The solution to the narrow focus of classical liberal arts education is to preserve their time-tested methods, but broaden their subject matter in both geography and time beyond ‘the Western Tradition’ as conventionally understood. In this piece, I summarize thousands of years of history and prehistory that forms the basis of the ‘Western Tradition’, but is shared with the Middle East, India, and, to an extent, China, and then outline an expanded vision of Western Heritage.
I have a Bachelor of Arts in English with Minors in German and Theatre from Hillsdale College, for which I am both proud and grateful; despite certain mental and emotional difficulties that plagued my time there, it was, overall, one of the best times of my life. Scattershot though my grades were, I learned a great deal, enjoyed many classes taught by brilliant, charismatic professors, and, most of all, found a group of friends for the only time in my life thus far. I still miss the Grewcock Student Union.
As you may know, Hillsdale is a Classical, Liberal Arts school, dedicated to the Western Tradition. This Western Tradition is held to have two main roots: the Judeo-Christian Tradition of the Bible, and the Greco-Roman Tradition of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Caesar, Virgil, Ovid, and everyone in between. This focus is, sadly, indicative of the College’s right-wing ideology—most other academic institutions have to some extent rejected the very idea of Western Heritage as a construct of white patriarchy to facilitate the marginalization of everyone who isn’t a heterosexual, cisgender, white man. This is silly, because the Jews and Greeks who feature so prominently the annals of Western Civilization were not white. [The marble statues are delusive.] This rejection comes with narratives of oppression and victimhood rooted in subjectivism, with an implicit demonization of success and intelligence.
However, it is perfectly true that the focus on ‘The West’ limits students understanding of the Canon’s own subject matter, for the very simple reason that ‘The West’ has never existed in a vacuum, and further, Hillsdale’s two-pronged picture of Western Heritage leaves out another crucial element: the Celto-Germanic traditions of the North, who may have less of a written record, but just so happen to be ‘white people’s’ actual ancestors.
I speak, of course, of the Celts and Germans. English is a Germanic language after all, the days of our week [except for Saturday] are named for Germanic gods, and how many philosophers, scholars, theologians, and composers were German? While not as large as that of Greek and Latin, and certainly lacking the breadth of subject matter, Old Norse and Old Irish do have very solid literary traditions, incorporating prose and poetry. Old Irish has a selection of epic poetry, and Old Norse has mythic poems and realistic prose alike. While the literature itself may not have been as widely influential, it depicts a culture more directly ancestral to our own than Greek, Roman, or Hebrew works, and deserves to be included in the Western Canon by even the most basic definition.
Of course, the multiculturalist will rightly complain that this still leaves most of the world out. Indeed, Western Heritage gives short shrift even to the earliest known literature: that of Egypt and Mesopotamia. While Iranians appear as the villains in BOTH the study of Classical Greece and modern diplomacy, their own religious and literary tradition from the Avesta to Rumi is ignored, as is the related, and globally influential, tradition of India, starting with the Vedas. Chinese heritage is just as old and rich as Greece’s, but how many Western students have even heard of the Five Classics? West Africa is not widely known to have hosted a series of native empires, with literary and intellectual activity, and the pre-Columbian Americas were host to two longstanding civilizational horizons, one of which had a literary and philosophical tradition [the other kept accounts with string]. While the Polynesians may never have had a full fledged civilization, Polynesian cultures have most of the features of civilization between them, and probably could have if they’d been unified.
Of course, the advocates of Western Heritage claim that, while these other traditions are not without value, they are separate, unrelated, and unnecessary for the Western student to understand his own culture and heritage [which sadly is the purported goal of classical education]. This claim is simply inaccurate.
At a historical level, the classical student might be very interested to learn of the profound impact the Indo-Greeks had on the development and spread of Buddhism, and therefore the culture of the Far East as we know it. Of course, they’d probably be interested to learn that such things as Indo-Greeks existed at all. However, since this is a case of Western influence on the East, it might only reinforce assumptions of Western cultural superiority; but the deeper roots of the West do not, at least not in a simplistic manner, and they also elucidate an older common Heritage share with certain Eastern cultures.
As mentioned before, the functional legs of the Western Tradition stool are Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman. But even a superficial understanding of these is not possible without some reference to the older Heritage and Tradition of the true inventors of civilization and literature: the Near East, which primarily consists of Egypt and Mesopotamia, but includes the Levant, Anatolia, and Elam as well. The Near East figures in Western Heritage already because of its influence on Greece and Rome and, far more important, the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of the Bible takes place in the Near East, and both Egypt and Mesopotamia feature prominently. Further, it’s language, metaphors, and basic cultural and cosmological assumptions are so intertwined with the broader Near Eastern culture that we must conclude that the Judeo-Christian tradition is part and parcel of the Near Eastern one
In Western Heritage at Hillsdale, we did read the Law of Hammurabi, but that was about as far as it went. Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian language courses were not offered.
At the very least, the historical record justifies including the Near East as part of the West, but, as I discovered in the fall of 2013, history starts late.
Until then, my idea of the early mists of time was the second and third millennia BC, when civilization fully began, and I assumed nothing particularly interesting happened before that. I had heard, of course, of the Indo-European language family back in second grade, but I assumed that prehistoric culture was simply barbaric and dull. Then I happened across a copy of The Living Goddesses by Marija Gimbutas, and it was one of the seminal moments in my life. Though I do not embrace all of Gimbutas’s theories and views, she does not go as far out on limbs as some think, and, more importantly, my timeline of the course of human culture doubled immediately. As always, I had to know more, bought more books on the subject, and spent a lot of time online researching.
In short, right about the end of the last Ice Age, the first monumental structure was built at Gobekli Tepe, apparently before agriculture was even invented. Agriculture was shortly invented a millennium or so later by the Natufian culture of the Levant, which also built the first houses, which are noted by the skeletons not only under the floor, but in all the walls. [I guess those houses were designed to be haunted.] This new invention had reached the plains of Thessaly in what is now Greece and the Indus Valley in what is now India, and apparently been independently developed in New Guinea and China by 7000 BC. Two millennia before this, the first known town, complete with walls and a tower [which I’ll lay odds is the real Tower of Babel] was built, which we now know as Jericho. Other villages and towns spread all over the Fertile Crescent and into Anatolia, where the greatest known Neolithic settlement flourished at Catal Hoyuk for a thousand years. Catal Hoyuk had a population of over 10,000 people at its height, which would be enough to qualify as a city, except that it had no signs of central planning, no public buildings, and no signs of social hierarchy, which are part of the definition of ‘civilization’.
