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Faith, Hope and Charity in Primitive Religion 1930–1932

Robert Ranulph Marett

II: Hope
If religion is taken as an intensified expression of the will to live, a positive hopefulness is seen to be the basic element in it. Such an attitude is characteristic of the ancient savage, who mastered fire, refused to recognize the finality of death, and anticipated the control of the animal kingdom in his spelaeolatric rites. The same moral is to be drawn from the rites of the modern savage, whether rites of participation or of projection. All such rites are not merely magical, but religious, in so far as they are normal developments of the social life, and apply an inward spur to its essential activities.
Is hope or fear the mother-feeling in religion? I am about to declare for hope, but I shall do so against the opinion of the poet Statius, the philosopher Hobbes, the archaeologist Salomon Reinach, and, in fact, a host of authorities who in all ages from one point of view or another have come to see in fear the primal impulse that, so to say, depresses men on to their knees. Nor can it be denied that the supporters of fear have a strong case. Assuming that the function of religion is to restore confidence, they argue that one must have lost confidence before one seeks to regain it. To this it may be answered that there would be no point in trying to regain something that was really lost. The religious man knows that the confidence which he is anxious to recover is there all the time, waiting and asking to be recovered. Religion is essentially concerned with a potency; and what gives a potency its unique character is the fact that it must precondition its own actualization. Just so the precondition of an act of memory is not an emptiness, but rather a pregnancy, of mind. The very thrust of the life-process, then, so far as it reveals itself, however subliminally, in and for human experience may be said to consist in a certain hopefulness—a forwardness of reach. Approaching as we do the history of religion from the side of anthropology, which is ultimately the side of biology, we are bound to interpret man’s religious activity as a manifestation of the will to live. Now even from the limited standpoint of biology, which takes life as a datum-fact that can be explored to some extent even though both its whence and its whither are left out of account, there is an immense potency or pregnancy inherent in the will to live, seeing that it is essentially a will to survive, to live racially. According to nature’s prompting, then, no less than according to the teaching of religion, we die to live on. Biologically and naturalistically speaking, we may be but putting off the evil day of racial annihilation; but even so a forlorn hope must be hopeful, and it is with an analogous courage, born of a desperate situation, that the animal species struggles for survival and the religious man sets forth to carry heaven by assault. All high enterprise is accompanied by a certain nervousness—an effect of strain which, so long as it does not reach the pitch of a functional spasm, may be even helpful to the action by inducing caution, and a sense of measure. But such nervousness is incidental only. The theorists who fail to observe that the fear of the God-fearing man is but the accessory feature of a mood founded on the bed-rock of hope have likewise failed to perceive that religion is an epitome, a concentrated version, of life itself, that bold attempt to persist in being and to crown it with well-being.
For a signal example of sheer pluck, consider ancestral man, that ambiguous figure looming on the utmost verge of the prehistoric horizon. It is usually held that, unlike the apes, he came of a line that had somehow avoided all specialization, and in this way, namely as the Jack-of-all-trades of the animal kingdom, became committed to a career of unparalleled adventure. A hand that can be turned to any job and an intelligence no less well hinged—such are the hereditary instruments of general utility that have enabled his descendants to accommodate themselves to all climates, and to render fire, earth, water, and air alike subservient to their whim. The emotional equipment needful for this primeval gentleman of fortune was the pioneer temper. He must hope for the best even while preparing for the worst. A certain Micawberism is essential to the man of enterprise. He must be cheerful beyond strict reason—beyond a cold or even lukewarm estimate of the opposing hazards. For any hazard is an uncertain quantity, being halved by heroism, doubled by doubt. From the start, then, man must have been brave with a bravery inclining towards bravado; for he was subject, more than any of his specialized competitors of other species, to a certain instability in his nervous organization, and must counteract it by an overstressing of the favoured impulse—a weighting of the dice such as William James declares to be the very secret of human freedom.
