Ancient World Cosmology


Many ancient cultures (including the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Indians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and even the Hawaiians) have a very similar cosmology. Cosmology is the term used to cover the ancient study of the world, which included physics, psychology, biology, medicine, philosophy, religion and most areas of study all together as a single study by the educated and the wise.  The world was thought to be shaped like a big person (making the individual person a microcosm or mini-cosmos within the larger cosmos or world). The elements, including fire, air, earth and water stacked from lightest on the top (fire and air) to heaviest on the bottom (earth and water). This was not only observed in nature (star fire above, winds next, then earth above water) but also in humans (the mind is fire and visions of light, which heats and activates the breath in speech like orders and commands, and the water in the lower regions and functions of the body which often was identified with chaos). Order and reason were identified with the higher elements (fire and air, mind and breath) and chaos and desire were identified with the lower elements (earth and water, flesh and fluid). Fire moves upward, both as flames and smoke, and water moves downwards, each element seeking its proper place in the cosmos.

kundalini india

When the stack of elements is in order the cosmos and the individual are in order, and when the stack of elements are out of order the cosmos and individual are out of order. The higher elements were believed to be eternal just as the cosmos itself and Being are eternal, and the lower elements were believed to be temporary like the individuals and beings are temporary.  Consider that harmonious elements lead to peaceful and productive seasons of agriculture, and storms and disasters are disorders that can be deadly.  Consider also that shamans and sages sit and think about things in contemplation for long periods of time until they uncover underlying truths within things that outlive the individual things themselves.

Shamanic Fire Mongolia

Fire was often considered the top and most important element, and it was identified both with energy and thought.  In ancient Greece, energy (energon, “in-work”) was thought to be the fire within things such as human beings that makes them live, just as in ancient China chi and in ancient India karma were identified with life, energy, and fire.  Just as the shaman goes on a quest to have a new vision in the head, and this vision is visible in the mind like fire, prophets, scientists, politicians and everyday people have visions of the past (memory) and future (imagination), and if they are knowledgeable and wise their predictions are more true than the foolish.

neoplatonism cosmos

One can find in religion and philosophy in ancient cultures (including Christianity, Buddhism, Indian Philosophy, Greek Philosophy and Chinese Philosophy) the same message repeated again and again: Reason and the mind must be placed above and in charge of desire and the body. The eternal way of things is to be placed above the temporary ways and wants. This gains the individual wisdom, reason and insight into the workings of the cosmos. When the lower elements are in charge, there is ignorance and destruction as things are pulled apart. This framework is important for understanding each individual system of ancient thought as well as their overall similarities and differences.  It not only reflects the individual who wants many things but can become disciplined, but the community that wants many things but can be ruled and maintained.

Branching Tree

One early philosophical puzzle was the Problem of the One and the Many.  Reality is one thing, but also many things. Your left hand is also one thing, and many things.  Shamans in many different cultures had visions of an All Tree or Tree of Life, the one yet many of all things. All or Being itself is the trunk, and the many things and species of the world are the branches or the fruit. The trunk and branches of a tree outlive the fruit, which returns cyclically each season, just as humanity and reality outlive individual humans, rocks, and trees, just as consciousness outlives particular thoughts and perceptions.  The stars rotate overhead, outliving your grandparents who told you about them and your children.

Ottoman diagram of arteries and veins

Not only is the brain shaped like a tree, as well as the nervous system and circulation systems, the human body is shaped like a tree with the head and chest as the trunk, the human species and evolution of all species is shaped like a tree.  If we remove ourselves from reality, either staring down from a mountain top or sitting in a quiet laboratory, it is easier to see this and the many ways it continues to work.  One of the recurrent philosophical insights we will see in India, Greece and China is that it takes wisdom to see that the many things are all one reality and the one reality is seen from many perspectives.  This applies to the cosmos, the community, the self, and each passing thought.  It continues today to be a simple idea but worth dwelling upon to gain wisdom, and so it is worthwhile studying ancient thought of the world to learn more about our own lives.

