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Oral Religions

Updated on November 12, 2014

Understanding Religion for Beginners

This is lens 2 in a series on understanding religion for beginners. If you came here first, visit the following lens to start at the beginning of the series:

This is basically a primer on religion. I do not profess myself to be an expert on the subject, nor am I particularly religious myself. The information presented here is based on studying world religions in university. The following is my take on what I was presented in class.

All about Oral Religions

Lens two is about discovering, studying and sacred practices of oral religions. There is much debate over how to categorize oral religions because of how different they are from traditional/written religions. The fact that many oral religions are much older than traditional religions accounts for some of the debate on how to categorize them. Oral religions are also more numerous than traditional religions because they can be found everywhere and throughout human history.

There have been many obstacles to the appreciation and study of oral religions. For the most part, oral religions have been overlooked by the scholars of yesterday. The main reason for this is because oral religions seem less complex than written religions. The scholars of today are finding out that in many cases, this is far from the truth. Another obstacle to the study of oral religions is the fact that much of their art is impermanent. For example, sand art is often employed by native peoples for ritual, but the artwork is destroyed soon after. There is a bias toward written religions because of material permanence. With today's technology, it is easier to study oral religions because we have the ability to record. This has brought oral religious art and music to the forefront, and now more than ever, the average person has access to their rich and varied culture. Unfortunately, many uneducated people view native artwork as secular, as if the native people are creating art for art's sake. It is important to remember that native artwork is religious and made not for the purpose of creating artwork, but for the purpose of ritual and religion.

In the study of oral religions, several patterns have emerged. The biggest pattern was the connection with man and the natural world. Most oral religions came from tribal cultures where man and nature live in close proximity with respect and harmony. The first major religion of tribal peoples was animism. Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit. With this way of thinking, tribal man maintained a respectful relationship with his surroundings. There was also the law of limited competition; take only what you need but never take over another animal's food source, nor deny them access to food. (Daniel Quinn, The Story of B) Another pattern was tribal people’s concept of sacred time and sacred space. Sacred time is the time of eternity and is cyclical. Sacred space is the doorway in which the spirit realm can be contacted. This sacred space can be a natural phenomenon or it can be constructed, as was the case of Stonehenge. A final major pattern is tribal peoples' respect for origins, gods and ancestors. Oral religions origin stories are enacted through ritual and dance. In many oral religions, the creation story will be enacted at major seasons/sabbats/celebrations. Surprising to many scholars was the fact that many oral religions have a high god. It was previously believed that all oral religions were polytheistic. It has been found that while they may have a high god, most ceremonies and prayers where focused on lesser deities. The high god was only entreated when the lesser deities didn't suffice. Also, contrary to popular belief, not all tribal peoples built large temples to their gods. Most oral religions used small shrines.

Sacred practices in many oral religions occur during the same phases of life; rites of passage being the most popular. Rites of passage mark important life events such as birth, adulthood, marriage and death. To be more specific, adulthood rites were different for men and women. Men usually participated in dream quests where they would find their spirit helper and path in life. Women would participate in rites on their menarche, signifying that they are ready for childbirth and marriage.

Contrary to beliefs about 'savage' man, tribal cultures were not lawless. They had what you call taboos. While they may not have had an actual rule system, several things were considered forbidden. These forbidden behaviors mostly surrounded birth and sex. For example, menstrual blood was considered powerful and men were not allowed near it. Women would go to a red tent or woman's tent for the duration of their period. Taboos weren't all about mystical things; many were based on common sense. Antisocial behavior, disrespect for nobility, adultery, and stealing were social actions that were considered taboo by most tribal cultures. When a taboo is broken, the offender must placate the spirit. This could be done by libation, ritual, banning, or even sacrifice. It should be noted that while some human sacrifices are known to have occurred in some societies, it was not the norm.

Shamans are the intermediary between the real world and the spirit world. They would blend the role of priest, psychologist and doctor. Shaman's would connect with the spirit realm through visions, dreams and trance. The common methods for achieving such states includes: fasting, sensory deprivations, drumming, dancing, and medicinally (pipes, mushrooms, peyote). Shamans would also delve into magic, sympathetic magic and divination. Artifacts and artwork expressed in oral religions includes impermanent art (sand art), chant, masks, statues, clothing, décor and basketry. Despite the differences in many of the oral religions, they use a common symbol system in their art work.

Oral religions today suffer many threats. The most obvious threat is the destruction of the tribes’ habitat through deforestation, ecotourism and the spread of proselytizing religions. Despite all the odds against them, some oral religions are still thriving. In the best scenarios, oral religions are being incorporated into the local school system and government.

Geertz Definition of Religion

The definition of religion, according to Clifford Geertz, is broken into 5 sections. First is the Symbol System. The symbol system is used to signify and express things. Symbols provide man with theories for things and man uses such theories to affect things. Second are moods and motivations. Moods and Motivations provided by the symbol system give man direction and goals. Third are conceptions of life order. These conceptions make man aware of chaos and instability. Man must be able to keep things organized and interpretable. There must be a reason for everything. Fourth is factuality. The factuality of conceptions must be in place in order for man to be true believers. Finally, there is realism. Moods and motivations must also seem realistic. This realism must be affirmed from time to time.

In today’s religion, there seems to be a decline in spirit worship, which indicates we have switched from one symbol system to another. Even so, most religions or idea systems still fit Geertz's definition of religion.

Mandan Okipa Ceremony
Mandan Okipa Ceremony

How religion fits into Mandan Indian Society

Using Geertz's definition of Religion

This module is an example of how religion fits into Mandan Indian Society. By reviewing the Mandan Okipa Ceremony and people, one can have a greater understanding of how symbols, myths and rituals apply to a society.

If I use Geertz’s definition of religion to describe the Mandan religion, I find the following:

A system of symbols which acts to:

Symbols include their corn medicine bundles which represent power, knowledge and mysticism, the dual nature of their universe being represented by animal and plant, vision quest = walking with the buffalo, etc. These symbols are used to explain the people’s origin stories and it is used to signify power. These things can motivate the people and bring them hope. As long as their medicine bundles remained in their possession, they will be happy, healthy, and prosperous. This leads into the next one.

Establish powerful, persuasive and long lasing moods and motivations in men by:

The Mandan people’s faith in the abundance of their culture lies in their medicine bundles, their origin story and their rituals. These establish the moods and motivations of the people.

Formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and:

The general order of existence is entailed in their myths and rituals.

Clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that:

Factuality exists as long as the power of their myths and medicine bundles isn’t debunked. As long as they ‘play by the rules’ and maintain their medicine bundles, then they should be free from harm. If evil does befall them, it must have another explanation.

The moods and motivation seem uniquely realistic:

Like I wrote before, as long as their myths and bundles power isn’t debunked, their view of the universe and their beliefs will be their reality.

Key Religious Terms

1. Shaman

A person who is an intermediary between real world and spirit world; acts as tribe’s priest, doctor and psychologist.

2. Problem of Meaning (Max Weber)

The need to quantify random events as having meaning.

3. Symbol System

The symbol system uses signs, sounds, images, and ideas to represent things. Symbols operate to increase our memory, to assign meaning to otherwise unknowable things, and to covey a thought or phrase in the easiest and quickest way possible.

4. Atheism and Agnosticism

Atheism is the belief that there are no gods. Agnosticism is the belief that there is no proof that god/gods can exist; not knowing.

5. Holistic

Natural or Organic; a term often used to describe ‘primitive’ cultures and their lifestyle/religion.

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