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Primal Religious Traditions
Primal Religions
 Unique forms of religions practiced since prehistoric
times. Some are still practiced at present.
 Religious traditions of non literate peoples who rely
on oral tradition rather than scriptures
 Tend to be the traditions of tribal peoples, small
groups that reside in villages rather than large city
Why investigate Primal Religious Traditions?
 Primal:
 Prehistoric,
 Non-literate, oral tradition
 Provide insight into mythic and ritual dimensions of
religion that are essential sources of knowledge and
power for important aspects of life
 All religions stem from or are rooted in primal
Australian Aborigines
 Native people of Australia
 Foundation
 Dreaming
Period of the ANCESTORS
 Still remains in the symbols left behind
 Rituals reenact the mythic events
Supernatural beings that gave shape to the formless world
 Organized humans into tribes
 Allocated land
Left symbols of their presence
Spirit of ancestors left behind
 Spiritual essences left behind by the ancestors in symbols
Charged with sacred power
 Take the same paths originally taken by the ancestors
reenacting the mythic events of the dreaming
 Cosmology takes a key place in Aboriginal religionmythic geography
 Spiritual essence in humans also. Unborn child is
animated by an Ancestor when the mother makes contact
with a sacred site.
Totem: the natural form of the ancestor in the dreaming
Totemism: a system of belief and ritual based on totems
 Ancestors continually nourish the natural world, sources of all kinds of
 Human beings associated with a particular ancestor perform rituals to
cause the power to flow into the natural world
 Reenactment of the myth
 Reenacting of the myth recreates the original action
 Maintaining the social structure of society
 Taboo: things and activities set aside for certain members and
forbidden to others
 Gender
 Training
 Maturity
 Initiation
 Awakens spiritual identity
 Death of childhood- birth of adulthood
African Traditions
 Several hundred religions
among the 400,000,000
inhabitants of the second
largest continent, Africa.
 Yoruba Religion
Consists of 10,000,000 people and
has endured 1,000 years.
Produced artwork that is famous
and admired
Resides in Western regions of
central Africa
Favor city living
Ife is the center of Yoruba religion
 Orishna-nla began world creation
 Reality is in two separate worlds
 Heaven, the invisible home of the gods and ancestors
 Earth, the world of normal experience, visible home of
humans; also populated by a deviant form of human beings,
witches and sorcerers, who can cause disastrous harm if not
 Purpose of the religion
 Maintain balance between the human beings of earth and the
gods and ancestors of heaven while guarding against the evil
deeds of the sorcerers and witches
 Home of
Supreme god- Olorun
Primary, original source of power in the universe
 Distant and remote- not involved in human affairs
 People do not worship Olorun; other gods serve as mediators
Other deities- orishas
Lesser than Olorun but truly significant
 Are appeased by the rituals carried out by humans
 Hundreds of orishas exist
 Orisha-nla, created earth
 Ogun, god of iron, originally a human, inhabits border between
ancestors and orishas
 Esu, most complex, contains both good and evil properties,
worshipped with all other gods- Trickster figure (can disrupt
the normal course of life)
 Ancestors:
 Deceased humans who have acquired supernatural powers
 They can help or harm the living
 Worshipped through rituals at sacred shrines
Earned a good reputation, lived to an old age, worshipped only by
their own family
 Deified ancestors known throughout Yoruba society and
worshipped by large numbers of people
Connecting Heaven and Earth
 Head of a family:
 Worships the family’s ancestors in the home at the family shrine
 King or chief of a city:
 In charge of annual festivals and performs other religious functions
 Priests
 Oversee the various rituals carried out at the shrines of each orisha
 Diviners
 Tells the future since this is important in determining how to proceed with ones
 Mediator
 Becomes a living representation of an ancestor by dancing at festivals
 Imitates a dead person and delivers a message from the dead
 Importance:
 Maintains a balance between heaven and earth, boundaries are thin and can be
crossed over
North American Plains Indians
 Peoples who inhabited the middle section of what is now
the USA.
Migrated from Asia over the Bering Strait and spread out
over north and south America
Stretched from Canadian Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico,
between Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.