This Agricultural Revolution brought not only the invention of houses and towns, but a host of other inventions such as animal husbandry, textiles [spinning, weaving, etc.], baking, pottery, and metal-working. Since most of these things have been regarded, often derisively, as women’s work in historical times, but were the cutting edge technologies of the period, the suggestion that women had much higher status in the Neolithic than the historic periods is, to my mind, entirely plausible, as is the suggestion that matrilineal/matrifocal family structures were the norm. ‘A woman’s place is in the home’ is not degrading if a home is a sign of privilege, or at least enlightenment.
Meanwhile, Europe was first settled by Neanderthals, who were later displaced and absorbed by an influx of anatomically modern migrants from the Near East by 40,000 BC. These migrants were the ancestors of the iconic ‘caveman’ cultures of Paleolithic Europe, famous for cave paintings and female figurines, and I’ll lay odds that the painters of Lascaux and the surrounding area, at the very least, spoke an ancestor of the Basque language. By the time Catal Hoyuk was founded, some of the hunter-gatherers of Europe had shifted from the Paleolithic to the Mesolithic, with larger tools, and some permanent structures and sculptures, such as the shrines of Lepinski Vir.
When agriculture took root in Thessaly, it was spread by northward migrations to the Danube valley and beyond, and then north and west as far as modern France. We can be sure that this was a case of migration because the imposing, Cro-Magnon body type of the indigenous hunter-gatherers contrasts clearly with the smaller build of the incoming agriculturalists; those searching for the origin of European folk tales about giant-slaying and ‘little people’ need look no further. By 5500, the entire area from Northern Europe to Mesopotamia was covered with a variety of farming cultures with increasingly sophisticated building and village design, and highly sophisticated and distinctive ceramic art. Two story buildings were constructed, including some designated ‘temples’ by Gimbutas due to their ceremonial paraphernalia. The circle dance, still practiced throughout the Balkans, and praised by Plato as the encapsulation of education, is depicted in Old European art and sculpture. Copper mining was practiced by the Vinca culture of contemporary Serbia, whose masked ceramic figurines show connections with both Siberian shamanism and Greek drama. The European cultures may even have developed a form of writing. Ceramic figurines across this horizon seem to overwhelmingly depict female humans over males, a further indication of female centrality, though it is probable that worship of male deities took place in places where remains are much less likely to be discovered. Settlements were built low in river valleys with negligible defenses, and few artifacts that could have served as weapons.
At this time, some steppe pastoralists along the Volga River began to bury certain of their dead in large mounds, and apparently domesticated the horse, though only for meat and milk at this point. In the south of Mesopotamia, a small building universally agreed to be a shrine or temple, complete with altar, was built on virgin sand at the site later known as Eridu, the first true city, and an early site of the Ubaid culture. Over the next few centuries, the refined cultures of Halaf, Hassuna, and Samarra in the north of Mesopotamia were replaced by the expanding Ubaid.
In Europe, the agricultural horizon, which Marija Gimbutas christened ‘Old Europe’ continued to flourish, expand, make awesome pottery, and diversify locally for more than a millennium, until two things happened around 4200 BC. First, a mini ice age began that shortened summers and reduced agricultural yields. Second, pastoral nomads from the Steppe [who almost certainly spoke an early form of Proto-Indo-European directly ancestral to the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European family] raided, invaded, and migrated westward into and across Europe along the Danube, and may or may not have done so on horseback. Linguistics indicates that these Proto-Indo-Europeans had male-centered—all right, patriarchal—family structures, and the chief of their pantheon was a god of the sky called Dyeus Phter; ‘Phter’ is the root for ‘father’, while ‘Dyeus’ is the ancestor not only to the Latin ‘Deus’ [‘God’] and the English ‘deity’, but ‘day’ as well. ‘The Father of the Heavenly Lights’ would be a very serviceable translation indeed.
The Indo-Europeans apparently penetrated as far as Britain, though not in great numbers, and the Italo-Celtic branch preserves archaic traits akin to the Anatolian branch, which is probably a residue of this first wave. Old European refugees fled westward and possibly south to islands of the Mediterranean like Malta and Greece, where Old European traditions survived for a couple of millennia more. In the Balkans, the new Ezero culture was the first of a series of cultures marked by weapons and fortified settlements, while the two thousand year old towns of the valleys were abandoned; apart from a few regional holdouts and artistic motifs, the Old European cultures had disintegrated.
