Myths of the Origin of Death
Belief of savages in man's natural immortality.
IN my last lecture I shewed that many savages do not believe in what we call a natural death; they imagine that all men are naturally immortal and would never die if their lives were not cut prematurely short by sorcery. Further I pointed out that this mistaken view of the nature of death has exercised a disastrous influence on the tribes who entertain it since attributing all natural deaths to sorcery they consider themselves bound to discover and kill the wicked sorcerers whom they regard as responsible for the death of their friends. Thus in primitive society as a rule every natural death entails at least one and often several deaths by violence; since the supposed culprit being unknown suspicion may fall upon many persons all of whom may be killed either out of hand or as a consequence of failing to demonstrate their innocence by means of an ordeal.
Savage stories of the origin of death.
Yet even the savages who firmly believe in man's natural immortality are obliged sorrowfully to admit that as things are at the present day men do frequently die whatever explanation we may give of so unexpected and unnatural an occurrence. Accordingly they are hard put to it to reconcile their theory of immortality with the practice of mortality. They have meditated on the subject and have given us the fruit of their meditation in a series of myths which profess to explain the origin of death. For the most part these myths are very crude and childish; yet they have a value of their own as examples of man's early attempts to fathom one of the great mysteries which encompass his frail and transient existence on earth; and accordingly I have here collected in all their naked simplicity a few of these savage guesses at truth.
Four types of such stories.
Myths of the origin of death conform to several types among which we may distinguish first what I will call the type of the Two Messengers; second the type of the Waxing and Waning Moon; third the type of the Serpent and his Cast Skin; and fourth the type of the Banana-tree. I will illustrate each type by examples and will afterwards cite some miscellaneous instances which do not fall under any of these heads.
I. The tale of the Two messengers.
Zulu story of the chameleon and the lizard.
The same story among other Bantu tribes.
First then we begin with the type of the Two Messengers. Stories of this pattern are widespread in Africa especially among tribes belonging to the great Bantu family which occupies roughly the southern half of the continent. The best-known example of the tale is the one told by the Zulus. They say that in the beginning Unkulunkulu that is the Old Old One sent the chameleon to men with a message saying “Go chameleon go and say Let not men die.” The chameleon set out but it crawled very slowly and it loitered by the way to eat the purple berries of the ubukwebezane
tree or according to others it climbed up a tree to bask in the sun filled its belly with flies and fell fast asleep. Meantime the Old Old One had thought better of it and sent a lizard posting after the chameleon with a very different message to men for he said to the animal “Lizard when you have arrived say Let men die.” So the lizard went on his way passed the dawdling chameleon and arriving first among men delivered his message of death saying “Let men die.” Then he turned on his heel and went back to the Old Old One who had sent him. But after he was gone the chameleon at last arrived among men with his glad tidings of immortality and he shouted saying “It is said Let not men die!” But men answered “O! we have heard the word of the lizard; it has told us the word ‘It is said Let men die.’ We cannot hear your word. Through the word of the lizard men will die.” And died they have ever since from that day to this. That is why some of the Zulus hate the lizard saying “Why did he run first and say ‘Let people die?’” So they beat and kill the lizard and say “Why did it speak?” But others hate the chameleon and hustle it saying “That is the little thing which delayed to tell the people that they should not die. If he had only brought his message in time we should not have died; our ancestors also would have been still living; there would have been no diseases here on the earth. It all comes from the delay of the chameleon.”1
The same story is told in nearly the same form by other Bantu tribes such as the Bechuanas2
and the Ngoni.5
To this day the Baronga and the Ngoni owe the chameleon a grudge for having brought death into the world so when children find a chameleon they will induce it to open its mouth then throw a pinch of tobacco on its tongue and watch with delight the creature writhing and changing colour from orange to green from green to black in the agony of death; for thus they avenge the wrong which the chameleon has done to mankind.6
Akamba story of the chameleon and the thrush.
A story of the same type but with some variations is told by the Akamba a Bantu tribe of British East Africa; but in their version the lizard has disappeared from the legend and has been replaced by the itoroko
a small bird of the thrush tribe with a black head a bluish-black back and a buff-coloured breast. The tale runs thus:—Once upon a time God sent out the chameleon the frog and the thrush to find people who died one day and came to life again the next. So off they set the chameleon leading the way for in those days he was a very important personage. Presently they came to some people lying like dead so the chameleon went up to them and said Niwe niwe niwe
. The thrush asked him testily what he was making that noise for to which the chameleon replied mildly “I am only calling the people who go forward and then came back again” and he explained that the dead people would come to life again. But the thrush who was of a sceptical turn of mind derided the idea. Nevertheless the chameleon persisted in calling to the dead people and sure enough they opened their eyes and listened to him. But here the thrush broke in and told them roughly that dead they were and dead they must remain. With that away he flew and though the chameleon preached to the corpses telling them that he had come from God on purpose to bring them to life again and that they were not to believe the lies of that shallow sceptic the thrush they obstinately refused to pay any heed to him; not one of those dead corpses would budge. So the chameleon returned crestfallen to God and reported to him how when he preached the gospel of resurrection to the corpses the thrush had roared him down so that the corpses could not hear a word he said. God thereupon cross-questioned the thrush who stated that the chameleon had so bungled his message that he the thrush felt it his imperative duty to interrupt him. The simple deity believed the thrush and being very angry with the chameleon he degraded him from his high position and made him walk very slow lurching this way and that as he does down to this very day. But the thrush he promoted to the office of wakening men from their slumber every morning which he still does punctually at 2 A.M. before the note of any other bird is heard in the tropical forest.7
Togo story of the dog and the frog
In this version though the frog is sent out by God with the other two messengers he plays no part in the story; he is a mere dummy. But in another version of the story which is told by the negroes of Togoland in German West Africa the frog takes the place of the lizard and the thrush as the messenger of death. They say that once upon a time men sent a dog to God to say that when they died they would like to come to life again. So off the dog trotted to deliver the message. But on the way he felt hungry and turned into a house where a man was boiling magic herbs. So the dog sat down and thought to himself “He is cooking food.” Meantime the frog had set off to tell God that when men died they would like not to come to life again. Nobody had asked him to give that message; it was a piece of pure officiousness and impertinence on his part. However away he tore. The dog who still sat watching the hell-broth brewing saw him hurrying past the door but he thought to himself “When I have had something to eat I will soon catch froggy up.” However froggy came in first and said to the deity “When men die they would like not to come to life again.” After that up comes the dog and says he “When men die they would like to come to life again.” God was naturally puzzled and said to the dog “I really do not understand these two messages. As I heard the frog's request first I will comply with it. I will not do what you said.” That is the real reason why men die and do not come to life again. If the frog had only minded his own business instead of meddling with other people's the dead would all have come to life again to this day.8
In this version of the story not only are the persons of the two messengers different the dog and the frog having replaced the chameleon and the lizard of the Bantu version but the messengers are sent from men to God instead of from God to men.
