Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

Religions of the Ancient World – Assignment 3

The reign of Akhenaten and his religious changes remains a contentious area for much contradictory discussion. Ray (1990, p. 27) and Montserrat (2000, p. 12) warn that Akhenaten is very much a modern construction, viewed through the particular distorting lens of whichever scholar is writing about him. The fragmentary nature of the surviving records both makes finding the ‘truth’ difficult while simultaneously allowing such myriad interpretations to be claimed as manifestly correct. Some aspects of Akhenaten’s religion are clear: he raised the Aten to the status of the supreme god, while attempting to erase the cult of Amun and the worship of other gods (Ray 1990, p. 28). The Aten was not represented in the traditional manner as either human or animal (Montserrat 2000, p. 41). He moved the capital to Akhetaten (Armana) though such a process was not unknown (Montserrat 2000, p. 17) and also changed his own name to reflect the new importance of Aten (Montserrat 2000, p. 21). The temples at Akhetaten were open to the sun. He situated his tomb on the East bank of the Nile, not the West (Reeves 2001, p. 140). More fundamentally, the worship of the Aten was not directly available to the people, but was intermediated by the king and queen (Montserrat 2000, p. 23) who formed a divine triad with the Aten (Reeves 2001, p. 146). These changes in society extended to a new style of art as well (Montserrat 2000, p. 36). These changes were profound, but to what extent they were accepted throughout Egypt is difficult to determine. Akhenaten has been claimed as the first monotheist, but it is more probable he was a henotheist (Montserrat 2000, p. 38) and that the changes he instituted were a refining of pre-existing views (Montserrat 2000, p. 40). Whether he believed in his new religion, or whether it was a cynical political exercise, keeps scholars occupied but is difficult if not impossible to resolve with the evidence available. Akhenaten’s reign nonetheless represented a dramatically different attempt at defining Egyptian religion and art even if, ultimately, it was unsuccessful as later kings erased his changes.
The Great Hymn to the Aten (Montserrat (2000, p. 38) soberly reminds us that the term ‘hymn’ is anachronistic and can suggest inappropriate interpretations) illustrates a number of aspects of Akhenaten’s religion. It is also the main source of information on Akhenaten’s religion (University College London 2003). The hymn opens with a paean to the sun, the “origin of life” (all translations from University College London 2003) and goes on to contrast darkness, the absence of Aten, as “death” in a cycle of day and night. This, while it reinvents the importance of one god, also continues the tradition in ancient Egypt of contrasting dualities and also points to some of the controversies over Akhenaten’s religious changes: they can be interpreted as a fundamental revolution breaking with tradition, or a gradual development of changes already in progress (as always, the truth is probably somewhere in between). The Aten is described as the sole source of all fertility and creation (“who gives breath to cause all he has made to live”). The Hymn also raises the Aten above all other gods: “Unique god, there is none beside him”, casting other gods aside and, later “you create … alone, what you have made”. The Aten is also the source of the Nile inundation, or at least floods as a general concept, amongst them “a Flood to come from the underworld for Egypt”. In a major diversion from previous religious observance, the Hymn also tells how only Akhenaten is the conduit to communicate with the god: “You are in my heart, there is none other who knows you / beside your son Neferkheperura-sole-one-of-Ra”. Indeed, Akhenaten is termed the son of the Aten.
The geography and location of Greece had a major impact on its religion, just as that of ancient Egypt did on its religion, but in very different ways. As opposed to a land defined by a single important river and the regular fertility of that river which acted as a unifying focus, and a land separated from its neighbours by extensive barriers of desert, Greece is a very different land.
As Powell (2007, p. 18) relates, Greece was a barren country, lacking in navigable rivers, and with its land separated by large mountains. It also lacked many mineral and precious metal resources (Powell 2007, p. 19) unlike Egypt which had good access to such resources within its own kingdom or close to its borders. In stark contrast to Egypt, Greece is a land surrounded by sea (Powell 2007, p. 21) with many islands, leading to a culture of seafaring and trade (Powell 2007, p. 22) and independence of the individual (Powell 2007, p. 27). This led to the importance of trade for Greece, but also an multiplicity of separate cities (Powell 2007, p. 22). Greek religion developed out of the many local gods which separate places worshipped (Mikalson 2007, p. 210), as it was codified during the development of an identifiable Greek culture.
