The ancients worshipped Sacred Monsters. Daemons, spirits, not evil or good, inhabited the air, the land, the sea. The daemons would one day be converted to demons, whether before or after the Axial Age, while humanity looked for better gods, more benevolent to the pre-scientific natural order.
The daemons were gods created in the image of the world of man. In time, perhaps almost immediately, man sated his religious need by endowing the Sacred Monsters with elegant powers. They existed on a plane above humans, who lived, precariously, on a plain below.
Man created himself a little lower than the Monsters.
A Monster is neither good nor evil unless observing makes it so. A Monster is simply something not occurring naturally in the finite order. Man posited his Monsters, painted them on cave walls, set up idols to tempt the Monster’s presence. Eventually, this would not be enough. Paint and graven images would give way to the next level of competition.
Humanity, limited by the body, would one day be defined by its tools. The warm blooded need to eat repeatedly each day for full development. Humankind would never cease to be a hunter-gatherer. The futile routine of hunt-kill-eat might be replaced by till-plant-harvest-eat but the need for the last step in the process did not change from generation to generation.
Humanity, kept in check by powerful forces beyond its control, learned to band together for safety and support. A relatively long gestation period, followed by a much longer infancy for its offspring, meant humans needed one another for more than conception to prolong the species. The longer infancy meant companionship, which ultimately led to intimacy.
Everywhere he went, humanity took its daemons. In most places, he discovered other daemons, or the need of them. Religion, or something very like it, became as much a part of life as the tribal unit. Daemons lived everywhere and humanity sought to please, if not to please, at least to placate, the spirits of the air, land and water.
Tree bark thrown into a fire to produce a bright flash would not sate humanity for long. He grew and his daemons needed to grow with him. Humanity is structure oriented, seeking familiarity as much as shelter, order and a cool place on a hot day. When he had enought to eat he built altars. When he had more than enough to eat for more than a short time, he began to build temples.
Perhaps the worst thing ever to happen to religion was the erection of the first temple, with its coterie of priests, prostitutes and peers. Religion left the sea, air and land to enter enormous structures intended to shock and awe. For millenia man would regret this error, as he repeated it slavishly, his daemon in need of a temple just a bit higher than the competing daemon in the next borough. Fear married competition; Babel’s Tower fell on the whole human landscape.
Little altars would be set up in the mountains, near the rivers, in fertile fields, at battle sites where the victors writ their lore or when old men entered a new land. Where there could not be a temple there could still be the inverted stone driven deep into the ground to mark a spot where the daemon appeared to operate.
The worship of land, sea and air would ultimately prove too amorphous for even the ones most able to dream fantastic dreams. The ancients would need structure for they were structure building persons. The moderns would someday need proof for they were proof finding persons. The daemons met the spirits of the darkness of this world, principalities, powers; they receded into dark imagination to become the person of evil. Someone else would have to stand in the light or come and be the light. Superstition married faith, gave birth to belief systems, died in the arms of hopeful doubt.
History marred religion by constant change in its demands. All too often, the religious simply acquiesced, whether from fear or ignorance or because popular religions may just attract persons with a tendency to conform. Ancient beliefs gave way to written Scriptures, frozen in time, unquestionable to the faithful, unbelievable, even hateful, to the outsider.
Do you ever wonder, for instance, Christian friend, why it is the Jerusalem authority must go through a series of questionable trial sessions to gain Roman approval to execute the Christ but, then, the same group in the same locale can execute a disciple of Christ named Stephen a few hundred days later, without so much as a tip of the hat to the Romans? What social pressures require legal hoop jumping for the death of the Christ, while His follower may be stoned to death without more than a religious inspection of his case?
There is a cure for the mongrel mixture of religious abuse/excess. If not a cure, one could call it at least a therapy. That is, man could start a humble search for truth, admitting his inability to find/express Truth.