Chapter 1


Primitive Religious Traditions



Primitive religious traditions present themselves as an interesting topic for deeper study and analysis. It is difficult to talk about primitive religions, their origin and development, as we have very little evidence about these religions. Our attempt to understand them in terms of speculative theories, may not give us a clear picture of these religions, as the conclusions arrived at would basically be speculative and not necessarily founded on reality. Probably we would never be able to know the reality of the ultimate origins of primitive religions. This thinking makes some authors even question the use of the term "primitive" to refer to these religions. In the introductory section, we would briefly sketch the validity of the use of the term "primitive" in relation to these religions, the nature, characteristics and types of primitive religions.


The use of the term "primitive" to refer to ancient religious traditions has run into difficulties. A number of scholars raise their eyebrows at this usage. They say that the term "primitive" cannot be used to indicate these religions on two counts. Firstly, if we take the term "primitive" in the sense of ‘early’, ‘ancient’, ‘original’ or ‘primary’, it cannot refer to these religions, as primitive man and his religion in this sense disappeared from the world thousands of years ago. The people and religions that are described thus are neither original nor primary, but belong to the present era of human existence. Therefore, it is wrong to speak of the religion of living people as primitive. Secondly, the term "primitive" could mean ‘old-fashioned’, ‘backward’, ‘uncouth’ or ‘savage’. In this sense the term "primitive" stands at the opposite end of the pole from "civilized". Thus, used in this meaning to refer to these religions, the term "primitive" can indicate that they are unsophisticated and crude in comparison with the religions of developed civilization. Such use, according to these authors, is simply on the ground of racial and ethnic prejudice, and it indicates lack of sympathy and understanding from those races, which consider themselves superior to others.1 This thinking has led authors to look for different words to refer to these religions in their works. These religions are being referred to as "religions of non-literate peoples"2 and "traditional religions".3

There is a great deal of truth in the claims of these authors. Considered strictly, we cannot speak of primitives in any part of the present world. Neither can we have direct knowledge of the earliest beginnings of religion so as to have first hand information about the true chronologically primitive religion. Besides, in the course of the development of such religions there might have occurred a number of changes, and so the present day tribal religions are not primitive in the original sense. Therefore, to make such equations would be a claim that cannot be justified.4 Again to say that these religions are ‘the religions of the savages and the uncivilized’ would be totally incorrect. As a matter of fact these people are not savages, though they may not be as developed as some other cultures and their religions are not absurd, though they may not have the doctrinal clarity of some religions. The religious thought of these religions is "remarkably sensitive and often refined and intelligent. It is also highly complex, to a degree that ethnologists after more than a century of study are still struggling to clarify their complicated beliefs and ritual practices."5

When we use the term "primitive" to indicate contemporary tribal religions we do not equate them with the ancient religions. Neither do we say that these religions are savage and uncivilized. It is possible that a person with such a bias can read into our use of the term "primitive" a racial or ethnic prejudice. In fact, the reason for the use of the term "primitive" to the contemporary tribal societies and their religions is very different. We could mention a few. Firstly, the prehistoric people also used primitive techniques, such as, food gathering and hunting for maintaining life. The people of the tribal societies depend on such methods to maintain life. "Since their mode of life corresponds to that of the prehistoric man, it is not unnatural to try to divine what went on in prehistoric times by reading into them the experience"6 of the contemporary tribal people. Secondly, the tribal cultures of the present "have remained from time immemorial out of general and influential contact with other peoples and as a consequence are said to possess some religious beliefs and institutions which characterized her mankind nearer the beginnings of human history than other, major religions."7 So they are primitive in the sense that they are the closest to the ancient religions. Thirdly, in the historical religions faith is a system of belief to which one may or may not become committed. Thus here faith is a matter of personal choice. But for prehistoric man and for tribal peoples religion is essentially part of the structure of everyday existence. Everyone adheres to religion by way of custom and practice rather than of choice. Therefore, we find a greater affinity between prehistoric religions and contemporary tribal religions.8 All these affinities between prehistoric man and contemporary tribal cultures suggest that the latter derive their lineage from the prehistoric ancestors of the human race. Since we find a number of similarities between prehistoric people and contemporary tribal people both in behavior and practice, we use the term "primitive" in an extended sense to refer to the contemporary tribal cultures and religions. Such use has no racial or ethnic bias, and it is justifiable.

Nature and Characteristics of Primitive Religion

Now we can move on to consider the nature of the primitive religion. It is not a revealed religion, nor does it have a founder. It has no Holy Scripture or prophets; the beliefs about God, prayers and forms of worship are handed down through generations by word of mouth. It is a religion of the group. Primitive peoples were so identified with their clan that they could not think apart from it. Group thoughts, custom and tradition conditioned the life of the primitive people. Often they did not have a permanent place of worship and makeshift arrangements were made for worship. The rituals were often associated with magic. Animism, spiritism, magic, totemism and sacrifice are some of the characteristic elements of primitive religion.9

Animism consists in attributing qualities of the soul to material objects and non-human living creatures, such as the moon, a grove of trees, mountains, rain, sky and other similar objects. When animated with the soul, they are said to affect one’s personal and social life. Since power is attributed to these objects, they are often regarded as extra-ordinary and supernatural.10 Ethnologists and anthropologists use the term mana to refer to the quality of the soul that is found in objects. Mana is a supernatural force or power that operates silently and invisibly in objects and persons. It gives tremendous power to the one possessing it. Just as electricity is capable of doing much for the benefit of man and is at the same time capable of destroying him, in the same way the mana is capable of effecting evil and good for man. It usually resides in the chieftain, animals, plants and certain types of rocks. Primitives believed that the mana can be transferred from a person to an object, as an arrow can be endowed with it.11 Belief in animism made the primitives worship natural objects such sun, moon, stars, rivers, clouds, winds and trees, besides revering animals such as tigers, crocodiles and snakes. The reasons for the practice of animism among the primitive people are the recognition of the secret powers possessed by these soul-filled realities, the good things they gave and the fear of the hurt they might do.12

Spiritism is an improvement over animism. In animism the souls are linked with an object, an animal or a place. But in spiritism the souls are not bound in this manner, but rather they are free to move about as they wish. According to spiritism, a soul that is bound to a body, a mountain or a tree can desert the place it was and go about as it wishes and return to its original place whenever it wishes. Spiritism gave rise to fetishism. A fetish may be a stone or any object that is said to possess mysterious powers because of the presence of the spirit. When the spirit is present in the fetish, it is revered, and when the spirit is away the fetish is discarded. Primitive people believed that a great number of spirits haunted the mountaintops, rivers, forests, trees and other such places and directed the lives of people. They also believed that some spirits are malicious and do harm to people, while others are good and save people in times of troubles. The recognition of the powers of the super-sensible spirits led the primitive people to revere the spirits and offer them worship.13

Primitive religion is associated with magic. It is an attempt on the part of man to achieve his ends by occult and mysterious means. Man has many desires, and he attempts to achieve them by taking recourse in the power of the spirits. The magicians use magical incantations, spells, formulae and other rites to achieve their ends. The magical rites are performed usually to achieve needs related to economic prosperity, sex, removal of illness in a person, fertility of the fields and warding off evil. Therefore, a large number of magical practices are centered on food supply, women, economic pursuit and effecting clement weather. The power of magic resides in words. Therefore, the incantations are recited deliberately and formally. A magician invokes the spirits to help him achieve these ends. Magic is a strategy the primitive people used to influence the spirits and get their help for achieving their purpose. Magic was called ‘white’ if its purpose was benefit or protection from harm, while it was ‘black’ if the intention was to do an injury. Though we cannot say that the primitive religion is magical, yet many of the religious rites practiced by the primitive people are magical. For instance, eating the totem animal was considered a magical means of bringing good to the tribe. Thus, in primitive religions the magical dimension was closely related to the religious rites.14

Totemism and sacrifice are two other characteristic elements of the primitive religion. Totemism is based on the belief that a clan has a deep sense of kinship with creatures other than human beings. A tribe may feel related to a particular species of animal or plant. The tribe considers that animal or the plant as its totem. The deep sense of affinity is such that the totem animal or plant is considered as the ancestor of the clan. The life of the tribe is bound up with the totem, and is closely linked with the social well being of the people of the tribe. Therefore, the members of the tribe honor the totem with reverence and respect. In this manner totemism brings about genuine fellowship and social living within the members of the tribe. Totemism also has a sacrificial dimension. Generally the members of the tribe are not allowed to kill a totem animal, as it is sacred to them. But there are occasions of communal celebration, when the totem animal is sacrificed and shared by all the members of the tribe. The primitive people believe that when the totem animal is sacrificed, the gods and the people eat it in a common meal. Such a meal is considered as a sacrament, and they believe that it brings a bond of union among them, besides bringing strength and power to the people of the tribe.15 Other than the totem sacrifice there was also the practice of offering expiatory sacrifices and sacrifices to appease gods. Human sacrifice was also prevalent. Offering of the firstborn children, guilty tribesmen and, in extreme cases offering of the tribal chief in sacrifice to appease the deity was also practiced. The surrender of worshipper and his self-denial is best expressed in these sacrifices. Primitive peoples believe that such sacrifices arouse the sympathy of the deity towards the worshipper.16

Types of Primitiave Religion

Ethnologists speak of two types of primitive religion. Firstly, the lower type, which is pure, untouched by other major religions and lacks speculative development. Besides, the lower type of primitive religion is more animist, spiritist and fetishist. The following are some of the lower type primitive religion: the Negritos of the Philippine Islands, various tribes of Micronesia and Polynesia, the Papuans of New Guinea and the black Aruntas of Australia. To this group also belong the Andaman Islanders in the Bay of Bengal, the Kols and Pariahs of Central and South India, the Pygmies and Bushmen of Central Congo basin, the Caribs of the West Indies, and the Yahgans of the extreme south of South America. Secondly, a higher type of primitive religion developed later than the lower type. To this group belong the Samoans and Hawaiians, the Kalmuks of Liberia, the Veddas of Ceylon, the Todas of the Nilgri Hills in South India, the Bantu of South Central and Southern Africa and the Eskimos and Amerinds, i.e., the American Indians of North and South America.17

Ethnologists further divide the lower and the higher type of primitive religion as traditional, syncretist and spontaneous. This division is aimed at making a precise assessment of the nature of the types of primitive religion according to its origin and development. The traditional group has attempted to maintain the originality of the ancestral religion, preventing any influence from outside to change the original pattern of life and worship. Usually the traditional group is isolated, as they lived in places that are removed from the other cultures. They occupied mountainous areas or islands. The Syncretist group is more open to other cultures and religions. They often adapt forms of religious worship and practice from other higher religions. The spontaneous group is a traditional type of primitive people, who in response to the decline of their culture and religious practice, create new forms of belief and ritual and thereby attempt to maintain their own identity and originality.18

Now that we have made some introductory remarks about primitive religion in general, we could move on to consider, in the following two essays, the world of the Divine and of the divinities in the primitive religion and the primitive peoples’ path to reach out to the Divine, respectively.


The spiritual world of the primitive religion is filled with various levels of spiritual beings. For instance, if we take the Ainu religion19 we find there a rich variety of spirits. They use the term "kamui" to refer to the spiritual beings. The first group of kamui is considered as remote and traditional, which includes gods of the sky. It is believed that Kando-koro Kamui, one of the kamui belonging to this group, assigned Moshiri-kara Kamui, to create the land of Ainu. The kamui of this group, though not reached in many rituals, are considered as significant gods (pase-kamui) and are revered by the people. To the second group belong the trustworthy kaumi with whom the Ainu people have regular dealings. The leader of this group of kamui is Shiramba Kamui, who is referred to as "the upholder of the world", whose spirit-energy (ramat) vivifies every form of plant life useful to the people. There is also another Kamui Fuchi, whose ramat is manifest in the fire of the hearth, which must be kept alive and never allowed to go out. The third class of kamui is related to the second class of kamui. These are subsidiary to the former and function on their behalf. The fourth group is spirits that have animal form. Animals like bears and foxes are considered as kamui who can take human shape in a miraculous manner. Some of these are considered as good, while others harm people. To the fifth group of kamui belong the spirit-helpers, which reside in the skulls of certain kamui of the fourth class. The sixth groups of kamui is the evil spirits that haunt places, which are dangerous to man, such as, woods, marshes, ravines and rapidly moving rivers. The seventh group of kamui is the malicious spirits of disease and pestilence. The eighth class consists of kamui that create horror and unpleasantness in human beings.20

The example of the Ainu religion clearly shows that the world of the spirits in primitive religion ranges from the highest type to the lowest. In order to understand the religious perception of the primitive people it is important to consider not only their concept of the Supreme Being, but also the many divinities and spiritual beings that populate the spiritual world. The spirits spoken of in the primitive religion can be listed under four categories. Firstly, the Divine, which is the Supreme Being and the source of everything in the universe: Secondly, the divinities or the associates of the Divine created by Him and standing for His activities. Thirdly, the free spirits those are beneath the status of the divinities and above the status of men. Some of these spirits are directly created, while others are spirits of the people who lived on this earth but have completed their state of being bound to the body. They are not body-bound and are the ‘common populace’ of spiritual beings. The fourth category is the living dead. They are spirits that are still in the process of attaining complete death and freedom from the body-bound world. In this essay we would attempt to elaborate on these four categories of the spirit in the primitive religion.


Though there are fetishistic and animistic elements in primitive religion, it is interesting to note that a great number of them believe in a Divine that is the Supreme Being. Some writers on primitive religion speak of this Supreme Being as a "High God". This name gives one the impression that He is distant and transcendent, so much so that He is not involved with people. These authors mention the common belief in different parts of Africa that God is ‘gone away’, in the sense that He is very remote from the everyday concerns of ordinary people, to substantiate their idea of a "High God". They cite a myth, which says that there was a time when the sky, where God dwelt, was so near that it could be touched. But one day a woman took pieces of sky and cooked them in the soup. This angered God and He withdrew into the present distance. Since He has ‘gone away’ from the people, He no longer concerns Himself with human affairs. Another reason they give to justify their claim is the relative absence of rituals for the High God. On the one hand they speak of a Supreme Being and, on the other hand, there are not many ritual observances for the Divine. These writers claim that the possible reason for this is the remoteness and transcendent nature of the High God. Since He is uninvolved with the everyday life of the people, the rituals people offer do not concern him much. Therefore, He is also spoken of being existing beyond the firmament too exalted to be contaminated by the affairs of the ordinary people.21 Though there may be a certain amount of truth in the claim of these writers, the study of primitive religion gives one a clear perception of primitive peoples’ belief in a Supreme Being, who is the Supreme Sprit, who rules over lesser spirits and gods. He is described as governing the natural forces, creating souls, men and all other things in the universe. This Great Spirit is considered as the First Cause and the creator of the world. Besides, myths about God’s anger and His distance, though simplistic and naïve, communicate the primitive peoples’ belief in the numinous nature of God as the Holy Being. God, as the Holy Being, stands over against man in an exalted level, which is symbolized by distance. It also points out God’s perfection and man’s incapacity for perfection.22 Thus, the distance and transcendence of God perceived by the primitive people, in fact, does not make the Supreme Being a "High God", but only points to the exalted nature of the Supreme Being and His holiness in comparison with the human being who is limited and imperfect.

