Mark Owen writes
The origins of religion

The form of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear!
(William Shakespeare: A Midsummer Night's Dream)


In the beginning, according to my  gospel, there were no gods. The precursors of the gods began their quasi-temporal existence as mere wisps of ideas, vague, incorporeal influences, phantoms of the mind.  These in time evolved, through imaginative flights of fancy, into something a little more definite: spirit forces, ghostly presences moving through the night, elemental things. (Interestingly, the spirits rarely make themselves available during the revealing hours of daylight; I wonder why?)

How can I be so sure of this?  I cannot, but for reasons we shall soon consider I think there is at least as strong a case for my view as for any other.  In fact, I will be bold and claim that, considered in terms of cold logic, my case is far stronger than that of established religion.

But don't be mistaken. The task of unravelling the earliest phases of the development of a religious consciousness in the human species is not an easy one.  Such clues as we have indicate clearly that man arrived at his developed religious beliefs via more than one route.  In fact, broadly speaking, there were six major and disparate pathways to faith.  In time these six would interact with one another in many curious and complex ways.  The end-result is seen in the religious systems familiar to us today.

For if you prick the surface skin of most familiar religious dogmas you will find underneath the substratum one or more of these 'six paths'.  The vestigial remnants of sympathetic magic, of taboos, of ancestor worship and hero-gods, of the propitiation of nature spirits and even of the practices of ancient fertility cults are all evident in varying degrees in the religious milieu.


It should come as no surprise that the deities aborning from the complex matrix of ideas welling up in the human experience displayed characteristics common to humanity; a significant fact this, but overlooked so often in the debate. Especially noteworthy is the point that each god spawned in the womb of humankind reflected as in a mirror the particular society into which he or she was born.

Like humans they hated, like humans they loved, and, like humans, they warred and made peace.  They were sometimes male and sometime female; thus they had sexuality attributed to them; in this they reflected accurately their human creators.  They could be petty, tyrannical, cruel, and they could be magnanimous, comforting, loving and wise.  Like Frankenstein's Monsters, they were human father-mother figures writ large, gangling, lumbering giants. 

And in the manner of the legendary Monster the gods ultimately came to life, and began to develop a separate existence of their own.  The poltergeist terrorizes the very child whose imagination creates it!  The deities, too, became terrorists.   In time there came the sacrificial altars. And they flowed with blood, not merely of animals but of human beings, flesh-and-blood men, women and children like you and me.  (Even in Israel, and I am not referring only to the case of Isaac.)

Pain and suffering had become an essential part of the life-force sustaining the worship of many of the gods.  Too late!  Humans had lost the very knowledge of their forbears' amazingly creative thought.  The foundations had been well laid through tens of thousands of years.  Each generation would henceforth build upon the vast body of religious 'knowledge', drawing from the seemingly inexhaustible depths of the human psyche in order to furnish yet grander designs for faith, yet more fabulous wonders to believe, ever more complex webs of dogma.


What can be known of man's first steps towards religion?  Precious little.  In truth, nothing certain whatever.   The nearest we come to certainty is just this:  it appears  from such records as we have that once there was no religion; then there was.  Once there were no gods, now there are!

After all, we are dealing here with an immense period of time, about two thousand generations (perhaps 30,000 or 40,000 years) for Homo Sapiens.  And don't mention his hominoid ancestors; their collective lives are counted in millions of years.

It was only towards the very end of this period, somewhere around 3,000 BCE or a little earlier, 4,000 BCE at best, that men and women even learned to write.  It was, probably, that fascinating people, the Sumerians, to whom the honour should go for bringing writing into the world (they even had schools, too) just ahead of the Egyptians.  The latter's hieroglyphics are perhaps the more attractive of the two writings but it seems Sumer may have been first to put down human thought in imperishable words, and that was a Great Leap Forward, one of the very greatest, and it wasn't the Children of Israel who achieved it, note.  Excavations have produced large quantities of clay tablets, bearing all manner of information, and some of these play an important part in our story.

