Theology, Primitive

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Theology, Primitive


The subject matter of theology is the nature of divinities in relation to human experience; thus, as was the ancient classical usage, any discourse on the gods might be called theology. However, it has been significant for anthropological studies of religion that most people have in fact meant something more specific by “theology”—a specialized systematic investigation of the divine, usually undertaken by adherents of particular faiths, in order to deepen and rationalize the understanding of them.

Confessional theology—the logical, historical, and mystical exegesis of an accepted deposit of faith—is quite distinct from the kinds of theology that anthropologists study. But anthropologists have been brought up in societies with pervasive theological teachings, Judaeo-Christian for the most part; and although many have rejected the orthodox interpretation of those teachings, the framework of their investigations into other religions have been formed, often more thoroughly than they have recognized, by the traditions of their own societies. Ethnologists were for a long time drawn into theological debate about the nature and origins of man (see Hodgen 1964). Because Christian theology was part of the background of such prominent anthropological figures as Edward Tylor and James Frazer, the growth of anthropological studies in religion cannot be properly understood without some knowledge of confessional theology.

There are, broadly, three sources from which confessional Christian theology is derived: divine revelation, natural reason, and historical (church) tradition. Many early anthropologists denied, either implicitly or explicitly, the uniqueness of the Christian revelation; however, because of their intellectual background, they could not avoid putting in its place some alternative absolute assessment of religious truth. Using ethnographic evidence, writers like Tylor and Frazer in England and Durkheim in France in effect substituted their own doctrines of the nature of the gods for orthodox doctrine. Frazer showed that beliefs and practices hitherto supposed to be uniquely Christian had parallels among “lowly savages” and therefore represented psychological stages in the evolution of man. Durkheim, by appearing to locate the gods in human social experience only, was also by implication pronouncing on the nature of God. [See the biographies of Durkheim; Frazer; Tylor.]

Christian scholars (Wilhelm Schmidt foremost among them) often tried to accommodate anthropological findings to their own theology. They debated man’s original monotheism and the universality of belief in a high god. From a modern standpoint, this discussion attempted to fit ethnographic facts into Christian theological categories.

The Christian acceptance of natural reason as one source of man’s knowledge of God provided a model for early anthropological theory. In natural theology it was held that knowledge of God, albeit incomplete, might be arrived at by the exercise of human reason upon natural and moral experience, so that observation of design in nature would lead men to the idea of a designer, God, without supernatural revelation. The theories of many anthropologists followed this line of reasoning; however, belief in natural reason served to replace, not to supplement (as in Christian natural theology), belief in supposedly revealed knowledge. Tylor expressly stated that his idea of animism—a belief in spiritual beings—as constituting the basis of all religion came from treating primitive religious practices as “belonging to theological systems devised by human reason, without supernatural aid or revelation; in other words, as being developments of Natural Religion” ([1871] 1958, vol. 1, p. 427). But this “natural religion” itself and the kind of reason and human psychology it presupposes were themselves more a residue of Christian theology than Tylor seems to have realized. They were not derived from empirical evidence of the behavior and beliefs of peoples ignorant of the Christian revelation but from the remnants of a theology that had first assumed the truth of that revelation.

Durkheim and his followers, almost certainly influenced by the emphasis placed upon the authority of scriptural and historical tradition—the importance of collective solidarity—in their own Hebraic religious upbringing, took a view directly contrary to that of most British scholars. For this French school, religion was not the result of reasoning; it was the foundation of it: “Men owe to it [religion] not only a good part of the substance of their knowledge, but also the form in which this knowledge has been elaborated” (Durkheim [1912] 1954, p. 9). Thus, while the theological bias of what has been called the “English intellectualist” school of interpretation of religion was toward traditional natural theology, that of the French school (composed for the most part of Jewish scholars) was toward the collective experience of the tribe or church as a source of knowledge of the gods.

