Ancient History & Civilisation



(c. 900 to 800 BCE)

The crisis in the eastern Mediterranean hit Greece in about 1200. It is possible that in a last burst of energy the Mycenaean Greeks destroyed the city of Troy in Asia Minor: archaeologists have unearthed evidence of devastation, which they believe took place in the second half of the thirteenth century. But like the kingdoms of the Near East, the Mycenaean kingdom also collapsed, and Greece entered a dark age that lasted for four hundred years. The Mycenaeans had controlled the region since the fourteenth century. They had established a commercial network of cities, which exported olive oil to Anatolia and Syria in return for tin and copper. Unlike the Minoan civilization (c. 2200 to 1375) that preceded it, Mycenaean society was aggressive and martial. The Minoans, who had ruled from Knossos in Crete, seem to have been gentle, peaceful people. Their palaces, beautifully decorated with lyrical, brilliantly colored frescoes, were not fortified, and war was a distant threat. But the Mycenaean Greeks dominated the masses by showy displays of the latest military technology. They had war chariots imported from the Hittite empire, powerful citadels, and impressive tombs. The king had developed an efficient administration. From their capital in Mycenae, the Mycenaeans had ruled Messenia, Pylos, Attica, Boetia, Thessaly, the Greek islands, and Cyprus. By the thirteenth century, according to Hittite sources, they had begun to raid the coastal cities of Asia Minor.

This powerful civilization virtually disappeared overnight. The cities of the Mycenaean heartland—Pylos, Tiryns, and Mycenae—were all destroyed, possibly by the sea peoples. Some of the population migrated to Arcadia and Cyprus, and Achaea in the northern Peloponnesus became an enclave for Mycenaeans, who would henceforth be known as the Achaeans.1 But otherwise, they left scarcely a trace. The Mycenaeans had adapted the Minoan script to their own language, but the texts that have survived are simply lists of equipment, provisions, and purchases, so we know very little about their society. But it seems to have been run on Cretan and Near Eastern lines and bore little relationship to the Greek culture that would develop during the Axial Age.

The Greeks were an Indo-European people, who had begun to settle in the region in about 2000.2 Like the Aryans of India, they had no memory of the steppes, and assumed that their ancestors had always lived in Greece. But they spoke an Indo-European dialect, and had some of the same cultural and religious customs as the Indo-Aryans. Fire was im-portant in the Greek cult, and Greeks were also passionately competitive, making a contest out of anything they could. At first the Greek tribes had settled on the fringes of Minoan society, but by 1600 they had begun to establish a strong presence on the mainland, and were ready to take control and establish the Mycenaean kingdom when, after a series of natural disasters, Minoan civilization declined.


We know very little about either Minoan or Mycenaean religion. From the sculpture and votive offerings discovered by archaeologists, it appears that the Minoans loved dancing and processions; they had a cult of sacred trees, offered animal sacrifices to their gods on mountain peaks, and had ecstatic visions. Gold rings and statuettes show men and women, alert and erect, with eyes straining toward a goddess figure floating in the sky. Burial grounds were holy places. The king was the partner of the gods: seals show him in conversation with a goddess, who hands him a spear or staff. Some of these rituals would survive in later Greek religion, and the Mycenaean texts mentioned gods who would continue to be important in the later Greek pantheon: Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, and Dionysus.

But the disastrous collapse of the eastern Mediterranean severed the Greeks irrevocably from both these civilizations. Greece lapsed into illiteracy and relative barbarism; there was no central authority, and local chieftains ruled the various regions. Communities were isolated, and there were no more contacts with the Near Eastern countries, which were also in crisis. There was no more monumental building, no more figural art, and craftsmanship declined. Poets kept some of the old legends alive. They looked back on the Mycenaean period as a heroic age of magnificent warriors. They told stories about Achilles, the greatest of the Achaeans, who had been killed during the Trojan War. They recalled the tragic fate of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, who had died in a divinely decreed ven-detta. They kept alive the memory of Oedipus, king of Thebes, who, not realizing who they were, had killed his father and married his mother. The bards wandered around Greece and helped to give the scattered communities a shared identity and a common language.

One of the few cities to survive the crisis was Athens, in eastern Attica, which had been an important Mycenaean stronghold. The city declined and its population diminished, but the site was never entirely abandoned. By the middle of the eleventh century, however, Athenian craftsmen had begun to produce sophisticated pottery, decorated in what is now called the Proto-Geometric style, and at the same time, some Athenians migrated to Asia Minor, where they founded settlements along the Aegean coast that preserved the city’s Ionian dialect. In the late tenth century, new villages began to appear in the countryside around Athens, and the pop-ulation of Attica was divided into four tribes (phylai), which were administrative rather than ethnic units—like “houses” in a British public school. The tide was beginning to turn for Athens. Later this resurgence was attributed to Theseus, the mythical king of Athens.3 Every year the Athenians would celebrate Theseus’s unification of their region in a religious festival on the Acropolis, the sacred hill beside the city.

In the ninth century, Greek society was still predominantly rural. Our chief sources are the epics of Homer, which were not committed to writing until the eighth century, but which preserved some ancient oral traditions. The wealth of the local basileis (“lords”) was measured in sheep, cattle, and pigs. They lived in a world apart from the farmers and peasants, and still thought of themselves as warriors. They boasted loudly about their exploits, demanding acclaim and adulation, and were fiercely competitive and individualist. Their first loyalty was to themselves, their families, and their clans, rather than to the city as a whole. But they felt kinship with their fellow aristocrats throughout the Aegean, and were prepared to cooperate generously with them and offer hospitality to travelers.

But toward the end of the dark age, trade revived in the Aegean. The aristocrats needed iron for their weapons and armor, and luxury goods to flaunt in their rivals’ faces. Their first trading partners were Canaanites from the northern coastal cities, whom the Greeks called Phoenicians because they had the monopoly on the only colorfast purple (phoinix) dye in antiquity. At first the Greeks had resented the Phoenicians, whose culture was far more sophisticated than their own. But by the ninth century, they had begun to work creatively together. The Phoenicians established a base in Cyprus, and Phoenician craftsmen came to work in Athens, Rhodes, and Crete. Phoenician colonists began to open up the western Mediterranean, and in 814 they established Carthage on the north African coast. They showed the Greeks the mercantile potential of the sea, and the Greeks began to make new foreign contacts in Syria. In the late ninth century, Phoenicians, Cypriots, and Greeks founded the commercial center of Al-Mina at the mouth of the river Orontes, which traded slaves and silver in return for iron, metalwork, ivories, and fabric.4

Greece was coming back to life, but the people remained in a spiritual limbo. A few elements of the old Minoan and Mycenaean cults remained: there was, for example, a sacred olive tree on the Acropolis.5 But the thirteenth-century crisis had shattered the old faith. The Greeks had watched their world collapse, and the trauma had changed them. The Minoan frescoes had been confident and luminous; the men, women, and animals depicted had been expectant and hopeful. There were apparitions of goddesses in flowery meadows, dancing, and joy. But by the ninth century, Greek religion was pessimistic and uncanny, its gods dangerous, cruel, and arbitrary.6 In time, the Greeks would achieve a civilization of dazzling brilliance, but they never lost their sense of tragedy, and this would be one of their most important religious contributions to the Axial Age. Their rituals and myths would always hint at the unspeakable and the forbidden, at horrible events happening offstage, just out of sight, and usually at night. They experienced the sacred in catastrophe, when life was turned inexplicably upside down, in the breaking of taboos, and when the boundaries that kept society and individuals sane were suddenly torn asunder.

We can see this dark vision in the terrifying story of the birth of the Greek gods. In the Greek world, there was no benevolent creator god and no divine order at the beginning of time but only relentless hatred and conflict. At first, it was said, there had been two primal powers: Chaos and Gaia (Earth). They were too hostile to procreate, so they generated their offspring independently. Gaia produced Uranus (Heaven), the Sky God, and then gave birth to the seas, rivers, hills, and mountains of our world. Then Gaia and Uranus lay together, and Gaia gave birth to six sons and six daughters. These were the Titans, the first race of gods.

But Uranus hated his children, and forced all twelve of them back into Gaia’s womb the minute they were born. Eventually, in agony, Gaia begged her children for help, but only Cronus, her youngest son, had the courage to do as she asked. Crouched in his mother’s womb, he lay in wait for his father, armed with a sickle, and the next time Uranus penetrated Gaia, he cut off his genitals and threw them to the earth. High Gods were often overthrown by their more dynamic children, but few myths make the primordial struggle as perverse as this. Cronus was now the chief god, and he released his brothers and sisters from the depths of Earth. They mated with one another to produce a second generation of Titans, which included Atlas, who supported the earth on his shoulders, and Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven and gave it to human beings.

