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Primal Religions

Primal Religions


This lesson discusses native, tribal, indigenous, and so-called "primitive" religions, with an eye toward identifying elements shared by such primal religions with other religious belief systems.

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[MUSIC PLAYING] To begin, what is a primal religion? Primal religion is a blanket term that encompasses prehistoric religions known through archaeology and anthropology, and also traditions that are still practiced today around the world. We might say that indigenous religions around the world are all embattled in one way or another through loss of land through colonialism and neo-colonialism and environmental degradation-- loss of habitat. But there are still many indigenous religions around the world that are still continuing despite all of the difficulties that first peoples of the world have to go through.

So when we say primal religion, we mean native traditions or tribal traditions or indigenous traditions. A few examples-- the Native American people, the Cherokee, the Lakota, and the nations in the former United States and throughout North and South America. The San people of the Kalahari, sometimes referred to as the bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. The Adivasi or the first peoples of India. Many different groups of indigenous people in India.

So a few common characteristics-- we should be wary of generalization all the time-- but we can nonetheless say that there are a few common characteristics. First of all, the various veneration of animals. There have been a few different examples here. But animals that are held to be sacred, that represent the gods, that may stand for the tribe itself. Next, a belief in magic and animism. Animism-- just the idea that everything is somehow alive or full of spirits, the spirits of gods. And magic-- often what might be called a shaman, which is really a term imported from religious studies, as a special person, a medicine man who knows the right prayers, the right herbs, the right rituals to get in contact with the gods or with the spirits of nature, and to rectify situations that might arise in the community.

Next, these religions may include what scholars have called totem and taboo. It was really Freud who started this whole line of inquiry. It's somewhat disputed, but the idea is that the sacred animal is a kind of stand-in for the life of the community as a whole. And thereby venerating the animal, what you're really doing is worshipping the society itself. So frequently, it's taboo or prohibited to harm that animal during most of the, year. But perhaps there's a special festival in which the animal is killed and eaten, which is a ceremonial way of affirming connection to the tribe.

Next, rites of passage are emphasized. We could really say this about any the world religion. But perhaps it's especially true of these indigenous traditions where there's a special ritual for birth, for a rite of passage. Perhaps some sort of vision quest that transition to adulthood. Marriage rights, funeral rituals, and so forth. To sanctify the entire life cycle.

And finally, many of these tribes practice some form of the ancestor worship to connect the living and the dead. And just briefly, we could say that animals, plants, people, including ancestors, and gods. In many Western traditions, we think these as separate, isolated, categories, right? But in indigenous traditions, these categories are much more fluid.

And a god could become a person. A person could become an animal through some sort of trance state. Plants could be associated with certain animals. Or plants could be associated with certain gods, right?

So these categories are much more fluid in these indigenous traditions. So it's not a simple matter of being able to separate what's a god from what's a human and so forth. So they have a much more fluid conception of how these different domains relate to each other.

And one brief cautionary note is that, as scholars of religion, we have to be very careful about how we approach these traditions. So as not to extend the legacy of colonialism and continue to exploit the cultures these people throughout the world, who've had a tremendously difficult history. So we just have to remember to approach respectfully, to approach with a listening attitude, and to be willing to abandon our preconceptions, including our theories, when we look at these traditions. And I think just a little bit of respect will go a long way towards understanding them.

So far, we said the primal religions refers to a wide range of religious practices. From those prehistoric religions that have been reconstructed using archaeological evidence to religions that are still practiced today, including native religions and indigenous religions. We said that a common characteristic of these religions is a veneration of sacred animals. And that many of them believe in magic and animism-- a kind of spirit that animates everything, that can be put into contact with human beings through special practices.

We said that many traditions believe In taboos and totems. A taboo is a practice that is forbidden for some sort of religious or cultural reason. And a totem is an image or an object or an animal that is recognized by the group as representing it. And is therefore forbidden to kill, except often during special ceremonies at a certain time of the year.

We said that these traditions emphasize rites of passage, ceremonies for birth, for marriage, for passage into adulthood, ceremonies for death and crossing over the other side. And also reverence for the dead, the ancestors who can still bless the lives of living.

Terms to Know

Any practice or behavior forbidden for religious, cultural, or social reasons.


An image, a living thing, or a physical object that is recognized by a group as representing it, either in whole or in part.