A People's History of Religion is the story of religious humanity told from the common person's point of view, how the every day human at that point in history and spacetime would have related to the culture, civilization, world, and divinity around and within him.
This is an going project. Below is our outline and a bit of a taster.
A man is trapped on one side of a fast-flowing river. Where he stands, there is great danger and uncertainty - but on the far side of the river, there is safety. But there is no bridge or ferry for crossing. So the man gathers logs, leaves, twigs, and vines and is able to fashion a raft, sturdy enough to carry him to the other shore. By lying on the raft and using his arms to paddle, he crosses the river to safety.
The Buddha then asks the listeners a question: “What would you think if the man, having crossed over the river, then said to himself, ‘Oh, this raft has served me so well, I should strap it on to my back and carry it over land now?’”
The monks replied that it would not be very sensible to cling to the raft in such a way.
The Buddha continues: “What if he lay the raft down gratefully, thinking that this raft has served him well, but is no longer of use and can thus be laid down upon the shore?”
The monks replied that this would be the proper attitude.
The Buddha concluded by saying, “So it is with my teachings, which are like a raft, and are for crossing over with - not for seizing hold of.”
Adapted by Dominique Allmon
This is going to be a laid back book. I’m going to talk in first person to you and you’re going to listen. If we’re going to tackle as something as hefty and thought provoking as religion, we must do so with care and ease - not out of a sense of impiety, but we must be comfortably cool with one another, I as the author and you as the reader, to foster some good communication.
In reading this book everyone is going to bring something to the religious table. You have your own preconceived notions of religious truth and so do I. I ask only that we tread lightly and freely. I want to explore the history of religion: what religion has cropped up over time, what it has meant to us, and how it has shaped us in the most interesting way possible. This isn’t really a search for truth, though you will find plenty of it. This is more about the details of asking all the right questions: what happened, how it happened, why, etc... On this note, let’s move on.
Our discussion of religion really begins with figuring out just what religion is. The word itself means to re connect, from the Latin roots “re-” as in to do again and “ligio” meaning connection. Simply approaching the word religion sticks us already to our seats with a bit of truth. What are we reconnecting to? Were we once connected to something that we do not now have and are doing our best to get back?
If the mythopoeic origin stories of religions are to be believed, then yes. We are very far from home and desperately want to return from whence we came.
Religion is at the heart of the earliest human cultures and continues to drive us today. It is our attempt to communicate with something beyond ourselves and participate in a life that is not simply human but is rather divine. When we seek a religious expression of something, we are ultimately looking beyond our own egos for a redefinition of ourselves. Religion is inherently selfish in the best possible way; it is the process of conceiving of something far greater than ourselves and choosing willingly to become like that something.
Religion is natural to us human beings.
Religion is, indeed, necessary.
Along the way, I am going to be paraphrasing ancient religious stories and creating new ones as we go along to give you an insider’s look at what religion was like for the common person of the time. Each of these stories will be cited in a version that is at once easy to read and authentic to the original text. I highly encourage you to follow along by reading at least some of these ancient texts. A complete bibliography to all of my sources and religious texts is in the back of this book if you are interested in a deeper study of the religion that fascinates me.
Even a cursory look at religion will reveal change through time. Man’s religious experience is not static, but ever evolving and continuing to grow in a multitude of directions. Religion is something of an active process.
Think of it like politics or homemaking; while we can discuss these things as an abstract noun, an idea, they ultimately are processes which exist in the present. It is my great joy to take active part in that process in the here and now, and I am hoping that you will join me in that.
Therefore we are going to be approaching history from a present oriented mindset, a practice set in ancient religious tradition. Christian Copts in Egypt, Buddhist monks in India, and Sufi dervishes whirling in the desert all agree: there is something to be gained in the present moment for the individual by examining the past religious experiences of others.
That, ultimately, is what the history of religion is. It is a deep look at the experiences individuals have had with the Divine in the past. Our book deals primarily with the Divine, though not from a Divine perspective. We are, sadly, limited to a human understanding for now - though punctuated with Divine insight. We operate with the understanding that there is something actual and real that humanity has been interacting with on a collective and individual level for all of our recorded history. Religion, and the records thereof, are a history of these experiences and examining that history can tell us something of what there is of the Divine to experience in the present.
We are going to treat religion holistically. If we try to reduce religion to something basic, we’ll find there are far too many religions for us to work with. Billions of them, even, because I am thoroughly convinced no two humans believe exactly the same way as far as their religious consciousness goes. Rather, religion is like a great river that feeds many tributaries and streams. The Source of that river is the Divine, and while we will examine its many odds and ends, let us not lose sight of the river itself. We are actively paddling down it and drinking from it at the same time.
