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Egyptian gods and priests: from 3000 BC

In prehistory each community of people in the Nile valley has developed its own god or gods, many of them connected with animals. As Egypt becomes unified, under pharaohs who are themselves seen as divine, the entire pantheon settles down into a relatively easy working relationship.

The pharaoh is the chief priest of the entire nation. In each temple the local priests stand in for him. Their task, as in every early religion, is to tend to the needs of the gods. These are locked away in the innermost reaches of the temple, inaccessible to ordinary people. The priests regularly visit them, undress them, wash and anoint them, and then clothe them in new garments.

The two main tasks, for priests and gods alike, are to guard against encroaching chaos (in particular to ensure that the sun gets up each morning) and to help the dead into the next world, which the Egyptians confidently believe will be just as pleasant as this one and remarkably similar. Just as on earth, a distinguished man or woman will need their household servants and domestic goods to be sure of a comfortable existence. Models of these are placed with them in their tombs.

Appearance in tomb paintings has made some gods more familiar than others: Anubis, the jackal-headed god, who conducts the dead through their trials; ibis-headed Thoth, the scribe to the gods; falcon-headed Horus, god of the sky and light; Seth, a rival to Horus, recognizable by his mysterious pointed snout; and Osiris, wearing a tall white headdress, who represents the idea of resurrection in the next world.

Re and Amen

The central divinity of Egyptian religion is the sun, and from early times the most important sun god is Re. He is believed to sail his boat under the world each night. Every time, during the journey, he has to defeat an evil spirit, Apophis, before he can reappear.

At Thebes, which becomes the capital in about 2000 BC, another god, Amen, is of great importance. In about 1500 BC Amen combines with Re to become Amen-Re, who from then on is effectively the state god of Egypt, identified with the pharaoh. The two greatest temples at Karnak and Luxor are dedicated to Amen-Re.

Mute monuments: from 3000 BC

Some pre-literate societies have left tantalizing traces of their religion. Stonehenge in southern England, constructed from about 3000 BC (and therefore contemporary with the start of Egyptian civilization), has prompted endless speculation about its original purpose.

Similarly, from around 1000 BC, the temple platforms and the pyramids of the Olmecs, in America, provide evidence of religion without our knowing precisely what that religion was. Climbing up to a temple or altar, as also in the ziggurats of Mesopotamia from about 2000 BC onwards, is a recurrent theme of worship.

Once there is a temple of any kind, the gods move in - usually in the form of idols. A temple is the house of the gods. The priests, their servants, share their lodgings.

The role of the priests is to satisfy the needs of the gods. This may involve washing and clothing the idols, but the main task is to carry out the necessary sacrifices (a theme present in all primitive religions, reaching a macabre peak among the Aztecs in central America). A less dramatic duty may be feeding them - offering up the food brought by pilgrims, which is then enjoyed symbolically by the deity and is usually consumed in more practical fashion by the priests themselves.

Indo-Iranian religions: from 1500 BC

The Indo-Iranian tribes, who come down to the Iranian plateau and move into India between 1500 and 1000 BC, share a polytheistic religion. But among the many gods clamouring for human affection or fear, particular attention is paid by the Indo-Iranians to a small group.

These special gods are known as ahuras (meaning 'lords') in the Iranian region and as devas among the Aryans in India. In Iran, under the influence of Zoroaster, the focus will later fall on one ahura above all others - effectively moving towards monotheism. In India, by contrast, polytheism runs riot in the eventual form of Hinduism.

Hinduism is the only great modern religion in which the ancient pattern of worship survives, with priests tending a multiplicity of gods. It is also the oldest among the religions of today. It can trace its beginnings to the arrival of the Indo-Iranians in India from about 1500 BC.

Unlike Hinduism, all the other great religions have discarded pantheism - proclaiming either one god or no god at all.

The Hebrews and monotheism: from 1000 BC

The Hebrews are the first people to develop the idea of one god (though a tentative step in that direction has been made by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten). The perception is credited in biblical tradition to Abraham.

