Religion in Early Civilizations

Early Religion

        Humans started building cities four thousand years ago, in Mesopotamia, then in Egypt, China, India. 1. Complexities of life arose, Myth of Cain, Ziggurat, Tower of Bavel. Human empowerment led to diminution of gods, Other gods emerged, Marduk, Chinese Pangu, Vedic gods, Adonis of Greece. 2. Axial age was the beginning of organized religions-Confucian, Tao, Buddhism, Hinduism, Mid-Eastern Monotheism, Greek Rationalism, all dating back to Hebrew prophets. 3. Dao, the Chinese supreme deity was so alienated, it was better not to speak of him; Jews were not allowed to utter the word ‘Yehweh’. Nebuchadrezzer conquered Jerusalem, demolished the Yahweh temple and deported most of the Jews to Babylonia. 4. Logos fueled the Axial Age in Greece and the ritual of nemesis. Plato disdained tragedy. 5.

Many of the cities humans built from 4,000 B.C.E have since disappeared with nearly no trace. In Mesopotamia, now Iraq, signs of emerging human self-consciousness appeared; with the invention of writing they had entered the historical age and could pass on their myth/religion to posterity.

They acquired more control over their environment and started caring about the future too.  6. The mud buildings required maintenance and reconstruction. They developed the art of town planning. 7. Cities, though isolated, engaged in wars.

New complexities of life arose, which made some people long for a simpler life (as some Muslim would like to revert to the practices of Salafin, the early generations after Muhammad’s time). The authors of the Bible took it as punishment for separation from God, much as Muslims attribute their decline not to giving up on modern education and not entering the industrial age, but to not performing religious rituals properly. They invented the myth of Cain, who was the first murderer whose descendants invented civilization. Jubal was ‘the ancestor of all who played the lyre and the pipes’ and Tubalcain ‘made all kinds of bronze and iron tools’. 8. To Israelites, the Temple-Tower, the Ziggurat of Babylon seemed a reflection of the desire of self-aggrandizement. They called it the tower of Bavel/Babble, because according to them, God had punished the builders: “Baffled the language of all

earth folk…”. 9

Mesopotamians believed that gods had instructed them to build the Ziggurat as a replacement of the mountain at the center of the world, which humans could climb to approach gods. Gods lived in cities in temples, which were replicas of their palaces in the heavens. The city-dwellers, like the ancient people, saw their achievements as divine. Enki, the god of wisdom guided the leather, metal and construction artisans. He was also the patron of potters, physicians, canal diggers, musicians and writers.10.

Egypt had a different perception of life. Mountains, which kept the hostile forces at bay, protected it and the Nile fertilized it with regular floods, whereas in Mesopotamia, the Euphrates and Tigris were capricious and in the rainy season, could turn vast areas into quagmires. During the dry weather, hot storms could reduce everything to dust. The capriciousness of the rivers of Mesopotamia is reflected in the source of Flood myths. In Egypt, the flood was a blessing.

With human empowerment, gods became remote and less powerful. The newer flood myths were a reflection of the struggle between gods and the newly empowered humans. Atra-Hasis (Atrahasis, exceedingly wise), the longest of the flood poems, depicts gods as town planners. The lesser gods go on a strike because of endless canal building (and low wages). The Mother Goddess, Enki created humans for the job (outsourcing). But humans talked too much and kept the storm god, Enlil awake. He flooded the world as a punishment and as a measure of population control.  11

But Enki instructed Atrahasis in building a watertight boat. Atrahasis, like Noah, was able to save his family and seeds of all living things.

Gods horrified by the devastation, withdraw from human affairs after the Flood. .

Each city was regarded as a replica of the divine abode and every citizen was the particular god’s employee. 12.  An Assembly of rulers modeled on the assembly of the leading deities.

Here Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation story dating from the first half of the second millennium BC, has survived. It actually contains much earlier material. It starts with a theogony, on how gods came into being. It is an evolutionary process, rather than creation ex nihilo. The first gods emerged out of the primal matter; a sloppy mix of salt, bitter water and mud. Gods were yet nameless and the earth and the sky were joined together, much like Siamese twins.13.  The first deities were composed of elements; Apsu was sweet river water, Tiamat the salty sea water and Mummu a misty cloud.

