Friday, February 5, 2021

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State: The Axial Age?


Not that I'm complaining or anything, but the algorithm can bombard you with tangents if once you reveal some idle curiosity to it. In its most recent assault on my attention span, I got a whole lot of papers and monographs related to religious change in Late Antiquity, and, in the midst of the bombardment, Guy Stroumsa's "The End of Sacrifice: Religious Mutations in Late Antiquity." Dr. Stroumsa is a historian of comparative religion, and it turns out that the end of animal sacrifice is important to those guys, so Stroumsa is onto the theological implications like nobody's business.

Fine. I'm not the Thought Police. If theology is your bag, it's your bag. The problem is that it isn't what I do around here. Here, it seems like a drastic transformation in the pastoral economy ought to have implications for land use, agronomics, taxation and transportation infrastructure, not to mention the rise of cavalry heavy armies. But people aren't talking about this, above and beyond the role that cavalry and Christianity has played in everyone's discussion of the  Fall of the Roman Empire since, like, forever.

That's not a project I'm going to be following up on any time soon, but Stroumsa is an emeritus at the Hebrew University now, tidying up a lifetime of productive scholarship, and while I was offered "The End of Sacrifice" as a freestanding download, somehow I ended up with the version bundled into 2015's The Making of the Abrahamic Religions in Late Antiquity.  As monographs go, it's a bit of fix-up of the kind you associate with Brill, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, and a little taste of that, in parallel with Robert G. Hoyland's Seeing Islam as Others Saw It left me with some questions about the Axial Age and early Zoroastrianism that bear on a project I am allowing myself to pursue: The Early Iron Age Revival of the State.

So here's the perhaps dubious gift that these two historians of late Antiquity have given me:

i) The End of Sacrifice bookends the Beginning of Sacrifice (a little more about that below);

ii) Hoyland and Stroumsa both explore the exiguous Sassanid and Manichaean sources to their various ends, and come away with the astonishing suggestion that the Avestas, and associated Gathas are projects of the Sassanid period. This may not seem like a big deal to a historian of comparative religion in Late Antiquity, but synchronising the Gathas and the Vedas has been, historically, a pretty important part of the historical linguistics project of understanding the development of the Indo-European language family. Has historical linguistics got the memo from the historians of comparative religion? (Perhaps they have, and it really doesn't change anything.)

iii) And what I'm going with here, the observation that the period that I am attempting to make one of soap and ashes has already been annexed to a grand historical vision, Karl Jasper's Axial Age. Which, fine. I picked up Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation a few years ago, and I agree with Diarmaid MacCullough, writing in a Guardian review that I feel like I have to paste/quote at length just to justify the ridiculous amount I pay for a subscription I barely read:

The Jaspers thesis is a baggy monster, which tries to bundle up all sorts of diversities over four very different civilisations, only two of which had much contact with each other during the six centuries that (after adjustments) he eventually singled out, between 800 and 200BCE - note those six centuries! In other words, the distance between Guardian readers and the Battle of Agincourt, during which we westerners alone have packed in several reformations, a technological or industrial revolution or two, a clutch of enlightenments and a few great dictators. At least the west had some collective shared memories, on which it built when the next phase happened: not so among the philosophers of China, India and the Middle East who form the Amalgamated Trades Union of Axial Age Thinkers and Innovative Religious Operators. In Armstrong's hands, Jaspers's axial age gets baggier still, gobbling up Judaism's Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, Jesus Christ and Muhammad, thereby gaining an indigestible extra eight centuries on top of Jaspers's six. 

This is more-or-less Stroumsa's take on things, but he's all in on the literature, and points me to  Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, which is going to use evolutionary sociology, anthropology, and, yes, psychology to hurdle up to the roadblock at the upstream side of the Axial Age, hurdle it and land in the midst of Hebrew, Greek, Chinese and Indian history of ideas with all claws slashing. He modestly decides not to try to take on the missing middle of Neo-Assyrian/Neo-Babylonian/Persian civilisation, even though Assurbanipal and Nabonidus (not to mention Zoroaster) have big roles to play in some people's stories of the Axial Age. Indeed, as far as intellectual histories of the Axial Age itself go, I still haven't seen anything that beats Halperin's astronomical interpretation according to which the shift to a geocentric cosmology differentiates solar from chthonic gods and provides the theological pretext for destroying private chthonic cult in favour of public religion. 

