Common section



1.Subsequent studies of children have shown that while it is true that their concepts of God are dependent upon their understanding of people in general and their parents in particular, they do not treat God as being limited by human abilities. For example, when asked to account for the origins of natural objects such as large rocks or mountains, four-year-olds credited God, not people. See Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of the World (Paterson, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1960), and Nicola Knight, Paulo Sousa, Justin L. Barrett, and Scott Atran, “Children’s Attributions of Beliefs to Humans and God: Cross-Cultural Evidence,” Cognitive Science 28 (2004): 117–126.

2.Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (New York: Pantheon, 1957), 58.

3.Much of my theory on the humanization of god is reliant on the anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, one of the foremost theorists on the subject. In Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Guthrie posits that all forms of religiosity can be traced down to some form of anthropomorphism. This occurs, according to the theory, because there are innate cognitive structures that psychologically bias humans to find persons in their natural, social, and cosmological environment. Anthropomorphizing the world, according to Guthrie, “is a good bet because the world is uncertain, ambiguous, and in need of interpretation. It is a good bet because the most valuable interpretations usually are those that disclose the presence of whatever is most important to us. That usually is other humans” (3).

Guthrie’s argument can be outlined in three aspects. First, he forms a theoretical basis for his argument, suggesting that religion consists of seeing the world as humanlike. He offers ethnographic data as evidence for his claim, citing animistic ideas of souls and spirits to gods, mythical beings, and even natural phenomena like the flight of birds, earthquakes, and other disasters. Second, he examines why viewing religion as essentially anthropomorphizing the world is plausible. He gives four reasons: (1) our world is ambiguous and perpetually inchoate, (2) our first need therefore is to interpret it, (3) interpretation gambles on the most significant possibilities, and (4) the most significant possibilities are humanlike. Third, he offers evidence from the cognitive sciences and developmental psychology to support the claims made above. In general, Guthrie sees religiosity as a sort of wager against perceived instabilities in nature. His main concern is not to establish or document how religion is important in society, but rather to generate a theory that explains the origins of religious behavior.

4.In the larger and more mainstream Mahayana branch of Buddhism (as opposed to the smaller, less theistic Theravada branch), the Buddha’s appearance on earth is traditionally viewed as the manifestation of pure dharma, but in human form. On devas as humanized godlike spirits, see Ninian Smart, Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

5.According to studies done by the cognitive psychologist Justin Barrett, religiously devout participants, when given questionnaires to reflect on what properties they believed God has, routinely provided “theologically correct” answers about God being omnipresent or omniscient, having infallible perception or unlimited attention. However, in conversation, these same participants were also equally willing to attribute certain properties to God—such as having a limited focus of attention, or exhibiting fallible perception, or simply not knowing everything—that contradicted each and every one of their written answers. See Justin L. Barrett, “Theological Correctness: Cognitive Constraint and the Study of Religion,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion11 (1998): 325–39, and “Cognitive Constraints on Hindu Concepts of the Divine,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998): 608–19.


1.Humans first evolved from apes (Australopithecus) some 2.5 million years ago in East Africa, from which they eventually migrated to settle in North Africa, Europe, and Asia. For much of the next two million years, there were numerous genera of humans (Homo) occupying the earth, including Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo soloensis, Homo denisova, Homo ergaster, and so on. European Homo sapiens are sometimes referred to as Cro-Magnon, named after the discovery of five Homo sapiens skeletons in 1868 in a cave of the same name near the village of Les Eyzies, France. The theory generally known as the “recent single-origin hypothesis” holds that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa some 200,000 years ago and that around 125,000 years ago, one branch of these early humans, Homo sapiens, began to migrate to and settle in Eurasia, where they replaced an earlier human species, Neanderthals. This theory has recently been corroborated by DNA evidence. However, a recent discovery of Homo sapiens fossils in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, dating to at least 300,000 B.P. [Before the Present], suggests that our species may be older than originally thought. See Jean-Jacques Hublin et al., “New Fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the Pan-African Origin of Homo sapiens,Nature 546 (June 8, 2017): 289–92.

Some researchers argue convincingly that the origins of Homo sapiens can be found not in East or South Africa, as is often presumed, but rather in North Africa, and 50,000 years earlier than the previous estimate of 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. On this point see Jean-Jacques Hublin and Shannon P. McPherron, eds., Modern Origins: A North African Perspective (New York: Springer, 2012), and Simon J. Armitage et al., “The Southern Route ‘Out of Africa’: Evidence for an Early Expansion of Modern Humans into Arabia,” Science 331/6016 (2011): 453–56.

It is commonly believed that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals shared Europe for at least ten thousand years, probably between 40,000 and 30,000 B.C.E., and there is ample evidence of cross-breeding between these two species (all living non-Africans possess approximately 2 percent Neanderthal DNA). A likely explanation for this discovery is that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens interbred during the Upper Paleolithic Period. However, a recent discovery of a bone found on the banks of a Siberian river has been traced to a man related to both humans and Neanderthals who lived as long as 45,000 years ago. Because researchers estimate that mating with Neanderthals took place 7,000 to 10,000 years before the Siberian man lived, that could place human/Neanderthal interbreeding as far back as 60,000 years ago. See Richard E. Green et al., “A Draft Sequence of the Neanderthal Genome,” Science 328 (2010): 701–22, and Jennifer Viegas, “45,000-Year-Old Man Was Human-Neanderthal Mix,”​science/​articles/​2014/​10/​23/​4113107.htm.

2.An excellent primer on the lives of our Homo sapiens ancestors is Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human: Evolution and Human Uniqueness (New York: Harvest, 1999); the best and most accessible introduction to the role of women in Paleolithic societies is The Invisible Sex, by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page (New York: HarperCollins, 2007).

3.“Body decoration,” notes Gillian Morris-Kay, “is likely to have been an important precursor to the creation of art separate from the body. The use of colour to decorate skin, bones and beads suggests enjoyment of form and colour. The practice of piercing teeth, shells and bones, and stringing them, singly or multiply, to make a pendant or necklace is the oldest known form of personal decoration after body painting.” Gillian Morris-Kay, “The Evolution of Human Artistic Creativity,” Journal of Anatomy 216 (2010): 161.

4.The skull of a woman was found at the Le Mas-d’Azil cave in southwestern France whose empty eye sockets were decorated with carved bone to simulate a gaze and whose lower jaw seems to have been replaced with that of a reindeer. The skull is dated to the Magdalenian period, about 12,000 B.C.E.

According to Paul Pettitt, “mortuary activity was fully symbolically structured after 30,000 BP, possibly beforehand; and that a degree of symbolic underpinning is evident in Middle Palaeolithic burial back to 100,000 BP.” Paul Pettitt, The Palaeolithic Origins of Human Burial (New York: Routledge, 2011), 269.

“While Paleolithic burials are clear indications of concepts of afterlife,” argues Brian Hayden, “they also raise the possibility of the existence of very early forms of ancestral cults. Up until about 150,000 years ago, there does not seem to have been any form of burial. When individuals died, they must have been simply left on the ground to decay or to be stripped of their flesh, just as Tibetans leave bodies in the open to be consumed by animals….It is also possible that early humans could have placed bodies on raised platforms or in trees so that birds and insects rather than carnivores would consume the bodies….What is most significant when burials begin to appear in the archaeological record is that there is not a wholesale change in this traditional practice. It is not as though a new belief and ritual system replaced the old practices, and it is not the case that people had suddenly become more conscious of hygiene…nor that they had suddenly developed awareness of death. Rather, burial is clearly symbolic. It requires special efforts and is often accompanied by fires or symbolic offerings or selections of special stones.” Brian Hayden, Shamans, Sorcerers and Saints (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 2003), 115.

I certainly agree with David Wengrow that “if we are searching for a sustained interest in the cultural realization of composite beings among early hunter-gatherers, we are more likely to find it in the funerary record of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic societies—extending back in time to the earliest attested combinations of human and animal parts in deliberate formations, within the burials of Skhul and Qafzeh caves (ca 100–80,000 B.C.), and forwards to the so-called ‘shamanic’ grave assemblages of the Natufian period—rather than in their surviving pictorial art.” David Wengrow, “Gods and Monsters: Image and Cognition in Neolithic Societies,” Paléorient 37/1 (2011): 154–55.

5.A note about the word “soul.” Clearly this is a “Western” word that carries specific religious connotations and should not be applied to all religious faiths. As used here, however, it is a byword for “spiritual essence” and can, if you like, be replaced with “mind.” For one of the earliest uses of the word “soul,” see the recent discovery of a stele at Zincirli (ancient Sam’al) near modern-day Gaziantep, Turkey, in Dennis Pardee, “A New Aramaic Inscription from Zincirli,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 356 (2009): 51–71; J. David Schloen and Amir S. Fink, “New Excavations at Zincirli Höyük in Turkey (Ancient Sam’al) and the Discovery of an Inscribed Mortuary Stele,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 356 (2009): 1–13; and Eudora J. Struble and Virginia Rimmer Herrmann, “An Eternal Feast at Sam’al: The New Iron Age Mortuary Stele from Zincirli in Context,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 356 (2009): 15–49.

6.Although it is unanimously agreed that Upper Paleolithic Period (UPP) humans buried their dead, there is still a great deal of debate over whether the practice also existed in the Middle and Lower Paleolithic periods. See Julien Riel-Salvatore and Geoffrey A. Clark, “Grave Markers: Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic Burials and the Use of Chronotypology in Contemporary Paleolithic Research,” Current Anthropology 42/4 (2001): 449–79.

“For several decades,” notes William Rendu, “scholars have questioned the existence of burial in Western Europe prior to the arrival of Anatomically Modern Humans. Therefore, an approach combining a global field recovery and the reexamination of the previously discovered Neandertal remains has been undertaken in the site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints (France), where the hypothesis of a Neandertal burial was raised for the first time. This project has concluded that the Neandertal of La Chapelle-aux-Saints was deposited in a pit dug by other members of its group and protected by a rapid covering from any disturbance. These discoveries attest the existence of West European Neandertal burial and of the Neandertal cognitive capacity to produce it.” William Rendu, “Evidence Supporting an Intentional Neandertal Burial at La Chapelle-aux-Saints,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111/1 (2014): 81.

The earliest and least controversial material evidence for Neanderthal burials comes from interment sites at Skhul and Qafzeh, in Israel, dating to about 100,000 years ago. However, Neanderthal bones have been found buried throughout Europe and Asia, for instance in Teshik Tash, Central Asia, and in Shanidar, Iraq, where a large cave was discovered with several Neanderthals buried in it. Some of these burials indicate cannibalistic activity. See Rainer Grun et al., “U-series and ESR Analyses of Bones and Teeth Relating to the Human Burials from Skhul,” Journal of Human Evolution 49/3 (2005): 316–34, and André Leroi-Gourhan, The Hunters of Prehistory, trans. Claire Jacobson (New York: Atheneum, 1989), 52.

7.Animism is not really a religion, of course; at that point in our evolution, there was simply no such thing. Better to think of animism as a belief system, a lens through which Adam and Eve viewed the world and their place in it.

8.There is no shortage of theories about the meaning and use of Paleolithic cave art. There are those who follow the “art for art’s sake” model, wherein no inherent meaning is prescribed to cave art. Although this theory, which is primarily driven by a low estimation of prehistoric man’s cognitive abilities, has been more or less abandoned in modern scholarship, it still has some contemporary proponents, for example John Halverson, who writes, “It is proposed that cave art has no ‘meaning’ in any ordinary sense of the word, no religious, mythic, or metaphysical reference, no magical or practical purpose. It is to be understood, rather, as a reflection of an early stage of cognitive development, the beginnings of abstraction in the form of represented images. The activity would have been autotelic, a kind of play, specifically a free play of signifiers. Thus Paleolithic art may well have been, in a fairly precise and instructive sense, art for art’s sake.” John Halverson, “Art for Art’s Sake in the Paleolithic,” Current Anthropology 28/1 (1987): 63. Many other scholars view Paleolithic cave art as a means of information exchange. For instance, cave art may be a reflection of “demographic stress” resulting from the “closing of social networks under conditions of increasing population density.” According to Barton, Clark, and Cohen, cave art produced during the Paleolithic era might have been involved with claims for property rights. “Claims to these rights could have been expressed symbolically through art. While portable art could conceivably have served this function, parietal art would more effectively have communicated claims of eminent domain by visibly (and ‘permanently’) modifying the landscape.” See C. Michael Barton, G. A. Clark, and Allison E. Cohen, “Art as Information: Explaining Upper Palaeolithic Art in Western Europe,” World Archaeology 26/2 (1994): 199–200. See also Clive Gamble, “Interaction and Alliance in Palaeolithic Society,” Man 17/1 (1982): 92–107, and The Palaeolithic Settlement of Europe(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), and Michael Jochim, “Palaeolithic Cave Art in Ecological Perspective,” in Hunter-Gatherer Economy in Prehistory, ed. G. N. Bailey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 212–19.

Those who subscribe to the structuralist argument posit that Paleolithic cave art is an expression of a larger worldview, cosmology, or system of thought that rigidly organized Paleolithic life and culture into a universal pattern of meaning. The originator and most prominent proponent of this theory was André Leroi-Gourhan, who nevertheless rejected the religious significance of the caves. According to Leroi-Gourhan and Michelson, “We would, in this case, possess not the vestiges of practices, as the older prehistorians believed, not even a religion or a metaphysics, but rather an infrastructural framework which could serve as a basis for an infinite number of detailed moral symbols and operational practices…the themes which emerge from Paleolithic art more directly invite psychoanalytical study than that of the history of religion…” André Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Michelson, “The Religion of the Caves: Magic or Metaphysics?” October 37 (1986): 16.

Perhaps the most well-known theory of Paleolithic cave art involves the notion of “sympathetic magic.” In brief, this theory holds that cave art was intended to facilitate success in the hunt in a magical/spiritual sense. Such art was designed to ensure the safety of the hunters and yield sustenance by giving the artists/hunters spiritual and physical power over their prey. One of the chief arguments for this theory is the belief—mistaken, in my view, as I show in the book—that much of the Paleolithic cave art depicts images of animals that appear to be struck by spears, bleeding, and/or with cut marks incised on the image.

The most significant proponent of the “art as sympathetic magic” theory was Abbé Henri Breuil, who argued that the prehistoric paintings were made in the mysterious depths of the earth in an attempt to exert control over the natural realm. These early artists were endeavoring to ensure success in the hunt and the continued fertility of their prey by descending into the earth’s bowels (a possible relation to procreation/pregnancy?) and magically capturing the spirit of certain animals in the darkest/most inaccessible recesses of the cave. Henri Breuil, Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art,trans. Mary Boyle (New York: Hacker Art Books, 1979).

Finally, there are those scholars, myself among them, who argue that Paleolithic cave art is the expression of a religious impulse and therefore exudes spiritual significance. David Lewis-Williams believes that the art is the result of trancelike states (possibly drug-induced) achieved by a shaman, and that the cave itself was a kind of veil or a boundary between this world and the spirit world. See Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance Magic and the Painted Caves (New York: Abrams, 1998), and David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce, Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the God (London: Thames and Hudson, 2005).

However, Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder have challenged the notion that the paintings and images in the caves are religious “art.” According to Sharpe and Van Gelder: “The shamanic hypothesis follows in the grand tradition of interpreting the cave ‘art’ in southwestern Europe by imputing religious meanings and intentions to the Upper Paleolithic creators of the ‘art.’ (Note that, along with many others, we use quotation marks around the word ‘art’ because, while the corpus of such artifacts contains some artistic images, not all of it obviously appears as such and its creators may not have intended it all as art.) The key pioneer of the discovery, recording, and interpretation of prehistoric ‘art’ in southwestern Europe was Henri Breuil….Breuil, like his prominent successor, André Glory, was a Roman Catholic priest (the Jesuit archaeologist-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin adds to the point), and it therefore seems natural that they, when confronted by the majesty of the ‘art’ and the awe-inspiring nature of its antiquity, read religious meaning and intention into it. They similarly approached the caves containing the ‘art’ by naming places ‘sanctuaries,’ ‘cathedrals,’ ‘chapels,’ and the like. They started a tradition that reflects the cultural ethos of late nineteenth and much of twentieth century France and Spain, and strongly continues today; all one needs to do is take a cursory glance at web sites about prehistoric art or much new age literature to see this. Lewis-Williams fits firmly into this tradition. The ‘art’ feels romantic and mysterious. The religious interpretation now arises automatically. It makes a good story. And it does not require the current speculators to dirty themselves in caves.” Kevin Sharpe and Leslie Van Gelder, “Human Uniqueness and Upper Paleolithic ‘Art’: An Archaeologist’s Reaction to Wentzel van Huyssteen’s Gifford Lectures,” American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 28/3 (2007): 313–14.

Obviously, I disagree with this analysis and will simply quote Lewis-Williams in response: “Notwithstanding all the variety [of parietal art in the French caves], we can discern some consistencies. The most obvious is the stunning fact that people made images deep underground, often in places where their creations could be seen by only one person at a time; many may even have been seen by the maker only. It is hard to imagine any reason for making these remote images if those ancient artists did not believe there was a nether realm filled with supernatural animals and possibly spirit beings as well. Like communities all over the world, Upper Palaeolithic people probably believed in a tiered cosmos: an underworld, the level on which human beings lived, and a realm above the sky. Just what beings were believed in Upper Palaeolithic times to inhabit the spiritual levels and how they may have influenced human beings is a matter for conjecture.” David Lewis-Williams, “Into the Dark: Upper Palaeolithic Caves in Western Europe,” Digging Stick 27/2 (2010): 5. See also Sharpe and Van Gelder, “Human Uniqueness and Upper Paleolithic ‘Art,’ ” 311–45.

9.It is Lewis-Williams who brilliantly formulated the thesis of the “tiered cosmos” mentioned here, noting that “Upper Paleolithic people probably understood entry into the caves as equivalent to entry into an underworld….The cave passages were the ‘entrails’ of the underworld, and the walls, floors, and ceilings were thin ‘membranes’ that could be penetrated for access to what lay beyond them. Activity areas were therefore subdivisions of a nether realm.” David Lewis-Williams, Conceiving God: The Cognitive Origin and Evolution of Religion (London: Thames and Hudson, 2010), 210.

10.Other wonderfully preserved examples of cave art include Altamira and Tito Bustillo in Spain. The image from El Castillo is a “large red stippled disk” on the “Panel de las Manos.” Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” Science 336 (2012): 1411–12. See also M. Garcia-Diez, D. L. Hoffman, J. Zilhao, C. de las Heras, J. A. Lasheras, R. Montes, and A.W.G. Pike, “Uranium Series Dating Reveals a Long Sequence of Rock Art at Altamira Cave (Santilana del Mar, Cantabria),” Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (2013): 4098–106.

