Exploring the Roots of Religion

Course No. 3650
Professor John R. Hale, Ph.D.
University of Louisville
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Course No. 3650
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Course Overview

Stonehenge. Machu Picchu. The Acropolis. The Great Pyramids at Giza. Sites such as these have captivated the world for centuries—even millennia—since their creation. They are works of great beauty whose construction required spectacular feats of engineering, involved the efforts of hundreds of thousands of individuals, and incurred a tremendous financial cost on the civilizations that created them.

But why were these massive sites created? What impulse drove ancient cultures to devote such time and labor into these projects? Why are we so transfixed by their presence today? And what do these and other mysterious sites reveal about our ancestors—and about humanity as a whole?

The answer to these and other eternal questions is the dynamic force of religious belief. Religion, in its many forms, is among the most powerful of all human impulses. The philosophical and intellectual side of religious practice is well studied—but religion also manifests itself physically. From cave art to intricate burial chambers to grand hilltop temples, the material expression of spirituality is less understood but offers equally deep insights into why humans believe in something larger than themselves.

Now you can experience the thrill of discovery and learn the sacred secrets behind some of the world's most popular and mysterious ancient locales with Exploring the Roots of Religion. In 36 riveting and insightful lectures taught by award-winning Professor John R. Hale—a practicing archaeologist and masterful storyteller—you dig through the earth and learn how sacred buildings, complexes, tomb structures, artwork, and more have provided us with unparalleled knowledge about the varieties of early spiritual experience around the world. It's an experience that will add new levels of understanding to your knowledge of ancient history and especially to the integral role that religion played in some of these grand civilizations.

Get a Three-Dimensional Perspective on Ancient Sites

To look at these awe-inspiring sites without considering the vital importance of their spiritual contexts is to merely get a one-dimensional, postcard view of their true greatness. While these places were built with wood and stone, the mortar that held them together was the intricate rituals and belief systems of the cultures that built them.

But in instances where no written record exists or the historical record is incomplete, how can you understand the captivating rituals and systems responsible for them?

The answer: archaeology. This fascinating scientific field, which uses material remains to fill in gaps in the historical record, provides a useful way for us to grasp the nature of faiths and rituals that otherwise might have been lost in the mists of time. Using the unique tools and knowledge of their field, archaeologists can now determine the nature of a sacrificial ritual, compare the visible attributes of ancient deities, and map out the proper orientation of a particular temple or tomb.

And with its unique archaeological perspective on the nature of ancient faiths, Exploring the Roots of Religion offers you a vibrant, three-dimensional perspective on these sites—perspectives that not only show you why these places are important to us in the modern world, but why these places were so revered by the peoples for whom they were a part of everyday life.

Unearth the Roots of Religious Experience

Every expertly organized lecture in Exploring the Roots of Religion is an incomparable and comprehensive look at specific religious archaeological sites around the world. Using the same teaching skills that have garnered him acclaim from his students at the University of Louisville, Professor Hale takes you deep inside caves and crypts and leads you through vast deserts and ancient cities around the globe—from Turkey and Polynesia to Mexico and Sweden to Cambodia and even the American Midwest. And it's a journey you can enjoy without having to leave the comfort of your own home or car.

Professor Hale groups his lectures into six main "themes," each of which addresses a particular aspect of religious experiences in ancient times:

  • In the Beginning: Most of the basic elements of religion arose during the Stone Age. Each of the sites you explore in this section—whether burial caves in Iraq, rock art in the Kalahari Desert, or stone megaliths in France—served as the genesis for sacred ideas of art, rituals, landscapes, and more.
  • Quest for the Afterlife: How did early civilizations prepare their deceased for the mysteries of the afterlife? As you encounter the burial customs of the Sumerians, Celts, Vikings, and others, learn how archaeologists discovered what they know about this essential aspect of religious practice.
  • Reconstructing Ancient Rituals: Witness how archaeologists reconstruct and re-create religious rituals from the silent testimony of material remains. These rituals include the bull dance ceremony of the Minoans, the consultation of the oracle in western Asia Minor, and even human sacrifices in ancient Mexico.
  • Lost Gods and Fallen Temples: Equally important as a religion's rituals is its theology. At these six sites, encounter a vast pantheon of ancient gods such as Aten (the sun god made the sole Egyptian deity by a heretic pharaoh) and Quetzalcoatl (a feathered serpent who brought blessings to Aztec civilization).
  • Sacred Landscapes: Unlike individual temples, these archaeological sites are so vast that their sacred nature encompasses an entire landscape, sometimes even spanning hundreds of miles. The pyramids at Giza, the Nazca Lines in the Peruvian desert, and the temple of Angkor Wat are just a few of the stirring localities you investigate.
  • Communities of the Spirit: The sites in this final section deal with "revealed" faiths: those that originate with the message of a prophet or reformer. These include communities such as the Zoroastrians, the Jewish sect of the Essenes, and a Christian community that venerated their dead in the catacombs underneath ancient Rome.

Spiritual Insights into Popular Destinations

A majority of the sites you visit in Exploring the Roots of Religion have long been recognized as profound monuments to the grandeur of ancient history. With Professor Hale, you view these sites not as curious tourist attractions but instead as places of great religious and historical importance, packed with information about early forms of faith and the spiritual lives of our ancestors. These are among the sites you investigate:

  • Lascaux Cave: This cave in the Dordogne region of France is one of the places where art was born. But archaeologists also believe its engravings and paintings played important roles in the spiritual lives of Stone-Age hunters. A mysterious scene of a wounded bison, bird-effigy, and bird-headed man represents one of the earliest examples of religious iconography.
  • Machu Picchu: This ancient Incan city, located high in the mountains of Peru, is a marvel of urban planning—and also a potent example of a landscape suffused with spiritual meaning. Among its many buildings is an abstract stone altar—dubbed the "hitching post of the sun"—which marked the sun god Inti's presence at the site.
  • Stonehenge: The religious symbolism of this iconic site extends far beyond the megalith construction at its center. Additional features that provide insights into the spiritual beliefs of its architects include burial mounds, cemeteries, and long ceremonial avenues.
  • Easter Island: The giant stone heads dotting the landscape of this Polynesian island are more than just sculptural marvels. These gigantic statues of important ancestors or chiefs were originally erected on stone platforms (known as ahu), where they were the focus for sacred rites performed in memory of the honored dead.

Every lecture is dedicated to a thorough look at these and other breathtaking places. For each place, you

  • learn the points of interest that attract the attention of archaeologists and scholars;
  • survey the principal features unearthed during the site's excavation;
  • discover what evidence at the site reveals about the evolution of religion; and
  • compare findings with the beliefs and practices of other sites and civilizations.

Discover New Visions of Religion

Reconstructing ancient religious rituals from archaeological remains has been a cornerstone of Professor Hale's career. Trained at Yale and Cambridge universities, he has spent a wealth of time exploring Celtic rituals in England, sacred rock art in Scandinavia, pagan and Christian religious structures in Portugal, and more.

It is this breadth of experience, coupled with his contagious passion for the wonders of his field, that makes Exploring the Roots of Religion such an engaging and enjoyable way to mine fascinating new knowledge from some of the world's oldest remains.

By the final lap of your international journey, you'll have developed a new vision of religion and its crucial role in ancient history. You'll become more attuned to both spirituality's universal elements and its unique characteristics across different cultures. You'll discover clues into the early practices of religions that endure in the modern world, including Christianity and Buddhism. And you'll realize just how much credit religion deserves for the remarkable historical sites that continue to captivate the human race.

"Future generations will still wonder at the pyramids, mounds, standing stones, and temples of our remote ancestors when the remains of our secular world have crumbled to dust," Professor Hale notes. "It is perhaps a reminder that, in all realms, the spirit is more lasting than the flesh."

