The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page
The Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association Home Page

Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives


Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

Return to:  Home > Archives Index > Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions Index

Religions of the World

Chapter 2
Primitive Religions

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University

Primitive Religions

It is only a concession to common usage that we may speak of primitive peoples or of a primitive religion. Strictly speaking there are no genuine primitives anywhere on earth today. Evidently we have no direct knowledge of the earliest beginnings of religion and therefore of the true chronological primitive. Our observation of present-day backward tribes does not obviate this difficulty, for such people are after all our contemporaries, with as long a history behind them as our own and the possibility of degeneration cannot be excluded. Simply to equate the backward with the actual primitive is uncritical and unwarranted.

Yet a large percentage of the peoples of the earth, about one in ten, are commonly called primitive and their religion is similarly described. They have remained from time immemorial out of general and influential contact with other peoples and as a consequence are said to possess some religious beliefs and institutions which characterized mankind nearer the beginning of human history than other, major religions like Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity.

These people are by no means barbarian or uncivilized. Some authors prefer to speak of them as pre-literates, since their culture commonly antedates the arrival of modern literacy. Nor again are they boorish or stupid, even though by Western standards they are uncultivated. Their religious thought is, in fact, remarkably sensitive, and often refined and intelligent. It is also highly complex, to a degree that ethnologists after more than a century of study are still struggling to clarify their complicated beliefs and ritual practices.

In order to sift the concepts in a field that bristles with technical terms and subjective interpretations, a careful distinction should be made between the known culture of peoples who formed the oldest civilizations of Egypt, Samaria and the Ancient Near East, and those whom certain evolutionary theorists project into the uncharted ages of the past. Thanks to the labors of eminent ethnologists and historians of religion, we can see more clearly that many of the ideas formerly held regarding the “pre-logical” state of man in earliest times need revision. Until a few decades ago, it was commonly said that primitive man was incapable of abstraction, and no doubt philosophical theorization was quite foreign to him. But if we turn to the Ancient Near East and study the condition in those earliest periods which we can reach through inscriptions or by linguistic methods, we find extended power of intellectual insight.

All the earliest known stages of the Egyptian, Sumerian and Semitic languages reveal that general qualities like goodness and justice allowed for extraction from the related adjectives and identification as abstract ideas by some linguistic device such as suffix, prefix, or internal vowel change. In fact such formations were known to exist before the Egyptians separated from their Semitic neighbors, at least 5000 B.C. Generalized classifications, such as “mankind, divine being, god,” were equally familiar at just as remote an age.

Our concern, however, is not with these nations of whom we have extensive archaeological evidence, who were not, by any criterion, mentally sub-human. We are speaking of those familiarly called primitives but who are actually present-day peoples whose relative isolation from the major streams of culture suggest their lineage from the chronological ancestors of the human race. Their religious condition is therefore on a par with other phases of knowledge and conduct, ranging from the very undeveloped (or decadent) to a fairly advanced type of civilization.

Two levels of primitive religion are generally distinguished. The lower type has been either less directly affected by one of the major religions, or shows less speculative development. It is correspondingly more animist or fetishist, that is, more given to attributing souls to every object and believing in magic or sorcery. Allowing for numerous exceptions, the following are generally held to profess a lower pre-literate religion: The Negritos of the Philippine Islands, various tribes of Micronesia and Polynesia, the Papuans of New Guinea, the black Aruntas of Australia, the Andaman Islanders in the Bay of Bengal, the Kols and Pariahs of Central and South India, the Pygmies and Bushmen of the Central Congo basin, the Caribs of the West Indies, and the Yahgans of the extreme south of South America.

On a higher religious plane are the Samoans and Hawaiians, the Kalmuks of Liberia, the Veddas of Ceylon, the Todas of the Nigiri Hills in South India, the Bantu of south central and southern Africa, and the Eskimos and Amerinds, or American Indians, in North and South America.

Both the lower and higher types may be further distinguished according to their origin, as traditional, syncretist, or spontaneous. The distinction is essential in order to avoid crediting the primitives with more than they deserve or deny them religious ideas that are truly their own. Traditional primitives have fairly maintained their ancestral religion with little outside influence to change the original pattern, which may have declined; they are normally isolated groups, in mountains or islands, or otherwise physically removed from neighboring cultures. Syncretists are very common, and represent an amalgam of their own culture and that of one of the higher religions. The spontaneous creations appear to be traditional primitives that reacted against their own cultural decline and produced, by way of reaction, new forms of belief and especially of ritual.

