Life in ancient times was full of risks and uncertainty for those people living there. Much trust was put in the unknown, but as civilizations progressed, there was a feeling of need to understand the unknown and the meanings of life. Within this paper I will discuss three important issues that deal with the progress of life in relation to the civilizations of the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Hebrews and Greeks.
In ancient civilizations concepts of the afterlife were based on myth. Glamorous stories about gods and goddesses from the past were the motivation for ancient people to live their lives. In Mesopotamian culture, every day was controlled by the gods and goddesses of the world. As humans, Mesopotamians were bound to the earth in a life of servitude without promise of salvation. There was no definite afterlife; only hints of a place of darkness were given to us through stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh. This story also eludes to the fear of death held by the Mesopotamian people. It portrays a story where a man is willing to make a dangerous journey to avoid death. “Do not let me see the face of death which I dread so much.” Was one of Gilgamesh’s pleas for an unreachable goal. In this historical story, death is looked at as a place where “They [people]… see no light, they sit in darkness” . This was most likely because of the uncertainty of life, as well as death for Mesopotamians. Even when people lived in full compliance to their gods and goddesses, their lives would not be one of luxury as we read in “Mesopotamian Wisdom Literature” The uncertainty of life and death in general lead to acts of divination, such as sacrifices, which were intended to interpret the will of the gods, though all was used to improve life in the physical world.
Unlike the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians and the Hebrews had definite afterlives in their belief systems. Orisis, who was one of the Egyptian’s natural deities, was presented as the judge of the dead, as well as a symbol of resurrection. Human’s actions in life would be judged in death by Osiris, and if found worthy, the deceased would progress to a blessed afterlife. Those deceased were preserved by ways of mummification, which was an expensive process, therefore the Osiris cult was reserved for those in high social positions. Though as time passed, any Egyptian could be judged in death to proceed to an afterlife of rebirth. .
Hebrews had a belief of the afterlife similar to the Egyptians in the fact that a supreme being would judge their actions in life, after death. Their faith was directed towards a single god, called Yahweh. The Hebrews believed they had been chosen by Yahweh to be the first recipients of his true law code. These laws, which are depicted in the biblical book of Exodus, are the standards for a good Hebrew religious and were to be followed in order to reach the coveted afterlife.
What sets Hebrew beliefs of god(s) and the afterlife apart from these other cultures is that is that Hebrews placed faith in one god, while other civilizations we have studied, especially the Greeks, believed in multiple gods and goddesses. The act of ancestor worship, wich was vital in previous religious practices, were outlawed by a group who were called “The Yahweh-Alone-ists”; those who believed Yahweh to be the one true god. Their religion as a whole moved to a confusing point where ideas of Heaven developed, which promised a blessed afterlife in return for compliance with God’s law. People believed that if they lived a life in agreement with the word of God, they would be rewarded not only in death, but also throughout their lives.
Even though the Greeks believed in many separate Gods and Goddesses, and religion was included in their every day lives, Greek religion did not hold place for an afterlife. Classical Greece was a place of theory and rational thought. It was a time when philosophers began to crave reason and understanding instead of just believing something because one would say it was true. A philosopher named Critias proposed an idea that “a wise and clever man invented fear (of the gods) for mortals” which means that he believed there was no true God or afterlife, rather that religion was used to scare humans into living the good life. This idea can be related to any studied religion, because there was never any proof of the divine, or an afterlife.
Lack of a definite life after death in Greek religion left some people to turn to mystery religions that were said to offer more promising situations for the afterlife. This goes to show that even in a philosophical high point in history, as in almost all times in history, people were still fearful of the gods and hoped for a pleasant time after death.
Laws in ancient times often changed with the rulers of different civilizations. This means the laws of a city could change at any given time, had there been a tyrant taking control, or a new king taking reign. Laws were often strict, leaving a strong impression on not only those who broke the rules, but the other members of the civilizations. By enforcing strict rules, it was hoped that the laws would never be broken in the first place.
The Code of Hammurabi is a collection of 282 laws that gives us a clear view of how law was enforced in ancient Mesopotamia. The laws were strict, and the penalties were harsh and to the point. The laws brought about the principle of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” This idea of retaliation means that the crime that was committed would be in turn inflicted back upon the person who first committed the crime. More often, the punishment will exceed the severity of the crime, especially in cases of lower classes acting out against the upper. Crimes among those in the upper class were often handled by an exchange in money. This document shows that there was definite monetary value put on different people. People of Mesopotamia were under the rule of their kings, and therefore were required to follow the laws. There were no democracies or courts as there were in Greece. The laws were created by the rulers as direct order from the gods. People were to live by these divine laws, and die by them.
A divine ruler, called the Pharaoh was the link between God and mortals in Egypt. As in other ancient cultures, laws were in direct relation to spirituality. Law and everyday rules in Egypt were believed to be God given, to the Pharaoh, who was of both god and man. He had the power of the gods to protect all of Egypt in life and in death. The Pharaoh was considered the protector of his land. From maintaining the rule, to controlling the flood waters of the Nile river, his power was more than necessary in Egyptian life. There was no room for discussion in the way of the law, as in Mesopotamia; the word of the divine ruler was final.