Other writers speak of syncretism as the reason for the notion of the Supreme Being in primitive religion. Syncretism consists in primitive religions coming in contact with developed religions and accepting developed notions of the divinity from these developed religions. In other words, syncretism implies borrowing developed concepts of God and religious practices from the developed religions. According to these authors the idea of the Supreme Spirit as the creator of the universe present in primitive religion does not go back to the primeval history of the primitive religion, but rather is borrowed from one or the other developed religions. These authors cite the example of the primitive religion of Rhodesia as greatly influenced by the Jewish religion. They believe that the God Lesa is the creator of mankind that the first parents sinned and, as the result, death came into the world. Besides they also practice some customs that are distinctively Jewish, such as not eating certain types of meat, offering the first fruits, and concern over legal defilement, which are very similar to that mentioned the Book of Leviticus. There are also archeological evidences to show the presence of the Jewish community and a temple of Yahweh in Africa at the end of the 6th century BC. Besides, the discovery of Jewish coins in Natal and Zululnad in the pre-Christian era also points to the influence of the Jewish religion in the African primitive religion. Those who hold for syncretism as the reason for the belief in a Supreme Being in primitive religions put forward all these evidences and thereby conclude that until being influenced by the developed religions, there is no belief in the Supreme Being in the primitive religions. This claim of these thinkers can only be made of African primitive religion that was influenced by the Jewish religious ideas, but it cannot be made of primitive religions in Asia and other places, where no such syncretism can be established. The presence of the notion of a Supreme Being, even in religions where no syncretism can be established, clearly indicates that the experience of a Supreme Divinity is part and parcel of the belief of the primitive religion.23

One may object to the belief in a Supreme Divinity in the primitive religion, because God is presented in the myths as having wife, children, servants and messengers. Besides, He is described as having other gods as his partners and agents in the act of creation; for instance, the Semang of Malacca believe that Ta Pedn, the all-seeing creator God, who lives in heaven with His spouse. He also has a counterpart, who is manifested in thunder. The Siberian religion speaks of the Sky-God as the Supreme Being and that seven other gods stand beside Him and assist Him. Another myth from the Congo tribal religion speaks of God once living in the middle of Africa with His three sons, of which one was white, the other was black and the last was a gorilla. Again God is described as having a body, head, eyes, ears, mouth, arms and legs. The Supreme Being cannot be supreme if these qualities are attributed to Him. In understanding myths of the primitive religion, especially regarding the Supreme Being, we must keep in mind the fact that myths express primitive peoples’ belief about God in graphic form. Myths speak of God in picture language and through symbols. Therefore, it is not necessary to accept every detail found in the myths. They are often stories told to communicate truth about God’s spiritual direction of the universe to very simple and illiterate people. Besides, expressing the reality of the Supreme God in human language always involves physical imagery, and speaking of Him in negative terms as invisible and indescribable. Therefore, we must understand myths of the primitive religions metaphorically, looking for the underlying truth communicated by the myths rather than the feasibility of every detail contained in the myth.24 From what we have said it is clear that the myths of primitive religions in no way disprove the existence of the belief in the Supreme Being among the primitive people.

Having established the truth about the fact of primitive religious belief in a Supreme Being, we can move on to talk about the nature, attributes, the ways of the Supreme Being and the images used by the primitive people to speak of Him/Her. THE NATURE OF THE SUPREME BEING

The Supreme Being exists by Himself. He is different from any type of creature, as the latter are caused while He is the uncaused cause of everything. He has a pre-eminent place in the universe, as the universe depends on Him. The pre-eminence of God makes Him greater than any creatures, whether it is spirit or man. The greatness of God makes Him mysterious and incomprehensible. No one is able to know Him or understand His nature. The essential nature of the Supreme Being is one. Myths, which speak of God as related to wife, children and associates must be taken in a metaphorical sense. In fact God is the unity beyond all diversity and duality. God is not only the creator, but also the principle of unity that holds every duality such as heaven and earth, sun and moon, day and night, man and woman, together. The essence of God is present everywhere and sustains everything. Though He is given a number of attributes, He is beyond all such attributes. He is often not represented by a figure, as no figure is capable of depicting His real nature. That is probably the reason why people of tribal religions do not use statues or image in honoring the Supreme Being. But the Supreme Being is seen as one directing every moment of peoples’ lives and as having a great deal of influence. Thus, primitive people had some form of belief in the providence of God.25

A look into the belief of the Ewe people of Upper Guinea illustrates a number of aspects we mentioned regarding the nature of the Supreme Being. They associated the Supreme Being with the visible sky. The blue of heaven is His veil and the clouds His dress and ornaments. The thunder is the sound of His voice. These expressions about God must be taken in the metaphorical sense. They give the Supreme Being, the name Mawu or Mahou, but they do not describe His attributes. Mawu is considered as the one reality behind the multiplicity that is experienced in the world. They never represent Mawu in figure; there are hardly any images or statues in relation to which worship is offered to Mawu. Worship is offered to Him by looking at the western sky as the sun is setting. People confide, as it were, to the setting sun the message they wanted to give to Mawu. The Ewe people depend on Mawu for everything in their life, as He directs their life and has a great deal of influence its affairs. A person who does not pronounce the name of Mawu as he rises in the morning is considered as equivalent to a beast. During the day they frequently pronounced the name of Mawu. When they faced any danger in their life, they always call on to Him for help, speaking His name aloud. If they gain any unexpected benefit, they attribute it to the good Mawu. When a person is accused falsely before a tribunal or court, they use the expression ‘Mawu knows my soul’. When faced with death the Eve people do not address any lower spirits, but call on Mawu, their Supreme Deity, to have pity on them.26 The primitive people of Rhodesia believe in a Supreme Being, whom they call Lesa Mukulu. The name literally means God, the Supreme Being. They point to the superiority of their God over everything by saying that He is not in need of their offerings of flour and meat. They indicate their faith in His providence by saying that when Lesa cooks food there is no smoke and He gives food when they least expect it. 27

In this manner for the primitive people, God, the Supreme Being, was the source of everything in the world including the other spirits on whom they depended and worshipped. During the most significant moments of their life they took recourse to the Supreme Being rather than to inferior deities. ATTRIBUTES OF THE SUPREME BEING:

The nature of God is further elaborated when we consider the attributes given to Him in primitive religion. Some of the qualities attributed to the Supreme Being in primitive religion correspond to the names given to God in the developed religions. Of these attributes many point to the transcendent nature of the Supreme Being. Most of the primitive peoples associate the Supreme Being with the vault of heaven or the sky. Their speaking of God as in the sky indicates His transcendence and superiority over everything in the universe. As the Supreme Being, He is described as the omnipotent and all-powerful being. A few other titles given to the Supreme Being spell out further the quality of omnipotence. "Creator", "allotter", "the giver of rain and sunshine", "the one who made the great forests", "maker of souls" and the "one who exists by himself" are some of such titles. Thus, for most primitive people, God is the creator and ruler of everything that exists. He is beyond all the thanks and praise we offer Him. He is the ancient of days who is from the beginning. God is the everlasting being who has no limits and who is fullness and abundance. The Zulu people attribute the Supreme Being such names as "the one who bends down majesties", "the irresistible" and "the one who roars, thereby striking the nations with terror".28

Many other primitive people describe the Supreme Being in His transcendent and all-powerful aspect, and consider creation as God’s natural and primary function. The Dinka people of Southern Sudan call the Supreme Being Nhialic, which means ‘that which is above in the sky’. They refer to Nhialic as the creator. The Ga people, who live in Accra, Ghana, believe in a most powerful Supreme Spirit, whom they call Naa Nyonmo. They believe that He lives in the sky. He is the creator of everything. He created the heavens first and then the earth. Along with the earth, he also created the waters and all other things on earth. In creating the waters the Naa Nyonmo created the sea.29 Many of the tribal people of Eastern Africa believed in a Supreme Being, whom they called Mulungu, which means ‘He above’ or ‘He in heaven’. The (A)kambe people consider Mulungu as the creator of everything, who lives in heaven. He is superior to the spirits of the dead and all the forces of nature. For the Kikuyu of Kenya Mulungu is the creator of everything. He shows His power in the sun, the moon, the stars, the gale, the rain and the rainbow. To (Ba)konko people of Kongo territory, Nzambi is the creator of the world and of the humankind. For the tribal people of Western Cameroons Nyambe has created the earth. The Semang people of Malacca believe in a creator God, whom they call Ta Pedn. The North American Indians believe in a Great Spirit, who is the creator, whose strength manifests and permeates everything. The Araucan people of South America believe in the Supreme God, who is called ‘the Lord of mankind’, ‘the Lord of the land’ and ‘the blue King’. The last title refers to the fact that He is associated with the sky. He is seen as the creator, giver of life and fertility. He is also responsible for the well-being of humanity.30

Besides, the many indications regarding the all-powerful, transcendent and creative aspect of the Supreme Being, there are also a number of references to God as present everywhere; He is immanent in the world. We find God is described in primitive religion as omnipresent, ‘the one who is met everywhere’, ‘the great ocean whose headdress is the horizon’, the wise one, ‘the great pool contemporary of everything’, ‘the one who fills everything’ and ‘the one who brings round the seasons’. All these attributes bring to the fore the nearness of God to His people. Most of the primitive people experienced the immanence of God in physical and natural terms. They spoke of God’s presence in big trees, in thickets, on mountains and rocky places and in rivers and streams. His immanence makes the people experience Him as many, though He is one, as He is available to everyone in the life situation of each person. God is said to be invisible in ordinary times, but people can experience Him before they die. The voice of the immanent God is heard when the bush burns or the wind blows.31 The Maori people, who belong to the Polynesian tribes and who live on the islands in the South Pacific Ocean, believe in the Supreme Being, whom they call Io, which means ‘the innermost part’. For them Io is the Supreme Power (atua). He lived before anything else lived. They consider Io as the innermost part of everything that lives in the sky and on earth. For them, Io is ‘the source of all knowledge’ (Io Wananga), ‘the spring-water of life’ (Io Te Waiora) and ‘the face that cannot be seen" (Io Mata-ngaro). Thus, the Maori people consider their Supreme Being as the immanent principle of life and activity, as He is the innermost of everything in heaven and on earth.32

Besides considering the Supreme Being as transcendent and immanent, the primitive people also attribute to Him moral and humane qualities. In addition to being supremely great, omnipotent, omniscient and present everywhere, He is kind towards people. In His providence He deals with people in great benevolence. He is spoken of as the God of destinies, the kindly disposed, the God whose providence watches over all like the sun, the God who is full of pity, the father of babies and the great friend. He is considered not only as the creator of the world, but also as the one who established the laws of the society. Justice, truth and equity exist in society only where people live in obedience to Him. Such beliefs about the moral nature of God are reflected in the Akan people giving God the title "the one on whom men lean and do not fall".33

In expressing the benevolent nature of God and His universal goodness the Rhodesian tribal people compare their Supreme Being, Lesa Mukulu, with a blacksmith who caters to the needs of all and with a tailor who makes cloth for everyone. He is also invoked as the God who upholds truth. People often call on Lesa Mukulu to justify their truthfulness. For instance when their truthfulness is questioned they say "may Lesa strike me dead if I lie". Their Supreme Being, Lesa, is also referred to as one who preserves their health and as the one who punishes the evildoer.34 The Eve tribal people also call on their Supreme Being Mawu to proclaim their truthfulness and innocence. When falsely accused before a tribunal they cry out "Mawu knows my soul". For them Mawu is good, always ready to help them and ready to forgive them. So, when faced with troubles of life, they call on Him saying "Mawu help me, I ask you". Before anyone dies he asks Mawu’s forgiveness by saying "Mawu have pity on me". The tribal people of Congo and Angola call on their Supreme Being, Nzambi’s conscience, to be their witness when faced with untrue accusations. They use His name to pledge oaths.35 The Selknam tribe of the South American Indians of Tierra del Guego believes that the Supreme Being, Temaukel lives in heaven. Though He is invisible, He sees everything and is the guardian of the moral life of the people.36

All these examples show clearly that the primitive people not only believed in the Supreme Being, but also attributed to Him moral qualities. Thus, they experienced the Supreme Being as the benevolent Deity who, though at a distance, exercised overall control over everything in the world and had true concern for peoples’ welfare. THE WAYS OF THE SUPREME BEING

Though the Supreme Being is experienced as transcendent, immanent and the guardian of morality, sometimes the primitive people questioned the manner in which God treated them. They did not understand the ways of God, as these were incomprehensible and inscrutable. Myths of the primitive religion brought to the fore the unpredictable ways of God’s dealing with them. One famous African myth narrates how God Leza brought a great deal of trouble for an old woman with a large family. God first smote her parents and then all her relatives. The deaths of her husband, children and grandchildren followed. Only she was left, and she hoped to die. But strangely enough she grew younger, as she ate the soul-stuff of her relatives. She decided to use her newly found powers to find where God is and to get an explanation for the way God has treated her and her family. She attempted to reach the sky where God is by making a ladder out of forest trees. Since this attempt failed, she decided to travel through every country until she found a place where heaven touches the earth, thereby providing her a road to God’s dwelling place. To those who questioned her about her travels, she said that she suffered a great deal from God and she was seeking Him to get from Him an explanation for His behavior. Those who heard her speak told her that to have trouble in life is nothing strange. "No body can be free of troubles, as God’s ways are incomprehensible".37 There are also other myths that speak of God’s anger and the reason for His distance from people. One such myth goes as follows. The sky, the dwelling place of God was once very near to the people. Then people could easily have contact with God. But people seem to have lost respect for God and His dwelling place, the sky, as it was so near to them. One day one woman took pieces of sky to make soup. This disrespectful behavior seemed to have made God angry and He withdrew from the earth to the present distance. There are also many myths that speak of the reason for God bringing death in the life of man. We could mention one such myth from the primitive people of Congo. Once upon a time God lived in the middle of Africa with three of His sons, one a white, the second a black and the third a gorilla. The black son and the gorilla disobeyed God. In anger God withdrew to the west with His white son and all His riches. The gorilla retired into the middle of the forest, while the black son was left in poverty, despair and ignorance. In this manner evils such as poverty and death entered the life of man.38

