Ancient History & Civilisation


Achaean: term used to describe the Mycenaean Greeks, many of whom lived in Achaea.

Acropolis (Greek): the sacred hill outside Athens.

Agnicayana (Sanskrit): Vedic ritual; the building of a brick fire altar for Agni, god of fire.

Agon (Greek): contest; competition.

Agora (Greek): the open space in the center of a Greek city; a central meeting place.

Ahimsa (Sanskrit): “harmlessness”; nonviolence.

Ahl al-kitab (Arabic): usually translated as “the people of the Book.” But as there were very few books in Arabia in the seventh century CE, when the Qur’an was revealed, the term is more accurately rendered “people of an earlier revelation.”

Ahura (Avestan): “lord”; the title of the most important gods in the Aryan pantheon. The ahuras became the gods worshiped by the Zoroastrians.

Am ha-aretz (Hebrew): in the seventh century BCE, the rural aristocracy of Judah. After the return from exile, the term referred to the foreign people who had settled in Canaan after the Babylonian wars, and also Israelites and Judahites who had not been deported to Babylon.

Amesha (Avestan): “the Immortals.” In Zoroastrian religion, the term referred to the seven gods in the retinue of Ahura Mazda, the Supreme God.

Anatta (Pali): “no self”; the Buddhist doctrine that denied the existence of a constant, stable, and discrete personality, designed to encourage Buddhists to live as though the self did not exist.

Apeiron (Greek): the “indefinite” original substance of the cosmos in the philosophy of Anaximander.

Aranya (Sanskrit): forest; jungle. The Aranyakas (“Forest Texts”) give an esoteric interpretation of the Vedic rites.

Archetype (Greek derivation): the “original pattern” or paradigm. A term connected with the perennial philosophy that sees every earthly object or experience as a replica, a pale shadow of a more powerful, richer reality in the heavenly world. In ancient religion, the return to the archetypal reality was regarded as the fulfillment of a person or object. One thus attained a fuller, richer existence.

Areopagus (Greek): the rocky hillock near the agora of Athens that was the meeting place of the aristocratic Council of Elders (often known as the Areopagus Council).

Aristeia (Greek): the “victorious rampage” of the Greek warrior, who lost himself in an ecstasy of battle rage.

Arya; Aryan: literally, “honorable, noble”; the Indo-European peoples, who originated on the steppes of southern Russia and migrated later to India and Iran.

Asana: “sitting”; the correct position for yogic meditation, with straight back and crossed legs.

Asha (Avestan): the sacred order that held the universe together and made life possible.

Ashavan (Avestan): the “champions of asha” in Zoroastrian religion.

Asura (Sanskrit): see ahura. The Vedic Aryans demoted the asuras, who were worshiped by the Zoroastrians. They regarded them as passive and sedentary, compared with the dynamic devas.

Ataraxia (Greek): freedom from pain.

Atman (Sanskrit): the immortal and eternal “self” sought by renouncers and Upanishadic mystics, which was believed to be identical with the brahman.

Avatara (Sanskrit): “manifestation”; “descent”; the earthly appearance of one of the gods. Krishna, for example, is an avatara of the Vedic god Vishnu.

Bandhu: “connection.” In Vedic ritual science, the sacrificer and priest were supposed to look for links between earthly and heavenly realities when performing a sacrifice. The bandhu was based on a resemblance of function or appearance, or on a mythical connection between two objects.

Basileus (Greek); plural basileis: “lords”; the Greek aristocrats.

Bhakti (Sanskrit): “love”; “devotion”; the name given to the Indian religion that is based on an emotional surrender to a god. A bhakta is a devotee of, for example, Shiva or Vishnu.

Bin (Chinese): “hosting”; the name given to the ritual banquet in honor of the ancestors, who were believed to attend. They were impersonated by younger members of the family, who were thought to be possessed by the spirit of their deceased relatives during the rite.

Brahmacarya (Sanskrit): the “holy life” of the Vedic student, during his apprenticeship under a teacher who initiated him into sacrificial lore. He had to live a humble, self-effacing life of ahimsa and chastity, while studying the Vedic texts. A brahmacarin is a Vedic student.

