The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and the Book of Genesis provides significant insights into Western civilization from ancient times to the Renaissance. All of them are great sources of information that reveal how religious beliefs were evolving and shaped throughout history. Today, religions present in Western civilization are monotheistic; however, they were predominantly polytheistic in ancient times.
Ancient Egyptian religion consists of polytheistic beliefs and rituals surrounding many deities that represent natural forces. The ancient Egyptians believed that they could influence their life with the help of cults and offerings, sustaining the so-called divine order Ma’at. First pharaohs were regarded as gods, descendants of Amun-Ra, the King of Gods. Other important gods were Osiris (god of fertility, life, and afterlife), Ra (god of son and order), Anubis (god of death), Horus (god of the sky), and Isis (Mother of Gods). Thus, natural phenomena were represented by separate deities, whereas animals were closely associated with the latter. What is more, the majority of cities had their own sacred representatives.
Ancient Egyptian society conceived and constructed their gods as patrons of natural phenomena, various crafts, and universal prosperity sources. Everything in the world surrounding people belongs to deities who are aware of human desires and able to interfere with people’s lives at any time. Egyptians put their effort to coax the latter with offerings in order to avoid the gods’ wrath and disasters. Both commoners and the elite interacted with deities in temples with the help of various rituals asking for help and support. For instance, childless parents may ask Imhotep for a child, while a needy person asks Amon to represent him in court.
Moreover, the Book of the Dead reveals that Egyptians believed in life after death and cyclical rebirth. It guided the deceased through the underworld, giving protection to enable them to face the terrors and ordeals which await them in the underworld (Budge, 2019). The gods’ role here is to prepare a path for the dead to overcome all the underworld dangers, go through the weighing of the heart (trial), and finally travel to Aaru or be eaten by Ammit (Budge, 2019). Mummification was one of several rituals aimed at preparing the dead for the physical challenges during the journey. An important ritual entailed drawing the dead’s image on the sarcophagus due to the belief that it reactivated the deceased’s senses. The Book of the Dead also indicates Egyptian’s belief in magic as it has many spells designed to ease possible challenges in the underworld.
The Mesopotamian religion is polytheistic and is often contrasted with monotheistic Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Sumer civilization is known for a number of gods-patrons of cities who lived in central temples erected by dwellers. Each deity’s existence is associated with the prescribed function (purpose), which depends on fate or strength. In general, Mesopotamian religion embraced many deities: gods-patrons of cities, deified plants, celestial bodies, rulers and heroes, and even demonic beings.
Rituals were usually held in temples in line with the calendar, including enthronement and sacred marriage associated with royal power and potency. Other popular rituals were about the exorcism of evil spirits and sorcerers. Every king was obliged to build and maintain a temple for the patron god that needed rooms for all possible deity activities. In return, the king received the power and support from gods to rule his people. Priests had to feed the deity at least two times a day. The purpose of local deities is to preserve peace and suppress the forces of chaos. For that reason, dwellers of the Mesopotamian inhabitants should provide everything needed to them to defeat the forces of chaos. In their turn, gods were expected by dwellers to help them in every aspect of their life. The commoners had a chance to communicate with gods only during yearly festivals, such as the New Year festival.
The Mesopotamian Epic of the Flood indicates that Mesopotamians believed in multiple gods and punishment for evil deeds. Ziusudra, the man who escaped the flood, was rewarded with immortality by the gods Enlil and Anu as he prostrated himself before them (Bailkey, 1976). It means that Mesopotamians also believed in immortality that the gods could grant for their obedience. They believed that people continue their existence in the netherworld in the form of a spirit, tempo. Physical death was not the end, and the alive maintained their bond with the deceased through offerings.
In the Iliad, Zeus is recognized as the most powerful being. Zeus’s son, Apollon, is also named god and was one of Greece’s most influential people. Discerning the divine is an essential component of Greek religion, according to the Iliad (Shankman, 2009). Like other societies of the ancient world, Greeks feared the formidable forces of nature, as they could not understand them. For that reason, Greek people constructed a set of anthropomorphic deities ruled by one supreme god. Greeks believed that nature and their life were dependent on the goodwill of numerous gods. Each branch of the economy (agriculture, hunting, weaving, and other crafts) had its own patron god. For that reason, different seasonal festivals were held to honor specific deities, and people were praying to receive help from them.
The nature of the interaction was based on the concept of exchange. People attended templates bringing votive offerings to the gods while the latter was giving gifts. What is more, Greek deities often interacted with mortals outside the temple by mingling into their lives. In Homer’s times, Greeks believed in an afterlife that was cheerless and the same for all mortal people as there was no postmortem judgment. The crimes of commoners were ignored by the gods, while kings could enter Tartarus for challenging the gods’ majesty. Later the idea of Elysium was added, a place for the deceased who lived a righteous life and are remembered by alive.
Judaism is a monotheistic religion developed by Jewish people. Judaism’s main idea is that God could not be divided into different hypostases, and there is a covenant between Hebrews and the latter (Bailkey, 1976). The Judaism religion is characterized by the worship of the one transcended God, who is the creator of all that exists. Early Judaists characterized God as the all-powered creator of the world and humanity that gave special responsibilities and privileges to “a holy nation and kingdom of priests” (Bailkey, 1976). The relations between God and people are as of creatures and creator; thus, people depend on his sustained power and will.
The Book of Genesis explains that humans were created in God’s image but still expected to obey divine commands and not invasion the Gods’ role. The myth found in Genesis tells about the flood that destroyed humans because of their wickedness (Moberly, 2009). Only Noah was selected by God to continue the human race due to his piety. The flood in the bible was due to human corruption, whereas in the Mesopotamian myths, it was caused by disagreements between the gods. Jewish people were expected to live in service of God following rabbinic traditions and Scriptures. Hebrews did not believe in the Christian afterlife form of Heaven and Hell, depending on how someone lived. On the contrary, they embraced the idea of a final Day of Judgment, after which all righteous people would resurrect, and others would have no a second chance.
Bailkey, N. M. (1976). Readings in Ancient History: From Gilgamesh to Diocletian. (2d ed.). DC Heath & Co.
Budge, E. W. (2019). The book of the dead. Good Press.
Moberly, R. W. L. (2009). The theology of the book of Genesis. Cambridge University Press.
Shankman, S. (Ed.). (2009). The Iliad of Homer: Translated by Alexander Pope (Vol. 1). Wipf and Stock Publishers.