Ancient History & Civilisation



(c. 1600 to 900 BCE)

The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living on the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans. The Aryans were not a distinct ethnic group, so this was not a racial term but an assertion of pride and meant something like “noble” or “honorable.” The Aryans were a loose-knit network of tribes who shared a common culture. Because they spoke a language that would form the basis of several Asiatic and European tongues, they are also called Indo-Europeans. They had lived on the Caucasian steppes since about 4500, but by the middle of the third millennium some tribes began to roam farther and farther afield, until they reached what is now Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, and Germany. At the same time, those Aryans who had remained behind on the steppes gradually drifted apart and became two separate peoples, speaking different forms of the original Indo-European. One used the Avestan dialect, the other an early form of Sanskrit. They were able to maintain contact, however, because at this stage their languages were still very similar, and until about 1500 they continued to live peacefully together, sharing the same cultural and religious traditions.1

It was a quiet, sedentary existence. The Aryans could not travel far, because the horse had not yet been domesticated, so their horizons were bounded by the steppes. They farmed their land, herded their sheep, goats, and pigs, and valued stability and continuity. They were not a warlike people, since, apart from a few skirmishes with one another or with rival groups, they had no enemies and no ambition to conquer new territory. Their religion was simple and peaceful. Like other ancient peoples, the Aryans experienced an invisible force within themselves and in everything that they saw, heard, and touched. Storms, winds, trees, and rivers were not impersonal, mindless phenomena. The Aryans felt an affinity with them, and revered them as divine. Humans, deities, animals, plants, and the forces of nature were all manifestations of the same divine “spirit,” which the Avestans called mainyu and the Sanskrit-speakers manya. It animated, sustained, and bound them all together.

Over time the Aryans developed a more formal pantheon. At a very early stage, they had worshiped a Sky God called Dyaus Pitr, creator of the world.2 But like other High Gods, Dyaus was so remote that he was eventually replaced by more accessible gods, who were wholly identified with natural and cosmic forces. Varuna preserved the order of the universe; Mithra was the god of storm, thunder, and life-giving rain; Mazda, lord of justice and wisdom, was linked with the sun and stars; and Indra, a divine warrior, had fought a three-headed dragon called Vritra and brought order out of chaos. Fire, which was crucial to civilized society, was also a god, and the Aryans called him Agni. Agni was not simply the divine patron of fire; he was the fire that burned in every single hearth. Even the hallucinogenic plant that inspired the Aryan poets was a god, called Haoma in Avestan and Soma in Sanskrit: he was a divine priest who protected the people from famine and looked after their cattle.

The Avestan Aryans called their gods daevas (“the shining ones”) and amesha (“the immortals”). In Sanskrit these terms became devas and amrita.3 None of these divine beings, however, were what we usually call “gods” today. They were not omnipotent and had no ultimate control over the cosmos. Like human beings and all the natural forces, they had to submit to the sacred order that held the universe together. Thanks to this order, the seasons succeeded one another in due course, the rain fell at the right times, and the crops grew each year in the appointed month. The Avestan Aryans called this order asha, while the Sanskrit-speakers called it rita. It made life possible, keeping everything in its proper place and defining what was true and correct.

Human society also depended upon this sacred order. People had to make firm, binding agreements about grazing rights, the herding of cattle, marriage, and the exchange of goods. Translated into social terms, asha/rita meant loyalty, truth, and respect, the ideals embodied by Varuna, the guardian of order, and Mithra, his assistant. These gods supervised all covenant agreements that were sealed by a solemn oath. The Aryans took the spoken word very seriously. Like all other phenomena, speech was a god, a deva. Aryan religion was not very visual. As far as we know, the Aryans did not make effigies of their gods. Instead, they found that the act of listening brought them close to the sacred. Quite apart from its meaning, the very sound of a chant was holy; even a single syllable could encapsulate the divine. Similarly, a vow, once uttered, was eternally binding, and a lie was absolutely evil because it perverted the holy power inherent in the spoken word.4 The Aryans would never lose this passion for absolute truthfulness.

Every day, the Aryans offered sacrifices to their gods to replenish the energies they expended in maintaining world order. Some of these rites were very simple. The sacrificer would throw a handful of grain, curds, or fuel into the fire to nourish Agni, or pound the stalks of soma, offer the pulp to the water goddesses, and make a sacred drink. The Aryans also sacrificed cattle. They did not grow enough crops for their needs, so killing was a tragic necessity, but the Aryans ate only meat that had been ritually and humanely slaughtered. When a beast was ceremonially given to the gods, its spirit was not extinguished but returned to Geush Urvan (“Soul of the Bull”), the archetypical domestic animal. The Aryans felt very close to their cattle. It was sinful to eat the flesh of a beast that had not been consecrated in this way, because profane slaughter destroyed it forever, and thus violated the sacred life that made all creatures kin.5 Again, the Aryans would never entirely lose this profound respect for the “spirit” that they shared with others, and this would become a crucial principle of their Axial Age.

To take the life of any being was a fearful act, not to be undertaken lightly, and the sacrificial ritual compelled the Aryans to confront this harsh law of existence. The sacrifice became and would remain the organizing symbol of their culture, by which they explained the world and their society. The Aryans believed that the universe itself had originated in a sacrificial offering. In the beginning, it was said, the gods, working in obedience to the divine order, had brought forth the world in seven stages. First they created the Sky, which was made of stone like a huge round shell; then the Earth, which rested like a flat dish upon the Water that had collected in the base of the shell. In the center of the Earth, the gods placed three living creatures: a Plant, a Bull, and a Man. Finally they produced Agni, the Fire. But at first everything was static and lifeless. It was not until the gods performed a triple sacrifice—crushing the Plant, and killing the Bull and the Man—that the world became animated. The sun began to move across the sky, seasonal change was established, and the three sacrificial victims brought forth their own kind. Flowers, crops, and trees sprouted from the pulped Plant; animals sprang from the corpse of the Bull; and the carcass of the first Man gave birth to the human race. The Aryans would always see sacrifice as creative. By reflecting on this ritual, they realized that their lives depended upon the death of other creatures. The three archetypal creatures had laid down their lives so that others might live. There could be no progress, materially or spiritually, with-out self-sacrifice.6 This too would become one of the principles of the Axial Age.

The Aryans had no elaborate shrines and temples. Sacrifice was offered in the open air on a small, level piece of land, marked off from the rest of the settlement by a furrow. The seven original creations were all symbolically represented in this arena: Earth in the soil, Water in the vessels, Fire in the hearth; the stone Sky was present in the flint knife, the Plant in the crushed soma stalks, the Bull in the victim, and the first Man in the priest. And the gods, it was thought, were also present. The hotr priest, expert in the liturgical chant, would sing a hymn to summon devas to the feast. When they had entered the sacred arena, the gods sat down on the freshly mown grass strewn around the altar to listen to these hymns of praise. Since the sound of these inspired syllables was itself a god, as the song filled the air and entered their consciousness, the congregation felt surrounded by and infused with divinity. Finally the primordial sacrifice was repeated. The cattle were slain, the soma pressed, and the priest laid the choicest portions of the victims onto the fire, so that Agni could convey them to the land of the gods. The ceremony ended with a holy communion, as priest and participants shared a festal meal with the deities, eating the consecrated meat and drinking the intoxicating soma, which seemed to lift them to another dimension of being.7

The sacrifice brought practical benefits too. It was commissioned by a member of the community, who hoped that those devas who had responded to his invitation and attended the sacrifice would help him in the future. Like any act of hospitality, the ritual placed an obligation on the divinities to respond in kind, and the hotr often reminded them to protect the patron’s family, crops, and herd. The sacrifice also enhanced the patron’s standing in the community. Like the gods, his human guests were now in his debt, and by providing the cattle for the feast and giving the officiating priests a handsome gift, he had demonstrated that he was a man of substance.8 The benefits of religion were purely material and this-worldly. People wanted the gods to provide them with cattle, wealth, and security. At first the Aryans had entertained no hope of an afterlife, but by the end of the second millennium, some were beginning to believe that wealthy people who had commissioned a lot of sacrifices would be able to join the gods in paradise after their death.9

This slow, uneventful life came to an end when the Aryans discovered modern technology. In about 1500, they had begun to trade with the more advanced societies south of the Caucasus in Mesopotamia and Armenia. They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and also encountered new methods of transport: first they acquired wooden carts pulled by oxen, and then the war chariot. Once they had learned how to tame the wild horses of the steppes and harness them to their chariots, they experienced the joys of mobility. Life would never be the same again. The Aryans had become warriors. They could now travel long distances at high speed. With their superior weapons, they could conduct lightning raids on neighboring settlements and steal cattle and crops. This was far more thrilling and lucrative than stock breeding. Some of the younger men served as mercenaries in the armies of the southern kingdoms, and became expert in chariot warfare. When they returned to the steppes, they put their new skills to use and started to rustle their neighbors’ cattle. They killed, plundered, and pillaged, terrorizing the more conservative Aryans, who were bewildered, frightened, and entirely disoriented, feeling that their lives had been turned upside down.

Violence escalated on the steppes as never before. Even the more traditional tribes, who simply wanted to be left alone, had to learn the new military techniques in order to defend themselves. A heroic age had be-gun. Might was right; chieftains sought gain and glory; and bards celebrated aggression, reckless courage, and military prowess. The old Aryan religion had preached reciprocity, self-sacrifice, and kindness to animals. This was no longer appealing to the cattle rustlers, whose hero was the dynamic Indra, the dragon slayer, who rode in a chariot upon the clouds of heaven.10 Indra was now the divine model to whom the raiders aspired. “Heroes with noble horses, fain for battle, selected warriors call on me in combat,” he cried. “I, bountiful Indra, excite the conflict, I stir the dust, Lord of surpassing vigour!”11 When they fought, killed, and robbed, the Aryan cowboys felt themselves one with Indra and the aggressive devas who had established the world order by force of arms.

But the more traditional, Avestan-speaking Aryans were appalled by Indra’s naked aggression, and began to have doubts about the daevas. Were they all violent and immoral? Events on earth always reflected cosmic events in heaven, so, they reasoned, these terrifying raids must have a divine prototype. The cattle rustlers, who fought under the banner of Indra, must be his earthly counterparts. But who were the daevas attack-ing in heaven? The most important gods—such as Varuna, Mazda, and Mithra, the guardians of order—were given the honorific title “Lord” (ahura). Perhaps the peaceful ahuras, who stood for justice, truth, and respect for life and property, were themselves under attack by Indra and the more aggressive daevas? This, at any rate, was the view of a visionary priest, who in about 1200 claimed that Ahura Mazda had commissioned him to restore order to the steppes.12 His name was Zoroaster.