You have to admit that Bellah has ambition, in a "good luck with that" kind of way. Still, the Bellah bus may get me there faster than Vancouver transit if I remember to get off on the stop before Dead Man's Corner, which Bellah appears to hit, after some scary close encounters with Abraham Maslow and the Big Bang, about the time that Confucius confuses himself and everyone else about what, exactly, "ren" and "li" are. Along the way, it is nice to see Bellah hit some highlights from my own casual reading of years past. It's awesome to have a reference to the author who thinks that the early Greek temples are replications of Egyptian temples attempting to recreate Egyptian landscapes on Mediterranean eustuarine microenvironments without having to track down someone I casually noted out of UBC Library's much missed "New Books" carousel, for example.  More substantially, Bellah is hip to the archaeological literature demonstrating the rapid rise of the urban, public sanctuary during the Greek Geometric Age. This is quite explicitly a "beginning of sacrifice." 

It is not as though ritual sacrifice is new. Animals  have always been slaughtered and eaten, and we're allowed to think of all such acts as sacrifices. The only reason that there were more animal victims in Geometric Greece than there were in Late Bronze Age Greece is that there are so many more people raising so many more animals. What changed is that ritual sacrifice became public sacrifice. The new ritual world is one of nominally universal participation. Apart from mystery cult, all ritual is public, all (ritual) mimesis is universal. Even when a sacrifice belonged to a specific lineage, it was done in the open, for everyone, and was, at its core, a social practice, the foundation on which the state was built. Social power passes from those who receive cult to those who perform it. 

Bellah explains this seems tolerably universalised. The roadblock between the Late Bronze Age and the "Axial Age," the one whose overcoming gives rise to the Classical state, is a "crisis of ritual." Private ritual gives way to public as people lose faith in the efficacy of ritual practice. 

Now that's something to think with!

Out of a mishmash of "evolutionary" arguments, Bellah develops ideas linking the ritual practice of the archaic with Huizinga's play (he's the guy who inflicted "ludic" on us), Merlin Donald's mimetic mode of learning and the "mythopoeic" mode of thinking. Which is to say, the stage where you navigate reality by making up stories about it. Glad we're past that stage! Out of this, what I'm going with is that ritual as of the Late Bronze Age consisted of private ritual practice and public, mass participation festivals, and that its function was to promote mimetic learning. If I am understanding this correctly, private ritual practice restricts mimesis, which may or may not be a good idea, depending on how you organise your society. At the very least, it looks as though the Early Iron Age perceived a gross mis-step demanding a cultural revolution. Archaeology might supply us with direct evidence for a revolution in Chinese practice, the "Western Zhou Ritual Reform" of about 850BC that we can pull out of standardised bronze vessel sets, dedicatory inscriptions, and even the earliest parts of the Classics of Documents.

This being when things were rotten in the Mediterranean, all we can really go on is the decade-by-decade count of sanctuaries that shows an uptick. In Coldstream's classic survey, during the 800s, the Greek gods are receiving cult at only a dozen or so sanctuaries, none securely identified with a proper temple. By 700 this had risen to seventy, at least  half with an associated temple (317). This is the 2003 Routledge second edition of a 1977 monograph. At the time, the sacred was served in the late archaic by small shrines in palaces on the one hand, at at numinous sites in the landscape. There is room here to both push the number of known Early Iron Age sanctuaries up, and to crowd the distinction between "public temple" and "private" shrine, but as far as I can tell the framework of the argument is intact. Right now we are arguing about whether we can detect changes in ritual practice, and the political and social implications of control of sanctuaries. 
Stepping back from this for a moment, the crisis in ritual and the subsequent rise of sacrifice really does happen. I am not at all  clear that we are going to get an intelligible explanation for this. Freeing the Axial Age from its "monstrous grab bag" would seem to entail pushing back from later and more knowable authors to the earliest figures of the Axial Age, and apart from perhaps the pre-Exilic prophets, these guys don't seem particularly knowable. Zoroaster's dates --and now the Zoroastrian texts-- are chronologically inexact beyond belief. The very existence of Lao Dze seems unsalvageable. How much Confucius we can get out of the Confucian writings has been in debate in Chinese history of philosophy from the beginning. The traditional doxology places Thales at the head of the Greek philosophical tradition, but if you cheat and take Pythagoras instead, you're left staring into an epistemic abyss. Pythagoras is clearly hugely important, but the only thing he did was somehow enable Croton's conquest of Sybaris, as far as even the later Greeks can explain him to  us. Good luck on salvaging anything more now! 

