Ancient History & Civilisation



(c. 800 to 700 BCE)

The eighth century was a period of religious transition in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and at this time we see the first stirrings of the Axial spirituality that would come to fruition there some two hundred years later. Where the Vedic Indians had achieved fresh insight by meditating on the sacrificial rituals, the people of Israel and Judah analyzed the current events of the Middle East, and found that the unfolding history of their region challenged many of their notions of the divine. Some were also beginning to be critical of ritual and wanted a more ethically based religion. During the eighth century, the art of literacy spread through the western Semitic world and the eastern Mediterranean. Hitherto writing had been used chiefly for practical, administrative purposes, but now scribes began to develop a royal archive to preserve the ancient stories and customs. Toward the end of the century, the earliest part of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, was probably committed to writing. But more important, we find the seeds of the self-abandonment that would be crucial to all the religious traditions of the Axial Age. Here too the catalyst of change was the eruption of violence in the region.

During the first half of the eighth century, the northern kingdom of Israel was riding high. Assyria was growing from strength to strength, and would soon dominate the entire region, and as Assyria’s loyal vassal, Israel enjoyed an economic boom under King Jeroboam II (786–746). The kingdom was prosperous, exporting olive oil to Egypt and Assyria, and there was a marked rise in population. Jeroboam conquered new territory in Transjordan, and undertook major building works in Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer. The kingdom now had a sophisticated bureaucracy and a professional army.1 In Samaria, the nobility lived in luxurious houses with delicately carved ivory panels.

But as in any agrarian state, wealth was confined to the upper classes, and the gulf between rich and poor became distressingly obvious. In the rural districts, the peasants, whose labor funded the cultural and political projects of the king, were heavily taxed and subject to forced labor. In the towns, artisans fared little better.2 This systemic injustice was a religious as well as an economic problem. In the Middle East, a king who abused his obligations to the needy violated the decrees of the gods and called his legitimacy into question, so it was not surprising that prophets rose up in the name of Yahweh to attack the government. Amos and Hosea were the first literary Hebrew prophets. Their disciples transmitted their teachings orally, and at the end of the eighth century, wrote them down and compiled anthologies of prophetic oracles. The final texts included the words of later prophets too, so it is difficult to be certain about the authenticity of individual oracles, but it is clear that both Amos and Hosea were disturbed by the social crisis of their time.

In about 780, a shepherd from Tekoa in the southern kingdom of Judah suddenly felt overwhelmed by the power of Yahweh. He was not prepared for this. “I was no prophet, neither did I belong to any of the prophetic guilds,” Amos protested later. “I was a shepherd, and looked after sycamores. It was Yahweh who took me from herding the flock and Yahweh who said, ‘Go prophesy to my people Israel.’ ”3 He was not even allowed to remain in Judah, but was directed by Yahweh to Jeroboam’s kingdom. Amos experienced the divine as a disruptive force that snatched him away from everything that was familiar to him. He felt that he had no choice. “The lion roars; who can help feeling afraid?” he said; “the Lord Yahweh speaks; who can refuse to prophesy?”4 The Hebrew prophets were not mystics. They did not experience enlightenment within, at the end of a long, disciplined quest that they had initiated themselves. Amos’s experience was quite different from the illumination that would, as we shall see, characterize the Axial Age in India or China. He felt possessed by a power that seemed to come from outside; it dislocated the normal patterns of his conscious life, so that he was no longer in command. Yahweh had taken the place of his controlling, purposeful ego and had hurled Amos into a completely different world.5 The Hebrew prophets would experience the divine as a rupture, an uprooting, and a shattering blow; their religious experience was often accompanied by strain and distress.

At this time, the religion of Israel and Judah was highly visual. Psalmists were consumed with the desire to see Yahweh, “to gaze at you in the Temple and to see your power and glory.”6 When Amos arrived in the north, he had a vision of Yahweh in the temple of Bethel, one of the royal shrines of Israel. He had beheld Yahweh standing beside the altar, commanding the members of his divine council to destroy the temple and the people of Israel: “‘Strike the capitals,’ he commanded, ‘and let the roof tumble down! I mean to break their heads, every one, and all who remain I will put to the sword; not one shall get away, not one escape!’”7 Amos brought no message of consolation: Jeroboam, who had neglected his duties to the poor, would be killed, Israel destroyed, and its people “taken into exile, far distant from its own land.”8

Amos did not necessarily need a divine inspiration to make this prediction. He could see that Assyria was building a powerful empire and reducing the smaller kingdoms of the region to vassal states. The subject king had to swear an oath of loyalty, and disobedience was punished by deportation of the elite. The prophets of Israel were like modern political commentators. Amos could see that by throwing his lot in with this great power, Jeroboam was playing a dangerous game. A single mistake could bring the wrath of Assyria to bear upon the kingdom of Israel. He brought a shocking new message. Yahweh was no longer reflexively on the side of Israel, as he had been at the time of the exodus. He would use the king of Assyria to punish Jeroboam for his neglect of the poor.

The king was informed of Amos’s preaching, and the chief priest expelled him from Bethel. But undeterred, Amos continued to preach. He had, of course, no choice, because Yahweh compelled him to speak out. His teaching was shocking, because it overturned so many traditional certainties. Israel had always seen Yahweh as a divine warrior; from the earliest days, they had imagined their god marching from the southern mountains to come to their aid. Now Yahweh was back on the warpath. He would shatter the kingdoms of Damascus, Philistia, Tyre, Moab, and Ammon, but this time he would not be fighting on Israel’s side. He was leading a holy war against Israel and Judah, using Assyria as his favored instrument.9

The spirituality of the Axial Age could often be iconoclastic. Reli-gion was not about holding on to cherished practices and beliefs; it often demanded that people question their traditions and criticize their own behavior. Besides turning the ancient devotion to Yahweh, the divine warrior, upside down, Amos also poured scorn on Israel’s beloved rituals. “I hate your feasts,” Yahweh complained; “I take no pleasure in your solemn festivals.” He was sick of listening to his people’s noisy chanting and their devout strumming of harps. Instead, he wanted justice to “flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.”10 Finally, Amos undermined the Israelites’ pride in their unique relationship with Yahweh. Other peoples had been liberated by Yahweh too; he had brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir and settled them in their promised lands.11 Now he was preparing to wipe the kingdom of Israel off the map.

Amos had delivered a swingeing blow to Israel’s self-esteem. He wanted to puncture the national ego. This was one of the earliest expressions in Israel of the spirituality of self-surrender, which was at the heart of the Axial ideal. Instead of using religion to shore up their sense of self-worth, the Israelites had to learn to transcend their self-interest and rule with justice and equity. The prophet was a walking example of what the Greeks would call kenosis, “emptying.” Amos felt that his subjectivity had been taken over by God.12 He was not speaking his own words, but Yahweh’s; the prophet had left himself behind in passionate empathy with his God, who had experienced the injustice committed by Israel as a personal humiliation.13 This was an important moment. Axial Age religion would be conditioned by a sympathy that enabled people to feel with others. Amos did not experience anger on his own part; he felt the anger of Yahweh himself.

Hosea, who was active in the northern kingdom at about the same time as Amos, learned sympathy with Yahweh through a tragedy in his own life, when his wife, Gomer, became a sacred prostitute in the fertility cult of Baal.14 This, Hosea realized, was what Yahweh, the holy one of Israel, must feel when his people went whoring after other gods. He saw his longing to win Gomer back as a sign that Yahweh also yearned after unfaithful Israel, and was prepared to give her another chance.15 Here again, Hosea was assailing a cherished tradition—in this case, Baal worship. He would have to convince the people that Yahweh was not simply a god of war but could also bring them a good harvest. Like Elijah, he was trying to oust Baal and persuade Israelites to worship Yahweh alone. But where Elijah had concentrated on purifying the cult, Hosea’s concern was ethical. Baal worship had led to moral decline—to “perjury and lies, slaughter, theft, adultery and violence, murder after murder.”16 There was sexual laxity, because everybody was frequenting the sacred prostitutes, and sprawling around drunkenly after sacrificial banquets. Instead of giving spiritual and moral guidance, priests consulted idols that were only blocks of wood.17

All this was caused by a lack of inwardness in Israelite religion.18 The people followed other gods only because they did not truly know Yahweh. Their understanding of religion was superficial. Like the ritualists of India, Hosea was demanding greater awareness. Religious practices must no longer be taken for granted and performed by rote; people must become more conscious of what they were doing. Hosea was not talking about purely notional knowledge; the verb yada (“to know”) implied an emotional attachment to Yahweh, and an interior appropriation of the divine. It was not enough merely to attend a sacrifice or a festival. “I desire loyalty [hesed],” Yahweh complained, “and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, not holocausts.”19 Hosea constantly tried to make the Israelites aware of the inner life of God. The exodus, for example, had not simply been an exercise of power on Yahweh’s part. When Yahweh had lived with the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness, he had felt like a parent teaching his children to walk, carrying them in his arms, and leading them like a toddler “with reins of kindness, with leading strings of love.” Yahweh had been like one “who lifts an infant against his cheek”; he had “stooped down” when he gave the people their food.20 Hosea was trying to make the people look beneath the surface of the ancient stories and appreciate the pathos of God.