Concept of Divinity

Undoubtedly, the most significant feature of the primitives’ religion is their notion of the deity. They are remarkably monotheistic, while allowing for considerable decadence and for the influx of alien ideas. In the degree to which they have remained truly primitive, they believe in some kind of Supreme Being, more or less clearly conceived; and where the idea is obscured by polytheism or a vague nature-worship, this may be shown to have happened within comparatively recent times through a process of retrogression

Typical Beliefs

The African continent offers the best evidence of this unsophisticated faith in one High God, who is variously named but whose existence seems to be present everywhere, even among the remotest and simplest tribes.

An outstanding example is the Ewe people who believe in God and give him a name, without being able further to describe his attributes. They call him Mawu or Mahou, and their faith in the Deity is so deeply felt that they frequently pronounce his name instinctively. When danger menaces them, they say, “Mawu, help me, I ask you.” When some unexpected benefit comes their way, like finding water after several hours of marching, they pronounce a word of thanksgiving, “Mawu is good.” Victims of a false accusation before a tribunal, they cry out, “Mawu knows my soul.” At the moment of death, it is no longer to the spirits that they address themselves, but to the High God, “Mawu have pity on me.” And to console those who grieve over a deceased relative or friend, they say, “It is Mawu who has called him.”

However, if the Ewe are asked who is this Mawu, they fall back quickly into a chaos of different and strange opinions. They identify him as a Master who lives retired somewhere beyond the firmament; or equate him with the firmament itself, and call the clouds his robe and the clap of thunder the sound of his voice.

Characteristically Mawu is never represented in figure. There is neither statue nor image of him. People honor him by looking at the sky, towards the west, at the hour when the sun is setting, and confide to the setting sun the message they wish to give him. One chief is reported to have said, “If a man rises in the morning without pronouncing the name of Mawu, this man would be nothing but a beast.”

Though the ordinary Ewe does not honor Mawu by any special cult or rite, one sect among them, the more wealthy tribesmen, have a form of public and private worship. They consider themselves Mawu’s favorites because he has blessed them with an abundance of material goods. A curious practice is to administer a little dose of poison to oneself at the right moment, which causes some inconvenience but does not cause death. The purpose is to reanimate one’s fervor for the cause of Mawu and to stimulate zeal for recruiting new devotees. There are villages which follow no other cult than that of Mawu.

Similar evidence of faith in a High God is found in Rhodesia, where the religious beliefs of the natives are reflected in their proverbs and prayers. They call the chief deity Lesa Mukulu, which means, God the Supreme Being. To express the idea of his universal goodness, they say, “Lesa, the blacksmith (creator), does not forge for one alone but for all,” or that “Lesa, the tailor (creator) does not make clothes for one alone but for all.” His mastery is found in such expressions as, “Lesa does not need our offerings of flower in trees; Lesa does not need our meat.” They profess a divine providence by saying, “Where Lesa prepares food for you there is no smoke, he gives it to you when you least think of it.”

Every element of nature and every occurrence among men, beyond the pantheon of lesser spirits, is attributed to one supreme God. “It is Lesa who stirs the forests in murmuring.” When taking an oath, the same name is invoked, “May Lesa strike me dead if I lie.” Prayers are addressed to him, “May Lesa preserve me in good health,” as well as curses, “May Lesa punish you.”

Among the Rhodesians there are some indications of syncreticism, or at least of previous contact with the Hebraic religion. They believe that Lesa is the creator of mankind, that the first parents sinned and as a result brought death into the world; and they subscribe to much of what we know were distinctively Jewish customs like the avoidance of certain types of meat, the offering of first-fruits, and concern over practically the same legal defilements as are enumerated in Leviticus.

Other African tribes have lapsed into a sort of nominalism. They may retain the name of a high God but deprive him of some of his attributes. Their idea of the origin of the world makes no provision in the Christian sense of the word. Lesa has created the world and all that exists, but since then does not bother himself about anything. Consequently there is no question of looking to him for aid, nor of dependence on his care, nor of worshiping Lesa. From him nothing is to be expected and nothing feared. All events depend on two kinds of spirits, the mipaji and the nguru.

The mipaji are by nature the spirits of the dead, among whom the most powerful are the spirits of the deceased chiefs. Some of them are good and others bad, and according to their character cause sickness and death. Worship given to the spirits consists mostly of food and drink, offered on the graves of the dead, to propitiate their favor and ward off their anger. Small huts are built in and around the town to “house” the souls of the deceased. People may also communicate with the spirits through magicians, whose bases of operations are kabbas, filled with gruesome objects like pieces of skull, jawbones, and other parts of human skeletons. Other means of communication are persons possessed by the spirits of the chiefs, mostly women, who act as agents with the visible world. Thus, a person may be sick and begins to tremble with spasms or convulsions. This means he is struggling with the spirit, who must be calmed down, after which rapport is established with the indwelling invisible power.

