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Tribal Religions

Tribal Religions

The legends of the dead told by ancient or tribal people are perhaps the most accurate indicators of their religious thought. And from what can be assumed from the burial rites of early humans, they pondered the same kinds of questions concerning the afterlife as humans do today. Where had their friends gone? What do they do and see when they disappear into the unknown? Will they live again? Can their spirits return to communicate? Or are they just goneforever? Early humans could not answer these great questions, and so, to temper their fear of death, they created rituals, rites, and religions to comfort them.

Although the process of death and the reasons why the once animated body became lifeless were puzzles, aboriginal tribal societies understood that there was something in their departed friends and family members that survived somehow in another existence. The reason for this belief can be easily imagined. As they slept, early humans saw those persons whom they knew to be dead, alive and well in their dreams. Perhaps they themselves had witnessed their friends being killed in a dispute with another tribe or mangled by a predator, yet now they saw them and spoke with them, just as they had before their death. These vivid dreams of the dead undoubtedly led to the belief that there existed an immaterial aspect of human beings, a part that managed to survive the dissolution of the body.

Many Native American tribes believed that the physical body housed two or more souls, which became separated at death. The ancient Chinese affirmed three souls set free at death: one remained in the family house to serve as a kind of protector; another watched over the grave site as "guardian of the tomb"; and the third passed into the invisible realm. The aboriginal people of New Zealand, the Maori, believe that each of the eyes of the deceased is given a separate immortality: the spirit of the left eye ascends to heaven and is seen as a new dark star in the sky, and the spirit of the right takes flight to Reinga, a place beyond the sea.

The Fang people of Gabon envision seven types of souls:

  1. a vital principle that resides in the brain until death, when it disappears;
  2. the heart, the seat of the conscience, which inspires action during the life experience, but also disappears at the time of death;
  3. the person's name, which achieves a kind of individuality after death;
  4. the essence of the person, which perpetuates itself after death;
  5. the active principle of the soul as long as the body lives;
  6. the blending of shadow and soul;
  7. the spiritual residue, which can appear to living humans as a ghost.

The aboriginal inhabitants of the Fiji Islands believe that a human has two souls: the "dark spirit" and the "light spirit." The Nootkas of British Columbia regarded the soul as a tiny facsimile of the person that lived in the crown of the head.

Early humans generally did not accept death as due to natural causes. Death was either the result of acts of violence caused by human or animal enemies, or it was caused by evil and unseen demons. To the primitive mind, if a man or a woman, without wound or injury, fell silently asleep and never awakened, they had to have been the victim of malevolent spirits.

Some of the earliest rituals revolving around death concerned the interaction between the living and the body of the newly dead. Some tribal cultures believed that an evil spirit inhabited the corpse, and it should not be touched for fear of providing the malevolent entity with a living body to possess. Some anthropologists have theorized that it was fear of the dead body that led early humans to dispose of it. Since evil spirits had caused the "long sleep," they must undoubtedly still be lurking near the body to seize new victims. Therefore, the practical thing to do was to bury or burn or otherwise dispose of the body, thereby removing both the dead and the demons at the same time.

The Australian aborigines showed their fear of the dead by burning all the deceased's property and running away to establish a new village. They believed that the demon resided not only in the dead body, but in all the deceased's belongings. Early tribes in Greenland threw everything out of the house that had been owned by the dead person. At Batta funerals, the natives marched behind the body, brandishing swords to frighten away the death demons. The Galibis of Guiana dance on the newly covered grave to stamp down the spirits. The Winnebago tribe had a fear of evil spirits troubling the corpses of their deceased loved ones, so they swept the grass around the grave in a circle from six to 20 feet in diameter, a ritual that they believed prevented the evil spirits from approaching the departed's final earthly resting place.

The cosmology of certain eastern Native American tribes placed two powerful manitous, representatives of the Great Spirit, on duty in the Land of the Departed. One of the manitous, Chibiabos, like the Egyptian god Osiris and the Hindu judge of the dead, Yama, was master over the realm of the dead and escorted the newly arriving souls into their new environment. Sometimes there was a process of judgment involved, in which the worthy souls would be allowed to dwell in the Land of the Departed and the unworthy would be set adrift in space. The other manitou, Pauguk, protected the realm of the dead from unwelcome intruders with his bow and arrows.

Many Native American tribes believed that spirits of the dead lingered among the living until certain rites had been performed that would aid the spirits in their passage to the other world. Among the Ogallala Sioux, it was maintained that the spirit of the dead passed into the spirit world, by degrees, at the completion of necessary rituals that became the duty of the deceased person's family. Like fleeting shadows, the spirits of the dead slowly migrated to the Land of the Grandparents, gaining strength for their journey from the energy received from their living relatives, who performed a long and demanding rite known as the Shadow or Ghost Ceremony. The time needed to complete the ritual successfully could amount to as long as two years, during which period the immediate family and close relatives endured great privation to ensure the safe passage of the departed spirit.

