Nature and Spirituality: Where Did Ancient Cultures Find the Divine?

Since the dawn of humanity, man has time and time again come face-to-face with perplexing questions that continued to drive him to the edges of sanity. Although the cosmos have always posed as a great mystery calling to be unlocked, it was always accompanied with the inevitable question of who created it. In pursuit of the Divine, the Creator, or the All-Mighty, many peoples around the world and throughout history have turned to nature for wisdom and answers.

Although today it is customary to attain spiritual replenishment at any of the various institutionalized houses of worship, many ancient cultures’ spiritual ventures took them through nature where they found spiritual solace.

While the list runs long, below are three religious doctrines that were heavily inspired by nature:


Stemming from the Tungus tribe in Siberia, Shamanism is a religious phenomenon, healing tradition, and way of life that revolves around the Shaman, or the spiritual leader, who is believed to possess powers through trance and ecstatic spiritual experiences, enabling him to heal the sick, communicate with the otherworld, and even escort souls of the deceased to the afterlife. Derived from the Manchu-Tungus word šaman, Shaman literally means ‘the one who knows.’

Similar to many ancient religious systems, Shamanistic practices are hard to separate from nature. While many religions are believed to connect the human soul with the Divine, Shamanism is believed to reconnect man and nature, strengthening the bond between them. Besides the spiritual practices, ceremony, and pilgrimage, connecting with nature, healing oneself, and the surrounding community is as pivotal to Shamanism.

In its strictest sense, Shamanism applies to the religious doctrines of Northern Asia and peoples of the Ural-Altaic. However, due to the great similarities between the indigenous cultures around the world, especially those which revolve around a spiritual leader or healer, anthropologists have coined the term in a more generic manner that encompasses the hunting-and-gathering cultures of the Arctic, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, and other African groups. In a much broader perspective of Shamanism, it could be understood as the wisdom commonly inherent to all indigenous cultures.


Hermes Trismegistus with an armillary sphere in Michael Maier’s Symbola Aureae Mensae

Estimated to have come to life somewhere between the early 1st century and the end of the 3rd century AD, Hermeticism ripened in Alexandria during a time when the harbour city was considered the epicentre of cultural enlightenment. Resting at the crossover between the Greek and Egyptian cultures during the Graeco-Egyptian era, the Hermetic writings, or Hermetica, are documented in Latin in the form of Platonic dialogues attributed to the Egyptian god Thoth who was later depicted in Greek mythology as Hermes.

Although Hermetica spans fields varying from astrology and occult sciences to theology and philosophy, the pursuit of gnosis – knowledge of the Divine – lies at the heart of Hermeticism. According to its teachings, such knowledge is pivotal to our core existence.

Along the search for the Divine, Hermetics have greatly relied on nature for finding answers. Lost in observation and contemplation, it wasn’t hard for Hermetics to find the One in all of the universe’s expansive diversity.

“As above, so below,” they believed – a prominent teaching that indicates God’s transcendence as well as imminence. Based on this connection between the Divine’s presence not only in heavens but within all of its creation, including ourselves, Hermetics believed that the spiritual and material worlds were interchangeably connected, whereby change that occurs on the spiritual level is translated into material alteration, and the other way round. This prompted Hermetics to constantly work towards achieving balance and finding equilibrium.

With the Creator being in everything, everything was considered to be divine. Turning to nature as the all-knowing teacher, Hermeticism saw it as a manifestation of God. Only when revered, nature would reveal its many mysteries, leading its seekers onwards to finding the Divine.

Hermeticism was greatly cultivated by the Arabs who passed it on to the West. During the Italian Renaissance, Hermeticism made a noteworthy comeback; however, it was only on the intellectual level, leaving behind plenty of the wisdom and knowledge that dwelled at its core.


A group of Sufi mystics recite the names of Allah. Credit: Enas El Masry.

Bearing traces all over the world and across many faiths, mysticism can be broadly understood as the practice of religious ecstasies achieved through altered states of consciousness. While mysticism is practiced across all Abrahamic religions, it also bears roots in other faiths such as Buddhism.

With such obscure origins, mysticism went through various phases of interpretation until academics of the mid-19th century brewed their understanding of genuine mysticism to the pursuit of union with God, the Infinite, or the Absolute through purification of the soul. Other approaches to mysticism, such as in Buddhism or Kabbala (Jewish mysticism), seek nothingness rather than oneness.

Dating as far back as 2000 years ago, mystics have turned to what was later coined as rational mysticism – a combination of rationalism and mysticism – whereby deep understanding of natural laws, structures, and forms constructed a gateway to understanding and reaching the Divine. This also manifested clearly in nature mysticism, a form of extrovertive (outward-looking) mystical practices, where it becomes vivid to a mystic that diverse as nature may be, it is all the working of the same creator.

Although mysticism is at its heart a religious philosophy, it has often reemerged in the works of prominent philosophers such as Aristotle whose philosophies were greatly influenced by contemplating the cosmos. It also shows in the writings of poets such as William Wordsworth and other writers of the Romantic era who were constantly deep in contemplation about nature.

At one point in time, none of these spiritual doctrines were yet alive. What if you were born to a time of no institutionalised religions? Would you have learned from nature? Would it have inspired you to seek out spirituality, or possibly a much greater power that transcends all of creation?

Published on Wild Guanabana.

Comments are closed.