Other gods, each more defined than the original, emanate from them in couples. The divine elements separate from each other. Lahmu and Lahamu represent silt (soil and water), Ansher and Kishar, the horizons of sky and sea, and finally, Anu, the Sky god and Ea, the earth. The myth relates to the local conditions. Mesopotamia is built upon silt.

The new gods take over from their parents. But Tiamat is still a potent danger. The only god able to take her on is Marduk, the son of Ea. He defeats her, splits her body in half and creates heaven and earth. Marduk convenes a divine assembly to organize the new order and makes the first man by mixing the blood of one of the gods with dust, keeping the link between humans and gods intact.

Marduk founded Babylon, after his victory over Tiamat. The Ziggurat of Esagila, a replica of Marduk’s divine palace is the earthly home of the gods. The city is named bab-ilani (gate of the gods), where gods sit down to celebrate the liturgy, “from which the universe receives its structure”. 14.

The Bible borrows from the myth. Yahweh creates the world by killing a sea monster, very much like Tiamat. 15

The Enuma Elish was recited on the fourth day of the New Year festival.

The New Year festival was drama, which abolished barriers of time and place. A scapegoat was killed to cancel the enfeebled, dying old year. A mock battle was enacted to represent Marduk’s fight with Tiamat. Humiliation of the king and installation of carnival king in his place represented the forces of chaos. 16.

The purpose of the creation story, according to Karen Armstrong, was therapeutic and informative, to energize people at a new venture-New Year, coronation or a wedding. 17.

In Indian Vedic myths, creation demanded self-sacrifice. Purusha, a cosmic giant had offered himself to gods, who had dismembered him, the universe and the social classes had been formed out of the parts of his body-Brahmins from the head, Kashtriyas from his arms, Vaishyas from his legs and Shudras from his feet-untouchables were not included.

In China another giant Pangu worked for 36,000 years to create a universe, and then he died of exhaustion.

But the concept of good and evil is not involved. Tiamat, Mot and Leviathan are simply doing their job and die afterwards and are dismembered (Iblis, the Islamic name for Satan, could also be said to be doing the work assigned to him by Allah).

People are more self–confident now and act independently. This is reflected in the other Babylonian poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh. 18.

In Greece, the myth of Adonis rewrote the story of Dumuzi and Ishtar into a political fable. Adonis had failed in the tests for citizenship initiation rites, which turned Greek adolescents into adults. He is in thrall to the two goddesses and is never away from women. He was the product of incest, so was never affiliated to the polis through the family. The Greeks scorned his festival in which women lamented. His lifestyle was closer to tyranny, which the Greeks had discarded. He was politically unacceptable.19.

The cities were getting organized and security was better, bandits and robbers were being brought to book. Gods had less and less to do and withdrew (or were discarded) more and more. People started getting nervous over the spiritual hole in their life.


The Axial Age:

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the period of 8th century BCE the Axial Age, because it turned out to be pivotal in the spiritual progress of human beings. The impact of the time has lasted to current times. 20. It was the beginning of organized religion. Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, mid-Eastern monotheism and Greek rationalism, all date back to the period, associated with the Hebrew prophets, in the 7th-6th centuries, BCE, Buddha (563-483 BCE) and the Upanishads, Confucius (551-479 BCE), Lao tzu (Chinese Laozi, Romanized Lao Tse), Socrates (469-399 BCE), Plato (427-347 BCE) and Aristotle (384-322 BCE). 21.

The new ideologies developed in an environment of commercialism.

People were acutely conscious of human suffering and needed solace. Living together in agricultural settlements required conscience and morality.

Sages taught introspection and tried to wean people away from hackneyed priesthood. Everything should be subjected to critical analysis.

Some wise men rejected mythical trends; others advocated a laissez-faire stance, and all offered ethical interpretation of their own myths.

But old myths crept back into new mythologies in a slightly different guise.

The early Hebrew myths had a God who ate, conversed and socialized with Abraham, as friends do. 22.  Later he became a jealous, vengeful terror.  23.

