Paul Budde's History Archives

The emergence of formalised belief systems

The tribal society started to changes once the agriculture revolution took hold.. This started some 10,000 years ago and made it possible to produce food much more efficient. This opened the opportunity to wealth-creation and because there was a lesser need for hunting and gathering, people started to stay in what became the first towns and villages in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley. The combination of these developments also led to the need of protecting the newly created wealth and this led to the arrival of a small local elite.

The animistic belief system was no longer relevant within these newly emerging cit-based  societies and a new belief system started to emerge moulded around this new situation.

When the first city states started to emerge, there was a need for the local elite to have more formal rules and regulations. To enforce these rules and to give them legitimacy it was opportune to develop a new belief system that started to see spirits moving into deities and gods, There was a gradual replacement of their previous tribal belief system. For a while a mixture of old and new belief systems evolved but in the end the new system supported by the elite emerged. Outside the cities the old belief systems continued for thousands of years, with or without some new elements of the new belief system added to it.

The trances, communal dances and tribal rituals became more formalised. Prayers, shrines, libations, festival days and feast replaced the old spiritual traditions but basically played a similar role, keeping the people in the city together and reaping the social benefits of this cohesion. The spiritual and social developments in the Near East (Mesopotamia and Egypt) are good examples of these developments.

The big change was that now secular elements were included in that belief system which allowed the rulers to exercise power over their people. They used the many unexplained aspects of life and death to exert their power and created a society where they claimed to be able to influence the worldly affairs through direct links with the gods and the deities. Elaborate rituals were developed and used to evoke emotions that assisted them in claiming their special link with the god or even to claim that their king was a god (they were nearly all male).

Many stories in the Bible, the Torah and the Quran relate to this changing period from nomadic tribes to settled farmers. This happened in many parts of the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East Once settled they claimed a God-given right to those lands and to their superiority. They used the rule of the strongest and resorted to violence to create new cohesive societies. To enforce their authority on these people they demanded sacrifice and subordination.

The belief stories from these communities reflect the experiences of many of the hunter gathering societies moving into agriculture. So, in that respect these stories are extremely important to understand the move from the early tribal belief systems towards the more institutionalised forms of religion. Interestingly we can still recognise elements from those pagan beliefs in the so-called Holy Books. If one further unravels these Books than we see that they contain very relevant moral and ethical lessons. This is a clear continuation from the messages from the tribal communities which you can still find in for example the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories. At the same time, these Books continued to include secular law elements now more finetuned to give the rulers the religious legitimacy to exert their power over the people they were ruling. There was no division between the secular and the ecclesiastic. The Torah is perhaps the most prescriptive. Regulating all aspects in life often in minute detail.

These changes in society and religion were rather universal through the lands where the agriculture revolution started as well as in the regions in which it over time expanded. The old tribal based pagan believe systems were institutionalised into more sophisticated religious systems. The external powers became more and more personified and received human images.

When these agriculture societies grew, the systems around them became more complex and with this the belief systems became more complex. The Hittites for example ended up with 20,000 gods. One of the Queens launched a rationalisation process as the religious complexity had a negative effect on the ruling of its empire.

The Greeks went perhaps the furthest in the process of the personification of the gods, who were even frolicking around on earth. At the same time it were also the Greek with people such as Aristotle who started to use what we now call empirical science to provide a different view on how to experience the world around them.

Monotheism