Religion’s Roots in Indigenous Religion


Aboriginal tribesmen of Australia

The student who is truly attracted to the study of religion will benefit from the enormous number of sacred stories of indigenous religions collected by anthropologists. The roots of religion pass backward from ancient religion through indigenous religion into prehistoric religion. There are hundreds of living indigenous religions and thousands that have faded into extinction.



Very few of the practices of indigenous groups are entirely foreign to the faithful of other religions. At the heart of the indigenous religions are traditional stories describing the origins of the community, cosmology, reasons for the structure of their society, stories of heroes and stories of sacred places.

The indigenous religion invariably includes a religious calendar based on the seasons and the cycles of nature for the guidance of the rituals that govern birth, sexual maturity, marriage, and death.


Vanuatu rite of passage for young men involves ‘vine jumping’

As with all religions of the world, these indigenous religions, the oldest living expression of our religiosity, describe places and objects sacred to the community of believers, and give honor and power to special members of the group.

Over the past century, anthropologists have collected hundreds of religious stories of the many indigenous peoples across the globe. Upon studying these narratives, it becomes clear to the student that the sacred narratives of all religions, both living and extinct, have many things in common.


The Igbo of Nigeria, Yam festival

Numerous stories in indigenous religion are considered by the adherents to be accounts of events preserved from the distant past and handed down from elders to the community since the origins of the community. These stories recount the origins of practices and ceremonies and explain to the group the basis for the community’s rituals, behaviors and structure.

The stories recount the revenge of supernatural powers on the community for error in ritual and bad misbehavior of the members of the group.


Leaders of the Kayapo, Brazil

Many stories recount the very origin of the group and of humanity itself. The story of the origin of human mortality, in contrast to the immortality of gods and of some animals, is found among the various indigenous peoples on all continents.

In these stories the snake, the lizard, the crab and some insects were believed to be immortal by indigenous and ancient peoples and would regenerate by shedding their skin and live on forever – if, of course, we did not destroy them.

Like the snake in the Garden of Eden, these animals play a role in the great variety of stories depicting how early members of the community were tricked out of immortality, and how these animals kept godly immortality for themselves.


The Temptation of Adam and Eve, Masolino da Panicale 1425, detail

In some stories, a dog or a goat comes to bring the news of immortality from a god to the community but, in the end, denies the gift to humanity because of our bad treatment of domesticated animals.

Religious stories concerning the origins of humanity and the reasons for our place in nature abound in the myriad indigenous religions and continue on in the religious stories of ancient religion.

One of the most shocking discoveries of early twentieth-century archaeology was that the flood story of ancient Judaism in the Hebrew Scriptures existed in a similar form in ancient Mesopotamian religion many centuries earlier.


Flood Tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh, British Museum

Origin stories are ubiquitous among all long-standing religious traditions. Only in very recent modern religion do we find an absence of origin stories. But, even in some modern religions, there are stories of alien races traveling to Earth, creating humanity and the moral challenges we find ourselves in.

Since the 1970’s, the United Nations has attempted a definition of the term ‘indigenous people’ and has accepted a working definition by the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

related post: Maya Religion

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Filed under Origins, Religious Literacy

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