Greece had few natural barriers and was consequently at risk of invasion and warfare on a regular basis (Mikalson 2007, p. 217). On a cultural level, this also meant exposure to cults from other peoples (Mikalson 2007, p. 218; Powell 2007, p. 31) and the movement of beliefs across geography (Powell 2007, p. 25).
The nature of the Greek gods and goddesses was, to a large extent, laid down in the writing of Homer and Hesiod, particularly in the works attributed to Homer. Of the numerous Greek deities, Homer’s works concentrate in particular on Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena and Poseidon (Kirk 1974, p. 97) where they are portrayed very much as the equivalent of quarrelling fans of football teams (Tice & Stambaugh 1979a, p. 7). Other gods, though not as important to Homer, also achieve importance in Greek myth, including Artemis, Hermes and Dionysos (Buxton 2004, pp. 50-53). Amos and Lang (1979, p. 30) describe how the gods are not moral agents, but rather powerful forces which humanity needs to obey and placate. The relationships of the gods are just as complicated and internecine as those of humans.
Zeus (‘the cloud-gatherer’ (Amos & Lang 1979, p. 28), ‘Olympian Zeus’ (Rice & Stambaugh 1979a, p. 2)) stands apart from the quarrelling and machinations of the other gods since he is supreme (Buxton 2004, p. 48) and clearly more powerful than the rest. Even so, Zeus and the gods are also subject to fate, being warned, for example, not to prevent the undesired but inevitable death of a mortal (Rice & Stambaugh 1979a, p. 20).
While they are divine and more powerful than humans, the Greek gods also display human weaknesses in a divine context (Rice & Stambaugh 1979a, p. 1) and are not above deception or sexual desire (Rice & Stambaugh 1979a, p. 6). They are not so much ‘appropriate representatives of the sacred’ as mythological representations of Greek society, and the natural world, which provide the sacred meaning to life in ancient Greece.
I am standing before the shrine of the oracle of Delphi, high in the hills and surrounded by the encompassing mountains. The buildings and temple shine with bright colours, and the rich offerings and statues prove the value of the oracle’s proclamations (Bowden 2005, p. 13). I have come here to ask the oracle a question, but also to display my devotion to Apollo and the gods by this act, and by my pilgrimage here. As the theoroi of my city (Cole 2007, p. 279) I act as plenipotentiary for the citizens, and have been sent to ask the outcome of going to war against our neighbours, to confirm that such an action would be profitable for us (Bowden 2005, p. 22). This is one of the rare days on which the oracle is available to provide advice, and I am lucky to be given precedence after the citizens of Delphi and their associates (Bowden 2005, p. 17). I come to the temple today purified (Cole 2007, p. 280) and have sprinkled pure water on me before entering (Cole 2007, p. 281) and proceeding along the Sacred Way to the temple itself, flanked by statues (Bowden 2005, p. 19) and with its pediments magnificently decorated (Bowden, 2005 p24). On the altar before the temple, I slaughter a sheep in the prescribed manner, honouring Apollo (Bowden 2005, p. 21). Once the animal is ritually slaughtered, so I hope that Apollo will reciprocate (Cole 2007, p. 289), granting me and my city good omens. Then I am conducted into the temple where the purified Pythia sits on her tripod, and where I will deliver my question so that Apollo may answer through her (Bowden 2005, p. 32).
I have come to the sanctuary of our city’s god, to the sacred space within our city (Price 1999, p. 47) and around which our city draws its strength (Price 1999, p. 49). This space is a temenos marked out by boundary stones (Price 1999, p. 51; Mikalson 2005, p.7), a place that it is forbidden to pollute. Within this space stands the god’s altar, the most important point of the sanctuary (Price 1999, p. 58) and where I have come to offer a sacrifice (Price 1999, p. 58), as well as the less important buildings containing the treasury (Price 1999, p. 60) and storerooms. The altar, of course, stands in the open so that the smoke from the sacrifice can rise to the god, and with the god’s name on it to show its ownership (Mikalson 2005, p. 6). Since this is not a festival day (Mikalson 2005, p. 14) the sanctuary is not crowded.