Amos and Hosea had both introduced an important new dimension to Israelite religion. Without good ethical behavior, they insisted, ritual alone was worthless. Religion should not be used to inflate communal pride and self-esteem, but to encourage the abandonment of egotism. And Hosea, in particular, was urging the Israelites to examine their inner lives, analyze their feelings, and develop a deeper vision based on introspection. Some of these qualities also appeared in the early portions of the Pentateuch, which were being produced in Israel and Judah at about this time.

Scholars have long recognized that there are different layers in the Pentateuch. In the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, it seems that two early texts were first combined, and then, later, in about the sixth century, edited by a priestly writer (“P”), who added his own traditions. One of these early sources is called “J,” because the author called his god “Yahweh,” and the second “E,” because this writer preferred the more formal divine title elohim. But J and E were not original compositions; they simply recorded and brought together into a coherent narrative the ancient stories that had been recited by bards at the covenant festivals of early Israel and had been transmitted orally from one generation to another. Even though the kingdoms of Israel and Judah both utilized writing for administrative purposes, they had not used it to record the history and ideology of the state. Until the eighth century, writing was regarded as a divine, uncanny skill that was potentially dangerous for human beings.21 The wisdom of the community belonged to everybody, and should not become the possession of a literate minority. But by the end of the eighth century, literacy was becoming more widespread in the Near East, and new political circumstances prompted kings to record traditions that were favorable to their rule in a library of written texts.

Even though we cannot put an exact date to J and E, there is no sign of extensive literacy in either Israel or Judah until the eighth century. It seems likely that while they both contain older material, they represent two different strands of tradition—one southern, one northern—that were combined and written down in the late eighth century and included in the royal archive in Jerusalem.22 They were an early attempt at historical writing, but they would not satisfy a modern historian, who is principally concerned to find out exactly what happened and when. The narratives of J and E are more than history. They had evolved over a long period of time, and were concerned not simply to describe the events of the past accurately but to discover what they meant, so they both included mythical material alongside their more historically based narratives. From the perspective of the early biblical writers, human life was not confined to the mundane but had a transcendent dimension, which threw light on the deeper significance of events and gave them paradigmatic significance. But nobody imagined that J and E were definitive texts. Theirs was not the last word. Later generations would feel at liberty to add to these scriptures and even to contradict them. J and E reflected the religious ideas of Israelites and Judahites at the end of the eighth century, but during the seventh, sixth, and fifth centuries, other authors added to the original stories, introduced new material, and rewrote the history of Israel in a way that spoke to the conditions of their own time.

The stories told in J and E had probably been used in the early cult of Israel. But by the eighth century, the covenant festivals had been replaced by the royal liturgies of Jerusalem and Samaria. This freed these narratives from their cultic setting, and enabled the bards and other tradents to develop a more sustained chronicle of the history of early Israel.23 The basic outline is much the same in both J and E. The story began with Yahweh calling the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—into a close relationship. He promised that they would be the fathers of a great nation, and would one day take possession of the land of Canaan. The saga continued with the migration of the Israelites to Egypt, their victory over the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, the formation of a covenantal league at Mount Sinai/Horeb, and the march to the Promised Land. But within this basic framework, J and E had different emphases, which reflected local traditions.

Thus J almost certainly developed in the southern kingdom of Judah. In J’s narrative, the pivotal figure was Abraham rather than Moses. E did not include the primeval history recounted in Genesis 1–11 (the creation of the world; the fall of Adam and Eve; the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain; the flood; and the rebellion at the Tower of Babel), but this was very important to J. He wanted to show that before Abraham, history had been a succession of disasters; humanity seemed caught in a downward spiral of rebellion, sin, and punishment, but Abraham had reversed this grim trend. The covenant with Abraham had been the turning point of history. Abraham was special to J because he was a man of the south. He had settled in Hebron; his son Isaac lived in Beersheba; and Abraham had been blessed by Melchizedek, king of Salem/Jerusalem. The career of Abraham also looked forward to King David, who was born in the southern town of Bethlehem, was crowned king of Israel and Judah in Hebron, and had made Jerusalem his capital. For the people of Judah, the eternal covenant that God had made with the house of David was far more significant than the covenant with Moses on Sinai.24 J was much more interested in God’s promise that Abraham would be the father of a great nation and a source of blessing to the whole of humanity than in the Sinai covenant.

E’s narrative of the patriarchs, however, never mentioned the covenant with Abraham, and gave more prominence to Jacob, his grandson, whom God renamed “Israel.” But of even greater importance to E was the story of the exodus, in which the little-known god Yahweh had defeated Egypt, the greatest power in the region. It showed that it was possible for a marginal people to overcome oppression and break out of obscurity, as the little kingdom of Israel had become a major power in the Near East during the ninth century.25 For E, Moses was the prophet par excellence. It was he, not Abraham who turned history around. J was sometimes quite critical of Moses,26 while E was filled with sympathy for his hero during the long march through the wilderness to the Promised Land. When Yahweh’s anger flared out against his people, E poignantly described Moses’ anguish: “Why do you treat your servant so badly?” he demanded of his god. “I am not able to carry this nation by myself alone. The weight is too much for me. If this is how you want to deal with me, I would rather you killed me! If only I had found favour in your eyes, and not lived to see such misery as this!”27 There is nothing similar to this in J’s portrait of Moses.

Neither J nor E presented Moses as a great lawgiver. When they described the covenant on Mount Sinai, they did not even mention the Ten Commandments. J has no legislation at all in his narrative, while E included only a collection of ninth-century laws—often called the Covenant Code —which stressed the importance of justice to the poor and weak.28 Law had not yet become numinous in Israel and Judah. Sinai was significant to J and E because Moses and the elders had seen Yahweh there. They described them climbing to the summit to meet their god. “They saw the God of Israel beneath whose feet there was, it seemed, a sapphire pavement pure as the heavens themselves. . . . They gazed on God. They ate and drank.”29 This is the oldest account of the Sinai apparition, and may reflect an ancient liturgical reenactment of the theophany, which had included a communion banquet.30

J had no problem about this, and described God in strongly anthropomorphic terms. In his account, Yahweh strolled through the Garden of Eden like a potentate, enjoying the cool evening air; he closed the door of Noah’s ark; he smelled the delicious aroma of Noah’s sacrifice after the flood; and Abraham saw Yahweh in the form of a stranger whom he entertained in his encampment.31 But in E, God was becoming more transcendent. He did not appear to human beings directly, but sent his “angel” as an intermediary. E believed that Moses’ vision of God in a burning bush marked a new phase in the self-disclosure of Israel’s elohim. “What is your name?” Moses had asked the god that summoned him from the burning bush. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had called him El, Yahweh replied, but now he was ready to reveal his real name to his people. It was ehyeh asher ehyeh: “I am what I am.”32 This enigmatic phrase was a Hebrew idiom of deliberate vagueness, which meant, in effect, “Never mind who I am!” or even “Mind your own business!” In the ancient world, to know somebody’s name meant that you had power over him. God was not to be controlled and manipulated in this way.

In both J and E we see early signs of the spirituality of kenosis. It was clearly present in J’s story of Abraham’s vision of Yahweh at the oak of Mamre, near Hebron.33 Abraham had looked up and seen three men standing near his tent. Instantly he ran to them “and bowed to the ground.”34Strangers were potentially dangerous people, who were not bound by the laws of the local vendetta. They could kill and be killed with impunity. But instead of attacking them, in order to defend his family, Abraham prostrated himself as though they were gods. He then gave his visitors an elaborate meal to refresh them on their journey. The act of personal surrender, combined with practical compassion to three total strangers, led to a divine encounter: in the course of the ensuing conversation, it transpired quite naturally that one of these strangers was none other than Yahweh.

Even more striking was E’s story of the binding of Isaac.35 Abraham had been promised that he would become the father of a mighty nation, but he had only one remaining son. Then, E tells us, “It happened some time later that elohim put Abraham to the test.” He called him by name, and Abraham cried, Hinneni! “Here I am!” Patriarchs and prophets often responded to God with this cry, which indicated their total readiness and presence. But God then issued the shocking command, “Take your son, your only child Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him as a burnt offering, on a mountain I will point out to you.”36 This story marked a new conception of the divine. In the ancient world, a firstborn child was often regarded as the property of a god, and had to be returned to him in human sacrifice. The young blood restored the deity’s depleted energies and ensured the circulation of power in the cosmos. But there was no such rationale here. Elohim was making a purely arbitrary demand, to which Abraham could only respond in faith.37 This god was entirely different from the other deities of the region; he did not share the human predicament, he did not require an input of energy from men and women, but could make whatever demands he chose.

Abraham did not falter. He immediately saddled his ass, and set out for the land of Moriah with Isaac and two servants, carrying in his own hands the knife that would kill his son and the wood for the holocaust. He bound Isaac, laid him on the altar, and seized the knife. It was an act of total obedience that threatened to drain his life of significance. The god he had served so long had shown that he was a breaker of promises and a heartless slayer of children. Only at the very last moment did elohim send his “angel” to stop the killing, commanding Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. The story is supposed to mark an important cultic transition, when animal oblation was substituted for human sacrifice. But the pain of the story goes far beyond its liturgical relevance. Israel’s elohim was not only a friendly, benevolent presence, but was sometimes terrifying and cruel, leading his devotees to the brink of meaninglessness. The story casts both Abraham and his god in a dubious light. It shows the destructive potential of an experience of the divine, before it was established that any violence—physical or psychological—was incompatible with the sacred.