All these stories must be understood metaphorically. Though we need not take all the details of these stories as true, they all question God’s role in the suffering and evil in people’s lives. The primitive people wondered about God behaving with them in this manner. Their query was, ‘If God is the omnipotent, omniscient and moral guardian of our lives, how can such troubles come?’ If God is the creator of the universe, what is His role in the continued existence of the world and its people? The Primitive mind attempted to answer these questions by pointing to the fact that God’s ways are beyond man. Therefore, they can never be known. God is the giver of destinies. His ways may appear harsh and inscrutable, but people should not be fatalistic about their lives because of the troubles. Neither should they question God’s ways. They must also see that many a time God consoles them. Good things also happen in the universe. The creative work of the Supreme Being continues in His sustaining activity in the universe. Thus, the sustenance of the universe is the continuance of the creative act of God. There are many sustaining actions of God taking place in the world. He gives rain and sun. He blesses people with health and fertility. God is the deliverer and savior, as He guides everything within His providence. The troubles such as disease, poverty, drought, famine, pestilence and death must be accepted as part of the mystery of God’s nature and action. Man’s response to God’s ways must be one of submission rather than rebellion, as God is the supreme and central moving force of the whole universe and every reality in it including man.39 Some of the names the Maori people give to Io, the Supreme Being, point to their unquestioning acceptance of the ways of God. They call Him the Great, the Eternal and the Unchanging. He is looked upon as the Source of all sacred and occult knowledge; he is the Parent or the Origin of all things, while Himself being Parentless. While He is recognized as the Source of welfare and of all life, He is seen also as the Vigilant and the Withholder. As the Source of welfare and of all life, the Supreme Being sustains everything in the universe. But He is also the Vigilant One, who sees what people are and what they do. Therefore His care for people should not be taken for granted by people. As the Withholder, the Supreme Being possesses power to prevent man from gaining all his desires. The Supreme Being - as the Source that sustains everything, the Vigilant who sees the ultimate good of man and as the Withholder who has the power to give what He wishes - knows what is the best for man. Therefore, He gives and withholds at His pleasure. Thus, God is within His power to act in the way He wishes towards His people. People should not question God for His ways, but accept His will without grumbling.40 SUPREME BEING: ITS IMAGES

The primitive peoples use a number of images when they address the Supreme Being. Human images are used to refer to the Supreme Being. He is referred to as ‘father’. The Araucans of South America spoke of their Supreme Being as ‘The blue king and father’ indicating that though He lived in the sky, God is their father, who cares for them. The Uitoto people of Colombia also called their Supreme Being father. They regarded Him as the creator and the one who founded religious ceremonies. There are primitive people who worship the Supreme Being in the form of female deity. The tribal people of Southern Nuba referred to their God as the ‘Great Mother’. The Cagaba people of South America believed in a female Supreme Being, considered as the mother of all men, the world, animals, fruits, rivers, thunder, the Milky Way, song, dance, sacred object and sanctuaries. Some Siberian tribal peoples believed in a female Supreme Being, whom they named as the life giving ‘Mother of the Milk Lake, and ‘the Progenitrix’. The Fon people consider their Supreme Being as male-female and give the name ‘Mawu-Lisa’. But generally the Supreme Being is personified as the great ruler.41

There are times the Supreme Being is described as a glorified ancestor or a cultural hero in order to organize creation. The functions attributed to this cultural hero are the following. Firstly, he organized the shapeless world and killed the monsters inhabiting it. Secondly, he stole fire from the sun. Thirdly, he restored the world after the great flood. Fourthly, he created humankind and ordered their lives. The cultural hero appears in many manifestations. Some North American Indian tribal people speak of three such manifestations. The first is the Manabozho, i.e., the Big Hare. He is the founder hero, who created the second world when the flood destroyed the first. He also killed the snake that oppressed the people. The Second manifestation is the Coyote, the Prairie Wolf, who was the organizer of the world. The third is the Raven, the Demiurge.42

Often God is seen as related to heavenly bodies and is at times identified with them. A great number of tribal people associate the Supreme Being with the sky, and often He is seen as identical with it. The myths that speak of God’s anger and divine withdrawal clearly see Him as the one who dwells in the sky. The Eve people of Upper Guinea identify the Supreme Being with the visible sky. The aboriginal people of the Andaman Islands believe in the Supreme God, Puluga, who lives in the heavens in a big ‘stone-built-house’ and is manifested in thunder and lightening. There are other myths that identify the Supreme Being with the sun. The Ashanti people of Upper Guinea call the Supreme Being Nyame, which means ‘the shining one’. The tribal people who live around the Gulf of Mexico consider the sun as their highest deity. The tribes of East Africa, the Gold Coast and Nigeria consider the sun as the Supreme Being. The Ge tribal people of Eastern Brazil worship the sun as the creator and the father of men. The Koryak people of Siberia worship the sun as their Supreme Deity. There are other stories where the sun is personified and seen as that which possesses the spirit of God, i.e., as the manifestation of God. The Plains Indians of North America consider the sun as that deity which can transmit the gifts of the Great Spirit of mankind. The Kaffa people of Ethiopia believe that the sun represents the fatal force of the Supreme God. Sometimes other celestial bodies are also connected with God. The Akan people of Ghana believe that the thunderbolts are God’s axes, the rainbow is His bow and lightning is seen as God’s weapon against the evildoers. The pygmies believe that the Supreme Being, Khmwum, manifests in the rainbow. The Toba-Batak people of Sumatra believe in the Supreme Being, which has three aspects. Each of these aspects represents a part of the cosmos, viz., the sky, the human world and the nether world. In the third aspect, the Supreme Being appears as the God of thunder, rain and fertility. Their myths also speak of the cosmic tree of life that originates in the nether world and reaches up to the sky. The Supreme Being is sometimes identified with the entire cosmos represented by the cosmic tree of life.43

The Supreme Being is spoken of as dwelling in earthly objects and places. Certain places such as high mountains, like Mount Kenya, are said to be dwelling places, where the transcendent God is manifested to the people. Often people go up to such mountains to offer prayers and sacrifices to the Supreme Being. Groves of trees and open places are also considered sacred. The Gikuyu people pray to the Supreme Being in open places. Many unusual happenings in nature, such as earthquakes and floods, are attributed to the direct action of the Supreme Being. The regularity of nature, succession of day and night, heat and cold, and various seasons are ascribed to the Supreme Spirit. In this manner, everything in the universe comes under the concern of God, the Supreme Being.44

Though the Supreme Being is understood in anthropomorphic, celestial and earthly images, the primitive people give Him a prominent place in their lives. They consider Him as superior to all other spirits and the source of everything in the universe. He is seen as the guardian of moral law. He rewards the good and punishes the evildoers. John A. Hardon expresses aptly the belief of the primitive people about the Supreme Being as follows:

The general pattern, whether in Africa or elsewhere, is that this High God [the Supreme Being] is supposed to live in the sky and is clearly soul-like. He is eternal, all knowing, and almighty without abusing his power. He acts with sovereign freedom as author of the moral law, and rewards and punishes not only in this life, with prosperity or adversity, but beyond the grace in a life after death. Unlike the gods of mythology he is asexual although mythological influences have endowed him with human emotions and traits. Such a personage inspires believers with reverence, so that they are reluctant to name him. They do not worship him in temples or through images but invoke him in spontaneous prayer in times of special need, and many offer him first-fruits in token adoration, and not as though he were the ghost of a dead person who receives food for his sustenance.45

After scaling through the concept of the Supreme Being in primitive religion, one wonders as to the reason for the presence of animistic belief in primitive religion even though there is a rich concept of belief in one Supreme Being. The question naturally arises, ‘Which of these beliefs is more original and archaic?’ Evolutionary anthropology proposed the theory that the original state of the primitive religion is animistic. From the animistic state emerged polytheism, belief in many gods. Polytheism gave way to monotheism, belief in one Supreme Being. Though this theory might sound very logical, an objective study of primitive religions reveals monotheism to be the more original. The development of animistic and polytheistic beliefs in primitive religion is the result of some form of religious decadence. In other words, the belief in one Supreme Being, which was the original creed of the primitive people, came to be overlaid by animistic, polytheistic and other elements. From this it follows that to the extent that animism, polytheism and other elements dominate the religion of the modern primitives, their religion has degenerated. The reason for our claim is the widespread presence of the belief in one Supreme Being in almost every primitive religion. This is mentioned before every other deity as the creator of the universe including other deities. Thus, there seems to be a downward movement, i.e., from the Supreme Being to many gods and to the spirits, rather than a successive upward movement of animism to polytheism and of polytheism to monotheism, as suggested by evolutionary anthropologists. But neither can we determine the extent to which monotheism was affected by animistic and polytheistic elements, nor generalize their mutual relationship, because there is such a variation of belief regarding these among the tribal religions.46

Our concern in this paper is not to enter into such controversies elaborately. Having considered the belief of the primitive people in one Supreme Being, before entering into the study of their belief in other spiritual beings, we raised this question in passing. Now we move on to the study of spiritual beings other than the Supreme Being in primitive religion.


Divinities are God’s associates. They are the personifications and manifestations of the Supreme Being. They manifest the power of the Supreme Being in natural phenomena and objects. Often many names are used to refer to these groups of spirits. They are known as nature spirits, deified heroes, mythological figures, demigods, gods and ancestral spirits. The primitive people believe that God creates these divinities. Ontologically they are of the nature of spirits. They are associated with the Supreme Being and often stand for the activities of God. They display the power of God as manifestations sometimes personifications of God, at other times as spiritual beings in charge of the major phenomena of nature. Some of these manifestations take the form of the deified national hero, such as the tribal chieftain.47 We could consider a few examples from different primitive religions.

Some African tribes believe that all events depend on two kinds of spirits, viz., the mipaji and the nguru. The mipaji are the spirits of the dead. The powerful ones are the spirits of the deceased chiefs. Some of are good, while others are evil. According to their nature they bring good to people or cause illness and death. Huts are built to house these spirits. They are offered food and drinks to win their favor and to ward off their anger. People attempt to reach out to these spirits through the help of magicians. By such objects as pieces of skull, jawbones and human skeleton (kabbas), they communicate with these spirits. Another way of communication with these spirits is for people, mostly women, to be possessed by them and to receive from them directions for action from the spirits. The nguru are also spirits, who attempt to control the rain, drought, famine, weather and such natural phenomena. Normally nguru are found in the mountains, waterfalls and riverside. They live in animals like lions, leopards, snakes and big trees. They also have the knowledge of medicine. The people communicate with these spirits, with the help of persons who possess these spirits. People also provide the nguru sacred huts for their use. They travel from one place to another in answer to proper incantations to make their presence felt in favor of anyone, who calls upon them for their help.48

The Dinka people of Sudan believe in a number of divinities associated with their Supreme Being, the Nhialic. Some of these associates of God are clan-divinities. The Dinkas believe that these divinities are present in the clan emblems. These emblems include many kinds of animals, birds, insects, trees, the forest, the rain, the river Nile and the planet Venus. These emblems of the clan divinities are treated with respect. Other than these clan divinities, the Dinka people also believe in a few free divinities, not connected to any particular clan. These divinities are known by personal names. Some important free divinities are the following: Deng, who is also known as Dengdit, is associated with rain, thunder and lightening. Gerang is a free divinity, which is associated with red-brown and brown colors in association with white. Men possessed by this divinity are believed to have the power to cure sickness. The term ‘Gerang’ is the name used to refer to the first man. The free divinity Abuk is the symbol of kindness, thought to be a female divinity it is associated with the welfare of women. Macardit is considered as ‘the great black one’. It is a harmful power, which brings evil and hurtful effects on men. For Dinka people this divinity is the final explanation of sufferings and misfortunes. Dinka tribal people do not think that the divinities have human forms. They associate them with emblems and think of them as operating in the great variety of natural objects. Divinities show their presence through rain, thunder, lightening and the changes of seasons. They manifest their presence in strange and unusual events. Again, the presence of the divinities is experienced when misfortunes like illness and death befall people. Divinities also manifest their presence through dreams, causing feelings of remorse or guilt and taking possession of human beings and speaking through them. 49

The Ashanti people believe in a number of divinities through which the Supreme Being manifests Himself. They call them abosom. They are said to come from the Supreme Being and act as His servants. Their function is to be intermediaries between God and men. Major divinities take care of the tribe, while the minor divinities protect individual human beings. The Banyro people see their divinities as in charge of different aspects of the socio-political structure of the society. Thus, there are divinities of war, smallpox, harvest, health and healing, weather, lakes and cattle. Some of their minor divinities take care of different clans.50

The Yoruba tribal people are said to believe in 1700 divinities, which they call orisa. Their fields of activity are natural phenomena, objects, human activities and experiences. There are Yoruba myths, which say that these divinities offer the Supreme Being annual tribute and thereby acknowledge His Lordship. There is a hierarchy of Yoruba divinities. Orisa-nla, the supreme divinity, is considered as God’s earthy representative. He performs creative and executive functions on behalf of God. Orunmila is the divinity of language. He can understand every language spoken on the face of the earth. He represents God’s omniscience and knowledge. He also manifests himself through oracles of divination. He is also said to be a great doctor. Ogun is the divinity of iron and steel. He is called ‘chief among the divinities’ because he was responsible for other divinities to coming to earth. He is present everywhere and manifests himself in activities such as war and hunting where iron is used. Sango represents God’s wrath. He is also the divinity of thunder and lightening. There are offerings to him to appease his wrath. The Walamo tribal people speak of a divinity connected with rain. He is said to dwell on a mountain. People take gifts there during drought.51

The tribal people of Siberia speak of the Sky-God as the Supreme Being, who is assisted by seven divinities, God’s helpers. The Eskimoes believe in many spirits. Among them there are three true divinities. The first, Sila, the lord of the air, who is at times referred to as male, while at other time described as female. It manifests the Supreme Being’s power of punishing man’s sins. The second, Sedna, the deity of the water, is the queen of the sea mammals and the dead. She lives at her home at the bottom of the sea. According to the myth, the sins of mankind soil her and so she withholds good luck in hunting, until the angakok, the shaman, appeases her by combing her hair. The third is the divinity of the moon whose marriage with the sun took place at the beginning of time.52

Maori, the Polynesian tribal people, though they believed in a Supreme Being, Io, had faith in a great number of divinities, which they call atua. The term ‘atua’ literally means ‘power’. Its meaning is similar to the word ‘mana’. It can also be translated as ‘strength’ or ‘greatness’. Thus, for them, divinities are powers that are at work in their lives. The atua are the invisible people. Some atua are the ancestors of the Maori people. They affect the lives of the people for good and for bad. Thus, they bring good things and cause evil things to happen. For instance, at times they provide plenty of food, while at other times they give very little food. Atua gave power to a person, a family or to a tribe. Therefore, they were respected and people always try to please them. The Maori people understood the divinities and their activities through the things that are tangible and visible. Therefore, they associated the divinities with existing things in the world, such as stars, rocks, trees, springs of water, birds and animals. Maori believed that the divinities had the power to enter these natural objects. This made them call these objects ‘visible representatives of the divinities’ (aria) and consider such objects as sacred.53

