SOME IMPORTANT ANCIENT PAGAN CULTS
History is littered with vestiges of many ancient faiths and cuits which have disappeared more of less completely. Sorne survive, if they can be said to survive at ail, only in name; sorne as memories, and sorne have been found by anthropologists to form a stage in the evolution of Judaism and Christianity. Traces of both are of course noticeable in Islam which avowedly is a prophetie religion, the last in a succession which goes back according to the Ouranic theory of prophethood to the very tirst man on earth. The Quran also upholds the view that truth being indivisible, the similarities seen between one ancient religion and another only point to the fa ct that they represented the same search for reality and sprang trom the same realisation, sometimes rather dim, that behind the diversity of phenomena there existed a unit y of being which alone was worthy of worship and adoration. Islam thus claims to be a timeless legacy from time immemorial. In Ouranic terms the monotheism that Prophet Muhammad preached is the same truth to which Solomon, Moses and Jesus bore testimony, and man y others before them. But like the followers of Moses who in his absence turned to idol worship and fashioned a golden calf for adoration, man has not always been able to resist the lure of error; many societies failed to penetrate to the unit y behind the world’s diversity and multiplicity.
Islam rejects the purely anthropological view that monotheism has been achieved as a result of a slow and long evolution. Support for this opinion can be found in the fact that even the most polytheistic creeds presuppose the existence behind ail the pluralistic gods and goddesses of a god to whom the others, the lesser ones, must pay court. Their conceptions of this Deity differed. Some postulate a Being who does not seem very difterent from God as modern man conceives Him; sorne are less clear; but in various degrees their pantheons, even when very confusing, appear to be founded on the premise that at the top the hierarchy there was a god mighter than ail the rest. Parama Brahma in Hinduism and Zeus in Hellenic polytheism possess attributes sorne of which can without much difficulty be likened to those of God. It would be a mistake however to equate them with God, but it can be said without much risk that those who conceived of these divinities represented either a corrupt form of monotheism or a stage where they had begun to approach it.
Considering that few of the ancient faiths had well-defined boundaries which distinguished them from neighbouring cuits and that many rituals were common to more than a few, it is safer to discuss them with reference to the chief deities who were worshipped.
Certain ideas and beliefs seem to have prevailed over wide areas in the Near East and ancient Egypt. There is the idea that although the body decays and perishes, the soul is immortal and survives death into an after-life where it has to appear before the judgement of a god. Its deeds on earth are weighed in scales and it is either rewarded with eternal heavenly bliss or consigned to the flames of hell. Interest in immortality and resurrection was widespread in ancient Egypt and is responsible for the practice of mummifying the body after death and furnishing tombs with food and ail such materials as the occupant might need on being resurrected. The more eminent the person the more elaborate the funeral. The kingsthat is, the Pharaohs were buried in the huge pyramids along with slaves, so that on reawakening they might find nothing missing. No people, ancient or modern, has organised funerals on such a scale or taken such care to have the body preserved. Thousands of mummies have been recovered from the sands, for king and commoner ail believed in immortality and resurrection.
The Egyptian cult of the dead is based on the theory that man is a combination of several things: Khat or body, Ka or self, sekhem or vital power, Ab or material heart, Khaibit or shadow and Ba or soul proper. When a man dies he is translated to the Elysian fields or Aahlu if he has to his credit good deeds or cast into the lower world which is called Amenti. The god who presides over the scales in which his earthly deeds are weighed is Anubis.
Anubis has the head of a jackal and is one among a large community of gods with animal heads. Some of the most prominent are Hathor who wears a cow-head; Horus is falconheaded; Munt hawk-headed; Mekhet vulture-headed; Sekhet lioness-headed; Set pig-headed; Khnum ram-headed; Thoth ibis-headed; Sebek crocodile-headed; and Bast calf-headed.
Horus was the son of Osiris and his sister-wife Isis and together they constituted the most important of celestial triads. The other important triads are Ptah, Sekhet and their son Impotep; and Amen-ra, Mut and their son Khans. Osiris had a position in the Egyptian pantheon not unlike that of Zeus among the Greeks. He was the greatest and most powerful of the gods, king of eternity. He ruled the other world. It wa he who gave men hope of resurrection, of a life beyond the grave. The general belief was that after being judged in the scales provided by Anubis, the souls of the good ones spent three thousand years in he kingdom of Osiris and were then permitted to return to earth, re-enter the old body and live again. Hence arose the need for preserving the physical remains of the dead as carefully as possible; they were to be used again.
The wicked, on the other hand, had to go into a long cycle of transmigrations and were reborn as animais in each round til! their sins were fully expiated. They could thereupon return to earth like the good men. But those whose sings were of a nature which could not be expiated were completely annihilated after being subjected to tortures.
The story of Osiris is highly complicated. He is believed to have been originally a king who ruled in the Nile Valley. He was slain by a wicked twin-brother Set who, like Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, plotted to marry his wife Isis. But Isis was wholly unlike Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, in that she refused to accept Set, and recovered the dead king’s body with the help of her son, Horus and by means of her magic arts had him established as the lord of the underworld. Set was ‘challenged and slain by Horus.
Another important solar deity was Ra. He ferried souls across an underworld stream in the land of darkness. The journey was repeated each night as the sun set, and finally Ra reappeared into the light of another day with his strength renewed by the sacred beetle or Scarab, Osiris and Ra vied for the allegiance of the ancient Egyptians. Both were worshipped in their animal incarnations. The Apis bulls kept at Memphis were sacred to Osiris, while Ra had his bulls at Heliopolis. These bulls were looked upon as oracles and often consulted. If a bull licked the garments of a visitor that was a sing of good fortune.
Whereas among the Hindus of India only a few animais are regarded as sacred, namely, the cow, the monkey and the snake (not ail however has), the number of sacred animais among the Egyptians was very large. Thus cats, crocodiles, jackals, mice, antelopes, frogs, gnats, hyppopotami, hawks, apes and ibises were ail sacred in one way or another. (Some localities considered the lion also sacred.) They were believed to embody the spirt of one or other god who could best be propitiated by worshipping the animal sacred to him. Queen Cleopatra is known to have venerated the cat.
The monotony of Egyptian polytheism was interrupted once by an attempt made by Akhnaton, one of the Pharaohs, to introduce a kind of monotheism based on the wonship of the sun alone. The cult is known as Atonism, or worship of the sun’s disk called Aton in the Egyptian language. Temples were built to Aton and the worship of other gods was forbidden. Some believe that this Pharaoh was a monotheist in the real sense. But whatever the truth the religion did not survive him. So strong was the reaction against it that as soon as the king died, the name of Aton and the Pharaoh were erased from ail monuments. The revoit against Aton is said to have been led by the priests of Ra.