All except one: the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture survived these events intact and unscathed; paradoxically, the Cucuteni were located at the eastern edge of Old Europe, and therefore the closest to the Indo-European homeland of the Don-Volga steppes. It is fairly clear that the Cucuteni-Tripolye would already have had relations with the Indo-European pastoralists, so the pastoralists may simply have looked to more remote and exotic targets, the Cucuteni may already have learned to defend against the pastoralists, trade relations and contracts may have left the pastoralists honor-bound not to harm the Cucuteni, or, as Asko Parpola suggests, the pastoralists may have taken over the Cucuteni culture without destroying it, as Indo-Aryans did to the Hurrians in the Mitanni kingdom two thousand years later, the Akkadians did to the Sumerians, and the Romans to the Greeks. Parpola suggests that the Cucuteni built fortified settlements during this period, and were stimulated by ‘new leadership’. The problem is that the Cucuteni, and all other Old European cultures for that matter, show no sign of ever having ‘leadership’ at all. Over the next few centuries, the Cucuteni continued to flourish and make the very best pottery [which was apparently a highly-sought trade good in its day] and the largest settlements. A number of which, around the center of the Cucuteni-Tripolye territory, were larger than the proto-cities of the contemporary Uruk culture, but do not count as even proto-cities because, like Catal Hoyuk, they have no clear signs of public buildings, centralized authority, or class distinctions. Unlike Catal Hoyuk, however, they, and earlier settlements, are arranged in a clear plan: a ring, resembling a wide street with houses on both sides, and empty space in the center. The shape is actually not dissimilar to those of later ceremonial henges built across northern and western Europe, including Stonehenge. I must concede that contact with Indo-Europeans is a certainty, so a degree of intermixing and bilingualism, as later occurred in Mesopotamia, is highly plausible
Meanwhile, around 3300 BC, another group of Indo-Europeans made a surprisingly rapid exodus eastward to the Altai Mountains that currently straddle Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Chinese Turkestan. It should be noted at this time that the Proto-Indo-European root for ‘east’ is a cognate of the root for ‘dawn’ [which happens to be the one goddess of definite Indo-European origin], ‘south’ is a cognate for ‘sun’, ‘west’ presumably ‘evening’, and ‘north’ with ‘left’ or ‘lower’; if the north is at your left, you face east, so east is implicitly ‘forward’. The Altai became home to the Afanasievo culture, whose skeletons and genes are indistinguishable from those of the Indo-European Yamnaya cultural complex of the Volga-Don steppes. Though they were replaced in the Altai by a Mongoloid population a few centuries later, the Afanasievo must be the linguistic, if not biological, ancestors of the Tocharian cultures attested in contemporary Turkestan millennia later. The Tocharian languages are a definitely archaic, unique branch of Indo-European, whose discovery altered our understanding of the development of Indo-European pronunciation.
In Mesopotamia, the Ubaid culture had grown to cover all Mesopotamia, and about the same time as Old Europe was crushed by the first wave of Indo-Europeans, the Ubaid transformed into the Uruk culture, defined by organized settlements centered on massive buildings—the first true cities, according to the standard definition. These public buildings were almost certainly temples, and the cities ruled by priests [en] and priestesses [nin], who oversaw a growing bureaucracy that managed all aspects of social and economic life, which required detailed records: the first confirmed writing. The earliest language of these records is Sumerian, though Semitic names appear almost from the beginning. Many have asked where the Sumerians came from, but there is no reason to think that they were not indigenous to the area, and the Semites were the intruders, as Semitic is only a branch of the larger Afroasiatic language family, which includes Egyptian, Cushitic, Berber, Chadic, and Omoitic, and therefore almost certainly originated in northern Africa. Therefore, the more profitable question is: ‘Where did the Semites come from?’ It is probable that the Natufians, who first invented agriculture and houses, spoke Proto-Semitic, though backwashes of migration into Lower Egypt from the Levant are documented on multiple occasions [Genesis is plausible on this point]. The early historical Semites were, like the Indo-Europeans, predominantly pastoral [at least in Mesopotamia proper—the agricultural and eventually urban cultures of the Levant were always Semitic], patriarchal, and primarily worshipped sky gods, while texts and linguistics subtly indicate that women may have originally had the highest positions in proto-Sumerian society, and Sumerian mythology certainly featured a plethora of powerful goddesses, such as Inanna, Queen of Heaven, goddess of sex, war, and the planet Venus, sister to the Sun god, daughter of the moon, and source for Astarte, Aphrodite, and the Whore of Babylon. Her primary temple was at Uruk, the first and greatest city of the Uruk culture. However, Uruk was also home to a temple of Anu, the god of Heaven, and the exact origin and relation of the two deities is unclear. Though Indo-Europeans did not enter the Near East at this point, Mesopotamia WAS connected to the Don-Volga steppes by a trade route, through which cultural influence disseminated, and possibly some loan words.
Since the earliest writing consisted of dull bureaucratic records, most of the political and cultural realities of the Uruk culture are obscure: it may simply have been an assortment of city states, or it may have been the first empire. We just don’t know. At some point, the rule of priests was complemented and superseded by appearance of kings, called lugal in Sumerian. Lugal literally means ‘big man’, so it is unlikely that the office had much sacramental significance at the outset, though it acquired such in time Gilgamesh is believed to be a genuine King of Uruk of the thirty-second century BC or so.
Not so far to the southwest, Egypt, though agricultural for centuries, was an underdeveloped backwater until the fourth millennium BC, when it suddenly began to develop and advance, just as Old Europe declined; in effect, the Danube and the Nile switched places. There is some evidence of Uruk colonization on the Nile, which may have stimulated political development. In addition, the Sahara, which had been a reasonably moist savannah for a few thousand years, reverted to deserthood during this time, which naturally spurred migration into the Nile Valley. In any case, a unified, unitary kingdom existed in Upper Egypt by 3200 BC, which conquered Lower Egypt about a century later. This is the first confirmed unified kingdom, which also adopted the newly invented features of civilization from Mesopotamia, such as writing and large temples, though these took a unique form.
Meanwhile, whether from another invasion from the steppes, or from internal conflict prompted by gradual Indo-Europeanization [evidenced by a gradual lowering in pottery quality], the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture finally collapsed, which led to migrations/invasions in all directions, and the presumed genesis of the Celto-Italic, Albanian, Balto-Slavic, and Germanic branches of Indo-European. The Indo-Europeans still on their original homeland are believed to speak the common ancestor of Greek, Armenian, and the Indo-Iranian branch.
Western Europe was still dominated by Old European cultures, but these are distinct from the earlier cultures of the Balkans. While ‘classical’ Old Europe is known mostly for pottery and villages, practiced individual burial in coffins, and built no major monuments, the later ‘Old Western Europe’, despite some similarities in iconography, is known almost entirely from massive structures oriented to celestial bodies, like Stonehenge, or massive communal graves, like Newgrange. Their regular buildings, habitation, and day to day life, seem almost unknown. In fact, they seem to have a closer affinity to the pre-agricultural societies of Europe, such as Lepenski Vir, that to the High Neolithic/Chalcolithic of the Balkans. In time, of course, they too were supplanted, absorbed, and replaced by Indo-Europeans—all except the Basque.
