How did religion originate? At the end of the 19th century different theories about this subject were put forward.

The animistic theory: at some stage of his development man came to the conclusion that he has a soul (Latin: animus) and began to honor the souls of the deceased. (E.B.Tylor, Primitive culture, 1871).

The pre-animistic theory: Primitive man thinks that life is full of impersonal holy power.

Certain places and strange objects are full of this impersonal power, which the scholars called by the Melanesian word mana. This was the beginning of religion (R.Marett, The threshold of religion, 1909). However mana is not an impersonal power, but the power of the gods and chiefs and spirits.

 Andrew Lang, The making of religion, 1898, took his material from the aboriginals in Australia. He proved that they do not honor spirits and souls, but they all have a notion of a highest being who is in heaven and watches man’s keeping the moral commandments.

Pater Wilhelm Schmidt in Vienna Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 1912-55: This belief in the highest being can be traced in all primitive cultures. It must be the earliest form of religion. The belief in many gods (polytheism) is a secondary development like weed overgrowing and covering the field with good seed.

Schmidt studied the pygmies in Africa and found a monotheism with clearly ethical features connected to the Supreme Being and the offering of first-fruits, the old sacrifice also mentioned in Gen 4 as the sacrifice of Cain and Abel, the first sacrifice in history. By comparing Red Indian belief in the GREAT SPIRIT (from North America) with Tierra del Fuego religion, and with negrito-religion in Asia and the religion of aboriginals in Australia, he proved that what he believed were the oldest layers of human culture had a monotheistic belief in a god who was good, benevolent, omnipotent, creator, ethical, eternal, omniscient, living in heaven with no relatives, no wife, no parents. The control which this Supreme Being exercises over morality in this life by punishment and rewards carries over, acc. to all ancient cultures, also in the next life. Here we must place the belief that the souls of the good deceased go to heaven after death where God now dwells.

“The time that the Supreme Being spent on earth living intimately with man shortly after He, the Boundless Good had filled His creation with goodness until it overflowed was considered to be the best of all times on this earth, according to the beliefs common to this oldest era. People looked back to this time as to a lost island of bliss with painful longing, a longing they thought was now satisfied by the existence the souls of the good experience in heaven. This reestablishes this golden age, however in heaven this time and no longer on this earth. We find glowing descriptions of this new heavenly paradise.

The Supreme Being, according to His nature and in all his activity, is not only completely free of all moral evil, He also possesses all of the moral virtues in the highest degree. He is not content merely to be man’s model. Immediately after He created man, He took it upon Himself to educate man and teach him how to practice this morality. He reinforces this teaching by threatening and punishing those who do not follow His law, while promising reward to those who willingly follow His commands. He does not abandon the wicked, however, if they repent and try to improve, a point which is made by a number of early groups. Once this time of testing, is over, however, He does not hesitate to reward those who were morally good with a corresponding happy existence and the morally wicked with the kind of punishment which they have coming to them.

In all of this the Supreme Being not only manifests His supreme goodness which leads men to pinnacles of purity, strength and bliss, but also reveals His zeal to realize moral justice and beauty. In this way the Supreme Being decorates Himself with new moral virtues” (Volume VI,468-73).

An English summary of pater Wilhelm Schmidt's works is Ernest Brandewie, Wilhelm Schmidt and the Origin of the Idea of God,1983.


Literature and sources:

“One of the strangest discoveries of modern science of religion is the one initiated by the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang, the discovery of the high gods”, says the great German scholar Friedrich Heiler  (Erscheinungsformen und Wesen der Religion, 1961, p.456) and he mentions a lot of titles developing Lang's theory:


Konrad T. Preuss, Glaube und Mystik im Schatten des höchsten Wesens, 1926.

Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, Das Werden des Gottesglaubens, 1926 & The living God. Basal forms of personal religion. Gifford Lectures, 1933.

Leopold v. Schröder, Arische Religion I: Der altarische Himmelsgott, das höchste gute Wesen,1923.

Raffaele Pettazzoni, Der allwissende Gott. Zur Geschichte der Gottesidee, 1960.

Geo Widengren, Der Hochgottglaube im alten Iran,1938.[1]


Polytheism, the belief in many gods, arises where different functions are split off from the high god. We meet this process in the Bible when it speaks about God, his word (Greek: Logos), his wisdom (Sofia), his Spirit, his messenger (Angelos), his Son.