Sumer, Knowledge & Politics

History Begins At Sumer Kramer

An excellent book for appreciating the earliest city state civilizations is History Begins at Sumer by Kramer.  Sumer was not necessarily the first walled city that ruled the land surrounding it as an empire, but because writing was first developed there it is the first civilization on the written record.  Sumer was a city state at the mouth of the Tigris-Euphrates which was then taken over and incorporated into Babylon, which then was taken over by Assyria, which was then taken over by Persia.  At each stage, a city upriver on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers took over a city downriver that had become prosperous through trade with various peoples across the land and sea.  It appears that powerful empires are conquered by neighbors who are far less powerful and developed.  We will consider this again when we get to Hegel’s Master/Slave Dialectic in the second half of the course.  As the Egyptians noted thousands of years ago, those who have power fall, and the powerless become the powerful, only to have this cycle repeat itself again and again.  This is certainly what happened in Western Europe, as the Celtic/Germanic tribes came to power after being conquered by the Romans.

Babylonian Ziggurat

The city states of the Tigris Euphrates and Egypt were multicultural societies in which citizenship did not belong exclusively to one ethnicity.  This allowed for diverse marketplaces where goods, cultures and ideas could be exchanged.  Cities were centers of trade, such that not only was the city a site for many groups to converge and form a new culture but this culture also traded with other convergent cultures. Many are surprised to learn that ancient Sumer and Egypt traded with India hundreds of years before the Greeks and Israel arose, but archeologists have found a small community of Indian merchants living in Alexandria Egypt as early as 300 BCE.  From the earliest times, culture, trade and thought have been trans-cultural.

assyrian seige weapon

Consider the Assyrians. “Assyrian” did not name one ethnicity but rather a citizen of Assyria. Many people of different ethnicities called themselves Assyrians just as many people call themselves Americans. Jesus spoke Aramaic because it was one of the dominant languages of Assyria and the lands they had conquered.  Assyria invented all of the siege weapons that were used in feudal Europe (including the battering ram and the siege tower), but the Assyrians conquered others mostly by trade and diplomacy. Princes would be sent to be educated in Assyria, the center of knowledge in its day, and then the Assyrians would make contracts with the prince’s people to put them on the throne to maintain political control. Just like today the primary method of conquest is economic and military solutions are called for only when the economic methods have failed.

John Perkins Confessions of an Economic Hitman

In modern times, John Perkin’s famous book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (he came to speak at BCC a few years ago) gives an excellent account of the same strategy of dominance through economics in modern times as it is used by America today.  Perkins says that he was a businessman who traveled the world helping other countries get into debt with America such that American corporations could come in and take over.  If this fails, Perkins says that the second level is the “CIA Jackals” (his words, not mine) who make a move here and there to smooth things over for the business interests if a politician or people’s movement threatens this.  If they fail, Perkins says the third level is “Here come the marines”, and that Iraq is a result of a failure of the first and second stage of this process.  The poverty of the third world is, in part, due to this and similar economic strategies by other wealthy countries.

cuniform tablet

Sumer had some of the first schools, textbooks (in science and the humanities), medical texts, tax reduction, wisdom proverbs, and laments.  One excellent proverb is, “You go and carry off the enemy’s land, the enemy comes and carries off your land”.  My favorite Sumerian lament is recorded about 3000 BCE, in which an elderly Sumerian complains that in his time, unlike in the glorified past, politicians are corrupt, teenagers are running around and breaking tradition and having sex, and concludes that the world will certainly end soon at the hands of the gods.  The prophet laments of the Bible’s Old Testament (the Jewish Torah) are based on this and other laments from the Tigris-Euphrates civilizations.

