How do we know about pre-literate Middle Eastern & Indo-European Religion?

I’ve been reading Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. In this book, in some of her other books (History of God and her writings on Fundamentalism [which she describes as a very modern concept {which I agree with to a certain degree but not entirely}]) and in the writings she cites she portrays the earliest, or Axial, religions- those that preceded Zoroastrianism and monotheism, as mostly doctrine-free myths and rituals that the practitioners probably did not accept the fundamental truth of; they believed that the rituals would court the favor of the gods, but not necessarily that this god was born of a sea serpent or that one of a sacrificed virgin or whatever. She believes that early humans understood that myths were largely an interface or an analogy with which to make sense of chaos, and that while they believed in the power of deities they did not really care so much about the details and would not have fought anybody over a dispute about the divinity of a particular creature or the ancestry of a certain goddess. It’s not a paradise or overly romanticized existence she describes, but it does seem in some ways more sophisticated than its descendant religions, when people did get worked up over the minutiae of the beliefs or the myths, and she portrays this not theoretically but more or less as fact.

Question: How do we know about the intellectual components of pre-literate belief systems? For the pre Zoroastrian Aryans, for instance (who are treated heavily in Armstrong), I can understand how we know some about them through archaeology and some through the Avestas written centuries later and perhaps a tad from primary written sources by contemporaries with literacy, but not really enough to flesh out more than the bare bones of their belief systems. Does anybody know why Armstrong makes these claims or on what such theories about primitive religions [and the non-fundamentalism of] are based?

I’m replying partially to bump this (because I’m interested in the answer) and also to ask for clarification.

Are you saying that pre-literate cultures were all something like cargo cults?

(Going out on a limb, and possibly off-topic…)

And…it’s much harder to transmit myths accurately without a literate part of the population (Homer notwithstanding). Also, nitpicky religion is a product of leisure…it seems as though detailed myths/stories originate from societies that have enough resources to support a “cleric” class. Many non-literate societies have shamans, etc., and myths, but only one or two per village, and maybe even they are also engaged in hunting/gathering. If you have to go out every day to get your food, it’s hard to really take the time to build up a detailed mythology. And if you’re not the shaman, you’re worried about other things. It seems like humans may have used religion as a social binder, rather than actual worship of “gods”. If the gods heard, great.

I wonder how America would look right now if the Protestants that have influenced the attitudes of the nation had not had the Catholic monastic system to build on and protest against. Life on the frontier was hard; had there not been a pre-made religion to believe in, with ingrained doctrine…would America be the same place?

Long-time lurker checking in.

It will be easier to answer your questions in the reverse order:
Within my field of research (comparative religion) one of the current trends is to focus less on what people say/think and more on what they do. This idea is fairly recent (a few decades, I think), and has grown out of numerous observations of how religious people behave. It seems that in many cultures around the world (and in different eras), the idea of fixed ritual behaviour in relation to “the gods” is much more important than fixing a belief system around this behaviour. This is not the same as claiming that ritual is all, theology is nothing - people do believe in something, but in everyday life the finer theological points just aren’t as important for the vast majority of people as is simply getting on with their lives. The idea that “the idea” or “the religious feeling” (whatever that is) is so very important to religion and religious behavior is - in my opinion - very much influenced by Christian thinking, and it simply does not apply outside of a narrow North American/Western European framework.
There is - of course - much more to the issue than what I have presented here - and I would love to discuss it in greater detail (and provide cites and all).
That said, I still have problems seeing how Armstrong feels that she can claim anything certain about the belief systems and ritual practice of the pre-Zoroastrian inhabitants of Persia. We do have a few tools aside from archeology. The most important one is comparative philology which have taught us a great deal about our Indo-European ancestors. The likeness of words or names of gods from one I-E language to the others can certainly tell us something about prevalent religious ideas in the minds of the forefathers of the Indians, Persians, Greeks etc. The most famous example is probably the common origin of the name Dyaus Pitr (Vedic Sanskrit), Zeus (Greek), and (Jupiter). By tracing such connections and exploring various meanings attributed to these figures/abstracts, we can approach a reconstruction of an Indo-European ur-religion. (We’re still on quite shaky ground regarding that, though). But going from linguistic observations to any conclusion about the relative importance of theology/myth in these pre-Indo European religions seems hazardous at best (I mean, really, Armstrong is just making a qualified guess, nothing else, it seems).

Hope I could be of some help.

I don’t have anything bad to say about Karen Armstrong, but she isn’t exactly the horse’s mouth where mythology is concerned.

I agree wholeheartedly with Panurge’s response. It does seem to be true that behavior is more conservative than belief, and scholars are shifting their approaches to take this into account.

As others have said, what we know we know mostly by the comparative method from the literate era, supplemented by archaeology. Things that distant but related cultures have in common that cannot be easily explained by innovation or borrowing is likely inherited. In mythology, a lot of references to beliefs and practices in ancient India have parallels in Greece, Rome, Ireland, or Iceland, a bit too specific to be explained away by chance. For example, the *brahmin * or member of the priestly class of ancient India has an exact cognate in the Roman flamen. Along with the name there were some specific restrictions on behavior. I recommend Jaan Puhvel’s Comparative Mythology for zillions of examples. The theory was originally a spin-off of comparative historical linguistics.

There are many different approaches to mythology: folklore, comparative religion, neopagan, revisionist historian, scientist-mining-for-fact, etc. Unfortunately, popular writers and news media don’t always know how to filter this information. You will often see quite reputable sources state that the original religion of Europe was goddess worship, for which there is virtually no evidence. I am not saying that they did not worship goddesses; they probably did. But it was almost certainly not a quasi-monotheistic idyll of peaceful happy feminist goddess-worshippers, however much we might like it. Then, goes the story, the nasty Indo-European Sky-God worshippers rode in and took over. It is true that the Indo-Europeans were patriarchal invaders, though they also had their goddesses. There is no reason to suppose that they were especially nasty.

The reason this story is so popular is that it is satisfying. Christians feel justified in their conquest of Europe, rescuing it from the evil sky-god worshippers. Neo-pagans get a very nice past idyll to claim.

Ancient Persia is someplace where we have a really, really good idea of what went on. Avestan data aligns fairly well with Vedic data, and there is (relatively speaking) a lot of it. Again, Puhvel’s book has a chapter on it, so you can compare Armstrong with him. But we know there are a lot of holes in the data. There is good evidence that there were women-only goddess cults in Indo-European religion (like the Vestal Virgins), but data is sparse.