It is unclear exactly when the proto-Greeks and proto-Armenians moved south, but the proto-Greeks are commonly supposed to have entered Greece not long after 3000 BC at latest, while Armenian shows a clear Hurro-Urartian [the indigenous language family of the later Armenia] substrate, indicating coexistence of the languages long before Hurro-Urartian became extinct. I personally suspect that the Armenians are descended from the traders on the Transcaucasian route between the Steppes and Mesopotamia.
According the linguistics of direction, all these migrations except the Abashevo exodus to Altai went backward. Those who remained on the original Steppes at this point we have no reason not to call what they called themselves: Aryan. This name is attested not only across Indo-Iranian, but in the Uralic family [which includes Lappish, Finnish, Hungarian, Samoyed, and several other languages], where the Finnish word for slave is ‘orja’.
The third millennium BC is the first millennium of historic civilization, though a true historic record is only secure after 2600 BC.
For a few centuries, the Kingdom of Egypt struggled to find its way, while Sumerian city-kingdoms fought amongst themselves for dominance. The Egyptian kingdom first originated at This [known in Greek as Thinis, near to the necropolis at Abydos later associated with Osiris], Nubt [known in Greek as Ombos and in Arabic as Naqada, and primary habitation of the storm god Seth], and Nekhen [Hieraconpolis Greek, original center of worship for Horus] in Upper Egypt, originally as separate mini-kingdoms, but unified, and then went on to conquer Lower Egypt under King Narmer around 3200 BC. There is no solid evidence that a Kingdom of Lower Egypt existed prior to this point—the title ‘King of Lower Egypt’ may have been a projection of Egyptian dualism. Written inscriptions from this period do not deserve the name of ‘records’, so our understanding is scanty, but there are some hints dynastic strife, and the regional unrest that is the curse of unitary states everywhere, presumably in the conquered north, but possibly in the south as well. The line of the Second Dynasty seems to break, until the reign of Peribsen, the only pharaoh to have his name written with the protection of Seth instead of Horus. [The conflict between Horus and Seth is one of the most basic Egyptian myths. While it is dangerous to infer historical events from mythology, it is difficult to avoid in this particular case.] Peribsen’s reign also saw the inscription of the first complete sentence in Egyptian history. Peribsen’s successor Khasekhemwy, the last pharaoh of the Second Dynasty, had his name written with Seth and Horus, presumably to bring unity between two competing factions. Khasekhemwy’s son and heir, Djoser, moved the capital to Memphis permanently from Thinis and was buried in the Step Pyramid at Saqqara; history, the Third Dynasty, and the Egyptian Old Kingdom, were fully underway in the 27th Century.
In Mesopotamia, the period is also known as Early Dynastic. The Sumerian King List describes a succession of dynasties based in different cities, which is almost certainly a projection of a later period that took unitary authority for granted; all other evidence suggests that Early Dynastic Sumer was a collection of city-states fighting for dominance, and the successive dynasties of the King List, if genuine, were contemporary with one another. The most prominent were Kish, Uruk, and Ur, though Nippur had sacramental significance possibly a residue of earlier status, and Eridu continued to enjoy special honor as a holy site. The earliest independently attested king is En-me-barage-si of Kish, who is a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh, so it is probable that Gilgamesh himself is based on a historical figure, as King Arthur is based on a historical figure and the Trojan War is based on a historic event. Both kings are tentatively dated to the 27th century. Though Sumerian was the first written language, several personal names from Kish indicate a Semitic presence from the beginning of history.
At the same time, a third civilization arose elsewhere. Agriculture developed in the Indus Valley at about the same rate and time period as in Old Europe and the Near East, and by 3000 BC some regional cultures such as the Kot Dji had planned communities of mud brick buildings with citadels. However, there was still great regional variation, until many settlements were apparently destroyed and rebuilt along a homogeneous format across the region, which brings the phrase ‘Wars of Unification’ to my mind. This civilization, known as the Indus Valley, or Harappan, civilization, had regular trade contacts with Mesopotamia, whose people called it ‘Meluhha’. It also used a writing system that has not yet been deciphered, and probably spoke one or more Proto-Dravidian languages. Of its many settlements, only five appear to be true cities, which probably correspond to five provinces corresponding to the cardinal directions.
In Western Europe, the great megalithic monuments of Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange, and others—all apparently oriented around the light of celestial bodies—were all built and flourished. On Malta, the Old European Temple Culture reached its peak, only to fall around 2500 BC.
As for the Aryans, archeology indicates that they split into separate regional cultures at this time, and some gradually shifted toward the northeast, closer to the Proto-Uralic cultures—as well as the Ural Mountains. Asko Parpola claims that this is the time when the Iranian and Indo-Aryan branches split: The Indo-Aryans shifted northeast, while the Iranians stayed put.
It may be coincidental that the star Thuban, then the North Star and therefore a symbol of kingship and supreme power, passed closest to the North Pole at about this time—but then again, it may not.
It was Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, though, that produced the Old Kingdom’s greatest achievements: true pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Khufu, built to ensure the immortal fame of the pharaohs buried inside them and inspire awe in all who saw them, in which aim they have been entirely successful thus far. Unfortunately, the Fourth Dynasty was also the first dynasty whose kings claimed not merely to be human manifestations of Horus, but living embodiments of the Sun God Ra. Senefru, founder of the dynasty, was also known to sail up and down the Nile wearing nothing but fish nets.
In Mesopotamia, Sumer was first unified under Lugal-Zage-Si, originally ensi of Umma and later King of Uruk, but his reign was completely overshadowed, not to mention cut short, by his legendary supplanter: Sargon of Akkad. Once the cup-bearer of the King of Kish, the Semitic-speaking Sargon overthrew the young dynasty, and built a new capital: Agade, the site of which is still undiscovered. Sargon then launched further campaigns of conquest, and his new city gave its name to the Akkadian Empire, the first true empire. His daughter, En-hedu-ana, was installed as High Priestess of Sin at the city of Ur, and became the first historically attested author for her hymns to Inanna. His grandson, Naram-Sin, expanded the empire and became the first Mesopotamian ruler to claim godhood for himself.
