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Ancient Origins Of Religious Practices

There is a Power by which we are surrounded, like the atmosphere in which some motionless lyre is suspended, which visits with its breath our silent chords, at will. . . . This Power is God. - Percy Bysshe Shelley

On Easter Island, 2,300 miles west of the South American mainland, stone heads five times the size of a human figure gaze out across the Pacific Ocean, their tight-lipped faces exuding fierceness, wonder, and mystery. In New Zealand, Maoris wear jade good-luck charms of Hei Tiki, to some the first man, to others a fertility god. In South Africa, rock paintings portray the age-old Bushman trance dance, led by a man wearing leg rattles and a mask with antelope horns.

In every culture and every age humans have sensed in the natural world a power greater than themselves. Surrounded by phenomena they cannot understand and forces they cannot control, they have apprehended a sacred presence. Humans responded to this supernatural force with fear and respect and attempts to understand or gain favor from these unknowables. They developed forms of worship, recognized certain phenomena as sacred, and kept them apart from ordinary activities. In art and ceremony, they have given this feeling expression and sought connection with the supernatural.

Some cultures recognized sacred spirits in every part of their surroundings. Others developed a belief in gods, superhuman beings who interested themselves in the affairs of humans and with whom they could have a relationship through worship. Of these, some worshiped multiple gods, and still others believed in one supreme being.

In all these traditions, humankind has sought to understand its place in the universe, both in the natural world and in the divine order. Human beings had to determine the rules on how to relate to the divine being, how to behave to gain protection in this life, to be spared from tribulations, and how to achieve salvation in the afterlife. They fulfilled these requirements with incantations and ceremonial dances. They offered promises, gifts, and sacrifices and developed rituals to beseech the gods or spirits. Above all, they understood that there is a power greater than themselves, and therefore that they must seek salvation through requests for divine assistance.

The forces present in the natural landscape are formative and necessary to human life. They can evoke fear and awe, dependency and anxiety: the ocean that pounds up on shore; the rain, whether gentle and nutritive, torrential, or parchingly absent; fire, beneficent for cooking, yet a ferocious antagonist when out of control; thunder and lightning storms; earthquakes, volcanoes, dust, and wind. The landscape and its shapes prompt universal responses: a mountain, soaring above the horizon, appears to touch the heavens; a cave or grotto, dark and deep, presents a hideaway filled with ominous foreboding; a major river, coursing with power, maps out the possibilities and the limits of daily life.


Dream image intensity is related to emotional arousal. This is just one more clue to solve the mystery of why we dream—a topic that has puzzled humans since the beginning of recorded history. In ancient societies, dreams guided political, social and everyday decisions. Early books, including the Bible, are filled with references to divine visions during sleep. On the other hand, Greek philosophers attributed dream content to natural sources, which were precursors of modern theories of dream formation and significance.

In the Old Testament, the 11th son of the patriarch Jacob, or Israel, by his favorite wife, Rachel. Joseph was the firstborn of Rachel. Joseph was envied by his brothers, particularly after Jacob expressed his partiality toward him by giving him a "coat of many colors," and they sold him into slavery. Taken to Egypt by his master, Joseph later won the favor of the pharaoh by interpreting his dream and prophesying from it seven years of prosperity to be followed by seven years of famine. The pharaoh made Joseph his highest official and charged him with collecting food to be used during the years of famine. When the famine came, the Egyptians were able to survive as a result of Joseph's foresight.

Joseph's brothers came to Egypt for supplies, and Joseph revealed himself to them. In the reconciliation that followed, Jacob moved his entire family to Egypt and settled in Goshen, where his descendants remained and multiplied until Moses led them out of Egypt. Moses carried Joseph's bones during the exodus march and subsequently buried them at Shechem.

Native Americans of the Great Plains believe the air is filled with both good and bad dreams. Historically, dreamcatchers were hung in the tipi or lodge, and on a baby's cradle board. According to legend, the good dreams pass through the center hole to the sleeping person. The bad dreams are trapped in the web, where they perish in the light of dawn.

