Religion in the Ancient World

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published on 02 September 2009
Isis (The Yorck Project Gesellschaft für Bildarchivierung GmbH)

Religion (from the Latin Religio, meaning 'restraint’, or Relegere, according to Cicero, meaning 'to repeat, to read again’, or, most likely, Religionem, to show respect for what is sacred) is an organized system of beliefs and practices revolving around, or leading to, a transcendent spiritual experience. There is no culture recorded in human history which has not practiced some form of religion.

Religion (which, in ancient times, is indistinguishable from mythology) concerns itself with the spiritual aspect of the human condition, gods and goddesses (or a single personal god or goddess), the creation of the world, a human being’s place in the world, life after death and how to escape from suffering in this world or in the next.  And every nation has created its own god in its own image and resemblance.

The world’s oldest religion still being practiced today is Hinduism (know to adherents as 'Sanatan Dharma’, Eternal Order) but, in what is considered 'the west’, the first records of religious practice come from Egypt around 4000 BCE. The Egyptian Creation Myth tells us that, at first, there was only Ocean. This ocean was breadth-less and depth-less and silent until, upon its surface, there rose a hill of earth (known as the ben-ben, the primordial mound, which, it is thought, the pyramids symbolize) and the great god Ra (the sun) stood upon the ben-ben and spoke, giving birth to the god Shu (of the air) the goddess Tefnut (of moisture) the god Geb (of earth) and the goddess Nut (of sky). Ra had intended Nut as his bride but she fell in love with Geb. Angry with the lovers, Ra separated them by stretching Nut across the sky high away from Geb on the earth. Although the lovers were separated during the day, they came together at night and Nut bore three sons, Osiris, Set and Horus, and two daughters, Isis and Nephthys. Osiris, as eldest, was announced as 'Lord of all the Earth’ when he was born and was given his sister Isis as a wife. Set, consumed by jealousy, hated his brother and killed him to assume the throne. Isis then embalmed her husband's body and, with powerful charms, resurrected Osiris who returned from the dead to bring life to the people of Egypt. Osiris later served as the Supreme Judge of the souls of the dead in the Hall of Truth and, by weighing the heart of the soul in the balances, decided who was granted eternal life.

Every nation has created its own god in its own image and resemblance.

This same pattern of creation of existence by a supernatural entity who speaks all into being, of how the world came to be as it is (the canopy of sky over the earth, for example) other supernatural beings emanating from the first and greatest one, a son who is a powerful entity himself who is killed or dies for his people and comes back to life for the good of his people and an afterlife similar to an earthly existence is repeated in religious texts from Phoenicia (2700 BCE) to Sumer (2100 BCE) to Palestine (1440 BCE) to Greece (800 BCE) and finally to Rome (c. 100 CE). The Phoenician tale of the great god Baal who dies and returns to life to battle the chaos of the god Yamm was already old in 2750 BCE when the city of Tyre was founded (according to Herodotus) and the Greek story of the dying and reviving god Adonis (c. 600 BCE) was derived from earlier Phoenician tales based on Tammuz which was borrowed by the Sumerians (and later the Persians) in the famous Descent of Innana myth.

Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance)

This theme of life-after-death and life coming from death and, of course, the judgement after death, gained greatest fame through the evangelical efforts of St. Paul who spread the word of the dying and reviving god Jesus Christ throughout ancient Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome (c. 42-62 CE).

The religion of Christianity made standard a belief in an afterlife and set up an organized set of rituals by which an adherent could gain everlasting life. In so doing, the early Christians were simply following in the footsteps of the Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Phoenicians and the Greeks all of whom had their own stylized rituals for the worship of their gods. After the Christians, the Muslim interpreters of the Koran instituted their own rituals for understanding the supreme deity which, though vastly different in form from those of Christianity, Judaism or any of the older 'pagan’ religions, served the same purpose as the rituals once practiced in worship of the Egyptian goddess Hathor (c.3000 BCE) over five thousand years ago: to lend human beings the understanding that they are not alone in their struggles, suffering and triumphs, that they can restrain their baser urges and that death is not the end of existence.

About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
A freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark has lived in Greece and Germany and traveled through Egypt. He teaches ancient history, writing, literature, and philosophy.

