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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Ethics and Archaic Communities

Alice C. Linsley

With this article, students should read The Religious Impulse Among Archaic Communities.


Migration out of Africa          100,000 BC
Mining red ochre                    100,000 BC
Migration out of Africa           70,000 BC
Oldest calendar                      34,000 BC
Migration out of Africa           12,000 BC
Ancient astronomy                10,000 BC                
Law of Tehut                          5,000 BC
Moral codes                            3,000 BC

Defining Ethics

Ethics is that branch of philosophy dealing with values related to human conduct. It assesses the rightness and wrongness of actions and motives, and the moral justification of the consequences of actions.

For our purposes, ethics is the study of observed and perceived boundaries that are generally honored among all peoples. Actions are thus judged against the backdrop of boundaries defined by binary sets: life-death; male-female.  It is not morally right to murder because murder is unjustified violation of the boundary of individual life.  It is not morally right to steal because stealing violates the boundary of individual or communal property.

Ancient Moral Codes

The most ancient moral codes have many features in common. They appeal to the authority of the deity who was recognized by the ruler and they view the ruler as the deity's earthly representative. Another common feature is a concern for purity among the priestly caste as they were regarded as the mediators between the deity and the ruler and his people. Often the rulers themselves were priests, as in the case of Horite ruler-priests. When it came to ritual purity, especially to cleanse from blood guilt, ruler-priests turned to other priests for rituals of absolution. An example of this is found in the account of Abraham returning from battle and receiving the priestly ministrations of Melchizedek.

Most of what we know about ancient moral codes comes from archaeological and anthropological research. These fields, along with linguistics and biblical studies, have contributed enormously to our understanding of ethics among ancient peoples.

Babylonian clay tablets dating to the 3rd century BC reveal business laws and moral codes of considerable sophistication. Moral codes such as the Code of Hammurabi did not spring suddenly into existence. They represent centuries of social development and social control.

The Code of Hammurabi was engraved on a stele more than 7 feet high.  At the top of this stele of dark stone appears an image of King Hammurabi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the god of justice. Shamash (Shams in Arabic) is usually represented by the Sun. On the stele, Shamash is dictating the law to his earthly representative. The Code of Hammurabi closes with this statement: “The righteous laws which Hammurabi, the wise king, has established . . .” Similarly, Leviticus closes with this: “These are the commandments which YHWH commanded Moses for the children of Israel.”

When reading ancient moral codes, one is struck by their religious quality. That is because religion and government were never perceived as separate in the ancient world.  The moral codes of ancient societies were not produced by a chamber of legislators, as in modern America. They were laws drawn from both kings and priests.  Many of the kings’ advisors were high ranking religious leaders.  This is evident today in primitive societies governed by tribal councils.  The chief’s advisors include married, property-owning men, and the principle holy man, either a priest, a prophet or a shaman, depending on the cultural context.

The oldest know moral code is the Law of Tehut. This code is associated with King Menes of Egypt and dates to about 5200 years ago. Menes made Memphis the capital of a united Egypt and administered justice and issued edicts which were designed to improve food production and distribution, guard the rights of ruling families, improve education and enhance knowledge of the natural world through geometry and astronomy.

Priests and Shamans

The offices of priest and shaman are some of the oldest institutions known to humanity. The priest pertains to the Afro-Asiatic peoples of the global south and the shaman to the Altaic and Uralic peoples of the global north. While priests and shamans serve similar functions in their societies, their worldviews are very different.
Underlying shamanism is the belief that there are powerful spirits who cause imbalance and disharmony in the world (animism).  The shaman’s role is to determine which spirits are at work in a given situation and to find ways to appease the spirits. This may or may not involve animal sacrifice. Underlying the priesthood is belief in a single supreme Spirit to whom humans must give an accounting, especially for the shedding of blood. In this view, one Great Spirit holds the world in balance and it is human actions that cause disharmony.  The vast assortment of ancient laws governing priestly ceremonies, sacrifices, and cleansing rituals clarifies the role of the priest as one who offers animal sacrifice according to sacred law. 

