Soul: Concepts in Indigenous Religions

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Whereas in a Christian context the human soul is thought about and overvalued in relation to the body, in the traditional thinking of so-called archaic societies an immanent power, a vital principle, an individualized dynamism, is usually recognized to exist not only in humans but in certain other material and biological beings as well. Whatever moves, whatever lives, is supposed to be the abode of one or many souls.

This article shall essentially deal with what is conceived of as the spiritual principle of the human being, the prototype of the "beings-forces" of nature, and not with the more or less anthropomorphized spirits, gods, or genies, nor with powers that are supposed to have a mineral, an animal, or a vegetable as a continuous substratum.

The essence of the soul is power, to the extent that power, soul, and life become interchangeable categories. But with regard to traditional societies one can really speak neither of the uniqueness of the soul nor of homogenous and always precise concepts. The linguistic equivalents in use remain very approximate. Since the idea of the soul is rarely the object of metaphysical discussion in these societies, it is difficult to really know if what is designated by the aborigines as "spirit of the man," or "spirit in the man," corresponds to separate realities, to distinct functions of the same reality, or to inherent potentialities of a determined substance. Nevertheless, the fact that primitive humans think of themselves as unlimited with regard to their physical potentialities shows that they examines themselves in order to seize their hidden essence, which extends far beyond their bodies.

In the explanations relating to the subject, one observes a constant concern about concrete detail and the rejection of abstractions, which results in a correspondence between ontological pluralism and a plurality of phenomena; but nothing is represented as either purely material or purely spiritual. The quantitative character of the power of the soul is accentuated by this plurality of personal souls and by the identification of the degree of force that each individual disposes of in their relation to evil spirits, in their generative power, and in the influence they has on their fellow citizens, for example. Each of these individual powers tends to free itself and to exert itself in an independent way: for example, through the heart in courageous deeds of battle or through the mind in the wisdom of a palaver. The soul never appears as a pure essence but is identified through props and manifestations. Its power can vary from individual to individual, and even in the same individual in the course of his or her life.

Theoretical Elaborations

While most of the ethnologists of religion have been interested in problems relating to the soul, E. B. Tylor (Primitive Culture, 1871) and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (L'âme primitive, 1927) were among those who formulated the principal theories regarding this subject. In The Golden Bough, James Frazer remained close to Tylor's concepts. R. R. Marett, criticizing both Tylor and Frazer, coined the word animatism to describe the tendency of the mind to consider inanimate objects as living and endowed with feelings and a will of their own.

According to Tylor, who was one of the first to propose a theory of primitive religion, the evolution of religious systems had its origin in a primitive animism, defined as a belief in spiritual beings. The notion of the soul arose from the fusion of the idea of a life principle with a double, or an impalpable phantom that could separate itself from the body it resembled. Belief in a phantom double originated in the experience of the independent double of distant or deceased individuals appearing in nocturnal dreams and diurnal fan-tasies.

But studies in the history of religions have not validated Tylor's hypotheses. His sequential interpretation (belief in a double, attribution of a soul to animals and then to objects, ancestor and spirit cults, fetishism, idolatry, polytheism, monotheism) has been shown to be incorrect; the importance that he gave to dream-inspired revelations in the origin of myth and religion has been contested; and the historical evidence proves that monotheism appeared much earlier than Tylor thought.

According to Lévy-Bruhl, the primitive soul must be seen as participating in a unique principle. All beings function as the vehicles, and the diversely specified incarnations, of an anonymous and impersonal force that sociology has popularized under its Melanesian name, mana. Participation in mana, which is at one and the same time substance, essence, force, and a unity of qualities, confers on things and beings a sacred and mysterious character that animates nature and maintains an interaction between all its parts. Belief in an essence common to certain beings and objects has been defined as totemism. But Lévy-Bruhl also viewed souls as variable and multiple powers, unequally located in the universe. Next to emanations-forces and powers of nature are placed the beings-forces, the personified souls, endowed both with intelligence and will.