When he received his divine vocation, the new prophet was about thirty years old and strongly rooted in the Aryan faith. He had probably studied for the priesthood since he was seven years old, and was so steeped in tradition that he could improvise sacred chants to the gods during the sacrifice. But Zoroaster was deeply disturbed by the cattle raids, and after completing his education, he had spent some time in consultation with other priests, and had meditated on the rituals to find a solution to the problem. One morning, while he was celebrating the spring festival, Zoroaster had risen at dawn and walked down to the river to collect water for the daily sacrifice. Wading in, he immersed himself in the pure element, and when he emerged, saw a shining being standing on the riv-erbank, who told Zoroaster that his name was Vohu Manah (“Good Purpose”). Once he had been assured of Zoroaster’s own good intentions, he led him into the presence of the greatest of the ahuras: Mazda, lord of wisdom and justice, who was surrounded by his retinue of seven radiant gods. He told Zoroaster to mobilize his people in a holy war against terror and violence.13 The story is bright with the promise of a new beginning. A fresh era had dawned: everybody had to make a decision, gods and humans alike. Were they on the side of order or evil?

Zoroaster’s vision convinced him that Lord Mazda was not simply one of the great ahuras, but that he was the Supreme God. For Zoroaster and his followers, Mazda was no longer immanent in the natural world, but had become transcendent, different in kind from any other divinity.14 This was not quite monotheism, the belief in a single, unique deity. The seven luminous beings in Mazda’s retinue—the Holy Immortals—were also divine: each expressed one of Mazda’s attributes and was linked, in the traditional way, with one of the seven original creations. There was, however, a monotheistic tendency in Zoroaster’s vision. Lord Mazda had created the Holy Immortals; they were “of one mind, one voice, one act” with him.15 Mazda was not the only deity, but he was the first to exist. Zoroaster had probably reached this position by meditating on the creation story, which claimed that in the beginning there had been one plant, one animal, and one human being. It was only logical to assume that originally there had been one god.16

But Zoroaster was not interested in theological speculation for its own sake. He was wholly preoccupied by the violence that had destroyed the peaceful world of the steppes, and was desperately seeking for a way to bring it to an end. The Gathas, the seventeen inspired hymns attributed to Zoroaster, are pervaded by a distraught vulnerability, impotence, and fear. “I know why I am powerless, Mazda,” cried the prophet, “I possess few cattle and few men.” His community was terrorized by raiders “yoked with evil acts to destroy life.” Cruel warriors, fighting under the orders of the evil Indra, had swept down on the peace-loving, law-abiding communities. They had vandalized and looted one settlement after another, killed the villagers, and carried off their bulls and cows.17The raiders believed that they were heroes, fighting alongside Indra, but the Gathas show us how their victims saw the heroic age. Even the cow complained to Lord Mazda: “For whom did you shape me? Who fashioned me? Fury and raiding, cruelty and might hold me captive.” When Lord Mazda replied that Zoroaster, the only one of the Aryans who listened to his teachings, would be her protector, the cow was not impressed. What use was Zoroaster? She wanted a more effective helper. The Gathas cried aloud for justice. Where were the Holy Immortals, the guardians of asha? When would Lord Mazda bring relief?18

The suffering and helplessness of his people had shocked Zoroaster into a torn, conflicted vision. The world seemed polarized, split into two irreconcilable camps. Because Indra and the cattle raiders had nothing in common with Lord Mazda, they must have given their allegiance to a different ahura. If there was a single divine source for everything that was benign and good, Zoroaster concluded that there must also be a wicked deity who had inspired the cruelty of the raiders. This Hostile Spirit (Angra Mainyu), he believed, was equal in power to Lord Mazda, but was his opposite. In the beginning, there had been “two primal Spirits, twins destined to be in conflict” with each other. Each had made a choice. The Hostile Spirit had thrown in his lot with druj, the lie, and was the epitome of evil. He was the eternal enemy of asha, of everything that was right and true. But Lord Mazda had opted for goodness and had created the Holy Immortals and human beings as his allies. Now every single man, woman, and child had to make the same choice between asha and druj.19

For generations, the Aryans had worshiped Indra and the other daevas, but now Zoroaster concluded that the daevas must have decided to fight alongside the Hostile Spirit.20 The cattle raiders were their earthly counterparts. The unprecedented violence in the steppes had caused Zoroaster to divide the ancient Aryan pantheon into two warring groups. Good men and women must no longer offer sacrifice to Indra and the daevas; they must not invite them into the sacred precinct. Instead, they must commit themselves entirely to Lord Mazda, his Holy Immortals, and the other ahuras, who alone could bring peace, justice, and security. The daevas and the cattle raiders, their evil henchmen, must all be defeated and destroyed.21

The whole of life had now become a battlefield in which everybody had a role. Even women and servants could make a valuable contribution. The old purity laws, which had regulated the conduct of the ritual, were now given a new significance. Lord Mazda had created a completely clean and perfect world for his followers, but the Hostile Spirit had invaded the earth and filled it with sin, violence, falsehood, dust, dirt, disease, death, and decay. Good men and women must, therefore, keep their immediate environment free from dirt and pollution. By separating the pure from the impure, good from evil, they would liberate the world for Lord Mazda.22 They must pray five times a day. Winter was the season when the daevas were in the ascendant, so during this time all virtuous people must counter their influence by meditating on the menace of druj. They must rise up during the night, when wicked spirits prowled the earth, and throw incense into the fire to strengthen Agni in the war against evil.23

But no battle could last forever. In the old, peaceful world, life had seemed cyclical: the seasons had followed one another, day succeeded night, and harvest followed the planting. But Zoroaster could no longer believe in these natural rhythms. The world was rushing forward toward a cataclysm. He and his followers were living in the “bounded time” of raging cosmic conflict, but soon they would witness the final triumph of good and the annihilation of the forces of darkness. After a terrible battle, Lord Mazda and the Immortals would descend to the world of men and women and offer sacrifice. There would be a great judgment. The wicked would be wiped off the face of the earth, and a blazing river would flow into hell and incinerate the Hostile Spirit. Then the cosmos would be restored to its original perfection. Mountains and valleys would be leveled into a great plain, where gods and humans could live side by side, worshiping Lord Mazda forever. There would be no more death. Human beings would be like deities, free from sickness, old age, and mortality.24

We are now familiar with this kind of apocalyptic vision, but before Zoroaster there had been nothing like it in the ancient world. It sprang from his outrage at the suffering of his people and his yearning for justice. He wanted the wicked to be punished for the pain they had inflicted on good, innocent people. But as time passed, he began to realize that he would not be alive to see the Last Days. Another would come after him, a superhuman being, “who is better than a good man.”25 The Gathas call him the Saoshyant (“One Who Will Bring Benefit”). He, not Zoroaster, would lead Lord Mazda’s troops into the final battle.

When—centuries later—the Axial Age began, philosophers, prophets, and mystics all tried to counter the cruelty and aggression of their time by promoting a spirituality based on nonviolence. But Zoroaster’s traumatized vision, with its imagery of burning, terror, and extermination, was vengeful. His career reminds us that political turbulence, atrocity, and suffering do not infallibly produce an Axial-style faith, but can inspire a militant piety that polarizes complex reality into oversimplified categories of good and evil. Zoroaster’s vision was deeply agonistic. We shall see that the agon (“contest”) was a common feature of ancient religion. In making a cosmic agon between good and evil central to his message, Zoroaster belonged to the old spiritual world. He had projected the violence of his time onto the divine and made it absolute.

But in his passionately ethical vision, Zoroaster did look forward to the Axial Age. He tried to introduce some morality into the new warrior ethos. True heroes did not terrorize their fellow creatures but tried to counter aggression. The holy warrior was dedicated to peace; those who opted to fight for Lord Mazda were patient, disciplined, courageous, and swift to defend all good creatures from the assaults of the wicked.26 Ashavans, the champions of order (asha), must imitate the Holy Immortals in their care for the environment. “Good Purpose,” for instance, who had appeared to Zoroaster on the riverbank, was the guardian of the cow, and ashavans must follow his example, not that of the raiders, who drove the cattle from their pastures, harnessed them to carts, killed, and ate them without the proper ritual.27 “Good Dominion,” the personification of divine justice, was the protector of the stone Sky, so ashavans must use their stone weapons only to defend the poor and the weak.28 When Zoroastrians protected vulnerable people, looked after their cattle tenderly, and purified their natural environment, they became one with the Immortals and joined their struggle against the Hostile Spirit.

Even though his vision was grounded in ancient Aryan tradition, Zoroaster’s message inspired great hostility. People found it too demanding; some were shocked by his preaching to women and peasants, and by his belief that everybody—not just the elite—could reach paradise. Many would have been troubled by his rejection of the daevas: Might not Indra take revenge?29 After years of preaching to his own tribe, Zoroaster gained only one convert, so he left his village and found a patron in Vishtaspa, the chief of another tribe, who established the Zoroastrian faith in his territory. Zoroaster lived in Vishtaspa’s court for many years, fighting a heroic battle against evil to the bitter, violent end. According to one tradition he was killed by rival priests who were enraged by his rejection of the old religion. We know nothing about the history of Zoroastrianism after his death. By the end of the second millennium the Avestan Aryans had migrated south and settled in eastern Iran, where Zoroastrianism be-came the national faith. It has remained a predominantly Iranian religion. Strangely enough, it was the Aryan cattle rustlers, whom Zoroaster had condemned, who would eventually create the first sustained religion of the Axial Age, based upon the principle of ahimsa, nonviolence.

While some of the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans were creating havoc on the steppes, others had begun to migrate south, traveling in small bands through Afghanistan and settling finally in the fertile lands of the Punjab, among the tributaries of the river Indus. They called their new home Sapta-Sindhu, “Land of the Seven Rivers.” There has been much debate about the Aryan settlement of India.30Some scholars even deny that it took place, arguing that it was the indigenous people of India who created the civilization that developed in the Punjab at this time. The Aryans have left no archaeological record of this early period in India. Theirs was an itinerant society, and people lived out in the open or in temporary encampments. Our only sources of information are the ritual texts, composed in Sanskrit, known collectively as the Vedas (“Knowledge”). The language of the Vedas is so similar to Avestan and its cultural assumptions so close to the Gathas that it is almost certainly an Aryan scripture. Today most historians accept that during the second millennium, Aryan tribes from the steppes did indeed colonize the Indus Valley. But it was neither a mass movement nor a military invasion. There is no evidence of fighting, resistance, or widespread destruction. Instead there was probably continuous infiltration of the region by different Aryan groups over a very long period.


When the first Aryans arrived, they would have seen the remains of a previous civilization in the Indus Valley.31 At the height of its power and success (c. 2300–2000), this ancient Indian empire had been larger than either Egypt or Mesopotamia. It had two impressive capital cities: at Mohenjo-Daro, in modern Sind, and Harappa, some 250 miles to the east. But hundreds of other, smaller towns have also been excavated, extending 800 miles along the Indus River, and another 800 miles along the Arabian coast, all built on an identical grid pattern. The Indus Valley civilization had been a sophisticated and powerful commercial network, which exported gold, copper, timber, ivory, and cotton to Mesopotamia, and imported bronze, tin, silver, lapis lazuli, and soapstone.

