A long time ago, before television radio and films, before printing, before the invention of writing, people listened only to the spoken word—and the cry of birds, the wind whistling through the trees and the sea crashing on the sea shore. Before written text they knew about the gods because high up there in the night sky was where they lived; gods, goddesses and immortal heroes. The constellations told of their exploits. Their stories were told and retold down the generations. It happened because humankind was the only animal able to ask the question WHY? Parents could give a reply to their offspring because the answer, as they had learned, was already written in the stars.
By the making the connection of each constellation in regard to its neighbour, longer narratives could be woven and explanations given why things happen, why you must listen to the shaman and why the gods and heroes direct earthly actions. One tale was pointed out looking north in the winter sky, that the club of the hero was about to strike the head of the long winding serpent but he in turn was about to be bitten on his heel. There were dangers and pitfalls everywhere. To avoid calamity it was necessary to connect with the gods.
Before the invention of writing, people could tell you not just the names of each of hundreds of stars but what each star and what each constellation meant. The brightest star in the sky is Sirius meaning "the scorcher" found In the constellation of Canis Major, was associated with the "dog days" of drought of late summer. They knew that their fragile mortal life on earth was but a poor reflection of the immortal gods in the heavens.The stars, like the sun did on a daily basis, also travelled to the underworld. They heard long and engaging sagas about heroes in the underworld, transformations, curses and rewards, arguments with gods, punishment, revenge and victory. These tales were delivered by travelling story tellers who had committed them to memory. They spoke under the glittering stars, using them as a touchstone to elucidate divine odysseys. Conjuring in the minds of their audience a captivating mythological world, men and women being transformed into supernatural creatures.Yet echoing their actual experience of life subject to the capricious whims of nature and fortune.
But no person back then had the need to conceive of the idea of truthfulness.
By around 8500 BCE we have evidence for theatrical presentation of myth probably within an arena with actors using masks to represent the characters of the myth. Possibly the tales told there were of a symbolic nature which would confer a tribal identity. The rhythms and patterns of speech or song could be accompanied by percussion instruments on taut skins or resonant stones or wood and there were and flutes from bird bones. Dance and mime would follow the sounds. Later a more realistic theatre in ancient Egypt portrayed the exploits of their gods, explaining the creation of heroes by the union of heavenly forces and human fertility. The religions focused on solar deities which are not a million miles from the archetypal story line for most hero-saviour religions like Christianity.
No one however questioned the veracity of the dramas.
The time came when a wonderful advance was made: the spoken word could be preserved for others to comprehend. The most flexible form of writing evolved using an alphabet of sounds to represent the spoken language. The Bronze Age is the first period of human history where we have records of language. Often the first examples of writing that the illiterate saw were inscriptions on large statues of Kings or gods proclaiming their terrifying power. In the palaces of kings, court scribes kept written records of the household accounts as well as the celestial events above them.
The peasants would have associated writing with divinity and their god-like rulers. The scribes wrote at the bidding of the court and told grovelling tales to flatter their lords and masters. In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece we have sophisticated legends, horror stories, moral tales, traveller’s tales, uplifting tales, fanciful histories and practical advice for farmers and princes. Human culture had moved forward and flourished.
But never was there a need to warn that stories are just stories.
The Bible is not so very old, it was compiled in the fourth century CE. The ideas it contains certainly are from antiquity, indeed from stories which hark back to the star stories of the pre-literate period put into written words and elaborated almost beyond recognition. However the texts are mainly traceable to the Iron Age and on into the Hellenic period after the death of Alexander the Great in the 335BCE such as the Book of Daniel. It is surprising to learn that the oldest complete Jewish ‘Bible’ dates only from the 11th century CE.
The contents of the Bible as developed by the Roman Church, was made to be viewed as a sacred item and implicit was that it was the work of God, which of course was the explanation for everything and anything before people became educated.
The Bible was compiled with Roman political aims in mind, assembled with pre-scientific thinking for propaganda purposes and with the pre-supposition of the existence of gods and spirits. It encapsulates the pagan folk beliefs in magic and mythology, impossible events and naturally carries no evidence for these happenings.
Since the Enlightenment at the end of the eighteenth century people began to question the veracity of stories and if they are not true we put them into the category of literature.
Indisputably the Bible is not only a work of literature it is also the preeminent piece of Catholic propaganda having a universal distribution in the West. Nevertheless a literal belief in it has hobbled people's thinking for the last sixteen hundred years. The biggest mistake in the twenty first century is to imagine that the Bible is sacred truth.