The emaciation of the lexicon of human religious ideas in recent history is, in my humble observance, cause for concern. On a planet with seven billion intelligent and emotionally complex apes, shouldn’t we have a more diverse set of mythical paradigms? You there, reading this right now! I implore you: explore your own mythology. I don’t care if you are a Hasidic Jew or an atheist. Unless you are in a situation where practicing unique religious or a-religious ideas could put you or someone else in danger, I encourage you to look around, really look. You need not apostate your religion or atheism, but at the very least enrich it. The world is magical. If you have to redefine magic to believe this, redefine away. We’d all love to hear what you come up with!
In the interest of expanding the lens on religion, I’d like to talk a bit about nature worship, or “paganism.” Though this term has endured many meanings, I find the general gist it implies useful. Examining how nature worship came into being gives us a fascinating new context to put so-called “modern” religion into context.
It’s important to remember that today’s cultural views on “nature” are fairly new. With the dawn of agriculture, humans began viewing the environment around them as something under their control. If plants could be grown, animals tamed, and ground repurposed, the world could bend to suit the needs of man. The resulting “settlements” were built on the implicit assumption that the earth had finally been “tamed” and would continue to support life without the arduous need to move about the globe to forage and avoid inclement weather. If this assumption were not solid, it would have been hard to encourage nomadic humans out of their hunter-gatherer ways. Still, even in this new era of Earth seemingly under humanity’s thumb, culture began to evolve to accommodate the forces of nature.
The first human religion was arguably what we often refer to now as “paganism.” It’s generally accepted that the word pagan first appeared as a pejorative term for peasants of the Roman Empire, those who didn’t conform to the teachings of the Christian god. It was likely used as a catchall term for polytheists, atheists, and practicers of magic. But nature worship and polytheism appear much earlier in human history than ancient Rome. Though Hinduism is regarded as the oldest religion in the world by many noted Historians, dating back to at least 1500 BCE, polytheism and theism in general are regarded as much older. Primitive cave drawings and sculptures dating back thousands of years before Common Era depict god-like supernatural forms, such as the impossibly voluptuous Venus figurines and impressive animal-human hybrids. It’s impossible to say in what way primitive humans viewed these representations as deities, but it’s certainly not outlandish to infer they looked to them for comfort or guidance.The creation of art that represented otherworldly forms may have been the spark that fueled the creation of more complex and organized polytheistic religions such as Egyptian gods, Hinduism, and Chinese folk religion. It’s likely our nomadic ancestors created deities to make sense of the often-chaotic natural world and passed these gods onto their agricultural descendants to aid them in harvests and war. Thus it’s not surprising to think Paleolithic humans may have prayed to idols of women and animal-human hybrids. The female form, especially in its oft-exaggerated relief, is a perfect symbol of fertility and perhaps, by association, power and creation. Lion, snake, and goat-headed humanoids may have been dreamed up to inspire the channeling of strengths from the “natural” world, acknowledging that there is a little of these animals in all of us (which, evolutionarily speaking, there is!).
The construction of belief paradigms based on “natural” forms and phenomena can easily be conflated with the Christian church’s definition of “paganism.” Yet the people persecuted across the ages were hardly the goat-worshipping witches we often think of when we see the word pagan. More likely than not, pagans were just believers in the traditions that had been absorbed from the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures. The celebration of Saturnalia, a winter solstice holiday, and praise for the many Greek/Roman gods existed for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Still, it wasn’t long after the reign of Emperor Constantine (the first “Christian Emperor”) that these beliefs were shunned into obscurity, leaving us with the fragmented understanding of paganism we have today.
Despite its seemingly long history of persecution, the reverence and worship of nature has actually endured longer than any other “religion.” Throughout history, paganism has enjoyed its fringe believers, often in some of the darkest corners of human history. Supposed “witches” in Europe and the Americas were aggressively hunted for allegedly “casting spells” on innocent God-fearing citizens, using twigs, bones, and animals in their sacrificial routines. In reality these people, most commonly poor women, were likely the shamans and spiritual guides of their small pagan villages. It seems crying witch was a convenient way to get rid of bothersome or threatening women (and what intelligent woman isn’t threatening, right?). Slaves brought to the Americas from Africa also maintained complex polytheistic beliefs before many were forcibly converted to Christianity. Their unique culture and shared faith likely gave them hope in beyond desperate times.
Truths held by human cultures are based on specific experiences, and the shape of the world can vary greatly through each individual set of eyes. The prevalence of Abrahamic religions today (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) denotes a departure from the specific identification of the forces of nature and an embrace of a more mythically obscure god. While devotees of these religions may scoff at the idea of a fire god or god of fertility, they seemingly have little trouble acknowledging a single omnipotent being that controls all reality. Though much of the intolerance for archaic religions seems to have evaporated, supposed “witches” and “heathens” are still persecuted in many countries and in some cases, these attacks still kill hundreds or thousands of people a year.
Will we ever turn a true corner on religious freedom in which we don’t care what deities people choose to pray to or abstain from? Will we ever stop blaming supernatural forces for our human quarrels? Should our goal be to eradicate myth and superstition or simply to evolve it? I’d like to explore these questions in the coming months in this blog series.