So climb in with me and drink deep from the river. Be careful not to forget to breathe some air in the process and remember that there is solid ground at either side of the river bank. Just holler, and I’ll pull over and let you off. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll come back for you. I want to keep paddling. You’ll either have to wait for the next boat to come along, get in and swim and see where the current takes you, or build your own raft.
That’s the adventure of religion.
Original Religion and Prima Theologia. The first religions. Creation myths. What was before us?
Our history of religion begins at the most natural place: the beginning. The earliest records of religion are concerned with how we came to be among a vast cosmic universe. Religious mythopoeia conveys the details of creation through a conscious combination of fact and fiction. These records began as conscious mythology; those who penned the stories were aware of both the deep and profound truth and the fiction freely comingled.
The dividing line between that fact and fiction might have been clear to the record keepers, but it is not so clear to us. Through loss of gnosis over time, these myths became accepted as a part of one of two extremes: either hyperliteral truth or completely wishful thinking. I posit that the creation stories of religion all have some merit of truth to them, bearing record of actual events of miraculous proportions that took place in time.
Let us approach mythopoeia for what it is.
To this end, we will require a tool: a sieve. Daily, we filter the information we gain through a worldview that we have both consciously created and had created for us by the influences of environment, society, and our own interactions (or lack thereof) with the Divine. Today we are going to consciously create two sieves through which to pass all of the information we digest about religion. A sieve is a device used to filter a substance, to separate big from little and desirable from undesirable.
The first sieve is a personal sieve. I have created one for myself, and you must too. It is mine and you cannot have it, nor do I desire yours. All of us have our existing religious notions and all I ask is that you wholeheartedly embrace them and be genuine with them. The personal sieve is simply this: what resonates? If something in the history of religion strikes a chord, then it has passed through your sieve purified. If the music it creates in your soul is discordant, then there was far too much dross in it and you will have received whatever truth, if any, there was to be found.
Our second sieve is one that both you and I agree on. It’s one that we share and use together. It is our collective sieve. We’re agreeing here to view religion from a primarily historical perspective, and while we are doing plenty of spiritual truth seeking in the process, our primary goal is simply to examine and establish historical relevancy for religion. When passing our data through our historical sieve, we must be careful not to disregard any body of evidence. Writings, oral tradition, archaeological discoveries, and current trends are all consulted for our information. We’ll be viewing the history of religion on both macro and micro scales. The macro scale serves to show us how religion has shaped civilization through time; the micro scale, the life of the individual in the time period in which he lives. History is, after all, a matter of individuals making individual choices that will affect a collective reality. But more on that in a later chapter.
You, the reader, must take both of these tools in hand and use them as we dive into this adventure together. Ask for the relevancy of our historical analysis of religion to you as an individual and the greater humanity of which we are both very small parts. What is effective for the religion-ing process?
By passing our data through our two sieves, we may draw our own conclusions from examining the simple facts of history. At the end of this book is a chapter filled with many pages of blank lines. I want you to help me write this book. You’re going to write the conclusion to the history of religion for our present time based on what we discover together from examining the simple facts and records of history.
Written records form the primary deposit of knowledge that we have about the history of religion. Nearly every religious stream on Earth has a written tradition of mythopoeia. Time and again a basic yet growing body of religious literature has shaped mankind’s religious consciousness.
The oldest body of religious literature we have discovered are the Pyramid Texts of Unas of Egypt, inscribed on the sarcophagus walls of Pharaoh Unas at Saqqara, Egypt and dated to circa 2400 - 2300 BC. Later versions were found in the tombs of other Pharaohs, both male and female. The tombs themselves with their elaborate system of chambers tells us by simple induction that those who built such pyramids believed thoroughly in life after death. These texts are a complex system of appeasements to the Divine for continuation of the life of the Pharaoh buried within. The Pyramid Texts introduce us to a multiplicity of Divinity: Seth, Horus, Osiris, are all invoked.
The Pyramid Texts describe what we might today call High Magic. The inscriptions themselves, presumably written by the priests in whom was vested authority to call upon the gods, are intended solely for the benefit of Pharaoh. They spell out in detail the many ways in which the Pharaoh’s ka, or soul, could travel. The inscriptions - spells, if you will - ensure a blessed and prosperous afterlife.
