History of religion

Religions of Antiquity III: The Search for Immortality

(Published in GralsWelt 33/2004)

In esoteric circles the view is widespread that man was conscious from the very beginning of the incarnation; that the actual human being - his soul or his spirit - continues to exist after shedding his earthly body, that there is thus a “this world” and a “hereafter”. This human soul can then either continue to move and develop in finer levels (the so-called subtle matter), or it can also be reborn for a further earth life in a new earth body.

"Gilgamesh - to Enkidu, his friend,
he cried bitterly, walking around in the steppe:
'Will I not, will I die, just like Enkidu?
Harm entered my mind
The fear of death came over me ...
From the Epic of Gilgamesh, 9th panel (10)

Ethnological research has shown that for primitive peoples, continued life after the death of the earth seems just as natural as the pre-existence of the actual human being (an inner being, a soul, a spirit, whatever the essence of a human being has been called) before being on earth.

For such nature-loving people, death is not only a horror, but is the transition, the "birth", into another world - although this is associated with strong changes.

It is therefore surprising that this knowledge cannot be found as naturally in early high cultures as one might expect. That leaves the question: If the first civilizations had already disconnected from the natural experience that early humans probably had, then for reasons still unknown to us the connections to the finer levels of creation were torn off, and on the basis of this humans began before To fear death?

Being after death
In ancient cultures, “life after death” is usually portrayed in a rather sad way.

In the ancient Orient and in the eastern Mediterranean it was said that the gods live in "Paradise" or "Olympus", while the souls of ordinary mortals come to a shadowy realm, "Hades", in which they have to vegetate joylessly. Only a few, chosen people could enter the realm of the "gods" after death; the rest had to go to the subterranean realm of shadows.

If a traveler to the hereafter was able to enter this shadowy realm from earth and talk to those who had left, they complained about their sad existence and advised the living to use every hour they were allowed to dwell in light and sun on earth.

For example, the picture of the afterlife that Homer paints in his poems, and which has shaped the ideas of entire gender sequences, is marked by gloomy grief, in contrast to the emphasized joy of the ancient Greeks in the colorful life on earth.

Accordingly, at death souls lose their consciousness and the memory of earthly joys without gaining new ones. Significant are the words of Achilles, who is in the underworld, who - awakened to consciousness by Odysseus - painfully confesses:

"I would rather be a day laborer for a poor man than king of all the dead in the underworld" (6, p. 698).

The "Hel", one of the dead dwellings in Germanic mythology, is similarly gloomy.

In Old Kingdom Egypt, only Pharaoh and his court could go to heaven; and only in the Middle Kingdom were wealthy citizens allowed to be mummified and given an "eternal" grave.

Even the ancient Jews only had a vague idea of the hereafter. In the Old Testament one knows "Sheol", the place where the dead are kept, and the practice of religion is primarily aimed at fulfilling all religious regulations in this world. Although there is no pronounced hope in the hereafter, the dead seem at least taken care of in "God's hand" or in "Abraham's bosom".

According to some religious scholars, the success of Christianity was partly due to the fact that everyone, rich or poor, man or woman, master or slave, got a place in paradise. He just had to believe in the words of Jesus Christ, which also promised him a place in Paradise.

In any case, it is not surprising that the ancients were looking for ways to escape this joyless post-death being as a human being and instead to ascend as deified immortals into paradise, the abode of the "gods".

Historically, the people of Mesopotamia - Sumerians and Babylonians - were the first to seek ways to immortality.

Sumer and Babylon
Already 10 or 15,000 years ago an early religion was widespread in the Mesopotamian region, in North Africa, Asia Minor and Arabia, which also extended over the Indian region to Mongolia. Their probably monotheistic, later probably henotheistic *) cults were practiced by nomads who had no permanent residence or temples.

Religious scholars speak of the "Semitic religion" (approx. 12,000 to 2,000 BC), in which, for example, ancestors were revered as spiritual beings, as is still the case today by indigenous peoples. The believers of this ancient religion were supposed to fulfill their duties to God, so that through good deeds the gate to the garden of God was opened for them (9). There was no developed doctrine of salvation.

This temple-less religion is considered to be the origin of all later religions, especially the three monotheistic world religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

The Babylonian Tower
The Sumerians, who created the oldest advanced civilization in Mesopotamia, developed monumental sacred architecture 5,000 years ago, which later served as a model for the Babylonians.
In the Bible (Genesis 11) the tower of Babel is a symbol of the hubris of the people who challenge God.
For archaeologists this tower of the Babylonians is a "ziggurat", the largest and most magnificent of the many temple towers that were built in the cities of Mesopotamia.
A ziggurat is a kind of step pyramid, with terraces made of adobe bricks, connected by stairs and crowned with a temple. This peculiar temple architecture has given rise to the assumption that the indigenous people of Mesopotamia - whether the Sumerians, whose existence is in doubt or some other people - immigrated from a mountainous country. Accustomed to worshiping their gods on mountain tops, they would have erected artificial "mountains" on the flat plains to build temples on. Of the more recent well-known structures, the step pyramids of Teotihuacan (Central Mexico) are most similar to a ziggurat.

More differentiated forms of religion developed behind the walls of the first cities, such as the Sumerian (approx. 9,000 to 3,000 BC) and the Babylonian (approx. 4,000 to 500 BC).

