In the beginning are these animals who walk on two legs and manipulate things with their paws and look up, above their heads–not at predators diving but at the trees, the sun, the moon, and the stars. Then one day something changes and they know they are not just animals. They are spirits. Spirits in bodies. And there are many other spirits around them.
They are humans.
The humans get to know the other spirits. Some are neighbors, the spirits of tree, rock, spring, plant. Some are the plants they eat and the animals they hunt and the animals who can hunt them. Some are neighbors but strange, near and yet distant, what their children in the far future will call fairies, angels, daemons. Some seem to be former humans. These spirits inspire friendship and collaboration; they have things to give and things that they want. Some other spirits seem to be threats and inspire fear; they can feed on human life without touching the body directly. And some spirits are so much more than all the others that they inspire awe, adoration, worship. Later generations will call them gods.
To connect with the spirits, humans give of their all, their best. They gather together wearing fine clothing and jewelry. They play instruments and sing like birds. They dance, imitating the animals. They put on masks and costumes to resemble the spirits. They act out things that have been and things they desire. They share their own food and drink. The spirits come to sing and dance with them, teach them, make love with them. From the greatest spirits, the shining ones, come the greatest gifts.
Over thousands of years, small bands become tribes, tribes become villages, villages turn into cities. Civilization means specialization, and the things that were once part of celebrating the spirits gradually separate into discrete disciplines. Music, theatre, and dance separate from religion. The knowledge of landscape and times, the movements of the heavenly bodies, the behaviors of other beings becomes science. Religion turns on the remaining branch of knowledge, magic, and pushes it out of the temple. Magic, the rejected teenager, grows up with a bit of a chip on its shoulder.
But all human knowledge, all human art, began in what we would now call religion, in the dance around the fire to establish and celebrate connection with the spirits. In the exchange between the visible and invisible worlds that we now call magic or shamanism or animism or some other word that means “that wasn’t real, we don’t do that any more”. Our creativity flows from knowing ourselves as a kind of spirit among other spirits and an exchange of gifts with the otherworld, an offering and a blessing, a blessing and an offering. The arts and sciences, including magic, grew up and left religion at home, but she is still there, tending the hearth, waiting for her children to come back and dance around the fire with the other spirits.