More than 30 tribes, speaking different languages and
forming many cultural groups
Representative of Native American religion in general
Shared some basic beliefs such as the vision quest and
the Sun Dance.
 Inhabited Eastern
Montana & Wyoming
and the western part of
the Dakotas and parts of
 Reknown for
Custer’s defeat
Massacre at Wounded knee
 About 70,000 live on
reservations in
Manitoba, Montana, and
the Dakotas.
 Supreme Reality- Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit or Great
16 different deities (4x4)
 Creation of the world and the arrival of the first human
beings are explained in various myths that talk about
several supernatural beings
Inktomi, Lakota trickster figure, taught humans their ways and
customs. His mistakes and errors of judgment are used to teach
children what not to do.
 Death & Afterlife
4 souls depart from body, one journeys on a spirit path encounters
an old woman who judges it and directs it to the world of the
ancestors or back to earth as a ghost. Others are reborn in unborn
children or others new bodies.
 Vision Quest
Common primal tradition
To gain access to spiritual power that will insure success in different
Both genders can participate
Supervised by a medicine man or woman
Begins with purification in a sweat lodge
Goes off alone to endure the elements, lack of food and water
Performance of certain rituals
Near the end the quester receives a vision in the form of an animal,
object or force of nature. Vision gives a message.
Message is interpreted by medicine man or woman, that
interpretation influences the rest of the life of the quester.
Occasionally the quester receives a guardian spirit
 Sun Dance:
Common to all Plains’ tribes
Benefits the tribe rather than the individual
Part of the New Year celebration
Overseen by a sacred leader (medicine man or a woman of outstanding
character), both an honor and a responsibility
Held in a lodge that is carefully constructed and prepared for the
Cotton tree is set upright in a chosen spot as the axis mundi
 Connects heaven and earth- represents the supreme being
 Around the tree, 28 poles to represent the 28days of the lunar month
 Dancing in the direction of the sun accompanied by music and
 Body mutilation as sacrifice
Populating the Americas
 Crossing at Beringia
Mesoamerican Religion
 Area includes present day
Mexico and extended south
to Honduras, Nicaragua,
and Costa Rica
 Natives arrived about
20,000 years ago?
 From about 2000 BC to
1500 AD home to Olmecs,
Maya, Toltec and Aztec
 Defies the common or general description of primal
religions- it was a highly civilized population of about
 Urban dwellers in lieu of rural. Lived in
Tenochtitlahn, now Mexico City
 Like other primal religions it intertwines ritual and
myth, practices of human sacrifice
 Pre dated Catholicism of 16th c. Aztec influence can be
seen in some modern Mexican religious practices
Toltec Foundation
 Toltec god “Quetzalcoatl” the feathered serpent
presided over a golden age of brilliance
 Prince Topiltzin, a priest-king of the Toltecs, was the
role model for Aztec authority figures
 Toltec myths and tradition influenced Aztecs
 Aztecs believed that Quetzalcoatl created and
ordered the world. City of Teotihuancan was origin
of the cosmos. “Who will be the sun and bring on the
Time and Space
 The dawn of the sun was a new
age and its destruction the end of
that age. The only ;way to delay
this destruction was to feed the
sun, nourishing it through human
 They believed that there had
already been 4 suns and theirs
was the last one. (center, west,
north, south)
 Time and space were interrelated.
 4 quadrants with the axis mundi
in center. Center connects earthly
world with heavenly world.
Human Role
 Human condition linked to cosmology
 Human is a sort of axis mundi
 Human sacrifice was performed about every 20 days. Self
sacrifice of the warrior would allow him to enter the highest
heaven at his death
 Two divine forces
Was cut out of the chest on a sacrificial altar
Was severed from the body and strung on a skull rack
 Many human sacrifices were captive prisoners
 Religious power was conveyed through the mastery
of language
 Spoke Nahuatl, an expressive language with high
achievements in poetry
 Knowers of things could communicate with the gods
and make offerings rather than sacrifice.
 Being adept at making or solving riddles meant you
came from a good family

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