Instead of learning from the horror of the past, however, Cronus was as tyrannical as his father. He married his sister Rhea, who gave birth to five children—the second race of gods: Hester (guardian of the sacred hearth), Demeter (goddess of grain), Hera (patron of marriage), Hades (lord of the underworld), and Poseidon (god of the sea). But Cronus had been told that one of his children would supplant him, so he swallowed each infant immediately after its birth. Pregnant with her sixth child, Rhea turned to her mother, Gaia, in desperation, and when baby Zeus was born, Gaia hid him on the island of Crete, while Rhea presented Cronus with a stone, wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he duly swallowed, without noticing anything amiss. When Zeus grew up, he forced his father to disgorge his brothers and sisters, and the family took up residence on Mount Olympus. Cronus tried to fight back. For ten years he and some of the other Titans waged war on the Olympians, in a battle that shook the cosmos to its foundations, until Zeus achieved the final victory, and imprisoned his father and those Titans who had supported him in Tartarus, a dark and horrible region in the depths of the earth.

Meanwhile, Chaos, the second primal power, had generated his own terrifying offspring: Erebus (the “Dark Place,” in the deepest recesses of the earth) and Night. Night then produced a brood of daughters, who included the Fates (Moirai), the Death Spirits (Keres), and the three Furies (Erinyes).7 The Erinyes were particularly frightening; the Greeks imagined them as repellent hags, wreathed in snakes, crawling on all fours to scent their prey, whining and howling like dogs. One myth says that they were born from the drops of blood that fell upon the earth when Cronus hacked off Uranus’s genitals. So they were older than the Olympians, and family violence was inscribed into their very being.

These chthonian powers, who lived in the depths of earth, dominated Greek religion during the dark age. In the ninth century, people believed that it was they, not the Olympians, who ruled the cosmos. As a later poet explained, these dark gods “tracked down the sins of men and gods, and never cease from awful rage until they give the sinner punishment,”8 because a single atrocity against one’s kin violated the entire social order. As Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus were all guilty of horrendous family crime, the chthonian gods represented, as it were, the shadow side of the Olym-pians. Once activated, their power worked automatically and could not be recalled. As soon as a victim cursed his assailant and cried aloud for vengeance, the Erinyes were released and hounded the transgressor like a pack of wild dogs, until he atoned for his sin by a violent, horrible death.

The Erinyes never entirely lost their hold on the Greek imagination. Long after the dark age, Greeks continued to be preoccupied by tales of men and women who murdered their parents and abused their children. These unnatural deeds, even if committed unwittingly, contained a contagious power (miasma) that had an independent life of its own. Until it had been purged by the sacrificial death of the wrongdoer, society would be chronically infected by plague and catastrophe. The myth of the house of Atreus, for example, tells of a hideous struggle between two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, for the throne of Mycenae. On one occasion, Atreus invited his brother to a banquet and served Thyestes a delicious stew, containing the bodies of his own sons. This appalling deed released a contaminating miasma that was transmitted to the entire family of Atreus. All were caught up in a monstrous vendetta in which one violent and unnatural crime led to another. Atreus’s son Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to secure a favorable wind to take the Greek fleet to Troy. His wife, Clytemnestra, retaliated by murdering him on his return from the Trojan War, and her son Orestes was then obliged to kill her in order to avenge his father. This perverse and convoluted story would become one of the most formative of the Greek myths. Like many other Greek tales, it presents human beings as utterly impo-tent. In the eighth century, Homer clearly believed that Clytemnestra and Orestes had no choice but to behave as they did; their actions were even lauded as virtuous, because they had rid the earth of the defiling miasma.9

However powerful they became, the Greeks never truly felt that they were in charge of their fate. As late as the fifth century, when Greek civilization was at its peak, they still believed that people were compelled by the Fates, or even by the Olympian gods, to act as they did, and once a crime had been committed, it inflicted untold woes upon innocent human beings who simply happened to live in the polluted environment. People could expect no help from the Olympians, who intervened in human life irresponsibly, supporting their favorites and destroying those who incurred their wrath, with no heed for the consequences. The only gods who showed any ethical sense were the Erinyes, who were outraged by these violent deeds but completely lacking in pity and compassion. Hence in some versions of the story, having been constrained to kill his mother, Orestes was pursued through the world by the Erinyes, until the miasma unleashed by his doomed family had been eliminated.



The Greeks were haunted by images of violence and disaster. The Olympians were not merely cruel to human beings; they could also persecute and maim one another. Hera, wife of Zeus, for example, was so disgusted by her crippled son, Hephaestus, when he was born that she flung him down to the earth. A savage, angry deity, she relentlessly hounded the children born of her husband’s illicit amours. She plotted with the Titans to kill Dionysus, son of Zeus by the mortal woman Semele, and eventually made him insane. For years Dionysus ran frenziedly through the countries of the east, before he finally found healing. Hera also tried to kill Heracles, another son of Zeus, by putting snakes into his cradle, and drove him mad too, so that he killed his wife and children. The family was the foundation of society. In other cultures, as we shall see, it was regarded as a sacred institution, where people learned the values of respect and reverence for others. In Greece it was a lethal battleground, and Hera, goddess of marriage, showed that the most basic relationships could inspire murderous, cruel emotions. Her cult was pervaded by guilt, terror, and profound anxiety.

The first Greek temple to be built after the dark age was Hera’s temple on the island of Samos, off the coast of Asia Minor. Her cult there showed that she was an uncanny, unreliable goddess who could disappear at a moment’s notice and take all the good things of life with her. On the eve of her festival each year, her effigy—a shapeless plank—mysteriously vanished from the shrine. Its loss was discovered at daybreak, and all the people of Samos turned out to search for her. When they found the cult image, they purified it, and tied it up with willow twigs to prevent her escaping again—but she always did. Hera was the mother of life, the origin of all that existed. Her disappearance threatened the whole natural order.

The Greeks probably took the disturbing myth of the disappearing deity from the Middle East, and it would inspire some of their most important rituals. These rites taught them that it was impossible to achieve life and ecstasy unless you had experienced the depths of loss. Demeter, divine patron of grain and fertility, was another Mother Goddess who vanished from view. She had borne Zeus a beautiful daughter, called Persephone. Zeus betrothed Persephone to his brother Hades, lord of the underworld, even though he knew that Demeter would never agree to the match, and helped him to abduct the girl. Distraught with rage and grief, Demeter left Olympus, withdrew all her benefits from humanity, and lived on earth, disguised as an old lady, looking everywhere for her daughter. The world became a barren desert. No corn could grow, and people began to starve to death, so the Olympians, who depended upon the sacrifices of mortals, arranged for Persephone’s return. But because she had eaten some pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she had to spend part of each year there with her husband. When she was reunited with Demeter, the world burst into flower, but while she was underground during the winter months, the earth seemed dead. Life and death were inextricably entwined. Demeter was goddess of grain, but also a chthonian goddess, because corn grew from the depths of the earth. Hades, lord of death, was thus also the guardian and bestower of grain, and Persephone, the eternally young girl (kore), was mistress of the underworld.

Each year during the ancient festival of Thesmophoria, the Greeks reenacted this disturbing drama.10 For three days, all the married women of the community left their husbands and disappeared like Demeter. They fasted and slept on the ground, as primitive people had done before the advent of civilization. They ceremonially cursed their menfolk, and there are hints of some form of ritual obscenity. In memory of the pigs that were swallowed up by the earth when Hades abducted Persephone, the women sacrificed piglets, threw their bodies into a pit, and left them to rot. There was no happy ending: the women did not celebrate the return of Persephone. The city had been turned upside down; family life, on which society depended, was disrupted; and the Greeks were forced to contemplate the prospect of the destruction of civilization, the profound antipathy of the sexes, and the cosmic catastrophe that had threatened the world when Demeter withdrew her favor.11 At the end of the festival, the women went home, and life returned to normal. But the cult had made Greeks confront the unspeakable. They had watched their society collapse during the dark age, though they seem to have repressed the memory of this calamity. But some buried recollection of that time made them aware that whatever they achieved could vanish in a trice, and that death, dissolution, and hostility were perpetual, lurking menaces. The ritual compelled the Greeks to live through their fear, and to face it, and then showed them that it was possible to come through safely to the other side.

The religious traditions created during the Axial Age in all four regions were rooted in fear and pain. They would all insist that it was essential not to deny this suffering; indeed, to acknowledge it fully was an essential prerequisite for enlightenment. Even at this early stage, long before their Axial Age had begun, the Greeks already understood the importance of this. It was clear in the festival in honor of Dionysus, god of wine, which was held in the spring month of Anthesterion at the time of the new vintage.12Dionysus had learned the mystery of viticulture in the east, and—legend had it—revealed it to the people of Athens. The strange rites of the Anthesteria festival, which probably dates back to the dark age, reenacted this story and celebrated the divinely transforming power of wine, which lifted people to another dimension, so that, for a short time, they seemed to share in the beatitude of the Olympian gods.

