The Savage Conception of Death
The subject of these lectures is the belief in immortality and the worship of the dead.
LAST day I explained the subject of which I propose to treat and the method which I intend to follow in these lectures. I shall describe the belief in immortality or rather in the continued existence of the human soul after death as that belief is found among certain of the lower races and I shall give some account of the religion which has been based upon it. That religion is in brief a propitiation or worship of the human dead who according to the degree of power ascribed to them by the living are supposed to vary in dignity from the humble rank of a mere common ghost up to the proud position of deity. The elements of such a worship appear to exist among all races of men though in some they have been much more highly developed than in others.
But before I address myself to the description of particular races I wish in this and the following lecture to give you some general account of the beliefs of savages concerning the nature and origin of death. The problem of death has very naturally exercised the minds of men in all ages. Unlike so many problems which interest only a few solitary thinkers this one concerns us all alike since simpletons as well as sages must die and even the most heedless and feather-brained can hardly help sometimes asking themselves what comes after death. The question is therefore thrust in a practical indeed importunate form on our attention; and we need not wonder that in the long history of human speculation some of the highest intellects should have occupied themselves with it and sought to find an answer to the riddle. Some of their solutions of the problem though dressed out in all the beauty of exquisite language and poetic imagery singularly resemble the rude guesses of savages. So little it would seem do the natural powers even of the greatest minds avail to pierce the thick veil that hides the end of life.
The problem of death is one of universal interest.
In saying that the problem is thrust home upon us all I do not mean to imply that all men are constantly or even often engaged in meditating on the nature and origin of death. Far from it. Few people trouble themselves about that or any other purely abstract question: the common man would probably not give a straw for an answer to it. What he wants to know what we all want to know is whether death is the end of all things for the individual whether our conscious personality perishes with the body or survives it for a time or for eternity. That is the enigma propounded to every human being who has been born into the world: that is the door at which so many enquirers have knocked in vain. Stated in this limited form the problem has indeed been of universal interest: there is no race of men known to us which has not pondered the mystery and arrived at some conclusions to which it more or less confidently adheres. Not that all races have paid an equal attention to it. On some it has weighed much more heavily than on others. While some races like some individuals take death almost lightly and are too busy with the certainties of the present world to pay much heed to the uncertainties of a world to come the minds of others have dwelt on the prospect of a life beyond the grave till the thought of it has risen with them to a passion almost to an obsession and has begotten a contempt for the fleeting joys of this ephemeral existence by comparison with the hoped-for bliss of an eternal existence hereafter. To the sceptic examining the evidence for immortality by the cold light of reason such peoples and such individuals may seem to sacrifice the substance for the shadow: to adopt a homely comparison they are like the dog in the fable who dropped the real leg of mutton from his mouth in order to snap at its reflection in the water. Be that as it may where such beliefs and hopes are entertained in full force the whole activity of the mind and the whole energy of the body are apt to be devoted to a preparation for a blissful or at all events an untroubled eternity and life becomes in the language of Plato a meditation or practising of death. This excessive preoccupation with a problematic future has been a fruitful source of the most fatal aberrations both for nations and individuals. In pursuit of these visionary aims the few short years of life have been frittered away: wealth has been squandered: blood has been poured out in torrents: the natural affections have been stifled; and the cheerful serenity of reason has been exchanged for the melancholy gloom of madness.
“Oh threats of Hell and Hoes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain—This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”
The belief in immortality general among mankind.
The question whether our conscious personality survives after death has been answered by almost all races of men in the affirmative. On this point sceptical or agnostic peoples are nearly if not wholly unknown. Accordingly if abstract truth could be determined like the gravest issues of national policy by a show of hands or a counting of heads the doctrine of human immortality or at least of a life after death would deserve to rank among the most firmly established of truths; for were the question put to the vote of the whole of mankind there can be no doubt that the ayes would have it by an overwhelming majority. The few dissenters would be overborne; their voices would be drowned in the general roar. For dissenters there have been even among savages. The Tongans for example thought that only the souls of noblemen are saved the rest perish with their bodies.1
However this aristocratic view has never been popular and is not likely to find favour in our democratic age.
Belief of many savages that they would never die if their lives were not cut short by sorcery.
Belief of the Abipones.
But many savage races not only believe in a life after death; they are even of opinion that they would never die at all if it were not for the maleficent arts of sorcerers who cut the vital thread prematurely short. In other words they disbelieve in what we call a natural death; they think that all men are naturally immortal in this life and that every death which takes place is in fact a violent death inflicted by the hand of a human enemy though in many cases the foe is invisible and works his fell purpose not by a sword or a spear but by magic. Thus the Abipones a now extinct tribe of horse Indians in Paraguay used to allege that they would be immortal and that none of them would ever die if only the Spaniards and the sorcerers could be banished from America; for they were in the habit of attributing every death whatever its cause either to the baleful arts of sorcerers or to the firearms of the Spaniards. Even if a man died riddled with wounds with his bones smashed or through the exhaustion of old age these Indians would all deny that the wounds or old age was the cause of his death; they firmly believed that the death was brought about by magic and they would make careful enquiries to discover the sorcerer who had cast the fatal spell on their comrade. The relations of the deceased would move every stone to detect and punish the culprit; and they imagined that they could do this by cutting out the heart and tongue of the dead man and throwing them to a dog to be devoured. They thought that this in some way killed the wicked magician who had killed their friend. For example it happened that in a squabble between two men about a horse a third man who tried to make peace between the disputants was mortally wounded by their spears and died in a few days. To us it might seem obvious that the peacemaker was killed by the spear-wounds which he had received but none of the Abipones would admit such a thing for a moment. They stoutly affirmed that their comrade had been done to death by the magical arts of some person unknown and their suspicions fell on a certain old woman known to be a witch to whom the deceased had lately refused to give a water-melon and who out of spite had killed him by her spells though he appeared to the European eye to have died of a spear-wound.2
Belief of the Araucanians.
