The Basic Elements of Ancient Religions
In order to correctly, and more importantly, accurately discuss the basic elements of ancient religions, one needs to unravel the complex word that is “religion”. Before I carry on, the reader must understand that over history, there have been many different translations of religion, but interestingly enough, although they may be different, the majority of the translations carry the same fundamental message.
According to many religious scholars over the many millennia of recorded religious history, the etymology of the term “religion” is accredited as being Latin or Late Latin in origin (“religonem”, or “relegare” depending on which school of thought you come from), with the modern English term being derived from the Anglo-French word “religiun” meaning “state of life, bound to monastic vows” or “conduct indicating a belief in a divine power”.
However, many post-Classic etymologists (and some modern ones) have connected “religion” with the Latin word “religare” which means “to bind fast” or “to reconnect”. This explanation might seem irrelevant for this topic, but I feel it is a crucial part of the history that is “religion” and therefore is crucial to the elements that make up “religion”.
If one looks deeper into the prehistoric psyche of earliest man, one finds that the very earliest forms of religion are a result of the following of man’s basic social and psychological needs: •Understanding – the human traits of critical capacity, curiosity, and intuition •Identity – the need to belong to something and the elevation of one’s self-esteem The first basic element of religion is the belief that there are supernatural and/or superhuman beings and/or forces that created the world and those forces control everything that happens within the world.
This “belief” satisfies the human being’s need for understanding – the understanding of his own existence, the understanding of the creation of himself and the world he lives in and the understanding of the uncontrollable events that happen in this world. The second basic element of religion is the symbolic structure followed by the different religions. Again this element ties in with one of mankind’s fundamental needs – the need of identity.
Different religions adopted symbols and signs according to the deity, god or numen that they believed in. According to the Wikipedia encyclopedia, a symbol is defined as the following: “A symbol is something — such as an object, picture, written word, a sound, a piece of music, or particular mark — that represents (or stands for) something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible. Therefore, one can deduce from the above definition, that the first “religious leaders or believers” introduced symbols specific to their deity, god or numen, for the following purposes: •To represent the said deity, god or numen •To associate its followers •To represent the deity, god or numen •To represent what values the said religion, and/or deity, god or numen, stood for Examples of these can be found through history and some rudimentary symbols can be found in prehistory. An example of this is the discovery by associate professor Shelia Coulson (University of Oslo).
In the summer of 2006, Coulson along with some Master’s students, were doing a study into the origin of the Sanpeople amongst the Tsodilo Hills in Ngamiland, Botswana, when they came across the startling discovery. Amongst the “sacred” hills, there was a rock carved in the shape of a python’s head as well as a ritual cave. The importance of this find for the archaeological scholars was that the python rock, the ritual cave, and various artifacts found in the cave had been scientifically proven to be around 70 000 years old.
This was amazing because current historical thought was that religion only existed around 40 000 years ago. Therefore, as proven by the above-mentioned example, even at the earliest outset of religion, symbols were being made and used. These symbols, through the period of history, have evolved since our ancient ancestors started using them, but the principles behind religious symbols are exactly the same now as they were thousands of years ago.