Around the 22 Century BC, a long drought, almost certainly described in Genesis, contributed to the collapse of both the Akkadian Empire and the Old Kingdom. The Akkadians were replaced by the Neo-Sumerian Empire founded by King Ur-Nammu of Ur, but Egypt went through a fairly extended period of division: the First Intermediate Period. King Ur-Nammu was responsible for the oldest surviving law code, which is notable for an emphasis on financial compensations to victims, including the falsely accused, over physical punishment. In spite of such hints of liberalism, the Neo-Sumerian Empire became the most centralized, bureaucratic state in history thus far, and naturally did not survive to celebrate its 200th anniversary. The Sumerian language continued to fall out of popular usage under the influence of Semitic pastoralists, not only the native Akkadians, but newcomers from the West as well. Stories from the period reveal an interesting paradox: a common genre is the story of a love triangle between an urban young woman, a Sumerian or Sumerianized farmer, and a Semitic herdsman. Though the Semitic herdsman is looked down on as uncouth and uncivilized, he is the one the girl always wants! One Semitic tribe known as the Amorites, originally from modern Syria and Lebanon, established a kingdom at a previously unimportant city: Babylon.
Under Hammurabi, the First Babylonian Empire became the dominant power of the Near East. The Law Code of Hammurabi is more famous than that of Ur-Nammu, partly for the simple reasons that it is better preserved and was discovered earlier. Hammurabi’s code is noteworthy for its inventive array of physical punishments for crimes, in contrast to the monetary reparations enjoined by Ur-Nammu. The First Babylonian Empire, though more famous than the Neo-Sumerian, was similarly short lived, and Babylon reverted to city-state-hood.
Meanwhile, in the north of Mesopotamia, speakers of a different dialect of Akkadian made their steps towards empire. While the cities of Gasur/Nuzi, Arbela, Nineveh, and Assur appear to date back to at least the Early Dynastic period, early records, beyond an obviously biased King List, are scanty, though the first kings of this list are said to have ruled from tents; that is, they were pastoral nomads akin to the Biblical patriarchs. By the end of the millennium, though, Assur was a fully-fledged city-state, and, if Gwendolyn Leick is to be believed, it appears to have had something extremely unusual: an essentially republican constitution! While they did have ‘kings’, the Assyrian word originally used, ‘Isshiak’, originally meant ‘governor’; it dated from the times of Akkadian and Sumerian rule, but was still used for many centuries after independence, while the more typical word for king, ‘shar’, was reserved for the henotheistic national god, also named Assur. Further, Leick claims the title was not originally hereditary, but rotated between the prominent noble families of the city. Further, Assur was not only a republic, it was a merchant republic, whose wealth and influence was based on trade colonies established across the region, particularly in Asia Minor. Assyrian merchants, according to Leick, naturally rotated between the homeland and the colonies, and sometimes kept a wife in each, but while they were in the colonies, their Assyrian wives represented them and managed their affairs in Assur.
If accurate, this was all too good to last: a hereditary dynasty may have been established by 2000 BC, and though the mercantile foreign policy continued for two more centuries, around 1800 BC Assur was conquered by the Amorite king Shamshi-Adad I, who claimed the title ‘Isshiak Assur’, and conquered many other territories for what is known as the First Assyrian Empire. Less than a century after his death, all his empire fell to Hammurabi, but while Assyria rose again, its character had permanently changed to that of a typical Near-Eastern military power.
Assyrian trade, as mentioned above, brought literacy to Anatolia. By this point, much of Anatolia was inhabited by speakers of the Anatolian branch of Indo-European, especially towards the west, but in the east by Hurro-Urartian speakers, and in between by speakers of an apparently isolated language called Hattic. This region, known as Hatti, was conquered by Indo-European Anatolians around the turn of the millennium, who are consequently known as Hittites, and became the dominant power of Anatolia for the next millennium. The capital of Hatti, under both Hattic and Hittite rule, was at Hattusas, but the greatest religious center was at Arinna, whose Sun Goddess was the head of the Hattic/Hittite pantheon. The title ‘Sun Goddess of Arinna’ indicates a distinctive feature of Hittite culture. While most polytheistic deities are associated with particular places [cities, mountains, rivers], more developed cultures develop national gods distinguished by function [war, sex, art, etc.], often as an amalgamation of earlier, local gods with similar functions. For example, the Egyptian Horus seems to have absorbed a variety of earlier falcon gods. The Hittites resisted this trend: Hittite inscriptions list multiple storm gods attached to different cities, who maintained their separate identities. What went for religion also went for politics: the Hittite empire was apparently a decentralized hegemony, not a unitary state—to my knowledge, the first of its kind.
Meanwhile, back on the steppes, the Hittites’ Aryan kindred began to expand to the north, toward their Proto-Uralic colleagues, and then to the east across the Ural Mountains, where they formed the Sintashta culture. Asko Parpola proposes that this is the point where Indo-Aryan and Iranian split, that the Aryans who moved north and crossed the Urals spoke Proto-Indo-Aryan, while those who stayed put in the Volga-Don Basin spoke Proto-Iranian. The Sintashta Aryans built massive forts on the Siberian steppes [parallel to passages in the Zoroastrian Avesta where Ahura Mazda commands primeval king Yima to build forts on the plains of Arayanem Vaeja—the Aryan expanse], and, more importantly, invented the chariot. This invention took the world by storm, quickly spread across Eurasia in all directions, and changed warfare forever. It had a profound influence on the development of early Bronze Age China, where it proved central to the development of the Shang dynasty. This invention also affected the culture and religion of the Aryans, and those who adopted the chariot. The chariot was designed for a crew of two, a warrior who wielded the weapons and a charioteer who drove the chariot, a pilot and a gunner, if you will. There are some indications that primordial divine twin brothers featured prominently in Indo-European mythology previously, whose are reconstructed as *Manu-, the first priest [reflected in the Aryan Manu and Germanic Mannus], and *Yemo-, the first sacrifice and first human to die [reflected in the Vedic Yama, Iranian Yima, Norse Ymir, and possibly the Roman Remus], who obviously resemble Cain and Abel. However, Asko Parpola maintains that the more specific trope of the Horse Twins, attested in India, Greece, Lithuania, and possibly Germany, only developed with the invention of the chariot, as a reflection of the chariot’s two man crew: one twin was a warrior, the other his charioteer. These twins were widely known as ‘Sons of God’, that is Dyaus/Zeus, or the Sun God, were either brothers, husbands, or both of the Dawn or Sun Goddess, and typically associated with the Morning and/or Evening Star, otherwise known as the planet Venus. In Sanskrit, the Twins were also known as the Nasatya, which means ‘saviors’, derived from nasati, ‘safe return home’, and cognate with the Homeric Nestor, who is described as a great charioteer. The association with ‘safe return home’ comes from a vital function of the charioteer in battle: if the warrior was injured and fell from the chariot, it was the charioteer’s responsibility to save the warrior and carry him away from the battlefield. Thus, the Charioteer Twin, and ultimately the Twins together, became gods of healing and gods called on for rescue from danger, such as shipwrecks. Parpola also believes that the Twins became a model for double kingship [as is attested in Sparta], in which one king was a war leader and the other was a healer, seer, priest, and possibly even shaman. The implications for the Biblical division between king and priest and the Christian portrayal of Christ as victorious king and Great Physician, to say nothing of Biblical ideas of marriage, should be obvious.
