Glossary of Terms

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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- A -

ancestral spirits  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
souls or ghosts of ancestors.  A belief in ancestral spirits is consistent with the widespread belief that humans have at least two parts--a physical body and some kind of non-physical spirit.  The spirit portion is generally believed to be freed from the body by death and continues to exist.  Ancestral spirits are often seen as retaining an active interest and even membership in their family and society. 
animatism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a belief in a supernatural power not part of supernatural beings.  For those who hold this belief, the power is usually impersonal, unseen, and potentially everywhere.  It is neither good nor evil, but it can be powerful and dangerous if misused.
animism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a belief that natural objects are animated by spirits.  This belief can take diverse forms.  Things in nature may all have within them different spirits--each rock, tree, and cloud may have its own unique spirit.  In contrast, all things in nature may be thought of as having the same spirit.  In both forms of animism, the spirits are thought of as having identifiable personalities and other characteristics such as gender.
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bewitching  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
using magical acts and/or the assistance of supernatural beings to cause something to occur.  Bewitching is an integral part of witchcraft.
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contagious magic  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
magic that is based on the principle that things or persons once in contact can afterward influence each other.  In other words, there is a permanent relationship between an individual and any part of his or her body.  As a consequence, believers must take special precautions with their hair, fingernails, teeth, clothes, and feces.  If anyone obtained these objects, magic could be performed on them which would cause the person they came from to be affected.
cult  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a devoted religious group, often living together in a community with a charismatic prophet leader.  Cults are generally considered to be potentially dangerous, unorthodox, extremist groups by the dominant religious organizations in a society.
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divination  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a magical procedure by which the cause of a particular event or the future is determined.
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foragers  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
see hunters and gatherers.
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god or goddess
a powerful supernatural being with an individual identity and recognizable attributes.  Another term for a god is a deity click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  Like spirits, gods have individual identities and recognizable attributes (gods are male and goddess are female).  However, gods and goddesses are more powerful than spirits and other lesser supernatural beings--they can effectively alter all of nature and human fortunes.  As a result, they are commonly worshipped and requests are made of them to help in times of need.
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- H -

hallucinogen  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a mind altering drug that can cause profound hallucinations or an altered state of awareness.  Most hallucinogens used for religious purposes by shamans and others are derived from plants.
horticulturalists  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
people who obtain most of their food by rudimentary farming.   They usually practice slash and burn field clearing methods and do not add additional fertilizer or irrigate.  They often have a partial reliance on foraging for wild foods.  Their societies are usually larger and more sedentary than those of hunters and gatherers but still are at a low technological level and relatively small-scale.
hunters and gatherers
people who live in more or less isolated, small-scale societies and obtain their food by foraging wild plants and hunting wild animals.  Hunters and gatherers are also referred to as foragers.
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- I -

imitative magic
see sympathetic magic.
indigenous  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
referring to the native population of an area.
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- L -

large-scale society
generally a society with cities, industry, intensive agriculture, and a complex international economy.  Such societies have socio-economic classes and a government with hierarchies of officials.  The importance of kinship is diminished in comparison to small-scale societies.  These societies typically have major organized religions and priesthoods.
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- M -

magic  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
using ritual formulas to compel or influence supernatural beings or powers to act in certain ways for good or evil purposes.  By performing certain magical acts in a particular way, crops might be improved, game herds replenished, illness cured or avoided, animals and people made fertile.  This is very different from television and stage "magic" that depends on slight-of-hand tricks and contrived illusions rather than supernatural power.
messianic movement  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
A millenarian movement led by a prophet who is either perceived as a new messiah or who predicts the imminent arrival of one.
millenarian movement  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a conscious, organized movement that attempts to revive or perpetuate selected aspects of an indigenous culture or to gain control of the direction and rate of culture change being forced on them.  These movements have also been referred to as messianic, nativistic, and revitalization movements.  They were especially common among indigenous societies of European colonies.  The Cargo Cults of New Guinea and the Ghost Dance Movements of the North American Plains Indians are examples.  Millenarian movements typically have a prophet leader and religious beliefs requiring a major leap of faith by their followers.
millennium  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a golden age of great happiness, peace, and prosperity expected in the near future.  This sort of belief is characteristic of millenarian movements.  Literally, "millennium" refers to a period of 1000 years or the ending of such a period.
minor supernatural being
supernatural beings who are not spirits, gods, humans, or other natural beings.  They usually have a human-like appearance and/or personality but can do things that are beyond the abilities of humans.  Minor supernatural beings often have a "trickster" role--they fool people, do outlandish things, and disappear. In European folk tradition, leprechauns, elves, and pixies were minor supernatural beings. 
modal behavior  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the statistically most common behavior patterns within a society.  Those who do not exhibit these patterns are usually labeled as social deviants.  What is defined as modal behavior varies from society to society.
monotheism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a belief that there is only one god.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are usually considered to be monotheistic religions.  However, the distinction between monotheism and polytheism can be a matter of focus.  For instance, some scholars have argued that monotheisms, such as Catholicism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, are actually de facto polytheisms for many of the faithful if Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are prayed to for guidance and help as if they were minor gods themselves.
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- N -

nativistic movement  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
see millenarian movement.
norms  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
the socially expected behavior patterns or rules for behavior within a society.  Norms differ from culture to culture.
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- O -

otiose deity  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a supreme god who established the order of the universe and is now remote from earthly concerns ("otiose" is Greek for "at rest).  As a result, otiose deities are usually almost ignored in favor of lesser gods who take an interest in the everyday affairs of humans.
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- P -