Similarly the warlike Araucanians of Chili are said to disbelieve in natural death. Even if a man dies peaceably at the age of a hundred they still think that he has been bewitched by an enemy. A diviner or medicine-man is consulted in order to discover the culprit. Some of these wizards enjoy a great reputation and the Indians will send a hundred miles or more to get the opinion of an eminent member of the profession. In such cases they submit to him some of the remains of the dead man for example his eyebrows his nails his tongue or the soles of his feet and from an examination of these relics the man of skill pronounces on the author of the death. The person whom he accuses is hunted down and killed sometimes by fire amid the yells of an enraged crowd.3
Belief of the Bakaïri.
When the eminent German anthropologist was questioning a Bakaïri Indian of Brazil as to the language of his tribe he gave the sentence “Every man must die” to be translated into the Bakaïri language. To his astonishment the Indian remained long silent. The same long pause always occurred when an abstract proposition with which he was unfamiliar was put before the Indian for translation into his native tongue. On the present occasion the enquirer learned that the Indian has no idea of necessity in the abstract and in particular he has no conception at all of the necessity of death. The cause of death in his opinion is invariably an ill turn done by somebody to the deceased. If there were only good men in the world he thinks that there would be neither sickness nor death. He knows nothing about a natural end of the vital process; he believes that all sickness and disease are the effects of witchcraft.4
Belief of the Indians of Guiana in sorcery as the cause of sickness and death.
Speaking of the Indians of Guiana an English missionary who knew them well says that the worst feature in their character is their proneness to blood revenge “by which a succession of retaliator murders may be kept up for a long time. It is closely connected with their system of sorcery which we shall presently consider. A person dies—and it is supposed that an enemy has secured the agency of an evil spirit to compass his death. Some sorcerer employed by the friends of the deceased for that purpose pretends by his incantations to discover the guilty individual or family or at any rate to indicate the quarter where they dwell. A near relative of the deceased is then charged with the work of vengeance. He becomes a kanaima
or is supposed to be possessed by the destroying spirit so called and has to live apart according to strict rule and submit to many privations until the deed of blood be accomplished. If the supposed offender cannot be slain some innocent member of his family—man woman or little child—must suffer instead.”5
The same writer tells us that these Indians of Guiana attribute sickness and death directly to the agency of certain evil spirits called yauhahu
who delight in inflicting miseries upon mankind. Pain in the language of the Arawaks (one of the best-known tribes of Guiana) is called yauhahu simaira
or “the evil spirit's arrow.”6
It is these evil spirits whom wicked sorcerers employ to accomplish their fell purpose. Thus while the demon is the direct cause of sickness and death the sorcerer who uses him as his tool is the indirect cause. The demon is thought to do his work by inserting some alien substance into the body of the sufferer and a medicine-man is employed to extract it by chanting an invocation to the maleficent spirit shaking his rattle and sucking the part of the patient's frame in which the cause of the malady is imagined to reside. “After many ceremonies he will produce from his mouth some strange substance such as a thorn or gravel-stone a fish-bone or bird's claw a snake's tooth or a piece of wire which some malicious yauhahu
is supposed to have inserted in the affected part. As soon as the patient fancies himself rid of this cause of his illness his recovery is generally rapid and the fame of the sorcerer greatly increased. Should death however ensue the blame is laid upon the evil spirit whose power and malignity have prevailed over the counteracting charms. Some rival sorcerer will at times come in for a share of the blame whom the sufferer has unhappily made his enemy and who is supposed to have employed the yauhahu
in destroying him. The sorcerers being supposed to have the power of causing as well as of curing diseases are much dreaded by the common people who never wilfully offend them. So deeply rooted in the Indian's bosom is this belief concerning the origin of diseases that they have little idea of sickness arising from other causes. Death may arise from a wound or a contusion or be brought on by want of food but in other cases it is the work of the yauhahu
or evil spirit.
Some deaths attributed to sorcery and others to evil spirits; practical consequence of this distinction.
In this account it is to be observed that while all natural deaths from sickness and disease are attributed to the direct action of evil spirits only some of them are attributed to the indirect action of sorcerers. The practical consequences of this theoretical distinction are very important. For whereas death by sorcery must in the opinion of savages be avenged by killing the supposed sorcerer death by the action of a demon cannot be so avenged; for how are you to get at the demon? Hence while every death by sorcery involves theoretically at least another death by violence death by a demon involves no such practical consequence. So far therefore the faith in sorcery is far more murderous than the faith in demons. This practical distinction is clearly recognised by these Indians of Guiana; for another writer who laboured among them as a missionary tells us that when a person dies a natural death the medicine-man is called upon to decide whether he perished through the agency of a demon or the agency of a sorcerer. If he decides that the deceased died through the malice of an evil spirit the body is quietly buried and no more is thought of the matter. But if the wizard declares that the cause of death was sorcery the corpse is closely inspected and if a blue mark is discovered it is pointed out as the spot where the invisible poisoned arrow discharged by the sorcerer entered the man. The next thing is to detect the culprit. For this purpose a pot containing a decoction of leaves is set to boil on a fire. When it begins to boil over the side on which the scum first falls is the quarter in which the supposed murderer is to be sought. A consultation is then held: the guilt is laid on some individual and one of the nearest relations of the deceased is charged with the duty of finding and killing him. If the imaginary culprit cannot be found any other member of his family may be slain in his stead. “It is not difficult to conceive” adds the writer “how under such circumstances no man's life is secure; whilst these by no means unfrequent murders must greatly tend to diminish the number of the natives.”8
Among the Indians of Guiana death is oftener attributed to sorcery than to demons.