During the four or five thousand years that the ancient Egyptian civilisation lasted, the people of Egypt continued to worship the same deties, with slight variations here and there. The general beliefs characteristic of them can be said to be first a conviction that there is an after-life from which souls can return to the body left behind, that the dead have to render an account of their doings on earth and to submit to judgement by the gods, that rebirth is a privilege limited to the virtuous, that the gods assume incarnations as animais and that consequently they, the animais, need to be treated with veneration. There was no conception of a supreme deity greater than ail the rest, but some like Osiris and Ra were more powerful than others.
ln the course of intercourse between ancient Greece and ancient Egypt one Egyptian deity at least, namely, Isis, consort Osiris and mother of Horus, was adopted by the Greeks and identified with their Demeter, the goddess of fertility. The Romans too began to worship her when Greece fell to Rome. She became the universal mother, supreme of goddesses. Sir James Frazer thinks that Isis is a prototype of the cult of the Madonna among the Christians.
The ancient Egyptians do not appear to have possessed any divinely revealed scripture. The nearest equivalent to scripture is their Book of the Dead, a prayer-book consisting of hymns and ekorcisms which the dead were to recite in course of their journey through the underworld. Copies were either buried with the corpse in the tomb or inscribed on its walls for use. The Book of the Dead contains the famous Negative Confession which gives a list of the sins which the dead must declare not to have committed when they appear before Osiris for judgement. The major sins are ill-treating servants and slaves, causing pain and hurt to people, adultery, cheating priests of their dues and use of false weights. The soul must affirm boldly that it is pure.
The idea of accountability for deeds on earth seems to be common to ail religions including Islam. The Ouran mentions judgement but there is nothing in it comparable to the colourful details which feature so largely in Egyptian beliefs., Nor, needless to say, do the Muslims believe in a journey through the underworld as a prelude to the soul’s eventual return to the body. On the other hand, one cannot but be struck by the resemblance Egyptian beliefs bear in this respect to the idea of Karma in Hindu and Buddhist faiths. The Egyptian idea of a sojourn of three thousand years before the soul could hope to return to earth is without parallel in Hinduism and Buddhism. The soul of a Dalai Lama, for instance, is believed to enter the body of a child born at the exact moment of his death.
Although there was nothing like a Brahmanical caste in Egypt-that is, a caste with inherited privileges, the priestly class exercised in Egyptian society a special position unlike anything known in Islam. They alone could officiate at religious ceremonies and tend the gods.
Whether the Egyptians did at ail produce a philosophical literature like the Hindus, we do not know. Although their hieroglyphics can now be deciphered, their books, written on papyri, have perished. It is also idle to speculate on the basis of our present knowledge about the influence they may have exerted on religious movements in the Middle East. Considering that political and commercial relations between Egyptians and phoenicians and Canaanites existed at various periods, it is impossible to say that they did not know of such an important Phoenician deity as Astarte. Known variously as Ashtoreth, Ashtaroth and Ishtar, she was a goddess of fertility and reproduction, a companion to Baal, another god who represented the power of generation. This cult was associated with obscene sexual rites; it encouraged religious prostitution, an institution also favoured among certain classes of Hindus. The prostitutes attached to the temples of Astarte performed functions similar to those which are expected of Devadasis in south Indian Hindu temples. Astarte is sometimes likened to the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, but the sexual orgies which her devotees practised have greater affinities with those favoured by the Vamacharis in Hinduism. But while the Vamacharis among the Hindus represent a minority cult, Astarte had a wide following in the Middle East. Indeed she was the most universally worshipped of Semitic divinities and attracted a degree of devotion shocking in its excesses. The worshippers would sometimes, under the influence of strong liquor or the stimulus of powerful religious chants, sacrifice their
genitalia to the goddess and fall back bleeding on the 1100r in a gesture of complete surrender. Ishtar or Astarte was the mother of mankind who ranked above ail other goddesses.
Under her aspect as the goddess of fertility Ishtar is associated with Tammuz, the vegetation god whose death and renewal were annually celebrated. He disappeared in late summer and reappeared in early spring, symbolising the changes of season. Sir James Frazer is of the view that the Tammuz cult led to the grisly practice of annually slaying the chief priest of his temple before the election of a successor, to facilitate the revival of nature in the spring. He was the true son of the mother goddess, probably the first of a long line of suffering gods found in most pagan cuits, who die annually or once in order to redeem their worshippers from sin and error. The flash of the slain priest was sometimes eaten ritually in order that his virtues and potency might be assimilated by the faithful.
Tammuz was a deity common to the ancient Phoenicians and Sumerians and Akkadians. Some of the other important gods in the Sumero-Akkadian pantheon were Anu, the sky-god who was considered the king of the gods; Enlil, his son who ruled the winds and bestowed prosperity upon mankind, though he could be capricious too; Enki-Ea, the water-god, who granted civilisation to man; Nergal, the god of the nether world who caused pestilence and death; and Nanna Sin, the moon god. Nanna-Sin had his counterpart in Shamash, the sun-god who was the god of justice and source of ail laws, the guide who protected the earth-born from evil.
The other nature deities include Adad, the rain-god, Ninurta, the god of irrigation and canals and Gibil, the fire-god. The firegod was the patron of magicians who invoked him in their struggle against evil spirits and rival sorcerers.
ln addition to nature gods and fertility gods, there existed some gods who can be called national gods. Marduk was the chief god in the Babylonian pantheon and Ashur in the Assyrian.
Many of these gods were feared rather than loved; for they were believed to be hostile towards mankind. Men tried to propitiate them with worship and offerings to avert the evil which might otherwise be visited on them. The haughty aloofness which characterised the gods in Mesopotamia generated an attitude of great humility and submissiveness in the worshippers who consequently created for themselves another genre of deity, personal protectors who could be prayed to for intercession in moments of crisis. Every hou se had a personal deity to whom offerings were made regularly.
Sumero-Akkadian society believed widely in the existence of evil spirits who constituted a world apart from the world of the gods. They needed to be controlled by means of magic. The evil spirits caused disease and plague and misfortunes of various kinds. When a person fell iII, a priest was called in. He would fashion a likeness of the demon in caly or other material and systematically destroyed it to the accompaniment of chants, in the belief that what was done to the image would by sympathetic action affect the intended enemy. By a comparable method the evil spirit who took possession of the body of a sick person could be persuaded to leave him and enter the image; the sufferer would then be cured.