The Maori people divided the divinities into three categories. The first group of atua had greater power than the second group, and the latter had more power than the third category of atua. All Maori tribal people worshipped the atua of the first group. We could mention some important atua of this group. Tane is the father of the trees, birds and animals. He is also said to have created human beings, giving them life. The word ‘tane’ means a ‘man’ or a ‘married man’. Thus, Tane is the divinity that gave birth to everything in the universe. He is said to possess all the powers of all atua. Tu is the atua of warfare. As Maori people consider warfare a great value, they hold Tu in great respect. This made them dedicate the male babies to Tu as soon as they were born. At the time of war, prayers were offered to Tu, with the hope that he would help and protect them during war. Rongo is the atua of peace and agriculture. After war people offer prayers to Rongo. He is also prayed to during the time of planting and harvesting. The first fruits of the land after harvest were offered to Rongo. Tangaroa is the atua that had control over sea and all that live in it. Tawhirimatea is the auta of winds and storms. Maori people prayed to him to calm the storm and to bring good climatic conditions. Whiro is the atua of darkness and evil. He causes illness and death. He is considered as the father of all powers that attempted to harm people. Only a few tribes worshipped the second group of atua. To this group belong three atua, viz., maru, kahukura and uenuku, all of which are concerned with the welfare of the people. Some Maori tribes believed that the latter two revealed their presence in the rainbow. If a rainbow appears in front of a war party they must return home, as it indicated the absence of support from the atua of welfare. On the other hand, if the rainbow appears behind a war party they are encouraged to go ahead with the war plan, as it is the sign that kahukura and uenuku have shown their support for the war plan of the people. A few families worshipped the atua of the third category. There were a number of family atua. They protected the families and its members. They also performed certain tasks for the family. Maori people believed that there were some atua, belonging to this third group that brought harm to people also.54

The Ga people of Ghana believed in a Supreme Being, Naa Nyonmo. It was also their belief that Naa Nyonmo had many sons and daughters, who were known as dzemawodzi, which literally means ‘gods of the world’. Thus, dzemawodzi are the divinities the Ga people believed in. Though these divinities have their abode in the sea, lagoons, mountains and other natural objects, they move about in the world. They are intelligent and powerful, as Naa Nyonmo handed His authority over to them. They are in active contact with the world of nature and human beings. The Ga people believed that each clan had its dzemawodzi. But all of them are not of the same rank. Some of them are more senior, while others belong to the lower order. The most senior divinity is the nee, the sea-god, whose wife is afiyee. They have many children, two of whom are koole, the lagoon-goddess and ashi akle, the sea-goddess. Some other important deities are sakumo, the river-god, who is also the god who leads people in war, and la kpa, a lagoon-god. The Ga people worshipped all these divinities. There are also other divinities, which the Ga people revered. They are associated with natural objects like trees and mountains, as for example the otu group of divinities. There are also other divinities, which the Ga people adopted from other tribes like the Fante, the Akwapim and the Ewe.55

All these illustrations from primitive religions clearly indicate that the primitive people believed in a great number of associate deities, besides their belief in the one Supreme Being. For some reason the primitive peoples came to believe that these divinities were closer to them here on earth and affected their lives greatly, in comparison to the Supreme Being. Therefore, they were more concerned with appeasing the divinities than focusing their attention on God. Having looked into primitive peoples’ belief in the divinities, we now move on to consider the third group of spiritual beings, viz., the free spirits.


Besides their belief in the Supreme Being and the divinities, the primitive people believed in many spirits. The divinities are associates of God and belong to a relatively higher level of spiritual existence. The free spirits are common spiritual beings that come below the level of divinities and rank above the living-dead. They constitute the ‘common populace’ of spiritual being. There is no clear indication in the primitive religions as to how spirits came to be. There are varying beliefs among the primitive people regarding the origin of spirits. It is believed that God created some spirits as a race. They, then, like any other living creatures, continue to reproduce and add numbers to their race. But the most common belief is that human beings become spirits after their physical death. For most men, becoming spirit is their final destiny, though a few, such as national heroes, might be deified as divinities. Thus, arriving at the state of being the spirit is the final destiny of man. Some people believe that, under normal circumstances, man need not attempt to become a spirit, but automatically becomes one, just as a child becomes an adult or an adult becomes an old man. A few tribal societies hold the existence of spirits in animals and their continued living along with the human and other spirits after death. For instance the Eskimoes of North America believe that animals and natural phenomena had their spirit and called them inua.56

The spirits are called ‘free spirits’ because they are not body-bound. The spirits are not body-bound because they have gone beyond the horizon of the Sasa period, the state in which the life of physical involvement with other human beings and objects (Sasa) and have sunk into the Zamani period. Having entered the Zamani period, in which such physical involvement has ceased to exist, the spirits have become part of the state of collective immortality. As a result they are freed of all family ties and personal relationship with other human beings. They have lost their human names and all association with the human life once they lived. They have also grown out of the state of the living-dead. As far as men are concerned, spirits have become strangers, foreigners, outsiders, and they belong to the category of things. Therefore, often the spirits are referred to with the pronoun ‘it’. Thus, becoming a spirit, as an ontological mode of existence, involves a depersonalization, a withering of human individuality, rather than a completion and maturation of the human individual. So for the primitive people death was the end of being a human being, which implies a loss of human personality, disappearance of the human name, becoming less of a person and assuming the mode of a thing, the spirit. As a result, spirits are not visible, and human beings do not see them either physically or mentally. The reality and existence of the spirits, therefore, becomes the object of the corporate belief of the primitive people.57

Becoming spirits involves a loss of human personality and the end of human life, which once the spirits lived. This is a social elevation in the mind of the primitive people. Spirits as a group are believed to have more power than men have. This is because the realm of the spirits is ontologically nearer to God. They fill up the ontological region of the Zamani, while men are still in the Sasa region. Thus, the spirit-mode existence bridges the ontological transcendence of God and of the divinities with that of man’s existence. Therefore they can communicate with the divinities and God directly, whereas men need intermediaries to do the same. Primitive people believe that the spirits are older than men, as the spirits have already passed through the Sasa and reached the state of Zamani, while men are still in the Sasa state. The fact, that the spirits belong to a realm that is higher than the human realm and that they are older than men made the primitive people respect the spirits. Just as the young respected the elders, so also the primitive people respected the spirits. The social etiquette of respecting the elders was observed in the case of the relationship between the spirits and men, as men are younger than spirits.58

Though spirits are free, not body-bound and believed to be ubiquitous, yet the primitive people allocated different places for spirits to dwell. Some primitive people believed that spirits live in the underground, the nether-world and the subterranean region. The reason for this comes from the fact that the dead people are buried underground, and so it points to and symbolizes the new home for the departed. Therefore, the primitive people believed that the spirits lived in the subterranean region. There was also the belief among some tribal people that the spirits lived above the earth, as in the air, in the sun, in the moon or in the stars. The reason that led these people to locate the abode of the spirits in the celestial region was their belief that the spirits, having sunk into the Zamani state, are closer to God, who is believed to be in the sky. But the general belief of the vast majority of the primitive people regarding the dwelling of the spirits is that they live in woods, bushes, forest, rivers, and mountains and just around the villages where men lived. For instance, the Ga people of Ghana believed that spirits inhabited rivers, forests, certain trees and other natural objects. In other words, the general belief is that the spirits lived in the same geographical regions as men. The possible reason for this belief is primitive peoples’ conviction that after their death they would also become spirits, and that they did not want to find themselves totally in a different environment.59

Folk stories speak of spirits being involved in a number of activities, such as, appearing to human beings in different forms, though they are said to be invisible to people’s eyes. People believe that the spirits have a shadow form of body, with the help of which they assume forms of human beings, animals, plants and inanimate objects. Folk tales declare that the spirits are seen in ponds, caves, groves and mountains, besides outside the villages where men live. Some of the time passing activities attributed to the spirits are dancing, singing, herding cattle, working in the field and nursing their children. Spirits also appear in dreams to impart information. Specialists, such as diviners, priests, medicine men and rainmakers, consult spirits as a part of practicing their profession. There are stories that speak of the spirits playing the naughty game of calling people’s names and confusing them. It is said that they derive a great deal of fun from this game. It is also believed that the spirits sleep during the day and are awake at night. Some spirits are said to be benign and good, while others are believed to be malicious.60

Spirit-possession is another important activity that is attributed to the spirits. In consists in the spirit taking hold of a person completely and making him act as it wishes. There are two forms of spirit possession. The first form is desirable and so is often induced through special dancing and beating of drums. When a person is possessed in this manner, the spirit communicates to the people special messages through the medium of the possessed person. The second form of spirit possession is not desirable, as it ends up in evil effects in the possessed person. In such cases the spirits cause severe torments in the possessed person, drive him out of his home and make him live in the forest. They can also lead the possessed person to jump into the fire or water, hurt himself with sharp instruments, fail to sleep for days or at times be led to do harm to others. In such possessions the spirits take hold of the personality of the possessed person and make him act as they wish. Such form of possession can damage the health of the one possessed. In some primitive societies people believe that illnesses, such as madness and epilepsy, are cause by the spirits. 61

Due to the evils the spirits can bring on people, they look at the spirits with a certain amount of fear. People prefer not to have much contact with the spirits. As the spirits are not visible to peoples’ eyes and are unpredictable in their ways of acting, people, in general, do not like to have much to do with the spirits. When the spirits attempt to harm the village or an individual person for some reason, the primitive people approached traditional doctors, diviners and magicians asking for help. These men are experts and they performed elaborate rituals to exorcise the spirit and to ward off the evil it might have brought to the people of the village or the individual person in question. Thus, though the spirits are powerful in bringing good or evil to human beings, human experts in the art of magic and medicine can manipulate and control the spirits as they wish, thereby driving away the same spirits or using them for their own advantage.62


Besides the free spirits the primitive people also believed in the existence of the living-dead. The living-dead is a person who has died, but who has not become a spirit. So they are different from the category of the free spirits. The living-dead shares the Sasa period with the human beings. Therefore, the living-dead is still in the state of personal immortality. The living-dead still lives on, as his death is not complete. Human beings have the closest link with the group of living-dead, as both live out the Sasa in varying decrees. The living-dead is bilingual, as the members of this group can speak the language of men and that of the spirits, divinities and God to whom they are drawing closer. They are part of their human families, and the family members and others have vivid memories of them. Thus, every member of the living-dead, as a group, is still a human being. They have not become spirits, and so primitive people do not refer to them as ‘it’. But the living-dead is fast moving out of the Sasa and moving into the Zamani. The group of the living-dead includes all the departed persons up to the fifth generation. After five generations there is hardly any one who knows if the dead ancestor is still alive. When that happens, the process of death is completed as far as a particular living-dead is concerned. Then the living-dead has left Sasa and sunk into the horizon of Zamani. He is no longer remembered by name, as he is no longer a human being. Thus, the living-dead becomes a spirit, i.e., ‘it’, and merges into the company of spirits. To the living-dead that has sunk into the Zamani not much attention is paid in terms of fulfilling the obligation of the family members, as people lose contact and interest. Besides, the family members would have new generations of the living-dead to which they must pay more attention.63

We could briefly consider the beliefs of some primitive people regarding their living-dead. The Dinka people of Sudan believed that every human being has within him a soul or spirit, which they called atiep. The word ‘atiep’ means ‘shadow’. When a person dies, his atiep goes out of the body and remains near the house or the burial place. Sometimes the atiep appears in the dream of a family member. If any requests are made in such dreams, the family members carefully carry out the atiep’s request. Dinka people believed that the atiep has the power to hurt his relatives in a number of ways. The atiep of the important living-dead is called jok. The jok includes ancestors of a particular clan, which could be either men or animals. Joks are considered almost as divinities, as they are more important than other living-dead.64

The Ga people of Ghana also believed in the spirits of the dead people. According to them everyone has a soul (susuma) and a spirit (mumo). It is the spirit that keeps one alive, whereas the soul gives him his personality. When the spirit leaves the body, a person dies. When that happens, his soul becomes a ghost (sisa). The ghosts live in the ‘land of the ghosts’, which is different from the physical world. Though different, it is a continuation of the present life. Therefore, the ghosts of the living-dead influence the lives of his family members. The Ga people believed that the living-dead could bring good as well as evil. Some of the evils the ghosts can bring are sudden death, chronic illnesses and poverty. It is believed that the living-dead is attentive to the needs of the children in a special way. If a child invokes the departed spirit for being neglected or cheated by his family members, the ghost of the living-dead promptly listens to the pleas of his child and inflicts severe punishment on the person who has cheated him. So the people feared the ghosts and took care to know their wishes, and carried them out. To ward off the evils the living-dead can bring, the Ga people also approached experts called tsofatsemei. This term literally means ‘people of the tree roots’. These are medicine men, who, besides giving medicines, invoke all spirit powers by using sacred objects like the horns of some animals, empty clay pots and other similar objects, thereby attempting to bring about healing of mind and body. Some form of magic and witchcraft was also practiced among some of the Ga people to achieve the same purpose.65

The Maori people believed that human beings have a spirit, which they called wairua, besides the body. When a person dies his wairua continues to live and goes on a long journey. The first stage of the journey is arriving at the place at the top of New Zealand called ‘the flying-off-place of spirits’ (Te Rerenga Wairua). From there, crossing the sea, the wairua reaches the island of Hawaiiki, which is the original place of the ancestors of the Maori people. Finally the wairua lands at Hine-nui-te-po, which is the place of the god (atua) of death. During ceremonies for the dead, the Maori people prayed that the wairua of the dead person arrived at his final destiny soon. But this did not happen often. The wairua of the dead came back to visit the living family members. Some of these visits were for good, while others brought evil. They believed that these visits took place through a particular member of the family, a bird, an animal or other objects. The Maori people were afraid of the visits of the wairua. The family priest of the Maori peoples at times used the harmful wairua to bring harm to those whom they hated. But the tribal priests of the Maori people, who are more powerful than the family priests, attempted to send all wairua to their final destiny.66

These illustrations clearly show that living-dead, as a group, is very much involved in the life of the family members and does them a great deal of good. They have contact with their families and do communicate with the eldest member of their families. The eldest member is able to recognize the living-dead by name. They come to know and have interest at every happening in the family. The primitive people believe that those belonging to the group of the living-dead return to their families to take part in most of the major events of the family and share the food with the family members. They show keen interest in every family affair. They indicate to the members of the family some dangers that are ahead and admonish them for failure to follow the instructions they give. They are seen as guardians of the family, its customs, practices, morality and other activities. Therefore, a crime committed against a member of the family was seen as a crime committed against the living-dead of the family. In this manner the living-dead exerted a great deal of influence on the members of the family. Besides, they are of great help to the people. They are the best intermediaries between God and the human beings, as they are closer to God and belong to the same Sasa of man. Again they are able to speak the language of God and the language of men. As a result they can communicate the needs of men to God directly, without mediation of any others. Some primitive people also believed that all the living-dead communicate to God indirectly through the spirit of their forefathers. Therefore, the primitive people approached their living-dead with their troubles of everyday living instead of approaching God directly.67

Though the members of the group of the living-dead do a great deal to their family members, the relationship between them is not always very cordial, because physical death has built a certain distance between the living-dead and human beings. Besides, they believed that the living-dead not only do them good, but also harm. Therefore, peoples’ reaction to the appearance of the living-dead is often twofold. On the one hand, they welcome the living-dead and show hospitality, because they need the services and benefits the living-dead can bring them. On the other hand, they would like the living-dead to move away from them and not return to them often, because the frequent presence of the living-dead makes the people feel uncomfortable and fearful. Thus the attitude of the people towards the living-dead is one of desiring to have their presence and, at the same time, their absence. The relationship that exists between the living-dead and the family members is not an inter-human relationship of cordiality, but rather one of utility. Besides, they want to appease the living-dead and keep it good humor that it does no harm to them. Prof. John S. Mbiti beautifully describes the relationship of the people to the living-dead as follows:

When the living-dead return and appear to their relatives, this experience is not received with great enthusiasm by men; and if it becomes too frequent, people resent it. Men do not say to the living-dead: "Please sit down and wait for food to be prepared!"; nor would they bid farewell with the words: "Great so-and-so in the spirit world!" And yet these are two extremely important aspects of social friendliness and hospitality among men in African communities. The food and libation given to the living-dead are paradoxically acts of hospitality and welcome, and yet of informing the living-dead to move away. The living-dead are wanted and yet not wanted. If they have been improperly buried or were offended before they died, it is feared … that the living-dead would take revenge. This would be in the form of misfortune, especially illness, or disturbing frequent appearances of the living-dead. If people neglect to give food and libations where this is otherwise the normal practice, or if they fail to observe the instructions that the living-dead may have given before dying, then the misfortunes and sufferings would be interpreted as resulting from the anger of the living-dead. People are, therefore, careful to follow the proper practices and customs regarding the burial or other means of disposal of dead bodies, and make libation and food offerings as the case might be.68

In this manner the relationship of human beings with the living-dead, though real and active, was not always cordial and friendly. Often fear, reservations and apprehensions marked such relationships. Besides, it was self-interest rather than the thought of the other that motivated these relationships.

