The religious impulse

Once mankind develops a sophisticated level of Speech, religion of some kind cannot be far behind. Superstition is an instinct which many of us today profess to be ashamed of. But in a primitive community, among all the dangers of nature, it is little more than common sense.

Clearly everything that grows and recreates itself, whether animal or plant, has a living spirit of some sort. And the wind and the water and the fire of the natural world seem far from dead, as they swirl about in their various ways. Mankind needs the cooperation of these aspects of nature. Religion, in the primitive form of animism (the need to befriend and appease the spirits within natural objects), is designed to secure it.

What can humans do to influence nature? Carrying out an appropriate ritual, whether in the form of dance, sacrifice or chant, seems to offer the best chance. As with any superstitious habit, a primitive religious custom is thought likely to work because it is believed to have worked in the past.

A ritual, by the time anyone is aware of its ritual nature, gives the impression of having been done from time immemorial. And the proof of its power is plain for all to see. The sun has gone on rising, the bison have reproduced themselves, the crops have come up.

The need for priests

Rituals require people to carry them out - special people who have done this routine before, experts who have been taught the secrets, initiates with a link to the spirit world. There can hardly be religion without priests.

In primitive tribes the priests are the medicine men, known also as shamans. Their ability to communicate with the spirits is evident from the way they fall into trances - achieved usually either by self-hypnosis or by drugs. The medicine man's advice, when emerging from such a state, has uncanny force. Priesthood and politics, in any deeply religious society, are never far apart.

Ritual also requires explanation, and explanation involves one of the most basic human talents, that of story telling. The spell-binding riches and infinite variety of the world's mythologies go back to such basic questions as how it all began, or why things happen as they do.

The gods of importance to primitive societies vary with the circumstances of the tribe, though nearly all give precedence to the sky. The sky is the largest fact of nature. With its ever-changing face, its sudden temper tantrums, its resident sun and moon, it is clearly a force to be reckoned with. In the Creation stories of most mythologies a sky god is involved.

Appropriate rituals

Hunter-gatherers are likely to have cults involving the animals of the chase (very probably a religious purpose lies behind the Cave paintings at Altamira and elsewhere). Pastoral groups will tend to have rituals linked with sheep or goats. Farmers, tilling the fields, worship with the fruits of the land. In Genesis Cain offers the Lord some of his crops, and Abel brings the first-born of his flock (the Lord prefers Abel's offering).

Primitive ritual frequently involves sacrifice. The life destroyed is offered to the god. If an animal's throat is cut, the blood on the altar carries the life force to the deity. If plants are consumed in flames, as a burnt offering, the smoke achieves the same purpose.

The rituals of agriculture are attached to specific moments in the year, such as the times of sowing or of harvest. The year itself also has moments of crisis which require the attention of the priests. New year is the prime example, just after the shortest day, when the sun must be congratulated and encouraged in its recovery.

The rhythm of human life demands similar care. In all religions there are rites of passage, marking some or all of the great events of birth, puberty, marriage and death. Life beyond death is important too. Everything necessary must be done for the spirit of the departed ancestor, who can in turn be relied on to help his living descendants.

All these elements can be found in tribal cults of the present day and traces of them survive in more sophisticated religions (Ancestor worship is a central element in Confucianism, the Christian Eucharist symbolizes sacrifice). We have no direct evidence of the religious practices of mankind more than about 5000 years ago. But it is probably safe to assume that the rituals of hunter-gatherers and early farmers were at least similar to those of tribal societies today.

Precise knowledge of a past religion only becomes possible with written records, so ancient Egypt provides the first detailed mythology. But more mysterious traces of early religions survive also in Prehistoric monuments such as Stonehenge.

To the 1st century BC

Egyptian gods and priests: from 3000 BC

In prehistory each community of people in the Nile valley has developed its own god or gods, many of them connected with animals. As Egypt becomes unified, under pharaohs who are themselves seen as divine, the entire pantheon settles down into a relatively easy working relationship.

The pharaoh is the chief priest of the entire nation. In each temple the local priests stand in for him. Their task, as in every early religion, is to tend to the needs of the gods. These are locked away in the innermost reaches of the temple, inaccessible to ordinary people. The priests regularly visit them, undress them, wash and anoint them, and then clothe them in new garments.

The two main tasks, for priests and gods alike, are to guard against encroaching chaos (in particular to ensure that the sun gets up each morning) and to help the dead into the Next world, which the Egyptians confidently believe will be just as pleasant as this one and remarkably similar. Just as on earth, a distinguished man or woman will need their household servants and domestic goods to be sure of a comfortable existence. Models of these are placed with them in their tombs.

Appearance in tomb paintings has made some gods more familiar than others: Anubis, the jackal-headed god, who conducts the dead through their trials; ibis-headed Thoth, the scribe to the gods; falcon-headed Horus, god of the sky and light; Seth, a rival to Horus, recognizable by his mysterious pointed snout; and Osiris, wearing a tall white headdress, who represents the idea of resurrection in the Next world.

Re and Amen

The central divinity of Egyptian religion is the sun, and from early times the most important sun god is Re. He is believed to sail his boat under the world each night. Every time, during the journey, he has to defeat an evil spirit, Apophis, before he can reappear.

At Thebes, which becomes the capital in about 2000 BC, another god, Amen, is of great importance. In about 1500 BC Amen combines with Re to become Amen-Re, who from then on is effectively the state god of Egypt, identified with the pharaoh. The two greatest temples at Karnak and Luxor are dedicated to Amen-Re.

Mute monuments: from 3000 BC

Some pre-literate societies have left tantalizing traces of their religion. Stonehenge in southern England, constructed from about 3000 BC (and therefore contemporary with the start of Egyptian civilization), has prompted endless speculation about its original purpose.

Similarly, from around 1000 BC, the temple platforms and the pyramids of the Olmecs, in America, provide evidence of religion without our knowing precisely what that religion was. Climbing up to a temple or altar, as also in the Ziggurats of Mesopotamia from about 2000 BC onwards, is a recurrent theme of worship.

Once there is a temple of any kind, the gods move in - usually in the form of idols. A temple is the house of the gods. The priests, their servants, share their lodgings.

The role of the priests is to satisfy the needs of the gods. This may involve washing and clothing the idols, but the main task is to carry out the necessary sacrifices (a theme present in all primitive religions, reaching a macabre peak among the Aztecs in central America). A less dramatic duty may be feeding them - offering up the food brought by pilgrims, which is then enjoyed symbolically by the deity and is usually consumed in more practical fashion by the priests themselves.

Indo-Iranian religions: from 1500 BC

The Indo-Iranian tribes, who come down to the Iranian plateau and move into India between 1500 and 1000 BC, share a polytheistic religion. But among the many gods clamouring for human affection or fear, particular attention is paid by the Indo-Iranians to a small group.

These special gods are known as ahuras (meaning 'lords') in the Iranian region and as devas among the Aryans in India. In Iran, under the influence of Zoroaster, the focus will later fall on one ahura above all others - effectively moving towards monotheism. In India, by contrast, polytheism runs riot in the eventual form of Hinduism.

Hinduism is the only great modern religion in which the ancient pattern of worship survives, with priests tending a multiplicity of gods. It is also the oldest among the religions of today. It can trace its beginnings to the arrival of the Indo-Iranians in India from about 1500 BC.

Unlike Hinduism, all the other great religions have discarded pantheism - proclaiming either one god or no god at all.

The Hebrews and monotheism: from 1000 BC

The Hebrews are the first people to develop the idea of one god (though a tentative step in that direction has been made by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten). The perception is credited in biblical tradition to Abraham.

At first the Hebrew god, Yahweh or Jehovah, remains one god among many (though the only god deserving worship). This halfway house towards monotheism is described technically as monolatry. But by the time the Hebrews are established in Jerusalem, from about 1000 BC, Yahweh is recognized as the only god. This is the beginning of true monotheism - a faith leaving everyone else with idolatry and delusion.

A religious heyday: 6th - 5th century BC

It has often been pointed out that from about 600 BC there is a surge of religious innovation in different parts of the world. The earliest example is in Persia, where Zoroaster reforms the polytheistic Indo-Iranian religion by introducing a single god, Ahura Mazda. Zoroastrianism becomes the official religion of the Persian empire.

A century later, in neighbouring India, the reforms of Vardhamana and of Siddartha Gautama lead in an opposite direction. These teachers persuade their followers that each one of us, by our actions and attitudes, is responsible for our own salvation - without divine help. The resulting religions are Jainism and Buddhism.

This same period is the era of K'ung Fu-tzu, known in the west as Confucius. His idea of a worthy life - characterized by socially responsible behaviour, with an added religious dimension in the form of ancestor worship - becomes the prevailing creed of China for the next two and half millennia.

A subversive reaction develops later in the form of Daoism - a spiritual escape from the heavy responsibilities of the Confucian ethic. Daoists, like Buddhists, reject worldly ambition and search instead for a deeper and more natural truth.

Daoism: from the 4th century BC

Confucianism is so practical a creed that it can scarcely be called a religion. It is ill-equipped to satisfy the human need for something more mysterious. China provides this in the form of Daoism.

Laozi, the supposed founder of Daoism, is traditionally believed to have been an older contemporary of Confucius. It is more likely that he is an entirely mythical figure. The small book which he is supposed to have written dates from no earlier than the 4th century BC. It is an anthology of short passages, collected under the title Daodejing. Immensely influential over the centuries, it is the basis for China's alternative religion.

Daodejing means 'The Way and its Power'. The way is the way of nature, and the power is that of the man who gives up ambition and surrenders his whole being to nature. How this is achieved is a subtle mystery. But the Daodejing suggests that the way of water (the humblest and most irresistible of substances) is something which a wise man should imitate.

In the late 20th century, an era of ecology and New Age philosophies, the 'alternative' quality of Daoism has given it considerable appeal in the west. In Chinese history it is indeed alternative, but in a different sense. In the lives of educated Chinese, Daoism has literally alternated with Confucianism.

Confucianism and Daoism are like two sides of the same Chinese coin. They are opposite and complementary. They represent town and country, the practical and the spiritual, the rational and the romantic. A Chinese official is a Confucian while he goes about the business of government; if he loses his job, he will retire to the country as a Daoist; but a new offer of employment may rapidly restore his Confucianism.

The same natural cycle of opposites is reflected in the Chinese theory of yin and yang, which also becomes formulated during the long Zhou dynasty.

Greek and Roman gods

In both Greece and Rome the many gods of the pantheon have their own local shrines. The most important of these are magnificent buildings, set in elaborate architectural precincts. Famous examples are the temple to Apollo at Delphi, and the Parthenon, sacred to Pallas Athene, in Athens.

Priests attend to the needs of the god, whether by preparing ceremonial food or drink or by decorating and anointing the cult statue, and they supervise the temple rituals. The role of ordinary worshippers consists largely in bringing presents of food, drink or flowers for the god. But the most important ritual, on special occasions, is the sacrifice and burning of an ox, a sheep or a goat on an open-air altar in front of the temple.

In the Roman empire the worship of the gods increasingly becomes a state cult, with the emperor himself occupying the role of pontifex maximus or high priest. Ceremonies are held on important state occasions, and the priests take omens before important decisions. Studying the entrails of a sacrificed animal is the favourite way of trying to glimpse the future.

Ordinary citizens play no great part in this, but each house contains its own shrine to the family's gods, known as the Lares and Penates. They are a personal selection from the public gods. They almost invariably include Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, whose public shrine is kept by the Vestal virgins.

From the 1st century AD

A religion for east Asia: from the 1st century AD

Buddhism is the first of the world religions to expand from its place of origin. It does so by two distinct routes.

Theravada Buddhism is carried eastwards into Southeast asia, in an upsurge of Indian trade from the 1st century AD. The merchants and sailors are either Buddhist or Hindu, and missionaries take advantage of the new opportunities for travel. As a result the kingdoms of Southeast asia, much influenced by the more advanced civilization of India, variously adopt Buddhist and Hindu religious practices. Which of the two prevails is often the result of the preference of a ruling dynasty. The areas which eventually choose Buddhism are Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Mahayana Buddhism travels by a land route. In the 2nd century AD northern India and Afghanistan are ruled by the Kushan dynasty, one of whose kings, Kanishka, is a devotee of this form of Buddhism. His encouragement of it has special significance, since his kingdom occupies a central position on the Silk Road - at one of its busiest times, when its caravans effectively link China with Rome.

The western influence on the Kushan region (also known as Gandhara) is seen in the famous style of sculpture which portrays Buddhist figures with the realism of Greece and Rome. Eastwards from Gandhara the trade route is soon dignified with spectacular Buddhist centres, such as Yün-kang.

Buddhism is well established in China by the 2nd century AD and coexists there, with varying fortunes, alongside China's indigenous religions - Daoism and Confucianism. By the 6th century its influence has spread through Korea to Japan. Here too it coexists, in a shifting pattern, with the earlier Japanese religion, Shinto.

The region which develops the most distinctive form of Buddhism lies between India and China, and receives its first Buddhist influences from both directions in the 7th century. This is Tibet. It will evolve an element of Buddhism unique to itself - that of a succession of reincarnating lamas, with the Dalai Lama as the senior line.

In India Buddhism flourishes alongside Hinduism for many years, but from about the 8th century it declines (though Theravada Buddhism finds a lasting home in Sri lanka). The Mahayana version of the faith becomes gradually submerged by the older and more vigorous Hinduism. It has perhaps been too willing to accomodate new themes, influenced by India's bustling inclination to worship everything.

A weakened Buddhism proves no match for the arrival in northern India in the 10th century of rulers professing another vigorous faith, Islam. Buddhism becomes no more than a faint devotional presence at a few classic shrines. It is the only world religion to have withered in its birthplace.

Eastern religions and the Romans: 1st - 4th century AD

The Roman attitude to religion is essentially practical. Divine help is desirable. Any god may be worth a try. And the wide extent of the empire means that many attractive new candidates are available.

Three foreign religions, all from the Middle East, acquire by the third century a considerable following in the Roman world. They have a personal quality lacking in the official Roman cult. Believers become members of a closely knit group, enjoying a special relationship with the god and with each other. There are initiation ceremonies, in some cases secret. As a result these eastern cults are often grouped together under the title of mysteries or mystery religions.

One such cult, popular in the Roman capital, centres on the Egyptian goddess Isis. She is a giver of life, an enchantress who is able to restore to health her husband, Osiris, after his body has been sliced into fourteen pieces and scattered all over Egypt by the villainous Seth.

The story is a version of a worldwide myth, that of plants being brought back to life in the spring. But when adopted as a personal deity, Isis seems to promise her initiates health and life in a more general sense.

More exclusive is Mithraism. Only males are admitted to the sect, so not surprisingly many of its devotees are in the Roman army. There are seven ranks, described as Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Courier of the Sun and Father, each with its own initiation ceremonies (the sequence of seniority is not known). Worshippers meet in a small underground crypt, with at one end a sculpture of the god Mithras sacrificing a bull.

The cult comes from Iran, where Mithras is both a creator and a guardian against evil. Merchants on the trade routes are among the god's followers, but the strongest appeal is to the poorer sections of society. This is true also of early believers in the third contending religion.

Christians resemble the other mystery cults in having an initiation ceremony (baptism) and a private ritual (the Eucharist). Rumours of cannibalism, or the eating of their god, cause them to be regarded with extra suspicion. So does their quiet rejection of many everyday activities. But above all they have a peculiarity, seen by the state as sinister, which they share only with the Jews. They refuse to worship any god but their own.

The Jews are a much longer estabished group, with a clear racial identity; the Romans have to some extent become accustomed to their not worshipping the gods of Rome. There seems less excuse for the Christians. Their reluctance to take part in the Roman cult leads, in the 3rd century, to their Persecution.

The spread of both Mithraism and Christianity can be seen at the two extremes of the empire. Doura-Europos, a frontier post on the Euphrates abandoned in about AD 257, has buildings associated with both religions.

Thousands of miles away, in Britain, there is a temple of Mithras in London in the early 4th century. Also in England, and from the same century, a very early depiction of Jesus Christ (young, clean-shaven, with curly fair hair) survives in a mosaic pavement at Hinton St Mary.

Sol Invictus: AD 274

In AD 272 the emperor Aurelian, defeating the army of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, believes that he has done so with the support of an eastern deity - a Syrian sun god. In gratitude he establishes in 274 an imperial cult of Sol Invictus, the 'unconquered sun', with a major new temple in Rome.

This sun god features in art as a man with a halo of light round his head; and his official birthday, just after the darkest day of the winter solstice, is declared to be December 25. Both details are later adopted by another religion, favoured by another emperor.

Mani and Plotinus: 3rd century AD

Two contemporaries, born in the early 3rd century in Persia and Egypt, construct religious and philosophical systems which have considerable influence in coming centuries.

The Persian is Mani, an aristocrat who like the founders of Zoroastrianism and Buddhism is inspired to establish a new religion. Based on a simple version of the Zoroastrian opposition between darkness and light, but with lively theological trappings invented by Mani himself, the new religion is rapidly successful. It is thriving in north Africa in the time of Augustine, in the 4th century; and Manichaean sects in central Asia and China survive until the 14th century.

The Egyptian contemporary of Mani is Plotinus, educated in Alexandria. His influence derives from his later years, after AD 244, when he goes to Rome to teach philosophy. One of his pupils, Porphyry, publishes his works posthumously under the title Enneads.

This book has a profound influence on Christian thought, because Plotinus combines the philosophical rigour of Plato with the hope of a personal experience of divine reality. The religious element is implicit in Plato's theory of Forms; Plotinus merely gives more emphasis to the quest of each human soul. Such a quest powerfully inspires St Augustine, one of the channels through whom Neo-Platonism influences Christianity.

A new imperial religion: 4th century AD

The most significant single event in the spread of any of the world's great religions is the personal decision of one man - the Roman emperor Constantine - to favour Christianity.

Christianity acquires through Constantine its historic homelands. For the next three centuries the entire Roman empire will be Christian. In the 7th century much of the eastern empire is lost to a newer religion, Islam. But Christianity compensates by conquering Pagan territories to the north of the Alps. It becomes the religion of Europe. Through European colonialism it will spread, in later empires, across much of the world.

Shinto: from the 4th century AD

The first inhabitants of Japan, migrating from the mainland, bring with them their own version of the Shamanism which prevails in prehistoric Asia. To the pantheon of the spirits and forces of nature, the Japanese add famous people, significant places or any other phenomena seeming worthy of reverence. The result is a profusion of local deities or kami, the worship of whom is given the name Shinto, meaning roughly the 'way of the gods'.

With the emergence of a strong clan system, each clan gives special honour to one particular god considered to be the ancestor of all members of the group - and particularly, in the most direct line, ancestor of the clan leader.

By the 4th century AD, when the Yamato clan has achieved an imperial pre-eminence, their forebear has a similarly prominent place among the gods. The Yamato claim as ancestor the Sun empress, who shines above all others in the heavens. A Creation story is commissioned to chronicle the descent of the emperors from the sun.

Thus begins the imperial family's political use of Shinto, an issue of importance in the 20th century. At a deeper level this very ancient religion remains a thriving popular cult. Lacking an official ritual or sacred text, Shinto is able to absorb elements of Buddhism, a later arrival in Japan, without losing its own sense of conviction.

Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism: 4th-13th c. AD

With hindsight it may appear that the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches go their separate ways quite early in Christian history. But at no point is there a single specific break or 'schism'.

As early as381 the bishop of Constantinople is given equal status with the bishop of Rome. Differences both of practice and of doctrine gradually evolve within the two spheres of influence.

The most evident differences in practice concern the sacraments of ordination and of the Eucharist. In the Greek Orthodox church a married man may be ordained a priest, and the congregation receives both the bread and the wine in the communion service. In Roman Catholicism only the celibate may be ordained, only the bread is given to the laity (until the 20th century).

A contentious area of doctrine has been whether the Holy Spirit derives (or 'proceeds') equally from the Father and the Son. The Western church believes so, adding the word filioque to the Nicene creed in the 6th century. The Greek Orthodox see this as a distortion of the doctrine of the Trinity. Even so, at no point does the dispute lead to a declared schism.

More harmful in the relationship between the two churches are various events which give good cause for affront. Rome is grievously offended by the Byzantine emperor Leo III, who in 726 introduces the policy of Iconoclasm and in 733 transfers southern Italy, Greece and much of the Balkans from papal jurisdiction to that of Constantinople.

Both sides clash in the 10th century in their rival efforts to convert the Slavs. In 1054 the Greeks are outraged when Rome decides to excommunicate the patriarch of Constantinople. In 1204 the Greeks are again given profound cause for resentment when the fleet of the Fourth crusade, launched by Rome, is diverted to capture and sack Constantinople.

At every stage of this prolonged quarrel the two sides continue to express the hope that reunion will be possible. If anything, it is not so much mutual antogonism which separates them as the successful spread of each faith. The missionary achievements of both eastern and western Christianity exaggerate the apparent split, as vast new territories are converted which lack any understanding of the rival culture.

Roman Catholicism is the first to go its own way, bringing northwest Europe into the fold - including eventually those most energetic of medieval marauders, the Slavs. Meanwhile the Greeks convert the Slavs in the eastern Balkans, to be followed subsequently by Russia.

7th - 15th century

Islam: from the 7th century AD

With the rise of Islam, dating from the Hegira in622, the world's third great monotheistic religion becomes established. It follows in the tradition of Judaism and Christianity. Muslims believe that Islam completes the revelation from God to man which has been partially begun in the Old and new testaments.

This is recognized in the Qur'an, where the three religions are classed together as 'People of the book' and where Muhammad is presented as the last in a line of messengers from God. This succession of prophets includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ.

Islam is unique in the history of religion in that it spreads with irresistible energy within the first few decades of its existence, carried by a powerful blend of passionate faith and force of arms. It is also unusual in that it remains, through all subsequent centuries, the accepted religion of virtually the whole vast region so rapidly converted to the new creed.

Early schisms result in two major Sects of islam. But a continuous swathe of land from northwest Africa to the Indus remains today, as it has been for 1300 years, fervently Muslim. The Muslim regions of India and Southeast asia have an almost equally long history.

Islam and other religions: from the 7th century AD

Muslims are instructed in the Qur'an to be tolerant of the two older and closely related religions, Judaism and Christianity, which share with Islam the essential characteristics of monotheism and a sacred book; they are all linked in the phrase 'people of the book'. Jews and Christians have therefore, through most of history, fared better under Islam than has been the fate of Jews or Muslims in Christian countries.

Zoroastrianism does not feature in the Qur'an. But it also has one god and a sacred book. The Muslim conquerors of Persia therefore show a degree of tolerance to the state religion of the previous dynasty.

Zoroastrians and Parsees: from the 7th century AD

For three centuries after the Muslim conquest of persia, Zoroastrianism remains of importance in the region. But gradually the majority of Persians convert to the religion of the new ruling caste, whether for reasons of conviction or convenience. A minority of Zoroastrians seek greater liberty elsewhere. They move to India, where they establish themselves in Gujarat as the Parsees (the Persian word for 'Persians').

A few Zoroastrians remain in Iran, to be found even today in the remote desert cities of Yazd and Kerman. They have been known to Muslims until recently as gabar, probably a version of the Arabic kafir ('infidel').

The religions of America: to the 15th century AD

As recently as the 15th century, religion of a primitive kind, with roots in the earliest traditions of human worship, survives in a developed form in the state cults of two highly organized societies. Both involve the worship of the sun. Both are in America. Both, in a very short space of time, are discovered, described and suppressed by Europeans.

There the similarity between the two cults ends. The Incas, destroyed by European intruders in the 1530s, Sacrifice to the sun the traditional gifts of an agricultural community - crops and lifestock, meaning in their case maize and llamas. The Aztecs, discovered by the Spanish slightly earlier, worship a blazing god who has an almost insatiable appetite for human blood.

Aztec sun rituals: 15th - 16th century AD

The patron deity of the Aztecs is Huitzilopochtli, god of war and symbol of the sun. This is a lethal combination. Every day the young warrior uses the weapon of sunlight to drive from the sky the creatures of darkness - the stars and the moon. Every evening he dies and they return. For the next day's fight he needs strength. His diet is human blood.

The need of the Aztecs to supply Huitzilopochtli chimes well with their own imperial ambitions. As they extend their empire, they gather in more captives for the sacrifice. As the sacrifices become more numerous and more frequent, there is an ever-growing need for war. And reports of the blood-drenched ceremonies strike terror into the enemy hearts required for sacrifice.

A temple at the top of a great pyramid at Tenochtitlan (now an archaeological site in Mexico City) is the location for the sacrifices. When the pyramid is enlarged in 1487, the ceremony of re-dedication involves so much bloodshed that the line of victims stretches far out of the city and the slaughter lasts four days. The god favours the hearts, which are torn from the bodies as his offering.

Festivals and sacrifice are almost continuous in the Aztec ceremonial year. Many other gods, in addition to Huitzilopochtli, have their share of the victims.

Each February children are sacrificed to maize gods on the mountain tops. In March prisoners fight to the death in gladiatorial contests, after which priests dress up in their skins. In April a maize goddess receives her share of children. In June there are sacrifices to the salt goddess. And so it goes on. It has been calculated that the annual harvest of victims, mainly to Huitzilopochtli, rises from about 10,000 a year to a figure closer to 50,000 shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The most important gods, apart from Huitzilopochtli, are the rain god Tlaloc (who has a temple beside Huitzilopochtli's on top of the great pyramid in Tenochtitlan) and Quetzalcoatl, god of fertility and the arts.

Inca sun rituals: 15th - 16th century AD

Like some of the Roman emperors, the Incas identify themselves with the sun. And like the Japanese royal house, they even persuade their people that they are the Living descendants of the monarch of the heavens.

The most sacred idol in the Inca pantheon is a great golden disc representing the sun. It is known as Punchao, which means daylight or dawn. Great religious ceremonies, sometimes lasting several days, are based upon the pattern of dawn and dusk, day and night. The Inca, as the sun's representative on earth, presides over the rituals.

One of the most important festivals in the Inca year is the eight-day feast which celebrates the harvesting of the maize crop. Each day a ritual chanting begins with the rising of the sun, grows to a crescendo at noon, and diminishes to silence again by dusk. Burnt offerings of llamas and libations of maize beer are made to the sun god. The Inca and his court are in their most splendid robes, encrusted in gold and silver. The effigies of the Inca's ancestors are also present - with retinues of female attendants.

One of the last enactments of this colourful festival, so much more gentle than the contemporary Aztec sun rituals, is witnessed and described in 1535 by a young Spanish priest.

15th - 19th century

A new religion in India: 16th century AD

Centuries of Muslim rule in north India prompt a reform movement within Hinduism. Nanak, son of a Hindu tax collector in the Punjab, leaves his family in about 1500 to take up the life of a wandering teacher. In doing so, he is part of a long-established tradition. He follows in the footsteps, two millennia previously, of the founders of Jainism and Buddhism.

Nanak's message is one of compromise between Hinduism and Islam. He retains the central theme of all Indian religions (that the highest achievement is to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth) but he rejects two specific characteristics of Hinduism - the caste system, and the worship of a profusion of colourful idols.

Nanak takes from Islam the concept of monotheism. He teaches that there is only one god, an unknowable being who is manifest in all creation. The name of this being is nam. The way of achieving eventual release from this world, in keeping with Indian traditions, is through meditation and the repetition of nam, the divine monosyllable.

In formulating these ideas Nanak is influenced by mystical and anti-doctrinaire traditions within both Hinduism and Islam. The mystical strand of Hindu devotion is known as the bhakti movement. The equivalent within Islam is Sufism.

The poet Kabir, a Muslim contemporary of Nanak's, is another strong influence. Kabir, himself strongly influenced by Hindu asceticism, preaches a religion of love in which all men are equal before God.

From all these sources Nanak makes his own synthesis. His teaching brings him followers called sikh ('disciple), for whom he is guru('weighty'). Nanak is the first of the ten gurus now considered the founding prophets of Sikhism. Before his death, in 1539, he selects his own successor - a custom which continues until the fourth guru, Ramdas. The remaining six gurus follow by descent within one family.

The religion becomes a power in the Punjab under the fifth guru, Arjan. Between 1581 and 1606 he builds many Sikh temples (gurdwaras) and compiles the holy book of the religion (the Granth, consisting of the writings of the gurus themselves together with related Hindu and Muslim texts).

More conspicuously, Arjan builds Amritsar as a holy city of pilgrimage for all Sikhs. The strength of his sect is now sufficient to alarm the Moghul emperor, Jahangir. Arjan is arrested for disrespect to Islam. He dies, in 1606, after torture. His martyrdom transforms a contemplative sect into one of passionate militancy.

Devotio moderna and Erasmus: 15th - 16th century AD

During the 15th century there develops in northwest Europe a quiet devotional strain of Christianity so different from the pomp and ceremony of Rome that it seems, with hindsight, part of the complex thread evolving as the Reformation. But its practitioners would be horrified to see themselves in any such confrontational guise.

Known as devotio moderna, the movement derives from the Brethren of the Common Life - a group of both laymen and priests who share a simple life in imitation of the early Christians, devoting themselves to teaching and care of the poor.

A book written during the early 15th century - the Imitation of Christ, probably by Thomas à Kempis - becomes the extremely influential manual for Christian devotion of this kind. Without hierarchy and ritual, the emphasis in such a group is on the personal approach to Christ through the intense study of early Christian texts.

Such texts, originally in Greek, have in recent centuries been familiar only in the Latin of the Vulgate. In trying to go back to the early sources, these northern scholars share an interest with the pioneers of the Renaissance in Italy.

The education of Erasmus in the Netherlands in the 1470s is tinged with the influence of the devotio moderna. Like the brethren he can be seen as part of the trend towards the Reformation, though he strenuously avoids endorsing it.

His attitude to the materialistic papacy of the early 16th century (as seen in julius exclusus, a satirical play probably from his pen) is essentially that of the reformers. His careful edition of the Greek New Testament is in keeping both with devotio moderna and the Reformation - though one significant distinction remains. Erasmus translates the Greek in 1516 into Latin. Luther, just six years later, translates it into German.

Spark of the Reformation: AD 1517

Martin Luther, a man both solemn and passionate, is an Augustinian friar teaching theology at the university recently founded in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise, the elector of Saxony. Obsessed by his own unworthiness, he comes to the conclusion that no amount of virtue or good behaviour can be the basis of salvation (as proposed in the doctrine known as justification by works). If the Christian life is not to be meaningless, he argues, a sinner's faith must be the only merit for which God's grace might be granted.

Luther therefore becomes a passionate believer in an alternative doctrine, justification by faith, for which he finds evidence in the writings of St Paul.

Nothing could be further from the concept of justification by faith than the widespread selling of Indulgences in Germany in 1517 to raise money for the new St Peter's. Luther has often argued against Indulgences in his sermons. Now he takes a more public stand. He writes out ninety-five propositions about the nature of faith and contemporary church practice.

The tone of these 'theses', as they come to be known, is academic. But the underlying gist, apart from overt criticism of Indulgences, is that truth is to be sought in scripture rather than in the teaching of the church. By nailing his theses to the door of All Saints' in Wittenberg, as Luther does on 31 October 1517, he is merely proposing them as subjects for debate.

Instead of launching a debate in Wittenberg, the 95 Theses spark off a European conflagration of unparalleled violence. The Reformation ravages western Christendom for more than a century, bringing violent intolerance and hatred into some Christian communities down to the present day.

No sectarian dispute in any other religion has matched the destructive force, the brutality and the bitterness which begins in Wittenberg in 1517. The principalities and towns of Germany are violently split on the issue of reform, from Worms in 1521 to Augsburg in 1555. Protestants suffer such atrocities as the St Bartholomew's Day massacre - but they also treat each other with equal ferocity, as experienced by the Anabaptists.

Militant Sikhs: AD 1606-1699

The murder of the Sikh Guru arjan in a Moghul gaol in 1606 causes his son Hargobind, the sixth guru, to begin training his followers as soldiers. The 17th century brings constant friction in the Punjab between the Moghul administration and the Sikhs.

In 1675 the ninth guru, Teg Bahadur, is executed in Delhi by the Moghul emperor Aurangzeb. His son, the tenth and last guru, Gobind Rai, takes the step which finally gives the Sikh community the characteristics for which it is known today.

At the Hindu new year in 1699 Guru Gobind Singh initiates five of his followers into a fraternity which he names Khalsa ('pure'). Each of them is given a new name, to be followed by Singh ('lion') - a last name shared by Sikhs ever since.

Gobind Rai makes the K of Khalsa a ritual theme for the new group. Each of the five founding members swears to keep five Ks: he will wear his hair long and uncut (kesh), with a comb in it (kangha); he will wear shorts suitable for fighting in (kachha), will have a steel ring around his right wrist (kara), and will carry a sabre (kirpan).

In the next few days thousands of Sikhs are initiated into the Khalsa fraternity. The five Ks, and the accompanying commitment to fight physically for the faith, become the symbols of orthodox Sikhism.

Gobind Rai's four sons all die before him. With no direct heir, he proclaims in 1704 that he is the last of the ten human gurus. He is to be succeeded by an immortal guru - the holy book of the Sikhs, the Granth. Readings from the Granth become the central ritual of the religion. Influenced from the start by Islam, with its respect for 'People of the book', Sikhism develops into the religion with the most sacred book of all.

This History is as yet incomplete.

The Book of Mormon: AD 1823-1830

In 1823, in western New York state, the 17-year-old Joseph Smith receives a vision. As he describes it, a heavenly being appears to him and identifies himself as Moroni, a prophet from an ancient American people descended from the Hebrews. These people arrived in America across the Pacific, Moroni explains, and they have descendants among the American Indians. The prophet reveals that in about420 he buried gold tablets containing these truths at a site nor far from Joseph Smith's home.

Four years later Smith acquires the tablets. They are engraved with a text by another prophet, Mormon. Smith finds that he can read the 'reformed Egyptian' characters (Champollion has deciphered real hieroglyphics during the 1820s).

By 1830 the holy text is translated and ready. The Book of Mormon is published in Smith's home town of Palmyra in an edition of 5000 copies. It includes a preface in which several witnesses attest to having seen and even helped to lift the heavy plates. But soon after publication the angel Moroni returns to take them into safe keeping.

Upon this book, and the evidence of his own visions, Joseph Smith builds a church which he and his followers see as a reforming sect within Christianity. This is reflected in their chosen name, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - though outsiders have more often called them simply the Mormons.

In Mormon theology the Old and New Testaments are the first holy texts, to which are added the Book of Mormon and various other truths later revealed to Joseph Smith. All other Christian churches have gone astray, it is argued, because a break in ordination in the line from Jesus has rendered their priesthoods invalid.

By contrast the apostles Peter, James and John are said to have returned to ordain Joseph Smith, making the Mormon priesthood the only one with any Christian validity. This doctrine has not inclined other churches to recognize the Latter Day Saints as a Christian sect.

Joseph Smith's personal charisma, together with the appeal of the Book of Mormon, brings many enthusiasts into the young church. But their attitudes inevitably lead to friction with their Christian neighbours. Within a year or two Smith considers it wise to lead his followers west from New York state in what proves to be the first in a series of forced migrations.

The Mormons settle in Kirtland, Ohio, then in Jackson county, Missouri. After an initial welcome, they are soon the victims of violence in both places. In 1839 they move on to a swampy site on the east bank of the Mississippi which they name Nauvoo. Here they rapidly create the largest town in Illinois, with a population of some 20,000.

Again things soon go wrong. Disagreements in 1844 between Smith and opponents within the Mormon community lead to legal charges being brought against him, soon followed by his arrest. But while he is in the county gaol at Carthage awaiting trial, a mob storms the building and shoots both him and his brother Hyrum.

This renewed violence prompts the Mormons, led now by Brigham Young, to move on once more. And they take a bold decision. They will build Zion in a place where no one else could possibly want to live. They have already identified a likely site, around a great salt lake west of the Rockies. Intending to make the wilderness bloom, out of harm's way, they undertake one of the great migrations of 19th-century America.

The Mormons and Salt Lake City: AD 1846-1896

The Mormons' great trek to the west could hardly have started in worse circumstances. In February 1846 the first groups begin to cross the Mississippi, which is about a mile wide at Nauvoo. The river is freezing but not yet frozen. Several craft capsize, drowning their passengers. A few days later the river is covered in ice and wagons and animals can be driven across.

At last the entire expedition is over the river (they are travelling heavy with all their possessions, including 30,000 head of cattle) but progress is slow through marshy regions even after snow and torrential rain have given way to summer heat. It becomes evident to their leader, Brigham Young, that they must sit out the next winter beside the Missouri.

The place which they call Winter Quarters, on the west bank of the Missouri, becomes an established staging post. Here Mormon parties in later years prepare for the last stretch of the journey. After this first winter, of 1846-7, Brigham Young sets off again. His pioneers join the Oregon trail at the Platte river, but they keep to the north bank - safely separate from the other 'gentile' immigrants moving along south of the stream.

By July 1847 the vanguard is through the South Pass and into Salt Lake valley. Within a few months the rest of the group follow safely, some 1600 people. By 1869, when the Railway arrives, about 80,000 have made the arduous journey in wagons or on foot from Winter Quarters.

Brigham Young selects the site for Salt Lake City before returning to Winter Quarters to bring out another group of Mormons in 1848. Meanwhile the ground is being marked out according to a plan for the city of Zion drawn up by Joseph smith. The Temple is to be built at the centre of a rectangular grid of main streets forming large square lots, each of ten acres.

Founded as a religious community, the new Salt Lake City makes no distinction between church and state (in this respect even going beyond Calvin's Geneva). Districts are administered by leaders who are both bishop and magistrate. The highest executive body is the Council of the Twelve Apostles, of which Brigham Young is senior member for thirty years.

These circumstances give the Mormons of Salt Lake valley a strength unique among settlers. Those who arrive here combine the toughness of pioneers with the discipline and obedience of monks and nuns.

Under the strong leadership of Brigham Young small groups of families are sent into neighbouring regions to establish outposts of the Mormon community (similar to the settling of colonies in the early Roman republic). In these places, extending north into modern Idaho, ambitious programmes of irrigation are carried out. Riches are conjured from the desert. Non-Mormon pioneers, moving on further west, trade with the Saints for fresh produce on their journey.

Salt Lake City thrives and - as Brigham Young intends - becomes the centre of a world-wide community of Latter Day Saints. Brigham Young himself, as early as 1840-1, spends a year in England preaching the message and gathering in converts. As a result of his efforts, and of others after him, many Mormon pioneers on the trail through the Rockies are immigrants from Europe.

Mission work remains a central theme of the Mormon community, with thousands of full-time missionaries today in numerous countries. Many are young men devoting two years of their lives to the cause. In the 1990s there are some 10 million Latter Day Saints around the world.

As early as 1849 Brigham Young applies for his community to be admitted to the union as the state of Deseret (a word from the Book of Mormon meaning 'honeybee', to signify industry). Congress instead grants the status of a territory, under the name Utah.

During the next forty years there are frequent attempts to achieve statehood, but they founder on one issue - polygamy. It becomes public knowledge in 1852 that Joseph smith had many wives and that the Mormons have made a religious principle of this practice. Brigham Young is said at first to have been averse to the idea of polygamy, but he overcomes his scruples quite convincingly. He becomes husband to seventy women and is survived by forty-seven children.

Such information is not well-received in the rest of the United States. Polygamy joins slavery as one of the great moral crusades of the time. Congress passes a succession of polygamy laws from 1862. Prosecutions, leading to fines and gaol sentences, are brought against selected polygamous families in Utah. Meanwhile the Mormon leadership conducts a lengthy legal campaign, arguing that these laws conflict with the religious liberty guaranteed by the Constitution.

Eventually a judgement by the US supreme court in 1890, reinforcing the polygamy laws, persuades the Mormon leadership to abandon both the principle and the practice. Utah is duly admitted to the union in 1896 as the 45th state.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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