Evolution of Belief: An overview of the earliest beliefs
Before I move on and delve further into the evolution of belief I thought it would be useful to consider what I have revealed in the past few postings and discuss what evidence there may be for my conclusions.
- Throughout the past posts dedicated to the evolution of belief I have stated that the beliefs of early humans did not constitute religion. There was no superhuman controlling the lives of early humans and no rituals dedicated to the worship of a superhuman. Mountains may come to life, seas and rivers may cause floods and earthquakes may rip the earth but these were ruled by their own entities and did not control humans.
- In Animism I discussed the belief that everything is inhabited by spirits and that spirits are real, part of the physical world. I use are instead of were because animist beliefs are still to be found.
- In Totemism I covered the social development of small family groups and the refinement of beliefs in spirits, in particular the belief that the spirits of animals could be associated with family identity within groups.
- In Fetishism I tried to show just how confusing it is to understand the evolution of belief in relation to specific developments in ideas and how early beliefs are in a state of confusion, how animism, totemism and fetishism were and are intertwined.
- In Shamanism I discussed political rivalry and the special people who could speak to the spirits.
- In The First Gods I put forward the suggestion that although shaman were supposedly able to speak to the spirits, sometimes things could go terribly wrong, how shaman travelled between family groups and, unlike ordinary humans, had time to think and invent stories. I also discussed how political rivalries continued to develop between family groups’ leaders and shamans.
Future posts will discuss the merging of beliefs as larger social structure developed, the emergence of tribes and the full integration of shaman into those tribes.
Before then I want to discuss examples for my suggestions that early beliefs saw spirits as part of the real world and, in doing so, raise a criticism of other’s suggestions that humans are always searching for new ways of seeing the world and their place in it.
Two examples I want to consider are Australian aborigines and native North Americans. Both are significant in that they are isolated from European and Asian societies and their beliefs.
In Australia, aborigines, previously semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers but now largely confined to townships, who believe in spirits that are closely associated with the land and sea. Those living near the coast tend to see spirits associated with fish and birds, those further inland with birds, animals and lizards. Aborigines believe in Dreamtime a time before the creation of the Earth. However, Dreamtime and Earthtime are coexistent, extant, one as real as the other, spirits as much a part of the world as physical humans, animals, birds, lizards, fish and so on. They also have gods and goddesses. The god of the mountain, the god of the lake, and so on. These are worshipped, though not in a particularly organised way that could be called religion. Different tribes, also known as clans, have different gods and goddesses. Their beliefs remained the same until the arrival of Europeans in the seventeenth century.
Native North Americans arrived in the land we know as America between nineteen and thirteen thousand years ago. It is difficult to establish in what order waves of migration took place, partly because so many hypotheses have been presented. Some of these can be put down to overt or subconscious racism, where the producer of the hypothesis seems to want to prove that ancestors from their own part of the world were the first to discover the land and therefore to lay claim to it or prove that their own people had a reason for the eventual attempts to commit genocide against the inhabitants when Europeans arrived. What ever the truth, by thirteen thousand years ago a wave of migration established peoples with distinctly Asian features. They brought with them their beliefs and hunter-gatherer skills and developed them in their own way as they became isolated by the receding ice and rising seas. The tribes that emerged believed in spirits that were real, as real as you and me. They had some gods who were worshipped and would be consulted in times of need and they too are real. Their shaman became medicine-men, those who would heal the sick and wounded and who could converse with the gods and spirits. Spirits and gods related to the land, the environment anf their social structures. Rituals like dances and discussions developed but became rigid and virtually unchanged until the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
One common factor emerges from both examples. Unless there is a significant change in environment, a significant disaster, a change in social structure or the influence of migration, beliefs do not change. Humans do not look for new beliefs; they favour the beliefs they are taught by their parents, the beliefs in which they are familiar.
A new site that may be of interest: http://www.navajoindian.net/