I was once asked what I thought about Spiritualism, the belief in spirits of the dead. It’s one thing to dismiss it as nonsense, but it’s another thing altogether to understand why people came to hold that perennial belief.
Primitive people had a form of religion already in the prehistoric times: they thought that a spirit inhabited every element of nature. For instance, a mountain has a spirit. And a flower. And the moon. What facts of reality had led them to think so? The answer most likely lies in their dreams. When they dreamt of their dead friends, they began to believe in a resurrection of dead spirits. Furthermore, when they flew in their dreams while their body still lay on the ground, they came to think that a soul or a spirit can be separated from the physical body.
They did not welcome these spirits — presumably of their friends and relatives — but wished that they would remain underground, where they belonged with the buried bodies. For this reason they brought food to the graves, hoping to comfort that the spirits so that they would not come out. (Despite the progress of science and philosophy, this is still practiced today in China, during the great Chinese holiday of Qingming. Perfectly good food is placed on graves, and left there. When people leave, birds fly over and eat it.)
Another belief, which almost all primitive tribes shared, was the self-identification with a designated totem animal. It could be a bull, a snake, or a pig, for instance. The totem animal was tabu and could not be hunted and slaughtered for regular food. However, it was reserved for consumption on special holidays and ritual sacrifices.
There were two ideas that powered ritual sacrifices. First, the primitive people thought that through eating an animal they absorb a part of its spirit. Second, the spirits of the sky and the sun were responsible for weather and rain, and so it was for those gods that the sacrifices were made. (Already a hundred thousands years before the common era, the primitive people cultivated grains and therefore needed an appropriate weather.)
We continue to observe these same ideas in modern religions too, but in humane form. In primitive times an animal, or sometimes a man, was sacrificed in order to “absorb his spirit,” but today the physical body is replaced with a symbol. For instance, the Christian ceremony of eating the Eucharist cookie represents eating the flesh of the god Jesus Christ. Under such a comparison of the primitive past to to the enlightened present, we see that modern religions are, in fact, humane versions of past religions. A religious ceremony which appeared absurd at first glance, starts to make sense as a logical transformation from its cruel origins into a more humane form. (The next advance would be to reject the custom altogether, since the whole idea is based on the scientifically unfounded belief in spirits.)
Also, in prehistoric times, there appeared magicians which by way of magic spells and demonstrative examples could communicate with the spirits. For example, they could ask the god of sky to send rain. To do this, they may have performed a ceremony of demonstratively pouring water through a sieve, in the midst of a crop field. Most likely, it is from here that beliefs in magic, effectiveness of praying, and a serious perception of religious ceremonies arose. Perhaps, people first perceived the ceremonies as theatrical entertainment, and after many generations forgot that it was just a show, believing that it actually works. In the Greek mythology of the Iliad, the commander king Agamemnon kills his daughter in order to convince the goddess Artemis to send wind for his sail ships.
In time, the experts in communication with the gods have transformed into full-time priests. They exclusively performed elaborate ceremonies, permitting other people to specialize in other work.
Since I have touched the subject of the prehistoric society, I will tell you about another significant concept from those times. This is the concept of “taboo”, found in most primitive tribes across the world. It meant sometimes “prohibited” and sometimes “harmful”. For instance, it is forbidden to consume a totem animal, except on special days and by select people. If one consumes it wrongly then he surely would be poisoned, because for him it is taboo. In other words, for him, the food is equivalent to arsenic. The anthropologist J. Frazer of 19th century, suggested in his book “Totemism” that the pig was once a totem of the proto Jews.
Menstruating women were also taboo. Perhaps, they themselves came up with that idea so that men wouldn’t bother them during those times. However, it didn’t work out for them in the long run: it is most likely the origin of the perception that a sexual woman is a source of sin. For instance, in present orthodox Judaism, the sexual act is performed through a hole in a bedsheet. In the Russian Orthodox Church, the greatest sin (according to a Russian outspoken atheist Nevzorov) is when a woman mounts a man and enjoys herself.
Especially interesting is the fact that the system of totems helped the primitive people to avoid incest. They didn’t have a conventional concept of a family to which we are used today. For instance, a single man could impregnate several women, but instead of raising his own children would raise the children of his sisters. However, he was constrained to procreate only with those women who belonged to tribes with a different totem. Breaking the rule was severely penalized, sometimes with death.
Primitive people thought that via consumption of the totem animal by their ancestors, the animal became their own ancestor. They crammed at childhood that they belong to that totem and wore its symbol. Thus, it was difficult to mate with the a forbidden person by an honest mistake.
The idea that each prehistoric family tree should have its own totem transformed subsequently. In the early historic civilizations, we see that each household had now its own guardian angel or house god. For instance, in Greece and India there were thousands of such domestic gods.
Let’s move forward into early civilizations. In ancient Egypt, all gods are in a transitioning stage from animals into people. The body is human, but the head is still that of an animal. We also see the joining of animal gods with astronomical gods. For example, the god of sun has the head of a bird.
Not all gods received a human body, however. For instance, the bull did not get one in Egypt. Egyptians cultivated bulls with a special mark on the fur, thinking that the soul of a resurrected god Osiris would inhabit only such bulls. The priests would nominate a single “lucky” bull. This bull would be led in a ceremonial procession, while the townsfolk would pray to him and interpret his body movements. This repeated every year. If the same bull lived too long, he was drowned and a new bull was selected by the priests as the one possessing the spirit of Osiris. The painter Arthur Bridgman of the 19th century, portrayed such processions in his paintings.
Contrasting this with Canaans who lived nearby (today’s Israel), the bull god did receive a human body. Baal was sometimes a bull or a calf, but humanlike otherwise. It’s with him that the god of the Old Testament was fighting. Like every other preceding bull god, Baal represented procreative fecundity, yet he also was the god of rain. Nothing grows in Israel without rain. On the other hand, crops grow just fine in Egypt without rain, because the land gets fertile from the overflowing of the Nile. That’s why Egypt’s main god Osiris was connected with the the river.
In summary, this is how we can follow a historical thread from the beliefs of the prehistoric people to the religions of our times. The source of this information is “Our Oriental Heritage” by Will Durant.