John1: 1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.
The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, by Karen Armstrong
The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living on the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans.
Armstrong states that “Aryan” was not a racial term, but as “assertion of pride,” something like “noble” or “honorable.” They shared a common culture; they spoke a language that would be the basis for several Asiatic and European languages, hence the term “Indo-European.”
By the middle of the third millennium BC they migrated farther afield, to what is now Greece, Scandinavia, Italy, and Germany. Some would also migrate to what is today India. Their lifestyle is described as quiet and sedentary: farmers and herders; limited in travel as the horse was not yet domesticated.
The Aryans were a hard-living, hard-drinking people who loved music, gambling, and wine. But even at this very early stage they showed spiritual genius.
Like many other peoples, they found their religion in the storms, winds, trees and rivers. They had gods, many gods. They held tight to a sacred order – one that would be familiar to a student of the European Middle Ages:
People had to make firm, binding agreements about grazing rights, the herding of cattle, marriage, and the exchange of goods.
The words that stood for this sacred order could be translated “loyalty, truth, and respect….”
These gods supervised all covenant agreements that were sealed by solemn oath. The Aryans took the spoken word very seriously. Like all other phenomena, speech was a god….
There was a potency that held the world together, a divine order translated into human speech. The Aryans did not make effigies of their gods, instead they found that the act of listening brought them closer to the sacred.
Similarly, a vow once uttered, was eternally binding, and a lie was absolutely evil because it perverted the holy power inherent in the spoken word. The Aryans would never lose this passion for absolute truthfulness.
I would say not. One could write these same words covering the Europe of the Middle Ages (populated by tribes with these same roots) several thousand years later.
Communion, sacrifice, a creation myth – they had it all, except for the everlasting life part; this would come by the end of the second millennium. Until then, the benefits of religion were purely material and this-worldly.
The slow and uneventful life would come to an end around 1500 BC. They began to trade with more advanced societies south of the Caucasus.
They learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and also encountered new methods of transport….
Wooden carts pulled by oxen; chariots – awaiting the taming of the horses. Weapons plus mobility equals a new warrior race. For some, the violence went hand-in-hand with religious enlightenment.
…by linking their earthly battles with their divine archetype, they made them holy. …a warrior who died nobly in battle went immediately to the world of the gods.
There were those who could not stand this warrior environment. Zoroaster and his followers looked to their god, Lord Mazda. Mazda and his immortals would one day descend to the world of men and offer sacrifice. There would follow a great judgement, after which the wicked would be wiped off the face of the earth. A blazing river would flow into hell, incinerating the Hostile Spirit. After this, the cosmos would return to its original perfection. Man would live with the gods; there would be no more death; humans would be free from sickness, old age and mortality.
This apocalyptic vision is quite familiar to us, but Zoroaster got there first – there was nothing like this in the ancient world.
It was in China where an ethical ideal was introduced into religion – integrating the numinous and the ethical. Heaven was not just after the slaughter of pigs and oxen, but was concerned with compassion and justice. Heaven would not support a ruler who was selfish, cruel, and oppressive.
Paul VanderKlay has offered that the numinous without the morality goes to barbarity and hedonism; morality without the numinous will get stuck in a cold moralism. They need to go together.
Meanwhile, the twelfth century BC brought a crisis to the eastern Mediterranean – the Greeks, Hittites, and Egyptians were plunged into a dark age. Out of this came a new Greek civilization and a small tribe – Israel.
Those early years for Israel were violent – violence delivered to Jericho and to Canaanites. Yahweh is presented as a warrior – a not uncommon view at the time by many tribes of their gods.
Exodus 15: 3 The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. 6 Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy. 7 “In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you. You unleashed your burning anger; it consumed them like stubble.
Yahweh shook the earth, quaked the heavens – mountains would melt before Yahweh.
Exodus 15: 15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified, the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling, the people of Canaan will melt away; 16(a) terror and dread will fall on them. By the power of your arm they will be as still as a stone…
By the beginning of the first millennium BC, the old governance order of judges was deemed insufficient for Israel – the people demanded a king. God allowed their desire, albeit with strong warning.
The Greeks, the fourth of these Axial peoples, had yet to emerge from their dark age. The Axial Age had not yet begun – the period until about 900 BC was merely to set the stage for this important transitional period in religious history and foundations for meaning.
A few thoughts: the spoken word was fundamental to the Aryan tribes; while Armstrong will focus on those Aryan tribes that went to the southeast into India, it is from this same source – and we see the same cultural tradition – in the Germanic tribes that moved into Europe during and after the Roman period.
It was in China where the ideas of spirituality and morality were merged – prior to this and elsewhere, we had barbarism and hedonism, as the spiritual existed without a moral content. Today we pretend to have a moral content without spiritualism – we see the mess of this.
Finally, Israel. Suffice it to say that the Old Testament prophets had it right when looking forward to the Messiah, and Jesus had it right when He said that He came to fulfill the law. To say anything more would get complicated on many levels.