Primitive Religion

General Information

Primitive religion is a name given to the religious beliefs and practices of those traditional, often isolated, preliterate cultures which have not developed urban and technologically sophisticated forms of society. The term is misleading in suggesting that the religions of those peoples are somehow less complex than the religions of "advanced" societies. In fact, research carried out among the indigenous peoples of Oceania, the Americas, and sub Saharan Africa have revealed rich and very complex religions, which organize the smallest details of the people's lives.

The religions of archaic cultures - the cultures of the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic ages - are also referred to as primitive. The available evidence for prehistoric religions is so limited as to render any reconstruction highly speculative. Scholars such as Mircea Eliade, however, have emphasized the importance of contemporary fieldwork in recapturing a sense of the religious life of early humankind.

Since the 17th century in the Western world scholars have speculated on the problem of the beginnings of human culture by making use of the empirical data collected about religious belief and practice among the non European cultures of the New World, Africa, Australia, the South Pacific, and elsewhere. Religion thus became one of the areas of study that shaped current ideas about the origins of human consciousness and institutions. Religion, both as a human experience and as an expression of that experience, was viewed as a primitive model of human consciousness, most clearly seen in primitive cultures. It is significant that the first systematic treatise in the discipline of Anthropology, Edward B Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871), had "Religion in Primitive Culture" as its subtitle, and that the first person to be appointed to a professorial chair of social anthropology in Britain was Sir James Frazer, author of the monumental study of comparative folklore, magic, and religion, The Golden Bough.

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Theories of Primitive Religion

Theories of the nature of primitive religion have moved between two poles: one intellectualistic and rational, the other psychological and irrational. Tylor and Frazer, both of whom saw primitive religion as characterized preeminently by a belief in magic and unseen forces or powers, represent the intellectual - rational position. Tylor based his interpretation of primitive religion on the idea that primitive people make a mistaken logical inference - an intellectual error. He thought that they confuse subjective and objective reality in their belief that the vital force (soul) present in living organisms is detachable and capable of independent existence in its own mode. Dreams, he thought, might be a basis for this error. Tylor's definition of primitive religion as Animism, a belief in spiritual beings, expresses his interpretation that the basis of primitive religion is the belief that detached and detachable vital forces make up a suprahuman realm of reality that is just as real as the physical world of rocks, trees, and plants.

An opposing interpretation of primitive religion comes from an experimental and psychological approach to the data. R H Codrington's study The Melanesians (1891), in which he described the meaning of Mana as a supernatural power or influence experienced by the Melanesians, has provided a basis for other scholars to explain the origin and interpretation of primitive religion as rooted in the experience by primitive peoples of the dynamic power of nature. The most prominent interpreter of this point of view was the English anthropologist Robert R Marett. Variations of this theory may be seen in the works of Lucien Levy - Bruhl, who distinguished between a logical and prelogical mentality in analyzing the kind of thinking that takes place through this mode of experience, and the writings of Rudolf Otto, who described the specific religious meaning of this mode of human consciousness.

Another intellectual - rationalist approach to primitive religion is exemplified by Emile Durkheim, who saw religion as the deification of society and its structures. The symbols of religion arise as "collective representations" of the social sphere, and rituals function to unite the individual with society. Claude Levi - Strauss moved beyond Durkheim in an attempt to articulate the way in which the structures of society are exemplified in myths and symbols. Starting from the structural ideas of contemporary linguistics, he argued that there is one universal form of human logic and that the difference between the thinking of primitive and modern people cannot be based on different modes of thought or logic but rather on differences in the data on which logic operates.

