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MAPPING OUT WORLD RELIGIONS
DISCLAIMER: The map makes a lot of assumptions (given that we can’t really know what people believed before written, recorded history. The dates are also not to be taken as fact, but are a broad estimate).
Above is a map of the evolution of the world’s religions and belief systems. This map was put together thanks to Simon E. Davies at the Human Odyssey Facebook group. The map itself covers most of the world’s geographic regions and cultures: European, African, Semitic, Iranian, Indian, East Asian, Arctic, North American, South American, New Guinean/Australian and Oceanic.
Religion, spirituality and myth is the narrative through which human beings understand the world, themselves and their place in the universe. This narrative can be very unifying or divisive depending upon the circumstances involved.
Below I will make some brief points about the evolution of spiritual systems into the world we live in today.
DISCLAIMER: My posts below focus more on religious developments in the Near East and the Western World. there is much more that could be said about Asian religions as well as those of the Americas. Unfortunately this article is not broad enough to address all these things, but hopefully I can address them in a future article.
For about 95%-90% of human history we human beings were nomadic hunters and gatherers who lived in tribes of around 100 or so people.
Anthropologists have made the assumption that most nomadic folk were animists. Do we know if that’s true? We weren’t around back then, so we can’t be entirely sure.
The word “animism” is latin for “soul, life.” It is a belief that all things have a soul: plants, animals and even inanimate objects. Many tribal people prayed to animal spirits and incorporated spirit animals into shamanistic rituals.
Many animists see humans, plants and animals on an equal footing. Hunters and gatherers living in a tribe may have seen themselves as equals to the animals they were trying to either hunt or make peace with in the natural environment.
There is the Cherokee Legend “The Little Deer, Awi Usdi.” (If you want to read the whole story, you should click on the link.) A little deer tells all the hunters that they must only hunt when necessary, that they must pray for permission before they kill, and that they must ask pardon after they have killed. This story is an example of the attitude that many tribal people had in regards to their environment: take only what you need and be grateful to the animal and plant spirits for what you get.
Trees were considered sacred by many ancient people and believed to host holy spirits of life, spirits that provided human beings with fruit and shelter. The belief in the sacredness of trees existed in Druidic rites in sacred groves as well as with the Greek belief in Dryads (female tree spirits). Sacred trees and sacred oaks were widely venerated by the Germanic peoples before Christian times. In an attempt to completely extinguish pagan practices in the region, Christian missionaries cut down the sacred tree “Donar’s Oak” and used the wood to build a church. However, some of the Germanic tree traditions still exist in popular culture today – for example the Christmas Tree.
Water also contained powerful spirits. Hindus today still bathe themselves in the Ganges because they believe it is a sacred river (which is unfortunately very polluted). The Celts in Ireland also had a strong belief in sacred wells. This belief was so strong that many Irish Wells today are still considered sacred, but now they are associated with saints. This tradition has also lived on in the belief in “wishing wells.”
Polytheism is broadly defined as a belief system with multiple Gods, and a majority of the polytheistic systems around the world focus on a central pantheon of Gods.
As civilizations emerged, spiritual paths began to become more “humancentric.” This can’t be assumed for all civilizations. Some civilizations had a mix of animal and human worship, the Egyptian Gods represented the powerful traits of both animals and men. Other civilizations like Greece and Rome focused more on human deities.
Perhaps as humans began to cultivate the land and domesticate animals, they began to see themselves as superior to nature, and thus elevated the status of human beings in their own spirituality. (But this is just my guess, not to be taken as some kind of historical fact)..
Most Polytheistic pantheons have a mixture of both Gods and Goddesses. Polytheistic people see elements of the divine in both the masculine and feminine gender (just as many animists do). The existence of powerful Goddesses among ancient polytheistic cultures is perhaps evidence that women held more power in the beginning of civilization than they did later on (my guess). In fact, in the first written law code, The Code of Hammurabi, women actually had a great deal of rights compared to later civilizations. They had the right to own property, run a business and get a divorce.
Even in patriarchal Rome the chief deity of wisdom and strategic warfare was a woman, and women could hold roles of religious power: being a priestess or a prophet. There were also some rituals that only women were allowed to attend. So we see that even in patriarchal polytheistic societies, the existence of the female divine was still undeniable. This began to change in Rome with the conversion to Christianity.
Monotheism is the belief in one God.
Some of the first major monotheistic religions were Judaism and Atenism. Atenism did not last very long and Judaism was a religion of the Hebrew tribe (not anything mainstream). Christianity was the first monotheistic religion to be followed on a massive scale. I’m not going to cover the entire early history of Christianity in this text because that would be a lot to go over. However, I will mention a few brief points.
