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Primitive Religion.

Both words, “primitive” and “religion,” have been variously interpreted. “Primitive culture” was gen. regarded in the 19th c. as referring to 1st stages of an evolutionary development. Some used the term to include such advanced people as Chinese who were not in the Indo-Eur. development.

Many studies have been made of the mentality of primitive people; conclusions range from views that regard primitives mentally retarded and wholly superstitious to views that regard primitive ratiocinations as parallel to those of civilized peoples. Esp. after 1950 have scholars emphasized that values, ideas, judgments, and actions of “civilized peoples” are often as irrational as those of primitives.

Definitions and descriptions of religion vary. Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917; Eng. anthropologist) defined religion as “the belief in spiritual beings” (Primitive Culture, I, 383). Scholars soon pointed out that he excluded magic and religious actions. J. G. Frazer* described religion as a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man that are believed to direct and control the course of nature and human life. Some despair of precise definitions and describe magico-religious phenomena as the whole area of the sacred.

Attempts to explain the origin of religion may be classified as psychol, and sociological. Psychol. explanations include the theory of Charles de Brosses (1709–77; b. Dijon, Fr.; called le Président de Brosses because he was pres. of the parliament of Burgundy 1740–77; scholar; works include Du Culte des dieux fétiches), who held that religion originated in fetishism.* Adherents of the nature-myth school (e.g., F. M. Müller*) believe that gods are personified nat. phenomena. Psychol. explanations trace the origin of religion to such experiences as dreams, visions (e.g., of ghosts), diseases, death, and to magic, ideas of luck and of power, etc. Others find the origin of religion in such feelings as awe, amazement, mystery, fear.

Sociol. theories trace the origin of religion to institutions and practices of a community and hold that religion contributes to community cohesion. E. Durkheim* advanced the theory that primitive religion is a totemic clan cult. The totemic god of a clan is the clan itself divinized. Totemism,* he held, is the most elementary form of religion. The totem is symbol of the good and of society. In the totem the individual expresses his identity with the community.

L. Léevy-Bruhl* and other philosophers combined psychol. and sociol. aspects in studies of primitive mentality, holding that beings and objects are all involved in a network of mystical participations and exclusions.

Ca. the middle of the 20th c. interest in studies of primitive religion waned. Anthropologists pointed out that few writers on primitive religion had field experience; they were simply projecting rationalizations on cultures regarded as primitive; their theories could be neither proven nor disproven and were of little value to anthropologists working in the field.

Recent studies deal with phenomenological analyses and comparisons of psychol. and sociol. aspects of religion.

Terms used in the study of primitive religion include mana (Melanesian word designating mysterious power residing in persons because of birth, soc. status, or ability; animals such as tribal totems; inanimate things; see also Africa, A 3); taboo*; manitou (manitu; manito; used by Algonquian Indians for spirits or objects that arouse awe and reverence because of their power for good or evil); animism (used by E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture, chaps. xi–xvii, to describe gen. belief in spirit; began with belief in soul; core of religion; in opposition to Tylor, Robert Ranulph Marett [1866–1943; Eng. anthropologist; works include The Threshold of Religion] held that belief in animation [animatism] of nonphysiological things precede soul ideas; see also Polytheism); animatism (term coined by Marett to describe a tendency of primitives to regard and treat inanimate things, when considered sacred, as having life, feeling, will); baraka (Berber term for holiness of people or things; prophets and sultans have baraka); wakan (wakanda; wakon; wakonda; Sioux Indian term for power similar to mana believed to pervade animate and inanimate objects); orenda (Iroquois Indian term for power believed present in animate and inanimate objects as a kind of spiritual energy; see also Indians, American. 1).

Some characteristics of the primitive sacred: forbidden, mysterious, secret, potent, animate, ancient. El, WJD

See also Africa, A 3; Amulets; Ancestor Worship; Dynamism.

Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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