Religious Experience and Expression

Whichever approach - psychological or intellectual - is accepted, it is clear that primitives experience the world differently than do persons in modern cultures. Few would hold that that difference can be explained by a different level of intelligence. Levi - Strauss, as has been indicated, believes that the intellectual powers of primitive peoples are equal to those of humans in all cultures and that differences between the two modes of thought may be attributed to the things thought upon. He refers to primitive thought as concrete thought. By this he means that such thought expresses a different way of relating to the objects and experiences of the everyday world. This form of thinking, he says, expresses itself in myth, rituals, and kinship systems, but all of these expressions embody an underlying rational order.

Mircea Eliade expressed a similar position. For him, primitive cultures are more open to the world of natural forms. This openness allows them to experience the world as a sacred reality. Anything in the world can reveal some aspect and dimension of sacredness to the person in primitive cultures. This mode of revelation is called a hierophany. In Eliade's theory, the revealing of the sacred is a total experience. It cannot be reduced to the rational, the irrational, or the psychological; the experience of the sacred includes them all. It is the way in which these experiences are integrated and received that characterizes the sacred. The integration of many seemingly disparate and often opposed meanings into a unity is what Eliade means by the religious symbol.

A myth is the integration of religious symbols into a narrative form. Myths not only provide a comprehensive view of the world, but they also provide the tools for deciphering the world. Although myths may have a counterpart in ritual patterns, they are autonomous modes of the expression of the sacredness of the world for primitive peoples.


One of the most pervasive forms of religious behavior in primitive cultures is expressed by rituals and ritualistic actions. The forms and functions of rituals are diverse. They may be performed to ensure the favor of the divine, to ward off evil, or to mark a change in cultural status. In most, but not all, cases an etiological myth provides the basis for the ritual in a divine act or injunction.

Generally, rituals express the great transitions in human life: birth (coming into being); puberty (the recognition and expression of sexual status); marriage (the acceptance of an adult role in the society); and death (the return to the world of the ancestors). These passage rites vary in form, importance, and intensity from one culture to another for they are tied to several other meanings and rituals in the culture. For example, the primitive cultures of south New Guinea and Indonesia place a great emphasis on rituals of death and funerary rites. They have elaborate myths describing the geography of the place of the dead and the journey of the dead to that place. Hardly any ritual meaning is given to birth. The Polynesians, on the other hand, have elaborate birth rituals and place much less emphasis on funerary rituals.

Almost all primitive cultures pay attention to puberty and marriage rituals, although there is a general tendency to pay more attention to the puberty rites of males than of females. Because puberty and marriage symbolize the fact that children are acquiring adult roles in the kinship system in particular, and in the culture in general, most primitive cultures consider the rituals surrounding these events very important. Puberty rituals are often accompanied with ceremonial circumcision or some other operation on the male genitals. Female circumcision is less common, although it occurs in several cultures. Female puberty rites are more often related to the commencement of the menstrual cycle in young girls.

In addition to these life cycle rituals, rituals are associated with the beginning of the new year and with planting and harvest times in agricultural societies. Numerous other rituals are found in hunting - and - gathering societies; these are supposed to increase the game and to give the hunter greater prowess.

Another class of rituals is related to occasional events, such as war, droughts, catastrophes, or extraordinary events. Rituals performed at such times are usually intended to appease supernatural forces or divine beings who might be the cause of the event, or to discover what divine power is causing the event and why.

Rituals are highly structured actions. Each person or class of persons has particular stylized roles to play in them. While some rituals call for communal participation, others are restricted by sex, age, and type of activity. Thus initiation rites for males and females are separate, and only hunters participate in hunting rituals. There are also rituals limited to warriors, blacksmiths, magicians, and diviners. Among the Dogon of the western Sudan, the ritual system integrates life cycle rituals with vocational cults; these in turn are related to a complex cosmological myth.

Divine Beings

Divine beings are usually known through the mode of their manifestation. Creator - gods are usually deities of the sky. The sky as a primordial expression of transcendence is one of the exemplary forms of sacred power. Deities of the sky are often considered to possess an ultimate power.

