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     The religious impulse
     The need for priests
     Appropriate rituals

To the 1st century BC
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7th - 15th century
15th - 19th century
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The religious impulse

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.


Appropriate rituals

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.


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