It is, however, to be emphasized that both Lévy-Bruhl and Marett erred in concluding that the primitive conceives of everything in nature as being animated, even if there is a belief that anything can serve as a prop for an animation under specific circumstances. The idea that all is soul is a theoretical construction. The idea that the individual soul does not exist and that it fuses either with the cosmos or with the group is also erroneous, because, on the one hand, the individuals's identification with the vegetable, animal, or divine world does not exclude the differentiation of powers and, on the other hand, among many African peoples (the Kikuyu of Kenya, for example), the collective soul (or family spirit) is entirely different from the soul of the individual.

The idea that primitive thought ignores any dualism separating the body and soul also lacks validation. Numerous examples show that there exists a quite noticeable distinction between the body element and the diversity of spiritual entities that one may call "souls" for the sake of convenience, entities that may have the body as a prop or that, as the double of ego, constitute what Frazer called the "external soul."

Varieties of the Soul

Owing to a lack of better and more varied terms, term soul is used here, in the singular, to refer to conceptions with greater differences than those existing between Shintō and Christianity; soul often designates, for a single living being, plural entities, distinguished by the autochthonous peoples themselves to account for what they judge to be independent spiritual forces. As beliefs can and do contradict each other from one ethnic group to another, it is hardly possible to imagine a typology that could be valid for a single continent or even for a large cultural area; consequently, it seems more appropriate to illustrate the diversity of soulsthe complexity and ambiguity of these beliefswith some examples.

The Fang of Gabon name seven types of souls: (1) eba, a vital principle located in the brain, which disappears after death; (2) nlem, the heart, the seat of conscience, which inspires the acts of men and also disappears at the time of death; (3) edzii, an individual name that retains a sort of individuality after death; (4) ki (or ndem ) the sign of the individual and at the same time his or her force that perpetuates itself after disincarnation; (5) ngzel, the active principle of the soul as long as it is in the body; (6) nsissim, both shadow and soul; and (7) khun, the disincarnated spirit, which can appear as a ghost.

From this example, one can see that the soul is never conceived of as an amorphous substance; rather, it is represented through functional props (brain, heart), through images (shadow, ghost), through symbols (name, character sign), or by its activities. The differentiation of souls may also occur in relation to ethical or sexual criteria or their modalities of action.

The Mbua of the Rio Branco territory in Brazil (the São Paulo littoral) believe that there exists in each individual both a beneficial soul and a dangerous soul, which manifest themselves through communication, that is to say, through speech and an impulsive process comparable to telepathy. Moreover, there is a third type of soul called ñee, which is the initial core of the personality and plays the part of the protective spirit. This soul stands guard while humans sleep in the forest; but unlike the guardian angel, it is not a being distinct from a human. If the three souls simultaneously abandon the body, the person dies. The Mossi of Burkina Faso (Upper Volta) believe that death comes from the disunion in the soul (siga ) of two invisible principles, one male (hirma ) and the other female (tule ).

Mircea Eliade has noted that the Aborigines of Australia recognize a distinction between two souls: the real ego, which preexists individuals and survives them, perhaps through reincarnation, as certain tribes believe; and the trickster-soul, which manifests itself in dreams, resists its definitive separation from the body, and may remain in the body of another person after the death of its owner. Humans have to perform special rites to defend themselves against the trickster-soul.

This last example suggests what is to many theoreticians of primitive culture a fundamental distinction: that is, the distinction between soul-substance, which animates the body and which temporarily locates itself in the vital centers or in the products relating to its force (saliva, sweat, blood, sperm, tears), and the external soul, which is also plural and whose different aspects correspond to various particular functions.

Internal soul

Wilhelm Wundt called the potentialities of particular parts of the body (head, heart, liver, eye) "organic souls." But if the soul is designated by the places where it shows its power, it is in the whole body that one finds the substance of the soul.