Magic and religion are inseparable in ancient religion, especially in Babylonian cuits. Even the gods depended for their safety on talismans, and the story goes that wh en once Zu, the birth god, stole the Tablets of Destiny from Enlil, ail the deities wasted away until they were restored. When Ishtar descended into the neither world in search of her son Tammuz she wore amulets as a protection against evil spirts who dwell in the under-world.
The Babylonians and Sumerians did not believe in immortality, like the Egyptians. There was no practice of mummifying bodies to save them for the eventual return of the soul to revivify them. The graves were however supplied with food and drink because it was thought that the dead continued to have a shadowy existence for some time. Their final destination was a vast and dark underground cave where the goddess Ereshkigal and her consort Nergal reigned. The disbelief in immortality stemmed from the idea that when the gods created the world they retained everlasting life as a privilege for themselves and decreed death for man. This is not unlike the belief that the Greeks had, that physical immortality was a dangerous gift for man to seek. Eos, the Gredk dawn goddess, had conferred it on her lover Tithonus, but as he gradually lost his youth and strength life bacame a torture and he passionately prayed her to take back her gift.
The Mesopotaminas, as the Babylonians and Sumerians might be called collectively, accepted that death was the natural end of human life, and that no god could reverse this fate.
Ancient Babylonian temples, known in history as ziggurats, were lofty structures rising to a great height in stages, with an altar at the top. They towered above ail other buildings and dominated the skyline. It was customary to offer sacrifices of sheep, oxen, lambs, fish, fruit, and flowers to the gods; prayer consisted in the utterance of incantations and psalms in which the worshippers sought the protection of the deities and asked forgiveness of their sins. Many of these incantations and psalms are found recorded on caly tablets in cuneiform writing. These were looked after by the priestly class who exercised a tremendous influence in Babylonian life by virtue of the fact that they alone were educated and had access to sacred Iiterature.
The Creation Epics which have come down from both Sumerians and Akkadians provide the best clue ttiat the present world has to their religious beliefs. Many of the gods figure prominently in these poems which are perhaps the oldest of their kind, predating Homer’s works and also the Indian epics. The most famous among them is Gilgamesh, a strangely modern poem in its treatment of man’s search for the meaning of the riddle of lite.
It is Akkadian in origin and its heroes are Gilgamesh, king of Uruk in southern Babylonia, and his rival and later friend, Enkidu who was created by the gods to engage Gilgamesh in combat and humble him because of his arrogance. They however became good friends when they realised that they were a perfect match for each other. Enkidu spent the first years of his life among animais, feeding with the gazelle, and had to experience love before he could claim to be fully human. His encounter and friendship with Gilgamesh followed. But he was destroyed by the gods who had created him wh en he together with his friend slew a divine bull. It is after Enkidu’s death that Gilgamesh’s quest begins. The event filled him with terror and he sought an elixir which wou Id confer immortality on him. He goes to his ancestor Utanapishtum who has miraculously escaped death but who tells Gilgamesh that immortality was not for man. Yielding at last to his .entreaties Utanapishtum reveals to him the existence of a plant at the bottom of the sea from which, if one ate it, immortality could be obtained. But a snake swallows it wh en Gilgamesh left it unguarded on a poolside, and thus his search is frustrated.
Among other things Gilgamesh learns from Utanapishtum the story of the Flood, a deluge like the one described in the Bible and the Ouran.
Both Gilgamesh, who is half-man and half-god, and Enkidu, a prototype of modern man’s conception of his primitive ancestor, are highly interesting creations illuminating the graduai evolution of man’s ethical and religious ideas. The epic mirrors a world in which man had not yet fully understood his destiny and was groping his way towards a clearer realisation of both his powers and limitations.
Another creation epic, Sumerian this time, is the story of Enki and Ninhursag, the first named the water-god and the other the goddess of vegetation whose union leads ta the birth of the goddess Ninmu. Enki unites successively with his daughter and grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter and their offspring form a whole pantheon. The scene of the story is an island calied Dilmun, a kind of Garden of Eden where there if no sickness, no old age and no hatred, and where ail beasts live in harmony and peace with each other.
Nothing approaching a monotheistic faith can be traced in any Babylonian myth. What we encounter is a pluralistic religion peopled by many deities, nature gods, vegetation gods, and gods representing other forces, and man turns to each for protection, succour and guidance. A Muslim is apt to be remided of Abraham’s adoration of the sun and the moon and other natural phenomena before, as the Ouran explains, he arrived at the truth about Allah to whom he submitted.
For a fuller appreaciation of the religious experience of what is called the Middle East one must also take account of several other gods who figured in local mythology such as Baal, who has been mentioned, Adonis, and Attis. Thile Baal’s influence did not extend beyond this region, both Adonis and Attis cast their influence farther and became integrated with Greek and Roman mythology. Baal is said to be a name given to a whole series of gods, many towns having their own Baals. As the consort of Ishtar or Astarte he represented the forces of regeneration in nature mainfested in the cyclic renewal of the seasons. Baal is the patron of human fecundity and was represented by upright stones which had a phallic meaning. the rites connected with his worship were marked by extreme licentiousness and Baal came to symbolise in Jewisth eyes in later ages sin and evil but his populartiy among the phoenicians was unquestioned.
Adonis, regarded more often as a Greek god, is actually, according to Sir James Frazer, none other than Tammuz, and the name Adonis comes from the Semitic word Adon meaning Lord which the Greeks mistook for a name instead of what it is, an adjective. Once taken up by the Greeks Adonis became in Greek legend the lover of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. He is said to have been slain by Ares, the god of war among the Greeks, in the likeness of a boar. In Asian legend Adonis or Tammuz is of course the spouse or lover of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, and he was particularly venerated in such countries as Syria and Cyprus.
Attis, a god of the ancient Phygians, was the son of Nana, the river-god’s virgin daughter who conceived him by putting a ripe almond in her bosom. He was slain by a boar-like Adonis, or according to another version of the legend he castrated himself and bled to death under a pine tree. The worship of Attis spread to Rome and the pine tree acquired a sacred character in Roman eyes. The emperor Claudius formally introduced the worship of this tree into the state religion. The priests of Attis had to submit to emasculation like the god they venerated, and initiates were baptized with bull’s blood. This was the ongin of what is known as the Taurobolium.