Sadly, we know next to nothing about either the Harappans or their religion, even though there are tantalizing hints that some religious cults that would become very important after the Axial Age may have derived from the Indus Valley civilization. Archaeologists have found figurines of a Mother Goddess, stone lingams, and three stamp seals depicting a figure sitting, surrounded by animals, in what looks like the yogic position. Was this the god Shiva? In classical Hinduism, Shiva is lord of animals and a great yogin, but he is not an Aryan deity and is never mentioned in the Sanskrit Vedas. In the absence of any hard evidence, we cannot prove continuity. By the time the first Aryans arrived in the region, the Harappan empire had practically disappeared, but there may have been squatters in the ruined cities. There could have been overlap and interchange, and some of the Aryans may have adopted elements of the local faith and merged it with their own.

The Aryan immigrants had no desire to rebuild the ancient cities and revivify the empire. Always on the move themselves, they looked down on the security of settled life and opted for yoga, the “yoking” of their horses to the chariots at the beginning of a raid. Unlike the Zoroastrians, they had no interest in a quiet, peaceful existence. They loved their war chariots and powerful bronze swords; they were cowboys, who earned their living by stealing their neighbors’ livestock. Because their lives depended on cattle rustling, it was more than a sport; it was also a sacred activity with rituals that gave it an infusion of divine power. The Indian Aryans wanted a dynamic religion; their heroes were the trekking warrior and the chariot fighter. Increasingly, they found the asuras* 2worshiped by Zoroaster boring and passive. How could anybody be inspired by an asura like Varuna, who simply sat around in his celestial palace, ordering the world from a safe distance? They much preferred the adventurous devas, “who drove on wheels, while the asuras sat at home in their halls.”32

By the time they had established themselves in the Punjab, the cult of Varuna, the chief asura, was already in decline and Indra was becoming the Supreme God in his place.33 With his wild, flowing beard, his belly full of soma, and his passion for battle, Indra was the archetypal Aryan to whom all warriors aspired. At the beginning of time, he had hurled his glittering, deadly thunderbolt at Vritra, the three-headed dragon who had blocked the flow of the life-giving waters, so that the earth was parched with drought. Indra had thus made the world habitable by fighting terrify-ing battles against overwhelming odds, not by feebly sitting at home like Varuna. In the Vedic texts, all the attributes of Varuna—the administration of law, the guardianship of the truth, and the punishment of falsehood—pass to Indra. But the uncomfortable fact remained that for all his glamour, Indra was a killer, who had only managed to defeat Vritra by lying and cheating. This was the violent and troubled vision of a society constantly involved in desperate warfare. The Vedic hymns saw the entire cosmos convulsed by terrifying conflict and passionate rivalries. Devas and asuras fought each other in heaven, while the Aryans struggled for survival on earth.34 This was an age of scarcity; the only way that the Aryans could establish themselves in the Indus Valley was by stealing the cattle of the indigenous settled communities—the earthly counterparts of the stay-at-home asuras.35

The Aryans were hard-living, hard-drinking people who loved music, gambling, and wine. But even at this very early stage they showed spiritual genius. Shortly after they arrived in the Punjab, a learned elite began to compile the earliest hymns of the Rig Veda (“Knowledge in Verse”), the most prestigious portion of the Vedic scriptures. When completed, it would consist of 1,028 hymns, divided into ten books. This was just one part of a vast corpus of literature, which included anthologies of songs, mantras (short prose formulae used in ritual), and instructions for their recitation. These texts and poems had all been inspired; they were shruti, “that which is heard.” Revealed to the great seers (rishis) of antiquity, they were absolutely authoritative, unmarked by human redaction, divine, and eternal.

Some hymns of the Rig Veda could be very old indeed, because by the time the Aryan tribes arrived in India, its language was already archaic. The poems were the property of a small group of seven priestly families, each with its own “copyrighted” collection, which they chanted during the sacrificial rituals. Family members learned the hymns by heart and transmitted them orally to the next generation; the Rig Veda was not committed to writing until the second millennium of the common era. Since the advent of literacy, our powers of memory have declined, and we find it hard to believe that people were able to learn such lengthy texts. But the Vedic scriptures were transmitted with impeccable accuracy, even after the archaic Sanskrit had become almost incomprehensible, and still today, the exact tonal accents and inflections of the original, long-lost language have been preserved, together with the ritually prescribed gestures of the arms and fingers. Sound had always been sacred to the Aryans, and when they listened to these holy texts, people felt invaded by the divine. As they committed them to memory, their minds were filled by a sacred presence. Vedic “knowledge” was not the acquisition of factual information but was experienced as divine possession.

The poems of the Rig Veda did not tell coherent stories about the gods or give clear descriptions of the sacrificial rituals but alluded in a veiled, riddling fashion to myths and legends that were already familiar to the community. The truth that they were trying to express could not be conveyed in neat, logical discourse. The poet was a rishi, a seer. He had not invented these hymns. They had declared themselves to him in visions that seemed to come from another world.36 The rishi could see truths and make connections that were not apparent to ordinary people, but he had the divinely bestowed talent to impart them to anybody who knew how to listen. The beauty of this inspired poetry shocked his audience into a state of such awe, wonder, fear, and delight that they felt directly touched by divine power. The sacred knowledge of the Veda did not simply come from the semantic meaning of the words but from their sound, which was itself a deva.

The visionary truth of the Rig Veda stole up on the audience, who listened carefully to the hidden significance of the paradoxes and the strange, riddling allusions of the hymns, which yoked together things that seemed to be entirely unrelated. As they listened, they felt in touch with the mysterious potency that held the world together. This power was rita, divine order translated into human speech.37 As the rishi physically enunciated the sacred syllables, rita was made flesh and became an active, living reality in the torn, conflicted world of the Punjab. The listeners felt that they were in touch with the power that made the seasons follow one another regularly, the stars remain in their courses, the crops grow, and enabled the disparate elements of human society to cohere. Scripture, therefore, did not impart information that could be grasped notionally but gave people a more intuitive insight that was a bridge, linking the visible with the invisible dimension of life.

The rishis learned to hold themselves in a state of constant readiness to receive inspired words that seemed to come from outside but were also experienced as an inner voice. They may already have begun to develop techniques of concentration that enabled them to penetrate the subconscious. They discovered that if they got rid of their usual distracting preoccupations, “the doors of the mind may be opened,”38 and that Agni, the inventor of brilliant speech, the light of the world, enabled them to see in the same way as a god. The rishis had laid the foundations for the Indian Axial Age. At this very early date, they had made a deliberate effort to go beyond empirical knowledge and intuit a deeper, more fundamental truth.

Yet the rishis represented only a tiny minority of the Aryan community. The warriors and raiders lived in an entirely different spiritual world. Their lives alternated between the village (grama) and the jungle (aranya). During the monsoon rains, they had to live an asura-like existence in temporary, makeshift encampments. But after the winter solstice they yoked their horses and oxen and set off into the wilderness on a new cycle of raids, to replenish the wealth of the community. The opposition of the village and the forest became a social and spiritual paradigm in India.39Each complemented the other. The inhabitants of the settled community provided crops and bred the cattle that the warriors needed; yet they constantly feared attack from the bands of cattle rustlers, who roamed on the outskirts of society. The tropical forest was the place where the warrior proved his valor and explored the unknown. Later, during the Axial Age, hermits would retire to the forest to pioneer the spiritual realm. In the aranya, therefore, the Aryans experienced violence as well as religious en-lightenment; and from this very early stage, the two were inextricably entwined. Instead of waiting patiently and emptying his mind and heart, like a rishi, a warrior knew that he would have to fight his way to vision and insight.

Ever since they had taken up raiding on the steppes, the Aryans had altered the patterns of their rituals, to reflect the agonistic tenor of their daily existence. Zoroaster had been very disturbed by the new sacrificial rites of the cattle rustlers, though he did not describe them in any detail. “We must do what the gods did in the beginning,” an Indian ritual text of a later period explained.40 “Thus the gods did, thus men do,” said another.41 In their raids and battles, the Aryan warriors reenacted the heavenly wars between devas and asuras. When they fought, they became more than themselves and felt united with Indra; these rituals gave their warfare a “soul,” and by linking their earthly battles with their divine archetype, they made them holy.

Sacrifice was therefore at the spiritual heart of Aryan society in India, but it was also central to the economy. The old peaceful rites of the steppes had become far more aggressive and competitive, and reflected the dangerous lives of the cattle rustlers. Aryan sacrifice was now similar to the potlatch celebrated by the Native American tribes of the northwest, who proudly displayed the booty they had won and slaughtered large numbers of beasts for lavish sacrificial banquets. If a community accumulated more animals and crops than it needed, this surplus had to be “burned up.” It was impossible for a nomadic group that was perpetually on the move to store these goods, and the potlatch was a rough-and-ready way of redistributing the wealth of society. The ritual also showed how successful the chief had been and enhanced his prestige.

In India the raja (“chief”) commissioned a sacrifice in a similar spirit.42 He invited the elders of his own tribe and some of the neighboring chieftains to a special sacrificial arena, where he exhibited his surplus of booty—cattle, horses, soma, and crops. Some of these goods were sacrificed to the gods and eaten in a riotous, sumptuous banquet; anything left over was distributed to the other rajas as gifts. This placed an obligation on the patron’s guests to return these favors, and rajas vied with one an-other in putting on ever more spectacular sacrifices. The hotr priest, who chanted hymns to the gods, also sang the praises of the patron, promising that his munificence would bring even greater riches his way. Thus while the patron sought to curry favor with the gods and identify with Indra, who was himself an extravagant host and sacrificer, he also wanted to win praise and respect. At a time when he was supposed to leave his mundane self behind and become one with his heavenly counterpart, he was also engaged in aggressive self-assertion. This paradox in the ancient ritual would be a matter of concern to many of the reformers of the Axial Age.