The priests were a caste within which the younger men were apprenticed to the older priests, just as Samuel was apprenticed to Eli. Priests married the daughters of priests. Endogamy is a trait of castes. Similarly, the office of shaman runs in families and the shaman-in-training assists the shaman as part of his on-the-job training.

Bloodshed: The First Moral Law

Both worldviews share anxiety about the shedding of blood, revealing that archaic societies regarded the shedding of blood to be a moral issue of the first magnitude.  They believed blood to be the source of life, and believed that blood had the power to bring blessings or curses.  Therefore, before the hunting party departed, the priest or shaman offered sacrifice to the spirits of the hunted animals. When someone killed another human by accident, the killer was to provide an animal to be sacrificed in his place and was to pay satisfaction to the victim’s family. If he killed on purpose, he would forfeit his life. All of these decisions were governed by laws that were passed from generation to generation and upheld by the rulers and their advisors.

There was even anxiety about the blood shed by women in their monthly cycle and in childbirth.  For this reason it was common for women to remain in structures outside the village during menstruation and childbirth. Female family members brought them food and other necessary provisions. After ritual purification, the women returned to their regular routines in the village. Women of the noble classes remained in their chambers where female servants provided all their needs. 

Among ancient peoples religious laws governed every aspect of the community’s life.  The laws found in Leviticus and in the ancient Vedic Brahmanas are examples. Here we read instructions for how lepers are to be put outside the community and restored to the community after they are healed.  Many of the laws govern family relations, forbidding incest and adultery.  Others establish rules for the proper treatment of slaves, foreigners, widows and orphans.

The clay tablet of the code of Ur-Nammu from the reign of King Shulgi is dated to 2095-2047 BC It originally held 57 laws which covered family and inheritance law, rights of slaves and laborers, and agricultural and commercial tariffs. This code prescribes compensation for wrongs, as in this example: "If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half a mina of silver." (Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 28, Sep/Oct 2002, p. 30.) 

Ethics in the Afro-Asiatic Dominion

The Code of Hammurabi dates to about 1750 B.C. Hammurabi was an Amorite (Semite) who became King of Babylon about the time that Abraham left his father’s house in Harran and settled in the land of Canaan. The ancient capital of Babylon was about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad and it was large city of the Fertile Crescent.  Although the city states of the Fertile Crescent shared common ideas and practices, these cities were not unified under a single ruler.  Instead they were governed by independent rulers who were often related by marriage. Marriage was a way to form political alliances, and contribute to the preservation of the people’s cultural heritage.

Havilah, Sheba, Ramah and Joktan were Kushite kinsmen with adjacent territories in southern Arabia.

Rulers of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion governed territories extending from the Atlantic coast of modern Nigeria to the Indus River valley of India.  They spoke languages in the Afro-Asiatic language family and controlled commerce on the waterways. The Afro-Asiatic world was a river civilization that disappeared when earth’s climate changed. Today central Africa, Palestine, Mesopotamia and India are dry, but 10,000 to 12,000 years ago these areas were wet and fed by rivers many miles wide.  The basins of these now extinct or much diminished rivers have been identified by satellite photos. Many of the laws of the Afro-Asiatic Dominion pertain to commerce and water rights. (For more, read Alice C. Linsley, “The Afro-Asiatic Dominion.”)

Rulers controlled the major water systems of the ancient world at a time when Africa and Asia were much wetter.  These rulers were owed tribute for maintaining order on the rivers.  Royal priests maintained shrines on the rivers where the tribute was collected, a portion being offered to the shrine deity. As the climate changed the landscape of the ancient world, some of the laws changed also.  For example, strangers who came to wells or watering holes in now arid lands were no to be harmed or taxed. Wells and public watering holes became, by law, places of immunity.  This was all the more necessary since they were frequented by women and children, whose job it was to draw water.