The sampling of the new wine should have been a joyful occasion, but it was a festival of death. The mythical narrative associated with the ritual explained that Dionysus had presented the first vine to Ikarios, a farmer of Attica, and shown him how to harvest the grapes. But when his friends tasted the wine, the alcohol went straight to their heads and they fell to the ground in a stupor. Because they had never seen drunkenness before, the villagers assumed that Ikarios had killed them. They clubbed him to death and Ikarios’s blood mingled with the liquor. As a tragic coda, when his daughter Erigone found his broken body, she hanged herself. Only the Greeks could have transformed a joyous spring festival into a memorial of such gratuitous horror.

The festival began at sunset in a small temple of Dionysus in the marshes outside the city. The whole population of Attica, including slaves, women, and children, marched out together to attend the opening ceremony, when a libation of wine was poured out as a gift to the god. But the next day, all the temples were closed and the doors of the houses were daubed with pitch. Everybody stayed at home, and each family member had to drink at least two liters of wine. It was a somber, deadly drinking competition. There was no merriment, no singing, and no conversation—a complete reversal of an ordinary social occasion in Athens. Each drinker sat alone, at his own table, drinking from a separate jug in sepulchral silence. Why? Local legend claimed that while he was fleeing from the Erinyes, Orestes had arrived in Athens. The king had feared the miasma he carried with him but had not wanted to turn him away. He invited Orestes to share the new wine but made him sit by himself, and nobody had spoken to him. Yet despite these precautions, the city had been polluted, and henceforth shared in the blood guilt of Orestes’ crime. So, conscious of their impurity, the Athenians drank in grim silence. Suddenly the eerie quiet was interrupted by a grotesque masquerade. Masked mummers, representing the Keres, the chthonian Death Spirits, burst into the streets, riding on wagons that were crammed with pots of wine, aggressively demanding hospitality, laughing raucously, yelling insults, and making wild threats. But in the evening, order was restored. The whole population reeled drunkenly back to the little temple in the marshes, singing and laughing, and carrying their empty jugs. A priestess was presented to Dionysus as a bride, the god was placated, and the mummers, the envoys of death, were driven away.

The third day inaugurated another year and a fresh start. There was a lighter, more ebullient atmosphere. To mark the new era, everybody ate a cereal dish that—it was said—the first farmers had eaten in primordial times, before the invention of milling and baking. There were competitions, including a special swinging competition for little girls. But horror lurked even here, because the swinging girls recalled the hanging body of poor Erigone. You could never forget the inherent tragedy of life. All Greek ritual ended in katharsis (“purification”). The god was appeased, the miasma dispersed, and there was new life, new hope. Even the memory of Erigone’s tragic death was combined with the spectacle of laughing, excited children at the beginning of their lives. The participants had experienced an ekstasis, a “stepping out.” For three days, they had been able to stand aside from their normal existence, confront their buried fears, and pass through them to renewed life.

There was no introspection, and no attempt to analyze the hidden trauma that haunted the Greek psyche. This was touched upon only indirectly by the external rituals. By reenacting the ancient myth, the participants were not behaving as individuals. They laid aside their ordinary selves and did the opposite of what came naturally. Greeks loved banquets and jollity, but for a whole day they had denied their usual inclinations, and drunk their wine in sorrowful silence. By imitating the drama of the past, they had left their individual selves behind and felt touched and transformed by Dionysus, who was present in the intoxicating wine. The ritual had been an initiation, a rite of passage through sorrow, through the fear of death and pollution, to renewed life. When they came to die, some might remember the Anthesteria, and see death as just another initiation.

The eastern Mediterranean was coming to life again. By the end of the ninth century, the northern kingdom of Israel had become a major power in the region. When the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak had invaded Canaan in 926, he had not only sacked Jerusalem and devastated 150 towns in Israel and Judah, but had also destroyed the ancient Canaanite strongholds of Megiddo, Rehob, Beth-shean, and Taanach. Canaanite culture never re-covered. Israel expanded into the old Canaanite territories, absorbed the inhabitants of the ruined cities, and exploited their skills.13 King Omri (885–874) built a marvelous new capital in Samaria, with a large, five-acre royal acropolis. His son Ahab (874–853) built a magnificent ivory palace there and established trade links with Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Greece. He also married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, whose name has become a byword for wickedness.


The biblical historian who wrote a very negative account of Ahab in the first book of Kings was appalled by Jezebel, because she had imported the cult of Phoenician Baal into Israel. But he was writing in the seventh century, in a very different world. In the ninth century, Ahab’s marriage would have been considered a political coup. It was important for the kingdom of Israel to integrate with the region, and hold its own against Damascus, Phoenicia, and Moab. Ahab was doing nothing new. Solomon had also made diplomatic marriages with foreign princesses, had included their gods in the royal cult, and built temples for them in the hills outside Jerusalem.14 But Ahab had the misfortune to inspire the wrath of a small but passionately committed minority, who believed that the people of Israel should worship Yahweh alone.

Ahab was not an apostate. He regularly consulted the prophets of Yahweh and saw nothing amiss in his wife’s devotion to Baal. For centuries, Yahweh’s cult had been nourished by the hymns and rites of Baal. As archaeologists have discovered, most of the population worshiped other local gods besides Yahweh, and Baal worship flourished in Israel until the sixth century.15 But by the ninth century, some Israelites were beginning to cut down on the number of gods they worshiped. In Syria and Meso-potamia, the experience of the divine was too complex and overwhelming to be confined to a single symbol. The imagery of the divine assembly, with its carefully graded ranks of consorts, divine children, and servants, showed that divinity was multifaceted and yet formed a coherent unity.16 The symbolism of the divine assembly was very important to the people of Israel and Judah, but by the ninth century it was becoming more streamlined. Instead of presiding over a large divine household, like El and his consort, Asherah, Yahweh presided alone over a host of lesser celestial beings.17 They were his “heavenly host,” the warriors in his divine army.

As the national God, Yahweh had no peers, no rivals, and no superiors. He was surrounded by an “assembly of the holy ones” and “sons of God,” who all applauded his fidelity to his people:

Yahweh, the assembly of holy ones in heaven

Applaud the marvel of your faithfulness.

Who in the skies can compare with Yahweh?

Which of the sons of God can rival him?

God, dreaded in the great assembly of holy ones,

Terrible to all around him,

Yahweh, God of armies, who is like you?

Mighty Yahweh, clothed in your faithfulness!18

When people cried, “Who is like Yahweh among the other gods?” they were obviously not denying the existence of other deities, but declaring that their patronal god was more effective than the other “sons of El,” the national gods of their neighbors. None could rival Yahweh’s faithfulness.19But Yahweh was a warrior god. He had no expertise in agriculture or fertility, and so many Israelites, as a matter of course, performed the ancient rituals of Baal and Anat to ensure a good harvest, because Baal was the power that fertilized the land.

A small group of prophets, however, wanted to worship Yahweh alone, and were convinced that he could provide for all the wants of his people. Prophecy was an established spirituality of the ancient Middle East. From Canaan to Mari in the middle Euphrates, ecstatic prophets “spoke for” their gods.* 3 In Israel and Judah, prophets were usually associated with the royal court. The biblical sources indicate that they often criticized the monarch, and were concerned to preserve the purity of Yahweh’s cult. We know very little about early Israelite prophecy, however, because our main source is the seventh-century biblical historian who was writing long after the events he describes. But the legends about the ninth-century prophet Elijah and his disciple, Elisha, in the first and second books of Kings bear the marks of older, oral tradition. The material is not entirely historical, but these stories may reflect the very early stirrings of what scholars call the “Yahweh alone movement.”

These tales describe the bitter clash between Elijah and Ahab. They present Jezebel as an evil woman who supported the priests of Baal but persecuted the prophets of Yahweh.20 Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is my God!” He is the first prophet on record to insist on the exclusive worship of Yahweh. In the old Middle Eastern theology, El had appointed a god to each of the nations. Yahweh was the holy one of Israel; Chemosh the holy one of Moab; and Milkom the holy one of Ammon. But some prophets were beginning to feel that Yahweh would be undermined if a king imported a foreign deity into the royal cult, and favored him over the holy one of Israel. Elijah did not doubt the existence of Baal, but because he was not the god of Israel, Elijah believed that he should stay in Phoenicia.