The possible reason, for the living-dead treating the living family members harshly when they neglected to remember them, could be that the living-dead needed the assistance of the living family members, as they are living through their personal immortality in the later stages of the Sasa period. In other words, the living-dead, moving towards the realm of Zamani, needed the libations and rituals offered on their behalf by their family members. The Dahomey people on the coast of West Africa believe the following about their living-dead. When a man dies, his personal soul leaves the body and begins the journey towards the land of the dead. As he journeys, he experiences many obstacles on the way. Several rivers have to be crossed, and the boatmen have to be given offerings so that the soul can be ferried across the rivers. Unless the family members offer special rituals and oblations, the living-dead cannot cross the rivers. After reaching the land of the dead, the living-dead meets the other deceased members of the family. Even at this stage of the journey special ritual sacrifices are to be offered by the family members on behalf of the living-dead. When the living family members of the living-dead neglect their duty they thereby prevent the living-dead from moving into the next state of their existence, and they become angry and avenge the callous attitude of the family members.69


Our analysis of the spiritual world of the primitive people, thus far, has shown clearly the extent to which their thought and living are founded on religious feeling. Their world-view is a spiritual one. They not only attributed their origin to the Supreme Being, but also believed that from birth to death a person’s life is directed and guided by the realm of the spirit. This is true not only of human beings, but also of every existing thing in this world. Their spiritual perception that life originated from God and is directed by the divinities, free spirits and the living-dead made them seek these divine realities at every moment of their lives. Therefore, primitive people made use of various means to come in contact with these divine beings and receive their blessing in every endeavor. It would be interesting to tread the path of the primitive people, in and through which they attempted to encounter the spiritual beings in the spiritual world. In this essay we attempt to explore the path, which the primitive people walked in their desire to experience the touch of the divine beings in their lives.

Though most primitive peoples believe in the Supreme Being yet regular worship is not offered to Him. For some reason He is in the background, as far as worship is concerned. There is very little ordered worship offered to God among the primitive people. There are times when He is addressed in prayer. But at other times the name of the Supreme Being is mentioned in prayers along with the divinities and other spiritual beings, but regular worship to the Supreme Being is not common. The greater part of the worship is offered to the lesser spirits. Though they seemingly receive most of the prayers and sacrifices, it is said that they carry essences of these to the Supreme Being, while keeping the externals of the offering for themselves. The spiritual beings other than God are seen as subordinated to Him and are believed to pray to God for men. That is why the name of the Supreme Being is first mentioned in some of the prayers that are addressed to divinities and other spirits. Though the Supreme Being is experienced as distant and transcendent, He is seen as the one who can be called upon in times of distress.70 Some of the means with the help of which the primitive people attempted to encounter the divine beings are prayer and sacrifice, worship-offerings of the priests, celebration of religious festivals, respect for the sacred, living a strict moral code and offering expiatory rites. They also had recourse to the use of fetishes and magic to be in touch with the spiritual beings.


The reasons for the offering of prayers and sacrifices are often utilitarian. Primitive people prayed for various motives. Most of these are material in nature and are aimed at safeguarding the well-being and prosperity of the tribe. For instance, the Dinka people of Sudan offered prayers and sacrifices for obtaining clement weather, such as rain and sunshine, which would help them in bringing a good harvest. They also prayed for other benefits such as protection of people and cattle, recovery from illness, relief from famine and other calamities, and for good hunting.71 For example, the Maori people prayed invoking the spiritual beings to help court a lover, to help to kill a bird, to help one run quickly or to make the opponent run slowly and to help to mend a broken bone. They also prayed for the blessings of the divinities to remove harmful spirits from the house, to give strength and accuracy to a war spear and to help them keep things in memory. Prayers and sacrifices were also offered while dedicating a baby to the divinities, when the grace of the divinity is sought for the growth of the baby into a good adult.72

There are occasions when prayers are directed only to the Supreme Being. For instance, the Ewe people address prayers to Mawu, their God. When any danger is foreseen they instinctively call His name saying ‘Mawu help me I ask you’. When the people are blessed with any special favors they proclaimed "Mawu is good". When falsely accused they call on the Supreme Being to defend them saying "Mawu knows my soul". At the time of death the dying person directly calls on God saying "Mawu have pity on me".73 The Wa-pokomo people who live on the right bank of the Tana in East Africa sometimes address prayer to the Supreme Being. In praying for a person who is ill, they say, "You are God and Master. I say to you, free this person from his sickness".74 Another prayer for the sick person goes as follows: "This woman is ill. O God, give health to her, and to her village, and to her children, and to her husband; may she get up, hurry to work, take care of the kitchen; may happiness return, may it come from the other bank, may it come from the other bank."75 The Dinka people of Sudan address prayers to their Supreme Being, the Nhialic. One of their prayers seeking the good life from the Supreme Being reads as follows: "You, Nhilalic, …let us walk in health, …that there should be no fever, and no other illness should seize people, that they may all be well. And if my clansman travels, then let him complete his journey without sickness, and let no evil befall him or anybody. And you, Nhialic, do not bring evil upon us … Nhialic will be pleased with us and we will pray to Nhialic that there may be no bad thing… "76 But more often the Supreme Being is invoked in prayer along with other lesser divinities. In most of such prayers the Supreme Being is mentioned first. The Wa-pokomo ritual prayer seeking peace goes as follows: "O God, we ask You! O Manes, we ask You! O Ancestors, we ask You! Grant us peace. Grant us tranquillity, … He who bewitches our village, may die. He who utters evil spells against us, may he die. …We also ask for some fish, may the fish come. Thus eating, let us eat in peace."77 Another prayer, in which, the Supreme Being and lesser divinities are invoked while cultivating the land reads: "O God, I beg of You. I am going to cultivate this field. Very well, it is in order to have things to eat that I may have life and health. Come Manes! I till this field that the grain may spring up abundantly and that I may harvest it when it is ripe."78 One of the prayers the Dinka people of Sudan address to Nhialic and to other divinities goes as follows:

Nhialic, you are called by my words, because you look after all people. You are greater than anyone and all people are your children. And if evil has befallen them you are called to come and join with them in it also. And you … come, help. O you Flesh, the divinity of Pagong if you are called then you will indeed hear me and you, Awar grass, you will hear. And you, Flesh of my father, and Fig-tree of my father, and Head carrying-ring of my father, you will hear.79

Often prayers are said in the context of sacrifice. The primitive people believed that life, health, strength and vitality are gifts of God and of the divinities, and so they attempted to gain them through prayer and sacrifice. Though prayers are addressed to the Supreme Being, generally sacrifices are not offered to Him. For instance the Maori tribal people do not offer sacrifices to their Supreme Being, Io.80 But the Dinka tribal people offer sacrifices, such as killing a bull or an ox, to their Supreme Being, Nhialic.81 Again, the ordinary Ewe people do not offer any cultic ritual to honor their Supreme Being. But some wealthy tribal Ewe people practice a form of cultic sacrificial worship, even though no killing is involved in this right, to honor Mawu, their Supreme Being. They believe that they are Mawu’s favored people, as He has blessed them with wealth. In order to reanimate the devotee’s fervor for the Supreme Being and to enhance zeal for recruiting new devotees for Mawu they take in small doses of poison at the right moment, which does not cause death but brings a certain amount of inconvenience to the devotee.82

Generally all the primitive people offered sacrifices accompanied by prayers mostly to the divinities and spirits of the ancestors. The offerings sacrificed ranged from food items to animals. For instance, the Dinka people offered beer, milk, sheep, oxen, bulls and chicken to appease the divinities and the ancestral spirits.83 The Maori people usually sacrificed food items, a bird, a fish or some small animal. The first fish caught while fishing was killed and offered to the divinity of the sea, Tangaroa. On important occasions, such as in time of war, the Maori practiced human sacrifice. It is offered usually to the god of warfare, Tu. Human sacrifices are offered to gain Tu’s favor and to thank the god of warfare for the success achieved during wartime. They chose the enemy who was captured and enslaved during war as the offering to be sacrificed. Before the priest made the sacrifice he picked up the offering with both hands and raised it above his head. Calling upon the divinity, he placed the offering on the ground by the sacred tree or the object. Then the offering was killed. Thus, in the Maori worship prayer and sacrifice went hand in hand.84

The Dinka people of Sudan also perform sacrifices accompanied by spoken prayers. They invoke all the clan-divinities, free-divinities, the ancestral spirits, and at times the Supreme Being, Nhialic, during the sacrifices. Those who say the prayers hold a fishing spear in their hands. They pronounce with great emphasis short phrases expressing the needs of the people, such as ‘I call upon you because my child is ill’ or ‘I do not want words of sickness’, while thrusting the spear at the animal to be sacrificed. The people who participate in the sacrifice repeat the words of the leader of the sacrifice. Such repetition of the short phrases creates a powerful effect upon those who are present at the sacrifice. The leader of the sacrifice expresses deep feeling, which attracts the others to get involved in sacrifice that is taking place.85

On certain important occasions, especially in moments of crisis and trouble, the Dinka acts of prayer and sacrifice continue for a long period of time. There are four stages in such prolonged sacrificial prayer. The first stage is the description of the problem people are facing in their lives. Here the leader speaks aloud the things that cause anxiety. We could mention a prayer of the Dinka people, in which the problem that troubles the people is addressed to Nhialic:

Why is it, O Nhialic, that when one son is left alive alone out of all the children his mother bore, you do not help him, that he may be in health? You Nhialic, if you have left …[him] behind to beget children, and he now becomes ill, we have refused (to accept) the illness in him. For …[he] has no sister born with him, and no brother born with him, and if Nhialic does not help him to bear his children, then the children will become the children of the mother. And you, Nhialic, you are the great person, father of all people, and if a man has called upon you, you will strengthen his arm, that no evil may befall him.86

In this manner one’s petition is placed before the Supreme Being or the divinities. Having done the act of describing the trouble, the leader of the sacrifice leads the community to the second stage, confession of the past sin. It consists in the people who are present at the sacrifice acknowledging the past acts of evil, if they were the cause of the present trouble. A typical prayer of confession of sins reads as follows: "And you (divinity) of my father, if you are called, then you will help me and join yourself with my words. And I did not speak (in the past) that my children should become ill; that quarrel is an old matter."87 The offering of praise to the divinities follows the confession of the past sin. Praise is offered in the hope that the prayers of praise would please the divinities and would make them listen to the needs of the people. The act of praise often takes the form of singing hymns of honor and ox-songs of young men. The final stage is the expulsion of the misfortune. This is done among the Dinka people by identifying the misfortune with the animal, for instance an ox, to be sacrificed. The sacrificing of the animal with which the misfortune of the people is identified would bring about the sending away of the misfortune from the Dinka territory. The Dinka people pray at the time of the sacrifice of the ox as follows:

And you, ox, it is not for nothing that we have tethered you in the midday sun, but because of sickness, to exchange your life for the man, and for the man to stay on earth and for your life to go with the illness. You, Nhialic, hear my speech, and you, clan-divinity, hear my speech, and you, illness, I have separated you from the man. I have spoken thus: "You leave the man alone, you have been given the ox called malith.88

Other than these forms of sacrifices accompanied by prayers, there were also sacrifices offered in the community of the primitive people during which the totem is sacrificed as a communal act of worship. The totem is often a species of animal, which is seen as being bound up with the life of a tribe. The totem animal is very much linked with the social well-being of the tribe. Therefore, that particular tribe deifies and worships the totem. The totem animal is said to be the divine ancestor, who brings cohesion and unity among the people of the tribe. Thus, the totem is seen as the embodiment of the oneness of the group and the guardian of its well-being. On certain solemn and important occasions the people of the tribe sacrifice the totem animal. After the sacrifice, the whole community shares the flesh of the totem animal in a common meal. The totem sacrifice and the eating of the totem animal are believed to have sacramental significance, as they provide bond of union among the people of the tribe, besides uniting themselves with spiritual beings. The totem sacrifice fills the people of the tribe with strength and power.89 In this manner, prayers and various forms of sacrifice helped the primitive people to come in contact with the Supreme Being, the divinities and other spiritual beings.


