Discover more from Play Makes Us Human
#22. The Playful Nature of Hunter-Gatherer Religions
All religion is founded on the human capacity to play (to make believe), but hunter-gatherer religions were play through and through.
Some might take offense at the idea that religion is play. Religion, they might say, is sacred, and play is trivial. But if you have following me so far you know that I regard play as the highest form of human activity—it is what “makes us human”—so when a say religion, properly conceived, is play, I am elevating it, not demeaning it.
I have three main points to make in this letter. The first is that all of religion has its roots in play. The cognitive skills that make religion possible are the skills of play, the most central of which is make-believe. The second point, which follows on the theme of Letter #21 (on the play theory of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism), is that hunter-gatherer religions were overtly playful and were part of their way of promoting cooperation not just among themselves but with the entire natural world around them. The third point is that religions become dangerous when they become too divorced from their grounding in play.
To Have Faith Is to Make Believe
The essence of all religion is faith. To have faith is to believe without evidence. That’s the definition of faith. To believe without evidence is to make believe. To make believe is to play.
Most if not all human play involves make-believe (see Letter #2 on definition of play). Each player accepts, for the duration of the game, a certain imaginary world. In chess, for example, the imaginary world is one in which miniature horse-shaped figures are knights, and knights can only move in L-shaped hops. The purest form of make-believe is found in the pretend play of young children, who regularly enter imaginary worlds in which they may be witches, trolls, space travelers, superheroes, or mommies or daddies, and where the living room couch may be a haunted house, a magic bridge, another planet, or the office where mommy works.
To start a game, players don't ask for evidence that such and such is true, they simply decide and declare that it is true. Suzie is a witch and Jimmy is a troll because all the players have agreed to that. The truths of make-believe are truths by choice, not discovery, and so are the truths of religion. To accept a religion is to choose to believe in the religion's proclaimed truths; and in that sense, at least, all religion is play. People who try to pit science against religion, or vice versa, are talking about two things that are far more different than apples and oranges. A religious truth and a scientific truth are entirely different kinds of truths.
The truths of play are true as long and only as long as the play continues. When play is over, or during time out, Suzie and Jimmy may say they were only pretending to be a witch and a troll; but they would never say that during play. In fact, it would be impossible for them to say that during play, because the very act of saying it automatically stops the play and creates a time out. Religion, for the devout, has no recognized time out, so the devotees may have no opportunity to say that religious beliefs are make-believe, even if at some level of consciousness they know that this is so.
My thoughts about the playfulness of religion originated when I was about 11 years old, an age when many people begin to puzzle seriously and philosophically about the world around them. I was a regular church and Sunday school attendee, and like some of my childhood colleagues I had difficulty understanding how people could believe the stories. It was clear to me that belief or lack of belief had nothing to do with reasoning ability. Some people far more intelligent and rational than I, and some less so, were devout believers.
I remember thinking then that religion might be a kind of game--a life-long game that people knew was a game but would not say was one. It was like belief in Santa Claus, but more durable. It was belief that people held throughout life rather than just in early childhood. Adults seemed to hold as sacred that they should not tell a child that the Santa story is just pretend, and I reasoned that they held as even more sacred that they should not tell anyone, maybe not even themselves, that their religious stories were just pretend. These childhood thoughts about religion lay relatively dormant in my mind until a few years ago, when they were stirred up by my reading research articles about hunter-gatherer religions.
Hunter-Gatherer Religions Were Overtly Playful
The accounts of anthropologists who had lived in band hunter-gatherer societies led me to conclude that the religions of those societies were far more obviously playful than the religions that dominate the developed world today. Their religious stories were playful and often funny, their religious rituals were playful, and they apparently did not confuse religious truths with empirical ones. Here are some examples illustrating these ideas.
Hunter-Gatherer Religious Stories Were Playful and Often Funny
All hunter-gatherer religions were polytheistic. There were multiple deities, and the deities themselves were playful. They were not arranged in a power hierarchy but were equal participants in an ongoing drama that took place in a spirit world that paralleled the physical world in which hunter-gatherers live. The deities themselves were neither all good nor all bad, but a mixture of the two, much like flesh-and-blood people. They were often whimsical and unpredictable. They were not much concerned with human morality. They might help or hurt a person just because they felt like doing so, not because the person deserves it. [Note: As I mentioned in Letter #21, I am using the past tense because I am describing observations made several decades ago, which may or may not be true for the same groups today because of outside influences.]
