Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Are you a religious person? If so, you probably go to a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of worship regularly. The customs and rituals probably have not changed much since your parents were your age, and they probably won't change much in your children's time.
But over long periods of time - think centuries or millennia even - popular religion has looked quite different. In this lesson we will examine popular religion and beliefs during the Iron Age.
Now, before we get into the religions and beliefs of the era, we should probably discuss what time period we are talking about when we talk about the Iron Age. The Iron Age refers to the ancient time period when iron began to be used to create tools and weapons. In most places, it replaced bronze, another softer metal. In some places, iron replaced stone. In general, iron was stronger, more durable, and more readily available. Its use improved agricultural productivity and created types of weaponry superior to those used previously.
When and where the Iron Age occurred varied greatly depending on region. Sometimes cultures developed the use of iron on their own, but more often iron tools and weapons came to an area after a group of people came in contact with another group already using iron.
As far as archaeologists and historians can tell, the use of iron began in the Middle East and southeastern Europe. Though the material was used ornamentally as far back as 3000 B.C.E. in the Middle East, widespread use in tools and weapons did not begin until sometime between 1200 and 1000 B.C.E. From this point it spread into Europe, North Africa, and finally east into Asia. Indeed, the Iron Age in China did not begin until roughly 600 B.C.E.
When the Iron Age ended again varies depending on the region. Generally, it is considered the last period of prehistory, or the period before we have written records. This interpretation becomes problematic when applying the term outside of Europe; for example, we have written records from China that date several centuries earlier than the use of iron in that region.
Religion and Beliefs
Considering the vast differences in time frame and region, it is difficult to create any hard and fast criteria for religion and beliefs in this period. However, with some notable exceptions, there are characteristics many religions in this period had in common. For example, most religions and belief systems in this period were polytheistic. This means people in this period believed in more than one god, goddess, or other supernatural being. For example, the ancient Scythian culture, which inhabited what is today's Iran, constructed a system that had seven different deities. Others, like the mythology of ancient Greece or the Celts in northwestern Europe, believed in hundreds of deities.
Unlike the belief systems of today, where for billions of people their god or gods are largely removed from the Earth, Iron Age people generally believed their deities took an active role in the world of humans. Most ancient mythologies are full of parables and other stories that detail how a god or goddess directly impacted the lives of humans. Much like the stories told of Jesus or Muhammad in today's religions, these stories were meant to teach important religious principles or concepts that concerned ancient society.
In many of these belief systems, each god or goddess was responsible for a part of ancient life. For example, the ancient Greeks had gods devoted to the sea, agriculture, war, love, and so much more - if it was a part of human life, there was likely a deity responsible for it. Some Iron Age religions took it a step further. These religions, termed animist religions, believed that gods not only played an active role in ancient life, but actually inhabited it. For example, the Celts of the British Isles believed gods or spirits inhabited certain trees, lakes, rivers, or other natural objects.
The gods and goddesses of these polytheistic religions required some form of observance to be appeased. In some cultures, this meant praying as we do today, though in many the gods required gifts or sacrifices. In fact, natural disasters, invasions, or other terrible things befalling a community were often interpreted as being caused by improper observances of the local gods.
The notable exception to these criteria is Judaism. Judaism was one of the few monotheistic religions of the ancient period, meaning followers only believed in one god. Ancient Judaism, however, did exhibit some of these other aspects mentioned above. For example, Old Testament stories show ancient Jews believed their god played a direct role in their daily lives. The evolution of Judaism is important, as Christianity and later Islam grew out of these ancient Jewish beliefs. In fact, despite the religious strife in regions around the world today, all three of today's major religions worship the same god first believed in by ancient Jews, though they of course all view God differently today.
While these are the basics of many ancient religions, it is important to note this is not a ''one-size-fits-all'' description of Iron Age beliefs. Not all ancient religions were animist, for example, and not all religions had gods that required sacrifices. The best way to learn more about these ancient belief systems is to pick one ancient culture and research their specific religion.
When the Iron Age period occurred varies greatly depending on the region. Because of this, it is hard to nail down characteristics of all Iron Age religions. However, many Iron Age religions were polytheistic, meaning they believed in more than one god. These gods and goddesses often were responsible for various aspects of ancient life, and many required gifts or sacrifices. Without those, ancient people believed the gods could cause disaster or hardship. An important exception to these characteristics was Judaism, which only believed in one god, and was the progenitor of today's three major religions.
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