The (Ancient) History of Religion: Hominization – Urbanization
By Raene, Sibylline Priestess © Raene 2001
From the beginnings of human history we see the interplay between two initially complementary but increasingly opposed religious world views: that of the Hunter/Warrior and that of the Mother Goddess.
There is evidence for both co-existing as far back as the Paleolithic (Old Stone Age), when the mystical solidarity of man and animal - the epiphany of the hunting culture - was celebrated through what archaeologists call “The Religion of the Caves,” and the Mother Goddess was revered for her properties of creation and kept in household shrines.
At the time of the Neolithic Revolution, which was, essentially, the discovery of agriculture, this peaceful co-existence suffered its first blow. Male hunters had been responsible for providing the largest and most important part of the tribes’ sustenance, but at the end of the last Ice Age the large animal herds were decreased in number and migrating farther and farther north as the ice receded, and agricultural crops became the main source of the people’s sustenance. Women had a much more active role in the cultivation of crops and, with the Mother Goddess archetype already in place, their power rose significantly. The Mother Goddess was not only associated with human fertility but with the fertility of the soil, on which all people depended. Hunters were marginalized – there was still some subsistence hunting, as well as the job of guarding the borders of the tribe’s land from predator animals and, possibly later, human tribes bent on conquest. These marginalized groups kept the hunter/warrior mythos alive.
Those followers of the hunter/warrior mythos that was unable to adapt to the new paradigm migrated north, following the herds, and settled in those places unsuitable for farming – the mountains and forests. These became the Aryan conquerors who were to dominate human history and religion a few thousand years later.
With the development of agriculture came the development of villages, and over time, those best situated grew into market towns as trade developed. The largest of these market towns eventually grew into cities, giving rise the phenomenon of urbanization and the rise, at the beginning of the Bronze Age, of what Joseph Campbell calls the Heiratic City State.
Many factors contributed at this time to shift the paradigm once again from female to male power represented by the dominance of Gods over Goddesses. For one, early methods of agriculture were unsophisticated and very hard on the soil. Before the discovery of crop rotation, farmed fields became overtaxed and dried up, and this may have been attributed to a failure of the power or patronage of the Goddess – who had become associated with the fertility of the fields. At the same time, urbanization and economics gave rise to a class-structured civilization in which men became more dominant:
“Urbanization dramatically changes social relations. In place of real, biological relationships based on kinship, urbanized cultures organize themselves around more abstract, less stable, and inherently unequal lines. In particular, urbanized society is organized around "class," that is, economic function, rather than kinship. Economic function produces a kind of social inequality, as administrators, kings, and priests, come to occupy economically more important roles (distribution and regulation) than others. While there is really no such thing as social mobility in the ancient world, class is inherently unstable as a way of organizing society. Urbanization also produces a split in human experience; life is divided into a public and a domestic sphere. In small tribal societies, this split is non-existent or barely evident, but urbanization produces a marked distinction between these two spheres. Almost universally, men dominate the newly formed public
Finally, it was at this time that the Aryan invaders, most of whom were syncretistic as a matter of practicality, began what would be centuries of ever-encroaching waves of conquest. The result of the Aryan invasions was a slow melding of the native Goddess-based pantheons with that of the Aryan Sky Gods, as well as a leading-edge dissemination of the technology of the Goddess-cultures as people fled before the invaders.
Ultimately, of course, the Aryan tribes were victorious, and the further history of religion for thousands of years is the chronicle of how their Sky Gods married the native Goddesses, then subjugated them, and finally divorced them altogether. That the Goddess was able to sneak back into the consciousness of the worshippers of the Sky Gods in almost every case is evidence of the enduring power of the archetype and the human need for balance and closure.
