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Rare prehistoric treasures that shed light on the origins of belief and ritual are displayed in the exhibition In the Beginning: Prehistory and the Origins of Myth. These unique exhibits, most of which are from the archaeology collection of the Israel Museum, are believed to be the oldest ritual objects in the world. They reveal the reality hidden behind the creation myths - the true story of how humans created religion and gods.

Anthropological studies have shown that there is no society today without some degree of supernatural belief and ritual. Influencedbytheuniversality of this phenomenon, scholars in the fieldofthestudyofreligionusedtoassumethatreligious belief has existed since the emergence of humankind. The archaeological evidence, however, suggests that religious behavior appeared relatively late in human history and is principally characteristic of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. It is possible that the rise in religious practice, like the significantincreasein the manufacture of personal ornaments and works of art, is related to the cultural change called "the sudden revolution," which took place in the later stages of the Stone Age, 40,000 years ago, and included the dispersion of Homo sapiens sapiens throughout the ancient world and the extinction of all other human species. In the wake of this change, hunter-gatherer societies, similar to the preliminary societies known today, came into being. The archaeological findspointtoaresemblancebetween prehistoric religious customs and the religions of the preliminary societies of our time. These religions have been definedas non-organized, permitting all adults who have undergone initiation rites to encounter the supernatural world and perform ritual acts at sacred sites, located in caves, forests, and mountaintops.

New archaeological discoveries attest that the roots of organized religion - the establishment of communal worship, the creation of gods responsible for cosmic and social order, the construction of the firsttemples,andtheappearance of priestly classes - lie in the changes that occurred when societies made the transition to a sedentary way of life during the "agricultural revolution," which took place in the Middle East during the Neolithic period, some 10,000 years ago. In the beliefs and rituals that emerged during that period, we findthesource of the worldviews of later religions, some of which still accompany us today.


"Adam and Eve," figurineoflovers
Ain Sakhri, Judean Desert
Early Neolithic period, 9th millennium BCE
Calcite cobble, 10.2x6.3 cm
The British Museum, London

Mask
Horvat Duma, Hebron region
Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, 7th millennium BCE
Limestone, 22.3x15 cm
Gift of Wilma and Laurence A. Tisch, New York,
to American Friends of the Israel Museum

The Land of Israel was one of the earliest centers of organized religion. Spectacular findsfrom prehistoric sites of this region - including masks, sculptures, ancestor figures,plasteredskulls, and mysterious structures - enable us to embark on a fascinating journey to the sources of religion and myth: from the creation of primeval "power objects" - the amulets and magical devices that represent the individual's ties to the supernatural world - to the making of divine images and cult objects that serve the religious needs of the entire community; from spirit rituals held deep inside caves or in special household cult rooms, to seasonal festivals celebrated in sacred precincts, in which the ancients performed collective rites related to victory over the forces of chaos and the renewal of time. These pre-literary events were eternalized in the firstmythseverwrittendownin the Ancient Near East. Through the biblical creation stories, which preserve some of these ancient myths, the prehistoric heritage still echoes in the monotheistic religions of today.

The quest for the origin of religion is also an attempt to solve the question of human uniqueness. Indeed, many other aspects of human culture were born of ritual: art, music, drama, and dance. As Emile Durkheim, father of the sociological approach to the study of religion and one of the greatest intellectuals of the twentieth century, wrote, "Originally religion pervades everything; everything social is religious; the two worlds are synonymous. Then, little by little, political, economic, and scientificfunctions free themselves from the religious function, constitute themselves apart, and take on a more and more acknowledged temporal character. God, who was at firstpresentinallhuman relations, progressively withdraws from them; he abandons the world to men."

The exhibition book, The Birth of Mythology, is forthcoming in the Myths series of Map - Mapping and Publishing, as a special edition produced in conjunction with The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.



Beginning: Prehistory and the Origins of Myth

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