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    The Roots of Religious Experience
    This introductory lecture lays the groundwork for the archaeological adventures ahead. Professor Hale provides you with key definitions that will be of use throughout the course, briefly overviews the intriguing sites and religions that await, and reveals the importance of combing through the remains of these ancient faiths. x
  • 2
    Neanderthal Burials at Shanidar
    Visit the oldest religious site that we can vividly reconstruct: Shanidar Cave. Here, archaeologists uncovered a nearly 45,000-year-old burial site that provided a wealth of information on the cultural and religious practices of the Neanderthals—a controversial finding that revolutionized our understanding of our ancestors. x
  • 3
    Hunting Magic in Sacred Caves
    With their breathtaking paintings, prehistoric caves such as Lascaux mark an important new element in the development of human religion: the designation of a particular site as "sacred." In this lecture, Professor Hale walks you through some of these caves and helps make sense of their mysterious imagery. x
  • 4
    Myths of the Shaman
    Explore another example of early religious artwork, this time on rocks in the Kalahari Desert. Learn what these fascinating images reveal about the ancient shamanistic practices and beliefs of the San people—specifically their belief in animism, in which every element of the environment is endowed with its own spirit and identity. x
  • 5
    Realm of the Mother Goddess
    While excavating at a site in Turkey, archaeologists uncovered the enthroned figure of the Mother Goddess, one of the first representations of a single deity in history. Who was this Venus-like goddess? And what purpose did she serve in the religious life of a 9,000-year-old Neolithic community? x
  • 6
    Mysteries of the Megaliths
    Travel to a rocky region in France that is home to the world's most extraordinary collection of megalithic monuments. Not only do these breathtaking stone structures serve as memorials for the dead, they reflect Neolithic attempts to express a grand cosmic vision in stone—one that presages Stonehenge. x
  • 7
    Towers and Tombs of Sumeria
    Begin a six-lecture examination of burial customs, the most primordial element of religious practice. Your first stop: extensive cemeteries and a royal burial pit uncovered at the site of the ancient biblical city of Ur. This remarkable discovery reveals countless insights into ancient Sumerian views of the afterlife. x
  • 8
    Tomb of the First Emperor of China
    Peer inside the final resting place of Qin Shihuangdi: China's first emperor. His immense tomb—protected by a mass of life-sized terra cotta figures of men and horses—combines the desire to create a monument for everlasting worship with the desire to retain kingly attributes in the afterlife. x
  • 9
    Feasting with the Dead at Petra
    In contrast with the royal burial sites of the previous two lectures are the tombs and mausoleums of ordinary families in Petra, Jordan—one of the world's most famous archaeological sites. In this lecture, Professor Hale takes you on a detailed tour of these sacred spaces, laid out to resemble feasting halls. x
  • 10
    Druid Sacrifice at Lindow Moss?
    Meet the Lindow Man, the preserved body of a young Celtic man that dates back to the A.D. 1st or 2nd century. Follow along with archaeologists as they use revolutionary scientific techniques to discover that this 25-year-old was not murdered but was instead the sacrificial victim for a religious rite. x
  • 11
    Honoring Ancestors in Ancient Ohio
    Walk through the structures of Mound City, the site of the religious Hopewell cult that originated in what is now south-central Ohio. Beneath these mounds, archaeologists found large ceremonial houses where members of the cult would gather to honor their dead in elaborate ceremonies. x
  • 12
    A Viking Queen Sails to Eternity
    Conclude your look at the burial of the dead with a trip to an archaeological site in Norway. As you study the remains of a royal Viking burial ship intended for a queen, you strengthen your understanding of how this civilization launched its royalty into the mysteries of the afterlife. x