For helpful discussions on the parietal and mobile art of the UPP, as well as its geographical distribution, age, and diversity, see Oscar Moro Abadia and Manuel R. Gonzalez Morales, “Paleolithic Art: A Cultural History,” Journal of Archaeological Research 21 (2013): 269–306; Paul Bahn, Natalie Franklin, and Matthias Stecker, eds., Rock Art Studies: News of the World IV(Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2012); Gillian M. Morris-Kay, “The Evolution of Human Artistic Creativity,” Journal of Anatomy 216 (2010): 158–76; Michel Lorblanchet, “The Origin of Art,” Diogenes 214 (2007): 98–109; Paul Pettitt and Alistair Pike, “Dating European Palaeolithic Cave Art: Progress, Prospects, Problems,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 14/1 (2007): 27–47; Curtis Gregory, The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006); Gunter Berghaus, New Perspectives on Prehistoric Art (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004); Randall White, Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003); Paul Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Margaret W. Conkey, “A Century of Palaeolithic Cave Art,” Archaeology 34/4 (1981): 21–22.

11.The Volp caves were first explored by the three sons of Count Henri Bégouën, professor of prehistory at the University of Toulouse (hence the name Les Trois-Frères). On a lazy summer day in 1912, the brothers built themselves a homemade boat out of discarded boxes and empty gasoline cans and rowed it along a slender arm of the Volp River into the half-submerged entrance of one of the caves. Even in the semidarkness they could make out the faint etchings on the cave walls, though they could not have known then the significance of what they were seeing. Their exploration of the caves came to a halt with the launch of the First World War, as one after another, the brothers were called to the front. It wasn’t until the end of the war in 1918 that the boys returned to their childhood adventures in the caves. By then, however, their father, Count Bégouën, had recognized the importance of the find and contacted his friend, the archaeologist and French priest Henri “Abbé” Breuil. Much of my description of the Volp caves comes from the account provided by Breuil himself in Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, 153–77.

12.For more on Paleolithic “instruments,” see Ian Tattersall, Becoming Human, 13–14, 213. According to Randall White, “There is accumulating evidence that acoustics played some role in the choice of painting locations within caves. Michel Dauvois in a study of three caves (Fontanet, Le Portal, and Niaux) has shown…a strong correspondence between zones of high-quality acoustics and density of paintings and engravings. This kind of research is in its infancy, but it is easy to imagine that sound quality was taken into consideration, especially if activities in the caves involved flute or lithophone music, singing, or chanting.” Randall White, Prehistoric Art, 16.

13.Lewis-Williams argues that the dots are a record of visions (i.e., strange, otherworldly images that a shaman sees when he enters the other world) that prehistoric humans were “nailing down” after being in an “altered state of consciousness.” By contrast, Leroi-Gourhan and Michelson have argued that the geometric patterns are representative of sexual organs: “[The patterns are] composed of male and female figures; genital representations; signs of very varied types which divide into two series: the first are ‘full’ signs (ovals, triangles, rectangles), the second are ‘thin’ signs (lines which are straight, hooked, or branched, and series of dots); and, finally, there are imprints of hands placed upon the wall and outlined in color. Comparison of the subjects of each series of signs leads us to see them as multiple variants of sexual symbols, masculine for the thin ones and female for the full ones.” David Lewis-Williams, “Debating Rock Art: Myth and Ritual, Theories and Facts,” South African Archaeological Bulletin 61/183 (2006): 105–11, and The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), and Leroi-Gourhan, “The Religion of the Caves,” 12–13.

14.Ilga Zagorska writes about the symbolism of red ochre in Stone Age burial rites. “The colour red is reminiscent of natural substances sharing the same colour, such as blood. The presence of the colour red in burials is regarded as being connected with the concept of death and with the preservation of the energy of life, providing magical force for the route to the world beyond. In a wider sense, the use of ochre has been connected with the human spiritual world and the broadening of knowledge, and in the burial context it has been related to the beginnings of symbolic thinking….However, researchers have also emphasised that ochre has not been used in the same ways across space and time, and its presence or absence is not always comprehensible or interpretable.” Ilga Zagorska, “The Use of Ochre in Stone Age Burials of the East Baltic,” in The Materiality of Death: Bodies, Burials, Beliefs, ed. Fredrik Fahlander and Terje Oestigaard (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2008), 115.

Julien Riel-Salvatore and Geoffrey A. Clark note that the widespread use of ochre can be explained in functional rather than symbolic terms. “It could have provided better insulation against cold and humidity, produced smoother surfaces on ground and polished bone beads, served as an astringent or antiseptic, or even slowed down putrefaction….Therefore its presence in graves may simply indicate knowledge of a useful substance that was gradually invested with aesthetic and/or ritual properties over the course of the Upper Paleolithic. Its occurrence in some of the Qafzeh burials shows that it was known (and probably used) in the Middle Paleolithic. This suggests that it may have come into widespread use only later, perhaps after 20,000 years B.P.” Julien Riel-Salvatore and Geoffrey A. Clark, “Grave Markers: Middle and Early Upper Paleolithic Burials and the Use of Chronotypology in Contemporary Paleolithic Research,” Current Anthropology 42/4 (2001): 449–79. See also Erella Hovers, Shimon Ilani, Ofer Bar-Yosef, and Bernard Vandermeersch, “An Early Case of Color Symbolism: Ochre Use by Modern Humans in Qafzeh Cave,” Current Anthropology 44/4 (2003): 491–522.

15.One of the oldest forms of artistic expression in the Paleolithic period are the positive and negative handprints in red (most common), black, white, and yellow (least common) ochre. Whereas the positive handprints were made by placing a hand into wet pigment and pressing it against the wall of a cave, negative images were likely created by spraying pigment from the mouth around the hand, thereby creating a halo effect around the fingers, wrist, and back of the hand. A large number of caves from southern France, northern Spain, and Italy have yielded positive and negative handprints, but this particular form of expression was by no means limited to the caves of Western Europe.

The discovery of negative handprints in Indonesia that are contemporaneous with those of El Castillo and Altamira, not to mention the discovery of figurative art that is as old as that of Chauvet, has the potential to have wide-ranging consequences for our understanding of the origins and development of Upper Paleolithic art and its meaning(s). See Paul Pettitt, A. Maximiano Castillejo, Pablo Arias, Roberto Peredo, and Rebecca Harrison, “New Views on Old Hands: The Context of Stencils in El Castillo and La Garma Caves (Cantabria, Spain),” Antiquity 88 (2014): 48; M. Aubert, A. Brumm, M. Ramli, T. Sutikna, E. W. Saptomo, B. Hakim, M. J. Morwood, G. D. van den Bergh, L. Kinsley, and A. Dosseto, “Pleistocene Cave Art from Sulawesi, Indonesia,” Nature (2014): 223–37; and Michel Lorblanchet, “Claw Marks and Ritual Traces in the Paleolithic Sanctuaries of the Quercy,” in An Enquiring Mind: Studies in Honour of Alexander Marshack, ed. Paul Bahn (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2009), 165–70.

The majority of hand stencils are of the left hand rather than the right. This would appear to have a relationship to the method that was used to create the stencils (i.e., using the right hand to hold a shell, container, or a strawlike device containing the pigment). Furthermore, there would appear to be a fairly strong relationship between the proximity of the handprints to cracks, depressions, and bumps within the caves. Hand stencils, note Pettitt et al., “are found in obvious association with natural features, notably fissures, convex bosses and concave depressions….In total 80% of observable stencils at La Garma and 74% at El Castillo have some kind of association, either with fissures or undulations on the caves’ surfaces. As areas of ‘smooth’ rock were easily accessible in each cave and within close proximity to stencils, such associations cannot be entirely fortuitous. Some stencils seem to have been ‘fitted’ to subtle topographic features in the wall, and some were positioned on bosses in the wall in such a manner that they appear to be ‘gripping’ the wall in a similar way that explorers use their hands to steady themselves when navigating the caves.” Paul Pettitt et al., “New Views on Old Hands,” 53.

In two separate articles, Dean Snow has argued that women were responsible for the majority of negative handprints dating to the UPP. After analyzing 32 stencils from 8 caves in Spain and France, Snow concluded that women were responsible for 24 of the 32 prehistoric handprints in his study (i.e., 75 percent). And in spite of the fact that Snow’s algorithm was able to identify the sex of modern men and women from their handprints only 60 percent of the time, he claims that the sexual dimorphism of the earliest Homo sapiens was far more pronounced in the UPP than it is today. Snow’s detractors aside, this new hypothesis raises some interesting questions about the art of the Upper Paleolithic Period. Namely, which of the two sexes, if either, was primarily responsible for the art of this period? And if women were primarily responsible for the creation of parietal art, then how might this affect the theories of Breuil and Lewis-Williams, who have argued that the paintings and images were related to “sympathetic magic” or the altered states of consciousness that were experienced by shamans? Finally, does the gender of the artist have any bearing whatsoever on the meaning, intentionality, or purpose of Upper Paleolithic art? See Dean Snow, “Sexual Dimorphism in Upper Palaeolithic Hand Stencils,” Antiquity 80 (2006): 390–404, and “Sexual Dimorphism in European Upper Paleolithic Cave Art,” American Antiquity 4 (2013): 746–61.

In the cave of Gargas (discovered in 1906), which is located in the Pyrenees region of southern France, more than 150 hand stencils dating to between 27,000 and 25,000 B.P. have been discovered. However, unlike the stencils from other Upper Paleolithic sites, a large number of the handprints from Gargas are missing fingers. Not surprisingly, these handprints have been the subject of much conjecture since Émile Cartailhac first mentioned them in print, and the various interpretations of these stencils can be boiled down to three hypotheses: (1) the “artist’s” fingers were removed for sacrificial reasons (e.g., rites of passage, “sympathetic magic,” or in-group/out-group identification); (2) the fingers were lost through accidental or natural means (e.g., frostbite, injury, disease, birth defect); (3) the fingers were intentionally bent so as to create different shapes and configurations (perhaps hunter/gatherer “sign language” for specific animals). Although the latter is probably the strongest of the three, none of the aforementioned hypotheses is particularly convincing.

To start with, if there were a sacrificial purpose behind the removal of digits, it stands to reason that we would be able to discern a standardized pattern to the mutilations in Gargas, yet no such pattern is visible. Similarly, if the mutilations were intentional, or if the fingers were purposefully bent so as to represent specific animals, then we would expect to see this practice represented in other caves, but comparable images are recorded in only two other caves. Furthermore, the purposeful removal of fingers is illogical in that it compromises both the safety and the productivity of the individual and his/her group, who depend upon all of their members in order to survive. Finally, several of the handprints from Gargas appear to have been made by the same person, yet different fingers are missing from one stencil to the next, which is suggestive of the bending of fingers, playfulness, or poor technique as opposed to the ritual mutilation or natural or accidental loss of fingers. See André Leroi-Gourhan, “The Hands of Gargas: Toward a General Study,” October 37 (1986): 18–34; Ali Sahly, Les Mains mutilées dans l’art préhistorique (Toulouse: privately published, 1966); Breuil, Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, 246–57; and Émile Cartailhac, “Les mains inscrites de rouge ou de noir de Gargas,” L’anthropologie 17 (1906): 624–25.

16.Regarding the symbolic nature of UPP art, Lewis-Williams notes that “the images are therefore not pictures of animals seen outside the cave, as is often supposed: there is never any painted suggestion of a ground surface…nor of grass, trees, rivers or indeed anything in the natural world. Rather the fixed divisions often blended with the form of the rock, a natural nodule for instance, being used as an animal’s eye. Others appear to be entering or leaving the rock surface sometimes via cracks or fissures while still others are only partially drawn, the rest of the image being created by shadow when one’s light is held in a certain position.” David Lewis-Williams, Inside the Neolithic Mind (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), 83–84.

17.Archaeological evidence from the UPP indicates there is little to no correlation between the animals featured in UPP cave art and the primary diet of Homo sapiens. Concerning the species of animals depicted in the art of the UPP, Leroi-Gourhan notes that “statistically speaking, the number of species represented [in the art of the UPP] is much lower than the number of species known to have existed at the time. Palaeolithic artists did not portray just any animal, but animals of certain species, and these did not necessarily play an important part their daily life.” André Leroi-Gourhan, The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 45.

In a second publication, Leroi-Gourhan returns to this topic yet again: “This listing, in comparison with the animals most represented in the form of bone remains on the majority of settlement sites, raises questions of the representative nature of lists of animals in art. At the start one can examine a possible parallel with the traditions of the whole of Europe, with the lion and the eagle, rare and mediocre forms of food, nevertheless much more commonly represented in western heraldic art than the calf or the pig. We shall return to this question, but there are good reasons to suppose that the drawings of Paleolithic animals constituted a bestiary rather than a collection of edible species.” André Leroi-Gourhan, Treasures of Prehistoric Art (New York: Harry Abrams, 1967), 111.

Finally, Margaret Conkey observes that “the frequency of certain animal depictions often contrasted sharply with the availability of those animals as well as how often they are found among excavated food debris. One conclusion, also suggested by Patricia Vinnicombe’s People of the Eland, an elegant study of the rock art of the Kung of South Africa, might be the same as Lévi-Strauss’s observation that certain natural species were selected in these cases as the subject of rock art not because they were ‘good to eat’ but because they were ‘good to think.’ ” Margaret W. Conkey, “A Century of Palaeolithic Cave Art,” Archaeology 34/4 (1981): 23. See also Patricia Vinnicombe, People of Eland: Rock Paintings of the Drakensburg Bushmen as a Reflection of Their Life and Thought, 2nd ed. (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009). Lévi-Strauss’s quote is from Totemism,trans. Rodney Needham (London: Merlin Press, 1991), 89.

As White has noted: “Another observation that would seem to refute hunting magic as an explanation for deep cave paintings (and portable representations as well) is that animals are almost never seen in postures of pain and suffering. Indeed, there is an almost total absence of violence and clear acts of hunting. When it occurs, it is truly the exception, such as the disemboweled bison in the well at Lascaux and the bow-hunting scene on a pierced baton from La Vache.” Randall White, Prehistoric Art, 119.

18.“The cave itself,” posits Leroi-Gourhan, “is integrated into the infrastructural schema, since its natural accidents are used by the artist. These accidents are of two kinds. The first are natural reliefs which have lent their shape to the back, the neck, or the thigh of an animal which is completed by the painter, while others are fissures or galleries whose assimilation to female symbolism is demonstrated by the addition of thin signs or dots. The cave was thus ‘an active participant.’ ” Leroi-Gourhan, “The Religion of the Caves,” 16.

19.Breuil’s description of the Sorcerer is particularly compelling: “First of all, the ‘God’ first called the ‘Sorcerer’ by Count Bégouën and me, the only figure painted in black of all those engravings in the Sanctuary, four meters above the floor in an apparently inaccessible position, only to be reached by a secret corridor climbing upwards in a spiral. Evidently, he presides over all the animals, collected there in incredible numbers and often in a terribly tangled mass. He is 75 cms high and 50 cms wide, he is entirely engraved, but the painting is unequally distributed: on the head there are only a few traces, on the eyes, nose, forehead and the right ear. This head is full face with round eyes with pupils; between the eyes runs a line for the nose, ending in a little arch. The pricked ears are those of a Stag. From a black painted band across the forehead rise two big thick antlers with no frontal tines but with a single short tine, fairly high above the base of each branch, bending outwards and dividing again to the right or left. This figure has no mouth, but a very long beard cut in lines and falling on the chest. The forearms, which are raised and joined horizontally, end in two hands close together, the short fingers outstretched; they are colourless and almost invisible. A wide black band outlines the whole body, growing narrower at the lumbar region, and spreading out round the legs which are bent. A spot marks the left knee-joint. The feet and big toes are rather carefully made and show a movement similar to steps in a ‘Cakewalk’ dance. The male sex, emphasized but not erect, pointing backwards but well developed, is inserted under the bushy tail of a Wolf or Horse, with a little tuft at the end. Such is the Magdalenian figure considered to be the most important in the cavern and which, after much thought, we consider to be the Spirit controlling the multiplication of game and hunting expeditions.” Breuil, Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, 176–77.

20.This relationship with animals gives the shaman a certain power over them. He can see through the animal’s eyes. They guide him in solving problems, in reading omens, or in healing the sick. According to Jose Antonio Lasheras: “The communication which is established between different distinct levels of reality requires a celebrant, intercessor, shaman or priest, who connects with the small spirits which give life to everything, and who intervenes in or influences the apparent reality, that which is all around us and which we see all the time. It would be the celebrant-artist or the shaman who would discover in the reliefs of the ceiling the bison, the deer and the horses of Altamira, who would connect them to the things they represented. Palaeolithic art had a particular bestiary linked to an oral tradition, to particular common stories—myths—that explain their coherence and presence in the vast European landscape throughout the millennia.” Jose Antonio Lasheras, “The Cave of Altamira: 22,000 Years of History,” Andoranten (2009): 32.

21.The image at Lascaux of the so-called Bird-Headed Man depicts a human figure falling backward or lying prostrate in front of a charging bison. The attacking animal, whose horns are lowered in the direction of the man’s chest, appears to have been struck in the stomach by a barbed shaft or spear. To the right of the man is an image of a stick or staff that has been adorned with a bird. Below the bison, at the point where the shaft has penetrated its body, a circular protrusion can be seen emanating from the animal’s belly. Given the similarities between the facial features of the man and the bird on the staff, some have interpreted this iconic image as evidence of shamanism. See Matt Rossano, “Ritual Behaviour and the Origins of Modern Cognition,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19/2 (2009): 249–50; Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves (New York: Harry Abrams, 1998), 94–95; Noel Smith, An Analysis of Ice Age Art: Its Psychology and Belief System, American University Studies, Series XX, “Fine Arts,” vol. 15, book 15 (New York: Peter Lang, 1992); Henri Breuil and Raymond Lantier, The Men of the Old Stone Age (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965), 263–64; and Jacquetta Hawkes and Sir Leonard Woolley, Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 204–205.

Perhaps the most famous human-animal hybrid from the Paleolithic era is the Löwenmensch, or Lion-Human, a 30,000-year-old ivory statue depicting a long-limbed man with an elaborately carved lion’s head that was found in a cave in the Lone River valley region of southwestern Germany. The 28 cm statue is missing its right arm and foot; all along the left arm and around its ears are evenly spaced notches whose significance is a mystery. The Löwenmensch is not just one of the earliest and most famous therianthropic images we have, it is also one of the oldest examples of mobiliary, or portable, art. See Joachim Hahn, Kraft und Aggression: Die Botschaft der Eiszeitkunst in Aurignacien Suddeutschlands? (Tübingen: Verlag Archaeologica Venatoria, 1986), and Thomas Wynn, Frederick Coolidge, and Martha Bright, “Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Evolution of Human Conceptual Thought,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19/1 (2009), 73–84.

22.Breuil argued that by inscribing the images of animals on the walls and ceilings of caves, Paleolithic humans were attempting to guarantee a successful hunt and safeguard their hunters from injury. According to Breuil, this theory explains both the arbitrariness of the images in the caves, which is merely a reflection of their randomness in nature, and the occasional incisions or marks on the images themselves, which seem to have been made with sharpened implements and are suggestive of pantomime or magical hunts. Breuil’s theories regarding the parietal art of the Paleolithic period and “sympathetic magic” were the consensus position up to the 1960s, and they can still be found in many primers on prehistoric art.