In contrast, the nguru, though spirits are neither gods nor men, though they also may be good or bad. Their function is to control the elements like rain, drought, famine and weather. Since they understand medicine, they point this out through possessed persons. Normally the nguru are located in the mountains, falls, and alongside rivers, where they live in lions, leopards, snakes and big trees. Not infrequently the natives will refuse to cut down a tree or kill a wild animal because nguru live in them. As with the information about medicinal herbs, they make known the place of their homes by means of possessed persons, and like the mipaji, they also have sacred huts built for their exclusive use, where food and drink are put for their use. Great travelers, the nguru go from one part of the country to the other, in answer to appropriate incantation. They enter a person, speak through him, and otherwise make their presence felt in favor of anyone who invokes their aid.

A similar mixture of vague (or sometimes fairly clear) monotheism, and a belief in lesser spirits pervades most of primitive religion. Unfortunately the first impressions left on those who observe them is that the primitives are polytheists. There is much to sustain this suspicion, although it is not accurately descriptive of their faith. Moreover, whatever vestiges of monotheism remain, they represent a dimension of thought which many primitives rarely associate with religion in the sense of worship.

The Congo and Angola regions typify this mentality. Among many tribes, there is no cult to any gods and less still to the Supreme Deity. Believing in the unique and transcendent divinity Nzambi, they do not allow this faith to disturb their traditional ceremonies. God exists; He excels and they let Him excel quietly. At times they call on Nzambi’s conscience to witness. His name is used to pledge oaths. They trust in his omnipotence and in his virtue of superior domain over all things. From all appearances, it seems that this notion of the Divinity has undergone considerable regression, and that centuries ago the High God was not only recognized but worshipped.

The current practice is to cultivate the inferior deities, comparable to the kind the Romans sought to protect their private interests, families, and social undertakings. But these are scattered here and there, and unless forestalled will do injury to people and human enterprises.

Reflective Analysis

Since the scientific researches of Andrew Lange and Wilhelm Schmidt, anthropologists have found that the most archaic form of culture accessible to inquiry shows definite monotheistic strains. Thus the Tasmanians, Bushmen, Andaman Islanders, Semang of the Malay Peninsula, Congo Pygmies and a few others of comparable level, including a few tribes in the New World, all share the belief in a High God. The question arises as to whether this faith is really primitive, in the sense of reaching back to primeval history, and not rather a borrowing from other peoples or even a higher stage of religious development similar to the progress which these primitives have made in material and social spheres.

There is no doubt that borrowings have taken place in Africa, and recent archeological finds indicate the antiquity of Jewish influence in widely separated areas of the continent. Numerous papyri found at Elephantine, at the first cataract of the Nile, reveal the existence of a Jewish community there from the end of the sixth century B.C. They show that this community had a temple to Yahweh. Similar discoveries, like Jewish coins from the pre-Christian era found in Natal and Zululand, confirm the opinion that the Hebrew religion had entered the culture of the African peoples and may be a partial explanation of whatever monotheism the primitives still profess.

A striking example of possible Hebraic impact on religion in Africa is the hieratic Egyptian text variously dated from the tenth to the sixth centuries B.C. and entitled The Instruction of Amon-Em-Opet. Its close relation to the Book of Proverbs has evoked numerous controversies, with good evidence pointing to at least indirect dependence on the Jewish sapiential writings. Justice in dealing with others stands at the head of the moral precepts enjoined by the Egyptian king, and always in terms of pleasing or displeasing the highest deity, Aton. “Do not talk with a man falsely---the abomination of the god….Do not confuse a man with a pen upon papyrus--the abomination of the god….Make not for thyself weights which are deficient; they abound in grief through the will of God.” [1]

Thus every aspect of a man’s life, his successes and failures, is known to the supreme God and responsive to divine guidance, so there should be no room for anxious worry but only confidence in Aton’s care.

Do not spend the night fearful of the morrow. At daybreak what is the morrow like? Man knows not what the morrow is like. God is always in his success, whereas man is in his failure. One thing are the words which men say, another is that which the god does. Say not, “I have no wrongdoing,” nor yet strain to seek quarreling.
If a man pushes himself to seek success, in the completion of a moment he damages it. Be steadfast in thy heart, make firm thy breast. Steer not with thy tongue. If the tongue of a man be the rudder of a boat, the All-Lord is its pilot. [2]

But the same Hebraic influence cannot be argued for other primitive lands, notably in Asia, where the impact of a monotheistic culture somewhere in pre-Christian times may be ruled out. Here at least, and also to some extent in Africa, belief in a distinctive High God points to the perdurance of an archaic religion.

