Caves at Altamira and Lascaux offer a glimpse of Paleolithic spirituality in the numino us
paintings of deer, bison, ponies and shamans disguised as animals. These were probably the first temples
Religion and mythology are the products of human imagination.
Myths describe another plane that is supposed to exist along side the world one can observe. The basic theme of mythology is the imagined world which can function as a potent reality for some. Pioneers of religion told the people that believing in and acting on the edicts was the only way to reach gods; a single God among the monotheists.
In the ancient world, gods were regarded as superior, not supernatural beings. All existence was made up of the same material and subject to the same laws and inextricably bound together. Gods were linked both with natural phenomenon and human behavior.
Mythology and religion were invented to help humans to cope with their problems, to bear misfortune with fortitude and hope for a better living after death. They finally offered a God who was transcendent.
Myth has lost the status it enjoyed at one time. now is akin to fiction. (Now) We dismiss the stories of gods walking the earth, dead men emerging out of graves and seas parting to let favored tribes escape. But in the pre-modern world, myth was an event, which not only happened once, but which happened all the time. Mythology is a timeless human art form.
Religion is a developed and organized form of mythology. Sufis and followers of mysticism offered ecstatic bliss but, rationalism and lately fundamentalism have overwhelmed human thought process, so people look for it in music, poetry, dance, drugs and sex.
Myth/religion offers a hypothesis; rituals take on the function experiments have in science and performance provides new insights into the world.
A myth/religion survives as long as it is effective in providing solace. It dies when it is no longer provides solace. It gives hope and transforms life if the directions are followed.
Post WW II alienation with myth/religion thrived for several decades.
Religion is fighting its way back to the forefront.
Myth/religion in pre-modern days actually served as psychotherapeutic treatment. Gods descending fighting monsters. People imitated them to cope with own inner crises. Freud and Jung instinctively turned to mythology to explain their insights.
Religion is an attempt at a Unified Theory of Existence though a single unified version of myth/religion has eluded us. As circumstances change, we tell our stories differently. But they (all religions) have features in common.
Human social evolution was still in pre-agriculture stage. Writing had not been developed yet, but the stories have survived in the mythologies of the Pygmies and aborigines, who are still in the hunter-gatherer stage.
These people are highly conscious of spirits in their daily lives. Australian aborigines experience “Dreamtime” in their sleep, which is inhabited by their ancestors, who taught humans hunting, sex, weaving and other skills. They would be truly lost with out the Dreamtime.
Every culture has a myth of a lost paradise indicating evolution of human kind from one stock and the notion that good times were in the past. At the core of the belief system was physical link of the earth with the heavens through a tree or a mountain or some other elevation. Then the grave occurrence, the first a sin was committed by the first human couple, induced to do so by the Satan. (It is not quite clear if it was with the knowledge and consent of the creator, or if the creator was not paying attention or the Satan was able to circumvent divine will). As a punishment, the mountain collapsed, the tree fell down and the earth and heaven got disconnected.
The story, according to Karen Armstrong, a leading and sympathetic scholar of religion, was not intended to be historical; it was instructional to keep the human kind on the straight and narrow path. All cultures moan thee loss of paradise.
Separation of life from religion would have been as inacceptable to a member of the hunter-gatherer society as, as it is to most of the faithful of all religions, even today. The ancients pondered over any earthly object, as though it was a counter part of its heavenly partner. Waxing and waning of the moon was a manifestation of sacred renewal. A stone like the black stone in the Kaaba in Mecca was often a sacred object). Trees, stones and heavenly bodies were epiphanies of a hidden force.
Sky was one of the earliest symbols of divine. Looking at it was often a religious experience. Thunderbolts, eclipses, sunsets, rainbows and meteors were an endless, active dimension wondrous and scary. Rudolf Otto, a great historian of religion, the sky was “Mysterium tremendum, terrible et fascinans-tremendous mystery, terrible and fascinating”.
At some point it became the Sky God”, also called “High God”, who created heaven and earth, and all the contents, and out of nothing. This concept of Sky god, according to anthropologists, exists among the Pygmies and aborigines. He is the First Cause of everything, the ruler of earth and heaven, watches over them, and will punish wrong doing. But he does not micro-manage life. He was often said to have gone away.
Mesopotamians, the Vedic people and Canaanites, all subscribed to this concept. Over the course of time he became subsidiary to more dynamic, accessible and useful deities as Indra, Enlil and Baal. Baal exhibited his power in every thunderstorm; Indra helped you defeat your enemy.
The anthropomorphic stories of marginalizing are interesting. Kronos, the son of In Greek mythology, his son Ouranos, castrated him.
The God of Jews, Christians and Muslims is very resilient; He has recouped his losses of the modern age in the revivalist and fundamentalist movements. But this God has dominated for only about 5,000 years. The Sky God ruled for 20,000 years or more.
The impact of the Sky God, though lives on the association of height with the divine. Humans still reach for the sky and have developed techniques of trance and concentration to ascend to the higher states of consciousness. Mountains are holy in most faiths and stories of ascension appear in all cultures.
Karen Armstrong, referring to the ascent of Jesus and Prophet Muhammad to the Heavens, would have it that these stories ought not to be taken literally.
The two prophets simply broke through to new level of spiritual attainment. This trend is derided by atheists as ‘apologetics’.
During the hunt of the Paleolithic period men had to leave the women and children of their tribes in caves in relative insecurity for long periods of time. The Shaman went into a trance to commune with gods to seek their assistance to secure his people.
The hunters found it difficult to accept that they had to destroy other lives to live, because the blood of animals flowed like that of men. To overcome the revulsion of hunters to the flow of blood of animals, all religions evolved the ritual of animal sacrifice based on the old hunting ceremonies, which honored the beasts for losing their lives so humans could survive.
Among the ancients only the Greeks had developed what they called logos, the pragmatic and scientific methods, which helped them to function successfully.
Others resorted to religion/myth.
But logos had to correspond to objective facts. In pre-modern times, logos and myth were taken as complimentary to each other and different roles were therefore assigned to them. Myth helped them deal with the emotional aftermath.
The Caves at Altamira and Lascaux offer a glimpse of Paleolithic spirituality in the numinous paintings of deer, bison, ponies and shamans disguised as animals. These were probably the first temples.
Initiation ceremonies were central to ancient religions. They remain current in an abbreviated form in conversion to Islam and Christianity.
The hunter, the shaman and the novice, all had to face fearful trials. All cultures have myths about heroic quest. Prometheus stole fire from gods for humanity. Aeneas had to leave his family behind, with his homeland on fire, descend to the underworld, before he could found Rome. Even the lives of prophets and historical figures like Jesus, and Buddha are described on the pattern.
Hunting was a male activity. But females were the most ferocious and formidable. The earliest of the small figurines, depicting a pregnant woman is that of Artemis. She is one incarnation of the Great goddess, the source of life and mistress of all animals. She is vengeful, implacable and demanding. If rituals were not performed properly Artemis exacted sacrifice and shed blood herself.
Archaeologists found a large stone relief of the goddess giving birth in the town, Huyuk, in Turkey. They date to 7th-6th millennium BC. This points to the matriarchal age and presumably a tribute the reproductive power of the female. It was women and not the expendable men, who ensured continuity of the tribe.
—–S.M.A. Ehtisham is a veteran progressive activists who was one the members of the University of Karachi Students who participated in the meeting of NSF in Karachi in 1955 when the process of takeover of NSF by progressive students started. Later he moved to Dow Medical College and participated actively in left-wing students’ politics. He is also author of a book titled “A medical Doctor Looks at Life on Three Continents”