 
Polynesia  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a major division of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, east of the International Date Line, extending from Hawaii in the north to New Zealand in the south.  In addition to these islands, Polynesia includes Samoa, Tonga, the Society, and Marquesas Islands.  The indigenous peoples of Polynesia speak similar Polynesian languages.
polytheism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a belief in more than one god.  Hinduism is usually considered a polytheistic religion.  However, the distinction between polytheism and monotheism can be a matter of focus.  In India and Bali, Hindus can be observed fervently worshipping hundreds of different gods.  This fits the classic description of a polytheistic religion.  However,  since the many gods are only different manifestations of the supreme god, Shiva click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (or Vishnu click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced or Krishna click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced),  Hinduism can also be interpreted as a monotheism. 
priest  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced   (or priestess click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced)
a religious leader who is part of an organized religion.  Different religions have different terms for these individuals--they may be known as rabbis, ministers, mullahs, Imams, or other terms.  They are the keepers of the sacred law and tradition.  They are found mostly in large-scale societies
prophet  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
an individual who receives divine revelation concerning a restructuring of religious practices and usually of society as well.  Prophets call for dramatic change while priesthoods usually act as conservative forces in preserving long-standing traditions.  Not surprisingly, prophets are usually outside of the priesthood and are seen by priests as irritating, disruptive trouble-makers.  See millenarian movement.
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- R -

religion  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a system of beliefs usually involving the worship of supernatural forces or beings.
revitalization movement  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a millenarian movement in which the followers focus on recreating and revitalizing their indigenous culture in response to tremendous pressure to acculturate to the culture of another society that dominates them.
rituals  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
stylized and usually repetitive acts that take place at a set time and location.  They almost always involve the use of symbolic objects, words, and actions.  For example, going to church on Sunday is a common religious ritual for Christians around the world.
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- S -

secular  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
relating to worldly rather than religious things.
shaman  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a person who is not part of an organized religion and is in direct contact with the spirit world, usually through a trance state.  A shaman has spirit helpers at his or her command to carry out curing, divining, and bewitching.  Shamanistic power is acquired individually, usually in physical and/or mental solitude and isolation from other humans.  Spirits or some other supernatural entities are revealed to the shaman and he or she learns how to control them.  Training by older shamans usually occurs to help the apprentice shaman understand and use his or her powers.
small-scale society
generally a society of a few dozen to several thousand people who live by foraging wild foods, herding domesticated animals, or non-intensive horticulture on the band or village level.  Such societies lack cities as well as complex economies and governments.  Kinship relationships are usually highly important in comparison to large-scale societiesAnimism, animatism, and shamans are typically found in these societies.
spirit  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
a supernatural being who has less power than a god or goddess.  It may be an ancestral spirit or simply a spirit that inhabits a natural object or even all of nature.  A belief in spirits is the central tenet of animism.
sympathetic magic  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
magic based on the principle that "like produces like."  For instance, whatever happens to an image of someone will also happen to them.  Sympathetic magic is also referred to as "imitative" magic.
syncretism  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
an amalgamation or incorporation of traditional and introduced alien culture traits.  In Southern Mexico and Guatemala, the Maya Indian combination of mutually exclusive indigenous religious and European Christian beliefs to create a new composite religion is an example.  Syncretism is often a psychologically more satisfying alternative to rapid acculturation that totally replaces indigenous cultural beliefs and customs since one's own cultural identity is maintained.
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- T -

trancing  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
activity that results in an altered state of consciousness in which an individual is in a hypnotic-like mental state or at least profoundly absorbed.  This is a common tool used by shamans and others all over the world to enter the spirit world.  Common techniques used to achieve a trance state include fasting, self-torture, sensory deprivation, breathing exercises and meditation, prolonged repetitive ritual dancing and/or drumming, and hallucinogenic drugs.
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- W -

witchcraft  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
actions involving magic or supernatural powers usually undertaken for the purpose of doing harm.  This is a limited anthropological definition that does not describe the activities of modern Western European and North American so-called witches or Wicca.  The latter are members of an organized religion.
world view
all of the unobserved but inferred beliefs that an individual has about the world and the universe that are hidden aspects of their behavior.  A world view is a set of feelings and basic attitudes toward the world rather  than a set of formulated opinions about it.  World views are mostly learned early in life and are not readily changed.  They have a determinate influence on our observable behavior, both verbal and non-verbal.
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This page was last updated on Thursday, September 10, 2009.
Copyright 2001-2009 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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