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Religious Patterns of Early Civilizations:
Mesopotamia and Predynastic Egypt
The earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Predynastic Egypt developed from regional religious patterns into complex social systems of centralized control in the late fourth fifth millennia BC. The civilized life emerged first in Mesopotamia, known today as Iraq from
agriculture centers dominating the fertile biblical frontiers of the Tigers and Euphrates Rivers around 4,500 BC.
Temple city states of Egypt develop along the banks of the Nile shortly after the first
settlements were established five centuries later. Artifacts excavated from the Tigris- Euphrates and Nile alluvial systems demonstrate a high social degree of political order administered from city and religious centers equaled by Rome and modern day civilization (Sumer).
Civilizations are distinguished from populated settlements by the degree of organizational development used to administer activities of social group. Archaeologist piece together
evidence of religious, political, and economic systems into groups called analytical segments of cultures. These groups correlate to social patterns, or models used to simplify and better understand the organizational stages of city development. We understand
Ancient Middle East cities as well as Predynastic Egyptian temples corporations by comparing social patterns deciphered from artifacts.
The earliest settlers of Mesopotamia were wandering nomadic bands arriving in the area of today’s Iraq as early as the Paleolithic period (Nissen p15). These early settlers met or seasonal climatic changes were resolved by moving away from poorer conditions. Some regions were more desirable, prolonging the stay.
Hunting gathering bands formed on
choice differentiated hinterland providing a wider variety of resources of game, herbs and grain. The basic social patterns of these settlers were assumed by a clan leaders, or chiefs, ruling by consensus.
As populations increased in the newly settle land more complex social system developed. During the period of 6000-3200 BC, isolated settlements dominated choice lands with access to water. Evidence of food production and food storage were already highly developed before this period (Nissen p 39). We know little of the religious patterns before
the appearance of art; however animism is believed to be established before the
pre-pottery stage of early humans. Animism, as viewed by Edward Tyler is the belief in nature. Tyler believed that ritual grew out of beliefs in nature as a result of human reasoning (Hicks p 4).
An increasing population created a need for more crops and irrigation systems appear during the Neolithic period of 6000 B.C. (p 5). Irrigation systems require workers and administrators to manage the construction, maintenance, and flow of water. The irrigation theory suggests that complex societies of Mesopotamia developed into complex social systems from the administration of irrigating canals. These social systems grew more
complex as workers were paid by food rations which in turn created diverse niches of economic opportunities.
The Halaf period 5300 B.C. “named after Tell Halaf in Northern Syria” marks the earliest pottery period of finely painted pieces produce from homes. Painted pottery created a demand for specialist which slowly progressed into trade (Nissen p 45). As populations grew and centralized, townships emerge around local villages creating more complex
social patterns. The rules of social interaction between villages now formed to a consensus of people not of the same decent administered by group chieftains.
The first cities emerged from a need of a complex centralized control of leaders both religious and political. Regional control of isolated settlements became necessary especially settlements of northern Mesopotamia controlling the head waters. Written accounts of the early Dynastic period around 3100 BC reported a continual dispute for borders and borderland controls (Nissen p 135).
Southern Mesopotamia was divided up into small city states early third millennium BC. Tablets from building built on top levels at the Eana district of Uruk produced numerous tablets. These tablets account for a new centralized religious system of political control.
Populations began migrating to the centers of power. Sumerian Temple hymns list 35 city-states just in the south. Each city state was associated with a city-god and sanctuary.
The Sumerians believed that these gods actually founded the city states and honored city gods with and through temple hierarchies (The Joukowsky Institute).
Enmerkar was builder of Uruk, and said to have reigned for hundreds of years as listed in the Sumerian King List known as the “Babyloniaca” written by Berossus between 290 and 278 BC. The Sumerian king list states Enmerkar “brought the official king ship from the city of Eana, after his father Mesh-ki-ag-gasher, son of Utu, had “entered the sea and
disappeared.” Enmerkar is also known from Sumerian mythology as “Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta” the son of Utu and built the temple at Eridu (Enmerkar).
The new social trend extended the nuclear class of elite to clan level. Charles Keith
Maisels quotes Sumerologist I.M Diaknoff and I.J. Gelb from his text “Early Civilizations of the world:
“enable us to see the structure of ancient family and clan much better than at any other time of Mesopotamian history. Texts such as the Manishtushu Oblelisk describe the ancestry of sellers which is often as long six generations. Theses long lists of generations provide us evidence that there were also extended families besides nuclear families, which in turn were grouped into larger social
configurations up to the level of “clans”. (Gel et al. 1991:2) (Maisels p163)."
The importance of Sumerian honor and belief in city gods is reflected in temple structure. The capital city of the Sumerian city-state Lagash covered an area of 100 hectares; however, the majority of this land was devoted to gods. Maisels writes:
“Those temple establishments included (at the highest point of the mound) the Bagara, belonging to Ningirsu, “Lord of Girsu”, the god of Lagash; Gatumdug, the “mother of Lagash”; Shagepada, the precinct of Nanshe; the establishment of the goddess Bau (which has supplied so many documents); and the Ibgal of the goddess of fecundity, Inanna, who with An, Enlil an Enki is the one of the supreme gods of Sumero-Akkadian pantheon. Enannatun’s reconstruction of the Ibgal (originally built by his grandfather
Urnanshe) within its “temple oval” formed by a platform and enclosing wall (Maisels p166).”