Among the corporal expressions of vital dynamism, a privileged place is assigned to blood and to respiration. In one of the myths of the Iurak of Central Asia, the world perishes from a fire caused by the death of a sacred tree; as it tumbles down, the tree sheds its blood, which streams over the earth, changing itself into fire as it flows. Thus, the disanimation of the center of the world produces (as a consequence) the disanimation of all beings. Respiration is conceived of as both the sign of life and its principle. Such was the power of breath among the Celts that during the Battle of Druin Damghaire the druid Mog Ruith, using only his breath, transformed his enemies into rocks.

A vital spiritual force is also supposed to reside in sperm. Sexual relations are the symbol and the means of the continuity of the vital force in humans. To say to an old African man that he does not have any more "force" is to tell him to his face that, on the one hand, he is impotent, and that, on the other, he is no longer capable of creation. Finally, it is to be noted that certain extraordinary potentialities of the body may be present as the result of its being possessed by a superior power.

External soul

This term designates the powers of the soul located outside the body. Frazer spoke at length about this in The Golden Bough. Discovering in themselves potentialities that appear to them to be superior to those shown by their ordinary physical performance, individuals have a tendency to conceptualize this superiority more readily outside than inside their own bodies.

Thus, what may be called external soul can leave the body during a dream or sometimes two or three years before physical death (Dogon, Serer, Kongo of Africa); habitually lives in an animal double (totem), in a human double, in the shadow; and expresses itself through speech and rhythm in relation to the "non-me" (the soul of communication).

Thus, the indigenous peoples of the Bank's Islands in Vanuatu fear that death will come to them if they see their reflection in the water of a cave. If a deceased person does not have a shadow, he or she may a shadow themself and may frighten the person who sees them as ghosts. An individual can attack another using a shadow acting as an intermediary. The Sotho of southern Africa believe that a crocodile can seize a passerby if it catches hold of the person's shadow at the surface of the water. But in this context the word shadow is used figuratively to designate some inner aspect that is like a shadowclearly individual and separable from the person, but at the same time immaterial despite being represented by way of material substance. This is an example of the conceptual expressing itself through objects accessible to the senses.

The "double" (which is identified with the shadow in some cultures, distinguished from it in others) is a second self, mysteriously united to an individual. It can die with the individual, or it can be seized and consumed by a witch, which action, in turn, causes a mortal sickness in the victim (a general belief in West Africa). On the island of Mota in Melanesia, the term tamaniu refers to a kind of double, referring to any animal that is mystically connected to human. People are forbidden to eat the tamaniu. Human and animal protect and influence each other in profound solidarity, but here the double does not have the exact same traits as the original.

The fact that some human powers are represented by the hair and nails that continue to grow for a short time after death, and that they are symbolically transported and buried and become the objects around which family funerals are celebrated in the case of the death of a loved one in a foreign land or of an untransportable corpse (e.g., in Benin civilization), does not mean that a soul is held to live in the hair and the nails. Rather, they are viewed in very much the same way as the placenta, which, like them, is buried in most parts of Africawhich is to say, they are thought to be relics of life and power.

The souls of animals, like the souls of things (e.g., a statuette), may also enter into symbolic and participative relationship with the human soul, but an animalfor example, a bird that flies away, a fly that enters a person's ear, a snake that killsmay also temporarily become the prop of a person's external soul. Sorcerers and witches are supposed to possess, to varying degrees, this liberty to transport themselves, to live in a double, to metamorphose in order to reach the people on whom they wish to act. Sometimes, the double (e.g., the aklama of the Ewe of Togo) is thought of as a sort of tutelary spirit, an adviser on matters related to the luck of the individual, one that suggests a good deed or the way to avoid an accident.

Origin of the Soul

The soul can originate from an almighty spirit, from Mother Earth, or from special genies; it can also be obtained as a gift, by conquest, or by choice.