Sacrifice also increased the violence that was already endemic in the region. After it was over, the patron had no cattle left and would have to inaugurate a new series of raids to replenish his wealth. We have no contemporary descriptions of these sacrifices, but later texts contain fragmentary references that give us some idea of what went on. The sacrifice was a solemn occasion, but it was also a large, rowdy carnival. Vast amounts of wine and soma were consumed, so people were either drunk or pleasantly mellow. There was casual sex with slave girls laid on by the officiating raja, and lively, aggressive ritual contests: chariot races, shooting matches, and tugs of war. Teams of dancers, singers, and lute players competed against one another. There were dice games for high stakes. Groups of warriors conducted mock battles. It was enjoyable, but also dangerous. In this highly competitive atmosphere, mock battles between professional warriors, all hungry for fame and prestige, could easily segue into serious fighting. A raja might wager a cow in a game of dice, and lose his entire herd. Carried away by the excitement of the occasion, he could also decide to lead an attack against his “enemy,” a neighboring raja who was on bad terms with him or who was holding a rival sacrifice of his own. The texts indicate that devas and asuras often interrupted each other’s sacrifices and carried off plunder and hostages, which suggests that this kind of violent intrusion was also common on earth.43 A raja who had not received an invitation to a ritual was insulted; he felt honor-bound to fight his way into the enemy camp and carry off booty. In these liturgically inspired raids, people could and did get killed.

The sacrifice reenacted, in a heightened, ceremonial setting, the glory and terror of the Aryan heroic code.44 A warrior’s entire life was an agon, a deadly, dangerous contest for food and wealth, which could end in his death. Ever since they had lived on the steppes, the Aryans had believed that the best and wealthiest among them would join the gods in heaven. Now they were convinced that a warrior who died nobly in battle went immediately to the world of the gods. In the heroic code, therefore, enlightenment was inseparable from violent death. An ancient story made this clear. A group of warriors had gathered to perform a long, elaborate sacrifice. But as so often happened, they were surrounded by a rival tribe, and there was a fierce battle. Tragically Sthura, their leader, was killed. When it was all over, his clansmen sat in a circle, mourning his loss, but one of them had a vision. He saw Sthura walking through the sacrificial ground to the sacred fire, and then beginning his ascent to heaven. “Do not lament,” he cried to his companions, “for he whom you are mourning has gone upward from the hearth of the offering fire and entered heaven.”45Sthura joined the gods simply because he had been slain in the course of a dangerous ritual. His companion had this glorious vision only because his leader had been prematurely and pointlessly slain.

Some of the warriors recognized the futility of their heroic ethos. A few of the later poems of the Rig Veda express a new weariness and pessimism. People felt worn out. “Indigence, nakedness and exhaustion press me sore,” the rishi complained; “my mind is fluttering like a bird’s. As rats eat weaver’s threads, cares are consuming me.”46 This vulnerability marked the beginning of the late Vedic period, a time of disturbing social change.47 During the tenth century, the old egalitarian tribal structures had begun to crumble, and an aristocracy of warrior families, known as the kshatriyas (“the empowered ones”), became dominant. Those of less noble lineage, the vaishyas, the clansmen, started to give up raiding and become farmers. When the kshatriyas yoked their horses to their chariots at the beginning of the new raiding season, the vaishyas stayed behind in the village. Like the shudras, the non-Aryan population, they now resembled the asuras, who stayed at home in their halls, and were fair game for plunder.48

A few chiefs began to create embryonic kingdoms. A king was never elected for life. Every year, he had to submit to the ordeal of the rajasuya, the ritual of consecration, in order to prove that he was worthy of office. Somebody was always ready to challenge him, and the old raja had to win power back by leading a successful raid in the course of the rite and beating his opponent at dice. If he lost, he would go into exile in the forest, but would usually return and challenge his rival to another rajasuya. The instability of the Indian kingdom was so ingrained that an early manual of statecraft actually made the king’s enemy a constituent part of the state.49


During the late Vedic period, there was a new wave of migration. In the tenth century, some of the Aryans began to push steadily eastward, settling in the Doab, between the Yamuna and Ganges rivers. This region became the arya varta, the “Land of the Arya.” Here too small kingdoms developed. The kings of Kuru-Panchala settled on the northwest fringe of the Ganges plain, with their capital at Hastinapura, while the Yadava clan settled in the area of Mathura, to the south. The terrain here was very different from the Punjab. The lush forests of exotic trees were a green paradise, but to build their little towns and encampments, the pioneers had to set fire to the trees in order to clear the land. Agni, god of fire, therefore became integral to this new phase of colonization. Settlement was slow and steplike. Each year, during the cool season, the Kuru-Panchala dispatched teams of warriors who penetrated deeper into the dense forest, subjugated the local population, and made a new outpost a little farther to the east than the previous year.50 They raided the farms of the shudras, seized their crops and cattle, and returned home before the monsoon to cultivate their own fields.51 Slowly the Aryan frontier crept forward—a disciplined, persevering process that foreshadowed the Aryans’ systematic conquest of inner space during the Axial Age.

New rituals were devised that sanctified this gradual, incremental drive toward the east. Mobility was still a sacred value: the sacrificial ground was used once only, and was always abandoned after the completion of the rite. At the western end of the sacrificial area, a thatched hut represented the hall of the settled householder. During the rite, the warriors solemnly carried the fire from the hut to the eastern end of the enclosure, where a fresh hearth was built in the open air. The next day, a new sacrificial ground was established, a little farther to the east, and the rite was re-peated. The ceremony reenacted Agni’s victorious progress into the new territory, as a ritualist of a later period explained: “This Fire should create room for us; this Fire should go in front, conquering our enemies; impetuously this Fire should conquer the enemies; this Fire should win the prizes in the contest.”52

Agni was the patron of the settlers. Their colony was a new beginning and, like the first creation, had wrested order from chaos. Fire symbolized the warriors’ ability to control their environment. They identified deeply with their fire. If he could steal fire from the hearth of a vaishya farmer, a warrior could also lure his cattle away, because they would always follow the flames. “He should take brightly burning fire from the home of his rival,” says one of the later texts; “he thereby takes his wealth, his property.”53 Fire symbolized a warrior’s power and success; it was—an im-portant point—his alter ego. He could create new fire, control and domesticate it. Fire was like his son; when he died and was cremated, he became a sacrificial victim and Agni would carry him to the land of the gods. The fire represented his best and deepest self (atman),54 and because the fire was Agni, this self was sacred and divine.


Agni was present everywhere, but he was hidden. He was in the sun, the thunder, the stormy rain, and the lightning that brought fire to the earth. He was present in ponds and streams, in the clay of the riverbank, and the plants from which fire could be kindled.55Agni had to be reverently retrieved from these hiding places, and pressed into the service of humanity. After establishing a new settlement, the warriors would celebrate the Agnicayana ritual, when they would ceremonially build a new brick altar for Agni. First they processed to the riverbank to collect the clay, where Agni was hidden, ritually taking possession of their new territory. They might have to fight and kill local residents who resisted this act of occupation. On their return to the sacrificial ground, the victorious warriors built their altar in the shape of a bird, one of Agni’s emblems, and Agni revealed himself when the new fire blazed forth.56 Only then did the new colony become a reality: “One becomes a settler when he builds the fire altar,” said one of the later texts, “and whoever are builders of fire altars are settled.”57

Raiding was built into the Aryan rituals. In the soma ritual, the sacred drink seemed to lift warriors up to the world of the gods. Once filled with the divine power of the god, they felt that they “had surpassed the heavens and all this spacious earth.” But this hymn began: “This, even this was my resolve, to win a cow, to win a steed: have I not drunk of Soma juice?”58 During the soma ritual, the patron and his guests had to leave the sacrificial ground and raid a nearby settlement to procure cattle and soma for the sacrifice. In the rajasuya, after the new king had drunk the soma juice, he was dispatched on a raid. If he returned with plunder, the officiating priests acknowledged his kingship: “Thou, O King, art brahman!”59

During the late Vedic period, the Aryans developed the idea of brahman, the supreme reality. Brahman was not a deva, but a power that was higher, deeper, and more basic than the gods, a force that held all the disparate elements of the universe together, and stopped them from fragmenting.60 Brahman was the fundamental principle that enabled all things to become strong and to expand. It was life itself.61 Brahman could never be defined or described, because it was all-encompassing: human beings could not get outside it and see it objectively. But it could be experienced in ritual. When the king arrived back safely from his raid, with the spoils of battle, he had become one with the brahman. He was now the axis, the hub of the wheel that would pull his kingdom together, and enable it to prosper and expand. Brahman was also experienced in silence. A ritual often ended with the brahmodya competition to find a verbal formula that expressed the mystery of the brahman. The challenger asked a difficult and enigmatic question, and his opponent answered in an equally elusive manner. The match continued until one of the contestants was unable to respond: reduced to silence, he was forced to withdraw.62 The transcendence of the brahman was sensed in the mysterious clash of unanswerable questions that led to a stunning realization of the impotence of speech. For a few sacred moments, the competitors felt one with the mysterious force that held the whole of life together, and the winner could say that he was the brahman.

By the tenth century some rishis started to create a new theological discourse. The traditional devas were beginning to seem crude and unsatisfactory; they must point to something beyond themselves. Some of the late hymns of the Rig Veda sought a god who was more worthy of worship. “What god shall we adore with our offering?” asked one of the rishis in Hymn 121 of the tenth book of the Rig Veda. Who was the true lord of men and cattle? Who owned the snowcapped mountains and the mighty ocean? Which of the gods was capable of supporting the heavens? In this hymn, the poet found an answer that would become one of the seminal myths of the Indian Axial Age. He had a vision of a creator god emerging from primal chaos, a personalized version of the brahman. His name was Prajapati: “the All.” Prajapati was identical with the universe; he was the life force that sustained it, the seed of consciousness, and the light that emerged from the waters of unconscious matter. But Prajapati was also a spirit outside the universe, who could order the laws of nature. Immanent and transcendent, he alone was “God of gods and none beside him.”

But this seemed far too explicit to another rishi.63 In the beginning, he maintained, there was nothing. There was neither existence nor nonexistence, neither death nor immortality, but only “indiscriminate chaos.” How could this confusion become ordered and viable? The poet decided that there could be no answer to this question:

Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it wasborn and whence comes this creation?

The Gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it first came into being?

He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it all or did not form it,

Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it—or perhaps he knows not.64

The poem was a brahmodya. The rishi asked one unfathomable question after another, until both he and his audience were reduced to the silence of unknowing.

Finally, in the famous Purusha Hymn, a rishi meditated on the ancient creation story of the Aryans, and laid the foundation for India’s Axial Age.65 He recalled that the sacrifice of the first man had brought the human race into being. Now he described this primordial Person (Purusha), walking of his own free will into the sacrificial ground, lying down on the freshly strewn grass, and allowing the gods to kill him. This act of self-surrender had set the cosmos in motion. The Purusha was himself the universe. Everything was generated from his corpse: birds, animals, horses, cattle, the classes of human society, heaven and earth, sun and moon. Even the great devas Agni and Indra had emerged from his body. But like Prajapati, he was also transcendent: 75 percent of his being was immortal and could not be affected by time and mortality. Unlike the agonistic rituals of the warriors, there was no fighting in this sacrifice. Purusha gave himself away without a struggle.

