In oral/first traditions, being religious entails much more than simply subscribing to a set of doctrines. It is instead a world view, a way of ordering society, and a means of reckoning with the natural and supernatural. It deals with the unseen and, in the absence of science, does not create boundaries between natural phenomena and the divine or supernatural. According to Walter Burkert, “Religion is manifest in actions and attitudes that do not fulfill immediate practical functions. What is intended and dealt with cannot be seen, or touched, or worked upon in the usual fashion of everyday life.” (Burkert 5)
Being religious is not a matter of subscribing to doctrines (which, in Western societies, is separate from science and other aspects of human life), but is instead a complex relationship with the surrounding natural world and with other humans.
views in oral/first traditions often establish the links between a people and the forces controlling their lives. This is especially true with folklore and creation stories, which attest to the links between a people and their divine beings, as with Io in Maori myths or Bumba in Bushongo myths. In essence, these attest to the people’s close identification with their divinities and stress a kind of organic belonging important to these societies. (Novak 334-336) Also, creation myths bind people closely to the sources of their sustenance, showing their reverence for the natural resources on which they depend. For example, the Pawnee root their origins firmly in corn, their chief food source, and their divinity (“Mother Corn”) is female; indeed, many oral/first traditions venerate female deities along with the male, attesting to the biological nature of divinity in oral/first traditions. (Novak 338-339) Resources are not simply seen as spiritually inert commodities, as in Western societies, but as vital parts of a world infused with spirits.
Folklore also helps to explain natural phenomena, addressing the “why?” in order to coherently explain and help people cope with powerful events (again in the absence of science), often natural calamities. (Burkert 112) Burkert explains that such tales typically start with some human folly, often a broken taboo or conflict, link these to catastrophes (which are, in these people’s views, manifestations of evil), and explain how they are ultimately overcome. Chains of human wrongdoing, dreadful consequences, and ultimate resolution, says Burkert, create “a context of sense and [premise] a meaningful cosmos in which people can live in health and at ease. . . .” (Burkert 128) Evil is attributed to supernatural agents aroused by human wrongdoing and brings punishment by the gods. However, resolution does not always occur. In tales akin to the story of Adam and Eve, whose misdeeds in Eden led to their expulsion from it, both the Yao of east Africa and the Hopi of North America blame human misbehavior for driving God away from themselves. (Novak 344-346)
World views in oral/first traditions not only involve folklore, but they are also rooted in social hierarchies, since hierarchy serves as a means of ordering the world. According to Burkert, this is virtually universal in world religions and early societies. (Burkert 81) In oral/first traditions, hierarchy involves not only simple subjugation to the powerful, such as humiliation and shows of deference, but also adherence to mutual obligations by superior and inferior alike. These help create a stable, ordered society in which inferiors show deference to superiors and superiors are obligated to protect or otherwise assist those they dominate. As Burkert asserts, “Dominance makes possible forms of solidarity not easily encountered elsewhere. . . .” (Burkert 82) Hierarchy also manifests in showing reverence for natural forces. Again, Novak’s examples of the Sioux relationship to the bison and the Pawnee reverence for “Mother Corn” illustrates how oral/first religions clearly recognize their dependence on certain natural resources for their survival, and their world views often place the sources of their sustenance at the top of their hierarchies. (Novak 338-339, 363-372)
Another key behavior in such traditions is reciprocal giving, which Burkert considers vital because it “regulates the standards of justice . . . [and] is an unexceptionable expectation or even obligation of return. Every gift demands a counter-gift.” In these societies, an unanswered gift is a serious taboo which violates the obligations inherent in hierarchies. (Burkert 130) Creating reciprocal obligations in such religions is a means of promoting peace and stability by strengthening mutual social bonds.
Ritual often assumes a central place in oral/first traditions because it “grows out of anxiety and is designed to control it.” (Burkert 36) Rituals involve confronting some aspect of fear or pain in order to better cope with it, or to appease unseen forces. One such common ritual is sacrifice (pars par toto, Latin for “part for all”), which Burkert calls “a manageable loss in order to gain salvation.” The author mentions ancient Greek sacrifices to hail (Burkert 34-37), while others involve bodily mutilations (such as finger sacrifice or severing hands). Another fact of this is sacrificing scapegoats, usually social outsiders or individuals guilty of violating certain taboos.
Scapegoats are sometimes blamed for arousing divine wrath, and their sacrifice is a means of restoring safety to a perilous situation. He grounds this in biology, likening it to distracting predators by leaving behind an expendable part, like foxes gnawing off their paws to escape hunters’ traps. (Burkert 41) Similarly, Burkert considers ritual castration a means of defying biology: “The illusion is that by renouncing procreation men may stay clear of the maelstrom of life and death.” (Burkert 48) It is also a biological means of enforcing hierarchy, as seen with lower primates
A less brutal aspect of this is the sacrificial feast (eating certain venerated foods) and ritualized killing of certain animals (intended to show the being reverence, as with the bison). Life, according to Burkert, is “a transient stability depending upon the ‘just’ exchange” (Burkert 155), and showing respect for life-sustaining forces assumes crucial importance. Another aspect of ritual is the oath, in which words are set in a ceremonial context in order to make them sacred and inviolate. (Burkert 171-173)
Another aspect of behavior in this milieu is the importance of signs, which help divine some aspect of the future, usually through the role of the shaman. Shamans, who often attain their status through ceremonies or rituals, are basically the mediators between the natural and supernatural, capable of reaching an ecstatic state which gives them divine insights and lets them cross the boundaries that other members of these societies cannot. An example is the Eskimo shaman, whom Novak claims can achieve a “fit of mysterious and overwhelming delight” (Novak 355). In this state, they may see signs by watching people’s behaviors, the weather, objects, and other phenomena in which the future may be divined.
These signs basically comprise a kind of unwritten language for interpreting the world, and the shaman acts as a designated translator. Other signs not limited to the shaman include body markings, such as scars, brands, tattoos, and tooth alteration, which set certain people apart and are not simply arbitrary choices or fashions. These function as a language (often in the absence of a written language) with deep significance for those who embrace it.
Despite the commonalities one finds among early traditions, such as bonds to the natural world, the presence of shamans, and the importance of hierarchy and mutual obligation, conversion does not appear to be a matter one could take lightly. In these societies, religion is not simply a set of doctrines which can be substituted for another, but a complex system of relationships to a specific group of people, physical environment, and body of folklore. They are not rationalized as commonalities between cultures, since people in these societies seldom transplanted themselves lightly from one cultural cosmos to another. For example, while first traditions all share similar creation stories, the nuances and elements of each will differ from one another, as will the rituals and signs associated with their religions. Changing entire world views appears not to be a frivolous decision, since the world views in oral/first traditions are so intricate.