These extensive rites were conducted in special Ghost Lodges, and it was here that the body of the deceased was kept prior to burial and where the ceremonies on the part of the deceased were held long after his or her interment. The Ogallala most often kept Ghost Lodges when the death was a particularly sad one, such as the passing of a child by accident or illness.

Among the Ojibway people it is customary to cut the hair of a child who has died and make a little doll of it, which they call the "doll of sorrow." This doll takes the place of the deceased child, and the mother carries it with her everywhere for a year. They believe that during this period of time, the soul of the child is transferred through the hair from the dead body to the doll.

The ghost land or spirit land of tribal people is equivalent to the concept of a heaven or a paradise: It is a place free from worry, illness, war, and the fear of death. It seems a general belief among many different tribal cultures that the afterlife of the soul is concerned with the same kind of pursuits that the entity followed as a living person. The spirit land would feature good hunting and fishing, beautiful new lands to explore, and no warfare or tribal rivalries.

Because the deceased individuals would be continuing a life similar to their life on Earth, they would need their valuables, their tools and weapons, and, of course, food and drink. Therefore, in nearly all tribal religions, it was customary to bury material things with the body. For the Papuans, Tahitians, Polynesians, Malanans, ancient Peruvians, Brazilians, and countless others, food and drink was left with the corpse. In Patagonia, it was the annual custom to open the burial chambers and reclothe the dead. Each year the Eskimo take clothes as a gift to the dead. Among the Kukis, the widow is compelled to remain for a year beside the tomb of her deceased husband, while other members of the family bring food daily for her and the spirit of the deceased. In the Mosquito tribe, the widow is obligated to supply the grave of her husband with provisions for a year.

It has been suggested that the religious aspects of funerals grew out of the belief that death was nothing more than a journey to another world and that the newly dead expect to have ceremonies performed for them to hasten their travels and to lessen the dangers of the journey. Among most tribal cultures, therefore, it is customary to dance and feast at the time of death for purposes of pleasing the spirit of the departed and to stamp upon the ground to frighten away evil spirits.


Delving Deeper

steiger, brad. medicine power. new york: doubleday, 1974.

sullivan, lawrence e., ed. death, afterlife, and the soul. new york: macmillan, 1989.

Burial Mounds

Rising out of the earth in Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and other states are the huge earthworks of the mysterious Mound Builders. The earthworks, also known as "effigy mounds" because of their bird and animal shapes, are scattered throughout the Midwest and were apparently raised by the same unknown people. Along with skeletal remains, the earth-works contain weapons, pottery, and numerous other artifacts, thus indicating that the Mound Builders believed that the dead buried in these earthworks were beginning a journey into the afterlife.

The burial mounds that depict animals quite likely represent the totem animal of the deceased buried within the earthwork. To the Native American tribes, the totems were sacred beings to which great importance was attributed. To have the mound shaped in such a design would ensure a positive afterlife destiny for the deceased. There are also ancient mounds shaped in a combination of animal and human forms, very likely indicating the name of a great chief, such as Standing Bear or Strong Eagle.

Excavation of certain mounds indicate that one or several bodies were buried at various levels, either on the floor, above it, or in a pit beneath it. In the effigy mounds shaped as birds or animals, the placement of the bodies was in the head or heart region. In the round mounds, the bodies were interred in the center; and in the linear earthworks, they were found along the central axis. The most common burial position was the flexed, with arms and legs over the chest.

Early settlers in the Ohio Valley in the 1700s were greatly impressed by the Great Serpent Mound on Brush Creek in Adams County, Ohio. The mound is approximately five feet high, and its length is 30 feet, diminishing in height toward the head and the tail of the "serpent." Near the open jaws of the serpent is another much smaller, oval mound. There are other such serpentine mounds near the Mississippi River at McGregor, Iowa; another structure in Licking County, Ohio, resembles an alligator.

At Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, there is a circular mound enclosing a pentagram. The outer circle measures 1200 feet, and the pentagon is 200 feet on each side. The mound is 36 feet in diameter and 12 feet high. Its summit is composed of white pipe-clay, beneath which has been found a large quantity of mica. Four miles away, on the low lands of the Kickapoo River, is a mound with eight radiating points, very likely representing the sun. This mound is 60 feet in diameter at the base and three feet high, the points extending about nine feet. Surrounding this mound are five crescent-shaped mounds, arranged in a circle.