Purusha and Prajapati were shadowy, remote figures, with no developed mythology. There was very little to say about them. Indeed, it was said that Prajapati’s real name was a question: “Who?” (Ka?) On the brink of its Axial Age, the visionaries of India were moving beyond concepts and words into a silent appreciation of the ineffable. But as the Purusha Hymn shows, they were still inspired by the ancient ritual. Even though the rites were so dangerous and violent, they would remain the inspiration of the great transformation in India. By the end of the tenth century, the rishis had established the complex of symbols that would create the first great Axial Age spirituality.

The Chinese kings of the Shang dynasty, who had ruled the Yellow River Valley since the sixteenth century, believed that they were the sons of God. It was said that Di, a supremely powerful deity who usually had no contact with human beings, had sent a dark bird down to the great plain of China. The bird had laid an egg, which was eaten by a lady. In the course of time, she had given birth to the first ancestor of the Shang monarchs.66 Because of his unique relationship with Di, the king was the only person in the world who was allowed to approach the High God directly. He alone could win security for his people by offering sacrifices to Di. With the help of his diviners, he would consult Di about the advisability of undertaking a military expedition or founding a new settlement. He could ask Di whether or not the harvest would be successful. The king derived his legitimacy from his power as a seer and intermediary with the divine world, but on a more mundane level, he also relied on his superior bronze weaponry. The first Shang cities may have been founded by the masters of the guilds that had pioneered the manufacture of the bronze weapons, war chariots, and gleaming vessels that the Shang used in their sacrifices. The power of the new technology meant that the kings could mobilize thousands of peasants for forced labor or warfare.

The Shang knew that they were not the first kings of China. They claimed that they had wrested power from the last king of the Xia dynasty (c. 2200–1600). There is no archaeological or documentary evidence for the Xia, but there was probably some kind of kingdom in the great plain by the end of the third millennium.67 Civilization had arrived slowly and painfully in China. The great plain was isolated from the surrounding regions by high mountains and swampy, uninhabitable land. The climate was harsh, with broiling summers and icy winters, when settlements were attacked by freezing, sand-laden winds. The Yellow River was difficult to navigate and prone to flooding. The early settlers had to cut canals to drain the marshland and build dikes to stop the floods from ruining the crops. The Chinese had no historical memory of the people who had created these ancient works, but they told stories of the feudal kings who had ruled the Chinese empire before the Xia, and made the countryside habitable. Huang-Di, the Yellow Emperor, had fought a monster and fixed the courses of the sun, moon, and stars. Shen Nong had invented agriculture, and in the twenty-third century, the wise emperors Yao and Shun had established a golden age of peace and prosperity. During Shun’s reign, the land had been overwhelmed by terrible flooding, and Shun had commissioned Yu, his chief of public works, to solve the problem. For thirteen years Yu had built canals, tamed the marshes, and led the rivers to the sea, so that they flowed in as orderly fashion as lords going to a great reception. Thanks to Yu’s herculean efforts, the people were able to grow rice and millet. Emperor Shun was so impressed that he arranged for Yu to succeed him, and thus Yu became the founder of the Xia dynasty.68 All these legendary sage kings would be an inspiration to the philosophers of the Chinese Axial Age.

The Shang aristocrats were certainly familiar with some of these stories. They knew that civilization was a precarious and hard-won achievement, and believed that the fate of the living was inextricably bound up with the spirits of those who had gone before them. The Shang may not have been as powerful as Yao, Shun, or Yu, but they controlled extensive territory in the great plain.69 Their domain extended to the Huai Valley in the southeast, to Shantung in the east, and their influence could be felt as far away as the Wei Valley in the west. They did not rule a centralized state but had founded a network of small palace-cities, each governed by a representative of the royal house. The towns were tiny, consisting simply of a residential complex for the king and his vassals, surrounded by high walls of packed earth to guard against flooding or attack. At Yin, the last of the Shang capitals, the walls were a mere eight hundred yards in perimeter. Shang towns followed a uniform pattern; they were usually rectangular in shape, each wall oriented to one of the four compass directions, with all dwellings facing south. The royal palace had three courtyards and an audience chamber for ritual and political occasions; to the east of the palace was the temple of the ancestors. The market was north of the king’s home, and the craftsmen, chariot builders, makers of bows and arrows, blacksmiths, and potters lived in the southern districts of the city with the royal scribes, diviners, and ritual experts.

This was not an egalitarian society. The Shang showed the passionate preoccupation with hierarchy and rank that would become one of the hallmarks of Chinese civilization. As the son of Di, the king was at the top of the feudal pyramid, in a class of his own. Next in rank were the princes of the royal house, rulers of the various Shang cities; below them came the heads of the great families, who held posts at court, and the barons, who lived on the revenues from rural territories outside the city walls. Finally, at the base of the feudal pyramid, were the ordinary gentlemen, the warrior class.

The city was a small aristocratic enclave, a world unto itself. The Shang nobility devoted their time exclusively to religion, warfare, and hunting. They took a surplus of agricultural produce from the local peasants in return for military protection. But very little of the region was given over to cultivation at this date. Most of the Yellow River valley was still covered by dense woods and marshes. In the Shang period, elephants, rhinoceroses, buffaloes, panthers, and leopards still roamed through the forests, together with deer, tigers, wild oxen, bears, monkeys, and game. The animals could become pests, so hunting was a duty as well as a pleasure. On the king’s triumphant return to the city, the victims were sacrificed and eaten in huge, rowdy, drunken banquets.


There was little difference between war and hunting. Warfare was an activity that was limited to the aristocrats, who alone were allowed to own weapons and chariots. A typical military expedition was a modest affair, consisting of about a hundred chariots; the peasants who followed on foot did not take part in the fighting but acted as valets, servants, and carriers, and looked after the horses. The Shang had no great territorial ambitions; they made war simply to punish rebellious cities by carrying off valuable goods—crops, cattle, slaves, and craftsmen. Sometimes an expedition might be dispatched against the “barbarians,” the peoples who surrounded the Shang settlements, inside and outside the domain, who had not yet assimilated to Chinese culture. They were not ethnically distinct from the Shang, and when they eventually became acculturated, they would make their own contribution to Chinese civilization. Within the domain, the barbarians had cordial relations with the Shang, and exchanged wives and goods with them. The barbarians who lived in the territories adjacent to the domain were usually allies of the Shang. There was little contact with barbarians who lived in the remote regions.

The urban life of the Shang nobility had almost nothing in common with that of the peasant communities who farmed the land. The aris-tocrats regarded them as scarcely human, but, like the barbarians, the peasants also had a lasting influence on Chinese culture. The peasants identified closely with the soil, and their society was organized around the recurrent rhythms of nature. Peasant life was dominated by the distinction between winter and summer. In spring, the work season began. The men moved out of the village and took up permanent residence in huts in the fields; during the work season, they had no contact with their wives and daughters, except when the women brought them their meals. After the harvest, the land was laid to rest and the men moved back home. They sealed up their dwellings and stayed indoors for the whole of the winter. This was their sabbatical period, for rest and recuperation, but the women, who had less to do during the summer, now began their season of labor: weaving, spinning, and making wine. This alternation may have contri-buted to the Chinese concept of yin and yang. Yin was the female aspect of reality. Like the peasant women, its season was winter; its activity was interior, and conducted in dark, closed-off places. Yang, the male aspect, was active in summer and in daylight; it was an external, outgoing power, and its output was abundant.70

The Shang nobility had no interest in agriculture, but they clearly experienced the landscape as rich in spiritual meaning. Mountains, rivers, and winds were all important gods, as were the lords of the four cardinal directions. These nature gods belonged to the Earth, which was the divine counterpart of Di, the Sky God. Because they could affect the harvest, they were placated and cajoled by sacrifice. Of even greater importance, however, were the ancestors of the royal house, whose cult was at the heart of Shang religion. Excavations at Yin (modern Anyang) have uncovered the tombs of nine kings; they lay in their coffins on a central platform, surrounded by the remains of soldiers who had been sacrificed at their funerals. After his death, a king achieved divine status; he lived in heaven with Di and could ask him to help his living relatives on earth.71

The Shang were convinced that the fate of the dynasty depended upon the goodwill of the deceased kings. While Di had no special cult of his own, and the nature gods no regular rites, the ancestors were worshiped in lavish ceremonies; each had his or her festival day in the ritual calendar. The kings held ceremonies, “hosting” (bin) their forefathers. Members of the royal family would dress up as their deceased relatives, feeling themselves to be possessed by the ancestor they impersonated, and when they entered the court, the king would bow down before them. The nature gods were summoned to share the feast in the palace courtyard, where quantities of animals were sacrificed and cooked. Then gods, ancestors, and human beings would feast together.

But behind this elaborate ritual lurked a deep anxiety.72 Di was the guardian of towns and cities. He ruled the rains and the winds, and gave orders to the nature gods in the same way as the Shang king gave directions to his officials and soldiers. But Di was unpredictable. He often sent drought, flooding, and disaster. Even the ancestors were unreliable. The Shang believed that the spirits of the dead could be dangerous, so relatives buried the deceased in thick wooden coffins, treated their bodies with jade, and stuffed their orifices, lest the spirit escape and prey upon the living. Rituals were devised to turn a potentially troublesome ghost into a helpful, benevolent presence. The deceased was given a new name and assigned a special day for worship in the hope that he would now be kindly disposed toward the community. With the passing of time, an ancestor became more powerful, so rituals were designed to persuade the newly deceased to plead their cause with the more exalted ancestors, who might, in their turn, intercede with Di.

