Early Western Civilization 4000–1000 B.C.E

Weighing of the Heart on Judgment Day This painting on papyrus (paper made from a river reed) from about 1275 B.C.E. illustrates a main concern of ancient Egyptian religious belief: the day of judgment when the gods decided a person’s fate after death. Here, a man named Any is having his heart (in the left balance) weighed against the feather of Truth of the goddess Maat. The feather stands for “What Is Right.” The jackal-headed god Anubis works the scales, while the bird-headed god Thoth records the result. The standing male figure on the left symbolizes Any’s destiny, and the seated figures above are the jury of gods. The painting formed part of Any’s copy of the Book of the Dead, a collection of instructions and magic spells to help the dead person in the afterlife, on the assumption that the verdict would be positive and bestow a blessed eternal life. (British Museum, London, UK / Bridgeman Art Library.)

writing down the result (see the illustration on page 2). Pictures in the Book of the Dead also show the Swallower of the Damned—a hybrid monster featuring a crocodile’s head, a lion’s body, and a hippopotamus’s hind end — who crouched be- hind Thoth ready to eat the heart of anyone who failed the test of purity. These stories, like many others in Egyptian mythology, taught that living a just life was the most important human goal be- cause it was the key to winning the gods’ help for a blessed existence after death.

The earliest Western civilizations arose in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, Crete and other Aegean islands, and Greece. Each of these civiliza- tions believed in the need for a centralized author- ity, but the forms of that authority differed. In Egypt, a single, central authority united the coun- try; in other civilizations, smaller independent states competed with each other. Each civilization believed that religion and justice were basic build- ing blocks for organizing human society. All be- lieved that many gods existed; other religious beliefs and practices could differ, however. For ex- ample, the Greeks, unlike the Egyptians, believed that most people could expect only a gloomy, shadowlike existence following their deaths.

International trade and wars to win territory and glory were constants in all these civilizations. Trade and war brought the peoples of these civi- lizations into frequent contact with other popula- tions far away; they exchanged not only goods and technologies but also ideas. This sort of cultural diversity has always characterized Western civiliza- tion. The question arises, then, of what historians mean by the concept Western civilization. What de- fines it in particular, as compared to other civiliza- tions?

Focus Question: What changes did Western civiliza- tion bring to human life?