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Belief in the Supernatural

Many theories developed by early anthropologists characterised religion purely by reference to a realm of the supernatural and considered humankind’s interaction with the unknown to form the basis of religion.[i] These theories began in the nineteenth century, were products of the European enlightenment, and problematically were also based on the view that reason, logic and science had triumphed over the ‘primitive’ mind. Despite the age and constant criticism to the supernatural definition of religion it is still an important concept employed in archaeological works, for example, there is a section devoted to ‘Identifying the Supernatural Powers’ in Renfrew and Bahn (1996:392).

The idea of religion as a belief in the supernatural has contemporary advocates within the SoR. For example, Bryan Wilson defines religion as "any set of symbolic forms and acts that relate human beings to ultimate conditions of existence, cosmic questions, and universal concerns” (Wilson 1990:11).[ii] Wilson's theory holds that religion is a mode of interaction, whereby the relationship between humankind, its world and the supernatural universe (cosmos) can be explained. The 'symbolic forms' relate to the iconography of a given religion and the 'acts' that relate humans to the superhuman are the rituals of religion. Indeed, it is this idea of the symbolic representation of the supernatural that is advocated in Renfrew and Bahn’s (1996:392). This may explain why the only area of prehistoric religion to have been written about extensively is that of the Upper Palaeolithic, where there is an abundance of symbolism in the form of cave art.[iii] From the archaeology of the Near East this understanding of religion can be observed in works such as Pollock’s Ancient Mesopotamia (1999:173-195), where the brief discussion of religion is conducted under the chapter heading ‘Ideology and Images of Power’.

Wilson’s definition of religion is based on the definition of the anthropologist Edward Tylor,[iv] who defined religion as "belief in supernatural beings" (Tylor 1871:42). This is a much narrower definition than Wilson’s and, as Michael York rightly points out, it would exclude contemporary religions such as Buddhism (York 2001a: 2-3).[v] Thus, although ‘the supernatural’ does play a large part in most religions, it is arguably not a vital element of all religions. Although, it is important to consider both the iconography and representation of the supernatural, this is too simplistic a definition to use for the analysis of Prehistoric religion, especially as this relies upon the survival of art and symbols in the archaeological record.

     Another important concept introduced by Tylor was animism. This idea is again one that is still very popular in archaeology and is frequently employed in the explanation of burial customs.[vi] However, in recent years the term ‘animism’ has been revisited and revised by scholars, for example Graham Harvey’s (2006) Animism: Respecting the Living World or Tim Ingold’s (2000) The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, dwelling, and skill. Tylor argued that the earliest and purest form of religion was what he termed as ‘animism’; this is the belief that all things are in some way in possession of a spirit (Tylor 1866). Tylor thought that this belief in the ‘spirit’ originated through combining observation of the living compared to the dead with dreams where one could reputedly meet the spirit of a dead friend. The soul was seen as the essence of the individual that was confined within the body during life and yet existed independently. He considered that the next step was then to extend this theory to animals and inanimate objects, for there was no apparent reason why they could not also have an indwelling soul. The belief that the souls of the dead continued to exist after the death of the physical body led primitive human, so Tylor thought, to believe in disembodied souls that were untethered by physical restraints. This translated into a belief in gods, goddesses, demons, and other spirits. Humans modelled these gods not only in their own images, but also organised them as a reflection of their own society.[vii] Pantheons of gods ruled by a king eventually led to monotheism as a supernatural autocracy (Tylor 1887a: 400-78).

     Recent work by contemporary anthropologists has concluded that the Tylor premise for the soul is still valid, however, the relationships with ancestors and dreams is more complex. That the soul is such a diverse phenomenae that it requires further definition as it is too vague, as Harvey states:

Only if ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ were used in the same way that ‘animal’ is used (i.e. as a diversity that demands further labels such as mammals or marsupials, aardvark or anacondas, humans or hippocampus, domesticated or wild), could the term be at all helpful (Harvey 2006:121).


Nevertheless, the belief in, and understanding of, consciousness or personhood are important to the animist and are a common trait even if it very varied.

Tylor’s idea can be a core element of archaeological understanding of religion, especially when combined with the ideas of James Frazer. Frazer defined religion as ‘The propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct and control the course of nature and of human life’ (Frazer 1932:222). For Frazer religion is not only the belief in the supernatural, but humankind's attempt at ‘propitiation or conciliation’ of these supernatural powers. This idea can be observed by the much cited (both supported and critiqued in Pollock 1999:188-9) work by Thorkild Jacobson The Treasures of Darkness, Jacobsen states:

Basic to all religion – and so also to ancient Mesopotamian religion – is, we believe, a unique experience of confrontation with power not of this world… It is the positive human response to this experience in thought (myth and theology) and action (cult and worship) that constitutes religion (Jacobson 1976:1).