  • 13
    Dancing with Bulls at Knossos
    In 1900, the famed archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating the Greek site of the palace of Knossos. What he found, among other things, was a grand fresco of men and women dancing with a bull. Here, discover the spiritual meaning behind this mysterious ancient ceremony. x
  • 14
    Oracle Bones in Ancient China
    Journey back to Bronze-Age China and examine divination rituals that employed the use of oracle bones: fragments of ancient animal bones inscribed with Chinese characters. Also, learn what fascinating information archaeologists and scholars gleaned from a detailed study of these curious bone fragments. x
  • 15
    Sun and Sexuality in Early Scandinavia
    While modern religions remove sexuality from their communal religious rituals, ancient Scandinavian communities gave sexuality a prominent role in their religious practices. Learn what petroglyphs—pictures on stone first studied in the 19th century—reveal about the fertility rites of these intriguing peoples. x
  • 16
    Apollo Speaks at Klaros
    From about 300 B.C. to A.D. 200, the oracle at Klaros was the most frequently consulted oracle in the classical world. In this lecture, investigate how recent archaeological work has provided us with a richly detailed look at what exactly went on during these mysterious divination ceremonies. x
  • 17
    Chalice of Blood in Ancient Peru
    Explore the idea of human sacrifice, a startling aspect of ancient religions. When archaeologists studied painted scenes on pots used by the Moche people of South America, they found depictions of priests engaged in a bloody sacrificial ceremony. Remains found at a later 1991 excavation in Peru matched the figures from these pots. x
  • 18
    Decoding Rituals at Palenque
    Rituals held at the Mayan ceremonial center in Palenque embraced many aspects of those covered in earlier lectures. Professor Hale discusses a variety of intriguing Mayan rituals, including sacred ball games that symbolized cosmic battles and fertility rites that involved both prayers and human sacrifice. x
  • 19
    Temple of the Goddess on Malta
    Between 1915 and 1919, a Maltese archaeologist excavated a massive, eight-foot-tall stone monument to a female deity. Just who was this commanding figure? Discover the intriguing answer in this lecture, which takes you back to the very origins of the concept of godhood. x
  • 20
    The Aten—Monotheism in Egypt
    During the 18th dynasty, the pharaoh Akhenaten revolutionized the polytheistic Egyptian faith by promoting the worship of a single god, Aten. Examine the story of this experiment in ancient monotheism through the hieroglyphic records discovered on tomb and temple reliefs from sites at Tell el Amarna and Luxor. x
  • 21
    Deities of the Acropolis
    Contrary to popular belief, the Athenian Acropolis was home to more gods than just Athena. Tour the grounds of this popular archaeological site, encounter the roster of deities who populated the Acropolis throughout its early history, and discover the intricate link between Athenian religion and statehood. x
  • 22
    Gods and Pyramids at Teotihuacan
    Here, visit the remains of Teotihuacan, the ancient Mexican "City of Gods." By examining the iconography of this prosperous and powerful city, gain insights into its god Quetzalcoatl, its twin pyramids dedicated to the sun and moon, and a mysterious cave that has provided archaeologists with new lines of inquiry. x
  • 23
    Sacred City on the Mississippi
    Another urban center—located right in our own backyard—is Cahokia, a mound site in Illinois created by a Native American chiefdom between A.D. 900 and 1200. Climb to the summit of "Monk's Mound," a 100-foot-high square pyramid that contains startling evidence of how these people worshiped their central sun deity. x
  • 24
    Sun and Shadow at Machu Picchu
    Travel to Machu Picchu, the famous abandoned city in the clouds first discovered by famed archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911. With Professor Hale as your guide, learn the truth about the importance of religion in Inca society and locate where evidence of the sun god appears around this astounding site. x
  • 25