There is much debate over how Christianity started and if Jesus even actually existed. The first century CE was a very well documented time period in history – yet there is no mention of Jesus in Roman historical texts in the time. The first written accounts about the life of Jesus weren’t made until several decades after his purported death.
During this time there were a large number of cults that believed in similar ideas: Gods of light, a duality god of Good and Evil, gods of redemption and deliverance. Some say that Christianity was a cult cooked up in Alexandria. Christianity’s status as a “monotheistic” religion is also debatable since God exists as a trinity and that many pagan Gods were converted into saints.
Whatever the history of Christianity really is, the religion did become important when Rome converted in the 4th century CE. However, Christianity came into Rome as an alien influence and the empire collapsed only 80 years after its conversion.
In my opinion (not a historical fact) Christianity at its core was not meant to be an empire building religion. I believe that the original practice was supposed to be monastic. Jesus says the following in the New Testament: “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law…” Much of the language in the New Testament suggests turning away from the desires of the material world, turning away from family, and devoting oneself to the Kingdom of God.
Yet the monotheistic religion of Islam that evolved out of Christianity was much more successful in its attempt to unify diverse peoples. Before the establishment of the Islamic religion, the Arabian Peninsula was a place of warring tribes. But once these tribes embraced the religion by the 6th century CE, they stopped fighting each other and decided to fight other people instead.
The religion of Islam took over a large amount of territory in a short time. I’m not going to say Islam is the most tolerant religion, but there was never a big inquisition like there was in the Christian world. There was a degree of tolerance allowed for religious minorities (Jews, Christians, Sabians and Zoroastrianists) as long as these people paid a tax. It wasn’t ideal, and many of the people lived as second class citizens. But there was enough tolerance for diverse people to live together in relative sanity. (I’m not saying the Muslims never committed any wartime atrocities against religious minorities, but I’m saying that there were Islamic empires where religious minorities were treated with a degree of tolerance that was progressive for the time).
There were also some pretty progressive reforms passed for women (for the time). Women were given the right to divorce, inherit property (a fraction of what men could inherit), testify on a jury (although their voice was worth less than a man’s in certain situations), have her own money that her husband wasn’t allowed to touch and negotiate peace treaties in wartime. Islamic reforms also made some vulgar pre-islamic traditions illegal: female genital mutilation and the common practice of killing baby girls at birth. So, by today’s standards these laws aren’t very progressive, but the Muslim woman in the 7th century CE did have far more rights than the average Christian or East Asian woman.
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD AND RATIONAL MATERIALISM (1650-Present)
Up until the 17th century, religion was the primary vehicle through which people understood the world and most scientific knowledge was intertwined with religion. For example, many people believed that the Earth was the center of the solar system due to biblical scripture. Psalm 104:5 says, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Further, Ecclesiastes 1:5 states that “And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.”So Galileo got into major trouble with the church for promoting a heliocentric view of the solar system, even though the scientific evidence supported this model. Galileo was found guilty as a heretic under the Roman Inquisition and remained under house arrest for the rest of his life.
People in Europe became sick of religious fundamentalism after the Thirty Years War, which occurred just before the Enlightenment began. It was a bloody conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and it is said to be one of the longest and most violent wars in European history.
So after this period, many people in Europe were having a religious hang over. The Enlightenment Era emerged in the 1750’s as an era that emphasized intellect, reason and science over traditional forms of authority, such as the church. In rebellion against the traditional authority of kings, democracies and nation states were established. A new merchant class emerged after revolutions that trimmed down the authority of kings and priests, and thus Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution got started. There was a hope that the human condition would be elevated and improved through the vehicle of science and rational thought.
A new world of science, medicine and technology caused the human population to experience exponential growth and explode beyond anything ever seen in history.
So is this good? Is this bad? Such things are debatable. It could be argued that humans today are living in the best of times (those of us who live in developed countries anyways). But due to the unsustainable nature of today’s material consumption, such comforts are not sustainable for a long term future.
It was ultimately a good thing that people began to question the church and look to other points of view. However, in developing a material view of our world have we lost something? Today’s leaders are presiding over a criminal destruction of nature. In 40 short years half of the wildlife on the planet has been destroyed.
We created the machinery of material production yet we did not give this machinery a soul. We didn’t just stop at using machines to power our societies, but our very society itself became a machine and we the people the spokes and wheels of the production line. Schools took on a factory environment to mass produce “educated” citizens who know just enough to do what the are told, but not enough to question these instructions. Ours is now a world of tedious conformity, a suburban hell in which all the houses look the same and all the people think alike.
