Religion in early societies

Religion and its (social) ´value´ for four different societies (Roman, Egypt, Aztec, Maya)

Essay, 2000

8 Pages


Assignment: Compare and contrast the extent to which ritual and religious beliefs have had an impact on at least three human societies you have studied. Show how, if at all, they have affected cultural contact and/or movement of people in the past.

The impact of ritual and religions on societies usually has several aspects, from individual level to economic importance. Here, only central functions for the societies will be examined. For reasons of contrast, two Mediterranean (Egypt and Rome) and two Mesoamerican societies (Aztecs and Maya) will be examined.

Aztecs. Generally, Aztec society was both unified and controlled through religion. In a functional sense, social integration through religion took place on several layers. For once, it was the focal point of their world-view. The original Aztecs (Mexica tribe) god Huitzilopochtli was the cultural “banner” under which this small tribe built its empire. Accordingly, religion formed the base of the Aztec world-view. According to historical accounts, the (later) Templo Mayor, the dual Aztec (Triple Alliance) main temple – for Huitzilopochtli (War) and Tlaloc (Rain) – was understood as cosmological centre of the empire. (Human) sacrificial offerings for both gods should ensure the survival of the Aztec world. Offerings guaranteed rain (Huitzilopochtli) and the continuity of the sun (Tlaloc) (the human past, p. 635). This has been confirmed through recent archeological research. The temple was situated in the city centre´s sacral district and has been rebuilt five times. It was the city´s central part from the beginning of Tenochtitlan. Apart from it´s (urban) central position, the dimensions of the Tenochtitlan religious infrastructure gives evidence of the central importance of religion. Sheer size and especially a huge rack for beheaded sacrifice victims (yielding 13.000 heads of sacrificed people at the conquest of Mexico) can be seen as evidence for both ritual and social dimension of the state religion (Atlas of Ancient America, p. 150). Also, religion was a political device. For once, it can be assumed that huge sacrifices instilled fear in the population, such preventing upheavals or even revolution. In the empire policy, state religion also served as a kind of “territorial marker”. Beneath military means and integration of former elites, Aztec state religion was superimposed on local cults and religious authority. Shrines for Aztec “state” gods were built in conquered city-states.

On the other hand, inclusion of foreign religious customs was also part of the empire-building strategy. Deities of conquered non-Aztec Mexican polities were not dismissed, but often included. Such, (internal central Mexican) cultural contact was shaped by religious exchange (Atlas of Ancient America, p. 149 ff.). More dramatically, religion influenced the outcome of the Spanish-Aztec cultural contact. The “Conquista” and its after-effects certainly would have been kinder on the Aztecs if both state religion and Aztec leaders belief would have been less fatalistic. Gruesome aspects of Aztec state religion rituals delivered the perfect reason for attack, and colonial oppression and destruction of the Aztec society. Religious sacrifice atrocities served to legitimate the conquest and especially the destruction of many aspects of the Aztec culture. Furthermore, Aztec religious belief in “world end prophecies” was part of the downfall. General, many Aztecs believed the time of the Conquista to be the end of their present (in their view, fifth) age. This was also mirrored in the Aztec arts. Pre-conquest Aztec (Nahuatl) poetry from Texcoco pessimistically described the futility of human life (Atlas of Ancient America, p. 149). Furthermore, the Aztec kings thought of Cortéz being a reborn god made the military conquest and negotiations more easy (The Human Past, p. 638). For instance, Cortéz used this legend of Quetzalcoatl to enlarge his troupes with unsatisfied indigenous soldiers (Atlas of Ancient America, p. 149).

Egypt. For Egypt, religion and especially the afterlife centered rituals and connected monumental architectonical endeavors can be seen as most important axis of society. Within the various “typical Egyptian” cultural traits, both the Pharaoh-centred state religion rituals and the cultural achievements necessary to build monumental religious architecture are most important. Elite burials (in pyramids), monumental temple complexes and the deification of the Pharaoh define more than other traits (like e.g. hieroglyphic script) Egyptian culture over a course of three millennia. Practically, the Egyptian religion created Egyptian culture and defined Egyptian society through administrative and professional skills needed for realization of the monumental ceremonial architecture. This pattern developed in the formative period of the Egyptian culture. At Hierankopolis, one of the earliest known Egypt sites, this impact of Egyptian religion on society is already apparent. The early development of the pharaonic “god-kings” as worshipped ruling institutions can be deduced from the Narmer palette which depicts a Egyptian ruler figure above a (captive) human surrounded by symbols of religious authority (The Human Past, p. 372). While the more elaborate religious architectonical structures are not existent yet, the typical Egyptian religious framework is already apparent. Elite burials had grave offerings, animal burials (of e.g. sacral animals like oxens or elephants) and other signs for of animal worship (e.g. the burial wall painting depicted in The Human Past, p. 372) were common, and there are archeological indications (camp remains of non-Egyptian origin hinting at ritual pilgrimage) for functions as important “transcultural” religious centre (Hierankopolis online).


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Religion in early societies
Religion and its (social) ´value´ for four different societies (Roman, Egypt, Aztec, Maya)
Archäologie und Ethnologie
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ISBN (eBook)
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386 KB
religion, roman, egypt, aztec, maya
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M.A. Christopher Knapp (Author), 2000, Religion in early societies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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