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The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World

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The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World

“Enki’s beloved Eridug, E-engura whose inside is full of abundance! Abzu, life of the Land, beloved of Enki! Temple built on the edge, befitting the artful divine powers!”

From: ‘Enki’s journey to Nibru.’  (Black, Cunningham, Robson, Zόlyomi, The Literature of Ancient Sumer, 2004, p. 330)

The Sacred History of Being is about philosophy and its origin in the context of ancient cultic life. As such it argues that philosophy as a discipline is very old, as Plato himself said in the Protagoras, and that it was not invented by the Greeks.

In my twenties, I was struck by the strong interest the ancients had in the idea of limit – in art, architecture, philosophy, and ritual. This interest did not much seem to engage modern scholarly attention, with a couple of notable exceptions. Initially I had no idea at all what the significance of the idea of limit might be, and no idea where pursuing it would take me. Or that it would lead to a book it would take me four years to write, and which would reframe my understanding of human intellectual history in the process.


There is a standard form of image from the earliest years of civilization, which consists of two opposed figures, standing on either side of an object. The object can be a tree, an altar, a table heaped with produce, lotus blossoms, animal foreparts, loaves, and so on. The opposed figures can be human, animal, god or genie. This kind of image can be found throughout the archaeological record of the Ancient Near East, and in Egypt.

Two Female winged figures before the Sacred Tree.

Two Female winged figures before the Sacred Tree.

Questions arise from the ubiquity of this image, which appears in the context of those who had great power in the world, and also in funerary contexts, particularly in Egypt. It appears prominently in royal contexts in Assyria and in Babylonia. The image can be traced back as least as far as the settlement at Çatal höyük, now in modern Turkey, dating to some eight or nine thousand years before the present.

What does this image mean? It is nowhere explained, but clearly had some kind of explanation at some time, even if its transmission in later centuries was enabled simply by its status as a traditional iconographic element. Why is it so prominently displayed, so persistent throughout time, and apparently not discussed in the cultures in which it appears?

Some details of esoteric lore were written down in the Ancient Near East – the colophons of the relevant tablets make it clear that the contents were for the initiated only. The ritual procedures for the installation of divine statues in Assyria and Babylonia survive, together with some incantations which were part of the ritual. These tell us about the ritual, and the elements involved in the ritual – the thigh of a ram, best beer, mashatu-meal, and sacralised reeds, plus information about which stellar constellations and planets a statue was to be pointed at as part of the installation; and about the selection of craftsman’s tools which were disposed of as part of the ritual (enclosed in the ram’s thigh, and deposited into the river), in order to remove their responsibility for making divine images (not a thing for mortals to undertake).

But we find no discussion of the rationale of the installation ritual. Or discussion of the rationale of any other ritual which they documented. This suggests that there were levels in the esoteric life of Assyria and Babylonia: that the ritual details were important to record to ensure consistency in the performance of the ritual, but the meaning of the details, and the underlying rationale for the ceremony were transmitted orally, and never committed to writing.

The image with the opposed figures standing around a ritual object is clearly an image whose meaning and function was too important to record in a temple or palace document. In which case it might appear that we can never know what it signified, and why it was so important.

But, it is not so. Assyriologists have explored this image as it appears in the Mesopotamian context, and have made some headway in understanding the scope of its significance. They have established that, in terms of the iconography, the Sacred Tree may stand in for the King. In other words, the two ideas were understood to represent the same thing. The contemporary understanding of the nature of the role of king in Assyria was that he was the Regent of the god Ashur on Earth, and therefore the king represented an emulation and image of the Divine on Earth.

But why a tree? The tree can stand in for the king, because of two further ideas which are connected in the definition of what the king is.

Eagle-headed winged figure facing the Sacred Tree, holding a ritual pail showing a reduplication of the scene.Eagle-headed winged figure facing the Sacred Tree, holding a ritual pail showing a reduplication of the scene.

The contemporary scholarly definition of the Divine in Assyria, framed it as the source of all excellences and perfections, and all knowledge.*[i] Hence the importance of excellences and perfections of the life of the king, as we find recorded in the Annals of Ashurbanipal in the late 7th century B.C.E. (found in the ruins of his palace at Nineveh at the end of the nineteenth century). As Ashur’s representative on Earth he excels in military skills, in throwing the javelin, in horse riding, in the use of weapons; in divining the will of the gods through divination by oil, and other arcane skills; also in scribal excellence and mathematics – he is able to read the ‘obscure and difficult to master’ texts written in Sumerian ‘from before the flood’. And so on.