A common character in hunter-gatherer religions was what mythologists call the "trickster," a partly clever, partly bumbling, morally ambivalent being who manages to interfere with the best-laid plans of the other deities and humans. The trickster character was not necessarily represented in just one deity; it could be a personality trait that ran through most or all of them (Guenther, 1999). The characteristics and actions of many of the deities were comical.
Consistent with their egalitarian ethos and non-hierarchical means of governing themselves, hunter-gatherers did not worship their deities. They had no kings on earth, so they had no kings in heaven either. In fact, just as they used humor (teasing and sometimes ridicule) to level any members of their own band who showed signs of arrogance (see Letter #21), they also used it to level any deities who might otherwise think too highly of themselves. Here is an example, taken from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's book, The Old Way, about the Ju/'hoansi of Africa's Kalahari Desert (Thomas, 2006):
One of the most prominent Ju/'hoan deities, Gao Na, has characteristics that might, at first, lead us to view him as equivalent to the single god of modern monotheistic religions. Gao Na is the creator of the universe. He created first himself, then the other deities, and then the earth, water, sky, sun, moon, stars, rain, wind, lightning, plants, animals, and human beings. Yet, despite such creative power, Gao Na is not particularly powerful in other respects, and he is certainly not especially wise. In fact, the Ju/'hoansi delighted in portraying Gao Na as a fool.
In Ju/'hoan religious stories, Gao Na, the creator of everything, is unable to control the beings he created and is continuously being outwitted by them. For example, his wives trick him, again and again, into jumping into a pit full of feces. They tell him that there is a fat eland under a pile of branches, and he leaps happily into the pile to get it, only to fall into the pit. Later, after he has cleaned himself up, they tell him another story, about some other prize under the branches, and he jumps in again.
When I think of this story I am reminded of the classic comic-strip character Charlie Brown, who repeatedly believes that this time Lucy will not pull the football away when he tries to kick it. Like Charlie Brown, Gao Na never learns. We know, each time that Lucy sets him up, that Charlie Brown will fall for it. We feel sorry for him, and yet we laugh. That is the plight of us humans, and it was portrayed in Ju/'hoan religious stories as it was by Schultz on the comics page. Or, from the Ju/’hoan perspective, the story might more appropriately be seen as a morality tale about greed. Gao Na’s avarice leads him, again and again, to leap into a pile of shit
Hunter-Gatherer Religious Rituals Were Indistinguishable from Play
The religious practices of most hunter-gatherers included music, dances, sometimes costumes, and lots of improvisational play. The most serious religious ceremonies, for most hunter-gatherer groups, were those that involve shamanic exercises. The primary serious purpose of such ceremonies was healing, but the ceremonies also provided an opportunity for band members to interact personally, in all sorts of ways, with members of the spirit world. Individuals who had the power to do so (the shamans) entered into trance states in which they took on the properties of, and/or communicated with, specific deities.
One researcher, Mathias Guenther, notes that this altered state was generally reached "without hallucinogenic substances, but through a combination of drumming, singing, and dancing, coupled with physical exhaustion." He writes further:
"Often the shaman is a showman who employs rich poetic imagery and histrionics. He may sing and dance, trembling and shrieking, and speak in strange languages. He may also employ prestidigitation and ventriloquism…. Shamanic séances are very much performance events, not infrequently with audience feedback. They involve the shaman in role playing, engaging in dialogue with various spirits, each of whose counter-roles he plays himself." (Guenther, 1999, pp 427-428).
In some hunter-gatherer groups the whole band was involved in the dancing, singing, and drumming. All of them effectively were shamans or at least contributors to the shamanic experience. Among the Ju/'hoansi, roughly half of the men and a third of the women were able to enter into shamanic trances (Rossano, 2006). When spirits were called forth in such exercises, in apparently any hunter-gatherer group, they were not treated reverently. They were treated much as the people treat each other. The communications might involve criticism as much as praise and might involve mutual joking, teasing, laughing, singing, and dancing, as well as requests for healing.
Anthropologists refer to the shamanic and other religious ceremonies as "rituals," probably because that term has come to be used for any religious ceremony that has some sort of regular structure to it. But the ceremonies were clearly not rituals in the sense of strict, uncreative adherence to a prescribed form. In fact, some hunter-gatherer researchers have claimed that the religious "rituals" that they observed were indistinguishable from play (Tsuri, 1998). The ceremonies typically involved a great deal of the kind of self-determined, creative, imaginative, yet rule-guided action that fits the definition of play.
