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IX. The Primal Religions
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 
The historical religions now pretty much blanket the earth, but chronologically they form only the tip of the religious iceberg; for they span less than four thousand years as compared with the three million years or so of the religions that preceded them.

We shall call their religious pattern primal because it came first, but alternatively we shall refer to it as tribal because its groupings were invariably small, or oral because writing was unknown to them.

There is also the possibility that we might learn from them, for tribes may have retained insights and virtues that urbanized, industrial civilizations have allowed to fall by the wayside.

The Australian Experience

If God does not evolve, neither, it seems, does homo religiosus, not in any important respect. Mircea Eliade came to believe that archaic peoples are more spiritual than their descendants because, clothed as they are in leaves and skins and nourished directly by the fruits of the earth, they are unencumbered by external devices.

Australia is the only continent that did not undergo the Neolithic experience, which elsewhere began about 10,000 B.C. and witnessed the invention of farming and technically advanced stone implements.

Legendary figures people this backdrop world. They are not gods; they are much like ourselves, while at the same time being larger than life.

We can see from this that aboriginal religion turns not on worship but on identification, a “participation in,” and acting out of, archetypal paradigms. The entire life of the aborigine, insofar as it rises above triviality and becomes authentic, is ritual. Here there are no priests, no congregations, no mediating officiants, no spectators. There is only the Dreaming and conformance to it.

Orality, Place, and Time

Orality.
Literacy, we have noted, is unknown to the primal religions. To be sure, it has now visited some of them; but this changes little in our inquiry for, when it arrives, leaders usually shelter their tribe’s sacred lore from its encroachments.
We can begin with the versatility of the spoken over the written word. Speech is a part of a speaker’s life, and as such shares that life’s vitality. Familiar themes can be enlivened by fresh diction. Rhythm can be introduced, together with intonations, pauses, and accentuations, until speaking borders on chanting, and storytelling emerges as a high art. Dialect and delivery can be added to flesh out characters that are being described, and when animal postures and gaits are mimed and their noises simulated, we are into theater. Silence can be invoked to heighten tension or suspense, and can even be used to indicate that the narrator has interrupted the story to engage in private prayer.
We do not understand the distinctiveness of primal orality until we confront its exclusiveness, the way it views writing not as a supplement to speaking but its foe. For once introduced, writing does not leave the virtues of orality intact. In important ways it undercuts them.
Chief among the endowments that exclusive reliance on speech confers is human memory. Literate peoples grow slack in recall . “Why should I tax myself when I can find what I need written down somewhere?” is the lettered attitude toward memory. It is not difficult to see that things would be different if libraries were not available. The memories of blind people , for example, are legendary.

If we have to single out the factor which caused the decline of English village culture, we should have to say it was literacy.”

In the Middle Ages, when Europe was even less lettered than China, “the ignorant and unlettered man could read the meaning of sculptures that now only trained archaeologists can interpret.”

We can summarize the gifts of exclusive orality by quoting anthropologist Paul Radin. “The disorientation in our whole psychic life and in our whole apperception of the external realities produced by the invention of the alphabet, the whole tendency of which has been to elevate thought and thinking to the rank of the exclusive proof of all verities, never occurred among [tribal] peoples.”

Place versus Space.
A second distinguishing feature of primal religion is its embeddedness in place. Place is not space. Whereas space is abstract , place is concrete.

Many historical religions are attached to places; Judaism and Shinto, both of which began as primal religions, come immediately to mind. No historical religion, however, is embedded in place to the extent that tribal religions are.

Eternal time.
In contrast to the historical religions of the West, which are messianically forward looking, primal religions give the appearance of looking toward the past. That is not altogether wrong, and from the Western perspective, where time is linear, there is no other way to put the matter. But primal time is not linear, a straight line that moves from the past, through the present , into the future. It is not even cyclical as the Asian religions tend to regard it, turning in the way the world turns and seasons cycle. Primal time is atemporal; an eternal now. To speak of atemporal or timeless time is paradoxical, but the paradox can be relieved if we see that primal time focuses on causal rather than chronological sequence; for primal peoples, “past” means preeminently closer to the originating Source of things. That the Source precedes the present is of secondary importance.

