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The Transcendent in Primal Religions

The Transcendent in Primal Religions

Author: Ted Fairchild

Recognize ideas of the transcendent emerging from primal religious traditions.

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Hello, welcome.

There have been estimates that since the beginning of human life on the planet, there have been over 100,000 religions. Well, most of these as a part of preliterate cultures have come and gone. But many of them have had a great impact on the major religions of the world. Since they preceded Hinduism and Buddhism and Islam and Judaism, et cetera, since they were historically prior or first they are called primal religions.

Primal also connotes a foundation and ground from which something evolves and is built. And the primal religions consider the physical world and the physical environment to be closely linked if not identical with origin and the source of all life. The Western term that describes this is pantheism. It refers to the belief that God or divinity is spread throughout creation. In this sense, the transcendent is always present.

Let's look at a few of the primal religions and how they regard the transcendent realm and what they regard as sacred. Well, we'll start with a story from the Inupiat People, one of the Eskimo tribes from northern Alaska.

Once there was a poor hunter. He always went out, but never got anything. Finally one day, he saw a polar bear. As he crawled toward it over the ice, the bear said to him, don't shoot me. If you follow me and do what I say, I will make it so you will always be able to get whatever animals you think about.

The bear told the man to climb on his back and close his eyes. Do not open them until I tell you to. Then the man and the bear went down into the sea a long way. Do not open your eyes, the bear reminded him. Finally, they came back up and the man saw an igloo along the edge of the ice pack. Then when inside, the man saw another bear with a spear in his haunch. The first bear said, if you can take that spear out of the bear and make him well, you will become a good hunter.

The man broke off the shaft, eased the spear point out of the bear's haunch, and the wound begin to heal. Then the first bear took off his bear skin parka and became a man.

After the wound was healed completely, the bear man put back on his bear skin parka, told poor hunter to climb on his back and close his eyes, and together they went back into the sea. When the bear finally stopped, he asked the man to open his eyes. Looking around, the man realized he had been returned to the spot from which he began his journey. He thought he had only been gone a day.

But on arriving home, he found that he had been away a month. And from then on, the man was always a good hunter. This story demonstrates the deep respect and reverence for nature that is characteristic of the primal religions. Life is lived in balance and harmony with the natural world and all its processes.

The different Eskimo tribes are an example of how primal peoples identify with the particular region where they live, usually a smaller area. Their access and communication with the sacred and transcendent realm is usually associated with the animals and the natural structures of that region.

In the story of the bear that we just heard, the polar bear, the polar bear is experienced as a form of spiritual life, a spiritual being. This applies to all animals, plants, and trees, bodies of water, water itself in all its forms, landforms such as mountains and hills and desert buttes, and even rocks and rock structures are understood to contain a spiritual essence.

This practice and belief structure is called animism. Nature, animals, water, and all natural cycles constitute the idea of place for the primal people, for the primal religions. There's no separation between spirit, land, and the people that inhabit the land. Through nature, daily life and the daily world is imparted with the transcendent. Let's now look briefly at the Aborigine in Australia.

Before Australia was colonized, there were many aboriginal tribes that were associated with different parts of the country. Each tribe had its own creation story that was specific to the land they inhabited. The transcendent for the Aborigine is called the dreaming or the dream time. It is the vital transcendent realm that inhabits all life, and it tells of how their people arrived on the land and provides guidance on how to live on and with the land. This eternal realm is present for the Aborigine in the surrounding life forms-- tribal members, trees, the wind, animals, rocks, et cetera.

And in Kenya, the Maasai are in fact a monotheistic culture, a traditional people who call their god Ngai. It also means sky. In the beginning, earth and sky were one, but they were separated, and the work of Maasai spiritual guides and elders is to help bridge this gap and reintegrate the transcendent realm into daily life.

One way of doing this is to divine or transmit the mind and the intentions of God to people by reading stones that are thrown from a cow's horn. Nevertheless, in the Maasai culture, like all primal religions, God is nature and is expressed in all natural phenomena. The Western term for this that we mentioned is pantheism. There are many examples of this. Let's look at the Sioux, a group of Native American tribes.

This is a picture of an ancient tradition among many Native American tribes, including the Sioux. It's called the sun dance. On the summer solstice, they would gather-- and still do, in some cases-- to seek protection, request healing, and to offer thanks to the creator, Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka. Other terms that are associated with Wakan Tanka are The Divine and The Sacred. Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit, is fully a part of the natural world, the land, and the people of the land.

Now we can review. The primal religions have many things in common. Most of them emerged out of preliterate cultures and societies, and many of them have influenced the major religions of the world. The idea of the transcendent in the primal religions is related to nature, related to animals, plants, rocks structures, natural cycles, et cetera. Many of the primal cultures have a very intimate relationship to their immediate surroundings, and that is imparted with the transcendent and the sacred.

We used a couple of terms to refer to that. Animism is one, and the other one is pantheism, which is a more recent Western term but is applied to the primal cultures in the sense that they consider everything to be sacred and a part of the transcendent realm. We looked at several examples. We looked at the Eskimo tribes of Alaska. We looked at the Sioux and the Native American Sundance ceremony and the honoring of Wakan Tanka, which is Great Spirit. And we also looked at some aboriginal cultures and their concept of the dream time and how the transcendent realm is really a part of their everyday experience.

That's it for today. We'll see you next time.

Notes on “The Transcendent in Primal Religions”



Image of Native Sundance, Creative Commons,

Image of Aboriginal Rock Art, Creative Commons,

Image of Aboriginal Art (Owls), Public Domain, 

Image of Eskimo Family, Public Domain, 

Image of Polar Bear, Public Domain, 

Image of a Drawing of “The Dreaming”, Public Domain,

Image of Polar Bear Swimming, Public Domain, 

Image of Igloo, Creative Commons,

Image of Igloo Interior, Public Domain,

Image of Polar Bear, Creative Commons,

Terms to Know

The belief that all living things (and sometimes physical objects) have a soul ("anima").


The belief that God and/or divinity is spread throughout creation.

Wakan Tanka

In the language of the Native American Sioux tribe, "the divine"— only rendered in English as "The Great Spirit".