When, despite Baal’s patronage, Israel was afflicted by a severe drought, Elijah saw his opportunity, and challenged 450 of Jezebel’s priests to a contest on Mount Carmel.21 First he harangued the people who had come to watch. It was time that they made a choice between Yahweh and Baal, once and for all. Next he called for two bulls—one for Yahweh and the other for Baal—to be placed on two altars. He and the Baal priests would call upon their respective gods and see which one sent down fire to consume the victim. For a whole morning, the Baal priests shouted Baal’s name, yelling and gashing themselves with swords and spears and performing a hobbling dance around their altar. Nothing happened. But the second Elijah called on Yahweh, fire fell from heaven and devoured both bull and altar. The people fell on their faces: Yahweh was their god! Elijah ordered all the prophets of Baal to be slaughtered in a nearby valley and then climbed up Mount Carmel and sat with his head between his knees, deep in prayer, begging Yahweh to end the drought. The rain fell in torrents, and Elijah tucked his hairy cloak into his leather loincloth and ran in ecstasy beside Ahab’s chariot. Yahweh had successfully usurped the function of Baal, proving that he was as effective at maintaining the fertility of the land as at war.

In proposing that Israel worship only one god, Elijah had introduced a new tension into its traditional religion. Ignoring Baal required the people to relinquish an important and valuable divine resource. Thousands of them had found that the cult of Baal had enhanced their understanding of the world, had made their fields fertile, and given meaning to the backbreaking struggle against sterility and famine. When they performed the rites, they believed that they were tapping into the sacred energies that made the earth productive. Elijah was asking Israelites to give all that up and put their entire faith in Yahweh, who had no reputation in the field of fertility.22

After the storm, Elijah fell into depression and feared for his life, convinced that Jezebel would avenge the massacre of her prophets. He left Israel and took sanctuary in Yahweh’s shrine on Mount Sinai, which the people of the northern kingdom called Mount Horeb. There Elijah hid in a cleft of the rock and waited for a revelation.23 In the past, like Baal, the divine warrior Yahweh had often revealed himself in the convulsions of nature. The mountains had shaken, the trees had writhed, and the rivers had quailed at his approach. But this time it was different:

Then Yahweh himself went by. There came a mighty wind, so strong it tore the mountains and shattered the rocks before Yahweh. But Yahweh was no longer in the wind. After the wind came an earthquake. But Yahweh was no longer in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire. But Yahweh was no longer in the fire. And after the fire there came the sound of a gentle breeze. And when Elijah heard this, he covered his face with his cloak.24

This was a hidden deity, no longer manifest in the violent forces of nature, but in a thin whisper of sound, the scarcely perceptible timbre of a tiny breeze, and in the paradox of a voiced silence.

It was a transcendent moment. Instead of revealing the divine as immanent in the natural world, Yahweh had become separate and other. Historians often speak of the “transcendental breakthrough” of the Axial Age. This was clearly such an event, but like the ancient religion of Israel, it was also deeply agonistic. It followed hard upon the heels of a massacre, and preceded a new round of hostilities. Standing outside the cave, covered in his cloak, Elijah heard Yahweh sentence Ahab’s successors to death. They would all die, saving only those “who have not knelt before Baal.”25 When people concentrated on defining the god that they were transcending to, instead of focusing on the greed, hatred, and egotism that they were transcending from, there was a danger of stridency and aggressive chauvinism. Freedom was an essential value of the Axial Age, and Elijah’s strong-arm tactics were what some later Axial sages would call “unskillful.” It was counterproductive to force people into a spirituality for which they were not ready. It was unhelpful to be dogmatic about a transcendence that was essentially indefinable.

Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal marked the beginning of a new conflict in Israel and Judah. From this time forward, the bitter contest with rival deities would inform the spirituality of the prophets. In some respects the cult became more peaceful. The ancient imagery of the divine warrior fell out of favor, because it was too reminiscent of Baal. Instead of seeing Yahweh in a dramatic storm, prophets henceforth had visions of Yahweh in the divine assembly.26 But even this became competitive and agonistic. This Hebrew psalm shows Yahweh fighting for preeminence against the other sons of God in the council:

Yahweh stands up in the divine assembly,

Among the gods he dispenses justice:

“No more mockery of justice,

No more favouring the wicked!

Let the weak and the orphan have justice,

Be fair to the wretched and the destitute;

Rescue the weak and needy,

Save them from the clutches of the wicked!”

Ignorant and senseless, they carry on blindly,

Undermining the very basis of earthly society.

I once said, “You too are gods,

Sons of the Most High, all of you,”

But all the same, you shall die like other men;

As one man, gods, you shall fall.

Rise, Yahweh, dispense justice throughout the world,

Since no nation is excluded from your ownership.27

In the old days, the psalm implies, Yahweh had been prepared to accept the other “sons of God” as elohim, but now they are obsolete; they would wither away like mortal men. Yahweh, who had won the leadership of the divine council, had sentenced them all to death.

Yahweh accused the other deities of neglecting the primal duty of social justice. Elijah also insisted on compassion and consideration for the poor and oppressed. When Jezebel had Naboth, a landowner in the Jezreel Valley, stoned to death simply because he had refused to hand over a vineyard that adjoined Ahab’s property, Yahweh sentenced the king to a horrible end: “In the place where the dogs licked the blood of Naboth, the dogs will lick your blood too.”28 When he heard this oracle, Ahab was overcome with remorse; he fasted, slept in sackcloth, and Yahweh relented. Concern for social justice was not a new development, nor was it peculiar to Israel and Judah. The protection of the weak had long been common policy throughout the ancient Near East.29 As early as the third millennium, the kings of Mesopotamia had insisted that justice for the poor, the orphan, and the widow was a sacred duty, decreed by the sun god Shamash, who listened to their cries for help. The prologue of the Code of Hammurabi (1728–1686) decreed that the sun would shine over the people only if the king and the mighty did not oppress their vulnerable subjects. The kings of Egypt were also commanded to take care of the des-titute,30 because Re, the sun god, was the “vizier of the poor.”31 In Ugarit, famine and drought could be held at bay only if justice and equity prevailed in the land; the protection of the weak preserved the divine order, achieved by Baal in his battle with Mot.32 Throughout the Middle East, justice was an essential pillar of religion. It was also good pragmatic policy. There was no point in conquering foreign and cosmic foes if your iniquitous social policies created enemies at home.

Elijah and Elisha were both remembered for their acts of practical kindness as well as for their fiery words. These stories are given just as much prominence as Elijah’s battles with Baal.33 Like the other gods of the Middle East, Yahweh was moved by the plight of the needy and rewarded practical compassion as much as cultic purity. When a poor woman of Sidon shared her last handful of meal and oil with Elijah during a drought, Yahweh promised to keep her supplied with food for as long as the famine lasted.34 But these tales do not indicate the beginning of a new Axial Age spirituality; social justice was already deeply rooted in the ancient traditions of the region.

To the east of Israel, an entirely different kind of empire was slowly coming into being. In 876, the Assyrian king had subdued the Phoenician towns on the Mediterranean coast, and when Shalmaneser III came to the throne in 859, a powerful confederation of local kings, led by Hadadezer of Damascus, tried to block Assyria’s western advance. Ahab contributed a chariot squadron to the army that marched against Assyria in 853 and was defeated at the battle of Qarqar on the river Orontes. Assyria was not yet strong enough to annex territory in the west, however, and Damascus remained the strongest state in the area. Later that year, Ahab tried to challenge its power but died in a battle against his former ally. That was the end of the house of Omri; in a palace coup, Jehu, a candidate supported by Elisha, seized the throne and made an alliance with Assyria. In 841, Assyria defeated Damascus and became master of the region. As a favored vassal, the kingdom of Israel enjoyed a new period of peace and prosperity.

The story of the covenant ceremony at Shechem, recounted in the twenty-fourth chapter of the book of Joshua, probably dates from this period.35 It is an older text, which the seventh-century historian included in his chronicle, and was probably based on the ancient covenant festival celebrated at this shrine. When the Israelites first arrived in Canaan, we are told, Joshua bound them solemnly to Yahweh in a formal treaty. If they wished to become Yahweh’s people, they must put away the gods they had worshiped on the other side of the Jordan River, and serve Yahweh alone. They had to choose between Yahweh and the other gods of the region. Joshua warned them that this was a serious decision. Yahweh was a “jealous god, who will not forgive transgressions. . . . If you desert Yahweh to follow alien gods, he in turn will afflict and destroy you.” But the people were adamant. Yahweh was their elohim. “Then cast away the alien gods among you,” Joshua cried, “and give your hearts to Yahweh, the God of Israel.”36

In the late ninth century, other gods were still alluring, but they had to stay on the opposite side of the Jordan. This was not a monotheistic text. If no other gods existed, it would be unnecessary for the people to make such a choice.37 Monolatry (the worship of a single god) was a liturgical arrangement. The “Yahweh alone” movement urged Israelites to offer sacrifice only to Yahweh and to ignore the cult of other deities. But this position required courage, a narrowing of divine resources, and a loss of familiar and beloved sanctities. Israel was about to embark on a lonely, painful journey of severance from the mythical and cultic consensus of the Middle East.

