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Ancient Greek Medicine › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

The ancient Greeks initially regarded illness as a divine punishment and healing as, quite literally, a gift from the gods.However, by the 5th century BCE, there were attempts to identify the material causes for illnesses rather than spiritual ones and this led to a move away from superstition towards scientific enquiry, although, in reality, the two would never be wholly separated. Greek medical practitioners, then, began to take a greater interest in the body itself and to explore the connection between cause and effect, the relation of symptoms to the illness itself and the success or failure of various treatments.


Greek medicine was not a uniform body of knowledge and practice but rather a diverse collection of methods and beliefs which depended on such general factors as geography and time period and more specific factors such as local traditions and a patient's gender and social class. Nevertheless, common threads running through Greek medical thought included a preoccupation with the positive and negative effects of diet and a belief that the patient could actually do something about their complaint, in contrast to a more fatalistic and spiritual mindset of earlier times.
However, the distinction between the spiritual and physical worlds are often blurred in Greek medicine, for example, the god Asclepius was considered a dispenser of healing but also a highly skilled practical doctor. The god was called upon by patients at his various sanctuaries (notably Epidaurus ) to give the patient advice through dreams which the site practitioners could then act upon. Grateful patients at the site often left monuments which reveal some of the problems that needed to be treated, they include blindness, worms, lameness, snakebites and aphasia. As Epidaurus illustrates, there could, then, be both a divine and a physical cause or remedy for illnesses.
Lifestyle and such factors as heat, cold and trauma were discovered to be important factors in people's health and they could alleviate or worsen the symptoms of an illness or the illness itself. It was also recognised that a person's physical constitution could also affect the severity of, or susceptibility to, an illness. There was also a growing belief that a better understanding of the causes of an illness' symptoms could help in the fight against the illness itself. With a greater knowledge of the body there also came a belief that the balance of the various fluids (humours) within it could be a factor in causing illness. So too, the observation of symptoms and their variations became a preoccupation of the Greek doctor.


Textual sources on Greek medical practice begin with scenes from Homer ’s Iliad where the wounded in the Trojan War are treated, for example, Patroclus cleaning Eurypylus' wound with warm water. Medical matters and doctors are also frequently mentioned in other types of Greek literature such as comedy plays but the most detailed sources come from around 60 treatises often attributed to Hippocrates (5th to 4th century BCE), the most famous doctor of all. However, none of these medical treatises can be confidently ascribed to Hippocrates and next to nothing is known about him for certain.
The Hippocratic texts deal with all manner of medical topics but can be grouped into the main categories of diagnosis, biology, treatment and general advice for doctors. Another source is the fragmentary texts from the Greek natural philosophy corpus dating from the 6th to 5th century BCE. Philosophers in general, seeing the benefits of good health on the mind and soul, were frequently concerned either directly or indirectly with the human body and medicine. These thinkers include Plato (especially in Timaeus ), Empedocles of Acragas, Philistion of Locri and Anaxagoras.



As there were no professional qualifications for medical practitioners then anyone could set themselves up as a doctor and travel around looking for patients on whom to practise what was known as the tekhnē of medicine (or art, albeit a mysterious one). The Spartans did, though, have specific personnel responsible for medical care in their professional army. Also, practitioners do seem to have generally enjoyed a high regard despite the lack of a recognised professional body to supervise and train would-be doctors and the odd mad doctor that crops up in Greek Comedy. As Homer states in the Iliad (11.514), 'a doctor is worth many other men'. Not only doctors gave medical advice and treatment but other groups who could utilise their practical experience such as midwives and gym trainers.
The famous Hippocratic Oath was probably reserved for a select group of doctors and it was actually a religious document ensuring a doctor operated within and for community values. With the Oath the practitioner swore by Apollo, Hygieia and Panacea to respect their teacher and not to administer poison, abuse patients in any way, use a knife or break the confidentiality between patient and doctor.
Famous medical practitioners included the 4th century BCE figures of Diocles of Carystus (who had a head bandage and spoon instrument for removing arrow heads named after him), Praxagoras of Cos (noted for his 'discovery' of the pulse and being the first to distinguish veins from arteries), and the Athenians Mnesitheus and Dieuches. These experts in their field could examine a patient's face and make a diagnosis helped by information such as the patient's diet, bowel movements, appetite and sleeping habits. Treatments often utilised natural plants such as herbs and roots but could also include the use of amulets and charms. Surgery was generally avoided as it was considered too risky but minor operations may have been carried out, especially on soldiers wounded in battle.

