Once mankind develops a sophisticated level of speech, religion of some kind cannot be far behind. Superstition is an instinct which many of us today profess to be ashamed of. But in a primitive community, among all the dangers of nature, it is little more than common sense.
Clearly everything that grows and recreates itself, whether animal or plant, has a living spirit of some sort. And the wind and the water and the fire of the natural world seem far from dead, as they swirl about in their various ways. Mankind needs the cooperation of these aspects of nature. Religion, in the primitive form of animism (the need to befriend and appease the spirits within natural objects), is designed to secure it.
What can humans do to influence nature? Carrying out an appropriate ritual, whether in the form of dance, sacrifice or chant, seems to offer the best chance. As with any superstitious habit, a primitive religious custom is thought likely to work because it is believed to have worked in the past.
A ritual, by the time anyone is aware of its ritual nature, gives the impression of having been done from time immemorial. And the proof of its power is plain for all to see. The sun has gone on rising, the bison have reproduced themselves, the crops have come up.
The need for priests
Rituals require people to carry them out – special people who have done this routine before, experts who have been taught the secrets, initiates with a link to the spirit world. There can hardly be religion without priests.
In primitive tribes the priests are the medicine men, known also as shamans. Their ability to communicate with the spirits is evident from the way they fall into trances – achieved usually either by self-hypnosis or by drugs. The medicine man’s advice, when emerging from such a state, has uncanny force. Priesthood and politics, in any deeply religious society, are never far apart.
Ritual also requires explanation, and explanation involves one of the most basic human talents, that of story telling. The spell-binding riches and infinite variety of the world’s mythologies go back to such basic questions as how it all began, or why things happen as they do.
The gods of importance to primitive societies vary with the circumstances of the tribe, though nearly all give precedence to the sky. The sky is the largest fact of nature. With its ever-changing face, its sudden temper tantrums, its resident sun and moon, it is clearly a force to be reckoned with. In the creation stories of most mythologies a sky god is involved.
Hunter-gatherers are likely to have cults involving the animals of the chase (very probably a religious purpose lies behind the cave paintings at Altamira and elsewhere). Pastoral groups will tend to have rituals linked with sheep or goats. Farmers, tilling the fields, worship with the fruits of the land. In Genesis Cain offers the Lord some of his crops, and Abel brings the first-born of his flock (the Lord prefers Abel’s offering).
Primitive ritual frequently involves sacrifice. The life destroyed is offered to the god. If an animal’s throat is cut, the blood on the altar carries the life force to the deity. If plants are consumed in flames, as a burnt offering, the smoke achieves the same purpose.
The rituals of agriculture are attached to specific moments in the year, such as the times of sowing or of harvest. The year itself also has moments of crisis which require the attention of the priests. New year is the prime example, just after the shortest day, when the sun must be congratulated and encouraged in its recovery.
The rhythm of human life demands similar care. In all religions there are rites of passage, marking some or all of the great events of birth, puberty, marriage and death. Life beyond death is important too. Everything necessary must be done for the spirit of the departed ancestor, who can in turn be relied on to help his living descendants.
All these elements can be found in tribal cults of the present day and traces of them survive in more sophisticated religions (ancestor worship is a central element in Confucianism, the Christian Eucharist symbolizes sacrifice). We have no direct evidence of the religious practices of mankind more than about 5000 years ago. But it is probably safe to assume that the rituals of hunter-gatherers and early farmers were at least similar to those of tribal societies today.
Precise knowledge of a past religion only becomes possible with written records, so ancient Egypt provides the first detailed mythology. But more mysterious traces of early religions survive also in prehistoric monuments such as Stonehenge.
Egyptian gods and priests: from 3000 BC
In prehistory each community of people in the Nile valley has developed its own god or gods, many of them connected with animals. As Egypt becomes unified, under pharaohs who are themselves seen as divine, the entire pantheon settles down into a relatively easy working relationship.
The pharaoh is the chief priest of the entire nation. In each temple the local priests stand in for him. Their task, as in every early religion, is to tend to the needs of the gods. These are locked away in the innermost reaches of the temple, inaccessible to ordinary people. The priests regularly visit them, undress them, wash and anoint them, and then clothe them in new garments.
The two main tasks, for priests and gods alike, are to guard against encroaching chaos (in particular to ensure that the sun gets up each morning) and to help the dead into the next world, which the Egyptians confidently believe will be just as pleasant as this one and remarkably similar. Just as on earth, a distinguished man or woman will need their household servants and domestic goods to be sure of a comfortable existence. Models of these are placed with them in their tombs.
Appearance in tomb paintings has made some gods more familiar than others: Anubis, the jackal-headed god, who conducts the dead through their trials; ibis-headed Thoth, the scribe to the gods; falcon-headed Horus, god of the sky and light; Seth, a rival to Horus, recognizable by his mysterious pointed snout; and Osiris, wearing a tall white headdress, who represents the idea of resurrection in the next world.
Re and Amen
The central divinity of Egyptian religion is the sun, and from early times the most important sun god is Re. He is believed to sail his boat under the world each night. Every time, during the journey, he has to defeat an evil spirit, Apophis, before he can reappear.
At Thebes, which becomes the capital in about 2000 BC, another god, Amen, is of great importance. In about 1500 BC combines with Re to become Amen-Re, who from then on is effectively the state god of Egypt, identified with the pharaoh. The two greatest temples at Karnak and Luxor are dedicated to Amen-Re.
Mute monuments: from 3000 BC
Some pre-literate societies have left tantalizing traces of their religion. Stonehenge in southern England, constructed from about 3000 BC (and therefore contemporary with the start of Egyptian civilization), has prompted endless speculation about its original purpose.
Similarly, from around 1000 BC, the temple platforms and the pyramids of the Olmecs, in America, provide evidence of religion without our knowing precisely what that religion was. Climbing up to a temple or altar, as also in the ziggurats of Mesopotamia from about 2000 BC onwards, is a recurrent theme of worship.
Once there is a temple of any kind, the gods move in – usually in the form of idols. A temple is the house of the gods. The priests, their servants, share their lodgings.
The role of the priests is to satisfy the needs of the gods. This may involve washing and clothing the idols, but the main task is to carry out the necessary sacrifices (a theme present in all primitive religions, reaching a macabre peak among the Aztecs in central America). A less dramatic duty may be feeding them – offering up the food brought by pilgrims, which is then enjoyed symbolically by the deity and is usually consumed in more practical fashion by the priests themselves.