In the 19th century, Sigmund Freud promoted one popular theory that dreams gave us access to our unconscious repressed conflicts. He called them "the royal road to a knowledge on the part of the unconscious plays in mental life." However, another early psychoanalyst, Alfred Adler, believed that dreams reflect current lifestyle and offer solutions to contemporary problems.

While scientists still do not know much about why or how we dream, some have suggested that we typically spend more than two hours dreaming each night. Comparative research has shown that while most mammals and birds show signs of dreams, reptiles and other cold-blooded animals scientists still don't know—and probably never will—if animals dream, as humans do.

Humans depend on plants for food, yet must work hard to gather or sow, harvest and prepare them. They cannot direct but can only respond to the climate, the weather, and annual variations in light, heat, and moisture. Human beings depend as well on animals, reckoning with their ferocity when wild or their dependency when herded. Certain cycles cannot be interrupted, reversed, or denied: the seasons of the natural world and the seasons of human life, from birth to death with landmarks in between such as puberty, marriage, childbirth, and the death of elders. Dreams and states of delirium present places and people, feelings and phantasms that are very real yet never present in waking life.

Every one of these powerful experiences in the human landscape has inspired religious beliefs and practices - words of prayer and attitudes of worship, whether in supplication, praise, or communion. Human consciousness raises questions that cannot be answered through fact, reason, or observation. Who am I, and why am I here? No simple answer exists. Cultures share myths - narratives dramatizing the origin, destiny, and interactions of humans, nature, and the divine, especially narratives that provide defining characteristics about the gods' importance to the culture. Those myths provide a common and authoritative groundwork from which to derive answers to these questions. Long before writtten language, myths passed on the experiences, revelations, beliefs, and promises of ancestors.

What can I do to gain control over the elements? In the face of cataclysmic forces, humans often addressed spirit beings, hoping to gain a sympathetic ear, secure their guardianship, and gain some sort of comfort in a world beyond their understanding or control.

They explained the forces and phenomena of nature in myths, in concepts that humans can grasp and discuss and in forms with which they can interact. Ritual practices allow people to face the unknown together. Rituals are patterned activities with prescribed rules and outcomes. These practices can include words - spoken or chanted - rhythm and music, dance or processionals, and a whole host of sensory stimuli to fully engage the participants. Special acts apart from the flow of everyday life, rituals are designed to gain the attention and good will of forces and beings other than human. As these practices are taught from generation to generation, they form bonds in the present and connect to an earlier time beyond individual memory. Conceptually, the ritual ceremonies repeat and reinforce the beliefs that unite a people.

What can I do to improve this life for myself and others of my beloved circle? For a community or culture to unite, all people within it must share rules of morality. Even before the organization of states and nations, religions provided laws of right and wrong and the boundaries of behavior within the community. Does it really matter how I behave? Myths and cautionary tales have served to answer this question, whether narrating ideals, portraying final rewards and punishments, or expressing the concern of divine beings for humankind.

Recognizing that death is our ultimate fate, what happens next? Some of the earliest proof of a religious sense - a sense of meaning beyond the human being's physical existence - can be found in the care with which bodies tens of thousands of years ago were placed in graves. What comes after death is the unanswerable question, the experience all humans share yet can never know. Myths, ceremonies, and intricate constellations of belief arise from looking deep into this mystery, central yet antithetical to human life, and finding in it the inspiration for an entire system of beliefs and practices that declare human life, individually and collectively, to have meaning.

The dawn of religion, tens of thousands of years ago, accompanied many other significant developments: the making of tools, clothing, and ornaments; construction of shelter; control of fire; the beginning of a symbol system, which allowed the development of language; and the imaginative projections that resulted in art and religion. While we may never fully understand the inspiration that created them, graves and paintings from this period, the Paleolithic era, hint at practices and ritual that might be called religious.

Human remains dating back 70,000 years suggest that both Neandertal man and Paleolithic-era Homo sapiens may have placed objects in graves with the deceased. Around the bones of a Neandertal child buried in Teshik Tash, a cave site in Uzbekistan, lay a wild goat's horn and bone scrapers. This practice may simply indicate generosity toward a departed loved one, but later burial configurations suggest a larger system of beliefs. The so-called Red Lady of Paviland - ultimately identified as a young male - was buried in Goat's Hole Cave in southern Wales about 26,000 years ago. He wore rings and waist ornaments of mammoth bone and a pouch full of periwinkle shells to the grave. His bones and accoutrements were all stained red with ocher. His remains were carefully extended and stone slabs laid at head and feet. An abundance of plant remains was found near the grave, suggesting that his people worked to express respect for his body after death. Historians interpret such artifacts and activities as evidence of the earliest stages of a belief in the afterlife and the influence of ancestral spirits among the living.

