The Mysterious Origins of Myth and Religion and the Primordial Patterns of Human Consciousness
Part 1: Roots Of Religion, Seeds Of Myth
Today, there are roughly 4,200 religions active in our world. Of these, 24 have at least 500,000 followers. These 24 religions account for 97% of all religious believers. (1) (2) (3)
Here, in order by size, are the 24 dominant religions:
African (Traditional, Diasporic, Kardecian Spiritism, Voudun)
Juche (North Korea)
Falun Gong (China)
Tenrikyo (Japan, Brazil)
Cao Dai (Vietnam)
Ahl-e Haqq (Iraq, Iran)
Neo-Paganism (Shamanism, Celtic Druidism, Norse Asatru, Wicca)
There are also about 1.1 billion people who fall into the secular category. They include non-religious persuasions such as agnosticism, atheism, and humanism. Since the world population as of May 31, 2009 is estimated to be 6.78 billion, approximately 16 percent of the world falls into this nonconformist group. (4)
This group includes all the individuals who are “spiritual,” but do not identify with or officially belong to one of the major religions above. Therefore, this group is not “godless” per se. They are simply those who do not belong to and participate in an organized religion. However, this group does include atheists, Marxists, and others who may be aggressively anti-religious or “anti-God.”
Some readers may be surprised to find Scientology listed as a major religion. Its inclusion does not mean I endorse it (or oppose it). In order to represent the most influential religions of the world, the cutoff point was placed at 500,000 members. My research — at the time of this writing — indicated that it haa at least 600,000 members, and its claim to have reached 8 million persons is not unfounded. In a large, independent survey conducted in 1990, Scientology was found to place in the top 10 religions practiced in the United States, above the Baha’i, Sikh, and Neo-Pagan/Wiccan faiths. (5)
These numbers demonstrate that organized religion is a major influence in people’s lives. Furthermore, we live in a time of rapid change where many new influential religions are being created. For example, the Baha’i Faith, said to have 7 million members worldwide, was founded in 1844. Falun Gong, thought to globally have at least 10 million practitioners, was started in the 1980’s. (6) (7)
To understand the roots of religion, you will need to look at the Neolithic origins. You will definitely want to adopt a historical perspective based on available science.
I’m not looking at this or that religion. I’m here to look at “religions” in order to find the common ground, a basis for religion to unify and liberate us, not divide and imprison us.
Ultimately, I want to find a way that this thing called “religion” can work for us. If religion is a process that brings us fulfillment, that increases happiness, well-being, and connectedness, then I’m interested in it.
But if religion is not designed to promote these benefits in our lives, why should we be interested in it?
I’m respectful of the views and feelings of every reader about this controversial subject. Mainly, I advocate the freedom for each of us to think for ourselves. This does not mean something so simplistic as “believing” in God, e.g., being a theist, versus “not believing” in God, e.g., being an atheist.
I invite the reader to embark on a journey of self-knowledge. To paraphrase a modern mystic, “If you do not know who you are, how can you possibly hope to know who God is?” (8)
If this line of investigation is unfamiliar, flip it around and consider the opposite point of view: “The less you know about yourself, the better your chance to know who God is.”
This is like saying, “The less you know about yourself, the better!”
No rational, thinking man or woman can honestly make such a statement.
The line between religion and philosophy is a fine one. For reinforcement, I’ll call upon the immortal advice from the great Socrates, as recorded by his famous student Plato — “Know thyself” — and move on. (9)
The Secret Revealed Right Here
There is no need for the reader to plow through 50 pages (of this Part and of the rest that will be added) to find out what I have to say. Here is the most liberating point that I can make based on my research into religion and mythology:
An inquiry into the roots of religion is, ultimately, an inquiry into the nature of the human mind.
The mistake made by many, perhaps most, who ask questions about God or their faith is that they study “God,” but they don’t study their own minds.
When the mind is studied directly, it is seen that “God” cannot be anything other than an idea.
This is not a reductionist statement. This is not the same as saying, “God is only an idea.”
If you disagree and assert, “God is more than an idea, He is a living reality,” then you’re correct. You cannot be otherwise, as presumably, you’re describing your own experience. Your own experience of necessity must be correct for you.
You’re saying that God is a “living reality” for you. If you’re telling the truth, then it is true for you.
However, I know that there are billions of people who are not having the same experience. They may even be having an experience of God, but it is not the same experience. It may be of a different God with a different name who is spoken to in a different language. It could even be the experience of another member of the same faith that is different.
