Apes’ Asherah?

As a part of my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions, since we were dealing with the earliest textually recorded religions, I explored origins. Specifically, the origins of religion. For years I told my students that biologists had observed behavior among chimpanzees that was proto-religious. Imagine my delight in seeing an article on New Scientist headlined “What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion?” The article, by Rowan Hooper, describes chimpanzees banging rocks before a “sacred tree” and storing the rocks in the tree in a ritualized fashion. That’s a long way from Episcopalians putting on their Sunday finery, but it is a fascinating piece of a larger puzzle. As the article points out, other symbolic action among chimps has been observed—some of it the basis for what I discussed with my students. The impulse to acknowledge the power of the Other runs deeply within animals, particularly mammals and birds.

This may seem an odd thing to suggest. We do know, however, that among the earliest attested behavior or Homo sapiens, along with hunting and seeking shelter, is religious behavior. It is part of who we are. Primatologists, such as Frans de Waal, have noted that the great apes engage in altruistic behavior. It is only when they become billionaires, apparently, that the urge dies. Again, other mammal species and some birds also show altruistic behavior. We are part of the natural world. Our religion, rather than being a collective insanity, is part of a continuity with that natural world. It is much a part of who we are as is seeking food or putting on clothing.

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The more rakish side of my imagination goes to the fact that this article begins with a sacred tree. Tree worship is part of early religions. Some scholars suggest it is part of Asherah’s cult in the ancient world. (I discussed this in technical terms in an article some years back; take a look at my Academia page if you can’t sleep without reading it.) Goddess or not, trees are essential for our survival—call them a godsend. Would it not make sense for religion to include reverence for trees? It seems that some great apes, at least, agree. Are these primates religious? We can’t say. One thing, however, is certain. Our fellow animals show more moderation in their use of the environment than our species does, and that in itself is both logical and religious.

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