Among the Ewe of Togowho use the terms luvo (the "substance of the soul") and gbogbo (the "breath of life")the individual, before incarnation, exists as a spirit, and together with the supreme creator Mawu-Lisa he or she chooses their own destiny. This choice is supposed to take place in the field called bome, the place of prenatal existence, a kind of reservoir of stagnant and infantile lives where the primordial mother, Bomeno, cuts clay from which to fashion the newborn, which she then sends into women's wombs. The myths relating to the origin of each individual introduce the notions of initial choice of their life (gbetsi ), of reproduction of a character type (kpoli ), and of reincarnation of an ancestor (dzoto ).

The Bambara of Mali believe that humans possess twin souls called ni and dya, which are given by the deity Faro. The tere, which represents character, conscience, and force, is given to humanity by the deity Pemba. Finally, it is from the deity Mousso Koroni Koundyé that each individual obtains their waso, a malignant force that lives in the foreskin or in the clitoris and disappears at the moment of circumcision or clitoridectomy.

Among some peoples the generation of the soul is not the action of a divinity external to humans; rather it is through traditional methods that a soul can be obtained as a power. Thus, during their lifetime the Jivaroan people of Ecuador try to obtain a soul they call arutam wakani, which cannot be killed by physical violence, poisoning, or sympathetic magic. The search for this soul, which takes place around the age of six, involves a pilgrimage to a sacred waterfall, fasting, and the capture of a wandering soul during a vision of large animals in combat. The individual then feels an irrepressible desire to kill. The act of killing leads to the acquisition of the victims' souls and thus confers cumulative supernatural power. Those who have an arutam soul and are killed by either natural or supernatural means can, at the moment of death, form a revengeful soul called muisak, which leaves the corpse through the mouth in order to kill the murderer. Each individual, regardless of sex, is supposed also to possess an ordinary soul (nekas wakan ) that is relatively passive; this soul is represented by blood, and bleeding is even believed to be a hemorrhage of the soul. But the nekas wakan is only of secondary interest in relation to the arutam wakani and the muisak.

The Yoruba of Nigeria believe that force can be ingested and that this food possesses the quality of a soul. Thus the new king of Ife had to consume the heart of his predecessor, once that organ had been reduced to powder, in order to incorporate in himself the substance of royalty.

Destiny of the Soul

The migration of the soul is the extreme consequence of the freedom of movement attributed to spiritual entities. Indeed, most primitive peoples believe that a form of soul becomes detached from the body in dreams, but there are some who also hope to reach a stage of personal weightlessness through ecstasy.

Thus the Tupi-Guaraní of Brazil believe that incessant dancing associated with strict fasting will make them become so light that they will reach the "land of no evil" beyond the seas, where they will remain eternally young and be free from work and life's trials.

The majority of the so-called primitive societies believe that after death their ancestors live in another world that either parallels the world of the living or is similar to it. The voluntary burial of weapons and food in tombs can be traced as far back as the Mousterian epoch, to the Neanderthals, and during the Upper Paleolithic period the dead were usually covered with red ochre, a sign of life and perhaps resurrection.

Many African peoples believe that an ancestor identified either by divination or by some distinguishing traits, although living in the country of spirits, can be reincarnated in a newborn child, and sometimes even in several newborns, especially twins.

When detached from the body after death, certain souls can disappear, and others can reach various worlds beyond. For example, one soul makes its way to the place where its ancestors live; another is transmitted as a vital force to its descendants, usually to its grandsons. The ghost remains as a double next to the corpse or appears to the living while they sleep.

