Man's religions reflect his human need to feel at home in the universe and comfortable among his neighbors. He has always sensed that he cannot stand alone; that since mysterious powers in Nature and Society will not let him alone but affect him at every step, he must be in harmony either with them, with the great lords and kings among them, or with the one originative being that has brought the whole world into being and in some sovereign way commands all its process.
The religions of the past have all reflected the human needs and concerns. The Neanderthal Man and his talented successors, the Cro-Magnon men of France, Spain, and Africa, very evidently sought good relations with nonhuman powers that pervaded the natural world and affected human destiny. The great national religions of the past in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and Northern Europe were constantly concerned with great lords and kings among the spirits and powers operating on earth and in the heavens, and they showed an equal concern as to the destiny of man in this life and the next.
Even today we can see that the living religions of man are similarly motivated.
Religions of peoples who live close to nature, in relatively isolated societies not yet penetrated by the technology and the culture of highly organized industrial societies, are said to be primitive. They include the Australian aborigines, the pygmies of Africa, the jungle tribes of India and Southeast Asia, the natives of New Guinea and of portion of the South Seas, the Indians of the Upper Amazon and of Central America, and certain Eskimo tribes.
Many primitive groups of a generation ago are now undergoing transformation through cultural, educational, and technological changes that are breaking up the established patterns of the past; but primitives are in general resistant to such changes. The traditional customs and beliefs are their means of adaptation to environment; furthermore, they unify the tribe, are comfortable for the individual in that they provide each group member with a role to play that is approved in advance, and are above all sacred, because hallowed by ancestors and divine powers, and therefore binding. Besides this, they satisfy basic biological and psychological needs. Many primitive customs and beliefs strike persons trained in scientific methods as na?ve and superstitious, but they in fact reflect the kind of realism and common sense, which follow from taking sensations at face value, a characteristic of primitives in general. Moreover the individual seldom questions what the group feels or senses to be the case. Hence, while primitives have beliefs and practices that the experimental methods of science would seem to discredit, they find them quite true and necessary. Some common features of primitive belief and practice may be discerned, as follows:
Reverence for the Sacred Events, persons, and places in any degree uncanny, mysterious, or creditable with supernatural power are sacred or holy. Included in this very large category are most rites and ceremonies ad those who conduct or commandingly participate in them. The traditions of the tribe are hallowed by the ancestors who passed them on. Many places and objects are sacred, such as groves of trees or fetishes (objects thought to embody sprits or magic powers). The most common reason for considering a person, place, or action taboo or to be abstained from that it is sacred and has the power to cause quick good or ill. The presence of the sacred, because it arouses anxiety, is also the chief cause of religious and magical rituals seeking reassurance and favorable outcomes.
Intermingling of Magic and Religion Religious rituals are persuasive in intent, while magical rituals seek to be coercive. But in the most primitive ceremonies it is hard to disentangle the magical and religious elements; the words may be persuasive in form, but taken together they may carry the guarantee of a compulsive effect on gods and spirits, while, on the other hand, magical rites may mingle prayers with commands. This should be borne in mind when considering the topics that follow.
Veneration and Worship of Many Powers and Spirits Primitives reverence and at times worship multitudes of powers and spirits, some of which have the status of gods. Venerated or worshiped are stones, plants, trees, many kind of animals and reptiles, fire, volcanoes, rivers and lakes, sun, moon, stars, mountains, and many other animated and inanimate things. These objects may be regarded as themselves alive with power in every part; or they may be considered the residences of separable individual spirits and powers. In the former case they may be full of mana, an indwelling power that causes action of an extraordinary kind; in the latter case, they are objects (bodies) containing souls capable of thought, feeling, and action of an individual kind, able to leave the body they have entered and to survive its death of destruction. Belief in the latter is called animism.
Recognition of High Gods There is widespread belief among primitives that there exists a great god far up in the sky, or at a distance, who has made everything, gods, men, and animal, and who is the ultimate lawgiver and overseer. But he usually so far removed as to be beyond the reach of prayer, and certainly immune to magical coercion.
Types of Magic Magic is resorted to when danger or uncertainty attends an activity and the utterance of set of words of the performance of set acts, or both, promise a favorable outcome. Magic rites may be variously classified. Preventative magic wards off happenings and productive magic brings the about. Thus corn or fertility dances are productive of favorable growth of grain, while a dance in which a black cloud is threatened with a spear turns aside a thunderstorm. Sympathetic magic presumes the like produces like or that severed portions of a body retain sympathy with the organism to which they once belonged. Thus spearing an image during a hunting dance insures success in the following hunt, and doing magic with severed hair and nails affects the person who is in the body from which they have been severed. Black magic, which seeks to harm, has its roots in the sympathetic magic; thus if one makes an image in wax of an enemy and pierces it to the heart with pins, the enemy will die. Another form of magic accompanies fetishism; it uses the powers in inanimate objects, such as distinctive stones or stuffed antelope horns. Shamanism makes use of the magic powers possessed by certain persons, such as medicine men and sorcerers; this is done to cure or inflict disease, to include spirits into persons or exorcize them. Shamans are able to guide souls after death into the next world and are besought to leave their bodies temporarily in order to do so.
Attitudes to the Dead; Ancestor Worship Death is usually animistically viewed as the departure of the soul from the body that it had animated and directed. Disembodied souls are regarded with fear unless they depart to a distance; should they remain near, they are constantly appeased. If not placated, they may become demonic; this is assumed to be the case with persons killed by violence or left for any cause unburied without the customary funeral rites. Many different precautions are taken to keep the dead from harassing the living, the most common being to leave food at the grave. But not all of the dead are inimical; for ancestral spirits, if remembered, praised, and fed, may help the living in many ways, not only by warding off evil spirits, but also by bringing good fortune to their descendants.
Totemism The myths and rituals connected with this cultic practice recognize a mystical bond or relationship between various human groups and their totems, which are certain animals, plants, or objects intimately related to these groups and graphically represented be them in their religious art. The totem is sacred to the group that regards it as theirs. Sometimes a myth tells of a common ancestor of the totem and its human counterparts. The members of a totem group must marry outside of the group (a practice called exogamy); and the totem may not be eaten by members of the totem group except at a sacramental feast where the bond between them and the totem is recognized.
Other Features of primitive belief and practice are purification rites, rites of passage (i.e., rites which attend important events in an individual’s life, such as birth, initiation into adulthood, marriage, and death), divination, sacrifice, war dances, and fertility rites.
In general, the primitive world abounds with ills caused by powers and spirits in the air and underground, powers immanent in every kind of natural object, beast, plant, and human being. The problem is to divine the presence of threatening powers and to take preventive action through magic, sacrifice, and prayer. Appropriate action may convert the threatened evil into productive good; but this can be achieved only by constant vigilance and care. The best course is to follow faithfully the traditional procedures of the group without deviation. But primitive life is not utterly fearful and anxious. It should be said that when all goes well, the primitive is as capable of joy and high spirits as human beings in general.