Primal Religions

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.

Christian Scientists accept the word of Mrs. Eddy as final; no new teachings can enter the church. And so, there is no preaching or sermonizing in the traditional sense. Each church has a First and Second Reader elected by the congregation who read selections of Scripture accompanied by selections from Science and Health without commentary or explanation. Members can and do share testimonies of healings that have taken place in their lives, and sing hymns, some of them written by Mrs. Eddy.


Shamanism is one of the most widely shared components of all primal people, from American Indians to Australian aborigines. Shamans are spiritually gifted men and women who have acquired the ability to help others through trance and dream journeying. They induce trance states in themselves to facilitate contacting the spirit world and to help heal the afflicted. Shamanic trances can be induced through a variety of techniques, including chanting or drumming, fasting, and in some cases the use of psychotropic substances, the mildest of which might be tobacco, but which can sometimes include entheogens such as peyote and ayahuasca. During these trance contacts, shamans may communicate with spirits of the dead or other spirits and learn what they need to know to help heal the body, mind, or soul of a patient, to locate game, or to predict the future.

Western anthropologists have often used the name “medicine man” (even though many were women) to indicate a mixture of shamanic and priestly capacities. In this context, “priestly” implies the use of rituals, songs, and verbal formulas learned from other priests in the manner of the brahmans of India. Although the term medicine man has acquired a derogatory overtone from countless Hollywood B-movies, it does reflect that many tribal shamans were also knowledgeable in the use of hundreds of herbal remedies unknown to white explorers and settlers. (The pejorative term “witch doctor” applied to African shamans, although offensive, contains a similar grain of truth.) The 16th-century French explorer Jacques Cartier, for example, had lost 25 of his men to scurvy when a band of Iroquois cured the rest by administering a decoction of pine bark and needles, a source of Vitamin C.

The African Diaspora

The primal religions of Asia, Siberia, Australia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands are equally rich and deserving of study. Yet from the admittedly skewed perspective of those of us living in the Western Hemisphere, there is special reason to look at the primal religions of Africa that have made their way, through the dark vessel of slavery, to the Americas. Several religions practiced primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, and increasingly in the U.S., have merged African religion with elements of Roman Catholicism to create what are known as “syncretistic” religions. Syncretism represents an amalgamation of spiritual beliefs and practices that tends to somewhat obscure the original nature of the religions involved. Of course, as we have seen throughout this Web site, almost all religions borrow from and incorporate elements of other traditions. The debt owed by Buddhism to Vedic Hinduism; by Taoism to Chan Buddhism; by Christianity to Judaism; and by Islam to Jewish and Christian scriptures should be plain by now. But compelling reasons that led to the creation of the syncretistic religions of Latin America make them distinct from the more traditional examples of religious borrowing.

These faiths that derived from Africa have a number of aspects in common, but each is considered distinctive by its practitioners and should not be confused with any other. One aspect they all share is the embodiment of the ancestral beliefs of African slaves who were brought to the New World against their will. Those beliefs were not acceptable to the European slave traders and owners who often forced their own Christian beliefs on the slaves. Mainly Protestant beliefs were imposed on Africans who were taken to what became the United States and who evolved a version of Christianity that was similar in substance, if not in style, to the beliefs of their owners. But in the Caribbean and South America, where slave owners were overwhelmingly Catholic, the religion of the slaves retained much more of their African ancestral beliefs, concealed by or integrated with those of the slavemasters. The most widespread and influential of these religions — sometimes called “diasporan” in reference to the forced Diaspora of the Jews from their homeland — are Vodou in Haiti, Candomble in Brazil, and Santeria in Cuba.

Most of the Africans who were taken to Portuguese colonies in Brazil or to French or Spanish colonies in the West Indies came from an area of West Africa that slave traders called the Mina or Slave Coast (modern Togo, Benin, Ghana, and part of Nigeria). A preponderance of them were members of the Yoruba (or Nago) people who practiced a primal religion that made extensive use of animal sacrifice, in which some portion of the sacrificial animal was consumed — much as it was in the earliest forms of Hinduism and Judaism. On a symbolic level, then, the enslaved Yorubans may have felt a connection to certain elements of the Catholic religion, where the “sacrifice of the mass” serves as a ritualized commemoration of the blood sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In the Catholic mass, the Body and Blood of Jesus, in the form of bread and wine, are actually consumed by the faithful. But on the level of harsh reality, the slaves were baptized against their will and forced to attend mass, so any connection to Christian symbolism may be cursory at best.