The apparent similarity in form between the supreme sky deities of primitive cultures and the single godheads of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism has led some Western students of religion to speak of a "primitive monotheism." By this they were suggesting a devolution of religion rather than the more rationalistic evolution of religion from Polytheism, through henotheism (the presence of several gods, but with one dominant), to Monotheism. The most avid proponent of the primitive monotheism was Wilhelm Schmidt, an Austrian Roman Catholic priest who was also an ethnologist. In his view the original sacred form was a creator - god of the sky. This original and first revelation of deity was lost or obscured by the attention evoked by other lesser sacred beings, and throughout the history of human culture this original creator - sky - god has been rediscovered or remembered in the monotheistic religions. This position has been largely rejected by contemporary scholars.

Allied to and existing within the same sphere as the sky - god are the manifestations of divine presence in the sun and the moon. The symbolism of the sun, while sharing the transcendent power of the sky, is more intimately related to the destiny of the human community and to the revelation of the rational power necessary to order the world. Sun - deities are creators by virtue of their growth - producing powers, whereas the sky - god creators often create ex nihilo ("out of nothing"); they do not require human agency in their creative capacities, and in many instances they withdraw and have little to do with humankind.

The manifestation and presence of the deity in the moon is different from that of the sun. Moon - deities are associated with a more rhythmic structure; they wax and wane, seem more vulnerable and more capable of loss and gain. Moon - deities are often female in form and associated with feminine characteristics. The moon - goddess is the revelation of the vulnerability and fragility of life, and unlike solar gods, her destiny is not the historical destiny of powerful rulers and empires, but the destiny of the human life cycle of birth, life, and death. Other places where deities show themselves are in the natural forms of water, vegetation, agriculture, stones, human sexuality, and so on.

The pattern of deities, of course, varies markedly among different types of societies. Hunting - and - gathering cultures, for example, not only have language and rituals related to hunting, but also often have a Lord, Master, or Mistress of Animals - a divine being who not only created the world of humans and animals but who also cares for, protects, and supplies the animals to the hunters. Religious cultures of this kind still exist among the Mbuti pygmies, the San of the Kalahari desert in Africa, Australian Aborigines, and Eskimo.

A somewhat more complex religious culture is found in early agricultural societies. It is commonly accepted that the earliest form of agriculture was both a feminine rite and a female right. This means that the gift and power of agriculture provided a means by which the sacredness of the world could be expressed in the femininity of the human species. Agricultural rituals became a powerful symbolic language that spoke of gestation, birth, nurture, and death. This development does not imply an early Matriarchy nor the dominance of society by females. In agricultural societies males dominate in the conventional sense of the term, but the power of women is nevertheless potent and real.

In some cultures of West Africa three layers of cultural religious meaning may be discerned. One refers to an earlier agriculture, in which the feminine symbolism and power predominated. In the second the theft of the ritual and rights of agriculture is portrayed in masculine symbolism and language. By contrast, the equal cooperation of masculine and feminine in the power and meaning of cultural life is symbolized in the third level. In present cultures of this area the older layer can be seen in the Queen Mother, who is "owner of the land"; the second layer in the kingship system; and the third layer in the myths associated with egg symbolism, which on the cosmological level are a means of transmuting sexual tensions into practical harmonies.

Sacred Personages

Just as sacredness tends to be localized in the natural forms of the world in primitive religious cultures, sacred meaning is also defined by specific kinds of persons. On the one hand, sacredness may be located in and defined by office and status in a society. In such cases the role and function of the chief or king carries a sacred meaning because it is seen as an imitation of a divine model, which is generally narrated in a cultural myth; it may also be thought to possess divine power. Offices and functions of this kind are usually hereditary and are not dependent on any specific or unique personality structure in the individual.

