a more respectable form of a superstitious belief in the supernatural.
The Origins of Religious Beliefs
(Investigator 154, 2014
our earliest ancestors would have had no notion of
supernatural concepts, over a lengthy period of time early Homo
sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis did develop spiritual and
magical beliefs. This essay seeks to examine some of the processes
which might have influenced the development of such beliefs during the
past several hundred thousand years. Lacking actual records of how such
beliefs originated, we must extrapolate from what we know of the belief
systems of ancient cultures and contemporary primitive societies.
reasoning which formed the basis of all supernatural beliefs appears to
A belief in the existence of spirit which controlled all aspects
of the natural world which, in return for adoration, prayers, gifts or
sacrifices, were thought to be willing to interfere with natural
processes, to protect or assist human petitioners;
That some of these spirits existed in a non-physical realm, and
that, after death, true believers could join them in that place where
they would live for eternity;
That the entire cosmos was created by a spirit being, or beings,
who had also given life to all living creatures, including humans.
defenseless fear probably served as an important survival mechanism for
very early hominids. One of their few advantages was their excellent
colour vision which unfortunately was almost completely useless in the
dark. The effect of millions of years of nighttime experiences, hearing
the terrifying sounds of predators, but unable to see them in he dark,
produced a profound impression upon hominid species, an innate fear of
the dark which persists to this day.
intelligence enabled hominids to become more aware of their
environment, their fears and experiences led them to create an
imaginary world of terrifying monsters; yet this same intelligence also
enabled them to evolve coping mechanisms, imaginary beings to protect
them, and, although completely erroneous, these ideas would become the
basis for all subsequent belief-systems. The idea that religious
beliefs evolved out of human fear is not new, Publius Statius (45-96
AD) noted, "Fear first made gods in the world." (Thebiad, book
3, line 661); more recently Bishop Spong noted that religion probably
evolved as a means of providing humans with a sense of security rather
than as a search for truth.
definite evidence of a belief-system comes from Tsodilo in the Kalahari
Desert. This suggests specific ritual worship of a python deity some
70,000 years B.P. (Coulson, Staurset and Walker, 2011) Around
40,800 B.P. weapon decorations and cave-painting evolved. and circa
30,000 years B.P., superstitious beliefs appear to have taken on a more
definite structure. (Leroi-Gourhan and Michelson, 1986) Small stone or
clay fertility figures began to appear (Narr, 2009) and while their
purpose remains obscure, their prevalence in later ancient
archeological sites suggests they were important fertility symbols.
Around 30,000 –
24,000 years B.P. Homo neanderthalensis died out leaving H.
sapiens the only surviving hominid. Circa 12,800 years ago during the
Younger Dryas period 1,300 years of lower temperatures reduced
atmospheric moisture creating widespread droughts. In the Levant,
shrinking grasslands greatly reduced herd numbers forcing the nomadic
hunter-gatherers to increasingly rely on natural cereals which provided
an alternative food source. Adopting a semi-permanent lifestyle they
settled in parts of south-eastern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt
and Ethiopia. This dramatic lifestyle change ushered in the Neolithic
Age and would produce profound changes to human society.
By a process of
selection in the Levant around 12,000-10,200 B.P. one group, the
Natufians, discovered better yielding varieties of wheat and, with the
development of the sickle, were able to produce more than adequate food
supplies. While often still semi-monadic, many began to clear greater
areas of land for crops and by 9,000 years B.P. cereal farming had
spread from central Turkey to southwestern Iran. (Roberts, 2011, p.
