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Ancient Roots of Creation and Afterlife Beliefs

by Mitra Ara (Author)
©2022 Monographs X, 284 Pages

Summary

Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research, aided by linguistics, archaeology, and prehistoric and historic data, provides a view of sacred and secular life in ancient times. In every Near Eastern and Indo-Iranian religion there was a belief in an orderly cosmos and society which could be troubled by an unorderly force. The social and political aspects of a society were organized and maintained by that cosmic order, and interpreted and reinforced by the religious authorities and heads of states. The cosmogonic and eschatological myths are reinforced in a society in the same manner. They justify the process of the creation and also the ensuing historical chronicles as understood by a society. Since the creation and beginning of everything are experienced and not historically documented, they are categorized as mythical. As an example, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the doctrine of creation is solely based on the Book of Genesis; consequently, the religious concepts and theories regarding creation and humanity are constructed on the very same creation story. This book explores the religions of the Ancient Near East and their branches to explain their Semitic and Indo-European roots, their reverence for order and fear of chaos, heavenly rewards and unheavenly retributions, judgment and punishment, and their perspectives on death and the afterlife.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • List of Abbreviations and Symbols
  • 1 The Background
  • Introduction
  • Religion and Myth
  • The Near East
  • Indo-Europeans
  • Indo-Iranians
  • 2 Near East: Egypt and Mesopotamia
  • Geography and Myths
  • Egyptian Creation and the Life After
  • Mesopotamian Genesis and Hereafter
  • Great Floods and Restorations
  • Canaanite-Ugaritic Myths
  • Hebrew-Christian Views
  • 3 Indo-Europeans
  • Homeland, Migration, and Archeology
  • Indivisible Secular and Sacred Life
  • Sacrifice and Creation
  • Death, Rebirth and Eschatology
  • 4 Old Europe
  • Hybridization of Ideologies
  • Birth, Death, and Regeneration
  • Disintegration and Reintegration
  • 5 Indo-Iranians
  • Unity and Divergences
  • Expansions and Contractions
  • Religio-Cultural Perspectives
  • Death and Retribution
  • 6 Vedic Indians
  • Contextual Worldviews
  • Creation and Destruction
  • Ethical Existence
  • World Beyond
  • 7 Zoroastrian Iranians
  • History and Textual Sources
  • Genesis of Dualism
  • Good and Evil
  • Last Things and Apocalypse
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←vi | vii→

Preface

Although the suggestion of one religion’s direct influence on another is a delicate issue, there are genetic and historical links in the cosmogonic and eschatological beliefs of the so-called eastern and western religions that argue for a comprehensive, collective treatment. This study is intended to generate enthusiasm for further in-depth research into the Indo-Iranian religion as a system, acknowledging its genetic historical connections with both earlier and subsequent traditions of the Near East.

In the interest of accessibility, this research emphasizes only the universally accepted doctrines as found in the scriptures of major religions. It also risks oversimplification to facilitate understanding of certain doctrines and avoid exhaustive analyses of metaphysical-philosophical concepts such as God, soul, and death. Nor do we concern ourselves with the problem of the origins of these concepts, a question that our present state of knowledge cannot definitively answer. Here, the intention is to elucidate, in language available to most contemporary people, the cultural and religious views on creation and afterlife held by those who lived during the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Indian Vedic, and Iranian Avestan periods.

Today we are witnessing the rise of religious fundamentalism and martyrdom, fueled by the eschatological promise of rewards in heaven and fear of torments in hell. Recent history calls us to identify the similarities and relationships ←vii | viii→among religions and then enlist those findings in our examination of the divisive religious ideologies that foster separation through a naïve sense of unique ownership. The fact that the traditions and doctrines whose origins we examine here remain alive and potent in our time lends relevance to this ancient study.

The interaction of culture, religion, environment, and language shapes a people in any period. To appreciate and respect the diversity of contemporary world religions, it is important to recognize their development from their inception to their present form so that we may better understand the past through drawing parallels and tracing the continuity of institutions and beliefs of specific areas through the centuries. Thus, this book has described the characteristic points of Indo-Iranian religions, which are bound to contribute to a better understanding of the development of the eschatological beliefs in the presently prevailing major religions.

By the end, this study’s goal is to demonstrate both the non-static nature of religion and the organic end result of its dynamism—the global prevalence of belief in an afterlife. While this belief may be called by different names in different eras, each variant arises from the fears and hopes of the people who gave expression to it in their time.