However it would seem that among the Indians of Guiana sickness and death are oftener ascribed to the agency of sorcerers than to the agency of demons acting alone. For another high authority on these Indians Sir Everard F. im Thurn tells us that “every death every illness is regarded not as the result of natural law but as the work of a kenaima
” or sorcerer. “Often indeed” he adds “the survivors or the relatives of the invalid do not know to whom to attribute the deed which therefore perforce remains unpunished; but often again there is real or fancied reason to fix on some one as the kenaima
and then the nearest relative of the injured individual devotes himself to retaliate. Strange ceremonies are sometimes observed in order to discover the secret kenaima
. Richard Schomburgk describes a striking instance of this. A Macusi boy had died a natural death and his relatives endeavoured to discover the quarter to which the kenaima
who was supposed to have slain him belonged. Raising a terrible and monotonous dirge they carried the body to an open piece of ground and there formed a circle round it while the father cutting from the corpse both the thumbs and little fingers both the great and the little toes and a piece of each heel threw these pieces into a new pot which had been filled with water. A fire was kindled and on this the pot was placed. When the water began to boil according to the side on which one of the pieces was first thrown out from the pot by the bubbling of the water in that direction would the kenaima
be. In thus looking round to see who did the deed the Indian thinks it by no means necessary to fix on anyone who has been with or near the injured man. The kenaima
is supposed to have done the deed not necessarily in person but probably in spirit.”9
For these Indians believe that each individual man has a body and a spirit within it and that sorcerers can despatch their spirits out of their bodies to harm people at a distance. It is not always in an invisible form that these spirits of sorcerers are supposed to roam on their errands of mischief. The wizard can put his spirit into the shape of an animal such as a jaguar a serpent a sting-ray a bird an insect or anything else he pleases. Hence when an Indian is attacked by a wild beast he thinks that his real foe is not the animal but the sorcerer who has transformed himself into it. Curiously enough they look upon some small harmless birds in the same light. One little bird in particular which flits across the savannahs with a peculiar shrill whistle at morning and evening is regarded by the Indians with especial fear as a transformed sorcerer. They think that for every one of these birds that they shoot they have an enemy the less and they burn its little body taking great care that not even a single feather escapes to be blown about by the wind. On a windy day a dozen men and women have been seen chasing the floating feathers of these birds about the savannah in order utterly to extinguish the imaginary wizard. Even the foreign substance the stick bone or whatever it is which the good medicine-man pretends to suck from the body of the sufferer “is often if not always regarded not simply as a natural body but as the materialised form of a hostile spirit.”10
Belief of the Tinneh Indians in sorcery as cause of death.
Beliefs and practices of the same general character are reported to have formerly prevailed among the Tinneh or Déné Indians of North-west America. When any beloved or influential person died nobody we are told would think the each of attributing the death to natural causes; it was assumed that the demise was an effect of sorcery and the only difficulty was to ascertain the culprit. For that purpose the services of a shaman were employed. Rigged out in all his finery he would dance and sing then suddenly fall down and feign death or sleep. On awaking from the apparent trance he would denounce the sorcerer who had killed the deceased by his magic art and the denunciation generally proved the death-warrant of the accused.11
Belief of the Australian aborigines in sorcery as the cause of death.
Again similar beliefs and customs in regard to what we should call natural death appear to have prevailed universally amongst the aborigines of Australia and to have contributed very materially to thin the population. On this subject I will quote the words of an observer. His remarks apply to the Australian aborigines in general but to the tribes of Victoria in particular. He says: “The natives are much more numerous in some parts of Australia than they are in others but nowhere is the country thickly peopled; some dire disease occasionally breaks out among the natives and carries off large numbers.…But there are two other causes which in my opinion principally account for their paucity of numbers. The first is that infanticide is universally practised; the second that a belief exists that no one can die a natural death. Thus if an individual of a certain tribe dies his relatives consider that his death has been caused by sorcery on the part of another tribe. The deceased's sons or nearest relatives therefore start off on a bucceening
or murdering expedition. If the deceased is buried a fly or a beetle is put into the grave and the direction in which the insect wings its way when released is the one the avengers take. If the body is burnt the whereabouts of the offending parties is indicated by the direction of the smoke. The first unfortunates fallen in with are generally watched until they encamp for the night; when they are buried in sleep the murderers steal quietly up until they are within a yard or two of their victims rush suddenly upon and butcher them. On these occasions they always abstract the kidney-fat and also take off a piece of the skin of the thigh. These are carried home as trophies as the American Indians take the scalp. The murderers anoint their bodies with the fat of their victims thinking that by that process the strength of the deceased enters into them. Sometimes it happens that the bucceening
party come suddenly upon a man of a strange tribe in a tree hunting opossums; he is immediately speared and left weltering in his blood at the foot of the tree. The relatives of the murdered man at once proceed to retaliate; and thus a constant and never-ending series of murders is always going on.…I do not mean to assert that for every man that dies or is killed another is murdered; for it often happens that the deceased has no sons or relatives who care about avenging his death. At other times a bucceening
party will return without having met with any one; then again they are sometimes repelled by those they attack.”12
Belief of the natives of Western Australia in sorcery as a cause of death.