A gap was beginning to open between the human world and the divine that had not been there before. In 740 a new prophet had a vision of Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple.38 Like J, Isaiah, a member of the Judean royal family, was a southerner, and had no problem with seeing God in human form, but Yahweh was no longer a genial deity with whom it was possible to share a companionable meal. As the incense filled the cult hall, Isaiah saw the terrifying reality that lay behind the temple rituals. Yahweh sat on his heavenly throne, surrounded by his council of holy ones. On either side, two angels covered their faces: “Holy [qaddosh] is Yahweh, god of armies. His glory fills the whole earth.” The foundations of the temple shook and the hall filled with smoke, engulfing Yahweh in an impenetrable cloud. He was no longer merely the holy one of Israel but the ruler of the world. And above all, he was qaddosh, totally “other” and “separate” from humanity. Isaiah was filled with terror. “What a wretched state I am in!” he cried. “I am lost!” A frail, unclean mortal, he had gazed upon the Lord of the heavenly host. One of the seraphs purified his lips with a burning coal and Yahweh asked: “Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?” and Isaiah immediately replied: “Hinneni! Send me!”

The divine message was bleak. The people would not listen to Yahweh until it was too late:

Until the towns have been laid waste and deserted,

Houses left untenanted,

Countryside made desolate,

And Yahweh drives the people out.

There will be a great emptiness in the country,

And, though a tenth of the people remain,

It will be stripped like a terebinth.39

When Isaiah delivered the message, this fearful description of a desolate, depopulated land was becoming a daily reality in the Middle East. Tiglath-pileser III had become king of Assyria in 745, and had started to create an entirely new type of empire, gradually dismantling the old system of vassalage and incorporating all subject peoples directly into the massive Assyrian state. He had a superbly efficient professional army, equipped with the latest war chariots and a highly skilled cavalry, which terrorized the region. At the first sign of rebellion, a subject king was replaced by an Assyrian governor, the army invaded the country, and the entire ruling class was deported and replaced by people from other parts of the empire. Tiglath-pileser’s first achievement was to subjugate Babylonia; then he turned his attention to the west. Seeing that the kingdom of Israel was in disarray after the death of Jeroboam II, the Assyrian army marched into the country in 738, and subdued its northern territories.

The Middle East had never seen military might on this scale before, and the region would never be the same again. The deportations caused widespread spiritual and physical dislocation, as whole populations were forcibly moved around the empire. When the Assyrian army attacked a country, it left a trail of devastation in its wake, and the countryside was deserted as the people fled to take refuge in the towns. Assyria was determined not only to dominate the Middle East militarily, but to create a unified culture. There was to be one empire, one economy, and one language. Tiglath-pileser adopted the Aramean language and script, which was easier to export than Assyrian cuneiform, to facilitate the administration of his growing empire. Writing became increasingly important in administrative and economic activities, and more people learned to read and write. This would facilitate the development of written rather than orally transmitted sacred texts.

The rise of Assyria posed a theological problem. Each of the subject peoples had a national god, a “holy one” like Yahweh, who was the custodian of its territory. The system worked well as long as each kingdom retained its independence, but when the god of one country encroached upon another, this could become a problem, as Elijah and Ahab had discovered. Once Assyria had begun to swallow up one nation after another, the balance of power between the gods had also changed. Like other kings in the region, the Assyrian king was the vicar of the national god Asshur, who had promised that the dynasty of Tiglath-pileser would endure forever. “You have given him his lordly destiny for power and said that his high-priestly seed should stand for ever.”40 If Asshur’s vicar had conquered the kingdom of Israel, did it follow that Asshur was more powerful than Yahweh?


When Isaiah had his vision in 740, the little kingdom of Judah was still too insignificant to attract the attention of Assyria, but that changed in 734, when the kings of Israel and Damascus organized a coalition to oppose Assyria’s westward advance. When King Ahaz of Judah refused to join them, they sent an army to besiege Jerusalem, depose Ahaz, and put a more amenable king on the throne of Judah. Ahaz had no option but to ask Tiglath-pileser for help and become a vassal of Assyria.41 Judah’s long period of peaceful obscurity was over; almost against its will, it had been dragged into the unfolding tragedy of the region. Tiglath-pileser lost no time in punishing his rebellious vassals. He swept down upon Damascus, executed King Rezin, and stormed down the Mediterranean coast, destroying any city that seemed about to defect. Finally it was the turn of Israel. In 732 the Assyrian army seized Galilee and the Jezreel Valley, and invaded Israel’s territories on the east bank of the Jordan. Overnight the once-powerful kingdom of Israel had been reduced to a tiny rump state in the northern hills, with a puppet king on the throne. The people of Judah looked on aghast.

But Isaiah was not worried. He had seen Yahweh enthroned as king of the whole world, and knew that Jerusalem was safe. He belonged to a different religious world from Amos and Hosea, who had worked in the northern kingdom. He never referred to the exodus from Egypt or the long years of wandering in the desert. The royal court of Judah did not seek comfort in these northern traditions, but in the eternal covenant that Yahweh had made with King David and the traditions of the Jerusalem temple. Yahweh was king in Jerusalem, with the Davidic monarch as his earthly counterpart. As long as Yahweh reigned in Jerusalem—and Isaiah had seen with his own eyes that he did—the city could never be overcome:

God is inside the city, she can never fall,

At crack of dawn, God helps her;

To the roaring of nations and tottering of kingdoms,

When she shouts, the world disintegrates.42

The people of Judah must trust in Yahweh alone; the northern kingdom had fallen because it had taken pride in its weapons and diplomacy.43 Jerusalem was a refuge for the “poor,” so its people must rely only on Yahweh, instead of putting their trust in wealth and military power.44

Isaiah told the people that the divine warrior was once again on the march—fighting for his people. Judah had nothing to fear from Assyria, which was simply Yahweh’s instrument, “the rod of my anger, the club brandished by me in my fury.”45 Isaiah evoked the ancient images of Yahweh coming to the aid of his people, while their enemies cowered in fear. At “the sight of the terror of Yahweh, at the brilliance of his majesty, when he rises to make the earth quake,

Human pride will lower its eyes,

The arrogance of men will be humbled.

Yahweh alone shall be exalted,

On that day.

Yes, that will be the day of Yahweh of armies

Against all pride and arrogance,

Against all that is great to bring it down.46

Yahweh was becoming not just the national god but the god of history. But this exaltation of Yahweh was also aggressive. He was behaving like a great power, which was forcibly bringing peace to the region by destroying the destructive weapons of his enemies:

All over the world he puts an end to wars

He breaks the bow, he snaps the spear,

He gives shields to the flames.47

The other nations would be compelled to accept the kingship of Yahweh and to hammer their swords into plowshares, their spears into sickles.48

To achieve the final triumph, Ahaz should not engage in worldly politics, but put his faith in Yahweh alone. In the Zion cult, Jerusalem was a city of the “poor.” But poverty did not mean material deprivation. The obverse of “poor” was not “rich” but “proud.” As they climbed up Mount Zion to the temple, the people used to sing this psalm:

Yahweh, my heart has no lofty ambitions,

My eyes do not look too high.

I am not concerned with great affairs

Or marvels beyond my scope.

Enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet

Like a child in its mother’s arms, as content as a child that has been weaned.

Israel, rely on Yahweh,

Now and for always!49

Now Isaiah told Ahaz that he should not depend on human strength, foreign alliances, or military superiority, but on Yahweh. It was idolatry to depend arrogantly upon mere human armies and fortifications. This reliance on Yahweh alone was a Judean version of the northern cultic movement to worship Yahweh exclusively, and Isaiah’s insistence on humility and surrender seems at first sight similar to the Axial spirituality of kenosis. Yet it also inflated the national ego of Judah at a perilous juncture of history. Isaiah’s revolutionary idea that Yahweh was not simply the patronal god of Israel, but could control the gods of other nations, was based upon a defiant patriotism. In many ways, Isaiah belonged to the old cultic world. He preached a violent, agonistic vision, which absorbed and endorsed the aggressive politics of the time. It was also an essentially magical theology, which encouraged people to believe that a divine potency made Jerusalem invincible. Reliance upon Yahweh alone would prove to be a very dangerous basis for foreign policy.

The northern kingdom did not wish to leave everything in Yahweh’s hands. When Tiglath-pileser died, in 724, King Hoshea of Israel joined other vassals in a resistance movement, refused to pay tribute, and appealed to Egypt for support. Immediately, the new Assyrian king, Shalmaneser V, threw Hoshea into prison and besieged Samaria. The city capitulated in 722, the ruling class was deported to Assyria, and new settlers were drafted in to rebuild the region according to the Assyrian worldview. Now, instead of two official Yahweh traditions, there was only one. The little kingdom of Judah was one of a handful of nations to retain a degree of independence after the Assyrian campaigns. The archaeological record shows that Jerusalem expanded dramatically at the end of the eighth century.50 New suburbs were built to house the Israelite refugees from the north, and within a few years Jerusalem was transformed from a modest highland town of ten to twelve acres to a city of 150 acres of densely packed houses and public buildings. The countryside surrounding the city was also developed extensively.