The size and number of the earthworks suggest that the construction of the burial mounds was a community project. Hundreds of tribespeople had to dig soil from nearby areas, then over a period of weeks or months carry innumerable baskets or buckets, and dump them on the growing mound. The work may have been directed by a shaman, for it appears from the presence of fire pits in some of the mounds that religious ceremonies were conducted and funeral rites were observed.

In Pike County, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River, there is a mound consisting of a circle and square, constructed with great geometric accuracy. In Native American pictography, the ring or circle is generally an emblem of the sun, the stars, and the Great Spirit, the divine being. The oval also represents the Creator or the act of creation. The square designates the four cardinal directions. If it is assumed that the ancient Mound Builders had similar religious philosophies, then some insight may be gained into their beliefs about destiny and life after death.

One of the largest of the effigy mounds is a huge bird earthwork that is located on the Mendota Hospital grounds near Madison, Wisconsin. The bird is six feet high with a wingspread of 624 feet. A panther mound at Buffalo Lake in Marquette County, Wisconsin, is 575 feet in length, including its remarkably long tail. The largest of all earthworks yet discovered is Cahokia Mound (c. 1000) near St. Louis, Missouri, which is 998 feet long, 721 feet wide, and 99 feet high. Archaeologists have also discovered 45 mounds of smaller dimensions in the same area.

Who the Mound Builders were and why they stopped constructing their massive earth-works may never be known. There is nothing to point to their destruction by enemies or catastrophes. The most likely theory of their destiny is that their descendants were eventually absorbed into the Native American tribes that greeted the European explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.


Delving Deeper

emerson, ellen russell. indian myths. minneapolis: ross & haines, 1965.

steiger, brad. worlds before our own. new york: g. p. putnam, 1978.

Land of the Grandparents

It was a general belief among most Native American tribes that the world of spirit, the Land of the Grandparents, was similar to the physical world in its tasks and pursuits, hence the common reference to the "happy hunting ground," a place where all needs would be easily met. In this respect, the ghost land, the Land of the Grandparents, is equivalent to the Elysian Fields of the ancient Greeks, the Valhalla of the Vikings, and the general concept of a heaven or a paradise that awaits the virtuous soul after death.

Some tribes believed that their eternal abode would be in the stars. To these people, the Milky Way was known as the Pathway of the Dead; and it was their custom to light fires upon the graves of the dead for four days to give the spirits ample time to arrive safely on the glorious path in the sky.

For other tribes, the Land of the Grandparents, the Place of the Souls, was located under the earth, where the sun would shine during the time of its disappearance from the topside world at night. Others believed the place of the departed spirits was far away in the south.

Medicine priests among the Algonquin people taught that two souls resided in the physical body. One of the souls kept the body animate and remained with it during sleep. The other, less attached to the material plane, moved about at will, free to travel to faraway places and even to the spirit world. It was for the soul that remained with the physical body that the tribes-people left food beside their dead.

The Dakota, among other tribes, believed that each person possessed four souls: One animated the body and required food; a second watched over the body, somewhat like a guardian spirit; a third hovered around the village;

the fourth went to the Land of the Grandparents at the time of physical death.

In the Chippewa cosmology, the soul passed to another world immediately after death. Once in the dimension of the afterlife, the soul would arrive in a beautiful lake and be ferried across by a spirit ancestor in a stone canoe. In the middle of the lake was a magic island of good spirits, and the soul must remain in the stone canoe to await judgment for its conduct during life. If its good actions predominated, the soul would be permitted to reside on the island of good spirits. If the soul in its physical incarnation had spent a life seeking only carnal and material satisfactions, the stone canoe would sink at once and leave only the soul's head above the water. This imagery is reminiscent of the Greek belief that after death the soul must have ready its fee for Charon, ferryman of the Styx, to transport it to the afterlife.

Among many of the eastern tribes, there was a tendency to believe that the spirit stayed near the body for a time before it went to the paradise of the happy hunting grounds. The Iroquois left small holes in the grave so that the spirit could go in and out as it pleased until it left for the Land of the Grandparents. The tribes of the Ohio followed a similar custom of boring holes in the burial casket to allow the spirit to leave at a time of its own choosing.

For the Native American tribes, the color black was the symbol of death, evil, and mourning, as it seems to be so often throughout the world. In Native American tribal art or sign-writing, a black circle signified the departure of the soul, whose travel to the Land of the Grandparents occurred at night, after the sun had gone down.

The human soul was represented among some tribes as a dark and somber image, complete with feet, hands, and head. Because the soul still existed in human shape, it, like the ka of the ancient Egyptians, still needed to be provided with nourishment. Some tribal members burned the best part of their food as an offering to the souls of the departed.


Delving Deeper

emerson, ellen russell. indian myths. minneapolis: ross & haines, 1965.

Gill, Sam D., and Irene F. Sullivan. Dictionary of Native American Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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