Skull with Trephination


Wounded soldiers were actually one of the best ways for a doctor to learn his trade and widen his knowledge of the human body and its internal workings. There was probably also less risk of the soldier causing problems if things went wrong, which could happen with private patients. Aside from the health problems which may also have affected civilians such as malnutrition, dehydration, hypothermia, fever and typhoid, those doctors treating soldiers had to deal with wounds made by swords, spears, javelins, arrows and projectiles from slings. Medical practitioners knew the importance of removing foreign bodies such as arrow heads from the wound and the necessity to properly clean the wound (which is why arrow heads became barbed to be more difficult to remove and therefore more lethal). Greek doctors knew that it was important to stop excessive blood loss as soon as possible in order to prevent haemorrhage (although they also thought blood-letting could be beneficial too). Surgery may also have included the use of opium as an anaesthetic, although the many references in literature to patients being held down during surgery would suggest that the use of anaesthetic was rare.
Post-operation, wounds were closed using stitches of flax or linen thread and the wound dressed with linen bandages or sponges, sometimes soaked in water, wine, oil or vinegar. Leaves could also be used for the same purpose and wounds may also have been sealed using egg-white or honey. Post-operation treatment was also considered - the importance of diet, for example, or the use of plants with anti-inflammatory properties such as celery.


Over time doctors came to acquire a basic knowledge of human anatomy, assisted, no doubt, by the observation of grievously wounded soldiers and, from the 4th century BCE, animal dissection. However, some claimed this was useless as they believed the inner body changed on contact with air and light and still others, as today, protested that using animals for such purposes was cruel. Human dissection would have to wait until Hellenistic times when such discoveries as the full nervous system were discovered. Nevertheless, there was an increasing urge to discover what made a healthy body function well rather than what had made an unhealthy one break down. The lack of practical knowledge, though, did result in some fundamental errors such as Aristotle ’s belief that the heart and not the brain controlled the body and the idea proposed in the treatise On Ancient Medicine (5th century BCE) that physical pain arises from the body's inability to assimilate certain foods.
Greek medical practice may have included errors, perhaps many and probably even fatal ones, but Greek practitioners had started the medical profession in the right direction. Observation, experience and experimentation meant that those who followed in Hellenistic and Roman times such as Galen and Celsus could continue their enquiries along the long road towards greater and more accurate scientific knowledge of the human body, the illnesses it is susceptible to, and the potential cures available.

Ancient Greek Music › Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Music (or mousike ) was an integral part of life in the ancient Greek world, and the term covered not only music but also dance, lyrics, and the performance of poetry. A wide range of instruments were used to perform music which was played on all manner of occasions such as religious ceremonies, festivals, private drinking parties ( symposia ), weddings, funerals, and during athletic and military activities. Music was also an important element of Greek education and dramatic performances held in theatres such as plays, recitals, and competitions.


For the ancient Greeks, music was viewed as quite literally a gift from the gods. The invention of specific instruments is attributed to particular deities: Hermes the lyre, Pan the syrinx ( panpipes ) and Athena the aulos (flute). In Greek mythology the Muses personified the various elements of music (in the wide Greek sense of the term) and were said to entertain the gods on Mt. Olympus with their divine music, dancing, and singing. Other mythical figures strongly associated with music are the god of wine Dionysos and his followers the Satyrs and Maenads. Amphion and Thamyres were both famed for their skills playing the kithara (guitar) whilst Orpheus was celebrated as a magnificent singer and lyre player.
The oldest surviving Greek musical instruments are bone auloi which date from the Neolithic Age (7th-4th millennium BCE) and were found in western Macedonia, Thessaly, and Mykonos. The three major civilizations of the Bronze Age in the Aegean(3000 to 1000 BCE), Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean, all provide physical evidence of the importance of music in their respective cultures. Marble figurines from the Cyclades represent players of both the aulos and the harp. Cretan hieroglyphic script has three symbols which are musical instruments - two types of harp and a sistrum (or rattle, originally from Egypt ).An alabaster lyre decorated with swan heads survives from Knossos and a fresco at Akrotiri on Thera depicts a blue monkey playing a small triangular lyre. The Minoan 'Harvester Vase' (1500-1450 BCE) from Hagia Triada on Crete depicts a sistrumplayer and clay versions of the instrument have been found in graves across Crete. There is also some evidence that music may have been written down as early as the Bronze Age if a Minoan Linear A text on a wall in Hagia Triada is interpreted as such.
The combining of words and music, melodic and scalar systems, and several of the most popular musical instruments such as the aulos and lyre probably derived from the Near East. However, the Greeks themselves considered the lyre, in particular, as a 'Greek' instrument whilst the aulos is often represented in mythology as an inferior foreign competitor of Eastern origin.Hence, the great Greek god Apollo, who was believed to be the master of the lyre, defeated the Phrygian Satyr Marsyas and his aulos in a musical competition judged by the Muses. The lyre was also the musical instrument, above all others, which young Greeks had to learn in their schooling and was recommended as such by Plato in his Republic.


