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Religion & Legends                   6,000 BC
Africa
Southwest Asia
Egypt
Indus Valley
China
Europe
South America
Mesoamerica
North America
Other

Africa

 

Southwest Asia 

  The archaeology and ethnography of the past half-century have made it clear that the ancient civilizations of the Old World ­ those of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete and Greece, India and China - derived from a single base, and that this community of origin suffices to explain the homologous forms of their mythological and ritual structures. ...the beginnings of this epochal flowering have been traced to a neolithic base in the Near East, the first signs of which have been identified c. 7500-5500 BC, and to the sudden appearance in approximately the same area, c. 3200 BC, of a syndrome of priestly discoveries and crafts, including an astronomical calendar, the art of writing, a science of mathematics applied to and attempting to coordinate the measurements of space and time, and the conception of the wheel. Nowhere else in the world have any of the elements either of the neolithic assemblage or of higher civilization been identified at levels of anything like these depths; and the probability of a worldwide diffusion from the Near East of the basic arts, not only of all higher civilization, but also of all village living based on agriculture and stock­breeding, has consequently been argued with bountiful documentation, by a group of scholars of which Professor Robert Heine­Geldern of Vienna is today the leader. (128)

This reconstruction of a "cult center" at Catal Huyuk shows the importance of the cattle motif. All early complex societies evolved rituals and religions that functioned as organizing and controlling institutions. (46)

In the eight-thousand-year-old settlement at Catalhoyuk, evidence indicates that the bull was worshipped and its skull built into shrines, a practice known to exist in Egypt. (70)

…worship of the Cretan Dionysos and of the Eleusinian goddesses Demeter and Persephone, with whom he was intimately associated, has been traced back to a pre-Indo-European horizon, beyond which point their ancestries are lost in time. Identified as Mysteries in the first millennium BC, these initiatory Aegean cults had far more in common with Near Eastern traditions, particularly those of Anatolia and Syria, than with Homeric beliefs. Like all of the mystery religions of antiquity, they held that the divine and the human spirit were essentially one, that man contained within himself the seeds of divinity and the potential for immortality. Whatever their tenets in earlier times,…the presence of well-developed prototypes of Demeter, Persephone, and a Dionysian child-god on a leopard among the icons at the sixth millennium Anatolian center of Catal Huyuk suggests that the worship of these divinities was a great deal older than has been imagined. (115)

If Catal traditions may be said to reach backward into Upper Paleolithic times, their forward reach seems to have extended into the Bronze Age and beyond. Mellaart is only one of several prehistorians who have found the religion and mythology implied in Catal symbolism to be remarkably similar to that of Minoan Crete and the oldest stratum of Greek religion and myth. Although some three thousand years separate Catal Huyuk from the Minoan civilization, he feels that the numerous symbolic parallels indicate a common ancestry for the two cultures. (115)

Our survey of the shrines of Catal Huyuk will suggest not only that prototypes of the mystery religions of many lands were present at this Neolithic site; the complexity of symbolic forms, plus the unmistakable decadence revealed in the dense and overgrown iconography of Level VI in particular, indicate that some of these cults were already at the exhausted end of one cycle by the middle of the sixth millennium BC. (115)

Migrants from these dying communities may well have contributed their spiritual traditions as well as their bodily numbers to the exceptionally crowded conditions in Levels VII and VI at Catal Huyuk (c. 5700- 5500 BC). The breakdown of religious distinctions is suggested by the melding and overlapping of these diverse traditions in the Catal shrines. (115)

The tails of leopards or lions extend up the back and over the shoulders of the seated female at right, recovered from Level II. Presumably the portrayal of a goddess, this clay figurine is the first recorded example of a type known in later traditions as the Mistress of the Animals. No less widely celebrated than the Master of the Animals, the Mistress was largely identified with the Mountain Mothers of antiquity. Lions and leopards were especially consecrated to Kybele; Rhea is often shown seated between two lions in Greek statuary. It is perhaps not important which name she bore at Catal Huyuk. Rhea, Kybele, and such regional counterparts as the Cappadocian Ma are believed by many scholars to have been one and the same goddess, a deity of the pre-Greek populations of the Aegean and Anatolia. (115)


Reconstruction of an early phase of Shrine VI.10 at Catal Huyuk, west and north walls. Height of panel, 12 feet. Mellaart has compared the Twin Goddess relief to the even larger construction that dominated Shrine VI.10, and it is possible that Persephone's prototype figured in this composition as well. His tentative reconstruction shows the stylized goddess-form apparently giving birth to another horned child; this time a small ram's head had been positioned just below her body. Within the doorlike frame supporting the goddess were set three superimposed bulls' heads. On either side cavernous niches had been cut into the walls. These and the several limestone concretions that seem to have been brought into this shrine from caves suggested to Mellaart an orientation toward the underworld: "a chthonic cult of the Great Goddess as mistress of the underworld."(115)

Characteristic of this new epoch was a massive settling down of presumably nomadic peoples from northeastern Iran to Mesopotamia, creating the greatest single increase in agricultural settlements known to any period of prehistory. Domestic plants and animals were everywhere in evidence; scarcely a site was without the hexaploid, free-threshing grain known as bread wheat. Irrigation would have been necessary for its cultivation at many of these new sites, which frequently were situated in regions unsuitable for dry farming…when mid-sixth-millennium carbon-14 dates are corrected to calendar time, the dawn of this new impulse will be dated to approximately 65/6300 BC. With Iran the center of action, it seems more than fortuitous that this date should almost precisely coincide with that given by learned Greeks for the birth of Zarathustra, the Iranian prophet whose reforms were as much economic as spiritual. To settle, to plant--particularly in those places which could be made fertile only by the efforts of man--to raise cattle large and small: these were the imperatives of Zarathustra's economic reform. (115)

Earlier still was the polytheistic religion that Zarathustra reformed. Before the coming of the prophet, the Iranian people apparently had worshipped a pantheon of gods who personified physical phenomena: sun, moon, earth, fire, the winds, the waters. These ancient divinities of nature are hymned in the Yasts of the Younger Avesta (as is the god Mithra), and it is generally agreed that although the Yasts were collected later, many of them reflect traditions which are actually older than the Gathas. Some Iraniologists feel that Zoroastrianism was forced to assimilate these popular deities to its creed, but others have argued that Zarathustra himself was instructed to respect the ancient faith and not to undo entirely the archaic forms of worship, particularly the reverence for fire, which was to play such a prominent role in Zoroastrian rites. The prophet was not to be the founder of a new religion as much as the restorer of an old one, a faith whose purity had been defiled by what one early Iraniologist termed "disorderly idol worship." (115)

The first of these conserved traditions centers around the pressing of a consecrated plant (Iranian haoma, Vedic soma) whose juice was thought to exhilarate and heighten the powers of the drinker. A ceremonial mortar and pestle, emblematic of the Zoroastrian priesthood, were used to pound the haoma; the juice was then collected and filtered through a ring around which three, five, or seven hairs of the sacred bull had been woven. The symbolic use of a ring entwined with bull's hair in the Zoroastrian ceremony has suggested to scholars that the sacrifice of a bull was once part of the haoma ritual. Some have further concluded that an excess of animal sacrifice was partly responsible for Zarathustra's apparent denunciation of the haoma. As the haoma ceremony was to be one of the most important Zoroastrian rites down through the ages, these Iraniologists feel that what Zarathustra actually condemned was not the ritual as such, but an orgiastic perversion in which the wanton slaying of cattle accompanied the abuse of intoxicating plant subbstances. And as Mithra was traditionally associated with animal sacrifice in general, and with bull sacrifice in particular, these theorized excesses are most frequently attributed to the worshippers of that ancient god. (115

The second principle of particular importance to both Old Iranian and Vedic religion, and again conserved by Zoroastrians, is the association of fire with the concept of a universal order: asa in Iran, rta in India. At once cosmic, liturgical, and moral, this ordering principle was held to govern every aspect of existence, from the rhythms of the cosmos and the workings of nature to the conduct of men. In India the highest sky as well as the fire altar was the seat of rta (from the verb "to fit"), a term that is used several hundred times in the Rig Veda. In Iran the fire was protected by Asha, Right Order; the righteous man was asavan, possessing asa, an upholder of the right order of things. Zarathustra himself would claim to have seen into that order, vowing "while I have power and strength, I shall teach men to seek the Right [Asha]" (115)

The ethics of Zarathustra's followers were the ethics of life in this world; their prayer: "May we be those who will renew this existence". The renovation was to be accomplished through husbandry. Zarathustra is not presented as the inventor of agriculture; in Persian tradition that distinction goes to more ancient kings. He is, however, said to have been the first to put the husbandman at the center of his religious system, over the priest and warrior. Zarathustra's reform was vigorously missionary in spirit, committed to bringing the word of the prophet to all mankind. When a hitherto nomadic tribe becomes converted to the Zoroastrian religion, it abandons its former unsettled mode of living, builds permanent dwellings, and cultivates the fields. (115)