Ashantee story of the goat and the sheep.
In another version told by the Ashantees of West Africa the persons of the messengers are again different but as in the Bantu version they are sent from God to men. The Ashantees say that long ago men were happy for God dwelt among them and talked with them face to face. For example if a child was roasting yams at the fire and wanted a relish to eat with the yams he had nothing to do but to throw a stick in the air and say “God give me fish” and God gave him fish at once. However these happy days did not last for ever. One unlucky day it happened that some women were pounding a mash with pestles in a mortar while God stood by looking on. For some reason they were annoyed by the presence of the deity and told him to be off; and as he did not take himself off fast enough to please them they beat him with their pestles. In a great huff God retired altogether from the world and left it to the direction of the fetishes; and still to this day people say “Ah if it had not been for that old woman how happy we should be!” However after he had withdrawn to heaven the long-suffering deity sent a kind message by a goat to men upon earth to say “There is something which they call Death. He will kill some of you. But even if you die you will not perish completely. You will come to me in heaven.” So off the goat set with this cheering intelligence. But before he came to the town he saw a tempting bush by the wayside and stopped to browse on it. When God in heaven saw the goat thus loitering by the way he sent off a sheep with the same message to carry the glad tidings to men without delay. But the sheep did not give the message aright. Far from it: he said “God sends you word that you will die and that will be an end of you.” Afterwards the goat arrived on the scene and said “God sends you word that you will die certainly but that will not be the end of you for you will go to him.” But men said to the goat “No goat that is not what God said. We believe that the message which the sheep brought us is the one which God sent to us.” That was the beginning of death among men.9
However in another Ashantee version of the tale the parts played by the sheep and the goat are reversed. It is the sheep who brings the tidings of immortality from God to men but the goat overruns him and offers them death instead. Not knowing what death was men accepted the seeming boon with enthusiasm and have died ever since.10
II. The story of the Waxing and Waning Moon.
Hottentot story of the Moon the hare and death.
So much for the tale of the Two Messengers. In the last versions of it which I have quoted a feature to be noticed is the perversion of the message by one of the messengers who brings tidings of death instead of life eternal to men. The same perversion of the message re-appears in some examples of the next type of story which I shall illustrate namely the type of the Waxing and Waning Moon. Thus the Namaquas or Hottentots say that once the Moon charged the hare to go to men and say “As I die and rise to life again so shall you die and rise to life again.” So the hare went to men but either out of forgetfulness or malice he reversed the message and said “As I die and do not rise to life again so you shall also die and not rise to life again.” Then he went back to the Moon and she asked him what he had said. He told her and when she heard how he had given the wrong message she was so angry that she threw a stick at him and split his lip which is the reason why the hare's lip is still split. So the hare ran away and is still running to this day. Some people however say that before he fled he clawed the Moon's face which still bears the marks of the scratching as anybody may see for himself on a clear moonlight night. So the Hottentots are still angry with the hare for bringing death into the world and they will not let initiated men partake of its flesh.11
There are traces of a similar story among the Bushmen.12
In another Hottentot version two messengers appear an insect and a hare; the insect is charged by the Moon with a message of immortality or rather of resurrection to men but the hare persuades the insect to let him bear the tidings which he perverts into a message of annihilation.13
Thus in this particular version the type of the Two Messengers coincides with the Moon type.
Masai story of the moon and death.
A story of the same type though different in details is told by the Masai of East Africa. They say that in the early days a certain god named Naiteru-kop told a man named Le-eyo that if a child were to die he was to throw away the body and say “Man die and come back again; moon die and remain away.” Well soon afterwards a child died but it was not one of the man's own children so when he threw the body away he said “Man die and remain away; moon die and return.” Next one of his own children died and when he threw away the body he said “Man die and return; moon die and remain away.” But the god said to him “It is of no use now for you spoilt matters with the other child” That is why down to this day when a man dies he returns no more but when the moon dies she always comes to life again.14
Nandi story of the moon the dog and death.
