Ancient Sun Cults: Understanding Religious Rites in Terms of Developmental Psychology

By Oesterdiekhoff, Georg W. | Mankind Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Ancient Sun Cults: Understanding Religious Rites in Terms of Developmental Psychology


Oesterdiekhoff, Georg W., Mankind Quarterly


Animistic attitudes towards natural objects as prevailing forms of understanding nature and reality are found in all pre-modern societies. The sun and moon, like other physical objects, are understood in terms of animate and conscious beings or persons. Ancient peoples felt that they had a personal relationship to the heavenly bodies, worshipped them as gods and offered them sacrifices to feed them. The sun cults of the Aztecs and the ancient Egyptians, chosen as typical examples to demonstrate these phenomena, can only be explained in the context of animistic, magical belief systems. Developmental psychology of cognitive structures explains the prevalence of these belief systems as parts of the cognitive development of mankind. Thus, developmental psychology can explain the ubiquity of animistic thinking and sun cults across pre-modern societies as far back as the stone ages. The rise of formal operations among the educated classes in 17th century Europe accounts for the surpassing of magical-animistic thinking and the rise of mechanical philosophy, of the mechanical theory of heavens and of the physical sciences. The beginning of physical sciences is the end of animistic thinking and solar cults.

Key Words: Sun cults; Animistic thinking; Magic; Sacrifices; Gods, Developmental psychology; Religious rites.

1. Animistic and Mechanitistic Understanding of the Heavens

The rise of mechanical philosophy in the 17th century and of the physical sciences in the 18th reflected the transformation of how nature and reality were understood in Europe. From that time on nature has been conceptualized in terms of physical laws and causal-mechanical principles. Since then Europeans have been making a sharp difference between biological and physical phenomena, living plants, animals, and humans on the one hand and dead matter on the other hand, psyche and physics, subject and object (Dijksterhuis 1956; Cohen 1985; Oesterdiekhoff 2002; Gloy 1995).

Pre-modern societies do not accept these sharp differences but see the whole world as an orchestra of living entities. Sky, clouds, landscapes, rivers, rocks and trees are experienced as animate entities, equipped with mental capacities that are more or less similar to those of humans and ghosts. Physical phenomena are not experienced as "It" but as "You". Spirits and spectres dwell inside physical objects and steer their behaviour (Mbiti 1969; Evans-Pritchard 1937; Taylor 1871; Lévy-Bruhl 1959).

Thus humans in pre-modern societies have a fundamentally different attitude towards nature, compared to the worldview of the scientific civilization. Humans in traditional societies cultivate personal relations to physical objects and nature, understanding these relations as an exchange of deeds, respect and goods, an exchange that is intended and managed by both sides. Gods, ghosts and animate objects are the agents behind good and bad events and processes, always intending them in order to punish or praise humans, weighing the value of their deeds. Humans provide food and say prayers, and bring sacrifices to these agents to appease them and to arouse their helpful support (Frankfort et al. 1981:11-13; Tylor 1871; Lévy-Bruhl 1959; Jung 1991:35-47; Oesterdiekhoff 2006:167-178; Jensen 1948, 1992).

Trees and rivers, mountains and stars, sun and moon were worshipped as gods in ancient times to an amount that can hardly be exaggerated. This article will analyse ancient man's attitude towards the sun, the worship of the sun as a god. Although many authors have written much about this subject, I do believe that it is necessary to throw a further and deeper glance.

The prevailing animistic understanding of stars and planets in pre-modern societies implies the assumption that they are animate and conscious, living as gods and persons. Australian Aborigines, Native Americans and other peoples believed that their ancestors were living on as stars in the heavens. …

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Ancient Sun Cults: Understanding Religious Rites in Terms of Developmental Psychology
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