In order to conceal the underlying nature of their religious beliefs from the slavemasters, the practitioners of these religions identified the ancestral gods and goddesses of Africa with certain Catholic saints, a practice that continues today. Because religions such as Candomble have since risen from outlawed cult to officially recognized religion, concealment is no longer an issue, yet some elements of Catholicism remain embedded in them. But the heart of all these religions is to be found in their dances of spirit possession that lead to trance states, an element that is intimately tied to primal practices.

The best-known and the oldest of the diasporan religions is the Haitian tradition known as Vodou. It was originally called Vaudoux, a term that was first applied in the late-18th century to a serpent god with oracular powers celebrated in a vigorous communal dance by slaves from Arada (a town in modern Benin). The word vodou is roughly analogous to “spirit” in the African language from which it derived. Most terms in Vodou are Creole, the language of Haiti that combines a variation of French with some West African and Spanish terms; it’s related to but not the same as the patois spoken by the Creoles of New Orleans.

In Vodou and other African-derived religions in the New World, the spirits are not conceived as single entities but as combinations of personalities with several related identities. Some Vodou services are held to honor a spirit called a loa (orisha in Santeria; orixa in Candomble), on the feast day of the equivalent Catholic saint. The senior loa is Danballa, a form of the West African snake god who was identified with St. Patrick, traditionally said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland. Ogou, the Yoruban god of hunting, became in Haiti Ogoun or Ogun, the loa of iron and war, identified with the apostle James the Elder. Xango, the Yoruban god of fire and thunder, was concealed in the image of St. Barbara, the Catholic martyr.

There are some 400 lesser spirits or loas, but one major spirit. The Yoruban religion on which many of the diasporan rites are based includes what scholars call a deus otiosus (Latin for “inactive deity”), who is not involved in the day-to-day workings of creation. This deity, whom Yorubans call Olorun or Olodumare, the ruler of the universe, is referred to by West Indians as the Gran Met, Creole for “great master.” The lesser spirits partake of the abstract Godhead as various concrete manifestations. In addition, individual practitioners may have a met tet (“master of the head”), who functions somewhat like their patron saint.

Even today most Vodou rites begin with a series of Catholic prayers including the Our Father, Hail Mary, and some variation of the Nicene Creed, recited in French by the presavann, who is in charge of Catholic liturgical elements. But after this rather formal beginning, the language changes to Creole and the African elements come to the fore, especially the ecstatic dancing and drumming. As much as anything, Vodou is an ancestral religion meant to evoke the African homeland. Many of the rites are long and arduous, lasting several days and involving great personal privations aimed at opening the heart and mind of the initiate to the spirits. In that regard, Vodou is not so different from many Eastern religions that may require fasting, ascetical practices, and long bouts of chanting, meditation, and other practices designed to short-circuit the rational faculties and prepare the heart for enlightenment.

As practiced today, Vodou bears no resemblance to the religion of zombies, curses, voodoo dolls, and other fanciful hokum cooked up by Hollywood, which appear to have been based on a largely fictional 1884 book by Spencer St. John, entitled Haiti, or the Black Republic. That book and other similar accounts sensationalized “voodoo,” calling it a “cannibal religion” and Haiti “a savage country where, every year, children were sacrificed and devoured by the monstrous worshippers of the serpent.” (A small number of practitioners may have followed the darker, maleficent traditions of socerey, conjuring, and the use of so-called voodoo dolls, probably no more so than the handful of Christians who practice Satanism and pray for evil ends.)

The real Vodou, however, was intimately tied up with the Haitian struggle against slavery, a rebellion that the colonial powers probably found as horrifying as any night of the living dead. As far back as 1791, slaves gathered in the north of Haiti, where they sacrificed a wild boar to their ancestral gods and swore to overthrow their French masters. Two years later, slavery was abolished in what was then called Saint Domingue, and in 1804 the republic of Haiti was formed, the first of the colonized lands of the New World to recognize the right of all to equality without distinction of color or creed, almost 60 years before the U.S. Emancipation Proclamation.