Thus we are looking at a written  history of a mere six thousand years out of the enormous lifespan of the human race.  There are, however, other repositories of information upon which we may draw.  Chief among these are the gravesites and tombs; these have special importance for they reveal early man's thinking about death and its aftermath (and afterlife?). And from primitive art, too, it is possible to make some reasonable deductions concerning the life and the beliefs  of the people of these early times.  Another important line of investigation comes through anthropology.  Vestiges of the old religious beliefs of people have remained with 'primitive' tribes even into our own times.  And, curiously, in modern Western society there has been a reversion to some of the most primitive forms of religion, as people have turned from Church and Synagogue to pursue the New Age faith.

On 16 August 1987 ceremonies were held around the world to mark an event known as the Harmonic Convergence, which coincided, so we were told, with the alignment of all the planets for the first time in 23,412 years.  Thousands of people gathered in many countries, including the USA, the United Kingdom, Japan (at Mount Fuji), Peru, Australia (at Uluru aka Ayers Rock), in Egypt (why, of course, at the pyramids) and in Greece, appropriately, at Mount Olympus, home of the gods.  Joining hands, the New Age believers indulged in some Very-Old-Age religion - sympathetic magic, reaching back into the dim recesses of the remote past.  As the men, women and children chanted and danced in their designer jeans and joggers they were attempting to influence the Powers of the universe to bring peace and harmony upon earth.

We shall see how such age-old religious beliefs continually reappear in our unfolding story.  They certainly form the substructure of all established religion, as I have already said.  Primitive beliefs among the populace at large are dismissed by religious people as superstition.  But embedded within the trappings of 'orthodox' religious dogma, and often unrecognised as such, these same primitive beliefs become certainties of the faith!


The expanding physical horizons of emergent humanity brought expanding mental ones and men and women began to accumulate knowledge.  And, as we are reliably informed (and it seems to be true), knowledge is power.  But then power, as we also know, tends to corrupt; at least Lord Action thought so and many believe he was right; he was also a Roman Catholic, so it would be reasonable to think he had some insights into the matter.

Well, mankind's expanding horizons revealed some goodies - the excitement of knowledge itself, discovering the world, wonder, beauty, love, all these, and more.  But there was a dark underside to it all, an undercurrent of fears and uncertainties.  Still today we experience in our own lives this undercurrent, this tussle of good and ill.  So much so that it sometimes seems to me that the most advanced societies, those with the greatest degree of material well-being and means-to-happiness, often harbour within their breasts the worst of evils.

This conflict of good and evil was to become rich source-material indeed for the religious dogmas that were one day to develop.  It would even be fair to say that this age-old conflict became one of the chief obsessions of mankind's religious mentality.

Now many thoughtful people believe two primary factors resulted in the first stirrings of the religious instinct in men and women.  One was the emotion of fear,  the other was the experience of death.  And very often these two are closely linked. 

I said just now that religion has often been preoccupied with such themes. The stench of death haunts many a church ceremony.  Joyous life seems often to have fled the sacred portals. Certainly death figures prominently in this extract from a sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth century American Christian raver (yes, they had them then): 

'The wrath of GOD burns against them [sinners]; their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared; the fire is made ready; the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow....The GOD that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire....' 

Fear and death linked inextricably.  A sermon of doom and gloom if ever there was one! 

The Christian salespersons know well how to draw on elemental fears lurking within the minds of their hearers.  Many of us find a strange fascination in tales of cruelty and terror but most of us are not so hypocritical as to hide our personal obsessions beneath the cloak of moral suasion.  

In the sight of our ancestors, then, the world in which they found themselves was a hostile one in many ways.  Shadows fell on brightest hours.  Doubtless much was quite inexplicable, surely more so to a people lacking that vast storehouse of experience we now possess.  Wind and rain and snow would sweep in and destroy life and the rudimentary dwellings people sheltered themselves in.  Floods and earthquakes were even more devastating.  People lived, people suffered, people DIED.


