A short description of the main religions and beliefs of the ancient world
By the time the Roman Empire split and the Muslims became dominant, the world had several major belief systems. Each of them covered a specific geographical area and stayed within a major group of population. Some of them also had evolved or had schism.
These believes, also called religions, have spread through travels, trades and wars. I will cover the list of religions and beliefs from the early time we’ve heard about it through the 7th century C.E.
Bellow is a very short description of each of them, underlining only the major features.
The most famous polytheists cultures of the ancient world:
Polytheism was spread through Mesopotamia and Mediterranean area, including Greek and Roman cultures. Polytheists believed that there were more then one god. Each God had a certain area or skill over which he/she protected. People worshiped a certain god when they wanted help for a specific need.
Among all these Gods, one was the boss. Some of these Gods were good and others were bad. They also fight with each other, married or helped one another. Their life was resembling the everyday life of people in a specific area but they will not die.
To worship these Gods, people build temples which led to the development of architectural styles specific to each region. Also, a new class of priests raised with big influence over political and social life.
Confucianism is a Chinese specific belief and can be defined as a political and philosophical system compatible with any religion that displayed a similar set of moral, social and political rules. It started round 400 B.C.E and is still alive in China.
Confucianism got its name from Confucius, a man from an aristocratic but poor Chinese family. Confucius has served as justice minister for a while but when he resigned he took on the road and traveled through China, forming disciples and spreading his teaching.
Confucius focused on political and social order which, he believed, was based on relation between ruler and subject, parent and child, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, and between friends. The ideal human being, according to his doctrine, was to be educated , conscientious and able to give up personal ambition for the good of the society.
Confucianism stayed within the borders of Chinese culture where it helped create a distinct society based on social order, and duties and responsibilities among the members of a community.
Daoism or Taoism was founded around 500 B.C.E by a Chinese philosopher named Lao-tzu, his name meaning “old master”.
According with this philosophy, there is an eternal principle governing the entire world. “Dao” is the way the nature works. Dao is passive so human beings should be the same. This doctrine promotes disengagement and life in harmony with the nature., as opposed to activism, promoted by Confucianism.
Daoism coexisted with other beliefs in China. The communities converted to this religion were self sufficient and some daoists became great scientists.
Legalism was practiced in China around the same time with Confucianism and Daoism. It became strong under the Qin Dynasty, which was the first imperial family to rule a united China from 221 to 207 B.C.E. Actualy, Qin Dynasty accomplished the unification of the Chinese provinces using Legalism as tool. This is, again, a philosophic system turned politic, rather then a religion. It missed an afterlife promise of salvation.
According with this doctrine, a society cannot achieve order unless is ruled by harsh laws and punishments. Authority was the method to reign and the tool was a centralized government but all citizens were equal under the law. Under this belief, people were promoted on the social and politic ladder based on individual performance and in disregard of their origin.
A series a books written by Chinese philosopher stand behind Legalism, with the “Book of Law” being the most famous.
The system had survived undercover until late in China, some of its principle being used even today by the Chinese government.
Hinduism is a religion with very large implication in social life. It has been practiced since the first aryans arrived in the Indian subcontinent (around 1500 B.C.E.). According to Hinduism, there is one creator of all things and this creator is in all things. His name is Brahma. Brahma has other manifestation and these manifestations have different names, they are like gods, most important of them being Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer).
The goal of the Hindu believers is to merge with Brahma, the creator, at the end of their life. Not an easy task, but accomplishable over a period of time. To get to unify with Brahma, people had to live a life in accordance with religious standards that emphasise detachment, seeking of truth, love and harmony. Hindus believed that when they died two things could happen: they either passed into the creators’ universe becoming one with it, either were reborn into somebody or something else, human, animal or plant. This life and death cycle continued until they reached nirvana which, in Hindu, means the supreme state of a human being, the liberation from the trap of birth and death).
The Hindu people lived in a highly hierarchical society. They were divided into classes called castes and, for a while, it was possible to move from a cast to another. But then the upper classes closed their doors and stated that nobody could advance to another caste. The only way to do it was by being a good Hindu and hoping to be reborn on an upper class.
The Eightfold path:
Siddharta Gautama was a young prince, born in Nepal in 563 B.C.E. when he gave up his wealth, kingdom and power and went to explore the world, to discover the peace and to preach a life without suffering. Through meditation he became enlightened, or Buddha.
His teachings found a fertile ground and so, Buddhism became a religion that spread through all eastern civilizations, nearby India, China and South East Asia.
Buddhists do not believe in a supreme god, rather they follow four simple truths which are :life is suffering; suffering is caused by desire; people can be freed from desire; to be freed by desire people need to follow the “Eightfold path”, which is consists in eight right attitudes.
Similar with Hinduism, which was the religion of Buddha at birth, Buddhism promised that people can reach nirvana, which, according with this belief, it meant the state of perfect peace and harmony that can be achieved in one or multiple lives.
After Buddha’s death, in 483 B.C. E., his follower split into two movements: Mahayana and Hinayana. One of the most important difference between these two is that in Mahayana Buddha became a deity while the other one regarded him as a human even after he reached nirvana.
Buddhism is one of the larger religion in Asia. Because it did not maintained the social system based on castes or classes, Buddhism appealed to everyone. In India though, the Hinduism and the social hierarchy were too strong and rejected Buddha’s teachings.
Judaism was the first monotheistic religion. Hebrew people, who lived in the middle east in a land called Canaan, believed that there is only one god that ruled over the world, which he created with everything that exists. God selected a group of people to make himself known. He demanded that those people have to live in accordance with his laws. These laws and practices were exposed to humans and gathered in five books known as Torah. These books were lately adopted by the Christians and incorporated in the Bible.
Judaism promise that God would take care of the people that follow his rules and among these people, the most obedient ones could have a personal relationship with God. This religion was, and is until today, practiced by the he Hebrew people.
Christianity started with a small group of Hebrew people that follow Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. By the end of the ancient world, around 400 C. E., Christianity spread to almost all roman territories becoming the dominant religion.
Jesus of Nazareth spent his life preaching Gods laws but emphasising the love for human beings. He is said to be the Son of Jew's’ God and a woman called Maria, and his arrival was foreseen by other Jews. He preached that the world was made by God, which is one and supreme. Christians believe that an eternal life is achievable by living a modest life, loving all people and obey the divine laws. They also believe in resurrection, as it was proven by Jesus when he came back to life (in a divine form) after being crucified by the Romans.
The main book of Christianity is the Bible.
These are the main religion and believes that were practiced in antiquity. All of them have survived until today though some cultures have changed their religion. As an example, take romans and greeks that have abandoned polytheism in favour or Christianity. Polytheism is still practiced by other smaller groups across the world. Among the believes presented above, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity have the most impact today. Around 600 C.E., another religion, Islam, raised and spread across Asia and Africa joining the group.