Hunter-Gatherers Did Not Confuse Religious Beliefs with Empirical Observations, and They Had No Concept of Heresy
A number of anthropologists have described hunter-gatherers as practical people, not much given to magic or superstition (e.g. Bird-Davis, 1992; Endicott, 1979; Thomas, 2006). Shamanic healing seems to be an exception, but such healing may have actually worked to the degree that diseases have psychological components.
In general, hunter-gatherer religious ceremonies had more to do with embracing reality than with attempting to alter it. For example, in her book The Harmless People, Thomas (1959) describes how the /Gwi people (hunting and gathering neighbors to the Ju/'hoansi in the Kalahari) used their sacred rain dance not to bring on rain but to welcome it and partake in its power when they saw it coming. Living in the desert, where water is a limiting factor for all life, they might well have danced to bring on rain if they thought it would work, but they did not believe they had such power. They could, however, rejoice in the rain and use its coming to raise their own spirits and prepare themselves for the bounty to follow.
Another researcher, Richard Gould, in his book Yiwara, about a hunter-gatherer culture in Australia, makes the same point in stating that these people ". . . do not seek to control the environment in either their daily or their sacred lives. Rituals of the sacred life may be seen as the efforts of man to combine with his environment, to become ‘at one' with it." (Gould, 1969, p 128). From my perspective, such ceremonies were a form of play in which aspects of the natural world, personified in the deities, became playmates.
On the dimensions that distinguish religious liberals from religious fundamentalists in our culture, hunter-gatherers appear everywhere to have been at the liberal end. Although hunter-gatherers found meaning in their stories about the spirit world, they did not treat the stories as dogma (Endicott, 1979; Gould, 1969 Guenther, 1999). Neighboring bands told stories in different ways, or told stories that logically contradicted one another, but nobody took offense. The sacred ceremonies of one band were different from those of another and varied considerably over time. Hunter-gatherer parents did not become upset when their children married into another group and adopted religious beliefs and practices that differed from those they grew up with. To leave one band and join another, with different religious practices, was in this sense like leaving a group who were playing one game and joining another who were playing a different game. There seemed to be an implicit acknowledgment, among these people, that religious stories, while in some ways special and even sacred, were in the end just stories.
Hunter-gatherers valued their beliefs about the spirit world, but they apparently didn’t let those beliefs interfere with their empirical understanding of the physical world in which they lived. Here is an example of that, again provided by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (1959, p 152). When Toma, a wise Ju/'hoansi, was asked, matter-of-factly, what happens to stars during the daytime, he responded, matter-of-factly: "They stay where they are. We just can't see them because the sun is too bright." But another time, in a religious frame, Toma answered the same question with a Ju/'hoan legend, in which the stars are antlions that crawl up into the sky at night and return to their sandy pits at dawn. He was apparently not the least bit upset by the contradiction between these two explanations. I wish all religious people had Toma's wisdom when it comes to such foolish controversies as that of evolution versus creationism!
Religion Is Sacred Play, Which Gives Meaning to Everyday Life
A general function of all play is to give meaning to people's lives and to help them cope with the real world. Play helps children come to grips with reality. Playing at being witches and trolls, for example, helps young children think about and understand aspects of their real world that would be hard to understand otherwise. This is true even though the children clearly recognize that the play world is imaginary, not real. In fact, play would not serve its purpose if children did not recognize that distinction.
Religion, properly conceived, is a grand and potentially life-long game in which people use the socially agreed-upon game structure—the story outline, shared beliefs, and shared rituals—along with their own creative additions and modifications, to make sense of their real world and real lives. The stories and beliefs may be understood as fictions, but they are sacred fictions because they represent ideas and principles that are crucial to living in the real world and may be held through all of life.
It is not surprising, from this view, that religious stories and beliefs everywhere reflect and elaborate on ideas and themes that are crucial to the society in which the devotees live their real lives. Hunter-gatherers depended on principles of equality and sharing, and so it is natural that their deities were not rulers but equals, who sometimes contributed, sometimes failed to contribute, and sometimes totally messed up. Hunter-gatherers also depended, every day, on the whims of nature, which they could not control, so it is not surprising that their deities were whimsical. The best way to deal with unpredictability is through humility and humor, and their religions fostered those traits. Their task was to embrace nature, not control it, and their religious play with the spirits of the natural world helped them to do that.