No such painful rupture was required of the Chinese, whose Axial Age would not break with the past but would develop from a deeper understanding of the ancient rituals practiced by the Zhou kings. The ninth century was a time of great weakness in China. The old feudal system was disintegrating and the Zhou domain was under constant attack from the barbarian peoples in the surrounding lands. We know very little about the historical events of this period, but there are sporadic references to palace intrigues, which, on at least two occasions, forced the king to flee his capital. The king could exert little control over the cities of the central plain, and the old monarchy had in effect been replaced by a confederation of lords united by their ideological loyalty to the Zhou, but in practice operating independently.38 The only thing that held them all together was the cult. The rites reminded the king’s vassals that the monarch was the Tianzi, the “son of Heaven.” He had received a mandate from Tian Shang Di, Heaven Most High, to rule the Chinese people. He alone was permitted to sacrifice to the High God, and Zhouzhuang, his capital in the Wei Valley, was the religious center of the entire network of Zhou cities. No other city was allowed to hold the prestigious royal rites in honor of the deceased kings of China except Lu, whose prince was a direct descendant of the duke of Zhou.

In the rest of the great plain, each walled city (kuo) was ruled by a prince who held his domain as a fief from the king. Each city was modeled on the Zhou capital, with the prince’s residence at the center of town, next to the temple of his own ancestors. The prince was served by the barons (dai fu) and the great officers (qing), who held key posts in the administration, presided over the big sacrificial banquets, took part in the prince’s military campaigns, and provided the army with contingents of chariots and warriors. Beneath the barons and officers were the shi, the ordinary gentlemen, who were descendants of the junior branches of the great families and served in the chariot units. The cities had steadily increased their territories over the years, and were becoming substan-tial principalities. The most important were Song, whose prince claimed descent from the Shang kings and preserved Shang traditions, and Lu, which was passionately loyal to the Zhou rituals. By the end of the eighth century, there would be a dozen of these feudal principalities in the plain.

In all these cities, life was entirely dominated by religion.39 The cult centered on the person of the king, the son of Heaven, who had inherited the mandate and had been born with a magical power, which he transmitted to the feudal lords of the principalities. Like most other religious systems at this time, that of the Chinese was preoccupied with preserving the natural order of the universe by rituals (li), which would ensure that human society conformed to the Way (dao) of Heaven. The ceremonial actions performed by the king, it was thought, could control the forces of nature and ensure that the seasons followed one another in due succession, rain was sent at the correct time, and the celestial bodies stayed on their prescribed courses. The king was, therefore, a divine figure, because he was the counterpart of the High God on earth. But there was no ontological separation between Heaven and Earth. The Chinese would never be interested in a god who transcended the natural order. Elijah’s experience of a god who was entirely separate from the world would have puzzled them. Heaven and Earth were complementary: divine and equal partners.

Heaven, the High God, had humanlike characteristics, but never ac-quired a distinct personality or gender. He did not thunder commands from mountaintops, but ruled through his representatives. Heaven was experienced in the king, the son of Heaven, and the princes, each of whom was the son of Heaven in his own domain. Earth had no human counterpart, but every city had two Earth altars: one south of the palace near the ancestral temple, the other in the southern suburbs, beside the harvest altar. Location was everything in Chinese religion. The position of the Earth altar showed that the cultivation of the soil and the harvesting of crops put people directly into contact with the ancestors, who had tilled the ground before them, and thus established the Way of Heaven. Before and after the harvest, hymns of gratitude were sung around the Earth altar; the Way (dao) of Heaven was “delectable,” linking past and present in sacred continuity:

It is the glory of the region . . .

It is the comfort of the old!

It is not just here that things are as they are here!

It is not just today that things are as they are today!

Among our most ancient forefathers it was so!40

When people worked the land, they were not simply interested in their own individual achievements, “as they are today.” Their efforts had united them to the ancestors, the archetypal human beings, and thus with the Way things ought to be.

Without the work of human beings, Heaven could not act.41 Ordinary earthly actions were therefore sacramental, sacred activities, which enabled people to share in a divine process. When they had cleared the forests, pacified the countryside, and built roads, the Zhou kings had completed the creation that Heaven had begun. In the Classic of Odes, the poet used the same word to describe the divine work of Heaven and the earthly activity of human beings. Kings Tai and Wen had become Heaven’s partners, and now their living descendants must continue this holy task:

Heaven made [zuo] the high mountain.

King Tai enlarged it;

He cleared [zuo] it.

King Wen made it tranquil,

He marched [about]

And Qi had level roads.

May their sons and grandsons preserve it!42

Instead of seeing a gulf between Heaven and Earth, the Chinese saw only a continuum.43 The most powerful ancestors were now with Tian Shang Di, the supreme ancestor, but they had once lived on earth. Heaven could communicate with earth through oracles, and human beings, the inhabitants of earth, could share a meal with the ancestors and gods in the bin ritual.

When the Chinese spoke of earth, the cosmos, or even the Chinese empire, these mundane categories included the sacred. They were less interested in finding something holy “out there” than in making this world fully divine, by ensuring that it conformed to Heaven’s prototype. The Way of Heaven, revealed in the cosmic and natural processes, was more important than any clearly defined deity on high; they experienced the sacred in the daily, practical effort to make everything conform to Heaven’s Way here on earth. Heaven was more sublime, but Earth was central to the political life of the city. All the great feudal assemblies were held at the Earth altar. The Zhou still saw warfare as a way of punishing rebels and miscreants, and thus restoring the order of the dao. A military expedition always started out from the Earth mound, and on their return, the troops sacrificed subversive prisoners there. When a lord was invested with a fief and became one of the sons of Heaven, the king gave him a clod of soil taken from the Earth altar. At an eclipse of the sun, the king and his vassals gathered around the Earth altar, each in his correct position, to restore cosmic order. Earth was thus the partner of Heaven, which could not implement its dao without the help of its counterparts here below.

When the king was invested with the royal mandate and became the chief son of Heaven, this “opened the Way” for Heaven on earth. He received a magical efficacy called daode, “the Potency of the Way,” which enabled him to subdue his enemies, attract loyal followers, and impose his authority. If the king did not exercise daode correctly, it became malign.44 Once he had this power, it was said, the mere presence of the king was efficacious; it exerted an influence that compelled men and natural phenomena to behave correctly. A king’s passing thought was immediately translated into action:

The thought of the King is boundless—

He thinks of horses and they are strong.

The thought of the King is wholly correct—

He thinks of horses and they break into a gallop.45

When the king’s power was strong, the earth broke into flower. If it was in decline, his subjects fell sick and died prematurely, the harvests failed, and the wells dried up. Again, the vision was holistic. The natural world and human society were inescapably bound up with each other.

The king’s task was to ensure that the human and natural worlds really were in harmony. According to traditional lore, the sage kings had maintained the regular cycle of the seasons by traveling around their territories, following the path of the sun.46 Thus Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor, had walked around the whole world, visiting the four points of the compass in due order. But Yao’s potency was so strong that he did not need to make these perambulations personally; instead he sent delegates to the four poles to establish the seasons on his behalf. Shun went one better. He simply performed a ceremony at the four gates of his capital, each of which was oriented to one of the cardinal directions.47 The Zhou kings, however, did not even need to leave their palace. They built a special hall and inaugurated the seasons by standing in each of its four corners, facing east, south, west, or north. As the year ran its course, the king had to change his clothes, accessories, and diet to bring his whole person into accord with the natural order. In the winter, he dressed in black, rode a black horse, traveled in a dark carriage, and carried a black standard. To establish this season he had to stand in the northwestern corner of the hall, and eat millet and pork, the food of winter. As spring approached, he dressed in green, carried a green flag, ate sour food, and stood in the northeast corner of the building. In the autumn, he wore white clothes and stood in the west; in summer he dressed in red and stood in a southerly position.