The general pattern, whether in Africa or elsewhere, is that this High God is supposed to live in the sky and is not clearly soul-like. He is eternal, all-knowing, and almighty without abusing his power. He acts with sovereign freedom as author of the moral law, and rewards or punishes not only in this life, with prosperity or adversity, but beyond the grave in a life after death. Unlike the gods of mythology he is asexual, although mythological influences have endowed him with human emotions and traits. Such a personage inspires believers with reverence, so that they are reluctant to name him. They do not worship him in temples or through images but invoke him in spontaneous prayer in times of special need, and may offer him first-fruits in token of adoration, and not as though he were the ghost of a dead person who receives food for his sustenance.

Animism and Fetishism

As commonly understood, animism consists in attributing the human qualities of mind, will and passions to material objects, or to non-human living creatures. These objects, considered as animated, and endowed with a soul or mana, can in certain circumstances enter into direct relation with man in his personal and social activities. Since the power attributed to the objects is regarded as extraordinary or even superhuman, it is only a short step to invoke them, and establish ceremonies directed to appease or placate them and finally to treat them as gods.

In the heyday of evolutionary anthropology, all religion was said to stem originally from animism, on the theory that man began as an undeveloped anthropoid who only through countless millennia reached the higher stages of monachianism and finally monotheism. More objective scholarship reveals that animism is less archaic than formerly thought, and appears rather as a form of religious decadence, which may coexist among modern primitives in the degree to which their truly primeval religion has retrogressed.

Thus we find the anomaly of peoples believing in one High God, whom they respect, and at the same time cultivating a host of lesser beings who inhabit the earth or fill the elements of nature. However, it is impossible to generalize, either on the degree to which monotheism is infected by animistic beliefs, or on their mutual relationship. No two primitive peoples are the same in these respects.

Animism is especially prominent among some of the Melanesians and Indonesians, the Africans of the West Coast, South American natives north-east and south-west of the Amazon, and the early North American Indians of the North-west and South-east. But even here not everything is supposed to have a soul. The Indonesians do not say that inanimate objects have a spirit; they simply believe that independent spirits live in objects of particularly noticeable shape or kind, and not even all plants have a soul.

In Melanesia, human beings and certain animals like domestic beasts may have as many as seven souls, which on analysis may turn out to be only different faculties. Most frequently, the primitives hold that a person has two souls; one belongs to the body and is connected with the blood or the breath, the other is a kind of shadow or phantom that the people usually associate with the future life.

The situation existing in Dahomey, on the coast of West Africa, may illustrate the complexities in animism. Dahomean religion has a pantheon of worshipful spirits, deified ancestors, and yet also a sky-god creator, Mawu. As parent of the other gods, he gave them power, holds the formulae for the creation of man and matter, and mysteriously controls human destiny.

On being questioned, most Dahomeans are not sure how many souls a man has, although they are certain it is more than one. The majority hold that many men have four souls but women only three. Their first spirit is a kind of guardian soul which they inherit from an ancestor. You can recognize whose soul was inherited from the characteristics which reappear in the new possessor. In case of doubt, a diviner is consulted to say whose spirit has been received.

A person’s second soul is strictly his own, and is often described as his voice, which more than anything seems to characterize an individual. On death, the personal spirit leaves the body, at the moment when a man becomes incapable of speaking. The third soul is a particle of the High God which exists in everyone’s body. In this way the creator, or his female counterpart, sends a bit of himself to each person in order to retain control over the people he made. When a man dies, this particle reverts back to the High God or subsidiary goddess.

Not all people have a fourth soul, which can be acquired only by those who undergo special ceremonies. Once received, its function is less personal than social, and directs both the person who possesses it and others under his care, like members of his family or household, to their present and final destiny.

When a man dies, his personal soul leaves the body and starts on a journey to the land of the dead. Anticipating numerous obstacles en route, the surviving relations must prepare beforehand. Several rivers have to be crossed and boatmen paid to ferry the soul across the waters. If there are three boatmen, each receives some offering for his task, money, tobacco or special funeral ritual. Unless these oblations are made, the soul cannot cross the rivers and may venge itself on the living who neglected to help.

Even after reaching the land of the dead, where the soul meets the deceased members of its family, it deserves still further attention in ritual sacrifices at the risk of showing its displeasure by causing illness or some other misfortune on the negligent survivors. When illness strikes, a diviner is called in to ascertain how the ancestors must have been offended to bring on the calamity.

In other primitive societies, the worship of one’s ancestral spirits is the central object of religious cult. Notwithstanding profession of belief in a creator god, the Bakongo of southern Congo believe that all one’s benefits in this life come from the ancestral shades. The Manus of Melanesia say that each head of a family has a personal spirit from the world of the dead, that he is quite literally the ghost of his father. But in all tribes, the disembodied spirits are not believed to be permanently harmful, either because of a vague belief that souls finally cease to be, or because they are reborn, if malicious, in children who begin a new cycle of life, death and spirit existence.

