As long as humans have walked the Earth, we have sought out answers. Answers for questions like: “Why are we here? Where do we go when we die? Where did we come from? and What’s that?” How different people answered these questions is important to study because it shows us the spiritual side of human nature. Especially now, a time of conflict between Islam and Western Civilization, it is important to look back and trace the evolution of religion. To see where we started and perhaps, gain some perspective into what is happening now and what may happen in the future.
As far as archeologists have been able to research, they have found evidence of religious faith and practice. In Paleolithic Hunter-Gatherer societies fear and awe of the natural world, as well as gratitude and empathy of it, is well represented in the cave art found around the globe. Archeologists have also found evidence of burial rituals, which points to the idea that Paleolithic and Neolithic humans knew that they were going somewhere after they died. There are no cave paintings illustrating this place, so it is impossible to say what their image of the afterlife really was. Likewise no images of divine figures have ever been found. As to whether or not the early humans believed in gods is uncertain, but they clearly showed signs of the first steps of religion -- awe, fear, questioning, belief, and practice of rituals.
The Mesopotamians and Babylonians
As primitive culture and society evolved, so did its religion. The Sumerians, unlike the early humans before them, had an organized religion, with gods and goddesses, scheduled public festivals, and specific practices. The Sumerians visualized their gods in human form, with human needs and weaknesses. They looked to these gods to explain acts of nature. There were gods of the sky and storm, gods of the water, and gods of the soil. Although they looked like humans, they differed from their mortal cousins in their greater power, position in the universe, and their immortality. The Mesopotamians believed that their duty was to serve the gods and provide them with offerings of food, clothing, and art. The gods were fed meals, sung songs, and honored with devotion and ritual.
The Mesopotamians had a gloomy picture of the afterlife. They believed that the winged spirits of the dead were confined to a dark netherworld, doomed to perpetual hunger and thirst unless someone offered them food and drink. They believed that some spirits escaped to haunt live human beings. The most interesting thing about their vision of the afterlife is that in it, all humans suffered equally -- there was no special treatment for those who had some well and good in life or for those who had been poor or bad. There were burial rituals, and people were usually buried with pottery and other trinkets. There were not, however, tombstones or inscriptions to identify the dead. The explanation offered by Historians is that the Mesopotamians were mainly concerned with the problems of the mortal world and leading a good life before dying.
Egyptian religious beliefs shared some similarities with Mesopotamian beliefs, but differenced in many important ways. Egyptians had numerous explanations for the formation of the universe, which varied from city to city. In Heliopolis, it was the sun god Re who emerged from a dark, vast sea to a primeval mound, containing within himself the life force of all the other gods, which he created. In Memphis, it was the god Ptah who created the other gods by simply speaking their names. Each city had a different explanation.
Their image of the gods was also different that that of the Mesopotamians. Like them, the Egyptians saw the gods as human in form and emotion, except that most Egyptian gods had human bodies and animal heads. All except for the sun god, Aten, who is usually represented by a disk with rays coming down off it.
Egyptian society was the first to believe that man was part god. They believed that their kings, or Pharaohs, were gods. More specifically, the pharaohs wanted the people to believe that they were direct intermediaries to the gods. A sort of tertium quid above humanity and just below divinity. This is evidenced in the great monuments built for them, the Pyramids.
The Egyptians undoubtedly believed that you could take it with you when you leave. They had a definite understanding of the afterlife and thought that when you die, you will need all sorts of things for your journey. Pharaohs and high officials were mummified, buried with riches, and sometimes buried with servants to help them on their way.
Before moving on to time Greek spirituality, which marks a whole new direction in religious evolution, it is important to look at the major similarities of these three societies’ religions. All three viewed the gods as uncontrollable, subject to whim and great anger for no reason. All three attempted to assuage the gods with offerings and sacrifices. The gods were governed by no morality or laws. It was the Greeks who would begin to change that way of thinking.
As stated earlier, there are echoes of Egyptian and Mesopotamian religion evident in Greek religion. The Greeks were polytheists, like those before them, and like the Egyptians, had an organized understanding of what each god responsible for. They saw their gods in human form, like the Mesopotamians. While people worshipped smaller, guardian gods that varied from city to city, everyone worshipped the 12 main gods: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hestia, Demeter, Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Hephaestus, and Hermes. People had festivals for, built temples for, prayed to, and gave offerings to these gods. But it was done in a different manner than humans before the Greeks.
The Gods meant less. The Greeks, through rational thought had begun to explain things occurring in the world themselves, without relying on the gods. This is where science and philosophy began. The Greeks looked to the gods to teach morality. More and more, the great art was not of gods, but of men. Greeks worshipped great athletes and thinkers, as well as the gods. The Greeks were the first to worship man, and all his abilities. This is an important step in human evolution, because it marks the moment when people began to look inward for answers.
Roman culture contained many aspects of Greek culture. The Romans identified their own gods with the Greek equivalents and incorporated Greek mythology into their own. They shared similar religious practices, festivals, and beliefs. In fact, although they claimed to be far superior to the Greeks in all ways. Their religion was exactly the same.
I recognize that I have not touched on one major religion from human history - Judaism. I have not done so because we have not studied it. Judaism was the first monotheistic religion and the predecessor of Christianity and Islam. It’s role can not be forgotten when we think about the conflict we are experiencing now.
However, it is interesting to see the patterns of religion throughout history. The way the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans looked at the world. One can start to see patterns echoes in modern society. Our death rituals, the festivals, and rites of passage all came from these ancient peoples’. Though they are not exactly the same, they are more similar that they are different.