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
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.
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
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
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
The Supreme Being is not named because he is unknowable. He is simply the
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
The symbolist vision sees the things of the world as transparent to their
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
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
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."