Historical religions of the ancient world shared many of the same patterns with each other even though the cultures may never have had any contact with each other. Such as Prehistoric religion, Ancient Egyptian Religion, Ancient Mesopotamian Religion, Brahmanism, Religion in pre-Islamic Arabia, Inca mythology, ancient Greece and Rome and their Hellenistic descendants.
Religious history begins with the invention of writing about 5,200 years ago (3200 BCE). The prehistory of religion involves the study of religious beliefs that existed prior to the advent of written records.
Religion in Ancient Times
In ancient times, religion was indistinguishable from what is known as ‘mythology‘ in the present day and consisted of regular rituals based on a belief in higher supernatural entities who created and continued to maintain the world and surrounding cosmos. Theses entities were anthropomorphic and behaved in ways which mirrored the values of the culture closely (as in Egypt) or sometimes engaged in acts antithetical to those values (as one sees with the gods of Greece). Religion, then and now, concerns itself with the spiritual aspect of the human condition, gods and goddesses (or a single personal god or goddess), the creation of the world, a human being’s place in the world, life after death, eternity, and how to escape from suffering in this world or in the next; and every nation has created its own god in its own image and resemblance.
The ancient people felt that no single god could possibly take care of all the needs of an individual. Just as one would not go to a plumber with one’s sick dog, one would not go to a god of war with a problem concerning love. If one were suffering heartbreak, one went to the goddess of love; if one wanted to win at combat, only then would one consult the god of war.
The many gods of the religions of the ancient world fulfilled this function as specialists in their respective areas. In some cultures, a certain god or goddess would become so popular that he or she would transcend the cultural understanding of multiplicity and assume a position so powerful and all-encompassing as to almost transform a polytheistic culture to henotheistic.
While polytheism means the worship of many gods, henotheism means the worship of one god in many forms. This shift in understanding was extremely rare in the ancient world, and the goddess Isis and god Amun of Egypt are probably the best examples of the complete ascendancy of a deity from one-among-many to the supreme creator and sustainer of the universe recognized in different forms.
As noted, every ancient culture practiced some form of religion, but where religion began cannot be pinpointed with any certainty. The argument over whether Mesopotamian religion inspired that of the Egyptians has gone on for over a century now and is no closer to being resolved than when it began. It is most probable that every culture developed its own belief in supernatural entities to explain natural phenomena (day and night, the seasons) or to help make sense of their lives and the uncertain state humans find themselves in daily.
While it may be an interesting exercise in cultural exchange to attempt tracing the origins of religion, it does not seem a very worthwhile use of one’s time, when it seems fairly clear that the religious impulse is simply a part of the human condition and different cultures in different parts of the world could have come to the same conclusions about the meaning of life independently.
Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia
Main article: Ancient Mesopotamian Religion
As with many cultural advancements and inventions, the ‘cradle of civilization’ Mesopotamia has been cited as the birthplace of religion. When religion developed in Mesopotamia is unknown, but the first written records of religious practice date to c. 3500 BCE from Sumer. Mesopotamian religious beliefs held that human beings were co-workers with the gods and labored with them and for them to hold back the forces of chaos which had been checked by the supreme deities at the beginning of time. Order was created out of chaos by the gods and one of the most popular myths illustrating this principle told of the great god Marduk who defeated Tiamat and the forces of chaos to create the world.
Ancient Persian Religion
The early religion of the Persian arrived on the Iranian Plateau with the migrations of the Aryans (properly understood as Indo-Iranians) sometime prior to the third millennium BCE. The early faith was polytheistic with a supreme god, Ahura Mazda, presiding over lesser deities. Among the most popular of these was Atar (god of fire), Mithra (god of the rising sun and covenants), Hvar Khshsata (god of the full sun), and Anahita (goddess of fertility, water, health and healing, and wisdom). These gods stood for the forces of goodness and order against the evil spirits of disorder and chaos.
Religion in Egypt
Egyptian religion was similar to Mesopotamian belief, however, in that human beings were co-workers with the gods to maintain order. The principle of harmony (known to the Egyptians as ma’at) was of the highest importance in Egyptian life (and in the afterlife), and their religion was fully integrated into every aspect of existence. Egyptian religion was a combination of magic, mythology, science, medicine, psychiatry, spiritualism, herbology, as well as the modern understanding of ‘religion’ as belief in a higher power and a life after death. The gods were the friends of human beings and sought only the best for them by providing them with the most perfect of all lands to live in and an eternal home to enjoy when their lives on earth were done.
Religion in China & India
This principle of order is also paramount in the world’s oldest religion still being practiced today: Hinduism (known to adherents as Sanatan Dharma, ‘Eternal Order’, thought to have been founded as early as 5500 BCE but certainly by c. 2300 BCE). Although often viewed as a polytheistic faith, Hinduism is actually henotheistic. There is only one supreme god in Hinduism, Brahma, and all other deities are his aspects and reflections. Since Brahma is too immense a concept for the human mind to comprehend, he presents himself in the many different versions of himself which people recognize as deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, and the many others. The Hindu belief system includes 330 million gods and these range from those who are known at a national level (such as Krishna) to lesser-known local deities.
Religion in Mesoamerica
Main article: Mesoamerican religion
Remembrance of the dead and the part they still play in the lives of those on earth was an important component of all ancient religions including the belief system of the Maya. The gods were involved in every aspect of the life of the Maya. As with other cultures, there were many different deities (over 250), all of whom had their own special sphere of influence. They controlled the weather, the harvest, they dictated one’s mate, presided over every birth, and were present at one’s death.
Greek & Roman ReligionThe importance of remembrance of the dead as part of one’s religious devotions was integral to the beliefs of the Greeks as well. Continued remembrance of the dead by the living kept the soul of the deceased alive in the afterlife. The Greeks, like the other cultures mentioned, believed in many gods who often cared for their human charges but, just as often, pursued their own pleasure.The religion of Rome followed the same paradigm as that of Greece. The Roman religion most likely began as a kind of animism and developed as they came into contact with other cultures. The Greeks had the most significant impact on Roman religion, and many of the Roman gods are simply Greek deities with Roman names and slightly altered attributes.
The religions of the ancient world shared many of the same patterns with each other even though the cultures may never have had any contact with each other. The spiritual iconography of the Mayan and Egyptian pyramids has been recognized since the Maya were first brought to the world’s attention by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in the 19th century CE, but the actual belief structures, stories, and most significant figures in ancient mythology are remarkably similar from culture to culture.
In every culture, one finds the same or very similar patterns, which the people found resonant and which gave vitality to their beliefs. These patterns include the existence of many gods who take a personal interest in the lives of people; creation by a supernatural entity who speaks it, fashions it, or commands it into existence; other supernatural beings emanating from the first and greatest one; a supernatural explanation for the creation of the earth and human beings; a relationship between the created humans and their creator god requiring worship and sacrifice.
There is also the repetition of the figure known as the Dying and Reviving God, often a powerful entity himself, who is killed or dies and comes back to life for the good of his people: Osiris in Egypt, Krishna in India, the Maize God in Mesoamerica, Bacchus in Rome, Attis in Greece, Tammuz in Mesopotamia. There is often an afterlife similar to an earthly existence (Egypt and Greece), antithetical to life on earth (Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia), or a combination of both (China and India).
Religions in the Ancient World
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia