Using Religion for Power

What really interested me from the lectures and reading for this week, was this idea of Power of Elites through Religion. About how they used it to create a greater social stratification in the society.  What drew my attention was the discussion about how part of the collapse of the Old Kingdom in Egypt was somewhat brought on by the decline in tribute from the Nomarchs, as well as thoughts, from the article “Ancient Mesopotamia” by Susan Pollack, about the social differences between the “Priests” and civilians. This made me contemplate why did they give tribute to the Pharaoh in the start. What was pulled from the lectures was that Pharaohs were given their power by this idea that they were the god in human form. So that their power was from the idea that they were a god. Giving them control over their people through religious beliefs. By using this power the Pharaohs were able to convince the people to build many things in their honor. Giant Pyramids that would house their mummified bodies and treasures. During the time of the Old Kingdom colossal projects were finished and constructed. The creation of separate burial grounds that far exceeded that off “normal” civilians was part of the way this power help to social stratify the society even more.

Then I drew the connection from the reading about Ancient Mesopotamia about how the only differences in housing was with in the Ubadid society was between the temples and the civilian housing. That the temples were built on platforms that would draw them as high as 1 to 10 meters above the surrounding housing. The temples tended to not be larger than the normal households their construction was what made them different. Thought went into the construction of the temples with focuses on decorative architectural features, such as mosaic decorations, recessed portals, and niched facades. Even though the temples tended to contain house hold artifacts it also held more finely created ceramics that were painted and sometimes shaped unusually.  The unusual painted and shaped ceramics were only seen with in the temple part of the site. This created a difference between those who lived with in the temple and those who did not. Power also came with this differentiation  the very creation of these elaborate temples, and their sheer numbers in the sites that litter Mesopotamia can be used to show the acceptance of the Priest with in a separate category.

So in these two examples the use of Religious thought and roles can be seen as a way to for certain individuals to gain power as well as social standing. It is curious to me whether this occurs with in every beginning of every society? As well as this idea that without religion would certain monumental structures have been created?


2 thoughts on “Using Religion for Power

  1. Abagail Gray

    We talked in class about the characteristics of an ancient state, how they need stratification and state authority. Included in the secondary characteristics were tribute/taxation and state religion. In order to be the society they were the ancient Egyptians needed that stratification and authority, it just happened that the method of developing those and maintaining them derived from their religious beliefs. Those monumental structures were built because there was the established state authority able to control the masses and coordinate such projects. Pharaohs using their religious-based power are no different than other rulers using family-based power to influence their people. However, it is very possible that religion of some sort influences the beginning stages of societies, and its power grows with the power of the state.

    Through my own research on the topic of the temple and priesthood of Amen, I found that the Pharaoh was seen as the true son of the god. When the king was made Pharaoh, it was the god claiming him as his heir. The priests of Amen also held sway over the people because they perpetuated an image of themselves as heroes to the downtrodden. In fact, religion held so much power at a point in Egyptian history that the priesthood of Amen rivaled the power of the Pharaoh. Even when the Pharaoh turned to a different main god, the general public still held strong to Amen-Re. Religion is a powerful thing, but the power derives from the people; the Pharaoh and the gods only had as much power as the people let them have through their strong beliefs in the gods.

    1. Josh Schnell

      The role of religion in any culture is something that I am very interested in academically, and I loved reading your post! From all of my research into religions and cultures across time and space, one thing that you mentioned always pops up, elites utilizing religion to gain power/wealth/favor etc. Also, like you mentioned with the Pharaoh, ruling elites often claim to be descendants or incarnations of deities, or sponsored by certain deities. In China, the Zhou Dynasty introduced the Mandate of Heaven which legitimized their rule by saying “if God didn’t want us to rule, we wouldn’t be ruling.” That if they didn’t have the support of the Heavens then something would happen to remove them from power. Also, Maya rulers often share names with certain deities, legitimizing their rule and claim to power. Religion legitimizes both kingship and power, and it has since the beginnings of both religion and organized communities.

      I am in a class right now titled “Religion and Culture” and my professor always makes reference to something that I feel fits in well with the utilization of religion by elites for power and influence. he always tells us that “religion belongs to the elites” which if you think about it, it really does. In most cultures, the elites really control religion. But he mentioned the Maya calendar, and what he told us was really interesting. There were two versions of the Maya ritual calendar. Since the Maya were excellent astronomers, they had knowledge of the real, 365-day seasonal cycle, even if their calendar didn’t name off all 365 days, and this knowledge was well known to the elites and priesthood. But the elites told the common people that the year was only 220 days long or so, so the seasons never matched up and agriculture was unpredictable. This enabled the elites to utilize religion and power to tell the commoners when to plant crops because they had knowledge of the actual calendar.

      Anyways, I found that story really interesting, and it goes well with your post about elites, religion and power. I find that topic to be extremely interesting as well!

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