Yet the machine of “progress” is not doing so well and people around the world are beginning to wake up to the reality that this system isn’t sustainable.
To change the system we must change the way we view ourselves and the purpose of our existence on this planet. The most profound change occurs with a widespread spiritual shift in consciousness. We cannot approach the problems of today’s world at a merely individual level. Buying an energy efficient light bulb will not save the world. Even ending the conflict in Syria will not save the world (although that would be a positive change in global affairs).
The root of today’s problems is a profound spiritual sickness that permeates the souls of our leaders and the minds of the day to day human being. I’m not talking about perversion in the way that the Catholic Church would (considering sexuality a perversion). I’m talking about real perversion, a distorted and polluted view on what is true and what life is supposed to be about.
Is life simply about making and spending money? Is life all about trying to score with one of the sexy models you see on a billboard? We live in the theocracy of the capitalist religion, and we as human beings have sold our souls and our planet for the indulgence of temporary pleasures.
It is time to center our lives around something more permanent. Call it God, Fate, Nature or whatever you will. Nature is a system that has existed for 5 billion years. It has stood the test of time. It is truth itself.
If human beings cannot find a sane way to live on this planet, we will be eliminated like a bad case of fleas.
In many ways, our animistic ancestors were much wiser than we are. Tribal life wasn’t ideal. It was brutal and violent. Some people even practiced cannibalism, human sacrifice and ritualistic torture. Yet humans survived through almost 100,000 years of tribal animism without destroying the resources necessary for life or nearly wiping out the human species. What’s the track record of today’s so called “advanced people”? Not so good.
Am I saying that we should abandon everything and go off and live in tribes. Not necessarily. But I’m saying we need to change the atmosphere, the current spiritual sickness that infests the soul of the modern man.
It is time for a baptism of the sick.
Let your soul burn anew in the passion of powerful art and music.
Let your heart be washed pure by the waters of an ancient spiritual wisdom
Find time to be alone and purify your mind from the madness of today’s world.
And disappear into the depth of the forest, to become one with nature’s purpose
Above is a picture of the Karl May Museum in Radebeul Germany. Karl May (1842-1912) is a famous German author who wrote several stories about the American Old West. These books became insanely famous in Germany. In Germany, Mr. May was the J.K. Rowling of his time. Everyone in Germany was familiar with the characters of his novels, especially the Native American heroes Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. The actual historical accuracy of these books is very debatable, especially considering the fact that Karl May never even ventured to the American West until after his books were already sold.
Like Americans in the early 20th century, Germans too loved tales about the Old West. Yet the key difference, is instead of rooting for the Cowboys, many Germans supposedly (according to the video above at least) admired the Native American characters in the stories.
The New York Times article I linked to further explains how many Germans today have a fascination with Native Americans. Even to the extent that German actors are putting on feathered headdresses or wearing other Native American clothing.
Yet the question is, is this offensive?
Is this behavior reminiscent of the Minstrel Shows in the American South where white actors put on black face paint and made crude, slapstick generalizations about African American people? Do Native Americans themselves find such behavior offensive?
One has to remember that there are hundreds of different Native American cultures, they can no more be lumped together and generalized than can various European or Asian cultures. Not all Native Americans historically lived in Teepees, so on and so forth.
Many of the Germans who play Native Americans in these movies do not think they are being offensive, because they say it is their intent to portray Native Americans in a heroic and positive way. Karl May himself may have had positive intentions, while creating an over-romanticized and historically inaccurate portrayal of the Old West.
The main offense here however, seems to be the fact that the Karl May Museum has a collection of Native American scalps in their possession, that Native American tribes want back. It is a complicated situation because the Karl May museum does not know which tribe has a true claim to the scalps, and the tribes that are asking for these scalps believe they should be reunited with the Earth – rather than being kept in a museum and put on display. Hopefully the situation will be sorted out soon and the scalps can be returned in a respectful manner.
Why the obsession with Native American Culture Among Non-Native Americans?
It seems interesting that so many Germans would become obsessed with a culture that they are not even geographically close to, but perhaps there may be a few clear reasons here. I should add that many Non-Native Americans, not just Germans, have become interested in Native American forms of spirituality.
Perhaps this is because much of the Indigenous European spirituality was eradicated by the Christians . While indigenous European spirituality is in the process of being revived today, there is still much wisdom that has been lost to a thousand years of history.
Many of the Native American cultures are still around today (even if colonial forces did much to oppress and slaughter their people), and the tales of their heritage and traditions are also still being told.
Many of the people who long to return to a way of life connected to nature have become fascinated with Native American history for this reason.
