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IV: Elemental and Natural Functions and Attributes

When we survey for the purpose of scientific exposition the manifold activities, functions, and attributes assigned or imputed to the deity in the various world-religions, the first question that troubles us is whether we can find a logical classification that will include them all. Probably the best working principle is that which distinguishes those that belong to the world of nature and those that regard the life of man both public and private. It is true that the two spheres overlap at many points; agriculture for instance belongs partly to the world of nature partly to human activity; and some of the higher and essential attributes of divinity equally concern both, such as beneficence and omnipotence. But students of comparative religion have been in the habit of laying stress on the distinction between elemental and nature-divinities on the one hand and divine personalities of ethical and spiritual characteristics on the other as a far-reaching and essential difference in our concept of divinity. It was even made by Aristophanes a salient distinction between the religions of the Hellenes and ‘the barbarians’ that the former worshipped personal and individualized gods, such as Zeus, Hermes, and Apollo, the latter the sun and the moon and the host of heaven. Among modern scholars the view has been prevalent that the striking objects and forces of nature furnished the earliest impulse towards the belief in gods, and much labour has been expended on the endeavour to trace the higher personalities of the most advanced religions back to some elemental perception of sun, moon, dawn, or wind. Much of this labour has been wasted, and the assumption which dictated it is probably false. Certainly the worship of the striking objects and forces of the natural world is of great antiquity and has been and is widely prevalent; but modern anthropology does not support the view that it was the sole or the earliest source of theistic belief; there is the equally primitive belief in the superhuman being of old time, the founder and teacher of the culture and rites of the tribe, who then departed to the skies, and from whom might emerge the concept of a high personal god of no direct association with nature or the elements.

Nevertheless, as so much of religion has been preoccupied with the realm of nature, it may well be that our more advanced and spiritual concepts of divinity have derived much or at least something from this source.

Nature and the elements of nature may be felt and perceived as divine either in an animistic or theistic sense; the whole fabric of the world or striking parts of it may be believed to be permeated with an immanent divine spirit or spirits; and this view in the terms of popular religion is called animism, and is supposed to be more natural to primitive consciousness; or it may be regarded as directed, either as a whole or in the various parts of it, by a High God or subordinate gods, personalities of superhuman power and intelligence acting from without; and this may be called ‘theism’, belief in a world controlled by a personal qeo,j or qeoi,, and this is the point of view that is mainly prominent and authoritative in the great historical religions of the world. We may often find both beliefs and modes of imagination combined in the same religion; and the animistic view appeals, not merely to the savage, but to the civilized mind, and agrees well with our higher poetry, the more ideal phases of science, and with a pantheistic philosophy. To the ordinary Hellene Aphrodite was a concrete individual goddess, directing certain phenomena of vegetation and life; but when she describes her functions in a great passage in a lost play of Aeschylus, the Danaides, and speaks of the holy marriage of earth and heaven in the spring-tide embrace—

Pure Heaven yearneth to put seed into the Earth,

And Earth is possessed with longing for Heaven's embrace:

Rain falling from the fair founts of Heaven

Maketh Earth pregnant: and she bears for the blessing of men

Pasture for the flocks, and Demeter's staff of life;

And the bloom of the tree is ripened by the dewy marriage:

Of all this (life) I Aphrodite am the cause—

she is proclaiming herself mystically as an immanent cosmic power of life and love, such as the sceptical Lucretius could admit and welcome as ‘Alma Venus’.

