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Lecture 11. Primitive Religion (2).

ACCORDINGLY, one of the earliest forms of religion we can trace is totemism. It is widespread even now in America and Australia, lasted till Christian times in Egypt, is recorded by Herodotus for sundry parts of the world, and has left so many traces elsewhere, that we can hardly avoid the conclusion that the ancestors even of the most civilized peoples were largely totemists: and at the other end of the scale the offerings of savages and others to confessedly evil spirits would seem partly debasements of totemism and partly returns to the magic and animism from which totemism was perhaps never free. For we should be going much beyond the evidence if we supposed that every nation, or indeed any nation, has gone through a period in which its religious ideas were purely totemistic. We should rather expect to find much confusion. Totemism may have held on a lower plane something, like the position of monotheism in northern Israel or Christianity in southern Europe. Even if it was a dominant religion which nobody wished to renounce, there may have been any amount of baser worships and downright magic practised alongside of it. Only, totemism had a development before it; the others had none. To take a geological illustration: the dominance of reptiles in the Trias does not mean that there were not plenty of lower forms living along with them; only from the reptiles came the mammalia, while the lower forms which survived have always remained lower forms. So we shall find that from totemism sprang monotheism, while so far as other forms of thought survive at all they are still very little changed. Even polytheism was no more than a marsupial side-branch which led to nothing higher. If then we concentrate our attention for awhile on totemism, we shall not do so under any illusion that it was the only form even of animal-worship, or always the most prominent religion in early times, but simply because it lies on the direct line of evolution—the rest are side-branches.

The meaning of totemism is that the clan, itself held together by blood-relation, forms an alliance, and therefore a blood-relation with the spirit resident, not in an individual animal, but in all the animals of a certain species. These animals were kindly treated, so that some of then became tame, for no individual was allowed to kill them. But on certain occasions one of them was killed and eaten by the whole clan, that the life of the spirit (now become the god) might pass into them and renew the blood-covenant. It had to be wholly consumed, and every member of the clan was required to partake of it.

There could not be much idea of revelation yet, though there was already a clear sense of dependence on the god and duty to the clan, including the god. Such loyalty no doubt was pleasing to him; and he further signified his good will by sending prosperity and his displeasure by calamities, but there was not much room for any special communications from him, except such as might be found in the appearances and actions of the totem animal.

Totemism was the worship of a clan, and could not be adapted to a larger circle without essential changes, so that it decayed and passed away as the clan decayed and passed away. Even in its best days the totem god was but the one friendly spirit out of many, so that evil-disposed persons could always form relations of their own for selfish purposes with other spirits, which, being other, were not friendly to the clan. Such relations would ape the regular relations of the clan; but their spirit would be base—magic, not religion,—and a clear step down towards the savage worship of evil spirits. Then came changes when flocks and herds increased, when separate families were formed; when manners grew less barbarous. The heap of stones on which the blood was poured became an altar, and the post or single stone oil which the blood was dashed grew into an idol, which might afterwards require a temple and a priest. But long before this the revolting scramble for the divine flesh was turned into a sacrificial feast of communion with the god and rejoicing before him; and the parts that could no longer be eaten were decently disposed of by burning. So also the drinking of blood was replaced by pouring it out, and this again on minor occasions might come to be replaced by symbols like red paint or the pouring out of wine. Things like these might be fair developments; but others were destructive of the system. When families began to settle down by themselves, the totems they or their members chose became family or private gods, and the old clan totem was forgotten. And as they had looked up of old to the clan-god as their animal ancestor, now they turned it round, and began to make gods of human ancestors. Meanwhile the god's connection with the animal species was loosened in every direction. The symbolism was obscured by tree totems and plant totems, and the trust which was placed in a protector threw the emphasis on his divine side and developed more human or at any rate less bestial conceptions of him. He might be incarnate like the Apis bull in an individual animal, he might be figured as a man with the animal's head, or he might stand out in clear divinity with the animal no more than sacred to him, or in course of time his connection with it might be entirely forgotten. So too the old idea of communion through the blood of the totem animal gave place to a sacrifice to the god; and this again opened out whole theories of gifts to the god to win his favour.