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Visual Timeline
  • c. 4000 BCE
    Earliest Egyptian Myths Recorded.
  • c. 3500 BCE
    First written evidence of religion in the world recorded on Sumerian tablets.
  • c. 3500 BCE
    First written evidence of religion in Sumerian cuneiform.
  • c. 3000 BCE
    Hathor, known as Mistress of Dendera, cult center flourishes in the city of Dendera.
  • c. 2500 BCE
    Osiris as Dying and Reviving God and God of the Dead appears in Pyramid Texts.
  • 2100 BCE
    First ziggurats in Ur, Eridu, Uruk, and Nippur.
  • c. 1500 BCE - 1100 BCE
    The Rig Veda written, mentioning the god Rudra (Shiva) for the first time.
  • c. 1500 BCE - 500 CE
    The Vedic Period in India.
  • c. 1120 BCE
    The Sumerian Enuma Elish (creation story) is written.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Greek poet Hesiod writes his Theogony and Works and Days.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Indian scholars codify and reinterpret Aryan beliefs to create the Upanishads texts forming the basis of Hinduism.
  • c. 700 BCE
    Development of the Charvaka school of philosophy in India.
  • 599 BCE - 527 BCE
    Traditional dating of the life of Vardhamana, according to Jain tradition.
  • 566 BCE - 486 BCE
    The life of Siddhartha Gautama according to the Corrected long chronology.
  • 563 BCE
    Siddhartha Gautama is born in Lumbini (present day Nepal).
  • c. 490 BCE - c. 410 BCE
    The life of Siddhartha Gautama according to modern scholar consensus.
  • c. 6 BCE - c. 30 CE
    Life of Jesus Christ.
  • 1 CE - 100 CE
    Mithraism spreads in the Roman empire.
  • c. 1 CE - c. 100 CE
    The Mahayana movement begins in India with its belief in bodhisattva - saintly souls who helped the living.
  • 42 CE - 62 CE
    St. Paul goes on missionary journeys across Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome.
  • 64 CE
    Unofficial persecution of Christians in Rome.
  • c. 65 CE - c. 100 CE
    The tales of the life and work of Jesus (gospels) composed.
  • 132 CE
    Septuagint (Greek translation of the Bible) composed at Alexandria.
  • 224 CE
    Zoroastrianism becomes Persian state religion under the Sasanian dynasty.
  • 300 CE
    Armenia is the first state to adopt Christianity as state religion.
  • 313 CE
    Roman emperor Constantine I tolerates Christianity.
  • c. 500 CE - c. 600 CE
    In India the Tantric expands the number of deities to include helpful demons, contactable through ritual.
  • 503 CE
    Clovis converts to Christianity.
  • 570 CE
    Muhammad is born in Mecca.
  • 610 CE
    Muhammad receives his first revelation on Mount Hira.
  • 622 CE
    Muhammad undertakes the Hijra (migration) from Mecca to Medina, establishing the start of the Islamic calendar.
  • 624 CE
    Battle of Badr: Muhammad’s forces win, resulting in a turning point for Islam against the ruling Quraysh tribe.
  • 625 CE
    Battle of Uhud: Quraysh tribe defeats the Muslims.
  • 627 CE
    Battle of the Trench: Quraysh troops attempt to siege Medina (then called Yathrib), but lose to the Muslim force.
  • 627 CE
    Siege of Bani Qurayzah: Muslims capture the Jewish stronghold and Muhammad approves of the killing of all of the males who had reached puberty, and one female, the rest of whom are sold in exchange for goods.
  • 628 CE
    Treaty of Hudaybiyyah: A peace agreement is signed between Muhammad’s Muslims and the people of Mecca.
  • 628 CE
    Conquest of Khaybar oasis: Jews barricade themselves in a fort at Khaybar oasis and are allowed to remain living there if they pay the Muslims one third of their produce.
  • 629 CE
    First Pilgrimage ("lesser" pilgrimage or "umrah") made by Muhammad and his Muslims to Mecca after migrating to Medina.
  • 629 CE
    Battle of Mu’tah:Muslims attempt to capture the village east of the Jordan River from the Byzantine Empire to show their expanding dominance, resulting in a Muslim defeat.
  • 630 CE
    Non-violent conquest of Mecca: The Quraysh realize that the Muslims now greatly outnumber them and allow the Muslims to capture their city, Mecca, and rule it as they please.
  • 630 CE
    Battle of Hunayn: Ending in a decisive victory for the Muslims over the Bedouin tribe of Hawazin.
  • 630 CE
    Attempted Siege of Ta’if: Muhammad’s forces are initially unable to siege Ta’if and convert its people to Islam.
  • 632 CE
    “Farewell Hajj Pilgrimage”: This is the only Hajj pilgrimage in which Muhammad participates.
  • 632 CE
    Muhammad dies in Medina, not clearly naming a successor to lead the Muslim people.
  • 632 CE - 634 CE
    Abu Bakr becomes the first caliph (successor to Muhammad) of the Rashidun Caliphate.
  • 634 CE - 644 CE
    'Umar ibn al-Khattab succeeds Abu Bakr, becoming the second caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate.
  • 644 CE - 656 CE
    'Uthman ibn 'Affan succeeds 'Umar to become the third caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate.
  • c. 650 CE
    Realizing several variations in Qur'ans throughout the Islamic Empire, 'Uthman orders the establishment of one "true" Qur'an while destroying the others. Thus, the 'Uthman Qur'an Codex was created and is still the acceptable Qur'an used to this day.
  • 656 CE - 661 CE
    'Ali ibn Abi Talib succeeds 'Uthman to become the fourth and final caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate.
  • Mar 670 CE
    Hasan ibn 'Ali, Shi'a Islam's second imam (his father, 'Ali, being the first imam), is poisoned to death
  • Oct 680 CE
    Husayn ibn 'Ali, Shi'a Islam's third imam, is beheaded by Yazid I's force at the Battle of Karbala in present-day Iraq.
  • 708 CE - 714 CE
    The Kojiki written, a collection of oral myths forming the basis of the Shinto religion.
  • 720 CE
    The Nihonshoki written, a collection of oral myths forming the basis of the Shinto religion.
  • c. 807 CE
    Imibe-no-Hironari writes the Kogoshui, a collection of oral myths forming the basis of the Shinto religion.
  • 1122 CE
    Construction begins of the Hindu temple at Angkor Wat.

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