But on the whole it is true to say that it has been the personal concrete god or goddess that has been the stronger force in popular religion and in our history; because such beings being concrete could be made more definite, could be clothed with varied attributes and humanized. Now the difficulty in nature-worship is the difficulty of developing purely elemental deities into moral personalities. It might be supposed unlikely that a storm-god should grow into a benevolent and compassionate being, a lover of righteousness. And evidently the early Greeks felt this difficulty; for we do not find advanced ethical traits in their shaping of the purely elementary deities, such as Helios, Selene, the wind-gods. But other nations of antiquity seem to have felt it less. The Assyrian Adad, the god of storms, could become a God of mercy. Many of the deities in the Vedio pantheon can be recognized as elemental powers of nature; but concepts of high ethical and spiritual import attach to them, especially to Varuna. And this is eminently the case with the sun-god in the Mesopotamian and Egyptian systems. The hymns to Shamash, the sun-god of Nippur, have grandeur and religious value.1 He becomes the god of righteousness, the law-giver, who gives the great code to Hammurabi. ‘The wicked Judge thou (Shamash) makest to behold bondage: he who receives not a bribe, who has regard to the weak, shall be well-pleasing to Shamash.’ We thus understand why the Babylonian personifications of Justice and Law, Kettu and Mésaru, should be regarded as the children of Shamash. The hymns to Re-Aton, embodying the solar monotheism of Ikhnaton make up one of the masterpieces of religious poetry. Like Saturn in Keats's Hyperion, the sun-god of Tell-el-Amarna rejoices in

All godlike exercise…

Of peaceful sway above man's harvesting,

And all those acts which Deity supreme

Doth ease its heart of love in.

Composed either by or for the great reforming king they exalt most fervently the sun-god as the source of all life and of all joy.2 ‘The birds flutter in their marshes, their wings uplifted in adoration to thee. All the sheep dance upon their feet, all winged things fly. They live when thou has shone upon them. Creator of the germ in woman, maker of seed in man, giving life to the son in the body of his mother.’… ‘When the fledgling in the egg chirps in the shell, Thou givest him breath to preserve him alive:… How manifold are thy works! They are hidden from before us. O sole God whose powers no other possesseth: thou didst create the earth according to thy heart.’ ‘Thou art in my heart, there is none other that knoweth thee save thy son Ikhnaton.’ ‘All flowers live and what grows in the soil is made to grow because thou dawnest. They are drunken before thee. All cattle skip upon their feet: the birds in the marsh fly with joy, their wings that were folded are spread, uplifted in adoration to the living Aton.’ Ikhnaton was like Spinoza ein Gotthetrunkener Mensch; and the flowers and beasts of the field are imagined to share in his mystic intoxication. There is a stronger joie de vivre in this than in any other monotheistic hymn. It is not clear whether Aton is conceived as the personal creator, or as the well-head of all life, or as the immanent pervasive vital force; various phrases accord with each of these views. But the spirit of love broods strongly over the spirit of the hymn; and perfect love seems to have cast out fear, while direct ethical characterization is wanting. This, however, is discerned clearly enough in the old Egyptian sun-god Amon before the period of Ikhnaton, and still more in the Amon of Thebes when the old name and the old Theban cult were revived after the overthrow of the monotheism. In the later hymns he is hailed as ‘the Lord of Truth’—and Truth in Egypt meant Righteousness and Judgement—as one ‘kindly of heart who saves the timid from the haughty.… Lord of sweetness, great in love, at whose coming the people live.’ ‘Thou, O Amon art the lord of the silent, who cometh at the cry of the poor.’3

Here, then, is a nature-god whose name appears to identify him with a physical phenomenon or element, but who nevertheless can become a High Power of the spiritual life.

One can discern a certain logic in the mental process which associated the sun-god with the ideas of right order and benevolence as well as with physical productivity. Another idea of ethical and spiritual value or promise which ancient thought tended to attach to him was that of purity. The sun's light is essentially pure and purifying; and sins and crimes have been regarded as offences against the sun's divinity, stains on the sun's face, likely to arouse the wrath of the god. Only, as the sunlight did not easily lend itself to magical use in the ritual of purification, his earthly counterpart, fire or the fire-god, usually appropriated this function and the fire-god in Vedic and Babylonian ritual became pre-eminently the deities of purity and purification.

The ethical character of the sun-god was further strengthened by his close association with the ceremony of oath-taking. As the sun's eye sees all that happens in heaven and earth, it was natural to invoke the sun-god in the formula of the oath in testimony of innocence. Therefore he could easily come to be conceived as the Lord of Truth, who favoured the true man and punished the false. And the earliest belief that we can prove for the Hellenes in a moral judgement after death was the belief that the perjured suffer in the next world; for the perjured had offended against the sun and the earth, the two divinities most commonly invoked in the Greek oath.