For both, What really are the gods? and therefore What is God? remained central questions. The answers they gave were often theological, within the universe of discourse set by Judaeo-Christian theological principles. It has only been by finding it possible to avoid this universe of discourse, and thus to pose questions that are not basically theological, that modern studies of specific “primitive” theologies have developed.

Modern studies

The point of departure of modern studies was indicated by Mauss when he said, “A sociological explanation is finished when one has seen what it is that people believe and think, and who are the people who believe and think that” (quoted in “For a Sociology of India” 1957, p. 13). But, as has been seen, it was by no means easy to begin to approach this limited objective so long as the anthropologist’s own theological background was allowed to dictate the selection and arrangement of information, and while, in general, those who made observations were anthropologically untrained and those who formulated theories knew little or nothing of tribal societies at firsthand.

In The Andaman Islanders (1922) Radcliffe-Brown, to some extent following Durkheim, tried to escape from the kind of theoretical preoccupations discussed above by presenting the complex of ceremonial behavior, belief, myth, and legend as a systematization of notions and sentiments upon which the organized life of Andaman society depended. Significantly, he deliberately avoided the use of the word “religion,” since he could not find a definition of the term that would render it suitable for use in scientific discussions of the beliefs of such primitive peoples as the Andamanese. He argued that when we use the term religion, we inevitably think primarily of what we understand by that term in civilized society. An elaboration of this argument appears in one of the few articles specifically referring to the “theology” of a non-literate people by that term, Evans-Pritchard’s “Zande Theology”:

In treating of religion ... we have only to translate primitive religious terms into our own language, and our interpretation of them is already made by the very process of translation. Once we have translated Zande words into such English expressions as “Supreme Being” and “soul,” the notions and feelings these words evoke in us already intrude to colour our apprehension of the meaning they possess for Azande. Merely by translating “Mbori” as “Supreme Being” we ascribe to him supremacy, . . . omnipotence, benevolence, and other divine attributes. ([1936] 1963, p. 97)

In this article, Evans-Pritchard’s careful examination of the fluidity and imprecision (by Western doctrinal and theological standards) of Zande thought on many religious matters is itself a criticism of the tendency of earlier writers to produce a systematization of foreign beliefs derived not from those beliefs in all the ambiguity of their expression in a foreign language but from literate theological debate.

Nadel’s Nupe Religion (1954) also exemplified the effort then still required to discard an inappropriate theological language. Nadel (again one of the few writers to discuss “theology” rather than “religion”) wrote:

The Nupe deity, then, is something like the causa causans of mediaeval philosophy, though the crucial problem of that philosophy, how to reconcile an omnipotent deity with the presence of evil in the world, is not really seen as a problem. Good and evil are both laid into the same creation, as are the various sources of evil—malevolent spirits, disease, witchcraft. Without further speculation about a Free Will, or the weakness of mind and matter, or Satan, the deficiencies of the world are taken for granted. The only problem in Nupe theology is the actual power of evil, not its origin. And this power is justified, once more without moral speculations, by accepting, simply, the aloofness of the deity. In other words, one does not wonder why God did not create a better world; but one attempts to answer the question—Why does God not better protect Man, who has to live in this world? The answer ... is that divine concern with the world is limited. (1954, p. 12)

An appreciation of this theological “realism” (if it may be so called to distinguish it from the idealism of much official theology of the universal religions) is to be found in many other writings. Radin’s Primitive Religion (1937) presents many texts that are to the point. He quoted, for example, from an Eskimo interviewed by Knud Rasmussen:

Why must there be snow and storms and bad weather for hunting, for those who must hunt for our daily food, who seek meat for ourselves and those we love? Why must hunters, after they have slaved all day, return without a catch? Why must the children of my neighbour sit shivering, huddled under a skin-rug, hungry? Why must my old sister suffer pain at the ending of her days? She has done no wrong that we can see but lived her many years and given birth to good strong children.

