They say miracles are past, and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless.
-William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, II, iii, 1-6
I was a TA for a class in physical anthropology once and learnt that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers as early as 60,000 years ago (link). This suggests that the idea of the ‘divine’ or some sort of ‘God’ is very old and applies across the hominids from which humans are descended. Some scholars have suggested that it may be something categorically human.
A Dartmouth-based course on edX ‘Question Reality! Science, philosophy, and the search for meaning’ told me that the earliest human cosmologies attributed divine powers to forces of nature because these were more powerful than them and could not be explained. They invented rituals as a means to exert some sort of control on these unknowable and unpredictable forces of nature.
An Arizona State University-based course on edX ‘Western Civilization: Ancient and Medieval Europe’ told me that organized religion is one of the criteria for a society to be considered civilized (along with evidence of organization for irrigation canals, buildings, etc.). This implies that the society has a priestly class instead of depending on talented or inspired individuals. Religions in these early civilizations were polytheistic and personified forces of nature, universal values and human attributes as ‘Gods’.
Climate and geography appear to play an important part in defining the characteristics of the Gods*. The ancient Egyptian civilization was located along the Nile, where the climate was predictable; it flooded every year. The desert around the Nile valley also protected the civilization and isolated it from external forces and enemies. As a result, the Gods in Egypt were associated with balance.
The ancient Mesopotamian civilizations were located in an area with unpredictable climate, storms. They were also situated close to hilly areas where hostile nomadic tribes lived, who waged frequent wars on Mesopotamian civilizations. It is not surprising, then, that the Gods of Sumeria and other Mesopotamian civilizations were warring sky Gods.
Climate and geography also influenced the organization and political structure in civilized societies. The ancient Egyptian civilization had a relatively stable climate, it was isolated from enemies, and it had few locations for developing cities and irrigation structures; it faced little external disturbance. It was ruled by an absolute, divine monarch, and the institutions to support this structure were relatively stable for over two millennia.
In contrast, the Greek civilization in classic antiquity was located on islands separated by the Mediterranean Sea and valleys separated by hills. This allowed political structures in city-states to develop in relative independence, and the civilization devised a range of governance regimes in different city-states, including a military oligarchy and a democratic republic. City-states were also encouraged to compete with each other in war and in athletics.
Today, the only extant polytheistic religion that I know of is Hinduism, and it is structurally identical to these polytheistic religions:
(1) The system of belief includes multiple Gods that perform different and/or over-lapping functions. These Gods may even be substitutable—for instance, Greek scholars wrote that such and such people also worship Zeus, the storm God, but call him by this other name.
(2) The Gods are not ideal, omnipotent or omniscient; they have human characteristics and are mostly occupied with their own concerns. You can appeal to them through sacrifices such as fruit, meat, or something else of value to you.
(3) The system of belief includes magic in everyday life and may also include people with magical abilities.
(4) The system of belief includes oracles and prophecies, and also uses astrology.
(5) There appears to be a ‘trickster’ God in many of the polytheistic religions, who brings in the problems: Loki in Norse mythology; Narad muni in Hindu mythology; Seth in Egyptian mythologies. There may be others and I will add them to this list when I find them.
(6) The system of belief includes epics. I define epic as the story of a hero on a journey where some Gods are on his side and some Gods are against him. The hero may be semi-divine, but not fully divine, and he can often communicate directly with the Gods. [more on this later].
*More on environmental determinism later.