GENESIS               home | history

Early Religion: Animists and Storytellers

Anthropologists called it "primitive" religion, but "primitive" was considered a derogatory designation. "Primal" religion began to be used – and still is by some, but the encyclopedia Wikipedia uses "prehistoric" or "Paleolithic" to describe it.

The word "religion" itself needs some clarification. Wikipedia describes it as "a cultural system of behaviors and practices, worldviews, ethics, and social organization that relate humanity to an order of existence." University scholars like to start their discussion of religion with archaeological evidence, and as D. Bruce Dickenson writes in The Dawn of Belief, "Archaeology is a discipline obsessed with things." My interest is more with ancient peoples attempting to understand, explain and get by in their world as best they can.

Turning first to knowledge of religion from archaeology, the oldest known ritual burial of modern humans dates from 80,000 to 100,000 years ago in a cave at Qafzeh in what today is Israel (involving hunter-gatherers not to be confused with ancient Hebraic (Jewish) people. And archaeologists have found elaborate burials in Europe dating 40,000 or so years. In these burials they found figurines they thought might represent fertility goddesses, and they found cave art they believe contained religious significance. Also, 30,000 years ago, according to Wikipedia, archaeologists found the "earliest known burial of a shaman," a woman. (A shaman acts as an intermediary between living people and the spiritual world)."

Before they had science, people did more assuming than do today. People assumed that things that moved did so not from an external force but from a will within. The sun moved across the sky because it had a will of its own, just as they, the observers, had will. Will for them was spirit. Humans had a spirit and for them the sun was a spirit. There were lots of movement and many spirits. It was polytheistic. The moon was a spirit. The ants were little gods moving around. Tides were the work of the spirit of the sea. Birds were spirits that could hang on the air rather than fall to the ground because they willed it.

Early humanity didn't differentiate between the animate and inanimate or matter and spirit. They believed that if they ate the flesh of a strong beast they might acquire its spirit, or if they ate a portion of the body of a leader who had died they might acquire his special qualities. But when a body died it was thought to have done so because its spirit had left for the place where the spirits of the dead go. When people saw their reflection on water they thought they were seeing their spirit. People might see lines on a rock as the face of a dead relative and consider the rock as housing the spirit of that relative.

(Into the 20th-century, people in pre-industrial indigenous societies would object to being photographed, believing that the foreigner with the camera was taking possession of their spirit.)

With all of its assumptions, early humanity was not inclined to wait for more information before making conclusions. They had no reason to wait. They didn't believe in knowledge as a progression or knowledge as an approximation to be improved upon. Delaying conclusions and waiting for more information would come later with science.

Instead of science there was storytelling. Every society had its stories, without recognition of a difference between fact and fantasy. Storytellers were free to imagine and innovate. There was no written account to refer to for consistency. Every society had a creation story, and there were stories that explained things going bad, stories of evil and dread, stories about demons which produced more excitement than stories without danger.

Rather than believing in physical causation, people believed that everything happened by magic. The gods performed magic, and people believed that they too had the power of magic. Japan's aborigines, the Ainu, tried to win favor from their god with a magical offering, and if the god didn't respond they might withhold the offering until it did respond as they wished. Sacrifices were attempts at magic – sending the spirit of an animal or human to a god by killing it.

To protect against demons, one might employ the magic they believed existed in a pendant made from a small stone, or perhaps a piece of copper thinned by pounding.

An early form of religious ritual was an attempt at magic through imitation – such as painting a face on the belly of a pregnant woman in hope that it would encourage birth. There were the rituals of fasting or trances that were believed to invoke the magic needed to be a good hunter or warrior.

Shamans claimed magical healing powers. They strutted, danced and made shouting noises to advertise their powers, and in some hunter-gatherer societies the person of greatest influence was a shaman.

In contrast to demonic spirits, people saw the most powerful of spirits as having supplied them with what they needed to survive and as having their interests at heart. In his book The Forest People, Colin Turnbull wrote of the Mbuti Pygmies in central Africa as seeing themselves dependent upon the spirit of the forest, a spirit who was a parent and provider. They were not ruled by any authoritarian figure or figures. Society was not divided between landowners (aristocrats) and the landless. They did not see their Forest Spirit as an authoritarian ready with punishments. If things were not going well, the Mbuti believed that their Forest Spirit must be sleeping, and through ritual they tried to awaken it.

CONTINUE READING: First Civilizations

comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.