The king had supreme power, but he could not do as he chose. In every moment of his life he was obliged to conform to the celestial model; his personal likes and dislikes were wholly unimportant. His function was not to devise foreign or domestic policies of his own, but simply to follow the Way. This archaic ideal would later inspire many of the spiritualities of the Chinese Axial Age. If the king carried out his ritual duties correctly, it was said, his power (daode) made all things “calm and docile.”48 The earth, waters, plants, beasts, gods, men, women, princes, and peasants all flourished, without encroaching on one another’s domains. This state of divine stability was called the Great Peace (tai-ping). But if for any reason the king failed and his power declined, there was chaos. The rain fell at the wrong time and ruined the crops, the sun and moon lost their way, and there was a solar eclipse or an earthquake. Then the king knew that he had to restore order. He would strike a great drum, put all his subjects on military alert, and summon the princes from their cities. When they arrived in the capital, dressed in clothes that corresponded to the compass direction of their fiefs—in black, green, red, or white—they would stand in their proper place in a square in the middle of the capital. If there was a drought, the king publicly confessed his faults, admitting that his bad government, mediocre officials, and the extravagance of his court were responsible, and offered a sacrifice at the Earth altar in the southern suburbs. This magical reordering of the human world would bring peace to the cosmos, and reestablish the Way of Heaven.

In the ninth century, the ritual became more public.49 In the early Zhou period, these royal rites were probably private, family affairs, but now they were performed in front of a large audience. Ritual specialists (ru) presided, making sure that the ceremonies were carried out correctly. The new public liturgy meant that the people could observe and participate in the implementation of the Way. Thus all the inhabitants of the capital would turn out to watch the king and queen inaugurate the new year each spring. The king rode in a chariot, dressed in a robe embroidered with the sun and moon, to the Earth altar in the south of the city, and performed the first religious act of the new year, sacrificing a victim to Heaven. The king modeled his life on Heaven, and the people followed the lead of the king, who had to be the first to perform any seasonal activity. He was the living archetype; in imitating the son of Heaven, the people brought their own lives into harmony with the Way. Thus the king had to plow the first furrow after the winter rest; only then could the peasants begin their work of cultivation. In the spring, his wives ceremonially presented themselves to the king, so that he could open the matrimonial season. At the end of autumn, the king rode out to the northern suburbs, with his ministers and officers, to greet winter and bring back the cold. There he announced that the season of rest and darkness had begun, and ordered the peasants to return to their villages. As usual, he led the way, offering sacrifice and sealing his own palace gates. Then townsfolk and peasants followed his example, and retired to their homes.

Our information about the royal rites comes from the ancient Chinese classics. We do not know how historical these descriptions were; they could be largely utopian, but the ideals they expressed were deeply embedded in the Chinese imagination and would be crucial to the Axial Age. In the other cities, the princes, the local sons of Heaven, probably officiated at similar ceremonies. They served as retainers at the royal court and ate at the king’s table; by sharing the food that he gave them, they absorbed some of his daode. In the capital, the king revered the deceased Shang and Zhou monarchs in elaborate, dramatic rites, while in the principalities the princes honored their own forebears, the founding fathers of the city, in the ancestral temple next to their residence.

Like the Shang, the Zhou held a special “hosting” (bin) sacrifice every five years and invited the nature gods and ancestors to a great banquet. For ten days, the court made elaborate preparations, fasting, cleaning the temple, and bringing the memorial tablets of the ancestors from their niches and setting them up in the palace courtyard. On the day of the feast, the king and queen processed separately to the courtyard; then the younger members of the royal family, each impersonating an ancestor, were led in by a priest, greeted reverently, and escorted to their places. Animals were slaughtered in their honor, and while the meat was cooking, priests ran through the streets calling any stray gods to the feast, crying, “Are you here? Are you here?” There was beautiful music, stately feasting, and everybody played their roles with the utmost decorum. After the banquet—a holy communion with the ancestors, who were mystically present in their young descendants—hymns celebrated the perfect performance of the rite: “Every custom and rite is observed,” the participants sang; “every smile, every word is in place.”50 Every single facial gesture, every movement of their bodies, and every word that they uttered during the bin was prescribed. The participants left their individuality behind to conform to the ideal world of the ritual. “We have striven very hard,” they continued, “that the rites may be without mistake.”

All was orderly and swift.

All was straight and sure.51

The festival was an epiphany of a sacred society, living in close proximity with the divine; everybody had his or her unique and irreplaceable role, and by leaving their everyday selves behind, they felt caught up in something larger and more momentous. The ritual dramatically created a replica of the court of Heaven, where the High God, the First Ancestor (represented by the king), sat in state with the Shang and Zhou ancestors and the nature gods. The spirits conferred blessings, but they too submitted to the rituals of the sacred drama. The Shang had used the rites to gain the good offices of the ancestors and gods, but by the ninth century, it was becoming more important to perform the rituals precisely and beautifully. When they were perfectly executed, something magical occurred within the participants that gave them intimations of divine harmony.52

The ceremony concluded with an elaborate six-act ballet, which reenacted the campaign of Kings Wen and Wu against the last Shang king. Sixty-four dancers, clad in silk and carrying jade hatchets, represented the army, while the king himself played the part of his ancestor King Wen. Each act had its special music and symbolic dances, and hymns celebrated the establishment of the mandate:

The Mandate is not easy to keep,

may it not end in your persons.

Display and make bright your good fame,

and consider what Yin had received from Heaven.

The doings of high Heaven

have no sound, no smell.

Make King Wen your pattern

and all the states will trust in you.53

The ballet concluded with a peaceful dance (da xia), which was attributed to Yu, the founder of the Xia dynasty. It symbolized good government and universal peace, and—it was believed—would magically bring order and tranquillity to the Zhou domain.

The Chinese understood the importance of artifice; by acting out these intricate dramas, they felt that they became more fully humane. By the ninth century they had begun to appreciate that the transformative effect of ritual was far more important than the manipulation of the gods. By playing a role, we become other than ourselves. By taking on a different persona, we momentarily lose ourselves in another. The ritual gave the participants a vision of harmony, beauty, and sacredness that stayed with them when they returned to the confusion of their ordinary lives. During the rite, something new came alive in the dancers, actors, and courtiers. By submitting to the minute details of the liturgy, they gave themselves up to the larger pattern, and created—at least for a time—a holy community, where past and present, Heaven and Earth were one.

The Chinese were only at the beginning of their journey, however. They had not yet started to reflect upon the effects of these ceremonies. Thus far, they lacked the self-consciousness to analyze what they were doing. But later, during the third century, Xunzi, one of the most rationalistic philosophers of the Chinese Axial Age, reflected upon these ancient rites and was able to understand their spiritual importance. “The gentleman utilizes bells and drums to guide his will, and lutes and zithers to gladden his heart,” he explained. In the war dance he brandished weapons; in the peace dance he waved feather ornaments, passing symbolically from belligerence to harmony. These external gestures had an effect on his inner self: “Through the performance of music the will is made pure, and through the practice of rites the conduct is brought to perfection, the eyes and ears become keen, the temper becomes harmonious and calm, and customs and manners are easily reformed.”

Above all, these elaborate rituals helped the participants to transcend themselves. “The mature person,” Xunzi continued, “takes joy in carrying out the Way; the petty man takes joy in gratifying his desires.” During the Axial Age, people would realize that getting beyond the limitations of selfishness brought deeper satisfaction than mere self-indulgence: “He who curbs his desires in accordance with the Way will be joyful and free from disorder, but he who forgets the Way in the pursuit of desire will fall into delusion and joylessness.”54

During the Chinese Axial Age, some of the philosophers would reject the artifice of ritual, but others would build a profound spirituality based upon these liturgical ceremonies. The establishment of the rites was one of the great achievements of the Zhou, and later generations recognized this. The Record of Rites, a text that was only completed after the Axial Age, remarked that the Shang had put the spirits in first place, and the rites second, but the Zhou put the rites first and the spirits second.55 The Shang had wanted to use their rituals to control and exploit the gods, but the Zhou had intuitively realized that the rites themselves contained a much stronger transformative power.

By the end of the ninth century, it was clear that the Zhou dynasty was in dire straits. In 842, King Lih was deposed and forced into exile. The embarrassing failure of the kings made some people skeptical. If the sons of Heaven were so incompetent and shortsighted, what did that say about the High God himself? Poets began to write satirical odes: “Di on High is so contradictory, that the people below are all exhausted,” one wrote. The kings and their royal rites no longer embodied the Way: “You utter talk that is not true . . . and there is no substance at the altar.”56 When King Lih died in exile in 828, his son was restored to power. But the Way was not reestablished; poets noted that in these days there was one natural disaster after another. Despite the meticulous performance of the rites, drought was burning up the country, and the ancestors did nothing at all to help:

The great mandate is about to end.

Nothing to look ahead to or back upon.

The host of dukes and past rulers

Does not help us.

As for Mother and Father and the ancestors

How can they treat us so?57

The rituals were still performed beautifully, and still had a profound effect on the participants, but a few tough-minded critics were beginning to lose faith in their magical efficacy. Yet the response to this growing crisis would be more ritual—not less.