Unlike the later Egyptian sacred texts such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead and the Coffin Texts, which were aimed directly at the common people, these inscriptions are solely for the benefit of the Pharaoh. For Egyptians, the Pharaoh was the link between the Divine and the mundane. He was the incarnation of the god Osiris, the master of the underworld and afterlife but more appropriately as the god of transition, renewal, resurrection, and new beginnings.
The stories of Osiris and the other gods first appear in the Pyramid texts:
Osiris, ascendant to the throne of Egypt, son of Geb the earth and Nut the sky, great descendant of Ra-Atum! His bride is his sister Isis. Given to him was the maintenance of ma’at, the great cosmic balance of law and order, truth and justice.
Under the reign of his father Geb, the Egyptian people were murderous savages. It was Osiris that taught them agriculture, law, and the order of their religion. His rule was soft and not iron fisted. His people loved him, for he was kind. Rather than fear, they listened to his persuasive words.
Having brought civilization to Egypt, Osiris set out to travel to distant lands. Isis was left as his throne-regent, Osiris intending to civilize all other peoples he encountered.
But not all loved Osiris. Set, the brother of Isis and Osiris, grew jealous. He wanted to acquire the throne for himself and Isis for his wife. So Seth recruited seventy two followers and upon Osiris’ return to Egypt, slew him, and threw his divine body into the river Nile inside of a coffin.
Set was now king of Egypt.
Isis was distraught. She with her sister Nephthys divinely located the body of Osiris. Set would not have his brother’s body found. He dismembered it into fourteen pieces and hid these pieces throughout Egypt.
Neither would his beloved wife surrender! Isis found each and every part of Osiris’ body. He became the first mummy and formed the basis for the later mummification process. Isis put him back together through the ritualistic mummification process - save for one piece, his member, which was eaten by the Nile fish.
Through divine power, Isis fashioned him a new member and resurrected him just long enough to make love one last time before Osiris died and his ka went to the underworld. Nephthys became the goddess of nighttime, rivers, and service.
Isis became pregnant and gave birth to the god Horus, who was the rightful heir to the throne, but of course jealous Set would not abdicate. A council of gods was called, and after eighty years of hearing the case, the gods decided Horus should be king.
In the underworld, the wrongfully slain Osiris became the god of the dead and master of the duat, the Egyptian afterlife. As merciful as he was in life, Osiris pledged to admit anyone into this heavenly land of good fill - provided, of course, they follow the proscribed rituals.
Sound familiar? This is a story we will hear again and again, that of the dying-and-rising god, the god who was at once both inherently divine and mortal flesh, who was wrongfully slain and yet rose from the dead to become master of the afterlife for the benefit of the common people. It is reminiscent of the gospel tale of Christianity, and there are many other analogues to be found in Semitic and Hindu cosmogony.
But let us be careful. Similarities in tales are not to be taken as an excuse to dismiss all religion as bullarky, especially not when - as we shall later examine - such tales revolve around historically existent persons.
As you run this tale through your personal sieve, we shall run it through our collective sieve.
There is a concept in philosophy of religion called prima theologia. It basically states that we can discover a single trend running throughout all religious history by identifying some very basic common concepts. We will return again and again to this concept. At the end of each chapter, we will summarize some key points that we have discovered to be common to all religion based on their places of origin in history. At the end of this book, we will blend them into a beautiful picture of, dare I say it, the one true religion common to all mankind of which our history of religion is a constantly unfolding divine revelation.
This tale tells us the Egyptians had a strong belief in the continuity of life after the death of the mortal frame. For the Egyptians, each human was composed of six parts, three immaterial and three material: the nonmaterial ka, vital spark or soul; ba, personality; and akh, intellect. The three material are the ib, heart; ren, name; and sheut, shadow.
According to the Pyramid and later Texts, this belief came from the teachings of the god Osiris himself. Whether Osiris existed as a historical personage in Egypt who claimed divinity, it is hard to say. In 2015 at Luxor, a team of archaeologists re-discovered a uniquely blacked-painted tomb claimed to be that of Osiris. First found in 1880, it’s significance was not understood until the twenty first century. However, scholarly consensus dates it to the 25th Dynasty of Egypt, about 700 BC. That is hardly antiquarian enough to be considered the authentic tomb of Osiris’ once-resurrected body. It was likely constructed as a symbolic resting place for the god, a place of religious significance.
Allen, James. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. ISBN 1-58983-182-9.
Dominique Allmon - http://spaceforbeautifulmind.blogspot.com/2011/01/buddhist-parable-of-raft.html
Sarah MailOnline - http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2900324/Egyptian-god-s-tomb-discovered-Blackened-structure-built-replica-mythical-resting-place-Osiris.html