THE ROOTS OF RELIGION
The earliest archaeological “documents” that speak to a religious idea are those of intentional burial, the earliest indicators of which are present at the Choukoutien site dated to 400,000 – 300,000 BCE. Anthropologists can speak with certainty of intentional burial – with grave goods, articles of personal adornment, accompanying animal sacrifices and attention paid to an East/West orientation of the body – from 40,000 BCE. Evidence of intentional burial is generally held to imply belief in a survival after death, which is not surprising. Dreams or psychedelic trances may well have given rise to images that were thus interpreted – particularly in light of the fact that death must always have been, as it is today, the inescapable and final mystery of which man was terrified and yet about which he could not help being curious.
Given that the dread of death must have loomed large in the psyche of even the most primitive of our ancestors, the dawning realization of what Campbell calls “the deed of life” may have led to the earliest seeds of religious observance in rituals and beliefs designed to deal with that realization. For the “Deed of Life” is dealing death. In the more sophisticated mythologies of this realization that appear in the tropical gardening cultures of the Mesolithic, both sex and death come into the world – often by way of a murder (see the New Guinean myth of Hainuwele) – and bring with them the gift of the food plant. Campbell points out that this myth recognizes “the interdependence of sex and death (either would be catastrophic without the other) and their import as the complementary aspects of a single state of being, and the necessity of killing for the continuance of that state of being.” It is entirely likely that the earlier hunter/gatherer cultures made this same realization – that, in Campbell’s words, ‘Death is the Life of the Living.” And the emotional feelings (which in later cultures became sin and guilt) thus aroused, Campbell’s “the qualm before the deed of life”, were addressed through ritual and belief.
The Hunters, for whom death was rarely natural, but rather violent, maintained what Leo Froebenius calls a “magical” world view – in which death was attributed to magic, the rituals done to ensure the sacrifice was willing and thus to cleanse the hunter of any guilt. He postulates that the spirits of the dead, under this system of belief, were seen as dangerous and vengeful spirits that had to be placated or defended against.
The Planters, on the other hand, developed what Froebenius contrasts as a “mystical” world view, in which the mystical solidarity was transferred from man-animal to man-plant, and death was seen as a natural part of a cyclical order and one, in fact, from which greater blessings and more fertility could arise. Spirits were believed to be reborn, as part of the cyclical nature of the world.
As surprising as it sounds, given the remarkable fertility of the Religious Idea and the countless regional variations and increasing sophistication of the various belief systems that have led to a stunning proliferation of historical and world religions, it is quite true that all of these subsequent religions can trace their roots to one of these two prehistoric religious root complexes.
Joseph Campbell talks about the “fundamental unity of the spiritual history of mankind” and refers particularly to specific mythico-religious ideas that arise in every culture, such as: the fire-theft, the Land of the Dead, the virgin birth, the resurrected hero, and the primordial or original androgynous being. As we shall see, all of these ideas, and many more, arise directly from either the Hunter or Planter mythos and are present in fairly complete form before the end of the Bronze Age.
The mystery of how these ideas came to be so universal posits a debate between the idea of parallel development (these are the spontaneous operations of the human psyche arising independently) or diffusion (ideas spread from person to person by migration or through commerce). Diffusion, which initially seemed improbable to scientists, is becoming more credible with continuing discoveries.
Regardless – Campbell quotes Kant, who says that all our thinking about final things can be only by way of analogy. Campbell stresses this, pointing out that “such a highly played game of ‘as if’ frees our mind and spirit, on the one hand, from the presumption of theology, which pretends to know the laws of God, and, on the other, from the bondage of reason, whose laws do not apply beyond the horizon of human experience.”
Small (25 or so) nomadic hunting, fishing, & gathering bands of loosely bound, voluntary aggregates of a few families, with occasional reunions of several allied bands for religious ceremonies and mate exchange. A complex of cosmogonic myths including the primordial waters and a Creator who “retrieves” the World from the waters. Origin myths, most particularly of animals and fire. The idea of a bridge (often a rainbow) to the otherworld, the sacrality of the Sky as the home of deity, and the idea of a Center of the World (world order, later World Tree)
RELIGION OF THE CAVES
Part of the process of hominization was the development of man into a flesh-eating creature. This gave rise to hunting as a means of sustenance-supply. The practice of hunting in a small tribe-based society gave rise to a division of labor in accordance with sex. The birth and nurture of offspring being of paramount importance for the long-term survival of the tribe, women were too valuable a resource to expose to the risks of large-game hunting. Hunting was thus the vital job of the men of the tribe, the initiatory experience of the adolescent males, and the basis of the Men’s Mystery of mystical solidarity between the killer and the killed – in this case between the hunter and the slain animal.
