Alice C. Linsley
Migration out of Africa 100,000 BC
Mining Red Ochre 80,000 BC
Migration out of Africa 70,000 BC
Oldest calendar 34,000 BC
Migration out of Africa 20,000 BC
Ancient Astronomy 10,000 BC
Law of Tehut 5,000 BC
Moral Codes 3,000 BC
“The priests of the Sun at Heliopolis never carry wine into their temples, for they regard it as indecent for those who are devoted to the service of any god to indulge in the drinking of wine whilst they are under the immediate inspection of their Lord and King. The priests of the other deities are not so scrupulous in this respect, for they use it, though sparingly.”-- Plutarch (c. AD 46-120)
Anthropology, linguistics, archaeology and DNA studies have enabled scholars to gain a better understanding of the ethical concerns, morality and religious beliefs of archaic populations. Some of those findings are presented in Some Marks of Prehistoric Religion, The High Places, and Religion of the Archaic Rulers.
Ancient Moral Codes
Archaeology and anthropology have contributed to our understanding of ethics among ancient peoples and civilizations. 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.
Ancient codes appealed to a high authority for their validity. They were developed under the authority of kings and chiefs. The oldest known law code is that of King Menes of Egypt. It is called the Law of Tehut and dates to about 5000 year ago. Menes made Memphis the capital of a united Egypt and administered justice and issued edicts which were intended 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.
Another ancient law codes is that of Ur-Nammu from the reign of King Shulgi (c. 2095-2047 BC). It originally held 57 laws that addressed family and inheritance, rights of slaves and laborers, and agricultural and commercial tariffs. The Code or King Shugi prescribed compensation for wrongs, as in this example: “If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half mina of silver.” (BAR, Vol. 28, Sep/Oct 202, p.30). This wording is similar to laws of retributive justice found in the Code of Moses (an eye for an eye…).
A more recent code is that of King Hammurabi. It dates to about 3500 years ago. It was engraved on a stele of dark stone more than 7 feet high. At the top appears an image of King Hammurabi standing reverently before the seated Shamash, the solar deity of justice (shams means Sun and ash means throne). 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, the Code of Moses closes with this: “These are the commandments which YHWH commanded Moses for the children of Israel.” (Leviticus 27:34).
Hammurabi was an Amorite (Semite) who became King of Babylon about the time that Abraham left his father’s house in Haran and settled in the land of Canaan. Hammurabi’s capital was in the Fertile Crescent, about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad. Although the city states of the Fertile Crescent shared common customs and religious practices, they were not unified as a single nation or empire under one king. The cultural conformity came instead from the fact that the independent rulers of the region were blood relatives. Intermarriage between ruling families was a way to form political alliances and required rulers to come to the defense of their kinsmen. The pattern of intermarriage between ruling lines contributed to social stability and the preservation of the people’s cultural heritage.
When reading ancient moral codes, one is struck by their religious quality. That is because religion and government were never separate in the ancient world. The moral codes of ancient societies were not produced by a chamber of legislators. The laws were drawn from traditions preserved by kings and priests. Many of the royal advisers were high ranking religious leaders. This is evident today in primitive societies governed by tribal councils. The chief’s advisers include married, property-owning men, and the holy man, who was either a priest or a shaman.
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. 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 (God) 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 shedding of blood in war was a concern for ancient rulers and their warriors. After combat, warriors underwent cleansing rituals. There is a hint of this in the account of the priest Melchizedek visiting Abraham after the great battle between the kings (Genesis 14).
For both shamans and priests the shedding of blood, especially human blood, was of great concern. Blood was believed to hold the essence of life. The shedding of blood stirred anxiety in the community and, in the case of murder, there was also blood guilt. Ancient laws addressed this in great detail. Such laws were passed from generation to generation and upheld by the rulers.
In archaic societies religious laws governed every aspect of community life. The laws found in Leviticus and in ancient Vedic (Hindu) texts are examples. These texts provide instructions on the construction of stone fire altars, how offerings are made in the temples and shrines, and the isolation and restoration on lepers who have been 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.
Ethical Concerns about Bloodshed
Archaic societies regarded the shedding of blood to be a moral issue of the first magnitude. They believed that the shedding of blood by murder or war could bring great misfortune or curses upon the killer. Therefore, before the hunting party departed, the priest or shaman offered sacrifice to the spirits of the animals. When someone killed another human by accident, the killer provided an animal to be sacrificed. This was a substitute for the man’s own life. The guilty party was also required to pay retribution to the victim’s family. This payment usually included livestock and gold or silver.