Again, a clan might flourish in the world. It might form a permanent union with other clans; and then the single god of one clan might become one of the gods of all the clans. Polytheism seems to have arisen largely in this way, though there were doubtless other ways too. Family gods and ancestors not uncommonly became gods of a larger circle without displacing other gods. The powers of nature are sundry and any number of them might be worshipped together. Superstitions also are sundry; and in later times, though only in later times, a superstition might be developed into religion by a change of attitude to the spirit concerned, as when the Raging Spirit which was an evil to be averted on the do ut abeas principle was turned into Zeus the Gracious, the averter of evil.1 There must already have been gracious gods before such an evil was changed into their likeness.

Polytheism might form a hierarchy of gods from the first without any real approach to monotheism, for the logic of conquest would often make the god of the dominant clan or family the dominant god of all the clans. Then in some cases an approach might be made to pantheism (not to monotheism) by viewing the rest of the gods as aspects of the One. But more commonly, at first perhaps always, they were gradually and in an irregular way limited to particular functions; and presently mythology would come in to explain and smooth away some of the resulting incongruities and confusions. But when once this stage of almost conscious invention was reached, there was nothing to hinder the indefinite multiplication of inferior or functional gods. The Romans, for instance, have been δϵισιδαιμονϵ´στϵροι in all ages, endeavouring to make life safe and pleasant as well as holy by the wholesale manufacture of gods (they called them saints in later times) to preside over every aspect of Nature and every imaginable occupation of men. However, we need not trace down the history of ancient and modern indigitamenta.

Or again, a clan might come down in the world, or even be wiped out in war. Then the survivors might seek refuge with some other tribe, and even bring their gods with them; but they were very commonly driven out into the mountain, the desert or the swamp, a remnant of broken men with faith confounded. It may be that the archæologists have allowed for these terrible uprootings as a source of savagery: the student of history is never allowed to forget them. We see a little of them in the anarchy of Germany in Roman times; but for their full significance we must look elsewhere. Take some of the worst parts of the world. The Bushmen have been driven southward into the Kalahari desert; and the worst of the negroes are those crowded to the West Coast by successive waves of invasion. From their affinity to the Bororos of Brazil we gather that the Tehuelches of Patagonia are exiles from the sunnier north, perhaps in their turn driving before them the Yahgans of Fuegia; and the astounding multiplicity of Columbian and Alaskan languages would seem to shew that here again we have no more than wrecks and remnants of tribes which have seen better days. So elsewhere: the wonder is not that the corners of the earth are held by savages, but that any civilization has managed to survive.

For it is hardly possible to exaggerate the mischief done by these violent breakings-up of clans. A change of religion is at best the most unsettling of all changes for serious persons, and nothing but absolute purity of motive can prevent it from being utterly demoralizing. There is no more pathetic sight in our time than the man who feels the glamour of the Gospel, and would gladly embrace its glorious promises for this life and for life eternal, if only Truth would let him listen to the siren song. But when he renounces the light of past ages and goes out into the cold grey shadows of scepticism, he is supported more than he knows by the civilization of the Christian state around him, and comforts himself that he still worships Truth, and if Christ has failed him, Truth has not deceived him. This is no such bankruptcy of faith as the broken clansman's who has lost his all. The god in whom he trusted has confounded him; his state is no more; he has no science for a refuge—only magic. What wonder if he turns away, hopeless, listless, and confounded, to animalism and savagery?

We might picture totemism as a high religion if we dwelt on the absence of priest and temple, sacrifice and image, and on its central idea of communion. In these respects it is like the very highest. “And I saw no temple therein.” But such a picture would be one-sided and misleading. In fact, it was a low religion, which left some of the most elementary ideas undeveloped. It was not even a definite monotheism or a definite polytheism, but held both systems in solution. It was in so far monotheistic that the clan had but one god, and looked up to him as the highest being they could imagine. Indeed, they could not credit him with less than power to help them and willingness to use it. But the highest they could imagine was sensuous in form and low in kind. They had small thought of

A God of truth and without iniquity,

Just and right is he.

Nor was he a whit more real than the gods of hostile clans, or the spirits whom no clan worshipped: only they trusted he was stronger. Thus, if they remained faithful to him, as they might if they came to base their trust on moral attributes, they might advance to monotheism; but if for any reason they called in other gods, as every people did but Israel,2 then the broad road of polytheism lay straight before them.