Ethics of Family, Caste and Territories

Before the emergence of nations, there were independent kingdoms. Adjacent kingdoms were often ruled by chiefs or kings who were brothers or close relatives. The kinsmen served as royal advisors. The earliest forms of government were kinship and caste based. The ethical standards of archaic communities developed out of their kinship and concern for preserving family wealth and caste role. The Kushite rulers married close female relatives, including half-sisters. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah by whom he hoped to have a rightful heir. Their father was Terah, but they had different mothers. Abraham also married Keturah (Gen. 25) who was his patrilineal parallel cousin. That means that Keturah’s father and Abraham’s father had a common male ancestor.  It was easier to govern when everyone shared a common ancestor from whom they received a common ethical and moral outlook.

Later forms of government involved control of larger territories as families became more militaristic. Rulers formed alliances with potential aggressors, often by contracting a marriage between their sons and daughters.  Treaties to support one another in the event of attack from a third power were formalized by marriage, or by the exchange of gifts, and by solemn ceremonies that included animal sacrifices followed by a night of feasting.  While there was no reason to align the moral codes of the allied territories, the cultural exchange that took place because of the peace between them, led to sharing common ethical views. 

Councils and Oracles

Anthropological evidence indicates that the earliest laws were established by tribal councils that consisted of a chief, his advisors or elders, and the holy man. The holy man might be a shaman or a priest, and women were known to serve as advisors (though never as priests). Women were usually consulted outside the all-male council meetings and were not members of the council. 

The council set laws, interpreted laws, rendered decisions in cases of conflict, and decided punishments when laws or boundaries were violated. The council also deliberated about war strategy and how to avoid war.  One of the oldest examples of ethical practices involved the treatment of those sent to deliver messages to potential enemies. This meant crossing a territorial boundary and could mean death for the messenger. Messengers were to be granted safe travel in and out of enemy territory to deliver their messages.

Another common practice among the ancients was consultation of oracles or seers. When a tribal council or an individual was uncertain as to what would be the best action, the oracle was consulted.  The oracle was someone with the ability to discern the will of God or of the deities in particular situations. The ancient Hebrews consulted “prophets” and the ancient Babylonians relied on “astrologists.”  Often the prophet was consulted in hopes that he would provide an answer different from what was already written in the peoples’ law codes.  So the tradition developed in ancient Israel that the test of the true prophet was that he upheld the written law even if it meant defying the ruler, while the false prophet gave advice contrary to the law in hopes of winning the ruler’s favor.

As in the Heavens, so on Earth

The ethical and moral codes of ancient peoples reflect a worldview that is foreign to modern Americans. As the Romanian sociologist Mircea Eliade has shown, people of antiquity believed that things on earth are patterned after things in the heavens.  Therefore decisions were made according to astronomical observations. Usually these observations were done by priests or shamans and there was always a risk that their calculations might be wrong. If the priest didn’t perform important celebrations on exactly the right days, he might be blamed for everything that went wrong. If the ruler died, or the crops failed, or there was a natural disaster such a flood, the priest was to blame. The priest may not be executed by an unhappy emperor, as happened to Chinese astronomers who failed to predict the solar eclipse in 2134 BC, but he was still highly motivated to avoid mistakes. This led to the development of sidereal astronomy.

Solar time is the measurement of time according to the earth’s rotation around the sun, but sidereal time is the measurement relative to a distant star. It is used in astronomy to predict when a star will be overhead. In making ethical decisions, especially decisions that pertained to the timing of important events, ancient peoples relied on observations of the stars.

Today many people still place faith in astrology, although the astrology popular today is quite different from the sidereal astronomy practiced by ancient priests and seers. The sidereal day is the time required for the earth’s rotation to be synchronized with fixed stars. It is almost four minutes shorter than the solar day. Sidereal astronomy is based on the actual location of stars and constellations, unlike popular astrology which is based on culturally-relative symbolism associated with stars and constellations. Sidereal astronomy began out of an ethical concern to not violate boundaries that were believed to have been established by the Creator in the beginning.

The Beginnings of Science and Technology

Discoveries in archaeology and anthropology have pushed back the beginnings of science and technology, requiring reconsideration of the relationship between philosophy and science. It is evident from the study of early human communities that their conceptions of non-material entities (metaphysics) influenced their development of science (physics).  It is true also that their discoveries in science and technology influenced their views of reality and existence (ontology).