Greek musical instruments included stringed, wind, and percussion. By far the most popular were the lyre, aulos (usually double), and syrinx. Other instruments, however, included the rattle ( sistrum and seistron ), cymbals ( kymbala ), guitar ( kithara ), bagpipe ( askaulos ), conch and triton shells ( kochlos ), trumpet ( salpinx ), horn ( keras ), tambourine ( rhoptron ), shallow drum ( tympanon ), clappers ( krotala ), maracas ( phormiskoi ), xylophone ( psithyra ), various versions of the lyre such as the four-stringed lyre ( phorminx ) and the multi-stringed and elongated barbiton, and various types of harps, usually triangular shaped (eg the psalterion ). Two unusual instruments were the rhombos (a wind instrument) which was a flat rhombus pierced with holes, strung on a cord, and played by spinning the cord. The second was the hydraulis, a sophisticated Hellenistic organ which used compressed air and water pressure maintained by two pedals. Incidentally, stringed instruments were always played with the fingers or a plectrum rather than with a bow and in the Classical period, stringed instruments were favoured over wind as they allowed the player to also sing, and for the Greeks words were considered more important than musical sounds.

Ancient Greek Forminx


There is evidence that the Greeks began to study music theory as early as the 6th century BCE. This consisted of harmonic, acoustic, scalar, and melody studies. The earliest surviving (but fragmentary) text on the subject is the Harmonic Elements by Aristoxenos, written in the 4th century BCE. Music also became an element of philosophical study, notably, by the followers of Pythagoras, who believed that music was a mathematical expression of the cosmic order. Music was also held to have certain therapeutic benefits, even medicinal powers over physical and mental illnesses.
In addition, one of the unique contributions the Greeks made to the history and development of music is that it can have a moral and emotional effect on the listener and his or her soul; in short, that music has an ethical role in society. For this reason, Plato, considering them rather decadent, banned instruments capable of producing all of the scales. Likewise, over-complicated rhythms and music with too fast a tempo were considered morally dangerous in the great philosopher's ideal republic.
Regarding written music, 52 pieces of Greek music survive, albeit in a fragmentary form. For example, a musical excerpt from Euripedes' play Orestes survives, as does an inscription of music from the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. The most complete surviving piece of Greek music is the song of Seikilos from a 2nd century BCE tombstone found at Tralleis near Ephesos.

Bronze Aulos Player Figurine


Greek musicians were very often the composers and lyricists of the music they performed. Known as the 'makers of songs' or melopoioi, they created melos : a composition of words, tune, and rhythm. There is evidence that musicians enjoyed an elevated status in society as indicated by their particular robes and presence on royal household staff lists. There was even a specific symbol for musicians in the Cretan hieroglyphic script and the later Linear B. Professional musicians were male, although an exception were the courtesans or hetairai who performed at symposia. However, there are depictions in art of female musicians, notably the clay dancing lyre players from Palaikastro. Other professional musicians included the trierauleswho set the beat for the rowers in triremes and trumpet players and choral singers who accompanied marching soldiers.


