— By: Alexandra Kinias —
Article published “Zamalek Island 11211 Magazine” November 2015
The relationship between humans and gods dates back to the beginning of time. People of ancient civilizations created the mythologies and worshiped their multiple deities. Mythologies are the cultural evolutions of these civilizations. They are the stories of the gods that answered the speculative curiosity that intrigued the people. They explained to them the mysteries of the creation, the origin of humans, the good and the evil, life and death, the underground world, the afterlife and the supernatural forces that their primitive minds couldn’t comprehend.
In his book The Evolution of God, Robert Wright explains that gods arose as illusions, and that subsequent history of the idea of god is, in some senses, the evolution of the illusions1. In other words, people created the gods they worshiped, and with the powers man gave to these gods, religions were developed.
The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Sumerians, Indians, Chinese, Aztecs, Incas, Polynesians, Mayans and others were polytheists. And as writing systems were developed in ancient civilizations, the records left behind; on clay tablets in Mesopotamia, on papyrus in Egypt and Greece or on turtle shells and bones in China, enabled anthropologists to study the evolution of religions. The damage by the early European invaders to the Americas destroyed the Mayan and Aztec records and left many unanswered questions about these civilizations and their gods.
Each god or goddess in the mythologies played an important role. In ancient Greece, Persephone was the goddess of the underworld.
Ishtar, the patron deity of prostitution in Mesopotamia, was also thought to help wives conceal their adultery2.
Horus, son of Isis and Osiris in the Egyptian mythology was the god of the sky and the divine protector of kings.
Gods were created because human nature has the need to believe in a higher power, and they communicated with the people through high priests and shamans. In ancient Polynesia people believed that the chiefs, who were also the priests, were descendant of the gods3. Priests in ancient civilizations drafted the early recorded religions. In the name of the gods, priests dictated the ethical and moral guides that shaped and organized the lives of the people, from loving the neighbor, to not to steal or urinate on crops4. And from these moral and ethical guides religions emerged.
The wrath of the gods was sent to those who disobeyed and angered them. Gods punished the people by sending storms, floods, rain, fires, volcanos, or hurricanes. The high priests realized people’s fear and exploited them. They claimed they possessed powers to manipulate and control the supernatural and communicate with the gods to lift their wrath, for a price. Bribing the gods, also known as offerings, was a common trait in ancient civilizations. Offerings to appease the gods included bread, wine, grain, food, gold, animal or human sacrifices.
Because ancient civilizations were polytheists, people were neither threatened by the deities of the neighboring tribes and lands, nor did they view them as competitors. In these societies, life revolved around the gods as religions became an important part of people’s lives. In today’s world and with the rise of monolithic religions, many cultures integrated their ancient gods and beliefs with modern religions. In Cusco, Peru, the capital of the Inca Empire, and despite the strong influence of the Catholic Church, the Andean natives proudly claim their Incas’ heritage and still celebrate their ancient religious rituals. “Catholicism was not the religion of our choice, but was forced upon us,” they explained to me when I questioned the biblical art adorning their church walls. In Peruvian churches to this day, Virgin Mary wears a big cape to look like Pachamama, who in the Inca mythology is the goddess of earth, also known as Mother Earth.
As ancient Gods are mortals, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are still walking among us today. Look into the faces of people around you in the subway, in the supermarket, among the crowds in stadiums watching their football team playing the world cup. They have lost their divine status, but their efforts to organize the order of the world should not be overlooked.
References: Robert Wright, The Evolution of God; pages 4,70,53,78 respectively.