The Beginnings of Religion

I. Development of "religion"

In the 20th century "religion" generally means a specific system of beliefs and rituals which emphasize not only faith in God or gods but a code of ethics or conduct and a distinct theology. Of the two aspects of religious life, ritual (what is done) reinforces and supports prayer and belief (what is said and felt).

In the ancient Mediterranean world, before the rise of philosophy and religion as presently understood, things were reversed. What is done (ritual) probably came first, and the explanation of why it is done and what is means came later.

Try to imagine an early agricultural society (preferably in Italy, since most of the evidence for the early stages of religion comes from Italic or Roman sources). The group would be very small by today's population standards, and the people's existence would be extremely precarious. Life was both hard and short; the death rate from disease, famine, and war was high; and the life expectancy of an individual who survived the first and most vulnerable year of infancy was probably only 20-30 years. Encouragement of fertility--of crops, animals, and humans--was essential for survival; and the humans depended for their support on divine forces that were obviously more powerful and effective than weak mortals.

Scientific knowledge about the movement of the sun, moon, and stars was centuries in the future, though the cycle of the seasons and the importance of planing, harvesting, etc. at specified times of the year were known. But what we now call phenomena of nature were strange and personal and powerful forces humans could not control. (Anyone who has lived through a tornado or hurricane or howling blizzard realizes that nature is still not completely under human control or prediction).

In addition, inner feelings and emotions were not well understood, and it was assumed that surely some divinity inspired anger or love or any other strong feeling. The influence of the family or the group was also much greater than anything in a mobile society like the U.S. (Though there are areas in the world where the clan or tribal standard of behavior still rules). In ancient times no one left home unless forced by the group who expelled him for some criminal or sacrilegious action. A person's entire identity--both social and religious--depended upon belonging to a family or a clan. The part was identified with the whole; the individual only had identity in society.

A belief in immortality was almost universal, but (at least in Italy) survival after death was collective and not individual, and the ghosts (manes) of the ancestors needed to be appeased every year at an official ceremony in February, the month of purification, or they would bring evil fortune to their descendants.

II. Relationship of the Divine and the Human

Magic and prayer are the two basic approaches to the divine forces. Magic implies compulsion--if the correct formulas are uttered and the correct rites performed, the deity mustgrant the request or do what the magician demands. Of course, magical rites may be either public or private, and performed in order to gain some benefit or to bring some disaster on an enemy (curse).

An example of magic performed to acquire something good is the Roman use of the lapis manalis, where the magician or priest poured water on a stone to encourage rain for the crops. (This kind of sympathetic magic--doing the action desired on a small scale--is similar to the rain dance of the Native American, though that is also partially prayer.) See Source #1 for an example dealing with ghosts.

The Romans made frequent use of the defixio or private curse, in which the individual would write or carve the curse on metal or other material (sometimes paper), drive a nail through it, and bury it in the earth in order to make the influence of the gods of the lower world more effective in bringing about the results. (Source #2).

Somewhat related to the magical element is the idea of the taboo (tabu), which usually means a restriction on certain activities, places, days, and persons. Just as the Latin word sacer, from which we get our English word "sacred", can refer to something or someone dedicated to the gods of the upper world ("sacred" in the modern sense) or to the gods of the lower world ("accursed" or "cursed" in English), so a taboo can be imposed for different reasons.

The Latin word religio, which becomes the concept of "religion", originally referred to the kind of emotion or feeling of awe which led people to honor the divinity or divine force present in an action, person, or thing. One form of this religio is the taboo, which prohibits or restricts what may be done (Sources #3 and #4).

The other major method used to gain divine favor is prayer, which depends on requesting rather than compelling the deity to grant what the petitioner desires. Unlike magic, where only making a mistake in the ritual can cause the spell to fail, prayer also implies that the answer to the request may be "NO" or may take a different form than desired.

However, even prayer and ritual need to be performed correctly in order to receive favorable hearing and action on the part of the gods. Again, the Romans, with their emphasis on strict legal forms, stressed this more than the Greeks. One mistake in the ritual, whether a private or a public sacrifice, meant that the whole thing had to be repeated unless the ceremony included an advance apology to the god for any possible mistake. (Source #5). Often the person or people offering the prayer and sacrifice would promise the god or gods involved more sacrifices and benefits it the request was granted. This attitude is summed up in the phrase do ut des--"I give that you may give" (Source #6).

III. Animism and anthropomorphism

At first in Italy the divine force which controlled both nature and human life had no personality, but were conceived of as powers with the ability to help or harm. The Latin word for this is numen (plural, numina). Particular spirits were associated with certain places--e.g., each spring or river had or was an individual numen, as the Tiber river was considered a divine force. Also, particular functions had their own guardian divinities, so that household numina called the Lares (the spirits of the ancestors) and the Penates (guardians of the storeroom) received regular gifts and honors.

Since Latin (as well as Greek) is a language with genders (masculine, feminine, neuter), many of these numina gained named and sex from their functions. Terminus, the god of boundaries, was originally the stone used to mark the dividing line between one farm and another and was only thought of as masculine because the name was masculine. In fact, Terminus basically remained a numen and was not pictured in human form.

This concept of religion accounts for the fact that the Romans told no stories about their gods and goddesses (no mythology in the Greek sense) and explains why early Romans did not worship their deities in temples, but rather at altars outside or within the house (Source #7).

As communication became easier and ideas of religion became more sophisticated, an individual numen might grow and become a truly anthropomorphic god or goddess. This process was probably influenced by the Etruscans and Greeks who lived near Rome and who personified their deities. For example, the Latin Venus most likely began as a spirit of fertility in water that encouraged the growth of crops in a particular place. Soon each Venus became identified with all the others, and, instead of being localized, Venus developed into a goddess with personality who encouraged fertility not only in crops, but also in animals and humans. Then, when the Romans heard stories of the Greek Aphrodite, they equated the two goddesses and transferred all the mythology of Aphrodite to Venus. In the 19th century, the British scholar ax Max Müller suggested, in fact, that all deities were such personified forces of nature (Jupiter/Zeus of the sky, Poseidon/Neptune of the sea, etc.) and suggested that all myths were ultimately "nature myths."

The areas of human life most affected by the activities of the divine may be summed up as fertility (both food supply and reproduction), health (including disease), war, and social relationships.

This material was placed on the web by Professor Thomas J. Sienkewicz for his students at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois). If you have any questions, you can contact him at

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