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There is no culture recorded in human history which has not practiced some form of religion, although ancient religions often were what we might term mythology, which may have included rituals that were believed to appease the deities. Ancient Egyptian gods behaved in a manner that mirrored the Egyptian culture, while Ancient Greek gods behaved 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 role of people in the world, life after death, the creation of the world, and 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 special 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this category will be set aside for the listing of web sites whose topics relate to ancient religions which are no longer active in the world today. While they may otherwise qualify as ancient, those which have active congregations will be listed within the World Religions categories rather than this one.



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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