Primal Religions: Origins, Characteristics and Traditions

Primal Religions: Origins, Characteristics and Traditions

Primal religions
Photo: Peace151 (Wikimedia) ©️CC BY-SA 4.0

For thousands of years, primal religions and ancient beliefs have shaped people’s view of the world. From animism and shamanism to polytheism and ancestor worship, these traditions offer fascinating insights into the spiritual journey of humanity. While modern religions may dominate much of the world today, the roots of faith can be traced back to these primal and ancient belief systems.

What is “Primal”?

The word “primal” is commonly used to refer to something that is related to the earliest or most primitive stages of something, whether that be an idea, or a concept. Additionally, according to the Britannica Dictionary, the term refers to the animal or natural origins of human behavior or emotions.1

Is “Primal” a Pejorative Word?

When many of us hear the term “primal”, we might immediately associate it with negative connotations: barbarian, savage, uncivilized, etc… So is “primal” really a pejorative word?

The term “primal” can have both positive and negative connotations, depending on the context in which it is used. On the one hand, “primal” can be used to define something that is crude, uncivilized, or lacking in refinement. In this sense, “primal” can be a pejorative term, implying that something is unsophisticated, or backward.

On the other hand, “primal” can also be used to refer to something that is fundamental or essential. In a spiritual or religious context, “primal” refers to ancient beliefs or practices that are believed to be the foundation of more modern faiths. In anthropology, “primal” often refers to cultures or societies that are considered to be among the first or oldest to exist. Overall, although the term “primal” may carry some negative connotations, it is not necessarily a pejorative word and can be utilized to characterize significant features of human history and culture.

Overall, whether “primal” is viewed as positive or negative will depend on the specific context in which it is used, as well as the individual perceptions and attitudes of those involved. In the context of discussing primal religions, it is important to acknowledge both the positive and negative connotations of the term, and to avoid using it in a way that is pejorative.

What is Primal Religion? An Introduction to Ancient Belief Systems

Primal religions are a diverse and complex group of traditions that are often rooted in specific geographic regions and cultures. These religions are typically associated with traditional societies that have often been labelled as primitive.

One of the defining features of primal religions is their connection to nature. In these belief systems, natural elements such as animals and plants are often believed to possess supernatural powers.

Unlike many of the major religions, primal religions are often characterized by their reliance on oral tradition. These religious traditions are typically passed down through stories, myths, and songs.

When did Primal Religions Appear?

It is not clear when primal religions emerged, as they are often associated with prehistoric societies that did not leave written records. However, it is generally believed that religious behaviour emerged during the Upper Paleolithic era at the latest. Dating the emergence of primal religions to earlier periods is considered speculative today since there is not enough evidence.2

Venus of Willendorf, Primal Religions
Some researchers believe that the approximately 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf, found in Austria, may represent a kind of fertility goddess.
Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (Wikimedia) ©️CC BY-SA 4.0

In prehistoric times, people lived in nomadic groups and subsisted by hunter-gatherers. Instead of seeing themselves as superior to nature, they developed an effective connection with it. They saw themselves as deeply intertwined with the plants, animals, and other elements that surrounded them.

As a result of their interaction with nature, early humans developed nature-centered religious beliefs and primal religions.

Over time, as cultural accumulation became more complex and written language began to evolve, some of these primal religions developed and became more formal.

Characteristics of Primal Religions

Primal religions are usually characterized by belief in a supernatural realm that exists outside the physical world. Supernatural beings such as gods, spirits, and ancestors often inhabit this spiritual realm. It is believed that these beings could influence events in the physical world.

Primal religions are also known for their close relationship to the nature. Many things that are part of nature are considered sacred. Spirits or gods are usually associated with nature’s elements such as the sun, moon, stars, and animals. These beliefs are often influenced by the natural environment in which people lived.

Swedish ethnographer and historian of religion Åke Hultkrantz has argued that religion cannot be defined without reference to the concept of the “supernatural”.3

Primal religions are typically oral traditions and passed down through generations by word of mouth. They often lack holy books.

In addition, primal religions tend to have a strong communal element. Religious ceremonies are often performed by the entire community, rather than by a specialized priesthood. These ceremonies serve to reinforce the social bonds between members of the community and to establish a connection with the spiritual realm.

Primal Religious Traditions

Primal religions are very diverse and vary greatly depending on the particular culture and geographic region. While many of them have some similar characteristics, each has its own unique beliefs, practices, and rituals.


Animism is a belief system that found in many cultures around the world, including many indigenous and primal religions. It is based on the idea that all things, including objects and natural elements, possess a spiritual essence or soul.

Animistic beliefs often involve a close relationship with the natural world and a deep respect for the environment. Many animistic cultures believe that it is important to live in harmony with nature. This can include practices such as offering prayers or sacrifices to nature spirits, or avoiding certain actions that may harm the environment.


Shamanism is an ecstatic technique and type of religious practice that varies greatly from culture to culture. At the center of shamanism are practitioners called shamans, who are believed to have a special ability to communicate with spirits and gods.

Shamans use some techniques to enter into altered states of consciousness, such as meditation, chanting, or the use of psychoactive plants. In this state, the shaman is able to access the spiritual realm and communicate with spirits and ancestors.

Shamans often serve as healers, diviners, and guides for their community, using their ability to communicate with spirits. They may also perform ceremonies and rituals to honor the spirits.


Totemism is a belief system that reflects a close relationship between humans and nature. It involves the use of totems that are considered sacred and serve as a symbol for a particular group or community.

Totems are believed to provide various benefits to the community, such as protection, guidance, or spiritual power. Community members may use the totem as a symbol of their identity as well as incorporate it into their daily lives through various rituals and practices.


Fetishism is a practice that involves the use of objects believed to have supernatural powers. These objects are often called fetishes.

The main difference between totemism and fetishism is the type of object that is considered sacred. In totemism, the sacred object is mostly an animal or plant that serves as a symbol for a particular group or community. However, in fetishism, the fetishes are mostly inanimate objects, such as a statues or amulets, that are believed to have spiritual qualities. They are often used in various rituals and ceremonies to bring about desired outcomes, such as healing or protection.

Ancestor Worship

Ancestor worship is about respecting the ancestral spirits and accepting them as guardians. It is common in traditional communities where ancestors are considered an important part of society.

In ancestor worship, the spirits of the deceased are honored and venerated through various rituals and ceremonies. These may include food, drink, and other gifts, as well as prayers. The goal of these rituals is to maintain communication between the living and the dead.

Nature Worship

Nature worship is the recognition and worship of natural elements such as celestial bodies, rivers, mountains, trees, and animals as deities or supernatural powers. Nature worship practices are found in many religions and traditions, including animism, shamanism, paganism and Wicca. In these traditions, nature is not just a physical entity, each element also has spiritual properties. Therefore, people should avoid harming nature and live in harmony with it.

  1. Primal Definition & Meaning“, The Britannica Dictionary, Retrieved: April 2, 2023^
  2. Beginning Of Religion“, Ina WUNN, Numen, 47(4), 417-452^
  3. The Concept of the Supernatural in Primal Religion“, Åke HULTKRANTZ, History of Religions, 1983, 22:3, 231-253^
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