With agriculture, religion changed. Agriculturalists attempt to control nature, and so the gods of agriculture are controlling gods. With agriculture, and with the land ownership and accumulation of wealth that came with it, egalitarianism lost its sway and concepts of lords and masters, and servants and slaves, emerged. It is not surprising, then, that hierarchical concepts of the spirit world emerged in post-agricultural religions. Such religions peaked in the Middle Ages, in the dominant monotheistic religions, especially Islam and Christianity. At a time when most people were essentially servants to powerful land owners, it was only natural that religious stories and beliefs would focus on the value of servitude and duty to lord and master, and that God would be understood as the supreme master, the lord of lords, king of kings, Such beliefs gave meaning to a life of servitude and helped the rulers to justify their power.
Religion Turns Bad When the Element of Play is Lost
As religion evolved (or should I say devolved) from the hunter-gatherers' comic pantheons to the medieval monotheisms it became less playful and more dangerous. As nature became an enemy rather than a friend, and as the spirit world became hierarchical, the element of fear began to overwhelm the element of play. God became not a playmate but the supreme source of punishment and reward, to be worshipped, served, and feared. As religion became serious, people began to confound the imaginary religious world with the real world.
If children playing at being witches and trolls did not know that they were just pretending, we would worry. We know, for children, that failure to distinguish imagination from reality (which fortunately almost never happens) would be dangerous. We should know that this is even truer in the case of adults and religion.
The religions that emerged with agriculture and feudalism have promoted horrors that would be unimaginable to hunter-gatherers. The Aztecs sacrificed human beings to their angry gods. Christians tortured and murdered people they called witches and murdered heathens mercilessly. Today among some groups of Islamists (by no means the majority) we find promoters of suicide bombings, who put religious beliefs above their concerns for people. If service to God is the highest value, and if God is fearsome, egotistical, and punishing, and if religion is confounded with reality, then all these horrors in the name of religion become possible. Religion of that type does not "make us human" in the sense by which I mean that statement in the title to this series.
The fortunate thing, today, is that as our societies continue to evolve so do our religions. As we have left medievalism and entered an era of gradually increasing democracy (with admittedly some setbacks), many people have taken the monotheisms of their ancestors and made them more playful. God becomes once again a friend rather than a power to be feared. People stop arguing about which religion is right. They begin again to acknowledge that such arguments make no more sense than do arguments about whether chess or checkers is the one true game. If this hopeful trend continues, we may complete a circle and once again enjoy playful religion as hunter-gatherers did.
To keep religion on the side of humanity instead of against it, we need continuously to refresh its playfulness. Sacred play promotes the best of our human nature, improves our wellbeing, and is fun. Religion lacking play is suicidal.
I hope I have given you something interesting to think about in this letter. I’m thinking, in my next letter, I might expand on the roles of make-believe in the large scope of our human lives. I will suggest that even those of us who claim not to be religious hold beliefs, purely on faith, that guide and give meaning to our lives. We human beings are, among other things, the animal capable of imagination. Imagination allows us to create our own life purposes.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. They will add to the value of this letter and my influence what I put into a future letter. If you aren’t already subscribed to this Substack series, please subscribe now, and let others who might be interested know about it. By subscribing, you will receive an email notification of each new letter.
Note: This letter is a modified version of an article I posted at Psychology Today some years ago.
Bird-David, N. (1992). Beyond ‘The Original Affluent Society,’ Current Anthropology, 33, 25-47
Endicott, K. (1979). Batek Negrito religion: the world-view and rituals of a hunting and gathering people of peninsular Malaysia.
Gould, R.A. (1969). Yiwara: foragers of the australian desert.
Guenther, M. (1999). From totemism to shamanism: hunter-gatherer contributions to world mythology and spirituality, pp 426-433 in R. B. Lee & R. Daly (eds.), The Cambridge encyclopedia of hunters and gathers.
Rossano, M.J. (2006). The religious mind and the evolution of religion. Review of General Psychology, 10 (346-364.
Thomas, E.M. (1959 The Harmless People (1959).
Thomas, E.M. (2006). The old way.
Tsuru, D. (1998). Diversity of ritual spirit performances among the Baka pygmies in southeastern Camaroon. African Study Monographs, Suppl. 25, 47-83.