Acc. to G.Dumézil, the Indo-European pantheon is split up into 3 functions: the ruling function, the war-function, the fertility-function, Les dieux Indo-Européens, 1952.

In Iran, Ahura Mazda is surrounded by his 7 Amesha Spentas. They are, as proved by Dumézil, the spiritualized substitute for the old Indo Iranian functional gods. Acc. to Widengren this is a typical example of the high god surrounded by minor gods who are different aspects of his being. Together they make up the fullness of his nature. Die Religionen Irans 1965 (pp.11f).


Important works on the Near Eastern seals are:

P.Amiet, La Glyptique mésopotamienne Archaïque, 1980.

ibd, “Glyptique susienne archaïque”, RA LI,1957 pp.121-9.

ibd, “Le Symbolisme cosmique du Répertoire animalier en Mesopotamie”, RA L,1956 (about the bull man as Atlas/world pillar).

A,Audin, “Les Peliers Jumeaux”, AO  XVI,1948,265ff, XXI,1953,430ff.

le Breton, “A propos de cachets archaïches susiens” 1, RA  L, 1956, pp.135-9.

H.Frankfort, Cylinder Seals,1939.

L.Heuzey, “Le Sceau de Goudéa”, RA V,1902, pp.129ff. (“Gilgamesh” setting up the two pillars of Hercules).

A,Moortgat, Tammuz. Der Unsterblichkeitsglaube in der altorientalischen Bildkunst, 1949.



M.Dunand, Fouilles de Byblos I-II, 1939,1954-8.

M.Mallowan, Nimrud and its Remains 1-2,1966.

J Mellaart’s reports on excavations at Catal Hüyük in AnSt 12-14,1962-4.

P.Montet, Byblos et l´Egypt,1927.

Max von Oppenheim, Tell Halaf I-III,1943.

E.A.Speiser, Excavations at Tepe Gawra I,1935.

A.J.Tobler, Excavations at Tepe Gawra II,1950.

The Ugarit texts:

J.Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends,1978. Moor, An Anthology of Religious Texts from Ugarit, 1987 (underlines the importance of “spiritualistic sessions”, where the spirits of the forefathers were summoned).


Hellenistic sources:

Philo of Byblos has written a History of the Phoenicians on the basis of material from a certain Sachunjaton, living before the Trojan war and serving as priest for the god Jeu.

Sa. is said to have taken his information from very old inscriptions on the “sun-pillars” in the temples, i.e. the twin-pillars representing the gate of the sun and carrying the world-order inscribed (see below). Only fragments of his work have survived in long quotations by the Christian historian Eusebios, Præperatio Evang. I, ed. by K.Mras,1956. Many scholars have dealt with Philo´s Phoenician cosmogony, theogony and sociogony, the latest (as far as I know) being I.Schiffmann, Phönizisch-Punische Mythologie und geschichtliche Überlieferung,1986,pp.10-72.

Nonnos from Panopolis (in Egypt) in his great epos, Dionysiaca, gives important information about Cadmos and the fight against the double snake of primordial totality, Typhon, Actaeon, the hunter torn by his own dogs, the god Aion, as old as the world itself, and sister to Beroe (Beiruth) 7,22ff & 41,143f. But most important is his description of the visit Dionysos pays Melqart in his old temple in Tyre, at the altar where the holy Phoenix is renewed in fire, and where also can be seen the strange flaming tree with a snake coiling around it and a bowl of the drink of immortality at the top. Here also the first attempt to sail the sea was undertaken at the command of Melqart, 40,1ff.

Lucian, De Syria Dea, a short description of the cult of Adonis in Byblos, a long description of the temple in Mabbug (Lucian: The Syrian Goddess by Attridge and Oden, 1976). In Macrobios Saturnalia I,17,66f. is an important description of an Apollo-statue in Mabbug.

