A major aspect of religion is to explain the unknown but, while this is common to all religions, geography is a predetermining factor that shapes the nature of this explaining, as well as other aspects of individual religions.
It would be, of course, too simplistic to claim one factor as the most important or only explanation for a religion’s nature, especially over the course of thousands of years or between different groups or even individuals. This essay will, however, demonstrate how geography is one of the more important factors.
Kong (1990, p. 356) in her survey of different approaches to religion and geography observes that the two were linked at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, who saw the cosmos and the world as a linked spatial ordering. She also notes (Kong 1990, p. 357) that geography and environment are inextricably linked to religious imagery, and that the two form a reciprocal relationship (Kong 1990, p. 359). Brace, Bailey and Harvey (2006, p. 29) state that geography is deeply embedded at every point in faith, spirituality and the sacred. Park (2004, p. 8) uses the Egyptian worship of the Nile as an example of the principle that geographical factors determine the worship of objects.
Ancient Egyptian religion is a clear demonstration how geography forms religious doctrine. Egypt is a starkly contrasting land of desert and fertile river, of annual inundation and retreat of the Nile’s waters. The Egyptian world was divided into Black Land and Red Land, Upper and Lower Egypt, Nile and desert (Murnane 1983, p. 23). This duality seeps through much of ancient Egyptian religion which is strongly concerned with maintaining order against disorder (Shafer 1997, p. 25) in the concept of ma’at. A clear example of how Egyptian geography influenced its religion is demonstrated by the Heliopolitan creation myth in which Atum raises the Benben, the primeval mound out of the chaotic waters. Hart (1990, p. 11) explicitly links this image with the regular re-emergence of the land after the Nile flooding.
Park (2004, p. 21) notes how spaces become sacred, relating how the ancient Egyptians saw their land as both a geographical location and a religious overlay, affecting, for example, the orientation of structures.
Within this larger context there also exist the local variations, very much influenced by geography and individual communities, involving the cults of gods of specific places. Murnane (1983, p. 19) notes that few Egyptians would have ever moved far from home, as well as the dominance of the Nile river in Egyptian life. The land was divided into nomes, some of which worshipped their own local gods (Murnane 1983, p. 23). Since the Egyptians (and the Greeks) had no single ‘sacred book’ giving an orthodox scripture (Silverman 1991, p. 12), local beliefs were easily accommodated. In fact, different, conflicting, cosmologies developed which had precedence in one centre or another (Silverman 1991, p. 30). Local gods are accommodated into the category of ‘Egyptian religion’ but Silverman (1991, p. 38) points out how city gods often personified local areas, and arose out of more ancient divisions. Most festivals were also local (Shafer 1997, p. 25).
The geography of Egypt, however, led to a more unified society than ancient Greece. The Nile concentrated communities to a relatively small, and connected, area which was unified very early on (Brewer & Teeter 2007, pp. 38-39) and led to a hierarchical, centralised administration.
Ancient Greece, as opposed to Egypt, had a very different geography. Unlike Egypt, the Greeks existed in a mountainous land, poor in agricultural production and minerals, with no major rivers but with a vastly larger coastline and numerous easily reached islands. This led to a tribal (and later, city) based society that was also seafaring. Cole (2007, p. 271) traces the importance of local rituals and sacred spaces to the breakup of the Mycenaean empire into separated, autonomous, agricultural communities.
While Greeks worshipped a pantheon of twelve major gods, there were also numerous other deities and spirits of natural forces, as well as local cults, as in Egypt. Mikalson (2007, p. 210) describes how Homer and Hesiod codified these major gods out of a range of original local gods, removing to a large extent their local identifiers. The cults of heroes were also highly specific to individual locations (Mikalson 2007, p. 213), so much so that those such as Heracles are exceptional due to their Panhellenic forms. Even where gods were worshipped in multiple locations, the festivals and forms of that worship varied from place to place, while the epithets of the gods gave a localised aspect to them (Mikalson 2007, p. 215). Cole (2007, p. 283) notes that gods were viewed as local deities, and that it was important that prayers not only gave a location to a god, but that those prayers needed to be made in the correct, appropriate, location.
Buxton (2004, p. 60) notes that origin myths in Greece related to individual communities, rather than overarching Hellenic origins, reflecting the more separated nature of Greek communities, unlike Egypt where, while many cults remained local, there was the unifying presence of the Nile through all the towns and cities. The pluralist view that informed the Greek worldview also extended to explanations of cultural origins (Buxton 2004, p. 62), different regions providing different explanations.
The later mystery cults were, if anything, even more specific to a location. The Eleusinian mysteries tie the myth of Persephone and Demeter to a specific location, Eleusis, and even to specific objects such as the Agelastos Petra, which provided a real, evidential localising of the religion (Coldstream 1985, p. 88).
Continuing to bear in mind the caveats that religion is multi-faceted and variable over time, ancient Egypt and Greece both demonstrate the fundamental importance of geography in their religious forms. Egypt, a unified and hierarchical society, developed a religion of dualities that, nonetheless, very much depended on regional sites and deities; while Greece, a more contentious and poorer society, in its own way also created a religion that, while recognised over a large area, relied on specific sacred sites and local gods. Geography cannot be separated from all the aspects of a culture, including politics, economics and the nature of society. It is unsurprising, therefore, but often forgotten, just how important a role it also plays in determining religious expression.
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Mikalson, JD 2007, ‘Greece’, in SI Johnston (ed.) Ancient religions, Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, pp. 210-219.
Murnane, WJ 1983, ‘The land and the river’, The Penguin guide to ancient Egypt, Penguin, Middlesex UK, pp. 17-24.
Park, C. (2004) Religion and geography. Chapter 17 in Hinnells, J. (ed) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. London: Routledge. Retrieved from http://www.lancs.ac.uk/staff/gyaccp/geography%20and%20religion.pdf
Shafer, BE 1997, ‘Temples, priests, and ritual: an overview’, in BE Shafer (ed.) Temples of ancient Egypt, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, pp.1-30.
Silverman, DP 1991, ‘Divinity and deities in ancient Egypt’, in BE Schafer (ed.) Religion in ancient Egypt, Routledge, London, pp. 7-87.