Man must have assumed thousands of years ago that the inexplicable behaviour of some or even many aspects of the world was due to the presence of powerful gods.
We can understand why it was necessary to believe in gods. Prior centuries of rational thinking about practical matters (how best to take advantage of an animal’s behaviour when hunting, for example) had led naturally (if only subconsciously) to the realization that everything that happens has a cause. It was therefore only logical to conclude that something must cause such events as thunder and lightning to occur, or the sun to rise always in the east.
It was entirely rational for our ancestors to ask what could possibly give rise to such phenomena. But the true explanations lay far beyond their ability to comprehend all those thousands of years ago.
Written records tell us how the Greeks later solved this problem. They assumed that such events were caused by some kind of invisible beings who lived behind the clouds, occasionally amusing themselves by teasing or playing jokes upon those who lived on Earth below. Today, we might think that this was an extraordinary fantasy to dream up, but what, in ancient times, other than some supernatural beings, could explain the occurrence of such impressive events?
The hidden existence of powerful entities was not an unreasonable assumption for even very early humans to make. Living in caves and huts, they were low in nature’s hierarchy. There were many dangerous and more powerful animals lying in wait. Numerous awe-inspiring events took place daily that could not be explained. Mysterious illnesses and sudden inexplicable deaths occurred. Thunder filled the air for miles around, but lightning struck only certain spots seemingly randomly chosen. The sun, on the other hand, followed a routine—it moved across the sky in an orderly manner, regularly disappeared at night, only to rise again the next day. And eclipses—how could such rare incidences possibly be explained?
It was logical and sensible to assume that one or more mighty beings lived out of sight above, and that they contrived such events. This explanation so admirably solved many profound mysteries that, once put forward, it must have seemed the obvious answer and been immediately accepted. It seems certain that H. sapiens would have assumed gods existed almost as soon as they could form such a concept.
Moreover, in addition to being an explanation, this assumption had practical applications. It suggested ways men and women could act, if and when they needed to influence, praise or placate the behaviour of those who ruled from the skies above.
There is a great deal of evidence that magical rites with appeasement objectives were practised in many primitive societies. Early authorities, skilled in catering to capricious gods, devised and carried out often fanciful rituals. When the incantations and methods of these experts worked, when rain fell or eclipses ended, their reputation grew. When their best efforts were to no avail, someone or something else could easily be blamed.
The craft of such specialists continues today. Nearly all religions employ functionaries with similar roles, intermediaries who communicate the wishes of (and direct penitence to) a god. Their roles have remained roughly the same, but the communicants’ rituals and ceremonial customs have changed because, over time, humans have modified their beliefs about what is the “correct,” or “moral,” way to behave (for example, we no longer hold that human sacrifices are necessary).
- See Noss, Man’s Religions.