Religious beliefs are a set of customs and rituals that revolve around faith in a god. As a part of religious beliefs different groups of people worship and practice their faith in different ways. Depending upon specific religious beliefs groups of people incorporate ideas of faith into their everyday lives. Faith in a Supreme Being or deity has an impact on all aspects of life. Some religious beliefs dictate universal laws while others mandate that faith be separate from certain areas.
The reasons behind the religious beliefs that a group of people chooses to embody are chosen for a variety of reasons. Many people incorporate faith into their lives because of the feelings of happiness that result from having a sacred power to turn to. Others believe certain things because of their belief in the afterlife. Still others worship in certain ways because of the values and ideals taught to them as part of their culture. Despite the fact that there are different religious beliefs practiced by different groups it is also a fact that the majority of groups do hold some sort of religious beliefs important to their lives.
The religious beliefs of Eskimos, Aborigines and Mbuti Pygmies will be compared and contrasted to show the different beliefs of different groups around the world.
Eskimos are a group of people who live in the Arctic areas of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and Siberia. The religious beliefs of the Eskimos are based on the existence of both harmless and evil spirits (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). These spirits occupy all objects that Eskimos come into contact with in the form of the Masters of the Sky and the Mistress of the Sea (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). The Eskimos fear the evil spirits as they believe they are the reason why their people get sick or have hard times. In order to protect themselves from the evil spirits, Eskimos wear amulets designed to keep them away. Additionally, a special kind of face coloring is also used to ward off evil spirits (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). Before meal times, Eskimos “feed the spirits” the first bite of what ever is on the table in order to stay in their good graces. Historically, this offering was meat but that practice has evolved to include offering whatever is available (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). With regards to the food, there are certain animals that are considered sacred to the Eskimo people and cannot be hunted. These include wolves, ravens and swallows (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008).
Every Eskimo settlement includes a shaman who is responsible for conducting ritual and cult acts, healing the sick and warding off evil spirits. In order to become a shaman, an Eskimo has to subject himself to a special experience that takes place when the Eskimo wanders out onto the tundra alone. This magical experience enables a shaman to gain knowledge of songs and spells that can summon animals or objects as helpers (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). The use of shamans in Eskimo religion has largely fallen by the wayside but there are certain “secret and underground” aspects that Eskimos still incorporate into their religious beliefs (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008).
Successful hunting is a key aspect of survival for the Eskimo people. Therefore, ritual holidays revolve around asking the spirits for a successful hunt (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). These rituals also express thanks to the spirits when a hunt was successful. These ritual acts take place in different dwellings and focus on feasting and gift giving. The shaman comes to the dwelling where the celebration is taking place to perform the sacred and cult aspects (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). There are only four ritual holidays that occur outdoors – each in a different season. In autumn, the Eskimos engage in a ritual of throwing walrus hide at one another; in summer they compete in wrestling and running; in spring and autumn they engage in the ritual of lowering the baydar into the water (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008).
The Eskimos regard art and medicine of high importance in their religious beliefs. They use song and folklore to pass stories down from generation to generation. They also place great importance on bone carvings, embroidery done with reindeer hair, beads, utensils, hunting equipment and magical objects (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). When an Eskimo gets sick as the result of an evil spirit the shaman has to establish the cause of the illness and to make it go away (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). Shamans also placed importance on practical medicine that is used to treat wounds, reduce fever and soothe other ailments. However, the primary use of medicine was still based on magic (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008).
When an Eskimo dies, the body is placed on a raised area in a dwelling, a feast is prepared and people are called to come. After the feast, the body is carried to the cemetery and left. If this process is done properly, the deceased becomes a helper for the family but if done improperly, it will return to the world of the living and cause the family much unpleasantness (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008). The deceased are buried in shallow graves as a testament to a past ritual where the body was simply covered with stones. Finally, newborn Eskimos are given the names of deceased ancestors (World Culture Encyclopedia, 2008).
Aboriginal people of Australia are spiritual despite the fact that they don’t practice a structured religion (McGuinness, 2008). Similar to the Eskimos, Aborigines believe in the existence of spirits. However, Aborigines believe that humans have a specific type of spirit and that the word spirit can be used to describe humans and animals and that sacred spirits and deities also exist. They also believe in good spirits and evil spirits just as the Eskimos do (McGuinness, 2008). Aborigines believe that all sprits came into being based on Dreamtime myths. They believe that all animals were created during the Dreamtime (creation) and when creators rested they left animals behind. As a result, Aborigines believe it is their responsibility to take good care of all animal life as they are intrinsically linked to them by creation (McGuinness, 2008). Similar to the Eskimos, Aborigines use song and performance ceremonies to ensure the continuation of animal species. In contrast to the Eskimos, they want animal life to continue because of their connection to it rather than for food (McGuinness, 2008). Finally, Aborigines believe, just as Eskimos do, that killing certain animals is unacceptable. For example, they believe that killing a willy-wagtail bird results in violent storms that could bring harm to people (McGuinness, 2008).
Evil spirits also have a place in Aboriginal religious beliefs just as they do in Eskimo beliefs. Aborigines also believe that evil spirits are responsible for sickness and bad things happening. Punishment by evil spirits also exists if Aborigine people don’t do what is expected of them. For example, they use a story of two boys told to stay on the beach and play but when they got bored and ventured down to the water, an evil spirit turned them into rocks (McGuinness, 2008). In contrast to Eskimo beliefs, Aborigines don’t make sacrifices to the spirits but rather just attempt to stay out of their way in order to stay away from their wrath (McGuinness, 2008).
