Saturday 31 December 2011

Canaanite philosophy, theology, and schools of thought

One of the greatest achievements of the ancients was the development of philosophy and theology, and of schools of thought.  It is often that we remember the Greeks for this, and also the Romans, and Persians, and Babylonians, and Sumerians, and Indians, and Chinese, and Arabs, and Egyptians.  But it is very rarely that we discuss the Canaanite schools of thought. 

First off, Canaanite philosophy parallels that of the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Arabs, and even the Persians very closely.  Canaanites had wisdom literature, which are basically collections of proverbs on how to live properly and honour the gods.  This has been found on tablets in Ebla, which was an early Canaanite city with many elements of late Sumerian culture.  As such, the proverbs of Ebla are like those of the Sumerians and of the later Israelites.  In this wisdom literature, the authors speculate on how they can possibly understand the divine and the true nature of the world, and how they can best resolve conflicts and difficulties.

Also at Ebla, we find the concept of divine word.  This is the Word of God, deified as the god Dabar, which is spoken in order to create.  And the creation stories (both of Ebla and of Berot, Gubla and Tyre) seem to demonstrate that the Word of God has the power to call things into being. 

Now we can move on to something more specific.  With the Canaanites sailing across the seas, they became inquisitive.  They wanted to learn more about the world, and so it can be gathered that some analytical philosophy may have originated with them for this very reason.  We may also see the beginning of science.  Now, it is important to remember that the scientific method hadn't yet been properly developed.  For the Canaanites, Egyptians and Babylonians, their science was semi-mystical, with myths of gods and demons often being added into their theories.  But with the Canaanites we see them analysing their surroundings and paying close attention to detail, something that later may have led them to make an astonishing discovery about the sun and moon.

But before we can get to that, though, we must first hear of an amazing theory made in the Bronze Age, some time perhaps during the 14th or 15th century BC.  There was a Sidonian man named Mosheh, who was a lawgiver and philosopher.  Not much is known about him, but he was the first to put forward the atomist theory, which stated that things were made from eternal and uncreated atoms.  Mosheh also wrote an atomist cosmogony which also details time, seen often in Canaan as eternal.  Mosheh's theory stated that there were no physical objects, and that all was simply atoms as part of an eternal 'whole', and so the physical was only an illusion.  In his cosmogony, Mosheh writes that before all else was chaos and a dark air (see my posts on creation myths for an explanation of the watery chaos and the dark clouds over the waters), which actually merged (rather than seperated) to produce Olam (eternal time).  Olam was the first principle containing all in itself.  Also from this merging of chaos and darkness was produced the demiurge Kothar (identified with Ptah and seen as the 'opener') who opened the cosmic egg to produced heaven and earth which then descended into the various generations of gods.  The gods in this theory were the powers of the elements.  Mosheh's writings and philosophy heavily influenced the Sidonian school of thought.

The idea of time is a complex one in Canaanite philosophy, but one of the main elements of Canaanite philosophy is that the present is eternal.  The first direction is east (qedem) where Shapash rises, and the word qedem is used for the past.  The past is seen as coming, while the future has already happened, and both are illusions.  The Canaanites didn't think about the future or what has not yet happened as it is viewed as folly and only the cause of much suffering.  Also, Shapash was seen as the 'Sun of Eternity' as time was first associated with her.  But in later times, time became even more ancient, seen as primal or eventually even uncreated.  The light from the sun was seen as the purest state of mind.  Many writers of the ancient world noted that the Canaanites in their creation stories seem to attribute time as the first principle and as eternal, being the creator of all things.

As we have seen from here, the Canaanites and in particular the Sidonians, had an idea of the universe as being constructed of atoms and as being part of one whole.  This idea may have influenced the concept of the monad, or the One from which the whole world is built up in a series (going from the monad to the dyad, to numbers, to shapes, to elements, and so on).  Pythagoras developed this concept, and it is said that he was initiated into the schools of Tyre, Gubla and Sidon.  His idea of the monad may have been somewhat influenced by what he found there.  It is said that in Sidon he met the descendants of Mosheh (themselves philosophers and mathematicians), who discussed this idea with him.

This connection with the Greeks (who developed philosophy the furthest), is interesting, and we can return to another discovery of a Greek.  Anaxagoras first proposed the idea that the sun was a hot rock and that the moon was of an earthy nature and reflected the light of the sun.  But had this discovery been made before?  A fellow Greek, Democritus (who credited Mosheh as the first to propose the atom theory), seemed to think so.  According to some, Democritus is said to have noted that Anaxagoras' claim was of great antiquity and had already been discovered.  But by whom?  Some think that it may have been an idea originating among Semitic people, as Democritus studied atom theory from the Canaanites and also studied Babylonian schools of thought.  Though this hasn't been proven for certain.

The Babylonian astrologers, who acknowledged that the movements of the planets was cyclical, declared that time itself was cycical.  They attempted to calculate the Great Year, which was the length of time it took for the planets to return to their original positions.  The Great Year was broken down into a series of 'ages' or 'periods', which ended with the great flood of water (a Semitic concept) and with the purging by fire (a Persian/Zoroastrian concept).  You may have noticed a parallel with biblical stories.

I finally would like to discuss another idea, of Pherecydes.  He claimed no teacher, but claimed that his knowledge was gained from the 'Secret Works of the Phoenicians'.  His theory does have a lot of similarities with the already discussed theories of eternal time, the illusion of reality, and of atoms, as well as having some similarities with Semitic creation myths.  He said that there was first Dor (time, which became Chronos in Greek), which was the origin of all.  The other two were the high god and the underworld, who was given the earth as a cloak by the high god.  And so the two married and produced the earth.  Dor then created fire, air, and water.  Dor had fought another cosmic god, who was an evil serpent deity, for control of the heavens.  He slew it and cast its body into the sea.  The evil serpent was defeated and Dor took control of the cosmos.

The sun disc, symbol of the 'Sun of Eternity'

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