Most perplexing of all, surely, this latter Event.  One's companion suddenly falling lifeless to the ground at a blow, or dying after a strange and puzzling malady has decimated the body.  One's very own child (presuming our ancestors felt such kinship), happy and laughing one day, lying cold and lifeless the next.  Death, too, was an erratic event, striking young and old, those apparently healthy, those not.

Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, writing in Primitive Mentality (London 1923):  'Of all the complex feelings which ancestors inspire, fear is the predominating one . . . one can never be sure of having satisfied them.  In order that the prayers addressed to them may be heard, they must be supplemented by liberal offerings,'

Surely, then the twin scourges - fear of the unknown and the mystery of death - must have haunted the imagination and the set the scene for those far-reaching developments yet to come.

But there were three further elements in the situation and these too are of vital importance to our story.  And they are all linked with death.  Now we know there are bodily states that appear outwardly to be death but are not, for example, a coma may result from injury, and a person may emerge from this hours or days later, sometimes never.   Doctors today know (more or less) the precise signs of clinical death but our earliest ancestors would have had no such knowledge.  It must, therefore, have been difficult at times to differentiate between actual death and death-like states.  Interestingly, sleep is often described as 'the little death.'  That companion on the ground may not be dead at all but 'just sleeping.'  It appears, from archeological finds, that bodies were, in fact, in an earlier era often left lying on the ground, where they fell; perhaps lest they come to life again?  This in the very early period.  Burial was a later development.

Coincident with the experience of death and, because it was part of the sleeping experience, the drama of the dream almost certainly must have played its part in the evolution of religion.  While a mother slept she would sometimes seem to be awake and active in her dreams, playing with her baby, making love to her partner, gathering firewood, experiencing a re-run of life's many waking events.  But, of greatest significance, she might sometimes dream of those who had long since died.  The dead would come to life again, as real as if they were in the room of the living.  We have all had dreams that were intensely vivid, so much so that it takes us a little time to fully recover our senses and realize we have, after all, been merely dreaming.

And finally there is the very breath  of life.  Breathing, or absence of breathing, is vitally connected with sleeping and death and plays a key role in the waking-sleeping-death drama.  Remember, we are dealing with an enormous span of time, tens of thousands of years, over which man's awareness was developing.  Changing perceptions would not occur quickly; they would evolve over time.  It is a common mistake to think otherwise when dealing with these matters.


Is it any great step to take if we presume that the idea of a soul or spirit emerged from these experiences?  A hint of such primitive beliefs still lingers through aeons of time, surfacing in our very own Bible, in one of the accounts in that book (there were more than one) of man's making (Genesis 2: 7) - 'And the Lord GOD formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.'  Here, clearly, the ancient words equate physical  breathing with the existence, from that critical moment,  of the soul, a very primitive belief indeed.  (Dear me, those Christians who loudly proclaim that they base all their beliefs on the Bible seem to overlook this text when they pontificate on the question of abortion!)

Necessity being the mother of invention, so it has been wisely said, man's necessity surely drove him to invent religion; it was a necessary invention, to provide him (and his wife and children) with comfort and succour, to supply not only security in this life (absence of fear) but - victory over death.  Even that most sublime of religions (at least in its purer form), Buddhism, provides answers to fear and death, especially in the concept of nirvana.  Interestingly, another word we use for a god, deity,  is connected with death.  This word may, in the view of at least some scholars, be traced back to Indian giants, Daituas and Danavas, descendants of the chaos hags, Diti and Danu, with the root meaning of destruction.  Were not these beings evolved in the human mind to assuage the terrors of death, as well as giving a little comfort in this life?

I have referred to the matter of burial.  Somewhere along the pathway to civilization a very significant change took place in human attitudes to the dead body.  Men and women began to bury their dead (and in doing so paved the way for another household expense in centuries to come; it was much cheaper the old way).   No longer would the body be left to rot in cave or forest, but would be covered, usually with earth, but also with rocks, foliage and other materials.  