Music and dancing accompanied processions on special religious occasions in various Greek cities and, amongst the most famous in the Greek world, were the Panathenaia and Great Dionysia festivals of Athens. Certain religious practices were usually performed to music, for example, sacrifices and the pouring of libations. Hymns ( parabomia ) and prayers ( kateuches) were also sung during processions and at the altar itself. These were provided by choral groups of professional musicians, notably aulos players, often attached to particular sanctuaries, for example, the paeanists in Athens and the aoidoi and epispondorchestai in the sanctuary of Asklepius at Epidaurus.
Music, dance, poetry and drama recitals were also a competitive activity in events such as the pan- Hellenic festivals held at Isthmia, Delphi and Nemea. However, as with the athletic competitions, the music contests were of a religious nature in that excellence was offered to honour the gods. There were two types of such musical contest: stephanites (sacred with a symbolic wreath as the prize) and chrematites or thematikoi (with more tangible prizes such as money or precious goods). Sparta, Argos and Paros held the earliest such competitions from the 7th century BCE. In Hellenistic times, musical festivals and competitions became so common that musicians and performing artists began to organize themselves into guilds or Koina.

Aulos Player


Plato informs us that the first schools dedicated to musical education were created by the Cretans. However, the heyday of music in the classroom was during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE when schools of music were established in Athens where pupils aged between thirteen and sixteen were taught to play the lyre and kithara and to sing, accompanied by their teacher on the aulos. Music taught discipline and order and allowed the educated to better appreciate musical performance. Athletics and other sporting activities, another major element of the Greek education, were also done accompanied to music, particularly in order to increase synchronization.


Music was a staple element of the symposium or all-male drinking party. After eating, the men each sang a song ( skolia ) with an aulos, lyre, or barbiton providing backing music. Often they sang amusing satirical songs ( silloi ). Finally, at the end of the evening, it was common for the group to take to the streets as a komos (band of revellers) and sing and dance their way through the town.
Women too could enjoy music in the privacy of their homes. Usually women played stringed instruments and recited poetry to music. In addition, household chores such as weaving and baking were done to music. Children too sang songs ( agermos ) at people's doors to receive small-change and sweets just as carol-singers do today.

Theatre of Segesta

In the theatre, performances of tragedy, comedy, and drama were all accompanied by music, and singing was provided by a designated chorus which consisted of as many as 24 singers in theatre performances of the 5th century BCE.


Musicians and musical instruments were a popular subject on frescoes, in sculpture, and on Greek pottery, particularly in the Geometric, black-figure and red-figure styles. Aside from all of the major mythological figures previously mentioned, a notable addition to the subject of music on Greek pottery is the greatest of heroes Hercules. Late Archaic and Early Attic pottery often portray the hero with a kithara, and perhaps this symbolizes the association between physical and musical exercise which are necessary for a properly balanced education. Other great heroes such as Achilles, Theseus, and Paris are also sometimes portrayed playing a musical instrument (usually a lyre), once again reinforcing the dual aims of an aristocratic education and the virtue of music. Also, many school scenes on 5th century BCE pottery depict students with both a lyre and a book-roll, illustrating once again the importance of music in education. Finally, Lekythoi, slim jars for holding perfumes, are commonly found in grave contexts and often have music as the subject of their decoration, perhaps in an attempt to ensure that the deceased was accompanied by music on their journey into the next life.

Ancient Israelite & Judean Religion › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: William Brown

As early as the 10th century BCE, Israelite and Judean religion began to emerge within the broader West Semitic culture, otherwise known as Canaanite culture. Between the 10th century and 7th centuries BCE, ancient Israelite and Judean religion was polytheistic. The polytheism, though, was counterbalanced by devotion to one or two primary deities, a practice known as henotheism (van der Toorn, 2047). Henotheism is recognition and worship of many deities; however, the primary worship revolves around a single deity. Within Judean and Israelite communities, primary devotion was oftentimes towards Yahweh.As both Judah and Israel were emerging states, Yahweh was the national deity, an idea which finds its origins in religious practices from the Bronze Age.

Map of the Levant circa 830 BCE

In terms of practice, temple worship and sacrificial rituals like Yom Kippur, New Moon festivals, Pesach, and other festivals played a central role. Practices such as divination and prophecy were also common forms of religious devotion. In terms of actions, ethical behavior played an important role in how ancient Israelite and Judeans expressed religious devotion.
In the following paragraphs, we will explore the aforementioned aspects of ancient Israelite and Judean religion in more detail.Focused between the 10th and 7th centuries BCE, we will consider the broader West Semitic cultural framework, family religion, henotheism, ritual, and ethical behavior.


