Published as Chapter 63 of The Way: An Ecological Worldview, originally published in 1992.
This text is taken from the revised and enlarged edition, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998.
“In the stillness of the mighty woods, man is made aware of the divine.”
Richard St Barbe Baker
“There is no better way to please the Buddha than to please all sentient beings.”
Ladakhi saying, quoted by Helena Norberg-Hodge
“The religious behaviour of man contributes to maintaining the sanctity of the world.”
“And God saw everything that He had made, and found it very good.
And He said: This is a beautiful world that I have given you.
Take good care of it; do not ruin it.”
“And as to love: Love God. He is rock, earth and water, and the beast and stars, and the night that contains them.”
The deities of chthonic man were, above all, the guardians of the critical order of the cosmic hierarchy. As such, they personified the laws that were seen as governing the cosmos and that man had to observe if he was to assure the preservation of its critical structure. This meant that by observing those laws man was also fulfilling his obligations to the appropriate deities. Thus to follow the Way in Vedic India was to fulfil one’s obligations to Varuna, the God who personified the R’ta; in ancient Egypt to Re, who personified the Maat; in Greece to Themis, once the cosmic force bearing that name came to be represented by that Goddess.
The Gods also personified the vital force that flowed through the living world, reflecting its critical structure and sanctifying it. Jane Harrison notes that originally, the gods of the Romans were impersonal and ill-defined, and that rather than being referred to as ‘dei’ or ‘gods’, they were seen as ‘numina’, the plural of ‘numen’, which meant ‘vital force’, suggesting along with Marrett and later Durkheim and Lods that the notion of vital force preceded that of the gods and spirits.
Whether this is so or not, the two concepts are complementary. It is probable that as the gods grew in importance, so did they in turn, reinforce the sacred nature of the vital force with which they were imbued. In this way, they sanctified each other as well as the structure of the living world which their organisation faithfully reflected.
The role of the gods of vernacular man in sanctifying, and hence in preserving, the critical order of society is particularly well documented. ‘Ancestor worship’ seems to be common to all known tribal peoples throughout the world, though the term is misleading, for the ancestors were not worshipped as modern man worships his god. His relationship with them was rather one of mutual obligations. Thus, rather than pray for favours, tribal man reminded his gods instead that he had fulfilled his obligations towards them and expected them to do likewise. He would even curse them if they did not reciprocate. Jomo Kenyatta prefers to refer to this relationship as “communion with the ancestors”. 
The relationship between chthonic people and their gods was one of mutual obligations. The gods had needs and their principal need was for the living to fulfil their ritual and ceremonial obligations, observing the laws that the ancestors had enacted in illo tempore. For their part, the living and their families, clans and tribes, needed the gods to protect them from malnutrition, disease, enemy invasions and other disasters.
In Japan, as Lafcadio Hearn puts it, “The happiness of the dead depends upon the respectful service rendered them by the living; and the happiness of the living depends upon the fulfilment of their pious duty to the dead” – a clear case of hierarchical mutualism. 
Underlying this form of religion is the principle that a dead ancestor, or a deity, remains a member of his family, his community and his society, rather than gravitating to some distant paradise – a concept unknown to chthonic man. In this way, the ancestral gods in chthonic society are as much part of society as are the living. As William Robertson Smith pointed out many years ago in a famous passage:
“The circle into which a man was born was not simply a group of kinsfolk and fellow-citizens, but embraced also certain divine beings, the gods of the state, which to the ancient mind were as much a part of the particular community with which they stood connected as the human members of the social circle. The relationship between the gods of antiquity and their worshippers was expressed in the language of human relationship and this language was not taken in a figurative sense but with strict literality. Thus a man was born into a fixed relation to certain gods, as surely as he was born into a relation to his fellow-men; and his religion, that is, the part of conduct which was determined by his relation to the gods, was simply one side of the general scheme of conduct prescribed for him by his position as a member of society. There was no separation between the spheres of religion and of ordinary life. Every social act had a reference to the gods as well as to men, for the social body was not made up of men only, but of gods and men.” 