Other than using prayers and sacrifices, some primitive people made use of the worship-offerings of the priests to establish contact with the spiritual beings of the divine world. In such primitive societies there was a well-established system of priesthood, in which the priestess, usually the wife of the priest, and other helpers assisted the priest in offering worship on behalf of the community. We will consider briefly the priesthood that existed in the primitive religion of the Ga people in Ghana and in Shamanism, which is the ancient natural religion of the Korean people. We would also describe the worship with the help of which they attempted to encounter their divinities. Usually in these primitive religions the purpose of the worship offered is to promote communion between the divinity and man, and to bring about the well-being of the community. THE RELIGION OF THE GA PEOPLE IN GHANA

The Ga people considered the priest, whom they called Wulomo, as the spokesman of a particular divinity. So he is usually the Wulomo of a particular deity. For instance, the priest of the god Dantu is called Dantu Wolomo. The Wulomo does not possess the spirit of the god whom he serves. His functions are performing rites in the temple, offering worship in the shrine of the god on behalf of the people and interpreting the messages that come from the god through other people. Because the Wolomo performs these functions and comes in contact with the divinity directly, he must be different from the ordinary people in a number of ways. He must be a person who lives a genuine by moral life. There were a few taboos that he must follow in order that he is not contaminated by the dirt (mudzi). He must not see a dead body and if, by chance, he sees one, rituals must be performed to cleanse him. The Wulomo should not eat any food until the sun rises. While eating he should not utter a word. He is forbidden to eat salt, though he can eat food cooked in water from the sea. All these and similar taboos are aimed at keeping the priest of the Ga people pure, holy and a person consecrated for divine functions. After the Wulomo, the second in rank is the Woyoo, who is usually the wife of the priest. The term ‘Woyoo’ means ‘god’s woman’. She helps the Wulomo to offer worship at the shrine. Some of the functions she performs are purifying the shrine by burning incense, preparing the food that is to be offered to the god on a holy day, acting as the medium through which the god speaks to the people. In performing the last function the spirit of the god possesses her, she becomes wild and at times she falls into a trance. On such occasions, she speaks in different languages, even those she has not learned. The message from the god may be a happy one, a warning and a command to do something or to refrain from doing something. The Wolomo often interprets and explains to the people the messages received through the help of Woyoo. The third in the order of priesthood is the Agbaayei and Agbaahii. They are servants who serve at the temple in different ways. The Wulomo can delegate some of his functions or those of the Woyoo to the Agbaayei and Agbaahii.90

Having clarified the priesthood in the primitive society of the Ga people, we could take a look at the regular worship that the priest offers at the shrine of the sea-god, Nae. The shrine of Nae is a clean room in the home of the Wulomo of Nae. Usually the Wulomo, his wife, children and other extended members of his family live in this homestead. The house is located nearly 200 yards from the sea. It is painted white. The days holy to Nae are those in which regular worship is offered. These holy days are Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. On the night before and at the dawn of the holy day the Woyoo purifies the house of the Wulomo, in which the shrine is situated by burning incense. The purification is carried out to remove any mudzi that might be in the house when the god visits the shrine. Usually the mudzi can be caused when a dead body is seen or touched and a menstruating woman comes into the house. After the incense burning at the dawn, the Wulomo and the Woyoo have a ritual bath in the holy water, which the Wulomo consecrates by placing two kinds of leaves in it. After the bath the couple and their assistants dress in pure white. Then the worship offering begins. The Wulomo pours a libation with gin. He calls upon Nae three times. When he is convinced of the presence of Nae, he addresses prayers and petitions to Nae on behalf of different people who belong to the Ga community. Prayers are offered on behalf the fishermen, farmers, traders, government officials and the sick. Besides, prayers are offered to obtain good things of life, such as health, grain, money and children. The Wulomo repeats these prayers three times. When the prayer ends, the officiating Woyoo prepares food for the god, viz., kpekple 91 mixed with red and white palm oil. She sprinkles the food at the shrine, in the courtyard of the house and in the surroundings of the homestead. The members of the Wulomo’s house or any outsider who wishes to partake in the food eats the remaining food. The members of the clan and the people present can take the holy water, which could be used for the bath or for washing the face. The Ga people believe that the use of the holy water for the bath or for washing will cleanse them from all ailments, especially ailments of the mind and spirit.92 SHAMANISM

Shamanism gives an important role to the priest in worship. He is known as Shaman. The Korean word used to address the Shaman is Moodang. There are two types of Shamans. The first group of Shamans became Shamans either by heredity or by learning. They receive their training and education from master Shamans. They pass through some initiation rites before they begin functioning as Shamans. The Shamans of South Korea belong to this group. The second group became Shamans by choice. They are considered as gifts of gods. When the gods choose one to be a Shaman, he experiences dreams and ecstasies. As one experiences the gods in dreams and ecstasies, a Shaman ‘stands outside’ the normal everyday experiences in the physical world and becomes aware of the powers and truths, which cannot be grasped through the normal functioning of the senses. The people of Central and North Korea believe that their Shamans are gods’ gifts.93

The task of the Shamans is to bring about communion between the gods and men through worship. Shamanism believes that it is the gods who rule over man and nature. Therefore, good and evil, life and death come from the gods. Hence the control of nature and that of man’s destiny is possible only if man has a genuine relationship with the gods, who have power over everything. By worship offerings, the Shamans attempt to persuade the gods to act according to man’s wishes. Thus, through various ceremonies of worship the Shamans invite gods, make them happy, listen to their commands and warnings, and obey them. The ceremonies of Shamanism have three aims. Firstly, ceremonies are aimed at eliminating evil fortune and bringing down the blessings of the gods. The second aim of ceremonies is to expel evil spirits and to cure diseases by the intervention of the gods. Finally the ceremonies are performed to comfort and to purify the souls of the dead. This is done to help them reach the other world, thereby preventing them from causing disasters in this world. Thus the ceremonies aim at removing every calamity and bringing blessings of the gods, thereby creating a happy world here on earth for people, by recourse to the power of the gods.94

To bring about these aims, the Shamans worship and serve the gods by singing and dancing in a ceremony of worship called the Kut. There are two forms of Kut. The first one is related to the cycle of a human person and his growth, while the second is related to the cycles of various seasons of the year. The first Kut consists in performing various ceremonies of worship that help the individual to have recourse to the blessing of the gods at different stages of his life. We could mention a few of such ceremonies. When a person marries, the Shamans perform the ‘ceremony of detection’. It is aimed at getting rid of every misfortune in the life of the couple and to pray for the blessing of the gods on the couple, as they begin their new life. When a woman conceives a child, the Shamans hold a ceremony to propitiate the god of new life and to pray for the safe birth of the child and for the security of his growth. Throughout the life of the individual as he grows from childhood to old age, the Shamans conduct ceremonies of worship periodically to pray for a long and happy life without illness, and to obtain riches and honors in full measure. The Shamans also offer ceremonies of worship when a person dies in order to assure his safe journey and entrance into the other world.95

The Second Kut relates to the ceremonies of worship offered throughout the cycle of the seasons of the year, for instance, the ceremonies held in spring in order to pray for the elimination of the evil fortune and for a plentiful harvest. At the time of the First Moon the people of the village gather together to perform the ritual of ‘treading on the earth God’ to prevent misfortune. Again, when the crops are ready, a special ceremony is performed to please the agricultural gods and to pray for an abundant harvest. In the same way the Eighth Moon and the Tenth Moon were considered as times of thanksgiving, during which a ceremony of worship was held for the new harvest.96 Usually the Kut of this second type consists of twelve parts symbolically referring to the twelve months of the year, though at times it has more or less than twelve parts.97

We will state briefly what is done in each of the twelve parts. The first and second parts are aimed at purifying the place of ritual and calling down various gods. The third part is a prayer of protection. The fourth part is aimed at the expulsion of evil spirits. The fifth part consists in inviting the god of wealth, Taegam-sin, and praying to him for the blessing of wealth. In the sixth part Chesok-sin, the Buddhist guardian god, is invited, and prayer is made to him for long life. The seventh part is a prayer for peace. The eighth and the ninth parts are prayers for the expulsion of the evil spirits and a prayer for protection respectively. In the tenth, eleventh and twelfth parts the Shaman worships the guardian gods and offers sacrifices to various spirits to prevent every evil consequence. Each of the parts in the full ritual of twelve parts follows the same pattern. Firstly, the Shamans invoke the god who is the object of ritual, which is done with an invitation song that calls people to worship. Secondly, the Shamans sing and dance to a special tune and rhythm to please the god who is already invited. Thirdly, when the singing and dancing reaches a violent level, the Shamans enter a state of trance and ecstasy. At this state they are in communion with the gods and convey messages from the gods. It could be an utterance of warning and command or a promise of blessing. Fourthly, the Shamans send the gods back to their places by singing songs of praise and by dancing.98 In this manner, ceremonies of worship are means with the help of which primitive people encounter the divine spirits.


Besides using the worship offering of the priests as a means to come in contact with the divinities, primitive people also used the celebration of religious festivals as occasions of contact with their deities. Festivals also had a social meaning for the primitive people; at festival time the whole community reunites. People of the community, who had gone to different places for work, return to their homes. People from the neighboring towns and villages also come to participate in the festivals and receive the blessings of the gods. As a result the towns are full of strangers. Besides, festival is a time of family reunion and for meeting friends. During festival time every family mourns the dead, disputes between the families are settled and there is a general jubilation. The community as a whole experiences the presence of the divine in their life at the festival time.99 We shall mention a few festivals of the primitive people through which they experienced the divine beings.

The most popular festival the Ga people of Ghana celebrated is the annual Homowo festival. The word ‘Homowo’ literally means ‘hunger hooting’. It is a harvest festival in which, after the rich harvest, people ‘cry the hunger out’. They rejoice in the abundance of food, which is the blessing of the gods. Homowo festival begins on the first or the second Monday in the month of May and ends in September. The festival is celebrated in different towns of the Ga people. Religious ceremonies are performed throughout the festival. The festival begins with the ceremony in which the priests of the gods who are honored till the plot of land sacred to the gods. Then with the help of their assistants they raise a garden tool and point it to the sky. As this act is done, the Wulomo addresses a prayer to Naa Nyonmo, the Supreme Being of the Ga people.100 The prayer goes as follows:

Lend ears, lend ears, lend ears!

Lord God, we beseech Thee,

Let there be rain, let there be dew,

That the earth may be fertile,

That grain may grow,

That there may be plenty for all.

Life! Life!

We are praying life for all.

Let one year go and another year come to meet us alive! 101

The Wulomo repeats the prayer three times to the Supreme Being. The purpose of this rite, accompanied by triple repetition of the prayer, is to thank the Supreme Being and the gods, ask for their blessing for the fertility of the soil, pray for the increase of the family and plead the gods to guard against misfortune. Other than the spiritual celebration of the rituals in the shrines, in every home people prepare the traditional food called kpekple and serve it with palm nut soup and fish. People celebrate the arrival of the bountiful blessings of the gods with gaiety. 102

The Swazi people of South Africa celebrate a six-day festival called Incwala. They believe that during this festival the king dies and gains new life and strength, which he, in turn, transmits to the people of his kingdom. During these days the king remains in an isolated place, while dances in special costumes are performed. On the fourth day the king eats food made of the new grain. Then the people are permitted to eat of the new grain. Symbolically expressing the king’s gaining of new life a green gourd is thrown out for the people to catch. Fresh herbs are also used at the rites. During these six days no people from the kingdom are permitted to shed blood or to carry arms. Through this festival the Swazi people believe that their king receives new life and strength from their gods and transfers it to them, thereby bringing about a communion between the gods and the people.103

The Ainu people of North Japan, who revered the bear as sacred, celebrate the bear festival as their greatest festival during the year. The festival begins with the ritual of killing a bear cub accompanied by various ceremonies. The skull of the bear is placed in a special place in the house with an inao or inau, which is a stick that is made of living wood, with shavings attached and arranged into a tassel or a garland. This stick serves as a sacred offering to the gods. The inau, when used at the ritual, is imbued with the sacred power (ramat), which is a form of spiritual energy. Since the inau is made of living wood it is filled with the power of the terrestrial spirit, Shriamba Kaumi. Through the sacred power and the spiritual energy present in the inau, the gods can be worshipped, revered and placated. The Ainu people believe that by the celebration of the bear festival, with this special ritual of killing the bear, the gods enter the house as guests, as the bear, the Lord of the animals, returns to the gods’ abode in heaven. In this manner the blessings of the gods are brought to the people by the visiting gods.104 The Koryak tribal people of Siberia celebrate a similar annual bear festival. Besides, they also hold a wolf festival during which a wolf is sacrificed. When the wolf is killed at the sacrifice, a man dressed in wolf skin walks around the sacrificial fire while beating a drum. This is a typical hunting rite, which aims at seeking the blessings of the gods for success in hunting or to thank the gods for the success in the hunting mission.105 The Aztecs of Mexico celebrated an annual festival for their sun god, Tonatiuh. This festival commemorated the sun’s struggle with the evil powers, its death and rebirth. During the festival these aspects were enacted in dances. Besides, the festival included the sacrifice of a prisoner by tearing his heart from the living body and raising it towards the sun god. By celebrating this festival, the Aztecs believed that they would receive the bountiful blessings of the sun god, Tonatiuh.106

In this manner the celebrations of various festivals, accompanied by special rituals to the gods, besides preserving the unity of the community, served as an important means for primitive people to establish and to maintain contact with the divinities.


Respecting all that are considered to be sacred is a means through which the primitive people came in contact with the spiritual beings. The sacredness, whether it belongs to a thing, a person or a practice, depends on people’s beliefs that these bring them in touch with divine beings. In the primitive societies the sacredness is associated with the word ‘tabu’, from which the English word ‘taboo’ derived. It is a Polynesian expression, which is used to describe something that is forbidden, as it is considered sacred or as it is something that defiles that which is sacred. What is believed to be the tabu is full of sacred power. Therefore, a profane person must keep away from it. If an unworthy person approaches the tabu, he would have to bear the consequence. For instance, sacred persons, such as priests must handle the sacred objects. If ordinary people attempt to do what a priest is expected to do, it is dangerous for them. In the same way a village chieftain is considered as a tabu, because he has an important religious, social and political position among the tribal people. A person is called to avoid these types of taboos, because these are sacred.

Besides, at times people and things are considered taboos because they are believed to be essentially evil. Anything involving blood, women during the period of menstruation, a newborn baby, a warrior on the eve of a battle, a person who is dying and a dead body are a few examples of this type of tabu. These are to be avoided not because they are sacred, but because they defile the sacredness and purity in a person.107 In the sense we have spoken, tabu or the sacred could be attributed to people, things and places. We could elaborate these sacred realities, by giving a few illustrations from the religion of the primitive people.108

The sacred people are generally the priests. The Maori people of Polynesia set their priests apart as they believed them to be sacred. They treated the priests with great respect and reverence, because the priests talked to the divine spirits on behalf of the people and the divinities gave messages for the people through them. Among the priests some were respected more than others, as the former were more sacred than the latter. The more sacred priests were treated differently. People would not touch these priests. They fed them by placing food in their mouth. The touch of their shadow was believed to be sacred. The less sacred priests were often the priests of the family divinities, who manifested their weakness by practicing witchcraft and magic.109 In most of the primitive African societies, the living-dead were considered as taboos. They are still persons, who are yet to become free spirits and therefore able to affect the life of the people positively or negatively. Various rites were performed to keep in contact with the living-dead. These rites involved the offering of food, other articles and the pouring of beer, milk, water, tea or coffee. Prayers, invocations and instructions to the living-dead often accompanied these offerings and libations.110 In some other primitive societies on some important occasions a small bird, a sheep or an oxen is killed and the blood is allowed to soak the graves of the living-dead.111 In this manner people were considered as sacred, and these sacred people meditated the contact with the divine and the sacred beings.