Cave paintings at Trois Freres, in the French foothills of the Pyrenees, date from about 10,000 years ago. Among paintings of bison and horses, a fantastical biped with antlers, paws, and tail stares down. His round eyes gaze straight out of his furry, bearded head. He seems entranced. Perhaps he embodies the strength and cunning that the hunters of that place and time hoped to achieve, thus an ally god; or perhaps he embodies the dangers of the hunt, thus an antagonistic god. Art historians call him the Sorcerer, seeing in him the prototype of a man honored in his community for a special connection to the unknown power beyond.

Archaeologists also have discovered evidence of early worship of female beings that had power over the natural world. In western Romania, for instance, the people of the Vinca civilization created terra-cotta statuettes of the Vegetation Goddess, whose blessings would ensure a bountiful harvest.

The foundations of religious practice are often shrouded in mystery, their ancient origins covered over by time. In many cultures, myths grew up to explain the society's rituals and beliefs, as in the Blackfeet story relating a hero's tale of quest and successful return.

The Blackfeet Indians of the North American Plains told of Scarface, the young hunter wounded on his face early in life. He fell in love with a maiden already claimed by the Person Above, the Sun. Devoted to her, Scarface went on a journey, hoping to find the great power and get the Sun's permission to marry. He asked people and animals, none of whom could help, until two swans carried him across deep water filled with monsters. On the other shore, Scarface met a young man named Early Riser - the morning star, which we now identify as the planet Venus. This man said his mother was the Moon, his father the Sun. Scarface grew fond of the celestial family and lived with them for a long time. Finally he got permission to marry.

Saying goodbye, the Sun instructed him on how to build and use a medicine lodge. The Sun demonstrated the power of medicine and removed the scar from the young Blackfeet's face, a narrative element symbolizing the health and fertility that this practice would bring to all his people. Returning home, Scarface built and tended a medicine lodge, a place for religious observance and spiritual healing. When inside the lodge, he always wore two raven feathers given to him by the Sun. When he grew old, Scarface passed those feathers and their power on to a new keeper of the medicine lodge. This myth explained the origin of the Blackfeets' religious practice, centered on the medicine lodge and its rituals, and assured them of connection to - and care, and affection from - the great uncontrollable forces, the Sun and the Moon, highest beings in heaven.

Many variations exist in the broad tradition of myths about gods of nature's primal elements and their creation. Many of these are told in the context of the creation of the universe. Such tales may come to be seen as cultural constructs, or - as in the biblical account, in Genesis, of the creation of the world in seven days - may be accepted literally by believers.

Sculptural reliefs dating from before 2,000 B.C. were found in Susa, near today's Dezful, Iran, representing two primary gods of Sumer, the world's first civilization and seedbed for the cultures and religions that arose in Mesopotamia. In this panel the Sumerian sky god, An, emerges from the sea, rays of light emanating from his shoulders. As An steps out of the water, his foot rests on the shoulder of a kneeling human, and the god climbs stair steps up the world mountain. Enki, the water god, remains in the briny depths.

Sumerian cuneiform texts tell creation myths of Nammu, a goddess and the mother of amu to an-ki, Heaven-and-Earth, a single universal being made of two parts: An and Ki, male and female. From their union came Enlil, god of the air, "who brings up the seed of the land from the earth" and whose blowing separates An and Ki, heaven and earth. As in heaven, so on earth: The Sumerians watched kings mount steps to the peak of their ziggurats, the mountain-shaped temples whose ruins still stand in Iraq near the site of Ur. Planting seed and hoping for the blessings of Enlil to bring bountiful weather to their crops, they saw the progression of life as a series of steps from sea to earth to heaven.