Ningirsu as lord of Girsu also worshiped as Ninurta was the god of Nippur. The cult of Ninurta can be traced to earliest Sumerian mythology. Ninurta was worshipped in Nippur as a triad of deities with his Enlil as his father and Ninlil as his mother. His father Enlil was the chief God or ancestral city god of Nippur that attempted to mobilize the individual cities of Sumer. One version of the Ninurta tale illustrates the monster Anzu that steals the tablets of Destiny. In order for Enlil to maintain rule he must protect the “The
Tablets of Destiny”. Ninurta slays the monster and saves his fathers kingdom (An)
The story of Ningirsu shows important associations almost religious relationships that Sumerians have to the written word, usually on tablets, as if ancient inscriptions determined events of good and bad fortune. Certainly bad fortune would reflect a lack of respect
to city Gods by the elite. Writing becomes a specialized function of scribes as Sumerian during the same period that kings are associated as living gods.
As economic, political, and religious social systems became more complex, writing became a specialized function of scribes. During the Early Dynastic I 3500 B.C. and II period 2500 B.C. Writing changes from logographic to simpler symbols. (Adams) Text from the
Shuruppak site was the latest advancement that reproduced the speech exactly. Previous ‘sentences” had consisted of a string of nouns. It is now possible to express syntactical relationships as entireties (Nissan p 137).
More advance writing is seen in the inscriptions of the ruler Ur-Nanshe of Lagash shortly after the Shuruppak texts. These writing are referred to “royal inscriptions” which, form then on, rulers can give lengthy detail reports of their actions (p 137). These lengthy
stories first began in the period of Eannatum of Lagash 2000 B.C. Most importantly the scribes were of the elite population of political control. (Nissan p 138).
Sumerian burials artifacts are similar to predynastic Egyptian pieces made of precious stones or finely worked metal such items are associated with an elite ruling class both in Mesopotamia and Predynastic Egypt. Although the works were from different culture the
quality of material was “fit for a king.” Artifacts uncovered from the Sumerian cities of Kish, Nippur and Ur such as jewelry, gold, and metal crafts were similar to Egyptian Nagada III phase burial goods, such as jewelry, gold, and metal crafts “marked elitism” explains Bill Manley:
“such expensive items were more widely distributed amongst the populations than would be the case in dynastic times. Also by this time, large brick-built towns appeared at sites such as Elephantine, Herakonplois, and Nagada…and monumental cult buildings.”
Notably, Egyptian temples were of equal political/ religious importance of the Ziggurats of Sumer (Manley p22). However, the Egyptian cultural of the dynastic period built the largest tomb temple palaces of the Near East at least matching the architectural design of Mesopotamian Ziggurats.
The temples of Egypt differ from the Ziggurats of Sumer as functional storage and distribution centers for agriculture commodities as well as religious importance. Ziggurats are reported to be more of a worshiping citadel for ritual cult activities. The temple
corporations of pre-dynastic Egypt facilitated as living quarters of temple workers with segregated facilities for stores and local
Egyptian temples accommodated their own workers such as butcher, baker, brewers, and weavers. Each temple system had an hierarchy of members, the elite sat among the lofty positions of political control. Economy of any given temple was balanced by an
unbalanced budget for example too much figs not enough dates meant trade with figs to other temples for dates.
Religious patterns of Mesopotamia and Predynastic Egypt bear remarkable similarities influenced by demographic and development factors of early civilization. The Sumerians established the world’s earliest known cities on the alluvial plane of Sumer in southern Mesopotamia around 2800 BC (Sumer).
The cities of Sumer developed into city-states with Strong religious associations synonymous to early Egyptian temple-states five centuries later. The complex social systems of city-state and temple
corporations of both cultures were controlled by elite political groups sanctified by popular religious rituals and beliefs (Manley p22).
Religious patterns of Mesopotamia and the Nile developed from economic necessity in order to supply food and rations for growing populations in fertile yet dry climates. Sumer populations relied on complex irrigation systems from drying tributaries of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The people of Egypt depended on Nile seasonal floods with unpredictable famine seasons. Complex
administration systems as well as specialist were required to operate the irrigation canals of Sumer as well as administrating Egyptian Temple storage/ distribution systems.
In both Mesopotamian and Predynastic Egyptian societies, political power was by proxy of a given god to the established elite class. Power was exercised in both cultures by the construction of land holding monuments or public works rationed in agriculture commodities to workers of different organizational skills – so much energy draws people together. A monarchy of city gods dominated regional areas and cities of pre dynastic Sumer prior to 3000 B.C. Kish was the first city established by the Sumerians.
Each city and later city-state was represented by a Sumerian god; although power was with the elite until the Akkadian king Sargon ascended to the throne 2334-2279 B.C.