Since the 1960s, however, numerous criticisms have been leveled against Breuil. Notably, some have observed that the cave paintings could not have been used for sympathetic magic as many of the animals depicted were not a part of the diet for Paleolithic humans. Others have argued that Breuil was predisposed to see the caves as sacred spaces because he was a French priest with “high-church” sensibilities and that his work was hampered by methodological problems, such as his reliance upon overly simplistic ethnographic interpretations of the San bushmen of South Africa. In addition to these charges, Breuil has also been criticized for perpetuating a Eurocentric and colonialist understanding of cave art, which privileges parietal art over mobiliary art by referring to these forms of expression as “high art” and “low art” respectively.

Even Breuil’s tracings have been the subject of criticism, such as when Ronald Hutton questioned the addition of antlers in Breuil’s representation of the Sorcerer from Les Trois-Frères. Yet in spite of these negative assessments, and the fact that mistakes have been found in some of Breuil’s drawings, Jean Clottes (one of the few individuals to have been granted access to Les Trois-Frères) has repeatedly vouched for the authenticity of the Sorcerer image and the accuracy of Breuil’s tracing. For more, see Oscar Moro Abadia and Manuel R. Gonzalez Morales, “Paleolithic Art: A Cultural History,” Journal of Archaeological Research 21 (2013): 269–306; Margaret Conkey, “A Century of Palaeolithic Cave Art,” Archaeology 43/4 (1981): 20–28; Paul Bahn, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 62–63; Ronald Hutton, Witches, Druids, and King Arthur (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2003), 33–35; Peter Ucko, “Subjectivity and the Recording of Palaeolithic Cave Art,” in The Limitations of Archaeological Knowledge, ed. T. Shay and J. Clottes (Liege: University of Liege Press, 1992), 141–80; Robert Bégouën and Jean Clottes, “Les Trois-Frères After Breuil,” Antiquity 61 (1987): 180–87; and Jean Clottes and David Lewis-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance Magic and the Painted Caves (New York: Abrams, 1998).


1.According to Alberto C. Blanc, “The engraved and painted figures of the so-called ‘sorcerer’ of the Cave of the Trois Frères in Ariège, described originally by Abbé Breuil as the figure of a sorcerer, bearing a sort of costume composed of parts of different animals—the horns of a deer, the paws of a bear, the eyes of an owl, the tail of a wolf or of a horse[—is] obviously the figure of a god or genius of the hunting people. Abbé Breuil was the first to reverse his previous opinion and as early as 1931 clearly pointed out that what he had called a ‘sorcerer’ must rather have represented a mythic supernatural being, furnished with the attributes of the animals that were the object of the hunts of the tribe….Other so-called ‘masked figures’ in Upper Paleolithic art are likely to represent similar gods or geniuses.” Alberto C. Blanc, “Some Evidence for the Ideologies of Early Man,” in Social Life of Early Man, ed. Sherwood Washburn, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 2004), 121.

“Initially, this figure had been interpreted as representing a dancing sorcerer. After further reflection, Breuil concluded that it was not a sorcerer but a god, a representation of what one today calls the master of animals….But the name of ‘sorcerer’ had already stuck to this figure and was never replaced by that of the ‘horned god’ in the literature. It should be noted that for Breuil, the figure of this god was ‘decked out with the same symbols of magical power (mask) as his human ministers’ (Bégouën and Breuil 1958:54). It was therefore a masked god.” Henry Pernet, Ritual Masks: Deceptions and Revelations (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 1992), 26.

Alby Stone concurs with Breuil’s change of heart regarding the Lord of Beasts: “The sorcerer of Les Trois Frères might well depict someone in a ritual animal costume, though it could equally have been intended to portray a god or a powerful spirit. It might even have been intended as a metaphorical portrait of an esteemed or powerful individual.” Alby Stone, Explore Shamanism (Loughborough, U.K.: Explore Books, 2003), 130. See also Morris-Kay, “The Evolution of Human Artistic Creativity,” 169.

Bettina Arnold and Derek Counts describe the Lord of Beasts as a “Master of Animals, with powers that extend from divine control over both wild (e.g., lions and boars) and domestic (e.g., mules, cows, and sheep) animals to guardianship over the hunt.” Bettina Arnold and Derek Counts, eds., The Master of Animals in Old World Iconography (Budapest: Archaeolingua Alapítvány, 2010), 9.

According to Jacquetta Hawkes and Sir Leonard Woolley, there is “no doubt that cave art, and to a lesser extent the home art as well, served the animal cult, part magical and part truly religious….The status of the individuals and the life of the tribe were wholly dependent on the multiplication of the game herds and success in hunting them, and art responded to the urgency of these two great needs. Utilitarian in themselves, they cannot be separated from a religious impulse towards a form of communion with animals and nature, a participation mystique.” Jacquetta Hawkes and Sir Leonard Woolley, Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 204–205.

For more on the Lord of Beasts/Master of Animals, see Jacqueline Chittenden, “The Master of Animals,” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 16/2 (1947): 89–114, and Nanno Marinatos, The Goddess and the Warrior: The Naked Goddess and Mistress of the Animals in Early Greek Religion (London: Routledge, 2000), 11–12.

2.Recent U-series results from nine caves on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia indicate that negative handprints were being made in the caves of that region as early as 39,900 B.P., making them the oldest negative handprints in the world. Moreover, U-series tests of two pieces of figurative art from the Indonesian caves of Leang Timpuseng I and II (a female babirusa or “pig-deer” and an indeterminate piglike animal) have yielded results of 35,400 and 35,700 B.P. respectively. For more on the discovery and dating of the painted caves of Sulawesi, Indonesia, see M. Aubert, A. Brumm, M. Ramli, T. Sutikna, E. W. Saptomo, B. Hakim, M. J. Morwood, G. D. van den Bergh, L. Kinsley and A. Dosseto, “Pleistocene Cave Art from Sulawesi, Indonesia,” Nature514 (2014): 223–27.

As Aubert et al. have noted: “Our dating results from Sulawesi suggest that figurative art was already part of the cultural repertoire of the first modern human populations to reach this region more than 40kyr ago. It is possible that rock art emerged independently at around the same time and at roughly both ends of the spatial distribution of early modern humans. An alternative scenario however, is that cave painting was widely practiced by the first H. sapiens to leave Africa tens of thousands of years earlier, and thus that naturalistic animal art from Leang Timpuseng and Leang Barugayya 2, as well as Chauvet Cave in France, may well have much deeper origins outside both western Europe and Sulawesi. If so, we can expect future discoveries of depictions of human hands, figurative art and other forms of image-making dating to the earliest period of the global dispersal of our species.” Maxime Aubert et al., “Pleistocene Cave Art from Sulawesi, Indonesia,” 226.

3.For more on the caves in Malaga, see Alistair Pike et al., “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” Science 336 (2012): 1409–13. For more on the Aveyron discovery, see Jacques Jaubert et al., “Early Neanderthal Constructions Deep in Bruniquel Cave in Southwestern France,” Nature 534 (2016): 111–127.

4.For a discussion of Homo erectus skulls discovered at the Zhoukoudian cave system in Beijing (the so-called Peking Man), see Brian M. Fagan and Charlotte Beck, eds., The Oxford Companion to Archaeology (London: Oxford University Press, 1996), 774. Dates for the Zhoukoudian bones range anywhere from 700,000 to 200,000 B.C.E., but the consensus is that it could not have been much later than 500,000 years ago. See Peter Peregrine and Melvin Ember, eds., Encyclopedia of Prehistory, vol. 3: East Asia and Oceania (New York: Springer, 2001), 352. For a discussion of Homo erectus burial practices discovered at the Zhoukoudian cave system in Beijing (the so-called Peking Man), see Brian M. Fagan and Charlotte Beck, eds., The Oxford Companion to Archaeology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 774, and Peter Peregrine and Melvin Ember, eds., Encyclopedia of Prehistory, vol. 3: East Asia and Oceania (New York: Springer, 2001), 352.

5.“What the doctrine of the soul is among the lower races,” argues Tylor, “may be explained in stating the animistic theory of its development. It seems as though thinking men, as yet at a low level of culture, were deeply impressed by two groups of biological problems. In the first place, what is it that makes the difference between a living body and a dead one; what causes waking, sleep, trance, disease, and death? In the second place, what are those human shapes which appear in dreams and visions?…[T]he ancient savage philosophers probably made their first step by the obvious inference that every man has two things belonging to him, namely, a life and a phantom.” Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture (London: J. Murray, 1889), 428.

6.For Max Müller and the “encounter with nature,” see Introduction to the Science of Religion (London: Longmans, Green, 1873), and Comparative Mythology (London: Routledge and Sons, 1909). It should be mentioned that Marett’s book, which posits what he calls a theory of preanimism,was written as a critique of Tylor’s theory of animism. See also Robert Ranulph Marett, The Threshold of Religion (London: Methuen and Co., 1914), 14.

7.The argument that ritual practice can elicit certain feelings that can provide an adaptive advantage can be found in Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 177.

8.The very term transcendence, it can be argued, implies a Western philosophical perspective that may not be applicable to the so-called religions of the East. Nevertheless, in defining transcendence as “that which lies beyond,” we find that, for example, the concept of nirvana as ultimate release from the cycle of rebirth, as well as the concept of the moksha as freedom from the bondage of karma and the illusion of reality (maya), both affirm similar notions of transcendence. Likewise, the concept of the Void (sunyata), in so far as it is a “concerted effort to grasp the meaning” underlying reality, also implies transcendence, particularly if we consider Nagarjuna’s claim that there is no “non-Void entity.” In this way, whatever can be said about the Transcendent Reality can also be said about the Void. See J. G. Arapura, “Transcendent Brahman or Transcendent Void: Which Is Ultimately Real? Transcendence and the Sacred,” in Transcendence and the Sacred, ed. A. M. Olson and L. S. Rouner (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 83–99.

9.Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: Free Press, 1995), 227. See also W. Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions (New York: Ktav Publishers, 1969).

10.One hears echoes of Durkheim’s theory today among his intellectual inheritors. The sociologist Peter Burger, for instance, argues that in providing cosmic significance to human activities, religion not only creates meaning and purpose for societies, it legitimizes societies. Religion, Burger writes, “is the establishment, through human activity, of an all-embracing sacred order, that is, of a sacred cosmos that will be capable of maintaining itself in the ever-present face of chaos.” Peter Burger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 51.

11.For Freud’s views on religion, see Totem and Taboo: Resemblances Between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics, trans. Abraham Arden Brill (New York: Moffat, 1918), and The Future of an Illusion, trans. W. D. Robson-Scott (London: Hogarth Press, 1928).

12.David Hume, Four Dissertations (London: A. and H. Bradlaugh Bonner, 1757), 94, and Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, trans. Marian Evans (New York: Calvin Blanchard, 1855), 105. See also Feuerbach’s Lectures on the Essence of Religion, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Harper and Row, 1967).

Girard believed that violence was caused by mimetic rivalry, which occurs when our desires are “borrowed” from other people in our community. See René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

The promise of religion, writes the contemporary German American scholar Martin Riesebrodt, is “to ward off misfortune, to help cope with crises, and to provide salvation.” Martin Riesebrodt, The Promise of Salvation: A Theory of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), xiii.

13.Geertz defines religion by its purpose: to encourage and motivate people by making them believe in a meaningful and coherent universe. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 87–125, 103. Similarly, as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown notes, “while one anthropological theory is that magic and religion give men confidence, it could equally well be argued that they give men fears and anxieties from which they would otherwise be free—the fear of black magic or of spirits, fear of God, of the Devil, of Hell.” Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, “Taboo,” in Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, ed. William A. Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), 46–56.

14.Peter van Inwagen on the problem of explaining religion in evolutionary terms: “Supernaturalistic beliefs are not without their cost: they have an obvious tendency to lead to actions (i.e., rituals and prayer) that involve an expenditure of resources that might have been devoted to survival and reproduction. And it is a commonplace of evolutionary biology that any feature of a species that is costly in terms of energy and resources requires some sort of explanation, such as the colorful plumage of the males of many species of birds.” Peter van Inwagen, “Explaining Belief in the Supernatural: Some Thoughts on Paul Bloom’s ‘Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident,’ ” in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion, ed. Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 129.

15.According to Matt Rossano, “Religion’s most ancient traits represent an extension of the human social world into the supernatural, thus reinforcing within-group cooperation by means of ever-vigilant spiritual monitors. Believing that the spirits were always watching may have helped reduce the number of noncooperators within a group while reinforcing group behavioral norms, thus allowing humanlike levels of cooperation to emerge.” Matt Rossano, “Supernaturalizing Social Life: Religion and the Evolution of Human Cooperation,” Human Nature 18/3 (2007): 272. See also Robert Boyd et al., “The Evolution of Altruistic Punishment,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100/3 (2003): 3531–35.

16.Bloom points out an alternative view, in which “[r]eligion…is a constellation of behaviors and thoughts that have evolved to benefit groups, and, in particular, to help solve the problem of free-riders.” In this perspective, religion functions to mitigate the social effects of selfish behavior among individuals in a group. However, this perspective has a hard time explaining how and why religions evolved in the first place. Some believe that religion can evolve through a process called “cultural group selection,” by which religion, including religious rituals, may emerge and succeed initially in societies if it confers an advantage over other groups. That is to say, groups with religion were more competitive and more likely to survive. In this case, religion is not genetic but rather mimetic—a highly controversial means of knowledge transmission that is parallel in process to genetic transmission. However, Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson have pushed back against this idea. They refute the use of Darwinian evolution to explain cultural process, seeing it as fundamentally circular in logic. This problem can come in conflict with more anthropological theories for the evolution of cooperation. These theories often rely on the notion of altruistic punishment, which is a costly action an individual will take to punish another individual who does not follow some moral or cooperative norm. Punishment in this sense serves to promote cooperation in small groups, and potentially also in large groups if the costs and frequency of punishment actions are low. See Paul Bloom, “Religion, Morality, Evolution,” Annual Review of Psychology 63 (2012): 186, 196, and Tim Ingold and Gisli Palsson, eds., Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

17.Some scholars and scientists continue to insist that there must be some adaptive advantage to holding religious beliefs—that it may make for more desirable mates, for instance, as proposed by Jesse M. Bering in “The Folk Psychology of Souls,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (2006): 453–62, or that it somehow allows certain societies to outlast and outgrow others, as hypothesized by David Sloan Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

18.Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 43; Paul Bloom, “Religious Belief as an Evolutionary Accident,” in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion,ed. J. Schloss and M. Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 118–127.


1.Michael J. Murray, “Scientific Explanations of Religion and the Justification of Religious Belief,” in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion, ed. J. Schloss and M. Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 169.

To understand what is meant by religion as a neurological phenomenon, recall that whoever made the Sorcerer, and for whatever reason, did so around 18,000 years ago. However, the brain required to conceive of the Sorcerer developed hundreds of thousands of years earlier. That brain had to be capable of symbolic thought. It needed to possess the conceptual thinking necessary to dream up an abstract creature not of this world. It had to have the ability to join separate and distinct categories such as “man” and “animal” to create a new and unreal category, deliberately and with conscious effort. These mental tasks are the product of certain executive functions in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain that took millions of years to develop.

Wynn, Coolidge, and Bright argue, in reference to another hybrid figure—the aforementioned Löwenmensch or “Lion-Human”—that the abstract concept underpinning such hybrids resulted initially from an effortful and attentive linking of “animal” and “person” concepts via the working memory network of the frontal and parietal lobes. “These ‘animal’ and ‘person’ concepts themselves were largely unconscious folk biological categories generated by a parietal network that had evolved earlier, probably by the time of the earliest Homo sapiens. These in turn rest on even older, basic ontological categories of ‘animate’ and ‘manipulable’ objects that are temporal lobe networks, and which evolved much earlier still, perhaps with the advent of Homo erectus.” Thomas Wynn, Frederick Coolidge, and Martha Bright, “Hohlenstein-Stadel and the Evolution of Human Conceptual Thought,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19/1 (2009): 73.

2.For more on the Theory of Mind and its relation to animism, see Maurice Bloch, In and Out of Each Other’s Bodies: Theory of Mind, Evolution, Truth, and the Nature of the Social (New York: Routledge, 2016), and Christine S. VanPool and Elizabeth Newsome, “The Spirit in the Material: A Case Study of Animism in the American Southwest,” American Antiquity 77/2 (2012): 243–62.

3.Jean Piaget and other developmental psychologists have long noted the “tendency among children to consider things as living and conscious.” Following in Piaget’s footsteps, Justin Barrett has outlined the process whereby babies not only implant agency into inanimate things but also instinctively find design and purpose in the natural world. Furthermore, studies by Gergely Csibra and Deborah Kelemen have yielded empirical evidence that children unwittingly attribute goals to moving objects, even if they are self-propelled and without purposeful motion. Concerning the concept of mortality, Jesse Bering has provided evidence that some children can understand physical death, although they intuitively hold the belief that the mind survives the body. Therefore teleological thought is theorized to exist inherently and possibly without cultural inheritance. Teleological thought allows one to conceptualize an invisible designer to phenomena even if you cannot observe the designer but rather you infer it. Children are therefore “intuitive theorists.” Jean Piaget, “Children’s Philosophies,” in A Handbook of Child Psychology, ed. C. Murchison (Worcester, Mass.: Clark University Press, 1933), 537; Justin L. Barrett, Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief (New York: Atria Books, 2012); Gergely Csibra et al., “Goal Attribution Without Agency Cues: The Perception of ‘Pure Reason’ in Infancy,” Cognition 72/3 (1999): 237–67; Deborah Kelemen, “Are Children Intuitive Theists? Reasoning About Purpose and Design in Nature,” Psychological Science 15/5 (2004): 295–301; Deborah Kelemen and Cara DiYanni, “Intuitions About Origins: Purpose and Intelligent Design in Children’s Reasoning About Nature,” Journal of Cognition and Development 6/1 (2005): 3–31; and Jesse Bering, “Intuitive Conceptions of Dead Agents’ Minds: The Natural Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs as Phenomenological Boundary,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 2/4 (2002): 263–308. See also Alfred Irving Hallowell’s fascinating case study on nonhuman actors, the notion of self, and the cosmos in human culture as understood by the Ojibwa tribes of North America: Alfred Irving Hallowell, “Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View,” in Culture in History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, ed. S. Diamond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 20–52.

4.Pascal Boyer’s most accessible books laying out his theories on how religious belief is transmitted include Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001) and The Naturalness of Religious Ideas: A Cognitive Theory of Religion (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994).

5.The term “minimally counterintuitive concept” was coined by Justin Barrett, who has worked with Boyer on many of his experiments demonstrating the impact of anomalous ideas. See Justin L. Barrett, Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (Lanham, Md.: Altamira Press, 2004) and Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief (New York: Atria Books, 2012).

6.An old but useful compendium of tree myths is Cultus Arborum: A Descriptive Account of Phallic Tree Worship, with Illustrative Legends, Superstitions, Usages, &c., Exhibiting Its Origin and Development Amongst the Eastern & Western Nations of the World, from the Earliest to Modern Times; with a Bibliography of Works Upon and Referring to the Phallic Cultus, which was privately printed in London in 1890 and is available at Many of the myths about talking trees were taken from this compendium.

We don’t know much about either the Oak of Moreh or the Oaks of Mamre. Nahum Sarna discusses them briefly in his commentary on Genesis: “The Terebinth of Moreh, in Hebrew ‘elon moreh, was undoubtedly some mighty tree with sacred associations. Moreh must mean ‘teacher, oracle giver.’ This tree (or a cluster of such trees) was so conspicuous and so famous that it served as a landmark to identify other sites in the area. The phenomenon of a sacred tree, particularly one associated with a sacred site, is well known in a variety of cultures. A distinguished tree, especially one of great antiquity, might be looked upon as the ‘tree of life’ or as being ‘cosmic,’ its stump symbolizing the ‘navel of the earth’ and its top representing heaven. In this sense, it is a bridge between the human and the divine spheres, and it becomes an arena of divine-human encounter, an ideal medium of oracles and revelation. Trees may have also symbolized the protection or fertility the worshiper hoped to receive from a deity. Fertility cults flourished in connection with such trees, and this form of paganism proved attractive to many Israelites.” Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989), 91. Note also the prophetess Deborah, who sits beneath the “palm of Deborah” when dispensing oracles (Judges 4:5).

7.Note what the serpent tells Eve in Eden regarding the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). More on this in the Conclusion.

8.Justin Barrett shows how HADD and Theory of Mind can reinforce but not create belief with the following analogies: “Suppose a woman walking alone through a deep gorge rounds a bend in the trail and rocks tumble down the steep wall and nearly hit her. HADD might reflexively search for the responsible agent. A man hiking through an unfamiliar forest hears something behind a nearby shrub. HADD screams, ‘Agent!’ If, after detecting agency in these sorts of cases, a candidate superhuman agent concept is offered and seems consistent with the event, belief could be encouraged. Similarly, when a god concept is already available as a good candidate, events that HADD might have overlooked become significant. For instance, a child in California prays for snow in May and a blizzard drops two feet of snow the next day. The context suggests agency. Or a man in New York is told by doctors that he is dying but he feels a tingling all over his body and a sense of peace that all will be well. The man recovers and attributes the miraculous healing to God. Because the agency detection device is so eager to find agency when other intuitive explanatory systems (such as Naive Physics or Naive Biology) fail, many different events may be attached to superhuman agency. These events then support belief.” Barrett, “Cognitive Science, Religion and Theology,” 86.

9.Jesse M. Bering has attempted to provide a cognitive answer to the problem of our intuitive knowledge of the soul, insofar as it pertains to the inborn belief in life after death. Bering argues that “because it is epistemologically impossible to know what it is like to be dead, individuals will be most likely to attribute to dead agents those types of mental states that they cannot imagine being without. Such a model argues that it is natural to believe in life after death and social transmission serves principally to conceptually enrich (or degrade) intuitive conceptions of the afterlife.” Bering, “Intuitive Conceptions of Dead Agents’ Minds,” 263.


1.Concerning the relationship between religion and the production of food, Gilbert Murray notes that agriculture was once “entirely a question of religion; now it is almost entirely a question of science. In antiquity, if a field was barren, the owner of it would probably assume that the barrenness was due to ‘pollution,’ of offence somewhere. He would run through all his own possible offences, or at any rate those of his neighbours and ancestors, and when he eventually decided the cause of the trouble, the steps that he would take would all be of a kind calculated not to affect the chemical constitution of the soil, but to satisfy his own emotions of guilt and terror, or the imaginary emotions of the imaginary being he had offended. A modern man in the same predicament,” continues Murray, “would probably not think of religion at all, at any rate in the earlier stages; he would say it was a case for deeper ploughing or for basic slag. Later on, if disaster followed disaster till he began to feel himself a marked man, even the average modern would, I think, begin instinctively to reflect upon his sins. A third characteristic flows from the first. The uncharted region surrounds us on every side and is apparently infinite; consequently, when once the things of the uncharted region are admitted as factors in our ordinary conduct of life they are apt to be infinite factors, overruling and swamping all others. The thing that religion forbids is a thing never to be done; not all the inducements that this life can offer weigh at all in the balance. Indeed there is no balance. The man who makes terms with his conscience is essentially non-religious; the religious man knows that it will profit him nothing if he gain all this finite world and lose his stake in the infinite and eternal.” Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1955), 5–6.

2.Mircea Eliade, From the Stone Age to the Eleusinian Mysteries, vol. 1 of History of Religious Ideas, trans. Willard Trask (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 29–55.

3.During the first half of the twentieth century, the prevailing opinion regarding prehistoric humans and their attitudes toward the acquisition of foodstuffs was that farming was more desirable than foraging. In the 1960s, however, this interpretation started to lose ground. As Jacob Weisdorf notes: “Evidence started to appear which suggested that early agriculture had cost farmers more trouble than it saved. Studies of present-day primitive societies indicated that farming was in fact back breaking, time consuming, and labour intensive, a view that would later gather strong support….A picture began to emerge that showed that foraging communities were able to remain in equilibrium at carrying capacity when undisturbed and that new cultural forms would only result from non-equilibrium conditions. In the light of the fact that climatic changes did not seem to have led to significant crises and that foragers, reluctant to take up farming, decided to adopt it nevertheless the idea that agriculture resulted from necessity again began to take hold.” In consonance with Weisdorf, Michael Guenevere and Hillard Kaplan have convincingly shown that the life expectancy of hunter-gatherers is far higher than once assumed. Jacob L. Weisdorf, “From Foraging to Farming: Explaining the Neolithic Revolution,” Journal of Economic Surveys 19/4 (2005): 565–66; Michael Guenevere and Hillard Kaplan, “Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination,” Population and Development Review 33/2 (2007): 321–65.

4.The transition from foraging to farming, argues Harari, was just a “faithfulness calculation” in that Neolithic man was incapable of fathoming the full consequences of his decision to farm instead of forage—“they did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.” Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015), 87.

5.According to Childe, the “Neolithic Revolution” was the result of climatic changes resulting in the emergence of several geographical oases where agriculture and food production were easily accomplished. Subsequent scholars, such as Robert Braidwood, found no evidence for the presence of such climatic crises and argued that the rise of agriculture was driven by social and cultural issues, such as technological advances that enabled people to inhabit areas that were adjacent to the Fertile Crescent for longer periods of time. By contrast, Lewis Binford argued that humans adapted to environmental changes through the development of material culture. Moreover, rising sea levels pushed people to marginal zones where they would have brought cereals and animals from other regions. In a dramatic departure from his predecessors, Jacques Cauvin has argued that the beginnings of the agricultural revolution can be found in the Holocene period (c. 9000 B.P.)—a time of extreme abundance, suggesting that climatic and environmental issues were not to blame for the shift from hunting and gathering to agricultural activities. More important, Cauvin has posited that the evolution of symbolic activity, such as that which is evidenced at Göbekli Tepe, preceded the rise of the agricultural economy by nearly a millennium, thereby indicating that a cognitive development among Homo sapiens with regard to the production of symbols occurred well before the emergence of sedentary life. See Vere Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself, 3rd ed. (London: Watts and Company, 1936); Robert J. Braidwood, “The Agricultural Revolution,” Scientific American 203 (1960): 130–41; Braidwood, Prehistoric Men, 6th ed. (Chicago: Chicago Natural History Museum, 1963); Lewis R. Binford, “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations,” in New Perspectives in Archaeology, ed. L. R. Binford and S. R. Binford (Chicago: Aldine, 1968), 313–42; and Jacques Cauvin, The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

6.The consensus among scholars regarding the rise of agriculture and the factors that might have contributed to its development is that there is no consensus. “There seems to be widespread agreement that no single model so far proposed is entirely satisfactory,” observes Weisdorf, “and for the theorist interested in rationalizing the transition from foraging to farming, new evidence is constantly appearing. For instance, there is evidence that indicates that sedentism occurred prior to and independent of the transition to agriculture and that tools for agricultural production were already available to the foragers who eventually took up farming. Evidence also suggests that agriculture appeared in relatively complex, affluent societies, where a wide variety of foods were available and that these societies were circumscribed by other societies whose environmental zones were poorer in resources. It also appears that the egalitarian nature of foraging societies was replaced by hierarchical social structures among agriculturalists and that bands of hunters and gatherers had a communal organizational structure, whereas household level organization prevailed among farmers.” Weisdorf, “From Foraging to Farming,” 581–82.

7.As Allan Simmons has remarked: “Many but not all researchers agree that initial domestication of primary animal species occurred in the northern Levant and southeastern Turkey, rather than in the southern Levant.” In support of this observation, and the argument that “animal domestication should be perceived as an end result of sedentism [not its catalyst],” Simmons cites archaeological evidence from Göbekli Tepe and other Neolithic sites across southeastern Turkey. In consonance with Simmons, Joris Peters has argued that animal domestication occurred well after humans had abandoned the life of the hunter-gatherer and embraced a more settled lifestyle. According to Peters: “Morphometrical as well as circumstantial evidence indicate that the domestication of sheep and probably also goat took place in the southern Taurus piedmont during the Early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B period [c. 7600–6000 B.C.E.]….Thus the incorporation of sheep and goats into the economy of these early sites is less ‘revolutionary’ than the term ‘Neolithic revolution’ might suggest…According to archaeozoological and palaeobotanical evidence, large scale climatic change and/or landscape deterioration now seem unlikely, reinforcing the idea that socio-cultural factors were primarily responsible for this shift in the pattern of animal exploitation.” Allan Simmons, The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East: Transforming the Human Landscape (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2007), 141–42; Joris Peters et al., “Early Animal Husbandry in the Northern Levant,” Paléorient 25/2 (1999): 27–48, 27.

8.Cauvin, Birth of the Gods. See also LeRon Shults, “Spiritual Entanglement: Transforming Religious Symbols at Çatalhöyük,” in Religion in the Emergence of Civilization: Çatalhöyük as a Case Study, ed. Ian Hodder (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 73–98, and Ian Hodder, “Symbolism and the Origins of Agriculture in the Near East,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11/1 (2001): 108.

Ian Hodder is right to note that “rather than religion or new forms of agency being prime causes in the domestication of plants and animals and the emergence of settled villages, religion and the symbolic were thoroughly engrained within the interstices of the new way of life. Religion played a primary role, allowing new forms of agency, setting up a symbolic world of violence through which new longer-term social and economic relations could be produced, but there is not good evidence that it was an independent cause of the changes.” Ian Hodder, “The Role of Religion in the Neolithic of the Middle East and Anatolia with Particular Reference to Çatalhöyük,” Paléorient 37/1, (2011): 111–22, 121. See also Hodder, “Symbolism and the Origins of Agriculture in the Near East,” 108.


1.There are numerous versions of the Sumerian flood legend but they basically come in three incarnations: the Sumerian Flood Story, written in Sumerian; the Atrahasis Epic, written in Akkadian and dated to around 1700 B.C.E.; and Tablet XI of the Epic of Gilgamesh, also written in Akkadian and dated to roughly the twelfth century B.C.E. We should add to this the recently discovered Ark Tablet, which its translator, Irving Finkel, dates to about 1750 B.C.E. My version of the Sumerian flood story is an amalgamation of two translations of the Atrahasis Epic—the first (and best) by Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia; the second by Benjamin R. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda: University of Maryland Press, 2005)—sprinkled with material from the Ark Tablet, translated by Irving Finkel in The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (New York: Doubleday, 2014), and, for good measure, the Babylonian version recounted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, also translated by Dalley (with a few literary flourishes of my own).

2.The Sumerians’ first attempt at writing amounted to little more than pictographs, each symbol an image corresponding to a physical object. For example, the image of a jug represented the word “beer.” Eventually these images took phonetic values to create particular sounds such as bar, la, or am. By connecting and crisscrossing the wedged lines, the Sumerians were able to create a kind of alphabet of around six hundred characters.

Interestingly, the earliest written texts were not myths about the creation of the world or grand epics recounting the exploits of gods and heroes. They were the ancient equivalent of tax documents, lists of incomes and expenditures, tallies of sheep, goats, and cattle, accounting records meticulously charting who owed what to whom. Indeed, writing arose solely for the purpose of facilitating accounting. Only much later did these numerical texts begin to combine numbers and nouns to craft complex sentences; and it was much later than that when these sentences were finally strung together to create the sprawling, unforgettable myths that defined the religions of Mesopotamia for thousands of years.

At this early stage in Mesopotamian development, it should be noted that religion had almost nothing to do with doctrine and everything to do with tending to the god’s estate. Daniel T. Potts, professor of Ancient Near Eastern archaeology at NYU, has done a marvelous analysis of nearly four thousand so-called archaic texts, the earliest examples of proto-cuneiform from Mesopotamia, found in trash deposits in the Eanna precinct, in the temple complex of Inana, who was the sitting goddess of Uruk. His conclusion that these texts were like archived tax documents, indicating that writing was invented to facilitate accounting and record keeping, is difficult to dispute. I was honored to hear him present his findings at the Engelsberg Seminar in Sweden, the proceedings of which were published by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation. Professor Potts’s article is titled “Accounting for Religion: Uruk and the Origins of the Sacred Economy,” in Religion: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014 (Stockholm: Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2014), 17–23.

3.According to Michael Wise, “Aramaic became the common language in Palestine largely as a reflex of political realities. Aramaic was used as the language of political administration in the Near East for centuries before the Judean exile, beginning with the Neo-Assyrian Empire; the Neo-Babylonians and Persians continued to use it as the lingua franca.” See also Fitzmyer: “The Aramaic documents of the Jewish military colony of the fifth century B.C. Elephantine have been known since the early part of this century and have given us a good picture of the Official Aramaic which was in use at the time from southern Egypt across the Fertile Crescent even to the Indus Valley. It was used during five centuries, until the international means of communication switched to Greek, only after the conquest of Alexander.” This would mean that Aramaic may have displaced Akkadian as the spoken language of the elites and political class even earlier than the first century B.C.E. Michael Wise, Language and Literacy in Roman Judaea: A Study of the Bar Kochba Documents (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 9, 279; see also Joseph Fitzmyer, “The Aramaic Language and the Study of the New Testament,” Journal of Biblical Literature 99/1 (1980): 5–21, 9.

4.Admittedly, the etymology of ilu, el (or Elohim), and ilah (whence we get the word al-ilah, or Allah) is far from clear. The best work done on the subject is by Marvin H. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1955).

5.No one knows exactly how many gods existed in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Jean Bottéro notes that the most complete count ever done by Babylonian scholars came up with almost two thousand names. However, Antonius Damiel, in his Pantheon Babylonicum, counted three thousand three hundred names. See Jean Bottéro, Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Antonius Damiel, Pantheon Babylonicum: Nomina Deorum e Textibus Cuneiformibus Excerpta et Ordine Alphabetico Distributa (Rome: Sumptibus Pontificii Instituti Biblici, 1914).

Ironically, while Mesopotamian stories of gods and goddesses shed enormous light on the religions of Mesopotamia, there was in actuality no Sumerian word for “religion.” That is because religion was not considered a separate category of life in Mesopotamia. Religion was life. The existence of a god could not be separated from the god’s function. In other words, neither An nor Shamash had any existence apart from, outside of, or beyond the natural functioning of the sky or the sun. Simply put, the gods are as the gods do. If a god failed to perform his or her function, or if the purpose for the god’s existence ceased to be of relevance to the community, that god simply faded out of existence.

6.Kenyon’s research on the skulls at Jericho can be found in Digging up Jericho (New York: Praeger, 1957). Hodder points out that the separation of heads from bodies and the subsequent plastering and presentation of skulls in the Neolithic, notably at Jericho and Çatalhöyük, is not necessarily representative of religious activity: “The removal of heads from corpses is shown clearly in the art, and in both the excavated examples there are reasons to consider the people so treated as special. They may have been important elders or ritual leaders. The retrieval of skulls suggests an emphasis on ancestors, with animals also either representing ancestors or interceding with ancestors. There is no need to introduce ‘gods’ here. Certainly there is a concern with the past, with ancestors, with myth and perhaps ritual elders or shamans. But nothing is suggested beyond a domestic cult and a concern with lineage continuity.” Ian Hodder, “Symbolism and the Origins of Agriculture in the Near East,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11/1 (2001): 111. I respectfully disagree.

7.According to Stephen Bertman, “The term ziggurat derives from the Akkadian word zigguratu, which means a ‘peak’ or ‘high place.’ ” Stephen Bertman, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (New York: Facts on File, 2003), 194, 197.

However, it is not exactly clear whether the ziggurat was connected to a temple or was itself the temple. Herodotus, one of the earliest sources we have about the purpose and function of the ziggurat, described a ziggurat in the following way: “In the midmost of one division of the city stands the royal palace, surrounded by a high and strong wall; and in the midmost of the other is still to this day the sacred enclosure of Zeus Belus, a square of two furlongs each way, with gates of bronze. In the centre of this enclosure a solid tower has been built, of one furlong’s length and breadth; a second tower rises from this, and from it yet another, till at last there are eight. The way up to them mounts spirally outside all the towers; about halfway in the ascent is a halting place, with seats for repose, where those who ascend sit down and rest. In the last tower there is a great shrine; and in it a great and well-covered couch is laid, and a golden table set hard by. But no image has been set up in the shrine, nor does any human creature lie therein for the night, except one native woman, chosen from all women by the god, as say the Chaldeans, who are priests of this god. The same Chaldeans say, that the god himself is wont to visit the shrine and rest upon the couch, even as in Thebes of Egypt…for there too a woman sleeps in the temple of Theban Zeus and neither the Egyptian nor the Babylonian woman, it is said, has intercourse with men.” Herodotus 1.181–82. Unfortunately, no Mesopotamian sources have been found that verify Herodotus’s allusion to a divine sex rite.

John H. Walton writes that “the ziggurat does not play a part in any of the rituals that are known to us from Mesopotamia. If known literature were our only guide we would have to conclude that common people did not use the ziggurat for anything. The ziggurat was sacred space, and would have been strictly off-limits to profane use. Though the structure at the top was designed to accommodate the god, it was not a temple where people would go to worship. There was no image or any other representation of the deity there. The ziggurat was typically accompanied by an adjoining temple near its base where the image was housed and where worship took place…the ziggurat was a structure that was built to support the stairway [between heaven and earth]. This stairway was a visual representation of that which was believed to be used by the gods to travel from one realm to another. It was solely for the convenience of the gods and was maintained in order to provide the deity with the amenities that would refresh him/her along the way. At the top of the ziggurat was the gate of the gods, the entrance into their heavenly abode. At the bottom was the temple, where the people hoped the god would descend to receive gifts and worship of his/her people.” John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 120–22.

It is interesting to note that, technically, every citizen was an employee of the temple, because the temple owned all the land. The farms, the vineyards, the grassy meadows where the cattle grazed, the winding rivers where the fish swarmed—all of these were the personal property of the god. The farmer who tilled the land did so on the god’s behalf. He would bring his harvest to the god as an offering; there it would be carefully tallied and registered by the temple priests, and he would receive a portion of it back as “payment” for his labor. The same was true for the fishermen who fished the god’s rivers, the sheep and cattle herders who grazed the god’s meadows, the vintners who crushed and pressed the god’s grapes, and so on. In this early phase of Mesopotamian history, religion was little more than organized labor in the service of a particular god and under the strict supervision of a bureaucracy of professional priests. The laity’s relationship with the temple was purely transactional. See Potts, Religion: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar 2014.

8.These idols are referred to collectively as the “Venus figurines”—an unfortunate umbrella term coined by the Europeans who discovered them (the figurines have no connection with the Roman goddess Venus). These include the aforementioned Berekhat Ram Venus, which, at around 300,000 years old, is not just the oldest statue ever found, it is likely the very first cult object in history, and the Double Venus found in Grimaldi, Italy, which is by far the most extraordinary, and most obviously ritualistic, of these statues. Affectionately known as Beauty and the Beast, the Double Venus is a perfectly polished, pale green statue that actually consists of two bodies carved back to back and joined at the head, shoulders, and thighs. One of the bodies is of a lithe woman, pregnant and arching her back. The other body is not human. No one knows what it is. It is sinuous and serpentine, almost reptilian, with the face of some kind of mythical, possibly horned beast. The idol has a hole at the top so that it could be worn as an amulet.

It is difficult to dispute the ritual function that these statues must have had in the spiritual lives of our ancestors. The Venus of Dolni Vestonice, which is about 29,000 years old, has clearly defined holes dug into the top of its head which may have held incense, herbs, or flowers. The Venus of Willendorf, carved out of limestone some 30,000 years ago, has what appears to be either a woven veil or braided hair covering its face. The Venus of Hohle Fels (c. 45,000–35,000 B.P.) has a hook or loop where its head should be. In fact, a large number of Venus figurines have been discovered with their heads obscured or their faces left uncarved, as though they were meant to symbolize not any particular woman, but womanhood. You can see a catalog of all the so-called Venus Figurines in alphabetical order at Don’s Maps,​venus.html; for a rundown of theories about the meaning of the Venus figurines, see R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

9.“A cultic statue was never solely a religious picture, but was always an image imbued with a god, and, as such, it possessed the character of both earthly reality and divine presence.” Angelika Berlejung, “Washing the Mouth: The Consecration of Divine Images in Mesopotamia,” in The Image and the Book: Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of the Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. K. van der Toorn (Leuven: Peeters, 1997), 46.

“The statues,” according to Jan Assman, “we are told, have two natures, one divine and one material, one above and the other below humankind. As creators of these statues, humans are reminded of their own divine origin, and by piously tending and worshiping them, they make the divine at home on earth.” Assman continues: “The statue is not the image of the deity’s body, but the body itself. It does not represent his form, but rather gives him form. The deity takes form in the statue just as in an animal or a natural phenomenon. The statues were not made, but were ‘born.’…The Egyptians never blurred the distinction between image and deity, but they took it in a different direction and to a different level from that to which we are accustomed.” Jan Assman, The Search for God in Ancient Egypt, trans. David Lorton (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 41, 46.

10.Although it is a hotly debated subject, many scholars believe that the invention of Egyptian hieroglyphs was directly influenced by Sumerian cuneiform, or that, at the very least, the idea of putting thoughts into words came to Egypt from Mesopotamia. See Geoffrey Sampson, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1990).

11.The gods of Egypt could take multiple forms, or they could change forms altogether. Sometimes two gods would merge to create one composite god who then reflected both divine powers within itself. That is what happened with the god Amun-Re (see chapter 6).

On the dual aspects of the gods (cosmic and active/abstract), Assman notes: “In the framework of our inquiry into the cosmic dimension of the divine as a heuristic model, the essence of Thoth, god of writing and calculation, bureaucratic punctiliousness, exactitude, supervision, and knowledge reveals itself as ‘moon-ness,’ as the religious interpretation of the moon and as such part of the comprehensive religious interpretation of the cosmos, that which we are calling Egyptian polytheism….What we have learned from these examples and can extend to the Egyptian concept of the divine generally is that the cosmic dimension of the divine was not confined to the sheer materiality of cosmic elements such as earth, air, water, and so forth, or to celestial bodies such as the sun and the moon, but rather that it referred to specific complexes of actions, traits, attitudes, and qualities that were interpreted as cosmic phenomena ‘in action’ and in which humankind also participated.” Assman, Search for God in Ancient Egypt, 81.

12.For linguistic evidence of Indo-European migrations, see James Patrick Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1989). For more on Indo-European religiosity, see Hans F. K. Gunther, The Religious Attitudes of the Indo-Europeans, trans. Vivian Bird (London: Clare Press, 1967); Gerald James Larson, ed., Myth in Indo-European Antiquity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); and J. P. Mallory and D. Q. Adams, eds., The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997).

13.Even Soma, who was nothing more than a plant treasured by the Indo-Europeans for its mind-altering properties and so was never humanized in the same way as his cohorts, eventually takes on the body of Chandra, the Hindu god of the moon, to become a seated deity who holds a cup of the intoxicating drink in one of his four hands.

14.The Mycenaean script is known by the rather prosaic name of Linear B. As Edith Hall notes, Mycenaean sites have been excavated in Thebes, Tiryns, Therapne, Pylos, Crete, and of course Mycenae itself. Hall does a splendid job of outlining the influence of Mycenaean culture on the ancient Greeks in Introducing the Ancient Greeks: From Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 29–49.

15.Barbara Graziosi, The Gods of Olympus: A History (New York: Picador, 2014), 12.

16.Barbara Graziosi notes that despite Phidias’s famous statue of the virgin Athena erected in the Parthenon, the Athenians continued to revere the olive wood as Athena, and that in fact during the festival in honor of the goddess, it was the piece of wood and not Phidias’s statue that would receive the ceremonial offering. Gods of Olympus, 47. For a description of Phidias’s Athena Parthenos, see Pausanias, Description of Greece trans. W.H.S. Jones (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935) 5.1–15.

17.For Athena as the solar deity, see Miriam Robbins Dexter, “Proto-Indo-European Sun Maidens and Gods of the Moon,” Mankind Quarterly 55 (1984): 137–44. On Hera’s representation, see Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, trans. John Raffan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1985), 31.

18.As James Lesher notes in his outstanding translation and commentary of Xenophanes’s work: “Fragment 15 generalizes…that various kinds of animals would depict their gods as similar to themselves, if they could, each assigning to the gods bodies like the ones they themselves had….At least superficially, these are comments on the diversity of belief and on a certain propensity of believers to attribute to gods qualities which the believers themselves possess. We are not told [by Xenophanes] whether these considerations should serve to undermine these beliefs, either by having proved them false or having subjected them to ridicule, although they are commonly read in this way.” James H. Lesher, Xenophanes of Colophon: Fragments; A Text and Translation with Commentary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 89, 91.

Interestingly, Xenophanes lived during the sixth and fifth centuries, which is precisely when the Greeks were starting to create more and more lifelike images of the gods in stone and bronze.

19.Xenophanes is quoted in Catherine Osborne, Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). Thales is quoted in Cicero, The Nature of the Gods (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). For more on Greek monotheism, see Laurel Schneider, Beyond Monotheism: A Theology of Multiplicity (London: Routledge, 2007). Martin West refers to this Greek concept of “one god” as a “mindless god,” though it’s difficult to say whether thinkers such as Plato would agree with that definition. Consider this synopsis of Plato’s Timaeus from the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature: “In the beginning God existed, and, being good, created the universe in as perfect a form as possible, from two substances, the incorporeal substance of ideas, and the material elements. From these, mingled in various proportions, God formed the world, its soul, the lower gods, the stars. The lower gods in turn created man and the animals, according to certain geometrical formulae. The origin of sensations and diseases is then traced, the three kinds of soul that inhabit man described, and the fate of man after death briefly indicated.” Paul Harvey, ed., The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951), 431. Martin West is quoted in “Towards Monotheism,” Pagan Monotheism in Late Antiquity, ed. Polymnia Athanassiadi and Michael Frede (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 21–40.


1.As Rita Freed has observed: “[Akhenaten was] depicted in a manner that can only have been shocking to the ancient viewer accustomed to the traditional rendering of the human figure.” Numerous congenital diseases have been proposed to explain the unusual depictions of Akhenaten in Egyptian statuary and carvings, including Marfan’s syndrome, but DNA evidence has more or less disproved these hypotheses. Based on this evidence, it has been suggested that Akhenaten’s unusual physical features, and those of his family, including his wife Nefertiti and son Tutankhamen, were intentionally exaggerated by the artists of the Amarna period. Many Egyptologists, notes James Hoffmeier, have embraced the notion that the “unique Amarna style should be understood in some symbolic manner rather than being a naturalistic (or exaggerated) portrayal of the king’s pathologies…there is a stream of thought that associates the male figure of the king with feminine characteristics as reflecting the universal nature of Aten as sole creator (i.e., no consort) who is father and mother.” In consonance with Hoffmeier, Gay Robins has suggested that “since one of the functions of Egyptian art was to express religious ideas visually, it is highly probable that the change in the artistic representation of the king’s figure was related to Amenhotep IV / Akhenaten’s new religious ideas.” See Rita Freed, “Art in the Service of Religion and the State,” in Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 1994), 112; James K. Hoffmeier, Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 133; Ahad Eshraghian and Bart Loeys, “Loeys-Dietz Syndrome: A Possible Solution for Akhenaten’s and His Family’s Mystery Syndrome,” South African Medical Journal 102/8 (2012): 661–64; and Gay Robins, “The Representation of Sexual Characteristics in Amarna Art,” Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities 23 (1993): 36.

2.The Ennead consists of the creator god Atum, his children Shu and Tefnut, their children Nut and Geb, and their children Isi, Osiris, Seth, and Nephthys. See Rudolf Anthes, “Egyptian Theology in the Third Millennium B.C.,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 18/3 (1959): 169–212.

The sun was worshiped across multiple regions of Egypt by different names, such as Re, Khepri, Horus, and Atum, but by the fourteenth century these names had become incorporated into a national sun worship, and each one of these individual sun gods came to reflect different aspects of the sun. Early examples of this activity can be found in the Pyramid Texts, which were likely composed during the Fifth or Sixth Dynasties (2350–2175 B.C.E.): “I shine in the East like Re, I travel in the West like Khoperer [Khepri], I live on what Horus Lord of the sky lives on by the decree of Horus Lord of the sky” (PT 888). And in yet another section of the Pyramid Texts: “They will bring you into being like Re in this his name of Khoperer; you will draw near them like Re in his name of Re; you will turn aside from their faces like Re in his name of Atum” (PT 1693–95). Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Pyramid Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), 156, 250–51.

3.Approximately two hundred years before Akhenaten was crowned, Ahmose I (c. 1539–1514 B.C.E.), the founder of the Eighteenth Dynasty, solidified the association between Amun and Re—the patron deities of the northern capital, Thebes, and the southern capital, Heliopolis, respectively. The conflation of these deities is evidenced on a stele of Ahmose I recovered from Karnak by Georges Legrain in 1901, which reads: “Horus: Great of appearances…Gold Horus: Who unites the Two Lands, the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, lord of the Two Lands: Nebpehtire, Son of Re, his beloved: Ahmose (may he live forever!), son of Amun-Re, of his body, his beloved, his heir, to whom his throne was given, a truly good god, mighty of arms, in whom there is no falsehood, a ruler equal of Re…” In this stele, argues Hoffmeier, we have concrete evidence that the names Amun and Re were used by Ahmose I “in synonymous parallelism, thereby equating the two deities.” The merging of the Theban dynastic house with the solar cult of Heliopolis was a clever bit of political maneuvering on the part of Ahmose I, who was keen to promote the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under one ruler after centuries of division and strife. As Hoffmeier notes, “The ideology of the universally ruling pharaoh required a universal deity, and Amun-Re, the fusion of sky and sun, was well suited for this role.” Mark-Jan Nederhof, “Karnak Stela of Ahmose,” n.p. [cited 24 April 2014],​egyptian/​texts/​corpus/​pdf/​urkIV-005.pdf; Georges Legrain, “Second Rapport sur les travaux exécutés à Karnak du 31 octobre 1901 au 15 mai 1902,” Annales du Service des Antiquités de L’Égypte 4 (1903): 27–29; James Breasted, Ancient Records of Egypt, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906), 13–14; and Hoffmeier, Akhenaten and the Origins of Monotheism, 50, 59.

4.It is not entirely clear whether Akhenaten visited Heliopolis during his formative years or how much he knew of the Lower Kingdom’s theology. Most Egyptologists agree that the future king Akhenaten was likely raised in Memphis, the city which had been liberated from the Hyksos by Ahmose I nearly two centuries earlier. But even if Akhenaten never set foot in Heliopolis, he would likely have come in contact with the solar cult and its teachings. As Donald Redford has argued, “The sun god and his theology so permeated the Egyptian cultus that it would have been hard to insulate a young prince from solar influence wherever he might have been brought up.” Donald Redford, Akhenaten the Heretic King (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 59.

5.Akhenaten quoted in Maj Sandman, Texts from the Time of Akhenaten (Bruxelles: Édition de la Fondation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, 1938), 7.

The Sun Disc of Aten was an important symbol during the rule of Akhenaten’s father, Amenhotep III, thereby indicating that there was already a focus on a “solar religion” at the start of the fourteenth century B.C.E. After the death of Amenhotep III, the king was deified and became synonymous with the solar deity. According to Raymond Johnson, the experience of losing his father, combined with his father’s deification as Aten, had a profound effect on Akhenaten’s religious sensibilities. Specifically, Johnson argues that Akhenaten’s actions after ascending to the throne were neither monotheistic nor radical. Rather, Akhenaten was simply engaging in an elaborate form of ancestor worship, whereby the deified father was the central focus of his son’s religious practices and aspirations. Johnson’s view is not accepted by the majority of Egyptologists. See Raymond Johnson, “Monuments and Monumental Art Under Amenhotep III: Evolution and Meaning,” in Amenhotep III: Perspectives on His Reign, ed. David O’Connor and Eric H. Cline (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001): 63–94; Donald B. Redford, “The Sun-Disc in Akhenaten’s Program: Its Worship and Antecedents, I,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 13 (1976): 47–61; and Erin Sobat, “The Pharaoh’s Sun-Disc: The Religious Reforms of Akhenaten and the Cult of the Aten,” Hirundo: The McGill Journal of Classical Studies 12 (2013–2014): 70–75, 73.

6.It is unclear exactly when Zarathustra preached his faith. Dates range from the purely mythical (8000 B.C.E.) to the eve of the Iranian kingdom (seventh century B.C.E.). I believe the most logical date for the birth of Zoroastrianism is c. 1100–1000 B.C.E., and I explain why in my article “Thus Sprang Zarathustra: A Brief Historiography on the Date of the Prophet of Zoroastrianism,” Jusur 14 (1998–99): 21–34.

7.The gods of ancient Iran had a function and task, but their influence was global, not local. For instance, Mithra was the deification of “covenant,” but became associated with the sun because the sun sees everything. Nevertheless, as Boyce notes, “like most other Indo-Iranian divinities, Mithra was conceived in human shape, even if greater than any mortal king.” The gods are themselves abstract, claims Boyce, “in that there was no natural object which one could look at and see as their regular physical embodiment; for although the association of Mithra and Vauruna Apam Napat with fire and water evidently existed already in Indo-Iranian times, it was not an identification, nor essential to their being. There existed, however, another group of gods who represented physical phenomena and who might be said actually to be those phenomena.” For instance, Atar the god of fire, Anahita the goddess of waters, and Asman the sky god. Mary Boyce, A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1: The Early Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 1975), 24, 31, 68–69.

8.Zoroastrians are known by a range of terms. In Iran they are called Zartushti, though they mostly refer to themselves as Beh-Din. In South Asia they are known as Parsees. The Greeks called them Magis.

Although there are those—Boyce included—who do not believe that Zarathustra viewed Ahura Mazda as the sole god in the universe, the fact remains that no other god exists in the Gathas. Composed in Old Avestan and meant to be sung aloud, the Gathas are a collection of seventeen hymns, purportedly written by Zarathustra himself. See Herman Lommell, Die Religion Zarathustras. Nach dem Awesta dargestellt (Hildesheim: Olms, 1971).

In all likelihood, Ahura Mazda was a “proto-Varuna” and may have originated as a god whose name is now lost to us. In other words, we may only know this divine figure through his two main epithets: Ahura, which means “Lord,” and Mazda, which means “Wise” or “Wisdom.” For a discussion on the etymology of Ahura Mazda, see F.B.J. Kuiper, “Ahura ‘Mazda’ ‘Lord Wisdom’?” Indo-Iranian Journal 18/1–2 (1976), 25–42.

9.These reflections, which are known to Zoroastrians as Amesha Spentas, or “Holy Immortals,” manifest themselves as six distinct emanations: Vohu Manah (“good mind”), Asha Vahistah (“truth”), Khshatra Vairya (“love”), Spenta Armaity (“devotion”), Hurvatat (“health”), and Ameretat (“immortality”). These reflections are brought into existence by Ahura Mazda’s divine will and are meant to personify the deity’s major attributes. Considered by Zoroastrians to be worthy of worship, the veneration of the Amesha Spentas was limited to the act of communing with Ahura Mazda.

The first appearance of the Amesha Spentas is in the Gathas. Although the term “Amesha Spentas” does not appear in the Gathas themselves, the names of the six reflections do (see Yasna 47.1). In the later writings of the Avesta—the collection of literature of which the Gathas are the oldest part—the Amesha Spentas become gods themselves, serving Ahura Mazda in his heavenly court. Dinshaw J. Irani, Understanding the Gathas: The Hymns of Zarathushtra (Wolmsdorf, Pa.: Ahura Publishers, 1994).

10.As mentioned, not all scholars of Zoroastrianism agree that Zarathustra was monotheist, for instance Mary Boyce in her comprehensive History of Zoroastrianism, 3 vols. (Leiden: Brill, 1975–1991). For an opposing view, see Farhang Mehr, The Zoroastrian Tradition: An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathustra (Rockport, Mass.: Element, 1991).

11.Another thing to note is that the “divine determinative”—a symbol in Egyptian hieroglyphics connected to the written name of a god, thus identifying that name as belonging to a god—was never used for the Aten’s name. In Akhenaten’s mind, there was no need to expressly identify the Aten as divine, as though he were one god among many. Erik Hornung, Akhenaten and the Religion of Light, trans. David Lorton (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), 85, 199.

12.Such exclusivist ideals carry with them certain political and economic consequences. After all, the negation of all other gods leads to the swift unemployment of their priests and attendants and confusion among the general populace. It is well known that Akhenaten’s religious reforms greatly reduced the power and privilege of Amun-Re’s priestly establishment, which, under the Eighteenth Dynasty, had grown enormously wealthy. Similarly, Zarathustra’s religion threatened the power and authority of the Magi by replacing all of their deities with a god who had no need for their mantras and rituals. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that after the death of both men, it was the priestly establishments that strongly and, in the case of Egypt, violently reasserted the previous religious traditions.

13.Henotheism can also be understood as the belief in a singular ultimate reality that manifests itself in the guise of numerous gods and goddesses, each of whom, as avatars of ultimate reality, can be objects of legitimate worship.

14.The term “politicomorphism” was coined by Thorkild Jacobsen, and it is he who has written most eloquently about this process in ancient Mesopotamia. See The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), 73.

According to Jacobsen, “The Sumerians and Akkadians pictured their gods as human in form, governed by human emotions, and living in the same type of world as did men. In almost every particular the world of the gods is therefore a projection of the terrestrial conditions….In similar fashion, we must explain the fact that the gods are organized politically along democratic lines, essentially different from the autocratic terrestrial states which we find in Mesopotamia in the historical periods. Thus in the domain of the gods we have a reflection of older forms, of the terrestrial Mesopotamian state as it was in prehistoric times.”

Jacobsen again: “Our material seems to preserve indications that prehistoric Mesopotamia was organized politically along democratic lines, not, as was historic Mesopotamia, along autocratic. The indications which we have, point to a form of government in which the normal run of public affairs was handled by a council of elders but ultimate sovereignty resided in a general assembly comprising all members—or perhaps better, all adult free men—of the community.” Thorkild Jacobsen, “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2/3 (1943): 167, 172.

15.My translation of the Enuma Elish comes from the anthology of Wilfred G. Lambert, Babylonian Creation Myths (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2013). For more on the transformation of Marduk and the metaphor of god as king, see Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness.

16.The Assyrian god Ashur was alone among the gods of Mesopotamia in not having a particular function or power or attribute, or even a personality, for that matter. But that was because Ashur was understood to be not just the patron god of the Assyrian capital city that bore his name, he was the city itself. He was the city deified. As such he simply took on the characteristics of his citizens. Thus, when, around the thirteenth century B.C.E., the city of Ashur was transformed from a small pastoral town into the seat of an expansionist Assyrian Empire, the god Ashur was transformed, too—from a charmless, impersonal deity into the god of war and the master of heaven. As Wilfred Lambert states: “There seems to be no certain case of a city in southern Mesopotamia bearing the name of the local god. The one possible exception is Muru. This is attested as a name of Adad, and there was a city of the same name. But the ancient sources do not make Adad patron of this city, so the identity of name may be a coincidence.” Wilfred G. Lambert, “The God Aššur,” Iraq 45/1 (1983): 82–86, 84.

17.Scholars generally agree that Shiva was originally known by the name Rudra, or “The Howling One,” and that the word shiva (“kind; auspicious”) was used in the Vedic period as an adjective for Rudra. The terms become interchangeable, however, after the Vedic period when Rudra is used as a synonym for Shiva. Adding further fuel to the fire, Shiva is called by numerous other names, thereby indicating an even greater association with other deities (Devendra, “chief of the gods”; Trilokinatha, “lord of the three realms”; Ghrneshwar, “lord of compassion”; Mahādeva, “Great god”; Maheśvara, “Great Lord”; and Parameshvara, “Supreme Lord”). “Rudra,” claims Mark Muesse, “had no friends among the other gods and preferred to dwell in wild and terrifying places….Aryans usually left their offerings to Rudra outside their villages and implored him to stay away. But, paradoxically, Rudra was also a healer….Many scholars, in fact, believe that the Vedic deva Rudra may have provided a prototype for the god later known as Shiva.”

Similarly, Doris Srinivasan observes: “An intensification of Rudra’s appearance and an amplification of his domain occurs mainly in the post–Rig Vedic Samhitas. In those texts, Rudra is decidedly on his way to becoming the great god promulgated by the Svetas’vatara Upanishad [i.e., Rudra-Shiva]. In this process, Rudra’s features and affiliations are no longer meant to convey mythic or literal images. Rather, the sum of his traits are meant to impart a theological statement on the absoluteness of the Supreme, experienced as God. Such a god encompasses everything, gives rise to everything and is Lord of everything….The radical intensification of Rudra’s appearance and actions may thus be viewed as speculative attempts within the Vedic tradition to define the nature of the all-encompassing Supreme God.” Mark Muesse, The Hindu Traditions: A Concise Introduction(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 47–48; and Doris Srinivasan, “Vedic Rudra-Śiva,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 103/3 (1983): 544–45.


1.By the time of the Babylonian invasion, the kingdom of Israel had already fractured in half, the northern kingdom having fallen to the Assyrian forces of Sargon II in 722/21 B.C.E. In the wake of the Assyrian crisis, the literati from the north may have traveled to the south at this time, taking their writings and narratives with them (most likely in oral rather than written form). If true, then the influence of the Elohist source may have started as early as the late eighth century B.C.E., a time of major crisis for both the northern and southern kingdoms.

Two major military campaigns against the kingdoms, both at the hands of the Assyrians (722/21, Sargon II, and 701 B.C.E., Sennacherib), not to mention regional tensions with neighboring groups (Syria, Moab, and others), resulted in the production of a number of prophetic oracles and books during this and the following century in an attempt to reconcile the situation with their understandings of god: First Isaiah (south), Amos (north), Hosea (north), Micah (south), Nahum (north), Zephaniah (south), Habakkuk (south), Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, parts of Psalms, and parts of Deuteronomy.

From a theoretical standpoint, one could argue that the emphasis on worshiping Elohim as a distinct god (i.e., the northern perspective) ends after 722/21 B.C.E. with the destruction of the northern kingdom. The worship of Yahweh continues in the south until 586 B.C.E., but Yahweh’s worship may have been altered/affected/supplemented by the northern stories focusing on Elohim (thus the rise of J/E). In other words, there may have already been a blending of J and E in the 135 years between the destruction of the north and the destruction of the south. But even if there wasn’t a blending during this period, J and E are definitely combined, if only in name, by the Priestly writers during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. The preeminence of the Yahweh material, its association with Moses, and the feeling that it is older than the Elohist, may come down to the fact that the southern kingdom survived longer than the north and that the god of the north (Elohim) was defeated by the god of the Assyrians (Ashur) in 722. Had the south been destroyed rather than the north, it’s possible that the Elohist material would appear to be older than that of the Yahwist. As it is, however, the Elohist material feels more recent and less personal than the Yahwist. Then, after the Babylonian exile, the biases against the north begin to subside and there is an effort on the part of the Priestly writers and redactors to retain as many of their traditions and stories as possible, which, from Second Isaiah’s perspective, necessitates the merging of the J and E into a single god.

2.As L. Köhler maintains: “God is the ruling Lord: that is the one fundamental statement in the theology of the Old Testament….Everything else derives from it. Everything else leans upon it. Everything else can be understood with reference to it and only it.” Ludwig Köhler, Old Testament Theology, trans. A. S. Todd (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), 30.

3.Technically speaking, Yahweh does not mean “I am.” Although God responds to Moses’s request to identify himself in Exodus 3:14 by saying ehyeh asher ehyeh, or “I am what I am,” the deity subsequently directs Moses to tell the Israelites that “The LORD [Yahweh], the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you” (Exodus 3:15). Unlike the word ehyeh, which is the first person singular form of the Hebrew verb of being hyh (“I am/will be”), Yahweh, which is God’s proper name in the Hebrew Bible, is a variation of the third person singular form of the same verb (“He is/will be”). See Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951), 217–18, and Sigmund Mowinckel, “The Name of the God of Moses,” Hebrew Union College Annual 32 (1961): 121–33.

4.Moses’s name is Egyptian, and it contains the same root as the theophoric names Tuthmosis (“Thoth born; drawn out by Thoth”) and Rameses (“Ra born; drawn out by Ra”). Moses, the Hebrew Bible tells us, was born to Hebrew parents, though they are left unnamed in the original story of his birth and are given names only much later in order to shore up his genealogy and strengthen his connection to his Israelite ancestors: “Amram took to wife Jochebed his father’s sister and she bore him Aaron and Moses, the years of the life of Amram being one hundred and thirty-seven” (Exodus 6:20).

Although we have no archaeological evidence for Moses’s existence, it is possible that he may have been born in the New Kingdom, perhaps a generation or two after the earth-shattering though ultimately doomed monotheistic revolution of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. That has led some scholars to suggest that Moses was heavily influenced by Akhenaten’s radical monotheism and that indeed, Israelite religion was a form of Atenism that survived the post-Akhenaten purge. See Donald B. Redford, Akhenaten: The Heretic King (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Jan Assman, Of Gods and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008); and From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change (Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2014).

5.Genesis indicates that the Midianites were descendants of Midian, one of Abraham’s sons through his wife, Keturah (Genesis 25:1–2). However, this seems like an editorial attempt to connect Moses to Abraham and should not be taken at face value. It is perhaps best to think of the Midianites not in terms of a single location but rather as a confederate tribe of non-Semitic desert-dwelling peoples who extended from the Sinai to Arabia. See William J. Dumbrell, “Midian: A Land or a League?” Vetus Testamentum 25/2 (1975): 323–37.

6.For the location of “the mountain of god” near Seir, see Deuteronomy 33:2 and Judges 5:4. The confusion and lack of consistency within the traditions relating to Moses runs deeper than just a matter of location. For example, Moses’s father-in-law is given three different names in the Bible: Reuel (Exodus 2, Numbers 10), Jethro (Exodus 3, 4, and 18), and Hobab (Numbers 10, Judges 4). In some places the father-in-law is described as a Midianite (Exodus 2, 18, Numbers 10) and in others he is a Kenite (Judges 4). Part of the confusion seems to come from Judges 4:11, in which Hobab is called Moses’s father-in-law, but this is countered by Numbers 10:29, in which Hobab is described as the son of Reuel (that is, Moses’s brother-in-law or a member of the tribe of Reuel). Whatever the explanation, it is clear that multiple sources, written at different times by different authors, have been brought together to create a sustained narrative about Moses. See William Foxwell Albright, “Jethro, Hobab, and Reuel in Early Hebrew Tradition,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25/1 (1963): 1–11.

7.Technically, anyone who labored in construction under the authority of the state was a slave to pharaoh; indeed priests were considered slaves to the temples they served. See Schafik Allam, “Slaves” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, ed. D. Redford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 293–96.

Exodus 12:37 tells us that the Israelites numbered “six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children” (cf. Exodus 38, Numbers 2). If accurate, then the Israelites would have numbered well over one million, which would have rivaled the size of the entire Egyptian population. That of course is absurd; it should not be taken seriously.

There is a wide range of dates for the Exodus story with some maintaining an early date, circa 1447 B.C.E., and others suggesting a much later one, perhaps as late as 1270 B.C.E. The oldest reference we have to “Israel” as a distinct group, or people, appears in the so-called Israel Stele (c. 1208 B.C.E.), which lists the military conquests of pharaoh Merneptah (third son of Rameses II, who ruled from 1213 to 1203 B.C.E.). In the twenty-seventh line of this stele, the text reads, “Israel is laid waste; his seed is no more,” which would indicate that a people called “Israel” were already in existence by the end of the thirteenth century B.C.E. This is at odds with the biblical chronology for the Exodus event that many have argued took place around 1280 B.C.E. (+ 40 years in the wilderness = 1240 B.C.E. for the conquest of Canaan by Joshua). The problem is that the witness of the Bible suggests that a couple of centuries pass before Israelites become a unified nation of tribes (i.e., “Israel”) under Saul and David—eleventh century B.C.E. (i.e., the books of Joshua, Judges, which covers a couple of centuries all by itself, and the early chapters of 1 Samuel).

Rameses II, the pharaoh typically identified as the king of the Exodus events (Exodus 1:8–11), reigned from 1279 to 1213 B.C.E., which doesn’t seem to fit with the witness of the Israel Stele. Bear in mind, of course, that the Bible doesn’t provide any dates for Joshua, and biblical scholars have used the Egyptian records as a way to date the Exodus event. See Michael G. Hasel, “Israel in the Merneptah Stela,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 296 (1994): 45–61; Anson F. Rainey, “Israel in Merneptah’s Inscription and Reliefs,” Israel Exploration Journal 51/1 (2001): 57–75; Hans Goedicke, “Remarks on the ‘Israel-Stela,’ ” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 94 (2004): 53–72; and Bryant Wood, “The Rise and Fall of the 13th-Century Exodus-Conquest Theory,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48/3 (2005): 475–89.

8.A possible clue as to Yahweh’s origins may be located in the enigmatic way he first introduces himself to Moses. “I am who I am,” Yahweh declares (Exodus 3:13), which, as DeMoor notes, was the same phrase that the Egyptian sun god Re used to describe himself. Johannes C. De Moor, The Rise of Yahwism: The Roots of Israelite Monotheism, 2nd ed. (Leuven: Peeters, 1997). See also Walter Zimmerli, Old Testament Theology in Outline (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1978), 152; Michael C. Astour, “Yahweh in Egyptian Topographic Lists,” in Festschrift Elmar Edel in Agypten und Altes Testament, ed. Manfred Görg (Bamberg, Germany: Görg, 1979), 17–19; Horst Dietrich Preuss, Old Testament Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 69.

The Midianite connection seems plausible as it is something of a blot on Moses’s record and an issue that he is challenged on by his brother Aaron and his sister Miriam: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). Not unlike the different names used for Moses’s father-in-law (see note above), the Hebrew Bible here refers to Moses’s wife as a Cushite, yet Moses is never described as taking a second wife. This confusion notwithstanding, the Midianite connection is further strengthened by the story of Balaam, who was likely a Midianite, and, more important, a prophet of Yahweh (Numbers 22–24; Numbers 31:8). See L. Elliott Binns, “Midianite Elements in Hebrew Religion,” Journal of Theological Studies 31/124 (1930): 337–54; George W. Coats, “Moses in Midian,” Journal of Biblical Literature 92/1 (1973): 3–10; Karel van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Ugarit, and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 283.

9.The most common use of El’s name in the Bible is in its plural form, Elohim, meaning quite literally “gods.” When the Bible uses the name Elohim, it tends to use third person masculine singular verbs (e.g., “he said” or “he created”). In a handful of instances, however, the Bible presents Elohim as speaking in the first person plural—“Let us make humankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26). Since the King James translation of the Bible, composed at the dawn of the seventeenth century, English speakers have generally dismissed this as an example of the Plural of Majesty,ignoring the fact that there is no such thing as the majestic plural in the Hebrew language. The real explanation for why El uses the plural form of address in these biblical passages is because El is speaking to the other divine beings in its court (for instance, Genesis 35:7, 2 Samuel 7:23, and Psalms 58:11; see also Genesis 11:7 and Isaiah 6:7). In other words, El, according to the first chapter of Genesis, is not the sole god in the universe; El is merely the highest god in a henotheistic pantheon. See Frank Moore Cross, “Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs,” Harvard Theological Review 55/4 (1962): 225–59, and Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997); Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 32–43; W. R. Garr, In His Own Image and Likeness: Humanity, Divinity, and Monotheism (Leiden: Brill, 2003); and Samuel Sahviv, “The Polytheistic Origins of the Biblical Flood Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum 54/4 (2004): 527–48.

The goddess Asherah held a place of extreme honor within the Canaanite religious tradition as both the consort of El and matriarch of the divine family. And with the eventual conflation of El and Yahweh into a single deity by the Priestly writers, the worship of Asherah as the wife of Yahweh appears to have continued for some time. As William Dever has argued: “The ‘silence’ [in the Bible] regarding Asherah as the consort of Yahweh, successor to Canaanite El, may now be understood as the result of the near-total suppression of the cult by the 8th–6th century reformers. As a result, references to ‘Asherah,’ while not actually expunged from [the Hebrew Bible]…were misunderstood by later editors or reinterpreted to suggest merely the shadowy image of the goddess….Yet the very fact of the necessity for reform in ancient Israel reminds us that worship of Asherah, the ‘Mother Goddess,’ sometimes personified as the consort of Yahweh, was popular until the end of the Monarchy.” William G. Dever, “Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? New Evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 255 (1984): 31. See also William G. Dever, Did God Have A Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008). For information on Asherah and other Canaanite deities, see Smith, The Early History of God; Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002); and John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).

The editorial activities of the Priestly writers are evident in numerous places in the Bible, such as when Yahweh explicitly identifies itself as El: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am El Shaddai; walk before me, and be blameless’ ” (Genesis 17:1). As Bandstra notes: “The God of Abraham goes by three different designations [in the Bible]—YHWH, El Shaddai, and Elohim. From Creation until Abraham, the deity was Elohim. Then he revealed himself to Abraham and the other ancestors as El Shaddai. The ancestors never knew his name to be YHWH. Here, in one of its rare uses of the name YHWH, the Priestly tradition makes the identification between YHWH and El Shaddai explicit so that readers will not be confused. In the Priestly historical record, God did not clarify that he was both YHWH and El Shaddai until he spoke to Moses. In [Genesis] 17:3 the Priestly writer reverts to Elohim, which is his normal pre-Exodus designation for God.” Barry Bandstra, Reading the Old Testament: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 4th ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2009), 86.

10.The names of various Canaanite gods and goddesses continue to appear as nondivine concepts in the Hebrew Bible long after they have been stripped of their divine connotations. For example, the Canaanite god of the sea, Yam, eventually becomes the word for “sea” in the Hebrew Bible. Similarly, the designations for other Canaanite gods, such as Mot, the god of death, Baal, the lord of storms, and Shemesh, the sun god, become the Hebrew words for “death,” “lord,” and “sun” respectively. Furthermore, the recovery of various archaeological artifacts and texts, such as the Ugarit archive and Mari letters, as well as the inscriptions from Deir ‘Alla, Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd, and Khirbet el-Qôm, have shed considerable light on the Canaanite religion and its relationship with the Israelite tradition. As Mark Smith has observed: “Despite the long-regnant model that the ‘Canaanites’ and Israelites were people of fundamentally different culture, archaeological data now cast doubt on this view. The material culture of the region exhibits numerous common points between the Israelites and the ‘Canaanites’ in the Iron I period (c. 1200–1000). The record would suggest that the Israelite culture largely overlapped with, and derived from, ‘Canaanite’ culture.” Smith, Early History of God, 6.

11.A number of biblical scholars have come to embrace the notion that the Israelites were, at one point in time, Canaanites. According to this theory, first proposed by George Mendenhall and later refined by Norman Gottwald, there was no conquest of Canaan by an external force, as described in the book of Joshua. Rather, the tribes who would eventually come to be known as the Israelites were actually disaffected hill-dwelling Canaanite pastoralists who were wearied by the oppressive rule of their valley-dwelling urban brethren. Through a series of violent revolts against their city-state overlords, these rural Canaanites succeeded in forming a distinct identity as Israelites—an identity that remained deeply rooted in the culture, language, and religion from which they had emerged. See George E. Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist25/3 (1962): 65–87; Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250–1050 B.C.E. (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1979); and George E. Mendenhall and G. A. Herion, Ancient Israel’s Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001). For more on the similarities between Israelite and Canaanite culture, see Michael David Coogan, “Canaanite Origins and Lineage: Reflections on the Religion of Ancient Israel,” in Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank Moore Cross, ed. Patrick D. Miller et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 115–84.

12.The Bible notes numerous occasions when images of Baal and Asherah were placed in the Temple of Jerusalem and altars made to them at “high places,” where the Israelites offered them prayers and sacrifices (see, for instance, 2 Kings 21:1–7). For evidence of monolatry in the Bible, see Exodus 20:3 and Deuteronomy 5:7. For evidence of Israel worshiping gods of its neighbors, see Judges 10:6.

13.Although Genesis 17 opens with Abram receiving a vision from Yahweh, the deity in question refers to itself by another name: “When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD [Yahweh] appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty [El Shaddai]; walk before me, and be blameless’ ” (Genesis 17:1–2). It is El, therefore, not Yahweh with whom Abram makes his exclusive agreement: “Then Abram fell on his face; and God [Elohim] said to him, ‘Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham’ ” (Genesis 17:3–5). As with the example of Exodus 6, here again we see the Priestly writers struggling to conflate the Yahwistic and Elohistic sources on Abram/Abraham into a cohesive narrative with a singular deity. In fact, the story of Abram/Abraham in Genesis, like the story of Moses in Exodus, is muddled by the explicit attempt in the later Priestly writer to stitch the older, conflicting Yahwist and Elohist strands of the story into a single semicohesive narrative. But if we look closely, we can see the original Elohist source material peeking through the Priestly rewrite of the Abram/Abraham story, such as when Abram moves from Ur to Haran with his barren wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot (Genesis 11:31, 12:4–5). Once in Haran, Abram was visited by a deity that the Priestly writer who composed this particular section of the story calls Yahweh (Genesis 12:1, 4), despite the fact that in Exodus Yahweh tells Moses that Abraham never knew him by that name: “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:2–3). Regardless, this deity orders Abram to leave Haran for the “land of the Canaan” (Genesis 11:31, 12:5–6). Abram obeys, and in doing so he becomes the first person to be called a Hebrew, meaning “one who crosses over” (Genesis 14:13). He travels with his kin down to the city of Shechem, which was El’s cultic center in the north of Canaan.

At Shechem Abram stops at a sacred tree called the Oak of Moreh, renowned for making oracles (a talking tree!), in order to build an altar to the god that had called him to this land. From Shechem, Abram journeys on to the hill country just east of Bethel, which is not a city but rather a temple dedicated to the god El (“I am El of Bethel,” El declares in Genesis 31:13), and then down into the Negev, where he seems to have settled for some time before taking a brief and highly unlikely sojourn in Egypt, the entire purpose of which was to connect Abram/Abraham’s story (and his god!) with that of Moses (Genesis 12:10–13:1). Finally, Abram and his kin settle permanently in the city of Hebron, near another sacred oracular tree, the Oaks of Mamre (Genesis 13:18). In Hebron, Abram lives a life of wealth and luxury, somehow managing to accumulate an enormous amount of livestock, gold, and silver as well as an untold number of slaves, servants, and trained fighting men under his employ—all symbolic of the blessing of his god. The fighting men would come in handy. After Mesopotamian invaders launched a surprise attack on the Canaanite city of Salem (Jerusalem), Abram sent these men to defend the city. In return, Salem’s grateful priest/king, Melchizedek, offered Abram a blessing in the name of God Most High: El Elyon (Genesis 14:18–20).

14.This thesis finds further support in the incident of Jeroboam, who may have acted to reestablish the cult of Yahweh-El at Dan and Bethel via his “golden bulls.” Alternatively, the Golden Calf may also be seen as an attempt on the part of the Israelites to reembrace their Egyptian religious beliefs by worshiping Hathor, the goddess of motherhood and love who was often depicted as a cow (the use of Egyptian jewelry to make the Golden Calf is particularly interesting in this regard—Exodus 32:4, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”).

15.As Mark Smith has observed, “It also suggests that Yahweh, originally a warrior god from Sinai/Paran/Edom/Teiman, was known separately from El at an early point in early Israel. Perhaps due to trade with Edom/Midian, Yahweh entered secondarily into the Israelite highland religion. Passages such as Deuteronomy 32:8–9 suggest a literary vestige of the initial assimilation of Yahweh, the southern warrior god, into the larger highland pantheism, headed by El.” Smith, The Early History of God, 32–33.

16.There are only a handful of passages in which we find the Yahweh-El designation: Genesis 14:2—Yahweh El Elyon; Genesis 21:33—Yahweh El Olam (“eternal God”); Psalms 10:12—Yahweh El; Psalms 31:6—Yahweh El Emet (“faithful God”); Psalms 94:1—Yahweh El Neqamot (“God of vengeance”); and Psalms 140:7—Yahweh Ely (“LORD my God”).

17.“According to the Bible,” notes Marco Treves, “the earliest Reign of God was the regime existing in the days of the Judges. Gideon refused to accept an invitation of the Israelites to become their king because he did not wish to deprive the Lord of His kingdom (Judges 8:22–23). When the elders of Israel asked Samuel to give them a king the prophet reproached them, because the accession implied the rejection of the Lord (1 Samuel 5:4–7, 10:18–19, 12:12). From these two episodes we may infer: a) that in the opinion of the authors of these passages a human monarchy and a divine monarchy were mutually exclusive; b) that according to tradition, God had been the King of Israel in the days of the Judges; c) with the anointing of Saul God’s Reign came to an end.” Similarly, Martin Cohen has observed that the “evidence in the Bible demonstrates that the monarchy, as had been planned, was subordinated ideologically to the Shilonite priesthood. In both accounts of the selection of the first monarch, it is Samuel the Shilonite priest who anoints the regent; he acts in the name of Yahweh and as an official interpreter of Yahweh’s will. Likewise, it is Samuel the Shilonite who completely transforms the traditional attitude of the Yahwistic ideology toward monarchy. Whereas formerly the ideology insisted that Israel was to have no king because Yahweh was its king, now Yahweh sanctioned the monarchy under his aegis and, it goes without saying, under the aegis of his spokesmen, the priests. The old guard leadership hoped that by subordinating the monarchy to the priesthood, it might be kept weak, and that if it should seek to increase its strength at their expense the priests might hear Yahweh’s voice dismissing the king from office. This is exactly what happened in the case of Saul.” Marco Treves, “The Reign of God in the O.T.,” Vetus Testamentum 19/2 (1969): 230–31; Martin Cohen, “The Role of the Shilonite Priesthood in the United Monarchy of Ancient Israel,” Hebrew Union College Annual 36 (1965): 59–98, 69.

“The monarchy,” argues Mark Smith, “was equally a political and religious institution, and under royal influence, religion combined powerful expressions of state and religious ideology. When the prestige of the national deity was increased, the prestige of the dynasty in turn was enhanced. The special relationship between Yahweh and the Davidic dynasty assumed the form of a formal covenantal relationship, called in 2 Samuel 23:5 an ‘eternal covenant.’…The religious-political conceptualization of the covenant reached its fullest expression in the Davidic dynastic theology. The nationalization of the covenantal form exalted Yahweh as the national deity of the united monarchy. The national hegemony of Yahweh was thereby established for ancient Israel.”

Smith continues: “The innovative centralization of national worship was also part of the process leading to monotheistic Yahwism, as it encouraged a single national deity and devalued local manifestations of deity. The royal unification of national life—both political and religious—helped to achieve political and cultic centralization by concentrating and exhibiting power through the capital city and a relationship with the national deity residing in that city. This development was concomitant with the development of the monarchy itself. It began with the establishment of the capital city under David, continued in the religious importance of Jerusalem achieved under Solomon, and culminated in the religious programs of Hezekiah and Josiah….The religious function was but one dimension in the effects of cultic centralization. This religious policy held political and economic benefits as well. The role of the monarchy was both innovative and conservative, reacting to the needs of the developing state.” Smith, Early History of God, 185–87.

18.The principal voice of this new religious expression was the prophet Isaiah, or, more specifically, the prophet scholars refer to as Second Isaiah (the book of Isaiah in the Bible is actually three books merged: First Isaiah—chapters 1–39—written pre-Exile, Second Isaiah—chapters 40–55—written either during or immediately after the Exile, and Third Isaiah—chapters 56–66—written much later).

19.The appearance in Ezekiel of the prophet’s vision of God in “something that seemed like a human form” (Ezekiel 1:26), or Zechariah’s vision of God presiding over a divine counsel (Zechariah 3:7), attest to the fact that the old mythic conceptions of a humanized god do not completely disappear in the postexilic literature of the Bible. However, they are significantly diminished. See Smith, Early History of God, 141–47.


1.In fact, John explicitly identifies Jesus as Yahweh. In an extraordinary passage near the end of his gospel, a torch-wielding mob of Temple police and Roman soldiers come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Whom are you looking for?” Jesus asks the crowd. “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answer. Jesus replies, “I am,” or ego eimi, which is the Greek rendering of the name Yahweh in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. And just in case any of his readers might have missed the significance of this moment, John has the entire arresting mob immediately fall to the ground at the power of Jesus’s words (John 18:1–8).

As I have written elsewhere, the term “Son of God,” which is frequently applied to Jesus in the Synoptics, is not a description of his nature, but a common title: Many people are called Son of God in the Bible, including Satan. For more on “Son of God” as title, not description, see my Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013).

2.Chris de Wet notes that for the Greeks, “the Logos also functions as the rational principle by which the universe is governed. They discerned between different types of logoi…namely: (a) the Logos spermatikos, indicating a germinal indwelling of the Logos within all human beings; (b) the Logos endiathetos, an unspoken thought in the mind of God…; and (c) the Logos prophorikos is then the expression of the latter mentioned divine thought. Especially with the Stoics, the Logos is already associated with the notion of expression.” Chris de Wet, “Mystical Expression and the ‘Logos’ in the Writings of St. John of the Cross,” Neotestamentica 42/1 (2008): 35–50, 39.

3.As Chalupa notes: “Roman emperors were gods or at least many of them were proclaimed as such after their death. As far as we know, in the period from 14 C.E. until 337 C.E., of the 60 emperors who ruled the Roman Empire, 36 were deified, together with 27 members of their families. They received a cult and had their own priesthoods and festivals. Altars and temples were consecrated to them. Whether they were seen as gods when still alive remains an open question and a subject of many scholarly controversies.” Aleš Chalupa, “How Did Roman Emperors Become Gods? Various Concepts of Imperial Apotheosis,” Anodos—Studies of the Ancient World 6–7 (2006–2007): 201.

4.The Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily tells us that Philip of Macedon was killed by a jilted bodyguard at the theater of Aegae in 336 B.C.E., the assassination occurring while Philip was overseeing the erection of a statue of himself alongside those of the twelve gods of Olympus. It isn’t clear if Philip was understood to be a god during his lifetime, or if his act of self-deification at Aegae was partly to blame for his murder, but one thing is certain—Philip was treated as a divine individual after his death. As Arthur Boak has observed: “Formally, the attribution of divinity to a monarch was made possible by the fact that Greek theology and mythology had never drawn very sharp limits between the divine and the human spheres. The demigods and heroes formed a sort of easy transition from the human to the divine. Most of the great families of Greece traced their descent from some god or hero, just as the Macedonian royal house itself claimed Heracles as its ancestor. The Greek colonies regularly raised their oikistes, upon his death, to the dignity of a hero, honored by the state with suitable ceremonies of worship, and similar cults existed in many of the older cities of Greece. But yet it must be observed that strict religious tradition did not sanction the deification of a human being during his lifetime. Actually, however, such honors had been rendered to men of note in the Greek world, while they were still living, long before the time of Alexander the Great.” Moreover, as Larry Kreitzer notes: “The Greeks had a long history of deifying their kings, a practice that is traceable in coinage at least as far back as the reign of Alexander the Great (336 to 323 B.C.E.). Some kings actively promoted this policy during their reigns, perhaps the most famous example being the Seleucid king Antiochus IV (175 to 164 B.C.E.), one of Alexander’s successors. This act eventually brought Antiochus into direct conflict with his Jewish subjects and set the stage for the ensuing Maccabean revolt.” Arthur Edward Romilly Boak, “The Theoretical Basis of the Deification of Rulers in Antiquity,” Classical Journal 11/5 (1916): 293–94; Larry Kreitzer, “Apotheosis of the Roman Emperor,” Biblical Archaeologist 53/4 (1990): 212.

5.It’s not that the ancient Egyptians considered their living pharaohs to literally be Horus. Rather, the pharaoh sat upon his throne as Horus. Horus was thought to inhabit the pharaoh’s body. While the Egyptian sources confirm the pharaoh’s divine nature, they also clearly depict him as human, possessing human qualities and human limitations. Of course, ascribing human attributes to the pharaoh would not in itself preclude his divinity, considering that the gods were also described in similarly human terms. However, there is a marked contrast in the descriptions between the power of the gods and the power of the pharaoh, with the pharaoh clearly viewed as inferior. That has led some Egyptologists to surmise that the pharaoh’s divinity was merely a metaphor or a propaganda tool that few Egyptians took seriously. But it is difficult to imagine how the concept of divine kingship could have survived for so long unless it held significant meaning for the population as a whole. The more likely explanation is that it wasn’t so much the person of the pharaoh that was considered divine as it was the office.

The pharaoh was considered human until he or she (there were a handful of female pharaohs) took the crown; deification occurred at coronation, though as time went on it became common to consider the pharaoh to have been predestined for the position before birth. John Baines sums it up this way: “The king was a human mortal with a divine role in an ‘everlasting’ office and institution.” John Baines, “Kingship, Definition of Culture, and Legitimation,” in Ancient Egyptian Kingship, ed. David O’Connor and David P. Silverman (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 3–48, 6. See also Donald B. Redford, “The Sun-Disc in Akhenaten’s Program: Its Worship and Antecedents, II,” Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 17 (1980): 21–38; Byron E. Shafer, ed., Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths and Personal Practice (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991); David P. Silverman, “The Nature of Egyptian Kingship,” in Ancient Egyptian Kingship, ed. David O’Connor and David P. Silverman (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 49–94.

6.For more on the concept of divine kingship in Mesopotamia, see Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948); Gillian Feeley-Harnik, “Issues in Divine Kingship,” Annual Review of Anthropology 14 (1985): 273–313; Gebhard Selz, “ ‘The Holy Drum, the Spear, and the Harp’: Towards an Understanding of the Problems of Deification in Third Millennium Mesopotamia,” in Sumerian Gods and Their Representations, ed. I. J. Finkel and M. J. Geller (Groningen: Styx, 1997), 167–209; Nicole Brisch, “The Priestess and the King: The Divine Kingship of Šū-Sîn of Ur,”Journal of the American Oriental Society 126/2 (2006): 161–76.

7.It should never be forgotten that Jesus’s primary identity on earth was as the Messiah: “the King of the Jews,” in Roman parlance. Jesus’s kingly status was affirmed by both his Jewish and Roman followers. The very language that Christians used to talk about Jesus reflected the language that Romans used for the emperor. An inscription in the city of Ephesus made in the latter years of Julius Caesar’s life dubbed him “God made manifest and common Savior of Mankind.” The birthday of Caesar’s successor, Augustus, was called “good news,” the same term Christians used for the birth of Jesus (and to describe their gospels). And the emperor’s arrival in the city was known as “the parousia,” which is how Christians described the Second Coming of Christ.

8.Justin Martyr as quoted in Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, trans. Lukyn Williams (New York: Macmillan, 1930), 113; Paul of Samosata as quoted in Dennis C. Duling, Jesus Christ Through History (New York: Harcourt, 1979), 74.

9.Marcion was an adherent of what was known as Docetism (from the Greek word dokein, meaning “to seem”), meaning he believed that Jesus only appeared to be human; that, as God, he could not really have taken flesh or been born of a woman. His physical body was merely an illusion, a means of allowing people to interact with what was in reality a purely divine spirit. As David Salter Williams notes, “Marcion is also thought to have promoted a docetic Christology, denying Jesus’s corporeality.” David Salter Williams, “Reconsidering Marcion’s Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108/3 (1989): 477.

10.According to Gnostic teachings, the unknowable God of the universe (the Father) was responsible for the creation of several lesser-known deities. The last of these deities, Sophia, desired to know the unknowable God, and as a result the Demiurge was brought into existence. As the second-century church father Irenaeus tells us: “These men [the Gnostics] falsify the oracles of God, and prove themselves evil interpreters of the good word of revelation. They also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretense of [superior] knowledge, from Him who rounded and adorned the universe; as if, forsooth, they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal, than that God who created the heaven and the earth, and all things that are therein. By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge; and these simple ones are unable, even in such a matter, to distinguish falsehood from truth. They affirm, therefore, that he [the Demiurge] was constituted the Father and God of everything outside of the Pleroma, being the creator of all animal and material substances. For he it was that discriminated these two kinds of existence hitherto confused, and made corporeal from incorporeal substances, fashioned things heavenly and earthly, and became the Framer (Demiurge) of things material and animal, of those on the right and those on the left, of the light and of the heavy, and of those tending upwards as well as of those tending downwards. He created also seven heavens, above which they say that he, the Demiurge, exists….They go on to say that the Demiurge imagined that he created all these things of himself, while he in reality made them in conjunction with the productive power of Achamoth. He formed the heavens, yet was ignorant of the heavens; he fashioned man, yet knew not man; he brought to light the earth, yet had no acquaintance with the earth; and, in like manner, they declare that he was ignorant of the forms of all that he made, and knew not even of the existence of his own mother, but imagined that he himself was all things” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.2–3, 5.2–3).

On The Secret Gospel of John, see Frederik Wisse, “The Apocryphon of John,” in The Nag Hammadi Library in English, ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 104–23.

11.Soren Giversen and Birger A. Pearson,The Testimony of Truth,” in Nag Hammadi Library in English, 448–59.

12.It is important to note that Marcion was writing only about fifty years after the Jewish revolt, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans and the outlawing of Judaism as a religion. By severing themselves completely from Jesus’s religion, these Christians were not only making a theological argument, they were trying to avoid the same fate as the Jews. On this point see Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 57–70.

13.According to Tim Carter, “Marcion argued that the New Testament had been contaminated by the teachings by the followers of the creator god, and he set himself the task of purging the text from their accretions. Accordingly, of the four gospels he only accepted a truncated version of Luke, which started with Jesus’s appearance in Capernaum in the fifteenth year of the principate of Tiberias; Marcion also accepted Paul’s letters, though he removed the Pastoral Epistles and all Old Testament quotations and positive references to Judaism.” Tim Carter, “Marcion’s Christology and Its Possible Influence on Codex Bezae,” Journal of Theological Studies 61/2 (2010): 551–52. See also Einar Thomassen, “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Second-Century Rome,” Harvard Theological Review 97/3 (2004): 241–56; Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 104–109; Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Scribner, 1918), 67–69; and Williams, “Reconsidering Marcion’s Gospel,” 477–96.

14.Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Random House, 1979), 35. See also Elaine Pagels, “The Demiurge and His Archons: A Gnostic View of the Bishop and Presbyters?” Harvard Theological Review 69/3–4 (1976): 301–24.

15.Constantine’s mother, Helena, who was by all accounts a devout Christian, claims to have found the true cross on which Jesus was crucified during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 326 C.E. She is also credited with building or renovating several important churches in the Levant and returning to Rome with numerous relics, such as earth from the site of Golgotha. But regardless of the truth of these claims, one thing is certain—Helena’s status as a Christian indicates that by the beginning of the fourth century C.E., Christianity had made its way into the highest levels of Roman society.

In response to the proliferation of the Christian faith within the Empire, Constantine enacted the Edict of Milan (c. 313 C.E.), which made it licit to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. As its informal title suggests, the Edict of Tolerance allowed for religious pluralism within the Roman Empire and freedom from persecution for Christians. Christianity did not become the official religion of Rome, however, until 380 C.E. with the passing of the Edict of Thessalonica under Emperors Flavius Theodosius, Gratian, and Valentinian II.

16.Ironically, Constantine was one of the thirty-six emperors who were deified by the Roman Senate after his death (337 C.E.), which speaks to the diverse range of religious beliefs within Roman society. According to Arnaldo Momigliano, “What really minimized the importance of being ‘divus’ for a Christian emperor was the chance of becoming ‘santus.’ Constantine himself was treated in the East like a saint, indeed like one of the apostles, soon after his death.” Arnaldo Momigliano, “How Roman Emperors Became Gods,” American Scholar 55/2 (1986): 191.

17.Tertullian, Apologetical Works, and Minucius Felix, Octavius, trans. Rudolph Arbesmann, Sister Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin A. Quain (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Pres, 1950), 63.

Tertullian believed that the three beings in the Trinity did not share equally in the divine substance: The Father contained the greatest amount of divinity, followed by the Son, and then the Holy Ghost. In other words, Jesus may have been “of one substance” with God, just not in the same measure as God.

The founder of Neoplatonism, Plotinus (250–270 C.E.), also spoke about God in a trinitarian way supposing that the divine force, which rose out of the Greek hatred for anthropomorphism, was reflected in three forms: the One ultimate form, Intelligence, and the Soul. As Diarmaid MacCulloch notes, “The first represented absolute perfection, the second was an image of the first but was capable of being known by our inferior senses, and the third was a spirit which infused the world and was therefore capable of being diverse, in contrast to the Platonic perfection of the One and of Intelligence.” Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christian History: An Introduction to the Western Tradition (London: SCM Press, 2012), 80.

18.The Modalists tried to settle the issue by accepting the one substance/three beings interpretation of Tertullian but arguing that this substance wasn’t shared by the three beings at the same time: It first appeared as the Father, then as the Son, and then finally as the Holy Spirit.

19.What is remarkable about Augustine’s statement is not just his willingness to ignore the logical fallacy of his own position. It is also that embedded in the concept of the Trinity is the firmly Hellenistic belief that God can be understood as a material substance that can be divided and shared and, in the case of Jesus, shaped into the form of a man. Indeed, the very notion of God as spiritual rather than material was virtually nonexistent in the fifth-century Church. Augustine himself viewed God as a very large man in heaven with “an immense shining body.”

20.Chalcedon translation from R. V. Sellers, Council of Chalcedon: A Historical and Doctrinal Survey (London: SPCK, 1953), 210. See also Roland Teske, “The Aim of Augustine’s Proof That God Truly Is,” International Philosophical Quarterly 26 (1986): 253–68.

It is a wondrous coincidence of history that the Jews were liberated from their Babylonian exile by the armies of Cyrus the Great, the same Persian king who had helped revive Zoroastrianism in its dualistic form, making it the official religion of his world-conquering Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus’s military success lay in his explicit rejection of the idea that war was a battle between gods, with the victorious god vanquishing the defeated. Instead, Cyrus established what is widely regarded as the first human rights charter in the world (the famed Cyrus Cylinder), outlining the freedom of conquered peoples to worship their own gods as they pleased. In every city he captured, he would rebuild the local temples, lavish wealth on the local priesthood, and heap praise upon the local deities. Thus, long before he sent his armies into Babylon, Cyrus sent his Zoroastrian priests—the Magi—with a message for the Babylonian people. The Persian king wanted it to be known that he had no intention of destroying Marduk. On the contrary, he claimed to have been sent by Marduk to free the Babylonians from their own feckless and impious king, Nabonidus. The Magi conveyed a similar message to all of Babylon’s captive people, including the Jews. The ploy worked. In 538 B.C.E., nearly five decades after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Cyrus walked through Babylon’s gates in peace, welcomed by both the Babylonians and their captives alike as a savior. Among Cyrus’s first actions was to send the exiled Jews back to their homeland, personally paying for the reconstruction of the Temple of Yahweh from Babylon’s own treasury. As a result, Cyrus the Great was dubbed “Yahweh’s shepherd” (Isaiah 44:28) by the Jews, becoming one of only a handful of individuals in the entire Bible, and the only non-Jew, to be called Messiah (Isaiah 45:1).


1.According to the Prophet Muhammad’s biographer, Tafsir al-Tabari, Muhammad sent letters inviting submission to Islam to Heraclius and Khosrow and also to the negus of Ethiopia, the ruler of Egypt, the ruler of Bahrain, and the governor of Syria. Although most scholars accept the historicity of the letters, some, including Gabriel Said Reynolds, have cast doubt on the veracity of al-Tabari’s claims. See The Emergence of Islam: Classical Traditions in Contemporary Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 49.

2.The best account of the centuries-long battle between the Byzantine and Persian empires—going back to before the rise of Christianity—is the one recounted by the eminent historian David Levering Lewis in God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–1215 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

3.Interestingly, Najmah Sayuti, referencing the fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun notes that “those who could not afford a temple or adopt an idol would put a stone in front of the Ka’ba or in front of any other temple they might choose, and then venerate it in the same way they would venerate the Ka’ba itself. The pagan Arabs named these stones ansab; however, if they resembled a human being or a living creature they called them asnam, or awthan.” “The Concept of Allah as the Highest God in Pre-Islamic Arabia,” MA thesis, McGill University, 1999, 39.

4.The argument that Islam actually began as a Jewish messianic movement is generally known as Hagarism and was first introduced by the eminent historians Patricia Crone and Michael Cook in their book Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977). Cook and Crone rely on Syriac and Hebrew sources for the rise of Islam to argue that Muhammad was a Jew (based on the connections between Judaism and Islam recounted above) and that his followers were originally called Hagarenes, after Abraham’s first wife, Hagar, from whom Muhammad traced his ancestry. Although Hagarism has been almost completely dismissed by scholars of Islam, its influence can still be seen in some modern treatments of Islamic history—for example, Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire (New York: Doubleday, 2012).

It is important to note that Muhammad’s knowledge of Judaism came not from the Torah but from his encounters with Arab Jews. Although the traditional perception of the Prophet Muhammad as illiterate is inaccurate (as a successful merchant living in the most cosmopolitan of all Arab cities, Muhammad very likely had a rudimentary ability to read and write, perhaps even in multiple languages), he would not have had access to the Hebrew scriptures for the simple reason that there were no copies of the Hebrew scriptures among the Jews of Arabia. I explain this in my book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2005), 97–100.

I have translated Allah-u Samad as “God is Unique,” because that is the best definition of the difficult Arabic word samad, which is sometimes translated as “eternal.” The word literally means “independent of anyone,” and so here I follow the tradition passed down by Ali ibn Husain, who explained samad as “One Who has no partner and it is not difficult for Him to protect things, and nothing is hidden from Him.”

5.It should be mentioned that while Jews in the Sassanian Empire fared better than their coreligionists in the Byzantine Empire—the Babylonian Talmud was composed under Iranian rule, and numerous Jewish schools of learning were established across the realm—even there, laws against proselytizing limited Jewish influence over the great theological debates taking place in the court.

6.See Arent Jan Wensinck, The Two Creeds, Fikh Akbar II in The Norton Anthology of World Religions, vol. 2, ed. Jack Miles (New York: W. W. Norton, 2015), 1553–59.

7.For al-Ashari, see Majid Fakhry, “Philosophy and Theology: From the Eighth Century C.E. to the Present,” in The Oxford History of Islam, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford, 1999).

8.A popular translation of Rumi’s poems is Colman Barks, The Essential Rumi (1995); see also the two-volume Mystical Poems of Rumi translated by A. J. Arberry (1968) and Reynold Nicholson’s Rumi: Poet and Mystic (1950). For more on Rumi’s life, see Annemarie Schimmel, I Am Wind, You Are Fire: The Life and Works of Rumi (1992) and the new biography by Brad Gooch, Rumi’s Secret (New York: Harper, 2017). Later interpretation of the first meeting between Shams and Rumi has developed the conversation into a theological doctrine on the nature of the Prophet Muhammad. On this point see Omid Safi, “Did the Two Oceans Meet? Historical Connections and Disconnections Between Ibn ‘Arabi and Rumi,” Journal of Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society,26 (1999): 55–88.

9.For more on the Drunken Sufis see Ahmet Karamustafa, Sufism: The Formative Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

10.Born in the Spanish city of Murcia in 1165 C.E.—a century before Shams met Rumi—Ibn al-Arabi grew up in Seville, the capital of al-Andalus, in an era marked not only by remarkable advances in the arts and sciences and the widespread translation of Greek scientific and philosophical works into Arabic, but also by an unprecedented religious cross-pollination among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The famed Jewish philosopher Maimonides lived in al-Andalus at this time, as did one of history’s most influential thinkers, Ibn Rushd—known in the west as Averroës. For more on al-Andalus under Muslim rule, see María Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (New York: Back Bay Books, 2003). The story of Ibn al-Arabi’s epiphany and Ibn Rushd’s response is taken from the introduction to William C. Chittick’s excellent book The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination (Albany: SUNY Press, 1989).

11.“There is only one Existence. That existence is, naturally, a state of Being. That being, then, is the One and Only, Infinite Being. It exists through its own existence irrespective of any other consideration.” Bulent Rauf, “Concerning the Universality of Ibn ‘Arabi,” Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, vol. 6, 1987. Ibn al-Arabi was relying on the great thinkers who had come before him. In some ways he was refining the thought of the great Islamic thinker Ibn Sina—Avicenna in the west—and his doctrine of Necessary Existence, which itself was based on the Neoplatonic understanding of God as “pure Being.”


1.There are at least three stories in the early parts of Genesis in which humans strive to be like God or tinker with godlike abilities: the story of Eden; the fallen angels of Genesis 6; and the Tower of Babel story (“Come let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” Genesis 11:4). In each instance the theologians of Genesis put humanity in its place for striving to be gods or godlike.

2.See Michael P. Levine, Pantheism: A Non-Theistic Concept of Deity (London: Routledge, 1994), 91.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines pantheism thus: “At its most general, pantheism may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe.”

A distinction is made between pantheism and panentheism. The former asserts that the universe is God. The latter says that while God is present within the universe, he transcends it. As William Rowe writes, the difference between the two really boils down to how one views the universe: “According to panentheism, the universe is finite and within God, but God is truly infinite and so cannot be totally within or otherwise limited to the finite universe.” In other words, the differences between pantheism and panentheism depend on whether one believes the universe is finite or not. In my view, the definition of the word “universe” is “everything that exists,” and so there can be no substantive difference between pantheism and panentheism. In fact, to me, panentheism is simply another way of holding on to a humanized God, one with will and intention beyond the workings of the universe. See William Rowe, “Does Panentheism Reduce to Pantheism? A Response to Craig,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 61/2 (2007): 65–67.

Schopenhauer ridiculed the idea that the world should be called God. “Taking an unprejudiced view of the world as it is, no one would dream of regarding it as a god. It must be a very ill-advised god who knows no better way of diverting himself than by turning into such a world as ours, such a mean, shabby world.”

But as Levine explains, God and the world do not mean the same thing, nor do they necessarily refer to the same thing for the pantheist. However, pantheists do take the world and God to have identical sense and reference on a certain interpretation of each. God, the world, and the all-inclusive Divine Unity all allegedly refer to the same thing. So they believe things to be true of God and the world that nonpantheists do not. It is a question of disagreement not just over the properties of God and the world, but over their meanings. When pantheists claim that the world, or God, is an all-inclusive Divine Unity, they mean something different by God and the world than in the nonpantheistic usage of these terms. See Levine, Pantheism, 26–29. For more on pantheism, see H. P. Owen, Concepts of Deity (London: Macmillan, 1971); Alasdair MacIntyre, “Pantheism,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy 6:31–35; and John Macquarrie, In Search of Deity (London: SCM Press, 1984).

3.“Thus all beings are God, if considered in their essential reality, but God is not these beings and this, not in the sense that His reality excludes them, but because in the face of His infinity their reality is nil.” Titus Burckhardt, Introduction to Sufism (London: Thorsons, 1995), 29. The analogy of the light passing through the prism comes from Ibn al-Arabi himself, as noted by Mazheruddin Siddiqi, “A Historical Study of Iqbal’s views on Sufism,” Islamic Studies 5/4 (1966): 411–27.

4.The Vedanta quoted is from W. S. Urquhart, Pantheism and the Value of Life with Special Reference to Indian Philosophy (London: Epworth Press, 1919), 25. Timothy Sprigge clarifies Urquhart’s analysis, noting that “the first of these [i.e., Nothing is which is not God] says that nothing really exists except the ineffably unitary Brahman and that the ordinary world with all its variety and multiplicity is an illusion. The second [God is everything which is] says that, although the ordinary world is more than a mere illusion, it consists entirely of modifications of the one universal spirit. The first is the Advaita Vedanta of which Sankara is the great classic exponent, the second is the qualified Vedanta classically formulated by Ramanuja.” T.L.S. Sprigge, “Pantheism,” Monist 80/2 (1997): 199.

Radhakrishnan on pantheism in Vedanta philosophy: “The Vedanta system is supposed to be an acosmic pantheism, holding that the Absolute called Brahman alone is real and the finite manifestations are illusory. There is one absolute undifferentiated reality, the nature of which is constituted by knowledge. The entire empirical world, with its distinction of finite minds and the objects of their thought, is an illusion. Subjects and objects are like the fleeting images which encompass the dreaming soul and melt away into nothingness at the moment of waking. The term Maya signifies the illusory character of the finite world. Sankara explains the Maya conception by the analogies of the rope and the snake, the juggler and jugglery, the desert and the mirage, and the dreamer and the dream. The central features of the Vedanta philosophy, as it is conceived at the present day, are briefly explained in the lines: Brahman is the real, the universe is false, The Atman is Brahman. Nothing else.” Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, “The Vedanta Philosophy and the Doctrine of Maya,” International Journal of Ethics 24/4 (1914): 431.

Dogen Zenji quoted in Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice, Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright, eds. (New York: Oxford, 2008). Chuang-Tze quoted in Rodney A. Cooper, Tao Te Ching: Classic of the Way of Virtue—An English Version with Commentary (Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2013), xv. Cooper notes that “Taoism is much more than pantheism. For Tao existed before the Universe was formed. If it is to be compared to another belief system, it is more akin to panentheism—a belief system which posits that the divine (be it a monotheistic God, polytheistic gods, or an eternal cosmic animating force), interpenetrates every part of Nature and timelessly extends beyond it. Panentheism differentiates itself from pantheism, which holds that the divine is synonymous with the Universe” (xvi).

5.The doctrine of tzimtzum is more specifically a panentheistic view though numerous thinkers have noted the contradiction in trying to separate God’s self from God’s creation if that creation is drawn from God himself. As Rufus Jones puts it, “In order to have a world at all outside of God, He must withdraw into His own Being and concentrate as En-Sof, for how can there be an external world if God is everywhere and all in all?” Rufus M. Jones, “Jewish Mysticism,” Harvard Theological Review 36/2 (1943): 161–62. See also Gloria Wiederkehr Pollack, “Eliezer Zvi Hacohen Zweifel: Forgotten Father of Modern Scholarship on Hasidism,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 49 (1982): 87–115.

According to Winfried Corduan, Eckhart’s view of God verges on pantheism. “And yet, as close as it may appear—a hair’s breadth—there is an infinitely wide gap between pantheism and what Eckhart teaches. For it is not the created order by itself that is divine. It is the redemptive act of God that transforms fallenness into union with him. What cannot be found in nature and cannot be attained beyond nature can be received from God.” See Winfried Corduan, “A Hair’s Breadth from Pantheism: Meister Eckhart’s God-Centered Spirituality,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 37/2 (1994): 274.

6.Spinoza’s pantheism is often referred to as monism: “the view that there exists only one thing or kind of thing.” It should be mentioned that Michael Levine makes a clear distinction between pantheism and the philosophical “monism” of Spinoza and others. He writes: “Any simple equation of monism to pantheism can also be ruled out on the grounds that monists may deny that divinity should be attributed to whatever ‘One’ their monism refers to” (86).

Other “pantheistic” philosophers include Plotinus, Lao Tsu, F.W.J. Schelling, and G.W.F. Hegel, to name a few. See Peter Forrest and Roman Majeran, “Pantheism,” Annals of Philosophy 64/4 (2016): 67–91.

7.With regard to our natural propensity for “substance dualism,” the cognitive scientist Paul Bloom argues that it is “a natural by-product of our possession of two distinct cognitive systems—one for dealing with material objects, the other for social entities.” Paul Bloom, “Religious Belief as Evolutionary Accident,” in The Believing Primate: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on the Origin of Religion, Jeffrey Schloss and Michael J. Murray, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 118–27. Bloom outlines the numerous experiments conducted with children that indicate the foundational belief in mind-body dualism in his book Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

Few cognitive theorists have done more experiments on this subject than Justin Barrett. His conclusion is that “a growing number of cognitive developmentalists believe that something about the way human minds develop appears to make us highly susceptible to believing that something in us persists after death and that something might continue to act in the present world….Exactly why believing in souls or spirits that survived death is so natural for children (and adults) is an area of active research and debate. A consensus has emerged that children are born believers in some kind of afterlife, but not on why this is.” See Justin L. Barrett, Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief (New York: Atria Books, 2012), 118, 120.

Jesse M. Bering has attempted to provide a cognitive answer to the problem of our intuitive knowledge of the soul, insofar as it pertains to the inborn belief in life after death. Bering argues that “because it is epistemologically impossible to know what it is like to be dead, individuals will be most likely to attribute to dead agents those types of mental states that they cannot imagine being without. Such a model argues that it is natural to believe in life after death and social transmission serves principally to conceptually enrich (or degrade) intuitive conceptions of the afterlife.” See Jesse M. Bering, “Intuitive Conceptions of Dead Agents’ Minds: The Natural Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs as Phenomenological Boundary,” Journal of Cognition and Culture 2.4 (2002): 263–308; also “The Folk Psychology of Souls,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29 (2006): 453–98.

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