Diodor of Sicily: Important information about the North African Dionysos (Baal) and the fragments of Ktesias about Semiramis and Sardanapal, and fragments of Megastenes´s description of the military campaign undertaken by Dionysos (Baal) to India (cf. Arrian, Indica 9)

Apuleius Metamorphoses VIII book has a description of Syrian ecstatics dressed as women, but also the important description of an nightly initiation into the mysteries of Isis: by following the nightly path of the sun through all elements the initiate is led through the underworld to dawn where he is standing upright on a platform as the living picture of the sun god and greeted as a god. (Apotheosis by following the path of the sun to eternal standing.) In this work we also find the beautiful fairy tale of Amor and Psyche and the love-story of Charite and Tlepolemos.

The Hellenistic Novels are built over the old patterns: The goddess seeking her lost lover or the goddess abducted and brought back and the journeys & struggles of the sun hero.

Achilles Tatius´s novel starts with a visit in the temple of Astarte, where a great painting of Europa on the bull is admired. II,14 there is a new description of the marvellous tree in Tyre surrounded by fire.

Only fragments are preserved of the oldest novel about the love between Semiramis and Ninos.

Apart from this, the oldest novel must be Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe.

Photios: Bibliotheca has preserved summaries of two very important Syrian novels:

“The wonders beyond Thule” by Antonios Diogenes (Bibl. 166) &

“Babyloniaca” by Iamblichos (Bibl. 94).

Only fragments are left of the novel  by Lollianos, Phoenicica.

The Story of Apollonius, king of Tyre by an anonymous author is also important, as is Ephesiaca by Xenophon of Ephesus, and “Joseph and Asenath”, a Jewish love-story from the Hellenistic period (M.Philonenko, Joseph et Aséneth,1968).

All the Greek novels (and Apollonios… trans. from Latin) are brought together in new translations in: Collected Ancient Greek Novels, ed. B.P.Reardon,1989.

They are all variations on the theme: the goddess of fertility and beauty taken away by the king of winter, but liberated and brought back by the sun hero or a Dioscuric pair. The same theme is worked out as the main theme of modern South Arabian fairy tales by W.Daum, Ursemitische Religion,1985.

Important aspects of the religion in Tyre is analysed by

J.Morgenstern, “The King-God among the Western Semites and the meaning of Epiphanes”, VT X,1960, pp.138-97

E.A.S.Butterworth, The Tree at the navel of the Earth, 1970

in Petra by G.Dalman, Petra,1908

in Palmyra by du Mesnil du Buisson, Les tèsseres et les monnais de Palmyre,1962

in Edessa by H.J.W.Drijvers, Cults and Beliefs at Edessa,1980

in Hatra by H.Ingholt, Parthian Sculptures from Hatra, 1954

in Baalbek by Y.Hajjar, La Triade d´Heliopolis-Baalbek,I-II,1977

in Harran by D.Chwolson, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus,I-II,1856

in Byblos by B.Soyez, Byblos et la Fête des Adonies,1977

in Tarsus by H.Böhlig, Die Geisteskultur von Tarsus,1913.

Important for his interpretation of the motifs on the coins of the Middle East area is A.B.Cook, Zeus, I-III,1914-40, for his insistence on a religious interpretation of Syrian and Assyrian ivories R.D.Barnett, The Nimrod Ivories in the British Museum, 1957.


The Syrian cult of the sun is dealt with in:

J.Tubach, Im Schatten des Sonnengottes, 1986.

F-J. Dölger, Sol Salutis, 1925.

The fight between lion and bull:

du Mesnil du Buisson, Etudes sur les Dieux Pheniciens herites par l´Empire Romain, 1970.

The Heracles pillars and the Saturn pillar: Movers, Die Phoenizier,I, 1841.


The important motif, the ‘birth of the divine saviour, is dealt with by

Ed. Norden, Die Geburt des Kindes, 1924.

R.Eisler, “Das Fest des ‘Geburttages der Zeit’ in Nordarabien”, ARW 15,1912.


The cosmogony of Philo of Byblos should be compared with the Phoenician cosmogonies preserved by the late Neoplatonic philosopher Damascios, De Principiis (ed. C.A.Ruelle, 1889) 123bis-125ter.

A cosmogony linked to the cult of Zas (Santas) is in Greece propagated by Pherecydes from the island of Syros (fragments collected & ed. by H.Schibli, 1990).


[1] To the abovementioned titles could be added: Jan de Vries, Religionshistoria i fågelperspektiv (translated from Dutch), 1961 chapter VII,F,4 on the high gods.