Brahman (Sanskrit): “the All”; the whole of reality; the essence of existence; the foundation of everything that exists; being itself. The power that holds the cosmos together and enables it to grow and develop. The supreme reality of Vedic religion.

Brahmasiris (Sanskrit): a mythical weapon of mass destruction.

Brahmin (Sanskrit): a Vedic priest; a member of the priestly class.

Brahmodya (Sanskrit): a ritual competition. The contestants each tried to find a verbal formula that expressed the mysterious and ineffable reality of the brahman. The contest always ended in silence, as the contestants were reduced to speechless awe. In the silence they felt the presence of the brahman.

Buddha (Sanskrit; Pali): an enlightened or “awakened” person.

Buddhi (Sanskrit): the “intellect”; the highest human category in the Samkhya system; the only part of the human person that was capable of reflecting the eternal purusha.

Cheng (Chinese): “sincerity.” A person was supposed to perform the rituals of China wholeheartedly, not hypocritically or grudgingly.

Chthonian (Greek derivation): the term that refers to the Greek gods who dwelt in or beneath the earth (chthon), such as the Erinyes.

City Dionysia: the annual festival in honor of the god Dionysus, when the tragedies were performed in the theater on the southern slopes of the Acropolis.

Coincidentia oppositorum (Latin): the “coincidence of opposites”; the ecstatic experience of a unity that exists beyond the apparent contradictions of earthly life.

Daeva (Avestan); plural daevas: the “shining ones”; the gods. The Zoroastrians came to regard the daevas as demonic, and worshiped the asuras, the “lords” of the daevas, who were the guardians of truth and order.

Daimon (Greek): a lesser divine being. An intermediary between the higher gods and human beings.

Dao (Chinese): the Way; the correct course or path. The object of much Chinese ritual was to ensure that human affairs were aligned with the Way of Heaven. Human virtue consists of living in accordance with the de, the potency that expresses the dao on earth. In Daoism, the school represented in the Axial Age by Zhuangzi and Laozi, the dao becomes the ultimate, ineffable reality, the source from which all appearance derives, unproduced producer of all that exists, which guarantees the stability and order of the world.

Daode (Chinese): the “power of the Way,” expressed particularly by the king or prince. A magical potency that brings order to the world and to the kingdom.

Demos (Greek): the people.

Deva (Sanskrit); plural devas: “the shining ones,” the Vedic gods. Cf. daeva. The Zoroastrians demoted the daevas and regarded them as evil, violent, and demonic, but the Vedic Indians loved the dynamism of the devas, and worshiped them rather than the asuras.

Dhamma (Pali): See dharma. In Buddhist terminology, it generally meant the teaching of a particular school. The way of salvation.

Dharma (Sanskrit): a complicated word, with a range of different meanings. Originally it meant the natural condition of things, their essence, the fundamental law of their existence. Then it came to stand for the laws and duties of each class of Vedic society, which defined their function and way of life. Finally it referred to religious truth, the doctrines and practices that make up a particular religious system. In Pali, dharma became dhamma.

Diadochoi (Greek): the six “successors” of Alexander the Great, who fought for supremacy after his death.

Dike (Greek): justice; also the goddess of justice, one of the daughters of Zeus.

Dukkha (Sanskrit): “awry, flawed, unsatisfactory”; often translated simply as “suffering.”

Dysnomia (Greek): “disorder”; an unbalanced social policy, which allowed some elements of the population to become too dominant.

Ekagrata (Sanskrit): a yogic discipline; concentration “on a single point.”

Ekstasis (Greek): ecstasy; literally “stepping out,” going beyond the self; transcending normal experience.

Elohim (Hebrew): term that sums up everything that the gods mean to human beings; the divine. Often also used as a formal title of Yahweh and translated as “God.”

En mesoi (Greek): “in the center”; a phrase expressing the open, accessible nature of Athenian democracy.

Entheos (Greek): literally, “a god is within”; the ecstatic experience of divine possession, especially during the mysteries of Dionysus.

Erinyes (Greek): the Furies; ancient chthonian deities who avenged the unnatural murder of kinsfolk.

