Closing Out The Ancient Era
What we’re calling the ancient era is the period before the great collapse of 1,200 BC. Folliowing that was an intermediate period of breakup and change that ran from 1,200 BC to 800 BC, sometimes called “the dark age of the Greeks.” The time after about 800 BC is what people call Classical Civilization; it was the era of the famous civilizations of Greece and Rome.
All of these dates are approximate, of course. And there were always variations and exceptions.
But before we move into the Classical era, and from there into Western civilization, we need to look at some areas we haven’t examined very closely up till now. It’s important to get a as full an understanding of these people as we can before we move on.
Actual Religious Practice
Religion, of course, has been part of life as far back as we can see, and there are strong reasons for this. One is simply the fact that people die. That makes people question what happens after they die, and from there into questions about the purpose of our lives.
Another thing that drives religion is simply the scope of the universe. The night sky has always presented humans with a mystery. Staring us in the face, every night, is a challenge to guess what’s out there in that immense vastness.
On top of that, a large number of people have had exceptional experiences of one kind or another: when something happened that “shouldn’t have happened” or when they knew something they really couldn’t have known. These are usually called spiritual experiences, and no matter how poorly we interpret them or explain them, they do happen. This also drives religion.
Finally, there is value in believing, just by itself. Believing in something, even if it’s not entirely true, organizes our inner lives, making us more efficient. And if the things we believe are mainly benevolent, belief gives beauty to our lives.
Most of the information we get about religions and practices comes to us from documents religious leaders left behind. But the fact is that religions were never followed precisely. And we can be very certain of this because we have so many records of religious leader complaining about their followers.
This preference for beliefs and practices other than the official or main religion wasn’t a terribly large problem in the ancient days, mainly because new and different religions were tolerated, so long as you practiced the official, city religion as well. Forsaking the city religion and staying exclusively with a new religion was, however, seen as a very large problem. (Again, these being collective religions, save for that of the Hebrews and perhaps the Phoenicians.) Moreover, these religions had no fixed body of sacred scriptures, as religions tend to today.
The best examples of actual religious practice being different from authorized practice comes to us from the Hebrews, at the end of the ancient period and through the intermediate period. From the time of the famed Exodus (roughly 1,200 BC) and onward, we are given a long string of stories of the Hebrew people going after foreign gods, mostly Phoenician, Canaanite and Semitic. This isn’t too surprising, being that the Hebrews were also Semites, and so were dabbling with the gods of their cousins. Still, it was it was quite contrary to the Israelite religion.
First we see the famous story of coming out of Egypt but demanding that the priest (Aaron) make a golden calf for them to worship. Following that are repetitious warning about serving gods such as Baal, Bel and Ashtoreth.
If the people weren’t sacrificing to those gods in large numbers, no complaints and threats would have been necessary.
And so the Hebrews, for centuries, gave offerings to other gods, whom they hoped would act of their behalf. The religion the Hebrew actually practiced, then, was as much folk religion as the religion of Moses.
Later we see this very dramatically, in the story of a young Judean king named Josiah. In roughly 622 BC, 18 year-old Josiah ordered renovations of the temple and “found the book of the law.” The text (2 Kings 22) goes on to say that Josiah tore his clothes when he heard the reading of the book. Then he gathered all the people to Jerusalem and made them listen to it.
The Josiah story also tells us that both the high priest and the leading scribe were ignorant of the law. And so, even during the biblical period, the Judean people practiced folk religions to a very large extent.
It was during the sixth century BC (600-501 BC) that the Hebrew religion turned into Judaism: a portable religion strongly tied to written text. After that, folk religion began to decline.
On average, people in the ancient era lived shorter lives than we do. That doesn’t mean there were no elderly people (there were), but that many more people died early, usually from diseases and infections.
A lot of young children (from birth to five years) died in the old days, mainly from diseases that are easily cured or prevented now. It was also the case that a simple infection could kill, and sometimes did. But aside from these things – if they somehow avoided them – people could live to be 60, 70, 80 or even 90 years old.
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