Personal Piety in the Ancient Near East

Balancing the Scales

Man had been inseparable from the spirit world from the very beginning. Even as the people of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia gathered into tribes, their personal gods coalesced into communal divinities, and provisional leaders evolved into kings, each individual remained fundamentally connected to the divine. The Universe was a spiritual realm, and man stood at the center – a principal contributor to the precarious balance between chaos and order.

Each person in this realm played a vital role. In his palace, the king offered obeisance to his “family” of gods; in the temples, the priests maintained intricate official rituals to appease them. These elite of society interacted with the gods most directly. But in the countless tents, huts and homes, man encountered god in much the way he had in primordial days – through the forces of nature, the volatility of personal fortunes, and the ghosts of ancestors. Each man was certain his every move would echo across the spirit world and return to help or hinder him – and so he moved accordingly.

For the Mesopotamian, "the individual matters to [his] God, God cares about him personally and deeply" writes historian Thorkild Jacobsen (147). But the care of the gods was both familiar and fearsome, the gods seen as a parental force not only of creation and sustenance, but of punishment. Man could never hope to fool the gods, and could even offend them unintentionally; he was behooved to approach them most carefully, and with open honesty. A man would draw near his god with an offering of respect and devotion, humbling himself before the god and confessing his wrongdoings (including those he was not aware of committing). He would pray for forgiveness, and, ultimately, for protection and favor, as in this “Prayer to a Personal God”:

"Turn your face to the pure godly meal of fat and oil,
That your lips receive goodness. Command that I thrive,
Command (long) life with your pure utterance.
Bring me away from evil that, through you, I be saved.
Ordain for me a destiny of (long) life,
Prolong my days, grant me (long) life!" (Foster 267)

Life was important to the Mesopotamian, who knew of death only that it was a “netherworld” from which no being returned. Seeking to avoid the realm of death as long as possible, man knew to appease his gods and fear them. But he also demonstrated a more informal association with them. Their awesome power was his to use in certain situations. When a man felt in need of divine intervention or retribution, he could entreaty his gods; magic and divination were regular acts of faith. In an excerpt from a text called “The Cedar,” we hear a prayer uttered over the exposed entrails of a lamb, as a diviner prays to the Sun god for vindication:

“Cleansed now, to the assembly of the gods
draw I near for judgment.
O Shamash, lord of judgment, O Adad, lord of prayers
and acts of divination.
In the ritual I perform, in the extispicy I perform,
place the truth!” (Foster 288)

A truly righteous man naturally expected answers and guidance from his gods. But when a response was not always forthcoming, man had to question why. In the face of terrible misfortune, that virtuous man naturally felt abandoned and betrayed. The writer of “Let Me Praise the Expert” has clearly concluded that the gods operate on whimsy and lack of concern for mortals:

"What seems good to oneself,
is a crime before the god.
What to one's heart seems bad,
is good before one's god.
Who may comprehend the minds of gods
in heaven's depth?
The thoughts of (those) divine deep waters,
who could fathom them?
How could mankind, beclouded,
comprehend the ways of gods?” (Jacobsen 162)

The evidence for personal piety appears initially in Mesopotamia, seeming to grow outward from there to soon emerge in Egypt. The earliest Egyptian archaeological record testifies mostly to the role of kings and priests, perhaps because their artifacts were produced in greater abundance and treated with the utmost care, and were protected over the millennia within the ruins of substantial palaces and temples. The smaller, simpler structures of daily life, along with the relics of personal piety that they contained, slowly eroded away. But, from the beginning of the New Kingdom, evidence begins to appear, and a window into the average man’s understanding of the spiritual world begins to open.

Acts of penitence are encountered in the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina in western Thebes. Like the Mesopotamian, the Egyptian approached his gods to praise them, admit his own failings, and ask for favor. In this hymn, the writer tells how he failed to see his total reliance on his god, the Peak:

“(I was) an ignorant man and witless,
Not distinguishing good from bad.
I made the mistake of transgressing against the Peak,
So she chastised me,
I being in her hand / by night as by day,
Sitting upon brick(s) like a woman in labor.
I called out to the wind, but it did not come to me …” (Simpson 284).

Then, in beautiful literary style, the author comprehends his mistake, and returns to his god like a prodigal son. The Peak accepts him lovingly:

“I called out to my mistress.
I found that she came to me as a pleasant breeze.
She forgave me after she had made me see her hand.
She turned round to me in mercy;
She made me forget the pangs / that were in my heart.
Lo, the Peak of the West is merciful when she is called upon” (Simpson 284).

Like the Mesopotamian, the Egyptian could also take a more active role in the dynamic between him and his gods. Spells were common practice from the Old Kingdom until the fourth century. Some were employed in reaction to misfortune, as in this treatment for burns:

“Make a mixture of milk of a woman who has borne a male child, gum, and ram's hair. While administering to the patient say:
Thy son Hours is burnt in the desert.
Is there any water there?
There is no water.
I have water in my mouth and a denial between my thighs. I have come to extinguish the fire” (Brier 285).

But incantations also had the power to harm:

“To Make a Man Blind:
Drown a shrew-mouse in water and give the water to the victim to drink” (Brier 290).

Spells gave man a degree of control over his life and world. With the favor of his gods, a man’s fortunes would seem unquestionably secure. But when prosperity turned to calamity, Egyptians could not help but doubt. In "The Man Who Was Weary of Life", we see that when man loses his gods, malevolence is unleashed ubiquitously:

"Whom can I trust today?
I am laden down with sorrow,
And there is none to comfort me.
Whom can I trust today?
Evil runs rampant throughout the land,
Endless, endless evil” (Simpson 185).

At least, for the Egyptian, death need not be terrifying. If he lived a good life, if his body were properly prepared and buried, and if his descendents continued to observe his name, his life could continue indefinitely in the afterlife. But life on earth was always in peril – evil ran rampant throughout the land whenever men tipped the scales the wrong direction. “In Egypt, the notion of evil overlapped to a great extent with that of disorder", writes Oxford Egyptologist John Baines (163). The immorality of man could "threaten the fragile constitution of the cosmos" (Baines 141).

Man, then, through the weight of his actions, determined not only his own fate, but the fate of the Universe. With such responsibility, he clearly saw himself to be the supreme concern – perhaps even the raison d’ĂȘtre – of the gods.

Works Cited

Baines, John. “Society, Morality, and Religious Practice.” Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths and Personal Practice. Ed. Byron E. Shafer. Ithaca: Cornell UP: 1991.

Foster, Benjamin R. From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 1995.

Jacobsen, Thorkild. The Treasures of Darkness: a History of Mesopotamian Religion. New Haven: Yale University, 1976.

Simpson, William Kelly. The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP: 2003.

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