Who Invented Monotheism?

Akhenaten. Thebes

The fables that people tell each other, the myths they construct for themselves, the stories that clothe their memory, help them to build their supposed identity, and enable them to distinguish themselves from other peoples.

Through the magic of words, « barbarians », « idolaters », « savages » and « infidels » appear in the imaginations of some peoples.

But with the hindsight of history and anthropology, we sometimes find strange similarities, disturbing analogies, between peoples who are so diverse, so distant, separated from each other by a priori ostracisms.

Many peoples resemble each other in that they all believe that they only are « unique », « special ». They believe that they are the only people in the world who are who they are, who believe in what they believe, who think what they think.

We can apply this observation to the religious fact.

The « monotheistic » religion, for example, has not appeared in a single culture, a single people. If the primacy of monotheistic worship is often associated with the ancient religion of the Hebrews, it is because we often forget that another form of monotheism was invented in Egypt by Amenophis IV (Akhenaten), several centuries before Abraham. Moses himself, according to Freud, but also according to the recent conclusions of some of the best informed Egyptologists, would have been, in his first life, a defrocked priest of the God Aten, and would have taken advantage of the Exodus to claim the laws and symbols of what was to define Judaism.

The idea of monotheism, far from being reserved for the Nile valley or the foothills of the Sinai, appeared in other cultures, in Vedic India or in the Avesta of ancient Iran.

In Max Müller’s Essay on the History of Religion (1879), which devotes a chapter to the study of the Zend Avesta, but also in Martin Haug’s Essays on the Sacred Language, Scriptures and Religion of the Parsis (Bombay, 1862), one finds curious and striking similarities between certain avestic formulas and biblical formulas.

In the Zend Avesta, we read that Zarathustra asked Ahura Mazda to reveal his hidden names. The God accepted 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 into « I am Knowledge ».

The twelfth is Ahura, « the Living One ».

The twentieth is Mazdao, which means: « I am He who is ».

It is easy to see that these formulas are taken up as they are in different passages of the Bible. Is it pure chance, an unexpected meeting of great minds or a deliberate borrowing? The most notable equivalence of formulation is undoubtedly « I am He who is », taken up word for word in the text of Exodus (Ex. 3:14).

Max Müller concludes: « We find a perfect identity between certain articles of the Zoroastrian religion and some important doctrines of Mosaism and Christianity.”

It is also instructive to note the analogies between the conception of Genesis in the Bible and the ideas that prevailed among the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians or Indians about « Creation ».

Thus, in the first verse of Genesis (« In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth »), the verb « to create » is translated from the Hebrew בָּרַא, which does not mean « to create » in the sense of « to draw out of nothing », but rather in the sense of « to cut, carve, sculpt, flatten, polish », from a 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.

Some proper nouns, too, evoke borrowings across language barriers. The name Asmodeus, the evil spirit found in the biblical book of Tobit, was certainly borrowed from Persia. It comes from the parsi, Eshem-dev , which is the demon of lust, 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.

And the very names of these countries, if they mean so much to us, it is probably because, by contrast, the cultures of earlier, « pre-historic » ages have left precisely little trace. But it is easy to imagine that the thinkers, prophets and magi of the Palaeolithic also had an intuition of the Whole and the One.

Hidden Evidence in Plain Sight

A famous « mystic », possessed by « transcendence », – Ludwig Wittgenstein – , once wrote: « The meaning of the world must be outside it. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it happens; there is no value in it – and if there were, it would be worthless. If there is a value that has value, it must be outside everything that happens, and outside any particular state. For everything that happens and every particular state is accidental.

What makes it non-accidental cannot be in the world, because it would be accidental again.

It has to be out of the world.

That is why there can be no ethical proposals. Proposals cannot express anything superior.

It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same thing).