Another fundamental idea was beyond the reach of totemism, for it took no direct note of personal sin. Nor could it; for the god's relation was with the clan, not with the individual. Yet it implied a good deal that might develop the sense of guilt. As no loyal clansman would doubt the god's power as long as the clan remained in being, misfortune could only be his message that somebody had offended against him. Who was that? Let him be stoned like Achan for bringing such danger on the clan; and further, let the god be appeased by a solemn renewal of the broken covenant. But when the parts which were not eaten were burned as well as the parts which could not be eaten, and when this burning was further regarded as a way of giving them to the god, the renewing rite became a feast on a sacrifice offered to the god: and as feasting was in this case unseemly, the sacrifice which remained became a sacrifice of expiation.

One step further, though it may not have been taken for some time. If the god's displeasure is shewn by misfortune to the clan, is it not equally shewn by sickness and misfortune to families and individuals? These would be due to much the same causes, and have to be expiated in much the same way. But if conscience is invited to find out what is wrong, where will it stop? In the totemistic stage a man might feel pretty clear if he was true to the clan, and had no dealings with strange gods; but there was plenty of room for sin when polytheism came in, with its perpetual suggestion that even an unknown god ought not to be left without his offering. The fear of offending only increased in the course of time, when antiquated observances and elaborated ceremonials multiplied occasions of transgression. But the greater the number of things commanded, the greater the merit that might be laid up by doing them. So the Pharisee of heathenism never doubted of being able to give the gods their due till conscience began to whisper that pure hands are nothing without a pure heart. This made a new difficulty. Observances can be brought within compass by proper diligence; but there is no limit to the sin that may lurk in thoughts and intents of the heart. But if moral sin was graver than ceremonial, the usual expiations might not suffice. Yet expiation must be had at any cost. Unless the gods were quite implacable, there must be sacrifices of greater power, if only they could be discovered. So some restored old and barbarous rites, while others devised new and horrible expiations. If a burnt offering was not enough, they could give a hecatomb; if beasts were of no avail, they could offer men; if the gods gave no answer, they could stir infernal powers to their help. “Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” This is the culminating stage of terror in religion, for it is not vague as with savages, but sharply pointed by the horrors of remorse. The worst abominations of the old religions arose in this way, from the strainings of a guilty conscience after some such full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice and satisfaction as might for ever silence the accusing memory of past misdoings. The darkest rites of the ancient worships, both Semitic and European, may all be understood as the search for a true atoning sacrifice.

In some ways polytheism marks a decline from totemism. It forsook once for all the road which might have led to monotheism, and never regained it. The idea of deity was now confused by a discordant crowd of gods which could only be given a semblance of order by letting them melt into one another, or by putting a Zeus or an Odin at the head of them. But this, like the Golden Bull, was organizing anarchy and calling it a constitution. Further, the practice of communion with the god was higher than that of sacrifice to the gods which partly replaced it; and sacrifice itself was deformed with fantastic and immoral rites. On the other hand, the idea of deity was raised by separation from the animal, especially in the higher or anthropomorphic forms of polytheism; and the tribes and nations which now became possible gave a wider experience of things divine and human. It was narrow still, but sometimes vivid. Religion was firmly linked to public duty: and it was well that human restlessness and greed should have to bear the heavy yoke of custom till conscience was awake enough to fret against it. Greece and Rome could value a man for courage or beauty, wealth or family, intellect or skill; but in the days of liberty they had no respect for man as man. Class feeling made it hard, and slavery made it impossible. So they clung for very life to the custom which settled the order of society. If that was changed, they had no protection. So custom, and even the codes of law from Hammurabi downward, claimed a divine sanction, which vanished but slowly in the course of ages. Even Greece hardly reached the idea that if law is divine, particular laws are human, and may be freely changed by men as need arises. Only Rome fully grasped it. But religion is the most persistent of all custom; and Rome herself only ventured on genuine toleration under Constantine, and then only till the time of Theodosius.