Belief of the tribes of Victoria and South Australia.
Again speaking of the tribes of Western Australia Sir George Grey tells us that “the natives do not allow that there is such a thing as a death from natural causes; they believe that were it not for murderers or the malignity of sorcerers they might live for ever; hence when a native dies from the effect of an accident or from some natural cause they use a variety of superstitious ceremonies to ascertain in what direction the sorcerer lives whose evil practices have brought about the death of their relative; this point being satisfactorily settled by friendly sorcerers they then attach the crime to some individual and the funeral obsequies are scarcely concluded ere they start to revenge their supposed wrongs.”13
Again speaking of the Watch-an-die tribe of Western Australia another writer tells us that they “possess the comfortable assurance that nearly all diseases and consequently deaths are caused by the enchantments of hostile tribes and that were it not for the malevolence of their enemies they would (with a few exceptions) live for ever. Consequently on the first approach of sickness their first endeavour is to ascertain whether the boollia
[magic] of their own tribe is not sufficiently potent to counteract that of their foes. Should the patient recover they are of course proud of the superiority of their enchantment over that of their enemies: but should the boollia
[magical influence] within the sick man prove stronger than their own as there is no help for it he must die the utmost they can do in this case is to revenge his death.”14
But the same writer qualifies this general statement as follows: “It is not true” he says “that the New Hollanders impute all
natural deaths to the boollia
[magic] of inimical tribes for in most cases of persons wasting visibly away before death they do not entertain the notion. It is chiefly in cases of sudden death or when the body of the deceased is fat and in good condition that this belief prevails and it is only in such contingencies that it becomes an imperative duty to have revenge.”15
Similarly speaking of the tribes of Victoria in the early days of European settlement among them the experienced observer Mr. James Dawson says that “natural deaths are generally—but not always—attributed to the malevolence and the spells of an enemy belonging to another tribe.”16
Again with regard to the Encounter Bay tribe of South Australia we read that “there are but few diseases which they regard as the consequences of natural causes; in general they consider them the effects of enchantment and produced by sorcerers.”17
Similarly of the Port Lincoln tribes in South Australia it is recorded that “in all cases of death that do not arise from old age wounds or other equally palpable causes the natives suspect that unfair means have been practised; and even where the cause of death is sufficiently plain they sometimes will not content themselves with it but have recourse to an imaginary one as the following case will prove:—A woman had been bitten by a black snake across the thumb in clearing out a well; she began to swell directly and was a corpse in twenty-four hours; yet another woman who had been present when the accident occurred stated that the deceased had named a certain native as having caused her death. Upon this statement which was in their opinion corroborated by the circumstance that the snake had drawn no blood from the deceased her husband and other friends had a fight with the accused party and his friends; a reconciliation however took place afterwards and it was admitted on the part of the aggressors that they had been in error with regard to the guilty individual; but nowise more satisfied as to the bite of the snake being the true cause of the woman's death another party was now suddenly discovered to be the real offender and accordingly war was made upon him and his partisans till at last the matter was dropped and forgotten. From this case as well as from frequent occurrences of a similar nature it appears evident that thirst for revenge has quite as great a share in these foul accusations as superstition.”18
Other testimonies as to the belief of the natives of South Australia and Victoria.
However other experienced observers of the Australian aborigines admit no such limitations and exceptions to the native theory that death is an effect of sorcery. Thus in regard to the Narrinyeri tribe of South Australia the Rev. George Taplin who knew them intimately for years says that “no native regards death as natural but always as the result of sorcery.”19
Again to quote Mr. R. Brough Smyth who has collected much information on the tribes of Victoria: “Mr. Daniel Bunce an intelligent observer and a gentleman well acquainted with the habits of the blacks says that no tribe that he has ever met with believes in the possibility of a man dying a natural death. If a man is taken ill it is at once assumed that some member of a hostile tribe has stolen some of his hair. This is quite enough to cause serious illness. If the man continues sick and gets worse it is assumed that the hair has been burnt by his enemy. Such an act they say is sufficient to imperil his life. If the man dies it is assumed that the thief has choked his victim and taken away his kidney-fat. When the grave is being dug one or more of the older men—generally doctors or conjurors (Buk-na-look
)—stand by and attentively watch the laborers; and if an insect is thrown out of the ground these old men observe the direction which it takes and having determined the line two of the young men relations of the deceased are despatched in the path indicated with instructions to kill the first native they meet who they are assured and believe is the person directly chargeable with the crime of causing the death of their relative. Mr. John Green says that the men of the Yarra tribe firmly believe that no one ever dies a natural death. A man or a woman dies because of the wicked arts practised by some member of a hostile tribe; and they discover the direction in which to search for the slayer by the movements of a lizard which is seen immediately after the corpse is interred.”20
Again speaking of the aborigines of Victoria another writer observes: “All deaths from natural causes are attributed to the machinations of enemies who are supposed to have sought for and burned the excrement of the intended victim which according to the general belief causes a gradual wasting away. The relatives therefore watch the struggling feet of the dying person as they point in the direction whence the injury is thought to come and serve as a guide to the spot where it should be avenged. This is the duty of the nearest male relative; should he fail in its execution it will ever be to him a reproach although other relatives may have avenged the death. If the deceased were a chief then the duty devolves upon the tribe. Chosen men are sent in the direction indicated who kill the first persons they meet whether men women or children; and the more lives that are sacrificed the greater is the honour to the dead.”21
Again in his account of the Kurnai tribe of Victoria the late Dr. A. W. Howitt remarks: “It is not difficult to see how among savages who have no knowledge of the real causes of diseases which are the common lot of humanity the very suspicion even of such a thing as death from disease should be unknown. Death by accident they can imagine; death by violence they can imagine; but I question if they can in their savage condition imagine death by mere disease. Rheumatism is believed to be produced by the machinations of some enemy. Seeing a Tatungolung very lame I asked him what was the matter? He said ‘Some fellow has put bottle
in my foot.’ I asked him to let me see it. I found he was probably suffering from acute rheumatism. He explained that some enemy must have found his foot track and have buried in it a piece of broken bottle. The magic influence he believed caused it to enter his foot.…Phthisis pneumonia bowel complaints and insanity are supposed to be produced by an evil spiri—Brewin—‘who is like the wind’ and who entering his victims can only be expelled by suitable incantations.…Thus the belief arises that death occurs only from accident open violence or secret magic; and naturally that the latter can only be met by counter-charms.”22
Belief of the aborigines of New South Wales in sorcery as the cause of sickness and death.