Between the 10th and 7th centuries BCE, ancient Israelite and Judean religion took place in cultic and temple contexts.Although the many Jewish and Christians traditions suggest that Yahweh was the main and only deity through all Israelite and Judean religious history, archaeology, inscriptions, and the Hebrew Bible itself indicate otherwise. Even so, the deity being worshiped, usually Yahweh, was understood to be physically present in the temple, have a body, and be a personal god with emotions and willpower.
Furthermore, ancient Israelite and Judean religion shared the common idea that the deity was a divine essence. This divine essence was often expressed through the notion of holiness. So, the worshippers were required to maintain the temple's holiness so that the deity would be able to live in the temple, which was considered his or her house. To do this, sacrifices, offerings, and liturgy were offered to the deities. Broadly speaking, these form a basic framework for how ancient Israelites and Judeans expressed religious devotion to their deity.


Before a centralized authority or state began to take formation around the 10th century BCE, people within Syria - Palestinepracticed a form of family religion. Literature dating back to the 12th century BCE (1200 BCE; Amarna letters ) and various inscriptions throughout Syria-Palestine demonstrate this. The data, though, is fragmentary. In other words, it is as if we have 400 pieces to a 2,000-piece puzzle. Yet, when we connect the puzzle with other historical sources from history, it becomes clear that family religion was the norm as Israel and Judah began forming a national identity. Thus, it is possible that "families honoured their ancestors by verbal rites and the presentation of offerings, and focused their religious devotion on the 'god of the father' or the 'god of the house'. In so doing, they anchored their collective identity in their lineage and their place of origin" (van der Toorn, 1996: 177).
This was the atmosphere, or context, in which ancient Israelite and Judean religion began to emerge. What to call the people before the formation of Israelite and Judean national identities, though, is hotly debated. For simplicity sake, then, we will refer to them as proto-Israelite. Assuming the Hebrew Bible reflects proto-Israelite religion, some scholars suspect that they performed rituals in honor of the deceased. Drawing on an example in 1 Samuel 20, van der Toorn explains:
What we learn from the passage is that there was a communal meal at which meat was eaten…; that the 'entire clan'… had to be present; that it was celebrated in Bethlehem, the home town of David, presumably because this was the place where the claim had its inherited land in which the ancestors lay buried… On the basis of this data, it has been suggested that the … clan sacrifice was in fact 'the occasion on which genealogical accounts were employed to invoke the names of dead ancestors.' (214)
In other words, it is likely that proto-Israelites practiced some sort of clan or family ritual. As ancient Israelite and Judean religion moved closer and closer to monotheism between the 10th and 6th centuries BCE, the notion of a family religion became incorporated into ancient Judah. The idea of the house of Israel or the house of Judah is rooted in the idea of family religion. With the emergence of a larger network of political alliances under the titles Israel and Judah, though, the family deity became the deity of the state.


Outside of the Hebrew Bible, one of the best examples of ancient Israelite and Judean religion comes from an archaeological site called Kuntillet 'Ajrud, possibly dating as early as the 10th century BCE. One inscription from this site reads, "to YHWH of Samaria and to Asherata." Another inscription reads, "To YHWH of Teman and to Asherata" (Na'aman, 305). Both of these inscriptions demonstrate that some ancient Israelites and Judeans were not monotheistic in how they practiced religion; rather, they were henotheistic. YHWH, which may be read as Yahweh, was the primary tribal deity. He is best known from the Hebrew Bible. Asherata, also known as Asherah, was a deity within the Ugaritic pantheon. She is also a common figure in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, we can confidently say that among the spectrums of how people in ancient Israel and Judah practiced religion, Asherah and Yahweh were both honored in cults. Priority, though, tended to be given to Yahweh.
An inscription from another archaeological site (Khirbet el-Qom, 8th century BCE) says the following: "Blessed is Uriahu by YHWH for through Asherata He saved him from his enemy." Here, we see strong evidence that Asherata, a deity, represented a person named Uriahu before Yahweh. In Ugaritic literature, we see a similar understanding of the deities. The Ugaritic goddess Athirat was a mediator for El, the chief god of the Ugaritic pantheon. The parallel in how people understood deities (Yahweh is to Asherata as El is to Athirat) demonstrates how ancient Israel and Judah shared a cultural and religious framework with the broader West Semitic culture; yet, they were also unique in the sense that they worshiped a particular deity who uniquely represented their tribal system(s). Notably, though, this interpretation is still debated in current scholarly discussion (See Smith 2002, 125; Smith 2001, 72-73).