Meanwhile there was a real gain in having the world “filled with gods,” though filled in a mechanical way with gods of a low sort. Even the abominations devised in the search for atonement marked a real advance, in so far as they were prompted by a deeper sense of sin, and therefore by a fuller knowledge of human nature. Nor can we doubt that the moral power of religion showed itself in polytheism wherever it was a real belief. It was at best low, debased with irrational observances and confused with what Origen calls its godless multitude of gods. Such however as it was, it thoroughly pervaded the outward life; and if scoffers were never wanting, neither was genuine devotion. It worked in the main like monotheism, though on a lower plane. Indeed, it is not always easy to draw a clear line of distinction between monotheism and polytheism. A believer in many gods may attach himself to one of them, and almost forget the rest; while a believer in one god may have no doubt that there are many more, though perhaps he calls them saints or devils. These men are both practically polytheists, for they both conceive of one god as limited by others in the polytheistic way, and are both likely to worship him in the polytheistic way. So nearly, indeed, does polytheism approach these lowest forms of monotheism that in practice there may be little difference between them.

The noblest part of polytheism is its protest, as given by the writer de mysteriis Ægyptiorum, that “the gods have not forsaken the earth, but pervade it like the sunshine”; and its teaching that the gods are a very present refuge in time of trouble has made it an enduring force in history. It stood so far for truth; and therefore criticism and philosophy exposed its errors in vain, and even those lower forms of monotheism which have no God immanent in the world were often defeated. Faith in immortal finite gods outlived sophists and philosophers, and was not very generally shaken even by the deep unrest of the Augustan age. Christianity was a more formidable enemy, and seemed for a while to carry all before it; but polytheism returned as soon as Christ's true manhood was forgotten. The theological abstraction which remained was forgotten too in East and West. Men turned away (and small blame to them so far) in quest of more human and more kindly deities than the Ruler of the Dies irœ; and to this day we see the living image of ancient heathenism in every country where they worship saints. Polytheism has done a work in history, like the Jewish law; yet, as with the Jewish law, that work was not to make the decisive advance, but to shew that it would have to be made from some other side—to shew that there is no firm foothold between one personal all-sovereign God and the gulf of pantheism.

It must be allowed that polytheism supplied the most ample means of revelation. A true believer in the gods had much to say on that head; and we can see pretty well what it was from the rebuke that was afterwards given to the Christians. The gods, he would say—the gods are living gods and not a fable. They conversed with men, and sometimes lived among them in a better age than ours. They guided in their labours, and delivered from their perils, the heroes and benefactors of men. They revealed the rites of worship handed down to us, and ordained the good old laws and customs of our city. Nor have they now forsaken us. They give us the fruits of the earth, our harvest and our vintage, and all the rest of the good things of life. They signify their will to holy men in visions and ecstatic inspiration, to the pious inquirer by oracles and dreams and omens, to an offending city by pestilence and famine and defeat in battle, to wicked and ungrateful men by sickness and misfortune. Their favour has built up the city's greatness, and their wrath will overthrow it if we change their laws, neglect their worship, or despise the warnings they send us.

Something of this kind might be the answer which a heathen of the better sort would give to them that questioned him. It is not wanting in earnestness and dignity, or in a genuinely religions faith in higher powers who care for us and hear our prayer. Nevertheless this is neither a rational nor a moral conception of things divine. In the first place, it has no basis of historic truth. The facts alleged from the past are either myths or legends of the flimsiest sort, and would often be unedifying if they could be supposed true. The tales that were told of the gods were a scandal from the time of Xenophanes onward; and the customs of worship founded on them needed a good deal of allegory to get them into some sort of agreement with decency and common sense. Even so, they gave abundance of occasion for Cynics and Christians to blaspheme. Meanwhile the man in the street got his excuse for “thinking that lust is godliness,”3 and Clement of Alexandria had something to say for his position that the beasts of Egypt were better than the gods of Greece.4