208) With the introduction of crops such as flax, lentils, and the
increasing domestication of animals (sheep 13,000 B.P. pigs, 11,000
B.P. and goats and cattle 10,000 years B.P.), hunting became almost
required a water supply people tended to cluster around rivers, forcing
families and clans into close proximity with others. With common
objectives a more stable lifestyle, surplus food and the emergence of
trading, the individual groups began to gradually assimilate. Circa
12,000 B.P. family groups comprised only about 18 or so members, but by
around 10,000 B.P. these had increased to about 90 members and by 8,000
B.P. hundreds were living together in villages of linked multiroomed
houses. (Mann, 2011) To socially control these larger populations
various forms of social regulation, usually allied to some form of
religious and moral codes, began to emerge.
religious beliefs were already well evolved by the Neolithic Era; so
what were the circumstances which may have contributed to the creation
of such beliefs? Some major influences were probably: -
Simulacra and Nature-Spirits: The perception of what
appeared to be human or animal faces or figures upon natural objects
would have suggested the idea that strange beings resided within
Dreams, Omens, Prophecies and Life After Death: When
individuals interacted with deceased relatives and friends in dreams
which were thought to be real, they assumed the dead must still
be "alive" existing in a place separate from the physical world;
Language and Communication: Before individuals can
conceptualize the "images" of nature-spirits and communicate these
concepts to others, they need to have evolved a quite advanced level of
Confirmation Bias: Humans tend to look for, and find,
"relationships" between random, unconnected events leading to invalid
SIMULACRA AND NATURE-SPIRITS:
processing sensory data provides our "perception" of the external
world, this can sometimes become confused, especially when dealing with
anomalous visual or auditory patterns. Plato called these perceptual
"errors" simulacrum, (plural – simulacra, "phantasm" or "semblance",
Camille, 1995, p. 31). Sometimes referred to as Pareidolia, rather like
the abstract patterns in a Rorschach test, they can often be
misinterpreted as being something they are not.
common on rough surfaces, such as tree bark, weathered rock surfaces;
or in clouds. A common simulacrum in the West is the face or image of
Jesus "seen" in clouds, snow, pancakes, tortillas, potato
chips, and corrugated iron; in 1996 a cinnamon bun gained a great deal
of publicity when the "face" of Mother Theresa was "seen" on its
appear to have been aware of, and used simulacra; in painting the Great
Bison on the walls of the Bernifal Caves at Dordogne the artist appears
to have added an ear and patches to the chest to a roughly bison-shaped
outline on the rock-wall. (Mohen, 2002, p. 122)
ancient figurines such as the Acheulian Goddess, (230,000+
years B.P.), and the Willendorf Venus, (circa 26,000 years B.P.),
appear to have been created from roughly human shaped stones.
LIFE AFTER DEATH, DREAMS, OMENS
unknown origin, dreams must have profoundly influenced early
humans, especially where they "interacted" with the dead, or received
dire warnings of future calamities. The former gave rise to a
belief that, while asleep, some part of their being traveled to a place
where the dead still "existed" and they erroneously came to perceive
death as a "transition" to a non-physical existence; this led to the
belief that, if the dead still "lived", they would need food and tools
for this existence. The first burials indicating such beliefs were
quite simple; circa 100,000 years B.P. at Jebel Qafzeh (Galilee),
an ochre stained skeleton was buried with deer antlers in its hands
(Lieberman, 1993) and similarly, at Skhul, (Israel), body V, (circa
90,000 years B.P.), was found with a boar's mandible in its hands, (p.
Belief in survival
of the dead seems to have led to the idea that, In return for a proper
burial and continued reverence, dead ancestral spirits would provide
protection and "good-luck" to the home and occupants against the
vicissitudes of human existence a belief which appears to have been
well-established by the Neolithic era with the bodies and bones of
deceased relatives often being retained within the homes. In
Çatalhöyük, (circa 9,500 – 7,700 B.P.) collections of
skulls were arrayed on clay platforms along the walls, or buried under
the floors. These pagan beliefs would long survive; even against
powerful Christian prohibitions they persisted to be celebrated in
thinly disguised "Christian" festivals such as All Hallows Eve (October
31st, Hallowe`en), where dead saints, like the dead ancestors of
the past, were venerated as divine intercessors.
warning of future misfortune were thought to be helpful warnings from
spirits or gods, and prophetic dreaming to gain such omens were
considered so important they became an inherent part of the religious
beliefs of many cultures. The Jews believed Yahweh spoke to the
prophets via dreams, (Numbers 12:6), he warned Abimelech that Sarah was
the wife of Abraham; (Genesis 20:3), Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching
to heaven, (Genesis 28:12), and was later warned to flee to the land of
his own people. People took notice of their dreams; Emperor, Augustus
had a recurring nightmare, and although he never admitted its contents,
one day every year he would go and sit in a public place, "… with
his eyes closed and his hand outstretched like a common beggar.