“For religious man of the archaic cultures,” Mircea Eliade writes, “the world is renewed annually; in other words, with each new year it recovers its original sanctity, the sanctity that it possessed when it came from the Creator’s hands.”

For a feature of the primal view of time that the historical religions have largely abandoned, we can turn to the way it tends to rank order beings according to their proximity to their divine source. Thus animals are often venerated for their “anteriority,” and among animals the otter’s relative stupidity leads the Winnebagos to infer that it was created last. This principle applies to the human species as well; its pioneers are revered over their descendants, who are regarded as something of epigones. Primal peoples respect their elders enormously.

East Asians do likewise with their filial piety and ancestor worship; and it can be remarked in passing that Taoism and its Japanese cousin Shinto are the historical religions that across the board have remained closest to their primal roots. But to stay with the primal religions, it is not going too far to say that they think of their gods in more or less ancestral terms. Human ancestors are viewed as prolongations of the tribe’s earliest ancestors, who were divine.

The Primal World

A useful place to begin is with the embeddedness of primal peoples in their world. This starts with their tribe, apart from which they sense little independent identity.

In
totemism  a human tribe is joined to an animal species in a social and ceremonial whole that gives them a common life. The totem animal bonds the human members of its clan distinctively to one another, while acting as their mate, friend, guardian, and helper, for it is of their “flesh.”

Totemism itself is not universal among tribal peoples, but they all share its nonchalance concerning the animal/ human division.

The progression of the preceding paragraph reaches its logical term when we note that even the line between animate and “inanimate” is perforated. Rocks are alive. Under certain conditions they are believed to be able to talk, and at times— as in the case of Ayers Rock in Australia— they are considered divine.

Thus far we have been noting the absence of sharp divisions within the primal world, but another absence is, if anything, more telling; namely, the absence of a line separating this world from another world that stands over and against it. In the historical religions this division emerges and much comes to be made of it.

World devaluation figures prominently in the historical religions.

The Symbolic Mind

A summary of the primal world as thus far sketched shows its internal divisions to be provisional and there to be no transcendent reality that relativizes it.

As the Navajo artist Carl Gorman points out: “Some researchers into Navajo religion say that we have no supreme God because he is not named . This is not so.
The Supreme Being is not named because he is unknowable. He is simply the Unknown Power. We worship him through his creation for he is everything in his creation. The various forms of creation have some of his spirit within them.”

This brings us to what is probably the most important single feature of living primal spirituality; namely, what has been called its
symbolist mentality. 14 The symbolist vision sees the things of the world as transparent to their divine source.

Conclusion

As between the primal and the historical religions, time seems to be on the side of the latter, for though millions would now like to see the primal way of life continue, it seems unlikely that it will do so. “Civilization” is seductive where not imperious, and we cannot quarantine the primal peoples who remain, preserving them for anthropologists to study and the rest of us to romanticize as symbols of our lost paradise.

The historical religions have largely abandoned their earlier missionary designs on “the heathen,” as they were once disparagingly referred to. If anything, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, toward romanticizing the primal.

On the positive side we can note that we now recognize that we were mistaken in our assessment of these people. Primal peoples are not primitive and uncivilized, much less savage. They are not backward; they are different.

So modern peoples, who are no longer confident that God created them, transfer some of God’s nobility to the source from which they assume that they did derive, namely early humankind. This is the deepest impulse behind “the myth of the noble savage” that the eighteenth century invented.

For it is not romantic to affirm what John Collier, one time United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs, said of his charges: "They had what the world has lost: the ancient, lost reverence and passion for human personality joined with the ancient, lost reverence and passion for the earth and its web of life. Since before the Stone Age they have tended that passion as a central, sacred fire. It should be our long hope to renew it in us all."