One of my interests is the main religions that are held by a majority of the world’s people. It is estimated that about 70% of humans belong to a religion, the earliest surviving of which date back to 3000 BC.
How can we define religion? The word may from the Latin word religion, referring to something done with careful attention to detail. It may also come from the verb religare which means to bind things closely together.
When I consider what religions have in common: they include a set of beliefs about supernatural beings, how should we behave towards ourselves and others and the possibility of a soul and existence beyond death.
Some of the earliest faiths involved sacrifices offered to please or win the favor of a supreme being or deities. So let’s consider the earliest religions that lasted for thousands of years.
The Egyptians were ruled by their pharaohs (god kings) from 3100 BC to 323 BC. Egypt is an oasis formed by the 600-mile-long river Nile; the Nile’s source is in the snow capped mountains in central Africa running northward to the Mediterranean Sea.
The Egyptian sun god Ra traveled across the sky during the day and then descended into the underworld, to be reborn each sunrise. As most early religions, the Egyptians were polytheists (had multiple gods).
The Egyptians insured that their pharaohs would be immortal by mummification (an elaborate procedure of extracting their internal organs and coating their exteriors). After death, the pharaohs were buried in their pyramids, where the pharaoh could ride beams of sunlight to join their place among the northern stars that never set.
Osiris was the most memorable of the Egyptian gods. He was dismembered by his evil brother Set. Osiris’ devoted wife, Isis searched across Egypt for his body parts and was able to bring him back to life. Osiris became the god of the dead.
More than a thousand years after the Egyptian religion arose, the prophet Zoroaster was born in Northeast Iran. Zoroaster believed that Ahura Mazda, the creator of life and goodness had taught him through a series of visions. This deity was opposed by Angra Mainyu, a god of evil.
A person’s fate was determined by the prevalence of his or her acts relating to these two gods. Those who followed Ahura would go onto paradise while all others would go to a place of torment. In the seventh century BC, Zoroaster’s ideas had spread across the Iranian plateau and became be the official faith of the Persian empire.
The magi who visited the infant Jesus were likely priests of Zoroaster. In the seventh century AD, Muslims drove the Zoroastrians to India.
Skipping over the Greeks and Roman faiths, we come to the Norse Religions. Statues of Norse deities can be traced back as far as the Bronze Age (1600 to 450 BC). Germanic people swept across Europe in the third to sixth century AD, bringing with them the cult of Odin which was adopted by the Vikings.
The Scandinavians regarded the universe on nine levels. Asgard was the home of the gods and goddesses. Midgard was the home of humans.
Piercing across all nine levels was Yggdrasil, the World Tree. There was a constant struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Vikings had their own apocalypse called Ragnarok in which these forces would destroy each other. From this time of destruction would come a new world, inhabited by two humans, Lif and Lifthasir.
For any readers who are interested in the five main faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism), I hope to have a discussion class on 6 Tuesday evenings in September and October. Contact me at rdoyle@frostburg,edu for further details.
THE CURRENT SKY: In mid-August, dawn begins at 5:20 a.m. (soon after the birds begin to chirp), mid-day is 1:20 p.m. (sun then peaks in the south), and dusk ends at 9:20 p.m. (if clear the stars then appear in great numbers).
Sunlight each day lasts 13 hours and 48 minutes. The Perseid meteor shower peaks on Monday evening and the following a.m hours.
A meteor shower occurs when the Earth plows across the orbit of a comet, laden with grit. Comets are dirty icebergs that orbit the sun; when a comet nears the sun, its ices turn to steam and the grit gets left along the comet’s orbit.
This particular meteor shower has its meteors tracing back to the star group Perseus in the northern sky. But these meteors can be seen in all directions. The moon is full on Thursday evening, rising about sunset and hanging in the sky all night long.
Bob Doyle, professor emeritus at Frostburg State University, invites any readers comments and questions. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is available as a speaker on his column topics.