The reasons may have been eminently practical ones, which I have no need to spell out, but the change may also have been prompted by a changed attitude to the departed.  We cannot be sure either way but with the passing of yet more time, another change took place and this certainly indicated a new attitude to death and an emerging belief in a conscious state beyond death.


It was in the burial of Neanderthals that we find evidence of a nascent belief system in connection with death.  The Neanderthals occupied Europe from around 70,000 to 30,000 years ago.  The first Neanderthal skulls were unearthed in the Neander Valley, near Dusseldorf, in 1857, while in 1908 a full burial site was located.

In a small cave in a hillside at La Chapelle aux Saints (aptly named!) in south-western France, the remains of an old man were found.  The site itself was unusual.  The roof of the cave was very low, so low that it is impossible to stand up in it but it was in such a difficult location that a shallow grave had been dug in the floor.  The body was laid with its head resting on the edge of the excavation, the legs being folded.  Above the head were long bones and the foot of an ox.  There were indications that a feast of some kind had been held beside the grave.  Truly all this seems to indicate quite clearly a belief system, however rudimentary, attached to the death-event.

More discoveries followed.  In 1909 a second burial site was unearthed at La Moustier, not far from the first. Here were located the remains of a youth, judged to be about sixteen.  This body was placed somewhat differently but still in a manner implying a belief system.  It was lying on its right side with the right forearm under the head as if sleeping.  The head lay on a bed of flint chips and an axe had been placed near the right hand.  Also in the grave were bones, some burnt, some split open (the latter, scientists think, to obtain the marrow).  All this implied some kind of special feast or food offering.

Far away from France, in Shanidar, northern Iraq, an adult burial was uncovered.  At this location scientists recorded a very high pollen level in the soil.  This suggested (but did not, of course, prove) that the body had been laid to rest on a bed of wildflowers.  At Teshil-Tash in Russian Uzbekistan, an eight-year-old boy's body was found.  Tools had been scattered nearby and the grave covered with goat horns.  More interesting still was a find in a cave at Monte Circeo in Italy where a skull was found resting on the ground surrounded by a ring of stones.  The base of the skull had been broken open, presumably to extract the brain, suggesting strongly some form of ritual cannibalism.  This particular type of activity has often been recorded elsewhere.

All this was a long time ago, tens of thousands of years before the supposed events marking - in the Genesis account - the beginnings of religion.  But we must leave the Neanderthals behind and move forward in history, into the era of Cro-Magnon Man.  We are now looking back to a date some 35,000 years ago.  And for a time the two streams of humanity, Neanderthals, and Cro-magnons, appear to have existed side-by-side.  Cro-Magnon burial sites have been unearthed and these, too, show a structure of belief as regards death and what lies beyond death.

At the Grotte des Enfants cave on the Italian Riviera was found one of the most interesting burials.  There is here a double interment of a woman and a youth of about fifteen.  The legs of both had been drawn up in a contracted, foetal position.  This may well have facilitated the use of a smaller grave but it may also have some spiritual meaning.  Other evidence from this site is suggestive.  The boy had four rows of shell beads on his skull, sewn onto a cap.  The woman, probably his mother, had a bracelet on her wrist (which only goes to show just how far back humans liked to adorn themselves with jewellery).

Now shell beads occur in many such burial sites.  At a higher level in this same cave the remains of two infants were found, with shells placed around their waists.  A body in the adjoining cave had over 300 shells around its head and below its left knee!  This cannot be a matter of mere adornment or of chance circumstance.  It implies something, some belief or desire directed towards the departed one.  The practice was widespread.  In Russia a skeleton was found with shells all over its chest and legs as well as on the head.  Two boys in a nearby grave, buried, interestingly, head-to-head, had similar beads.  Beside each was an ivory spear.