The person who killed on purpose forfeited his life or was expelled permanently from the village. He became a wanderer and was exposed to great dangers that often cost his life. Given that the people of the typical archaic village were blood relatives, there was a desire to avoid killing a guilty kinsman. Expulsion or exile was the natural solution. This practice is behind the accounts of biblical figures that were sent away for killing a man. Cain and Moses are examples.
There was anxiety also 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 attended them.
The story of the first man - Adam - is a reference to blood. Adam is derived from the words ha-dam, meaning “the blood.”
Ethical Concerns about Water
Archaic rulers 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 the Earth’s climate changed. Today central Africa, Palestine, Mesopotamia and India are generally dry, but 10,000 to 20,000 years ago these areas were wet, fed by rivers many miles wide. The basins of these now extinct or much diminished rivers have been identified by satellite photos. Many ancient laws pertain to river commerce and water rights.
Rulers controlled the major water systems and received tariffs from those who moved cargo along their water ways. They also received tribute from lesser rulers and this was used to maintain order in their territories. Royal priests were responsible for the river shrines and, as the king’s agents, collected tariff monies from passing ships. A portion of this was offered to the shrine deity and used to maintain the shrine in the king’s name. All the great Egyptian shrines and monuments were built along the Nile at a time when that river was much wider. This includes the three pyramids as Giza, the three pyramids at Saqqara, and the three pyramids at Abusir. The pyramids reflect an ancient kingdom-building tradition among Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors.
As the Sahara and much of the Middle East and India became arid many ancient lakes disappeared entirely. Water was not as plentiful and some laws changed to guarantee water for travelers. Caravans moving through arid regions found safe refuge at oases and springs. Wells and public watering holes became, by law, places of immunity. There was to be no fighting in that place. This was all the more necessary since the water sources were frequented by women and children whose job it was to draw and carry water.
Ethics of Family and Territories
The earliest forms of government were kinship based. The ethical standards of archaic communities developed out of their kinship. For example, Horite ruler-priests married female relatives, including half-sisters and cousins. Abraham married his half-sister Sarah. Their father was Terah, but they had different mothers. His cousin wife was Keturah who gave Abraham six sons (Genesis 25). Abraham, Sarah and Keturah had common ancestors and lived in relatively stable communities. It is easier to govern when people share common ancestors from whom they receive a common ethical and moral outlook. Multi-cultural societies, such as modern America, are more difficult to govern because there are many competing values and traditions.
Later forms of government involved control of larger territories. Rulers formed alliances with potential aggressors, often by contracting a marriage between their sons and daughters. Treaties to support one another in the even 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
The earliest form of government was the tribal council. The tribal council consisted of the ruler (tribal chief) and his advisors, one of which was either a priest or shaman. Although women were consulted outside the council meetings, women were not members of the council. The council enforced laws, rendered decisions in cases of conflict, and determined punishments for law-breakers. The council deliberated about how to avoid war and if war was necessary, developed a war strategy. A very ancient law dictated the treatment of those sent to deliver messages. Messengers were to be granted safe travel through enemy territory and protection for their return home.
Another common practice was consultation of oracles, seers or prophets. When a tribal council or an individual was uncertain as to the best action, the seer was consulted. This person was gifted to discern divine direction or guidance. When the ruler wanted to justify breaking a law, he sometimes consulted a prophet in hopes that the prophet would provide a different answer from what was written in the law code. This lead to a tradition that the test of the true prophet was that he upheld the law even if it meant defying the king, while the false prophet gave advice contrary to the law in hopes of winning the king’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. Eliade called these “celestial archetypes.” The notion “as in the heavens, so on earth” is common among tribal peoples. Their rituals and ceremonies mirror celestial patterns which were understood by extensive astronomical observations. These observations were done by the ruler’s advisers and there was a risk that their calculations might be wrong. If the ceremony was not performed on exactly the right day, the advisers could be blamed for violating a celestial pattern. If war broke out, or the crops failed, or there was a flood, the ruler’s advisers were blamed. This happened to Chinese astronomers who failed to predict the solar eclipse of 2134 BC. The emperor ordered that they all be executed. The threat of punishment, even death, motivated the king’s advisers to be as accurate as possible in their calculations. This led to the development of sidereal astronomy. The sidereal day (four minutes longer than the solar day) is the time required for the earth’s rotation to be synchronized with fixed stars. 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.