What man, for instance, is to be acclaimed the greatest hero of all time? Undoubtedly, the first firemaker. The gods might well be jealous of Prometheus, who stole fire from heaven hidden in a reed; for henceforth man was godlike, sharing the prerogative of the sun, the stars, the lightning. Every country of the earth ought to set up a statue to Fire-stick the First, a statue hewn gigantically out of granite. Up to that decisive moment fire had terrorized the whole animal world. Though it warmed and lighted, it must not be approached; its touch was agony, its embrace death. As regards the conquest of earth, air, and water, man had his precursors, nay his preceptors, in many another species; for, taking into account his theriolatric tendency—his habit of glorifying the beasts to the point of worship—we may be sure that he was not above copying their methods in all directions. But there was absolutely no precedent for tackling fire. Man himself is the one and only prototype of the fabled salamander. The savage might almost be said to live in the fire, to judge by the way in which he sears and scorches his naked skin. And yet this supreme discovery reaches back right beyond the backward limit of prehistory. Inconceivable ages must have gone to the experimentation that resulted in so difficult a technique; seeing that probably not one of us could either kindle or nurse a flame, given primitive appliances of the simpler kind—any more, let me add, than he could fashion an effective tool of flint—without endless practice, in addition to a dexterity out of the common. Neither practice nor skill, however, would have availed our enterprising ancestor if some streak of daring in his versatile, happy-go-lucky nature had not in the first instance tempted him to violate the great taboo of living creation. Well might he aspire to tame the animals and the plants who had already domesticated the nearest thing to a god in the inorganic world. Fire almost matches mind in its subtlety, purity, and independence of being; so that anthropomorphism was hardly at any time needed to vindicate its claim to divinity. Hestia or Vesta was never more than a faint personification of the sacred hearth-fire itself; while, again, the central fire, the Sun-God, was no Man in the Sun, but the fierce lord of the day in his palpably real presence. Not merely terror, then, but a nascently religious horror of sacrilege, must have waited on those early attempts of the importunate inventor to bottle his genie—to enslave it to a trick of his hand. And yet he had the boldness—one might almost say the impudence—to try. In a spirit of presumption bordering on downright mischief he vexed the monster until he had taken the measure of its devilries and could proceed to exploit them one by one. From the depths of his inmost being—from the bottom of the well, so to say—arose a hope. However subconsciously, he had an inkling of an indefinite benefit outweighing the obvious risk. Let the unknown do its worst, he would follow his luck.
Next in order of observed occurrence comes an even more astonishing triumph of hope over fear on the part of early man. Fire may sting, but the sting of death is far more daunting; for, instead of pricking the hide, it penetrates to the heart and slays. Besides, once dominated, fire could with constant care be managed. Prometheus bound the fire more securely than ever the gods could enchain him. But death is no more an instrument of human science now than it was in pre-glacial times. Our medicine may devise methods of procrastination; but it cannot avert the common doom, nor reconcile us to however well-contrived a euthanasia. Indeed, biology has to acknowledge it as a mystery that the creature spent with generation should meet its fate with such manifest reluctance, as if it would prolong its useless dotage for ever and a day. Although the eldest of the Terrors, death remains timelessly endowed with the vigour of its first youth. Yet, instead of succumbing to a fear so everlasting in its enmity, man for many thousands of years has met it squarely with the aid of a no less everlasting hope. If the time-process threatens to betray him, so much the worse for the time-process. He will be immortal; he will overcome the time-process and see it out. Thus, then, so far as force of will could do it, Neanderthal man, to whom we grudge the name of Homo sapiens, achieved a future life. There can be no question, I think, that the experts are right in attributing to him deliberate burials with due provision for a hereafter. It is even noticeable that funeral custom is already beyond its earliest stage. At La Chapelle-aux-Saints, for instance, not only is the grave neatly dug and food laid by conveniently, but a cave too small for habitation has evidently been selected for a purely sepulchral purpose. If there was a time when the dead man was simply left lying by himself within his own cave-home, or when, perhaps, the dying man was prematurely abandoned, we are well past it. Nor need we in any case postulate as a starting-point so cowardly a shrinking from the sight and contagion of death as to drive the others away before at least something was done to administer last comforts—a restful posture, food, a fire and weapons to ward off prowling beasts, and so on. Surely hope endured to the bitter end and at any rate a certain distance beyond it, as soon as ever the decencies of life meant anything for the human stock. We cannot, of course, tell by poring over the bare relics of that distant past what vague ideas accompanied these funerary practices—whether animism, ancestor-worship, a theory of reincarnation, and so forth, were already there, in however rude a shape, to justify what doubtless was at first little more than a collective gesture of defiance—a refusal to accept death’s blow without hitting back blindly. There is something very suggestive, however, in the fact that the young man of Le Moustier was buried with his hand near a weapon which is of a type that had become more or less