As mentioned before, archaic humans were avid observers of the heavens. They made the first astronomical charts based on the visible key points in the night sky. They developed a coordinate system that astronomers use even today. They tracked the Sun's position among the stars and observed  are recorded solar eclipses. They observed the lunar phases and eclipses and used their celestial observations to establish the times for festivals, hunting and planting.

Thousands of years ago rulers were building pyramids across the surface of the earth. Many of those pyramids have been identified. These pyramids reflect a fairly sophisticated knowledge of astronomy and architecture. Ancient sites such as pyramids, tombs and fortresses often align with the cardinal points and open to the east and/or west. The alignments of many ancient sites appears to reflect knowledge of sidereal astronomy.

Some sites align to the point of origin of the people who built them. Old Arabic is sometimes called "Dedanite" because that is where the largest concentration of old Arabic scripts has been found. The oldest mosques were aligned to a site in Dedan.

Kushite peoples aligned their temples to Heliopolis (Biblical Onn), the geodetic center of Egypt. The corners of most of the 4th - 6th dynasty pyramids are aligned to Heliopolis. The pyramid triads at Giza, Zaqqara and Abusir are examples. Baalbek in Lebanon, also called Heliopolis, aligns to the obelisk in Heliopolis, the City of the Sun.  The earliest human settlement were located at elevated sites near water.  The "high places" were also shrine cities.

About 70,000 years ago tunnel mines were being worked in the Lebombo Mountains from which they extracted red ocher for use in the burial of rulers. This is verified by the discovery of graves of noble persons around the world which were lined with red ochre powder.

The 4000 year old archives of Ebla reveal a worldview based on binary distinctions, systematically observed and listed. During the Neo-Sumerian period, there was great interest in the stars accessible to observation; most of these being the visible fixed stars. As far as we know, this is the beginning of sidereal astronomy. Calendar-making began much earlier. The Lebombo Bone, the oldest known calendar, reveals that humans were marking time 40,000 years ago.

The interest of archaic peoples to know their time and place relative to the heavens suggests an ethical concern about not violating perceived boundaries.  In a real sense this is exactly what Ethics considers. Where is the boundary between right and wrong, or between good and evil?  What is the limit when asserting my rights over against your rights? Are all boundaries relative to the individual’s context?  Are there fixed boundaries by which we are guided in moral decisions? Is selfishness morally justifiable? These are some of the questions to be considered in the lessons that follow.


The earliest law codes date to the 3rd century BC and reveal a high level of sophistication. These codes do not represent the beginning of the practice of codification, but reflect a period of history when that practice was already fully developed.

These ancient law codes express belief that citizens are morally obligated to obey the laws because these laws are divinely inspired and given through the king who is the Deity’s earthly representative.  This concept of moral obligation to obey the law continued through the 17th century, finding its European expression in the concept of “the divine right of kings”.

Bloodshed was one of the principal ethical concerns of archaic man.  Priests and shamans addressed the guilt and anxiety felt by both individuals and communities when human life was taken. Priests offered prayers and animal sacrifice to cover the offense to the Creator of the one who killed.  Shamans offered prayers and sacrifices to appease the spirits, including the spirits of the dead ancestors, so that these spirits would not bring harm to the individual or the community. 

While priests and shamans served a similar societal function to relieve the consequences of blood shed, it is evident that their worldviews were different. The priest is concerned about offense to the Creator while the shaman is concerned about offending the spirits.

Social and political organization among archaic peoples reflected the hierarchy of kings, tribal rulers, priests, shamans, and prophets or “oracles”.  Rulers married royal brides.  Kinship and caste formed the basis of alliances between rulers of adjoining territories.  The moral obligation to obey the ruler was based on the loyalty owed to family, clan and tribe as much as to the idea that the ruler represented the Deity.

Oracles involved study of the constellations because it was believed that “as in the heavens so on earth.” This was the origin of sidereal astronomy.  By studying the relationship of stars and their heavenly movement, the oracle established the most favorable date to hunt, to harvest, or to go to war.

Archaic peoples wanted to know their time and place relative to the heavens because they were concerned about not violating perceived boundaries. These boundaries are the framework within which ancient Man deliberated ethical concerns.

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