Significantly, the gods of vernacular man, like his vital force, were seen as faithfully reflecting the hierarchical structure of his society. Thus Lafcadio Hearn writes of Japan:
“The three forms of the Shinto worship of ancestors are the Domestic Cult, the Communal Cult and the State Cult; or, in other words, the worship of family ancestors, the worship of clan or tribal ancestors and the worship of imperial ancestors. The first is the religion of the home; the second is the religion of the local divinity, or titular god; the third is the national religion.” 
E. Driver shows how the differences in the organisation of the gods among North American Indian societies could be explained in terms of their degree of integration or centralisation:
There was a strong tendency to arrange gods in a ranked hierarchy in areas where people were ranked in a similar manner, and to ignore such ranking where egalitarianism dominated human societies. Thus the people of Meso-America carefully ranked their gods, while those in the Sub-Arctic Plateau and Great Basin believed in large numbers of spirits of about equal rank. Other areas tended to be intermediate in this respect. Among the Pueblos where many spiritual personalities were widely recognised to be designated as gods, there was little tendency towards ranking, just as there was more equality among human beings. 
The people of Alor, as described by Cora Dubois, have a very loosely organised society. Few constraints are applied at a level higher than that of the family and the family itself is very weak. The average Alorese is undisciplined and self-indulgent and has little regard for authority of any kind. Not surprisingly, the Alorese pantheon reflects this disorderly state of affairs, writes Cora Dubois:
“They have a culture hero and a supreme deity but these play a very small part in their thought. Ancestral spirits are more important, but behaviour to them is loose and undisciplined, just as it is towards their parents . . . The dead are merely pressing and insistent predators who can enforce their demands through supernatural powers. This is precisely the experience of the child with his parents, whom he obeys reluctantly and grudgingly.” 
The Swazi, on the other hand, have developed a cohesive and hierarchically organised society and, according to Hilda Kuper, their gods are organised in exactly the same way:
“In the ancestral cult, the world of the living is projected onto a world of spirit (emadloti). Men and women, old and young, aristocrats and commoners, continue the patterns of superiority and inferiority established by Earthly experiences. Paternal and maternal spirits exercise complementary roles, similar to those operating in daily life on Earth; the paternal role reinforces legal and economic obligations; the maternal exercises a less formalised protective influence. Although the cult is set in a kinship framework, it is extended to the nation through the king, who is regarded as the father of all Swazi. His ancestors are the most powerful of all the spirits.” 
The ancestral gods and thus the vital force which they personify, are organised in such a way as to reflect the critical order of vernacular society. In this way, the critical structure of society is sanctified and its members forced, for fear of incurring the most terrible penalties, to preserve it come what may. By sanctifying the critical order of society, the ancestral Gods simultaneously sanctify the natural world of which it is an integral part and which, as we have seen, is organised along the same basic plan.
Significantly, the original chthonic gods had animal forms. For instance: among the Greeks, according to Jane Harrison, Zeus Ktesios was once a snake, while
“Zeus Olbios in local worship long preserved his bull’s head . . . the Sun god of Crete in bull form wooed the Moon Goddess, herself a cow; their child is a young bull-god, the Minos-Bull, the Minotaur.” 
Because chthonic man made no radical distinction between himself and other animals, there was no reason in his scheme of things to distinguish between himself and his gods and the animals and the spirits that represented them, for all were part of the same cosmos. Significantly, among the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the original worshipping place was the sacred grove, known to the Greeks as the ‘temene’ and to the Romans as the ‘temple’. As Pliny writes,
“The woods were formerly temples of the deities, and even now simple country folk dedicate a tall tree to a God with the ritual of olden times; and we adore sacred groves and the very silence that reigns in them no less devoutly than images that gleam in gold and ivory.” 
Nor could the sacred groves be desecrated with impunity. It was Agamemnon’s crime not just to kill a deer, but to do so in a temene. Trees, as Hughes tells us, were sacred to the Gods:
“The Oak to Zeus, the Laurel to Apollo, the Willow to Hera, the Pine tree (or perhaps the oak) to Pan.” 
Robert T. Parsons, writing on the Kono of Nigeria, sums up the nature and function of vernacular religion: it is
“not only an organization of human relationships, but it includes also the relationships of people with the earth as a whole, with their own land and with the unseen world of constructive forces and beings in which they believe. Religion brings them all into a consistent whole.” 