Based on ethnographic studies of primitive hunter-gatherer cultures known to history, anthropologists can make some assumptions about the complex of religious ideas and behavior that characterized these societies of male hunters. Archaeological finds, while unable to confirm much about ideas and behavior in prehistoric societies, have so-far not contradicted the presumptions of the anthropologists.
The deity image of the Paleolithic hunters is what anthropologists call The Lord of the Wild Beasts. This is an animal or animal/human deity (possibly the epiphany of the psychedelic experience associated with early shamanism – the first known “magical technology”) that implies the idea of the hunter’s kill as a ritual act, based on a bond between the hunter and the prey that the prey will willingly sacrifice it’s life for the good of the tribe, and the tribe will respect that sacrifice by killing only what is necessary, and by practicing rituals to send the soul of the killed animal back to it’s spiritual home – often through a “first fruits” offering to the Lord of the Wild Beasts.
Evidence of what many anthropologists believe was an initiation ceremony, or perhaps a ritual of sympathetic hunting magic, can be found in the cave paintings from which this mythico-religious complex gets its name. Dating as far back as 30,000 BCE in India, but more general c. 20,000 BCE in France, the paintings are found in uninhabitable caves in inaccessible areas, speaking to their intentionally and sacrality. There is also evidence of ritual circle dancing on the floors of these caves in front of some of the paintings.
THE GREAT GODDESS
The so-called Paleolithic “Venuses” are small, highly-stylized female figures with feature-less faces and exaggerated procreative attributes found on the levels of habitation in archaeological sites dated as far back at 30,000 BCE. The fact that they are found at levels of habitation rather than in the cave sanctuaries of the Hunting Cults leads anthropologists to believe they were domestic goddess figures displayed in household shrines, probably for protection and fertility.
With the Neolithic Revolution, the role of women, according to Campbell, was “greatly enhanced, both socially and symbolically; for whereas in the hunting period the chief contributors to the sustenance of the tribes had been the man and the role of the women had been largely that of drudges, now the female’s economic contributions were of first importance. She participated – perhaps even predominated – in the planting and reaping of the crops, and, as the mother of life and nourisher of life, was thought to assist the earth symbolically in its productivity.”
As previously stated, the primacy of the Great Goddess appears to have begun to wane with the increasing urbanization and the waves of Aryan invasions, both of which were underway before the earliest decipherable written records known to archaeology, so most of what we now about these assumed matriarchal, matrilineal societies is by way of interpretation and inference. One major civilization of this time period that seems to have been matriarchal or at least egalitarian is the Minoan civilization, which reached it’s height in 2000 BCE at Knossos on Crete. Minoan civilization appears to have revered a Mother Goddess in her various epiphanies as (descriptive names given by archaeologists and based on representations) the Lady of the Beasts, the Mountain Mother, or the popular Snake Goddess who appeared in many household shrines. To date there is no evidence of any male Minoan deities, although the well-known bull-jumping Cretan sport (participated in by men and women) and the myths of the Minotaur may point to a consort-god (or perhaps his subjugation?) as the bucranium, or bull’s head, appears to have been symbolic of the God force from the Paleolithic. In any case, until the Cretan Linear A script is deciphered, we can’t know how correct our inferences about this culture are. Around 1400 BCE a volcanic explosion on the island of Thera caused a tidal wave modern scientists estimate to have been 300’ high and traveling at a speed of 200 mph when it hit Crete. The devastation wrought by this wave – a full four times the size of the largest tidal wave ever recorded in the wake of the Krakatoa eruption in the 1800’s – on a peaceful (Knossos was completely unfortified), sophisticated (Knossos had sewers and a plumbing system made from terra cotta) and egalitarian civilization has given rise to some speculation that Minoan Crete was the source of the legend of lost Atlantis.