(Gabriel, 2001, p. 183) So important were "prophetic" dreams that the
Babylonians and Egyptians, had texts providing dream interpretations;
e.g. if an Egyptian dreamt he was drinking warm beer it meant suffering
would come upon him. (Lewis, 1970, p. 11.)
occurrence of prophetic dreams was uncertain, seers devised many
techniques to produce trance states to "communicate" with deities and
spirits. The ingestion or inhalation of hallucinogenic substances was
common; however, because of the often toxic side-effects, they devised
techniques to overcome the dangers. Siberian Shamans fed the toxic
psychedelic mushroom Amanita muscaria to reindeers; their
metabolism broke down the toxins, leaving, "… the hallucinogenic
properties intact in the urine." (Vallance, 2005, p. 49); collected
and drunk, this produced a safe hallucinogenic trance. American Indian
shamans sat in tightly closed tipis and inhaled smoke from burning
green or damp wood which rendered them unconscious. In another
technique, the "star blanket", the shaman, wrapped so tightly in a
blanket that it severely restricted heir breathing, would fall unto an
were developed the most common being divination by the casting of lots,
throwing down devices with marked or different coloured sides; the
answer to the query being indicated by which side landed uppermost.
Later, additional pieces were added to provide more varied
results. Divination became widespread and was used by individuals
as well as civic and religious authorities.
LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION:
While the earliest
hominids probably possessed simple communication abilities, to warn of
danger or where to find food, their vocabulary would have been
insufficient to communicate the abstract concepts which comprise
religious ideologies. All that would change for, as they evolved, the
hyoid bone moved down the throat to form a long resonating tube which
provided greater ability to articulate sounds. Then, some 300,000 –
400,000 years B.P., genetic variations in the gene FOXP2 led to brain
maturation and speech and language developments which gave hominids the
ability to articulate a greater range of sounds (Krause, 2007)
developed an ever-increasing complexity of structure, syntax and
vocabulary and, with adequate communication abilities both H.
sapiens and H. neanderthalensis, were able to
exchange the abstract concepts which comprised the earliest forms of
superstitious and religious beliefs.
Bias is the tendency to recall events which agree with our
beliefs while forgetting those which do not. One may surmise that early
humans "saw" a simulacrum and afterwards a male had a successful hunt;
or a female had an easy birth, and in their primitive logic they
erroneously perceived a "relationship" between these two unrelated
events. Probably after a series of similar coincidences they mistakenly
concluded that something living within the tree or rock, a
nature-spirit, had the power to influence everyday events and so
concluded these spirits could be valuable allies in the human struggle
to survive. Thereafter, whenever they sought help, good-luck, or
guidance, individuals would return to the tree or rock, touching it,
hugging it, or offering "prayers" in an attempt to gain its support.
However, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, when the time came to follow the
migratory herds they would have to leave their sacred object; they seem
to have reasoned that a piece of the tree or rock would contain some of
the object's spiritual essence and so, they began to wear or carry
pieces of the sacred object; this appears to have been the origins of
the practice of carrying, or wearing amulets for protection.
of spiritual energy, trees become associated with the origins of many
mythical or heroic beings. Common in folklore and mythology; friendly
tree spirits were believed to provide messages of support, or to warn
of danger; e.g. the rustling of the trees was interpreted by David as a
sign that God had readied the Philistines for defeat. (2 Samuel 5:24)
As the children of
"Mother Earth" rocks and stones were thought to contain powerful
spiritual forces, and, as her children, to share her knowledge of the
subterranean world, being aware of the locations of gold, silver,
mineral deposits and even hidden treasure.
Believing the Sun
sank beneath the Earth into "the realm of the dead;" (Thiel, 1957, p.
46), caves, were considered especially sacred and often associated with
the concept of resurrection. Solar-deities such as Adonis, Apollo,
Attis, Baal, Dionysus, Hercules, Horus, Isis, Mithra, Osiris and Jesus;
were claimed to have been "rock-born" ("petrogenes" – born in caves).