Appreciation Without Appropriation
One difficult question for us in the modern age is how to appreciate and take part in a culture, without being offensive or intrusive. For instance, in America there are still many sports teams with names offensive to Native American tribes, and even clothing lines that debase Native American cultures by having “Navajo Undies” or something stupid like that. The other latest offense is the trend of hipsters wearing Native American headdresses.
So, the question is, is it possible for a Non-Native American to learn from and take part in Native American culture in a way that is not offensive? This is a very difficult question because I am not a Native American. After more than a century of European settlers kicking Native Americans off their lands and making it harder for these people to practice their culture, it’s a very sensitive issue.
The U.S and Canadian governments still oppresses Native American peoples today in many ways, by not recognizing the rights of certain tribes or not giving these tribes the rights to enforce law on their own territories. For instance, the rape of Native American women by non-natives continues to be a big problem (New York Times). Many of these women have been left to deal with this problem on their own. There is also the fact that Native American children are taken away from their parents by social services at an alarming rate (Pacific Standard).
So in America at least, it is the height of insult and irony to see a group of Non-Natives who have never really been indoctrinated into a tribal culture hosting their own Pow Wows and dancing around with feathered headdresses. Perhaps such behavior may be less offensive in Germany, since the Germans have not done anything to oppress and persecute Native Americans. However, I’m not a Native American, so I cannot answer this question with authenticity.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking the time to learn about a culture – and I mean REALLY learn about the culture, not just throw a bunch of stereotypes and clichés together. Learning about Native American spirituality should involve learning about many of the problems that current Native Americans are dealing with, in addition to respecting Native Americans as a modern people. You will also probably learn that most Native Americans today consider themselves Christians.
Ethnic traditions are not the same as Universal religions like Christianity and Islam. One can’t just surf the internet a little bit, learn a few stereotypes and then call themselves a practitioner of Shinto, Native American Spirituality or Asatru. It is my personal belief that if one wants to be a part of these cultures – as an outsider – than they should take the time to learn from and study with people who are an actual part of the culture. I do not have the Folkish belief that people are locked out of certain traditions by an Ethnic Wall. But if there is a certain culture that has been systematically oppressed by another, the question of inclusion becomes very difficult and complex. There are no easy answers here.
If a Non-Native American person is invited by a Native American tribe to participate in a spiritual ceremony, I see nothing wrong with that. If you, as a Non-Native American person feel called to venerate the ancient Native American Gods and Spirits of the American landscape, than there is nothing wrong with that IMO as long as you do so in a way that is respectful and understanding to the spirits of the land.
Earth Based Spirituality Good For the Soul:
While it was weird for me to see Germans in the above video wearing Native American garb…and I’m sure it was probably pretty offensive for a few Native Americans….I think the Germans in this video were doing this because they got something positive out of practicing an Earth Based spirituality.
One of the German men in the video said that it helped him get off drugs, another said that it made him realize how little he really needs – that living a simple life was good for him. While making a bunch of over romanticized generalizations about a whole race of people is not a good thing, I think that many people could learn good things from a more rigorous study of indigenous Native American spirituality, along with other spiritualities connected to living in harmony with the land and natural landscape. Putting on black wigs and wearing face paint is a little too much like a Minstrel show in my opinion. But finding one’s own authentic way to live naturally alongside the landscape is a worthy goal.
Native American Writer Taté Walker Says The Following About Relations with Native Americans:
“Many Americans have a disconnected relationship with indigenous peoples: We’re fine as romanticized historical centerpieces and entertainment props, but mocked and ridiculed when we decry the materialistic use of sacred objects like headdresses or call to remove a dictionary-defined racial slur like redskin from the NFL lexicon.
The message is clear to Natives: You can feel honored, or you can shut up.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
There are ways you can honor us that don’t diminish the uniqueness of 566 federally recognized tribes down to a few, pan-Indian, stereotypical images that insult, degrade, and dehumanize my people.
You don’t have to dehumanize us to appreciate our many wondrous, individual cultures.”
Also, there is this: 4 Ways to Honor Native Americans Without Appropriation
(Image Taken From Maat Shrine)
Ma’at is the Ancient Egyptian Goddess of truth, balance and order. She is most often depicted as a woman with wings or a single white ostrich feather. When the deceased go to the afterlife, the Egyptians believed that their hearts would be weighed against this feather.
If the individual lived a good life, following the rules of ma’at, their heart would be lighter than a feather and they would get to go to the afterlife. However, if that individual did not follow the rules of ma’at, they would have a heavy heart – weighed down by the guilt of their transgressions. As a result, their heart would be devoured by Ammut and the soul would be destroyed.
