The Animism of Hunter/Gatherers

Excerpted from Primitive Man as Philosopher by Paul Radin. 

An American Indian, pursued by the enemy, took refuge in a cave where he could easily defend himself against direct attack but where escape was apparently completely cut off. This particular individual was not religious. He had during his lifetime had so little interest in getting into the proper rapport with the deities of his tribe that he knew the conventional methods of addressing them but little else. In his dilemma, with death staring him in the face, he mechanically offers tobacco to the spirits. That much he knew. But he did not know what to say nor whom to address. So he prayed — if we are inclined to call this a prayer — “To you, O spirits, whoever you are, wherever you are, here is tobacco. May I be saved!” Through an almost miraculous piece of good luck the enemy fled and he was saved. “By the will of God,” a devout Christian would have ejaculated; in Indian phraseology, “The spirits have heard me.” Here, if anywhere, we might have expected an almost mystical feeling of heavenly intervention and a well-nigh complete obliteration of the mere workaday world. He sought to explain nothing. I can picture him saying to himself in his humorous way — for he was the professional humorist in the tribe — “Let the medicine-men explain; they like such things. All I know is that I was pursued by the enemy; I took refuge in a cave; my attackers withdrew and here I am.” The ritualistic paraphernalia were all there but they did not obscure his vision of the nature of a true fact.

This man was of course an unusual specimen of the tough-minded species. So much will have to be granted unhesitatingly. Yet this intense realism, this refusal to be deluded by the traditional phraseology employed, is a salient feature of most primitive communities. That there are many individuals who take the phraseology more seriously we know. The medicine-man, the thinker, the poet, these insist upon a less matter-of-fact explanation and clearly enjoy the wrappings. Did they not in fact devise these explanations and are they not continually elaborating them? But in spite of the inner necessity that prompts them to prefer a super-mundane formula they, too, are deeply rooted in the workaday-world conception of reality.

Nothing, for instance, is more thoroughly ingrained in the minds of many American Indians than the fact that a supernatural warrant must be obtained for any undertaking of importance no matter how practical its nature. The Indian will tell you simply enough that if a deity has bestowed his power upon an individual in a vision and permitted him to go on a warpath, he may do so. …it is but natural to assume that any community allowing a young man to risk his own life and possibly that of others on the strength of communication in a dream, must be profoundly imbued with a religious spirit. Unfortunately this whole picture is wrong. It changes as soon as we obtain fuller details about the matter. Then we discover that no individual is ever allowed to proceed on even a private war party unless his dream-experience has been communicated to the chief of the tribe or else to some highly respected elder. Such men are always exceedingly devout. They certainly may be expected to take religious sanctions at their face value. Yet it was just these custodians of the tribal traditions who were most careful to see that the practical aspects of the situation did not militate too markedly against success. If, in their opinion, the undertaking was unwarranted — whether because they thought the leader too inexperienced, the possibility for adequate preparation unfavorable, the strength of the enemy possibly too great, or what not — they refused to give the sanction and forbade it. Quite naturally they couched this prohibition in religious phraseology. “The spirits have not blessed you with sufficient power” is the Winnebago formula, for instance.

The intense belief in the existence of the spirits and of their direct participation in the affairs of man is not to be questioned, any more than is the acceptance of the magical. But this in no way interferes with their full realization of all the facts involved in any given situation. In other words, though primitive man may describe life in a religious terminology it is not to be inferred that in the vast majority of cases he regards a purely mundane happening as due to supernatural agency. This is indicated clearly by the great care among many tribes not to demand impossible tasks from their deities. One does not ask rain from a cloudless sky during the dry season, nor security against capsizing in a canoe when foolishly setting out during a terrific storm.

Primitive man, in short, does not consider the deities or a magical rite as conditioning reality but as an accessory to it, as constraining it. Both the deity and the rite are aids for the proper functioning of a series of habitually connected individual or social events. The religious and magical content seems the all-important factor to us who are mere spectators; to primitive man they are, as we have said, simply aids, stimuli for the attainment of a goal.

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