By the ninth century, ritual experts in India had embarked on a liturgical reformation that inaugurated India’s Axial Age. In the course of a systematic analysis of the sacrificial rituals, they discovered the inner self. We know little about these ritualists as individuals. We do not know their names, and they left no personal record of their journey toward this new vision. We know only that they belonged to the Brahmin priestly class, which had risen to new prominence during the late Vedic period.58 Their work was preserved in the Brahmanas, technical ritual texts compiled between the ninth and seventh centuries. What does emerge from these somewhat dry treatises is that the reformers were motivated by the desire to eliminate violence from the sacrificial rites.

Aryan life was becoming more settled. The economy was beginning to depend more upon agricultural produce than raiding, and even though we have no documentary evidence, it seems that there was a growing consensus that the destructive cycle of raid and counterraid had to stop. The traditional rites not only legitimized this pattern but gave it sacred significance. The rituals themselves often degenerated into real fighting, and one aggressive sacrifice led inexorably to another.59 The priestly experts decided to make a systematic appraisal of the sacrificial liturgy, taking out any practice that was likely to lead to violence. Not only were they able to persuade the kshatriya warriors to accept these expurgated rites, but their reform led to a spiritual awakening.60

At first sight, it seems that no texts could be further removed from the spirit of the Axial Age than the Brahmanas, which seem obsessed with liturgical minutiae. How could these stultifying discussions of the type of ladle that should be used for a particular oblation or how many steps a priest should take when he carried the firepot to the altar have inspired a religious revolution? Yet the Brahmanas were making a courageous attempt to find a new source of meaning and value in a changing world.61 The ritualists wanted a liturgy that would not inflict harm or injury on any of its participants. The climax of the old sacrifices had been the dramatic decapitation of the animal victim, which reenacted Indra’s slaying of Vritra. But Indra was no longer the towering figure that he had been when the Aryans first arrived in India. His importance had been steadily declining. Now, in the reformed ritual, the victim was suffocated as painlessly as possible in a shed outside the sacrificial arena. “You do not die, nor do you come to harm,” the ritualists assured the beast; “to the gods you go, along good paths.”62 In these texts, the killing of the animal was frequently described as “cruel,” an evil that had to be expiated. The victim should sometimes be spared, and given as a gift to the officiating priest. Already, at this very early date, the ritualists were moving toward the ideal of ahimsa (“harmlessness”) that would become the indispensable virtue of the Indian Axial Age.63

The reformed ritual also banned any hint of aggression toward human beings. There were to be no more competitions, chariot races, mock battles, or raids. These were all systematically expunged from the rites and replaced by anodyne chants and symbolic gestures. To ensure that there could be no possibility of conflict, the patron or sacrificer, who commissioned the rite, would henceforth be the only warrior or vaishya present. The old noisy, crowded sacrificial arena was now empty, except for the single, lone sacrificer and his wife. No hostile enemies could interrupt the rite; there were no challengers, and the patron could invite no guests. Their place had been taken by the four priests and their assistants, who guided the patron through the ceremonies, taking care that every action and mantra conformed exactly to the regulations. All the fire, fury, and fun of sacrifice had been eradicated. The only danger that could occur in these innocuous rituals was a mistake in the procedure, which could easily be rectified by a special rite to “heal” the sacrifice.

We know what the ritualists removed, because the old agonistic practices left clear traces in the reformed rites. There are incongruous references to warfare in the most unlikely contexts. The Brahmana texts explained that the pressing of the soma plant reenacted Indra’s slaughter of Vritra; they compared a stately antiphonal chant to Indra’s deadly thunderbolt, which the priests were hurling back and forth “with strong voices.”64 A serene hymn, once chanted during a chariot race, was still called “The Chariot of the Devas.” The Brahmanas frequently mentioned the “enemy,” whose absence had left an awkward gap. One of the three sacred fires in the arena still belonged to “the enemy”; mantras referred to a fight that never happened—“Indra and Agni have scattered my rivals!”65 Any reference to warfare was rigorously excluded from the Agnicayana, which had originally sacralized the easterly migration of the warrior bands and the conquest of new territory. First the sacrificer was simply told to pick up the firepot, take three steps to the east, and set it down again. But this seemed a little too tame, so at a later stage, the firepot was pushed across the consecrated ground in a cart.66

The ritualists claimed that the reformed rites had been founded by Prajapati, the creator god mentioned in the late hymns of the Rig Veda, and told a story that became the charter myth of their movement.67 One day, Prajapati and Death had performed a sacrifice together, competing in the usual chariot races, dice games, and musical competitions. But Death was soundly beaten by Prajapati, who refused to fight with traditional “weapons.” Instead he used the new ritual techniques, and not only defeated Death but swallowed him up. Death had been eliminated from the sacrificial arena, and like the patron in the reformed rites, Prajapati found himself alone: “Now there is no ritual competition!” the ritualists concluded triumphantly. Prajapati had become the archetypal sacrificer. Henceforth anybody who imitated him in the new liturgy would not overcome Death by defeating his opponents in a contest, or by fighting and killing. A sacrificer could conquer death only by assimilating it and taking it into himself, so that “Death has become his self (atman).”68 It was a striking image; by making Prajapati swallow Death, the ritualists were directing attention away from the external world and into the interior realm. By making Death a part of himself, Prajapati had internalized and therefore mastered it; he did not need to fear it anymore. Human sacrificers must do the same.

In the old rites, the patron had passed the burden of death on to others. By accepting his invitation to the sacrificial banquet, the guests had to take responsibility for the death of the animal victim. In the new rite, the sacrificer made himself accountable for the death of the beast. He took death into his own being instead of projecting it onto others, and thus became one with the sacrificial offering. Dying a symbolic death in the new rites, he would offer himself to the gods and—like the animal—he would experience immortality: “Becoming himself the sacrifice,” one ritualist explained, “the sacrificer frees himself from death.”69

The Brahmanas merged the figure of Prajapati, the creator god, with Purusha, the archetypal human “Person” in the late Vedic hymn, who had allowed the gods to immolate him so that the world could come into being. Prajapati/Purusha was thus both sacrificer and victim, and every time he went through the sacrificial procedure, the patron identified with this primordial ritual, and became one with Prajapati: “There is only one sacrifice,” explained the ritualist; all sacrifices were identical to the original oblation at the beginning of time, and “Prajapati is the sacrifice.”70Prajapati was now the model to be followed; instead of gaining immortality by becoming a killer like Indra, the patron became the victim, died a ritualized death, and—at least for the duration of the ceremony—entered the timeless world of the gods.

But the Brahmanas insisted that the sacrificer had to understand what he was doing. It was no use going mindlessly through the motions: he had to know that Prajapati was the sacrifice; he had to be familiar with the new ritual lore. In his contest with Death, Prajapati’s “weapons” had been his knowledge of the bandhus, the “correspondences” between heavenly and earthly realities. Vedic religion had always seen physical objects as the replicas of divine beings. But the reformers made this early intuitive insight into a rigorous discipline. The ritualist learned to discover likenesses and connections that linked every single action, implement, or mantra in the sacrificial ritual with a cosmic reality.71 It was a collective yoga, a “yoking” of different levels of reality together.72Similarity and resemblance constituted an identity. When the rites were performed in the full consciousness of this connective network, everything appeared in a new guise: gods were linked with humans, humans with animals, plants, and utensils, the transcendent with the immanent, and the visible with the invisible.

Prajapati, for example, was the counterpart (bandhu) of the year (the cycle of the seasons), because time had emanated from his corpse on the day of creation; he was the animal victim, because he too had given himself up for immolation; the gods, who had emerged from his corpse, were also bandhus of Prajapati. While he was performing the rites of sacrifice, the patron was the offering that he fed to the fire, because he was really offering himself; he was the animal victim, for the same reason. And he was,therefore, Prajapati, because he was the sacrificer, who had commissioned the ritual, as well as its victim. Because he was repeating the primal sacrifice, he had become one with Prajapati, had abandoned the profane world of mortality, and had entered the divine realm. He could, therefore, declare: “I have attained heaven, the gods; I am become immortal!” This archetypal thinking was, of course, typical of ancient thought. What distinguished the Indian ritual reform, however, was that these links were actually forged in the course of the ritual by means of a mental effort. The ritualists tried to make the participants aware of these bandhus, and thus become more self-conscious. Even the smallest implement, such as a fire stick, had to be fused in their minds with the fire stick that had been used in the primordial rite. When the priest threw clarified butter into the fire, he uttered exactly the same cry as Prajapati (Svaha!) when he had made this offering. By means of the mental activity of the sacrificer and the priests, these earthly objects were “perfected”; they left behind the frail particularity of their profane existence to became one with the divine.