The primitive people also considered things as sacred and taboos. For the Maori people anything could become sacred. For instance a tree, a stone, a part of the sea, a piece of land, a piece of human hair, a walking stick, a spring of water could be considered as tabu. These taboos, besides effecting contact with the divine, also had some social function of regulating the behavior of the people that it did not offend the other. By making certain things taboos, the Maori community prevented the greedy from using up certain birds, fruits or similar things. The Maori people also considered the birth of a baby, sickness, warfare and death as taboos, because these were associated with spiritual powers (atua).112

In some primitive societies, relics of the dead are considered as objects of religious care. In some societies the people preserved a part of the skull of the dead, painted it red and preserved it in a container made of bark from a certain tree on which the picture of the dead was drawn. The Loango people of the Congo and the Melanesians of New Guinea even made real statues of the dead and placed them above the relics in niches at the back of the public house of the village. On certain occasions, they also built makeshift altars in front of the statues for presenting offerings to the dead.113 Thus, in the primitive societies many things were considered to be taboos. With the help of these taboos they encountered the divinities and regulated the social life of the people.

The primitive people also believed certain places to be sacred and forbade any profane activities being performed in those sacred places. The tombs of the ancestors and cemeteries were considered sacred places. The veneration of these places was believed an act of religion. People built little houses where the souls of the departed could come and rest. Small altars were built near these tombs to offer sacrifices to appease the spirits of the ancestors. The Maori people had the practice of burying their dead in the caves and considering these places of burial as sacred places. In the tribal societies of East Africa small huts were erected at the crossroads for the spirits of non-human origin. These huts were considered sacred places, as they were the shrines of these divinities, and people offered sacrifices of flour, grain and other objects in these huts.114

Similarly, sacred enclosures were made to honor the Manes (Ikigabiro). These enclosures consisted of a round place of several meters over which fine grass was planted in the form of a bed and the center of which a fig tree was planted. The divinity of the community was invited to come and rest. This sacred place was used to offer sacrifice to the divinity. The sick and the dying were placed in this bed of grass that they might be cured of their illnesses.115 Other places, such as rivers, springs, sea, earth and mountains are also considered as sacred. In these places, dedications to the gods, ritual washing of purification and similar rites are performed. Some of such sacred waters are believed to be curative. 116

Various rituals are also done in these sacred places. For instance, while fishing the fishermen of Gabon, in equatorial Africa, when they catch the first fish of the day, cut the fish open carefully, remove the internal organs and throw them into the waters as the first fruit offering for the spirit of the waters. In the same way, it is a common practice among the primitive people, when they take any fermented drinks like beer or wine, to pour a little on the ground as a libation sacrifice to the spirits of the earth.117

From what we have said, it is clear that in most of the primitive societies the people had a sense of the sacred. They set apart persons, things and places as sacred. The purpose of these sacred realities was to help them come in touch the divine powers that their personal and social life in the community might be guided properly.


In most tribal societies there is some form of moral code that directs the behavior of the people. These moral codes vary depending on tribal customs, the geography of the place where people lived, the contact of the people with other cultures and their religious beliefs. Religious beliefs played a great role in the moral consciousness of the people. Often it is fear of the Supreme Being that made people be moral. In some primitive societies certain moral transgressions, such as incest, were considered a sin against the Supreme Being, which breaks man’s relationship with the divine. It was also their belief that for such sins the whole community would be punished. Thus, the primitive people believed that these moral codes have a religious sanction and their violation is not merely a social offense, but also a religious offense. As a result, the infringement of the moral law of the tribe is believed to bring divine punishment on the people. Illness and similar troubles were seen as punishments for the violation of the moral code. Therefore, living a strict moral code was considered a means of establishing genuine contact with the divinities and avoiding divine punishments.118 The following are some of the moral practices prevalent among the primitive people.

In many primitive cultures marriage was considered an area of moral prescriptions. Often there were a great number of prohibitions associated with marriage. Blood relatives were not allowed to enter into a married relationship. Adultery was considered evil, and severe punishments were given when the prescriptions regarding adultery were violated. There were moral customs that regulated the relationship between married partners. For instance, a conjugal relationship was not permitted when the wife was pregnant and while she nursed the child. Similarly, the partners were not allowed to have conjugal relationships during the time of war and hunting. There were prescribed norms for divorce. For instance, a man could divorce his wife for laziness, suspicion of magic and adultery, while the wife could divorce her husband if cruelty was done to his mother-in-law.119

Since marriage and sexuality were such an important area of moral sanction, in many primitive societies there were initiation rites, by which the young were admitted to the circle of adults and made full members of the community. These rites include isolating the young people for a period of time, during which practical instructions were given regarding sexual, moral and religious matters. Then they were put to test by heavy trials and painful treatment, before they were admitted into the circles of the adult members. During such initiation rites, the tribal people of the Sudan and the Equator performed circumcision of the boys and clitoridectomy of the girls. Usually the boys and the girls were initiated separately. In this manner the young were prepared for accepting adult life and married responsibility.120

Besides the regulations directing sexual and marital life, there were also other restrictions, which the native traditions prescribed on the primitive tribal people. For instance, using abusive language, poisoning someone, any form of murder and calumny were punishable before the family or the tribal tribunal. The native tradition of the Bavili people prescribes five types of prohibitions. The first of these concerns the Supreme Being. The second regulates the practice of the magical divination. The third deals with mothers correcting their children. The fourth concerns observing each fourth day by abstaining from certain types of occupations. The fifth deals with duties and ceremonies which a woman had to follow regarding premarital and marital morality. In many primitive traditions, breaking any of the prescriptions does not require free and voluntary consent. Any form of violation, whether voluntary or not, is punishable.121

In this way in most primitive societies living a strict moral code was not seen merely as a means to regulate the social life of the people. Rather it was viewed as a means to reach out to the divine, for the violation of the moral code not only disrupted the relationship between man and the divinities, but also brought their condemnation. Thus, for most primitive peoples moral living was a bridge between the gods and men.


Man is human and limited. Therefore, he is not always able to follow the directions of the gods and of the society in living the moral codes. In spite of his good intentions, he often fails and offends the divine and brings evil on himself and the community. So, having offended the gods, one wishes to rectify one’s relations with them at the earliest opportunity. Besides, every commonly accepted transgression must be atoned in order to avoid divine punishment not only on the individual who has committed the evil, but also on the community to which he belongs. Hence, every primitive society had one or the other form of expiatory rite, with the help of which the primitive people appeased the offended divine spirit. The expiatory rites express the total surrender of the offender to the gods and his attitude of self-denial. Besides, in offering expiatory rites, the person who displeased the gods recognizes his fault and wants to make amendment for the wrong he has done. In doing so he not only frees himself from the punishments of the divine spirits, but also re-establishes his broken relationship with the god he has offended.122 We shall briefly consider some of the expiatory rites that were practiced in different primitive societies.

The Kikuju people practiced a purification rite called ko-tahikio. The literal meaning of this word is ‘to vomit one’s sin’. According to ethnologists, this practice was prevalent among these people until recently, when they came under Christian influence. Ko-tahikio is aimed at freeing the offender from the evil he has done and bringing him the peace of mind he yearns for after violating the taboo. It is conducted in the following manner. It usually takes place in the open air at some isolated place in the village. At the appointed time, those persons who have transgressed the law of the gods come either individually or together before the leader of the tribe. They sit on the ground and shout aloud the various evils they had done. If the faults are so grave and personal that they cannot be said in public, then they go far away from the village and accuse themselves of the crime they have committed before a sacred pole. When they return they carry on their heads wood equivalent to the sins they have confessed. The primitive people of Tahiti performed similar expiatory rites, which included a number of expiatory prayers and sacrifices that expressed a genuine spirit of humility.123 At the concluding ceremony the priest addressed the supreme God with the following prayer: "Hearken, O God, to our petition with food. Here is the sacrificial pig for thee, a sacred pig, a pig without blemish. It is a pig of atonement, to set free the sinful man. Here also is the fat, small eating, for thee and the gods here in thy presence, O God, accept it. This is our petition, hearken unto us."124

The Ga people of Ghana practiced elaborate expiatory rites to make amends for the wrong done by the people. The priest of the sea-god (Nae Wulomo) performs special rites to Nae on behalf of people, who have offended him and have come to receive his pardon. There are a number of ways a person can offend Nae. For instance, taking the name of the god in vain, failing to carry out a promised vow and cursing in his name amount to offending the god. Offenses, such as curses, are considered very grave, as they prevent peoples’ efforts to increase the well-being of the society at large. Since such offenses go against the wishes of the god himself, they cannot be pardoned without taking some form of life. When a person confesses his sin, he is expected to bring different things for sacrifices, depending on the nature of the offense. Often he is asked to bring a goat and two birds, a male and a female. The time of expiatory rites are considered as very solemn occasions among the Ga people. Before the rite begins, the Wulomo and others, who take part in it, purify themselves. After purification, the Wulomo calls out the names of Naa Nyonmo, Asase Afia, Nae and other gods who are affected by the offense to come down and make themselves present. He then describes the offense to the gods. He places his request, on behalf of the offender, to accept the sacrifice, pardon the offender and to spare his life. Then the offender is brushed from head to toe with the birds that are offered. It is believed that this symbolic gesture takes away the offense.125

At the next stage, the Wulomo strangles the head of one of the birds and tears it open with his hands and toes. The dead bird is thrown up as everyone watches it in silence. If the bird falls with the breast up, it is a sign that the offense is forgiven. If this does not happen, it is believed that the sin is not pardoned. Then the Wulomo discerns the reason for what happened. It could be that the person has not confessed all his sins, or it may be due to the faulty performance of the ritual. It could also be because some of the gods offended by the evil are not invoked. Having identified the reason the Wulomo sets it right. Then he repeats the strangling, tearing open and throwing up of the bird, until it falls with its breast up, which is the sign that the divinities are satisfied and pleased with the offender.126

Then the goat, which symbolizes the offender, is sacrificed. The life of the offender is given back as the goat dies. Some of the blood collected from the goat is placed in the big bowl containing holy water, with which the offender is given a ritual bath. Now the offender is completely pardoned and purified. As a result the blessings of the gods rest on him. After the sacrifice the body of the goat is skinned and cut into pieces. One of the limbs is given to the sacrificer. He is not allowed to eat of the meat, but his relatives can eat. Those present at the expiatory rite, the priests and the servants of the gods eat the rest of the meat.127

The Dogon people in the French Sudan celebrate a six yearly expiatory ceremony called Sigui. This ceremony and the celebrations associated with it lasted for about 20 days. The ceremony consists in renewing the Big Snake made of wood, which the people worship. The people sacrificed a dog and a chicken in order to enable the spirit to enter the new snake. Heavy beer drinking marked the celebration. For it is believed that the drinkers are acceptable to the ancestral spirits, whose vital forces are in a state of disorder due to death. The goal of this ceremony is to expiate the sins of the young people who have brought about the death of the founding ancestors. It is believed that this ceremony, besides expiating the sins, renews the strength and vitality of the ancestral spirits and of the people of the society. If anyone, due to illness, violating the taboos or in any other way loses the vital force of life, it is restored to him as a result of this expiatory rite. The vital forces of the ancestral spirits and of the people are restored and revived by placing the blood of the sacrificial animal on the top of the altar. Thus, this ceremony brings about the expiation of sins, revival of the vital force in the ancestral spirits and communion of the people with the divine spirits and the well-being of every member of the society.128

Thus in the many primitive societies we find the people having recourse to expiatory rites, which included the calling upon the divinities who were offended, confession of sins, offering of prayers and putative sacrifices to the offended spirits. This, in turn, restored the purity of the offender, established the lost communion between the divinities and the people and brought about the genuine well-being of the community.


Primitive people believed in animism, which consists in accepting the power of the spiritual forces to control and direct their lives. For instance, the Dogan people believed that their Supreme Being, Amma, had given each individual a soul and a nyama, which is a certain force or energy. After the death of the individual, the soul joins the ancestral spirits, while the nyama continues to remain in the world for generations. The tribal people of Ruanda call the spiritual force given to them by God as imana.129 Though these powers are immaterial and bodiless, they are believed to be residing in bodily objects. When inhabited by these spiritual powers, these objects become very potent and are capable of bringing good luck or misfortune to the people. The belief in animism made the primitive people to use of fetish and magic to control these powers and use them for their advantage. Thus, the use of fetish and magic became means of contact with the divine spirits, warding off the evil they could bring and obtaining the good fortune they can effect in the live of the people. In this section, we attempt to elaborate the use of fetish and magic as means of contact with the divine powers. USE OF FETISHES:

The animistic belief of the primitive people led them to believe in the power of fetishes. The term ‘fetish’ seems to have derived from the Latin ‘facticius’ and the Portuguese word ‘feitico’, which meant an amulet. The word seems to have been first used by the Portuguese adventurers when they met with these practices among the primitive people.130 They used this term to mean "symbolic (or real) repositories of supernatural power, … [which] serve as the psychological function of objectifying the primitives’ belief [in the power of the spirits to control their lives]."131 Describing a fetish, John A. Hardon says the following:

A fetish is a common object of no value in itself but which the primitive keeps and venerates because he believes it is the dwelling-place of a spirit. This can be anything: a stone, root, vase, feather, log, shell, colored cloth, animal’s tooth, snake’s skin, box, an old rusty sword. However the term is specially applied to those more or less crude representations, generally in wood, though sometimes in metal or clay, consecrated to various genii [powers] that flourish in the religions of Western Africa.132

Of themselves, these objects are powerless, but what makes them powerful is the presence of the spiritual powers. Therefore, no object or human representation is considered an effective fetish until it is consecrated to a supernatural power through the hands of persons, whom primitives call ‘medicine men’, and from whom it receives its power. For instance the Ga people of Ghana call these ‘medicine men’ tsofatsemei, which literally mean ‘people of tree roots’. They are herbalists, who treat physical illnesses. Since the Ga people believed that every illness has a spiritual side, they treated not only the physical ailment, but also the corresponding spiritual illness. Therefore, tsofatsemei were also believed to be spiritual men, who had the power to invoke the spirit-powers to heal the spiritual side of the patients. For this purpose these ‘medicine men’ consecrated objects to the sacred powers. Thus, what makes a fetish extra ordinarily potent is the mysterious spell sung over it at its ritualistic consecration to one or the other supernatural powers by the tsofatsemei. When the spiritual powers are withdrawn from these objects, then the objects become ordinary and powerless. 133