The beliefs and practices of the aborigines of New South Wales in respect of death were similar. Thus we are told by a well-informed writer that “the natives do not believe in death from natural causes; therefore all sickness is attributed to the agency of sorcery and counter charms are used to destroy its effect.…As a man's death is never supposed to have occurred naturally except as the result of accident or from a wound in battle the first thing to be done when a death occurs is to endeavour to find out the person whose spells have brought about the calamity. In the Wathi-Wathi tribe the corpse is asked by each relative in succession to signify by some sign the person who has caused his death. Not receiving an answer they watch in which direction a bird flies after having passed over the deceased. This is considered an indication that the sorcerer is to be found in that direction. Sometimes the nearest relative sleeps with his head on the corpse which causes him they think to dream of the murderer. There is however a good deal of uncertainty about the proceedings which seldom result in more than a great display of wrath and of vowing of vengeance against some member of a neighbouring tribe. Unfortunately this is not always the case the man who is supposed to have exercised the death spell being sometimes waylaid and murdered in a most cruel manner.”23
With regard to the great Kamilaroi tribe of New South Wales we read that “in some parts of the country a belief prevails that death through disease is in many if not in all cases the result of an enemy's malice. It is a common saying when illness or death comes that some one has thrown his belt (boor
) at the victim. There are various modes of fixing upon the murderer. One is to let an insect fly from the body of the deceased and see towards whom it goes. The person thus singled out is doomed.”24
Belief of the aborigines of Central Australia in sorcery as the cause of death.
Speaking of the tribes of Central Australia Messrs. Spencer and Gillen observe that “in the matter of morality their code differs radically from ours but it cannot be denied that their conduct is governed by it and that any known breaches are dealt with both surely and severely. In very many cases there takes place what the white man not seeing beneath the surface not unnaturally describes as secret murder but in reality revolting though such slaughter may be to our minds at the present day it is simply exactly on a par with the treatment accorded to witches not so very long ago in European countries. Every case of such secret murder when one or more men stealthily stalk their prey with the object of killing him is in reality the exacting of a life for a life the accused person being indicated by the so-called medicine-man as one who has brought about the death of another man by magic and whose life must therefore be forfeited. It need hardly be pointed out what a potent element this custom has been in keeping down the numbers of the tribe; no such thing as natural death is realised by the native; a man who dies has of necessity been killed by some other man or perhaps even by a woman and sooner or later that man or woman will be attacked. In the normal condition of the tribe every death meant the killing of another individual.”25
Belief of the natives of the Torres Straits Islands and New Guinea in sorcery as the cause of death.
Passing from Australia to other savage lands we learn that according to the belief of the Torres Straits Islanders all sickness and death were due to sorcery.26
The natives of Mowat or Mawatta in British New Guinea “do not believe in a natural death but attribute even the decease of an old man to the agency of some enemy known or unknown.”27
In the opinion of the tribes about Hood Peninsula in British New Guinea no one dies a natural death. Every such death is caused by the evil magic either of a living sorcerer or of a dead relation.28
Of the Roro-speaking tribes of British New Guinea Dr. Seligmann writes that “except in the case of old folk death is not admitted to occur without some obvious cause such as a spear-thrust. Therefore when vigorous and active members of the community die it becomes necessary to explain their fate and such deaths are firmly believed to be produced by sorcery. Indeed as far as I have been able to ascertain the Papuasian of this district regards the existence of sorcery not as has been alleged as a particularly terrifying and horrible affair but as a necessary and inevitable condition of existence in the world as he knows it.”29
Amongst the Yabim of German New Guinea “every case of death even though it should happen accidentally as by the fall of a tree or the bite of a shark is laid at the door of the sorcerers. They are blamed even for the death of a child. If it is said that a little child never hurt anybody and therefore cannot have an enemy the reply is that the intention was to injure the mother and that the malady had been transferred to the infant through its mother's milk.”30
Belief of the Melanesians in sorcery as the cause of sickness and death.