City Gate of Khirbet Qeiyafa

Other examples come from the Hebrew Bible itself. In Psalm 82, for example, Yahweh stands in the council of El, the high deity in West Semitic mythology. Yahweh accuses the other deities in the council of not helping poor and needy. In other words, the other deities failed to do their jobs as deities. As a result, El takes away the divine status of the deities and commands Yahweh to rule over the nations. In this piece of poetry from Judah and Israel, we have an example of a tradition in which other deities are within the pantheon; however, Yahweh takes the central role.
Narrative in the Hebrew Bible tells a similar story. For example, in 1 Kings 16:33, King Ahab makes a shrine for Asherah. 2 Kings 17:16 even references people who worship Asherah and Baal. Likewise, Baal worship occurs consistently throughout the narrative, suggesting that he "played a large part in the belief of the Israelite population" during the Iron Age (DDD 1999, 137).
Additionally, one of the earliest translations of the Hebrew Bible into another language in the 3rd century BCE attests to the henotheism of ancient Israel. In the Septuigant (LXX), a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy 32:8 reads: "When the Most High was apportioning nations, as he scattered Adam's sons, he fixed boundaries of nations according to the number of divine sons" (Pietersma and Wright, 2007). Most High is a reference to El. In this verse, El is said to assign nations and people groups to his divine sons, namely deities. In this verse, Yahweh is assigned to Israel, and other deities to other peoples. Thus, the Hebrew Bible itself reflects the henotheism of ancient Israel and the region more broadly.
And as the previous inscriptions demonstrate, worship of deities other than Yahweh seems to have been a regular part of life for people. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, it suggests that Yahweh has always been the deity that people should worship.Based on these inscriptions, Psalms, Kings, Deuteronomy, and other unmentioned evidence, though, we know this is not the case; rather, henotheism was likely the norm for ancient Israelites and Judeans.
One scholar suggests that "whatever the biblical authors may have tried to convey, may not have been… the primary form of belief or religious exercise" (Gilmour, 100). In other words, the Hebrew Bible does not accurately represent how people actually practiced religion in the ancient world. He claims this because the Hebrew Bible itself was likely edited and compiled between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE. So, although the Hebrew Bible preserves traditions going back as far as the 11th century BCE, the theological and cultural positions between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE were likely read into the past and, among these, was monotheism.


Having offered a basic idea of what and how some ancient Israelites and Judeans may have thought about their deities, we can now look at how ancient Judeans and Israelites practiced religion within their material environment. In other words, what sort of things did they physically do in order to worship their primary deity, Yahweh?
According to tradition in the book of Leviticus, there were 5 main types of sacrifice: burnt offering, grain offering, wellbeing offering, sin offering, and guilt offering. Within each type of sacrifice, there were three levels of material objects which could be offered. The reason there were three levels was to enable the poor within the society to offer sacrifice. For example, a person bringing a burnt offering could offer a bull, sheep or goat, or turtledove or pigeon. In other words, they could offer an expensive offering, a medium-priced offering, or an inexpensive offering. The other types of sacrifices offered the same opportunity for the poor. Some ritual texts from a Syrian city called Emar include the same levels of sacrifice, namely levels which enabled the poor to make offerings.

Reconstructed Israelite House

One of the most important annual rituals may have been the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). The purpose of the Day of Atonement was to purify the sanctuary; for sin was thought to pollute the sanctuary. Without the ritual, Yahweh would, potentially, leave the sanctuary. Without Yahweh in the sanctuary, there was no longer any deity to advocate for the Judean population. As part of the assembly of El, the high god in Ugaritic mythology (cf. Ps. 29, 82), Yahweh was "assigned" Israel in some biblical traditions.
In order to solve this potential problem, a high priest would perform the sacrificial ritual by sacrificing for the sins of the people and sprinkling blood upon the altar. He then placed his hand on the head of a goat, transferred the impurities to the goat, and made one final burnt offering to atone for the people (Leviticus 16). Consequently, the people were atoned for. This national atonement also served to strengthen political bonds and unity.
The Day of Atonement is very similar to a ritual in Ugaritic texts (KTU 1.40), which date around the 13th century BCE. It does differ, though, in one major way. Whereas the Ugaritic ritual is performed in multiple temples, the Day of Atonement is, according to Leviticus, only performed in one temple, one sanctuary. Thus, ancient Israelite and Judean religion shares a similar ritual framework; however, the ritual is also distinct from other West Semitic rituals in terms of the centrality around one sanctuary.
Of course, other rituals are also attested to throughout the Hebrew Bible, such as Passover (Pesach), New Moon festivals, and other festivals to celebrate seasonal changes. These rituals likely involved sacrifice to Yahweh, just like the tradition of the Day of Atonement.