The number and variety of Dahomean deities cannot be classified. Moreover the natives are notoriously uncommunicative with strangers on matters dealing with tribal customs and religious beliefs. It is known, however, that there are sky gods and earth gods, deities of iron, the hunt, and of drinking water, and among the divinities priests and priestesses with their own rites and followers.

A feature of Dahomean ritual is the worship of serpents, whose spirit manifests itself in all long, sinuous objects, such as roots of trees, the nerves of animals, and the human umbilical cord, a symbol of life and fertility. Since the serpentine spirit is unrelenting when offended, it is much feared and propitiated.

Primitive animism is often manifested in a worship which has been called fetishism. A fetish is a common object of no value in itself but which the primitive keeps and venerates because he believes it is the dwelling place of a spirit. This can be anything: a stone, root, vase, feather, log, shell, colored cloth, animal’s tooth, snake’s skin, box, and old rusty sword. However the term is specially applied to those more or less crude representations, generally in wood, though sometimes in metal or clay, consecrated to various genii that flourish in the religions of Western Africa. The first type of fetish, therefore, is not a portrait or figure like the “idols” of Buddhism, but symbolic of a certain spirit who may be invoked in given circumstances.

Another kind of fetish is an image connected with the worship of one’s ancestors. These figures surmount or enclose the remains of the dead, their skull bones, hair or other human relics; and their value depends on association with the remains. Finally a third category is destined for operations of black magic, to induce spells or diseases, or satisfy someone’s vengeance.

All three types derive their power solely from the spirits to which they are related: family fetishes from the relics of the ancestors to protect the domestic family, clan or tribe; fetishes of tutelary genii embody the spirits whose agency is believed to be defensive against evil; and the fetishes of bewitching spirits are means of invoking malicious forces to cause people harm.

Besides fetishes, the primitive also uses amulets and talismans, although not directly because of his animistic beliefs, since a fetish is held to be animated and conscious, and intrinsically efficacious because of the spirit which inhabits it. On the other hand, an amulet, or grigri in African parlance, is a lifeless object carried on the person, which the people credit with secret and innate power to preserve from misfortune or prosper any undertaking. In much the same way a talisman has no consciousness of its own, yet because specially marked or ceremonially prepared, is believed to exercise magical influence on things and events, beyond the expectations of nature. Unlike amulets, talismans are not constantly worn but placed over the door of a house, or inside the home, or at the crossroads outside the village. Their effect depends on the type and formula used in making the talisman.

Current literature on the primitive uses the term “animism” in two quite different senses, and the difference is more than semantic. Animism, as defined by the English anthropologist Tylor, is the belief in spirit beings. Their essential quality is their ethereal embodiment; they are beings without real flesh and blood. Although immaterial, they are real enough for those who believe in them. Primitive man, according to the evolutionary theory of religious origins, derived the idea of animism from the phenomenon of dreams as compared with the waking state, and from death in comparison with life. Once disembodied, the spirits of men, animals and plants were believed to be beyond the ordinary laws of nature and capable of animating (or re-animating) anything, with results that were good or bad, depending on the character of the spirit and the degree of control that people exercised over this invisible world. Animation of material or sub-human elements by disembodied rational souls was particularly important and, in some schools of ethnology, is the prototype of primitive animism. A primitive, therefore, is one who personified inanimate phenomena by filling an empty world with the ghosts of the dead.

More commonly, however, animism in primitive culture describes the unitary way certain peoples look upon the world. “Primitive man,” it is said, “has only one mode of thought, one mode of expression, one part of speech---the personal.” The world appears to him neither inanimate nor empty but redundant with life. And life for him has individuality, in man and beast and plant, and in every phenomenon that confronts man---the clap of thunder, a sudden shadow, the eerie and unknown clearing in the wood, the stone which suddenly strikes him when he stumbles while on a hunting trip. In the language of existentialist philosophy, any phenomenon may at any time face him, not as “It,” but as “Thou.” In this confrontation, “Thou” reveals its individuality, its qualities, and its will. “Thou” is not contemplated with intellectual detachment but experienced as life confronting life, involving every faculty of man in a reciprocal relationship. Thoughts, no less than actions and feelings, are subordinated to this experience.

Fetishism thus appears as a species of animism, where the animated object is not naturally alive but has living qualities attributed to it in virtue of whatever spirit is believed now to be inside. The world “fetish” seems to have come from the Latin facticius, an amulet, by way of the Portuguese feitico, after the use of the term by Portuguese adventurers who first met with the practice in their voyages along the west coast of Africa. Fetishes are, therefore, symbolic (or real) repositories of supernormal power, and they serve the psychological function of objectifying the primitives’ belief.