For our consideration it is of little importance to what extent the Babylonians adopted religious ideas from the Sumerians, who spoke a different language and belonged to a different ethnic group. The Babylonian gods, their names and their meanings are also of more interest to religious scholars. As in other ancient religions, there were various main gods who also reveal the political situation: After the expansion of a domain, local gods regularly became generally recognized national deities (1, p. 49). For millennia, the power to build and maintain power has been used by religions, whose commandments were often earthly law.

In Babylon as an example, Marduk, originally the tribal god of the Amorites, was believed to have been the supreme god since the reign of King Hammurabi (1726-1686 BC).

When Upper and Lower Egypt were united by Menes (approx. 3,000 BC) the sun god Re (or Amun-Re) became god-king and world ruler (1, p. 64).

In all parts of their empire the Romans demanded, often only formal, recognition of the "Capitoline Jupiter", and the Europeans of the 19th century wanted to convert their colonial peoples to the Christian god.

The Babylonian confusion of languages
The language confusion described in the Bible (Genesis 11) did not take place in this form, of course, although people of different ethnicities with different languages met in the "cosmopolitan city" of Babylon. At best, one can still discuss symbolic meanings, for example the loss of common ground or the possibility of understanding common goals. The Bible passage has also given rise to discussions as to whether there was a common "original language of humanity". In the Middle Ages it was believed that it could only be Hebrew, the language in which, according to the opinion of the time, the Ten Commandments were written on the tablets supposedly given by God. The attempt of Friedrich II. (1194-1250) von Hohenstaufen to let babies grow up without any kind of speech is well known; in the expectation that they would speak Hebrew of their own accord.
Today some linguists assume a common original language of mankind 60-100,000 years ago.

The Babylonians, separated from their main gods by a huge chasm, still had protective gods as a kind of intermediate instance as the personal god of every human being (comparable to the guardian angel of the Christians or the saints?) Who stood up for those he cared for with the main gods. If a person was forsaken by his patron god, this poor man was exposed to the attacks of demons and could be harmed by sorcery.

The creation myths of the Babylonians were adapted to the living conditions of the Mesopotamian farmers who were dependent on irrigation agriculture. Hoe and basket, the tools for agriculture as well as for the construction and repair of the canal systems, were elements of a theology of creation presumably adopted by the Sumerians.
The Babylonians are considered to be a deeply religious people whose spiritual teachings demanded goodness and truth, law and order, justice, freedom, acquisition of knowledge, courage and loyalty.

The Gilgamesh Epic
The "oldest novel in the world" (handed down in various versions) has been and is widely interpreted and interpreted. It covers different topics, gives insights into the way of thinking of the people of the ancient Orient in the 3rd millennium BC, and deals with human issues of timeless importance. It tells the adventures of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh, who ruled the city of Uruk more than 4,000 years ago.
In the myths about Gilgamesh, the gods still play an important role in human life; but they are already questioning the gods' decisions, even openly opposing them. The beginning of an emancipation from the gods. With the beginning of the breakaway from the gods, people also lose a hold, they can no longer rely on oracles, are thrown back on themselves and have to decide for themselves. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, one can see the oldest traditional expression of enlightenment thinking.
A basic motif of Gilgamesh poetry is the search for immortality, which has more or less preoccupied many religions since then. Gilgamesh is deeply shaken by the realization of his finitude and desperately seeks to escape the inevitability of death. The Gilgamesh epic does not find an answer to this core question of all religions - the temporality and transience of earthly people. In one of the traditional versions (the ancient Babylonian) the advice is given to enjoy life and not worry about the inevitable end. But one can try through piety to gain the approval of the gods and perhaps still achieve immortality (a concept that has been preached again and again in many variations since then).
The influence of the Gilgamesh epic on the Bible is obvious; it is best known that the Flood tale can already be found in the Babylonian myth.

With the organized irrigation agriculture and life behind the walls of the cities, the feeling of security in nature was apparently lost; Fear of the future arose, and even belief in the gods was shaken. So there were the first skeptics in the history of religion in Babylon.

A basic concern of the Babylonians was the longing for immortality. Nobody could escape death, but they did not want to come to terms with the sad continued life in the gloomy underworld and looked for ways to escape this inevitable fate. In the Gilgamesh epic, this search for ways to overcome death is a central theme.

The Babylonians did not find a convincing, conclusive explanation of human fate after death, and even later ancient teachings were not certain. Perhaps with the exception of some mystery religions, which, in their secret cults, were able to give the initiate insights into the weaving of creation and to take away the fear of the hereafter? (3, p. 40).

The search for ways to eternal life, which has moved religious people for thousands of years, was first made in Mesopotamia and thus tackled a topic that is still alive today.

Final grade:

*) Henotheism = worship of one God. It is assumed that there are many gods, but only invokes a single god as if he were the only one. Probably a forerunner of monotheism. (According to Brockhaus encyclopedia).
The Jewish Yahweh, too, was originally a tribal god of the Jews.

(1) Clemen, Carl, The Religions of the Earth, Vol. 1 ″, Goldmann, Munich 1966.
(2) Drehsen, Volker et al., Dictionary of Christianity, Orbis, Munich, 1995.
(3) Hagl, Siegfried, Chaff and Wheat, Gralsverlag, Purgstall, 2003.
(4) Mertens, Heinrich A., “Handbuch der Bibelkunde”, Bechtermünz, Augsburg 1997.
(5) Roberts, John M., Knaurs Illustrierte Weltgeschichte Volume I, Droemer-Knaur, Munich 2001.
(6) Schwab, Gustav, The most beautiful sagas of classical antiquity, Carl Ueberreuter, Vienna, 1954.