For example, there is no evidence that all Christians are having the same experience of the Christian God. If they are, then why do one in 10,000 people in the United States, a predominantly Christian country, commit suicide? To put this number in perspective, there are more deaths by suicide in this country each year than there were American deaths in the Vietnam War. (10) (11)
I’m not singling out Christianity. Suicide is a global problem. The United States is known as a Christian country, with three out of every four adults calling themselves Christians, but it hosts many other faiths. There are plenty of atheists in the United States, and they commit suicide too. (12)
In fact, research has found that atheists have the higher suicide rate. This may be due to the absence of a religious taboo against suicide. Logically, the belief in an afterlife or the lack thereof would have an impact. Since atheists are supposed to be more rational, the higher suicide rate is certainly an illogical outcome. But the facts appear to be quite clear on this. (13)
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that religiosity can potentially serve as a protective factor against suicidal behavior… [and] religious affiliation is associated with significantly lower levels of suicide compared to religiously unaffiliated people, atheists, and agnostics. (14)
The Cave of Beginning
It is well documented that man had domesticated fire by 600,000 B.C. He was able to create, maintain, and move a controlled fire from one place to another. (15)
These paleoanthropic people were hunters and gatherers. It is believed that the hunting and killing of animals had a strong ritualistic component for them. A state of “mystical solidarity” existed between the killer and the killed. The bloodshed was revered as a sacrifice. These concepts of death, blood, sacrifice, and new life, via the “blood of the lamb,” as it were, live on today in modern religious rituals. (16) (17)
Today, the killing of cattle and other food animals takes place in sterile, mechanical death factories. For the hunter of 30,000 years ago, the experience was very different. The animal had sacrificed his life so that the hunter and his family could live on. This made the animal sacred. Since the tools of the human hunter gave him little advantage over his powerful prey, he felt equality, not dominance. Next time, it could be he, the hunter, who would be sacrificed to the hunt. (18)
Archeological findings regarding man’s early religious habits date from Franco-Cantabrian cave rock paintings of 30,000 years ago. Unfortunately, it is impossible to be sure exactly what this cave art signifies. However, the paintings are completely congruent with the beliefs of modern-day primitive hunters as documented by anthropologists. Mircea Eliade, a highly regarded expert on comparative religion, elaborates on these beliefs. (19)
Primitive hunters regard animals as similar to men, but endowed with supernatural powers; they believe that a man can change into an animal and vice versa; that the souls of the dead can enter animals; finally, that mysterious relations exist between a certain person and a certain animal (this used to be termed ‘nagualism’)… In addition, certain patterns of religious behavior are peculiar to hunting civilizations. For example, killing the animal constitutes a ritual, which implies the belief that the Lord of Wild Beasts takes care that the hunter kills only what he needs as food and that food is not wasted. (20)
Another surprising finding is that the phases of the moon, which are repeated every month, were studied, recorded, analyzed, and applied in daily life at least 15,000 years before the development of agriculture. Furthermore, there is bone evidence for the magico-religious ritual use of stories and symbols by paleolithic man as far back as 135,000 B.C. (21)
Further, numerous experts find in the cave paintings and other Neolithic evidence of ceremonial religious activity strong indications that the people of this time and place practiced a form of shamanism. Incredibly, this vigorous tribal spiritual tradition remains strong today.
Long before there were organized religions, there were shamans… archeological remains — from cave paintings to bog bodies to Bronze Age vessels — show that shamanism was endemic among ancient European peoples from the Stone Age to the early post-Roman era. Most shamans occupied a marginal, dual position in their communities and functioned as liaisons with the spirit-world through the medium of trance. (22)
Shamanic traditions past and present involve animals and hunting in the context of a three-layered world. Above live the sacred spirits. Below live the dead with the power to poison the human realm. Between these two dimensions, the world of good spirits above and the world of bad spirits below, the human realm is sandwiched. Via trance attained by drumming and other systematic means, the shaman is thought to travel to these realms to negotiate good hunting results with the higher realm and to nullify disease and other negative forces trying to seep up from the underworld. (23)
Outrageous as it may sound today, the gifted shaman of the past and present is thought by believers to be able to separate his “soul” from his body and consciously travel to other dimensions. Having achieved this via specialized ecstatic trance, in some cases enhanced by the ingestion of a psychoactive substance, he is not only able to leave his body, but he is also able to talk with superhuman personalities and obtain blessings from them. In the trance state, it is believed that he can enter the bodies of other humans or animals. He can also allow his body to be taken over or possessed by the soul of a dead person, a spirit being, or an actual god. (25)
In Native American culture, the shaman is called a “medicine man.” In this capacity, he is thought to perform healings, lift curses, offer counseling, and provide, via divination, insight into the future. In sum, for his tribe, the shaman fulfilled key functions we would recognize today as the priest, the physician, the psychiatrist, and the seer. (26)
Fantastic though these achievements sound, we see such abilities on display any week we choose. Turn on the television, and dramatized via high-tech special effects will be these very abilities. The ability to fly, to shape-shift, to visit heaven and hell, to face and deal with good and bad entities, to heal, to predict the future, to possess the body of another or to be possessed by another are all talents found in abundance in the plots of modern-day television and film stories. Also familiar is the taking of drugs to enter into an ecstatic, but potentially dangerous, trance or altered state.