As in most other cultures of the ancient times, laws in the Hebrew civilization were religion based as well. Though the Hebrew people believed that they were the first people to receive God’s law, otherwise called the Ten Commandments. It was Hebrew belief that they were chosen by God to set an example of moral behavior to other peoples of the world , unlike other civilizations, who kept their law codes to themselves. Hebrew law did not make separate laws for commoners and nobles as the Code of Hammurabi did. The idea of law was that it was created by God, who had no ill intentions for his people, and therefore all law was for the better of humanity. There were no divisions of law for different classes in Hebrew culture. Hebrew people are often reminded that they were once the slaves of the Egyptians, and that God saved them from that plight. Therefore there is an obligation for Hebrews to follow the laws of God.
A common thread through all of Hebrew law is that they must do what is God’s will, for the soul purpose that it is God’s will. As stated in “Neighbor and Community” by Liviticus, God often states “I am the Lord” as his final statement, as to leave no place for argument
Laws would vary from city to city in Ancient Greece, for separate cities viewed themselves as separate nations. The system of law in Greece allowed for courts and was not religion based as most other law systems of this time period were. A system of democracy emerged and was used for rule instead of divine command. Though much of the Greek period we studied was spent in war, and therefore the laws were ruled by the military of the country. .
The meaning of life in ancient times was largely based on religion. The Mesopotamians and the Hebrews lived life to serve their god(s). The Greeks lived life to advance their minds, expand their boarders, and improve the separate city-states.
The goal of the Hebrews was to spread the word of God to other civilizations. The laws that the Hebrews followed were thought to be the true word of god, and it was the Hebrews who were chosen to spread these laws to other civilizations.
The meaning of life for the Greeks was to, in different ways, create perfect human beings. In the city-state of Athens, as well as other areas of Greece, the idea of philosophical thought ran high. Cosmologists welcomed this new strand of thought that was not rooted in religion. People would constantly question previous theories as well as new theories that were constantly forming. Socrates, who is remembered for his quest for “the good life”, was a perfect example of an Athenian philosopher. He had many followers and students, and will be remembered forever for his own line of thought that came to be known as Socratic Wisdom: The knowledge of knowing ones own ignorance.
In Sparta, people were made, almost crafted into being the perfect warriors. From cradle to grave, Spartan citizens were formed to be tools of war. This helped Sparta to be successful in many wars, the citizens being the machines of the military that they were.
Throughout Greece there was a lack of religious concern that was the main focus of life in the other civilizations we have studied. That is the factor that created a culture so different from those of the Mesopotamians and the Hebrews.
Maybe the most primitive of the civilizations studied was the Mesopotamian culture. The point of life for these people was to live to serve the gods. It was belief that Mesopotamians were created out of mud, and sticks, as well as a piece of a god, to do the slave work for the gods. There was no hope for an afterlife, they were nothing but tools for the gods.
As you can see throughout history civilizations have developed not only their culture, but their thoughts. As time progressed, humans in ancient times fine tuned their cultures to make them constantly progressive. The difference between Mesopotamian life and life in classical Greece is astounding. From a life of constant servitude, to a life of constant questioning and self-betterment, there is a major difference. People made a transition from being completely dependant on the gods, to allowing themselves to take a risk in questioning the unknown. Though there were major advancements in the time period we have studied so far, there is a long way to go before we can consider the thoughts of these ancient people, both religious and philosophical, to be “modern”.
Unknown “The Epic of Gilgamesh” in Perry. “Sources of Western Tradition”4-7.
Unknown “ Mesopotamian Wisdom Literature” in. Perry. “Sources of Western Tradition” 7-9
Spielvogel, “The Culture of Mesopotamia” Western Civilization, 11-13.
Spielvogel, “The Culture of Egypt” Western Civilization 20-21.
Exodus “The Covenant and the Ten Commandments” in Perry. “Sources of the Western Tradition”,33.
“The Covenant and the Law: The Book of Exodus” in Spielvogel “Western Civilization” 36
Critias, “Religion as a Human Invention” in Perry,” Sources of Western Tradition” 55
Hammurabi “Code of Hammurabi” in Perry “Sources of Western Thought” 10.
Spielvogel “Empires in Ancient Mesopotamia” “Western Civilization” 9.
“Devine Kingship in Egypt” in Perry. “Sources of Western Thought” 13
“ The Covenant and the Ten Commandments” in Perry. “Sources of Western Thought” 33.
Spielvogel “Spiritual Dimensions of Israel” “Western Civilization”35-38
Leviticus. “Neighbor and Community” in Perry, “Sources of Western Thought” 35.
Spielvogel “The Growth of an Athenian Empire” “Western Civilization” 73.
Atrahasis “A creation Myth” In, Spielvogel. “Western Civilization” 13.