Biology Magazine

Religious Evolution: Sami Sticks & Phoenician Stones

Posted on the 28 May 2011 by Cris

Unlike living organisms, cultural formations do not “evolve.” Evolution, sensu stricto, is a biological process and not a cultural one. Despite this fact, some scholars have fruitfully deployed evolutionary ideas — as analogy and metaphor — to analyze cultural history.

In 1964 the sociologist Robert Bellah did just this in his classic paper, Religious Evolution. Taking as his premise Eric Voegelin’s idea that cultural history describes arc that moves from “compact” to “differentiated” symbol systems over time, Bellah posits five stages in the history of religions: (1) Primitive, (2) Archaic, (3) Historic, (4) Early Modern, and (5) Modern. The kinds of religions that Bellah associates with each of these stages deserves a post of its own, for our purposes the important points are that “Primitive” is shamanic, “Archaic” is diffuse cult polytheism, and “Historic-Modern” is textual and systematized. Most religions today are of the latter variety.

Despite cursory appearances, Bellah’s typology is neither progressive nor normative. As Bellah is at pains to emphasize, his is not a unilinear evolutionary model:

Of course the scheme itself is not intended as an adequate description of historical reality. Particular lines of religious development cannot simply be forced into the terms of the scheme. In reality there may be compromise formations involving elements from two stages which I have for theoretical reasons discriminated; earlier stages may, as I have already suggested, strikingly foreshadow later developments; and more developed may regress to less developed stages.

And of course no stage is ever completely abandoned; all earlier stages continue to coexist with and often within later ones. So what I shall present is not intended as a procrustean bed into which the facts of history are to be forced but a theoretical construction against which historical facts may be illuminated.

Because history is continuous and no stage is ever completely abandoned — each is incorporated into subsequent stages, we can find elements or traces of “Primitive” (i.e., earliest) religions in “Modern” (contemporary) religions. In concrete terms, this means that “modern” religions such as Christianity and Islam contain within them ideas and concepts characteristic of “primitive” religions, otherwise known as shamanisms. Shamanic beliefs and practices constitute the earliest forms of supernaturalism and prefigure all modern religions.

I was recently reminded of Bellah’s typology while reading about Sami shamanism and Phoenician polytheism. The Sami are (or were) hunter-gatherers living in the boreal forest areas of northern Scandinavia and Russia. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about them in 98 AD. At some point, the reindeer hunting Sami domesticated the animal and many became pastoralists. They interacted extensively with the Vikings, and were subjected to aggressive Christian colonizing beginning in the 1500s. Although their traditional ways of life had largely been destroyed by the late nineteenth century, there are numerous accounts of Sami beliefs and practices. In Bellah’s scheme, these would be characterized as “Primitive” or shamanic.

The Phoenicians were a trading and seafaring people who occupied the coastal areas of present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and North Africa (Carthage). Organized into city-states which at times were in alliance and others in conflict, the Phoenicians dominated much of the Mediterranean from 1200 to 500 BC. Carthage persisted until 146 BC, when it was destroyed by the Romans in the final Punic War. Although it is unclear whether Phoenicians considered themselves to be a distinct ethnic group, they spoke a common language and developed the first phonetic alphabet. They interacted extensively with all Mediterranean peoples, prominently including the Greeks. In Bellah’s scheme, their religion would be characterized as Archaic (cult polytheism).

In “Varro Muorra: The Landscape Significance of Sami Sacred Wooden Objects and Sacrificial Altars,” Ingela Bergman and colleagues provide an introduction to the Sami, who believed that all things — animals and landscapes in particular — were imbued with spirits or spiritual power. Although the authors characterize this as “animism,” it is actually a kind of pantheism coupled with beliefs in a variety of major and minor spirits. This is precisely the sort of thing we would expect to find among people who are nomadic hunter-gatherers, and is in fact characteristic of such peoples across time and space.

What is unusual, however, about Sami supernaturalism is their intensive use of varro muorra, a concept that exclusively denotes sacred wooden objects. These objects included scaffolds that functioned as offering platforms and carvings that represented or contained spirits. While other hunter-gatherers are known for using wooden scaffolds (usually for mortuary purposes) and wooden objects (in medicine bundles), widespread and intensive usage of these items is uncommon in shamanic practice. It certainly makes one wonder whether earlier contact with Norse pagans and later interaction with Scandinavian Christians influenced Sami ritualism. It also demonstrates Bellah’s observation that a particular religion may be “compromise formations involving elements from two stages,” which in this instance would be Primitive (shamanism) and Archaic (cult ritualism).

Another example of mixed element religious practice comes from “Phoenician Cult Stones,” an article published by Eugene Stockton in 1974. Before surveying the many instances of Phoenician temples and cult stones proper, Stockton observes that sacred rocks belong to a “primitive substratum” of religion; indeed, unusually shaped rocks have long been a part of sacred shamanic landscapes and forager medicine bundles. Such rocks were often considered to be the residing place of ancient spirits. More recently but still before Phoenician times, incipient and early agriculturalists erected megalithic structures for ritual purposes. This appears to be a vestigial practice carried over from shamanic formations.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the Phoenicians (and the Greeks) venerated stones, often erecting them in temples and other ritual spaces. Once in place and properly dedicated, the stones could either harbor deities or represent them. This is a practice with a deep history, one that manifests itself even in “Modern” religions. One need look no further than the ritual foci of Islam — the sacred Black Stone, embedded in the holy granite cube known as the Kaaba — to see this is the case. Indeed, the Black Rock most likely pre-dates Islam and was revered by nomadic Arabian pagans.

Where does all this leave us? First, it shows that Bellah’s stages are a useful heuristic for illuminating unsuspected or unnoticed connections between seemingly disparate religions. Second, it demonstrates that religious history is multilinear and diffusion works in two directions: from the “Primitive” to the “Modern” and vice versa. Finally, it demonstrates that no religion is sui generis — all have a history and none stands alone.


Bellah, R. (1964). Religious Evolution American Sociological Review, 29 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2091480

Bergman, I., Ostlund, L., Zackrisson, O., & Liedgren, L. (2008). Varro Muorra: The Landscape Significance of Sami Sacred Wooden Objects and Sacrificial Altars Ethnohistory, 55 (1), 1-28 DOI: 10.1215/00141801-2007-044

Stockton, Eugene D. (1974). Phoenician Cult Stones Australian Journal of Biblical Archaeology, 2.3, 1-27

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