How the world is, this is for the Superior perfectly indifferent. God does not reveal Himself in the world.(…)

There is certainly something unspeakable. It shows itself, it is the Mystic.”i

Terre, eau, feu

Starting from these radical phrases, I come to aspire to a kind of exit, an exodus of thought from the world, a rush to the elsewhere – not a suspension of belief, like Husserl and the phenomenologists, but a sudden plunge upwards, an incredible angelic leap, a Pascal-like flight (« Fire! Fire! »).

The Unspeakable interests me, like a higher point. Of the Unspeakable, nothing can be said about it. But one can at least say that it cannot be silenced. We can at least say this: « It shows itself ».

It’s meager, but it’s a beginning, tiny, and somewhat tangible.

You have to hold on to this hold, start climbing, initiate the climb, without a guide or a rope.

All religions, all of them, are based in their origin on something that, one day, « showed » itself.

It is useless to prioritize today the ancient outpourings of meaning, which made them so confident in their destiny. It is even more useless to use them, these same outpourings, to justify long afterwards the hatred and the self-stated difference that their followers « show » to “others”.

However, in order to show what was « shown » then, and what is still « shown » now, words are not completely useless.

But words are not enough. To attempt an anthropology of the sacred, which would cover a vast space of time, we must also rely on the clues found in the caves of the Palaeolithic, add to them the concomitant revelations of Akhenaten, Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, Buddha or Jesus, and integrate in addition the dreams of a universal religion, the intuition of the emergence of a “Noos-sceneii.

If nothing unspeakable is indeed to be found in the world, humanity as a whole has, however, for at least a million years now, been welcoming in its bosom continuous evidence of the subtle monstration of who cannot be designated otherwise than by this epithet.

Reality is therefore not « nothing », it is not « empty », without any « value ». It is, to be sure, very short of its own meaning. But it is also capable, fertile breast, warm belly, of welcoming what is decidedly not speakable. Reality is easily pierced by the presence of an absence, or only its signs.

Karl Barth once had this rather arrogant formula:

« I hold the analogia entis for an invention of the Antichrist.”iii

To refuse the « analogy of being » is to refuse the essential principle of medieval theology, that of believing that an « analogy » between nature and the supernatural, the lower and the higher, is possible.

Karl Barth thus reveals the essence of his own soul: he is a « Gnostic », – like so many other so-called « modern » thinkers, moreover.

A brief reminder: for « Gnosis », the world is separated, divided. The « good », the « evil ». The « chosen ones » who know, and the « rest », blind and doomed to nothingness. No links, no possible analogies. Relentless cut, a metaphysical wall.

I, myself, am not a Gnostic. I don’t believe in Gnosis.

On the other hand, it seems to me as clear as a thousand Milky Ways, as luminous as a million Orions, that if the world does not contain any meaning in it, and does not seem to have any, it nevertheless incarnates, in spite of itself, by its existence and its entirety, a hidden evidence.

i Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus (6.41, 6.42, 6.432, 6.522)

ii Cf. The work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

iii Karl Barth. Dogmatique de l’Église protestante. T.1 (1953)

The World Garden

Towards the end of the 19th century, Europe believed it dominated the world, through its techniques, empires and colonies. But the poet Mallarmé was already feeling desperate for the crisis of the mind. He noted, bitterly, that “mankind had not created new myths”, and that, for the field that most concerned him, “the dramatic art of our time, vast, sublime, almost religious, is yet to be found.”i

Mallarmé said he was in search of the « pure myth », of « the Figure that None is” (la Figure que Nul n’est ). He believed it was possible to find such a myth, by summoning « the immortal, innate delicacies and magnificences which are unbeknownst to all in the contest of a mute assistance.”ii

He took as his theoretical model, as a perfect paradigm, for this improbable and yet to be found myth, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and its obscure depth.

Mallarmé saw in Orpheus the creative power, solar energy, and « the idea of the morning with its short-lived beauty ». He recalled that the name Orpheus comes from the Sanskrit Ribhu, the « sun », a name that the Vedas often use to describe the divine, in its various forms. Eurydice, whose name is close to that of Europe, or Euryphassa, means, according to Mallarmé, « the vast gush of dawn in the sky ». The serpent that bites Eurydice and kills her is nothing more than the serpent of darkness that puts an end to the twilight.