Like all ancient peoples, the Vedic Indians believed that ritual could and must repair the constantly depleted energies of the natural world. The reformers told another story about Prajapati’s creation. They explained that in the beginning Prajapati had awoken to the fact that he was alone in the universe; he longed for offspring, so he had practiced asceticism—fasting, holding his breath, and generating heat—and gradually the whole of reality had emanated from his person (purusha): devas, asuras, Vedas, humans, and the natural world. But Prajapati was not a very efficient progenitor and his creation was a mess. The creatures were not yet separate from Prajapati.73 They were still a part of him, and when, exhausted by his labors, he fell into a stupor, they almost died.74 They dropped away from him, disintegrated, and some actually fled, fearing that Prajapati would devour them. When he woke up, Prajapati was horrified: “How can I put these creatures back into myself?” he asked.75 There was only one solution. Prajapati had to be put together again, so Agni reconstructed him, building him up piece by piece. The lost and scattered creatures regained their identity, and the world became viable.76 Thus, by the ritual law of similarity, when the sacrificer built a new fire altar during the Agnicayana, he was really reconstructing Prajapati, and giving life to the whole of creation. Every ritual made the world stronger.77 The reformers had replaced the old self-destructive rites with ceremonies that symbolized the building of a new world order. Gods and humans had to work together in a joint project of continuous renovation.

Fundamental to the ritual reform was the conviction that human beings were fragile creatures and, like Prajapati, could easily fall apart. They were born defective and unfinished, and could only build themselves up to full strength in the ritual. When he took part in the soma sacrifice, the patron experienced a second birth, and went through an initiation process that symbolically reproduced the various stages of gestation.78 Before the rite began, he made a retreat, crouched in a hut (representing the womb), dressed in a white garment and black antelope skin (representing the caul and placenta), with his hands clenched into fists, like an embryo. He was fed on milk, and had to stammer when he spoke, like an infant.79 Finally he sat beside the fire and sweated, as Prajapati had done, in order to effect a new creation. Once he had drunk the intoxicating soma, he experienced an ascent to the gods without having to die a violent death, as in the old ritual.80 He could not stay long in heaven, but after his death, if he had accumulated sufficient liturgical credit, he would be reborn in the world of the gods.

In ritual, therefore, the sacrificer reconstructed his self (atman), just as Prajapati had done. In the workshop of sacrifice, he had put together the daiva atman (divine self), which would live on after his death. By performing the rituals correctly, with the knowledge of the bandhus firmly in his mind, the warrior could rebuild his own purusha (person). The Brahmin priests “make the person, consisting of the sacrifices, made of ritual actions,” explained the ritualist.81 The rites of passage also built up the human being. An Aryan boy had to undergo the upanayana that initiated him into the study of the Veda and the sacrificial procedure, or he would never be able to build a fully realized atman. Only married men could commission a ritual, and begin the process of self-building, so marriage was another rite of passage for both men and women (who could attend the sacrifice only in the company of their husbands). After a person’s death, the corpse resembled the exhausted Prajapati and had to be reconstructed by means of the correct funeral rites.82

But the system did not work automatically. Unless a person was proficient in ritual science, he would be lost in the next world. He would not be able to recognize the “divine self” that he had created during his lifetime, nor would he know which of the heavenly realms he should go to. “Bewildered by the cremation fire, choked with smoke, he does not recognize his own world. But he who knows, he, indeed, having left this world, knows the atman, saying: ‘This am I’ and he recognizes his own world. And now the fire carries him to the heavenly world.”83 The phrase “he who knows” beats insistently through the Brahmana texts. The priests could not do all the work. The kshatriya and vaishya sacrificer also had to be proficient in liturgical lore, because knowledge alone could unlock the powers of the rites.

The liturgy created by the reformers must have been spiritually satisfying, or the Brahmins never could have persuaded the warriors to give up their war games. It is difficult for us to appreciate the aesthetic, transformative power of these rites, because we have only the flat statements of the Brahmanas. Before the rite, the sacrificer made a retreat that isolated him from the pressing concerns of his ordinary life; the fasting, meditation, and asceticism, the intoxication of the soma drink, and the beauty of the chant would all have given emotional resonance to the dry, abstract instructions of the ritualists. To read the Brahmanas without the experience of the liturgy is like reading the libretto of an opera without hearing the music. The “knowledge” of ritual science was not a notional acceptance of the metaphysical speculations of the Brahmins, but was like the insights derived from art, achieved by the compelling drama of the cult.

But the most important effect of the ritual reform was the discovery of the interior world. By placing such emphasis on the sacrificer’s mental state, the ritualists had directed his attention within. In antiquity, religion was usually directed outward, to external reality. The old rites had focused on the gods, and their goal had been the achievement of material goods—cattle, wealth, and status. There was little or no self-conscious introspection. The ritual reformers were pioneers. They redirected sacrifice from its original orientation, and focused instead on the creation of the atman, the self. But what exactly was the atman? The priests who were immersed in the ritual science of the Brahmanas began to speculate on the nature of the self, and gradually the word “atman” came to refer to the essential and eternal core of the human person, which made him or her unique.

The atman was not what we in the West would call the soul, because it was not wholly spiritual. In the early stages of this speculation, some of the Brahmins believed that the self was physical: the trunk of the body, as opposed to the limbs. Others began to look deeper. Sound was such a powerfully sacred reality that perhaps a man’s atman resided in his speech? Others thought that breath, without which life was impossible, must constitute the essential core of the human being, and a strong case could also be made for the heat (tapas) that welled up within the sacrificer while he sweated beside the sacred fire and that filled him with divine energy. From this point, it was logical to go a step further and suggest that the atman was the inner fire of the human being. For a long time now, fire had been regarded as the alter ego of the Aryan. Now some of the ritualists claimed that in the beginning Agni alone had possessed immortality. But by “continuously chanting and by ritual exertion,” the other devas had discovered how to create an immortal atman for themselves. They had built a fire altar and constructed a new self in the workshop of the liturgy. In the same way, by meditating on the fire cult, by chanting mantras, and by the disciplined experience of tapas, human beings could achieve godlike immortality too.84

Finally, some of the later ritual texts made a revolutionary suggestion. A person who was expert in ritual lore need not take part in the external liturgy at all. Solitary meditation could be just as efficacious as the external rites. Somebody who knew ritual science could find his way to heaven without attending a ritual.85 If the sacrificer was Prajapati, he must also have Prajapati’s creative powers. At the beginning of time, before anything or anyone else existed, Prajapati had brought forth his own form, the gods, human beings, and the material world simply by his own mental exertions. Surely the lone ascetic could at the very least manage to create his own divine atman?

Ritualists argued that once the inner fire—the atman—had been created within the sacrificer, it became his permanent and inalienable possession. They developed a fresh ritual to make this explicit. When he ignited new fire during a rite by blowing on the sparks, the priest or patron should inhale and draw the sacred fire into his being.86 This was what the devas had done, when they had acquired their eternal atman and achieved immortality. From that moment, therefore, the sacrificer was equal to the gods and did not need to worship them anymore. He who knows thus was no longer a devayajnin (a “sacrificer to devas”) but an atmayajnin, a “self-sacrificer.”87 He no longer had to service his atman by continually participating in the external ceremonies of the liturgy, because his inner fire did not need fuel. He had achieved his atman once and for all. All that was necessary for the self-sacrificer was to speak the truth at all times, the special virtue of devas and warriors alike. By acting and speaking in accordance with truth and reality, he would be imbued with the power and energy of the brahman.88

The Axial Age of India had begun. In our modern world, ritual is often thought to encourage a slavish conformity, but the Brahmin ritualists had used their science to liberate themselves from the external rites and the gods, and had created a wholly novel sense of the independent, autonomous self. By meditating on the inner dynamic of the ritual, the priestly reformers had learned to look within. They would now begin to pioneer the exploration of the inner world as assiduously as the Aryan warriors had pressed forward into the unknown jungles of India. The stress on saving knowledge would also be important during the Axial Age; the ritualists were demanding that everybody reflect upon the rites and become aware of the implications of what they were doing: a new self-consciousness had been born. Henceforth, the spiritual quest of India would not focus on an external god, but on the eternal self. It would be a difficult quest, because this inner fire was difficult to isolate, but the ritual science of the Brahmanas had taught the Aryans that it was possible to build an immortal self. The reform, which had begun with the elimination of violence from the sacrificial rites, had led the Brahmins and their lay patrons in a wholly unexpected direction. Still lacking in India was a strong ethical commitment, which would save this proud self-sufficiency from becoming a monstrous egotism.

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