Worship of the Twins seems to have spread with their chariot, as the Sintashta culture gave rise to the Andronovo horizon, which stretched from the Urals to the Altai, and then expanded south towards the heretofore unmentioned civilization of the Bactriana-Margiana Archeological Complex [BMAC] —unmentioned because, though it had trade contacts with both Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, it apparently never adopted writing, collapsed, and was never an autonomous civilization again. However, it was apparently influenced by a literally knotted succession of Indo-Iranian migrations, if Asko Parpola is to be believed. First, Andronovo Indo-Aryans migrated south and settled around the BMAC cities, then the Iranians took up horse riding and created a large cultural horizon known as Roller Pottery cultures, which expanded in all directions and also reached the environs of the BMAC, and then, Parpola proposes, continued south through the mountains into the Indian subcontinent. [Parpola suggests that the Dasyus of the Vedas are actually an Iranian tribe who conquered the BMAC; while the region was certainly Iranianized eventually, and a later Iranian-speaking tribe in the area was known as Dahae or Dacae, I personally find it more probable that ‘Dasyu’ was the original ethnonym of the BMAC people, which Iranian immigrants later adopted.] Meanwhile, the first wave of Indo-Aryans spread into the upper Indus Valley, where the Meluhha-Harappa civilization was already going the way of all centralized bureaucracies, and established the mystical traditions recorded in the Atharva Veda, and then, finally, another wave of Andronovo Indo-Aryans came south, conquered the BMAC, kept on conquering right through the Hindu Kush mountains and into the region later known as Punjab, and composed the Rig Veda along the way. At some point, however, some portion of the aforementioned Indo-Aryans made a sharp right turn and conquered all the way to Upper Mesopotamia, where they established the Kingdom of Mitanni over the Hurrians. While Hurrian remained the official language of Mitanni, their kings and horse-trainers had Indo-Aryan names, and their treaties invoked Vedic gods like Indra, Varuna, and the Nasatyas. Around the same period, another ethnic group of unknown origin but apparent Indo-European influence, known as the Kassites, conquered Lower Mesopotamia, claimed the title ‘King of Babylon’, and established the longest-lived Babylonian dynasty, which lasted for over 400 years.
During this time, Egypt had fallen apart and put itself together again—twice. After the Old Kingdom collapsed, Egypt was divided into Northern and Southern kingdoms based respectively at Herakleopolis Magna and Thebes. The Southern Kingdom at Thebes was eventually victorious, and established the Middle Kingdom, which lasted for four hundred years. This period was the Golden Age of Egyptian Literature, and also the period in which Osiris became the most popular god in Egypt, though his enemy/murderer Set continued to be venerated as protector of Upper Egypt.
Over this same time period, the northern Levant was unified under the Kingdom of Yamhad, which had its capital at Aleppo, a center of worship for the storm god Baal Hadad. Coastal cities such as Ugarit and Byblos continued to flourish and develop cuneiform literature. Meanwhile, another, novel civilization arose to the west. On the island of Crete, the Old Palace period of the Minoan civilization began. While this civilization was literate, and actually employed two scripts—a form of hieroglyphics and a syllabary known as Linear A, neither has been deciphered, so their surviving documents are illegible. We do know that they built several probably autonomous towns centered on palace-temples, which had no walls and little sign of land warfare, but ample sign of prosperity, stylish art, and mother goddess worship—indeed, Marija Gimbutas considered Minoan Crete the last survival of Old Europe and connected its artistic symbols to that of Neolithic/Chalcolithic Europe. Nanno Marinatos, more recently, has persuasively compared Minoan iconography to that of the Near East in the same time period, but since Marinatos focuses exclusively on the latest period of the Minoan civilization, in which she admits the system had changed somewhat in response to external influence, and Old Europe was part of a cultural continuum with the Neolithic Near East anyway, there is not necessarily any contradiction between the two theories. [Case in point: Gimbutas and Marinatos, despite completely different methodologies and evidence, both come to the conclusion that the renowned Minoan double axe was a symbol of regeneration.] Though there are no clear signs of a unitary state, the palace at Knossos was likely predominant, and the cities certainly commanded a powerful navy that ruled the Aegean and was probably a desired ally by Near Eastern kings. It appears that many islands of the Aegean, particularly Thera/Santorini, and even mainland sites like Miletus, were colonized or absorbed by the Minoans. Unfortunately, due to the lack of legible documents, we have no solid names or details about the Minoan civilization, and interpretation of the archeological evidence is highly colored by Greek myths of King Minos [from which the Minoan civilization receives its name], Daedalus, the Minotaur, the Labyrinth, Ariadne, and Theseus which are first attested over a millennium after the fact, and are obviously colored by subsequent history, as Nanno Marinatos points out at some length. Nonetheless, the myths’ portrayal of Crete as a hegemonic power is accurate, Marinatos’s own thesis supports the myths’ image of King Minos as divine lawgiver, the minotaur does correlate with Minoan veneration of bulls, and, while Ariadne’s status as beautiful princess and hero’s love interest is obviously a folklore trope, that the Minoan palace-temples had powerful queen-priestesses and venerated powerful goddesses is incontrovertible. As for the Labyrinth, we shall return to it momentarily, but it should be noted that the aforementioned double-axe was historically referred to as the labrys. One error in Marinatos’s argument cannot pass unnoticed: she contends that the Minoan mother goddess cannot be equated with Hera or Demeter. This ignores the explicit association of Demeter with the labrys in her Homeric Hymn, and further, her name, Da-mater. The second element is obviously ‘mother’, but the Da-/De- prefix is contested, though often assumed to mean ‘earth’. Knossos is situated between two mountains that were both regarded as sacred, and both host to caves claimed as the birthplace of Zeus: Dikte and Ida. Linear references to ‘Ida-mate’ have actually been discovered, so why should anyone hesitate to identify Demeter, Damater, as Ida-Mater, Mother Ida? [Mount Dikte is associated with a goddess equated with Artemis.]