For shamans past and present, the cave is a special place. Since the cave is closer to the underworld, it is considered to be a passageway to the lower realm. In its silent, secluded darkness, trance states are more easily achieved. The cave also symbolizes the womb of the Earth Mother and the human journey from physical birth to physical death. In the cave for the shaman is also the possibility of spiritual rebirth, the transcendence of the tomb, the resurrection of the spirit. (27) (28)
I find this theme echoed in the story of Jesus rising from the dead, emerging from a cave-like tomb after three days. As it turns out, Mohammed, the founder of Islam, the world’s second-largest religion, went into a cave to receive the teachings of Allah. Since the pivotal moments for the founders of the world’s two dominant religions took place in caves, that would seem to cement their supernatural significance. (29) (30)
The Seeds of Myth
We are inclined to think of ourselves as advanced compared to ancient man. As we have seen, tens of thousands of years ago, long before the invention of writing, a sophisticated spiritual system was already in place. Though conventional religious persons may disagree, the similarities between the ancient shamanic principles and practices and those of modern-day religions far outweigh the differences.
Aside from the claims of divine incarnation, which, of course, are not different in substance from the shamanic claim of being possessed by a god, traditional organized religion seems to offer little that is new. Ritual sacrifice, deities, demons, blood, heaven, hell, rebirth, and the need for intervention by special spiritual intermediaries were all standard fare for the shaman and the tribe he guided and protected.
If anything, it is startling, given the many technological changes, how little has changed. We talk on cell phones that, not long ago, were the stuff of science fiction, then enter a church to be saved by ritual sacrifice and holy blood. The names have changed, but the story remains the same.
Even more, telling is the fact that the primary myths, which dominate the religions and entertainment media of our high-tech world, were already developed and articulated within the shamanic tradition. In fact, the evidence suggests that the fundamental myth patterns predate even the shamans of 30,000 years ago. As Mircea Eliade argues, these myths were born in the mists of an inconceivably distant past.
In short, it seems plausible to state that a certain number of myths were familiar to the Paleolithic populations, first of all, the cosmogonic myths and the myths of origin (origin of man, of game, of death, etc.). To give only one example, a cosmogonic myth brings on the stage the primordial Waters and the Creator… The immense dissemination of this cosmogony and its archaic structure point to a tradition inherited from earliest prehistory. Similarly, myths, legends, and rites related to ascent to the sky and ‘magical flight’ (wings, feathers of birds of prey — eagle, falcon) are universally documented, on all the continents, from Australia and South America to the Arctic. Now these myths are bound up with certain oneiric and ecstatic experiences specifically characteristic of shamanism, and their archaism is indubitable.
Equally widespread are the myths and symbols of the rainbow and its terrestrial counterpart, the bridge, the preeminent means of connection with the otherworld. It is also permissible to suppose the existence of a cosmological ‘system’ built up on the basis of the fundamental experience of a Center of the World, around which space is organized… Finally, we must always take into consideration the primary experience of the sacrality of the sky and of celestial and atmospheric phenomena. This is one of the few experiences that spontaneously reveal transcendence and majesty. (31)
The implication of this discovery is that these foundation myths are intrinsic to human nature. In the most ancient of times, many thousands of years before the invention of writing, these myths originated, one must surely say, out of a deep inner need.
Perhaps this need is best expressed as a yearning for stories that explain our situation, how we got here, where we are going, what our problems are, and how to solve them. The fact that they have persisted this long and remain compelling, even in the face of daily scientific wonders, suggests that this need for myth is built into human nature, much like the sexual drive and other known constants.
In scientific terms, given the successful transfer of this tendency over inconceivable spans of time, I’m forced to speculate that the story-telling tendency we see expressed as myths is hardwired into our brains and/or DNA. In sum, it appears that we actually need myths to function as human beings.
These myths may have become elaborated into global religious traditions with many millions of members, but the ancient evidence suggests that what is driving religion ultimately is our yearning for cosmic stories, for themes that resemble, not our everyday lives, but our nighttime dreams. It appears that we do not, as human beings, feel whole or complete until and unless we have numinous, supernatural stories to draw upon as support and as a guide for the conduct of our daily and collective lives. Viewed from this perspective, the function of modern religion is to fulfill that need in a form that is compelling for the contemporary person and that speaks to him or her in a rich, culturally resonant manner.