However, chthonic religion dies as society disintegrates. The Olympian Gods were the products of this social disintegration. Whereas the behaviour of the original chthonic deities was subjected to the great powers that governed the cosmos: (the Moira, or fate, which once also referred to the spatial order of the cosmos, and Dike, or justice, which was responsible for assuring its temporal order) the Olympian Gods were set above these cosmic powers. Their behaviour and indeed that of the disintegrating society whose organization they reflected was no longer subject to the constraints that previously served to maintain the critical order of the cosmos.
Jane Harrison sees the shift from the chthonic to the Olympian gods as a move from the holistic view of society and of the cosmos to the individualised view:
“The Olympian has clear form, he is the principium individuationis incarnate . . . the mystery (or chthonic) god is the life of the whole of things, he can only be felt – as soon as he is thought and individualised, he passes, as Dionysos had to pass, into the thin, rare ether of the Olympian. The Olympians are of conscious thinking, divided, distinct, departmental; the mystery god is the impulse of life through all things, perennial, indivisible.” 
As social disintegration proceeded still further, the Olympian gods ceased to have any relationship with society, for society was no more. The accent was then on the cult of a national God and eventually on that of the universal God. As society further disintegrated, the only remaining vernacular social grouping was the nuclear family and, not surprisingly, the universal god acquired a wife and a child so that the now truncated pantheon reflected the newly atomised society.
The Christian Trinity finds its counterpart in the religion of other disintegrated societies. The cult of Osiris and Isis and the baby Horus, for example, developed during the breakdown of ancient Egyptian society and was most popular during the Ptolemaic age. As the role of religion ceases to be social, it serves instead to provide solace to the individual and his nuclear family, beyond which lies but an undifferentiated mass of humanity from which he feels increasingly alienated, as he is from the natural world and from the cosmos.
It is then only to the Universal God who, like him, is a temporal as well as a spatial isolate, that he feels any duty. As Roszak puts it, such a God having become “infinitely removed from falling nature, becomes that cosmic bouillon cube, in which all holiness is now to be concentrated for safe keeping”. 
The ‘revealed’ religions of today such as Christianity, Islam and modern Judaism, have desanctified society and the natural world, leaving them open to exploitation and destruction. For Nicholas Berdyaev, “Christianity alone made possible both positive science and technique. The reason is that it severed man from nature emotionally”.  But the same is true of the other revealed religions that developed to satisfy the psychological needs of atomised societies.
As society disintegrates and religion becomes increasingly ‘otherworldly’, as man is severed from nature and indeed from the entire Gaian hierarchy, so his behaviour towards his gods ceases to occur within its correct field, that provided by the Gaian hierarchy of which he is part. Instead, it becomes heterotelic to this hierarchy, ceasing to fulfil its true social, ecological and cosmic role, which leads man even further along the anti-Way.
|1.||Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu
; p.232. Heinemann Educational, 1979. First published 1976.
|2.||Lafacio Hearn, Japan: an Attempt at Interpretation; p.37. Macmillan, New York, 1904.|
|3||W. Robertson Smith, Esays on the Religioin of the Semites; p.30. Adams & Charles Black, London, 1914.|
|4.||Hearn, ibid.; p.27.|
|5.||E. Driver, Indians of North America; p.428. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1961.|
|6.||Cora Dubois, “The Alorese”. In Kardiner, The Psychological Frontiers of Society; p.167. Columbia University Press, New York, 1945.|
|7.||Hilda Kuper, The Swazi: a South African Kingdom; p.58. Holt, Rinhart & Winston, New York, 1963.|
|8.||Jane Harrison, Themis: a Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion; p.447. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1927.|
|9.||Pliny the Elder, Natural History, ed. J. Newsome. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1964. Cit. Hughes 1981, p.13.|
|10.||Hughes, “Early Greek and Roman environmentalists”. The Ecologist Vol. 11 No. 1, January-February 1981; pp.196-208.|
|11.||Robert T. Parsons, Religion of an African Society; p.176. E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1964.|
|12.||Harrison, ibid.; p.476.|
|13.||Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends; p.127. Faber & Faber, London, 1972.|
|14.||Nikolai Aleksandrovich Berdyaev, The Meaning of History; p.117. The Centenary Press, London, 1936.|