Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Wisdom of the Ancients…

Much of what is most commonly passed off as being “The Wisdom of the Ancients” is neither very wise, nor all that ancient – particularly the favourite books of today’s western and mid-eastern religionists. (Which makes you wonder where Yahweh, Elohim and Allah were all this while.)

To give some context to both the guff (which is voluminous) and the good stuff (of which there is despairingly little) here’s a list in chronological order, from latest to most recent, of what is considered the great books of sacred wisdom (along with a few more hopeful milestones along the way). Not only is it true that  …


… but most of cultures’ myths and fables were borrowed from each other.

Here’s your list:

The Sumerian creation myth of the Old Babylonian Period, written on what is known as the Barton Cylinder, dates to around 2400 BCE.

Those days were indeed faraway days. Those nights were indeed faraway nights. Those years were indeed faraway years. The storm roared, the lights flashed. In the sacred area of Nibru (Nippur), the storm roared, the lights flashed. Heaven talked with Earth, Earth talked with Heaven. [The first part of the myth deals with the description of the sanctuary of Nippur, detailing a sacred marriage between An and Ninhursag during which heaven and earth touch] Enlil's older sister / with Ninhursag / he had intercourse / he kissed her / the semen of seven twins / he planted in her womb.

The Pyramid Texts are a collection of ancient Egyptian religious texts from the time of the Old Kingdom, ca. 2400-2300 BCE. The spells, or "utterances", of the pyramid texts are primarily concerned with protecting the pharaoh's remains.

The Ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, often regarded as the first great work of literature, dating from the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC), tells tales of the Great Flood and the .

The Enûma Eliš, the early Babylonian creation mythos, probably dates to the Bronze Age, to the time of Hammurabi or perhaps the early Kassite era (roughly 18th to 16th centuries BCE), although some scholars favour a later date of c. 1100 BCE.

The Vedas are the oldest writings of Hinduism, four Indian texts containing several mythological and poetical accounts of the origin of the world, hymns praising the gods, and ancient prayers for life, prosperity, etc. composed and/or collected about 1500 – 1100 BCE.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead: ancient Egyptian funerary texts used from about 1550 BC to 50 BC to guard a deceased person on their journey to the underworld (afterlife) and help them avoid the pitfalls and deceptions during the journey.

The Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic poem traditionally attributed to Homer and composed in the 8th century BCE.

The Kojiki , the inspiration behind Shinto practices and myths, is the oldest extant chronicle in Japan, dating from the early 8th century BCE.

Upanishads, the sacred books of Hinduism, first dozen or so being the oldest and most important. Around 800-100BCE.

The Theogony i.e. "the genealogy or birth of the gods," is a poem by Hesiod describing the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods, composed circa 700 B.C.

The Avesta is the religious book of Zoroastrians containing a collection of sacred texts, much of which was destroyed by subsequent religionists, but which was probably first written down around the 6th or 7th centuries BCE to help cohere the disparate cultures of the Persian Empire.

If religion is primitive philosophy, then the first step up the road to human adulthood was taken in ancient Greece in the 6th century BCE, with the birth and first publication of the pre-Socratic philosophers. While other cultures were confusing mythology for their religion, these giants were taking reason on its first tottering steps.

imageTao Te Ching, a classic Chinese text composed according to tradition around the 6th century BC by the sage Laotsu, is the fundamental text of both philosophical and religious Taoism.

The Torah, the Judaic sacred text and the first of the monotheistic Abrahamic texts (Abraham being most famous for agreeing to kill his son, for which nearly 50% of the world’s religionists now give thanks), comprises the first five books of the Bible – the “Five Books of Moses” – incorporating many of the earlier mythological tropes, especially those of Babylonian, Zoroastrian and Mesopotamian mythology -- written during the so-called Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century BC and finalised in the 2th century BC.

The Agamas, the original texts of Jainism, were composed around around the 6th to 3rd century BCE.

The Golden Verses of Pythagoras are a collection of moral exhortations traditionally attributed to Pythagoras, probably dating to the 5th century BCE.

The Greek dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the Greek comedies of Aristophanes, composed and performed in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries BCE.

Bhagavad Gita, a 700-verse Hindu scripture, part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, that most recently became the hippies’ favourite bedtime reading, 500 BCE - 200 BCE

The dialogues and philosophical writings of the pagan Greek Plato, who first codified and gave birth to the philosophical tradition and many of whose ideas later proved easily amenable to incorporation into Christian theology, were written down in the 4th and 5th centuries.

If it’s true as Alfred North Whitehead once noted that "the European philosophical tradition … consists of a series of footnotes to Plato," then it’s also true that the history of that same tradition is a duel between Plato and his best student, Aristotle, who gave birth to logic and to the first philosophy for living on this earth. Aristotle was writing his Organon in the 4th century BCE when other cultures were still confusing mysticism, mythology and voices in their head for genuine wisdom.

China’s Confucian Five Classics was laid down in the pre-Qin period, around the 3rd century BCE.

Buddhist Sutras, first written down by followers of Gautama Buddha (or someone like him) between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD.

