Thursday, March 6, 2014

Ancient Levantine ancestor worship, African masks, and the origins of drama and modern Judaism.

It's nothing like you'd imagine.

Of course, whoever made these masks were not Jews; "Jews" didn't exist yet, and wouldn't for thousands of years. But it's probably appropriate to consider that the religious society that made these masks were a part of the greater religious climate of the Middle East at that time.

In those days, the Middle East was the center of the world. Civilization started there; the package of crops and domesticated animals that would conquer the world was freshly put together there at that time and place, as wheat had just been deliberately cultivated a few thousand years ago and people started living in villages, towns and then cities. It was also not a desert: most of the Middle East was forested at that time, at least the parts near sources of water, and it hadn't succumbed to the human-led processes of deforestation and desertification yet.

In that particular context, the religion of this area were probably the most sophisticated cultural system that humanity had yet known. The archaeologists believe that these masks were part of a system of ancestor worship, and I don't know enough about them to say one way or another. I can offer this input, though: they appear to me to resemble two things, as if they were an intermediary step between them: African ritual masks and Greek theatrical masks.

This is necessarily a generalization, as different African societies use them in different manners, but in much of Africa, masks like these are donned by tribal priests and elders, and while the mask is worn the body is inhabited by a spirit, sometimes a dead ancestor. As Wikipedia notes, the rituals of the Yoruba and Edo resemble Western notions of theatre.

Which brings me to Greece. As best archaeology understands the matter, theatre there came out of the Dionysian cults there. They also used masks for their actors, masks that didn't look too far off from the ones found in Israel.

We know that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa and left there between 125,000 and 60,000 years ago. We know there was cultural contact between those times, and that religion was a part of human experience even for Neanderthals. It seems possible that each of these groups, starting off with the same sort of ancestor-worshipping religion, eventually saw that religion get more stylized and more complex until it gave birth to genuine art forms like drama. They would not have kept in contact for long, but you can see a sort of stylistic evolution as humans leave Africa. In Israel, it still has a lot of the forms of African masks, but they start looking like the later Greek masks. But in both places, the masks serve basically the same functions.

Furthermore, it suggests a possible antecedent to the Middle Eastern religions that would come later. Perhaps the Middle Eastern pantheon of gods that came to be was simply a series of particularly respected ancestors. It has been postulated, with some reason, that the various Indo-European pantheons are all derived from the same starter pantheon. The Middle Eastern pantheon was probably not derived from that, but it is useful to think of the various Middle Eastern religions in the same way. The Judeo-Christian God, Yahweh, was one of many gods in this pantheon, and indeed even the Bible attests that for much of its history, the Israelites and Jews held to this opinion in the polytheistic nature of their Temple ceremonies. Indeed, several parts of the Bible (the creation and flood in Genesis, the entire book of Job) are straight-up lifted from Mesopotamian religious writings.

It wasn't until the time of Hezekiah that Judaism established for good its monotheistic character. Even during Moses' time, it could be argued that the Jewish faith was merely henotheistic. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" doesn't necessarily mean that no other gods exist, just that Yahweh is supposed to be your god. He might not be, or even intend to be, someone else's. And indeed, Christianity would have remained just another Jewish sect, another theology for the "chosen people," if it weren't for Paul's dream that he interpreted to mean that Yahweh intended Christianity for everyone.

What really gets me is when you think of Judaism, and by extension Christianity (and even Islam) as just another sect, another branch, of this Mesopotamian polytheism. I mean, even the Bible sorta takes this approach, as it refers to the high priest Melchizedek (a contemporary of Abraham, the father of the Jews) as the high priest of Yahweh in Salem (not yet called Jerusalem). There was no uniquely Jewish religion yet, but there is already a priest who's considered by God and Abraham to be righteous, but he must be performing rites and following rules handed down from this Babylonian polytheism. Perhaps he, like Abraham, was a monotheistic or henotheistic reformer, but he would have nonetheless been rooted in the society around him, a product of Mesopotamian culture and religion.

And then, in turn, this Mesopotamian religious system that Judaism and Christianity and Islam reformed has its roots in these masks. These simple African-Greek looking ancestor worshipping masks that founded drama and religions that two-thirds of the world obey.

Really makes you think, doesn't it?

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