Author Charles Panati has written several books that have a permanent place on my book shelves, he is interested in the origins of just about everything from toilet paper to lava lamps, cough drops to catholic doctrine. This particular volume is all about the origins of various rituals and beliefs of the world's major religions--Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist.
For instance, we learn that the custom of joining hands in prayer is derived from shackling the hands of prisoners. There are chapters on religious vestments, like Jewish prayer shawls and the color-coded vestments of the Catholic clergy. The history of the rosary and the best-loved prayers of the various faiths. The significance of the Black Madonnas that can be seen in some of the world's chapels. The history and hierarchy of angels. The origins of sacred symbols such as the halo, cross, Star of David, Christian fish, and the Swastika before it was corrupted by the Nazis and became an emblem of evil. The moral codes of each religion are discussed, as well as their beliefs about Heaven, Hell, and the Catholic concepts of Purgatory and Limbo. And how celibacy in the catholic priesthood evolved from personal choice to mandatory requirement. Feast days and holidays all rate a chapter, for example Christmas started as a rival Christian holiday which eventually eclipsed pagan celebration for the birth of the sun god Mithras. And Easter was once in honor of the Saxon fertility Goddess Eastre whose symbols were the hare or rabbit, thus the origins of the Easter Bunny. The Jewish Feast Days--Passover, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur are also included. There are chapters on saints and relics, miracles, and stigmata, and Marian Apparitions, including the most famous cases such as Lourdes, Fatima, and Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are chapters on the beliefs and customs relating to marriage, divorce, and annulments. The many names given to the devil and how his image is derived from the pagan half-goat half-man god Pan. The rites and history of Exorcisms, and a chapter about the Apocalypse. Sexuality and religion is also thoroughly explored, including beliefs about homosexuality and how the story of Sodom and Gomorrah became synonymous with it. And how those who claim to follow and interpret the Bible literally do so selectively, for instance in the same section that prohibits homosexuality, men are also forbidden to touch anything previously touched and to sit in any chair previously sat in by a menstruating woman. Masturbation and contraception are also discussed, including the interesting factual tidbit that Ancient Egyptian women used a spermicide made from crocodile dung and honey; crocodile dung is apparently very acidic which destroys sperm. All this and so much more!
I particularly like the factual, commonsense tone of this book, the author is not preachy or pushing any particular religion or beliefs. For anyone who likes knowing the stories behind things, whether they be products on store shelves or customs and beliefs, I have never read a book by Charles Panati that failed to interest and inform me.