The First Religions: From Nature Worship to Monotheism

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Hindu Temple, Neasden, Northwest London

It was logical that the first religions to arise in the world involved the worship of Nature. To prehistoric peoples Nature was a mighty, often terrifying power.

Nature caused disastrous floods, frightening thunderstorms and earthquakes. The natural human reaction was to think that this ferocity had to be propitiated, so very early on, people began to make offerings and sacrifices to the spirits of Nature.

Faith in a Dangerous World

These early religious rituals were basically attempts to survive in a dangerous world. But it was not long before prehistoric people realized that luck played an important part in survival.

Cave dwellers in what is now southwestern France and northern Spain painted pictures of the animals they hunted to encourage luck in their efforts. Evidence has also been found that they made clay figures of animals and stabbed them with their spears as a sort of rehearsal for the real hunt that was about to take place.

Later on, this type of belief changed to take into account developing ways of life. When farming began in the New Stone Age some eight thousand years ago, people became concerned with propitiating the gods of the Sun, wind, rain and soil, the elements on which farmers depended to grow successful crops.

The Gods of Mesopotamia

The Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the earliest of the many civilizations to develop around the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, had their sky god, An, their storm god, Enlil and their Sun god and chief deity, Utu.

Subsequent Mesopotamian civilizations – for instance, the Babylonian and Assyrian – took over those -*Sumerian gods who watched over the fertility of the Earth and therefore the provision of food and the taming of such destructive forces as storms, floods and drought that could ruin crops.

Similarly, the Ancient Egyptians looked to their gods to ensure that the River Nile flooded regularly each year and so provided the fertile black mud on which their crops could be grown.

The Religions of Ancient Greece and Rome

Among the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the most important aspects of life the gods assured was the safety, security and good government of the state. These gods held the future in their power and were in charge of various aspects of life, experience and personality

The Greek Demeter (the Roman Ceres) was the goddess of Nature. Hephaestus (the Roman Vulcan) was the god of craftsmen. It was logical that the first religions to arise in the world involved the worship of Nature. To prehistoric peoples Nature was a mighty, often terrifying power. Hestia (Roman Vesta) was the goddess of the home. There were also other golds or goddesses in charge of the arts, wisdom, weaving, love, wine, hunting, medicine and the sea.

Beliefs of the Celts and Vikings

Later, European, religions followed by the Celts or the Vikings, were much the same, though the most important purpose of their religions varied. The Celts were greatly concerned with fertility and like the peoples of ancient Mexico and Peru, they were particularly anxious to ensure the safety and continuation of the Sun god.

The ferocious, warlike Vikings and the Teutons of central Europe, gave more emphasis to the gods of battle. Their chief deity was Odin (the Teuton Wotan) a warrior god who protected soldiers and heroes.

All these pagan religions were pantheistic. To a greater or lesser extent, all were based on the dread that disaster would overwhelm the people if the gods were to turn against the world. They also reflected the difficulties and dangers inherent in life.

Mystic Religions of the East

The mystic religions that developed in Asia had a very different basis. The oldest of them, Hinduism, began sometime after 1500BC. Generally speaking, Hinduism and other major mystical religions – Buddhism, Jainism and Taoism – became concerned with the search for truth, purity and virtue.

The holy men of these religions spent their whole lives pondering questions such as “Why is there suffering in the world?” or “What is the purpose of life?” They attempted to show other people how they could lead unselfish, pure and therefore satisfactory lives.

The Three Monotheistic Faiths

Fear has always produced the worst traits in human beings. The Jews, the first organized monotheists, maintained that pagan faiths based on fear permitted all sorts of violence and undesirable behaviour.

Judaism, the religion of the Jews, was first organized in the 12th century BC, in Old Testament times, when the prophet Moses led the Hebrews (an early name for Jews) out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan.

Religion had a different purpose for the Jews. They considered it ought to be a code of good conduct, produced by obedience to the laws and guidance of God. In other words, religion was a discipline for human beings which raised them above the everyday concerns and problems of life and gave them ideals to aim for. This basic concept was later adopted by the two other great monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam.

Sources:

  1. Bowker, John, World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained (London UK, Dorling Kindersley Adult Books, 2006 ISBN-10: 0756617723/ISBN-13: 978-0756617721
  2. Higginbotham, River and Higginbotham, Joyce, Paganism: An Introduction to Earth- Centered Religions (Woodbury, Minnesota, Llewellyn Publications, 2002) ISBN-10: 0738702226/ISBN-13: 978-0738702223