The refugees brought their own northern traditions to Judah, including, perhaps, the prophecies of Amos and Hosea, who had foretold the catastrophe of 722. The destruction of the kingdom of Israel was a painfully recent memory, and there was at this time a desire to preserve the northern traditions. Like other kings in the region, the kings of Judah began to assemble a royal library that probably included J and E, which may have been fused into a single text at this time. There was a longing to restore the united kingdom of David and Solomon, merging what remained of the kingdom of Israel with the resurgent kingdom of Judah.

This desire was reflected in the reform of King Hezekiah, who succeeded his father in 715.51 We have no contemporary account, but the biblical tradition suggests that Hezekiah wanted to centralize the cult, permitting worship only in the Jerusalem temple and abolishing the rural shrines. The reform was short-lived, and archaeologists show that the general public continued to worship other gods, but because of his religious reform, the biblical historians remember Hezekiah as one of the greatest kings of Judah. His foreign policy, however, was disastrous. In 705, the remarkable Assyrian king Sargon II died, leaving his untested son Sennacherib to succeed. In the ensuing turmoil, when it appeared that Assyria might not be able to control the peripheral territories, Hezekiah foolishly entered an anti-Assyrian coalition and began to prepare Jerusalem for war. In 701, Sennacherib arrived in Judah at the head of a formidable army, and began systematically to devastate the countryside. Finally his soldiers surrounded Jerusalem itself. It seemed that the city could not survive, but at the last moment there was a reprieve. The biblical author tells us that the “angel of Yahweh slew 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp and the army was forced to withdraw.”52 We have no idea what happened. There may have been a sudden epidemic of plague in the Assyrian army, and the apparently miraculous deliverance seemed proof positive that Jerusalem was indeed inviolable. But it was impossible to ignore the damage that archaeologists have uncovered in the Judean countryside.53 Lachish, the second city of Judah, was razed to the ground: fifteen hundred men, women, and children were buried in a mass grave. Hezekiah had inherited a thriving kingdom, but his imprudent foreign policy left him with only the tiny city-state of Jerusalem. Patriotic pride and chauvinistic theology had almost annihilated the nation.

The eighth century was an astonishing period in Greece. In a remarkably short space of time, the Greeks emerged from the dark age and laid the foundations of their unique culture. Their star was in the ascendant, as Judah’s seemed in decline. Assyria had no interest in the Aegean, so the Greeks could develop their institutions without the threat of military invasion. They built peaceful contacts with the east and were eager to learn from foreign peoples. Their politics became radical and innovative, and they began to experiment with different forms of government, but this did not touch their religion. At a time when the Hebrew prophets were preaching monolatry, the worship of only one God, the Greeks became committed polytheists. Instead of moving away from the older forms of religion, the Greeks were becoming more systematically traditional.

The most important development of the eighth century was the creation of the polis, the small, independent city-state, where citizens learned the art of self-government. After the dark age, the old political institutions had been so thoroughly destroyed that the Greeks could start again with a clean slate.54 The eighth century saw a rapid growth in population and an improvement in agricultural technique, which enabled farmers to produce a surplus of crops. They needed security and some form of social organization to guard their land and crops from rivals. The Greeks could now use their extra produce for trade, could fund civic projects, and from the start, the whole community may have been involved in the decision making.55 By the end of the century, poleis had been established throughout the Hellenic world, all bearing a marked family resemblance. A polis had to have a city wall, a temple, an assembly, and a harbor.56 There was no distinction between the countryside, on which the economy depended, and the urban center, the core of social identity. Peasants and city dwellers had the same rights and responsibilities, and sat in the same governing assemblies. All citizens were free to use the public buildings and the agora, an open space at the heart of each city, where they could do business and hold discussions. Each polis had its own patronal deity, and each developed distinctive sacrifices and festivals that helped to bind the citizens together.


The polis was an egalitarian society. From a very early date, farmers were highly critical of the old nobility and refused to accept a subservient role. Everybody could become a citizen—except slaves and women. The polis was an aggressively male state. During the dark age, women had enjoyed a better status, but in the new cities they were marginalized, segregated in secluded courtyards of the family home, and were rarely seen on the streets. There had also been an increase in the number of slaves. Most citizens owned their own land, and it was considered degrading to work for others or earn a salary. In other parts of the ancient world, kings had to limit the independence of their subjects in order to achieve a monarchical state, but Greek peasants refused to give up their traditional freedoms, and the aristocrats created autonomous city-states rather than large kingdoms that required local rulers to submit to an overlord. This ideal of independence was not a Greek invention. The Greeks probably preserved the old tribal assemblies and councils that other peoples abandoned when they developed large states and empires.57

As we see in the epics of Homer, for a Greek aristocrat of the eighth century, public speaking was as important as military prowess.58 In the Mycenaean period, the king had been simply primus inter pares, and had to listen to the advice of the lords. Discussion of public policy continued in the polis, and because the farmers took part in government, they also had to develop debating skills. Everybody was forced, in however rudimentary a way, to think about abstract principles of justice and morality, as they argued about practical problems. The farmers were starting to become more like the nobility; an important characteristic of the polis was that the whole citizenry would gradually take over the old aristocratic ethos.59

Debate was an agon, a contest between the various speakers, in which the person who argued best was the victor. The Greeks retained the ancient Indo-European passion for competition that some of the Vedic Indians were beginning to discard. The agon was a law of life, and paradoxically, the nobility achieved a sense of solidarity by competing with one another.60 Now that the entire polis was becoming an aristocratic, warrior society, farmers were beginning to acquire this agonistic spirit too. Homer shows that the Greek warlords were driven to excel, even at the expense of others. There was no esprit de corps, because each lord strove to fulfill his own personal destiny. Everybody was expected to be remarkable, and that meant everybody was a rival in the battle for singularity that informed every activity. Instead of self-surrender, therefore, there was fierce egotism in the polis. There was also an inherent aggression. The creation of the poleis had often been violent. The establishment of a community that could resist its neighbors and rivals had not always been peaceful. Village communities had often been forced to join a polis against their will. Synoeicism (“unification”) had meant uprooting, resistance, and a good deal of misery—a birth agony reflected in many of the founding myths of the poleis.61 The city had drawn people together, but had all too often achieved this violently. Each polis also had to compete constantly with the other poleis for power and wealth.

But the Greeks were also proud of their cultural unity, and celebrated this in Panhellenic festivals and institutions. One of the most famous was the athletics competition at Olympia, which was first recorded in 776 and was attended by aristocrats from all over Greece. Competing at the games was a political act: it put your polis on the map, and an Olympic victor achieved legendary fame when he returned home. But like all things Greek, the games had an uncanny, chthonian side. The earliest athletic competitions had been held during the funeral of a great warrior.62 The extraordinary physical feats performed by the mourners had been a defiant assertion of life in the presence of death, and expressed the rage, frustration, and grief of the bereaved. Eventually the games became a religious rite, performed in a sanctuary in honor of a local hero. The Olympic games were held in honor of Pelops, the legendary lover of Poseidon, who had also been a great athlete.

At Olympia, athletes were not simply competing for personal fame, but were making a symbolic rite of passage from death to life.63 At the western end of the stadium was the tomb of Pelops, a dark pit leading down to the depths of the earth. It faced the altar of Zeus in the east, a huge pile of earth and ash, the residue of innumerable sacrificial pyres. The god and the hero were like night and day, death and life. On the night before the race, the athletes sacrificed a ram in the precinct of Pelops, pouring its blood into the chthonian depths. On the next morning, they sprinted from Pelops’s tomb to the summit of the Zeus altar, into the rising sun, running away from death and bloody sacrifice toward the purifying fire. Like Pelops, the Olympian champion would eventually die, but his victory in the agon gave the victor a glory (kleos) that lived on in the memories of future generations.

The cult of the hero was a unique feature of Greek religion.64 The mortal hero was the chthonian counterpart of the immortal gods. By the end of the eighth century, the grave of an outstanding warrior would occupy a place of honor in most of the poleis. A constant reminder of the superior race of mortals who had lived in the heroic age, the hero was revered as a demigod. Now that he was dead, he lived a shadowy life in the depths of the earth, but his spirit was still an active presence in the community; the qualities that had made him so exceptional lived on. But his death had filled the hero with rage, and an unpredictable, disturbing aura emanated from his grave, which people passed in reverent silence. Unlike the gods, who lived on the heights of Mount Olympus, the mortal hero was close at hand. The rites at his tomb were designed to appease his anger and enlist his help. Worshipers visited his shrine without garlands, unkempt, with hair unbound, yet each polis was proud of its hero, who symbolized its special qualities. His grave was often placed next to the temple of the patronal deity, as its dark, chthonian complement.

In Delphi, a sanctuary founded in the mid-eighth century, the joyous cult of Apollo, god of music and poetry, was offset by the tragic memory of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, one of the warriors who had entered Troy in the wooden horse. After the war it was said that Pyrrhus had visited Delphi to claim redress from Apollo, whom he blamed for the death of his father, but he was hacked to pieces beside the sacred hearth by temple servants, who were quarreling over some sacrificial meat.65 He was buried under the temple threshold. The sacrificial ritual of Delphi reflected the violence of his death. While the victim was killed, the local people stood around with their knives at the ready. As soon as the animal was dead, they would close in and savagely cut off as much of the meat as they could, often leaving the priest with nothing. The savagery of the sacrifice, which violated the civilized values of the polis, formed a sinister counterpoint to the luminous cult of Apollo, god of order and moderation.