When making ethical decisions, especially decisions that pertained to the timing of important events such as royal weddings and the signing of treaties, ancient peoples relied on observations of the stars and constellations which move in a clock like pattern. 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 developed out of an ethical concern to uphold the celestial pattern 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. It is evident from the study of archaic communities that their conceptions of non-material entities (metaphysics) influenced their development of science (physics). Their discoveries also influenced their views of existence (ontology).
Archaic observers of the heavens made the first astronomical charts based on the visible fixed stars in the night sky. They developed a coordinate system that astronomers use even today. They tracked the Sun's position among the stars and how the sun’s position affects temperatures on earth. They observed the 12 lunar phases and used these observations to establish religious festivals and the best times for hunting, planting and harvesting. The royal advisers kept records of their observations over such a long time that they began to accurately predict solar and lunar eclipses.
Technologies of archaic communities include stone and metal tools and weapons. Mud bricks were used in the construction of granaries. The ancient Egyptians built ships with sails and sailed the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. About 80,000 years ago, people living in the Lebombo Mountains of southern African had sophisticated tunnel mines from which they extracted red ochre for use in the burial of rulers. Around the world the graves of noble persons were lined with a fine red dust ground from red ochre. Anthropologists believe that the red dust represented blood and the hope of life after death.
The Lebombo Bone reveals that humans were marking time 40,000 years ago. This is the oldest known artifact used to track the seasons based on observation of the lunar phases.
The interest of archaic peoples to know their time and place relative to the heavens suggests an ethical concern about not violating divinely-established boundaries. This is exactly what Ethics considers. Where is the boundary between right and wrong, or between good and evil? What is the limit or boundary when asserting my rights over the rights of another person? Are boundaries relative to the individual? Are there universally accepted boundaries which guide moral decisions? These are some of the questions considered in this course.
Summary (This is helpful to prepare for the Lesson One quiz.)
Ancient Law Codes
The earliest law codes date to the between 5000 and 2000 BC and reveal a high level of sophistication. These codes reflect an already well-established practice of codification of laws. The laws were both practical and religious in nature. They derived their authority from the king who was regarded as the earthly representative of the deity.
Citizens were morally obligated to obey the laws because they were regarded as divinely inspired and given through the king. 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” to make and enforce laws. However, regnal corruption and extravagance led to the adoption of the Magna Carta which forced the English king to acknowledge limits to his powers and to protect the rights of the feudal barons. The Magna Carta is considered the first form of a “bill of rights” in the English language.
Blood and Blood Guilt
Bloodshed was one of the principal ethical concerns of archaic man. Archaic societies regarded the shedding of blood to be a moral issue of the first magnitude. The shedding of human blood, either as an act of murder or in war, caused anxiety or “blood guilt” because it could bring curses or great misfortune to the killer.
Priests addressed the guilt and anxiety felt by individuals and communities when human life was taken. They offered prayers and sacrifices to cover the offense to the Creator. Shamans offered prayers and sacrifices to appease the spirits of the dead so that these spirits would not bring harm to the individual or the community. The person who intentionally murdered was often expelled from the community.
While priests and shamans served similar functions in their communities, their worldviews were different. The priest sought to restore a right relationship to the Creator whose law was violated, while the shaman sought to appease the spirits that bring calamity to the community because of the offense.
Social Organization of Archaic Communities
The earliest form of government was the tribal council. The tribal council consisted of the chief, his advisers called “elders” and the holy man (either a priest of shaman). Social and political organization among archaic peoples reflected the hierarchy of kings, tribal rulers, priests, warriors, and prophets. Rulers married royal brides. Kinship was the basis of alliances between rulers of adjoining territories. Moral obligation to obey the ruler was based on the loyalty to kin and on the belief that the ruler’s power came by divine appointment.
Discerning the Divine Pattern
Royal advisers studied the stars and constellations because it was believed that humans are to order their ways on earth according to the celestial pattern. This idea is found in these words of the Lord’s Prayer: “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Concern about following the celestial pattern led to the development of sidereal astronomy. By studying the relationship of stars and their heavenly movement, the ruler’s advisors calculated the most auspicious time for sacred ceremonies, royal weddings, times to plant and 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.
Related reading: Ancient Wisdom, Science and Technology; Mining Blood, Ethics and Archaic Communities; Ancient Seats of Wisdom; What is a Priest?; Males as Spiritual Leaders: Two Patterns