There are different types of fetishes. The first type of fetish consists of any object symbolic of a certain spirit, who may be invoked in a given time and circumstance. It is believed to defend the people against evil. The second type is the family fetish, associated with the worship of the ancestors. It consists of remains of the dead, such as, the skull bones, hair, tooth or any such relic. The value of these fetishes depends on the association of the members of the family with the living-dead, whose fetish they are. They protect the family, tribe or the clan. There is a third type of fetish, which is used for conducting black magic and spells, to bring about illnesses and to take revenge on others. It is aimed at bewitching spirits as a means to call down malicious powers to bring about harm in the lives of the people.134

Besides fetishes, the primitive people used amulets and talismans. These are different from fetishes, though they belong to the same category. A fetish is believed to be animated, conscious and efficacious because a supernatural power inhabits it. But the amulet (grigri) is a lifeless object, which a person carries wherever he goes. Though no spirit inhabits an amulet, it is believed to have some secret and intrinsic powers to preserve the well-being of the person carrying it. In the same way, no spirit inhabits a talisman. But it exercises magical effects on events and happenings of the people who use them. The secret power and magical effects of amulets and talisman come from special ceremonies done over them before they are given to the people for use. Their effectiveness depends on their type, and the spells and formulae used during such special ceremonies. The main difference between an amulet and a talisman is that while a person carries the former wherever he goes, the latter is placed on the door of the house, inside the home and at crossroads outside the village.135 Thus, for the primitive people, the use of fetishes, amulets and talismans effectively brought about the contact between them and the divine beings. THE USE OF MAGIC:

Besides the use of fetishes, the use of magic played a great role among the primitive people in their effort to come in touch with the spiritual realities. In magic one makes use of the powers of nature to bring about certain effects with the help of certain occult observances that have a religious appearance. Magic also could mean establishing contact with the invisible spirits and affecting their secret influences in different aspects of a person’s life. In magic, one attempts to bring about an effect that is much greater than the effort he has put in. In other words, magic is seen as a shortcut to achieve ends that are much greater than the means. Besides, a magician in practicing the art of magic often calls upon the influence of the lesser spirits, while giving them an importance they do not deserve. 136 Thus magic "is a generic term which describes the effort to produce an effect by means that are disproportionate to the result expected, through the invocation of lesser spirits as though they were divine."137

The primitive people distinguish between natural and supernatural magic. Natural magic is based upon the belief that in nature there are many objects, which have hidden and curative properties that can satisfy every need of the people and ward off every evil that can plague them. Often to identify these objects was a problem for the primitive people. With knowledge not fully developed, coupled with the animistic beliefs, the primitive people, instead of rightly exploring the forces of nature, took recourse to superstitious cults that implied charms, omens, the art of divination, prohibitions and taboos. Those who practiced the form of natural magic attempted to diagnose, treat and to heal the evils in people and societies and were known as ‘diviners’ or ‘seers’. Since natural magic’s purpose was to bring benefit and to protect from harm it was often known as ‘white magic’. On the other hand, supernatural magic is a religion by itself, that had its own form of worship, incantations, evocations, rites, sacrifices, priests and special meeting places. Persons who practiced the supernatural magic, viz., the sorcerers and the witches, attempted to charm, bait, bewitch, poison and prowl, thereby effecting various consequences in the individual and the societies. Since supernatural magic is often associated with harmful effects on the people, it is called ‘black magic’.138

Though sorcery and witchcraft belong to the same category of the supernatural magic, they are not exactly the same. Sorcerers do their magical practice as individuals. In practicing sorcery, the sorcerer performs magical rites, pronounces incantations, special formulae and uses typified gestures. When these are done the magical effect takes place despite the personal qualities of the sorcerer who performs the magical ritual. Thus, sorcerers are professionals in the art of the performance of magic, whom people consult when they want to injure an enemy or to take revenge on a rival. Their practice of magic as an evil art does not necessarily make them evil. On the other hand, the primitive people believed that witches are evil by their very nature. Witches are witches by birth. Unlike the sorcerers, who effect evil others only by the performance of magic, the witches not only effect the evil by the rituals they perform, but also because of the spontaneous effect of the wickedness of their persons. The witches form secret societies and practice their trade of witchcraft as a collective organization. They practice their trade at night, when their victims are asleep. At the hoot of the owl, which is their sacred bird, the witches are said to leave their corporeal bodies, which lie asleep in their huts and join in meeting with other witches in their spirit bodies. In such meetings they converse with the evil spirits and invoke them against the victims of their witchcraft. Such acts of the witches "spiritually masticate the souls of the victims", which in turn bring them bodily harm depending on the malice of the evil intended, while the witches were at their midnight session. Therefore, the primitive people hated the witches more than the sorcerers. In general, in the primitive societies all those who performed any form of ‘black magic’ were looked on with contempt and at times punished for the evil they brought upon the people.139 In this manner, magic, in it various forms, was used in the primitive societies to come in contact with the divine beings, to win their favor and to prevent them from harming the people.

In this essay we have highlighted the various means with the help of which the primitive people attempted to encounter the divine beings. They are prayer and sacrifice, worship-offering of the priests, celebration of religious festivals, respecting the sacred, living a strict moral code, offering expiatory rites, the use of fetish and the performance of magical rites. Some of these means are very sublime, while some others belong to a lower order. But all these practices are found among the primitive people, and each in its own way helped them to establish and maintain their relationship with divine beings.


Our consideration of the religion of the primitive people brings to light that their Weltanschaung is spiritual. They do not distinguish between the sacred and the secular, as every dimension of their life is linked with the invisible world of the spirits. Therefore, they believe that their life is not totally in their hands, but rather it depends on God and other lower divine beings. Since they are not able to determine their destinies independent of these spiritual beings, the primitive people are often moved by an attitude of fear towards these divine realities. As a result, the primitive peoples’ approach to religion is utilitarian and egoistic. It is utilitarian because they wanted to be at the safer side as far as the divine beings are concerned, as displeasing the divinities may not turn out to be good for them. It is egoistic because preserving themselves from the anger of the deities becomes their main religious concern. Thus, the prayers addressed to the gods, the sacrifices offered and all other forms of worship are characterized by selfish motives. Some of such motives are obtaining food, victory over enemies, averting an evil and freedom from an illness. Besides, there is great deal of materialism inherent in the primitive religion, as the object of most of peoples’ prayers and worship is winning material favors from the divinities. So they take great care to appease the divine spirits and to ward off their anger. Since fear of the divinities dominated primitive peoples’ religious attitude, pleasing the gods became one of the primary tasks of religious worship.

Though we find that fear of the gods is a significant motive that directed the life of the primitive people, still we find that it is not the only motive that guided their lives with the divine beings. Most of the primitive people believed in the Supreme Being, and their attitude towards Him is not always one of fear. They considered the Supreme Being as one who really cared for them and attributed many moral qualities to Him. They called upon the Supreme Being, at the most difficult moments in lives and believed that He would never let them down. They offered Him prayers in praise, and thanked Him for His goodness. In the same way, peoples’ attitude towards lesser divinities is not always one of fear. They believed in the power of the divinities to help them and offered prayers of thanks for the blessings received. Thus, we find elements of genuine religious motivation in the religious attitude of the primitive people.

Primitive religions provided various means to establish contact with the divine realities. The variety of ways provided helped people to keep in touch with the divinities and seek their blessings at different seasons of the year and different stages of life. Besides opening people to divine blessings, these religious rites also built up genuine bonds among the people of the family and the clan. In this manner, in spite of the limitations that we find in the primitive religions, there is a great deal of richness inherent in them. Though they are primitive in their nature and expressions, without any doubt they led people to God and established a living relationship between the divinities and the people.


1 Cf. E. Bolaji Idowu, "Errors of Terminology", The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions, ed. Roger Eastman, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 425-426.

2 Cf. Helmer Ringgren and Ake V. Stroem, Religions of Mankind: Today and Yesterday, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), p. 3.

3 Cf. David A. Brown, Guide to Religions (London: SPCK, 1980), p. 14.

4 Cf. John A. Hardon, Religions of the World, Vol. I (New York: Image Books, 1968), p. 22.

5 Ibid.

6 Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind, (New York: Fount Paperbacks, 1977), p. 45.

7 John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 22.

8 Cf. Ninian Smart, pp. 45-46.

9 Cf. Rama Shanker Srivastava, Comparative Religion, (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1974), p. 28.

10 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 30.

11 Cf. Ninian Smart, p. 48.

12 Cf. Rama Shankar Srivastava, pp. 29-30.

13 Cf. Ibid., pp. 30-32.

14 Cf. Ibid., pp. 32-34. Cf. also John A. Hardon, Vol. I, pp. 40.

15 Cf. Ninian Smart, pp. 56-57. Cf. also Rama Shankar Srivastava, pp. 34-35.

16 Cf. Rama Shankar Srivastava, pp. 35-36.

17 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, pp. 23-24.

18 Cf. Ibid., p. 24.

19 The people of the Ainu religion are a technologically backward aboriginal people, who live on Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands in the Pacific Ocean, north of Japan. Traditionally they lived by food gathering, hunting and collecting edible plants and berries. Cf. Ninian Smart, pp. 50-51.

20 Cf. Ibid., pp. 52-53.

21 Cf. Ibid., pp. 54 –55, 60.

22 Cf. Ibid., pp. 53- 54, 55, 61.

23 Cf. Ibid., pp. 26, 28-30.

24 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, "God in African Belief", The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions, ed. Roger Eastman, pp. 429, 432. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, pp. 22, 24. Cf. also Ninian Smart, pp. 60-61.

25 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 430. Cf. also John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 25.

26 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 25. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, p. 8.

27 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 26. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, p. 8.

28 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 430. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, p. 8.

29 Cf. David A. Brown, pp. 16, 18, 26,27.

30 Cf. Helmer Ringgren, pp. 8-9, 22, 30.

31 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 430.

32 Cf. David A. Brown, pp. 36-37, 40.

33 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, pp. 430-431.

34 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 26.

35 Cf. Ibid., pp. 25, 28.

36 Cf. Helmer Ringgren, p. 33.

37 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 431.

38 Cf. Ninian Smart, pp. 60-61.

39 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 431.

40 Cf. Esdon Best, The Maori, Vol. I, (Wellington: Publication Board of Maori Ethnological Research on behalf of the Polynesian Society, 1924), pp. 87-88.

41 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, pp. 431-432. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, pp. 24, 33.

42 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 431. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, pp. 30-31.

43 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 432. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, pp. 8, 9, 22, 24, 25, 30, 33.

44 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, p. 432-433.

45 John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 30.

46 Cf. Ninian Smart, pp. 71-74. Cf. also John A. Hardon, Vol. I, pp. 30-31.

47 Cf. John S. Mbiti, "Divinities, Spirits, and the Living-Dead", The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Religions, ed. Roger Eastman, p. 443.

48 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 27.

49 Cf. David A. Brown, pp. 18-19. Cf. also John S. Mbiti, p. 444.

50 Cf. John S. Mbiti, pp. 443-444. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, pp. 24, 29.

51 Cf. ibid.

52 Cf. ibid.

53 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 37, 38.

54 Cf. Ibid., pp. 37-38.

55 Cf. Ibid., pp. 27-28.

56 Cf. John S. Mbiti, pp. 444 -445. Cf. Helmer Ringgren, p. 29.

57 Cf. John S. Mbiti, p. 445.

58 Cf. John S. Mbiti, pp. 445-446. Cf. also David A. Brown, p. 28.

59 Cf. Ibid.

60 Cf. John S. Mbiti, pp.m446-447

61 Cf. Ibid.

62 Cf. Helmer Ringgren, p. 19. Cf. also John B. Mbiti, pp. 445, 447.

63 Cf. John B. Mbiti, pp. 448-449.

64 Cf. David. A. Brown, p. 19.

65 Cf. Ibid., p. 28.

66 Cf. Ibid., pp. 39-40.

67 Cf. John B. Mbiti, p. 448.

68 John B. Mbiti, p. 449

69 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 32

70 Cf. E. Geoffrey Parrinder, pp. 433-434.

71 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 21. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, p. 25.

72 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 42.

73 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 25.

74 Cf. Ibid., p. 37.

75 Ibid.

76 David A. Brown, p. 23.

77 John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 37.

78 Ibid., pp. 37-38.

79 David A. Brown, pp. 21-22.

80 Cf. Ibid., p. 42.

81 Cf. Ibid., p. 23.

82 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, pp. 25-26.

83 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 21.

84 Cf. Ibid., pp. 42-43.

85 Cf. Ibid., p. 21.

86 Ibid., p. 22.

87 Ibid.

88 Ibid., pp. 22-23.

89 Cf. Rama Shanker Srivastava, pp. 34 -35.

90 Cf. David A. Brown, pp. 29-31.

91 Kpekple is the traditional food of the Ga people. It is made from corn-dough. Cf. ibid., p. 31.

92 Cf. Ibid., pp. 32-33.

93 Cf. Ibid., p. 47.

94 Cf. Ibid., pp. 46-47.

95 Cf. Ibid., pp. 47-48.

96 Cf. Ibid., p. 48.

97 Cf. Ibid., pp. 45-46.

98 Cf. Ibid., pp. 48-50.

99 Cf. Ibid., p. 31.

100 Cf. Ibid.

101 Ibid.

102 Cf. Ibid.

103 Cf. Helmer Ringgren, pp. 11-12.

104 Cf. Ibid., pp. 22-23. Cf. also Ninian Smart, pp. 51-52.

105 Cf. Helmer Ringgren, p. 25.

106 Cf. Ibid., 34.

107 Cf. Ninian Smart, pp. 55-56.

108 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 43.

109 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 43.

110 Cf. John S. Mbiti, p. 447.

111 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 38.

112 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 43.

113 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 36.

114 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 38. Cf. also David A. Brown, p. 43

115 Cf. John A. Hardon, pp. 36-37. Cf. also David A. Brown, p. 43.

116 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p, 38. Cf. also David A. Brown, p. 43.

117 Cf. Ibid.

118 Cf. David A. Brown, pp. 40-41. Cf. also Helmer Ringgren, p. 18.

119 Cf. David A. Brown, p. 41.

120 Cf. Helmer Ringgren, p. 13.

121 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 41.

122 Cf. Rama Shankar Srivastva, pp. 35-36.

123 Cf. John A Hardon, Vol. I, pp. 41-42.

124 Ibid., pp. 42

125 Cf. David A. Brown, pp. 33-34.

126 Cf. Ibid.

127 Cf. Ibid.

128 Cf. Helmer Ringgren, p. 12.

129 Cf. Ibid., pp. 18-19.

130 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, p. 35.

131 Ibid.

132 Ibid., p. 33.

133 Cf. Ibid., pp. 35-36. Cf. also David A. Brown, p. 28.

134 Cf. John A. Hardon, Vol. I, pp. 33-34.

135 Cf. Ibid., p. 34.

136 Ibid., p. 40.

138 Cf. Ibid., pp. 38-39, 40.

139 Cf. Ibid., pp. 39-40. Cf. also David A. Brown, pp. 28-29.

Last Revised 16-Feb-09 04:01 PM.