There is yet another divine attribute, of deep concern for higher religion that nature-worship has at times prompted or assisted the human imagination to recognize and develop, the attribute of loving-kindness or tenderness. The worship of the earth in Greece, and only in Greece, acquired some degree of spiritual value in this respect; for the Hellenic genius refined the concept of her as the mother of human life and especially as kourotro,foj, the kindly fosterer of children; and there emerged from her as a radiant emanation the kindly Demeter, whose type was so masterfully dealt with by the Greek artist that the sunny radiance of her face became tinged with the shadow of tender sorrow for the loss of her daughter; and as the myth evolved a higher religion of which the fundamental concept was the human hope of a blessed immortality, so the art-creation contributed the idea of a certain madonnalike tenderness as a trait of the divine personality, and is thus an event in the history of religious evolution. Here, then, is a nature-cult, the cult of the earth-goddess as corn-mother, that has added something to our spiritual inheritance. The earth-cults of other nations had no such ideal value, and were often grim, bloody, and uncouth. But the Babylonian and Anatolian legends and worship of Tammuz and Adonis reveal the same trait of alluring tenderness blent with sorrow. Tammuz is called ‘the Lord of the tender voice and the shining eyes’, and we detect in the poetic pathos of some of his hymns the modern note of sentimentality;4 and both these deities impersonate the divine spirit of the spring and the bloom of the early year that passes away and is lamented, and both are lovers or fosterlings of a great goddess.

Man's varying relations to nature have divided his history into marked economic periods, each with its own influence on the imagined character of the divine beings. Of the hunting period no reflection remains in our modern religious tradition, except perhaps the sense that wakens in many of us of a divine presence that haunts the deepest recesses of the forest. But the pastoral period, in which some bright and humanized forms of deity arose, has left a more marked imprint both on our religious imagination and on our poetry and art. There is nothing strange in this, for it has never really passed away, in spite of our modern agricultural economy and industrialism. And we look back often yearningly to the freedom, freshness, and simplicity of the nomadic pastoral life, which was commemorated for the Israelites by the feast of Tabernacles, suggesting to them that such a life was dearer than any other to Jahwé himself. More important is it that the primitive pastoral economy has maintained freshly through the ages the winning character and attributes of the High God as the Good Shepherd. Long before the rise of Hebrew psalmody, the sage Ipuwer in the earlier part of the second millennium B.C. addressed the ideal king, the sun-god Re, as ‘the shepherd of all men’ who gathers them together, ‘their hearts being fevered’; and the idea reappears in a later hymn to the sun-god.5 We find a parallel to this in the Sumerian liturgies where Tammuz is frequently invoked as ‘the Shepherd’.6

Independently of Egyptian or Babylonian influences, the imagination of the best of the Hebrew psalmists was fascinated by the same pastoral-religious idea, and this has inspired some haunting and familiar phrases—‘The Lord is my shepherd, therefore I shall lack nothing.’ These psalms may be the fountain-head of the parables in the New Testament that embody the spiritual-pastoral concept; later Christian art dealt lovingly with it, and our modern hierarchic institutions and liturgical phrases reflect it.

We may say, then, that the pastoral period and the nature-religion attaching to it have left their impress on the human imagination, prompting it to develop the attributes of loving-kindness and tenderness as essential to the character of the deity.