Strands of early Hinduism pictured the creation of the world in the form of a goddess rising up out of the waters, perched on a lotus blossom. An Indian relief sculpture dating from the third century B.C. shows the goddess flanked by elephants whose trunks grip large pitchers from which they pour the waters of heaven, so the blessing of water rests below her and falls upon her, like river and rain. Other Hindu myths from the Vedas - ancient sacred texts - tell of the cosmic giant Purusha whose dismemberment and sacrifice gave rise to all creation.

In the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia, the Unumbal people told a myth about how their rugged, rocky landscape got its water. Their cosmos began with a sky god, Wallanganda, their name for the galaxy we now call the Milky Way, and an earth god, Ungud, who took the form of a great snake. Wallanganda scattered water on the earth; Ungud deepened it. They slept, and out of their dreams arose the creatures that inhabit the earth. In the watery depths, Ungud discovered Wandjina, spirit- forms with wide, hollow eyes, long arms, and no mouths. When they emerged from underwater, they spread across the land, forming the hills and plains and refreshing them with falling rain. Then the Wandjina lay down on certain rocks in the landscape, leaving their impressions to watch over lakes, rivers, and springs. In a cave near a gorge formed by a tributary of the Chapman River, a vast tableau of red and black rock paintings of these and other fantastic figures was discovered in the 1950s. Archaeologists estimate them to be 17,000 years old.

The Haida people, of the Queen Charlotte Islands in the Canadian province of British Columbia, took the opposite position on the creation of the world. They believed the universe began with water, as told in the story of Raven, He-Whose-Voice-Is-Obeyed: "Not long ago, there was no land to be seen. Then there was a little thing on the ocean, the rest was all open sea. Raven sat upon this little thing. 'Become dust!' he said, and it became the earth."

In the creation myth told among the Pima Indians of the southwestern United States, primeval man emerged out of darkness to make the earth and the heavens. He put his hand into his heart and drew out a stone, then divided the stone into pebbles and tossed them into the sky to light the darkness. Wanting the world even brighter, he drew another rock from his heart and made the Milky Way.

At the other extreme, Kung Bushmen in Botswana saw falling stars as gifts from the great god who had ordered things at the very beginning. This god continued to give gifts to believers: ostrich eggs, bees and honey, giraffes, aardvarks, blood, the sun, and especially the medicine songs uttered ceremonially by tribal healers. The Kung named the power in all these gifts ntum. They could not pray for or to ntum, though. In the human realm, they associated it with death and fighting. Only a select few, the healers among them, could come into contact with ntum.

Through religion, human beings established a relationship with the gods they named and envisioned within the powerful forces of the landscape. In prayer and ritual, they communicated with their gods, hoping thereby to win their blessings and gain some control over the natural environment. In modern times, too, although science has discovered much about natural phenomena, in every corner of the planet, at every moment of the day, millions of people are at prayer or attending religious services, seeking divine intervention in the workings of the weather, and in the health, safety and happiness of living creatures, animal and human.

Some people may promise physical sacrifice - fasting, for instance, or temporarily forgoing a favorite food, or undertaking strenuous pilgrimages. Others promise to reform a personal habit, such as smoking or gambling or sleeping too late. Still others make offerings in the form of flowers, food, and water provided for temple or household gods; monetary donations to churches, mosques, and synagogues; and good deeds performed on the behalf of the less fortunate.

Throughout much of the first millennium, the Maya of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula believed that to receive the blessings of rain, they should propitiate Chac, the god who lived in the depths of Chichen Itza's sacred cenote. This freshwater pool is traditionally considered the dwelling place of the gods. Portrayed in Maya art with fangs, bulging eyes, and a long, curved nose, Chac was later known as the famous chacmool, the reclining figure who has come to symbolize Chichen Itza, one of the principal centers of ancient Maya civilization. Staring to one side, the stone statue balances a bowl for offerings on his stomach between his chest and bent knees.