It is difficult to contemplate the history of these pagan religions without being irresistibly drawn to the conclusion that they reflected the awe and fear which the vast reproductive forces in nature inspired, processes which involved death and decay as weil as renewal, processes whose meaning man could not fully comprehend and which he connected with his own life, his own ability to survive, his reproductive process, which he thought could best be strenthened by propitiating those elemental forces outside of himself. Sacrifice is a comman feature in ail of them, and in the earliest stages human sacrifice was considered the most effective methos of winning the favour of the gods. This practice continued even after animais began to be substitued for human victims. Fruits, flowers and cereals were also offered to the deities, for it was impossible for ancient man to think that the gods could be entirely different from human beings; they had their material needs which had to be kept in mind by the adherents. Few of these ancient societies had arrived at the conception of a universal god, though the importance attached to the mother goddess, Ishtar or someone else, seemed to point to the dim realisation that what appeared to be a diversity could conceal a unity.
It is also interesting to note that while the propitiation of the gods was considered necessary for the well-being of man, there was also a beliet that they were really indifferent to humans and cared little what happened to them. The deliberate malignity of deities is as pronounced a belief as the idea that they were beneficent beings. The general notion appears to be that even wh en the gods were inclined to be kind to humanity they needed to be coaxed by offers of sacrifice and prayer into granting favours. Ancient man’s conception of sin is not so much the violation of moral principles, though they certainly counted, as the defiance of those laws which he believed to have been prescribed by the gods. The killing of animais supposed to be sacred was th us a grave offenece punished by dire calamities visited on both the individual sinner and the community to which he belonged.
Ali ancient civilisations have of course their moral codes, a classification of what is permissible and virtuous and what is not. But the most outstanding contribution of the SumeroAkkadian civilisation was the enactment ot public laws. Four Mesopotamian codes have been discovered. In addition to the famous code attributed to King Hammurabi (circa 1690 B. C.), there are the Eshnunna Code (19th century B. C.), the LipiIshtar Code (1860 B. C.) and the Middle Assyrian Laws (1460-1225 B. C.). They ail emphasise the principle of justice and lay down that punishment should always be proportionate to the crime. This is how Hammurabi, king of Babylonia between 2100 and 1800 B. C., explains the basis of his Code.
“By the order of Shamash (the sun god), the great judge of heaven and earth, may my justice prevail in the land … Let any oppressed man who has a cause come into the presence of my statue as the king ot justice, and then read my inscribed stele, and give heed to my precious words, and may my stele make the case clear to him; and may he understand his cause; and may he set his mind at ease.”
These codes, particularly the Code of Hammurabi, mark a departure trom beliet in the arbitrary behaviour of the gods, a tact testifying to man’s graduai advance from his primitive fear of the supernatural to belief in universal principles of morality.
But both kinds of belief existed simultaneously, 50 that it might be a mistake to assume that the Assyrians and Babylonians had already left their confusion about the source of morality behind by the time the codes were formulated. What is worthy of note is that, unlike Hindu India, Western Asia did not propagate any doctrine like the doctrine of Maya which blurs the distinction between good and evil on the theory that these are man-made categorisations without any basis in the light of eternity. Nor do the prophetie religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The ancient codes in this sense have affinities with the Ten Commandments of Judaism, the law given by Christ and the Shariah in Islam.
The civilisation which flourished in the Fertile Crescent, that is, the Tigris-Euphrates valley was a civilisation created by a number of peoples, Sumers, Akkadians, and a number of other races who at various periods invaded and occupied either the whole valley or parts of it. The Sumers and Akkadians were the founders of the civilsation we cali Mesopotamian, the oldest in the world, older in fact than the Egyptian civilisation. To the west of this are lay Phoenicia, a region identifiable with modern Palestine. The Mesopotamians were the first to invent writing, the cuneiform system as it is called, which was carried a stage further by the Phoenicians who were responsible for alphabetic writing. This was a tremendous step in the evolution of civili,sation whose far-reaching .effects can hardly be exaggerated. The second great achievement of the Mesopotamians was in astronomy. It is to them that we owe the system of dividing the days of the year into seven-day weeks. Their monumental sculpture is also impressive; their statues are huge and gigantic in size. Babylonia, their most famous city, enjoyed in ancient times the reputation of being a city given to the pursuit of luxury and pleasure, a reputation which testifies ta the high level of their culture. The hanging gardens of Babylon have become in legend a symbol of the hedonistic ideals they cared for. But most of ail they are remembered for their codification of the laws of social conduct. The codes bear witness to their ethical concerns, their anxiety to reduce the anarchy of individual behavior to regular patterns which would eliminate capricious barbarity and enable man to organise life around universally accepted principles. Their literature was also of a high order. Not even the Egyptians have bequeathed ta posterity, as far as our present knowledge goes, anything like the creation epics which this area gave rise to. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a moving work both as an art and as an epitome of the ethical and moral beliefs of this ancient people.
When ail this is considered it seems surprising that in religion they did not or do not appear to have advanced beyond a crude paganism to the conception of a Supreme Deity overshadowing ail the lesser gods. Although Ishtar was worshipped as Universal Mother, she is not a supreme deity in the sense in which the term can be easily defined. The Mesopotamians did not produce an Akhtaton like the Egyptians conscious of the need for monothesim, even if we allow for the fact that Akhanation’s monotheism was a creed centred on the sun-god.
Notwithstanding ail these factors, a Muslim approaching the study of Mesopotamian civilisation cannot help being conscious that the ethical approach to life which characterised the Mesopotamians, an approach which emphasises the idea that life on earth stands in need of a code which does not dismiss evil as illusion, is a foreshadowing of Muslim ethical concepts. The Mesopotamians seem much closer in spirit to us than the ancient Hindus.
Immediately before the emergence of Christianity, the entire region fram Iran to lebanon appears to have been swept by Mithraism, a cult which originated in Persia. It spread among Roman soldiers and was carried by them as far west as Britain. Mithra was a sun god in Persia and scholars identify him with the Indian Mitra who too was a sun god. While we may conclude that the Persian Mithra and the Indian Mitra are probably the same deity, he acquired in the Near East characteristics not attributed to any known Indian god. On the other hand, the Persian legend bears a remarkable similarily to the story of Christ’s birth and death, especially birth, which tradition has sanctified. Mithra was born in a cave or a rock and shepherds were the first to recognise him as a god. Christ is believed to have been born in a shed for animais, and it is shepherds who offered worship to him first. In paintings he is usually shown being held by his mother near a traugh with the shepherds kneeling before the holy baby. Mithra, like Christ, appears as a saviour who perfoms miracles. His greatest service to distressed humanity is the slaying of a bull, by whose blood the earth is fertilised. Mithra finally ascends to heaven where he dwells among the immortals ready to bless and help those who believe in him. The similarity between Christianity and Mithraism must not howerver be carried too far. Christians, it is needless to say, do not think of Christ as one among the immortals. Nor is there anything in Christianity like the slaying of sacred bull.