Another story of the origin of death which belongs to this type is told by the Nandi of British East Africa. They say that when the first people lived upon the earth a dog came to them one day and said: “All people will die like the moon but unlike the moon you will not return to life again unless you give me some milk to drink out of your gourd and beer to drink through your straw. If you do this I will arrange for you to go to the river when you die and to come to life again on the third day.” But the people laughed at the dog and gave him some milk and beer to drink off a stool. The dog was angry at not being served in the same vessels as a human being and though he put his pride in his pocket and drank the milk and the beer from the stool he went away in high dudgeon saying “All people will die and the moon alone will return to life” That is the reason why when people die they stay away whereas when the moon goes away she comes back again after three days’ absence.15
The Wa-Sania of British East Africa believe that in days gone by people never died till one unlucky day a lizard came and said to them “All of you know that the moon dies and rises again but human beings will die and rise no more.” They say that from that day people began to die and have persisted in dying ever since.16
Fijian story of the moon the rat and death.
Carolin Islands story of the moon death and resurrection.
Wotjobaluk story of the moon death and resurrection.
Cham story of the moon death and resurrection.
With these African stories of the origin of death we may compare one told by the Fijians on the other side of the world. They say that once upon a time the Moon contended that men should be like himself (for the Fijian moon seems to be a male); that is he meant that just as he grows old disappears and comes in sight again so men grown old should vanish for a while and then return to life. But the rat who is a Fijian god would not hear of it. “No” said he “let men die like rats.” And he had the best of it in the dispute for men die like rats to this day.17
In the Caroline Islands they say that long long ago death was unknown or rather it was a short sleep not a long long one as it is now. Men died on the last day of the waning moon and came to life again on the first appearance of the new moon just as if they had awakened from a refreshing slumber. But an evil spirit somehow contrived that when men slept the sleep of death they should wake no more.18
The Wotjobaluk of south-eastern Australia relate that when all animals were men and women some of them died and the moon used to say “You up-again” whereupon they came to life again. But once on a time an old man said “Let them remain dead”; and since then nobody has ever come to life again except the moon which still continues to do so down to this very day.19
The Chams of Annam and Cambodia say that the goddess of good luck used to resuscitate people as fast as they died till the sky-god tired of her constant interference with the laws of nature transferred her to the moon where it is no longer in her power to bring the dead to life again.20
Cycle of death and resurrection after three days like the monthly disappearance and reappearance of the moon.
These stories which associate human immortality with the moon are products of a primitive philosophy which meditating on the visible changes of the lunar orb drew from the observation of its waning and waxing a dim notion that under a happier fate man might have been immortal like the moon or rather that like it he might have undergone an endless cycle of death and resurrection dying and then rising again from the dead after three days. The same curious notion of death and resurrection after three days is entertained by the Unmatjera and Kaitish two savage tribes of Central Australia. They say that long ago their dead used to be buried either in trees or underground and that after three days they regularly rose from the dead. The Kaitish tell how this happy state of things came to an end. It was all through a man of the Curlew totem who finding some men of the Little Wallaby totem burying a Little Wallaby man fell into a passion and kicked the body into the sea. Of course after that the dead man could not come to life again and that is why nowadays nobody rises from the dead after three days as everybody used to do long ago.21
Although no mention is made of the moon in this Australian story we may conjecture that these savages like the Nandi of East Africa fixed upon three days as the normal interval between death and resurrection simply because three days is the interval between the disappearance of the old and the reappearance of the new moon. If that is so the aborigines of Central Australia may be added to the many races of mankind who have seen in the waning and waxing moon an emblem of human immortality. Nor does this association of ideas end with a mere tradition that in some former age men used to die with the old moon and come to life again with the new moon. Many savages on seeing the new moon for the first time in the month observe ceremonies which seem to be intended to renew and increase their life and strength with the renewal and the increase of the lunar light. For example on the day when the new moon first appeared the Indians of San Juan Capistrano in California used to call together all the young men and make them run about while the old men danced in a circle saying “As the moon dieth and cometh to life again so we also having to die will again live.”22
Again an old writer tells us that at the appearance of every new moon the negroes of the Congo clapped their hands and cried out sometimes falling on their knees “So may I renew my life as thou art renewed.”23
III. Story of the Serpent and his Cast Skin.
New Britain story of immortality the serpent and death.
Annamite story of immortality the serpent and death.
Vuatom story of immortality the lizard the serpent and death.
Another type of stories told to explain the origin of death is the one which I have called the type of the Serpent and his Cast Skin. Some savages seem to think that serpents and all other animals such as lizards which periodically shed their skins thereby renew their life and so never die. Hence they imagine that if man also could only cast his old skin and put on a new one he too would be immortal like a serpent. Thus the Melanesians who inhabit the coast of the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain tell the following story of the origin of death. They say that To Kambinana the Good Spirit loved men and wished to make them immortal; but he hated the serpents and wished to kill them. So he called his brother To Korvuvu and said to him “Go to men and take them the secret of immortality. Tell them to cast their skin every year. So will they be protected from death for their life will be constantly renewed. But tell the serpents that they must thenceforth die.” But To Korvuvu acquitted himself badly of his task; for he commanded men to die and betrayed to the serpents the secret of immortality. Since then all men have been mortal but the serpents cast their skins every year and are immortal.24
In this story we meet again with the incident of the reversed message; through a blunder or through the malice of the messenger the glad tidings of immortality are perverted into a melancholy message of death. A similar tale with a similar incident is told in Annam. They say that Ngoc hoang sent a messenger from heaven to men to say that when they had reached old age they should change their skins and live for ever but that when serpents grew old they must die. The messenger came down to earth and said rightly enough “When man is old he shall cast his skin; but when serpents are old they shall die and be laid in coffins.” So far so good. But unfortunately there happened to be a brood of serpents within hearing and when they heard the doom pronounced on their kind they fell into a fury and said to the messenger “You must say it over again and just the contrary or we will bite you.” That frightened the messenger and he repeated his message changing the words thus: “When he is old the serpent shall cast his skin; but when he is old man shall die and be laid in the coffin.” That is why all creatures are now subject to death except the serpent who when he is old casts his skin and lives for ever.25
The natives of Vuatom an island in the Bismarck Archipelago say that a certain To Konokonomiange bade two lads fetch fire promising that if they did so they should never die but that if they refused their bodies would perish though their shades or souls would survive. They would not hearken to him so he cursed them saying “What! You would all have lived! Now you shall die though your soul shall live. But the iguana (Goniocephalus
) and the lizard (Varanus indicus
) and the snake (Enygrus
) they shall live they shall cast their skin and they shall live for evermore.” When the lads heard that they wept for bitterly they rued their folly in not going to fetch the fire for To konokonomiange.26
Nias story of immortality the crab and death.