And with a straightforward appreciation of the ambiguities of life, the Eskimo continues: “Even you cannot answer when we ask you why life is as it is. And so it must be. Our customs all come from life and are directed toward life: we cannot explain, we do not believe in this or that; but the answer lies in what I have just told you. We fear!” (Radin [1937] 1957, p. 54).

When many of the actual sources (native texts) of our knowledge of primitive theology are consulted without foreign theological and philosophical preconceptions, it becomes apparent that earlier theorists were often looking for a precise formulation of belief where none existed or were attempting to fit beliefs into a pattern derived from a type of logical thought that was basically irrelevant to these beliefs. An awareness of this problem underlies Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s idea of “prelogical thought,” although unfortunately his work appears to exaggerate the nonlogicality of primitive thought. Certainly the errors of much earlier work on primitive religion may be traced to ignorance of the languages in which it was expressed and an ambition to theorize without an adequate grounding in texts of the kind quoted from the Eskimo above. Notable early exceptions to this tendency are Callaway’s Religious System of the Amazulu (1868-1870), Hahn’s Tstmt\\IIGoam: The Supreme Beingof the Khoi-Khoi (1881), and Bleek and Lloyd’s Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911).

Modern students have increasingly recognized that theological statements made by members of many preliterate societies may often be confused and self-contradictory if they are simply compared with one another in an effort to elicit a consistent body of doctrine and belief. The same may be true of the statements made by the vast majority of nontheologians in the universal religions. But when beliefs are related to precise human experience, individual and social, and in specific contexts, their real coherence can be grasped. The object of modern studies is therefore not so much an examination of the relationship between a number of theological propositions as it is an examination of their relationship to actual life. By looking at their material this way, anthropologists try to produce what might be called “socio-theologies,” which can be regarded as valid both by those who believe in the objective reality of their divinities and those who do not. Moreover, in some modern trends in Christian and comparative theology a similar concern with maintaining a distinction between judgment and understanding may be observed, as, for example, in The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amid African Religions by J.V.Taylor:

We have, then, to ask what is the authentic religious content in the experience of the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, or whoever he may be. We may, if we have asked humbly and respectfully, still reach the conclusion that our brothers have started from a false premise and reached a faulty conclusion. But we must not arrive at our judgment from outside their religious situation. (1963, pp. 10-11)

In modern anthropological studies, then, the anthropologist’s own opinion of the validity of the beliefs he is examining, although it may be expressed, is of marginal relevance. In Lugbara Religion (1960), John Middleton, while explicitly disclaiming any intention of presenting the beliefs of this Ugandan people as a system of theology, described the various mystical agents that are believed to cause sickness and death. He stated that he himself assumed that the sequence of events accepted by them is without scientific foundation; however, whether or not this is assumed to be so, his sociological analysis of the way in which a set of beliefs and rituals associated with the ghosts of the dead and spirits is connected with patterns of political authority shows, in a way that a Lugbara himself could accept, what Lugbara religious beliefs imply for this society. Similarly, in The Work of the Gods in Tikopia (1940, vol. 2, p. 376), Raymond Firth expressed the view that the Tikopian gods and spirits are essentially an imaginative and emotional projection of Tikopian social organization, but his detailed exposition of Tikopian ritual and belief is little affected by this judgment of their “true” nature. We may mention here that, as might be expected, people with a highly developed, specialized priesthood like the Maori (see, e.g., Best 1924) or the Dogon (see, e.g., the works of Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen) produce a more systematic account of their gods, more of a theology in our traditional sense, than those whose priestly institutions are less differentiated from others.

