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The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia

1900 to 1902
University of Aberdeen

The Religions of Ancient Egypt and Babylonia is not a systematic account of the history of these (ancient) religions. Rather, it is an examination of the facts of those religions as already ascertained through a (where possible) systematic historical study, in order to see how their conclusions stand for or against some of the religious beliefs and ideas of our modern times. The published work is split into two parts dealing with ‘the religion of ancient Egypt’ in Part I and ‘the religion of the Babylonians’ in Part II.

After an initial introduction (Lecture I), Part I begins (in Lecture II) with an examination of Egyptian religion. Sayce covers its basis, its lack of any philosophical system and its regard for things past. The importance of bearing in mind the ancient Egyptian belief in the divinity of both brute beast and man is flagged up (the Pharaoh), whilst acknowledging the lack of harmony in any such belief. In lecture III Sayce addresses beliefs about the afterlife, the material character of the spiritual world and the passage from one world to the next with reward for the good soul and annihilation for the bad – a notion that had an obvious influence on later Christian thinking. Lecture IV discusses the sun-god and the ennead and the significance of beliefs about these on the Hebrew God of Israel. Lectures V and VI deal with animal worship and the Gods of Egypt respectively before in the seventh lecture Sayce discusses Osiris and the Osirian faith, along with its reverence for conduct. In Lecture VII Sayce goes into detail about the sacred texts of ancient Egypt, their contribution to the religion, and their connection to later creeds (including Gnosticism), before in lecture VIII the popular religion (i.e. that of the common community) of ancient Egypt is discussed. A fully clear picture of the popular religion is hampered by a lack of material to assess it, and there is good reason to think it different from the literary depiction of materials discussed thus far. Having flagged up what he sees as the salient points of the religion of the ancient Egyptians, in the final lecture of Part I (Lecture X) Sayce seeks to establish the place of Egyptian religion in the history of theology. “They ended in the scepticism of despair or the prosaic superstitions of a decadent age. But the task which dropped from their hands was taken up by others; the seeds which they had sown were not allowed to wither…”. P251.

Part II begins with an introductory lecture (I)* detailing the problems of giving an account of the religion of the Babylonians akin to that of the Egyptians. A systematic analysis on the subject matter has never been (adequately) made, nor had it been possible to do so at the time of these lectures. Materials for the task were just not available. Having sketched this difficulty along with some geographical and important cultural information about Babylonia, Sayce begins Part II proper (Lecture II) with a discussion of the primitive animism identified as resting at the core of Babylonian religion. It becomes apparent that the views of a future world and of divine retribution so prominent in the Old Testament are traceable ultimately to the Babylonians. In the following two lectures III and IV, Sayce discusses the Babylonian gods, including the doctrine of the triad (Lecture III), the sun-god and Istar (Lecture IV). Lecture V explores the Summerian and Semitic conceptions of the divine, noting the difference of the god Assur from other gods, in virtue of his solitary nature (monotheism). Lecture VI looks at Babylonian cosmologies and the influence cosmology had upon the Babylonian religion becoming ‘atheistic materialism’. In Lecture VII Sayce reviews the sacred books of Babylonia, and in Lecture VIII discusses some myths of Babylonia. Lecture IX examines the temple rituals in Babylonia before, in the final lecture (X), Sayce closes with a discussion of astro-theology and the moral element in Babylonian religion, identifying an impassable gulf between the Babylonian religion and the religion of Israel. The Babylonian conception of the divine, nevertheless, had a great and lasting impact on the Hebrew faith.

*Sayce renumbers his lectures for the Second part of the series. The numbering in this summary appears as in the contents of the published volume – so: Part I, Lectures I-X; Part II, Lectures I-X.

  • Jon Cameron, University of Aberdeen