The fables that people tell, the myths that they create, the stories that they invent, help them to shape identity, to manufacture memory, to distinguish themselves from other peoples.
Fables, myths, narratives, produce an abundance of « barbarians » and « pagans, » « unbelievers » and « idolaters », distill multiple kinds of “strangeness” – all in order to strengthen the illusion of unity, the cohesion of the group, the persuasion of exception, the arrogance of election.
For those with a taste for history and anthropology, it is easy to find resemblances, analogies, cross-borrowings, in the diverse beliefs of peoples who believe themselves to be unique.
But peoples are more alike than they are dissimilar. In particular, they resemble each other in that they believe they are the only ones to believe what they believe, that they think they are the only ones to think what they think.
Monotheism, for example, has not appeared in a single culture, it is not the prerogative of one single people. In the West, the original monotheistic worship is readily associated with the ancient religion of the Hebrews. But another form of monotheism had been invented in Egypt, even before the pre-dynastic period, more than five thousand five hundred years ago. Funerary rituals and numerous hieroglyphic inscriptions bear witness to this, of which an impressive compilation was in its time collected and translated by the Egyptologist Emmanuel de Rougéi. Numerous secondary gods were able to coexist without any real contradiction with the idea of a unique and supreme God, all the more so as many of these gods were in reality only « names » embodying this or that attribute of the unique God. The fact that after a period of decadence of the idea, it was possible for Pharaoh Amenophis IV (Akhenaten) to forcefully reintroduce it several centuries before the time of Abraham, only shows that the passage of time produces variations and interpretations about forceful ideas once conceived in their first evidence, at a very early stage in human consciousness. Before Abraham and Melchisedech, the Bible testifies that other patriarchs such as Noah, believed in the unique God.
Freud famously asserted that Moses would have been a defrocked priest of the cult of the God Aten. Moses initiated a new form of monotheism allegedly ‘different’ from the ancient monotheistic idea still latent in the Egyptian soul. He added to it various tribal laws and customs, however, in reaction to what he no doubt judged to be a form of decadence in the Egyptian politico-religious power of the time.
Before Moses, the « monotheistic » idea, far from being confined to the Nile Valley, had already traveled far and wide in time and space. Traces of it may be easily found in other ancient cultures, such as that of the Veda and the Avesta.
Reading Max Müller’s Essay on the History of Religions (1879), which devotes a chapter to the study of the Zend Avesta, and Martin Haug’s Essays on the Sacred Language, Scriptures and Religion of the Parsis (Bombay, 1862), provides examples of the curious and striking similarities between certain avestic and biblical formulas.
In the Zend Avesta, Zarathustra prays to Ahura Mazda to reveal his hidden names. The God accepts and gave him twenty of them.
The first of these names is Ahmi, « I am ».
The fourth is Asha-Vahista, « the Best Purity ».
The sixth means « I am Wisdom ».
The eighth translates as « I am Knowledge ».
The twelfth is Ahura, « the Living One ».
The twentieth is Mazdao, which means « I am the One who Is ».
These formulas are found almost word for word in different passages of the Bible. Is it pure chance, an unexpected encounter with great minds, or is it deliberate borrowing? Perhaps the most notable equivalence of formulation is « I am He who Is », which is found in the text of Exodus (Ex. 3:14).
Max Müller concludes, with a rather neutral tone: « We find a perfect identity between certain articles of the Zoroastrian religion and some important doctrines of Mosaism and Christianity.”
There are also analogies between the Genesis writers’ conception of the « creation » of the world and the ideas of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Indians. These analogies are reflected in the choice of words for « creation”.
For example, in the first verse of Genesis (« In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth »), the English verb « to create » is translated from the Hebrew בר, which does not mean « to create » in the sense of « to create from nothingness, » but rather « to cut, to carve, to flatten, to polish, » which implies a “creation” made out of pre-existing substance. Similarly, the Sanskrit verb tvaksh, which is used to describe the creation of the world in the Vedic context, means « to shape, to arrange », as does the Greek poiein, which will be used in the Septuagint version.
Even more troubling, some proper names evoke borrowings across language barriers. The name Asmodeus, the evil spirit found in the late biblical book of Tobit, was certainly borrowed from Persia. It comes from the Parsi name Eshem-dev , which is the demon of concupiscence, and which is itself borrowed from the demon Aeshma-daeva, mentioned several times in the Zend Avesta.
Another curious coincidence: Zoroaster was born in Arran (in avestic Airayana Vaêga, « Seed of the Aryan »), a place identified as Haran in Chaldea, the region of departure of the Hebrew people. Haran also became, much later, the capital of Sabaism (a Judeo-Christian current attested in the Koran).
In the 3rd century BC, the famous translation of the Bible into Greek (Septuagint) was carried out in Alexandria. In the same city, at the same time, the text of the Zend Avesta was also translated into Greek. This proves that at that time there was a lively intellectual exchange between Iran, Babylonia, and Judeo-Hellenistic Egypt.
It seems obvious that several millennia earlier, a continuous stream of influences and exchanges already bathed peoples and cultures, circulating ideas, images and myths between India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Judea and Egypt.
This prestigious litany of famous names testifies moreover that even more ancient cultures, coming from earlier, more original, « pre-historic » ages, have precisely left little trace, since they have been forgotten.
I believe that it is of the utmost philosophical and anthropological importance to consider, today, in the face of this cluster of clues, that the thinkers, prophets and magi of the Palaeolithic, already had an intuition of the One, and of the Whole.
The only traces of these extremely ancient beliefs can be found in the formulas of Egyptian rituals and Vedic hymns dating back more than two millennia before Abraham, i.e. at least more than three millenia BC.
One must realize that the monotheistic idea originated even earlier. It is part of the most ancient heritage of all mankind.
But today, sadly, and contrary to its very essence, this same idea has become one of the most subversive and explosive factors of human division, on the face of a narrow and overpopulated planet.
- iRituel funéraire des anciens égyptiens (1861-1863). Recherches sur les monuments qu’on peut attribuer aux six premières dynasties de Manéthon (1865). Œuvres diverses (6 volumes, 1907-1918)