The Primordial Faith
The Chukchee, a people indigenous to Siberia, had their own special way of dealing with unruly winds. A Chukchee man would chant, “Western Wind, look here! Look down on my buttocks. We are going to give you some fat. Cease blowing!” The nineteenth-century European visitor who reported this ritual described it as follows: “The man pronouncing the incantation lets his breeches fall down, and bucks leeward, exposing his bare buttocks to the wind. At every word he claps his hands.”
By the end of the nineteenth century, European travelers had compiled many accounts of rituals in faraway and scarcely known lands. Some of these lands were inhabited by people known as savages—people whose technology didn’t include writing or even agriculture. And some of their rituals seemed, like this one, strange.
Could a ritual like this be called religious? Some Europeans bridled at the thought, offended by the implied comparison between their elevated forms of worship and crude attempts to appease nature.
Maybe that’s why Sir John Lubbock, a late-nineteenth-century British anthropologist, prefaced his discussion of “savage” religion with a warning. “It is impossible to discuss the subject without mentioning some things which are very repugnant to our feelings,” he wrote in The Origin of Civilization and the Primitive Condition of Man. But he made his readers a promise. In exploring this “melancholy spectacle of gross superstitions and ferocious forms of worship,” he would “endeavour to avoid, as far as possible, anything which might justly give pain to any of my readers.”
One pain Lubbock spared his readers was the thought that their brains might have much in common with savage brains. “The whole mental condition of a savage is so different from ours, that it is often very difficult to follow what is passing in his mind, or to understand the motives by which he is influenced.” Though savages do “have a reason, such as it is, for what they do and what they believe, their reasons often are very absurd.” The savage evinces “extreme mental inferiority,” and his mind, “like that of the child, is easily fatigued.” Naturally, then, the savage’s religious ideas are “not the result of deep thought.”
So there was reassurance aplenty for Lubbock’s readers: “Religion, as understood by the lower savage races,” is not only different from civilized religion “but even opposite.” Indeed, if we bestow the title “religion” on the coarse rituals and superstitious fears that observers of savage society have reported, then “we can no longer regard religion as peculiar to man.” For the “baying of a dog to the moon is as much an act of worship as some ceremonies which have been so described by travellers.”
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that a well-educated British Christian would so disparage elements of “primitive religion.” (“Primitive religion” denotes the religion of nonliterate peoples broadly, whether hunter-gatherer or agrarian.) After all, in primitive religion there is deep reverence for raw superstition. Obscure omens often govern decisions of war and peace. And the spirits of the dead may make mischief—or may, via the mediation of a shaman, offer counsel. In short, primitive religion is full of the stuff that was famously thrust aside when the monotheism carried out of Egypt by Moses displaced the paganism of Canaan.
But, actually, that displacement wasn’t so clear-cut, and the proof is in the Bible itself, albeit parts of the Bible that aren’t much read by modern believers. There you’ll find Israel’s first king, Saul, going incognito to a medium and asking her to raise the prophet Samuel from the grave for policy input. (Samuel isn’t amused: “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”) There you’ll also find raw superstition. When the prophet Elisha, preparing King Joash for battle against the Arameans, tells him to strike the ground with some arrows, he is disappointed with the resulting three strikes: “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times.”
Even the ultimate in Abrahamic theological refinement—monotheism itself—turns out to be a feature of the Bible that comes and goes. Though much of the scripture assumes the existence of only one God, some parts strike a different tone. The book of Genesis recalls the time when a bunch of male deities came down and had sex with attractive human females; these gods “went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.” (And not ordinary children: “These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”)
Here and elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible—the earliest scripture in the Abrahamic tradition, and in that sense the starting point for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—holds telling remnants of its ancestry. Apparently Abrahamic monotheism grew organically out of the “primitive” by a process more evolutionary than revolutionary.
This doesn’t mean there’s a line of cultural descent between the “primitive” religions on the anthropological record and the “modern” religions. It’s not as if three or four millennia ago, people who had been talking to the wind while pulling their pants down started talking to God while kneeling. For all we know, the cultural ancestry of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam includes no tradition of talking to the wind at all, and certainly there’s no reason to think that Chukchee religion is part of that ancestry—that back in the first or second millennium BCE, Chukchee culture in Siberia somehow influenced Middle Eastern culture.
Rather, the idea is that “primitive” religion broadly, as recorded by anthropologists and other visitors, can give us some idea of the ancestral milieu of modern religions. Through the happenstance of geographic isolation, cultures such as the Chukchee escaped the technological revolution—the advent of writing—that placed other parts of the world on the historical record and pushed them toward modernity. If these “primitive” cultures don’t show us the particular prehistoric religions out of which the early recorded religions emerged, they at least give us a general picture. Though monotheistic prayer didn’t grow out of Chukchee rituals or beliefs, maybe the logic of monotheistic prayer did grow out of a kind of belief the Chukchee held, the notion that forces of nature are animated by minds or spirits that you can influence through negotiation.…