obsolete in his day, and was therefore such as might have come to acquire a purely ceremonial value. So, too, the shells associated with the interments of the succeeding period have been interpreted as amulets designed to help the dead somehow, whether by revitalizing them, or by otherwise bringing them good fortune. If, then, we can put any trust in such uncertain inferences, there prevailed in those remote days a symbolism of the concrete type so well advanced that some sort of passport could be conceived as essential to the welfare of the soul in transit. Here, however, we are less concerned with doctrine than with the underlying emotions from which it takes its colour. What funeral custom may do for a man when once he is dead we cannot tell for sure; but what it does for the survivors most certainly is, as they say in West Africa, to ‘kill the fear’. Instead of either eating the corpse or leaving it severely alone—the usual reactions of the mere animal—man, yielding to that feeling of an attachment outlasting death of which a few rare examples are to be gathered from the sub-human world, stood by until his bold make-believe had extracted something warm and vital from the cold clay—something that seemed as undying as the continuous life of one and all, the life of the group. It was no empty fooling that could thus strive to outwit death itself, the prince of bugbears. By his declaration of independence man had called a new world into existence. Escaped from death he was as free as any god; and, god-like or not, it was the making of him as a man to believe himself so by hoping it.
Third in order of time, to go by that mutilated text, the prehistoric record, was the victory of hope over fear which resulted in the subjugation of the beasts. The struggle for victory was of course agelong, and must have been marked by early successes, since there could hardly be a cave-man until the cave-bear had been expropriated, as probably only a fire-maker could do. But we have to pass on to the Late Palaeolithic to find definite proofs that the hunter had learnt to fortify his heart with the help of religion. Now his hunting was no soft job. Early Europe did not provide easy meat in the shape of such mild marsupials as Australia offers to its aboriginals, but was part of that central area of biological competition which produced the toughest and fiercest of the mammals. No modern slayer of big game, without rifle or even bow to assist him, would be any too happy in such conditions as daily confronted the man who in Aurignacian or Magdalenian times was out to get, and at the same time not to be, a dinner. Presumably, however, he had long before this developed the character of an effective killer—involving not merely the patient hardihood of one who plies the gentle art of fishing, but likewise the grim temper which enables a man to spill hot blood hot-bloodedly. Among the food-animals on which he preyed some like the mammoth, the rhinoceros, or even the bison were more dangerous than others such as the horse or reindeer; but it may be doubted whether he palpitated in the presence of the ugliest customer of them all with any emotion less creditable than the pure ardour of the chase. Meanwhile, as regards his rivals, the larger carnivores, we may suppose that mutual respect had taught both sides to observe a truce, whereby man had the day to himself, so long as he clung to his fireside and left the night to the other shift.
Nevertheless, though possibly the natural fear of the beast was in large part overcome, man thereupon went out of his way to impose an artificial fear upon himself. So as the better to glorify his hunter’s trade, he must gratuitously invest it with a borrowed mystery. Now the most terrible thing in a cave-dweller’s daily and nightly experience was a yawning mouth of darkness at his back; that way lay the underworld—hell. In limestone districts such gloomy and tortuous tunnels honeycomb the hills for miles, and teem with unfamiliar perils—crossways that bewilder, stalactites that threaten to pierce the skull, streams and deep pools that must be swum beneath an arch that in places dips into the water, and swallow-holes in the footway that could act as death-traps, as one may deduce from the huddled remains of many an unwary beast. It was the maddest of adventures that led the man of old to arm himself with flickering torch or feeble lamp of the Eskimo pattern and advance on and on into earth’s innermost void—a region barren of all profit and abominably strange. One can but suggest at a guess that a cult of the cave-bear—such as perhaps inspired those Aurignacian designs at Gargas that look so much like imitations of the authentic marks imprinted by the beast on the same cave-walls in the course of sharpening his claws—may have encouraged a desire to copy the mighty beast’s subterranean retirements and roamings. It is good savage logic that, to acquire the bear’s mana, one must play the bear thoroughly. Be this as it may—whether theriolatry, that is, animal-worship, lurks in the background or not—something that can almost be ascribed as a spelaeolatry, or cave-worship, must have come into being as a consequence of this intrepid exploration of such hidden and haunted places. The cave itself had mana; so that a man might borrow its faculty of working wonders were he but brave enough to go in and fetch it out. Thus half-a-mile within a mountain, at Niaux in Ariège, one sees how the shape of the natural rock, eked out with a little paint, could seem to embody animal forms, surely placed there as a sign for the man who had come all that long and dreadful way to see and to believe. Given the ceremonial quality of these mural paintings—for a certain observance of set form accompanies even the striking naturalism of the earlier efforts—one is led to suspect a priesthood, a body of spelaeolatric experts, who, interposing themselves as it were between the hunter and his natural business, bade him reflect on its precariousness, and by facing his fears outface them.