It is easy to ridicule messages conveyed in oracles and omens; but we shall need some care if we arc to see clearly why they were so unsatisfactory to reason and conscience. Given that there are gods, it was not unreasonable to expect signs of their will; and to look for them in the whole range of phenomena, for experience only could point out the particular phenomena in which they might be expected. So far the polytheists reasoned well; nor does the system seem to have been a systematic imposture. An element of imposture there must have been, for prophets were of all sorts, like the people; but for the same reason it cannot have been wholly or even chiefly an imposture. The mistake was in the utter crudeness of the appeal to experience. No principle of revelation was looked for, no serious reason was given why one thing rather than another should be a sign. If tradition said that a clap of thunder, a weasel across the road, the rustling of the oaks at Dodona, the flight of a bird, or the state of a victim's entrails, portended this or that, there was an end of the matter. Yet tradition was at best a vague report from the past, which present experience was piously believed to confirm. We have precisely similar notions current in our own time, like the bad luck of thirteen at dinner, or of marriage on a Friday; and these are similarly unrelated to experience. The difference is that the ancient superstitions gained a semblance of rationality at the cost of a scandal to religion.

Again, given that this or that is a sign, how is its meaning to be ascertained? Not surely by the feeling of the moment, but by reference to character and life as a whole. A dream or an omen comes to me; and we will assume that it is a message from the gods. But if even a lawyer or a doctor sees that our question generally involves many things we never thought of, I cannot safely take for granted that the divine message refers solely to the scheme I have in hand just now. However, let it pass: we will assume this too. There is still the question what the sign means. It may be clear; but such signs are most commonly ambiguous, unless their meaning is fixed by reports of good or bad luck following similar signs in past time: and if such reports are not to be trusted, I am thrown back on general considerations of justice and expediency, and am none the wiser for my special signs. The polytheists could not help seeing that such signs need interpreters, and interpreters were not wanting; but they never were able to find reasonable and moral principles of interpretation. It was not reasonable to rest everything on unverified tradition; and it was neither moral nor reasonable to make the interpretation depend on such technical skill as the most immoral of men might have in the fullest measure. Sooner or later the thought was sure to come, that messages of this kind were no credit to the gods, if they really sent them.

But there was a more general weakness in these polytheistic ways of thinking. There can be no idea of revelation without some idea of a divine person to give it, and of a human person to receive it. A thing cannot give one, and an automaton cannot receive one. Nor can the idea be clear without the clear conception of personality divine and human which was wanting in the earlier religions, and is wanting even now in the backward religions. There could be no clearness in those early forms of thought which represented the divine by spirits of more or less indefinite personality, the human by clans from which the family, and even the individual, was not sharply distinguished: and in the most modern the confusion returns whenever the divine is obscured by pantheistic vagueness, or the human is merged in some great machine of church or state which undertakes for him the part of Providence and conscience.

The conception of divine personality made some progress under the influences of polytheism. In its lower forms, like the Semitic or the Latin, the gods are still in the main personifications and abstractions; but they become very human in such higher developments as the Greek or the Scandinavian. Here was an advance it may be5 that men need to see first the weakness of man in gods before they can see the power of God in man. Human gods may form a passage from bestial spirits to a divine God. But if they mark an advance, they mark also a limitation, for they are human in too gross a way. In the main they are matter of fact copies of men just as they were, or very little idealized. Thus good and bad were reflected on the gods without distinction, so that everything which narrows and debases human personality similarly narrowed and debased the divine ideal. Of course, gods varied in character like men, and some of them are fine creations. Zeus and Athena are vastly nobler figures than a stupid Ares or a malicious Hera. But vices are more easily copied than virtue; and every crime could be abundantly justified by the example of gods—not uncommonly by that of Zeus himself. If gods like these could lift the conception of revelation a little higher than the totemistic beasts had left it, this was as much as they could do.

