Definitions of Primitive

I want to take this opportunity to refer to my previous post on January 11. In this post, I highlighted the story of Princess Anastácia and the torture weapon masks she and other slaves were forced to wear. Her story shows a number of issues, most importantly the idea that the white man is, for some odd reason, inherently better than the black man, seen through the idea of the enslavement of millions of Africans by Europeans for work in their colonies. At the time of the slave trade, people of African descent and their traditions were often seen as primitive, which was an excuse used to justify the treatment of Africans and an idea whose repercussions have had a lasting effect on society. It is in such context that this blog takes place.

A few days ago the class was introduced to Candomblé in a lecture given by Lisa Earl Castillo, which greatly reflected an article of hers published in the Stockholm Review of Latin American Studies by the name of “Icons of Memory: Photography and its Uses in Bahian Candomblé.” Candomblé is a religion from Africa, brought to Brazil and other nations involved in the slave trade. Although it may differ slightly in practice and in name, much of Candomblé is still very similar to its African roots. It is a spirit-possession religion, although I use the word possession lightly because, in my experience, possession tends to have a negative connotation. For example, in his article “Exorcism: Facts and Fiction About Demonic Possession” posted on, Benjamin Radford states in his opening paragraph, “Most religions claim that humans can be possessed by demonic spirits…” (Radford, “Exorcism: Facts and Fiction About Demonic Possession). However, he explains the idea that possession is inherently evil is mostly a Judeo-Christian belief, and that other religions believe in both benevolent and malevolent possession (Radford). The Judeo-Christian belief is what I and many of my peers grew up with, which is likely why many of our perceptions of possession tend to be negative.

It is better to think of Candomblé as a temporary manifestation of the gods in people who are trained to receive them. This is also extremely difficult to explain as I am not an expert on Candomblé nor is there a great amount of information regarding the religion. This is because throughout its history in the colonies and even into present-day, Candomblé has not been well received by those outside the religion and local authorities, and has even been considered a form of sorcery (Castillo, 13). This is part of a narrative hundreds of years old that continues to put people of African ancestry in a position that is beneath whites.

In the days following the lecture, we were able to visit two Candomblé houses. In our visit, we were allowed to see parts of the houses that had never been seen by people outside the religion. For a religion that is extremely secretive, even within the organization itself, I was extremely honored to have the opportunity to learn more about this religion. I will not say anything about the houses because I do not want to risk negative interpretation of my words and also out of respect for the people of Candomblé. But it was at one of these houses that our tour guide in Salvador, Fred, said something that really stuck with me. He explained that he has often heard Candomble being referred to as a primitive practice, but he turned it around to say that it is the people with this idea that are actually primitive.

When I think of the word primitive, I think of a lack of written communication, modernization, technological advancements and many other things. So when Fred said this, it made me think. Yes, a lack of technological advancements and written communication may be signs of a primitive group, but ultimately they are part of a larger idea, which came to me after much thought. My new definition of primitive, which encompasses Fred’s quote, essentially boils down to whether or not a group of people are content with where they are intellectually. The larger idea is that of expansion of knowledge and understanding.

Taking the Candomblé example Fred provided, people who would call Candomblé primitive, are actually primitive because these people don’t bother to expand their knowledge in order to understand the religion. Therefore, judgments are made based on lack of understanding, which leads to ignorance. If people were to take the time to understand these religions with an open mind, ignorance would be replaced by respect, even if those people continue to disagree with the practice itself.

  • Castillo, Lisa Earl. "Icons of Memory: Photography and Its Uses in Bahian Candomblé." Stockholm Review of Latin American Studies 4 (2009): 11-23. Print.
  • Radford, Benjamin. “Exorcism: Facts and Fiction About Demonic Possession.” Live Science: Human Nature. 7 March 2013. Accessed 22 January 2017.
Entrance to the Candomblé House