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There is no culture recorded in human history that has not practiced some form of religion. However, ancient religions often were what we might term mythology, which may have included rituals believed to appease the deities.

Ancient Egyptian gods behaved in a manner that mirrored Egyptian culture. In contrast, Ancient Greek gods acted in ways that were the antithesis of the culture of the time and place.

Religion is concerned with the spiritual aspect of the human condition and the role of people in the world, life after death, and the creation of the world. It often includes gods, goddesses, or a single god or goddess. However, ancient religions tended not to be monotheistic, Judaism being perhaps the oldest monotheistic religion. The people of the ancient world believed in many gods, each with a unique sphere of influence, which sometimes overlapped.

In some cultures and times, a god or goddess would become so popular that he or she would assume a position of henotheism, which means the worship of one god in many forms.

For the purposes of categorization, this category will be set aside for listing websites whose topics relate to ancient religions that are no longer active in the world today. While they may otherwise qualify as ancient, those with active congregations will be listed within the World Religions categories rather than this one.

Surviving Palaeolithic art suggests some form of religion, even in pre-human hominids. Many archaeologists now believe Neanderthals were replaced by, rather than evolved into, the human species, with both species existing simultaneously for about 10,000 years. Nevertheless, the Neanderthals buried their dead and often included objects, such as stone tools and animal parts, with their bodies. Traces of red ochre have also been found in association with burials.

Our more direct ancestors, commonly known as Cro-Magnons, also practiced burial rituals and left rock art with clear spiritual overtones. Moreover, it appears that the religions of the Cro-Magnons differed from one continent to another but were more complex and abundant in the Western European region and included the use of totems.

Perhaps the first structured religion was in Ur, a significant Sumerian city-state in ancient Mesopotamia. The city's patron deity was Nanna, the Sumerian moon god, to whom a shrine was dedicated, and excavated in the 1930s.

Commonly, ancient Egypt is cited as the birthplace of human religion because much more is known about the religion of ancient Egypt, while little was preserved from Ur. Egypt, however, has given us spectacular religious monuments, including pyramids, temples, and tombs, constructed mainly of stone. Even more significantly, the ancient Egyptians left religious texts naming their gods and information about religious structure, practice, symbolism, and a belief in the afterlife.

The foundations of the Bronze Age port city of Ugarit, in northern Syria, included two temples to the gods Baal Hadad and Dagon and a building referred to as the high priest's house. Within these structures were religious or mythological texts that provided a basis for understanding Canaanite religion. The Baal of Ugarit is believed to be the same Baal cited in the Hebrew Bible.

Mesopotamian religion included the differing beliefs and practices of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, and other groups of people who, at various times, lived in the Mesopotamian region. The rise of Judaism and Christianity largely supplanted these religions, leaving several religious texts, mythologies, and other evidence behind.

Religious practices in ancient Greece included a collection of beliefs, rituals, and mythology. While not all ancient Greeks believed the same thing, no Greek writer has classified either gods or religious practices into separate religions. Most ancient Greeks recognized the twelve major Olympian gods and goddesses (Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo, Artemis, Hephaestus, Hermes, and either Hestia or Dionysus. Early Italian and Roman religions were heavily influenced by ancient Greek religion.

Although the ancient Romans had religious practices, the study of Roman religion does not go back much before the early 19th century, so not as much is known of it. The Romans considered themselves highly religious and attributed much of the success of the Roman Empire to piety and the maintenance of good relations with the gods. Religion in ancient Rome consisted of varying imperial and provincial practices, followed by the Roman people and those who were brought under its rule. Their polytheistic religion is known for having honored many deities, some borrowed from Greek religion, such as Apollo. Christianity largely supplanted the ancient Roman religions.

The ancient Europeans practiced diverse religious beliefs, including early Celtic and Germanic practices.



Feature Article

Pre-Human Religion?

prehuman religion

We cannot know, with certainty, what the ancestors of mankind thought or believed in, because we cannot view the world through their eyes. However, we can look at the things that they left behind, such as cave paintings and stone figures, as well as the ways in which they disposed of their dead, and artifacts that have been found at burial sites; viewing the evidence we do have, we can make conjectures.

We know that Homo erectus pekinensis, better known as Peking Man, collected the heads of others of their kind, arranging them on shelves or along the walls of their caves, and it appears that they had extracted and probably eaten the brains. Was this a religious ritual or did they simply find the brains to be tasty? However, there was an abundance of animals for them to hunt, and to use for food, so it doesn't seem likely that cannibalism was necessary for their survival. In more modern societies, cannibalism implies an incorporation of the dead man's vigor or power, and would be classified as a religious observance.

In Russia and the Ukraine, circles of mammoth skulls were found, dated from roughly 750,000 years ago, which was the era in which the Peking Man lived. There may have been a religious purpose for this arrangement, or perhaps the skulls were used as weights holding down tent cloths, rather than stones. We can't know for sure.

The Neanderthals, who lived from 600,000 to about 30,000 years ago, show clearer signs of religious observance in the way in which they disposed of their dead.

Some of their dead were buried carefully, the bodies placed in a crouching position, and food offerings, hand axes, awls, and chipped scrapers were placed in the graves, the reasonable assumption being that these items were left there in order to serve the dead person in another life.

A body found in Iraq, from this period, had been buried along with eight species of flowers. In Turkestan, the body of a child was found buried with five pairs of horns from a mountain goat, placed in a circle.

During the Old Stone Age period, the bodies of Neanderthals were sometimes painted with red ochre. Interestingly, grave sites of the earliest known humans in Maine and the Atlantic Canadian region, dating from 3,000 to 1,000 BCE, were also found to have used large quantities of red ochre, covering the bodies of the dead and the implements and other items that were buried with them.

The Neanderthals seem to have revered the cave bear, setting aside bear skulls, without removing the brains, placing them in their caves on slabs of stone, shelves or niches. Was this a form of religion or decoration?

The Cro-Magnon are often viewed as the first early modern humans. They lived approximately 40,000 years ago, and are not generally believed to have become extinct, but to have simply evolved into modern human beings.

Like the Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnon people buried their dead, often placed beneath protective stone slab, and surrounded by items such as food, shell bracelets, stone tools, and weapons.

The Cro-Magnon people also practiced the custom of covering the bodies of the dead with red ochre. At times, it appears that bodies were later reburied, and the bones covered with red ochre.

The Cro-Magnons were the first to take up painting and modeling, their chief subjects being the animals that they hunted, which included horses, bison, deer, wild boar, cave bears, and mammoths, which have been found in murals as well as in clay figures.

While their paintings and models of animals were realistic, human figures were rare and, when they were painted, they were represented as stick figures.

As these paintings were found deep within their caves, it is assumed that there was a religious significance to their art. In one painting, a human being is shown, masked, and with a long beard and human feet, but with reindeer antlers, the ears of a stag, the paws of a bear, and a horse's tail, similar to the manner in which the Native American shaman was often represented. Or these may have been simply decorations, created by Cro-Magnon artists who were passing time in their caves during inclement weather.

Did the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man believe in life after death? Much of the evidence is speculative, but the inclusion of survival tools, food, and other items along with the burial of their dead is the strongest evidence that they did.

We cannot know for sure though, because they did not write bibles or create creeds.

In his book, A History of the World Religions, which I used as one of my sources for this article, David S. Noss said that "religion is a product of the earliest attempt of the human mind to achieve a sense of security in the world."

Perhaps even our earliest ancestors were searching for this security. We cannot know, with any degree of certainty, whether they were capable of religious feeling, but it appears that they may have been, in their way.

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