Buddhist taught that they could enter nirvana only by overwhelming their consciousness through Yoga exercises, which was beyond the reach of the ordinary mortal. Jains in India went to the extent of starving themselves to death. 24.

Confucius believed that Dao, the supreme deity was so alienated that it was better not to speak about him, as Jews were forbidden to utter the word Yahweh. 25. For the Chinese, ancestor and not god worship was of supreme importance. Departed kin provided a model for social cohesion, which was conceived as a family and was governed by rules of decorum.

Rivers, stars, vegetation, animals and humans all had indwelling spirits, which lived in harmony under the Sky god, Di, later to be known as Tian, ‘heaven’.

But the Chinese high god did not fade away. During the Shang dynasty, 1600-mid 100 BCE, he became more important. The king, as the counterpart of god on earth, alone had access to him and derived legitimacy from that. This concept lasted till the 1911 CE revolution.

In 1126 BCE, a people from the Wei River valley overthrew the Shang dynasty and installed the Zhou dynasty. The Zhou king claimed that the last Shang king had been corrupt and Tian had replaced him with a Zhou, thus endowing Tian with a moral and ethical attribute.

The sages of the Axial Age had made the ethical consequences of self-sacrifice more explicit. It had to be practiced by everyone in daily life. Confucius infused the old Chinese ethos with the virtue of compassion, and promoted the concept of ren; humaneness, requiring people to love others. 26. He preceded Christ by many centuries in “Do not do to others as you would not have done to you”. 27.

But Confucius realized that transcendence of selflessness could be achieved only through ritual and music. It was essential to understand the spirit behind the rituals, which inculcated the attitude of ‘yielding’ (rang) to others to overcome pride, resentment and envy. 28.

In India too, the rituals had eclipsed the gods to whom the sacrifices were offered.

Laozi, the 3rd century BCE author of Dao De Jing, rejected ritual. He relied on yoga like exercises. He felt that civilization was a mistake, which had led humans away from Dao, the true way. He hankered after the Golden Age of agricultural simplicity. 29 Laozi was interested in transcendent peace, beyond the pragmatic needs of survival. He aspired to the ultimate reality, the Dao beyond gods and the ineffable basis of all existence. Though Buddha condemned animal sacrifice, yet he was tolerant of traditional mythology. He thought that gods were officious, but felt no need to mount an offensive against them. 30.

The prophets of Israel fought against the old myths, as they strongly believed in their own myths, which they wanted to prevail. Israelites had, for centuries, worshiped Asherah, Baal and Ishtar alongside their own god, Yahweh. But Yahweh was so distant and disinterested that the prophets, Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekeil decided to reinvent the old anthropomorphism. The transcendence of their god, Yahweh so overwhelmed that of other gods, that it made them trivial and irrelevant. Yahweh was therefore, the only God. Yahweh himself is shown as making a bid for the leadership of the Divine council by pointing out that other gods had neglected the virtues of justice and compassion and should be phased out as he too had started out as a god of wrath and revenge). 31 Joshua, David and Josiah suppressed the cults of Baal and Marduk, mocking and demolishing their effigies. 32.

Israelites still felt the allure of the old myth/creed. Prophets felt the strain too. Jeremiah experienced god as a convulsing pain in his limbs. Ezekiel is told off by his god to eat excrement and not mourn the death of his wife.

Eventually stress gave way to confidence and Judaism was born.

Disaster struck. The Babylonian king, Nebuchadrezzar conquered Jerusalem in 586 BCE, demolished Yahweh’s temple and deported most of the Jews to Babylonia. The Jews saw the massive Ziggurats, the huge temple of Esagila and experienced the rich liturgical life of the city. The author of the first chapter of Genesis looks askance at the Babylonian cosmology. Israel’s God does not fight battles like Marduk had to, to create the world. He creates sun, moon, stars, earth and everything with ease and on his own. All his creations are subservient to him.

But the Israelites used old mythology/religion whenever convenient. The crossing of the Sea of Reeds in the Book of Exodus is one. Other gods had split the sea in half while creating the world. 33.