But more constructive in shaping and fixing the forms and thoughts of higher religion has been the influence of the settled agricultural society, which was the necessary basis for a more complex civilization and for the emergence of a more complex and stronger human individuality. Nowhere has this influence been more clearly and forcibly set forth than in Payne's History of the New World in regard to Mexican and Peruvian religion.7 We may trace it round the world, but it must suffice here to give the most salient examples of it from the Zarathustrian gospel and from Hellenic religion. As Moulton has clearly shown, Zarathustra in his original message to his people closely associated his higher religious revelation and higher morality with the settled agricultural life; for at the outset of his career he was an enemy of the warlike and lawless nomads that harried the borders of his people and an enemy of their gods. One of the quaintest and one of the most moving of the Gathas is the Yasna or lyrical drama8 in which the soul of the ox pleads before Ahura for a protector against outrage and rapine, and Ahura appoints Zarathustra and arms him with power to ‘drive off violence together with the followers of the Lie’; whom we may call the Kurds or the Turanians. And in other Gathas the truth is emphasized that ‘he that is no husbandman has no part in the good message’.9 ‘For the cattle Mazdāh Ahura made the plants to grow at the birth of the First Life, through Right;’10 and Ahura is invoked as he who ‘didst create the Ox and Waters and Plants, Welfare and Immortality’.11 In the later Vendidad we have an interesting colloquy between the prophet and Ahura: he asks the High God: ‘What is the food that fills the religion of Mazda?’ God answers him: ‘it is sowing corn again and again, O Spitama Zarathustra. He who sows corn, sows Righteousness: he makes the religion of Mazda walk: he suckles the religion of Mazda.’ ‘When barley was created, the Daevas (the demons) started up (?): when it grew, then fainted the Daevas' hearts.’12 In regard to Greek religion, which reflects more vividly than any other that has been recorded the political and social economy of the people, the close association of the agrarian life with higher religion is strikingly illustrated by the history of the Eleusinian mysteries, which, in origin a purely agrarian ritual according to probability, become a source of real religious influence in Hellenic life. And the immemorial connexion between agriculture and a higher morality is exemplified by the record preserved concerning those officials at Athens who performed the yearly ritual of ‘the sacred ploughing’ and were called Bouzugai or Ox-yokers, and who conducted at the same time a commination-service cursing those who refused to share with others water and fire and those who refused to direct wanderers on their way.13 We have also clear testimony from classical writers of their belief that Demeter the corn-goddess guarded and inspired the life of civilization. Callimachus speaks of her as ‘the deity who gave pleasing ordinances to cities’; and Calvus describes her as ‘she who taught men holy laws and joined loving bodies in wedlock and founded great cities’.14

We can well appreciate the profound impress of the agricultural life on religion when we imagine what the change from the wild wood and the shifting nomadic life to the settled homestead meant for early man. It gave him the ordered happiness of the family and family-rites; it gave him the opportunity and resources for the erection of permanent shrines and the development of the ancestral cult of the dead; it humanized his concept of divinity, inducing him to believe more devoutly in his Gods' beneficence and law-abiding supervision of mankind; it turned his thoughts away from war and converted some at least of his war-gods into milder deities of the harvest;15 and it deepened his sense of dependence on the unseen powers that control the operations of nature.

It might be supposed that a pure nature-religion worked out to its logical consequences would lead to a system of dualism of good and evil gods; for the maleficent and destructive forces in nature seem as obvious as the beneficent. But the history of such cults does not bear this out. The only developed dualism in the higher religions of the world is in the later Mazdeism of Persia, wherein the whole sphere of plants and animals was divided and apportioned between a good and an evil god; and Ahura and Ahriman, the two deities concerned, are not in the strict sense nature-divinities. But the question concerning the evil in the world and in the life of man must be reserved for a later discussion.

Another question of interest may arise in regard to nature-cults, whether, namely, they assisted or retarded the emergence of the belief in a creator-god, by whose fiat or act of will the whole cosmos arose. Looking at the facts of our record, we discern that only in a very few of the more advanced religions has the idea of cosmic creativeness been attached as a primary function or as an essential attribute to the High God. It is scarcely discernible in Hellenic, and only confusedly and inconsistently in Vedic polytheisms;16 in Greek and Indian mythology the cosmos was not created by any High God, but the gods themselves were evolved in the process of the ages; Zeus in a spiritual sense was the father of gods and men, but in no sense their creator. Babylonian mythology contains indeed a creation-myth, relating how Marduk fashioned the world from the blood of Tiamit; but the story is not in the forefront of Babylonian mythology, and it is well to note in passing that Marduk is not proved to be a nature-god at all. The deities who have played the august role of creators in the world's theology have been the High Powers of the three monotheisms, Jahwé, Allah, and Ahura; and these are not nature-gods but moral and spiritual personalities; and the same may be said of the creator-gods of whom traces have been found in the old Chinese and in Mexican religions. Only in Egypt we are confronted with a marked exception; Ré, the sun-god, in documents of the 9th and the 10th dynasties is said ‘to have made heaven and earth at men's desire; and again, ‘his men are his own images proceeding from his flesh’.17