Arawak and Tamanachier stories of immortality the serpent the lizard the beetle and death.
Other peoples tell somewhat different stories to explain how men missed the boon of immortality and serpents acquired it. Thus the natives of Nias an island off the coast of Sumatra say that when the earth was created a certain being was sent down by God from heaven to put the last touches to the work of creation. He should have fasted for a month but unable to withstand the pangs of hunger he ate some bananas. The choice of food was most unlucky for had he only eaten river-crabs instead of bananas men would have cast their skins like crabs and would never have died.27
The Arawaks of British Guiana relate that once upon a time the Creator came down to earth to see how his creature man was getting on. But men were so wicked that they tried to kill him; so he deprived them of eternal life and bestowed it on the animals which renew their skin such as serpents lizards and beetles.28
A somewhat different version of the story is told by the Tamanachiers an Indian tribe of the Orinoco. They say that after residing among them for some time the Creator took boat to cross to the other side of the great salt water from which he had come. Just as he was shoving off from the shore he called out to them in a changed voice “You will change your skins” by which he meant to say “You will renew your youth like the serpents and the beetles.” But unfortunately an old woman hearing these words cried out “Oh!” in a tone of scepticism if not of sarcasm which so annoyed the Creator that he changed his tune at once and said testily “Ye shall die.” That is why we are all mortal.29
Melanesian story of the old woman who renewed her youth by casting her skin.
The natives of the Banks' Islands and the New Hebrides believe that there was a time in the beginning of things when men never died but cast their skins like snakes and crabs and so renewed their youth. But the unhappy change to mortality came about at last as it so often does in these stories through an old woman. Having grown old this dame went to a stream to change her skin and change it she did for she stripped off her wizened old hide cast it upon the waters and watched it floating down stream till it caught on a stick. Then she went home a buxom young woman. But the child whom she had left at home did not know her and set up such a prodigious squalling that to quiet it the woman went straight back to the river fished out her cast-off old skin and put it on again. From that day to this people have ceased to cast their skins and to live for ever.30
The same legend of the origin of death has been recorded in the Shortlands Islands31
and among the Kai of German New Guinea.32
It is also told with some variations by the natives of the Admiralty Islands. They say that once on a time there was an old woman and she was frail. She had two sons and they went a-fishing and she herself went to bathe. She stripped off her wrinkled old skin and came forth as young as she had been long ago.
Her sons came home from the fishing and very much astonished were they to see her. The one said “It is our mother” but the other said “She may be your mother but she shall be my wife.” Their mother heard them and said “What were you two saying?” The two said “Nothing! We only said that you are our mother.” “You are liars” said she “I heard you both. If I had had my way We should have grown to be old men and women and then we should have cast our skin and been young men and young women. But you have had your way. We shall grow old men and old women and then we shall die.” With that she fetched her old skin and put it on and became an old woman again. As for us her descendants we grow up and we grow old. And if it had not been for those two young men there would have been no end of our days we should have lived for ever and ever.33
Samoan story of the shell-fish two torches and death.
The Samoans tell how the gods held a council to decide what was to be done with men. One of them said “Bring men and let them cast their skin; and when they die let them be turned to shellfish or to a coco-nut leaf torch which when shaken in the wind blazes out again.” But another god called Palsy (Supa
) rose up and said “Bring men and let them be like the candle-nut torch which when it is once out cannot be blown up again. Let the shellfish change their skin but let men die.” While they were debating a heavy rain came on and broke up the meeting. As the gods ran for shelter to their houses they cried “Let it be according to the counsel of Palsy! Let it be according to the counsel of Palsy!“So men died but shellfish cast their skins.34
IV. The Banana story.
Poso story of immortality
the stone the banana and death.
Mentra story of immortality the banana and death.
primitive philosophy in the stories of the origin of death.
