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Role of Religion Throughout History: Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Sumer

By Edited Sep 16, 2016 1 0

   Within the cultures of past ancient civilizations, religion was a very important aspect of their lives. As each civilization had their own religious beliefs and practices, many comparisons can be made as well. This can include beliefs on gods, afterlife, kings, creation of the world, and almost any other part of life. For example, the civilization of Sumer, known as the first civilization, has been noted as being the fundamental building block and basic structure for future civilizations.

   Cultures will draw ideas and be influenced by preceding cultures, and this is where a lot of similarities are seen as well as how they have changed.  Also, it is interesting to look at how religion and how heavily focused on it is through history, as civilizations start to take interest and study philosophy and how and why the world works. The ancient civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and Greece will be the primary focus, more specifically on their religious beliefs and cultures and how they are similar and differ throughout all three of these civilizations, as well as how they have influenced the Western world.

   With focus on southern Mesopotamia, the region of Sumer (4000-1000 BCE), located in the fertile crescent, is noted as the first civilization to develop cities and communities. Sumer is also said to hold the basic structures of society, economy, religion, writing, and culture adopted by future civilizations like Egypt.

   Sumer was made up of twelve city states, with Ur, Eridu, and Uruk being the most prominent. In earlier Sumer, priests and priestesses were largely in control of economic activity, as well as agriculture. Later by 2600 BCE, kings became the dominant figure in Sumer cities through control of other cities resources from wars won. To create and wield their power, kings in Mesopotamia worshipped and praised the gods and established them as his ruler. To please the gods, a major responsibility of kings was to maintain justice among the people. Another first, in 3500 BCE, Sumerians also invented writing primarily for accounting from increasing economy. Called cuneiform, Sumerians created symbols and pictographs by indenting wedge marks into a clay tablet. Shortly, writing became a way for people to record stories and religious beliefs. As for religion in Sumer, they were polytheistic, meaning they believed in many gods. They believed that their gods made the earth and the universe based upon a social hierarchy, controlled all aspects of life and humanity, and that the gods were the all powerful rulers in which they completely obeyed them, as they believed they were put on Earth as servants to the gods.



   Similar to ancient Greek belief, that will be later discussed, Sumerians thought of the gods appearing as human beings that possessed human traits and emotions. In this brief overview of Sumer civilization and religion, this will serve as a sort of template when comparing and contrasting religion and culture of Egypt and Greece.


  Moving forward in history to ancient Egypt (3050-1000 BCE), we see similarities and differences influenced by former Mesopotamian civilizations. Similarly to Mesopotamia, Egypt is also another early civilization that contributes to the formation of our Western ideas and views. Unlike Mesopotamian cities, the country of Egypt was unified, as in no city-states, with one powerful ruler that controlled.

ancient egypt


    Since Egypt and Sumer were relatively close to each other, Egypt had adopted some Sumerian ideas, but because geographically Egypt was so isolated, they created their own very unique culture and religion. They had a social hierarchy, like the Mesopotamians, and believed that a fair and just society pleased the gods, which shows similar values held between Sumer cities and Egypt.

  Egyptians focused heavily on religion, as it was a part of their everyday lives, and even carried and accompanied them into the afterlife. Like Mesopotamia, Egypt practised a polytheistic religion. Though during the rule of Akhenaten, we see the first religious revolution towards a monotheistic religion, though it failed to spread.  

   They also represented forces of nature, such as the sun and water, and other common aspects of life like human qualities and forms of technology and innovation. Sumer had a dominant powerful god, An, while Egyptian gods maintained a hierarchy, but they were all generally equal. Perhaps this shows some progress socially, as equality became a more important value to Egyptians. This can be seen in the role of women, and though Sumerians were not as restrictive of women, Egyptian women still had more status and rights than Sumerian women.


 In the third comparing civilization of the ancient world, we move to Greece. Greek religion and culture is the most different from Sumer and Egypt, as there becomes more of an interest in scientific ideas, philosophy, logic, and reason. Again, Greece culture still is adopted by preceding civilizations, but through time becomes a very important influence on modern political structures and systems. Like both previously discussed civilizations, Greeks also believed in the importance of having a just society. Many Greek myths taught moral values and they were thought to be created by the gods from what they thought the gods wanted, since it was otherwise hard to understand.



   Unlike Egyptians but similar to Sumerians, Greeks had city-states and each city-state worshipped different gods than others. Mount Olympus was where they thought the twelve most dominant gods and goddesses lived, with Zeus being the most prominent god. Also alike Sumer and Mesopotamian beliefs, gods possessed human traits though immortal, and that people must worship the gods if they want something good in return. Gods could provide good, though they dealt mostly bad and punishing things.

   Unlike previously civilizations, the Greek gods though were not as focused on the sins by humans in general, unless it were something very bad, like homicide or trying to become godlike to which the gods would punish, they were not as strict. Like Sumerians and Egyptians, the Greek believed that the afterlife existed, but were not as concerned about their actions as they generally believed most people end up in the gloomy underworld.

  The ancient civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, and Greece all provided important fundamental social, economic, religious, and political structures necessary for the Western civilization and culture we live in today. Religion played a huge role in early civilizations, as their beliefs and practices were apart of their everyday lives.

   Comparing and contrasting ancient civilizations shows us important aspects of their cultures, what they valued and found most important, and largely influenced kings and rulers which formed all basic structures of life. Moving forward through history to ancient Greece, we start to see a separation from religion and more towards reason, rationalism, and early scientific thinking. This was ground-breaking since for so long it was believed that gods controlled everything in the universe and peoples lives, and the Greeks began to create logical explanations for how the world works, not through myth.

    It is important to analyse and compare how ancient civilizations lived and their beliefs, as lot of aspects of their cultures, government, and religion influenced the way we live today.



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