Even during the height of the Minoan civilization, however, the constant tension between the two paradigms can be seen in the nearly contemporary Mycenaean civilization, originating in 1600 BCE when the Mycenaeans arrived in Northern Greece. A polytheistic and syncretic culture, they brought their Sky God – Zeus – and adopted the Minoan Goddesses into their pantheon through marriage or amorous encounters with their God. In contrast to the Minoan civilization, Myceanaen cities were smaller, cruder, and heavily fortified. Their script. Linear B, tells us of their great king, Agamemnon, and of the ongoing Trojan Wars. After prolonged periods of drought the weakened Myceanaen civilization was conquered by the Dorian invaders from the North, resulting in 500 years without written record, the so-called Greek Dark Ages. However, the familiar Greek Pantheon of Gods remains testament to the Aryan Sky God Zeus and his adoption of the Minoan and native Goddesses. Classical Greek religion even makes reference to the division between the Olympian (Sky) Gods, which are primarily male, and the Chthonic (Earth) Gods, which are primarily female and acknowledged to be older.
Joseph Campbell identifies what he calls the “Neolithic Complex” of mythologies and technologies as incorporating a calendric system yielding a pattern of interlocking cycles; the assignment of deities to the various heavenly spheres; the notion of the horoscope; the idea of cycles of creation and dissolution; the Cosmic Tree; the Guardian Gods and associated colors of the four directions associated with the four elements; a vision of stratified Heavens above and hells below; the Moon Goddess; and the Dying and Resurrected God.
THE MYSTERY OF THE HARAPPAN CIVILIZATION
The Harappan or Dravidian civilization is the culture of pre-Vedic India represented by the city-site of Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley. While generally agreed to have been at it’s height in 2500 BCE, the actual dates of the Harappan civilization remain speculative, as a rising water table has halted archaeological exploration of Mohenjo-Daro at a level contemporaneous to the other great Bronze Age civilizations (Sumerian, Egyptian, Minoan) but which appears to be more sophisticated and older than its contemporaries.
Mohenjo-Daro has a sophisticated plumbing and irrigation system, no temple structures so likely no priest caste, and a religious complex that appears to include the idea of the creation of life in 7 days, 7 named days of the week, the Tree of Life, the Bull and Snake sacred to the God and Goddess, the idea of salvation through knowledge and understanding (gnosis), ritual bathing and baptism, mathematics and calenderical astronomy, and the worship of the God Shiva, (shown as the Lord of Beasts, Cernunnos-like, in cave paintings dated to 28,000 BCE, and associated with the pentagram as a symbol of the four elements united by the fifth, the quintessence, which was a staple of pre-Vedic Indian belief as far back as 2500 BCE), the triple-aspected goddess Shakti (Danu, Uma, Kali), and the Ardhani, which is the androgyne Shiva-Shakti as One, where the female aspect is represented on the left and the male on the right.
Some anthropologists suggest that the Indus Valley was the true “cradle of civilization” and the other great Bronze Age civilizations were in fact seeded by Harappan refugees fleeing the first waves of Aryan invasion. There is some very provocative circumstantial evidence for this – mainly but not limited to the remarkable similarities of the cultural and religious complexes of all “subsequent” civilizations – including the interesting traditional origins of the “faeries” or “little people” of Ireland, the Tuatha De Danaan (“people of the goddess Danu”) who arrived there c. 1900 BCE.
THE RISE OF THE PRIESTHOOD
At a point pretty specifically dateable to 3200 BCE, what Campbell calls “the whole cultural syndrome that has since constituted the germinal unit of all of the high civilizations of the world” – that of the Priesthood – arose. With it came the creation of a new class of citizens, the professional, full-time, initiated strictly regimented temple Priests. This was a revolution in the history of religion and, depending on the definition, perhaps the origins of Religion proper.
