IV. MAJOR BELIEF SYSTEMS THROUGH 600 C.E.
As you review the major belief systems below, keep a few things in mind.
1. Most of these belief systems have impacted world history from their inception through the present era. That said, the discussion here focuses on the impact of these systems during the ancient era. We’ll talk more about the impact of these religions on later world events in subsequent chapters.
2. Most of the major religions have had schisms (divisions), resulting in a variety of subgroups and sects. The test writers will focus more on the overall religion than on particular sects (though there are a few exceptions that we’ll get to in future chapters, such as the Protestant Reformation within Christianity and the rise of fundamentalism in Islam).
3. Don’t focus only on the theological or philosophical basis of each belief system, but also on the impact they had on social, political, cultural, and even military developments.
4. Pay attention to where each belief system started and where it spread. As merchants and warriors moved, so did their religious beliefs. By looking at where religions branched out or came into conflict with one another, you’ll get a good understanding of which cultures frequently interacted with each other.
For your convenience, here’s a quick listing of the belief systems covered in this section.
Note that Islam is not included here. Why? Because Islam didn’t come onto the scene until after 600 C.E. We’ll talk a lot about Islam in the next chapter.
Cultures that Practiced It
The vast majority of ancient civilizations were polytheistic. Through 600 C.E., the religions of all of the Mesopotamian and Mediterranean empires were polytheistic, except for the Hebrews and the Christians. In the east, Aryan religions, Hinduism, and traditional Chinese systems were polytheistic. Some Buddhist sects were polytheistic, as were some Daoist sects.
Nuts and Bolts
Polytheists believe in multiple gods who impact daily life on earth to varying degrees, sometimes for good, and sometimes not. For example, prior to the rise of Christianity, the ancient Greeks and Romans worshipped numerous gods who had very human qualities and who sometimes battled each other. In ancient Egypt, the gods were often considered benevolent and kind, while in ancient Sumer, the gods were to be feared, and hence had to be appeased on a regular basis.
Polytheism had a major impact on the development of civilization: It was absolutely at the center of art and architecture in most of the civilizations we have discussed so far. Many of the grand works of these civilizations were dedicated to the gods, or made to appease them. More significantly, because the practice of polytheism in most early civilizations was very complicated and filled with rituals, it led to the rise of a priestly class, whose members controlled most of the communication between the people and their gods. Thus, these civilizations became dependent on an elevated group of people who controlled their collective destinies, and rigid social structures with priests near the top quickly developed. Finally, because some polytheistic civilizations had separate gods for each city-state, as well as collective gods for the civilization as a whole, such as the systems practiced in Sumer and ancient Greece, the rise and fall of various city-states was seen as a drama played out not only on earth, but also in the heavens. This added validity to a city-state’s claim for predominance when it celebrated military success.