I emphasize again: all this was occurring tens of thousands of years before Abraham or Moses appeared on the scene, that is if we assume these men were  historical figures, and there are many who doubt it.  Religion, in spite of all the propaganda, wasn't invented by the Jews.  Clearly, long before the Jewish scriptures were even thought of, in far-flung parts of the world there was developing a set of ideas, all centred around the status of the dead person, and such ideas were religious in character. 

Religion had entered human history and things would never be the same again. 


But we have not yet finished our examination of the graves of the past.  We have yet to come to what is perhaps the most fascinating discovery in these long-untouched repositories of human history.  In many gravesites there has been found an earth pigment, red ochre.  In some it occurs merely in small pieces (perhaps being a scarce commodity in that particular area), in others the powdered dye seems to have been sprinkled liberally, staining the sides of the graves and the bones.

Now, here's the significant point.  Other ochres or dyes were known to these early peoples and were in use for other purposes so why always RED in the graves?  Clearly, the use of red dye was a manifestation of that same sympathetic magic we have already had cause to encounter.  It surely represented a symbolic attempt to influence the Powers of the universe to bring about in a future life the continued and felicitous existence of the departed one.  We are all familiar with the idea that red symbolizes blood, and hence, life. 

Again we discover hints of primitive religion, sympathetic magic, in the Bible, in Genesis 9:4 - 'But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.'  From this superstitious magical outlook grew up the Jewish and Mohammedan dietary laws. How else explain the preoccupation of the deities with such trivialities? And closely related ideas have affected modern religious groups, with their dietary and bodily laws, such as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

The symbolism in the use of red dye is still with us today.  It is seen in the worship of the goddess Kali.  Worshippers before images of Kali bow their heads and take up red dye on their foreheads.  And Australian Aborigines have long used red dye in their religious ceremonies.


But it is not only from gravesites that we obtain clues to the enigma of religion.  Primitive art has much to tell us, too.  A great number of caves have been explored, revealing their beauties to the world in the past one hundred and fifty years.  None more so than those wonderful caves with their extraordinary  paintings at Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, dating back to a period from around 30,000 to 10,000 years ago.  Great works of art, executed long before civilization as we know it emerged!  And  painted, remember, before the religions that are so familiar to us had even been thought of!   And to these must be joined early art from numerous sites around the world, including the cave art of the Indian people and Australian Aborigines.

It is particularly interesting to note that some of the best examples of cave art occur in locations where it must have been extremely difficult to work.  Now our ancestors generally dwelt in small grottos or in vestibules of large caves, close to the light.  Yet deep caverns, well-removed from the surface, approached only by difficult maneuvering through narrow, at times almost impassable, subterranean passageways, were frequently the favoured locations for such art.  Some very strong instinct drove these early artists. It is fairly safe to assume that this instinct was primarily magical-religious and perhaps the remoteness of the locations indicated a desire to keep profane eyes from viewing sacred mysteries.  The sorcerer or medicine-man entered his sanctuary via a steep pit, or (as at Pindal, Spain) from an abrupt cliff overlooking the sea, or by crawling for hours  along labyrinthine tunnels; even the more accessible Caverne des Trois-Frères in Ariège involves half-an-hour's walk underground. 

Some important points may be observed.  The major emphasis is almost always on animals, with but occasional human figures appearing, usually masked.  One group of caves, near Montespan, in the Pyrenees, disclosed not only wall art but the world's earliest known statues, discovered by Norbert Casteret, fashioned perhaps 20,000 years ago, all of animals.  Human figures, where they occur at all, are usually executed with scant regard for craftsmanship, whereas the animals are depicted with great care.  The humans have been described as being at times mere caricatures. The animals are almost always alone, not in scenes of action or in groups.  Perhaps the best-known figure involving a human is one called the Dancing Sorcerer, in the cave of Les Trois Frères, in the Pyrenees. This fascinating figure immediately conjures up the image of an African witch-doctor.  He is decked out in animal skins and other animal parts, he is masked  in a bison's head with an eagle's beak, owl eyes and a wolf's head and he is crowned with antlers.