So instead of reaching for straws, let us settle for knowing what we know about Pythagoras. Which is that he was a teacher. This is even more true of the otherwise inaccessible Confucius, for whom we even have a curriculum that suggests the centrality of mimetic teaching. You don't teach archery, music and chariot handling by making your students buy your textbook! This being a blog about the history of technology, not history of philosophy, we're allowed to put the replication of technique before the evolution of ideas and decline the invitation to transcend the "mimetic" stage. It's a bit  harder to do this with Moses, as by the time we're telling stories about Moses he has become the kind of culture hero who is always teaching his people new things --not that this is important to Second Temple Judaism, for whom Moses is a theologian, not a technician. But then Moses auditions for hero status by doing stuff for Pharaoh. 

There is no question whatever that the Early Iron Age was an age of profound technological transformation. The setting of the Axial Age is places where urban civilisation had not been possible before the axe cleared the forests. (The argument for the Central Plains of China has to be more  nuanced, but I think it holds.) Horses, wool, soap and ashes, iron tools, glass beads, dyed clothes, silver from lead ores. That's our new world. Yes, iron is earlier; wool is earlier; soap is earlier; equestrianship is earlier. Silver, even cupellated silver, is earlier. Perhaps the only technology unique to the Early Iron Age (outside of Egypt) is glassmaking. And yet all of these things are practiced so much more widely and intensively in 500AD than they were in 800AD. It is done in new ways. Horses are ridden, silver is coined. There is a need to teach new skills reached in few earlier eras. A need for a revolution in pedagogy, then? 

Here's my proposed model of the (intellectual) history of the Axial Age:

i) Our neighbours ride horses, have cool clothes, and kill people real good with their iron tools. We should get a nerd to show us how this stuff is done. 

ii) Nerd: 

iii) Hey, we're horse-riding, iron spear-slinging, dyed-toga wearing, big spending empire builders, and we all agree it's down to that nerd who spent thirty years showing us how to do things and telling us that it's all in how you hold your mouth. That was a great party when he died last month. We should really have one every year.

iv) For this year's Culture Hero Who Died [Fifty] Years Ago Celebration, City council proposes a special event where you smart guys explain what he was on about to the younger generation. 

v) Intellectuals: Those old guys were, like, the total opposites of the modern leadership. LOL I'm not going to say that! Better pull something out of my ass instead. Oh, hey, Socrates, we see that look in your eye. Get with the programme!

Mutations of Late Antiquity 
 G. S


  1. Before I even bother to read this I'm going to sound the DOUBLE TRIPLE EXTRA LUND ALERT SIREN:

  2. Venetian artefacts in precontact Alaska IS IT? IS IT NOW?

  3. Is this the most concise distillation of your Grand Theory we are probably going to get?

    Because if it is, it's hip to be square.

    1. "Concise"? I do not know this word. It looks like English, but I think that's probably some kind of analytic error.

  4. Well, I mean, it could easily be, although there's usually a lot of pushback against any given carbon dating when there's actually something controversial at stake.

    But of course this was clearly direct transmission from early European fishers interacting with Thule horizon people in the eastern Arctic, and not from Siberia. Clearly.