At first the Hebrew god, Yahweh or Jehovah, remains one god among many (though the only god deserving worship). This halfway house towards monotheism is described technically as monolatry. But by the time the Hebrews are established in Jerusalem, from about 1000 BC, Yahweh is recognized as the only god. This is the beginning of true monotheism - a faith leaving everyone else with idolatry and delusion.

A religious heyday: 6th - 5th century BC

It has often been pointed out that from about 600 BC there is a surge of religious innovation in different parts of the world. The earliest example is in Persia, where Zoroaster reforms the polytheistic Indo-Iranian religion by introducing a single god, Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism becomes the official religion of the Persian empire.

A century later, in neighbouring India, the reforms of Vardhamana and of Siddartha Gautama lead in an opposite direction. These teachers persuade their followers that each one of us, by our actions and attitudes, is responsible for our own salvation - without divine help. The resulting religions are Jainism and Buddhism.

This same period is the era of K'ung Fu-tzu, known in the west as Confucius. His idea of a worthy life - characterized by socially responsible behaviour, with an added religious dimension in the form of ancestor worship - becomes the prevailing creed of China for the next two and half millennia.

A subversive reaction develops later in the form of Daoism - a spiritual escape from the heavy responsibilities of the Confucian ethic. Daoists, like Buddhists, reject worldly ambition and search instead for a deeper and more natural truth.

Daoism: from the 4th century BC

Confucianism is so practical a creed that it can scarcely be called a religion. It is ill-equipped to satisfy the human need for something more mysterious. China provides this in the form of Daoism.

Laozi, the supposed founder of Daoism, is traditionally believed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. It is more likely that he is an entirely mythical figure. The small book which he is supposed to have written dates from no earlier than the 4th century BC. It is an anthology of short passages, collected under the title Daodejing. Immensely influential over the centuries, it is the basis for China's alternative religion.

Daodejing means 'The Way and its Power'. The way is the way of nature, and the power is that of the man who gives up ambition and surrenders his whole being to nature. How this is achieved is a subtle mystery. But the Daodejing suggests that the Way of water (the humblest and most irresistible of substances) is something which a wise man should imitate.

In the late 20th century, an era of ecology and New Age philosophies, the 'alternative' quality of Daoism has given it considerable appeal in the west. In Chinese history it is indeed alternative, but in a different sense. In the lives of educated Chinese, Daoism has literally alternated with Confucianism.

Confucianism and Daoism are like two sides of the same Chinese coin. They are opposite and complementary. They represent town and country, the practical and the spiritual, the rational and the romantic. A Chinese official is a Confucian while he goes about the business of government; if he loses his job, he will retire to the country as a Daoist; but a new offer of employment may rapidly restore his Confucianism.

The same natural cycle of opposites is reflected in the Chinese theory of Yin and yang, which also becomes formulated during the long Zhou dynasty.

Greek and Roman gods

In both Greece and Rome the many gods of the pantheon have their own local shrines. The most important of these are magnificent buildings, set in elaborate architectural precincts. Famous examples are the temple to Apollo at Delphi, and the Parthenon, sacred to Pallas Athene, in Athens.

Priests attend to the needs of the god, whether by preparing ceremonial food or drink or by decorating and anointing the cult statue, and they supervise the temple rituals. The role of ordinary worshippers consists largely in bringing presents of food, drink or flowers for the god. But the most important ritual, on special occasions, is the sacrifice and burning of an ox, a sheep or a goat on an open-air altar in front of the temple.

In the Roman empire the worship of the gods increasingly becomes a state cult, with the emperor himself occupying the role of pontifex maximus or high priest. Ceremonies are held on important state occasions, and the priests take omens before important decisions. Studying the entrails of a sacrificed animal is the favourite way of trying to glimpse the future.

Ordinary citizens play no great part in this, but each house contains its own shrine to the family's gods, known as the Lares and Penates. They are a personal selection from the public gods. They almost invariably include Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, whose public shrine is kept by the Vestal virgins.

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