The eschatology of Mithraism however bears a resemblance to the eschatology of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike. Mithraists believed that there is a life after death of either eternal bliss or eternal pain. They also believed in a Doomsday when the dead will rise from the graves at Mithra’s cali and will either go to heaven or to hell according to their deserts. The fact that December 25 is traditionally celebrated as Christ’s birthday,-though scholars agree that this is not the actual date of Chirst’s nativity, is another proof of similarity between Christianity and Mithraism, for Mithra has the sa me date of birth. The early Christians seem to have ta ken it over to counter the influence of Mithraism.
One of the chief attractions of Mithraism was the elaborate nature of the initiation prescribed for those who wished to enter its fold. There were seven stages through which the person seeking entry had to pass. Each had a symbolical name; Corax (raven); Cryphilus (occult), Miles (soldier), Perses (Persian), Heliodromus (the sun’s courier) and Pater (father). There was a baptismal rite which required the forehead to be marked, honey to be placed on the hands and tongue, and the entire body to be washed in the blood of the bull or lamb sacrificed on the occasion. Sorne of the conjecture about the influence of Mithraism on Christianity is based on the similarity between Mithraic and Christian baptism.
Ali this is different from anything in Islam, which has no baptismal rites. Although animais are sacrificed at the end of the Hajj or Idul-Azha there is no question of regarding the animal sacrified as sacred or of washing the body in its blood. The role of Mithra as the leader of the forces of light against the forces of darkness suggests that it was a prototype or a different version of what became Zoroastrianism with its emphasis on the conflict between light and darkness as symbols of good and evil respectively. Evil is personified in Christianity and Islam as Satan and from this point of veiw the dualism which characterises certain aspects of our belief may seem to echo a basic Mithraic doctrine. But it is instructive to remember that neither Christianity nor Islam regards Satan a God’s equal in power, as evil is in Zoroastrianism and Mithraism.
At the close of the 4th century, by which time Rome had embraced Christianity. Mithraism along with other pagan cuits was suppressed and its adherents were forced to convert to Christianity. It may have lingered for sorne time in a clandestine fashion, but it did not survive for long. The caverns associated with Mithraic worship were sealed up. Like Osiris and Ra, Mithra is now a forgotten deity, and the period when it looked like establishing itself as the official faith of Rome in succession to the old paganism forms a curious chapter in Roman history.
The old paganism of Rome has bequeathed to the world one of the most interesting mythologies which has coloured European literature greatly, and continues to do 50 even now along with its counterpart, the Greek mythology. The Roman pantheon includes many gods whose functions correspond exactly to those of Greek deities, and it is not possible to say with accuracy how far the religion of the Romans was borrowed from the Greeks. That there are strong similarities and correspondences between them far surpassing anything comparable noticeable elsewhere is a fact one must not lose sight of in any study.
There was in Rome as in Greece a dichotomy between religion and philosophy. The Roman philosophers, like the Greek (incidentally Rome did not give rise to any original philosophy but was content largely to borrow ideas fromthe Greeks) were conscious of there being a unifying principle in the Universe, a supreme being or power, but their pantheons did not postulate any such deity. At the head of the hierarchy of gods in Rome stood Jupiter, designated as Jupiter Optimus Maximus, Jupiter the Best and Greatest. He was the father of the gods, a sky god, the god of thunder and lightning who ruled the heavens. But he is no supreme being. His consort was Juno, the queen of Heaven, the genius of women. She presided over every department of woman’s life; she was the guardian of marriage and the saviour of women in ail their perils.
Minerva was next in importance to Jupiter and Juno. She was the goddess of war and also the patraness of art, the source of wisdom and valour. She corresponded to Pallas Athene in Greek mythology, and along with Jupiter and Juno formed a triad, the most powerful in the pantheon.
Not every in Roman mythology is a god or goddess and consequently a distinction must be made between pantheon and mythology. The pantheon is only a part of the mythological edifice, concerned with those deities whom the Romans worshipped.
What is worth bearing in mind is that the ancient Romans believed in there being numerous forces ruling the world who needed to be prapitiated. They did not proceed or bother, as we might say, to elaborate a religious metaphysic and were content to take things for granted. We do not hear of a Roman theory of heaven and hell, of judgement after death and so on. The gods, most of them taken over from the ancient Etruscans who inhabited Italy before the Romans appeared, or fram the Greeks by whom in ail aspects of their life the Romans were heavily influenced, demanded piety of which the best sign was the punctilious observance of rituals. These fell into two categories; rituals concerning household deities of which individuals took care and rituals which were publicly observed. Each Roman household had its own tutelary diety whom it propitiated by means of offerings. The public observances, on the other hand, were the responsibility of the state and were considered a function of governement. The state enforced compliance with these religious duties, irrespective of individual beliefs, and alien cuits were tolerated provided they did not interfere with official religion. There was no priestly class as such, but after the establishment of the empire the emperor assumed the role of cheif priest, and in course of time it came to be accepted as an official doctrine that the emperor was himself a god. Worship was paid to him. This is unlike anything noticed in Near Eastern or Egyptian or Indian religion, and underlines the thesis that the Romans regarded religion as more a practical code of conduct than as an expression of a belief in supernatural deities or forces.
The Roman pantheon included many gods and goddesses in addition to those mentioned. There was Mars, the god of war, whose functions were similar to those of Ares in Greek mythology; Neptune presided over the seas; Apollo was the god of healing who was also in control of oracles and prophecies. Ceres looked after agriculture; her daughter Proserpine was married ta Pluto who ruled the underworld. Proserpine spent six months of the year with her mother on earth and her return signalled the onset of spring after a dark winter. Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto were the sons of Saturn whom they had overthrown, but Saturn continued to be honoured in the festival called Saturnalia celebrated from December 17 to December 19. Saturnalia were a time of wild merry-making when ail restraints were cast ta the winds, and the populace indulged in sex orgies.
Janus, usually represented in sculpture with two faces, was another important god propitiated at the beginning of ail new enterprises with a role analogous to that of Ganesh in Hindu religion.
Vesta was the health-goddess who exercised an importance which in certain respects exceeded that of many others. Her shrine stood in the Roman Forum with a perpetuai flame tended by six virgins. They had the designation of Vestal Virgins. They were chosen from the best families on the basis of their character and physical perfection and were required to take a vow of inviolable chastity. It any Vestal broke it she was burned alive. Such was their prestige that a criminal who accidentally encountered a Vestal on his way to execution merited a pardon.
The College of Augurs, paid for by the state, was an important religious institution. Manned by priests recruited from the upper class it had the dut Yand responsibility of determining auspicious moments for enterprises. This was done by watching the movements of birds and also by examining the entrails of sacrificial beasts. The state consulted them regularly and private individuals also availed themselves of their services on important occasions. Augurs were salaried functionaries and had to wear a mantle with a violet border and carried a crook to mark out the space on which the auspices were to be taken.