There would in any event have been little requirement for the liturgical services of Zarathustra's priest, at least not at first. Those who receive the message of the prophet are invited to hear with their own ears, without intermediary, and to judge for themselves the truth of the teaching. (115)

The exceptional fertility, the presence of a limitless supply of water for irrigation, and the growing web of canals for transport meant that the few could provide for the many. Prosperity led to more prosperity, and soon one of the world's great civilizations emerged as a people and culture known as Sumerian succeeded from their ancestors, the Ubaids. There flowered among them an amazing pantheon of gods, one for every need. A very superstitious and fatalistic people, they believed in predestination but also that the future could be revealed by divination. They sought a cause for all events among the gods. Small wonder that their entire history was recorded in myth. By 3000 BC these people had invented writing. Using wedge-shaped styli to inscribe symbols on tablets of wet day, they recorded the everyday events of their lives and immortalized their myths, religious beliefs, and practices. (131)

Another interesting transitional feature of Catalhoyuk was the evidence of religion found in the dwellings. Clay figurines of what has been defined as both the 'Goddess of the seasons' and 'Mistress of the animals' hark back to the Venus figurines of Gravettian culture, although we must be careful about using such loaded terms to describe these figurines. At the same time a shrine adorned with bulls' heads seems to presage the more organised religions that were to emerge in subsequent millennia. (145)

c. 6500-6000 BC Height of Catal Huyuk culture on the Anatolian plain, practising excarnation and an advanced form of death-trance shamanism that features the vulture. The Jarmo community flourishes in Upper Iraq, its direct contact with the fallen race being preserved as abstract serpentine art. (149)

Egypt

 

Indus Valley

 People of the Vedanta (a Hindu system of history and philosophy as expansive in scope as the Judeo-Christian system) believed that a new civilization arose in the Himalayas and on the Indian subcontinent. The Vedanta was apparently refined enough to have a singular cosmology and a comprehensive history (in the oldest, most perfectly preserved Vedas) by 6000 BC. The Indian subcontinent apparently did not feel the effects of the Anunnaki until Ishtar's move into the Indus Valley, well after the Cataclysm. (113)

The first of these conserved traditions centers around the pressing of a consecrated plant (Iranian haoma, Vedic soma) whose juice was thought to exhilarate and heighten the powers of the drinker. A ceremonial mortar and pestle, emblematic of the Zoroastrian priesthood, were used to pound the haoma; the juice was then collected and filtered through a ring around which three, five, or seven hairs of the sacred bull had been woven. The symbolic use of a ring entwined with bull's hair in the Zoroastrian ceremony has suggested to scholars that the sacrifice of a bull was once part of the haoma ritual. Some have further concluded that an excess of animal sacrifice was partly responsible for Zarathustra's apparent denunciation of the haoma. As the haoma ceremony was to be one of the most important Zoroastrian rites down through the ages, these Iraniologists feel that what Zarathustra actually condemned was not the ritual as such, but an orgiastic perversion in which the wanton slaying of cattle accompanied the abuse of intoxicating plant subbstances. And as Mithra was traditionally associated with animal sacrifice in general, and with bull sacrifice in particular, these theorized excesses are most frequently attributed to the worshippers of that ancient god. (115)

The second principle of particular importance to both Old Iranian and Vedic religion, and again conserved by Zoroastrians, is the association of fire with the concept of a universal order: asa in Iran, rta in India. At once cosmic, liturgical, and moral, this ordering principle was held to govern every aspect of existence, from the rhythms of the cosmos and the workings of nature to the conduct of men. In India the highest sky as well as the fire altar was the seat of rta (from the verb "to fit"), a term that is used several hundred times in the Rig Veda. In Iran the fire was protected by Asha, Right Order; the righteous man was asavan, possessing asa, an upholder of the right order of things. Zarathustra himself would claim to have seen into that order, vowing "while I have power and strength, I shall teach men to seek the Right [Asha]" (115)

China

 

