Nature as a sacred totality

To students of religion, the closest example of what may be termed nature worship is perhaps most apparent in ancient or nonliterate cultures in which there is a high god as the lord in heaven who has withdrawn from the immediate details of the governing of the world. This kind of high god–the Deus otiosus, hidden, or idle, god–is one who has delegated all work on earth to what are called “nature spirits,” which are the forces or personifications of the forces of nature. High gods exist, for example, in such indigenous religions on Africa’s west coast as that of the Dyola of Guinea. In such religions the spiritual environment of man is functionally structured by means of personified natural powers, or nature spirits.

Pantheism (a belief system in which God is equated with the forces of the universe) or deism (a belief system based on a non-intervening creator of the universe), as was advocated in the rationalistic philosophy of religion of western Europe of the 16th to 18th centuries, is not appropriate in studies of nature worship in preliterate cultures. Worship of nature as an omnipotent entity, in the pantheistic sense, has not as yet been documented anywhere.

The power or force within nature that has most often been venerated, worshipped, or held in holy awe is mana. Mana, often designated as “impersonal power” or “supernatural power,” is a term used by Polynesians and Melanesians that 19th-century Western anthropologists appropriated to apply to that which affected the common processes of nature. Mana was conceptually linked to North American Indian terms that conveyed the same or similar notions–e.g., orenda of the Iroquois, wakan of the Dakotas, and manitou of the Algonkin. Neither the designation “impersonal power” nor “supernatural power” implies what mana really means, however, because mana usually issues from persons or is used by them, and the concept of a supernatural sphere as distinct or separate from a natural sphere is seldom recognized by preliterate peoples.

Thus, a better designation for mana is “super force” or “extraordinary efficiency.” A person has mana when he is successful, fortunate, and demonstrates extraordinary skill–e.g., as an artisan, warrior, or chief. Mana can also be obtained from the atuas (gods), providing that they themselves possess it. Derived from a root term that has aristocratic connotations, mana corresponds to Polynesian social classifications. The ariki, or alii, the nobility of Polynesia, have more power (mana), and the area that belongs to them and even the insignia associated with them have mana. Besides areas and symbolic elements that are associated with the ariki, many objects and animals having special relationships with chiefs, warriors, or priests have mana.

The concept of hasina of the Indonesian Hova (or Merina) on Madagascar is very similar to mana. It demonstrates the same aristocratic root character as the word mana, which is derived from the Indonesian manang (“to be influential, superior”).

The Iroquoian term orenda, similar to mana, designates a power that is inherent in numerous objects of nature but that does not have essential personification or animistic (soul) elements. Orenda, however, is not a collective omnipotence. Powerful hunters, priests, and shamans have orenda to some degree. The wakanda, or wakan, of the Sioux Indians is described similarly, but as Wakan-Tanka it may refer to a collective unity of gods with great power (wakan). The manitou of the Algonkin is not merely an impersonal power, comparable to the wakan, that is inherent in all things of nature but is also the personification of numerous manitous (powers), with a Great Manitou (Kitchi-Manitou) at the head. These manitous may even be designated as protective spirits that are akin to those of other North American Indians, such as the digi of the Apaches, boha of the Shoshones, and maxpe of the Crow, as well as the sila of the Eskimos.

The super forces (such as Mulungu, Imana, Jok, and others in Africa) that Western scholars have noted outside of the Austronesian-American circles of peoples are often wrongly interpreted as concepts of God. Only the barakah (derived from the pre-Islamic thought world of the Berbers and Arabs), the contagious superpower (or holiness) of the saints, and the power Nyama in western Sudan that works as a force within large wild animals, certain bush spirits, and physically handicapped people–appearing especially as a contagious power of revenge–may be added with a certain justification to that force of nature that is designated by mana. A striking similarity with mana may also be noted in the concepts of heil (good omen), saell (fortunate), and hamingja (luck) of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples.

Heaven and earth as sacred spaces, forces, or processes

Heaven and earth, as personified powers of nature and thus worthy of worship, are evidently not of equal age. Though from earliest times heaven was believed to be the residence of a high being or a prominent god, the earth as a personified entity is much rarer; it probably first occurred among archaic agrarian civilizations, and it continues to occur in some primitive societies in which agriculture is practiced. Gods of heaven, however, are characteristic spiritual beings of early and contemporary hunter and collector cultures and are found in almost all cultures.

Primitive world views generally assume the earth to be simply given (i.e., as continuously existing). Sometimes the earth is believed to have emerged out of chaos or a primal sea or to have come into existence by the act of a heavenly god, transformer, or demiurge (creator). Even in such world views, however, the earth usually remains without a divine owner, unless through agriculture and the cult of the dead the earth is conceived as the underworld or as the source of the renewing powers of nature. The fact that heaven is animated by rain-giving clouds (with lightning and thunder) and by a regular chorus of warming and illuminating celestial bodies (sun, moon, and stars) led to concepts of the personification of heaven from earliest times.