←viii | ix→

List of Abbreviations and Symbols

Abbreviations

Av

Avesta, Avestan

AV

Atharva Veda

AVN

Artā ī Vīrāz Nāmak

BCE

Before Common Era

Bd

Bundahišn

CE

Common Era

DD

Dādestān ī Dīnīg

DK

Dēnkard

GAv

Gathic Avestan

GK

Greek

IE

Indo-European

IIr

Indo-Iranian

KhA

Khordeh Avesta

MPers

Middle Persian

NPers

New Persian

OE

Old-Europe/European

OInd

Old Indian

OIr

Old Iranian←ix | x→

OPers

Old Persian

Pahl

Pahlavi

PIE

Proto-Indo-European

PIIr

Proto-Indo-Iranian

ṚV

Ṛgveda

ṚS

Ṛgveda Saṃhitā

Skt

Sanskrit

Vd

Vidēvdād (Vendidād)

Ved

Vedas, Vedic

YAv

Younger Avesta

Ys

Yasna

Yt

Yašt

ZA

Zand Avesta

Symbols

< >

Indicate glosses or explanations in the original text.

[]

In the translations indicate a gloss or interpolation.

()

In the translations indicate additions by the translator to clarify the meaning.

*

Indicates a reconstructed word.

←x | 1→

1

The Background

Introduction

Religious and heroic myths with origins far back in time can be organized and interpreted in a variety of ways. They can represent cosmic forces personified, such as order and chaos, relate historical events, express rituals and practices, parade regional deities (both gods and demons), and demonstrate cultic observances. In the process, an array of distinguishable recurring themes persists, themes which continue to form and confirm our beliefs about creation and the place of humanity within the cosmos, the combat between the forces of good and evil, the quest for eternal life, and the expectation of an agreeable existence after death. Further, the protagonists and the heroes share similar attributes, having divine origin or connection, and guiding humanity on the orderly and just path—qualities which are also expected of rulers and kings. So far, since our partial knowledge is based on the understanding of the origin of knowledge as presented in the Greek and Bible texts, the much earlier Near Eastern materials may be overlooked. As we continue to see in this study, the repetition and retelling of events from the beginning of time are intended to highlight the importance of the meaning and intention of those events that continue to have profound meaning and influence in our time today. They may be the events of creation, such as the great flood, the ←1 | 2→survival of humanity, anxieties about death, and anticipations of the immortal and elated hereafter.

The interaction of culture, religion, environment, and language shapes a people in any period. To appreciate and respect the diversity of contemporary world religions, we first recognize their development from their inception to their present form. We may better understand the past through drawing parallels and tracing the continuity of institutions and beliefs of specific areas through the centuries. Thus, this book describes the characteristic points of ancient Near Eastern, Indian, and Iranian religions, in order to contribute to a better understanding of the development of the cosmogonic and eschatological beliefs in presently prevailing religions. Religion never has an absolute beginning. Every beginning is only a point in history, a point that owes its existence to events still farther in the past. With this in mind, we expand our knowledge of a tradition as far back as the historical testimonies, including archaeology, allow us to do, without stopping at an arbitrary point in time. Understanding Near Eastern and Indo-European language and culture is a prerequisite to the study of the Indo-Iranians. In a parallel way, it is critical to understand an analysis of the culture of the Old Europe as the new homeland of the Indo-European immigrants. Early descriptions of the creation of the world are closely woven with the early imaginings of its end. It is with the end in mind that the world comes into being. In both eastern and western antiquity, we find a concern with last things, eschatology, from the Greek eschatos, meaning “last,” referring to that which is concerned with last things, the final destiny of individuals, humanity in general, and the cosmos.1 We can see its relevance in those religions that conceive of time as consecutive, and as moving towards a cosmic end. Early conceptions of the beginning of the world were shaped and given meaning through this consideration of the hereafter.

Today we are witnessing the rise of religious fundamentalism and martyrdom fueled by the eschatological promise of rewards in heaven and fear of torments in hell. Recent history calls us to identify the similarities and relationships among religions, then enlist those findings in our examination of the divisive religious ideologies that foster separation through a naïve sense of unique ownership. The fact that the traditions and doctrines whose origins we examine remain alive and potent in our time lends relevance to this ancient study. This investigation is of the first textual emergence of religious beliefs about creation and life after death, beliefs that are still thriving. Of course, in the study of monotheistic religions, chiefly the Abrahamic, these topics have preoccupied others, but no one has yet systematically studied these eschatological doctrines in the Near Eastern, Indian, and Iranian cultural and religious systems as they are presented here.

←2 | 3→

It is noteworthy that one religion’s influence on another requires great sensitivity, and a historical precedent exists for simply refusing the challenge as too delicate, since the evidence we discover is always open to different interpretations. However, it seems arbitrary to abandon the investigation of known religious traditions without examining precursor religions, so, in the interest of research, we accepted that challenge in undertaking this study. Although the suggestion of one religion’s direct influence on another is a delicate issue, there are genetic and historical links in the eschatological beliefs of the so-called eastern and western religions that argue for a comprehensive, collective treatment. This study is intended to generate enthusiasm for further in-depth research into the earliest religion as a system, acknowledging its genetic historical connections with both earlier and subsequent traditions.

