On this site, I already talked about the role of religions in the development of human society. However, I concluded that it would be useful to discuss this subject in more detail. Religions play a crucial role in the development and functioning of humanity. No other species created them because they require a high level of abstract thinking. They are formed from a conglomeration of beliefs, where one depends on another. Some of these beliefs are static, and others undergo continual processing by creating new ones, reinforcing or abolishing the already existent.
Usually, these beliefs concern phenomena, which humans could not, as yet, explain. Later on, science made many such beliefs obsolete: now we do not need Zeus to use thunder or Judaic God to create life. Consequently, the scope of religious beliefs shrinks.
However, there is something unique about religions, which often is hidden by their creators. First, they are created by people, not by some divine forces, to fulfill specific social, political, and economic functions. Consequently: they can be compared to double-edged swords; sometimes, they are used to benefit and sometimes to damage humanity. I will begin with the early religions, which were mostly beneficial. They helped in everyday life, particularly in medicine, inspired creativity in the art domain and helped maintain egalitarian social structure by taming the genetically inherited masculine tendency to dominate.
It is assumed that the first religions, which humanity has created, appeared at least 35,000 years ago. During this period, the social form of our ancestors is called hunters/gatherers. This religion’s presence can be inferred from the archeological discoveries of rock paintings and engraving which, can be found all over the world in Europe, Africa, Asia, America and Australia.
They are definitely an art form because they have no pragmatic use for their creators. But, it is difficult to believe that they were produced only due to artistic inspiration, during times when humanity was enduring the difficult to imagine harshness of the last glacier period. Production of some of these artifacts required, besides creativity, a lot of effort and cooperation. Since these paintings usually depict animals and rarely humans or plants, it is assumed that they provide proof of the emergence of one of the world’s earliest religions, animalism. It is rare these days, but it still continues among some aboriginal people in Africa, Australia, and America.
On the surface, animalism is puzzling: how to explain that on the one hand, animals are hunted and killed, while on another, were treated as a kind of deity. Since there is a universally accepted explanation of this phenomenon so I will provide my own, I think that the presence of the animals depicted in paintings can be viewed as a form of exchange: animals are killed for food and other necessities (never frivolously like in the present trophy hunting), but in return, are humans adored and deified them to express their gratitude. Also, since some of the portrayed animals could be dangerous, our ancestors believed they could be appeased via adoration.
Animalism demonstrates close relations and respect to nature in which animals played a key role. Some cave paintings’ creators depict animals’ details with great precision, indicating the close connection with them and observation ability.
Cult of Maternity
Another oldest religion, whose appearance can be historically traced to the same period as animalism, is the cult of maternity (unfortunately in the article of Wikipedia pointed by the link, is used the outdated term “matriarchy” which means “the rule of the mother . Modern historian deny that such social form ever existed, in contrast to patriarchy – “the rule of the father.” The presence of the cult of feminity can be deduced from the archeological discoveries of numerous figurines of so-called “paleolithic Venus.”
The oldest comes from around 35,000 years ago and continues till about 4,000 years in Trypillia-Cucuteni culture. It clearly emphasizes the maternal aspect of femininity. These kinds of figurines were found worldwide in Europe, Asia and America.
Again, we witness this cult’s pragmatic character: women gave birth to new members of the hunter/gatherers band what was critically important for its survival and continuation. Also, women who gathered various plant foods to supplement meat from hunted animals became familiar with their medical quality. Particularly beautiful artifacts are found among in Trypillia-Cucteni culture around 5,000 years old
The cult of maternity was probably instrumental in maintaining the egalitarian structure of hunter/gatherers, preventing the re-emergence of patriarchal domination for a hundred thousand years.
Even now, in remote corners of Slavic Europe continues the tradition of wise-women, called in Polish “wiedźma,” in loose translation means “she who knows.” In English, such women are usually called witches. However, the fanatic Christianity both Catholics and Protestants United eliminated witches by burning ay stake, drawing and other forms of tortures. Priests and their hatchmen were afraid of their knowledge and equated it with the Devil’s influence. It was a late stage of the ruthless eradication of the cult of feminity, which began around 4,500 to 4,000 years ago when the fiercely patriarchal, nomadic pastoral societies invaded Europe and South and Eastern Asia. However, it was so deeply ingrained in the human social consciousness that complete destruction was impossible. Feminine deities are present in practically all polytheistic religions, like Hinduism, ancient Egyptian, Celtic, Etruscan, Aztec Incas, G Nordic, and well known Greek: Rea (the original mother of gods)., Afrodite, Athena, Hera and more. https://www.slavorum.org/8-fascinating-slavic-goddess-you-should-know/. They also survived in folk stories and art like Russian Matryoshka dolls, Japanese dolls and Hopi kachina figurines.
Even in Christianity, which is strongly patriarchal, there is present Virgin Mary as a mother of Christe and innumerable Catholic female saints.
Finally, most likely, the women who, because of their knowledge of wild plants, initiated the agricultural revolution by exploring possibilities of domesticated them. Ironically, agrarian societies eventually contribute to patriarchy’s growth, which dramatically degraded women’s social role.
The still existing forms of animalism are closely related to shamanism. Most likely\shamanism arose from animalism when humans expanded their beliefs in animal spirits to less tangible, magical forces. Shamanistic rituals use a variety of forms like performing special ceremonies, music and intensive dances and eating and smoking certain hallucinatory plant extracts, connecting with spirits of the dead, etc. A shaman plays the central role in such ceremonies. He (or often she) is also supposed to cure illnesses, appease evil spirits, and divest the future. It is difficult to trace when shamanism emerged because only artifacts demonstrating this religion are relatively new. However, most likely, shamanism emerged much earlier, even before the patriarchal era around 4,500 – 5,000 years ago. Earlier, there were also women shamans,
which still occasionally are present in North America. In many traditions, such a person is called sorcerers or witches; both of them have quite noble etymological roots. In the Slavic tradition, such a woman in Slavic languages is called “wiedźma,” which can be loosely translated as “she who knows.” Thanks to Christianity, which ruthlessly eliminated any competition traces.”, such women were vilified, tortured, burned at stake or drowned.
Shamanism continues at present but among some native people of Syberia and America. In Tibet, shamanism exists for a very long time and can be equated to Bon’s ancient native religion.
As we can see from the above, early religion played a fundamental role in human social development. They were the result of the human desire to know and expand their horizons. Particularly important was the cult maternity, which resulted from the matrilineal structure of hunter/gatherers society. It also played a critical role in preventing men’s genetic tendency to dominate and change the egalitarian into a patriarchate.
Animalism was a motivating force for developing more refined art forms and inspired humans to observe difficult subjects such as moving animals keenly.
Shamanism was and, to some extent, still is, an important element in maintaining cultural identity for struggling native societies.
However, the general impact of these religions on modern society is minimal. The results of the growth of neolithic agricultural societies impaired the importance of both animalism and shamanism. However, the maternity cult continued until the invasion of patriarchal people around 5,000 to 4,500 years ago. At those times, the maternity cult was brutally abolished together with the residual forms of egalitarian structure. However, the upper echelon of the patriarchal, stratified society needed new religions to justify and support the new order.