Gods Deconstructed

Beliefs and their objects, dismantled.

Archive for the tag “gods”

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/

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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.

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