Significantly the representation of a human figure is not considered an effective fetish until it has passed through the hands of a medicine-man and received its power from him. What confers upon the object its extraordinary potency is solely the mysterious spell sung over it, or the wonder-working substance, like the ngula paint, thrust into a ventral cavity. Hence in many localities, only a small number of human or animal figurines are really fetishes. They can become such only if ritualistically consecrated for that purpose.

Forms of Worship

With notable exceptions, the external manifestations of primitive ritual are centered in the family or tribe, or at least connected with the basic structure of primitive society.

Heading the list of objects of worship are the ancestral tombs and the spirits of the dead. Tombs and cemeteries thus become sacred places, and veneration of the departed an act of religion. Little booths may be built where the souls of the dead come for rest; small altars are also built, on which to offer sacrifices to appease or invoke them in favor of the living.

Relics of the dead become objects of religious care, usually connected with some fetish. In some places a part of the skull itself is preserved, painted red and placed in a receptacle made of bark on which may be carved a bust of the deceased. Real statues are not unknown, for instance in Loango (Congo) and among the Melanesians in New Guinea. These are placed above the relics in niches at the back of the public house of a village. A crude altar is often built in front of the statues for occasional offerings.

Likewise tutelary spirits of extra-human origin have their own shrines and altars. In Eastern Africa, small huts are erected for them at the crossroads, where the persons in special need can offer sacrifices of flour, grain or other precious commodity. After a possessed person is delivered, he is expected to build one of these huts to placate the spirit that had left him, at the risk of being re-possessed or otherwise gravely harmed.

In East Africa, in addition to the booths, a sacred enclosure is built to honor the manes (ikigabiro). It is a round place, several yards in diameter, and marked off for the exclusive purpose of sacrifice. In the center a fig tree is planted, and around fine grass is spread in the form of a bed on which the national spirit is invited to come and take his rest. Sick people may be seen sitting on this bed or even sleeping there, in hopes of being cured, and dying persons are sometimes laid in the enclosure to discover the cause of impending death.

The worship of the supreme deity among primitives is highly characteristic. No images are made of the High God and, for the most part, he is invoked only in times of crisis or special need. Too often his cultus is buried under the debris of lesser deities.

Yet, while remaining in the background and far away, veneration of the ultimate divinity is not completely forgotten, even for public worship. In the samples which follow, the name “God” is substituted for the native equivalent of the supreme deity, who stands above all as creator of men and the world.

Among the Wa-pokomo who inhabit the right bank of the Tana in East Africa, the priest recites a ritual prayer, after the sacrifice is offered, and the people join him in chorus.

O God, we ask You!
O Manes, we ask You!
O Ancestors, we ask You!
God, grant us peace. Grant us tranquility, and may the blessing come.
He who bewitches our village, may he die.
He who utters an evil spell against us, may he die.
He who says this village is rich, these men are numerous, he who speaks thus is a jealous one, may he die.
We also ask for some fish, may the fish come.
Thus eating, let us eat in peace.
This woman is ill. O God, give her health to her, and to her village, and to her children, and to her husband; may she get up, hurry to work, take care of the kitchen; may happiness return, may it come from the other bank, may it come from the other bank
. [3]

At times, prayers are directed solely to the High God, as in the petition for one who is ill. “You are God and Master. I say to You, free this person from his sickness.” More often the supreme deity is invoked together with the lesser spirits, as when going to cultivate a new piece of ground. “O God, I beg of You. I am going to cultivate this field. Very well, it is in order to have things to eat, that I may have life and health. Come, Manes! I till this field that the grain may spring up abundantly and that I may harvest it when it is ripe.” [4]

Sacrifice among the primitives is universal. Like prayer and the offering, it is addressed to the Manes, the lesser spirits or to the High God. In Zanzibar, sacrifices are offered on graves by the families of the deceased. Flour and water, palm wine or beer, with some pulp or maize or sorghum are common oblations. On special occasions, small fowl, or even goats, sheep and oxen are killed and their blood allowed to drench the graves. When the fishermen of Gabon, in equatorial Africa, catch their first fish of the day, they carefully cut it open, remove its entrails, and throw them into the sea as a first fruits offering to the spirit of the waters. A common practice, before taking any fermented drink, like palm wine or sorghum beer, is to pour a little on the ground as a libation of sacrifice.

Magic and Morality

In order to understand the culture of the primitives, a distinction should be made between its irrational element which consists in elaborate myths and is practiced through magic, and the rational element that is truly religious and may inspire high moral conduct.

Magic is understood as the art of making use of the forces of nature by certain occult observances that have a religious appearance, or of courting the secret influences of the invisible world. Two types are found among the primitive peoples: natural and supernatural magic, which differ widely in their character and religious implications.