As the Minoan language is undeciphered, it is impossible to say even which language family, if any, it belonged to, so there are perfectly valid suggestions that it was an Old European survivor, Semitic, Etruscan, or even Indo-European. Though Marija Gimbutas would surely object, it must be admitted that there are some indications that it, as well as the pre-Greek Pelasgian language of the mainland, may have been Anatolian. The very name ‘Minos’ may be cognate with ‘*Manu’. Though Linear A is undeciphered overall, certain words can be picked out, notably a probable goddess named ‘Asasarasima’, whose name may be cognate with the Levantine Athirat/Asherah [and, in my humble opinion, the Greek Hera], and, most surprisingly, another goddess named ‘Atana Diwia’, who is not only clearly an early version of the Greek Athena, but also bears an indisputably Indo-European epithet that associates her with the heavenly lights, and makes her a prime candidate for Nanno Marinatos’s solar goddess, possibly jointly with Asasarasima, but then again ‘Asasarasima’ may be only a title or epithet. The Linear A documents have also revealed a word for lord, or master: dapure.
The unfortunate Minoan civilization was hit with a series of calamities, from a long series of earthquakes due to Crete’s location on a fault line, to the infamous eruption of Thera/Santorini, which may not have done irreparable damage to the culture of the island itself [as in the Yellow River Basin of China, the people probably accepted that buildings had a limited life-span], but also apparently destroyed their ships, which left them helpless before an invasion of their presumed erstwhile vassals on the mainland, who conquered the island, destroyed all the palaces and rebuilt none except Knossos, and began to use a new script known as Linear B, which they used to administer the centralized, bureaucratic kingdom they established on Crete. This new palace-centered kingdom mirrored similar palace-centered kingdoms that arose on the mainland at about the same time, at Mycenae, Tiryns, Pylos, Sparta, Athens, Thebes, Orchomenos, Iolcos, and other places well-attested in Greek mythology, several of which were never prominent or powerful again. This civilization was called Mycenaean from the time of Mycenae’s excavation by Homeric literalist Heinrich Schliemann, but most scholars assumed that the ‘Mycenaeans’ spoke a non-Indo-European language related to that of the Minoan Cretans; that is, until Linear B was deciphered and proved to be an early form of Greek in the early 20th century. The deciphered documents were, like the Uruk culture ones, mostly dull bureaucratic records, but they did reveal that the Mycenaean palace-states were kingdoms, and centralized bureaucratic kingdoms at that, in which a major topic of accounting records was sacrifices to various gods [and goddesses], which includes most of the gods of the later Olympian pantheon, including the supposed newcomer Dionysos, but with the exception of Aphrodite and only a tenuous association with Apollo. Further, a tablet from Knossos makes reference to ‘Potinia Dapuritio’—’Lady of the Labyrinth’. Dapuritio is also obviously related to the Minoan Dapure, lord, which makes dapuritio or ‘labyrinth’ an excellent translation for ‘palace’, to say nothing of their association with the labrys.
Further information on the Mycenaean civilization is found in the records of the Hittites, of a King who wrote several letters to the King of Ahhiyawa [Achaea], including some that refer to the latter’s aggression in the ‘Wilusa incident’. ‘Wilusa’ is almost certainly a variation of Illium—Troy.
At about the same time that Minoan Crete was overrun by Mycenaean Greeks, the Middle Kingdom of Egypt was brought down by invaders from the Levant, who established a kingdom at Avaris in the Nile delta. The Egyptians called them Hyksos. They are generally believed to be Semitic, as it is an established historical and archeological fact that the eastern Nile delta was settled by Canaanite and other Semitic farmers and herdsmen around this time. However, an Indo-European connection has also been proposed. The Hyksos rulers controlled Lower Egypt for a century, and had a lasting effect on Egyptian culture. Specifically, the Hyksos chose Set, god of storms, desert, chaos, and foreign nations, as their chief god, which effectively ended Set’s role as protector of Upper Egypt, and led to his vilification by the native Egyptians. The Hyksos presumably equated Set with a god of their own; this may have been Ba’al Hadad, but, since Set was associated with the desert, and thus more associated with sandstorms than rainstorms, that he was a warrior god, a protector god, a jealous god, and most of all since at least one Hyksos ruler with the ominous name of ‘Apophis’ worshipped Set exclusively [‘[He] chose for his lord the god Seth. He did not worship any other deity in the whole land except Seth’—Papyrus Sallier 1 [Apophis and Sekenenre]], it may not; they may have equated him with another God entirely.
When the native rulers of Thebes in Upper Egypt finally expelled the Hyksos and established the New Kingdom, xenophobic attitudes to Asiatic peoples became the vogue of the day, as some of my readers hopefully already know. However, the New Kingdom was also the first time that Egypt expanded its hegemony into the Levant, particularly during the reign of Tuthmosis III, stepson of the famous Queen Hatshepsut. This same dynasty produced the notorious monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten [whose introduction of Atenism may have has more to do with consolidating authority over Egypt and eliminating independent power bases such as temples than genuine theological conviction] and his son Tutankhamun. The next dynasty, known as the Ramesside, was founded by a family with strong ties to the priesthood of Set in Avaris, who then rehabilitated that god as a patron of their empire.