In the interest of accessibility, this book emphasizes only the universally-accepted doctrines as found in the scriptures of major religions. We choose to risk oversimplification to facilitate understanding of certain doctrines and avoid exhaustive analyses of metaphysical-philosophical concepts such as God, soul, and death. Nor do we concern ourselves with the problem of the origins of these concepts, a question that our present state of knowledge cannot definitively answer. The intention of this study is to elucidate, in language available to most contemporary people, the cultural and religious views on creation and afterlife held by those who lived in the Near East during the Vedic and Avestan periods. This research uses an interdisciplinary methodology, isolating and identifying artistic, archaeological, cultural, religious, and literary affinities, and examining afterlife beliefs in Near East, Indian, and Iranian traditions and their unique bond with their ancient ancestral cultures—Old European and Indo-European. This process takes two approaches. The general approach looks for universal patterns, and the particular approach identifies what makes the Near Eastern, Vedic, and Avestan cases unique.

In a contextual framework, this book offers a brief overview of the archaeological and historical backgrounds of related earlier traditions with respect to their overarching worldview and their doctrines of the genesis and the last four things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Highlighting their commonalities, this examination establishes a connection with the same doctrines found in the Near Eastern and Indo-Iranian traditions and their respective successors, the Indians and the Iranians. Each religion, Near Eastern, Vedic Indian, and Avestan Iranian, is treated individually in separate chapters. The approach is encyclopedic, covering all aspects of one subject wherein everything that is considered cosmogonic and eschatological within the Indo-Iranian traditions is briefly treated. ←3 | 4→However, we do not deal with apocalyptic views covering the meaning and end of history as found in the major monotheistic religious traditions unless they have a direct relationship to the aforementioned cultural beliefs.

The hereafter is central to most religions, both ancient and modern. However, to emphasize its importance is not to refute its ambiguity. Most of the cosmogonic, eschatological, and apocalyptic philosophers of monotheistic faiths hold fast to a literal reading of what they consider to be godly revelations about the end of the world and its accompanying rewards and punishments. These include a forthcoming end to linear time, involving God’s final judgment on evil, and a coming reward for the faithful, both in heaven and on earth. As recent history shows, scholars can no longer ignore the eschatological beliefs of such faiths with their myriad of believers in a literal heaven and hell, reward and punishment. Much of the earlier scholarship devoted to cosmology, eschatology, and apocalypticism concerns the origins of cosmogony and eschatology within Judaism and Christianity. These beliefs have not been adequately examined against the backdrop of the earlier religious notions that existed in the regions where these monotheistic religions originated. Ideas about death and the afterlife, as we know them chiefly through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, were not created in a vacuum. Studying the evolution of these ideas is like reading books for a course in the humanities. Today we need to know the ancient ideologies of East and West, not just the current available scriptures, in order to understand why we envision our afterlife in heaven or on earth as souls or as bodies.

Religion and Myth

Religions develop myths, imagining how everything came into being and what death and the afterlife might be like. These imaginative stories often reflect how people perceive the here and the hereafter based on their culture and personal feelings. Since death is a universal human occurrence, most religious traditions express a belief in an existence of an afterlife; however, so far, no one knows what death and the afterlife are truly like. For instance, the connection between religious belief regarding death and individual culture is visibly seen in traditions such as the Judaic tradition in which a shadowy afterlife was envisioned, and in Egyptian, Zoroastrian, Christian, and Islamic traditions where the soul is viewed as eternal in a physical afterlife. In addition to death, judgment, heaven and hell, the end of time, and the end of the world, the historical destiny of humanity is ←4 | 5→also a part of eschatological concerns. Many religious traditions seek to answer questions that so far have not been answered.

Concepts of creation, death, afterlife, and end of time as presented in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have had a profound influence on shaping the ideologies of billions of people in all societal levels, consciously or not. To find out where such expectations originate, we start several millennia ago in the Ancient Near East, where they, too, had concerns and beliefs about death, the afterlife, and the underworld. Culturally and religiously, death has been defined as the total cessation of one’s earthly life, but it has always been obscured by mystery and controversy. How a tradition views death determines the understanding of the notion of soul, the disposal of the corpse, and a belief in the afterlife and the end of the world.