    Celestial Gateway at Giza
    The Great Pyramids at Giza, built during the 4th Egyptian dynasty, are the only one of the ancient world's seven wonders to remain standing. What religious beliefs inspired their creation? And what meaning can you find encoded within the vast mortuary landscape they dominate even today? x
  • 26
    Cosmic Hub at Stonehenge
    Equally as famous and mysterious as the Giza pyramids is Stonehenge: the iconic Neolithic and Bronze Age structure that represents the pinnacle of the megalithic tradition. Explore the history of this impressive wonder and mull over various interpretations archaeologists have put forth about this sacred landscape's true purpose. x
  • 27
    Desert Lines at Nazca
    Created by the Nazca people in the early 1st millennium A.D., the Nazca Lines are more than 100 gigantic "line drawings" that span hundreds of miles along the Peruvian desert. Professor Hale reveals how these abstract symbols and realistic figures were created and explains the possible religious meanings behind the world's largest sacred site. x
  • 28
    Skywatchers at Chaco Canyon
    Discover the secrets of Chaco Canyon, an ancient Native American complex located in northwestern New Mexico. In addition to investigating its ancient roads, irrigation systems, and 800-room houses for storing ritual equipment, look inside the site's sacred meeting places—which contained supposed access points to the underworld. x
  • 29
    Mountain of the Gods at Angkor
    Investigate the religious symbolism behind Angkor Wat, the iconic temple designed to venerate the Hindu god Vishnu and serve as a mausoleum for the warrior-king Suryavarman II. Built between 1113 and 1150, the temple would later be stripped of its Hindu images and become venerated by Buddhists. x
  • 30
    The Stone Heads of Easter Island
    In this lecture, travel to Easter Island and study the more than 700 giant stone heads (moai) that dot the landscape and have captivated the world for centuries. Learn how these megaliths were created, the purpose they served in religious rituals, and the reasons they were mysteriously abandoned. x
  • 31
    Tending Zoroaster's Sacred Fire in Iran
    Zoroastrianism is among the world's oldest "revealed" religions and became recognized by three great holy fires that symbolized the power of the fire-god Ahura-Mazda. Peer over the shoulders of archaeologists as they sort through the ruins of an ancient city known as Adur Gushnasp. x
  • 32
    Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran
    In the 1940s, young sheepherders made a startling discovery: a collection of several hundred scrolls from an ancient Jewish sect known as the Essenes. Here, explore the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and examine the numerous insights they provide into early religious reform movements. x
  • 33
    Taking Religions Underground at Rome
    Descend into the catacombs and chambers that lay underneath the city of ancient Rome and were home to the cult of Mithraism and early Christianity. Archaeological evidence illustrates why, among Rome's many competing religious groups that practiced their faith underground, Christianity eventually emerged triumphant. x
  • 34
    Forging Iron at Jenne-jeno on the Niger
    Before the rise of Islam, regions of West Africa were home to a religious cult whose members were united only by their occupation: blacksmithing. Discover how the work of archaeologists in the 1970s unearthed the remains of Jenne-jeno ("old Jenne"), an ancient city where this intriguing faith once flourished. x
  • 35
    Carving Monasteries at Ajanta in India
    Walk through an ancient Buddhist monastery carved into the hills of India's Deccan Plateau. The treasure trove of paintings, sculptures, inscriptions, and humble cells provide a breathtaking perspective on the lives and beliefs of the monks who populated the Ajanta Caves. x
  • 36
    Faiths Lost and Found
    Conclude the course by revisiting key questions with the knowledge you've learned. What are the common threads between ancient faiths? Why has religion served as such a cohesive force in human society? And finally: What does archaeology reveal about religious impulses that theological studies cannot? x