The excellence and perfection of the king’s skills were understood to place him in proximity to the god Ashur. He is thus at the limit of what a mortal may do and be; as Ashur is at the limit or zenith of Reality itself. Ashur is Reality itself. That the Tree may stand in for the king suggests that it was understood also as an esoteric and symbolic representation of the idea of limit, taken to the nth degree, and also of Reality itself.

Much of the discussion found in Plato concerns the nature of what he calls ‘The Good’. The Good is in a sense the Crown of Creation, and is the target of human attention because of that status. He refers to the Good rather than ‘God’ because he is talking about the ultimate abstraction, which has commerce with other abstractions – as he says, ‘things pass into one another’. The Good is perfect, complete, whole, and the ultimate source of justice, good order, beauty, wisdom, and all the other abstract concepts which have some form of existence in the temporal world. He is careful to say (through the words of Socrates) that this ultimate Reality, the Form of Forms, has ‘no shape, size or colour’. In its nature it wholly transcends physical reality.

Plato’s Republic tells of the craft of passing from the contemplation of one Form to another, entirely intellectually, and without distraction, with the intention of eventually arriving at the contemplation of The Good. The man returning from this journey comes back with knowledge beyond the scope of any wisdom to be found on the Earth.

The Platonic discussion of the Forms is treated by modern scholars as a species of literary fiction. Meaning it has no detectable connections with cultural activity in Greece, or in any other part of the civilised world in the two millennia before the Common Era. But Plato is very clear that it is important to look to the ‘One Thing’, the ur-Reality which underpins the world of the here and now. So he is talking of a conception of God, which gives rise to all other things which may be understood by the mortal mind, though the ultimate abstract conception of Reality may lie forever beyond human understanding.

How old is this conception of the Divine? If the Divine is understood to have its reality at the limit of physical and perceptible reality, and to be the most abstract of abstractions, historians of philosophy would say this notion was first discussed in Classical Greece. If on the other hand, the iconography of the two opposed figures, facing a ritually significant object between them, represents the most abstract conception of limit, beyond any physical instance, then this conception of the Divine is thousands of years older than the middle years of the 1st millennium B.C.E.

The Assyriologist Simo Parpola has shown that there is a connection between the Kabbalah and the Assyrian Sacred Tree. Each of the Mesopotamian gods was associated with a divine number, and sometimes they were referenced in documents by their number alone. He was able to reconstruct the Assyrian version of the Kabbalistic tree, populating the sefirotic nodes (understood in the Middle Ages as divine powers and qualities), with the key Mesopotamian divinities, their properties and numbers.

The Kabbalah enshrines a philosophical notion of transcendent divinity in the concept of the ‘en sof’. It has been assumed by modern scholars that this is an imported idea, perhaps borrowed from Gnosticism in the early centuries of the Common Era. If in fact the idea of the ‘en sof’ was in the Assyrian version of the Sacred Tree, then we understand something new and profound about Hebrew ideas of divinity from the middle of the 1st millennium B.C.E. onwards.  The relationship between the Assyrian and Jewish Sacred Trees which Parpola has been able to show, by itself pushes a philosophical conception of the Divine back to at least the 14th century B.C.E., which is when the representation of the Assyrian Tree first appears.

This philosophical equation of the idea of limit with what is transcendent is an important factor in ancient religious ritual. In Mesopotamia the ritual installation of divine statues took place in locations with clear boundaries, including riverbanks and quays, and a key part of the ritual involved a temple threshold, as the surviving texts tell us. These boundaries were understood to have proximity to the primal reality, the Abzu, house of Ea/Enki, in the sweet waters at the bottom of the sea. Reeds used in the ceremony were spoken of has having their roots in the Abzu. The association of limit with ritual performance tells us something about the logic of the installation: the rites serve to make the images one with the company of gods in Heaven. The statue becomes itself Divine by its exposure to repeated representations of Divinity in the course of what was described in Mesopotamia as the ‘most sacred and secret of rituals’.



