Words and Wonders: Notes on Religious Origins

By Ellwood, Robert S. | National Forum, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Words and Wonders: Notes on Religious Origins


Ellwood, Robert S., National Forum


When did a human being first utter the name of a god, whether in fear or awe or love? When did a tribe or clan of humans first gather together in doing something - a dance, a chant, a sacrifice - which met no earthly need for food or shelter, but presupposed the existence of forces and beings invisible to the ordinary eye?

We do not know for sure, but we can say that such practices are now as universal as the human race, and by all evidence go back deep into the prehistory of humanity.

In this article I will look at religion historically, not theologically. Many religions have their own stories of the first humans, the first contacts between humans and transcendent powers, and the ways in which acts of worship were prescribed by the gods or God. Here my intention is to look at the common human experience behind all the stories.

Theories of the Origins of Religion

The nineteenth century was a golden age of the quest for origins. Alongside the Darwinian search for the "origin of species" were probes after the origins of human social institutions, including religion. On the evolutionary model of simpler forms before greater, it was at first universally supposed that religion would have begun with something very crude and elementary, only over long aeons of time to develop into the complex diversities of faith of later societies, including our own. Thus the pioneer anthropologist Edward B. Tylor proposed that religion started in "animism," a belief in souls separable from the body first suggested by the experience of dreams, in which one apparently left one's body during sleep to travel to far places and even meet persons deceased on the plane of waking life. From this it was easy to extrapolate the existence of souls in other entities such as the moving wind and sun and to elaborate doctrines of ancestrism and the afterlife.

The English anthropologist R.R. Marett traced religion even further back to the "pre-animist" stage of "animatism," the veneration and generation of sheer impersonal, supernatural power, the energy known by such names as mana or wakan. Sir James Frazer, in his much-cited work The Golden Bough, put magic in first place, contending that primal peoples worked sorcery before they conceived of gods, turning to the propitiation of personal deities only when they found that magic did not consistently succeed.

Against theories of this type, however, went the evidence of the distinguished Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang, who pointed out that, contrary to animist, preanimist, and magical theory, field reports showed that many of the technologically most "primitive" of peoples affirmed belief in a single "high god" who had created the world.

To further complicate matters, in the early twentieth century Sigmund Freud and his followers developed psychoanalytic theories of religious origins, such as that religion was a relic of an unspeakable primal crime of parricide. Jungians like Erich Neumann placed at the beginning an undifferentiated consciousness, the "ouroboros," which gradually divided itself up into various archetypes that are the stuff of gods and goddesses. One of the fathers of modern sociology, Emile Durkheim, suggested that the origin of religion was social, in the "social effervescence" of a tribal community creating itself through communal dance and ritual. Other thinkers, more strictly in the history or "phenomenology" of religion, seemed to put the onset of religion in a single psychic capacity: for G. van der Leeuw it was the quest for "power," for Rudolf Otto a sense of the "numinous," that which is "Wholly Other" and a mysterium tremendens et fascinans.

However, it was becoming increasingly clear that explanations of this order, which seek to reduce religion to some single easily definable point of origin, could never really deal with the complexity that is religion as we know it. Many scholars quietly gave up on the quest for origins and simply sought to describe religion as it is.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Words and Wonders: Notes on Religious Origins
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.