Europe

 …worship of the Cretan Dionysos and of the Eleusinian goddesses Demeter and Persephone, with whom he was intimately associated, has been traced back to a pre-Indo-European horizon, beyond which point their ancestries are lost in time. Identified as Mysteries in the first millennium BC, these initiatory Aegean cults had far more in common with Near Eastern traditions, particularly those of Anatolia and Syria, than with Homeric beliefs. Like all of the mystery religions of antiquity, they held that the divine and the human spirit were essentially one, that man contained within himself the seeds of divinity and the potential for immortality. Whatever their tenets in earlier times,…the presence of well-developed prototypes of Demeter, Persephone, and a Dionysian child-god on a leopard among the icons at the sixth millennium Anatolian center of Catal Huyuk suggests that the worship of these divinities was a great deal older than has been imagined. (115)

The tails of leopards or lions extend up the back and over the shoulders of the seated female at right, recovered from Level II. Presumably the portrayal of a goddess, this clay figurine is the first recorded example of a type known in later traditions as the Mistress of the Animals. No less widely celebrated than the Master of the Animals, the Mistress was largely identified with the Mountain Mothers of antiquity. Lions and leopards were especially consecrated to Kybele; Rhea is often shown seated between two lions in Greek statuary. It is perhaps not important which name she bore at Catal Huyuk. Rhea, Kybele, and such regional counterparts as the Cappadocian Ma are believed by many scholars to have been one and the same goddess, a deity of the pre-Greek populations of the Aegean and Anatolia. (115)

…the earliest attested example of religious reform in Greece comes to us with the enigmatic figure of Orpheus, the legendary musician whose song could tame wild beasts, move stones and trees, and even abrogate the laws of Hades in his descent in quest of Eurydice. However mythicized Orpheus had become by the sixth century BC, he is generally believed to have been a real person, a religious leader whose teachings were to influence Plato as well as Pythagoras. It is unlikely that he lived before the late second millennium BC… What Orpheus found, in Crete or Thrace or both, was a form of Dionysian religion that evidently sought transcendence through maddening music, dance, wine, and, at the pitch of excitement generated by these devices, the rending of certain animals. What Orpheus did, it is said, was to replace the licentiousness of this cult with asceticism. Retaining the Dionysian idea that man might become god, Orphism held that abstinence and purification rather than physical intoxication were the means by which divinity was to be achieved. Not only was the drunkenness of the Thracian cult denounced, but also its excesses of animal sacrifice. The Orphic ideal, in short, was a Dionysos "tamed, and clothed, and in his right mind--in a word, Apollinised." Although he is most often associated with Dionysos, Orpheus is said to have been a priest of Apollo, whom he accounted the greatest of gods and identified with the sun. The reforming principle is itself considered to be Apollonian. To transform orgiastic rites through order and reason, to bring the solar principle to the lunar, to emphasize the unity (monotheism) rather than the diversity (polytheism) of god--these are all traditional ways of expressing the spirit of reform. The elevation of fire above the other elements is also Apollonian (and Orphic)… The belief in a spiritual creation which precedes and informs the material one…is found not only in Plato and Orphism but also in the doctrines of Egypt and India. In Iranian religion as well, every terrestrial phenomenon has an invisible transcendent prototype, not unlike a Platonic Idea. (115)

[Zarathustra] is said to have been older than Plato by 6,000 years; some say that he was a Greek, or a man of that nation which came from the Continent on the other side of the great water. He is said to have learnt universal wisdom from the Good Spirit, that is from the excellent understanding. His name translated into Greek means Astrothutes, a "star-worshipper." (This passage appears among the scholia preserved in the margins of the Alcibiades I, attributed to Plato.) That the prophet was said to have learned wisdom from the Good Spirit is…true. Ahura Mazda, the supreme god, included Good Mind (Vohu Manah) among his immortal aspects, and it was through the medium of what might be called this "excellent understanding" that Zarathustra is said to have received his revelation. Ahura Mazda is also associated with Spenta Mainyu, the beneficent spirit of Iranian religion, whose opposite number is Angra Mainyu or Ahriman, the destructive spirit. Although Zarathustra himself is generally believed to have preached what one Iraniologist described as a pure monotheism against a dualistic background, the tension between these two forces of light and darkness would later harden into the rigid dualism for which the Zoroastrian religion is renowned. (115)

South America

 

Mesoamerica

 

North America

 

Other

 The Australian Aborigones offer a wonderful subject for meditations on the nature of humanity. Consider: these people lived in what may have been nearly complete isolation for more than 40,000 years in an ecologically diverse continent, and when first encountered by Europeans in the 17th century, their technology hardly approached the sophistication of the Neanderthals: just simple stone tools and rudimentary wooden implements; and yet they evolved a kinship system and cosmology that most graduate students in anthropology have struggled to comprehend in all its complexity--and probably never do.(24)