV). Abbreviations used for the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are Mt, Mk, Lk, and Jn.

Chapter 1: In the Beginning

1. e.g., Frazer,j.G., The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, London: Macmillan, 1890; Vol. I, pp. 348-9; Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy, Penguin, 1959 (German original, 1917), pp. 28-31; Kennedy, Ludovic, All In The Mind, London: Hodder and Stoughton (Sceptre Paperback), 1999, pp. 29-30, 33-35. Kennedy refers also to 'some evidence' for 'some primitive tribes' having 'fashioned a Supreme Being who existed conjointly and had power over lesser gods' (see Notes 8 and 9, below). Cf. Armstrong, Karen, A Histtory of God, London, Heinemann, 1993; Mandarin paperback, 1994, pp. 9-10. Armstrong refers to the book The Origin of the Idea of God by Wilhelm Schmidt (first published in German in 1912; published in English [transl. by HJ. Rose] in 1931, with the title The Origin and Growth of Religion), who argues that there had been a primitive monotheism before men and women started to worship a number of gods. She concludes: 'It is impossible to prove this one way or the other. There have been many theories about the origin of religion. Yet it seems that creating gods is something that human beings have always done.'

2. Frankfort, H. and H.A., Wilson, J.A., and, T.Jacobsen., op. cit., Penguin, 1949, pp. 12, 14-15; originally published as The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1946.

3. Ibid. pp. 17-18; also Frazer, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 301.

4. op. cit.,p. 17.

5. Rattray, R.S., The Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932, Vol. I, p. 42.

6. op. cit., London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1955, p. 57.

7. Meek, C.K, Tribal Studies in Northern Nigeria, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., Ltd., 1931; Vol I, p.191.

8. Kennedy, L., op. cit., p. 33.

9. Ibid. p. 32.

10. op. cit., p. 58.

11. 'Primitive Monotheism', in The Sociological Review, XXVII, pp. 337f. (1935); cited by Oesterley, W.O.E. and T.H. Robinson, Hebrew Religion: Its Origin and Development, 2nd ed., London: S.P.C.K, 1937, p. 5; New York: Macmillan, 1930.

12. Frankfort, H., et al., op. cit., pp. 140-1.

13. Ibid. p. 153.

14. Ibid. p. 152.

15. Cited by Wiseman, PJ., New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis, 6th ed., London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1953, p. 25; 1" ed., 1936.

16. Handcock, P.S.P., Mesopotamian Archaeology: An Introduction to the Archaeology of Babylonia and Assyria, London: Macmillan, 1912, p. 375.

17. Ibid. p. 386.

18. Ibid. p. 387.

19. Cylinder of Cyrus, inscription on baked clay, c. 536 BC; from Babylon; see Wiseman, DJ., Illustrations from Biblical Archaeology, London: Tyndale, 1958, p.74; cf (in the Bible) Ezra, Chap. 1.

20. Frankfort H., et aL, or. cit., p. 65.

21. Ibid. p. 60.

22. Ibid. p. 67.

23. Ibid. p. 65;John 1:1.

24. Ibid. p. 68; Genesis 2:2

25. Ibid.p.107.

26. History of the Near East; cited by Wiseman, P J., op. cit., p. 28.

27. Frankfort H., et al, op. cit., pp.105-6.

28. Ibid. p. 115.

29. Sumer and Akkad, p. 3; cited by Wiseman, P J., op. cit., p. 28.

30. The Sumerians, p. 37; cited by Wiseman, P J., op. cit., p. 29.

31. Frankfort, H., et aL, op. cit., p. 107.

32. Ibid. p.119.

33. Frazer,J.G., op. cit., Vol. I, pp. 301-305; concerning a resurrection of Osiris celebrated at his mysteries, Frazer cites Plutarch, Isis et Osiris, 35.

34. Ross,J., The Original Religion of China, London: Oliphant, Anderson and Ferrier, 1909, pp. 19-20; cited by Rang, C.H., and Ethel R. Nelson, The Discovery of Genesis: How the Truths of Genesis Were Found Hidden in the Chinese Language, St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1979, p. 2.

35. Couperie, T. De La, The Language of China Before the Chinese, Taipei: Ch' engwen Publishing Co., 1966, p. 114; cited by Rang and Nelson, op. cit., p. 2.