Natural magic is based on the theory that nature is full of many objects whose hidden, protective or curative properties can satisfy practically every need and drive away a host of evils. The problem is to find these objects. With his uncritical mind and animistic prejudice, the primitive easily turns from a valid exploitation of the physical forces of nature to a superstitious cult of the unknown, in the form of charms, philters, auguries, omens, the art of divination and respect for scores of sacred prohibitions and taboos.

Supernatural magic is a kind of anti-religion which has its own orders of worship, incantations, evocations, rites, fetishes, sacrifices, priests and meeting places. Primitives practice it along with natural magic, yet carefully distinguish the two and have different names for specialists in one and the other. The first is called by various names the correspond to the English “to treat, heal, diagnose,” or “diviner” and “seer;” the second is associated with the terms “to charm, bait, bewitch, poison, prowl.”

Sorcerers and sorceresses generally ply their trade as individuals, but as witches they band together in secret societies. One account tells how their members meet clandestinely in a forest, or at least at some distance from the village. The hour is near midnight. An imitation of the hoot of an owl, which is their sacred bird, is their signal call. They profess to leave their corporeal body lying asleep in their huts, and claim that the part which joins in the meeting is the spirit body, whose movements are not hindered by walls or solid obstacles, and can pass through the air with lightning speed. At their meetings they have audible converse with malevolent spirits, whom they invoke against the victims of the sorcery.

So far from identifying their religion with these practices, the primitives search out likely sorcerers or witches and after a token trial summarily put them to death. In east Africa, men and women found guilty are burned on a fire of ebony outside the village at the crossroads.

What adds to the suspicion of sorcery is the mystery that surrounds sickness and death. Three agents may be responsible: the High God, one of the lesser spirits, or a human enemy. A diviner is consulted, and if the supreme deity was the cause, the victim or his family reconcile themselves to the inevitable. If a spirit was behind the effect, he must be appeased by suitable offerings or sacrifice. But if the sickness, and particularly death, came by the magical designs of another man, he must be found and punished without delay.

Taken under suspicion of being responsible for another’s death, the native may voluntarily undergo an ordeal to prove his innocence. Vegetable poison, boiling water and hot iron are common methods of testing. If the person survives, he is acquitted, and the diviner who named him may be punished.

Although the meaning of magic and sorcery is seldom distinguished in popular literature, the difference is considerable and greatly affects their respective function in primitive religion. Magic is the generic term which describes the effort to produce an effect by means that are disproportionate to the result expected, through the invocation of lesser spirits as though they were divine. When the intended purpose is to benefit or protect from harm, the magic is “white,” otherwise, if the intention is to do injury, it is “black.”

Yet not all black magic is sorcery. It may also be witchcraft, depending on the character of the person performing it and especially on the method employed. In sorcery the agent uses certain prescribed, esoteric rites, or pronounces certain formulas whose efficacy is built into the ritual itself. Provided the correct formula is recited or the right gestures are used, the magical effect takes place, irrespective of the character or personal qualities of the one performing the ritual. Sorcerers, therefore, are professionals whom people consult or ask to intervene in order to injure an enemy or work vengeance against a hated rival. They ply their magic as an evil art, but themselves may be quite normal and socially respectable.

Witchcraft, on the other hand, is practiced by persons who are evil by nature, so to speak. Among many primitives, witches are supposed to be born of parents who are witches themselves. The evil they do others is not the result of prescribed ritual but the spontaneous effect of a wicked person’s spirit harming those whom it hates. Much of their evil trade is done at night, while they and their victims are asleep; and the clandestine meetings of witches are the strange councils of disembodied spirits (temporarily leaving the bodies while at sleep), at which prospective victims are “eaten alive,” in the sense that their souls are spiritually masticated and the bodies take harm according to the malice and intent of the witches in session.

Morality in primitive peoples varies across the spectrum of tribal customs, geographical locality, contact with other cultures, and, above all, the level of religious beliefs. As they recede from truly archaic beliefs with their stress on fear of the supreme divinity, the moral practices and even principles regress. On the other hand, there are still many so-called primitives whose ethical standards and conduct are remarkably high.

Marriage is generally surrounded by elaborate ceremonies and numerous prohibitions. Near relatives may not marry, adultery is forbidden, and conjugal relations are not allowed during pregnancy, the period of nursing, and during certain times like war and hunting. Causes for divorce also exist, favoring the husband who can repudiate his wife for laziness, suspicion of magic and adultery. Cruelty to a mother-in-law gives the wife a right to divorce her husband.

Many faults condemned are proscribed by native tradition. Abusive language, poisoning, murder, and calumny are commonly forbidden and punishable by tribal or family justice. Among the Bavili there are five classes of prohibitions of which the first concerns the High God, the second refers to the use of magical divination, the third to mothers correcting their children, the fourth to observing each fourth day by abstaining from certain occupations, and the last comprises all the ceremonies and duties incumbent on women regarding their premarital and marital morality.