The last type of tales of the origin of death which I shall notice is the one which I have called the Banana type. We have already seen that according to the natives of Nias human mortality is all due to eating bananas instead of crabs.35
A similar opinion is entertained by other people in that region of the world. Thus the natives of Poso a district of Central Celebes say that in the beginning the sky was very near the earth and that the Creator who lived in it used to let down his good gifts to men at the end of a rope. One day he thus lowered a stone; but our first father and mother would have none of it and they called out to their Maker “What have we to do with this stone? Give us something else.” The Creator complied and hauled away at the rope; the stone mounted up and up till it vanished from sight. Presently the rope was seen coming down from heaven again and this time there was a banana at the end of it instead of a stone. Our first parents ran at the banana and took it. Then there came a voice from heaven saying: “Because ye have chosen the banana your life shall be like its life. When the banana-tree has offspring the parent stem dies; so shall ye die and your children shall step into your place. Had ye chosen the stone your life would have been like the life of the stone changeless and immortal.” The man and his wife mourned over their fatal choice but it was too late; that is how through the eating of a banana death came into the world.36
The Mentras or Mantras a shy tribe of savages in the jungles of the Malay Peninsula allege that in the early days of the world men did not die but only grew thin at the waning of the moon and then waxed fat again as she waxed to the full. Thus there was no check whatever on the population which increased to a truly alarming extent. So a son of the first man brought this state of things to his father's notice and asked him what was to be done. The first man said “Leave things as they are”; but his younger brother who took a more Malthusian view of the situation said “No let men die like the banana leaving their offspring behind.” The question was submitted to the Lord of the Underworld and he decided in favour of death. Ever since then men have ceased to renew their youth like the moon and have died like the banana.37
Thus the three stories of the origin of death which I have called the Moon type the Serpent type and the Banana type appear to be products of a primitive Philosophy which sees a cheerful emblem of immortality in the waxing and waning moon and in the cast skins of serpents but a sad emblem of mortality in the banana-tree which perishes as soon as it has produced its fruit. But as I have already said these types of stories do not exhaust the theories or fancies of primitive man on the question how death came into the world. I will conclude this part of my subject with some myths which do not fall under any of the preceding heads.
Bahnar story of immortality the tree and death.
Rivalry for the boon of immortality between men and animals that cast their skins such as serpents and lizards.
The Bahnars of eastern Cochinchina say that in the beginning when people died they used to be buried at the foot of a tree called Lông Blô and that after a time they always rose from the dead not as infants but as full-grown men and women. So the earth was peopled very fast and all the inhabitants formed but one great town under the presidency of our first parents. In time men multiplied to such an extent that a certain lizard could not take his walks abroad without somebody treading on his tail. This vexed him and the wily creature gave an insidious hint to the gravediggers. “Why bury the dead at the foot of the Lông Blô tree?” said he; “bury them at the foot of Lông Khung and they will not come to life again. Let them die outright and be done with it.” The hint was taken and from that day the dead have not come to life again.38
In this story there are several points to be noticed. In the first place the tree Lông Blô would seem to have been a tree of life since all the dead who were buried at its foot came to life again. In the second place the lizard is here as in so many African tales the instrument of bringing death among men. Why was that so? We may conjecture that the reason is that the lizard like the serpent casts its skin periodically from which primitive man might infer as he infers with regard to serpents that the creature renews its youth and lives for ever. Thus all the myths which relate how a lizard or a serpents became the maleficent agent of human mortality may perhaps be referred to an old idea of a certain jealousy and rivalry between men and all creatures which cast their skin notably serpents and lizards; we may suppose that in all such cases a story was told of a contest between man and his animal rivals for the possession of immortality a contest in which whether by mistake or by guile the victory always remained with the animals who thus became immortal while mankind was doomed to mortality.
Chingpaw story of the origin of death.
Austrtalian story of the tree the bat and death.
Fijian story of the origin of death.
The Chingpaws of Upper Burma say that death originated in a practical joke played by an old man who pretended to be dead in the ancient days when nobody really died. But the Lord of the Sun who held the threads of all human lives in his hand detected the fraud and in anger cut short the thread of life of the practical joker. Since then everybody else has died; the door for death to enter into the world was opened by the folly of that silly though humorous old man.39
The natives about the Murray River in Australia used to relate how the first man and woman were forbidden to go near a tree in which a bat lived lest they should disturb the creature. One day however the woman was gathering firewood and she went near the tree. The bat flew away and after that death came into the world.40
Some of the Fijians accounted for human mortality as follows. When the first man the father of the human race was being buried a god passed by the grave and asked what it meant for he had never seen a grave before. On learning from the bystanders that they had just buried their father “Do not bury him” said he “dig the body up again.” “No” said they “we cannot do that. He has been dead four days and stinks.” “Not so” pleaded the god; “dig him up and I promise you that he will live again.” Heedless of the divine promise these primitive sextons persisted in leaving their dead father in the grave. Then said the god to these wicked men “By disobeying me you have sealed your own fate. Had you dug tip your ancestor you would have found him alive and you yourselves when you passed from this world should have been buried as bananas are for the space of four days after which you should have been dug up not rotten but ripe But now as a punishment for your disobedience you shall die and rot.” And still when they hear this sad tale told the Fijians say “O that those children had dug up that body!”41
Admiralty Islanders' stories of the origin of death.
The Admiralty Islanders tell various stories to explain why man is mortal. One of them has already been related. Here is another. A Souh man went once to catch fish. A devil tried to devour him but he fled into the forest and took refuge in a tree. The tree kindly closed on him so that the devil could not see him. When the devil was gone the tree opened up and the man clambered down to the ground. Then said the tree to him “Go to Souh and bring me two white pigs.” He went and found two pigs one was white and one was black. He took chalk and chalked the black pig so that it was white. Then he brought them to the tree but on the way the chalk fell off the black pig. And when the tree saw the white pig and the black pig he chid the man and said “You are thankless. I was good to you. An evil will overtake you; you will die. The devil will fall upon you and you will die.” So it has been with us as it was with the man of Souh. An evil overtakes us or a spirit falls upon us and we die. If it had been as the tree said we should not have died.42
Another story told by the Admiralty Islanders to account for the melancholy truth of man's mortality runs thus. Kosi the chief of Moakareng was in his house. He was hungry. He said to his two sons “Go and climb the breadfruit trees and bring the fruit that we may eat them together and not die.” But they would not. So he went himself and climbed the breadfruit tree. But the north-west wind blew a storm it blew and threw him down. He fell and his body died but his ghost went home. He went and sat in his house. He tied up his hair and he painted his face with red ochre. Now his wife and his two sons had gone after him into the wood. They went to fetch home the breadfruits. They came and saw Kosi and he was dead. The three returned home and there they saw the ghost of Kosi sitting in his house. They said “You there! Who's that dead at the foot of the breadfruit tree? Kosi he is dead at the foot of the breadfruit tree.” Kosi he said “Here am I. I did not fall. Perhaps somebody else fell down. I did not. Here I am.” “You're a liar” said they. “I ain't” said he. “Come” said they “we'll go and see.” They went. Kosi he jumped into his body. He died. They buried him. If his wife had behaved well we should not die. Our body would die but our ghost would go about always in the old home.43
Stories of the origin of death: the fatal bundle or the fatal box.