Solomon's Temple, Jerusalem

Ritual was not the only form of religious devotion, however. Although oftentimes considered to be taboo, divination was an important part of ancient Israelite and Judean religion. For example, 1 Samuel 28 tells a narrative of King Saul visiting a necromancer (one who raises ghosts from the ground) at En-dor. King Saul needs to speak to Samuel the prophet's ghost. In this passage, though, the witch is not condemned for performing necromancy. Thus, this text demonstrates that divination did occur in ancient Israelite and Judean practice and ritual. Likewise, it was not necessarily frowned upon.
At the same time, some traditions explicitly ban divination. In Deuteronomy 18:10-11, the push against divination is explicit: "Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead." There would be no reason for a law such as this, though, if divination was not practiced. Therefore, ancient Israelite and Judean religion includes divination in some traditions; however, other traditions, such as Deut. 18:10-11, stand in opposition to the practice of divination.


In the ancient world, ethical behavior played an important role in religion. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible, for example, emphasize the importance of ethical behavior. The ethical behavior, though, is not a distinct category from religion in the ancient world; rather, ethical behavior impacts whether or not the deity, namely Yahweh, resides in the sanctuary or temple.Consequently, ethical behavior was understood to be correlated with whether or not Yahweh continued protecting the ancient Judeans and Israelites from other people groups. This sort of correlation is evident throughout the Hebrew Bible.
For example, a group on Mount Samaria is referenced as "the ones who oppress the poor and crush the needy" (Amos 4:1). In response, Yahweh claims that even though he removed their food, sent no rain, and caused famine, the people did not return.In other words, they did not change their behavior. This does not indicate that Yahweh only cared about ethics and did not care about his cult; rather, it indicates that ethics impacted whether or not Yahweh would provide sustenance for the people.Another example is in 1 Samuel 4. In this narrative, the glory of Yahweh, namely the representation of his physical presence, leaves the temple as a consequence for the ethical corruption of the sons of Eli. Finally, Leviticus 18-22 offers a series of moral and ethical standards. The consequence of not following the standards is being "cut off from the people." Importantly, though, this consequence is not the punishment for bad behavior; rather, the consequence is necessary in order to maintain sanctity and holiness within the community and of the temple. For, if the house of Yahweh became too polluted, he would have to leave.
Thus, the ethical behavior of the Judean peoples was an important aspect of religion because it ensured the enduring presence of the deity in the temple. Consequently, the deity was able to provide blessings, life, and sustenance from the temple.


People familiar with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament may have noticed that there was no discussion about the religious importance of aspects like the Law, Moses, and the Davidic Dynasty. The reason such religious aspects were not included was that these reflect religious ideas developed between the 7th and 4th centuries BCE. While the line of Judah and figures like David existed, they were not necessarily central to ancient Israelite and Judean religious practice. For, "the presentation of Israel's past in the biblical narrative from Genesis to 2 Kings is an ideological construct by intellectuals" after the 7th century BCE "who, nevertheless, transmitted some memories dating from the tenth to the sixth centuries BCE" (Knauf and Guillaume, 53). Thus, to a certain extent, the Hebrew Bible reflects well the past in ancient Judah and Israel; however, as a compilation of Judean traditions, it sometimes misrepresents or altogether ignores what happened in the past.
Additionally, attentive readers may notice that there was no discussion of Judaism. Generally speaking, the scholarly consensus is that the religion of Judaism was distinct from ancient Israelite and Judean religion. The elements which define Judaism, though, are beyond the scope of this article.
Finally, it is important to be aware of the current state of scholarship regarding ancient Israelite history. As a field of study, it is one of the most challenging fields because scholars have a limited amount of primary sources they can work with. Likewise, ancient Israelite history, particularly the religious history, is difficult to work with because one must sift through the Hebrew Bible in order to decide what may reflect the past most accurately. So, there may be others who offer vastly different explanations and descriptions of how ancient Israelites and Judeans practiced religion. This is a natural consequence of the sparse amount of data and serves to exemplify how much more research needs to be done in ancient Israelite history in order for us to be able to appreciate how this ancient people group understood their role in the world.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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