Overview of ancient and contemporary religions

A brief overview of several ancient and contemporary or world religions, most of which are present in this encyclopedia.

Ancient religions


The beliefs and practices of the ancient peoples and civilizations of Turkey and Armenia. This includes the Assyrian colonists, Hattians, Hittites, Hurrians, Luwians, Phrygians, and Urartians.


The beliefs of Arabia comprising the polytheistic beliefs and practices that existed before the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE.


The religious beliefs and practices of the Balts. They were the ancient inhabitants of the Baltic region of eastern Europe who spoke languages belonging to the Baltic family of languages.


The religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Celts, an ancient Indo-European people. In the fourth century BCE their influence and territories covered the length of Europe, stretching from Britain to Asia Minor.


The indigenous beliefs of ancient Egypt from predynastic times (fourth millennium BCE) to the disappearance of the traditional culture in the first centuries CE.


The pre-Christian and pre-Islamic religious beliefs and practices of the Finno-Ugric peoples. They inhabit regions of northern Scandinavia, Siberia, the Baltic area, and central Europe. In modern times the religion of many of these peoples are a combination of agrarian and nomadic primitive beliefs and of Christianity and Islam.

Greek mythology

The body of traditional tales concerning the gods, heroes, and rituals of the ancient Greeks. Critical Greeks, such as Plato in the 5th-4th century, recognized the considerable element of fiction in the myths, although in general the Greeks viewed them as true accounts.

Greek religion

The religious beliefs and practices of the ancient Hellenes, different from Greek mythology but closely interlinked.


The various systems of beliefs and practices of eastern Mediterranean peoples from 300 BCE to 300 CE.

Iranian / Persian

The beliefs and practices of the culturally and linguistically related group of ancient peoples who inhabited the Iranian Plateau and its borderlands, as well as areas of Central Asia from the Black Sea to Khotan (modern Ho-t'ien, China).


The beliefs and practices of the Sumerians and Akkadians, and their successors, the Babylonians and Assyrians. They inhabited ancient Mesopotamia in the millennia before the Christian era. These religious beliefs and practices form a single stream of tradition. Sumerian in origin, Mesopotamian religion was added to and subtly modified by the Akkadians in subsequent years.


The beliefs and practices of the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula from ancient times until the ascendancy of Christianity in the fourth century CE.


The beliefs and practices of the ancient Slavic peoples of eastern Europe. They are usually subdivided into East Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians), West Slavs (Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Lusatians [Sorbs]), and South Slavs (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and Bulgars).

Syrian and Palestinian

The beliefs of Syria and Palestine between 3000 and 300 BCE. These religions are usually defined by the languages of those who practiced them: e.g., Amorite, Hurrian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Moabite. The term Canaanite is often used broadly to cover a number of these, as well as the religion of early periods and areas from which there are no written sources.

Contemporary or world religions


The religion and philosophy that developed from the teachings of the Buddha Gautama, who lived as early as the sixth century BCE. It spread from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, and had a major influence in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of the Eastern world.


The religion stemming from the life, teachings, and death of Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ, messiah, or the Anointed One of God) in the 1st century CE. Geographically the most widely diffused of all faiths, it has a constituency of some two billion believers.


The way of life propagated by Confucius in the 6th-5th century BCE and followed by the Chinese people for more than two millennia. It has traditionally been the substance of learning, the source of values, and the social code of the Chinese. Its influence has also extended to other countries, particularly Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.


The beliefs, practices, and socioreligious institutions of the Hindus (originally, the inhabitants of the land of the Indus River). It evolved from Vedism, the religion of the Indo-European peoples who settled in India.


The religion, belonging to the Semitic branch, promulgated by the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia in the seventh century CE. The Arabic term islam, literally "surrender," illuminates the fundamental religious idea of Islam: that the believer (called a Muslim, from the active particle of islam) accepts "surrender to the will of Allah." Allah (Arabic "God") is the sole God of Islam.


A religion of India that teaches a path to spiritual purity and enlightenment through a disciplined mode of life founded upon the tradition of ahimsa, nonviolence to all living creatures. It originated somewhere in the 7th-5th century BCE and evolved into a cultural system that has made significant contributions to Indian philosophy.


The religion of the Jews. It is the complex expression of a religious and ethnic community, a way of life as well as a set of basic beliefs and values, which is discerned in patterns of action, social order, and culture as well as in religious statements and concepts.


The religion of an Indian group which combining Hindu and Islamic elements. It was founded in the Punjab (or Pañjab) in the late fifteenth century CE by Guru Nanak. The great majority of the followers of Sikhism (called Sikhs) live in the state of Punjab, the remainder are in Haryana state and Delhi or are scattered in other parts of India.


The indigenous religio-philosophical tradition that has shaped Chinese life for more than two thousand years. In the broadest sense, a Taoist attitude toward life can be seen in the accepting and yielding, the joyful and carefree sides of the Chinese character, an attitude that offsets and complements the moral and duty-conscious, austere and purposeful character ascribed to the Chinese people. Translated literally, it means "Way" or "Path."


The ancient pre-Islamic religion of Iran, still present there in isolated areas. There is a greater group of followers in India, the descendants of Zoroastrian Iranian (Persian) immigrants, known as Parsis, or Parsees. In India the religion is called Parsiism. Founded by the Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the sixth century BCE, the religion contains both monotheistic and dualistic elements.