Aboriginal Religion and Its Characteristics

Aboriginal religion is based on unique values and traditions shared by a small community and transmitted from generation to generation. The uniqueness of aboriginal religion can be described as the ascent of man to the gods and possession of the reverse. The main elements of aboriginal religion are unique rituals and cult of gods, polytheism, and scarifies. Knowledge of the necessary rituals is often passed on from father to son or, in matrilineal societies, from maternal uncle to nephew. Also, there is a class of hereditary priests who officiate at ancestor cult ceremonies and become possessed. In this state, they speak with the voice of the spirit and are consulted as oracles.

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Among some tribes, they are believed to inhabit their skulls which are recovered sometime after death. This ceremony is more generally concerned with the adolescent life crisis of puberty, with the growing of crops, and with propitiation for the whole tribe’s destiny in its relationship with the cosmic order. For instance, in Malaysian societies, the cult of the dead, together with the males’ initiation rites and the New Year fertility feast, merges into one single multivalent ceremony, in which an atmosphere of symbolic death-regeneration is produced (Bowker 2006). In aboriginal religions, rituals symbolically underline the acknowledgement of the spirits’ ownership of the cultivated plants and food in general.

The offering of the first-fruits to them, together with the imposing of the food taboo on the living, clearly signifies the restitution of property to its spiritual owners and the symbolic annulment of the yearly work of cultivation and of the product itself, as if a sacrilege had been perpetrated against the supernatural powers, particularly the spirits of the dead. In the final part of the feast—which is at the same time a feast of the crops and the dead—the spirits are ritually expelled by a solemn declaration, and people then indulge in eating, dancing, and sexual license. “Sense of isolation is lost in mystical merger with the One Being, with Reality itself. Realities beyond the visible world religion therefore may be embraced because of personal needs – such as longings for immortality, meaningfulness, perfection, personal growth” (Fisher 1996, p. 20).

Another important feature of aboriginal religions is magic. People suppose that magic is aimed at preventing an individual or collective calamities of every kind. Magic intervenes in those circumstances and situations regarded as being beyond human control (Bowker 2006). Magical practices are also carried out on yam farms, to ensure that the plants grow well, and to protect the plantations from the intrusions of wild pigs.

Several traditional practices, of magico-religious significance, especially head-hunting, cannibalism, and human sacrifice, were suppressed after the arrival of Europeans. The waste of goods and food in the feast is one of its structural rules since the purpose of the feast is to express the reversal of ordinary everyday conditions, relationships, and situations. Thus daily poverty and hardship are denied—in strongly symbolic language—by the exaggerated consumption of food in the feast (Bowker 2006).

Some aboriginal people migrate to urban centers and accommodate modern living conditions and ways of life. Thus, they keep their unique religious values and rituals in urban centers. Generally speaking, some aboriginal communities can see the adaptation and development of traditional myths and rituals to modern life. The socio-culture crisis brought about by the disturbing presence of the Europeans, the expectations of the periodic return of the dead and renewal of life, typical of the yearly traditional feasts, becomes in the new cults the expectation and the symbolic foundation of a definitive and renewal of the world. Nevertheless, despite their ritual basis, which is taken as their starting point, religions are often vehicles of modernization and social improvement (Bowker 2006).


  1. Bowker, J. (2006). World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored & Explained. DK ADULT.
  2. Fisher, M. P. (1996). Living Religions. I B Tauris & Co Ltd; Rev Ed edition.
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