Now we can never know exactly what ritual practices or beliefs were fostered under such a régime, and analogies drawn from the modern savage are but helpful up to a point. In most cases we seem to have a fairly straightforward representation of a successful kill—as when javelins are depicted with their points cleaving the painted hearts of the animal portraits on the walls, or—more vivid still—when at Montespan the clay image of a bear has plainly been transfixed by repeated thrusts with an actual spear. At Tuc d’Audoubert, however, the conjoined bisons, male and female, would seem to embody a fertility motive, a sort of invitation to be fruitful and multiply. Again, the so-called sorcerer of Les Trois Frères, the impressive reindeer-headed man who even now fills that solemn chamber with his presence—not to mention the various masked figures of other caves in France and Spain—implies some doctrine of a communion between man and beast; a relationship which, though perhaps it was not consciously one-sided, assigns all the taking to man and all the giving to his ally. For our forerunner was so innately ambitious of dominance that, even when apparently offering the hand of fellowship to his competitors, he was sparring for an opening to attack them. His pieties were not so disinterested as they professed to be, or indeed, perhaps, as he honestly believed them to be, so far as he tried to buttress his behaviour with a creed. But, even if his universe was egocentric, we must admire him for his effrontery. Instead of viewing himself dispassionately as a miserable mannikin in the grip of hunger and deadly cold, he magnified his prospects by conjuring up the inordinate hope of a prodigious hunting, when all nature, from the powers of darkness to the beasts themselves, should conspire to befriend him and serve his purpose. At bottom then, it was a sort of justifiable megalomania—an exultation of the spirit due to a growing sense of power and of a destiny to match—that, chastened by attendant fears but never yielding to their sway, lent an impetus to the food-quest, while at the same time creating secondary activities that embellished life instead of merely sustaining it. If man was able to wring from the ice-age not only existence but even some of its amenities, it was thanks to an ingrained hopefulness, and to a religion that could bring it out.
It would be easy to find further illustrations, whether taken from ancient or from modern savagery, of hope as an element in primitive religion; for on analysis it turns out to be the prevailing tone in religious feeling, in fact, the universal key-note on which the harmonious relations of its other elements are ultimately based. It may be more profitable, however, to pass on to examine what the psychologists are wont to call—perhaps not very appropriately—the ‘mechanism’ of the process whereby hope is encouraged by religious means. Religion, however, is not really like a machine into which one puts in raw instinct at one end so as to turn out a finished morality at the other. Essentially it is a mode of living. Moreover, it is a mode belonging to that higher grade of living when the directive principle, which throughout is self-determining, is becoming self-conscious. That this advance in self-consciousness is on the whole beneficial to the species may be taken as a biological axiom; the presumption likewise being that it somehow affects the directive principle for the better. In other words, our powers of self-guidance may be supposed to improve if, and in so far as, we can achieve self-knowledge. Yet whether we can ever come to know ourselves completely is highly doubtful. We may pipe all the instincts on deck, but there are stowaways who are not likely to attend the muster. At its best, too, reflection is an indirect method of viewing one’s true features; one is merely holding up a mirror. When we try to improve on nature, it is by uncertain inference from an image; and nature is apt to protest that we are making a mistake. Religion, then, as an activity of the self-conscious or reflective type has to content itself with imaging, or symbolically expressing, as best it can, something within and yet beyond consciousness, something not wholly given because at the same time giving, namely, the life-feeling itself, the concentrated thrust of the racial instincts. The other animals just live; but man has superfluous energy enough to say to himself as he lives, ‘Here I am living!’ and somehow it helps him to live better. By a tortuous effort of mental gymnastics he pats himself on his own back and is greatly cheered.