But among the most dramatic discoveries were those made in caves at Drachenloch, Switzerland, and the Petershöhle, near Nuremberg, Germany.  Here skulls of bears have been found carefully arranged in niches and on altar-like raised stone slabs.  The bear was the giant Cave Bear, Ursus spelaeus, now extinct.  This was a fearsome creature of enormous bulk, over three metres in length with teeth the size of bananas.  It existed in huge numbers and many a fight must have occurred between bears and humans for the shelter of the caves. Now these finds have been dated back to as long as 100,000 years ago.  Perhaps Neanderthal man, or his ancestors thought of these bears as god-like creatures and were here engaging in some kind of ritual sacrifice. The sacrifice was not to  the god but of the god, returning him to his spiritual home. This (to our minds) strange notion is extremely common in primitive societies, as Sir James Frazer has shown. 

To gain a more complete picture of primitive religion we must look to the anthropologist.  Fortunately for us, many anthropologists began their work in an era before 'civilization' had taken its toll of native beliefs and practices and, in particular, before strange notions about a Middle-Eastern deity called Christ had been planted in the native peoples' minds.  Even then, much irreversible damage was soon being done by the enthusiastic messengers of the Gospel.

The anthropologist studies man's evolution, social organization, religion and general lifestyle.  In effect, she seeks to discover, within the present time-frame, clues to the past history and life of the people being studied.  An enormous volume of work has been done in this field of study and it is impossible to do justice to the labours of anthropologists.  I will but sketch briefly some aspects of their work that have a direct bearing on our search.

I have already mentioned the Six Pathways by which religious belief has developed.  The first of these is described under the general term MAGIC AND FETISHISM, seen in such typical activities as healings worked by medicine men, in the rituals of black magic, in astrology,  and all manner of (by now familiar) sympathetic magic.  Secondly, there are NATURE SPIRITS.  These are quasi-personal influences supposedly working through the natural elements surrounding us.  A powerful concept this one, that has affected in one way or another most of our present religions.

Thirdly, there are FERTILITY CULTS.  Only hints of these remain today.  Fourth, we have a group of ideas coming together under the heading of TOTEM AND TABOO.  Again, only hints of these ideas remain with us today.  Fifth is the idea of ANCESTOR WORSHIP, always associated with the Chinese, but a powerful idea affecting much of religion, especially when it penetrated into the heartland of that area from which sprang the major faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Lastly, there is the pathway of the DIVINE KINGS, or tribal gods, hero-gods as they are sometimes called.  This path, too, had an enormous influence upon our three religions.


Sir James Frazer felt we could understand religion as arising out of man's propensity to practise magic.  It is certainly clear from anthropological studies that man sought to manipulate  the impersonal forces ruling his world through magical means.  Such was the imitation of rain in the dance designed to bring on rain.  In this view the Dancing Sorcerer depicts a magician seeking to ensure a good 'kill' by those going forth to hunt. Many of the animal paintings in the caves show the marks or symbols of wounds.  In time the rather vague concepts of sympathetic magic may well have developed into more definite ideas, a belief in spirit forces of some kind.  Ultimately such ephemeral creatures took upon themselves a more definite shape.  

Sympathetic magic is still alive and well and living among us in the practices of the New Agers.  Here we see it unconcealed.  But established religion has its fair share of the same.  Baptisms and all other forms of ritual washings employ sympathetic magic to work their mysteries. The very Eucharist or Communion Service of the Christian Church employs, under the elements of bread and wine, a form of sympathetic magic.  And many other religious ceremonies are at heart exercises in sympathetic magic.

Worship of nature is evident in the earliest records of mankind.  The forces of the natural order - the great rivers that flooded, the mountains that smoked with fire and the earth that shook, the vast sea with its mighty power, the forest with its trees and animal life, all impressed our forbears mightily.  The impression was so intense that the natural world eventually began to be filled with worship-objects - rivers and creeks, clumps of bushes and hillocks, to name but some, and these places in time became peopled (at least in the minds of the worshippers) with spirits, which in turn developed into something more than mere spirit-forces. 

