To understand the religions and spiritual practices of the indigenous peoples of the world, we probably first ought to try to understand how their mindset differs from that of industrial and technological societies like our own. This distinction is true whether we are looking at primal people in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, Siberia, or the many tribes of North and South American Indians. “The primal consciousness has not been altered by the conditions and dichotomies” of modern, technological society, writes one observer. As a result, it “is not fragmented but remains whole. All of life is a symbolic paradigm of the sacred. Divine worship, for example, would not be regarded as an ‘activity’ to be separated or isolated from other ‘activities.’ Life as lived is a sacred ‘activity’ in and of itself. One worships as one breathes. Work and play (not ‘leisure’) are not so much opposites but simply two sides of the same coin.”1
Primal peoples — the term that has replaced the pejorative “primitive” — make no distinction between art, craft, work, and even religion. And so to learn about primal religions, as Huston Smith says, “we can start anywhere, with paintings, dance, drama, poetry, songs, dwellings, or even utensils and other artifacts. Or we could study the daily doings of its people, which are also not separated in sacred and profane.”2 And because primal peoples tend to live in harmony with the physical world, their consciousness is generally identified with the earth in a particular place, often a rather small locality where they live. Plants, trees, animals, hills and valleys, waterways, lakes, and even rocks are experienced as spiritual beings in their own right. Each particular place has its own spirit. Another way of saying this is that in the primal consciousness, God is nature, manifested in myriad ways and forms. Such an understanding is sometimes referred to as animism, the belief that all of physical reality is animated by spirit.
The principle that God dwells within all beings and things is not limited to primal religions. “Lift a stone and you will find me,” Jesus says in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. “Cleave the wood and I am there.” But animism is one of the defining features of primal religion, and was probably one of the first expressions of spiritual awareness in early human cultures. It may have arisen initially from the experience of dreams and trances in which one’s body is stationary while some inner being seems to move or travel on another plane. By extension, the earliest humans may have then reasoned that all living beings and even natural objects must have such a soul. The Latin word for soul or spirit is anima, which was the souce cited by Edward B. Tylor, the 19th-century anthropologist who first used the term “animism” to describe this belief.
From there it isn’t a far leap to the personification and naming of deities who dwell within or regulate crucial aspects of life and nature, such as the Mother Goddess, the sun, earth, harvest, or sexual love. This progression formed the basis out of which many of the world’s religious traditions evolved. A further distinction was made between the spirits inherent in animate and inanimate objects and other spirits that roam the earth and have been identified in most of the world’s cultures with names such as jinn, genies, asuras, faeries, daemons, and the little people.
One of the linchpins of animism, and of primal religion in general, is the belief that all existence is connected. A continuum runs between life and death, between this world and the spirit world, between humans and animals, and among all creation. This connection between humans, the earth and its creatures, and the Divine caused many of the earliest religious rituals to be based around hunting and agriculture, and today’s major religions still show that linkage. Most traditions have key festivals or rituals connected to harvest time, the re-emergence of vegetation in spring, and the winter solstice, although they are often subsumed by more specifically “spiritual’ occasions such as Easter, Passover, or Christmas.
Because primal religions are so closely tied to the earth and to the specific localities of the peoples who practice them, we find a great deal of surface variation among individual tribal groups around the world. Most of those groups, however, share the characteristic beliefs outlined above. Many tribes, although not all, also share the prominent role given to the shaman, a healer and guide gifted with what often appear to be mystical powers.