Now in studying religion as a method of self-expression the first thing to note is that religion can have no significance—no signalling value—until it has come to have social use. Its higher biological function is to promote common action, though it may originally have been merely helpful to the individual as a way of blowing off steam. Man, of course, has been a social, not to say political, animal for such an age that, before prehistory catches its first glimpse of him he must have been able to converse with his group-mates significantly enough, even though with a decided economy of articulate speech. In close company, such as the earliest hordes must have kept, gesture would go a long way towards making intention plain. In the thick of action, indeed, an experienced pack would know what to do without much mutual instruction. At leisure moments, however, as at nightfall with hunting over and bellies full, a mood of comfortable expansiveness might well bring about the institution of the chorus. Now man’s mimetic choruses are not to be compared too closely with the so-called howling concerts of the monkeys; for, whereas the monkeys presumably howl about nothing in particular, man has that extra dash of purposive intelligence which always makes him want to express himself about something. When human folk are moved to joke and jig together, they must do it to a measure; and a measure in itself wellnigh amounts to a meaning. Thus, ordered movement in the dance is immediately suggestive of ordered movement in the day’s work. Again, different measures convey separate suggestions of their own. Some soothe, others excite; some are melancholy, others merry. Once more, they may recall in various ways the characteristic motions—the leaping, twisting, stamping, galloping—of those beasts which the hunter has observed, and can picture, so minutely. Even if we assume, then, that dancing was rhythmic before it became representative, it is easy to see how it would meet symbolism half-way as soon as the dancers had taken to pretending that what they did was, at least for the time being, something else. From dancing to drama was but a step.
Drama, however, does not necessarily involve religion. It may be no more than a form of amusement—anything, in fact, between child’s play and fine art. The Australian native, for instance, distinguishes quite clearly in his mind between sacred drama and the mere corroboree. I have myself attended among the Narrinyeri of the Lower Murray a merrymaking of the latter kind. There was obviously nothing sacred or secret about it; the other sex was present; the white man might look on. After devoting an interminable time to adorning their persons with white paint, the men stepped gaily into the ring. The band promptly struck up—consisting of the women squatting with their opossum rugs stretched tightly across their knees and drumming hard with their fists, to the accompaniment of a loud but apparently wordless droning that reminded one of the bagpipes. In strict response to the pulsations of this rude but most stimulating music the performers postured and swayed monotonously, quivering from head to foot with excitement, but providing little in the way of vivid or varied figure-dancing. For all that a bystander could tell, they might equally well be wallabies or wombats or witchetty-grubs. When at last I managed to inquire of a native youth who had some English what it might all be about, I got the unexpected reply, ‘Him’—that is the chorus in its multiple personality—‘Him flash-fellow steamer on de ribber’. They were not in the boat, or watching the boat from the bank. They actually were the magnificent creature as it came smoking and splashing up the stream, to the consternation of the black swans. The occasion was purely festive. At the same time, this was at least fine art, if not religion, in the making. By means of a muscular symbolism they were seeking to express an admiration that might easily ripen into reverence. For the rest, such dancing was bound to react on the whole intellectual and conscious life of the group so as to enlarge it; for the more they learnt to give out in this way, the more they would be competent and eager to take in.