Regarding forms of life after death, an example from the Dakota is illustrative. The sky god Skan attributes to each person at birth four types of souls. (1) Nagi, the spirit that controls the actions of human beings until their death, when it leaves the body to await Skan's judgment. If nagi is deserving, it joins the world of spirits (wanagi tamakoce ); if not, it is condemned to wander endlessly. (2) Niya, the vital breath, which though immaterial, is visible whenever it wills. It gives vitality to the body, making it understand what is good and bad, and it helps the body to influence people. The niya can leave the body of the human being, and if the nagi abandons the body at the same time, it means death. After death, the niya gives testimony on the role of the nagi, which helps in the judgment of the latter. (3) Nagiya, the shadow, the external double, responsible for supernatural actions. A man possessed by the nagiya of a bear, for example, will have the nature of a bear. The nagiya also allows communication between animals and humans. (4) Sicun, the guardian spirit. It is never visible and is sent forth by the wakan kin ("superior spirits") to make humans react differently from animals. After death, it goes back to where it came from.

Almost everywhere, the voyage of the soul after death implies a gradual purification through a series of trials (e.g., crossing a stream, climbing to the sky by means of a rope). The ultimate destination is the land of the soul, depicted as a celestial space or an underground place, a glade or a desert, or a place devoid of all tangible character. In the Solomon Islands, the beyond is said to be both a distant country and a nearby cave. The idea of the dead resting in the west where the sun sets, or underground, or in marshes does not contradict the idea of their close invisible presence.

That the individual continues to exist in a new condition does not mean that the soul is conceived of as being immortal. Life can have a circular and cyclical movement that death does not interrupt, provided that the correct rites relating to burial (cremation in the Solomon Islands), lamentation, prayer for the dead, and sacrificial offerings are carried out. Primitive peoples speak not of an eternal life but of a very long life, a kind of existence resembling the one the dead have had on earth. Behavior, good or bad, as well as the manner of death, largely determines the posthumous power. Among the Fon of Dahomey, the individual whose death was caused by lightning, drowning, or leprosy can never achieve ancestorhood, and among the Tongans of Polynesia only the nobles are totally immortal. Among other peoples, some ancestors can ascend to the heights of divinity.

Here, mutilation prevents the soul of a dead human from performing harmful acts (Bering Inuit); there, the noxious powers of a sorcerer's soul are destroyed through the burning of the body (Ganda of Uganda). While continuing a life in the other world, the dead person can be present elsewhere; as a specter or a ghost (Raketta of New Guinea) or in the form of an animal (lizard among the Samoans, python among the Kamba of East Africa). Although invisible, the souls of the dead can appear in dreams or to those specialists who know their desires and so can intercept their messages.


In the religions of primitive societies, the soul is not necessarily the particularized form of a general and undifferentiated supernatural force; it is neither the genie living in a material reality nor the unique prototype of the ego or of the person considered as a moral and judicial entity. Many societies believe in the existence of several souls in the same individual, each of them having a distinct function. Generally, greater importance is given to the power of animation (anima ) than to the faculty of representation (animus ). And the notion that some spiritual element of the person survives after death is quasi-general.

See Also

Afterlife; Animism and Animatism; Blood; Breath and Breathing; Cannibalism; Death; Preanimism; Spittle and Spitting; Tears.


Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. La notion de personne en Afrique noire. 2d ed. Paris, 1981.

Crawley, A. E. The Idea of the Soul. London, 1909.

Frazer, James G. The Golden Bough. 12 vols. 3d ed., rev. & enl. London, 19111915. Abridged and edited by Theodor H. Gaster as The New Golden Bough (New York, 1959).

Hamayon, Roberte. Le chasse à l'âme. Esquisse d'une théorie du chamanisme sibérien. Nanterre, 1990.

Leeuw, Gerardus van der. Phänomenologie der Religion. Tübingen, 1933. Translated as Religion in Essence and Manifestation (1938; 2d ed., 2 vols., New York, 1963).

Lévy-Bruhl, Lucien. L'âme primitive. Paris, 1927. Translated as The "Soul" of the Primitive (New York, 1928).

Marett, R. R. The Threshold of Religion. 3d ed. London, 1915.

Tylor, E. B. Primitive Culture (1871). 2 vols. New York, 1970.

Claude RiviÈre (1987 and 2005)

Translated from French by G. P. Silverman-Proust