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Ancient Religions: A Comparison
As civilization has expanded and improved it has gone through many different religions. Some of the most interesting and different have been the Mesopotamian religion, the religion of the Greeks and finally Christianity. These three religions were practiced in different areas and different time periods and therefore they will be excellent for a comparison. Religion is a key part of every society and civilization. No matter how it is organized or what type of God they worship, a society would be nothing without some kind of deity to organize it. Through the units of study the amount that people rely on Gods has been evident and that is why this makes a very good essay topic. Three areas of religion will be used to compare each of the religions chosen, worship style, their temples or places of worship, and the nature of their God or Gods.
Each of the three religions selected had very different ideas of how to worship their God or Gods. In the Mesopotamian religion worship was very straightforward and casual. They would give daily offerings of food and drink with sacrifices during special monthly and annual feasts. The most important of these feasts was the New Year’s festival, which later on during the first millennium came to include some lesser festivals as well. These worship events were held by the Priests and Priestesses who also took care of the great wealth stored in the Mesopotamian’s temples. The director of the temple cults was the Sheshgallu; all the sacrifices were performed by the Shangu-priests. Other classes of priests dealt with the other, lesser rituals. The priestesses varied from the Entu, the consort of the God, all the way down to the temple harlots (Garber, p204). The Greeks on the other hand, did most of their worship in private. They also had festivals and rituals, but their worship was much less organized. If a person wished to pray to a god, or invoke their intervention, they would go to one of the shrines or temples of that god and say a prayer and leave a small gift. These gifts varied from frankincense or a cake to large sacrifices of animals. There were also dedications of small statuettes or even large painted vases (Webster, p79). There was no class of priests nor any real religious teachings or texts. There were no real worship services as we think of them, with large gatherings of people. There were some festivals in recognition of the gods; for example, the Olympic games began as a festival to honour the god Zeus (Walker, p131). Christianity was also often practiced in secret but for a different reason. In the early days of Christianity, Christians were persecuted for their religion. Because of this, they were often forced to practice their religion in private and in small groups. They would meet in people’s homes and sing praises to their God. It was very dangerous to worship or even pray in public because of the persecution. Worship was very simple though, small groups would meet together and simply sing songs and talk about their experiences. They would talk of who was being persecuted, pray for those in prison and being tortured. Later on in the Roman Empire things changed, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the entire Empire. Large churches were built and huge masses of people flocked to praise God. Worship stayed the same basically with singing and praying but in greater numbers. They could now worship in public without having fear. Soon there was an organized religion where before there was simply groups of believers. There were festivals and religious days recognized by the whole of Rome. The early church was like today’s Catholic church and eventually developed into the Catholic Church we know today. Many of the rituals and customs that are observed came from things done in the early days of the church (Williams, p3). These three religions had different ideas of how to worship their God or Gods; this often affected other areas of religion.
Because of these different styles of worship, each religion needs a completely different place to worship. As was mentioned earlier, the Mesopotamians stored great wealth inside their temples. The temple itself was thought of as the house of the God and therefore looked worthy for a God to live in. It was finished in precious stones and the finest timber. The design itself was simple: the temples were built around a rectangular chamber with a statue of the God in one of the short sides (Garber, 204). The outside of the temple was a massive and they were called ziggurats (Millard, p14). These ziggurats were like step pyramids with large sets of stairs leading up the many entrances. They had many levels and walkways going around it. The temple itself was actually a shrine located on the top of the ziggurat but the entire thing was considered the god’s worldly home. The interiors of the Greek temples were much like that of Mesopotamia but outside there were many differences. Greek temples were also very elaborate and beautiful. Inside there was an alter and usually a large statue of the god the temple was dedicated to. Outside, the temples were amazing. They had one or two rings of columns going all the way around the out side. These were topped by fancy carvings of marble and were very tall and impressive. The entire thing was built of marble and cost a fortune to make. There were different styles of temples from small with only 4 columns to massive with over 60 columns. The most famous and impressive Greek temple is the Parthenon in Athens; it was built for the goddess Athena, the patron goddess of Athens and cost millions (Walker, p 148). The Christian religion in the Roman days has had two real styles of worship place, none, and large, grand churches. In the early days of Christianity there were no churches or temples for people to worship at because it was a new religion. Also, because people found to be believers of god were killed, they could not really build churches. Instead they met anywhere they could, in people’s houses, underground in the catacombs or even just outside in a secluded spot. Later on though, after Christianity was recognized as the official religion of Rome, grand churches were made to honour god. Most of these were built in the gothic style with lots of marble and very complex carving. The interior was filled with rows of benches and had an alter at the front with a cross, representing Jesus’ sacrifice, hanging at the front as well. One of the interesting things about Christian churches is their steeple. None of the other religions studied have had these. Inside there was usually a bell or a collection of bells that were rung to summon people to church or to tell the time of day. A cities wealth and power was represented by the height of their church’s steeple. There have been many different styles of architecture throughout the days and different ways to show glory to the civilization’s God or Gods, this could be because of the differences in the one being worshipped.