The Sibyls were another religious phenomenon among the Romans. They were prophetesses who claimed to utter prophecies inspired by Apollo. The Cumaean Sibyl was the most famous and her oracles were much prized.
Roman society in its beginnings was consmopolitan and tolerant, receptive to many cuits, which could be freely practised by her citizens provided they offered a token allegiance to the native deities. Even after the introduction of Christianity and before it was accorded the status of state religion, numeraus pagan cuits continued ta be cultivated by sections of its citizenry. Pagan Rome persecuted the Christians when they refused ta respect her gods, and Christian Rome in her turn banned ail other faiths. But it must be admitted that on the whole the atmosphere in Republican Rome was more tolerant within certain limits. Her educated classes tended ta be skeptical under the influence of Greek philosophers, but regardless of their private beliefs they did not question the utility of official observances of pagan festivals and rites.
ln very few other civilisations has the chief city which was their centre played the part Rome played in the growth of what is called Roman civilisation. Roman citizenship conferred privileges fram which non-Romans were excluded, and loyalty ta Rome was almost a religious obligation and its absence punishable with death. When Rome became a great empire outsiders fought for the rare privilege of being admitted to the honour of being Roman citizens. Piety in the eyes of a Roman implied upholding the virtues of courage, fearlessness in the face of danger, honour and patriotism. These values continued to be regarded highly irrespective of whatever gods the Romans worshipped and they were considered eternal verities not affected by one’s mode of worship.
The gods, especiaily Jupiter, were honoured with impressive temples, some of which survive to this day, but we do not hear of the values the Romans cared for being attributed to any single deity.
Republican as weil as imperial Rome presented a rather puzzling spectacle of high sophistication in the manner in which the city organised its administration and codified its laws along with a taste for barbarie sports and morallaxity. The gladiatorial bouts in which the contestants were encouraged to slay each other, the fascination with which spectators watched girls being compelled to sport in pools in the Colisseum to be devoured by crocodiles to the applause of crowds, the system of forcing criminals to face pet lions in the same arena-ail this betrays a strain of cruelty in the Roman character which seems out of keeping with Rome’s undoubted achievenments in many fields. As Rome grew richer and her citizens grew more wealthy, the upper classes, or parti cians, threw ail restraint to the winds. The imperial household itself became notorious for unbelievable orgies, even the usually inviolable laws of incest were cast aside, perversions openly practised, and conjugal loyalties more honoured in the breach than in the observance. The doctrine that an emperor cou Id regard himself as a god freed them from ail obligation to pay court to morality. Nero, whose name has become a byword for barbarities, married his mother and later murdered her. That he could do so without a convulsion among the citizens is a reflection as much of the weakness of the political system in imperial Rome as of the disastrous decline of morality among the Romans. Few exceeded him in their excesses but a large number of her rulers have gone down in history as monsters of cruelty, displaying in their conduct an indifference to ethics and morals which darkens Rome’s record as the centre and creator of one of the greatest ancient civilizations. The expression ‘the splendour that was Rome’ conceals much that was far from splendid.
There were exceptions, of course. Augustus, the tirst emperor, is remembered as an ideal ruler. Marcus Aurelius who ascended the throne in the second century was a philosopher whose Mediatations are justly tamous. He was not a Christian but he exemplified Christian virtues better than many Christian successors.
Rome did not posses any scriptures, no sacred book and consequently no code comparable to the Shariah of the Muslims. To later ages Virgil’s epic, the Acncid, in which ail the ancient Roman vitues are celebrated came to acquire the prestige of a holy book in sorne senses. It was even consulted for oracles which could be distilled from the verse. The virtue which the hero Aeneas placed above ail was piety, a term which embraced honour, patriotism, loyalty to one’s family, and of course duty. To this love was subordianted. Aeneas did not hesitate to sacrifice his attachment to Dido, the Carthaginian queen, on the altar of dut Ywhen he felt that it had began to interfere with his mission which was to found a new home for the Trojans defeated by the Greeks.Aeneas was a mythical figure, but this symbolised ail that was best in the Roman character.
Rome’s paganism is now a memory except in European literature where to this day her myths, like those of Greece, are widely used. Her pantheon has totally lost its religious value, but Rome continues to be an inseparable part of Europe’s culturallegacy. Her literature, her architecture, her legal code, the roads and aqueducts Rome built, her sculpture, her open-air theatres, her town planning inspire Europe as models. Rome’s military organisation is another aspect of Rome’s legacy much admired in modem Europe.
By the time Islam appeared on the scene the Roman empire had become effete and its successor the Byzantine empire fell eventually to the Muslim Turks in 1453, a landmark in the history of both Europe and Islam. The Muslims were thrown into contact with Rome also in north Africa which had been colonised by the Romans. But it was the culture and philosophy of Greece which attracted them more than the civilsation of Rome.
Ancient Greece of Hellas as its people called it is regraded by ail scholars as the single most influential source of modern European civilisation. Its philosophers, dramatists, poets and scientists have for centuries dominated the European mind, and early Muslim thinkers studied Aristotle and Plato and other Greek writers and were influenced by them. They were simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by it. The paganism ofGreece puzzled the Muslims; that a people so endowed as the Greeks could worship a plurality of gods and at the same time produce a philosophy which appeared to be monothestic admitted of no easy explanation. It was not possible to condemn men like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle as polytheists; yet none of them rejected polytheism in clear terms. Socrates on his death-bed reminded his disciples to offer a sacrifice to Aesculapius on his behalf without the slightest hesitation, but one gathers from the Dialogues Plato wrote to record his conversations that he was too clear-headed a thinker to believe in the reality of any god or goddess. Aristotle goes perhaps furthest in his commitment as we might cali it to a monotheistic philosophy but there is no open denunciation of paganism as such. His proof in support of there being a First Cause is still quoted in works on philosophy, but the question whether Aristotle worshipped the pagan gods as a mark of his conformity is not susceptible of a simple answer in the absence of clear historical evidence to this effect.
No ancient people displayed the smae subtlety in their understanding of the multiple aspects of life as the Greeks and Modern civilisation owes more to them than to any other race or people. They influenced the Romans, the Persians, the Indians, and the peoples of the Middle East and even Egypt in the later stages of its history, and thanks to Alexander’s conquests Hellenism spread ail over the civilised worldoutside of China and Japan and south-east Asia. It was they who laid the foundations of modern science and medicine, and the Muslims, when the Islamic civilisation in ail its diverse forms began to take stape, did not shrink trom borrowing from them. The system of medicine developed by the Muslims is still called Unani medicine, the word Unan being lonia in its Arabie form, and lona had been colonised and settled by the Greeks.