Babylonian King Relief

While many equate the word ‘democracy’ with freedom incarnate, it is important to remember that democracies have never included everyone, and that traditionally participation has been reserved for the small number of men who own property.  This was true in the first records of human history we have, as Samuel Kramer shows in his book History Begins at Sumer.  We can read in the first human writings that the Sumerian king Gilgamesh wanted to go to war, and so asked the elders of the senate to support him.  When they refused, he asked the lower assembly of property-owning but less prominent men for their support, and they enthusiastically agreed, allowing Gilgamesh to bypass the senate.  Such a bicameral congress should sound familiar.  Sadly, Gilgamesh did not put the war to a popular vote among the common people, which shows us just how undemocratic a society ancient Sumer was.

Persia & Ancient Empire

Persian Emptire

After the rise of Sumer, Egypt and Babylon (the last two covered in other lectures) Persia conquered Egypt in 525 BCE.  Before that, in the centuries just before the flourishing of ancient Greece and the compiling of the Old Testament, Egypt and Persia were fighting over alliances with and conquests of Greece and Israel.  The Persian Empire stretched from Greece to India, encompassing the crossroads of most of the world’s culture and trade.  Persian culture had a massive effect on everyday Greek life.  Persian dress and adornments were copied, as well as styles of plates and cups.  Greek warriors would even curl their hair like the Assyrians and Persians before battle to inspire awe.  Athenian nobles often had ties to Persia that including intermarriage and business ventures.

Phoenicia, a civilization in what is today Lebanon that was a powerful trade center before the rise of Persia, became a vital part of the Persian empire after their conquest.  The Phoenician navy was the most feared part of the Persian military.  We not only get the legend of the Phoenix, the bird that is reborn by fire, from Phoenicia, but also the Phoenician alphabet, the ancestor of the Greek alphabet and the Roman-European alphabet we use here today.  The finest togas worn in Athens were made of Asian silks, brought over the silk road to Phoenicia, where it was there patterned and died.  Far from wearing white bed-sheets, Athenian nobles would show off by wearing the finest Phoenician cloth in the latest styles.


Cyrus, the first Persian great emperor, was venerated by many Greeks as a model king who benefited his subjects and helped them to flourish unlike a greedy tyrant.  Cyrus is also presented as the first messiah in the Old Testament, the liberator of the Jews from Babylon.  The New Testament, originally written in Greek, clearly presenting Jesus as the second, confirmed by the three Persian maji following the stars, and then later predicts an apocalyptic third messiah.  This puts the Bible in line with Persian Zoroastrianism, the world’s first great solar monotheism, spread by Cyrus’ empire, which predicted three Saoshyants (Messiah in Hebrew), who would lead the forces of good to triumph over the forces of darkness.  Regardless of one’s beliefs, the Jews and Christians presented themselves as in agreement with Zoroastrianism (for Christians, as its fulfillment) during periods of Persian influence.  Christianity first spread in Syria and Greece, and from there to Rome, Egypt and elsewhere.  Unlike Cyrus, the Greeks were not known as benevolent conquerors.  In the brief period of Athenian empire,  several states including Cyprus rebelled and appealed to Persia as they had been treated better by the Persian empire.

Aristotle German Print

Sadly, Europeans believed that the Egyptians and Persians were the great teachers of wisdom and philosophy to the Greeks for two thousand years after the golden age of Greek philosophy.  In the Renaissance, the two greatest philosophers, Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, both Neo-Platonists, believed that there was one true philosophy which was passed from the Egyptian priests and Persian maji to the Greek philosophers and Indian sages, and then that this wisdom was incarnated on earth as Jesus.  The Neo-Platonic academy of Florence, center of Renaissance art and philosophy, was modeled on Plato’s Republic under the assumption that this was a recreation of ancient Egyptian institutions.  It was only when Europe rose in power and wealth in the late 1600s and spoke of itself as unique and like no other culture on earth in terms of reason and freedom that the ancient Greeks were similarly said to be unique in reason and freedom and separate from the rest of the ancient world.