Again in the island of Malo one of the New Hebrides a Catholic missionary reports that according to a belief deeply implanted in the native mind every disease is the effect of witchcraft and that nobody dies a natural death but only as a consequence of violence poison or sorcery31
Similarly in New Georgia one of the Solomon Islands when a person is sick the natives think that he must be bewitched by a man or woman for in their opinion nobody can be sick or die unless he is bewitched; what we call natural sickness and death are impossible. In case of illness suspicion falls on some one who is supposed to have buried a charmed object with intent to injure the sufferer.32
Of the Melanesians who inhabit the coast of the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain it is said that all deaths by sickness or disease are attributed by them to the witchcraft of a sorcerer and a diviner is called in to ascertain the culprit who by his evil magic has destroyed their friends.33
“Amongst the Melanesians few if any are believed to die from natural causes only; if they are not killed in war they are supposed to die from the effects of witchcraft or magic. Whenever any one was sick his friends made anxious inquiries as to the person who had bewitched (agara'd
) him. Some one would generally be found to admit that he had buried some portion of food or something belonging to the sick man which had caused his illness. The friends would pay him to dig it up and after that the patient would generally get well. If however he did not recover it was assumed that some other person had also agara'd
The belief of the Malagasy in sorcery as a cause of death.
Speaking of the Malagasy a Catholic missionary tells us that in Madagascar nobody dies a natural death. With the possible exception of centenarians everybody is supposed to die the victim of the sorcerer's diabolic art. If a relation of yours dies the people comfort you by saying “Cursed be the sorcerer who caused his death!” If your horse falls down a precipice and breaks its back the accident has been caused by the malicious look of a sorcerer. If your dog dies of hydrophobia or your horse of a carbuncle the cause is still the same. If you catch a fever in a district where malaria abounds the malady is still ascribed to the art of the sorcerer who has insinuated some deadly substances into your body.35
Again speaking of the Sakalava a tribe in Madagascar an eminent French authority on the island observes: “They have such a faith in the power of talismans that they even ascribe to them the power of killing their enemies. When they speak of poisoning they do not allude as many Europeans wrongly suppose to death by vegetable or mineral poisons; the reference is to charms or spells. They often throw under the bed of an enemy an ahouli
[talisman] praying it to kill him and they are persuaded that sooner or later their wish will be accomplished. I have often been present at bloody vendettas which had no other origin but this. The Sakalava think that a great part of the population dies of poison in this way. In their opinion only old people who have attained the extreme limits of human longevity die a natural death.”36
Belief of African tribes in sorcery as the cause of sickness and death.
In Africa similar beliefs are widely spread and lead as elsewhere to fatal consequences. Thus the Kagoro of Northern Nigeria refuse to believe in death from natural causes; all illnesses and deaths in their opinion are brought about by black magic however old and decrepit the deceased may have been. They explain sickness by saying that a man's soul wanders from his body in sleep and may then be caught detained and even beaten with a stick by some evil-wisher; whenever that happens the man naturally falls ill. Sometimes an enemy will abstract the patient's liver by magic and carry it away to a cave in a sacred grove where he will devour it in company with other wicked sorcerers. A witch-doctor is called in to detect the culprit and whomever he denounces is shut up in a room where a fire is kindled and pepper thrown into it; and there he is kept in the fumes of the burning pepper till he confesses his guilt and returns the stolen liver upon which of course the sick man recovers. But should the patient die the miscreant who did him to death by kidnapping his soul or his liver will be sold as a slave or choked.37
In like manner the Bakerewe who inhabit the largest island in the Victoria Nyanza lake believe that all deaths and all ailments however trivial are the effect of witchcraft; and the person generally an old woman whom the witch-doctor accuses of having cast the spell on the patient is tied up severely beaten or stabbed to death on the spot.38
Again we are told that “the peoples of the Congo do not believe in a natural death not even when it happens through drowning or any other accident. Whoever dies is the victim of witchcraft or of a spell. His soul has been eaten. He must be avenged by the punishment of the person who has committed the crime.” Accordingly when a death has taken place the medicine-man is sent for to discover the criminal. He pretends to be possessed by a spirit and in this state he names the wretch who has caused the death by sorcery. The accused has to submit to the poison ordeal by drinking a decoction of the red bark of the Erythrophloeum guiniense
. If he vomits up the poison he is innocent; but if he fails to do so the infuriated crowd rushes on him and despatches him with knives and clubs. The family of the supposed culprit has moreover to pay an indemnity to the family of the supposed victims.39
“Death in the opinion of the natives is never due to a natural cause. It is always the result either of a crime or of sorcery and is followed by the poison ordeal which has to be undergone by an innocent person whom the fetish-man accuses from selfish motives.”40
Effect of such beliefs in thinning the population by causing multitudes to die for the imaginary crime of sorcery.
