From Political Myth to Imperial Monotheisms: On Transitions in the Sacred Economy


In my almost complete study of the sacred economy of the ancient Near East (and thereby of ancient Syria and Palestine), it has become very clear that the sacred or religious domain saturated the whole so much that the institutions were thoroughly religious, that culture cannot be understood without it being religious, and that the economy cannot be perceived except as the sacred economy. In particular, the religious was central to the compulsion needed to ensure that the extractive dimensions of the economy could function. By “extractive” I mean those forms in which non-producers (the ruling class) extracted those items to which they had become accustomed from the producers themselves. Such extraction appears in the system of agricultural estates that fed temple and palace, and in the many faces of plunder – tribute, tax, and exchange.

If we allow for a moment the artificial distinction between economic and extra-economic modes of compulsion, then religion is at the heart of the extra-economic type. But why is compulsion necessary? Given that extraction is usually resisted (in word and deed) by those from whom produce is extracted, extraction requires some level of enforcement. This may be external enforcement, in terms of covert and overt patterns of violence, but far more effective are the internalized ideological justifications for extraction. The ruling ideas may be the ideas of the ruling class, but they gain traction only when those ruled internalize them. Or at least such is the desire of the ruling class, although reality is often somewhat different, with all manner of modes of resistance to that internalization.

Three moments in the role of the sacred in relation to extractive economic forms may be identified: priest craft; political myth; and the violence of the “axial” shift of the first millennium BCE. The oldest material indicates the enormous role that temples, ritual, and priest craft played. Thus, when the first forms of extraction begin to appear as agricultural estates, they are part of the temple complexes. This is the case in fourth millennium Sumer, where the agricultural estates – with their administrators and indentured labor – supply the temple and its personnel with the foodstuffs and fibers needed for a coterie of priests who do little direct agricultural work. Yet, the recipients of that produce justify such extraction through increasingly elaborate theological systems that assert the supreme importance of their activities for the welfare of the whole community. The viability of agricultural produce, of the river’s rising or the rain’s falling, of the avoidance of pests and invasions, of the staying of disease, rely upon the goodwill of capricious gods. They must therefore be appeased to keep the system running, with the sacrifices offered by the priests instituted as the highest calling of all. The ingenuity of such an ideology is that the priests do the most vital work of all, so everyone should pitch in and provide. The complex system of festivals, seasons, and cycles attempts to include more and more within the orbit of priest craft. The priests themselves develop what Deleuze and Guattari call the interpretation of interpretation: not only must the will of the gods be interpreted by whatever means are available, whether divining the flight of birds, peering into entrails, or drawing lots, but they develop traditions of religious thought and practice that then become the subject of subsequent interpretation. When written, interpretation builds ever further upon itself, ever seeking the will of the gods.

The second moment is that of political myth: the often complex narrative of the founding of a state and especially its ruling family. The spatial moment of political myth appears happens when the temple is absorbed by the palace, when both are in the same precinct and dominated by the palace (no matter how sullen the priests may be over such a move). This happened quite early. For example, in Sumer it was at the hands of the lugal, Enentarzi of Lagash, who circumvented the early councils, took on the title of chief priest, and merged under his power the estates of Ningursu’s temple and those of Baba (or Bau, Ningursu’s wife). In Akkade, Sargon the Ancient circumvented the traditional power of the nomes, gained control of the temples, and then sought the favor of the priesthood with largesse. He went so far as to make his daughter an en-priestess (or entu in Akkadian) of the Moon god Nanna of Ur. Nonetheless, the relations between the Sargonids and the priests remained cool. With this subsuming of the temple under the control of the palace, and with the sporadic claims by kings to divine status, or at least derivation from the gods, political myths begin to appear. They may take the form of claims that the monarchs in question are descended from the gods, reinforced with fanciful genealogies. Or they may involve complex narratives that include theogonic, cosmogonic, and anthropogonic elements, such as Enuma Elish or the narrative from Genesis to Joshua in the Hebrew Bible. Ultimately, the purpose is these stories what may be called “poligonic,” that is, they construct myths concerning the political origins of the current order (see further my Political Myth, 2007). I would suggest that the creation myths of the ancient Near East are actually by-products of these poligonic myths: the gods, cosmos, and human beings must be created for the political order to be established.