When one is alone in the countryside on a moonlit night, with a gentle breeze blowing, it is not difficult, given the right mental set, to imagine all manner of things wonderful - and spiritual.  And - to see strange objects passing through the skies.

Now among the worshipped objects were the two great - and obvious - ones, the sun by day and the moon by night.  In fact, a whole tribe of deities, a multitude if ever there was one, the lunar and solar gods, found their origin in the waxing and waning of sun and moon.  These, too,  were to play an important role in the development of our own religions, including 'pure' Jewish religion.


And nature worship almost inevitably led men to the concept of sacrifice, through which act was effected the propitiation (or appeasement) of the spirits or gods by the offering up of animals, vegetables, fruit, grain, and - humans.  Jesus, described by some of his followers as 'the lamb slain,' perpetuated these ancient sacrificial rites.  Like the gods of old, Yahweh demanded blood, even the blood of his beloved son, or so the story goes!

Fertility cults also provided a path to religious faith.  Our present Western religions do not derive a great deal of their structure and belief systems from such cults but Hinduism, with its near-kin, does do so.  This explains the very earthy, sexual, nature of the Hindu faith (which always shocked the Christians when they came into contact with it).  Indian religion has a strong emphasis on sexual symbols - the lingam (male) and yoni (female).  The Hindu faith is, in truth, essentially a more 'human' religion than all others, although its earthy nature has been corrupted by other influences.  Nevertheless in many of the cults that have found their genesis in the Indian subcontinent we find an emphasis on man's essential sexual (and sensual) nature, suppressed by the unnatural religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The short-lived Rajneesh cult was a perfect example of this down-to-earth attitude to faith, sex and life itself. (Curiously, though, on another level, there is often a strange prudishness in Indian attitudes, e.g. to sex on the screen.)

Anthropologists tell us that one of the most obvious characteristics of primitive people is their consciousness of being surrounded by a myriad unseen forces.  These range from a sort of impersonal power, often termed mana (a South Sea Island expression) to more definite spirit entities and even deities.  There is a strong link between this idea of mana and what religious people term the numinous experience, expounded at some length by Rudolf Otto in his book, The Idea of the Holy (English translation, London: Oxford Press, 1924).

Connected with the belief in mana is the concept that certain people and actions are regarded as sacred.  Chiefs and medicine men become holy, so it is thought, by virtue of the mana residing in them.  (How familiar this must seem to many, especially Roman Catholics and Orthodox!)  Certain acts, too, are regarded as sacred, while others are considered dangerous and therefore to be avoided; they are taboo (a word of Polynesian origin).  Such ideas are very widespread.  Sacred objects must be handled by priests, not ordinary folk.  A warrior on the eve of battle may be taboo, a dying person or dead body, a woman during menstruation, a newborn babe.  Most of these concepts surface in our three major religions; the islanders do not have them to themselves. 

The priestly role in Catholicism, the rituals of the Church, superstitions regarding dead bodies, and the Jewish and Islamic laws regarding menstruating women, these and other instances come readily to mind.  The primitive nature of the reaction to menstruation is plain for all to see.  After all, there is no logical spiritual  reason for such laws.


Finally, among these beliefs is the totem, or totem object, being regarded perhaps as the great ancestor of the clan, to be honoured with full reverence and ceremony.  I cannot let this subject pass without mentioning Sigmund Freud.  For he had quite a lot to say on this topic, in his work Totem and Taboo, possibly his most controversial book.  Freud certainly stepped onto highly speculative ground here for he applied his theory on the development of the Oedipus Complex to man in tribal relationships.  The theory enunciated by Freud is complex and has, like most of his theories, been challenged.  There is one significant insight, though, that throws light upon our subject.  Freud regarded GOD as a father-figure, a projection of the earthly relationship between a child, a son in particular, and his father, an ambivalent feeling.  Respect and rejection, love and hate, all rolled up into one.  Certainly the Bible's language reflects strongly such a view of GOD.