In this time, the Ancient Near East, formerly characterized by a dynastic loop of successive empires, reached a somewhat stable equilibrium between four or five major powers: Egypt, Kassite Babylonia, Assyria, Mitanni, and Hatti [at least until Mitanni conquered Assyria]. These engaged in fairly cordial diplomatic relationships with each other, in which their kings addressed one another as brothers and sent each other lavish gifts of gold and concubines.
It was too good to last—in the twelfth century BC, partly due to the migration of various seafaring tribal groups mysteriously labeled as ‘Sea Peoples’, though land migrations are documented, and it is a fair bet that at least some of them were Greek. The ‘Peleset’ for example are likely Greek, and identical with the Biblical Philistines. As a result, all the great powers of the past several centuries, besides Egypt and Assyria along with several city-states on the Levantine coast toppled like ninepins. Tyre escaped, because it was on an island, but Ugarit was never rebuilt. Assyria took advantage of the situation to briefly conquer Babylonia, but got locked in conflict with Elam. The New Kingdom of Egypt survived, but eventually went into decline and collapse. The Hittite Empire fell, of course, and all the Mycenaean palace-fortresses were destroyed, except for Athens. In Greece, literacy was forgotten, and the region plunged into a Dark Age.
It is, of course, precisely this period when the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles take place, when David and Solomon briefly rose to greatness, only for their kingdom to split into two. As all Bible-readers know, Assyria fought its way back to conquer not only all of Mesopotamia and the Levant, but Egypt as well—which began the demonization of Seth in earnest. Most Phoenician cities recovered and were rebuilt, started writing in an alphabet, established trade routes across not only the Mediterranean, but up the Atlantic Coast, and founded colonies overseas. After several centuries, the Greek cities were reestablished, but no longer were kings regarded as incarnations or representatives of gods—within a few centuries, monarchy was abolished in most poleis in favor of varying forms of oligarchy, tyranny [dictatorship], and eventually democracy. Though all documents from before the collapse were lost, oral heritage preserved some of the stories and culture of the earlier age, which were preserved when writing returned from Phoenicia. The restored cities also established colonies across the Mediterranean—the south of Italy became so covered with Greek cities that it was known as ‘Magna Grecia’.
This is the point where ‘Western Heritage’ generally begins. How can we understand it without the backstory? How can the political experiments of Greece be understood without reference to the failure of the earlier order of theocratic monarchy, which had been as universally accepted as liberal democracy is today. How can we understand the Bible without understanding Egypt and Mesopotamia? And how can we understand history without understanding prehistory? Civilization without its origin?
Education should focus on instilling multilingualism through immersion at the earliest possible age, allow the opportunity to learn and work in isolation, weaken the effect of social interactions with peers, and allow opportunity for students to pursue their particular intellectual interests. [Dinosaurs and astronauts qualify as intellectual interests.] There must however also be books all students are required to read that cover all major traditions: all major epics, foundational texts of all major religions and philosophical schools, not to mention the greatest novels of all major languages, as well as the most significant movies, television series, comic books, and video games. [These last subject matters will privilege the English, French, and Japanese departments of course.] The teaching of math and science should always be connected to practical applications and historical contexts: math should be bundled with basic accounting, for instance.
The new liberal arts university should start with a practical course in hunting and gathering corequisite with introductory science courses, and introductory immersion courses in Sumerian, Akkadian, Classical Egyptian, and/or Hittite, followed by basic coverage of foundational classical languages like Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, Latin, Old Norse, Old Church Slavonic, Avestan, Sanskrit, Classical Chinese, Classical Nahuatl, and Classical Maya, which would be prerequisite to study of their descendants. For example, it would be required to study Latin before you could study French or Spanish, Old Norse before you could study German or English, Avestan before Persian, Akkadian or Biblical Hebrew before Modern Standard Arabic, and so forth. Each language school would have its own Literature, History, Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Politics, Theatre, Film History, and Video Game History Departments, dedicated to study of those subjects in those respective languages. General study of those subjects would be done through interdisciplinary programs. [Visual Art may have a separate School, for obvious reasons, but since visual art is determined by the culture it was produced in, division by language may still be valuable.] It is vital that the study of art and literature include film, television, video games, and other emerging media, but these modern arts must be founded on understanding ancient ones.
This new university should be neither secular nor sectarian, but rather pan-monotheist, governed in part by a consortium of Protestant, Catholic, Eastern AND Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church of The East, Orthodox Jewish, Sufi Muslim, Zoroastrian, and monotheistic Hindu Clergy. [There may also be special Chairs for a Wahabi cleric and a Pure Land Buddhist, so students can be exposed to their viewpoints.] There should be chapels for all represented denominations on the campus.
Science should be associated with practice, and the study of biology should be separated from paleontology, and therefore from any discussion of the origins of life or species. Paleontology should fall under the purview of the School of Archaeology. However, both departments should be refuges for ‘Intelligent Design’ supporters.
Partial Work Consulted Bibliography
- Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess (Thames & Hudson, 2001).
- Marija Gimbutas, The Civilization of the Goddess (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
- Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (University of California Press, 1999).
- David Anthony, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language (Princeton University Press, 2010).
- Asko Parpola, The Roots of Hinduism (Oxford University Press, 2015).
- Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (Allen Lane, 2001).
- Peter A. Clayton, Chronicle of the Pharaohs (Thames & Hudson, 1994).
- Toby Wilkinson, Genesis of the Pharaohs (Thames & Hudson, 2003).
- Nanno Marinatos, Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess (University of Illinois Press, 2010).
- Martin Nilssen, The Mycenaean Origin of Greek Mythology (Pinnacle Press, 2017).
- John Chadwick, The Mycenaean World (Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Featured Image Credit: Images from Commons.Wikipedia.com (L-R): “Ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Mesopotamia”; “Jerusalem 2013, Aerial Temple Mount (south exposure)”; “Monreale Cathedral”; “Ancient Indian Architecture” (Ruined group of samadhi); and “The Parthenon.”