On the other hand, forms of individual sacredness exist that do depend on specific types of personality structures and the calling to a particular religious vocation. Persons such as shamans fall into this category. Shamans are recruited from among young persons who tend to exhibit particular psychological traits that indicate their openness to a more profound and complex world of sacred meanings than is available to the society at large. Once chosen, shamans undergo a special shamanistic initiation and are taught by older shamans the peculiar forms of healing and behavior that identify their sacred work. Given the nature of their sacred work, they must undergo long periods of training before they are capable practitioners of the sacred and healing arts. The same is true of medicine men and diviners, although these often inherit their status.

Each person in a primitive society may also bear an ordinary form of sacred meaning. Such meaning can be discerned in the elements of the person's psychological structure. For example, among the Ashanti of Ghana, an individual's blood is said to be derived from the goddess of the earth through that individual's mother, an individual's destiny from the high - god, and personality and temperament from the tutelary deity of the individual's father. On the cosmological level of myths and rituals all of these divine forms have a primordial meaning that acquires individual and existential significance when it is expressed in persons.


Underlying all the forms, functions, rituals, personages, and symbols in primitive religion is the distinction between the sacred and the profane. The sacred defines the world of reality, which is the basis for all meaningful forms and behaviors in the society. The profane is the opposite of the sacred. Although it has a mode of existence and a quasi - reality, reality is not based on a divine model, nor does it serve as an ordering principle for activities or meanings. For example, the manner in which a primitive village is laid out in space imitates a divine model and thus participates in sacred reality. The space outside of the organized space of the village is considered profane space, because it is not ordered and therefore does not participate in the meaning imparted by the divine model.

This characteristic distinction between the sacred and the profane is present at almost every level of primitive society. The tendency to perceive reality in the terms provided by the sacred marks a fundamental difference between primitive and modern Western societies, where this distinction has been destroyed. The openness to the world as a sacred reality is probably the most pervasive and common meaning in all forms of primitive religion and is present in definitions of time, space, behaviors, and activities.

The sacred is able to serve as a principle of order because it possesses the power to order. The power of the sacred is both positive and negative. It is necessary to have the proper regard for the sacred; it must be approached and dealt with in very specific ways.

A kind of ritual behavior defines the proper mode of contact with the sacred. Failure to act properly with respect to the sacred opens the door to the negative experience and effects of sacred power. The specific term for this negative power among the Melanesians is Taboo. This word has become a general term in Western languages expressing the range of meanings implied by the force and effects of a power that is both negative and positive and that attracts as well as repels.

Charles H Long

E Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915); M Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane (1959), and A History of Religious Ideas (1978); E E Evans - Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (1965); J G Frazer, The Golden Bough (1911 - 36); C Levi - Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962); L Levy - Bruhl, Primitive Mentality (1923); B Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (1948); R R Marett, The Threshold of Religion (1914); J Skorupski, Symbol and Theory: A Philosophical Study of Theories of Religion in Social Anthropology (1976); E B Tylor, Primitive Culture (1891); A F C Wallace, Religion: An Anthropological View (1966).

E E Evans - Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) and Nuer Religion (1956); M Griaule, Conversations with Ozotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (1948); G Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (1961); J Middleton, Lugbara Religion (1987); B B C Ray, African Religions (1976); C Turnbull, The Forest People (1962); V Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (1967).

F Barth, Ritual and Knowledge among the Baktaman of New Guinea (1975); G Bateson, Naven (1958); R / C Berndt, Djanggawul (1952); K O Burridge, Mambu: A Melanesian Millennium (1960); M Eliade, Australian Religions: An Introduction (1973); R Firth, Tikopia Ritual and Belief (1967); B Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) and Coral Gardens and their Magic: Soil - Tilling and Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands (1965).

The Americas:
A Hultkrantz, The Religions of the American Indians (1967) and Belief and Worship in Native North America (1981); C Levi - Strauss, Introduction to a Science of Mythology (1969); B G Myerhoff, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians (1976); G A Reichard, Navaho Religion: A Study of Symbolism (1963); G Reichel - Dolmatoff, Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians (1971).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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