The fifth pathway to religion came through ancestor worship.  This is another notable aspect of many early cultures, especially of the East.  It still plays its part in the religious practices and beliefs of many Chinese and Japanese people today.  Primitive people had a strong sense of the continued presence of the dead person and believed that their long-deceased ancestors were still concerned with the preservation of the family and tribe.  We are not without such notions among our fellow-citizens even today!

The attitudes of people towards the spirits of the dead were ambivalent.  They might be honoured and treated with a certain reverence and awe but might also be feared and dreaded.  It is very easy to see how these notions arose from the sleeping-dreaming-death experiences, as I have already noted.  Ancestor worship which, so far as we can tell, probably arose in the East, eventually found its way across the world, to play its part in the religious developments taking place in the Middle East.  It is still with us today in our own major faiths.

Another writer, Father Wilhelm Schmidt, in his book The Origin of the Idea of God (1912), drawing from the study of contemporary primitive religions, asserted that at the dawn of history there was belief in a single High God but that in time this primitive monotheism was overlaid with animistic, polytheistic and other corrupt elements.  Naturally, Father Schmidt had good reason to discover his High God back there in the distant past, knowledge of whom had been lost.  Presumably this knowledge was re-discovered - surprise, surprise - by the Jewish people.

Finally, there were the tribal gods, or divine kings.  These were humans of great renown or ability who became elevated to godhood.  We often use the very apt term hero-gods  to describe these exalted strongmen.  Hero-gods play a crucial role in the development of our more familiar religions, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The whole history of man, both in his religious and irreligious modes, may be found by reading the Jewish-Christian Bible, beginning at Genesis 2:7.  (The first thirty-seven verses of the Bible give us a highly compressed history of the vast universe and the world itself, setting the stage for man's story.)  There it is, all six thousand years of human history, set forth in a literature that at times reaches grand heights of beauty and seeming power.  All the more so when couched in the Elizabethan English so familiar to many of us.

The story has been told many times before but it bears re-telling here as to how a seventeenth century Irish divine, Archbishop James Usher, calculated that Yahweh had created the world in 4,004 BCE.  He actually specified a date and time of day!  Now the good prelate may have been out by a few days or years in his calculations but if we take the Biblical account seriously and literally, as too many people do, he was not far off the mark.  The Creationist pseudo-scientist may trot out some mumbo-jumbo about 'days' of creation referring to long periods of time or he may stick to the literal interpretation of the passage concerned.  The fact remains that Bible believers must accept a six-thousand year history of man and an equally short period for the existence of religious faith.

But the same science that gives a modern evangelist access to the invisible miracle of radio and television to peddle his false nostrums to the world has also given us certain knowledge that humankind has been alive, well and actively civilizing the earth long before 4,004 BCE.  And humankind has been religious, too, for many thousands of years, although not with a religion such that Bible readers would be readily familiar with!

It is, in truth, abundantly clear that religion pre-dated that shadowy figure of mythology, Adam, by literally tens of thousands of years.  By the year 4,004 BCE religion was flourishing from - or perhaps I should say, casting its pall over - one end of the planet to the other.  It ran far beyond the bounds of any Eden that supposedly existed somewhere near the Euphrates (Genesis 2:14).  In fact, there was established, at the very time of the pristine Eden garden existence the Bible writes about, a great civilization and a highly developed religious system.  And where was this to be found?  In that same great valley between the Tigris and Euphrates about which the Bible writes!  Curiously, Adam and Eve seem wholly unaware of their very numerous and advanced neighbours!

Clearly the Bible's story, still believed by deluded fundamentalist Christians (especially American Christians) and some others, is nothing other than unalloyed fable.  The true origins of this mythical tale I have dealt with elsewhere.

© Mark Owen, 1991 & 2011 -