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Aspects of Primial Religions

Course Code
Joseph Bryant

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SOC250Y1- Wednesday November 10, 2010
Outline of World Religious History Continued
- A synthesis: what can be inferred from prehistory (archaeology, linguistics, etc)
And the ethnographic study of contemporary preliterate societies
- We find (1) belief in supernatural powers/forces religions of gods and goddesses
(2) belief in souls/ spirits ancestor cults- notion of deceased ancestors are
still with us who still require care by the living
- Both are systematized and expressed in Myth (stories and accounts of Gods) and
Ritual (where we try and win Gods favour, appease them, bring in assistance)
- Societies without the State are typically organized by KINSHIP: family lineages or
“blood lines”- descent from a common ancestor, in clans, tribes…
o Broad contrast between pre-state and state societies in societies where
you do not find the state, centralized governing political policing authority,
or where the state is fairly weak, the societies are organized along lineages,
family type connections, and kinship!
- In ancestor cults (more prominent with kinship organization) or worship, the
dead remain involved with the living as official guardians of the social order and its
moral codes- ritual specialists appeal to the ancestors spirits to give “rulings”,
settle disputes, etc.
- Dead ancestors part of kinship thus brought into the picture
- In lineage or kinship based societies, the ancestors play a significant political and
moral function the ancestor spirits are the official guardians of the social group
of the society- Why? in a state with a centralized authority, who is the guardian
of the social order? It will be the figure head of the state itself, that’s what makes it
a state, those people (emperors, kings and pharaohs) claim power over the lives of
others, they have instruments of power, laws… so when there are social needs for
coordination, the state provides that, in the absence of a state and with societies
organized along kinship, the ancestor spirits function as a neutral observer or
charge, they have the interests of the entire group at heart. So when there are
disputes, the ancestor spirits have a lot of space to provide that function. That is

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what we see… Ancestor spirits are regularly consulted to solve problems… they are
called upon spirits will answer in and shamans interpret what they tend to find
over and over again is that the advice of the ancestor spirits are designed to bring
back harmony and order, diffuse tensions
- Example: the hunting and gathering Veddas of Ceylon/ Sri Lanka
- Shamans call upon and “incarnate” the yaku or ancestors; they speak through his
guttural groans. Analysis shows that “approval/disapproval is based upon
compliance with the group’s moral code (recall Kritias & social control)
- Ancestors are believed to control fertility, the hunt and farming, weather, health
and illness, etc.
- Misfortunes are interpreted as occurring in consequence of breaches in the moral
- The ancestor spirits communicating through the ritual mediums are thus
- In collective rituals, the medium/shaman exhorts the people to avoid breaking
taboos, “that which is forbidden” – e.g., incest, adultery, theft, dishonesty
- Family and band harmony is regularly praised as essential for survival and
- Ancestor cult also provides a sense of collective, solidarity, the continuity of the
group, binds the living and future generations to the preceding- sacralised
tradition, custom --- they help bind the group thinker related: DURKHEIM
emphasis on religion as social solidarity and in our religious practices the worship
of the sacred is what Durkheim argued is us extending reverence to our own social
The “primitive” – “modern” debate:
- Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1857-1939)
Fonctions mentales dans les societies inferieures (1910) rejects the Tylor- Frazer
school, which divides humanity into infants and adults. Rather Bruhl argued: pre-
moderns have a different mentality, where emotional needs override the need for

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explanation. primitives vs. moderns (if you study the cultures of the pre-science
kinship based societies (ancestor cults) what they have is a very different cognitive
mapping of reality, they approach reality differently which represents a different
mentality and not a different rationality. It is more a different way of thinking and
i. Mystical orientation- perception is informed by emotion, objects are
charged with attachment-repulsion
o Perception in a prescientific mind is driven by emotion. The things we
perceive, we feel attached or repulsion from them. Things are charged with
positive emotional response or the opposite generating fear.
ii. Lack of objectivity: dreams, visions, etc., are taken for the real
o The pre-scientific mind has a lack of objectivity and that is that dreams and
visions are regarded as just as real as ordinary experiences and sometimes
even more real- thus having a higher degree of reality sometimes
iii. Participation: reality forms a interlaced nexus, ties and affinities abound
o Pre-scientific sees the cosmos as interwoven- linked together, not simply a
bunch of disconnected parts, everything is interblended and
interdependent. A synthesizing picture and thus because of this deep
interdependence, the pre-scientific mind tends to look for correlations and
connections. They will establish, Fraser and views on magic based on law of
similarity or law of contact- things that look similar are thought to have a
deep interaction,
iv. Pre-logical- law of contradiction flouted, as objects are at once themselves
and thins other than themselves
o Most controversial and he did readjust and admit mistake with this one
o Primitive people had no problem violating law of contradiction (Things can
be both a and b combine powers) based on anthropological research
that indicates (ex. Durkheim on totemism) people would say they are
both a human being and a blue parrot they are part of the blue parrot and
totem- and participate in essence of both in pre-modern mentality
boundaries are different and more fluid.
o Another example from Castaneda- Don Juan told him he turned into a
jaguar and later Castaneda did the same thing how could you be both
human and jaguar? more fluid and elastic boundaries in pre-science
v. Communion with the world: reality a Thou, a living animate other with
which one must establish harmony and integration
o Pre-modern viewed external world not as a thing separate from themselves
but approached as something subjective, a thou, the person felt the land
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