Indeed, Jacobson’s book is based primarily on textual evidence that is projected back towards prehistory, and it is one of the rare examples where a clear definition of religion is provided.

     The idea of animism was refined by the later anthropologist R. Marett who did not believe that ‘animism’ was the first and purest form of religion; for he believed that he could identify an even earlier stage in the evolution of religion. He believed that the first step was a belief in what he called ‘mana’, an impersonal force or power that was present in natural forces such as wind and thunder, as well as in certain people like the chief or wise woman.[viii] The word is Melanesian, and Marett’s theory developed from study of the Melanesian culture. Mana was something to be in awe of and was also something to be coveted by those not in possession of it. All rituals were either attempts to ward off mana or gain it (Marett 1914:31). However, the concept of mana may be seen as a facet of animistic religions, in that it is part of the greater magico-religious universe of a culture/society. Marett’s theories have been employed by archaeologists studying Upper Palaeolithic religion, for example the ‘Sorcerer’ (a humanoid with antlers and other body parts of animals) has been compared to 18th Century depictions of Siberian shamans (Bahn 1997165-8).

     Animism has been reconsidered by social (cultural) and cognitive anthropologists and they have considered its validity as an expression of a worldview, and its usefulness to the investigator. Graham Harvey demonstrates the effort recent contemporary anthropologists are investing into thinking beyond the western bias and consider different modes of thought. Western thought, following the Cartesian tradition, consider anything constructed by humans, especially thoughts, to be more advanced (and therefore of more value) than that of animals (Harvey 2006:100). However, as Harvey states, the “animist worldviews and lifeways imply various notions about animals and humans that require some consideration. The most significant of these is ‘animals are people too’ (Harvey 2006:99)”. Thus, the focus of anthropologists studying animism is the concept of personhood, rather than a projection of human emotions and considerations onto plants, animals, and things, it is considering the reason behind anything they do to have thought, purpose, and planning.

Animals sometimes perform actions that are ‘toward’ humans. It is not merely the animals sometimes do non-random things, although even these contest the notion that animals act instinctively, mechanically, automatically and without purpose. Animists observations suggest that much of what animals do, whether or not humans are watching or implicated, is intentional, planned, and purposive (Harvey 2006:100-1).

     Shamans are argued to play an important role in animist societies as they are a vital link between plants, animals, things, and people as they can act as mediator between all types of ‘persons’. This is because the shaman is believed to interact in these different forms of person, for example shamans can become animals, or animals could be shamans (Harvey 2006:111). Harvey argues the animism can be regarded as attempting to live respectively, respecting all things as people. However, this can cause a problem to how one eats respecting all things and their rights as a person. The shaman is essential as they can mediate between the hunter and the hunted to ensure placation and permission is given (Harvey 2006:115).

A second vital component to this interaction is the use of totems. Graham Harvey has advocated a new approach to totemism, that is, “(animist) totemism can be considered to be a mode of sociality and socialising that includes particular other-than-humans in kinship and affinity groupings and avoidance (Harvey 2006:164)”. Therefore, animists consider animals, plants, and things as people, however, it is through totems and rituals that social ties can be projected onto animals, plants, and things (Harvey 2006:166).

[i] Towards the end of the nineteenth century anthropologists such as Sir Edward Tylor and Sir James Frazer became interested in the beliefs and practices of these so-called primitive societies (Gellner 1999:10-11).

[ii] Although Wilson is not the best example a supernatural advocate, as his account of religion can be interpreted functionally, he is a very influential and contemporary example.

[iii] See for example Maringer 1956:189-200, and Dickson 1996:123-158.

[iv] Despite never actually reading for a degree at university, Tylor was given first a readership and then a chair in Anthropology at Oxford University.

[v] It may be argues that Buddhism is in fact a philosophy and not a religion at all, or that it is the exception that is inherent in all rules. This is considered more fully in the methodology chapter of this study where the areas of interaction for religion are examined in detail.

[vi] See for example Maisels 1993:90.

[vii] Ideas similar to this begin with Greek philosophers in the fifth century BCE and resurfaced in the renaissance and the enlightenment periods and were expanded upon and developed. The first person who was to investigate the possibility of religion being a social phenomenon and social construct was Xenophanes (Thrower 1999:93). Xenophanes lived c. 570-475 BCE, and he asserted that it was men and women who made the gods in their own image, shaping, clothing and imagining them to speak like themselves. He believed that this was a logical reaction and that if “oxen and horses and lions could draw and paint; they would delineate the gods in their own image” (Kirk and Raven 1957:frag. 14-15).

[viii] The force that is called mana has been identified in other cultures under different titles, for example, Waka among American Indians, Ngai among the African Masai, and Baracka among the Arabs (need reference here). However, it is not certain that the concept of mana is transferable to cultures other than that of Melansia.


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