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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate. P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers p 1 - page 16 / 33





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Pre-publication draft; please do not quote or circulate.  P. Gray, Play in Hunter-Gatherers   p 16

by a multiplicity of deities, none of whom have authority over the others or over human beings.

Because of their egalitarian foundation, hunter-gatherer religions are playful in ways that go well beyond the general way in which all religions can be thought of as play. For devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the cosmos is imbued with serious moral purpose, to which humans must bend in ways that run counter to the spirit of play. For hunter-gatherers, in contrast, the cosmos is capricious. The hunter-gatherer deities themselves are playful and even comical beings, not stern judges. They are not all-powerful, all-wise, all-good, or all-bad. Like people, they are sometimes good, sometimes bad, occasionally wise, often foolish, and generally unpredictable. They are not particularly concerned with human morality. Their interactions with people can most often be described as whimsical. A deity may hurt or help a person just because he or she feels like it, not because the person deserves it, and in that sense, at least, the deities are personifications of the natural phenomena on which the people depend and with which they must contend, such as the weather. A common character in the hunter-gatherer spirit world is what mythologists call the “trickster.”37 The trickster is typically 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 is not necessarily represented in just one deity; it may be an aspect of personality that runs through most or all of them.

One of the Ju/’hoan deities has characteristics that might, at first, lead us to view him as equivalent to the single god of modern monotheistic religions. This deity, called Gao Na, is the creator of the universe. First he created himself and the other deities; then the earth, water holes in the earth, and water to fill the holes; then the sky, sun, moon, stars, rain, wind, lightning, plants, animals, and human beings. Yet, despite such power of creation, Gao Na is not seen as particularly powerful in other respects and certainly not as wise. In fact, consistent with their general practice of leveling those who might think too highly of themselves, the Ju/’hoansi delight in portraying Gao Na as a fool.38

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 they tell him another story, about some other prize under the branches, and he jumps in again. 39  He never learns. He is like Charlie Brown who keeps thinking that this time Lucy will not pull the football away when he tries to kick it. Even the creator of everything—maybe especially the creator of everything—has no business feeling proud. He doesn’t need worship; he needs, instead, to be put in his place as no better than anyone else.

Similar stories, apparently aimed at leveling the deities, can be found in other hunter-gatherer religions. Among the Batek, for example, perhaps the most powerful deity is Gobar, the thunder god. Gobar is an exception to the generality that hunter-gatherer gods don’t punish; he brings thunderstorms when Batek persons violate sacred rules, such as engaging in incest, or striking a child, or mocking any of certain animals that Gobar protects. Yet the Batek do not revere or fear Gobar; they are more likely to make fun of him. In one oft-repeated story, which always brings laughter, Gobar is “burned by bees” and, as a result, is covered with ugly bumps. The Batek also believe that Gobar makes mistakes, such as by bringing storms when no rule was broken, and they have no hesitation about criticizing him for those mistakes.40

Hunter-gatherer religions also, in general, involve shamanistic rituals. The primary serious purpose of such rituals is healing, but the rituals also provide an opportunity for band members to interact personally, in all sorts of ways, with members of the spirit world. Individuals who have the power to do so (the shamans) enter into trance states in which they take on the properties of, and/or communicate with, specific deities. Mathias Guenther notes that this altered

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