According to primitive casuistry, free consent is not required to commit a fault or break a taboo. Every violation, whether voluntary or not, is punishable. Some tribes distinguish between offenses against the supreme deity and against man. Such crimes as incest would be considered sins against the High God, who might punish the whole community as a result.

To free themselves from remorse and recover peace of mind, some primitives have special ceremonies called (in one locality) ko-tahikio, which literally means “to vomit” one’s sin. Ethnologists are agreed that the Kikuju who practice this purification had been closed from time immemorial and until recently to Christian influences.

At appropriate times, the penitents gather together or come individually to the leader of the tribe, in the open air at some deserted corner of the village. They squat on the ground and, out loud, tell in sequence what evil things they had done, e.g., allowing a serpent to cross their path, spilling some food on the ground, having shaved the wife’s head. If the fault is too personal, they may go a distance away, tell the crime to a sacred pole, and bring the wood back as equivalent to a verbal accusation.

In Tahiti the natives have a series of expiatory prayers, animated by a great spirit of humility. Concluding a solemn ceremony, the priests address the Supreme God. “Hearken, O God, to our petition with food. Here is the sacrificial pig for thee, a sacred pig, a pig without blemish. It is a pig of atonement, to set free sinful man. Here also is the fat, small eating, for thee and the gods here in thy presence, O God, accept it. This is our petition, hearken unto us.” [5]

Behind these sentiments of atonement stands a religious theory which determines primitive morality and gives it meaning. Often the ethical standards are low, as in the widespread countenance of polygamy and the savage cruelty practiced on the enemy. But even then, the rudiments of a moral law are founded in religious principles and bear a direct relation to dependence on the deity.

Not the least feature of primitive religion is the wide range it covers, from wholly selfish attempts to win divine blessings for one-self or curses against an adversary, to lofty idealism. Independent of this difference, however, the attitude of the natives toward the higher powers is uniformly one of self-abasement. They recognize, often more clearly than people who profess the “higher religions,” that not only their existence depends on the High God and the spirits below him, but every event in human life is affected by agencies that are above man and yet accessible to man’s invocation.

As we approach the so-called “higher religions” it may be useful to compare briefly the two religious dimensions, primitive and higher, in order better to understand how precisely the one is superior to the other.

In terms of strict content of popular belief, primitives are not infrequently superior to those who are ostensibly more civilized and cultured. There is a strain of monotheism among most primitives that we sometimes look for in vain among the Hindus, Buddhists and followers of Shinto. There is also a correlation between morality and religion that other, supposedly higher, systems often do not show. Theravada Buddhism, for example, can be quite atheistic in its outlook on life and corresponding attitude towards morals; and Confucianism is also divorced, in many writings, from a professedly religious interpretation of human conduct. Whatever crudities are found among the primitives, at least their ethics are not secular but so closely tied in with the invisible world as almost to be defined in sacred and spiritual terms. Their animism is unintelligible from any other viewpoint.

On the other hand, primitive religions lack what their higher counterparts possess, namely an organized system of thought or a theological development or any one of numerous features that characterize the major living faiths of mankind. Since most primitives are not literate, they do not have sacred writings such as are common to Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. They also do not have a written tradition for the same reason, although the oral traditions among certain tribes in Africa and elsewhere are highly developed.

Perhaps all the principal differences between the primitives and others can be reduced to the absence of literacy among the former and the consequent loss of that continuity which is typical among the higher religions. Some would say further that the illiteracy itself is indicative of a specifically lower grade of intelligence and therefore primitives do not have a reflective religion, in which the mind systematizes the tribal beliefs and consciously synthesizes its particular approach to the divine. It is impossible to generalize, however, except in the broad sense that primitivism is notoriously uncritical in its faith and equally correspondingly simple in ignoring the great problems of religious philosophy.

Chapter 2 - Primitive Religions


[1] Ancient Near Eastern Texts, James B. Pritchard, editor, Princeton University Press, 1955, p. 423.

[2] Ibid.

[3] F. Wurtz, Zietschrift fur Afrikanische Sprachen, Vol. I, p. 324.

[4] Nika-English Dictionary, n.d., p. 284.

[5] E. S. Craiqhill Handy, Polynesian Religion, Honolulu, 1927, p. 197.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

search tips advanced search

What's New    Site Index

Home | Directory | Eucharist | Divine Training | Testimonials | Visit Chapel | Hardon Archives

Adorers Society | PEA Manual | Essentials of Faith | Dictionary | Thesaurus | Catalog | Newsletters

Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association
718 Liberty Lane
Lombard, IL 60148
Phone: 815-254-4420
Contact Us

Copyright © 2000 by
All rights reserved worldwide.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior
written permission of