Most of our information about the Shang comes from the animal bones and turtle shells on which the royal diviners inscribed questions for Di, the nature gods, and the ancestors.73 Archaeologists have unearthed 150,000 of these inscribed oracle bones. They show that the kings submitted all their activities to the scrutiny of these powers, asking their advice about a hunt, a harvest, or even a toothache. The procedure was simple. The king or his diviner addressed a charge to a specially prepared turtle shell or cattle bone, while applying a hot poker. “We will receive millet harvest,” he might say, or, “To Father Jia [the seventeenth Shang king] we pray for good harvest.”74 He would then study the cracks that developed in the shell and announce whether or not the oracle was auspicious. Afterward the royal engravers carved the charge. Sometimes they also noted the prediction that came from the god or ancestor concerned and—very occasionally—included the result. It was obviously not a rational process, but the diviners were clearly trying to keep genuine records. Some of them, for example, noted that the king had foretold that his wife’s childbearing would be “good” (that is, that she would bear a boy), even though she gave birth to a girl and the king had got the day wrong.75

The Shang kings’ attempt to control the spiritual world often failed. The ancestors frequently sent bad harvests and ill luck. Di sometimes sent propitious rain, but, the oracle also observed, “It is Di who is harming our harvests.”76 Di was an unreliable military ally. He could “confer assistance” on the Shang, or inspire their enemies. “The Fang are harming and attacking us,” mourned the oracle. “It is Di who orders [them] to make disaster for us.”77 Ineffective and undependable, Di met the usual fate of the Sky God and began to fade away. The Shang never developed a routine liturgy to ask for his help, and by the twelfth century they had stopped addressing him directly at all, and appealed only to the ancestors and nature spirits.78

Shang society was a strange mixture of refinement, sophistication, and barbarity. The Shang appreciated the beauty of their environment. Their art was sophisticated and inventive, and their bronze ritual vessels showed close observation of the wild animals and their cattle, oxen, and horses. They created wonderfully inventive urns in the shape of sheep, rhinoceroses, or owls. But they were not squeamish about slaughtering the beasts they observed so tenderly, sometimes slaying as many as a hundred victims in a single sacrifice. During the royal hunt, the Shang killed wild beasts with reckless abandon, and consumed hecatombs of domestic animals at a bin banquet or a funeral. The kings and nobles had acquired great wealth, which they measured in livestock, metal, crops, and game. Their environment teemed with wildlife, and the peasants provided an endless flow of grain and rice, so their resources seemed inexhaustible. There was no thought of saving for the morrow.79

Later Mozi, one of the Axial philosophers, recalled the lavish fu-nerals of the Shang kings, the “sons of Heaven,” clearly revolted by the prodigal, vulgar extravagance and the ritual murder of hapless servants and retainers:

On the death of a prince, the store houses and treasures are emptied. Gold, jade and pearls are placed on the body. Rolls of silk and chariots with their horses are buried in the grave. But an abundance of hangings are also needed for a funerary chamber, as well as tripod vases, drums, tables, pots, ice-containers, war axes, swords, plumed standards, ivories and animal skins. No one is satisfied unless all these riches accompany the deceased. As for the men who are sacrificed in order to follow him, if he should be a Son of Heaven, they will be counted in hundreds or tens. If he is a great officer or a baron, they will be counted in tens or units.80

There was cruelty and violence in Shang religion, and in the end, it seemed to the Chinese that even Di, who had little sense of moral responsibility, had run out of patience with his ruling dynasty.

In 1045, King Wen of the Zhou, a people who ruled a principality in the Wei Valley, invaded the Shang domain while the king was away from the capital. Tragically, King Wen was killed in battle, but his son King Wu continued to advance into Shang territory, and defeated the Shang army at the battle of Mu-Ye, north of the Yellow River. The Shang king was beheaded, and the Zhou occupied Yin. King Wu then divided the spoils. He decided that he would remain in the old Zhou capital in the Wei Valley, so he put his son Cheng in charge of Yin, and entrusted the administration of the other Shang cities to Wu-Keng, the son of the last Shang king. King Wu then returned to the Wei Valley, where he died shortly afterward.


After his death, the Shang prince seized the opportunity to rebel against Zhou rule. But King Wen’s brother Dan, usually known as the duke of Zhou, quashed the revolt, and the Shang lost control of the central plain. Prince Cheng became the new king, but because he was still a minor, the duke of Zhou acted as regent and devised a quasi-feudal system. The princes and allies of the Zhou were each given a city, as a personal fief, and the Zhou built a new capital to maintain a presence in the eastern territories of their domain. It was named Chengzhou in honor of the new king.

In many ways, the Zhou stepped straight into the shoes of the Shang. Like the Shang, they enjoyed hunting, archery, chariot driving, and extravagant parties. They organized their cities on the old Shang model, worshiped the nature gods and ancestors, and cast oracles. They also continued to worship Di but—in a way that was typical of ancient religion—they merged Di with their own Sky God, whom they called Tian (“Heaven”). But here they ran into a difficulty. The Shang had ruled for hundreds of years with the apparent blessing of Di. If they were to win over the Shang nobility who still lived in the great plain, continuity was essential. The Zhou wanted to worship the deceased Shang kings alongside their own ancestors. But how could they worship the Shang spirits when they had destroyed their dynasty?

The duke of Zhou found a solution. Di had sometimes used enemy tribes to punish the Shang. Now, it seemed, he had made the Zhou his instrument. On the occasion of the consecration of the new eastern capital of Chengzhou, the duke made an important speech, which was recorded in the Shujing, one of the six great Chinese classics.81 The Shang kings, he said, had become tyrannical and corrupt. Heaven had been filled with pity for the sufferings of the people, so he had revoked the mandate that he had given to the Shang, and looked around for new rulers. Finally his gaze had fallen upon the Zhou kings, who thus became the new sons of Tian Shang Di, Heaven Most High.

That was how King Cheng had become the son of Heaven, the duke explained, even though he was so inexperienced. It was a heavy responsibility for the young man. Now that he had received the mandate, Cheng had to be “reverently careful.” He must be “in harmony with the little people . . . prudently apprehensive about what the people say.” Heaven would take its mandate away from a ruler who oppressed his subjects, and would bestow it on a more deserving dynasty. This was why the Shang and Xia dynasties had failed. Many of the Shang kings had been virtuous rulers, but in the last years of the dynasty the people had been miserable. They had called out in anguish to Heaven, and Heaven “too grieved for the people of all the lands,” decided to give the mandate to the Zhou because they were “deeply committed” to justice. But the Zhou could not afford to be complacent.

Dwelling in this new city, let the king have reverent care for his virtue. If it is virtue that the king uses, he may pray Heaven for an enduring mandate. As he functions as king, let him not, be-cause the common people stray and do what is wrong, then presume to govern them by harsh capital punishments. In this way, he will achieve much. In being king, let him take his position in the primacy of virtue. The little people will then pattern themselves on him throughout the world. The king will then become illustrious.82

It was an important moment. The Zhou had introduced an ethical ideal into a religion that had hitherto been unconcerned about morality. Heaven was not simply influenced by the slaughter of pigs and oxen, but by compassion and justice. The mandate of Heaven would become an important ideal during the Chinese Axial Age. If a ruler was selfish, cruel, and oppressive, Heaven would not support him, and he would fall. A state might appear to be weak and insignificant—like the Zhou before the conquest—but if its ruler was wise, humane, and truly concerned for the welfare of his subjects, people would flock to him from all over the world, and Heaven would raise him to the highest position.

At the beginning, however, there was some disagreement about the interpretation of the mandate.83 The duke of Zhou and his brother Gong, duke of Shao, had a serious difference of opinion. The duke of Zhou believed that Heaven had given the mandate to allthe Zhou people; the new king should, therefore, rely on the advice of his ministers. But Shao Gong argued that the king alone had received the mandate. He reverted to the old idea that because the king was the son of God, he was the only person who could approach Heaven directly. Certainly, the king would consult advisers, but he had received a unique, mystical potency that gave him the mandate to rule.

For obvious reasons, King Cheng found his uncle Gong’s argument appealing. The two joined forces, and put pressure on the duke of Zhou to retire. He took up residence in the city of Lu, in the east of the central plain, which had been assigned to him as his personal fief. He became a hero to the people of Lu, who revered him as their most distinguished ancestor. The duke’s conviction that virtue was more important than magical charisma was an insight worthy of the Axial Age. Instead of revering a man who had lived an immoral life simply because he was an ancestor, the cult should honor men of worth and merit.84 But the Chinese were not yet ready for this moral vision and retreated into the paranormal rituals of the past.

We know almost nothing about the kings who ruled after King Cheng, but a hundred years after the Zhou conquest, it was clear that despite its mandate from Heaven, the Zhou dynasty had started to decline. The feudal system had an inbuilt weakness. Over the years, the blood ties that linked the rulers of the various cities to the royal house became attenuated, so that the princes of the cities were merely distant cousins of the king, twice or even thrice removed. The kings continued to rule from their western capital, and by the tenth century it was clear that the more easterly cities were becoming restive. The Zhou empire was beginning to disintegrate, but the dynasty retained a religious and symbolic aura long after the Zhou kings had ceased to be important politically. The Chinese would never forget the early years of the Zhou dynasty; their Axial Age would be inspired by the search for a just ruler, who would be worthy of Heaven’s mandate.

In the twelfth century, the eastern Mediterranean was engulfed in a crisis that swept away the Greek, Hittite, and Egyptian kingdoms and plunged the whole region into a dark age. We do not know exactly what happened. Scholars used to blame the “sea peoples” mentioned in Egyptian records, anarchic hordes of rootless sailors and peasants from Crete and Anatolia who raged through the Levant and vandalized towns and villages. But it seems that the sea peoples may have been a symptom of the catastrophe rather than its cause. Climatic or environmental change may have led to extensive drought and famine that wrecked the local economies, which lacked the flexibility to respond creatively to the disruption. For centuries, the Hittites and Egyptians had divided the Near East between them. The Egyptians had controlled the whole of southern Syria, Phoenicia, and Canaan, while the Hittites had ruled Asia Minor and Anatolia. By 1130, Egypt had lost most of its foreign provinces; the Hittite capital was in ruins; the large Canaanite ports of Ugarit, Megiddo, and Hazor had been devastated; and in Greece, the Mycenaean kingdom had disintegrated. Desperate, dispossessed peoples roamed the region in search of employment and security.


The terrible finality of the crisis made an indelible impression on everybody who had experienced it. Two of the Axial peoples emerged during the ensuing dark age. A new Greek civilization rose from the rubble of Mycenae, and a confederation of tribes called Israel appeared in the highlands of Canaan. Because this really was a dark age, with few historical records, we know very little about either Greece or Israel during this period. Until the ninth century, we have virtually no reliable information about the Greeks, and only a few, fragmentary glimpses of early Israel.

The collapse of Canaan had been very gradual.85 The large city-states of the coastal plain, which had been part of the Egyptian empire since the fifteenth century, disintegrated one by one as Egypt withdrew—a process that could have taken over a century. Again, we do not know why the cities collapsed after the Egyptians left. There may have been conflict between the urban elite and the peasants who farmed the land on which the economy depended. There could have been social unrest within the cities, or rivalries between the city-states as Egyptian power declined. But the fall of these cities had one important effect. Shortly before 1200, a network of new settlements was established in the highlands, stretching from the lower Galilee in the north to Beersheba in the south.86

These villages were not imposing: they had no city walls; were not fortified; had no grand public buildings, palaces, or temples; and kept no archives. The modest, uniform houses indicate that this was an egalitarian society, where wealth was fairly evenly distributed. The inhabitants had to struggle with a stony, difficult terrain. Their economy was based on cereal crops and herding, yet it seems from the archaeological record that the settlements prospered. During the eleventh century, there was a population explosion in the highlands that peaked at about eighty thousand. Scholars agree that the inhabitants of the villages were the people of “Israel” mentioned in the victory stele of Pharaoh Mernepteh (c. 1210). This is the first nonbiblical mention of Israel, and it indicates that by this time, the inhabitants of the highlands were regarded by their enemies as distinct from the Canaanites, Hurrians, and Bedouins who also inhabited the country.87

There is no contemporary account of the development of early Israel. The Bible tells the story in great detail, but it was a long time before these narratives, originally orally transmitted, were committed to writing. The creation of the Bible, a product of the Axial Age, was a long spiritual process that took several centuries. The earliest biblical texts were written during the eighth century and the biblical canon was finalized sometime during the fifth or fourth century. During their Axial Age, Israelite historians, poets, annalists, prophets, priests, and lawyers meditated deeply on their history. The founding fathers of the nation—Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David—were as spiritually important to Israel as Yao, Shun, and the duke of Zhou were to the Chinese. Israelites reflected on the story of their beginnings as relentlessly as the sages of India would ponder the meaning of the sacrificial ritual. The story of Israel’s origins would become the organizing symbol around which its Axial breakthrough revolved. As we shall see, the Israelites developed their saga, changed it, embroidered it, added to it, reinterpreted it, and made it speak to the particular circumstances of the time. Each poet, prophet, and visionary added a new layer to the evolving narrative, which broadened and deepened in significance.