The Wemba of Northern Rhodesia relate how God in the beginning created a man and a woman and gave them two bundles; in one of them was life and in the other death. Most unfortunately the man chose “the little bundle the fatal of death.”44
The Cherokee Indians of North America say that a number of beings were engaged in the work of creation. The Sun was made first. Now the creators intended that men should live for ever. But when the Sun passed over them in the sky he told the people that there was not room enough for them all and that they had better die. At last the Sun's own daughter who was with the people on earth was bitten by a snake and died Then the Sun repented him and said that men might live always; and he bade them take a box and go fetch his daughter's spirit in the box and bring it to her body that she might live. But he charged them straitly not to open the box until they arrived at the dead body. However moved by curiosity they unhappily opened the box too soon; away flew the spirit and all men have died ever since.45
Some of the North American Indians informed the early Jesuit missionaries that a certain man had received the gift of immortality in a small packet from a famous magician named Messou who repaired the world after it had been seriously damaged by a great flood. In bestowing on the man this valuable gift the magician strictly enjoined him on no account to open the packet. The man obeyed and so long as the packet was unopened he remained immortal. But his wife was both curious and incredulous; she opened the packet to see what was in it the precious contents flew away and mankind has been subject to death ever since.46
Baganda story how death came into the world through the forget-fulness and imprudence of a woman.
As these American Indians tell how death came through the curiosity and incredulity of one woman the Baganda of Central Africa relate how it came through the forgetfulness and imprudence of another. According to the Baganda the first man who came to earth in Uganda was named Kintu. He brought with him one cow and lived on its milk for he had no other food. But in time a woman named Nambi a daughter of Gulu the king of heaven came down to earth with her brother or sister and seeing Kintu she fell in love with him and wished to have him for her husband. But her proud father doubted whether Kintu was worthy of his daughter's hand and accordingly he insisted on testing his future son-in-law before he would consent to the marriage. So he carried off Kintu's cow and put it among his own herds in heaven. When Kintu found that the cow was stolen he was in a great rage but hunger getting the better of anger he made shift to live by peeling the bark of trees and gathering herbs and leaves which he cooked and ate. In time his future wife Nambi happened to spy the stolen cow among her father's herds and she told Kintu who came to heaven to seek and recover the lost animal. His future father-in-law Gulu Lord of Heaven obliged him to submit to many tests designed to prove his fitness for marriage with the daughter of so exalted a being as the Lord of Heaven. All these tests Kintu successfully passed through. At last Gulu was satisfied gave him his daughter Nambi to wife and allowed him to return to earth with her.
The coming of Death.
But Nambi had a brother and his name was Death Walumbe). So before the Lord of Heaven sent her away with her husband he called them both to him and said “You must hurry away before Death comes or he will wish to go with you. You must not let him do so for he would only cause you trouble and unhappiness.” To this his daughter agreed and she went to pack up her things. She and her husband then took leave of the Lord of Heaven who gave them at parting a piece of advice. “Be sure” said he “if you have forgotten anything not to come back for it; because if you do Death will wish to go with you and you must go without him.” So off they set the man and his wife taking with them his cow and its calves also a sheep a goat a fowl and a banana tree. But on the way the woman remembered that she had forgotten the grain to feed the fowl so she said to her husband “I must go back for the grain to feed the fowl or it will die.” Her husband tried to dissuade her but in vain. She said “I will hurry back and get it without any one seeing me.” So back she went in an evil hour and said to her father the Lord of Heaven “I have forgotten the grain for the fowl and I am come back to fetch it from the doorway where I put it.” Her father said sadly “Did I not tell you that you were not to return if you had forgotten anything because your brother Death would wish to go with you? Now he will accompany you.” The woman fled but Death saw her and followed hard after her. When she rejoined her husband he was angry for he saw Death and said “Why have you brought your brother with you? Who can live with him?”
The importunity of Death
When they reached the earth Nambi planted her garden and the bananas sprang up quickly and formed a grove. They lived happily for a time till one day Death came and asked for one of their daughters that she might go away with him and be his cook. But the father said “If the Lord of Heaven comes and asks me for one of my children what am I to say? Shall I tell him that I have given her to you to be your cook?” Death was silent and went away. But he came back another day and asked again for a child to be his cook. When the father again refused Death said “I will kill your children.” The father did not know what that meant so he asked Death “What is that you will do?” However in a short time one of the children fell ill and died and then another and another. So the man went to the Lord of Heaven and complained that Death was taking away his children one by one. The Lord of Heaven said “Did I not tell you when you were going away to go at once with your wife and not to return if you had forgotten anything but you let your wife return to fetch the grain? Now you have Death living with you. If you had obeyed me you would have been free from him and not lost any of your children.”
The hunt for Death.