Gnostic texts not incorporated into the later Bible date back to the 2nd century BCE.

The Pali Canon is the first known and most complete extant early Buddhist canon, composed in North Indi, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the Fourth Buddhist Council in Sri Lanka in 29 BCE, approximately four hundred and fifty years after the death of Gautama Buddha (said to have lived and taught mostly in eastern India sometime between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE).

The Aeneid is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BCE, telling the mythical founding story of Rome -- of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans.

The  Codex Nazaraeus is the largest of the many holy scriptures of the Mandaean religion, which reveres John the Baptist but rejects Jesus of Nazareth. It is also referred to as The Book of Adam. Some scholars place it in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE, while others place it in the 1st century.

The Living Gospel of Mani (also Great Gospel, Gospel of the Living and variants) was a 3rd-century gnostic gospel allegedly written by Mani -- one of the seven original scriptures of Manichaeism.

The Bible, the Christians’ favourite text and their rules for living, comprising the Abrahamic Hebrew scriptures (translated into Greek in the 3rd century BCE as the Septuagint) to which the New Testament was added, the canonical collection of all of which was codified in the 4th century Roman empire to assist in the empire’s cohesion, and then enforced by the Roman Emperor.

The Justinian Decree of 529AD outlawed so-called idolatry, heresy and paganism within the Roman Empire. All those declared guilty were to be put to death. The decree made the empire a virtual military theocracy, effectively closed the School of Athens after 1000 years, and ushered in the European Dark Ages.

The Quran, the monotheistic Abrahamic religious text of Islam, was composed by his followers about twenty years after the death of the alleged prophet Muhammad in 632 AD, probably to help cohere the new Arab empire they had just created.

The Hadith, the sayings and alleged doings of Islam’s alleged prophet, composed and collected from around 100 years after Muhammad’s death until about the 10th century, when the growing corpus was canonised.

The Old Norse Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, both of which were written down in Iceland during the 13th century in Icelandic, although they contain material from earlier traditional sources, reaching into the Viking Age (the period from 793 AD to 1066 AD).

The Chinese Buddhist Diamond Sutra is dated back to May 11, 868 CE -- "the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book."

In his 11th century book The Incoherence of the Philosophers Islam’s second-most influential ‘thinker’ Al Ghazali declared “If it’s in the Quran we don’t need it; if it’s not in the Quran we don’t want it.” And for the next ten centuries, they didn’t get it.

Jewish Kabbalah emerged, after earlier forms of Jewish mysticism, in 12th- to 13th-century Southern France and Spain, becoming reinterpreted in the Jewish mystical renaissance of 16th-century Ottoman Palestine.

Aristotle’s texts are rediscovered by western thinkers, and in the 13th century Albertus Magnus publishes interpretations and condensations of Aristotle's relative works, and his pupil Thomas Aquinas publishes his Summa Theologica (written 1265–1274), opening the door to Aristotelian reality-based thought and science.

The Druidic text Mabinogion was also the earliest prose literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in the 12th -13thC from earlier oral traditions by medieval Welsh authors.

The Borgia Group of ritual and divinatory manuscripts is an early Aztec group of Codexes, dating from before the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

The Tibetan Buddhist canon comprising the Kangyur and Kanjur were compiled and codified in the 13th century AD.

The Druze Epistles of Wisdom were compiled in 1479.

Guru Granth Sahib is the central religious text of Sikhism, compiled and composed during the period of Sikh gurus from 1469 to 1708.

The father of modern physics and the scientific method, Galileo Galilei published from 1586 to 1638.

One of the great events in the history of human thought now takes place. While savages were still lynching heretics and wondering whether the Earth was flat, Isaac Newton was explaining how the universe actually worked in his Principia of 1687.

The Popol Vuh, a Mayan  corpus of mytho-historical narratives, compiled from the records of the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez who lived around the turn of the 18th century.

Adam Smith explained how the Industrial Revolution was about to happen in his 1776 Wealth of Nations.

Maori mythology, passed on in the oral tradition for centuries, was finally collected in written form from the early 19th century on1.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw an explosion in newly minted and recently-invented religions and religious texts. The Book of Mormon was thrown together in 1830 by Joseph Smith; the Seventh-Day Adventist Church grew out of William Miller’s failed prediction of Jesus’ Second Coming, supposed to happen on October 22, 1844; the same year that Bahai’s books began; the Jehovah’s Witnesses band of trick cyclists emerged from the Bible Student movement of the late 1870s; Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, published 1875, is the central text of the Christian Science religion; Alesteir Crowley’s Holy Books of Thelema began his unique band of religionists between 1907 and 1911; Rastafari’s alleged prophet Marcus Garvey kicked off the religion in 1927 writing in praise of Messiah Haile Selassie I’s coronation ; science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics in 1950, aka Scientology’s Book One; Sun Myung Moon’s Divine Principle  and Korea’s Donghak movement in the 1960s; the Wiccan Book of Shadows in the 197os; new age documents and crystal healing from the time hippies learned about earning money…