Apollo had fought and killed a monstrous she-dragon at Delphi, a triumph that symbolized the victory of the Olympians over the chthonian powers. He called the dragon Python, because her carcass had rotted away (pythein) in the earth. Later he founded the Pythian games in her memory, and people came from all over the Greek world to consult Apollo’s prophetess, the Pythia.66 She sat on a tripod beside the sacred fire in the inner sanctum. When possessed by Apollo, she would shudder with anguish and sing or even scream the inspired words, but in fact her advice was often quite practical and sensible.

Unlike most of the other shrines, Delphi was not attached to a polis, but was isolated on a steep mountain, far from arable land. It was independent, therefore, a religious center based on insight rather than political power. Delphi had no agenda of its own, and became an agora, an “open space,” where petitioners and pilgrims could meet and discuss the problems and ideals that, they discovered, were shared by most of the poleis. Delphi played an important role in the new wave of colonization that began in the middle of the eighth century.67 Before leaving home, colonists would often consult the Pythia, who helped them to arrive at a reasoned decision. By the end of the century, new Greek settlements had been established all around the Aegean. Greece was coming to life again; there was a dawning excitement, a sense of discovery, fresh opportunities for trade, expanding horizons, and the stimulus of foreign culture.

Increase in trade led to new contacts with the east.68 Greek merchants traveled to the Middle East, and refugees from the Assyrian invasions migrated to the Greek poleis, bringing new skills and crafts. The Greeks adapted the Phoenician script for their own use, and were thus able to participate in the new literary culture that now stretched from the Euphrates to Italy. The Greeks also imported eastern religious ideas. During the eighth century, they began to build large temples on the Near Eastern model, to house the effigy of a god. The cult of the Pythia may have been influenced by the ecstatic prophecy of the Middle East. The poets’ descriptions of the underworld began to resemble the Mesopotamian world of the dead. Some of their most popular gods may have come from the East. Apollo, for example, who would become the most quintessentially Greek of all the gods, originally came from Asia Minor. The Greeks probably met the Middle Eastern goddess Ishtar on the island of Cyprus, and introduced her into their own pantheon as Aphrodite, goddess of love and fertility. The tragic figure of Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite, was almost certainly the vegetation god Tammuz, whose death was extravagantly mourned by women throughout the Middle East, who invoked him as adon—“Lord!”69

But nobody had such a formative influence on Greek religion as Homer, who committed orally transmitted epic traditions to writing in the late eighth century, at about the same time as the JE saga was being put together in Jerusalem. For centuries, bards had recited these ancient stories at games and festivals; by Homer’s time, some of them could have been over a thousand years old.70 His two poems—the Iliad and the Odyssey—preserved only a small portion of a much larger epic cycle; there may have been as many as eight poems about the Trojan War.71 And there were other epic sagas: one traced the history of Oedipus, king of Thebes, and his blighted family; another recounted the adventures of Heracles; and a third told of Jason’s quest for the golden fleece.

These ancient epics had changed and developed over the centuries, but once they had been written down, the Iliad and the Odyssey were set for all time. Like all epics, they included some very ancient material, but they also reflected the conditions of Homer’s own day. He was living in a time of transition. The new civilization that was emerging in Greece after the dark age was only a couple of generations old. Set in the late Mycenaean period at the time of the Trojan War (c. 1200), Homer’s long narrative poems grafted the new culture onto the old. We will probably never know whether “Homer” was one poet or two—or even two different poetic schools—but it is impossible to exaggerate his influence. The Iliad and the Odyssey have been called the Greek Bible, because their ideals and values made an indelible impression on the new Hellenic culture.

The Iliad describes one small incident in the Trojan War—a quarrel, a bitter clash of egos, between Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army, and Achilles, captain of one of its squadrons. Once he felt that his honor had been impugned, Achilles endangered the entire Greek cause by withdrawing all his men from the fray. In the course of the ensuing conflict, Achilles’ best friend, Patroclus, was tragically killed by Hector, son of King Priam of Troy. The Odyssey was set after the war and described the ten-year voyage of Odysseus, who had to journey through many strange lands until he was finally reunited with his wife in Ithaca. In both poems, Homer celebrated the excitement of battle, the joy of comradeship, and the glory of the aristeia,when a warrior lost himself in a “victorious rampage” and became an irresistible force, sweeping all before him. In war, Homer seemed to suggest, men lived more intensely. If his glorious deeds were remembered in epic song, the hero overcame the oblivion of death and achieved the only immortality that was possible for moribund human beings.

Fame was thus more important than life itself, and the poems show warriors desperately competing with one another in order to acquire it. In this quest for glory, every man was out for himself. The hero was an egotist, obsessed with questions of honor and status, loudly boasting about his exploits, and prepared to sacrifice the good of the whole to enhance his own prestige. There was no kenosis, no self-surrender; the only way a warrior could “step outside” the confines of self was in the ekstasis of killing. When possessed by Ares, god of war, he experienced a superabundance of life and became divine, losing himself in aristeia and slaughtering anything that stood in his way. War was, therefore, the only activity that could give meaning to life. Every warrior was expected to excel, but to be the “best” (aristos) meant simply to excel in battle.72 No other quality or talent counted. In the heightened state of aristeia, the hero experienced a superabundance of life that flared up gloriously in contempt of death.

In India, priests and warriors alike were gradually moving toward the ideal of ahimsa (nonviolence). This would also characterize the other Axial spiritualities. But the Greeks never entirely abandoned the heroic ethos: their Axial Age would be political, scientific, and philosophical—but not religious. In presenting a warrior like Achilles as the model of excellence to which all men should aspire, Homer seems to have nothing in common with the spirit of the Axial Age. Yet standing on the threshold of a new era, Homer was able to look critically at the heroic ideal. He could see a terrible poignancy in the fate of the warrior, because in order to achieve the posthumous glory that was his raison d’être, the hero had to die. He was wedded to death, just as, in the cult, he was confined to the dark chthonian regions, tortured by his mortality. For Homer too, death was a catastrophe.

The Iliad was a poem about death, its characters dominated by the compulsion to kill or be killed. The story moved inexorably toward inevitable extinction: to the deaths of Patroclus, Hector, Achilles, and the beautiful city of Troy itself. In the Odyssey too, death was a black transcendence, ineffable and inconceivable.73 When Odysseus visited the underworld, he was horrified by the sight of the swarming, gibbering crowds of the dead, whose humanity had obscenely disintegrated. Yet when he met the shade of Achilles, Odysseus begged him not to grieve: “No man has ever been more blest than you in days past, or will be in days to come. For before you died, we Achaeans honoured you like a god, and now in this place, you lord it among the dead.” But Achilles would have none of this. “Don’t gloss over death to me in order to console me,” he replied, in words that entirely discounted the aristocratic warrior ethos. “I would rather be above ground still and labouring for some poor peasant man than be the lord over the lifeless dead.”74 There was a fearful void at the heart of the heroic ideal.

In the Iliad, the violence and death of the warrior is often presented as not only pointless, but utterly self-destructive. The third person to be killed in the poem was the Trojan Simoeisios, a beautiful young man who should have known the tenderness of family life, but instead was beaten down in battle by the Greek hero Ajax:

He dropped then to the ground in the dust, like some black poplar

Which in the land low-lying about a great marsh grows

Smooth trimmed yet with branches growing at the uttermost tree-top:

One whom a man, a maker of chariots, fells with the shining

Iron, to bend it into a wheel for a fine-wrought chariot,

And the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river.

Such was Anthemion’s son Simoeisios, whom illustrious

Ajax killed.75

Homer dwelt on the pity of it all; the young man’s life had been brutally truncated, cruelly twisted from its natural bias, and transformed into an instrument of killing.

There was a similar hardening and distortion in the character of Achilles, who was revered as the greatest of the Achaeans.76 He is presented as a man of great love (philotes) and tenderness; we see it in his behavior to his mother, Patroclus, and his old tutor. But in the course of his quarrel with Agamemnon, this love was quenched by anger, a hard, self-righteous wrath that isolated him from the people he loved. “He has made savage the high-hearted spirit within his body,” his colleague Ajax explained.77 He had become hard and pitiless.78 Achilles was trapped in a violent, damaging ethos, which he questioned but could not abandon. After the death of Patroclus, for which he was largely responsible, his philotes was turned to inhuman hatred. In his duel with Hector, to avenge the death of his friend, he became demonic. When the dying Hector asked that his body be returned to his family for burial, Achilles replied that he would rather eat his own raw flesh,79 and foully mutilated Hector’s corpse, tying him to his horses and dragging the body round and round Patroclus’s grave. The old, noble Achilles would never have behaved like this. In the course of his egotistic struggle, he had lost himself. As Apollo explained in the divine council, he had become an impersonal, destructive force, with neither pity nor justice, and had entirely relinquished the shame that holds humans back from the worst atrocities. And what had he achieved? “Nothing,” said Apollo, “is gained for his good or his honour.”80

But at the very end of the poem, Achilles recovered his loving heart in an extraordinary scene, when King Priam of Troy came to beg him to return the body of his son Hector. The old man had left Troy, walked unnoticed into the enemy camp, and to the astonishment of Achilles’ companions, silently appeared in his tent, “caught the knees of Achilles in his arms, and kissed the hands that were dangerous and man-slaughtering and had killed so many of his sons.”81 The Greeks believed that weep-ing together created an important bond between men. The utter self-abasement of the old man stirred in Achilles “a passion of grieving for his own father.” He took Priam’s hand

. . . and the two remembered, as Priam sat huddled

At the feet of Achilles and wept close for man-slaughtering Hector,

And Achilles wept now for his own father, now again

For Patroclus. The sound of their mourning moved in the house. Then

When great Achilles had taken full satisfaction in sorrow

And the passion for it had gone from his mind and body, thereafter

He rose from his chair and took the old man by the hand, and set him

On his feet again, in pity for the grey head and the grey beard.82

In an act of compassion for the father of the man who had killed his beloved friend, Achilles recovered his humanity and his philotes. He handed back Hector’s corpse with great tact and tenderness, concerned that the heavy body would be too much for the old man. Then, while they shared a meal, the erstwhile enemies contemplated each other in silent awe.