The definitive narrative claims that the people of Israel were not native to Canaan. Their ancestor, Abraham, had come from Ur, in Mesopotamia, and settled in Canaan at the behest of his god in about 1750. The patriarchs had lived in different parts of the hill country: Abraham in Hebron; Isaac, his son, in Beersheba; and Jacob, Abraham’s grandson (also called Israel), in the region of Shechem. Yahweh promised the patriarchs that he would make Israel a mighty nation and give them the land of Canaan as their own. But during a famine, Jacob/Israel and his twelve sons (founders of the Israelite tribes) had migrated to Egypt. At first they prospered there, but eventually the Egyptians enslaved them and the Israelites languished in captivity for four hundred years. Finally, in about 1250, their god, Yahweh, took pity on them and, with a mighty display of power, liberated them under the leadership of Moses. As the Israelites fled Egypt, Yahweh miraculously parted the waters of the Sea of Reeds, so that they crossed to safety dry-shod, but he then drowned Pharaoh and the Egyptian army, who had followed them into the sea in hot pursuit. In the desert region to the south of Canaan, Yahweh made a covenant with Israel on Mount Sinai, and gave them the Law that would make them a holy people. But the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for forty years before Yahweh finally led them to the borders of Canaan. Moses died before entering the Promised Land, but in about 1200 Joshua led the armies of Israel to victory. Under Joshua, the Israelites destroyed all the Canaanite towns and cities, killed their inhabitants, and made the land their own.

The excavations of Israeli archaeologists since 1967, however, do not confirm this story. They have found no trace of the mass destruction described in the book of Joshua, no signs of foreign invasion, no Egyptian artifacts, and no indication of a change in population. The scholarly debate has been as fierce and often as antagonistic as the discussion about the origins of Vedic culture in India. The general scholarly consensus is that the story of the exodus from Egypt is not historical. The biblical narrative reflects the conditions of the seventh or sixth century, when most of these texts were written, rather than the thirteenth century. A number of scholars believe that many of the settlers who created the new colonies in the highlands were probably migrants from the failing city-states on the coast. Many of the first Israelites were, therefore, probably not foreigners but Canaanites. The earliest parts of the Bible suggest that Yahweh was originally a god of the southern mountains, and it seems likely that other tribes had migrated to the highlands from the south, bringing Yahweh with them. Some of the Israelites—notably, the tribe of Joseph—may even have come from Egypt. Israelites, who had lived under Egyptian rule in the coastal city-states, may have felt that they had indeed been liber-ated from Egypt—but in their own land. The biblical writers were not attempting to write a scientifically accurate account that would satisfy a modern historian. They were searching for the meaning of existence. These were epic stories, national sagas that helped the people to create a distinct identity.88

Why would the Israelites claim to be foreigners if they were in fact native to Canaan? Archaeologists have found evidence of considerable socioeconomic disruption in the highlands, major demographic shifts, and two centuries of life-and-death struggles between competing ethnic groups.89 Even the biblical account suggests that Israel was not descended from a single ancestor, but consisted of a number of different ethnicities—Gibeonites, Jerahmeelites, Kenites, and Canaanites from the cities of He-pher and Tirzah—who all became part of “Israel.”90 These groups and clans seem to have bound themselves together by a covenant agreement.91 All had made a brave, deliberate decision to turn their backs on the ancient urban culture of Canaan. In this sense, they were indeed outsiders, and the experience of living on the periphery may have inspired both their belief in Israel’s foreign origins and the anti-Canaanite polemic in the Bible. Israel was a newcomer in the family of nations, born of trauma and upheaval, and constantly threatened with marginality. The Israelites developed a counteridentity and a counternarrative: they were different from the other nations in the region, because they enjoyed a unique relationship with their god, Yahweh.92

The tribal ethos demanded that its members avenge the death of their kinsfolk. Kindred were one flesh; tribesmen shared a single life.93 Hence they had to love their fellow clansmen as themselves. The term hesed, often translated as “love,” was originally a tribal term, denoting the loyalty of a kinship relationship that demanded generous and altruistic behavior toward one’s family group.94 People who were not blood relations could be incorporated into the tribe by marriage or a covenant treaty that gave them the status of brothers. The tribesmen had to love these new members as themselves, because they were now flesh of their flesh, bone of their bone. Many of the early covenants of the Middle East used these kinship terms, and it is likely that this ethos informed the covenant that bound together the different ethnic groups of the new Israel.95 As social units became larger in the western Semitic world, kinship terminology was used even more frequently than before, in order to emphasize the sanctity of the bond that tied the larger confederation together. The institutions and laws of early Israel were thus dominated by the tribal ideal. Like other peoples in the region, Israelites felt related to their national god, calling themselves am Yahweh, the “kindred” or the “people” of Yahweh.96

The archaeological record shows that life was violent in the hill country. It was a chaotic time in the eastern Mediterranean, and the early settlers almost certainly had to fight for the land they were trying to colonize. The Bible preserves a memory of a great victory at the river Jordan: the tribes who migrated from the south, through the territory of Moab, may have had to contend with local groups who wanted to stop them from crossing the river. Once settlers were established in a village, they had to learn to coexist with their neighbors and unite against people who threatened the security of their fledgling society. Archaeologists believe that the sporadic warfare described in the books of Judges and 1 Samuel is probably a reasonably accurate description of conditions in the eleventh and tenth centuries. Israel had to compete with such groups as the Philistines, who had settled on the southern coast of Canaan in about 1200, at about the same time as the first villages were established in the highlands. A tribal leader (sopet: “judge”) had to be able to muster support from neighboring settlements if his clan was attacked. Hence the institution of herem (“holy war”) was crucial to Israelite society. If his tribe was attacked, the judge summoned other clans to the militia of Yahweh. The central cult object of Israel was a palladium called the Ark of the Covenant, symbol of the treaty that bound the am Yahweh together, which was carried into battle. When the troops set out, the judge called upon Yahweh to accompany the Ark:

Arise, Yahweh, may your enemies be scattered

And those who hate you run

For their lives before you.97

Living constantly poised against attack, and ready for war, the beleaguered people developed an embattled cult.

Even though the people of Israel felt so separate from their neighbors, the biblical record suggests that until the sixth century Israel’s religion was not in fact very different from that of the other local peoples. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had worshiped El, the High God of Canaan, and later generations merged El’s cult with that of Yahweh.98 Yahweh himself referred to this process when he explained to Moses that at the beginning of Israel’s history the patriarchs had always called him El, and that only now was he revealing his real name, Yahweh.99 But the Israelites never forgot El. For a long time, Yahweh’s shrine was a tent, like the tabernacle in which Canaanite El presided over his divine assembly of gods.

In Canaan, El eventually met the fate of most High Gods, and by the fourteenth century his cult was in decline. He was replaced by the dynamic storm god Baal, a divine warrior, who rode on the clouds of heaven in his chariot, fought battles with other gods, and brought the life-giving rains. In the early days, Yahweh’s cult was very similar to Baal’s, and some of Baal’s hymns were even adapted for use in Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem. Middle Eastern religion was strongly agonistic, dominated by stories of wars, hand-to-hand combat, and fearful battles among the gods. In Babylon, the warrior god Marduk had slaughtered Tiamat, the primal ocean, split her carcass in two like a giant shellfish, and created heaven and earth. Each year this battle was reenacted in the temple of Esagila during the new year ceremony to keep the world in existence for another year. In Syria, Baal fought Lotan, a seven-headed sea dragon, who is called Leviathan in the Bible. He also fought Yam, the primordial sea, symbol of chaos, and Mot, god of drought, death, and sterility. To celebrate his victory, Baal built himself a palace on Mount Sapan, his holy mountain. Until the sixth century, the Israelites also imagined Yahweh fighting sea dragons like Leviathan to create the world and save his people.100

The hymns of Ugarit show that the approach of Baal, the divine warrior, convulsed the entire cosmos: when he advanced on his enemies with his retinue of “holy ones,” brandishing his thunderbolt,

The heavens roll up like a scroll,

And all their hosts languish

As a vine leaf withers

As the fig droops.101

Baal’s holy voice shattered the earth, and the mountains quaked at his roar.102 When he returned victoriously to Mount Sapan, his voice had thundered from his palace, and brought the rain.103 His worshipers shared his struggle against drought and death by reenacting these battles in the liturgy of Ugarit. After his life-and-death battle with Mot, Baal had been joyously reunited with Anat, his sister-spouse. His worshipers celebrated this too in ritualized sex in order to activate the sacred energy of the soil and bring a good harvest. We know that, to the disgust of their prophets, the Israelites took part in these sacred orgies well into the eighth century and beyond.

In the very earliest texts of the Bible—isolated verses written in about the tenth century and inserted into the later narratives—Yahweh was presented as a divine warrior just like Baal. At this time, the tribes were living a violent, dangerous life and needed the support of their god. The poems usually depicted Yahweh marching from his home in the southern mountains and coming to the aid of his people in the highlands. Thus the Song of Deborah:

Yahweh, when you set out from Seir,

As you trod the land of Edom,

Earth shook, the heavens quaked,

The clouds dissolved into water.

The mountains melted before Yahweh,

Before Yahweh, the God of Israel.104

In another of these early poems, when Yahweh comes from Mount Paran, “he makes the earth tremble,” and at his approach the ancient mountains are dislodged; the everlasting hills sink into the ground. His fury blazed against the primal sea and the nations that opposed Israel quaked with terror.105

In early Israel, there was no central sanctuary but a number of temples, at Shechem, Gilgal, Shiloh, Bethel, Sinai, and Hebron. As far as we can tell from isolated texts in the later biblical narrative, the Ark of the Covenant was carried from one shrine to another, and the Israelites gathered at their local temple to renew their covenant treaties in the presence of Yahweh. The temples were often associated with the great figures of Israel’s past: Abraham was the local hero of the southern tribes around Hebron; Jacob had founded the shrine at Bethel; and Joseph, one of Jacob’s favorite sons, was especially revered by the tribes of the northern hill country. Moses was also very popular in the north, especially at Shiloh.106 During the covenant festivals, bards, priests, and judges told the stories of these great men. They would recall that Abraham had once entertained three strangers in his tent at Mamre, near Hebron, and that one of the strangers was Yahweh himself; that Jacob had a dream vision of Yahweh at Bethel, in which he saw a great ladder linking heaven and earth; and that after his conquest of the land, Joshua had bound the tribes together in a covenant at Shechem. Each shrine probably had its own saga, which was transmitted orally from one generation to another and recited on solemn occasions to remind the tribes of their kinship obligations.