In addition to afterlife beliefs, creation myths are also interpreted and reinforced in a religious socio-political system. Stories describing the creation of everything and the afterlife are categorized as mythical because they are not historically documented or personally experienced, but imagined. Similar to the afterlife myths, the creation stories describe how the world and the cosmos came into existence through a process understood by a given group of people. These stories not only provide explanations and justifications for the process of coming into existence but also for the future events. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the doctrine of creation is exclusively based on the Book of Genesis, and therefore the religious conjectures regarding the creation and the place of humanity in the universe are based on the same myth.

The myths of creation and destruction are the figurative accounts of the beginning and ending of the world as imagined by a certain community. Every story is still based on previous accounts but with new interpretations developed in a new historical, social, political, and cultural setting. For example, the religious doctrines concerning Genesis in the Christian and Islamic religions are based on the previous rendering in the Hebrew Bible, which itself was built on yet earlier myths pervading the geographical region of the Near East. The cosmogonic myths refer to the events and processes through which the world and everything in it came into existence in an orderly manner, insentient and sentient, including humans and their functions in the scheme of universal cosmic order. In the Near Eastern societies, there are numerous creation myths with different creation gods; however, a certain shared depiction of the supreme creator god can be extracted. This wise sky god, who exists alone before anything else ever existed, deliberately decides to create the orderly cosmos and the entire creation, sentient and insentient. This perfect existence on earth, paradise-like, ←5 | 6→created for the enjoyment of the deities and humans, was disturbed by some fault of humans, causing a rupture in the good creation. Humans were made to serve and maintain the gods as their laborers. However, some fault or an assault causes a split in this perfect creation.

The Near East

In the Near Eastern cosmogonic themes, often the world was created as the progeny of the primordial parents, mother and father, symbolizing the earth and the sky, with reference to an undifferentiated, chaotic existence before the world came into being. The stories also describe the establishment of the world from a dismemberment of the body of a primordial being. The concepts of dualism or opposition and divine twines are also shared in the original creation myths. The historical and literary records of this dualist concept originated in the ancient Iranian Zoroastrian religion with its strong conviction in the original spiritual existence, the presence of two primal spiritual forces, good and evil, and the birth of opposition and dualism. This creative duality is best described in the Zoroastrian Book of Creation, the Bundahishn, also known as Knowledge from the Zand, which survived over centuries through oral tradition until it was committed to writing in the ninth century CE. The text explains that the deliberate formation of the world was as a stage whereupon the two forces could engage in concerted combat for sole kingship over creation up to the cataclysmic end of finite time, followed by renovation and the absolute perfection of existence. Ancient Greater Iranian domains had a diversity of religious traditions, including ancient Indo-Iranian practices, Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism, Manichaeism, Mandaeism, and other localized religions. The Zoroastrian tradition, with its monotheistic and dualistic features, ethical notions of good and evil, the pantheon of demons and angels, doctrines of afterlife judgment, hell and heaven, the final savior, the apocalyptic end of time, and the renewed eternal life, most likely had the greatest impact in the development of other Near Eastern religious thoughts, particularly Judaism, Manichaeism, Christianity, and Islam.

In the chapter assigned to the Near East, the major ancient Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Ugaritic, and Hebrew literatures are examined, followed by the millennia-old Indian and Iranian innovations of the earliest imaginations of heaven and hell. The Ancient Near East encompassed the regions of West Asia and Egypt, almost the same areas as the current Middle East, a political term invented in the twentieth century to further mark the countries ←6 | 7→and peoples of certain regions and backgrounds. Mesopotamia, meaning “the land between two rivers,” the Tigris and Euphrates, is the term used for the historical area of Western Asia, comprised of the major realms of Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, Akkad, Levant, Arabia, Anatolia, Caucasus, and Greater Iran. The earliest written records of human civilization were found in Mesopotamia, often referred to as the “cradle of civilization.” What the Near Eastern religions had in common was a belief in an orderly cosmos and a society that could be disturbed by an unorderly chaotic force. Changes in life and in the world were expected and accepted for justifying and maintaining a social order. Priests were present to explain and enforce the religious views which assisted them.

Details

Pages
X, 284
Year
2022
ISBN (PDF)
9781433197987
ISBN (ePUB)
9781433197994
ISBN (Hardcover)
9781433197970
DOI
10.3726/b19791
Language
English
Publication date
2022 (September)
Keywords
Cosmogony Eschatology Creation Genesis Death Afterlife Apocalypse Indo-Iranian Near East Zoroastrian Vedic Religion Ancient Roots of Creation and Afterlife Beliefs Mitra Ara
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. X, 284 pp.

Biographical notes

Mitra Ara (Author)

Mitra Ara is a cultural historian and Professor of Persian and Iranian Studies in the College of Liberal and Creative Arts at San Francisco State University. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of several articles and books.

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