A great age for a philosophically conceived notion of Divinity, coequal with Reality itself, makes it possible to make much sense of many otherwise obscure texts and inscriptions which have been excavated over the past two centuries.  The determination of classicists over two centuries to downgrade and deny the connections between Greek civilization and other civilizations around the Mediterranean and the Near East, both in classical times, and in the 2nd millennium B.C.E., has made it very difficult to make sense of both Greek philosophy, and the intellectual life of the other cultures of the ancient world. The Greeks accorded the Egyptians the status of philosophers, and Plato represents Solon having conversations with Egyptian priests in the Timaeus, who had knowledge ‘hoary with age’.  But archaeological excavation, and the recovery of thousands of texts, made possible the idea of writing something like The Sacred History of Being.

I began with very little, as I said at the outset of this article. I did have a pre-existing knowledge of ancient and modern philosophy, which turned out to be essential, and an interest in looking at ancient text closely. Plus an ingrained disdain for consensus reality. However I had no map. I needed to have a map. I moved to London to study Ancient History and Languages at University College London, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (as an intercollegiate student). Three happy years, with time to explore and reflect on the subject.

I began to write before I left college, but afterwards I needed to earn a living, and it was often hard to find the time and concentration to do the job properly. The project was parked several times, though I continued to read. Eventually the writing up process began in January 2011, and was a more or less continuous activity until the book was finally complete in the spring of this year.

The structure of the book is relatively simple. There are three main parts. The first begins with reflections on philosophy, both ancient and modern. This goes some way to explain how I came to pursue this project. The second half of the first part discusses the ontological argument, which has its origins in the early modern period, which has come to be the principal way in which the reality of Divinity is discussed. We have made it very difficult to understand ancient theological ideas by promoting the ontological argument to its current status.

The second part explores Plato’s writing, and the strikingly different way in which Divinity was discussed. It also explores wider Greek thought, and earlier instances of the kind of understanding of Reality found in Plato.

The third part examines ideas common to Greece, Israel and Mesopotamia, plus the significance of the Assyrian Sacred Tree for the scholars of the Assyrian royal court, and the significance of the Jewish Kabbalah, which descends from parallel Mesopotamian ideas. Two of the chapters in part three work through the Mis Pî tablets from Nineveh and Babylon, which describe the ritual for the installation of images of the gods, and discuss the significance of the ritual.

All of the contents are of scholarly interest, but the book is aimed at an interested lay audience. The argument is fully documented. Currently available from Itunes and other ebook outlets.

Thomas Yaeger – 7th December 2015

[i] The Babylonian scholar Berossus, former priest of Bel, tells us of the encounter of the first legendary sages with an emissary of the Divine. The emissary granted them knowledge of the arts and crafts, of husbandry, and the apportioning of land.

About Thomas Yaeger
At school I studied physics, chemistry and biology, as well as humanities subjects. I was also interested in astronomy. At fifteen years old I realised there were many interesting questions which the sciences could not easily address, and began to study philosophy on my own. Before moving to London, I studied philosophy and literature through what was then known as the extra-mural department at the University of Edinburgh. I also took evening classes in ancient Greek. I gained my degree from University College, London, where I studied mainly Ancient Near Eastern culture and languages (Akkadian and Sumerian), and continued to study Greek. I specialised in the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

While in Edinburgh, I’d been working in Information Technology. After graduating I went back into the same field, and spent more than twenty years doing business analysis, project management, system design and managing software development, in four British cities. I also spent five years as the editor of (and occasionally scribe for) a magazine devoted to developments in IT relevant to the library sector. I now write full-time on aspects of the history of ideas.

The contents of this blog expresses the author’s own ideas and opinions. If you would also like to post a blog with content relevant to the BPH please contact us at The Ritman Library reserves the right not to post blogs that have no bearing on any of the library’s collecting areas.

2 Responses to The Esoteric Conception of Divinity in the Ancient World

  1. mist42nz says:

    you have done much study.
    but have you taken the time to study a point.

  2. The point? Philosophy is much older than we think it is, and its origins can be found in ancient divine cult. Divinity was a philosophical concept, rather than the product of human credulity. We can trace this concept in time by studying a technical aspect of the concept of the divine, which is the ancient preoccupation with limit.

    My book discusses the subject at a more leisurely pace.

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