If it is not possible to understand the origins of modern Western civilisation without reference to Greece, it is also difficult to understand certain aspects of Islamic civilsation without them. The Arabs who were the first Muslims to be thrown into contact with the Greeks were conscious of deep differences between the basis of Islam and its approach to life and the Greek way of life, and as far as the basic beliefs of Muslims are concerned, the doctrines of oneness of God and Prophethood, they owe nothing to the Greeks. But the term civisation embraces ail aspects of life, art, architecture, poetry, philosophy, engineering, medicine, science and so on. Therefore, to recognise our dept to Greece is not to belittle the achievements of the Arabs, Persians, Turks, Mughals and other peoples who built the edifice of Islamic civilisation, but only to acknowledge the facts of history.
An understanding of the Greek approach to life calls for attention to twO things, as in the case of the Indian Hindus, the religion of the common man in Greece which was plainly polytheistic and the religious ideas of the Greek philosophers who were the first in the world’s history as far as we know to probe the ultimate origins of things, the nature of ultimate reality, and who attempted an analysis of such problems as the basic constituents of matter and the significance of change and reriewal in the universe.
There is no term like popular Hinduism to signify the popular paganism of Greece. Hellenism means something wider and is not a religious term at ail. Again, although ancient Greek history, unlike the history of the Indian Hindus, is a matter of only a few centuries it points to profound changes in the Greek conception of the role of gods and is characterised by a continuous effort to define their functions. Aeschylus, the first of the great Greek dramatists, is reverential towards Zeus and Pallas Athena; Euripides, the dramatist who came after, is frankly skeptical and does not hesitate to make fun of them.
Yet another point worth bearing in mind about the Greeks is that Greece or Hellas is a geographical expression rather than the designation of a united country with a united state. Ancient G reece as we know it was a collection of city states who fought against one another. The centre of Greek civilisation was Athens, the most advanced of the Greek cities, unrivalied for its achievements in politics, philosophy, literature and the sciences. The Greeks were however conscious of their racial unit y and a common identity which was spiritual. Not only did they worship the sa me pantheon, but they spoke the same language and shared a common contempt for outsiders whom they calied barbarians. The Olympie Games held at intervals of four years from the earliest times were an occasion when Greeks of ail shades of political opinion met and took part in athletic contests.
The Greek pantheon of gods has at its head Zeus, the mightiest of the deities, who was feared by ail others because of his immense strength. He was the son of Cronos whom he overthrew. The dominions which Cronos used to rule were then divided among his sons. Zeus took possession of the upper realms, Poseidon ruled the seas, and Hades reigned over the dark underworld. The Greeks believed Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, perpetually wreathed in snow and mist, to be the home of the gods.
The gods were frankly polygamous, and their consorts were equally famous for their habit of having numerous lovers. Indeed the modern man who tries to understand the role of Greek gods and goddesses cannot help being struck by the similarity between gods and human beings. Only the former were more powerlul, had no fear of death, and could with impunity do what they pleased. Nor were they subject to pain or suffering. The Greeks conceived them in their own likeness but freed from the limitations of earthly existence. The gods were not only personifications of natural forces but also idealizations of human desires and ambitions. The Greeks loved imagining them doing what they could no do on account of the numerous restrictions which were necessarily an essential feature of life, restrictions imposed by biology and geography alike. They knew that without morality no form of organised civilised existence is possible, but the gods were not subject to any moral laws. They could be watched with fascination but not imitated. This do es not however mean that the gods did not enforce any morality. They were custodians of justice, integrity, and fairness; they rewarded honesty, chastity, and hospitality, and above ail they expected man to avoid hubris, a concept which embraced such vices as overweening conceit, arrogance and egotism. Any attempt by man to compare himself to the gods was punished. Niobe, a figure in Greek mythology, lost ail her chi/dren because she had the audacity to think that they wére as beautiful as Apollo and his sister.
Not only did the 90ds take a direct interest in human affairs; they sometimes partronised particular persons and fought with each other over them. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, for instance, favoured Paris who abducted Helen and triggered the Trojan war which is the theme of Homer’s epics, and her rival, Hera, the consort of Zeus, was on the side of the jilted husband, Menelaus, and the enmity between the two was responsible for much suffering on either side.
Zeus himself occasionally intervened in the war, and it was his decree that Tory should be destroyed. Areas, the war god, Pallas Athena and many others were involved in the GreekTrojan conflict.
The Greeks peopled every mountain, sea, cave, river and promontory with spirits. There were lesser deities who dwelt in them but who ail the same needed to be propitiated. Whatever appeared mysterious and could not be easily explained was associated with a god or goddess.
Where the Greeks differed from other ancient peoples is in dismissing the idea of there being a heaven and a hall. Ali the dead went to the same dominion underground ruled by Pluto or Hades: good men and bad men alike, condemned to a perpetuai existence as shades. There was no Judgement.
One of the most powerful religious ideas was the concept of Nemesis, analogous to the Hindu idea of Karma, which no one could escape. If a wrong was committed it had to be paid for in suffering sooner or later, and the sins of forefathers were apt to be visited upon their progeny. Agamemnon, who was treacherously slain by his wife, was the victim of a chain of sins which began with his ancestor A1reus. Orestes, his son, avenged the murder by kilting his mother Clytemnestra and thus became a marticide. It was not until Pallas Athena, the goddess of wisdom, decided that the law of revenge must be replaced by a higher law of justice that the nexus of sin, retribution and sin was finally broken. This is the theme of one of the greatest plays in Greek by Aeschylus and represents an evolution in Greek religious thought. Nemesis suggests a belief in an inexoralle fate. It was interestingly a force which even the gods could not disregard. They were fully subject to it. They sometimes tried to forestall it by swallowing their progeny if it was thought that the latter were destined to overthrow them.
The gods were not only jealus of each other, but sometimes . went to the length of participating in human conflict on different
sides.Their involvment in human affairs extended to occasion al
amours between them and mortals upon whom they could if
they so desired confer the gift of immortality.
Tithonus, the lover of Eos, is not the figure in Greek mythology to have been made immortal, but whether the Greeks actually believed in human beings being able to attain immortality is doubtful. We do not hear of any historical person’s praying for it.
Another interesting Greek idea which did not appear odd even to a philosopher like Aristotle was that the planets and other heavenly bodies owed their motion to gods; there was a god behind each who pushed it.