A prophet generally known as the second Isaiah was preaching monotheism in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. He evoked the ancient creation myth depicting Yahweh battling sea-monsters to bring the world into being. He equated the victory with Yahweh’s parting of the Sea of Reeds. He even linked the primordial actions of gods with current events. 34.

          Logos fuelled the Axial Age in Greece. Logos tries to find truth through careful inquiry that is comprehensible only to critically intelligent. In the Ionian colonies, now in Turkey, physicists tried to find a rational basis for cosmological myths, though still in the old archetypal framework. They saw the world evolving from primordial material, according to physical laws of the cosmos and not due to some divine intervention. 35.

Anaximander (611-547 BCE) opined that the original arche (principle) was unlike anything in human experience and called it ‘Infinite’, and the world emerged from it by the interaction of heat and cold. Anaximenes (d 500 BCE) believed that the arche was infinite air while Heraclitus (500 BCE)thought it was fire. These were hypothetical fictions and the poet Xenophanes (540-500 BCE) reflecting upon limitations of human thought, tried to write a rational theology, rejecting anthropomorphism and proposing a deity which conformed to the science of the phusikoi, an abstract, impersonal force, all knowing and all powerful, moral and motionless ( an Allah prototype ?).

But it was all very dry. People developed the ritual of the nemesis of tragedy, which reenacted the myths in the context of religious festivals. But they subjected the myths to close scrutiny as well. The dramatists, Aeschylus (525-456 BCE), Sophocles (496-405 BCE) and Euripedes (480-406 BCE), all put the gods on trial, with the audience as the judge and jury. They put distance between tragedy and mythology, and questioned fundamental Greek values. Tragedy was transitional between myth and philosophy. The hero, Oedipus was committed to mythology, but it did not help him with his dilemma, while the mythical hero could fight his way through to victory. 36.

Plato disdained tragedy, because it was too emotional and irrational. Humans could achieve their full potential only through logos. 37. Beauty, Love, Justice and Good could only be apprehended through reason. Aristotle agreed with him and read myth as a philosophical text, “they make the first principles from gods…that whatever did not taste of nectar and ambrosia became mortal…but as regards the actual application…are beyond…comprehension”. 38. Philosophy had caused a rift between the hitherto complementary mythos and logos.

Greek rationalism, with all its monumental achievements, had little effect on Greek religion. They continued religious sacrifices to gods. 39.

I was born in Dewa Sharif, UP, India in 1939.
I went to school from the fourth to eighth class in Gonda, UP and the 9th grade in Jhansi, UP, India.
We moved to Quetta, Pakistan and went to school for the 10th grade and intermediate college in the same town.
I was in Karachi University 1954-57, then Dow Medical College 1957-62. I Was in the National Students Federation from 1954 to 1962, trained in surgery in the Civil Hospital Karachi 1962-65, proceeded to England 1965 and trained in General surgery and orthopedic surgery till 73, when I left for Canada 1973-74, USA 1974-83, back to Karachi 1983 and built a hospital and went back to the USA in 1991, been in the USA since.
I retired from surgery in 2005.
I have worked in various HR and Socialist groups in the USA.
I have Published two books ,:”A Medical Doctor Examines Life on Three Continents,” and ,”God, Government and Globalization”, and am working on the third one, “An Analysis of the Sources and Derivation of Religions”.


  1. Wikipedia-4100-3100 BCE ‘proto-cuneiform’ writing base-60 mathematics…Civil Law…sailboat, potter’s wheel to early Bronze Age.
  2. Tower of Babel-Kabachriston,
  3. Axial coined by German philosopher Karl Jasper, “pivotal age,” 8th to 3rd BCE, new ways of thinking arose in Persia, India, China, Greco-Roman world.
  4. means (oh Nabu-a Babylon God) protect my son-boundary, took prophet Daniel as Hostage.
  5. The Divine Wisdom manifestation in the Creation, government, and redemption of the world and often identified with the second person of the Trinity.
  8. Jubal
  11. of …
  12. Noah www.jw/en/Library/Magazines/wp 20130801/noah.
  13. www.ancient.see/article/225.
  14. w3w,
  17. Armstrong-A-short.



Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News