Priam, son of Dardanos, gazed upon Achilles, wondering

At his size and beauty, for he seemed like an outright vision

Of gods. Achilles in turn gazed on Dardanian Priam

And wondered, as he saw his brave looks, and listened to him talking.83

This experience of self-emptying sympathy enabled each to see the divine and godlike in the other.84 In this scene, if not in the rest of the poem, Homer had perfectly expressed the spirit of the Axial Age.

Homer’s gods, however, felt no compassion. Where some of the Hebrew prophets were beginning to explore the pathos of God, Homer depicted the Olympians as entirely indifferent to the suffering of humanity. If Zeus felt a passing pang for Hector, it was only a fleeting sensation and caused no lasting pain. The gods were mere spectators, who observed the antics of men and women like aristocrats watching a race at the games.85 After the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ divine horses wept for the fallen hero, their warm tears streaming to the ground. Zeus felt a momentary pity, breathed new vigor into them, and immediately they shook the dust from their manes and returned to the field, their transient pain in stark contrast to the wrenching, ugly grief of Achilles.

As a result, the gods seem less serious than the human characters in the poem. The gods risked nothing essential; they could not die, and nothing mattered to them very much. When Ares was wounded in battle by one of the Greek warriors, his wound quickly healed, and he was able to take his seat beside Zeus, after this momentary humiliation, exultant in “triumphant glory.”86 When Zeus and Hera quarreled, little damage was done. And when fighting broke out between the gods who supported the Greeks and those who supported the Trojans, there were no serious consequences; the battle was almost comical in comparison to the lethal war being fought by human beings below.87 The gods’ easy lives threw the tragic, limited, and death-bound nature of human life into poignant relief.

Nevertheless, Homer’s vivid portrait of the Olympian gods fixed their personalities for all time. He gave them clarity, and the pantheon a coherence that it had never had before. At a time when other Axial peoples were either beginning to find the old gods unsatisfactory or were changing their notion of divinity, the Greeks were becoming more committed to the older patterns of religion. Instead of seeing the divine as transcendent, they reaffirmed the traditional immanence of their gods. An encounter with the divine was not a devastating shock; instead a Greek god was felt to be quite compatible with humanity. A god or goddess was manifest in any kind of outstanding success or exceptional achievement.88 When a warrior was carried away by the ecstasy of battle, he knew that Ares was present. When his world was transfigured by the overwhelming power of erotic love, he called this “Aphrodite.” The divine craftsman Hephaestus was revealed in the inspiration of an artist, Athena in each and every cultural achievement.

A pantheon of gods symbolized the complexity of divinity. In the Canaanite divine assembly, none of the “sons of God” could exist by himself; he made sense only in his relation to his fellow deities. The Olympian family of gods was also an expression of a divine unity, which expressed the relationship and interdependence of the sacred powers that the Greeks experienced in the world around them. The only thing that distinguished the Greek pantheon was its high degree of coherence and organization. The Greeks of the classical period never departed from the old paganism. Instead they used their extraordinary talent for analysis to enhance the old vision, and give it system and rationale. The Olympian family had a pleasing symmetry and balance; it consisted of the parents (Zeus and Hera); the uncle and aunt (Poseidon and Demeter); three sons (Apollo, Ares, and Hephaestus) and three daughters (Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite). There were also outsiders: Hermes, messenger of the gods; Hecate, goddess of sorcery; and Dionysus, whose role was to challenge the Olympian order.

The gods could not be seen independently, as individual, isolated figures. Each was an indispensable component of the whole, and could only be understood vis-à-vis the other family members. The Greek pantheon has been compared to a language, where the semantic meaning of every word is conditioned by its similarity to and difference from the other words in the lexicon.89 In fact, it was dangerous to worship only one god and neglect the cult of others. In the Greek world monolatry was taboo and could lead to a terrible punishment.90 No god prohibited the worship of any other, and it was forbidden to pick and choose your favorites and neglect the cult of any single member of the pantheon. Gods might fight and quarrel, but each represented an authentic aspect of reality, without which the cosmos would be permanently disfigured. By revering the entire array of gods, it was possible to glimpse a unity that drew the contradictions together. Sacrifice would rarely be offered to only one god at a festival, and a sanctuary was generally dedicated to more than one deity. In Athens, for example, Poseidon was honored on the Acropolis alongside Athena, the patronal goddess.


Gods were frequently paired together in a way that brought out the tensions and paradox of life. The quarrels of Zeus and Hera, the archetypal married couple, reflected the inherent difficulty of the patriarchal order, which affirmed itself through a clash of opposites.91 Ares and Athena were both warrior gods, but Ares represented the cruel, abhorrent aspect of warfare, while Athena embodied the splendor of victory.92 Poseidon and Athena were often worshiped as a duo: Poseidon, lord of the sea, representing the primal, elemental forces, which Athena, goddess of civilization, was able to tame, control, and make accessible to human beings. Poseidon sired the horse, while Athena invented the bit and bridle; Poseidon stirred up the waves, and Athena built a ship. And yet because she was also a war goddess, Athena reflected the violence at the heart of any civilization and the struggle of any polis to survive.

Poseidon was also coupled with Apollo; together they represented old age and youth, which were polar opposites but also complementary. Hera and Dionysus were profoundly antagonistic to each other; but both were associated with madness, which could be a divine scourge or a liberating ecstasy. Apollo and Dionysus were brothers, who balanced and counterbalanced each other: Apollo standing for form, clarity, definition, and purity, while Dionysus embodied the forces of dissolution—at Delphi he was honored as Apollo’s mysterious, chthonic counterpart. Every single Greek god had a dark and dangerous aspect. None was wholly good; none was concerned about morality. Together they expressed the rich diversity and complexity of life, without evading paradox or denying any part of the world. The Greeks felt no need to develop new forms of religion but remained satisfied by the ancient cult, which survived for seven hundred years after the end of the Axial Age.

The eighth century was also a time of transition in China. In 771, the Qong Rang barbarians, who had been harassing the Zhou court for more than fifty years, overran their capital at Zhouzhuang and killed King Yon. This was not the end of the dynasty, however. King Ping (770–720) succeeded his father and was invested with the mandate of Heaven in the eastern capital, Changzhou. But the Zhou kings were mere shadows of their former selves. The monarch maintained his small impoverished domain around the eastern capital, performed his ritual tasks, but had no real political power. The dynasty survived in this attenuated form for more than five hundred years. The kings remained nominal rulers and retained a symbolic aura, but the princes of the cities had de facto power. Their principalities were getting steadily larger. Increasingly, ritual (li) rather than loyalty to the monarch governed the relations between the principalities, which were officially allies but in practice often rivals and competitors. Ancient custom replaced the royal authority, acting as a kind of international law to control wars, vendettas, and treaties, and supervised the interchange of goods and services. This was the start of the era that historians call Chunqiu (Spring and Autumn), the name given to the laconic annals of the principality of Lu, which covered the era from 722 to 481. At the time, it seemed a chaotic period of conflict and fragmentation, but with hindsight we can see that China was making a complex transition from archaic monarchy to a unified empire. We know very little about the eighth century in China, but it seems that these years saw the emergence of a new sensibility.