Eunomia (Greek): order; a balanced society in which no single element is allowed to dominate the others. This is the term for the polity established by Solon in Athens in the sixth century BCE.

Fa (Chinese): “standard, pattern, method”; often translated as “law.” An important concept in the Chinese Legalist school.

Gathas (Avestan): Zoroastrian scriptures, seventeen inspired hymns attributed to Zoroaster.

Golah (Hebrew): the community of returned exiles in Judea.

Goyim (Hebrew): the foreign nations.

Grama (Sanskrit): village. Originally the term referred to a troop of trekking warriors.

Haoma (Avestan): a hallucinogenic plant used in Aryan worship. Its stalks were ceremonially gathered, crushed, and mixed with water to make a sacred, intoxicating drink. Haoma was also revered as a god. See soma.

Helots (Greek): the indigenous people of Messenia, who were enslaved by Sparta when their territory was conquered.

Herem (Hebrew): the “ban”; the holy war of ancient Israel.

Hesed (Hebrew): often translated as “love” or “mercy,” but originally a tribal term denoting the loyalty of a kinship relationship that demanded altruistic behavior toward the family group.

Hinneni (Hebrew): “Here I am!” A cry uttered by prophets and patriarchs to express their total presence before God and their readiness to do whatever he wished. An expression of submission and devotion.

Homoioi (Greek): the “equal” or “uniform” ones; the title of the citizens of Sparta.

Hoplite: from the Greek hopla, “weapons.” The Greek citizen-soldier who armed himself.

Hotr (Avestan; Sanskrit): the priest who was expert in the sacred chant.

Hubris (Greek): pride, selfishness; excessive behavior; the refusal to keep within due bounds; egotism.

Isonomia (Greek): “equal order”; the name given to the government devised by Cleisthenes in Athens in the early sixth century.

Jian ai (Chinese): the chief virtue of the Mohist school; often translated as “universal love,” but more accurately rendered “concern for everybody,” a principled impartiality.

Jina (Sanskrit): a spiritual “conqueror,” who has achieved the enlightenment of ahimsa. The Jains were a religion of jinas.

Jing (Chinese): the highest form of qi; the sacred essence of being; existence itself; the divine quintessence of all things.

Jiva (Sanskrit): a soul; a living entity that was luminous and intelligent. The Jains believed that every single creature—humans, plants, animals, even rocks and trees—each had a jiva that could feel pain and distress, and which must therefore be protected and honored.

Junzi (Chinese): originally it simply meant a gentleman; a member of the Chinese nobility. The Confucians took away its class connotations and democratized it. For the Confucians a junzi was a mature, fully developed human being who had cultivated his innate capacities. Sometimes translated as a “profound” or “superior” person.

Karma (Sanskrit): “action.” At first it referred to ritual activity, but was later extended to include all deeds, including mental acts such as fear, attachment, desire, or hatred.

Karma-yoga (Sanskrit): the phrase coined by Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita to describe the yoga of the warrior, who learned to dissociate himself from his actions, so that he was no longer interested in gaining any benefit from them.

Katharsis (Greek): “cleansing, purification.” It referred originally to the purification of sacrifice and ritual; in tragedy, the audience cleansed their emotions of hatred and terror.

Kenosis (Greek): “emptying.” In spirituality, the word is used to describe the emptying of self, the dismantling of egotism.

Kshatriya (Sanskrit): “the empowered ones”; the Indian warrior class, who were responsible for the government and the defence of the community.

Li (Chinese): rite; ceremony; the range of ritual lore that regulated the entire life of a junzi.

Logos (Greek): “dialogue speech”; reasoned, logical, and scientific thought. In some philosophies, such as Stoicism, it refers to the rational, ruling principle of nature.

Mandala (Sanskrit): a symbolic, pictorial representation of the universe, which is always circular in shape to indicate an all-inclusive pervasion; an icon of contemplation.

Mantra (Sanskrit): a short prose formula, chanted during a ritual. Sound was sacred in Vedic religion, so a mantra was divine, a deva. Mantras could encapsulate the divine in the human form of speech.