In Eskimo religion, a shaman has incredible power. In the Aboriginal culture, the Elders hold the power. Elders are primarily males (but sometimes females) who are older and are wise in tribal knowledge and worldly matters. Simply being elderly doesn’t qualify one to become an Elder (McGuinness, 2008). The Elders make all major decisions for the tribe – when and where to move, who marries whom and they also settle disputes among tribe members. Currently, some Aboriginal people call themselves Elders (including many females) but are not recognized by Aboriginal tribes (McGuinness, 2008).
Similar to Eskimo tradition, Aborigines also rely on folklore and sacred objects. Folklore is presented in the form of facts and stories that are passed down from generation to generation. These stories are where Aboriginal people learn about the laws of their tribes. Many of the laws in Aboriginal society cause them to be considered savages by the white men. Aborigines have no problem stealing tools, food and weapons because they don’t consider these acts against the law. They also believe that it is all right to murder someone who has first murdered one of their tribe members (McGuinness, 2008). Finally, folklore is used to teach people how to survive by enabling them to track people, create oral road maps and learn the cycles of birds, animals and insects (McGuinness, 2008).
Message sticks and caves are considered sacred parts of the Aboriginal religion. Aborigines believe that one must be invited into a neighboring tribe’s land. When one wants to visit the land of another tribe they are required to carry a piece of bark or timber decorated with symbols. These symbols tell the tribe being visited the intention of the visitor. When an Aborigine crossed boundary lines without a message stick it was considered an act of hostility (McGuinness, 2008). Caves are valuable because they provide protection from the elements as well as a place to create art. Aboriginal people use art as a form of religious expression just as Eskimos do in their bone carvings and bead work. They draw elaborate designs on the interior walls of caves as ways to tell stories and express oneself (McGuinness, 2008).
Just as in Eskimo tradition, death is a time for mourning in the Aboriginal culture as well. However, instead of preparing a feast and allowing the deceased to transition into the afterlife, Aborigines paint themselves and then beat their bodies or cut themselves in order to draw blood. When their wounds heal they are said to be out of mourning. This contrasts to Eskimo religion when mourning is over when the body is left in the cemetery. Therefore, Aboriginal custom dictates much longer periods of mourning than Eskimo custom does (McGuinness, 2008). A final similarity is the idea that Aboriginal deceased can come back and visit their families. However, this is to warn them of danger instead of to make their lives unpleasant (McGuinness, 2008).
The Mbuti Pygmies live in the forested regions of the River Congo and believe in a great being of the sky, a lord of storms and rainbows. This great being is envisioned as an old man with a long beard (Sawada, 2001). His name is Tore and he is said to have made everything so therefore everything belongs to him. This is in contrast to the Aboriginal belief that many creators were responsible for making the earth during Dreamtime. However, similar to both Eskimo and Aboriginal beliefs, Mbuti Pygmies worship Tore before they hunt for food (Sawada, 2001). All three groups of people realize the importance of food and seek the guidance and support of their higher power in order to return a successful hunt.
The Mbuti Pygmies place great importance on the forest and what they get from the plants and trees (Terashima & Ichikawa, 2003). Therefore, the Mbuti Pygmies have something that they consider to be sacred just as the Eskimo and Aboriginal people do. The forest was extremely sacred to them and they had extensive knowledge of what grew in the forest and what it could be used for (Terashima & Ichikawa, 2003). Additionally, the Mbuti Pygmies placed great emphasis on medicine and the plants of the forest provided them medicinal properties (Terashima & Ichikawa, 2003). To this end, Mbuti Pygmies believe in a “Master of the Forest” who controls all life within the forest. Similar to both Eskimo and Aboriginal beliefs, Mbuti Pygmies believe the “Master of the Forest” is responsible for the success of hunting. Also in comparison to both previously discussed religions, Mbuti Pygmies do not wish to upset the one in control of a successful hunt. Therefore, they are extremely careful to not harm the akobisi plant. If this plant is harmed, a Mbuti Pygmy must sing and dance on the spot and beat a buttress root instead of a drum in order to appease the anger of the “Master of the Forest” (Terashima & Ichikawa, 2003).
Just as Eskimos and Aboriginal people do, the Mbuti Pygmies realize the importance of the hunt. Hunting makes up a primary aspect of their religious beliefs just as it does for Eskimos and Aboriginal people (Sawada, 2001). Also similar to the previously discussed religious beliefs, Mbuti Pygmies have several rituals associated with hunting. The first is that they light a fire before leaving for the hunt. If hunting is unsuccessful after several attempts, the Mbuti Pygmies make an offering to their god just as the Eskimo and Aboriginal people do (Sawada, 2001). The Mbuti Pygmies also rely on the spirits of animals. However, they also believe that the “Master of the Forest makes the ultimate decision dictating which animals will be killed on any given hunt (Sawada, 2001). With regards to spirits, the Mbuti Pygmies believe that spirits are representative of dead ancestors. These spirits are said to have a great influence over a hunt in addition to the influence of the “Master of the Forest” (Sawada, 2001).
Eskimo, Aboriginal and Mbuti Pygmy people all rely on the hunt as a major component of their religious beliefs. The way they go attempt to have a successful hunt varies but the fact remains that food is an important part of the beliefs of all three groups. With regards to the dead and the afterlife, all three groups believe in the existence of spirits of dead ancestors. However, while the Eskimo and Mbuti Pygmies don’t prolong mourning of the dead, the Aboriginal people spend a great deal of time mourning. Additionally, all three groups place great importance on the existence of spirits and their ability to help or harm. Many of the primary principles that make up the beliefs of each group focus on not angering the evil spirits. Finally, all three groups hold different objects sacred but the use of sacred objects is a commonality. Relying on special artifacts enables all three groups to have tangible proof of their religious beliefs.
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