Friday, January 3, 2014

The Old Religion at the End of the Year

The years go by faster and faster, it seems, and our fate is known and approaches swiftly and inevitably. Yet as horrifying as our reality may be, it is always fun for me to remember that they have put up an evergreen in the center of Manhattan and decorated it with toys and mistletoe again this year. I doubt very much if most of the people who view the tree are aware of the meaning these rituals had to some of our ancestors, but it is impressive that the tradition survives at all.

This is the story of an ancient state religion that survived disaster not once, but twice, and survives to this day in two different forms. And whose fundamental principles you recreate every time you look at a clock or tell the time. But first lets set the stage for what the French historians call the longue duree. (2), or the long view.  It has various other names, but it means to try and take a longer perspective.

So first I indicate how astronomy does not change much in our lifetimes, but does change over a longer period.... so ...

The earth spins on its axis in a somewhat eliptical orbit around the so-called Sun and while it does so, entropy inevitably increases and nothing you or I can do will change that. The universe is by no means static and will change on the scale of the solar orbits, but we won't notice because by that time the trillions of nanomachines partitioned into the various cellular entities that make up our so-called individual physical existence will have collapsed into a soup of decayed matter long before.

I know that is a little depressing, but read on, it picks up.

We call the circle of circles around the solar mass a "year", having picked a point on that ellipse to demark the beginning and the end for accounting purposes and because it corresponds to an inflection point on the curve. This subdivision of a year into 360 circles as the planet rotated and circled the sun was noticed by an ancient people "between the rivers" (== Meso Potamia) many years ago and they developed a "sacred mathematics" to explain what they observed in the sky and all around them and made this a central part of their religion and world view. In fact, it formed one of the pillars of their religion and the rituals that held up the state that they lived in.

Consider what it means for there to be a state religion in a country. It means that certain beliefs that are critical to the legitimacy of the government are built into the fabric of society in a very functional and specific set of ways that has evolved over time. When our constitution discusses "separation of church and state", they did not mean that it was unconstitutional to have religion in our government, it meant that the religious leaders would not be selected by the state, or paid for by the state, or that these religious leaders would be part of government by the very fact of their role in the religion. The specific counterexample for the American Revolution was that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the top bishop of the Church of England, was chosen by the King and acknowledged the authority of the King over the Bishop of Rome (e.g. the Pope).

In ancient times, this relationship was much stronger between religion and governance, though of course there was a huge amount of variation. To give some examples and to simplify to make the point, the heads of religion of the Roman Republic were all members of the leading familes of Rome. The rituals that were performed and how they were performed were considered of the utmost importance to the survival of Rome and its rule in the world. They did not care for the most part what people believed as long as those rituals were performed in the correct way and that whatever else you did or believed did not prevent you from doing those essential rituals.

In many ancient societies that we know of, the ruling class or monarch would consult with various religious leaders before starting a war, or fighting a battle. The Romans certainly did. It was believed that the gods that you worshipped had an opinion about what was the right thing to do in such a situation and by using certain technical arts that the gods would tell you and help you to choose wisely. Or possibly that you could influence the outcome of the situation with proper ritual and sacrifice. The ancient Romans were big on making deals with "god".... you do this and I will sacrifice 100 cows to you, etc.

Although there was huge variation in the ancient world, I think it is fair to say that aspects of the religion of a people was very tighly bound up into the legimacy and process of how they lived their lives, paid their taxes, went to war, and chose who ruled over them and in what way. The more formal a state, with a bureaucracy, taxes, and so forth, the more likely they were to have a formal state religion.

But if the state religion said that the rulers ruled by divine right and were in fact themselves gods, or Gods, whatever, then if they got deposed that was bad for the religion. To say the least. And that is what happened to the Neo Bablylonians when their boys lost the war and the Persians came in about 539 BC.

So what is a religion to do? Well, it adapts. Now instead of the gods being planets and stars and comets, they are more universal forces and archetypes. And you formalize some of the loose influences of the stellar bodies into their archetypal forms. And if you are lucky enough to have Alexander the Great around, you adapt all this to Hellenistic culture and become the dominant way of predicting the future with the cachet of being based on "old Babylonian religion" and there you have it: modern astrology. Based on the former state religion of NeoBabylon.

On top of that, and not entirely independently, part of that astrology branches off and without the prediction part and morphs into a science of Astronomy. Now the astronomers don't much believe in the influence of the Zodiac, for example, but they do take a lot of terminology and conventions and continue using them: like 360 degrees in a circle, to name one obvious example. And so, too, Astronomy maintains some fundamental beliefs that comes from the Old Religion.

We should only hope that some of our belief systems should be so resilient and last even half as long.

For a good bibliography of Babylonian Astronomy & Astrology, see:

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