Messiach (Hebrew): “anointed one.” Originally the term referred to the king of Israel and Judah, who was anointed during his coronation ceremony and achieved a special, cultic closeness to Yahweh. He became the “son of God,” and had a particular divine task. By extension, Second Isaiah applied the term to Cyrus, king of Persia, who was Yahweh’s king and doing Yahweh’s work.

Miasma (Greek): a contagious, polluting power inherent in a violent atrocity against a family member or neighbor. It had an independent life of its own; it could contaminate perfectly innocent human beings who were related to the perpetrator or simply happened to be in the vicinity. Not dissimilar to radioactivity. Once the evil deed had been committed, its miasma could be eliminated only by the punishment—usually the violent, sacrificial death—of the perpetrator. The Erinyes were responsible for the elimination of miasma and hounded the guilty.

Mitzvah (Hebrew); plural mitzvoth: the “commandments” of Yahweh’s Torah.

Moksha (Sanskrit): “liberation” from rebirth and the ceaseless round of samsara; the consequent awakening to one’s true self.

Monolatry (Greek derivation): refers to the worship of a single god. Monolatry is not the same as monotheism, the belief that only one god exists; a person who practices monolatry may believe in the existence of many deities, but has made the decision to worship only one of them. The prophets of Israel probably believed that other gods existed, but wanted the people to worship only Yahweh and take no part in the cults of other gods.

Muni (Sanskrit): a “silent sage”; a renouncer.

Mystai (Greek): people who undergo the initiation into a Greek mystery religion that gives them a personal and intense experience of the divine.

Mythos (Greek): “myth.” A reality that in one sense happened once, but that also happened all the time. The mythical discourse that deals with elusive, timeless truth and the search for ultimate meaning, which is complemented by logos.

Nibbana (Pali): “extinction”; “blowing out”; the extinction of the self, which brings enlightenment and liberation from pain and suffering. In Sanskrit, this becomes nirvana.

Niyama (Sanskrit): the preparatory “disciplines” of the yogin, including the study of the guru’s teaching, habitual serenity, and kindness to all.

Nous (Greek): “mind.”

Panathenaea (Greek): the new year’s festival of Athens, which celebrated the birth of the city. It consisted of a procession through the streets of Athens up to the Acropolis, where a new robe was presented to Athena for her cult statue.

Pesach (Hebrew): “crossing”; the name of the spring Passover festival, which eventually celebrated the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, when the angel of death passed over the houses of the Israelites but slew the firstborn sons of the Egyptians.

Physikoi (Greek): the “physicists,” the natural scientists of Miletus and Elea in southern Italy.

Purusha (Sanskrit): “person.” The term first applies to the primordial human Person who voluntarily allowed the gods to sacrifice him in order to bring the world into being. This archetypal sacrifice was celebrated in the Purusha Hymn of the Rig Veda. Later the Purusha was merged with the figure of the creator god Prajapati, and thus became crucial to the ritual reform that began India’s Axial Age. In Samkhya philosophy, the purusha referred to the eternal, sacred self of every single individual, which had to be liberated from nature.

Polis (Greek); plural poleis: the Greek city-state.

Pranayama (Sanskrit): the breathing exercises of yoga, which induce a state of trance and well-being.

Prophet (Greek derivation): a person who “speaks for” or on behalf of God.

Qaddosh (Hebrew): “separate, other,” and, by extension, “holy.”

Qi (Chinese): the raw material of life; its basic energy and its primal spirit; it animates all beings. Endlessly active, it conglomerates in different combinations, under the guidance of the dao, to form individual creatures; after a time, the qi disperses, the creatures die or disintegrate, but qi lives on, combining in new ways to bring quite different beings into existence. Qi gives everything its distinctive shape and form. To allow the qi to flow freely through the human person became the chief aim of Chinese mysticism: it was the base of the personality, the ground of being, and therefore in perfect harmony with the dao.

Raja (Sanskrit): “chief, king.”

Rajasuya (Sanskrit): the ceremony of royal consecration.

Rang (Chinese): “yielding”; the attitude inculcated by the Chinese rituals of reverence and respect.

Ren (Chinese): originally, “human being.” Confucius gave the word new significance, but refused to describe it because it transcended any of the intellectual categories of his time. It was a transcendent value, the highest good. Ren would always be associated with the concept of humanity and has been translated as “human-heartedness.” Later Confucians equated it with benevolence or compassion. It is the chief Confucian virtue.

