Ancient tribal religions around the world seem to have some commonalities and similarities. Ancient tribal religions predate institutionalized Judeo-Christian monotheistic religions and they are often observed by people in small communities who live basic lifestyles. However, in modern times, some people still adhere to these religions in different parts of the world. The purpose of this paper is to critically analyze two of these ancient tribal religions, the Shawnee Religion of Native Americans and Traditional African Religions of the Maasai of East Africa in order to deduce their differences and similarities.
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Background of the People
The Shawnee are a Native American people who originally lived east of the Mississippi River. Most of them once lived in what is now the Ohio territory and they had a unique lifestyle that remained preserved till this day, although many have now assimilated into modern American culture.
The Maasai are a semi-nomadic group of people who live in villages in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania in East Africa. Due to the nature of the Maasai ethnic group, they are known for keeping cattle and other animals and they move around the region of Kenya and Tanzania in search of pasture for their livestock.
Core Beliefs and Worldview
The Shawnee believe that the entire universe was created by the supreme being the Great Spirit called “ Kohkumthena” which is a female spirit that created the Shawnee people and gave them specific instructions and rules of how to behave and honor her. In Shawnee belief, Kohkumthena weaves all day with a dog by her side and at night, the dog tears what she has woven apart and she re-weaves them the next day continuouslyThe Shawnees believe that the Great Spirit gave them sacred bundles which they use and protect. They also believe that the Great Spirit reveals herself to the Shawnee through various animals like eagles, wolves, bears and deer. These are animals that sometimes show them important information and important clues about how to solve difficult situations and matters.
The Maasai believe there is only one deity and in their view, this deity is to be understood in feminine terms. Their religious worldview is one in which the supreme deity called “ Engai” nourishes and nurtures the earth through rain and the sky through the growing of things. The Maasai view of the creator is one of motherhood and fertility as a symbol of regeneration and rebuilding things in society. The narrations of the Maasai also tend to connect Engai or their supreme god with the Sky, the Earth and life. The Maasai also have certain attitudes towards some plants and animals and view them to be extremely sacred and bearers of some divine powers.
In Maasai mythology, Engai was a human being who owned all cattle in the world but he separated the world to the sky and the earth and gave three of his greatest gifts to the different peoples. He made one group hunters and made the Kikuyus farmers and gave all the cattle on the earth to the Maasai. In their worldview, that was the greatest gift anyone could be given – cattle. Hence, cattle is in the center of their view of the world and how it is ran.
Therefore, it can be said that the two groups, the Shawnee and the Maasai have a view that the world was created by a force and a power that is female in outlook. They see the presence and power of the creator through nature and this is done on the premise that the creator created these things and also nurtures them through various activities and processes. They both see some animals and some plants as spirits. These are known in the broader context as Earth Religions and they have to do with fertility and femininity.
However, the practices and approaches that are used by the religions to refer to the ongoing activities of their god is not the same. The detailed activities and instructions given to both religions are not consistent with each other. Therefore, there are some major departures between the two main religions.
Ceremonies, Rituals and Taboos
The Shawnee people have a calendar that is based on the cycles of the moon. This comes up with two main seasons in the year. The first season is the Summer season where the “ three sisters” which are corn, beans and squash are planted. In the Winter season, there is an emphasis and a shift to hunting and trapping due to the fact that farming could not be done in these times.
The Four Cardinal Points, which includes the veneration of the spirits of the four winds is very important to the Shawnee people. Therefore, they are encouraged to carry out various rituals and activities when the moon appears at certain times of the year. Some of these ceremonies tend to unify the Spiritual Father with the Spiritual Mother to create some kind of harmony in nature in order to fulfill the synthesis as the Shawnee believe was instructed by the creator.
The Maasai on the other hand live in Africa where there is a tropical climate. Therefore, the emphasis on the religious ceremonies is not based on the seasons or the moon. They are rather based on the stages of life of the members of the community. The Maasai are known for their thick clothes that they use to cover their bodies, their elaborate piercings and facial decorations as well their dances which involves jumping in a very energetic manner. These events accompany almost every celebration they have.
The ceremonies and rituals of the Maasai people also have political implications. The social system is one in which there is a patriarchal system of inheritance. Hence, the eldest male child has the final say in most affairs relating to the family and its properties. Marriage is an important tool for the transfer of political and cultural power. Therefore, traditional events are seen as a means through which the systems of the society are cemented in the society. There are male events and female events.
Male events include the Enkipaata which is the pre-circumcision ceremony where the male children are taught important things about the culture including how to make a livelihood as a Maasai and how to control important things and activities. There is a similar event for female Maasai women where they learn some important things about keeping the home. After these events which are performed in the early teens, Maasai males and females undergo circumcision where they are ushered into adulthood and are given egalitarian status as older members of the society and community. In this situation, they are treated as warriors and they are allowed to build their own camps which are normally communities and homes where they live and also start their own families.