I began this section with the assertion that the study of religion is, in essence, a study of the human mind. Based upon the anthropological and archeological evidence, it is the nature of the human mind to produce myths that follow prehistoric archetypal patterns.
These mythological stories provide insight, meaning, and other intangible values critical to human functioning. The striking similarity between myths and dreams suggests that they have a common ground that is not recognized by traditional religious authorities.
— — Cont. — -
(1) Vlach, Michael, Classical World Religions List, para 1, http://www.theologicalstudies.org/classicalreligionlist.html, accessed June 16, 2009.
(2) Major religious groups, para 5, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Major_religious_groups, accessed June 16, 2009.
(3) Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents, para 2, http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html, accessed June 16, 2009.
(4) World Population, para 1, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population, accessed June 16, 2009.
(5) Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents, Scientology, http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html, accessed June 16, 2009.
(6) The World’s Major Religions and Belief Systems, para 3, http://www.cftech.com/BrainBank/OTHERREFERENCE/RELIGION/MajorReligion.html, accessed June 16, 2009.
(7) Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents,
Falun Dafa/Falun Gong, http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html, accessed June 16, 2009.
(8) God, The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, para 9–17, http://www.hinduism.co.za/god.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
(9) Velitchkov, Tatiana, Greek Philosophy, para 2–3, http://thephilosopherschair.com/tag/socrates-know-thyself, accessed June 16, 2009.
(10) Suicide in the U.S.: Statistics and Prevention, para 1, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-in-the-us-statistics-and-prevention/index.shtml, accessed June 16, 2009.
(11) Phipps, William, Christian Perspectives on Suicide, para 1, http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1924, accessed June 16, 2009.
(12) Atheism, http://creationwiki.org/Atheism, accessed June 16, 2009.
(13) Religious Affiliation, Atheism, and Suicide, http://www.adherents.com/misc/religion_suicide.html, accessed June 16, 2009.
(14) Lizardi, D. and R. E. Gearing, Religion and Suicide: Buddhism, Native American and African Religions, Atheism, and Agnosticism, para 1, http://www.springerlink.com/content/w238202221436w03/, accessed June 16, 2009.
(15) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, page 4.
(16) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, page 5.
(17) The Power of the Blood of the Lamb, http://www.christian-truth-ministry.com/The_blood_of_the_lamb.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
(18) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, page 5.
(19) Europe, Franco-Cantabrian cave art, http://www.chenzhaofu.cn/tuhui/16yfa01.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
This Web site shows a variety of these cave pictures. The photographs are excellent and the pictures can be clearly seen.
(20) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, pages 7–8.
(21) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, page 23.
(22) Aldhuse-Green, Miranda and Stephen. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2005, front jacket flap.
(23) Aldhuse-Green, Miranda and Stephen. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2005, pages 14–15.
(24) Russian postcard based on a photo taken in 1908 by S. I. Borisov, showing a woman shaman, most likely of Khakas (Siberian) ethnicity.
Altay shaman with gong.jpg, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SB_-_Altay_shaman_with_gong.jpg, accessed June 16, 2009.
Image of a postcard issued in the Russian Empire, early 20th century. Its original text says, “Un chaman (sorcier) d’Alatai”; it can be rendered as “A shaman (sorcerer) of Altai” in English. It can be seen also in the Museum of Tomsk. The ethnographer Hoppál identifies the shaman woman to be of Altai Kizhi or Khakas origin, admitting that which of the two origins cannot be decided exactly from the image alone.
This image (or other media file) is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This applies to the United States, Australia, the European Union, and those countries with a copyright term of life of the author plus 70 years.
Shamanism, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shamanism, accessed June 16, 2009.
(25) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, pages 24–25.
(26) Aldhuse-Green, Miranda and Stephen. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2005, pages 10–15.
(27) Aldhuse-Green, Miranda and Stephen. The Quest for the Shaman: Shape-Shifters, Sorcerers and Spirit-Healers of Ancient Europe, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London, 2005, pages 46–48, 62–64.
(28) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, pages 12–19.
(29) Facts About the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, http://www.riverpower.org/resurrection.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
(30) Hossain, Semonti, Islam Behind the Stereotypes, http://www.religioustolerance.org/hossain_01.htm, accessed June 16, 2009.
(31) Eliade, Mircea. A History of Religious Ideas: From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Volume One, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1978, pages 26–27.