The Israelites probably reenacted these great deeds at their ceremonies. Some scholars believe, for example, that the book of Joshua contains a record of the spring festival at Gilgal, which celebrated the tribes’ victorious crossing of the river Jordan.107 The biblical historian interrupts the ritual account by explaining that in the springtime, during the harvest season, “the Jordan overflows the whole length of its banks.”108 It appears that the water was specially dammed up for the festival, which commemorated a great miracle. When Joshua had led the people to the brink of the floodwater, he told them to stand still and watch what happened. As soon as the feet of the priests carrying the Ark touched the waters, they parted miraculously and the whole people crossed over safely, dry-shod, and entered the Promised Land at Gilgal. When the local people—“the kings of the Amorites on the west bank of the Jordan and all the kings of the Canaanites in the coastal region”—heard what had happened, “their hearts grew faint and their spirit failed them, as the Israelites drew near.”109 Every year, at the spring festival of the crossing (pesach), the tribes ritually enacted this great moment. They assembled on the east bank of the Jordan, purified themselves, crossed the dammed-up waters to the west bank, and entered the temple of Gilgal, where a ring of standing stones (gilgal), one for each of the twelve tribes, commemorated the event. There the Israelites pitched their camp, renewed the covenant, and celebrated the pesach by eating unleavened bread (mazzoth) and roasted corn, in memory of their forefathers, who had “tasted the produce of the country for the first time” after their triumphant entry into the land.110

Finally, perhaps, there was a reenactment of the vision that Joshua experienced after the Israelite army had set out from Gilgal.

When Joshua was near Jericho, he raised his eyes and saw a man standing there before him, grasping a naked sword. Joshua walked towards him and said to him, “Are you with us or with our enemies?” He answered, “No, I am captain of the army of Yahweh.” . . . Joshua fell on his face to the ground and worshipped him and said, “What are my Lord’s commands to his servant?” The captain of the army of Yahweh answered Joshua, “Take your sandals off your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy.” And Joshua obeyed.111

The festival of pesach had been a preparation for the holy war for the Promised Land that began with an assault on Jericho. The walls came miraculously tumbling down, and the Israelites stormed the city. “They enforced the herem on everything in the town: men and women, young and old, even the oxen and sheep and donkeys, massacring them all.”112

Yahweh was a god of war. The festival of Gilgal took place at the time of the spring harvest, but there were no prayers for a good crop, but simply the commemoration of a military campaign. Israel’s deity was called Yahweh Sabaoth, god “of armies”; he was accompanied by his heavenly host, and his captain led the Israelites into battle. War was a sanctified activity. The people purified themselves before the battle as for a religious rite, and the battleground, where Joshua had his vision, was a holy place. Many peoples in the Middle East reenacted cosmic battles, but Israel was beginning to do something different. Instead of commemorating a victory achieved in sacred time in the primordial world of myth, the Israelites celebrated a triumph that, they believed, had taken place in human time in the not-so-distant past.

This shift from myth to history is clear in one of the very earliest poems of the Bible. It was probably chanted during the Gilgal festival, and could be as old as the tenth century.113 In the final biblical text, the Song of the Sea114 was included in the story of the exodus, just after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, and put on the lips of Miriam, the sister of Moses. But the Song of the Sea makes it clear that originally the enemies of Israel were not drowned in the Sea of Reeds but in the river Jordan. The people who witnessed the miracle were not the people of Egypt or Sinai, but the inhabitants of Canaan and the kingdoms on the east bank of the Jordan:

Pangs seize on the inhabitants of Philistia,

Edom’s chieftains are now dismayed,

The princes of Moab fall to trembling,

Canaan’s inhabitants are all unmanned.

On them fall terror and dread.115

The song described Yahweh leading his people on a triumphant march through the Promised Land, not through the Sinai peninsula. It was adapted later to fit the story of the exodus, but it seems that originally the early ritual celebrating the crossing of the Jordan helped to shape the later biblical account of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.116

It was easy to conflate the victory at the Sea of Reeds with the miracle at the Jordan. In Canaanite mythology, Baal made the cosmos habitable by fighting and killing Yam, the primal sea, which, in the Middle East, was always a symbol of the destructive forces of chaos. But Yam was also called Prince River. Sea and river were interchangeable. The Song of the Sea shows the strong influence of the cult and mythology of Baal.117 Like Baal, Yahweh was extolled as a divine warrior.

Your right hand, Yahweh, shatters the enemy.

So great your splendour, you crush your foes;

You unleash your fury, and it devours them like stubble.118

Like Baal, Yahweh forcefully controlled the sea/river: a single blast from his nostrils caused the waters to “stand upright like a dyke,”119 and after his victory, Yahweh marched to his holy mountain, where he was established as king forever, just as Baal was enthroned on Mount Sapan after his victory over Yam. But there were striking differences. When Baal marched forth, mountains, forests, and deserts were convulsed; in the Song of the Sea it was the local people who were paralyzed with terror as Yahweh passed by. The ancient mythical undertones gave transcendent meaning to Israel’s historical battles.

As we shall see in the next chapter, the Israelites would later become very hostile to Baal, but at this stage they found his cult inspiring. They were not yet monotheists. Yahweh was their special god, but they ac-knowledged the existence of other deities and worshiped them. Yahweh would not become the only god until the late sixth century. In the very early days, Yahweh was simply one of the “holy ones,” or “sons of El,” who sat in the divine assembly. At the beginning of time, it was said, El had assigned a “holy one” to be the patronal god of each nation, and Yahweh had been appointed the “holy one of Israel.” Another early poem, included in the book of Deuteronomy, expressed this ancient theology:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,

He fixed their bounds according to the number of the sons of God;

But Yahweh’s portion was his people,

Jacob his share of inheritance.120

The Akkadian word for holiness was ellu, “cleanliness, brilliance, luminosity.” It was related to the Hebrew elohim, which is often simply translated as “god” but originally summed up everything that the gods could mean to human beings. The “holy ones” of the Middle East were like devas, the “shining ones” of India. In the Middle East, holiness was a power that lay beyond the gods, like brahman. The word ilam (“divinity”) in Meso-potamia referred to a radiant power that transcended any particular deity. It was a fundamental reality and could not be tied to a single, distinct form. The gods were not the source of ilam, but like human beings, mountains, trees, and stars, they participated in this holiness. Anything that came into contact with the ilam of the cult became sacred too: a king, a priest, a temple, and even the ritual utensils became holy by association. It would have seemed odd to the early Israelites to confine the sacred to a single divine being.121

By the beginning of the first millennium, Israelite society had de-veloped and become more complex; the old tribal organization was no longer adequate. Even though many resisted this step, it was decided that Israel needed a monarchy. Originally, according to the Bible, Kings David (c. 1000–970) and Solomon (c. 970–930) ruled a united kingdom from their capital in Jerusalem. But by the tenth century, this had split into two separate states. The kingdom of Israel—in the north—was the larger and more prosperous, with 90 percent of the population. The land was fertile and productive, communication and transport relatively easy, and the Jezreel Valley had long been a major trade route between Egypt and Mesopotamia. The little kingdom of Judah in the south, ruled by the descendants of King David, was much smaller and more isolated; its rugged terrain was difficult to farm.122

We know more about the religion of Judah, however, because the biblical writers favored the southern kingdom. This was a typical Canaan-ite monarchy. The cult centered on the person of the Davidic king, the earthly counterpart of the divine warrior and a sacred figure because of his cultic relationship with Yahweh. At his coronation, he became one of the holy ones, a son of God. He was adopted by Yahweh, who declared: “You are my son; today I have become your Father.”123 As Yahweh’s special servant, he sat on the divine assembly with the other sons of God. As Yahweh’s regent, he would destroy his earthly rivals, just as Yahweh had defeated the cosmic powers of sea and river.

The covenant rituals were pushed to the background, and the cove-nant that allied Yahweh and the tribes was eclipsed in Judah by the covenant that Yahweh had made with King David, promising that his dynasty would last forever. The old covenant festivals had focused on Israelite history, but the royal cult returned to the ancient mythology. The temple psalms of the tenth century described Yahweh striding across the sea, like Baal, his thunder and lightning flickering over the world, as he hastened to the aid of Jerusalem.124 At the new year festival, perhaps, a great procession reenacted Yahweh’s triumphal march to Zion, his holy mountain, and carried the Ark into the temple built by King Solomon. Choirs chanted antiphonally: “Yahweh, the strong and valiant, Yahweh valiant in battle!” The other “sons of El,” divine patrons of rival nations, must pay tribute to Yahweh, who shattered the cedars of Lebanon and sharpened the shafts of lightning, as he entered his sacred courts.125 The voice of Yahweh shook the desert, and stripped the forest bare. “Yahweh sits enthroned upon the sea; Yahweh sits enthroned forever!”126

Yahweh was still a warrior god, but he was not the only deity worshiped in Israel. Other gods and goddesses were gentler; they symbolized harmony and concord, and made the land fertile. After he had defeated Mot and was reunited with Anat, even the fierce Baal had declared that his victory had inaugurated a profound concord between heaven and the very depths of the earth: “A word of tree and a whisper of stone, converse of heaven with earth, of Deeps to the Stars.”127 Israelites needed the support of their divine warrior, and were proud of Yahweh, but most wanted other forms of holiness too. This would eventually lead to conflict with a small minority who wanted to worship Yahweh alone.

The Axial Age had not yet begun. All these traditions were characterized by a high level of anxiety. Before life on the steppes had been transformed by the violence of the cattle rustlers, Aryan religion had been peaceful and kindly, but the shock of this unprecedented aggression had impelled Zoroaster to evolve a polarized, agonistic vision. In Israel and India too, insecurity and the difficulties of maintaining a society in new, hostile territory introduced violence and aggressive imagery into the cult. But people cannot live indefinitely with this degree of tension. Ritual taught them to look into the abyss, and realize that it was possible to face up to the impossible and survive. In the ninth century, the Greeks, the fourth of our Axial peoples, were starting to emerge from their dark age; their experience showed how the dramas of ritual helped the people of the ancient world to deal creatively with historical catastrophe and despair.

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