The third moment is the extreme violence of the “axial” age. While the “discovery” of abstraction and the beginning of henotheisms and monotheisms in the first millennium have been much celebrated and discussed, less attention has been given to the socio-economic conditions of such changes. This was an era of even more extensive violence than usual. Marauding bands and armies crisscrossed the land, rulers sought to extract plunder and tribute as ways of feeding larger state machines, and the logistics of providing for perpetual armies became a nightmare. In this context, the newly invented coinage provides an ingenious solution to the logistics of supply: potentates and despots hit on the idea of paying soldiers in coin and requiring that taxes from peasants, craftsmen, and state functionaries be paid in coin. Needless to say, those owing taxes would do their best to acquire the coins from the soldiers – some eggs, vegetables, and meat in return for some coins, some sexual services, some petty theft, and so on. And with coinage a new type of abstraction becomes possible and tangibly real.

We need to be careful at this point, for the usual argument is that here lie the origins of the ability of human beings to think abstractly in a sustained manner. That argument goes as follows: coinage can happen and is fostered by a huge step in human abilities, specifically the ability to think abstractly. The reason is that coinage embodies an abstract value, both instituted by the state and agreed upon by those who use it. Arguments run back and forth in idealist and materialist directions: either the “discovery” of abstraction precedes and enables coinage, or coinage produces the conditions for thinking abstractly. However, the problem lies elsewhere, namely, in the assumption that abstraction itself was a new step in human development. It follows that before then human beings operated in concrete, immediate terms, not being aware of mutually contradictory beliefs – for instance, the god can be a bull, a storm, or physically present in the temple or cult corner. I find this argument exceedingly strange and somewhat patronizing, a projection back in time of assertions still made today that indigenous people cannot think abstractly since they are “primitive” and “backward.” It may be refuted simply: does not the use of language entail a process of abstraction, or the ability to plan crops or raise herds, or to distinguish between different types of animals or groups of people?

What are the implications for the changes of the first millennium, embodied physically in coinage? I suggest that this shift entails a new type of abstraction, not the invention of abstraction itself. A coin has an objective value, instituted by the monarch who punches, stamps, or presses it (simultaneously in China, India, and Lydia). It has the same objective value for the peasant who sells his produce as the hungry mercenary who purchases it and will never be seen again. In this blood-soaked era and with new forms of abstraction embodied in coinage, new forms of religious expression take root. Comprehensive theological systems emerge, headed by singular gods which rule not the tribe or nome or palace-temple complex, but which lay claim to ruling the whole cosmos. The imaginative possibility of these new systems is of course enabled by the great empires of the Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, and Persians. But I suggest we need to be a little more dialectical about this situation. To be sure, the new forms of abstraction and new forms of imperial economics (in terms of plunder, tribute, and tax) enable new forms of religious thought. But it would be remiss of us not to allow space for the innovations in theology to have influenced in their turn the changes of the first millennium BCE.

Roland Boer, on the road in the Czech Republic

One thought on “From Political Myth to Imperial Monotheisms: On Transitions in the Sacred Economy

  1. An intriguing and provocative analysis in good Gottwald mode. I’m looking forward to the book as a whole. One question I have concerns the second moment of the shift–the development of the political mythology when the palace subsumes the priesthood. How do we see the primacy of the palace in Genesis through Joshua? The emphasis there seems to be more about curtailing, undermining, democratizing, or eliminating the power of king and palace. There are many moments in Genesis through Joshua that look more like the first moment or a critique of the third moment. But the second moment seems more at home in the Deuteronomistic History and the shift toward centralized power and the monarchy?

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