The Primal Religions

posted on January 22, 2013 by Dawn Grant

aboriginalAfter reading and learning about the Primal Religions, I, like many others, have been romanced. I long to have aspects of these traditions and ways in my life. To be at one with the earth and nature, respecting rather than trying to control. To respect our elders and ancestors, telling stories of their lives and lessons.

I will be spending the next few days brainstorming how I can purposefully weave these learnings into my life.

We had a great group discussion on Primal Religions today as a part of our Interfaith Study Group. You are welcome to join us for our upcoming meetings which will be every other Tuesday 10:00-11:30. Due to some calendar conflicts we are actually meeting the next time on Wednesday 1/30 at 10:00. Our topic next visit is Taoism.

Contact me for directions if you want to join.



My personal cliff notes from Chapter IX. The Primal Religions in the book The Worlds Religions by Huston Smith (2009; publisher HarperOne)


  • Historical religions blanket the earth, but chronologically they are only tip of religious iceburg
    • Span less than 4,000 years
    • Religions that preceded them (primal religions) spanned 3,000,000 years +/-
      • Primal because they came first
  • Continues in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, Pacific Islands, Siberia and Indians of N and S America
  • Typically in small communities
  • Much we can learn from them as they have retained insights and virtues the urbanized, industrial civilizations have allowed to fall by wayside
  • Must put aside 19th century prejudice that later means better
  • Some have come to believe archaic peoples are more spiritual than their descendants as they are unencumbered by external devices
    • Muted character of distinction
      • Unlike historical religions that explode into opposites such as heaven and hell
    • No distinction between ‘ordinary life’ and ‘mythical world’/’the Dreaming’
    • ‘ordinary experiences’ are measured by time: seasons cycles, generations
      • Meanwhile, the backdrop for this unending process is stable, time doesn’t touch it, it is ‘everywhen’
    • When one goes hunting, they ‘enter the mold’ of the first and archetypal hunter: they become the First Hunter; no distinction remains. Similarly with other activities from basket weaving to lovemaking
    • It is not about worship, it is about identification, a ‘participation in’ and acting out of archetypal paradigms
  • Literacy is unknown to primal religions
    • To commit living myth and legends to lifeless script would be to imprison it and cause it to die
    • Writing is a competitor to exclusive orality, and threatens the virtues it bestows
    • Speech is part of a speaker’s life and shares that life’s vitality, it has flexibility tailored to speaker and hearer
    • Dictation can enliven themes, rhythm, intonations, pauses, animal postures etc added
    • Literate people grow slack in recall
    • Each member of tribe becomes its walking library
    • Exclusive orality protects human memory
      • Also guards against losing capacity to sense the sacred through nonverbal channelsparadigmsLiteracy is unknown to primal religionsTo commit living myth and legends to lifeless script would
  • Place vs Space
    • Place is not space
      • Place is concrete: no two places are alike
      • Space is abstract: a cubic yard of space is identical anywhere
    • Many historical religions are attached to places but none are embedded to extent of tribal religions
    • All aspects of your surrounding have contributed and continue to contribute to who you are
      • If you were raised around a lake, you are the lake
      • On walkabouts, the springs, major trees and rocks encountered are not interchangeable with others of their kind; each triggers memories of legendary events they were a part of
  • Eternal time
    • In contrast to historical religions of the West which are messianically forward looking, primal religions give appearance of looking toward the past
    • Primal religion is not linear or cyclical, it is atemporal: an eternal now
    • Primal time focus on causal rather than chronological sequence
      • ‘past’ means preeminently closer to the originating Source of things
        • Gods who ordered the worlds and gave it viable structure
        • The Golden Age, when divine creation did not suffer ravages of time and mismanagement, the world was as it should be
        • The world is renewed annually, it recovers the sanctity it possessed when it came from the Creator’s hands
    • Rank order beings according to their proximity to their divine source
      • Animals are venerated for the ‘anteriority’, the otter’s relative stupidity leads primal people to infer it was created last… same as with human species, its pioneers revered over their descendants who are regarded like epigones
      • Elders are enormously respected
      • Human ancestors are viewed as prolongations of the tribe’s earliest ancestors, who were divine
  • The Primal World
    • Embeddedness of primal people in their world
      • Apart from their tribe, they sense little independent identity
      • The tribe is embedded in nature… so solidly that the line between the two is not easily established
      • In totemism a human tribe is joined to an animal species, offering mutual protection and strength
      • In cooperation with nature rather than trying to control it