Jesus was possibly the ultimate rock-born-deity; born in a cave, his
resurrection from a rock tomb indicated his further supremacy over the
powers of the underworld.
Worship of sacred
stones, or stone images, was once common even in Judaism. Although
forbidden, (Leviticus 26:1), smooth river-stones had long been objects
of worship (Isaiah 57:3-7), while teraphim, possibly human shaped
stones, were also apparently worshipped in the homes.
were an important part of many religions; gravestones were
erected as dwelling places for the spirits of the dead, while megaliths
and stone circles marked the locations of sacred locations throughout
Britain and Europe. Despite the influence of Christianity many groups
never completely abandoned their old beliefs; until recently, the
indigenous Saami, (the Lapps), continued to worship sieidi (or seita),
trees and rocks that appeared to possess faces of human or animals.
VITALISM AND THE LIFE-FORCE:
the concept of "life" early humans evolved the concept
of Animism, (anima, Latin for spirit or vital breath), a belief that
all humans, animals and even inanimate objects such as trees, rocks,
hills, rivers and lakes were "animated" by a life-force, or
"soul". Many believed this ethereal "soul" was a "divine" and
immortal form of energy, separate and independent from the physical
body; it was thought to return to the heavens when the physical body
evolved into Vitalism, a belief that a constant stream of "life-energy"
flowed from heaven and, after entering the body flowed" through a
system of "invisible" channels, independent of the blood-stream, known
to the Hindus as srotas, and "meridians" to the Chinese. Based on
Vitalistic concepts most alternative therapies claim that a constant
and balanced" supply of this energy is needed to sustain life and
health; should the internal flow of this energy become depleted of
"blocked", poor health will result., although of course, they claim
their particular form of "therapy can restore a healthy balance.
mistakenly perceived a connection between this life-energy and both
blood and air.
blood was the
life-energy led to a belief that eating the flesh of strong powerful
animals, or brave enemies, one could absorb their life-energy and so
become stronger and more powerful.
perceived a relationship between breathing and life, some like the
Hindus and Buddhists identifying it as a subtle form of air-borne
energy drawn into the body with every breath. They called it Prana,
(from, pra = constant + an = movement).
To the Chinese it
was Qi, or ch'i — a
"vital or heavenly air" a radiant energy originating in the Sun, "…
strong enough to blow the tails of comets as if in a strong wind."
(Teresi, 2002, p. 149) Many other cultures also identified the
Sun as the source of this life-energy and some, like the ancient
Egyptians, believed the rising Sun transferred its life-force, (ka)
directly into the sacred image of the god or goddess in the
temples. (Reidy, 2010, p. 204)
indicated that Christianity was essentially a form of solar worship.
Jesus shared many of the mythical traits of other solar deities; like
them, he was born on, or about, the time of the Winter equinox, 25th
December; and shared a number of festivals celebrating the growing
power of the Sun. He was born in a stable, a cave or underground
chamber, (the traditional birthplace of the Sun); his mother was a
virgin who, like Virgo the heavenly virgin, remained an eternal virgin,
(Remsberg, 2007, p. 259). After birth he faced danger and, like Horus
and Krishna, was taken by his parents to a distant location to avoid
death. Like the Sun he had twelve disciples, (signs of the Zodiac), and
was resurrected from his underground cave.
The fact that the
Sun disappeared each night, and grew weaker throughout the year, was
attributed to the belief that it was engaged in an eternal battle with
the forces of darkness which ruled the night. This belief led to the
concept of Dualism, the idea of two opposing cosmic forces light versus
darkness, locked in an eternal battle for supremacy. To support the Sun
in its eternal struggle the ancients built great bonfires to send heat
skywards while others, like the Incas, sacrificed humans and animals
believing their blood would maintain the Sun's strength and sustain its
path across the heavens.
So it was that the
various components, increased intelligence, language and imagination
came together and early humans created the earliest "religious"
concepts then, as family groups grew into tribes, religious leaders,
Shamans, Medicine-men, etc. appeared, along with more complex forms of
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