In comparing the ceremonies of the two classes of people, it can be said that the ceremonies of the Shawnee tribes are mainly mystical and they are tied to the seasons of North America. They involve esoteric practices that are observed specifically, but through this, other social and cultural elements are observed to bind the people in unity. On the other hand, the ceremonies of the Maasai seem to be about the initiation and guiding of people to become more responsible members who are groomed under the ways and traditions of the people. In the process, spiritual and esoteric traditions and ideas are inculcated to the people and they get to understand their traditions and culture.
There are some taboos amongst the Shawnees and this includes telling certain stories in certain seasons and forbidding menstruating women, murderers and mourners from performing certain works in the community. There are also many sacred bundles that certain people must not touch at certain times of the year. There are some totemic animals that they must treat in certain ways.
Many of the taboos of the Maasai are age-based. There are many things people must not do until they attain or reach certain ages. For instance, it is forbidden to get pregnant before a girl goes through her puberty rites or circumcision. Also, there are some rules and regulations that are meant to toughen the Maasai for certain conditions including making prohibitions on what to do and what not to do in periods of war and hardships. There are also some rules and regulations that are based on which conducts are ideal and which conducts are shameful.
Thus, it can be said that although the Shawnee Indian religion is based on traditions and practices that were handed directly from a supernatural set of instructions, many of the rules amongst the Maasai are socially inspired. However, they are complemented by mysticism and sacredness.
Communication with the Spirit World & Religious Leaders
Among the Shawnee Indians, the medicine man played the role as the great communicator of a tribe or clan and such individuals were believed to have supernatural abilities and callings and had been trained by a senior medicine man. The medicine man had traditional education and was a historian, educator and keeper of myths, legends and tribal wisdom. The medicine man is believed by the Shawnee Indians to communicate with dances, gestures, sound and symbolic powers. He could enter trance and interpret signs from animals, mountains and other weather conditions. They had feathers and war sticks that were used in their activities and incantations.
The ordinary Shawnee was trained to be able to apply some of the basic elements and features of these supernatural communications. They were able to analyze and assess things and also pray and do some basic things through the use of various symbols. In more serious matters, the Shawnee Indians consulted a medicine man who had advanced knowledge and understanding of spiritual information and matters.
The Maasai believe that everyone has a guardian spirit that is given to that individual at the point of birth. Hence, this spirit protects the person and wards of evil and negativity. In their worldview, divination and other activities are meant to activate the guardian spirit of an individual and to protect him or her from evil by following the right customs that are prescribed by Engai or the creator. This activation is done mainly through rituals like circumcision which they believe helps an individual to achieve the best results and fulfill his or her destiny.
The spiritual leaders are called the Laiboni. They have mystical as well as medical roles in the society. And they are able to officiate spiritual ceremonies like circumcisions and they have the ability to see and predict things. The Maasai did not have political chiefs. Therefore, the Laiboni played the leadership roles until they were colonized by the British. They still have major power and are respected.
Therefore, in many ways, the two groups are similar. The Maasai and Shawnee Indians have a system whereby spiritual priests and leaders are very important and vital in ensuring that the state achieves its results. The main aim of the departures is that there are instructions that are directly given and handed down on what must be done specifically in the Shawnee Indian tradition whilst the processes of the Maasai relates to guardian spirits attached to individuals at birth which are activated over time in different points and stages in the life of an individual.
Death and the End of the World
The Maasai believe that on death, the guardian spirit placed in a person disappears and returns to the creator, since it has completed its duty. On the other hand, the Shawnee Indians believe that the death is a transition and the soul of an individual returns to the creator. This marks a major point of departure from the two religious perspectives because the Maasai seem to believe in individual autonomy and the enhancement of a spirit that is handed down to guide the person to achieve what he is destined to achieve on earth. On the other hand, the Shawnee Indians believe that a person must preserve harmony on the planet and follow rules given from the higher world to become a better person so his soul can move on to the next world.
The Shawnee believe that the world will end when the Great Spirit stops weaving her net and at that point, the world will be pulled towards the heavens. This will mean that all the good people of the world will be caught in the net that Great Spirit has woven all these years and they will join her in heaven. Those who contaminated the world and did not follow the relevant rules will not be drawn to heaven.
On the other hand, the Maasai view of the way the world will end is not very clear and different sub-groups have different explanations for this. However, the Maasai believe that the world is based on how well a man or family takes care of its cattle since cattle-rearing is the most honorable obligation the creator could give to humanity. Therefore, they are to do their best and improve their care of the cattle in the world and live noble lives till they pass on.
These two religions are both similar and they are ancient tribal religions. They are monotheistic but they are unique from all other monotheistic religions on the planet. They are both led by mystics who guide the community. The main pointers of departure between the two religions have to do with geography and views on the supernatural. Whilst the Maasai believe that a spirit guides and protects people through their lives and helps them to be the best they can be, the Shawnee Indians believe that the creator has rules that are to guide a person to become a great soul. Thus, the two religions are divided on how to become a good person. Whereas the Maasai believe their duty is to strengthen the guardian spirit and be the best they can be physically, the Shawnee believe in doing things that are mystical and spiritual and most of these involve conserving nature. Therefore, the Shawnee have mystical practices based on the seasons of the year whilst the Maasai have practices that are social and political in outlook based on the stages of life of individual members.
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