The decline of the monarchy was only one of the unsettling changes of this time. Under the Zhou, the Chinese had made great progress in clearing the land, cutting down woods and forests, and developing more land for cultivation. But this positive development had a worrying consequence.93 There was now less territory available for hunting and the breeding of sheep and cattle. By destroying the natural habitat of many species, deforestation was also decimating the rich wildlife of the region. In the eighth century, the Chinese returned from their hunting expeditions with far fewer animals than in the old days of plenty. Sheep and cattle breeding had also greatly diminished. The Shang and the early Zhou had slaughtered hundreds of beasts at their lavish sacrifices without giving the matter a second thought, convinced that their resources were inexhaustible. They gave generous gifts and consumed copious amounts of meat at their banquets, without a flicker of anxiety. But the new scarcity seems to have made people look askance at this extravagance. There were no more mass killings of sacrificial victims; the number of animals was now strictly controlled by ritual law. The ritualists also attempted to regulate hunting, trying to limit it to a carefully defined season. By 771, funerals were already more tightly controlled, and the old ostentation was frowned upon. A new spirit of moderation was gradually transforming the lives of the noble families in the cities. Because there was less game and fewer cattle, their wealth now depended upon agriculture rather than on hunting and raiding. The aristocrats remained warriors at heart, but as we shall see in the next chapter, their wars became more ritualized and less violent than before. Because there were fewer military and hunting expeditions, the junzi(“the gentleman”) spent more time at court, increasingly preoccupied with protocol, etiquette, and the minutiae of ritual.94

Restraint, control, and moderation were now the watchwords. Life had to be more carefully regulated. In place of the old orgy of gift giving, potlatch style, there must be a minutely organized system of exchange, supported by documentary evidence of precedent.95 All the activities of the noble class were transformed into an elaborate ceremony. Whatever you did, there was a correct way of doing it. Over time, the nobility in the Zhou cities had evolved customs designed to promote social harmony and the welfare of the group. As in all societies, these traditions had developed more by trial and error than by conscious deliberation. These patterns of behavior had probably taken centuries to evolve, and were passed from one generation to another.96 The junzi lived by an elaborate code of manners: there were some things that he did and other things that he did not do. Now, during the Spring and Autumn period, this customal law began to be written down and made into a coherent system. In this time of transition and uncertainty, people wanted clear directives. They had to rethink their religion. The king had been crucial to the old liturgy. How could his subjects venerate his potency when he had become a helpless puppet? How could you maintain the ancient sacrifices in a time of scarcity?

It seems that the new ritual science was developed in the principalities of the great plain by small groups of scribes, diviners, astronomers, and archivists. For some time, the shi, the minor nobility, had been assuming a more prominent role in the cities. The children of younger sons or second-class wives, they were beneath the ranks of the barons and great officers. They did the less prestigious jobs, serving as men-at-arms, guardians of the written traditions, and specialists in the various branches of knowledge. Some of the scribes had compiled the anthologies that would become the Chinese classics: the Classic of Documents, the Classic of Odes, the Classic of Changes (Yijing), the Classic of Music (which has not survived), and Chunqiu, the Spring and Autumn Annals. Now some of the shi literati started to codify the ceremonial and customal practices of the noble families. These ritualists (ru) made the principles of the noble life accessible and clear to everybody. A junzi must know exactly where he should place himself in a feudal gathering, how he should stand, greet people, and comport himself. He must know precisely when to speak, and when to remain silent. He must wear the correct clothes, use the appropriate gestures, and assume the right facial expressions for each occasion. Everything had a religious value. In the days of the early Zhou, the royal ceremonies had been designed to maintain the natural order. Now that the monarchy was in decline, the ru transformed the whole of life into an elaborate ritual performance in order to bring peace and order to the great plain.97

Every prince found that he needed a team of good ritual consultants, who could ensure that the official sacrifices, the “hosting” (bin) banquets for the ancestors, and the ritual ballets were carried out correctly. The ru helped the princes and ministers to use the rites politically, so that they were not worsted in the feudal assemblies, and would know how a junzi should prepare his case and voice his opposition. The chronicles show that knowledge of the li was vital in diplomacy. On one occasion, the prince of a small city called upon one of the more important princes, who died during his visit. The ministers tried to force the guest to dress the corpse—a calculated move, since this was the job of a vassal. If he obeyed, the guest would forfeit his political independence to the larger state, but how could he in courtesy refuse? His advisers solved the problem. The minor lord went along to dress the body, but took a sorcerer with him. According to the li, this was what a prince did in his own domain when making a condolence call on one of his retainers. This adroit manipulation of the li had completely reversed the situation, and discomfited the scheming ministers. The story shows that despite the apparent humility that they seemed to express, there was really no kenosis in the performance of these rites. The ritualized lifestyle of the nobility did teach aristocrats to behave with apparent reverence and modesty to one another, but the li were usually informed by self-interest. Everything was a matter of prestige. Aristocrats were jealous of their privileges and their honor, and exploited the li to enhance their status.98

The most able and authoritative school of ritual was based in the principality of Lu, which had always regarded itself as the custodian of sacred tradition. There ritualists and scribes gradually developed the Lijing, the ritual code that would become the sixth Chinese classic.99 The Lu ritualists formulated two important principles: first, the efficacy of a ceremony depended upon the perfect performance of every single one of the actions that contributed to it; second, this perfection was possible only when each one of the participants was fully aware of the value and significance of the rite as a whole. In the late sixth century, one of the ritualists of Lu would initiate China’s Axial Age, taking these two principles as his starting point, and would reveal the latent spiritual power of this apparently self-serving and potentially stultifying discipline.

Yet even at this early stage, some of the Lu ritualists understood the importance of self-surrender.100 They greatly revered Yao and Shun, the sage kings of remote antiquity, and may have been responsible for the “Canon of Yao and Shun,” one of the earliest chronicles in the Classic of Documents. Unlike the other culture heroes, Yao and Shun performed no magical feats; they did not fight a monster, like the Yellow Emperor, or control the floods, like Yu, the founder of the Xia dynasty. They governed their people by charisma alone. This was quite different from the ascendency achieved by a warrior, who ruled by military domination. Yao, the canon tells us, was a truly gentle man: “He was reverent, intelligent, accomplished, sincere, and mild. He was sincerely respectful and capable of modesty.”101 The power inherent in these qualities radiated out to the four corners of the earth, reached up to highest heaven and down to the depths of earth. It extended to all the families and clans of China, enabling them to live harmoniously together, and established the Great Peace (dai ping). The daode, the royal potency, was beginning to change. Instead of a purely magical efficacy, it was becoming an ethical power that brought spiritual benefit to the people.

Shun’s origins were very humble indeed. Some said that he had been born into one of the eastern barbarian tribes; others claimed that he had been a peasant, a potter, or a fisherman. His father and older brother tried to kill him, but Shun managed to escape; he bore them no ill will, but, a model of filial piety, he continued to treat them gently and reverently. Despite his lowly status, Shun’s self-control and moderation commended themselves to the emperor Yao, who was pondering the question of the succession. Yao’s own son Zhu was deceitful and quarrelsome. How could he receive the mandate of Heaven? In his perplexity, Yao consulted the gods, and the Spirit of the Four Mountains told him about Shun: “He is the son of a blind man. His father is stupid, his mother deceitful, his half brother Xiang is arrogant. Yet he has been able to live in harmony with them and be splendidly filial. He has controlled himself and has not come to wickedness.”102

After testing Shun, to make sure that he really was a good man, Yao bequeathed the empire to him, passing over his own son. Shun felt that he was unworthy, and after Yao’s death, withdrew to the southern re-gions of China, leaving Yao’s son in possession of the throne. But the feudal lords of the empire came to consult Shun, not Yao’s son, and poets would sing only the praises of Shun. So finally Shun accepted the man-date of Heaven. Even as emperor, he continued to treat his father with respect, and when he retired, he followed the example of Yao, passing over his own son in favor of Yu, his minister of works, who founded the Xia dynasty.

Yao and Shun had become saints, men of kindness and humanity, who had established a golden age of peace. Their legend in the Classic of Documents was clearly a tacit criticism of rule based on force and coercion and inherited by dynastic succession. Instead of clinging to their own status and prestige, Yao and Shun had both put the good of the people before their natural preferences. They were the archetypal models, who exemplified the moderation, modesty, self-control, and reverence that the li were supposed to cultivate. The legend of Yao and Shun continued to be an inspiration when the political life of China became even more self-serving and ruthless. The Axial sages would argue that every single human being had the potential to become like these great men.

The new ritualized moderation gradually took root in the principalities of the central plain. Despite the tensions of the period, it did help to keep the peace in these ancient cities, which remained loyal to the Chinese ideal as expressed in the li. But they had new, aggressive rivals. During the eighth century, three of the kingdoms on the periphery of the plain were steadily acquiring large, rich territories by infiltrating barbarian lands: Jin, in the mountainous north; Qi, a rich maritime region in northwest Shantung; and Chu, a massive state in the middle Yangtze. These three states still preserved Chinese traditions, but they now had a large, indigenous population, which was not wedded to the li. Chu would be the first to throw off the old Zhou traditions. China was heading for a clash of civilizations.

Life was becoming more settled in the Ganges region of north India, and the family man had become the mainstay of society. As soon as he was married, a householder was allowed to have a sacred fire in his own home, and could perform the daily rites that were a scaled-down version of the reformed public liturgy. His home had become a private sacrificial arena, where he could build the self that would survive death and enter the world of the gods. But some men took the extraordinary step of leaving their families, turning their back on society, and retiring to the forest. Instead of making the household the focus of their lives, they were deliberately homeless. They lived rough, owned no property, and begged for their food. Some let their hair grow wild and matted, some wore yellow robes, and others went naked. These “renouncers” (samnyasins) put themselves beyond the pale, but they became central to India’s spiritual quest. Henceforth the renouncer, not the householder, would become the agent of religious change.103 It was he, not the Brahmin priest, who shaped the next stage of the Indian Axial Age.