1. From Wikipedia: In the 1840s Edward Shortland, Sir George Grey, and other non-missionaries began to collect the myths and traditions. At that time many Māori were literate in their own language and the material collected was, in general, written by Māori themselves in the same style as they spoke. The new medium seems to have had minimal effect on the style and content of the stories. Genealogies, songs, and narratives were written out in full, just as if they were being recited or sung. Many of these early manuscripts have been published, and as of 2012 scholars have access to a great body of material (more than for any other area of the Pacific) containing multiple versions of the great myth cycles known in the rest of Polynesia, as well as of the local traditions pertaining only to New Zealand. A great deal of the best material is found in two books, Nga Mahi a nga Tupuna (The Deeds of the Ancestors), collected by Sir George Grey and translated as Polynesian Mythology; and Ancient History of the Māori (six volumes), edited by John White (Biggs 1966).


  1. History tag : The Dark Ages - I didn't realise until very recently that Historians no longer refer to that age but now call it "Early Middle", because they reckon dark ages has a pejorative sense. I'm flummoxed. I thought the age was previously called dark because it WAS [dark] {no longer civilised ~ whatever that might mean given how Romans carried on e.g slavery, conquests; but architecture, literature, laws}
    Dark ages remnamed

  2. @Anonymous/Peter: Sure, religionists would like to have history rewritten to have the European Dark Ages expunged from the record, and for fairly obvious reasons: because the reason for the European Dark Age then is the same as the reason for the Islamic Dark Age now.

  3. Note to the editor: The Korean guys name is actually spelled Sun Myung Moon or in Korean Moon Sun Myung (They do their last name before their first). Just saying... (used to be a moonie, and am slightly pedantic)

    But this was definitely an enlightening read, thank you.



  4. "God is and is not." ~ Upanishads

    "I, for my part, do not wish to make the mistake
    of blaming Christianity for what men have done to it."
    ~ C.G. Jung

    Isaac Newton, apart from his obsession with Alchemy, was also a Christian who spent countless hours trying to decipher the Bible from a fairly literalist position. Approaching scripture with a literal mind is an error, no less common to scientific thinkers than to the gullible masses who swallow dogmas whole. It's based on a false approach to religion, and a false understanding of what scripture is capable of when placed in the hands of a competent judge, who recognizes its profound application in the realm of what may be called archetypal psychology. My own advice is to never let truth (or fact, rather) get in the way of the greatest story ever told. Religion is the epitome of poetic license. It is, in fact, a kind of lens, designed almost exclusively for romantic temperaments, whose take on the world can and should be somewhat fantastical. Who was it that said "small dreams inspire no one"? Just ask yourself, how many secular "saints" there have been. No doubt, ideologies can be twisted, and it is the natural tendency of the masses to twist them. The last century, which atheists claim represents a positive movement away from religion, has given rise to three of the most notorious genocidal maniacs in history (Hitler, Stalin, Mao), all of them atheists, promoting a secular agenda. Although Hitler found religion useful as a tool for manipulation, his ultimate aim was its eradication, and the ideology he preached (and used to persuade the masses) was not explicitly religion, by any means, but much more emphatically relied upon a distortion of Darwinian theory.

    As for polls, and how readily we ought to accept them at face value.... Sure, recent polls conducted by The Pew Research Center suggest that a majority of citizens in Middle Eastern countries support the stoning of women and the murder of ex-Muslims. But how trustworthy are these polls?

    "When you get a call on your cellphone from an unfamiliar number, do you answer it? If the person on the other end of the line immediately tries to assure you they’re not trying to sell you anything, do you believe them? If they tell you they’re conducting a public opinion survey that will only take a few minutes of your time, do you go ahead and start sharing your views on religion, gay marriage, the economy, and the upcoming election? If you answered “yes” to all those questions, congratulations! You’re among the 9 percent of Americans whose opinions stand in for those of the nation as a whole in public opinion surveys."…/survey_bias_how_can_we_trust_opinion…

    I would imagine that percentage is even lower for polls conducted in the Middle East, and that those who do respond are far more likely to negatively misrepresent themselves, on account of the political climate there. We ought to be asking: Who replies to them, and who doesn't? Who tells the whole truth, and who has good reason to keep silent or to lie?

  5. Hi @ValuesMarkel, you said: "Religion is the epitome of poetic license." Well, yes. Religion is metaphor. Sometimes good, mostly hideous.
    REligion is simply primitive philosophy. (And mythology is simply somebody else's religion.) If the best your philosophy can produce is arguments for genocide (Marx, Nietzsche etc.) then perhaps best stick to the better myths and metaphors.
    But that shouldn't obscure reason's grasp, nor that reason and philosophy triumphed long before ignorati continued to find non-reasons in the stars for burning incense and each other.

  6. @ValuesMarkel, You also suggest we should be wary of accepting polls at face value -- presumably in relation to the post about Mehdi Hasan -- and I agree. But you overlook that it was Mr Hasan that was relying on the polls...

  7. @PC Neither Marx nor Nietzsche argued in favour of genocide. Before you lecture people about delusional beliefs you might to put your own delusions under the microscope.

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