However the man pleaded with him and the Lord of Heaven at last consented to send Death's brother Kaikuzi to help the woman and to prevent Death from killing her children. So down came Kaikuzi to earth and when he met his brother Death they greeted each other lovingly. Then Kaikuzi told Death that he had come to fetch him away from earth to heaven. Death was willing to go but he said “Let us take our sister too.” “Nay” said his brother “that cannot be for she is a wife and must stay with her husband.” The dispute waxed warm Death insisting on carrying off his sister and his brother refusing to allow him to do so. At last the brother angrily ordered Death to do as he was bid and so saying he made as though he would seize him. But Death slipped from between his hands and fled into the earth. For a long time after that there was enmity between the two brothers Kaikuzi tried in every way to catch Death but Death always escaped. At last Kaikuzi told the people that he would have one final hunt for Death and while the hunt was going on they must all stay in their houses; not a man a woman a child nor even an animal was to be allowed to pass the threshold; and if they saw Death passing the window they were not to utter a cry of terror but to keep still. Well for some days his orders were obeyed. Not a living soul not an animal stirred abroad. All without was solitude all within was silence. Encouraged by the universal stillness Death emerged from his lair and his brother was just about to catch him when some children who had ventured out to herd their goats saw Death and cried out. Death's good brother rushed to the spot and asked them why they had cried out. They said “Because we saw Death.” So his brother was angry because Death had again made good his escape into the earth and he went to the first man and told him that he was weary of hunting Death and wished to return home to heaven. The first man thanked him kindly for all he had done and said “I fear there is nothing more to be done. We must only hope that Death will not kill all the people.” It was a vain hope. Since then Death has lived on earth and killed everybody who is born into the world; and always after the deed of murder is done he escapes into the earth at Tanda in Singo.47
In the preceding story Death is distinctly personified.
Death personified in a West African story of the origin of death.
Death and the spider and the spider's daughter.
If this curious tale of the origin of death reveals no very deep philosophy it is at least interesting for the distinctness with which Death is conceived as a personal being the son of the Lord of Heaven the brother of the first man's wife. In this personification of Death the story differs from all the others which we have examined and marks an intellectual advance upon them; since the power of picturing abstract ideas to the mind with all the sharpness of outline and vividness of colour which are implied by personification is a faculty above the reach of very low intelligences. It is not surprising that the Baganda should have attained to this power for they are probably the most highly cultured and intellectual of all the many Bantu tribes of Africa. The same conception of Death as a person occurs in a story of the origin of death which is told by the Hos a negro tribe in Togoland a district of West Africa. These Hos belong to the Ewe-speaking family of the true negroes who have reached a comparatively high level of barbarism in the notorious kingdom of Dahomey. The story which the Hos tell as to the origin of death is as follows. Once upon a time there was a great famine in which even the hunters could find no flesh to eat. Then Death went and made a road as broad as from here to Sokode and there he set many snares. Every animal that tried to pass that way fell into a snare. So Death had much flesh to eat. One day the Spider came to Death and said to him “You have so much meat!” and she asked if she might have some to take home with her. Death gave her leave. So the Spider made a basket as long as from Ho to Akoviewe (a distance of about five miles) crammed it full of meat and dragged it home. In return for this bounty the Spider gave Death her daughter Yiyisa to wife. So when Death had her for his wife he gave her a hint. He said “Don't walk on the broad road which I have made. Walk on the footpath which I have not made. When you go to the water be sure to take none but the narrow way through the wood.” Well some time afterwards it had rained a little; the grass was wet and Yiyisa wished to go to the watering-place. When she tried to walk on the narrow path through the forest the tall damp grass wet her through and through so she thought to herself “In future I will only go on the broad road.” But scarce had she set foot on the beautiful broad road when she fell into a snare and died on the spot. When Death came to the snare and saw his wife in it dead he cut her up into bits and toasted them on the fire. One day the Spider paid a visit to her son-in-law Death and he set a good meal before her. When she had eaten and drunk her fill and had got up to go home she asked Death after her daughter. “If you take that meat from the fire” said Death “you will see her.” So the Spider took the flesh from the fire and there sure enough she found her dead daughter. Then she went home in great wrath and whetted her knife till it was so sharp that a fly lighting on the edge was cut in two. With that knife she came back to attack Death. But Death shot an arrow at her. She dodged it and the arrow whizzed past her and set all the forest on fire. Then the Spider flung her sharp knife at Death but it missed him and only sliced off the tops of the palms and all the other trees of the wood. Seeing that her stroke had failed the Spider fled away home and shut herself up in her house. But Death waited for her on the edge of the town to kill her as soon as she ventured out. Next morning some women came out of the town to draw water at the watering-place and as they went they talked with one another. But Death shot an arrow among them and killed several. The rest ran ran away home and said “So and so is dead.” Then Death came and looked at the bodies and said “That is my game. I need go no more into the wood to hunt.” That is how Death came into the world. If the Spider had not done what she did nobody would ever have died.48
Death personified in a Melanesian story of the origin of death.