      • Division between animal and vegetable is equally muted, plants have spirits too
      • They are not blind to nature’s differences, they see distinctions as bridges instead of barriers
      • Everything is alive and each depends in ways on all the others
      • Primal people are not embedded in nature; but rather nature, seeking itself, extends itself to enter deeply into them, infusing them in order to be fathomed by them
      • Absence of compartmentalization
      • A hunter does not set out simply to assuage his tribe’s hunger, he launches on a complex of meditative acts, all of which- whether preparatory prayer and purification, pursuit of the quarry, or the sacramental manner by which the animal is slain and subsequently treated- are imbued with sanctity
        • Hunting is life’s quest for ultimate truth; the quest requires preparatory prayer and sacrificial purification
          • “the diligently followed tracks are signs or intimations of the goal, and the final contact or identity with the quarry is the realization of Truth, the ultimate goal of life”
      • There is no line separating this world from another world that stands over against it, compared to historical religions where this division emerges and is distinctive
        • Primal peoples are oriented to a single cosmos, which sustains them like a living womb
        • Because they assume it exists to nurture them, they have no disposition to challenge it, defy it, refashion it, or escape from it
        • Overriding goal of salvation that dominates historical religions is virtually absent from primal religions, where life after death tends to be a shadowy semi-existence in some vaguely designated place in their single domain
  • The Symbolic Mind
    • A common stereotype pegs primal religions as polytheistic, not altogether wrong if the word tokens that the divine can congeal in hallowed places and alight on specific objects
    • Tribal people sense a Supreme Being… it is not named because he is unknowable. He is simply the Unknown Power. He is worshipped through his creation for he is everything in creation.
      • Something may even be lost by attaching it, that loss being the removal of holiness from things that are other than the God that is factored out
    • The symbolist mentality sees the things of the world as transparent to their divine source
    • “it is often difficult for those who look on the tradition of the Red Man from the outside or through the ‘educated’ mind to understand that no object is what it appears to be, but it is simply the pale shadow of Reality. It is for this reason that every created object is wakan, holy, and has a power according to the loftiness of the spiritual reality that it reflects. The Indian humbles himself before the whole of creation because all visible things were created before him and, being older than he, deserve respect”
    • ‘more’ is the ‘less,’ the landscape is a reflection of a superior reality which ‘contained’ the physical reality… a ‘spiritual dimension’ which escapes modern man
    • Mysticism and symbolism are frequently utilized
      • A tribesman points out: the circles in a spider web are sticky, whereas its radii are not. Meaning, if you wander from side to side in life you get stuck, but if you move toward its center you don’t
    • The Shaman bypasses symbolism and perceives spiritual realities directly
      • Spiritually gifted
      • Subject to severe physical and emotional traumas in their early years, they are able to heal themselves and reintegrate their lives in ways that place psychic it not cosmic powers at their disposal
      • Powers enable them to engage with spirits, both good and evil, drawing power from the good and battling the evil when need be
      • Heavily engaged in healing, and appear to have preternatural powers to foretell the future and discern lost objects
  • Millions would like to see the primal way of life continue, although it seems unlikely that is will
  • Primal was once considered ‘heathen’ by historical religions. But now primal is becoming romanticized
    • Dismayed by the relentless utilitarianism of technological society and its seeming inability to contain its power to destroy both people and planet, citified peoples hope a different way of life is possible and look to primal peoples to support that hope
      • There has been a holocaust on a global scale
  • We were mistaken in seeing primal people as primitive, uncivilized, savaged. They are not backward, they are different. They are not impaired, they are apart.
  • Tribal people are wholly natural, they are sons and daughters of the earth and sky, brothers and sisters of animals and plants, who live by nature’s ways and do not upset the delicate balances of their ecological zones; gentle hunting folk who are still in touch with the magic and myth that we so badly need
  • Every people needs to think well of its origins, it is part of having a healthy self image
  • Hopefully we are ready to put both prejudice and idealization behind us, then we can live out our numbered years of planetary partnership in mutual respect, guided by the dream of one primal spokesman that “we may be brothers after all”
  • “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” John Collier, one time United States Commissioner of Indian Affairs



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The Primal Religions posted on January 22, 2013 by Dawn Grant

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