Hand-in-hand with the rise of the Priest Caste was a complex of beliefs and practices referred to by anthropologists as the “City of God” concept. This religious idea conceives of the city as an imitation of the cosmic order, as revealed in the movement of the planets. The city is built as a quartered circle with the temple at it’s center, and the temple and the King are assimilated to the Sun at the center of the heavens. A complex system of calenderical astronomy was required to regulate the seasons of the city’s life in accordance with the seasons of the heavens, and the liturgical arts, including music, flowered. There were two numerical systems, the decimal system maintained for business use, and the sexigesimal, used for the ritualistic measure of space and time. As early as this point the Sumerians had a 365-day year, based on the 360 degrees of the circle of the horizon plus 5 sacred days of festival.
This is the religico-political system believed to have originated in
Sumeria (but which may in fact have come to Sumeria from the Indus Valley)
and hence disseminated to the Egyptian First Dynasty c. 2800 BCE, to China
by 1800 BCE and as far as Peru and Middle America by 700-400 BCE. It was
a successful religious mutation, serving the psychological needs of the
new urban paradigm, or, as Mircea Eliade puts it, the “psychological
need to bring the parts of a large and socially differentiated settled
community, comprising a number of newly-developed social classes into
an orderly relationship to each other.” This need is represented
in the wide-spread importance in many civilizations of the Concept of
Universal Order as in the Egyptian Ma’at, the Indian Dharma and
the Chinese Tao.
Nevertheless, without more archaeological evidence of the beginnings of civilization in the Indus Valley, the oldest decipherable records known to archaeologists are written in Sumerian cuneiform.
Therefore we know a great deal about Sumerian religion. Each city had a temple (a ziggurat with four sides oriented to the four points of the compass with the center being the point where heaven and earth met) dedicated to its patron deity – one of the Sumerian pantheon – and each temple was staffed by priests, priestesses, musicians, singers, castrates and heirodules. The temple hosted public rituals, food sacrifices and libations on a daily basis. Also monthly festivals and the New Year celebration at which the King performed the heiros gamos.
The Sumerian cosmological and origin myths will sound very similar to contemporary westerners, as they have later counterparts in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, particularly in Genesis. Heaven and Earth arose as the result of the actions of the gods from a watery abyss. An original paradise/garden (Dilmun) existed in which there was no death or pain – including the pangs of childbirth. The first man was formed from clay, and the age-old Hunter/Herder vs. Planter/Farmer quarrel was played out via a set of brothers just like the familiar story of Cain and Abel.
Some other parallels: There were eight antediluvian, long-lived kings in Sumerian mythology – just as there are eight such monarchs in the Yahwist (J) version of Genesis. The Sumerians also had a story of the flood that is remarkably similar to the story we know of Noah’s Ark. And in fact the New Testament Jesus can be compared to Dumuzi, the Sumerian shepherd-King who was resurrected from the dead.
THE SEEDS FLOWER
There are, in fact, several pagan precursors for the Christian figure of Jesus which, because of the general level of familiarity of modern westerners with the Jesus story, will serve to illustrate the much more wide-spread flowering of the seed-ideas of the prehistoric and ancient world in the religions of today.
The Babylonians celebrated their “Victory of the Sun-God” Festival on December 25 (Winter Solstice, after which the Sun “conquers” the darkness as the days grow longer).
Osiris, of the Egyptians, was the savior-god who had been worshipped as far back as Neolithic times. He was called “The Lord of Lords,” “The King of Kings,” “The God of Gods,” “The Resurrection and the Life,” “The Good Shepherd”, and The God who made men and women “be born again.” Three wise men announced his birth. His followers ate cakes of wheat which symbolized his body. Many sayings associated with Osiris were taken over into the Bible. This included the 23rd psalm (originally an appeal to Osiris as the Good Shepherd to lead believers ‘through the valley of death” and to “green pastures” and “still waters”; parts of the Lord’s Prayer (“O Amun, who art in Heaven…”), the 10 Commandments (originally the Negative Confession) and many parables attributed to Jesus.
