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Primal Religions

Primal Religions

Author: Ted Fairchild

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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Hello and welcome to this tutorial on Primal Religions.

Our general objective is going to be to understand exactly what they are, what are primal religions. We want to see that certain core beliefs that are found in these primal religions are, at times, universal and transcend culture and geography. We also want to pay close attention to how they might be related to other religions and religious belief structures.

When scholars use the term primal religions, they often are referring to the broad category of religious practices that includes primitive and prehistoric societies, decentralized structures of belief and practice that are usually associated with the time prior to, or in some cases concurrent with, the emergence and founding of the major religions of the world as we understand them today.

However, the category primal religions also refers to the spiritual beliefs, customs, and practices of the world's indigenous tribes and native cultures, many of which are still practiced today.

Some common examples would be the Maori tribes of New Zealand, the Aborigines of Australia, Native American tribes like the Sioux, Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, just to name a few. There are hundreds.

As I mentioned earlier, these various traditions, although they may have had little direct contact with each other, they nevertheless have many things in common. The most prominent feature of all primal religions is their relationship with nature and a deep reverence for animals, the world of animal spirits.

For most of the groups just mentioned, many animals and birds were believed to, and are believed to, possess magical powers. The kereru bird, a native of New Zealand, has, for the Maori people, the gift of offering itself as a last meal to the dying. And those who are dying will ask for it as a final meal. The belief is that it will guide the person's soul safely to its home in Hawaiki, the origin of the Maori people.

Another example is the raven, who is revered in many Native American traditions. The Athabascan tribes of Alaska regard raven as the creator god, benevolent and always there to support and guide. However, he also has a trickster side and can tend to exhibit careless behavior and can get himself into trouble. These qualities are manifested in the bird and some of the environments and activities that surround him, and they offer lessons for spiritual understanding and guidance and insight.

And in this sense there's a very thin veil, and little boundary, between animal spirit and human understanding. This form of belief, common among many of the primal religions, is general generally referred to as animism, spirit and spiritual essence abounding in the natural world.

Another common feature of the primal religions is a strong belief that pertains to the idea of taboos. Using an example from the Maori people, again, there are restrictions against using more of a natural resource than is absolutely necessary.

For example, fishing. What we call overfishing is understood in the Polynesian culture of the Maori as a tapu, T-A-P-U. It's a spiritual restriction. And animal sacrifice is also very common among primal religions. Often this is practiced to appease the gods.

Primal legends have many ways of maintaining a fluid contact with the spiritual world. Many tribes and indigenous cultures have totems that function as their representative. Often a particular animal or plant or tree will be a totem used as a link with the spirit realm. And it communicates both ways. The totem works to remind the tribe or the community of their ancestry and their spiritual origin.

Some examples of totems are totem poles of many native tribes from Northwest-- the US and Canada, Western Canada, Alaska, and the Northwest Washington state now. These are carved structures that carry the myths and the stories of the tribe, as well as cosmologies, creation stories, and also spiritual roadmaps.

And as you might be noticing, some of these practices and beliefs are not so antiquated at all, not as prehistoric as the name primal might seem to suggest. Indeed, there are belief structures of many modern religions that can be traced back to these primal religions and their beliefs.

For example, many traditions give a lot of importance to the individual's rites of passage through the cycles of life, beginning with celebrations and ceremonies that surround a birth, honoring the passage into adulthood. Most religious traditions have special rituals for marriage. And, of course, the end of a cycle, death.

And regarding the realm of the afterlife, many primal religions honor and revere their deceased ancestors. As a form of worship, it provides another link to the past as a way of staying tied to origin. In many religions such as Judaism and Christianity, this takes the form of prayer and specific religious services and liturgy which are designed to establish the conditions for these offers of prayer and these offers of worship.

So let's review what we've understood about primal religions. It's a very broad category and generally is used to refer to primitive societies, prehistoric societies. But it also refers to indigenous tribes and cultures that are dispersed and spread throughout the world.

And when we pointed out the different practices among these different groups, we noticed that they're shared, there's a lot of commonality between them in spite of the fact that they may have never had physical contact with each other.

And furthermore, we pointed out that some of the major religions of the world have inherited some of these beliefs and practices. We used the example rites of passage and how certain ceremonies that mark the passage from one cycle of life to another is something that was common among primal religions and traditions, and also among some of the major religions of the world.

And one of the biggest commonalities we pointed out among primal religions was animism, and the belief in animal spirits, particularly birds, we pointed out, and the idea of the totem, some way of connecting with origin and ancestry, a way of maintaining a story that has some sort of spiritual significance.

So with all of these we did notice that primal religions is a difficult category because it does seem to defy certain historical understandings of temporality and religion and morality, because there's a-- particularly it might have something to do with a specific relationship to the spirit realm that is sort of alien to the Western mind, in a way. But nevertheless, the Western cultures and Western religions have incorporated certain elements of them.

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.