Evidence of the same sort could be multiplied for West Africa where the fear of sorcery is rampant.41
But without going into further details I wish to point out the disastrous effects which here as elsewhere this theory of death has produced upon the population. For when a death from natural causes takes place the author of the death being to of course unknown suspicion often falls on a number of people all of whom are obliged to submit to the poison ordeal in order to prove their innocence with the result that some or possibly all of them perish. A very experienced American missionary in West Africa the Rev. R. H. Nassau the friend of the late Miss Mary H. Kingsley tells us that for every person who dies a natural death at least one and often ten or more have been executed on an accusation of witchcraft.42
Andrew Battel a native of Essex who lived in Angola for many years at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century informs us that “in this country none on any account dieth but they kill another for him: for they believe they die not their own natural death but that some other has bewitched them to death. And all those are brought in by the friends of the dead whom they suspect; so that there many times come five hundred men and women to take the drink made of the foresaid root imbando
. They are brought all to the high-street or market-place and there the master of the imbando
sits with his water and gives every one a cup of water by one measure; and they are commanded to walk in a certain place till they make water and then they are free. But he that cannot urine presently falls down and all the people great and small fall upon him with their knives and beat and cut him into pieces. But I think the witch that gives the water is partial and gives to him whose death is desired the strongest water but no man of the bye-standers can perceive it. This is done in the town of Longo almost every week throughout the year.”43
A French official tells us that among the Neyaux of the Ivory Coast similar beliefs and practices were visibly depopulating the country every single natural death causing the death of four or five persons by the poison ordeal which consisted in drinking the decoction of a red bark called by the natives boduru
. At the death of a chief fifteen men and women perished in this way. The French Government had great difficulty in suppressing the ordeal; for the deluded natives firmly believed in the justice of the test and therefore submitted to it willingly in the full consciousness of their innocence.44
In the neighbourhood of Calabar the poison ordeal which here consists in drinking a decoction of a certain bean the Physostigma venenosum
of botanists has had similar disastrous results as we learn from the testimony of a missionary the Rev. Hugh Goldie. He tells us that the people have firm faith in the ordeal and therefore not only accept it readily but appeal to it convinced that it will demonstrate their innocence. A small tribe named Uwet in the hill-country of Calabar almost swept itself off the face of the earth by its constant use of the ordeal. On one occasion the whole population drank the poison to prove themselves pure as they said; about half perished “and the remnant” says Mr. Goldie “still continuing their superstitious practice must soon become extinct.”45
The words were written a good many years ago and it is probable that by this time these poor fanatics have actually succeeded in exterminating themselves. So fatal may be the practical consequences of a purely speculative error; for it is to be remembered that these disasters flow directly from a mistaken theory of death.
General conclusion as to the belief in sorcery as the great cause of death.
Much more evidence of the same kind could be adduced but without pursuing the theme further I think we may lay it down as a general rule that at a certain stage of social and intellectual evolution men have believed themselves to be naturally immortal in this life and have regarded death by disease or even by accident or violence as an unnatural event which has been brought about by sorcery and which must be avenged by the death of the sorcerer. If that has been so we seem bound to conclude that a belief in magic or sorcery has had a most potent influence in keeping down the numbers of savage tribes; since as a rule every natural death has entailed at least one often several sometimes many deaths by violence. This may help us to understand what an immense power for evil the world-wide faith in magic or sorcery has been among men.
But some savages have attributed death to other causes than sorcery.
But even savages come in time to perceive that deaths are sometimes brought about by other causes than sorcery. We have seen that some of them admit extreme old age accidents and violence as causes of death which are independent of sorcery. The admission of these exceptions to the general rule certainly marks a stage of intellectual progress. I will give a few more instances of such admissions before concluding this part of my subject.
Some savages dissect the corpse to ascertain whether death was due to natural causes or to sorcery.
In the first place certain savage tribes are reported to dissect the bodies of their dead in order to ascertain from an examination of the corpse whether the deceased died a natural death or perished by magic. This is reported by Mr. E. R. Smith concerning the Araucanians of Chili who according to other writers as we saw46
believe all deaths to be due to sorcery. Mr. Smith tells us that after death the services of the machi
or medicine-man “are again required especially if the deceased be a person of distinction. The body is dissected and examined. If the liver be found in a healthy state the death is attributed to natural causes; but if the liver prove to be inflamed it is supposed to indicate the machinations of some evil-intentioned persons and it rests with the medicine-man to discover the conspirator. This is accomplished by much the same means that were used to find out the nature of the disease. The gall is extracted put in the magic drum and after various incantations taken out and placed over the fire in a pot carefully covered; if after subjecting the gall to a certain amount of roasting a stone is found in the bottom of the pot it is declared to be the means by which death was produced. These stones as well as the frogs spiders arrows or whatever else may be extracted from the sick man are called Huecuvu
—the ‘Evil One.’ By aid of the Huecuvu
[medicine-man] throws himself into a trance in which state he discovers and announces the person guilty of the death and describes the manner in which it was produced.”47
Again speaking of the Pahouins a tribe of the Gaboon region in French Congo a Catholic missionary writes thus: “It is so rare among the Pahouins that a death is considered natural! Scarcely has the deceased given up the ghost when the sorcerer appears on the scene. With three cuts of the knife one transverse and two lateral he dissects the breast of the corpse and turns down the skin on the face. Then he grabbles in the breast examines the bowels attentively marks the last muscular contractions and thereupon pronounces whether the death was natural or not.” If he decides that the death was due to sorcery the suspected culprit has to submit to the poison ordeal in the usual manner to determine his guilt or innocence.48
The possibility of natural death admitted by the Melanesians.