Candomble is the generic name for a number of African religious traditions established in 19th-century Brazil, specifically in the region of Bahia. (In the southeast it is called Macumba; Rio de Janeiro’s sect is known as Umbanda.) The term candomble refers to the community of devotees, the consecrated area where their rites take place, and to the dances that make up a large part of the religion. In some cases, freed slaves who returned to their African homeland and became initiated as priestesses or priests in their ancestral religion brought back to Brazil the spiritual powers they had acquired. The leading figures in Candomble are women, especially senior women who direct the practice and pass it on to new initiates. Spirits called orixas may become incorporated in human mediums who, in language similar not only to Christianity but to all the great traditions, must die to ordinary life and be reborn in a new life of the spirit. The Candomble priesthood provides a wide range of counseling and therapeutic services to the community — of great value in many parts of Brazil where no conventional medical or psychological services are available. Unlike the Haitians, the Africans of Bahia remained enslaved until their emancipation in 1888.

Santeria (Spanish for “way of the saints”) is the name given to the complex mixture of Yoruban and Catholic beliefs and practices developed over the past 200 years in Cuba. Although it was originally a derogatory reference to the slaves’ emphasis on the saints rather than Jesus, it has since been reclaimed by practitioners. Another, perhaps more proper, name is Regla de Ocha, or “Rule of the Orisha.” Blending prayer, mysticism, and ritual animal sacrifice, Santeria was spread to Canada and the United States by Cuban expatriates following the Revolution of 1959. It has been embraced by several hundred thousand Cuban emigrants and other members of the Caribbean American community and is spreading to other African American and Hispanic communities as well.

“Santeria is a way of interaction with the orishas, the elemental powers of life,” according to one American scholar. “By speaking, feasting, and dancing with the orishas, human beings are brought to worldly success and heavenly wisdom. Santeria is the spiritual road the Yoruba developed in Cuba. It sustained them through slavery and freedom and continues to sustain them in the harsh world of urban America.”(3) Yet Santeria is probably best known in America not for its elaborate inner disciplines or its interaction with the spirits but for its ritual sacrifice (by decapitation) of chickens, goats doves, and turtles (the chicken is the most common) at times of serious illness or misfortune, during initiation, or to celebrate birth, marriage, and death. Once their blood has been drained into clay pots (reminiscent of ancient Israelite practices), the animals are either cooked and eaten or buried in the earth. The religion was forced underground in Castro’s Cuba, and was practiced secretly for many years in America, mainly by Cuban exiles settled in Florida, before going public some years ago. The right of Santeria believers to slaughter animals ritually has been attacked in the courts, notwithstanding the fact that millions of Americans boil lobsters alive for dinner, kill animals for food or sport, and destroy unwanted pets with impunity.

Some African Americans who have been seeking out what is specifically African about their heritage have begun to look more closely at Santeria and to a lesser extent Vodou and Candomble, which are much less prevalent in the U.S. Exploring beneath the surfaces presented by the mass media and the entertainment industries, these seekers are beginning to find a rich trove not only of ancestral material, but also of valid and useful spiritual guidelines. Some sources credit African Traditional Religions, including Voudun, Santeria, and other manifestations of the tradition as practriced in Africa and elsewhere, with over 50 million adherents. Because these traditions “harbor no history of violent inquisitions, persecution of others, or coercive proselytizing,”(4) they offer African Americans a meaningful alternative to the traditional Western religions, including Islam.

  1. Dr. Timothy D. Hoare, Associate Professor of Humanities & Religion, Johnson County Community College,
  2. Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991
  3. Joseph M. Murphy, Working the Spirit: Ceremonies of the African Diaspora, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994
  4. Mamaissii Vivian Odelelasi Dansi Hounon, M.Ed., “Voodoo” (Vodoun): The Religious Practices of Southern Slaves in America,

Return to World Religions »

Sign up for Caroline’s newsletter and be among the first to see new Archetype videos, spiritual direction, new classes and special offers. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Subscribe toCaroline’s Newsletter

and enjoy all of the free content on

By signing up you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this webste. You also agree to receive email communications from Caroline Myss. You may unsubscribe at any time.

FREE video seminar

The Power of

Spell Casters

Caroline Myss

FREE video seminar

The Power of

Spell Casters

It’s yours when you subscribe to Caroline’s newsletter. Be among the first to see new Archetype videos, spiritual direction, new classes and special offers.

By signing up you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this webste. You also agree to receive email communications from Caroline Myss. You may unsubscribe at any time.

No thank you
Caroline Myss