I have said that in the eyes of the natives themselves this was merely a corroboree—a jollification enjoyed for its own sake and apart from any hope of ulterior advantage. I may mention, however, a curious incident that showed how readily a remedial function verging on the miraculous might come to be associated with an entertainment of this type. Some distance away from the dancing-place, under a rough lean-to of boughs, lay an old man, manifestly sick, and in that apathetic state which with the aborigines is usually the prelude to a speedy ending. Instead of worrying him to distraction, as well it might, the loud beat of the dance roused him more and more, so that at last he tottered to his feet and, joining the lively throng, was presently footing it as featly as the rest. Whether in the end it proved a case of kill or cure I never discovered; but I can certainly bear witness to the surprising agility displayed for as long as the dance lasted by an elderly party who a short while before had seemed utterly moribund and done for. Even to me it appeared a miracle that a dose of tribal joie de vivre could prove so instantly stimulating. So too, then, it must strike the savage with far greater force in the light of such an experience how dancing in any form is full of mana. Inevitably, however, it would be deemed stronger medicine to dance to a deep motif than to dance to a shallow one. A steamer on the Murray is after all no more than the latest sensation. On the other hand, matters of life and death—such as may, broadly speaking, be said to constitute the theme with which religion is perpetually concerned—can be dramatized in exactly the same way, and all the more effectively because emotions more fundamental and vehement than wonder, namely hope and fear, enrich the expression with a note of solemn importance. Thus the sacred dance of Australia stands to the corroboree very much as tragedy does to comedy as regards the dominant feeling-tone. The player plays as if he were in earnest. Though he moves on the plane of mere representation, he must remain in close enough touch with the realities of life to render their essential value and truth; for these realities are as they feel. Thus the sacred dance is bound to bear the character of a mystery; for it has a double meaning like a riddle. It takes a man out of real life, and yet it points back to real life as if it would reveal its secret.
Now, while doubtless it would be possible to classify the sacred ceremonies of the Australians in more than one way, it will be sufficient for our present purpose to divide them into two main types. The difference between these well-marked varieties might be shortly put by saying that in the one case the performers are simply seeking mana, and in the other case are seeking it in order to make it work; or even more shortly by saying that in the first case they are trying to be something miraculous, and in the second case to do it. Thus we may term them severally rites of participation and rites of projection. I have myself no hesitation in assigning a ritual character to both kinds of traditional observance alike, in view of the fact that the natives themselves would appear to impute to each very much the same degree of sanctity and virtue. From our point of view, however, the rite of participation is, on the face of it, more like a miracle-play than a religious service, and so might seem intermediate between fine art and religion in form; though the analogy breaks down if we go on to study the intention. Thanks to the searching methods of Spencer and Gillen which have illuminated so many of the obscurities of the aboriginal psychology, we know that the Arunta people of the Central deserts envisage themselves, their customs, the animals and plants on which they live, nay, every water-hole and rock in their bare but hallowed surroundings, against the mellow background of a golden age, the Alcheringa. In those spacious days everybody and everything were splendid in a stone-age way, and, totemistically speaking, all was divine. In a sense, no doubt, those days are over; the glory has departed. But it really makes very little difference whether the golden age is placed in the past or in the future so long as it is likewise conceived as something to live up to in the present. Indeed, the opposition between past and future can hardly hold for those who believe in reincarnation, as the Arunta do. They themselves incorporate Alcheringa beings who have somehow fallen from their high estate. As there is no story either of some fault on their part or of some other fatality that finally debars them from retrieving the disaster, one might suppose that according to the strict logic of the situation the present generation might aspire to re-establish the ancien régime without more ado and in their own persons. But the Arunta have too little logic and too much sense to suppose anything of the sort. Their present abode is no Paradise, nor is it likely to become one. On the other hand, they set up by means of their dramatic rites a sort of timeless Alcheringa into which they can turn aside from the hardships of their present lot, so as to refresh themselves by communion with transcendent beings who are at once their forefathers and their ideal selves. For the rest it is to be noted that of distinctive individuality these supermen of the Alcheringa have almost none. The chorus seeks simply to glut its collective soul with the glamour of ancestry—with the consciousness of kind. The mana in which they participate is tribal. As it was in the beginning, so let the Arunta people be now and for evermore, Amen.
