Primal Religions: Types & Practices

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  • 0:01 Definition of Primal
  • 0:40 Pre-Scientific
  • 1:47 Animism
  • 2:49 Shaman
  • 3:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore the many traits of the primal religions of past and present. In doing so, it will highlight animism, totemism and the use of shamans in the primal religions of the world.

Definition of Primal

When we hear the word 'primal,' most of us tend to think of cavemen and dinosaurs. Although this isn't a completely invalid thought, it's definitely not the complete picture. To anthropologists and sociologists alike, the word primal more so denotes primitive or basic. With this in mind, it's important to remember that primal religions exist in the present. Although they don't function in the Western paradigm of say, Catholicism or Judaism, they are still actively practiced around the globe. Yes, they were in the ancient past, but rest assured, they're still alive in places like the plains of Africa and the Outback of Australia.


To begin our study of primal religions, let's first take a look at some of their main traits. For starters, primal religions are usually pre-scientific. Rather than using the modern tools of observation or experimentation, primal people rely on myth and ritual to discern their world.

For the most part, the cultures of primal religions do not rely on any sort of written code or history. Instead their myths, including that of creation, were passed down orally. An excellent example of this is the Aboriginal belief in the notion of dreaming, or a timeless time. To them, the world was originally void of form without past, present or future. Within this timeless time, mystical beings somehow materialized and began to roam the earth, creating land, life and even human beings. Unlike modern-day science's theories of creation, the Aboriginal primal faith still holds to this view of timeless time acting out in their everyday lives.


Primal religions are usually found in small, insulated, tribal settings. Although the large population of the Yoruba people of Africa and the ancient Aztecs break this rule, they're both still considered pre-scientific and therefore primal.

Within these tribal settings, the people of a primal religion are very tied to the land. To them, the entire world is alive with spirits. This belief, known as animism, guides the primal religions to believe everything, from the rocks to the trees to the waters, are indwelled with an unseen spiritual force known as Mana.

Adding to animism, primal religions often include the practice of totemism, in which it's believed that every human has a mystical bond to a specific animal or element of nature. Usually bonded with an animal, a great example of this are the Nor-Papua of New Guinea, who see themselves intricately linked to fish.

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