The Elements of Evolution (88) Religion in Early Civilizations


That the nexus between cosmic order and sanctified power had a convincing reality in many early state societies cannot be doubted. ~ Colin Renfrew

One’s insignificance is most poignant with a lingering gaze at the night sky, teeming with twinkling light; though the sight of a range of mountain peaks or endless ocean inspires similar apperception. Even the wondrous workings of Nature close at hand may inspire awe. A restlessness within yearns to comprehend one’s place in this vast cosmos.

The earliest belief of astral spirits was animism: that Nature itself in its multifold manifestation was spiritually alive. In time, animism was stirred with a more emotively potent brew. Shamanic beliefs were an extension of animism. In shamanism, a shaman may act as an intermediary between earthly existence and the spirit world: driving out evil spirits, healing by mending the soul.

A tribe’s shaman was its spiritual and cultural focal point: storyteller, fortune teller, healer, mediator, psychopomp (soul guide). Owing to superior social skills and a cultivated mystique the earliest shamans were women.

Awe of natural forces is primordial. Its basest internalization is fear; but then, fear is the basest emotion.

Fear played a larger part in human life as materialism took hold. Early humans could not be impoverished. Only those with valued possessions to which social status was linked could suffer such a fate.

As Neolithic societies stratified and men took the helm politically, spiritual myths kept pace. Gods arose.

Beginning to conquer Nature by his buildings, irrigated agriculture, and domesticated animals, man stupidly considered himself the most intelligent of all life. As such, tales of the gods were naturally like men, albeit gods were preternatural. Like men, gods could be capricious. Like men, gods could be appeased. As men led city-states and kingdoms, so too the most powerful gods were male.

According to the myths of the time, the Sun, the Moon, and the firmament was where the ultimate powers lie, affecting the dynamics on Earth. The gods were celestial spirits.

Codifying cosmic myths begat religion. Religion rose with the state, each reinforcing the other.

The sociality of the gods reflected the society which they served. The gods were fashioned to meet the practical needs of daily life. They also reflected political fashion. Reflecting civil society, the Roman gods were hierarchically organized: each god had an office, a purview of deity.

In some societies, religion progressed from polytheistic hierarchy to monotheistic simplicity. Attempted appeasement of various gods gave way to supplication to a single supreme being. This transition echoed political autocracy.

Such was the instance of Judaism, which transitioned from a vague polytheism to monotheism with the ascent of King Josiah, who took the throne of Judah ~640 bce. Josiah’s consolidation of political power included religious reform: mandating worship of the single god Yahweh, who, not incidentally, endowed Josiah with his power.

The state sanctioned specific myths and the men who related them, while religious leaders sanctified those who led the state. The ruler – whether king, emperor, or pharaoh – held a divinely-ordained role. This view persisted into the late 18th century with the idea of “the divine right of kings.”

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While the size and shape of Earth were first correctly surmised by Greek astronomer Eratosthenes in the 3rd century bce, the invention of the Galilean telescope in the 17th century opened a new chapter in astronomical knowledge, forging a schism between ancient and modern comprehension.

Each early civilization thought itself at the center of the universe, and cosmologically privileged in its relations with the forces that forged the cosmos. In city-states, every capital city claimed cosmological significance.

The cosmography of early civilizations was not only anthropocentric but also ethnocentric. ~ Canadian anthropologist Bruce Trigger

Both the Chinese and indigenous tribes in North America believed that the underworld was a realm of raw life forces, whereas the sky was inhabited by more self-controlled, intellectual powers. Contrariwise, native Mexicans viewed the underworld as a domain of death and disappearance. The common belief that supernatural forces and spirits moved between the cosmic levels engendered elaborate myths.

Inhabitants of early civilizations believed Earth and the cosmos tiny by modern standards. Earth was generally conceptualized as a flat surface, either square or circular in outline, and only a few thousand kilometers across. The land was assumed surrounded by ocean, which at its outer extremity transitioned to the lower or higher supernatural realms.

There was the widespread belief that the Sun returned from its setting in the west to its eastern rise by traveling either below the Earth or above the visible sky. This accorded with the idea that both Earth and sky were opaque bodies which rendered such celestial movements furtive.

Unsurprisingly, the east-west axis, which corresponds with the Sun’s path, was generally esteemed over a north-south axis. Entire cities in some ancient civilizations were laid out with cosmic geometry in mind.

The main interface points between the lower, middle, and upper worlds were located at their common center and 4 corners. Primary contact points were in sacred locations, including temples, which were on hallowed ground. Within this generic conceptual framework were elaborated versions of a spiritualized cosmos in various cultures and civilizations.

The cosmological models propounded by the early civilizations have striking similarities. ~ Bruce Trigger

Observations of Nature, the dilemmas of living, and social dynamics played their part in crafting religious concepts. Religion has always been an elaborate empire of the mind: an otherworldly realm buttressed by tangents with the mundane, shared with others and serving as social glue.