Evolution of Belief: The First Gods
Try searching “first gods in history”. Chances are you will find many sites that claim the Christian’s God or the Jew’s Yahweh or Islam’s Allah was the first god. You will also find sites that claim the Egyptian or the Sumerian gods are the first known. You may find more helpful references by searching for information on deities, although the word deity arises from the same Latin root as the word god. The English word God is directly rooted in the Germanic word Gott and arrived in England via the Anglo-Saxons.
The truth is to be found among all those sites but compared to the number claiming theirs was the first god they are relatively few. The truth is that we don’t know. We cannot know who invented the first gods because we can only find written references to gods that already existed, and we know they already existed because they were named. There is no written reference to an unnamed ‘god of the mountain’, to a ‘god of the earth’ or a ‘god of the river’ or even a ‘god of the sea’.
So, how can we speculate with any confidence why the first gods arose and what they were? Gods could not have arisen before humans began to believe that there was a separate spirit world. Had the gods been like the ‘real’ spirits humans first believed their ancestors to be then they would not, could not, have had supernatural powers. Without supernatural powers they would not be gods. Those first spirits were real humans, the only difference being that they were dead. But the dead, because they were real, were able to watch over humans and warn them of impending danger.
Then came early shaman-like characters, possibly storytellers who travelled independently from family group to family group but who gradually decided they wanted a share of the political power of the leaders of those groups. The shaman invented a separate spirit world, a truly brilliant idea that was based on their politically-motivated ambitions. And the spirit world was accepted relatively easily as it merged well with a world with which humans were already familiar: their dreams.
Yet in that emergence of belief in a separate spirit world there came a significant evolution of belief itself. Before the spirit world, human beliefs were much the same as some other animals or birds. They were beliefs about the real world, concerned with whether there was something in the shadows that could be dangerous. There was a gradual evolution into animism with the belief that every living, including humans and even dead humans, had a spirit. In the emergence of the spirit world, however, humans began to use their ability to think abstractly. They had invented their first virtual world. It was a world that would come to influence every aspect of their lives including their arts and crafts and even the way they conducted themselves.
As it was, for the shaman there was plenty more that could be wrung out of the ‘spirit world’ idea. The spirits of the dead could also warn humans, through their dreams – which could only be interpreted by the shaman, of course – when disasters like floods or earthquakes were due or when mountains were coming to life.
Except that some of those predictions failed to come true.
Why did predictions fail to come true? There could only be a certain number of excuses that would be accepted by members of family groups – and especially their leaders – before everyone began to question the shaman’s abilities. Family group leaders had plenty of things they could use to placate the people: a sweet-tasting berry from a tree to which the people could be led to as a reward for hard work; areas where herbs could be eaten that would make people feel good and forget their anger or questioning; areas known for good hunting at certain times of the year. The shaman would eventually take a significant part in this role but that was far in the future. For now, the shaman needed another reason why predictions didn’t always come true. Maybe the spirits had leaders and the shaman were talking to the wrong leader? Maybe the shaman wasn’t able to placate the angry spirit of a dead leader or wasn’t able to encourage the leader’s spirit to act because the shaman didn’t show enough veneration?
But aren’t these suggestions pure speculation? There can be no substance to them. It’s just guess work. OK, well let us see if we can gain any insights from events that have taken place in the the recent past. Religious leaders in America were beginning to lose influence when along came the weather in the form of a hurricane. The devastation in New Orleans brought huge relief to America’s religious leaders. The hurricane was God’s revenge for not venerating him enough, for not obeying his teachings. Come back to God and this won’t happen again! Hallelujah, brothers and sisters! Or the devastation caused by the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. It was because people were not godly enough and had to be punished. History is full of the ranting predictions and warnings of the religious and especially religious leaders at times of disaster.
Of course, we are not talking about religion here. That is far more organised than mere belief. No, we are talking about belief and how it emerged and evolved. There had to be a good reason why humans should be ready to develop their beliefs in a supernatural world yet further. It would have to be a very good reason. And there was. Humans had an acute desire to understand why something happened, especially the things they had no control over like floods, earthquakes and volcanoes.
Nowadays, we learn about the world using our advanced technology. It is important to remember that technology then consisted of shaping pieces of wood, bone, antlers and flint. Few people these days realise just how long it took humans to discover any form of technology beyond forming these simple tools to make simple huts, boats and clothes made of skin. The first proto human fossils date from around three million years ago. Modern humans, as we would recognise them, are variously thought to have emerged from Africa between one hundred thousand to seventy thousand years ago. By a mere thirty thousand years ago homo sapiens sapiens (us) had become the dominant, if not the only, human sub species left on the planet. Yet technology beyond the use of working stone, wood and bone did not evolve until after the first use of agriculture around twelve thousand years ago and the bronze age began around five thousand five hundred years ago. So, for the best part of human existence humans had not learned to smelt metal. But for around one hundred thousand years human had a modern, questioning brain.
When we discuss the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the age of steel and so on it is easy to think that human technology developed in distinct stages. It just did not happen like that. For instance, in many areas of the world the inability to smelt the constituent parts of bronze continued long after smelting had been discovered in other areas.; the stone age continued long after the bronze age began.
It was the same with thinking and ideas. It has been recently suggested that humans evolved rapidly because of conflict. This is an interesting line of thought, though it is doubtful if inter-family group conflict was the cause. There is good reason for querying this. Humans were relatively few and far between. It can be confidently speculated that humans, certainly in more remote areas of the world, would have lived their entire lives without meeting another human outside of the family group and the odd travelling shaman. The carriers of conflict are more likely to be the shamans who travelled from area to area, spreading their ideas embedded within their fictional but inspirational stories, teaching dances and songs – and challenging leaders for political supremacy. If they won, they would settle in with the family group; if they failed they had lost nothing but face and could move on to the next area where a family group roamed. After all, one family group was unlikely to know what happened within any other family groups.
So, it should now be fairly easy to imagine how family group leaders and then tribal leaders may have learned to fear and respect shaman. A shaman meant conflict.
Shamans had plenty of time to invent their stories and to incorporate their ideas within them because they spent so much of the time alone, travelling between family group and family group. They did not have the daily chores of bringing up children and ensuring that every member of a family was fed and remained healthy. They had themselves to feed and clothe and plenty of time to think. What emerged from their thoughts was the answer to the problem of predictions coming true. It wasn’t leaders of the spirit world who guided shaman; no, there were no spirit leaders. No, it was powerful supernatural beings who could order earthquakes or floods or volcanoes to erupt. The world was held ransom to the whims of these supernatural beings, these gods. And in order to placate the gods, humans must worship them and make sacrifices of their most important possessions to them.