The laws of Ma’at are called the 42 Negative confessions and they were revealed in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, or the Papyrus of Ani – a book that was written more than 3,000 years ago.
THE 42 NEGATIVE CONFESSIONS
- I have not committed sin
- I have not committed robbery with violence
- I have not stolen
- I have not slain men and women
- I have not stolen food
- I have not swindled offerings
- I have not stolen from God
- I have not told lies
- I have not carried away food
- I have not cursed
- I have not closed my ears to truth
- I have not committed adultery
- I have not made anyone cry
- I have not felt sorrow without reason
- I have not assaulted anyone
- I am not deceitful
- I have not stolen anyone’s land
- I have not been an eavesdropper
- I have not falsely accused anyone
- I have not been angry without reason
- I have not seduced anyone’s wife
- I have not polluted myself
- I have not terrorized anyone
- I have not disobeyed the law
- I have not been excessively angry
- I have not cursed God
- I have not behaved with violence
- I have not caused disruption of peace
- I have not acted hastily or without thought
- I have not overstepped my boundaries of concern
- I have not exaggerated my words when speaking
- I have not worked evil
- I have not used evil thoughts, words or deeds
- I have not polluted the water
- I have not spoken angrily or arrogantly
- I have not cursed anyone in thought, word or deed
- I have not placed myself on a pedestal
- I have not stolen that which belongs to God
- I have not stolen from or disrespected the deceased
- I have not taken food from a child
- I have not acted with insolence
- I have not destroyed property belonging to God
In recent years, a list of 42 ideals was written as a parallel to the Negative Confessions. Some modern practitioners of the Ancient Egyptian Ways like to repeat these 42 ideals in the morning and evening, as way to encourage these ideals in themselves. Chanting was an important part of spirituality in ancient Egypt. It was believed that if you chanted something often enough, that the words would become a part of your being. I guess there really is something to encouraging positive thinking!
THE 42 IDEALS
1. I honor virtue
2. I benefit with gratitude
3. I am peaceful
4. I respect the property of others
5. I affirm that all life is sacred
6. I give offerings that are genuine
7. I live in truth
8. I regard all altars with respect
9. I speak with sincerity
10. I consume only my fair share
11. I offer words of good intent
12. I relate in peace
13. I honor animals with reverence
14. I can be trusted
15. I care for the earth
16. I keep my own council
17. I speak positively of others
18. I remain in balance with my emotions
19. I am trustful in my relationships
20. I hold purity in high esteem
21. I spread joy
22. I do the best I can
23. I communicate with compassion
24. I listen to opposing opinions
25. I create harmony
26. I invoke laughter
27. I am open to love in various forms
28. I am forgiving
29. I am kind
30. I act respectfully of others
31. I am accepting
32. I follow my inner guidance
33. I converse with awareness
34. I do good
35. I give blessings
36. I keep the waters pure
37. I speak with good intent
38. I praise the Goddess and the God
39. I am humble
40. I achieve with integrity
41. I advance through my own abilities
42. I embrace the All
It is quite common for Wicca and Celtic Paganism to be lumped together. Many people assume that they are the same thing. They are not. Here are the key differences between the two practices as outlined by this article.
Wicca is a relatively modern religion. Celtic Pagan Reconstructionism attempts to practice their spirituality as the Celts did during their Golden Age: Between 400-1300 AD.
Wicca breaks the universe down into the four Greco-Roman elements: Earth, Air, Wind and Fire.
Celtic Paganism adheres to the ancient Celtic view that the universe is triunal in nature. The world is composed of Air, Land and Sea. Existence is also made up of three realms: This world, the other world and the underworld.
Wicca is based on the idea that you should harm none. This tenet is different from the views of the Celts, who in general were a warrior culture. They believed that it was necessary sometimes to kill in order to survive and that death and life were interconnected.
Wicca breaks down the deities into the God/Goddess dynamic. For example, there is little difference between Osiris and Odin – they just are invoked for different purposes. Celtic Paganism believes that each deity is individualistic and unique.
Celtic Paganism recognizes that sacred places are found, not created.
Of course it must be said that most of what we know about the Celts is an educated guess, since they did not keep written records about themselves. Spiritual knowledge was passed on orally in the Celtic Tradition. Also, many Celtic artifacts were destroyed by the Romans, Vikings and Christians.
However, the distinguishing feature of Reconstructionalist Celtic Paganism is that it is an attempt to practice a spirituality that is close to that of the Ancient Celts. While Wicca is a modern, New Age creation with Celtic elements.