The descent from Orpheus to the Underworld is therefore an image of the passage from day to night. “The pilgrimage of Orpheus represents the journey that, during the hours of the night, the Sun passed by to accomplish, in order to bring back, in the morning, the Dawn, whose disappearance it causes by its dazzling splendour.”iii

In this interpretation, the myth of Orpheus probably originally refers to the voyage of Ra in the sacred boat, celebrated by ancient Egypt.

But it must also be recognized that the myth of Orpheus is not meteorological, and that it says something other than the dissolution of the dawn by the morning ray.

Isn’t Orpheus the poet par excellence, in charge of the mystery itself? Mallarmé knows it well, who saw no higher task than poetry.

« Poetry is the expression, through human language brought back to its essential rhythm, of the mysterious meaning of the aspects of existence: it endows our stay with authenticity and is the only spiritual task.”iv

Mallarmé had a religious soul. He had a great dream, that of finding the origin of the Dream. This is evidenced by this text published after his death in an obituary:

« The Theatre is the confrontation of the Dream with the crowd and the disclosure of the Book, which drew its origin and is restored there. I believe that it will remain the great Human Festival; and what is dying is its counterfeiting and lying.”v

Incorrigible optimist, I also believe in the great Human Festival yet to be seen, but we may have to wait. Before its lights and beams, how many more dark periods will humanity have to endure?

What is striking about Mallarmé’s formula is that it establishes in its cryptic way, it seems to me, and this long before Freud’s iconoclastic theories, a hidden link between Egypt and Israel, between Akhenaten and Moses.

I am incited to see in Moses a man of the great World Theatre, a man who admirably and courageously confronted the « crowd », to impose his Dream (and finally to make Akhenaten’s One God live) and deliver his Book.

But, by contrast, it also brings to light the flagrant absence of a Myth today.

Admittedly, some religions, including the three monotheisms, and Buddhism, hold the upper hand from the point of view of international agit-prop, but it would no doubt be an insult to them to consider them as pure « myths ». Having no taste for vain martyrdom, I will not go looking for any leads in this direction, refusing in advance to confront the zealots and other guardians of the sacred dens.

If the myth of Orpheus prefigures in its own way the descent into the Christic underworld, if Akhenaten is the tutelary figure of the Mosaic God, they are also proof by induction of the power of ideas through the ages.

One key question remains: What myth does the whole of modernity, globalized modernity, strangled in a cramped and overpopulated, violent and oh so unequal planet, now need?

The bottom line is that modern religions (which have lost almost all connection with the original meaning of ancient religions) are part of the problem much more than the solution.

Ancient peoples knew that the Gods have many names, but that the mystery remains unique – and this long before Moses decided to export to the Sinai, with the success we know, the « counter-religion » that Akhenaten had failed to impose in Egypt.

A new world myth, tomorrow, will have to put an end to common hatred, general exclusion, and the idolatry of difference. It will also have to go beyond what Jan Assmann calls the « Mosaic Distinction »vi.

The new world myth, tomorrow, will have to blossom into a World Dream, for everyone to see, to hear, to taste, to feel, to smell, – and to imagine.

The World Dream will not be renewed dreams of modern Babel towers, but the Dream of an Adamic ziggurat, – ochre of consciousness, red with human humus. Red, not of blood, but of the flesh and the breathe of the primal Adam.

For the future of Mankind may well be hidden, like a remembrance of its lost paradise, in a new World Garden.

iS. Mallarmé. Œuvres complètes. 1956, p. 717

iiS. Mallarmé. Œuvres complètes. 1956, p. 545

iiiS. Mallarmé. Œuvres complètes. 1956, p. 1240,

ivS. Mallarmé. Propos sur la poésie. 1953, p. 134

vRevue Encyclopédique. Art. C. Mauclair. 5 novembre 1898. p. 963

viJan Assmann. Moses The Egyptian.