The gods and goddesses were worshipped by chants, processions and offerings of sacrifice; bulls, sheep and pigs were the usual sacrificial animais, but human sacrifice is also heard of. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to obtain Artemis’ permission to sail with his fleet to Troy; Achilles, the hero of the lIiad slaughters several Trojan prisoners of war to appease the spirit of his friend Patroclus. But it is true that no Greek thinker advocated human sacrifice as a proper means of obtaining favours from gods.
By the time Greece attained the zenith of its intellectual advancement in 5th-century B. C. Athens under the statesman Pericles, paganism in the orthodox sense ceased to be a correct description of its religious beliefs except for the masses. Some of the thinkers were plain materialists; some considered ethics more important than religion. The free spirit of intellectual enquiry which Athens fostered led to the development of several schools of philosophy among which we can distinguish the idealists, materialists, and sophists. They were many who could no be easily categorised.
There is one important difference between Greek and Indian philosophy. Bth grew out of a pagan background, but whereas the Indian thinkers seem to have tried to find intellectual justifications of the polytheistic practices of the community, their Greek counterpart advanced ideas which struck at the root of popular paganism, and did away with the gods.
ln other words, religion and philosophy in Greece as at the present day pursued two different courses. Undoubtedly the frankly agnostic or atheistic beliefsof the sophists undermined popular faith in the infallibility of religious doctrines, but the average Greek continued till the end to worship his gods, offer sacrifices, and honour the numerous spirits which according to superstition populated the landscape.
The cumulative outcom of the teachings of such men as Zeno, Protagoras, Empedocles and above ail Socrates, Greece’s greatest teacher, was the promotion of a spirit of free enquiry unlike anthing known in the world before. If was of Socrates that Plato provided a partially idealised portrait as a man who probed things to their roots, analysed every belief and doctrine to expose its weaknesses, questioned ail popular assumptions and became ultimately such a threat to orthodoxy that he was executed as an enemy to the state. Both Plato and his disciple Aristotle, Greece’s greatest philosopher, built the structure of their systems upon the foundations of Socratic thought. Although Socrates did not fail to observe the customary religious ceremonies, he rejected the thesis that morality must be based on what was supposed to be the will of the gods. Man, he taught, must frame moral laws in the light of his own conscience on clearly defensible rational principles.
When the Muslims were first thrown into contact with the Greeks, they did not reject the Greek legacy outright. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle became household names among them in their Arabicised forms, Socrat, Aflatun, and Aristu. The Socratic methods of reasoning as reflected in Plato’s Dialogues and Aristotle’s logic were admired and borrowed by Muslim philosophers, but where their conclusions contradicted the teachings of the Ouran, especially in regard to Revelation, they recoiled from them. Aristotle’s proofs in support of the existence of a Primus Mobile, the Unmoved Mover, were generally thought to supply evidence for belief in God but many realised that Aristotle’s God such as He is different from the Muslim conception of Allah. Aristotle however excercised so great a fascination on Muslim thinkers that they became the greatest Aristotelians of the Middle Ages. Ibn Rushd or Averroues who belonged to the 12th century was the most eminent among them.
From the Greeks the Muslims borrowed in other areas also, especially in science and medicine and in both their contributions acquired new dimensions. The Greeks were great at speculative philosophy but not very interested in practical experiment. This is the lacuna that the Muslim Arabs supplied.
Here again we face another puzzle. While some of the Greeks went so far as to predict the complete-Copernican system-Aristarchus is the most eminent name in this areaPythagoras, a philosopher, thought that the heavenly bodies transmitted a kind of music symphonically. He was also a believer in the theory of transmigration. Aristotle attributed a soul to the vegetable world. These ideas are difficult to reconcile with the progress the Greeks made in astronomy and philosophy in broad terms.
Much importance was attached in Greek religious life to oracles. The oracle of Apollo at Delphi was consulted by men of ail classes on questions of morality and policy. It is these oracular utterances that supplied the place of scripture to a certain extent. Besides, to the Greeks of historical times Homer’s epics composed in the 8th century B.C. semmed possessed of the same prestige as regular scripture. They too were consulted as oracles.
The Greeks developed no eschatology proper, no theory about an after-life, or a Doomsday. Present life was ail that mattered, and they concentrated ail their attention on extracting from it the fullest relish of its manifold gifts. Life was to be enjoyed, but this did not mean the gratification of vulgar tastes only. The highest enjoyment lay in the development of man’s artistic sensibilities. No ancient people cultivated the pursuit of beauty to the same extent as the Greeks. Alike in their literature, sculpture, painting, ceramics and architecture they were able to achieve a degree of excellence which has rarely been surpassed. Their astronomical speculations were surprising in that they anticipated many modern advances. But they avoided anything which can be likened to that mystical search for the ultimate meaning of things which characterised Middle Esatern and Indian religions. The most typical Greek thinker from this point of view was Epicurus born in 341 B.C. He rejected both religion and philosophy and preached that the highest good consisted in the pursuit of happiness. Since man was not destined to know the final truth about the world he lives in why should he waste the few years he has on earth vainly trying to seek the unknowable ? Epicureanism however did not stand for riotous living. Epicurus advocated moderation as the secret which coutd best yield the greatest pleasure of which life is capable.
Characteristic of the Greek approacch to life is the fact that Greece produced no prophets, only philosophers. Not even Socrates was venerated as a religious teacher.
There is no single definition which covers ail aspects of the Greek spiritual experience. They were believers at the same time in a plurality of gods and in there being behind ail phenomena a single reality. Plato regarded ail visible objects as copies of their originals in heaven, but he leaves the nature of this heaven vague. Aristotle gave the world the idea of Primum Mobile, an unmoved Mover, but went no further in the sense in which Islam defines the relations between man. and God. Greece bred simultaneously-that is, within the limits of its history materialism, paganism, atheism, and philosophies which presuppose the existence of a single spiritual reality. It is the many-sidedness of the Greek legacy which has fascinated Europe and other parts of the modern world. They are important for Muslims also because, apart from what in common with the rest of humanity we have inherited trom them, in sciences and art, we have to remember that the earliest schools of Muslim philosphers were so impressed by Plato and Aristotle that it is in the light of their ideas that they attempted to understand the Quran. Those interpretations form part of the Islamic legacy.
How greatly the Greeks had influenced the early Muslims can be guessed from the controversy between the Mutazalites and the Asharites, the two schools which dominated the eight and ninth centuries. The former have been called Free Thinkers, because of thie refusai to believe that the Quran is eternal. The Asharities, on the other hand, defended the orthodox position that the Quran as the Word of Allah could not be anything but eternal. Both schools used methods of logical reasoning in which the influence of Aristotle could be perceived.