These three styles of worship and places of worship may have been so different because of the how different the deities that they were worshiping were. In Mesopotamian religion there were well over 3000 gods and goddesses. Each city had it’s own patron god who was in charge of that city. Also it was believed that each person had their own lesser god who would appeal with the greater gods on their account. At the top of the Mesopotamian pantheon sits An, the lord of heaven and Enlil, lord of the earth. These two had an uncaring attitude toward the human beings, it was Enki, god of sweet waters, magic and wisdom, that was humanity’s friend. The Mesopotamians also had a very interesting view on doing evil and evil acts. They never blamed themselves, instead it was blamed on a demon taking over the person’s body. So therefore instead of punishing people for their crimes the Mesopotamians would try to exorcise them. People wore amulets or charms to try to keep the evil demons away. If they performed a ritual fault or accident, like touching a cursed person, it could invoke the wrath of the gods and that was when a person’s personal god would have to defend you before the greater gods (Garber, 204). Greece also had a multiple gods, but not the extremes of Mesopotamia. There were 12 gods in the Greek pantheon called the Olympian gods. Outside this group there were also two other important gods, Hades, god of the underworld and Dionysus, the god of wine. Each of these gods was anthropomorphic, meaning they have human characteristics, both the good and the bad. They had the same needs that we have and that is why there were often offerings of food left for a god or goddess. While having human characteristics, these gods were still all powerful controlling everything from the stars and planets to the harvest of grain brought in that year. Of all the ancient gods, Greek gods are the most widely known, probably for the amazing myths involved with them. Almost every single event or item on the earth has a Greek myth explaining why it is here, how it came to be here and who’s fault it is that it is here. For example, in the myth of Pandora’s box, the curious Pandora releases all the evil emotions that plague the world. This helps people take the blame off of themselves when they give into some of these emotions. Many myths are like this, to make people feel better and lay the blame on someone else. (Walker, p131) Of all the religions seen through time, the most different in the nature of god is Christianity. Like Judaism, Christians believe in a single god, making them monotheistic. They believe in the same god as Jews do, but they take it farther. They believe that Jesus Christ was the messiah, God’s son. This is what separates Christians from Jews because while the Jews still wait for the messiah’s first coming, Christians now wait for his second. God himself is seen as all-powerful, having created everything with a single thought. He is seen as having three distinct parts, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The first is the creator of all and sits up in heaven watching us down on earth. He is vengeful and quick to anger. That is where the second part comes in, God the Son, this is Jesus Christ, who took human form and came down to earth to forgive us of our sins. If it were not for him, then we would not have a chance of getting to heaven. Last is the Holy Spirit, which is the form that is said to have come down upon the disciples at Pentecost. “Suddenly a sounds like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they [the disciples] were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues and the Spirit enable them.” (Acts 2:2-4). The Holy Spirit has no corporeal form but instead lives inside each of us. This is the trinity that is worshipped by Christians all over the world today and by the early Christians under Roman rule. These three very different views of deities may be the reasons for all the other differences in these religions.
As can be seen as the world has progressed through time, there have been many different religions, and there still are. I have only looked at three of the many that there have been, Mesopotamian, Greek and Christianity. There are also many different aspects of religion. Only three were used to compare the religions, worship style, places of worship and nature of God or Gods. These three parts seemed to show the differences particularly well. Religion was very important to people in the ancient days and still is to many people around the world today. No matter if they worshipped one God or three thousand, it was the need for some greater being that drove people to temples, churches and shrines throughout the ages. With a God or multiple Gods to show them the way and even to put the blame on at times, they felt they could live with their problems. Also, having a God to turn to in times of trouble they had direction. Even though the three religions that were compared were different, they all provided the same thing, giving people the will to live and go on.
- ?Garber, Janet Serlin The Concise encyclopaedia of Ancient Civilizations Franklin Watts/New York/London 1978
- ?Millard, Anne Ancient Civilizations Warwick Press 1983
- ?Webster, T.B.L Everyday Life in Classical Athens Jarrold and Sons Ltd 1969
- ?Williams, Paul L. Everything You wanted to Know About the Catholic Church but Were Afraid to Ask for Fear of Excommunication Doubleday 1975
- ?Walker, Robert J. World Civilizations: A Comparative Study Oxford University Press 1998
- New International Version The Teen Study Bible Zondervan Publishing House 1993