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Your professor

John R. Hale

About Your Professor

John R. Hale, Ph.D.
University of Louisville
Dr. John R. Hale is the Director of Liberal Studies at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He earned his B.A. at Yale University and his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in England. Professor Hale teaches introductory courses on archaeology, as well as more specialized courses on the Bronze Age, the ancient Greeks, the Roman world, Celtic cultures, the Vikings, and nautical and underwater archaeology. An...
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Exploring the Roots of Religion is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 72.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A brilliant exposition by my favourite lecturer. The lecturing style of the professor is that of a master orator, which is the reason I bought it. He does a number of other courses, including the art of public speaking. What struck me about the course was the sheer potential irrationality of the human species in terms of religious practices, and how modern day irrationalities in human thinking are not remotely a modern day phenomenon. Perhaps the world is not cognitively ready for this course because it questions and highlights what humans were and became after the stone-age, and as a species we like to think of ourselves as better than what we are, and this course brings to light the distant past in the context of human self rather than far and distant remote other.
Date published: 2020-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course He is a good lecturer, knowledgeable, entertaining & kept my interest. Thank U
Date published: 2020-09-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Archy History Anthropology Religion in that order Hard to rate; depends on your interest and knowledge of religion and history. The class is not a 5 but better than a 2. Overall in the 3-4 range. I recommend this course with caveats. Hard to rate; depends on your interest and knowledge of religion and history. The class is not a 5 but better than a 2. Overall in 3-4 range. This course is part archaeology, anthropology, history, and religion. Professor Hale is an archaeologist who is reasonably well versed in a number of subjects; but, still primarily an archaeologist. I believe he miss-quotes some historical facts. For instance; he says Mohammad wrote down the verses of the Quran. I believe most religious scholars are of the opinion Ali ibn Abi Talib actually put the words to writing. However, a few minor miss-steps do not detract from the main message. He clearly states in the last lecture he has an opinion; which is fine. If I interpret him correctly he believes religion has been the major driving force in the development of human society. If I understand him that driving force has been primary over politics, economics and empire building. He may be right; but, the case was inadequately made in my opinion. An excess of time is spent telling stories of real life Indiana Jones' and how they discovered whatever they discovered. Those stories are entertaining but not pertinent to the primary subject. I suspect most TGC customers are familiar with the history of many of the sites Professor Hale discusses. Discussing the history at great length takes time from the primary subject. However; this course appears to be intended as a very introductory class so explaining that history may be good for some students. (Therefore; my comment above about the rating depends on where you are in your quest for the history of religion.) There are numerous definitions of religion in this world. As far as I can tell Professor Hale does not give a clear definition of what he calls religion. Some of the situations he discusses would be called magic or soothsaying by some students of religion. However; even with the above comments, there are some good reasons to take this class depending on your current knowledge of history and religion. Professor Hale points out many similarities that many religions, throughout human history, have in common. The course does provide an introduction to the evolution of religious thought. If you are beginning your quest for the history of religion(s) taking this course as a the second class would be of value. It would point out the similarities and differences between various ancient religions, give you a sense of the long time line of religion evolution, and an idea of how difficult it can be to interpret ancient religions by just wall paintings and pottery (e.g without written documents as evidence). The details of your quest for the history of religion would be filled in by subsequent classes. The first class you should take in your quest for the history of religion is, in my opinion, Professor Kimball's Comparative Religion or something similar.
Date published: 2020-07-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightening Tonight, as I sacrifice a grilled cheese sandwich to Edisonius, god of modern entertainment, I am comforted by my newfound understanding (thanks to this excellent course) that my efforts are not a mere eccentricity of my own invention. They are part of a greater fabric of human endeavor that stretches back millennia, and which spans the globe. I thought I was fool. I may be a fool — but if I am, I am in good company. I suspect that the spirits of my ancestors would approve, especially if I sacrificed a pot roast to them. They loved pot roast, but they'll just have to make do with granola bars. If they don't like it, they only have themselves to blame for not leaving me more money when they went: you get what you give.
Date published: 2020-05-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course While I haven't even finished this course, I find it compelling and entertaining. I'm a fan of the both the hard and soft sciences, which Dr. Hale expertly navigates with a multidisciplinary approach. I would recommend this course to anyone! Thank you, Dr. Hale and the Great Course teaching company.
Date published: 2020-03-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very interesting course by excellent lecturer Once again, John Hale delivers. In my opinion he is an excellent lecturer and I have enjoyed all of his courses. This course explores the origins of religious practices well into the past before the more recent monotheistic religions. His lectures show it was a social practice throughout the world.
Date published: 2019-04-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating Course I loved this course. Most of these sites were familiar to me, but not all! The presenter was articulate, well-informed, and obviously passionate about the topic. There were many quality photographs that aided my understanding. One of Great Course's best lecture series.
Date published: 2018-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Archeogical overview of religous roots Professor Hale does his usual great job in presentation of this topic. A topic overlooked my many. A key point emphasized in this series is that humans throughout history have had a spiritual side, with many common traits across all cultures. He does his usual very objective view in his presentation with opposing views as appropriate. The presentation uses many artifacts to help the learning process.
Date published: 2018-10-25
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