Some Theories about the Origins of Religion

Intersection of "Myth" and "Religion"

Rudolf Otto (1917): Myth as "the vestibule at the threshold of the real religious feeling, an earliest stirring of the numinous consciousness."

Northrop Frye (1963): Myth as "a story in which some of the chief characters are gods."

Contributions of Poetry

Giambattista Vico (1668-1744)
myth as an expression of the childhood experiences of the human race
"Poetic wisdom" as a conception of a science of mythology. Mythic narrative as having a logic of its own that is achieved through the power of imagination, or fantasia, a primordial power of the mind through which the world and human experience are first given order.

Herder and Heyne. 18th century.
Myth is creative. By projecting himself into his environment, man finds truyh.

"Poets made the myths and gave them character."

Myths as religious and poetic inspiration.

A reaction to rationalism. Growing suspicion of reason.

Use of metaphor.


Sir William Jones. late 18th century.

Discovered the linguistic and cultural links between European and Indian sky deities led to discovery of Indo-European. The god in all of these languages is called "He who shines, father":

Zeus pater  Jupiter Dyaus pitr  Tiu Vater

Scientific Study of Myth and Religion
Karl Otfreid Muller 1825
Muller agreed with Tylor that religion began as spirit worship. But he rejected Tylor's view that the earliest people believed spirits dwelled in nature. Instead, Muller suggested that prehistoric people thought that the forces of nature themselves had human qualities, such as good or bad temper. People thus transformed these forces into deities. In this way, Muller explained the earliest belief in gods.


Heinrich Schliemann and Sir Arthur Evans. Late 19th/early 20th centuries

Their work at Troy and Mycenae (Schliemann) and Knossos (Evans) revealed the cultural antecedents of Greek mythology, religion, and culture in earlier, Aegean civilizations (e.g., Minoan in Crete, pre-Helladic on Greek mainland).


Spencer (1876) Ancestor worship as the root of every religion

Edward Tylor (1871): Religion as a "belief in Spiritual Beings", i.e., animism. Belief in soul in all aspects of nature.

Max Muller. 1909
Nature Myth

Sir James Frazer. The Golden Bough (1917) Comparative approach. Concept of dying vegetation deity.

ritual: rites of passage, acts of propitiation, sacrifice, fertility rites

fetishism: worship of or reverence for inanimate objects such as lumps of wood or stones which were believed to contain supernatural powers.

totemism: origin of humans from animals and hence worship of animals

Emile Durkheim The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912)
leading French sociologist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. who sought the origins of religion in society, rather than in the individual human mind. Distinction between things that are sacred and things that are profane.
Magic is not religion. Though it may involve sacred things, magic is not real religion, because it is done individually.

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937)
German scholar of religion who believed that an awareness of holiness and mystery lies at the heart of religious experience and is therefore the basis for all religions. In his view, all human beings possess the capacity for awe and recognize the power of the sacred. For Otto, the holy is the true, the good, and the beautiful, a representation of a basic and universal aspect of being human.
Myth as "the vestibule at the threshold of the real religious feeling, an earliest stirring of the numinous consciousness."

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