Another savage people who have come to admit the possibility of merely natural death are the Melanesians of the New Hebrides and other parts of Central Melanesia. Amongst them “any sickness that is serious is believed to be brought about by ghosts or spirits; common complaints such as fever and ague are taken as coming in the course of nature. To say that savages are never ill without supposing a supernatural cause is not true of Melanesians; they make up their minds as the sickness comes whether it is natural or not and the more important the individual who is sick the more likely his sickness is to be ascribed to the anger of ghost whom he has offended or to witchcraft. No great man would like to be told that he was ill by natural weakness or decay. The sickness is almost always believed to be caused by a ghost not by a spirit.…Generally it is to the ghosts of the dead that sickness is ascribed in the eastern islands as well as in the western; recourse is had to them for aid in causing and removing sickness; and ghosts are believed to inflict sickness not only because some offence such as a trespass has been committed against them or because one familiar with them has sought their aid with sacrifice and spells but because there is a certain malignity in the feeling of all ghosts towards the living who offend them by being alive.”49
From this account we learn first that the Melanesians admit some deaths by common diseases such as fever and ague to be natural; and second that they recognise ghosts and spirits as well as sorcerers and witches among the causes of death; indeed they hold that ghosts are the commonest of all causes of sickness and death.
The possibility of natural death admitted by the Caffres of South Africa.
The same causes of death are recognised also by the Caffres of South Africa as we learn from Mr. Dudley Kidd who tells us that according to the beliefs of the natives “to start with there is sickness which is supposed to be caused by the action of ancestral spirits or by fabulous monsters. Secondly there is sickness which is caused by the magical practices of some evil person who is using witchcraft in secret. Thirdly there is sickness which comes from neither of these causes and remains unexplained. It is said to be ‘only sickness and nothing more.’ This third form of sickness is I think the commonest. Yet most writers wholly ignore it or deny its existence. It may happen that an attack of indigestion is one day attributed to the action of witch or wizard; another day the trouble is put down to the account of ancestral spirits; on a third occasion the people may be at a loss to account for it and so may dismiss the problem by saying that it is merely sickness. It is quite common to hear natives say that they are at a loss to account for some special case of illness. At first they thought it was caused by an angry ancestral spirit; but a great doctor has assured them that it is not the result of such a spirit. They then suppose it to be due to the magical practices of some enemy; but the doctor negatives that theory. The people are therefore driven to the conclusion that the trouble has no ascertainable cause. In some cases they do not even trouble to consult a diviner; they speedily recognise the sickness as due to natural causes. In such a case it needs no explanation. If they think that some friend of theirs knows of a remedy they will try it on their own initiative or may even go off to a white man to ask for some of his medicine. They would never dream of doing this if they thought they were being influenced by magic or by ancestral spirits. The Kafirs quite recognise that there are types of disease which are inherited and have not been caused by magic or by ancestral spirits. They admit that some accidents are due to nothing but the patient's carelessness or stupidity. If a native gets his leg run over by a waggon the people will often say that it is all his own fault through being clumsy. In other cases with delightful inconsistency they may say that some one has been working magic to cause the accident. In short it is impossible to make out a theory of sickness which will satisfy our European conception of consistency.”50
The admission that death may be due to natural causes marks an intellectual advance.
The recognition of ghosts or spirits as a cause of disease apart from sorcery also marks a step in intellectual moral and social progress.
From the foregoing accounts we see that the Melanesians and the Caffres two widely different and widely separated races agree in recognising at least three distinct causes of what we should call natural death. These three causes are first sorcery or witchcraft; second ghosts or spirits; and third disease.51
That the recognition of disease in itself as a cause of death quite apart from sorcery marks an intellectual advance will not be disputed. It is not so clear though I believe it is equally true that the recognition of ghosts or recognition of ghosts or spirits as a cause of disease quite apart from witchcraft marks a real step in intellectual moral and social progress. In the first place it marks a step in intellectual and moral progress; for it recognises that effects which before had been ascribed to human agency spring from superhuman causes; and this recognition of powers in the universe superior to man is not only an intellectual gain but a moral discipline: it social teaches the important lesson of humility. In the second place it marks a step in social progress because when the blame of a death is laid upon a ghost or a spirit instead of on a sorcerer the death has not to be avenged by killing a human being the supposed author of the calamity. Thus the recognition of ghosts or spirits as the sources of sickness and death has as its immediate effect the sparing of an immense number of lives of men and women who on the theory of death by sorcery would have perished by violence to expiate their imaginary crime. That this is a great gain to society is obvious: it adds immensely to the security of human life by removing one of the most fruitful causes of its destruction.
It must be admitted however that the gain is not always as great as might be expected; the social advantages of a belief in ghosts and spirits are attended by many serious drawbacks. For while ghosts or spirits are commonly though not always supposed to be beyond the reach of human vengeance they are generally thought to be well within the reach of human persuasion flattery and bribery; in other words men think that they can appease and propitiate them by prayer and sacrifice; and while prayer is always cheap sacrifice may be very dear since it can and often does involve the destruction of an immense deal of valuable property and of a vast number of human lives. Yet if we could reckon up the myriads who have been slain in sacrifice to ghosts and gods it seems probable that they would fall far short of the untold multitudes who have perished as sorcerers and witches. For while human sacrifices in honour of deities or of the dead have been for the most part exceptional rather than regular only the great gods and the illustrious dead being deemed worthy of such costly offerings the slaughter of witches and wizards theoretically at least followed inevitably on every natural death among people who attributed all such deaths to sorcery. Hence if natural religion be defined roughly as a belief in superhuman spiritual beings and an attempt to propitiate them we may perhaps say that while natural religion has slain its thousands magic has slain its ten thousands. But there are strong reasons for inferring that in the history of society an Age of Magic preceded an Age of Religion. If that was so we may conclude that the advent of religion marked a great social as well as intellectual advance upon the preceding Age of Magic: it inaugurated an era of what might be described as mercy by comparison with the relentless severity of its predecessor.