Beyond the altar is the temple containing the cella, accessed through a porch and surrounded by imposing pillars (Coldstream 1985, p. 74). Within the temple, at the far end, stands the statue of the god, representing his presence among us (Coldstream 1985, p. 81; Price 1999, p. 57) – and second in importance only to the altar (Mikalson 2005, p. 18). The temple is aligned to the east, so that the morning sun may shine on the statue (Mikalson 2005, p. 19). Tradition has it that where the statue stands was the place of our most ancient original shrine (Coldstream 1985, p. 90). And it is here that I bring my votive offering , a statue of the god, to deliver it to the priest (Mikalson 2005, p. 11) and to thank the god for fulfilling my previous request (Price 1999, p. 58) which has been successfully fulfilled so that my gift honours the god (Mikalson 2005, p. 27). Furthermore, it shows my respect for the god, as is right (Mikalson 2005, p. 23).
Should I join my friends and become an initiate of their mystery cult? It is hard to give up the beliefs I have followed all my life. My friends say the mysteries show that we do not die, to become shades and memories to be acknowledged by those remaining (Rice & Stambaugh 1979b, p. 220) but that the eternal part of us, our soul (Rice & Stambaugh 1979b, p. 230), is rewarded with a judgement of good or evil, that we may even return to life after a time (Rice & Stambaugh 1979b, p. 229; Ferguson 1980, p. 162). It is strange to think that the way I have lived my life is more important than dying well (Rice & Stambaugh 1979b, p. 241) and that the dead no longer are divorced from the living (Rice & Stambaugh 1979b, p. 243). Of course, to know that there are glories promised, that death is only a change and not an ending, deeply attracts me (Ferguson 1980, p. 170) but why should initiates only be privy to this, while those who continue with the traditional beliefs are condemned to be excluded (Ferguson 1980, p. 187)? My friends speak of their experience as revealing a glorious truth to them, but there is the question of what initiation involves, since many of the rituals are secret. Yet, the promise of transformation in the afterlife holds a great attraction (Ferguson 1980, p. 157).References
Amos, HD & Lang, AGP 1979, ‘Homer’, These were the Greeks, Hulton Educational Publications Ltd, Cheltenham, pp. 26-36.
Bowden, H 2005, ‘How did the Delphic Oracle work?’, Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle: divination and democracy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp 12-39.
Buxton, R 2004, ‘Myths of Origin’, The complete world of Greek mythology, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 44–65.
Coldstream, JN 1985, ‘Greek temples: why and where?’ in PE Easterling & JV Muir (eds.) Greek religion and society, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 67-97.
Cole, GS 2007, ‘Greek religion’, in JR Hinnells (ed.) A handbook of ancient religions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 266-317.
Ferguson, J 1980, ‘The mystery religions’, Greek and Roman religion: a source book, Noyes Press, New Jersey, pp. 157–189.
Kirk, G S 1974, The nature of Greek myths, Penguin, Harmondsworth, UK.
Marinatos, N 2007, ‘Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations’, in SI Johnston (ed.) Ancient religions, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 206-209.
Mikalson, JD 2005, Ancient Greek Religion. Blackwell Ancient Religions, 1, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, viewed 12 May 2012, .
———– 2007, ‘Greece’, in SI Johnston (ed.) Ancient religions, Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 210-219.
Montserrat, D 2000, ‘Histories of Akhenaten’, Akhenaten: history, fantasy, and ancient Egypt, Routledge, New York.
Powell, BB 2007, ‘The cultural context of classical myth’ Classical myth, 5th edn, Pearson Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, pp. 18-51.
Price, S 1999, ‘Religious places’, Religions of the ancient Greeks, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 47-66.
Ray, JD 1990, ‘Akhenaten: ancient Egypt’s prodigal son’, History Today, vol. 40, January, pp. 26-32.
Reeves, CN 2001, ‘Religion, art – terror’, Akhenaton: Egypt’s false prophet, London, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 139-155.
Rice, DG & Stambaugh, JE 1979a, ‘The Olympian gods’, Sources for the study of Greek religion, Scholars Press, pp. 1-20.
———– 1979b, ‘Death and afterlife’, Sources for the study of Greek religion, SBL Sources for Biblical Study, Scholars Press, pp. 217-245.
University College London 2003, Belief in one god in ancient Egypt, viewed day month year, .


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