The exploration of the idea of structure in religious belief and ritual—systematic representation of gods as corresponding to structures of thought and experience—distinguishes modern studies from their predecessors. Examples are Evans-Pritchard’s study of Nuer religion (1956), in which he examined Nuer spirits as “refractions,” in relation to particular situations, of the general concept of spirit; and Lienhardt’s Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (1961), in which Dinka divinities are seen in their relationship to complex combinations of physical, social, and personal experience. In these works, as in many others, the essential ambiguity and ambivalence of divinities as the people understand them—their intrinsic amorality-are recognized. Gods are both creative and destructive, and one figure of God may have both attributes (as in Hinduism). An example of the attempt to resolve what at first sight appear to be contradictory, mutually exclusive interpretations of the nature of a particular god is Dumont’s short study entitled “A Structural Definition of a Folk Deity of Tamil Nad: Aiyanar, the Lord” (1953).’ This god occupies a prominent position in Tamil village religion, yet “his characteristics seem to be chosen at random, so that his nature cannot be grasped through them” ([1953] 1959, p. 75). The central problem of interpretation posed by the god is his “double relation” with the demons on the one hand and the mother goddesses (benign in principle) on the other. Dumont cited earlier authorities with opposed views on the nature of the deity, pointing out their failure to see the double relation as the essential clue to its meaning. He demonstrated that the apparent confusion of characteristics ascribed by the people to Aiyanar ceases to be confusion when he is recognized as a conjunction of theoretically opposed principles: the god is not, for example, either a priestly Brahmanic god (as his association at times with “purer” values such as those of vegetarianism suggest) or a warrior god commanding demons and thereby associated with impurer habits like meat eating; he is both at the same time. The anthropological study of theologies proceeds as shown in this example, by seeing with as few theological and philosophical presuppositions as possible what “primitive gods” actually do represent—often an expression, rather than a resolution, of the ambiguities of human experience.

[For related articles, see the guide under Religion

R. G. Lienhardt


Best, Elsdon 1924 Maori Religion and Mythology. Wellington (New Zealand): Skinner.

Bleek, Wilhelm H. I.; and Lloyd, Lucy C. 1911 Specimens of Bushman Folklore. London: Allen.

Calla Way, Henry (1868-1870) 1885 The Religious System of the Amazulu. Folk-lore Society Publication No. 15. London: Trubner.

Dumont, Louis (1953)1959 A Structural Definition of a Folk Deity of Tamil Nad: Aiyanar, the Lord. Contributions to Indian Sociology 3:75-87. → First published as “Definition structurale d’un dieu populaire Tamoul’d” in Volume 241 of the Journal asiatique.

Durkheim, ÉMILE (1912)1954 The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Allen & Unwin; New York: Macmillan. → First published as Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, le systéme totémique en Australie. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Collier.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1936) 1963 Zande Theology. Pages 162-203 in E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Essays in Social Anthropology. New York: Free Press. → First published in Volume 19 of Sudan Notes & Records.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1956) 1962 Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

Firth, Raymond W. 1940 The Work of the Gods in Tikopia. 2 vols. London: Humphries.

For a Sociology of India. 1957 Contributions to Indian Sociology 1:7—22.

Frankfort, Henri 1948 Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Hahn, Theophilus 1881 Tsuni\\llGoam; The Supreme Being of the Khoi-Khoi. London: Trubner.

Hodgen, Margaret T. 1964 Early Anthropology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

International African Institute (1954) 1960 African Worlds: Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples. Edited by Daryll Forde. Oxford Univ. Press.

LÉvy-bruhl, Lucien (1910) 1926 How Natives Think. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Les functions mentales dans les sociétés primitives.

Lienhardt, Godfrey 1961 Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Clarendon.

Middleton, John 1960 Lugbara Religion: Ritual and Authority Among an East African People. Oxford Univ. Press.

Nadel, S. F. 1954 Nupe Religion. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1922) 1948 The Andaman Islanders. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Radin, Paul (1937) 1957 Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin. New York: Dover.

Sundkler, Bengt G. M. (1948) 1964 Bantu Prophets in South Africa. 2d ed. Published for the International African Institute. Oxford Univ. Press.

Taylor, John V. 1963 The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amid African Religions. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Tylor, Edward B. (1871) 1958 Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith. → Volume 1: Origins of Culture. Volume 2: Religion in Primitive Culture.