The Greek God Dionysus is another savior-god. He was worshipped throughout much of the Middle East as well. He had a center of worship in Jerusalem in the 1st Century BCE. Some ancient coins have been found in Gaza with Dionysus on one side and Jehovah on the other. In later years, his flesh and blood were symbolically eaten in the form of bread and wine. He was viewed as the son of Zeus, the father god.
200 BCE: The Romans had Attis, born of the virgin Nana, (the virgin birth became a popular late addition as at attempt to separate the Dying/Savior God from his original role as the Lover/Son of the Great Goddess) whose birth was celebrated on December 25. He was sacrificed as an adult in order to bring salvation to mankind. He died on or about March 25, after being crucified on a tree (the World Tree – see also Odin’s trial on Yggdrasil), and descended for three days into the underworld. (Three days is common in the myths of the Dying God as it echoes the 3 days of moon-dark and the moon, though now long-associated with the Goddess, was in fact associated with the earliest examples of the Dying God mythos). On Sunday he arose “as the solar deity for a new season.” His followers tied an image of Attis to a tree on “Black Friday” and carried him in procession to the temple. His body was symbolically eaten by his followers in the form of bread.
Worship of the Persian savior-god Mithras became common throughout the Roman Empire, particularly among the Roman civil service and military. Mithraism was a competitor of Christianity until the 4th Century when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the empire. Mithras was believed to have been born on December 25, c. 593 BCE. His birth was witnessed by shepherds and gift-carrying Magi (the “Magi” were Persian priests, and “magic” is a Greco-Roman word meaning, originally, nothing more than the practice of the Persian priests) and was celebrated as the “Birthday of the Unconqured Sun”. Some followers believed that he was born of a virgin. During his life he performed many miracles, cured many illnesses, and cast out devils. He celebrated a Last Supper with his 12 disciples. He ascended to Heaven at the time of the spring equinox, about March 21.
There is, in fact, an even older figure of the savior Goddess, as in the Mesolithic Hainuwele, the corn maiden who died so that the wheat could grow, with direct parallels to the Greek Persephone whose seeming resurrection caused Demeter to make fertile the fields culminating in the mystery initiation of the Rites of Eleusis, the revelatory symbol of which was an elevated sheaf of wheat symbolizing the body of the god resurrected as the stuff of life, imagery closely paralleled by the meaning of the elevated Host of the Catholic Mass.
In short, all of the symbols that became so important to religions of all cultures and all moments in history have their roots in the prehistoric and ancient world. The one last “religious revolution” – monotheism – had already been tried by the Egyptian Akenhaten in the 18th Dynasty – c. 1352 - 1336 BCE, and is perhaps not such a radical revolution as it might seem, particularly if the so-called “polytheistic” representations of the gods of ancient cultures are given a more sophisticated understanding as multiple epiphanies of a Source that was conceived of as monolithic. Duality, the simplified idea of Good vs. Evil, took center stage for the first time in the Persian Zoroasterian religion (c. 600 BCE) but also had it’s seeds in primitive religious ideologies.
In particular, the ideological complex of ideas most often attributed to Wicca finds its parallels in the earliest documented religious practices of mankind. The Triple Goddess and the Dying God; the lack of centralized, ordained clergy, making each person his/her own priest/ess; group gatherings for agricultural and calendrical festivals; home shrines; personalized devotion; the Circle Dance; the pentagram representing the four elements united by spirit; the belief in reincarnation, in responsibility to our counterparts in Nature; elemental magical correspondences; the existence of other realms of consciousness – all are in recognized and traditional use as early as the Bronze Age and pre-date the rise of the Priesthood and the resultant corrupting effects of the politicization of religion.
Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God, Volumes 1-4
Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Volumes 1-3.
Fritz Graf, Magic and the Ancient World
Ann Moura, Origins of Modern Witchcraft – the Evolution of a World Religion
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