Just as in pre-dynastic Sumer, archeologists speculate that proto-kingdoms or a confederacy of the elite may have competed from the throne of Egypt prior to the Narmer recorded on a Herakonplois temple slate palette as a living god. Religious beliefs of
Predynastic Egypt were probably forged from animism as with Mesopotamia or could have assimilated along the Levant Coast of Syria to the Nile Delta.
There is more compiling evidence establishing Aha as the first Egyptian king whom remains were buried in Abydos on the western bank of the Nile south of the river bend in lower Egypt 2900 B.C. (Manley p 23). Egyptian influence has been documented well before 2000 BC. Two-way trade is evident by scarabs found in tombs at Archanes, Gournes and Lebena.
Minoan exports, clearly technical achievements of the Levant such as pottery have been recorded as far as Aswan, Abydos, and Kahun. Likewise, silver vessels discovered at Tod parallels with Cretan pottery and metal work (Cunliffe 239).
Nomadic tribes from the early Holocene epoch also built megaliths 7,000 and 6,500 years ago in southerner Egypt 100 km west of Abu Simbel. These people worship the scared cow. It is possible that the religious beliefs of Nabta Playa tribe traveled south on the Nile and assimilated religious patterns to Mesopotamia via the Nile Delta and trail along the Levant sea shore.
In Egypt as well as Mesopotamia, cattle were regarded as the earthly representation of early gods. Both cultures worshiped the bull in various ways and cults. The Catal Huyk site of Mesopotamia is a good example of the “bull cult.” Preserved horns of bulls set into plaster were excavated from Catal Huyk temples (Eichman). The cattle god in Predynastic Egypt held as much importance as the bother gods Horus and Seth (Emuseum).
It is believed that the Nabta Playa tribe worshiped cattle as gods as “Gods of Rain” which strengthens Tyler’s theory of animisms as the bases for religious patterns of Mesopotamia and Predynastic Egypt The goddess of Catal Huyk is associated with the bull cult as a goddess of fertility as resembles the Aurignacian Venuses of 30,000 B.C. (Eichman).
Although religious belief differed in many
ways, early religious patterns are evidenced by the worship of cattle and a goddess of fertility (Eichman).
Religious beliefs of ancient Egypt centered on a cosmology of Nu the supreme deity over the vast waste of water post creation. Nu created or gave birth to a sun god similar to Utu the Sumerian God. The Egyptian sun god was called Kheyera at dawn, Ra at noon and Tun at dusk Ra created his wife Tefnut and she gave birth to Seb, God of the Earth and Nat the Goddess of the sky. Out of the union of Nat and Seb came Osiris, Isis, Set and Nepthys (Howard).
Osiris had two brothers Horus and Seth. Horus represented Upper Egypt and Seth the southern boundaries. Osiris was there
main god poetically reflected in the poem “The magic Flute” a story of Osiris and Isis Osiris wife that roamed the world looking for the dismembered body parts of her husband.
The sun god Ra is the most important deity of the Nile culture bringing all life into creation. The Egyptians believed that Ra had only to think to materialize any creature on earth. Ra was worshiped as the first king on Earth. The belief in the sun god as first king gave rise to Pharaoh king-gods of dynastic Egypt (Howard). The trend of sun god to god king is evident in both cultures as Ra in Egypt and Utu as son god of Sumer.
The earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia and Predynastic Egypt developed from regional religious patterns of animism and
developed into god-king political power of city-state or temple corporations. The development of religious patterns of both cultures grew from regional chieftains of ancestral lineage into a centralized elite based religious/ political control.
Although many differences in actual cults, ritual, and beliefs, both religious systems migrated by necessity to a religious political power in order to control growing and centralizing populations. Religious patterns of the Sumer and predynastic Egypt developed from similar social patterns insuring political power of the elite prior to true monarchy systems of the dynasty period.
Cite This Page
O'Dell, Gregory N. "Religious Patterns of Early Civilizations: Mesopotamia and Predynastic Egypt." Linearism.Org Advocacy For Human
Rights. Nov. & Dec. 2008. Web. 06 Feb. 2010. <http://www.linearism.org/EssayReligousPatterns.html>
Eichman, William The Temple City of Prehistoric Anatolia Gnosis Magazine Spring Thelema Press San Francisco1990
Cunliffe, Barry The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe ed. Barry Cunliffe 1997 Oxford University Press Italy
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Hicks, David Ritual and Belief, Readings in the Anthropology of Religon ed. David Hicks University of New
York, Mc Graw-Hill Higher New York NY 1999
Howard, Deborah The Egyptian Culture Reflected in Worship http://eawc.evansville.edu/essays/ howard.htm
University of Evansville
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology Classroom http:// proteus.brown.edu /mesopotamianarchaeology/799
Maisels, Charles Keith Early Civilizations of the Old World the Formative histories of Egypt, the Levant,Mesopotamia, India and China 1st ed. 1999
Routledge New York New York
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Trans. Elizabeth Lutzeir, Kenneth J. Northcott University of Chicago Press Chicago
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