Again the Melanesians of the Banks Islands tell a story of the origin of Death in which that grim power is personified. They say that Death (Mate
) used to live underground in a shadowy realm called Panoi while men on earth changed their skins like serpents and so renewing their youth lived for ever. But a practical inconvenience of immortality was that property never changed hands; new-comers had no chance everything was monopolised by the old old stagers. To remedy this state of things and secure a more equitable distribution of property Death was induced to emerge from the lower world and to appear on earth among men; he came relying on an assurance that no harm would be done him. Well when they had him they laid him out on a board covered him with a pall as if he were a corpse and then proceeded with great gusto to divide his property and eat the funeral feast. On the fifth day they blew the conch shell to drive away the ghost as usual and lifted the pall to see what had become of Death. But there was no Death there; he had absconded leaving only his skeleton behind. They naturally feared that he had made off with an intention to return to his home underground which would have been a great calamity; for if there were no Death on earth how could men die and how could other people inherit their property? The idea was intolerable; so to cut off the retreat of the fugitive the Fool was set to do sentinel duty at the parting of the ways where one road leads down to the underworld Death's home and the other leads up to the upper world the abode of the living. Here accordingly the Fool was stationed with strict orders to keep his eye on Death if he should attempt to sneak past him and return to the nether world. However the Fool like a fool as he was sat watching the road to the upper world and Death slipped behind him and so made good his retreat. Since then all men have followed Death down that fatal path.49
Thus according to savages death is not a necessary part of the order of nature.
A similar view is held by some eminent modern biologists.
So much for savage stories of the origin of death. They all imply a belief that death is not a necessary part of the order of nature but that it originated in a pure mistake or misdeed of some sort on somebody's part and that we should all have lived happy and immortal if it had not been for that disastrous blunder or crime. Thus the tales reflect the same frame of mind which I illustrated in the last lecture when I shewed that many savages still to this day believe all men to be naturally immortal and death to be nothing but an effect of sorcery. In short whether we regard the savage's attitude to death at the present day or his ideas as to its origin in the remote past we must conclude that primitive man cannot reconcile himself to the notion of death as a natural and necessary event; he persists in regarding it as an accidental and unnecessary disturbance of the proper order of nature. To a certain extent perhaps in these crude speculations he has anticipated certain views of modern biology. Thus it has been maintained by Professor August Weissmann that death is not a natural necessity that many of the lowest species of living animals do in fact live for ever; and that in the higher animals the custom of dying has been introduced in the course of evolution for the purpose of thinning the population and preventing the degeneration of the species which would otherwise follow through the gradual and necessary deterioration of the immortal individuals who though they could not die might yet sustain much bodily damage through hard knocks in the hurly-burly of eternal existence on earth.
Weissmann's view that death is not a natural necessity but an adaptation acquired in the course of evolution for the advantage of the race.
On this subject I will quote some sentences from Professor Weissmann's essay on the duration of life. He says “The necessity of death has been hitherto explained as due to causes which are inherent in organic nature and not to the fact that it may be advantageous. I do not however believe in the validity of this explanation; I consider that death is not a primary necessity but that it has been secondarily acquired as an adaptation. I believe that life is endowed with a fixed duration not because it is contrary to its nature to be unlimited but because the unlimited existence of individuals would be a luxury without any corresponding advantage. The above-mentioned hypothesis upon the origin and necessity of death leads me to believe that the organism did not finally cease to renew the worn-out cell material because the nature of the cells did not permit them to multiply indefinitely but because the power of multiplying indefinitely was lost when it ceased to be of use…John Hunter supported by his experiments on anabiosis
hoped to prolong the life of man indefinitely by alternate freezing and thawing; and the Veronese Colonel Aless. Guaguino made his contemporaries believe that a race of men existed in Russia of which the individuals died regularly every year on the 27th of November and returned to life on the 24th of the following April. There cannot however be the least doubt that the higher organisms as they are now constructed contain within themselves the germs of death. The question however arises as to how this has come to pass; and I reply that death is to be looked upon as an occurrence which is advantageous to the species as a concession to the outer conditions of life and not as an absolute necessity essentially inherent in life itself. Death that is the end of life is by no means as is usually assumed an attribute of all organisms. An immense number of low organisms do not die although they are easily destroyed being killed by heat poisons etc. As long however as those conditions which are necessary for their life are fulfilled they continue to live and they thus carry the potentiality of unending life in themselves. I am speaking not only of the Amoebae and the low unicellular Algae but also of far more highly organized unicellular animals such as the Infusoria.”50
Similar view expressed by Alfrede Russel Wallace.
A similar suggestion that death is not a natural necessity similar but an innovation introduced for the good of the breed has view been made by our eminent English biologist Mr. Alfred Russel Wallace. He says: “If individuals did not die they would soon multiply inordinately and would interfere with each other's healthy existence. Food would become scarce and hence the larger individuals would probably decompose or diminish in size. The deficiency of nourishment would lead to parts of the organism not being renewed; they would become fixed and liable to more or less slow decomposition as dead parts within a living body. The smaller organisms would have a better chance of finding food the larger ones less chance. That one which gave off several small portions to form each a new organism would have a better chance of leaving descendants like itself than one which divided equally or gave off a large part of itself. Hence it would happen that those which gave off very small portions would probably soon after cease to maintain their own existence while they would leave a numerous offspring. This state of things would be in any case for the advantage of the race and would therefore by natural selection soon become established as the regular course of things and thus we have the origin of old age decay and death
; for it is evident that when one or more individuals have provided a sufficient number of successors they themselves as consumers of nourishment in a constantly increasing degree are an injury to their successors. Natural selection therefore weeds them out and in many cases favours such races as die almost immediately after they have left successors. Many moths and other insects are in this condition living only to propagate their kind and then immediately dying some not even taking any food in the perfect and reproductive state. ”51
Savages and some men of science agree that death is not a natural necessity.
Thus it appears that two of the most eminent biologists of our time agree with savages in thinking that death is by no means a natural necessity for all living beings. They only differ from savages in this that whereas savages look upon death as the result of a deplorable accident our men of science regard it as a beneficent reform instituted by nature as a means of adjusting the numbers of living beings to the quantity of the food supply and so tending to the improvement and therefore on the whole to the happiness of the species.