Explorations four miles east of Chichen Itza in 1959 revealed a cave whose depths had not been plumbed for centuries. In it lay more than 600 artifacts of pottery - bowls, figurines, incense holders, some dating back to 1000 A.D. Details of design and construction suggested that the cache represented gifts left in the cave for Tlaloc, a rain god of the Toltec people who defeated the Maya at Chichen Itza at the end of the first millennium. When citizens from the nearby village heard the news of the discovery, they conducted special ceremonies before archaeologists dismantled the cave. The modern-day Maya told an archaeologist working at the site that the chacs, gods of rain, whose precincts had been violated, and the balams, guardians of the cave and the water sources, must be propitiated, not only to avoid retaliation on the individuals who had entered, but to ensure against possible suffering on the part of the entire population of the region.

Other Maya gods have been more voracious in their demands, their believers understanding that they must make ultimate sacrifices, often surrendering their own life or the life of a dear one, in order to placate them and secure their blessings for future generations. According to an account by a 16th-century observer, the powerful men living at Chichen Itza "had the custom, after sixty days of abstinence and fasting, of arriving by daybreak at the mouth of the cenote and throwing into it Indian women belonging to each of [them], at the same time telling these women to ask for their masters a year favorable to his particular needs and desire."

Some of the women, who had been pulled back up from the cenote, reported that they were received below by "many people of their nation" who gave them information as to whether the year would be a favorable one. Some of them, however, never reemerged from the cenote. In the early 19th century, archaeologists explored its depths and brought up copal incense balls - made from the resin of tropical trees - and incense burners, artifacts and jewelry of copper and gold, jade effigies, ceremonial knives, and human bones of men, women, and children: precious people and objects sacrificed in the hope of securing good favor from the gods.

Forces in nature often seem huge, malevolent, and oblivious to human concerns. Dotted across the planet, volcanoes exhibit all the fearsome strength of the natural world in its most awesome and terrifying aspect. On the Big Island of Hawaii, volcanoes have spewed their fiery lava across the landscape and into the surrounding ocean for hundreds of thousands of years. Kilauea, on the southeast slopes of the volcano Mauna Loa, is one of the largest and most active craters in the world.

According to island beliefs it is the home of Madam Pele, a violent and punishing goddess. The sister of a sea goddess and a shark god, Pele was exiled from her birthplace of Tahiti by her father, who could not abide her anger. She set off through the Pacific in a canoe, hounded by her vengeful sister, Namaki.

The two sisters' endless contests formed the Hawaiian Islands. Pele would plunge a stick into the sea, release the lava, and make a fiery pit in which to live. Jealous Namaki would create tidal waves, dowse the fire, and turn the lava to rock. Pele traveled from one place to another and finally settled on the Big Island. Its massive mountain, Mauna Loa, was so tall that there she could live untouched by Namaki's waves.

Now deep in Kilauea, Pele remains a watchful goddess, ever ready to erupt in anger. She moves among humans on the island, dancing and flirting, often accompanied by her white dog, but she becomes furious when a lover spurns her. She wrangles especially with Poliahu, goddess of snow, who dwells on the nearly 14,000-foot peaks of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa. Pele has come to embody the social conscience of the island's human culture, and may erupt in response to human cruelty, greed, or pride, and especially to the misconception that humans can equal or surpass the gods in understanding or power. To such hubris, according to island myths, she responds with an outburst of fiery lava, dense smoke, and smothering ash. The people of Hawaii place leis of tropical ferns and flowers on the lava rock all over the island, especially near active steam vents. With these gifts they express their humble respect for the goddess and the hope that Madam Pele will respond compassionately and spare them.

This link between the natural world, the moral order, and divine power is expressed in the story of Thor, the god of thunder, from the Norse sagas of Scandinavia and Iceland. Every roll of thunder meant that he was in heaven, wield- ing his hammer against his foes. Thrown far by Thor to strike down an enemy, the magical hammer would circle back and return to the hand of its owner. He also used it honorifically, hallowing things and people with its touch. Thor battled endlessly with Jormungand, the world serpent and symbol of evil. The sagas predict that they will kill each other in Ragnariik, Old Norse for the Doom of the Gods, a coming time of darkness, winter, and chaos, when the sun will dim, the stars will van- ish, and the earth will sink burning into the sea. Only the just will survive, living in a great hall of gold. For the time being, though, the universe is characterized by the constant strife between Thor and evil, and the thunder made by Thor's hammer still reverberates through the skies.

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