Had the polytheists been on the right road the teaching of history would have helped them forward: instead of this, it brought confusion on these crude conceptions, and showed the urgent need of reforming them. Yet reform proved impossible. There might have been a real advance if the gods could leave been cleansed and put in true subordination to some better Father of gods and men than the Zeus of the legends; and something of this kind seems to be what the best and purest minds of Greece were feeling after, from Xenophanes to Porphyry. Nor is it unworthily expressed in the highest flights of Æschylus and Plato. But they never fully reached it. Æscbylus could not shake off his belief in the envy of the gods: and though Plato rose above this, he made matter a real limitation of the divine. In fact, the legends prevented any general advance. Nothing was gained by shewing the absurdity of some of the more scandalous tales; and by the time they were all discredited they had made it for ever impossible to bring together the ideas of gods and virtue. Plato was for vigorous measures, forgetting that myths which have grown up of themselves cannot be reshaped by deliberate reforms. Others put pious meanings on them; but there was no persuading common men to lift up their hearts to something better than the gods. The greatness of the difficulty may be seen from the desperate efforts to escape it. The Epicureans could find no better plan than that of respectfully moving the gods upstairs out of the way. They were too blessed forsooth to concern themselves with the affairs of men. Euhemerists and others tried every device of allegory, and the Eclectics of the third century after Christ made all the gods of all the nations broken lights of one far-off impersonal Supreme. This was no true monotheism even for the philosophers; and the world in general remained as polytheistic—and as immoral—as ever. The mixture of passionate devotion and gross licentiousness in Apuleius is characteristic; and the austere figure of Julian in the ribald processions at Antioch bears witness that heathenism died unreformed, and shameless to the last. The worst of the matter was that polytheism misled not only its devotees, but the reformers themselves. In their undiscriminating zeal to root out the undiscriminating anthropomorphism which had done the mischief, they denied the Supreme both good and evil indiscriminately, till they had refined away personality itself as too anthropomorphic. They saw no escape from the devil of polytheism but by rushing headlong into the deep sea of pantheism.

Nor was the conception of human personality much more advanced. In patriarchal times the family was the unit, the individual an item of it which in many ways did not concern outsiders at all. On that footing the earliest states commonly dealt with him. The family was responsible for its members, and shared the guilt of its head. Achan's children are stoned with him, and Abraham offers Isaac without a thought that his son's life is not absolutely his to give. Even when this stage was outgrown, small account was taken of the individual. In Asia he was “the king's animal,” as he still is in Siam—food for powder, or its equivalent in the language of Nebuchadnezzar or Xerxes. The excellent majesty of an Eastern king is summed up in “Whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive.” In Europe things were often different. The Greek was a free citizen, and the Roman did not cease to boast under the Empire that he was subject to law, not to the caprice of one man like the Persians. Nevertheless, the individual was wholly subordinated to the state in the good old times of Greece and Rome; and the personal freedom he gained later was due rather to the decay of ancient custom than to any generally higher estimate of his personal value. It was something to have the rearing of children made a trust rather than the property it had been in patriarchal times; but the trust was rather for the state than for the child. Sparta may have avowed it more openly than Athens; but the purpose of education in early times, both in Greece and Rome, was in the first place rather to turn out useful citizens than to make the best of the individual. The Greeks were always too refined to care much for the Roman beast-fights; but even they did not respect human life for its own sake. Within the state they began with exposure of infants, and finished with proscriptions of men; and outside it the foreigner had no rights, though treaties must be kept for the sake of our own gods. Polytheism exasperated war, not indeed with religious fanaticism—only Persians destroyed temples for that reason—but with the feeling that we have nothing in common with an enemy who worships other gods. And war was the chief source of slavery; and slavery was the chief bar to a full recognition of human personality. In citizens, well; but slaves are things, not persons, and freedmen and workmen were not much better than slaves. Plato himself could not get beyond this. Polytheism stopped all advance in this direction till first the mysteries and Stoicism, and then Christianity with more success, brought out the idea that men are persons as men, and not in virtue of some more limited conditions.

  • 1.

    Miss Harrison, Prolegomena, 28.

  • 2.
    The question of an early monotheism in Babylonia is hardly ripe for the general student. If a real monotheism was reached—one personal God and no more—it would have a high significance in some directions; but the fact would remain that it did not last in Babylonia as it did in Israel. It would be at most a passing phase of thought. So far, however, as I can learn, it was rather a pantheistic confusion of the Indian sort than a genuine monotheism.

    It was much the same in Egypt—monism, but not monotheism.

  • 3.

    Clem. Al., Protr. 60, p. 53: τὴν ἀκολασίαν ϵὐσϵ´βϵιαν νομίζοντϵς.

  • 4.

    Ibid. 39, p. 33: ϵἰ καὶ θηρία, ἀλλ’ οὐοχικὰ, κ.τ.λ.

  • 5.

    Julia Wedgwood, Message of Israel, 82.