It is difficult to date this development precisely, but it seems to have begun in the eighth century.104 Renunciation may have been rooted in much older disciplines. Some scholars believe that it was practiced by the native inhabitants of India before the arrival of the Aryans,105 while others argue that it was either a natural development of Vedic ritualism106 or an entirely new ideology.107 The Rig Veda mentions wanderers with “long, loose locks” and “garments of soiled yellow hue” who were able to fly through the air, “go where the gods had gone before,” and see things from far away. They were devoted to Rudra, a frightening god with long braided hair, who lived in the mountains and jungles and preyed upon children and cattle.108 In the Rig Veda there are very few references to Rudra, who may have been one of the gods of the indigenous population. The renouncers also resembled the Vratya warriors, who roamed ceaselessly on the fringes of Vedic society.109 They spoke an Indo-European dialect, and could have been early Aryan immigrants who never accepted Vedic religion. When Vratyas needed food, they stole it from the settled communities. Their gowns were black (Rudra’s color); they wore ram skins over their shoulders, observed their own rituals, and practiced the “three breaths,” inhaling and exhaling in a controlled manner to induce a change of consciousness. This early form of yoga, which would become central to the spirituality of the renouncers, indicates that there may have been an ideological link between the Vratyas and the new ascetics.

The ritualists had taken the violence out of the liturgy and had begun to develop a more interior spirituality, and now ancient warrior bands had become the unlikely model for nonviolent communities of mendicant monks. The renouncers were returning to the old mobile lifestyle of the cattle raiders. Where their forebears had opened up new territory, they would explore the inner world and transform the old battles into an interior struggle for enlightenment.110 During the Indian Axial Age, the disciplines of warfare would often be converted into a peaceful, spiritualized practice. This was apparent in the young brahmacarin, who left his family and went to live in his teacher’s house to study the Veda,111 and whose life was also similar to the Vratyas’. Besides memorizing the sacred texts, he had to tend his teacher’s fire, collect fuel from the forest, and beg for his food. Like the Vratyas, the brahmacarin wore an animal skin and carried a staff. In other parts of the world, Indo-European youths often had to spend some time in the wild as part of their initiation into the warrior ethos—an ordeal that taught them hunting, self-sufficiency, and other survival skills. The brahmacarin also had to spend time alone in the forest as part of his initiation into adult life, but was expressly forbidden to hunt, to harm animals, or to ride in a war chariot.112

The brahmacarya (“holy life”) was an initiation into Vedic life. The student had to be chaste and commit no act of violence. He could not eat meat, practiced the austerities of tapas, sitting by the fire, sweating, and controlling his breathing. He memorized the Rig Veda, and learned the correct sacrificial procedures, but far more crucial was the knowledge (vidya) he acquired that could not be put into words. In India, education was never simply a matter of acquiring factual information. A pupil learned by doing things—chanting mantras, performing tasks, rituals, or ascetical exercises—that were just as important as textual study, and that, over time, transformed him, so that he saw the world differently. Living in a limbo between the sacred and profane worlds, the brahmacarin was revered as a holy figure. His teacher was indispensable. By the eighth century, the Brahmin priest was considered a “visible deity.”113 Because he was one who knew Vedic science, he was filled with the power of the brahman that became manifest during the rituals. Constantly disciplining his senses, speaking the truth at all times, practicing nonviolence, and behaving with detached equanimity to all, the Brahmin teacher embodied the “holy life.” By imitating his teacher in the smallest details of the daily round, the student became one with him, and learned the inner meaning of the Vedic knowledge. The teacher was thus a midwife, laboring, day by day, to bring to birth his pupil’s new self (atman), which could move mountains.114 His initiation complete, the fully fledged Brahmin could return to the world, take a wife, light his sacred fire, perform the duties of his class, and start a family.

But at some point during the eighth century, mature Brahmins whose apprenticeship was long behind them felt compelled to undertake a solitary brahmacarya without a teacher; this, they believed, would make their ritual practice more effective.115 Once again, they retired to the forest to live the holy life. Some did this only for a limited period, but others became lifelong brahmacarins. During the Vedic rites, the sacrificer and priests had made a mystical ascent to heaven but could remain there only for a short time. The divine and profane worlds were incompatible. If the sacrificer descended immediately to earth after his sojourn in heaven, it was thought, he would die instantly. Special rites were designed to desacralize him, so that he could return safely to profane time. But the renouncer did not want to make this reentry; he wanted to remain in the realm of brahman all the time, and that meant that he could not live in the world anymore. The sacrificer turned his back on society simply for the duration of the ritual, but the renouncer rejected it forever.116

The early renouncers interpreted the holy life differently. Some lived in community and kept a sacred fire in their forest retreats, performing the rituals there. Others lived in solitude, returning to the village to take part in the sacrifices from time to time. Some renouncers, however, started to feel positively hostile to the external cult.117 On the night before he left his home to take up permanent residence in the forest, one of these radical renouncers would gather together all his sacrificial utensils and churn a new fire. The next day, he bathed, shaved his head and beard, threw one last offering of butter or milk into the hearth, and then extinguished the flames. This rite was said to “internalize” the sacred fire that the renouncer would henceforth carry around within himself. It was the rite to end all rites, his last act before leaving the village forever. Then he donned his yellow robe, picked up his begging bowl and staff, and set off to find a guru to teach him the rudiments of his new life.118

The renouncer regarded his brahmacarya as a higher form of sacrifice. His sacred fire burned within, and was manifest in every life-giving breath that he drew. Every meal he ate was an offering to this invisible, internal fire. There was no need to throw fuel onto any physical flames. The ritual reformers had taught that a man’s atman, his inner self, was Prajapati; it was the sacrifice, so why go through the external motions? The renouncer was not giving up sacrifice but making it an interior act. He was asking, in effect: What is a true sacrifice? Who is the true Brahmin—the priest who performs an external rite, or the renouncer who carries his sacred fire with him wherever he goes?119 He had made the transition from a religion externally conceived to one that was enacted within the self. Renouncers were among the first to achieve the internalization of religion that was one of the hallmarks of the Axial Age. The ritualists had long claimed that the sacrificial rites created the divine, eternal self; that the sacrifice was the atman; and that the rituals contained the power of the brahman. The renouncers took this a step further. One’s atman could give one access to the power that held the universe together. Renunciation, asceticism, and the disciplines of the holy life would unite the renouncer to the brahman that was mysteriously contained within his atman, the core of his being.

Life in the forest was hard and painful—an endless sacrifice. Gradually two kinds of ascetics emerged, side by side, competing with each other for new members. The hermit detached himself physically from the village and human society, dwelt in the forest subsisting on roots and fruit, and practiced tapas. Some lived with their wives and children and created a household in the jungle, centered around the sacred hearth. The hermit could not consume food grown in the settlement, but he could eat the flesh of an animal that had been killed by other predators. His whole demeanor partook of the wild. He was a man of the forest, the obverse of the settled householder. He wore his hair long and unkempt, his clothes were made of bark, and he was not even allowed to walk over the plowed fields, the symbol of human culture.

The renouncer was more radical, his withdrawal ideological rather than physical. He was permitted to beg his food in the villages, but could have no home—not even a hermitage in the forest—no family, no sex, no fire, no ritual, and no possessions. He was allowed to stay in one place during the monsoon, but otherwise he had to keep on the move, never spending more than two nights in any one location. He had to practice iron self-discipline, and control his speech and senses. Unlike the hermit, with his wild, matted hair, the renouncer shaved his head, practiced ahimsa, and refrained from “injuring seeds,” while “treating all animals alike, whether they cause him harm or treat him with kindness.”120 Like the Brahmin, who reduced his opponents to silence in the brahmodya contest, the renouncer must be a “silent sage” (muni), striving to attain a reality that lay beyond words.

The rationale for this rigorous asceticism was given in the Aranyakas, the “Forest Texts,” which developed an esoteric interpretation of the old rites. Fasting, celibacy, and tapas were no longer simply a preparation for ritual, as in the old Vedic religion; they werethe ritual itself. Asceticism “heated up” the individual in the fires of tapas, like a sacrificial victim; the renouncer’s deepest self was the sacrifice, which contained the supreme reality of the brahman. Because the gods existed within the brahman, they too dwelt in the core of the individual’s being. By directing his spiritualized offering within, therefore, the silent sage was sacrificing to the internal and external devas, who were in fact one and the same.121

The new spirituality had grown organically and logically from the old. First, the ritualists had reformed the old tumultuous sacrificial contests, where the sacrificial arena was crowded with participants. In their new rites, the sacrificer became a lone figure, who was cut off from profane society during the ritual. Now the renouncer took this solitude a stage further. But even though the later literature would present the renouncer as the ideal Brahmin, and tried to incorporate him into Vedic orthodoxy, in fact he challenged the entire system.122 People admired the renouncers and saw them as spiritual heroes, bravely pioneering a new spiritual path. The renouncer had declared his independence of the village, lived in a world of his own making, submitted to no rituals, performed none of the ordinary social duties, and embraced a radical freedom. At a time when social ideology decreed that a man’s lifestyle was determined by the class that he was born into, the renouncer made his own decisions. While the householder was defined by the social network, his dependents, and children, the renouncer was an individual, existing for and by himself. The new hero of the Axial Age was not a heroic warrior, proudly vaunting his martial prowess, but a monk dedicated to ahimsa, who was determined to discover the absolute by becoming aware of the core of his being. The renouncers were seeking yathabhuta, an “enlightenment” that was also an “awakening” to their authentic selves.

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