The Sacred in Nature
This chapter covers the largest time span of religious development in human experience. Beginning with a projected background of religious patterns that emerged from over a million years into the prehistory of humanity, the reader is exposed to the vastly pervasive and tenacious religious discoveries, rituals, myths, symbol systems, and experiences of archaic human beings. Many of the themes of prehistoric religion can be seen as surviving in near contemporary tribal settings as exemplified by such traditions as Siberian, Native American, African, Australian, Eskimo, and the Maori in New Zealand. Another term to describe the religious outlook found among archaic hunters and farmers but also continuing to the present in the popular religion of ordinary folk is what Mircea Eliade calls cosmic religion. Cosmic religion has little concern with linear historical developments. Rather, its focus is upon the cycles of nature, such as birth and death. Its symbols are sacred rocks, trees, and animals. Its community includes all nature; animals are kindred, and the dead are either in a world not too separate from this one or in a process of rebirth. Everything has spirit. Among the many contributions of archaic religion to human culture are rituals of seedtime and harvest, festivals and celebrations, the demarcation of certain days as special holidays, New Years renewal, sacred space and sacred time, pilgrimage, monuments, and special care for and recollection of the dead. These are continuing patterns of religious behavior that have survived and been re-appropriated in contemporary religious and even secular life.
- Myths in cosmic religion articulate the sacred origins of all things, as well as the cause of the present human condition.
- The world is often seen as the creation of a high god who then increasingly removes from humanity thus becoming a deus otiosus, in other words, a "hidden god."
- The perseverance of the soul or spirit and continuity of human community is often expressed in the veneration and/or maintenance of Ancestral Spirits.
- Rituals often enacted through a series of initiations guide its primal adherents through the various stages of life. Death itself may be seen as but another initiation.
- The great spiritual adept in cosmic religion is the Shaman. A shaman is characterized as an intermediary between this world and the other world. Typically a shaman will make an otherworld journey to retrieve the flagging souls of the ill, or to gain knowledge of the location of game. The shaman typically is a master of trances and prone to ecstatic experiences and mind altering states of consciousnes.
- Archaic Hunters participated in elaborate rituals and symbol structures in exploring their relationship to nature and the game they hunted often seeking aid from a divine "master or mistress of animals."
- Archaic Gatherers seem to have employed and enjoyed an equal opportunity distribution of labor where women played a significant role as the primary gatherers of small animals and plant foods.
- With the Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago, the culture changes from hunting and gathering to planting and cultivation with the consequence that the religious symbol structures are transformed as well. The cycles of nature, death and rebirth, are associated with religious myth and rituals. Indeed, some expressions see this state of affairs as a fall from a formerly more pure existence. The resort to more blood and sacrifices, the development of hierarchies, and the subjugation of women under the patriarchy may indeed be evidence of such a fall.