Paul Budde's History Archives

The emergence of formalised belief systems

The agriculture revolution, which started some 10,000 years ago, 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.

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 involve their deities and gods as they had trusted that belief system throughout their tribal history.

The big change however 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 he 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 When becoming 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.