In spite of this exception we may draw the induction that this leading dogma of our theology, which is regarded as essential to the true concept of divinity, has not come to us as a tradition from nature-religion, and was not one that was easy to evolve or maintain at that level of thought when the various elements and forces of the natural world were conceived as personal deities. Nature-worship is generally polytheistic, and the cosmic theory natural to it is pluralistic, the world of nature presenting a complex of manifold phenomena; and if the deities who presided over the different departments were creative at all, their creative activity would be limited to their several spheres; nor would the theory naturally arise of a single cosmic creation as the aboriginal act of a single divine power. If and when at last among a people of high intelligence such as the Ionians the great idea of the unity of the cosmos arose, the belief in the reality of these personal deities of the polytheism would tend to fade before the light of a new-born physical science.

The help that men derived from pure nature-worship may well have been chiefly the sense of the nearness to themselves of a beneficent deity who worked and moved in the sources and elements of their own terrestrial life. His deep attachment to his own homestead, his own valley, woodland, and river, was blent in the Hellene with his cults of the nymphs and the river-gods. We have proof of the passionate religious emotion that the life-giving Nile awakened in the heart of the Egyptian. But so long as the deities were immersed in the natural object or phenomenon, the river, the fire, the storm, the cloud, or the wind, it was difficult for the religious imagination to clothe them with the ethical and spiritual attributes essential to higher religion. It is true that this might here and there be achieved for the sun-god who impersonated the most glorious of all things in the material world. But the God of the highest spiritual monotheism of the world, Jahwé, was one who even in the days of the earliest belief in him ‘was not in the wind’ and ‘was not in the earthquake’.

Yet we have lost something by this aloofness of our Hebraic and Christian God from the immediate world of nature around us; we have lost the old Pagan sense of the divinity of those things on which our physical life depends and some of the joie de vivre that goes with that sense. It may be open to us to recapture a portion of it according as we have the power to deepen or to subtilize our religious imagination.

But the material nourishment of that old-world religion is passing away. Our last economic phase in which we are living is industrialism. Though not yet two centuries old, it has obliterated most of the sanctities and amenities of the older life which gave sustenance to the religious sense. In overlaying the beauty and healthful purity of our world of nature with ugliness, noise, and dirt, it has destroyed two deep springs of religious feeling. In the great centres of industrialism the emotions evoked by the kind of life led there seem for the most part anti-religious and the aesthetic nature-sense is atrophied. Therefore if religion is to recover its hold upon them, it can only be an ethical and spiritual religion borrowing nothing from nature-worship, unless indeed by some effort we can regain for nature what industrialism has destroyed.

  • 1.

    C. D. Gray, The Samas Religious Texts (Brit. Mus.), Hymn 1.

  • 2.

    Breasted's translation, op. cit. p. 325.

  • 3.

    Breasted, op. cit. pp. 347 and 351.

  • 4.
    Greece and Babylon, pp. 196–7.
  • 5.

    Breasted, op. cit. p. 211.

  • 6.
    Greece and Babylon, p. 105.
  • 7.

    Vol. 1, Agriculture and Religion, pp. 389–489.

  • 8.

    Moulton, Early Zoroastrianism, p. 346.

  • 9.
    Op. cit. p. 353.
  • 10.
    Op. cit. p. 379, Yasna 48.
  • 11.

    p. 385, Yasna 51.

  • 12.

    Darmesteter, Sacred Books of the East, iv. 1, pp. 30–1.

  • 13.
    Paroemiographi Graeci (Gaisford), p. 25; cf. Cults of the Greek States, 3, p. 78.
  • 14.
    Op. cit. p. 75.
  • 15.

    This appears true of the Mexican war-god (Payne, op. cit. 1, p. 486).

  • 16.

    Vide Macdonell, Vedic Mythology (ad init.).

  • 17.

    Vide A. M. Blackman, Nature, 1923, ‘Sun-Cult in Ancient Egypt’.

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