Rig Veda (Sanskrit): “Knowledge in Verse”; the most sacred part of the Vedic scriptures, consisting of over a thousand inspired hymns.

Rishi (Sanskrit): “seer.” The term applied to the inspired poets of the Rig Veda. Also a visionary; a mystic or sage.

Rita (Sanskrit): the sacred order. See asha.

Ru (Chinese): the ritual experts of China.

Sabaoth (Hebrew): “of armies”; the chief epithet of Yahweh.

Samkhya (Sanskrit): “discrimination.” A philosophy, akin to yoga, that analyzed the cosmos into twenty-four different categories and devised a cosmology that was intended as an object of meditation to induce moksha.

Samsara (Sanskrit): “keeping going”; the cycle of death and rebirth, which propelled people from one life to the next. It often referred to the restlessness and transience of the human condition.

Sangha (Sanskrit): originally the tribal assembly of the Aryan clans. By extension, it referred to the religious orders of renouncers.

Satrap (Persian): governor.

Sefer torah (Hebrew): the scroll of the Law discovered in the Jerusalem temple in 622 bce.

Shen (Chinese): the divine, numinous quality that made each person unique. It was the shen that enabled a person to survive as an individual in Heaven and become a sacred ancestor in the cult. In Chinese mysticism, the shen referred to a person’s deepest, divine self, which is one with the jing of existence.

Shi (Chinese): the lower aristocracy of China, the ordinary gentlemen. Often they did the less prestigious jobs in the administration, serving as men-at-arms, specialists in the various branches of knowledge, guardians of the written traditions, and scribes. The sages of the Chinese Axial Age usually came from this class.

Shruti (Sanskrit): “that which is heard”; revelation.

Shu (Chinese): “likening to oneself.” The Confucian virtue of consideration, linked with the Golden Rule: never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.

Shudra (Sanskrit): the non-Aryan population of India, the lowest class of Vedic society, whose function was to supply labor.

Soma (Sanskrit): see haoma. A hallucinogenic plant used in Aryan ritual; in India, Soma was also a divine priest, who protected the people from famine and looked after their cattle.

Sympatheia (Greek): “feeling with”; a profound affinity with the ritual, and later, by extension, with other suffering human beings.

Tapas (Sanskrit): “heat”; an ascetical exercise, in which people sat by the sacred fire, sweated, and felt a surge of warmth rise up within that was experienced as a divine and creative force. By extension, the word often means “asceticism.”

Techne (Greek): technology.

Theoria (Greek): contemplation.

Thetes (Greek): the lowest classes of Greek society.

Torah (Hebrew): the “teaching”; the divine Law of Israel, said to have been transmitted to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.

Upanishads (Sanskrit): “to sit down near to”; esoteric mystical scriptures, revered as the culmination of the Veda. Thirteen classical Upanishads were composed between the seventh and second centuries BCE.

Vaishya (Sanskrit): clansman. The third class of Vedic society, whose function was to create the wealth of the community; first by stock breeding and agriculture, and later by trade and commerce.

Veda (Sanskrit): “knowledge.” The term used to denote the huge corpus of sacred literature of the Aryan Indians.

Wu wei (Chinese): “doing nothing.”

Xian (Chinese): the Mohist “men of worth”; practical men of action.

Xie (Chinese): bands of peripatetic military specialists.

Yamas (Sanskrit): the five “prohibitions” of the preliminary training of the yogin, who had to master them before he began to meditate; also called the five “vows.” They forbade violence, stealing, lying, sex, and intoxicating substances that clouded the mind and hindered concentration.

Yoga (Sanskrit): “yoking.” Initially the term referred to the yoking of draft animals to war chariots at the beginning of a raid. Later it referred to the “yoking” of the powers of the mind to achieve enlightenment. The meditative discipline designed to eliminate the egotism that holds us back from moksha and nibbana.

Yogin: a practitioner of yoga.

Yu wei (Chinese): disciplined, purposeful action.

Yuga (Sanskrit): an age, era; a cycle of history.

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