Passing on to ceremonies of the other type, we may term them rites of projection because the mana, instead of being assimilated by the performers for their own spiritual benefit, is transmitted by their efforts into external things so as to make these work for their material advantage. Thus among the Arunta the totemic groups have lost any connexion that they may once have had with the kinship system, and act as cult-societies whose function it is to stimulate the reproductive powers of the various animals and plants that provide man with his food, by showing what is expected of them in explanatory pantomime. The Arunta appear to accept the fact that nature can be influenced in this way without attempting to account for it. For them it is enough to know that they can dance themselves into the necessary state of conviction. The modern theorist, however, is more inquisitive. Indeed, so much has lately been written about the symbolism of wish-fulfilment that one may assume here that the psychology of the matter is plain, at any rate up to a certain point. One knows that repressed desire finds an outlet in a simulated satisfaction, and that the consequent relief of tension brings about a temporary comfort. But for any wishing of a hopeless or almost hopeless kind such a remedy but intensifies the disease. The starving man cannot help dreaming of unlimited food, but to do so increases his agony in the long run. If there is really no dinner in the house, to ring the dinner-bell merely adds insult to injury. On the other hand, in like manner and to a corresponding extent a hopeful kind of wish may have its hopefulness enhanced by picturing it as if accomplished. Now it is to be noticed that the Arunta hold their ceremonies for the multiplication of the totems, not in the hungry time of the year, but on the contrary when food is plentiful enough for them to gather and be glad together. They dance their food-dances on a full stomach as if to exclaim, ‘May this happy state of things continue’. If either prayer or thanksgiving had been known to them in the forms with which we are familiar, one might have looked for as much of the second as of the first in this harvest-festival of the age before agriculture. After all it is a cheerful symbolism that depicts all nature as blowing and growing. No beggar’s whine is to be heard in this early religion which prefers to contemplate the bright side of things and to fix it there by the very steadfastness of its gaze. It is quite in accordance with this attitude of unwavering optimism that their rare verbal formulae should exclude the present optative in favour of the perfect indicative. ‘We have eaten much food’, they say, making solemn pretence meanwhile to eat and be filled. They project their assurance into a kindly, or not too unkindly, universe, and it seems to respond to their hopes in an assured way. They cheer on each other in the dark valley, and a cheerful echo comes back as if a voice from the heights.
In conclusion, a word must be said on a rather trite subject. Many leading anthropologists, including the author of The Golden Bough, would wholly or in the main refuse the title of religion to these almost inarticulate ceremonies of very humble folk. I am afraid, however, that I cannot follow them. Nay, I would not leave out a whole continent from a survey of the religions of mankind in order to humour the most distinguished of my friends. Now clearly if these observances are not to be regarded as religious, like a wedding in church, so neither can they be classed as civil, like its drab equivalent at a registry office. They are mysteries, and are therefore at least generically akin to religion. Moreover, they are held in the highest public esteem as of infinite worth whether in themselves or for their effects. To label them, then, with the opprobrious name of magic as if they were on a par with the mummeries that enable certain knaves to batten on the nerves of fools is quite unscientific; for it mixes up two things which the student of human culture must keep rigidly apart, namely, a normal development of the social life and one of its morbid by-products. Hence for me they belong to religion, but of course to rudimentary religion—to an early phase of the same world-wide institution that we know by that name among ourselves. I am bound to postulate the strictest continuity between these stages of what I have here undertaken to interpret as a natural growth. It is quite arbitrary to make religion take shape suddenly out of nothing at the point when Alcheringa beings, totems and so on are supplanted by gods. As well might one say that religion begins when white paint gives way to white ties. Surely a humanizing science must assume that, if men have souls now, they likewise had them in the Stone Age, with needs that at bottom were not so very different.
Of all such needs then, I take hope to be the chief; while I take the stimulation of hope to be the chief function of religion in all its phases. Whether it be chorus or congregation that lifts up its heart in the presence of the sacred, the effect is the same—they go forth to live more dynamically. Having said this much only about religion, then, we have already said a great deal. It remains, however, to examine in subsequent lectures a number of emotional conditions which meet in religious experience, and with various results, some good, some bad, qualify the primal impulse to hope for the sheer joy and intrinsic helpfulness of hoping. Though religion is an exultation, it must likewise be a discipline. It is good that we should hope beyond measure, and yet it is good that there should be a certain measure in such hoping. So far we have been simply considering how religion applies a spur to the life-force. In the sequel we shall have to inquire how far this process, to be thoroughly successful, must also involve the use of a rein.
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